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eBook No.: 2300781h.html
Date first posted: May 2023
Most recent update: MaY 2023
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KATE rose, setting down her untasted cup of tea; after all, Jenny was only a child and she must decide for her—she would be very happy with Charles Malleson—any woman would be happy with Charles, surely.
"You've changed your mind?" she asked briskly. "About that letter, I mean?"
"I did change it," muttered Jenny, irresolute again.
"Well, I suppose you did, as you tried to get it back," said Kate firmly, "and now I'm going to get it before Charles reads it—and we'll hear no more of this nonsense, please."
"Going to get it back?" echoed Jenny, half relieved, half resentful.
"Yes, it will be delivered to-night. I shall call and ask for it—quite simple, really. I shall make quite a good story, you needn't worry about anything."
"I suppose you think I am very mercenary," added Kate. "I'm not; I've only got a little common sense. I've known ever since we lost everything and had to start this kind of life that it wouldn't do for you for long—you're just wilting, I know, and Ted's a dear boy—but, well, it wouldn't be romantic—it would be sordid. Jenny, the responsibility and the strain would spoil his work, too—he's got great gifts, Jenny—a crazy marriage would ruin both of you—"
Jenny shivered; she knew that she was sensitive, indolent, luxury-loving. Here Kate undertook all the work and all the disagreeables of their joint life; if she moved down to the glass studio built on the garden that was all Ted Lumley had of Home, she would have to face everything unaided—and she didn't really like that kind of life.
"Try and get the letter back," she said faintly. "Of course I'm all sorts of a fool—and I couldn't face it—really, I couldn't."
Kate looked anxiously and regretfully at the rather pathetic little figure in the big old chair.
"You'll feel so much better when you get out of this," she said. "Remember that you are going to stay with Mrs. Courtlands next week—things will look so different from that angle!"
"I suppose so," said Jenny, gazing into the fire.
Charles Malleson had induced his married sister to take in and look after Jenny till the marriage; it was the best mutual arrangement that they could reach to smooth away the difficulties created by the difference in the position of the bride and groom, for Jenny had no relatives and no money. Mrs. Courtlands had come to the rescue with great charm and good nature, and Charles Malleson himself had bought as many pictures as he decently could (at wildly extravagant prices) from Kate so that there should be no embarrassments about ready money.
The thought of this money gave poor Kate another stab; if the engagement was broken off she would feel bound to return it—and it was all spent! After a few modest debts had been paid every penny had gone on equipping Jenny with clothes that would be a mockery if she didn't go to stay with Mrs. Courtlands.
She must get that letter back. She knew the man who cleared the pillar-box; surely he would let her recover her letter!
"Jenny," she said, to give the girl congenial employment while she was away, "you can go through those frocks that came this morning and choose which you are going to keep."
What was this letter that Jenny had just confessed to posting, that she had run out into the miserable night to get back?
Kate, hesitating, in her little corner of a bedroom, could see the picture, the pathetic incident of an hour ago, the rain falling straightly in the long Chelsea street, the ghastly twilight of a foggy afternoon closing over the city, the one bright thing in the drabness the scarlet of a newly painted pillar-box at the corner where the straight lines of flat-fronted houses diverged—and then poor Jenny running along one of these streets, fastening her belted mackintosh as she came and bending her head, in the tattered "wet weather" felt, against the drive of the rain—and when she reached the pillar-box she pausing, panting, her face flushed and wet, quickly as she glanced up and down the street!
She was too late; the letter she had come to reclaim had gone.
Jenny was often too late, continually spoiling things by delay and indecision.
She had bitten her pretty lip, no doubt, and her eyes, not yet marred by work or tears, had filled with tears, of course: Jenny could cry easily, not from pettishness or weakness, but from acute sensibility to quickly felt emotions.
And then the poor child had hurried back to her—to Kate, who was her harbour, her refuge, her consolation, her confessor. How she must have both longed and dreaded to see her, for though there was consolation to be sought, there was also a confession to make!
Kate recalled her taking off her wet things and coming into the dilapidated room that Kate contrived to keep so neat by bringing forward the workmanlike air of easels and canvases, while disguising the fact that it was also kitchen, larder and pantry.
