Mrs. Cosgrove was a childless widow, with sufficient means and a very mixed multitude of acquaintances. In the general belief her marriage had been a happy one; when she spoke of her deceased husband it was with respect, and not seldom with affection. Yet her views on the matrimonial relation were known to be of singular audacity. She revealed them only to a small circle of intimates; most of the people who frequented her house had no startling theories to maintain, and regarded their hostess as a good-natured, rather eccentric woman, who loved society and understood how to amuse her guests.
Wealth and position were rarely represented in her drawing-room; nor, on the other hand, was Bohemianism. Mrs. Cosgrove belonged by birth and marriage to the staid middle class, and it seemed as if she made it her object to provide with social entertainment the kind of persons who, in an ordinary way, would enjoy very little of it. Lonely and impecunious girls or women were frequently about her; she tried to keep them in good spirits, tried to marry them if marriage seemed possible, and, it was whispered, used a good deal of her income for the practical benefit of those who needed assistance. A sprinkling of maidens who were neither lonely nor impecunious served to attract young men, generally strugglers in some profession or other, on the lookout for a wife. Intercourse went on with a minimum of formalities. Chaperonage—save for that represented by the hostess herself—was as often as not dispensed with.
'We want to get rid of a lot of sham propriety'—so she urged to her closer friends. 'Girls must learn to trust themselves, and look out for dangers. If a girl can only be kept straight by incessant watchfulness, why, let her go where she will, and learn by experience. In fact, I want to see experience substituted for precept.'
Between this lady and Miss Barfoot there were considerable divergences of opinion, yet they agreed on a sufficient number of points to like each other very well. Occasionally one of Mrs. Cosgrove's protegees passed into Miss Barfoot's hands, abandoning the thought of matrimony for study in Great Portland Street. Rhoda Nunn, also, had a liking for Mrs. Cosgrove, though she made no secret of her opinion that Mrs. Cosgrove's influence was on the whole decidedly harmful.
'That house,' she once said to Miss Barfoot, 'is nothing more than a matrimonial agency.'
'But so is every house where many people are entertained.'
'Not in the same way. Mrs. Cosgrove was speaking to me of some girl who has just accepted an offer of marriage. "I don't think they'll suit each other," she said, "but there's no harm in trying."'
Miss Barfoot could not restrain a laugh.
'Who knows? Perhaps she is right in that view of things. After all, you know, it's only putting into plain words what everybody thinks on all but every such occasion.'
'The first part of her remark—yes,' said Rhoda caustically. 'But as for the "no harm in trying," well, let us ask the wife's opinion in a year's time.'
* * * * * * * * * *
Midway in the London season on Sunday afternoon, about a score of visitors were assembled in Mrs. Cosgrove's drawing-rooms—there were two of them, with a landing between. As usual, some one sat at the piano, but a hum of talk went on as undercurrent to the music. Downstairs, in the library, half a dozen people found the quietness they preferred, and among these was Mrs. Widdowson. She had an album of portraits on her lap; whilst turning them over, she listened to a chat going on between the sprightly Mr. Bevis and a young married woman who laughed ceaselessly at his jokes. It was only a few minutes since she had come down from the drawing-room. Presently her eyes encountered a glance from Bevis, and at once he stepped over to a seat beside her.
'Your sisters are not here to-day?' she said.
'No. They have guests of their own. And when are you coming to see them again?'
'Before long, I hope.'
Bevis looked away and seemed to reflect.
'Do come next Saturday—could you?'
'I had better not promise.'
'Do try, and'—he lowered his voice—'come alone. Forgive me for saying that. The girls are rather afraid of Mr. Widdowson, that's the truth. They would so like a free gossip with you. Let me tell them to expect you about half-past three or four. They will rise up and call me blessed.'
Laughing, Monica at length agreed to come if circumstances were favourable. Her talk with Bevis continued for a long time, until people had begun to leave. Some other acquaintance then claimed her, but she was now dull and monosyllabic, as if conversation had exhausted her energies. At six o'clock she stole away unobserved, and went home.
Widdowson had resigned himself, in appearance at all events, to these absences. It was several weeks since he had accompanied his wife to call upon any one; a sluggishness was creeping over him, strengthening his disinclination for society. The futile endeavour to act with decision, to carry Monica away into Somerset, resulted, as futile efforts of that kind are wont to do, in increased feebleness of the will; he was less capable than ever of exerting the authority which he still believed himself to keep for the last resort. Occasionally some days went by without his leaving the house. Instead of the one daily newspaper he had been used to take he now received three; after breakfast he sometimes spent a couple of hours over the Times, and the evening papers often occupied him from dinner to bedtime. Monica noticed, with a painful conflict of emotions, that his hair had begun to lose its uniform colour, and to show streaks that matched with his grizzled beard. Was she responsible for this?
