Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership


Title: Mr Skeffington
Author: Elizabeth Von Arnim
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100021.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: January 2011
Date most recently updated: January 2011

Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions
which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice
is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular
paper edition.

Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the
copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this
file.

This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions
whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms
of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at
http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html

To contact Project Gutenberg Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: Mr Skeffington
Author: Elizabeth Von Arnim



I


Fanny, who had married a Mr. Skeffington, and long ago, for reasons she
considered compelling, divorced him, after not having given him a
thought for years, began, to her surprise, to think of him a great deal.
If she shut her eyes, she could see him behind the fish-dish at
breakfast; and presently, even if she didn't shut her eyes, she could
see him behind almost anything.

What particularly disturbed her was that there was no fish. Only during
Mr. Skeffington's not very long reign as a husband had there been any at
breakfast, he having been a man tenacious of tradition, and liking to
see what he had seen in his youth still continuing on his table. With
his disappearance, the fish-dish, of solid silver, kept hot by
electricity, disappeared too--not that he took it with him, for he was
much too miserable to think of dishes, but because Fanny's breakfast,
from the date of his departure to the time she had got to now, was half
a grapefruit.

Naturally she was a good deal worried by seeing him and the dish so
distinctly, while knowing that neither he nor it were really there. She
very nearly went to a doctor about it; but never having been much
disposed to go to doctors she thought she would wait a little first. For
after all, reasoned Fanny, who considered herself a very sensible woman,
she was soon going to have a fiftieth birthday, and on reaching so
conspicuous, so sobering a landmark in one's life, what more natural
than to hark back and rummage, and what more inevitable, directly one
rummaged, than to come across Mr. Skeffington? He had played, for a
time, a leading part in her life. He had been, she recognized, the
keystone of her career. It was thanks to the settlements he had made on
her, which were the settlements of an extremely rich and extremely
loving man, that she was so well off, and it was thanks to his
infidelities--but ought one to thank infidelities? Well, never
mind--that she was free.

She had adored being free. Twenty-two years of enchanting freedom she
had had, and adoring every minute of them--except the minutes at the end
of a love affair, when things suddenly seemed unable to avoid being
distressing, and except the minutes quite lately, when she was
recovering from a terrible illness, and had nothing to do, but think,
and began thinking about Mr. Skeffington. Perhaps it was the highly
unpleasant birthday looming so close that set her off in these serious
directions. Perhaps it was being so wretchedly weak after diphtheria.
Perhaps it was the way her lovely hair had fallen out in handfuls. But
set off she did, and he who had once been her husband appeared to
respond to the treatment with an alacrity which startled her, and
gradually became quite upsettingly vivid and real.

This, though, had only happened in the last few months, and she was sure
would soon, when she was quite strong again, pass. Up to her illness,
how unclouded her life had been! Really a quite radiant life, full of
every sort of amusing and exciting things like would-be lovers--at one
time the whole world appeared to want to be Fanny's lover--and all
because Mr. Skeffington was never able to resist his younger typists.

How angry those typists had made her, till it dawned on her that what
they really were were gates to freedom. When at last she saw them in
their true light, as so many bolts shot back and doors flung open, she
left off being angry, and began instead--strictly speaking, she didn't
suppose she ought to have--to rejoice. No, she oughtn't to have
rejoiced; but how difficult it was not to like being without Mr.
Skeffington. At no time had she enjoyed her marriage. She was very
sorry, but really she hadn't. Among other things, he was a Jew, and she
wasn't. Not that that would have mattered, since she was without
prejudices, if he hadn't happened to look so exactly like a Jew. It
wasn't a bit necessary that he should. Lots of people she knew had
married Jews, and none of them looked so exactly like one as Job (Mr.
Skeffington's name was Job, a name, everybody agreed, impossible to
regard as other than unfortunate). Still, he couldn't help that, and
certainly he had been very kind. Being an upright girl, who believed in
sticking to her vows and giving as good as she got, she too had been
very kind. Her heart, however, hadn't been in it. A marriage, she found,
with someone of a different breed is fruitful of small rubs; and she had
had to change her religion too, which annoyed her, in spite of her not
really having any. So that when he offered her those repeated chances of
honourably getting rid of him, though she began by being outraged she
ended by being pleased.

       *       *       *       *       *

Fanny well knew that her reactions to Mr. Skeffington's infidelities
weren't at all the proper ones, but she couldn't help that. She was
perfectly aware she ought to have gone on growing angrier and angrier,
and more and more miserable; and instead, things happened this way:
Obliged to forgive the first typist, such was his penitence and such his
shame, the second one, though humiliating, didn't distress her quite so
acutely. Over the third she was almost calm. The fourth made her merely
wonder there should be so many young persons liking him enough for that
sort of thing, but she supposed it must be his money. The fifth she
called on, earnestly inquiring of the alarmed and shrinking creature
what she saw in him. At the sixth, she went out and bought some new
hats; and after the seventh, she left.

Left, and never came back. Left, and beheld him no more till they faced
each other in the Divorce Court. Since then she hadn't set eyes on Mr.
Skeffington, except once, not long after the final kicking free, when
her car--his car, really, if you looked at it dispassionately--was held
up in Pall Mall at the very moment when he, walking to his club, chanced
to be passing. There she sat, such a lovely thing, delicately fair in
the dark frame of the car, obviously someone everybody would long to be
allowed to love, the enormous hat of the early summer of 1914 perched on
hair whose soft abundance he had often, in happier days, luxuriously
stroked, and was so completely already uninterested in him that she
hardly bothered to turn her head. Wasn't this hard? Now, wasn't this
terribly hard? Mr. Skeffington asked himself, his whole being one
impassioned protest. Hadn't he worshipped her, lived for her, thought
only of her--even, somehow, when he was thinking of the pretty little
girl in the office as well? And what, in the long run, were the pretty
little girls in the office to a man? Nothing; nothing; less than
nothing, compared to a darling, exquisite, and, as he had supposed,
permanent wife.

But Fanny, sideways through her eyelashes, did see him, saw how he
hesitated and half stopped, saw how red he grew, thought: Poor Job, I
believe he's still in love with me, and idly mused, as she was driven on
up St. James's Street in the direction of her attractive house--his
attractive house really, if you looked at it dispassionately--on the
evident capacity of men to be in love with several women at once. For
she was sure there were several women in Job's background at the very
moment he was hesitating on the pavement, and turning red for love of
her. He couldn't do, she now thoroughly well knew, without several--one
in his home, and one in his office, and one God knew where else; perhaps
at Brighton, whither he was so fond of going for a breath, he used to
explain, of sea air.

Yet here he was half stopping when he saw her, and gazing at her with
those opaque dog's eyes of his as though she were the single love of his
life. And she, who was a believer in one thing at a time, fell to
considering her patience, her positively angelic patience, over his
lapses. Seven lapses, before she did anything about them. Why, she might
have divorced him, completely justified even in her mother's eyes, who
was all for wives sticking to their husbands, after the second lapse,
and started on her delicious career of independence at twenty-three
instead of twenty-eight. Then she would have had five whole years more
of it, with everybody bent on making up for his shameful treatment of
her, and for what it was imagined she must have suffered. Five years her
patience had cost her; five years of happiness.

And she asked herself, as she went into her flower-filled library--the
quantity of flowers that arrived for Fanny every day at this period had
to be seen to be believed--and found Lord Conderley of Upswich, an
elderly (she thought him old, but he was, in fact, under fifty) and
impassioned admirer, waiting to take her out to lunch--she asked herself
what other woman would have been such an angel of forbearance. Or was
it, really, not so much forbearance as that she didn't care?

Yes, thought Fanny, who was an honest girl, and liked to see things
straight, it wasn't being an angel; it was because, after the third
lapse, she simply hadn't cared.

       *       *       *       *       *

But that was a long while ago. It didn't seem long, but it was. Then she
was twenty-eight. Now she would soon be fifty. A generation had passed,
indeed had flashed by, since she saw Mr. Skeffington that morning on the
pavement of Pall Mall, and the plovers' eggs with which, at the
Berkeley, Conderley had afterwards ardently fed her--solid enough the
hard-boiled things had seemed, as she cracked their shells--where were
they now? Reappeared as flowers, perhaps, or grass and been eaten by
sheep, and once more, in the form of mutton, eaten perhaps by her.
Everything, looking back, had dispersed and vanished, to reappear as
something else. Life was certainly a queer business--so brief, yet such
a lot of it; so substantial, yet in a few years, which behaved like
minutes, all scattered and anyhow. If she and Job had had children they
too, by this time, would be all scattered and anyhow. Grown up. Married.
And of course making a grandmother of her. Incredible, the things one
could be made by other people. Fancy being forced to be a grandmother,
whether you liked it or not!

But--grandchildren. She turned the word over on her tongue cautiously,
as if to see what it really tasted like. A woman might hide for years
from people who didn't look her up in Debrett that she had had a
fiftieth birthday, but she couldn't hide grandchildren, they would
certainly insist on cropping up. Just as well, then, that there weren't
any. Who wanted to be dated?

Yet--didn't they fill a gap? Didn't they come into one's life when it
was beginning, like one's hair, to thin out? Since she had had that
awful illness in the autumn, with her temperature up in the skies for
days on end, her hair, she knew and deeply deplored, wasn't what it was.
Nothing, since then, seemed quite what it was. She had stayed in the
country for several months, slowly recovering, and when she got back
London and the people in it might almost have been a different place and
race--so apathetic; so dull. While as for the way one's friends had
lately taken to dying....

       *       *       *       *       *

Fanny was reflecting on these things in bed. It was an icy, foggy
February morning outside, but inside, in her bedroom, all was rosy and
warm. Wrapped in a rose-coloured bedgown--when she was younger her bed
arrangements had been sea-green, but it is curious, she herself noticed,
how regularly the beds of older women turn pink,--the shaded,
rose-coloured lights doing their best for her, and a most beautiful wood
fire bathing the room in a rosy glow, she ate, or tried to eat, her
breakfast of half a grapefruit.

Cold, sour stuff to begin a winter day on, she thought, giving up and
pushing the tray aside. The idea was to keep slender; but suppose you
did keep slender--and nobody, since her illness, could possibly be more
slender--what was the good of it if you had no hair? One went to
Antoine's, of course, and bought some, but to buy hair, to _buy_ hair,
when one had had such heaps of it till only a few months ago, did seem
most dreadful. And it put a stop to so many things, too, once one had
got something on one's head that didn't really belong. For instance,
poor Dwight, the latest, and also the youngest of her adorers--for some
time now they had kept on getting younger,--a Rhodes scholar fresh from
Harvard, and worshipping her with transatlantic headlongness, wouldn't
be able to touch it reverently any more, as she used sometimes to allow
him when he had been extra sweet and patient. If he did, the most awful
things might happen; the most awful things _must_ happen, when a woman
lets herself have adorers, while at the same time easily coining to
bits.

The ghost of a giggle, the faintest little sound of rather wry mirth,
rose to her lips at the pictures that flashed into her mind; though
indeed all this was very serious for her. Adorers had played a highly
important part in her life; the most important part by far, really,
giving it colour, and warmth and poetry. How very arid it would be
without them. True, they had also caused her a good deal of distress
when, after a bit, they accused her of having led them on. Each time one
of them said that, and each in his turn did say it, she was freshly
astonished. Led them on? It seemed to her that, far from having to be
led, they came; and came impetuously, while she, for her part, simply
sat still and did nothing.

       *       *       *       *       *

Apparently snug and enviable in her rosy, cosy cave, she lay thinking
about those adorers, so as not to think of Mr. Skeffington. Outside the
fog was thick yellow, and it was bitter cold; inside was the warm Fanny,
so apparently enviable. But in fact she wasn't enviable. She was warm,
and as carefully lit up as an Old Master, but far from being enviable
she was a mass of twinging nerves after a wakeful and peculiarly
unpleasant night, which the grapefruit, sour and comfortless inside her,
did nothing to soothe. Perhaps, she said to herself, eyeing its remains
with distaste, in winter, and while she still hadn't quite picked up
after her illness, she ought to have something hot for breakfast,
something more nourishing, like a little fish....

And instantly, at the word, there he was again: Mr. Skeffington. She had
been fending him off so carefully, and now, at a single word, there he
was; and she seemed no longer to be in her bedroom, but with him
downstairs in the dining-room, he behind the silver fish-dish, she
opposite him behind the coffee-pot; just as they had sat through so many
boring breakfasts during the precious years of her lovely, very first
youth. And he was looking at her adoringly between his mouthfuls, and
saying, with the brimming possessive pride she used to find so trying,
"And how is my little Fanny-Wanny this fine morning?"--even if it
wasn't a fine morning, but pouring cats and dogs; even if, a few hours
before, on his proposing to join her in her bedroom, she had vehemently
assured him she would never, never be his little Fanny-Wanny again,
because of those typists.

For he was of an undefeatably optimistic disposition when it came to
women, and very affectionate.

       *       *       *       *       *

Overcome, she lay back on her pillows, shut her eyes, and gave herself
up to gloom. She had had a dreadful night; she had been doing her best
to forget it; and this was the last straw.

Her maid slid silently into the room, observed her attitude, removed the
tray without disturbing her, and slid silently out again. "So that's how
we are this morning, is it," thought her maid, whose name was Manby.

"Not even," Fanny was saying to herself, her eyes tight shut, her head
thrown back in the pillows, her face blindly upturned to the ceiling,
"not even to be able to mention fish, in an entirely separate
connection, without his at once thrusting himself forward!"

It did begin to look as if she would have to go to a doctor, who of
course, the first thing, would ask her how old she was; and when she
told him truthfully, for it was no use not being truthful with doctors,
would start talking--odious phrase--of her time of life. Really, though,
Job was getting past a joke. Its being February, the month she married
him in, oughtn't to have stirred him up like this, for there had been
many Februaries since she left him, and in none of them had he so much
as crossed her mind. Tucked away he had lain, good and quiet, in what
she had supposed was the finality of the past. Now, here he was at every
turn.

He must, somehow, be put a stop to. She knew he was nothing but a
figment of her brain, but it was precisely this that made his
appearances so shattering. To go off one's head at fifty seemed a poor
finish to a glorious career. And it wasn't as if she hadn't done what
she could, and reasoned with herself, and tried to be sensible and
detached. Everything she could think of she had done, even to ordering
his chair in the dining-room to be removed, even to taking cold baths.
She had soon found out, though, that these measures were no good. The
cold baths made her shiver for the rest of the day, and as for the
chair, being only a figment, not having one didn't stop Mr.
Skeffington's sitting down. Figments were like that, she had to
acknowledge. They could sit on anything, even if it wasn't there.

Well, something would have to be done about it. She couldn't go on much
longer, without having a real breakdown. After the night she had just
been through, which she was trying so hard to forget by thinking of
Dwight, by thinking of the way her hair had practically all gone, by
thinking of anything that came into her head that wasn't Mr.
Skeffington, however much she disliked the idea of messing about with
doctors she would certainly have to see one. For Mr. Skeffington, that
night, had been quite unbearably lively. He might be nothing but a
figment, but she must say he did her imagination great credit, so vivid
he was, so actual, so much on the spot. Up to then, he had only molested
her in the day-time, sat at meals with her, met her in the library,
attended her in the drawing-room; but the evening before, the evening,
that is, of the anniversary of the day thirty years ago on which she had
married him, when she came in late from a party--not in very good
spirits because everybody had been so dull--he was waiting for her in
the hall, and had taken her hand, or she felt as if he had taken it, and
gone upstairs with her just as he had gone thirty years ago, and stayed
in the room the whole time while she undressed, and insisted on kneeling
down and putting her slippers on for her, and had actually kissed her
feet. Dreadful to have a figment kissing one's feet, thought Fanny,
opening her eyes with a shudder, and jerking herself upright in the bed.

       *       *       *       *       *

She stared into the glowing, reassuring fire. Such a lovely fire.
Everything so lovely round her. Nothing in the world, really, to worry
about. She must hold on to herself. And if she did feel rather cold
inside, it was only the grapefruit.

Manby, who seemed able to see through walls, knew she had opened her
eyes, and slid in. She came in sideways, taking up as little space as
possible in the doorway, so as not to cause draughts, and carrying the
morning letters on a tray.

"Will you wear your gray or your brown this morning m'lady? Or should I
put out your black?" she inquired.

Fanny didn't answer. She turned her head and looked at the tray, her
hands clasped round her drawn-up knees. A lot of letters, but they all
looked dull. Queer how uninteresting her letters and telephone messages
had been since she came back. What had happened in everybody? Hardly
ever did a nice man's voice come through on the telephone now. Relations
rang up, and women friends, but the men, like her hair, seemed to have
dropped off. She oughtn't to have stayed away so long. One's tracks got
very quickly covered up, if one did. In the general scramble, it
appeared one easily was forgotten, though it was too fantastic to
suppose that she of all people--

"Will you wear your grey or your brown, m'lady? Or should I--"

Odd, though, thought Fanny, putting out her hand and picking up the
letters, what a lot of dull people there seemed to be about lately. Dull
men. Uninterested men. Uninterested, and therefore uninteresting. When
first she began going out again after being in the country, she was
struck by it. London suddenly seemed full of them. She couldn't think
where they all came from. Wherever she went, they were there too. In
fact, there was no doubt London had quite changed. People, even her own
particular men friends, weren't nearly so much alive as they used to be,
and not half as interesting. They were very kind to her, and solicitous
about draughts and all that, but beyond patting her hand affectionately,
and remarking, "Poor little Fanny--you must pick up, you know. Beef tea
and that, eh?" they hadn't much to say. They seemed to be getting old,
and there were no young ones to take their place, because of the
breathless rush people lived in now--except, of course, Dwight; but he
was sitting, or standing, or whatever it was they did, for examinations,
and had only been able to get away from Oxford once to see her. Serious,
everybody had become; absorbed. Instead of being eager, they were
absent-minded. Instead of seizing every opportunity to whisper amusing
things in her ear about--oh well, very silly things, really--they talked
out loud of the European situation. Everyone might have heard what they
said. It wasn't in the least her idea of a really interesting
conversation, that everyone might hear what one said.

"Will you wear your grey or your--"

Certainly the European situation was enough to make anybody talk out
loud, but ever since she could remember there had always been something
the matter with it, and it hadn't in the slightest way interfered with
amusing, silly things being whispered in one's ear. How long was it
since someone had whispered in hers? Last night, at that boring dinner,
there was a girl, a rather too healthy, red girl, the daughter of the
house, just out; and the elderly man next to her had whispered something
in her ear, and Fanny, chancing to look down the table, had seen him
doing it, and it was this that had started her off wondering how long it
was since her own had been whispered in. The girl wasn't even pretty,
she was merely young and tight-skinned. Tight-skinned youth; all,
apparently, that was needed these days, Fanny had said to herself,
turning to her host again, and slightly and unpleasantly surprised by
the acid edge to her thought. For never, yet, in her life had she been
acid.

"Will you wear your--"

"Oh, _bother_," snapped Fanny, finally exasperated by the persistent
current of interruption--adding instantly with quick penitence, "I'm
sorry, Manby. I didn't mean to be cross."

"It's the weather," said Manby, placidly. "All these fogs."

"Do you think I'm crosser than I used to be?" Fanny asked, looking at
her anxiously and dropping the letters she was holding on to the bed.

Manby had been with her so many years that she had witnessed all her
stages, from the Really Young and Exquisite one, through the Lovely as
Ever one, to the one she was now in, which was called, by her friends,
Wonderful. "Darling, you really are _wonderful_--" that's what they said
now, whenever she appeared; and she didn't like it one little bit.

"I wouldn't go as far as to say _crosser_, m'lady," said Manby,
cautiously.

Then it was true. She _was_ crosser. Else Manby wouldn't be so cautious.
Ah, but how lamentable to get crosser as one got older! A person going
to have a fiftieth birthday should know better than that. Such a person
ought at least by then have learned how to behave herself, and not snap
at servants. Serenity, not crossness, was what the years should
bring--ripeness, sweetness, flavour. Like an apricot in the sun, one
should hang on the afternoon wall of life; like a ripe and perfect plum.

     _Old age, serene, and calm, and bright,_
     _And lovely as a Lapland night...._

--that was the sort of finish-up poor Jim Conderley, who was fond of
quoting and knew an immense lot of things to quote, had prophesied hers
would be, one day when she was saying how awful it must be to be old--he
was the one who used to feed her with plovers' eggs when they were still
worth their weight in gold.

Not that she had reached the Lapland night condition yet; it was only
quite lately that she had got into the Wonderful class, and in it, she
supposed, she would stay some time. Unpleasant as it was to be called
Wonderful, and dripping with horrid implications, it was better than
being a Lapland night, which, however serene and calm and even lovely it
might be, would be sure to be cold. Let her keep out of the cold as long
as she could, she thought, shivering a little. On the whole, perhaps,
she ought to be thankful that her friends would probably go on saying
for some time yet, though a little more stoutly, of course, each year,
"Darling, you're a perfect _marvel_."

A marvel. Imagine, thought Fanny, getting out of bed and putting her
arms into the sleeves of the dressing-gown--also rose-coloured,--Manby
was holding ready, imagine having reached the consolation prizes of
life.

She crossed to the dressing-table, and stared at herself in the same
glass which only such a little while ago, so it seemed, had shone with
the triumphant reflection of her lovely youth. A marvel. Wonderful. What
did such words mean except, _Considering your age_, my dear, or, _In
spite of everything, you poor darling_?

Last week she had been to Windsor to see a godson of hers at Eton who
had just got into Pop, and was secretly so proud of it that she knew he
would burst if he couldn't let himself go to somebody who wasn't another
boy; and when she got back to London, the afternoon being fine and dry,
she walked most of the way, across the Park.

Well, why shouldn't she? It was far, but not impossibly far. Her feet
ached, but most feet ached on pavements. There was nothing out of the
way, she considered, in what she had done. Yet the various friends
waiting for her in the drawing-room when she came in, with one accord
exclaimed, on hearing of it, "But darling, you really are _too_
wonderful!"

Tiresome, people were becoming; so tiresome.

"Will you wear your--"

"Oh, for God's _sake_ leave me alone!" cried Fanny, suddenly flinging
round on her chair, whereupon Manby, after one cautious glance,
withdrew, carefully and sideways, into the bathroom, where she busied
herself with taps.

       *       *       *       *       *

Then Fanny was ashamed of herself; thoroughly ashamed, this time.
Staring into her own eyes in the glass, eyes hollow and--it couldn't be
true?--pouched after the sleeplessness which was that miserable Job's
fault, she wondered how she could be as cross as all that, and fly at
the kind, devoted Manby. She didn't remember ever having done a thing
like that before; and presently, after a brief interval during which she
reflected with deep concern on these developments in her character,
while regarding with even deeper concern her face in the glass, she once
more, in a rather small voice, and half turning her head towards the
open bathroom door, said she was sorry. "Do forgive me, Manby," she
said. "I'm shamefully irritable this morning."

"It's quite all right, m'lady," answered Manby from among her taps.
"Will you wear your--"

"I've slept so badly--hardly at all," explained Fanny. "That's probably
what is making me so unbearable."

"Don't mention it, m'lady," said Manby, emerging from the bathroom, now
that the atmosphere seemed clearer. "But I'm sorry to hear your ladyship
hasn't slept. Should I prepare an aspirin? And will you wear your grey
or--"

"It's Mr. Skeffington," said Fanny, twisting round on the chair again,
and looking at her with lamentable, wide eyes.

"Mr. Skeffington, m'lady?" echoed Manby, stopping dead. She was
immensely startled.

"He's growing so _real_," said Fanny, her eyes very wide.

"Real, m'lady?" was all Manby could falter--for this was a name that
hadn't been mentioned in that house, except below stairs, for nearly a
quarter of a century. "Is--is Mr. Skeffington not well, m'lady?" she
asked, very tentatively, very nervously.

"I don't know, but I don't think _I_ can be," said Fanny, "or I wouldn't
keep on imagining--keep on imagining--"

And to the astonished dismay of them both, staring at Manby, and pushing
her hair back from her forehead with a quick, distracted movement, she
suddenly began to cry.

"Oh, oh," wept Fanny, not attempting to hide her face, still with it
turned to Manby, still keeping on pushing her hair back from her
forehead, "oh, oh, _oh_--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Except at the end of a love affair, when everything was so bleak and
miserable, and no light anywhere, she never cried. What was there to cry
about, in her happy life? Happy herself, except on the above occasions,
till her illness and Mr. Skeffington's reappearance she had made
everybody round her happy too. So that tears were as good as unknown to
her. But this, now--this thrusting up of Job out of the decent quiet of
a buried past, this kind of horrible regurgitation, preventing her
sleeping, making her repulsive to look at and unbearable to be with, was
enough to make anybody cry. And what could one do about it? How could
one stop him? It was such a hopeless business, trying to stop somebody
who wasn't there.

The sound of her own violent weeping appalled both herself and Manby.
Neither of them had had an idea she had so much, noise in her. Manby,
who had brought water, who had brought an aspirin, who had poked the
fire, telephoned down for brandy, and done all that mortal maid could
do, was now completely nonplussed. Should she ring up a doctor? she
asked at last, at her wits' end.

"No, no--I'll go to one," sobbed Fanny. "Yes--I will, I will. This very
morning. I want a specialist--it's only a specialist can help. I'll get
dressed and go at once--"

"Will you wear your grey or your--"

"Oh, Manby, _please_ don't say that any more!" Fanny implored, seizing a
handkerchief and pressing it on each swollen eye in turn. "It's that
that set me off being so--so cross, and so--so sorry--"

"Then should I put out your black, m'lady?"

Never, she told the secretary, Miss Cartwright, later in the morning,
when her poor lady had at last quietened sufficiently to be dressed and
put in the car and sent out into the fog to a doctor, never could she
have believed she would give way as she did, as she kept on doing.
Relapses. Every time she, Manby, said anything. And what was so alarming
was that it all seemed really to have something to do with--she put her
hand to her mouth, and looked round fearfully before saying it, under
her breath--Mr. Skeffington.

"Not--?" Miss Cartwright asked also under her breath.

She stared. She had only been in the house six weeks, but a secretary
can learn much in less time than that.

Manby nodded. "That's right," she said. "'Im. The 'usband." For even
now, in moments of emotion, her h's were apt to fail her.

       *       *       *       *       *

Fanny went first to Bond Street, to Madame Valèze, the famous restorer
of women's looks. The car groped its way cautiously through the fog,
while she held her furs over her nose and mouth to prevent herself, she
said, from choking, but really to hide. She couldn't appear before
anyone, not even a chance passer-by, not even a doctor, till her face
was put right--indeed, least of all before a doctor, who would
certainly, if she went all swollen up from crying, suppose her further
gone in a breakdown than she was. And then that would depress her, and
Job would have more of a look-in than ever.

But under the deft hands of Hélène, Madame's head assistant--even
Madame, who was so conscientious, hadn't ventured out this terrible
morning, and that _miladi_ should do so was indeed a reproach to those
who stayed at home, said the glib Hélène--she spent a calming hour,
lying back in an extremely comfortable chair, her throbbing head bound
round with iced bandages, and on each burning eye a little cold bag that
felt like a blessing. Unguents were spread and re-spread over the loose
places of her skin; creams were patted in; beneath her chin was
specially attended to; and the last thing she heard before going to
sleep--for she did go to sleep, and stayed asleep exhausted, till she
was finished--was Hélène's suggestion that she should take a special
chin course, which would enormously help it, and the last thing she
thought was, "Imagine having reached the stage when one's chin needs
enormously helping."

Then she went off, soothed by the gentle movements, and, only woke up
when Hélène, in a tone of triumph, asked her to look at herself in the
glass.

Certainly she was more presentable, and the tear-stains, about which
Hélène had been busily conjecturing, were gone. But she looked curiously
like the other women who go to beauty parlours. Their faces all, after
treatment, seemed to have on exactly the same mask.

Well, at least she wasn't a give-away any longer, she thought; and felt
so much refreshed after the sleep that she wondered if it were really
necessary to go to the nerve-man. Hadn't she better wait a little, for
another day or two, and see how she got on? She did so deeply dislike
beginning this doctor business; it was so difficult to shake off, once
one had started it.

Hesitating even at his very door, she sat for a few minutes in the car
before committing herself by getting out, her delicate eyebrows knitted
in a frown of doubt--those eyebrows on whose behalf, in order adequately
to praise them, Lord Conderley used to ransack literature from the
Elizabethans to Mr. H.G. Wells.

The chauffeur stood patiently waiting for a sign.

"Oh well," she finally made up her mind, wrapping her furs closer round
her and preparing to take the plunge: "I suppose, now that I'm here, I
may as well see the old thing."

       *       *       *       *       *

Sir Stilton Byles, however, the eminent nerve-and-women's-diseases
specialist, wasn't an old thing at all, as Fanny would have known if she
had listened more attentively to the conversations of her friends, when
they talked about their ailments. He may not have been exactly a young
thing, but he certainly wasn't an old one. He was an outspoken man of
thirty-eight, without a shred of bedside manner, nor any of such
nonsense as sympathy. He didn't sympathize. Why should he waste time
sympathizing with all these idle women, and the self-indulgent ways by
which they had come by their diseases? And why should he pretend he did?
His business was to cure them, or anyhow to get them to believe they
were cured. And every day, when his work was over, he would fling the
window open to purge his consulting-room of scent, and exclaim: "God,
these women!"

Fanny's friends, who all had nerves, and all were of the kind the
eighteenth century called fine ladies, found his manner most refreshing.
After the sleek, soft ways of the doctors they used to go to, he was
infinitely bracing. They loved going to see him. They came away feeling
incredibly brisked up, and ready for anything. As hard and taut as
prize-fighters they felt, after a twenty minutes' scrap with Sir
Stilton. Divine, they agreed, not to be mewed over, but given a clean,
straight sock--their very language, after being with him, was virile--on
the jaw. And they suggested to each other that he probably would be a
marvellous lover, and they wondered whether there were a Lady Byles,
and, if there weren't, couldn't he perhaps be asked to dinner?

In their hundreds they flocked to Sir Stilton. His consulting-room was
fragrant--he called it reeking,--with them. "Oh, my God," he would
mutter under his breath, when a specially scented one came in.

Because of the creatures, though, he was growing very rich, and it was
worth putting up with their scents and their silliness to be well on the
way to the top of his profession at thirty-eight. Lately, too, royalty
had begun to find him refreshing; twice within a week had he been
summoned to Princesses of the Blood; and Fanny, when she decided to go
to a doctor, naturally went to the one everybody else went to. Without
troubling to make an appointment she went, experience having taught her
that she need never make appointments--and indeed it was true that,
however long a waiting-list might be, she herself, arriving last, got in
first.

Therefore the person dressed as a nurse, but not a nurse really, who
opened the door, never having seen her before was surprised. So airy a
non-recognition of barriers hadn't yet come her way. What? No
appointment? What? When Sir Stilton was invariably booked up days, even
weeks ahead? Impossible, she said loftily. Out of the question.

"Would you have me die?" asked Fanny, with the smile which for so many
years had been an enchantment, and still was sweet.

"Oh well," said the apparent nurse, melting into something of the
bedside manner her chief hadn't got, "we'll hope it isn't as bad as
that."

"Give him this," said Fanny, walking past her into the hall, and
scribbling on one of her cards.

"_I'm an urgent case_," she scribbled; and since she was the daughter of
a duke, and the extremely well-provided-for ex-wife of an extravagantly
rich man, Sir Stilton, who had the peerage at his fingers' ends, besides
such facts concerning famous financiers as might be useful, hardly kept
her waiting five minutes.

"Well, there's nothing urgent about _you_," he said, when, catching hold
of her wrist, he had counted her pulse, while he glanced a second time
at what she had scribbled on her card.

"Oh, but isn't there!" exclaimed Fanny; and began to tell him about Mr.
Skeffington.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ten minutes later she was out in the hall again, her cheeks flushed, her
eyes shining, her head held high.

"Call my car, please, she commanded; as different a person as possible
from the person who had smiled so charmingly at the nurse when she
arrived.

"He's done it again," thought the nurse proudly, hurrying to open the
door; and she couldn't help saying: "Wonderful, isn't he?"

"Oh, he's God's own wonder!" was the answer, flashed round at her; an
answer which almost seemed--only this, of course, was impossible--angry.

It was, though, angry, and Fanny's eyes were shining, not with the fresh
lease of life her friends acquired from Sir Stilton's bracing talk, but
with rage. She hadn't been so angry since the discovery of Mr.
Skeffington's first lapse. Odious doctor. Those friends of hers, who
crowded to him, could be nothing but a lot of masochists.

"You should have stuck to him," had been the creature's comment--so
useful after twenty-two years--when she had done describing Mr.
Skeffington's conduct.

"Stuck to him? What, when he--?"

"How old are you?" was the abrupt interruption; and when she told him
truthfully, it being merely foolish not to, he remarked: "You surprise
me."

It was at this point that Fanny began feeling stung; for, from his
expression, it seemed as if what surprised him wasn't, as for an instant
she had naturally supposed, that she was as old as that, but that she
was as young as that. So she was stung.

"It's because I haven't slept all night," she hastily explained, trying
to hide that she minded.

"You see how important quiet nights are for women of your age," he said.

"And for everybody, I imagine," said Fanny haughtily.

"That is, if you don't want to be an eyesore."

An eyesore? Was he suggesting that she was an eyesore? She, Fanny
Skeffington, for years almost the most beautiful person everywhere, and
for about five glorious years quite the most beautiful person anywhere?
She? When the faces of the very strangers she passed in the street lit
up when they saw her coming? She, _Noble, lovely little Fanny_, as poor
Jim Conderley used to say, gazing at her fondly--quoting, she supposed;
and nobody quoted things like that to eyesores.

True, Jim had quoted a good while ago; and it was also true, now that
she came to think of it--let her be honest--that people passing in the
street had seemed to look at her lately with surprise rather than
admiration. But anyhow, there was Dwight, and only last autumn, just
before her illness, he was declaring he couldn't live away from her,
that he would chuck everything and come and be her lodge-keeper, or
pantry-boy, if he might only sometimes see her, for she was the most
beautiful thing on God's earth. Young men didn't say things like that to
eyesores. True, since then she had hardly set eyes on him, for almost
immediately she fell ill. He had, however, been to London since she came
back, and dined with her--once only, though, now that she came to think
of it. Examinations keeping him in Oxford, he said. Or--her thoughts,
before Sir Stilton's fixed and coldly appraising eye, hesitated--wasn't
it really examinations?

She sat staring at the cold face before her without seeing it. In so
short a time as less than six months, she reassured herself, it wasn't
possible to change from the most beautiful thing on God's earth into an
eyesore. Or--again she hesitated--was it?

Sir Stilton, however--detestable man--was going on talking. "Now that
your love-days are over--" he was saying.

It was she this time who interrupted abruptly, stung too badly to
remember discretion. "And how, pray," she inquired, flushing and lifting
her chin--a gesture which instantly fixed his cold eye on those parts
which Hélène had said could be enormously helped, "how, pray, do you
know they are over? How do you know I'm not having what you call
love-days at this very moment?" For after all, Dwight would come flying
to London any moment, exams or no exams, if she simply lifted a finger.
Or--once more her thoughts faltered before that steady eye--wouldn't he?

"Oh, my poor lady," was all Sir Stilton said to that.

Then there was silence, while they stared at each other, he with his
clean-shaven lips sardonic, and his finger-tips neatly fitted together,
she too badly stung to speak.

What men there were in the world, she was thinking, what _common_ men.
But also, thank God, what other men, who saw one quite differently, who
adored one, and swore they couldn't live away from one. At least, that
was what they swore last autumn, and last autumn was still only just
round the corner; or wasn't it?

Outraged, she stared at this dreadful Byles who was daring to pity her,
but even while she stared her doubts were beginning to grow more
insistent, and crept, like the cold fog outside, into her heart.
Suppose--now just let her for a moment _suppose_, she said to herself,
trying to face things sensibly--that the man was right, and she was
indeed simply a poor lady deluding herself. Suppose everything that had
made life so warm and happy was soon going to be over for her, was
perhaps already over; what then? What did a woman do then? What did she
do with the second part of her time in this queer world, the
elderly-to-old part, the part that came next, and started, say, on her
fiftieth birthday? If the woman had no children, that is, and no special
talents, and no particular interest beyond her friends and the beauty
that had always unfailingly made everything so easy for her, and if,
into the bargain, she had had, for the best of legitimate reasons, to
get rid of her husband? People used to praise her for being so kind.
They used to tell her she had a dear nature. But how easy to be kind and
all that, how impossible not to be, when one had everything in the
world. Kindness spilled over from her own happiness; and what she now
wanted to know was whether, in the unfamiliar cold years that lay ahead
of her, the years on the other side of fifty, bound, each one, to be
colder than the last because each one stripped her more bare, she would
be quite so kind, and generous, and uncritical and all the rest. She
remembered her comment on the girl at the party last
night--tight-skinned youth. Distinctly critical that was. And how long
would she go on being what they called a dear, when there was nobody to
care whether she was a dear or not? And wouldn't it be a most miserable
thing if she couldn't get out of the habit of smilingly lifting that
finger which used to bring everybody rushing to her feet, and, when she
lifted it, no one moved?

Her eyes grew dark with something disagreeably like fear. She no longer
saw anything at all of Sir Stilton. Staring at him, what she saw for
some frightening moments was an old woman left more and more alone,
gradually eating more and more, till at last she ate a great deal, and,
then, being upset inside, taking it out on her maid.

"But that," came the voice out of the darkness which for the last few
moments had hidden Sir Stilton, as though answering her thoughts, "is
just where husbands come in, and why it is such a mistake not to stick
to them. Lovers, as no doubt you are aware, for you evidently must have
been a pretty woman once, and probably had several--"

Once. He was saying once. The word brought her back to complete
awareness of him again. Once. When, whatever might lie in front of her,
it did remain true that less than six months ago Dwight--"Why," she
interrupted herself, struck by a sudden painful thought, "how I'm
clinging to Dwight! That _boy_. As if he were my only hope. That poor
little _boy_--"

"Lovers," went on Sir Stilton, finishing his sentence, "as of course you
must remember, invariably end by turning sour on the stomach."

Acutely aware of him now, she gazed at him icily. What an expression.
What a way of describing those windings-up, sad, but with a charm of
their own, and always ennobled by a real distress, which were so vivid
in her memory. Poor Adrian Stacy, Dwight's predecessor, had been wound
up less than a year ago; and she could repeat every word of the
occasion, and not a word but did credit to them both. The winding-up of
the one before that, Perry Lanks--or wasn't he the one before that? She
couldn't quite remember--since become such a celebrity, hadn't been
quite so good, because he was a lawyer, and wanted facts.

"Oh, Perry, there are no facts in love," she had told him, naturally not
liking to be pinned down. Whereupon he had suggested, exactly as if he
were cross-examining her, that she was being foolish.

"My dear, there are always facts," he had said, looking tired and
patient.

Still, even so, there was nothing that actually could be called sour
about their parting, in spite of her conviction--she hoped she didn't
show it,--that when a lover begins to look tired and patient it is time
he was wound up; and as for the others, they were thought of to that day
with nothing but affection and tenderness.

Yet here was this man, this Byles man, whose every word was like a slap
in the face, connecting them, her dear, kind lovers, with sour stomachs.

"I can't imagine--" she began.

"--why your friends come to me," he promptly finished for her.

"Exactly. How much do I--?" she added, stretching out for her gloves
and bag.

"I haven't earned my fee yet," he said. Adding, "Sit down," for she had
got up and was towering over him.

"Thank you, no," she said, opening her bag. "How much do I--"

"Well, don't sit down then, but listen."

"There's nothing I wish to hear. How much do I--"

"Listen, please, instead of wasting time," he said, sharply. "The only
person in the long run, who is of any use to a woman whose run has also
been long--"

"Is this right?" she cut him short, determined to hear no more, and
laying pound-notes on the table.

"The only person in the world, I tell you, who will stick to such a
woman, who will _bother_ about her," he persisted, pushing the notes
aside, "is her husband. He has got to, you see, poor devil, as a rule.
And the sensible thing for you to do is to get into touch with
Skeffington again as quickly as possible. Sound advice," he said,
rapping the table with a paper-knife. "You'll live to be grateful for
it, I assure you."

He threw down the paper-knife, and got up too. He was shorter than she
was--a short-legged, thick man, and she continued to tower. Skeffington,
indeed, she thought, looking down her still lovely nose at him; without
any "Mr."; just Skeffington; as though they were friends.

"Why not call him Job, and have done with it?" she freezingly
suggested--at least, she hoped she was freezing.

Nothing, however, froze Sir Stilton. "Certainly," he said. "Delighted. I
like Jews. Get into touch with Job, then. Real touch, I mean, not just
fancying he's there when he isn't. Lay him, in fact. If he haunts you,
he must be laid. The only way--you had better listen," he broke off, for
she had turned her back and was walking to the door--"the only way, I
tell you, to rid the mind of dreams and illusions is bodily contacts.
How do you suppose love affairs would ever come to an end, if it weren't
for the bodily contacts? Make friends with Job. See him often. Ask him
to dinner. Lay him, in fact."

She turned and looked at him, her hand on the door-knob. "I came to
you," she said, "for help, and all I've got--"

"Is insults. That's what you were going to say. Well, I dare say, I dare
say, from your point of view. You can't stand plain truth. None of you
women can. But for all that you've got help from me all right, if you
choose to accept it. I've given you the soundest possible advice. Act on
it, and you'll be cured. Just one moment, please--" he went on,
raising his hand. "Ask that unfortunate husband of yours to dinner, and
you'll find that the minute he's with you in the flesh he'll leave off
being with you in the spirit. And by the way," he said quickly, for she
was opening the door, "if any of the others start bothering you, the
ones who weren't your husbands, and you begin seeing them when they
aren't there--quite a possible development, mind you,--ask them to
dinner too. Ask the lot," he finished, grinning a little. "Ask the whole
lot, and size them up. They would size you up too, and then you'd all
see--"

But she was gone. Pulling the door open with such violence that the
woman dressed as a nurse came hurrying into the hall, her face scarlet,
her eyes shining, she demanded her car.

"He's wonderful, isn't he?" said the nurse proudly.

"Oh, he's God's own wonder!" exclaimed Fanny, proceeding with such haste
across the hall that the nurse had difficulty in keeping up with her.

And Sir Stilton, waiting in his consulting-room for the next patient,
walked to the window and flung it open.




II


Outside London, beyond the belt of fog that lay thick and black over
Harley Street where Fanny had just been, and Charles Street whence she
had started, and Paddington whither she was going, it was a beautiful
day--clear, frosty, with the bare branches of the wintry trees standing
out, each a separate miracle of intricate grace, against a most
delicate, blue sky. Larks quivered and trilled. In the little lanes,
whose matted grass edges were ribbons of hoar-frost, carters, loading
their horses, whistled cheerfully. Housewives sang as they banged mats
against the door posts. And the world was so sparkling and so fairylike
a place that nobody that morning, in the country, was cross.

Fanny, choking in London, scented what must be going on a few miles
away, and felt that if she could get into the sun she might, in spite of
everything, manage to calm down. So she had herself driven, on leaving
Harley Street, to Paddington, deciding she would there take the first
train to anywhere where she could breathe. Breathe, and think. Better,
breathe and not think. But, anyhow, breathe.

Certainly she couldn't go home till she had recovered a little. She was
much too angry at present to see anybody, or to be able to endure Miss
Cartwright's carefully unnoticing face, or the anxious inquiries of
Manby. She would send a message to Miss Cartwright to telephone
cancelling her engagements for the day, and she would withdraw into
solitude, and there sit quiet, and smooth out her ruffled feathers.

They were immensely ruffled. For the first time in her life she had been
in the company of a common man, who said straight in her face things she
had till then never imagined could be so much as thought about her, and
she felt she deserved a little relaxation. Relaxation. Furious as she
was, she couldn't help smiling at the word. Even in moments of distress
and anger, she was often able to laugh at herself--an endearing trait,
said her men friends; and her women friends, while admitting it was
endearing and that Fanny was sweet, thought that though she might laugh
at one crumpled rose-leaf in her bed, they doubted whether she would
laugh much if the whole bed were full of crumpled rose-leaves. It was
among the things that had been worrying her lately, the way this faculty
of standing aside and watching herself, and being amused by what she
saw, seemed to be deserting her. Surely she was taking everything that
happened very heavily now? Without much pluck? And didn't this point to
a serious deterioration in her character? This, and flying at servants;
this, and being so quick with acid adjectives to describe youth.

Job's fault, of course; really all Job's fault. But him she was going to
leave behind in London. This one day she was determined to be free of
him; and she would spend it in the country, not speaking to a soul, not
being spoken to, rid of everybody and everything. Vague longings for
pure, cold, solitary things like primroses, and moss, and little
leafless coppices, came into her mind, and she wished it weren't still
only the seventh of February, and that she could have sat in some
earthy, damp-smelling wood, and tied cool primroses into bunches, quite
still and quiet.

The trains were late because of the fog, and the first one, leaving
forty minutes after it ought to have left, was for Oxford. Oxford would
do very well, she thought, taking a ticket. No lonely copses there, but
in its ancient gardens she would find silence. Also, she had nothing but
pleasant associations connected with Oxford; it was, for instance,
entirely free from Job. He wouldn't be there, because he never had been
there or anywhere like it, his education--you could read about it in
_Who's Who_--having been private. The man Byles wouldn't be there
either, because the last thing that would remind her of him would be
evidences of civilization. Dwight--yes, Dwight would be there, but he
hadn't yet left off being a pleasant association, and perhaps, after a
long day by herself, when it began to get dark she might go to his
rooms, and ask to be given muffins--that is, if by that time she were
feeling better.

However, she wasn't sure about going to Dwight. Remembering the way
Byles had said: "Oh, my poor lady," she thought perhaps she would wait
before seeing him, or rather before letting him see her. He had, she
knew, the most romantic, poetic notions of her perfections, and
possibly, beholding her at this unfavourable moment, might think she was
always now going to look like that, and then--

Here Fanny gave herself a little shake, for she was ashamed. That boy.
As though it mattered what he might think. No, she wouldn't see him. Let
him come to Charles Street and see her. Was she then so really elderly
that even an undergraduate at Oxford was of value to her? The next
phase, if she didn't take care, would be going to Eton for her adorers;
and there slid into her mind, apparently from nowhere, the words, _In
sickness and in health_....

       *       *       *       *       *

How comfortable, how restful, how safe, she thought, considering them
wistfully.

Yes, but what they were talking about was husbands. It was husbands who
had to stick to one in sickness as well as in health, in one's wrinkled
stages as well as in the tight-skinned ones. Lovers hadn't got to, and
wouldn't dream of doing it either, especially not young lovers. They set
so high a standard for one when first they fell in love that the
exertion of keeping up to it wore one out, and brought on the very
condition that frightened them off. Not that she ever had to exert
herself yet--oh, well, just a little, perhaps, on Dwight's last visit,
when he saw her again for the first time after her illness, and looked
at her with such lamentable eyes. She had supposed it was deep, loving
sympathy in his eyes. Now she wasn't quite so sure. It might, just as
easily, have been another Oh, my poor lady.

       *       *       *       *       *

Walking along the platform at Paddington, that place of so many happy
departures, because Conderley, in the days she now thought of as the
Conderley Era, much as geologists speak of the Reptilian Age, had been a
Lord-in-Waiting, and when his waits were at Windsor she would sometimes
go down and spend an afternoon with him, coming back in time for dinner
with her arms full of flowers and her eyes all lit up (for say what you
will, there's nothing like a lover for making a woman be all lit
up)--walking, then, along this platform of memories that dark and foggy
morning, she looked, among the other waiting passengers, as a bird of
paradise might look who should have strayed into a flock of sparrows.
Conspicuous, that is. Very. Her black, as Manby described the soberest
of her suits, didn't seem sober at all set beside the clothes of the
poor. Inevitably, seeing the House it came from, there was an air about
it, and an air, too, about her small black hat, pulled at the precise
right angle over one eye. This hat, a most rakish and provocative affair
in the eyes of the humble women on the platform, was perfectly plain
except for a single scarlet quill sticking out, gaily and brightly, in
the gloom, and her eyes, though the reverse of gay, were bright, too,
from her recent scrap with Sir Stilton, and her cheeks were still
flushed with fury. So that altogether she was a conspicuous figure; and
a knot of harassed women, drooping beneath bundles and babies, watched
her, half envious and half shocked.

"One of them kept ones," they decided, the most harassed among them
remarking to her grim-mouthed neighbour that there seemed a lot to be
said for this being kept business.

"Shut up, Mrs. Tombs," rebuked the neighbour.

"Hullo, Fanny," said a man's pleasant voice behind her as the train drew
in. "Where on earth are you off to in this beastly fog?" And as she
turned, surprised and vexed, for she had no wish to meet anyone she
knew, he added, his eyes twinkling all over her, "You're looking very
fit this morning. Getting back into your stride, what?"

Instantly she began to revive. There it was at last, after weeks and
weeks, the familiar note of admiration. It warmed her like wine; it
braced her like a tonic; better than any medicine or advice doctors
might give her, was this simple assurance in her cousin's voice and eyes
that she was lovely. Bother birthdays, bother Byles, bother Job, thought
Fanny, smiling up into the smiling eyes which were so flatteringly and
openly taking in every detail of her appearance.

"I'm fresh from a beauty parlour and a doctor," she said, "so if I can't
look fit now, when shall I?"

"A doctor, Fanny? My dear girl," said Pontyfridd, taking her arm and
walking her across the platform to a suitable carriage--he was her first
cousin, as well as her first love when she was still in the schoolroom,
and they had always been the greatest friends,--"don't, for God's sake,
get into the doctor habit. You've been dosed enough, all those months in
the country. Just forget it now, and enjoy yourself. Niggs--" she was
his wife,--"is never out of that fellow's house. That fellow in Harley
Street. Styles, or some such name."

"Byles," said Fanny.

"Yes, Byles. My heaven, what a name. Do you know him?"

"Do I not?" said Fanny gaily, for suddenly Byles and his hateful talk
seemed entirely negligible. Here she was, with her own sort, her own
set, her own blood, and oh, it was cosy--so cosy and safe, after the
desolation of Byles's presence. "That's why," she laughed up at
Pontyfridd, bigger than ever in his fur-lined coat, "I'm off for a day
in the country, to try and get over him."

"Splendid, darling. You'll come with me, and we'll get over him
together. Wait till his bills begin coming in, though. He needs a lot of
getting over then. You'd think my poor small Niggs had more the matter
with her than her tiny body possibly had room for. I'm going to Windsor.
I've got to see the Office of Works about something at the Castle. We'll
lunch together, and you shall tell me what you've got into your little
head that has started you off being doctored again. Yes, darling, you're
lunching with me to-day," he said as she opened her mouth to speak. "Why
it's simply years since we've had a jaunt together."

He helped her into the carriage. "There they go," grumbled Mrs. Tombs,
nudging her neighbour. "Getting into a first-class carriage while you
and me, just because we're respectable, 'as to go third like 'errings."

"Shut up, Mrs. Tombs," rebuked the neighbour.

Mrs. Tombs, however, declined to shut up. On the contrary, she loudly
commented on the rug the gentleman was carefully tucking round the
lady's knees. "See that there rug?" she inquired of her embarrassed
neighbour. "Solid fur, that is. Do you and me get tucked up in solid
fur? Not 'alf, and it's because we're respectable. I tell you, Mrs. W.,
there's no _money_ in being respectable."

"Now just you 'ush," said the neighbour, shocked.

"Well, I ain't going to. I've 'ushed a lot too much, first and last.
'Ushing don't get you far, no more than being respectable. An' if we
could look inside two stomachs in there, I don't mind betting they're
both as full as they'll 'old of good fried bacon. You and me ain't got
no bacon inside us, 'ave we, an' d'you know why?"

"No, and don't want to," snapped her friend, trying to pull her away.

"Want to or not, you're goin' to 'ear," persisted Mrs. Tombs. "It's
because we're respectable. I tell you there's no money in it, and I'm
fed up, and I'd chuck it to-morrow and go off with 'im in there or
anybody you like to name, if 'e'd give me a good 'ot breakfast first."

"You're a sinful woman, an' I shall 'ave to pray for you," was all her
scandalized neighbour could say, making another attempt to pull her
away.

"George darling," said Fanny, carefully not looking through the window,
and though she couldn't quite hear what the two were saying, unable not
to conjecture it was something about herself and her cousin that wasn't
quite nice, "do you think that poor thing is--? Do you think she has
been--?"

"I hope so," said Pontyfridd, who, being as quick at hearing as he was
at seeing, hadn't missed a word. "Poor devil," he added. "This frightful
morning is enough to make anyone want to. But I must say it seems a bit
early." And on a sudden impulse--he was famous in the family for his
sudden impulses,--he opened the door, jumped out, went up to the two
women, who looked completely scared, and patted Mrs. Tombs reassuringly
on the shoulder.

"You'll miss the train, now," he said pleasantly, "if you stand here
gossiping. Both of you go and have a good hot meal in the restaurant
car. My guests, you know. I'll tell the attendant. Hurry along--and have
lots of bacon with the chicken," he finished, winking at Mrs. W., who,
as she said afterwards, could have sunk, and gently pushing Mrs. Tombs,
while Mrs. W. pulled, towards the rear of the train.

"Take your seats, please," shouted the guard, coming along with his
green flag.

"Hold on a minute," caned out Pontyfridd. "Let these ladies get to the
restaurant car--" and going back into his compartment he slammed the
door, re-arranged the rug round Fanny, and asked if she had heard what
they said.

"No," said Fanny. "But I think it was rude. What was it?"

"I'll tell you at luncheon," laughed Pontyfridd, settling himself in his
corner.

But presently he didn't laugh, and said, for the second time, "Poor
devil." And, again presently, he leaned across to her, and asked,
"Fanny, do you ever hate yourself?" and when she, smiling at such an odd
question, and still being very much the adorable, desirable woman,
answered, "No. Ought I to?" he looked at her a moment a little
thoughtfully, and offering her his cigarette case said, "Well,
well--what a time we take to grow up, don't we."

       *       *       *       *       *

She hadn't an idea what he meant; but, as it didn't sound very
promising, decided not to ask. Besides, there was an expression on his
face as if for two pins he might start talking about the European
situation--a serious, slightly abstracted expression.

