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The Making of a Soul by Kathlyn Rhodes


CHAPTER I

Barry Raymond drew the latchkey out of the door and entered his small flat in Kensington just as the clock in the tiny hall chimed the hour of ten.

It was a wet night; and he drew off his Burberry and hung it up with a sense of pleasure in being again in his cosy little eyrie at the top of the chilly stone steps.

Humming a tune, he crossed the diminutive hall and went into the sitting-room, where the cheerful crackle of a small wood fire gave an air of comfort to the hearth.

On the table, where his admirable man-servant had placed it, was a tray bearing glasses, a siphon and a bottle of whisky; and beside the tray were the few letters which had come by the last post; while in a conspicuous place lay a telegram in its tawny envelope; and this, naturally enough, was the first thing Barry touched.

Taking it up, he tore it open decisively; and as the envelope fell to the ground he unfolded the pink paper and read the message scrawled thereon.

     “Just arrived Southampton will be with you about ten o'clock.
     OWEN.”

The paper fluttered to the floor and Barry consulted his watch hastily.

“Ten o'clock! Why, it's that now. So Owen's home. By Jove, what an unlucky day he's chosen!”

He stood still for a moment, rapt, it would seem, in contemplation of an unpleasant vision. Then with a shrug of his shoulders he moved to the fireplace and turned on more light.

“Well, it'll have to be done sooner or later; but”—for a second a rueful smile lit up his despondent young face—“I wish I hadn't got to do it ... and at ten o'clock at night into the bargain!”

He looked round him as though considering some serious matter.

“Food—and drink. Here's drink, anyhow. What about food?”

Seizing a hand-lamp from the bureau at his elbow, he quitted the room and made for the kitchen, which his man had left, as usual, in the perfection of neatness on his departure two hours ago.

Hastening to the cupboard which did duty, in the flat, for a pantry, Barry flung open the door and surveyed the shelves with anxious eyes.

Ah! There was plenty of food, of a sort, and suddenly Barry remembered, with gratitude, the fact that he had intended to dine at home, and had been prevented doing so at the eleventh hour owing to an unexpected invitation which he had then regarded as an unmitigated bore, but now looked upon as a direct interposition of Providence.

A cold roast chicken, an apple tart and cream, cheese and biscuits—surely the traveller could make a meal off these provisions, and Barry carried them gaily into the sitting-room and laid the table with much good-will and no little celerity.

Knives, forks, glasses—for he intended to share the meal—salt, pepper, bread—in a dozen light-hearted journeys he managed to bring everything he considered necessary; and he was just standing back to admire his own handiwork when the electric bell pealed loudly through the silent flat.

“Here he is, by Jove!” Barry all but dropped the vase of chrysanthemums he was carrying to the table, and setting it down hastily he went to the door, in a flutter of anticipation, of hospitality, and, if the truth be told, of nervousness.

Opening the door:

“Is that you, Owen?” he asked—a superfluous question, for he knew his visitor well enough. “Come in, old chap—you must be soaked—it's a frightful night!”

“Soaked—I should just say I am!” Owen Rose accepted the invitation and stepped inside, shaking himself like a dog as he did so. “Lord, Barry, what a climate! I declare I'd sooner live in Timbuctoo!”

“Oh, the climate's all right—only a bit moist,” returned Barry philosophically. “But come on in—take off your coat and come to the fire. Any luggage?”

“No, I've sent it on to my place.” He drew himself out of his big coat as he spoke. “I thought I'd come up and see you for half an hour first of all. Jolly glad you're at home. You got my wire?”

“Yes, a few minutes ago. Come and have something to eat.” They were in the sitting-room by now. “There's not much, but I hadn't time to kill the fatted calf.”

“Looks like it.” Owen's eyes roamed over the cheerful little supper-table. “Barry, you're a fraud. Chicken, apple-pie—what more can man desire? But I confess I am hungry, though I didn't come for a meal.”

“Well, sit down and let's begin,” said Barry practically. “I dined at my aunt's to-night, and as usual I couldn't get much to eat! She asked me so many questions about ...” he coloured and hurried on ”... about everything, that by the time I'd finished answering them dinner was over!”

“I see.” Owen accepted the plate Barry handed him. “Well, you're looking very fit, Barry. How's things?”

“Oh, fair.” Barry paused in the act of pouring out a whisky-and-soda. “That's to say, I'm still with old Joliffe, and got a rise of screw last quarter.”

“Did you! Well, wait till we get the review going, and see if I don't tempt you away from that dictatorial old boss of yours!”

“Oh, I'll come to you all right,” said Barry gaily. “But in the meantime I'd better hang on in the House of Rimmon, hadn't I? You see ...” He broke off, the colour mounting to his face.

“Of course. You're thinking of Olive. Quite right, too. How is she, Barry? Well?”

“A 1.” Barry fell to on his supper with renewed zest. “Longing to see you, old chap. By the way”—he slid rather dexterously away from the subject—“you promised her a skin or something, didn't you? Have any luck?”

“Luck! Rather! I bagged one tiger who was really magnificent—he'll make a grand hearthrug for you and Olive. He was a splendid brute and I was lucky to get him. Of course, I've had luck all the way through. By gad, Barry, there's nothing like big-game shooting to make one fit! You know what I was like when I set out—and look at me now!”

Thus invited, Barry looked; and he was bound to admit that his friend was right.

Eighteen months previous to this wet night of January, Owen Rose had been so severely injured in a motor-accident that his life had been despaired of; and although he had eventually recovered, he had been left so unlike himself that a return to the normal round was impossible.

There was only one prescription, his doctors agreed, and that was the agreeable, if expensive, one of travel. Only by gaining complete change of scene, complete change, also, of life and routine, could he hope to recapture his old splendid vitality and abundant health; and since luckily Owen was by no means a poor man, the prescription was not so hard to carry out as might have been the case with another patient.

True, this break in his life interfered with several cherished projects. In the first—and most important—place, his marriage must be delayed; and although Miss Vivian Rees was only twenty, and might be considered fully young to be a bride, the delay, to the ardent lover, was vexatious, at the least.

Then the review, to which he had alluded in his conversation with Barry, had perforce to be shelved; and although there was plenty of time for the production of such a literary newcomer, he had felt, at the moment, as though called upon to abandon altogether a beloved ideal.

But the fiat had gone forth; and indeed he had agreed entirely with the medical verdict which pronounced him unfit to shoulder fresh tasks until his old strength should be regained. Therefore, unwillingly, but none the less unflinchingly, he had made preparations to leave England for a year's leisurely travel in the East, starting, as it were, from Bombay and journeying onwards wherever the fancy took him.

It happened that during his travels he fell in with a couple of old schoolfellows who were on the verge of a sporting expedition; and Owen, who by that time was tired of his loafing method of travel, jumped with alacrity at an invitation to join the party.

They had glorious sport; and in the excitement and vigour of the chase Owen regained all his old bodily strength and added thereto a quite fresh store of health and spirits. When at length he turned his face homewards he knew himself to be in such condition as he had never before experienced; and as he sat opposite his host to-night, eating and drinking gaily in this quiet room, he presented to Barry a picture of such perfect health as is rarely met with in the streets of London.

“Yes.” Barry brought his leisurely survey to a close. “You do look uncommonly fit, I suppose you've had a gorgeous time.”

Thus invited, Owen launched forth into an account of some of his most thrilling adventures, and the time flew as he recounted the tale of the glorious nights and days he had lived through, or made his hearer laugh with his stories of the various attendants and their humours.

The clock had chimed the hour of midnight before the friends left the table; and then, sitting by the rosy fire, with pipes alight, each one felt that the moment had come in which a deeper subject might well be introduced.

Yet Barry, at least, would cheerfully have ignored that subject; for he foresaw, with friendship's intuition, that the thing he had to say would effectually mar and break the midnight peace; and as the moment drew near in which he must strike a fatal blow at his friend's serenity he fell into an embarrassed silence very unlike his recent cordiality.

At last it came—the question he had dreaded.

“I say, Barry, have you seen much of Vivian lately?” Although the subject affected the speaker so vitally, he was so calmly, confidently sure of the reply that his tone was quiet and unagitated. Even though Barry paused for a quite perceptible fraction of time before he replied, the other man was too certain of the answer to notice the pause.

“I ... I have seen her—yes.” He spoke without removing his pipe from between his teeth, which might account for the curious thickness of his tone.

“And how is she? All right, I suppose? You see”—Owen laughed rather diffidently—“my return was to be a surprise to her. I wasn't coming for another couple of months, you know, and then all at once I couldn't bear it any longer. I simply had to come.”

“But—haven't you corresponded all this time?”

“Well, not regularly. You know Vivian hates writing letters as much as I do; and I couldn't give her any settled addresses while we were moving about, so we agreed that we would not expect much from each other in that way!”

“I see. But—you have heard from her?”

“Oh, yes, now and then. Of course she had my banker's address and could cable to me from time to time. I got one cable from her in December—on my birthday, it was—and she said she was writing, but I never got the letter.”

“In December. I see.” And so he did—saw a vision of half-unwilling treachery, of hesitating loyalty, of dying faith, which turned his heart sick within him.

“I wrote to her for Christmas, of course, and sent her a card now and then.” He seemed to be excusing his own quite allowable slackness in the matter. “You see, I really had no time for letter-writing, and I knew she would understand and forgive me.”

“You ... did you tell her you were coming home to-day?”

“Yes. I wired to her a week ago.... I half expected she'd come down to meet me.” He laughed shamefacedly. “But you know what her people are. I expect they'd think it frightfully unnecessary to do that. Of course, I'm going there first thing in the morning.”

“You ... you haven't been there yet, then?” Barry hated himself for his fatuity as he put the question.

“No. Fact is, I was a perfect savage when I landed ... a beard half a yard long!” He laughed jovially. “Had to get trimmed up a bit ... but in any case she would probably have been out somewhere or other to-night.”

“Yes. I see.”

“But first thing in the morning, it's a taxi for mine, as the Americans say. And I shall catch her alone, after breakfast, before anyone's about.”

“Yea.” Barry paused, cursing himself for his cowardice, and then plunged recklessly into the quicksand before him. “Owen, old man, have you heard anything about Miss Rees lately?”

“Heard anything?” He laid down his pipe and stared at his questioner. “Why should I hear anything? What is there to hear?”

Before replying Barry rose, and stood leaning against the mantelpiece; and as he looked down on his friend his heart was wrung within him at the cruelty of fate.

“You ... you've not seen her name in the papers?” His throat was dry, but he went on bravely.

“Papers? I've not looked at a newspaper for months. And anyway, what should I see about Vivian in any paper?”

“Only ... I thought you might have done.” Barry was finding his task almost incredibly hard, and his brow was pearled with fine drops of moisture as he stood before his friend.

“What was there to see, Barry?” Owen's voice was quiet—dangerously quiet. “Is there anything wrong with Vivian? Is she—has she been ill?”

“No.”

“Then ... God! man, what are you trying to tell me?” His forced calm was breaking up. “Out with it—whatever it is. Is Vivian—is she dead?”

“No—oh, no.” He spoke hurriedly, thankful that he could at least answer that question in the negative.

“Then ... what is it? Come, Barry”—Owen spoke through his teeth in a hoarse tone quite unlike his usual voice—“if Vivian is not dead, not ill ... what is this wonderful piece of news I might have read in the papers—and did not?”

There was a moment's tense silence, broken only by the crackling of the gay little fire on the hearth.

Then Barry said heavily:

“Miss Rees was married to Lord Saxonby this morning.”

CHAPTER II

For a moment there was a silence fraught with a thousand possibilities. Then Owen sprang from his seat and crossing the intervening space, as it were in a bound, seized his friend savagely by the shoulders.

“Say that again, Barry! Say it if you dare!”

With a fury of which he was unconscious he shook the other man violently; and Barry broke away with an expression of annoyance.

“Good God, Owen, what do you think you're doing? What do you mean by attacking me like this!”

“I'm going to knock your damned head off for telling me a lie!” His tone was dangerous. “How dare you say that Vivian is married when you know she is engaged to me?”

“Look here, Owen.” Barry stood facing him, panting a little. “It's only because you're my pal that I don't retaliate in kind. Any other man who calls me a liar has to go through it, and that's a fact. But as it's you, and as I know I've done the business badly—well”—his voice grew suddenly wistful—“let's sit down and talk it over quietly, shall we?”

Something in his tone made the other man turn cold; and when he replied his manner had lost its vehemence.

“See here, Barry, I'm sorry I attacked you like that. The fact is, I ... I think I can't have understood rightly what you were trying to tell me. You said something just now about Miss Rees being married to Lord Saxonby. Well, what, exactly, did you mean?”

The very quietness with which he spoke made it still more difficult for Barry to answer him.

“I meant just what I said.” He fidgeted nervously with a cigarette as he spoke. “Miss Rees was married—quietly—to Lord Saxonby this morning.”

“Lord Saxonby? You mean that chap who hung round her before I went away?” Owen's voice was studiously self-controlled, but his hand shook as he played with a silver pencil-case on the table before him.

“Yes. That's the man.”

“I see.” For a moment he bent his head over the table, and when he looked up Barry understood that he had accepted the truth at last. “So she's played me false, has she? Married another fellow without troubling to let me know. Well, there's no more to be said, I suppose. I must make up my mind to be the laughing-stock of my friends, to be pointed at by men and women, jeered at in the clubs, as the fellow who was jilted ... thrown over for another fellow!”

He paused; then resumed in a louder tone.

“It's an ugly word, Barry—jilted. And by Jove, it's an ugly thing. Odd how naturally women take to it, isn't it? They won't steal, as a rule—draw the line at murder, but they think nothing of making damned fools of men who are insane enough to believe in them!”

He laughed bitterly; and his eyes looked grim.

“It would have been quite easy to let me know, wouldn't it?” He flung the question at his friend. “A sixpenny wire—even a cable wouldn't have ruined her, would it? And it would have been much less brutal than to let me come home expecting to find a blushing bride waiting for me!”

“I expect she ... she thought you'd see it in the papers,” said Barry rather lamely. “Although it was kept pretty quiet here there were paragraphs about it, of course, and she may have supposed you would see them.”

“Hardly the thing to leave it to chance,” said Owen drily. “After all, when one gets out of an invitation to dinner, one generally sends an excuse; but ...” he broke off, and his eyes blazed suddenly ”... look here, Barry, you know, and I know, that this woman has played a low-down trick on me. I thought her—well, no matter what I thought her—but anyway I know her now for what she is. And I'll be infinitely obliged to you if you'll be good enough to drop the subject now and for evermore.”

“I say, old chap, I'm awfully sorry——”

Barry's impulsive speech got no further, for the other raised his hand to cut it short.

“All right, Barry, we'll take it all as said. Henceforth no such person as Miss Rees—I mean Lady Saxonby—exists for me; and if you'll remember that it will make things easier for us both.”

“Very well, Owen.” Barry felt emboldened to light a cigarette; and then, with a tactlessness born of mental discomfort, he asked a blundering question. “What shall you do now, old man? Have another shot at big game for a bit, or what?”

“Another shot—I say, Barry, why on earth should I go back the moment I've got home? Oh, I see!” He smiled cynically. “You mean town won't be very pleasant for a bit? Well, I daresay it won't, but thank God no one will dare to say much to me!” His jaw squared itself rather aggressively. “But I don't intend to quit. On the contrary, my firm intention is to remain here, do some good work, and, incidentally, marry.”

Barry swung round and faced him, openly surprised.

“Marry? But—whom?”

“Oh, I don't know ... at the moment; but someone. You look astonished, Barry! Why shouldn't I marry? Ah, I see! You think because one woman's turned me down no one else will care to risk her happiness with me! Well, of course my value is considerably depreciated, no doubt; but after all, men are in the minority, and I daresay I'll be able to find some girl to take pity on me!”

“Don't talk like that, Owen!” Barry spoke hastily, and his blue eyes looked rather stern. “You don't want a girl to take you out of pity, do you? That's not much of a basis for a happy marriage, is it?”

“No, Barry.” He took the rebuke well. “I was talking like a fool. But honestly, I do mean to marry—as soon as possible. Oh, I daresay I'm taking it the wrong way, but it seems to me that there's only one thing for a man in my position to do, and that is to show that he's not heart-broken because one unscrupulous woman has treated him badly!”

“That's all very well—but what about the other woman? Are you going to marry the first girl you meet, irrespective of love, or what are you going to do? I can understand your feeling for Miss Rees has changed its nature—love and hate are akin, I know, but still——”

“No, Barry, you're wrong.” He spoke very gently. “I don't hate Vivian. Why should I? She merely exercised her feminine prerogative and changed her mind. Besides, one only hates big things. Vivian isn't big. She's very small, or she'd not have done this thing. If she'd asked me to release her, I'd have done it, and never have uttered a reproach. It's the heartlessness, the unnecessary cruelty of this that hurts me so. I loved her, Barry, and she knew it. Loved her in the right way, in the way a man should love the woman he's going to marry; and my love meant so little to her that she chucked it away without even telling me she was tired of it.”

“But to marry, out of revenge, as it were, is small too.”

“Out of revenge? Come, Barry, what are you thinking of?” Owen rose and spoke with an eerie joviality. “There'll be no revenge about it! Mayn't I marry and settle down like another man? I'll guarantee that the first woman who wants me can have me; and if she plays the game she shan't regret it, for I'll play it too!”

“But where will you look for her?” Barry could not understand this attitude of mind.

“Look for her? Oh, I'll look for her all right—and she'll turn up, never fear!” He moved restlessly. “There's always some woman ready to enter a man's life when he throws the door ajar—and here I'm positively flinging it open, inviting the little dears to come in!”

“But, I say, Owen”—Barry looked anxiously at his friend—“you ... you'll be careful, won't you? I mean, you won't let any twopenny-halfpenny little chorus-girl, or ... or girl out of a shop come in, will you? You see, if you let them all know....”

“Chorus-girls are sometimes worth a good deal more than twopence-halfpenny,” Owen reminded him quietly, “and I daresay a girl out of a shop would make a jolly decent wife. But I wasn't contemplating them when I spoke.”

“Of course not,” assented Barry hastily. “I only meant——”

“You only meant to give me good advice,” said Owen, more kindly than he had yet spoken. “All right, old man, I understand. You must forgive me if I'm cross-grained to-night. You see I've had a shock——”

He broke off abruptly.

“There, I'm not going to whine about it. It's over, done with, and a new chapter's started.” He yawned ostentatiously. “Barry, I shall call upon your good offices as best man yet—unless you hurry up and marry Miss Lynn first.”

“Oh, Olive and I are in no hurry!” He laughed a trifle awkwardly. “You see, she is so young—only just eighteen—and her people won't hear of it for a couple of years.”

“Well, that will soon pass.” He turned towards the door. “I must be off now, Barry—it's late, and I'm pretty fagged. See you in the morning, I suppose?”

“Of course. I say, Owen, sure you won't stay here to-night? I can give you a bed, you know.”

“Thanks awfully, old chap, but I'd rather get home. I've heaps of things to see to. Thanks all the same.”

Still talking, the friends crossed the hall, and Barry unlatched the door of the flat.

“Well, so-long, Barry. Awfully glad to have seen you again.” He gripped the younger man's hand, and Barry understood what the grip implied.

“Good-night, Owen. See you to-morrow.”

Two minutes later Owen had disappeared round a bend in the staircase; and Barry went slowly back into his sitting-room, feeling curiously tired, as though he had been indulging in some violent physical exercise.

“Poor old chap! What a beast that girl is!” He had never liked Miss Rees, and now felt, naturally, that his dislike was justified. “But I hope to goodness he doesn't go and do anything rash. He's got a pretty good head on him, though, and I daresay a lot of this talk is mere bravado.”

He turned off the light and went into his bedroom. On the dressing-table stood a silver frame holding a photograph; and Barry took up the frame and studied the portrait carefully.

“Olive, you'd never play me a trick like that, would you! My God, I hope you don't! It would just about kill me to have to lose faith in you!”

The deep eyes looked up at him candidly, the sweet mouth seemed to smile; and with a sudden blissful certainty that the original of the photograph was as true and straightforward as the picture proclaimed her to be, Barry put down the frame again, and began, whistling, to prepare for bed.

CHAPTER III

A month later Barry relinquished his post as secretary to the man he called “old Joliffe,” and announced himself to be from henceforth at Owen's disposal.

The review to which the latter had alluded was a long-standing ideal of Owen Rose's. From his earliest youth he had been attracted by the journalistic side of life, and seeing no means of editing a London daily at an early age, he had wisely determined to learn the whole business of newspaper journalism from the beginning. At the ago of eighteen he was sub-editor on a big provincial daily; but his brilliant and versatile intelligence soon wearied of the monotony of the life, and he came to London to demand the right of admittance into Fleet Street.

At that time, luckily for himself, he was on terms of friendship with a well-known editor; and what his own talent might have found difficulty in obtaining was placed unexpectedly within his reach. Before he was twenty-five he was well-known in the newspaper world; and since, on his twenty-fifth birthday, he came into possession of the comfortable income left to him by his father many years before, he was able to turn his back definitely on any soul-destroying drudgery and devote his time and brains to better work. Beneath his journalistic ability there was a sound and delicate literary flair; and it had long been his dream to found a magazine which, while neither commonplace nor unduly “precious,” should hit a happy mean between the cheap magazines devoted to more or less poor fiction, and the somewhat pompous reviews which held up the light of learning and research in a rather severe and forbidding fashion.

He would have a little fiction—of the highest order. A comparatively large portion of the review was to be devoted to poetry, both as regarded original verse and the critical appreciation of modern poetry as a whole. Articles on art, music, the drama, were all to find a home in his pages; and there was to be a judicious sprinkling of science to add a little ballast to the lighter freight.

But what he intended to be the striking feature of the review was the tone which was to prevail throughout. It was to be warm, eager, enthusiastic, optimistic. He intended himself to write a series of articles dealing with the future in relation to the past. Each subject—music, literature, humanitarianism, mysticism, and a dozen others—would be treated in turn; and while in no wise belittling the magic inventiveness of an age which has given us an Edison, a Marconi, and a whole host of brilliant explorers, birdmen, and others equally daring and distinguished, he intended to remember always the enormous debt which we of this century owe to the glorious past.

Possibly in Owen's very enthusiasm, in the eager, ardent spirit of his dreams, there was more of the spirit of the future than of the past—but he intended to hold the balance as evenly as possible.

On one point he was firm. While hoping that his review would be in every way a serious contribution to the more valuable literature of the day, the literature which was worth something, he intended it to be strictly non-political. There would be no room within its covers for writers with axes to grind. No acrimonious discussions, thinly-veiled in pedantry, should mar the harmony of the pages; no party cries should echo from the editorial offices; and although he aimed, in some measure, at instructing and uplifting his readers, it was their betterment as human beings, rather than as citizens—so far as the two may be divorced—with which he intended to concern himself.

He was fortunate in his collaborators. At his back he had an old friend of his fathers', a gifted, if somewhat inarticulate, man of letters, who had longed, in his early life, for the opportunity to do what Owen was doing; and was generous enough to feel that, though his own working days were over, he might well use a little of his wealth in helping another man to realize their mutual dream.

Everything was to be on a strictly business-like footing. Owen, as editor, was to receive a moderate salary—moderate because he felt that in the circumstances the backing he received was worth more than any emolument. Also he was sufficiently well-off to waive the matter if he chose until the review was on firm financial ground. Barry, as his personal secretary and general second-in-command, was to receive a generous sum; and the rest of the men, all young, ardent, and fired with a whole-hearted belief in Owen as their chief, were to be remunerated according to their work and ability.

A certain Miss Lucy Jenkins had been selected as typewriter and assistant at what seemed to her the princely sum of forty shillings a week; and by the beginning of February activity at headquarters, a pleasant, though not palatial suite of offices in Victoria Street, Westminster, was in full swing.

The first number of the Bridge was to make its appearance at Easter; and Owen was meditating one morning over the possible inclusion of a little set of verses which had reached him from a hitherto-unknown contributor, when Barry appeared in the doorway leading to his inner sanctum with a worried look in his frank blue eyes.

“Hallo, Barry, anything wrong?” Owen put down the paper he held and looked at his young colleague with a smile.

“Well, it's no end of a bore!” Barry frowned distastefully. “That stupid Jenkins woman has gone and landed herself in Holloway!”

“Holloway?” Owen repeated the word in surprise.

“Yes. I knew she was a Militant Suffragette, but I thought she would have more sense than to go mixing herself up in brawls with the police!”

“And she hasn't?”

“No. On Saturday afternoon”—this was Monday—“she went and marched in a procession of women out to smash windows or something of the sort, got into a row and kicked a bobby in the ribs. The end was she got locked up that night.”

“Where is she now?”

“Brought up before the magistrate this morning and sentenced to fourteen days without an option for violence,” said Barry laconically. “I've just had a note from her mother, who's nearly distracted, begging me to keep her place open for her, but I don't see how we can do that.”

“Certainly not,” said Owen decidedly. “I'll have no militant women on my staff, and the sooner they understand that the better. She wasn't any great treasure, either. She was too fond of revising the stuff she had to type; and her ideas and mine clashed considerably when it came to punctuation.”

“I suppose I must advertise for someone to take her place, then,” said Barry, with a sigh.

“Yes. Get a younger girl this time, if you can. Miss Jenkins had reached the certain—or uncertain—age when women take to militant suffragism. She didn't like being corrected when she made mistakes, and used to argue with me till you'd have thought it was she who ran the office, and not I.”

“All right. I'll do my best.”

“Not too young, though,” said Owen, half-maliciously, “or she'll be thinking about her best boy all day instead of working. Of course that's a bit better than militancy, less upsetting; but women are so incomprehensible when they're in what they are pleased to call love that it's rather difficult to know what they're driving at.”

“Oh, all right!” Owen's flippancy disturbed Barry, and he spoke shortly, whereupon Owen smiled meaningly, and Barry went out of the room rather hurriedly.

Once safe in his own sanctum he lamented the unkind Fate which had given Owen's heart as a plaything into the hands of an unscrupulous woman such as Miss Rees had proved herself to be. Although Owen rarely mentioned the subject, Barry knew well enough that he had not relinquished the idea of a speedy marriage. Once or twice Owen had asked him his opinion of this or that woman with whom they were both acquainted; but so far he had shown no signs of forming any new engagement, though Barry lived in a state of apprehension lest his friend should suddenly announce a more or less undesirable tie.

For Owen, perhaps naturally, shunned the women of his own set. They all knew too much, knew the history of his disastrous engagement too well—were, in many cases, friends of the woman who had jilted him; and were therefore no acquaintances for a man in his mood.

But there were other women, with whom, before his departure for the East, he had been on terms of casual acquaintance; the daughters of City friends, girls who lived in Kensington or Hampstead, girls with brothers who had knocked up against the young men in athletic or journalistic circles; an actress or two; good-hearted, ordinary young women for the most part, commonplace in spite of suburban leanings towards “culture,” and in many cases entirely out of sympathy with the aims and ideals of both Owen and his friend.

As a matter of fact Owen and Barry were too busy during these strenuous days to have time for social delights; but now and then they met one or other of these various girls, visited one of the actresses on a “first night,” dined, reluctantly, in Earl's Court or Belsize Road, and on the following morning Owen would ask Barry, half-teasingly, whether Rose or Sybil or Gwendoline struck him as the most suitable bride for an already jilted bachelor.

Barry never took up the subject, showed plainly by his manner that he did not like the jest; but the occasional queries went to show that the idea of marriage was still in his friend's thoughts; and Barry was now and again seriously uneasy lest some designing woman—that was the way he put it—should make the vague possibility into an accomplished fact.

And then, just when the idea seemed to be fading, lost in the pressure of work, the interest of bringing forth the first realization of a lifelong dream, the woman herself—but she was not designing—came.

CHAPTER IV

Miss Antonia Gibbs came from the typewriting office with excellent testimonials. Though but eighteen years of age, she was vouched for as a steady, conscientious worker, well-educated and of exceptional intelligence. Quick, accurate, and possessed of a capital memory, she would seem to be the ideal typist for an office such as that presided over by Owen Rose; and after perusing the certificates and other documents forming what one might call her dossier, Owen had really no choice but to engage the prodigy.

When she received the letter announcing the fact Miss Gibbs danced with delight.

“Two pounds a week! Think of it!” Thus she besought her cousin Fanny, a rather full-blown young woman employed in a “drapery-house” at Brixton. “And easy hours—with an hour off for lunch! Isn't it lovely!”

“You'll have the office 'commish' to pay,” her cousin reminded her, “and I know all about those short hours! Sound well, but they generally want overtime out of you—without paying for it either!”

“Do they?” Antonia's joy was momentarily checked. Then she recovered her spirits. “Anyway, even then it's a good post, and I can easily pay the commission out of two pounds!”

“Yes, of course.” Fanny, whose natural optimism was somewhat impaired by her experience in drapers' shops, cheered up also. “It's a grand opportunity for you, Toni, and mind you make the most of it.”

“Rather,” returned Toni gaily. “I'm to start to-morrow, so this is my last free night. Aren't you glad some people are coming in to tea?”

“Yes.” Fanny, recalled to the immediate present, began her preparations for the tea-party. “Josh'll be pleased to hear of your luck, Toni; he's real fond of you, you know.”

“Is he?” Toni, pulling off her flannel blouse, spoke a trifle absently.

“Yes. If I weren't fond of you myself I declare I'd be jealous! Don't know how it is, all the boys seem to take to you straight away, Toni, and you don't care a pin for any of 'em!”

“Perhaps that's why,” said Toni cheerfully, voicing a truth without in the least realizing it. “After all, who is there to care for? Jack Brown, or young Graves, or that funny little Walter Britton out of Lea and Harper's?” She plunged her glowing face into a basin of cold water as she spoke.

“No. I s'pose they're not quite your sort.” Fanny stared thoughtfully at her cousin. “I don't know how it is, Toni—you are my cousin, your father was Dad's own brother—and yet you're as different from us as—as chalk from cheese.”

She in her turn had uttered a profound truth. Between Toni and the rest of the commonplace lower-middle-class household was a great gulf fixed, a gulf which was the more inexplicable because it was clearly visible to the parties on either side of the chasm.

Red-faced, brawny Fred Gibbs, the butcher, his equally red-faced, though slightly more refined wife, and their several sons and daughters, belonging, most of them, to the category of “fine” boys and girls, were a good-humoured, kindly people enough; yet between them and the pretty, dark-eyed Antonia there was not the slightest vestige of resemblance, either in looks, manners, or disposition.

Not that Toni gave herself airs. On the contrary, she was the most cheerful and light-hearted little soul in the world. She flung herself bodily into all the family's interests and pursuits, helped her uncle with his books and her aunt with her housework, was Fanny's sworn confidante and ally in all matters of the heart. The younger children adored her for her good looks, her vivacity, her high spirits; and even the flashes of rage which now and then marred her usually sunny temper were fascinating in their very fire.

Yet—with it all she was not, never would be, one of them. Fanny was inclined to put it down to her foreign blood—for Toni's mother had been Italian. The elder Gibbs fancied the girl's superior education was responsible—for Toni had been to a real “Seminary for Young Ladies,” in contradistinction to the Council School attended by her cousins; while as for Toni herself, though she was as fully conscious as the rest that she was “different, somehow,” she could never say, with any certainty, in what the difference lay.

Perhaps a psychologist would have found Antonia's position an interesting one. Briefly, her history was this.

The Gibbs were North-Country people, a good old yeoman family who had been in service with an older and more aristocratic people in the county of Yorkshire. The family, however, had begun, a few generations back, to die out. Instead of the usual lusty sons, only daughters had been born to most of the Gibbs, and they in their turn married and died, in the nature of things relinquishing their own name, until there were few left.

So the race dwindled, until old Matthew Gibbs and his two sons Fred and Roger were the last representatives of the old stock; and to the father's bitter disappointment neither boy would consent to settle down on the farm and carry out the tradition of the family. Fred, always a pushing, commercially-minded lad, found farming too slow and unprofitable to satisfy him, and he took service in a butcher's shop at York, as a first step towards his goal, London, in which city he eventually made his home, married a Cockney girl, and settled down for the rest of his prosperous life.

The second son, Roger, early showed a desire to travel; and though his father would have kept him at home, he realized that after all youth will be served, and let the boy go out into the world as soon as he had passed his eighteenth birthday.

Being possessed of unlimited confidence, exceptional strength and a light-hearted determination to make something of life, Roger was successful from the start. As is often her way with those from whom she means, later, to exact a heavy toll, Fate smiled upon the good-looking young man who faced her so gaily. He got one post after another: secretary, mechanic, groom—for he was equally clever with hands and head. In this or that capacity he travelled quite extensively for some years, and finally, having a natural bent for languages, came to Rome in the position of courier to a rich American family. It happened that the daughter of the house had an Italian maid, a beautiful, refined girl from Southern Italy; and the young people quickly fell in love. In spite of his apparent irresponsibility Roger had saved a little money, and within six months he had married his Italian girl and carried her off to live in a village on the side of a mountain not far from Naples, where for four blissful years they lived in perfect contentment.

Old Matthew Gibbs, having in his later years sustained heavy agricultural losses, was dead, and there was nothing to call Roger back to England. He much preferred, indeed, to remain in the South, and as their wants were simple he and his wife were able to live quite comfortably on Roger's own little bit of money and the few lire he made through the kindly offices of the village priest, who liked the gay young Englishman and put many odd jobs—translation, the acting as interpreter and guide to tourists, and other things of the sort—in his way.

When Toni came to complete the trio, their happiness was complete; and for three years after her birth the little house on the hill-side was the home of joy and love and all the pleasant domestic virtues and graces.

When the child was three years old, the elder Antonia, herself only a girl, died, after twenty-four hours' fever; and in one black hour Roger paid for all the sunny days with which Fortune had so lavishly endowed him.

When at length he summoned up resolution to face the future he determined, with a passionate desire to carry out his young wife's unspoken entreaty, to devote himself to his child; and with this intention he stayed on bravely in the little home from which the sunshine had departed.

For nearly six years they lived together in the tiny village near Naples; and gradually the pall began to lift from the young man's spirit, and the sunshine and the flowers, the blue sky and sea, and the snow-capped mountains made their appeal once again to the warm, ardent soul which sorrow had darkened.

During these six years father and daughter had lived frugally, almost as the peasants lived; yet with a daintiness, an order, which were unknown to the peasants. The little Antonia—Toni, as they called her—grew straight and strong as she played on the mountain slopes, or ate the simple meals of grapes and bread and goat's flesh provided for her by the old housekeeper, Fiammetta, who ruled both the pretty child and the handsome young father with a rule of iron which yet made life a very well-ordered and gracious existence.

But when Toni had almost reached her ninth birthday the change came. The good old priest died; and with the death of his sole friend Roger Gibbs found life in the village impossible.

Truth to tell, it was a marvel he had borne it so long. Only a numbing blow such as he had received could have stunned his faculties into acquiescence with this sleepy, uneventful existence; and now, suddenly, his soul awoke from its peaceful slumber and demanded life, and yet more life.

Italy became all at once unendurable. The nomad spirit was aroused, and nothing would satisfy the man but a fresh start in life's pilgrimage.

His little daughter, too, must be educated; and although he loved the child with all the concentrated passion of a man who has lost the woman of whom the child is his only memento, he yet felt that the time had come when he must shake himself free from the trammels of domesticity and live once again the life of a man in some free, wild, adventure-filled land.

A month after Father Pietro's death Roger and his little daughter Antonia were in England. The father's first object was to seek out his brother Fred and see if he and his wife would take charge of the child for a short time; and this he found both Fred and his comely spouse very willing to do. There were other children in the home who were only too ready to welcome the pretty little Toni; and after a stay of some weeks in the noisy Brixton house Roger Gibbs had bidden his little daughter farewell, and had gone forth once more, this time as assistant purser on a liner, a post to which one of his former employers had assisted him opportunely. It was a chance to see more of the world, and the man embraced it gladly enough, though it would certainly prove irksome in the end.

After that it was long before Toni saw her father again. At regular intervals he sent money for her maintenance; and she grew up with her cousins, attending the big Council School in the next street with them, and sharing in all the ups and downs of the Gibbs family.

When she was thirteen Roger returned from an expedition to Peru, in the course of which he had amassed a respectable sum of money, and father and daughter met again, a meeting fraught, on Roger's side, with something like disappointment.

Four years of London life had transformed the olive-skinned, dreamy-eyed child into a pale, long-legged girl who, although she had not lost her soft Southern voice, used the colloquialisms of street and playground with unpleasing fluency. True, she wore her shabby clothes with an air of grace, but contact with other children had developed her into a sharp, somewhat pert gamine, who was reputed quick at her lessons, but equally, and less meritoriously, quick with her tongue.

Within her father's mind disillusionment reigned supreme. Naturally, it was not the fault of the child that she had taken on so quickly the colour of her environment; nor, fortunately, was it too late to overlay those traits with other and more pleasing characteristics. But thinking of the soft-eyed, gentle, loving Italian girl he had married, Roger resolved that her child should have another chance before it was too late; and with that object in mind he scoured the neighbourhood until he found what suited him, a quiet, old-fashioned ladies' school, conducted by two prim but kindly women who appeared to him likely to have the influence he sought.

The Misses Holland were interested in his story, pleased with the idea of softening and refining the child, half-Italian, half-Londoner, and made things easy for the bronzed and handsome father; with the result that from that time Toni's connection with the Council School ceased, and she became a boarder, on surprisingly low terms, at the aforesaid School for Young Ladies; where she remained until she was close on seventeen.

These years were the turning point of Antonia's life. Here, in company with twenty other girls, somewhat above her in station, she learnt, among other things, the virtues of gentleness, quietness in voice and movement, unselfishness, and many kindred things; and those years of happy, monotonous toil, broken only by pleasant, friendly treats, or gentle, old-fashioned punishments, were full of use and value to the growing girl.

On her seventeenth birthday she was to leave school for good; and it had been settled that her father was then to return to England and make a home for her—a hope which the girl had hugged to her heart through all these quiet years.

But on the very day which should have seen her emancipation something happened.

The liner on which Roger was hastening back to England, after a year in the East, went down in a mighty gale off Gibraltar; and Roger Gibbs was among the drowned.

       * * * * *

Of course all hope of that little home was at an end now. No more remittances could be looked for, the store of money left for her education was all spent; and though it seemed incredible that Roger should have made no provision for his daughter's future, such indeed proved to be the fact.

Doubtless he had intended to settle down, to obtain some post in England; but as things turned out there was nothing left for Antonia. Let it be said at once that her relations behaved well. The Misses Holland, too, would have taken her to help in the school but for the unexpected advent of a needy niece of their own; but from the first Antonia set her face against teaching.

She did not like it, would rather go in for business, she said; and the upshot of it all was that after some time she managed to obtain a post in a large typewriting office in order to learn the work, after which she was required to give her services for a period of twelve months for a nominal salary in return for the teaching and business training bestowed upon her.

It was not a very good bargain; but she closed with it in lieu of a better opening; and when, in a few weeks from the date of her aunt's tea-party, she would be free to earn her living in her own way, she would be able to defray the expense to which that same aunt had been put during her time of apprenticeship.

       * * * * *

So rapid is thought that between the beginning and ending of the task of changing her outdoor shoes and stockings for slightly better ones, Antonia's quick mind had flashed back over those years which had, so she owned to herself, made all the difference; but not for worlds would she have let her cousin know that she recognized any such difference.

“Different! Not a bit of it!” She looked up and spoke with more warmth than usual. “And as for the boys liking me—well, you're engaged, and I'm not!”

“Well, yes, there is that to be said!” Fanny regarded with affection the cheap gold ring, set with imitation rubies, which adorned her plump hand. “But you know, Toni, you could got Mr. Dowson any minute if you tried!”

“Mr. Dowson!” Toni, occupied in brushing out her black hair, tossed her head with a little foreign gesture peculiar to her. “Why, Fan, how could I marry Mr. Dowson! He's very nice, and good-hearted, but his chest is narrow, and he's going bald!”

“Well, that's not his fault,” returned Fanny practically, “and it's not with age either, because he's quite young. I expect it's with studying so hard.”

“I daresay—but still ... of course he's clever,” owned Toni rather grudgingly, “he must be, to be a dentist, but—no, Fan, I'm not going to marry Mr. Dowson, so there!”

“Oh, all right.” Fanny was a philosopher. “You know your own business best. Will you do me up, dear, and tell me how you like my frock? I think myself it's rather striking.”

Thus besought, Toni stuck the last pin-casually in her hair and came to give her assistance in the matter of “doing up.”

Miss Frances Gibbs' dress was composed of a bright rose-pink voile, bought cheaply at a sale, ornamented with a sash of ribbon of an equally vivid hue of violet; and striking it certainly was, in the sense that one felt inclined to collapse at sight of it. Miss Gibbs' figure being of the order which dressmakers call “full,” the effect was distinctly startling; and as Fanny had carefully arranged her abundant hair in as many rolls as she could possibly manage, it is to be inferred that she presented a more overpowering effect than ever.

Although, possibly owing to her Italian blood, Toni herself had a weakness for bright colours, on other people, this daring juxtaposition of pink and violet was a trifle bizarre even for her taste; and she looked critically at Fanny as the latter paraded under the gas jet in order to show off the “creation” to its best advantage.

“Well?” Fanny's tone was anxious; and Antonia flung scruple to the winds.

“It's lovely, Fan, and you look scrumptious in it!” She hastily produced from a paper bag a bunch of violets she had intended for her own adornment. “Here, let me pin these in for you, they will finish you off beautifully.”

“But they're yours, Toni!”

“Oh, never mind me!” Toni laughed recklessly. “I've not got a Josh waiting for me downstairs—and anyway, I don't much care to wear flowers, they die so quickly, poor dears.”

Her own frock, an oft-washed white muslin, was donned in a second. A bright green ribbon round her waist, a pair of greenstone earrings put in beneath the clustering black hair, giving her a quaintly picturesque look, and Antonia was ready for the evening's jollity.

As the cousins ran downstairs together, an appetising smell of roasting chickens came to their nostrils, and Toni sniffed appreciatively.

“I wish Uncle Fred had a birthday every week! Isn't it fun having people in and playing games afterwards!”

“Rather, but I wish we'd been going to the theatre!”

“Well, so do I,” conceded Toni, “but anyhow this is better than one of our usual dull evenings!”

Half an hour later the feast was in full progress. The table in the little “front room” literally groaned with good things; indeed, so liberally was it provided that half-way through the meal the butcher insisted on removing the vase of chrysanthemums which stood proudly in the middle on a green paper mat, alleging as he did so that “them flowers took up a sight too much room”—an axiom to which he stuck in spite of his daughter's remonstrances.

Besides the family there were three guests. Mr. Joshua Lee who was engaged to Fanny, naturally had the place of honour beside her; and from that vantage ground he played the part of prospective son-in-law to perfection, removing the plates, running about in search of a mislaid salt-cellar, and generally acquitting himself, so Fanny thought proudly, like a perfect gentleman.

The other two guests were less busy. One of them, Mr. Britton, sat beside his hostess and carried on an animated conversation with her as to the nature and effect of the various patent medicines they had mutually sampled; while the remaining guest, Mr. Dowson, sat next to Antonia, and endeavoured, without much success, to attract her attention to himself.

Halfway through one of his most intimate speeches Toni interrupted him ruthlessly.

“Aunt Jean, where's Lu?”

“Got smacked and sent to bed for stealing jam,” her youngest cousin informed her unctuously. “My! She did howl! I guess Ma thumped her pretty well!”

“I did whip her rather hard,” confessed Mrs. Gibbs half-apologetically. “I was real vexed with her when I found her with her fingers in the jar! But there, she's been wanting a smacking long enough, and I expect it'll do her good,” she finished up cheerfully.

“Poor Lu! And she'd been so looking forward to to-night!” Toni's soft heart was wrung for the culprit. “Did she have any tea, Auntie?”

“Not she. I sent her straight off to bed.” Mrs. Gibbs' tone was uneasy now. “And she didn't eat no dinner to-day, she was that excited!”

“Oh, poor Lu! Can't I take her up something, Aunt Jean?”

Mrs. Gibbs appeared to consider the question, though everyone at the table knew very well that her mother-heart had relented towards her darling long ago.

“Well, I don't mind if you do take her just a bite,” she said presently; and amid much laughter and sympathetic joking a tray was fitted out with various delicacies and entrusted to the willing hands of Antonia.

Up she went, finding Lu's room in darkness, Lu herself lying sullenly awake, refusing to be comforted.

Her plump little person had strongly resented the force of her mother's stern hand; but her vanity was more severely hurt by the fact that the visitors downstairs would know both the cause and the method of her punishment. Therefore she turned away and pretended to be asleep; but Toni's gentle hand pulling down the clothes, Toni's soft voice murmuring of forgiveness and compensation were too much for the child.

She sat up, disclosing the tear-stains on her round cheeks in the light of the candle Toni carried, and allowed herself to be comforted with alternate bites of chicken and sips of lemonade.

“That's better!” Toni gave her a plate of trifle, and brushed back the tangled curls from the hot little forehead. “Now eat that up and then I must run away. They're waiting for me, you know, so when you've finished you must give me a kiss and go straight to sleep.”

“Yes, Toni.” Lu lay obediently down, soothed by the girl's kind tone. “I'll go to sleep all right if ... if Ma'll come up and say good-night!”

“Of course she will!” Toni smiled at the child's involuntary clinging to the mother who had punished her. “I'll tell her you're waiting—and now I must fly! Good-night, Ducky, sleep well!”

She kissed the child, her eyes very soft as she bent over the bed; and then, picking up the tray, she ran swiftly downstairs again and re-entered the room where tea was rapidly drawing to an end.

“How kind-hearted you are, Miss Toni,” said Mr. Dowson admiringly as she slipped into her seat beside him. “Lots of people would have said the kiddy deserved to be whipped and sent to bed.”

“I daresay she did, but that didn't make it any better—for her,” laughed Toni, with a vivid remembrance of her aunt's corrective powers. “I know what Auntie's whippings are like, you see, and they're no joke!”

“You don't mean to say Mrs. Gibbs ever dared to ... to punish you, Miss Antonia?” His pale-blue eyes were aghast at the thought of such sacrilege.

“Oh, rather!” Toni laughed joyously at his face of horror. “She's whipped me heaps, of times.... I expect I deserved it, too, for I can assure you I was never a pattern child!”

“I ... I would like to see anyone venture to lay a hand on you,” said Mr. Dowson earnestly—too earnestly for Toni's liking. “Miss Antonia, if you ... if you would only give me the right ...”

Bang! An hilariously-disposed little Gibbs had exploded a cracker in the young man's ear; and Mr. Dowson, blushing to the very edge of his extremely high collar, subsided rather wrathfully.

Much to Antonia's relief the party rose from the table a moment later; and with a stern determination in her mind not to allow Mr. Dowson another opportunity to make the avowal which she knew very well trembled on his lips, Toni bustled gaily about, helping to clear the table and make things ready for the evening's festivity.

Mr. Dowson's pale eyes followed her about rather wistfully. To him the white-clad, black-crowned little figure represented a dream—the fulfilment, rather, of an ideal which he had never dared to hope would materialize in his own hard-working, rather grey and sordid life.

Although, thanks to a kindly patron, Leonard Dowson had been able to carry out his desire and qualify as a dentist, he was under no delusion as to his social position. He came of humble, illiterate folk, and he knew well enough that in a fashionable, high-class practice he would be altogether out of place.

He set up his surgery, therefore, in the populous neighbourhood of Brixton; and now, after five years' strenuous toil, he was beginning to pay his way, beginning also to dream of a wife to bear him company in the dingy, narrow house in which he dwelt.

That Antonia Gibbs would ever consent to be his wife he almost feared to believe. He wooed her persistently, quietly, bringing her books—which she seldom opened—an occasional bunch of flowers, or, more rarely still, a box of sweets of some variety which his professional soul warranted harmless, for Mr. Dowson was conscientiousness itself, and nothing would have persuaded him to place his lady-love's little white teeth in jeopardy, even though by such means she might be brought into contact with him.

For her sake he scraped and saved, denying himself the least luxury, so that if she came to him he could at least offer her a decent home; and every act of petty self-sacrifice was sweet to him because it was endured for her.

Yet Toni never gave him a second thought. To her, in her vivid youth, Mr. Dowson, with his thirty-five years, his prematurely bald head, his narrow chest, was a being of another race than her own. She knew—the minx—that the man was deeply and quietly in love with her, but with the unconscious cruelty of youth she ignored his suffering, and possibly despised him ever so little that he continued to sigh for something which he ought to have known was, for him, unattainable.

Yet to-night, her spirits raised by her unexpected good-fortune, Toni showed herself more than usually bewitching; and although she managed to stave off the declaration which still trembled on the young man's lips, she played games with him in the most friendly fashion, and bade him good-night at last with so sweet a smile that he almost fell upon his knees then and there and kissed the slim little feet in their cheap patent shoes!

He did not do it, fortunately. He retained just sufficient common sense to know that the proceeding would have annoyed his divinity; and instead he merely squeezed her hand and murmured a few inarticulate words which meant a good deal more than they contrived to convey.

Then, arriving at home, he went to bed—and dreamed of Toni.

But Toni's dreams—the rainbow dreams of happy youth—were of a very different quality.

CHAPTER V

Precisely at nine o'clock on the following morning Antonia presented herself at the office of the new review; and was forthwith conducted to the editor's room.

Here Owen and Barry were waiting for her; and at the sight of the trim little figure in the doorway the faces of both men brightened.

In truth Toni was pleasant to look upon. She had taken off her hat and coat in the little ante-room, and as she stood there in her black frock, with its demure little white turn-down collar, she looked very young, very shy, and if the truth must be told, very pretty. Whereupon Barry, who loved all pretty girls in a harmless, kindly fashion, rejoiced exceedingly; while even Owen, to whom things feminine were at present anathema, owned to himself that she was certainly more attractive to have about the place than her sour-faced predecessor.

It was Barry who put her at her ease, of course. Not being troubled with shyness he greeted her in friendly fashion, bade her come in, and pointed out to her the chair, behind the typewriter, which she was expected to fill.

Yes, she said, in answer to questioning, she was used to a Remington. No, she had never been connected with journalism before. Yes, she was well up in ordinary office work, and—in answer to Owen, this—she knew pretty well the rules of composition, grammar, etc.

“That's good.” Owen spoke formally, and Toni decided instantly that she liked Mr. Raymond the better of the two. “Well, I have here an article I want you to type at once, and then—can you read proof?”

Blushing, she owned her inability to do so. Privately, she was not at all sure what he meant, but dread of Miss Hardy's wrath should she be returned to the office marked “Incompetent” forced her to add quickly:—

“But I'm sure I could learn if—if you wouldn't mind showing me how to do it.”

“I'm sure you could.” Barry spoke kindly and she turned to him with a feeling of relief. “When you have typed that article for Mr. Rose I'll show you how, and then you'll manage all right.”

“Teach her now,” advised Rose, looking up from the manuscript he was scanning. “This stuff wants a bit of revising, and you might as well do something for your living, Barry, you lazy wretch.”

Barry smilingly disclaimed any right to the title.

“I'm ready to work as hard as anyone,” he said gaily.

“But as I'm only considered fit to do the theatrical criticisms and play office-boy to you, Owen, naturally I find time to make holiday now and then. Well, Miss ... er ...”

“Gibbs.” She supplied him with the name as he hesitated.

“Gibbs? You won't mind being known as 'Our Miss Gibbs,' will you?” His tone was free of all offence, and Toni smiled in response. “Now, here's a chair for me, and if only our chief will hold his peace for half an hour, I'll soon put you wise, as the Yankees say.”

He sat down beside her, and pulling a couple of galley proof-sheets towards him, began to initiate her into the mysteries of “reading.” For all his laughing manner he was an excellent teacher; and after twenty minutes of his clear and lucid exposition the girl felt she was beginning to grasp her lesson thoroughly. She proved, too, wonderfully quick at detecting mistakes, and Barry, who had petitioned the heads of the office they had selected not to send him any Council School product, was pleased to find that her spelling was admirable, her grammar passable, and her memory retentive.

As to the meaning which the article they were correcting conveyed to her, Barry was a little doubtful.

It was a short summary, by a famous Catholic writer, of some of the lesser-understood aspects of mysticism; and Barry suspected that a good deal of it was Greek to her, though she did her best to answer him intelligently when he questioned her, rather artfully, on the correct reading of a somewhat involved sentence.

As a matter of fact, Toni was wondering inwardly what on earth it was all about. Her education, though sound so far as it went, had been thoroughly old-fashioned; and at this period of her development it is to be feared there were whole tracts of mind and brain left vacant—for Toni belonged, by adoption at least, to a class who read only for amusement and occupation, and are not in the least anxious to try their mental teeth on any abstract theories or philosophies of life. She was at present all for the concrete. Things seen and known were of importance, things unseen were alike uninteresting and incredible. The abstract virtues were all very well, but life was much too vivid and important to allow itself to be ousted by dreams and speculations.

Something of this Barry, who had an almost femininely swift intuition, guessed as he sat beside Toni on this first morning; but Toni was much too intent on her work to wonder what he thought of her; and by the time she had done a little typing, taken down a few letters, and read a short proof all by herself, it was one o'clock, and she was dismissed in search of lunch.

When she returned, nearly an hour later, she found Owen alone, studying a dummy copy of the review; and seeing she was interested, Owen handed it over for her to see.

“The Bridge.” She quoted the title a little dubiously. “Is that what you call it? But—what does it mean?”

Taking it back into his own hands, Owen pointed with a pencil to the design on the cover.

“Here is the Bridge, you see, and this stream of people passing over it symbolize the present generation. This side of the bridge represents the past, from which the present comes; this, over the bridge, is the future, towards which the pilgrims are hastening. The idea is to bridge the gulf between past and future, between the old worlds and the new; and with that in mind we try, while never neglecting the storehouse of the past, to point to the future, with all its wonderful, and as yet unwon, rewards and discoveries.”

She murmured a word or two, and he went on with a note of enthusiasm in his voice.

“Personally, I look to the future with confidence. Some people say the golden age of poetry, of music and letters generally, is past; but I don't agree. I think that there will be a fresh Renaissance presently, that there will be found fresh hands to pass on the sacred torch ... there's a flood of brilliant youth let loose in the world just now; and every bit of help the Bridge can give is at the service of that marvellous band.”

He broke off suddenly, the light of the visionary gleaming in his eyes; but seeing, with a slight pang of disappointment, that his outburst was unintelligible to his hearer, he threw down the paper and laughed.

“There, Miss Gibbs, I have finished! Don't start me on the subject unless you're ready to be bored. Talk to Barry about it—he is able to look upon the Bridge quite sanely, as a means of providing bread and butter; but I'm afraid I'm a bit of a fanatic.”

Toni, uncertain of her ground, but desperately anxious to appear intelligent, murmured something shyly, and Rose pulled out his watch with a smile.

“After two already! Well, Miss Gibbs, I'm off for lunch. You might just sort these papers out a bit, will you? We seem to have let things get into rather a muddle.”

“I'll do it at once. There would be plenty of room for everything if some of these papers wore tidied up.”

“Yes, I suppose you're right.” Owen, who loved order, but was too impatient to preserve it, spoke dubiously. “Of course some of those papers are done with, but you wouldn't know which to keep, would you?”

“Perhaps Mr. Raymond would help me?”

Owen's face cleared.

“Of course—do the idle young beggar good. All right, Miss Gibbs, he shall give you a hand this afternoon when he gets back. He's an awfully good sort, you know, though I pretend to rag him. He's as clever as you please, and with it all as obliging and unspoilt as possible. Well, I'd better go. You can get along all right, can you?”

Receiving her reply, he lit a cigarette and went out, assuring himself that so far she promised well.

“Pretty little thing, and anxious to please us. Shallow, I expect, emotional probably, and not brainy enough to appreciate the symbolism of the Bridge. Well, we don't want too brilliant a typist, after all—Miss Jenkins and her 'culture' were a bit trying at times!”

And then meeting by chance an old friend who insisted on carrying him off to lunch, Owen speedily forgot that such a person as Miss Antonia Gibbs existed in the world.

CHAPTER VI

It did not take Miss Fanny Gibbs very long to discover that her cousin's new post held for her an interest beyond that which an unusually congenial situation might be expected to hold.

In Miss Gibbs' world one's “job” was generally of very secondary importance to one's private affairs; and the fact is not to be wondered at when one remembers that the life of the average shop or business girl can by no manner of means be called either pleasant or exciting.

Hitherto Toni had been fully in accord with her cousin's opinion. Although the robust, if promiscuous, flirtations in which Fanny, before her engagement, had indulged freely had never appealed to the more fastidious Toni, she had always been quite ready to join in any fun which might be going. She had eaten sweets gaily in the cheap seats of theatre or picture-palace, had made one at the many informal and harmless little gatherings for which Fanny had a taste; and had cheerfully and quite normally grumbled if detained at the office one moment longer than she considered fair.

But of late Antonia had altered strangely; and Fanny's shrewd eyes noted the change almost from the first.

To begin with, Toni was always in a fidget to get to work. Miss Gibbs took her annual week's holiday just then, and had plenty of time to note her cousin's behaviour; and the way in which Toni swallowed her breakfast and clad herself for the start was a revelation to one who knew her former dilatory nature.

Toni had always been careful of her appearance—more so than her cousin considered at all necessary; but now she was absolutely ridiculous, so thought Fanny, with her new Peter-Pan collars and her fussy attention to her pretty hands, set off by tiny lace cuffs to match the collars. Her black frock, only a year old, was perfectly good and serviceable yet; but the extravagant creature must needs make herself another one in her spare time, and never had she been so particular about the cut, nor so incessant in her demands on Fanny for a helping hand with the “trying-on.” She bought herself a new hat, too, a little soft affair in which she looked perfectly delicious; and as the days went by it seemed to Fanny that her cousin was growing prettier and more attractive every week, with a still more bewitching colour in her rounded cheeks, and a still more sparkling light in her Southern eyes.

Yet even her woman's wit could not fathom the mystery of Toni's new joy in life. When interrogated concerning her employers, Toni was always vague. That there were two of them Fanny knew; but from Toni's extremely colourless description, Miss Gibbs gathered that neither was at all what the girls called interesting; and Mr. Rose, at least, almost middle-aged. (Heaven knows what flight of fancy on the part of Toni—Toni, whose magic romance was the shyest, most delicate fantasy in the world—was responsible for that fallacy!)

That Barry was younger Fanny understood; but so lightly did Toni touch upon his kindness that Fanny could not be accused of density in her conception of him as a nonentity in whom her little cousin could take no interest.

Yet that someone was responsible for Toni's sudden outburst of new beauty Miss Gibbs felt assured; and it gradually dawned upon her that there were other men about the place to whom Miss Antonia Gibbs might well appeal.

When questioned about these others, the subordinates who were workers like herself, Antonia at first stared, then coloured impatiently, and finally laughed, with a queer note of impishness in her laughter which puzzled Fanny more than ever.

That she, who was privileged to breathe the same atmosphere as Owen Rose, could be supposed even to realize the existence of any outsider was in itself absurd, if not almost insulting; but Toni was quick to see that here was the opportunity she sought to conceal her wonderful, presumptuous dream.

For she was in love—she knew it now—wildly, deliriously, gloriously in love with Owen. To her he was the embodiment of all that was most noble, most god-like in man. His voice was music, his commands gifts, his rare vexation as the frown of Jove. She trembled and turned pale at his footstep, and when he spoke to her suddenly her heart throbbed and her colour came and went until she felt as though he must observe her emotion.

In a word, she was in love; and when it is remembered that on one side of her Toni was purely of the South—the glowing, ardent, passionate South—it is not to be wondered at that this new emotion dominated her whole being to the exclusion of all else.

Her love, indeed, was pathetic in its young ignorance. Anyone could have told her that she was wasting her treasure, that it was the act of a fool to pour out her priceless gift at the feet of one who did not want it, who would consider it a mere presumption.

Her place in Owen's life was that of a servant, a subordinate; and her common sense should have told her that in that light alone would Owen inevitably behold her. Vaguely she realized this—knew well enough that he never thought of her save as his more or less useful secretary, but after all, she could not be expected to reason out this thing too closely. Its very vagueness, indeed, lent it charm. Her love was veiled, as it were, in a most delicate, most diaphanous mist, which took from it all earthliness, and left it intangible, magical as some gift from fairyland. So far, no hint of desire had entered into it. It was all unselfish, girlish adoration, an almost childish reverence for one immeasurably her superior; and though she made her new dress and adjusted her little bits of muslin and lace with scrupulous care, it was not so much in the hope that she might find favour in Owen's eyes as in the personal longing to make herself more worthy of the love within her.

It never entered her head that Owen would suspect her secret. Indeed, the whole affair was so dream-like, of so unsubstantial, so gossamer a lightness, that merely to speculate upon her romance would have been to shatter it, as one might put a finger through a fairy cobweb.

She loved—and at present that was enough. To be with Owen daily, to sit in the same room, breathe the same air, obey his wishes, help him with his work, was all she desired; and being at heart an incurable little optimist, she was content to weave her rose-coloured dreams, spin her shining web, with no anxiety about the future to shadow and darken her thoughts.

Yet Barry, with his quick intuition, was uncannily aware of the girl's infatuation; and it was Barry who, through his very knowledge of her secret, precipitated the inevitable revelation.

       * * * * *

One day during Toni's absence for lunch the two men were sitting together in Owen's room when Owen suddenly threw a large unmounted photograph across to his friend.

“What's this, Owen? Oh—your house at Willowhurst, isn't it? By Jove, it's a lovely place—I wonder you don't live there.”

The moment he had spoken he would willingly have recalled his words, but Owen gave him no time.

“You forget—I was going to live there!” His smile was forced. “The people who have had it for years cleared out last October, and it was all put in apple-pie order then, in anticipation of my wife's arrival.”

Barry, red and embarrassed, said nothing, but examined the photograph with unnecessary minuteness.

“Seems a pity the place should stand idle,” went on Owen musingly. “It's a jolly old house, and been in the family for centuries—built before the river became fashionable—and the grounds are really fine; some gorgeous old trees and shrubs in them.”

“How far from town?” Barry put the first question that suggested itself.

“Oh, not far—twenty or thirty miles. You can get up easily in a car or by a fast train. Greenriver—that's the house—is really charmingly situated, with big grounds at the back, and the river just beneath the house.”

“You lived there as a youngster?”

“Yes. When my father died my mother couldn't bear to live there, and we let the place. After her death I could have gone back, but somehow I didn't want to. It was only when I met Vivian——”

He broke off suddenly, and springing to his feet, began to pace up and down.

“By Jove, Barry, what fools we men make of ourselves over women! Just because Vivian was kind, smiled on me, seemed really interested in my affairs, I told her everything—all sorts of things I haven't even told you, old chap! We used to go for strolls together in the summer evenings—once or twice we motored down to Richmond and went for a walk in the park ... we used to talk about all sorts of things ... women are the very deuce for leading men on to talk. They pretend to be so interested, ask such gentle little questions, are so sympathetic, so kind ... and when it comes to sport, a girl like Vivian can talk as well as any man.”

He sighed impatiently.

“We didn't talk sentiment—those days. We were chums—the best of chums ... discussed flying, motoring—she used to drive a little car of her own. Sometimes we played golf—and, by Jove, she could pretty nearly beat me! She was interested in all the things I liked, was a rattling good shot with a rifle, and hadn't a nerve in her. Clever, too; could talk on all sorts of subjects, and had read books I'd never even heard of! She spoke three or four languages ... but—but it wasn't that.”

He broke off in his rambling talk to light a cigarette, and then continued, in the same musing tone.

“It was something else. She was so handsome, so—so fine, somehow. I used to think, when we were engaged, that she was like Brunhilde, or some of the other Wagnerian heroines. Sometimes I couldn't help thinking”—he coloured—“what splendid children a woman like that would have. She ... she satisfied one, somehow. You knew she was sound in every way—the sort of woman one would always be proud of—and when I thought of her as the mistress of Greenriver, I——”

He threw away his cigarette impatiently.

“What a fool I am! What a damned fool you must think me, raving about a woman who played me the shabbiest trick a woman could play! God! When I think of it—think how I was deceived, I—I hate the woman! I hate myself for being such a fool, but I hate her more! Well, she's married now—good luck to her!—and there's only one thing for me to do; I must get married too!”

“But why?” Barry's blue eyes were very kindly as they looked at his friend. “Why not go on as you are for a bit longer?”

“Why not?” He stretched out his arms with a curious, restless gesture. “Because I've got unsettled, I suppose. You see, when you've looked on yourself as practically a married man, planned everything, renounced your bachelor ways and anticipated a new and more settled existence, well, somehow you can't go back to the old state of things. There's the house, too. I feel as though I wanted to live in it again—the servants are clamouring for me to go there. I promised, you know, and the river is so lovely in the summer....”

“Well, why not go down and have a car?”

“Go there—alone?” He spoke bitterly. “No, thanks. That would be folly. I meant to go with my wife——”

Suddenly he stopped in his restless pacing and faced Barry with gleaming eyes.

“By gad, Barry! Why shouldn't I take my wife there after all?”

“Your wife?” Even the quick-witted Barry was at fault.

“Yes. My wife.” He laughed at the other man's face. “Oh, I'm not married yet, but why shouldn't I be? I swore I'd marry the first woman who'd have me, and it's just occurred to me—Barry, do you thing she would have me?”

“She? What she?” demanded Barry in justifiable bewilderment.

“Why, our excellent little secretary and typist—our Miss Gibbs—our Antonia, known at home as Toni!”

Barry's boyish face flushed crimson, and for a second he looked so angry that Owen stared in genuine amazement.

“Well, Barry, what's up? I assure you my intentions are strictly honourable! If she'll have me, she shall step into the shoes vacated by Miss Vivian Rees, and succeed to the house, the car, the boats, and all the rest of the worldly goods which weren't sufficient to tempt my beautiful fiancée!”

“See here, Owen.” Barry's voice was quiet. “I suppose you're ragging, but let me tell you I think the rag's in execrable taste, and I'll be obliged if you'll drop the subject.”

For a second Owen seemed about to retort in the same tone. Then, quite suddenly, his face changed.

“Say, Barry, why all these frills? You surely didn't think I meant any harm—any disrespect to the girl?”

“Of course not.” He spoke rather coldly. “Only—well, I don't like to hear you joking about marrying Miss Gibbs. She's a decent little thing, and far too good to be made a cat's paw in a game of revenge.”

Owen looked at his friend quietly.

“You're right, Barry, and if I were only joking it would be a bit low-down. But suppose I mean it? Suppose I ask the girl to marry me, quite quietly, not entering into any heroics or telling any condemned lies, and she accepts me, what then?”

Barry's heart gave a sudden throb of dismay. There was something behind Owen's calm manner which made him feel vaguely uneasy. Could it be that Owen too had surprised Toni's pitiful little secret—that he knew—had known all along that the girl was not so indifferent to him as she wished to appear?

For the moment Barry was nonplussed. If it were so, if Owen knew, and, knowing, chose to take the risk of the girl's acceptance, had he any right to interfere?

That Toni would accept, Barry felt almost convinced; and yet, fond as he was of his friend, fond as he was, too, of the girl with whom he had worked during these weeks of spring, Barry was clear-sighted enough to feel assured that such a marriage would not make for happiness.

It might answer for a time. If Toni wore genuinely attached to Rose, as Barry was inclined to believe, it was possible—nay, probable—that her affection for him would bring out the best in Owen's nature, and he would repay that affection with a real and kindly consideration. But when the first freshness had worn off, when Owen should have grown used to the girl's shy gratitude and devotion, when her prettiness, her radiant youth, her naïve simplicity should have ceased to charm, what then would remain?

For all his sporting instincts Owen was primarily a man of letters, versatile, brilliant, even distinguished in his way; and Barry foresaw a bitter disillusionment for each of the pair when the real dissimilarity of their natures should, as must inevitably happen, become apparent to both.

To Toni, who never willingly opened a book, her husband's delight and absorption in the masterpieces of literature must be a constant wonder; while to Rose, Toni's ignorance, her youthful, unashamed lack of interest in the “things which matter” would be a perpetual irritation.

Although not so brilliant as his friend, Barry experienced at times flashes of almost uncanny insight; and as he contemplated the possibility of this marriage he had a sudden clear conviction that it would not, could not, turn out successfully.

“See here, Owen”—he faced the other man resolutely—“you must know the thing is quite impossible. Miss Gibbs is a nice little girl, a pretty little thing and as straight as a die. But she is not your equal in any sense; neither socially nor intellectually; and though you may not believe it, you would regret the marriage in a week.”

Owen looked at him, half-affectionately, half-quizzically, for a moment.

“Why should I, Barry? Toni may not be of very exalted birth, but she is a hundred times more ladylike than half the flappers one meets in Society nowadays, with their cigarette-cases, their bridge purses and their slangy talk. One of those loud young women would be the death of me in a week—and you know Toni's voice is delightfully soft, with quite a Southern intonation—caught in Italy, I expect.”

“But what of her education—or lack of it?” Barry went on relentlessly. “You know quite well that the girl is a little ignoramus in reality. She has read nothing, been nowhere, learned precious little; and she has no more conversation than—than a Persian cat.”

“That's a bad simile,” said Owen calmly. “A Persian cat doesn't talk much, I admit, but it is a most fascinating piece of mystery when it sits still and says nothing. And Miss Gibbs may in reality be just as mysterious.”

“Oh, you're impossible!” Barry spoke impatiently, and Owen's manner changed.

“Come, Barry, confess the truth. You're afraid Toni will jump at me—to put it baldly. You know”—for a second he hesitated—“you know, Barry, I'm not blind, and I can't help seeing that the girl has ... well, taken a fancy to me; and if that is so, seeing that the woman I wanted wouldn't have me, why shouldn't I offer myself to the one who ... would perhaps take me if I asked her to?”

“You really mean to ask her, then?”

“Yes. I know you won't approve, old chap, but I'm going to do it all the same. The girl may refuse me, you know, and then there'll be no harm done.”

And nothing could move him from the attitude he had adopted. The utmost concession Barry could wring from him was a promise to wait for a week at least before carrying out his plan; and during the whole of that week Barry did his utmost to dissuade his friend from taking a step which he foresaw would end in disaster.

He argued, cajoled, even thundered, in vain. He spoke of disparity of tastes, of habits, of views on life in general; and Owen laughingly reminded him that dissimilarity in tastes was supposed to be a good foundation for wedded happiness.

He pointed out that although Antonia herself was a lady in the best sense of the word, neither he nor Owen knew anything of her family; and he endeavoured to alarm Rose by his vigorous sketch of her possibly undesirable relations.

“I tell you the girl's an orphan,” said Owen, smiling as Barry finished painting an imaginary portrait of a very unattractive mother-in-law. “She lives with an uncle and aunt and a family of cousins somewhere Brixton way.”

“Then I suppose the wedding will take place in Brixton,” said Barry, with an assumption of polite interest, and Owen coloured in spite of himself.

“No—at least, not in a church. I can't face a regular wedding, Barry, seeing my bride isn't the one I expected to lead to the altar. I think the Registrar will have to tie the knot, and we'll dispense with all the fuss of satins and veils and white flowers that I was dreading with all my heart!”

Something in his tone—a hint of dreary disappointment, of a wretchedness hitherto well concealed, made Barry feel compunction for his own rough handling of what must have been in reality a sore subject; and quite suddenly he abandoned his own superior, not to say condemnatory, attitude for a more human, more sympathetic frame of mind.

“I say, old chap”—Owen's eyes lightened with pleasure at the friendly tone—“I've been an awful beast all this time. The fact is, I've thought only of the girl's point of view. It didn't seem fair she should be used as a sort of tool to make your position easier; but after all, I believe on my soul she'd ask nothing better than to marry you; and I know you'd treat her decently, so—so if——”

“If I like to do it, you'll give me your blessing, eh, Barry?” Owen's smile was a little melancholy. “Well, I'll take advantage of your permission and put it to the little girl herself. She may refuse me, of course—Miss Rees didn't find me irresistible, did she?” A hint of the deadly wound she had dealt him coloured his tone. “But unless I'm a conceited fool I believe I have a sporting chance at least—and I'd like to show Lady Saxonby she's not the only woman in the world for me!”

At that moment Toni herself entered the room; and with an effort both men greeted her as usual, and proceeded to the ordinary routine of the day's work without giving her any indication that she had interrupted a discussion of the highest importance to herself.

CHAPTER VII

Antonia had just returned from lunch on the following day when Owen called her to him; and she hastened to obey the summons, still wearing her hat and coat.

“Oh, Miss Gibbs”—his tone was admirably casual. “I've been wondering whether you would mind helping me this afternoon. I want some books from my house down at Willowhurst to verify some quotations in an article I am writing for the next number of the Bridge.”

“Yes, Mr. Rose?”

“I intended first going down in the car for them, but as it seems a pity to bring a lot of old books up to town, I thought if you would come down too, bringing the little Blick typewriter with you, I could get you to copy out the quotations I want, and I needn't take the books away.”

Insensibly Toni's eyes brightened.

“Yes, Mr. Rose. I should be very pleased.”

“That's right. Well, I'll go out and get some lunch. Will you be ready in half an hour?”

“Yes—I've just time to run through these letters.”

“Very well. Au revoir! I'll be back at half-past two.”

He went out, and Antonia joyfully pirouetted round the room before settling to work—somewhat to the surprise of Barry, who entered at that moment.

“Hallo, Miss Gibbs—practising the turkey-trot, or what?”

She stopped, blushing hotly, and tried in vain to look unconcerned.

“No, Mr. Raymond. Only—Mr. Rose wants me to motor down to Willowhurst with him about some books—and it's such a lovely day!”

“You like motoring?” Barry could not resist a sympathetic smile.

“Oh, I just love it!” She clasped her hands in rapture. “Of course, I've only been in taxis and char-à-bancs and things, but I've always wanted to go in a real motor-car—a private one, I mean!”

“Have you never been in one?” Her childish confession made Barry feel half pitiful, half dismayed.

“No, how should I?” She laughed, showing her pretty teeth whole-heartedly. “You know girls in my position don't go about in motors! Of course”—with one of her sudden changes of mood she paled and spoke slowly—“if my father had lived things would have been different.”

“You lived in Italy together?”

“Yes.” She sank into a chair, and went on speaking dreamily, her chin cradled in her hollowed hands. “We lived in a village not far from Naples. Oh, how beautiful Italy is in the spring, when the pink almond-blossom makes the hill-sides look like a great rose-garden ... and the oranges and lemons flame out among the dark-green leaves—and the roads are hot and white, and the blue sea lies at the back of everything, sparkling in the sunshine....”

She paused, but Barry, fascinated by this revelation of a depth, almost a poetry, in the nature he had thought shallow and commonplace, said nothing; and after a second she continued.

“There was a steep hill behind our little house, and sometimes the sheep that browsed there would stray ... so that the boy would sit and pipe to them to come back. I used to watch him pipe, and make a garland of vine-leaves and put it on his curls, and my father would laugh and call him Pan, and say he was really thousands of years old ... and the sheep would come up the slope looking so white against the green, and the air would be full of the smell of the violets they crushed beneath their feet....”

Again she paused, and this time Barry prompted her.

“And when he had found his flock, what did your boy-Pan do then?”

“Then he would drive them away over the hill-side, and we would hear his pipe growing fainter and fainter in the distance, until it died away altogether....”

She sprang up suddenly.

“Oh, Mr. Raymond, what nonsense I'm talking! That life's over and done with, and I've all these letters to copy!”

“All right—I won't interrupt!” He took up some papers. “But just tell me this. Do you ever want to go back to Italy?”

She hesitated, considering.

“No, I think not,” she said at last. “You see, it would all be different. My father wouldn't be there, nor the Padre—and even old Fiammetta may be dead by now.”

“But the place would be the same—the sea as blue!”

“Ah, I should like to see the sea!” She spoke softly. “Do you know I've only seen the sea once since I came to England—when we went to Southend for the day. And there it was all cold and grey—and the sands were mud ... it wasn't a bit like my sea, and I wished I'd never seen it.”

There were actually tears in her eyes, and Barry cursed himself for a fool, as he went rather absently into his own room, leaving her to her work—which work was done none the less carefully because of the vague longings which the conversation had aroused in the worker's breast.

Punctually at two-thirty Owen returned, and Toni ran down the steps with a smiling face from which all traces of tears had long since vanished.

The car was waiting in the dingy street, and Toni's foot was actually on the step when she turned and looked at Owen with a kind of desperate appeal in her eyes.

“Mr. Rose, do you drive the car yourself?”

“Yes. I sit in front, you know—ah, would you like to sit with me?”

“May I?” Her accent was acceptance enough; and two minutes later Toni, as happy as a queen, was installed by the driver's side, and the car began to glide faster and faster down the street on its way to the open country beyond the town.

When they had gone a little distance Owen turned to look at his passenger, and for a second his heart stood still at the expression on her face. Surely no girl would look so rapturously happy unless some magic were at work....

“Are you warm enough? There's a big coat in the car.” He spoke abruptly, but the girl shook her head gratefully.

“No, I'm quite warm, thank you.”

She had tied on her soft little hat with a scarf of some thin material which framed her face very satisfactorily, and Owen did not press the question.

On and on sped the car, through Putney and Richmond, on past Feltham and Staines, eating up the miles so fast that before they knew it they were out in the country, flying along the level road between hedges whose green had not as yet become dusty with the summer's traffic.

It was a glorious afternoon in early May, and the Thames valley was at its best. On either hand were fields sown thick with creamy daisies and yellow buttercups. Down in a marshy hollow they caught a glimpse of a carpet of golden kingcups, and once they passed a tiny dell in whose very heart an azure mist whispered of bluebells; while the blackthorn and the may made the air fragrant for miles. The birds were singing their hearts out in the mellow sunshine, and now and again the cuckoo's call came floating over the meadows from copse or spinney.

Ever and anon as they shot through some village hamlet they caught glimpses of orchards in full blossom, the pink and white bloom standing out against the pale blue of the sky with the effect of some delicate Japanese painting; and in all the little gardens flowers rioted joyously.

To Toni, spending her life in dingy Brixton, this afternoon was a red-letter day. The soft, clean air which blew in her face was different from the stagnant air of the Brixton streets; the scent of flowers was grateful after the odours of the City, and the vision, now and then, of the flashing river was a delight to eyes tired with much staring at ugly houses and shops.

If Toni said little during that magic excursion, it was not shyness alone which sealed her lips; and although he cast a look now and then at his companion, Owen was too considerate to break into her raptures with questioning words.

Only when they were approaching their destination did he begin to point out the various features of the landscape.

“That village over there is Willgate, noted for an old Saxon arch in its church. My mother used to go over there to evening service, I remember. She liked it better than our own church—the one you can just see peeping between the trees. The village—Willowhurst, I mean—lies round this bend. It's quite a rural-looking place, when you remember that after all it is not an hour's journey from Waterloo.”

The car glided round the bend as he spoke, and Toni saw the village lying in the afternoon sunshine, which winked back from the windows of the little houses, built in a queer, old-fashioned manner round a small green. There was a pleasant, old-world look about the place which was oddly charming; and Toni was quite sorry when the car left the little green behind. But in another minute they were on a stretch of white road bordered by a high wall, behind which tall trees stood like sentinels; and Toni caught her breath as Owen said, in a voice which he tried, vainly, to keep steady:

“See, there's Greenriver—my home—beyond the trees.”

They had reached the high gates in the wall, and when once they had entered and were rolling up the broad avenue Toni gazed eagerly in the direction he had indicated.

Greenriver was a stately old place enough. It had been built in the days of Queen Bess; and was just such a house as that in which Justice Shallow might have entertained Falstaff—a long grey building with a porch in the centre and a huge gable at either end—a house with deep-mullioned windows and large stacks of chimney-pots.

The house faced the river, to which it led by a terrace of velvety turf, broken here and there by gay flower-beds; while the real gardens lay at the other side of the building. Here beauty and dignity had joined hands, as it were, to preserve the stately loveliness of the grounds, under whose tall elms many a joyous company must have roamed when the river was the highway of elegance and fashion, and great barges floated down the Thames bearing Royal personages reclining on their couches covered with cloth of gold. Here on summer evenings the nightingales sang to the roses for which the gardens were famous; and for centuries the big white owls had hooted from their nests in the tree-tops, or flown, like pale ghosts, across the dusky paths.

The grounds were indeed noted all along the river for the magnificence of their green, velvety lawns, the size and beauty of the flowers in parterre and bed, the wonderful completeness—and in some cases the antiquity—of the contents of the famous herbaceous border; and Toni never forgot the sensation of awe which overwhelmed her as she realized that this glorious place belonged to the man beside her.

She spoke a little shyly as the car came to a standstill at the foot of the steps leading to the big door.

“This is your house?”

“Yes, this is Greenriver.” He helped her out of the car. “And here is my old friend Mrs. Blades coming to meet us.”

An elderly, rather prim-looking woman came forward as Owen advanced, and in her eyes shone a welcoming light.

“Come in, sir. We were beginning to wonder if you were coming to-day.”

“Yes—started rather late.” Owen gave her hand a friendly shake. “But we shan't have to go back just yet. I want to have a chat with you by and bye, Mrs. Blades. This young lady, Miss Gibbs, has kindly come down to help me with some work.”

“I'm sure the young lady is very welcome,” was Mrs. Blades' old-fashioned reply. “Shan't I make you a cup o' tea, sir, first of all?”

“Well, a cup of tea would be nice ... but I think, if Miss Gibbs isn't tired, we'll get on with our work first, and then we'll enjoy it better. Eh, Miss Gibbs?”

Miss Gibbs agreed; and five minutes later she was installed, with her typewriter, in the library. Owen busied himself, for a few moments, at the shelves, searching for the books he wanted; and Toni spent the time in gazing round her, wonder, admiration and awe mingling in her gaze.

The room was large and lofty and the big mullioned windows looked out upon a beautiful terrace, bordered with wallflowers, jonquils, and masses of dancing daffodils. The grass, smooth as velvet, led to a stone balustrade, beyond which lay the river, sparkling in the sunshine, whilst beyond that again were green fields, broken here and there by clumps of majestic trees, the fields in their turn leading to a range of distant, misty, blue hills.

The room itself was second only in interest to the view. In all her life Toni had never entered such a room—had never imagined, indeed, that private houses boasted such apartments.

The furniture was all of dark-green leather—the big saddle-bag chairs, the low divan and the smaller chairs all being upholstered in the same material, while the wall was distempered a lighter shade of green, and the carpet was of a darker tone. In one of the deep window embrasures was a bureau, of just the right height to allow anyone sitting before it to enjoy the prospect without; while the table at which Toni sat was a large, heavy affair, evidently intended for serious work.

But the generally sombre tone of the room formed an excellent background for the books which lined its walls. Shelf after shelf of them rose from the floor, almost to the ceiling; and since many were bound in soft, rich colours, they struck a delightful note in the rather dusky whole.

There were books bound in leather, dark-brown calf, soft red or blue morocco; richly-tooled volumes, slim books clothed in tan or purple suède, gay with gold edges and lettering; priceless old volumes, rare black-letter editions, poets, classics, all the standard novels.... Toni had never seen so many books in her life; and it must be confessed that she regarded them with something akin to awe.

Who in the world could wish to read these hundreds of volumes? For all their beautiful bindings she had a conviction that the contents would be appallingly dull; and her eyes fled gladly to the more congenial scene outside the windows where the flowers danced gaily in the sunshine and a little skiff floated by on the shimmering river, like some magic boat gliding to a haven in fairyland.

Presently Owen approached the table, bearing an armful of thin books, bound for the most part in soft fawn suède.

“Look, Miss Gibbs, these are the verses I want you to copy.” He pointed out the poems, and gave her one or two instructions, while Toni, conscious that she had been dreaming away her time, hastily uncovered her typewriter and took up a sheet of paper.

“If you'll do these, I'll go and have a chat with old Mrs. Blades,” said Owen presently. “Then we'll have tea, and if there's time I'll show you the gardens. They are really worth seeing.”

She thanked him shyly and he went out. In the doorway he paused, looking back at her as she sat among the books; and if she had looked up she could not have failed to observe something odd in the expression with which he was regarding her.

But she did not look up; and after a few seconds' scrutiny he went out quietly and closed the door.

It did not take Toni very long to finish her task. Almost as she took the last sheet of paper out of the typewriter the door opened to admit Owen and a staid-looking maid with a tea-tray.

“Well, Miss Gibbs, finished?” Owen came forward with a smile. “That's good! Now you shall have some tea to refresh you after your toil. Let me see, Kate, where shall we have it?”

The maid suggested that the table in the far window would be suitable; and as the afternoon sunshine still streamed in, making a pleasant warmth, Owen agreed heartily.

Evidently Mrs. Blades had not been taken unprepared; for there were dainty sandwiches, hot cakes, and a big and substantial-looking seed-loaf, which was, so Owen informed his guest, his housekeeper's special pride.

“Now”—Kate had withdrawn after placing the massive silver tea-pot on the tray—“will you pour out for me, Miss Gibbs? And I'll hand the cakes.”

Blushing gloriously, Toni slipped into the seat behind the tray. In honour of the fine day she had discarded her black frock for a serge skirt and a girlish-looking white blouse, open at the throat; and now that she had thrown aside her veil, her black hair, prettily loosened beneath her soft little hat, made an ebony frame for her vivid face.

As he watched her gravely attending to the duties of the tea-tray, Owen told himself that he might have made a worse choice.

He had long ago surprised her secret—although Toni had no idea of her self-betrayal. At this stage of her development Toni was pure emotion—a mere lamp through which love might shine unchecked, casting its beams unashamedly upon the object of its devotion. Later she might learn, as many women do, to interpose a veil between her soul and the world. The lamp would shine with a tempered beam, its glow moderated to a mere even, more tranquil light, and none would recognize the quality of its burning.

But at present Toni's love was so whole-hearted, so innocently, pathetically intense that it was no wonder Owen had divined both its nature and its object long ago.

Well, to a heart rendered sore by a woman's callousness, such a warm, eager devotion as this was inexpressibly attractive; and if Owen's eyes were blinded by suffering, there was surely a chance that Toni's soft fingers laid upon their lids might prolong the merciful myopia.

When tea was over there came a sudden little silence. The dusk was falling; and the garden wore a ghostly look; while the river lay passively unreflecting beneath the twilit sky.

The atmosphere of the room changed with the passing of the sunlight—grew tense, electric, almost, one would have said, expectant; and Owen realized that the moment for which he waited had come.

Toni, having finished her tea, was sitting rather slackly in her chair, gazing dreamily out of the window; and Owen hesitated for a minute before he spoke. She looked so young, so wistful, so helpless. It was almost unfair, selfish, to speak to the child—and then, suddenly, he knew that selfish or no, he must put an end to his own solitary sore-heartedness.

“Toni”—she looked up as he spoke, and his utterance of her name set the whole atmosphere throbbing with wild, sweet possibilities—“I want to ask you something.”

She did not speak, only her eyes fastened on his face.

“Do you think, Toni”—for a moment he faltered, then plunged bravely on—“you could ever bring yourself to marry me? Oh, I know you're surprised—I ought not to spring it on you like this—but if you will be my wife I will do my best to make you happy.”

There was a silence. Suddenly an owl flew, hooting, past the window, and in the dusk his white wings looked ghostly, unreal.

Then, quite quietly, Toni spoke.

“Mr. Rose, do you mean it? You want to marry me?”

“Yes, dear.” For an instant he spoke as one speaks to a child, so powerful was the illusion of youth in the large-eyed Toni just then. “Well, what do you say? Will you have me?”

He was still sitting in the big chair opposite to her, one hand on the arm, the other clenched on his knee; and he was unprepared for Toni's answer.

With a sudden rush she was out of her chair, and the next moment she was kneeling beside him, her face all aglow with love and wonder.

“You mean it?” She could only, it seemed, question his meaning. “But—how did you know I loved you, Mr. Rose? I never let you see—did I?”

With that soft, sparkling face upturned to his, those Italian eyes gazing at him with an intensity of appeal in their liquid depths, one answer alone was possible.

“No, Toni, you never let me see that! But if it's true—if you do love me a little—well, is it—yes?”

For answer she suddenly laid her head on his knee and burst into a passion of wild sobbing. Poor, emotional, overwrought little Toni! Why she wept she had no idea, but it was the same emotion which had made her, as a child, weep at the sight of a group of violets growing in the grass, at the sound of the shepherd's pipe, the scent of the sea-laden breeze. Although her heart was so full of bliss that she could scarcely bear it, there was a wild, inexplicable sadness in it too, which tears alone could assuage; and though she tried to recapture her self-control, it was useless until she had cried away the first bewilderment.

But Owen, unused to the complex Southern nature, was thoroughly nonplussed by her tears. In vain he besought her to calm herself, begged her to listen to him, to refuse him if the thought of his offer made her miserable. Toni only cried the harder; and at last, uncertain of his ground, but feeling that something must be done, Owen stooped down and lifted her bodily on to his knee.

Once in his arms, her tears ceased as if by magic. She lay against his heart like a child, and as he felt her little body in his arms a new feeling of pity, almost of gratitude, awoke in his heart.

If his love meant so much to her—then it should be hers—if indeed love could be bestowed at will. In any case he would marry her and devote his life to making her happy; and in his curiously exalted state of mind Owen quite lost sight of the fact that when one is the lover and the other the beloved, between the two there is often a great gulf fixed.

       * * * * *

When at last Owen roused the girl, who had sobbed herself into quiescence in his arms, the room was nearly dark.

“Come, Toni, it's getting cold and dark in here. What do you say, shall we get Mrs. Blades to give us a little dinner and go home by moonlight—or would you rather start at once?”

“I would rather go now.” She spoke in a low voice, like a child that is uncertain of its treatment; and Owen guessed she was ashamed of her tears.

He set himself to reassure her.

“Well, just as you like. Wait a moment, though. I'll light a candle, and you shall put your hat straight, and tie on that precious veil of yours first.”

While she tidied herself, rather self-consciously, before a large oval mirror, Owen gathered up the papers she had typewritten; and when he turned towards her at last she was able to conjure up a rather wan little smile.

“Good girl!” He laid his hand kindly on her arm. “Now we'll be off—but first, do you mind if I let old Blades into our secret? She's a faithful old soul, though her temper's a bit crabby, and she'll be awfully pleased!”

She assented, of course; and opening the door Owen led her across the dim hall towards the kitchen regions.

Evidently the magic hour of lighting-up was at hand, for when they had passed through the green baize door which shut off the servants' premises, they found themselves in a brightly-lit passage, at the end of which Mrs. Blades' voice could be heard energetically exhorting a maid to “be quick and take these lamps.”

“Come along, we'll pay her a visit in her room,” said Owen, his eyes sparkling with fun; and drawing Toni's arm through his he ran with her down the passage, and drew up finally in a large square room where Mrs. Blades was at work.

In spite of her shyness Toni was lost in wonder at the nature of that work. The room itself was lighted with gas, flaring in an iron cage; but on the table in front of Mrs. Blades were no less than ten small oil-lamps, evidently intended to hang against the wall, and fashioned in some wrought metal which gave them a curiously mediæval look.

“Hallo, Mrs. Blades!” Owen's voice made her turn round quickly. “The Ten Little Ladies going as strong as ever, I see!”

“Yes, Mr. Owen, they're still on the go.” She regarded the lamps affectionately. “At first Mr. Leetham used to say a good big lamp would be best, at the head of the stairs; but afterwards he got to like the Little Ladies, and we've had 'em every night.”

“We'll have to go on having them,” declared Owen. “Look, Toni, they're really quite pretty, aren't they? And thanks to Mrs. Blades they give a jolly good light.”

“But—the 'Little Ladies'?” Toni looked, as she felt, puzzled.

“Yes, it was a fancy of my father's. He would never have gas anywhere except in the kitchens; and the long gallery upstairs, where all the bedrooms are, was always as dark as Erebus.” He laughed, catching sight of the blank look on Mrs. Blades' face at the word. “So my mother invented these lamps, years ago when I was a tiny kid, and every night they are fixed at intervals along the walls of the gallery.”

“But the name?”

“Oh, I don't know who first christened them, but they've always been known as the Ten Little Ladies—and always will be, I suppose. Eh, Mrs. Blades?”

“So long as I'm here, sir, I hope they will be,” rejoined Mrs. Blades somewhat formally; and something in her tone made Owen remember his resolve.

He looked round. The door was open into the passage, a rosy-cheeked maid waiting, apparently, to carry off the tray with the Little Ladies; but on Owen approaching with the intention of closing the door she withdrew modestly out of earshot.

Coming back to the table Owen took one of Toni's hands in his and turned to the old housekeeper, who glanced with sudden shrewdness at the girl's shy face.

“Mrs. Blades,” said Owen quietly, “Miss Gibbs has promised to marry me; and I hope that before many weeks are over we shall come down to live at Greenriver. Well, what do you say? Will you welcome us when we come?”

The half-boyish, half-masterful tone in which he spoke seemed too much for the old woman, who had watched Owen grow from boy to man, and now, after a lapse of years, saw him in his manhood. She looked first at him, then at the pale girl by his side, and her features worked oddly.

“Come, Mrs. Blades!” Owen had had enough of tears for one afternoon. “Cheer up! Don't look as if we were going to cut off your head! That's a poor welcome to Miss Gibbs!”

Thus reproved, the housekeeper did her best to conjure up a more cheerful expression; and managed presently to shake Toni's cold little hand with a respectful word or two; after which Owen discovered that it was high time to go.

Five minutes later Toni was snugly packed into the car again; and Owen was about to take his seat when he remembered that he had left the typewritten sheets in the housekeeper's room.

“I'll run back for them, Toni.” He jumped down from the step. “I won't be a moment. You don't mind waiting?”

“Of course not!” She smiled up at him with dewy eyes. “Don't hurry—it's so lovely here in the dusk—the flowers smell so sweet.”

Re-entering the house, Owen ran down the passage with hasty feet. Mrs. Blades, who had a tendency to what she called “chronical brownkitis,” had not ventured to brave the night air; and Owen found her still regarding the Little Ladies, who burned trimly on the tray before her.

“All right, Mrs. Blades—I've only left some papers!” He snatched them up as he spoke, and crammed them into the pocket of his leather coat. “That's all—now I'm really off.”

He patted her carelessly on the shoulder as he passed her; but to his surprise she put out a veined hand to stay his progress.

“Mr. Owen”—her voice shook—“do you really mean that you're going to marry the young lady?”

“Of course, Blades.” Unconsciously Owen pulled himself together. “Why should I say such a thing if I did not mean it?”

“Because...” the old woman faltered ”... Miss Gibbs ain't the sort of lady you ought to marry. She ... she's not like the other lady you were going to bring here as mistress of Greenriver ... the one as was presented at Court with all them lovely feathers in her hair.”

An expression such as she had never seen before crossed Owen's face. He shook off her hand impatiently.

“Oh, you're an old silly, Blades.” His voice was grating. “Miss Gibbs is a thousand times more suitable to be the mistress of Greenriver. The—the other lady thought very small beer of us all down here—she wasn't our sort, I assure you!”

“Neither is this one.” The old woman stuck to her guns with the obstinacy of age. “Mr. Owen, I remember your father bringing home his bride—a girl she was, only eighteen—but the highest lady in the land couldn't have been evened to her. Miss Gibbs is pretty and a good girl, I'm sure, but—but she ain't like your mother, Mr. Owen; and you ought to look higher when you marry than her!”

“Don't be a fool, Blades!” Owen spoke angrily now. “If I think Miss Gibbs good enough to be my wife that's quite sufficient for everyone. After all, I'm not such a great catch,” he added bitterly.

“Nay, Mr. Owen, don't be vexed with me!” Too late the old woman regretted her foolish words. “I'm growing old, and maybe I'm in my dotage ... ah, he's gone—I've driven the lad away with my folly!”

It was indeed so. Owen had flung out of the door angrily; and as she listened, half-afraid, she heard his steps receding down the passage towards the hall. There was impatience in his very tread; for, truth to tell, Owen felt a kind of hot anger welling in his heart as he remembered the words she had spoken.

At first he was merely annoyed at what he called her presumption—induced, he supposed, by her long connection with the family. But suddenly a feeling of vague uneasiness descended upon him, and he paused before going out to join Toni in the car.

“She only saw Toni for a moment—barely heard her speak—and yet she speaks as though I were making an unsuitable marriage.” He frowned thoughtfully, anger dying before some feeling whose nature he could not, yet, recognize. “I wonder—what could she mean?”

He stood in the quiet hall, fighting down a host of surmises, of unwelcome doubts which sprang, it would seem, out of the twilight, brought to birth by an old woman's homely words; and in those illuminating seconds Owen allowed himself to wonder whether, after all, he had committed an action which he would find cause to regret.

But somehow the idea seemed a treachery towards the girl who sat waiting so trustfully, so happily for his coming; and with a sudden uplifting of his head, Owen went resolutely out to the car.

       * * * * *

But Mrs. Blades, left alone, shod a few of the difficult tears of age as she went over the little scene. She felt suddenly old; and for the first time in her busy, self-satisfied life she questioned her own wisdom.

Then she too shook off her uncomfortable thoughts, and calling the rosy Maggie to her, delivered into her hands the Ten Little Ladies, who still waited patiently upon the tray for their nightly release.

CHAPTER VIII

On a beautiful midsummer morning Antonia Rose crept softly down the broad old staircase of Greenriver and crossed the hall with so fairy-light a tread that never a soul in the house could hear a footstep.

It was very early, barely half-past five; but the glorious summer morning was calling, calling insistently to Toni to come and share its glories; and the call was not one to be disregarded, by Antonia at least.

Not a thing stirred. In the gallery the Ten Little Ladies grew wan and faded before the vitality of the daylight; and when, after some difficulty, Toni unlocked the big hall door and let in a flood of sunshine, they gave up the unequal contest and expired quietly.

Ah! What a world of beauty burst upon Toni's gaze as she stood, thrilling delightfully with a sense of adventure, on the big stone steps outside the great door.

A rush of perfume from the tall lilies greeted her first; followed by a perfect shower of fragrance from the pink and creamy roses growing beside the door. Other scents there were—a dozen of them—from the flowers massed in glowing ranks in the beds; but the lilies and the roses had it all their own way; and Toni laughed with delight as they assailed her with their sweetness.

There was music, too, in this pearly dawn. In the trees the birds were astir, twittering their songs of morning; and already the velvety brown bees were beginning to hum their spinning chorus as they hovered here and there among the tall flowers which stood in rows before the windows, like marriageable maidens waiting for inspection.

Beyond the terrace lay the river, shining with that strange, ethereal effect of silver which water has beneath the early morning sky; and away beyond the river the thin, delicate mists of the night were rising like vaporous ghosts, to dissolve in the fresh, clean atmosphere of dawn.

“Oh, how beautiful it all is! What a lovely world God made when He made—this!” Toni stood on the steps with arms outstretched, like some young priestess of a pagan faith welcoming the sun. “And why do we lie asleep in stuffy beds when all the birds and flowers have been awake for ages!”

She pulled the big door gently to behind her, and then ran through the gardens and across the terrace to the big grey balustrade which kept the boundary of the garden from the towing path beyond. Leaning her arms on the stone she looked out over the shining river, and in fancy her spirit roved here and there—to the violet-strewn mountain slopes of Italy where she had passed her childhood ... to the wonderful, rocky coast of Cornwall where her honeymoon had been spent.

At the thought of the Cornish seas she caught her breath. Those marvellous green billows, foaming in the sunshine, dashing against the cliffs with a sound like thunder; the gentler wavelets creaming over the snow-white sands in lines of lotus-blue; the pools, deep and limpid, where in the aquamarine water all kind of strange sea-creatures lived; the jagged, tooth-like rocks springing from the depths of the ocean, ready to destroy the passing ships; the still more wonderful lighthouses, rising, some of them, like tall white needles into the turquoise sky; the gulls, flashing grey and white in the sunshine; the salt scent of the sea mingling with the pungent fragrance of the yellow gorse, hot with the sun ... surely the Cornish coast was a very favoured spot, and the Scilly Isles, to which passage could be taken in a queer, cranky boat, were indeed the Fortunate Isles, cradled by the bluest, most magical, most romantic waters in the world!

Thoughts of the ocean were indissolubly bound up with all Toni's thoughts of her honeymoon. Acting on a hint from Barry, Owen had taken his bride straight away from the Registrar's dingy office to Paddington, thence to Cornwall; and he would never forget the sight of Toni's face when first she saw the sea, lying purple and green beneath a stormy sky.

During the long journey she had said very little, shyness enveloping her as in a mantle; but when the train began to run along the sea shore, so that the whole expanse of ocean lay spread before the window, Toni's face changed, her eyes sparkled, and she turned to Owen with a spontaneous expression of delight.

Now, looking back, it seemed to Toni that never for an instant had the voice of the sea been out of her ears during all those wonderful days and nights. Its song had helped her to bear herself properly during the long hours alone with the man she had married. Again and again, when embarrassment threatened to overcome her at this unusually prolonged tête-à-tête, the sea whispered to her to take courage; and each night she fell asleep to its murmured lullaby.

During the fortnight which they spent down in the genial West Country, Owen gave himself up entirely to the service of his young wife. He divined pretty well what she was feeling—guessed that her marriage, after only three weeks' engagement, must have meant a complete upheaval of her entire life; and the very fact that he did not love her gave an added gentleness to his intercourse with her; for he could not rid himself of a sensation that somehow she had been cheated in this bargain, had been cajoled into giving the pure gold of love in return for the counterfeit of mere liking.

True, he did not repent his marriage. Rather it seemed to him that it might turn out successful after all; and since they spent the days exploring the coast, which was new to both of them, there was plenty to be said, an abundance of interesting subjects to discuss.

Only once—on the last night of their stay in Cornwall—was there the slightest suspicion of a shadow between them; and Owen blamed himself entirely for the occurrence.

It happened that Owen was suffering from a very severe headache—a not uncommon complaint since his accident—and the afternoon post brought him the proofs of an article required for the next number of the Bridge. An urgent note from Barry accompanied the papers, begging for an early revision; and after dinner Owen sat down to run through the article in preparation for dispatch in the morning.

But his brain refused to work. His eyes felt as though each eyeball were aflame; and his forehead was contracted with the severe pain which had racked him all day, so that consecutive thought was almost impossible. He tried, again and again, to do the work; but at length, so acute was the agony in his eyes, he threw aside the papers with a groan.

Immediately Toni looked up from the magazine she was reading.

“May I help you?” She put the question rather timidly, and by way of answer he tossed the bundle of proofs into her lap.

“Thanks awfully, dear. I simply can't see out of my eyes—neuralgia, I expect. Do your best, won't you? You know how to read proof as well as I do, now.”

“Yes.” So she did, for Barry had taught her thoroughly; and she had applied herself to his lessons with every fraction of her intelligence.

What he had not taught her, however, was an extensive knowledge of the master poets and their works; and Toni's ignorance betrayed her hopelessly.

At the old-fashioned school she had attended, few poets were considered fit for the girls' reading; Tennyson, of course, was included in the pupils' studies, and Shakespeare, carefully edited, was a standby; but of the works of Browning, Rossetti, Swinburne, Keats, Toni was lamentably ignorant.

When, therefore, in the article before her she found a quotation from one of Robert Browning's poems, followed almost immediately by a line from one of the poet's wife's writings, she concluded, hastily, that the printers were at fault, and cheerfully amended the latter initials to the one magic R. In the same way she confused Keats and Yeats; and finished by ascribing to Christina Rossetti one of Dante Gabriel's most impassioned utterances; thus destroying whatever value the article might have had, as a critical appreciation of the various writers' work.

Having completed her task Toni raised her eyes to look at her husband, and found him lying back in his chair watching her with a very kindly glance.

“Finished, little girl? That's good. I'll just initial it and send it back.” He took the sheets she handed him and raised his eyebrows at the numerous corrections. “I say, they must be getting careless at the office to let all these slips go through!” He ran his eye over the page, more from force of habit than because he expected to find any more corrections necessary; and suddenly Toni, watching, saw him frown.

“I say, Toni, you've made a mistake.” He tried not to speak sharply, for after all proof-reading is an art. “This line—'There may be Heaven, there must be Hell'—that's Robert Browning all right; but the next quotation is from the Sonnets to the Portuguese.”

“Is it?” Toni did not understand.

“Well, Mrs. Browning wrote those, you know.” He was busy repairing Toni's mistake. “And the next is hers, too. And——” he was skimming down the page ”—why, you little goose, it was Dante Rossetti who wrote 'The Blessed Damosel.'”

“Was it? I thought her name was Christina.” Toni's voice faltered; for though she did not yet realize the enormity of her offence, she knew that Owen was annoyed by her stupidity.

Her name? Why, of course her name was Christina; but this happens to be his poem, you see.”

“His? Whose?” Toni was flustered, or she would never have betrayed herself so utterly.

“Whose?” Owen, his nerves strained almost to breaking point by his bodily pain, spoke irritably, and Toni shrank miserably into her chair. “Why, Toni, have you never heard of the poet Rossetti? Good Heavens, child, don't you ever open a book?”

She said nothing, though the tears welled slowly into her eyes; and Owen went on reading, finding still further evidences of his wife's lack of acquaintance with the giants of literature as he read.

In an ordinary way he would have let her down gently. After all it is no crime to confuse two poets of the same name; and to “correct” a quotation by transposing two words into a more ordinary sequence is not a very heinous offence; but to Owen, racked with pain, the whole affair was an instance of the most flagrant ignorance, and he let fly one or two biting sarcasms as he bent over the papers, which reduced Toni to a state of trembling, impotent misery.

To do him justice Owen repented as soon as he had spoken, and when he saw how he had hurt her, he threw aside the proof-sheets and devoted himself to making amends for his harshness.

He succeeded finally in winning back something of her usual serenity; but to both the incident was oddly discomposing; to Toni because for the first time she saw the critic in the husband, and trembled to think how often she must fall short of his high standard; to Owen because the affair seemed to open up such vast tracts of ignorance in the woman who was his wife, and showed, more clearly than ever before, the dividing line between intellect and ordinary shrewdness.

For just one illuminating moment he saw Toni as she was; a pretty, winning, half-educated little girl, to whom the world of art and literature was a sphere apart, its shibboleths mere meaningless babble in her ears, its greatest exponents but so many confusing names, divorced from any enlightening personalities.

Where, he asked himself half desperately, was there any common meeting ground for two beings so widely diverse as they, husband and wife though they were? Surely they were as widely sundered as the poles....

And then the sight of Toni's face, her eyes filled with tears, her childish mouth quivering, lighted a sudden flame in his heart which consumed, for the time being, all doubts and petty vexations. After all, she was only a child—and she loved him; and so he took her in his arms and kissed away the tears with a remorseful tenderness which might well pass—with an uncritical being like Toni—for love.

But Toni was not thinking of that dreadful episode on this brilliant June morning. Rather she was trying to realize that she was the mistress of this beautiful place, that Greenriver, with its grounds, its flowers, its lofty rooms, was to be her home; and to the girl who had lived in Winter Road, Brixton, Greenriver was indeed a revelation.

They had been home a week; and so far Owen had not left her for more than a few hours, on the occasion of a business visit to London. The weather had been superb; and they had spent several long afternoons on the river, thereby missing, to Toni's great content, three or four callers who had come to see what manner of woman Owen Rose had married. That these calls must be returned Toni knew very well; but it must be confessed she shivered at the prospect; more especially as Owen had told her, laughingly, that she must not count upon his aid on those purely social occasions.

As the thought of the terrible duty-calls flashed through her mind Toni slipped down from her perch on the balustrade and made her way down to the towing path beneath. She often walked beside the river in these quiet morning hours, alone unless her dog Jock, an Airedale terrier of unimpeachable ancestry and cheerful disposition, was at hand to accompany her.

Jock had been presented to her by Barry as a wedding gift; and Toni, who had never before been on an intimate footing with a dog, found his companionship both delightful and stimulating. Although he was nearly two years old Jock was a puppy at heart. He did his best to comport himself as a full-grown dog should do: but had lapses into babyhood, when a shoe carelessly left about seemed too tempting; or, after a muddy walk, a soft satin cushion gave him an invitation to repose which could not possibly be denied.

He was a lovable creature, however, and a perfect gentleman as regards cats—a very desirable trait in an animal belonging to Toni, who loved all cats and would certainly have quarrelled with any dog who waged war upon the furry tribe.

To her satisfaction Jock came bounding over the terrace to follow her as she stepped on to the towing path; and together they strolled by the river in the fresh morning air, Toni gazing half-absently towards the distant hills, Jock keeping one eye and ear anxiously cocked in anticipation of any unwary rat who should show himself upon the river-bank.

Although Willowhurst was comparatively far from town there were a good many visitors on the river during the summer months. There was a perfect reach for punting just here, and many people came down to occupy the bungalows built on the opposite bank to that on which Greenriver stood. To Owen these little summer dwellings were in the nature of an eyesore. Fond as he was of his own beautiful house he would have liked to keep the neighbourhood free from this essentially modern phase of river-life; but to Toni the gay little bungalows had a charm of their own. They were all specially spick and span just now, having been newly painted and garnished with flowers for the season; and Toni looked across the river with frank interest at the Cot, the Dinky House, the Mascot, and the rest of the tiny shanties. She liked the houseboats, too, with their gaily-striped awnings, their hanging baskets filled with gaudy pink geraniums and bright lobelia. Their primly-curtained little windows amused her; and in the evenings she would lure Owen out on to the terrace to look down the river to where the Chinese lanterns hung on their poles like globes of magic light against the darkening sky.

Toni and Jock had strolled about a quarter of a mile down the path when they were brought sharply to a halt by the sound of a deep bark from the other side of the water; and looking across they found they were not the only waking creatures in this apparently sleeping world.

In one of the little gardens opposite to where they stood were a couple of friends like themselves; but in this case the human being was a man in his shirt sleeves, and the canine was a singularly beautiful white wolfhound, who stood, at the moment, barking defiance at the intruders on the opposite bank.

Jock, whose natural pugnacity was always easily aroused, returned the compliment with the most evident sincerity; but the Borzoi, having flung down the gage of battle and asserted her dignity, retired gracefully from the contest, and walking daintily up to her master rose and placed her slender paws on his shoulders, an action which said plainly that honour was satisfied.

The animal was so striking-looking, from her long, graceful head to her plumy tail, that Toni could not resist a second look; and the dog's master had a good view of the girl whom he guessed to be the young mistress of Greenriver, the house which he had often admired as he passed by in his boat during the summer days.

As she stood, gazing almost childishly across the intervening water, she looked barely more than a schoolgirl; and her short skirt and simple white blouse aided the illusion. It was only the sight of the coils of black hair which bound her head, and the gleam of the gold wedding-ring on her finger, which placed her definitely in the category of womanhood; and the man who watched her felt a strange sensation of something like pity for the girl launched so early on the sea of matrimony, a sea whose perils he, of all men, had cause to dread.

But suddenly Toni became aware of the indecorousness of her conduct. It was the height of discourtesy to stand staring; and with a blush she called Jock and turned hastily away to retrace her steps.

The man and the dog watched her go; and only when she was nearly out of sight did they turn back and re-enter the little white bungalow which was known locally as the Hope House.

At breakfast Owen asked Toni kindly if she felt inclined for a day on the river.

“I thought we might take our lunch and go quite a long way,” he said. “I'm afraid this must be our last holiday jaunt for a little time. I shall have to be busy after this.”

“Will you?” She looked a trifle wistful; and Owen was sorry for her.

“Well, I daresay I can manage a day off now and then. To-morrow's Thursday, isn't it? I must be up in town then, and I'm afraid I shall be late home. There's a dinner I rather wanted to attend, but it would mean a long evening alone for you.”

“I don't mind.” She smiled reassuringly. “I've got Jock to keep me company and there are plenty of people in the house.”

“Well, Andrews is a pretty sturdy young chap, and of course there are three or four women. There's the telephone, too, you know, so you really needn't be nervous—especially now, when the river is as full of traffic as Bond Street!”

“I'm not a bit nervous,” she said. “I ... I was just wondering——”

She broke off, flushing, and Owen felt an unwonted curiosity as to her meaning.

“Well?” He spoke kindly, but Toni seemed unable to proceed.

“I was thinking ... I mean ...” Suddenly impatient of her own cowardice she took her courage in both hands and spoke bravely. “I was wondering whether you would allow me to ask Fanny—my cousin—down for the afternoon. You see, if you are away——”

“Why, of course, dear!” Owen spoke the more heartily because he felt a slight compunction at the thought of her relations. “Ask your cousin by all means. You must remember that this is your house, Toni, and you need not ask my leave to invite your friends.”

“Thank you.” She was looking down as she spoke, but her cheeks were scarlet. “I will ask her then ... but ...” suddenly her words came with a rush ”... I know my people aren't like yours ... I couldn't let them meet your friends ... I mean—I'll ask them when you are not at home, and then——”

“Don't be a goose, Toni!” Owen hoped his voice betrayed nothing. “Your people are my people now, you know, and I don't want you to get any silly ideas into your head at the start.”

She stretched out her hand impulsively and laid it on his arm.

“Owen, you're too good to me. I know so well that we belong to different worlds, but ... if you mean that——”

“Of course I mean it.” He rose as he spoke and patted her shoulder. “Don't be a little silly—and now run away and write to your cousin at once. If she can't come to-morrow, suggest Friday.”

“Oh, she couldn't come then,” returned Toni naïvely. “You see the shop closes on Thursday afternoon, and it's Fanny's only free day.”

“I see.” Somehow the little explanation, with its picture of a different life from that to which he was accustomed, struck a chill to Owen's heart; but he hid his discomfort cleverly and bade Toni write her letter without delay.

       * * * * *

Miss Gibbs accepted the invitation joyfully; and on Thursday morning Owen went off to town, after bidding Toni keep her cousin to dinner if possible.

“She can take the nine-fifteen to town,” he said. “I have the car, but if she can stay, telephone for a taxi from the station to be here at nine. You won't be lonely, Toni?”

“Not a bit!” Indeed she was thrilling with pleasure at the idea of entertaining her cousin in her new home. “I've lots to see to. What a pity Mrs. Blades is ill to-day.”

“Yes, her usual bronchitis, I suppose. She'll be all right in a day or two.” Owen was hunting for a paper as he spoke. “Confound it, where is that manuscript, Toni? You know the one—that article on Alfred Noyes.”

“It's here.” Toni handed him the paper he required.

“Thanks awfully. You're a first-rate little secretary, Toni! I guess we shall miss you at the office!”

He did not observe the rather wistful look which swept over her face at the half-careless praise. At that moment Toni felt she would have asked nothing better than to jump into the car and journey up to town with Owen to take her old place behind the typewriter in Owen's room. She hated to see him leaving her, longed to beg him to stay; but something stronger than personal longing held her back. A wife, she told herself, must be a help, not a hindrance; and since Owen saw fit to leave her, to carry on the work in which she had now no place, her duty, plainly, was to remain at home and keep everything in her little world in order for his return.

Besides, it was a glorious day, the sun was shining, the flowers dancing in the breeze; and Fanny would be with her during the afternoon. It was a day created for gladness, for rejoicing, and Toni, made wise by love, banished wistfulness from her eyes and returned Owen's kiss with a gay word of farewell.

But she stood looking after him as the car whizzed down the avenue; and the smile which touched her lips was just a little sad.

CHAPTER IX

When Owen was safely gone Toni entered the house with a look of determination on her face, and retreating to the little white-panelled room known as the morning-room she rang the bell to summon Kate to her presence.

It was not Kate who answered the ring, however. In her stead came Maggie, the rosy-faced housemaid, who had already fallen in love with her young mistress, and was ready to carry out any order which Mrs. Rose might give.

“Oh, it's you, Maggie?” Toni looked up from the paper on which she was scribbling. “Where's Kate?”

It seemed Kate was busy, poulticing Mrs. Blades, who was suffering under one of her usual attacks of bronchitis, and she had sent Maggie, with apologies, in her stead.

“Mrs. Blades is really ill? Had she better see a doctor?”

No, Maggie was empowered by Kate to say that a doctor's visit was unnecessary. Mrs. Blades often had these attacks, and they knew just what to do; but she would not be able to attend to her duties for a couple of days at the least.

In spite of herself Toni's face brightened. Not that she wished Mrs. Blades to suffer, but she knew quite well that the old housekeeper, for all her respectful ways, resented the arrival of a mistress of whom, for some reason, she did not approve; and Toni felt rather glad that for to-day, at any rate, she could be in reality the mistress of the whole establishment.

With the other servants she was on the best of terms. Whatever Mrs. Blades might think of Toni's social position previous to her marriage she was sufficiently loyal to keep her doubts to herself; and Martha the cook, Kate the serious parlourmaid, and Andrews the young man-servant, one and all combined to make their new mistress feel at ease with her staff.

Maggie, to-day, was full of importance at being allowed to replace Kate to assist Toni in her preparation for the afternoon's visitor; and she listened attentively to all that Toni had to say.

“I want a really nice tea, Maggie!” Toni looked up from her list with a serious face. “Miss Gibbs has to catch an early train from town, and won't have time for much lunch.” Even the unsophisticated Toni knew better than to mention the nature of Miss Gibbs' employment. “So I want tea at four o'clock and it must be pretty—well, substantial.”

Maggie fully endorsed the suggestion, and waited to see what Mrs. Rose considered necessary for the meal.

“Tea and hot cakes, of course. And that lovely plum cake Martha made for ...” Toni blushed, but went on bravely ”... for our wedding-cake. And then—is it possible to get shrimps, Maggie?”

“Why, yes, ma'am—don't you remember cook's shrimp savoury for Sunday lunch? And you'd shrimp sauce with the fish last night.”

“Of course, so we had. Well, when the man calls from the fish shop, order some. You get them by the pint—or is it the pound?” said Toni, vaguely remembering her aunt's orders on the occasion of a tea-party.

Maggie thought it was the pint; and in any case she would give the order to the young man herself.

“Very well. And then—what else, Maggie? I do want a nice tea.”

The little handmaiden eagerly racked her brain for some brilliant idea; and finally suggested that Cook was very fond of making “shape.”

“Shape? Oh, I see,” said Toni a trifle dubiously. “You mean a blanc-mange or a cream. But I don't think it would do for tea.”

Maggie thought, respectfully, that it would do fine. In her last place her mistress always had a shape when company was coming to tea. But—suddenly her rosy face grew even more pink—perhaps she was wrong, and anyway Mrs. Rose knew best.

Sorry for the girl's evident embarrassment Toni gave the order forthwith for a cream; and then turned to the subject of dinner.

“Miss Gibbs will stay to dinner, and we will have it at half-past seven. That gives us time to go on the river first; and the cab won't be here till nine.”

“Cook's sent you a mennyoo, ma'am.” Maggie produced a somewhat crumpled piece of paper. “She thought perhaps something of this sort would do.”

Toni ran her eye over the paper, and her brow cleared.

“Soup, fish, sweetbread and green peas, chicken....” she gave the paper back. “Yes, it will do beautifully, and I'm sure Miss Gibbs will like Martha's trifle. Well, Maggie, that's all, I think. Have I forgotten anything?”

The two girls stared at one another for a moment, their faces quite solemn with the effort of concentration. Then Toni relaxed and spoke gaily.

“No, that's all, I'm sure ... well, Maggie, what have you thought of now?”

“Please, ma'am, the flowers.”

“Yes, I'd forgotten! Good girl, Maggie! Well, get me the scissors and a basket, and then you might put the vases ready in the little room.”

Maggie flew to obey the commands, and Toni, to whom the idea of giving orders was still almost ludicrous, strolled to the window to await her return.

The room overlooked the river, and on that account was a favourite with Toni. It was reached by a short flight of stairs apart from the main staircase, and boasted a large casement window, built over the terrace below, and giving the river an air of proximity which always delighted Toni.

To-day the water sparkled in the sunshine with a very cheerful effect; and as Toni looked a cream-white swan drifted by, the sun's light turning its feathers into a kind of gilded snow. A punt passed slowly with two occupants, one a girl in a white frock, lying lazily on a heap of blue-green cushions, her uncovered head protected from the sun by a scarlet parasol, the other a bronzed and fair-haired youth, who wielded his pole with an athletic grace purely Greek.

Toni's eyes softened as the two glided by. Her own happiness was so immense, her love for Owen had been so wonderfully, so completely satisfied, that she wished all other girls to be as happy as she was; and although the two in the punt were only visible for a few moments she thought she could read in their faces the story of their mutual attraction.

When Maggie returned Toni took the basket and went out into the garden. Gathering flowers was an occupation of which she never tired. Never, since her days on the hill-slope above Naples, had she been able to indulge her passionate love for flowers; and to the girl who had been wont to regard sixpence spent on a branch of golden mimosa, or a handful of the big pink carnations which seem indigenous to the London streets, as something of an extravagance, the delight of filling bowls and vases with unlimited supplies of the loveliest, freshest flowers could not be overrated.

To-day she cut more lavishly than usual in Fanny's honour, and when, just as the lunch gong sounded, she rested from her labours, the lovely old house was a dream of beauty and colour and scent.

Snapdragons, in every shade of yellow and pink and deep, rich rose, stood in tall jars, wherever there was a dark corner to be lighted up. Big blue bowls held masses of roses of every describable hue, whose fragrance scented all the house; and every available inch of space had been utilized as a resting-place for one or more vases of the sweetest, gayest blooms imaginable.

Even Toni was satisfied at last, and she hurried over her lunch in good spirits. Just as she was rising from the table a thought struck her.

“Kate, do you think we might have tea in here? You see—we ought to have a table, I think—and it wouldn't matter for once, would it?”

Kate, who had experienced sundry qualms at the idea of a feast of shrimps in the charming, old-world drawing-room, gave a decided assent.

“It would be much more suitable, ma'am. I could put a pretty lace cloth on the table, and then with some flowers it would look quite nice.”

“Thank you, Kate.” Toni gave vent to a relieved sigh. “You and Maggie are really treasures in helping me. Oh—how is Mrs. Blades!”

Mrs. Blades was better; but Kate, who had a shrewd notion of the old woman's real opinion of her pretty mistress, was not ill-pleased to inform Toni that the bronchial attack from which she was suffering made it impossible for her to supervise the household affairs for to-day at least.

“Well, you must look after things for me, Kate,” said Toni, smiling in a friendly fashion at the girl; and Kate, although she had lived in “smart” houses, and knew that shrimps and blanc-mange were not usually met with at tea, succumbed still more completely to that friendly little smile.

“Why shouldn't she have her tea-party as she likes it?” she said to herself as she went out. “The master's away, and she's not likely to do this sort of thing when he's about.” Kate, who was thirty-one, and experienced in the ways of the world, was quite aware of the element of awe in Toni's love for her husband—an element of which Toni herself was as yet wholly unsuspicious. “And I've no doubt this young lady as is coming down isn't used to great things. You can see as Mrs. Rose hasn't lived with anyone partikler—but she's a real little lady in her ways, for all that,” concluded this authority on the ways of gentlefolk.

       * * * * *

Punctually at three o'clock Miss Gibbs arrived; and was shown into the drawing-room, where Toni awaited her coming.

To tell the truth Miss Gibbs was a little awed by the unexpected grandeur of her surroundings; and not even the consciousness of her new linen frock and elaborately-trimmed hat could give her quite her usual assurance.

She followed Andrews meekly across the hall, hardly daring to lift her eyes; and when the man threw open the drawing-room door and ushered her in, Fanny unconsciously moderated her usual hearty footstep and endeavoured to make her entry as inconspicuous as possible.

Toni, who had not heard the cab arrive, jumped up hastily from her low chair and ran to meet her cousin, while Andrews discreetly withdrew and closed the door.

“Fanny! How glad I am to see you!” Toni hugged Miss Gibbs affectionately. “I'd have come to meet you but I was so late with lunch that I hadn't time.”

“I found a cab waiting for me,” said Fanny, returning her embrace. “You were a dear to send it, Toni. You're quite a way from the station, aren't you?”

“I suppose we are,” said Toni carelessly. “But how are you, Fan? And Auntie—and Lu and all of them?”

“Mother's first-rate and longing to see you when you can get up to town. Everyone's all right,” said Fanny comfortably. “Lu's been in mischief again, though. She and some of the girls from her school played truant t'other day and went to see a County cricket-match. You know cricket's the craze this term, and they got their money stolen and couldn't get home, and Lu didn't land up till ten o'clock at night!”

“You don't mean it! What did Auntie say?”

“She didn't say much then, 'cause Lu was cryin' and nearly dead with tramping for miles; but next day she got a jolly good whipping and was shut up on bread and water all over Sunday.”

“Oh, poor Lu!” Toni felt very pitiful towards the hapless cricket enthusiast. “After all, Fan, you and I once ran away to see the Boat Race on our own!”

“Yes, and we got jolly well punished for it, too! I can remember Ma's slipper to this day!”

“Well, you ought to be sorry for Lu!”

“Serve her right,” said Miss Gibbs with sisterly severity. “Cricket, indeed! What do girls want with cricket! Anyhow, she won't do it again in a hurry—Ma saw to that!”

“And how's Josh, Fan?” Toni saw that no sympathy was to be looked for from the culprit's sister.

“A 1. I say, Toni, where's Mr. Rose?” Fanny, regaining some of her usual assurance, looked round her vaguely.

“He has had to go up to town. But I thought you wouldn't mind, Fan. I want to show you the house and have a real good talk.”

“My! It is a house and no mistake!” Fanny gazed about the beautiful room with frank admiration. “I thought the man must be going wrong when he turned in here—and what lovely gardens you've got.”

“Yes, they are jolly, aren't they? Well, shall we go over the house before tea or after? It's very nearly four, and I said we'd have tea early.”

“I'm glad of that.” Fanny beamed approval. “To tell you the truth, Toni, I hadn't time for much lunch. We're supposed to shut at one, you know, but of course we don't get off at once, and to-day everything went wrong! At the last minute I upset a box of ribbons, and the spiteful things all went and got unrolled, and then that odious little Jackson—you know, the shopwalker I told you about—came and slanged me like anything.”

“What a shame!” Toni had been one of the workers of the world too recently to have lost sympathy with the grievances of those who work. “I wish you could leave the old shop, Fanny. Why don't you and Josh get married?”

“Too soon.” Fanny was of a prudent nature. “We must wait till Josh gets a rise, and I can't afford to leave the shop. You see, I must have a few clothes before I marry ... by the way, Toni, what about your clothes? You didn't get much when you married, did you?”

“No, but before we came here we went up to town and stayed at the Russell for two days and did a whole heap of shopping.” Toni stifled a sigh at the thought of those long hours spent in shops. “You see I didn't really know what to get, so Owen went, with me, and I got a lot of things ready-made, and was fitted for others, so I have quite a trousseau by now!”

“That skirt's well-cut,” said Miss Gibbs, surveying her cousin critically. “Blue serge always looks well—and that white blouse is good thick silk.”

“I'm glad you like it. Owen likes me in these low collars, and they're cool.” Toni looked at the clock. “But come upstairs and take off your hat and we'll have tea straight away.”

Nothing loth, Miss Gibbs agreed; and went into fresh raptures when she saw Toni's bedroom.

“My! What lovely furniture!” She went up to the toilet-table and began to examine it. “And these silver brushes and things—are they all yours?”

“Yes. Owen gave them to me.”

“Well to be you,” commented Miss Gibbs briskly. “What a lovely long glass, too! Can't you see yourself properly just!”

She stood in front of the glass so long that Toni grew impatient.

“Hurry up, Fan! I'm sure tea's ready and I'm dying for some. I hadn't much lunch.”

Thus incited, Miss Gibbs laid aside the flowery hat she had been admiring, disclosing a much curled and waved coiffure, and together the cousins ran downstairs, just as Andrews carried in the silver tea-pot and the hot cakes.

Kate, true to her word, had made the best of the oval table. She had laid upon it the finest, laciest cloth she could find, and had placed in the centre a tall jar of lilies, while here and there she had found room for small silver bowls of pink roses. The silver tea-tray, with its thin china cups and saucers, stood proudly at the head of the table; and so far nothing could have been more charming.

But alas! Even Kate could not hide the eminent unsuitability of the feast itself to its elegant surroundings. True, the bread and butter was of wafer-like thinness, there were hot cakes of the crispest, finest variety, and the plum-cake which was Martha's welcome to the bride was of the richest, most tempting description.

But side by side with those delicacies was a dish of shrimps, in all their native vulgarity; and further down, almost hidden in fact by the flowery centrepiece, was a glass dish containing a velvety white cream whose real place should have been on the dinner-table.

For a moment Toni's heart misgave her as she saw these things in their blatancy; and she wished she had stuck to the usual tiny sandwiches which Martha sent up when she and Owen were alone. Then she remembered, gratefully, that Fanny was hungry, and common sense whispered that to a girl who had lunched lightly a sandwich was unsatisfying fare.

As for Fanny, her spirits, momentarily damped by the sight of the silver tray, rose with a bound as she surveyed the table.

“I say, Toni, what a spread! Shrimps, I declare! Well, I thought you'd have been much too smart nowadays to think of them!”

“Nonsense!” Toni's depression vanished, and she laughed gaily. “I always did like shrimps—and why shouldn't I have them if I want them? Come and sit down, Fan—here, by me—and do make a good tea!”

Fanny needed no second bidding. Taking the seat indicated she leaned forward to examine the silver in the most open fashion.

“I say, you've got some tiptop things and no mistake! That cloth is simply lovely—just look at the lace, as fine as fine!”

“It belonged to Owen's mother,” said Toni, passing her a cup of tea. “There are lots of things like that in the house. Now, Fanny, help yourself—and pass the dish!”

Thus invited, Fanny did help herself; and presently both girls were happily eating and talking, Fanny asking innumerable questions and Toni satisfying her curiosity without entering into details.

Suddenly Toni jumped up.

“There's Jock at the door. You must see him, Fan—he's a darling, and I'm sure you'll love him!”

Almost before the door was properly open Jock hurled himself reproachfully into the room, and flinging himself on to his mistress, inquired in the plainest dog-language why she had been so slow in answering his summons. When she had apologized and received his forgiveness, she introduced him to Miss Gibbs, who was won immediately by his courteous manner towards her and the friendliness in his nice brown eyes.

She cemented the acquaintance by offering him—timidly—a piece of cake; and instantly Jock threw dignity to the winds and begged, shamelessly, for further morsels; which being denied him caused him to bark vociferously and show off his few tricks in the hope of adequate reward.

He was engaged in walking on his hind legs round the room, following Fanny, who was laughing excitedly and flourishing a piece of cake, while Toni clapped her hands and called out words of encouragement at the top of her voice, when a loud whirring sound on the gravel outside made both girls turn in the direction from which came the noise—just in time to see a big grey car shoot by the window on its way to the front door.

One glance was enough.

“Good gracious, Fan! Visitors! What a bore!”

“Will they come in? Won't your man say you're out?” gasped Fanny, hastily dropping the bit of cake she held and pinning up a roll of hair which had come down in the game.

“No—they saw us,” said Toni wildly. “I never said I wasn't at home—and anyway they'd hear us laughing!”

In a dead silence the two girls stood, waiting breathlessly to see what would happen; and in the sudden hush they heard the clang of the big bell, and Andrews' speedy arrival in the hall.

For one wild moment Toni thought of waylaying him with instructions to send the visitors away. The next instant she realized that such a course was impossible, and waited helplessly for the next act of the drama.

Andrews opened the door, and Toni heard a gentle, cultured voice ask if Mrs. Rose were at home.

For a fraction of a second Andrews, who was young enough to be human, and had not yet become a machine, hesitated as though he would fain deny his mistress to these invaders; but finally habit triumphed over humanity and he replied stolidly in the affirmative.

The next moment Toni, standing by the door, heard the rustle of skirts and the firm step of a man, which sounds proceeded in the direction of the drawing-room; and with an agonized sign to her cousin Toni flew back to her seat behind the tea-tray just as the door opened to admit Andrews.

The visitors, knowing themselves unknown, had provided the servant with cards; and these Andrews silently presented to his mistress, who took them with a shaking hand.

“The Honourable Mrs. Anstey, Miss Olive Lynn, Mr. Barry Raymond——” She broke off with a sigh of relief. “Why, that's Owen's friend, Fanny. It's not half so bad if he's there!”

She turned to the man.

“Are they in the drawing-room, Andrews?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Oh!” For a second Toni hesitated, then common sense came to her rescue. “I will come, Andrews. Fanny, will you come with me?”

“Oh, do let me stay here,” begged Miss Gibbs, who was still endeavouring to make herself tidy. “I'm such a sight, playing with the dog—but you go, Toni ... and p'raps they won't stop long.”

Toni walked across the hall with lagging footsteps, preceded by the sympathetic Andrews, who threw open the door for her with a compassionate air, and then retired to break the news of this intrusion to the maids who were anxiously waiting his return.

In the drawing-room were three people; and as Toni made her entrance, looking like a veritable schoolgirl in her blouse and short skirt, the oldest of the trio came forward with an expression of surprise on her beautiful, faded face.

“Mrs. Rose?” She shook hands. “I am so glad to find you at home. This is my niece, Miss Lynn, who is staying with me—and Mr. Raymond I think you know?”

Toni, feeling shyer than ever, shook hands with the pretty, grey-eyed girl who approached at the sound of her name; and then turned, with a feeling of genuine relief, to Barry.

“Mr. Raymond! I'm so pleased to see you—but I'm afraid Owen isn't at home!”

“I know that!” He laughed. “He is doing a little work to-day, for a change—and my call is really on you!”

“Well, won't you sit down?” Toni drew a low chair forward for Mrs. Anstey, who accepted it with a smile, while Olive Lynn sank down on the couch, where, after a second's pause, Toni also took her seat.

“I had hoped to see you before now,” said Mrs. Anstey, with a smile which won Toni's impressionable heart. “But I heard you had only just got home, and thought I would give you a chance to settle down.”

“It is very good of you to come,” said Toni simply. “You live some distance away, don't you? I think my husband pointed out your house to me when we were motoring one day.”

“Yes, nearly eight miles off—in the next village, in fact. But as you have a motor I hope you'll come over and see me pretty often.” She gave the invitation with a pleasant note of sincerity. “Just at present my niece is taking pity on me, but I am very lonely sometimes.”

“I will come, certainly,” said Toni, feeling curiously at ease with this charming, elderly woman who, in spite of her aristocratic bearing, was so delightfully kindly. “I haven't returned any calls yet—but my husband tells me I must really start next week.”

“Do—and come to tea with me first of all.” Mrs. Anstey spoke quite unconsciously, but something in her words aroused Toni to a sense of her own deficiencies as hostess.

Tea—of course! Owen had told her that it was imperative to offer tea to afternoon visitors; and these people had motored eight miles over a dusty road—they must be hot and thirsty and longing for tea.

Yet—suddenly Toni felt it would be impossible to ask her guests to participate in the feast which she had spread for Fanny. The delicacies which had been prepared for her cousin took on a very uncouth appearance, and from the bottom of her heart Toni wished she had kept to the usual régime of dainty sandwiches and cakes.

Yet she must offer tea—and quickly, before her visitors had time to doubt her hospitable intentions. She was so lost in thought that she let Mrs. Anstey's remark go unanswered; and Barry, looking at her, wondered what had made her suddenly colour hotly and look embarrassed and nervous.

Truth to tell, Toni was hot all over. A more experienced hostess than she would have rung the bell and requested Andrews to bring tea; and doubtless he would have done so without delay, thereby saving the situation; but to Toni's mind the fact that tea was ready in the room across the hall quite precluded the possibility of having another tea brought for the latest visitors; besides which it flashed through her mind that these people must have seen the tea-table through the big dining-room window.

Olive Lynn, seeing her confusion, but not understanding its cause, tried good-naturedly to put her at her ease.

“I think I saw you on the river last night, didn't I? We were in a canoe, and you and Mr. Rose were punting.”

“Oh—yes!” Toni, still wrestling with her problem, answered rather vaguely. “We—we had taken tea with us and were late home.”

“That's so jolly, isn't it?” Olive smiled. “We often do that—take a tea-basket and have a picnic.”

Tea again! Suddenly Toni grew desperate. Tea must be offered; there was no way out of this dilemma save a frank acceptance of the situation; and with a sinking heart Toni took the plunge.

“I ... we were just having tea, my cousin and I,” she said abruptly. “Will you ... will you come and have some? I'm sure you must be thirsty after your drive.”

Mrs. Anstey, with a look at her niece, accepted courteously. It was a hot day and the roads were dusty, and in a house like Greenriver one need not be afraid of putting one's hostess out by accepting a cup of tea.

“Thank you. A cup of tea would be very refreshing—I'm sure Olive thinks so, don't you, dear?”

“Oh, I'm always ready for tea,” replied the girl, laughing, “and motoring does make one thirsty, doesn't it, Mrs. Rose?”

“Will you come, then?” Toni had risen, and now moved, feeling cold with nervousness, towards the door. “We ... we are having tea in the dining-room to-day.”'

Barry opened the door as she spoke; and together the little party crossed the hall to the dining-room. Andrews was hovering about; and as he saw his mistress leading her guests he slipped away in search of fresh cups and a supply of hot tea.

Inside the dining-room Miss Gibbs, having reduced her appearance to something like order, was sitting rather apprehensively in her place; and as the door opened to admit the quartette she rose and stood waiting nervously for Toni's introductions.

These were soon made. Mrs. Anstey and Olive shook hands with Fanny, each of them wondering in her mind at the relationship between her pretty, shy hostess and this florid, rather overdressed young woman; but convention mercifully intervened to hide their wonder; and Fanny could find no fault with their courteous greetings.

With Barry it was quite impossible to feel ill at ease; and he shook hands so nicely, making a remark about Jock as he did so, that Fanny felt suddenly comfortable again.

The guests, in response to Toni's invitation, seated themselves; Olive taking a chair by Fanny's side, while Mrs. Anstey sat next to her hostess, and Barry appropriated a stool beside the elder woman.

Andrews entering with fresh supplies, Toni provided her visitors with tea, losing her first nervousness as she did so; and for a moment it seemed as though the little party would be a success after all.

Mrs. Anstey had just accepted a hot cake, and Olive was begging prettily for another lump of sugar, when Jock, who had been sitting quietly beside his mistress, suddenly rose and rushed madly over to the window, uttering a succession of shrill barks as he did so.

Everyone glanced at the window to see what had disturbed him; and there, on the gravel outside, stood two ladies, evidently a little uncertain of the Airedale's intentions.

“I think those are some more visitors, Mrs. Rose!” Barry gave her a quizzical look. “It never rains but it pours! Shall I ... er ... Jock seems a little anxious to send the visitors away!”

Luckily the window was raised a good height from the ground; and Jock was obliged to content himself with putting his paws on the window-seat and barking still more fiercely at the figures without.

Presently, however, the two ladies appeared to regain the courage they had momentarily lost; and vanished from sight in the direction of the front door; which was shortly opened by Andrews, who had evidently been lurking in the hall listening to Jock's protestations.

It is possible that the man, who was really little more than a boy, lost his head; or perhaps he was infected by the spirit of nervousness which had gripped Toni earlier in the afternoon. At any rate, whatever the excuse, he made no pretence of showing the new-comers into the drawing-room, but opened the dining-room door and ushered them straight into the presence of his mistress; after which he closed the door and leaned against the wall, aghast at his own stupidity.

To make matters worse, he had announced the ladies in so indistinct a voice that Toni had not the faintest notion who her visitors were; and for a second they stared helplessly at one another, while Jock, who had conceived a violent dislike for these latest comers, barked loudly and unmercifully throughout.

At last, however, just as Toni mustered up courage to shake hands, Mrs. Anstey came to the rescue.

“Why, Lady Martin, I had no idea you were home again. You have come to welcome Mrs. Rose, I suppose. My dear”—to Toni—“Lady Martin is your nearest neighbour—really near, I mean; only a mile away.”

“Less by the fields.” Lady Martin spoke magisterially. “And this fine weather tempted us to walk, although both the cars were standing idle in the garage.”

Having thus established her position as the owner of two cars, Lady Martin brought forward her daughter and presented her to Toni, who received an instant impression of size, teeth and volubility as Miss Martin shook hands and expressed her pleasure at finding Mrs. Rose at home.

The next thing to do was obviously to provide chairs for the guests, and this Toni did, with the help of Barry, who appeared to be on fairly friendly terms with the two ladies; and once again Toni turned her attention to filling teacups.

Fanny, who had been somewhat overlooked during the last strenuous moments, was relieved to hear herself addressed in a friendly tone by Miss Lynn, who felt sorry for the girl, so obviously ill-at-ease; and in return for the kindly attention Fanny eagerly handed Olive the dish of shrimps with an invitation to “try some.”

Olive Lynn, who had possibly never met these small creatures in their native armour before, hesitated, casting a look at Barry at the same moment; but he was engaged in handing Lady Martin some bread and butter; and Olive's appeal went unanswered.

Taking Miss Lynn's silence for consent, and being really anxious to help Toni by making her guests eat a good tea, Fanny eagerly piled her neighbour's plate with shrimps; and at that moment Lady Martin first discovered what plebeian dishes the table held.

Ignoring Barry and his bread and butter, she put up her lorgnette and deliberately scrutinized the heap of pink shrimps which Fanny, pleased with her success, was just pushing across to Miss Martin. For a second her ladyship was speechless; then, as her daughter turned a haughty stare upon the officious commoner, Lady Martin spoke.

“I think, Lucretia, you had better leave those—er—shellfish alone. I understand there is always a danger of ptomaine poisoning with such things.”

Toni dropped a lump of sugar with a clatter on the tray and turned scarlet. Lady Martin's tone was so deliberately offensive, her manner so disagreeable, that Toni felt like a chidden schoolgirl; and again the enormity of her social mistake swept over her, rendering her quite incapable of making any reply to the attack.

But rescue was at hand. Barry, who from the first had felt a chivalrous interest in his friend's wife, had seen the colour sweep into her face, and had determined that the Martins, mother and daughter, should not exercise their well-known prerogative of snubbing any woman who did not boast a title.

It is true that Lady Martin was the wife of a soap manufacturer, knighted for services to his party; and both sprang from a very humble class; but what they lacked in breeding they made up for in arrogance; and Lady Martin had early determined that if she wished to become a power in the neighbourhood she must assert herself on every occasion. Also, she had intended to patronize the young mistress of Greenriver; and to find Mrs. Anstey, the only person in the district of whom she stood in awe, here before her had disturbed her mean little soul.

Barry, quick as a woman in some matters, read her mind accurately, and immediately ranged himself on the side of his embarrassed hostess.

“Are those shrimps, Mrs. Rose? And you never asked me to have any!”

He flashed a laughing glance at her, and drew the dish towards him, resolved that he at least would not shirk his duty.

“I ... I'm sorry ... I forgot,” said Toni lamely. “But ... please don't have any if you'd rather not.”

“It seems hardly the hour for these—delicacies,” said Lady Martin, waving haughtily aside the dish Barry offered her mischievously. “In sauce—or pâtés—yes ... but now—no!”

“Oh, you're making quite a mistake,” said Barry coolly, helping himself as he spoke. “They are delicious with bread and butter. Olive, you've got some? That's right. Mrs. Anstey, can't I persuade you to try a few?”

Mrs. Anstey, thoroughly understanding the look of appeal which Barry's laughing eyes held, smiled very kindly.

“My dear boy, I never eat much tea, as you know—but still—if you'll prepare me one or two ... they really look so tempting....”

To her dying day Lady Martin would never forget that afternoon. There sat Mrs. Anstey, whom everyone knew to be related to half the “good” families of England, eating shrimps, shelled for her by Barry, with an air of enjoyment which was in itself an offence. There, too, was Miss Lynn, niece to an earl, doing likewise, being assisted in the mysteries of divorcing the creatures from their shells by the blowsy, florid young woman beside her, with whom she was soon on excellent terms. And there, also, was Barry Raymond, a young man for whom everyone had a good word, laughing and joking with his hostess as though they were old friends, while that same hostess lost her frightened look beneath his geniality and did the honours of the tea-tray very prettily.

Only Lady Martin and her daughter were out of it; and when she found that her cold looks and biting speeches made no impression on anyone—for even Fanny was at ease now with these delightful people—her ladyship could bear it no longer.

Rising abruptly, and cutting short a sentence of Toni's as though she heard nothing, Lady Martin called her daughter to her side.

“I think, Lucretia, if you have finished your tea”—both ladies had left their cups untouched—“we must tear ourselves away. We promised to look in at the Vicarage, and you know we are dining with the Batty-Browns to-night!”

Having thus made it clear that she was in much social demand, Lady Martin advanced upon her hostess and held out her hand aggressively.

“Good-bye, Mrs. Rose. So glad to have seen you. I am always at home on Wednesdays in the summer.”

Toni shook hands quietly, and Miss Martin followed suit with a limp handshake; after which the two ladies took what was intended to be a gushing farewell of the other guests, ignoring Fanny as though she were not present.

Andrews was in waiting to show the ladies out; and when, a moment later, they swept by the window, their high-heeled shoes crunching the gravel sternly, Barry heaved a sigh of relief.

“I don't know how it is, but Lady Martin always gives me the creeps. Mrs. Rose, is it too late to beg another cup of tea? I assure you I really want it, to buck me up.”

Toni, who was very pale, filled his cup with rather a trembling hand, and Mrs. Anstey saw that the woman's insolence had unnerved her.

Appearing to notice nothing, she began to make conversation, discoursing gently on various unimportant topics until Toni grew more like herself; and when at length Mrs. Anstey rose to go she had completely won Toni's grateful heart.

Toni took leave of her visitors regretfully, and readily promised to return the visit as soon as possible; and then she and Fanny accompanied them to the door to see them comfortably settled in the big grey car.

Barry was driving, Olive sitting beside him; and the girl turned and waved a kindly hand as the car began to glide down the avenue in the afternoon sunshine.

“My! Isn't she pretty!” Miss Gibbs' admiration was sincere. “And that blue bonnet of hers was a dream—must have cost pounds!”

“I think Mrs. Anstey is beautiful,” said Toni, rather dreamily, gazing after the car. “I don't wonder Miss Lynn is so devoted to her. She is just my ideal of a lady.”

“Better than that other stuck-up cat,” said Fanny rather viciously. “And as for that maypole of a daughter, she's nothing but a gawk.”

“Oh, don't let's go in there!” Toni laid a hand on her cousin's arm as Fanny turned towards the dining-room. “I don't want to see the tea-table any more! Fan, wasn't it horrible when they came first?”

“Well, they were a bit sticky,” said Fanny frankly. “But nobody seemed to care! Mr. Raymond was just making game of them all the time.”

“Well, don't let's think of them,” said Toni, shaking herself as though freeing her shoulders from an incubus. “We'll go on the river for an hour, Fan, and then you shall see the house.”

The programme was carried out successfully, and beneath Fanny's affectionate chatter Toni regained the spirits she had lost. She took her cousin on the river, returning in time to see the old house before the summer darkness fell; and after a very satisfactory little dinner Miss Gibbs departed, highly pleased with her entertainment.

Owen was not to be home till nearly midnight, and Toni decided not to sit up. Indeed, she was tired, and it was barely ten o'clock when she went upstairs to bed. Something was troubling her, too; and as she walked slowly down the long gallery, lighted only by the Ten Little Ladies, she was asking herself a question which, in spite of its humorous form, held a hint of tragedy.

“Shall I have to tell Owen everything—how rude she was and what an idiot I felt? Must I really tell him about—about the shrimps?”

She paused, looking about her as though seeking an answer to her question, which held indeed a significance which she dimly understood.

But the Ten Little Ladies had no reply to give her; and with a sigh Toni passed on and entered her own room in silence.

CHAPTER X

Fairly late that night Barry Raymond jumped off his motorcycle at the gate of the bungalow known locally as the Hope House. It was a perfect June night, and as he unlatched the gate Barry heard a nightingale singing its love-song to the moon, the deliciously pure notes ringing across the river with a fascinating, almost unearthly, effect.

The garden of the bungalow was full of sleeping flowers, and their fragrance stole gently out like a tender welcome to Barry as he strode up the path between their ranks, pale-coloured in the moonlight, though full of rich, glowing colour beneath the sun.

Another welcome greeted him in a moment. There was a low, deep-toned bark, a white streak of something advancing in a hurtling flash, and then, as the great Borzoi discovered the visitor to be a friend, she dropped into a welcoming march, waving her plumy tail the while.

“Halloa, Olga, old girl! Where's your boss?”

He was not far off, having been warned of the approach of his friend, and in another moment the two men were shaking hands cordially.

“By Jove, Barry, it's good to see you again!” There was no mistaking the pleasure in the tone. “I thought you'd be looking me up—someone told me you were staying down here.”

“Yes—only for three days, worse luck. I'm with the Ansteys—you know Miss Lynn is Mrs. Anstey's niece, and she is there too.”

“I see. Well, come in and have a peg.” He led the way hospitably through the green door into the bungalow, and a minute later the two were seated cosily in the little living-room, which looked oddly attractive in the lamplight.

Olga, the wolfhound, followed them in as a matter of course, and when her master had mixed drinks for himself and his visitor, and had taken his seat, she lay down beside him, her long nose resting on her paws, while she blinked sleepily in the mellow light.

“Well, Barry, how goes the world? Cheerily, eh?”

“With me? Yes.” He took a pull at his glass, “I'm A 1, and so is Olive.”

“Work going ahead? I hear the Bridge is making its way.”

“Rather!” He spoke enthusiastically. “The next number will be out in a few days, and it's better than ever.”

“Good! Of course Rose is an excellent man for the job. If he can't make it go, no one can. By the way, he's come to live down here, as I daresay you know.”

“Yes.” Barry spoke slowly, and lighted a cigarette rather thoughtfully. “As a matter of fact, Jim, that's partly why I've come to see you at this unholy hour.”

“Better now than never!” said his host genially. “But I don't think I quite understand you.”

“No.” For a moment Barry said nothing more, and the other man looked at him a little oddly.

He himself was worth looking at, in spite of the shabbiness which betrayed either a bachelor habit of mind, or a lofty disdain for the trappings of life. A man of about forty-one, his face was a curious mixture of youth and age, of experience and of idealism. His big, bright eyes and curving mouth betokened enthusiasm, fire, a kindly philosophy; while the lines upon his forehead and the grey streaks in his abundant hair seemed to speak of deeper things. Life had indeed graven with its chisel lines and marks ineffaceable. It was the face of one who had suffered deeply, who had passed through more than one saddening experience. In repose one would have said the man was serious, grave to a fault; but when he smiled, it was the face of youth—ardent, eager, irresponsible—that the beholder saw before him.

It was a queer, baffling, contradictory face altogether. Only one thing about it was certain, and that was written so plainly thereon that even a child might read.

It was a face one could trust. Whatever might be the nature of the tragic experience which had whitened the crisp locks and drawn the heavy lines on the broad brow, there was something so gentle, so straightforward, so kindly about the whole man that none could doubt his sincerity, his trustworthiness. And side by side with the lines drawn by sorrow there were other lines betokening laughter, those fine lines at the corners of the eyes which are born from mirth, and even though they take away from youth's first unlined smoothness, give value and perspective to the countenance.

For the rest, he was fairly tall, though he stooped somewhat; and he walked always with a quick, impetuous step, until such times as memory, or some other quality, came to life, and gave a queer, dragging effect to his usually swift tread.

“Well?” It was the host who spoke, and Barry recalled his scattered thoughts with an effort and remembered the cause on which he was enlisted.

“Well, it's about Rose's wife that I want to speak to you.” Barry looked searchingly at his friend, and reading in the bright eyes nothing of the cheap cynicism with which some men might have greeted the announcement, he went on quickly. “The fact is, she wants someone to give her a helping hand.”

“Someone—apart from her husband?”

“Yes. You see, she's only a kid and a jolly pretty one. Looks like a schoolgirl——?”

“Stay a moment.” Herrick laid down his pipe. “Is Mrs. Rose a little dark girl, with very bright eyes and a lot of black hair?”

“That's she. You've met her, then?”

“Well, not exactly. Fact is, I have seen a young woman answering to that description wandering on the towing-path early in the morning once or twice; and I was a little puzzled to know who she might be.”

“Well, that's Mrs. Rose. Now the fact is”—Barry grew red suddenly as he realized that his interference was quite unauthorized—“I think she wants a friend, someone to look after her a bit.”

“Why? Is she ... er ... what is she?”

“She is very young.” Barry spoke deliberately now, having made up his mind to proceed. “And although she is a perfect little lady in her way”—thus unconsciously endorsing Kate's verdict—“she has never been used to the sort of life she will have to lead down here. To tell the truth—I know it's safe with you, Jim—she was our typist in the office before her marriage.”

“I see. And Rose fell in love with her?”

“Y ... yes.” Even to Herrick, Barry could not give away the secret of Owen's proposal. “Anyway, he married her, and brought her here; and to-day I was witness to a curious little scene in her house.”

“I'm all attention, Barry.”

“Well, Rose is away for the day, and Mrs. Rose invited a girl-cousin down for the afternoon; and to do honour to her, I imagine, she had provided a sumptuous tea, including shrimps and one of those wobbly white things that you get at lunch.”

“I see. Well?”

“Well, we—Mrs. Anstey, Olive and I—chose to pay a call to-day; and when, after a little hesitation, Mrs. Rose asked us to have some tea, we were taken into the dining-room, where these festal delicacies were laid out.”

“And then?”

“Well, it would have been all right—Mrs. Anstey is a dear, and Olive of course is a ripper—and we'd have had a very jolly little party, but unfortunately in the middle of it who should arrive but Lady Martin and that terrible daughter of hers.”

“Lady Martin of soap fame?”

“The same. Well, you know what an utter snob the woman is. In two minutes she had Toni—Mrs. Rose—reduced to a jelly—simply by sneering at everything.”

“Including the—shrimps?”

“Yes. You know shrimps are—well—a bit vulgar, aren't they?”

For a second there was silence. Then Herrick stretched out his hand for his pipe and spoke slowly in the intervals of filling the bowl.

“There was once, if my memory serves me rightly, an Apostle of the name of Peter who chose to consider some of the creatures made by his own Maker in the light of vulgarians; and a sheetful of specimens descended on Peter's head to warn him against the folly of finding any of God's creations common or unclean. Of course we've no proof that shrimps were included——”

“I say, Jim, don't rag!” Barry threw away his cigarette rather impatiently. “I'm in earnest—oh, I know it sounds beastly snobbish, but still, shrimps at tea——”

“Are unusual, though really, if you try them, first-rate.” Herrick had filled his pipe, and now took up the match-box. “Seriously, Barry, I know what you mean. So long as we have false standards of gentility I suppose the sight of a shrimp in conjunction with the tea-pot will cause us to shrivel up. But I'll guarantee that neither Mrs. Anstey nor Miss Lynn turned a hair at the sight.”

“Rather not! They ate them as if they really liked them—and if that wasn't a snub to the awful Martin woman—well, she went, anyway, driven away by our combined vulgarity, I suppose, and we had quite a decent time when she had gone.”

“Well? If Lady Martin was driven from the field, and you were left the victors, what's the trouble?”

“The trouble is this. Lady Martin, being a spiteful woman, and knowing perfectly well that Mrs. Anstey meant to teach her a lesson, will lose no opportunity of spreading the story abroad; and in time it is certain to come to Rose's ears.”

“Ah!” He spoke thoughtfully. “That is it, is it? And Mr. Rose will—er—resent the tale?”

“You see it's this way.” Barry gave way to the impulse to confide in his friend, to whom all his boyish confidences had been given. “Rose is a real good sort, and wouldn't for the world let Toni suspect that he knows he's married beneath him, as the world calls it.”

“The world? Ah!” There was a light scorn in the tone.

“Oh, I know—we both know it's all rot, that sort of thing. But still, as the world goes, one has to remember it; and somehow, although Rose is genuinely fond of his wife, I doubt whether his love would stand much—well, ridicule.”

“Ah! And I suppose the child did make herself rather ridiculous in her attempts to welcome a cousin to whom she is doubtless attached.”

“It isn't only that.” Having once begun, Barry unburdened himself still further. “You know, although I admire Mrs. Rose immensely, and she's a ripping kid really, I'm not a bit sure that the marriage will be a success.”

“Why not, Barry?”

“Well, they're unsuited to one another in heaps of ways. Toni is, as I say, a dear little girl, but she's only half-educated, and not in the least intellectual. Sharp in her way—the way of a quick-witted woman—shrewd, and no fool. But you know Rose is rather an exceptional fellow.”

“So I have always understood.”

“He's clever, you know—and deep, too. Not one of those fellows who are always showing off, but really brilliant; and it's rather a dangerous thing for a shallow woman to marry a man of that sort.”

“It's often done, Barry,” said the other man quietly.

“Oh, I know, but that doesn't make it any safer. Toni is an out-and-out good sort, as straight as a die, and a merry, light-hearted little thing into the bargain; but she's bound to turn out a disappointment to her husband all the same.”

“I don't see why,” said Herrick after a moment's pause. “Lots of clever men marry feather-headed women and manage to get along all right.”

“Yes, but Owen's not that sort. He's a fellow who will want his wife to be a companion, a real comrade, able to go forward side by side with him, understand his aims, sympathize with his ideals and so on; and this girl can't do it.”

“But why are you so sure she can't, my boy? Probably she is very different when alone with her husband. All women, as well as men, have two soul-sides, you know—'one to face the world with'—the other——”

“Oh, that's Browning's view, of course, but then he was an idealist!” Barry spoke rather impatiently. “No, Jim, there's not much hope of that. I've made a study of the girl—I don't mind telling you I did my best to prevent Rose marrying her—and I'm perfectly certain that as far as anything beyond the merest good-fellowship goes, Rose might just as well have married a Persian kitten.”

“Yet she is fond of him—in her way?”

“Very, I should say; but even then there's an element of something which shouldn't exist between husband and wife. There is a sort of quite unconscious patronage on Rose's side which matches a pretty gratitude on hers; and I have a horrible fear that if ever he found her wanting—and showed her so—she would break her heart.”

“Oh! Then you don't deny her a heart?”

“Good Lord, no! What I do deny her is—well, I don't quite know. Is it brain, or soul, or what?”

“You take an interest in this girl, Barry. Is it possible you are going to try to supply this deficiency of brain, or soul, or whatever it is?”

Barry laughed rather defiantly.

“Oh, I know you think I'm a fool for my pains! Yes, that's just what I do want to do. I want to wake the girl up, to make her use her intellect, fit herself to be Owen's companion. I hate to think of their marriage turning out a failure—Owen disappointed in her, feeling aggrieved, perhaps, at her inability to go forward with him, while she in her turn feels impatient with him for expecting her to be something she isn't—and that he ought never to have expected her to be!”

“Wait a moment, Barry.” Herrick looked at him squarely. “Isn't there something behind all this? Didn't I hear a rumour that some woman had jilted Rose—thrown him over for a richer man, or something of the sort?”

“Well”—Barry bit his lip—“since you know so much—yes.”

“And possibly this marriage was in the nature of a reprisal? Intended to show the jilting lady that—to put it plainly—there were still good fish in the sea?”

“Yes—in a way it was.”

“Ah! Now I understand. And you, having doubtless been forced into the position of an accessory before the fact, are anxious that as little harm as possible shall be done to either party?”

“Yes—but principally to the girl.”

“Of course, seeing that she was probably unconscious of the reason behind the match. Well, it seems hard that she should have been used as a catspaw, doesn't it?”

“Oh, it wasn't as bad as that. Rose really liked the girl——”

“In spite of her want of—soul?”

“Yes. And I thought,” said Barry eagerly, “that if you and I, and one or two more—Olive, for instance—could give her a helping hand now and then, show her how to make the best of herself and so on, things might turn out all right.”

“Ah, Barry!” Herrick looked at him with a half-humorous, half-sad smile. “You're very young—and youth is always—or should be—courageous. Do you really think that I, or you, or even Miss Lynn, can alter by a fraction the destiny marked out for that pretty child across the river there?”

“Destiny—no, perhaps not,” said Barry, taken aback by the big word. “But we might help her—help her to find herself, as the Ibsenites call it—realize her soul, and all the rest of it. The soul's there, all right, but somehow it seems to be hidden, undeveloped, or something of the sort.”

For a second the older man said nothing, though his square white teeth clenched themselves on the stem of his pipe. Then, removing the latter, he said slowly:

“Do you remember what Browning says, Barry?

    'Tis an awkward thing to play with souls
    And matter enough to save one's own!'

Well, don't you agree with him—and me—that one's own soul takes a vast deal of salvation?”

“Yes, of course—but still—I thought you would be ready to help....”

His accent of dejection touched the other man's heart.

“Come, don't look so disappointed. Of course I'll help, as much as I can! It ought to be an interesting task, anyway, helping a woman to find her soul. And if I can help her in any way, I will.”

“Good! But how?” He wanted to clinch the matter.

“Well, I suppose the first thing to do is to make the lady's acquaintance. I know Rose, slightly, and a call will no doubt be considered neighbourly. And if I can do anything for the child, you may depend on me to do it.”

“You're a brick, Jim!” In the midst of his relief Barry remembered the hour and rose hastily. “Well, I must be off, or the house will be shut up. Good-night, old chap. I'm no end obliged to you. I knew you would help, if anyone would.”

He had turned towards the door when a thought struck him and he turned back rather awkwardly.

“I say, Jim”—he was looking down at the floor as he spoke—“I hadn't forgotten, but I didn't like to say much. How ... how is—she?”

“My wife, you mean?” Herrick's smile was bitter. “She is pretty well, I believe. They say her health has improved lately.”

“I'm glad. And—forgive me if I'm tactless, Jim, but when do you expect her back?”

“When does she come out?” All the youth had died away from his face, leaving it desperately tired and sad. “Some time in the autumn, October, I believe. The time isn't really up quite so soon, but there's some remission for good conduct, I understand, which shortens the sentence.”

“Have you seen her lately?”

“No. She refused to see me last time, and I shall not trouble her again.”

“I see.” Barry fidgeted from one foot to the other, then made a sudden grab at his friend's hand. “Well, good-bye, Jim. Ever so many thanks for promising to help the kid. You can do lots for her if you will, and I do want the marriage to be a success.”

“You've come to a queer person to help you, Barry,” said the other with a twisted smile. “My own marriage has been so wonderfully successful, hasn't it? But there, don't let's talk about it now. How are you going home? Motor? Ah, all right. Then Olga and I will come and see you safely off the premises.”

He had regained his former kindly manner, and bade the boy good-night with all his accustomed heartiness; but as Barry turned for a last look and saw the stooping figure return through the gate, accompanied by the graceful Borzoi, a fury of rage gripped his generous young heart.

“Damn that woman—oh, damn her!” He said the words wildly to himself as he spun down the moonlit road between the fragrant hedges. “She's ruined his life, and will go on doing it as long as they live! October, he said. Well, there's time to give poor little Toni a helping hand before then!”

       * * * * *

But in the quiet bungalow behind him Jim Herrick sat alone until the short summer night had given way to the glories of the dawn. And in his face, as he gazed before him, seeing, perhaps the troubled past, perhaps the darkened future, there was now no trace of youth, only a great and weary disillusionment.

CHAPTER XI

After all, Jim Herrick's introduction to Mrs. Rose came about in an unexpected fashion.

Although he had only seen her two or three times, Herrick felt a decided interest in Rose's young wife. From what Barry had told him he concluded that there were breakers ahead for the young couple; and since his own matrimonial misfortunes had made him very pitiful, he determined to try to hold out a helping hand to the girl should the occasion arise.

The occasion arose, indeed, almost before he expected it; but luckily Herrick was a man of action and grappled with the opportunity thus presented.

One sunny afternoon he was returning from a pull up the river in his skiff, when he saw a punt gliding towards him, the pole manipulated, rather unskilfully, it must be confessed, by the girl of whom his thoughts had been full; and he stayed in his mooring to watch her pass.

To Toni the guiding of a punt was so serious a matter that she had no eyes for anything else, and she never even saw the man in the boat. The river took rather a curve here, and Toni found it a little difficult to negotiate the bend. Becoming somewhat flurried, she directed her punt into the middle of the stream, where it hung for a moment as though undecided whether or no to swing round in the disconcerting manner peculiar to such craft; but Toni, becoming impatient, put fresh vigour into her task, and sent the punt triumphantly forward with a masterful push.

Her triumph was, however, short-lived. With the treacherous suddenness which invariably marks this catastrophe her pole snapped as she drove it downwards; the punt glided away immediately, and Toni, clinging desperately to the broken pole, went down with it into the river itself.

With an exclamation Herrick sculled his boat strongly to the spot where she had gone down, reaching it just as she came to the surface, gasping and spluttering, and with an expression of wild terror in her face.

He guessed that she could not swim, and called out to her reassuringly.

“You're all right—hang on to my boat, and I'll get you out!”

She heard him, even in the midst of her terror, and made a frantic grab at the side of the boat, only to miss by inches and go down again with an involuntary cry.

Hastily shipping his oars, Herrick bent over the boat, causing it to heel to one side rather dangerously; and when next Toni came to the surface he gripped her strongly by the shoulder, bidding her keep quite still, and then lifted her, by sheer force of muscle, into the boat, where she collapsed in a dripping little heap at his feet.

“That's all right!” He seized the oars and with a dozen vigorous strokes propelled the boat back to the landing-place, where he proceeded to tie her up, and then turned his attention to his passenger.

“Hard luck, Mrs. Rose,” he said cheerily. “But there's no harm done, is there? Now you must come into the house and let me find you some dry things to put on. Don't delay—the punt will be rescued somewhere, I've no doubt, and you really must get out of those wet garments.”

Shivering, dripping, and feeling more than half inclined to cry, Toni let him help her out of the boat; and seeing that she was really suffering from shock Herrick put his arm round her shoulders in fraternal fashion, and led her up the little sloping lawn on to the verandah of the bungalow.

Here Toni stopped in some embarrassment.

“I ... I don't think I can come in like this.” In spite of the sun her teeth were chattering. “I—I shall spoil your carpets!”

“Oh, they're beyond spoiling,” he assured her, with a laugh. “Don't worry about them! I think, though, you had better come into the kitchen, if you don't mind. There happens to be a fire there, and you can get warm.”

She followed him obediently through the long window into the shabby sitting-room, which for all its shabbiness had an oddly harmonious effect; and from there he took her into the small, cosy kitchen, which was scrupulously tidy and spotlessly clean.

“Now”—he looked at her a little dubiously—“obviously, the thing to do is to get off those wet clothes, have a hot bath, and put on something dry. Well, if I bring my tub in here and fill it from the boiler, would you mind having it in the kitchen? You see, I don't want you to get cold.”

“Oh, I don't think I need do that,” said Toni, between laughing and crying. “If you lent me a mackintosh or a big coat I could get home quite well.”

“What—as you are?” He smiled at her, but so kindly that she could not take offence. “Well, to begin with, your punt is miles away by now, and anyway you are much too wet to leave this house. Now”—he went briskly to the door—“I'm going to fetch my bath and I'll have it filled in a jiffy. You'll feel all right after a hot soak.”

He went out, leaving Toni, very wet and uncomfortable, in the middle of the floor. In a minute he returned, dragging after him a good-sized bath, filled to the brim with towels of every description.

“Now, I'll put it here, in front of the fire.” He worked as he spoke. “And if I fill these two big cans there'll be enough water. What a blessing Mrs. Swastika kept a good fire to-day.”

“Mrs. Swastika?” In the midst of her discomfiture Toni thought the name odd.

“Oh, that's not her real name.” He filled the cans vigorously. “She is really Swanson or Swanage or something like that—but I never know what it is, so I call her Swastika. She is rather like the individual in the 'Hunting of the Snark,' who 'answered to Hi or to any loud cry,' but it's handy having a name to call her by sometimes.”

He broke off in his nonsense and disappeared abruptly, leaving Toni wondering whether she was intended to begin her ablutions or no. Luckily she decided to wait a moment, and was glad she had done so when her host returned, bearing in his arms some garments, which he put down on a chair rather apologetically.

“I'm really most awfully sorry, Mrs. Rose, but I've no feminine fripperies of any sort! But if you can possibly make these things do for a bit, I'll send a boy on a bicycle down to your place and tell them to put together some clothes for you.”

“Oh, will you?” Toni was beginning to find her soaked garments rather unpleasantly chilly. “I live at Greenriver—oh, you know?—and if you tell the housekeeper to send me everything, she'll know what I want.”

“Very well.” He had been busying himself with a little saucepan over the fire as she spoke, and now he handed her a glass containing some mulled wine.

“I'll dispatch a lad at once—in the meantime please drink this—it's quite harmless, I assure you!”

As she took the glass he hurried to the door, and went out, pulling it carefully to after him.

“Pull down the blind and lock the door,” he commanded her through the keyhole. “The back door is locked already, so you are quite safe.”

As soon as he was gone, and her privacy assured, Toni lost no time in doing as he bade her; and it certainly was a relief to slip out of her clinging garments and plunge into the hot water waiting for her. She did not waste time, remembering his commands; but when it came to a question of re-dressing, and she examined the clothes he had brought, Toni gave way and burst into a fit of irrepressible laughter.

He had apologized for the lack of feminine garments, but Toni had not been prepared for the substitute he had given her. There, beneath the heavy dressing-gown, was a pair of silk pyjamas immaculately got up and folded; and at the sight of their purple and white glories Toni laughed and laughed until the tears ran down her cheeks.

At first she determined that nothing in the world would persuade her to don the resplendent pyjamas. Then a glance at her own soaked and now steaming clothing gave her courage; and giggling softly to herself she got into the silken garments, which by dint of much turning up of hems and shortening of sleeves were given some semblance of a fit. Next came the dressing-gown, an eminently masculine affair of brown camel's hair, with red collar and cuffs, and when she had tied the girdle round her waist, and, scorning the evening socks which lay ready, had slipped her bare feet into a pair of capacious slippers, Toni was so overcome by her own bizarre appearance that once more she burst out laughing gaily.

A knock at the door made her stop short, and she called out in a rather quavery voice:

“Yes? Who's there?”

“Only I—Herrick,” came the answer. “When you're ready will you come into the other room? The sun's blazing in, but I can easily light a fire if you feel chilly.”

Toni cast a doubtful look at herself in this queer garb, and then determined, very sensibly, that it was no good being prudish and silly. After all, the dressing-gown wrapped her up completely; and at any rate her own clothes would presently arrive to deliver her from this rather absurd situation.

“I'm coming in a minute,” she called out gaily. “I'm just going to let my hair down—it's rather wet, but it will dry in the sun.”

She pulled out her hair-pins recklessly, and the black waves tumbled wetly on to her shoulders. A few minutes' vigorous drying before the fire met with success, and presently Toni found courage to unlock the door and sally forth into the little hall.

Mr. Herrick was waiting for her by the sitting-room door, and he bit his lip quickly at sight of the funny little figure emerging from the kitchen.

He spoke quite gravely, however, and Toni, who had glanced at him rather sharply, felt reassured.

“That's right. Now, come and sit down, will you? See, if you take this chair, you're in the sun, and it will warm you. You're sure you're not cold?”

“Oh, no, I'm quite warm,” Toni assured him. “It's only my hair that's wet, and it won't take long to dry.”

While her eyes wandered casually round the room, Herrick took the opportunity of observing his guest more closely; and his scrutiny pleased him oddly.

In spite of her ludicrous garb Toni looked quaintly attractive. Her youth triumphed, as youth always will, over minor drawbacks, and now that she was warm and dry the colour was coming back to her lips and her complexion recovering its creamy tone. Even her hair curled bewitchingly when damp; and Herrick owned that Barry's description of her as a “pretty kid” had not been wrong.

As for Toni, she was much interested in this sunny, shabby room. The carpet might be old, beyond spoiling, as its owner described it, but it was a feast of soft, harmonious colours all the same, and although faded, its very dimness of hue was a charm. The curtains which hung at the long windows were of a queer, Persian-looking fabric; and on the mantelpiece were a dozen little bits of pottery of a greeny-blue tint which harmonized excellently with the grey-papered walls.

Books there were in plenty, on shelves and tables, even on two of the chairs; and as she looked about her Toni caught sight of the last number of the Bridge lying on the low divan as though thrown there by a reader disturbed in his reading.

Herrick's eyes had followed the direction of hers.

“You recognize your husband's review? You've seen it, of course, this last number?”

“Yes.” She had seen it, though it is to be feared that she had paid it scant attention.

“It's better than ever this month.” He sat down and took up the paper. “There's a little poem—'Pan-Shapes'—which simply delighted me. Did it take your fancy, I wonder?”

“I ... I don't think I have read it,” she said, wishing suddenly that she had not been forced to make the admission.

“No? Well it has not been out long.” He was turning the pages as he spoke. “There's something else here—another special article on Mysticism by Father Garland, which is oddly fascinating. Of course such a subject, treated by one of the greatest mystics who ever lived, was bound to be of the highest interest; but I never expected anything quite so arresting, so satisfying, when I began to read.”

He paused, evidently waiting for her to speak; but Toni sat tongue-tied, miserably conscious that in her mind no answering enthusiasm could be born, since she had neither read nor wished to read a single word of the article in question.

A hint of her mental discomfort probably reached the man on the sofa by some telepathic means, for he suddenly tossed away the review and spoke in a lighter tone.

“How long have you been punting, Mrs. Rose?”

“Oh, a very short time,” she said rather apologetically. “My husband has given me some lessons since we came down here. He doesn't know I sometimes go out alone,” she added ingenuously. “I don't go very often, because I know I'm not much good. But to-day I saw some people coming to call and I ran out of the house and jumped into the punt so that I could escape.”

Herrick smiled.

“What—are you like me? Do you avoid your fellow-creatures on principle?”

She looked a little puzzled.

“Oh no, I don't avoid people when I know them. But I've had such heaps of callers, and it's such a waste of time making conversation over tea when one wants to be out in the sunshine.”

“In fact you prefer nature to human nature?”

“I suppose I do.” She frowned rather thoughtfully. “At least I would always rather be out of the house than in it. And it's so lovely by the river in the summer. I go for walks before breakfast with my dog, and the world is so beautiful in the early morning before the mists have all vanished in the sun.”

“Ah! That reminds me!” Herrick rose. “You haven't seen my dog! I'll go and bring her in; she's lying in the shade at the back at present.”

He went out, returning in a moment with the stately Olga, who had been, as he suggested, sleeping in the shade. He kept his hand on her silver collar as she advanced, fearing that Toni's queer mixture of garments might upset her canine mind; but Olga apparently took her master's friends on trust, and presently strolled over to Toni and laid one long paw tentatively upon her knee.

Toni, delighted, stroked the beautiful creature affectionately, and Herrick said to himself cheerfully:

“Come, she's got one thing in her favour anyway! If she can't appreciate good literature she understands dogs—and after all they are worth more as humanizers of the race, than any amount of books.”

“She's lovely, Mr. Herrick!” Toni lifted delighted eyes. “What do you call her? Something nice, I hope.”

“Her name is Olga,” he returned. “Not very original for a Russian dog, I confess, but she was already christened when she came to me. You like her?”

“I think she's a darling, and Olga is quite a nice name. A friend of mine at school had a dog like her, and we used to take her into Kensington Gardens for a run on Saturday afternoons. Her name was Pearl. It's a pretty name for a white wolfhound, isn't it? They're like pearls, somehow, so smooth and shining.”

She was stroking the dog's satiny head as she spoke, and did not notice the change in the man's face; but when he remained silent she looked up as though to see why he did not respond.

“Oh, Mr. Herrick, what's the matter?” Toni was frightened by his pallor.

“Nothing—nothing!” He shook off his mental disturbance with a strong effort. “I ... I sometimes have a sort of pain—in my heart—but it's gone, quite gone, now.”

Toni was not altogether satisfied with the explanation and asked herself remorsefully what she had said to vex him; but she could not think of anything which would be likely to give offence to her host, and decided, finally, that he had spoken truthfully.

She could not know how intimately the tragedy of Herrick's life was bound up with the thought of a string of shining pearls; and her very unconsciousness served to show the man she had spoken in all innocence.

“Your husband must be very busy with this review in hand,” he said presently, remembering Barry's entreaty to him to examine the situation for himself. “Does he work at home or has he to spend much time in town?”

“Oh, he does both,” she said, relieved by his return to his former manner. “He is in town to-day, but he has been at home a good deal lately.”

“I see. It must be rather dull for you when he is shut up writing,” he went on tentatively. “Writers and men of letters generally like to be left to themselves pretty much.”

“Oh, I don't think my husband does,” said Toni blithely. “I often go in and sit with him while he works, and if I promise to go to bed early he sometimes brings his papers into the drawing-room at night.”

Herrick felt a sudden spasm of amusement, mingled with a distinct impulse of sympathy for the unfortunate writer.

“Oh! I should have thought it would be too disturbing to work in the room with anyone else—even one's wife,” he added with a smile.

“Why should it be?” Toni opened eyes of amazement. “I sit quite still—I hardly ever speak—and Jock and I—my dog—play little games together ever so quietly.”

“You don't help him in his work?”

“No.” She shook her head. “I'm not clever enough for that. I do typing for him sometimes, but even then I'm not really much use.”

“You are not an expert, perhaps?”

“Oh, I can use the typewriter all right—I've had heaps of practice. But when it comes to revising things, sort of making up an article out of rough notes, I'm no good. To begin with I can never understand what the things are about, and I always get quotations hopelessly mixed.”

“I see.” In spite of himself Herrick laughed. “You are not a great reader, then?”

“No—I hate books,” she replied frankly. “Somehow it seems a waste of time to read when you can be doing nicer things. Besides, my husband doesn't like to see me reading what he calls trash, and I simply can't get through the things he gives me!”

“Well, after all life's the most interesting book of all—when one's young,” he said indulgently. “But I'm afraid you'll wish you'd developed a taste for reading when you get like me, middle-aged and dull.”

“But you aren't dull——” she was beginning eagerly, when a loud knock at the back door of the bungalow interrupted her sentence, and she broke off hastily.

“That'll be my messenger back,” said Herrick, rising. “With garments for you, I suppose. I'll go and see.”

He went out, returning presently with a neatly-strapped suit-case which he held up with a smile.

“Your maids have packed you a change of raiment,” he said, “and have, moreover, sent a car for you to return in. I gather from the boy that two of your people squabbled as to which of them should have the privilege of bringing your things to you, but in the middle of the discussion the chauffeur, thinking, no doubt, that you were still wearing your wet garments, got impatient and started off without either of them!”

Toni had risen, and now stood hesitating a little with her hand on the suit-case.

“You'll like to change at once, I daresay.” He spoke in a business-like tone. “Will you come into my little guest-chamber? There's a glass there, and you'll be able to dress comfortably.”

She assented, and he took her into yet another of the rooms in his tiny domain, a small, bare little place which had a rather pathetically unused look about it.

Here she made a rapid toilet, finding everything she required with the exception of a hat, which had evidently been forgotten. A brush and comb had been tucked into a corner, however, and she thankfully brushed her hair and made it into two thick plaits, which for want of hair-pins she was forced to leave hanging over her shoulders.

When she sallied forth once more she found Herrick waiting for her with a tiny tea-tray.

“You must have a cup of tea before you go.” He poured it out as he spoke. “And a biscuit—one of Mrs. Swastika's specialities. She's an excellent cook, and proud of her cakes, so do try one—to please me—and her!”

Toni drank the tea gratefully and found both it and the little cakes delicious. The next thing to do was to collect her soaked clothes, and in spite of Herrick's protests that Mrs. Swastika would see to their safe return she crammed them ruthlessly into the suit-case before going out to the waiting motor.

As she shook hands with Herrick, after thanking him very prettily for his kindness, Toni ventured a shy invitation.

“Will you come to see us at Greenriver, Mr. Herrick? I'm sure my husband will wish to thank you for fishing me out of the river.”

“Thanks,” he said quietly. “I will certainly come. It will give me great pleasure to meet Mr. Rose.”

He tucked her into the car, shook hands again, and then stood bare-headed in the sunshine watching the motor spin round the white and dusty road.

At the bend Toni turned and waved her hand to him gaily, and he responded with a smile, which faded as the car vanished from sight.

Somehow his meeting with the girl had saddened him oddly. There was something rather pathetic about Toni at this moment of her existence, though it would have been hard to say exactly wherein the pathos lay. In spite of himself Herrick was haunted by the little picture she had drawn of her life with Owen Rose. He could fancy the two sitting together at night in the lamp-lit drawing-room, the man writing, or trying to write, as though alone, the young wife sitting silently by doing nothing, or playing quiet little games with her dog to relieve the monotony of an evening uncheered by any interesting book or engrossing study.

A worker himself, Herrick knew very well the deadening influence exerted by an unoccupied companion during working hours; and the fact that Toni did not care for books, and confessed to non-comprehension of her husband's work, struck Herrick as unfortunate, to say the least.

To this man, forced by circumstance into a more or less secluded state of life, Toni's lack of social experience weighed very lightly. She had not, perhaps, the manner or style of the girls one met in Mayfair or Belgravia, but she was simple and natural and unaffected; and Herrick found himself hoping that Mr. Rose knew how to value the traits of simplicity and straightforwardness at their true worth.

Then it was possible that the marriage might be a success in spite of the evident disparity of tastes between the two; but remembering Barry's gloomy forebodings, Herrick was bound to admit that the prospect of happiness seemed rather doubtful.

At present, however, he could do nothing; and with a resolve to call at Greenriver at the first available opportunity he went back into his little bungalow, which seemed strangely lonely as the twilight fell over the river-banks.

CHAPTER XII

As the summer glided by, in a succession of golden, cloudless days, Owen began to ask himself, rather drearily, whether his marriage was going to turn out a success or an irretrievable failure.

When once the novelty of Toni's companionship had worn off, when he had grown used to her pretty, childish ways, accustomed to the sense of youth and light-hearted joy which she diffused about the old house, he began to find, to his dismay, that these were not all the attributes a man looked for in the woman he had made his wife.

He had never expected to find Toni clever in an intellectual sense; but neither had he deemed her quite so shallow as she was proving herself to be. She seemed absolutely incapable of making any mental effort; the world of art and literature was a closed book to her, and, what was still more disappointing, she cared nothing for any of the social or political questions of the day, and took absolutely no interest in the contemporary life of the world about her.

Reading she disliked. Music appealed to her, for Toni was emotional, with the quick, facile emotionalism of the South; but she was no musician herself, and the grand piano in the drawing-room was silent through these sunshiny days. She had rather a talent for housekeeping, and in a smaller establishment would doubtless have been a success; but at Greenriver there was little for her to do, and she knew quite well that the housekeeper resented any interference with her particular province. Toni's household duties, therefore, were confined to the arrangement of the flowers and the care of her husband's desk—a labour of love which she performed with so much good will that Owen felt it would be churlish to find fault with any inconvenience arising therefrom.

Owen often wondered how his wife managed to fill the days which must be so terribly empty. He himself was working harder than usual, since beside the review he was contributing articles, by invitation, to several well-known journals; and he often worked till late into the night; but Toni had no work, no hobbies, nothing with which to fill the long, sunny hours.

She did not complain. Indeed, she seemed happy enough in her idleness; and by this time she knew a good many people in the neighbourhood, though she had not made many friends.

At the Vicarage she was not looked upon with much favour, owing to an unfortunate conversation with the Vicar's wife, when in response to various leading questions Toni had shown a lamentable ignorance of the great gulf which yawns between Church and Chapel—a quite conceivable ignorance on the part of the London tradesman's niece, who had attended Chapel with her aunt and uncle on Sunday evenings as cheerfully as she joined in the more attractive service in the Church which the genteel Fanny generally patronized on Sunday mornings.

When, further, Toni innocently admitted that, although baptized into the Church of England, she had usually attended the Roman Catholic Church and Sunday School during her Italian childhood, the wife of the Vicar was appalled; and ever afterwards she spoke of Mrs. Rose as unsound in her views, a condemnation which in the somewhat old-fashioned neighbourhood carried full weight.

Lady Martin also strongly disapproved of the young mistress of Greenriver, though probably only she herself and her spinster daughter could have adduced any reason for their dislike of Toni and all her works.

The story of the shrimps had long since amused Lady Martin's large circle of acquaintances; and although no one had ventured to breathe a word before either Owen Rose or his wife, it was hardly surprising that Toni came to be considered rather amusingly unsophisticated; so that the slightest gaucherie into which the unconscious Toni was betrayed during those first weeks of her introduction into the society of the district was eagerly noted and joyfully magnified in a dozen drawing-rooms.

There was the laughable story of the Roses' late arrival at an important dinner-party, and Mrs. Rose's ingenuous explanation to her rather irascible host that she had torn her frock at the last moment while playing with her dog, and had been obliged to change it for another—and this to an elderly man who “liked dogs in their proper place,” by which statement one may measure the depth of his liking very accurately.

There was the occasion on which Mrs. Rose, being pressed by a mischievous fellow-guest, had accepted a cigarette under the impression the other ladies were about to do likewise—an impression quickly dispelled by the stony glare of her hostess and the ominous whispers of the other women.

The hostess, indeed, had uttered one short, biting comment which had reduced Toni, already overwhelmed by the magnitude of her offence, almost to tears; but though it is only fair to say that her tempter apologized most handsomely, and was her firm friend and defender ever afterwards, the description of Mrs. Rose as a half-foreign and wholly-Bohemian young woman, of cigarette-smoking tendencies, was duly retailed at several dinner-tables during the following weeks.

At first Toni took her social failures very much to heart; but Owen, who was no snob, reassured her valiantly; and since Toni was only too anxious to be comforted she did her best to dismiss these unpleasant experiences from her mind.

Presently, indeed, she found two congenial spirits. The doctor's pretty old house, known locally as Cherry Orchard, harboured two lively and athletic young women who were only too pleased to be friends with the merry and vivacious Toni. They were honest, unintellectual girls, enthusiastic over all sports and excelling in most; and they took Toni to their sporting hearts and promised to introduce her to the local tennis and golf clubs without loss of time.

On her part, Toni felt at ease with them immediately, and when once she had learned to distinguish between Molly and Cynthia—a distinction made the more difficult owing to their peculiar habit of addressing each other as Toby—she thoroughly enjoyed their companionship.

In the matter of tennis, Toni, who had only played occasionally at a third-rate suburban club, was at first no match for them; but the two Tobies, who were the essence of good nature, coached her so well and so vigorously that before long she was a capital player; and when once Toni realized that Owen wished her to be as hospitable as she could possibly desire to be, she rejoiced in giving little impromptu tea-parties on the lawn, under the shade of one of the noble elms which were a feature of Greenriver.

Sometimes she took the girls motoring; and between tennis, golf, river picnics and motor excursions, the days simply flew for Toni; so that at last even Owen began to realize that he need not pity her, since she was living a life which exactly suited her.

Once he realized this, his pity was directed towards himself.

This was not the sort of married life he had contemplated; and although he was too just to blame his wife for her lack of sympathy with his aims and ideals, he began to wish that Toni would sometimes lay aside her frivolity and exchange her light and ceaseless chatter about trifling matters for a slightly more profitable style of conversation.

Owen had called upon James Herrick at his bungalow, the Hope House, to thank him for rescuing Toni; and the other man had duly returned his call; but although Owen gave Herrick a very cordial general invitation to Greenriver the two men had not much in common save a mutual love of good books.

Owen thought Herrick peculiar, eccentric in his ways. It seemed odd for a man to live alone as he lived, doing his own work except for the occasional aid of a woman whom he called Mrs. Swastika. If he had had any particular work or hobby which necessitated solitude Owen could have understood it; but Herrick seemed to spend his days as idly, as aimlessly, as Toni herself.

He went on the river a good deal, took long walks with his dog, but beyond that he seemed to do nothing but lounge in a chair on the lawn, shabbily clad, with a pipe between his lips and a book, generally unopened, on his knee. His political views seemed to Owen to be as vague as were Toni's; and he had an irritating habit of setting aside any recognized standard of perfection as though the world's seal of approval meant less than nothing.

He would demolish a given institution in a few lazy words, but he never attempted to set up another in its place. He seemed content to put his finger on the weak spot in any system without troubling to point out a remedy; and to Owen, whose eager mind was ever ready to remedy abuses, this attitude of half-pitying, half-amused toleration was vaguely irritating.

Herrick seemed to view life, indeed, with a kind of large detachment, as though from the height of some soaring pinnacle one might watch, with only half-awakened interest, the doings of the dwellers on the plain; and Owen, who liked to be in the midst of things, to add his quota to the world's doings, found in this attitude of mind a pose, a half-insolent pretence at superiority, which was galling.

Without saying a disparaging word Herrick appeared to belittle the efforts made by Owen and his fellows to enlighten the world; and since everyone knows that the criticism of a non-worker is a hundred times more irritating than that of a co-operator, Owen may be excused for finding Herrick uncongenial.

And yet by nature Herrick was a kindly, cheery soul enough, who had been fired in his youth by an excessive love for humanity—for all the humanities. But shortly after his marriage he had faced a tremendous crash; and though, when the first shock was over, he had pulled himself together, and gathered up, as best he might, the fragments of his life, he had lost for ever that eager, humane, half-Quixotic spirit which had made his young manhood pass like a joyous race.

       * * * * *

As time went on Owen got into the habit of spending most of his days in town, where he found it easier to work than at home. He begged Toni to tell him honestly whether she found herself lonely in his absence, but Toni assured him truthfully that she was perfectly happy sitting in her beautiful old garden or taking lunch and tea on the river, either alone, or in the company of her friends, Molly and Cynthia Peach. Punting alone was forbidden, but seeing Toni's disappointment, her husband had purchased for her a stout little dinghy in which she was perfectly safe, and this same craft was a source of delight to its owner.

At first Owen had asked Toni to come up to town with him, to do some shopping or go to a matinée, but London in summer was no novelty to Toni, and she infinitely preferred to stay at Willowhurst and amuse herself in her own way.

One night it chanced that Owen arrived home much earlier than usual. The weather had broken a day or two previously, and the air was heavy with thunder. Consequently Owen's head ached furiously, with one of the neuralgic headaches which since his accident he had good cause to dread; and the fact that he had an important piece of work to finish without loss of time fretted his nerves to racking-point.

London was particularly hot and malodorous to-day; and it was with a sigh of relief that Owen steered his car away from the stuffy streets towards the green and fragrant valley of the Thames. There was a coppery glow in the sky which presaged a storm, and puffs of hot air blew gustily into his face; but it would be fresher at Willowhurst, and if the storm should break there would be a delightful hour or two afterwards, when the earth, cooled by the rain, would send up its incense of sweet odours into the summer darkness, and the evening breeze would bring refreshment to weary, throbbing brows.

True, the work must be done, if human endurance could do it; and with a sigh of relief Owen remembered that Toni would be disengaged and able to help him in some way, if only by typing the manuscript when he had brought it to a close. There was also a little research work to be done, one or two quotations to be verified, a few short extracts to be made—work which came well within the scope of Toni's powers; and he knew that she would be only too pleased to give him what help she could.

But he had reckoned without his host. On leaving home in the morning he had told his wife he would probably be late in returning, and had apologized for leaving her so long alone. So far from feeling aggrieved at his absence, however, Toni seized the opportunity of inviting Mollie and Cynthia over for tennis; and the girls accepted blithely, bringing over with them a young cousin, just through Sandhurst, who was an adept at the game.

Toni welcomed the boy happily; and the four young people played tennis vigorously, with an interval for tea, until the elder Toby began regretfully to talk of going home.

There were already rumblings of thunder, and the sky behind the big cedar trees looked strangely lurid; and Toni, who hated a storm, was loth to let them go.

An idea striking her, she begged them all to stay and have a late supper with her; after which Mr. Cooper and Mollie, being musical, might give the others an impromptu concert—a plan to which, after a little decent hesitation, the trio assented gaily.

Toni, pleased that she was not to be left alone to face the storm, took them indoors to get tidy, and then danced off to the kitchen to interview the cook.

Mrs. Blades, lighting the Ten Little Ladies earlier than usual on account of the gloom, was inclined to look askance at the invasion; but Martha and Maggie—the latter filling the place of Kate, enjoying her “evening off”—fell into the plan with alacrity; and while the former brought out the cold chickens and the galantine intended for the morrow's lunch, Maggie bustled round the oval table laying extra places and making such preparations as commended themselves to her ever-fertile mind.

Owing to the stormy dusk it was necessary to light the candles on the supper-table, where bowls of great crimson roses made pools of colour on the white cloth; and very attractive the table looked to the four hungry people who presently sat down to eat and chatter.

There was plenty of gay laughter over the meal. Jokes were bandied hither and thither, shocking puns were made and greeted with shrieks of mirth, and if the conversation was eminently frivolous, at least it was good-humoured, hearty, wholesome frivolity.

Yet when Owen reached home in his car and entered the hall with rather a weary step, the somewhat noisy merriment which greeted him brought a frown to his forehead.

He questioned Andrews as to what was going on, and the young butler informed him, with a complacency which Owen in his present mood found irritating, that Mrs. Rose was entertaining the two Misses Peach and a gentleman to supper.

“Oh!” Owen paused in his walk towards the dining-room door. “In that case, I think I will just have a whisky and soda in the library—and a few sandwiches.”

“Very good, sir,” the man was beginning, when there was a peal of laughter from behind the closed door; and the next moment, Toni came flying out of the room, holding aloft a large bunch of grapes, while Mr. Cooper pursued her hotly, making grabs at the fruit as he did so.

Unable to stop herself, Toni cannoned violently into her husband, and the unfortunate youth from Sandhurst, brought to an unexpected halt, found himself face to face with an unknown man whose expression was not exactly inviting.

“Owen, is it you? How you startled me!” Toni lifted two sparkling eyes to her husband's face. “When did you come? You said you wouldn't be home till after ten!”

“I've just arrived,” he said, striving hard to keep any hint of annoyance out of his tone. “You were making such a noise you didn't hear the car! Well, Toni, won't you introduce me to your friend?”

On being presented, Mr. Cooper, held out his hand rather awkwardly.

“I'm afraid we were making an awful din,” he said, apologetically. “We got ragging over the dessert and Mrs. Rose stole my grapes——?”

“Oh, you fibber!” Toni was not going to stand that. “They were mine, and you took them off my plate when I wasn't looking!”

“I'm afraid they aren't much good to anyone now,” said Owen with a smile. “They are pretty well squashed, Toni, and I fancy your frock's got the worst of the encounter!”

“Well, it's only my tennis-frock,” said Toni, her first involuntary qualms driven away by the friendly sound in Owen's voice. “We'll go back and finish now. You'll come, Owen? I'll tell Maggie to bring back the food.”

“No, don't bother.” He spoke quietly. “I'll go and brush off some of the London dust while you and your friends finish your supper. I'll have a bite later on. Don't worry about me.” He turned to the boy. “I'm afraid we're in for a storm. I felt a few drops as I came up the drive.”

Somewhat reluctantly, Toni left her husband and returned to the dining-room, where the Tobies anxiously awaited her coming. They had practically finished their meal, and a few moments later rose from the table and went into the drawing-room, where Toni presently excused herself and went in search of her husband.

She found him in the library, where Andrew had just brought him a slender repast; and even the unobservant Toni was struck by the look of fatigue which brooded over his face as he sat poring over some closely-written sheets.

“Owen, I'm sure you ought not to do that now. Do leave it till to-morrow and come and listen to some music in the drawing-room instead.”

She laid one small hand on the sheets as though to wrest them from his grasp; but he lifted her fingers aside with a rather weary gesture.

“No, dear, I can't leave this.” His voice was flat and toneless. “I've promised to send it off the first thing to-morrow morning, and there's a lot to be done yet.”

“But I'm sure you're ill! Have you got neuralgia again?”

“A little—oh, it's nothing, only the thunder in the air. You might tell Andrews to bring me some phenacetin, will you, dear? And now, my child, run away to your guests—they'll think it queer if you leave them alone much longer.”

Toni turned obediently to the door, but she was not yet easy in her mind.

“Owen, are you sure there is nothing I can do?”

“Nothing, thank you, dear. I believe the storm is passing after all.”

He spoke the truth, for with a few more mutterings the thunder died away in the distance; and though the promised coolness did not come, both Owen and Toni were relieved by the lightening atmosphere—Toni because she was an arrant coward where thunderstorms were concerned; Owen because he felt that the clash of the elements would render the neuralgic pains in his head almost unbearable.

For long after Toni, relieved, had gone back to her visitors he sat doing nothing, lacking the energy to attack his task. Now and then he heard a few notes on the piano, and once he opened the door to listen to the elder Miss Peach's rendering of a song he knew, for Mollie Peach had a sweet, limpid soprano voice which no amount of chatter and noisy laughter could destroy.

When, however, the young man from Sandhurst started to shout a comic song, Owen shut the door hastily and wished the boy at Jericho.

He began to think the visitors would never go. At first he had hoped that their departure would set Toni free to help him after all; but when the clock in the hall chimed the half hour after ten, and still the music and laughter continued, he knew it was useless to expect any aid to-night.

At eleven the party broke up. The bicycles were brought round, and the four went gaily out of the front door to light lamps and see to suspiciously slack tyres.

Owen had charged Toni with polite messages to the two girls; and they, being somewhat in awe of a real live writer, were not sorry to avoid a meeting with their host; but Toni seemed so loth to part with them that she detained them all on the steps, chattering eagerly while the stars winked down out of the clearing sky and the owls hooted in melancholy fashion from the tops of the tall trees behind the house.

Finally the last farewells were said, the last appointments made; and Toni, yawning, turned to Andrews and bade him lock up safely.

She was still yawning when she came into the library a moment later; and in the lamplight Owen caught a glimpse of her little red mouth gaping behind her hand as she came up to the table.

“How sleepy I am!” Indeed her eyes were bright, like those of a sleepy child. “Aren't you coming, Owen? It's ever so late.”

“Why didn't you pack your friends off a little earlier then?”

“Oh, I didn't want them to go.” She yawned childishly once more. “Owen”—suddenly a thought struck her—“you're not cross, are you? You didn't mind me having them here? You know, I thought it was going to be a storm——”

“Of course I didn't mind,” he said, disarmed by her sudden appeal. “It was my fault for turning up unexpectedly. But now, Toni, supposing you run away to bed? I really must finish this work, and it's getting late.”

She agreed, docilely, and kissing him lightly, ran away to bed as she was commanded, falling asleep as soon as she was safely there.

But Owen sat late in the library—sat, indeed, till the short summer night began to recede with stealthy, sliding footsteps before the victorious onrush of the dawn; and in those quiet, lamp-lit hours he asked himself despairingly why he had been in such haste to marry.

One consolation lay in the fact that Toni herself had not the slightest idea that her marriage was anything but a success. She did not know that her idleness, her incessant chatter about trivial things, her constant interruptions, her unauthorized intrusions into the privacy of his working hours, worried him almost beyond measure.

Bubbling over with youth and joy, she had no eyes for the look of strain, of weariness on another's face; and to her it seemed quite right that her husband should write and study while she danced through the summer hours as she would.

He liked his work, she supposed; and in Toni's world it was the usual thing for the men to work to support their wives. But that the wives had equal duties, that it was theirs to share the burdens of the men's spiritual and mental labour, she had, as yet, no idea.

“At least,” said Owen wearily to himself, as he rose stiffly from his chair and moved to the oriel window to watch the marvel of the dawn, “at least I have made her happy; and as for me, it's my own mistake, and I must bear the consequences!”

With which philosophical reflection he extinguished the lamp and went slowly upstairs to bed.

CHAPTER XIII

In after days Toni always looked back to the afternoon of the Vicarage Bazaar as the occasion on which her eyes were opened ruthlessly to the cruelty of life.

The day began auspiciously enough. It was August now, a hot, languorous August, when the river lay veiled in a mist of heat, and the air, even in the early morning, was a sea of liquid gold. There were wonderful, magical nights, too, nights of mellow moonlight and sweet, mysterious perfumes, nights when a breath of clean, fragrance from distant bean-fields mingled with the richer, heavier scent of roses and Madonna lilies.

To Toni the summer had been one long time of enchantment. From the moment when she opened her eyes in the dawn, and ran to the window to see the hills shimmering in the heat, and the river sparkling with the peculiar silvery sheen of early morning, to the moment when she took her last stroll in the garden at night, and saw the stars come out in the darkening sky, while the white owls hooted mournfully in the tall trees, all, to Toni, was happiness and joy.

There is no doubt that people who are not introspective lead the happiest lives. Toni, not being given to wasting her time in reflection or self-analysis, remained happily unconscious of the fact that her life during that splendid summer was a very idle one. Like a good many other girls, she considered that a strenuous game on the tennis-court or a stiff pull up the river entitled her to as much subsequent leisure as she desired; and she enjoyed the slight fatigue consequent on these exertions with a virtuous sense of having really done some work which entitled her to a holiday.

She did not see very much of her husband; and sometimes she felt, with a slight pang of remorse, that before their marriage she had really taken more interest in his work than she found time to do nowadays. Not that he ever seemed to expect anything from her in that way. Once or twice, in the earlier days of their married life, he had been led into discussing various features of the review with her, and she had really tried hard to listen intelligently, and understand what he was talking about; but somehow he seemed to guess that the subjects did not interest her; and for the last few weeks he had confined his conversations with her to the little trivial happenings of every day.

He didn't mind, she supposed. He must get plenty of the old Bridge at the office; and anyway it was far more of a change for him, when he came home, to talk of other things, even though they were in one sense less important.

She herself was perfectly happy; and had she been asked, she would certainly have said that Owen was in a state of equal bliss. Moreover, seeing that he had chosen her out of a world of women to be his wife, she never stopped to ask herself whether or no she came up to his standard of wifely perfection.

And considering her peculiarly blind and unquestioning attitude of mind on the subject of her relation to her husband, the awakening which presently came was doubly painful.

The occasion, as has been stated, was that of the Vicarage Bazaar, an annual function held in the Vicarage gardens in the middle of August; and since Mrs. Madgwick, the Vicar's wife, had from motives of parochial diplomacy established some sort of intimacy with the young mistress of Greenriver, she had pressed Toni into her service as the great day came round.

With Molly and Cynthia Peach, Toni was to assist at the flower-stall, which was always, so the Tobies assured her, certain of patronage; and by ten o'clock on the morning of the day, Toni was at the Vicarage, laden with masses of blossoms sent from Greenriver as a contribution to the stall.

From that moment until the hour of lunch, to which she was detained almost by force, Toni worked like a veritable busy bee, running errands, doing odd jobs, and, in the intervals, arranging the flowers on the stall, until hands and feet were both weary.

Having finished the hurried and uncomfortable meal, consisting chiefly of tinned tongue and a rather out-of-date cream cheese, Toni was allowed to run home to change her dress; and at half-past two precisely she was back, robed in the daintiest, filmiest white lawn gown, to take her place with the other stallholders, in readiness for the opening ceremony, performed, much to the delight of the entire Madgwick family, by a real duchess.

The Duchess had little to say and said it very badly; but she was duly applauded and presented with a bouquet by a small white-robed child, stiff with starch and self-consciousness; after which her Grace descended thankfully from the little platform erected for her speech, and fulfilled the second and easier half of her duty by making the round of the stalls and spending a strictly equal amount at each one.

By now Toni had a good many acquaintances in the neighbourhood, and was pleased to see Mrs. Anstey smiling at her as she inquired the price of a magnificent bunch of sweet-peas which had come from the gardens of Greenriver.

Toni told her the price, and she forthwith bought the flowers, greatly to Toni's pleasure, for she loved her sweet-peas and had hoped, rather childishly, that someone nice would buy them.

As she was handing over the change, Toni summoned up courage to ask after Miss Lynn, and Mrs. Anstey smiled.

“She is very well, thanks, and coming here, I hope, in a week or two. She and Mr. Raymond are to be married at Christmas, as I daresay you have heard.”

“Yes, my husband told me so.” Suddenly Toni blushed, remembering the occasion of Miss Lynn's visit to her; and at the same moment, as though evoked by some mysterious method of thought, the robust and gaily-dressed form of Lady Martin suddenly materialized before her eyes.

Her ladyship was engaged in cheapening a bunch of yellow roses, while Cynthia Peach was endeavouring, without much success, to point out that their fresh beauty and scent were well worth the original price.

“I'll take them if you knock off sixpence,” Lady Martin was declaring rather aggressively; and Miss Peach glanced helplessly at her sister.

“What shall I do, Toby?” she murmured anxiously. “Of course they're cheap already, but still I suppose they won't last——”

“Oh, nonsense, Toby,” whispered Mollie vigorously. “If she doesn't buy them heaps of people will.” Aloud she said firmly—“I'm afraid we can't take less, Lady Martin. The Duchess bought two bunches of the same roses, and she didn't think them dear.”

Lady Martin paused, inherent meanness struggling with a snobbish desire to emulate the Duchess; and finally she gave in with a bad grace.

As she took the roses her eyes fell on Toni, at that moment intent on her conversation with Mrs. Anstey; and her ladyship's ill-humour was not lessened by noticing the friendly glances which passed between them.

She bore down upon them accordingly with outstretched hand.

“Dear Mrs. Anstey, it is ages since we met!” Her piercing tones, likened by the Tobies to those of a macaw, strove in vain for suavity. “So good of you to come to this affair—such a distance for you, too!”

“Oh, I always try to come when I am at home,” said Mrs. Anstey gently. “I like to support Mr. Madgwick's parish, though I'm afraid I don't spend a great deal of money! Really the flowers and the home-made cakes are the only things that tempt me.”

“And surely you have plenty of flowers at home!” Lady Martin glanced with a disparaging little laugh at the stall before her. “I don't know where these came from, but they look sadly wilted already.”

“I'm afraid I can't agree with you there,” said Mrs. Anstey, with a little smile. “I think the flowers are charming, especially those sent by Mrs. Rose's kindness from Greenriver.”

She indicated Toni with a friendly little gesture, and Lady Martin condescended, unwillingly, to acknowledge the girl's greeting. To tell the truth, Lady Martin had no desire to better her acquaintance with Toni. She had long ago intended the owner of Greenriver for her son-in-law; and to find this little nobody, with her provincial ways and her foreign-looking eyes, acting as châtelaine of the beautiful old house in her daughter's place had an irritating effect.

To make matters worse, several people had known of her matrimonial designs; and since the disappointment of one's friends is frequently a source of mirth, she had been annoyed by several tactless allusions, made presumably in jest, to her daughter's disappointment.

So it was that she disliked Rose's wife with the hearty aversion of a spiteful and jealous woman; and the fact that she herself came of the people made her specially quick to suspect bourgeois blood in others.

She took a delight, now, in snubbing Toni; and presently made a point of asking after her cousin Miss Mibbs.

“She's very well, thank you,” replied Toni, wondering a little at this unusual condescension. “But her name isn't Mibbs, it's Gibbs.”

“Really?” Lady Martin drawled the word out insolently, as though to indicate that the name of the young woman in question did not interest her. “She is not here to-day, I suppose?”

“No,” said Toni, absent-mindedly, “she was not able to get off to-day.”

“Get off?” Lady Martin pounced on the strange form of the admission. “She is ... er ... full of social engagements?”

Afterwards Toni thought it was the scent of the flowers which had made her feel hazy just then. Although she had an intuition that her interlocutor meant to be inquisitive, she had not the sense to turn the subject with a vague assent; and after a second's hesitation replied rather foolishly that her cousin's engagements were not in society.

“Indeed? But it is holiday time—surely Miss Gibbs is not teaching now?”

Mrs. Anstey, feeling to the full the insolence of this cross-examination, attempted to come to the rescue; but Lady Martin stood waiting so obviously for an answer that Toni felt constrained to reply.

“No, Lady Martin. My cousin is not a governess.”

“No?” Lady Martin, who had the lust for cruelty inherent in all mean natures, pressed the point ruthlessly. “Then—I hardly see ... in the summer one does not work unless one is a private secretary or something of that sort; and I am sure your cousin”—with a pointed smile—“did not look in the very least like a private secretary!”

Suddenly Toni lost her head and her temper together.

“My cousin is no one's secretary, Lady Martin. She is in a shop—Brown and Evans, drapers, of Brixton; and she is not here to-day because Thursday is the early-closing day for the shops, and this is only Tuesday!”

There was a short silence. Even Lady Martin felt uncomfortable, for though she had literally goaded the girl into speech she did not enjoy the spectacle of Toni's flashing eyes and scarlet cheeks, nor the expression of mingled contempt and compassion on Mrs. Anstey's face—the contempt, as she very well knew, being intended for her, the compassion for Toni.

The moment she had spoken Toni knew what she had done; that besides losing her temper and behaving in an ill-bred way she had given a handle to her enemies; and the tears were perilously near her eyes, though pride forbade her to let them fall.

It was Cynthia Peach who came to the rescue.

“How awfully jolly for your cousin,” she said plaintively. “I've always longed to go into a shop! The girls have such a good time—and they meet heaps of young men! Not like us poor things who hardly ever see one!”

Her evident sincerity relieved the situation. Her sister might murmur “Oh, Toby!” under her breath, and Lady Martin might sneer, but Mrs. Anstey patted the speaker's arm with a very kindly smile.

“Poor little Cynthia! I shall have to scour the neighbourhood for young men and give a party,” she said. “I'd no idea you were so forlorn!”

“Well, there aren't many, really,” conceded the elder Toby. “And I know what Cynthia means! That's why she was so pleased to come and sell flowers!”

“And you are all neglecting your duties shamefully, my dears!” Mrs. Anstey moved aside to allow a batch of customers to approach the stall. “I mustn't stay here chattering. You will come and have tea with me, won't you, Mrs. Rose?” She turned to Toni, who was now as white as one of her own lilies. “I will look for you at five in the tent—you will be able to get off by then!”

She smiled kindly at the girl as she moved away. Lady Martin had already gone, feeling, no doubt, that the weight of public opinion was against her; and as a rush of business just then overwhelmed the flower-sellers, Toni had no time to dwell upon the recent little scene.

But Mrs. Anstey looked for Toni in vain when five o'clock came. As a matter of fact Toni had felt, desperately, that she could not face the crowded tea-tent, where doubtless she would again meet her enemy, Lady Martin; and she wanted no tea; she only wanted to be alone for a few moments, away from prying eyes, unkind tongues, that she might regain the equilibrium so cruelly upset.

With this end in view she slipped away when the two sisters came back from their hurried tea; and followed a little path which she knew would bring her out at a quiet corner of the grounds, where a rickety old summer-house might afford her the temporary shelter she sought.

There was no one there; and although the entrance to the little hut was almost choked up with weeds and tall, rank flowers, she crept inside, and then, sinking on to the seat in the dimmest, darkest corner, gave herself up to the fit of depression which had been stealing on her ever since her own rash avowal to Lady Martin.

Suddenly she sat upright. Even here, it seemed, she was not to be free from interruption. She heard voices approaching, as though others were seeking her hiding-place; and pushing aside one of the rotting wooden shutters she peeped cautiously out.

Fate was against her to-day. In the two persons who were drawing near, evidently with the intention of seating themselves upon the bench outside the hut, she recognized Lady Martin and Mrs. Madgwick; and instantly Toni felt a quick foreboding of evil.

Something seemed to tell her that it was she whom they were discussing so earnestly as they walked; and Toni shrank back into the gloom, totally incapable of facing them in her tear-stained and generally dishevelled condition.

She breathed a prayer that they would not attempt to enter the summer-house—a prayer which was answered, for the two ladies seated themselves on the bench outside, which was first wiped scrupulously clean by a large and substantial handkerchief wielded by the Vicar's wife.

Her escape thus cut off, Toni had no choice but to remain silently within. She supposed, forlornly, that she ought to make her presence known; but she felt it almost impossible to stir; and the first words she heard kept her chained to her seat.

“A sad pity,” Mrs. Madgwick was remarking in her unctuous voice. “I always felt there was something just a little—well, what shall I call it?—second-rate about the girl. Mr. Rose being a gentleman in every sense of the word makes the whole thing so much worse.”

“It does.” Lady Martin's thin lips tightened. “I too knew from the first that the young woman was not a lady—why, on the occasion of my welcoming call I found her entertaining this very cousin to a repast of tea and shrimps—or was it periwinkles? Something vulgar, anyway, and I am nearly sure I saw a plate of watercresses as well.”

“Dear me,” said the vicar's wife acidly. “What class does the girl spring from? I always thought it was only servants or shop-girls who ate things of that sort—with vinegar—for tea!”

“Well, we have Mrs. Rose's own word for it that her cousin is assistant in a shop.” Lady Martin laughed disagreeably. “I have no doubt Mrs. Rose was employed in the same manner before her marriage. It is really remarkable what matches these pert shop girls make nowadays. Men seem to prefer them to our daughters, though it is hard to understand.”

“Hard? Impossible!” The Vicar's wife, thinking of her own plain and middle-aged daughters, spoke snappily. “As you say, no doubt Mrs. Rose was some little shop-assistant——”

“Ah, no! I remember now!” Lady Martin spoke mysteriously, and Mrs. Madgwick looked up sharply. “Mrs. Rose was not in a shop. It was not there that Mr. Rose met her. As a matter of fact she was his typist.”

“His typist! Ah!” Toni, listening breathlessly, could not fathom the significance of the lady's tone.

“Of course he would never have married her if he had not been so sore about Miss Rees.” Lady Martin spoke fluently. “I had the whole story of that affair from a friend of my daughter's who was intimately acquainted with Miss Rees.”

“But—who is—or was—Miss Rees?” The speaker little knew how Toni blessed her for putting the question.

“The girl he should have married—the Earl of Paulton's niece.” Lady Martin paused a moment to brush away an inquisitive gnat. “It was quite a romantic affair, at first. Mr. Rose was devoted, positively devoted to her, and she is really a charming girl, handsome, accomplished, in every way a contrast to the poor little creature he has married.”

“But why, if he were so devoted——”

“Didn't he marry her? Well, it seems he had a motor smash, knocked himself up and had to go away for a time; and whether, as I have been told, she was glad of the excuse to break her promise, or whether there was some other reason, I don't know, but anyhow she threw him over and married Lord Saxonby without telling her first fiancé a word about it.”

“And he took it to heart?” Mrs. Madgwick felt exhilarated by this authentic peep into the lives of the great ones of the earth. “Of course it must be galling to be thrown over for another man—though when it is a Lord——”

“Well, a Lord's no worse than another man,” said Lady Martin rather ambiguously. “But they say there was a terrible scene—Mr. Rose reproaching the girl and threatening to kill Lord Saxonby, and making all sorts of wild threats. My daughter's friend had a maid who had been with Lady Saxonby, and she told her all this.”

“Ah, then of course it's true.” Mrs. Madgwick, having a mind which delighted in gossip, did not quarrel with the source of information. “But I don't yet see why Mr. Rose married this girl. Surely there must have been plenty of ladies he could have had.”

“Ah, but they all knew he'd been jilted,” said Lady Martin wisely. “Besides they say he had sworn to marry the first woman who would have him, to get even with Miss Rees, you know, and I haven't a shadow of doubt this girl threw herself at his head.”

“Very likely,” agreed the Vicar's wife charitably. “Girls of that class are so pushing. But as a wife for Mr. Rose and the mistress of Greenriver she is eminently unsuitable.”

“Dreadfully so,” sighed Lady Martin. “I feel so sorry for the poor man tied to a common, empty-headed little thing like that. They tell me she is an absolute fool—and really in these days of evening classes and polytechnics there is no excuse for such lamentable ignorance as she displays. I hear that when they go out to dinner she sits as dumb as a fish—or else commits such shocking solecisms that her poor husband blushes for her.”

“Really? I have had very little conversation with her,” said the other woman judicially. “And beyond noting her deplorable unsoundness on religious matters I have had few opportunities of probing her mind.”

“Her mind? She hasn't one,” snapped Lady Martin. “She is one of those mindless, soulless women who are simply parasites, clinging to men for what they can get—a home, money, position—and give nothing in return because they have nothing to give.”

“It is indeed sad for Mr. Rose,” said Mrs. Madgwick compassionately. “So dreadfully boring for a clever man to be hampered with a silly wife—and one with such unpresentable relations, too. What was her cousin like? Quite—quite, I suppose.”

“Oh, quite,” agreed Lady Martin. “A red-faced, blowsy young woman with a large bust and a pinched-in waist. Just the sort of girl you'd expect to find in a draper's shop in Brixton. But now, I really feel quite rested. Suppose we return to the Bazaar? I have one or two little purchases to make, and possibly by now the things will be reduced in price.”

The Vicar's wife rose with alacrity, and the two ladies moved away, discussing the probable financial result of the Bazaar, and Toni was left alone with her new knowledge.

CHAPTER XIV

At half-past five on that same afternoon Jim Herrick and his dog were strolling across the meadows leading from the river to the village of Willowhurst.

The sky, which had been brilliantly blue all day, was beginning to be overcast, causing the energetic helpers at the Vicarage Bazaar to throw anxious glances towards the gathering clouds, and Herrick, who was a fair weather-prophet, foresaw a storm before sunset.

As he threw his leg over the stile leading into the last meadow, he paused suddenly.

Approaching him was Owen Rose's wife; and something in her mode of progress struck him as peculiar. She was coming along at a sort of fast walk, breaking now and then into a few running steps, stumbling occasionally and even stopping dead for a second before resuming her hurrying advance.

Her eyes were downcast; and she was quite close to him before she realized his presence. When she did look up he saw that she was crying, openly, sobbingly, as a child cries, the tears running in little channels over her cheeks and dropping unheeded where they would.

Even when she saw that she was not alone, Toni could not check those treacherous tears; and something told Herrick that she was craving for sympathy, that here was no sophisticated woman of the world, to whom the encounter would spell annoyance, but a forlorn and solitary child crying out its heart over some real or fancied tribulation, to whom a kindly word, a friendly greeting would bring only comfort.

He jumped off the stile and approached her, hat in hand.

“Mrs. Rose? You're in trouble over something? Will you tell me what's wrong—perhaps I can help you somehow?”

To his relief he saw that his impression had been correct. She turned to him desperately, like a child seeking consolation.

“Mr. Herrick”—she sobbed out the words—“I'm so miserable—I don't know what to do!”

“Come, that's bad!” He spoke kindly. “Well, suppose you rest here a moment and dry your eyes?”

She fumbled blindly in the front of her gown and then gave up the search with a childish wail.

“I've not got a handkerchief—I've lost it somewhere!”

“Never mind, I have one.” He drew out a large silk square as yet unfolded, and pressed it into her hand. “There, use that—and then we'll have a talk.”

She dried her eyes obediently, though fresh tears threatened to make her obedience futile; and then, still clinging to his handkerchief, she leaned against the stile and tried to regain her self-control.

“Well?” His tone, with its gentle sympathy, was balm to poor Toni's sore heart. “Come, little lady, what's the trouble? Let's see if we can't find a way out of it together.”

She turned her eyes on him as he spoke, and he was almost startled at what he read there; for surely there was a hint of almost womanly suffering in their usually childish depths; and he knew intuitively that this was not the thoughtless, light-hearted girl he had previously known as Toni Rose.

“Mr. Herrick”—she spoke in a low voice, which in spite of all her efforts shook a little—“just now at the Vicarage Bazaar I heard Lady Martin and Mrs. Madgwick talking about me; and they said such terrible things that I think my heart will break!”

“Oh, come, Mrs. Rose!” His tone had, as he intended, a bracing effect. “Hearts don't break so easily as that! Whatever those two chatterers may have said, you must not let it affect you so seriously.”

“They said I was common—and ill-bred—and ignorant.” The words startled her hearer, though she spoke them with a kind of dreary quietness which was not without pathos. “They said Owen only married me because some girl—an earl's niece—had thrown him over and he wanted to get his own back—they said he was ashamed of me, that he blushed for me when we went out to dinner, and everyone pitied him for having such a common, empty-headed wife.”

“My dear Mrs. Rose——” For a moment Herrick's wits deserted him beneath this recapitulation; and before he could hit on the right words, Toni had begun again.

“They said it was a pity for a clever man to be tied to an ignorant wife, that I bored him to death; and Lady Martin said I was a parasite, clinging to him for money and food, and that I had spoilt his life and ruined his career——”

“Oh, that is nonsense!” Herrick shook off the mental paralysis which had held him tongue-tied, and spoke vigorously. “No man's life was ever spoilt by the possession of a pretty, loving wife—like you.”

“Ah, but you don't understand.” She spoke drearily. “I have been a fool, I suppose. I was so happy myself that I never thought of Owen. I mean I just went on loving him—thinking he loved me. I didn't bother about his work and his career—it never struck me I should be doing Owen harm by my ignorance. I knew I wasn't clever enough to help him, but I thought that didn't matter so long as we were happy....”

“But you were happy?”

“I was.” A big tear rolled forlornly down her cheek. “It was so lovely here—like a beautiful dream—the summer and the river and the roses ... every day was better than the last and I thought it would always be like that ... I had never dreamed I could be so happy ... it was just like a fairy-tale, I used to think sometimes I was like an enchanted princess, living in a wonderful castle—with my prince....” Her voice sank to a whisper, and she gazed out over the flower-strewn meadows with a wide-eyed glance which saw nothing.

Herrick's big heart, which in spite of his life's tragedy held still an infinite compassion for all weak and helpless things, was wrung with pity for this poor little creature, whose eyes had been opened so cruelly to the fact that life was not all an enchanted fairyland; and when he spoke his deep voice was very gentle.

“See here, little lady, you mustn't take all this to heart. These women were talking, you must remember, without any intimate knowledge of your affairs; and we all know that gossip is eminently uncharitable. Besides, loyalty to your husband should make you believe in him and his love.”

“I do.” She stopped abruptly, then went on again more impetuously. “But the worst of it is, I believe it is true, what they said. I am ignorant and silly. I hate going out to parties; I never feel at ease, I make foolish mistakes. Owen has been very kind, he has only laughed, but it must have been horrid for him to have such a foolish wife. At home, too ... it's quite true I haven't helped him. I've been out all day enjoying myself, and not bothering about his work. I did at first, and I made such stupid blunders that he used to have to do it all over again.”

“Well, that's nothing.” He spoke lightly. “After all, you are not a literary expert like your husband, and you can't be expected to do his work.”

“No.” She caught her white teeth fiercely in her lip. “But lots of women could have helped him. This one they spoke of—they said she was clever, accomplished, just the sort of wife for a man like Owen—not a stupid little dummy like me. And”—she paused, and every tinge of colour faded out of her face—“they said I was common—not a lady. Mr. Herrick, am I common? Am I—not a lady?”

With her eyes on his face, eyes full of a desperate hurt, Herrick felt a wild, impotent desire to strangle the two mischief-makers who had changed this girl's joy into bitterness, had turned a child's enchanted castle into a structure of pasteboard; but when he spoke his tone was admirably light.

“My dear child, now you are talking absolute nonsense. Common? Well, to me commonness consists in common behaviour, mean tempers, a nasty, spiteful attitude of mind, a discontent with one's surroundings, a petty jealousy of others—oh, I hate a common mind as much as anyone in the world—but to use the word in connection with you is merely an abuse of language and not to be treated seriously.”

She was half perplexed, half comforted.

“But a lady, Mr. Herrick? Am I or am I not—a lady?”

“Well,” he said slowly, “that again depends on the use of the word. Mrs. Swastika, my excellent charwoman, is referred to by her friends as 'the lady who looks after that queer man in the bungalow'; and when my usual milkman was taken ill the other day, my modest pint of milk was brought by a pig-tailed girl who announced, 'I'm the young lady as takes round Mr. Piggott's milk when he's sick!' So that you see the term 'lady' is capable of wide interpretation.”

“But am I?” Her wistful tone craved for reassurance and Herrick gave it promptly.

“If by 'lady' you mean a woman who is fit to mix with any one in the land, yes,” he said. “Of course you are.”

She gave him a wan little smile, and dried away a few tears with the aid of his handkerchief.

“I don't know where mine is,” she said, half-crying, half-laughing. “I must have dropped it somewhere.”

“Or the Boo-Boos took it.” He smiled at her puzzled expression. “Don't you know those dreadful little people—the people who hide one's pencils and one's handkerchiefs, put the clock back so that one misses one's train—or an appointment—and invariably send an organ-grinder outside one's window when one is hard at work and can't bear a noise!”

“But why do you call them Boo-Boos?” She might have been a child asking for the explanation of a fairy-tale.

“Well, they aren't Brownies, because they are a good little folk. And the Pixies, though their tricks are much the same, pursue their avocations out of doors on moor or hill; so that the only name I could find for them was just that—Boo-Boos!”

He laughed at her bewildered face.

“Come, Mrs. Rose, don't you ever feel conscious of their teasing presence? Don't you lose your hair-pins, or your brooches, or whatever corresponds to our collar-studs? And have you never noticed how a pen with which you are about to sign an important document, a will or something of the kind, has changed mysteriously into a pencil—generally without a point—when you pick it up?”

He had succeeded in his intention. His nonsense had won her to a smile; and the eyes which a few moments before had looked like those of a tortured woman were once again the eyes of a child.

“Do you know, Mrs. Rose”—Herrick felt there was danger in prolonging the situation once she had attained a comparative serenity—“I'm afraid it's going to rain! Don't you think we had better be moving homewards?”

She rose at once.

“Just as you like.” She spoke with the utmost docility. “I suppose we had better go. I haven't an umbrella—have you?”

“No—and your dress is thin.” He looked at her white gown, which had not been improved by her incarceration in the mouldy summer-house, and showed traces of the dust and dirt of the bench on which she had crouched while the two women talked outside. Altogether Toni presented a pathetic little figure; and Herrick felt a sudden desire to know her safely at home, hidden from inquisitive eyes.

He called Olga, who had been playing an enticing game of hunting quite imaginary rabbits in the hedgerow; and when the great dog bounded up in obedience to his summons, he jumped over the stile and held out his hand to help Toni. She climbed over rather lifelessly, catching her white skirt on a splinter of wood and tearing a rent which filled Herrick with dismay.

“You've torn your pretty dress! What a shame—will it be quite spoilt?”

“Oh no, I can mead it,” she returned indifferently, “and any way it doesn't matter.” To Toni nothing mattered just then.

“That wretched splinter was to blame. I'm afraid I didn't notice it,” he said contritely.

“Oh, it wasn't your fault. Perhaps it was one of your queer creatures, the Boo-Boos,” said Toni with a wintry attempt at a smile; and Herrick was struck with the readiness with which she had adopted his whimsical theory.

As they went across the fields beneath the now cloudy sky, he tried to keep the conversation at the same light level; but although Toni strove to adapt herself to his mood, it was evident that her thoughts were still circling round the revelation which had shattered her fairy castle; and just as the chimneys of Greenriver came in sight above the tall tree-tops, she asked him a question which had been formulating in her mind throughout the walk homewards.

“Mr. Herrick, do you think I could improve myself somehow—I mean could I read some books, or do something to make myself a more suitable wife for Owen? You know”—she caught her breath—“I can't bear for him to be ashamed of me, or bored with me—and they said—those women, that he was both.”

For a second Herrick thought of treating the matter lightly, assuring her that what the women had said was of no importance whatever. Then he knew there was only one course open to him, and he met sincerity with sincerity, candour with candour.

“It would be very easy for you to do a little reading,” he said quietly. “Of course a literary man like Mr. Rose forgets that everyone has not his fine taste in books; and on the other hand, it is very easy to acquire a liking for poor stuff. But there are lots of authors who would delight you with their books, and if I can give you any help I shall be charmed to make you out a list.”

“Will you?” Her eyes lighted up for a second. “There are hundreds of books in the house—the library is supposed to be rather remarkable, you know, and I expect lots of the books you mean are there.”

“I've no doubt of it.” He remembered hearing of the unique collection which Greenriver housed. “Tell me what sort of books you like? Travel, history, romance—what?”

The light died out of her eyes.

“I don't know.” Her voice sounded flat. “I don't think I like anything much—except stories. Novels, I mean,” she added hastily.

“Well, there are plenty of very fine novels,” he said cheerily. “And no one need be ashamed of liking that form of story-telling. I always fail to understand the attitude of the person who says 'I never read novels!' as though he were claiming a tremendous superiority, whereas he's only showing himself a narrow-minded and unimaginative person!”

“But reading novels won't make me clever?” said Toni rather wistfully.

“Well, probably not, if you read nothing else,” he owned. “But there is plenty more stuff for you to read. What about poetry?”

She shook her head.

“Well, you'll soon get to like it,” he said smiling. “You needn't flesh your maiden sword in Browning, you know. Anyway, I will send you a list, shall I?—of books that I think you'll like. Can you read French?”

Blushing, she confessed her inability to do more than recognize a French quotation here and there; and a new thought filled her mind.

“Do you think if I were to study French, Mr. Herrick? I've got all my old books, and I could do an exercise every day.”

Herrick was half inclined to smile, but she was so desperately in earnest that he refrained.

“A capital plan,” he said heartily, thinking to himself that the harder she worked the less time she would have for fretting.

“And if I got to know more poetry I might be able to help Owen with his articles,” she said, smiling happily, reassured by his friendly counsel. “Of course they were quite right—I am stupid and ignorant, but if I work hard I think I ought to be able to make myself useful to Owen, oughtn't I, Mr. Herrick?”

“Don't work too hard,” he said, half jesting, half in earnest. “You don't want to turn yourself into a blue-stocking, do you? Don't over-develop your brain at the expense of your heart and soul, as so many learned women have done—to their ultimate despair.”

“There's no fear of that.” Toni spoke in a low voice, and again he caught a glimpse of something disconcerting in her clear eyes. “Those women said I had no soul. But that's nonsense, because everyone has a soul.”

“But not everyone realizes it,” he said. “Some people go through life and never know they have more than a body, which claims attention while the soul waits, yearningly, for recognition.”

He had spoken half to himself, his thoughts wandering for a moment from the girl beside him to another girl whose soul had been, to him at least, as a sealed book.

“I have been like that,” said Toni surprisingly. “But I have a soul—and for Owen's sake I am going to prove it. Only”—she faltered find her brave accents died away—“perhaps it is too late, after all.”

       * * * * *

And though, when he left her at her own door, refusing her invitation to enter, she had regained much of her usual manner, her last words haunted Herrick all through the long, lonely evening.

He knew quite well that there was a good deal of truth in the accusation brought against the shrinking Toni. Although he lived a solitary life, it was impossible altogether to avoid contact with one's neighbours along the river; and he had heard sundry bits of conversation concerning Toni which went to prove that Owen Rose's choice of a wife was freely criticized in the neighbourhood. People agreed that she was certainly surprisingly pretty, but she did not belong to the class which filled all the big houses round about. The charitable said she was shy, the malicious called her gauche, without perhaps knowing exactly what they meant; and everyone who had talked to her asserted that she had no conversation, and did not appear in the least a suitable wife for a clever man like Mr. Rose.

“Poor little girl!” Herrick rose from his seat with a sigh at the end of the long, dreary evening. “I'm sorry for her—like the little mermaiden of Hans Andersen, she is ready—now—to dance upon knives for the possession of a soul! Well, she'll win her soul all right, but God grant the winning of it doesn't end in tragedy!”

He stood for a moment gazing into vacancy with a half-tender, half-cynical smile on his lips. Then he extinguished the lamp, called Olga from her resting-place on the old divan, and went slowly to bed.

CHAPTER XV

Herrick duly sent Toni a list of such books as he thought suitable for her purpose; and then began for Toni a succession of long and, if the truth be told, tedious days spent, in Owen's absence, in the quiet, stately library, while the August sunshine streamed in through the big mullioned windows, and turned the books, in their many-hued bindings, into pools of rich, dim colour, lighted here and there with the flash of gold, the gleam of purple and scarlet.

Toni used to wish, half-rebelliously, that the sun would not shine in so gloriously, turning the polished floor into a golden sea, and bathing her, as she sat at the table, in a flood of dancing sunbeams.

It was so hard to sit there reading, trying in vain to dig out the heart of some book of old stories, sagas and the like, or struggling helplessly to understand a poem written in lovely but surely incomprehensible metaphors, and full of words which, though she realized their beauty, still conveyed little to her intelligence.

Herrick had perhaps slightly over-estimated her powers. He had never before come in contact with quite such an undeveloped mind. His own married life had been too short for him to grasp fully the characteristics of his wife, and although in some respects she had not been unlike Toni, she had been differently educated. Her mind had perhaps little depth, but she was quick and versatile; and owing to her surroundings she had been able, always, to adopt the shibboleth of the social set to which she belonged by right of birth.

So it was that Herrick, with all his sympathy, all his intuition, failed to plumb the shallows of Toni's mind. He gave her Rossetti when he should have given her Ella Wheeler Wilcox; and George Eliot when he should have introduced her to Jane Austen and her gentle sister, Miss Burney. The “Idylls of the King,” clothed in Tennyson's poetic garments, would have won her interest—instead he advised her to read Malory, and read him she obediently did, until her brain ached with the clash of swords, and her eyes were wearied with the glitter of the dragons' scales or the silver mail of the knights who fought to the death for the damsels they served.

Knowing her love of outdoor life, he sent her to Borrow, but even “Lavengro” failed to charm the lonely student, to whom the sun, the moon, the stars were all “sweet things” indeed, when no printed page intervened between her and their sweetness.

It was weary work, toiling there day after day, while the river flashed and gleamed in the sunlight, and Jock ran barking hither and thither under the windows, as though imploring her to leave those musty haunts and come to chase the elusive yellow sunbeams on the lawn.

At first she had been used to take the big, high-backed chair at the head of the table, and spreading out her books, refuse to cast so much as a look at the sunny world without; but after four or five mornings so spent she gave in suddenly and betook herself to the little table in the window, where from her seat she could watch the tall white lilies swaying in the breeze, or catch the fragrance of the mauve and scarlet sweet-peas which climbed their hedge just out of sight.

It was weary work, and Toni's eyes and head ached when the luncheon-bell rang to set her free from her self-imposed task; but she did not give in, and after her hasty meal she would return to the library and struggle till tea-time with half a dozen French exercises, which by the aid of a key she sternly corrected when finished.

When Owen arrived home, shortly before dinner, Toni was worn out with the combined effects of her mental exertions and her lack of fresh air; but Owen, who was turning over in his mind the material for a novel, was not in a mood to notice her unwonted silence, and was relieved when, after dinner, she went early to bed and set him free to spend the evening in his sanctum, making notes and generally planning out the book he felt he could write.

To the novelist there comes, at the inception of a book, a period in which the things and people around him recede into the background before the people and things he seeks to create; and it is scarcely to be wondered at if at these times the writer's vision, which is turned, so to speak, inward, fails to realize the significance of the scenes being enacted beneath his mortal eyes.

And it was so with Owen. During that strenuous fortnight of Toni's laborious study, Owen was so fully occupied with the visions of his brain that he had little time to spare for the flesh and blood inmate of his home; and though he was always kind to Toni, he did not notice that the laughter was absent from her lips, the joyful light of happiness quenched in her eyes.

The idea of his book was beginning to absorb him very thoroughly. Hitherto he had never had the time to devote to purely imaginative work; but now that the Bridge was going ahead and his series of articles for outside papers was finished, he felt the call of fiction very strongly.

His story was concerned with the conflict between East and West, with the life of an Indian prince who, after his English education, was called upon to rule his dead father's kingdom; and Owen's impressions of India, gathered during a stay of some months in that magic land, formed a brilliant setting for the half-political, half-romantic story he had to tell.

Barry, who was, of course, in the secret, was intensely interested in this new departure; and had no doubt whatever as to the certainty of Owen's success. Indeed Owen himself was surprised at the ease with which he did work he felt to be good. By nature a critic, he would have been the first to detect signs of carelessness, of over-fluency even in his own writing; but the narrative, with its felicitous turns of expression, its lucid, clear-cut phrases, slipped naturally from his pen; and he felt to the full the truth of Stevenson's couplet:

    “Bright is the ring of words
    When the right man rings them.”

One afternoon Owen invited Barry to motor down and dine with them at Greenriver; and Barry accepted the invitation with alacrity, for he had not seen Toni for some weeks and was anxious to know how life was treating her.

He hurried over his work for the afternoon, and Miss Loder, the secretary whose services he and Owen shared in common, was secretly surprised, not to say shocked, by his flippant behaviour over a monograph supplied by a valued contributor.

“It's a bit stodgy, eh, Miss Loder? You can feel the ecclesiastical hand upon the pen-holder, can't you?”

Miss Loder was the daughter of a clergyman, whose large family had all been educated with a view to doing some sort of work in the world, and as was only natural she resented the implied censure on the Church.

“If purity of English and clarity of thought are stodgy, Mr. Raymond, I suppose you are right. But what a treat this is after the article of young Bright's! That was hardly in keeping with the tone of the Bridge, if you like!”

“Young Bright's article—why, Miss Loder, it was a gem! It was whimsical in tone, I grant you, perhaps here and there a trifle frivolous, but it was splendid in its way. It simply sparkled with wit and a kind of delicate satire.”

“You thought so? I'm afraid I didn't.” Miss Loder, who at Cambridge had been known as an excellent debater, closed the subject by her tone; and Barry smiled quietly at her self-sufficiency.

Truth to tell, he had never much liked Miss Loder. While admitting her absolute competency for the post—for she was in her way a brilliant young woman—he found her unsympathetic, narrow-minded, wedded to her own standards of thought and behaviour; and he was wont to assert that her clear grey eye struck terror to his soul.

Miss Loder had been intended for a scholastic career: but although she had passed through her College life with distinction, she found that after all teaching was not her vocation.

She was absolutely devoid of patience, and wanting in the tact, the kindly firmness, the warm sympathy, which go to equip the perfect teacher; and although she might have a subject at her very finger-tips, so to speak, she found it almost impossible to hand on her knowledge so that her class might share it with her.

Once she realized the fact, Miss Loder very wisely withdrew from the field in which she was unable to shine; and since the death of her father had rendered it imperative that she find some remunerative work without delay, she was glad to accept the post which Owen offered her through a mutual friend.

Having once intended to take up journalism, she was conversant with the mysteries of typewriting and shorthand, and her excellent classical education rendered her particularly fitted for the post of secretary to the editor of the Bridge and his coadjutor, Barry Raymond. Her own literary taste was admirable, if a trifle academic; and Owen found her a really useful person with whom to discuss the various departments of his beloved review.

In appearance, Miss Loder was of middle height, with good features, grey eyes of an almost disconcerting frankness, and fair hair which she parted on her forehead and coiled neatly round her head. She was twenty-nine years of age, but looked younger; and she generally wore a well-cut grey skirt and severely plain white shirt, which somehow suited her rather boyish appearance.

At five o'clock on this particular afternoon Barry bade her good-day, and joined Owen in the street outside the office, where the big motor stood throbbing impatiently beneath its owner's hand.

“Jump in, Barry. If we have a good run we might take Toni on the river for an hour. Poor little girl, I'm afraid I've rather neglected her lately.”

Barry took his seat, and under Owen's skilful guidance they were soon out of the City tumult, speeding smoothly away in the direction of Richmond.

It was just beyond Staines that the accident happened.

Through no fault of his own Owen collided with a badly-steered motor negotiating a sharp bend; and though no one else was injured it was discovered, after all was over, that Owen had sustained a fracture of the right arm.

The owner of the other car, who was only too palpably a novice in the art of driving, confounded himself in apologies. He was indeed so manifestly upset and distressed to find what his carelessness had done, that in the midst of his own natural annoyance Owen found time to assure him of his complete forgiveness; and the irony of the situation was made evident when it leaked out that the offender was a surgeon, resident in the district, who practised the art of motoring in his spare moments.

He insisted on Owen returning with him to receive all the care and attention his medical skill could supply; and thus it was that when the car, driven by Barry, finally drew up in front of the hall door of Greenriver, Toni, running down the steps to greet her husband and his visitor, was startled to observe Owen, a trifle pale, descend from the car with his right arm supported in a black silk sling.

“Owen!” Every vestige of colour died out of Toni's face. “What has happened? You've had an accident!”

“Nothing much, dear!” He spoke reassuringly. “Collided with another car outside Staines, and I've broken my stupid arm. But that's all.”

“Quite enough,” struck in Barry, smiling. “No one else was hurt, Mrs. Rose—not even the old idiot who was to blame.”

“It's nearly dinner-time, I suppose,” said Owen, looking up at the hall clock. “We started early to take you on the river, Toni, but I'm afraid it's too late now.”

“And you're disabled,” said Barry. “You'll be dependent on our good offices for your dinner; won't he, Mrs. Rose?”

And so it proved, for like a good many people Owen felt utterly at a loss with only one available hand. To Toni fell the task of cutting up his food, and her big eyes grew anxious as she noted his lack of appetite.

As a matter of fact Owen felt disinclined for food, for anything but solitude and rest. His head was aching, and his arm was beginning to pain him so severely that he feared sleep would be out of the question.

After dinner he yielded to the joint entreaties of Toni and Barry and went to bed; leaving his wife to entertain his guest until the car should come round to take him to the station.

The evening had closed in with rain, and the two sat by one of the widely-opened windows in the drawing-room, looking out into the dusky garden, and listening to the soft patter of the rain on the foliage bordering the lawn. There was no wind, and against the cloudy sky the tall trees stood like black giants holding out immovable arms, while from the flowers, refreshed by the shower after their hot, thirsty day, a grateful fragrance rose to sweeten the damp, cool air.

For some time Barry and his hostess sat in silence. Toni had taken her favourite low chair, and her hands lay idly in her lap, the wedding-ring which was their sole ornament gleaming in the lamplight. To Barry's eyes her youthful prettiness had a slightly dimmed effect. Without losing anything of its virginal purity of outline there was a hint of weariness, of almost jaded fatigue, which startled Barry. He thought always of Toni as some joyous woodland nymph, a pagan it might be, a hedonist by nature and training; and while he had regretted, formerly, her lack of worldly and womanly experience, it gave him something of a pang at heart to find that this little pagan creature, this pretty, wild, untutored Undine could apparently lose, for the moment at least, her joy in the “sweet things” of life. That in the process she might be slowly and painfully realizing her soul he did not stop to think. To him the fatigue in her face was pathetic; to Herrick it would have been enlightening.

“Mr. Raymond——” Toni spoke at last, and he threw off his absorption to listen. “If Owen's arm is broken, how will he do his work?”

“That is just what I've been wondering,” said Barry. “Of course the ordinary office work, the work of the Bridge, will go on all right without him for a bit. I mean—well, you see I can look after things pretty well, and we have an excellent secretary in Miss Loder.”

“But his own work? He is writing a book—a novel, isn't he? He said something about it—though he hasn't read any of it to me,” added Toni rather wistfully.

“I don't suppose he's got very far,” said Barry, wondering whether she felt slighted by the omission. “Owen is a quick worker, I know, but he has only been at it for a week or two.”

“Oh, I know,” she replied hastily. “But how will he go on with it? He can't write with his left hand, can he?”

“Not very well.” An idea struck Barry, and without stopping to think he gave it utterance. “Look here, Mrs. Rose, you can help Owen no end! You must take it down for him. You could easily scribble it off and then type it out afterwards, couldn't you?”

Into Toni's eyes flashed a light of pure joy.

“Oh, do you think I could! I'd do anything—anything to help Owen,” she said eagerly. “It wouldn't be like his articles, full of quotations and things that want verifying, would it? I mean even a stupid girl—like me—could do it, couldn't she?”

“You're not stupid,” he rallied her gaily. “Look how quickly you learned to read proof! And even the superior Miss Loder doesn't type as well as you!”

“Doesn't she!” Toni's depression had vanished like magic, and her eyes were sparkling as she looked at him. “Oh, if I could! But I don't believe I dare offer, Mr. Raymond! Do you think if you were to mention it to Owen——”

“Oh, it would come much better from you!” Barry, whose interference on the subject of Owen's marriage had not been too well received, shrank from further officiousness. “If you propose it, I'm sure Owen will jump at it; and he won't mind his enforced helplessness half so much if he can get on with the book.”

For a moment Toni said nothing.

The rain had ceased, and in the darkened sky one or two pale-gold stars were gleaming. The air was full of sweet, moist scents; and a big white owl flew by the window, looking weird and ghostly in the dusk. A moment later they heard him hoot from his eyrie in one of the tall tree-tops, and Toni shivered a little.

“I can't get used to their queer cries,” she said in a low voice. “Sometimes I hear them in the night, and they make me shudder. Owen laughs at me, and quotes Shakespeare, about the owl and the baker's daughter, but I hate them, all the same.”

“I rather like them,” said Barry lightly. “Anyway, you mustn't drive them away; it's the very worst of luck to turn them out of their accustomed dwelling-places!”

“Then, they'll have to stop, I suppose,” said Toni practically. “But I shall go on hating them all the same!”

Barry laughed and turned the conversation back to her proposed collaboration with Owen; and Toni was only too eager to discuss the subject, which lasted, indeed, until Barry said good-bye.

His last glimpse of her was as she stood on the steps calling out her farewell; and he carried away a clearly-cut impression of the slight, blue-robed figure, her black hair a little loosened round her eager, vivid face, her eyes full of a new and ardent resolution, which had quite banished the look of sadness and fatigue he had noticed earlier in the evening.

It was evident his suggestion had fired her heart and mind, and for a moment, as he was borne swiftly down the black avenue on to the high road, Barry asked himself if he had done well to light that lamp of hope and high desire in her soul.

If Owen should refuse her aid, if he should let her see that he had no desire for help from her, no exportation of any adequate service, the flame which Barry's words had lit would be cruelly extinguished, leaving in its place only the blank and utter darkness of disillusionment.

And once removed from her beseeching presence, Barry wondered, rather hopelessly, if indeed Toni's help would be of any value. She was ready, eager indeed, to be of use; but was she capable of work such as Owen would require?

Against his will Barry had a vision of Miss Loder in Toni's place—not as wife, but as assistant—and he confessed to himself with a groan that the highly-finished product of school and college would probably prove herself of far more practical use than the impulsive, emotional, and alas! unliterary Toni.

But the harm was done now. He had lighted the torch in Toni's soul, and he could only hope that no adverse breath would blow to extinguish its flame.

CHAPTER XVI

“Toni, I have a proposal to make. Suppose you stop typing for a little while and listen to me. Will you, dear?”

Toni, all the colour slipping out of her face, put down the sheet she had just taken up and waited obediently to hear Owen's proposal.

This was the ninth day of their mutual labour; and even Toni's optimism could not assert that the experience had been successful.

She had tried so hard, poor Toni. With every nerve strained to the utmost, with her mind emptied of anything which did not bear upon the subject in hand, she had striven to help Owen, to take down from dictation the words, the sentences, in which his thoughts were clothed.

She had learned not to look up expectantly at every pause, since she had realized that to the harassed author, struggling for the one right phrase, that bright expectancy exercised a deadening effect; and she never even raised her head when silence fell—the silence in which Owen weighed and sifted his material, selecting this, rejecting that, and embodying the result in just the one glowing, clean-cut sentence which would effectually tell.

But Toni found herself, all unwillingly, handicapped, by her non-comprehension both of the matter and method of Owen's creative work.

A plain, straightforward story Toni could assimilate easily enough. Something primitive in her responded, also, to the call of the world-wide emotions of love, hatred, revenge; but Owen's book dealt with none of these; and the subtle philosophy, the carefully interwoven motives of political expediency and half-reluctant patriotism were alike uninteresting and unintelligible.

Where she did not understand, it was natural she should transcribe incorrectly; and although it was easy for Owen to revise the typewritten script after each day's labours, he was perpetually checked in his stride, as it were, by the necessity of repeating or explaining some incident or allusion by which Toni was frankly puzzled.

Naturally, too, the girl was nervous; and Owen's habit of striding to and fro as he dictated made things, as she said desperately to herself, far worse. In vain she quickened her pace in a wild attempt to keep up with him. Faster and faster went her pen, more and more indistinct grew the scribbled words; and in the hour of stress all ideas of spelling and punctuation took to themselves wings and fled.

But worse even than her comparative failure with the merely mechanical portion of the work was her mental inability to follow the working of Owen's mind. Handicapped by the necessity of dictating his book, the author often found himself at a standstill for some word which eluded him; and although he encouraged Toni to make suggestions, it was very seldom that she ventured to do so. The work went badly in consequence. Owen used to think sometimes that if Toni's mind had been more attuned to his, if they had shared ideas, had held the same standard in fiction, he might have gained something from this enforced collaboration; but as things were it became an irritation, effectually stopping the flow of his ideas; and although he did his best to keep Toni in ignorance of his feelings, she was bound to realize that the work was progressing in a lame and halting fashion.

Therefore she was not surprised when Owen broke it to her, gently, that he was thinking of a change of secretary.

“You see, dear,”—he spoke very kindly, feeling indeed very pitiful towards the girl, whose fluctuating colour showed her mental disturbance—“this sort of work demands a special training. You are doing your best, I know, and I am very grateful to you, but you can see, can't you, that I am getting on badly?”

“Yes, Owen.” She spoke very slowly, and for a moment Owen wondered whether it would be possible to continue the present arrangement. Then common sense and creative ardour combined to utter a decided negative, and feeling himself to be brutal he hurried on.

“Unfortunately I shan't be able to use my arm for some weeks. That stupid old doctor ought to pay my secretary's fees, oughtn't he, since he's responsible for my helplessness!”

He laughed; but Toni said nothing, and after waiting a second he continued:

“You've been most awfully good and patient, dear, and I'm afraid I've been horribly irritable over the job. But I don't think it's any good our going on. I'm wearing you out, and losing a lot of time into the bargain.”

“You are going on with the book?”

“Of course, yes.” His matter-of-fact assent caused poor Toni a pang. “But I think I shall have to borrow Miss Loder from the office for a few weeks. She is used to the job, you know. She told me she had once taken down an eighty-thousand-word book, typed it, and seen it through the press, because the author was nearly blind. So she would really know all about the work.”

“Yes.” Toni wondered, dully, why the sunshine which poured over her held no warmth to-day.

“Well, I'll drop a line to Barry and ask him if he can spare her for a bit. There's a rather smart typist in one of the other rooms could take her place, and I might not want her for very long. As far as the book itself is concerned, I can't work fast enough to get it all done.”

“Yes.” Sitting there, repeating the word, parrot-wise, Toni looked very forlorn; and something in her attitude struck Owen with a perhaps exaggerated feeling of remorse.

“Well, that's settled,” he said cheerfully, “and after this you needn't lose your roses sitting indoors so much. I'll tell you what—let's have a day off, shall we?”

She nodded, hoping he would not see the tears in her eyes.

“Right. We'll have the car—Fletcher will have to drive—and go for a good long run into the country. We'll have lunch out and get back for dinner. You'll like that?”

“Very much.” She rose. “I'll go and get ready, shall I?”

“Yes. We'll start at once. By Jove, I shall enjoy a holiday myself!”

Throughout the day Owen surrounded Toni with an atmosphere of kindness which he trusted might dispel the soreness he guessed she was experiencing; but somehow he failed in his object.

Although the day was superb, a still, golden August day, when the summer seemed to pause, arrested in its flight by the fulness of perfection to which it had brought the land, neither Owen nor Toni was sorry to return to Greenriver. As the car stopped in front of the door Toni cast a rather wistful look at the jasmine-covered old house she had learned to love; and for a moment she felt as though she saw herself as those other women had seen her—the ignorant, frivolous, common little person whom Owen had married out of pique.

Never in all her life had Toni felt so humble as on this evening, when she entered the house which was her home. What had she in common with the beautiful old hall, with the broad staircase leading to the spacious gallery, lighted now by the Ten Little Ladies, whose light pierced the gloom like so many kindly little stars?

The pictures, the bowls of roses, all the inanimate things she had grown to look upon as friends—it seemed to her to-night that they looked coldly to her, resenting her presence as an interloper; and in one queer, horrible flash of insight Toni seemed to visualize the woman who should have been the châtelaine of Greenriver—a tall, dignified, beautiful woman, with the bearing of a princess....

“What's the matter, dear?” Owen had seen her shiver. “Are you cold? Yet it's a warm night.”

“No, thank you, I'm not cold.” She spoke gently. “I—I think I'm a little tired.”

She picked up a brown envelope from the table.

“Look, Owen, here's a telegram for you.”

“So there is. Open it for me, will you, dear?”

She did so and handed him the flimsy paper. His eyes brightened as he read.

“Good old Barry! He's wasted no time—Miss Loder will come down to-morrow by the ten o'clock train. I must send the car.”

He went out and spoke to the chauffeur, returning to say: “Will you arrange for some lunch to be sent up every day, Toni? She can get off by the four train, I daresay, and that will give us a good long time for work.”

“I will see to it,” Toni said quietly.

“Thanks, dear. Let me see, there's half an hour before dinner. I might go and put everything in order as far as we've gone, so that we can start fair. I mustn't waste her time when she gets here.”

“No. Of course not.”

Although she tried to speak casually, a note in her voice struck Owen rather unpleasantly. He looked at her sharply in the lamplight; and something in her child-like attitude, as she stood motionless, her hands hanging by her sides, gave him a sudden twinge of something like reproach.

He looked round quickly. They were alone, and acting on impulse Owen stooped, and putting his left hand under her chin, tilted her face upwards until their eyes met.

“Come, Toni.” He had seen the tears in those wistful eyes of hers. “What's the matter? You are not hurt about the work, are you? If you would rather not have the woman, say so, and we will go on as we have been doing. It will get easier in time.”

“Oh no!” Toni spoke quickly, though her lips quivered. “Indeed I'm not hurt. I—I'm sorry I'm such a fool. I'm only a hindrance to you instead of a help.”

Although he had no conception of the wound dealt to her by two thoughtless women, Owen realized that she was in earnest; that she understood, and regretted, her failure to give him the help he needed; and for perhaps the first time since his marriage Owen pitied his wife sincerely. After all, it was he, not she, who was to blame; and being still in the dark, Owen thanked God that at least she had no idea he had married her without giving her the love she had had a right to expect.

“Hush, Toni dear.” He held her to him with his sound arm. “After all, I want you for my wife, not my typist. Miss Loder may be able to do the work I want done better than you, because she's used to it; but you're my wife, Toni, and what does anything else matter?”

He did not know whether his words brought her any comfort. She smiled, faintly, and returned the kiss he gave her before he let her go; but when she was alone in her quiet room Toni wept till she could weep no more.

She hated Miss Loder from the first.

Her self-possessed manner, her cool, grey eyes, above all the suggestion of competency which lurked in every line of her trim, well-tailored figure, all alike filled Toni with a sharp sense of resentment which she felt to be both childish and stupid.

Without perhaps intending it, Miss Loder conveyed a sense of superiority. Toni was made to feel that this newcomer knew just why she had been sent for—understood that it was in reality to Toni's incapacity that she owed her present position; and Toni felt, with a miserable intensity, that Miss Loder looked upon her as some brilliant sixth-form girl would survey a kindergarten child, with a kindly, half-amused, half-contemptuous tolerance.

Never had Toni so desperately longed to be clever as during that first week of Miss Loder's secretaryship; and never had she felt herself to be so ignorant, so childish, so futile a companion for a man like Owen.

At first Miss Loder had eaten her lunch in solitude. It was Toni's suggestion that she should join them in the dining-room, and Owen, supposing that Toni felt it a little discourteous to condemn the other woman to a lonely meal, agreed cordially to the plan.

Over her luncheon Miss Loder laid aside her rather scholastic, manner, and talked pleasantly in a quite refreshingly frivolous way; but try as she might Toni never felt at ease in her presence; and gradually she dropped out of the conversation until she sat for the greater part of the meal in silence.

Owen, absorbed in his book, did not notice her taciturnity, and though he responded politely to Miss Loder's chatter, it was evident he was not captivated by her undoubted social gifts to the extent of forgetting the purpose of her presence.

As for Miss Loder, Toni had guessed her attitude towards Mr. Rose's wife correctly enough. To the clever, highly-trained mind of the Girton girl Toni's whole personality was so appallingly feeble.

“The brains of a hen, and the soul, probably, of a chorus-girl.” So Miss Loder, quite unjustly, summed up Toni. “Married the man to get out of a life of drudgery, I expect, and is as much of a companion to her husband as a pretty little Persian cat would be. Why will these nice men marry such nonentities, I wonder? She is bound to be a drag on him all her days.”

For all her shrewdness Miss Loder never dreamed that her estimation of Toni was clearly evident to the person concerned. In her fatally orderly mind Toni was classified as a “type”—the type of the pretty, useless, childish wife; and Miss Loder never looked for any variation of the type when once she had labelled the specimen.

That his now secretary did her work admirably Owen realized with intense gratitude. For all her modern self-assertiveness Miss Loder was clever enough to realize that in Owen she had met her intellectual master; and being at heart a veritable woman she never attempted to challenge the supremacy of the masculine mind.

The work progressed quickly; and gradually, as the fascination of his work grew upon him, Owen became more and more absorbed in his book. He was always planning some incident, rehearsing, mentally, some situation or some telling dialogue; and the outer life around him receded into a dim and misty distance, in which Toni's pathetic little figure was almost lost.

Toni did not give in easily. She made feeble tentative attempts to share his author's rapture. She asked him timid little questions, to which he gave smilingly vague answers; and once she even suggested that he should read to her the chapters he had already finished.

Owen refused, quite gently, but inexorably; and Toni felt a miserable certainty that he did not think her capable of understanding or appreciating his work.

The day this happened she ordered the car and went for a long and solitary excursion into the country. Of late she had not used the car, preferring to hang wretchedly about the house and garden, half-resenting the absorption of the two workers shut up in the library, not daring to interrupt their toil, yet longing, vaguely, for the courage to enter boldly and claim her share of the mutual labour.

But to-day she felt that she could stand the house no longer. A great desire was upon her for the sunny places of the earth, and in her present mood the slow, gliding traffic of the river held for her no attraction. She longed for the swift, exhilarating rush through the air which, the car would give her; and Fletcher took her orders with alacrity.

“A long round—yes, ma'am.” He deliberated. “It's not three yet, and I suppose you don't care to be 'ome much before dinner-time?”

“No, I want to be out for hours,” she said feverishly, and Fletcher was only too pleased to oblige her.

Even Toni's depression could not hold beneath the tonic of that glorious ride. It was a splendid September day, when the country lay bathed in floods of rolling sunshine, and there was just enough bite in the air to set the blood racing through one's veins, and bring the sparkle to one's eyes.

Toni sat upright in the car, gazing out over the golden fields to the misty hills beyond, and everything she saw filled her with the true and vivid happiness which the lover of the “sweet things” of the earth knows so well.

A field of yellow corn ablaze with scarlet poppies, a group of trees among which the copper beech blazed with a glory as of the sunset, a glimpse of a wide common all aflame with sweet-scented gorse ... now and again a hint of the river flashing and sparkling beneath the shining sky—Toni, the ignorant, despised Toni, knew how to appreciate the glories of the earth as the brilliant Millicent Loder could never do.

On and on they rushed. Fletcher, who in common with the other servants respected Owen and adored Toni, was only too glad to please his young mistress by taking her far afield; and he utilized his wide knowledge of the countryside in her service, treating Toni indeed to such a panorama of the fertile country as she had never yet been privileged to behold.

They were running through a little village on their homeward way when a tyre burst with a loud report; and Fletcher pulled up with an expression of dismay.

“I'm sorry, ma'am—I shall have to delay you a bit while I put on a new tyre.” He looked round him rather doubtfully. “I suppose you wouldn't care to take a cup of tea while I put it right?”

“Mrs. Rose!” A cyclist had halted by the car, and looking up Toni saw Herrick standing beside her. “Had an accident? Nothing serious, I hope.”

“Tyre burst, sir,” announced the chauffeur, who with the rest of the village looked upon the shabby inhabitant of the Hope House as a harmless eccentric. “I was just asking my mistress if she would care to have some tea while I repair it.”

“A capital idea,” said Herrick, whose amused eyes saw quite well the chauffeur's estimate of him. “Mrs. Rose, may I take you to get some tea? One of these cottages will supply it, I daresay—or there is quite a decent little inn over yonder.”

“Thanks very much.” Toni was thirsty, and she liked Herrick. “I'd love some tea—if you'll have some too.”

“To be sure I will.” He propped his bicycle carelessly against a fence and opened the door of the car. “Which shall we try? A cottage or the inn?”

In the end they decided for the inn; and leaving Fletcher to set to work, Herrick escorted Toni down the village street to the door of the old-fashioned inn which called itself, rather ambiguously, the “Cock and Bottle.”

The landlady, who spoke with a Northern burr which made, Herrick glance curiously at her, came bustling into the flagged passage to greet them, and when she had taken their order for tea she ushered them into the parlour with a hospitable smile.

“I'll fetch tea in a minute,” said she, “t' kettle's boilin' an' I've a cake on the griddle just about fit.”

When she had gone Toni turned two perplexed eyes on Herrick.

“Mr. Herrick, what does she mean? Does the cake fit the griddle, or what?”

Herrick laughed lustily.

“Oh, you Londoner—you poor little Southern kid! Haven't you ever been in Yorkshire—good old Yarkshire, as they call it—the country of tykes and gees and men that can't be beat?”

“Oh, is that Yorkshire!” Toni coloured with excitement. “Mr. Herrick, my father came from there! All his people did—but they're dead now, and I've never been North!”

“Really?” He was to the full as much interested in the coincidence as she. “Well, our good landlady is certainly a Yorkshire woman—and I hope she'll give us a real Yorkshire tea!”

His hope was fulfilled when the buxom Mrs. Spencer returned, which she speedily did. She carried a tray laden not only with cups and saucers, but with an assortment of cakes which would have rejoiced the heart of a Yorkshire child.

“Them's crud cheesecakes,” said she, beaming on the pair, “an' these fat rascals is to-day's bake—and the griddle cakes an' all.” She laid the table deftly. “I'll fetch the tea-pot and t' cream, and then ye can help yersens.”

When she put down the tea-pot, however, Herrick detained her with a question.

“You don't belong to these parts, Mrs. Spencer?”

“No, sir.” She shook her head blithely. “I'm a Yorkshire woman, praise the pigs! Married a South-country man, I did—and often wished as I 'adn't—when 'e wur alive, that's to say.”

“Since his demise you've altered your mind?”

“Well, he left me pretty well provided for,” returned the late Spencer's widow comfortably, “an' I won't say as 'e wur an out-an-out bad 'usband. But somehow I can't abide South-country folk.”

“They say we Yorkshire tykes are a rough lot,” said Herrick, smiling, and she took up the challenge at once.

“Oh, that's all my eye and Betty Martin,” she returned in the vernacular of her youth, “I grant you there's a lot of soft-sawder about the fellers down here, but they ain't in it wi' us up in Yorkshire.”

“Where do you come from, Mrs. Spencer? I'm a dalesman myself; Wensleydale's my native land.”

“I'm from Thirsk, sir. My mother was washerwoman to lots of the gentry round, and my people still lives there, in a cottage on the Green.”

“Ah, I know Thirsk—fine old church there, one of the finest in the North Riding. You've never been there, Mrs. Rose?” He turned to include Toni in the conversation, and found her wide-eyed and flushed with excitement.

“Mr. Herrick, my people lived near Thirsk—in a farm at Feliskirk in the hills. Oh, do you think she knew them?”

Mrs. Spencer, who had hitherto overlooked Toni, turned to her in surprise.

“If you'll tell me the name, miss—ma'am. We knew most of t' people in t' neighbourhood.”

“Gibbs—their name was Gibbs.” She spoke breathlessly. “The house was called the Green Farm. Oh, do you know anything about them?”

“Gibbs? The Green Farm?” Mrs. Spencer stared incredulously. “Why, I knew old Gregory Gibbs well—and a fine old fellow he was too. And Fred and Roger—why, I knew 'em both. They used to come down into t' town on market days with their dad, and a pair of jolly little lads they were an' all—especially Roger.”

“Roger was my father,” said Toni quietly, and Mrs. Spencer uttered an exclamation.

“You don't say! But Roger, he ran away—leastways e went off to furrin parts and we 'eard as 'ow 'e'd married an Heyetalian young lady out there. And you are really Roger Gibbs' bairn?”

“Yes; he married my mother—an Italian girl—in Naples. I was born there. But they're both dead now,” said Toni sadly.

“Oh, I'm sorry to 'ear that!” Mrs. Spencer spoke sincerely. “To think as I should live to see young Roger's lass 'ere in my 'ouse! You don't favour the Gibbs, miss, if I may say so.”

“No, Mrs. Rose is more like her mother's people, I expect,” said Herrick, noticing as he spoke how pale Toni looked now that the flush of excitement had died away. “But if she has never been to Yorkshire, at least she can taste her native cakes, eh, Mrs. Spencer?”

Thus reminded of her duties Mrs. Spencer bustled away to find some “preserve,” which was only brought out for specially honoured guests; and Toni took the seat Herrick placed for her at the table.

“You'll pour out for us? That's right. I'm afraid our good landlady will want to stay and chatter! Do you mind?”

“Oh, no—do let her stay and talk about my people!” pleaded Toni, and this Mrs. Spencer was very ready to do.

Standing by the table, resting her empty tray on her ample hip, she poured forth a stream of disjointed memories to which Toni listened eagerly. Mrs. Spencer, it seemed, had had an aunt living in the village with the Gibbs; and as a child she had often stayed there; so that she had known Toni's father well.

“Of course, t' Gibbs were always a cut above us,” she owned frankly. “My feyther was a foundry hand till he died, and wasn't too steady neither; and when 'e died my mother took in washing. There was a trick young Roger once played 'er about a washing-basket ... what was it now?” She paused to meditate. “Nay, I can't think on this minute ... but she allus said as 'e wur nowt but a bowdekite!” She laughed, jollily, at the recollection, and pressed a cheesecake on Toni with a heartiness there was no resisting.

Thanks to her chatter time flew; and Herrick was just beginning to think of the waiting chauffeur, when there was a sudden spatter of rain against the window panes; and looking out he saw that while they had been talking a storm had been brewing.

“I'm afraid you'll have to wait a little, Mrs. Rose!” He pointed to the rain, now streaming down in a steady torrent. “It won't be more than a shower, I daresay.”

“Oh, and Fletcher's outside in it.” Toni put down her cup. “Mr. Herrick, could I tell him to come inside and have some tea, do you think? We've been out for hours, you know.”

“Certainly. I'll see about it.”

He went out and brought in the chauffeur, delivering him over to Mrs. Spencer's good offices; and then returned to find Toni sitting rather disconsolately by the window, looking out at the rain as it splashed into the quickly-forming puddles in the village street.

The sudden storm, the silence which fell after Mrs. Spencer's departure, or the early-falling dusk, had brought back all her misery to Toni's mind, banishing in a flash all her recent joyful animation; and when, after observing her for a moment, Herrick came forward, he saw that a blight had fallen over her late gaiety.

She did not hear his step—thought, perhaps, that he had stayed to speak to the chauffeur or chat with the landlady; and all at once such a sense of bitter desolation swept over Toni that she began to cry softly to herself in the dusk.

Instantly Herrick began to back noiselessly towards the door; but Fate, or perhaps a malignant Boo-Boo, pushed a footstool in his path, over which he stumbled with an involuntary ejaculation.

Startled, Toni turned round and saw him; and cursing his own clumsiness, Herrick judged it best to come forward openly.

“Your man is having some tea, under Mrs. Spencer's kindly auspices.” He smiled. “It seems she 'don't reckon nowt' to our combined appetites, so I hope Fletcher will make up for our shortcomings.”

He sat down in the low window seat, not far from Toni, and with a smile asked permission to smoke.

“Of course—please do.” She spoke indifferently.

“Your husband isn't an inveterate smoker—like me?” He lighted a cigarette gratefully. “I thought most literary men were slaves to tobacco.”

“I think Owen smokes a good deal,” she said. “And especially now that he is working so hard. Miss Loder is quite shocked at his cigarettes.”

“Miss Loder?” The question slipped out before he had time to reflect.

“My husband's secretary.” She broke off abruptly, as though unwilling to say more. Then a great flood of bitterness rolled over her spirit, at the memory of her own failure; and mingled with it came a sore envy and distrust of the clear-eyed, capable woman who had supplanted her. Together, the two proved irresistible; and with an almost child-like instinct to confide in the man whom she felt to be trustworthy, Toni turned to Herrick and poured forth her sad little story of disappointment and bitter disillusionment.

Out it all came, her desire to help her husband, and the dread awakening to the fact of her own incompetency. Herrick, listening, realized, as perhaps Owen could not have done, what a blow to Toni's hopes the failure of the experiment had been; and remembering her earlier confidences, when she had appealed to him to reverse the judgment passed upon her by two cruel women, he began to wonder whether Toni would ever find any happiness in the life which had once looked so glorious to her youthful eyes.

He said very little till she had finished, though now and again, a quiet question made clear some point involved by her own incoherency; and from the bottom of his heart he pitied the girl who was beginning to realize that though she might be the wife of the man she loved, she would never be his real companion and helpmate until she could attain something nearer to the high standard of perfection for which he looked.

“This Miss Loder—you like her?”

“I believe—sometimes—I almost hate her,” said Toni drearily. “She is everything I am not, you see. She is clever, well-educated, amusing. I think I hate women who tell amusing stories,” she added vindictively, biting her lip with her strong little teeth.

“But she is not personally objectionable to you?” Herrick wished to hear, if possible, how she treated her employer's wife.

“No—at least she doesn't mean to be,” said Toni, striving to speak fairly. “But I know she thinks I am a fool, and pities Owen for having married me. I believe she thinks I ought never to speak to Owen, never ask him any questions about the book. She was quite—short—with me yesterday because I went in to speak to Owen during the afternoon!”

“Oh, but that's absurd!” Herrick felt a quite unreasonable dislike for the superior Miss Loder. “After all you are his wife—she is only his secretary—and husbands and wives have a claim on each other which no sane person would deny.”

“Yes.” She did not look convinced, and he tried again.

“Don't forget, will you, that a wife holds an absolutely unique position. She is the one person in the world to whom the man is answerable for his actions, just as she is answerable to him for her own; and if she is—hurt—or annoyed by any proceeding on the part of her husband, she has a perfect right to express her wishes on the subject.”

“You mean I have a right to ask Owen to send away Miss Loder?” Toni was always direct in her statements. “I suppose I have—if I wanted to—but I don't. It isn't Miss Loder who makes me miserable. It's the whole hopeless situation.”

Her words startled him.

“Not hopeless, Mrs. Rose!”

“Why not?” In her eyes he read again that hint of a tortured woman soul which he had glimpsed before. “It isn't very hopeful, is it? My husband wants help and sympathy, which I cannot give him; and yet because he married me he can't ask anyone else for it except in a business way.”

“But—you don't mean:——” Herrick paused, aghast at the horrible idea her words had conjured up; and Toni, with the new quickness which suffering was teaching her, hastened to reassure him.

“Oh, I don't mean he wants to marry any other woman,” she said proudly. “I am his wife—unfortunately for him, perhaps, but he will always be true to me. Besides, Miss Loder isn't that sort,” she added, rather vaguely.

“Then what——”

“Oh, you don't understand!” Her sad voice robbed the words of all petulance. “Though you are most awfully kind—and clever—you see you aren't married, Mr. Herrick, and that makes a difference.”

“Who told you I was not married?” His tone was studiously quiet, yet the girl looked at him quickly, wonderingly.

“I don't think anyone told me—but I thought you weren't.” She hesitated, then went on hurriedly. “I used to think that was why you were so—so sad. I mean—oh, I know you laugh and talk and are kind, but somehow I felt all the time there was a sadness underneath....”

She broke off, roused from thoughts of her own trouble by the fear that she had given him pain; and for a moment neither spoke.

Then, with a glance at the window, down whose panes the rain was still streaming, Herrick took a sudden resolution.

Perhaps if he told this girl the story of his own marriage, opened before her eyes the book on whose pages was inscribed so tragic a history, she might take courage anew, realizing that her own pitiful little story held no hint, at least, of shame or disgrace, no hint of a mutual disillusionment which only death could adjust.

He rose abruptly.

“I'll just speak to your man,” he said. “I don't think it would be wise to start yet, but I'll see what he says, shall I?”

She let him go, wondering whether her last speech had vexed him; and in a moment he returned.

“Fletcher agrees with me that it will be wise to wait a quarter of an hour,” he said; “the rain is not nearly so heavy, and the sky is growing lighter.”

“Very well.” She spoke listlessly, and his resolve was strengthened. Sitting down on the window seat again, he asked her a question.

“You didn't know I was married? Would you care to hear the story of my marriage? It isn't a very happy story, but it might serve to show you what a different thing your marriage will yet turn out to be.”

“I should like to hear what you can tell me,” Toni said slowly; and after a moment's hesitation Herrick began the story which he had rightly called unhappy.

CHAPTER XVII

“It is just four years since I met the girl who was to be my wife. I was taking a holiday in Ireland at the time; and daring a visit to an old friend in Dublin I was introduced to a certain Mr. Payton, an Irish squire, who had brought his two daughters up from the country for a few weeks' gaiety. Well, we took a fancy to one another. I was always a queer sort of chap, hating convention and all the trammels of society, and I liked the old man at once. He was a big, jolly old boy, a thorough sportsman and Irish to the backbone. Poor as a rat, yet living somehow like a Prince; hospitable to a fault, and looking on debts and duns in the light of a joke.”

He paused for a second, then went on quietly:

“I went back with him and his two girls after their Dublin visit was ended. They were all very kind to me, and there was a sort of charm about the old castle where they lived, always in difficulties, yet keeping open house, and managing, in some mysterious way, to have the best of everything. There are people like that, you know—people who, without possessing a penny, manage to acquire pounds' worth of everything. It's an art, and old Squire Payton had it at his finger-tips.”

Outside the rain still fell. Inside the room everything was very quiet.

“Well, the end of it was that I fell in love with Eva Payton. She was just eighteen—a bewitching age, I used to think, and as pretty as a picture. Golden curls that were generally tied up with a blue ribbon, big Irish eyes, put in, as they say, with a smutty finger, a little mouth all soft curves, the tiniest, whitest teeth—oh, there's no denying she was a beauty; and she made my heart beat faster every time she looked at me.”

He had spoken rather dreamily, and Toni sat still, fascinated by this authentic peep into another's life; but with a sudden rather harsh laugh, Herrick resumed his story in a different tone.

“Well, we were married. In those days I had a little money—not a great deal, but I managed to make a fair income by painting. I never told you I painted, did I? Well, I did—portraits chiefly; and made quite a decent bit of money.”

Toni, who knew nothing of art and artists, never suspected that she was in the company of one of the best-known portrait-painters of the day; and Herrick was well content to keep her in ignorance.

“So we were married and came back to London. We had a house in Kensington—quite an unfashionable locality, but one of the big, old-fashioned houses you find there, with a large garden which was worth a fortune, to my way of thinking. But I soon found that my wife wasn't satisfied to live quietly, out of the world, as it were. She hankered after a house in St. John's Wood, among the 'other artists' or in Hampstead among the rich people. She didn't want to be stuck down among frumps and dowds, she said. West Kensington was all very well for women who were churchy, given up to good works, but she wanted to be in a lively, social, bridge-playing set; and she moped and pined so in our quiet life that I gave in and we moved to a much smarter locality.”

Toni, her eyes fixed on his face, said nothing when he paused; and after a minute he resumed his narrative.

“Well, from the first it was an unlucky move—for me. The house was too big, and required a lot of extra furnishing. The studio wasn't as good as my other one had been, and there was only an apology for a garden. But Eva had her wish. People called on her, and finding her pretty, vivacious, clever in her quick Irish way, they took her up and made a fuss of her. She was invited here and there, and of course her personal expenditure rose in consequence. Unfortunately my work didn't increase in proportion. I had the bad luck to fall ill—the only time in my life I've ever had an illness—and for several months I was unable to touch a brush. Of course I had a little money put by, and with ordinary prudence we should have pulled through all right. But Eva had never learned prudence. She had lived all her life in an atmosphere of debt and dunning creditors and over in easy-going old Ireland no one cared a straw if one were in debt or no. So to my horror when I was convalescent I found my foolish little wife had been running up enormous bills. Everything was in arrears. The housekeeping money had gone to pay for her daily amusements, the servants were unpaid, the tradespeople clamouring.”

He laughed, rather drearily.

“Well, I sold out a little stock I had and set matters right or so I thought. I put the rest of the money in the bank and told Eva she must be rather careful. But imagine my horror when one day she came to me, whimpering with fright, and confessed she had several personal bills unpaid and the creditors were pressing her. At first she did not tell me the whole truth. She prevaricated, showed me one or two bills not made up to date, and was vague about the different amounts. Finally she owned that she was in debt for nearly five hundred pounds.”

“Five hundred pounds!” It was Toni's first interruption.

“Yes. Sounds a lot, doesn't it? We'd only been married a year. Still there was nothing for it but to realize some more capital, and I did it, and then asked for the bills. She brought them unwillingly, after a vain attempt to get me to entrust the payment to her; and to my surprise and relief, I found that three hundred would cover the lot.”

“But——”

“Oh, it didn't—by a long way. By dint of a good deal of persuasion, I got it out of my wife that the rest was owing to different friends for bridge and racing debts. Of course I had forgotten that my little Irish wife was a born horse-lover, and, I'm sorry to say, gambler; and I ought not to have been surprised. But I was. And I'm afraid I was a bit brutal. You see I couldn't help thinking it was rather hard that the money I'd worked for was to be squandered; and I spoke rather sharply to the poor child.”

Toni, listening, thought he was justified in speaking sharply, but she did not venture to say so.

“I scolded her first—she was like a child expecting to be sent to bed—and then I got a statement of her debts and paid them. But I told her, at the same time, that I should never do it again. I promised to help her in little ways if the allowance I made her was insufficient; but I pointed out to her that my income wouldn't stand the drain of huge payments like these; and she cried pitifully and promised, solemnly, that she would never play for money again.”

“And she did?” Toni's interest in the story was her excuse.

He shrugged his shoulders.

“Of course. It was in her blood. Gambling in one form or another she must have. Someone told me afterwards—after the crash—that it was an almost uncanny sight to see my wife, looking like a child with her curls and her big grey eyes, sitting at the bridge table playing feverishly into the small hours of the morning; or talking to bookmakers' clerks with an evidently inborn knowledge of the ways of horse-racing. I was a fool, of course. Instead of sitting in my studio painting portraits, I ought to have gone about with her—and yet, if I had, there'd have been no money for either of us.”

He sighed heavily.

“Well, the crash came eventually. Twice more I paid her debts and twice she swore to give up her folly. Then I was sent for to a big place in Wales, to paint some portraits—those of the three daughters of the house—and of course I had to go. I had been there a month when I got an urgent wire from my solicitors to return at once; and back to town I went, to see what mischief my little wife had been getting into.”

“And you found——”

“I found the house in an uproar. Waiting for me was my solicitor, and with him a Jewish-looking man who was the head of a large jeweller's business in the West End. Also—in another room—were a detective and a well-known pawnbroker. Now—can you reconstruct the story they told me—between them?”

She shook her head.

“No, I can't imagine what it was.”

“You wouldn't.” For a moment a sort of tenderness softened his tone, which hardened again as he went on. “It seems my wife had never, from the beginning, told me the truth, with regard to the extent of her liabilities. Besides those I knew of, she owed two or three hundreds to a money-lender, to whom she had gone in a panic on first discovering she was in debt. He had lent her the money, at an enormous rate of interest, and as she had been unable to pay anything he was now pressing for immediate payment. Distracted by his threats, and by the other bills which her extravagance had run up, too terrified to appeal to me after her solemn promises, Eva conceived a really desperate plan. Taking advantage of my absence she went to Jordan and Green, the jewellers, and asked if she might have a very fine pearl necklace on approval. They demurred a little, politely, at first, and asked her name, whereon she gave it, without hesitation, as Lady Eileen Greenlay, an Irish girl with whom she had been acquainted in Dublin, and to whom she bore a striking resemblance. She gave them Lady Eileen's address in Hamilton Terrace, and one of the clerks, who knew the lady by sight, advised the head of the firm that this was really she. Of course they knew the family were wealthy people, and as Eva was beautifully dressed, with furs—unpaid for—worth two hundred pounds, they let her have the necklace, and off she went with it.”

“But how risky!” Toni breathed the word in horror.

“A desperate woman sticks at very little,” Herrick reminded her grimly. “Well, the misguided girl took her trophy and went off to Rockborough, the big pawnbroker, where she displayed the necklace and asked for a loan. Seeing no reason to doubt her genuineness, they advanced her a large sum—though not, of course, the full value of the jewels, and she took the money and paid the money-lender and one or two more people who were pressing her. But it happened by a queer coincidence that a day or two later Jordan and Green had a visit from an aunt of the real Lady Eileen's, who wished to send her a little diamond pendant for a birthday present; and when she gave the address to which it was to be sent as one of the best hotels in Mentone, the jewellers became uneasy. They instituted inquiries, found the young lady's family were all out of town, the Hamilton Terrace house closed; and it became pretty evident they had been hoaxed.”

He paused; but Toni did not speak.

“The first thing they did was to make inquiries at the big pawnbrokers, and of course they knew in an hour or two that they had been done. With a queer sort of cleverness, Eva had given herself out, to the second lot of people, as an actress to whom the necklace—a present—was worth little compared with the value in cash; and they had believed her story. But naturally it was soon proved to be false; and at first matters were at a deadlock. Well, the police were called in; and by dint of many inquiries among taxi-drivers, the girl was finally traced to the money-lender's office in Holborn. He, of course, was as close as the grave; but one of his clerks was bribed into giving the lady's name; and everything was easy after that.”

“Oh, poor girl!” Toni's soft heart felt a great compassion for the frightened wife.

“At first, of course, she denied everything. Unfortunately, Lord Thirsk, the father of the girl she had impersonated, took up a very violent attitude and demanded the utmost restitution; and since so many people were in the secret it was absolutely impossible to hush it up. I did my best; I offered everything I had in the world if they would let the matter drop without a prosecution, but it was useless. The thing had to go to court, and there was a big excitement over the case.”

“And——”

“Oh, the result was a foregone conclusion. In spite of everything, in spite of her denials, her terrified lies, her vain attempts to clear herself by”—he hesitated—“by implicating me, the case against her was as clear as the day. I tried my hardest—I perjured myself to try to clear her of the worst guilt—I strove my best to make her out my tool, but it wasn't any good. The Counsel on the other side simply turned me inside out in two minutes. In spite of all my efforts I couldn't convince him I'd had a hand in it—and of course my absence from town showed the truth pretty plainly. Well, Eva spoke out, in the end.”

Ho set his lips as he thought of the miserable girl's confession, following on hours of mental torture at the hands of the prosecuting Counsel.

“In the end I think it was a relief to her to speak the truth. After seeing all her lies, all the pitiful, sordid little lies, torn to pieces, after hearing all the weight of evidence against her, seeing the net close in on her—on one helpless, terrified little girl—she gave in and begged desperately for mercy. She seemed to think if she told the truth—at last—they would pardon her, let her off, and she poured out the whole story and cried out for forgiveness. She couldn't believe they would send her to prison....”

His brow was wet with the reminiscent agony of those closing scenes.

“Of course they could do nothing but sentence her. Then, when she understood that she was to be sent to prison after all, she went nearly off her head with fright ... she swore she'd lied, retracted everything she'd said ... oh, there was a terrible scene—she shrieked when they tried to silence her, clung to the dock so that they shouldn't take her away ... my God! It was horrible, horrible to see her, so little and fragile, screaming to me to save her from the men who were all against her....”

Toni, white to the lips, could see it all. She had forgotten her own griefs now in contemplation of this far more terrible sorrow.

“Even the Judge was upset when he had to sentence her. The court was full of women—I told you the case had attracted a lot of attention—but thank God they were rendered miserable by their presence there in the end. When she heard her sentence—eighteen months in the second division—she couldn't grasp it at first—and then just as I was beginning to feel I must do something or I should go mad, she fainted clean away and was carried out insensible.”

“Oh, Mr. Herrick,”—Toni, her eyes full of tears, spoke impetuously—“how terrible for you—for you both! Did you go to her and try to comfort her?”

He was silent for a long moment. Then—

“That was the worst of all.” His voice was grim. “When once she realised that she was helpless, that she was to be kept in prison, against her will, for eighteen long months, all her love for me turned to hate. By a queer, perverted instinct she blamed me for everything that had happened. She persisted in asserting that I could have saved her if I would. It was quite useless for me to say anything. I was allowed to see her once more—with my solicitor—and she heaped reproaches on my head till my blood ran cold. She called me a scoundrel, a coward, because I hadn't succeeded in shifting the blame to my own shoulders. She raged against her fate, swore she wouldn't obey the rules, would starve herself to death—and taunted me with the fact, that while she was suffering, starving, in a prison cell, I should be warm and well-fed at home. She screamed out that she hated me, wished me dead—and my last glimpse of her was as she disappeared, her face distorted with passion till all the soft childish beauty had vanished.”

“And she is there now?”

“In prison? Yes.”

“But—is the time nearly over?”

“Yes. Four weeks to-day Eva will be set free.” He stared out of the window with unseeing eyes. “And then will come the question—what are we to do?”

“To do?” She did not understand.

“Yes. You know, she will never forgive me. In her childish, unreasonable way, she persists in thinking everything that happened was my fault. If I had given her more money, she would not have got into debt. If I hadn't gone to Wales and left her alone she would never have done the thing; and if I had only lied better, the blame would have been mine—and the punishment.”

“But it was she who was guilty——”

“I know—but if I could have gone to prison in her stead, God knows I'd have gone—willingly. Things are so different for men. When I think of her, the little, soft, fragile thing I married, shut up alone in a cell, wearing prison garments, eating rough prison food, being ordered about by harsh, domineering women, why, I almost curse myself that I am free to walk about under God's blue sky!”

“Shall you go back to London—when she is free?”

“I don't know—I don't know,” he said rather drearily. “I let the house at once—gave it up at the next quarter, and our things are stored. I wanted to get away from it all, so I came down here and took the bungalow, but of course it won't suit Eva.”

“Couldn't you—change your name?”

“That's done already,” he said. “Just after the trial an uncle obligingly died and left me nine thousand pounds on the understanding I should take his name; so I did, of course, and turned myself from James Vyse into James Herrick.”

“Then no one will know?”

“No. But this life, this vagabond river life that both you and I love, wouldn't suit Eva very long. No, I'm afraid we shall have to seek some 'city of bricks and mortar'—but even my wife won't be keen on London, and it's the only city one can live in properly.”

While he talked, the rain had ceased; and he rose as he spoke the last words.

“Well, Mrs. Rose, I've showed you the skeleton in my cupboard—and he's a pretty grisly object, isn't he? But I don't want to depress you with a recital of my woes. After all, life's sweet, sister—and you and I, thanks be to God, have the soul of the gipsy within us, which is made quite happy, poor feckless thing, by the sight of the sun or the music of the breeze!”

Her eyes kindled with sudden comprehension.

“Yes—and you've shown me what a fool I am to think myself unhappy!” She too sprang up, and her body was full of vigour and youth again. “I won't give in, Mr. Herrick! You've not given in, and you've heaps more cause than I have. After all, I'm young and I love nature and—and my husband—and I have a soul—you told me so! And in time Owen will be satisfied with me, won't he?”

“Of course he will!” In his heart Herrick thought the man who was dissatisfied with this eager, enthusiastic, courageous youth must be hard indeed to please.

“I've read nearly all those books,” she said proudly, “and I can read French ever so much better now. And I won't care for Miss Loder's cold stares and her amused little laugh when I do something silly. And if I go on trying, I shall soon be a fit companion for Owen, shan't I, Mr. Herrick?”

“Dear little child,” he said, laying his hand on her shoulder, “don't try too hard! Read your books, study languages, take an interest in the vital questions of the day—but don't lose your tenderness, your sympathy, your freshness of heart. Grow up if you will, but don't grow too fast! And in cultivating your soul, don't forget that a woman's heart is her sweetest, rarest treasure after all!”

He released her gently.

“There! My sermon's over—and so, apparently, is the rain. And that blithe footstep I hear outside surely heralds the approach of Mrs. Spencer!”

He was right. After a loud knock the door opened briskly to disclose Mrs. Spencer bearing a lighted lamp; and Herrick went forward to relieve her of her burden.

“Enter the Lady with the Lamp!” quoth he, smiling. “Well, Mrs. Spencer, the rain's over and gone, and it's time we went too, eh, Mrs. Rose?”

“I suppose so.” She took up the coat she had thrown aside. “Has the chauffeur had some tea, Mrs. Spencer?”

“Lor yes, ma'am, and enjoyed it too,” responded the landlady, beaming. “A rare good trencherman he be an' all! I'd sooner meat him for a week nor a fortnight, as they say in our parts.”

“Meet him?” Even Herrick did not recognise the idiom.

“Yes, sir—board him, give him his meat,” explained Mrs. Spencer volubly. “But I can't say as much for you and the young lady, sir.”

She looked regretfully at the still loaded plates.

“We've had a lovely tea, Mrs. Spencer,” said Toni, her heart very warm towards this comely woman who had known her father. “I shall come and see you again some day. May I?”

Mrs. Spencer immediately invited her to come as often as she liked; and then covered both Toni and Herrick with confusion by refusing to take a penny for their tea.

“What—me take money from Roger Gibbs' lass?” she said, her manner filled with the mingled independence and respect of the best type of countrywoman. “Not I, sir. We Yorkshire folks don't grudge a cup o' tea and a bit of fatty cake to them as is like ourselves, exiles in a strange land. Besides, it's been a rare treat to see the young lady. To think that Roger Gibbs' lile lass should come drivin' up in one of they great mutter-cars, too!”

“Yes, and it's really time she drove away in it,” responded Herrick pleasantly. “I think I hear Fletcher bringing it round.”

There was a tentative hoot from Fletcher's horn at that moment; and after a grateful farewell, and a vain attempt to pay, at least, for Fletcher's tea, Herrick took Toni out and installed her in the car.

He refused her invitation to drive home with her, alleging that his health required exercise; and though Toni might have been forgiven for thinking fifteen miles' ride over a wet and muddy road, under a still cloudy sky, rather a strenuous form of exercise, some newly acquired intuition told her he really wished to be alone.

She said good-bye, therefore, without attempting to press the matter; and a moment later the car glided away, its lamps gleaming in the rural blackness of the village street.

As he rode home, his tyres splashing through puddles, and spattering him with mud, Herrick's face was very tired and worn, but in his eyes there lurked a little faint light of happiness that he had helped another weary soul a few steps forward on its pilgrimage over a thorny road.

“Poor little soul!” He smiled as he recognized the form his sympathy took. “After all she's right—she has a soul—and even though it brings her suffering and tears, it's worth the price. And yet—I wonder if it would have been kinder to leave her alone—not to encourage that hope of hers to make herself more intellectually worthy of her husband? I didn't make much success of waking my Undine's soul to life! All I got was her hatred—and from the beginning she lied to me!”

Luckily at that moment his lamp blew out, viciously; and with a muttered execration of the creatures he called Boo-Boos, he dismounted and relighted the flame, whose vagaries throughout the rest of the long ride kept him so fully occupied that he had neither time nor inclination to meditate on such abstractions as souls.

CHAPTER XVIII

By the end of September, Owen's book was finished; and on a beautiful autumn morning he and Toni set off in the car on a journey to town, where a publisher, who was also a personal friend, was waiting to receive the manuscript.

Mr. Anson was a kindly, energetic man of middle age; and he had secretly long expected Owen to turn novelist; so that he accepted the bulky manuscript with a real curiosity as to its value.

He promised to let the author know his decision at an early date; and then invited Owen and his wife to lunch with him at the Carlton, an invitation which Owen accepted at once, rather to Toni's dismay.

They were his sole guests; and beneath his kind and courteous manner, Toni lost her shyness and charmed her host by her girlish simplicity and directness.

It happened that the conversation turned on the bungalows which lined the banks of the river as it flowed through Willowhurst; and presently Mr. Anson asked a question.

“You've got Vyse down there, haven't you? You know the chap I mean—the portrait-painter.”

“I don't think so.” Owen was puzzled. “At least I have not heard of him being there. Have you, Toni?”

“Yes—Mr. Anson means Mr. Herrick,” said Toni quietly. “He told me the other day he had changed his name.”

“Ah yes, I remember now—something about some money, I believe. You know him, Mrs. Rose?”

“Yes. He fished me out of the river one day when I had fallen in,” said Toni smiling. “And he has been to see us several times—but I didn't know he was famous,” she finished naïvely.

“Didn't you? Why, he is—or was—one of the foremost men in his own line until there was the trouble with his wife.”

“Surely you don't mean that jewel affair?” Owen asked meditatively. “Didn't Vyse's wife steal a pearl necklace or something of the sort? I seem to remember something about it—though I did not connect it with this chap.”

“His wife—who was one of the prettiest Irish girls I ever saw—got a valuable necklace on approval and pawned it for money to pay her debts, yes. Poor fellow, it broke him up completely.”

“Really?” Owen was interested. “Where is she—the wife—now? Did he leave her, or what happened?”

“She is in prison,” returned the other man slowly. “I understand her time is nearly up, and I am wondering what they will do when she comes out again.”

“In prison—ah yes, I recollect the affair now, though I was away at the time. Got eighteen months, didn't she?”

“Yes. It was the most painful experience I've ever had, to listen to her being sentenced.” Mr. Anson's florid face grew grave. “It happened that her Counsel was a nephew of mine, and I promised to hear him handle the case. But, of course, it was hopeless from the start.”

“The husband—this chap Herrick—was blameless, I suppose?”

“Quite. He knew nothing about it, though the girl tried her hardest to implicate him. He did his best, too, would have sworn anything to clear her and take the blame, but her lies were all so dreadfully patent it was no use. In the end she told the truth, thinking it would help her; but it was too late then.”

“She took it badly?”

“Terribly. She cried and shrieked for mercy, fought like a tiger with the officials who tried to take her away, and screamed reproaches at her husband, till everyone was sick of the scene. Of course, she never dreamed they would send her—a lady, and a delicate bit of a girl, too—to prison like a common thief, and she completely lost her self-control when she realized what was going to happen. It was a relief to everyone when she gave one last cry and fainted right away.”

“Hard lines on the husband,” said Owen, reflectively.

“Deuced hard lines—and he as decent a fellow as ever stepped. Why he ever married her, God only knows. She didn't care a bit for him—wasted his money and then reviled him because he'd no more. Of course, she came of a rotten stock—wasters and gamblers every one—and this was how the hereditary taint came out in her.”

“She must have served most of her sentence by now?”

“Comes out next week. I wonder what he will do with her. She's not the sort of woman to live in a shanty by the riverside, and yet he can't very well bring her back to town.”

“I wonder?” Owen glanced at his watch. “I say, Anson, I don't want to be rude—after our excellent lunch!—but I've an appointment at the office at three and it's a quarter to now.”

“All right, my boy, I won't detain you.” Anson rose at once. “I'm glad you keep an eye on the Bridge—it's a fine little review and going ahead all the time.”

Owen's face brightened at this authoritative praise.

“I'm glad you think go. Of course, we are jolly lucky in our staff, and we've got the best sort of contributors, too.”

“Yes. By the way, how on earth have you managed to get all this stuff turned out with a disabled arm?” He patted the thick packet of manuscript and glanced at Owen's inconspicuous sling wonderingly. “Perhaps Mrs. Rose helped you?” He looked, with a smile, at Toni.

“No.” She coloured hotly. “I did not help at all.”

“Miss Loder—my secretary at the office—came down to help me,” said Owen easily. “She is used to the work, you see, and does it excellently.”

“I see.” The kindly eyes had seen Ton's flush. “Well, no doubt Mrs. Rose is satisfied to inspire your work and let others do the manual labour. The power behind the throne, eh, Mrs. Rose? That's what women used to be, bless them, before these dreadful Suffragettes arose to destroy woman's real influence by violence and wrongheadedness.”

“I expect my wife is jolly thankful the book's finished,” said Owen laughing. “She has had a pretty thin time while I've been writing it. But now I suppose there will be a lull of a few weeks?”

“Oh, I won't keep you long,” said Mr. Anson genially. “I'll send the manuscript to the reader to-night, and let you know as soon as possible.”

They parted from their host on the pavement out side the Carlson, and Owen turned to Toni.

“Now, dear, what will you do? Will you come with me to the office, or have you any shopping?”

Toni bit her lip nervously. She had a request to make, and did not know how to set about it.

“Well?” Owen watched her, wondering why she looked embarrassed.

“Owen, would you mind if I went to Brixton to see my aunt? I—I'm afraid they think I'm a little unkind, and after all they have always been good to me.”

“Why, Toni”—Owen was genuinely surprised—“you don't mean to say you are afraid to ask me that! Of course you can go. I'll come to fetch you when I've finished my work, if you like.”

“Will you?” She knew how such a visit would gratify her aunt. “Shall I take a taxi, then, Owen? You'll want the car.”

“Yes, I think that would be best, then you can stay as long as possible. What time shall I come, Toni? Half-past five or so?”

“Yes. That will be lovely. Then we'll have a jolly ride home.”

He called a taxi accordingly and installed Toni therein; and he stood back to watch her gliding away from him in the mellow September sunshine, before he hurried to the office where Barry was impatiently awaiting his arrival.

Toni found several members of the Gibbs family at home when at length she reached her destination.

Being Thursday, Fanny was enjoying her weekly holiday, and was delighted to see Toni; more especially because she had a piece of news to confide which appealed strongly to Fanny's romantic nature.

When the first greetings were over, and Mrs. Gibbs had retired with the hospitable intention of “putting on the kettle,” Fanny beckoned mysteriously to Toni to mount the narrow stairs leading to the room the girls had formerly shared in common.

Toni mounted obediently; and for a second she forgot to wonder what Miss Gibbs' extraordinary signals might imply, for a sudden feeling of gratitude to Owen for having lifted her out of this dingy atmosphere flooded her impressionable nature.

Surely when she too had slept beneath this low ceiling the room had not been quite so small, so stuffy. The wall-paper was the one she and Fanny had themselves chosen years ago, but it was oddly faded and dirty now, and in one corner a great piece had peeled off, hanging in strips and disclosing the plaster behind. The common furniture, too—the rickety deal dressing-table, the broken chair, the unpainted iron bedsteads—thinking of her own airy, spacious, bedroom with its shining toilet-table, its linen bedspread, its big windows opening on to a view of the river and the fields beyond, Toni wondered how she had ever endured life in these sordid, depressing surroundings.

Luckily Fanny was too full of her news to notice Toni's involuntary shudder as she looked round the close little bedroom; and barely waiting to shut the door she blurted out her tidings.

“Toni, you remember Lennie Dowson—the fellow who was sweet on you?”

Toni nodded casually, her eyes still roaming round her, and Fanny felt vaguely disappointed that the subject was so evidently uninteresting.

“Well, he's going to Sutton, three miles from Willowhurst, and I truly believe it's because he wants to be near you!”

She had succeeded in arousing Toni's interest at last.

“Leonard Dowson? Do you mean the dentist? But what on earth will he do in Sutton?”

“Look at people's teeth, I suppose,” returned Miss Gibbs practically. “He was in night before last, and he told Ma he was sick of London, and this was a change for the better. It is a town, isn't it. And I s'pose people by the river have toothache same as us, don't they?”

“It is a town—of a sort,” said Toni, “but I shouldn't have thought Mr. Dowson would have settled there. He always said London was the one place in the world for him.”

“That was when you were there,” returned Fanny sagely. “I don't b'lieve he's ever got over you, Toni. Ma says she never saw such a change in anyone, and you know he was always fond of you. That's why he's going to Sutton, you may take my word for it.”

To Fanny's surprise Toni spoke coldly.

“I really can't imagine how you can be so silly, Fanny. How can it affect Mr. Dowson where I am? I'm married now, and anyway he was never anything to me.”

“Still, he might be faithful to his first love,” giggled Fanny.

“Fanny!” Toni faced her angrily. “You are simply odious when you talk like that. Leonard Dowson's first love, indeed? If he says that about me it is simply impertinence, and I don't care to hear you talk such nonsense.”

She got up indignantly as she spoke and moved to the door.

“If that is all you have got to say,” she said, “I will go and talk to Auntie.” And she had the door open before Fanny found her tongue.

Then:

“Oh, I say, Toni, don't be horrid and stuck-up.” Fanny's wail brought Toni to a standstill. “If you are Mr. Rose's wife, and a fine lady, and in with a lot of smart people, you needn't go and be nasty to your own cousin.”

Something in her voice brought Toni quickly back into the room.

“Don't be silly, Fan!” She spoke impetuously. “Of course I am not being stuck-up; you know I wouldn't be nasty to you for the world, but I do so hate that sort of talk about men being fond of you and all that.”

“Well, I didn't know you minded,” said Fanny humbly, and Toni's heart smote her.

“Oh, Fan, I don't mind—really—and I didn't mean to be cross. Now tell me, how do you like my frock? It's the first time I've had it on.”

And in the ensuing animated discussion on frocks and frills Fanny lost that queer, uncomfortable sense of inferiority which had sprung to birth beneath Toni's manner.

Somehow, after that Toni found the time drag. She was gentle and friendly with her aunt, affectionate towards Lu, cordial with her uncle and the rest; but she found herself longing for Owen's arrival as a signal for her release.

The good-natured chatter, the well-meant inquisitiveness which found vent in a ceaseless inquiry into the details of her new life, the noisy jokes and laughter, the very persistence of the hospitality which filled her cup and plate over and over again—they all jarred this afternoon; and quite involuntarily Toni sighed for the peace and spaciousness, the gracious calm and tranquillity of Greenriver.

When Owen at last arrived it was with an inward glee that Toni heard the clock strike six; for now his visit must of necessity be short.

Possibly Owen saw her pallor, for he announced almost at once that although he regretted the fact, he must carry off his wife without delay; and after a brief interchange of courtesies, the family escorted Toni to the car, whose glories most of them now beheld for the first time.

As Owen was still unable to drive, he took his seat by Toni in the body of the car; and when they were safely away Toni turned to him with a sigh of pleasure.

“Owen, I thought you were never coming.”

“Was I very long?” Owen was struck by her tone. “What's the matter, Toni? Are you tired, dear, or have the cousins been too much for you?”

“Oh, no, not exactly,” Toni was always loyal, but to-day her loyalty had been severely tried. “But I can't help comparing the house with Greenriver, and I was longing all the time to get back to the garden and the big rooms.”

Owen did not smile at her naïve confession.

“You like your home, Toni? Greenriver pleases you?”

“I think it's the loveliest house in the world,” Toni said fervently. “And sometimes I can hardly believe it is I who live there. You see, all my life I have been used to little houses, and it seems almost incredible that I should have the right to go about as I like—and even pick the flowers in the garden.”

“Poor little Toni.” Her gratitude touched Owen. “Sometimes I have fancied you found it rather dull. I have been obliged to leave you so much alone lately; but now we can have a holiday until the book's fate is decided.”

“Will you be busy then?”

“Well, there will be the proofs to revise. And, to tell you the truth, Toni, I'm dying to get to work on another story.”

“Are you? But what about the Bridge?”

“Oh, I won't neglect that, of course. But everything is running smoothly there and Barry is turning out trumps, too. He has grasped the whole thing as I never expected him to do. He's going to get a bigger salary almost at once, and then I suppose he will marry Miss Lynn.”

He gave a sudden exclamation as the car swerved aside to avoid a lumbering cart which took up more than its share of the road.

“What's Fletcher doing, confound him? I say, Toni, this wretched arm of mine doesn't seem to me to be getting on very well. The bone's knit all right, but I have a fearful lot of pain in it sometimes.”

“Oh, have you, Owen?” Toni grew pale in an instant. “What does Dr. Mayne say? You saw him a few days ago, didn't you?”

“Yes, but I don't think he knows very much about it. He's a nice old chap, but a bit behind the times. I have a good mind to go and see some man in town one day next week. It's such a confounded handicap for a writer not to be able to hold a pen.”

“What about your proofs?” Her heart sank as she asked the question.

“Oh, Miss Loder can do those—under my supervision,” he said carelessly. “I'm not bothering about them so much as about my new book; and I've been commissioned to write a series of articles for the Lamp, which really ought to be put in hand at once.”

For a moment there was silence. Then:

“Could I do your proofs?” Toni said, in a voice which shook in spite of all her efforts.

“Oh, it's awfully sweet of you, dear.” Owen tried his hardest to avoid hurting her. “But there is no occasion to worry you. I don't like to see you bending over a desk when there is no need. Miss Loder has to do something, anyway, and she might just as well do my work as anyone's.”

“Must she come down to Greenriver?” Now Toni's voice betrayed her, and Owen looked up sharply.

“Why not? Do you mean you would rather she did not come?”

“Much rather.” For once Toni's inward feelings burst their bounds, driving her to open revolt. “I don't like Miss Loder about all day—I never feel free—there's an oppression in the air so long as she is in the house.”

Owen was surprised and annoyed by this speech; and showed his annoyance plainly.

“Don't you think you are rather prejudiced, Toni? You have never liked the girl, and I can't imagine why. She does her work well, and doesn't interfere with you in the least.”

“Interfere with me—no, perhaps not,” said Toni, her breast heaving stormily, her cheeks very red. “She laughs at me, though, which is worse—sneers—oh, I know she thinks I'm a little fool, and so I am; but I am at least your wife—the mistress of Greenriver, and she might remember that and treat me with a little more respect.”

“Respect? My dear Toni, you are talking nonsense. How should the girl treat you? She is always polite,” said Owen, “and you know after all she is ten years older than you——”

“Only ten?” Toni's assumption of surprise was excellently done. “I thought she was much more—she always seems to me so staid—so—so middle-aged.”

Owen's brow cleared suddenly and he burst out laughing.

“You silly little thing! Compared with you, Miss Loder is middle-aged, but she's a rattling secretary and I don't like to hear her abused. Still, if you dislike the idea of her coming, I'll go to town, or do without her. After all, I must not get too dependent on the girl—I'm afraid I'm growing lazy. But if my arm still bothers me——”

Instantly Toni's anger melted away and a rush of affection and sympathy took its place.

“I'm sorry, Owen—I didn't mean to be cross. I was talking nonsense—of course you must have Miss Loder, I suppose I am jealous of her—because she is so clever, and I'm such a little idiot.”

“I don't want a clever wife, thank you,” laughed Owen, little dreaming how his careless words cut into the quivering soul of the girl beside him. “I want a pretty, lively, jolly little girl—half Italian for choice—who is a cross between a wood-nymph and—sometimes—a tiger-cat—or kitten! And it seems to me I have got just exactly what I want.”

With an effort Toni smiled, in response to his good-natured jesting; and Owen never knew that his well-meant words caused Toni to shed tears before she slept that night.

CHAPTER XIX

Mr. Anson's reader reported favourably on Owen's book, and in a very short time satisfactory terms were agreed upon between author and publisher, and the work of proof-reading and revision began.

Unfortunately at the same time Owen felt his arm to be more than usually painful; and a visit to town proved the necessity for further treatment, of which perfect rest was a feature: with the result that once again Owen was forced to accept the help of a secretary in his work.

Miss Loder, naturally, filled the post; and once more she came to Greenriver, and took her place in the stately old library, where she and Owen passed strenuous hours daily.

To Toni Miss Loder's presence was growing ever more and more distasteful. Although Toni was not an intellectual woman, she had sharp wits; and possibly she understood Millicent Loder's personality a good deal better than Owen was able to do. And what Toni saw—and Toni's intuition was rarely at fault—led her to distrust the other girl with all her heart and soul.

Miss Loder belonged to a rather uncommon variant of the type of emancipated womanhood. Although intensely modern in many ways she had never been able to lose her inborn sense of the superiority of man in mental as well as in physical matters.

She had none of the loudly-expressed scorn of the other sex by which many women seek to hide their disappointment at the indifference of members of that sex towards them.

Although she was by force of circumstance a Suffragist, she did not for one moment imagine that with the coming of votes for women the whole industrial and social problem of the country would be solved. Unlike many women, she was quite content to work under a man, and although she was well able to think for herself on all vital questions, she liked to hear and assimilate the opinions of the men with whom she came in contact.

She preferred men, indeed, to women; and her attitude towards them, though never in the least familiar, held a good comradeship, a kind of large tolerance which annoyed and irritated those of her girl acquaintances who looked upon men as their natural enemies and the enemies of all feminine progress.

Shrewd, competent, fully assured of her own ability to face the world alone, Miss Loder had never thought seriously of marriage. She delighted in her independence, was proud of the fact that she was able to command a good salary, and her habit of mind was too genuinely practical to allow of any weak leanings towards romance. She did not wish to marry. She had none of the fabled longing for domesticity, as exemplified in a well-kept house and a well-filled nursery, with which the average man endows the normal woman. She looked on children, indeed, mainly as the materials on whom this or that system of education might be tested; and she was really of too cold, too self-sufficing a nature to feel the need of any love other than that of relation or friend.

But since she had worked for Owen Rose, Millicent had begun to change her views. At first she had merely been attracted by his brilliance, as any clever girl might have been, had found it stimulating to work with him, and had been pleased and proud when he selected her to be his coadjutor in the task of writing his first book. She had been, in truth, so keenly interested in the author that she had overlooked the man; and it is a fact that until she came down, at his request, to his house to work there, away from the busy office, his personality had been so vague to her that she could not even have described his appearance with any accuracy.

But the sight of his home, the stately old house set in its spacious gardens and surrounded by magnificent trees, had shaken Millicent out of her intellectual reverie into a very shrewd and wide-awake realization of the man himself.

In his own home he shook off the conventions of the office, became more human, more approachable; and no woman, least of all one as mentally alert, as open-eyed as Miss Loder, could have passed with him through those strenuous hours in which his book was born without gaining a pretty complete insight into his character.

And with knowledge came a new and less comprehensible emotion. At first Miss Loder had accepted the fact of her employer's marriage as one accepts any fixed tradition; and the subject rarely entered her thoughts during working hours.

Gradually she began to feel a faint curiosity as to what manner of woman Owen Rose's wife might be; and she welcomed her summons to Greenriver on the ground that now she would be able to solve the problem for herself. When she finally saw Toni, her first emotion was one of surprise that this dark-eyed girl should be the mistress of Greenriver; and very slowly that surprise died and was succeeded by a feeling of envy which grew day by day. At first Miss Loder grudged the unconscious Toni her established position as châtelaine of this eminently desirable home; and Toni's very simplicity, the youthful insouciance with which she filled that position, was an added annoyance. Later, Miss Loder began to grudge Toni more than that. As she spent more and more time in Owen's company, as she grew more and more intimate with the workings of his mind, of his rich and poetic imagination, Miss Loder began to fall under the spell of the man himself.

Quite unconsciously she was becoming ever more attracted by his manner, his voice, his ways; and once or twice she found herself wondering, with a kind of sick envy, in what light he appeared to the woman who was his wife.

Through it all, however, Miss Loder's paramount emotion was one of envy for the mistress of Greenriver. She used to think, as she came into the house each morning, that it would have suited her much better, as a background, than it would ever suit the quaint, childish-looking Toni; and it grew almost unendurable to her to have to sit at the luncheon table as a guest—not even that—and watch Toni's ridiculous assumption of dignity as she sat in her high-backed chair opposite her husband.

There was no doubt about it that Greenriver would have suited Miss Loder very well as a home; and she grew to dislike Toni more and more as the full realization of the girl's good fortune penetrated her mind.

Toni had been quite right in detecting the malice beneath Millicent's pretended friendliness. It seemed to Miss Loder that the only way to pierce this upstart girl's armour of complacency was to launch shafts of cleverly-veiled contempt; and although to Owen these darts were either imperceptible or merely accidental, Toni knew very well that they were intended to wound.

Owen, wrapped up in his book, and only anxious to further the work as rapidly as possible, had no time to spare for these feminine amenities. He realized, of course, that Toni did not care for Miss Loder; but he thought he understood that her dislike came, rather pathetically, from her consciousness of her own shortcomings: and had no idea that Miss Loder herself was largely responsible for the lack of harmony between them.

On what might be called the literary side of him, he thought Millicent Loder an excellent secretary, the one woman with whom he found it possible to work; but on what might be called the personal side, his interest was nil. True, he liked her trim appearance, though he would never have dreamed of comparing it with Toni's more unconventional attraction. He admired her quiet independence, and recognized her at once as belonging to his own world; but he never thought of her in any relation save that of secretary and general assistant; and even Toni was sufficiently wise to recognize the fact.

All the same Toni mistrusted the other woman; and it was with a feeling of intensest apprehension that she received Owen's announcement that Barry had arranged for a substitute at the office—thus setting Miss Loder free to resume her work at Greenriver.

       * * * * *

It chanced on a beautiful October day that Owen found it necessary to go to town on business connected with the Bridge; and for once he went up by train, bidding Toni use the car if she felt so inclined.

She did feel inclined; and after a very early lunch, jumped into the waiting motor, and directed Fletcher to drive over to Cherry Orchard, in the hope of inducing the doctor's daughters to share her excursion.

Disappointment awaited her, however. Both the Tobies were away from home on a short visit, and Toni was obliged to proceed alone.

She had enjoyed a couple of hours' spin in the frosty air, when she found herself being carried swiftly past the railway station, and a thought struck her which she communicated to Fletcher without delay.

Yes, Fletcher opined, it was just time the London train was due, and since it was quite possible Mr. Rose had travelled by it, he obligingly brought the car to a standstill outside the station entrance.

Toni jumped lightly out, an alluring little figure in her beautiful sable coat and cap, and made her way swiftly on to the platform, glancing at the big station clock as she did so.

The train was not due for five minutes; and to pass the interval of waiting, Toni strolled over to the bookstall in search of a paper. As she stood turning over a few magazines, a familiar voice accosted her, and she moved quickly to face the speaker.

“Mrs. Rose—I hope you have not quite forgotten me?”

“Mr. Dowson! Of course I've not forgotten you.” She put out a friendly little hand, which the young man seized in a fervent grasp. “My cousin Fanny told me you were coming down to Sutton.”

“Yes. I had to change here. It's an awkward little journey.” He was gazing at her fixedly, but withal so respectfully that Toni could not take offence. “You are, I believe, a resident of this little riverside colony of Willowhurst?”

“Well, we live by the river,” said Toni cheerfully, amused, as of yore, by his somewhat pedantic diction. “But do tell me, Mr. Dowson, how do you expect to make a fortune here?”

“I do not expect to do so,” he informed her promptly. “I assure you this move on my part was not actuated by any mercenary motive, Mrs. Rose.”

“Wasn't it?” She felt vaguely uncomfortable. “Well, I hope you will succeed. After all, I suppose people do have toothache in the country.”

“Fortunately, they do,” was Mr. Dowson's reply, and Toni was happily able to acquit him of any unkind meaning. “But may I say that I have never seen you looking so well, Mrs. Rose? Evidently the river life suits you admirably.”

Toni did look particularly well at that moment. The keen frosty air had brought a tinge of wild-rose to her cheeks, and a sparkle to her eyes; and the animation of her expression hid the very slight traces of mental distress which at a less favourable moment might have been evident to a searching scrutiny.

“I'm very well, thanks,” she replied carelessly. “I've been motoring, and now I'm waiting for my husband. He has been in town to-day.”

Although she did not wish to dismiss the young man summarily, he imagined she desired him to go; and since to the true lover his mistress' unspoken wish has the force of a command, Mr. Dowson hastened to obey what he deemed her bidding.

“I must hurry to the other side to take my train,” he said immediately. “May I express my pleasure at meeting you, Mrs. Rose—and also to see you look so well,” he added heartily, if ungrammatically.

She shook hands with him, debating with herself as to the advisability of inviting him to Greenriver; but fortunately the arrival of the London train cut short their farewells at an opportune moment, and Mr. Dowson left her before she had time to decide the point.

Owen was not among the few passengers who got out of the train; and after waiting a moment or two to make sure, Toni turned away to find herself confronted with Mr. Herrick, who with a worried look on his face was interrogating one of the sleepy porters.

“No, sir, there isn't no cabs. There wasn't but three, and the gentlemen was very quick about taking 'em.”

“Well, I must get one somehow.” Herrick, quite overlooking Toni in his disturbance, spoke sharply, and Toni wondered vaguely why he was so annoyed. “You can ring one up from the livery stables, can't you?”

“What's the matter, Jim? No cab, I suppose. Well, they can just fetch one—and quick, too.”

The words, spoken behind her in an unmistakably Irish voice made Toni start. She understood, all at once, that this was Mrs. Herrick's home-coming; and she felt a sudden curiosity to see the woman who had lately gone through so bitter an experience.

She half turned away; then a thought struck her, and she turned quickly back again and rushed into speech.

“Mr. Herrick, I couldn't help hearing you say you wanted a cab just now. Will you let me drive you—and your wife—home in the car? Do—it would save you having to wait so long.”

Herrick, whose usual philosophic calm appeared to have deserted him, hesitated.

“Why, Mrs. Rose, it's awfully good of you—but——”

“Oh, do!” Toni spoke eagerly, and the woman who stood by turned to her impulsively.

“Are you offering to take us home in your car?” Her voice was full of Irish melody. “It is very kind of you—and for myself, I'm so tired I'd accept with pleasure. But”—there was something malignant in the glance she gave her husband—“perhaps we'd better wait for a cab.”

“Oh, do come, please,” Toni begged, her bright eyes pleading to be allowed to do this little service. “It's a big car, and I'm all alone in it.”

“Very well.” Mrs. Herrick turned to her husband. “Come along, Jim; the luggage can come on later.”

And in less than five minutes the matter was arranged. Herrick elected to sit beside the chauffeur, so that Toni and her new acquaintance sat together in the body of the car. Mrs. Herrick's large and rather new-looking dressing-bag on the floor at their feet.

Toni gave the direction to the openly interested Fletcher, and the car glided away through the group of loafers hanging round the station entrance, and settled down into a steady hum on the road leading to the Hope House.

Toni seized a moment while Mrs. Herrick was busy with the fastening of her bag to steal a look at her companion; and in that brief glance she received two distinct impressions—one that Eva Herrick was a bitterly unhappy woman, the other that she had no intention of allowing other people to escape from her own aura of bitterness.

In person Mrs. Herrick was short and slight, with a look of finish about her probably handed down through generations of her Irish ancestors. Her small features were cut as clearly as a cameo, and her short upper lip, while giving her an air of pride which was unpleasing, was in itself beautiful. Her eyes, the big Irish eyes which had first enslaved Herrick, were lovely in shape and colour, but they were encircled by disfiguring blue shadows, and the fine skin had a tell-tale pallor which spoke of long indoor confinement.

Her hair, by nature crisp and golden, looked dull and lifeless in the shadow of her hat; and over the whole dainty face and figure there was an indefinable blight, a sort of shadow which dimmed and blurred their naturally clean and clear contours.

As she removed her gloves to fumble with the lock of her bag. Toni noticed that the small, well-shaped hands were rough and badly kept; and Toni's soft heart was wrung by these evidences of a sordid, toilsome past.

Suddenly Mrs. Herrick sat upright and gazed at Toni with a look which held something of criticism.

“You live down here I suppose?”

“Yes. We live at Greenriver, about a mile from your bungalow.”

“Ah. Been here long?”

“Only a few months.”

“I see. You haven't known my husband very long, then?”

“No. He pulled me out of the river one day,” said Toni, “and we have seen him pretty often during the summer.”

“Then I suppose you know where I've been?” Her eyes shone maliciously. “Oh, don't pretend you didn't know. I'm sure my worthy husband must have told you the whole story.”

Toni, scarlet with embarrassment, and wishing from the bottom of her heart that she had never offered the use of her car, said nothing; and with a grating little laugh the other woman continued her speech.

“I expect everyone knows I have been in prison.” Luckily she did not raise her voice; and Herrick, possibly foreseeing the necessity, had taken care to engage the chauffeur in conversation. “Eighteen months—almost—spent in hell. Oh!” Her small, sharp teeth bit her lip venomously. “It drives me mad to think of it. And it could all have been avoided if my husband had been a man.”

“Oh!” Toni revolted inwardly against her callousness.

“Oh, I suppose he's told you some tale or other.” Mrs. Herrick spoke fiercely, and all her childish beauty waned beneath her passion; “Well, whatever he says, it is I who have paid the bill. Prison! My God, you don't know what it is to be shut up in a cell like a beast—to be ordered about like a dog, to be starved on coarse food, made to sleep on a bed you wouldn't dare to give your servant!”

Toni, very pale, tried to stem the torrent of her words.

“Mrs. Herrick—please—really I don't think you ought to say this to me——”

“Ought? Why do you say that?” Eva Herrick looked contemptuously at her would-be mentor. “If you had been shut up as I have been, you would talk as you liked. Thank God I can talk if I can do nothing else.”

Quite suddenly her manner changed. She gave a little laugh which was oddly fascinating, and laid her hand on Toni's arm.

“Come, now, Mrs. Rose, don't be getting angry with me.” Her brogue lent a charm to her speech. “I'll admit I've no earthly right to talk so; it's bad form to begin with and a poor return for your kindness. But remember, I've gone through an experience that's enough to kill a woman, and you can't expect me to forget it all at once. So you must forgive me. Will you?”

“Oh, of course I will.” Toni spoke quickly. “And I had no right to speak as I did. But—you must forget all that is past. Won't you try?”

“Sure, I'll try.” Eva's lovely eyes filled with tears. “But I know what will happen. Your husband won't let you know me, of course, and if Jim and I are left alone, we'll be murdering one another one fine day.”

“Oh, please don't talk so. Of course my husband will let me know you,” said Toni in distress; and she was glad to find from the slackening of the car that their conversation must be cut short.

Jim Herrick, more silent and worn-looking than Toni had ever seen him, helped his wife to alight and then shook hands gratefully with Toni.

“So many thanks, Mrs. Rose.” His big, bright eyes looked into hers, almost as the eyes of a nice dog might have done. “You have saved us a long wait, and I'm only sorry we have taken you out of your way.”

“Oh, that's nothing,” Toni said. “I like being out on these bright days, and I'm ever so glad I happened to be at the station.”

She shook hands with Mrs. Herrick, who looked a pitifully fragile figure as she stood beside the car; and then Toni gave the order for home, and Fletcher obeyed that order too promptly to allow of any further leave-takings.

Just for one moment Jim Herrick stood looking after the car, and in his heart there was a great sickness of apprehension.

With the best intention in the world to be fair to his wife, he could not help comparing the fresh, simple-hearted Toni with the world-weary and disillusioned Eva; and at the thought of the future his spirits sank to zero.

A mocking voice broke on his ear as he watched the car gliding swiftly down the road.

“When you've finished staring at that young woman, Jim, perhaps you'll open the gate.” Eva stood back to allow him to reach the latch. “I must say this is a nice place to bring me to. Is it a cottage or what?”

“It's quite a decent little place, dear,” he said steadily, as he held open the gate for her to pass through. “Of course, I quite understand that it is only a temporary arrangement, but you will try to put up with it, won't you?”

“I suppose I shall have to,” she replied ungraciously; and then she uttered an impatient exclamation as the big white dog tore over the lawn to meet her master, uttering deep-throated bays of welcome the while. “You've still got that beast, then—go down, you brute,” she added, as Olga approached, with instinctive courtesy, to greet her former mistress.

“Don't snap at her, dear,” said Herrick kindly. “The poor creature is only trying to say how do you do.”

“Then she can say it to someone else,” said Eva curtly. “I hate big dogs—I wish you'd get rid of her.”

Herrick made no reply, but opened the door, and they went into the house together.

Eva passed into the quaintly attractive sitting-room with a frown on her face, which lightened, however, at sight of the tea-table standing ready, and pulling off her gloves and coat she flung herself into a low chair with a sigh of fatigue.

“Heavens, how thirsty I am,” she said. “Give me some tea, Jim—quickly.” And as he moved forward to obey her, her eyes followed him with a curious expression in their grey depths.

“What's for dinner?” she asked, suddenly, and Herrick looked his memory to recall the menu.

“Soup, roast chicken, plum tart, and a savoury,” he said at last, smiling with a rather pathetic attempt at cheerfulness. “Mrs. Swastika, as I call her, is what is known as a 'good plain cook,' but anything at all elaborate throws her off her balance altogether.”

“Have you no other servants?” she demanded shortly.

“Not yet. I didn't want them, you know, and I thought you would prefer to choose them yourself.”

“I? If I can get any,” she said darkly, drawing her delicate brows together resentfully. “Of course they won't stay when they find out things; but we must be decently waited on.”

Herrick made no reply; and his silence exasperated the girl, whose nerves were all on edge.

“Oh, don't stand there saying nothing.” Her voice was shrill. “Of course, you think I ought to wait on myself—now. And I suppose because I've been in prison you expect me to be thankful to be here—even in a hole like this. Well, I'm not. I hate the place. It's common and shabby and horrid, and I'm not going to live all anyhow, to please you.”

Herrick, dismayed at the vehemence of her manner, could find no words; and she went on with increasing passion:

“I'm your wife—if I am a jail-bird!” She flung the taunt at him, and her whole little figure was shaken with the intensity of her emotion. “If you think I'm going to pretend to be penitent—and grateful to you—you are wrong! I hate you, Jim, I loathe and despise you—you might have taken the blame on your shoulders—and instead you stood by and watched them torture me. You've not been to prison, you've not been bullied and despised—you've not spent weeks and months in a loathsome little cell where the sun never shone and there was never a breath of air—you've not been called by a number, and preached at by the chaplain—oh, no, you've been living here in the sunshine—enjoying yourself, eating good food—your chicken and your savouries—and for all I know passing as a single man, and keeping your disgraced wife in the background!”

She struck the table sharply with her hand, and her cup and saucer fell to the ground and smashed, the tea trickling in a brown stream over the dim blues and greens of the Persian carpet.

She ignored the catastrophe.

“Well, you've got me back now, and I'm going to make your life what mine has been for the last year and a half! I've longed for this moment, Jim”—she set her teeth—“longed for it during the horrible days and the still more horrible nights. It was only my hatred of you that kept me alive in the first ghastly weeks. I could have died—I was very ill at first, and they thought I'd die—but I knew I wouldn't. I meant to live so that I could tell you again to your face that I hate you, hate you—hate you! And I'm going to show you what hate is, Jim—I'm going to make you wish you were dead—or in prison, as I have been. Oh, my God—I wish—I wish I were dead!”

With a sudden collapse of all her powers she dropped, face downwards, on the big divan, and burst into a fit of wild and uncontrollable sobbing.

With an effort whose magnitude he himself only half realized, Herrick went softly over to the weeping, writhing figure, and laid his hand very gently on her shoulder.

“Eva, for pity's sake——”

She flung off his hand as though it had been a venomous serpent which had touched her; and again her wild sobbing filled the room.

“Eva, listen to me, dear.” Herrick sat down beside her and spoke in a quiet tone, which yet pierced through her sobs. “You must not say anything like that to me again. There isn't any question of hatred between you and me. We are together now, and we must build up a new and happy life together which will help us to forget the less happy past. Come, dear, look up and tell me you will help me to make a fresh start.”

She did not speak, but her sobs lessened as though she were listening.

“Now, Eva, sit up and dry your eyes and we will drop the subject. Come upstairs and have a rest before dinner. You are tired out and want a good sleep.”

She rose without a word, but in her face he read only fatigue, none of the softening which he had hoped to see.

“Yes. I'm tired—dead tired.” She moved languidly towards the door. “I think I shall never be anything else—now.”

Her fit of passion had indeed worn her out. For the rest of the evening she was quiet and listless; and she went upstairs very early to bed, leaving Herrick to sit alone with his dog, smoking his pipe, and facing the future with a sinking heart.

He sat there until the hour was really late; and then crept upstairs very softly to avoid waking Eva, if indeed she slept.

Just as he reached her door he heard a faint, strangled cry, and rushed into her room to find her in the throes of one of the nightmares which he found, later, were a dreadful legacy from her prison life. On waking, her relief at finding she was not, as usual, alone was so great that for the first time she clung to Herrick as she might have done in happier days; and as he soothed her and pushed the damp golden curls from her brow she spoke naturally, with none of the resentment she had hitherto displayed.

Her husband's heart melted towards her in this gentler mood; and long after she had fallen asleep again, soothed by his presence, he sat watching her uneasy slumber with a feeling of compassion which, had she realized it, must surely have done something to bridge the gulf which now yawned between them.

In the morning she was her hard, mocking self again; and Herrick's patience was sorely tried in the days which followed.

It seemed, indeed, as though she had stated her feelings for him correctly, as though she did really hate him with a bitter and relentless hatred. The prison life had changed her whole being, turned her from a brilliant, reckless, worldly girl, warmhearted and extravagant, but generous to a fault, into a cold, malignant, callous woman, nursing a grudge until it attained gigantic proportions, and fully resolved to exact from her husband and the world a heavy payment for the humiliating punishment she had been forced to undergo.

Herrick could never discover that she felt that punishment to be deserved. The whole world was to blame, but never she herself. It was the fault of her husband, who had kept her short of money; of the tradespeople who had pressed her, of the usurers who had got her into their clutches—the fault of everyone save Eva Herrick; and the fact that they had all, as it were, combined against her, that together they had been too much for her, embittered her outlook on life to such a degree that she was positively incapable of any reasonable analysis of her own guilt.

It was her husband against whom her resentment was chiefly directed. With all the perversity of her ill-regulated, half-formed mind, she refused to realize the fact that it had been absolutely impossible for Herrick to take her crime on to his own shoulders. She clung childishly to the notion that if he had wished he could have borne the blame and endured the consequences; and since there is no reason to doubt that to a girl in her position her life in prison was a horrible experience, her bitterness is perhaps hardly to be wondered at, after all.

Her sentence had left on soul and body traces which would never be effaced; and sometimes Herrick could hardly believe that this cold, cynical, bitter-tongued woman was indeed the gay Irish girl he had married.

But in spite of everything she was his wife. And Herrick was not the man to shirk an obligation which was so plainly marked as this. Although he shrank inwardly from her constant recriminations, he never let her see how he was wounded by her biting tongue; and to all her reproaches he presented so serene and complacent a front that she sometimes desisted from very weariness.

So the autumn days went on; and if Herrick felt sometimes that in spite of the beautiful world around him, life was no longer full of “sweet things,” he never wavered in his resolve to do all in his power to make up to Eva, for the misery she had endured behind those heartless prison walls.

CHAPTER XX

“Toni, do you think it quite wise to go about so much with Mrs. Herrick?”

It was Owen who asked the question one cold morning as the two sat at breakfast; and Toni looked up with something like defiance in her bright eyes.

“Why not, Owen? Oh, I know she has been—well, you know where—but she is free again now; and it is very hard if one mistake is to dog her footsteps wherever she goes for the rest of her life.”

“It was a pretty serious mistake,” Owen reminded her quietly, “and to tell you the truth I hardly like you to go about so constantly with a woman who did what she was proved to have done.”

“Oh, don't be such a Pharisee, Owen.” Toni spoke sharply and Owen glanced at her in dismay. “I suppose someone has been saying something to you. But I don't intend to give up Eva Herrick to please a lot of spiteful old women like Lady Martin and Mrs. Madgwick.”

“Certainly one or two people have commented on your friendship,” said Owen thoughtfully, “and I'm bound to say I don't like it myself. To begin with Mrs. Herrick treats her husband abominably; and I should not have thought you would have been attracted by her shallow, futile way of talking.”

“You forget I'm shallow and futile myself,” said Toni with a faint, bitter smile. “The gossips of the neighbourhood have long since decided that I was an ignorant little fool who wasn't fit to be the mistress of Greenriver; and I suppose it's a case of birds of a feather, isn't it?”

“Toni!” Owen's voice expressed bewilderment. “What on earth do you mean? Who ever dared to say you weren't fit to be mistress of Greenriver?”

“Oh, heaps of people,” said Toni recklessly. “You know quite well you were ashamed of me when we first went out to dinner parties here, and I didn't know how to behave—and lately we have been invited nowhere—not even to the Golf Club Ball.”

Owen bit his lip. In truth the matter of the ball had puzzled him considerably. Although not a golfer, he was on friendly terms with many of the members of the local Club; and since Toni's friends, Mollie and Cynthia Teach, were ardent golfers, it had seemed most probable that Owen and his wife would receive an invitation to the annual ball.

The Tobies had indeed gone so far as to assure Toni of her invitation when first the ball was mentioned; and though as the day grew near the two girls grew uneasy when the topic was broached, Toni never dreamed that their avoidance of the subject covered a real and distressing awkwardness.

Certainly neither Toni nor Owen imagined that they had been quietly excluded from the list of guests; but such was the astounding fact, as Mollie and Cynthia were guiltily aware.

It was largely due to Lady Martin's plain-speaking that this came about.

Somehow the real truth about Eva Herrick had leaked out; as such truths do invariably leak out; and Toni's ill-advised friendship with Herrick's wife was easily turned to her disadvantage by so skilful an adversary as Lady Martin.

From the first her ladyship had been unable to bring herself to tolerate Toni; and had lost no opportunity of spreading abroad Toni's rash admission as to the nature of her cousin's employment—with the immediate result that in a good many people's eyes Toni herself was looked upon as an unusually fortunate shop-girl raised by a stroke of good luck to a position which she was quite unsuited to adorn.

Possibly there was in the case of some of her detractors an element of jealousy in their comments on Owen Rose's wife. There were a good many houses along the river where daughters were at a discount; and to see an unknown and attractive girl like Toni step into the place which many of these girls would have dearly liked to fill was doubtless somewhat galling.

At any rate Lady Martin found plenty of supporters when she broached her avowed intention of excluding Mrs. Rose from the ball of which she was patroness, on the ground of her friendship with the woman who had been, as they all knew, in prison for a serious offence; and so it happened that when the ball took place neither Owen nor Toni contributed by their presence to the success of the evening.

It was perfectly true that Toni had struck up a friendship with Jim Herrick's wife; and it is only fair to Toni to state that in the first instance she had made overtures to Eva Herrick from a purely good-hearted desire to return Herrick's kindness to her in the one way possible.

She was not, in truth, greatly attracted to Eva at first. She found her hard, bitter, at times ungenerous; but Mrs. Herrick was clever enough to see that such attributes failed to endear her to Toni; and since to Eva's perverted mind her husband's companionship was unendurable, she quickly determined to make a friend of this soft-hearted, unworldly little girl who was evidently sorry for her in her wordless fashion; and was too candid herself to suspect deceit or double-dealing in others.

Eva knew very well that the neighbourhood, which prided itself on its exclusiveness, would have little or nothing to do with her; and motor rides with Toni in the luxurious grey car, with lunch or tea at some riverside hotel, formed an agreeable method of passing the days which were otherwise horribly long and empty.

       * * * * *

“I wasn't thinking of the Golf Ball,” Owen said, in reply to Toni's last speech. “But honestly, Toni, I don't care for Mrs. Herrick. Oh, I'm not talking now of the necklace affair. That's over and done with; but it's the woman herself I don't approve of.”

“Why not?” She spoke abruptly and Owen frowned.

“Well, she's not the sort of girl I like my wife to be intimate with. I'm sorry for that poor fellow Herrick. He is a sensible man, and knows that if his wife's past is to be forgotten it will be by living quietly and decently, and not by pushing into the society of the neighbourhood whether she is welcome or no.”

“Owen, you're perfectly hateful.” Toni was really angry. “She is always welcome here, anyway. You know quite well that no one round about really likes me. Oh, they call and all that sort of thing; but no one is really friendly to me, and all the time they are saying horrid things about me behind my back.”

“I think you are talking nonsense, dear,” said Owen quietly. “No one says horrid things. To begin with, what should they say?”

“They say I'm common and ignorant, and so I am,” said Toni passionately, with a sudden desire to blurt out the conversation she had overheard on that miserable day in August. “Mrs. Madgwick says so, and Lady Martin. I heard them—and lots of other people say so too. I thought it wasn't true at first—and then I saw it was. I asked Mr. Herrick, and he told me to read and educate myself and then I could be useful to you—and instead of that you went and got that perfectly hateful Miss Loder, and everyone knows it was because you were sick of me trying to help you and doing it so badly.”

Owen's face as he listened to this speech was a study in bewilderment. The introduction of Herrick's name puzzled him considerably; and although he frowned at Toni's description of Miss Loder, he realized that by some means Toni had been made unhappy over her own position as his wife.

“See here, Toni, I don't quite understand.” He looked at her keenly. “Who says you are ignorant—and all the rest? And what on earth has Herrick to do with our affairs?”

“I told him—he saw me crying and asked me why. It was at the Vicarage Bazaar—I was sitting in a summer-house and Lady Martin and Mrs. Madgwick were outside, and they began to talk about me and they said all those horrible things——”

“Toni, were you obliged to listen? Couldn't you have got away!”

“No.” She lifted her clear eyes to his and he repented his question. “I couldn't come out when they had begun; and I didn't know at first that they were talking secrets.”

Her childish phraseology made Owen smile in the midst of his annoyance.

“So Mr. Herrick advised you to read? Well, Toni, that was good advice.”

“Yes—and I took it,” she said eagerly. “I read heaps and heaps of dull books and worked at French—and poetry—and then when I tried to help you, you wouldn't let me. You brought that horrid Loder here instead.”

Her reiteration of Miss Loder's name jarred. Owen had been genuinely surprised and interested by this revelation, and if Toni had been wise enough to stick to her own side of the affair, it is probable she would have captured Owen's sympathy, and, incidentally, his heart; but she weakened her case by her senseless prejudice against Millicent Loder; and with a quick sense of irritation Owen told himself that she was only jealous—in a purely unsentimental way—after all.

She had never liked being ousted from her position, as would-be helper; but Owen knew—or fancied he did—the exact value of her aid; and after all his work was too important for him to run the risk of spoiling it by any lack of efficiency in his helpers.

“I wish you'd leave Miss Loder's name out of the question,” he said at last, and his tone struck coldly on Toni's excited ear. “When the book is published I will dispense with her assistance, if you wish it; but until then I tell you frankly I intend to avail myself of her most valuable help.”

He had expected an angry reply; but none came. Instead Toni said in a low voice:

“Very well, Owen. I know Miss Loder is useful to you and I am not. But if you refuse to let me help you, I don't think you can complain if I try to fill my time with other things—and if Mrs. Herrick is pleasant and nice to me I cannot very well refuse to know her, can I?”

“To know her? Certainly not—but there is a difference between knowing her casually and being with her all day long.”

“I am not that,” she replied quietly. “I take her motoring sometimes, because it is dull going alone, and it is a treat to her. But of course if you object—it is your car——”

“Oh, don't be silly, Toni.” All Owen's pent-up irritation found vent in the words. “I'm not a dragon—or an ogre, am I? Take Mrs. Herrick by all means—have her here if you like, only for goodness' sake don't talk as though I wished to condemn you to perpetual loneliness.”

“Very well. I won't.” She rose as she spoke. “You've finished, haven't you? Then I'll go and see Mrs. Blades—she is ill again to-day, Kate says.”

“Is she? Poor old soul.” Owen rose too, and passing round the table laid his hands on Toni's shoulders. “Toni, we're not quarrelling, are we? Have I neglected you lately? I'm sorry if I have—when the book's out we will have a trip abroad, go on the Riviera or somewhere nice and warm.”

He stooped, and kissed her, but though she lifted her face obediently and even returned his caress, Toni's lips were cold and her eyes had lost their sparkle.

Owen's inflexibility frightened her. She had half expected that when he knew her real and vital dislike for Miss Loder he would promise to send her away; but he had done nothing of the kind: and Toni felt again, as she had already felt once or twice of late, that Owen had no intention of giving in to his wife's fancies, as some men were always ready to do.

She had intended to offer to give up Eva Herrick's friendship if Owen would send away Miss Loder. In the quiet hours of the night such a bargain had seemed simple enough; but when it came to making the suggestion Toni's heart failed her.

“Are you going motoring to-day, Toni?”

“I had thought of it,” she said slowly; “but—do you want the car?”

“No, thanks, dear. I'm going up to town by the twelve-thirty—I promised to meet Barry for lunch. Shall you be in?”

“No. I thought of lunching out,” said Toni rather vaguely.

“Oh. Well, you'll order Miss Loder's lunch then, won't you? She must have it alone to-day.”

Owen, occupied with a letter he held in his hand, had spoken thoughtlessly; but an exclamation from Toni made him pause and regard his wife in amazement. Toni's pallor had given way to a deep flush, and her usually sweet eyes blazed with rage.

“Oh, I'll order Miss Loder's lunch.” She spoke in sharp staccato tones. “You needn't be afraid I will neglect her because you're away. I can keep house, if I'm not a B.A.; and thank Heaven I shan't have to sit at the table and listen to her sneering at me all the time.”

“Toni!” In Owen's eyes a flame similar to that in her own had sprung to life. “What do you mean by this nonsense about Miss Loder? Let me tell you once and for all that I won't have it. You never cease libelling that unfortunate woman from morning to night. Considering she is here, in your house, in a subordinate position, your behaviour is both unladylike and ungenerous; and if you continue to talk in this way about a girl who has to earn her own living, and has never done you any harm—well, we shall quarrel, that's all.”

“I don't care if we do.” Toni's hot temper—a heritage from her Italian mother—was let loose. “I'd sooner quarrel than submit to everything you like to do. If you loved me, treated me as you ought to treat your wife, you'd send her away. Oh, I'm not jealous in a silly way—I know you aren't likely to make love to her——”

Toni!” Owen's voice frightened her into silence. “Don't dare to put such a vulgar insinuation into words, if you please. If you are so lost to your own dignity and self-respect as your anger seems to imply, at least remember that you are my wife, and don't let me hear such a thoroughly degrading and unworthy remark from you again.”

“I didn't!” Toni, crimson-faced, had tears in her eyes. “I said I didn't think it. It's not fair of you to pretend I did.... I only meant——”

“I'm afraid you don't know what you do mean,” said Owen, his anger dying down at the sight of her tears. “But in any case we had better drop the subject.”

He paused for a moment, then something in Toni's forlorn aspect touched his heart and he spoke more kindly.

“Come, Toni, don't let's make a scene over this. You're my wife, you know—I didn't marry you because I wanted a secretary, I married you because I wanted you for my wife——”

“Even though you didn't love me.” Toni spoke quietly, even a little sadly, and Owen's heart sank as he realized what her words implied.

“I didn't love you?” For the life of him he did not know what to say.

“No. I thought you did—but it doesn't matter,” said Toni a little drearily. “I'm sorry I made a scene just now, Owen. Please forgive me. I won't do it again.”

And without waiting for a reply she opened the door and went out of the room, leaving Owen staring after her, stirred to the depths of his soul by something he thought he had read in her usually child-like eyes.

It was no child who had gazed at him as she spoke those last few words. It was a woman who had looked through Toni's Southern eyes in that moment of stress; and for the first time since his marriage, Owen wondered whether his estimate of Toni had been incorrect after all.

He had thought her soulless, a pretty, light-hearted, unselfish little comrade, swayed by feminine whims and caprices, but incapable of rising to the stature of the perfect woman; and lo, in one moment of unconscious revelation she had shown herself to him as a woman indeed, one who had realized that he had married her for some other cause than love, yet did not stoop to blame him.

But if Toni were indeed a woman, one capable, moreover, of a totally unexpected magnanimity, he had indeed been guilty of a serious mistake, and the very idea that he had misread Toni's character so hopelessly filled Owen with a humility as disturbing as it was complete.

CHAPTER XXI

The immediate effect of the little scene at the breakfast table was unfortunately that of an increased intimacy between Toni Rose and Herrick's wife.

Although Toni's exit from the battlefield had been quiet and even dignified, she found it hard to forgive Owen's plain-speaking on the subject of what he supposed to be her silly prejudice against Miss Loder. He had called her conduct vulgar and ungenerous, had spoken, moreover, in the tone in which a harsh schoolmaster might censure a naughty child; and all her love for Owen could not prevent a feeling of humiliation which galled her sorely.

The sight of Miss Loder, trim, competent, complacent, acted upon Toni's nerves in much the same way as the red rag is said to act on the nervous system of a bull. Although she dared not give vent openly to her dislike, Toni's behaviour towards her husband's secretary was by no means cordial; and Owen felt a slightly bitter resentment against his young wife for what he considered her most unreasonable inability to understand his position.

Millicent Loder was a god-send to a harassed literary man; and yet Owen began to wonder whether after this book were done it would be advisable to dispense with her services. That, however, seemed unfair to the girl, who liked her work with him, and would consider her dismissal uncalled for; and Owen generally finished his mental discussion with a resolution to ignore Toni's foolishness and trust to time to teach her toleration.

It must be remembered that neither Toni nor her husband had the slightest notion of what lay beneath Miss Loder's calm exterior. Envy of Toni as Rose's wife, scorn of her as the mistress of a beautiful and stately house, mingled in Millicent's breast with a strong and unreasonable longing to attract Toni's husband to herself; and the very fact that the marriage of these two was not what she called a success, lent additional keenness to all her emotions.

Oddly enough, Mrs. Herrick saw Millicent in something very like her true light, with a vision even clearer than that of the more interested Toni; and Eva Herrick, who since her imprisonment hated all men and most women, was not ill-pleased by the spectacle of Toni's dislike for her husband's secretary.

Very adroitly Eva set herself to foster that dislike. Although she had only encountered Miss Loder twice—once on the occasion of a call paid in return for Toni's ceremonious call upon her, and again during a wait at the station for the London train, Mrs. Herrick had quickly realized that Miss Loder liked Toni little better than Toni cared for her; and Eva was not the sort of woman to let any knowledge of that kind lie useless.

Without saying anything definite, she contrived to let Toni know she sympathized with her in the matter of Miss Loder's tenancy of the library; and although Toni never let slip a word which might have savoured of disloyalty to her husband, Mrs. Herrick knew, with a queer, uncanny shrewdness peculiar to her, that the girl's marriage was not altogether happy.

If it had been, it is improbable that Eva would have made a friend of Toni. As she said to herself now and again, she had no use for happy people. Her own life was spoilt—that the spoiling was due to herself she would have been the last to acknowledge—and she was in no humour to watch other people making a success of their lives. What she wanted was to see those around her as unhappy, as disillusioned, as discontented as herself; and all Toni's kindness, all her gentle, unselfish friendliness, went for nothing when the opportunity arose for a further darkening of Toni's already overshadowed sky.

On the surface, however, all was serenity. Eva accepted Toni's companionship with outward gratitude, and when once Herrick was satisfied that Toni knew what she was doing, he put no obstacles in the way of their better acquaintance.

Afterwards he told himself that he should have known better than to allow his wife to take advantage of Toni's unworldliness; but at the moment he was only too glad to find Eva apparently sincere in her liking for the simple-hearted Toni; and assuming, naturally, that Owen did not disapprove of the growing intimacy, he watched the affair with a gratitude made natural by his intense pity for his wife.

One day Mrs. Herrick asked Toni to accompany her to Sutton, where she had made an appointment for twelve o'clock. It appeared that she had suffered agonies of toothache while in prison, and although the authorities had done all they could for her, she was again in urgent need of a dentist's services. She had been informed of the arrival of a new practitioner in the little town, who came from a London practice; and to Toni's mingled surprise and dismay she found herself invited to accompany Mrs. Herrick on a visit to Mr. Dowson's surgery.

On the spur of the moment she confessed to a previous acquaintance with Mr. Dowson; and Eva thereupon plied her with questions as to his proficiency in his work.

“I don't want my teeth breaking or my jaw dislocating,” she said. “Do you think the man's any good? It's such a bore to have to go up to town every time. Has he ever done any work for you?”

Toni, who had never had toothache in her life, was obliged to reply in the negative; but assured Eva that Mr. Dowson had an excellent reputation in Brixton.

“Well, I wrote and fixed up an appointment with him,” said Eva carelessly, “so I suppose I'd better go. But if he isn't any good I shan't go again.”

“I'll run you over in the car,” said Toni eagerly, “and we'll go on to lunch somewhere. Miss Loder leaves early to-day, so it doesn't matter about my not being at home.”

Mrs. Herrick accepted the offer promptly, and at five minutes past twelve the big car pulled up in front of Mr. Dowson's modest house, much to the excitement of the school children, who were at that moment released from the school-buildings at the end of the street.

A quiet little maid showed the visitors into the usual depressing waiting-room; and reappeared two minutes later to conduct them into the torture chamber itself; and since Eva flatly refused to go alone, Toni perforce accompanied her into the operator's presence.

Mr. Dowson's pale face lighted up at the sight of Toni with a radiance which even the self-engrossed Eva could not fail to note. He recollected himself sufficiently to shake hands professionally with his patient, but Toni he greeted warmly, as an old friend.

He had never dreamed of such a glorious happening as this visit. The dingy room was transfigured by Toni's presence therein; and his long, white, carefully-manicured hands were absolutely unsteady as he opened his little cabinet and selected one or two tiny but deadly-looking instruments from the shining rows within.

Toni, for her part, was occupied in thanking the Providence which had seen fit to equip her with a set of perfectly sound white teeth; and she felt an intense sympathy with the hapless Eva, whose nerves, undermined by her late experience, were already betraying her into signs of agitation.

“I won't hurt you, really,” said Mr. Dowson, with a beaming smile, which he felt to be out of place, but could not restrain. “Please lean back a little more—so. Now open—just a leetle wider—thank you, that will do.”

It was soon evident that the visit could not be prolonged. Although he had not the clue to his patient's intense nervousness, Mr. Dowson's professional instincts warned him that he must go warily: and while he would willingly have detained Mrs. Herrick, if by such means he could enjoy the felicity of Toni's companionship a little longer, his conscientious spirit forced him to cut the sitting short.

Another appointment was made for the following week; and after that there were others, to all of which Toni accompanied her quaking friend. After four or five visits, however, Toni was unlucky enough to contract a chill during an unusually prolonged motor-ride; and Mrs. Herrick was forced to go alone.

It was Leonard Dowson's intense consternation when told of Toni's illness which first opened Eva's eyes to the seriousness of his devotion. She had seen from the beginning that he admired the girl, that he listened attentively to her lightest word; but she had not realized that Mr. Dowson was really and irrevocably in love with Toni; and it is only fair to the young man to say that he was quite unconscious of his self-betrayal.

He had not been able to hide his anxiety on hearing of Toni's indisposition. With all the exaggeration of true love he immediately feared the worst; and even Eva's callous heart was touched by his incapacity to ask for news on the day of her second visit alone.

He had stammered out a broken question, exhibiting a rather absurd concern over an ordinary slight chill; and when Eva replied casually that she had heard Toni was going on very well, she noticed, with a half-contemptuous amusement, that he had to turn aside and wipe away the drops which glistened on his high forehead.

It was during that second visit that an idea came to Eva, bringing a malicious little smile to her lips in the intervals of Leonard's ministrations.

“You've known Toni—Mrs. Rose—a long time, I suppose?” She asked the question casually as she put on her hat before the glass. “You were friends before her marriage, weren't you?”

“Yes. I had the pleasure of knowing Mrs. Rose some years before that.”

“Really? You knew her as a child?”

“She was just fifteen when I saw her first,” said Leonard, his voice husky with the emotion called up by the reminiscence. “It was her birthday, I remember, and one of her cousins asked me to go home to tea with him. They were great people for birthdays, her relations.”

“Were they?” Eva adjusted her veil carefully. “Friendly, sociable sort of people, I suppose. Was Mr. Rose there that night?”

“Mr. Rose?” For a moment Leonard, lost in dreams of the past, stared uncomprehendingly. Then he pulled himself together vigorously. “No, Mr. Rose was not there in those days. He—he came on the scene much later than that.”

“Did he? Was he also a friend of Mrs. Rose's cousins?”

“Oh, no.” Mr. Dowson became emphatic. “Nothing of that sort. Toni—Miss Gibbs she was then—met him in the course of business. As a matter of fact, she was his secretary. And then he fell in love with her; and the next thing was that they were married.” His tone was dreary.

“Ah, well, I don't wonder he fell in love.” Eva watched him closely through the mirror as she spoke. “I have no doubt Mrs. Rose had heaps of admirers at that time. Why, Mr. Dowson”—she spoke laughingly—“what were you about not to seize such a prize before an outsider sailed in and captured it?”

Leonard's pallor gave way to an unbecoming brick-red flush, and his voice shook as he replied:

“I ... I wasn't lucky, you see. I—I would have given my life for that girl, Mrs. Herrick, and she—she wouldn't have me at any price.”

His tone of desperate sincerity told Eva all she wanted to know; and in a moment she switched the conversation back to safer ground.

“You needn't give your life for her, Mr. Dowson, but I'll tell you what you can do. You can lend me your Punch to take her. I promised to bring her a copy from Dent's, and he is sold out.”

Mr. Dowson was genuinely delighted to follow the suggestion and insisted on depleting the table in his waiting-room of various periodicals which might relieve the tedium of a day in bed; and Eva took the bundle amiably, promising to deliver them in person to Toni on her way home.

She fulfilled her mission punctually; and when Owen, unaware of her presence in the house, came to see how his wife was getting on, he found her bed literally strewn with the papers which should have soothed the fears of the quaking patients in Mr. Dowson's gloomy waiting-room.

“Hallo, Toni.” He turned to her smilingly, after greeting Eva. “I hope you've got plenty to read. I didn't know you hankered after the illustrated papers, or I'd have sent out for some. It's very good of Mrs. Herrick to bring you such an assortment.”

“Ah, but these were sent by a friend of your wife's,” smiled Eva sweetly. “I'm not the principal party in the transaction—I'm only the middleman.”

“Really? Who has been so generous then?” asked Owen, taking up one of the papers at random as he spoke.

“Mr. Dowson, the dentist at Sutton,” said Eva, turning her large Irish eyes on him pleasantly. “You know, of course, he is an old friend of Mrs. Rose's, and I must say he is a most gentle and satisfactory person in his work.”

“A dentist? Dowson?” Owen's eyes roamed from Eva's face to Toni's, and something in the manner of both girls puzzled him. “I don't know him, do I, Toni? Is he really an old friend of yours? But you've never asked him here, have you?”

“He—he's not exactly an old friend,” said Toni, annoyed to feel herself colouring. “I mean—oh, I've known him a long time in a way—he was a friend of the boys—my cousins, but that was all. And anyway he has not been here long.”

“Oh.” Owen was still vaguely perplexed by her manner. “Well, if he's a decent chap you must ask him over.”

“Oh, I'm sure he wouldn't come.” Toni spoke quickly. “He is not your sort, Owen. I mean—I don't think he would care to come. Do you, Mrs. Herrick?”

Thus appealed to, Eva gave her verdict with a show of hesitation.

“N-no, I hardly think he would.” She turned to Owen. “I don't think I would ask him, if I were you, Mr. Rose. I expect it would make him feel a little—well, awkward.”

“But——” Owen did not know what to make of it. “You see, if he is sufficiently intimate with my wife to send her all these papers and things, it looks rather odd if I take no notice of him, doesn't it? I really think we must ask him over when Toni is herself again, eh, Toni?”

“I wouldn't, Mr. Rose.” Eva threw a deep earnestness into her melodious Irish voice. “Really—it's not my business, of course, but if I were you I'd not bother about the matter.”

She saw the look of uneasiness in Owen's eyes, and knew she had said enough.

“Is it really five o'clock!” She jumped up in pretended dismay. “And I promised Jim faithfully I'd be back by half-past four. He gets fidgety when I'm out of his sight for long—thinks I'm getting into mischief, I suppose.”

She laughed rather hardly, and Owen felt an inner repulsion to the woman who could thus misconstrue her husband's consideration. He watched her bid Toni an effusive farewell and then escorted her downstairs, and stood talking to her for a few moments at the hall door.

Somehow he had never liked her so little as on this afternoon; and although he admitted that she was a pretty woman in her way, he told himself that her face was curiously unattractive.

She looked better now than on her first arrival in the neighbourhood, less haggard, a little plumper, but as he compared her dulled and faded beauty with Toni's youthful bloom he wondered, not for the first time, if her companionship were altogether innocuous.

He was still puzzling over the question when he re-entered Toni's room; and his first words showed her what was in his mind.

“Rather bad taste—that allusion to her husband's anxiety. Don't you think so, Toni? After all, he might well be uneasy about a woman who has once got into such serious mischief as she has done.”

“Why? It's not likely to happen again.” Toni, poring over Punch, spoke shortly.

“No, of course not.” Owen hesitated, but as Toni evinced no signs of wishing to continue the conversation he went out of the room hurriedly, leaving his wife alone with the evidences of Mr. Dowson's good-will.

The next time Eva visited Toni she said jocularly:

“Well, I do think you're mean, Toni!” They had recently advanced to this stage of intimacy. “Fancy not telling me that Mr. Dowson had once proposed to you.”

Toni, taken aback, blushed vividly.

“He didn't—at least—not exactly. I mean——”

“Oh, I know what you mean!” Eva laughed. “Of course you couldn't have accepted him—he's a nice fellow in his way, but impossible as a husband.” At times Squire Payton's daughter was quite blatantly aristocratic. “But you might have told me, all the same.”

“Why? It doesn't matter—now.”

“Not to you, dear.” Eva jeered lightly. “But the poor fellow is quite upset at meeting you again. He told me to-day he would never marry, and when I asked him why he said surely I could guess.”

“Very impertinent of him,” said Toni sharply; and Eva smiled inwardly.

“Oh, you mustn't blame him, Toni. I'm afraid it was my fault. We Irish are so sympathetic, you know—people always tell us their secrets. And anyhow there is nothing to be ashamed of. If he likes to go adoring you privately, you needn't be angry.”

She said no more just then, for Toni's manner displayed her displeasure; but Eva smiled again when she was alone; and her warped and twisted mind seized eagerly on the idea of the very amusing situation which a little careful engineering might bring to pass.

Like all true intriguers, Eva kept her thoughts to herself; and Toni had not the faintest idea of the plans which her so-called friend turned about in her mind as the autumn days glided swiftly by under the golden and blue skies of a perfect season.

CHAPTER XXII

Owen and his wife were sitting at dinner one evening when a note was brought to Owen whose contents brought an angry exclamation to his lips as he, read.

“By gad, Toni, this is a bit thick! What the devil does the woman mean?”

Toni, suddenly pale, bit her lips, while her eyes filled with apprehension.

“I ... who is it from, Owen? What does it say?”

“There—read it yourself,” said Owen, throwing the blue-grey sheet across the table. “I suppose there is some explanation, though I confess I can't understand it—yet.”

Still deadly pale, her eyes shining like blue jewels, Toni took up the sheet and read the letter which Lady Martin had written with so much satisfaction a couple of hours earlier.

     “DEAR MR. ROSE,

     “After the occurrence of this afternoon I am sure you will see the
     advisability of Mrs. Rose's resignation from the Badminton Club. It
     is with great regret that I suggest this course; but after the
     scene which took place this afternoon, in the presence of a dozen
     members and several visitors, among them Lady Saxonby, a former
     friend of your own, I speak for the Committee when I request you to
     advise your wife to resign for the present season at least.”

Toni laid the paper quietly down on the table and spoke to Owen with a mingling of terror and defiance in her tone.

“Well?”

“Well?” Owen reached across the table and picked up the letter. “What is all this about, Toni? Why should you be requested to resign?”

“I don't know”—Toni began in a lifeless voice; then suddenly—“yes, I do know. It's all a plot of Lady Martin's and Mrs. Madgwick's. They hate me, I always told you so—and now they want to make you hate me too.”

“But what happened this afternoon?”

“Oh, it's a long story.” Toni spoke recklessly. “To begin with, I was elected to the Club a long time ago—in September; and when Mrs. Herrick came home she wanted to be a member too. I tried to get her in, but they didn't want her——”

“Of course not.” Owen frowned. “You never seem to understand, Toni, that all people are not so unworldly as you. It was a mistake for Mrs. Herrick to attempt to enter a private club of that sort so soon. She should have waited until the scandal had blown over.”

“Well, she was very disappointed about it. But every member can take a friend in once a month, so I took Eva this afternoon.”

She broke off in dismay.

“Oh, Toni, will you never learn sense?” In spite of himself Owen spoke sharply. “Of all the foolish things to do! Well, what happened when you got there?”

“People weren't very nice.” Toni flushed again at the memory of the whispers and averted faces which had greeted her entrance with Mrs. Herrick. “But we just sat down and watched, and everything would have been all right if Lady Martin hadn't interfered.”

“What did she do?”

“She had a woman with her—Lady Saxonby, someone called her—and she heard me addressed as Mrs. Rose, and turned to me at once and asked me if I were your wife.”

“She did? By Jove!” Owen guessed that Vivian's curiosity had nerved her to the step.

“Yes. So I said I was, and she was beginning to talk to me—quite politely—but somehow as if she were taking me in all the time——”

Owen could well imagine how Lady Saxonby's eyes would scrutinize the face of the girl with whom he had consoled himself after her defection; and he felt both anger and surprise at the thought of the scrutiny.

“Well, go on.” Insensibly his tone had hardened, and Toni hurried on.

“Well, as she was talking to me, Lady Martin came up and tried to draw her away, but she wouldn't go. So Lady Martin got vexed, I suppose, and she bent down and whispered something to her—something about Eva, because I heard the words 'necklace' and 'prison' quite plainly, and Eva heard it too and turned crimson.”

“And then?”

“Then Lady Saxonby looked straight at me and asked me to give you a message.”

“Did she?” Owen was astonished. “What was it?”

“She asked me to say that she hoped you had forgiven her and were as happy as she is.”

“Gad, what impertinence!” He flushed darkly. “She had no right to send me such a message; it was nothing but a piece of unwarranted presumption on her part.”

“Was it?” Toni spoke rather wistfully. “You see, I didn't know at first who she was, and I thought she meant to be quite decent. But then Eva jumped up and said very quickly that the woman who had jilted an honourable man ought to be ashamed of sending such a message through that man's wife—and when I said something she told me that Lady Saxonby was the woman who threw you over when you came home, for all the world to see.”

Owen, vexed to the soul by the thought of this miserable publicity, set his teeth hard and said nothing; and Toni hurried on.

“Well, then there was a scene. Lady Saxonby turned on Eva quite furiously, and said she had no right to talk of anyone being ashamed of anything, seeing that everyone knew what she had done. And then all the other women crowded round, and Eva lost her temper, and said it was quite true and she had been in prison and was a criminal and all that, but she'd sooner be that than a dishonourable, mercenary woman who would jilt one man because another had more money and a title ... and ... oh, there was a most frightful row, and the end was that the secretary hurried up and asked me to take Eva away quickly before she said any more. She was awfully cross, and said I ought not to have brought Mrs. Herrick, and that Lady Saxonby would be sure to talk, and the Club would be ruined.”

“So you came away?”

“Yes. Eva was horribly upset—you know her nerves are all wrong—and she fainted dead away in the hall and they had to send for a doctor and we took her home ... and altogether,” said Toni, breaking at last into tears, “it was a fearful scene, and I wish I'd never gone near the Club!”

“I wish to God you hadn't!” Owen sprang up, more upset than he cared to confess. He could visualize the whole scene: Vivian, with her beautiful, scornful face, taunting Eva, playing the hypocrite with Toni, and sending insulting messages to the man she had jilted; and the mere thought of the talk, the gossip, the raking up of old stories which would inevitably follow, set all his nerves jarring furiously.

Even the sight of Toni's tears did not soften his heart. Rather he felt exasperated with her, since it was her folly which had precipitated the whole scene.

“Come, don't cry,” he said rather curtly. “You've done a very silly thing, and goodness knows where it will end; but it's no use crying and making yourself ill.”

Naturally his tone did not tend to set his wife at ease; and she cried the more.

“Oh, for goodness' sake, stop!” Owen felt himself to be a brute, but the thought of Vivian's malice was gall to his spirit. “The mischief's done, and crying won't undo it. But I hope you've learned a lesson, Toni; I always told you it was a mistake to go about with that woman, and you wouldn't believe me. Well, now you see what's happened. You've made us both ridiculous in the eyes of the world, and we shall be more severely ostracized than ever.”

Suddenly Toni's tears ceased and she raised her head to stare at him.

“You mean people will be horrid—to you—about it?”

“Well, naturally, they'll think me a fool for encouraging you,” said Owen rather irritably. “If only you would have been guided by me! But it's been the same all through. You chose to go your own way, and the end will be that we shall have to leave Greenriver and go to live somewhere else.”

“Leave Greenriver?” She echoed the words dully.

“Well, what can we do?” He spoke impatiently. “You have never seemed very happy here, so far as the people go. And now, after this fiasco, we may expect the neighbourhood to drop us altogether.”

“Drop us?”

“Well, you know what I mean. Oh, I don't care two straws about the people themselves. They're a stupid lot anyway, and too conventional to know how to got the best out of life. But still—Greenriver's my home, and I thought we should learn to settle down here.”

“And I've prevented you?”

“Well, you've never hit it off with the people, have you? And after this I don't see how we can settle down. I'm not going to have people neglecting my wife or being rude to her, but still this Badminton Club affair is a pretty big slap in the face for both of us.”

Toni, resting her small chin on the cup of her hollowed hands, stared at him thoughtfully, and in her eyes, still wet with tears, he caught again that elusive hint of a tragic womanhood which had puzzled him on a former occasion.

“Eva was right,” she said, and her voice was low. “She said I was out of place here, and so I am.”

“Mrs. Herrick said that?” Owen's anger suddenly swung round. “Then it was a damned silly thing to say, and I'm surprised you listened to it.”

“But she was right. She said everyone wondered why you married me; and now that I have seen Lady Saxonby, I wonder too.”

Owen's heart sank.

“Toni, what do you mean?”

“I mean that I understand now. Lady Saxonby was the woman you were to have married. She is very beautiful,” said Toni simply. “And she would have been the right mistress for Greenriver. I can't understand how it was you married me. Eva said—when we were driving home—that it must have been pique. She said you wanted to show the other woman you did not care ... and when I thought about it, I saw that it was true.”

“Toni, it wasn't true.” All thought of personal anger was swallowed up in Owen's sudden longing to convince the girl that Eva had lied. “I married you because”—in spite of himself he faltered—“because I loved you. What if Vivian did treat me badly? I was well out of it, since she was a woman of that kind.”

“Oh, I don't mind—now,” said Toni, with a faint smile. “I did at first. When Lady Martin and Mrs. Madgwick said it, last summer, I thought my heart would break; but I suppose I got used to the idea, and when I saw Lady Saxonby to-day I knew it was just one of the things that no one can help.”

Owen, not understanding her, only stared.

“You see, I knew all the time it wasn't likely, really, that you would care for me,” said Toni quietly. “I tried to make myself believe you did, but I don't think I ever really believed it. Only I was so fond of you—you were so kind—and when we were married you were so good to me that I began to hope you might grow fond of me in time.”

“Toni—for God's sake——”

“But I soon found out it was a mistake—our marriage—for you. I wasn't half clever enough. I was only an ignorant, silly, unformed girl, and you were so different. Oh, I tried my hardest to improve. I wanted to prove to you that I wasn't quite such a little fool as you thought me. I wanted to show you I had a soul—Mr. Herrick said I had, and I tried to make myself more companionable to you—oh, I know I didn't succeed very well,” said Toni humbly, “but, you see, you didn't understand. I only bothered you when I tried to help you in your work; and of course you didn't want to talk to me about the things that really mattered to you.”

“Toni—Toni—don't say such things.”

“But you were always kind,” said Toni wistfully, “and I sometimes wondered if I had been wrong and you did care for me a little. But I always knew, deep down in my heart, that it was all a mistake, and now”—suddenly the composure which had supported her so far gave way—“now I know I ought not to have married you—and—and I'm sorry, Owen—I'm most frightfully sorry——”

All at once she pressed her hands to her eyes as though to shut out the sight of his face; and then, as he started forward, vague words of comfort on his lips, she flung her arms out over the table and laid her head down on them in an attitude of utter desolation.

For a moment Owen stood motionless, while the light from the rose-shaded candles played over the silky black hair and cast a pool of red colour on the smooth white neck rising out of its chiffon draperies. The scene was one which would never fade from Owen's memory; and in after days he could visualize it to the minutest detail.

The red and yellow of the chrysanthemums in a big silver bowl, the purple bloom of the piled-up grapes before Toni, the ruby of the wine in the decanters, the reflections cast by the candles in the shining surface of the uncovered table, the ruddy glow of the firelight playing over Toni's pale-coloured skirts—to the day of his death Owen would be able to recall the scene at will: and never would he forget the chill in his veins as he realized that the girl he had thought a child was a woman after all....

“Toni—Toni dear.” He laid his hand on her shoulder. “For heaven's sake, Toni, look up and tell me you don't mean all the terrible things you've been saying. Of course I love you. Why, haven't I shown you that all along? Toni, don't let those silly women and their chatter hurt you. You can believe me, can't you? And I tell you I married you because I loved you—and Lady Saxonby and all the rest can go to Jericho!”

He half thought he had won her ear; in another moment he felt sure he would have had her in his arms, sobbing her heart out—since she must cry—in the safe shelter of his breast; but at that moment the young butler, deceived by the low voices into thinking the room empty, entered briskly to fulfil his duties; and Toni sprang up before Andrews had time to advance round the big screen, which fortunately hid her from his eyes.

Owen swore softly under his breath at this most untimely interruption; but Toni was already half-way to the door, and he judged it best to engage Andrews in conversation about the wine and leave Toni to seek the sanctuary she desired.

       * * * * *

The next day the Secretary of the Badminton Club received Mrs. Rose's resignation; and there, for the present, the matter ended.

CHAPTER XXIII

When Toni related the episode of Lady Martin's note to Eva Herrick, the latter asked a startling question.

“Toni, why don't you leave your husband?”

“Leave my husband?” Toni stared at her, wide-eyed.

“Yes. Oh, anyone can see you're neither of you happy. Mr. Rose knows all the time that he ought not to have married you just to get even with that horrid Saxonby woman, and anyhow you're not the least bit in the world suited to one another.”

Toni was very pale.

“You don't think so?”

“I'm sure of it.” Eva threw away the cigarette she held and sat upright. “You ought to have married a man who would love you whatever you did—who wouldn't want you to be booky and clever, but would think you perfect in every way. Not a man who feels himself superior to you half the time, and finds fault the other half.”

“But my husband doesn't find fault.” She spoke in a low voice.

“Doesn't he? Well, it sounds like it,” said Eva, piling the cushions behind her curly golden head. “I heard him scolding you over a book you'd mislaid one day, and he nearly jumped down your throat about Miss Loder this very morning.”

“That was entirely my fault,” said Toni quickly; and Eva saw that if she were to succeed in her malicious project she must change her plan of attack.

Being as quick-witted as she was cruel, she adopted a new method instantly.

“Of course. I was only joking. Seriously, I think Mr. Rose is wonderfully good. I'm sure it would hurt him awfully to think he had been unkind or impatient with you, Toni. After all, he married you to please himself, didn't he? And it's not a bit fair to you to visit it on your head afterwards.”

“To visit—what, Eva?”

“Why, I hardly know what to say.” Eva smiled subtly to herself. “Of course, it may be only my imagination. I daresay you make Mr. Rose as happy as any woman could do. I expect he works too hard and that's why he looks so worried.”

“Does he look worried?” queried Toni softly. “I suppose I ought to have noticed it—but——”

“But you didn't?” Eva leaned across and patted the girl's arm. “Never mind, dear, it's probably my fancy. I daresay Mr. Rose is not a very lively person at any time—and, after all, one can't always be feeling cheerful.”

“You mean,” said Toni, who, like other primitive people, was apt to be disconcertingly outspoken, “you mean that Owen—my husband—isn't happy. At least—is that what you mean?”

“Well, I suppose I did mean that,” said Eva with pretended reluctance. “But it's all nonsense—I had no business to say it, Toni. Do forget it, will you?”

“No.” Toni spoke very quietly. “I shan't forget it. But I want to know a little more. You think Owen is unhappy because he is married to me. Do you think he would be happier if I went away and left him? Is that what you are too kind, too generous to imply?”

Eva's heart gave a sudden throb. Her first aim in life ever since the prison gates clanged behind her at the end of her term of confinement had been to do some harm in the world, to make up for the injury which she considered had been done to her; and no weak emotions such as pity or generosity could be allowed to hold her back.

To her oddly-perverted mind, it seemed that if she could persuade Toni to leave her husband, to wreck her home and her future, she would have got “her own back” to a considerable degree; and she had a double motive in her hatred of Owen, who, as she well knew, distrusted her personally and disliked her friendship with his young wife.

Any person connected with a big penal settlement will tell you that there is never any certainty as to the moral result of a term of imprisonment on any given prisoner.

To some natures, the punishment may be both a deterrent and an excellent lesson, while to others the educational value may be great and the deterrent effect almost nil; but in one class of prisoner—the class to which Eva Herrick belonged—imprisonment wakes only the worst and basest of all emotions, a desire, perforce stifled during the period of punishment, for revenge.

That she had suffered, on the whole, justly, never weighed for one instant with Eva herself. That she had been guilty of a crime was less than nothing. What did weigh with her was the fact that she had been found out, and forced to undergo a humiliating and degrading punishment; and from the moment when she came to her senses after the swoon which had mercifully cut short the scene in court, Eva Herrick's whole being had been in revolt against a world where such things were allowed to be.

Her whole pleasure, indeed, while in prison, had been found in planning how, in the future, she could render miserable the life of the husband who had not, so she considered, stood by her; and it was a bitter disappointment to her to find that try as she might she could not torture him to the breaking-point.

He met her most poisoned and bitter shafts with a patience which nothing, it seemed, could pierce. When she taunted him, he only smiled; and when she reviled him he left her presence; so that the only way in which she could win any satisfaction was by detailing to him exaggerated accounts of the treatment she had received in prison.

These stories, untrue and impossible as many of them were, made him wince, not knowing indeed how cunning was the invention behind them; and many times when she was more maddening than usual, Herrick schooled himself to patience by reminding himself of the drastic punishments which had apparently been meted out to her.

When at length she found that Jim was impervious to her stings, Eva looked around her for another victim; and found one in the person of Toni Rose.

It did not take Eva long to read, more or less correctly, the position between Toni and her husband; and although she was quite shrewd enough to realize that the situation would probably adjust itself in time, Eva was determined to prevent any such adjustment with every weapon in her power.

Unhappily it proved only too easy for a woman such as she was to direct the affair pretty much as she willed it; and her suggestion to Toni that she should leave her husband had been carefully led up to by scores of insinuations, of carelessly-dropped hints, and scraps of repeated conversations heard on the subject of the Roses' married life.

She was careful to let none of the elation she felt escape her as she replied to Toni's speech after a significant pause.

“Put that way, it sounds dreadful,” she said, pretending to shudder. “I don't think I really meant that. I only thought that perhaps—your husband is a writer, you know, an artist—with the artistic temperament, I suppose; and everyone knows that genius is difficult to live with.”

“I don't care for myself,” said Toni hastily. “I could always be happy—with Owen—but if you really think I spoil his life——”

“Oh, don't say that, dear.” Eva spoke soothingly. “I daresay I am entirely mistaken. Of course, you know best how you get on; and after all Mr. Rose is so keen on his work he hasn't much time for outside things.”

“I wonder what Owen would say—or do—if I left him?” She spoke musingly; and Eva's heart beat tumultuously as she noted the result of her tentative suggestion.

“Go after you and bring you back, I expect.” Such was Eva's reply.

“Then there wouldn't be much use in going,” said Toni quickly, and Eva read the relief in her eyes.

“No—not if you went like that.” Her tone was purposely cryptic.

“But—how else should I go?”

“Why, if you really wanted to go——” Eva broke off with a laugh. “Don't be so silly, Toni. You talk as though I had really meant my stupid suggestion.”

“Didn't you mean it?” Toni's gaze was disconcerting.

“Why, of course not. Come, Toni, let's have tea. I'll send for Jim, too. It's getting quite dark.”

“Wait a moment,” said Toni. “Eva, if I made up my mind to leave Owen—for his own sake—how could I prevent him fetching me back?”

“You really mean it?” Eva's tone sent a chill through Toni's veins. “Supposing you really saw that it was for Owen's good—that by remaining with him you were spoiling his life, ruining his career—making him unhappy, in short—you mean in that case how could you prevent him searching for you?”

“Yes,” Toni said, her eyes on the fire, “that is what I mean.”

“There's only one way, Toni.” She was careful to speak lightly. “If you went away with another man——” for a moment even her nerve failed her, but she conquered her weakness and went on calmly, and her grey Irish eyes were as cold as ice as she looked at Toni. “Then your husband would probably divorce you, and devote himself to his career.”

For a second Toni's pallor alarmed her. All the girl's colour died away, leaving her curiously white round the mouth, a sign of emotion to which Eva was not blind; and Mrs. Herrick wondered, uneasily, if Toni were about to faint.

But Toni was in no fainting mood.

“You think that, Eva? You think that if I were gone—out of his life altogether—Owen would forget me and find happiness in his work?”

“I think so, yes. Oh, Toni, I know I seem unkind,” said Eva, Judas-like. “Believe me I wouldn't have told you if you hadn't pressed me. It only struck me that perhaps—you will forgive me, dear?—perhaps you didn't manage to make your husband very happy—and if you really did want him to forget you——”

“No, I don't make him happy,” said Toni with a sigh. “It is funny, isn't it, when I love him so much? But you're right in one thing. I am spoiling his life; and my going away won't help him unless I go for good.”

“If you merely go, without any apparent reason, your husband will be miserable, unsettled, give up everything to find you, to bring you back——”

She was startled by a sudden exclamation from Toni.

“But, Eva, if you're so sure he'd want me back——”

“Why should you go?” Eva smiled a little, patiently. “Don't you see, dear, if you go like that, Mr. Rose will be so alarmed, so upset, that of course he'll want to find you. He would think you'd perhaps run away because you were unhappy, and he'd do all he could to get you back on your own account. Oh, I know Mr. Rose is very fond of you, Toni”—somehow her very inflection made Toni's conception of Owen's love shrivel into nothingness—“and he couldn't rest if he thought you were unhappy. He would bring you back, and things would be just the same again. He would do his work, helped by Miss Loder, I suppose, and you would go on as you are now. After all, Toni, you know you have a lot to be grateful for.”

She looked at the girl to see how far she might safely go, but Toni never moved; and Eva was emboldened to proceed.

“You have a lovely home—Greenriver is quite a show place, and after all, you and your husband never quarrel, do you? So that on the whole you'd be a little fool if you gave up all these very substantial benefits. Eh, Toni?”

Eva was clever. She knew exactly the spur to apply to Toni's flagging mood, and she smiled to herself when she heard Toni's reply.

“Do you think I would hesitate to give up Greenriver—and all the rest—to make my husband happy?”

And looking at her Eva knew she would not. Mistaken, Toni might often be—foolish, self-willed, a little intolerant of advice; but she would never be selfish. If she could be convinced that her departure would be beneficial to the man she loved, she would certainly leave him, though it broke her heart to go.

“No, of course not.” Eva spoke a trifle vaguely. “But you couldn't go, Toni. It would be impossible. Why, your husband would think you were mad.”

“Would he? Perhaps I am.” Toni's smile was a little melancholy. “Sometimes I think this is all a dream—that I'm not Owen's wife at all—that Greenriver and the gardens and everything else are merely imagination. I can't believe it's true. If it is, how is it that everything has gone so terribly, horribly wrong?”

She paused, gazing before her with puzzled eyes.

“I thought once that if I married Owen I should be the happiest girl in the world. But I'm not. I'm the most miserable. I—sometimes I wish—oh, I don't know what I wish!”

“Come, Toni”—Eva rose as though to change the subject—“you mustn't be so despondent. Let me ring the bell—it's nearly five, and I'm sure you want a cup of tea.”

“Not yet, Eva.” In Toni's voice was a new note, a note of decision, which Eva's ear was quick to detect. “When you say I should go away with another man, who had you in your mind?”

A moment Eva waited. Then:

“I meant the man who has the misfortune to adore you, Toni, the man who gave up everything, his practice, his prospects, London, everything, for your sake. You know the man I mean. You know as well as I do that Leonard Dowson adores the very ground you walk on.”

“Leonard Dowson!” Toni smiled drearily. “Think of leaving Owen for Leonard Dowson!”

“Oh, I know he's not in the same class,” said Eva, with ostentatious frankness, “and I don't for a moment suppose he would make you happy. I'm afraid I wasn't thinking much of you, dear, when I mentioned his name. Somehow I forgot that you have as much right to happiness as anyone.”

My happiness doesn't matter,” said Toni for the second time. “But I think you are wrong, Eva. Mr. Dowson never thinks of me—now.”

“Doesn't he?” Eva permitted herself to smile. “My dear child, he's just crazy about you. He told me all about it one day when you weren't there—how he'd loved you for years and years and was heart-broken when you refused him. He only came down here to be near you, and if you would only smile on him a little he would do anything in the world for you.”

“He wouldn't give up his work for me, Eva.”

“Ah, you haven't heard of his good luck.” Eva had carefully refrained from the announcement until the moment was ripe. “He has just come into some money—nearly two hundred a year; and he can chuck dentistry to-morrow, if he likes.”

“Even then, he wouldn't want a scandal——”

“Oh, Toni, I could shake you,” said Eva, sitting down with a thump on the sofa near her. “Because some people have not got red blood in their veins, you think no one has. I tell you Leonard Dowson would throw up everything to-morrow—brave any amount of scandal, if only you would go with him. He could take you abroad somewhere, America perhaps; and then, when your husband had got his divorce, you could marry Leonard and settle down as nicely as possible. Then Owen would be free to do as he chose with his life, and this unhappy state of things would be forgotten.”

“Marry him? Marry Leonard Dowson?” Even yet Toni could not assimilate the idea.

“Well, why not? He is madly in love with you, Toni. He would give up everything in the world for you, and I honestly think that things are impossible as they are. But of course you know better than I do, and if you feel you must stay with your husband——”

“No—no.” Toni's breath came in short gasps, as though she had been running. “I can't stay with Owen. I make him miserable, he's ashamed of me—I'm no good to him, only a bore—a useless creature who's tied to him ... if I were gone he would be really better off—and as you say, he could marry again——”

“I don't suppose he would do that,” said Eva gently. “You know he is very fond of you, Toni—I got even Jim to acknowledge that the other night”—she watched Toni wince at the “even”—“and it's only that you—well, you're not quite his sort, somehow.”

Her words seemed to rouse Toni to anger.

“You have said that already,” she said sharply. “You needn't repeat it.”

“I'm sorry, Toni.” Eva's big eyes looked imploringly into hers. “I'm afraid I've said far too much to-day. After all, I have no earthly right to interfere, and you are quite justified in resenting my interference.”

Toni's sudden anger died away.

“Oh, you were quite right,” she said, sighing as she spoke.

“I'm glad you said what you did—and I can't help knowing you are right. Only”—she shivered, and her face looked white and pinched—“somehow until I heard you saying it I hoped I myself was making a mistake.”

“But—you'll not do anything rash?” Eva was vaguely uneasy at the result of her plot.

“Oh, no, I'll do nothing rash,” said Toni, with a queer smile; and Eva's uneasiness deepened.

Luckily for her their conversation was cut short at that moment by the entrance of Herrick, accompanied by Olga, and followed by the maid bearing the tea-tray.

When the lamp had been lighted and the maid had withdrawn, Herrick shot a glance at the face of his wife's visitor; and he saw at once that something was wrong.

He did not betray his knowledge by the slightest sign; but talked to the two girls in his usual kindly, whimsical fashion while Eva dispensed tea.

“All the boats are really put away for the winter now,” he said presently. “I think yours—and ours—have been the last, Mrs. Rose. We have had such wonderfully mild weather; but I'm afraid we shan't get any more boating this season.”

“Shan't we?” Toni sighed faintly. “I'm sorry—I have enjoyed the river so much.”

“Yes. We've had a glorious summer. But after all the winter will soon pass and we'll be getting the boats out again.”

“I hope we shan't be here when it's time to get the boats out,” said Eva crisply. “A winter here would just about finish me off.”

“Oh, it's not bad,” Herrick rejoined. “Sometimes it is quite pleasant all the year round—though we get a fog now and again, of course.”

“I don't propose remaining to sample the fogs,” said Eva quietly. “Of course you will do as you choose, but seeing I've never been properly warm for months—we don't have nice fires in prison, you know—I think you owe it to me to take me somewhere sunny this winter.”

Herrick's face clouded, as it always did at any reference to Eva's prison life; and Toni felt desperately uncomfortable.

She put down her cup and rose.

“I must really be going home, Eva. I didn't mean to stay to tea.”

“Must you go? I'm sorry. I hoped you'd stay to dinner and enliven us a little. Jim and I don't have very jovial evenings, do we, Jim? Sometimes I think I might as well be back in my cell.”

“Eva—don't.” Herrick spoke quietly, and his wife laughed.

“My dear Jim, why be so squeamish? If Mrs. Rose doesn't mind associating with jail-birds, I don't see why you should. I'm thinking of writing a book on my experiences in prison, Toni. Do you think Mr. Rose would collaborate with me—lick my raw stuff into shape, so to speak?”

Before Toni could reply, Herrick interrupted.

“If you are going, Mrs. Rose, I'll take you across the river in the old punt, and see you home along the towing-path. It is the shortest way, but it's lonely at night.”

“Thank you, Mr. Herrick. May Olga come, too?”

“Of course. She would be very much hurt if she were left behind.”

“How silly you are over that great dog of yours, Jim.” Mrs. Herrick included even dogs in her universal hatred nowadays. “I declare I wish someone would poison the beast.”

This threat, uttered not for the first time, made Herrick set his lips firmly, and for once his wife regretted her taunt.

“Oh, I'm not going to do it,” she said with a laugh. “Good-bye, Toni, if you must go. I'll come and look you up in a day or two.”

When Toni and Herrick were alone, walking along the towing-path in the darkness, Herrick turned to Toni with a sigh.

“Mrs. Rose, I can't tell you how sorry I am—nor how grateful I am both to you and Mr. Rose for your kindness to my poor little wife.”

“Oh, don't say that,” begged Toni, her warm heart filled with pity for him. “I like your wife immensely—we are friends, you know, and you must not forget she has suffered terribly.”

“Yes, I suppose she has. And yet”—he spoke vehemently—“has she suffered so much as I have done—as I shall go on doing as long as we both live? Oh, I've no right to say it—I ought to be man enough to suffer in silence—but it's hard to bear her constant allusions to her prison life—her taunts—wouldn't you think she would be glad to forget all that, to put it behind her? Yet every day she talks of it. She never allows me to forget for one instant that she has been in hell—and every word she utters is an indictment of me, a reproach for the cowardice which let her go to prison.”

“Oh, Mr. Herrick—I'm so sorry....”

The stammered words brought a smile to Herrick's face.

“Poor child! I ought not to blame her—rather to pity her.... I do pity her with all my heart. But she won't let me sympathize with her. One word and she flies at me. She is unhappy here, yet she will make no plans for going abroad. She talks as though I kept her here, when God knows I would go to the ends of the earth if she wished it.”

“Yes, I know, but I think if you go on being patient with her,” hazarded Toni, “she will come to her better self again. Don't you agree with me?”

“I don't know.” His tone was rather despairing. “Sometimes I fear both our lives are ruined. It's wonderful what an effect a wife has on her husband's life—and vice versâ, of course. Some people seem to think that a man and woman can 'live their own lives' quite apart from each other if they like. But they can't. When they are husband and wife they are bound to exercise an enormous influence on each other's life; and when two people are thoroughly out of sympathy with each other, life, for both of them, is bound to be a failure.”

“You think so?” Toni's mind had flown to her own unhappiness, but for once Herrick did not read what was in her thoughts.

“Yes. Don't you? Now, looking at it dispassionately, how do you expect Eva and me ever to re-discover the happiness we have so effectually lost? Remember, Eva is convinced that all her sufferings are directly due to me. She persists in thinking that if I had chosen I could either have prevented her case ever going to court, or could have taken the blame myself and gone to prison in her stead. The consequence is, she hates me, resents my presence near her, and will bear me an undying grudge all the days of her life.”

“But you couldn't have taken the blame.”

“Of course not, but women are often illogical, and Eva certainly is. No, the fact remains that I represent, to Eva, the coward who condemned her to a severe and mortifying punishment; and she won't forgive me.”

“But in time——”

“Sometimes I am inclined to think it's a hopeless experiment—our life together.” Herrick spoke sombrely. “I have been wondering seriously of late whether it would not be better to make over all my property to my wife and rid her of my presence, I believe she would be happier by herself.”

“You mean—get a divorce?” faltered Toni.

“A divorce?” In spite of himself Herrick laughed. “Oh dear no. I don't think I need take quite such drastic measures as that. What I thought was to set Eva up somewhere, in some new place, where she could start afresh, and then take myself off quietly—to California, or New Zealand, or somewhere of the sort, where an able-bodied fellow like me can be sure of picking up a living.”

“But would Eva let you go?”

“Ah, there's the rub!” He spoke in a lighter tone. “When it came to the point she might think that even an unsatisfactory husband was better than none. But, speaking seriously, I believe two people so incompatible as we two are better apart.”

“Do you?” In the dark Toni's eyes were frightened. “Don't you think, then, that one ought to stand by one's own actions? I mean if a husband, say, honestly thought it would be better for his wife to be free from him, would you advise him to go and leave her? Or the other way about. Should the wife go, if she was sure that by staying she did the man harm?”

Herrick was tired, disheartened by the frequent scenes with his wife, depressed by the grim autumn night; therefore for once his sympathies wore dormant and his intuition slept.

He had no idea that Toni was speaking personally, that she was calling on him to help her to make the most important decision of her life; and he was, moreover, in a mood which found the idea of self-sacrifice, of renunciation of one's own happiness strangely attractive.

“If he—or she—were practically convinced that departure would be the best way out—for both—why then I should say by all means go.” In the darkness he did not see Toni's sudden deathly pallor. “Of course it would always be rather hard to be quite sure on that point; but in a case where one could be more or less certain—well, perhaps I'm wrong, but I should say the step would be thoroughly justifiable.”

For a perceptibly long moment Toni did not speak. Then she changed the subject abruptly by asking her companion the time; and after striking one or two matches he was able to assure her that it was just six.

“Oh, then Owen will be back.” She hastened her steps as she spoke, and there was little more conversation between them as they hurried along.

At the gate he bade her farewell, refusing an invitation to enter; and Toni went through the garden into the house, there to be met by a telegram from Owen announcing that he had been delayed in town and would not be home in time for dinner.

Toni was oddly relieved by this fact. She had an important matter to think out; and for once Owen's absence was welcome.

She dined alone, a rather forlorn little figure in the big dining-room; and after her hurried meal she went into the drawing-room and stood looking out over the lawn with unseeing eyes.

The night had turned warm, unseasonably so for November, and Toni suddenly felt a great desire to be out in the air among the trees and shrubs, which were faintly perceptible in the light of a thin and waning moon.

Kate, surprised by an imperative summons, brought a wrap as directed; and calling Jock to accompany her, Toni stepped out of the long window on to the gravel outside.

For a moment Kate stood watching her young mistress, struck by something a little desolate in her appearance; but when Toni had moved slowly away down the path, Jock gambolling beside her, Kate withdrew from the window and returned to her interrupted supper.

Toni paced slowly up and down for some minutes, while the night air played over her bared head. It was less oppressively warm out here than in the house, and into Toni's nature-loving heart there stole a sudden sense of comfort; as though all the living things around her were whispering vague words of love and cheer to her forlorn spirit.

However miserable she might be, Toni was never quite so wretched out of doors. It was as though some vital part of her responded to the call of her great mother, the earth; as though in her veins ran some fluid akin to the sap which coursed through the branches of the trees. Indoors, between four walls, she might feel grief as a crushing burden; but once outside, with only the vast sky above her head, her sorrow invariably lightened; and to-night was no exception.

At the end of half an hour's quiet pacing up and down the gravel walk Toni felt herself calmed and strengthened. She told herself there was no need at present to dwell further on the matter which filled her thoughts. She would banish it from her mind for the time being; and with this wise resolution, she turned to retrace her steps up the avenue towards the house.

Suddenly Jock barked loudly, following the bark with a low growl; and Toni's heart gave a great jump.

She had strolled almost to the big iron gates leading to the road; and she wondered for a moment whether a tramp had found his way into the grounds on some nefarious errand. She stood still, thinking as she did so that she heard a rustle in a bush close at hand, and then Jock growled again, a fierce, low rumbling in his throat, which frightened Toni almost out of her wits.

With a voice which would shake, she called out to the dog; and then there was a sudden silence which was almost more sinister. She had laid her hand on the Airedale's collar at the sound of his first bark; but feeling really nervous now, she was just about to let him go when there was a half-apologetic cough from the bushes behind her, and a voice she knew said, rather timidly:

“Mrs. Rose! Please don't be alarmed—it's only me—Leonard Dowson.”

CHAPTER XXIV

Toni was so surprised by the discovery of the unknown marauder's identity that she involuntarily released her hold on the dog's collar; but Jock's sudden dart across the path, and his snarl of anger as he confronted the person whom in his doggy heart he took for an enemy, awoke Toni to a sense of the position.

“Jock! Come here! Jock, do you hear me?” Her tone showed Jock that, much as appearances were against the intruder, his canine instinct had been at fault; and he returned, unwillingly, to his mistress, wearing the slightly sulky look which an intelligent dog wears when he has made an unavoidable mistake.

“Mrs. Rose, I assure you I did not mean to frighten you.” Mr. Dowson emerged rather hastily from the shadow of the bushes, and advanced, hat in hand. “I—I am really most awfully sorry if I have startled you. I ... I would have called out sooner, but I trusted you would not perceive me.”

“Mr. Dowson!” Toni's voice was frankly dismayed. “What are you doing here? Were you coming to see me?”

“I—I really don't know.” Mr. Dowson moved a step forward and then gave an involuntary jump as Jock growled mildly, under his breath as it were.

“But—be quiet, Jock—it's so late—and——”

“Oh, I know it's late.” Suddenly Mr. Dowson lost his head. “But I couldn't stop away. I—I've been here heaps of times—at night—generally I've stopped outside the gates, but once or twice I had to come in.... I—I couldn't stop away. It drove me mad to think of you here—and I had to come, just to be near you, if I couldn't see you—speak to you.”

“But——” Toni began, but he cut her short.

“Oh, you can't understand, of course! You've never understood—you've never known how much I've loved you—oh, it's no use being angry! I know quite well I've no right to speak. You're married, a great lady now, by all I hear—but I love you—Toni—oh, my God, how I love you!” The sweat stood in great drops on his brow as he hurried on, a certain rough eloquence in his words. “After all, I'm a man, I've a right to love you—or any woman—and I've loved you now for years—it's not something new, just a passing attraction—it's part of me, something in my very bones, as near me as breathing or sleeping or thinking—I'm simply eaten up with love for you, Toni. You're my life, my everything. I'd die for you, I'd go through fire end water for you, I'd do anything in the world, bad or good, dishonourable or splendid, if you'd be kind to me, smile on me, let me kiss your little feet....”

Toni, swept off her balance by his passion, said nothing, but stood opposite to him, panting a little; and after a second he went on with his wild confession.

“Oh, I know I'm wrong, I know you're hating me, despising me for telling you all this, but it's too much for me. I can't bear it alone any longer. It's driving me mad, Toni, mad, do you hear? At night I dream of you—sometimes I dream that you've been kind to me, that I've kissed you—kissed your little mouth, held you in my arms ... and then I wake and know you're another man's wife, and it makes the blood rush to my head and I see red, Toni, red....”

Something in his excitement warned the girl that she must soothe him.

“Hush, Leonard.” In that moment she reverted to the days of their early friendship. “Don't speak so wildly. You—you frighten me.”

He passed his hand over his brow, and when he spoke his voice was a shade quieter.

“I wouldn't frighten you for the world, Toni, you know that. I love you far too well ... oh, Toni, is it quite hopeless! Isn't there a glimmer of pity in your heart for me? Won't you ever give me a thought....”

“Leonard, how can I?” She spoke in a low voice, all Eva's horrid suggestions rushing over her in a flood. “I'm married; I can't ever be anything to you now.”

“Oh, I know you're married.” He caught his breath in a gasp. “But still—oh, Toni, you wouldn't come away with me, would you? I've got some money now. I'd be able to give you things, and I'd work for you till I died....”

At another moment Toni would have found occasion to wonder at his temerity in making the suggestion. She did not know how his imagination, fired by Eva's insinuations, played about the figure of Owen Rose's wife as the unloved victim of a man's callousness; and although she could see that Leonard Dowson was in deadly earnest, she had no conception of the sincerity of his belief that she had been wronged, trapped into marriage by a man who cared little for her, and neglected her openly.

Such was the manner in which the situation had been presented to Dowson by Eva Herrick; and in his genuine acceptance of her story lay Dowson's best excuse for his wild plan.

“I ... I couldn't come away with you, Leonard.” In spite of her desire to set Owen free, Toni's whole soul revolted at the idea of such treachery. “I'm married, you know, and I couldn't leave my husband.”

“Why not?” in his despair the young man pressed still nearer, and again Jock uttered a warning growl. “I know you are married, but still—you're not happy—your husband isn't, either, by what I hear. You'd be wronging nobody—you've no children to consider”—in some ways Mr. Dowson was as primitive as Toni—“if you had, it would be different, but you've only yourself to think about. This life doesn't suit you, Toni. It cramps you, worries you. Oh, I heard all about that Badminton Club affair, and everyone knows you don't hit it off with the bigwigs of the neighbourhood.”

“Who told you that?” For a moment Dowson quailed before her tone; but he rallied bravely.

“Oh, what does it matter who told me? It's true, isn't it? Why, you look different, Toni. You're not the lively, jolly, animated girl you used to be—all smiles and jokes. Toni, you're paler, and thinner—you've grown quiet, almost sad. It's because you're not happy—and—and I'd die for your happiness any day.”

His deadly earnestness could not fail to win response. Here at last was a passion unveiled before Toni's wondering eyes; and all at once the thing which had seemed impossible came down to the level of the things which—sometimes—happen.

Here was a man who only asked to serve her; and if by accepting his service she could free her husband from the chain which bound him, all unwilling, to her, was it not the act of a coward to refuse?

It may be said, and with truth, that Toni's view of the matter was perverted, distorted beyond all bounds of reason and of common sense. To leave her husband, to whom in spite of all she clung with every fibre of her being, for another man for whom she had not even the smallest atom of affection, was surely the most insane, inexcusable action in the world; and would after all only result in a negligible good, since the insult paid, to the man she betrayed would quite outweigh any relief in the freedom thus obtained.

Then, too, she would be wronging Leonard Dowson; since to go away with him would lead him to suppose a degree of affection on Toni's part which was in reality non-existent; but Toni was not thinking of Dowson in this matter.

There is no woman so absolutely ruthless towards the mass of mankind as the woman who loves one man completely. In this affair Owen was the only man who counted in Toni's mind; and she thought of Leonard Dowson merely as a convenient tool with which to effect her husband's release from the position he apparently found unendurable. That the reckoning might come afterwards, when Leonard should see himself as Toni saw him, she did not pause to consider. Indeed, on this occasion her thoughts were so wild and chaotic that she could hardly be said to have considered the matter at all.

“Well, Toni?” Her long silence made him uneasy, and he paled, fearing he had angered her by his persistence.

“Well?” She gazed at him absently for a moment, then woke suddenly to life. “Leonard, are you seriously asking me to go away with you? You mean you would take me away, and let my husband divorce me—for you?”

“Yes, Toni.” He spoke firmly; and, if for a moment all his lifelong visions of a respectable London practice, prosperity, the respect of those around him, seemed to rise up reproachfully before his eyes, he meant his words absolutely.

“Would you really do it? You must be very fond of me,” said Toni simply; and the young man was emboldened to proceed.

“Of course I would do it, and of course I am fond of you.” His voice shook a little. “Toni do you really mean that you will think about it—will give me the tiniest fraction of hope to keep me alive?”

“Yes. I will think about it.” She spoke slowly. “But—I can't tell you—now. You must go away and let me think things out.”

“Don't think too long,” he besought her, fearing that prudence might come with reflection. “When will you tell me, Toni? To-morrow? Will you write to me? One word—yes—will do; and I'll make arrangements at once.”

For a moment his earnestness startled her.

“You could do it—like that—at once? Leave your practice and everything else at a moment's notice?”

“I'd leave all I have in the world at a second's notice,” said Mr. Dowson resolutely; and Toni could not but believe in his sincerity.

“Very well.” She felt tired suddenly. “I will write—to-morrow. But—but you won't be angry if it's no?” Toni added childishly.

“I'd never be angry—with you.” The young man's commonplace features were irradiated by a great light, and for a moment one could forget his mean stature and ready-made clothing. “You will never understand—you couldn't—what you are to me; but before God,” said Leonard Dowson solemnly, “I'd devote my life, my soul, all I have to your service, and never ask for thanks.”

“Well, if you will go now, I will write to you,” said Toni, rather wearily; and his passion was checked by the fatigue in her voice.

“I'll go now—at once—and you—you will write, Toni? I'll count every moment till I get your letter.”

“Yes, I will write,” she reiterated dully, wishing he would go and leave her alone with her thoughts; and without another word he turned and vanished into the shadows.

When the sound of his footsteps had died away and all was silence, Toni shivered with a feeling of deadly chill.

Leonard Dowson's appearance, following so closely on Eva Herrick's suggestions, had given her a queer, eerie sensation of awe, as though some inexorable fate were pointing out to her a way of escape from the situation she was beginning to find intolerable. She never doubted the man's affection for her; and she fully believed that he would indeed die in her service. And the very touch of fanaticism in her love for Owen, which made her feel that it would be a small thing indeed to die for him if by dying she might give him happiness, helped her to realize the strength of the pallid, unromantic young dentist's devotion.

True, Toni was too innately sensible a person—perhaps it would be fairer to say her love of life and its “sweet things” was too strong—to allow her to contemplate death as a solution of the problem of her unsuccessful marriage.

She understood, too, with a queer flash of spiritual insight which was foreign to her usual simple vision, that her death would bring Owen only a great sorrow; and in her darkest moments she never dreamed of courting death.

A sudden bark from Jock made her start; and looking round she found Owen almost at her elbow. He had dismissed his taxi at the gate, and was walking briskly up the dark avenue, when Jock's vociferous welcome broke the night silence and brought him to a halt.

“Hallo, old boy, what are you doing here? That you, Andrews?”

Toni moved forward from the shadow, and beneath the dark cloak which had deceived him he caught the pale glimmer of her skirt.

“No, Owen. It is I, Toni.”

“You? Why, what are you doing here? Oh, I see—you brought Jock for a run. Well, it's quite warm to-night—but the air has the feel of rain.”

“Yes. I thought I felt a drop just now.”

“Did you? Well, we'll get indoors. I'm sorry I am so late, dear, but there's been trouble at the office. Oh, nothing much, only Hart, our new sub-editor, had chosen to return an article we'd commissioned, because he said it was not up to our usual level.”

“And wasn't it?” Toni's forlorn heart welcomed his friendly tone.

“Of course it was. It was about the best stuff young Lewis had ever turned out—and a fool like Hart, whose taste is distinctly precious, hasn't the wit to appreciate good, clean, straightforward English. He likes a mass of involved, wordy stuff that only the high-brows can understand.”

He broke off laughing.

“Well, anyway we sent for it back in double-quick time; but Lewis had taken the huff and didn't want us to have it. So Hart had to apologize—which he didn't enjoy—and altogether the place was in a ferment.”

“But it's all right now?”

“Yes, thank Heaven. I say, Toni; I went to see old Vincent about my arm to-day, and he says it is fairly normal again. I'll tell you a secret, shall I, Toni? As soon as the book is finished I'm going to start a play.”

“Are you?” Her voice sounded cold, though it was only vague; and her unusual lack of interest rather hurt Owen.

“Oh, we'll have our holiday first,” he said quickly. “I didn't mean to do you out of that. How would you like a few weeks in Switzerland—for the winter sports? We could get off in about three weeks, and stay over Christmas. Then, when we came home”—in spite of himself his tone took a new enthusiasm—“I could get to work again.”

“You are going to write a play? But I didn't know you could write plays.”

Her childishness jarred his nerves, already worn with the minor vexations of the day.

“Well, I don't know until I try.” He spoke rather curtly. “But I've talked it over with Barry, and we think it sounds possible.”

“I see. And if it were a success?”

“Why, our fortune would be made.” He took her arm in friendly fashion. “Then we should have to go and live in town, Toni, take a big house and launch out. You'd like that, eh?”

“I should hate it,” she said, so fervently that he dropped her arm in astonishment and turned to look at her.

“Hate it! Why?”

“I hate big houses—and entertaining—and all the rest. I—I should loathe to have to go to receptions and give big parties—I'm never any good at talking, you know yourself I look a fool when anyone tries to talk to me.”

“I know you're a little silly,” said Owen teasingly, “but you'll outgrow that. Here we are—come along in, Toni, it's really beginning to rain. Come in, Jock, and let me shut the door.”

Safely inside the hall, Owen turned to Toni.

“Come into the library, will you, dear? I'll send for some sandwiches and a whisky and soda, I think. I hurried over dinner and I'm hungry.”

Toni gave the order at once, and then followed Owen to the library, where a cheerful fire burned, and in the mellow lamplight the room looked very stately and charming.

She sat down on the low club-fender in front of the hearth and gazed into the leaping fire in silence, while Owen opened the letters which had accumulated during the day.

For a few moments there was no sound save the crackling of paper and the soft little chatter of the fire. Then Owen crumpled up a letter he held and flung it from him with something which sounded like an oath.

Toni, roused from her reverie, turned round to face him.

“What's the matter, Owen?”

“Matter enough, I think.” His face wore a frown which boded ill for someone. “Toni, what have you been saying to Miss Loder to make her write this letter?”

“Saying to Miss Loder?” Every scrap of colour faded from her face, and Owen, watching, took her pallor for the ashy hue of guilt.

“Yes. You've said something—I don't know what—but I should like to know at once, without prevarication, just what it is.”

“I've said nothing to Miss Loder.” Her voice was unsteady—she too had felt her nerves jarred during this dreadful day.

“Well, you see what she says.” He stooped and picked up the letter, which he handed to Toni. “Read that, and tell me what you make of it.”

With fingers as cold as ice, and a memory in her heart of another letter which had brought her misery, Toni took the sheet, and read, in Miss Loder's firm, characteristic hand, the letter in which she requested to be allowed to resign her post.

“I am not taking this step without serious thought,” so the letter ran, “and for some time I determined to remain with you as long as you honoured me by your acquiescence in the arrangement. But learning, as I do, from a quite indisputable source, that my presence in your house is distasteful to Mrs. Rose, I have no option but to ask you to release me from a position which is not only unpleasant but undignified. If you will be kind enough to waive the question of notice, I would prefer to terminate the engagement at once.”

Here followed her signature, firm and clear as ever; and then came a postscript, surely a sign of disturbance on the part of so academic a scribe.

“I would prefer to dissever all connection with the Bridge at the same time; but am willing to remain at the office until you find a suitable person for the post.”

Having read the letter Toni let it fall upon her knee, while she gazed dreamily into the red heart of the fire, her brain working slowly as she tried to understand the significance of Miss Loder's epistle.

Something in her abstraction appeared to irritate Owen; for he came a step forward and spoke rather brusquely.

“Well? You've read it? What have you to say about it?”

“To say? Nothing.” She lifted her eyes to his, and let them drop again, wearily, to the letter on her knee.

“Oh, come, Toni, that's nonsense.” Conscious of the irritation in his tone Owen paused, then spoke more gently. “Miss Loder is not the sort of person to imagine slights—she has been out in the world too long for that. But evidently she has clearly seen your antipathetic attitude towards her, and feels that in the circumstances she cannot remain.”

“I have never slighted Miss Loder.” Toni, frightened, sounded defiant.

“Not exactly. But you have shown me very plainly that you resented her presence; and I suppose you have not been very careful to hide your—well, prejudice—from the girl herself.”

“She has no right to say such things,” said Toni, a warm flush creeping up beneath her ivory pallor. “I have never been rude to her, as you seem to think. I have always hated her, I admit—always, from the first time I saw her; but——”

“Ah, you acknowledge that.” Owen pounced on the admission. “But why, Toni? Why should you hate the girl?”

“Why? I don't know,” said Toni recklessly. “Simply because I do, I suppose—because if I knew her for a hundred years I should never do anything but hate her.”

“And so, through your senseless jealousy, I'm to lose the best secretary I've ever had.” Owen's tone was cold. “Really, Toni, I think you've gone a little too far this time. Quite apart from the fact that you must have behaved in a very childish and unladylike fashion to make the girl so uncomfortable, you have also done me an injury. If you didn't care for my work for its own sake—and I know neither the Bridge nor my book has ever appealed to you—still I think you might have sacrificed your personal feelings just a little and considered my position in the matter.”

From her lowly seat on the fender, Toni looked up at him with a strange expression in her eyes. In truth, at that moment Toni's soul was a battlefield of conflicting emotions. Anger, defiance, resentment at what she considered her husband's injustice, were mingled with a great dread of Owen's displeasure; and a wild, miserable despair at the thought of his conception of her as indifferent to his aims and ideals. At one and the same moment she longed to hurl defiance into his face, and to cast herself, weeping, into his arms. But she did neither, only looked up at him with that inscrutable expression in her eyes, waiting for him to speak.

“Now I suppose I shall have to look out for another secretary.” Owen was annoyed and showed it. “Thank Heaven, the proofs are about finished, but this knocks the play on the head. I suppose I'll find someone else to help me, but the whole thing is very absurd and annoying.”

Suddenly Toni's self-control, already shaken by the meeting with Dowson, deserted her completely.

She rose from her seat like a small whirlwind and confronted Owen with scarlet cheeks and blazing eyes.

“Wait a moment, Owen. Don't say any more, please. Remember there is my side of the question to be considered.” She faced him bravely. “You knew from the start that I was not literary or learned—I told you before we were married that I wasn't half clever enough for you, and you said it didn't matter. Then, when I'd tried to help you and failed, you got Miss Loder here in my place. You knew I disliked her, but you didn't know what cause I had for my dislike.”

Owen, silenced by her vehemence, stared at her speechlessly, and she went on hurriedly.

“From the first she despised me. She saw I wasn't well-educated, that I wasn't even in her class. Oh, I know she is connected with all sorts of people, but she ought not to have let me see so plainly that she looked down on me as a nobody. She never lost a chance of humiliating me. Why, at lunch over and over again I've sat silent while you and she talked. If I ventured to speak, she listened, quite politely, till I had finished, and then went on talking as though I'd not spoken. For days and days I hardly saw you. You were shut up there with her, and I was all alone. I was no one to you, she was everyone. I was your wife, but she was your companion. Everyone noticed how I was left alone; they all knew you ignored me—I was miserable, but you never saw——”

“You—miserable, Toni?” Owen spoke abruptly.

“How could I be anything else? You treated me always as a child—an unreasonable, ignorant child——”

“Well?” Owen interrupted her, but his tone was one meant to conciliate, for suddenly he thought he saw a way to end this deplorable scene. “And aren't you a child? A pretty, engaging child, I grant you—but still——”

“No.” It was her turn to interrupt, and white to the lips she faced him. “I am not a child any longer—I was until a short time ago, but you have changed me into a woman——”

“Come, Toni.” Deceived by her quiet tone Owen laid his hand on her arm. “Don't grow up too quickly. Let me have my little child-wife a bit longer yet——”

She shook his hand off with a violence for which he was not prepared, and he spoke angrily, his softer impulses dying away.

“Hang it all, Toni, you needn't repulse me as if I were a snake. You are a child, after all, and a jolly bad-tempered one at that!” It was the first time he had ever used such a tone, and the girl's anger flared up in reply.

“A child—of course—you think so, you always will—you and your precious secretary!” As she spoke Toni snatched up a packet of neatly-folded proofs from the table behind her. “This is her work, I suppose. Oh, how I hate her—and you—and the book! I'd like to destroy it all—to burn it up—like that!”

With a passionate gesture she turned round and flung the bundle of papers into the very heart of the fire blazing on the hearth behind her.

“There!” She faced him again, her breast heaving, her eyes flashing stormily. “I'd burn it all—if I could. You like your book better than me—but I've burnt so much of it, anyway.”

Owen had started forward as she spoke, but it was useless to attempt to save the burning sheets, and he fell back from the hearth with an exclamation of anger.

“You are a little fool, Toni.” He spoke coldly. “What, good do you expect to do by a piece of childish spite like that? Those proof sheets were all corrected—now the duplicate set will have to be revised, and as they are due in London to-morrow, I shall have to spend several hours over them before I can get to bed to-night.”

Toni, frightened now at what she had done, stood motionless during his speech. As he said the last words her rage melted suddenly into contrition.

“Owen—I'm—I'm sorry.” She spoke haltingly. “I—I didn't mean to give you trouble. Can I—will you let me help you—to make up for what I've done?”

He raised his eyebrows and laughed rather bitterly.

“It's very kind of you, Toni, but I think I won't trouble you. Your repentance is a little belated, isn't it? And I think I prefer to keep my work to myself in future.”

The fire of her rage gave one last expiring flicker.

“As usual,” she said, “your work is more to you than I. I wonder you ever married, Owen. Marriage doesn't seem to mean a great deal to you.”

“I sometimes wonder, myself,” he said drily. “Certainly I haven't found it a very enjoyable state of late. It seems you haven't, either. Perhaps we were in too great a hurry after all, Toni.”

He did not mean the words, which were wrung from him by his exasperation at her childish folly; but the effect on Toni was disastrous.

She could not well turn paler than she was already; but a chill crept into her veins, congealing her blood as she stood in front of the fire. She shivered slightly; and then with an effort which made her feel physically exhausted, she moved slowly towards the door.

“Where are you going, Toni?” Owen questioned her rather coldly.

She turned round; and all the youth was gone from her face.

“I am going to bed,” she answered quietly. “Good-night, Owen.”

And without waiting for a reply she opened the door and went slowly out of the room.

CHAPTER XXV

Quite calmly and quietly Toni went about her preparations for departure.

The scene in the library had turned the scale in favour of her flight. Owen had openly avowed his opinion that their hasty marriage had been a mistake; and now that the passion of rage and jealousy which had possessed her had died away, Toni could see no other method of relieving the situation than by leaving Greenriver at once.

She would go away with Leonard Dowson, thereby leaving the way open for Owen to divorce her. Her own future life occupied but the smallest fraction of her thoughts. Somehow her power of visualizing the future seemed to stop short with her departure from her home; and although she had a very clear vision of Owen, relieved from the incubus of her presence, and free to devote himself to the work which, she had persuaded herself, meant more to him than any purely domestic happiness, she never gave even a passing thought to her own existence when once she had severed the ties which bound her to the old house by the river.

Very early in the morning of the day following her interview with Dowson she had posted a note to him. There was only one short sentence on the little sheet of paper—only three words; but she know it would be enough.

     “I will come. TONI.”

That was all; and yet as she wrote the little sentence, Toni had a queer, stifling sensation as though she were indeed signing her own death-warrant.

The note would be delivered at lunch-time; and about two o'clock Toni began to look for an answer, though she knew it was hardly likely the young man would reply so promptly.

At three o'clock she went out into the garden. Her head was throbbing painfully, her cheeks burnt with a scarlet flush, and it was surely quicksilver and not blood which ran so swiftly through her veins.

The day was unseasonably warm, and a slight fog hung about, making the air damp and heavy. Owen had gone to town immediately after lunch; and Toni was inexpressibly relieved by his absence.

They had barely spoken to one another to-day. Owen was suffering from one of his worst neuralgic headaches, which at all times made him feel disinclined for speech; and Toni said little because she had nothing to say.

At half-past three a note was delivered to her by a lad wheeling a bicycle; and when the messenger had withdrawn, Toni opened the grey envelope with fingers that shook. Inside she found a fairly long letter, which had evidently been written in haste, for the writing was untidy, and here and there a word was almost illegible.

“I can hardly believe you will come, Toni.” So ran the letter in which Leonard Dowson accepted, the happiness promised to him. “It seems too good, too exceedingly, marvellously good to be true. Yet your little letter lies before me, and you are too kind, too sincere to deceive me. So it is true; and the sun has risen on my grey and lonely life. Then listen, Toni. I have made all preparations for my own departure to-night. I have paid off my servants, the rent, and left everything in order; and I am in possession of a sufficient sum of money in notes and gold to enable us to live for some months in peace on the Continent. Now comes the question of our meeting. I have ascertained that the night boat leaves Dover about eleven; and in order to cross to Calais, on the way to Paris, we must take the boat train from Victoria. I think it will be safer to motor up to town rather than risk meeting any acquaintances in the train; and a car will be waiting at the corner of Elm Lane at six o'clock. That will give us sufficient time to catch the train, and will be pleasanter than the other mode of travelling. With regard to your luggage, do not trouble to bring more than a dressing-case; for it will be my pleasure and privilege in future to provide you with all you may desire. I have still much to do, so will bid you farewell until the precious moment which brings you to my side.”

He had evidently hesitated over his signature; there were one or two erasures; but at length he had written, his name firmly, without any attempt at a formal leave-taking.

For perhaps a minute Toni stared at the two words “Leonard Dowson”; and a chill, as of anticipatory dread, swept over her at the sight of that firm, clerkly handwriting.

Until this moment she had looked upon Leonard's proposal as the one and only means of setting Owen free. Once she had taken this step, had burned her boats, her husband would surely accept his freedom with a feeling of vast relief; and in spite of everything Toni had only one thought—that of Owen's good.

But suddenly she was afraid, with a purely human, selfish fear for herself. To what was she condemning herself by this unlawful flight? When once Owen had accepted her sacrifice, had set in order the machinery of the law which should give him his release, what would become of her? Would she be obliged to marry a man for whom she felt only a tepid friendship, unwarmed by the smallest coal from the fire of love? She had found life sad even when married to the man she loved; but what would it be to her as the wife of a man to whom she was almost completely indifferent?

Quite unconsciously Toni was exaggerating Owen's attitude towards his marriage, was accepting as his last word a few irritable sentences wrung from him by fatigue and annoyance at having seen the corrected proofs destroyed in a fit of childish temper on the part of his wife.

Far from regretting his marriage, Owen merely regretted Toni's unreasonableness in the matter of Miss Loder; and once that young woman was removed from the scene, Owen had no doubt that he and his wife would shake down again quite comfortably and forget the recent scenes between them.

But Toni, who always meant exactly what she said, and unconsciously expected the same sincerity of speech from others, had taken Owen literally; and although for a moment a flood of human weakness had overtaken her as she gazed at Leonard Dowson's firm signature, she never really faltered in her purpose.

When she had read the fatal letter once more, she went back into the house, and there she burned the document with almost mechanical forethought.

Then she went upstairs to her room and carefully packed her dressing-bag. She did not take very much. Somehow it seemed unnecessary to burden herself with many things; and when she had finished her packing and had hidden the bag in her capacious wardrobe, she went downstairs and sat by the drawing-room fire to wait until Kate saw fit to bring tea.

When, at the usual time, Kate entered, she moved across the room to light the lamps; but Toni sent her away with this part of her duty undone. To-night Toni wished to sit in the firelight. The fog had thickened in the last hour, and now it pressed against the windows like a chill, ghostly presence, hiding the garden, the river, the trees in thick and clammy folds. Looking across the room from her seat by the fire Toni shivered; and it seemed unkind of Fate to ordain that her last memories of Greenriver should be shrouded in the cold and creeping mist.

She turned back to the fire with a shiver; and sat gazing into the leaping flames, while her tea grew cold and the hands of the clock crept inexorably onwards.

At half-past five she must leave the house. True, the meeting-place was distant barely a quarter of a mile, but Owen might return early, and she had no desire to run the risk of meeting him.

A short cut over the fields would both shorten the way and minimize the danger of running into her husband; and Toni looked up, startled, when the silver clock on the mantelpiece chimed the hour of five.

Only thirty minutes, and her life at Greenriver would come to an end. Never again would she roam through the beautiful old house, never sit in this charming, panelled room, with its ghostly yet alluring fragrance as of bygone lavender and roses. Never again would she wander in the garden, revelling in the beauties of colour and scent and form which made so lovely a picture in the glorious setting of turf and river. Never again would she stroll beneath the tall trees in the summer dusk, while the owls hooted eerily and the nightingale murmured luscious love-songs to the dreaming roses. The river would know her no more; never again would her feet tread the towing-path where in the early morning she had been used to saunter, with her faithful Jock by her side——

Ah! At the thought of Jock, Toni uttered a little cry. She had forgotten him until this moment—his dear canine image blurred by a mist of thoughts and tears; but now she remembered him only too well; and her heart was pierced by the thought of his fidelity—to be, alas, so poorly rewarded. Owen would be good to him, of course. He would be well fed and kindly treated, since everyone in the house had a soft corner for the jolly, riotous, affectionate Airedale; but he would miss his own loving mistress; and Toni could not bear to think of the wistful expression his honest brown eyes would wear when he found that she had apparently deserted him.

At that moment, almost as though her thought had called him to her, she heard him at the door. He did not scratch the panel, after the manner of many of his kind, but stood upright and rattled the handle with his nose; and Toni ran to open the door, feeling a positive criminal beneath the warmth and confidence of his greeting.

She took him to the fireplace and snuggled down with him on the thick fur rug on the hearth. She gave him his saucerful of tea, and fed him recklessly with macaroons; but Jock was uneasy beneath her ministrations.

There is no friend so quick to grasp a tense situation as a dog. Although Toni spoke in almost her usual voice, and fondled him with more than her usual affection, Jock knew quite well that there was something wrong.

Leaving the last macaroon untouched, he came and stood close by her side, looking up into her face with a puzzled, wistful expression, and presently he stood up on his hind legs and licked her face solemnly with his warm red tongue.

“Oh, Jock, you naughty boy,” said Toni, between crying and laughter. “You know you're not allowed to kiss me! But—oh, Jock, darling, how I shall miss you!”

Two great tears fell on the dog's head; and others followed. In a minute Toni was weeping her heart out; and the dog, rendered still more uneasy by this behaviour, lifted up his voice in a melancholy whine.

Suddenly Toni dashed away her tears and started to her feet with a suddenness which almost upset Jock.

“Jock, it's no use going on like this. We're a couple of idiots—at least, I'm one, and you're a darling old stupid. But it's time to go, Jock. To go. Do you hear? I'm leaving Greenriver, Jock, leaving my home, my husband, everything I have in the world. I'm going away, Jock, going with a man I hardly know. I shall be called wicked, and I suppose I am; but I can't help it. I've got to go—but oh, Jock, how much easier it would be to die!”

She took a last look round the beautiful room, which like most rooms looked its best in the rosy firelight; and then she went slowly out, Jock pressing closely to her side.

Up the broad stairs she went. In the gallery the Ten Little Ladies burned bravely; and as she walked between them Toni could not see their tiny flames for the tears which blurred her sight.

Very slowly she entered her room, Jock pressing beside her all the time. It did not take long to don her thick fur coat and soft little hat. She remembered a veil, but at first forgot her gloves; and at the last moment she had to go back for the dressing-bag and for her purse, wherein reposed ten pounds given her by Owen some weeks earlier.

At last she was ready; and bag in hand she opened the door leading into the gallery and stood looking round her for one long, last moment.

Jock, puzzled, stood beside her, gazing anxiously into her face; but she did not notice him; and when at length she moved slowly away Jock fell back a pace and stole behind her down the long gallery.

The old house was very still. From the shut-off regions behind the green baize door came, now and then, the murmur of voices; but for the most part Greenriver lay hushed in lamp-lit, flower-scented silence.

Never had the big hall looked so attractive as now, in the mellow light of the wood fire on the capacious hearth. On the oval oak table a big jar of chrysanthemums stood out, white and copper and mauve, against the panelled wall; and a sombre corner was lightened by the pink and cream blossoms of a tall azalea sent in that morning by an attentive gardener.

Over everything lay the sense of a great peace and tranquillity. The oak settee with its big, bright cushions, the tapestries hung on the dark walls, the flowers, the books strewn here and there, the big tiger-skin hearthrug, the enormous basket-chairs covered, too, with skins of tiger and leopard—never had the hall looked so alluring, so safe, so inviting to its mistress as on this foggy autumn night when she was about to leave its shelter.

With a long shudder Toni descended the last step of the great staircase, and drifted slowly across the hall in the direction of the front door. Jock, following, pressed a little too closely against her, and turning, Toni saw, the faithful little friend whom she was about to leave gazing at her with a human appeal in his honest face.

“Take me! Let me go with you where you go! Why go out into the dim cold night alone, when you can have beside you one to protect you and give you love?”

She could almost fancy he said the words; and two great tears fell swiftly as she bent and patted him with her free hand.

“No, Jock darling, I can't take you.” She sobbed as she spoke. “I must leave you behind—with all the other things I love.”

Jock, understanding the finality of her tone, whined uneasily, and wagging his tail besought her to reconsider her decision. But Toni could bear no more. With a quick, passionate movement she opened the big door hurriedly, and, heedless of his whining, passed through blindly into the night, pulling the door to after her with the miserable, hopeless feelings of a traitor in her heart.

Pausing for an instant she heard Jock sniffing interrogatively beneath the door; and knew he was hoping desperately that it would open to give him freedom; but with the tears running down her face she went slowly down the steps and was swallowed up by the cold, wet fog which lurked, ghost-like, round the house.

Leonard Dowson was waiting for her, impatiently, feverishly, by the car; but one glance at her warned him that this was no time for lover-like protestations.

He helped her in, covering her with the big fur rug he had had the forethought to bring; and then, with a delicacy which could only have been taught him by love, he left her alone in the interior of the car and mounted the seat beside the chauffeur.

Even now he could hardly believe his good-fortune. With all his education, his later Socialistic tendencies, his conviction that one man was as good, primarily, as another, and that only brains and application counted in the race of life, he could never bring himself to look on Toni as an ordinary human being, inferior to him by reason of her sex, her less scientific brain, her lack of the power, mental and physical, which was, to him, the prerogative of manhood.

Other women he might judge contemptuously or admiringly, as the case might be. But he could never consider Toni as a woman like those others—possibly because to him she was not a woman, but—mystical distinction!—the woman. In a vague, unreasoning way he recognized Toni's limitations. She was not clever, not even what he called well-educated. She would never fill any important position in the world, would never shine in any public capacity, would never seek to usurp man's prerogatives, and would be content to live quietly in some little corner of the world without longing to dash into the battlefield of human desires and human conflicts, as other women were doing every day.

But through it all Toni was the one woman he loved, the woman who represented to him all that was loveliest and best of her sex; and this narrow-chested, narrow-minded and quite unattractive young dentist had this much of greatness in his soul, that he could love a woman completely.

The car was running smoothly through the streets of a little town when there was a loud report, which even Toni, roused from her half-dazed stupor, recognized as the bursting of a tyre; and the next instant Leonard appeared at the door of the car, concern and apprehension in his face.

“I am so sorry—one of the front tyres has burst, and the man will have to repair it as well as he can in the fog.”

“Where are we?” asked Toni idly, seeing beyond the figure of Dowson a few blurred lights as of houses or shops.

“Luckily we are at Stratton,” said Leonard more cheerfully. “Right in front of some sort of an hotel, too. Won't you come in a moment and get warm? It's too foggy and damp for you to wait out here.”

Without speaking Toni threw aside the rug and stepped out of the car. The raw, chilly air pierced her to the bone, even through the thick fur of her coat; and she shivered as she stood there, looking pathetically young and slight to the eyes of the man beside her.

“Come into the 'Red Lion,' or whatever they call it.” He put a hand, rather timidly, on her sleeve, and Toni allowed him to lead her towards the entrance of the hotel, whose lamps shone bravely through the fog, making blurred splashes of yellow light in the murky grey gloom.

Opening the door, Leonard led her into the cheery entrance hall; and the next minute a stout, motherly-looking woman bustled out of a small side-office, and asked what might be the visitors' pleasure.

Leonard explained that a slight accident to their car would delay them a few moments; and since the night was so inclement, he had persuaded the lady to come inside, in search of fire and lights.

The stout landlady grasped the situation immediately, and led the way up a short flight of stairs to a sitting-room on the first floor, where a bright fire burned, and thick red curtains, closely drawn, successfully excluded the clammy fog, and created an atmosphere of well-being and good cheer.

“Wouldn't the lady like a cup of tea or coffee, sir?” The woman had noted Toni's pallor. “It can be ready in a moment—and a sandwich or two as well?”

After consulting his watch and calculating they had time to spare, Leonard ordered coffee and sandwiches at once; and the woman withdrew in a smiling haste which seemed to betoken the desire to lose no time.

Toni had sunk into a chair by the fire, and was leaning forward holding her hands to the blaze. In her face was so patent a misery that for a moment Dowson's heart failed him and he stood staring at her with a sudden horrible conviction that in luring her from her home and husband he was doing a wicked and heartless action. In that illuminating moment he could almost have found the strength to give her up, to undo, as far as he might, this thing which he had done. And then common sense came to his aid. It was not the experiences of this night which had thinned the rounded curve of the girl's cheek, had brought the hopeless droop to the soft lips, the despair to the once-laughing eyes. It was rather the happenings of the months preceding this night, the months of her married life; and once again love and desire swept away scruples; and Leonard was ready to fight the whole world for possession of the woman he loved.

But somehow he could not stay in the room with that pathetic, appealing little figure. He racked his brains for an excuse to leave her for a moment or two; and suddenly the idea he sought came to him in a flash.

He had omitted to wire to Paris for rooms in the quiet little hotel he had selected for their stay; and although it was not a matter of vital necessity to do so, it would perhaps be just as well to make sure of them, so that there need be no troublesome delay on arrival. There was a post-office a hundred yards away, and he would only be gone for a few moments. He did not venture to approach Toni, but speaking from the door explained that he had forgotten to engage rooms in Paris, and if she would excuse him for a minute or two he would rectify the omission. She agreed gently, giving him a tired little smile; and he wasted no time in departing on his errand.

When the door had closed behind him, Toni came to herself with a long, slow shiver. Somehow until this moment she had not really understood all that her flight implied. She had been so intent upon Owen's welfare, that save for a few moments in the garden at Greenriver her own had been forgotten; and although she had accepted Leonard Dowson's proposal with an almost startling readiness, she had done so in the manner of one who, drowning, clutches at a straw.

She had known, of course, that there would be a price to pay; but she had not realized until this second how great that price would be. Somehow the very nature of Leonard's errand had brought the whole position home to her with almost overwhelming force; and suddenly Toni knew that she could not go on with the adventure she had undertaken so rashly.

She could not—could not—go to Paris with this man, who for all his devotion was a stranger to her. She could leave Owen, though it seemed like tearing her heart out of her breast to go. But she could not go away with another man.

Gone all at once was the glamour of her sacrifice. Although she knew that by carrying out her scheme to the bitter end she might set Owen free, it seemed to her at this moment that such freedom, so basely won, could never bring her husband the happiness she craved for him.

For the first time, too, the thought of self would not be banished. She saw the whole foolish, irrational, Quixotic scheme in its true light; and flesh and blood shrank from a surrender which had no faintest touch of love—or even passion—to dignify sordidness.

No. She could leave her husband—and in a sudden blinding flash of insight she knew she could not—now—go back to Greenriver; but she could not proceed farther on this shameful way.

To go to the hotel in Paris with this other man, to travel with him in the enforced intimacy of their dual solitude, to pass, for all she knew, as his wife when in reality she was the wife of the one man for whom the great mystic trinity of body, soul and spirit passionately craved—oh, no. She could not go on—and with the certainty came the need for haste.

Suddenly the only thing which seemed to matter in all the world was that she must be gone before Leonard Dowson returned. If once he came back and heard her decision, there would be scenes, reproaches, persuasions, a hundred emotions let loose; and Toni was guiltily conscious, through all her new-born resolution, that she was treating this man who loved her unfairly.

He had been gone five minutes—he might return at any second. Tip-toeing across to the window, Toni parted the red curtains and lifted a lath of the old-fashioned Venetian blind to peer through into the fog.

She could not see much. Outside the hotel she could just distinguish the blurred shape of the car, the lamps flaring yellowly in the mist; but the shops and houses opposite were blotted out by the curtain of fog; and she knew she risked running into the man from whom she longed, desperately, to escape.

Where she would go did not matter now. Plans must be made afterwards—now she had but one desire, to flee into the fog and be lost to sight.

She was actually moving towards the door when a thought struck her. Tearing a bit of paper from the fly-leaf of a book on the table, she took from the deep pocket of her coat a little pencil, and scribbled a message—as short, almost, as that which had announced to Leonard her previous decision.

     “I can't go on with you. I am going. TONI.”

She had no time for more. Every second was precious; and even now she doubted whether she were in time to make her escape.

She opened the door and listened. Nothing was heard but the mutter of voices in the bar downstairs; and there was no one in sight. A moment she stood, her heart in her throat, driven nearly distracted between impatience and terror. Then she turned back into the room, snatched up her gloves and purse from the table and ran down the broad stairs and across the square hall with frenzied haste.

A sound of footsteps in a passage close at hand made her start nervously. Without delaying a second she opened the great door, letting in a rush of cold, raw air, and, not venturing to look round, lest even now she should be intercepted in her flight, she slipped through the aperture and fled into the night.

CHAPTER XXVI

At nine o'clock that same evening Jim Herrick, alone in his shabby yet delightful little sitting-room, was roused from his contemplation of an etching he had picked up in town that day by a deep-throated bark from Olga. She had been lying in the hall; and doubtless her sharp ears had heard some approaching footstep which to his duller human hearing was inaudible.

Eva was upstairs, trying on some finery she had purchased in London; and after waiting a moment Herrick went into the hall to investigate.

Someone was knocking now on the door, thereby rousing Olga's wrath; and Herrick held her firmly by the collar as he went to answer the summons.

On the doorstep, an indistinct figure in the fog, stood a young man, and on seeing Herrick he began at once to unfold his errand.

“Mr. Herrick, beg pardon, sir; master's sent me over to ask if Mrs. Rose is here.”

“Mrs. Rose? Are you from Greenriver?”

“Yes, sir. I'm Andrews, sir, and we're all a bit anxious about the mistress. She wasn't at home for dinner, and no one saw her go out.”

“Comes inside a minute.” The man obeying, Herrick closed the door and, still holding Olga's collar, led the way to the sitting-room.

“Now, tell me, as shortly as possible, why you thought Mrs. Rose might be here?”

“It was Kate's idea, sir—the parlourmaid. When Mrs. Ross didn't come down to dinner she thought as perhaps she'd come over here. I thought it weren't likely on account of the fog, but we couldn't think of anywhere else for Mrs. Rose to be.”

“Your master is at home?”

“Yes, sir, got in about seven. He was shut up in his room—the lib'ry—till nearly dinner-time, and then he waited and waited for the mistress to come down—and when she didn't come he got fidgety and sent Kate upstairs.”

“And Kate found no one?”

“No, sir. Only the dog—Jock—lying curled up in the very middle of the bed—a thing he's never been known to do before, sir.”

“Mrs. Rose has not been here,” said Herrick. “But just wait a moment. I will ask my wife if she expected Mrs. Rose.”

He went out of the room, and found Eva coming down the short flight of stairs from the upper floor.

“What's the matter, Jim? Who is the man in there?”

“It is the man-servant from Greenriver asking if Mrs. Rose has been here. You did not expect her, did you, Eva?”

“Oh, no.” She spoke calmly. “We were to meet to-morrow morning, but we had no appointment for to-night.”

“I see. Odd where she can have got to.” Herrick frowned thoughtfully. “You can't give me any clue to her movements, Eva? You don't remember hearing her say anything about to-night?”

“I haven't the slightest idea,” said Eva, with apparent sincerity, and Herrick turned away without asking any other question.

Re-entering the room he quietly told the waiting Andrews that nothing had been seen of Mrs. Rose, nor had she been expected on that particular evening; and the young man thanked him dejectedly and moved to the door.

“It's a wretched night,” said Herrick. “Won't you have a glass of something before you go?”

Andrews thanked him, but declined; and seeing he was anxious to be gone, Herrick did not press him, but let him depart without more ado.

He turned again into the sitting-room, meditating on this extraordinary disappearance; and a minute later his wife joined him, eager to hear the reason of Andrews' quest.

She came into the room wearing a satin kimono she had bought that day, her curly golden hair bound with a broad pink ribbon, her small, narrow foot thrust into satin slippers of the same hue.

At first sight it might have been a schoolgirl who stood there in the doorway. A second glance would have shown, to an acute observer, faint lines on brow and cheek, an indefinable hardness and sharpness of outline which destroyed the semblance of youth; and in its place gave an air of cynical maturity, which, reckoning by actual length of years, was as deceptive as the former illusion.

“Well?” She came further into the room and spoke interrogatively.

“Well?” Herrick turned to face her. “Mrs. Rose's disappearance is rather remarkable, don't you think?”

“Very.” For the life of him Herrick could not fathom her tone. “But since Toni is a free agent and not a slave, I expect she's gone out on business of her own.”

“Queer time for business—nine o'clock on a foggy night,” Herrick reminded her quietly.

“Well, I daresay she got fed up with the house—and the weather—and went off to London for a spree.” Eva laughed rather hardly. “A theatre would be a blessed relief after the dulness of this place.”

“She would not be likely to go alone.”

“Oh, I daresay she would pick up some man to go with.”

“Don't speak like that, Eva, please. Mrs. Rose is not the sort of girl to 'pick up' anybody.”

“Oh, isn't she?” Eva laughed again. “Your precious Toni isn't a saint, you know. Because her husband is a fool and neglects her, that doesn't say Toni is too meek and mild to have friends of her own.”

Herrick turned to her angrily.

“Look here, Eva, I won't have you insinuating such things. Mrs. Rose may not be a saint—I never met one, by the way—but she is a thoroughly straight girl; and any friends she might make would be lucky fellows, I can tell you.”

Eva smiled rather scornfully.

“Even you are taken in by her big eyes and her quiet ways. Well, you'll all of you get a surprise one of these days, when you find that Toni is as wide-awake as anybody else, and knows a thing or two you don't suspect her of.”

“Eva, you are talking nonsense, and you know it.” Herrick was seriously annoyed. “I imagined—foolishly—that you were a friend of Toni Rose; and it never entered my head you would say spiteful things of this sort about her.”

He broke off.

“Unless——” He hesitated, his eyes full of a vague trouble.

“Well? Unless—what?”

“Oh, but that's absurd.” He pulled himself together and spoke decisively. “I was going to say, unless you had some reason for speaking so; unless you knew something we don't know—and of course you don't.”

“Of course not.” This time the mockery in her tone was perceptible; and Herrick questioned her hastily.

“Eva, what do you mean? Do you know anything which would throw a light on Mrs. Rose's disappearance?”

But Eva had turned sulky and would say nothing more. After one or two vain attempts to induce her to speak, therefore, Herrick abandoned the idea; and Eva withdrew with a malicious little smile on her lips which rendered her husband still more uneasy.

He wandered restlessly about his small domain, puzzling his head as to what could have happened to Toni. He had not seen her often of late. Indeed, he had fancied once or twice that she was avoiding him; and he was sorry, for the girl had made an instant claim upon his sympathies, and he had often meditated over her chances of turning her marriage into a success.

Somehow he had a presentiment of evil. Something seemed to tell him that Toni's flight was premeditated, that she had fled from her home secretly, with the intention of leaving her husband for ever; and although he told himself that the idea was monstrous, grotesque, he could not shake it off.

Doubtless there were a dozen explanations. Perhaps she had gone for a little stroll, and had lost her way in the fog. She might have dropped in at some house in the neighbourhood, and, talking, let the hours slip by. Ten chances to one, she was even now safe at home; and it was absurd to worry about her. And yet——

And yet there were other possibilities. In the fog it would be easy indeed to miss one's road—with tragic results. One false step off the towing-path, for instance, and the river, dark and silent, would flow on its way, carrying with it a burden hardly more animated, yet a hundred times more precious, than the sticks and leaves which floated down with the current....

Suddenly Herrick sprang up, unable to bear this haunted solitude any longer. He felt as though he must go forth to make inquiries for himself, to ascertain whether Toni had returned or no, whether all possible measures had been taken for her safety.

Surely the people at Greenriver would not take his visit amiss? Seeing that his wife and Mrs. Rose were known to be friends, it was only natural that Mrs. Herrick should be anxious; and in any case he could bear this inaction no longer.

Going into the hall he selected an overcoat and cap, and then, going to the foot of the stairs, called out to his wife.

“Well?” She came to the head of the stairs, and stood looking at him over the banisters. She had a lighted candle in her hand; and somehow the wavering flame seemed to cast a sinister shadow over her face.

“I am going to Greenriver, Eva, to see if Mrs. Rose has returned.”

“Oh.” For a moment she hesitated, opened her mouth as though about to speak and then yawned instead. “Very well. Don't be long. My head aches and I want to get to sleep.”

“I will be as quick as possible,” he said. “I am sorry your head aches. Try to get to sleep before I return.”

He turned away, leaving her staring after him; and her grey eyes were full of a cruel maliciousness. Eva guessed pretty well how the land lay. Although she had not expected Toni to give in to the young dentist's entreaties so soon, she never doubted that the girl had gone away with him; and she laughed as she remembered how quietly the whole affair had been conducted.

Except on the occasion of Dowson's loan of magazines, Eva did not believe his name had ever been mentioned between the Roses; and certainly it would never enter Owen's head that his wife would go off, leave him, and leave all the glories of Greenriver, to share the lot of the inferior and unattractive Mr. Dowson.

Eva had not the slightest feeling of compassion for the unhappy young wife driven to this step, partly by her own childish folly, but partly, also, by the evil counsel of the woman she called her friend. Eva know very well, had known all along, that there could be no happiness for Toni in such a step; and she fully believed that the girl would come to hate and fear the life in front of her. But Eva never for one moment experienced a thrill of pity for the misguided Toni. Rather the thought of the certain misery which faced her filled Eva's perverted mind with a wretched triumph; and her only strong emotion at this juncture was a passionate hope that Owen would not learn the truth in time to save his wife from the worst consequence of her ill-considered action.

       * * * * *

Meanwhile all was confusion at Greenriver. At first Owen had been merely a little perplexed, not uneasy, at Toni's absence from the dinner-table; but when it became apparent that she was nowhere in the house he grew alarmed.

Calling Andrews and Fletcher to him, he bade them get lanterns and institute a thorough search in the grounds; and the three of them searched thoroughly—as thoroughly, at least, as was possible in the clammy fog.

Up and down they went, lanterns swinging, in and out of trees and shrubs; and into the various summer-houses and garden sheds; but there was no sign of Toni.

Back into the house—where once again Owen summoned the servants to a conference—and once again was forced to consider himself baffled.

Kate had seen her mistress last when she carried in the tea. Asked if Mrs. Rose had said anything about going out, she answered in the negative; and neither cook nor Maggie had sat eyes upon her since lunch.

Andrews had been out that afternoon, and knew nothing; and Mrs. Blades, when interrogated, merely sniffed and said Mrs. Rose did not often honour the housekeeper's room with her presence.

It was at this juncture that Andrews was despatched to Herrick's bungalow; and in his absence Owen rang up on the telephone all the people who seemed in the least likely to have seen his wife, but without result.

A little later he rang up other places—the station, the police station, even the little Cottage Hospital; but no one had heard or seen anything of Mrs. Rose; and Owen was forced to wait for Andrews' return.

When the man came, bearing no tidings, Owen understood that the matter was serious. Toni had gone, left her home in the dusk, departed no one knew whither. The whole thing was so unexpected, so incredible, that it was small wonder Owen was completely at sea.

Suddenly a welcome thought flashed into his head. It was possible Toni had gone to town on the spur of the moment to visit her relations in Brixton; and the next minute Owen was turning over the leaves of the telephone directory hurriedly in an endeavour to find the number of the house in Winter Gardens. Luckily the house boasted a telephone, installed for the convenience of one of the boys who was connected with an insurance agency which had its headquarters there; and in a very short space of time Owen was asking the worthy Mrs. Gibbs over the wire for news of the missing Toni. But disappointment awaited him. Nothing had been heard of Toni for three weeks; and she had most certainly not visited them that day. Mrs. Gibbs, at the other end of the wire, sounded apprehensive, but Owen had no time to consider her feelings, and rang off abruptly when he found she had nothing to tell him.

Just as he was turning away from the instrument the door bell rang quietly; and with a quick movement Owen crossed the hall and threw the door widely open.

It was not Toni who stood there, however; and seeing the blank look on Owen's face, Herrick hurried to explain his errand as one merely of inquiry.

“Come in,” said Owen mechanically, drawing his visitor inside the house. “It's awfully decent of you, Herrick. You have heard of my wife's—disappearance?”

“Yes. I suppose you have no idea what can have taken her away?”

“Not the slightest. The maids say—now—that her thick motor coat and cap are gone, and her purse—with a few pounds in, I don't know how much—is missing from her drawer. But where she has gone is a complete mystery.”

“She gave you no hint of her departure?”

“Not the faintest.” Owen became suddenly aware that his visitor's coat was damp with the wetting mist; and his hospitable instincts awoke. “I say, come into the library and have a drink. You're pretty well soaked.”

He led the way to the library, regardless of Herrick's disclaimers; and the other man thought it best to follow him, first asking permission to bring Olga inside the house—a permission readily granted. Once inside the warm, tranquil room, Owen insisted upon Herrick shedding his coat and accepting a whisky and soda; but though he pressed Herrick to sit down and even took a cigarette himself, it was evident that Owen was all on thorns with anxiety and apprehension.

“You haven't heard your wife say she wanted a change? You know women are restless beings.”

“Not Toni. She was always happy here. I'd promised to take her to Switzerland for Christmas, and that pleased her; but she was never keen about going away.”

“I see. She was happy here. Well”—his gaze wandered dreamily round the lamp-lit room, with its mullioned windows and well-filled shelves—“I don't wonder at that. Anyone might be happy in such a home as this.”

“Yes, she always loved Greenriver.” Unconsciously both men used the past tense. “Ever since I brought her here as my wife she loved the old house.”

“She was happy, you say?” Herrick felt a sudden desire to probe beneath the surface. “You never—forgive me—you never found her depressed—or—or unsettled—in low spirits?”

“No. She was sometimes a little—well, what shall we call it?—not bad-tempered, but well, a trifle jumpy; but she seemed to be in good spirits as a rule.”

“You never—I suppose”—he laughed, trying to make the question sound casual—“you never had any disagreements—any little fallings-out? Oh, don't think me impertinent—I was only wondering whether perhaps Mrs. Rose had taken offence at some little thing—and had gone off for a short visit somewhere to—well, to punish you.”

He had half expected Owen to resent the implication; but Owen took it quietly.

“We never exactly quarrelled,” he said. “At least, that isn't quite true. We did disagree, more than once, on one particular subject; and last night we certainly had a few words. We both lost our tempers—I confess I lost mine—and I said one or two things I'd have given the world to recall afterwards.”

“I see.” Herrick spoke gravely. “Well, no doubt Mrs. Rose knows you did not mean anything unkind——”

“I hope so. By God, I hope so.” Owen's voice was hoarse. “If I thought Toni had taken my words seriously I—why, I said things I didn't mean in the very least, and I never for one instant dreamed she would take them as spoken in earnest.”

“I see.” Herrick repeated the words. “You will pardon me for saying that Mrs. Rose always struck me as being more sensitive than the majority of women.”

“Did she?” Owen stared at him, struck suddenly by the significance of his manner. “By Jove, Herrick, I never suspected my wife of any undue sensitiveness. She always seemed to me too young, too immature and undeveloped to take things much to heart. Her youth was one of the greatest charms about her to me. It never struck me she was a woman, capable of a woman's sufferings——”

He broke off suddenly.

“Stay, though. Once I thought—she looked at me and I thought her eyes looked different—not like the eyes of a child. I wondered then ... but ... oh, no, she couldn't think I meant the things I said. Once or twice I have felt exasperated at what I thought was her childishness, her ignorance of the world, and I've said things now and again, unkind things, even cruel things sometimes ... but I've been secure all the time in the thought that she didn't understand....”

“You wouldn't have hurt her—wilfully?”

“Hurt her?” Owen stared at him. “Good God, man, what do you take me for? A man doesn't wilfully hurt his wife—the woman he loves. And to hurt Toni would be like hurting a child.”

“Mr. Rose”—Herrick took a resolution to speak plainly—“are you sure you did not treat your wife rather too much as a child? Are you sure you didn't deny her the right of a woman, the right to share your life, your work, your aims? Are you quite sure you never made her feel her inferiority to you in different ways, never let her see that in some matters she was perhaps hardly your equal? Oh, I know you are exceptionally clever, brilliant, and she is only a simple girl; but still she was not a child; and it may have been rather galling to her to be treated as one.”

For a moment Owen sat motionless, his eyes fixed on the other man's face with a stare whose earnestness was its justification.

Then—

“Look here, Herrick,” he said, “I believe you are trying to tell me something—something about my wife which I don't know. Well, what is it? I think, as her husband, I have a right to ask you to share your knowledge with me. What do you say?”

“I think you have every right,” Herrick answered quietly, “and I ask nothing better than to tell you all I know.”

Without further preliminaries he repeated to Owen the conversation he had had with Toni on the day of the Vicarage Bazaar; and a sudden light broke over Owen as he listened.

“You are alluding to the occasion when Lady Martin and the Vicar's wife called her ignorant, frivolous, empty-headed.”

“She told you?” Herrick was surprised.

“Yes—long afterwards. But I laughed at her and told her it was nonsense—jealousy, or something like that. I never dreamed she had taken it to heart.”

“She took it so much to heart that she began to wonder how much was true, and how she could best rise above the defects with which they endowed her. She honoured me by asking my advice; and I was only too glad to help her. She called herself ignorant, and I endeavoured to show her how, by study and application, she might repair that ignorance. I recommended her books, mapped her out a course of reading—oh, it's no use going over it all now; only just what seems important to me is this. What had specially wounded her was the fact that they had evidently denied her the possession of a soul.” He smiled rather tenderly. “And it was her passionate desire to show that she had a soul which drove her to all those desperate expedients of study and the like.”

He paused, but Owen did not speak.

“I wonder if the process of making one's soul is a painful one, after all? Like most new-born creatures, I expect it's a delicate, sensitive thing at first, easily wounded by a word, a glance.... I don't suppose it has a very joyful time in the beginning, struggling towards the fuller light like a weak, fragile little flower opening its petals one by one to the sun. But luckily a soul is a very vital thing. It can stand a good deal in the way of unkindness or neglect without shrivelling up. And I daresay a few kindly words, a sympathetic thought, are like water to a dying plant—or as the Bible has it 'as the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.'”

As he finished his speech Owen broke in impetuously:

“Don't say any more, Herrick. My God, what a fool I've been! To think that all this was taking place beneath my eyes and I was too blind, too self-absorbed to see.”

“Well, everyone is blind, at times,” said Herrick gently. “I'm not trying to make you unhappy, Rose—the whole affair is no business of mine, and you may well resent my interference.”

“No, no,” said Owen hastily. “God knows your interference is only too justifiable. But——”

“Perhaps I am to blame, after all, for trying to engineer so delicate a situation. The fact is, I felt a great pity for Mrs. Rose. She was only a girl after all, and girlhood is a lively, careless, light-hearted period. But although her soul appeared—then—to be unawakened, I knew it was there all the time; and I confess I hoped that when she came into full possession of it you would draw nearer to one another, and a better understanding would ensue. But——”

He paused.

“Well? Your plan hasn't worked?”

“I don't know. The thing is, not so much where has Mrs. Rose gone, but why did she go? Look here, Rose. I'm perfectly certain that her one thought all through has been for your welfare; and though on the face of it it seems peculiar that she should take this means of proving her love for you, I'm quite convinced she is acting on your behalf in this odd disappearance of hers.”

“But how could I benefit by her disappearance?”

“I don't know. But I am quite sure——”

He broke off suddenly, and the next instant the two men started to their feet as the hoot of a motor-horn sounded loudly outside the house.

“God, Herrick—here's Toni.” Owen dashed out of the room followed by Herrick, and the two reached the front door at the same moment.

Andrews, who had come running from the kitchen regions at the sound of the horn, flung open the door, and disclosed the big car with its flaring head-lamps, throbbing itself to a standstill at the foot of the steps.

A young man jumped out—a man whom neither Rose nor Herrick had ever seen before—and, rushing up the steps, looked wildly round him.

“Where is she?” he demanded loudly. “Where is she?”

“To whom do you allude?” asked Owen coldly, his fastidious soul revolted by the spectacle which the young man presented. Dowson was hatless, dishevelled. In his agony of mind at Toni's departure he had torn his collar apart, feeling himself choking, and during the drive to Greenriver he had rumpled his hair so wildly that it stood up in mad disorder over his head. His face was dusty, the mist had soaked his clothes till they clung tightly to his narrow frame, and about his whole figure there was an air of unkempt desolation which was unattractive in the extreme.

“I allude to Toni—your wife, if you like to call her that.” The unfortunate young man was distraught between disappointment and anxiety. “Where is she? Has she come home after all?”

“My wife?” Owen raised his eyebrows superciliously. “My good man, what are you talking about? If you know anything about Mrs. Rose be kind enough to tell us at once what it is, but please remember she is not Toni—to you.”

“Oh, isn't she?” Beneath the weight of conflicting emotions Mr. Dowson was losing his head. “Well, she was going to be, that's all. She came away with me to-night of her own free will ... and we wore going to cross to Paris, and then ... oh, I don't know what then, but anyway she was going to stay with me, and when you had divorced her——”

“Divorced her?” Owen uttered the words in so ferocious a tone that the young man fell back a pace. “What the devil do you mean by making a suggestion of that sort? And why in God's name should I divorce my wife—for you?”

The scorn with which he spoke the last two words drove Leonard Dowson to frenzy.

“Why? Why not? You never loved her—you never knew how to treat her. You made her miserable, you let her see you thought her inferior to you, not good enough for you ... you wouldn't dismiss that woman you had to help you though you knew To—your wife hated her....”

He was lashing himself to greater and greater fury at the thought of Toni's sufferings.

“Even when you'd made her so wretched that she was ready to die, she still thought of you. She knew I loved her as she deserved to be loved, and she was coming away with me, not because she loved me, but because she thought by leaving you she'd set you free—free to divorce her, to cast her off, to marry someone else, for all I know—some lady whom you'd perhaps be pleased to call your equal.”

Beneath his savage indictment even Owen stood dumb. There is always something electrifying about absolute sincerity, and no one, listening, could possibly doubt that the man was speaking from the very depth of his soul.

As he stood panting, glaring at Owen with hatred in his eyes, Herrick stepped forward with a question.

“Excuse me, sir”—neither of them knew, as yet, the name of the visitor—“may I ask how you became possessed of all this information? I am perfectly sure that Mrs. Rose herself has not been your informant, but I fail to see——in the first place, may we ask your name?”

“My name is Dowson, Leonard Dowson.” He spoke defiantly. “And as to who told me, well, it doesn't much matter, that I can see, but it was a friend of—of Mrs. Rose.” He dared not again call her “Toni.”

“A friend?” In one sickening flash of intuition, Herrick knew who had been Toni's evil genius. He stopped short, physically incapable of questioning further; but Owen had no such scruples.

“Who is this—friend?” He could not help the sneer; and Herrick paled in the lamplight, fearing yet powerless to avert the answer.

“I don't suppose it matters telling you.” Dowson paused. “It was Mrs. Herrick—Mrs. Rose's best friend—who told me; and she swore that every word was true.”

There was a short, tense silence; and Andrews, who had been hovering unnoticed in the background, suddenly dived through the baize door and disappeared, as one who feels his presence an intrusion.

“So it was Mrs. Herrick who gave you this precious information.” Owen, very pale, turned to Herrick. “Herrick, I won't insult your wife by asking if this is true. It's a lie, of course. Mrs. Herrick is a friend of my wife's. She would never play such a treacherous, underhand part——”

“I ... I don't know what to say....”

“No, I should think you don't.” Dowson spoke vehemently. “You know it was she who put me up to it all along. She said Mrs. Rose had owned to being—well, fond of me in her way, though of course she put her husband first. But she told me I had a chance, that if I'd offer to take Mrs. Rose away she'd come ... oh, she convinced me fast enough. I daresay I was a fool, but I couldn't bear to stand by and say nothing when by taking her away——”

He stopped suddenly. Owen had made a threatening step forward.

“Look here”—Owen's voice was choked with rage—“stop talking all that rot, and tell me what you've done with my wife. First, of all, where is she?”

“How can I tell you when I don't know?” retorted the young man almost rudely. “She came away with me right enough, and then we had an accident to the car—a tyre burst—and we went into a hotel at Stratton to wait for it to be repaired. I went to the post-office to send a telegram, and when I came back she'd gone.”

“Gone—where?”

“Oh, aren't I telling you I don't know?” In his excitement the young dentist's refinement fell away from him, showing the rough human man beneath. “She slipped out soon's my back was turned—left a scrap of paper saying she couldn't go on with me—and that's all I know.”

“But she must have left some traces.”

“She left her dressing-bag, if that's anything,” said Dowson gloomily. “It's in the car outside. I thought at least she'd have come back here, and I had to come on to make sure. I”—for a second his rough voice softened—“I had to be certain she was safe.”

“Well, she isn't here.” Owen spoke harshly. “You were very ready to take her away, with your damned philanderings and what not, but you might at least have looked after her. Where is she? Good God, man, you're not only a blackguard and a thief—you're a damned fool as well!”

“I may be a fool, but I'm not a blackguard!” Mr. Dowson's eyes blazed in his pallid face. “I didn't marry the girl and then neglect her—I didn't win her love and then throw it aside as of no importance—I didn't break her heart with my sneers and coldness, as you did. You may be her husband and I'm only a man who loves her, but I'll guarantee I'd have known how to treat her a million times better than you ever did.”

The two men glared at one another furiously; and for a moment Herrick feared Owen was about to strike the man who defied him. Owen's face was convulsed with rage, his eyes looked almost black, and a vein in his temple hammered madly.

Herrick stepped forward hastily.

“I say, excuse me reminding you that this is not the time for recriminations. Mrs. Rose has not returned, and the thing to do now is to set all possible inquiries on foot. You agree with me, Rose?”

Owen turned to him, the passion dying out of his face, leaving only a great weariness and a great dread.

“You are right. We must find Toni. But how?”

“Well, we'd better make inquiries at Stratton first. You are on the 'phone? Good. Well, we will ring up the railway station, and the hotels. Mrs. Rose may have gone to one of them for the night. And we could try the garages. Possibly she will hire a car to bring her home.”

“Yes. And I'll order out the car and try the roads myself.” Owen looked suddenly alert. “If she should be attempting to walk home, or anything of that sort, I should pick her up.”

“Yes. And I should give orders to the servants to have everything ready for Mrs. Rose—food, and fires, and things, when she returns. She'll be chilled to the bone with this mist.”

“Yes. I'll do it at once. I'll go and get on the 'phone, if you'll be so good as to ring for the servants. I'll order a fire in her room, and a little supper.”

He turned away, full of hope now that there was something to be done; and Herrick was following him, when Dowson, who had been temporarily forgotten, asserted his presence.

“And what am I to do while you're searching for her?” His rage had died away, and he looked the picture of dejection. “Can't I do anything? I—you know I'd die for Toni—for Mrs. Rose. Can't you suggest something for me to be doing?”

Owen turned on him fiercely.

You? You've done enough harm for one night. Suppose you take yourself off—we've seen all we want of you, I assure you.”

“But——”

“Don't stand arguing there,” said Owen in a voice whose fury made the young man wince. “We've had more than enough of you. Be so good as to take yourself off before I kick you out of the house.”

Leonard Dowson gave one last look at the other man's face as though to see whether this threat was meant to be taken literally. What he read there apparently decided him; for with a hoarse sigh he turned away in the direction of the front door.

Without waiting to see if he were obeyed or not, Owen hastened away to the telephone; and it was Herrick who opened the door and watched the young man enter the car.

A second later he dismounted again, this time bearing Toni's dressing-bag, which in her hurry she had left behind; and carrying it up the steps he put it down, almost tenderly, inside the hall.

“Thank you. That will do.” Herrick watched him as he hesitated, uncertainly. “Don't let me detain you.” He held the door widely open. “Good-night.”

Thus dismissed, the young man had no option. He went out into the chilly, misty night, and mounted the car, which moved swiftly away down the gloomy drive.

When Herrick had closed the door he paused a moment, wondering if he had not better follow the late visitor's example and vanish quietly into the night.

But he heard Owen's voice calling him as he stood hesitating, and found that, in spite of his wife's treachery, he himself was not debarred from giving help.

He attempted, awkwardly, to take his leave; but Owen was in no mood to let him go. Whatever Mrs. Herrick's part in the tragedy, it was evident that her husband was to be exonerated; and although his heart was sick within him at the thought of Eva's wickedness, Herrick was wise enough to see that to implicate himself would be to make matters worse than they were already.

       * * * * *

But although the two men made all possible inquiries, they could hear nothing of the missing Toni. No one had seen her, no one heard of her; and as the hours wore on it seemed as though the mist had indeed swallowed her up so completely that all trace of her was lost.

After nearly an hour's futile telephoning Owen set off in the waiting car to scour the countryside; while at his urgent request Herrick stayed behind at Greenriver, in case Toni should arrive in her husband's absence and find no one to welcome her. Herrick agreed to stay at once, though he knew his prolonged absence would annoy and possibly upset his wife. She deserved no consideration, he told himself sternly. It was largely through her machinations that this thing had come to pass; and a few hours' anxiety would be a small enough price to pay for her treachery.

It was nearly four o'clock in the morning when Owen returned, tired out, despondent, and with no slightest scrap of news. He came into the library looking ready to drop with fatigue, and found Herrick sitting over the fire apparently lost in thought. Olga and Jock, who had long since fraternized, lay side by side on the hearthrug; and all was quiet and peaceful. But when Herrick sprang up, hearing Owen's step, it was easy to see that for him, too, the night had worn away in keenest suspense.

“Well? Any news?”

“No. None.” Owen slipped off his thick coat and sank down, wearily, into a chair. “No one has seen anything of her. The hotel people didn't hear her go, and no one has the faintest notion where she went.”

He shivered, holding out his hands to the blaze.

“Herrick, where can she be? My God, I'd give ten years of my life now to know she was safe. But to think of her wandering about in the fog—not daring—not even wanting—to come home ... thinking always of me as the selfish brute who neglected her and laughed aside her wishes....”

He paused a moment, then began again.

“It wouldn't be so bad if she'd been in love with that fool who was here to-night. I could have understood her going off with him then. But it was me she loved all along—she was thinking of me when she went out into the cruel night to join him.... I'm very certain she shrank from the step ... well, events prove it, don't they? ... but she was thinking only of my good and so she nerved herself to do it....”

“Yes.” Herrick spoke quietly. “There's no doubt, I think, that your wife loved you as very few men are loved. It seems—forgive me—a cruel jest of Fate that you couldn't return her love....”

“But I did—and do!” Owen's voice rang out with all its old force. “Before God, man, I do love Toni ... oh, I didn't at first. I confess I married her without caring for her as a man should care for the woman he makes his wife. But I've grown fonder of her ever since. Oh, I know it's all true, what that fellow said—I've been thoughtless, unkind, I did neglect her, did let her see how I despised her help, but you don't know what it is to a man to find his work spoilt for the lack of a little intelligent sympathy.... Oh, I'm not excusing myself—I had no right to put my work before everything else—even before Toni—and I did. But God knows I'm punished for it now.”

Again he broke off abruptly, only to go on again hastily.

“I own I was mistaken in my reading of Toni's character. I had no idea she was capable of this sort of sacrifice.”

“You never saw into the depths of her soul. If you had——”

“I should have realized what she was. Oh, I know,” said Owen, with humility, “I know now that Toni is a woman, and I pray to God with all my soul that my knowledge has not come too late.”

“You think if you got her back now you might be happy together?”

“Happy? If I could make Toni happy, she would be happy indeed.” His tone was still tinged with that new humility, and in that dreary hour Herrick began to understand him better than he had ever dreamed of doing.

When at last the grey dawn crept through the large windows Herrick rose to go.

“I'll get off home for an hour or two. You'd better try to have a sleep, Rose. We can't do anything more just yet; and it's no use wasting one's strength.”

“Very well.” Owen rose and stretched himself, yawning. “I won't go to bed—I'll sleep on the couch here. You see she might come at any moment.”

Herrick saw it was of no use attempting to urge him to go to bed; so agreed, at once, that such a return was possible, and two minutes later he and Olga were outside the house in the chilly silver dawn.

The fog had lifted in the night, and for that Herrick was thankful; but the air was biting, and as he walked briskly along, Olga trotting alertly beside him, he owned to himself that a cup of hot coffee, followed by a sleep, would be welcome indeed.

He let himself softly into the house and proceeded to make some coffee with the aid of the gas-ring. He was gulping it down, feeling the liquid driving the cold out of his bones, when Olga growled faintly; and looking up, he saw his wife standing in the doorway surveying him maliciously.

“Well? Has the lost lamb been found and returned to the fold?” Her tone was mockery itself.

“No.” For an instant he wondered whether he should accuse her of her treachery; but suddenly he resolved to wait till he was more normal, after a rest.

“Really? Well, I don't think she will return just yet. I expect the next time her loving husband meets our dear Toni, the Divorce Court will be their meeting-place.”

A wave of anger swept over Herrick.

“So that man was right—it was your doing.” He put down his cup and looked steadily at her. “It was through your—your advice that that unfortunate girl left her home and wont off with Dowson.”

“It wasn't through my advice,” she said. “As a matter of fact I didn't know they had fixed it up so quickly. Three days ago it was only a vague notion—quite in the air, I assure you. I had no idea it had actually come off.”

“You knew, then, that it was a possibility, at least?”

“Yes.” Suddenly she stopped and stared at him. “But how do you know? She didn't leave any message, I suppose?”

“I know because Mrs. Rose's heart failed her when she had taken the first step. She gave this man Dowson the slip at Stratton and he immediately returned to Greenriver to ask if she had come back.”

“And she hadn't?”

“Of course not.” He spoke sternly. “Between you, you have made it almost impossible for that poor child to return unless her husband fetches her. Why you should have sought to ruin their homes I confess I fail to understand. Neither Rose nor his wife had done you any harm.”

“No.” She stared sombrely at him. “That's true, I suppose. But—oh, you can't understand, of course.”

“Understand what, Eva?” He tried to speak gently, aware through all her mockery of something piteous, tragic in her attitude.

“You can't understand how I hate to see happiness.” She threw back her head and beneath her white wrapper he saw her breast heave stormily. “I was happy once, before those men sent me to prison. I used to sing and laugh—as Toni did—I used to enjoy every moment of my life ... and then I liked to see people all round me being happy too... But I was taken away from it all, from the sunshine, the gay, happy people, the shops, the theatres, taken away and shut up like a wild animal in a cell ... oh ...” She shivered, and all at once his heart melted towards her.

“Don't think of that now, dear.” He put his hand with real kindness on her shoulder. “It's all over and done with, and there are better things in store.”

“Not for me.” Her tone was unutterably forlorn. “My life is spoilt, broken—and now”—all at once her expression changed and she spoke vindictively—“now all I can do is to break other lives!”

“Hush, Eva.” He removed his hand from her arm. “Don't talk so. And remember, if Mrs. Rose comes home safely, you must leave her alone for the future.”

For a moment she said nothing, biting her lip as though in thought. Then suddenly she shrugged her shoulders and moved away without a word.

       * * * * *

When daylight came Owen and Herrick resumed their search for the missing girl, calling to their aid every device which the wit of man could suggest.

They left no stone unturned; and though Owen shrank from the necessary publicity Scotland Yard was informed, and a huge reward offered for information about the vanished Toni.

But the days passed, glided into weeks, which in their turn grew into months; and Toni was not found.

CHAPTER XXVII

On a sunny afternoon in March of the following year, Toni Rose sat alone on the slope of an Italian hill-side overlooking the blue Mediterranean, which lay stretched beneath her like a sheet of living turquoise.

The air was delightfully warm and still, and scented with the fresh breath of myriads of violets which dotted the short, soft turf here and there like a multitude of tiny purple stars. Everywhere the almond blossom was in its full beauty of rose and cream, and the sight of an orchard away on the hill-side, with the faint blue sky above the pink-and-white branches, and the bluer sea behind, gave to the beholder the effect of a delicate Japanese water-colour painting.

The Bay of Naples fully deserved its world-wide reputation for beauty on this bright spring afternoon. Across its waters rose hill upon hill, the sombre giant Vesuvius brooding like some dark monster over the ruined countryside at its base, the lovelier, more hopeful snow-crowned peaks behind rising like a fairy army beneath whose beneficent gaze the ogre was—for the time—vanquished and impotent.

The bay was full of craft, as usual. Big liners, tramp steamers, a grey battleship or two, looked scornfully down on the little Italian boats, some piled high with yellow fruit, others less imposing, little pleasure craft manned by youthful boatmen with swarthy brown faces and ears ornamented with huge golden rings.

Land and sea alike smiled in the glorious sunshine. It was a day on which life seemed a very sweet and desirable opportunity; but in Toni's face there was no hint of gladness, none of her former almost pagan delight in the beautiful out-of-door world around her.

Although her skin was delicately warmed and coloured by the genial Southern sun, the becoming tan could not hide the thinness of the once rounded cheeks, nor disguise the hopeless droop of the lips which had been used to smile so readily. Toni looked, indeed, the ghost of her former self as she sat gazing out over the Mediterranean; and it was very evident that whatever had been the result of her flight to those she had left behind, her own happiness had suffered a disastrous eclipse.

After all, her disappearance had been easily arranged. On that foggy night when she had fled from Leonard Dowson, terrified by the spectre of a future life which his words had evoked, she had run, without in the least realizing her direction, straight to the railway station; and the idea of London had at once presented itself to her mind. A train was just starting, and Toni hastily took a ticket and jumped into a carriage without giving herself time to think.

Arriving at the terminus she had a momentary indecision as to her next step. As she stood on the platform she felt herself to be desperately, hopelessly alone; and for one wild moment she wondered how Owen would receive her if she went back and flung herself on his mercy.

But something in her, perhaps the sturdy, independent blood of her Yorkshire ancestors, seemed to forbid such a course. She could not return, creep back to the shelter of the home she had abandoned; and even Toni's youthful optimism could not promise her a very hearty welcome when the truth of her flight should be known.

If only she had gone alone ... if there had been no man in the case to complicate matters and compromise the situation—in that first moment of despair Toni hated Leonard Dowson, loathed herself for imagining it would be possible to go away with him; and at the same time realized that whatever happened she would find it almost impossible to explain the man's introduction into the affair in any way save that which, were the story known, would be taken, perhaps naturally, for granted.

Suddenly the thought of Italy flashed into her brain, and with the thought came instant resolution.

She had still twelve pounds in her purse—more than enough to take her to Naples; and once there she could surely discover some friend of the bygone days to whom she might apply for advice as to her future maintenance.

In Italy she could live frugally, as the peasants lived; and all at once Toni felt a great nostalgia for the glowing South, with its sunshine and hot blue skies, its orange-groves, its languorous noons and warm, scented nights.

The Italian blood in her—the blood transmitted to her by her mother, spoke in its turn; and suddenly Toni felt that in that land of warmth and colour she could find the rest and peace for which her sorely-driven soul cried out....

And then the miracle happened.

Later that evening she was standing on the platform of another great station, waiting her turn to approach the booking-office where she might obtain her ticket to Italy—and home—when a wail in a thin foreign voice fell upon her ear, and she turned round to face a dark and agitated-looking young woman, neatly dressed, who was bewailing herself in the fluent Italian of the lower classes.

“What is it? Can I help you?”

Toni spoke impulsively, sorry for the young woman even in the midst of her own numbing grief; and the other turned round in astonishment at hearing her own tongue.

“Oh, Signorina!” She evidently took Toni for a compatriot. “Such a misfortune has overcome me—I do not know what is to be done. I am here with my charges”—two sleepy-looking English children stood yawning beside her—“on the way to Naples, and behold, the English Signora—the governess, you understand—who was to have come with us to deliver the children safely to their parents is at the last moment unable to come.”

“But why can't she come?”

Non lo so!” The woman shrugged her shoulders. “She sends me but a telegram to the waiting-room—an accident, illness—I know not—but she does not come, and I must go alone with the two little ones, who are both delicate and will be ill the whole journey through!”

A wild inspiration flashed into Toni's mind.

“You go to Naples?” she said. “I too wish to go, but hardly care to undertake the journey alone. May I then come with you and help you with the little ones?”

The Italian's quick mind grasped the idea at once; and she foresaw with delighted gratitude that the journey might be shorn of half its terrors if the plan were carried out.

She poured forth a stream of voluble explanations. She had already taken the tickets for the party; and she was certain that her employer, a wealthy English lady, would be only too grateful if the Signorina would accept the fare in return for her help in the matter. A carriage had been reserved for the party, and the whole journey might be taken in complete comfort and security, since this so fortunate meeting with a compatriot.

To Toni the idea came as a veritable boon. In her turn, she saw all the personal benefits of the plan; and, after all, since she could be of real, practical assistance, she saw no reason why she should scruple to avail herself of the Italian nurse's offer.

Five minutes later the affair was arranged. The foreigner, Luisa by name, was at first incredulous on hearing of her new comrade's mixed nationality, but she readily accepted such explanations as Toni gave her, and was quick to recognize the value of Toni's perfect English at the present juncture.

Toni's lack of luggage puzzled her a little, but Toni murmured something about a lost dressing-bag which satisfied the other woman; and when the long train steamed out of the station at last Toni was comfortably ensconced in a reserved first-class compartment, making friends with the two little girls with whom she was to travel.

This fact explains the non-success of all inquiries at the railway stations, or, later, on the boat. The authorities were on the look-out for a young Englishwoman journeying alone; and never associated the young Italian lady travelling, apparently, with her two children and a nurse, with the solitary girl for whom they searched.

Toni's fur coat was by no means a unique garment. There were plenty to be seen at this time of year; and in any case the girl, protected by her unassailable bodyguard, was able to pass under the eyes of the very men who were anxiously on the look-out for her.

The journey to which Luisa had looked forward with such apprehension passed off well enough. Toni was obliged to rouse herself from her own dejection to look after the children, who were both delicate and spoilt; but luckily they took an instant fancy to the travelling companion so strangely provided, and behaved with commendable good-temper throughout.

When at length the train ran into the railway station at Naples, Toni suddenly found herself faced with another problem. The nurse had taken her on trust, so to speak, and had been too grateful for her help to seek to probe into her private affairs; but now that she must face the mother of the pretty children, to whom she had become quite attached, Toni realized that she would have to give some more plausible explanation of her situation than that which had contented the impetuous Luisa.

She got out of the carriage at last, her arms full of the children's wraps and toys, with knees which shook under her at the thought of the ordeal to come; but one quick look into Mrs. Moody's frank and kindly face reassured her a little.

She soon found, moreover, that the lady was as ready to take her on trust as the maid had been. When she had heard Luisa's voluble explanation of the part Toni had played during the long and wearying journey, Mrs. Moody turned to Toni with an expression of real gratitude on her still pretty face.

“I really don't know how to thank you, Miss ... er ...” She hesitated, and Toni quickly supplied her with the first name she could think of, the name of her Italian mother's race. “Oh, but surely you are English?”

In her agitation Toni murmured something about an Italian father, not meaning to deceive, but too tired out and confused to pay much heed to her words; and Mrs. Moody put her hand kindly on the girl's arm.

“Well, English or not, you've been a god-send to Luisa and the chicks; so if you have no friends waiting for you at this moment, you must come home with me and let my husband thank you properly.”

Somehow Toni found herself stepping into the beautifully-appointed motor-car which waited outside the station; and ten minutes later she was helped out of the motor and taken up a broad and palatial-looking staircase to the large and lofty flat inhabited by her new friends.

Friends indeed they proved to be. Without the slightest hesitation they accepted Toni's rather faltering story of an engagement in England which had proved unsatisfactory; and on learning that her intention in returning to Italy had been to look for another post, they looked at one another in a meaning silence which was explained later, when Mrs. Moody asked her quietly if she would care to undertake the post of governess-companion to the two small children with whom she was already on terms of friendship.

For a moment Toni hesitated. To stay on here, deceiving her employers, representing herself, falsely, as an unmarried woman, would be a poor return for their kindness and generosity; but to tell the truth was surely impossible. Yet she could not bring herself to shut the door which would open to her a new and honourable life in which she might find, if not happiness, at least content; and poor Toni was torn between conflicting emotions as she stood listening to her new friend's proposals.

Mrs. Moody, reading her indecision in her face, bade her think the matter over for a week while she remained with them as an honoured guest; and Toni did so, coming at last to the conclusion that, much as she longed to accept the post, to do so would not be fair to her prospective employers.

She refused, therefore, but with so genuine a regret that the refusal could not give offence. The Moodys, however, while recognizing the girl's claim to independence of judgment, in their turn asserted their claim to befriend her, and Toni was only too ready to accept their advice and assistance.

Hearing that it was of importance that she should set about making some money without delay, Mr. Moody secured for her a post as assistant-librarian and secretary in a big library belonging to an Italian friend of his own.

It was something of an irony that Toni's work should take her into an atmosphere that could not fail to remind her of her husband and his literary aspirations; and her heart used to contract pitifully within her sometimes when she entered the big, lofty, book-lined room, which was not unlike the stately library in the beautiful old house by the river where her married life had come to so tragic a close.

She owed the post to her proficiency in Italian and English rather than to any scholarly ability. To the end of her life Toni would never be bookish. She would always prefer living to reading about life; and it was fortunate that her work in this new library consisted largely of translating, roughly, from books in Italian and English, or in typing, from dictation, in either language.

She grew to like her employment in the quiet, mediæval-looking room. Her employer, a gentle, sad-eyed elderly man with an invalid daughter, treated her with the utmost kindness; and if it had not been that every fibre in her being cried out incessantly for Owen, she might in time have been content.

Her first friends, the Moodys, had settled her in rooms with an old servant of their own who had married a little Italian bookseller, and were unremitting in their kindness to her; but Toni desired only to be alone in her leisure hours and refused many of the invitations which Mrs. Moody sent her from time to time.

So the days passed, quietly and tranquilly enough; and though to Toni it seemed that all the joy, all the happiness had fled from life, that the “sweet things” had lost their sweetness, the sunshine its glory, the flowers their perfume, she was not ungrateful for the peace which had come to her so unexpectedly.

Of her husband, of Greenriver, she never dared to think. She guessed, drearily, that Owen would feel bound, in humanity, to institute a search for his missing wife; but by a fortunate chance she had been able to cover her tracks and disappear effectually; and as the weeks glided by, and discovery was apparently as far off as ever, she began to feel, with a miserable certainty, that in time her husband would relinquish the search, and settle down to forget the frivolous, uneducated girl who had not known how to appreciate the honour he had done her in making her his wife.

To-day, this glorious spring day when the violet-scented air held a hint of summer's warmth in its breath, Toni was making holiday.

Her employer was from home, called to London by the hint of a wonderful book sale to be held there the following week; and Toni's time was her own for nearly eight days.

She had started early that morning on a pilgrimage to the little village where, long ago, she had passed the first happy years of her life; and had arrived, before noon, to find, as she had half-expected, that none of her old friends remained to give her welcome.

Old Fiammetta was dead, as was, of course, the kindly Padre who had befriended Roger Gibbs when the young widower had decided to stay on, with his little daughter, in the home which his Antonia had made so joyous. A few of the children with whom she had played lived here still, but they had grown into sturdy, swarthy young men and women who had long since forgotten the dark-eyed child whose Italian had been as fluent as their own; and though she wandered disconsolately through the straggling little village, she met with no single glance of recognition.

She did not know that some months previously urgent inquiries had been made at the tiny post-office as to whether a young lady had arrived in the village unexpectedly. It had struck Owen as possible that, in her madness, Toni might have returned to her childhood's home; but although, had she not met Luisa, Toni would probably have done so, that chance meeting at the station had turned her feet into another path, and naturally no one here knew anything of her whereabouts.

She had intended spending the whole of her holiday in the village; but the absence of any welcome depressed her sensitive spirit, and she decided to return to Naples in the evening and spend the days of her freedom in exploring more thoroughly the fascinating streets and byways of the picturesque and romantic town.

It was late when she arrived home, carrying her little valise; and old Janet, who in spite of her long residence in Italy was still uncompromisingly British, was surprised to see her lodger returning.

“I thought you were going to stay a few days,” she said quite reproachfully. “Now a real good change would have been the very best thing for you, miss, and I'm right sorry to see you back.”

“You're not very kind, Janet!” Toni smiled rather wearily, “I couldn't stay ... all my friends were dead and gone ... there were only ghosts left to welcome me, and I couldn't bear it!”

The old woman read the disappointment in the girl's tone and was sorry for her.

“Well, come along in, miss, and I'll bring you some supper right away. There's an omelette, and some lovely risotto I'm making for Pietro, and a glass or two of Chianti will soon hearten you up—though for my part I think a bottle of good English stout is worth all the thin wines in Italy!”

When, later, she bustled in again with some excellent coffee, the old woman brought a bundle of papers which had been left by Mrs. Moody earlier in the day. There were various English and American magazines, and a few weekly papers; and had doubtless been intended to lighten the loneliness of Toni's holiday.

She sat sipping her coffee and turning the pages rather listlessly. Somehow reading appealed to her less than ever nowadays. She was always so fully occupied with her own miserable thoughts, that the imaginative writings of other people could claim small share of her interest; but she dipped into the magazines as she sat alone, and tried to forget herself for an hour in the perusal of their pages.

Among the papers was a copy of the Daily Telegraph, sent to Mrs. Moody occasionally by a sister in London; and Toni was idly turning the clumsy sheets when a name she knew attracted her attention.

She scanned the paragraph hurriedly a little pulse beating in her temple as she read.

     “We learn on good authority that the famous portrait-painter Mr.
     James Herrick, better known as Mr. Herrick Vyse, has accepted a
     commission to paint the two beautiful daughters of Lord and Lady
     Tregarthen at their historic home in Cornwall. The young subjects,
     who are twins, are only nine years of age, but are ranked among the
     loveliest of England's many beautiful children, and doubtless the
     artist will do their childish beauty full justice. Mr. Herrick has
     already left his picturesque bungalow on the Thames for Tregarthen
     House, where he will be the guest of Lord and Lady Tregarthen
     during the painting of the portrait.”

The paper fell from Toni's hands and the light of a great inspiration flashed into her face.

Lately she had longed, with ever-increasing intensity, for some authentic news of Owen. She felt she would give all she had in the world to hear that he was well, that her flight had not ruined his life; but she had no means of finding out anything without running the risk of giving away the secret of her own hiding-place.

She had sometimes thought of writing to Eva Herrick, binding her to the strictest secrecy, and imploring her, for the sake of their old friendship, to give her the information she craved. But there were so many drawbacks to the plan. Her letter might easily fall into Herrick's hands, and though the contents would be sacred to him, the Italian postmark would be enough to betray her whereabouts.

But now, during Herrick's absence, she might surely risk sending Eva a letter. She felt pretty certain that Mrs. Herrick would not give away her secret. By this time Toni was quite able to appreciate the part Eva Herrick had played in her unfortunate escapade; and she realised, very plainly, that Eva's unhappy desire to ruin other lives as hers had been ruined, had been at the bottom of her eager sympathy and pretended help.

Even now Eva would doubtless seek to prevent any real reconciliation between husband and wife; and in any case Toni felt that she must take the risk; she must have news, hear how Owen had taken her flight; and surely Eva would not refuse to answer her letter.

She wrote it there and then. It was very short, only a few lines imploring the recipient to give her all news of Owen, while keeping the secret of the writer's hiding place. Of herself Toni merely stated that she was at work and content; but the few scribbled lines breathed a spirit of misery, of supplication which would surely melt even the hardest heart.

Having signed her name, and seen that the address at the top of the sheet was correct, Toni hastily procured an envelope, thrust in the fateful letter, and immediately slipped out of the house to post it.

Up to this moment she had acted impulsively, without giving herself time to think, with possibly a lurking fear at the back of her mind that if she stopped to consider she would tear up the letter instead of posting it. But when once it had left her hand, when she had heard the thud it made in falling into the almost empty box, a great terror seized Toni, and she stood trembling in the deserted street, feeling that she would give all she had to rescind her impetuous action.

But doubts and misgivings were alike useless now. The letter had passed out of her keeping, and she must abide by her own deed, trusting fervently that no further misfortune would follow her precipitancy.

Realizing at last that regrets were futile, Toni turned away and went home, there to spend a sleepless night torturing herself with all sorts of premonitions and visions of ill-luck.

But in her wildest flights of imaginative terror over the receipt of her letter, and its consequences, Toni never approached the truth.

CHAPTER XXVIII

Toni's letter was delivered to Mrs. Herrick late one afternoon; and with a slight feeling of wonder as to her correspondent's identity, Eva broke the seal languidly and took out the thin foreign sheet without the least notion that this letter was to her a veritable messenger of Fate.

It did not take her long to read the few scrawled lines in which Toni proffered her desperate request; and when she had read them, Eva let the sheet flutter to the floor while she pondered on the strange chance which led the woman whose life she had helped to ruin to appeal to her for aid.

The months which had passed since Toni's flight had not been happy ones for Eva Herrick. On hearing of the part she had played in the culminating catastrophe, her husband had felt at first that he could barely find it in his heart to forgive such deliberate treachery; and for a short space of time even the malicious and reckless Eva knew what it was to be afraid. She was afraid, not of Herrick's wrath, but of the consequences. If, as at times she almost feared, he were to leave her, what would her position be? Already disgraced, discredited in the eyes of the world, she would find it impossible to face that world all alone, without the shelter of her husband's name; and although Toni's plight was nothing to her, there were times when she almost wished she had left the girl alone and had not encouraged her to take the fatal step of leaving her home.

She picked up the flimsy sheet again and re-read the pitiful words. The letter could be answered easily enough. If she replied truthfully, she would relate a tragic history of a winter of lonely despair lived out in the beautiful old house, which to its solitary owner was like a body without a soul, a mere empty shell which had once held something precious beyond all words.

She could narrate of blank and heavy days, when Owen Rose shut himself up in his library and refused to see a single fellow-creature save the servants who had known and loved his pretty young wife. Eva could have told of the dismissal of the housekeeper, Mrs. Blades, whose long service had seemed to her sufficient to warrant an impertinent stricture on Mrs. Rose's shameless conduct. She had learned her mistake very quickly; and had gone forth lamenting the short-sighted folly which had ended her long and tyrannical reign at Greenriver. Further, Eva could have related how, when the papers were full of complimentary reviews of Owen Rose's novel, the author himself turned away from all praise, fulsome and discriminating alike, and took up his pen only to write such articles as his position on the staff of the Bridge rendered necessary.

But as yet Eva did not know what form her reply would take.

Warped, distorted, malignant as her judgment too often was, there was something very vital in that despairing cry from Italy; and in spite of herself Eva could not banish its echo from her ears.

She might answer, briefly, that Owen was still at Greenriver, and, so far as she knew, in good health and spirits. As she framed the words she had a mental vision of Owen as she had last seen him, thin, pale, haggard, with the fire of a restless despair burning in his blue eyes. Although he went out and about, and greeted his friends much as usual, no one could doubt that the whole man was consumed as by a devouring flame. He had been tortured with terrible neuralgic headaches all through the winter; but though the doctor urged him to try the effect of a sojourn abroad, nothing would induce him to leave Greenriver.

His tentative inquiries in Italy having proved futile, he clung to the idea that Toni was still in England; and the thought that she might return to her home and find him gone was one which recurred to him like a nightmare whenever he took even the short journey up to town.

“What shall I say, I wonder?” Eva sat gazing thoughtfully into the fire, while the Spring twilight fell over the river which glided so quietly past her windows. “If I say she is forgotten it will almost break her heart; yet if I tell her that her husband is breaking his heart to find her, will she come to England instantly and humble herself till he takes her back into his home?”

As she sat there Eva had a sudden vivid sense of the contrast between her own spoilt life and that of the girl whose pitiful cry still rang in her consciousness and would not be silenced.

Her own life was ruined, she told herself bitterly. But in that illuminating moment Eva saw the truth for the first time. She herself was to blame for the ruin. She had brought all the shame, all the disgrace upon herself, and the bitter experience of her prison life had been only the reaping of the harvest which she, by her own act, had sown.

But Toni's happiness had been broken and spoilt by other means. It was her very love for her husband which had made her so fatally ready to believe that only by leaving him could she give him the freedom which he was supposed—by his wife—to desire. And Eva knew quite well that without her connivance and encouragement Leonard Dowson would never have dared to utter his proposal to the young wife of Owen Rose.

Yet if she gave in now and begged Toni to return, assuring her, as she knew she might safely do, of her husband's ready forgiveness, would not the spectacle of Toni's ensuing happiness bring all the more cruelly home to her the wretchedness which must be her own portion from henceforth?

Although Jim Herrick treated her with unvarying kindness and consideration, Eva had always the miserable conviction that his love for her was dead; and although she never showed any feeling in their daily intercourse, even her bitter and reckless heart was sometimes sore within her.

Long she sat, wondering how best to treat this unexpected appeal from a far country; and only when the trim maid who had replaced the more haphazard Mrs. Swastika entered with the lighted lamp did Eva rouse herself from her reverie.

Then, however, she got pen and paper and sat down at the table to frame some sort of reply. It was not an easy task. With Toni's letter lying before her, she found it strangely difficult to begin; and was still sitting staring at the blank sheet of paper when a sudden deep bark from Olga, who was lying, as usual, nose on paws, in the tiny hall, made her start to her feet.

“Who's there, I wonder? Olga sounds excited.”

She went to the door and opened it, and at the same moment the front door was flung widely open and a man stepped into the hall, to be greeted instantly by a torrent of wild barking from the now delighted Borzoi.

“Steady, old girl! I say, Olga, don't take me for a wolf and tear me to pieces!” He laughingly pushed the great dog down and hastened towards his wife.

“Hallo, Eva! Have I startled you? I'm sorry.”

“I didn't know who it was.” She stared at him with dilated eyes. “I was sitting in there, and Olga barked so loudly that I thought——”

“Thought I was a burglar!” He kissed her very kindly. “Well, I'm not. But I've come back for a bit ... yes, put them down there, will you?”

He turned to the door, his arm through his wife's, and paid the cabman, who had placed his portmanteaux in the hall. Then, when the man, declining a drink, had gone, Herrick drew his wife back into the little sitting-room.

“But—I don't understand. Is the portrait off? Aren't you going to paint the children?”

“Yes, of course I am, but not for a bit. Fact is, the poor kiddies have started in measles, pretty badly, too, I'm told, so as it was impossible to get on with the picture just yet I thought I'd better come home and let their parents send for me when the children are out of quarantine.”

“I see.” Eva was half pleased, half annoyed by his return. “You want something to eat, I expect. Shall I go and hurry up dinner?”

“I wish you would, dear.” He threw aside his coat as he spoke. “I had some lunch on the train, but you know what railway lunches are. I came down from Waterloo with Rose. Jove, Eva, that fellow looks a wreck.”

“Does he?” Suddenly she remembered that Toni's letter was lying open on the table. “I—I suppose he will get over—it—in time.”

“I don't think he will. Of course he must really have been devoted to her—to his wife—all the time, without knowing it. And I don't wonder. She was one of the best, pluckiest, straightest girls I ever met. I don't believe she could have done a dishonourable action to save her life.”

He had spoken quite without any ulterior meaning, carried away by his memory of Toni as he had known and admired her; but his words sounded to Eva like a direct and deadly insult; and her Irish blood flamed instantly into revolt.

“Toni straight!” All softer feelings were forgotten now; again she was the unhappy woman at war with all the world, but especially with her own sex. “Very straight of her to elope with another man, wasn't it? And as for pluck, why, she couldn't even stick to him when she'd done it.”

“Hush, Eva!” Herrick's brow wore the frown she hated, and, secretly, feared. “You were never fair to that unhappy girl; and both you and I know very well that had you acted differently half this misery would have been spared.”

“I was unfair to her?” Eva's voice was choked with rage.

“Yes.” He spoke deliberately, rather sadly. “From the first you treated Toni Rose, unfairly. You knew she was very young, and not very wise in the ways of the world, and whereas you were an older woman—very little older in actual years, I grant you——”

“I suppose you mean older in wickedness.” She spoke between her teeth.

“I mean you were old enough to have helped the child instead of encouraging her in her foolishness,” he said steadily. “But you did not. You preferred to inflame her mind by exaggerating her woes, making her feel herself misunderstood, unloved, unwanted ... oh, I don't know what you said, what passed between you, but this I do know. You saw that child shivering on the brink, as it were, of a dreadful precipice, and not only did you refrain from pulling her back from the edge, but I'm horribly afraid that yours was the hand which sought to push her over.”

“You dare to say this to me?” Her voice was like steel, and there was a dangerous glint in the Irish eyes which had once been so sweet and gay.

“Yes. Oh, I don't want to be hard on you, to bring it all up again.” He spoke wearily. “I suppose it was the sight of that poor fellow Rose that made me speak like that just now. But you know, you have known all along, that I hold you largely responsible for the whole affair, and if any harm has come to that poor misguided girl, I'm afraid your conscience can never be wholly clear.”

“Stop!” With flashing eyes and a stormy flush on her cheeks his wife faced him; and even Herrick recoiled a step, aghast at the picture of evil, revengeful triumph she presented in that moment. “You are blaming me for that affair, are you? Doubtless you and the bereft husband joined upon your journey down in calling me all the pretty names which seem to fit me—evil genius, bad angel, and all the rest. Well, it may surprise you to learn that it is to me that the 'poor misguided child' turns even now when she wants news of her loving husband. Oh, you may stare, but I know more than all of you. I know just where the misguided Toni is at this moment, and what she is doing into the bargain.”

She had surprised him indeed. He sprang forward and seized her arm.

“You know that? Then why in God's name haven't you said so before?”

“Because I've only just got to know,” she answered defiantly, “and because although I do know, I'm not going to hand on my knowledge—now.”

“What do you mean?” Her vindictive tone made his blood run cold.

“I had meant, when her letter came to-night, to show it to you, to let you tell Mr. Rose. Wasn't I a fool?” She laughed scornfully. “Why on earth should I give away the precious information? You don't suppose I care whether Toni ever sees her husband again? I hope she doesn't, in fact. Other women are unhappy—they suffer—let her suffer, too, let her know what it is to live in hell, to wish herself dead so that she may at least forget her misery.”

“Eva!” His voice rang through the room. “You are going too far. Tell me this moment—where is Mrs. Rose?”

“Wouldn't you like to know?” While she mocked him she was endeavouring to edge past him to reach the table on which Toni's letter still lay. Unconsciously he frustrated her, blocking the way in an attempt to force her to speak plainly.

“I intend to know.” His voice was as cold as ice. “Come, Eva, if pity for the girl doesn't move you, think of the man. Why condemn him to this mental torture, when a word from you can set him free?”

Suddenly she paused before him; and to his dying day he would never forget the hatred in her eyes.

“Did you think of that, when a word from you would have set me free? Did you utter the word which would have condemned you to prison but would have let me go back to the world of sunshine and freedom? Did any of the men who sent me to that hell think of my torture, my agony? Why should I think of anyone else now? What does it matter to me if Owen Rose and his wife die broken-hearted? Do you think I'd raise a finger to help them to find one another? No. No, I tell you, a hundred, thousand times—no.”

Suddenly the man who listened was filled with a great and marvellous compassion. Even now, it seemed, his wife could not see the justice of her fate; but somehow her childish comparison of her own position with that of Owen and Toni Rose seemed pitiful, tragic, rather than evil.

“See here, dear.” He spoke very gently. “You are overwrought. You don't know what you are saying. I'm sure in your heart you only want to act kindly, nobly, by those two unfortunate people. Tell me, where is Mrs. Rose, and when—and how—has she communicated with you?”

“She wrote to me—I got her letter to-night.” There was a note of triumph in her voice which made him uneasy. “And do you know what I'm going to do with it? I'm going to burn it—now—before your eyes.”

During her speech she had been edging nearer and nearer the table; and as she spoke the last words she made a frantic dart at the letter and envelope which had lain there through all the conversation. Quick as she was, however, she was almost too late.

Suddenly awake to her meaning, Herrick had swung round in time to see her seize the letter; and in an instant his hand was on her wrist.

“Eva! What are you going to do?”

“This.” With a wild gesture she tore her hand from his; but again he was too quick for her.

“Listen to me.” He spoke quickly, wild with anxiety lest she should carry out her threat. “You are to give me that letter—at once. At once, do you hear? I don't want to hurt you, but I will have that letter, and you had better give it to me of your own free will.”

“You shan't—you shan't.” She spoke gaspingly, using all her force to got away from him. Handicapped by his very superiority, Herrick did not venture to put forth his full strength, but Eva, held back by no scruples, fought desperately to release her hands that she might fling the letter in the fire.

Quite suddenly she found herself free. Herrick, his very soul sickened within him at the physical encounter, had released her abruptly, trusting, perhaps, to some instinct of generosity which should lead her to surrender in the moment of victory.

But he trusted vainly. The second she was free Eva flung herself on to her knees by the brightly-blazing fire; and as Herrick, maddened by her action, bent roughly over her to try, even now, to save the precious letter, she thrust her hand almost within the bars that the fire might destroy the writing the more completely.

But her own haste was her undoing. The loose chiffon sleeve she wore brushed against the glowing coals as she pushed the letter frantically between the bars; and a bright tongue of flame shot suddenly up her arm and ignited the masses of filmy lace which disguised the thinness of her once softly-rounded bosom.

There was a sharp cry from Herrick, a shriek of terror from Eva; and then, as Herrick sprang aside to snatch up the heavy travelling-coat which would most effectually beat out the flames, Eva rushed frenziedly to the door, screaming at the top of her voice.

Again and again he tried to fling the coat round her burning form; but she had completely lost her head, and several valuable seconds were wasted before he caught her finally and wrapped her completely round in the thick, heavy folds of his big coat.

Quite suddenly he felt her collapse in his grasp; and when, having extinguished the flames, he unwrapped the coat from her slender figure, Herrick had a horrible conviction that he held a dead woman in his arms....

She was still alive, however, though terribly burned about the arms and body. For nearly a week she lay between life and death, a piteous little figure swathed in bandages.

By some miraculous chance, although her golden curls were singed and blackened, her face had escaped injury, and as he sat by her side in the darkened room, Herrick could trace in the pale and suffering features the face of the bonny Irish girl who had won his heart so completely in those far-off days of an Irish spring.

For seven days she lay there, half-conscious at times, moaning piteously for hours together, though for the most part under the merciful influence of the morphia which lulled her agony; and in that terrible week Herrick took up afresh the burden of his marriage and determined that if Eva recovered he would give up his whole life to her service. He would endeavour to win her back to a saner, sweeter frame of mind, to make up to her by his unswerving patience and devotion for the misery she had endured; and he would relinquish, once for all, the hopeless mental attitude which had seemed to say that a life spent together must be impossible for both of them.

After all, she was pathetically young and frail. She had sinned, but she had paid, was paying now. Every feeble moan she uttered wrung his heart afresh; and he longed for her to regain consciousness that he might whisper words of love and encouragement into those fragile ears.

He had almost forgotten the cause of the catastrophe.

Toni's letter had been burned to ashes, and he had not the slightest idea of her whereabouts; but even Toni's welfare seemed of less importance during these days of torture; and beyond sending Owen a note to inform him that his wife was certainly alive, since she had written to her friend, Herrick had done nothing.

It was quite possible that Eva would die without revealing Toni's secret; and even though she lived, what guarantee had Herrick that she would unclose her lips even then?

Although, through her intense suffering, she had an irresistible claim upon his compassion, her husband did not feel certain that even were Eva herself again Toni's tragic blunder would be repaired; and although he was fully determined to do all in his power to bring Eva's restless spirit peace, there was a possibility that she would return to life as callous, as heartless, as vindictive as ever.

Yet as he looked at the wan little face on the pillow, he could not forbear a hope that this terrible disaster would mark a turning point in Eva's life; and then, as a moan fluttered through the girl's parched lips, he experienced a horrible fear that for Eva there would be no time for repentance and reparation.

It was nearly one o'clock on the seventh night when Herrick, watching closely, saw the grey Irish eyes open suddenly.

He bent over the bed, and found that for the first time his wife was sufficiently herself to recognize him.

“Jim? Is that you?” Her voice was the merest thread.

“Yes, dear. Do you feel more comfortable now?”

“I feel ... dying,” she murmured, still in that thin whisper. “Jim ... I'm so sorry. I've been a wicked girl—but you must forgive me, because I'm going to die.”

“No, no, dear.” His heart stirred within him at the startling change in her, and he slipped to his knees beside the bed. “You are going to get better and be my own dear little wife again. There is no need to talk of forgiveness, Eva. That's all over long ago. Now I have only to love you.”

“I'm glad you've forgiven me.” When she had spoken she closed her eyes again; and Herrick felt himself turn cold, thinking she were dying indeed.

Presently she re-opened those sunken eyes, and her lips moved faintly. Bending down he caught her words.

“Jim ... I'm sorry about Toni. She's safe—in Italy—in Naples....”

“You're sure, dear?” He spoke quietly, though his heart gave a throb of relief at her words.

“Yes. I can't remember her address.” Her brows contracted pitifully. “But she works in the library of an Italian called Zanoni—is that enough? Can you find her from that?”

“Why, yes, dear.” He knew it would only be a matter of time to trace the girl now. “And you must not worry about her any more. Close those big eyes of yours and go to sleep.”

She gave a little sigh, and her tiny bandaged hand lifted itself feebly as though seeking his. Instantly he laid his own warm fingers over hers; and a moment later Eva was asleep.

       * * * * *

So it happened that Eva did not die, but crept slowly back to life; and throughout her painful and often halting convalescence she exhibited a patience, a gentleness which won her husband's heart afresh.

It seemed as though the fire had burnt out all the evil thoughts and desires which had ravaged her soul. Gone were all thoughts of revenge, of callous retribution for the sufferings she had endured. No longer bitter and hard and reckless, Eva was once again the engaging girl who had won Herrick's love; and although it was probable she would never again be quite so light-hearted, so thoughtless as she had been in the days before her marriage, Herrick was very strongly attracted to this oddly gentle, shy, wistful girl who gave him a new and passionate gratitude and love in place of her former half-careless, half-contemptuous affection.

       * * * * *

Her first question on coming fully to herself had concerned Toni; and within a very short space of time Herrick was able to inform her that the girl had been found.

“Is she well—happy? Is Mr. Rose going to forgive her?”

“He has done that already,” said Herrick with a smile. “By this time he is on his way to Italy; and I have no doubt he will bring her home to Greenriver as fast as boat and train can do it.”

“Must I see her, Jim?” Into her eyes came a look of dread which touched him oddly. “I know it was all through my wickedness that she went away—but—must I ask her to forgive me?”

“You needn't trouble about that, dear. Mrs. Rose has forgiven you long ago. And as soon as ever you are well enough to travel, I'm going to take you right away where I can have you to myself and there will be no one to bother you all the rest of your life.”

“Where are we going?” Her weak voice sounded pitifully glad.

“I'm not sure—but somewhere for away—Canada, or California, or some big, wild country where we can ride about all day and imagine ourselves back in dear old Ireland again.”

She sighed with pleasure; and two minutes later fell asleep with a tender little smile upon her lips.

CHAPTER XXIX

On a beautiful evening in June, when the land was sweet with roses, and the cuckoos called insistently to one another from copse and wood, Owen Rose brought his wife home, for the second time, to Greenriver.

They had spent the intervening weeks in Italy; and to the end of her life Toni would look upon those glorious Italian days as her true honeymoon.

Now, indeed, she and Owen were really lovers, meeting on an equal ground through the very force of their mutual love. Gone for ever were the old doubts and misunderstandings, the miserable fooling of inferiority on Toni's side, the half-unconscious irritation with which Owen had viewed what seemed to be his wife's limitations.

No miracle had been worked. Toni and Owen both knew very well that in literary matters Owen would always be superior to Toni; but now that they were one in ambition, one in feeling, one in heart and soul, this superiority mattered little.

Now that she was no longer frightened, no longer felt herself despised, Toni could give her natural intelligence full play; and when once Owen took the trouble to study Toni closely, he thanked his gods that he had discovered her worth before it was too late.

What he had taken for stupidity was only diffidence. Toni's brain, though not so highly specialized as his own, was a very capable, quick organ all the same; and in the lonely, dreary months of her absence Owen had learned to value at their true worth the precious gifts of laughter and sunny, unselfish gaiety which had once lightened the stately old house. When Toni disappeared, it seemed as though a living sunbeam had deserted the household; and when, on announcing the news of her safety and ultimate return, he had seen the faces of the servants break into relieved smiles, Owen had felt, with a twinge of shame, that even her dependants had valued Toni more than he, her husband, had known how to do.

Always, too, the remembrance of the significance of Toni's sacrifice would keep Owen humble before her. He knew now, beyond all possibility of doubt, that it had nearly broken her heart to leave him; and though her tragically childish notion of setting him free by eloping with Leonard Dowson often brought a tender, half-quizzical smile to his lips, Owen fully appreciated the love and eager longing which had driven Toni to that futile step.

If Toni had found her soul, Owen too had gained something which his character had hitherto lacked; and in his new humility and comprehension there was the germ, also, of a new content for both of them.

       * * * * *

Toni caught her breath in a sob of rapture as the old house came into view.

Everyone about the place, servants, gardeners, chauffeur, had worked their hardest during the last excited weeks to bring the whole place to the highest pitch of perfection; and to Toni's longing eyes the beautiful old house, in its setting of tall trees, smooth green lawns, and brilliant, many-hued flowers, had never looked so eminently attractive, so alluringly home-like before.

There were tears in her eyes as she sprang out of the car and greeted the waiting Andrews, who stood beside the open door. In the background Kate and Maggie hovered, all smiles and blushes; and it was evident that whatever construction a censorious world might have put upon Toni's rash departure, these faithful souls, at least, believed no evil.

As a matter of fact very little of the truth ever did leak out. When it was known, as Herrick took good care it should be known, that Mr. Rose had gone to Italy to join his wife, who was wintering there, and would return with her after a few weeks spent together by the shores of the Mediterranean, gossip was at once checked and dumbfounded.

If there had been anything wrong, said the neighbourhood, if Mrs. Rose had left her husband secretly as had been asserted, surely the fact of Mr. Rose's going to Italy to join her would not have been given quite so much publicity.

Not only were there paragraphs in all the society papers—here Barry's hand was discernible—but there were even portraits of the rising young author and his wife, taken together in the garden of their whitewashed villa outside Naples; and it was decided, finally, that Mrs. Rose's hasty departure had been, after all, a good deal less mysterious than it had at first appeared.

There was some consolation, to the more determined gossips of the neighbourhood, in spreading a rumour that the young mistress of Greenriver was far gone in consumption, and had been ordered to winter abroad; but Toni's appearance, on the day of her return, was quite sufficient to give the lie to that particular canard.

Browned with the sun, her Southern colouring accentuated by the months spent in what was, after all, almost her native land, Toni looked the picture of glowing, vivid health; and when, late that night, she faced her husband with sparkling eyes across the rose-decked table, Owen realized, for the first time, that this quaint, half-foreign wife of his was giving promise of developing into actual beauty.

       * * * * *

After dinner they strolled into the garden, Jock, deliriously happy, pressing closely to his mistress's side; and as they passed between the sleeping flowers Toni suddenly clung to her husband's arm.

“Owen! Listen. The nightingale! Oh, isn't it perfect—that big yellow moon—and the roses—and now—that.”

“Is it better than Italy, Toni? Wouldn't you rather be there—on a night like this—in that land of beauty and romance?”

For a moment Toni stood still, gazing round her in silence. She looked at the old grey house, from which the mellow lamplight streamed, the Ten Little Ladies casting their beams bravely through the big windows of the gallery upstairs. She looked at the sleeping roses, the velvet lawns, the tall trees; and her eyes were very peaceful. The golden moonlight transfigured the scene; from the dreaming river came the creak of oars moving gently in their rowlocks; and the nightingale's song was dying softly, tenderly, on the quiet air.

Slowly Toni's gaze came back to her husband's face; and in her eyes, velvety and black in the moonlight, Owen read her answer before she spoke.

“Wherever you are is my land of beauty,” she said, in a low voice. “But ... oh, I am so glad, so glad you have brought me home—to Greenriver.”

And as he heard the words, saw, too, the loving little gesture which accompanied them as she slipped her hand into his arm, Owen felt that for them both Greenriver was home henceforth.

He stooped and kissed her, quietly, on the white brow beneath the ebony hair; end as if he had been waiting for the signal, the unseen nightingale broke once more into song.

THE END

 
 
 

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