On the Saturday when she was to visit the Bevises she feared lest he should propose to go with her. She wished even to avoid the necessity of telling him where she was going. As she rose from luncheon Widdowson glanced at her.
'I've ordered the trap, Monica. Will you come for a drive?'
'I have promised to go into the town. I'm very sorry.'
'It doesn't matter.'
This was his latest mode of appealing to her—with an air of pained resignation.
'For a day or two I haven't felt at all well,' he continued gloomily. 'I thought a drive might do me good.'
'Certainly. I hope it will. When would you like to have dinner?'
'I never care to alter the hours. Of course I shall be back at the usual time. Shall you be?'
'Oh yes—long before dinner.'
So she got away without any explanation. At a quarter to four she reached the block of flats in which the Bevises (and Everard Barfoot) resided. With a fluttering of the heart, she went very quietly upstairs, as if anxious that her footsteps should not be heard; her knock at the door was timid.
Bevis in person opened to her.
'Delighted! I thought it might be—'
She entered, and walked into the first room, where she had been once before. But to her surprise it was vacant. She looked round and saw Bevis's countenance gleaming with satisfaction.
'My sisters will be here in a few minutes,' he said. 'A few minutes at most. Will you take this chair, Mrs. Widdowson? How delighted I am that you were able to come!'
So perfectly natural was his manner, that Monica, after the first moment of consternation, tried to forget that there was anything irregular in her presence here under these circumstances. As regards social propriety, a flat differs in many respects from a house. In an ordinary drawing-room, it could scarcely have mattered if Bevis entertained her for a short space until his sisters' arrival; but in this little set of rooms it was doubtfully permissible for her to sit tete-a-tete with a young man, under any excuse. And the fact of his opening the front door himself seemed to suggest that not even a servant was in the flat. A tremor grew upon her as she talked, due in part to the consciousness that she was glad to be thus alone with Bevis.
'A place like this must seem to you to be very unhomelike,' he was saying, as he lounged on a low chair not very far from her. 'The girls didn't like it at all at first. I suppose it's a retrograde step in civilization. Servants are decidedly of that opinion; we have a great difficulty in getting them to stay here. The reason seems to me that they miss the congenial gossip of the area door. At this moment we are without a domestic. I found she compensated herself for disadvantages by stealing my tobacco and cigars. She went to work with such a lack of discretion—abstracting half a pound of honeydew at a time—that I couldn't find any sympathy for her. Moreover, when charged with the delinquency, she became abusive, so very abusive that we were obliged to insist upon her immediate departure.'
'Do you think she smoked?' asked Monica laughingly.
'We have debated that point with much interest. She was a person of advanced ideas, as you see; practically a communist. But I doubt whether honeydew had any charms for her personally. It seems more probable that some milkman, or baker's assistant, or even metropolitan policeman, benefited by her communism.'
Indifferent to the progress of time, Bevis talked on with his usual jocoseness, now and then shaking his tawny hair in a fit of laughter the most contagious.
'But I have something to tell you,' he said at length more seriously. 'I am going to leave England. They want me to live at Bordeaux for a time, two or three years perhaps. It's a great bore, but I shall have to go. I am not my own master.'
'Then your sisters will go to Guernsey?'
'Yes. I dare say I shall leave about the end of July.'
He became silent, looking at Monica with humorous sadness.
'Do you think your sisters will soon be here, Mr. Bevis?' Monica asked, with a glance round the room.
'I think so. Do you know, I did a very silly thing. I wanted your visit (if you came) to be a surprise for them, and so—in fact, I said nothing about it. When I got here from business, a little before three, they were just going out. I asked them if they were sure they would be back in less than an hour. Oh, they were quite sure—not a doubt about it. I do hope they haven't altered their mind, and gone to call somewhere. But, Mrs. Widdowson, I am going to make you a cup of tea—with my own fair hands, as the novelists say.'
Monica begged that he would not trouble. Under the circumstances she had better not stay. She would come again very soon.
'No, I can't, I can't let you go!' Bevis exclaimed, softening his gay tone as he stood before her. 'How shall I entreat you? If you knew what an unforgettable delight it will be to me to make you a cup of tea! I shall think of it at Bordeaux every Saturday.'
She had risen, but exhibited no immutable resolve.
'I really must go, Mr. Bevis—!'
'Don't drive me to despair. I am capable of turning my poor sisters out of house and home—flat and home, I mean—in anger at their delay. On their account, in pity for their youth, do stay, Mrs. Widdowson! Besides, I have a new song that I want you to hear—words and music my own. One little quarter of an hour! And I know the girls will be here directly.'