Jenny had always, however, rebelled at the evidences of stark poverty that all her sister's loving art could not conceal, and this afternoon they must have jarred on her desperately.
That hateful bit of shabby drugget on the floor, those shabby curtains at the window, the rows of unsold canvases, like penitents standing with their faces to the wall! The fire banked up sparingly with cinders, the screens that hid the sink and gas-cooker and other "horrors," as Jenny called them, and on the table by the fire the "same old buns" from the baker's round the corner!
Jenny had sunk into the worn arm-chair and begun to cry.
At the sound of her sobs Kate had come quickly from the inner room where she had been changing her painting overall.
And then had come the piteous confession that had filled the elder sister with dismay, that she was even now turning over in her agitated mind as she reluctantly fastened her shabby coat and peered out of the narrow window into the wet, darkening streets.
What was it that Jenny had said—Jenny staring down at her hands clasped in the lap of her shabby serge frock; on the third finger of the left was the leaping light of a gorgeous emerald...
"I do hate it," she had said, her breast heaving, her eyes downcast. "I hate the beastly old studio—and the carpet—and the weather—and these horrid buns—and being poor—and—everything."
Kate, on her knees on the worn hearthrug, had looked over her shoulder in amazement, and then the sad little confession had come out.
"Oh dear, oh dear!" Jenny had begun to sob like a child, hiding her face on the kindly arm of the shabby, cosy old chair. "I've broken off my engagement," she had muttered. "I've written and told Charles that I never cared for him and had only taken him because of the money."
"Oh, Jenny!" Kate had stared into the fire where she beheld many a golden dream crumble to ashes as she saw them crumble now.
"I felt I ought to," the girl had continued defiantly. "I don't really care, you know; it was the money and hating this so much. Of course he's been awfully decent—but I don't care about him. I couldn't go on pretending."
"Well," Kate had said quietly, "why are you upset, then, dear, at having told the truth?"
At the touch of logic Jenny had become restive.
"Of course," she said irrelevantly, "I was sorry at once. As soon as I had written I saw that I couldn't go on living like this, and I thought how disappointed you'd be— and, oh dear, I ran back to the pillar-box and just saw the wretched postman disappearing!"
"Did you run after him—follow to the sorting office?" asked Kate with a gleam of hope.
Jenny had shook her head; of course she never did anything practical or decided.
"Perhaps you can explain it away."
"I can't," Jenny had wailed. "I just told him the truth—flat—and now I shall have to send him this!" She had glanced regretfully at the emerald that shone so strangely against her poor attire.
Kate winced when she thought of that cry; the remark seemed to give that sordidness to the affair that she had been trying to avoid.
Of course she had known that Jenny, gay, irresponsible, pleasure-loving, weak Jenny, had not really been in love with Charles Malleson, but she had believed her to be very fond of him and she had thought it a case where fondness would be enough, oh, surely enough.
The wealthy, generous man could give Jenny all she needed, all that Kate never had been and never would be able to give her; it had seemed such a providence when someone so far removed from their Bohemian world had bought one of her pictures at an Exhibition, asked for an introduction to the artist and been instantly enchanted by the artist's sister!
And Jenny had seemed so happy, so elated—like someone released from prison, the future that had looked so hopeless had seemed—well, too good to be true, as it had proved.
"Whatever made you do it, Jenny?" she had asked hopelessly. And then, with a desperate inkling of the truth, she had added: "You've not been seeing Ted Lumley again?"
Then Jenny had blushed and hung her head, and plunged further into confession.
"I met him on the stairs this morning," she admitted.
"Oh, Jenny!" Kate had cried in dismay, "it's just madness! He's as poor as we are and you could never stand it; he hasn't the right to ask—"
"He didn't," broke in Jenny hotly. "Don't be a beast."
"I'm sorry." Kate was instantly contrite, but she had not altered her point of view; the very idea of Jenny's marriage to the struggling young sculptor, who might be a genius but certainly was almost starving was, to her, disastrous.
