by E.F. Benson

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Chapter VI

One evening, a week or so before the date fixed for the wedding, Philip Beaumont and Nellie had dined and gone together to the first night of some new play. It was saliently characteristic of him—a peak, so to say, prominently uprising from the smooth level of his cultivated plains—that when arrangements for such diversions and businesses were in his hands they always went without a hitch. Nellie had expressed a desire to see this play, without giving long notice to him of her wish, and it followed, as a matter of course, that he managed to get gangway seats in the stalls at the most advantageous distance from the stage.

Things happened like that with him: his own unruffled smoothness, which seemed immune from any of the attacks of asperities of one kind or another, to which human nature is subject, seemed to create a similar well-ordered decorum in his activities. Tonight, for instance, the dinner which preceded the theatre was punctual and swiftly served, so that neither hurry nor undue lingering followed it: his motor slid up to the kerb-stone precisely as they quitted the restaurant, and it might be taken for granted that at the conclusion of the piece it would be bubbling up opposite the portals of the theatre precisely as they emerged. Once in their seats there had been but a few minutes to wait before the lights were lowered for the first act; these afforded a convenient time to grasp the real and the histrionic names of the actors and see where the acts were laid.{103}

In those few minutes Nellie’s glance had swept over stalls and boxes, noting the position of various friends. Silvia was in a box with her mother, and loud screams of laughter from another box opposite, perhaps temporarily turned into a parrot-house, made it almost certain that Mrs. Trentham was having her usual splendid time surrounded by a bevy of young men. A glance verified that, and the same glance showed her that Peter, who, she knew, was to be present, was not among them. Then someone entered the box where Silvia and her mother sat, and she knew where Peter was. Immediately a loud flamboyant voice just behind her informed her that Peter’s entry had been noticed by someone else.

“Glance, Maria mia,” it said, “at that box next the stage on the right, where is the lady with the wealth of Golconda (I allude to diamonds) on her head. You and I have no reason to be ashamed of that tall handsome boy. Ah, behold just in front of us the adorable Miss Heaton, Miss Heaton, the box by the stage, the lady in diamonds: her name. A word, a whisper ...!”

The quenching of lights gave suitable cover for the emotions evoked by this particular brand of theatrical slosh. There were whimsicalities, there was slyness, there was maidenliness and womanliness, there was the sense of looking through a keyhole; but all these qualities were soaked and dyed with slosh. Mr. Mainwaring, to Nellie’s sense, seemed to make himself spokesman for the house: he thrilled to every slyness, however subtle, and he advertised, on behalf of the rest of the audience, his appreciation. His resonant laugh proclaimed the gorgeousness of the less abstruse humours, as when the heroine, being asked to give her lover a kiss, wore a face of horror{104} and said, “Eh, on the Sawbath!” His giggling and his slapping of his great big thigh gave the cue for more recondite deliciousnesses; he exclaimed “Bravá! Bravá!” at the end of a long speech; he blew his nose loudly at the blare of the Highland Vox Humana, and bestowed one splendid sob on his handkerchief when the author really let himself go and opened all the sluices of sentimentality. Mr. Mainwaring had to recover with gulps and hiccups from that, but he pulled himself together like a man, and ran his fingers through his hair to make it stand out from his interesting head.

Though these convulsions were resonant only just behind her, Nellie gave them no more attention than she would to raindrops on the window: and the doings of the stage occupied her as little, and as little the presence next her of the perfect organizer.

... A certain antagonism had grown up, had seeded itself and was rapidly propagating. A vigorous seedling was the fact of Peter’s being where he was. It was no business of hers, so she told herself, with whom Peter went to the play, and she tried to divert her mind by ironical comment. Peter, poor and parasitic, would always dance a graceful attendance on anyone who would give him dinner and a seat in the box. Peter was like that, and for his grace and politeness there was due reward. He had a trick of sympathetic listening, of intelligent interrogation that made his companion feel herself interesting. You could put him next the most crashing bore, and he would wreathe himself in smiles until the crashing bore felt herself to be the wittiest of sirens. And then suddenly the stupidity of her comments and their irrelevance failed to divert Nellie altogether.{105}

There was the antagonism, hugely grown by now. Peter, so she made out, was as conscious of it as she, and had certainly during the last week or two contributed to its growth. He had answered Nellie’s formalities with similar politeness: he had watered where she had sown, and she wondered whether he contemplated with the dismay of which she was conscious, the lively crop of their combined husbandry.