She was a sensible woman--Fanny long had prided herself on being
sensible,--and she knew that men sometimes must be serious; but let
them, she held, be serious in their offices, or their Cabinet meetings,
or their cathedrals, or the House, and not waste precious moments when
they are alone with a pretty woman. Everything had its appointed moment.
Even the Bible said there was a time for this, and a time for that;
while as for the phrase pretty woman, she very well knew it was an
under-statement. Always she had been most exquisite. She was simply
unable to remember a time when, if she came into a room, there hadn't
seemed to be a quick silence, a holding of the breath.

So that naturally she was, till lately, very sure of herself, and just
now on the platform, when Pontyfridd's eyes examined her with such
obvious pleasure and appreciation, she had been as sure of herself as
ever, at once forgetting every one of her recent worries and doubts,
while as for Sir Stilton, with his ridiculous, Oh, my poor lady, he
might never have existed. Therefore it seemed a pity that George, so
generally cheerful and on the spot on occasions like this, should choose
suddenly to go grave. It was those two drunks. They had upset him. Which
poet was it poor Jim Conderley used to quote, who said he never could
really let himself go to being happy because of his dying day, and
because women had cancer? Something like that he had said; she couldn't
remember the exact words. But as though it helped, not being happy!
George was rather like that. The minute he saw anybody poor or cold, he
left off being cheerful. If she hadn't been there, he probably would
have presented the two women with his fur-lined coat. As it was, he had
presented them with a meal, she discovered, on the attendant's appearing
and wanting to know if the order was correct.

"You're terribly sweet, George," she said, when the man had gone, laying
her hand affectionately for a moment on his knee. "I wish I had thought
of that. But I seem to think of things too late always--that sort of
thing, I mean."

"My lamb, you'd have created a terrific sensation if you had tried to do
anything, and those women would have run like hares. Cold?" he added
suddenly, looking at her more attentively.

Now what did he see? wondered Fanny, at once getting deeper into her
collar.

       *       *       *       *       *

By this time the train was well out of the black London fog, and had got
into a white mist. An extremely unbecoming hard glare was filling the
carriage, from which there seemed no escape except deep in the collar of
her coat. Also, the wrath Byles had stirred in her had now died down and
with it the brightness of her eyes. Then there had been those women, and
George thinking about them instead of about her, and turning serious,
which naturally had reacted on her. So that though she managed to go on
smiling gaily for a little, her smiles grew fainter as the light grew
stronger and he remained thoughtful, and after West Drayton they
vanished altogether, because it was there that his eyes suddenly began
searching her face, with the result that he asked her if she were cold.

That meant she must be looking pinched. Most unbecoming to look pinched.
Flattened nostrils, and things like that.

"Oh no--not a bit," she said quickly, wriggling deeper into her collar.

"Don't you catch cold now, Fanny," he said, leaning across and taking
the collar in both hands and drawing it closer round her throat.

So that was it. Those terribly observant eyes had caught sight of what
Hélène had declared could be helped enormously; and immediately she made
up her mind that nothing would induce her to lunch with him. What? Sit
opposite him, probably facing a horrid big plate-glass window, and be
obliged to unfasten her coat?

He, having fixed her up, as he imagined, all snug and warm, gave the fur
an almost motherly final pat, and said, "You oughtn't to be out a day
like this. It's much too freezing for a wispy thing like you. I know
what," he went on quickly, "I've got some brandy. I'll give you some.
Warm you up," he assured her, pulling out a small flask, and beginning
to pour a little into a tiny glass.

"Do I look--so funny?" faltered Fanny.

"Not funny, darling. Never could you look anything but adorable--"
well, that was better--"but a bit tired," he said, intent on not
spilling the brandy.

Tired. Most unbecoming. Hollow eyes, and things like that. How much she
disliked being told that she looked tired; how much she dreaded it. Only
too well did she know what it meant when people, full of sympathy,
exclaimed, "Fanny darling, _how_ tired you're looking! Don't you think
you ought to be in bed?"

"You told me at Paddington I was--" she began; and stopped.

"So you were, at Paddington," he agreed. "Pitch dark there, though, and
anybody"--he smiled, as he offered her the little glass,--"can look fit
if it's dark enough."

The brandy spilled. Either the train gave a lurch, or she took the glass
clumsily, or both; but it was spilled.

"That's not kind," she said, pushing the glass away and leaning back in
her corner. It was she herself now who pulled her collar as close as
possible round her throat. "No, don't pour out any more. Besides, you've
got to get out soon. George, that's the first unkind thing you've said
to me in your life."

"Darling, I'd die sooner than hurt a single one of your extremely
precious hairs--" had he noticed them too, then, and how thinned out
they were?--"but we all know, don't we, that you've been very ill, and
aren't nearly as strong yet as you're soon going to be--oh Lord, here's
Slough. Come along. The other train's waiting."

But Fanny wouldn't come along. No, she was going to Oxford. No, she had
never agreed to lunch. No, she had arranged to go to Oxford, and must
stick to it. "You'll miss your train," she said, as he still stood
outside the door, trying to persuade her.

"My sweet Fanny, don't be tiresome. Look how the sun's shining. And why
on earth you should go to Oxford and waste your time on undergraduates--"

Waste her time? Could he mean that even undergraduates wouldn't now--?

Startled, she looked at him. Nothing after that would make her budge. So
he had to go, and as his train moved out of the station and curved away
round the Windsor bend, and hers presently went on its different way,
she was for a while dejected again, and frightened.

Then she pulled herself together. "You're growing altogether too
suspicious and touchy to live," she said aloud; and decided that what
she probably needed was a good meal, and that the first thing she did in
Oxford would be to go and have one.

       *       *       *       *       *

Avoiding the bigger hotels, she went to a small one she came across in
an obscure street, where she lunched alone, except for one old lady in a
dark corner, attended by an ancient waiter. There was a big bright fire,
and a sideboard loaded with shining electro-plated empty soup-tureens,
and enormous dish-covers which covered nothing, and she thought the food
much better than any she got at home.

"Why doesn't Mrs. Denton ever give me this?" she wondered, eating
something she didn't know, and liking it very much.

It turned out, on inquiry of the waiter, who seemed slightly surprised
at the question, to be part of a beef-steak pudding, and the vegetable,
he informed her, again with slight surprise on her praising it too, was
cabbage. "Savoy," said the waiter. "Savoy," repeated Fanny, making a
mental note, so as not to forget to ask Mrs. Denton whether she knew
about it.

After the pudding, there was apple-pie and custard, but that wasn't so
good; one would have to be really very hungry, she thought, to like this
kind of crust. The coffee, however, was hot and not bad, and she drew
her chair up to the fire to drink it, and lit a cigarette, and, being
satisfactorily fed, was inclined to smile at herself, after the varied
emotions of the night, and of the day, too, as far as it had got, for
being able to sit warming her knees at a strange fire in Oxford, in a
condition hardly distinguishable from placid.

"It's the pudding," she decided presently. "I'm what Edward would have
called slabbed down, or plugged, or some frightful word like that--"
Edward having been the one next after Lord Conderley in her life, and as
great a contrast to him as the Cainozoic Period was to the Reptilian Age
preceding it. Her feelings, she recognized, couldn't have free play
while they were entombed in pudding, hence their quiescence. How useful.
She mustn't forget to ask Mrs. Denton if she knew how to make it. She
might try it when Job began bothering. And gazing into the fire, her
thoughts wandered to Edward in his heyday.

Dear Edward. What fun he had been. So completely disrespectful of
everything and everybody Conderley had taught her to venerate. He never
opened a book; he said poetry gave him a stomach-ache. And once, in the
early days, when the Conderley atmosphere still hung about her and she
said something about the poet Wordsworth, he called him old Fish Face.
This, clearly reprehensibly, had greatly refreshed her. Strange what
virtue there is in just change. Darling Edward. He used to look so
particularly charming in his grey top-hat at Ascot. Yet that, too, had
ended in tears--not the top-hat, though she did briefly wonder how grey
top-hats ended, but their happy days together. His tears, too, if you
please, this time; Edward, of all people, actually crying. But by then
she had got involved with Perry--he was the one who finished by looking
patient--and the only decent thing was to say good-bye to Edward. She
hoped he had kept well. She didn't mean kept _well_, though of course
she hoped that too, but _kept_ well. He had been so very good-looking.
She would really grieve if she thought he had, perhaps, grown fat, and
on those hot islands, where he was Governor or something, letting
himself go to too much whisky.

       *       *       *       *       *

Immersed in the past, she sat quietly smoking while the old lady, from
her table in the dark corner, watched her with a hostile eye. Old ladies
of the class which is regarded as the backbone of England, and all
clergymen who didn't know who she was, viewed Fanny at this time with
suspicion. She was so very striking, and also ravaged. No good woman is
ever, held the clergymen and the old ladies, either striking or ravaged,
but especially not ravaged. The truly good woman merely gradually fades,
they held. She grows dimmer and dimmer, and more and more like what
one's mother used to be.

Fanny, however, at fifty wasn't in the least like anybody's mother, but
had become, to look at, the sort of woman from whom clergymen
instinctively shrink, and seeing her in a train they would get into
another carriage, or meeting her in the street they would gaze,
carefully absorbed, at the nearest equivalent to a view. If, though, on
the other hand, at a public meeting she was sitting on the platform
among archbishops, and her name was on the list of supporters so that
they could read and know who she was, their confidence and admiration at
once knew no bounds.

"That very beautiful Lady Frances Skeffington was there--you know, the
daughter of the Duke of St. Bildads, the unlucky duke whose estate was
ruined by having to pay death duties three times within five years,"
they would tell their wives afterwards. "The Archbishop seemed to take
great pleasure in having her sit next to him."

"Wasn't she divorced, or something?"

"My dear, we mustn't judge."

This, though, wasn't a public meeting; there was no list of names to
guide anybody, and the old lady had to go by appearances. In that place
and room they were against Fanny, who presently heard an extremely
distinct voice coming out of the corner behind her saying, "I mind
smoking."

She was startled, and turned round quickly. She had forgotten the old
lady. "I'm so sorry," she said, throwing her cigarette into the fire.

"If you had asked me if I minded I would have told you I did," said the
old lady, folding up her table napkin and putting it through a bone
ring. "But as you didn't ask me, I must tell you, without being asked,
that I do mind. I mind very much."

"I'm so sorry," said Fanny again.

Then there was silence, during which the old lady, from the cover of her
corner, studied the sideways view of the small black hat, for Fanny, now
aware of her, and feeling it rude to sit with her back turned, had
pushed her chair round a little, the curve of the scarlet quill, the
tip, if she had known it, of a celebrated nose, and an ear-ring made of
a single jewel, which she judged sham.

"One excuses," she was thinking, "a pretty girl for being a pretty girl,
because it is not her fault, but an elderly woman can only lay the blame
on herself if she manages, by artifices of which she should be ashamed,
to seem more or less good-looking. Having had her turn, she should blush
to try to go on out of it. Probably this one is here, all painted and
dolled up, to see if she can pick up innocent boys."

And she thanked heaven that she herself had no innocent boys liable to
be picked up, nor that which must, or should, precede innocent boys, a
husband; for husbands too, she understood, were liable to become
entangled in predatory female activities.

"Perhaps she'll go now," thought Fanny, who had seen the napkin being put
through a ring, and therefore deduced the old lady must be staying in
the hotel and liked having the same napkin over again.

She had a great longing for a cigarette, and also a great longing,
having had the cigarette, to get out into the sun before the really
lovely winter day folded itself away into evening; but as the old lady
didn't move, she herself got up, smiled vaguely over her shoulder at
her, received no faintest movement of a muscle in return, and went into
the passage.

Opposite, there was a door which had _Smoking_ written on it. It opened
into a small sitting-room, with another bright fire burning, and going
in and drawing up a comfortable chair to the fire, she sat down and
again lit a cigarette. But she hadn't been there more than five minutes
before the old lady came in, and stood looking at her.

"Am I keeping the fire off you?" asked Fanny after a moment, during
which nothing was said, and moving her chair to one side. "Oh, and--"
she added with a smile, holding it up, "do you mind my cigarette in
here?"

"Certainly I mind it," said the old lady concisely.

"But," Fanny justified herself, "it is written on the door."

"You asked me if I minded, and I have told you."

"Oh, then, of course--"

And this one, too, was thrown into the fire.

The old lady stood in the middle of the room, leaning on her stick. "If
I've said it once to the management, I've said it a hundred times," she
said irritably, "that the notice on the door ought to be covered up, and
'Private' put instead. This is my sitting-room."

"I'm so sorry," said Fanny, hastily getting out of the chair. "You do
see, though, don't you, that it was impossible for me to know?"

"Perhaps I should explain that the room is for my exclusive use so long
as no one else is staying in the hotel. Passers-by are not eligible. I
imagine you are a passer-by?"

"Yes, but I might take a room for the night and not stay in it, and then
become eligible for the sitting-room, couldn't I?' asked Fanny.

"Certainly, if you care to fling money about," said the old lady,
looking her up and down as much as to say she wondered whose money. "It
seems a great deal to pay, though, for the questionable pleasure of
smoking one cigarette."

"I'd have to have several, to make up for it," smiled Fanny.

"Then I should be driven into my bedroom. Not that I am not used to
that. So many queer people come to Oxford in term time, and all of them
want to smoke in here. The management is most disobliging, and does
nothing to stop them. Sometimes it is so disobliging that it almost
seems as if it wanted me to go. Yet, as I live here most of the year, I
presume I am of value to them. Then there's the repertory theatre, and
the whole of that unpleasant gang. They come here too, and make a noise,
and still the management does nothing. Much as I dislike cinemas, I must
say there's something to be said for them in university cities. At least
the absurd creatures, those so-called stars, are fixed to their screens,
and can't get off them when the performance is over, and walk about the
town obstructing and inciting."

Fanny, during this, was gradually making for the door. She suspected
that she was going to be buttonholed. The poor old thing evidently had
no one to talk to, and was bursting with things she wanted to say. If
she, Fanny, were a really nice, kind woman, she would stay and listen,
but she didn't think she could really be nice and kind, so urgent was
her wish to get away. Always she had dreaded buttonholers. There was an
arch one in a poem Jim used to read aloud, and it was like a nightmare
the way he went on and on, not letting the unhappy man he had got hold
of, and who was very busy, if she remembered, and in a great hurry, go
till he had said his say. This old lady showed signs of being his near
relation. She was quite unlike a Lapland night. There was nothing serene
and calm about her, and certainly nothing lovely. Something was wrong
with that description of old age. The poet who wrote it must have been
very young, and couldn't have seen many old ladies. The one before her,
she felt uncomfortably, was much more the real thing. Was it possible
that she herself would some day be like that? So old, that everybody who
was fond of her was dead, and she dragging round hotels because her
servants were dead too, and she didn't like new ones? Or, even worse,
perhaps be in the clutches of a companion, and the companion, when she
was bored and cross, bullying her? _Noble, lovely little Fanny_, whose
life had ringed her round like a wreath of flowers, and all her
flanks--odd how Conderley's quotations stuck,--with silken garlands
drest; could it really be that to this complexion--his phrase
again,--she would come at last?

The old lady, who now had assumed for Fanny the shape of things to come,
was arranging herself in what was evidently her special chair, which was
also the one Fanny, decidedly unlucky that day, had sat in, and was
welling up in it formlessly. "Why doesn't she go?" she was thinking. "I
want my nap."

But Fanny, in spite of the fear of being buttonholed, hesitated, because
of the picture in her mind of what, if she went away, she would be
leaving behind the shut door--the silence of the dingy hotel-room, empty
except for that lonely figure by the fire, and for weeks, for months,
for several more years perhaps, there the figure would be sitting in
that same silence, except during occasional brief incursions of the
repertory gang, and except from time to time for an argument, evidently
embittered, with the management. And she thought, "Some day I shall be
sitting too like that, when I've quarrelled with the companion--"
adding, her better nature getting the upper hand, "I expect I ought to
stay with the poor old thing really, and let her talk. George would.
Look how kind he was to those women at Paddington. Why, he even patted
them."

But her better nature, being as yet undeveloped--"What a time we take to
grow up," George had said in the train, struck by something he missed in
her,--didn't keep the upper hand long. The sun out in the street was
shining too brightly, the room, facing north, with its dingy old
contents, was too tomb-like. Of course it was quite true that some day
she herself might be sitting alone in just such conditions, but
meanwhile--

Meanwhile, she fled. "No good taking time and tombs by the forelock,"
she thought, pulling open the door, and with a quick good-bye going out
into the passage.

Upon which the old lady said, "Thank goodness," settled herself
comfortably in her chair, and at once went to sleep.

       *       *       *       *       *

How beautiful it was outside, in the frosty stillness of the winter
afternoon.

Fanny stood a moment on the edge of the pavement, drawing in deep
breaths of clear, cold purity, and ridding her clothes of what she felt
was the smell of mortality. Here, in these streets, there was nothing
but youth, living, vital, energetic, absurd, adorable youth, with all
its extremes of happiness and heartbreaks. Just as in that room she had
left there had seemed to hang a smell of mortality, so out here there
seemed to be a smell of new milk. How angry the young men would be, she
thought amused, if she told them they made her think of milk. But they
did. Pailfuls of frothing, sweet new milk everywhere; everywhere groups
of thick-haired--especially she noticed the lovely thickness of their
hair,--shining-faced, red-with-the-cold, cheerful young men.

"This is marvellous," said Fanny to herself, forgetting Byles,
forgetting George, forgetting Job, and lifting her face up to the sun.
"Really I am very glad I came."

Some pailfuls of new milk passing on the pavement--she begged their
pardon, she meant young men--looked shyly at her for a moment, instantly
hiding, under the cloak of good manners, their admiration and interest.
It was certainly interest, and she hoped it was admiration, but of that
she couldn't be quite sure, standing as she was with her face in the
full light of the sun. Nice, after all, to be admired by these pleasant
boys; so nice, that for her own satisfaction she would decide that they
did admire her, even if it wasn't true.

Her intention had been to walk in the garden of St. John's, but this was
rather far, and so long had she lingered over the pudding and the old
lady that in another hour the sun would have set, and gates would begin
to be shut. So she went to the New College gardens instead, for she was
only a few yards off from the little curly street that leads to the main
entrance. She had no need to ask the way, because this was Dwight's
college, and sometimes she had lunched in his rooms, and knew well the
little street, the lovely garden, and the quiet path at the end, with a
high wall on one side and a screen of trees on the other, up and down
which, after luncheon, she and Dwight would pace. He, in this seclusion,
was able freely to illustrate his worship by gesticulations suited to
his words--he was taking modern languages, and had a great choice of
words,--while she listened to the rooks, whose cawings from a child had
fascinated her, as they loved and quarrelled among their nests in the
ancient elms. And Dwight would say that her lunching with him was an
honour which would encircle his rooms in a nimbus for ever, and that
they would shine now down the ages--"Oh Dwight, what a long time. Look
at that rook--do you think it is being angry or affectionate?"--with her
refulgence, or radiance, or something; probably refulgence, for he
preferred the bigger-mouthed words.

This was the great difficulty about Dwight--always, the minute she was
with him, she became absent-minded. Couldn't fix her attention; simply
_couldn't_. Why, even when he was practically on his knees in Charles
Street, telling her she was the most beautiful thing on God's earth,
though she liked it very much with one half of her, the other half was
wondering if Miss Cartwright had remembered to ring up Harrods about
cleaning the chair covers.

She knew this was hard on Dwight, who was really a very dear boy, and
extremely good-looking, and whose devotion was just then particularly
welcome and reassuring, but what could she do? Mend her ways? Yes, she
would seriously try to do that; and meanwhile how pleasant it was
walking along what he called their path, without him. She and the rooks
were very good company; it was a perfect moment of the afternoon; and
she could think of him boxed up and examined with wide-awake affection
and sympathy, because she wasn't being lulled into absent-mindedness by
his unceasing and curiously monotonous flow of eloquence.

Well, it was easy enough to like being alone in Oxford, she said to
herself, going through the iron gates into the garden, for here the
memories were all recent, and harmless and unhurtful. How different from
the ones which would have wrung her heart if she had gone to Cambridge!
But she couldn't have gone to Cambridge. She hadn't been there for years
and years. For it was there that her dear only brother had been, the
person on earth she had most loved; and during his few weeks at Trinity,
before the war started and he joined up and was immediately killed, she
had spent each Saturday and Sunday there, sleeping at the Bull and
having all her meals, even breakfast, in his little nest of rooms at the
top of a ladder-like wooden staircase in Neville's Court.

Vividly, as she went into the New College gardens, and for no reason
that she could discover, the memory of that brief, acutely happy tune
came back to her. She was nearly ten years older than he was, and there
was nothing she wouldn't have done for him. Indeed, there was nothing
she didn't do, for it was because of him, though this she never
breathed, that she had married Job.

The spectacularly rich Mr. Skeffington, who had an extraordinary gift
for growing richer, was a wonderful _parti_ for a penniless girl, she
had always felt. Just as Bach could do what he liked with a collection
of little black symbols, forming them as he chose into this or that
immortal fugue, so could Job do what he liked with money. It came
dancing into his pockets at a glance--a very different glance from the
sort of dog-like glances she knew, for these other glances, familiar to
his fellow-financiers, were hard as steel and alert and concentrated as
a hawk's. He had an unerring instinct for attracting money, and, having
attracted it, for manipulating it with the easy mastery of genius.
Invariably he bought at the exact right moment, and sold at the exact
right moment; and in private life he was generous, and kind, and
affectionate, and devoted--an ideal son-in-law for a ruined duke, who,
when he lost him as a relation through the divorce, grieved genuinely,
and not merely because his wealth had been a godsend.

"Must you, Fanny my dear? Must you really?" the old man had asked.
"Don't you think, if you tried very hard, you might perhaps--?"

Fanny shook her head. "Not seven," she answered. "Besides, it's a habit
now, and after a bit there'll probably be seventy. Would you have me
forgive seventy?"

No; the old man wouldn't have her forgive seventy.

       *       *       *       *       *

Trippington was at a preparatory school when Fanny got engaged, and she
went down to see him there and tell him herself, before anyone else
knew.

"What--that Jew?" he exclaimed horrified. "But, Fan--you can't."

"Can't I? You'll see. He's a very nice man. Terribly kind. Much the
kindest of anybody we know, and much the--the nicest, really."

"But--think of his nose."

"I do. I've thought of it a great deal. And I've come to the conclusion
noses aren't everything."

"Aren't they, just. You wait till you have to start the day every
morning with his wagging at you over the bacon."

"There won't be any bacon. I shall be a Jew too, and they don't have
bacon."

"You a Jew too?" he exclaimed, this time completely overwhelmed. "Oh,
but, Fanny--you _can't_."

Then she put her arm round him, and began to kiss him, but he pushed her
away, and sat gripping his head in both hands.

"Now Trippy, little sweet," she said, leaning over him and giving him a
butterfly-kiss with her eyelashes in the hope of making him smile,
"don't be silly and throw cold water on my lovely plans. Be a good
brother and give me your blessing--please, darling."

But Trippington, taking no notice of these blandishments, only said,
"It's bloody,"--and immediately afterwards, looking suddenly distraught,
announced that he must go out of the room a minute, because he was going
to be sick.

And now he, for whose sake she had married Job, so that the thousands of
acres her father had had to mortgage could be freed from debt and handed
over to him, when he came to inherit, in the condition his ancestors
knew, had long ago vanished out of her life, and Job, who freed the
inheritance, had vanished too--Trippy for ever, behind the clanking
gates of death, and Job for ever too, of course, but differently for
ever. In his case she could still get at him if she wanted to, still
invite him, if she wanted to, according to Sir Stilton's grotesque
suggestion, to dinner; while Trippy--ah, but wasn't her darling Trippy,
after all, lucky, never to have to grow old? Wasn't it a happy thing, in
these days of apparently swiftly approaching horror, to know that he at
least, her precious brother, was for ever safe?

       *       *       *       *       *

Lost in these thoughts, she had by this time reached the secluded path,
having walked, with the grace which made her movements so agreeable to
watch, the length of the broad herbaceous border beneath the shelter of
the great grey wall, and two dons, who were arguing about Pythagoras in
an upper chamber overlooking the garden, paused to observe her progress.

"Who is that?" said one, hastily adjusting his spectacles.

"I don't know," said the other, hastily adjusting his. "But judging from
what can be seen of the lady, I should say she was attractive."

"Well, we can't see much. And women seen from the back are often
different from women seen from the front. I mean, more attractive."

"True, true. Which would you rather?"

"Both," said the other. "Now, about Pythagoras--"

Continuing along the path, Fanny came to the bend where it curved round
behind the rook-filled trees, and gradually, much narrowed, returned on
the south side of the garden to the iron gates again. At this bend there
was a seat, and on the seat, in spite of the frostiness of the afternoon
in that sunless spot, were a young man and a girl, absorbed in kissing
each other; in fact, they were locked in each other's arms. Such honest
kissing Fanny had never seen, so whole-hearted, so vigorous. The girl's
cap had fallen off, and lay unnoticed on the ground. Her thick dark
curls, wildly ruffled up, were the only bit of head to be seen. So much
preoccupied were they, so dusky was the shrub-screened comer, and so
light of foot the slender, not to say emaciated, Fanny, that she was
upon them before either they or she knew it. Almost she tripped over
their carelessly-flung-out and forgotten feet, and greatly startled and
embarrassed, besides being really sorry to have disturbed what was,
after all, one of the most interesting moments of life, she stammered
something apologetic, and with bowed head and eyes discreetly lowered
was hastening on, when the two made the mistake rabbits make, and
instead of remaining motionless and interlocked, hurriedly disentangled
themselves; and one of them was Dwight.

"Oh," he said, scrambling to his feet, instinctively pulling his scarf
straight and passing his hand over his hair. His face was scarlet.

"Oh," said Fanny, pausing, for once in her life unable to deal with a
social situation.

The girl, whose face too was scarlet--but that was from the violence of
the kissing,--sat where she was, her curls in an immense disorder
(enviable creature, thought Fanny even at this juncture, to have so much
hair that when it was in disorder the disorder was immense), staring,
half abashed and half defiant, at the obviously grand lady who seemed to
know Dwight.

Could it be his mother? She had heard rich American ladies were terribly
smart. And if it was his mother, wouldn't the fat be rather in the fire?
But from both the lady's expression and Dwight's, it looked as if the
fat were already in the fire--yet what had she done, except enjoy
herself and help Dwight to enjoy himself? What was wrong with a little
enjoyment?

She pulled Dwight's sleeve. "If it's your mother, you'd better introduce
me," she said in a whisper; but they were all three so close together
that whispering was no good as an instrument of tact.

"Do, Dwight," said Fanny, really very sorry for him.

Dwight mumbled something. Neither Fanny nor the girl was any the wiser.
Miss Parker, Perkins, Parbury, Partington, it sounded like, something
beginning with Par, and fizzling out in confusion; while the girl only
caught the single monosyllable Skeff. But Skeff was enough to show her
that it wasn't Dwight's mother, unless she had married again. Perhaps
his aunt, then; though she really didn't know why, if it were only an
aunt, he should look so much upset.

Then there was handshaking The girl, getting up for this ceremony,
showed herself as a dumpy little thing, very round in a yellow knitted
jumper, tight-skinned indeed, thought Fanny, who, beholding her
straightened out and unfolded, was sorrier than ever for Dwight. How
much that poor boy must have suffered from her own exiguousness, and her
marked avoidance of letting him come too close--no closer, in fact, than
sometimes, before her illness, when there was still enough of it, being
allowed to touch her hair. This little plump thing, bursting with young
ripeness through her jumper, was real substantial flesh and blood,
intensely alive, almost audibly crackling with vigour; and Fanny,
looking at her, felt as if her own bones were hardly covered enough for
decency, and that she was nothing but a pale ghost wandered from the
rapidly cooling past, strayed into a richly warm generation to which she
in no way belonged. Nor did she, confronted by the girl's abounding
youth, even resent being taken for Dwight's mother. She easily might
have been his mother. It would be the natural conclusion for that
evidently lively young brain to come to. Besides, she was too completely
sorry for him, standing there defenceless, all his fine words and
eloquence silenced, to resent anything.

But she hadn't a notion what to do next. Dwight evidently hadn't a
notion either. In the face of what she had seen, and they both knew she
had seen, conversation on ordinary lines would be a mockery.
Graciousness, too, on her part, could only further prostrate poor
Dwight; while as for suggesting everyday things, such as their coming
and having tea with her at the Mitre or somewhere, to sit having tea
with him under the circumstances would be a mockery, and a most subtle
torture for the unhappy young man.

It was the girl who solved the problem. Not liking the look on either of
their faces, and having no mind to be mixed up in a row just when she
had been enjoying herself so much, she stooped quickly, snatched her
cap, clapped it on her head with the gay indifference of a child as to
whether it were straight or crooked, and said, "Well, so long. I must be
trotting home to get tea for mother--" and nodding a "Good afternoon,
Mrs. Skeff," to Fanny, and to Dwight a jaunty "See you this evening,
p'raps--" with bounding little footsteps, buttoning her jacket as she
went, she hurried away.

Without her, though it couldn't be said there was relief, there was at
least change, the situation, however, still remaining in the category of
that which must be worse before it can be better.

"I'm so sorry, Dwight," was all Fanny could think of to say, after a
painful silence, as they walked slowly back the way she had come. "I
mean--"

But what did she mean? She meant, she supposed, for interrupting, for
blundering in on him.

Dwight, who such a few minutes before had been one enormous throb of
very delicious and satisfactory love, now had only a single wish, and
that was never to feel, see, think of, or hear about love again. "That's
all right," he said, his hands in his pockets, his eyes on the ground,
his feet sulkily kicking up the gravel at the edge of the path.

An inadequate reply. Still, was there any reply, she asked herself, the
unfortunate boy could make which would be adequate?

"You needn't come with me, you know," she said, after another painful
silence. "Not if you'd rather--if there's anything else--"

But as everything she began to say at once landed her in fresh
difficulties, she stopped.

"That's all right," he said a second time; again inadequate, and again
sulkily kicking up the gravel.

Alas, poor Dwight--all his eloquent words gone dumb, at the very moment
when she, for the first time in his company, wasn't absent-minded.

       *       *       *       *       *

From their upper chamber the two dons, seeing her reappearing on the
path below, hastily adjusted their spectacles again. This time she was
coming towards them, and they were gratified to observe that she was as
attractive turned frontways as she had been turned the other way; or
seemed to be, at that distance, to their short-sighted, Greek-strained
eyes. Indeed, she seemed more than attractive--she seemed definitely
beautiful, and very like their idea of Helen of Troy.

With alacrity they thrust Pythagoras out of their conversation, and
concentrated on the approaching lady.

"I imagined she wouldn't be long without an escort," said the slightly
older one of the two.

"It's that American--the Rhodes boy," said the slightly younger one,
peering.

"What an odd place to go and fetch him out of--those bushes at the end
of the garden."

"As if he were the infant Moses."

"And she a king's daughter."

"Which she easily might be--or a daughter of the gods."

"Curious, though, that our prize boy doesn't seem to be enjoying
himself."

"No--does he. Slouching along."

"Yes. As though he were sulky."

"Yes, positively hang-dog. Amazing._ Si jeunesse savait_--"

"Ah. Yes, indeed. Ah. Well. Now about that theory of yours--"

For the couple having disappeared beneath the window, short of
stretching themselves out of it to watch, which would have been
unseemly, there was nothing for it but to get on with Pythagoras.



III


All Oxford, by the time Fanny got back to the inn where she had lunched,
was having tea. She had said good-bye to Dwight at the foot of his
staircase, alleging an engagement as she smiled a smile that couldn't
but be bleak--it was indeed, she explained, because of this engagement,
that she was there that day, and having thanked him for offering to see
her to whatever door she was bound for, and said she could easily find
her way alone and he wasn't to bother, and having done her best not to
let this sound as if she were in any way minding anything, she walked
away into the twilight, and out of his life. She couldn't imagine
herself in future anywhere in it. "He's the last," she thought, with
chill conviction. "I feel in my bones he's the last, and my love-days,
as Byles called them, are really and truly over."

Just before they parted, holding out her hand in farewell, she said:
"Don't worry, Dwight. These things might happen to anybody--" but that
too had sounded all wrong; so repulsively magnanimous; or perhaps as
though she were forgiving him, because she wanted him back; or perhaps
as though she were indifferent, and wasn't caring.

No; there was nothing for it, really, but silence.

Going into a stationer's to buy a time-table, she found the next fast
train for Paddington didn't start for over an hour. She would go back,
then, to the inn, and wait there, where she knew there was only one old
lady, rather than face the crowded tea-lounges of the bigger hotels. She
no longer minded the old lady. On the contrary, she thought it would be
tranquil to sit with her, and feel she was really sitting with herself
in twenty years' time, when to-day was an old, old story, almost
entirely forgotten, or, if not forgotten, only remembered with a smile.

But why, she thought, walking through the dusky streets to the inn, the
time-table in her hand, wait till then to smile? Why not smile now? She
who had so often in life laughed at herself, had she not better seize
this unrivalled occasion for laughter?

"Don't be bitter, Fanny," one half of her admonished.

"I'm not bitter," the other half declared.

She was, though. She had been taken in. She had been made a fool of. She
had been dragged in the most humiliating of all dusts, the dust reserved
for older women who let themselves be approached, on amorous lines, by
boys. Why, she hadn't even had the excuse some unfortunate middle-aged
women have of being rent asunder by unseemly longings. It had all been
pure vanity, all just a wish, in these waning days of hers, still to
feel power, still to have the assurance of her beauty and its effects.

And what had Dwight got out of it? She hardly could face it, it was so
extremely mortifying, but she couldn't help thinking that what Dwight
had got out of it, being a youth perhaps developed in business instincts
beyond his years but in harmony with his American parentage, was her
social usefulness. In her house he had met everyone he would think most
worth knowing. She had rewarded his devotion by introductions which
would seem to him dazzling. He had become, helped by her, extremely
smart and social; and in return, how hard the poor little thing had
laboured at his fine phrases and far-fetched eloquence! She had absorbed
them all. They had bored her, but she had believed every word. And when
he said, sitting at her feet with his head in her lap, and she
comforting him--comforting him!--with soft fingers in his hair, that he
didn't know how he could live without her, she had absorbed that too.
Wonderful, her capacity for absorbing. How often, and how much, he must
have been entertained--

"Now Fanny, don't be bitter."

"I'm not bitter."

       *       *       *       *       *

The old lady, who had reached what she regarded as the pleasantest point
in her day, the point at which she played patience before going up to
dress for dinner, which she did by putting a lace scarf on top of her
day dress, was none too well pleased to see the door open, and the same
person who had thrust herself forward earlier in the day appear again.
True, having had her nap, and had her tea, and eaten all the quite good
buttered toast the Blue Dog succeeded, most days, in producing, she was
now in a different mood; for the tea, very black and strong, invariably
enlivened her, and buttered toast had a lubricating effect on the joints
of her mind, reducing her inner friction. So that if a moment did exist
in the twenty-four hours when she could be described as approachable,
that moment was this one.

Nevertheless, she wasn't pleased; and when Fanny, opening the door
hesitatingly, said: "If I don't smoke, may I stay here a little while?"
she answered, almost as grudgingly as she would have before she had had
her nap, her tea, and her buttered toast, "The management would no doubt
say you may," and went on with her game just as if nobody were there.

Fanny sat down on the other side of the fire, drew off her gloves,
warmed her thin hands, and set herself to forgetting Dwight.

The old lady, observing her over the top of her spectacles in the
intervals of laying down cards, decided she must have had a set-back.
She looked more haggard than before; her foraging expedition couldn't
have been a success. And since it came more easily to her to feel
well-disposed to those who had got what they deserved rather than to
those who still hadn't, she presently asked, being humanized into the
bargain by plenty of butter on her toast: "Are you not going to have any
tea?"

Fanny looked round at her absently. The tea-things hadn't yet been
cleared away, and gave a spurious air of comfort to the shabby room. The
lamps were lit, and the curtains drawn. The fire had been made up, and
in the warm light the old lady didn't look nearly so dead as she had
before; indeed, she didn't look dead at all, but definitely alive, and
enjoying her small comforts with a kind of venerable gusto. Was it
possible, then, thought Fanny, to be content with so little? To be
stripped of everything that made life lovely, and not mind? But perhaps
she wasn't stripped, because there hadn't been anything to strip.
Therefore she wouldn't miss anything. Therefore, naturally, she didn't
mind.

"Yes," said Fanny, reaching across and ringing the bell by the
fireplace, "I think I will."

"There isn't much I can recommend here," said the old lady, "but I can
and do recommend the buttered toast."

"Then I'd better have some," said Fanny. And, thinking that if she
talked to someone neutral and indifferent it would be better than
sitting silent forgetting Dwight, she added: "Isn't it rather tiresome
living in hotels?"

"You ought to know," said the old lady.

"I? Why?"

"Are you not Repertory?"

"Repertory? Do you mean the theatre people you were telling me about?
No, I'm not."

"I took you for one of them. The colour of your hair--"

"It's quite natural," said Fanny quickly, the more quickly because it
wasn't.

"Indeed," said the old lady; and was pregnantly silent.

There is no doubt that Fanny that day had had a good many blows, and a
small extra one like this didn't very much matter; so she only thought:
"Poor old thing, she isn't contented after all, or she wouldn't be
sour." Must one be discontented, though, when one was old, she wondered?
Was it really inevitable? The Lapland night lady wasn't. She was serene;
and a great success, evidently, when she was on her last legs. But the
drawback to her as a source of encouragement was her not being real.
This other old lady, this one sitting laying her cards, her mouth all
pursed up, was real, and in twenty years' time, or perhaps even sooner
at the rate she appeared to be decomposing, Fanny's mouth might very
well be all pursed lip too, into a kind of cross little bag. The
indignities of age! Impossible, really, to believe in the serene and
calm and bright sort; and in that case had she not better be very kind
to the poor old image of her own future, just as she hoped there would
be someone to be very kind to her when she too was defenceless?

The old lady, however, wasn't at all defenceless, and would intensely
have objected if she had known Fanny was preparing to be kind. "Then,"
she said, having given the pregnancy of her silence time to sink in,
"since you say you are not Repertory, perhaps you will tell me what you
are."

"Nearly fifty," was the unexpected answer.

At this the old lady took off her spectacles, laid them aside, and
looked at Fanny curiously. Through the slits which were all that her
shrivelled-up lids allowed to be seen of her eyes, she looked at her,
interested in spite of herself. "How frank," she said. "May I ask why
you tell me that?"

"Because it's on my mind. It's very much on my mind. And it's easy to
tell things to a stranger, and perhaps be helped to be more sensible."

The waiter at that moment ambled in, in answer to the bell, and the old
lady was spared having to comment on the notion that she might help. Why
should she help? No one had ever helped her when she was fifty; no, nor
when she was sixty either, nor seventy, nor eighty. People had to stand
on their own feet. She hated floppers.

"I took you for sixty," she said--"since we are being frank," she added,
observing that this was received with a certain shrinking.

"Sixty," repeated Fanny, forcing herself to say it. Sixty. If that were
what she looked like, was it to be wondered at that Dwight--?

She stared at the old lady, drawing her rings up and down her fingers.
"But why, then," she asked, after a moment, "did you think I belonged to
the Repertory Theatre? Would they take me if I were--" No, she
couldn't say that word again.

"I supposed you might do the duchesses. The elderly, women-of-the-world
duchesses. You could be got up quite well as one of them, except that
they usually have large busts. In fact, if your clothes weren't so
youthful and this room were a stage, you wouldn't be out of place at
all. As it is--"

"Well, you yourself suggested I should have tea," said Fanny. "I can't
go now till it has come. But while I'm waiting, won't we talk? Really
talk? I'd so much like, for once, to talk quite simply and honestly. One
can with strangers, I think. Do you mind? Who knows but what we each
might say something that would help the other one? You're older than I
am--that is," she interrupted herself, a horrid doubt seizing her,
because she was no longer sure of anything, "are you?"

"Of course I am," snapped the old lady, thrusting the absurd idea of
helping each other indignantly aside. "I'm eighty-three, and very glad
too. No more nonsense about me. Not that there ever was much. None of
that being pretty business, which you seem to have gone in for."

"I didn't go in for it. It went in for me. It began in my cradle, and
has stuck to me ever since--I mean," added Fanny, noticing derision on
the wrinkled face opposite, "till lately. Till quite lately. And do you
know what I'm beginning to realize? That it's a very dreadful thing to
have _been_ beautiful."

"Tut, tut," said the old lady, greatly irritated by this.

"Well, it is," persisted Fanny. "It's a very _dreadful_ thing."

"Tut, tut," said the old lady; and tartly advised her not to rate
herself too highly.

"Well, I don't," persisted Fanny.

"Tut tut," said the old lady; and told her that the women in the history
of the world who had had real beauty could be counted on the fingers of
one hand.

"Well, I was one of them," persisted Fanny; and the old lady, incensed
beyond speech, began drumming her fingers on the table.

"Is it possible you don't see _any_ traces?" asked Fanny, leaning
forward. "Not a _single_ one?"

The old lady jerked her head aside with a movement of exasperation,
refusing to look, and drummed harder than ever.

"But we're being frank," insisted Fanny. "You said we were being frank.
Do let us get rid of parlour ways, and say straight out what each
thinks. There's nobody I can talk to about this, except a
stranger--somebody I'll never see again. I shall go away, and you'll
die--well, of course you'll die," she added, seeing the old lady, in her
turn, received this with a certain shrinking, "and so will I, and I
might easily die first, and it seems a pity to waste a single minute of
the few we shall ever have together being conventional and ordinary."

"But suppose I prefer being conventional and ordinary? _Greatly_ prefer
it?" rapped out the old lady.

"Have you so much time to waste?" asked Farmy, her eyes widening.

The old lady took a moment or two to get over this. "Ah--you are hitting
back," she then said, liking it as little as Fanny had liked being taken
for sixty; for the longer she lived the more did the idea of leaving off
being alive annoy her--just as she had grown so thoroughly used to it,
and just as, having survived the whole of her family, she was at last
free from vexations. The security of undisturbed routine, the peace of
repetition, were what she was now appreciating. Certainly her days were
not eventful, but then she didn't want events; she had had them,--not
many, but enough. Now all she wanted was warmth, food, sleep, and
another day just like the one before.

These, she felt, were modest demands to make on life, and there could be
no real reason why they shouldn't be granted for many years to come. She
was perfectly sound in mind and limb; a little stout, perhaps, but
nothing to speak of; and short of falling down in a bathroom, as older
people seemed apt to do, and the possibility of which she had disposed
of by not going into bathrooms, she saw no reason why she shouldn't live
to be a hundred. Then why should this ill-bred person so uncivilly
suggest that she hadn't much time to waste? Frankness became rudeness
too easily for it ever to be of any real use in conversation.

The waiter came in with the tea. He seemed to linger longer than usual
arranging it on a table by the fire, but the intruder, taking no more
notice of him than if he had been a table himself, went on being frank,
and said: "You don't understand. I'm not dreaming of hitting anybody.
I'm just unhappy."

"Then you'd better have your tea while it's hot," tartly remarked the
old lady, so that the waiter should know there was at least one sensible
person in the room. She was irritated afresh by this ignoring of the
waiter. What would he think? He knew she had never met the woman before,
and what in the world would he make of such confidences? "_I am just
unhappy, indeed_," sniffed the old lady.

"If you are unhappy," she said, when he had gone, shutting the door very
slowly behind him as though wanting to hear more, "I dare say you have
only yourself to thank. And perhaps a little more of the conventionality
and ordinariness you appear to think is waste of time might improve your
general prospects."

"My general prospects! Heavens--my general prospects," repeated Fanny,
with a wry smile.

"Now don't tell me about them, because I don't want to know," the old
lady quickly intervened, holding up a prohibiting hand.

Fanny took off her hat, threw it on a sofa, and pushed her hair behind
her ears. She had a headache. She felt she was being a fool--another
fool, for had she not been one already, for months past, and an arch
one, over Dwight? Now she was being a fool again, supposing in her need
that she might be able to get the blood of comfort out of somebody who
was probably just a stone. "You don't _begin_ to understand," she said,
turning to the tea-things and pouring herself out a cup of very black
tea.

Without her hat, she seemed to the old lady a good deal less
questionable. It was quite possible, with it off, after all to see
traces of beauty; and there was a kind of undefeatable blamelessness
about her forehead, however meretricious she might be lower down, with
her darkened eyelashes and reddened mouth. Having had a sculptor for a
father, a knighted sculptor of the Victorian age, the old lady in her
youth had heard great talk of moulding and of bones, and was able to
recognize that the bones and moulding she now saw were undoubtedly what
her father and his friends would have thought highly of. The line of the
brow, for instance; and a peculiar graciousness, almost innocence, about
the temples.

Still, bones weren't everything, and didn't make up for her make-up--she
dwelt a moment, pleased, on this sentence, glad to find she retained her
early aptitude for turning a phrase. She had been the one of the family
with a sense of humour. Her father used to say so. "Maud," he used to
say, "you should send that to _Punch_." So that, though she might be
eighty-three in the years of her body, she was nothing like so much in
those of her mind; and after all, it was minds--wasn't it?--which kept
bodies alive.

"I understand perfectly," she said. "You're fifty, and you don't like
being fifty. You've lost your looks, and you don't like having lost
them. And you've got me penned in behind this table, and know that if I
did try to struggle out and go up to my bedroom I should be cold, so
that probably I'll stay here while you flood me with talk about
yourself, whether I want to hear it or not. I should say you were own
sister to the Ancient Mariner, and, like all egoists, a born detainer of
unwilling listeners." And down she slapped another card.

"That's the man," said Fanny, pausing in her pouring out, teapot in
hand. "That's the man I couldn't remember. After luncheon. When you
complained so much."

"I? Complained?"

"That's the man--the Ancient Mariner. It's why I went away--because you
were buttonholing me, just as he buttonholed somebody."

"I? Doing what?" exclaimed the old lady, her small, pursed-up mouth
opening into a circle of indignant repudiation.

"Well, detaining an unwilling listener, then," said Fanny with a smile.

"In my life I've never done such a thing," cried the old lady, stirred
to her marrow. "And if you imagine I would dream of trying to detain a
complete stranger, and a stranger, too, who--"

"It seems to me," said Fanny, filling her cup while the old lady's words
failed her, "that far from being complete strangers we've grown
extraordinarily intimate."

"If you mean by intimate, rude--"

"No. Frank."

"There isn't any difference."

"Yes, there is. Rude is personal. We're impersonal--Impersonally
truthful, because we're never going to see each other again."

"Then would it be frank or rude," smartly asked the old lady, "if my
answer to that were, what a mercy?"

"Anyhow, I'm sure it would be truthful," said Fanny, smiling again.

Smiling again; she who less than an hour before--

She picked up a piece of toast, and began to eat it, staring into the
fire. She forgot the old lady. She was back again in the garden of New
College, all but stumbling over the two pairs of flung-out feet....

"Going?" said the old lady, hopefully, for with a sudden movement she
had pushed her chair away from the fire.

"I'm hot," said Fanny; and so she was--tingling, smarting with heat, but
not from the fire.

"Ah--I thought you couldn't really be going," said the old lady, who for
a moment had perked up.

"I can't before the taxi comes. I ordered one to fetch me."

"And when will it?"

"Soon now, I think."

"Well, as I agree with you that we'll never see each other again, I'll
tell you one thing before you go--"

"Is it rude?"

"No. Frank. At least, you may take it which way you please. Now pray
listen. Though appearances are against you--"

"I wonder why you say that," interrupted Fanny. "Your and my appearances
aren't the same, but I don't see that either of them is against us.
We're in a different walk of life, that's all."

"A very different walk of life. Allow me to finish, please. Though
appearances are undoubtedly against you, as any clergyman or other
responsible person would tell you, you seem on the whole to have the
makings of an interesting personality. Or let us say, if interesting is
putting it too high, a personality."

"Yes," agreed Fanny, searching in her bag and finding and lighting a
cigarette. "Oh, I forgot," she said, throwing it into the fire, as the
old lady at once loudly choked. "Yes," she went on, her face serious.
"I've often thought something could have been made of me if I had been
taken in time."

"Your taxi is here, mum," said the waiter, opening the door.

"Well, perhaps not often," she corrected, reaching for her hat, "because
in my sort of life one doesn't think. But sometimes."

"Your sort of life?" repeated the old lady, her suspicions roused
afresh, and her compliment, she feared, premature. "Do you mean you
really are--?"

"Yes. Fifty," said Fanny, getting up and putting on her hat in front of
the glass over the fireplace with the minute care of habit, and just as
if hats still mattered.

"Fifty, fifty. I know all about your being fifty by now," said the old
lady pettishly.

"But I'm something else besides," said Fanny, tucking in a curl and
examining the effect, just as if curls still mattered. "I'm a fool."

"Well, you needn't tell me that either," the old lady assured her.

Ready to go, Fanny picked up her gloves. "And this very afternoon," she
finished, "since luncheon, actually since I last was in this room, I've
discovered there's no fool so complete as an elderly one."

"Ah, I _thought_ you'd had a set-back!" triumphed the old lady. "Now
don't tell me about it," she added quickly, holding up her hand,
"because you'd miss your train."

       *       *       *       *       *

There was only one stop before Paddington, and all the way up to Slough,
alone in her compartment, Fanny addressed herself to thought.

"I must think this out," she said to herself. "Everybody can't be
wrong."

A highly unpleasant business, to have to think anything out. She had
supposed herself full of courage and common sense, and had liked to take
it for granted that if occasion arose she wouldn't act less heroically
than her famous forebears; and now occasion, entirely absent till then
from her fortunate and padded life, had arisen, and it was in so sordid
and mean a form, and in other people's eyes so certainly silly, that it
seemed almost absurd to bring heroism to bear on it. What could be
sillier in other people's eyes than a woman kicking up a fuss because
she, too, in her turn, had grown old, and her beauty was gone? Yet what
could be more tragic for the woman who, having been used all her life to
being beautiful, found that without her looks she had nothing left to
fall back upon?

"That's what is wrong," she thought. "There _ought_ to be something to
fall back upon. Somebody ought to have told me about this in time."

But who? And would she have listened? Her friends, her relations, the
whole world, had been bent on helping her to be a fool. Jim Conderley
was perhaps the only one who might have got her to be something better;
as she had told the old lady, she had often thought there were at least
the makings in her, if properly dealt with, of something better. But Jim
was so hopelessly infatuated. All he could do was to worship, and quote
poetry. Certainly she had picked up quite a lot of poetry during his
era, and from that she argued she might have picked up other things, if
they had been brought to her notice in time. Nobody had brought anything
to her notice, except that she was beautiful; and she knew that.

"You've been seriously handicapped," she said, nodding at her reflection
in the window-pane.

Even her reflection looked old, she thought. Soon her very shadow, she
dared say, would begin to totter. When that happened, she really would
give in. Up to now, though, at least there had been nothing wrong with
her shadow, which remained, she was glad to say, a most elegant, slender
thing--and she leaned her head back on the cushions, with a faint laugh.
Often she had laughed at herself when she was in any sort of a quandary,
but never so faintly as now; and the sight of her hollow-cheeked
reflection, which she could see out of the corner of her eye in the
window-pane, quickly stopped it.

There was every excuse, though, she reasoned, for the hollow cheeks,
after such a day of blows following on a tormented and sleepless night.
Still, five years ago, even perhaps only a single year ago, no amount of
blows and sleeplessness would have prevented her reflection from shining
back at her with very nearly its usual loveliness. That horrid illness
had done all this. To be as ill as that on the verge of fifty was very
different from being as ill as that on the verge of thirty, and as she
would probably never now get back her beauty she had better think out
what had best be done with her boring, senseless future.

Oh, so boring; oh, so senseless. Should she go in for good works? Or
attend lectures? Or learn languages? Or interest herself in the European
situation? Bleak, bleak. But wasn't the alternative even more bleak,
indeed grisly, to dribble idly into old age by slow stages of increasing
depression and discontent, punctuated--what fun!--by things like
rheumatism and being deaf?

And she pictured herself turning gradually into her own caricature, an
unkind caricature--more than unkind, a highly malicious parody of what
she used to be--still going to parties because she couldn't bear to be
alone, and when she got to them hardly able to keep her eyes open, still
snatching at invitations and ordering new frocks; an old woman who would
be explained to the indifferent young ones as somebody who once was much
more beautiful than they could ever hope to be.

"Difficult as it is to imagine," she could hear the explainer saying,
"that old lady over there in the corner, Lady Frances Skeffington--yes,
the old lady with the stick, whose head won't keep still--used to be a
celebrated beauty."

Beauty; beauty. What was the good of beauty, once it was over? It left
nothing behind it but acid regrets, and no heart at all to start fresh.
Nearly everything else left something. Husbands, for instance, left, or
ought to leave children, and then one could be busy with them, and with
their children. It was, she felt, one of her most just grievances
against Job, that she was childless. At least, at that moment she felt
it was one of her most just grievances. Only that morning she had felt
the exact contrary--and been very glad, because of that little
difficulty about being dated. But now that she was apparently dated
anyhow by her face, now that she seemed to be stamped all over with
dates, while common little girls bursting out of yellow jumpers--

"Please, Fanny, don't be bitter."

       *       *       *       *       *

Here the train, by slowing down, interrupted her reflections, And
supposing it to be a non-stop express, she thought she had reached
Paddington, and got up and opened the window.

There, on the platform, waiting to get in, a sheaf of papers under his
arm, was Pontyfridd, and since nothing escaped him, he at once saw her
standing at the door of her carriage, and hurried towards it, waving his
stick.

"What luck!" he exclaimed a little breathlessly, when he arrived at
lived at the door.

"But I'm getting out," said Fanny, trying to.

"No, darling--I'm getting in," he said, stopping her.

"But it's Paddington."

"No, it's Slough."

Fanny was annoyed. Having had enough of everything for that day, she had
had quite particularly enough of George. Only with an effort had she
managed to recover from the things he had said or suggested on the
journey down, and now that she was exhausted by all that had been
happening to her, and was looking, she was very sure, worse than ever,
the last thing she wished to face were his twinkling, all-observing
eyes. Suppose, now that she was defenceless from fatigue, they should
bore through her face and see into her mind? And suppose what they saw
in it was Dwight? She could well imagine what George would think of her,
if he were to find out about Dwight.

She sat down, leaned back, and said briefly, "Oh."

"Tired?" he asked, putting up the window and settling himself opposite
her. George was the sort of man, thought Fanny, one should only be with
when one was at one's best. Then he wouldn't keep on saying, Tired?
Cold?--all the things with unpleasant implications.