She saw Jenny "going to pieces" under the strain of such a life—Jenny wasn't the type—couldn't do it—all very well to talk of love and romance, but Jenny would perish miserably if she undertook the kind of life that Ted Lumley could offer; at all costs it must be prevented.
So she thought, standing there, hesitant, gazing into the gathering darkness that seemed so cold and forlorn.
Jenny, her little sister, her little spoilt, childish sister, was obviously in her hands, for her to do as she would with. Jenny had always obeyed her, or rather, allowed her to influence her; and now, in this most important matter, certainly the turning-point of Jenny's life, was she going to influence her?
Was she going to persuade her to take this extraordinary chance that had suddenly been offered her, or encourage her to be faithful to the penniless young man whom it was obvious she loved—in Jenny's light way of loving?
Life seemed difficult and complicated to Kate, and she felt, though more with bewilderment than resentment, that it ought not to have been either, but simple and clear.
As her own personal life was, and always had been, simple and clear—just "the trivial round the common task" quoted so often in the Parish Magazine that she used to help to edit, and which was, after all, the portion of the majority.
Kate had never complained about that—she had, too, had this little excitement of her work; she knew that she had not much talent, but it was more than she had at first thought, and there was some money in it too, which she had never dared at one time to hope; not enough money, of course, but she had a small gift of fantastical sweet imagination and she had begun to creep in among the illustrators of children's books and the more modest exhibitions. It was all very delightful and wonderful, and, if it had only been a question of herself, it would have satisfied Kate's repressed and humble nature.
But there had always been Jenny—the petted baby who in so short a while had become the spoilt child and then the capricious girl; the elder sister adored her because she was so lovely and so loving and so helpless, but the responsibility had bowed down her spirit and made her heart tremble—often enough.
And now—what to do?
There was Jenny looking to her for guidance—poor, pretty, silly little Jenny who had no more sense now than she had when she was a coaxing little piece with flying curls, petted by the fond and simple father!
Of course Jenny must marry Charles Malleson, not that gaunt, eager boy who had nothing to offer but his unrecognised gift— odd, thought Kate with a catch in her throat, for any girl not to want to marry Charles Malleson—couldn't Jenny see what she was missing? Apart from the money; quite apart from the money.
And Kate turned on the electric light in the narrow strip of room and looked at herself in the dingy square of mirror.
She was ten years older than Jenny and not pretty—no, not pretty at all.
A very tired, faded-looking woman, already a woman who had never had a chance to "do" anything for herself.
Never wanted, nor longed for, such a chance.
Yet now, sad and disturbed as she was, the sight of her own face vexed her further—she looked, as she felt, a failure.
People didn't like failure.
She had sometimes wistfully felt that she had been a drawback to Jenny, encompassing her with this atmosphere of failure, of plainness, of anxious and futile effort.
No, it must end.
Jenny must marry this rich man and go away with him into another world, and leave her alone to struggle along her modest way.
If she was alone, she thought wistfully, she would be quite content—without the responsibility of Jenny.
And then she set out into the cold darkening streets, the wind and the rain and the murk about her, and in her heart a curious pang that bowed her spirit with depression.
For she, too, had her secret trouble, her hidden anguish that swelled until it filled her whole being; and there was no one to console or support her; she always had been, and must remain, lonely, one of the odd, unwanted people who must not get in the way of, or bore, the others.
Her errand was hateful to her, in every way hateful; poverty had made both the sisters reserved and kept them from learning the careless freedom of modern manners; Kate knew nothing of anything save the shifts and vicissitudes of poverty.
And then it really seemed rather an outrageous thing to Kate, this going alone to a man's house at this hour; the engagement had been very sudden and not yet very long, and Kate so long a drudge and a toiler, first in the old vicarage days when she had helped her father with the Parish, and since his death as bread-winner for her mother, Jenny and herself, and then for Jenny and herself alone, that she had lost her sense of values. Was it permissible or not, what she was doing? She felt so foolish and so futile.
With a tremor she rang the bell of the trim mansion that secretly awed her. Mr. Malleson was very wealthy indeed, a connoisseur and collector, and everything about him was of a peculiarly sumptuous quality in a quiet fashion that pleased Kate, yet rather frightened her too, making her feel even more stupid and plain.
She was shown into a library filled with curious books in pale tints of vellum and faded, gilded calf, and fragrant from an enormous bowl of apricot-coloured azaleas, and bright with a huge, clear fire. Kate, cold and damp despite the dripping umbrella she had resigned with a blush in the hall, stood near the great log fire which gave out this brilliant, generous light and warmth.
Too honest-minded to spend any of her recent windfalls on herself, she was wearing last year's cheap velour coat and a hat of dyed fur that Jenny called "common or garden cat"; she felt more than ever shabby in these surroundings and ill at ease—as if she was already a poor relation, and the small amount of courage she had gathered up drooped and nearly died away.
She half hoped that Mr. Malleson would prove to be out and that she could request the return of the letter in a note—yes, a note; could she not write to him—and fly?
This would not be as safe and wise as seeing him, and was in the nature of a cowardly compromise, but Kate would have preferred it to an interview—yes, she felt cowardly, she wondered now however she could have undertaken such an impossible errand.
But even while she was hoping she might escape, Charles Malleson came in and greeted her as if it was the most natural thing in the world to see her there.
He was a spare man of over forty who had inherited a huge chemical works that brought him a very considerable fortune, who had travelled all over the world and seen and done most things that lively human beings wish to see and do.
As Kate was gaining time with timid conventionalities, she could not help a sudden silly wonder (instantly checked as disloyal) as to what this man, so thoughtful, so intelligent, so finished, could see in a simple little thing like Jenny. But then, of course, Jenny was pretty; men always cared for that—ah, yes, that was it; Jenny was pretty!
How she would bloom in these beautiful surroundings that Kate was so conscious of—this warmth and light and luxury, that made you feel you wanted to curl up, easily, drowsily, and go to sleep—especially if you had come in out of the damp and dark and wet. Kate fought off a feeling of lassitude, a desire to sink into one of the great soft chairs and cry like a child.
It was all so difficult.
Almost too difficult for one tired, simple woman to undertake.
And Charles Malleson was looking at her with a queer veiled keenness, with pity, she thought, with slightly ironic pity.
Kate felt her thoughts slipping from her errand; she almost forgot Jenny. Why was this man looking at her like that?
And how odd it seemed, to be alone here with him in this warm and gracious room; he had switched on the light now, which gleamed and glittered from a delicate candelabra of pinkish amber glass. Kate noticed the lovely sparkle of that soft radiancy and was irritated with herself for noticing it—a trifle like that.
"You look tired," remarked the man quietly. "It is really a horrible night—do get nearer the fire. And won't you take your coat off? And have some coffee?"
Kate shook her head; her lips felt dry, her throat choking— why did life have moments like this?
She was going to break down, to do something foolish. And then she made an effort, a really desperate effort.
"I really came to get back a letter," she began bluntly.
Kate felt the blood hot in her face and her throat even more uncomfortably dry; she had never consciously told or conveyed a deliberate lie before. That was stupid, of course; one should not be so sensitive, so childish.
"Yes, a letter from me—it is addressed in Jenny's writing, but it is from me—"
Why did she say that? Nervousness, it must be nervousness.
"And you want it back?"
She knew that beneath his pleasant courtesy he must be surprised, perhaps amazed, and she plunged on desperately.
"It is about my pictures," then, in sudden terror, "not about money—just a suggestion I made that I've completely changed my mind about—and now I'd rather that you did not even read about it."
"You want the letter back, unopened?" he asked.
"Of course—but," with a little smile, "I should not think it very usual for you to change your mind."
Kate's relief was lost in a sense of guilt; she had not meant to go so far; her intention had been to tell him that Jenny had written something that she had changed her mind about—that would have been the only honest way; but when she came face to face with Charles Malleson she was afraid to pursue it; beneath his very quiet demeanour his personality was so strong and keen that she felt she could not offer such a tale—he would want some explanation, and seeds of distrust and suspicion would be sown between him and Jenny, therefore in a kind of blind panic she had taken the whole thing on herself.
"You look rather worried," said Charles Malleson, looking down at her where she sat in the great deep chair, leaning forward and gazing into the fire; "it is not about this—letter?"
"Yes," replied Kate with a valiant effort to appear careless, "it has bothered me—rather."
"Well, it need not any more. Of course you shall have it back, unopened."
"That was all I came for; I must be getting back."
"Must you? I've a lot of jolly things here I would like to show you—"
"Oh, some other time, when I come with Jenny."
"But Jenny doesn't care for them, does she? She's frightfully bored with everything that isn't of to-day or to-morrow," he smiled.
"Jenny has had such a miserable time," said Kate, instantly on the defensive, "quite the wrong sort of life—she is so young and really has had no enjoyments at all; she will be interested in everything in time, I'm sure."
"And you?" he asked lightly. "Haven't you had rather a miserable time, too?"
"Oh no," said Kate valiantly. "I'm different—I'm awfully keen on my work and determined; it's real fun to me, struggling along in a Bohemian kind of way—"
She was so terrified that he should offer to help her—that he should suggest she came abroad with him and Jenny—a scheme the little sister had already passionately brought forward and she had as passionately rejected; she felt shaken, confused.
"You'll miss Jenny," said Charles Malleson thoughtfully.
"Yes." She was being honest now and therefore was more at her ease. "But I shall be glad that someone else has the responsibility of making her happy."
"A pretty big responsibility—with one of Jenny's temperament."
"She is so easily pleased," protested Kate, "so grateful for the least kindness, so warm-hearted—"
"And so spoilt," he finished, "absolutely the spoilt baby who can never make up her mind—your work, Miss Kate, you just indulged her—always."
Kate was a little startled at his acumen and coolness; he ought, she thought, to have been too absorbed by Jenny's charms to be able to see any of her faults.
"Well, you wanted a spoilt baby, I suppose," she replied with an unsteady smile. "You wouldn't like Jenny altered?"
He did not reply at once and Kate had the extraordinary impression that he wasn't thinking of Jenny very much; that he was concerned with her, and with the present moment.
Of course he must be very much in love with Jenny, because it was one of those very "unsuitable" marriages that nothing but love could excuse. He must be very much older than Jenny; she had never thought about that before.
But now it occurred to her how much older he was, how different, and what an odd match it would be—this man and poor, silly, pretty little Jenny.
"Of course," he said at length, "no one will ever be able to alter Jenny."
Kate opened her lips, but mutely; this time she had nothing to say, the moment seemed to have got out of her power; she began to forget Jenny.
And of all things she must not forget Jenny; she said over to herself deliberately that Jenny was going to marry Charles Malleson, that she must see that they did marry; hadn't she come to get the letter back?
Jenny's letter, breaking off the marriage. She heard his voice, saying:
"There are so many things here that I would like to show you, things that you would care about, I know."
"I've been here before," she said stupidly. "Yes, but with other people."
"With Jenny." She must keep on talking about Jenny.
She was here on Jenny's business that was her only excuse for being here at all.
"Never mind Jenny," said her host. "You came about yourself, didn't you?"
Kate was caught by her own lie; she had said the letter was from her. She turned her head sharply away.
"Oh, the letter, yes; but it's of no importance."
She was tormented; certain of nothing; everything seemed touched by folly. Was it just the money she was clutching at?
She was thinking of Jenny and Ted Lumley, how she had got between them, persuaded her sister to deny her own heart—
How dared she do it?—how, after all, be sure that Jenny wouldn't be happy in poverty with her lover?—how be so certain Ted wouldn't make good?
And then there was Charles Malleson. Was not she doing an awful wrong to him in helping on his marriage to a girl like Jenny, who did not love him?
She half closed her eyes with a shudder; she saw her action as foolish, heavy with future unhappiness for all of them. It was stupid to interfere, to meddle—
Someone had come into the room; she looked at Charles Malleson; a servant had entered and he had several letters in his hand.
"Here it is," he said, holding out the little envelope adorned with Jenny's scrawl. "Now you can take it away yourself and make sure that I don't read it."
Kate shook her head; her agitation and humiliation were such that for a moment she could not speak.
"Something is the matter," he said quickly. "Now what?"
Kate tried to face him; but she had no courage.
"Yes, something is—I don't know if I want you to read that letter or not."
"Want me to read it—after coming round here to take it back? You think you might want me to read it?"
She stood leaning against the back of the chair by the fire, so tormented, so weak, so futile.
She ought not to have undertaken this, she should not be here, speaking for Jenny, deciding for Jenny.
He stood near her, waiting, with the letter in his hand.
"You said it wasn't important," he remarked. "But I think it must be rather important. You wouldn't have come round here, like this, if it hadn't been. And now you don't know if I'm to open it or not—unlike you, Kate, to be in two minds."
He spoke as if he knew her very well, intimately. She felt as if he did so know her—far better than he knew Jenny, or Jenny knew him; and her baffled mind went back queerly to that day he had come to her, saying he wanted Jenny. Yes, he had come to her, the elder sister, as if she had been the mother; he had been confused and awkward then and she had had to help him out, she had had to say:
"Of course it is natural that you should love Jenny."
Then Jenny had come into the room, and Kate had said, in her old-fashioned way:
"Mr. Malleson wants to speak to you, dear," and left them together.
Odd how she went back over that now, while he stood over her with the letter in his hand.
"I think I had better read it," he said. "Don't you?"
"I can't say, I can't think; I ought never to have come—"
"But I've been expecting you. I wondered how long you would let this go on."
She was chilled with fright.
"Then you know?"
"It's been a bitter mistake, hasn't it?"
Kate, staring at him, drew farther and farther away.
"Have you never thought of me," he asked passionately, "except as the man Jenny is going to marry?"
He was almost on her secret; in a swift panic she cried out:
"I've got to tell you something—"
"Don't, if you would rather not." He, too, seemed to be controlling agitation, passion, anger, too.
"I must—I've got to."
He had put the letter on a desk; she could see the white square of it in the glow of the sparkling light, but the man was mercifully in the warm shadows of the room.
"That letter isn't from me, it is from Jenny."
Even through her misery his comment sounded curious:
"From Jenny—didn't I say it was not like you to change your mind?"
"But I have changed it—I've changed it now—that is why I want you to read that letter."
"Are you sure that Jenny wants me to?" he asked. "Did she send you to get it back?"
"No; I persuaded her to allow me to come—as you told me, I always rule her, I don't let her think or decide for herself; and this time I have been terribly wrong."
Kate was talking rapidly, still in a panic.
"Jenny doesn't care for you; she was only pretending. And she was too honest to keep it up—she wrote and told you so."
There was a pause; Charles Malleson turned over the letter; the silence was awful to the frightened woman.
"Why was she pretending?" he asked at last.
"Because of—the chance," said Kate feverishly. "It seemed to mean everything we had ever hoped for—just two mercenary fortune-hunters, that is what we were—you'll simply despise us— and you'll be right—but Jenny wasn't going through with it— you'll remember that to her credit—and how I overrule her. I'm to blame all through."
"Is there anyone else—for Jenny?" asked Charles Malleson.
"Yes—there's Ted Lumley. But he hasn't a copper and I was frightened—I persuaded her against him—I've been a beast."
Her voice fainted away miserably; she hardly dared to think what this renunciation meant to her; at this moment it seemed as if the life ahead would be—unendurable. She turned blindly towards the door; he put out a hand to stay her.
"Let me go, please," she whispered. "You must forget all about us."
"But perhaps I could help you," he said quietly. "Won't you give me a chance?"
"Give you a chance! I don't understand! I've finished, there's no more to be said—"
"Sit down—give me a moment, won't you? Don't I deserve that?"
Kate stumbled into the great chair by the fire; she did not feel able to fight any more; her strength had gone with her confession; she closed her eyes and the bitter tears pricked the lids.
Charles Malleson turned aside and opened Jenny's pathetic little letter; there was silence while he read it, broken only by the fall of the burning logs in the wide fireplace.
Kate felt numbed and dazed; she thought in a broken way of Jenny left behind in the miserable house with the big box of now useless clothes—of the emerald ring that she must "give up" like a child unclutching a toy, but more she thought of something of her secret that she must hide up, hide—
She shuddered as she heard Charles Malleson turn and come up behind her chair—it was all unbearable, unbearable.
