The Rotter by Fleta Campbell Springer
From Harper's Magazine
In the taxi Ayling suddenly realized that there was no need for all
this haste. After twenty-five years, and a loitering, circuitous
journey homesix weeks to the day since he had said good-by to
Indiathis last-minute rush was, to say the least, illogical,
particularly as there was no one in London waiting for him; no one who
was even aware of his arrival. Indeed, it was likely that there was no
one in London who was aware of his existence, except, perhaps, the
clerk of the club, to whom he had telegraphed ahead for accommodations.
The rigidity of his posture, straining forward there on his seat,
became suddenly painful and absurd. He tried to relax, but the effort
was more than it was worth, and he sat forward again, looking out.
Yes, things were familiar enoughbut familiar like old photographs
one has forgotten the significance of. The emotion had gone out of
them. It was the new things, the unfamiliar contours, that were most
apparent, that seemed to thrust upon his consciousness the city's
gigantic, self-centered indifference. Yet it was just that quality that
he had loved most in London. She had let him alone. She had beenhe
recalled the high-flown phrase of his youththe supremely indifferent
friend! Perhaps, he thought to himself, when one is fifty, one cares
less to be let alone; less for indifference as the supreme attribute
of a friend.
He felt a queer sweep of homesickness for India, whence he had come;
but to feel homesick for India was ridiculous, since he had just come
out of India because he was homesick for England. He had been homesick
for England, he had been telling himself, for all those twenty-five
Well! here he was. Home!
Strange he hadn't thought of the automobiles and the electricity,
and the difference they would make.
The taxi backed suddenly, gears shifted, and drew up alongside the
curb. Looking out, Ayling recognized the high, familiar street door of
the club. Something about it had been changed, or replaced, he couldn't
quite make out what. The driver opened the door, lifted out Ayling's
bag, and deposited it expertly with a swing on the step. Then he waited
respectfully while Ayling fished in his pockets for change. Having
received it, he leaped with great agility to the seat, shifted gears,
chugged, backed and turned, and was abruptly round the corner and out
At the desk, Ayling experienced a momentary surprise to find himself
Mr. Ayling? Yes, sir. Your room is ready, I believe. The clerk
rang a bell, and began to give instructions about Mr. Ayling's luggage.
Ayling felt that he ought to ask for some one, inquire if some of
the old members were in; but, standing there, he could not think of a
single name except names of a few non-resident members like himself,
men who were at that moment in India.
Will you go up, sir?
Later, said Ayling. Just send up my things.
He crossed the foyer and entered the lounge. Here, as before in the
streets, it was the changes of which he was most awarefigured
hangings in place of the old red velours, the upholstery renewed on the
old chairs and divans. Strangers sat here and there in the familiar
nooks, strangers who looked up at him with a mild curiosity and
returned to their papers or their cigars. He wandered on through the
rooms, seekingwithout quite saying so to himselfseeking a familiar
face, and found none. Even the proportions of the rooms seemed changed;
he could hardly have said just how; not much, but slightly, though, all
in all, the club was the same. Names began to come back to him;
memories resurrected themselves, rose out of corners to greet him as he
passed. They began to give him a queer sense of his own unreality, as
if he himself were only another memory.... Abruptly he turned, made his
way back to the desk, and asked to be shown to his room. There he spent
an hour puttering aimlessly, adjusting his things, putting in the time.
Then he dressed and went down to a solitary dinner. There was a
great activity in the club at that hour, comings and goings, in parties
of four and five. He found a kind of dolorous amusement in seeing now
much more at home all the youngsters about him seemed than he. And he
had been at home there when they were in the nursery doing sums.
Here and there at the tables were older men, men of his own age, and
he reflected that among them might easily be some of his boyhood
friends. He would never know them now. He searched their faces for a
familiar feature, watched them for a gesture he might recognize. But in
the end he gave it up. Old town, he said to himself, old town, by
Jove! you've forgotten me!
That night he went alone to a theater, walked back through the
crowds to the club, and went immediately to bed. He was grateful to
find himself suddenly very tired.
The next morning he rose late and did not leave his room until noon,
when he went down to a solitary lunch. After lunch he stopped at the
clerk's window and inquired about one or two old members. The clerk
looked up the names. After a good deal of inquiry and fussing about, he
ascertained that one of the gentlemen was in China, one was dead, and a
third about whom Ayling also inquired could not be traced at all.
Ayling went out and walked for a while through the streets, but was
driven back to the club by the chill drizzle which suddenly began to
* * * * *
He sat down in a chair near a window that had been his favorite.
Settled there, he remembered the position of a near-by bell, just under
the window-curtain.... Yes, there it was. He rang, and a waiter camea
rotund, pink-faced, John-Bullish waiter, with little white tufts on
each cheek. Ayling ordered a whisky-and-soda, and when presently the
waiter brought it Ayling asked how long he had been in the service of
Thirty-five years, sir.
Ayling looked at the old man in astonishment. Do you remember me?
The old waiter, schooled to remember at first glance if he
remembered at all, looked afresh at Ayling. I see so many faces,
sirI couldn't just at the moment say
And I suppose, said Ayling, you've brought me whisky-and-soda
here, to this very chair, no end of times. What's your name?
Seems familiar He shook his head. You don't recall a Mr.
Aylingtwenty-five or thirty years ago?
Ayling, sir? I recall there was a member of that name....
You're not Mr. Ayling, sir?
We're not very flattering, either of us, it seems. But then,
privilege of the aged, I suppose.
Beg pardon, sir. I'm sorryI ought to remember you.
We're wearing masks, Chedsey, you and I.
You're right, sir, I'm afraid.
They regarded each other, those two, Chedsey, rotund and pink,
looking down upon Ayling, long and lean, with fine wrinkles about his
eyes, and hair considerably grayed, wondering, both of them, why names
should be so much more enduring than they themselves had been.
It was not until Ayling had begun to ask Chedsey for news of old
friends, and chanced almost at once to mention Lonsdale, that both he
and the old waiter exclaimed in the same breath, Major Lonsdale! as
if the Major's name had been a key to open the doors of both their
And you're young Mr. Dick Ayling! I remember you perfectly now!
Chedsey beamed. How could he have failed to remember any one of those
gay young friends of the major's?
And where, asked Ayling, is the major now?
Major Lonsdale, sirhas been gone seven years. Hadn't you heard?
Lonsdale gone! Lonsdale dead! Lonsdale had begun life so
brilliantly. Ayling did feel left over and old.
What happened? he asked, and Chedsey, glad to talk of the major,
told how he had left the club to be Major Lonsdale's man just after he
came back from the Boer War. How things hadn't seemed to go well with
the major after that; he lost moneyjust how, Chedsey didn't say, but
gave one to understand that it was a misfortune beyond the major's
control. In the end he was forced to give up his house, and Chedsey
came back to the club. A few years later the major was taken with
pneumonia, quite suddenly, and died. Did Mr. Ayling know Major
Yes, said Ayling. What became of Mrs. Lonsdale?
Here in London, sir.
Wasn't there, asked Ayling, a child, a little girl?
Ah, Miss Peggy, sir! It was plain that Miss Peggy was one of
Chedsey's enthusiasms. A young lady now ... and soon to be married to a
fine young gentleman of one of the best Scotch families.... She'll have
a title some day.... Picture in the Sketch recentlyperhaps he
could find it for Mr. Ayling.
Never mind, said Ayling, who was not thinking of Miss Peggy at
all, but of her parents, young Major Harry Lonsdale, and his pretty
wife.He remembered her as a brideBessie, the major had called
hera graceful young creature with brown hair and brown-flecked eyes,
already at that age a charming hostess in the fine old house Harry
Lonsdale had inherited from his father.
They are living in Cambridge Terrace, Chedsey was saying. Would
Mr. Ayling like the address?
Ayling wrote down the address Chedsey gave him, and put it away in
his pocket, with no more definite idea than that some day, if
opportunity offered, he might look her up, for his old friend's sake.
He began to inquire about other menCarrington, Farnsby, Blake.
Dead, all three of themFarnsby only last spring. Was it some fate
that pursued his particular friends? But those men had all, he
reflected, been older than he. And yet, he recalled the words of his
A man's as old as his arteries. You've been too long out here. Be
sensible, Ayling.... Go hometake it easyrest. You'll have a long
Just a week later, to the day, Ayling stepped into a
telephone-booth, looked up Mrs. Lonsdale's number, and telephoned. He
had not counted upon loneliness.
* * * * *
At forty-five Bessie Lonsdale had encountered one of those universal
experiences which invariably give us, as individuals, so strong a sense
of surprise. She had discovered suddenly, upon completion of the task
to which she had so long given her energies, that she had become the
task; that she no longer had any identity apart from it. And her
consciousness of having arrived at exactly the place where hundreds
before her must have arrived had only added to the strangeness of her
A week ago she had seen her twenty-year-old daughter off to the
north of Scotland for a month's visit to the family which she was soon
to enter as a bride. It seemed to her that Peggy had never been so
lovely as when she said good-by to her at the station that day, slim,
fragrant, shining-eyed, and looking very patrician indeed in her smart
sable jacket (cut from the luxurious sable cape that had been part of
her mother's trousseau), with the violets pinned into the buttonhole.
And Bessie Lonsdale had seen with pride and no twinge of jealousy the
admiration in the eyes of that aristocratic, if somewhat stern-faced,
old lady who was to be Peggy's mother-in-law, and who, with true Scotch
propriety, had come all the way down to London to take her home with
I don't like leaving you alone, Peggy had said, as they kissed
each other good-by. You're going to let yourself be dull.
And her mother had patted the soft cheek, and replied: I'm going to
enjoy every minute of it. I mean to have a good rest and get acquainted
When, a few moments later, she waved them good-by as the train moved
slowly out of the station, Bessie Lonsdale had turned away with a
long-drawn and involuntary sigha sigh of thanksgiving and relief.
Peggy at last was safe! Her happiness and her future assured. All
those years of hoping and holding steady had come now to this happy
end. Ever since her husband's early death Bessie Lonsdale had centered
herself upon the future of her child. She had had only her few hundred
a year saved from the wreck of her husband's affairs, but she had set
her course, and, with an air of sailing in circles for pleasure's sake,
stood clear of the rocks and shoals. She had never borrowed; she had
never apologized; had never been considered a poor relation, or spoken
of as pathetic or brave. Her little flat was an achievement. It was
astonishing how she had managed at once so much simplicity, so much
downright comfort, and so charming an atmosphere. She had done so much
with so little, yet hers were not anxious rooms, like the rooms of so
many women of small means. They had space, repose, good cheer, even an
air of luxury. It was the home of a gentlewoman who could make a little
better than the best of things. She had even entertained a little,
now and thenmore of late, now that Peggy's education was
completebut this at the cost of many economies in the right quarter,
and many extravagances also rightly placed.
Call this climbing if you will, and a stress upon false values.
Bessie Lonsdale gave herself to no such futile speculations as that.
She was too busy at her task. She was neither so young nor so
hypocritical as to pretend that these things were to be despised. She
had done only what every other mother in the world wishes to doto
guide and protect her child and see her future provided for; only she
had done it more efficiently than most; had brought, perhaps, a greater
fitness or a greater consecration to the task. And the success of her
achievement lay in the art with which she had concealed all trace of
effort and strain. Peggy herself would have been first to laugh at the
notion that her mother had had anything whatever to do with her falling
in love with Andrew McCrae. She believed that it was by the sheer
prodigality of the Fates that, besides being in love with her,
romantically, as only a Scotchman can be, young Andrew McCrae was heir
to one of the most substantial fortunes in all the north, and would
succeed to a title one day....
So Bessie Lonsdale had sighed her deep sigh of peace and gone back
to her flat. And because she had really wanted to be alone she had sent
her one faithful old servant away for a long-postponed visit to country
relatives. Then she had sat down to rest, and to get acquainted with
herself. And in two days she had made her discovery. There was no
herself. She had been Peggy's mother so long that Bessie Lonsdale as
a separate entity had entirely ceased to exist.
It was at the end of the week that Ayling telephoned. And, although
she had been avoiding even chance meetings with acquaintances, she
found herself asking Ayling, whom she had not seen for twenty-five
years, and whom she had known but slightly then, to come that day at
five to tea. She realized only after she had left the telephone that it
was because his voice had come to her out of that far time before she
had become the mother of Peggy, and because she had a vague sort of
hope that he might help to bring back a bit of the old self she had
She was, when she thought of it, a little puzzled by his looking her
up. Had he and Harry been such friends?
Promptly at five he came. At the door they greeted each other with a
sudden unexpected warmth. And while he was clasping her hand and saying
how jolly it was, after all this time, to find her here, and she was
saying how nice it was to see him, how nice of him to look her
up, he was thinking to himself that he might have recognized her by the
brown-flecked eyes, and she was thinking, He's an old man, older than
Ithe age Harry would have been
So you've come home, she said, to stay?
Yes, we all do. It's what we look forward to out there.
I know. With a little hospitable gesture and a step backward she
brought him in.
They had not mentioned the major who was gone, nor had they
mentioned the years that had passed since their last meeting, yet
suddenly, without any premonition, those two turned their eyes away
from each other, to avoid bursting senselessly into tears. An almost
inconceivable disaster, yet one for the moment perilously imminent.
Yet neither of them was thinking of Major Lonsdale nor of anything
so grievous as death; they were thinking of those terrifying little
wrinkles round their eyes, and of the little up-and-down lines that
would never disappear, and something inside them both gave suddenly
away, melted, flooding them inside with tears that must not be shed.
She held out her hand for his hat and stick. For an instant they
both felt a deep constraint, and as he was getting out of his coat each
wondered if the other had noticed it.
Ayling turned about and stumbled awkwardly over a small hassock on
the floor, and they both laughed, which helped them recover themselves.
How long has it really been? she asked, as she faced him beside
Twenty-five years. He smiled at her, shaking his head.
You must feel the prodigal son!
Not until I came in your door just now, I didn't at all. And then,
without in the least intending to say it, he added, You were the only
person in London I knew.
It was the first of many things he had not intended to tell. As it
was the first of many afternoons when they sat before the fire in her
pretty drawing-roomthat gallant little blaze that did its best to
combat the gloom and chill of London's late winter rainsand drank
their tea and talked, the comfortable, scattering talk of old friends;
although it was not because of the past that they were friends, but
because of the present and their mutual need. They did not speak of
loneliness; it was a word, perhaps, of which they were both afraid.
When they talked of her husband, of the old house, the old days, she
felt herself coming back, materializing gradually again, out of the
past. Ayling said to himself that he could talk to Bessie Lonsdale of
things he had never been able to speak of to any one else, because they
had had so much common experience. For from the beginning Ayling had
had the illusion that Bessie Lonsdale, as well as he, had been away all
those years, and had just come back to London again. He had said this
to her as he was leaving on that first afternoon, and she had smiled
and said, So I have, just thatI've been away and come back, and I
hardly know where to begin. Later he understood. For once or twice he
met there a few of her friends, people who dropped in to inquire what
she had heard from Peggy; people who talked of how they were missing
Peggy, of the time when she would be coming home, of her approaching
wedding, and one and all they commented upon the emptiness of the flat
without Peggy there, and how lonely it must be for dear Mrs. Lonsdale
with Peggy away.
I seem to be the only person in London not missing Peggy, he said
to her one day. Her brown-flecked eyes looked at him straight for an
instant, and then slowly they smiled, for she knew that he understood.
She had not needed to tell him, for he had divined it for himself. Just
as he had not needed to tell her how much her being in London had meant
As it was, the incessant chill and dampness of the weather had done
his health no good. His blood was thin from long years of Indian sun,
and he found it a constant effort to resist. The gloom seemed even
worse than the cold, and, although he had thought that he should never
wish for sun again, after India, he did wish for it now, wished for it
until it became a sheer physical need. For the first time in his life
he began to feel that he was getting old. Or was it, he asked himself,
only that he had time now to think of such things? Bessie Lonsdale saw
it, for her eyes were quick and keen, and she had long been in the
habit of mothering. It's this beastly London, she said. I know! And
it was she who made him promise to go away for a week in the country,
where he might have a glimpse at least of the sun. He remembered an inn
at Homebury St. Mary, where he had spent a summer as a child, and it
was there, for no reason except the memory of so much sun, that he
planned to go, by the middle of next week, he said, when Peggy will
be coming home.
They had been talking of her return, and he had confessed to the
notion that he would feel himself superfluous, out of place, somehow,
when Peggy came home. His confession had pleased her, she hardly knew
why. As for herself, she had had something of the same thought that
when Peggy came there would bewell, a different atmosphere.
She was looking forward daily now to a letter saying by what train
Peggy would return. On Thursday there arrived, instead, a letter from
Lady McCrae, begging that they be allowed to keep our dear Peggy for
another ten days. The heavy weather had kept the young people indoors,
and a great many excursions which they had planned had had to be put
off on account of it. She said, in her dignified way, many things
vastly pleasing to a mother's heart, and Mrs. Lonsdale could do nothing
but write, giving her consent.
When she had written the letter and sent it off she began to be
curiously depressed, and she wandered through the flat, conscious at
last of just how much she had really missed Peggy's laughter, her
gaiety, and her swift young step. The week before her loomed longer
than all the time she had been away.
That afternoon she told Ayling her news, but it was not until she
had finished telling him that she remembered that he, too, would be
going away. She hadn't known until then how much his being there had
I don't know, she said, how I shall put in the week! After all,
I've been missing her more than I knew.
It occurred to Ayling that, standing there before him with Lady
McCrae's letter, which she had been showing him, in her hand, she was
exactly like a little girl who was going to be left all alone.
The idea came to him suddenly. Look here, Bessie; come down to
Homebury St. Mary with me! It would do you no end of good.
The quality of their friendship was clear in the simplicity with
which he made the suggestion, and the absence of self-consciousness
with which she heard it made.
I should love it! she said.
Then come along. You've nothing to keep you here; the country's
just what you need.
She did not answer at once, but stood looking away from him, a
little frown between her eyes. She was thinking how absurd it would be
to object, and how equally absurd it seemed to say yes. It was
so nice to have some one think of her as he thought of himself, simply,
normally, humanly, as Dick Ayling seemed to have thought of her from
Then abruptly she accepted his simplification. I'll go, she said.
Good! I'll telephone through for a room for you.... When can you be
ready? he asked.
To-daythis afternoon. Let's get away before I discover all the
reasons to prevent! I won't bother about a lot of luggagemy big bag
Great! I'll ask about trains.
All at once, like two children, they became immensely exhilarated at
the prospect before thema week's holiday!
He went to the telephone and presently reported: There's a train at
two-forty. Can you make it by then?
She looked at the clock on the mantel. We'll make it, she said.
He was getting into his coat. I'll go on to the club, get my things
together, and come back for you at two-fifteen, then.
He rushed away, both of them almost forgetting to say good-by, and
she went into her bedroom to pack.
When, promptly at two-fifteen, he rang her bell, she was waiting,
hat and gloves on, and called out, All ready! as the taxi-driver
followed Ayling up for her bag....
* * * * *
The spring had come up to meet them at Homebury St. Mary. So Bessie
Lonsdale said to herself when she woke in her old-fashioned
chintz-curtained room. The sun shone in at the windows, the air was
balmy and sweet, and lifting herself on her elbow, she saw in a little
round swale in the garden outside a faint showing of green nestled into
the damp brown earth.
She got up, rang for a maid, who came, smiling, white-capped,
rosy-cheeked. She had coffee and rolls with rich country cream while
she dressed. Her room opened directly into the garden, and she put on
stout boots and a walking-suit and a soft little hat of green felt, and
went out. Ayling, who had evidently risen early, was coming toward her,
swinging a great, freshly whittled staff cut from the woods beyond the
inn. He called to her:
You see! The sun does shine at Homebury St. Mary! And then,
as if in gratitude for so glorious a day, he wished to be fair to the
rest of the world, he added, as he came up, I wonder if it's shining
in London, too.
London? she said. London? There's no such place!
Glad you came? he asked.
Glad! Her tone was enough.
That's a jolly green hat, he said, and made her a little bow.
Glad you like it, she laughed. And that's a jolly staff.
He showed it off proudly. Work of art, he said. I made one just
like it when I was here the summer I was twelveI remembered it this
morning when I woke up, and I came out to get this one.
She admired it critically, particularly the initials of the dark
bark left on, but suggested an improvement about the knob.
By Jove! you're right, he admitted, and set to work with his
They were like two youngsters out of school. All morning they idled
out-of-doors, exploring the little lanes that led off into the
buff-colored hills, returning at noon, ravenous, to lunch in the
dining-room of the inn, parting afterward in the corridor, and going to
their own rooms to rest and read. At four Ayling tapped at her door to
say that there was in the sitting-room an absolutely enormous tea.
That night, before a beautiful fire in the sitting-room, they caught
each other yawning at half past nine, and at ten they said good-night.
It had been so perfect that the next day found them following the
same routine. And the next day, and the next. Bessie Lonsdale had not
felt for years so much peace and so much strength. In their morning
walks together her strength showed greater than his. The bracing air
exhilarated her, and she felt she could have walked forever in the
lovely rolling hills. Once she had walked on and on, faster and faster,
not noticing how she had quickened her pace, her head up, facing the
light wind blowing in from the sea. And, turning to ask a question of
Ayling at her side, his white face stopped her instantly.
Oh, I am sorry! Forgive me, she said.
He smiled, embarrassed, and waited a moment for breath before he
said, It's just the wind; it's pretty stiff.
And she had said no more, because it embarrassed him, but she suited
her pace to his after that, never forgiving herself for her
thoughtlessness. And she chose, instead of the hill roads, the level,
For five perfect spring days they spent their mornings out-of-doors
in the sun, lunched, parted until tea, met at dinner again, and said
good night at a preposterously early hour. And they could not have said
whether they amused or interested or merely comforted each other.
Perhaps they did all three. At any rate, it was an idyll of its kind,
and of more genuine beauty than many less platonic idylls have been.
On the morning of the sixth day Bessie Lonsdale went out into the
garden as usual, to find the sky overcast with light, fleecy clouds.
But the air was soft, and she wandered about for half an hour before it
occurred to her that perhaps Ayling was waiting for her inside. She
went in to look, but saw him nowhere, and decided that he was sleeping
late. She waited until eleven, and then went out to walk by herself.
But she did not relish the walk because she was uneasy about Ayling.
She was afraid he was ill. She forced herself to go on a little way,
but when she came to the second turn in the road, she faced abruptly
about and came back to the inn. Still Ayling was nowhere about. He was
not in the garden; he was not in the coffee-room. She went to her own
room and sat down with a book, but she could not read. So she went into
the corridor, searching for some one of whom she might inquire. But no
one was visible.
Ayling's room opened off of the little public sitting-room at the
end of the corridor. She went on until she reached the sitting-room,
which she entered, and then stood still, listening for some sound from
beyond Ayling's door. The silence seemed to grow round her; it filled
the room, it spread through the house. And then, propelled by that
silence toward the door, she put out her hand and knocked softly. There
was no response. She repeated the knocktwiceand only that pervading
silence answered her. She took hold of the knob and turned it without a
sound; the door gave inward and she stepped inside the room. The bed
faced her, and Ayling was lying there, on his side. Even before she saw
his face, her own heart told her that he was dead.... He lay there
quite peacefully, as if he had died in his sleep.
For an instant Bessie Lonsdale thought she was going to faint. And
then, moved by the force of an emotion which seemed to take possession
of her from the outside, an emotion which she could not recognize, but
which was irresistible and which, as the silence had propelled her a
moment ago, took her backward now, step by step, noiselessly, out of
that room; caused her to close the door after her, and, still moving
backward without a sound, to come to a stop in the middle of the little
sitting-room. For now that strange fear, premonitionshe knew not
whatwhich seemed to have been traveling toward her from a great
distance, seemed suddenly to concentrate itself into a single name,
Peggy! ... Confused, swirling, the connotations that accompanied the
name took possession of her mind, of her body, her will. Peggy was
threatened.... Through this thing that had happened Peggy's
happiness might be destroyed! In a flash she saw the storythe cold
facts printed in a newspaperas they would undoubtedly beor told by
gossips, glad of a scandal to repeat: She, Peggy's motherand Richard
Ayling together at a country innthe sudden and sensational discovery
of Ayling's death.... She could see the stern face of Lady McCraethe
accusing blue eyes of Andrew McCrae ... and Peggy's stricken face.
She tried to pull herself togetherto think; her thoughts were not
reasoning thoughts, but unrelated, floating, detached....
Suddenly, by some strange alchemy of her mind, three things stood
out clear. They stood out like the three facts of a simple syllogism.
There was nothing she could do for Richard Ayling now.... No one
knew she was here.... A train for London passed Homebury St. Mary a
little after noon.
All the years of Bessie Lonsdale's motherhood commanded her to act.
Her muscles alone seemed to hear and obey. She was like a person
hypnotized, who had been ordered with great detail and precision what
Soundlessly, she went from the room and down the length of the
corridor. In her own room she threw scattered garments into a bag,
swept in the things from the dresser, glanced into the mirror, and was
astonished to see that she had on her coat and hat. Then out through
the door that led to the garden, a sharp turn to the right, and she was
off, walking swiftly, with no sensation of touching the earth. A train
whistled in the distance, came into sight. She raced with it, reached
the station just as it drew alongside and came to a stop. The guard
took her bag, and she swung onto the step. It did not seem strange to
her that she had reached the station at precisely the same time as the
train. It seemed only natural ... in accordance with the plan....
At seventeen minutes past three o'clock Bessie Lonsdale hurried into
a telephone-booth in Victoria Station, called up a friend, and asked
her to tea. Then she took a taxi to within a block of the flat, where
she dismissed the taxi, went into a pastry-shop, bought some cakes, and
five minutes later she was taking off her hat and coat in her own
She worked quickly, automatically, without any sense of exertion,
still as if she but obeyed a hypnotist's command. At four o'clock a
leaping fire in the drawing-room grate flickered cheerily against
silver tea-things, against the sheen of newly dusted mahogany; books
lay here and there, carelessly, a late illustrated review open as if
some one had just put it down, and dressed in a soft gown of blue
crÃªpe, Bessie Lonsdale received her guest. She was not an intimate
friend, but a casual one whom she did not often see. A Mrs. Downey, who
loved to talk of herself and of her own affairs. Bessie Lonsdale did
not know why she had chosen her. Her brain had seemed to work without
direction, independent of her will. She could never have directed it so
Even now, as she brought her in and heard herself saying easy,
friendly, commonplace things, she had no sense of willing herself to
say them consciously. They said themselves. She heard nothing that Mrs.
Downey said, yet she answered her. Later, while she was pouring Mrs.
Downey's tea, she remembered a time, over a year ago, when she had
heard Mrs. Downey say, Two, and no cream. She put in the two lumps,
and was startled to hear her guest exclaim, My dear, what a memory!
... She did not know whether Mrs. Downey told her one or many things
that afternoon. Only certain words, parts of sentences, gestures,
imprinted themselves upon her mind, never to be erased. She seemed
divided into two separate selves, neither of them completeone, the
intenser of the two, was at Homebury St. Mary, looking down upon
Ayling's still, dead face; and that self was filled with pity, with
remorse, with a tenderness that hurt. The other self was here, in a
gown of blue crÃªpe, drinking tea, and possessed of a voice which she
could hear vaguely making the conversation one makes when nothing has
happened, when one has been lonely and a little bored....
All at once something was going on in the room, a clangor that
seemed to waken Bessie Lonsdale out of the unreality of a dream. It
summoned her will to come back to its control.
Mrs. Downey was smiling and saying in an ordinary tone, Your
Bessie Lonsdale rose and crossed the room, took the receiver from
its stand, said, Yes, and waited.
A man's voice came over the wire. I wish to speak to Mrs. Lonsdale,
I am Mrs. Lonsdale, she said in a smooth, low voice. Her voice was
perfectly smooth because her will had deserted her again. Only her
brain worked, clearly, independently.
Ah, Mrs. Lonsdale; this is Mr. Burke speaking, Mr. Franklin Burke,
of the Cosmos Club. I am making an effort to get into touch with
friends of Mr. Richard Ayling, and I am told by a man named Chedsey,
who I believe was at one time in your employ, that Mr. Ayling is an old
friend of your family.
Yes, she said, we are old friends.
You knew, then, I presume, that Mr. Ayling had gone awayto the
country some days ago.
Yes, she said, again, I knew that he had not been well and that
he had gone out of town for a week.... Is thereanything? Her heart
was beating very loudly in her ears.
I dislike to be the bearer of bad news, Mrs. Lonsdale, but I must
tell you that we have received a telephone message here at the club
thatI hope it will not shock you too muchthat Mr. Ayling died
sometime to-day, at an inn where he was staying, at Homebury St. Mary,
His voice was very gentle and concerned. She hesitated perceptibly,
and his voice came over the wire, I'm sorryvery sorry, to tell you
in this way
She heard herself speaking: Naturally, Iit's something of a
Indeed I understand.
Again she caught the sound of her own voice, as if it belonged to
some one else, I suppose it was his heart.
He was known to have a bad heart?
Yes; it has been weak for years.
I wonder, Mrs. Lonsdale, if I may ask a favor of you. You know, of
course, that Mr. Ayling had very few close friends in London; you are,
in fact, the only one we have been able, on this short notice, to find.
For that reason I am going to ask that you let me come to see you this
afternoon; you will understand that there are certain formalities,
facts which it will be necessary for us to have, which only an old
friend of Mr. Ayling could givethat we could get in no other way....
I understand, perfectly.
Then I may come?
Certainly. ... There was nothing else she could say.
* * * * *
She did not know how she got rid of her guest, what explanation she
made, nor how she happened to be saying good-by to her at the very
moment when the dignified, elderly Mr. Burke arrived, so that they had
to be introduced. Though she must have made some adequate explanation,
since Mrs. Downey's last words were, in the presence of Mr. Burke,
It's always so hard, I think, to lose one's really old
Mr. Burke came in. He was very correct, very kind. He begged Mrs.
Lonsdale to believe that it was with the greatest regret that he called
upon so sad an errand; that he came only because it was necessary and
she was the only person to whom they could turn. He added that he had
known her husband, Major Lonsdale, in his lifetime, and hoped that she
would consider him, therefore, not so entirely a stranger to her.
She heard him as one hears music far away, only the accents and the
climaxes coming clear. He asked her questions, and she was conscious of
answering them: How long had she known Mr. Ayling?He and her husband
had been boyhood friends; she had met him first at the time of her
marriage to Major Lonsdale. Had they kept up the friendship during all
these years?No, she had heard nothing of Mr. Ayling since her
husband's death; she knew that he was in India; they had renewed the
friendship when he returned to England a short time ago.Ah, it was
probable, then, that she knew very little about any attachments Mr.
Ayling might have had?Here Mr. Burke shifted his position, coughed
slightly, and said:
I ask you these questions, Mrs. Lonsdale, because of a verymay I
saya very unfortunate element in connection with the case. It appears
that there was a woman with Mr. Ayling at the Homebury St. Mary inn.
Bessie Lonsdale waited, she did not know for what. Whole minutes
seemed to go by with the elderly Mr. Burke sitting there in his
attitude of formal sympathy before his voice began again.
I have only been free to mention this to you, Mrs. Lonsdale,
because of the fact that you will hear of it in any case, since it must
come out in the formalities
Formalities? Her voice cut sharply into his.
There will, of course, be an inquestan investigationthe usual
thing. I have been in communication with the coroner's office by
telephone, and I have promised to drive down to Homebury St. Mary
myself this afternoon. He was away on another case, and will not reach
there himself until six. Meantime we must do what we can. They will
necessarily make an effort to discover the woman.
Bessie Lonsdale must have given some sort of involuntary cry, the
implication of which Mr. Burke interpreted in his own way, for he
changed his tone to say:
I'm afraid, my dear Mrs. Lonsdale, that she was a bit of a rotter,
whoever she was, for sheran.
Ran? She repeated the word.
He nodded. Disappeared.
She did not know what expression it was of hers that caused him to
say: I don't wonder you look so shocked. I was shocked. Women don't
often do that sort of thing.... She wanted to cry out that that sort
of thing didn't often happen to women, but he was going on. He had
risen and was walking slowly up and down before the smoldering fire,
and in his incisive, deliberate, well-bred voice he was excoriating the
woman who had been so cowardly as to desert a dying man. Even if she
hadn't seriously cared, or if, for that matter, she hadn't cared at
all, it would seem that mere common decency.... It puts, frankly, a
very unpleasant light on the whole affair.... Ayling was a gentleman,
andyou will forgive me for saying so, I'm surejust the decent sort
to be imposed upon, to allow himself to be led into the most
She wanted to stop him, to cry out, to protest. But his words were
like physical blows which stunned her and made her too weak to speak.
She felt that if he went on much longer she would lose consciousness
altogether. Even now she heard only fragments of words.
Suddenly she heard the word publicity. He had stopped before her
and was looking down at her.
I think, Mrs. Lonsdale, that the thing we both wishthat is, we at
the club, and you, as his friendis to do what we can to save any
unnecessary scandal in connection with poor Ayling's death. It is the
least we can do for him.
Yes! She grasped frantically at the straw. Yes, by all means
You would be willing to help?
Yes, anything! But what is there I can do?
He was maddeningly deliberate. You are the only person, it
appearsat least the only person availablewho has been aware of the
condition of Mr. Ayling's heart. You can say, can you not, with
certainty, that he did suffer from a serious affection of the heart?
He came home from India on account of it.
Very well, then. It was also the verdict of the doctor who was
called. I think together we may be able to obviate the necessity of a
too public investigationat any rate, we shall see. It must be done,
of course, before the official investigation begins. Therefore, if you
will come down with me this afternoon, in my car
Come with you? Where?
To the inn, at Homebury, he said.
She was trapped ... trapped.... The realization of it sprang upon
her, but too late, for already she cried out, Oh, I couldn'tI
couldn't do that!
Mr. Burke was looking down at her. He loomed above her like the
figure of fate.... She was trapped.... There was no way out, and
suddenly she realized that she had risen and said: Forgive me! To be
sure I will go.
I understand, said Mr. Burke, how one shrinks from that sort of
She did not know what she was going to do. She only knew that for
this step, at least, she could no longer resist. Again she had the
sensation of speaking and moving automatically, of decisions making
themselves without the effort of her will.
She asked how soon he wished to go, and he said, consulting his
watch, that they ought to start at once; his car was waiting in the
street, since he had planned to go on directly from her house. She
excused herself, and went to her room. She did not change her dress,
but put on a long, warm coat, her hat, her veil, her gloves, and made
sure of her key in her purse. Then she came out and said she was ready
to go. He complimented her, with a smile, on the short time it had
taken her, and she wondered if he had really seen her hesitation of a
few moments before. They went down the stairs together. At the curb a
chauffeur stood beside a motor, into which, with the utmost
consideration for her comfort, Mr. Burke handed her. Then he gave his
instructions to the chauffeur, and followed her in.
And there began for Bessie Lonsdale that fantastic ride in which she
felt herself being carried forward, as if on the effortless wings of
fate itself, to the very scene from which she had fled.
She had no idea, no dramatization in her mind, of what awaited her
or of what she intended to do. Her imagination refused to focus upon
it; and, strangely, she seemed almost to be resting, leaning back
against the tufted cushions, resting against the time when she should
be called upon for her strength. For she only knew that when the time
came to act she would act.
It was curious how she did not think of Peggy. She was like a lover
who has been set a herculean task to accomplish before he may even
think of his beloved.
Beside her, Mr. Burke seemed to understand that she did not wish to
talk. Perhaps he was thinking of other things; after all, he had not
been Richard Ayling's friend; it was only a human duty he performed.
Long stretches went by in which she saw nothing on either side, and
other stretches in which everythinghouses, trees, objects of all
kindswere exceedingly clear cut and magnified....
I'm afraid, said Mr. Burke's voice, that we're running into a
Bessie Lonsdale looked up, and saw that those fleecy, light-gray
clouds which she had seen in the sky early that morning as she stood
waiting for Ayling in the garden of the inn, and which had been
gathering all day, hung now black and menacing just above her head.
It descended upon them suddenly; torrents ran in the road. The wind
veered, and sent great gusts of rain into the car. The chauffeur turned
and asked if he should stop and put the curtains up. Mr. Burke said no,
to go on, they might run through it, and it was too violent to last.
Meantime he worked with the curtains himself, and she helped. But it
was no use; they were getting drenched, and the wind whipped the
curtains out of their hands. Mr. Burke leaned forward and called to the
chauffeur to ask if there was any place near where they might stop.
There's an inn about half a mile farther on. Shall I make it?
By all means.
They ran presently into the strips of light that shed outward from
the lighted windows of the inn. A half-dozen motors already were lined
up outside. They got out and together ran for the door.
Inside, the small public room was almost filled. People sat at the
tables, ordering things to eat and drink, and making the best of it.
They chose a small corner table, a little apart from the rest. The
landlord bustled up and took their coats to dry before the kitchen
fire. A very gay, very dripping party of six came in, assembled with
much laughter the last two tables remaining unoccupied, and settled
next to them, so that they were no longer in a secluded spot.
In a few moments there came in, almost blown through the door by a
violent gust of wind and rain, a short, stout, ruddy person, who, when
the landlord had relieved him of his hat and coat, stood looking about
for a vacant seat. The landlord came toward the table where sat Mrs.
Lonsdale and Mr. Burke.
Sorry, sir, he said; it's the only place left.
May I? asked the stranger, and at Mrs. Lonsdale's nod and smile,
and Mr. Burke's assent, he drew out the chair and sat down. The two men
spoke naturally of the suddenness of the storm, of the good fortune of
finding a refuge so near.
Bessie Lonsdale was glad of some one else, glad when she heard the
stranger and Mr. Burke fall into the easy passing conversation of men.
It would relieve her of the necessity to talk. It would give her time
to think; for it seemed, dimly, that respite had been offered her. Into
her thoughts broke the voice of Mr. Burke addressing her:
How very singular, Mrs. Lonsdale! This gentleman is Mr Ford, the
coroner, also on his way to Homebury!
The stranger was on his feet, bowing and acknowledging the
introduction of Mr. Burke. Bessie Lonsdale had the sensation of waters
closing over her, yet she, too, was bowing and acknowledging the
introduction of Mr. Burke. She had a vivid impression of light shining
downward upon the red-gray hair of Mr. Ford, as he sat down again; and
of Mr. Burke saying something about the case, and about Mrs. Lonsdale
being an old friend of the dead man; about her having been good enough
to volunteer to shed whatever light she might have upon the case, and
of their meeting being the most fortunate coincidence.
Mr. Ford signified that he, too, looked upon it in that way. They
would go on to Homebury together, he said, when the storm had cleared.
I suppose, he asked, leaning forward a little, confidentially,
that Mrs. Lonsdale knows of thepeculiar element
The womanyes, said Mr. Burke. And Bessie Lonsdale inclined her
head and said, I know.
And do you know who she was?
She had only to make a negative sign, for Mr. Burke, with nice
consideration, anticipated her reply:
Unfortunately, Mr. Ford, no one appears to have the least idea who
she might be. Mrs. Lonsdale, however, has been able to clear up a point
which may, I fancy, make the identity of the woman less important than
it might otherwise appear to be. Mrs. Lonsdale has known for some time
of the serious condition of Mr. Ayling's heart. It was because of it,
she tells me, that Mr. Ayling came home from India. Mrs. Lonsdale's
testimony, together with the statement of the physician who was called,
would seem to leave little doubt that it was merely a case of heart.
Mr. Ford was nodding his head. So it would, he said. Yes, so it
would. He stopped nodding, and sat there an instant, as if he were
thinking of something else. If that's the case, he broke out, what a
rotter, by Jove! that woman was!
Rotter, I think, said Mr. Burke, was precisely the word I
And Bessie Lonsdale listened for the second time that day while two
voices, now, instead of one, were lifted in excoriation of some woman
who seemed to grow, as they talked, only a shade less real than
She had again the sensation of the words beating upon her like blows
which she was powerless to resist. She lost, as one does in physical
pain, all sense of time....
However, Mr. Ford brought down his hand with a kind of judicial
finality, if Mrs. Lonsdale will come on down with us nowthe storm
seems to have slackenedwe'll see what can be done. He turned in his
chair as if he were preparing to rise.
At the movement Bessie Lonsdale seemed to grow rigid in her chair.
Mr. Burke and Mr. Ford turned, startled by the strangeness of her
tone. They waited for her to speak.
I can't go.
Can't go? They echoed it together. Why not?
Because, said she, I am the woman you have been talking about.
For an instant they sat perfectly motionless, the three of them.
Then slowly Mr. Burke and Mr. Ford turned their heads and looked at
each other, as if to verify what they had heard. Mr. Burke put out his
hand toward Bessie Lonsdale's arm, resting on the table, and he spoke
very gently indeed:
My dear Mrs. Lonsdale, this is impossible.
Impossible, she said, passing her hand across her eyes,
Yes, Mrs. Lonsdale. He spoke reasonably, as if she were a child.
It couldn't be you. He turned now to include Mr. Ford, who sat
staring at them both. I myself gave Mrs. Lonsdale the news of Mr.
Ayling's death, over the telephone. She was at her home, in Cambridge
Terrace, quietly having tea with a friend; the friend was still there
when I arrived. You have been at home, in London, all day.
No, she said. No, Mr. Burke.
I think, said Mr. Ford, also very gently indeed, that perhaps
Mrs. Lonsdale is trying to shield some one.
Until that instant Bessie Lonsdale had no plan. She had only known
that she could not go with them to Homebury St. Mary, there to be
recognized. But something in the suggestion of Mr. Fordin the tone,
perhaps, more than the wordscaused her to say, looking from one to
the other of these two men so lately strangers to her:
I wonderI wonder if I could make you understand!
They begged her to believe that that was the thing they wished most
I did itshe paused, and forced herself to go onbecause of my
Intent upon her truth, she did not even see by the shocked
expression of their faces the awfulness of the thing they thought she
confessed, and the obviousness of the reason to which their minds had
Mr. Burke put out his hand again and laid it upon her arm, which
trembled slightly at his touch. Mrs. Lonsdale, he said, and this time
he spoke even more gently, but more urgently, than before, are you
sure you wish to tell?
No, said Bessie Lonsdale, but I've got to, don't you see?
Mr. Ford moved in his chair, and spoke, guarding his voice,
judicially. Since we have gone so far, it will be even better,
perhaps, for Mrs. Lonsdale to tell it to us here.
Mr. Burke nodded, and they looked toward her expectantly.
Yes, Mrs. Lonsdale? said Mr. Ford.
An instant the brown-flecked eyes appeared to be searching for some
human contact which she seemed vaguely to have lost. And then she began
at the beginningwith her daughter's engagement to young Andrew
McCrae, her happiness, her securityand quietly, with only now and
then a slight tension of her body and her voice, she told it all to
them, exactly as it happened, without plea or embellishment. She had
only one stress, and that she tried to make reasonable to themher
And they waited, attentive and patient, for the motive to emerge,
for the beginning of that complication between her daughter and Richard
Ayling, which they believed was to be the crux of her narrative.
And as her story progressed their bewilderment increased, for never,
it appeared, had Bessie Lonsdale's daughter so much as heard of the
existence of the man who lay dead at Homebury inn. She seemed even to
make a special point of that.
They thought she but put it off against the time when it should be
forced from her lips; but her story did not halt; she was telling it
step by step, accounting for every hour of the time.
They waited for her to offer proof of the condition of Ayling's
heart. She did not mention it, except to say, when she came to relating
the moment of her discovery, that she had not thought of it; that even
when she opened the door of his room she did not think directly of his
heart; and only when she saw him actually lying there so peacefully
dead did she remember the danger in which he constantly lived. She
seemed to offer it as proof of the suddenness and completeness of her
shock, and in extenuation of the thing she afterward did.
Slowly, gradually, as they listened, and as the light of her
omissions made it clear, it had begun to dawn upon them that Bessie
Lonsdale was telling the whole of the truth. And by it she sought to
disprove something, but not the thing they thought.
She had paused, at the point of her flight, to attempt, a little
hopelessly, to make her impulse real to them. She spoke of the
inflexible honor of the McCraes, of the great respect which had for
generations attached to their name. Then suddenly, as if she saw the
utter hopelessness of making them understand, she seemed with a gesture
to give up abstractions and obscurities and to find in the depth of her
mother's heart the final simple words:
Don't you see? she said. I hadn't thought how my being there at
the same inn with Mr. Ayling would lookand then, all at once, it came
over me. The whole thing, how it would look to the world, how it would
look to the family of my daughter's fiancÃ©,and that it might mean
the breaking of the engagement,the wreck of her future
happinessdon't you seeI didn't think of 'being a rotter'I only
thought of her!
They uttered, both of them, a sudden exclamation, as if they had
been struck. By their expressions one might have thought the woman the
accuser and the two men the accused.
Oh, my dear Mrs. Lonsdale! they both began at once, but she
stopped them with a gesture of her hand.
I don't blame you, she said, I don't blame you. I was a
rotter, to run, but I simply didn't think of myself.
Her tone, her gentleness, were the final proof. Only the innocent so
And now, she was saying, a great weariness in her voice, I've
told you. Do you want me to go on? It isn't raining any more.
Perhaps, Mr. Ford Mr. Burke began. A look passed between them,
like a question and an assent.
If you, Mr. Burke, said Mr. Ford, will come on with me, I think
we can let your man drive Mrs. Lonsdale home. It will not be necessary
for her to appear.
Bessie Lonsdale's thankfulness could find itself no words; it was
lost in that first moment in astonishment. She had not really expected
them to believe. It had not even, as she told it, seemed to her own
I think, said Mr. Burke, seeing her silent so long, that Mrs.
Lonsdale hasn't an idea of the seriousness of the charge she has
Charge? she repeatedCharge? and without another word, Bessie
Lonsdale fainted in her chair. And as she lost consciousness she heard,
dim and far away, the voice of Mr. Ford reply: Thatthe fact that she
hadn't an idea of itand that alone, is why she has
* * * * *
I'm perfectly sure, said Peggy Lonsdale, on Saturday afternoon,
that you did let yourself have a dull time! She was exploring
the flat before she had taken off her things, and had stopped to sit
for a moment on the arm of her mother's chair. Anyway, mother dear,
you didn't have to think of me! That must have been a relief!
She put down her head and kissed her, and Bessie Lonsdale patted the
fragrant young cheek.
Oh, I thought of you occasionally, she said.
Copyright, 1920, by Harper &Brothers. Copyright, 1921, by Fleta