"Yes. I am, rather," she answered, shutting her eyes. She couldn't be
bothered any more to cope with George. Let him look at her if he wanted
to. At least nothing obliged her to look at him.

The next thing she knew was that he had sat down beside her, and was
putting his arm round her shoulders. "There, there," he said
commiseratingly, drawing her close. "Poor little thing. Didn't enjoy
yourself much at Oxford, did you? Rest your little head on Cousin
George, and forget it."

This was nice. This was just what she had always longed for--to be able
to nestle up to a kind, protecting man, who wanted nothing of her but to
hold her close and safe against his heart.

She gave a small sigh of relief as she snuggled into his coat. Oxford.
No, she hadn't enjoyed Oxford--unless, she thought, able to smile a
little, so great was the comfort of his coat, it was that beef-steak
pudding. Everything that had happened after that had been so many blows
in the face. Perhaps what she really wanted, now that she was fifty and
so tired, was a cradle and a nurse--to come back comfortingly, at the
end, to what she had had at the beginning. Safety; protection; gentle
love; oh--sweet, sweet. And if the nurse could be a man, and the cradle
his strong, careful arms, so much the better.

"What you need is a husband, my lamb," said George, bending his head to
the small ear with the big jewel.

"No, no," protested Fanny into the coat. "Dreadful."

But it gratified her anxious, humiliated heart, her heart aching for
reassurance, to know there was at least one man who thought marriage
quite natural for her.

"I mean a husband you've had for years, darling, and got quite used to,"
said George, spoiling it. And he went on, spoiling it beyond repair:
"There's nothing like a husband, you know, at the tail-end of life."

Fanny was mute. George too, now, joining up with the others. Again she
told herself that everybody couldn't be wrong. The people she had seen
that day didn't know each other, had never met and discussed her
together, yet each made exactly the same sort of remark. Really was
there anything to be done, except hide her flushed face against George's
coat, and let desolation wash over her?

"You might be Byles," she murmured forlornly, after a moment.

"I might be who?" asked George, bending lower to catch what she was
saying, for it was difficult to hear a murmur in the rattling, rushing
train.

"Byles. The nerve man. This morning he said almost quite that. About
husbands, and--tail-ends."

"Do you mean Niggs's doctor? Then he's more sensible than I supposed. Of
course a husband is what little creatures like you need. By the way,
have you heard anything lately of the one you started with? The fellow
with the Biblical name--Esau, wasn't it? Or was it Israel?"

"It was Job," said Fanny, and pushed herself upright, out of his arm.

The mere name electrified her. She sat up straight and stiff and looked
at him, the cheek that had been pressing against his coat reddened, her
curl on that side disarranged.

Job, again. Job, even got into the train. Job, even issuing forth from
her kind cousin's lips.

"Job. Yes. So it was. What a name. Do you know anything about him?"

"What should I know?"

"He hasn't been cutting down your allowance, has he?"

"My allowance? I haven't got an allowance. He made settlements. But if I
had, why should he cut it down?"

"Well, I heard rumours that he's been under the weather a long time now.
Lost money. Kept on losing money."

She stared at him.

"Job losing money?" she asked, the pupils of her eyes quite dark with
astonishment. That Job should ever lose money, he who had so great a
gift for finding it, seemed miraculous.

"Oh, well--rumours, rumours. Mexico, or somewhere," said George vaguely,
not sure of his facts, leaning back with his hands in his pockets, now
that Fanny had withdrawn from his arm, and crossing his long legs. "You
know how rumours float round. And naturally I at once began wondering if
you, my love, were in any way affected."

"Nothing has happened to me. Nothing could."

"Oh, I dare say it's just talk. He seems to be back in England. After
years abroad. Well, darling, it's a relief, anyway, to know you're safe.
Never bothered you, has he, since you got rid of him? Played the game
decently, eh? He was very much in love with you, poor devil--God, how
much in love!" grinned George, as long-forgotten visions of Job, the
hardest-headed man of money in Europe, abject with adoration following
Fanny about at parties, never taking his eyes off her, flushing if she
threw him half a look, trembling when she came near him, emerged again
through the swamp of years. And he went on, after a moment: "Pity you
couldn't have forgiven him. He was a good chap, really. What do a few
little odds and ends of girls matter in a man's life in the long run?
And now you'd have had him to take care of you."

Fanny was incensed. "Thank you," she said, stiff as stone, "I can take
care of myself perfectly. And I'm _sick_," she added vehemently, "oh,
sick, sick of this talk of long runs."

Her hands gripped the bag lying in her lap, her eyes were bright with
indignation and revolt. What things she had had to listen to that day,
and was still having to listen to! The train, having lurched through
Ealing Broadway, was beginning to slow down, and Paddington was only a
few minutes away. George might well have left Job out of the talk for
this brief time together, and not thrust him back violently into her
mind just as she was getting home and hoping he wouldn't be there. All
day she had kept that wretched figment off, trying to believe that if
she didn't think of him he might let her alone when she got home, and
now here was George--George, of all people, who had been as much shocked
at her marriage as poor little Tripp--pushing him forward, telling her
he was a good chap, and ought to have been forgiven.

"Darling--" said George, surprised by her vehemence, and laying his
hand placatingly on hers.

But Fanny was too indignant to be placated. "There's not a pin to choose
between you and Byles," she cried, pulling her hand away; and the train
having drawn in to Paddington, before he could uncross his legs and
snatch his papers together, she had beckoned a porter to open the door
and was gone--had disappeared into the crowd, and wound her way among
the hindering groups on the platform with the quick light steps of
someone who is both thin and determined.

"Well, well," said George; and collected his papers at leisure.

       *       *       *       *       *

Going home in the taxi, Fanny, her head held as high and her eyes as
shining as they had been that morning when she left Sir Stilton's
consulting-room, defiantly decided that she wouldn't be browbeaten by
anybody into being sorry she hadn't forgiven Job, and that she wasn't
going to put up with his haunting pranks any longer. In Mexico, had he
been? He should have stayed there. She supposed he wouldn't or couldn't,
and persisted in hanging about her in Charles Street. She found him
there when she got home, then she would simply turn round and go to an
hotel.

She did find him there, and she did immediately turn round and go to an
hotel. Behind the footman who opened the door, behind the butler
presiding over the footman who opened the door, behind the curious
figure of Miss Cartwright hurrying out of her sitting-room, there he
was, lurking.

"Oh," she exclaimed, stopping dead, blinking as she came out of the
darkness into the bright light, "oh"--and stood a moment staring past
the others.

"Very well, then," she suddenly said, as though making up her mind,
"that settles it. I'll go to Claridge's. Miss Cartwright, will you
please tell Manby to bring round my things?"

And the taxi-driver who brought her from Paddington had hardly done
pocketing his money when there she was again, and he was taking her
somewhere else.

The footman, the butler, and Miss Cartwright looked at each other. Miss
Cartwright was not one, normally, to look at butlers and footmen, but on
this occasion a common perplexity levelled social distinctions.

_Very well, then, that settles it_. What, precisely, had these words
meant? And to which of the three had they been addressed? They none of
them had an idea.

"Strange," said Miss Cartwright.

The butler shook his head.

"Peculiar, I call it," said the footman, thinking to curry favour with
the butler.

And when, an hour later, Manby arrived at Claridge's, bearing the whole
elaborate paraphernalia without which Fanny couldn't be undressed at
night or dressed again in the morning, she found her flung down, just as
she was except for her hat, dead asleep across the bed.




IV


At Upswich, Lord Conderley's place in Suffolk, whither, on laying down
his various offices, he had retired with his rather young wife and quite
young children, the following week was blest by the sort of sunny
February weather which makes crocuses come out. A few days of frost,
with a great red sun dropping behind the low range of western hills each
late afternoon, and then a sudden veering of the wind to the south, and
out rushed the crocuses, and up rushed the larks.

Upswich was situated not far from Ipswich, which sometimes caused
confusion. It was, however, quite unlike Ipswich, being a single,
beautiful old house, in a spacious, beautiful old park; and Lord
Conderley, when the King raised him to the peerage, and he might choose
what name he liked, could think of nothing that pleased him better than
the one he had already, and therefore remained Conderley, while adding
Upswich.

Here at Upswich, being by now over seventy, he wrote his memoirs,
pottered in his rock-garden, observed the habits of birds, fished, and
rejoiced in a well-found library. He never knew a dull moment, because
directly moments threatened to be dull he went and talked to his rather
young, and entirely satisfactory, wife. And they talked pleasantly
together about their children, and their children's future; or he read
aloud to her, while she knitted.

The only drawback to marrying late in life--otherwise, he, considered,
so wholly admirable a thing for a man to do--was that by the time one's
children were grown up one would be too old to be of much, if any, use
to them. Of the age of grand-fathers, not fathers, one would be; or even
of great-grandfathers. When his boy, who was also his youngest child,
came of age, he himself, if still alive, would be over ninety--an age
for chimney-corners and a stick, rather than for guiding a possibly
impetuous young man by precept and example. Precepts, felt Lord
Conderley, when delivered in a voice that quavered, wouldn't be very
impressive, while as for example, how could a man be anything except
virtuous and a conscientious doer of his duty, when age had completely
freed him from temptation to be or do anything else?

Of these things, however, he said no word to his wife. They were the
single fly in his happy home ointment, and he wasn't going to trouble
her by letting her know how much, sometimes, he minded them.

She, a country-bred girl, of obscure but pleasant parentage, with four
brothers and two sisters, all most reliable, was of the very stuff, in
his opinion, good wives are made of--healthy, sweet-tempered, sensible,
simple, ready to learn, enjoying looking up to him, interesting herself
in all he did, not knowing any of his former friends, and liking to be
read aloud to. It was a great thing that she should like to be read
aloud to, because he so much liked reading aloud; and only sometimes on
a hot summer afternoon, if he read aloud in the garden, she would miss a
sentence or two because of having gone to sleep, or on a winter evening
by the fire, after an active day. Usually, however, she stayed awake.

They had been married nearly ten years, and he was meditating what
affectionate little surprise he could prepare for her for the
anniversary, when Fanny's letter arrived at breakfast. His wife didn't
know about Fanny. That frantic episode--frantic on his side, for never
had he so deeply loved, and not frantic at all on Fanny's, though highly
enjoyable and happy--had been over and done with for years by the time
he married, and he had seen no reason why it should be gone into, or
even mentioned. Fanny was enshrined in his memory as the nearest thing
to perfect loveliness he had ever known. She was also enshrined there as
a great promoter of ups and downs. During the three years she had been
his darling friend, he had become intimately acquainted with contrasts
of rapture and despair which he, a quiet man, of the gentle,
court-official type who in leisure moments reads the classics and is
never without a little volume of Horace in his pocket, hadn't supposed
existed. The exquisite creature, delightfully interested in the things
he told her were interesting, so eager to hear about them, so
appreciative, when he had pointed it out, of their beauty, had been the
most enchanting of companions besides the most adorable of beloved. For
three years no man could have been happier, nor any man more
miserable--miserable, because that very adaptability which had made her
walk into his life, his interests, and his heart with such ease, and
curl herself up in them so snugly, had kept him on tenterhooks lest she
should ever adapt herself equally easily to someone else. And so she
did, after a while, and of all people to that flashy fellow Edward
Montmorency, the last sort of man he would have imagined she could
endure. With the utmost sympathy and tenderness, and crying so much that
he found himself comforting her and wiping away her tears, she had
delicately shelved him; and he had been so seriously ill of it that he
had had to go away for six months on sick leave, and for years
afterwards wouldn't go anywhere, except to Court functions he couldn't
avoid, for fear, positively, that if by accident he were so close to her
that he had to say something and hear her speak, he might drop dead at
her feet.

These are not things one tells one's wife, of whom one is very fond, and
to whom one is very grateful, and with whom one is very happy. At his
wife's feet he had never even remotely considered the possibility of
dropping dead. He hardly knew she had any feet. She was that best sort
of woman for permanent purposes, the sort one stays comfortably alive
with. Affection and kindness were the basis of their pleasant
partnership. The short courtship had been affectionate, and the
honeymoon kind. Their life since then had been unchangingly affectionate
and kind. He had wanted a cheerful companion in his home, and had got
her. He had wanted children, and had got them. She wasn't, it is true,
particularly pretty, but being even now still only in the thirties had,
in his elderly eyes, the attractiveness of youth. And what elderly man
wants the bother of a very pretty wife? If she is very pretty, it only
leads to other men eyeing her with concupiscence.

Audrey provided no such danger; not only because she was pleasant and
healthy-looking rather than pretty, with her firm little round pink
cheeks and bright, small eyes, but also because of her quiet country
bringing-up and honest, solid character. Sure-footed and content, he
could trustfully enter on the last lap of his life; and when at
breakfast, about a week after Fanny's day in Oxford, he saw her
well-known handwriting among his letters--that handwriting which used to
make his heart beat with a violence that threatened to choke him--he had
so long been tranquilly happy in the state to which it had finally
pleased God to call him, that positively he felt nothing but a mild
surprise.

Fanny. What could she want? How odd that she should write.

Having read the letter, he wasn't perhaps quite so tranquilly happy.
Yet, what had changed? There, round his table, still sat his clean and
shining children--little Jim fastened into a high chair, with his nurse
next to him shovelling him up with porridge, and on the other side of
the table little Audrey his eldest, and little Joan, the middle one;
while at the end, opposite him, freshly soaped, and neat in her morning
frock, was his glossy wife, looking after everybody, joking with the
children, reading her letters, all at one and the same time.

The sun poured in, the room smelt good of breakfast, the lawn beyond the
windows was lively with crocuses, and everywhere in England, at that
moment, were breakfast-tables just like this one. No; not just like this
one, for only on Conderley's table lay a letter from Fanny, and it did
somehow seem to give his table, after he had read it, a different aspect
from the one it had before. No longer, somehow, was it so familiar and
so safely settled and jog-trot as breakfast yesterday had been, and the
day before that, and so on back to the first breakfast of his married
life. A query lay across it, like a small shadow; several queries. And
desiring not to think of them for a moment, he put the letter down and
fixed his attention on his surroundings.

What an untidy eater little Jim still was, he thought, noticing how much
of his porridge stayed outside his mouth instead of going inside it. And
then he noticed that his two daughters, who had a high-spirited habit of
asking riddles at meals, were laughing over them rather more noisily
than perhaps they should. And after that he noticed, with just the
slightest of starts, that his wife was looking at him.

"Anything wrong, Jim?" she asked brightly, having caught his eye.

"Wrong, dear?"

"I thought the letter you were reading seemed to worry you."

"Oh, that. Well, no--not worry, exactly. But it does rather bore me."

"Nurse, _none_ of that went down. Yes, Jim? Children, I wish you would
learn to laugh in your sleeves--think how nice and muffled it would be.
Yes, Jim?"

"Perhaps after breakfast," said Conderley vaguely, turning over his
other letters.

But after breakfast it wasn't any easier. They went arm in arm together
into the library, where she lit a cigarette and he a pipe, and then he
suggested, having pulled at it in silence, that they should take a turn
in the garden.

They took a turn. By this time his wife was definitely curious. "Well,
Jim?" she said at last as, still arm in arm, they paced the sunny
terrace beneath the south wall of the house, and still he said nothing.

He cleared his throat. She became every minute more curious.

"You remember hearing me speak of Fanny Skeffington?" he said, though
well knowing she couldn't remember, because he never had spoken of
her--such being the minor duplicities which sometimes entangle husbands.

"No," said Audrey. "I don't. Who is she?"

"Well, it's a long time ago, and I dare say you've forgotten. But as she
was one of my--of our set years ago, I'm fairly certain I must have
talked to you about her."

"No," said Audrey, positively. "You didn't."

"Well, it doesn't matter. But she wants to come here next week-end."

"What for?"

"To pay us a visit, dear, and to make friends, she says, with you."

"With me? Why?"

"My dear child, it would be as reasonable to ask why people ever want to
make friends with anybody."

"Do you want her to come?"

"No.

"Well then, say she can't."

"Wouldn't that be rather brutal?"

"I can think of a thousand excuses you could make, not one of them the
tiniest bit brutal. If you like, I'll write."

"I don't think that would be a good plan. She doesn't know you yet, and
though I hope she soon will--"

"Then you _do_ want her to come," Audrey interrupted.

"Did I not tell you that I do not?" he answered, his natural gentleness
a little ruffled.

"Then why do you say you hope she'll soon know me?"

"My dear, why does one ever say anything?" Conderley retorted, more
ruffled.

In silence they paced the length of the terrace. It was a good and
pleasant thing, he knew, to have a downright wife, and no wife could be
more appreciated than his, but there were occasions, or rather, say,
moments, so brief and fleeting were they, when a little more grasp, a
shade more imagination.... And she was thinking: "It's that Yorkshire
pudding. I oughtn't to have let him eat it at dinner last night."

Recovering, he presently said: "I haven't seen poor Fanny for years."

"Is she poor?"

"Not in the financial sense."

"In what sense, then?"

"I suppose in the sense in which we speak of all people getting older as
poor."

"Is she getting older?"

"My dear, what a question."

Yes; it was the Yorkshire pudding. He sounded quite cross, and that, she
knew, couldn't possibly be just Jim.

"I mean," she said cheerfully, for nobody can mind what is really
something one's husband has eaten, "is she quite old?"

"Well, it must be twenty years, or more, since last I saw her."

"Oh, then she must be _quite_ old," said Audrey, reassured and appeased.
She had somehow been supposing.... "Used you to call her Fanny?" she
went on.

"If you hadn't lived so entirely buried in your woods and fields, you
would have known that we all, in the sort of set I lived in, called each
other by our Christian names," he said; and again that pudding seemed to
be welling up into his voice.

"But, Jim did you actually call the--?" breathed Audrey, too much
awestruck, however, to pronounce the august word.

"My dear child--really," protested Conderley; this time plainly
altogether pudding.

In silence they paced the return length of the terrace. She was telling
herself she would never in future give him the indigestible stuff later
in the day than lunch; he was thinking, Why does she make everything so
difficult for me?

Then she said: "Did this Fanny somebody--"

"Skeffington. Fanny Skeffington. Lady Frances Skeffington," he
interposed, speaking quite loud, and with great distinctness.

"--Skeffington, then. Did she call you Jim?"

"My dear, haven't I just told you that we all called each other by our
Christian names? But now tell me, Audrey," he went on more gently,
himself at this point noticing how cross he sounded, and unpleasantly
surprised that merely a letter from Fanny should produce what amounted
to their first--well, not quarrel, but their not being as nice as usual
to each other--"tell me, Audrey, seeing that she is, as you say, quite
old"--for a moment he tried to picture Fanny quite old, but didn't
succeed--"and says in her letter--"

"May I see it?" Audrey interrupted, holding out her hand. He wasn't
prepared for this. It hadn't occurred to him that she might ask to see
the letter.

Embarrassed, he pretended to search his pockets. "I must have left it in
the library," he said, while, at the bottom of one of them, he was
holding it tight.

Now why did he do that? he wondered. There was nothing to hide, really,
in the letter. A few affectionate words, perhaps, which could easily
have been explained. What impulse, then, made him pretend he hadn't got
it?

He told himself he hadn't an idea; but he had, and he knew he had, and
the idea included the word desecration.

This took him aback. His wife, desecrating another woman's letter by
reading it--dear me, thought Conderley; dear me. And he began to think
that perhaps Fanny had better be put off.

"Tell me what she says, then," said Audrey.

"Something about having been ill, and that she has a great wish to see
her old friends once more--"

"Before she dies," put in Audrey; shocking him for the first time in
their life together.

There was a pause, during which he was mastering his real anger. He
wasn't cross this time, he was coldly angry. To talk with such levity,
such heartlessness, of Fanny's death, _Fanny's_ death, who had been all
that he had ever known of life--flaming, throbbing, torturing, exquisite
life, compared to which his and Audrey's existences were nothing but the
sleep of slugs ... Certainly, then she should come. Certainly he wasn't
going to put off the visit of one who had once been so dear to him for
the sake of someone who wasn't dear to him at all. No; positively for a
moment his wife, the good and devoted Audrey, mother of his children,
faithful companion of his leisure, tireless minister to his comfort,
wasn't dear to him at all.

"There's really no question about the answer," he said, directly he was
able to speak quietly. "I shall write and say we shall both be
delighted."

"Which of course won't be in the least true," said Audrey, going on
being annoyingly honest. "I shan't be delighted at all--that is," she
said, taking his arm again, which he had withdrawn, "unless you are.
Shall you be? I can't quite make out."

She looked up at him affectionately. She hadn't an idea. She had angered
him. She was very much at home with the image of him she had built up in
her heart, encouraged by his gentle friendliness.

"My dear Audrey," he said, still very cold, his limp arm giving no sort
of encouragement to the warm pressure of hers, "there's such a thing as
kindness and courtesy to one's old friends."

"Yes, I know," she said, holding his arm close to her side, "and you
shall do whatever you think right, and I promise to be the perfect
hostess. But you'll have to explain her thoroughly before she comes, or
I shan't know where I am."

"There'll be plenty of time for that," said Conderley, releasing himself
and looking at his watch. "I have an appointment at ten with Jackson,"
he added suddenly; and without another word, filling his pipe as he
went, walked off in the direction of the greenhouses.

       *       *       *       *       *

By the time Fanny arrived on the following Saturday afternoon--it was to
be the shortest form of week-end--Audrey knew everything about her that
she was to know; not all that there was to know, but all that she was to
know; and Conderley, calm again, and much surprised that he should have
been so angry, had amply reflected on the extent to which the wife of
one's bosom is really shut out of it. She knew who Fanny's father was,
she knew her only brother had been killed in the war, she knew she had
married a Jew--"How could she?" inquired Audrey--she knew she had been
divorced--

"No, _she_ divorced him," Conderley corrected.

"It's the same thing."

"Indeed, no. You must really get it right."

--and finally she knew, having looked it up in Debrett, that she would
be fifty next month, on the twelfth of March; she knew no more. Lady
Frances had never married again, Conderley told her, who, without the
least intending it, gave the impression that since parting from her
husband Fanny had lived an austere single life, suggesting vestal
virgins to Audrey, in Charles Street, taken care of by a devoted maid,
who would no doubt end in the columns of _The Times_, under the heading
Faithful Service.

"Poor thing," said Audrey with a happy little sigh, slipping her hand in
his. "And no children, either. It all sounds so miserable."

What interested her most, though, was the divorce. She couldn't leave
off talking about it. She harped. And when at last he remonstrated with
her for this persistence, she explained she had never yet consciously
met a _divorcée_, let alone had to entertain one, and felt as if it were
going to be rather a landmark in her life.

"_He_ was the _divorcé_," corrected Conderley, patiently.

"It's the same thing," said Audrey, who seemed incapable of
discriminating between guilty and innocent parties. "Divorce, after all,
is divorce, you know, Jim." And she would look at him as though inviting
him to deny it if he could, and he would take up _The Times_, and bury
himself.

Presently, still harping, she would say: "The Queen--" by whom she
meant Victoria--"refused to receive people at Court, mother said,
whichever party they were, guilty or innocent."

And again, a little later, he meanwhile remaining buried: "There's no
smoke without fire, you know, Jim."

And again, after a further interval, during which he stayed steadily
buried: "You can't touch pitch without being defiled, you know, Jim."

"Oh, _God_," Conderley said to himself, in sudden stress of spirit. It
was many years since he had said Oh, God.

       *       *       *       *       *

They were both on the doorstep when Fanny arrived. Audrey had taken
great pains with the rooms, filling them with country flowers like
crocuses and snowdrops, and the best linen, and the sorts of books she
thought someone lately ill and regaining strength might find
invigorating, like _Walks in Rome_. Bright fires were everywhere. Tea
was ready in the hall. Up to the last moment Conderley buried himself in
_The Times_, and only when the car could be heard actually stopping did
he hastily throw it down, and go out with his wife on to the steps.

He quite painfully minded, now that the moment had come, meeting Fanny,
and resented that Audrey, as they stood together on the steps, should
put her arm through his. He did belong to her. Nobody disputed it. So
why this open possessiveness?

But he was doing her an injustice, for she was merely very shy, and
instinctively clung to him. Also, Manby, who got out first, was mistaken
by her for Fanny. "Why, Jim--how _old_," she whispered. "What a _bad_
fifty"--and this made her more shy, when she discovered her mistake,
besides annoying him, he felt, quite disproportionately.

But here was Fanny herself, bending her head so as not to knock it
against the frame of the door. He went to help her, and holding her hand
as she emerged, they saw each other close for the first time since the
heart-breaking afternoon twenty years before, when he had assisted in
wiping away her good-bye tears.

"Oh, _poor_ Jim," thought Fanny--hesitating, not quite sure, yet only
too sure, and distressed for him that he should be so stooping and so
grey.

"My God, poor Fanny," thought Conderley, shocked.

For she was much made up. No woman will go to a meeting with one who has
long and deeply loved her without taking pains to look her best. Fanny
had taken pains, and to Conderley, used now for years to living in the
country among weather-beaten, tweed-skirted women, with a wife who did
nothing to her face beyond washing it, she looked definitely improper.
Her thinness made it worse. To have hollow cheeks was sad enough, but to
paint them was to turn sadness into tragedy.

_Noble, lovely, little Fanny_....

Faintly down the years, like a small, wheezy tune on an old musical-box,
drifted the words. He bent over her hand so as to hide what he was
feeling, and she, seeing him from this angle, couldn't but notice how
very scanty his hair was on the top. In fact, hardly there at all.

"Alas, poor Jim,". she thought, wishing she hadn't come.

"Alas, poor Fanny," he thought, wishing to goodness that he hadn't let
her. And what was so curious was that neither had any real idea how each
appeared to the other.

She was the first to say something. "This is wonderful, meeting again.
Dear Jim, I can't tell you how glad I am," she said, trying to persuade
herself that she knew this strange old man really very well.

But he, helping her up the steps, his hand under her elbow--it felt the
thinnest little pointed thing, in his palm--still for a moment didn't
speak. Then he said, breathing rather hard, for it had long been
difficult for him to go up steps and talk at the same time, "I only wish
you had had such a good idea sooner."

Did he mean before she left off being young, or before he grew so old?
No, he was simply polite. She could see that, by the courteous bend of
his head towards her, and the kindliness of his tired eyes.

"Poor Jim--dreadful to have such tired eyes," she thought, quickly
looking away and forgetting that she had them herself.

"What a marvellous old house," she exclaimed, gazing up with great
appreciation at its mellowness. "Oh--and is this Audrey?"

Audrey, coming forward with welcoming smiles, at once decided, in spite
of never having seen one, that Fanny was every inch a _divorcée_, and
was glad there weren't any other visitors. This was no guest, she felt,
to show a bishop. She wondered what mother would have said. But she did
realize, she who knew nothing about so-called smart women except from
pictures, very queer ones, sometimes, in the _Tatler_, that probably
other smart women would have noticed nothing out of the way. Jim hadn't
mentioned this aspect of their guest. In spite of that, however, she
immediately recognized the type, and became shyer than ever.

"I'm sure you are longing for tea," was all she could think of to say,
in return for Fanny's affectionate greeting and kiss.

"I might easily have been your mother, you know," Fanny smiled,
explaining the kiss.

Conderley thought the remark unfortunate.

"Shall we go in and have tea?" said Audrey, still unable to think of
something to say, and therefore harping, said Conderley to himself,
annoyed, since apparently harp she must, on tea this time. And here he
realized, with a shock, that the minute Fanny appeared on the scene,
whether actually, or in a letter, or in conversation, he became annoyed
with Audrey.

She led the way, but sideways, into the hall. Not only did she suddenly
feel extremely young--on the whole rather pleasant, that--but having
absorbed in one lightning, all-comprehending glance everything Fanny had
on, she was aware that she, Audrey, didn't know how to dress. This
depressed her, because she had always so firmly supposed she did; and it
was why she went into the hall sideways, hoping Fanny wouldn't, perhaps,
that way see quite so much of her at once.

Now where, though, was the difference? she puzzled. They were both in
country clothes. Difficult to say in what way hers were different from
Fanny's, but different they were--as different as their faces, thought
Audrey, who had also immediately recognized that underneath her guest's
make-up, and in spite of hollows, there still were the lovely lines of
something she herself had never had. She herself had never been anything
more than a nice, fresh little thing--oh, she knew it, and had always
thought it so wonderful of her Jim to want to marry her; so that what
with the difference in their clothes and the difference in their faces,
she became entangled in an inferiority complex, and found it almost
impossible to utter a word.

Fanny, however, was just the right person to deal with shyness. Herself
completely unselfconscious, because of never having had to trouble about
the impression she might be making, she was free to throw herself into
the feelings of others, and it was one of her chief charms, as well as
one of the chief dangers for those others, the whole-hearted way she did
it. One would have thought, watching her talk to somebody, that the
person she was talking to was the single person in the world she wanted
to be with. Audrey had no need to do more than pour out the tea; Fanny,
who knew embarrassment when she saw it as well as any woman, did all the
rest, till such time as her small hostess should have recovered. Had
Jim, she wondered, thought it necessary to tell his wife about her? If
he had, then all the more reason for quickly making friends. But anyhow,
the little primrosy effect of Audrey appealed to her, and from her heart
she, who never in her life had been jealous or possessive, but always
eager that people she cared for should know and like other people she
cared for and be happy with them, was glad poor Jim should have found
such a snug haven to come to anchor in.

     _And so from year to year their tittle boat_
     _Lies in its harbour, rocking peacefully--_

"Jim," she said, turning to him, who sat silent, his bony fingers
clasped round his cup as though to warm them, "the minute I see you I
think of lovely things like poetry."

"Do you, Fanny?" he said, flushing. "How very charming of you.

"And just then, seeing you and Audrey so cosy and happy
together"--Audrey's pink cheeks turned pinker, she liked this so
much--"something you used to quote--"

"Did he quote even in those days?" asked Audrey, peeping out, as it
were, for an instant round the door of her shyness.

"I believe he came into the world quoting," smiled Fanny, as she
stretched across to the sandwiches and took one--nice not to have to
bother about offering things, thought Audrey. "But seeing you and Audrey
reminded me of that bit about the little boat and the harbour.
Wordsworth, wasn't it?" And she remembered, with a kind of shocked
inward laughter, being now with Jim again, the irreverent Edward's name
for the great man. Fish Face, Edward had called him. Old Fish Face.
Dreadful. Yet, even now, it made her want to giggle.

The tactful Fanny knew she had only to start on poetry to make Jim
happy--unless, that is, his poor dear mind had gone bald as his poor
dear head. Evidently, though, it hadn't, for he left off nursing his
cup, got up with an alacrity he hadn't yet shown, went out of the room,
and came back immediately--"Thank goodness," thought Audrey, who had
been appalled by his departure--with a fat volume. "Here it is," he
said, finding the place and pointing. His finger, very knuckly and
discoloured, shook.

"Do read it aloud," said Fanny, lighting a cigarette--nice, thought
Audrey, not to have to bother about suggesting things.

She leaned back in her chair. Audrey relaxed enough to be able to lean
back in hers. Jim had an attractive voice, and read well. What a
resource it was, Fanny thought, this reading aloud. No need to say a
word; no need to do anything with one's weary, worried mind except let
it idly wander. In that way, reading aloud was much better than chess,
she decided, because not only had you to concentrate when you played
chess, but compared to being read aloud to it was quite chatty, with its
checks and its mates. Perry--she was thinking of Sir Peregrine Lanks,
K.C., who was the one who came after Edward and ended by being tired and
patient--had taught her chess, had insisted on teaching her chess, not
being interested in this other resource of those who no longer have much
to say to each other; and she had learned, though unwillingly, because
after the first week or two of his devotion, she had somehow got the
idea that though he obviously violently adored her he yet was inclined
to suspect she was a goose. If she could play chess well, admittedly a
game for the intelligent, mightn't he perhaps think she had brains?
Accordingly, she secretly went to a chess-expert--a Russian her
secretary had somehow discovered for her--and took lessons. Every
morning off she went with Manby in attendance, and for a time Lanks was
astounded by the progress she made. She seemed to pick it up by
instinct, he said. He was positively excited and said he had never known
such aptitude. "There's nothing you can't do, you adorable Fanny," he
cried one day, enchanted when she had managed to nip off his queen.

Then the expert took to helping her move her knights in the way they
should go by laying his hand over hers, and also whenever he had
occasion, which was frequently, to say Mate, he began to coo. "Mate," he
would coo rather than say, looking at her with melting meaning.
"Ah--mate," he would coo again, sighing; while Manby, very genteel and
self-effacing in a corner, appeared to be studying a Russian newspaper.

She gave up the lessons; her progress came to a dead stop; and Lanks,
after a period of increasingly impatient surprise, returned, she was
afraid, to his original suspicion.

All this Fanny idly remembered as with her ears, but not her mind, she
listened to Conderley's attractive voice. She didn't look at him, as she
easily might have done now that his eyes were on the book, because she
had much rather not. It seemed almost indecent to look at somebody whom
age had so much uncovered. Let her listen to his voice, which, like his
handwriting, was still unchanged. And the wood fire leaped and crackled,
and the room smelt sweet of spring flowers, and out in the garden, where
thrushes were singing in the dusk, some children presently ran by,
chattering and laughing, and by the way Audrey half got up and then sat
down again, and by the quick transformation on her face from respectful
attention to real interest, Fanny knew they must be his and hers.

Had she done well, she asked herself in doubt, her heart sinking a
little, to come here? Could it really help her to see all the things she
had missed, to see how happy everybody else was, how secure, and safely,
as it were, tucked up for the night? The night couldn't be very far from
poor Jim now, that night on which she had lately, since her illness,
begun to ponder in regard to herself; but there was nothing for him to
mind about it, with this devoted little wife to see him through.

She, Fanny, when it came to be her turn, would have to look to Manby.

       *       *       *       *       *

It wasn't till the evening, after dinner, that she found herself for a
few minutes alone with Conderley. Audrey had gone to kiss the children
in their cots, a rite she performed regularly, and in the library
Conderley and Fanny were for the first time by themselves.

At once they both began to feel uncomfortable. Was this, then, thought
Fanny, the way friendship ended, in feeling uncomfortable? It oughtn't
to. It mustn't. She was sure it was all wrong that it should. But the
real difficulty was that she couldn't believe this strange old man,
drooping against the chimney-piece while he filled his pipe, was anybody
she had ever known intimately.

"Do you mind a pipe?" he asked, pausing in its filling.

"You know I don't," she said; for how often, liking the smell, had she
not encouraged that pipe?

But he didn't know. He had forgotten small things like that. He only
remembered that there had been anguish. She remembered all the small
things. Besides, for her there had been no anguish.

Her voice, though, thought Conderley, was still exactly the same. If he
didn't look at her, it was just as though his lost Fanny were there,
close to him again, in the low chair by the little table with violets on
it. Audrey's little table; Audrey's violets; but, when he didn't look at
her, his Fanny. He had better, then, look at her. There was neither
honour nor profit to be got from shutting his eyes and listening to that
darling--no, that once darling--voice.

She, for her part, was meanwhile saying to herself, "This is nonsense,
two such old friends being shy of each other. I, anyhow, intend to be
natural--" and immediately began being natural by saying, "Jim, have I
changed much?"

He was startled enough to drop his tobacco-pouch. "Changed, Fanny? In
what way?" he asked, rather laboriously picking it up again. For a long
time now he hadn't been able to pick up things very easily.

"You know in what way. Is it--please tell me honestly, Jim--is it
_much_?" And she went on, fighting against the contagiousness of his
embarrassment, and trying hard to be perfectly comfortable and easy with
him, "You've no idea how difficult it is really to see oneself as other
people see one. One gets used to one's face, looking at it so often in
the glass. If I could just get an occasional surprise view of it--"

"Well, but you mustn't forget you were still almost a girl when I--when
we were friends," he said. "Of course since then you've grown up."

"George Pontyfridd told me the other day that I hadn't. At least, he
said I was taking a long time over it. But he didn't mean physically. At
first I thought he did, but on thinking it over I believe he meant my
mind, or my imagination, or sympathy, or something."

"Well, but women do seem to retain a certain childlike quality--"
began Conderley sententiously, wishing Audrey would come back.

"You mean, they go on being idiots," smiled Fanny. And as he made no
answer beyond a deprecating shake of the head, she added, "If I had said
that to Perry--"

"Perry?"

"Peregrine Lanks. You know."

Conderley gravely nodded. He did know. He knew that after that fellow
Montmorency--well, what did it matter now?

"If I had said that to Perry," she went on, "about women going on being
idiots, he would have told me that I took the words out of his mouth.
But you are kinder, Jim, and--" she had been going to say "less
quick", but stopped.

"Lanks has had a remarkable career," said Conderley, lighting his pipe
and doing his best to keep the conversation off personalities. "He
refused the Home Secretaryship because he didn't want to give up the
enormous fortune he was making at the Bar."

"I know. Wonderful. But do we want to talk about him? You'll be talking
about Hitler next."

"And why not? He is rather terrifyingly important at this moment."

Fanny sighed. "Oh, my dear Jim--the European situation. Even you," she
said. "All right. Go on, then." And she too wished Audrey would come
back.

"But it is, without any doubt, the most interesting subject just now
that there is," said Conderley, doing something to his pipe, which
wouldn't draw.

"Then you _do_ think I've changed?" she said quickly.

He looked at her a moment, not seeing the connection. "Please,
Fanny--" he then begged, adding, "haven't I changed too?"

"Oh--men. And you used to say--"

"Please, Fanny--" he begged again.

"Well, but you did," she persisted. "When I told you all you cared about
was my being so pretty, you used to say that it was my soul you loved.
Did you love it? Because I've still got that self-same soul, you know,
whatever I may look like outside."

"Perhaps we shouldn't remind each other of what we used to say," he
suggested, uncomfortably.

"I don't think _I_ said much, did I?"

"Perhaps because you didn't feel much."

"Oh, Jim--and I who was so devoted to you, and for such years!" she
protested.

"Shall I tell you what I really think?" he said, earnestly desiring to
steer the conversation away from whatever it was heading for.

"I wish you would," she answered, bracing herself.

"That you are, always were, and always will be, the most charming woman
in the world." And he made her a ceremonious, quite Buckingham Palace
and Windsor bow.

She dropped back into the cushions again. It put continents between
them, centuries, this speech and bow.

"That sounds very hollow," she said at last, mournfully. "I didn't
realize that we're nothing but acquaintances now."

"Before we go into that," he said, looking at her, "you must tell me
what you mean by acquaintances."

He must look at her. Indeed, he went and turned on more lights, all the
lights, till the room blazed. If he didn't see her and just heard her
voice, it made him get too near aching. He hadn't supposed he would ever
ache again, ache with longing after even the very miseries of his
younger years; but then Fanny had always had a voice that twisted his
heart, and unfortunately she still had it. Therefore let him look at
her--look at at her, and be shocked. Better, any day, for a married man
to be shocked than to ache. And why on earth didn't Audrey come back?

"Oh, just that," she said listlessly. "Acquaintances. Paying
compliments. Making pretty speeches. All the things that people begin
with. I didn't know they ended with them too."

"Please, Fanny--" he begged once more.

And then they were silent; and both wished Audrey would come back.

       *       *       *       *       *

When at last she did, wondering, as she opened the door, at the bright
light, she thought at first there was nobody in the room, it was so
quiet. Then seeing them still there, each buried in an enormous chair
and neither saying a word, she couldn't make it out.

They seemed, however, genuinely pleased to see her. Fanny sat up quite
briskly, smiled affectionately, and asked her about the children. Jim
brought her a chair, brought her a cushion, was assiduous--actually
fetching her work-bag with her knitting.

She was much surprised. Usually it was she who was assiduous, not the
other way round; and very rightly too, thought Audrey stoutly, who never
for a moment had doubted that her Jim was yards above her in every way,
and had done a most kind act, marrying her.

It is a useful conviction for a wife to have; it considerably encourages
harmony in the home. Conderley, aware of it, for it was made evident in
a thousand ways every day, found it touching and rather unaccountable,
seeing how much older he was than she, and how enormously much older he
was going to be, compared to her, ten years' time. In ten years' time he
would be an old dodderer of over eighty, and she would still be only in
the forties--that most vigorous time of life, as he well remembered.
Therefore, aware of how soon she was going to find herself married to a
very old man, he did his best to be kind to the good little thing while
he still had some vitality in him, and knowing that the last few days he
had been cross and inclined to snap, and all, somehow, because of Fanny,
he now began to perform actions symbolic of penitence, and fetched her
work-bag.

"Aren't you well, Jim?" she asked after a moment, anxiously. Fetching
things for her. Besides, the silence of the room when she came in....

"Perfectly, dear. Why?"

"I thought--oh, I don't know, I just thought," said Audrey, bending her
head over her work-bag, and relapsing into shyness.

       *       *       *       *       *

On Sunday they went to church. Fanny didn't go, because of being a Jew.

"But she isn't a Jew," protested Audrey to her husband, while at the
same time feeling rather relieved that the Vicar wouldn't see her.

"In religion she is," said Conderley, briefly. He didn't want to talk
about Fanny. Audrey, on the other hand, wanted to talk about her all the
time.

In religion Fanny certainly still was a Jew, not having bothered to
change back again on divorcing Job. True, she hadn't liked being turned
into a Jew just so as to be able to marry a rich man, but when she had
the chance of returning to the faith of her fathers she didn't take it.
What was the good of once more embracing--she believed that was the
proper word--a faith that had never been particularly--she believed
this was the proper word--lively? Such faith as she had was very
easy-going; it was the simple faith of the outstandingly fortunate. We
are all God's children, and there you are--this, if Fanny had been
pressed, would have been her probable declaration.

Conderley, a strict observer of the rites of his Church, even at his
most infatuated moments suspected her of being, really, a pagan, and
Perry Lanks was convinced, and told her so, that she was nothing but an
irresponsible hedonist.

She didn't mind what they said. She only laughed. In those days she was
too busy being beautiful ever to think. Life rushed her along at
breathless speed from one excitement to another, the War, and her work
during it in France, being the greatest excitement of them all.

"You'd be incredibly perfect, if only you _knew_ something--or at least
could imagine," Perry Lanks had said one day, exasperated by constant
mental frustration.

"I've got no time."

"Time, indeed! You've got all the time there is--the same time as the
rest of us. But the trouble with you, Fanny, is that you don't know and
aren't able to imagine _anything_."

"Then teach me."

"I can't, because you don't even begin to guess that there's anything to
know. While as for imagination--"

And he flung up his hands.

On six days, then, Fanny laboured and did all that she had to do, never
giving her religious status a thought, but on the seventh she remembered
it, and rested comfortably in bed. Not for her, that being gathered
beneath a hostess's wing and gently shoo'd, in procession, to the family
pew in a musty village church. Pleasantly she would loiter in her
bedroom till luncheon; or, should there be anybody particularly
attractive in the party, would meet him by arrangement made the evening
before, and explore the gardens and greenhouses, in spite of knowing she
would have to explore them all over again later in the day with her
host--but then, as she told herself, setting off gaily on the first of
these rounds, you can't have everything.

Now, however, perhaps for the first time in her life during a week-end
in the country, there was no party, and from the look of things she
didn't think the Conderleys ever had one. If she had married Jim--how
often had he implored her to fancy; poor old Jim--she supposed the
beautiful William and Mary house would have rocked with parties, for in
those days they seemed to collect about her. Wherever she went, there at
once sprang up a party. How much happier for poor Jim was it to have
married Audrey; how infinitely lucky he was to have got Audrey instead
of herself--that nice, smooth little wife, years younger than he was,
yet content to live the life liked by a man years older. And Audrey too
was lucky, for marrying him she had been rescued from some clergyman.
Everything about Audrey suggested, to Fanny, pews. She could see her
being devout in pews, and attentive at the feet of pulpits. Besides,
passion, Fanny was sure, was a thoroughly bad basis for marriage. Jim,
married to her, would have been a frazzle of nerves, and intolerably
jealous and suspicious.

No, she was best by herself. She was glad she hadn't married any of
them. But it was going to be lonely, it was going to be difficult to
bear the increasing loneliness. She ought really, she supposed, to get
into touch with old women, and find out what they did with themselves at
the tail-end, as George had said, of their lives, but the thought of
other old women filled her with nausea. Besides, she had been in touch
with one the week before at Oxford, and had merely got rapped over the
knuckles.

Well, anyhow, she had had a wonderful time, she told herself, trying to
be grateful, and now, she supposed, must start paying for it. After
fifty, the bills were bound to begin coming in. But in an empty present,
how difficult to be grateful for even the fullest, most delightful past.
It was like, when you were hungry, trying to get satisfaction out of all
your past good dinners; and that Sunday at Upswich, Fanny, whose spirits
usually rose on fine mornings, was quite surprised, and almost hurt, to
find this image of eaten-and-done-with good dinners should afflict her
to the point of depression.

She would go out, and walk in the sun. She would be sensible, and shake
herself free of melancholy; or, if she couldn't shake herself free of
it, at least rejoice that being an unattached woman she could be as
melancholy as she liked in peace, without involving a husband or
children in her ill humour--helpless persons who couldn't get away, and
were bound to suffer when the wife or mother had a fit of the glooms.
Yes, she would go for a brisk walk, and plan what to say to Jim next
time she got him, as she was determined to get him, alone. Last night
their talk had been a wretched business; the talk she was going to have
before the day was over should be really natural, really sensible,
really helpful. She needed a true friend's advice so badly. Who could
give it better than one of her oldest, and certainly for three years
quite one of her dearest, friends?

Therefore, when she judged the church-goers to be well embarked on their
prayers, she called for her thick shoes and knitted cap, and set out
across the crocuses to have a look at those gardens and that park which
might, for so many years now, if she had chosen, have been hers; and
walking through them under the mild February sun, in the peculiar quiet
of English country on a Sunday morning, she soon, not yet having got out
of the habit of happiness, felt better. By nature a quick rejoicer, it
needed many and continuous blows to down Fanny. A prolonged succession
of them had not yet been her fate--the day she went to Oxford, perhaps,
having provided the nearest approach to it she had, up to then, been
called on to endure; and she appeared at luncheon restored and cheerful,
and very glad to find the children, whom she had not yet seen, were to
lunch with them too.

These children were all quite plain, and infinitely lively. She wondered
what sorts of faces they would have had if she had been their mother.
That, of course, she thought, looking round at them, and at Audrey's
pleased, purring expression, and at Jim's obvious pride in his boy, was
the real solid foundation and promise of happiness in marriage--the
children. And this was why it should be entered upon in the spirit
recommended in the Prayer Book, not lightly or wantonly, but reverently,
discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God--the very
opposite of the spirit in which love affairs were embarked upon.

Evidently, she said to herself, the Conderleylets were brought up to be
entirely fearless, for little Audrey, sitting opposite her, asked her
father in a loud whisper whether he didn't think the beautiful lady was
the beautifullest he had ever seen, and just like pantomimes; and little
Joan, on her other side, invited her, with high-spirited irrelevance--at
least Fanny, who had kept on her knitted cap, hoped it was
irrelevance--to tell her the difference between a young maid and an old
one, triumphantly explaining--

"Yes, I know that. I was brought up on it," Fanny tried to interrupt.

--triumphantly explaining, and refusing to be put out of her stride,
that one was happy and careless, and the other cappy and hairless; and
little Jim, catching at these suggestions, pointed his spoon at her head
and cried--"Cappy!"--at which his sisters rocked with laughter, and he,
encouraged, pointed his spoon again, and cried "Crocus hair!" and then
laughed loudest of anybody, bouncing up and down in his high chair.

"I think, dear," Conderley mildly addressed his wife, as soon as he
could be heard, "we are perhaps allowing the children to get a little
out of hand."

"It's because of having been to church," explained Audrey, embarrassed
yet proud--for surely it was highly intelligent of them, the way they
were saying what the Bishop and her mother, if they had been there,
would, roughly, have been, thinking?

Fanny was delighted by her explanation. What fun if everybody came out
of church in such tearing spirits. She instantly had visions of vergers
turning Catherine-wheels down the path, headed by high-stepping curates,
followed by a congregation intoxicated by reaction. And never having had
cause in her life to be afraid of personal remarks, she took what the
children said as so many compliments, except that she rather wished they
would keep off her hair. She was sensitive about that since her illness,
and not quite sure whether Antoine had got the colour right. He _said_
it was exactly the original colour; but if it was, it didn't seem to go
quite so well with her face as it used to. Certainly if it made little
Jim think of the yellow crocuses on the lawn, Antoine had got it
seriously wrong. She would see him about it the first thing, when she
got back on Monday.

"I expect you would like to rest a little in our room," said Audrey,
after coffee had been drunk and the children had gone off with their
nurse. She still was shy, but not nearly so shy. It wasn't really
possible to be shy for long with Fanny, usually"--she turned
pinker--"read with the children for an hour after lunch on Sundays."

"Does it have the same effect on them as church?" asked Fanny hopefully.
"Because if it does, please may I come and listen?"

"They weren't very good to-day, I'm afraid," apologized Audrey.

"I think, perhaps, dear, they need a little more training," said
Conderley mildly.

"I do try," said Audrey; and something in the way she said this,
something simple and humble, made Fanny stoop quickly and kiss her.

"Darling," she said.

Audrey blushed her pinkest. She liked Fanny so much, yet felt it was
somehow not quite right to like her. Also, in her family they didn't say
darling. Dear was as far as they got in expressions of affection; and
she and Jim, who certainly loved each other as much as two people could,
said dear too. Only once had he called her dearest--the day little Jim
was born; but of course that was a special occasion. So that, though she
was pleased when Fanny said darling, she was uncomfortable as well, for
ought someone who was really quite a stranger to use such a strong word?

As for Conderley, he looked on in silence, filling his pipe, and what
his thoughts were he would have been hard put to it to tell. Perhaps one
of them was relief that next day would be Monday, and perhaps another
was that old age had much to be said for it. In a few years now he would
hardly feel anything any more, or mind anything any more, or want
anything any more. Very like death? Maybe, thought Conderley, pressing
down the tobacco with his thumb; but what peace.

Peace, however, was still a good way off really for him, because the
moment was at hand, as he well knew, when the host proposes a little
walk, and takes the guest round the greenhouses. Fanny hadn't said
anything to Audrey's suggestion about going up to her room and resting a
little, so there was nothing for it but at least to offer her the
greenhouses.

He fervently hoped she would refuse them. That ten minutes alone
together after dinner the evening before had been patently distressing
to them both, and she couldn't possibly wish for a longer repetition of
it. If she went upstairs like a good girl, and didn't appear again till
tea, three-quarters of the visit would be then safely over, and he had a
plan for avoiding the ten minutes alone that night while Audrey went to
kiss the children in their cots. It was a simple plan: they would ail go
and kiss the children in their cots.

But Fanny didn't refuse. Audrey, Conderley considered, made it
impossible for her to.

"Would you like to come and have a look round the greenhouses, Fanny?"
he forced himself to ask; and before she could answer, Audrey exclaimed
with misplaced enthusiasm: "Oh yes, Jim--do. That'll just fill up the
time till tea."

Confronted by this zeal in disposing of her, Fanny would have had to go,
even if she didn't want to. But here was exactly what she did want; and
presently, suitably shod and skirted, and armed with a stick--not the
ebony, ivory-handled, rubber-tipped stick of her future, leaning on
which she would totter into rooms at parties, but a stout one with an
iron point--she started off in Conderley's company on the prescribed
rounds, Audrey watching them from the window, and thinking that her Jim
was beginning to stoop rather, and that Fanny's figure was really
remarkable for her age. "From behind she is perfect," thought Audrey,
who had herself never been, either from behind or before, anything but
tubby.

"Shall we take the dogs?" inquired Conderley, pausing as they passed the
stables. A dog or two are very useful, he said to himself, for filling
up gaps in a conversation, or for deflecting its course should it begin
to be undesirable.

Fanny said she would like the dogs, and Conderley whistled. "Come on,
Emily--come on, Spunks old boy," he called; and out they rushed--two
fox-terriers, liveliest of their race.

They jumped up. "Down, down," said Conderley; but they wouldn't down.

Fanny patted their heads, and didn't flinch when they jumped up on her,
too, and dirtied her coat, because she never minded things that Manby
had to set right; and after an interval of admonishment and exhortation
on Conderley's part, and a good deal of noise on theirs, having at last
succeeded in wading through them she remarked, as they walked on and the
dogs ran round and round in immense, enraptured circles, "They're just
what we want."

"Who are?" said Conderley, breathless after his exertions.

"Emily and--Spunks, did you say? When we don't know what to talk about
next, we can whistle and give them orders."

"But we do know what to talk about next," he said, disconcerted by her
perspicacity. She was altogether most disconcerting. The evening before,
during that awkward ten minutes alone in the library, who could have
been more so? She oughtn't, of course, to have come. He oughtn't, of
course, to have let her come. But having come, and he having let her
come, seeing how difficult the situation was she should most carefully
keep within the proper bounds. What the proper bounds were he didn't
quite know, and anyhow couldn't, just then, consider, engaged as he was
in whistling to the dogs, who had helter-skeltered off after a cat.

Conderley loved cats. He really couldn't allow those dogs--"Spunks!
Emily!" he shouted breathlessly between violent whistles, hurrying his
steps almost to a run--which must be very bad for him, Fanny thought.
"Good dogs!" called Conderley. "Come here, good dogs! Poor little
pussy--it's all right, pussy--good dogs!"

The cat ran up a tree. The dogs, baffled, and caring nothing that they
were deemed good, leaped up and down at the bottom, frantically barking.

"Perhaps we bad better take them back to the stables," he said, after
further fruitless efforts, panting for breath.

"Perhaps we had," said Fanny. "And start fresh."

Nevertheless, he was reluctant to part from them. So long as they were
there, he would at least be able to whistle; he might even pursue.

"Only, if we take them back," said Fanny, "we shan't be chaperoned."

"My dear--" began Conderley.

Really her perspicacity was disconcerting. And it was, like a child's,
so outspoken and unexpected. A child; yet fifty. What a combination, he
thought.

"This," he said, opening a door, "is the kitchen garden."

"Lovely," said Fanny. "Such mellow walls."

"And this," he said, leading the way to a greenhouse, "is where we cool
off our primulas."

"Lovely," said Fanny. "Such a lot of them."

"I am very fond of primulas," said Conderley, gently fingering their
petals. "Don't you agree they are sweet little things?"

"Yes. And very like Audrey."

"I have often thought so," he said, pleased.

"May I smoke in here?" she asked, taking out her cigarette-case. "It
won't be bad for the primulas? By the way, Jim," she went on, lighting a
cigarette with her lighter, "you've not wanted to know yet what I've
come for."

