" So—er- Well, how does London look to you after such a long time ? Are you home for good ? "
" No, about a couple of months. My home is on the other side now. Well, this is a real pleasure ! I never expected—I was rather nervous about writing, but-"
" It would have been too bad if you hadn't," she said.
" Well, I thought I'd take my chance. Er— yes, London looks rather different. I managed to get lost in it the other day; I had to find a taxi to take me back. No taxis when I was here before ! "
" You take tea?"
The alcove was very comfortable, and the long room was exquisite in all its tones. The beauty of the carpet, she felt, more than repaid her for that annual effort. And how deferential was the service !
" A fine place," said Mr. Humphreys admiringly.
" Yes, it's rather decent," she drawled; " they do one very well here. A club is one of the necessaries of life".
" I suppose so." He was remembering the way her tea had been served in the boarding-house. " Wealth buys more in the old country than over there—you get more for your money than I do".
" Do you have to rough it very badly ? " Her tone was gentler. '1 Are you still in the same place ?'1.
" Well, I haven't known I was roughing it of recent years, but I don't see luxury like this in Manitoba. Not bad. And I've got a gramophone. Pretty rotten records, I'm afraid. Verdi is about the most classical of them".
" Isn't it lovely, how Verdi reminds one? " she said. " If I hear Verdi, I'm about ten years old again, and—it's funny—I'm always in the same bow window, and it's always a summer's afternoon, though I suppose the organs used to come in the winter, too. Just as, if I hear that hymn with 4 pilgrims of the night' in it, it's always the nursery, and the gas over the mantelpiece is lighted. Verdi gives me my childhood back. I hope to hear Verdi in heaven. You've nothing very dreadful to complain of, then ? You aren't sorry you went ? "
" Well, no—I'm glad I went. It has panned out all right. It has been a funny thing to walk down the Strand again and remember that the last time I was in it I was short of sixpences. The other day I looked in at the office where I used to clerk. Two of the boys I had known were there still—grown round-shouldered and pigeon-chested. I suppose they've had a rise of about fifty pounds a year in the meantime. They came round to dinner at the hotel last night, and it made me melancholy to hear them talk. I used to want them to chuck the office and go out to Canada with me—they'd got the stamina once—but they hadn't got the grit. Now it's too late. . . . You know, it's capital to see you nourishing like this ! You're about the only survivor of the old days that it hasn't given me the hump to meet. You always were sure you'd get on, weren't you? "
" I was," she said. " Yes, I used to say so".
" Do you remember the people in that house ? And how we used to groan about the extras in the bills? "
" It was a bad time for us both," she stammered.
" But it's good to look back on now it's over. Helps one to appreciate. When you're feeling dull now, you can drive round here and have a chat with a friend, and say, ' Well, it used to be much worse—I used to be poor.' Isn't that so? "
She nodded helplessly. Her mind was strained to find another subject.
" I wish you'd come round to dinner with me one evening, if you've nothing better to do? "
" I'm not going out very much just now," she demurred. " I-"
" It'd be a charity, I'm all alone, and—by the way, I don't know if ' Miss Barton ' is just your literary name now? If there is a lucky man, I hope he will give me the pleasure, too? "
" No, I'm not married," she said.
" Like me, you've been too busy. You know, I really think our victories should be feted. It'd be friendly of you to come. You can find one evening free before I go back? "
" I suppose," she said, trying to laugh, " I'm not so full of engagements that I can't do that ! "
And, though neither of them had foreseen the invitation, she was pledged to dine with him. Heavily she reflected that, when the dinner finished, she would be obliged to ask him to send for a taxi and that it would probably cost her a half-crown.
She went by train. That her solitary evening gown was wrong, having been bought three years since, did not worry her, though as " Lady Veronica," in her The Autocrat at the Toilet-Table column, she wrote of things being " hopelessly last season's " when their vogue had been declining for a week; but she was embarrassed by her lack of evening shoes. At the table she bore herself bravely, supported by the knowledge that the epoch of her sleeves was unsuspected by him, but when she rose she found it difficult to conceal her feet.
Yet, if it had not been that the shame of failure poisoned each mouthful that she took, the evening would have had its fascination. When she led him to speak of his early blunders on the homestead, while he told her how he had shrunk dismayed from the first bleak sight of that patch of prairie, she forgot she was pretending, and forgot to feel abased. In moments she even forgot to feel old. The story of his struggles bore her back. As she heard these things, the greying man became to her again the boy that had loved her—and as the woman leant listening, the man caught glimpses of the girl that she had been.