It was the fashion, as she had once said to Silvia, to be devoted to Peter, and Silvia seemed to have “picked up” the fashion with the same ease as she had exhibited all along her social pilgrimage. She welcomed all that came up with a frolic, boy-like enjoyment, but there was, as Nellie perfectly well knew, a real Silvia, a serious Silvia, somebody with a heart and the shy treasures of it, a personality curiously ungirl-like, something eager and hungry and wholesome. She knew in advance what her way of love would be, and her feet, firm and unstumbling—Silvia would never stumble—were on the high road. Of all the saunterers that she might meet there, would she not, by the mere instinct of divination, choose the complement to her own unusual personality? The complement certainly was someone feminine but not effeminate, indeterminate in desire, somebody, in fact, extraordinarily like Nellie herself. In the way of a girl, Silvia had already quite succumbed to a charm that Nellie had not troubled to exercise: she had recognized and surrendered to it with that victorious white-flag abandonment. With what ringing of bells would she not march out to the mildest call for capitulation when a boy of that type blew his lazy horn?

Long before the act was over Nellie had known{106} that she would present herself in the interval at Mrs. Wardour’s box. She would, in anticipation, have much to say to Silvia: there would be plans for the next day, or regrets over the dreadful occupations that made plans impossible. There would be some flat steady compliment about diamonds and parties for Mrs. Wardour, and—there would be nothing at all for Peter. She wanted, as far as she was aware, just to take him in in the new situation which was surely forming, as clouds form on a chilly windless day. She wanted to get used to it, she wanted—or did she not want?—to put the weed-killer of familiarity on the crop of antagonism which was certainly prospering in a manner wholly unlocked for. And then, much quieted and reassured, she would return to Philip, and feel for his hand when the lights went down again. He had a good hand, cool and secure and efficient: there was the sense of safety about it, of correctness: it was all that a hand should be. Then, still secure, and vastly more content than she was now, he would take her back to her mother’s flat, and perhaps drop in for a half-hour. She would say, quite correctly, “Come upstairs and talk to mother and me for a few minutes.” She would work the lift herself, and he would be surprised at her mastery of it. Then, when they were vomited forth at the fifth floor, she would remember that her mother had gone to a bridge-party and would certainly not be home before twelve. That would give them their half-hour alone.

Nellie was not prepared for the companionship in her expedition with which Mr. Mainwaring decorated her. Standing in the middle of the gangway, he made her a sonorous and embellished little{107} speech when, rather rashly, she revealed her destination at the end of this interminable first act.

“Peter’s friends, my Peter’s friends, are mine,” he magnificently observed, “and I feel it my duty to pay my respects to them. Oblige me, Miss Heaton, by accepting my escort to the box that glitters with the combined distinction of diamonds and Peter’s presence. My wife—will you not, Maria mia?—will prefer to remain precisely where she is. Chocolates, my beloved? A cup of coffee? I will leave my purse with you. Refresh yourself!”

Mrs. Mainwaring declined refreshment, except in so far as it was ministered to by some advertisements of Brighton hotels which appeared on the back of the programme. There was one there which she had not previously heard of and which seemed very reasonable.

Her husband offered the sleeve of a velveteen-clad arm to Nellie, and they proceeded upstairs with pomp and the slight odour of turpentine, which was all that was left of a dab of paint which had dropped from his brush on to the skirt of his coat as a profound inspiration seized him after he had dressed for dinner. Philip gave a slightly iced negative to Nellie’s inquiry whether he was to join this pilgrimage.

Mr. Mainwaring did all the usual things. He clapped his hand on Peter’s shoulder when the introductions had been made, and hoped, with a stately bow, that his boy had been behaving himself. He waved his hand when Mrs. Wardour pronounced the first act “very interesting,” and recognized a fellow artist. Before ten minutes were over Mrs. Wardour was committed to look in next afternoon and see “his few poor efforts.” Then he became more confidential and whispery.{108}

“A marvellous, an incomparable type!” he said, looking at Silvia, and back again at her mother. “Who has had the felicity, the difficult felicity, of painting that glorious head? No one? I am astonished. I would be shocked if I were capable of so bourgeois an emotion. H’m!”