He was glad he hadn't got to hold a match for her. His hand, lately, was
so very shaky that it would have been embarrassing for them both,
because she might have imagined--

"But you told me in your letter," he said. "You told me you wished to
see your old friend again, and get to know his wife. I was much
touched."

"There's more in it than that, though."

"Is there, Fanny?" he asked uneasily; and looked round for the dogs.

They were busily engaged in a distant comer of the kitchen garden
scratching up the celery, and took no notice of him when he went out and
whistled.

"In here," he said, coming back, feeling a little foolish, for she
seemed to be watching him with something rather like a smile--"in here,"
he said, going towards a further door, "are our arums. Audrey likes to
have a good supply ready by Easter."

"For the church," nodded Fanny, staying where she was.

"For the church," agreed Conderley. "And beyond them--"

"I've been thinking a great deal lately," she interrupted, leaning
against the door, and not bothering about the arums or what might be
beyond them.

"Have you, Fanny?" he asked, uneasily again--why, he didn't quite know;
and no good, either, whistling to the dogs.

"Yes. Shut up at Claridge's."

"It seems a curious place either to be shut up at or to think in. Our
carnations are in there," he continued, hopefully pointing to the third
door. "Perhaps you noticed them last night on the dinner-table."

"It did very well," said Fanny, ignoring the carnations. "I stayed in my
room, and never saw a soul--except Martha. You remember Martha?"

"Lady Tintagel? Of course. The most charming of your cousins."

"She and Tintagel happened to be passing through London, and she met
Manby in a passage."

"I'm glad to see Manby is still with you."

"You remember her, then. You didn't remember about the pipe."

"About the pipe?"

"Oh--details, details," she said, waving this aside with a movement of
her cigarette.

"Have you left Charles Street?" he asked. "I saw your letter was from
Claridge's, but I thought--"

"Job is in Charles Street."

"Job?"

He stared. For a moment he really didn't know whom she meant. Nearly a
quarter of a century had passed since last she mentioned Job.

"I've been seeing a good deal of him lately," she went on, doing her
best to sound sensible and unconcerned. "So I thought I would clear
out."

Conderley stared, his bushy white eyebrows drawn together. They had
always been bushy, and now were white as well.

"But Fanny," he said, "I don't understand."

"Neither do I," she answered, with a faint grimace. "And I can't tell
you how much I should dislike"--she caught her breath a little--"dislike
to be _conquered_. I've never yet been _conquered_, you know, Jim.
Imagine going down before just one's own silly nerves! Not even with
one's flag flying--"

She broke off. He stared in silence. What was this strange talk? In his
home the talk was never strange; it was all as orderly, and
comprehensible, and pleasant as these rows of tidy, sweet primulas.

"It would be humiliating, wouldn't it," she said after a pause, during
which she was searching his face for traces of him who was once such a
close friend; for if she could find him wouldn't he comfort? And
mightn't he, perhaps, help?

"Humiliating, wouldn't it be," she said again, as he still was silent,
her voice gone small and tired, "to go down before something that wasn't
really there?"

But was Jim really there, either? she began to ask herself, as he stood
and stared and said nothing. Wasn't she telling things the judicious
keep only for their doctor to a quite strange old man? Looks, after all,
were symbols. He looked different, because he was different. He had
atrophied, petrified, gone dim and quiet and slow, and only wanting, she
decided with impulsive unfairness, to avoid trouble. Extremely sensible
of course, and some day she too would no doubt reach that state.

But Conderley, though he might look different, and had certainly slowed
down, wasn't different. All he needed, in these his latter years, was to
be given a little more time than before to get under way. No use
pouncing a new idea on him. It had to be insinuated, as it were, slowly
into his mind.

"Do you mean Skeffington?" he asked at last.

"Yes. I do mean Skeffington," she said. "He was a husband I had once--as
perhaps you don't remember," she finished, unable, for an instant, not
to be a little bitter.

"But, my dear--you say he isn't really there."

"I know. Idiotic, isn't it. Sheer imagination on my part. But you've no
idea how troublesome it, in fact, is--" And her eyes filled with tears
of mortification, of helplessness, of exasperation, too; and she
pretended, so as to hide them, to bend over and smell the primulas.

He was much concerned. He didn't understand what on earth she was
talking about, but he did see that her eyes were filled with tears, and
he took her hand. "I'm afraid you're in trouble, Fanny," he said, very
kindly.

"Worried," she answered, looking round at him over her shoulder, and
trying to smile the brimming tears away.

He drew her hand through his arm, and patted it.

"If you're in trouble--" he began.

Then, suddenly determined, he said: "Come along--come along for a walk,
and tell me all about it."

And leading her out of the greenhouse he forgot to whistle for the dogs,
forgot even to shut the door on his precious primulas, and started off
with her across the park and through the fields, towards those distant
woods behind which the sun would presently be setting.

       *       *       *       *       *

An hour later they were walking slowly back, hand in hand. There was
comfort in being hand in hand; besides, they were both tired, having
gone further, in the absorption of their talk, than they realized. Once,
they rested on a fallen tree-trunk beside the path, but not for long,
because it was so hard. Everything that Fanny sat on these days seemed
hard, so thin had she become; while as for Conderley, he found it
difficult enough to let himself down so low, and almost impossible to
get up again.

"We two poor old things," smiled Fanny, as he shakily, having somehow
struggled on to his own, helped her to her feet; for by this time she
had told him all about her illness, and Job, and her visit to Byles, and
her fears for the future, and was as natural as it is possible to be
with somebody whom one still, when one looks at him, doesn't seem to
know very well. But this could be circumvented by not looking at him;
she could be altogether natural when she simply listened to his kind
voice. And he felt almost exactly the same about her, the difference
being that when she looked at him she was sorry, and when he looked at
her he was shocked.

"Poor Fanny," he thought, unable, whenever his eyes rested on this
wraith-like parody of the past, to prevent a slight shrinking away, "she
is like a painted ghost."

"Poor darling Jim," she thought, "so this is what he was like underneath
the whole time, only now it has worked its way through. Dreadful, the
exposures of time."

Nevertheless, when he helped her up so shakily off the tree-trunk, and
she said, We two poor old things, he protested that it was ridiculous to
talk like that about herself, and assured her she had years and years
before her, of--

"Usefulness," provided Fanny, as he seemed to be searching for a word.

"Well, why not?" he said, taking her hand again as they continued on
their way. "One has got to do something. One can't go on always being--"

"Ornamental," provided Fanny again.

"That isn't what I was going to say."

"Isn't it, darling?"

She was calling him darling now, just as she used to, so natural had she
become, and he wondered whether Audrey--

"Never mind. Go on. If one can't be--whatever it is you weren't going to
say, one can at least be useful. Will you tell me exactly how, if you
were me, you would set about it? Being useful, I mean. At the eleventh
hour of my life managing to prevent its being a failure. Because that's
really what I came here to find out from you."

He hesitated. "Well, for instance," he said after a moment, diffidently,
"this business about poor Skeffington."

"Why 'poor'?"

"I expect by now it might fairly describe him. He can't be anything but
lonely at his age, and having lost you."

"But he lost me so long ago. And for all we know he has married again.
Besides, don't forget I kept on forgiving him. Not perhaps unto seventy
times seven--" here part of the wreckage of a clergyman called Hyslup,
who for a short time was an intimate friend (chronologically he came
somewhere between Lanks and Dwight, though she never could remember
exactly where, and represented her sole excursion into the preserves of
clerics), floated to the surface of her mind--"because he hadn't worked
through as many as seventy-seven typists then, but I forgave him at
least six of them. And I hope you're not going to suggest--"

"I'm not going to suggest anything about Skeffington. My concern is only
for you. It's all wrong that you should be seeing him in this way."

"It's dreadfully wrong, and most upsetting."

"It shows your nerves are in a very bad state."

"Yes, Jim. Just what I've been suspecting myself."

"And perhaps a complete change of scene--"

"Well, I did go to Claridge's."

"Fanny, you must be serious."

"Good heavens, do you suppose I'm not?"

"Then will you listen while I tell you what I really think?"

"Yes, if it isn't another pretty speech, winding up with a bow."

"I'm sorry if that hurt you. It was because I was nervous."

"Oh, darling Jim, I didn't mind really. And anyhow you're not nervous
now. We're cosy now, aren't we? Tell me what you were going to say."

Cosy. Poor Fanny's favourite word. He had hardly ever heard anyone else
use it. Even in the heyday of her beauty she would talk wistfully of
cosiness, she seemed to long to be just cosy, to curl up, to be taken
care of, not to have to respond to any violence of love. If ever a woman
was adrift, he was afraid poor Fanny was. And she had always been
adrift, he now saw, refusing to have anything to do with the innumerable
anchors offered her, including--and with what entreaties!--his own. But
there came a moment when an anchor was essential to a woman's comfort;
he wouldn't say happiness, because he wasn't sure happiness existed
except for children, but comfort. So long as she was young, she might
toss about gaily enough on the crest of her popularity. By the time she
was forty, she should have a husband and children. By the time she was
fifty, she should have had them twenty years.

"Well, Jim?" said Fanny. "What were you going to say?"

"That you should go off and travel for six months."

"What? Be put to flight by Job? Never."

"It seems to me he has put you to flight already. Ousted you from your
home."

"Claridge's isn't flight. I can go back at any minute."

"Then if you dislike that idea, I'm rather inclined to agree with--"

"Not with Byles? Don't tell me you agree with Byles?" she exclaimed,
standing still and facing him.

"If Skeffington is behaving like a ghost, he should be laid," Conderley
said with decision.

"Laid?" she repeated. "But that's what Byles said."

"Well, he wasn't far out, I think, when he suggested you should invite
him to dinner," said Conderley, his voice chilling because she was
facing him, and he had to look at her. Really she shouldn't, he thought;
really she should _not_ paint so much.

"But, Jim--" she protested. And staring at him, and at his white
eyebrows, and changed sunken face, she asked herself what right this
stranger had to give her advice; any advice; and especially
fantastically silly advice. Byles. George. Jim. The pack of them being
idiotic about that wretched Job.

"Things like that are simply not done," she said.

"My dear, after a certain age everything is done," he answered.

Whereupon she was suddenly humble, and said, "Yes, I forgot. I keep on
forgetting how old I am"--and putting her arm through his as they walked
on, clinging to him, indeed, as to a support in a world grown suddenly
difficult and strange, she thought how very disturbing it was if being
older, besides its many other drawbacks, included freedom to do what one
used to be protected from by the proprieties. She could, then, if she
liked, go off alone now with anybody who wanted her to, to Paris or the
other places one went off to, and nobody would say a word. Why, what a
cold, naked world, with no fences left. How _miserable_ everything was.

Conderley, who couldn't bear Fanny, of all people, to be humble, held
her arm very close to him the rest of the way home--no, not the rest of
the way, but most of the way, for he gently disengaged himself when they
arrived within sight of the house.

"Audrey?" inquired Fanny as he loosed her, looking at him with a smile.

"My dear, of course," he said; for he was a man of the strictest honour,
besides having no mind to drop the solid little substance of Audrey for
this thin shadow.

       *       *       *       *       *

But wives always know. Nothing escapes their concentrated vigilance. He
had hardly got as far into the hall as the tea-table before Audrey,
looking at him with the attentive eyes of devotion, thought he seemed
different, and when Fanny, who had gone upstairs to change her muddy
shoes, came down and joined them, she was sure he was. Quite different.
Much more at home with Fanny. As if--the phrase slipped into her
mind--they had had it out.

But what had they had out? What could there possibly be for them to have
out? And she began thinking of last night again, and the dead silence in
the library when she came in, and of the unusual attentiveness to her
comfort.

A distant cousin, who had married a business man in Liverpool and was of
the opinion that only those know life who live in ports, once warned her
to be on her guard if ever Jim should become particularly attentive. She
remembered this now. She hadn't thought of it since, no such occasion,
having arisen. And if, added the cousin, he were to take to giving her
presents, she should keep her eyes well open; and if these presents were
to become obviously valuable, such as, say, pearl necklaces, she
shouldn't lose a minute in inferring the worst.

"The gift of jewels _always_ means there's love-making going on
somewhere," said the cousin, "and never is it legitimate. Sometimes a
husband whose wife has just presented him with a long-wanted heir will
give her gems, and these, perhaps, needn't be open to suspicion, but
short of that, on receiving such a present she should immediately secure
the services of a detective."

Well, Jim had never given her pearls or other gems, so that was all
right. His presents, made only at Christmas and on birthdays, were
either copies of the poets--nicely bound, but not in Russia-leather,
which might, she supposed, have been suspicious, or fountain-pens--not
gold ones, which again might have been suspicious, but decent, plain
black. Once he gave her a trowel. That was the low-water mark of his
presents, and, if her cousin was right, the high-water mark of his
single-minded devotion. He must have been completely faithful, in every
nook and cranny of his slightest thought, to give her a trowel; and she
had received it with an enthusiasm which surprised him.

No; the presents didn't make her uneasy, she said to herself pouring out
tea, but his sudden particular attentiveness perhaps might, if she
thought about it much. So unlike him to fetch her work-bag, and bring
her a cushion. A pity mother lived so far away. It would be nice to be
able to talk to her, and ask her--without mentioning Jim, of course, who
was much too sacred to be discussed--whether father had ever been
suddenly all over her like that, and, if he had been, whether it meant
his thoughts were straying where they shouldn't.

And it was just as she was wishing that mother could come over oftener,
and that Fanny had stayed in her own home, and that Jim had never known
anybody except herself, and just as she was in the act of pouring cups
of tea for the pair--it seemed a mockery to have to--that she heard
Fanny say, refusing muffins Jim was offering her: "No, darling, thank
you."

Darling? Audrey nearly dropped the teapot. Was this Lady Frances, of
whom till a week ago she had never heard, actually calling her Jim, her
very own, only Jim, darling? What terms were they on, then? What terms
used they to be on?

Immensely and painfully startled, she looked from her to him and met his
eye, and his eye too, she thought, seemed startled. Anyhow he at once
turned away, and pretended to be busy with his bread and butter--which
was quite unlike him, and deepened her uneasiness. He never ate bread
and butter. Now he was almost hiding his face in it.

Fanny, however, who from long practice had acquired a sort of sixth
sense when it came to the feelings of wives, picked up both these looks,
thought what an old goose Jim was to let himself appear embarrassed, and
turning to Audrey remarked that everybody in her day--she emphasized the
distance in time between herself and Audrey--used to call each other
darling. "Just like," she said, "the way French people, you know, when
they talk, keep on saying Monsieur and Madame."

"Then I wish you would call him Monsieur," said Audrey, unexpectedly.

Fanny was confounded. So was Conderley. This sudden valiance, like the
desperate valiance of a partridge protecting its young, confounded them
both. And Conderley's mind at once began to dwell on the advantages to a
husband if his wife had been brought up to conceal, should she have one,
her primitive side; and it dwelt still more earnestly on these
advantages when, Fanny having begun saying appeasingly--no wife who has
been properly brought up, thought Conderley, should need in public to be
appeased--"But, _darling_--" was immediately cut short by Audrey putting
the teapot down on the tray again quite noisily, and saying with the
devastating downrightness of the shy once they are thoroughly roused, "I
suppose you mean Madame?"

He was seriously put out. He wasn't prepared for primitiveness. Not in
the hall. If there had to be primitiveness, and he saw no reason at all
why there should ever be any, there were less conspicuous places in the
house than the hall. His and Audrey's bedroom, for instance. Behind
closed doors. After everybody had retired for the night. But to display
it at the tea-table, and to a guest, and that guest Fanny, awoke in
Conderley a curious desire to seek out her parents at once, and discuss
with them their educational methods.

Angry with Fanny for being so foolish as to call him darling--he hadn't
called her darling once, having taken the greatest care not to drop back
into old habits--angry with Audrey for being such a rough little
diamond, such a hedgehog, such a porcupine, such an everything that was
ill-mannered and with spikes, he was also aggrieved on his own behalf,
who had, since Fanny's arrival, been so specially glad whenever Audrey
was in the room. Nothing could be more blameless, more creditable, than
both his conduct and his feelings; and if he did, on their walk, take
Fanny's hand and draw it through his arm out of pure pity and old
friendship, hadn't he dropped it at once, on getting within eye-shot of
the house?

"My dear Audrey--" he began; but was at a loss how to go on. All he
could think of to say, and did finally say was, "Really."

"Well, Jim, it's quite natural," cried Audrey, continuing primitive, and
defending herself with spirit, "I'm sure it's quite natural. Nobody
likes somebody to call her husband darling, and then her husband
look--look--" she was going to say guilty, but just managed not to. "I'm
sorry if I seem rude," she finished up with a defiance that contradicted
her words, "but I'm sure it's quite natural, and I know mother would
think so too." And feverishly and noisily she arranged the cups and
saucers on the tea-tray--to keep herself in countenance? To stop herself
from crying? Fanny wondered.

Dreadful if she were to cry, poor little thing. Fanny, who was already
confounded, the rarest state for her to be in, felt she would be
confounded beyond hope of recovery if Audrey were to begin to cry.
"Listen, children," she said, "there are two things people can do when
they start quarrelling--"

"I'm not quarrelling," protested Audrey indignantly, positively banging
the cups about.

"Bickering, then."

"I'm not. It's not true." And she knocked over, but this was by
accident, the milk-jug.

"Really, Audrey," said Conderley, helplessly staring at the mess.

"Doing, then, whatever it is we're doing," said Fanny.

"First, the bone of contention--that's me--can go home at once, or
secondly it can stay out its appointed time, and undertake meanwhile to
call Jim Monsieur."

"Now you're mocking me," cried Audrey, violently mopping up the milk
with her handkerchief.

"I swear I'm not," said Fanny.

And Conderley, who had again absorbed himself in bread and butter,
thought, "This is really a great pity--" which was the courtly man's
equivalent for what, in a coarser mouth, would have been Damn the women.

       *       *       *       *       *

But he was saved, the three of them were saved, or thought they were,
though they weren't really, by the sudden irruption into the hall, first
of cheerful voices merrily approaching, and then of the cheerful bodies
from which the voices issued.

Four of them. The Cookhams. Audrey's relations. Father, mother, and two
unmarried daughters. Come really by a miracle, living as they did a
hundred miles away; and their car being old and constantly on the verge
of a breakdown, and petrol being dear, they never dropped in just for an
hour or two, but at stated intervals, about three times a year, brought
their suit-cases and stayed a week.

Their winter week had been at Christmas, and they were not due again
till at least Easter. Wonderful, then, that they should appear, as
though sent from heaven, when Audrey most wanted them. She flew into her
mother's arms, she hugged her almost hysterically, while the family
explained, in one joyous chorus, that the day being so delicious they
hadn't been able to resist going for a picnic, and the picnic being in
the Upswich direction they thought they would for once be reckless, and
not care about a few more gallons of petrol, but come on and take Jim
and Audrey by surprise, and go back by moonlight, and make a regular day
of it.

A united, affectionate family, eagerly appreciative of each other and of
small joys like a fine day and a picnic; and they had so many
exclamations to make, and so many to listen to from Audrey, that it was
several minutes before they became aware of Fanny.

When, having finished hugging and being hugged by Audrey, who was almost
too demonstrative, her mother thought, and wondered whether the dear
child could be quite well, they turned to greet their excellent son and
brother-in-law and saw the guest, they were surprised. Their immediate
subconscious reaction as they beheld her--on their top layers they were
as cordial as ever--was to give her the benefit of the doubt; and Mrs.
Cookham, the kindest-hearted, least suspicious of women, added without
knowing she was adding it, "Poor thing," and the girls wondered what
sort of extraordinary person Audrey had got hold of, and only the father
went so far as to think, rather definitely, come, come.

"Oh," said Audrey, who for a blissful moment had forgotten Fanny, and
was reminded of her by seeing where their eyes had concentrated, "oh,
yes--this is Jim's friend. Staying with him for the week-end."

Could introduction be clumsier, be more unfortunate? Conderley sincerely
hoped it wasn't done on purpose. He held it for really impossible that
Audrey, besides suddenly becoming primitive, should also suddenly become
malicious. No, she was merely flustered; though of course even to be
flustered seemed to him, a man of Courts, yet another great pity.

He at once came forward, and took the introductions in hand himself.
Each Cookham was properly presented to Fanny, their names, and her name,
being pronounced with distinctness, and such explanatory comment added
as my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, my sisters-in-law, as seemed
useful, though no elucidation was offered after Fanny's name; and then
the hall, which for an instant had gone quiet, recovered its breath, and
began to resound once more with cheerful chirpings.

It was as if a company of lively sparrows had got loose in it. The
Cookhams, out for a spree, weren't going to let it be interfered with by
the unexpected apparition of Fanny, and got over her almost at once.
They talked, they laughed, they ate cakes and drank cups of tea without
stopping. Healthy, and hungry after only sandwiches since breakfast, the
girls soon cleared up everything there was to eat, and even Fanny,
sitting down beside Audrey's mother--she thought it wise, under the
circumstances, at once to make friends with Audrey's mother--found
herself infected by the prevailing high spirits and started having tea
all over again herself, while Audrey, in this general atmosphere of
almost Christmas goodwill, couldn't help cheering up a little, and
thinking she had perhaps been silly. Or hadn't she?

Anyhow, she was quite sure that it was heavenly to have mother again so
unexpectedly; and how dear she looked, thought Audrey fondly, with her
weather-beaten, wrinkled face, and wisp of grey hair coming untidily out
from under her old picnic hat, next to the glass-smooth, red-and-white
Fanny, each of whose crocus hairs--clever of little Jim--was so
perfectly curled and placed exactly where it ought to be that it made
one's back ache in sympathy with the maid, who must have stood on her
poor feet at least an hour getting them to go like that.

The girls chattered and ate; Audrey busily plied them with her good
things; her mother and Fanny were friends from the first; and only Major
Cookham, a retired officer, who in his youth had been quartered at
Hounslow, well within reach of London gossip, seemed to be turning
things over in his mind.

Conderley, observing this, resented it. By now, smarting as he was from
Fanny's lapse and from Audrey's misbehaviour, he resented everything,
but especially thoughtfulness in a person who was looking at Fanny. No
Cookham was naturally thoughtful; therefore when the head of the family,
usually as chatty a man as you will meet anywhere, and as uninquiringly
ready to accept whoever came his way as the rest of them, having looked
at Fanny became thoughtful, Conderley didn't like it.

"Tea, father?" he said abruptly, to distract his parent's attention.

It had amused him, when he married Audrey, to be able to call a man
younger than himself father, and Major Cookham had been equally amused
to be able to call a man older than himself son, and since both were
people of regular habits, used to a life of punctual repetitions, they
didn't easily tire of a joke once they had got accustomed to it, and had
gone on smiling at this one ever since. Conderley, however, didn't smile
now. He said, "Tea, father?" as abruptly as a challenge, and without the
smallest sign of the customary appreciation that here was a joke.

"If you please," said Major Cookham; at once adding, before his
son-in-law could turn away to fetch it, "I am much interested, Jim, in
meeting your friend."

"Audrey's friend, too," said Conderley, irritably.

"Oh, of course, my dear boy. Naturally. Tell me--"

But Conderley had gone after the tea.

Directly he came back Major Cookham began again.

"Tell me, Jim," he said, "usedn't she to be a great--"

"Yes," said Conderley. "Cake, father?"

"Ah, I thought it was the same lady," said his father-in-law. "I
remember, as a young chap at Hounslow--tell me, wasn't she--? Wasn't
there some--?"

"No," said Conderley, his bushy eyebrows drawn ominously together,
"there wasn't. And in any case _she_ wasn't. _He_ was."

"Ah--conundrums, conundrums," said Major Cookham, taking a piece of
cake. "But I think I understand. And it makes a difference, certainly."

"It makes all the difference."

"Indeed, yes. Yet you know, in Queen Victoria's time--"

"Confound Queen Victoria's time," said Conderley, turning on his heel.

Major Cookham was amazed. He paused in the stirring of his tea to stare
after him incredulously. That his son-in-law, so long connected with the
Court, should confound anything royal, even if it was only time, quite
took his breath away. Nor had he ever heard him use the word confound
before. He could only watch him departing, and, more thoughtful than
ever, slowly stir his tea.

Presently, however, Conderley came back. He had to come back, because
there was nowhere else for him to go. Impossible for him to join the
group of Audrey and her sisters, because he was too angry with Audrey,
and he wouldn't join Fanny and his mother-in-law because it was Fanny
who had brought all the trouble on him, with her thoughtlessly familiar
ways. So he went back to his father-in-law, and sat down beside him on
the sofa.

He, having assimilated the outburst about Queen Victoria's time by the
simple method of ascribing it to something Audrey had given the poor
chap for lunch, was free now to go on talking about Fanny, which he at
once did. "And Audrey likes her," he said, still thoughtfully, while he
stirred his tea.

The implication of this remark deeply annoyed Conderley. "My
mother-in-law appears to like her too," he pointed out with unnecessary
emphasis, looking at the two by the window, who were plainly much
interested in whatever it was they were talking about.

Major Cookham looked, and agreed. The ladies might even be described as
cheek by jowl. And what cheeks he thought, and what jowls. Never were
there greater contrasts.

"They set each other off," he observed, still slowly stirring his tea;
upon which Conderley, who wasn't very quick at suspecting people,
glanced at him rather in detail.

Then there was a movement by the window, and Mrs. Cookham turned her
head, smiled, got up, and came across to them.

"Ted, go and talk to Lady Frances," she said. "I want to see something
of my son in law--" for she was very fond of Conderley, and he, usually,
was very fond of her. Only not at that moment. At that moment he wasn't
fond of anybody. And when her husband had gone, and with a little bow,
as if asking for permission, had sat down beside Fanny, and Mrs.
Cookham, putting her hand affectionately on Conderley's said, "Well,
Jim?" he answered, "Well, mother?" as stiff as a ramrod, and with no
slightest movement of response to her caress.

"I like your Fanny," said Mrs. Cookham, settling herself next to him on
the sofa.

"She isn't my Fanny any more than she is Audrey's," said Conderley,
irritably.

"Then I like both your Fannies--only that doesn't sound as if it were
grammar. She has been telling me all about everything."

"Indeed."

"She seems to have had a sad life."

"Indeed."

"Didn't you know?" Mrs. Cookham asked, in some surprise.

"How should I?"

"But she's your friend--oh yes, Audrey's friend too, of course. Don't be
so bristly, Jim. Are you a little cross to-day, dear?" And she gave his
hand a small stroke, but still finding no response put her own back in
her lap, where it belonged; for she was a woman who cheerfully adapted
herself to the moods of men.

"Not that she complained," she went on, after a silence, during which
she was wondering what Audrey could have been giving the dear man for
lunch, ascribing, as the charitable Cookhams invariably ascribed any
behaviour that infringed the laws of sweetness and light, to something
wrong with the behaver's stomach. "She is very gallant, I think. But
never to have had a home life, or children, and to have lost her husband
so young--"

"Poor _thing_," said Conderley, himself astonished that he should say it
so acidly. But hadn't he had enough to try him this week-end? Hadn't he?
And really the continual talk of Fanny, first by Audrey, then by his
father-in-law, and now by his mother-in-law--was there no other subject
in the world, then?

Mrs. Cookham looked at him, again surprised. "Don't you like her?" she
asked.

"Like her?" repeated Conderley, his annoyance arrested by the
strangeness of such a question. Vivid pictures of the past floated
before his eyes, and he wondered what his mother-in-law, if she could
see them too, would make of her own question. But of course she would
find it impossible to believe they were real.

"Would she be here if I didn't?" he answered; whereupon she said, with
cheerful mischievousness, "Oh, but Audrey might have invited her. You
said she was her friend too, you know--" and he could only reflect that
both his parents-in-laws were showing themselves, that day, in very
tiresome lights.

He was silent. Therefore she too said nothing, adapting herself as
usual, and together they watched the group at the tea-table, and the two
in the window. Major Cookham seemed to be half alarmed and half happy.
He was so close to Fanny that her make-up couldn't but be alarming to
him, and he was no doubt being happy, thought Conderley, continuing
acid, against his better judgment. Anyhow, he had lost every shred of
thoughtfulness, and from his chattiness it was evident he was being
encouraged to talk about himself. Fanny was good at that, thought
Conderley, remembering many things. In her hands a man became a trumpet,
his own trumpet, through which he blew away to his heart's content,
while she, with the most charming attentiveness, listened, applauded,
exclaimed, sympathized, and drew him out.

At that distance, the hall being big and the lamps now lit, from where
Conderley sat details of Fanny's decay weren't noticeable, but only the
lovely line of her little head and profile, thrown into relief by the
dark curtains. Also, she had on a high-necked jumper that came up to her
ears and hid the doubtful part of her throat, so that nothing was
visible at that distance, and in that light, except lines of beauty.
Against the background of her distinction, how unattractive the three at
the tea-table looked, and how ordinary. Worse than ordinary--common, he
thought; for no man can stop his thoughts. The sisters were certainly
common, and so--why shouldn't he be honest?--was Audrey, in spite of
many good and endearing qualities. She was good, she was kind, she was
straight, she was devoted, she was healthy, she was the mother of his
children, but she was common. What could be more common than her
outburst half an hour ago? And how would it have ended if it hadn't been
cut short by the arrival of her relations? Perhaps seeing from what a
painful scene they had probably saved him, it would be decent to be a
little less ill-humoured with his in-laws; and turning to Mrs. Cookham
with the intention of trying to make amends, he was just going to say
something amiable when she startled him by suddenly exclaiming, "I
really don't understand how men can bring themselves to do such dreadful
things."

He stared. "What things?" he asked, not without uneasiness. If she had
said _think_ such dreadful things, he would have been thoroughly uneasy,
for certainly that which he had just been thinking was dreadful. It
might be true, but there are many true thoughts which a decent husband
should most sternly suppress, and he knew that this was one of them.
Ashamed, he put it all on to Fanny. Never, until she came on the scene,
had his thoughts of Audrey been anything but appreciative and
affectionate. Fanny oughtn't to have come. He oughtn't to have let her
come.

"Why, go off with another woman," said Mrs. Cookham.

Well, he hadn't done that, he thought, relieved; he hadn't gone off with
another woman, the expression implying a wife at home. In fact, he
hadn't gone off at all, either with another woman or just a woman. The
only woman he had ever wanted to go off with had been Fanny, and she
wouldn't go.

"So sad, too, when one remembers all the vows they make at their
marriage service," continued Mrs. Cookham.

Well, he had kept all his vows, every one of them; not once had he had
the faintest wish to break them. His conscience there was pellucid, so
that he was able to say amiably, "Of what are you thinking, mother?"

"Why, of that poor thing's husband--Lady Frances's. She didn't tell me
what he had done, she just said when I asked her where he was, that she
had lost him. A quarter of a century ago, she said. Imagine it--all that
time for the poor thing to be alone. So pretty too, she must have been,
and still would be if she would wash her face. Look at her now--if one
is far enough away it is extraordinary how pretty she seems. And when I
said that as a young widow she ought to have remarried, she said she
hadn't been a widow. So then of course I guessed, and would have liked
to comfort her, but it's difficult for a happily married woman to
comfort an unhappily married one without sounding smug."

"Probably by now she has got over it," suggested Conderley. "After all,
there's been a good deal of time." And he meditated on what Fanny had
done with all that time, and the crowded excitements and radiance of it,
and how impossible it would be for his simple mother-in-law, who had
always been plain, and always been poor, and never moved farther from
her remote country home than the nearest Cathedral city, to imagine it.

"Oh, I know, I know. And she didn't in the very least ask for sympathy.
It's only when I think of what I would feel myself, if Ted were ever
to--"

She broke off. Conderley, unable as a son-in-law to go into that, said
nothing.

"But I did tell her," she went on presently, "that I thought forgiveness
a good thing, especially after such a long while. I was actually
courageous enough to suggest her taking him back. Smug again, you see,
but then it's so easy to preach forgiveness to somebody else. And I
wonder, I wonder, if I'd be able to take Ted back, supposing he--"

She broke off again; and again, on grounds of seemliness, Conderley
wasn't able to go into it.

"I've been giving her much the same advice myself," he said, after a
moment.

"Did you dear? Do you think she will act on it?"

"No."

"I don't either. The bare idea seemed to upset her so much, poor thing,
that I thought I had better run away, and let Ted take his turn. It was
very impertinent of me, of course, to suggest it, but we somehow at once
seemed to become so extremely intimate--"

"I can well believe it. Fanny is like that. Intimate friends in the
first five minutes," said Conderley, remembering many things.

"It's a delightful quality," approved Mrs. Cookham, the more warmly that
he seemed to be criticizing it. "So time-saving."

"No doubt. But it cuts both ways. The start may be wonderful, but the
next thing is you find yourself on the doorstep."

He sounded suddenly resentful. She looked at him a little curiously.

"And the door," he went on, after a pause during which he was
remembering some more things, "shut."

Strange, Jim was to-day, thought Mrs. Cookham. With the best will in the
world to regard him as perfect, she couldn't help noticing it. Then,
too, there were Audrey's cheeks, such a hot, burning red, and her
excessive joy, now that her mother came to think of it, when her
relations unexpectedly came in. She had flung herself into her mother's
arms almost as if she were running for safety. Not quite normal, such
behaviour. Of course, if the child were going to have a baby--everything
could always be accounted for by a baby; but short of that she was
decidedly, to-day, unusual. And here was Jim being most unusual too. And
he, anyhow, couldn't be going to have a baby.

"Shut," he said again, as though he had forgotten her and were talking
to himself, lifting, at the same time, his hand, and letting it drop
heavily on his knee again.

She could only look at him. She hadn't an idea what to do with a remark
like that. It certainly sounded as if he had a grievance, and she was
perfectly ready to sympathize with the dear man if she knew what about,
but she didn't know what about.

Nonplussed, she took refuge in cheerful encouragement. "Oh no, dear,"
she said comfortingly, giving his hand a series of motherly little pats.
"Oh no, no, dear. I really can't have you looking at it like that."

       *       *       *       *       *

They stayed to dinner. Conderley pressed them to stay with almost as
much warmth as Audrey. Here was a way, he felt, of passing the evening
without further incidents, and Audrey looked forward to getting her
mother for a few moments alone and finding out, without mentioning Jim,
whether she had ever heard another woman calling father darling, and if
so what she had done about it.

People who come to tea and stay to dinner seem, towards half-past six,
to have been in the house a long while, and it was about then that Fanny
began to feel her age. Major Cookham was a very nice man, and a very
kind man, and a very good man, she was sure, but by half-past six she
was sorry he was going to stay any longer. Dinner wasn't till half-past
eight, and nobody was to dress because of course the Cookhams couldn't,
so there they were, and Fanny's smiles, as Major Cookham went on telling
her about himself, which had at first been spontaneous, at last became
fixed. On the other hand, her attention became less fixed, so that she
went on smiling even when he got, in his life, to Vimy Ridge. "What
_fun_," she said, smiling as resolutely as ever; then, suddenly
realizing what he was talking about, tried to cough it off.

Fortunately he was so much absorbed in autobiography that he didn't
notice. Coughs were wasted on Major Cookham, she decided after a minute,
putting away her handkerchief. So were fidgetings; so were looking round
at the others; so were taking the words out of his mouth to help him
along quicker--all of which she presently practised. No one came to her
rescue. She had to drink Major Cookham single-handed to his dregs, she
said to herself desperately, for Audrey went off with her mother and
didn't come back, and the sisters, settling down next to Jim on his sofa
on either side of him, each with an arm warm-heartedly through one of
his, took a fresh lease of talk and laughter, telling him, with cheerful
confidence in his interest, everything they had been doing since they
saw him last.

Cheerful confidence. That, evidently, thought Fanny, looking from them
to their autobiographical parent, was the Cookham keynote. With what
cheerful confidence in her interest was not her companion spreading out
his whole life before her; with what cheerful confidence, again, had not
his wife counselled her to forgive Job, and take him back. Imagine
it--just because you were confident yourself, giving advice like that.
Overwhelming, such an attitude was, to anybody who felt as old and tired
as she did. After an hour of unadulterated Major Cookham her eyelids
were drooping, not only with fatigue but with feeling more like fifty
than she had ever yet felt. Never had she felt so exactly like fifty,
and she knew she must, by now, be looking perfectly ghastly, every line
and hollow accentuated by weariness, and this knowledge made her feel
even more deeply pessimistic. Nothing, nothing at that moment inspired
the exhausted Fanny with confidence, still less with cheerful
confidence. Life was a game in which everybody was ultimately a loser,
she told herself. You might win and win and win for a time, as she had
won and won and won, and then you lost and lost and lost, in exact
proportion, probably, to what you had won. Up you went; down you went;
but once down you didn't go up again--you stayed down, and were done
for.

Thus gloomy were her thoughts while Major Cookham continued to narrate,
and it didn't enter his head that she mightn't be enjoying herself as
much as he was. She had observed this in men before, this simple faith
in the equal happiness of their listener, and had thought there was
something rather sweet about it, something appealing to the maternal
instincts, as there is about all artlessness. But Major Cookham's
artlessness had gone on too long. The reactions of Fanny's maternal
instincts were limited, and their limit was reached during his account
of his sufferings the night Audrey was born, and how, positively, he
suffered even more the day she married.

"Oh, come," said Fanny, still trying to smile, in spite of an almost
overwhelming desire to lay her head on the window-ledge and go to sleep.
What was this that Jim was letting her in for, at the end of a trying
and chequered day? How could he leave her alone with his father-in-law
so endlessly, when he must know what he was like?

"I give you my word of honour, Lady Frances, it's true. I knew well into
what good hands I was giving her, but a father's feelings go very deep,
very deep--perhaps even deeper than a mother's, when he sees the first
of his fledgelings preparing to abandon the nest."

Here, however, she became aware that she had reached the end of her
tether. Quite suddenly she knew she could bear no more. She declined
even to try to bear more. Why should she? And she got up, held out her
hand to Major Cookham, who, surprised, struggled to his feet, and said
good-bye to him with the sweetness she had long been famous for,
explaining she was motoring up to London that evening, and must go and
get ready.

It had come upon her in a flash, the way of escape. She knew perfectly
well what Audrey and her mother were talking about, and felt quite
unable to cope, during a whole long dinner and evening, with a
suspicious mother-in-law as well as an incensed wife. Also, Major
Cookham would certainly be put next to her, and he indeed was the last
straw. Jim must know the sort of talker he was. Was he punishing her for
calling him darling in front of Audrey? If that were so, then he
certainly wasn't the Jim she had known, and the sooner she left his
house the better. Family circles weren't for her. Let her get back to
London, and deal with her troubles as best she could alone. Besides,
when the host is annoyed, and the hostess upset, and the hostess's
mother suspicious, and the hostess's father an autobiographer, it is
time for a guest to go. She would use her last bit of strength carrying
off the necessary fibs with a proper air of innocence. She was sure she
could manage it, practised as she was in social duplicities. And having
said good-bye to Major Cookham, and given him the last smile he would
ever get, she crossed the hall to Conderley.

He, getting up as she approached, was glad to disentangle himself from
his warm-hearted sisters-in-law, but was surprised that she should
suddenly leave his father-in-law by himself. He was still more
surprised, indeed astonished, when she said, with every appearance of
being in a hurry, "Jim, I must go and see if Manby is ready."

"Ready?" he repeated. "What for? We're not going to dress, you know."

"But my dear--have you forgotten I've got to get up to London? And isn't
it almost time for me to start? You did tell my chauffeur, didn't you?"

Conderley was completely taken aback. His father-in-law, who was
evidently taken aback too by finding himself suddenly deserted, had
sauntered into the middle of the room and was turning over books and
papers on the tables, obviously without any real interest, and looking
almost cross. No man likes to be cut short in his flow of narrative by
the abrupt departure of the audience, especially not if he connects the
departure with the narrative. Major Cookham didn't exactly do that,
having too great a share of the cheerful family confidence, yet he
couldn't help remembering that when Audrey introduced him to Lady
Frances she said she was staying over the week-end. The week-end wasn't
over. It wouldn't be over till to-morrow after breakfast, and he hadn't
nearly finished all he had to say. So that he felt baulked and thwarted,
he to whom an entirely new listener was a godsend in his quiet retired
life with only the Rector to talk to, and he turned over the books and
papers on the tables as near to sulkiness as a Cookham ever got.

He was the first one to be upset.

Then came Conderley, who couldn't make it out at all, being positive the
arrangement had been from Saturday to Monday. On the other hand, here
was Fanny, wide-eyed with surprise that he should have thought so.

"But Jim--surely I told you I had to get back, because I've promised to
dine with the Tintagels to-night? I shall be dreadfully late, I'm
afraid, as it is," she said.

It seemed rude to disbelieve her, though disbelieve her he did, and the
situation rather reminded him in miniature, very much in miniature, of
the one twenty years ago, when she so delicately, and also so deftly,
ushered him out on to the doorstep.

He was the second person to be upset.

Then came Audrey, who, after a heart-to-heart talk with Mrs. Cookham,
was sure she had been made a cat's-paw of by both Jim and Fanny, and
whose life, she told her mother, was ruined. But if she was indignant
that Fanny should be in the house, she was even more indignant when
Conderley came up and told her she was going out of it. Flatly she
refused to believe there had been any such Saturday-to-Sunday-evening
arrangement. The invitation had been given and accepted for the
week-end--unless, of course, Jim, who wrote the letter and didn't show
it to her, had made a mistake.

She was the first person to be upset.

"My dear child, of course I must have made a muddle, or perhaps I hadn't
read Fanny's answer very attentively," said Conderley, irritably.

"You didn't show me that letter either," cried Audrey. "He hasn't shown
me _any_ of the letters," she explained, violently turning to her
mother.

"Hush, dear--hush, now," soothed Mrs. Cookham, who would have been the
fourth person to be upset if she had had a less sweet nature.

"And now, please," Conderley went on, exasperated but dignified, "will
you kindly behave yourself, and go to Fanny? She is very much distressed
there should have been this misunderstanding--"

"Oh, I like that!" cried Audrey.

"Hush, dear--hush, now," soothed her mother, taking her hand.

"She says if it weren't for her dinner engagement, she certainly
wouldn't leave us--"

"Oh, go and tell that to the marines!" cried Audrey.

"Hush, dear--hush, now," soothed her mother, putting her arm round her.

"I repeat, it is entirely my fault," said Conderley. "I cannot do more.
And I really must ask you, Audrey, to remember you're supposed to be a
lady."

These were harsh words to fall from those kind lips. Audrey had never
heard any like them before. They sobered her. Being a lady, she had
sometimes suspected, was rather her weak point. To be asked to remember
she was supposed to be one was just the same as if he had told her
straight out she wasn't one. It reduced her to silence as nothing else
could have. She almost hung her head.

As for Mrs. Cookham, she inquired of herself whether a man with anything
on his conscience would be either so severe or so stately. Always slow
to believe evil, and proud of, as well as devoted to, her son-in-law,
she thought not. And how much better to think not and to go on being
happy, than to spoil everything, as her poor little daughter seemed set
on doing, by suspicions. Nobody, she felt, would ever know what Jim's
relations with Lady Frances had really been. Probably they were entirely
innocent, for why, else, didn't they marry? They could have married.
There was nothing to stop them. He was a bachelor, and though she was
divorced--Mrs. Cookham had been shocked at first when Audrey told her
this, but only for an instant, for she got over shocks, thanks to her
cheerful nature, quicker almost than anybody--she could have married
him, if not with the blessing of the Church yet perfectly legitimately
in a registrar's office. They hadn't married. Jim had remained free, and
married Audrey. Then why, she had asked her daughter, worry?

Her daughter, however, had insisted on worrying. "There are worse things
than marriage, mother," she had said obscurely, sobbing, and apparently
bent on shattering her present peace by something that might, or might
not, have happened in the distant past.

Mrs. Cookham shook her head. Poor child, poor child. "Are you going to
have a baby, dear?" was all she could think of to say; and it was while
Audrey was indignantly asking if one couldn't be angry without going to
have a baby, that Conderley came in to announce Fanny's departure, and
being in a temper she let that part of her which wasn't a lady emerge,
and manifest itself in such lamentable language as the bit about the
marines.

Would her Jim ever forgive her, he who was so punctilious in courtesy,
so mild-mannered, so complete a gentleman? He might forgive, but could
he ever forget? Wouldn't those marines stand up between them, so many
insuperable obstacles to happy confidence, for the rest of their lives?
Lady Conderley of Upswich, wife of the present and mother of the future
lord, rudely doubting her husband's words, and inviting him to go and
tell them to the marines. And she didn't even know who the marines were,
or why one should go and tell them anything.

Slowly she began moving towards him, her eyes round with penitence and
fright. "Jim--" she began. "Jim--"

"I suggest, Audrey," he said, taking no notice of her timid approach,
"that you go at once to Fanny's room and say and do the right thing."

"Oh, Jim, what is the right thing? I only seem to know the wrong ones,"
piteously cried Audrey, reduced as completely to humbleness as before
she had been roused to rage. But she loved him so much, she loved him so
much; and having crept quite close to the stiff man, she ventured to lay
her small solid cheek, red-hot still with the varied emotions of the
afternoon, against his sleeve.

"Come now, Audrey," said Conderley, more kindly.

"_I_ think she's going to have a baby," announced her mother.

He stared at Mrs. Cookham, and then looked down at the glossy dark head
against his sleeve. "Are you, my dear? Are you, Audrey, my dear?" he
asked, putting his arm round her, and suddenly altogether kind.
"Audrey--is it true?"

"There's nothing like babies," thought Mrs. Cookham, as she tactfully
prepared to leave the room. "Really, I don't know where we'd be without
them."




V


After staying with friends, it is sometimes a comfort to go, home.
Fanny, having said her last words, and smiled her last smile, and kissed
and been kissed by the penitent Audrey, and having also, in that desire
for a good curtain which so frequently overtakes those who part, warmly
invited nearly everybody to come and stay with her in Charles Street,
felt this comfort acutely. Even though she weren't going home really.
Even though she were only going to Claridge's. The great thing was to
get away.

Accordingly, no sooner had the steps, and the lights, and the waving
Conderleys and Cookhams slipped behind into darkness, than she fell back
on the cushions, shut her eyes, and gave thanks. How precious were the
negations--the not seeing, not hearing, not talking, not being with
anybody. Even Manby couldn't get at her. Sitting next to the chauffeur,
safely separated by the glass partition, she couldn't even ask her
whether her feet were warm, and would she like another rug. Oh, blessed,
blessed, thought Fanny, to be alone, to be in the dark, to be out of
reach, not to be in Upswich any more.

But when a guest departs feeling like this, and when the hosts are left
with a distinct sensation of smarting, the visit can't really be called
a success. Nobody, however, dreamed of calling it that. Audrey had been
sure it wouldn't be one, Conderley had had the gravest doubts, all now
justified, and Fanny saw clearly, and roundly told herself, that she was
a fool. A fool to imagine that poor Jim, twenty years older, hopelessly
settled down, and she a mere ghost in his memory, could be any sort of
refuge for her. Old men weren't refuges. They needed refuge themselves,
for they were timid, and shrank from responsibility, and advised one to
be friends with one's husband, and let go one's arm when they got near
the house. There was, in fact, no _love_ in them. Not that one wished
love to be in them, except that without it, without, anyhow, the
capacity for it, people didn't seem to be much good. Dry as bones, cold
as stones, they seemed to become, when love was done; inhuman,
indifferent, self-absorbed, numb.

This line of exceedingly unjust thought, however, which though unjust at
least was vigorous and kept her warm, didn't last much beyond Ipswich.
Soon after that she began to wonder at herself for having behaved so
badly in having cut short her visit like that, and a few miles farther
on had arrived at the stage of being thoroughly ashamed. By the time the
car passed through Colchester she was quite overwhelmed by compunction,
and decided that never in her life had she heard of conduct more
disgraceful. Talk of being inhuman and numb! It was she who had been
inhuman, and utterly numb to the feelings of others, only intent on
getting away and not caring how many lies she told. Just because she was
bored and tired; just because, having stupidly said something bound to
rouse Audrey, she felt she couldn't go through any resulting scene. And
wasn't everybody, nearly, by the Sunday evening of a week-end party,
bored and tired? And hadn't most of the guests by that time said
something bound to rouse somebody? But other guests, more decent than
herself, didn't go away and ruin their hostess's dinner plans; other
guests didn't go off, simply because they were afraid they would have to
sit next to Major Cookham.

Spoilt, selfish, unforgivable behaviour. What could she do to make up?
Nothing, she well knew; and she well knew that she had seen the last of
Conderley. She didn't like to face this, but at the back of her mind she
was sure it was true. His book was closed for ever. The odd, short
epilogue to the story, twenty years later, that had just taken place at
Upswich, was finished, and now indeed it was the end. Sad, this was; one
more bit of emptiness added to her life. And the glow having ebbed out
of her, the first glow of successfully getting away, and the succeeding
glow of anger at her own conduct, she now felt most uncomfortably flat,
cold, and miserable.

Staring out of the window at the hedges flashing past, hedges lit up for
a second and then gone black--very like her own life, thought the
dejected Fanny--she tried to rally herself by considering the absurdity
of feeling such desolate sensations because of Jim, without whom she had
done very well for so long. He was nothing now but a kind, fumbling old
man, doing his uninteresting best according to lights growing every day
dimmer. But in spite of recognizing this, of knowing this was true, she
couldn't get rid of the notion that if it were possible to unwind him,
to strip off one by one the layers of the years, there he would still
be, the man who used to fill her arms with flowers, and feed her, with
reckless passion, on plovers' eggs when they were practically priceless.

Also, she might have added, but preferred not to, the man who lived only
for her, and who all but died because of her. Instinctively she shut out
these more piteous aspects. Besides, how foolish they seemed now. Who
would imagine, looking at poor old Jim, that he ever had had enough life
in him nearly to die? Just as well that she couldn't unwind him, that he
must stay bound up tight as a mummy in his further twenty years. One
didn't really want repetitions, however lonely and empty life gradually
became. And she fell to thinking of another of her adorers--she hadn't
been able to endure him for long, this one, because the moment he left
off talking love she couldn't understand a word he said,--who used
obstinately to assert that the past is really as present as the present,
and that if only she were to approach it from the proper angle she would
find she was still doing everything she had ever done; still, she
supposed the tiresome man would have insisted, holding those flowers,
still, awful thought, eating those plovers' eggs, and poor Jim still
going through the dismal process of all but dying.

How miserable. One would be terrified to do anything if one believed
things like that, for fear of being caught in endless repetition. No;
repetitions were bad things. And it was when Jim began to be a
repetition himself, going round and round is the same circle of
overpowering devotion, that she had felt forced, if she wished not to
suffocate, to pass on to the fresh woods and pastures new of Edward; and
she mustn't now, just because it was dark, and she was tired and
elderly, forget these facts and begin to be sentimental about him. Her
proper attitude, and she insisted on adopting it, was to rejoice that he
was freed from the encumbrance of emotion, and smug and content with his
Audrey. Also, that he was never going to be lonely, and never would have
to make the acquaintance of that frightening condition. It was she,
Fanny, who was going to be the lonely one. In her life was no loving
spouse to make her important and wonderful. On the contrary, after
having been very important and most wonderful for so long to so many
people she was rapidly becoming just poor Fanny. She felt it; she knew
it; and it was awful. But never mind that now--let her think for a
moment longer of Jim, long enough to bless him and bid him good-bye, and
then finally, and for ever, forget him.

"Good-bye, Jim," she whispered, at once proceeding to perform, with
bowed head, this last rite. "Good-bye, dear darling Jim I used to know.
Thank you for everything, and bless you."

He, in the warmly lit dining-room at Upswich, eating the particularly
good dinner intended for Fanny, his table covered with fresh carnations
and coloured candles and the family silver and the beautiful old
Conderley glass, all set out to do her honour--he, sitting there wrapped
in the atmosphere of restored harmony and affection produced by the baby
Audrey wasn't, as it afterwards turned out, going to have, had of course
no idea that he was being blessed, thanked, and parted from in a cold
dark car, somewhere between Colchester and Chelmsford, by her who had
once been his whole life. Yet, in the act of raising his glass privately
to his wife, at a moment when the Cookhams chanced to be engaged in
eagerly telling each other things they all knew already--the kind
gesture would have made Audrey happier if she had been more sure about
that baby--he suddenly hesitated, put it down again, and looked
troubled.

"Oh, Lord--what have I done now?" Audrey hastily asked herself; but as
she couldn't remember having been anything but as good as gold since the
reconciliation in the bedroom, she picked up her own glass, smiled
hopefully, and said, "Well, Jim?"

"I was only thinking--" he began; but again he hesitated, and looked
troubled.

He never finished the sentence. He didn't, after all, drink any health.
For what he was thinking, and thinking with, perhaps, his last ache of
all because of her, was, "Poor Fanny."




VI


In Bethnal Green that evening, a place Fanny was bound to pass through,
the clergyman called Hyslup, in whom she had once been interested
because he loved her so much and had a golden voice, was holding a
mission service; it being Lent, and he being zealous.

He was holding the service in Bunbury Mews, a small sidestreet off the
main road; and having a great natural gift of speech, besides a burning
belief that what he preached was the one way of salvation, he easily
collected a devout crowd. Issuing forth from his little tin mission-room
after the evening service on those Lenten Sundays, dressed in a cassock
and preceded by a gleaming cross, he would get on a chair provided and
held steady by a follower, and at once proceed, very beautifully, to
pour into the anxious ears of the poor, comfort, encouragement and hope.
There was a policeman on duty, but he did nothing to interfere with the
continually growing crowd beyond checking it when it threatened to
overflow into the main street, because he too wanted to listen; for the
preacher's were the words that go straight to every heart, and most men
would like, if possible, to be saved.

Fanny, feeling humble, and in the precise mood which welcomes being
saved, arrived at the corner of Bunbury Mews just as the tram in front
of her car stopped and held it up; and idly looking out of the window
she perceived with astonishment, a few yards away on a chair and engaged
in impassioned gesture, him she still occasionally thought of as sweet
little Miles. At the same moment Manby, from her seat in front, saw him
too, and was equally astonished.

"Why, there's that 'Yslup," she said, almost with excitement to the
chauffeur. "You know--'im who used to be about her ladyship so much."
Adding, for she connected him only with luncheon-parties in Charles
Street and flowers he kept on sending, and assiduous calls, "Well, I
never."

Here was one of those coincidences life does sometimes provide. Greatly
astonished by it, at once reading into it something probably extremely
significant, Fanny put down the window to see if she could hear.