His trip was proving queerly unlike his forecast of it on the farm. When he packed his bags he had had no idea of seeing her, but he had looked for emotions that he hadn't obtained. The strangeness of sauntering on the London pavements as a prosperous man had been less exhilarating than his anticipation of it. To drive to a fashionable tailor's and order clothes had failed to induce a burst of high spirits, though on the way he had laudably reminded himself that once it would have been the day of his life. He was, in fact, feeling solitary, and to loll in stalls at the theatres, instead of being jammed in the pit, would have seemed livelier to him if he had had a companion. In the circumstances, it was not astonishing that he proposed to take Irene Barton to the theatre a night or two later—and as he insisted a good deal, she compromised with a matinee.
Somehow or other he was having tea with her, at the club again, the day afterwards. And on the day after that, there was something else.
They had always found much to say to each other in the old days—they found much to say now, when the constraint wore off. The man told himself that he felt a calm friendship for the woman whom he had once wanted for his wife. And the woman told herself that, since he would soon be gone, she'd snatch happy hours with the man she loved while he was here. Her philosophy had changed since she expounded it in the garden of the square.
And then—the claims of The Autocrat at the Toilet-Table had compelled her to break an appointment—it manifested itself to Mr. Humphreys that his feelings were not so calm as he had thought. Irritable in the hotel hall, he perceived that this " friendship " threatened his holiday with a disastrous end. He wanted no second experience of fevering in Canada for a face in England. Grimly he decided that the acquaintance must be dropped. If it came to that, why remain in England any longer? It was time for him to go.
On the morrow, in another charming corner of the familiar club, he told her his intention, and she tried to disguise how much it startled her. When she had " hoped that he hadn't received bad news " and he had said briefly that he hadn't, there was a pause. In his endeavour to be casual he had been curt, and both were conscious of it. He wondered if he had hurt her. Perhaps he should have offered an excuse for his sudden leave-taking ? He began to invent one—and she politely dismissed it. He was certain now that he had hurt her. After all, why not be candid?
He leant forward, and spoke in a lowered tone:
" Do you know why I'm going ? I'm going because, if I stopped, I should make a fool of myself again".
The cup in her hand jerked. She felt suffocating, voiceless. Not a word came from her.
" I'm remembering that discretion is the better part of valour, Miss Barton".
" How do you mean ? " she faltered.
" I'm running away in time. You see, I—I made a mistake: I reckoned you wouldn't be dangerous to me any more, and I was wrong. . . . So you won't think me ungrateful for going, will you ? You've given me some very happy hours; I don't want you to think I didn't appreciate them. But I appreciate, too, the fact that you're a successful woman and that I've even less to hope for now than I had before. I went through hell about you once, dear—I couldn't stick it twice".
Her hand was passed across her eyes, and she trailed it on her skirt.
" Are you running away from—from my success ? If I cared for you, do you think my success would matter? "
" Do you care for me? " His voice shook, like hers. He hated the chattering groups about them, as he bent conventionally over the tea-table. " Do you mean you could give your position up to be my wife? "
She rose. Her lips twitched before her answer came. It came in a whisper:
" You've never seen my rooms. Will you drive me there? "
And on the way she was very quiet.
The taxi stopped. In a dingy street she took a latchkey from her pocket, and opened a door, from which a milk-can hung. Perplexed, he followed. She led him to a parlour—a pitiable parlour, with atrocious oleographs on drab walls, and two mottled vases on a dirty mantelpiece.
" This," she said dryly, " is where I live. You see the celebrity at home".
He tried to take her to him, and she drew swiftly back.
" I have failed," she cried; " no one has read my books; I'm as poor as when you knew me first. I've spent years in holes like this ! I've shammed to you because I was ashamed. My talk of people I know, of places I go to has been lies—I know no one, I go nowhere. I refused to marry you, when I was a girl, because I didn't think it good enough for me; before you stoop to ask me again, go away and think whether it's good enough for you. I've lost my hopes, my youth, my looks—you'd be giving me everything, and I should bring you nothing in return ! "
His arms were quick now, and they held her fast.
" Nothing? " he demanded. His eyes challenged her. "Nothing, Irene? "
" Oh, my dearest," she wept, smiling, " if my love's enough-? "