"Did you make her write this?" he asked. "Of course, I know that she has never cared for me, but she's such a child, she might have gone through with it—did you open her eyes?"
"No," cried Kate fiercely. "No!"
"I've told you—set us down as adventurers; she's fond of you, you might be happy—maybe she's only a fancy for Ted—"
"Then you'd let me marry her—still—if she'd have me?"
"That's what I don't know—yes, I believe I would. Why not? I believe she has a better chance with you."
"You leave it, then, for me to decide?"
"Yes; I can't do anything more—I've had too much responsibility."
She was exhausted now, she only wanted to get away; but he would not allow her to escape, he stood between her and the door.
"I've been wondering how long you would let this go on—"
"So you said." She fumbled with the collar of her coat and felt her hands stinging cold against her throat; she tried to laugh.
"Well, you know the worst of us now—"
"I don't mean what you think I mean—there have been mistakes. Your fault, you're obsessed—with Jenny."
Her answer seemed to come without her own volition.
"Jenny's everything, youth, prettiness, hope. I'm nothing; I never have been. Why shouldn't I be obsessed with Jenny when she's all I have?"
His answer seemed to come from far away, from the depths of the lovely, warm coloured room.
"She isn't, she isn't! Jenny is nothing—never was—you can't make anything important of Jenny—never, poor child."
Kate held on to the chair nearest to her; she turned and looked at him now with amazement, with reproach, with bewilderment.
"Why did you ever bother with us at all?" she asked. "There was no need."
"There was great need—I had to." He paused while she struggled in vain for words, then he added: "Why did you change your mind and let me read that letter? Was it because of Jenny?"
Kate felt that she was losing all composure, almost all control of her senses; she could not remember Jenny any more; she wanted to cry out—"No, no, no, because of you, because I feel for you what I never believed I could feel for anyone; love, I suppose, yes, love—"
But these words were her secret, her deep and dear secret; she must not say them, she must not admit that innermost reason why she had wanted him to marry Jenny.
She stared at him, with her poor cold hands at her collar, mechanically fumbling with the humble strip of fur, and he, staring back at her, broke out:
"This is unendurable; aren't you going to tell me now, after all?"
She did not speak, and he added roughly: "Are you still thinking of Jenny?"
The name was like a flick; she felt that she had betrayed Jenny, lost Jenny's chance, not for Jenny's sake, but for her own. Jenny sitting at home, gazing on those fine frocks that would have to be returned, wearing that sparkling extravagant emerald—
She pushed past him, to escape, to run away; she made a little sound and bit her lip.
The telephone bell rang.
"Wait," he said, "it's probably Jenny."
It was Jenny; Malleson seemed to know her very well—her impulsive ways, her indecisions.
Jenny wanted to speak to Kate. The elder sister went, creeping, like a whipped thing, to the telephone.
"Oh, Kate," the pretty voice came faintly, "you're still there? Haven't you been rather a long time? Please—let him read the letter—Ted came in—and, I really can't—"
"You're sure?" Kate hardly knew what she said. "Sure, Jenny?"
A little laugh came over the wires.
"Yes—quite—let him read the letter—he won't mind—really—"
Jenny rang off.
"What does she say?" asked Malleson curiously, more than curiously, with definite wistfulness and expectancy.
"Only that she's decided you are to read the letter," replied Kate, again moving towards the door. "It's 'Ted, after all—"
"Don't worry about them, they will be all right," said Charles Malleson; then he added, "But you and I, shall we be all right?"
She was silent, terrified and rapt at once; difficult to think of Jenny now, difficult to think of anyone but herself and the man speaking, the man who went on to say:
"There have been two mistakes—Jenny mistook her own mind, and you mistook mine"; then he added, half angrily, "Oh, couldn't you see that I wanted you?"
"You wanted me?"
"Yes; and you tried to thrust me on to Jenny—"
Kate was so exalted, not so much by what he said as by his look, his movement towards her, that she found it easy to say, without fear or shame now:
"Of course I have always loved you, with all my heart—"
"And of course," he answered, taking her cold hands, "you really knew, all along, that I have always loved you."
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