She couldn't, but it was evident that her one-time worshipper was being
eloquent. The look on the listeners' faces told her that; and it
surprised her, for she remembered him chiefly as tongue-tied, as one who
gazed rather than conversed. Yet, when he did speak, how golden had been
his voice, how richly had it reverberated down her spine! It used to
make her think of ripe apricots, of bursting figs. The first time he
came out of his lovelorn silence sufficiently to ask if he might call
her Fanny, she thought she had never heard a name more beautiful; and
when a few days later he confessed, after a struggle which for all its
speechlessness was obvious, that he worshipped her, the brief words set
the room quivering with music.

Sitting in the car, she watched him with deep interest. Here was
somebody who might help her. If he had the words of Eternal Life, as she
suspected from the rapt attentiveness of his hearers, why shouldn't he
spill some of them over on her? Perhaps religion was, after all, what
she really needed, though she must say she didn't think much of the idea
of being beaten to one's knees. Still, if it would make her less
forlorn, if it would distract her attention from the way the years were
letting her down, it might be worth trying. Only a few minutes before,
when her chauffeur in his passion for speed had almost dashed into a
ditch, and her impulse had been to tap on the glass and immediately
dismiss him and set about finding somebody safer, she had been stopped
by a gloomy wonder why she should bother any more about being safe. What
for? What did a woman in her sort of shoes, worn-out shoes fifty years
old, want still to save herself up for? And if religion would protect
her from this kind of defeatist thinking, and succeed in hoodwinking
her--persuading her, she meant--that her soul, if she tried hard enough,
might presently take on all the beauty, if of a different kind, her body
used to have, and all its delight, of a different kind too, in living
and doing and looking forward, she would be willing at least to try it.

With Miles's help. Rather sweet, thought Fanny, beginning to smile
again, to revive her relationship with Miles on a higher, a spiritual
plane. She hadn't yet, owing to circumstances, ever been on a religious
spiritual plane. With Jim she had climbed on to the plane of poetry,
though only staying on it as long as he held her there; but that was a
lower plane than the religious one--or wasn't it? Anyhow she would talk
to Miles, and see what he had to suggest. And a happy facility for
cheering up being one of Fanny's characteristics, she at once, at the
prospect of possible help, began to feel better, shook off her gloom,
and became alertly attentive to what was going on on the chair.

So this was Miles, now; this vehement figure, doing what he liked with a
crowd. He had found his tongue, then, since leaving her--or was it she
who had left him? Well, anyhow he was the one who went out of the
door,--and the tongue he had found appeared to be the very tongue of
angels. Watch those intent faces round him. See how thirstily they drank
in every word. All this must have been in him when she knew him, and she
had never suspected it. Perhaps he had been handicapped by loving her so
much. Perhaps she hadn't taken enough pains to help him to
self-expression, he being very much outside her usual circle, an obscure
young clergyman from Kensington, met at a bazaar, and only invited to
her house because of his manifest, touching devotion, and the really
lovely way he said How do you do and Good-bye.

As far as she could remember, he wasn't a great success. Her friends
used to take her aside and say, "Darling, _what_ a little sweet--but why
do you make him so speechlessly happy?"

Chronologically he came between Perry Lanks and the man who said the
past was the present, and at first she had liked him because, after the
clever Lanks, he had seemed so restful. There was, or seemed to be, a
childlike simplicity about him in those days, an almost dewiness. Later
he bored her for this very reason. Brains, she found, judging him to be
without them, were what, after all, she preferred; for by that time she
was very much used to the company of more or less able men, from each of
whom, as they passed impetuously through her life, she picked up bits of
knowledge and shreds of ideas.

From Miles she picked up nothing. He merely sat silent and gazed; and
after a while this bored her. Still, she had cried at the parting. He
had blessed her on saying good-bye for the last time, and she remembered
thinking how dear it was of him to bless her, poor Miles, and she had
cried.

       *       *       *       *       *

Now here he was, changed beyond belief, into somebody positively
exciting. How long was it since he sat silent and just gazed? Five
years? Seven years? No, it must be more. He was thirty then--the sort of
age at that time beginning to interest her, and he now looked as if he
might be forty, worn by his own fire, and probably also by fasting.
Clergymen who wore cassocks were apt to fast. She didn't know why one
thing should involve the other, but it seemed to. She had an aunt who
married a clergyman, and he wore cassocks too, and on Fridays and in
Lent would hardly eat a thing, and then was so cross nobody could stay
in the same room. She wondered what Miles was like about the
house--whether, half starved, and shattered by his own eloquence, he
didn't go home and be rather short with his wife. Or perhaps he hadn't a
wife? There was a kind of fierce fleshlessness about him that suggested
thoroughness in doing without things. It suited him to be fleshless.
Dear Miles, how nice he looked now. She felt so warmly always to those
who had loved her, so ready, when she had had time to get over them, to
be friends; and now, seeing Miles again, how much she would like to know
if life had treated him nicely since that sad day when they parted. What
was he saying, she wondered, with all that emphasis? Why shouldn't she
get out, and go close enough to hear? There was no reason why she should
hurry back to Claridge's, and seeing how chance had thrown him in her
way, it seemed a pity not to make the most of it.

So she tapped on the glass, and signed to the chauffeur to come round
and open the door.

Just at that moment the tram in front went on again, and the cars behind
wanted to go on too, and there was some confusion. The chauffeur, unable
to hurry her because of having to be respectful, felt his situation
acutely, with a policeman shouting at him in front, held-up cars
bellowing at him behind, while his lady, incapable of being flustered,
and used to doing what she chose and how she chose and when she chose,
with her customary grace and dignity took her time.

"What is this place?" she paused on the running-board to inquire,
looking round her.

He was hard put to it to make the words Bethnal Green sound polite.

"Bethnal Green, is it?" repeated Fanny, still looking round her, while
the hootings became frantic. "You go on, Griffiths--" as if he could
help going on--"and wait for me farther down the road." And closely
followed by Manby, she walked into the crowd with the air of one
expecting it to make room for her; which, impressed by her being sure it
would, it did.

       *       *       *       *       *

Miles was watching her. He had been watching the main road ever since
the uproar of horn-blowing drew his attention to it, and had seen her
get out of her car and stand a moment above the crowd.

Fanny. Come back, just as he had at last realized, after long
bitterness, what he really owed her. Everything, he owed her. With
gratitude he recognized what she had done for him, in breaking his
heart. From the most miserable creature on earth, a clergyman enthralled
by a woman not his wife, she had set him on his feet, restored him to
what he had always known was his special gift, the power to move
multitudes, and been the real cause, strange though it might seem, that
he could now, single-mindedly, devote himself to God.

He was glad that she had come, so that he could say Thank you. He was
glad, too, to find he had no shred of his former feeling left, and could
watch her approach with a detachment so complete that even while he
watched he continued, uninterruptedly, to be eloquent. His sister. His
greatly changed, and, he was afraid, from her appearance as she drew
closer and he saw her more plainly, definitely sinful sister. Well, so
much the better. He could help her. His work didn't lie among the good,
but among the bad. Just as she had once helped him by casting him forth,
so could he now help her, repaying the debt he owed her by presenting
her, at what appeared to be, so much had she aged, almost the eleventh
hour, with the prospect of salvation.

Her unexpected presence seemed to inspire him. He had never, he felt,
spoken so well. He prayed that some at least of his words might wing
their way into the hidden, and he was sure arid, recesses of her soul.
And indeed Fanny was listening very attentively. It gave her the
greatest pleasure, having got near enough, to hear what wonderful things
were coming out of Miles's mouth. How delightful, she thought, immensely
pleased that he should have turned out so well. Close up, too, he was
really rather beautiful. Fasting became him; and the inner flames by
which he seemed consumed were evidently doing him nothing but good.

Interested, she watched and listened. He used to be a little fat. Well,
not fat perhaps, but chubby; which was why, when he sat silent and
didn't say "Fanny", or things like that in his heart-shaking voice, she
hadn't been able to feel as if he were particularly attractive. Most
unfair, of course, that a silly thing like chubbiness should put a lover
at a disadvantage, but it did; and for this one, whose great gift was
his delicious voice and, as she now saw, his power over words, to be
speechless with adoration, as well as chubby, was a disaster. She was so
glad he had fasted it away, and got over being speechless, and got over
everything, and was finally landed, triumphant and inspired, on that
chair--helped up on to it, she clearly saw, really by her.

These men owed her a great deal, reflected Fanny, full of an almost
personal pride in the eloquence proceeding from the chair. They made a
tremendous fuss at the time of their several departures out of her life,
wringing her heart-strings and giving her a painful feeling of having
perhaps been unkind, but in fact each departure was the beginning of
better and happier things for them. Look at Jim, so smug and contented
with his Audrey. Look, now, at Miles. Impulsively, she tore a leaf out
of her engagement book, and scribbled, _Miles, you are marvellous. You
must let me see you. Can't I come and help you eat your supper when
you've finished being such a wonder? Where do you have it?_

                                                            _Fanny_.

She gave it, with a shilling, to a boy near her, and asked him to get
it, somehow, to Mr. Hyslup.

"Father 'Yslup?" queried the boy.

"I dare say," agreed Fanny.

"'Im on the chair?"

"That's the man."

With the practised hand of one used to having notes sent him while he
was speaking, Miles took it from the boy, glanced at it without the
least break in what he was saying, and looking straight at Fanny, where
she stood wedged in among his intent flock, raised his hand and briefly
made the sign of the cross. His flock, though a little surprised that
this should be done in the middle of the address, took it as being of
general application and bowed its heads, but Fanny knew it was for her,
and said to herself, gratified, "Darling Miles."

But what did he mean? That she was to wait? That he would speak to her
afterwards? That she was being dismissed? He had made this same gesture
over her at the miserable parting last time she saw him, when it was she
who was dismissing him. No, he wasn't dismissing her now, she decided,
he was blessing her, just as he had blessed her then; and it made her
feel as if she were framed in blessings, the one then and the one now,
and this gave her the agreeable sensation, frequent in old days but rare
indeed lately, of being safe and taken care of.

So she waited, and felt warmly towards him. And as she was so soon going
to be with him her first thought, naturally, was what she looked like,
and she wondered if it would be unseemly, or wrong, to open her bag, and
attend to her face a little. Only powder, she would use; nothing scarlet
or black. After all, this was an open-air meeting, it wasn't as if it
were church. She could move behind the big man in front of her, and tend
her head.

But Miles seemed to have developed quite extraordinarily in every way,
and nothing, apparently, escaped him. For, having edged behind the man
in front, and seen in her little glass how urgent it was at once to do
something, no sooner had she started most carefully, and as she imagined
invisibly, applying the powder, than he, in his sermon, or discourse, or
address, or whatever one would call it, began to talk of harlots.

Not that this would have mattered, because sooner or later all clergymen
get to harlots, but what seemed rather to underline his remarks was that
with one accord the people round her turned their heads and looked at
her. Pure coincidence, of course; though it appeared to make Manby very
angry, who glared about her and said in subdued but distinct
tones--subdued, because she felt she was very nearly in church, and
distinct because she wished for no possible misunderstanding, "Your
ladyship shouldn't condescend to such places as this."

"Be quiet," rebuked Fanny, who was used to being looked at, and knew she
wasn't a harlot; so what did it matter? "I want to listen." And she
continued, having begun--for it is impossible only half to powder one's
face--to arrange herself as nicely as possible, while at the same time
attending to what Miles had to say.

It was wonderful, what he had to say. Everything that lovely voice
touched at once became important and beautiful. And such passion, and
such conviction! His body positively vibrated. Sinners of every sort,
harlots, publicans, women taken in adultery--all were transmuted, at his
touch, into purest gold. They turned, she thought, into the most
fascinating figures, dealt with by this artist. His publicans were full
of atmosphere. His women taken in adultery sheer music. When he came to
them, Fanny's immediate neighbours showed a tendency to look round at
her again, but were intimidated by Manby's glares, who was now well on
the watch.

Fanny didn't mind their looking, nor what they thought. Let them look,
she said to herself, busily powdering, let them think. She had never
been taken in adultery, so what did it matter? Manby was silly. Servants
were very silly about that sort of thing, always terrified lest they and
their belongings should be suspected of not being respectable. Poor
things, they missed a lot of fun; and not only fun, but very lovely
happinesses like poetry, and shining illusions. How pleasant it would be
for them if they could understand a little of the angel-simplicity of
just dear, kind love, of love without any fuss of lawfulness and
hard-and-fast bargaining first in a church, of sweetly secret love, of
love which, even if it ended in tears, had meanwhile been the warmest,
friendliest thing in life. Indeed, in spite of her own experiences, she
had sometimes doubted whether one could ever be friends, real,
comfortable, easy friends with anybody, unless one had begun by being
lovers. But she supposed Manby couldn't be expected to grasp that.

And having finished her face she put the powder away, shut her bag, and
was ready to join in the final hymn; which she did with great pleasure,
for she used to sing it when she was a child, and both words and tune
brought back sunny memories of before she grew up, and knew what being
so beautiful was going ultimately to do to her.

In fact, Fanny enjoyed herself. She spent a very pleasant and, for her,
unusual half-hour; and now, after the blessing had dismissed, or tried
to dismiss, the crowd which seemed reluctant to go away, with an
instinctive little pat of her fur, and an instinctive little pull of her
hat, she prepared for the further interest of supper with a purified,
developed, and immensely improved Miles.

       *       *       *       *       *

Their greeting was brief--warm on her side, and hurried on his, and he
at once led her away in the direction of his lodgings.

Manby followed. Fanny hadn't told her to, but she wasn't going to lose
sight of her lady in such a place. Besides, she distrusted 'Yslup, as
she thought of him, there being no h's, and very few Mr.'s, in Manby's
thoughts. He couldn't, she felt, be a real gentleman, or he wouldn't,
having sat at table in Charles Street, stand on it chair in Bethnal
Green. It was a come-down, and Manby had no use for come-downs, and was
worried by seeing her lady going off, all friendly and chatty, with this
one. She followed, saying to herself, What next? while the people they
met stood aside respectfully and with a marked discretion, to let them,
including Manby, pass.

"Do you know what they are thinking, Fanny?" Miles asked, having gravely
returned several sets of grave greetings.

"No. Do you?"

"Of course I do. My people are open books to me. They are thinking, and
hoping, that I am saving you."

"Is that why they look down their noses?"

"It has nothing to do with the way they may look," he said shortly.

"Well, my sweet--" he frowned at words which used to unlock heaven--"it
would be very charming if it were true."

"There is nothing charming about being saved, Fanny," he rebuked.

Already, in the short distance they had walked, she had said several
things which, needing rebuke, prevented the conversation from
developing--things that broke up rather than helped build. How little,
he thought, she had changed. Except in appearance, and there the right
word was havoc, she hadn't changed at all, and appeared to have profited
nothing from the usually chastening passage of time. There was the same
easy assurance, the same certitude that if she praised he was bound to
be delighted, the same incapacity for remaining serious, which he
remembered in Charles Street, and which had been characteristic of every
one of the foolish women he met at her house. She was, in fact, still
Charles Street, while he for years, and he thanked God for it, had been
pure Bethnal Green.

"Well, if you don't like charming, I'll say wonderful," she said,
looking at him with a smile. Poor woman, she shouldn't smile, he
thought, for each time she did she merely brought out a different set of
wrinkles. "It would be wonderful if you saved me, dear Miles. Do try. I
wouldn't be a bit surprised if you succeeded. You could talk anybody
round, I'm certain."

"It has nothing to do with talking round, Fanny," he again rebuked. "A
priest doesn't talk round. He prays, and grace is given."

She apologized, but quite cheerfully, as though rebukes were nothing to
her. "My words are all the wrong ones this evening," she said, not
looking at all, he noted, as if she really thought so. And for her part
she wondered whether, though outwardly grown so thin, he wasn't still
perhaps a little chubby inside. His mind, she meant. Padded.

He accepted her apology with an inclination of his head. "Unless you
have greatly progressed," he said, "in matters of religion, since I used
to call on you--" what an odd way of putting it, thought Fanny--"you are
probably still abecedarian, and accordingly bound to blunder."

"Do you mind telling me what abecedarian means?" she said, apparently
meekly; but he dared say she wasn't at all meek really. She never used
to be. Kind, yes; too kind, as it tragically turned out, for how had it
not led him on. But never meek.

He explained that it meant pertaining to the A B C.

She inquired whether he thought, then, she was still, spiritually, in
the nursery.

He replied, "In God's nursery, Fanny--" whereupon, for a space, she was
silent.

It gave him satisfaction to keep on calling her Fanny, the name he used
hardly dare utter; it made him feel how completely the tables were
turned. Indeed, there is no doubt that Miles, as they walked side by
side, and each succeeding lamp-post gave him another glimpse of her
face, had some difficulty in not congratulating himself. He wouldn't
have been human otherwise. Her age, too; he had had no idea, when he
used to call on her, how much older she was than himself. It hadn't been
noticeable then. Now it hit him in the eyes that he himself was at the
beginning of the best years of a man's life, while she was certainly
well on in the worst years of a woman's. And what a difference there was
in their positions; he, become a conscious instrument of God's grace,
while she--really, though, he wouldn't care to say what she had become,
except that it was something manifestly in need of a very great deal of
forgiveness. If, in God's mercy, he were to be chosen as the instrument
for bringing this once proud beauty, humbled, to the throne of pardon,
it would be, he felt, without any doubt the most wonderful moment of his
career.

       *       *       *       *       *

Meanwhile, however, he couldn't but notice that she seemed far, as yet,
from being humbled. She had looked at him and smiled when he told her
she was in God's nursery--merely smiled, without saying anything; almost
as people smile, only it was impossible to credit this, when they are
making allowances. Was she, then, entirely unaware of the immense change
in their relative positions? The light assurance of her behaviour
suggested she still imagined he was her slave. Strange that the vanity
which accompanies beauty--excusable, perhaps, when there is such great
beauty, or at any rate understandable--should persist after the beauty
was gone. Poor woman; left without ballast, and ageing so rapidly. He
felt very sorry for her, not even able to smile now without looking
older than ever. But in spite of being sorry he must, nevertheless,
before the evening was over, make it clear how matters really stood. He
would do this by thanking her, with proper solemnity, and indeed with
all his heart, for the service she had done him, years ago, in releasing
him from his shameful bonds, and the mere dwelling on the shamefulness
of the bonds, and the mere insistence on his joy of being quit of them,
must certainly, he judged, clear things up for her.

"Don't walk so fast," she here interrupted, these reflections having
invigorated his steps.

"I beg your pardon," he said, slowing down, but not at all liking the
way she had almost issued a command.

The proud beauty again, he thought, unable not to feel a human
resentment. In the old days she used to tell him to do this and do that,
and with what abject eagerness had he not rushed off to obey her. But
those days were for ever gone, and the time in her life arrived when she
should at least, he considered, say Please.

"I forget you can no longer be very active, Fanny," he therefore said.

She didn't, however, mind this; she still only smiled at him. "No," she
answered, "I'm not several other of the nice things I used to be,
either, I'm sorry to say. But there's one thing I'm much more than I
ever was before, and that is glad to see you, Miles darling."

Darling. Another endearment. And so warmly declaring that she was much
more pleased to see him than she used to be.

He thought it wisest to behave as if he hadn't heard. Often it is best,
as well as safest, he knew, to pretend not to have heard, not to have
seen, not to have known; and he began telling her with deliberate
distinctness of his vows of celibacy, of his dedication to the religious
life, with all that it implied of poverty and austerity, and how his
household arrangements were presided over by his sister, who was also
vowed--perhaps unnecessarily vowed, he had sometimes privately thought,
looking at her--to celibacy. "My real sister," he said, "though you,
Fanny, are my sister too."

"Am I? I like being that," she answered. "It's a friendly, comfortable
relationship. An immense improvement on our old one--I mean," she added,
seeing his frown, "on when you used to call on me." And she told herself
that perhaps Miles, as a brother, might be quite useful in helping her
with Job. Being a priest, he might come to Charles Street and lay him.

"I have so many of them," sighed Miles--immediately strangling the sigh.

"Many what?"

"Sisters."

"Were your parents so fruitful?"

"All poor and suffering women are my sisters," he said coldly; for
though he continually urged fruitfulness on such of his flock as were
married, for some reason the word annoyed him applied to his own
parents.

"Are they?" said Fanny, more doubtfully; for to be one of a crowd of
miserables, each thinking he was the very man to help her with her
particular Job, and taking up his time, didn't seem so good. "But,
darling--" he frowned--"_I'm_ not poor and suffering, and I'm quite well
off."

At this he paused. Beneath a lamp-post he paused in order to face her,
while a group of people approaching made room for them, respectfully
stepping off the pavement.

"Well off, Fanny?" he inquired. "You think yourself well off? Let me
tell you," he solemnly assured her, "that you are positively
poverty-stricken."

But even this only pleased her. How very understanding of him, she was
thinking. He wasn't, after all, completely padded inside. By
poverty-stricken he meant her starving soul, and her uneasy, groping
mind, and her heart that was well on the way to becoming a skeleton now
that even Dwight had gone--all the parts of one that begin, evidently,
to give trouble after fifty. He had guessed this. He knew it
instinctively. Living sexlessly, she reflected, he had probably
developed feminine intuitions. It was what happened, so she understood,
even in the animal world. Anyhow, Manby had a tom-cat once that site had
had to have turned into a neuter, and the first thing it did afterwards
was to produce kittens.

Pleased, she smiled at him, the light from the lamp overhead glaring
down pitilessly on her face. "I'm so glad," she said. "Glad?" he
repeated, surprised. "Do you in the least know what I mean?"

"Yes. That I'm a poor, drifting, more or less lost soul"--curious, he
thought, how much women liked to be told their souls are poor and
lost--"and so you're going to help me. You can, you know, Miles. I don't
mean so much about religion, though. It's Job. He's worrying me to
death. He badly needs something done about him."

       *       *       *       *       *

Miles stared at her. Who was Job? Searching in his memory, he found no
Job. Her marriage had been so long before his time, and he so much
outside Fanny's world, that he had never heard of Job. Not, that is, as
Job. There had been, he knew, a Skeffington in her life, for how else
would she have come by the name? And he knew, too, that Skeffington was
a sinful man, from whom she had been obliged to part; but he didn't
connect him with anyone called Job.

"Who is Job?" he therefore asked, watching the face so cruelly slashed
by the strong top-light. And he thought, as he stared at it, and
remembered how lovely it used to be, that she was indeed a poor, lost,
drifting soul, for all her grand clothes and glistening car--a trivial
poor soul, too, wasting her time trying to cover up the ruin left by her
departed youth with this lamentable façade of paint and plaster. Yes,
undoubtedly trivial. Trivial, flippant, soaked in worldliness. Before
doing anything for her, in the way of helping her to God's feet, he
sternly decided, she must wash her face.

"Darling," she said, amused by his question--how much he disliked being
called darling--"it's refreshing to find somebody who doesn't know. Job
was a husband I used to have. But I can't very well explain him under a
lamp-post. He's more an indoor subject. Come along, and I'll tell you
when we get to your lodgings."

A husband I used to have. Incurably flippant. And, Come along--as though
he were a little boy, or a dog.

Miles went along, because there was nothing else he could do, but he
went resentfully. She didn't appear to have the remotest idea of his
present position and--he said it in all humility, ascribing it entirely
to God's mercy--importance. Yet she had stood in the crowd, and been
flooded, with the rest of them, by words one doesn't, he well knew, hear
every day. He couldn't not be aware that God had raised him very high
among orators, so high that, had he chosen to take his gift into
politics there was no position he might not have aspired to. And would
she then, he wondered, have told a Prime Minister, as arrogantly as she
told the really far nobler priest, to come along?

Fanny, with a most annoying serenity, was going along herself, taking
for granted that he would follow. Used for years now to veneration, to
deference, to his own people stopping when he stopped, and remaining
motionless till he himself chose to move, he watched her with an
irritation unbecoming, he recognized with real pain, in a priest, but
impossible for the moment to subdue. True, his own people only knew him
as their father in God, their guide and leader up the steep ascent to
heaven, and had never seen him abject with infatuation at a woman's
feet. Fanny, alas, had frequently thus seen him. Every time he paid his
increasingly agonizing calls, she had seen him more abject and more
infatuated, a slave craving to give proofs of his abasement, an eager
dog panting for a kind word; and with bitter shame he acknowledged that,
from her point of view, there was some small justification for her
present blindness. Before the evening was over, however, she should
cease to be blind. His sister would help him remove the scales, for she,
at least, being its daily witness, exactly knew his standing. And
meanwhile, there was nothing for it but to do, for the last time, the
deluded, arrogant woman's bidding, and go along.

Inwardly exasperated, but outwardly composed, he therefore followed; and
so did Manby, who had been waiting under a different lamp-post, and
asking herself at intervals, as she had so often asked herself during
her years in Fanny's service, What next?

       *       *       *       *       *

She, Manby, became a difficulty when they arrived at his lodgings. He
hadn't known she was there till he turned to Fanny, at the top of the
steep, oil-clothed stairs, to warn her she must take his rooms, and his
sister, and supper as she found them--she wondered how else she could
take them--and saw a figure below in the little passage.

It was a sober, fat figure in black, and evidently attendant on Fanny.
Her maid, no doubt. One of those pampered parasites a spoilt rich woman
is infested with. Like ticks on a dog. Swollen with what they feed on.

Once more he was annoyed; and strange and mortifying was it to Miles,
who so much hoped he had conquered his baser sides and could now no
longer, by God's grace, be shaken out of his serenity, how frequently he
had allowed himself to be annoyed during the last quarter of an hour.
Indeed, continually. Ever since, that is, he began to walk with Fanny.
But really now, this maid--what was one to do with somebody's grand
lady's maid in such lodgings as his, where the cooking was done on a
gas-stove in a corner of the living room, and there was no kitchen in
which a servant might sit and wait? Fanny was obviously a sinner, and as
such would be welcomed by his sister, whose business it was to welcome
sinners, but all over the maid, plainly to be seen even at that
distance, was written that she led a blameless life.

He had no time for, nor interest in, blameless lives, and neither had
his sister, for they both lived to bring light into darkness, and if
there were no darkness why waste light? Besides, the maid, as he had at
once noticed, was fat, and therefore not a person who fasted, and if she
came up and had to sit with them in their little living room, they would
be bound to offer her a share of the supper, and she would no doubt
accept it. He knew exactly what there was for supper. Every Sunday night
in winter it was the same: a dish of potatoes in their jackets, beetroot
salad, and a tin of sardines--ample for two, especially as his sister
didn't eat sardines, hardly enough for three, now that there was Fanny,
and impossible for four. Somebody would have to be sacrificed, and since
it was true that _noblesse oblige_, it wouldn't be the maid.

Vainly Miles tried to stop his thoughts from running thus sensually, but
he was so hungry, and so tired, and so much in need of nourishment, that
the thought of anybody taking most of his supper from him was hardly to
be borne. All the week he had strictly fasted, and to-day, Sunday, was
the day he had been trying not to look forward to, when there would be a
little more to eat. Lamentable, he recognized, to be such a weak and
inferior faster. It might, of course, be because he didn't fast enough.
He had been told that if one ate nothing at all, and only sipped water,
one presently reached the stage when food no longer mattered. Ought he,
then, to try to reach that stage? Was it required of him to begin to
practise an austerity so great that it left nothing whatever in his life
to comfort him except, three times a day, a little water?

His exhausted flesh shrank from so depressing an undertaking. That
night, at least, it could bear no further trial. He must have his
supper. Whatever happened in the week following, he must, this once
more, have his supper. Yet he couldn't leave that maid down there in the
cold passage while he ate it; and he couldn't leave her, either, on the
tiny landing, where there wasn't room to turn round, and nothing to sit
on. He was faced, therefore, by having to ask her in. He would have to
look on while she probably ate most of everything. And it was with a
sinking heart, though he well knew that a priest's heart should not thus
sink, that he said to Fanny, as he took out his latchkey, "I believe
your maid is downstairs."

"What--Manby?" exclaimed Fanny, peering over the stairrail into the
darkness below.

"Did your ladyship call?" immediately replied Manby's voice, respectful
but determined.

       *       *       *       *       *

Manby. The name struck Miles's ears as though they had been boxed. He
forgot how hungry he was. He forgot about his supper. Manby. That woman.
Still with Fanny.

Vivid was his recollection of her, and tinglingly painful the knowledge
that she must equally vividly recollect him. He had never spoken to her,
but well did he know her. On several occasions during the shameful
period of his enthralment he had seen her--sent for by Fanny to bring
her something, a handkerchief or something, always at the most bitterly
disappointing moment for him, or coming out of the dining-room where she
had been arranging flowers for one of the frequent dinner-parties. But
on the last dreadful day of all--the recollection positively skinned
him--she came out of it just as he was stumbling down the stairs, his
face wet with tears, and in his heart only one prayer left, that he
might get out of the house without being seen. And there she was
standing and looking at him. And the recollection of the terrible
moment, he was shocked to find, still was able to pull all his skin off.
Out of the past it surged up again, hot and flaying, when he heard her
name. There was to be a dinner-party that evening, and Manby, whose gift
for arranging flowers had long been discovered and made use of, had just
finished setting out the results of her work on the dining-room table,
and she came out into the hall at the very moment when he was stumbling
down the stairs.

Astonished at the spectacle of a clergyman in such headlong descent, she
had stood and stared. She knew what must have happened, and she oughtn't
really, she told herself, to have been astonished, but he was the first
clergyman she had seen in this, to her, familiar situation, and perhaps
it was the contrast between his collar and his plight which transfixed
her.

As for him, a sudden light flooded his brain when he saw her expression,
revealing in a ghastly flash that she had witnessed this sort of
departure before. And he couldn't find his hat, because of being blinded
by tears, and his humiliation was complete when she came forward and
found it for him, and when his shaking fingers dropped it she picked it
up, and actually put it on his head for him.

No; he had hoped never to see Manby again.

       *       *       *       *       *

"You'd much better go and wait in the car," called down Fanny.

"Much better indeed," sternly reverberated Miles's ripe, resounding
voice.

"I couldn't find my way if I tried, m'lady," Manby, respectful but
determined, explained from below, for at sight of the dark stairs, which
didn't even smell as they should, she had made up her mind not to budge
from that house till her lady came out of it with her.

It was at this point that Miss Hyslup, hearing talk, opened the door a
slip and put her gaunt grey head out. "What is it, Miles?" she asked,
opening the door wider when she saw him.

He turned to Fanny. "This is my real sister," he explained, introducing
them. "And this, Muriel," he went on, taking Fanny's hand, "is my sister
in the Lord."

"Oh," said Muriel.

"What next?" thought Manby.

       *       *       *       *       *

Being shortsighted, Miss Hyslup could see none of Fanny's details in the
bad light, but only an effect of great good looks and slender smartness.
Furs. Fair hair. A gleam of pearls. A smell of violets.

She stood peering at her in uncertainty. The sisters in the Lord usually
brought home by Miles weren't at all like this one; they were poor,
miserable creatures whose one need was, quickly, food, and next a good
warm and dry by the fire, and then words of advice, and finally a
ticket, along with her blessing, for the dispensary. With these she was
quite at home, and knew just what to say and do; but how deal, she
wondered, with anybody who seemed so overwhelmingly not in need as the
person on the landing?

"But you're a fine lady," she said, shy and doubtful, as she peered at
her. "How do you come to be one of my brother's sisters in the Lord?"

"It seemed to happen very suddenly," smiled Fanny. "Down in the street."

"Oh, I see. In the street," said Miss Hyslup, to whom everything at once
became clear. Well, she must do her best. It was her first experience of
the successful kind, and she wondered what such a one was doing in the
streets of Bethnal Green; but that was none of her business, and whoever
Miles brought home for help should get it.

Pulling herself together as much as she could, for she was a good deal
frightened, she advanced upon her duty as hostess-rescuer, and took
Fanny by the hand. It was part of her job to take these poor things, she
told herself, by the hand--you could wear a fur coat and still be a poor
thing, couldn't you? Just as you could wear a coronet, and still have a
kind heart--in a welcome which should at least have the appearance of
warmth. So, though nervously, she pressed the hand she held, and Fanny,
never one not to meet kindness half-way, cordially returned the
pressure.

This made Miss Hyslup still more nervous. She, she knew, was the one to
press, not the one to be pressed. Sometimes, at the end of an interview,
she would even bestow a kiss on a pale cheek, on a sorry cheek, on a
cheek accepting but never--she would have been immensely taken aback if
it had been--a cheek responding. Still, having a fur coat probably made
a difference to one's behaviour; it was not for her to judge. And with
an effort to stand up squarely to her duty she said, shy but determined,
"I am very glad to see you," drew her visitor into the room, pulled a
third chair up to the table, asked her to take off her things, and
expressed, in a timid but resolutely hospitable voice, the hope that she
was hungry--"Because," she said, "we are just going to have supper."

So far, so good. This was how she treated the poor ones, and it seemed
to work all right now, for her visitor was quite obedient, and did take
off her things, the movements she made pulling off her fur coat
appearing to let loose a thousand violets in the room. Fresh violets.
Violets of sin, Miss Hyslup was afraid, trying to prevent their
deliciousness from giving her too much pleasure by turning her head
away, but how sweet. Sad, she thought--oh, sad, _sad_--that God's lovely
creations should be used in payment of conduct she had never yet allowed
herself to imagine clearly. And in Lent, too.

"I can't offer you much, I'm afraid. A few sardines," she said, made
still more nervous by these scents of sin. Sin, she felt, oughtn't to
smell nice. It didn't, either, as a rule, as no one knew better than
herself.

"I love sardines," said Fanny, who had a feeling that she must somehow
make up, by being extra pleasant and extra appreciative, for the dismal
conditions these two lived in.

Miss Hyslup couldn't help wishing she didn't love sardines, for there
are limits to what a tin of them can do in the way of going round, and
on Sunday nights Miles seemed to need as many as he could get. The word
love, too, in that particular mouth, even if used only in connection
with sardines, surely was out of place? It was a holy word. It
represented a holy thing. Ought these poor women, grand and shabby ones
alike, to use it? She must say she hadn't yet heard the shabby ones
using it. This was the first of Miles's sisters from whose lips--faintly
Miss Hyslup shivered at the thought of Fanny's lips--it had fallen.

Perhaps having a fur coat emboldened its wearer. Anyhow, it was not for
her to judge. And rousing herself to the proper pitch of kindness, she
said, "I'm glad."

"There's a maid here," put in Miles, who had shut the door, and was
standing holding his biretta in his hand, too uncertain about what was
to happen next to hang it on its usual hook.

"A maid?" repeated his sister, pausing in the act of lifting the cover
from the dish in which the twelve sardines were neatly arranged in a
circle, each one's shoulder on the next one's tail. For a moment she
supposed he thus chose to describe someone neither married nor a widow.
She was aware her brother had unusual gifts of oratory and used them
freely. She never knew what words he might say next.--"Where?" she
asked, looking round nervously.

"Oh yes--mine. Downstairs," said Fanny, remembering Manby.

"Do you mean a lady's maid?" said Miss Hyslup, her heart sinking further
than ever. "Then," she added bravely--for was not a lady's maid, if
brought in by Miles, her duty too?--"she must come up as well." And she
cast a look of unhappy good-bye at the sardines.

The maid perhaps upset her more than anything. Violets and fur coats
were intimidating enough, but here was something much worse to face.
Should the lady's maid of one of these poor women be regarded as a poor
woman too? Did she come under the heading of Miles's sister?

She looked round the little room, already so much crowded that it seemed
on the verge of bursting. Could it hold any more? Yes, it would have to,
she said to herself, squaring her shoulders; it would have to hold a
lady's maid. Never in her life had she yet met one; and everything she
had heard of them was intimidating.

She made a movement towards the door.

"But you can't--there isn't room," protested Fanny, catching at her
sleeve and holding her back--a familiarity which only just failed to
give the nervous creature a fit. "You go," she said, turning to Miles.
"Tell her she'll get pneumonia standing there in the cold, silly old
obstinate thing, and she's to go back to the car at once, and if she
won't go alone you take her."

At this speech, Miss Hyslup felt as if she were struggling on a slippery
slope to keep her feet. A fur coat, a lady's maid, a car, and now, still
more surprising, orders. Yes, orders; orders to Miles, who was the very
fountain-head in that house, in that district, of orders himself. What
they must _earn_, the grand ones, to be so confident and high-handed!
And she found time to wonder, in the middle of much confusion of mind,
whether one of Miles's sisters, while in the full blast of her
prosperity, would be likely to accept either his ministrations or her
own help. It was her particular job to help bad but sorry women. This
one must be bad, or Miles wouldn't have brought her home, but she didn't
seem sorry. And why should she be sorry, Miss Hyslup, visited for a
moment by insight, asked herself, if she were, as she appeared to be, on
the very crest of her--well, engagements? The sorry, she hadn't been
able to help observing, though she didn't mention it to her brother,
seemed always to be those who couldn't go on because of no longer being
attractive. If they were still attractive, they waited to be sorry till
they had lost their looks. And sometimes, in moments of more extreme
lassitude--for she was, like most unloved women, in most things at
bottom listless and half-hearted--she wondered what the Kingdom of
Heaven, if one did manage to get there after all the trouble, could
possibly be like, crowded up with the battered.

       *       *       *       *       *

Miles had flushed deeply. Orders again, and orders given him in front of
Muriel, which made them so much worse. Such orders, too; involving a
_tête-à-tête_ walk with Manby, which he, faint for want of food, worn
out after his long day's preaching, was to take in the cold. Through the
raw February night he was to walk with Manby, with almost the one person
in the world he could never forgive. Well did he know she had done
nothing, that she had merely been a chance spectator, but he could never
forgive her for having seen him in the moment of humiliation. Fanny, who
was the humiliator, he could and did forgive, for she was a sinner and
he was going to save her, but the maid needed no saving. Patently
blameless, she was just a virtuous parasite. And again he thought of
her--though he tried not to, for, after all, he was a priest and it was
Lent--as a tick.

At once aware of the clouds on his brow, his sister looked at him
anxiously. She knew he was feeling having been given orders, poor Miles,
and it was really too bad that he should have to go out again that cold
night. But, on the other hand they couldn't allow the lady's maid to
perish, could they, seeing that they were in Bethnal Green precisely to
prevent occurrences of that kind. And willingly as she would have gone
herself, if only to clear her brother's brow of clouds--for no domestic
circle can have peace so long as it contains even a single clouded
brow--she couldn't, because of the way the newcomer was holding on to
her sleeve.

"I do think," she therefore said, hesitating, deprecating, apologetic,
as those are who feel they are between the devil and the deep sea, "that
perhaps she oughtn't to be left down there in the cold."

Muriel now, thought Miles bitterly, his brow darkening alarmingly. Even
Muriel. Backing the other one up.

This was women all over, he said to himself: they hung together. Put one
man with two women, and immediately they were banded against him.
Separately, it was easy to manage them. Separately, he had managed
Muriel perfectly, who, with hardly anyone of her own class in Bethnal
Green to egg her on to criticism, had done very well as a devoted sister
and fellow-worker. Health-and-comfort orders she had given him, such as
to put on thick clothes under his cassock when he was to address
meetings out of doors, or to take a hot drink at night if he felt a cold
coming on; but apart from these, which were well within her legitimate
sphere, he in everything was her guide and superior--far more than he
could ever have been to a wife, who would have seen him in moments when,
if she chose, she could make him beg.

Miss Hyslup, really alarmed by his expression, made a more determined
effort to free her arm and get away to the door. "I'll go, dear," she
said hastily.

But Fanny held on tight. "No, no," she protested. "Let him. He'll be
back in a minute, won't you," she added, turning to the outraged Miles.
And to his sister she said, "I believe you spoil him."

Miss Hyslup could only look, in frightened bewilderment, from one to the
other.

       *       *       *       *       *

There was nothing for it, Miles saw, but at least to pretend to go.

Quietly he opened the door, followed by his sister's anxious,
deprecating eyes, and went out, shutting it noiselessly behind him. That
Muriel should allow this to happen to him was unheard of, she who well
knew, if Fanny were unable to imagine it, how profoundly he needed rest
and food on Sunday evenings. Nothing, though, would induce him to do
anything about Manby. They might send him after her, and he might
pretend to go, but he wouldn't, really. And having shut the door so
slowly and carefully that it didn't make a sound, he stood on the little
landing without moving, and listened to the clearings of the throat
below that showed him she was still there.

She should remain there; and he would remain where he was--long enough,
that is, to make it plausible for him to go back into the room again and
say he had seen no sign of her. By not looking over the stair-rail, this
would be true. Jesuitical? Perhaps. But the picture of him escorting
Manby through the streets, Manby who, last time they met, put his hat on
for him and would, he had no doubt, have wiped his tears away into the
bargain if he hadn't rushed out of the house in time, was too hotly
humiliating for him to care. When a man is thrust into such a position,
he must use what weapons he can to get out of it. It wasn't his fault
that he was in it; it was Fanny's. Fanny had thrust him in, with her
orders and her high-handed interference. From the first day he met her
to the day she cast him forth she had caused nothing but trouble; and
now, after ten years of working out his salvation in Bethnal Green and
slowly forgetting her, here she was again, and here again, immediately,
was trouble.

Miles, at odds with himself, miserable that he should be forced into
duplicity, hungry and tired out, leant against the wall and tried to
raise himself above his situation by lifting up his heart in prayer,
while Manby, below, cleared her throat. But presently he discovered with
a shock that when she didn't clear her throat, and, after all, she
couldn't be expected to go on clearing it without stopping, he could
hear what his sister and Fanny were saying on the other side of the
shoddy door, as distinctly as if he were in the room.

Hating eavesdropping, just as he hated all underhand ways--though it
might fairly, he knew, be said that his own ways at that moment were
underhand--he did his best to shut out what was being said by putting
his fingers in his ears; but after a moment, finding the position too
tiring, he felt in the pocket of his cassock for something he could use
instead of his fingers, so that he needn't hold up his arms, and found
Fanny's note.

The very thing. Yet--was it?

He hesitated. After all, that handwriting had once been cherished, and
to use it for putting in his ears did seem rather discreditable. But
something being said in the room overcame his sentimental scruples--it
was Fanny asking Muriel how she came to have such a small brother, just
as if some of the greatest men hadn't been small: Napoleon, for
instance; and the poet Keats; and even, though he said it with all
reverence, from measurements taken in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb, our
Blessed Saviour Himself.

Always sensitive about being small, to hear it being mentioned by Fanny
decided him, and slowly and noiselessly he tore the note in half, rolled
the halves into two neat cylinders, and put one in each ear; and
immediately a curious satisfaction filled him, wholly unworthy, he knew,
but nevertheless having the quality of balm, for by this action he was
secretly degrading her, getting even with her, though she didn't know
it, paying her out.

Yes, but wasn't this very like spite? It startled him. He who preached
love, understanding, pity, forgiveness, wanting to pay somebody out! How
far, then, must he still be from grace, how earth-bound in bitter
uncharitableness.

And he sought to comfort himself by questioning if such a thought could
have been his own--for was it not his earnest intention to do what he
could to save the woman?--and, so seeking, he fell into the sin of
heresy. For if, he reasoned before he could stop himself, it was not his
own thought, while at the same time it was evil, it must have been
inserted into his mind by some strange and awful influence existing side
by side with, and getting the upper hand of, God.

Before he knew what he was about, he had fallen into the sin of heresy.

Appalled, he tried hastily to lift up his heart again in prayer. But it
remained inert. Nothing happened.

"I must fast more," the unhappy man decided.

       *       *       *       *       *

Left alone with Fanny, Miss Hyslup stood a moment uncertain, remembered
Miles's injunction frequently laid down--"It is essential," enjoined
Miles at regularly recurring intervals, "to show affection to these poor
women,"--was alarmed almost to petrifaction by having to show it to
somebody so grand, tried, as a beginning to smile, only succeeded in
making what she was sure must be an awful face, and finished by saying,
in a voice she did her best to keep steady, "Won't you sit down?"

Fanny sat down.

Miss Hyslup then searched for her spectacles. To gain time she searched,
and not only, though this was most important, so as to be able to see.
In her capacious pockets, in the drawer of the table, on the sideboard
crowded with tins of Ovaltine, of Sanatogen, of Oxo, of Benger's Food,
of the many different preparations with which she plied her gifted
brother to keep his strength up, she searched. Important in the highest
degree, she felt, that she should see plainly this most recent sister of
Miles. She must know what she was up against; for that she was up
against something outside her experience seemed certain.

Wretchedly short-sighted, without her glasses she was helpless, and a
prey to the oddest delusions. For instance, it appeared to her, without
them, that she was shut up alone with beauty, and she couldn't quite
believe that. She wasn't used to beauty. It never, except perhaps in the
shape of an occasional child, came her way, and that it should actually
have walked into her room and be taking, at her own request, a seat,
seemed profoundly unlikely. Yet this, as far as she could make out in
her blindness, was apparently what it was doing; accompanied by that
lovely smell, so different from the smells she was accustomed to, and
behaving with an easy-going familiarity to both her brother and herself
which took her breath away.

"Are you looking for something?" asked Fanny, ready, if she knew what it
was, to help. The question, she recognized, wasn't very intelligent, for
nothing could be more evident.

"My spectacles," said Miss Hyslup distractedly.

No; Fanny wouldn't help her look for spectacles. Lately she had been
altogether against people putting such things on.

Miss Hyslup went on searching. If she gained time, Miles would come back
and explain. He oughtn't to have brought anyone like this home without a
word of explanation. Used to being kind and patient for a long while
with his other sisters before they would come out of their shells, she
couldn't but see that this one hadn't got a shell at all. Composed and
at home she sat, as if, (_a_)--Miss Hyslup, conscious her brain was
liable to confusion, had a little private trick of getting her thoughts
under headings--they had known each other from infancy, and (_b_) as if
she had nothing to be ashamed of. This not only gave Miss Hyslup a
congested feeling of being left with her entire stock of kindness and
patience bottled up unneeded inside her, but also a sensation of
topsy-turviness, of being herself the one who was to be subjected to
comforting--in fact, of being herself the sinner.

She paused a moment in her search to stare down sideways at as much as
she could see, without her spectacles, of the problem Miles had left
her, and, as her custom was when in perplexity, cracked, one by one, the
joints of her hard-worked fingers.

"_Don't_ do that!" Fanny, wincing, wanted to cry out.

Aloud she said, in her turn, hoping to divert her hostess's attention
from her fingers, "Won't you sit down?"

But it can never be the turn of a guest-penitent to invite a
hostess-succourer to sit down, and Miss Hyslup, aware of this, more than
ever wished Miles would come back, and cracked her finger-joints yet
harder.

"_Please_ don't do that!" Fanny wanted to beg.

She didn't, because of manners; but smiling up at her told her, again
hoping to divert her attention, that she was so tall that her, Fanny's,
neck would break if she, Miss Hyslup, didn't sit down, and asked her how
she came to have such a small brother--thus deciding Miles, on the other
side of the door, to divide her note in two and put it in his ears.

How does one ever come to have brothers, small or big? Miss Hyslup, even
now, didn't quite know. Accustomed to regard questions as things needing
conscientious answers--she was of those who painstakingly give the facts
on being asked, How do you do,--this one disconcerted her extremely.
Children reverenced their parents, particularly once they were dead.
Children instinctively averted their gaze from considering any aspect of
their parents which wasn't fully dressed. She herself instinctively,
indeed with a kind of terror, averted her gaze from anything and
everything which might be said not to have all its clothes on.

However, her visitor didn't seem to expect an answer. She merely again
invited her to sit down, and Miss Hyslup found herself obeying, found
herself struggling with a most inappropriate impulse to say Thank you.

With an effort, she managed to stop herself in time, dropped into the
chair next her visitor, immediately felt something unusual beneath her,
and found she was sitting on her spectacles.

"Oh, there they are!" she exclaimed, getting up again.

"Who?" asked Fanny, turning her head to the door.

Luckily they were in their case.

She put them on, her hands shaking a little.

"Now I can see," she said.

"It's often better not to," said Fanny.

But she didn't really mind the poor old thing seeing, she didn't shrink
back, as she had taken to doing lately, from a close stare. This was
because she was too much filled with pity for Miles's sister, who had to
live in such miserable lodgings and only got cold sardines to eat on a
winter's night, to bother about herself. "Poor thing," she thought,
looking at the gaunt face so close to her own--"poor simple,
half-starved, probably put upon by Miles, _good_ poor thing"; while Miss
Hyslup, for her part, shocked at the difference strong spectacles could
make to what one was looking at, thought Poor thing too--poor painted,
haggard, smiling, but she dared say crying all right inside, poor thing.
Indeed, she went further than Fanny in pity, picturing the day when
there would be no fur coat, violets, lady's maid and car any more, the
day so terribly much nearer than it had seemed without her glasses, when
the last sixpence was spent, when the ditch Miles said these women, if
unrepentant, finished in, had been reached.

That way, picturing the inevitable end, she felt much less nervous, and
able to be affectionate. For the doomed, one could always feel
affection; one could feel affection for everybody, for positively
everybody, she had discovered, simply by realizing they were doomed.
When, as sometimes happened, and was happening now, she came across
prosperity, and it seemed to flaunt, she had only to think of the day,
near or distant but certain, when it would be stretched out beneath its
last sheet with pennies on its eyes, at once not only to forgive it but
to feel quite fond.

They sat looking at each other, each filled with sympathy and a desire
to help. Fanny was thinking she must get Miles to let her arrange that
he and his sister shouldn't be so poor. Miss Hyslup was thinking that
the first step towards better things would be to persuade this at
present lost soul to wash her face. The impressive clothes, now that she
saw clearly how hollow their wearer's cheeks were, and how desperately
tired her eyes, fell into their place quite naturally as just so much
Death. They were the wages of Sin, and those, taught St. Paul, were
Death. How could one feel anything but tenderness towards a poor thing
who was dressed from head to foot in Death?

"Tell me your name, dear," she said, quite at ease now, and all
affection. "My brother forgot to."

Fanny said it was Fanny, and was so much touched by being called dear by
someone in far greater need of kind words than herself, that she laid
her hand on the big, bony one in the next lap.

"Poor thing," she thought, feeling the hand so rough.

"Poor thing," Miss Hyslup thought, feeling the hand so smooth.

A hand of sin, thought Miss Hyslup, looking down at the two in her lap,
and a hand of--well, no, she couldn't say hers was a hand of virtue,
because of the way she sometimes didn't like Miles as much as she ought
to. And what, too, about those secret cups of cocoa she made for herself
occasionally in Lent, when fasting had become really past a joke? Cups
of guilt, Miles would have called them if he had known; and from the way
she kept her eye on the door and her ears pricked till they were safely
swallowed and the traces cleaned up, one might really have supposed that
they were. Yet, were they? Didn't the Bible say, _By their fruits ye
shall know them_? And weren't the fruits of the cocoa an ability to fast
twice as well after it as before?

Miss Hyslup brought her thoughts back to the two hands. Certainly her
own was a hand of effort and hard work, if that could be accounted
virtue, and this other one had never, she was afraid, made an effort in
its life--except, she supposed, hold itself out in the direction of
money. Painted finger-tips, it had too; each tip a separate
advertisement of vice. She couldn't help recoiling a little from the
finger-tips, though after a moment's reflection she was able not to mind
them either because, unless rescue arrived in time, they too merely
represented so much Death. Quite pleasantly, therefore, she asked--odd
how pleasant it was possible to be by merely calling up a picture of
someone else's death--"Anything else besides Fanny?"

"Yes," said Fanny, smiling; but smiling tenderly, as at a sick child who
is going to be helped to get well. "Skeffington."

Miss Hyslup was glad that she answered at once. Usually they didn't.
When it came to giving their surnames, none of them ever wanted to,
preferring to be known, she supposed in an attempt to protect their
parents from association with their shame, only as Daisy, or Peggy, or
even, she remembered one last week, as Kitty-Poo. But fur coats probably
kept out other things besides the cold--sensitiveness, for instance;
regard for one's family; while she could see for herself that they kept
out any sort of decent shyness.

"Skeffington," she repeated, as though timing over all the Skeffingtons
she had met, but really to think out how to make her next sentence
affectionate enough. There was that little recoil from the finger-tips
on the one hand, and on the other, fighting against it, the picture, so
touching, so pitiful, at once able to melt her, of the sheet and
pennies.

"I shall call you Fanny," she said with decision, overcoming the recoil.

"Do," said Fanny warmly. "And I'll call you Muriel."

But at this there was recoil again. "Oh," said Miss Hyslup taken aback.
"Oh, well--"

She wasn't prepared for such a suggestion. Never yet had any of them
dreamed of calling her Muriel. "Oh, well--" she said again, with an
involuntary withdrawal of her hand from beneath Fanny's, "I don't quite
know--" And she looked round the room nervously, as if seeking guidance.

There was no guidance. Miles wasn't there, and her mother--who
certainly would have told this Fanny straight out, "You can't call my
daughter by her Christian name, a woman like you,"--was dead.

"But are you going to suggest you should say Fanny while I say Miss
Hyslup?" asked Fanny, amused but also rather pleased, for here, she
felt, was a tribute. Miles's sister evidently thought herself
immeasurably older. So she was, of course. Perhaps not unmeasurably,
amended Fanny, mindful of her fifty years, but certainly older.

"They all say Miss Hyslup."

"Who?"

"My brother's sisters in the Lord. I must tell you, though," Miss Hyslup
went on hastily, anxious not to take up any attitude that might break a
bruised reed or quench smoking flax, "that they're quite unlike you."

"Yes, I gathered that,' said Fanny, remembering Miles's description of
them. Miles's Miserables, she had already labelled them to herself.

"So that perhaps--in your case--" hesitated Miss Hyslup.

What would her dear mother think of her, giving in? What would even
Miles think?

"You know," encouraged Fanny, patting her hand, "I don't suppose you're
very _much_ older than I am. Anyhow, nothing like venerable enough to
justify my being so extremely respectful."

"I'm forty-eight," said Miss Hyslup.

"Oh," said Fanny.

       *       *       *       *       *

For a moment she couldn't speak. Forty-eight. Incredible. Almost,
really, impossible. This old, worn-out woman two years younger than
herself. How Miles must have banged her about. Not physically, of
course, but there were lots of ways of banging a woman about without
touching her. She could be overworked. She could be underfed. She could
be out-talked, out-argued, preached at, set an example to, and finally,
as a reward on Sunday nights--Fanny glanced indignantly at the
table--given a sardine.

"Muriel," she said, taking the big hand in both hers, and speaking very
earnestly, "you must let me help you."

"That's funny," thought Miss Hyslup. It did seem very funny, that one of
them should want to help her whose business it was to help them.
Topsy-turvy.