Beyond a visit to the private view of the Royal Academy, Mrs. Wardour had not penetrated into pictorial circles, and faintly, through the impression, volubly audible, of Silvia and Nellie talking together, Peter heard his father leading up to the series of war-cartoons suitable for mural decoration. As regards that, he went walking in the wet woods, as aloof from his father as from any other magnificent self-advertiser. He had heard Mrs. Wardour’s promise to go to the studio next day and to bring Silvia, and he thought that very probably the relations of Great Britain with foreign countries might struggle through a free hour without his co-operation. Meantime Nellie seemed to be talking secrets to Silvia, and he sat, nursing his knee, a little aloof from either group. Presently Nellie would go back to her seat in the stalls, and his father would do the same, and then he would hitch his chair a little forward again....

People began to troop back into the stalls; obviously a bell had rung announcing the imminence of the second act. Nellie recognized that, and got up. As yet she had barely spoken to him.

“I must get back to my Philip,” she said very properly. “Good night, darling Silvia.”

Peter had gone to open the door for them.

“Come to the flat, Peter,” she said, without turning her head, as she passed him. “I shall go straight home.”

The words were just dropped from her, as if by{109} accident or inadvertence, but the moment she had spoken them she knew that this had been in the main the object of her visit to the box: it was this which she had primarily wanted. The merest hint of an affirmative nod on Peter’s part was sufficient answer.

The play came to its happy concluding treacliness, and they went out. Philip and Nellie, of course, were among the first into the vestibule, where he instantly caught his footman’s eye. The Wardour group must have left their box slightly before the end, for Peter was seeing them into their motor, thanking Mrs. Wardour for “such an awfully nice evening” and excusing himself from being given a lift, as after a day in the office he liked walking home—yes, all the way to South Kensington. How nice it would be to see Mrs. Wardour at his father’s house next day.... He lingered a moment on the pavement, and as Nellie passed him on her way to the motor, just nodded again, without seeming to see her.

Philip’s first concern, as they slid off into the traffic, was that there should be air, but no draught for Nellie. Perhaps if he put her window quite up and his half down.... Was that comfortable? And a match for her cigarette? After which he slipped her hand into his, and after a moment’s delay she returned the pressure.

In a flash of general, comprehensive consciousness Nellie was aware how comfortable and well-ordered the whole evening had been, and realized that all days, evenings and mornings and afternoons alike, would to the end of life, owing to the very ample “settlements” which she understood to have been made, be padded and cushioned like this. She was conscious at the same moment that her appreciation of that lacked acuteness; she would just as soon, to{110} take an example, be walking with Peter along the pavements, where nobody cared if she felt a draught or not, as be having it all her own way in unjostled progress.... The flash of this perception was instantaneous, measured only by that moment’s delay in response to Philip’s hand, for he instantly began to tick again, as she put it to herself, a pleasant tick, a good, reliable, firm tick.

“A charming play, was it not, dear?” said he. “And that delicious humour of his.”

Well, if Nellie was going to be comfortable all her life, it was only fair that she should contribute, should put her penny into the placid bag.

“Delicious,” she said. “I am sure it will have a great success. And how interesting to be there on the first night.”

She broke off suddenly, and clasped Philip’s arm.

“Ah—we nearly ran over that man,” she cried.

Philip remained quite calm. He would obviously be an admirable companion in a shipwreck or a thunderstorm or a railway accident. This was, delightfully, a new point about him, and Nellie found, on the discovery of it, that she must have been collecting his good points, for with the collector’s zeal she hastened to net it and add it to her specimens.

He pressed the hand that she had laid on his arm, and looked out of the window which he had opened on his side of the motor.

“My dear, there is nothing to be alarmed about,” he said. “The man is quite safe, and has not forgotten his usual vocabulary. You need never be afraid with Logan; he is the most careful of drivers, and has an extraordinary command of the brakes.”

Nellie collected this new genus Philip; sub-species Logan. It added a little bit to the completeness.{111}

“Logan is quite trustworthy,” he went on; “you need never have a moment’s qualm when he is on the box. We were discussing the play. I should like to see it again. Does not that strike you as the true criterion as to whether you have essentially enjoyed a play? If there is only mere glitter, one does not want to repeat the experience. But there was gold, I thought, this evening.”