His will, and her inclination, prevailed. Monica sat down again, and Bevis disappeared to make the tea. Water must have been already boiling, for in less than five minutes the young man returned with a tray, on which all the necessaries were neatly arranged. With merry homage he waited upon his guest. Monica's cheeks were warm. After the vain attempt to release herself from what was now distinctly a compromising situation, she sat down in an easier attitude than before, as though resolved to enjoy her liberty whilst she might. There was a suspicion in her mind that Bevis had arranged this interview; she doubted the truth of his explanation. And indeed she hoped that his sisters would not return until after her departure; it would be very embarrassing to meet them.
Whilst talking and listening, she silently defended herself against the charge of impropriety. What wrong was she committing? What matter that they were alone? Their talk was precisely what it might have been in other people's presence. And Bevis, such a frank, good-hearted fellow, could not by any possibility fail in respect to her. The objections were all cant, and cant of the worst kind. She would not be a slave of such ignoble prejudices.
'You haven't made Mr. Barfoot's acquaintance yet?' she asked.
'No, I haven't. There seems to have been no opportunity. Did you seriously wish me to know him?'
'Oh, I had no wish in the matter at all.'
'You like Mr. Barfoot?'
'I think him very pleasant.'
'How delightful to be praised by you, Mrs. Widdowson! Now if any one speaks to you about me, when I have left England, will you find some nice word? Don't think me foolish. I do so desire the good opinion of my friends. To know that you spoke of me as you did for Mr. Barfoot would give me a whole day of happiness.'
'How enviable! To be so easily made happy.'
'Now let me sing you this song of mine. It isn't very good; I haven't composed for years. But—'
He sat down and rattled over the keys. Monica was expecting a lively air and spirited words, as in the songs she had heard at Guernsey; but this composition told of sadness and longing and the burden of a lonely heart. She thought it very beautiful, very touching. Bevis looked round to see the effect it produced upon her, and she could not meet his eyes.
'Quite a new sort of thing for me, Mrs. Widdowson. Does it strike you as so very bad?'
'No—not at all.'
'But you can't honestly praise it?' He sighed, in dejection. 'I meant to give you a copy. I made this one specially for you, and—if you will forgive me—I have taken the liberty of dedicating it to you. Songwriters do that, you know. Of course it is altogether unworthy of your acceptance—'
'No—no—indeed I am very grateful to you, Mr. Bevis. Do give it to me—as you meant to.'
'You will have it?' he cried delightedly. 'Now for a triumphal march!'
Whilst he played, with look corresponding to the exultant strain, Monica rose from her chair. She stood with eyes downcast and lips pressed together. When the last chord had sounded,—
'Now I must say good-bye, Mr. Bevis. I am so sorry your sisters haven't come.'
'So am I—and yet I am not. I have enjoyed the happiest half-hour of my life.'
'Will you give me the piece of music?'
'Let me roll it up. There; it won't be very awkward to carry. But of course I shall see you again before the end of July? You will come some other afternoon?'
'If Miss Bevis will let me know when she is quite sure—'
'Yes, she shall. Do you know, I don't think I shall say a word about what has happened this afternoon. Will you allow me to keep silence about your call, Mrs. Widdowson? They would be so annoyed—and really it was a silly thing not to tell them—'
Monica gave no verbal reply. She looked towards the door. Bevis stepped forward, and held it open.
'Good-bye, then. You know what I told you about my tendency to low spirits. I'm going to have a terrible turn—down, down, down!'
She laughed, and offered her hand. He held it very lightly, looking at her with his blue eyes, which indeed expressed a profound melancholy.
'Thank you,' he murmured. 'Thank you for your great kindness.'
And thereupon he opened the front door for her. Without another look Monica went quickly down the stairs; she appreciated his motive for not accompanying her to the exit.
* * * * * * * * * *
Before entering the house she had managed to conceal the sheet of music which she was carrying. But, happily, Widdowson was still absent. Half an hour passed—half an hour of brooding and reverie—before she heard his footstep ascending the stairs. On the landing she met him with a pleasant smile.
'Have you enjoyed your drive?'
'And do you feel better?'
'Not much, dear. But it isn't worth talking about.'
Later, he inquired where she had been.
'I had an appointment with Milly Vesper.'
The first falsehood she had ever told him, and yet uttered with such perfect assumption of sincerity as would have deceived the acutest observer. He nodded, discontented as usual, but entertaining no doubt.
And from that moment she hated him. If he had plied her with interrogations, if he had seemed to suspect anything, the burden of untruth would have been more endurable. His simple acceptance of her word was the sternest rebuke she could have received. She despised herself, and hated him for the degradation which resulted from his lordship over her.