"You're being killed," went on Fanny. "I can see it's killing you, being
so poor."

"But we've taken vows of poverty," said Miss Hyslup.

"You have? What, vowed to be poor? Did you want to?" Fanny asked
incredulously; and at once suspected coercion from Miles.

"A house mustn't be divided against itself," said Miss Hyslup.

Vows of chastity they had taken as well, but no need, luckily, to
mention these. The fewer things one mentioned, the better one got on,
she found. Besides, those particular vows were, anyhow, unmentionable.
She knew they were, because the minute one approached the subject, in
thought or speech, one felt hot. She did, anyway. So confusing, too,
renouncing temptations one had never had and didn't really know about.
The nearest she ever got to a fleshly temptation was her hot-water
bottle. She supposed it must be a fleshly temptation, because of the
extreme pleasure she felt whenever she gave way to it. Sometimes, in
moments which Miles, she shamefacedly was sure, would call, if he knew
about them, wanton--after a better meal than usual, or when she wasn't
quite so tired--her thoughts would run away with her, and she would
imagine that a husband might perhaps be like a glorified hot-water
bottle; a hot-water bottle enlarged to life-size; deliciously pervading
and warming one's cold, lonely bed. And sometimes, when she really ached
with longing for what she was never going to have, she would fish the
smooth india-rubber thing up from her feet, and hold it with both arms
close to her breast, and pretend it was a baby--her very own, darling,
sweet, cuddly, gurgly little baby. After such thoughts, however, and
after such actions, she was, for days, wretched with repentance.

"I _knew_ it must be Miles," exclaimed Fanny, all indignant concern for
Muriel. If Miles wanted to be poor, and fast himself into a skeleton,
let him be it and do it alone, without dragging in his sister and
turning her into an old woman before her time. "You really must stand up
to him," she urged. "It's dreadful to let him have his own way to the
point of starving you. Shall I talk to him about it when he comes in?
Would it be a help?"

But Miss Hyslup didn't hear anything after that first sentence. Miles,
she was repeating to herself; Miles; the lady off the street had called
her brother Miles. Wasn't this something very strange, and unusual?
Didn't it suggest either effrontery, or intimacy? No, no, not intimacy
of course. But then--what effrontery!

"Do you," she asked, trying not to stiffen, for there are moments when
the meekest stiffen, no matter how hard they try to think of sheets and
pennies, "call my brother by his Christian name to his face?"

"Oh, always," Fanny assured her. "Shall I talk to him? Shall I tell him
how wrong it is to--"

But again Miss Hyslup didn't hear. She was swallowing quickly. The
effrontery of that _always_ was him a blow.

"Did you," she said after a moment, across what Fanny was saying, taking
refuge from that awful _always_ in not believing it, and accordingly
being, as well as she knew how, sarcastic, "did you begin doing so in
the street?"

"Down in the street?" echoed Fanny, looking at her in surprise. "Why,
but I've known Miles for years," she said.

       *       *       *       *       *

For years. Miss Hyslup was overwhelmed. That Miles should have concealed
his knowledge of this woman for years seemed quite terrible. The only
way, she instinctively knew, to deal with her kind was to be absolutely
open and above-board. She, who was certain of so few things, was certain
of this, that for a clergyman to be seeing one of them privately, for
him never to mention her to his sister and co-worker in that sad field,
was a very great mistake.

For an appreciable moment she sat unable to speak. Then she said,
getting it out with difficulty, for a suspicion she really couldn't bear
to have anything to do with, had begun to wriggle itself like a snake
into her mind, "How many?" and Fanny, having reflected, said she thought
it must be about ten.

"Ten?" repeated Miss Hyslup, speaking with still greater difficulty, for
now the snake seemed to be getting her by the throat.

It was ten years ago that Miles went out one afternoon a clergyman, and
came back a priest. She could only describe in this way the swift,
complete change in him. A bitter priest, too, bent on taking the Kingdom
of Heaven by violence, and dragging her along with him. Flight,
panic-stricken flight from whatever it was that had happened to him,
flight into austerity, into a frantic concentration on saving and being
saved, was what he was suddenly set on. He gave up his nice, comfortable
curacy in Kensington, took vows and made her take them, turned his back
and made her turn hers, for ever on everything except self-denial, and
settled in the poorest part of Bethnal Green, using its sordidness as if
it were a hair shirt. Why? For ten years she had puzzled miserably over
this question, never daring to ask him the reason, because the look on
his face, if she tried to approach the subject, shut her mouth; and
now--

She drew her hands away from between Fanny's, and sat staring at her,
her eyes big with horror, and couldn't and wouldn't believe it. It
wasn't possible. No, it couldn't be possible really that Miles, already
at that time in Holy Orders, and without his sister knowing anything
about it, and after saying family prayers before breakfast, and after
taking the Morning Service in his vicar's church, and after eating his
midday meal and invoking God's blessing on it, should have sallied out
and sinned.

In the afternoon too. Evidently it was in the afternoon he sinned, for
he was always back in time for dinner; and it made the terrible a
hundred times more terrible, somehow, that it should have been
perpetrated, indulged in--oh, she couldn't think of words any more--by
daylight. Night was the time, wasn't it, she tremblingly said to
herself, when people did their deeds of darkness? It must be, or all the
married couples, who after all, having been blessed by the Church, were
free to choose their own time, wouldn't be up and about and fully
dressed for everyone to see, till late in the evening. Such a ghastly
extra tinge of wickedness it gave Miles's sinning, that he should have
committed it with God's sun shining in on him. Like gilding the lily,
confusedly occurred to her.

She bowed her head. She felt sick with betrayal. Outrageously bamboozled
she had been, and left high and dry alone with those vows of chastity.
Hers had been real vows; but how could anybody who hadn't _been_ chaste,
ever _be_ chaste? she asked herself. What was the use of locking the
stable door after the hideous horse had fled? And worst of all, rankling
most piercingly of all, was that he should have dared be so severe when
he found out about her hot-water bottle.

Without looking up, she said, her voice trembling and her hands, in
spite of her clutching them so tight together, trembling too, "It is
about ten years ago that my brother suddenly became religious."

"Oh, but he was religious before that," Fanny assured her.

"Suddenly religious," repeated Muriel, apparently addressing the
tightly-clutched hands in her lap.

"Well, but all the time I knew him he was religious," insisted Fanny.
"Very. He used to bless me."

"He used to bless you?"

She raised her head at this and stared, bewildered, at the whitened and
reddened sepulchre before her. Did people, then, on these occasions
bless each other as well? Oh, how little she knew, how little she knew!
But that her brother, her brother dedicated to God, should have added
blasphemy to--

"Yes. So sweet of him, poor Miles," Said Fanny, remembering, with the
tender smile which accompanies thoughts of past adorations, that raised
hand, that beautiful voice. _The blessing of God Almighty remain with
you always_, Miles used to say in his beautiful voice, instead of the
conventional good-bye. It had thrilled her. It was because of it that
she had endured him as long as she did.

Then Miss Hyslup, ashamed to death of everybody and everything, besides
having to fight an overpowering desire to burst into tears, got as near
a taunt as she was ever to get. "You'll tell me next," she said,
barricading herself from the threatening tears behind derision, "that he
wished to marry you."

"Yes, poor Miles--he did," said Fanny. "But I never marry anybody."

At this Miss Hyslup did burst into tears. Now indeed her universe had
crumbled beneath her feet, and all her beliefs, and all her trusts. That
Miles, having sinned with one of them, should actually have wished to
marry her and actually been refused, completely crushed her. Where, in
the whole world, was there anything or anybody left for her to be proud
of?

"How wise, how wise--" she sobbed, a welter of bitterness and
humiliation, while Fanny, astonished at this sudden collapse, gazed
speechlessly. "One can't help being a--a sister, but one can help being
a--a wife. Oh," she sobbed, flinging her arms out on the table, and
laying her grey head on them in an abandonment of wretchedness, "life is
too awful, too awful. I c-can't go on. I don't want to be a s-sister any
more. I d-don't want to be anything any more. I want t-t- go--go away
and hide--and hide--"

"Muriel--_please_," begged Fanny helplessly.

She couldn't think what had happened. Miles was evidently worse to his
unfortunate sister than she had suspected; but why, all of a sudden,
burst out into what seemed to be hysterics? Was it anything she had
said? Was it perhaps that, all these years afterwards, Miles's poor
sister was taking it to heart that she hadn't married him?

Fanny got up and bent over her.

At once she was pushed violently away. Those violets ... that _stink_ of
violets ... the woman daring to come close and choke her with her vile
sweetness....

Never in her life having been pushed away before, let alone violently,
Fanny stood for a moment, surprised beyond speech. But the sight of poor
Muriel's tragic face, streaming wet with tears as she struggled to her
feet, made her not mind anything that she did and only want to be
allowed to comfort and soothe. Poor thing. Poor, distraught thing. If it
hadn't been for the unwiped tears, she would have put her arms round her
and kissed her--probably to be pushed away again; but who cared?

"Muriel, you _must_ tell me what the matter is," she said, opening her
bag and taking out a clean handkerchief. "Look--I haven't used it," she
said, holding it out.

This was too much for Miss Hyslup. With a great sweep of her arm she
knocked the hand and handkerchief aside, made a kind of passionate
plunge at the door, and gasping incoherently: "I'll go and find
him--I'll confront you both--he'll have to tell me the truth--I can't--I
won't--" she pulled it open.

"Miles! Miles!" she cried, prepared to rush, thus calling, into the
streets, and search the whole of Bethnal Green till she found him.

Fortunately, however, for everybody's good name, she found him at once.

       *       *       *       *       *

Down in the passage, Manby, between those throat-clearings which
increased in frequency the longer she stood in the cold, had been
listening quite as attentively as Miles, on the landing, was listening
before he stuffed up his ears, and had gradually come to the conclusion
that she wasn't alone. Somebody was up there. Listening, too. And
listening to her.

This gave her the creeps. What could be happening on the other side of
the door through which her mistress had gone? The door had opened, and
then shift on her; and after a few moments it had opened again, and then
shut again. But no one came down the stairs; and gradually Manby grew
certain someone was there, outside the door, standing motionless and
listening. Listening to her.

Very unpleasant, thought Manby. She had never been listened to, when she
wasn't saying anything, before. And by somebody invisible,
too--invisible and motionless, hiding at the top of a flight of almost
dark, and none too clean, stairs.

"One needs to be fond of her ladyship, the dance she leads one," she
said to herself, intensely objecting to her position, and hardly even
liking now to clear her throat, so uncanny was the sort of watchful
silence that succeeded each of her homely noises.

Ought she to go up and face whatever was there? Had somebody been placed
as sentinel outside the door, while inside her ladyship was being used
for an unlawful purpose? Only the recollection of Miles's priestly
garments gave her a little confidence. Gentlemen in cassocks and those
queer-shaped things on their heads were usually reliable, she assured
herself, and on the side of the law. Still, such confidence as she got
out of this reflection cooled as time passed and the fog, creeping in
through the badly-fitting street-door, obliged her to clear her throat
more and more continuously; so that besides her fears for her mistress
she began to have fears for herself, for her own chest, if she stayed in
the damp down there much longer; and where would she be without her
health?

Driven by these double fears, she had almost got enough courage together
to go up and see for herself who was hiding on the landing, when in the
brief interval of recovering from one bout of throat-clearing and
preparing to start on another, she heard what she could only describe as
a to-do burst out in the room overhead. A great to-do. The sort of thing
her ladyship ought never to be exposed to.

At once defying fear, she set off climbing the stairs. With as much
haste as her bulky body allowed, she panted up them to find out what was
happening and to stop it, while Miles, feeling the vibration of her
approach, had just decided that the only course left for him to take was
to go down and meet her, lead her into his lodgings, and make the best
of a thoroughly deplorable job, when the door behind him was pulled
open, and his sister, crying his name, came rushing out as one demented.

Almost she fell on top of him, so close was he to the door, and so
violent her exit. Only by seizing her by the arm did he prevent their
both falling over in an unspeakably ignominious confusion; and as he had
never seen her demented before or anything approaching it, he at once
put it down to Fanny--how or why he was unable to imagine, but Fanny was
somehow at the bottom of this disgraceful frenzy. Didn't he know Muriel
for a completely colourless personality, as unemotional, because as
empty of wishes or initiative, as a machine? Only a trouble-maker like
Fanny could possibly stir her up to such a pitch. The whole house would
hear her, if she didn't stop making such a noise. The whole of Bethnal
Green would ring with the scandal of this exhibition, if he wasn't able
to make her keep quiet.

"Go back, go back," he sternly commanded between his teeth, with his
free hand trying, behind her, to find the handle of the door, and with
his other, in an iron grip round her wrist, pushing her towards it.

"Yes--and you come with me," cried Muriel, incredibly dragging at him
quite as hard as he was pushing her--why, the Communist on the floor
above would hear her, and deride them both on platforms if she didn't
stop--"and just tell the truth for once--before her and before me, and
me seeing that you do--"

It was here that Manby arrived, out of breath, at the top of the stairs.
In the dim light she saw, as she described the scene afterwards to Miss
Cartwright, the 'Yslups behaving in a way she couldn't have believed. A
clergyman, too; and one that had lunched in Charles Street.

"May I speak to her ladyship, please sir?" she asked respectfully,
directly she had a little left off panting.

Her presence, her respectfulness, acted like oil on troubled waters. The
Hyslups ceased, simultaneously, to struggle. That someone should be
addressing them respectfully at once restored them to a proper pride and
dignity.

"Who is that?" asked Muriel, almost in her normal voice, still, however,
clutching at Miles's coat.

"Lady Fanny's maid," he said, letting go her wrist.

"Yes, ma'am. May I speak to her ladyship, please, ma'am?" said Manby
turning to her, as quietly respectful as if what she had seen happening
a minute before were the behaviour natural to clerics and their
relations. "It's getting late, and the chauffeur thinks--"

       *       *       *       *       *

There was no doubt that Manby saved the situation. Before such
respectfulness, good manners were put on their mettle; before such calm,
anything except more calm would have been impossible.

Muriel's calm was petrified, for no maid so respectable could be in the
service of someone not respectable, and how had she not been behaving to
her mistress? A ladyship, too. Muriel knew no ladyships, but had a firm
faith in the virtue of the female aristocracy. Still, in the depths of
her heart, in spite of this firm faith, and on levels below her
petrifaction stirred rebellion. Why, if she isn't one, does she look
like one? questioned Muriel's heart, in its rebellious depths.

As for Miles, his calm was the calm of thankfulness. He never would have
supposed he could be thankful for Manby, but he was. She was removing
Fanny. In her presence scenes, such as Muriel had evidently been on the
verge of making, were impossible. And he stood watching her taking
charge, going about her duties as quietly as if she were in Fanny's own
bedroom, with grateful recognition of her qualities.

"Your coat, m'lady," said Manby, composedly removing it from the hook
Muriel had hung it on, and without more ado putting Fanny into it.

"Your bag, m'lady," she said, retrieving it from its perilous position
nearly in the oil of the sardine-dish.

"Your handkerchief, m'lady," she said, stooping, not without a wheeze,
and picking it up from the floor where it had been lying since it was
swept, by Muriel, out of Fanny's hand.

And even when she went on to say, imperturbably, "Griffiths has just
sent word, m'lady, that he thinks the fog is coming up thicker, and your
ladyship should be getting home," Miles, who presumed Griffiths was the
chauffeur, and knew he couldn't have sent word because he didn't know
where they were, found himself unable to condemn the falsehood in his
gratitude for its effect.

For it took Fanny away. He didn't want to save her any more; at least,
not till he had had his supper. Perhaps he didn't want to save her at
all, now. There were some people who were best left in--no, no, what was
he thinking? What terrible word had he just been within an ace of
saying?

She went at once--affectionately, he was surprised to see, as far as
Muriel was concerned, but almost silently. Naturally, in front of Manby,
Fanny had to go almost silently, for with the old innocent standing
there, there could be no explaining that she wasn't what Muriel
imagined. Clear was it now to Fanny that Muriel imagined she was of the
same profession as Miles's other sisters in the Lord, and not merely of
the same profession, but also that she had seduced him. It astonished
her that she hadn't tumbled to it sooner, she who usually was so quick
at tumbling to the suspicions of sisters, wives, mothers and daughters.
But how, she had been asking herself, slammed into the room alone while
Muriel was hysterically calling out on the landing, did one prove one
wasn't a prostitute, and hadn't seduced somebody's brother? Surely, very
difficult. Just saying, "I'm not," and "I didn't," wouldn't do it. Then
Manby appeared, and by her mere respectable presence proved it at once.
Difficult--oh, difficult, not to laugh, felt Fanny, struggling to keep
her face straight.

It kept quite straight, though, directly she looked at Muriel. Who would
laugh then?

"Let's be friends," she said, going to her quickly, and kissing her.
"Let's see each other sometimes. I'd like to so much."

But all Muriel managed to answer, making an effort to get back to the
hostess level and standing very still, was, "Won't you have something to
eat?"

And Fanny said, putting both hands for a moment on her shoulders, that
she thought she ought to go home because of the fog.

And Manby, respectful at the door, agreed.

And Miles, speaking most beautifully, turning every syllable into a
clear-cut gem, remarked that the fogs between Bethnal Green and London
proper were sometimes very bad at that time of the year, and perhaps it
might be a good thing to start.

Then Fanny, looking into Muriel's exhausted eyes, enlarged to
enormousness by her spectacles, bent forward and whispered close to her
ear, between two kisses, that she wasn't to mind. "Don't mind," she
whispered. "It doesn't matter. Please don't mind. I don't a bit. So
please don't either."

Which shocked Muriel all over again, shook her to her very foundations.
For oughtn't one to mind being taken for a prostitute? And mind very
much?

       *       *       *       *       *

In silence Fanny walked back to the car, followed, a lamp post behind,
by Manby, and accompanied by Miles. He, kept once again from his supper
by the exigencies of manners, said nothing either.

She didn't want him to. She had had enough of his golden voice, which
left her completely cold now that she had seen poor Muriel, and knew how
he made her live, and knew about the vow he had made her take. She must
see what she could do to help her--take her away somewhere for a
holiday, get her out of those surroundings, even if only for a few
weeks. How glad she was she wasn't tied up to a fanatical clergyman. How
glad she was she wasn't tied up to anybody. She felt she was finishing
with Miles, and it occurred to her, as she walked beside him, holding
her fur over her mouth because of the fog, that she was finishing one
after the other with those who used to be her devoted friends at a great
rate. Jim, earlier in the evening; now Miles; and a week ago Dwight.
Tidying them up. Clearing them out finally. Or was it that they,
absorbed in their own lives and no longer the least interested in her,
had cleared her out?

This, though, was a chilling thought. It didn't seem possible that she,
Fanny, to these men who once were her worshippers, was now only a museum
piece, rousing in them the sort of curiosity the crowd felt when Lazarus
turned up again, while people like Muriel, who had never met her before,
at once took her for a lost soul. Perhaps she was a lost soul. Perhaps
that was how one ended--alone, and lost.

Chilling indeed were these thoughts. Raw and penetrating was the fog.
Damp the dirty pavement. No wonder she was silent.

"Yes, Miles?" she said, turning to him and removing the fur for a moment
from before her mouth; for he seemed at last to be saying something, and
she thought she must have missed the first part.

He was, and she had; but he repeated it for her benefit.

"It is not to be wondered at, Fanny," he repeated, having been roused,
by, seeing the car quite close, to the duty of accounting for his
sister's behaviour, and at the same time driving a much-needed lesson
home, "that Muriel, judging from your appearance, should have mistaken
you for what I prefer to believe you are not. The fact that Manby is
still with you encourages me in this belief."

For a moment she said nothing. Then, looking at him sideways, with a
faint smile, she asked, "Disappointed?"

"Disappointed, Fanny?" he echoed.

"That there's no saving to be done?" she said, continuing disconcerting
and troublesome to the end.




VII


Griffiths was one of those chauffeurs who don't like waiting in the
cold, and especially not in the cold of a place like Bethnal Green.
Therefore, when Fanny, getting into the car, mechanically said, "Home,"
he took her home; he took her, that is, to Charles Street, though well
knowing she really meant Claridge's. And he did this because he was
cross.

This simple action had unforeseen consequences. They began immediately
Charles Street was reached, and went on unfolding themselves, in highly
unexpected ways, during the weeks that followed; for arrived in Charles
Street, Fanny, looking out of the window inquiringly, since it didn't
feel at all like the entrance to Claridge's, was about to ask Griffiths
why he had brought her there and tell him to go on, when in the silence
of the Sunday evening street she heard sounds of music, and with
astonishment realized that they were coming out of her own house.

Manby heard them too. From her seat in front she half turned to her
mistress in a movement of surprise. Griffiths too heard them and was
surprised, looking inquisitively at the shrouded windows. But Griffiths,
unlike Manby, was pleased as well as surprised, for he hated the butler,
and scented trouble for him.

"Why--" said Fanny uncertainly, staring up at the first floor, where the
drawing-room was, and also, apparently, the music. No light, however,
showed anywhere. All was dark and shrouded.

Manby came round to the door. "Does your ladyship wish to get out?" she
asked.

"Yes, I think so," said Fanny; and did get out, and having found her
latchkey opened the front door, and switched on the lights.

"_Well_," she said, standing still and staring round her.

The hall was full of coats, and jackets, and scarves, and hats, and
galoshes. Evidently there was a party, and equally evidently, as she
could see from the sort of garments piled on the chairs, it was a
servants' party. Having heard she was out of London for the week-end,
and anyhow knowing she was established at Claridge's, her servants were
seizing the opportunity to misbehave--her servants, whom she had taken
for granted were devoted to her, and wouldn't dream of doing anything
behind her back which they wouldn't do openly.

She was shocked. She would have supposed the elderly ones were too
elderly for this sort of thing, and would keep the younger ones in
order. She didn't know how young the girl was the butler, till then a
widower, had married lately. It was this girl, itching for a bit of fun,
who had corrupted her doting husband.

The party was necessarily rather cramped, because the front of the house
had to continue dark, and only the back rooms could be used--the library
downstairs, and upstairs the hinder part of the drawing-room. Also it
was Sunday, and in spite of the example of their betters, most of them
wouldn't dance that day. But for all that it could be a lively party.
There could, for instance, be music. Nobody found fault with music. And
it was arranged that before supper, which was laid in the library--none
of your basements and servants' halls when there was a chance of being
upstairs--there should be sacred music in the back drawing-room where
the piano was, and after supper more music, but less sacred, because
after supper, as the butler knew from lifelong attendance on the suppers
of the rich, and his young wife with the sparkling eyes knew too, from
instinct rather than experience, it wasn't natural to be sacred.

So just at the moment when Fanny came and stood astonished in the hall,
the rich sounds of an enormous bass voice singing a song called
_Nazareth_, which treated of a suitably pre-supper subject, came rolling
down the stairs, accompanied not only by her piano but by a clarinet and
a happy-sounding chorus of other voices, women's as well.

     _Though poor be the chamber,_
     _Come ye, come and adore--_

roared the bass, dominating, almost drowning the other voices.

"How much they're enjoying themselves," thought Fanny, unable not to
smile at such gusto, and for a moment envying the glorious refreshment
it must be to let oneself go so thoroughly.

Still, glorious and refreshing as it might be, it was an outrage, and
showed how the best servants, servants who had been with one for years,
couldn't in the long run do without a man over them. If Job had been
there, they never would have dared give a party without permission, even
if they knew he were at Claridge's, even if they knew he were much
farther away, out of the country, at the end of the world. In her
drawing-roam too. Unforgivable, that was. All her pretty cushions. They
took advantage of a woman. They banked on her kindness. But one had to
be friends with one's servants, Fanny said to herself, frowning and
perplexed. One couldn't live in a house with other human beings and not
be friends. Besides, they were always so nice to one, so really
charming; how could one not be nice and charming in return?

She stood looking round uncertainly, while Griffiths, without being
given orders but determined the butler shouldn't escape what was coming
to him, cut off her retreat as much as he could by bringing in the
luggage, and immediately driving off to the garage. What Job would have
done, she knew, would be at once to go upstairs, fling the drawing-room
door open, and thunder, "Get out." But it wasn't in her to thunder, and
she hadn't the heart--or was it that she hadn't the courage?--to spoil
their party by the dreadful shock of her sudden appearance. She could
see herself standing in the door, _Nazareth_ shrivelling away into
silence, and all the eyes and mouths round O's of horror.

No, not for her these dramatic interruptions. Besides, her own
embarrassment would be too acute. What she did might be weak, but it was
at any rate sensible, for seeing through the open library door tables
loaded with food, she went in, signing to Manby to follow her, sat down,
and began hungrily, for she was half starved, to help herself to her own
oysters.

Shirker, shirker, whispered her conscience; but how much better be a
shirker and have some food than, with nothing inside her, go up and put
poor Soames to really agonizing shame before his guests. To-morrow would
be time enough to do what there was to be done; to-morrow, if only she
could think in the night what the proper steps were, she would take
them. And meanwhile what a comfort it was to get something to eat.

     _Though poor be the chamber,_
     _Come ye--_

roared the bass above her head.

"Come along, Manby," she called, seeing her still standing in the hall.
"Now's your chance."

Manby did go in, but only to say she would lock her ladyship safely in
the room, while she went upstairs to put a stop to the shame and
disgrace going on there.

"You'll do nothing of the sort," said Fanny. "Sit down and eat
something. You must be nearly dead."

And stretching out her arm she caught hold of Manby's, pulled her on to
the next chair, and told her she couldn't believe she wanted to be a
kill-joy.

"Kill-joy, m'lady?" repeated Manby, boiling over with just indignation
at the goings-on over her head.

"It's much better to eat oysters," said Fanny, pushing a plate of them
towards her.

"Now then, which of you's been doing the dirty on us and got in here
first?" the butler, who didn't yet feel guilty because he didn't yet
know he was found out, inquired of his crowding guests an hour later,
when they trooped into the library and saw the used plates and emptied
champagne glasses.

By that time Fanny, who had gone up the back way piloted by Manby, was
in bed. "Do you think," she had paused to whisper on the way up, turning
to look down doubtfully at Manby on the stair below, all her confidence
in her servants shattered, "any of them will be there, too?"

"Where, m'lady?"

"In my bed."

"Oh, m'_lady_!" murmured Manby, scandalized; but not at all sure in her
heart of hearts, seeing how much had happened already, that it mightn't
turn out to be true.

       *       *       *       *       *

It wasn't, however, true. No one was there; not even Job. Her mind, busy
with what was happening downstairs, had no time to think of him, and
unthought of he was powerless to worry her.

She stood watching Manby going round deftly twitching the dust-sheets
off the furniture, putting a match to the fire, fetching her special
bed-linen from the wardrobe-room next door and making the bed--trying to
decide as the sounds of revelry from the library reached even up to her
bedroom, whether she weren't a weak skulker not to go down and put a
stop to it, or an unusually kind, nice woman. Probably a skulker. She
didn't know. But what she did know was that the poor things were going
to have an extremely unpleasant time next morning, and might as well
enjoy themselves while they could.

For the entire staff, except Manby and Griffiths, would have, she
supposed, to be dismissed. They were all in it, and all would have to
go. All, too, probably had widowed mothers or paralysed fathers to
support, which was what made it difficult and dreadful. Where would they
go? How would they pick up a livelihood, when the reason for their going
was known? Poor things. Still--that supper. And the new cushions in the
drawing-room, with the lovely, rare Chinese silk on them, spoilt by the
grease she knew her menservants put on their heads.

Indignation flamed within her when she thought of the supper and the
cushions. It flickered and went out when she remembered the comfort she
had got out of the supper, while as for the cushions, Soames would
probably see that they weren't used. But how awkward it was, first to
flame up and then so quickly to flicker out. If that was what her
indignation was going to do to-morrow, how would she be able to
administer justice? Suppose somebody began to cry, for instance, would
she still go on fiercely flaming? And if she didn't, if she simply let
them all off, what would it be like, living on with a houseful of
servants she didn't any longer trust?

Manby put a nightgown and slippers to warm in front of the fire. Fanny
watched her, some lines a German suitor used to insist on bringing to
her notice, passing through her mind:

     _Denn die Frau bedarf der Leitung_
     _Und der männlichen Begleitung_.

Could they be true? She had laughed at them then, and he had told her
quite threateningly, far he regarded being turned down as an insult and
if she had been a man would have called her out, that she would live to
remember his words, and acknowledge he was right.

Well, she had lived to remember them, and did acknowledge there were
occasions--he had meant permanences, and that was where he was
wrong--unprecedented occasions like this one, when there really was
something in them. A woman did sometimes need help; not guidance, not
constant company, but help. And not so much help, either, as trouble
taken off her hands. Job, now, would have been the very man for
this--directly her thought went in his direction, he seemed to leap to
her side, as if she had called him--but as he was out of the question
she must think over her friends, and see which would be best for taking
the wretched business on his shoulders.

George Pontyfridd? Perhaps. But he was never back in. London till
Tuesdays, and even if he were, would probably advise letting off all
round. That was all very well, but he hadn't got to live with a lot of
sinning servants. If she did let them off, how difficult afterwards not
to distrust them, and how difficult for them, having been let off, not
to cringe.

Poor things. No; it would be too painful for everybody. George wouldn't
do. She needed somebody more sensible than George. Who, among the men
she knew now, would think it a privilege to be asked to help her? Not
one of them, she felt in her bones. The present generation of men
friends weren't friends at all, but rather just acquaintances, and she
must go back into the past to find somebody who, because of the past,
would be glad to do something for her. Perry Lanks, perhaps?

Of course. The moment Lanks occurred to her, she knew he was the very
man. She hadn't seen him for years, but that didn't matter--she felt
just as affectionately towards him as she used to in the days of the
secret chess lessons. And he would be rested by now, have had time to
get over that tired, patient feeling which appeared to overcome him
towards the end. Besides, he was a lawyer, and would know the ins and
outs of everything--rather a grand lawyer, perhaps, for this sort of
thing, but being her friend he wouldn't mind, for once, condescending a
little.

She could think of no one more exactly right. She would ring him up the
first thing in the morning, and tell his butler to ask him to come round
the minute he got back from the country. For he too would be in the
country over the week-end, though, being so busy, he would be sure to
come up very early on Monday.

Yes; Perry was the man, she thought. Dear Perry. She hadn't properly
appreciated him in those days, but she was wiser now.

And having arrived at this decision, she let Manby undress her and tuck
her up in bed, where, comforted, she at once went to sleep.

       *       *       *       *       *

But much water had flowed beneath the bridges of Lanks's life since he
used to frequent Fanny. He wasn't the same man. Up and up he had gone in
his profession, till he was now almost spectacularly eminent, earning so
much that he had merely smiled when they offered him the Home
Secretaryship. A dry, calculating man, roused only once from reality
into seeing visions and dreaming dreams, soon after Fanny dropped him he
had begun applying himself solely to getting richer. It rapidly became
the one thing that interested him. Absorbed in it, and in the agreeable
knowledge that every day he was better off than the day before, he had
lost even the recollection that there were such things as love and
dreams.

Therefore, when Fanny rang up, he couldn't imagine at first who she was.

It was his practice to go down to the country, where he had a week-end
cottage, on Friday evenings, and come up on Sunday evenings so as not to
be rushed getting to his work, and he was at breakfast in Montague
Square alone, his wife being of those who breakfast in bed, when the
call came through.

The parlourmaid--he kept no menservants except the chauffeur, because
women didn't drink whisky--appeared and said, "A lady to speak to you on
the telephone, Sir Peregrine."

He gazed at her over his black-rimmed pince-nez in surprise that she
should imagine he would take any notice. Never did he go to telephones.
At his chambers they came to him, in the shape of junior clerks with
messages, and at his two private houses they were no concern of his.

"The lady says it's urgent," faltered the parlourmaid, not liking that
look over the top of the black-rimmed pince-nez. Servants were apt to
falter in his presence. He was the sort of master who asks what has
become of the rest of the ham.

"Give a name?" asked Lanks, resuming his reading of _The Times_.

"No, Sir Peregrine."

"Then go and get one."

But before she was through the door he got up, threw down _The Times_,
and saying to himself, "This, I suppose, is where a decent wife would
come in, if there were such a thing," went himself. It might be a new
client--beset as he was with clients, he yet wished for more, owing to
the agreeable sensation of growing richer--a wealthy client, who having
had no answer from his chambers, where the lazy junior clerks hadn't
probably arrived yet, was ringing up his private address.

"Yes? Sir Peregrine Lanks speaking," he therefore said urbanely.

"Oh, Perry, is that you?" urgently answered the voice at the other end.

Perry? Nobody called him Perry. Not to his face, anyhow. When he was a
boy people used to, and one or two women later: but nobody had for a
long time. His wife called him Dragon. She was so silly that she didn't
even know it made him angry. "Now Dragon," she would say, shaking a
finger at him, "now Dragon, don't be such a _naughty_ Dragon."
Lamentable.

"Who is it speaking, please?" he asked, much less urbanely.

"Why, it's Fanny. And I'd be so grateful if--"

"Fanny?" he interrupted, not urbanely at all. "And who, pray, may Fanny
be?"

"Oh, Perry--how _can_ you ask who, pray, may Fanny be?" cried the voice
indignantly. "Are you pretending? Or are you cross because it's so
early?"

"Do you mean--" Lanks hesitated, a bleak light dawning on him--"do you
mean Lady Fanny Skeffington?"

"Lady Fanny Skeffington!" mocked the voice. "Well, I suppose you've got
somebody standing beside you listening to what you're saying. But I
haven't, darling--" years since anyone had called him darling, and it
seemed to him simply grotesque. "Perry, I'm so _bored_, so limitlessly
_bored_. Do come and tell me what to do. As soon as you possibly can. Be
an angel and come round directly--before I have to go down and face
them."

Face them? Face whom? Had she run through her money, and got bailiffs in
the house?

The cautious man, however, wasn't going into that on the telephone. Nor
could he really suppose it was bailiffs. Skeffington, he now vaguely
remembered hearing, had lost all his money in some wildcat scheme in
Mexico, but hadn't he settled a very handsome sum on her after the
divorce? It seemed to come back to him that he had. Yes, he was certain
of it; and it wasn't possible that she had got through a fortune like
that. Therefore he was pretty sure it wasn't bailiffs who were worrying
her; but that she was genuinely worried appeared evident, and after all,
once upon a time--

Faint memories of that dead _once upon a time_ came drifting back to
him--rather fragrant, like the scent of roses to nostrils that have long
been dry, and rather sweet, like the sound of music to ears growing hard
of hearing.

"Very well," he said. "I'll look in on my way to the Temple. In about
ten minutes. Charles Street still, I suppose?"

"Yes, Charles Street. Angel--"

But he hung up the receiver.

Annoying, thought Lanks, standing a moment by the silent telephone,
pinching his lower lip between his finger and thumb--a characteristic
action placed abundantly on record by Low, _Punch_, and similar
institutions--annoying, and quite silly, to have to renew acquaintance
with Fanny. He had no time for renewals, reminders, resurrections. Dead
is dead, and should never again be stirred up. Also, she had been very
tiresome at the end, he remembered, his memory getting clearer every
moment. Though it was so many years ago, he could remember how tiresome
she had been, holding him by her loveliness, once the first worship was
over, while at the same time not taking the smallest trouble to be
adequately intelligent. A man wants a woman to be intelligent as well as
lovely, once the first surprise of headlong adoration is past; and she
could have been quite adequately so--see how quick she was, till she got
tired of it, at learning chess. Her brains, he remembered thinking, had
been definitely good for a woman, if she had chosen to use them; she
could have been an almost perfect mate, if she had chosen to be one. But
she wouldn't use her brains, and she wouldn't be a mate. He had hung on
far longer than was dignified, in the hope that he would be able to
influence her--hung on, indeed, till she herself sent him packing, if
such a phrase could be applied to a removal so gentle. Too much beauty,
she had had; too much of the power beauty gives. She couldn't be
bothered to think. Like any harlot, she lived just in the present, and
on her looks.

Well, her looks would be gone, and only the tiresomeness left. Women
didn't grow less tiresome with age, but more tiresome. Their defects of
body and mind, like the stones of a badly-made road, worked gradually
through to the surface. He didn't want to see her. It was the last thing
he desired. Yet--

Yes; that was it: there was a Yet. For, still standing by the telephone
in the gloomy hall, and still pinching his lower lip, he was obliged to
acknowledge that there was another side to all this. Didn't he, after
all, owe Fanny something? And wasn't it what he once would have called a
rather beautiful debt? Because nothing was more certain than that she
had brought love into his life for the one and only time, and had
brought it in violently. Extraordinary as it now seemed, there was no
doubt that he had very violently loved her; and to love violently, to
love with such rapture that one entirely forgets self, does exalt a man,
does catch him up to heights infinitely beyond where he had ever been
before, or ever will be again. And some words he couldn't immediately
place came into his mind from somewhere remote, in connection with that
brief period of pure worship, the period before he began to criticize
and notice her faults--_Therefore with angels and archangels and all the
company of heaven_.... Where had he read them? Where had he heard them?

Curious, thought Lanks, pinching his lower lip harder; helped by Fanny,
he certainly for a few weeks had dwelt in very high places.

And being a scrupulously fair man, he asked himself whether, then, this
being so, he ought to grudge going round to Charles Street for a few
minutes in return.

       *       *       *       *       *

He went. Calling for his hat and coat, he got into his waiting car and
went; and during the short drive many things came back to him, and he
was quite glad, disliking debts as he did, that he was perhaps, by
giving her good advice, going to clear off this one.

But when the well-remembered door was opened by a pale, unkempt young
man in shirt-sleeves, who seemed to be in the very middle of a bad
attack of nerves, his first fear came back to him that she had run
through her money, and bailiffs were indeed in the house.

The impulse to do something in return for the angels and archangels
received an immediate check, for few things are more disagreeable to a
man than for a long-forgotten love to reappear and want to borrow. It
degrades her, he will tell himself, accounting in this way for his
reluctance to lend; it smirches what might still, in places, be a
pleasing memory, with mercenariness.

Lanks felt this so strongly that he would have turned round and gone
away again, leaving the dishevelled servant to think what he chose, if
the butler--he recognized the butler, distinctly run to seed now and
puffy about the eyes--hadn't come hurrying out of the room Lanks knew
was the library, pulling on his coat as he came.

"Yes, sir? Oh, good morning, Sir Peregrine," said the butler, startled
when he saw who it was. Sir Peregrine had dropped out of the Charles
Street life many years before, but he was still quite recognizable.
Older, of course. Drier. Grimmer. More imposing. But still quite
recognizable.

"I have an appointment with her ladyship," said Lanks stiffly, who
considered the butler's puffy appearance and twitchy manner did the
house little credit. Bailiffs or no bailiffs, a butler shouldn't lose
his nerve.

"Indeed, sir. Oh yes, sir. Yes, Sir Peregrine," said the butler--like
the young man in shirt-sleeves, obviously nothing but nervous wreckage.

"Is anything wrong?" asked Lanks, handing over his hat and coat, and
looking round the hall for signs of bailiffs.

"Wrong, sir? Oh no, sir. No, Sir Peregrine."

"Is her ladyship in the drawing-room?"

"I haven't seen her ladyship this morning, sir. I believe the maid said
she--"

"Then I'll wait in the library, while you send up word I'm here. Pray do
so immediately, because I haven't much time."

And before the butler could stop him, Lanks, who knew every inch of the
house, had walked across the hall, pushed open the library door, and
gone in.

There a sorry sight met his surprised eyes. Hardly ever was he now
surprised, but that Fanny should give this sort of party certainly did
take him aback. The room, which he remembered so orderly, so austere
even, with its beautiful dark panelling and tiers upon tiers of books,
was messed over with the remains of what appeared to be a particularly
uproarious supper-party. A small troop of anxious-looking servants,
maids and men, were trying, in apparently frantic haste, to clear the
mess away, and after one alarmed glance at him didn't stop when he came
in. On they worked, sweeping up cigarette stubs and ashes, hurrying out
with trays of dirty dishes, scrubbing stains from the rugs, gathering
together pieces of broken glass, and filling baskets with the trampled
remains of crackers.

Crackers? Lanks couldn't believe it, and put on his black pince-nez to
have a closer look. Yes, crackers. Impossible, somehow, to connect Fanny
with crackers.

The unhappy butler, hovering behind, said nothing. Not for him ever
again in that house, he felt, to say anything. His hour was come. He had
hoped against hope, trusting in Fanny's mercy; but when he saw Sir
Peregrine, now such a celebrated gentleman in the Law Courts, and was
told that he was there by appointment, he knew without a doubt that doom
was upon him. And, like most husbands, since Adam began it, he told
himself it was all his wife's fault.

"Well, I can't wait here," said Lanks, turning away, his thin-cornered
mouth drawn down further even than usual. "I'll go up to the
drawing-room."

But there again was confusion--at least, in its back half. He stood in
the front half, which seemed to have escaped the full blast of the
party, and looked on sardonically, his hands in his pockets, while more
servants desperately smote cushions into shape and swept carpets.

But why were they all so much frightened and in such a frantic hurry?
Had Fanny sunk as low as the sort of party which rouses the attention of
the police? This, rather than bailiffs, was the possibility he was now
inclined to consider, and he was turning it over in his mind with
distaste when Manby appeared in the doorway, and by her mere appearance
put it to flight. Manby, grown old; Manby, so quiet and respectable that
no suspicion of evil could continue in her presence; Manby, incapable of
being the servant of anyone whose conduct was open to question.

He was ashamed of his base thoughts; and when she said, as composedly as
if she had seen him last only the day before instead of
eighteen--positively, it was eighteen--years ago, "Good morning, Sir
Peregrine. Would you kindly--" he interrupted her by going across and
warmly shaking her hand, and asking if she were well. His own servants
wouldn't have recognized him; but then in Wilton Crescent there had
never been even a memory of love.

"Yes, thank you, Sir Peregrine. I hope you are well, too, sir," said
Manby politely. "Would you kindly--"

"You still remember me, I see," he interrupted her again, pleased,
though he couldn't have told why. Or was it because she went together in
his mind with the one period of his life when nothing was of the least
account but love? _Therefore with angels and archangels and all the
company of heaven_....

"Oh, yes indeed, Sir Peregrine. Would you kindly go up to her ladyship's
sitting-room?"

       *       *       *       *       *

The familiar room. He felt that he might presently be going to play
chess again by the fire, that face of heavenly loveliness bent over the
board close to his. Years dropped off his shoulders. Back he seemed to
be walking, straight into his vanished youth, his vanished love. And
there was Fanny--

No; that was just it; there wasn't Fanny.

"Good God," thought Lanks, as she turned round.

She came quickly towards him, holding out both hands. She was so glad to
see him, so much relieved, that she entirely forgot the eighteen years.
And having dressed in a hurry so as not to keep the busy man waiting,
besides being too deeply absorbed in her worries to bother, her make-up
had been dashed on rather than put on, with the result that even she, if
she had had time to look at herself carefully, would have considered it
was queer.

"Good God," thought Lanks; and the company of heaven fled in confusion
for ever.

He took both her hands, because when two are offered it is the only
thing you can do, but his hold was limp.

"Perry. How kind of you," she said, smiling up at him--immediately,
however, adding with a sort of inquiry, as she saw his expression and
felt the half-hearted hold on her hands, "Perry?"--as if she suddenly
wasn't quite sure of her way, and had to grope a little.

"My dear Fanny, how do you do?" he said.

"Just the same inside," was her quick answer, drawing her hands away.
She wasn't accustomed to having them held limply, and didn't care about
it.

He took no notice of this answer, because in it he scented imminent
tiresomeness. She might be just the same as ever inside, but without the
testimony of a matching outside, of what use was it? He wasn't, however,
going to discuss that.

"Please tell me in what way I can be of service to you," he said,
looking at his watch.

"You mustn't bother if you are busy," she said, resenting the watch.

"I have a few minutes to spare, and you wished me to come," was his
patient reply.

Patient. Still, then, patient. No woman likes it, when a man is being
visibly patient. She remembered how visibly patient he had been towards
the end of their friendship. Now here he was, patient all over again.

She was annoyed. And she wondered, noticing the thin line of his mouth,
whether its corners used to turn down as sardonically in the old days.
She couldn't remember their doing that. Indeed, she was sure they
usedn't to. And if that was the effect success had on a man, then she
didn't think much of it.

And Lanks, reflecting how wise were those who refrain from meeting again
once years have separated them, said, "If you will tell me what it is I
can do for you--"

"Yes. I'm very much worried. It's the servants," she told him; for now
that he was there it seemed silly not to let him help her, in spite of
her impulse to ask him to go away, and leave her to manage somehow for
herself. And she added unexpectedly, putting out her hand, one hand only
this time, to which he behaved as if it weren't there, "Don't let's
quarrel, Perry. I feel as if we were rather quarrelling inside."

"The servants?" said Lanks, picking this word out from among the others.
He had no wish to go into what she might be feeling they both were doing
inside; and if it were only because of servants that she had brought a
busy man out of his way, he was severely of the opinion that she had no
sense of values. But then, she never had had any. Always the shadows,
she had been after, and the substance thrown away. When it came to his
turn to be substance, he too had been thrown away. Foolish woman.
However, fortunate man.

"Come to the fire, and I'll tell you," she said, going to it herself,
and sitting as close to the blaze as possible. She was cold; cold right
through--as if the world were full of only ice and strangers. Many and
odd were the tricks Time played on helpless human beings, she was
discovering these days, but surely quite the oddest was the way it
turned one's loves into strangers.

He followed her, but he didn't sit down. He stood leaning against the
chimney-piece, pinching his lower lip, waiting for her to explain; and
as she looked up at him--being new at the business of growing old, she
hadn't yet become aware that a woman who has reached that state should
never, from a low position, look up at someone standing above her--he
noticed the pouches under her eyes, and wondered if she realized they
were there. Not that it interested him. It wasn't of the least
consequence, whether she knew about her pouches or not. But once a woman
has them, what waste of time for her to assure people she is the same as
ever inside. He noted, however, as he scrutinized her, that the ruin
wasn't yet quite complete; melancholy vestiges of beauty did still
remain--pathetic left-overs, such as the unaltered purity of the line of
her nose, and the shape, so potentially intelligent, he used to think,
of her brow. These, though, were only regrettable reminders of what her
face used to be, and made its present condition only seem worse.

"I wondered if you would send them away for me," she said.

"Your servants? I?" was all he could answer, so great was his surprise.

He stared at her with the same stiff distaste with which he had stared
at the puffy butler. That he should have been brought round to Charles
Street on such an errand, he, the busiest and most distinguished member
of the Bar, really astonished him.

"Or--" faltered Fanny, dashed by his astonishment--"or if you would just
stay with me while I do it, Perry? It's so _painful_ having to send
people away," she explained, leaning forward and looking up at
him--those pouches again. "I've never done it before, and when it comes
to nearly all of them--"

Never done it before! Seldom amused these days, this, if grimly, did
amuse Lanks. Why, she was practised at sending people away. Her hand
couldn't have lost its cunning. He dared say it was more disagreeable
sending servants away than suitors, because the servants ministered to
one's comfort, and the suitors after a time merely gave trouble, but
such an adept as Fanny couldn't find it really difficult. Besides,
hadn't she a secretary, if she funked it herself?

He asked her if she had, and she said Yes, but the secretary would hate
it too.

"Haven't you a--"

He knew, however, that she hadn't a husband. Remote as he lived from the
carryings-on of the world, walled in by work and never going out, he yet
would have known if she had married again. It would have been mentioned
in _The Times_. Turning over its pages on the way to the money-market
news, the name would have caught his eye, for, after all, it had once
been very much in his life.

And Fanny thought, looking at his mouth, "Hard man, hard man, how you
have changed." If she had changed outside, he had changed both outside
and in, which made it far more than double as bad. And for an instant a
picture of his present inside flashed before her--an inside full of
mouths, all turning down at the corners; and she wondered whether it
hadn't really always been full of them, only they weren't visible
because they were layered over by love.

Love. She looked up at him; he looked down at her. Was it credible, each
was thinking, that they had ever loved? And in the expression of his
eyes, appraising her so coldly, she saw suddenly for the first time
quite clearly how she must now be appearing to other people. A week or
two ago she had wept on seeing her face in the glass after a sleepless
night and before she was made-up; now, after sleeping, after being
made-up, she yet saw in his eyes, and through him in the eyes of the
whole world, that her beauty was definitely finished and gone.

"Perry--" she said, forgetting the servants, forgetting why he was
there, thinking only of the dark sea of her future across which she had
somehow to sail, wave after wave, all by herself, into the gathering
night, "Perry--I'm frightened."

"What--of a pack of servants, my dear Fanny?" he said. And he was going
on to point out encouragingly, so much did he dislike the idea of
perhaps after all having to send them away for her, that a woman of her
breeding, of her spirit and character, shouldn't have such feelings,
when she interrupted him.

"No, no," she said. "The servants are nothing compared to--compared
to--"

Then as he stared at her with that pin-point cold gaze, she began
clasping and unclasping her hands, and leaning forward Said, "Don't you
see--oh, Perry, _don't_ you see how awful, how terrifying it is for
somebody who has had everything, to be faced suddenly by nothing? For
ever and ever nothing? And going to get worse every day?"

He was disagreeably startled. "My dear Fanny, nothing being nothing, it
is incapable of getting worse," he said icily; for if her words meant
anything, they meant what he had first feared: it was money she wanted.
And money, offered and accepted, would disgrace them both, wouldn't it?
Of course it would, he told himself firmly. The memory of what was once
a great romance must never be debased by a thing like money.

"Oh, but it does, it can," she assured him, twisting her hands about,
manifestly a prey to a good deal of emotion. Lamentable when elderly
women display emotion, thought Lanks, watching her. Once there are
wrinkles, only dignity is possible. And now she was saying the very word
he had been dreading.

"Bankrupt," she said, twisting her hands. "Bankrupt. More bankrupt every
hour."

Now this, to Lanks's ears, was a most unpleasant word, and particularly
objectionable in the mouths of friends. "My dear Fanny," he severely
explained, "no one can become more bankrupt. A person being bankrupt is
bankrupt. There are no degrees."

"Oh, aren't there!" she cried; and told him, with much emphasis, that
there were not only degrees but that each degree you got to was worse
than the one before. To which, this being more nonsense, all he said
was, "My dear Fanny."

He looked at his watch, found he could give her five minutes more, and
pinching his lower lip arrived at the conclusion that the supper-party,
whose litter was disgracing the house downstairs, had been the last
flare-up of improvidence. People, he knew, grew reckless when they were
at the end of their tether, and flung away their remaining resources at
the very moment when every shilling was precious; after which, as
apparently was the case with Fanny, they expected their friends to get
them out of their difficulties. Women especially behaved like lunatics
with money, when they had no husbands to take it off their hands. If
ever, he once again thought, for it was a thought which frequently in
the course of his work occurred to him, there was a body of human beings
who needed husbands, it was women.

And at the word husbands, a way out of his painful and threatening
position illuminated him. "You must ask Skeffington," he said, in the
decided voice of one who suddenly sees clearly. "Or, if you like, I
will."

Skeffington? She paused in her rocking--during the last minute she had
been rocking herself backwards and forwards on her chair--to stare at
him.

"Ask Skeffington?" she said, staring. "Do you mean Job? Ask him what?"

"To help you. I understand he is no longer rich, but his advice would be
valuable. My dear Fanny, he's the man to go to. You have, of course, no
legal claim on him, but perhaps in consideration of having once been
your husband--I am quite willing," he went on, as she continued to stare
at him in silence, "if you don't wish to write to him yourself, to do it
for you. I know it's many years since your divorce, and probably he has
long ago formed other ties, but still--"

Fanny got up. Suddenly quiet, she walked to the window, looked out for a
moment at the mews below, then walked back. As she turned round, he was
taking out his watch.

"Perry--" she began; and stopped.

She had been going to say that the world seemed full of
misunderstandings, and tell him how yesterday a woman thought she was a
street-walker, and now here he was to-day thinking she wanted him to
lend her money; but she stopped, not only because of the watch he kept
taking out, but because she was afraid there was little use in words.
Words, words; all the words in the world didn't get one a hair's breadth
nearer anyone else's understanding, once there was no personal interest,
once one had wrinkles, once one had lost one's looks to such an extent
that one seemed to be a stranger. Better say good-bye to Perry. Better
tidy him up finally, too, out of her life, along with Dwight, Conderley
and Miles. But how warming--oh, how _warming_ it would have been if,
thinking she was in need of money, he had at once gladly wanted to give
her some!

Well, never mind. He couldn't help it. He was what life had made him.
And some of it was her fault, because, if she had married him, who knew
but what the corners of his mouth mightn't be turning up to this day?

Very nearly she smiled at the thought; and he, seeing her expression
lighten, felt slightly reassured. Besides, she was quiet, and a quiet
woman is always better than a woman who isn't quiet.

He was reassured still more when she said, with that little look of
mockery he remembered, but which, so charming then, sat strangely now on
her altered face, "Don't be afraid--I've still got enough to go on
with."

"Then why, my dear Fanny, talk of being bankrupt?"

"Because I am. But not over money. I have quite enough of that, thanks
to Job's settlements. There are other sorts of bankruptcies,
though"--she went on; at which he took out his watch again, fearing
further, if different, tiresomeness.

"Oh, Perry, I'm tired of that watch!" she exclaimed. "Don't look at it
any more, please. I know you're in a hurry to keep appointments, and it
was immensely good of you to come at all. I was an idiot to bother a
busy man like you. I can manage perfectly really, with Miss
Cartwright--about the servants, I mean. So please don't give it another
thought."

She held out her hand. Entirely relieved now, he shook it almost warmly.
Such a comfort when people are not, after all, going to make demands on
one; and he was rather sorry, now that he knew she didn't need it, that
he hadn't shown more readiness to help, instead of recommending
Skeffington.

"Well, then, good-bye, my dear Fanny," he said thankfully. "I do happen
to be rather specially busy to-day. But if ever you feel--"

"Oh, I shan't feel," she said, going with him to the door. "I shall
act."

"Ah, yes. That, of course, is the right way. Quite like old times, isn't
it?" he added, looking round him on his way out--almost genial, now that
final escape was so close.

"Isn't it," said Fanny.

"Shall we play chess?" he asked jocosely, his eye falling on the
chess-table, still in its old place.

"Let's," she smiled, ringing the bell.

At the door he paused. "Seriously, Fanny," he said, "if there's anything
I can ever do--"

"Yes. Sweet of you," she thanked him.