He was silent a moment, patting her hand, and Nellie divined his mind with a rather terrible distinctness. She had been very considerably agitated for that moment, and he assumed (how wisely and how consciously) a complete oblivion of that. The best method of reassuring her after the little testimonial to Logan was to be unaware of any fluttering incident. A manly calm was the efficient medicine for feminine alarm. He went on talking about the play as if nothing agitating had occurred....

Swiftly as the car slid down Piccadilly Nellie’s brain was just a little in advance of it, and before it slowed up at the house of flats she was mentally on the doorstep. Earlier in the evening she had contemplated Philip’s admiring ascent with her in the lift, her own surprised recollection, on their emergence, that her mother would not yet be in. But now that picture had been whisked off the screen altogether; there would be no ascent with Philip, no sudden remembrance of her mother’s absence. A subsequent engagement, not so conventional, had been proposed by her and assented to with a nod so imperceptible that it had been repeated.

Philip had so often spent a final half-hour like this, that, as the motor stopped, he almost assumed it.

“And may I come up for a few minutes?” he asked.{112}

She laid her hand on his shoulder as if to press him back on to his seat.

“Don’t find it horrid of me, dear,” she said, “if I say ‘no.’ I am a little tired, do you think? But what a lovely evening we have had. You come and fetch me in the morning, don’t you? Good night, my dear.”

The most ardent of lovers could hardly have insisted, after this little collection of sentences, each unmistakably clinking with some sort of final “ring,” and it was out of the question for Philip to repeat a request which, in any case, had habit rather than craving to back it. He would certainly have liked to sit with Nellie and her mother—so he supposed—for a quarter of an hour, discuss the play a little more, quietly sun himself, contentedly basking in Nellie’s presence, and consider himself a very fortunate fellow; but if she was a little tired, it would have been unthinkably intrusive to beg her to take a part and let him take a part in a séance that she had no wish for. But she lingered a moment yet in order to give no impression of being in any hurry; then, forbidding him to get out of the motor, she disappeared, with a final gesture as of but a short separation, into the house.

Her mother, as Nellie knew would be the case, had not yet returned from her card-party, nor would she be likely to do so for a full hour yet, and her absence, in relation to the visitor she now expected, took for itself a totally different aspect. She had limitless opportunities and facilities for a tête-à-tête with Philip, and her mother’s absence, if it had been he who had come admiringly up with her as she managed the lift, would in no way have been a{113} special, even a desirable, condition. She and Philip were so often alone together, and, before many days were passed, would be so exclusively alone together, that the gain of another such hour was, frankly, quite imponderable. But for the last fortnight she had scarcely had a private word with Peter, and whatever it was that she had to say to him in this visit she had bidden him to, and whatever he had to say to her (that he had something to say was probable from his reiterated acceptance of her request), it was quite certain that these things could not be satisfactorily said, even, perhaps, be said at all, before any audience whatever.

Nellie had no definite knowledge, in any detail, of even her own contribution to the coming interview; all that she knew was that when, half an hour later or an hour later, she would click the door on his departure, she must somehow have looked minutely, with his eyes to help her, at the antagonism which had so odiously flourished. She intensely hoped that it could be rooted up altogether and put on to the rubbish heap of mistakes and misapprehensions; but whether her hope had much of the luminosity of faith about it was not so certain. Too much depended on what he had to tell her, and she did not fall into the error of forecasting the upshot before she knew what contribution he was to make towards the preliminary process.... Then, with an internal vibration—partly of suspense, partly, she admitted, of eager anticipation—she heard the faint tingle of the electric bell. The servants, no doubt, had gone to bed, and she went to the door herself.

“Hullo!” said Peter.

He stood there a moment, after the door was opened, without moving, his eyes agleam, and a{114} smile hovering over his mouth. Often and often had they met in precisely similar fashion, he, as he passed the door on his way home, giving one discreet little ring, which Nellie would answer if she felt disposed to see him. Sometimes her mother would be in; but oftener, if in, she had gone to bed, and the two would sit over the fire, or, on hot nights, seek the window-seat and spend an hour of desultory intimacy, as two boys might, or two girls. But to-night there was some little effervescent quality added to the meeting; the spice that a combined manœuvre, however innocent, brought with it. Both realized, too, that a talk, which must attempt to readjust their old relations or fit them into the changed conditions, lay ahead, and, for the moment, each brought gaiety and goodwill to the task. The best evidence for that was the assumption of the old relations pending the readjustment....

“Peter! How lovely of you!” she said. “Come in.”

“Is she in?” he asked, putting down his coat and hat.

“Mother? No; she’s at a harpy party. Four women rooking each other at bridge. They’ll all be trembling and being frightfully polite by this time. Peter, bring your hat and coat in with you. If mother sees them there she will think Philip’s here and will come in to sit with us.”

“And if she thought they were mine——”

“She would come in twice. But if there are no signs of anybody she will probably go to bed and not interrupt us.”

The night was hot, with a thundery, overcast sky, and they sat together again in the window-seat. A hundred feet below the street was roaring and rolling{115} along, thick with the discharge from theatres and music halls.

“The clever one! And how did you get rid of Philip?” asked Peter.

“Lied, darling,” said Nellie, succinctly.

“Did you, indeed? Nellie, I don’t think you’re getting on very well with your determination to be conventional.”

Nellie blew reproach at him in the shape of a ragged smoke-ring.

“I never heard anything so unjust,” she said. “Oh, Peter, it was just here we sat when I told you I was going to be quite conventional. Wasn’t it? Don’t say you don’t remember. Well, I’m being the model of conventionality.”

“Pleasant, is it?” asked Peter, in a wonderfully neutral voice. He did not yet quite know why Nellie had summoned him here, and he was greatly aloof still.

“Don’t make slightly acid comments,” said she, “about conventionality. It’s a fortnight, more than a fortnight, since I saw you last. Oh, I don’t count balls and that sort of thing. Your friends are invisible at balls. You can only see your acquaintances. What’s the use of just seeing a friend? You’ve got to be alone with a friend in order to see him.”

Nellie was still unaware of what course she was really meaning to steer. It was to be a safe course, anyhow, avoiding shoals and avoiding icebergs. Just at present Peter was making himself an iceberg. She went on, talking rapidly and quite naturally, with a view to bringing Peter out of his frozen aloofness.

“But my scheme for conventionality never went so far as to exclude my seeing my friends altogether,{116}” she said. “And if, in order to see a particular friend, I have to tell lies to one person and—and tell the other not to leave his coat in the hall, that’s not my fault. It’s mother’s fault for not having gone to bed yet; it’s Philip’s fault for proposing to drop in.”

Peter’s smile hovered over his face again, not quite breaking through.

“Brutes,” he said. “Perfect brutes.”

“I’m not sure that you aren’t the worst of them all,” remarked Nellie.

His smile broke through at that, and he laughed.

“You may be quite sure I’m not a brute,” he said. “But I should like to know why you think so.”

Nellie was sincere enough in her desire to re-establish a genuine, friendly relationship with him again. At present their grip on each other was clogged and rusted. If this rather unconventional meeting was to be of any use (what use she did not clearly define), the first essential was to wipe the wheels clean.

“You know perfectly well,” she said. “Ever since my engagement you have taken yourself completely away. You have shut yourself up. You have bolted your windows and barred your doors to me. Haven’t you?”

Peter weighed this accusation. It might possibly be true; but it contained an arguable point, which was easy to state.

“I never bolted the windows and barred the doors,” he said. “It was you who did that. I didn’t arrange that you should marry Philip. That’s what shut me up, if you choose to put it like that. I told you at the time that our relations must be changed.”

She shook her head.

“No relations that ever existed between us need{117} have been changed,” she said. “You speak as if we had been in love with each other.”

“Not at all. We never were in love with each other; that we both know. But——”

“What then?” she asked.

“I’ll take your simile,” he said. “My windows and doors were open to you. I might easily have fallen in love with you, or, for that matter, you with me. Our relationship, and the possibilities it held, were just those of open doors and windows. Then you came round and shut me up. And Philip drew the curtains.”

She took this in and turned it about before she answered.

“By which you mean,” she said, “that whatever our relationship might have ripened into, I nipped it off—like a frost.”

“Yes,” said he. “A latish frost.”

She got up and moved about the room, patting a cushion here and setting a chair straight there. Peter did not move; he did not even turn his head; but he was quite aware of her pondering restlessness. He was aware, too, that so long as he held his tongue he had the whip-hand. The evidence for that was soon apparent.

“I didn’t know that my engagement would have that effect,” she said. “I think it is unreasonable that it should have that effect. If you had been in love with me it would have been different; in that case I could have understood it. But, as it was, why should it have made any change in our friendship?”

“What’s the use of asking me?” said Peter, with a sudden touch of irritation. “I can’t tell you why. I don’t know the ‘why’ of anything under the sun. But put it the other way about. Suppose that it had{118} been I who had got engaged to some girl, wouldn’t that have made any change in your sense of our friendship?”

Peter had spread himself a little over the window-seat when she got up. Now when she came back to her old seat she pushed his encroaching knee aside.

“That’s not the same thing,” she said. “A girl can’t be a very intimate friend of a married man in the same way that a man can be a very intimate friend of a married woman.”

“I won’t ask why,” said Peter gently, “because I’m aware that you don’t know.”

“What I say is perfectly true, though.”

“Not in the instance of you and me. You knew quite well that I wasn’t going to give myself a free rein to fall in love with you after you had settled to marry someone else. Besides, it you come to think of it, a man dangling after a married woman is just as ridiculous as a girl dangling after a married man. I don’t see why a man shouldn’t be allowed to retain his self-respect as much as a woman.”

Though, as far as the spoken word went, they had arrived at no agreement, no compromise even on which agreement could be based, they both felt that somehow in the region of unspoken treaties the ground had been cleared. Though the wheels did not yet revolve again, rust had been wiped off them. And in Peter’s next speech the scouring of the wash-leather was busy.

“You mustn’t think that I don’t regret what we’re suffering under, Nellie,” he said. “I regret it most awfully. I’ve been saying, and I stick to it still, that you are responsible for it. It was you who closed my windows and bolted my doors. It would be simply silly of me to pretend that I was broken-{119}hearted about it, for that would imply that I had been or was in love with you. But that doesn’t prevent my being sorry, or my missing, which I acutely do, our old relationship. I don’t know if it’s any use trying to recapture it. ‘Trying,’ probably, hasn’t much effect on what you feel. It’s no use ‘trying’ to feel hot if you happen to feel cold, or trying to feel ill when you do feel well——”

“My dear, it makes the whole difference,” said Nellie quickly. “Will you try to—to feel yourself back in your relationship with me? I want it, too, Peter.”

She pulled back his encroaching knee which just now she had pushed away and kept her hand on it. The very fact that this triviality was so instinctive constituted the significance of it.

“I hadn’t reckoned with losing you,” she went on. “No, I don’t excuse myself or account for myself. Probably I should have done just the same if I had reckoned with it. Probably, if it was all to do again now, I should do the same. Don’t let us labour the point; if you’ll try, that’s all I ask. I’ll try, too, if that will be of any use. I put my nose in the air just as much as you did, as if my nose wasn’t sufficiently in the air already. But it always turns up at the end.”

“Not to matter; don’t mention it,” said Peter.

“That’s the old style, Peter,” she said. “Keep it up; run with it till it works on its own account. Motor-cycle, you know.”

They were looking at each other now with something of the alert unconsciousness of two old friends alone together. But certainly the machine required running with at present.

“They’re heavy things to push when they won’t get going,” said he.{120}

“How odious you are!”

“Hurrah for that word!” said Peter.


“I wonder how often we have told each other we were odious.”

Nellie was silent, and in that moment’s pause Peter was conscious that, real, no doubt, as had been her desire to uproot the antagonism that had grown up between them, that process had been no more than preliminary to something that should follow. The ground had to be cleared first, but the clearing of the ground was not her ultimate objective. The moment he perceived that at all, he saw how obvious it was; how her appearance suddenly in Mrs. Wardour’s box that evening gave a clue to the nature of the further development. Then, quick as an echo, she began to reproduce the thought in his mind.

“Let’s pick up the thread again,” she said. “I can give you my weavings very simply. Trousseau, Philip; Philip, trousseau. How lucky men are! When a man is going to be married he doesn’t have to spend his days in buying things. He doesn’t have to buy anything.”

“Wedding-ring,” said Peter, in parenthesis.

“Yes; but you can’t have occupied yourself with that unless you have had a private marriage behind the locked doors and curtained windows. We were telling each other what we had been doing in this long interval. It was your turn.”

“Oh, usual things,” said he. “Foreign Office, dinner; breakfast, Foreign Office.”

“And how’s May Trentham?” asked Nellie, wheeling in smaller circles round this objective. “You’ve left her out; she wouldn’t like that.”

“She left me out to-night,” said Peter. “She had{121} that immense box for the play and never asked me to it.”

Nellie folded her wings and dropped.

“But you got there all right,” she said. “She saw you, too, sitting with Mrs. Wardour, who hasn’t asked her to the party for the Russian ballet. Blood, my dear; there’ll be blood over that. Do you know, I think Silvia is one of the most attractive girls I have ever seen.”

As she spoke there came from outside the tingle of the front door bell. Nellie got up with a finger on her lip.

“Who on earth can that be?” she whispered.

“It may be anybody,” said Peter, very prudently. “You can’t tell till you go and see. Perhaps it’s Philip; we may have got hold of each other’s hats by mistake, and he’s come here——”

Nellie suppressed a laugh.

“Probably mother,” she said. “She forgets her latchkey when she thinks she’ll be late home. I shan’t say you’re here, or she’d come in and spoil our talk.”

“Oh, what a tangled——” began Peter.

Nellie took the additional precaution of turning out the lights in the room where they were sitting and leaving the door open. Close outside was the entrance door from the stairs into the flat, and Peter, sitting in the window-seat, heard with an amusement that dimpled his cheeks Nellie’s unhesitating account of herself. It appeared that she had just come in and was just going to bed; she had already put out the lights in the sitting-room. There followed a triumphant announcement of her mother’s winnings, an affectionate good night, and the closing of a door{122} down the passage. Sitting there in the dark Peter drew the conclusion that Nellie put a high premium on the pursuit of the conversation in which, as he infallibly conjectured, she had just got down to the bone. She would scarcely, for the æsthetic delight in tortuosity, have concealed the fact that he had dropped in, as he had done a hundred times before, for a few minutes’ chat on his way home. She wanted to talk about Silvia. For his part he was perfectly ready to talk about Silvia.

Just before the closing of the door, which must certainly be that of Mrs. Heaton’s bedroom, Nellie had said: “I’ll put out the lights; good night, dear. What a lovely last rubber,” and Peter, feeling his way, so to speak, into Nellie’s mind by the analogy of his own, knew exactly what she was doing. In a moment now there would be the click of the extinguished light in the hall, and she would very softly rustle back in the dark into the room where he was sitting, close the door of that, and then, perhaps, turn on the light inside again, or, as likely as not, shuffle back into the window-seat. So often had they sat there talking in the dark.

And as he waited for those five or ten seconds to pass, he was invaded by a sense of passionate rebellion against himself. There was the girl, whom for the last two years he had been interested in, fond of to the practical exclusion of anyone else, and now, at this moment she, engaged to a man whom she did not ever so remotely love, was presently stealing back, on the eve of her marriage, to spend a more than midnight hour with him. He ought to have been a balloon, rising into some stratum of sunlight high above the twi-lit earth, and instead he was bumping heavily over uneven ground, quite{123} unable to get into the air. No matter what the ballast of worldly consideration he threw out, he could not feel himself lifting, and Nellie, when she came back, would only add to the weight.

His expectations were ruthlessly, even ruefully, fulfilled. She stole in, invisible in the darkened oblong of the doorway, closed it, and without turning up the light, established herself in the window-seat again.

“Mother’s gone to her room,” she said. “I did it so cleverly, Peter. I said I had just come in——”

“I know; I heard,” said Peter. “Brilliant.”

“Wasn’t it? Now we can talk without any fear of interruption. Where had we got to? Oh, I know. I think Silvia is perfectly fascinating. Don’t you?”

Here was the bumping process, the added weight. Eager though Nellie had been to re-establish old relations between herself and him, there was a livelier eagerness to ascertain anything about new relations between himself and Silvia. If Nellie, as he had affirmed, had shut his windows and bolted his doors for him, he now made a tour of the secure premises to see that she had done her work thoroughly.

“I don’t know if I should say perfectly fascinating,” he said.

“But you like her, don’t you?”

“Extremely, but——”

Nellie waited to hear the qualification. She liked the fact that there was a qualification, though at present she did not know what it was. As nothing further came, she spoke again, quite in the old style.

“Oh, it’s so rude to say ‘but,’ and then not go on,” she said.

Peter jerked back his head.

“Let me be polite, then,” he said. “One can always observe the small decencies of life. What I nearly said was: ‘But I’m not in love with her.’ I stopped myself, Nellie, if you want to know, because it seemed to me very vividly that it wasn’t your business.”

There was an illumination cast on to her face from the street lamps from below. To his intense surprise he saw that her eyes, wide and unfocused, grew suddenly dim.

“That’s just what I, too, am beginning to realize,” she said. “Whatever you do now is none of my business. I’ve got a separate establishment. I’m bound to say that you have quite realized that. You haven’t asked me a single question about what goes on in mine. It doesn’t concern you any more; therefore, you don’t care. I shall learn to respect your privacy, too, Peter. Another snub or so will teach me.”

“That’s nonsense!” he said quickly.

“It isn’t nonsense. You treat me like a stranger because I happen to be marrying someone else. If you had been in love with me——”

“We’ve had that already,” said Peter.

“Then listen to it this time. You’ve absolutely been turning your back on me. You are piqued—horrid word—because I don’t want to remain an old maid for your sake. Mayn’t I feel interested in you without your resenting it? You object to my marrying Philip when you could have made it perfectly clear——”

“What could I have made clear?” he asked.

“You could have made yourself indispensable to me,” she said. “A single further turn of the screw——”

Again she broke off.

“No, I’m wronging you,” she said. “That final turn of the screw must be made mutually. It never came to us, though I was there, wasn’t I, with my screwdriver, and you with yours? It just didn’t happen. Let’s make the best of what remains. A good deal remains after all. We have everything that is of value between us, except that final turn of the screw. Good heavens, Peter, how I wish I adored you! I do all but that. And you do the same for me, darling, when all is said and done. If only you were masterful and masculine, or if only I were, the thing would be solved. As it is, we are like two oysters in the flow of the tide, just gaping at each other.”

Nellie’s ultimate objective, unless Peter had completely misunderstood her, had sunk out of sight for him.

“And all the time the tide is flowing,” he said; “that’s so maddening of it. I mean that the days and weeks and months are passing, and one doesn’t even think, still less does one feel; one only exists. I am an oyster, it’s quite true. But I don’t make pearls. Pearls, I believe, are only pieces of grit which the clever oyster covers up with iridescent stuff. All that stuff comes from the oyster’s inside, somehow. I can’t make; I can’t manufacture like that. The clever oyster does it, or the normal oyster, somewhere in the South Seas. I suppose I’m a northern oyster—only meant to be eaten. Just to be eaten. I really want somebody to come along and gobble me up. I’m nothing but a small piece of food.”

Nellie found herself hugely interested in this. It gave her what she wanted to know—namely, Peter’s own personal estimate as to how he stood to Silvia. He had defined it negatively when he told her that{126} he was not in love with her; but here was a more intimate revelation—namely, that of his willingness to be absorbed. There, too, was the difference, vital and essential, between herself and him, for she never contemplated the possibility of being absorbed by Philip. There would certainly be no absorption there on either side; he, so she judged, was as little likely to make that surrender as she.

For a moment she thought over what he had said, instantly finding herself unable to accept it.

“I can imagine your being very indigestible,” she remarked. “I don’t really think, nor, perhaps, do you, that you will allow yourself to be assimilated. I can’t imagine you giving up your wet woods.”

“I shall always remain selfish, you mean,” said he. “Self-centred; whatever you like to call it.”

She frowned over this.

“What I suppose I really mean is that I don’t understand you,” she said. And, getting up, she fumbled for the switch of the light by the door. “Let’s throw some light on you.”

He got up, too.

“I must go to bed,” he said. “It’s any hour of the night.”

She stood in front of him, stretching her arms, which were a little cramped with leaning on the window-sill, and looked at him gravely.

“You’re going to ask Silvia to marry you, then?” she said.

“I am, as soon as I think she will accept me.”

Nellie received this point-blank. She had fully expected it, and now, when it came, there was nothing in her that ever so faintly winced. Then she took two steps forward, put her hands on his shoulders and kissed him.

“Peter, darling, what good friends we’ve been,” she said, “and we’ll carry all that forward into the future. There’s no one like you. That’s just what I meant by kissing you, that, and to wish you all good luck. Perhaps your son will marry my daughter; wouldn’t that be nice; and then we can envy them both, and be wildly jealous. As for asking Silvia—well, what about to-morrow? Perhaps it’s rather late to ask her to-night.”

He tiptoed his way out, and Nellie closed the door very cautiously behind him. At that moment, when she kissed him, she had given him all of the very best of her. She exulted in having done it, but assuredly virtue had gone out of her. Restless and unquiet in her bed, she thought over what was left for her.


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