Manby appeared.

"Well--good-bye, Fanny."

"Good-bye, Perry."

That was all.




VIII


That was all.

Staring at the shut door, on the other side of which Lanks was running
down the stairs like a schoolboy off work, she for the first time
suspected that Fate was bent on making a man of her. Unpleasant, if you
weren't a man; but what could these knock-out blows one after the other
mean, except that she was to be forced to stand on her own feet, and
face it like a gentleman that everything, given time, went?

If that really were so, the first thing she had better do was at once to
leave off trying to cling. Straws, they had turned into, these men who
used to be lovers; and deplorable as it was that lovers should end as
straws, it was even more deplorable to try to cling to them. She
wouldn't. She would be a man. Though it certainly seemed great waste, if
one had to end up as a man, that one should have begun life as the
opposite.

Collecting, however, her pride, her grit, her courage, her spirit--those
attributes of hers Lanks had bid her remember, attributes which she, who
longed for cosiness, and the curtains drawn, and nobody worrying, would
so much rather have left to real men--she crossed to the writing-table,
picked up the telephone, and began her career of virility by getting
down to business.

Her business, at that moment, clearly was the servants. "Put me through
to Miss Cartwright, please--" Something had to be done about them, and
at once. Lanks, she would leave to God; for there was nothing like
leaving people to God, Fanny knew, who had thus left many in the past,
and they hadn't at all liked it, if you don't wish to waste time feeling
bitter. She was determined not to feel bitter. She even went so far in
the contrary direction, while she waited with the telephone at her ear,
as to make an attempt to send a parting blessing, even if it were only a
small one, after him who used to be her darling Perry and now had
become, and for ever would remain, plain Lanks; but it didn't seem to be
able to get under way--"Oh, Miss Cartwright--what? It isn't Miss
Cartwright? Please find her, then, and ask her to come to the
telephone"--and she had to leave any blessing there might be of him to
God as well.

But if Lanks, and love, and loveliness, and all the rest of what in her
present proud mood she called the caboodle, had gone out of her life,
she didn't see why the servants should go too. The whole problem of who
was to give them notice would be solved by not giving them notice at
all. She would forgive them. Long before Miss Cartwright got to the
telephone, she had quite decided she would forgive them. First admonish
severely, even fiercely; then, having admonished, forgive. So simple, so
easy, so pleasant, so, surely, natural, to forgive. Wouldn't she too
have been tempted in their place to get up to larks if the old cat--she
forced out the horrid word, then amended it, her eye on Fate's
intentions, to the old tom--were away? Anyhow, mercy, she was certain,
was always best, and nothing would induce her to copy Job's disciplinary
methods--

"Hullo, Job--back again?" she interrupted her thoughts to say aloud--the
telephone was at her mouth, and down in the office Miss Cartwright had
just hurriedly clapped it to her ear--for there he was, or seemed to be,
by her side--and looking at her so reproachfully, poor Job, looking at
her as much as to say, "But what about the disciplinary methods you
applied to me? And since when, my Fanny--" at least he didn't call her
his Fanny Wanny--"have you been sure mercy is always best?"

"Well, I can't go into that now," she said; again aloud, and again into
the telephone, but not nearly so impatiently as she would have before
Lanks's humiliating visit. After Lanks's icy, pin-point eyes, the eyes
of a man only wanting to be gone, Job's persistence in turning up seemed
to be almost a comfort. He, at least, liked being with her; though he
too, she supposed, different as he would always be from the others, and
always with a _cachet_ peculiarly his own because of being the only one
of them she had ever married, would of course be like the rest if he
were to see her now--

"Yes, you would, Job," she insisted, on his appearing to protest; again
speaking into the telephone.

       *       *       *       *       *

These three remarks, obviously addressed to the ex-master of the house,
greatly excited Miss Cartwright, whose imagination, stirred by Manby's
pithy if reluctant answers to her questions, had lately been playing
round Mr. Skeffington a good deal. What--_he_ up there? What--Mr.
Skeffington actually in the _house_?

"I beg your pardon, Lady Frances," she said unsteadily, her heart
beating faster, "I didn't quite--"

"Will you send Soames and Mrs. Denton up to my sitting-room?" her
employer's voice came through.

"Oh, _now_ they're for it!" Miss Cartwright exulted, flying to the bell
and ringing it so violently that a footman actually came running. _He_
was up there, he, the real master, sent for, no doubt, in her extremity
by his once-upon-a-time wife to put order into the mess they were in.
Manby had told her she had been telephoning to someone early, before
Miss Cartwright, who spent the week-ends with her aged mother at Ponders
End, had got back. There was going to be an enormous row, and a complete
clear-out of the crowd of idle, insolent servants. _He_ was here to see
about it, and the disgraceful orgy of the previous night, if it had the
effect of bringing _him_ back, would end by being a blessing.

For Miss Cartwright had come to the conclusion from Manby's answers to
her questions, answers always whispered, always reluctant and having to
be dragged out of her, but full of pith once out, that the late master
of the house must have been exactly the sort of man she, Miss
Cartwright, admired. A just man; a hard man, perhaps--who, though, could
be just without being a little hard?--but a man soft as butter when it
came to women. They, Manby had given her to understand, hardly breathing
it, her eyes respectably cast down, were Mr. Skeffington's undoing. How
much Miss Cartwright liked men who were thus undone! She had never met
any, but was sure they existed; and here, twenty-two years too early for
her, one of them had existed in this very house. Twenty-two years ago
she was quite young. For dead certain she would have been of those in
whose hands Mr. Skeffington was butter. And perhaps even yet--who knew?

Exulting and excited, she flew to the bell, and could hardly hide her
triumph when she told the footman to send her the two chief sinners. She
would personally give them her employer's message. She wished to see for
herself how they took it, those two to whom she owed so many grudges.
Soames had always behaved as if he were her equal, and seeing that she
had started life from just about where he had, this naturally annoyed
her. Mrs. Denton, without the shadow of a doubt, left the cooking of her
meals to the second, or even the third kitchenmaid, and seeing that in
her barren existence the one jolly flesh-joy was food, this naturally
annoyed her too.

Now, though, old scores were about to be settled, now the pair of them
were for it. "You are both to go upstairs immediately to her ladyship's
sitting-room," she sharply informed them; and when they had gone out, or
rather quivered out, such pale jelly had they been reduced to, she
eagerly prepared everything for their instant dismissal--cheque-book
open and ready, insurance cards stamped, certificates of length of
service filled in, and the original characters they had brought with
them, which were now no longer, after what they had done the night
before, worth the paper they were written on, taken out of the safe.

Then she sat back and waited; and she waited and waited; and nothing
happened. At first there was a silence, a motionlessness in the house,
reminding her of Armistice Day, for the staff was holding its breath,
expecting judgment to fall on it directly its two heads emerged from the
room of Fate upstairs; but long before Miss Cartwright, waiting for her
telephone to ring, had started wondering, and from wondering had
proceeded to uneasiness, the house began to stir, to make faint
movements of thankfully resumed work.

To these accustomed sounds Miss Cartwright listened in growing wonder.
Had there been a hitch? Should she herself ring up, and pretend she
thought it was her employer who had rung, so as at least to hear what
her voice sounded like, so as perhaps to be able to guess from it--?

No, she hadn't quite got the courage to do that; and when at last,
thoroughly disturbed, she went out into the hall to see if anybody were
about looking as if he or she had been given notice, the first person
she saw was Soames himself, in his shirt-sleeves, industrious and
absorbed, arranging the morning papers on the usual table. Evident from
his whole attitude, was it that here was a man who couldn't do enough;
evident, too, was it--only Miss Cartwright found it impossible to
believe--that here was a man forgiven.

"Is anyone upstairs with Lady Frances?" she asked uncertainly, not
knowing what to think, her voice very different from the one with which
she had ordered him into his mistress's presence half an hour before.

"No, Miss. Not that I know of, Miss," said Soames deferentially--pausing
in his work to turn round politely.

Then _he_ wasn't there, after all. She must have dreamed it. She must be
getting Mr. Skeffington on the brain.

Chilled, confused, feeling that somehow there had been a terrible
breakdown of justice, she turned away, and seeing Manby through the open
dining-room door putting a bowl of roses on the table, she went in.

"What has happened?" she asked, shutting the door quickly and standing
with her back against it so that nobody should come in. It couldn't
really be true that Soames, that Mrs. Denton, that the whole lot of
them, had been let off?

"Happened, Miss?"

Manby turned uncomprehending eyes to her; intentionally uncomprehending,
because sometimes lately she hadn't altogether liked being plied with so
many questions about her lady's marriage, and wasn't sure that she ought
to have answered them.

"Isn't anyone upstairs?"

"Upstairs, Miss?"

"With Lady Frances? I thought I heard a gentleman--"

"That would be Sir Peregrine Lanks, Miss," said Manby, tranquilly
adjusting a rose. "He came early, and left some time ago."

"And Soames? And Mrs. Denton? Aren't they going to be turned out?"

"Not this time, Miss. Everything has been overlooked this time," said
Manby. "We're saints here," she added, bending over the roses so as to
hide the concerned disapproval of her ample, but respectable, lips.

Miss Cartwright stared in silence. Such easy escapes from justice robbed
her of speech. And that he shouldn't be in the house after all....

"What we need is a man over us," she said, indignant with
disappointment, when she could speak.

Manby thought so too. Manby had been thinking so for twenty years. But
she wasn't going to say so to Miss Cartwright.

       *       *       *       *       *

And now set in a trying time for Fanny, because it is uncomfortable
living in a house full of people one has forgiven. Only by taking
herself firmly in hand, and keeping well before her eyes that it was her
duty, by her presence, to prevent further backsliding, she was able to
stick it out and resist the temptation to flee back to the
irresponsibilities of Claridge's. She was so sorry for the poor pardoned
things. She was so secretly apologetic for having come home
unexpectedly, and caught them. A mistake, she realized, to come home
unexpectedly, putting people in the crushing position of being forgiven.
And she wondered how God, who had to forgive nearly everybody, could
ever look anyone in the face.

She couldn't. She found herself avoiding eyes. When she gave orders, she
evaded Soames's and Mrs. Denton's. She turned her head away when footmen
flew, instead of walking, to open doors for her. She blushed at the
anxious apologies of the head-housemaid for oversights so tiny that she
hadn't even noticed them. Painful, painful it all was; and she lived in
a continual acute embarrassment till, from various little signs, it
dawned on her towards the end of the second week that they were all
recovering, and that she was feeling their situation far more than they
were.

And it was true that, after being hang-dog to excess, during the second
week the staff, finding it against nature to go on being sorry
indefinitely, did begin to brisk up, to the great scandal of Miss
Cartwright, who considered this brisking-up altogether premature, and
would have had them on their knees, for at least a year.

"What _they_ want," she said once more to Manby, slightly varying the
formula, "is a man over them."

Yes; that was what Soames needed, what they all needed--herself
included, Miss Cartwright privately added, irritably jabbing the
blotting-paper with her fountain-pen. It wasn't her idea of a really
satisfactory job, working for another lady. The other night she had had
a wonderful dream, really such a wonderful dream, that a man _was_ over
her. The comfort of it! And so like Manby's description of Mr.
Skeffington--

"Yes, Lady Frances? Is there anything I--?"

She jumped violently, for her employer had just walked in.

       *       *       *       *       *

Her employer seemed now to be always walking in. Not enough to do, Miss
Cartwright privately criticized, to whom such of the idle rich as were
women were becoming daily more distasteful. She didn't mind gentlemen
being rich. On the contrary, she liked it, and would at any time have
been happy to meet a few; but women were never rich through their own
efforts, and always owed their wealth, as in this instance, to some
infatuated, soft-as-butter man. However, on this occasion there was some
reason for her employer's visit. Usually there didn't appear to be any.
Usually she just fidgeted about, vaguely sketched the contents of a
letter or two she wanted written, glanced at her engagement list,
inquired--that was since the supper-party,--if Miss Cartwright didn't
think she had too many servants for one woman, and when she received the
cautious answer, "It's the house, really," would look thoughtful, and
say nothing. But this time she came in to tell her to write out a cheque
for twenty pounds, and Miss Cartwright, taken unawares while thinking
warm things about Mr. Skeffington, drew the cheque-book out of the
drawer with hands which weren't quite steady--though why she shouldn't
think as warmly and as often as she chose about Mr. Skeffington, who
long ago had ceased to belong in any way to her employer, she didn't
know.

"What name shall I fill in, Lady Frances?" she asked, as Fanny said
nothing further. There had to be a name filled in. Useless to write
cheques that weren't in favour of somebody. And she noticed, with some
surprise, that a habit of impatience with her employer was growing on
her. Fatal, of course, such a habit would be if one intended to stay.
But she didn't intend to stay. Directly she could find a nice post under
a successful business man she would be off. Offices, for her. Offices,
and their manifold opportunities.

"Oh yes. Make it out to Miss Hyslup. Miss Muriel Hyslup," said Fanny.
"I've written a letter to go with it, and I'd like you to take it round
this afternoon."

"Certainly, Lady Frances."

"Only I don't know the address."

Miss Cartwright's pen paused. A man, a man, she thought.

"It's somewhere in Bethnal Green," said Fanny.

Miss Cartwright, doing her best to be patient, waited.

"But I don't know where."

Miss Cartwright resisted an impulse to lay down her pen, and lean back
with resignation in her chair.

"I went to it in the dark. Perhaps by daylight--" Fanny broke off,
struck by the expression on Miss Cartwright's face. Where had she seen
it before, that look of impatiently patient resignation? Of course:
Lanks. Now Miss Cartwright had got it. Distressing if she, Fanny, were,
after all, only the sort of woman who caused resignation in others.

Miss Cartwright, to rouse her, for she appeared to have fallen into an
abstraction, suggested that perhaps she could give her some clue as to
where in Bethnal Green she might most fruitfully search for the payee,
and Fanny, after gazing at her a moment collecting her thoughts, gave
her the brother--a priest in a cassock, she said; explaining that
everyone was sure to know where he lived, because he stood on chairs in
the street and preached.

"You must see Miss Hyslup yourself, and bring back her answer. You could
tell her--yes, please tell her that I've very _much_ set my heart on its
being Yes."

"Certainly, Lady Frances."

"And you had better go in a taxi. Wait a minute--what am I doing this
afternoon? Perhaps Griffiths might--"

Miss Cartwright opened the engagement-book. "Mrs. Pontyfridd and Lady
Tintagel to lunch," she read.

"Yes. They asked themselves. I don't know why."

"Mr. Pontyfridd at five."

"Yes. He wants to see me about something. I don't know what."

"And to-night--"

But Fanny wasn't interested in to-night; and she was just telling Miss
Cartwright that as she would be in all day and wouldn't want the car,
Griffiths had better drive her to Bethnal Green, for he knew the way at
least to where the chair had been, when the telephone on the table rang,
and Miss Cartwright, taking it up, the following brief conversation, of
which Fanny only heard the half at her end, took place:

"Yes? Who is it speaking, please?"

"Hullo, darling."

"This is Lady Frances Skeffington's secretary."

"Hullo, then, _little_ darling."

"Do you wish to speak to Lady Frances?"

"Clever girl, aren't you?"

"Will you leave a message?"

"What, out already? I'd hoped to find her in bed."

"Will you please give me your name?"

"I say, you're not black, are you?"

"Black?" repeated Miss Cartwright.

"Black?" repeated Fanny. "I don't know anyone called Black. Ring off."

Miss Cartwright, flushed, rang off. "And to-night--" she resumed,
turning to the engagement-book again.

But this being Sir Edward Montmorency, K.C.M.G.--he was the one who came
chronologically directly after Conderley, and had charmed Fanny by his
good looks and irreverence,--arrived that very morning from the hot
island he had been governing in the Pacific, it wasn't so easy to ring
him off, or rather to keep him rung off.

On this hot island, and on others equally hot, he had been for years
successfully and cheerfully governing innumerable blacks; cheerfully, in
spite of an intense physical aversion from them, because it was his
nature to make the best of things, and successfully, because at heart he
was very much like them himself--a simple-minded man, easily disposed to
gaiety, to breaking out, for no evident reason, into indications of high
spirits, such as humming, whistling, and even _chasséing_ along his
various verandahs instead of walking. These ways, so like their own,
endeared him to the blacks, and what with his popularity, and what with
his power, he had got into a fixed habit of being God Almighty.

This is an awkward habit when, having reached the age-limit, a man is
retired. At his club in London, they recognized only one God. To
waiters, he would from now on merely be the bald gentleman by the
window. With taxi-drivers, the future held disrespectful altercations;
and no doubt many other troubles lay ahead of Edward. But on this first
happy morning of his return, reunited, after twenty years of papayas for
breakfast, to that incredibly perfect dish eggs and bacon, he was, to
use his own language, as merry and fit as a flea. A bit of all right,
little old England was, he had been thinking, taking a few blithe steps
about his hotel bedroom while he waited for his Charles Street call to
go through. Jolly to have just come in for a real, thorough pea-soup
fog. Jolly to be anywhere so bitingly cold. Jolly to be going to see--

"Ah, there she is--" and dashing to the telephone he embarked on that
conversation which began with Hullo, darling, and ended by his being
rung off.

Unaccustomed to such treatment, unaccustomed, indeed, for twenty years
to any treatment except obsequiousness, Edward asked himself in
amazement whether, then, a little scrap of a secretary-girl really
imagined she could prevent his speaking to anyone he wanted to, and Miss
Cartwright had hardly resumed reading out of the engagement-book when
there he was, telephoning again.

"Yes? Who is it speaking, please?"

"The same good-natured fellow as before," said Edward, holding on to
himself, because it was his first morning in England, and he didn't want
to be cross. "Not changed a bit since we had our last little chat."

"Sorry, but you have the wrong number. There is no one here called
Black."

Then Edward's blood got up. Black? Who wanted anybody called Black?
Blast the girl, he thought, ringing up a third time; for after years of
being God Almighty in hot places, his blood, at the least opposition,
got up.

This time Miss Cartwright recognized his voice, and putting her hand
over the mouthpiece said, "It's the person who wants Black again. He
seems--what do you wish me to do, Lady Frances? Shall I disconnect the
phone for a while?"

And Fanny agreeing, the next thing that happened, when the disconnection
had had time to sink into Edward's outraged consciousness, was the
arrival of a messenger with an enormous bunch of roses, and before she
had done hanging over them in wonder at being once more sent flowers, of
Edward himself.

For, sweating through the nights of the final months of his exile, he
had been making plans for the future, and they included, indeed depended
upon, marrying Fanny. Dear, darling Fanny; no longer what she was, of
course, but at least white, at least not oily. After the fat native
women, oily to the eye, and with a horrible slippery resilience to the
touch, like hot snakes, marrying Fanny would have the quality of a cold
bath. God, the cool women of England, thought Edward, tossing beneath
his mosquito-nets--the cool, clean, fragile, delicate opposites of
armfuls! He had come to hate armfuls--so black and big, so slippery.
Only just at first they had rather amused him, the unlimitedness of
them, the sheer supply; but for years, except in moments of desperation,
he had kept clear of them, and could hardly at last wait for the day
when, quit of the creatures for ever, he was going home to marry their
exact contrary.

Yet no one but an optimist, a man of great natural exuberance, an
ignorer of second thoughts, and used, during years of power, to getting
what he wanted, would have supposed so easily that he was going to marry
Fanny. In the old days she had obstinately refused to let him marry her,
but this, though he well remembered it, cut no ice with him now, because
those days weren't these days, and a woman will do things at fifty which
she wouldn't at thirty, and often be jolly glad to. He had kept careful
track of her. He knew all about her--how she had never gone in for any
more husbands after her Jew, still lived in Charles Street, still,
therefore, was well-off, had lately been so ill that she almost pegged
out, and in a few days was going to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. So
that by this time, having had lots of rope and presumably done all the
silly things she was ever to have a chance of doing, she must be as ripe
for settling down as himself. He was sixty. Neither of them had any time
to lose. Each had reached an age at which, if one is going to marry, one
had better do it at once. He saw no reason why he and she shouldn't.
They might even do it on her fiftieth birthday, which would be
distinctly chic; after which he would take up life with her prepared,
for the rest of his days, to love and cherish what there was left to
love and cherish, as a good husband, not as young as he was but not,
either, as old as he was going to be, should. An admirable plan, Edward
considered; a first-rate plan. Both would benefit. She would have
someone to take constant and devoted care of her, and he would be able
to pay his debts.

Therefore, full of purpose, declining to be obstructed by any secretary,
beautifully, too, washed and shaved, as becomes a man who hopes he may
soon be kissing, he arrived hard on the heels of his roses, and seeing
Soames hovering in the inner hall, pushed past the footman and bore
down, beaming, on his old friend. Splendid to see old Soames again. How
easily he might have been dead, and a link broken. A bit bulgy, the old
boy was, on the downstairs side of his sash, but quite identifiable.

"Hullo, Soames!" he exclaimed, genially advancing, pulling off his coat
himself as he advanced so as not to waste a second. "Still with her
ladyship?"

Soames, wondering who the jaunty gentleman could be, cautiously said he
was.

"Good. Good. Nothing like sticking to the old post. Where is she?" And
throwing his hat to the footman, which the young man, having been till
recently a prominent member of his village eleven, deftly caught, he
gave a pull to his waistcoat, a twitch to his tie, wriggled his neck
more comfortably into his collar, rubbed his hands, and was ready for
anything.

"I doubt if anyone is at home, sir," said Soames, stiffly.

He didn't care about that hat-throwing, nor about the way the new young
fellow evidently enjoyed it. Her ladyship's hall wasn't a beer garden.
Who could this lively, bald gentleman be?

For if Edward identified Soames, Soames didn't identify Edward. After
being baked for years in the oven of the tropics and scorched for years
in their pitiless suns, Edward was now as dry as a biscuit and as bald
as a coot. Soames had never seen anyone quite so bald, except,
sometimes, new-born babies. And knowing, in the way servants know most
things, that his lady latterly had come to have a high opinion of hair,
he considered it useless for a gentleman without any to try to see her.
No good, thought Soames, no good at all, putting on spats and sticking a
carnation in your buttonhole if you were a coot. The gentleman should
have called sooner, before he had had such losses. Ten years ago, he
should have called; perhaps fifteen. Kinder, now, to usher him out
before his feelings got hurt, decided Soames; who accordingly began
making movements in the direction of the outer hall, signing, at the
same time, to the footman.

Edward became peremptory. "I don't want _anyone_. I want her ladyship.
Go and find her," he ordered.

Soames, however, unused, since Mr. Skeffington's long-past day, to
peremptoriness, ignored the order and merely made more movements and
more signs.

Then Edward's blood began to get up, and he strode across the hall,
himself pulling open the different doors and looking into the rooms.

Soames was scandalized. How dared the stranger touch her ladyship's
doors? "Sir, sir--" he remonstrated, going after him. "Sir, sir--" he
remonstrated more urgently, when the gentleman, finding the rooms empty,
actually began going up her ladyship's stairs.

Shocked by such behaviour, not sure he oughtn't at once to call in the
police, Soames went so far as to make a plunge forward and catch the
mounting stranger by the arm--with the most frightful effect on Edward's
blood. What? This worm? This worm by the merest chance white, instead of
black, and Edward with power of life and death over him, daring to touch
him, daring to try to stop his going up any stairs he wished?

"Damn and blast you!" he thundered, violently shaking him off; upon
which Soames, who sometimes had rather felt the absence of a gentleman's
hand in that soft, lady-ridden house, became meek as milk.

"What name shall I say, sir, should I be able to find her ladyship?" he
asked, a little out of breath, but definitely deferential.

At this Edward, in his turn, was shocked--profoundly; and hurt as well,
feeling it ungrateful, somehow, of Soames, whom he had spotted at once,
not to do the same by him.

He paused. He turned. He stared. "You don't mean to tell me," he said,
"that you don't _recognize_ me? You don't mean to tell me that you don't
_know_ me, Soames?"

"Well, sir, I can't say--" Soames was beginning, when the footman, who
was new, who was still truthful, who was kindly, and also who wanted to
save his chief from unnecessary running about, supposing it had slipped
his memory stepped forward and timidly reminded him that they both had
seen her ladyship going into the secretary's office a short time ago;
and before Soames had even begun to glare at the officious young man
Edward was off, straight as a dart down the right passage, and making
unerringly for the right door.

       *       *       *       *       *

There, in the office, sat Fanny. But there sat Miss Cartwright as well;
and the day being dark and the room darker, only his roses, on the table
at an equal distance from the two women and directly beneath the
green-shaded office-lamp, were lit up. Shadows everywhere else; nothing
but shadows; so that he, looking from one to the other of the figures
sitting opposite each other, was blest if he knew which was which. One
of them was Fanny; but which? Fatal if he made a mistake. Fatal if he
went and kissed--his idea was to begin by kissing, just as, twenty years
before, he had ended by kissing,--the wrong one.

Therefore he stood uncertain in the door, and said nothing.

The two women gazed at him inquiringly. Neither showed the slightest
sign of ever having seen him before, so he got no help from that. Fanny
thought, judging by his clothes and the flower in his coat, that he must
be somebody's best man, got into the wrong house and hunting in a hurry
for the bridegroom. Miss Cartwright only knew that he wasn't the man she
was expecting about the dining-room curtains.

Then Edward had a brain-wave. "Fanny _darling_!" he exclaimed, not
moving from the shadow of the door, taking care to address them
impartially, looking at neither in particular but at both, as it were,
on the whole--and how bright of him this was, he felt, how almost like
Solomon, for at once the one who wasn't Fanny got up, picked up some
papers, and discreetly left the room.

God, what a close shave! thought Edward, drawing a deep breath. Too
awful if he had made for the wrong woman. The right one would never,
could never, have forgiven him. His shirt quite stuck to him just to
think of it. Well, he was all right so far. The one still sitting at the
table must certainly be Fanny. A bit disappointing she was at a first
glance, though everything, except her hands, being in shadow, it wasn't
really possible to tell. Still, she did seem to have shrunk. Now why
should she have shrunk? he wondered, aggrieved. He hadn't; quite the
contrary. However, he mustn't mind. She was Fanny, presently to be his
Fanny, and he mustn't mind any little alterations. What he did mind was
that, like Soames, she appeared not to recognize him. She soon would,
though, he told himself; and he went over to her determined and
confident, lifted her unresisting hand, kissed it with all the fervour
of happy reunion, and said with what he felt was immense tact and
presence of mind, "I would have known you _anywhere_."

Fanny was too much astonished to speak. She stared at the head bent over
her hand. Who was this bald man? Yet, even as she asked herself this,
and while he was still bending, something in the voice, something in the
shape of the shoulders, something in the very feel of his fingers
crushing hers, sent her flying back through the years, and she only just
stopped herself in time from saying, with an incredulousness which would
have been rude, "You _can't_ be Edward?"

Unnerved by her narrow escape, she got up--he helped her solicitously
and unnecessarily, but then Edward had never been tactful,--thinking it
better to be on her feet than sitting down while a bald man she was
afraid was Edward kissed her hand; and the hand being still held tight,
she thought the best thing she could do with his, the most normal thing,
was to shake it.

So she shook it. "How do you do," she said, her eyes fixed uneasily on
the face she was afraid was Edward's. Inadequate, she knew, such a
greeting was to one who was once a dear friend; but his being so bald
did put a barrier between them. She had had no idea that really all the
time, beneath his charming wavy hair, he was so very much like an egg.
She must get over that before she could be natural. And suppose she
found it went further than his head, and he was bald inside as well?

_Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichniss_, her German adorer used to
assure her; and suppose--

"Fanny," he exclaimed, seizing her other hand too, "don't, don't say How
do you do. Don't, don't tell me you've forgotten me."

"But of course I haven't. You're Edward."

"_Your_ Edward," he quickly retorted--again with the nippiness, he felt,
of Solomon.

She looked at him uncertain whether to laugh or cry. What did one do
with a man whom she had indeed often called her Edward--one said so many
silly things in one's younger, warmer moments--and who, after not being
her Edward for innumerable years, turned up again, incredibly changed
yet assuring her that he still was hers? He rather gave the impression,
too, that he was thinking of kissing her. She hoped he wouldn't do
anything so immediately fatal. Not only would she quite desperately
dislike it and be unable to forgive, but her instinct told her he didn't
want to really.

"Yes, _your_ Edward," he said, sure he ought to get on with this
quickly, and make hay while the sun shone. Was the sun shining, though?
Of course, affirmed Edward stoutly. "Always and only yours, in spite of
the way you sent me packing--"

"Well, don't scold me for that now," she smiled, trying to get her hands
away. He was holding them tight against his chest, and she found she
objected to his chest. "Besides, you married quite soon, and lived
happily ever after."

"Well, don't scold me for that now," he retorted, snappy again. "And you
can't exactly call it happy ever after, when she ran away with another
fellow."

"Unaccountable," smiled Fanny.

"Look here--" said Edward.

Things weren't going right. Considering he was doing his best, and had
come prepared to go on doing his best for the rest of their joint lives,
she wasn't helping much. What was the good of saying Unaccountable, in
that sort of voice? It didn't help a man, for the woman he meant to many
to start mocking; and mocking him, of all people, who up to six weeks
ago had had power of life and death over--

He made a great effort, and successfully choked down the upward tendency
of his blood. This was no place and no moment, he knew, for it to do
anything but stay quiet. Patience, patience; too much was at stake for
him to let himself be put out. Probably the best thing he could do would
be at once to kiss her. But he who had arrived determined to begin as he
meant to go on, which was kissing, hadn't yet, somehow, got anywhere
near it. The way she held her head away from him, so stiffly, so
forbiddingly, made it difficult. And it wasn't as if it were the same
head, either. No use blinking that; no use trying to fox himself that it
was. Even in that badly-lit room he could see that it wasn't. And it put
a man off to find a different head--

It put a woman off, too, Fanny was thinking; though she, empty of any
plans in regard to him, would have taken his head as she found it if
only he would let go her hands and not look as if he were trying to lash
himself into love-making. What two elderly people, met again after many
years, should do, she considered, was to sit down quietly together and
chat--chat about their mutual friends, and who was dead, and why; chat
about the climate; chat even, if they wanted to, about the European
situation.

Edward, however, had no desire to chat. He was all for activity, for
immediate steps in the direction he had set himself; and refusing to be
daunted or baulked he pressed the two hands he was holding tighter,
shifted them to the left side of his chest, and said, "Feel that? Feel
that, you bad girl? Feel it thumping?"

But it wasn't thumping; and, if it had been, how discreditable to them
both, she thought. A bald man of sixty, a dilapidated woman of
fifty--unbecoming in the highest degree, she felt, that there should be
any talk between them of thumping hearts.

"Oh, Edward!" she said--smiling, to hide how much concerned she was for
both their dignities.

"Well, it is," he insisted. "And all because of you."

"Oh, Edward," she said again, not able this time to smile.

He must be stopped. Too unseemly such talk was. And worse than the talk
was a look in his eye suggesting he was going to propose. Certainly he
must be stopped. Nothing in the world, she well knew, could be more
deeply insulting, sometimes, than a proposal. Did he then think she had
fallen so low, was so entirely bereft of other interests and resources,
let alone of decent pride, that she would accept anybody?

"Now listen, my girl," he said--how profoundly she objected to being
called my girl, or bad girl, or any sort of girl,--"you usedn't to keep
on saying Oh, Edward. What has come over you?"

"Age," said Fanny firmly.

"Age!" scoffed Edward, loosening her hands, but only to take her by the
shoulders. He actually gave them a shake; and the depth of her objection
to this was positively unplumbable. "Age? What rot! I would have known
you--"

"Anywhere," nodded Fanny, very stiff in his grasp, her head held as far
back as it would go. "I know. You told me so."

"And what about me, then? If you get talking about age, what about
mine?"

"Ten years more of it," she said.

Then Edward again had to do what he could in regard to his blood. She
usedn't to be like this. She used to be the greatest fun, besides being
so lovely that you wanted to cry. In the old days there was none of this
straining-away nonsense. She had been very fond of him, he could swear;
and no wonder, after having had that chap-fallen old geyser Conderley
hanging round so long. She had laughed and laughed, at all his jokes, at
everything he said, and had nicknamed him her A.D.C.--which stood, she
explained, for Adorable Darling Clown. Oh yes, she had. Adorable Darling
Clown, she had called him Should he remind her? By God, he would; he
would remind her of everything.

"Let's get this clear," he said.

"I'd like to."

"You and I are both in the prime of life--"

"Oh, Edward!"

"You can say Oh, Edward as often as you like, but it's the fact. Don't
you make any mistake about it."

"I suppose you want to cheer me up?"

"I don't want to cheer you up--I want to marry you," he burst out,
gripping her shoulders and looking so fierce, for his blood refused to
stay down an instant longer, that again she didn't know whether to laugh
or cry.

Better laugh. Safest, always, to laugh. And poor Edward would really be
too much crushed if she were to cry over him, and he began to guess the
reason.

"What a thing to want to do," she therefore smiled, choosing laughter,
while he, gripping her shoulders, got quite a turn, they were so thin.
"My God," he thought, "there's nothing there to marry."

Then Soames came in--an angel of succour, was Fanny's view; blast him,
was Edward's,--and after a slight hesitation, because for months past no
door opened by him had opened on proximities, and he was taken aback
that it should be the bald gentleman who had managed to get into one,
said, recovering his balance, "Lady Tintagel and Mrs. Pontyfridd in the
library, m'lady."

"Blast him," thought Edward, who had jumped away from Fanny just as if
he had a bad conscience. Fanny, who never had a bad conscience, didn't
move, except her head, which she turned to Soames. Throughout her life
she had refused to be flustered by interruptions. Whatever she happened
to be doing when a servant came into the room, she went on doing it; and
the practice had invested her behaviour on these occasions, on these
sometimes rather startling occasions, with a curious dignity, an air of
rightness, of inevitableness, and therefore of propriety, which silenced
conjecture.

"Very well," she said, dismissing Soames; and only after he had gone and
shut the door, moving from where she had been standing.

What a relief to have got away from Edward. She went over to the
looking-glass in front of which Miss Cartwright was accustomed to
titivate, to see how her hair was getting on after the shake he had
given her, tucking, as she went, a straying curl behind her ear. Always
a little anxious now when a curl started straying, in case it should be
one of Antoine's and end by dropping off on to the carpet, it was her
habit to give the strayer a slight pull, and if the pull hurt to feel
reassured; but this time she didn't pull, because of Edward. Yet, on
second thoughts, wasn't it rather because of Edward that she ought to
pull? Face him with facts? Cure him of wanting, or pretending to
want--which was so much worse,--to make love to her?

A heroic remedy, though; almost beyond her strength, she was afraid; for
being comparatively new at these miserable substitutes, she was
excessively sensitive about them. That being so, all the greater would
be her heroism. But could she? Could she really bring herself to do
anything so terribly humiliating? It would finish Edward, of course; rid
her of him for good and all; but--could she?

"Fanny--" he began again, greatly cramped, this time, by the knowledge
that he would have to be quick because of those women in the library,
"Fanny--"

"Two of my cousins are lunching with me," she said, arranging her curl
in front of the glass. "Will you stay?"

"Stay?" echoed Edward, amazed at such coolness. Hadn't he just told her
he wanted to marry her? Hadn't she heard?

"Yes. And lunch," said Fanny.

The curl seemed to be hanging on only by a single hair. Should she rise
to incredible heights of valour, give it a tiny tug, and let it drop
off? It would glisten on the carpet; he was bound to see it. The other
curls seemed to be very loose too. Of course, after being shaken. No
woman whose hair is pinned on instead of growing on, should ever be
shaken--not, anyhow, without notice, not without being given time to
make provision against vehemence by extra hairpins. She was ashamed of
Edward, at sixty, shaking her, Fanny, at fifty. Such boy-and-girlishness
made her blush for him. He should look at himself in the glass. He
should look at both of them, side by side, in the glass.

"Stay?" he repeated indignantly. "When I've just asked you to marry me,
and haven't had an answer yet? Stay, and talk to a lot of cousins?"

"Two," said Fanny, busy with her curl.

"I'll be damned if I will," said Edward.

"That's a good way of refusing an invitation," she smiled into the
glass.

"Yes, and now you show me a good way of accepting an invitation," he
retorted, advancing on her from behind almost threateningly.

"Can I do better than copy you, and say I'll be damned if I will?" she
smiled again.

"Fanny!"

He came up close, and seized her round the waist. She put her hand up
quickly to her ear and gave a tug, then reached out and switched on all
the lights.

The room blazed. Every nook and cranny in it was suddenly visible; every
nook and cranny, too, in their faces, and the shining dome, like
polished pink ivory, of his head. "Look," said Fanny, pointing at their
reflections. "Do just _look_, Edward."

He wouldn't look. He didn't look. Why look? What was the good of
looking? He knew what he would see, and had no wish to see it. "Fanny,"
he said, his arms round her, his face hidden in her hair--she could only
wait now, holding her breath, for the shock to him if and when it began
to fall off--"you shan't say horrid words like age and old about us; you
shan't get into your head that you and I are anything but just beginning
the best part of our lives. We'll have the most glorious time. We'll be
happy and jolly. We'll go off to Monte Carlo--God, how I've ached for
Monte Carlo, stuck away up to my neck in niggers! Bad girl. Naughty
girl. It's high time your A.D.C. came and took you in hand--"

She winced and shuddered. She tried to shake him off. This stranger,
this bald stranger, daring to touch her, daring to remind her of what,
in her foolishness, she used once to call a good-looking young man. How
infinitely more dreadful than curses was love-talk coming home to roost.

"Oh, Edward," she begged, "do stop talking nonsense, do look at us
both--do just _look_!"

And he, before this insistence, gave way and raised his head and did
look; and after the briefest glance, not at all liking what he saw,
looked somewhere else, and the somewhere else happened to be an object,
shining even more brightly than his head, on the carpet at his feet.

He stared down at it. Could it be--? Was it--?

Still holding Fanny with one hand he stooped, and with the other picked
up the bright little thing.

"Yes," said Fanny, watching him in the glass. "My curl. Give it to me,
please."

"Do you mean to say--" began Edward slowly, staring at the frisky,
golden thing on his palm. But he broke off, too much dumbfounded to go
on.

"Yes," nodded Fanny at his reflection. "I get all my hair at Harrods."

There was a silence. She had substituted Harrods for Antoine as more
likely to be a place a man long buried in islands would have heard of,
and stood watching the effect of her words.

He, well aware that he had got to a highly critical moment in his
wooing, felt that nothing but a brain-wave now would save him. And sure
enough, as he stood staring at the curl and she stood staring at his
reflection, he had one; another one; in the nick of time. When first he
got into that room, and things seemed touch and go, he had had one, and
now when they were more touch and go than ever, he had another. After
all, what could one expect at her age? Many a husband had had worse
shocks than a curl coming off. A man didn't marry a woman of fifty for
her hair. Only a fool, or a boy, would expect her by that time still to
be all of a piece.

Gazing, therefore, at the curl lying in his hand, he screwed his lips
into the shape and sound of a kiss, and then said with what even
Solomon, he felt, would have admitted was immense tact and presence of
mind, "Pretty."

She stared.

"Ah, pretty--_very_ pretty," he said, gazing fondly at the curl. "Let me
stick it on for you, darling. Have you got a spare hairpin?"

She couldn't speak.

Extracting one himself from another curl, which immediately fell to the
floor--"Lively little lot, aren't they," was his admiringly affectionate
comment--he began to get busy.

She stood like stone.

"Luncheon is served, milady," said Soames at the door, after another
slight hesitation.

"Now don't move--don't move, Fanny," Edward cried, the hairpin between
his lips while his hands busily adjusted and arranged. "This is a very
delicate operation, you know. I can't have your cousins seeing you
till--now _don't_ move--"

She had been outwitted.




IX


This was the fifth of March. There was only one week more before Fanny's
birthday, and her two cousins, Martha Tintagel and Nigella Pontyfridd,
aware of this, after putting their heads together had decided that
something must be done to help her not mind it. Being cousins, they knew
exactly which birthday it was; being women, they knew it would be
painful.

So they thought, since nowadays she never went to see them, they would
ask themselves to lunch with her, and feel about tactfully till they hit
on what might give her pleasure. They were inspired, they felt, by the
purest motives. Their impulses, they felt, were wholly laudable. In no
way did they deserve not to enjoy themselves.

Martha's idea was that it would be nicest to have a tiny party down at
Tintagel, where in strict privacy poor Fanny, who of course didn't want
now to be looked at much, could be made to realize how little faces
really mattered as long as one's relations loved one. Nigella thought
her own house in Surrey would be better, because of being nearer and
smaller; you wanted something small, said Nigella, for an affectionate
party, and you wanted something near, so that when it was over you could
get away quickly. Both cousins wished to do what they could to help
Fanny; both acutely felt for her on reaching a date so dreadful for one
who has been beautiful--

"And I dare say thinks she still is," said Nigella.

"Perhaps," said Martha.

--as the beginning of the second half of a century. They themselves,
each in the quite early forties, had never been beautiful, but merely
manageably pretty women, yet they could well picture what it must be
like, this definite good-bye to beauty, this stepping across, for good
and all, into the ranks of the Have Beens.

"And I'm afraid the poor darling _looks_ rather like fifty, too," said
Martha, sighing.

Nigella said she thought she looked more.

"Perhaps," said Martha.

Sad for one who had lived so radiantly, outdoing everybody in
loveliness, rolling in money--the Tintagels, owning a number of
unprofitable acres, had never been within measurable distance of
anything of the sort,--and able at any time to play havoc with people's
husbands,--the Pontyfridds, right up to Fanny's illness, had been apt to
have words about her, Nigella finding it difficult to believe she wasn't
still trailing George after her in her long, her densely populated, her
for-ever-being-added-to train,--sad for such a one to have lost
everything except the money, and now have nothing at all.

"You mean no children," said Martha; for it was Nigella who had thus
been reflecting. Martha was the happy mother of the precise number of
children the poorer peers prefer, two boys and a girl, and was wrapped
up in them. Therefore, to her, the worst of Fanny's misfortunes was
being childless.

"I was really thinking no husband," said Nigella, who was without
children, but didn't mind because her heart was full to the brim of
George. Therefore, to her, the worst of Fanny's misfortunes was being
husbandless; and this was the worst of other women's misfortunes too,
for a husband might (possibly) have kept her in order.

"I never understood why she didn't marry again," mused Martha.

"She used to say she didn't want to be tied up," said Nigella.

"Then," said Martha.

"Yes," agreed Nigella, "then. I dare say she's sorry now."

And Martha, who loved being tied up, and was sure she couldn't have
stood five minutes on her own feet unassisted, sighed again, and said,
"Poor Fanny."

Yet, though sure they were devoted to her, especially since her illness,
and really concerned by the rapid disintegration, spiritual as well as
physical, which seemed to have set in--for was not her behaviour lately,
not wanting to see her cousins, shutting herself up at Claridge's of all
places, very odd?--they couldn't help, deep down inside, feeling that
here, somehow, was justice, here was payment at last being demanded for
the rare and valuable goods handed over to her so lavishly, and now all
consumed.

It was in Nigella's car, which had picked up Martha at Claridge's on the
way to Charles Street, that the above short conversation took place.
After it they fell silent, each wondering, in spite of herself
wistfully, what it could have been like being so very beautiful, and
each taking comfort by deciding that, on the whole, those who weren't
were better off.

"In the long run," said Nigella aloud, having come to her conclusion.

"Yes. In the long run," said Martha, having come to hers. No need to
explain. Both knew exactly what the other meant. Strange how frequently
now, in connection with Fanny, women used these words.

       *       *       *       *       *

Filled, then, with warm intentions, with affection and with pity, the
cousin by blood and the cousin by marriage arrived, only to find the
cousin they had come to benefit intractable.

Nothing at all to be done with Fanny. From the first mention of her
birthday she visibly shied, and from the suggestion of celebrating it in
the family circle, either at Tintagel or at George's and Nigella's, she
turned with such ill-concealed aversion that it was positively rude.

They didn't get to the birthday for some time because of Soames and his
crowd, but even before that Fanny seemed to be having an attack, Nigella
considered, of very bad manners. She came into the library, where they
had been kicking their heels for ages, already in the grips of it, not
saying a word about being sorry to have kept them waiting, and kissing
them with unflattering abstractedness. She looked untidy too; her hair
was all at sixes and sevens, and for the first time Nigella doubted its
authenticity. Also, she hardly spoke. Conversation was most difficult,
and was left chiefly, which was extremely wrong, to the two guests. To
add to everything, when at last they had been given coffee and left to
themselves, and Martha began explaining why they had come--very nicely
and kindly, and taking great pains not to show anything like
sympathy,--she instantly became obstructive.

"Please, Martha--" she exclaimed quickly, putting out her hand as though
to stop her.

"But my sweet, how you must try to look at it is that it's wonderful to
have lived so long," said Nigella.

"It isn't. It's bloody," said Fanny.

"_Darling_," murmured Martha.

"My _poor_ sweet," murmured Nigella; and whether these murmurs were of
sympathy, or of rebuke for such a nasty word, no one could have told.

This wasn't a good beginning. The visiting cousins felt it wasn't, yet
weren't going to let themselves be daunted so soon. The receiving cousin
knew it wasn't, but then she had just had a series of shocks. Shocks or
no shocks, though, Fanny didn't like being Nigella's poor sweet; nor,
very much, the way Martha had said _Darling_, as if apologizing to her
for her own word. She dared say she did seem nothing to them now but a
poor sweet, but they needn't tell her so. As for bloody, she stuck to
it. What could possibly be more awful for a woman who had walked in
beauty, as Jim used to say, than to be fifty, a wreck, and still in the
same world as all the people who used to know her in the days of her
perfection? In the same world, too, as Edward; as that Edward who then,
on parting from her, had cried, and now, on parting from her, had
winked.

She shuddered at the awful recollection. She shuddered at the narrowness
of her escape from his blandishments. Almost she had been touched by his
attitude about the curls into believing he really did love her for what
she persistently, and vaguely, called herself--a clownish, an incurably
facetious love, but still quite genuine. And as she crossed the hall to
the library door being held open for her by Soames, with Edward
following her in silence on his way out--she had marched out of the
office without a word or look, and he, feeling he had done very well so
far, was quite content to bide his time,--she wondered whether perhaps
he wouldn't be better than loneliness. Not a very good alternative, but
better than nothing if he really loved her too sincerely to mind all
those changes in her which she minded so profoundly herself. At least
she might think it over. No harm in thinking it over.

And moved by an impulse of compunction for having walked off so
haughtily--one of those impulses which so often, in her life, had
ultimately made things worse for the other person,--she turned her head
to nod a grave good-bye, and caught him winking at Soames.

Edward. Winking. Because of her. At her servant.

Both Edward and Soames saw that she had seen. Soames stood petrified,
looking down his nose, shocked beyond measure, a man turned to stone.
Edward was instantly aware that he was done for. No woman could be
expected to forgive that. His high spirits, throughout his life apt to
get the upper hand, had got it now at a fatally wrong moment. Of all the
blasted fools--

"You don't _know_ what humiliations are," Fanny said to her cousins with
sudden vehemence, hot at the recollection of this scene. "You simply
don't _know_--"

And Martha, who couldn't think what she meant, again said, _Darling_,
and Nigella, who couldn't think either, said, My _poor_ sweet.

Then Fanny made a great effort to thrust Edward and his wink out of her
mind, for else she would never get through this business decently of
lunching with her cousins; and sitting very straight and stiff in her
high-backed chair, opposite that other high-backed chair, empty at the
moment but liable, at the slightest thought of him, to become full of
Job, she tried to say something about her birthday, which appeared to be
what her cousins had come about, and behold instead she heard herself
asking, so full was she of him and his wink, so desperately smarting,
"Do you remember Edward Montmorency?"

They looked at her in surprise. Indeed they remembered Edward
Montmorency. Nobody who had watched Fanny's career could have missed
him. They themselves had watched it with bated breath--adoringly to
begin with, and less adoringly later because of their husbands, but
still with bated breath. From childhood they had been witnesses of the
comings and goings in Charles Street, and in due season had therefore
also witnessed the coming, and presently the going, of Edward
Montmorency. A noisy man; conspicuous for his extreme good looks, and
appearing to be in a perpetual condition of overpowering spirits. Not
out of the top drawer. Hairy-heeled. Causing infinite astonishment to
Fanny's friends that she should be able to endure him hanging round.

"I saw in _The Times_ he was back," said Martha, mild but uncomfortable,
for she couldn't see what he had to do with, anything.

"Up to his ears in debt, they said," said Nigella.

"Oh?" said Fanny, turning to her quickly. And after a pause she said a
second time, in the voice of one to whom much is made suddenly clear,
"Oh."

"But what has that got to do with your birthday, darling?" Martha asked
timidly; and Nigella thought, Surely poor Fanny couldn't be thinking of
going in for another bout of Edward Montmorency?

"Nothing, except that he and it should both be ignored," Fanny answered,
with what seemed irrelevant haughtiness.

"Well, you dragged him in, my sweet," said Nigella.

"I'm all for ignoring Sir Edward," said Martha, "but not your birthday.
Such a birthday of birthdays, darling."

"You talk as if I were going to be eighty," snapped Fanny--Fanny, who in
her life had hardly ever snapped. But then Edward ... so nearly making a
fool of her.... She had been saved by a wink. And shattered by the
realization of how deeply humiliating that saving was, was it to be
wondered at that she snapped?

"No, my sweet, but you _are_ going to be half a hundred, aren't you,"
said Nigella.

Half a hundred. It sounded so much worse than fifty. And Martha, sorry
that Nigella should have let herself sound unkind, when at heart she was
often quite a dear, began hurriedly to unfold their plan in more detail.
What with Niggs sounding unkind when she wasn't, and Fanny saying a
nasty word when she shouldn't--one of those nasty words beginning with
b, which Martha kept carefully from her two boys and girl, but which
somehow they seemed to know about,--and what with, that horrid Edward
Montmorency getting into the conversation, she felt her hands, never
much good, she was afraid, were full.

"Above everything, darling," she said, anxious and earnest, "we would
love to have you to ourselves on your birthday, alone with just your
_own_ people. So do come to Tintagel--or to George's and Niggs's. We
feel that on such a very--such a very--"

She faltered, because of Fanny's expression. Nigella helped. "Special
day," said Nigella.

"Yes. Special day. You've hardly ever spent a birthday with your _own_
people, have you, darling, and of course we've always quite realized it
would be dull for you, but now--"

She faltered again, again because of Fanny's expression.

Nigella helped. "Yes. Now that you are--" began Nigella.

"Down and out?" suggested Fanny.

"That's not what I was going to say," said Nigella, offended.

"We've come here only because we love you," said Martha, hurt.

"Darlings," said Fanny, sorry.

There was a pause. Martha, gentle, sweet-eyed, whose one wish had been
that poor Fanny shouldn't hate her birthday too much, shrank back into
her shell. She felt she was no match for Fanny, and no match, either,
for any of the other wide-awake people in London. The only thing she was
a match for, and that doubtfully, was her quiet country life at
Tintagel. How much she wished she were there at that moment, with her
children, and kind Zellie, and old James handing round the boiled
potatoes.

Nigella, made of sterner stuff, regarded Fanny's remark as yet another
proof of the rate at which she was disintegrating. Positively cynical,
Fanny had become--Fanny, who used to be such friends with life, so
wholeheartedly uncritical of everybody and everything. Soon there'd be
nothing left of the original Fanny except snappishness, thought Nigella,
watching, with narrowed eyes, what she could see of the face turned to
Martha--for Fanny, sorry for what she had said, was assuring Martha she
was an angel. If she had been born ugly, thought Nigella, watching her,
she would, quite possibly, from the beginning have been snappy. Who knew
but what it wasn't her real nature to snap? And she only hadn't till now
because all the flattery, and all the spoiling, and all the being fussed
over, had been like a hand laid over her mouth--

"Angel," said Fanny, turning to her suddenly at this point, mindful that
Nigella too had come round full of good intentions and anxious not to be
cross to the two kind little things.

Perhaps one should never turn suddenly to somebody. Indications should
be given that one is going to. Room should be allowed for readjustment.
As things were, Nigella couldn't quickly enough change the expression in
her narrowed eyes, and Fanny saw it. Why, Niggs was looking at her as
if--

There was another pause. Then she said it again. "Angel?" said Fanny
again; but this time hesitatingly, and with an inquiry at the end.

Naturally Nigella couldn't be expected to like that.

       *       *       *       *       *

For a moment, after this, there was estrangement, expressed by silence,
between the cousins.

"If she imagines I _care_," thought Nigella, fixing another cigarette in
her long jade holder, and lighting it impassively.

"If they knew what I've just been _through_,--" thought Fanny, trying to
justify herself.

"How I wish people would just simply _love_ each other," thought Martha,
who hadn't seen Nigella's narrowed look, and wondered that Fanny should
be so cross and unkind to Niggs, who was often such a dear really.

Fanny rather wondered at it herself. Why, because Edward had winked,
because Edward had succeeded in making her almost believe he loved her
for herself, be unkind to two innocents? And what did it matter if Niggs
eyed one with hostility? In dealing with Niggs, one should always
remember how constantly she was forced, because of the state of her
inside, to go to that man Byles, an activity enough to upset anybody's
disposition. And wanting to make up for her uncalled-for query and break
the reproachful silence, she plunged into unfolding a plan of her own
for her birthday, that minute entered her head.

This plan, unthought of a minute before, much surprised Fanny. How
suddenly it had sprung into life! How excellent it was! Almost an
inspiration. In the same category as the impulse which had made her turn
her head in the hall at the exact right moment for seeing Edward wink.
Not only would it remove her well out of his reach, if he should dare
try to come near her again, but it would protect her from her cousins'
invitations, and prevent her refusals from seeming ungrateful.

"Listen, darlings," she said, stretching out a placating hand to each,
which neither took, "listen--"

And she told them that, long ago, she had made up her mind--actually
she was making it up as she spoke,--to spend this particular birthday,
which she agreed was an unusual one, in retirement. Strict retirement.
At Stokes--Stokes being her cottage at the foot of the South
Downs,--considering, undisturbed, what she was going to do next.

"You do see, don't you," she said, looking from one to the other, but
not able to catch their eyes, "you do see that what a woman does after
fifty can't be quite what she does before it. She may dribble on looking
much the same for a bit, in ordinary cases, but not if she's me,
suddenly shorn by illness of--well, most of her attractions."

"Of all of them," thought Nigella.

"Poor love, she doesn't a bit realize," thought Martha.

"I notice you've observed how closely shorn I am," said Fanny, watching
their expressions.

"_Darling_," protested Martha, raising her eyes and turning red.

"And I feel it's important, now that I'm obliged to begin and be old--"

"Darling, not _old_--" protested the kind Martha, never able to stay
hurt in her shell for long.

"--to get to grips with things, and think them out."

"What things?" inquired Nigella, taking her jade holder out of her mouth
an instant, and immediately putting it back.

"Oh--Life, Death. All the things," said Fanny, airily.

"Darling, not _Death_," protested Martha.

Nigella again took her holder out of her mouth. "Of course," she said,
"if you _prefer_ to be by yourself at Stokes instead of with us--"

"How embarrassingly you put it," smiled Fanny--her first smile since
they arrived, Nigella noted.

"And won't you be miserably lonely, darling?" asked Martha. "You were so
ill there. Won't that rather haunt you?"

"Oh, I'm used to being haunted," said Fanny, thinking of Job--indeed,
finding she was looking at Job, for there at once he was, in his usual
place at the foot of the table. It was like pressing a button, she
thought, to think of Job; like switching on light. Light? Surely not
light? Job didn't in any way resemble light?

Her cousins followed her look, and thought it queer. Queer to stare like
that at an empty chair, and queer, too, to say she was haunted. Martha
couldn't make head or tail of a remark like that. Nigella took it to
mean that she was haunted by remorse--as well she might be, considering
the many heartaches she had given people's wives and mothers.

Often and often Nigella had wondered how far Fanny had really _gone_.
She was so skilful at covering up her tracks, she went about looking so
innocent and carefree, that nobody had ever been able to discover how
far she really had gone. Now Nigella began to be afraid she had gone
farther than she should--with George, for instance, with Nigella's own
precious George. Else, why be haunted? The good weren't haunted. Thank
God, thought Nigella, that she's finished at last.

"And I won't be lonely," Fanny went on to explain, turning her head away
with what seemed to be a jerk of impatience, Job not having joined her
before in company, and she was feeling this new departure wasn't playing
the game,--"because this very day I wrote inviting a friend to come and
stay with me. Do you remember little Mr. Hyslup?"

They looked at her in surprise. Indeed they remembered little Mr.
Hyslup. Nobody who had watched Fanny's career could have missed him.
Even as they had witnessed the coming, and presently the going, of
Edward Montmorency, so in the fullness of time they had witnessed the
coming, and presently the going, of little Mr. Hyslup. A clergyman. An
ordinary, curate-sort of young clergyman. No gaiters nor apron, nor
anything of that sort. Just a clergyman, and conspicuous for that reason
in Fanny's crowd. Conspicuous, really, in any crowd, because of his
evident, his excessive and his entirely speechless love. Could it be
possible that she was going in for another bout of little Mr. Hyslup?
wondered Nigella. And if so, oughtn't she to be got as quickly as
possible into a Home for Incurables? For old ones?

Even Martha doubted if it were a good thing to stir up little Mr. Hyslup
and bring him out of his decent obscurity; and Nigella being quite sure
it wasn't, both ought to have been glad when Fanny said, "Well, I've
invited his sister to come to Stokes,"--instead of which they both felt
let down.

"Oh, his _sister_, darling," said Martha, flatly.

"For a moment I thought you were actually still--" began Nigella.

"Carrying on?" suggested Fanny.

"How embarrassingly you put it," said Nigella.

"_Touchée_," smiled Fanny; and Martha, in spite of the smile, was afraid
they weren't being very nice to each other.

"Aren't we going up to the drawing-room, darling?" she hastily asked, to
distract their attention; for there they were, luncheon long finished,
just sitting and rapping out things. "I love that room," she explained,
feeling her sudden wish to go up to it needed explaining.

"Is it worth while going up, when we've got to come down again?"
inquired Nigella.

"You might say that of everything," said Fanny.

"I might," agreed Nigella. "And I do."

No, they weren't being nice to each other, Martha was afraid, anxiously
trying to think of something really clever as an excuse for getting
Nigella to leave.

But before her slow mind had hit on something plausible, Fanny, still
keeping them sitting there, said, "His sister is a child of God."

"Oh," said Martha. And murmured, "Darling, how nice."

The information made her feel uncomfortable. Of course there were such
things, she knew, as children of God, especially in the Catechism, but
did one talk about them in dining-rooms? Queer that Fanny should--Fanny,
of all people. Never in her life had Martha heard her mention God,
unless joined with either Good or My, and she was afraid Nigella, who
was often such a dear really, might scoff.

She glanced uneasily at her, but Nigella sat quite quiet, smoking in
silence.

"A creature of the most complete self-sacrifice," continued Fanny, the
cold beetroot and sardines vivid before her eyes.

"Darling," murmured Martha, now definitely soothing.

"So I thought--" said Fanny.

Surprised, she broke off; for till that minute she hadn't thought of it
at all, nor, for that matter, had she invited Muriel in her letter to
Stokes, but only to lunch in Charles Street. Funny, the way things
became real, became inevitable, just by talking about them. Here was her
immediate future being fixed for her, just by some words she had used so
as to get out of spending her birthday with relations. Stokes, unthought
of till then, just through talking had become the certain background of
that birthday, and Muriel Hyslup, just through talking, was going to
stay there instead of only coming to lunch. No one could tell what the
result of her visit might be. Shut up in the country, on such a serious
occasion as her fiftieth birthday, alone with a child of God, wasn't it
at least possible that she might be helped to see what her next step
should be? And helped, too, which was the most important, the vital
need, not to mind it?

"So I thought--" she began again; and again hesitated; and then went on
quickly, "Well, you see, I thought that as life has suddenly become
different and difficult, and Muriel Hyslup is so good, she would be able
to tell me what I must do to be--"

But this time she broke off to look at them in a kind of wonder, for up
to that instant she hadn't thought of this either. All she had intended
was to be kind to poor Muriel for an hour or two, give her a good meal,
let her rest in the flowery comfort and warmth of the library, assure
her she was her friend, and send her back to her sacrifices refreshed
and strengthened.

There was a silence. Martha knew the word that was to have finished the
sentence, because of having to go to church every Sunday at Tintagel. It
was _saved_. It came out of the Bible. A rich young man had asked what
he must do to be saved, and hadn't liked the answer, and had gone
sorrowfully away. But fancy Fanny! How funny of her to begin talking
like him. Extraordinary, really; even more extraordinary than going to
Claridge's. For only the wicked needed saving, and Martha was sure Fanny
had always been nothing but an angel. Martha could remember an
infinitude of angelically kind things she had done for her young
cousins, till they grew up and their husbands rather took her over. No
one who was so sweetly kind to two quite ordinary, dull little girls
could possibly, Martha was sure, need saving.

"_Darling_," she said, laying her hand on Fanny's, and full of loving
concern that she should have such ideas.

But Fanny wasn't looking at her. Her attention seemed to have been
caught again by that empty chair. Really it made one feel quite creepy
the way she stared at the chair--so intently, and this time with a sort
of questioning.

"Do tell me what's the matter with that chair," said Nigella
impatiently; Martha, for some reason, was sorry that she asked.

"Do you remember Job?" asked Fanny.

"Job?" repeated Nigella.

What a question. As if they didn't. Why, she and Martha had been his
bridesmaids, or rather Fanny's, and he had given them the most
extravagantly inappropriate diamond bangles. Two children, with diamond
bangles. Their mothers had taken them away and worn them themselves.
Could it be possible, Nigella wondered, that poor Fanny was going in for
a second bout of Job?

"That was the one you married, wasn't it, darling," said Martha.

Nigella gave her a quick glance; but no--Martha was quite without guile.

"Of course we remember Mr. Skeffington," Nigella said, shortly. "What
about him?"

"Only that that was his chair, and still is," said Fanny.

At this Nigella got up, swept her gloves and cigarettes and bag
together, and announced that they must go. She had an appointment in
Dover Street. She was late already. She would send Martha on to
Claridge's in the car.

Then she turned to Fanny, who still was sitting at the table, leaning on
her elbows. Something must be done about Fanny. She was her cousin, if
only by marriage, and as such should be, if possible, helped and guided.
"You don't mean to tell me," she said, "that you are still hankering
after Mr. Skeffington?"

"What a word," smiled Fanny, looking up at her, her chin cupped in her
hand. "I can't remember ever hankering after anybody in my life."

"I dare say, but things are different now."

"You mean, I'm different. I still, though, don't hanker. And for some
time I've had an impression that it's Job who is hankering after me."

Well, one could only pity poor Fanny, decided Nigella. "You should go
and see Sir Stilton Byles," she said, after a moment, during which she
stared down at her unhappy cousin. "He's the person to help you. I'll
give you his address. And do remember, my sweet--" she actually laid her
hand on Fanny's shoulder, who actually managed not to mind--"do
remember, when it comes to fancying people are hankering after you, that
both you and Mr. Skeffington are a quarter of a century older than you
used to be."

"How you deal in centuries," was all Fanny answered, with another smile.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the car on the way to Dover Street, Nigella said:

"We needn't bother about her birthday. You'll see if she doesn't spend
it in a Home. I shall speak to Sir Stilton about her, and find out
whether he knows of a nice one. If ever a woman was heading for a
nervous breakdown, it's Fanny."

"Or--" Martha hesitated. "Or for just the opposite," she got out.

"I don't know what you mean by just the opposite," said Nigella, turning
to look at her.

"I don't think I do either," said Martha, with hasty meekness. "It
just--it happened to come into my head."




X


Now there was George to be got through.

Fanny had had enough of everybody for one day, but there was still
George to get through. Slowly she went upstairs, after her cousins had
gone, to have her desecrated curls washed clean by Manby of the feel of
Edward's fingers, and while they were being washed--there were
advantages sometimes in not having to be in the same room as one's
hair,--she would have a bath, change her clothes even to her very shoes,
and rid herself of the smallest trace of how close he had been.

Climbing the great staircase, the great, becoming staircase, down which
she had come a thousand times in the days of her loveliness, her
progress watched from below by bewitched adorers, a horrid tale someone
told her once came into her mind, a tale of young men who danced, for
their own discreditable reasons, with elderly women, and while they
danced winked at their friends over the poor old things' trustful
shoulders. A very horrid tale. It had infinitely shocked her. Now here
she was, in her turn become the subject of a wink. Dreadful; dreadful.
Edward, at sixty, behaving as if he were one of those young men, and she
were one of those old women. Worse: it wasn't at his friends he had
winked, but at her own servant. And the very badness of such behaviour
made it quite impossible to do anything, really, but forget it.

Indeed, that was what one must do with Edward--forget him. She wouldn't
even pay him the compliment of being angry. She had been angry almost
beyond speech during the first part of luncheon, and now that was
enough. Good-bye, Edward. Without fuss, or big words like humiliation
and shame, but quietly, nicely, and with nothing vindictive about it,
she would leave him to God.

That made one more of them; one more of her past loves left in this
situation, place, condition, or whatever one might call it. Congestion
up there? Perhaps. She paused at the turn of the staircase to get her
breath, and was glad to find she could already smile about Edward; and
catching sight of Manby crossing the hall below with his roses in her
hands, she leaned over the balustrade and called "Manby!"--not, though,
to tell her to throw the things away, because neither Edward's roses nor
his wink, once he had been left to God, were any longer of the least
consequence, but to ask her to come up to her room, because she wanted
to have a bath.

"Mr. Pontyfridd will be here at five," said Fanny over the balustrade;
and if Manby wondered what connection there could be between Mr.
Pontyfridd and a bath, she showed no sign of it.

Mr. Pontyfridd; Mr. Pontyfridd; bother Mr. Pontyfridd, Fanny thought,
going on up the stairs. These relations. There seemed that day to be no
end to them. What did he want of her? She hadn't seen him since they met
in the train, when he had so much annoyed her. She hoped he wasn't going
to annoy her again, she had had enough of that for one day. And it
wasn't as if he were someone, if he did, who could be left to God and
done with, for he was her dear cousin, the cousin she loved, her
faithful and devoted friend, with the all-important addition of being a
gentleman. After Edward, Fanny would have liked, positively, to wash in
gentlemen; and she thought, as she climbed, of the silly Niggs, who
having by God's grace got such a treasure of a husband, spoiled his and
her own happiness by jealousy and suspicions, when heaven knew--

Out of breath, Fanny arrived in her bedroom, and according to the
immemorial habit of women arriving in their bedrooms, went straight to
the looking-glass. There she stood staring at herself, honestly
surprised that Niggs should still mind her enough to want to stick pins
into her in the way she had been doing during the whole time at
luncheon. Surely she couldn't think that a thing so lean and
hollow-cheeked, so evidently desperately tired as the creature in the
glass, could be a danger to her George?

_An agèd man_--or woman, it didn't matter which--_is but a paltry
thing_, she had read that very morning, turning over a book of poems she
kept on her dressing-table, to read while Manby was doing her hair.

How did it go on? She picked up the book, and searched. Yes; here it
was:

                           _--a paltry thing,_
     _A tattered coat upon a stick, unless_
     _Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing_
     _For every tatter in its mortal dress._

Well, wasn't it plain enough, she thought, raising her eyes from the
book to examine her reflection, that the lady in the glass, though in
years not yet an aged woman, was heading at a great rate towards the
stick stage? And that when she reached it she would either have to sing
or go under? Base, though, to go under. Base to let oneself be buffeted
into giving up. The alternative was somehow to sing. But sing what? She
didn't know. That was the worst of being uneducated: one wasn't able,
when things got past a joke, to find comfort and satisfaction, as the
agèd man found it, by studying monuments of one's soul's magnificence.
She must find something humbler. She must chirp on a lower level. He
went to Byzantium; she would go to Stokes. And there, with only sheep
looking at her, and Muriel Hyslup, she hoped, to give her a helping
hand, she would grope till she found something decent to do with the
rest of her life, so that at least she needn't die blushing. Oh, she
didn't want to die blushing; and she would, she would, she knew she
would, if she went drifting along, and made no attempt to leave off
mopping and mowing, and didn't get busy paying back something, at least,
of the debt she owed for her creation, preservation, and all the
blessings of her life. Such blessings. She thought of them now with
wonder. And if, Jim not being there to point out and explain, she
wouldn't be able to clap her hands and sing over the more obvious
magnificences, such as, say, Westminster Abbey or Shakespeare, she could
surely clap a little each morning in gratitude for having been safely
brought to the beginning of another day. Days, after all, were
precious--even one's older days, if one approached them in the proper
spirit. The supply wouldn't last for ever--

"Mr. Pontyfridd has rung up, m'lady," interrupted Manby, coming in, "to
say he hopes your ladyship will see him in your sitting-room."

"See him in my sitting-room?" echoed Fanny, turning her head in
surprise. "I wonder why he says that."

Manby, who had no opinion to offer, merely asked if she should get the
bath ready.

"Yes. Tell Soames we'll have tea there," said Fanny. "In the
sitting-room, I mean," she explained, observing Manby's face. "Bless
you, Manby," she smiled; and pulling off all Antoine's curls, laid them
in a neat row on the table, and bade her wash them.

       *       *       *       *       *

By this time it was nearly four. George would be sure to be punctual,
and if she wanted to rest a little, after her bath before he arrived,
she must be quick.

Funny of him to ring up about the sitting-room. She wondered again why
he was coming, why he had been so insistent that she should be alone.
Niggs, of course, would read the most sinister intentions into it. Fanny
could only suppose he too had got some well-meant plan for her birthday,
though why it should have to be talked about so privately--

"Miss Cartwright has sent up this letter, m'lady," said Manby, meeting
her when she went back into the bedroom after her bath.

It wasn't from Muriel, but from Miles. He thanked her for the cheque, he
said he would lay it out only on strictly deserving cases, and he
regretted that his sister could not lunch. _My sister does not go out_,
said the letter briefly.

"So that's that," said Fanny, laying it down. No Stokes, then, with
Muriel; no being helped. She was, once more, to be forced to stand on
her own feet, she was to manage by herself.

Staring thoughtfully at Manby, she remembered how it was at Stokes,
during her convalescence, that Job had first begun to dog her, and said,
"Then there won't be anybody with me on my birthday but Mr.
Skeffington,"--a remark which upset Manby's decent calm to the extent,
as she afterwards told Miss Cartwright, of feeling ready to drop.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was a thoughtful Fanny who left her bedroom, soon after five, to go
and greet George in the sitting-room; a Fanny inclined to think Fate was
being unduly hard on her. The instant, however, that she went into the
passage joining the two rooms, she forgot this; and she forgot it
because there was something queer about the feel of the house.
Arrestingly queer. Quite different from what it felt like before.

She stopped, her ear cocked, her head on one side, listening.

Dead silence; a sort of holding of the breath, as if the house itself,
and everybody in it, were waiting, in passionate yet fearful curiosity,
for what would happen next. Odd, thought Fanny; extremely odd; and
turned inquiringly to Soames.

He was waiting to open the sitting-room door for her. He looked
shattered; but this, she explained to herself, was because he hadn't yet
recovered from Edward's wink. She could understand that. An awful
position for poor Soames to find himself, and so innocently, in, and
made more awful, if he only knew it, by her extreme reluctance, as a
result of it, to have him anywhere about her. She had got over his
party, but could she get over the wink? A shared wink; shared with
Soames; the very raw of her vanity and dignity got at. No, it was
intolerable, and she was afraid he would have to go.

"Is anything the matter?" she asked, while he, avoiding her inquiring
eye, bent over the door-handle with the anxious assiduousness of one who
wishes quickly to usher in and then escape.

"Matter, m'lady?" was all he found he could say, while his legs felt as
if they were giving way at the knees.

Fortunately for him the door was pulled open from the other side, and
George appeared. He too seemed different, thought Fanny, scrutinizing
him curiously--flushed, and very much, though this was a strange thing
for George to be, embarrassed.

"There you are, darling," he exclaimed with nervous heartiness--surely
the heartiness was nervous?--putting his arm round her, and quickly
drawing her into the room. "I _am_ glad to see you. I thought--well, you
were rather long, weren't you." And he glanced over his shoulder at
Soames, who immediately shut the door and went.

Fanny dropped, as if she were tired, into her usual low chair by the
fire. "I don't know what you've come about," she said, looking up at
him, "but I beg you to be kind to me. I've had a trying day."

This made him more nervous--obviously more nervous; his hand was quite
unsteady as he lit a cigarette.

Startled by its behaviour, she asked, staring at it, "Why is your hand
shaking?"

"It isn't," he said.

"Well, well," she smiled, lifting her eyebrows--but only half a smile,
because really George, and Soames, and the house generally, were
behaving too mysteriously for comfort. If it were more money George
wanted for his charities, so soon after what she gave him a month ago,
that might explain his embarrassment; but it wouldn't explain why Soames
looked as if he were seeing ghosts, nor why the house was hushed in a
kind of alarmed expectancy. Fanny was extremely sensitive to
atmospheres. She hadn't felt this particular atmosphere in Charles
Street since--she cast back her mind through the years, and found, to
her great surprise, that she hadn't felt it for twenty-two years, not
since the time when Job was last there.

"Let's have tea," said George abruptly.

He felt deeply uncomfortable. It was all very well not being able to see
suffering and injustice without instantly determining to do away with
it, but considering it was only Fanny who could do away with it in this
case, and not he himself, wasn't he being generous at someone else's
expense? And suppose she didn't come up to scratch, and turned out to be
pure undifferentiated female--grievance-nursing, grasping, selfish,
without imagination? Women, he had sometimes uneasily suspected, when
listening to Niggs's tirades, weren't gentlemen; justice and fairness
didn't seem to mean much to them. Older women especially, having
grabbed, were inclined to clutch. Fanny was now an older woman. Her
beauty was gone, but her money remained. Suppose, having years ago got
off neatly with the Skeffington swag, she refused to disgorge any of it?
Then the second and only remaining string to his bow would come in, and
he would appeal to her pity; and if that was no good, seeing that he was
of those who can't love if they don't respect, he would have lost her.
Lost his darling cousin, he thought, frowning with anxiety; the cousin
who for so many years had made the world a more beautiful place, simply
by being in it.

"It's not hot, you know," she remarked, watching him wiping beads off
his forehead; and, as he didn't answer, she took up the teapot. "There's
nothing else you'd like better?" she asked, holding it suspended.

"No. Tea, please."

He crammed his handkerchief into his pocket, snatched a cushion off the
nearest sofa, threw it on the floor on the other side of the
short-legged tea-table, sat on it, and glanced uneasily across, not so
much at her as at the chair she was sunk in.

It seemed to have grown. Always big enough for two, as no one knew
better than he, it now seemed big enough for three. When last he saw
her, muffled up in fur, he hadn't realized how little of her there was
left. "Was it fair," he asked himself, more beads coming out on his
forehead, so that he had to pull his handkerchief out again, while again
she watched him, her head on one side,--"was it fair to give anyone who
looked so exactly like an invalid a shock? Hadn't he better wait till
she fattened up a bit? Or at least till she didn't just happen to have
had what she told him was a trying day?"

No, what he had come for couldn't wait; what he was doing was, anyhow,
so outrageous that there was nothing for it but to plunge ahead and see
it through. "Now we can talk," he said, taking his cup from her--taking
it with both hands, so as to prevent its rattling in the saucer.

"Yes. What about?"

"First, tea."

He drank as if he were thirsty, gulping it down, and immediately held
out the cup for more. "I'm worried," he said, while she refilled it.

"Niggs?"

"No. You."

"Me?"

She put down the teapot, and looked at him uncertainly. "If it's about
my birthday--" she began; but he interrupted her, and said it was more
serious than that.

She asked, with a small grimace, whether anything could be more serious.

He bade her, almost sternly, not be silly; and then, brushing birthday
nonsense aside, told her he was so fond of her that he was in a mortal
funk.

"Promise me, promise me," begged George, "that you're not going to fail
me. Really I couldn't bear to lose you. But you flounced off that
evening at Paddington in such a huff because I began talking about
Skeffington, that you may flounce off again."

"Are you going to talk about him?" she asked.

"It's what I've come for," he said. Whereupon she remarked, with
unexpected tranquillity, "How that man keeps on cropping up."

George stared. Her hands were busy among the cups, her head was bent
over the tea-table. "What do you mean--keeps on cropping up?" he asked.

"Well, he does," she said.

She turned, and looked over her shoulder round the room. She looked
carefully, with a kind of gingerliness, as if reluctant to see what she
was searching for. He watched her, completely puzzled.

"Funny," she said, after craning her neck to peer, peering so thoroughly
that it even included behind the writing-table.

"He isn't here."

"Who isn't?" asked George.

"Job."

Then George felt that sensation down his spine which is called the
creeps. It was the way she peered round behind the writing-table, where
there was hardly room for a flat cat to lurk, which made him creep most.
"Did you expect him to be?" he asked, suppressing a shiver and managing
to take on the gentle, humouring manner of one dealing with a beloved
but illusion-ridden patient.

"He usually is," she said. "Since my illness, he hangs about a good
deal. But you know," she added with a shrug, "one gets used to
everything."

For an instant, bewildered, he thought Skeffington had double-crossed
him, but light quickly dawned on him. She was being haunted. She had
Skeffington on her conscience. She couldn't get him out of her mind
because of doubts, and thoroughly well-founded ones, in George's
opinion, as to whether she hadn't been too hard on him once upon a time.
So she had been, and for entirely discreditable reasons. It wasn't,
George was sure, from any strictness of principle or wounded love that
she had divorced him, but simply because the opportunity was too good to
be missed for getting rid of her little Jew. Now she was being punished.
Now her conscience, awake at last in a life grown suddenly empty, was
gnawing at her. Nobody who was hard had a conscience which gnawed. As
far as that went, then, she was still his darling cousin. And he got up,
went round the tea-table to her chair, sat on the edge of it, put his
arm round her, and said gently, "My poor little one."

"Yes," nodded Fanny. It was what she had been thinking at intervals
lately herself. After each fresh blow she had thought it, before pulling
herself together and holding her head up again.

"Have you seen a doctor?"

"But I told you the day I met you at Paddington that I had just been to
Byles. And all I got out of him was insults, and that I'd better ask him
to dinner."

"Ask Byles to dinner?"

"No, Job."

George bent down and kissed the top of her head. This was not only to
show he loved her and sympathized with her, but also so that he might
have a second or two to think what he ought to say next. George was in
great stress of mind. That Byles should come to his help in the
difficult, the really appalling job his impulsiveness had landed him in
was the last thing he had expected. Byles was certainly, from what he
had heard and from the size of his bills, a highly unpleasant person,
but equally certainly he had broken the ground by that suggestion about
dinner, and all he, George, had to do was to feel his way along those
same lines with tact and prudence. Still, when he thought of what he had
done, and where Skeffington was at that moment, tact and prudence seemed
poor things compared with courage, and out kept coming those damned
beads on his forehead.

"_I've_ been seeing him _really_," he said, taking the plunge.

"Who? Byles?"

"No, Job."

"You have?"

She drew herself away to stare, astonished, at him. Nobody she knew had
ever seen Job since the divorce. He had disappeared. Gone abroad. Gone,
the rumour went, to Mexico, and stayed there. Was George, it occurred to
her, being of the same blood as herself, perhaps seeing things too which
weren't really there? He certainly seemed to be perspiring a good deal.

"You can't have," she said with decision. "He's in Mexico."

"He isn't. He's--"

But George had to stop, in order to swallow. His throat felt all dry and
choky. He stretched across the table, seized the teapot, and poured
himself out some more tea. What he had done seemed to him now, alone
with the unconscious Fanny, wholly unpardonable. But then, when he
thought of Skeffington--

Having gulped down the tea, watched by her curiously while he gulped, he
went on quickly, "The fact is, darling, I ran into him yesterday, in
Battersea Park."

She could only repeat, her eyes on his face, her body quite still,
"Yesterday, in Battersea Park."

"I was walking across it, and he was on a seat, sunning himself."

Again she could only repeat: "Sunning himself."

Job, sunning himself. Job, having leisure to sit and sun himself. Job,
_wanting_ to sun himself. This indeed was strange, that Job, a man of
offices, of board-meetings, of a thousand irons in the fire, of power,
importance and ceaseless activities, should _want_ to sit and sun
himself.

Incredulous, she remarked that it was very unlike him.

George agreed. "Completely," he said. "So is everything else. Just
listen. At first I didn't notice him, because I was looking at the
dog--"

"What dog?"

"His."

"He couldn't have had a dog," she objected, again with decision. "He
didn't like them."

"He liked this one all right," said George. And added, after hesitating
a little, "One must have something, you know."

"Yes, one must have something. Who in the world realized that more
clearly now than herself? Still, a dog did seem about the last form of
companionship Job would go in for. And she fell to wondering if she too,
perhaps, would end up with a dog, and for a moment _rêverie_ overtook
her, and she saw pictures of herself and Job at the last, each somewhere
where the other wasn't, alone with a dog. The final summing-up of their
brilliantly spectacular lives: One dog.

"He was such an enchanting dog," George went on, "such an obviously
proud and responsible dog--"

"Responsible?" said Fanny. The unusual word roused her from her
_rêverie_.

"Well, you know how dogs look," said George hurriedly.

Fanny said she didn't, and he went on quickly, "Well, anyhow I couldn't
help stopping and patting him. And then I saw that the man he had in
tow--I mean," he amended hastily, "I saw it was Skeffington he belonged
to. A good deal changed, of course--shrivelled and so on, but there was
never any mistaking that fellow's strongly marked features, and I'd have
known him anywhere."

Her eyes wandered from George's face to the fire. Shrivelled, she was
thinking. The Job she saw so often was just as she remembered him after
the divorce, an agile, sinewy, small man in the very prime of life, and
she tried hard to imagine the change. There must, she knew, be a change,
but it gave her a curious stab that Job, too, should have had to submit
to one. That live-wire, that over-rider of any and every obstacle, now
sitting shrivelled on a seat in Battersea Park, doing nothing. One more
of her past worshippers gone to pieces, one more of them tamed into an
old, tired man. And this time it was her husband. Say what you will,
Fanny reflected, going to sleep every night with somebody, as she had
dutifully done with Job till the typists started trouble, does
make--well, a link.

"Seventy-two, he told me," was the next thing she heard George say.

"Yes," she assented, after a pause during which, her eyes still fixed on
the fare, she appeared to be counting. "Seventy-two."

"I had great difficulty in getting him to talk, but bit by bit--"

"Must I hear about it?" she asked, shifting a little in the chair.

"Who else, if not you?"

"Why me?" Yes, indeed, she asked herself--why her? What had become of
all those--?

He read the question in her eyes. "Surely you're not going to bring up
the typists again?" he rebuked. "You know, there does come a close time
for that sort of thing in a man's life, and I've just told you he's
broken up."

"You didn't tell me he's broken up," she said, looking up at him
quickly.

"Well, he is. And I'm really surprised at you, Fanny, that you should
still go on about--"

His arm round her shoulders relaxed its hold, and she, feeling the
withdrawal, put up her hand and caught hold of his coat.

"Don't do that. Stay close," she begged. "It's only that I can't picture
Job without women in his life, and--broken up. Oh, but how cruel, how
utterly _beastly_," she burst out in a sudden flame of indignation,
which filled George with hope, "to leave him when he's broken up!"

"And poor," said George, making the most of his opportunity. "That sets
them off running quicker than anything, you know."

"Poor?"

At this she herself put away his arm, and sat up straight, looking at
him incredulously. He had hinted at this before, but uncertainly. Now he
seemed sure. Job, poor? Job, that expert in millions? Really, she
couldn't believe it. He might be relatively poor, compared with what he
used to be, but not actually--not poor in the way Miles and Muriel were
poor, or the women at Paddington, or the people at street corners to
whom she gave half-crowns, whenever they looked as if they'd like some.

"_Actually_ poor," said George, as if he could hear her thinking.
"Stranded. On the rocks, if ever a man was."

Silence. She, trying to believe it. She, struggling with a thought
which, if she did believe it, would have an instant effect on her own
future. George wouldn't lie. Then, that being so, it must be true that
Job was in a bad way.

She sat trying to take it in. Job on the rocks, and she with power to
rescue him. Rescuing, she would herself be rescued. No need now for
Muriel Hyslup to help her find what her next step should be--Job was
doing it; Job himself was her next step; Job, turned miraculously into
an instrument of salvation.

"But then--" she began.

"Yes, darling?" he said eagerly, bending down.

She didn't, though, go on. She was too much dazzled by the light thrown
on what she must do next, and sat staring at him speechlessly.
Miserable, of course, for poor Job to have to be broken up before he
could become the instrument of her salvation, but at least his misery
wasn't going to last. He should have everything. She couldn't give him
back his vigour and wholeness, but she could and would give him the
means of having himself cared for and mended. Give him? No, not give;
restore what had always really been his. Everything should go back to
him. She would only ask for just enough to live on, hidden away
somewhere in the country, where no one who used to know her would see
her, and where she could, at long last, apply herself to that wisdom and
that getting of understanding which Lanks, in the days of his waning
devotion, used to recommend as desirable. The great, resounding house
should go back, complete with its contents. Except for Manby, the
servants should go back too, including Soames. Truly the ways of
Providence were admirable, thought Fanny, struck by its thoroughness, by
its attention to the smallest detail--here, for instance, was Soames
going to be removed from her life legitimately, smoothly, and happily.
One should trust more, she said to herself. One shouldn't, as she had
been doing lately, be in such a hurry to despair.

But astonished as she was at the ways of Providence, she was very nearly
as much astonished at the ways of George. Who would have thought, she
asked herself, that he could doubt her decency to the point of being in
what he called a blue funk? He had positively perspired with fear lest
she should fail him. How on earth had he managed to be so fond of her
all these years if the whole time, in his heart, he had never been sure
she would behave honourably when put to the test?

Doubly astonished, her breath quite taken away by these sudden
revelations, she sat looking at him, unable to say a word, listening in
a silence he took as boding no good to what he began telling her about
Job.

"I had the greatest difficulty in getting anything out of him," said
George. "I had to keep on assuring him no one was listening"--and he
went on to tell her how poor Skeffington, as he persistently called him,
had first begun losing money in Mexico, where he got mixed up in
politics, and revolutions, and God knew what, and when things got too
hot for him there he had come back to Europe, and gone to Vienna and
started again, and with his usual skill had managed to get richer than
ever when the Nazis walked in. Vienna wasn't exactly a healthy place for
a Jew, and he was soon in serious trouble--for a moment George didn't
seem able to go on, seemed to be staring, with horror in his eyes, at
something he could hardly credit,--such serious trouble that he was
lucky to get away with bare life, if bare life, said George, his eyes
full of that incredulous horror, could be called lucky, and was now in
London, and on the rocks.

"And you think I ought to get him off them," said Fanny as he paused, in
the chilly voice natural to one whose decency is doubted.

The chill annoyed George. "There's no _ought_ about it, my dear," he
said; and that he should address her as my dear showed her how much
annoyed he was. But then, so was she--and most justly, considered Fanny.
"You have no duty. He has no claim. I think, though, you should remember
that every bit of all this--" and he looked round the flower-filled
room, and at the extravagantly wasteful amount of stuff to eat,
untouched by either, of them, on the tea-table, and at Fanny herself,
sunk in softness, wrapped in probably wickedly expensive garments for
all their air of simplicity, with an eye made hostile by its inner
vision of the shabby, patient figure on the seat in Battersea
Park--"everything in this house, every stitch on your back, is yours
because of his generosity."

"Yes," agreed Fanny, "he was very generous. But it's easy," she added,
going on being extremely chilly with George, "to be generous when you're
so rich."

Well, George didn't want to sit close to a woman who talked like that,
and he got up and stood with his back to the fire, glancing, with a
swift upward jerk of his wrist, at his watch. Awful not to be getting on
with this better, when speed was so vital. At any moment someone
distraught might burst in, wanting further instructions--

"Are you in a hurry?" asked Fanny, even more coldly than before, for she
had had enough of men who looked at their watches.

He glared down at her. He ignored her question. He was asking himself if
this were really his Fanny, this cold thing, and whether her heart had
grown as fleshless as the rest of her.

"Let me tell you," he said, glaring, "that you only had a legal right to
a fraction of what he insisted should be settled on, you know."

"And now--"

"Now that he's poor, and I still go on being odiously and unfairly
well-off--say it, George, say it. You're simply dying to."

"Exactly. It _is_ odious. It _is_ unfair," he said, beginning to stride
up and down the room, "when things are so wretchedly different for him.
My God, yes," he broke off, stopping suddenly, as though overcome by
what he knew.

"And you suggest--?"

"I suggest--"

He came back and stood over her, a man flushed with, agitation, with the
necessity for persuading her quickly to do the right, the only thing.

"Yes?" she encouraged.

"I suggest that you should talk over how much you would like to give him
back."

"Well, but of course, my dear--" she, now, was calling him her dear,
always a symptom of at least temporary dislike. "What do you suppose?
I'll send for my lawyer the first thing to-morrow morning, and talk it
over." But, struck by something in his face, she leaned forward in her
chair, and inquired, "Talk over with whom?"

"With Skeffington, Fanny. No earthly need for lawyers. Make it a _kind_
thing. Make it a _warm_ thing," said George, almost implored George.

"You mean--"

She stared up at him as one unable to believe her ears. "You mean--let
Job come and see me?"

"Come, anyhow," George said, after hesitation, as if he were picking his
way carefully among words; and then waited, his heart in his mouth, for
her answer.

He hadn't long to wait. Almost at once she said, briefly and firmly,
"Never."

       *       *       *       *       *

For a moment they gazed at each other, without speaking.

So this was Fanny, he was thinking. This was what she was really like,
must always have been like, beneath the wonder of her beauty. All that
radiant sympathy and eagerness to do kind things--had it, then, been
nothing but the effect of perfect health, and perfect contentment with
her lot? Was it possible? Yet how final, how flint-like was that
_Never_. At fifty, Fanny revealing herself as a flint. So old and so
untender, he said to himself, staring at her as though he were seeing
her for the first time.

And she was thinking, "He's hating me. I've shocked him beyond recovery
unless I do something quickly. I can't let him go. I can't lose George.
I shall have to tell him why I won't see Job. One humiliation more or
less doesn't really matter. I'd rather he knew what a fool I am than
think me hateful and hard."

She tried to get out of the deep chair, feeling she would be able to say
what she had to say better on her feet, but it was too low, and she held
out her hands for him to pull her up. He, extremely reluctant to take
hold of hands he felt he never wanted to touch again, was obliged to
help her; and when she was on her feet, standing quite close to him,
rather like a little girl forced to say a difficult lesson not yet
really learned, to a judge she knows will be severe, he informed her
that if this was her last word, this detestable, unchristian _Never_,
then he thought he had better go away. "And not come back," said George,
glowering at her from beneath drawn-together eyebrows.

"But it isn't my last word," she hurriedly explained. No, she couldn't
lose George; even if he had been misjudging her, she couldn't. He was
the only one of her old adorers left--unless one counted Job.

"I'll at least thank God for that," he answered, his brows a little
relaxing.

"There are several more--"

Did he hear something very like a bark in the lower regions of the
house? Anxiously he glanced, first at the door, and then at her; but she
seemed not to have noticed it, or else supposed it was outside, in the
dog-populous mews. Besides, he knew by the way she was pressing her
hands together--a trick familiar to him whenever she was in
difficulties,--that she was absorbed in what she was trying to say.

"And if," she went on, after taking a deep breath, "you look at me
carefully, you ought to guess what they are. I mean, if you look
carefully at what is left of my face."

He melted at once. A man who readily melted before any kind of distress,
the distress she was evidently feeling at having to say this, left him
wholly tender and sympathetic. Niggs had assured him that Fanny was
unconscious of the change in her face, that women never did know when
their beauty left them, that it was a great pity, and that someone ought
to tell her about it; and he had believed her, and taken comfort in the
belief that his darling cousin was at least spared what must, to any
woman once so beautiful, be a torment. Now it appeared that she hadn't
been spared, and that she was perfectly aware of what had happened to
her.

Pity washed away the last traces of his anger. "I know all about your
darling face, my Fanny," he said gently, taking it in both his hands and
kissing her forehead.

"Then need I go on? Job hasn't seen it for nearly twenty-five years,
remember."

"That doesn't matter," he said.

"Not matter? Why, but George--"

She drew away from him. Was this her understanding cousin? Had he been
married for years to Niggs without getting an inkling of what a woman's
vanity could be, how it could seep through her whole character, drowning
every good impulse on the way? She _wanted_ to be kind, and warm, and
personal with poor shipwrecked Job, and she couldn't, she couldn't,
because it was unbearable to her that he, who had so abjectly worshipped
her beauty, should see her as she was now.

"I assure you," said George earnestly, "that you'll always seem the same
to Skeffington.

"Do you take me for a fool?" she protested--and again he thought he
heard a distant bark, and again he started nervously, and again she
didn't seem to have noticed. "Job loved me agonizingly, you know."

"And I'm certain still does," said George; though was he certain? That
apathetic figure on the seat in Battersea Park, rousing only at a sudden
noise or movement behind him; that patient, unarguing listener to his
impetuous proposals; that obedient follower wherever he led, even if it
were into Fanny's own house; could such a positive emotion as love still
be expected of him? And agonizing love, too. Poor Skeffington. He had
had enough of every sort of agonizing.

"Unfortunately he only loved what I looked like," she said. "Not me at
all. And I'm not going to give him a shock."

"But you wouldn't," said George.

Then Fanny was really angry. "Oh, stop treating me as if I were a mental
deficient!" she cried. "I've been seeing some of the others lately, some
of the ones who used to think they loved me agonizingly too, and they
one and all recoiled. Every man-jack of them. I've had enough of
recoilers. I'm not going to add poor Job to them. After all, he was the
only one who was my husband, and deserves a little extra consideration."
And she indignantly turned her back on him.

He took a quick step forward, caught her by the wrist, and twisted her
round again. "Do you mean to tell me," he said, his eyes very bright and
strange, "that the only reason you won't see Skeffington--"

"Yes," she interrupted, looking at him defiantly. "That's why. Simply
because, if I saw him, he would at the same time see me. Now despise me.
You didn't guess, did you, what a poor, vain thing you've been fond of
all your life, what an absurd--"

"But--is that all, Fanny?" he cut her short.

"All? Why, but it's contemptible. I've no words--"

"Listen," he again cut her short, holding her wrist very tight, "you
don't want any words. What you've got to do now is to listen to a few of
mine--"

But she was never to hear them, for at that moment the door opened, and
Soames appeared.

George turned on him with extraordinary violence. "Didn't I give you the
strictest orders not to come in?" he cried.

Fanny was astonished. So much violence about so small a thing. Why
shouldn't Soames come in? The poor man, still obviously in a state of
inner turmoil, which she still put down to Edward's wink, only wanted to
take away the tea. George was her cousin and all that, but the strict
orders and the violence did seem rather overstepping the bounds of what
he might and might not do. Funny, everybody and everything were that
day. Nothing, since she left her bedroom, had been in the least what she
was accustomed to.

Puzzled and frowning, she stood, her wrist still held by George, while
Soames, met by this outburst, hesitated on the threshold. Yes, he had
been told not to come in, but after a while he had found it impossible
to stay out. He was much too frightened. The silence, the death-like
silence downstairs, had frightened him enough to begin with, but it was
nothing to the fright which overwhelmed him when that dog started
barking. What business had the secretary to go into the library and
upset the dog? It had been as quiet as--as the other contents of the
room till Miss Cartwright went pushing herself forward, and the noise it
made had sent him hurrying upstairs, followed by two of his footmen, to
take cover with Mr. Pontyfridd and her ladyship on the pretext of
clearing away the tea. He had lost his nerve. He couldn't be left
downstairs, without guidance or protection, when anything might happen.
So there he was, the door, blocked by the footmen with trays, wide open
behind him, and at that very moment there was another bark, loud and
distinct this time, echoing through the resounding hall, up the great
staircase, and along the passage to the sitting-room.

"Is there a dog in the house?" asked Fanny, more surprised by the way
they all started than by the bark.

"Dog, m'lady?" stammered Soames. Why had Mr. Pontyfridd done this? Why
had he put them in such a position, after years of getting on very well
as they were? Soames pitied misfortune as much as any man, but it
oughtn't to be brought indoors.

A second bark, a succession of barks, a whole volley of them, made any
further answer unnecessary, and Fanny, looking from one to the other,
from the white-gilled Soames to the red-gilled footmen, and from the
red-gilled footmen to the beaded George, said, "I don't know what's the
matter with you all, but as you're so mysterious and absurd I'm going to
find out for myself--" and moved, with determination, towards the door.

George went after her. "Fanny, you've got to forgive me," he said
eagerly, laying his hand on her shoulder. "I brought the dog in. You'll
find it in the library."

"Well, really, I don't see why you shouldn't bring your dog in if you
want to," she said, for an instant not sure she would bother to go
downstairs, only to find George's dog in the library.

But there, meeting her through the open door, again flooded the peculiar
atmosphere she had noticed when she came out of her bedroom, the
peculiar feeling that the whole house was holding its breath, waiting
for something to happen, and afraid. It had got even into her bedroom,
for she saw Manby peeping out, sniffing inquiringly. Really, she must go
and find out what was happening. Till she handed everything over to Job
she still, after all, was mistress here, she couldn't just stand
frowning and not doing anything. Besides, George's hand on her shoulder
seemed to be urging her along. He wanted her, she felt, to go down and
investigate. Not that that would have made her go, but dignity demanded
that she shouldn't put up with mystifications.

"It isn't my dog, you know," said George, his voice very strange.

"Not your dog?"

She turned her head and looked at him; and, as she looked, the inquiry
in her eyes changed first into incredulousness, and then into a
horrified certainty.

"_George_?" she said under her breath, as if quite unable to believe it
was he who had done this thing.

He began stroking her shoulder with quick, nervous, eager movements.
"It'll be all right," he assured her, jerking out the words in time with
his strokings. "You'll see--you'll understand--there are some things
that can't be allowed to go on--I was just going to tell you--I had
meant to explain--don't mind, darling--don't mind too much--go
down--face it--"

"Of course I'm going to face it," she said, and withdrawing her
shoulder, walked out of the room.

George wiped his forehead. Soames, with his back turned, furtively wiped
his. The footmen would have liked to wipe theirs, but couldn't because
of the trays; besides, footmen don't.

Yes, it would be all right, it must be all right, it couldn't help being
all right, George assured himself, watching Fanny, haughty indignation
in every line of her body, going along the passage and disappearing down
the stairs. As for him, there was nothing more he could do except pray
for the salvation of the Skeffingtons--of both the Skeffingtons, for
surely his Fanny needed saving from her blank future as much as the
unhappy Job from the memory of his frightful immediate past?

With all his heart, George prayed; but Soames, who couldn't know that he
was praying, except that he looked worried, interrupted him. "If you'll
excuse me mentioning it, sir," Soames whispered fearfully, under cover
of the clatter the footmen's unsteady hands were making collecting the
cups, "isn't the--the encounter likely to give her ladyship a terrible
shock?"

"Devils, _devils_," was George's unexpected answer, clenching his fists
and going suddenly as red in the face as the footmen. It wasn't, though,
of the Skeffingtons that he was thinking.




XI


And now here was Fanny, going down all alone to meet her fate. Her head
was high, and her spirit up in arms. This, if you like, was an outrage,
she said to herself. How dared George. But, a thousand times more
inexplicable, how dared Job. Worse, infinitely worse, than George's
bringing Job into the house was it that Job should have let himself be
brought. It had been bad enough for his figment to pervade it, upsetting
her nerves almost into fits, but what was a figment compared to an
actual body? The decent impulse she had had of restitution, of wholesale
giving back, went curdled within her. Like the Kingdom of Heaven, she
wasn't going to be taken by violence. So justly angry was she, so
rightly revolted, that as she hurried downstairs she actually forgot her
determination that Job should never see her in her decay. Not till she
reached the last step did she remember that she couldn't possibly show
herself to him as she was now, and pulling up short was on the point of
turning round and going upstairs again to George, tell him to collect
his friend, leave the house, and never let her set eyes on him again,
when the library door opened, and Miss Cartwright, pursued by barks,
hurriedly came out of it.

Now how strange, thought Fanny, stopping dead. What had she been doing
in there? And how very intelligent of the dog to chase her out.

She had no time, however, to disentangle what her secretary's probable
motives could have been in going into a room where she had no business,
though she felt in her bones that they were bad, and only said
inquiringly, standing on the last stair, looking down at her, "Yes?"

"Oh, Lady Frances, I beg your pardon, I'm sure," stammered Miss
Cartwright, in quite extraordinary confusion. "I thought--I thought you
were in the library, and I wanted--I just wanted--"

Her voice died away. Any voice would have, before Fanny's look.

"There's nothing more I want to-day," was all she said, coming down the
last stair.

No turning back now. Miss Cartwright was obliging her to go into the
library. And remarking, in case the secretary should imagine she didn't
know whom she would find there, "I'm afraid you have upset Mr.
Skeffington's dog," she opened the door, went in, and shut it behind
her.

       *       *       *       *       *

Yes; there was Job, just as George had described him, whitehaired and
shrivelled, sitting under the lamp at the other end of the long room,
and the dog, no longer barking but watching her with bright eyes,
upright on its haunches beside him.

How still the room was. A curious quiet seemed settling on it, now that
only she and Job were there--like dust falling softly on ancient,
finished things. She stood just inside the shut door, not moving,
feeling as if she were looking into a picture. Job, in his distant
chair, didn't move either. And the dog, upright on its haunches, stared
at her in bright-eyed silence.

An old man, with hands folded on a stick. An old man, so entirely unlike
the Job she remembered and the Job of the hauntings that her wrath all
died away. How could anybody be angry with a pitiful stranger? And those
dark glasses--George hadn't told her about the dark glasses; there never
used to be glasses; Job's eyes, except when gazing at her and they
became wet with worship, had been as keen as a hawk's. Now they were
hidden, and she couldn't tell, though his head was turned towards her,
whether he were looking at her or not.

But he must be looking at her; he couldn't help it, with his head turned
that way. Was it possible--she caught her breath--that he didn't know
who she was? That he, of them all, hadn't an idea?

Shaken by this dreadful suspicion, instead of asking him to explain his
unpardonable invasion of her house, all she found she could do was to
falter, "Job--?" and after a silence which seemed to last for ever, the
voice she hadn't heard for twenty-two years answered, very slowly and
gently, as though groping its way down the long room, "Is it Fanny?"

Is it Fanny? For a moment she couldn't speak. The others, every one of
them, had at least recognized her, even if with evident shock, but here
was Job, not recognizing her at all.

"You don't--know me again?" she asked; swallowing.

He said slowly, after another silence, "The voice is Fanny's."

Stricken, she stood motionless, leaning against the door, pressed for
support against the door. Her voice. Nothing left of her now, for Job,
but a voice.

He began getting up. The dog, shaking itself, immediately got up too. It
was fastened, she saw, by a loop to its master's arm. Was he afraid that
it, too, as she had, and her successors had when he grew old and poor,
would run away and leave him?

He seemed to have difficulty in getting up. He fumbled, feeling his way
along the arm of the chair with the hand that wasn't holding the stick.
And she thought, watching him, defending herself against the appeal of
his helplessness, "It's not fair. I'm being got at unfairly. This isn't
the way to--I won't be caught by--"

But when he tripped on the rug, and the stick was jerked out of his
grasp, and he would have fallen if it hadn't been for the dog pulling
him back into the chair, instinct was too much for her and she flew to
him, holding out her hands.

He took no notice of them--she, Fanny, holding out her hands to Job, and
he taking no notice of them,--while his face, upward turned to hers, had
the same queer, blank, listening look she had noticed when he heard the
door open.

Something in it, now that she saw it close, something behind the thick,
dark glasses, invisible but felt, froze her. "Job," she whispered,
hardly able to breathe, "you're not--they didn't--you can't be--"

But the word wouldn't come out, and he said it for her. "Yes," he said,
bowing his head, speaking very gently, as if anxious to avoid the
smallest appearance of complaint, or even of criticism. "Blind."

"Not the--?"

But terror came into the room, into the quiet, safe, Charles Street
room, at the bare approach of the word she was going to say if he hadn't
stopped her. "Hush, hush--" he whispered in quick panic, showing his
first real sign of life, fearfully turning his head, as if to see if
anyone were hiding behind his chair, his body suddenly going tense,
instinctively getting ready to be hurt.

She stared down at him, struck to stone by the terrible implications of
his movement. This, then, was life, beneath the smiles. While she, in
the sun of its surface, was wasting months in shamefully selfish,
childish misery over the loss of her beauty, Job was being broken up
into a sort of frightened animal. How could one live, while such things
were going on? How could one endure consciousness, except by giving
oneself up wholly and for ever to helping, and comforting, and at last,
at last, perhaps healing?

There was a noise outside the door, quite an ordinary, everyday little
noise, a noise Fanny wouldn't even have noticed, but it was enough to
make Job start and clutch the sides of the chair; and this second
movement, again appalling in its implications, brought her to her knees.

Flooded by a passionate tenderness, she knelt down and gathered him to
her heart. "No, no," she assured him, holding him close, almost rocking
him, as though he were the baby she had never had, "they shan't--they
never, never shall again--you're safe--you've come home--"

He said nothing. He was listening intently; but not to her. His head was
turned towards the door, while she, overwhelmed by an agonizing pity,
held him to her, protecting him, daring anyone to harm him, incoherently
whispering words of love he would have given his life to hear a quarter
of a century ago.

Now he said nothing. He was listening; but not to her. And the dog,
upright and alert, watched them both in bright-eyed silence.

       *       *       *       *       *

Manby found them like that. It was she who, to her great vexation unable
quite to control her hands, had bumped the tray she was carrying against
the door.

Long ago she had discovered that the only way to approach the varied
situations in which her lady so easily became involved, was to behave as
if nothing were happening. A single glance at Fanny's face, as she
peeped through the door at her walking along the passage to the stairs,
had convinced her that yet one more of these situations was upon them,
and hurrying back into the bedroom she telephoned down to Miss
Cartwright, and asked her if she knew what it was.

The answer she got made her first hold on to the table, because her legs
gave way, and then, recovering her breath and her courage, immediately
rise to the occasion. Now indeed her mistress must be helped.

To Manby, the only husband her mistress had ever had was still the
master. She slid over that long-past lapse into the Law Courts, being
unshakably of the opinion that once God had joined people together, no
amount of talk by gentlemen in wigs could put them asunder. The master
had behaved in a way he shouldn't, but gentlemen weren't ladies, and
ought to be forgiven. By this time her mistress ought really to be able
to forgive. Therefore, her mouth tight with determination, the thumping
of her heart sternly suppressed, as a preliminary to steadying and
helping she began measuring medicine into a small glass.

Her ladyship's tonic. Dr. Clark's Blood Mixture. Recommended by Manby
herself, and administered every evening at seven o'clock. It was now
seven o'clock. Habits, in her experience, if punctually kept to, were
invaluable as reminders that there were other things in life besides
shocks. Look at breakfast, for instance; look at brushing one's teeth.
And having measured, she put the glass on a tray, took it down to the
library, advanced, after that single moment's bungling at the door, with
the composed tread and impassive countenance of one performing a daily
duty at the appointed hour, and said, her eyelids respectfully lowered,
"Your drops, m'lady."

"You see--it was only Manby," her mistress anxiously assured the poor
master, just as if he were a frightened child being coaxed to believe
that there was nothing to be afraid of.

"Yes, sir. And very glad to see you, sir," said Manby, taking one
shocked glance. "I hope you are--" she was going to say keeping well,
but how could a poor gentleman be keeping well who was so old, such a
skeleton, and, worst of all afflictions, blind?

Fanny sat back on her heels, and looked up at her through wet eyelashes.
Her face was the face of grief itself, but grief shone through with hope
and resolve. No need for help here, thought Manby, suddenly aglow with
pride; her lady was going to do the right thing, and she was more
beautiful to Manby at that moment than she had ever been in the days of
her glory.

"Mr. Skeffington has come home," she said.

"Yes, m'lady. Should I--" a small pause, while Manby struggled with, and
triumphed over, an inconvenient and unseemly feeling in her throat which
easily might have ended as a sob--"should I tell the housekeeper to
prepare a room?"

"His own room," said Fanny.

"Yes, m'lady. And will your ladyship wear--" another small pause, during
which, with an almost superhuman effort, she recovered her usual
respectful impassiveness--"should I put out the pink velvet, or the new
white lace?"

For an instant Fanny's head drooped; for an instant she made odd,
uncertain movements with her hand, trailing it backwards and forwards on
the rug, her face hidden.

Then she looked up and said, "But of course, the new white lace."


THE END


This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia