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The New Warden by Mrs. David G. Ritchie


CHAPTER I. THE WARDEN'S LODGINGS
CHAPTER II. MORAL SUPPORT
CHAPTER III. PASSIONATE PITY
CHAPTER IV. THE UNFORESEEN HAPPENS
CHAPTER V. WAITING
CHAPTER VI. MORE THAN ONE CONCLUSION
CHAPTER VII. MEN MARCHING PAST
CHAPTER VIII. THE LOST LETTER
CHAPTER IX. THE LUNCHEON PARTY
CHAPTER X. PARENTAL EFFUSIONS
CHAPTER XI. NO ESCAPE
CHAPTER XII. THE GHOST
CHAPTER XIII. THE EFFECT OF SUGGESTION
CHAPTER XIV. DIFFERENT VIEWS
CHAPTER XV. MRS. POTTEN'S CARELESSNESS
CHAPTER XVI. SEEING CHRIST CHURCH
CHAPTER XVII. A TEA PARTY
CHAPTER XVIII. THE MORAL CLAIMS OF AN UMBRELLA
CHAPTER XIX. HONOUR
CHAPTER XX. SHOPPING
CHAPTER XXI. THE SOUL OF MRS. POTTEN
CHAPTER XXII. MR. BOREHAM'S PROPOSAL
CHAPTER XXIII. BY MOONLIGHT
CHAPTER XXIV. A CAUSE AND IMPEDIMENT
CHAPTER XXV. CONFESSIONS
CHAPTER XXVI. THE ANXIETIES OF LOUISE
CHAPTER XXVII. THE FORGIVENESS OF THE FATES
CHAPTER XXVIII. ALMA MATER
CHAPTER XXIX. DINNER
CHAPTER XXX. THE END OF BELINDA AND CO.
CHAPTER XXXI. A FAREWELL
CHAPTER XXXII. THE WARDEN HURRIES
 

CHAPTER I. THE WARDEN'S LODGINGS

The Founders and the Benefactors of Oxford, Princes, wealthy priests, patriotic gentlemen, noble ladies with a taste for learning; any of these as they travelled along the high road, leaving behind them pastures, woods and river, and halted at the gates of the grey sacred city, had they been in melancholy mood, might have pictured to themselves all possible disasters by fire and by siege that could mar this garnered glory of spiritual effort and pious memory. Fire and siege were the disasters of the old days. But a new age has it own disasters—disasters undreamed of in the old days, and none of these lovers of Oxford as they entered that fair city, ever could have foretold that in time to come Oxford would become enclosed and well-nigh stifled by the peaceful encroachment of an endless ocean of friendly red brick, lapping to its very walls.

The wonder is that Oxford still exists, for the free jerry-builder of free England, with his natural right to spoil a landscape or to destroy the beauty of an ancient treasure house, might have forced his cheap villas into the very heart of the city; might have propped his shameless bricks, for the use of Don and of shopkeeper, against the august grey college walls: he might even have insulted and defaced that majestic street whose towers and spires dream above the battlemented roofs and latticed windows of a more artistic age.

But why didn't he? Why didn't he, clothed in the sanctity of cheapness, desecrate the inner shrine?

The Wardens and the Bursars of colleges could tell us much, but the stranger and the pilgrim, coming to worship, feel as if there must have flashed into being some sudden Hand from Nowhere and a commanding Voice saying—“Thus far shalt thou come and no farther,” so that the accursed jerry-builder (under the impression that he was moved by some financial reasons of his own) must have obediently picked up his little bag of tools and trotted off to destroy some other place.

Anyhow the real Oxford has been spared—but it is like a fair mystic gem in a coarse setting. No green fields and no rustling woods lead the lover of Oxford gently to her walls.

The Beauty of England lies there—ringed about with a desolation of ugliness—for ever. Still she is there.

Oxford has never been merely a city of learning, it has been a fighting city.

In the twelfth century it sheltered Matilda in that terrible, barbaric struggle of young England.

In the seventeenth century it was a city in arms for the Stuarts. But these were civil wars. Now in the twentieth century Oxford has risen like one man, like Galahad—youthful and knightly—urgent at the Call of Freedom and the Rights of Nations.

And this Oxford is filled with the “sound of the forging of weapons,” the desk has become a couch for the wounded, the air is full of the wings of war.

       * * * * *

In this Oxford where the black gown has been laid aside and young men hurry to and fro in the dress of the battle-field—in this Oxford no man walked at times more heavily, feeling the grief that cannot be made articulate, than did the Warden of King's College as he went about his work, a lonely man, without wife or child and with poignant memories of the very blossom of young manhood plucked from his hand and gone for ever.

And of the men who passed under his college gates and through the ivy-clad quadrangles, most were strangers—coming and going—learning the arts of war—busy under orders, and the few, a poor remnant of academic youth—foreigners or weaklings. And he, the Warden himself, felt himself almost a stranger—for into his life had surged new thoughts, anxious fears and ambitious hopes—for England, the England of the years to come—an England rising up from her desolation and her mourning and striving to become greater, more splendid and more spiritual than she had been before.

It was a late October afternoon in 1916 and the last rays of autumn sunshine fell through the drawing-room windows of the Warden's lodgings. These rays of sunshine lit up a notable portrait over the stone fireplace. The portrait was of a Warden of the eighteenth century; a fine fleshy face it was, full of the splendid noisy paganism of his time. You can stand where you will in the room, but you cannot escape the sardonic stare that comes from his relentless, wide-open, luminous eyes. He seems as if he challenged you to stop and listen to the secret of his double life—the life of a scholar and divine of easy morals. Words seemed actually upon his lips, thoughts glowing in his eyes—and yet—there is silence.

There was only one person in the room, a tall vigorous woman, still handsome in spite of middle age, and she was looking up at the portrait with her hands clasped behind her back. She was not thinking of the portrait—her thoughts were too intent on something else. Her thoughts indeed had nothing to do with the past—they were about the future, the future of the new Warden, Dr. Middleton, the future of this only brother of hers whom she loved more than anyone in the world—except her own husband; a brother more than ten years younger than herself, to whom she had been a mother till she married and who remained in her eyes a sort of son, all the more precious to her because children had been denied her.

She had come at her brother's call to arrange his new home for him. She had arranged everything with sober economy, because Oxford was mourning. She had retained all that she found endurable of the late Warden's. And now she turned round and looked on her handiwork.

The room wore an air of comfort, it was devoid of all distressful knick-knacks and it was arranged as were French “Salons” of the time of Mademoiselle de Lespinasse for conversation, for groups of talkers, for books and papers; the litter of culture. It was a drawing-room for scholars in their leisure moments and for women to whom they could talk. But there was no complaisance in Lady Dashwood's face as she looked at her brother's drawing-room, just because her thoughts were deeply occupied with his future. What was his future to be like? What was in store for him? And these thoughts led her to give expression to a sudden outspoken remark—unflattering to that future.

“And now, what woman is going to become mistress of this room?”

Lady Dashwood's voice had a harshness in it that startled even herself. “What woman is going to reign here?” she went on, as if daring herself to be gentle and resigned. After she had looked round the room her eye rested upon the portrait over the mantelpiece. He looked as if he had heard her speak and stared back at her with his large persistent selfish eyes—full of cynical wonder. But he remained silent. These were times that he did not understand—but he observed!

“It's on Jim's conscience that he must marry, now that men are so scarce. He's obsessed with the idea,” continued Lady Dashwood, thinking to herself. “And being like all really good and great men—absolutely helpless—he is prepared to marry any fool who is presented to him.” Then she added, “Any fool—or worse!”

“And,” she went on, speaking angrily to herself, “knowing that he is helpless—I stupidly go and introduce into this house, a silly girl with a pretty face whose object in coming is to be—Mrs. Middleton.”

Lady Dashwood was mentally lashing herself for this stupidity.

“I go and actually put her in his way—at least,” she added swiftly, “I allow her mother to bring her and force her upon us and leave her—for the purpose of entrapping him—and so—I've risked his future! And yet,” she went on as her self-accusation became too painful, “I never dreamt that he would think of a girl so young—as eighteen—and he forty—and full of thoughts about the future of Oxford—and the New World. Somehow I imagined some pushing female of thirty would pretend to sympathise with his aspirations and marry him: I never supposed——But I ought to have supposed! It was my business to suppose. Here have I left my husband alone, when he hates being alone, for a whole month, in order to put Jim straight—and then I go and 'don't suppose'—I'm more than a fool—I'm——” The right word did not come to her mind.

Here Lady Dashwood's indignation against herself made the blood tingle hotly in her hands and face. She was by nature calm, but this afternoon she was excited. She mentally pictured the Warden—just when there was so much for him to do—wasting his time by figuring as a sacrifice upon the Altar of a foolish Marriage. She saw the knife at his throat—she saw his blood flow.

At this moment the door opened and the old butler, who had served other Wardens and who had been retained along with the best furniture as a matter of course, came into the room and handed a telegram to Lady Dashwood.

She tore open the envelope and read the paper: “Arrive this evening—about seven. May.”

“Thank——!” exclaimed Lady Dashwood—and then she suddenly paused, for she met the old thoughtful eye of Robinson.

“Yes!” she remarked irrelevantly. Then she folded the paper. “There is no answer,” she said. “When you've taken the tea away—please tell Mrs. Robinson that quite unexpectedly Mrs. Jack Dashwood is arriving at seven. She must have the blue room—there isn't another one ready. Don't let in any callers for me, Robinson.”

All that concerned the Warden's lodgings concerned Robinson. Oxford—to Robinson meant King's College. He had “heard tell” of “other colleges”; in fact he had passed them by and had seen “other college” porters standing about at their entrance doors as if they actually were part of Oxford. Robinson felt about the other colleges somewhat as the old-fashioned Evangelical felt about the godless, unmanageable, tangled, nameless rabble of humanity (observe the little “h") who were not elected. The “Elect” being a small convenient Body of which he was a member.

King's was the “Elect” and Robinson was an indispensable member of it.

Robinson went downstairs with his orders, which, dropping like a pebble into the pool of the servants' quarters, started a quiet expanding ripple to the upper floor, reaching at last to the blue bedroom.

Alone in the drawing-room Lady Dashwood was able to complete her exclamatory remark that Robinson's solemn eye had checked.

“Thank Heaven!” she said, and she said it again more than once. She laughed even and opened the telegram again and re-read it for the pure pleasure of seeing the words. “Arrive this evening.”

“I've risked Jim's life—and now I've saved it.” Then Lady Dashwood began to think carefully. There was no train arriving at seven from Malvern—but there was one arriving at six and one at seven fifteen. Anyhow May was coming. Lady Dashwood actually laughed with triumph and said—“May is coming—that for 'Belinda and Co.'!”

“Did you speak to me, Lady Dashwood?” asked a girlish voice, and Lady Dashwood turned swiftly at the sound and saw just within the doorway a girlish figure, a pretty face with dark hair and large wandering eyes.

“No, Gwen!” said Lady Dashwood. “I didn't know you were there——” and again she folded the telegram and her features resumed their normal calm. With that folded paper in her hand she could look composedly now at that pretty face and slight figure. If she had made a criminal blunder she had—though she didn't deserve it—been able to rectify the blunder. May Dashwood was coming! Again: “That for Belinda and Co.!”

The girl came forward and looked round the room. She held two books in her hand, one the Warden had lent her on her arrival—a short guide to Oxford. She was still going about with it gazing earnestly at the print from time to time in bird-like fashion.

“Mrs. Jack Dashwood is arriving this afternoon,” said Lady Dashwood as she moved towards the door.

“Oh,” said Gwen, and she stood still in the glow of the windows, her two books conspicuous in her hand. She looked at the nearest low easy-chair and dropped into it, propped one book on her knee and opened the other at random. Then she gazed down at the page she had opened and then looked round the room at Lady Dashwood, keenly aware that she was a beautiful young girl looking at an elderly woman.

“Mrs. Dashwood is my husband's niece by marriage,” said Lady Dashwood.

“Oh, yes,” said Gwen, who would have been more interested if the subject of the conversation had been a man and not a woman.

“You don't happen to know if the Warden has come back?” asked Lady Dashwood as she moved to the door.

“He is back,” said Gwen, and a slightly deeper colour came into her cheeks and spread on to the creamy whiteness of her slender neck.

“In his library?” asked Lady Dashwood, stopping short and listening for the reply.

“Yes!” said Gwen, and then she added: “He has lent me another book.” Here she fingered the book on her knee. “A book about the—what-you-may-call-'ems of King's, I'm sorry but I can't remember. We were talking about them at lunch—a word like 'jumps'!”

If a man had been present Gwen would have dimpled and demanded sympathy with large lingering glances; she would have demanded sympathy and approbation for not knowing the right word and only being able to suggest “jumps.”

One thing Gwen had already learned: that men are kinder in their criticism than women! It was priceless knowledge.

“Founders, I suppose you mean,” said Lady Dashwood and she opened the door. “Never mind,” she said to herself as she closed the door behind her. “Never mind—May is coming—'Jumps!' What a self-satisfied little monkey the girl is!”

At the head of the staircase it was rather dark and Lady Dashwood put on the lights. Immediately at right angles to the drawing-room door two or three steps led up to a corridor that ran over the premises of the College porter. In this corridor were three bedrooms looking upon the street, bedrooms occupied by Lady Dashwood and by Gwendolen Scott, and the third room, the blue room, about to be occupied by Mrs. Dashwood. Lady Dashwood passed the corridor steps, passed the head of the staircase, and went towards a curtained door. This was the Warden's bedroom. Beyond was his library door. At this door beyond, she knocked.

An agreeable voice answered her knock. She went in. The library was a noble room. Opposite the door was a wide, high latticed window, hung with heavy curtains and looking on to the Entrance Court. To the right was a great fireplace with a small high window on each side of it. On the left hand the walls were lined with books—and a great winged book-case stood out from the wall, like a screen sheltering the door which Lady Dashwood entered. Over the door was the portrait of a Cardinal once a member of King's. Over the mantelpiece was a large engraving of King's as it was in the sixteenth century. At a desk in the middle of the room sat the Warden with his back to the fire and his face towards the serried array of books. He was just turning up a reading-lamp—for he always read and wrote by lamplight.

“Robinson hasn't drawn your curtains,” said Lady Dashwood.

“I am going to draw them—he came in too soon,” said the Warden, without moving from his seat. His face was lit up by the flame of the lamp which he was staring at intently. There was just a faint sprinkling of grey in his brown hair, but on the regular features there was almost no trace of age.

“You have given Gwen another book to read,” said Lady Dashwood coming up to the writing-table.

The Warden raised his eyes very slowly to hers. His eyes were peculiar. They were very narrow and blue, seeming to reflect little. On the other hand, they seemed to absorb everything. He moved them very slowly as if he were adjusting a photographic apparatus.

“Yes,” he said.

“You might just as well, my dear, hand out a volume of the Encyclopædia Britannica to the sparrows in your garden,” said his sister.

The Warden made no reply, he merely moved the lamp very slightly nearer to the writing pad in front of him.

He had a stored-up memory of pink cheeks, a pure curve of chin and neck, a dark curl by the ear; objects young and graceful and gradually absorbed by those narrow eyes and stored in the brain. He also had memories less pleasant of the slighting way in which once or twice his sister had spoken of “Belinda and Co.,” meaning by that the mother of this pretty piece of pretty girlhood, and the girl herself.

“She tries hard to read because we expect her to,” continued Lady Dashwood. “If she had her own way she would throw the books into the fire, as tiresome stodge.”

The Warden was listening with an averted face and now he remarked—

“Did you come in, Lena, to tell me this?”

When the Warden was annoyed there was in his voice and in his manner a “something” which many people called “formidable.” As Lady Dashwood stood looking down at him, there flashed into her mind a scene of long ago, where the Warden, then an undergraduate, had (for a joke at a party in his rooms) induced by suggestion a very small weak man with peaceful principles to insist on fighting the Stroke of the college Eight, a man over six feet and broad in proportion. She remembered how she had laughed, and yet how she made her brother promise not to exercise that power again. Probably he had completely forgotten the incident. Why! it was nearly eighteen years ago, nearly nineteen; and here was James Middleton no longer an undergraduate but the Warden! Lady Dashwood bent over him smiling and laid her solid motherly hand upon his head. “Oh, dear, how time passes!” she said. “Jim, you are such a sweet lamb. No, I didn't come to tell you that. I came to ask you if you were going to dine with us this evening?”

“Yes,” said the Warden. “Why?” and he now looked round at his sister without a trace of irritability and smiled.

“Because Mrs. Jack Dashwood is coming here. I didn't mention it before. Well, the fact is she happens to have a few days' rest from her work in London. She is with some relative in Malvern and coming on here this afternoon.”

“Mrs. Jack Dashwood!” repeated the Warden with evident indifference.

“Jack Dashwood's widow. You remember my John's nephew Jack? Poor Jack who was killed at Mons!”

Yes, the Warden remembered, and his face clouded as it always did when war was mentioned.

“May and he were engaged as boy and girl—and I think she stuck to it—because she thought she was in honour bound. Some women are like that—precious few; and some men.”

The Warden listened without remark.

“And I am just going to telephone to Mr. Boreham,” said Lady Dashwood, “to ask him to come in to dinner to meet her!”

“Boreham!” groaned the Warden, and he took up his pen from the table.

“I'm so sorry,” said Lady Dashwood, “but he used to know May Dashwood, so we must ask him, and I thought it better to get him over at once and have done with it.”

“Perhaps so,” said the Warden, and he stretched out his left hand for paper. “Only—one never has done—with Boreham.”

“Poor old Jim!” said Lady Dashwood, “and now, dear, you can get back to your book,” and she moved away.

“Book!” grumbled the Warden. “It's business I have to do; and anyhow I don't see how anyone can write books now! Except prophecies of the future, admonitions, sketches of possible policies, heart-searchings.”

Lady Dashwood moved away. “Well, that's what you're doing, dear,” she said.

“I don't know,” said the Warden gloomily, and he reached out his hand, pulling towards him some papers. “One seems to be at the beginning of things.”

Lady Dashwood closed the door softly behind her.

“He's perplexed,” she said to herself. “He is perplexed—not merely because we are at 'the beginning of things,' but because—I have been a fool and——” She did not finish the sentence. She went up early to her room and dressed for dinner.

It was impossible to be certain when May would come, so it would be better to get dressed and have the time clear. May's arrival was serious business—so serious that Lady Dashwood shuddered at the mere thought that it was by a mere stroke of extraordinary luck that she could come and would come! If May came by the six train she would arrive before seven.

But seven o'clock struck and May had not arrived. She might arrive about eight o'clock. Lady Dashwood, who was already dressed, gave orders that dinner was to be put off for twenty minutes, and then she telephoned this news to Mr. Boreham and sent in a message to the Warden. But she quite forgot to tell Gwen that dinner was to be later. Gwen had gone upstairs early to dress for dinner, for she was one of those individuals who take a long time to do the simplest thing. This omission on the part of Lady Dashwood, trifling as it seemed, had far-reaching consequences—consequences that were not foreseen by her. She sat in the drawing-room actively occupied in imagining obstacles that might prevent May Dashwood from keeping the promise in her telegram: railway accidents, taxi accidents, the unexpected sudden deaths of relatives. As she sat absorbed in these wholly unnecessary and exhausting speculations, the door opened and she heard Robinson's quavering voice make the delicious announcement, “Mrs. Dashwood!”

CHAPTER II. MORAL SUPPORT

May Dashwood's features were not faultless. For instance, her determined little nose was rather short and just a trifle retroussé and her eyebrows sometimes looked a little surprised. Her great charm lay not in her clear complexion and her bright brown hair, admirable as they were, but in her full expressive grey eyes, and when she smiled, it was not the toothy smile of professional gaiety, but a subtle, archly animated and sympathetic smile; so that both men and women who were once smiled at by her, immediately felt the necessity of being smiled at again!

May was still dressed in mourning, very plainly, and she wore no furs. She came into the room and looked round her.

“May!” exclaimed Lady Dashwood.

“I thought you were ill, Aunt Lena!” said May amazed at the sight of Lady Dashwood, dressed for dinner and apparently in robust health.

“I am ill,” exclaimed Lady Dashwood, and she tapped her forehead. “I'm ill here,” and she advanced to meet her niece with open arms.

“Oh!” exclaimed Mrs. Dashwood, hastening up to her aunt.

“I'm still partially sane, May—but—if you hadn't come!” said Lady Dashwood, kissing her niece on both cheeks. She did not finish her sentence.

Mrs. Dashwood put both hands on her aunt's shoulders and examined her face carefully.

“Yes, I see you're quite sane, Aunt Lena.”

“Will you minister to a mind—not actually diseased but oppressed by a consuming worry?” asked Lady Dashwood earnestly. “Don't think I'm a humbug—I need you much more, just now, than if I'd been merely ill—with a bilious attack, say. You've saved my life! I wish I could explain—but it is difficult to explain—sometimes.”

“I'm glad I've saved your life,” said May, and she smiled her peculiar smile.

“I see victory—the battle won—already,” said Lady Dashwood, looking at her intently. “I wish I could explain——”

“Let it ooze out, Aunt Lena. I can stay for three days—if you want—if I can really do anything for you——”

“Can't you stay a week?” asked Lady Dashwood. “May, I'm not joking. I want your presence badly—can't you spare the time? Relieve my mind, dear, at once, by telling me you can!”

Lady Dashwood's face suddenly became puckered and her voice was so urgent that May's smile died away.

“If it is really important I'll stay a week. Nothing wrong about you—or—Uncle John?” May looked into her aunt's eyes.

“No!” said Lady Dashwood. “John doesn't like my being away. An old soldier has much to make him sad now, but no——” Then she added in an undertone, “Jim ...” and she stared into her niece's face.

Under the portrait of that bold, handsome, unscrupulous Warden of King's a faithful clock ticked to the passing of time. The time it showed now was twenty minutes to eight. Both ladies in silence had turned to the fire and they were now both standing each with one foot on the fender and were looking up at the portrait and not at the clock. Neither of them, however, thought of the portrait. They merely looked at it—as one must look at something.

“Jim,” sighed Lady Dashwood. “You don't know him, May.”

“Is it he who is ill?” asked May.

“He's not ill. He is terribly depressed at times because so many of his old pupils are gone—for ever. But it's not that, not that that I mean. You know what learned men are, May?” Lady Dashwood did not ask a question, she was making an assertion.

May Dashwood still gazed at the portrait but now she lowered her eyelids, looking critically through the narrowed space with her grey eyes.

“No, I don't know what learned men are,” she replied very slowly. “I have met so few.”

“Jim has taken——” and again Lady Dashwood hesitated.

“Not to Eau Perrier?” almost whispered Mrs. Dashwood.

“Certainly not,” exclaimed Lady Dashwood. “I don't think he has touched alcohol since the War. It's nothing so elementary as that. I feel as if I were treacherous in talking about it—and yet I must talk about it—because you have to help me. A really learned man is so——”

“Do you mean that he knows all about Julius Cæsar,” said May, “and nothing about himself?”

“I shouldn't mind that so much,” said the elder lady, grasping eagerly at this introduction to an analysis of the learned man. “I had better blurt it all out, May. Well—he knows nothing about women——” Lady Dashwood spoke with angry emphasis, but in a whisper.

“Ah!” said Mrs. Dashwood, and now she stared deeply at one particular block of wood that was spitting quietly at the attacking flames. She raised her arm and laid her hand on her aunt Lena's shoulder. Then she squeezed the shoulder slightly as if to gently squeeze out a little more information.

“Jim is—I'm not sure—but I'm suspicious—on the verge of getting into a mess,” said her aunt still in a low voice.

“Ah!” said May again. “With some woman?”

“All perfectly proper,” said Lady Dashwood, “but—oh, May—it's so unspeakably dreary and desolating.”

“Much older than he is?” asked May softly, with an emphasis on “much.”

“Very much younger,” said Lady Dashwood. “Only eighteen!”

“Not nice then?” asked May again softly.

“Not anything—except pretty—and”—here Lady Dashwood had a strident bitterness in her voice—“and—she has a mother.”

“Ah!” said May.

“You know Lady Belinda Scott?” asked Lady Dashwood.

May Dashwood moved her head in assent. “Not having enough money for everything one wants is the root of all evil?” she said imitating somebody.

“Belinda exactly! And all that you and I believe worth having in life—is no more to her—than to—to a monkey up a tree!”

Mrs. Dashwood spoke thoughtfully. “We've come from monkeys and Lady Belinda thinks a great deal of her ancestry.”

“Then you understand why I'm anxious? You can imagine——”

May moved her head in response, and then she suddenly turned her face towards her aunt and said in the same voice in which she had imitated Belinda before—

“If dull people like to be dull, it's no credit to 'em!”

Lady Dashwood laughed, but it was a hard bitter laugh.

“Oh, May, you understand. Well, for the twenty-four hours that Belinda was here, she was on her best behaviour. You see, she had plans! You know her habit of sponging for weeks on people—she finds herself appreciated by the 'Nouveaux Riches.' Her title appeals to them. Well, Belinda has never made a home for her one child—not she!”

Mrs. Dashwood's lips moved. “Poor child!” she said softly, and there was something in her voice that made Lady Dashwood aware of what she had momentarily forgotten in her excitement, that the arm resting on her shoulder was the arm of a woman not yet thirty, whose home had suddenly vanished. It had been riddled with bullets and left to die at the retreat from Mons.

Lady Dashwood fell into a sudden silence.

“Go on, dear Aunt Lena,” said May Dashwood.

“Well, dear,” said Lady Dashwood, drawing in a deep breath, “Linda got wind of my coming here to put Jim straight and she pounced down upon me like a vulture, with Gwen, asked herself for one night, and then talked of 'old days, etc.,' and how she longed for Gwen to see something of our 'old-world city.' So she simply made me keep the child for 'a couple of days,' then 'a week,' and then 'ten days'—and how could I turn the child out of doors? And so—I gave in—like a fool!” Then, after a pause, Lady Dashwood exclaimed—“Imagine Belinda as Jim's mother-in-law!”

“But why should she be?” asked May.

“That's the point. Belinda would prefer an American Wall Street man as a son-in-law or a Scotch Whisky Merchant, but they're not so easily got—it's a case of get what you can. So Jim is to be sacrificed.”

“But why?” persisted May quietly.

“Why, because—although Jim has seen Belinda and heard her hard false voice, he doesn't see what she is. He is too responsible to imagine Belindas and too clever to imagine Gwens. Gwen is very pretty!”

May looked again into the fire.

“Now do you see what a weak fool I've been?” asked Lady Dashwood fiercely.

“Lady Belinda will bleed him,” said May.

“When Belinda is Jim's mother-in-law, he'll have to pay for everything—even for her funeral!”

“Wouldn't her funeral expenses be cheap at any price?” asked May.

“They would,” said Lady Dashwood. “How are we to kill her off? She'll live—for ever!”

Then Mrs. Dashwood seemed to meditate briefly but very deeply, and at the end of her short silence she asked—

“And where do I come in, Aunt Lena? What can I do for you?”

Lady Dashwood looked a little startled.

What May had actually got to do was: well, not to do anything but just to be sweet and amusing as she always was. She had got to show the Warden what a charming woman was like. And the rest, he had to do. He had to be fascinated! Lady Dashwood could see a vision of Gwen and her boxes going safely away from Oxford—even the name of Scott disappearing altogether from the Warden's recollection.

But after that, what would happen? May too would have to go away. She was still mourning for her husband—still dreaming at night of that awful sudden news from France. May would, of course, go back to her work and leave the Warden to—well—anything in the wide world was better than “Belinda and Co.” And it was this certainty that anything was better than Belinda and Co., this passionate conviction, that had filled Lady Dashwood's mind—to the exclusion of all other things.

It had not occurred to her that May would ask the definite question, “What am I to do?” It was an awkward question.

“What I want you to do,” said Lady Dashwood, speaking slowly, while she swiftly sought in her mind for an answer that would be truthful and yet—inoffensive. “Why, May, I want you to give me your moral support.”

May looked away from the fire and contemplated the point of her boot, and then she looked at the point of Lady Dashwood's shoe—they were both on the fender rim side by side—May's right boot, Lady Dashwood's left shoe.

“Your moral support,” repeated Lady Dashwood. “Well, then you stay a week. Many, many thanks. To-night I shall sleep well.”

Lady Dashwood was conscious that “moral support” did not quite serve the purpose she wanted, she had not quite got hold of the right words.

May's profile was absolutely in repose, but Lady Dashwood could feel that she was pondering over that expression “moral support.” So Lady Dashwood was driven to repeat it once more. “Moral support,” she said very firmly. “Your moral support is what I want, dear May.”

They had not heard the drawing-room door open, but they heard it close although it was done softly, and both ladies turned away from the fire.

Gwendolen Scott had come in and was walking towards them, dressed in white and looking very self-conscious and pretty.

“But you haven't told me,” said Mrs. Dashwood tactfully, as if merely continuing their talk, “who that portrait represents?”

“Oh, an old Warden,” replied Lady Dashwood indifferently. “Moral support” or not—the compact had been made. May was pledged for the week. All was well! Lady Dashwood could look at Gwen now with an easy, even an affectionate smile. “Gwen, let me introduce you to Mrs. Jack Dashwood,” she said.

Gwen had expected Mrs. Dashwood to be an elderly relative of the family who would not introduce any new element into the Warden's little household. She had not for a moment anticipated this! It was disconcerting. Gwen was very much afraid of clever women, they moved and looked and spoke as if they had been given a key “to the situation,” though what that key was and what that situation exactly was Gwen did not quite grasp.

Even the way in which Mrs. Dashwood put her hand out for a scarf she had thrown on to a chair; the way she moved her feet, moved her head; the way her plain black dress and the long plain coat hung about her, her manner of looking at Gwen and accepting her as a person whom she was about to know, all this mysterious “cachet” of her personality—made Gwen uneasy. Besides this elegant woman was not exactly elderly—about twenty-eight perhaps. Gwen was very much disconcerted at this unexpected complication at the Lodgings—her life had been for the last few months since she left school in July, crowded with difficulties.

“I don't think I want that man to speak,” said Mrs. Dashwood, turning her head to look back at the portrait.

“What a funny thing to say!” thought Gwen, about a mere portrait, and she sniggled a little. “He's got a ghost,” she said aloud. “Hasn't he, Lady Dashwood?”

“No,” said Lady Dashwood briefly. “He hasn't got a ghost. The college has got a ghost——”

“Oh, yes,” said Gwen, “I mean that, of course.”

“If the ghost is—all that remains of the gentleman over the fireplace,” said Mrs. Dashwood, “I hope he doesn't appear often.” She was still glancing back at the portrait.

“Isn't it exciting?” said Gwen. “The ghost appears whenever anything is going to happen——”

“My dear Gwen,” said Lady Dashwood, “in that case the ghost might as well bring his bag and baggage and remain here.”

“What sort of ghost?” asked Mrs. Dashwood.

“Oh, only an eighteenth-century ghost—the ghost of the college barber,” said Lady Dashwood. “When that man was Warden, the college barber went and cut his throat in the Warden's Library.”

“What for?” asked Mrs. Dashwood simply.

“Because the Warden insisted on his doing the Fellows' hair in the new elaborate style of the period—on his old wages.”

Mrs. Dashwood pondered, still looking at the portrait.

“I should have cut the Warden's throat—not my own,” she said, “if I had, on my old wages, to curl and crimp instead of merely putting a bowl on the gentlemen's heads and snipping round.”

“But he had his revenge,” said Gwen eagerly, “he comes and shows himself in the Library when a Warden dies.”

Lady Dashwood had not during these last few minutes been really thinking of the Warden or of the college barber, nor of his ghost. She was thinking that it was characteristic of Gwen to be excited by and interested in a silly ghost story—and it was equally characteristic of her to be unable to tell the story correctly.

“He is supposed to appear in the Library when anything disastrous is going to happen to a Warden,” she said, and no sooner were the words out of her mouth than she paused and began thinking of what she was saying. “Anything disastrous to a Warden!” She had not thought of the matter before—Jim was now Warden! Anything disastrous! A marriage may be a disaster. Death is not so disastrous as utter disappointment with life and the pain of an empty heart!

“Come along, May,” she said, trying to suppress a shiver that went through her frame. “Come along, May. Goodness gracious, it's nearly eight o'clock and we are going to dine at eight fifteen!”

“I can dress in two shakes,” said May Dashwood.

“I've asked Mr. Boreham,” said Lady Dashwood, pushing her niece gently before her towards the door and blessing her—in her under-thoughts (“Bless you, May, dear dear May!”). “He talked so much about you the other day,” she went on aloud, “that when I got your wire—I felt bound to ask him—I hope you don't mind.”

“Nobody does mind Mr. Boreham,” said May. “I haven't seen him—for years.”

“You know his aunt left him Chartcote, so he has taken to haunting Oxford for the last three months. Talk of ghosts——”

Then the door closed behind the two ladies and Gwen was left alone in the drawing-room. She went up to the clock. It was striking eight. Fifteen minutes and nothing to do! She would go and see if there were any letters. She went outside. Letters by the first post and by the last post were all placed on a table at the head of the staircase. Gwen went and looked at the table. Letters there were, all for the Warden! No! there was one for her, from her mother. She opened it nervously. Was it a scolding about losing that umbrella? Gwen began to read:

     “My dear Gwen,

    “I hope you understand that Lady Dashwood will keep you till the
    3rd. You don't mention the Warden! Does that mean that you are
    making no progress in that direction? Perhaps taking no trouble!

    “The question is, where you will go on the 3rd?”

Here Gwen's heart gave a thump of alarm and dismay.

    “It is all off with your cousin Bridget. She writes that she can't
    have you, because she has to be in town unexpectedly. This is only
    an excuse. I am disappointed but not surprised, after that record
    behaviour to me when the war broke out and after promising that I
    should be in her show in France, and then backing out of it. Exactly
    why, I found out only yesterday! You remember that General X. had
    actually to separate two of the 'angels' that were flitting about on
    their work of mercy and had come to blows over it. Well, one of the
    two was your cousin Bridget. That didn't get photographed in the
    papers. It would have looked sweet. But now I'm going to give you a
    scolding. Bridget did get wind of your muddling about at the
    Ringwood's little hospital this summer, and spending all your time
    and energy on a man who I told you was no use. What's the good of
    talking any more about it? I've talked till I'm blue—and yet you
    will no doubt go and do the same thing again.

    “I ought not to have to tell you that if you do come across any
    stray Undergraduates, don't go for them. Nothing will come of it.
    Try and keep this in your noddle. Go for Dr. Middleton—men of that
    age are often silliest about girls—and don't simply go mooning
    along. Then why did you go and lose your umbrella? You have nothing
    in this wide world to think of but to keep yourself and your baggage
    together.

    “It's the second you have lost this year. I can't afford another.
    You must 'borrow' one. Your new winter rig-out is more than I can
    afford. I'm being dunned for bills that have only run two years. Why
    can't I make you realise all this? What is the matter with you? Give
    the maid who waits on you half a crown, nothing to the butler. Lady
    D. is sure to see you off—and you can leave the taxi to her. Leave
    your laundry bill at the back of a drawer—as if you had mislaid it.
    I will send you a P.O. for your ticket to Stow.”

Here Gwen made a pause, for her heart was thumping loudly.

    “There's nothing for it but to go to Nana's cottage at Stow for the
    moment. I know it's beastly dull for you—but it's partly your own
    fault that you are to have a dose of Stow. I'm full up for two
    months and more, but I'll see what I can do for you at once. I am
    writing to Mrs. Greenleafe Potten, to ask her if she will have you
    for a week on Monday, but I'm afraid she won't. At Stow you won't
    need anything but a few stamps and a penny for Sunday collection.
    I've written to Nana. She only charges me ten shillings a week for
    you. She will mend up your clothes and make two or three blouses for
    you into the bargain. Don't attempt to help her. They must be done
    properly. Get on with that flannelette frock for the Serb relief.
    Address me still here.

                     “Your very loving,

                     “Mother.”

Nana's cottage at Stow! Thatch smelling of the November rains; a stuffy little parlour with a smoky fire. Forlorn trees outside shedding their last leaves into the ditch at the side of the lane. Her old nurse, nearly stone deaf, as her sole companion.

Gwen felt her knees trembling under her. Her eyes smarted and a great sob came into her throat. She had no home. Nobody wanted her!

CHAPTER III. PASSIONATE PITY

A tear fell upon the envelope in her hand, and one fell upon the red carpet under her feet. She must try and not cry, crying made one ugly. She must go to her room as quickly as she could.

Then came noiselessly out from the curtained door at Gwen's right hand the figure of Dr. Middleton. He was already dressed for dinner, his face composed and dignified as usual, but preoccupied as if the business of the day was not over. There were these letters waiting for him on the table. He came on, and Gwen, blinded by a big tear in each eye, vaguely knew that he stooped and swept up the letters in his hand. Then he turned his face towards her in his slow, deliberate way and looked. She closed her eyes, and the two tears squeezed between the lids, ran down her cheeks leaving the delicate rosy skin wet and shining under the electric light.

Tears had rarely been seen by the Warden: never—in fact—until lately! He was startled by them and disconcerted.

“Has anything happened?” he asked. “Anything serious?” It would need to be something very serious for tears!

The gentleness of his voice only made the desolation in Gwen's heart the more poignant. In a week's time she would have to leave this beautiful kindly little home, this house of refuge. The fear she had had before of the Warden vanished at his sudden tenderness of tone; he seemed now something to cling to, something solid and protective that belonged to the world of ease and comfort, of good things; things to be desired above all else, and from which she was going to be cruelly banished—to Stow. She made a convulsive noise somewhere in her young throat, but was inarticulate.

There came sounds of approaching steps. The Warden hesitated but only for a moment. He moved to the door of the library.

“Come in here,” he said, a little peremptorily, and he turned and opened it for Gwen.

Gwen slid within and moving blindly, knocked herself against the protruding wing of his book-shelves. That made the Warden vexed with somebody, the somebody who had made the child cry so much that she couldn't see where she was going. He closed the door behind her.

“You have bad news in that letter?” he asked. “Your mother is not ill?”

Gwen shook her head and stared upon the floor, her lips twitching.

“Anything you can talk over with Lady Dashwood?” he asked.

“No,” was the stifled answer with a shake of the dark head.

“Can you tell me about it? I might be able to advise, help you?”

“No!” This time the sound was long drawn out with a shrill sob.

What was to be done?

“Try not to cry!” he said gently. “Tell me what it is all about. If you need help—perhaps I can help you!”

So much protecting sympathy given to her, after that letter, made Gwen feel the joy of utter weakness in the presence of strength, of saving support.

“Shall I read that letter?” he asked, putting out his hand.

Gwen clutched it tighter. No, no, that would be fatal! He laid his hand upon hers. Gwen began to tremble. She shook from head to foot, even her teeth chattered. She held tight on to that letter—but she leaned nearer to him.

“Then,” said the Warden, without removing his hand, “tell me what is troubling you? It is something in that letter?”

Gwen moved her lips and made a great effort to speak.

“It's—it's nothing!” she said.

“Nothing!” repeated the Warden, just a little sternly.

This was too much for Gwen, the tears rose again swiftly into her eyes and began to drop down her cheeks. “It's only——” she began.

“Yes, tell me,” said the Warden, coaxingly, for those tears hurt him, “tell me, child, never mind what it is.”

“It's only—,” she began again, and now her teeth chattered, “only—that nobody cares what happens to me—I've got no home!”

That this pretty, inoffensive, solitary child had no home, was no news to the Warden. His sister had hinted at it on the day that Gwen was left behind by her mother. But he had dismissed the matter, as not concerning the college or the reconstruction of National Education. Since then whenever it cropped up again, he again dismissed it, because—well, because his mind was not clear. Now, suddenly, he seemed to be more certain, his thoughts clearer. Each tear that Gwen dropped seemed to drop some responsibility upon him. His face must have betrayed this—perhaps his hands also. How it happened the Warden did not quite know, but he was conscious that the girl made a movement towards him, and then he found himself holding her in his arms. She was weeping convulsively into his shirt-front—weeping out the griefs of her childhood and girlhood and staining his shirt front with responsibility for them all, soaking him with petty cares, futile recollections, mean subterfuges, silly triumphs, sordid disappointments, all the small squalid moral muddle that Belinda Scotts call “life.”

All this smothered the Warden's shirt-front and trickled sideways into the softer part of that article of his dress.

For the first few moments his power of thinking failed him. He was conscious only of his hands on her waist and shoulder, of the warmth of her dark hair against his face. He could feel her heart thumping, thumping in her slender body against his.

A knock came at the door.

The Warden came to himself. He released the weeping girl gently and walked to the door.

He opened it, holding it in his hand. “What is it, Robinson?” he asked, for he had for the moment forgotten that it was dinner time, and that a guest was expected.

“Mr. Boreham is in the drawing-room, sir,” said the old servant very meekly, for he met the narrow eyes fixed coldly upon him.

“Very well,” said the Warden, and he closed the door again.

Then he turned round and looked at Gwendolen Scott. She was standing exactly where he had left her, standing with her hands clutching at a little pocket-handkerchief and her letter. She was waiting. Her wet eyelashes almost rested on her flushed cheeks. Her lips were slightly swollen. She was not crying, she was still and silent. She was waiting—her conceit for the moment gone—she was waiting to know from him what was going to become of her. Her whole drooping attitude was profoundly humble. The humility of it gave Middleton a strange pang of pain and pleasure.

The way in which the desire for power expresses itself in a man or woman is the supreme test of character. The weak fritter away on nothings the driving force of this priceless instinct; this instinct that has raised us from primeval slime to the mastery of the world. The weak waste it, it seems to slip through their fingers and vanish. Only the strong can bend this spiritual energy to the service of an important issue, and the strongest of all do this unconsciously, so that He, who is supreme Master of the souls of men, could say, “Why callest thou Me good?”

The Warden in his small sphere of academic life showed himself to be one of the strong sort. His mind was analytical rather than constructive, but among all the crowded teaching staff of Oxford only one other man—and he, too, now the head of a famous college—had given as much of himself to his pupils. Indeed, so much had the Warden given, that he had left little for himself. His time and his extraordinarily wide knowledge, materials that he had gathered for his own use, all were at the service of younger men who appealed to him for guidance. He grasped at opportunities for them, found gaps that they could fill, he criticised, suggested, pushed; and so the years went on, and his own books remained unwritten. Only now, when a new world seemed to him to be in the making—he sat down deliberately to give his own thoughts expression.

Men like Middleton are rare in any University; a man unselfish enough and able enough to spend himself, sacrifice himself in “making men.” And even this outstanding usefulness, this masterly hold he had of the best men who passed through King's would not have forced his colleagues to elect him as Warden. They made him Warden because they couldn't help themselves, because he was in all ways the dominating personality of the college, and even the book weary, the dull, the frankly cynical among the Fellows could not escape from the conviction that King's would be safe in Middleton's hands, so there was no reason to seek further afield.

But women and sentiment had played a very small part in the Warden's life. His acquaintance with women had been superficial. He did not profess to understand them. Gwendolen Scott had for several days sat at his table, looking like a flower. That her emotions were shallow and her mind vacant did not occur to the Warden. She was like a flower—that was all! His business had been with men—young men. And just now, as one by one, these young men, once the interest and pride of his college, were stricken down as they stood upon the very threshold of life, the Warden's heart had become empty and aching.

And now, on this autumn evening, this sobbing girl seemed, somehow, all part of the awful tragedy that was being enacted, only in her case—he had the power to help. He need not let her wander alone into the wilderness of life.

For the first time in his life, his sense of power betrayed him. It was in his own hands to mould the future of this helpless girl—so he imagined!

He experienced two or three delicious moments as he walked towards her, knowing that she would melt into his arms and give up all her sorrows into his keeping. She was waiting on his will! But was this love?

The Warden was well aware that it was not love, such as a man of his temperament conceived love to be.

But his youth was passed. The time had gone when he could fall in love and marry a common mortal under the impression that she was an angel. Was it likely that now, in middle life, he would find a woman who would rouse the deepest of his emotions or satisfy the needs of his life?

Why should he expect to find at forty, what few men meet in the prime of youth? All that he could expect now—hope for—was standing there waiting for him. Waiting with blushes, timid, dawning hope; full of trust and so pathetically humble!

He took her into his arms and spoke, and his voice was steady but very low and a little husky.

“There is no time to talk now. But you shall not go out into the wilderness of life, if you are afraid.”

She pressed her face closer to him—in answer.

“If you want to, if you care to—come to me, I shall not refuse you a home. You understand?”

She did fully understand. Her mother's letter had made it clearer than ever to her that marriage with somebody sufficiently well off is a haven of refuge for a woman, a port to be steered for with all available strength.

Suddenly and unexpectedly Gwen had found herself in harbour, and the stormy sea passed.

“Run up to your room now,” he said, “and bathe your face and come down to the drawing-room as if nothing had happened.”

He did not kiss her. A thought, such as only disturbs a man of scrupulous honour, came to him. He was so much older than she was that she must have time to think—she must come to him and ask for what he could give her—not, as she was just now—convulsed with grief; she must come quietly and confidently and with her mind made up. There must be no working upon her emotions, no urgency of his own will over a weaker will; no compulsion such as a strong man can exercise over a weak woman.

He pushed her gently away, and she raised her head, smiling through her tears and murmuring something: what was it? Was it “Thanks;” but she did not look him in the face, she dare not meet those narrow blue eyes that were bent upon her.

He stood watching her as she moved lightly to the door. There she turned back, and even then she did not raise her eyes to his face, but she smiled a strange bewildered smile into the air and fled.

It was really she who had conquered, and with such feeble weapons.

She had gone. The door was closed. The Warden was alone.

He looked round the room, at the book-lined walls, at his desk strewn with papers, and then the whole magnitude and meaning of what he had done—came to him!

He took out his watch. It was twenty past eight—all but a minute. In less than twenty minutes he had disposed of and finally settled one of the most important affairs of life. Was this the action of a sane man?

During the last few days he had gradually been drifting towards this, just drifting. He had been dreaming of it all the time, dreaming in that part of his brain where the mind works out its problems underground, waiting until the higher world of consciousness calls for them, and they are flung out into the open daylight—solved. A solution found without real solid premeditation.

Was the solution to his life's problem a good one, or a bad one? Was it true to his past life, or was it false? Can a man successfully live out a plan that he has only dimly outlined in a dream and swiftly finished in a passion of pity?

It was Middleton's duty as host to go into the drawing-room. He must go at once and think afterwards. And yet he lingered. She might not claim him. She too might have been moved only by a momentary emotion! But what right had he to be speculating on the chance of release? It was a bad beginning!

On the floor lay a letter. The Warden had not noticed it before. He picked it up. It was the letter that she had held in her trembling hands.

He stood holding it, and then suddenly he opened the flap and pulled the sheet from its cover. He unfolded it and looked at the signature. Yes, it was from her mother. He folded the paper again and put it back in the envelope.

Then as he stood for a moment, with the letter in his hand, he perceived that his shirt-front was stained—with her tears.

He left the library and went towards his bedroom behind the curtained door. He had the letter in his hand. He caught sight of Louise, Lady Dashwood's maid, near the drawing-room door. The Warden held the letter out to her.

“Please put this letter in Miss Scott's room,” he said. “I found it lying on the floor;” and he went back into his room.

Louise had gone to the drawing-room with a handkerchief forgotten by Lady Dashwood. She took the letter and went upstairs to her mistress's room, gazing at the letter as she walked. Now Louise was not a French woman for nothing. A letter—even an open letter—passing between a male and a female, must relate to an affair of the heart. This was interesting—exciting! Louise felt the necessity of thinking the matter out. Here was a pretty young lady, Miss Scott, and here was the Warden, not indeed very young, but très très bien, très distingué! Very well, if the young lady was married, then well, naturally something would happen! But she was “Miss,” and that was quite other thing. Young unmarried girls must be protected—it is so in la belle France. Louise pulled the envelope apart and drew out the contents. She opened the letter, and searched for the missive between its folds which was destined for the hands of “Miss.” There was none. Louise spread out the letter. Her knowledge of English as a spoken language was limited, and as a written language it was an unending puzzle.

She could, however, read the beginning and the end.

“Dear Gwen” ... and “Mother.” Hein!

The reason why the letter had been put into her hands was just because she could not read it.

What cunning! Without doubt, there were some additions added by the Warden here and there to the maternal messages, which would have their significance to “Miss.” Again, what cunning!

And the Warden, so dignified and so just as he ought to be! Ah, my God, but one never knows!

Louise folded up the letter and replaced it in its envelope.

Doubtless my Lady Dashwood was in the dark. Oh, completely! That goes without saying. Louise had already tidied the room. There was nothing more for her to do. She had been on the point of going down to the servants' quarters. Should she take the letter as directed to the room occupied by “Miss”? That was the momentous question. Now Louise was bound hand and foot to the service of Lady Dashwood. Only for the sake of that lady would Louise have endured the miseries of Oxford and the taciturnity of Robinson, and the impertinence of Robinson's grandson, Robinson aged fifteen, and the stupid solemnity of Mrs. Robinson, the daughter-in-law of Robinson and the widowed mother of the young Robinson.

Louise loved Lady Dashwood. Lady Dashwood was munificent and always amiable, things very rare. Also Louise was a widow and had two children in whom Lady Dashwood took an interest.

That Monsieur, the head of the College, should secretly communicate with a “Miss” was a real scandal. Propos d'amour are not for young ladies who are unmarried. The Warden ought to have known better than that—— Ah, poor Lady Dashwood!

Torn between the desire to participate in an interesting affair and her duty not to assist scandals in the family of my Lady Dashwood, Louise stood for some time plunged in painful argument with herself. At last her sense of duty prevailed! She would not deliver the letter. No, not if her life depended on it. The question was——Ah, this would be what she would do. A brilliant idea had struck her. Louise went to the dressing-table. It was covered with Lady Dashwood's toilet things, all neatly arranged. On the top of the jewel drawers at one side lay two envelopes, letters that had come by the last post and had been put aside hurriedly by Lady Dashwood. Louise lifted these two letters and underneath them placed the letter addressed to Miss Gwendolen Scott.

“Good!” exclaimed Louise to the empty room. “The letter is now in the disposition of the Good God! And the Warden! All that there is of the most as it ought to be! Ah, but it is incredible!”

Louise went to the door and put out the lights. Then she closed the door softly behind her and went downstairs.

CHAPTER IV. THE UNFORESEEN HAPPENS

Before his maternal aunt had left him Chartcote, the Honourable Bernard Boreham's income had been just sufficient to enable him to live without making himself useful. The Boreham estate in Ireland was burdened with obligations to female relatives who lived in various depressing watering-places in England. Bernard, the second son, had not been sent to a public school or University. He had struggled up as best he might, and like all the members of his family, he had left his beloved country as soon as he possibly could, and had picked up some extra shillings in London by writing light articles of an inflammatory nature for papers that required them. Boreham had had no real practical acquaintance with the world. He had never been responsible for any one but himself. He was a floating cloudlet. Ideas came to him easily—all the more easily because he was scantily acquainted with the mental history of the past. He did not know what had been already thought out and dismissed, nor what had been tried and had failed. The world was new to him—new—and full of errors.

From the moment that Chartcote became his and he was his own master, it occurred to him that he might write a really great book. A book that would make the world conscious of its follies. He felt that it was time that some one—like himself—who could shed the superstitions and the conventions of the past and step out a new man with new ideas, uncorrupted by kings or priests (or Oxford traditions), and give a lead to the world.

It was, of course, an unfortunate circumstance that Oxford was now so military, so smitten by the war and shorn of her pomp, so empty of academic life. But after the war Boreham meant among other things to study Oxford, and if perfectly frank criticism could help her to a better understanding of her faults in view of the world's requirements—well, it should have that criticism. Boreham had considerable leisure, for apart from his big Book which he began to sketch, he found nothing to do. Every sort of work that others were doing for the war he considered radically faulty, and he had no scheme of his own—at the moment. Besides, he felt that England was not all she ought to be. He did not love England—he only liked living in England.

Boreham had arrived punctually for dinner on that October evening; in fact, he had arrived too early; but he told Lady Dashwood that his watch was fast.

“All the clocks in Oxford are wrong,” he said to her, as he stood on the hearthrug in the drawing-room, “and mine is wrong!”

Boreham was tall and fair and wore a fair pointed beard. His features were not easy to describe in detail, they gave one the impression that they had been cut with insufficient premeditation by the hand of his Creator, from some pale fawn-coloured material. He wore a single eyeglass which he stuck into a pale blue eye, mainly as an aid to conversation. With Boreham conversation meant an exposition of his own “ideas.” He was disappointed at finding only Lady Dashwood in the drawing-room; but she had been really good natured in asking him to come and meet May Dashwood, so he was “conversing” freely with her when the door opened and Gwendolen Scott came in. Boreham started and put his eyeglass in the same eye again, instead of exercising the other eye. He was agitated. When he saw that it was not May Dashwood who had come in, but a youthful female unknown to him and probably of no conversational significance, he dropped his glass on to his shirt-front, where it made a dull thud. Gwen's face was flushed, and her lips still a little swollen; but there was nothing that betrayed tears to strangers, though Lady Dashwood saw at once that she had been crying. As soon as the introduction was over Gwen sank into a large easy-chair where her slight figure was almost obliterated.

She had got back her self-control. It had not, after all, been so difficult to get it back—for the glow of a new excitement possessed her. For the first time in her life she had succeeded. Until to-day she had had no luck. At a cheap school for the “Education of Daughters of Officers” Gwen had not learnt more than she could possibly help. Her first appearance in the world, this last summer, had been, considering her pretty face, on the whole a disappointment. But now she was successful. Gwen tingled with the comfortable warmth of self-esteem. She looked giddily round the spacious room—was it possible that all this might be hers? It was amazing that luck should have just dropped into her lap.

Boreham had turned again to Lady Dashwood as soon as he had been introduced and had executed the reverential bow that he considered proper, however contemptuously he might feel towards the female he saluted.

“As we were saying,” he went on, “Middleton—except to-day—has always been punctual to the minute, by that I mean punctual to the fastest Oxford time. He is the sort of man who is born punctual. Punctually he came into the world. Punctually he will go out of it. He has never been what I call a really free man. In other words, he is a slave to what's called 'Duty.'”

Here the door opened again, and again Boreham was unable to conceal his vivid curiosity as he turned to see who it was coming in. This time it was the Warden—the Warden in a blameless shirt-front. He had changed in five minutes. He walked in composed as usual. There was not a trace in his face that in the library only a few minutes ago he had been disposing of his future with amazing swiftness.

“Go on, Boreham,” said the Warden, giving his guest, along with the glance that serves in Oxford as sufficient greeting to frequenters of Common Room, a slight grasp of the hand because he was not a member of Common Room. The Warden had not heard Boreham's remarks, he merely knew that he had interrupted some exposition of “ideas.”

In a flash the Warden saw, without looking at her, that Gwen was there, half hidden in a chair; and Gwen, on her side, felt her heart thump, and was proudly and yet fearfully conscious of every movement of the Warden as he walked across the room and stood on the other side of the hearthrug. “Does he—does that important person belong to me?” she thought. The conviction was overpowering that if that important person did belong to her, and it appeared that he did, she also must be important.

Boreham's appearance did not gain in attractiveness by the proximity of his host. He began again in his rapid rather high voice.

“You see for yourself,” he said, turning back to Lady Dashwood: “here he is—the very picture of what is conventionally correct, his features, his manner, before which younger men who are not so correct actually quail. I'm afraid that now he is Warden he has lost the chance of becoming a free man. I had hopes of one day seeing him carried off his feet by some impulse which fools call 'folly.' If he could have been even once divinely drunk, he might have realised his true self, I am afraid now he is hopeless.”

“My dear man, your philosophy of freedom is only suitable for the 'idle rich.' You would be the first person to object to your cook becoming divinely drunk instead of soberly preparing your dinner.”

Boreham always ignored an argument that told against him, so he merely continued—

“As it is, Middleton, who might have been magnificent, is bound hand and foot to the service of mere propriety, and will end by saddling himself with some dull wife.”

The Warden stood patient and composed while Boreham was talking about him. He took out his watch and glanced at Lady Dashwood.

“I've given May five minutes' grace,” she said, and then turned her face again to Boreham. “But why should Jim marry a dull wife? It will be his own fault if he does.”

Gwen in her large chair sat stupefied at the word “wife.”

“No,” said Boreham, emphatically. “It won't be his fault. The best of our sex are daily sacrificed to the most dismal women. Men being in the minority now—dangerously in the minority—are, as all minorities are, imposed upon by the gross majority. Supposing Middleton meets, to speak to, in his whole life, a couple of hundred women here and elsewhere, none of whom are in the least charming; well, then, one out of these two hundred, the one with the most brazen determination to be married, will marry him, and there'll be an end of it. The kindest thing, Lady Dashwood,” continued Boreham, “and I speak from the great love I have for Middleton, is for you just to invite with sisterly discrimination some women, not quite unbearable to Middleton, and he, like the Emperor Theophilus, will come into this room with an apple in his hand and present it to one of them. He can make the same remark that Theophilus made to the lady he first approached.”

“And what was that?” asked Lady Dashwood. She was amused at finding the conversation turn on the very subject nearest her heart. Even Mr. Boreham was proving himself useful in uttering this blunt warning of dangers ahead.

“His remark was: 'Woman is the source of evil.' And the lady's reply was——”

Both Lady Dashwood and Gwen were gazing intently at Boreham and Boreham was staring fixedly at the ornament in Lady Dashwood's grey hair. No one but the Warden noticed the door open and May Dashwood enter. She was dressed in black and wore no ornaments. She had caught the gist of what Boreham was saying, and she made the most delightful movement of her hands to Middleton that expressed both respectful greeting to him as her host, and an apology for remaining motionless on the threshold of the room, so that she should not break Boreham's story.

“And her reply was,” went on the unconscious Boreham, “'But surely also of much good!'”

So that was all! May Dashwood came forward and walked straight up to the Warden. She held out both her hands to him in apology for her behaviour.

“I hope he—whoever he was—did not marry the young woman who made such an obvious retort,” she said. “Fancy what the conversation would be like at the breakfast table.”

Boreham was too much occupied with his own interesting emotions at the sudden appearance of Mrs. Dashwood to notice what was plain to Lady Dashwood and Gwendolen Scott, that the Warden seemed wholly taken by surprise.

“He didn't marry her,” he said, as he held May Dashwood's hands for a moment and stared down into her upturned face with his narrow eyes. “But,” he added, “the story is probably a fake.”

“Ah!” said Mrs. Dashwood, as she released her hands. Then she turned to Boreham, who was waiting—a picture of self-consciousness in pale fawn.

Gwen's recently regained self-confidence was already oozing out of every pore of her skin. It didn't matter when the Warden and Mr. Boreham talked queer talk, that was to be expected; but what did matter was this Mrs. Dashwood talking queerly with them. Rubbish she, Gwen, called it. What did that Mrs. Dashwood mean by saying that the retort, “And also of much good,” was obvious? What did “obvious” mean? To Gwen the retort seemed profoundly clever—and so true! How was she, Gwen, to cope with this sort of thing? And then there was the Warden already giving this terrible woman his arm and looking at her far too closely.

“Come, Gwen,” said Lady Dashwood, “Mr. Boreham must take us both!”

Gwen's head swam. Along with this new and painful sensation had come a sudden recollection of something! That letter of her mother's! It had not been in her hand when she went into her bedroom. No, it had not. Had she dropped it in the library, when the Warden had——Oh!

“I've lost my handkerchief,” murmured the girl, “somewhere——” Her voice was very small and sad, and she looked helplessly round the room.

“Mr. Boreham, stop and help her find it,” said Lady Dashwood, “I must go down.”

Boreham stood rigidly at the door. He saw his hostess go out and still he did not move.

Gwen looked at him in despair. What she had intended, of course, was to have flown into the library and looked for her letter. How could she now, with Mr. Boreham standing in the way? And that terrible woman had gone off arm-in-arm with the Warden. Gwen stared at Boreham. An idea struck her. She would go into the library—after dinner—before the men came up. But she must pretend to look for her handkerchief for a minute or two.

“Do you call Mrs. Dashwood pretty?” she asked tremulously, not looking at Boreham, but diving her hand into the corners of the chair she had been sitting in. She must find out what men thought of Mrs. Dashwood. She must know the worst—now, when she had the opportunity.

“Pretty!” said Boreham, still motionless at the door. “That's not a useful word. She's alluring.”

“Oh!” said Gwen. She had left off thumping the chair, and now walked slowly to him—wide-eyed with anxiety. To Gwen, a man past his youth, wearing a fair beard and fair eyebrows that were stiff and stuck out like spikes, was scarcely a person of sex at all; but still he would probably know what men thought.

“I don't think she is pretty—very,” she said, her lips trembling a little as she spoke, and she gazed in a challenging way at Boreham.

“She is the most womanly woman I know,” said Boreham. “Middleton is probably finding that out already.”

Gwen patted her waistband where it bulged ever so slightly with her handkerchief. “Womanly!” she repeated in a doubtful voice.

“He'll fall in love with her to-day and propose to-morrow. Do him a world of good,” said Boreham.

“Propose!” Gwen caught her breath. “But he couldn't—she couldn't—he couldn't—marry!”

“Couldn't marry—I didn't say marry—I said he will propose to-morrow.” Boreham laughed a little in his beard.

“I don't understand,” stammered the girl. “You mean—she would refuse?”

“No,” said Boreham. “It mightn't go as far as that—the whole thing is a matter of words—words—words. It's a part of a man's education to fall in love with Mrs. Dashwood!”

Gwen blinked at him. A piercing thought struck her brain. Spoken words—they didn't count! Words alone didn't clinch the bargain! Words didn't tie a man up to his promise. Was this the “law”? She must get at the actual “law” of the matter. She knew something about love-making, but nothing about the “law.”

“Do you mean,” she said, and she scarcely recognised her own voice, so great was her concentration of thought and so slowly did she pronounce the enigmatic words, “if he had kissed you as well, he would be obliged to marry one?”

Boreham knitted his brows. “If I was, at this moment to kiss you, my dear lady,” he began, “I should not be compelled to marry you. Even the gross injustice meted out to us men by the laws (backed up by Mrs. Grundy) dares not go as far as that. But there is no knowing what new oppression is in store for us—in the future.”

“I only mean,” stammered Gwen, “if he had already said—something.”

Boreham simply stared at her. “I am confused,” he said. “Confused!”

“Oh, please don't imagine that I meant you,” she entreated. “I never for one single instant thought of you. I should never have imagined! I am so sorry!”

And yet this humble apology did not mollify him. Gwen almost felt frightened. Everything seemed going to pieces, and she was no nearer knowing what the legal aspects of her case were.

“Have you found your handkerchief?” Boreham asked, and the spikes in his eyebrows seemed to twitch.

“It was in my band, all the time,” said Gwen, smiling deprecatingly. “Oh, what a bother everything was!”

“Then we have wasted precious time for nothing,” said Boreham. “All the fun is going on downstairs—come along, Miss Wallace.”

Boreham knew her name wasn't Wallace, but Wallace was Scotch and that was near enough, when he was angry.

Gwen went downstairs as if she were in an ugly dream. Her brief happiness and security and pleasure at her own importance was vanishing. This broad staircase that she was descending on Boreham's stiff and rebellious arm; this wall with its panelling and its dim pictures of strange men's faces; these wide doors thrown back through which one went solemnly into the long dining-room; this dining-room itself dim and dignified; all this was going to be hers—only——. Gwendolen, as she emerged into the glow of the long oval table, could see nothing but the face of Mrs. Dashwood, gently brilliant, and the Warden roused to attentive interest. What was Gwen to do? There was nobody whom she could consult. Should she write to her mother? Her mother would scold her! What, then, was she to do? Perhaps she had better write to her mother, and let her see that she had, at any rate, tried her best. And in saying the words to herself “tried her best,” Gwen was not speaking the truth even to herself. She had not tried at all; the whole thing had come about accidentally. It had somehow happened!

Instead of going straight to bed that evening Gwen seated herself at the writing-table in her bedroom. She must write a letter to her mother and ask for advice. The letter must go as soon as possible. Gwen knew that if she put it off till the morning, it might never get written. She was always too sleepy to get up before breakfast. In Oxford breakfast for Dons was at eight o'clock, and that was far too early, as it was, for Gwen. Then after breakfast, there was “no time” to do anything, and so on, during the rest of the day.

So Gwen sat at her writing-table and wrote the longest letter she had ever written. Gwen's handwriting was pointed, it was also shaky, and generally ran downhill, or else uphill.

    “Dear Mummy,

    “Please write and tell me what to do? I've done all I could, but
    everything is in a rotten muddle. This evening I was crying, crying
    a little at your letter—I really couldn't help it—but anyhow it
    turned out all right—and the Warden suddenly came along the passage
    and saw me. He took me into his library, I don't know how it all
    happened, Mummy, but he put his arms round me and told me to come to
    him if I wanted a home. He was sweet, and I naturally thought this
    was true, and I said 'Yes' and 'Thanks.' There wasn't time for more,
    because of dinner. But a Mr. Boarham, who is a sort of cousin of Dr.
    Middleton, says that proposals are all words and that you needn't be
    married. What am I to do? I don't know if I am really engaged or
    not—because the Warden hasn't said anything more—and suppose he
    doesn't——Isn't it rotten? Do write and tell me what to do, for I
    feel so queer. What makes me worried is Mrs. Dashwood, a widow,
    talks so much. At dinner the Warden seemed so much taken up by
    her—quite different. But then after dinner it wasn't like that. We
    sat in the drawing-room all the time and at least the men smoked and
    Lady Dashwood and me, but not Mrs. Dashwood, who said she was Early
    Victorian, and ought to have died long ago. She worked. Lady
    Dashwood said that she smoked because she was a silly old heathen,
    and that made me feel beastly. It wasn't fair—but Lady Dashwood is
    often rather nasty. But afterwards he was nice, and asked me to
    play my reverie by Slapovski. I have never forgotten it, Mummy,
    though I haven't been taught it for six months. I am telling you
    everything so that you know what has happened. Well, Mr. Borham
    said, 'For God's sake don't let's have any music.' He said that like
    he always does. It is very rude. Of course I refused to play, and
    the Warden was so nice, and he looked at me very straight and did
    not look at Mrs. Dashwood now. I think it must be all right. He sat
    in an armchair opposite us, and put his elbow on the arm and held
    the back of his neck—he does that, and smoked again and stared all
    the time at the carpet by Mrs. Dashwood's shoes, and never looked at
    her, but talked a lot. I can't understand what they say, and it is
    worse now Mrs. D. is here. Only once I saw him look up at her, and
    then he had that severe look. So I don't think any harm has
    happened. You know what I mean, Mummie. I was afraid he might like
    her. I tell you everything so as you can judge and advise me, for I
    could not tell all this to old Lady Dashwood, of course. Lady
    Dashwood says smoking cigars in the drawing-room is good for the
    furniture!!! I thought it very disgusting of Mr. Borham to say, 'For
    God's sake.' He used not to believe in God, and even now he hasn't
    settled whether there is a God. We are all to go to Chartcote House
    for lunch. There is to be a Bazaar—I forget what for, somewhere. I
    have no money except half-a-crown. I have not paid for my laundry,
    so I can leave that in a drawer. Now, dear Mummy, do write at once
    and say exactly what I am to do, and tell me if I am engaged or not.

                     “Your affectionate daughter,

                     “Gwen.

    “I like the Warden ever so much, and partly because he does not wear
    a beard. I feel very excited, but am trying not to. Mrs. D. is to
    stay a whole week, till I go on the 3rd.”

Gwen laid down her pen and sat looking at the sheet of paper before her. She had told her mother “everything.” She had omitted nothing, except that her mother's letter had dropped somewhere, either in the library or the staircase, and she could not find it again. If it had dropped in the library, somebody had picked it up. Supposing the Warden had picked it up and read it? The clear sharp understanding of “honour” possessed by the best type of Englishman and Englishwoman was not possessed by Gwen—it has not been acquired by the Belindas of Society or of the Slums. But no, Gwen felt sure that the Warden hadn't found it, or he would have been very, very angry. Then who had picked it up?

CHAPTER V. WAITING

If Pilate had uttered the sardonic remark “What is truth?” in Boreham's presence, he would certainly have compelled that weary official to wait for definite enlightenment. Boreham would have explained to him that although Absolute Truth (if there is such a thing) lies, like our Destiny, in the lap of the gods, he, Boreham, had a thoroughly reliable stock of useful truths with which he could supply any inquirer. Indeed to Boreham, the discussing of truths was a comparatively simple matter. Truths were of two kinds. Firstly, they were what he, himself, was convinced of at the moment of speaking; and secondly, they were not what the man next him believed in. Boreham found intolerable any assertion made by people he knew. He knew them! Voila! But he felt he could very fairly well trust opinions expressed by the native inhabitants of—say Pomerania—or still better—India.

Boreham had already some acquaintances in Oxford to whom he spoke, as he said himself, “frankly and fearlessly,” and who tolerated him, whenever they had time to listen to him, because he was entirely harmless and merely tiresome. But he was not surprised (it had occurred before) that the Warden refused his invitation to lunch at Chartcote. The ladies had accepted; and when Boreham said “the ladies,” on this occasion he was thinking solely of Mrs. Dashwood. Lady Dashwood had accepted the invitation because it was given verbally. She made no purely social engagements. The Warden, himself, did not entertain during the war, and the only engagements were those of business, or of hospitality of an academic nature.

The day following May Dashwood's arrival was entirely uneventful. The Warden was mostly invisible. May was as bright as she had been on her arrival. Gwen went about wide-eyed and wistful, and spoke spasmodically. Lady Dashwood was serene and satisfied. A shy Don accompanied by a very nice, untidy wife, appeared at lunch, and they were introduced by the Warden as Mr. and Mrs. Stockwell. Mr. Stockwell was struck dumb at finding himself seated next to Mrs. Dashwood, a type of female little known to him. But May bravely taking him in hand, he recovered his powers of speech and became epigrammatic and sparkling. This round-shouldered, spectacled scholar, with a large nose and receding chin, poured out brilliant observations, subtile and suggestive, and had an apparently inexhaustible store of the literature of Europe. He sat sideways in his chair and spoke into May's sympathetic ear, giving an occasional swift appealing glance at the Warden, who came within the range of his vision.

How Stockwell ate his food was impossible to discover. He seemed to give automatic twiddles to his fork and apparently swallowed something afterwards, for when Robinson's underling, Robinson petit fils, removed Stockwell's plates, they contained only wreckage.

The Warden, aided by Lady Dashwood, struggled courteously with Mrs. Stockwell. She was obliged to talk across Gwendolen, who spent her time silently observing Mrs. Dashwood.

Mrs. Stockwell had pathetic pretensions to intellectuality, based on a masterly acquaintance with the names of her husband's books and the fact that she lived in the academic circle. She had drooped visibly at the first sight of her hostess and Mrs. Dashwood, but was soon put at her ease by Lady Dashwood, who deftly drew her away from vague hints at the possession of learning into talk about her children. Gwen, watching the Warden and Mrs. Dashwood across Mrs. Stockwell's imitation lace front, could not be moved to speech. To any one in the secret there was written on her face two absorbing questions: “Am I engaged or not?” “Is she trying to oust me?”

The Warden's enigmatic eyes held no information in them. He looked at her gravely when he did look, and—that was all. Was he waiting to know whether he was engaged or not? Gwen doubted it. He would be sure to know everything. He would know. Think of all those books in the library! Supposing he had found that letter—suppose he had read it? No, if he had, he would have looked not merely grave, but angry!

When the ladies rose from the table, Stockwell rose too, reluctantly and as if waking from a pleasant dream. He stared in a startled way at the Warden, who moved to open the door; he looked as if about to spring—then refrained, and resigning himself to the unmistakable decision of the Fates, he remained standing, staring down at the table-cloth through his spectacles, with his cheeks flushed and his heart glad.

Mrs. Stockwell passed out of the room in front of May Dashwood, gratified, warm and trying to conceal the backs of her boots.

Finally the Stockwells went away, and then Lady Dashwood took her niece to the Magdalen walk. There among the last shreds of autumn, and in that muzzy golden sunshine of Oxford, they walked and talked with the constraint of Gwen's presence.

At tea two or three people called, but the Warden did not appear even for a hasty cup. At dinner an old pupil of the Warden's—lamed by the war—occupied the attention of the little party.

Gwen's spirits rose at the sight of a really young man, but she remembered her mother's admonition and did not make any attempt to attract his attention beyond opening her eyes now and then suddenly and widely and with an ecstasy of interest at some invisible object just above his head. Whether the youthful warrior's imagination was excited by this “passage of arms” Gwen never knew, because the Warden took his pupil off to the library after dinner, and did not even bring him into the drawing-room to bid farewell.

In the quiet of the drawing-room Gwen fell into thought. She wondered whether the Warden expected her to come and knock on his library door and walk in and tell him that she really did want to be married to him? Or had he read that letter and——? Why, she had thought all this over a hundred times, and was no farther on than she had been before.

After playing the Reverie by Slapovski, which Mrs. Dashwood had not yet heard, and which she expressed a desire to hear, Gwen settled down to knitting a sock. She had been knitting that sock for five months. It was surprising how small the foot was, at least the toe part; the heel indeed was ample. She had followed the directions with great care, and yet the stupid thing would come out wrong. It was irritating to see Mrs. Dashwood knitting away at such a pace. It made Gwen giddy to look at her hands. Lady Dashwood took up a book and read passages aloud. This was so intolerably dull that Gwen found it difficult to keep her eyes open. It is always more tiring when nothing is going on than when plenty of things are going on!

Lady Dashwood had just finished reading a passage and looked up to make a remark to May Dashwood, when she became aware of Gwen's face.

“My dear, you looked just like a melancholy peach. Go to bed!”

Gwen smiled and tumbled her pins into her knitting. She rose and said “Good night,” glad to be released. Outside the drawing-room she stood holding her breath to hear if there was any sound audible from the library. She heard nothing. She moved over the soft carpet and listened again, at the door. She could hear the Warden's deep, masculine voice—like the vibration of an organ, and then a higher voice, but what they said Gwen could not tell. She turned away and went up to bed. She was beginning to lose that feeling of not being afraid of the Warden. He was becoming more and more what he had been at first, an impressive and alarming personage, a human being entirely remote from her understanding and experience. At moments during dinner when she had glanced at him, he had seemed to her to be like a handsomely carved figure animated by some living force completely unknown to her. That such an incomprehensible being should become her husband was surely unlikely—if not impossible! Gwen's thoughts became more and more confused. Notwithstanding this confusion in what (if compelled to describe it) she would have called her soul, she closed her eyes and settled upon her pillow. She was conscious that she was disappointed and not happy. Then she suddenly became indifferent to her fate—saw in her mind's eye a hat—it absorbed her. The hat was lying on a chair. It was trimmed like some other hat. Then the hat disappeared, and Gwen was asleep.

As soon as Gwendolen had left the drawing-room Lady Dashwood closed her book and looked at her niece.

“Now,” said Lady Dashwood, “I begin to think that I was unnecessarily alarmed about Jim. But it may be because you are here—giving me moral support.” Lady Dashwood spoke the words “moral support” with great firmness. Having once said it and seen that it was wrong, she meant to stick to it.

“I wonder,” began Mrs. Dashwood, and then she remained silent and looked hard at her knitting.

Lady Dashwood still stared at her niece. But May did not conclude her sentence, if indeed she had meant to say any more.

“Why, you haven't noticed anything?” asked Lady Dashwood.

“Nothing!” said May, and she knitted on.

“To-day,” said Lady Dashwood, “Jim has been practically invisible except at meals, but you've no idea how busy he is just now. All one's old ideas are in the melting-pot,” she went on, “and Jim has schemes. He is full of plans. He thinks there is much to be done, in Oxford, with Oxford—nothing revolutionary—but a lot that is evolutionary.”

Mrs. Dashwood dropped her knitting to listen, though she could have heard quite well without doing this.

“Imagine!” exclaimed Lady Dashwood, with a little burst of anger, “what a man like Jim, a scholar, a man of business, an organiser, what on earth he would do with a wife like Gwendolen Scott! The idea is absurd.”

“The absurd often happens,” said May, and as she said this she took up her knitting again with such a jerk that her ball of wool tumbled to the floor and began rolling; and being a tight ball it rolled some distance sideways from May's chair in the direction of the far distant door. She gave the wool a little tug, but the ball merely shook itself, turned over and released still more wool.

“Very well, remain there if you prefer that place,” said May, and as she spoke there came a slight noise at the door.

Both ladies looked to see who was coming in. It was the Warden. He held a cigar in his hand, a sign (Lady Dashwood knew it) that he intended merely to bid them “Good night,” and retire again to his library. But he now stood in the half-light with his hand on the door, and looked towards the glow of the hearth where the two ladies sat alone, each lighted by a tall, electric candle stand on the floor. And as he looked at this little space of light and warmth he hesitated.

Then he closed the door behind him and came in.

CHAPTER VI. MORE THAN ONE CONCLUSION

The Warden came slowly towards them over the wide space of carpeted floor.

Lady Dashwood, who knew every passing change in his face and manner (they were photographed over and over again in every imaginable style in her book of life), noticed that the sight of herself and May alone, that is, without Gwen—had made him decide to come in. She drew her own conclusions and smiled.

“When you pass that ball of wool, pick it up, Jim,” she said.

She spoke too late, however, and the Warden kicked the ball with one foot, and sent it rolling under a chair. It took the opportunity of flinging itself round one leg, and tumbling against the second. With its remaining strength it rolled half way round the third leg, and then lay exhausted.

“I'm not going to apologise,” said the Warden, in his most courteous tones.

“You needn't do that, my dear, if you don't want to,” said Lady Dashwood. “But pick up the ball, please.”

“If I pick the ball up,” said the Warden, “the result will be disastrous to somebody.”

He looked at the ball and at the chair, and then, putting his cigar between his teeth, he lifted the chair from the labyrinth of wool and placed it out of mischief. Then he picked up the ball and stood holding it in his hand. Who was the “somebody”? To whom did it belong? It was obvious to whom it belonged! A long line of wool dropped from the ball to the carpet. There it described a foolish pattern of its own, and then from one corner of that pattern the line of wool ran straight to Mrs. Dashwood's hands. She was sitting there, pretending that she didn't know that she was very, very slowly and deliberately jerking out the very vitals of that pattern, in fact disembowelling it. Then the Warden pretended to discover suddenly that it was Mrs. Dashwood's ball, and this discovery obliged him to look at her, and she, without glancing at him, slightly nodded her head, very gravely. Lady Dashwood grasped her book and pretended to read it.

“I suppose I must clear up this mess,” said the Warden, as articulately as a man can who is holding a cigar between his teeth.

He began to wind up the ball.

“How beautifully you are winding it!” said May Dashwood, without looking up from her knitting.

The Warden cleared the pattern from the floor, and now a long line of wool stretched tautly from his hands to those of Mrs. Dashwood.

“Please stop winding,” she said quietly, and still she did not look up, though she might have easily done so for she had left off knitting.

The Warden stopped, but he stood looking at her as if to challenge her eyes. Then, as she remained obstinately unmoved, he came towards her chair and dropped the ball on her lap.

“You couldn't know I was winding it beautifully because you never looked.”

“I knew without looking,” said May. “I took for granted that you did everything well.”

“If you will look now,” said the Warden, “you will see how crookedly I've done it. So much for flattery.”

He stood looking down at her bent head with its gold-brown hair lit up to splendour by the electric light behind her. Her face was slightly in shadow. The Warden stood so long that Lady Dashwood was seized with an agreeable feeling of embarrassment. May Dashwood was apparently unconscious of the figure beside her. But she raised her eyebrows. Her eyebrows were often slightly raised as if inquiring into the state of the world with sympathy tinged with surprise. She raised her eyebrows instead of making any reply, as if she said: “I could make a retort, but I am far too busy with more important matters.”

The Warden at last moved, and putting a chair between the two ladies he seated himself exactly opposite the glowing fire and the portrait above it. Leaning back, he smoked in silence for a few moments looking straight in front of him for the most part, only now and then turning his eyes to Mrs. Dashwood, just to find out if her eyebrows were still raised.

Lady Dashwood began smiling at her book because she had discovered that she held it upside down.

“You were interested in Stockwell?” said the Warden suddenly. “He is doing multifarious things now. He is an accomplished linguist, and we couldn't manage without him—besides he is over military age by a long way.”

Lady Dashwood felt quite sure that his silence had been occupied by the Warden in thinking of May, so that his question, “You were interested,” etc., was merely the point at which his thoughts broke into words.

“I was very much interested in him,” said May. “It was like reading a witty book—only much more delightful.”

“Stockwell is always worth listening to,” said the Warden, “but he is sometimes very silent. He needs the right sort of audience to draw him out. Two or three congenial men—or one sympathetic woman.” Here the Warden paused and looked away from May Dashwood, then he added: “I'm obliged to go to Cambridge to-morrow. You will be at Chartcote and you will get some amusement out of Boreham. You find everybody interesting?” He turned again and looked at her—this time so searchingly that a little colour rose in May Dashwood's cheek.

“Oh, not everybody,” she said. “I wish I could!”

“My dear May,” said Lady Dashwood, briskly seizing this brilliant opportunity of pointing the moral and adorning the tale, “even you can't pretend to be interested in little Gwendolen, though you have done your best. Now that you have seen something of her, what do you think of her?”

“Very pretty,” said May Dashwood, and she became busy again with her work.

“Exactly,” said Lady Dashwood. “If she were plain even Belinda would not have the impertinence to deposit her on people's doorsteps in the way she does.”

The Warden took his cigar out of his mouth, as if he had suddenly remembered something that he had forgotten. He laid his hands on the arms of his chair and seemed about to rise.

“You're not going, Jim!” exclaimed Lady Dashwood. “I thought you had come to talk to us. We have been doing our duty since dawn of day, and this is May's little holiday, you know. Stop and talk nicely to us. Do cheer us up!” Her voice became appealing.

The Warden rose from his chair and stood with one hand resting on the back of it as if about to make some excuse for going away. Except for the glance, necessitated by courtesy, that May Dashwood gave the Warden when he entered, she had kept her eyes obstinately upon her work. Now she looked up and met his eyes, only for a moment.

“I'm not going,” he said, “but I find the fire too hot. Excuse me if I move away. It has got muggy and warm—Oxford weather!”

“Open one of the windows,” said Lady Dashwood. “I'm sure May and I shall be glad of it.”

He moved away and walked slowly down the length of the room. Going behind the heavy curtains he opened a part of the casement and then drew aside one of the curtains slightly. Then he slowly came back to them in silence.

This silence that followed was embarrassing, so embarrassing that Lady Dashwood broke into it urgently with the first subject that she could think of. “Tell May about the Barber's ghost, Jim.”

“Where does he appear?” asked May, interestedly, but without looking up. “What part of the college?”

“In the library,” said the Warden.

“And at the witching hour of midnight, I suppose?” said May.

“Birds of ill omen, I believe, appear at night,” said the Warden. “All Souls College ought to have had an All Souls' ghost, but it hasn't, it has only its 'foolish Mallard.'”

“And if he does appear,” said May, “what apology are you going to offer him for the injustice of your predecessor in the eighteenth century?”

The Warden turned and stood looking back across the room at the warm space of light and the two women sitting in it, with the firelight flickering between them.

“If I were to make myself responsible for all the misdemeanours of the Reverend Charles Langley,” he said, “I should have my hands full;” and he came slowly towards them as he spoke. “You have only to look at Langley's face, over the mantelpiece, and you will see what I mean.”

May Dashwood glanced up at the portrait and smiled.

“Do you admire our Custos dilectissimus?” he asked.

The lights were below the level of the portrait, but the hard handsome face with its bold eyes, was distinctly visible. He was looking lazily watchful, listening sardonically to the conversation about himself.

“I admire the artist who painted his portrait,” said May.

“Yes, the artist knew what he was doing when he painted Langley,” said the Warden. He seemed now to have recovered his ease, and stood leaning his arms on the back of the chair he had vacated. “Your idea is a good one,” he went on. “I don't suppose it has occurred to any Warden since Langley's time that a frank and pleasant apology might lay the Barber's ghost for ever. Shall I try it?” he asked, looking at his guest.

“My dear,” said Lady Dashwood slowly, “I wish you wouldn't even joke about it—I dislike it. I wish people wouldn't invent ghost stories,” she went on. “They are silly, and they are often mischievous. I wish you wouldn't talk as if you believed it.”

“It was you, Lena, who brought up the subject,” said Middleton. “But I won't talk about him if you dislike it. You know that I am not a believer in ghosts.”

Lady Dashwood nodded her head approvingly, and began turning more pages of her book.

“I sometimes wonder,” said the Warden, and now he turned his face towards May Dashwood—“I wonder if men like Langley really believed in a future life?”

May looked up at the portrait, but was silent.

“The eighteenth century was not tormented with the question as we are now!” said the Warden, and again he looked at the auburn head and the dark lashes hiding the downcast eyes. “Those who doubt,” he said slowly and tentatively, “whether after all the High Gods want us—those who doubt whether there are High Gods—even those doubt with regret—now.” He waited for a response and May Dashwood suddenly raised her eyes to his.

“There is no truculence in modern unbelief,” he said, “it is a matter of passionate regret. And belief has become a passionate hope.”

Lady Dashwood knew that not a word of this was meant for her. She disliked all talk about the future world. It made her feel dismal. Her life had been spent in managing first her father, then her brother, and now her husband, and incidentally many of her friends.

Some people dislike having plans made for them, some endure it, some positively like it, and for those who liked it, Lady Dashwood made extensive plans. Her brain worked now almost automatically in plans. For herself she had no plans, she was the planner. But her plans were about this world. To the “other world” Lady Dashwood felt secretly inimical; that “unknown” lurking in the future, would probably, not so long hence, engulf her husband, leaving her, alas! still on this side—with no heart left for making any more plans.

If she had been alone with the Warden he would not have mentioned the “future life,” nor would he have spoken of the “High Gods.” He knew her mind too well. Was he probing the mind of May Dashwood? Either he was deliberately questioning her, or there was something in her presence that drew from him his inmost thoughts. Lady Dashwood felt a pang of indignation at herself for “being in the way” when to be “out of the way” at such a moment was absolutely necessary. She must leave these two people alone together—now—at this propitious moment. What should she do? She began casting about wildly in her brain for a plan of escape that would not be too obvious in its intention. The Warden had never been with May alone for five minutes. To-morrow would be a blank day—there was Chartcote first and then when they returned the Warden would be still away and very probably would not be visible that evening.

She could see May's raised face looking very expressive—full of thoughts. Lady Dashwood rose from her chair confident that inspired words would come to her lips—and they came!

“My dear Jim,” she heard herself saying, “your mentioning the High Gods has made me remember that I left about some letters that ought to be answered. Horribly careless of me—I must go and find them. I'll only be away a moment. So sorry to interrupt when you are just getting interesting!” And still murmuring Lady Dashwood made her escape.

She had done the best she could under the circumstances, and she smiled broadly as she went through the corridor.

“That for Belinda and Co.!” she exclaimed half aloud, and she snapped her fingers.

And what was going to happen after Belinda and Co. were defeated, banished for ever from the Lodgings? What was going to happen to the Warden? He had been successfully rescued from one danger—but what about the future? Was he going to fall in love with May Dashwood?

“It sounded to me uncommonly like a metaphysical wooing of May,” said Lady Dashwood to herself. “That I must leave in the hands of Providence;” and she went up to her room smiling. There she found Louise.

“Madame is gay,” said the Frenchwoman, catching sight of the entering smile. “Gay in this sad Oxford!”

“Sad!” said Lady Dashwood, her smile still lingering. “The hospitals are sad, Louise, yes, very sad, and the half-empty Colleges.”

“Oh, it is sad, incredibly sad,” said the maid. “What kind of city is it, it contains only grey monasteries, no boulevards, no shops. There is one shop, perhaps, but what is that?”

Lady Dashwood had gone to the toilet table, for she caught sight of the letters lying on the top of the jewel drawers. She had seen them several times that day, and had always intended tearing them up, for neither of them needed an answer. But they had served a good purpose. She had escaped from the drawing-room with their aid. She took them up and opened them and looked at them again. Louise watched her covertly. She glanced at the first and tore it up; then at the second and tore that up. She opened the third and glanced at it. And now the faint remains of the smile that had lingered on her face suddenly vanished.

“My dear Gwen,” (Lena badly written, of course).

“I hope you understood that Lady Dashwood will keep you till the 3rd. You don't mention the Warden! Does that mean that you are making no progress in that direction? Perhaps taking no trouble! The question is——”

Here Lady Dashwood stopped. She looked at the signature of the writer. But that was not necessary—the handwriting was Belinda Scott's.

For a moment or two Lady Dashwood stood as if she intended to remain in the same position for the rest of her life. Then she breathed rather heavily and her nostrils dilated.

“Ah! Well!” said Louise to herself, and she nodded her head ominously.

Soon Lady Dashwood recovered herself and folded up the letter. She looked at the envelope. It was addressed to Miss Gwendolen Scott. She put the letter back into its envelope.

Had she opened the letter and then laid it aside with the others, without perceiving that the letter was not addressed to her and without reading it? Was it possible that she, in her hurry last evening, had done this? If so, Gwen had never received the letter or read it.

Of course she could not have read it. If she had, it would not have been laid on the toilet table. If Gwen had read it and left it about, it would have either been destroyed or taken to her room.

“Does Madame wish to go to bed immediately?” asked Louise innocently. She had been waiting nearly twenty-four hours for something to happen about that letter. She was beginning to be afraid that it might be discovered when she would not be there to see the effect it had on Madame. Ah! the letter was all that Louise's fancy had painted it. See the emotion in Madame's back! How expressive is the back! What abominable intrigue! It was not necessary, indeed, to go to Paris to find wickedness. And, above all, the Warden——Oh, my God! Never, never shall I repose confidence even in the Englishman the most respectable!

“Presently,” said Lady Dashwood, in answer to Louise's question.

Lady Dashwood had made up her mind. She must have opened all three letters but only read two of them. There was no other explanation possible. What was to be done with Gwen's letter? What was to be done with this—vile scribble?

Lady Dashwood's fingers were aching to tear the letter up, but she refrained. It would need some thinking over. The style of this letter was probably familiar to Gwendolen—her mind had already been corrupted. And to think that Jim might have had Belinda and Co., and all that Belinda and Co. implied, hanging round his neck and dragging him down—till he dropped into his grave from the sheer dead weight of it!

“Yes, immediately,” said Lady Dashwood. She would not go downstairs again. It was of vital importance that Jim and May should be alone together, yes, alone together.

Lady Dashwood put the letter away in a drawer and locked it. She must have time to think.

A few minutes later Louise was brushing out her mistress's hair—a mass of grey hair, still luxuriant, that had once been black.

“I find that Oxford does not agree with Madame's hair,” said Louise, as she plied vigorously with the brush.

Lady Dashwood made no reply.

“I find that Oxford does not agree with Madame's hair at all, at all,” repeated Louise, firmly.

“Is it going greyer?” said Lady Dashwood indifferently, for her mind was working hard on another subject.

“It grows not greyer, but it becomes dead, like the hair of a corpse—in this atmosphere of Oxford,” said Louise, even more firmly.

“Try not to exaggerate, Louise,” said Lady Dashwood, quite unmoved.

“Madame cannot deny that the humidity of Oxford is bad both for skin and hair,” said Louise, with some resentment in her tone.

“Damp is not bad for the skin, Louise,” said her mistress, “but it may be for the hair; I don't know and I don't care.”

“It's bad for the skin,” said Louise. “I have seen Madame looking grave, the skin folded, in Oxford. It is the climate. It is impossible to smile—in Oxford. One lies as if under a tomb.”

“Every place has its bad points,” said Lady Dashwood. “It is important to make the best of them.”

“But I do not like to see Madame depressed by the climate here,” continued Louise, obstinately, “and Madame has been depressed here lately.”

“Not at all,” said Lady Dashwood. “You needn't worry, Louise; any one who can stand India would find the climate of Oxford admirable. Now, as soon as you have done my hair, I want you to go down to the drawing-room, where you will find Mrs. Dashwood, and apologise to her for my not coming down again. Say I have a letter that will take me some time to answer. Bid her good night, also the Warden, who will be with her, I expect.”

Louise had been momentarily plunged into despair. She had been unsuccessful all the way round. It looked as if the visit to Oxford was to go on indefinitely, and as to the letter—well—Madame was unfathomable—as she always was. She was English, and one must not expect them to behave as if they had a heart.

But now her spirits rose! This message to the drawing-room! The Warden was alone with Mrs. Dashwood! The Warden, this man of apparent uprightness who was the seducer of the young! Lady Dashwood had discovered his wickedness and dared not leave Mrs. Dashwood, a widow and of an age (twenty-eight) when a woman is still young, alone with him. So she, Louise, was sent down, bien entendu, to break up the tête-à-tête!

Louise put down the brush and smiled to herself as she went down to the drawing-room.

She, through her devotion to duty, had become an important instrument in the hands of Providence.

When Lady Dashwood found herself alone, she took up her keys and jingled them, unable to make up her mind.

She had only read the first two or three sentences of Belinda's letter; she had only read—until the identity and meaning of the letter had suddenly come to her.

She opened the drawer and took out the letter. Then she walked a few steps in the room, thinking as she walked. No, much as she despised Belinda, she could not read a private letter of hers. Perhaps, because she despised her, it was all the more urgent that she should not read anything of hers.

What Lady Dashwood longed to do was to have done with Belinda and never see her or hear from her again. She wanted Belinda wiped out of the world in which she, Lena Dashwood, moved and thought.

What was she to do with the letter? Jim was safe now, the letter was harmless—as far as he was concerned. But what about Gwen? Was it not like handing on to her a dose of moral poison?

On the other hand, the poison belonged to Gwen and had been sent to her by her mother!

The matter could not be settled without more reflection. Perhaps some definite decision would frame itself during the night; perhaps she would awake in the morning, knowing exactly what was the best to be done.

She put away the letter again, and again locked the drawer. She was putting away her keys when the door opened and she heard her maid come in.

There was something in the way Louise entered and stood at the door that made Lady Dashwood turn round and look at her. That excellent Frenchwoman was standing very stiffly, her eyes wide and agitated, and her features expressive of extreme excitement. She breathed loudly.

“What's the matter?” demanded Lady Dashwood.

“Madame Dashwood was not visible in the drawing-room!” said Louise, and she tightened her lips after this pronouncement.

“She had gone up to her bedroom?”

“Madame Dashwood is not in her bedroom!” said Louise, with ever deepening tragedy in her voice.

“Did you look for her in the library?” demanded Lady Dashwood.

“Madame Dashwood is not in the library!” said Louise. She did not move from her position in front of the door. She stood there looking the personification of domestic disaster, her chest heaving.

“Mrs. Dashwood isn't ill?” Lady Dashwood felt a sudden pang of fear at her heart.

“No, Madame!” said Louise.

“Then what is the matter?” demanded Lady Dashwood, sternly. “Don't be a fool, Louise. Say what has happened!”

“How can I tell Madame? It is indeed unbelievably too sad! I did not see Madame Dashwood but I heard her voice,” began Louise. “Oh, Madame, that I should have to pronounce such words to you! I open the door of the drawing-room! It is scarcely at all lighted! No one is visible! I stand and for a moment I look around me! I hear sounds! I listen again! I hear the voice of Madame Dashwood! Ah! what surprise! Where is she? She is hidden behind the great curtains of the window, completely hidden! Why? And to whom does she speak? Ah, Madame, what frightful surprise, what shock to hear reply the voice, also behind the curtain, of Monsieur the Warden! I cannot believe it, it is incredible, but also it is true! I stop no longer, for shame! I fly, I meet Robinson in the gallery, but I pass him—like lightning—I speak not! No word escapes from my mouth! I come direct to Madame's room! In entering, I know not what to say, I say nothing! I dare not! I stand with the throat swelling, the heart oppressed, but with the lips closed! I speak only because Madame insists, she commands me to speak, to say all! I trust in God! I obey Madame's command! I speak! I disclose frankly the painful truth! I impart the boring information!”

While Louise was speaking Lady Dashwood's face had first expressed astonishment, and then it relaxed into amusement, and when her maid stopped speaking for want of breath, she sank down upon a chair and burst into laughter.

“My poor Louise?” she said. “You never will understand English people. If Mrs. Dashwood and the Warden are behind the window curtains, it is because they want to look out of the window!”

Louise's face became passionately sceptical.

“In the rain, Madame!” she remarked. “In a darkness of the tomb?”

“Yes, in the rain and darkness,” said Lady Dashwood. “You must go down again in a moment, and give them my message!”

CHAPTER VII. MEN MARCHING PAST

After the Warden had closed the door on his sister he came back to the fireplace. He had been interrupted, and he stood silently with his hand on the back of the chair, just as he had stood before. He was waiting, perhaps, for an invitation to speak; for some sign from Mrs. Dashwood that now that they were alone together, she expected him to talk on, freely.

She had no suspicion of the real reason why her Aunt Lena had gone away. May took for granted that she had fled at the first sign of a religious discussion. May knew that General Sir John Dashwood, like many well regulated persons, was under the impression that he had, at some proper moment in his juvenile existence now forgotten, at his mother's knee or in his ancestral cradle, once and for all weighed, considered and accepted the sacred truths containing the Christian religion, and that therefore there was no need to poke about among them and distrust them. Lady Dashwood had encouraged that sentiment of silent loyalty: it left more time and energy over for the discussion and arrangement of the practical affairs of life. May knew all this.

May, sitting by the fire, with her eyes on her work, observed the hesitation in the Warden's mind. She knew that he was waiting. She glanced up.

“What was it you were saying?” she asked in the softest of voices, for now that they were alone there was no one to be annoyed by a religious discussion.

The Warden moved round and seated himself. But even then he could not bring his thoughts to the surface: they lay in the back of his mind urgent, yet reluctant. Meanwhile he began talking about the portrait again. It served as a stalking horse. He told her some of the old college stories, stories not only of Langley, but of other Wardens in the tempestuous days of the Reformation and of the Civil War.

“And yet,” he said suddenly, “what were those days compared with these? Has there been any tragedy like this?” He gazed at her now; with his narrow eyes strained and sad.

“Just at the beginning of the war,” he said, “I heard——It was one hot brilliant morning in that early September. It was only a passing sound—but I shall never forget it, till I die.”

May Dashwood's hands dropped to her lap, and she sat listening with her eyes lowered.

“There was a sound of the feet of men marching past, though I could not see them. Their feet were trampling the ground rhythmically, and all to the 'playing' of a bugler. I have never heard, before or since, a bugle played like that! The youth—I could picture him in my mind—blew from his bugle strangely ardent, compelling notes. It was simple, monotonous music, but there came from the bugler's own soul a magnificent courage and buoyancy; and the trampling feet responded—responded to the light springing notes, the high ardour and gay fearlessness of youth. There was such hope, such joy in the call of duty! No thought of danger, no thought of suffering! All hearts leapt to the sounds! And the bugler passed and the trampling feet! I could hear the swift, high, passionate notes die in the distance; and I knew that the flower of our youth was marching to its doom.”

The Warden got up from his chair, and walked away, and there was silence in the room.

Then he came up to where May sat and looked down at her.

“The High Gods,” she said, quietly quoting his own phrase, “wanted them.”

He moved away again. “I have no argument for my faith,” he said. “The question for us is no longer 'I must believe,' but 'Dare I believe?' The old days of certainty have gone. Inquisitions, Solemn Leagues and Covenants have gone—never to return. All the clamour of men who claim 'to know' has died down.”

And as he gazed at her with eyes that demanded an answer she said simply: “I am content with the silence of God.”

He made no answer and leaned heavily on the back of his chair. A moment later he began to walk again. “I don't think I can believe that the heroic sacrifice of youth, their bitter suffering, will be mixed up indistinguishably with the cunning meanness of pleasure-seekers, with the sordid humbug of money-makers—in one vast forgotten grave. No, I can't believe that—because the world we know is a rational world.”

May glanced round at him as he moved about. The great dimly-lit room was full of shadows, and Middleton's face was dark, full of shadows too, shadows of mental suffering. She looked back at her work and sighed.

“Even if we straighten the crooked ways of life, so that there are no more starving children, no men and women broken with the struggle of life: even if we are able, by self-restraint, by greater scientific knowledge to rid the earth of those diseases that mean martyrdom to its victims; even if hate is turned to love, and vice and moral misery are banished: even if the Kingdom of Heaven does come upon this earth—even then! That will not be a Kingdom of Heaven that is Eternal! This Earth will, in time, die. This Earth will die, that we know; and with it must vanish for ever even the memory of a million years of human effort. Shall we be content with that? I fail to conceive it as rational, and therefore I cling to the hope of some sort of life beyond the grave—Eternal Life. But,” and here he spoke out emphatically, “I have no argument for my belief.”

He came and stood close beside her now, and looked down at her. “I have no argument for my belief,” he repeated.

“And you are content with the silence of God,” he added. Then he spoke very slowly: “I must be content.”

If he had stretched out his hand to touch hers, it would not have meant any more than did the prolonged gaze of his eyes.

The clock on the mantelpiece ticked—its voice alone striking into the silence. It seemed to tick sometimes more loudly, sometimes more softly.

The Warden appeared to force himself away from his own thoughts. With his hands still grasping the back of his chair, he raised his head and stood upright. The tick of the clock fell upon his ear; a monotonous and mechanical sound—indifferent to human life and yet weighted with importance to human life; marking the moments as they passed; moments never to be recalled; steps that are leading irretrievably the human race to their far-off destiny.

As the Warden's eyes watched the hands of the clock, they pointed to five minutes to eleven. A thought came to him.

“All the bells are silent now,” he said, “except in the safe daylight.”

May looked up at him.

“Even 'Tom' is silent. The Clusius is not tolled now.”

He got up and walked along the room to the open window. There he held the curtain well aside and looked back at her. Why it was, May did not know, but it seemed imperative to her to come to him. She put her work aside and came through into the broad embrasure of the bay. Then he let the curtain fall and they stood together in the darkness. The Warden pushed out the latticed frame wider into the dark night. The air was scarcely stirring, it came in warm and damp against their faces.

The quadrangle below them was dimly visible. Eastwards the sky was heavy with a great blank pale space stretching over the battlemented roof and full of the light of a moon that had just risen, but overhead a heavy cloud slowly moved westwards.

They both leaned out and breathed the night air.

“It will rain in a moment,” said the Warden.

“In the old days,” he said, “there would have been sounds coming from these windows. There would have been men coming light-heartedly from these staircases and crossing to one another. Now all is under military rule: the poor remnant left of undergraduate life—poor mentally and physically—this poor remnant counts for nothing. All that is best has gone, gone voluntarily, eagerly, and the men who fill their places are training for the Great Sacrifice. It's the most glorious and the most terrible thing imaginable!”

May leaned down lower and the silence of the night seemed oppressive when the Warden ceased speaking.

After a moment he said, “In the old days you would have heard some far-off clock strike the hour, probably a thin, cracked voice, and then it would have been followed by other voices. You would have heard them jangle together, and then into their discordance you would have heard the deep voice of 'Tom' breaking.”

“But he is at his best,” went on the Warden, “when he tolls the Clusius. It is his right to toll it, and his alone. He speaks one hundred and one times, slowly, solemnly and with authority, and then all the gates in Oxford are closed.”

Drops of rain fell lightly in at them, and May drew in her head.

“Oxford has become a city of memories to me,” said the Warden, and he put out his arm to draw in the window.

“That is only when you are sad,” said May.

“Yes,” said the Warden slowly, “it is only when I give way to gloom. After all, this is a great time, it can be made a great time. If only all men and women realised that it might be the beginning of the 'Second Coming.' As it is, the chance may slip.”

He pulled the window further in and secured it.

May pushed aside the curtain and went back into the glow and warmth of the room.

She gathered up her knitting and thrust it into the bag.

“Are you going?” asked the Warden. He was standing now in the middle of the room watching her.

“I'm going,” said May.

“I've driven you away,” he said, “by my dismal talk.”

“Driven me away!” she repeated. “Oh no!” Her voice expressed a great reproach, the reproach of one who has suffered too, and who has “dreamed dreams.” Surely he knew that she could understand!

“Forgive me!” he said, and held out his hand impulsively. At least it seemed strangely impulsive in this self-contained man.

She put hers into it, withdrew it, and together they went to the door. For the first time in her life May felt the sting of a strange new pain. The open door led away from warmth and a world that was full and satisfying—at least it would have led away from such a world—a world new to her—only that she was saying “Good night” and not “Good-bye.” Later on she would have to say “Good-bye.” How many days were there before that—five whole days? She walked up the steps, and went into the corridor. Louise was there, just coming towards her.

“Madame desires me to say good night,” said Louise, giving May's face a quick searching glance.

“I'll come and say good night to her,” said May, “if it's not too late.”

No, it was not too late. Louise led the way, marvelling at the callous self-assurance of English people.

Louise opened her mistress's door, and though consumed with raging curiosity, left Mrs. Dashwood to enter alone.

“Oh, May!” cried Lady Dashwood. She was moving about the room in a grey dressing-gown, looking very restless, and with her hair down.

“You didn't come down again,” said May; “you were tired?”

“I wasn't tired!” Here Lady Dashwood paused. “May, I have, by pure accident, come upon a letter—from Belinda to Gwen. I don't know how it came among my own letters, but there it was, opened. I don't know if I opened it by mistake, but anyhow there it was opened; I began reading the nauseous rubbish, and then realised that I was reading Belinda. Now the question is, what to do with the letter? It contains advice. May, Gwen is to secure the Warden! It seems odd to see it written down in black and white.”

Lady Dashwood stared hard at her niece—who stood before her, thoughtful and silent.

“Shall I give it to Gwen—or what?” she asked.

“Well,” began May, and then she stopped.

“Of course, I blame myself for being such a fool as to have taken in Belinda,” said Lady Dashwood (for the hundredth time). “But the question now is—what to do with the letter? It isn't fit for a nice girl to read; but, no doubt, she's read scores of letters like it. The girl is being hawked round to see who will have her—and she knows it! She probably isn't nice! Girls who are exhibited, or who exhibit themselves on a tray ain't nice. Jim knows this; he knows it. Oh, May! as if he didn't know it. You understand!”

May Dashwood stood looking straight into her aunt's face, revolving thoughts in her own mind.

“Some people, May,” said Lady Dashwood, “who want to be unkind and only succeed in being stupid, say that I am a matchmaker. I have always conscientiously tried to be a matchmaker, but I have rarely succeeded. I have been so happy with my dear old husband that I want other people to be happy too, and I am always bringing young people together—who were just made for each other. But they won't have it, May! I introduce a sweet girl full of womanly sense and affection to some nice man, and he won't have her at any price. He prefers some cheeky little brat who after marriage treats him rudely and decorates herself for other men. I introduce a really good man to a really nice girl and she won't have him, she 'loves,' if you please, a man whom decent men would like to kick, and she finds herself spending the rest of her life trying hard to make her life bearable. I dare say your scientists would say—Nature likes to keep things even, bad and good mixed together. Well, I'm against Nature. My under-housemaid develops scarlet fever, and dear old Nature wants her to pass it on to the other maids, and if possible to the cook. Well, I circumvent Nature.”

May Dashwood's face slowly smiled.

“But I did not bring Gwendolen Scott to this house—she was forced upon me—and I was weak enough to give in. Now, I should very much like to say something when I give the letter to Gwen. But I shall have to say nothing. Yes, nothing,” repeated Lady Dashwood, “except that I must tell her that I have, by mistake, read the first few lines.”

“Yes,” said May Dashwood.

“After all, what else could I say?” exclaimed Lady Dashwood. “You can't exactly tell a daughter that you think her mother is a shameless hussy, even if you may think that she ought to know it.”

“Poor Gwen and poor Lady Belinda!” said May Dashwood sighing, and moving to go, and trying hard to feel real pity in her heart.

“No,” said Lady Dashwood, raising her voice, “I don't say 'poor Belinda.' I don't feel a bit sorry for the old reprobate, I feel more angry with her. Don't you see yourself—now you know Jim,” continued Lady Dashwood, throwing out her words at her niece's retreating figure—“don't you see that Jim deserves something better than Belinda and Co.? Now, would you like to see him saddled for life with Gwendolen Scott?”

May Dashwood did not reply immediately; she seemed to be much occupied in walking very slowly to the door and then in slowly turning the handle of the door. Surely Gwendolen and her mother were pitiable objects—unsuccessful as they were?

“Now, would you?” demanded Lady Dashwood. “Would you?”

“I should trust him not to do that,” said May, as she opened the door. She looked back at the tall erect figure in the grey silk dressing-gown. “Good night, dear aunt.” And she went out. “You see, I am running away, and I order you to go to bed. You are tired.” She spoke through the small open space she had left, and then she closed the door.

“Trust him! Oh, Lord!” exclaimed Lady Dashwood, in a loud voice.

But she was not altogether displeased with the word “trust” in May Dashwood's mouth. “She seems pretty confident that Jim isn't going to make a martyr of himself,” she said to herself happily.

The door opened and Louise entered with an enigmatical look on her face. Louise had been listening outside for the tempestuous sounds that in her country would have issued from any two normal women under the same circumstances.

But no such sounds had reached her attentive ears, and here was Lady Dashwood moving about with a serene countenance. She was even smiling. Oh, what a country, what people!

CHAPTER VIII. THE LOST LETTER

The next morning it was still raining. It was a typical Oxford day, a day of which there are so many in the year that those who have best known Oxford think of her fondly in terms of damp sandstone.

They remember her gabled roofs, narrow pavements, winding alleys humid and shining from recent rain; her mullioned windows looking out on high-walled gardens where the over-hanging trees drip and drip in chastened melancholy. They remember her floating spires piercing the lowering sodden sky, her grey courts and solemn doorways, her echoing cloisters; all her incomparable monastic glory soaked through and through with heavy languorous moisture, and slowly darkening in a misty twilight.

It is this sobering atmosphere that has brought to birth and has bred the “Oxford tone;” the remorseless, if somewhat playful handling of ideas.

Gwendolen Scott was no more aware of the existence of an “Oxford tone,” bred (as all organic life has been) in the damp, than was the maidservant who brought her tea in the morning; but she perceived the damp. She could see through the latticed windows of the breakfast-room that it rained, rained and rained, and the question was what she should do to make the time pass till they must start for Chartcote? No letter had yet come from her mother—and the old letter was still lost.

The best Gwen could hope for was that it had been picked up and thrown into the paper basket and destroyed.

Meanwhile what should she do? Lady Dashwood was always occupied during the mornings. Mrs. Dashwood did not seem to be at her disposal. What was she to do? Should she practise the “Reverie”? No, she didn't want to “fag” at that. She had asked the housemaid to mend a pair of stockings, and she found these returned to her room—boggled! How maddening—what idiots servants were! She found another pair that wanted mending. She hadn't the courage to ask Louise to mend it. If she tried to mend it herself she would only make a mess of it—besides she hadn't any lisle thread or needles.

She would look at her frocks and try and decide what to wear at lunch. If she couldn't decide she would have to consult Lady Dashwood. Her room was rather dark. The window looked, not on to the quadrangle, but on to the street. She took each piece of dress to the window and gazed at it. The blue coat and skirt wouldn't do. She had worn that often, and the blouse was not fresh now. That must go back into the wardrobe. The likely clothes must be spread on the bed, where she could review them.

She ran her hand down a stiff rustling costume of brown silk. It gave her a pleasurable sensation. It was dark brown and inconspicuous, and yet “dressy.” But would, after all, the blue coat and skirt be more suitable, as Oxford people never dressed? Yes; but she might meet other sort of people at Chartcote! It was a difficult question.

She passed on to a thin black and white cloth that was very “smart” and showed off her dark beauty. That and the white cloth hat would do! She had worn it once before and the Warden had talked a great deal to her when she had it on. She took out the dress and laid it on the bed, and she laid the hat upon it. Mrs. Dashwood had not seen the dress! By the by, Mrs. Dashwood and the Warden had scarcely talked at all at breakfast! He had once made a remark to her, and she had looked up and said “Yes,” in a funny sort of way, just as if she agreed of course! H'm, there was really no need to be afraid of that! Supposing and if she, Gwen, were ever to be Mrs. Middleton, what sort of new clothes would she buy? Oh, all sorts of things would be necessary! And yet—the Warden seemed to be quietly drifting farther and farther away from her. Was that talk in the library a dream? Then if not, why didn't he say something? Did he say nothing, because in the library he had said, “If you want a home, etc., etc.?” Did he mean by that, “If you come and tell me that you want a home, etc., etc.?”

Gwen was not sure whether he meant “If you come and say you want a home, etc., etc.,” or only, “If you want a home, etc., etc.” How tiresome! He knew she wanted a home! But perhaps he wasn't sure whether she really wanted a home! Ought she to go and knock at the door and say that she really did want a home? Was he waiting for her to come and knock on the door and say, “I really do want a home, etc., etc.,” and then come near enough to be kissed?

But after what Mr. Boreham had said, even if she did go and knock at the door and say that she really did want a home, etc., etc., and go and stand quite near him, the Warden might pretend not to understand and merely say, “I'm sorry,” and go on writing.

How did girls make sure that a proposal was binding? Did they manage somehow to have it in writing? But how could she have said to the Warden, “Would you mind putting it all down in writing”? She really couldn't have said such a thing!

Gwen could not quite make up her mind what to wear. She had put the brown silk and one or two more dresses on the bed without being able to come to any conclusion.

It would be necessary to ask advice. Having covered the bed with “possible” dresses, Gwen went out to search for Lady Dashwood.

She had not to go far, for she met her just outside the door.

“Oh, Lady Dashwood,” began Gwen, “could you, would you mind telling me what I am to wear for lunch? I'm so sorry to be such a bother, but I'm——”

Here Gwen stopped short, for her eyes caught sight of a letter in Lady Dashwood's hand—the letter! If Gwen had known how to faint she would have tried to faint then; but she didn't know how it was done.

“I found this letter addressed to you,” said Lady Dashwood, “in my room—it had got there somehow.” She held it out to the girl, who took it, reddening as she did so to the roots of her hair. “I found it opened—I hope I didn't open it by mistake?”

“Oh no,” said Gwen, stammering. “I—lost it—somehow. Oh, thanks so much! Oh, thanks!”

Tears of embarrassment were starting to the girl's eyes, and she turned away, letter in hand, and went towards her door like a beaten child.

Lady Dashwood gazed after her, pity uppermost in her heart—pity, now that Belinda and Co. were no longer dangerous.

Safely inside the door, Gwen gave way to regret, and from regret for her carelessness she went on to wondering wildly what effect the letter might have had on Lady Dashwood! Had she told the Warden its contents? Had she read the letter to him?

Gwen squirmed as she walked about her room. There was a look in Lady Dashwood's face! Oh dear, oh dear!

The dresses lay neglected on the bed; the sight of them only made Gwen's heart ache the more, for they reminded her of those bright hopes that had flitted through her brain—hopes of having more important clothes as the Warden's wife. Gwen had even gone as far as wondering whether Cousin Bridget might not give her some furs as a wedding present. Cousin Bridget had spent over a thousand pounds in new furs for herself that first winter of the war, when the style changed; so was it too much to expect that Cousin Bridget, who was the wealthy member of the family, though her husband's title was a new one, might give her a useful wedding present? Now, the mischance with this letter had probably destroyed all chances of the Warden marrying her!

She was glad that he had gone away to-day, so that she would not see him again till the next morning; that gave more time.

She did not want to go to Chartcote to lunch. She would not be able to eat anything if she felt as miserable as she did now, and she would find it impossible to talk to any one.

Even her mother's letter of advice might not help her very much—now that old letter had been seen.

Gwen walked about her room, sometimes leaning over the foot of her bed and staring blankly at the dresses spread out before her, and sometimes stopping to look at herself in a long mirror on the way, feeling very sorry for that poor pretty girl whose image she saw reflected there. When she heard a knock at the door she almost jumped. Was it Lady Dashwood? Gwen's answering voice sounded very soft and meek, as if a mouse was saying “Come in” to a cat that demanded entrance.

It was Mrs. Dashwood who opened the door and walked in.

“You want advice about what to wear for lunch?” said Mrs. Dashwood. “Lady Dashwood is finishing off some parcels, and asked me to come and offer you my services—if you'll have me?” and she actually laughed as she caught sight of the display on the bed.

“Very business-like,” she said, walking up to the bed. She did not seem to have noticed Gwen's distracted appearance, and this gave Gwen time and courage to compose her features and assume her ordinary bearing.

“Thanks so much,” she said, going to the foot of the bed. “I was afraid I bothered Lady Dashwood when I asked about the lunch.”

“It really doesn't much matter what it is you wear for Chartcote,” said May Dashwood slowly, as her eye roamed over the bed. She did not appear to have heard Gwen's last remark.

“People do dress so funnily here,” said Gwen, beginning to feel happy again, “but I thought perhaps that——”

“I think I should recommend that dark brown silk,” said Mrs. Dashwood, “and if you have a black hat——”

“Yes, I have!” cried Gwen, with animation, and she rushed to the wardrobe. After all she did like Mrs. Dashwood. She was not so bad after all.

May received the black hat into her hands and praised it. She put it on the girl's head and then stood back to see the effect.

Gwen stood smiling, her face and dark hair framed by the black velvet.

“The very thing,” said Mrs. Dashwood.

“Do try it on. You'd look lovely in it,” gushed Gwen. The expression “You'd look lovely in it” came from her lips before she could stop it. Her instinctive antagonism to Mrs. Dashwood was fast oozing away.

May took the hat and put it on her own head, and then she looked round at the mirror.

“There!” said Gwen. “I told you so!”

May Dashwood regarded herself critically in the mirror and no smile came to her lips. She looked at her tall slender figure and the auburn hair under the black velvet brim as if she was looking at somebody else. May took off the hat and placed it on the bed by the dark brown silk.

“Now, you're complete,” she said. “Quite complete;” but she looked out of her grey eyes at something far away, and did not see Gwendolen.

“If only I had a nice fur!” exclaimed the girl. “Mine is old, and it's the wrong shape, of course,” she went on confidentially. She found herself suddenly desirous of making a life-long friend of Mrs. Dashwood. In spite of her age and the fact that she was very clever and all that, and that the Warden had begun by taking too much notice of her, Mrs. Dashwood was nice. Gwen wanted at that moment to “tell her everything,” all about the “proposal,” and see what she thought about it!

Gwen's emotions came and went in little spurts, and they were very absorbing for the moment.

“Don't be ashamed of yours,” said Mrs. Dashwood, and as she spoke she went towards the door. “I can't say I admire the sisterhood of women who spend their pence on sham or their guineas on real fur and jewellery just now.”

Gwen stared. She was not quite sure what the remark really meant—the word “sisterhood” confused her.

“If I were you,” said Mrs. Dashwood, smiling, “I should begin to dress; we are to be ready at one punctually.”

“Oh, thanks so much,” said Gwen. “I know I take an age. I always do,” she laughed.

As soon as Mrs. Dashwood had gone Gwen found it necessary to sit down and think whether she really liked Mrs. Dashwood so very much, or whether she only “just liked her,” and this subject brought her back to the letter and the Warden, and all her lost opportunities! Gwen was startled by a knock at the door which she knew was produced by the knuckles of Lady Dashwood's maid.

“Oh, Mademoiselle!” cried Louise. “You have not commenced, and Madame is ready.”

“The brown one,” exclaimed Gwen, as Louise rushed towards the bed.

Louise fell upon the bed like a wild beast and began dressing Gwen with positive ferocity, protesting all the time in tones of physical agony mingled with moral indignation, her astonishment at Mademoiselle's indifference to the desires of Madame.

“I didn't know it was so late,” said Gwen, who was not accustomed to such freedom from a servant.

More exclamations from Louise, who was hooking and buttoning and pulling and pushing like a fury.

“Well, leave off talking,” said Gwen, looking very hot, “and don't pull so much.”

More exclamations from Louise and more pulling, and at last Gwen stood complete in her brown dress and black hat. While she was thinking about what shoes she should put on, Louise had already seized a pair and was now pulling and pushing at her feet.

Lady Dashwood was giving instructions to Robinson in the hall, when Gwen came precipitately downstairs. The taxi was at the door, and Mrs. Dashwood was already seated in it.

It was still raining. Of course! Everything was wretched!

Now, what about an umbrella? Gwen gazed about her and seized an umbrella, earnestly trusting that it was not one that Lady Dashwood meant to use. How hot and flushed and late she was, and then—the letter! Oh, that letter! How horrible to be obliged to sit opposite to Lady Dashwood!

She ran down the steps without opening the umbrella, and dashed into the taxi, Lady Dashwood following under an umbrella held by Robinson.

“Here we are!” said Lady Dashwood. She seemed to have forgotten all about the letter, and she smiled at Gwen.

They passed out of the entrance court of the Lodgings and into the narrow street, and then into the High Street. The sky and the air and the road and the pavements and the buildings were grey. The Cherwell was grey, and its trees wept into it. The meadows were sodden; it was difficult to imagine that they could ever stand in tall ripe hay. There was a smell of damp decay in the air.

Gwen stared fixedly out of the window in order to avoid looking at the ladies opposite her. They seemed to be occupied with the continuance of a conversation that they had begun before. Now, Gwen's mind failed and fainted before conversation that was at all impersonal, and though she was listening, she did not grasp the whole of any one sentence. But she caught isolated words and phrases here and there, dreary words like “Education,” “Oxford methods,” and her attention was absorbed by the discovery that every time Mrs. Dashwood spoke, she said: “Does the Warden think?” just as if she knew what the Warden would think!

This was nasty of her. If only she always talked about Gwen's hat suiting her, and about other things that were really interesting, Gwen believed she could make a life-long friend of her, in spite of her age; but she would talk about stupid incomprehensible things—and about the Warden!

The Warden was growing a more and more remote figure in Gwen's mind. He was fading into something unsubstantial—something that Gwen could not lean against, or put her arms round. Would she never again have the opportunity of feeling how hard and smooth his shirt-front was? It was like china, only not cold. As she thought Gwen's eyes became misty and sad, and she ceased to notice what the two ladies opposite to her were saying.

CHAPTER IX. THE LUNCHEON PARTY

Boreham was in his dressing-room at Chartcote looking at himself in the mirror. The picture he saw in its depths was familiar to him. Had he (like prehistoric man) never had the opportunity of seeing his own face, and had he been suddenly presented with his portrait and asked whether he thought the picture pleasing, he would have replied, as do our Cabinet ministers: “The answer is in the negative.”

But the figure in the mirror had always been associated with his inmost thoughts. It had grown with his growth. It had smiled, it had laughed and frowned. It had looked dull and disappointed, it had looked flattered and happy in tune with his own feelings; and that rather colourless face with the drab beard, the bristly eyebrows, the pale blue eyes and the thin lips, were all part of Boreham's exclusive personal world to which he was passionately attached; something separate from the world he criticised, jeered at, scolded or praised, as the mood took him, also something separate from what he secretly and unwillingly envied. The portrait in the mirror represented Boreham's own particular self—the unmistakable “I.”

He gave a last touch with a brush to the stiff hair, and then stood staring at his completed image, at himself, ready for lunch, ready—and this was what dominated his thoughts—ready to receive May Dashwood.

Some eight or nine years ago, when he had first met May, he had as nearly fallen in love with her as his constitution permitted; and he had been nettled at finding himself in a financial position that was, to say the best of it, rather fluctuating. He knew he was going to have Chartcote, but aunts of sixty frequently live to remain aunts at eighty. May had never shown any particular interest in him, but he attributed her indifference to the natural and selfish female desire to acquire a wealthy husband. As it was impossible for him to marry at that period in his life, he adopted that theory of marriage most likely to shed a cheerful light upon his compulsory bachelorhood. He maintained that the natural man tries to escape marriage, as it is incompatible with his “freedom,” and is only “enchained” after much persistent hunting down by the female, who makes the most of the conventions of civilisation for her own protection and profit. He was able, therefore, at the age of forty-two to look round him and say: “I have successfully escaped—hitherto,” and to feel that what he said was true. But now he was no longer poor. He was an eligible man.

He was also less happy than he had been. He had lived at Chartcote for some interminable weeks! He had found it tolerable, only because he was well enough off to be always going away from it. But now he had again met May, free like himself, and if possible more attractive than she had been eight years ago!

He had met her and had found her at the zenith of womanhood; without losing her youth, she had acquired maturer grace and self-possession. Had there been any room for improvement in himself he too would have matured! The wealth he had acquired was sufficient. And now the question was: whether with all his masculine longing to preserve his freedom he would be able to escape successfully again? This was why he was giving a lingering glance in the mirror, where his external personality was, as it were, painted with an exactness that no artist could command.

Should this blond man with the beard and the stiff hair, below which lay a splendid brain, should he escape again?

Boreham stared hard at his own image. He repeated the momentous question, firmly but inaudibly, and then went away without answering it. Time would show—that very day might show!

Mrs. Greenleafe Potten had already arrived. Now Mrs. Greenleafe Potten was a cousin of Boreham's maternal aunt. She lived in rude though luxurious widowhood about a quarter of a mile from Chartcote, and she was naturally the person to whom Boreham applied whenever he wanted a lady to head his table. Besides, Mrs. Potten was a very old friend of Lady Dashwood's. Mrs. Potten was a little senior to Lady Dashwood, but in many ways appeared to be her junior. Mrs. Potten, too, retained her youthful interest in men. Lady Dashwood's long stay in Oxford had brought with it a new interest to Mrs. Potten's life. It had enabled her to call at King's College and claim acquaintance with the Warden. Mrs. Potten admired the Warden with the sentiment of early girlhood. Now Mrs. Potten was accredited with the possession of great wealth, of which she spent as little as possible. She practised certain strange economies, and on this occasion, learning that the Dashwoods were coming without the Warden, she decided to come in the costume in which she usually spent the morning hours, toiling in the garden.

The party consisted of the three ladies from King's, Mr. Bingham, Fellow of All Souls, and Mr. and Mrs. Harding.

Mr. Bingham was a man of real learning; he was a bachelor, and he made forcible remarks in the soft deliberate tone of a super-curate. He laughed discreetly as if in the presence of some sacred shrine. In the old pre-war days there had been many stories current in Oxford about Bingham, some true and some invented by his friends. All of them were reports of brief but effective conversations between himself and some other less sophisticated person. Bingham always accepted invitations from any one who asked him when he had time, and if he found himself bored, he simply did not go again. Boreham had got hold of Bingham and had asked him to lunch, so he had accepted. It was one of the days when he did not go up to the War Office, but when he lectured to women students. He had to lunch somewhere, and he had bicycled out, intending to bicycle back, rain or no rain, for the sake of exercise.

Then there were Mr. and Mrs. Harding. Harding, who had taken Orders (just as some men have eaten dinners for the Bar), was Fellow and Tutor of a sporting College. His tutorial business had been for many years to drive the unwilling and ungrateful blockhead through the Pass Degree. His private business was to assume that he was a “man of the world.” It was a subject that engrossed what must (in the absence of anything more distinctive), be called the “spiritual” side of his nature. His wife, who had money, lived to set a good example to other Dons' wives in matters of dress and “tenue,” and she had put on her best frock in anticipation of meeting the “County.” Indeed, the Hardings had taken up Boreham because he was not a college Don but a member of “Society.” They were, like Bingham, at Chartcote for the first time. It was an unpleasant shock to Mr. Harding to find that instead of the County, other Oxford people had been asked to luncheon. Fortunately, however, the Oxford people were the Dashwoods! The Hardings exchanged glances, and Harding, who had entered the room in his best manner, now looked round and heaved a sigh, letting himself spiritually down with a sort of thump. Bingham his old school-fellow and senior at Winchester, was, perhaps, the man in all Oxford to whom he felt most antipathy.

Mrs. Harding very much regretted that she had not come in a smart Harris tweed. It would have been a good compromise between the Dashwoods and the pretty girl with them, and Mrs. Greenleafe Potten with her tweed skirt and not altogether spotless shirt. But it was too late!

Boreham was quite unconscious of his guests' thoughts, and was busy plotting how best to give May Dashwood an opportunity of making love to him. He would have Lady Dashwood and Mrs. Harding on each side of him at table, giving to Mrs. Potten, Harding and Bingham. Then May Dashwood and Miss Scott would be wedged in at the sides. But, after lunch, he would give the men only ten minutes sharp for their coffee, and take off May Dashwood to look over the house. In this way he would be behaving with the futile orthodoxy required by our effete social system, and yet give the opportunity necessary to the female for the successful pursuit of the male.

Only—and here a sudden spasm went through his frame, as he looked round on his guests—did he really wish to become a married man? Did he want to be obliged to be always with one woman, to be obliged to pay calls with her, dine out with her? Did he want to explain where he was going when he went by himself, and to give her some notion as to the hour when he would return, and to leave his address with her if he stayed away for a night? No! Marriage was a gross imposition on humanity, as his brother had discovered twice over. The woman in the world who would tempt him into harness would have to be exquisitely fascinating! But then—and this was the point—May Dashwood had just that peculiar charm! Boreham's eyes were now resting on her face. She was sitting on his left, next Mrs. Harding, and Bingham's black head was bent and he was saying something to her that made her smile. Boreham wished that he had put Harding, the married man, next her! Harding was commonplace! Harding was safe! Look at Harding doing his duty with Mrs. Potten! Useful man, Harding! But Bingham was a bachelor, and not safe!

And so the luncheon went on, and Boreham talked disconnectedly because he forgot the thread of his argument in his keenness to hear what May Dashwood and Bingham were saying to each other. He tried to drag in Bingham and force him to talk to the table, but his efforts were fruitless. Bingham merely looked absently and sweetly round the table, and then relapsed into talk that was inaudible except to his fair neighbour.

Gwendolen Scott watched the table silently, and wondered how it was they found so much to talk about. Harding did not intend to waste any time in talking to an Oxford person. He put his elbow on the table on her side and conversed with Mrs. Potten. He professed interest in her agricultural pursuits, told her that he liked digging in the rain, and by the time lunch was over he had solemnly emphasised his opinion that the cricket bat and the shot gun and the covert and the moderate party in the Church of England were what made our Empire great. Mrs. Potten approved these remarks, and said that she was surprised and pleased to hear such sound views expressed by any one from Oxford. She was afraid that very wild and democratic views were not only tolerated, but born and bred in Oxford. She was afraid that Oxford wasn't doing poor, dear, clever Bernard any good, though she was convinced that the “dear Warden” would not tolerate any foolishness, and she was on the point of rising when her movements were delayed by the shock of hearing Mr. Bingham suddenly guffaw with extraordinary suavity and gentleness.

She turned to him questioningly.

“It depends upon what you mean by democratic,” he said, smiling softly past Mrs. Potten and on to Harding. “The United States of America, which makes a point of talking the higher twaddle about all men being free and equal, can barely manage to bring any wealthy pot to justice. On the other hand, Oxford, which is slimed with Toryism, is always ready to make any son of any impecunious greengrocer the head of one's college. In Oxford, even at Christ Church”—and here Bingham showed two rows of good teeth at Harding,—“you may say what you like now. Oxford now swarms with political Humanitarians, who go about sticking their stomachs out and pretending to be inspired! Now, what do you mean by Democratic?”

Mrs. Potten would have been shocked, but Bingham's mellifluous voice gave a “cachet” to his language. She looked nervously at Boreham; seeing that he had caught the talk and was about to plunge into it, she signified “escape” to Lady Dashwood and rose herself.

“We will leave you men to quarrel together,” she said to Harding. “You give it to them, Mr. Harding. Don't you spare 'em,” and she passed to the door.

For a moment the three men who were left behind in the dining-room glanced at each other—then they sat down. Boreham was torn between the desire to dispute whatever either of his guests put forward, and a still keener desire to get away rapidly to the drawing-room. Harding had already lost all interest in the subject of democracy, and was passing on the claret to Bingham. Bingham helped himself, wondering, as he did so, whether Mrs. Dashwood was in mourning for a brother, or perhaps had been mourning for a husband. It seemed to Bingham an interesting question.

“Good claret this of yours,” said Harding. “I conclude that you weren't one of those fanatics who tried to force us all to become teetotallers. My view is that at my age a man can judge for himself what is good for him.”

“That wasn't quite the point,” said Bingham. “The point was whether the stay-at-homes should fill up their stomachs, or turn it into cash for war purposes.”

“Of course,” sneered Harding, “you like to put it in that way.”

“It isn't any man's business,” broke in Boreham, “whether another man can or can't judge what's good for him.”

Boreham had been getting up steam for an attack upon Christ Church because it was ecclesiastical, upon Balliol because it had been Bingham's college, and upon Oxford in general because he, Boreham, had not been bred within its walls. In other words, Boreham was going to speak with unbiassed frankness. But this sudden deviation of the talk to claret and Harding's cool assumption that his view was like his host's, could not be passed in silence.

“What I say is,” said Harding again, “that when a man gets to my age——”

“Age isn't the question,” interrupted Boreham. “Let every man have his own view about drink. Mine is that I'm not going to ask your permission to drink. If a man likes to get drunk, all I say is that it's not my business. The only thing any of your Bishops ever said that was worth remembering was: 'I'd rather see England free than England sober.'”

Harding allowed that the saying was a good one. He nodded his head. Bingham sipped his claret. “You do get a bit free when you're not sober,” he said sweetly. “I say, Harding, so you would rather see Mrs. Harding free than sober!”

Harding made an inarticulate noise that indicated the place to which in a future life he would like to consign the speaker.

“Every man does not get offensive when drunk,” said Boreham, ignoring, in the manner peculiar to him, the inner meaning of Bingham's remark.

“That's true,” said Bingham. “A man may have as his family motto: 'In Vino Suavitas'(Courteous though drunk, Boreham); but when you're drunk and you still go on talking, don't you find the difficulty is not so much to be courteous as to be coherent? In the good old drinking days of All Souls, of which I am now an unworthy member, it was said that Tindal was supreme in Common Room because 'his abstemiousness in drink gave him no small advantage over those he conversed with.'”

“Talk about supreme in Common Room,” said Boreham, catching at the opportunity to drive his dagger into the weak points of Oxford, “you chaps, even before the war, could hardly man your Common Rooms. You're all married men living out in the brick villas.”

“Harding's married,” said Bingham. “I'm thinking about it. I've been thinking for twenty years. It takes a long time to mature thoughts. By the by, was that a Miss Dashwood who sat next Harding? I don't think I have ever met her in Oxford.”

“She is a Miss Scott,” said Boreham, suddenly remembering that he wanted to join the ladies as soon as possible. He would get Bingham alone some day, and squeeze him. Just now there wasn't time. As to Harding—he was a hopeless idiot.

“Not one of Scott of Oriel's eight daughters? Don't know 'em by sight even. Can't keep pace with 'em,” said Harding.

“She's the daughter of Lady Belinda Scott,” said Boreham, “and staying with Lady Dashwood.”

“I thought she didn't belong to Oxford,” said Bingham.

Harding stared at his fellow Don, vaguely annoyed. He disliked to hear Bingham hinting at any Oxford “brand”—it was the privilege of himself and his wife to criticise Oxford. Also, why hadn't he talked to Miss Scott? He wondered why he hadn't seen that she was not an Oxford girl by her dress and by her look of self-satisfied simplicity, the right look for a well-bred girl to have.

“I promised to show Mrs. Dashwood my house,” said Boreham. “We mustn't keep the ladies too long waiting. Shall we go?” he added. “Oh, sorry, Harding, I didn't notice you hadn't finished!”

The men rose and went into the drawing-room. Harding saw, as he entered, that his wife had discovered that Miss Scott was a stranger and she was talking to her, while Mrs. Greenleafe Potten had got the Dashwoods into a corner and was telling them all about Chartcote: a skeleton list of names with nothing attached to them of historical interest. It was like reading aloud a page of Bradshaw, and any interruption to such entertainment was a relief. Indeed, May Dashwood began to smile when she saw Boreham approaching her. Something, however, in his manner made the smile fade away.

“Will you come over the house?” he asked, carefully putting his person between herself and Lady Dashwood so as to obliterate the latter lady. “I don't suppose Lady Dashwood wants to see it. Come along, Mrs. Dashwood.”

May could scarcely refuse. She rose. Harding was making his way to Gwendolen Scott and raising his eyebrows at his wife as a signal for her to appropriate Mrs. Potten. Bingham was standing in the middle of the room staring at Lady Dashwood. Some problems were working in his mind, in which that lady figured as an important item.

Gwendolen Scott looked round her. Mr. Harding had ignored her at lunch, and she did not mean to have him sitting beside her again. She was quite sure she wouldn't know what to say to him, if he did speak. She got up hurriedly from her chair, passed the astonished Harding and plunged at Mrs. Dashwood.

“Oh, do let me come and see over the house with you,” she said, laying a cold hand nervously on May's arm. “I should love to—I simply love looking at portraits.”

“Come, of course,” said May, with great cordiality.

Boreham stiffened and his voice became very flat. “I've got no portraits worth looking at,” said he, keeping his hand firmly on the door. “I have a couple of Lely's, they're all alike and sold with a pound of tea. The rest are by nobodies.”

“Oh, never mind,” said Gwen, earnestly. “I love rooms; I love—anything!”

Boreham's beard gave a sort of little tilt, and his innermost thoughts were noisy and angry, but he had to open the door and let Gwendolen Scott through if the silly little girl would come and spoil everything.

Boreham could not conceal his vexation. His arrangements had been carefully made, and here they were knocked on the head, and how he was to get May Dashwood over to Chartcote again he didn't know.

“What a nice hall!” exclaimed Gwen. “I do love nice halls,” and she looked round at the renaissance decorations of the wall and the domed roof. “Oh, I do love that archway with the statue holding the electric light, it is sweet!”

“It's bad style,” said Boreham, walking gloomily in front of them towards a door which led into the library. “The house was decent enough, I believe, till some fool in the family, seeing other people take up Italian art, got a craze for it himself and knocked the place about.”

“Oh,” said Gwen, crestfallen, “I really don't know anything about how houses ought to look. I only know my cousin Lady Goosemere's house and mother's father's old place, my grandfather's and—and—I do like the Lodgings, Mrs. Dashwood,” she added in confusion.

“So do I,” said May Dashwood.

“This is the library,” said Boreham, opening the door.

Boreham led them from one room to another, making remarks on them expressly for the enlightenment of Mrs. Dashwood, using language that was purposely complicated and obscure in order to show Miss Scott that he was not taking the trouble to give her any information. Whenever he spoke, he stared straight at May Dashwood, as if he were alone with her. He did not by any movement or look acknowledge the presence of the intruder, so that Gwendolen began to wonder how long she would be able to endure her ill-treatment at Chartcote, without dissolving into tears. She kept on stealing a glance at the watch on Mrs. Dashwood's wrist, but she could never make out the time, because the figures were not the right side up, and she never had time to count them round before Mrs. Dashwood moved her arm and made a muddle of the whole thing.

But no lunch party lasts for ever, and at last Gwendolen found herself down in the hall with the taxi grunting at the door and a bustle of good-byes around her. The rain had stopped. Mrs. Greenleafe Potten and Bingham were standing together on the shallow steps like two children. The Hardings were already halfway down the drive. Lady Dashwood looked out of the window of the taxi at Boreham, as he fastened the door.

“Wait a minute, Mr. Boreham,” she said. “Tell Mr. Bingham we can take him into Oxford.”

“He's going to walk,” said Boreham, coldly. “He's going to walk back with Mrs. Potten, who wants to walk, and then return for his bicycle.”

“Oh, very well,” said Lady Dashwood, leaning back. “Good-bye, so many thanks, Mr. Boreham.”

Boreham's face wore an enigmatic look as he walked up the steps.

Bingham had opened a pocket-book and was making a note in it with a pencil.

“Excuse me just one moment, Mrs. Potten. I shan't remember if I don't make a note of it.”

The note that Bingham jotted down was: “Sat. Lady Dashwood, dinner 8 o'clock.”

Boreham glanced keenly and suspiciously at him, for he heard him murmur aloud the words he was writing.

Boreham did not see that Bingham had any right to the invitation.

“I've forgotten my waterproof,” exclaimed Mrs. Potten, as she went down the steps.

Bingham dived into the hall after it and having found it in the arms of a servant, he hurried back to Mrs. Potten.

“I do believe I've dropped my handkerchief,” remarked Mrs. Potten, as he started her down the drive at a brisk trot.

“Are you afraid of this pace?” asked Bingham evasively, for he did not intend to return to the house.

Boreham gazed after them with his beard at a saturnine angle. “You couldn't expect her to remember everything,” he muttered to himself.

The sky was low, heavy and grey, and the air was chilly and yet close, and everything—sky, half-leafless trees, the gravelled drive too—seemed to be steaming with moisture. The words came to Boreham's mind:

    “My very heart faints and my whole soul grieves,
     At the moist rich smell of the rotting leaves.”

“That won't do,” he said to himself, as he still stood on the steps motionless. “It's no use quoting from Victorian poets. 'What the people want' is nothing older than Masefield or Noyes, or Verhaeren. Because, though Verhaeren's old enough, they didn't know about him till just now, and so he seems new; then there are all the new small chaps. No, I can't finish that article. After all, what does it matter? They must wait, and I can afford now to say, 'Take it or leave it, and go to the Devil!'”

He turned and went up the steps. There was no sound audible except the noise Boreham was making with his own feet on the strip of marble that met the parquetted floor of the hall. “It's a beastly distance from Oxford,” he said, half aloud; “one can't just drop in on people in the evening, and who else is there? I'm not going to waste my life on half a dozen damned sport-ridden, parson-ridden neighbours who can barely spell out a printed book.”

One thing had become clear in Boreham's mind. Either he must marry May Dashwood for love, or he must try and let Chartcote, taking rooms in Oxford and a flat in town.

If Boreham had found the morning unprofitable, the Hardings had not found it less so.

“Did Mrs. Potten propose calling?” asked Harding of his wife, as they sat side by side, rolling over a greasy road towards Oxford.

“No,” said Mrs. Harding.

“It's quite clear to me,” said Harding, “that Mrs. G. P. only regards Boreham as a freak, so that he won't be any use.”

“We needn't go there again,” said Mrs. Harding, “unless, of course,” she added thoughtfully, “we knew beforehand—somehow—that it wasn't just an Oxford party. And Lady Dashwood won't do anything for us.”

“It's not been worth the taxi,” said Harding.

“I wish you'd not made that mistake about Miss Scott,” said Mrs. Harding, after a moment's silence.

“How could I help it?” blurted Harding. “Scott's a common name. How on earth could I tell—and coming from Oxford!”

“Yes, but you could see she powdered, and her dress! Besides, coming with the Dashwoods and knowing Mrs. Potten!” continued Mrs. Harding. “If only you had said one or two sentences to her; I saw she was offended. That's why she ran off with Mrs. Dashwood, she wouldn't be left to your tender mercies. I saw Lady Dashwood staring.”

Harding made no answer, he merely blew through his pursed-up mouth.

“And we've got Boreham dining with us next Thursday!” he said after a pause. “Damn it all!”

“No. I didn't leave the note,” said Mrs. Harding. “I thought I'd 'wait and see.'”

“Good!” said Harding.

“It was a nuisance,” said Mrs. Harding, “that we asked the Warden of King's when the Bishop was here and got a refusal. We can't ask the Dashwoods and Miss Scott even quietly. It's for the Warden to ask us.”

“Anyhow ask Bingham,” said Harding; “just casually.”

Mrs. Harding looked surprised. “Why, I thought you couldn't stick him,” she said; “and he hasn't been near us for a couple of years at least.”

“Yes, but——”

“Very well,” said Mrs. Harding. “And meanwhile I've got Lady Dashwood to lend me Miss Scott for our Sale to-morrow! And shall I ask them to tea? We are so near that it would seem the natural thing to do.”

CHAPTER X. PARENTAL EFFUSIONS

“Well, May,” said Lady Dashwood, leaning back into her corner and speaking in a voice of satisfaction, “we've done our duty, I hope, and now, if you don't mind, we'll go on doing our duty and pay some calls. I ought to call at St. John's and Wadham, and also go into the suburbs. I've asked Mr. Bingham to dinner—just by ourselves, of course. Do you know what his nickname is in Oxford?”

May did not know.

“It is: 'It depends on what you mean,'“ said Lady Dashwood.

“Oh!” said May. “Yes, in the Socratic manner.”

“I dare say,” said Lady Dashwood. “What did you think of the Hardings?”

May said she didn't know.

“They are a type one finds everywhere,” said Lady Dashwood.

The afternoon passed slowly away. It was the busy desolation of the city, a willing sacrifice to the needs of war, that made both May and Lady Dashwood sit so silently as they went first to Wadham, and then, round through the noble wide expanse of Market Square opposite St. John's. Then later on out into the interminable stretch of villas beyond. By the time they returned to the Lodgings the grey afternoon light had faded into darkness.

“Any letters?” asked Lady Dashwood, as Robinson relieved them of their wraps.

Yes, there were letters awaiting them, and they had been put on the table in the middle of the hall; there was a wire also. The wire was from the Warden, saying that he would not be back to dinner.

“He's coming later,” said Lady Dashwood, aloud. “Late, May!”

“Oh!” said May Dashwood.

There was a letter for Gwen. It was lying by itself and addressed in her mother's handwriting. She laid her hand upon it and hurried up to her room.

Lady Dashwood went upstairs slowly to the drawing-room. “H'm, one from Belinda,” she said to herself, “asking me to keep Gwen longer, I suppose, on some absurd excuse! Well, I won't do it; she shall go on Monday.”

She turned up the electric light and seated herself on a couch at one side of the fire. She glanced through the other letters, leaving the one from Belinda to the last.

“Now, what does the creature want?” she said aloud, and at the sound of her own voice, she glanced round the room. She had taken for granted that May had been following behind her and had sat down, somewhere, absorbed in her letters. There was no one in the room and the door was closed. She opened the letter and began to read:

    “My dear Lena,

    “I am a bit taken by surprise at Gwen's news! How rapidly it must
    have happened! But I have no right to complain, for it sounds just
    like a real old-fashioned love at first sight affair, and I can tell
    by Gwen's letter that she knows her own mind and has taken a step
    that will bring her happiness. Well, I suppose there is nothing that
    a mother can do—in such a case—but to be submissive and very sweet
    about it!”

Lady Dashwood's hand that held the letter was trembling, and her eyes shifted from the lines. She clung to them desperately, and read on:

    “I must try and not be jealous of Dr. Middleton. I must be very
    'dood.' But just at the moment it is rather sudden and overpowering
    and difficult to realise. I had always thought of my little Gwen,
    with her great beauty and attractiveness, mated to some one in the
    big world; but perhaps it was a selfish ambition (excusable in a
    mother), for the Fates had decreed otherwise, and one must say
    'Kismet!' I long to come and see you all. It is impossible for me to
    get away to-morrow, but I could come on Saturday. Would that suit
    you? It seems like a dream—a very real dream of happiness for Gwen
    and for—I suppose I must call him 'Jim.' And I must (though I
    shouldn't) congratulate you on so cleverly getting my little treasure
    for your brother. I know how dear he is to you.

                     “Yours affectionately,

                     “Belinda Scott.”

Lady Dashwood laid the letter on her knees and sat thinking, with the pulses in her body throbbing. A dull flush had come into her cheeks, and just below her heart was a queer, empty, weak feeling, as if she had had no food for a long, long while.

She moved at last and stood upon her feet.

“I will not bear it,” she said aloud.

Her voice strayed through the empty room. The face of the portrait stared out remorselessly at her with its cynical smile. All the world had become cynical and remorseless. Lady Dashwood moved to the door and went into the corridor. She passed Gwen's room and went to May Dashwood's. There she knocked on the door. May's voice responded. She had already begun to dress.

“Aunt Lena!” she exclaimed softly, as Lady Dashwood closed the door behind her without a word and came forward to the fireplace, “what has happened?”

Lady Dashwood held towards her a letter. “Read that,” she said, and then she turned to the fire and leaned her elbow on the mantelpiece and clasped her hot brow in her hands. She did not look at the tall slight figure with its aureole of auburn hair near her, and the serious sweet face reading the letter. What she was waiting for was—help—help in her dire need—help! She wanted May to say, “This can't be, must not be. I can help you”; and yet, as the silence grew, Lady Dashwood knew that there was no help coming—it was absurd to expect help.

May Dashwood stood quite still and read the letter through. She read it twice, and yet said nothing.

“Well!” said Lady Dashwood, her voice muffled. As no reply came, she glanced round. “You have read the letter?” she asked.

“Yes,” said May, “I've read it,” and she laid the letter on the mantelpiece. There was a curious movement of her breathing—as if something checked it; otherwise her face was calm and she showed no emotion.

“What's to be done?” demanded Lady Dashwood.

“Nothing can be done,” said May, and she spoke breathlessly.

“Nothing!” exclaimed Lady Dashwood. “May!”

“Nothing, not if it is his wish,” said May Dashwood, and she cleared her throat and moved away.

“If he knew, it would not be his wish,” said Lady Dashwood. “If he knew about the other letter; if he knew what those women were like! Of course,” she went on, “men are such fools, that he might think he was rescuing her from Belinda! But,” she burst out suddenly, yet very quietly, “can't he see that Gwen has no moral backbone? Can't he see that she's a lump of jelly? No, he can't see anything;” then she turned round again to the fire. “Society backs up fraud in marriage. People will palm off a girl who drinks or who shows signs of inherited insanity with the shamelessness of horse-dealers. 'The man must look out for himself,' they say. Very well,” said Lady Dashwood, pulling herself up to her full height, “I am going to do—whatever can be done.” But she did not feel brave.

May had walked to the dressing-table and was taking up brushes and putting them down again without using them. She took a stopper out of a bottle, and then replaced it.

Lady Dashwood stood looking at her, looking at the bent head silently. Then she said suddenly: “This letter was posted when?” She suddenly became aware that the envelope was missing. She had thrown it into the fire in the drawing-room or dropped it. It didn't matter—it was written last night. “Gwen must have posted her news at the latest yesterday morning by the first post. Then when could it have happened? He never saw her for a moment between dinner on Monday, when you arrived, and when she must have posted her letter.” Lady Dashwood stared at her niece. “It must have happened before you arrived.”

“No,” said May. “He must have written—you see;” and she turned round and looked straight at Lady Dashwood for the first time since she read that letter.

“Written that same night, Monday, after Mr. Boreham left?”

May moved her lips a moment and turned away again.

“I don't believe it,” said Lady Dashwood.

“If it is his wish—if he is in love,” said May slowly, “you can do nothing!”

“He is not in love with her,” said Lady Dashwood, with a short bitter laugh. “If she speaks to me about it before his return, I—well, I shall know what to say. But she won't speak; she knows I read the first sentences of her mother's letter, and being the daughter of her mother—that is, having no understanding of 'honour'—she will take for granted that I read more—that I read that letter through.”

May remained silent. Just then the dressing gong sounded, and Lady Dashwood went to the door.

“May, I am going to dress,” she said. “I shall fight this affair; for if it hadn't been for me, Jim would still be a free man.”

May looked at her again fixedly.

“What shall you say to Lady Belinda?” she asked.

“I shall say nothing to Belinda—just now,” said Lady Dashwood. “The letter may be—a lie!”

“Suppose she comes on Saturday?” said May.

Lady Dashwood's eyes flickered. “She can't come on Saturday,” she said slowly. “There is no room for her, while you are here; the other bedrooms are not furnished. You”—here Lady Dashwood's voice became strangely cool and commanding—“you stay here, May, till Monday! I must go and dress.”

May did not reply. Lady Dashwood paused to listen to her silence—a silence which was assent, and then she left the room as rapidly and quietly as she had entered.

Outside, the familiar staircase looked strange and unsympathetic, like territory lost to an enemy and possessed by that enemy—ruined and distorted to some disastrous end. Some disastrous end! The word “end” made Lady Dashwood stop and to think about it. Would this engagement that threatened to end in marriage, affect her brother's career in Oxford?

It might! He might find it impossible to be an efficient Warden, if Gwendolen was his wife! There was no telling what she might not do to make his position untenable.

Lady Dashwood went up the short stair that led to the other bedrooms. She passed Gwendolen's door. What was the girl inside that room thinking of? Was she triumphant?

Had Lady Dashwood been able to see within that room, she would have found Gwendolen moving about restlessly. She had thrown her hat and outdoor things on the bed and was vaguely preparing to dress for dinner. Mrs. Potten had not said one word about asking her to come on Monday—not one word; but it didn't matter—no, not one little bit! Nothing mattered now!

A letter lay on her dressing-table. From time to time Gwendolen came up to the dressing-table and glanced at the letter and then glanced at her own face in the mirror.

The letter was as follows:—

    “My Darling little girl,

    “What you tell me puts me in a huge whirl of surprise and excitement.
    I suppose I am a very vain mother when I say that I am not one little
    bit astonished that Dr. Middleton proposes to marry you. But you must
    not imagine for a moment that I think you were foolish in listening
    to his offer. For many reasons, a very young pretty girl is safer
    under the protection and care of a man a good deal older than
    herself. Dr. Middleton in his prominent position in Oxford would not
    promise to share his life and his home with you unless he really
    meant to make you very, very happy, darling. May your future life as
    mistress of the Lodgings be a veritable day-dream. Tell him how much
    I long to come; but I can't till Saturday as I have promised to help
    Bee with a concert on Friday; it is an engagement of honour, and you
    know one must play up trumps. I rush this off to the post. My love,
    darling,

                     “Your own

                     “Mother.”

Gwen had found a slip of paper folded in the letter, on which was written in pencil, “Of course you are engaged. Dr. Middleton is pledged to you. Tear up this slip of paper as soon as you have read it, and give my letter to you to the Warden to read. This is all-important. Let me know when you have given it to him.”

Gwen had read and had burned the slip of paper, and had even poked the ashes well into the red of the fire.

When that was done, she had walked about the room excitedly.

How was it possible to dress quietly when the world had suddenly become so dreadfully thrilling? So, after all her doubt and despair, after all her worry, she was engaged. It was all right! All she had to do was to give her mother's letter to the Warden and the matter was concluded. She was going to be Mrs. Middleton, and mistress of the Lodgings. How thrilling! How splendid it was of her mother to make it so plain and easy! And yet, how was she to put the letter into the Warden's hands? What was she to say when she handed the letter to him?

When Louise appeared to attend to Gwen's dress, she found that young lady fastening up her black tresses with hands that showed suppressed excitement, and her eyes and cheeks were glowing.

She turned and glanced at Louise. “I'm late, as usual, I suppose,” she said and laughed.

“Mademoiselle has the appearance of being très gaie ce soir,” said Louise.

“Oh, not particularly,” said Gwen; “only my hair won't go right; it's a beast, and refuses,” and she laughed again.

When she was Mrs. Middleton she would have a maid of her own, not a French maid. They were a nuisance, and looked shabby. Yes, she dared think of being engaged and of being married. It wasn't a dream: it was all real. She would buy a dog, a small little thing, and she would tie its front hair with a big orange bow and carry it about in her arms everywhere. It would be lovely to be dressed in a filmy tea-gown with the dog in her arms, and she would rise to meet callers and say, “I'm so sorry—the Warden isn't at home; but you know how busy he is,” etc., etc., and the men who called would pull the dog's ears and say “Lucky beggar!” and she would scold them for hurting her darling, darling pet, and she would sit in the best place in the Chapel, wearing the most cunning hats, and she would appear not to see that she was being admired.

In this land of fairy dreams the Warden hovered near as a vague shadowy presence: he was there, but only as a name is over a shop window, something that marks its identity but has little to do with the delights to be bought within.

And why shouldn't she imagine all this? There was the letter to be given to the Warden—that must be done first. She must think that over. Louise's presence suggested a plan. Suppose the Warden came home so late that she didn't see him? She would write a tiny note and put her mother's letter within it, and send it down to the library by Louise. That would be far easier than speaking to him. So much easier did it seem to Gwen, that she determined to go to bed very early, so that she should escape meeting the Warden.

And what should she write in her little note?

How exciting the world was; how funny it was going down into the drawing-room and meeting Lady Dashwood and Mrs. Dashwood, both looking so innocent, knowing nothing of the great secret! How funny it was going down to the great solemn dining-room, entered by its double doors—her dining-room—and sitting at table, thinking all the time that the whole house really belonged to her, and that she would in future sit in Lady Dashwood's chair! How deliciously exciting, indeed! All the plate and glass on the table was really hers. Old Robinson and young Robinson were really her servants. What a shock for Lady Dashwood when she found out! Gwen's eyes were luminous as she looked round the table. How envious some people would be of her! Mrs. Dashwood would not be pleased! For all her clever talk, Mrs. Dashwood had not done much. What a bustle there would be when the secret was discovered, when the Warden announced: “I am engaged to Miss Scott, Miss Gwendolen Scott!” How young, how awfully young to be a Warden's wife! What an excitement!

During dinner, Lady Dashwood told Robinson to keep up a good fire in the library, as the Warden would probably arrive at about a quarter to eleven.

That decided Gwen. She would go to bed at ten, and that would give her time to write her little note and get it taken to the library before the Warden arrived home. He would find it there, awaiting him.

Dinner passed swiftly, though the two ladies were rather dull and silent. Gwen had so much to think of that she ate almost without knowing that she was eating. When they went upstairs to the drawing-room, the time went much more slowly, for there was nothing to do. Lady Dashwood and Mrs. Dashwood both took up books, and seemed to sink back into the very depths of their chairs, and disappear. It was very dismal. Perhaps Lady Dashwood hadn't read that letter all through. Anyhow she had not been able to interfere. That was clear!

Gwen went and fetched the book on Oxford, and read half a page of it, and when she had mastered that, she discovered that she had read it before. So she was no farther on for all her industry. How slowly the hands of the clock on the mantelpiece moved; how interminable the time was! Everybody was so silent that the clock could be heard ticking. That Lady Dashwood hadn't been able to interfere and make mischief with the Warden, showed how little power she had after all.

At last the clock struck ten, and Gwen got up from her chair.

“Ten,” said Mrs. Dashwood, and she raised her face from her book.

“Ten,” said Lady Dashwood.

“Yes, ten,” said Gwendolen. “I think I'll go to bed, Lady Dashwood, if you don't mind.”

“Do, my dear,” said Lady Dashwood.

The girl stood up before her, slim and straight as an arrow. Both women sat and looked at her, and she glanced at both of them in silence. Her very beauty stung Lady Dashwood and made her eyes harden as she looked at the girl. What were May Dashwood's thoughts as she, too, leaning back in her large chair, looked at the dark hair and the flushed cheeks, the white brow and neck, the radiant pearly prettiness of eighteen!

Gwen was conscious that they were examining her; that they knew she was pretty—they could not deny her prettiness. She felt a glow of pride in her youth and in her power—her power over a man who commanded other men. And this drawing-room was hers. She glanced at the portrait over the fireplace.

“Mr. Thing-um-bob,” she said dimpling, “is looking very sly this evening.”

May Dashwood took up her book again and turned over a few pages, as if she had lost her place. Lady Dashwood did not smile or speak. Gwen made a movement nearer to Lady Dashwood.

“Good night,” she said. She seemed to have a sudden intention of bending down, perhaps to kiss Lady Dashwood. Vague thoughts possessed the girl that this rather incomprehensible and imposing elderly woman, who wore such nice rings, was going to be a relation of hers. Would she be her sister-in-law? How funny to have anybody so old for a sister-in-law! It was a good thing she had, after all, so little influence over Dr. Middleton.

“Good night, Gwen,” said Lady Dashwood, without appearing to notice the girl's movement towards her. “Sleep well, child,” she added and she turned her head towards May Dashwood.

Gwen hesitated a brief moment, and then walked away. “I always sleep well,” she said, with a laugh. “I once thought it would be so nice to wake up in the night, because one would know how comfy one was. But I did wake once—for about a quarter of an hour—and I soon got tired and hated it!”

At the door she turned and said, “Good night, Mrs. Dashwood. I quite forgot—how rude of me!”

“Good night,” said May.

The door closed.

Lady Dashwood stared deeply at her book, and then raised her eyes suddenly to her niece.

May had risen from her chair. “Do you mind, dear Aunt Lena, if I go off too?” She came close to Lady Dashwood and laid a caressing hand on her shoulder.

Lady Dashwood looked up into her face, and May was startled at the expression of suffering in the eyes.

“Go, dear, if you want to! I shall stay up—till he comes in. Yes, go, May!”

“You won't feel lonely?” said May, and she sighed without knowing that she did so.

“No,” said Lady Dashwood.

May bent down and kissed her aunt's brow. It was burning hot. She caressed her cheek with her hand, then kissed her again and went out. As May met the cooler air of the staircase, she murmured to herself, “I'm a coward to leave her alone—alone when she is so wretched. Oh, what a coward I am!”

She shivered as she went up the stairs, and as soon as she was in her own room she put up the lights, and then she locked the door, and having done this she took off her dress and put on her dressing-gown. She sat down by the fire. How was she to stay on here till Monday: how was she to endure it? It would be intolerable! May groaned aloud. What right had she to call it intolerable? What had happened to her? What was demoralising her, turning her strength into weakness? What was it that had entered into her soul and was poisoning its health and destroying its purpose?

A few days ago and she had been steadily pursuing her work. She had been stifling her sorrow, and filling the vacancy of her life with voluntary labour. Having no child of her own, she had been filling her empty arms with the children of other women. She had fed and nursed and loved babies that would never call her “Mother.” She had had no time to think of herself—no time for regrets—for self-pity. And now, suddenly, her heart that had been quieted and comforted, her heart that had seemed quieted and comforted, her heart dismissed all this tender and sacred work and cried for something else—cried and would not be appeased. She felt as if all that she had believed fixed and certain in herself and in her life, was shaken and might topple over, and in the disaster her soul might be destroyed. She was appalled at herself.

No, no; she must wrestle with this sin, with this devil of self; she must fight it!

She got up from her chair and went to the dressing-table. There she took up with a trembling hand a little ivory case, and going back to her seat she opened it reverently and looked at the face of her boy husband. There he was in all the bloom of his twenty and six years. It was a young pleasant face. And he had been such a comrade of her childhood and girlhood. But strangely enough he had never seen the gulf widening between them as she grew into a woman older than her years and he into a man, young for his years; boyish in his view of life, mentally immature. He was quite unconscious that he never met the deeper wants of her nature; those depths meant nothing to him. There had been a tacit understanding between them from their childhood that they should marry; an understanding encouraged by their parents. When at last May found out her mistake; that this bondage was irksome and her heart unsatisfied, he had suddenly thrown the responsibility of his happiness, of his very life, upon her shoulders, not by threats of vengeance on himself, but by falling from his usual buoyant cheerfulness into a state of uncomplaining despondency.

May had had more than her share of men's admiration. Her piquancy and ready sympathy more even than her good looks attracted them. But she had gone on her way heart whole, and meanwhile she could not endure to see her old comrade unhappy.

They became formally engaged and he returned to his old careless cheerfulness. He was no longer a pathetic object, and she was a little disappointed and yet ashamed of her disappointment. Why should she have vague “wants” in her nature—these luxuries of the pampered soul? The face she now gazed upon, figured in the little ivory frame, was of a man, not over-wise, a man who was occupied with the enjoyment of life, yet without sinister motives. During those brief six months of married life, he had leant upon her, delighted and yet amused at her sterner virtues; and yet this man, not strong, not wise, when the call of duty came, when that ancient call to manhood, the call to rise up and meet the enemy, when that call came, he went out not shrinking, but with all honourable eagerness and fearlessness to offer his life. And his life was taken.

So that he whom in life she had never looked to for moral help, had become to her—in death—something sacred and unapproachable. In her first fresh grief she had asked herself bitterly what she—in her young womanhood—had ever offered to humanity? Nothing at all comparable to his sacrifice! Had she ever offered anything at all? Had she not, from girlhood, taken all the joys that life put in her way, and taken them for granted?

She had been aware of an underworld of misery, suffering and vice, had seen glimpses of it, heard its sounds breaking in upon her serenity. She had, like the travelling Levite, observed, noted, and had gone about her own business. So with passionate self-reproach she had thrown herself into work among the neglected children of the poor, and had tried to still the clamour of her conscience and fill the emptiness of her heart.

And until now, that life had absorbed her and satisfied her—until now!

“I am not worthy to look upon your face,” she murmured, and she closed the ivory case, letting it fall upon her lap. She hid her face in her hands. Oh, why had she during those six months of marriage patronised him in her thoughts? Why had she told him he was “irresponsible,” jestingly calling him “her son,” and now after his death, was she to add a further injustice and become unfaithful to his memory—the memory of her boy, who would never return?

Sharp, burning tears oozed up painfully between her eyelids. She tried to pray, and into her whole being came a profound silent sense of self-abasement, absorbing her as if it were a prayer.

CHAPTER XI. NO ESCAPE

Lady Dashwood sat on in the drawing-room. Now that she was alone it was not necessary to keep up the show of reading a book. She put it down on a table close at hand and gave herself up to thought.

But what was the good of plans—until Jim came back? The first thing was to find out whether the engagement was a fact and not an invention of Belinda's. Then if it was a fact, whether Jim really wanted to marry Gwendolen? If he did want to, plans might be very difficult to make, and there was little time, with Belinda clamouring to come and play the mother-in-law. The vulture was already hovering with the scent of battle in its nostrils.

Then, on the other hand, supposing Jim didn't want to marry Gwen, but had only been run into it—somehow—before he had had time to see May Dashwood, then plans might be easier. But in any case there were almost overwhelming difficulties in the way of “doing anything.” It was easy to say that she would never allow the marriage to take place, but how was she to prevent it?

“I must prevent it,” she murmured to herself. “Must!”

What still amazed and confounded Lady Dashwood and made her helpless was: why her brother showed such obvious interest—more than mere interest—in May Dashwood, if he was in love with Gwendolen Scott and secretly pledged to her? Jim playing the ordinary flirt was unthinkable. It did look as if he had proposed in some impulsive moment, before May arrived, and then——Why, that was why he had not announced his engagement! Was he playing a double game? No, it was unthinkable that he should not be absolutely straight. Gwendolen had somehow entangled him. The very thought of it made Lady Dashwood get up from her chair and move about restlessly. Then an idea struck her. Jim coveted Gwendolen for her youth and freshness and only admired May! Yes, only admired her, and regarding her as still mourning for her young husband, still inconsolable, he had treated her with frankness and had shown his admiration without the restraint that he would have used otherwise.

When would Jim return? How long would she have to wait?

She had told Robinson to take a tray of refreshments for the Warden into the library. Now that she was alone in the drawing-room she would have the tray brought in here. When Jim did come in, she would have to approach her subject gradually. She must be as wily as a serpent—wily, when her pulses were beating and her head was aching? It would be more easy and natural for her to begin talking here than to go into the library and force him into conversation after the day's work was done. Yet the matter must be thrashed out at once. She could not go about with Belinda's letter announcing the engagement and yet pretend that she knew nothing about it. Gwendolen probably knew that her mother had written; or if she didn't already know, would very likely know by the morning's post.

She rang the bell, and when Robinson appeared, she told him to bring the tray in, instead of taking it to the library.

“When the Warden comes in, tell him the tray is here,” she said. Oh, how the last few minutes dragged! It was some distraction to have Robinson coming in and putting the tray down on the wrong table, and to be able to tell him the right table and the most suitable chair to accompany it. Then, when he had gone and all was ready, she chose a chair for herself. Not too near and not too far. She had Belinda's letter safe? Yes, it was here! She was ready, she was prepared. She was going to do something more difficult than anything she had experienced in her life, because so much depended on it, so much; and a great emotion is not easy to hide, it takes one's breath sometimes, it makes one's voice harsh, or indistinct, or worse still, it suddenly benumbs the brain, and thoughts go astray and tangle themselves, and all one's power of argument, all one's grip of the situation, goes.

And the minutes passed slowly and still more slowly. When at last she heard sounds on the stairs, the blood rushed to her cheeks and her hands became as cold as ice. That was a bad beginning! She went to the door and opened it. He had come in and had gone into the library. She called out to him to come into the drawing-room. She heard his voice answer “Coming!” She left the door open and went back to her chair, the chair she had chosen, and she stood by it, waiting, looking at the open door.

He came in. He looked all round the room, and closed the door behind him.

“All alone?” he said, and there was a question in his voice. Who was he thinking of? Who was absent? Whose absence was he thinking of?

She sat down. “You're not cold?” she asked.

“Not at all,” he said, and he walked to the table arranged for him and sat down.

“Did you have a satisfactory day?” she asked.

“On the whole,” he said slowly, “yes.”

“You're not tired?” she asked.

“Not a bit,” he answered. “Why should I be?” and he looked at her and smiled.

“I don't know why you should be, Jim. I'm glad you're not. My guests seemed to be tired, for they both went off long ago.”

She was now making the first step in the direction which she must boldly travel.

“I expect you are tired too,” he said, “only—as usual—you wait up for me.”

The Warden poured himself out a cup of coffee, and took up a sandwich, adding: “I managed to get a scrappy dinner before seven; if I had waited longer I should have missed my train.”

“We were very dull at dinner without you,” she said, bringing him back again to the point from which she was starting.

The Warden looked pleased, and then pained. Lady Dashwood was watching him with keen tired eyes.

“We lunched at Chartcote, and then we did all that you particularly wanted me to do,” she said. “And then something rather amazing happened—I found a letter waiting me from Belinda Scott!”

She paused. The Warden glanced at her: his face became coldly abstracted.

“I don't mean that it was strange that she should write, but that what she said was strange.”

He glanced at her again, and she saw that he was arrested. She went on. It seemed now easier to speak. A strange cold despair had seized her, and with that despair a fearlessness.

“I can't help thinking that there is some mistake, because you would have told me if—well, anything had happened to you—of consequence! You would not have left me to be told by an—an outsider.”

The Warden raised the cup of coffee to his lips, and then put it down carefully.

“Anything that has happened,” he said, “has not been communicated by me to anybody. It did not seem to me that—there was anything that ought to be.”

Lady Dashwood waited and finding her lips would stiffen and her voice sounded hollow, measured her words.

“Will you read Belinda's letter, and then you will see what I mean?” she said, and she rose and held the paper out to him.

His features had grown tense and severe. He half rose, and reached out over the table for the letter, and took it without a word. Then he put on his eye-glasses and read it through very slowly.

Lady Dashwood sat, staring at her own hands that lay in her lap. She was not thinking, she was waiting for him to speak.

He read the letter through, and sat with it in his hand, silent for a minute. For years he had been accustomed to looking over the compositions of men who had begun to think, and of men who never would begin to think. He was unable to read anything without reading it critically. But his criticism was criticism of ideas and the expression of ideas. He had no insight either by instinct or training for the detection of petty personal subterfuges, nor did he suspect crooked motives. But the discrepancy between this effusion of maternal emotion and Gwendolen's assertion that she had no home and that nobody cared was glaring.

The writer of the letter was a bouncing, selfish woman of poor intelligence. That fact, indeed, had become established in the Warden's mind. The letter was in hopelessly bad taste. It became pretty plain, therefore, that Gwendolen had spoken the truth, and the lie belonged to the mother.

Already, yes, already he was being drawn into an atmosphere of paltry humbug, of silly dishonesty, an atmosphere in which he could not breathe.

Couldn't breathe! The Warden roused himself. What did he mean by “being drawn”? He had carried out his life with decisive and serious intentions, and whoever shared that life with him would have to live in the atmosphere he had created around him. Surely he was strong enough not only to hold his own against the mother, but to mould a pliable girl into a form that he could respect!

“Somehow, I can't imagine how,” said Lady Dashwood, breaking the silence, “I found a letter from Belinda to Gwendolen on my toilet table among other letters, and opened it and I began reading it—without knowing that it was not for me. Belinda's writing—all loops—did not make the distinction between Gwen and Lena so very striking. I read two sentences or so, and one phrase I can't forget; it was 'What are you doing about the Warden?' I turned the sheet and saw, 'Your affectionate mother, Belinda Scott.' I did not read any more. I gave the letter to Gwen, and I saw by her face that she had read the letter herself. 'What are you doing about the Warden?' Knowing Belinda, I draw conclusions from this sentence that do not match with the surprise she expresses in this letter you have just read. You understand what I mean?”

The Warden moved on his seat uneasily.

“Belinda speaks of your engagement to Gwendolen,” said Lady Dashwood, and her voice this time demanded an answer.

“I am not engaged,” he said, turning his eyes to his sister's face slowly, “but, I am pledged to marry her—if it is her wish.”

Lady Dashwood's eyes quavered.

“Is it your wish?” she asked.

The Warden rose from his chair as if to go.

“I can't discuss the matter further, Lena. I cannot tell you more. I had no right, I had no reason, for telling you anything before, because nothing had been concluded—it may not be concluded. It depends on her, and she has not spoken to me decisively.”

He moved away from the table.

“You haven't finished your coffee, your sandwiches,” said Lady Dashwood, to give herself time, and to help her to self-control. Oh, why had he put himself and his useful life in the hands of a mere child—a child who would never become a real woman? Why did he deliberately plan his own martyrdom?

“I don't want any more,” he said, “and I have letters to write.”

“Jim,” she called to him gently, “tell me at least—if you are happy—whether——”

“I can't talk just now—not just now, Lena,” he said.

“But Belinda takes the matter as settled—otherwise the letter is not merely absurd—but outrageous!”

The Warden hesitated in his slow stride towards the door.

“I am not going to have Belinda here on Saturday. There is no room for her. She can't come till May has gone.” Lady Dashwood spoke this in a firm, rapid voice.

“That is for you to decide,” he said. “You are mistress here.”

He was moving again when she said in a voice full of pain: “You say you can't talk just now, you can't speak to me of what is happening to you, of what may happen to you, when you, next to John, are more to me than anything else in the world. What happens to you means happiness or misery to me, and yet you can't talk!”

The Warden was arrested, stood still, and turned towards her.

“You owe me some consideration, Jim. I have no children, you have been a son as well as a brother to me. I can have no peace of mind, no joy in life if things go wrong with you. Yes, I repeat it—if things go wrong with you. I was your mother, Jim, for many years, and yet you say you can't discuss something that is of supreme importance! You are willing to go out of this room and leave me to spend a night sleepless with anxiety.”

What his engagement to Gwendolen would mean to her was expressed more in her voice even than in her words. The Warden stood motionless.

“Be patient with me, Lena. I can't talk about it—I would if I could. I know all I owe to you—all I can never repay; but there is nothing more to tell you than that I have offered her a home. I have made a proposal—I was not aware that she had definitely accepted, and that is why I said nothing to you about it.”

Lady Dashwood got up. She did not approach her brother. Her instinct told her not to touch him, or entreat him by such means. She made a step towards the hearth, and said in a muffled voice—

“Will you answer one question? You can answer it.”

He made no sound of assent.

“Are you in love with her? or”—and here Lady Dashwood's voice shook—“do you feel that she will help you? Do you think she will be helpful to—the College?”

There was a pause, and then the Warden's voice came to her; he was forcing himself to speak very calmly.

“I have no right to speak of what may not happen. Lena, can't you see that I haven't?”

The pause came again.

“You have answered it,” said Lady Dashwood, in a broken voice.

There was no time to think now, for at that moment there came a sound that startled both of them and made them stand for a second with lifted heads listening.

“Some one screamed!” exclaimed Lady Dashwood.

The Warden was already at the door and had pulled it open. “The library!” he called out to her sharply, and he was gone. She hurried out after him, her heart beating with the sudden alarm. What had happened, what was it?

CHAPTER XII. THE GHOST

As soon as she had reached her room Gwendolen Scott sat down seriously by the little writing-table. Here was the paper and here was the pen, but the composition of the letter to the Warden was not even projected in her mind. The thoughts would not come.

“Dear Dr. Middleton,” Gwen began with complete satisfaction. That was all right. After some thought she went on. “Mother asks me to give you her letter!” No, of course, that wouldn't do. Her mother wouldn't like him to know that she ordered the letter to be shown to him. Everything on the slip of paper was secret. It was not the first time that Gwen had received private slips of paper.

Gwen was obliged to tear up the sheet and begin again: “Dear Dr. Middleton,”——

Now what would she say? It would take her all night. Of course, Louise looked in at the door and muttered something volubly.

“I can manage myself,” called out Gwen from her table. “I'm not ready, and shan't be for hours.”

Louise went away. Then it occurred to Gwen that she ought to have asked Louise to come back again in a few minutes, and take the letter. She really must try and get the letter written. So putting all the determination she was capable of into a supreme effort, she began: “I hope mother won't mind my showing you this letter.” Gwen had heard her mother often say with complete self-satisfaction: “Only a fool is afraid to tell a useful lie, but only a fool tells one that isn't necessary!” Indeed, Lady Belinda thought the second half of her maxim a bit clever, a bit penetrating, and Gwen had listened to it smiling and feeling that some reflected glory from her mother's wit was falling upon her, because she understood how clever it was. Now the implied untruth that Gwen was putting upon paper seemed to her very useful, and it looked satisfactory when written.

She went on: “I hope it wasn't wrong of me to tell what you said. You didn't say tell, but I didn't know what to do, as I am afraid to speak if you don't speak to me. You are so awfully, awfully kind that I know I oughtn't to be afraid, but I am. Do forgive stupid little me, and be kind again to

                     “Your solotory little

                     “GWENDOLEN SCOTT.”

The spelling of “solitary” had caused Gwen much mental strain, and even when the intellectual conflict was over and the word written, it did not look quite right. Why had she not said “lonely”? But that, too, had its difficulties.

However, the letter was now finished. Louise had taken her at her word and had not returned. Gwen looked at her watch. It was past a quarter to eleven. At this hour she knew she mustn't ring the bell for a servant. She could not search for Louise, she would be in Lady Dashwood's room. She must take the letter herself to the library. She put the letter into an envelope and addressed it to Dr. Middleton. Then she added her mother's letter and sealed the whole.

Then she peeped out of her door and listened! All the lights were full on and there was no sound of any one moving.

The Warden very likely hadn't yet returned. She would try and find out. She slipped quietly down the steps, and with her feet on the thick carpeted landing she waited. She could see that the hall below was brightly lighted, and all was still. She listened intently outside the drawing-room door. Not a sound. She might have time—if he really hadn't arrived.

She fled across the head of the staircase and was at the door of the library in a second of time. There she paused. No, there was no sound behind her! No one was coming upstairs! No one was opening the front door or moving in the hall! But it was just possible that he had already arrived and was sitting in the library. He might be sitting there—and looking severe! That would be alarming! Though—and here Gwen suddenly decided that for all his severity she infinitely preferred his appearance to that of a man like Mr. Boreham—Mr. Boreham's beard was surely the limit! She listened at the door. She laid her cheek against it and listened. No sound! The whole house illuminated and yet silent! There was something strange about it! She would peep in and if there was no light within—except, of course, firelight—she would know instantly that the Warden wasn't there. It would only take her a flash of a minute to run in, throw the letter down on the desk, and fly for all she was worth.

She turned the handle of the door slowly and noiselessly, and pushed ever so little. The door opened just an inch or two and disclosed—darkness! Except for a glimmer—just a faint glimmer of light!

He could not have come in, he could not possibly be there, and yet Gwen had a curious impression that the room was not empty. But empty it must be. She pushed the door quietly open and peeped in. The fire was burning on the hearth in solemn silence, a cavernous red. There was nobody in the room, and yet, as Gwen stole in and passed the projecting book-case opposite the door, against which she had stumbled that evening of evenings, she felt that she was not alone. It was a strange unpleasant feeling. There she was standing in the full space of that shadowy room. Books, books were everywhere—books that seemed to her keeping secrets in their pages and purposely not saying anything. The room was too long, too full of dead things—like books—too full of shadows. The heavy curtains looked black, the desk, its chair standing with its back to the fire—had a look of expecting to be occupied and waiting. She would have liked to have thrown the letter on to the desk instead of having to cross the few feet that separated her from the desk. The silence of the room was alarming! Something seemed to be ready to jump at her! Was something in the room? Gwen made a dash for the desk and threw down the letter. As she did so, a sudden thrill passed up her spine and stiffened her hair. She was not alone! There was somebody in the room, a shadow, an outline, at the far end of the room against one of the curtains—a man, a strange figure, looking straight at her! He was standing, bending forward but motionless against the curtain, and staring with eyes that had no life in them—at her!

Gwen gave a piercing scream and rushed blindly for the door. She dashed against the projecting book-case, striking her head with some violence. She tried to cry for help, but could not, the room swam in her vision. She struck out her arms to shield herself, and as she did so she felt rather than heard some one coming to her rescue, some one who flashed on the lights—and she flung herself into protecting arms.

“It's all right, it's all right,” said the Warden. “What made you cry out? Don't be frightened, child!” and he half led, half carried her towards a chair near the fire.

“No, no!” sobbed Gwen, shrilly. “Not here—no, take me away—away from——”

“From what?” asked Lady Dashwood quietly, at her elbow. “What is the matter, Gwen? You mustn't scream for nothing—what has frightened you?”

Gwen groaned aloud and hid her face in the Warden's arm.

“Something in this room has frightened you?” he asked.

Gwen sobbed assent.

“There is nothing in this room,” said Lady Dashwood. “Put her on the chair, Jim. She must tell us what it is she is afraid of. Come, Gwen!”

Although Gwendolen submitted to the commanding voice of Lady Dashwood and allowed herself to be placed in the chair, she still grasped the Warden's arm and hid her face in it.

“What frightened you, Gwen?” asked Lady Dashwood. “No harm can come to you—we are by you. Pull yourself together and speak plainly and quietly.”

Gwen uttered some half-incoherent sounds—one only being intelligible to the two who were bending over her.

“A man!” said the Warden, glancing round with surprise.

“No man is in the room,” said Lady Dashwood. “Did he go out? Did you see him go out?”

Gwen raised her face slightly.

“No. At the end there—looking!” and again she burst into uncontrollable sobs.

The Warden released his arm and walked to the farther end of the room, and Gwen grasped Lady Dashwood's arm and clung to her. The two women could hear the Warden as he walked across to the farther end of the room.

Gwen dared not look, but Lady Dashwood turned her head, supporting the girl's head as she did so on her shoulder.

The Warden had reached the window. He opened the curtains and looked behind them, then he pulled one sharply back, and into the lighted room came a flood of pale moonlight, and through the chequered window panes could be seen the moon herself riding full above a slowly drifting mass of cloud.

“There is nothing in the room. If there were we should see it,” said Lady Dashwood quietly, and she turned the girl's face towards the moonlight. “Look for yourself, Gwen. Your fears are quite foolish, my dear, and you must try and control them.”

So peremptory was Lady Dashwood's voice that the girl, still resting her head on the protecting shoulder, slightly opened her eyelids and saw the moonlight, the drawn curtains and the Warden standing looking back at them.

“You can see for yourself that there is nothing here,” he said.

It was true, there was nothing there—there wasn't now: and for the first time Gwen was conscious of pain in her head and put up her hand. There was a lump where she had knocked it, the lump was sore.

“Why, you have hurt your head, Gwen,” said Lady Dashwood. “That explains everything. A blow on the head is just the thing to make you think you see something that isn't there! Come now, we'll go upstairs and put something on that bruised head, and make it well again.”

“I struck my head after I saw it,” said Gwen, laying a stress upon the word “it,” averting her eyes from the moonlight and rising with the help of Lady Dashwood.

“You may have thought so,” said Lady Dashwood. “Come we mustn't stop here. Dr. Middleton probably has letters to write. Jim, good night. I'm sorry you have been so much disturbed, after a hard day's work.”

The tone in which Lady Dashwood made her last remark and her manner in leading Gwendolen out of the library, was that of a person who has “closed” a correspondence, terminated an interview. The affair of the scream and fright was over. It was a perfectly unnecessary incident to have occurred in a sane working day, so she had apologised for its intrusion. Why Gwendolen was in the library at all was a question that was of no consequence. It certainly was not in search of a book on which to spend the midnight oil. She was there—that was all.

When they had gone, the Warden stood for some moments in the library pondering. He had shut the door. The curtains he had forgotten to pull back, and now he discovered his omission and went to the farther end of the room.

The opposite wall, the wall of the court, was just tipped with silver. Distant spires and gables were silver grey. The clouds were drifting over the city westwards, and as the moon rode higher and higher in the southern sky, so the clouds sped faster before it, and behind it lay clear unfathomable spaces in the east.

The Warden pulled the heavy curtain across the window again, and walked to the fireplace. Outside was the infinite universe—its immensity awful to contemplate! Inside was the narrow security of the lighted room in which he worked and thought and would work and think—for a few years!

For a few years?

How did he know that he should have even a few years in which to think and work for his College?

The Warden went to the fire and stood looking down into it, his hands clasped behind his back.

The girl he was pledged to marry, if she wished to marry him, might wreck his life! She had only just a few moments ago showed signs of being weakly hysterical. “Helpful to the College!” His sister's question had filled him with a sudden new ominous thought.

What about the College? He had forgotten his duty to the College!

“My marriage is my own concern,” he was blurting out to himself miserably, as he looked at the fire. But the inevitable answer was already drumming in his ears—his own answer: “A man's action is not his own concern, and so deeply is every man involved in the life of the community in which he lives, that even his thoughts are not his own concern.”

The Warden paced up and down.

There were letters lying on his desk unopened, unread. He would not attempt to answer any of them to-night. He could not attend to them, while these words were beating in his brain: “Do you think she will be helpful to the College?”

His College! More to him than anything else, more than his duty; his hope, his pride! And the College meant also the sacred memory of those who had fallen in the war, all the glorious hopeful youth that had sacrificed itself! And he had forgotten the College!

He dared not think any longer. He must wrestle with his thoughts. He must force them aside and wait, till the moment came when he must act. That moment might not come! Possibly it might not! He would go to bed and try and sleep. He must not let thoughts so bitter and so deadly overwhelm him, eating into the substance of his brain, where they could breed and batten on the finest tissues and breed again.

He was looking at his desk and saw that one letter had tumbled from it on to the floor by his chair. He went across and picked it up. It was addressed in a big straggling hand—and had not come by post. He tore it open. It was from Gwendolen Scott. This was why she had come into the library. Without moving from the position where he stood he read it through.

CHAPTER XIII. THE EFFECT OF SUGGESTION

The clock struck midnight, and yet the Warden had not done what he had intended to do before he picked up that letter and read it. He had not gone to bed. He was still in his library, not at his desk, but in a great shabby easy-chair by the fire. He had put the lights out and was smoking in the half-dark.

So deeply absorbed was the Warden in his own thoughts that he did not hear the first knock on the door. But he heard the second knock, which was louder.

“Come in,” he called, and he leaned forward in his chair. Who wanted him at such an hour? It would not be any one from the college?

The door opened and Lady Dashwood came in. She was in a dressing-gown.

“You haven't gone to bed,” she said.

It was obvious that he hadn't gone to bed.

“No, not yet,” said the Warden. And he added, “Do you want me?”

“I ought not to want you, dear,” she said, “for I know you must be very tired.”

Then she came up to the fireplace and stood looking down at her brother. She saw that the spring and the hope had gone out of his face. He looked older.

“I have put Gwen to bed in my room, but even that has not quieted her,” said Lady Dashwood, speaking slowly.

The Warden's face in the twilight looked set. He did not glance at his sister now.

“She has lost her self-control. Do you know what the silly child thinks she saw?”

Here Lady Dashwood paused, and waited for his reply.

“I hadn't thought. She fancied she saw something—a man!” he answered, in his deep voice.

He hadn't thought! There had been no room in his mind for anything but the doom that was awaiting him. One of his most bitter thoughts in the twilight of that room had been that a woman he could have loved was already under his roof when he took his destiny into his own hands and wrecked it.

“I don't know,” he said, repeating mechanically an answer to his sister's question.

“She thought she saw the Barber's ghost,” said Lady Dashwood.

The Warden looked up in surprise. There was a slight and bitter smile at the corners of his mouth. Then he straightened himself in his chair and looked frowning into the fire. That Gwendolen should have taken a college “story” seriously and “made a scene” about it was particularly repugnant to him.

“She came in here; why I don't know, and no doubt was full of the story about the Barber appearing in the library,” said Lady Dashwood. “We ought not to have talked about it to any one so excitable. Then she knocked her head against the book-case and was in a state of daze, in which she could easily mistake the moonlight coming through an opening in the curtains for a ghost, and if a ghost, then of course the Barber's ghost. And so all this fuss!”

“I see,” said the Warden, gloomily.

“As soon as we got upstairs, I had to pack Louise off before she had time to hear anything, for I can't have the whole household upset simply because a girl allows herself to become hysterical. May is now sitting with Gwen, as she won't be left alone for a moment.”

“What are you going to do?” asked the Warden, in a slow hard voice.

“That's the question,” she said, looking down at him narrowly.

“Do you want a doctor?” he asked. “Is it bad enough for that? It is rather late to ask any one to come in when there isn't any actual illness.”

“A doctor would be worse than useless.”

“Well, then, what do you suggest?” he asked.

“Couldn't you say something to her to quiet her?” said Lady Dashwood.

The Warden looked surprised. “I couldn't say anything, Lena, that you couldn't say. You can speak with authority when you like.”

“More is wanted than that. She must be made to think she saw nothing here in this library,” said Lady Dashwood. “You used to be able to 'suggest.' Don't you remember?”

The Warden pondered and said nothing.

“She would like to keep the whole house awake—if she had the chance,” said Lady Dashwood, and the bitterness in her voice made her brother wince.

“Couldn't you make her believe that the ghost won't, or can't come again, or that there are no such things as ghosts?”

The Warden sat still; the glow was dying out of the cigar he held between his fingers. He did not move.

“When you were a boy you found it easy enough to suggest; I remember I disapproved of it. I want you to do it now, because we must have quiet in the house.”

“She may not be susceptible to suggestion!” said the Warden, still obstinately keeping his seat.

“You think she is too flighty, that she has too little power of concentration,” suggested Lady Dashwood, with a sting in her voice. “You must try: come, Jim! I want to get some rest, I'm very tired.”

She did, indeed, look hollow-eyed, and seeing this he rose and threw his cigar into the fire. So this was the first thing he had to do as an engaged man: he had to prevent his future wife from disturbing the household. He had to distract her attention from absurd fears, he had to impose his will upon her. Such a relationship between them, the husband and wife that were to be, would be a relationship that he did not wish to have with any one whom he ought to respect, much less any one whom he ought to love.

The errand on which he was going was a repulsive one. If even a faint trace of romantic appreciation of the girl's beauty had survived in him, it would have vanished now. What he was going to do seemed like a denial of her identity, and yet it seemed necessary to do it. Had he still much of that “pity” left for her that had impelled him to offer her a home?

They left the library and, as they passed the curtained door of the Warden's bedroom, Lady Dashwood said, “You'll go to bed afterwards, Jim?”

She had spoken a moment ago of her own fatigue as if it was important. She had now forgotten it. Her mind was never occupied for many moments with herself, she was now back again at her old habit, thinking of him. He was tired. No wonder, worn out with worries, of his own making, alas!

“Yes,” said the Warden, “yes, dear.”

The lights in the hall were still burning, and he turned them out from the wall by the head of the staircase. Then they went up the short steps into the corridor. Lady Dashwood's room was at the end.

At the door of her room Lady Dashwood paused and listened, and turned round to her brother as if she were going to say something.

“What?” whispered the Warden, bending his head.

“Oh, nothing!” said Lady Dashwood, as if exasperated with her own thoughts. Then she opened the door and went in, followed by the Warden.

The room was not spacious, and the canopied bedstead looked too massive for the room. It had stood there through the reign of four of the Wardens, and Lady Dashwood had kept it religiously. Gwen was propped up on pillows at one side of it, looking out of her luminous eyes with great self-pity. Her dark hair was disordered. She glanced round tearfully and apprehensively. An acute observer might have detected that her alarm was a little over expressed: she had three spectators—and one of them was the Warden!

Near her stood May Dashwood in a black dressing-gown illumined by her auburn hair. It was tied behind at her neck and spread on each side and down her back in glistening masses. She looked like some priestess of an ancient cult, ministering to a soul distressed. The Warden stood for a moment arrested, looking across at them, and then his eyes rested on May alone.

Gwen made a curious movement into her pillows and May moved away from the bed. She seemed about to slip away from the room, but Lady Dashwood made her a sign to stay. It was such an imperative sign that May stayed. She went to the fireplace silently and stood there, and Lady Dashwood came to her. No one spoke. Lady Dashwood stood with face averted from the bed and closed her eyes, like one who waits patiently, but takes no part and no responsibility. May did not look at the bed, but she heard what was said and saw, without looking.

The Warden was now walking quietly round to the side where Gwendolen was propped. She made a convulsive movement of her arms towards him and sobbed hysterically—

“Oh, I'm so frightened!”

He approached her without responding either to her exclamation or her gestures. He put his hand on the electric lamp by the bed, raised the shade, and turned it so as to cast its light on his own face. While he did this there was silence.

Then he began to speak, and the sound of his voice made May's heart stir strangely. She leaned her elbow on the mantelpiece and pressed her hand over her eyes. All her prayers that night, all her self-reproach, meant very little. What were they but a pretence, a cloak to hide from herself the nakedness of her soul? No, they were not a pretence. Her prayer had been a real prayer for forgetfulness of herself. But in his presence the past seemed to slip away and leave her clamouring for relief from this strange present suffering, and from this dull empty aching below her heart when she drew her breath. She knew now how weak she was.

She could hear his voice saying: “What is it you are afraid of?” and as he spoke, it seemed to May herself that fear, of all things in the world, was the least real, and fear of spirits was an amazing folly.

“I thought I saw something,” said Gwendolen, doubtfully; for already she was under the influence of his voice, his manner, his face; and her mind had begun to relax the tenacity of its hold on that one distracting fear.

“You thought you saw something,” he said, emphasising the word “thought”; “you made a mistake. You saw nothing—you imagined you saw—there was nothing!”

May could not hear whether Gwendolen made any reply.

“And now I am going to prevent you from frightening yourself by imagining such foolish things again.”

Although she did not look towards them, but kept her eyes on the ground, May was aware that the Warden was now bending over the bed, and he was speaking in an inaudible voice. She could hear the girl move round on the pillow in obedience to some direction of his. After this there came a brief silence between them that seemed an age of intolerable misery to May, and then she perceived that the Warden was turning out the bed light, and she heard him move away from the bed. He walked to the door very quietly, as if to avoid awakening a sleeper.

“Good night,” he said in a low voice, and then, without turning towards them, he went out of the room.

The door was closed. The two women moved, looked at each other, and then glanced at the bed. Gwen was lying still; she had slid down low on her pillows, with her face towards the windows and her eyes closed. They stood motionless and intent, till they could see in the dim light that the girl was breathing quietly and slowly in sleep. Then Lady Dashwood spoke in a whisper.

“Now, I suppose, I can go to bed!”

Then she looked round at May. “Go to bed, May! You look worn out.”

“Shall you sleep?” whispered May Dashwood, but she spoke as if she wasn't listening for an answer.

“I don't know,” said Lady Dashwood, in a whisper too. “It's so like life. The person who has made all the fuss is comfortably asleep, and we who have had to endure the fuss, we who are worn out with it, are awake and probably won't sleep.”

May moved towards the door and her aunt followed her. When May opened the door and went outside, Lady Dashwood did not close the door or say good night. She stood for a moment undecided, and then came outside herself and pulled the door to softly behind her.

“May!” she said, and she laid a detaining hand on her niece's arm.

“What, Aunt Lena?”

“If he liked, he could repel her, make her dislike him! If he liked he could make her refuse to marry him! You understand what I mean? He must know this now. The idea will be in his mind. He'll think it over. But I've no hope. He won't act on it. He'll only think of it as a temptation that he must put aside.”

May did not answer.

“He could,” said Lady Dashwood; “but he won't. He thinks himself pledged. And he isn't even in love with her. He isn't even infatuated for the moment!”

“You can't be sure.”

“I am sure,” said Lady Dashwood.

“How?” And now May turned back and listened for an answer with downcast eyes.

“I asked him a question—which he refused to answer. If he were in love he would have answered it eagerly. Why, he would have forced me to listen to it.”

May Dashwood moved away from her aunt. “Still—they are engaged,” she said. “They are engaged—that is settled.”

Lady Dashwood spoke in a low, detaining voice. “Wait, May! Somehow she has got hold of him—somehow. Often the weak victimise the strong. Those who clamour for what they want, get it. Every day the wise are sacrificed to fools. I know it, and yet I sleep in peace. But when Jim is to be sacrificed—I can't sleep. I am like a withered leaf, blown by the wind.”

May took her aunt's arm and laid her cheek against her shoulder.

“How can I sleep,” said Lady Dashwood, “when I think of him, worried into the grave by petty anxieties, by the daily fretting of an irresponsible wife, by the hopeless daily task of trying to make something honourable and worthy—out of Belinda and Co.? When I say Belinda and Co., I think not merely of Belinda Scott and her child, but of all that Jim hates: the whole crew of noisy pleasure-hunters that float upon the surface of our social life. The time may come when we shall say to our social parasites, 'Take up your burden of life and work!' The time will come! But meanwhile Jim has to be sacrificed because he is hopelessly just. And yet I wouldn't have him otherwise. Go, dear, try and sleep, for all my talk.” Then, as she drew away from her niece, she said in a tense whisper: “What an unforgivable fool he has been!”

May closed her eyes intently and said nothing.

“Oh, May,” sighed Lady Dashwood, “forgive me; I feel so bitter that I could speak against God.”

May looked up and laid her hand on her aunt's arm.

“You know those lines, Aunt Lena—

    “Measure thy life by loss and not by gain,
     Not by the wine drunk, but the wine poured forth!”

Lady Dashwood's eyes flashed. “If Jim had offered his life for England I could say that: but are we to pour forth wine to Belinda and Co.?”

The two women looked at each other; stared, silently.

Then Lady Dashwood began to turn the handle of the door.

“Why should he be sacrificed to—to—futilities?” Then she added very softly: “I have had no son of my own, May, so Jim fills the vacant place. I think I could, like Abraham, have sacrificed my son to the Great God of my nation, but this sacrifice! Oh, May, it's so silly! He might have married some nice, quiet Oxford girl any day. And he has waited for this!”

She saw the pain in May's eyes and added: “I am wearing you out with my talk. I am getting very selfish. I am thinking too much of my own suffering. You, too, have suffered, dear, and you say nothing,” and as she spoke her voice softened to a whisper. “But, May, your sacrifice was to the Great God of your nation—the Great God of all nations.”

“The sacrifice had nothing to do with me,” said May, turning away. “It was his.”

“But you endure the loss, the vacant place,” said Lady Dashwood.

“I know what a vacant place means,” said May, quietly, “and my vacant place will never be filled—except by the children of other women! Good night, dear aunt,” and she walked away quickly, without looking back. Then she found the door of her room and went in.

Lady Dashwood's eyes followed her, till the door closed.

“I ought not to have said what I did,” murmured Lady Dashwood. “Oh, dear May, poor May,” and she went back into her room.

Gwen was still sleeping peacefully.

CHAPTER XIV. DIFFERENT VIEWS

The Lodgings at King's were built at a period when the college demanded that its Warden should be a bachelor and a divine, and it contained neither morning-room nor boudoir. The Warden's breakfast-room was used by Lady Dashwood for both purposes.

It was not such an inconvenient arrangement, because the Warden, as the war advanced, had reduced his breakfast till it was now little more than the continental “petit déjeuner,” and it could be as rapidly removed as it was brought in.

The breakfast-room was a small room and had no academic dignity, it was what Mrs. Robinson called “cosy.” It was badly lighted by one window, and that barred, looking into the quadrangle. The walls were wainscoted. One or two pictures brightened it, landscapes in water-colour that had been bought by the Warden long ago for his rooms when he was a college tutor.

At the breakfast table on the morning following Gwendolen's brief interview with the Barber's ghost, her place was empty.

No one remarked on her absence. The Warden came in as if nothing had happened on the previous night. He did not even ask the ladies how they had slept, or if they had slept. He appeared to have forgotten all about last night, and he seated himself at the table and began opening his letters.

Mrs. Dashwood gave him one furtive glance when he came in and responded to his salutation. Then she also sat in silence and looked over her letters. She was making a great effort not to mind what happened to her, not to feel that outside these few rooms in a corner of an ancient college, all the world stretched like a wilderness. And this effort made her face a little wan in the morning light.

Lady Dashwood poured out the coffee with a hand that was not quite as steady as usual, but she, too, made no reference to the events of last night. Nobody, of course, had slept but Gwendolen, and Gwendolen had awakened from her sleep fresh and rosy.

It was only after several minutes had passed that Lady Dashwood remarked across the table to the Warden—

“I have kept Gwendolen in bed for breakfast, not because she is ill, she is perfectly well, but because I want her to be alone, and to understand that she has completely got over her little hysterical fit and is sensible again.”

The Warden looked up and then down again at his letters and said, “Yes!”

Lady Dashwood went on with her breakfast. She evidently did not expect any discussion. She had merely wished to make some reference to the occurrence of last night in such a way as not to reopen the subject, but to close the subject—for ever.

“Is it your club morning?” asked the Warden, as he looked over his letters.

“Yes,” said Lady Dashwood.

“I'll come and help you to cut out,” said May. “I'm an old hand.”

“Why should you come?” said Lady Dashwood. “This is your holiday, and it's short enough.”

She thought that the Warden noted the words, “short enough.”

“I shall come,” said May, and glancing at her aunt as she spoke, she now fancied her grown a little thinner in the face since last night only that it was impossible. The lines in the face were accentuated by want of sleep, it was that that made her face look thinner.

“I shall take Gwen,” said Lady Dashwood. “She can hand us scissors and pins, and can pick up the bits.” She spoke quite boldly and quietly of Gwendolen, and met May's eye without a flicker. “Our plan, May, is to get these young mothers and teach them at least how to make and mend their clothes. It isn't war work. It's 'after the war' work. Those young mothers who have done factory work, know nothing about anything. We must get something into their noddles. Two or three ladies will be there this morning, and we shall get all the work ready for the next club meeting—mothers and babies. Babies are entertained in a separate room. We have tea and one half-hour's reading; the rest of the time gossip. Oh, how they do talk!”

“How much do you expect to get from the Sale of work to-day for your club?” asked May, avoiding the Warden's eye when he put out his hand to her for the cup of coffee that she was passing him.

“Not very much,” said Lady Dashwood, “but enough, I hope.”

A moment later and Lady Dashwood was opening her letters.

“Mr. Boreham,” she remarked suddenly, “is bringing Mrs. Potten in to the Sale. He is the last person I should expect to meet at a Sale of work in aid of a mother's club.”

The Warden raised his eyes and apparently addressed the coffee-pot across the table.

“Boreham is usually suspicious of anything that is organised by what he calls 'respectable people.'“ Then he looked round at May Dashwood for the first time. The reason why Boreham was going to drive Mrs. Potten in to the Sale of work was obvious both to him and to Lady Dashwood. May did not meet the Warden's eye, though she was tinglingly conscious that they rested on her face.

“I object,” she said, imitating Boreham's voice, “not only to the respectable members of the British public, but to the British public in general. I am irritated with and express my animosity to the people around me with frankness and courage. But I have no inimical feelings towards people whom I have never met. Them I respect and love. Their institutions, of which I know nothing, I honour.”

The Warden's lips parted with a smile, as if the smile was wrung from him, but May did not smile. She was still making her effort, and was looking down into her plate, her eyebrows very much raised, as if she was contemplating there the portrait of somebody with compassionate interest.

Lady Dashwood saw the Warden's smile, and saw him lean forward to look at the downcast face of May, as if to note every detail of it.

Well into the early morning Lady Dashwood had lain awake thinking, and listening mechanically to the gentle breathing of the girl beside her, and thinking—thinking of May's strange exhibition of emotion. Was May——? No—that made things worse than ever—that made the irony of her brother's fate more acute! That was a tragic thought! But it was just this tragic thought that made Lady Dashwood now at the breakfast table observe with a subtle keenness of observation and yet without seeming to observe, or even to look. She sat there, absorbing May, absorbing the Warden, measuring them, weighing them while she tried to eat a piece of toast, biting it up as if she had pledged herself to reduce it to the minutest fragments.

“Perhaps I'm not fair to Mr. Boreham,” said May, shaking her head. “But I am an ignoramus. How can one,” she said smiling, but keeping her eyelids still downcast, “how can one combine the bathing of babies and feeding them, the dressing and undressing of them, the putting them to bed and getting them up again, with any culture (spelt with a 'c'). I get only a short and rather tired hour of leisure in the evening in which to read?”

“You do combine them,” he said, still bending towards her with the same tense look. “Only one woman in a thousand would.”

The colour had slightly risen in May's face, and now it died away, for she was aware that no sooner were the last words spoken than the Warden seemed to regret them. At least he stiffened himself and looked away from her, stared at nothing in particular and then put out his hand to take a piece of toast, making that simple action seem as if it were a protest of resolute indifference to her.

May felt as if his hand had struck her. She had partly succeeded in her effort and she had refused to glance at him. But she had not succeeded in thinking of something else, and now this simple movement of his hand made thoughts of him burn in her brain. Why did this man, with all his erudition, with his distinction, with all his force of character, his wide sympathies and his curious influence over others, why did this man with all his talk (and this she said bitterly) about life and death—and yes—about eternity, why did he bind himself hand and foot to a selfish and shallow girl? He who talked of life and of death, could he not stand the test of life himself?

The Warden rose from the table the moment that he had finished and looked at his sister. She had put her letters aside and appeared to have fallen into a heavy preoccupation with her own thoughts.

“Can I see you—afterwards—for a moment in the library, Lena?” he asked.

Lady Dashwood's tired face flushed.

“I will come very soon,” she said, and she pushed her chair back a little, as if to cover her embarrassment, and looked at her niece. “May,” she said, in a voice that did not quite conceal her trouble, “we ought to start at a quarter to ten. That will give us two clear hours for our work.”

May bent her head in assent. Neither of them was thinking of the Club. They could hear the Warden close the door behind him. Then Lady Dashwood rose and casting a silent look at May, went out of the room.

In the library a fitful sunshine was coming and going from a clouded sky. The curtains were drawn back and there seemed nothing in the room that could have justified even a hysterical girl in imagining a ghost. The Warden had left the door open, for he heard his sister coming up the stairs behind him.

Lady Dashwood came in, and she began speaking at once to cover her apprehension of the interview. “A funny sort of a day,” she began. “I hope it will keep up for this afternoon.”

The Warden had gone to one of the windows, and he moved at the sound of her voice.

“Mrs. Harding,” she said, “has written to ask us to come in to tea, as she's so near. It is convenient, as we shall only have to walk a few steps from our Sale, so I am going to accept by telephone.”

The Warden came towards her, and taking a little case from his pocket, handed her some notes. “Will you spend that for me at your Sale?”

That was not his reason for the interview! Lady Dashwood took the notes and put them into her bag, and then waited a moment.

“I may possibly have to go to the Deanery this afternoon,” he said, and then he paused too.

“Very well,” said Lady Dashwood. They both were painfully aware that this also was not what he wanted to say.

“Please let me have my lunch early, at a quarter to one,” he said.

“I have asked Mr. Bingham here to dinner on Saturday, he seemed to interest May, and, well, of course, it is not a lively holiday for her just now.”

Lady Dashwood's eyes were on him as she spoke. He seemed not to hear. He went up to his desk and turned over some papers, nervously, and he was a man who rarely showed any nervousness in his movements.

Then he suddenly said: “Gwendolen has practically accepted my offer.” And he did not turn round and look at his sister.

It had come! She knew it was coming, and yet it was as keenly painful as if she had been wholly unprepared.

“I can't delay our engagement,” he said. “I must speak to her to-day—some time.”

Then he moved so as to face his sister, and their eyes met. Misery was plainly visible in hers, in his the fixed determination to ignore that misery.

“May I ask you one question?” she began in a shaky voice.

He made no reply, but waited in silence for the question.

“When did it happen? I've no right to ask, dear, but tell me when did it happen?”

There was a strange look of conflict in his face that he was unable to control. “On Monday, just before dinner,” he said, and he took some papers from the desk as if he were about to read them. Then he put them down again and took out his cigar case.

Lady Dashwood walked slowly to the door. When she reached it, she turned.

“No man,” she said, still with an unsteady voice, “is bound to carry out a promise made in a reckless moment, against his better judgment, a promise which involves the usefulness of his life. As to Belinda, I suppose I must endure the presence of that woman next week; I must endure it, because I hadn't the sense—the foresight—to prevent her putting a foot in this house.”

The Warden's face twitched.

“Am I expecting too much from you, Lena?” he asked.

“Expecting too much!” Lady Dashwood made her way blindly to the door. “I have wrecked your life by sheer stupidity, and I am well punished.” At the door she stayed. “Of course, Jim, I shall now back you up, through thick and thin.”

She went out and stood for a moment, her head throbbing. She had said all. She had spoken as she had never spoken in her life before, she had said her last word. Now she must be silent and go through with it all unless—unless—something happened—unless some merciful accident happened to prevent it. She went downstairs again and crossed the hall to the door of the breakfast-room. May was still there, holding a newspaper in her hands, apparently reading it.

Lady Dashwood walked straight in, and then said quietly: “They are practically engaged.” She saw the paper in May's hand quiver.

“Yes,” said May, without moving her paper. “Of course.”

Her voice sounded small and hard. Lady Dashwood moved about as if to arrange something, and then stood at the dull little window looking out miserably, seeing nothing.

“I wonder—I hope, you won't be vexed with me. Aunt Lena,” began May. “You won't be angry——”

“I couldn't be angry with you,” said Lady Dashwood briefly, “but——” She did not move, she kept her back to her niece.

“I want you to let me go away rather earlier than Monday,” said May, and speaking without looking towards her aunt. “I think I ought to go. The fact is——”

Lady Dashwood turned round and came to her niece. “Do you think I am a selfish woman?” she asked. There was a strange note of purpose in her voice.

May shook her head and tried to smile. She did smile at last.

“Then, May,” said Lady Dashwood, “I am going to be selfish now. I ask you to stop till Monday, and help me to get through what I have to get through, even if you stay at some sacrifice to yourself. Jim has decided, so I must support him. That's clear.”

May stared hard at the paper that was still in her hand, though she had ceased to read it.

“As you wish, dear aunt,” she said, and turned away.

“Thanks,” said Lady Dashwood, in a low voice. “I shall be ready to start in a few minutes,” she went on, looking at her watch. Then she added bitterly, “I'm not going to talk about it any more, but I must say one thing. When you first shook hands with Jim he was already a pledged man. He is capable of yearning for the moon, but he has decided to put up with a penny bun;” here she laughed a hard painful laugh. “Nobody cares but I,” she added. “I have said all I can say to him, and I am now going to be silent.”

The door of the breakfast-room was slightly open and they could hear the sound of steps outside in the hall, steps they both knew.

The Warden was in the hall. Lady Dashwood listened, and then called out to him: “Jim!” Her voice now raised was a little husky, but quite calm. They could hear the swish of a gown and the Warden was there, looking at them. He was in his gown and hood, and held his cap in his hand. He was at all times a notable figure, but the long robe added to the dignity of his appearance. His face was very grave.

“May has not seen the cathedral,” said Lady Dashwood quietly, as if she had forgotten their interview in the library, “and we shall be close to Christ Church. Our Sale, you know.”

“Oh,” said May, slowly and doubtfully, and not looking as if she were really concerned in the matter.

“May ought to see the cathedral, Jim,” said Lady Dashwood, “so, if you do happen to be going to Christ Church, would you have time to take her over it and make the proper learned observations on it, which I can't do, to save my life?”

The Warden's eyes were now fixed on May. “You would like to see it?” he asked.

“You, May,” said Lady Dashwood. It seemed necessary to make it very clear to May that they were both talking about her.

“I?” said May, with her eyes downcast. “Oh, please don't trouble. You mustn't when you're so busy. I can see the cathedral any time. I really like looking at churches—quite alone.”

The Warden's blue eyes darkened, but May did not see them, she had raised her paper and was smiling vaguely at the print.

The Warden said, “As you like, Mrs. Dashwood. But I am not too busy to show you anything in Oxford you want to see.”

“Thank you,” said May, vaguely. “Thanks so much! Some time when you are less busy, I shall ask you to show me something.”

The Warden looked at her for a more definite reply. She seemed to be unaware that he was waiting for it, and when she heard the movement of his robes, and his steps and then the hall-door close, she looked round the room and said “Oh!” again vaguely, and then she raised her eyebrows as if surprised.

Lady Dashwood made no remark, she left the room and went into the hall. The irony of the situation was growing more and more acute, but there was nothing to be done but to keep silence.

Another step was coming down the stairs, steps made by a youthful wearer of high heels. It was Gwendolen.

She looked just a little serious, but otherwise there was no trace on her blooming countenance of last night's tragedy. A little lump on her head was all that remained to prove that she really had been frightened and really and truly had stupidly thought there was something to be frightened of. Gwen constantly put her finger up to feel the lump on her head, and as she did so she thought agreeably of the Warden.

“You see I'm not a bit frightened,” she said, and her cheeks dimpled. “When I passed near the library, I thought of Dr. Middleton.”

“You understand, don't you, Gwen,” said Lady Dashwood, “that I don't want any talk about 'a ghost,' even though, you are now quite sensible about it. I don't think the Robinsons are silly, but Louise and the other two are like children, and must be treated as such.”

“Oh no,” said Gwen, innocently, “I won't!” And she meant what she said. It was true that she had just hinted at something, perhaps she even used the word “ghost,” to the housemaid that morning, but she had made her promise faithfully not to repeat what she had heard, so it was all right.

“We start at half-past ten,” said Lady Dashwood.

Gwen said she would be punctual. Her face was full of mysterious and subdued pleasure when she looked into the breakfast-room to see if by any chance Mrs. Dashwood was still there. The girl's fancy was excited by the Warden's behaviour last night. She kept on thinking of his face in the lamp light. It looked very severe and yet so gentle. She was actually falling in love with him, so she said to herself. The Barber's ghost was no longer alarming, but something to recall with a thrill of interest, as it led on to the Warden. She was burning to talk about the Warden. She was so glad she had delivered her letter to the Warden. He would be simply obliged to speak some time to-day. How exciting! Now, was Mrs. Dashwood in the breakfast-room? Yes, there she was, standing in the window with a newspaper in her hand.

“Oh, good morning,” said Gwen, brightly. “I must thank you for having been so awfully sweet to me last night. It was funny, wasn't it, my getting that fright? I really and truly was frightened, till Dr. Middleton came up and told me I needn't. Isn't he wonderful?” Here Gwen's voice sank into a confidential whisper.

Mrs. Dashwood said “Yes” in a lingering voice, and she seemed about to go.

“I do think he is the nicest man I have ever met,” said Gwen hurriedly, “don't you? But then, of course, I have reason to think so, after last night. It must have looked queer, I mean to any one merely looking on. How I did sleep!” Then after a moment she said: “Don't you think he is very good-looking? Now, do tell me, Mrs. Dashwood! I promise you I won't repeat it.”

“He is a very charming man,” said May, “that is obvious.”

“Wasn't it silly of me to think of the Barber's ghost—especially as it only appears when some disaster happens to the Warden? I mean that is the story. Now the Warden is perfectly well this morning, I particularly asked, though I knew he would be, of course. Now, if there had been a real ghost, he ought to die to-day, or perhaps to-morrow. Isn't it all funny?” Then, as there came another pause, Gwendolen added, “I suppose it couldn't mean that he might die in a week's time—or six months perhaps?” and her voice was a little anxious.

“Death isn't the only disaster,” said May, “that can happen to a man.”

“Don't you think it's about the worst?” said Gwen. “Worse even than losing lots of money. You see, if you are once dead, there you are! But I needn't bother—there was no ghost.”

“No, there was no ghost,” said Mrs. Dashwood, and she laid her paper down on a side table.

Gwen felt that she had not had a fair chance of a talk. In the absence of anybody really young it was some comfort to talk to Mrs. Dashwood. She much preferred Mrs. Dashwood to Lady Dashwood. Lady Dashwood was sometimes “nasty,” since that letter affair. Fortunately she had not been able to do anything nasty. She had not been able to make the Warden nasty.

Gwen stood watching May, and then said in a low voice to detain her: “I wish mother would come!”

“Do you expect her?” asked May, turning round and facing the girl.

“I do and I don't and I do,” said Gwen. “That sounds jolly vague, I know, and please don't even say to Lady Dashwood that I mentioned it. You won't, will you? It jumped out of my mouth. Things do sometimes.”

May smiled a little.

“Mother is so plucky,” said Gwen; “I'm sure you'd like her—you really would, and she would like you. She doesn't by any means like everybody. She's very particular, but I think she would like you.”

May smiled again, and this gave Gwen complete confidence.

“Our relations, you know, have really been a bit stingy,” she said. “Too bad, isn't it, and there's been a bother about my education. Of course, mother needn't have sent me to school at all, only she's so keen on doing all she can for me, much more keen than our relations have been. Why, would you believe it, Uncle Ted, my father's youngest brother, who is a parson in Essex, has been saving! What I mean is that the Scotts ain't a bit well off—isn't it hard lines? You see I tell you all this, I wouldn't to anybody else. Well, Uncle Ted had saved for years for his only son—for Eton and Oxford: I don't think he'd ever given mother a penny. Wasn't that rather hard luck on mother?”

May said “Oh!” in a tone that was neutral.

“Well, but I'll explain,” said Gwen, eagerly, “and you'll see. When poor Ted was killed, almost at once in the war, there was all the Oxford money still there. Mother knew about it, and said it couldn't be less than five hundred pounds, and might be more. And mother just went to them and spoke ever so nicely about poor Ted being killed—it was such horrid luck on Uncle Ted—and then she just asked ever so quietly if she might borrow some of the Oxford money, as there would be no use for it now. She didn't even ask them to give it, she only asked to borrow, and she thought they would like it to be used for the last two years of my school, it would be such a nice thought for them. And would you believe it, they were quite angry and refused! So mother thought they ought to know how mean it was of them. She is so plucky! So she told them that they had no sympathy with anybody but themselves, and didn't care about any Scott except their own Ted, who was dead and couldn't come to life again, however much they hoarded. Mother does say things so straight. She is so sporting! But wasn't it horrid for her to have to do it?”

May had gradually moved to the door ready to go out. Now she opened it.

So this was the young woman to whom the Warden had bound himself, and this was his future mother-in-law!

May left the breakfast-room abruptly and without a word.

She mounted the stairs swiftly. She wanted to be alone. As the servants were still moving about upstairs, she went into the drawing-room.

There was no one there but that living portrait of Stephen Langley, and he was looking at her across the wide space between them with an almost imperceptible sneer—so she thought.

CHAPTER XV. MRS. POTTEN'S CARELESSNESS

There is little left in Christ Church of the simplicity and piety of the Age of Faith. It was rebuilt when the fine spiritual romanticism of our architectural adolescence had coarsened into a prosperous and prosaic middle age.

The western façade of the College is fine, but it is ostentatious for its purpose, and when one passes under Tom Tower and enters the quadrangle there is something dreary in the terraces that were intended to be cloistered and the mean windows of the ground floor that were intended to be hidden.

“It is like Harding,” said Bingham to himself, as he strolled in with a parcel under his arm. “He is always mistaking Mrs. Grundy for the Holy Ghost. But Harding has his uses,” he went on thinking, “and so has Tom Quod—it makes one thankful that Wolsey died before he had time to finish ruining the cathedral.”

An elderly canon of Christ Church, with a fine profile and dignified manner, stopped Bingham and demanded to know what he was carrying under his arm.

“Nothing for the wounded,” said Bingham. “I've bought a green table-cloth and a pair of bedroom slippers for myself. I've just come from a Sale in which some Oxford ladies are interested. One of the many good works with which we are going strong nowadays.”

The Canon turned and walked with Bingham. “Do you know Boreham?” he asked rather abruptly.

Bingham said he did.

“I met him a moment ago. He is taking some lady over the college. I met him at Middleton's, I think, not so long ago.”

“He's a connection of Middleton's,” said Bingham.

“Oh,” said the Canon, “is he? A remarkable person. He gave me his views on Eugenics, I remember.”

“He would be likely to give you his views,” said Bingham. “Did he want to know yours?”

The Canon laughed. “He pleaded so passionately in favour of our preserving the leaven of disease in our racial heredity, so as to insure originality and genius, that I was tempted to indulge in the logical fallacy: 'A dicto secundum quid ad dictum simpliciter,'“ and the Canon laughed again.

“His father was a first-rate old rapid,” said Bingham, “who ended in an asylum, I believe. His aunt keeps cats; this I know as a fact. His brother, Lord Boreham, as everybody knows, has been divorced twice. What matter? The good old scrap-heap has produced Bernard Boreham; what more do you want?”

Bingham's remarks were uttered with even more than his usual suavity of tone because he was annoyed. He had come to the Sale, he had bought the green table-cloth and the shoes, ostensibly as an act of patriotism, but really in order to meet Mrs. Dashwood. He had planned to take her over Christ Church and show her everything, and now Boreham, who had also planned the same thing, had turned up more punctually, had taken her off, and was at this moment going in and out, banging doors and giving erroneous information, along with much talk about himself and his ideas for the improvement of mankind.

The two men walked very slowly along. Bingham was in no hurry. The Canon also was in no hurry. In these gloomy days he was glad of a few minutes' distraction in the company of Bingham, whom nothing depressed. They walked so slowly that Lady Dashwood and Mrs. Potten, who had just entered the quadrangle, attended by Miss Scott laden with parcels, came up to them, bowed and passed them on their way to the rooms of one of the Fellows who had begged them to deposit their parcels and rest, if they wished to.

The two men went on talking, though their eyes watched the three ladies, who were looking for the rooms where they were going to deposit their purchases. Bingham took out his watch. It was half-past three. The ladies had found the right entrance, and disappeared. Then Lady Dashwood's face was to be seen for a moment at a window. Simultaneously Harding appeared from under Tom Tower.

He came up and spoke to the two men, and while he did so Bingham observed Miss Scott suddenly appear and make straight for them, holding something in her hand.

“Bravo! What a sprint,” murmured Bingham, as Gwendolen reached them rather breathless.

“Oh, Mr. Harding,” she panted, “Lady Dashwood saw you coming and thought you wouldn't know where she and Mrs. Potten were. Have you got the Buckinghamshire collar?”

Bingham burst into subdued laughter.

“My wife sent me over with it,” said Harding, who could not see anything amusing in the incident. “She said Lady Dashwood had got Mrs. Potten here. That's all right,” and he gravely drew from his sleeve a piece of mauve paper, carefully rolled up, on which was stitched the collar in question.

“Here's the money,” said Gwen, holding out a folded paper.

Harding took the paper.

“Thirty shillings,” said Gwen. “Is that right?”

“Yes, thirty shillings,” said Harding. “The price is marked on the paper.”

“Extraordinarily cheap at the price,” remarked Bingham. “There is no other collar equal to it in Buckinghamshire.”

The Canon turned and walked off, wondering in his mind who the very pretty, smartly dressed girl was. Harding unfolded the paper. It was a pound note and inside was not one but two new ten-shilling notes—only stuck together.

“You've given me too much, one pound and two tens,” he said, and he separated the two notes and gave one back to Gwen. “You're a bit too generous, Miss Scott,” he said.

Gwen took the note, dimpling and smiling and Harding wrote “paid” in pencil on the mauve paper.

“Here's your receipt,” he said, handing her the paper, “the collar and all,” and he turned away and went back to the sale room, with the money in his pocket.

Meanwhile Gwendolen did not run, she walked back very deliberately. She had the collar in one hand and the ten-shilling note in the other. She heard the two men turn and walk towards the gate. The old gentleman with a gown on, by which she meant the Canon, had disappeared. The quadrangle was empty. Gwen was thinking, thinking.

It wasn't she who was generous, it was Mrs. Potten, at least not generous but casual. She was probably casual because, although she was supposed to be stingy, a ten-shilling note made really no difference to her. It was too bad that some women had so much money and some so little. It was especially unjust that an old plain woman like Mrs. Potten could have hundreds of frocks if she wanted to, and that young pretty women often couldn't. It was very, very unjust and stupid. Why she, Gwen, hadn't enough money even to buy a wretched umbrella. It looked exactly as if it was going to rain later on, and yet there was no umbrella she could borrow. The umbrella she had borrowed before, had disappeared from the stand: it must have been left by somebody and been returned. You can't borrow an umbrella that isn't there. It was all very well for her mother to say “borrow” an umbrella, but suppose there wasn't an umbrella! The idea flashed into Gwen's mind that an umbrella could be bought for ten shillings. It wouldn't be a smart umbrella, but it would be an umbrella. Then she remembered very vividly how, a year ago, she was in a railway carriage with her mother and there was one woman there sitting in a corner at the other end. This woman fidgeted with her purse a great deal, and when she got out, a sovereign was lying on the floor just where her feet had been. Gwen remembered her mother moving swiftly, picking it up, and putting the coin into her own purse, remarking, “If people are so careless they deserve to lose things,” and Gwen felt that the remark was keenly just, and made several little things “right” that other people had said were wrong. Now, as she thought this over, she said to herself that it was only a week ago she had lost that umbrella: somebody must have got that umbrella and had been using it for a week, and she didn't blame them; beside the handle had got rather bashed. Another dozen steps towards the rooms made her feel very, very sure she didn't blame them, and—Mrs. Potten deserved to lose her ten-shilling note. Now she had reached the doorway, an idea, that was a natural development of the previous idea, came to her very definitely. She slipped the note into the right-hand pocket of her coat just as she stood on the threshold of the doorway, and then she ran up the stone stairs. No one was looking out of the window. She had noticed that as she came along. Now, she would see if Mrs. Potten was really careless enough not to know that she had given away two ten-shilling notes instead of one.

Gwendolen walked into the sitting-room. There were Mrs. Potten and Lady Dashwood sitting together and talking, as if they intended remaining there for ever.

“Here's your collar, Mrs. Potten,” said Gwen, coming in with the prettiest flush on her face, from the haste with which she had mounted the stairs.

She handed the roll of mauve paper and stood looking at Mrs. Potten. Now, she would find out whether Mrs. Potten knew she had flung away her precious ten-shilling note or not. If she was so stingy why was she so careless? She was very, very short-sighted, of course, but still that was no excuse.

“Thanks, my dear,” said Mrs. Potten. “I doubt if it is really as nice as the one we saw that was sold. Thirty shillings—the receipt is on the paper. It's the first time I've ever had a receipt at a bazaar or sale. Very business-like; Mr Harding, of course. One can see the handwriting isn't a woman's!” So saying Mrs. Potten, who had been peering hard at the collar and the paper, passed it to Lady Dashwood to look at.

“Charming!” said Lady Dashwood.

Now Lady Dashwood knew Mrs. Potten's soul. Mrs. Potten had come into Oxford at no expense of her own. Mr. Boreham had driven her. She had also, so Lady Dashwood divined, the intention of helping the Sale as much as possible, by her moral approbation. Nothing pleased Mrs. Potten that she saw on the modest undecked tables. Then she had praised a shilling pincushion, had bought it with much ceremony, and put it into her bag. “There, I mustn't go and lose this,” she had said as she clicked the fastening of her bag. Then she had praised a Buckinghamshire collar which was marked “Sold,” and in an unwary moment had told Lady Dashwood that she would have bought that; that was exactly what she wanted, only it was unfortunately sold. But Lady Dashwood, who was business-like even in grief, had been equal to the occasion. “I know there is another one very like it,” she had said in a slightly bullying voice; and when Mrs. Potten moved off as if she had not realised her luck, murmuring something about having to be somewhere almost immediately, Lady Dashwood had swiftly arranged with Mrs. Harding that the other collar, which was somewhere in reserve and was being searched for, should be sent after them.

This was why Lady Dashwood had conveyed the reluctant Mrs. Potten into the quadrangle, and had made her climb the stairs with her into these rooms and wait.

So here was Mrs. Potten, with her collar, trying to believe that she was not annoyed at having been deprived of thirty shillings in such an astute way by her dear friend.

“Am I wanted any more?” asked Gwen, looking from one lady to the other.

She took the collar from Lady Dashwood and returned it to Mrs. Potten.

Mrs. Potten opened her bag disclosing the shilling pincushion (which now she need not have bought) and placed the collar within. Then she shut the bag with a snap, and looked so innocent that Gwendolen almost laughed.

No, Gwen was not wanted any more. She turned and went. Mrs. Potten deserved to lose money! “Yes, she did, and in any case,” thought Gwen, “at any moment I can say, 'Oh yes, I quite forgot I had the note. How stupid, how awfully stupid,' etc.”

So she went down the stairs and out into the terrace.

A few steps away she saw Mr. Bingham, coming back again. This time alone.

As soon as Gwen had gone Mrs. Potten remarked, “Now I must be going!” and then sat on, as people do.

“Very pretty girl, Gwendolen Scott,” she added.

“Very pretty,” said Lady Dashwood.

“Lady Belinda wrote to me a day or two ago, asking me if Gwen could come on to me from you on Monday.”

“Oh!” said Lady Dashwood, but she uttered the exclamation wearily.

“I have written and told her that I'm afraid I can't,” said Mrs. Potten. “Can't!”

Lady Dashwood looked away as if the subject was ended.

“If I have the child, it will mean that the mother will insist on coming to fetch her away or something.” Here Mrs. Potten fidgeted with her bag. “And I really scarcely know Lady Belinda. It was the husband we used to know, old General Scott, poor dear silly old man!”

Lady Dashwood received the remark in silence.

“I can't do with some of these modern women,” continued Mrs. Potten. “There are women whose names I could tell you that I would not trust with a tin halfpenny. My dear, I've seen with my own eyes at a hotel restaurant a well-dressed woman sweep up the tip left for the waiter by the person who had just gone, I saw that the waiters saw it, but they daren't do anything. I saw a friend of mine speaking to her afterwards! Knew her! Quite respectable! Fancy the audacity of it!”

Lady Dashwood now rested her head on the back of her chair and allowed Mrs. Potten to talk on.

“I'm afraid there's nothing of the Good Samaritan in me,” said Mrs. Potten, in a self-satisfied tone. “I can't undertake the responsibility of a girl who is billeted out by her mother—instead of being given a decent home. I think you're simply angelic to have had her for so long, Lena.”

Lady Dashwood's silence only excited Mrs. Potten's curiosity. “Most girls now seem to be doing something or other,” she said. “Why, one even sees young women students wheeling convalescent soldiers about Oxford. I don't believe there is a woman or girl in Oxford who isn't doing something for the war.”

“Yes, but it is the busy women who almost always have time for more work,” said Lady Dashwood.

“Now, I suppose Gwendolen is doing nothing and eating her head off, as the phrase goes,” said Mrs. Potten.

Lady Dashwood was not to be drawn. “Talking of doing something,” she said, to draw Mrs. Potten off the subject, and there was a touch of weariness in her voice: “I think a Frenchwoman can beat an Englishwoman any day at 'doing.' I am speaking now of the working classes. I have a French maid now who does twice the work that any English maid would do. I picked her up at the beginning of the war. Her husband was killed and she was stranded with two children. I've put the two children into a Catholic school in Kent and I have them in the holidays. Well, Louise makes practically all my things, makes her own clothes and the children's, and besides that we have made shirts and pyjamas till I could cut them out blindfolded. She's an object lesson to all maids.”

Lady Dashwood was successful, Mrs. Potten's attention was diverted, only unfortunately the word “maid” stimulated her to draw up an exhaustive inventory of all the servants she had ever had at Potten End, and she was doing this in her best Bradshaw style when Lady Dashwood exclaimed that she had a wire to send off and must go and do it.

“I ought to be going too,” said Mrs. Potten, her brain reeling for a moment at this sudden interruption to her train of thought. She rose with some indecision, leaving her bag on the floor. Then she stooped and picked up her bag and left her umbrella; and then at last securing both bag and umbrella, the two ladies made their way down the stairs and went back into St. Aldates.

All the time that Mrs. Potten had been running through a list of the marriages, births, etc., of all her former servants, Lady Dashwood was contriving a telegram to Lady Belinda Scott. It was difficult to compose, partly because it had to be both elusive and yet firm, and partly because Mrs. Potten's voice kept on interrupting any flow of consecutive thought.

When the two ladies had reached the post-office the wire was completed in Lady Dashwood's brain.

“Good-bye,” said Mrs. Potten, just outside the threshold of the door. “And if you see Bernard—I believe he means to go to tea at the Hardings—would you remind him that it is at Eliston's that he has to pick me up? There are attractions about!” added Mrs. Potten mysteriously, “and he may forget! Poor Bernard, such a good fellow in his way, but so wild, and he sometimes talks as if he were almost a conscientious objector, only he's too old for it to matter. I don't allow him to argue with me. I can't follow it—and don't want to. But he's a dear fellow.”

Lady Dashwood walked into the post-office. “Thank goodness, I can think now,” she said to herself, as she went to a desk.

The wire ran as follows:—

“Sorry. Saturday quite impossible. Writing.”

It was far from cordial, but cordial Lady Dashwood had no intention of being. She meant to do her duty and no more by Belinda. Duty would be hard enough. And when she wrote the letter, what should she say?

“If only something would happen, some providential accident,” thought Lady Dashwood, unconscious of the contradiction involved in the terms. The word “providential” caused her to go on thinking. If there were such things as ghosts, the “ghost” of the previous night might have been providentially sent—sent as a warning! But the thought was a foolish one.

“In any case,” she argued, “what is the good of warnings? Did any one ever take warning? No, not even if one rose from the dead to deliver it.”

She was too tired to walk about and too tired to want to go again into the Sale room and talk to people. She went back to the rooms, climbed the stairs slowly and then sat down to wait till it was time to go to Mrs. Harding's. Perhaps May would soon have finished seeing Christ Church and come and join her. Her presence was always a comfort.

It was a comfort, perhaps rather a miserable comfort, to Lady Dashwood because she had begun to suspect that May too was suffering, not suffering from wounded vanity, for May was almost devoid of vanity, but from—and here Lady Dashwood leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. It was a strange thing that both Jim and May should have allowed themselves to be martyrised, only May's marriage had been so brief and had ended so worthily, the shallow young man becoming suddenly compelled to bear the burden of Empire, and bearing it to the utmost; but Gwen would meander along, putting all her burdens on other people; and she would live for ever!

CHAPTER XVI. SEEING CHRIST CHURCH

Boreham had been very successful that afternoon. He had managed to secure Mrs. Dashwood without having to be rude to her hostess. He had done it by exchanging Mrs. Potten for the younger lady with a deftness on which he congratulated himself, though it was true that Lady Dashwood had said to May Dashwood, “Go and see over the College with Mr. Boreham.”

Miss Scott was, most fortunately, absorbed in playing at shop with Mrs. Harding.

Boreham's course was clear. He calculated with satisfaction that he had a good hour before him alone with Mrs. Dashwood. He could show her every corner of Christ Church and do it slowly; the brief explanation (of a disparaging nature) that he would be obliged to make on the details of that historic building would only serve to help him out at, perhaps, difficult moments. It would be easier for him to talk freely and prepare her mind for a proper appreciation of the future which lay before her, while he walked beside her and pointed out irrelevant things, than it would have been if he had been obliged to sit still in a chair facing her, for example, and stick to his subject. It seemed to him best to begin by speaking quite frankly in praise of himself. Boreham had his doubts whether any man is really humble in his estimation of himself, however much he may pretend to be; and if, indeed, any man were truly humble, then, in Boreham's opinion, that man was a fool.

As soon as they had crossed St. Aldates and had entered the gate under Tom Tower, Boreham introduced the subject of his own merits, by glancing round the great quadrangle and remarking that he was thankful that he had never been subjected to the fossilising routine of a classical education.

“The study of dead languages is a 'cul-de-sac,'“ he explained. “You can see the effect it has had in the very atmosphere of Oxford. You can see the effect it has had on Middleton, dear fellow, who got a double First, and the Ireland, and everything else proper and useless, and who is now—what? A conscientious schoolmaster, and nothing more!”

It was necessary to bring Middleton in because May Dashwood might not have had the time or the opportunity of observing all Middleton's limitations. She probably would imagine that he was a man of ideas and originality. She would take for granted (not knowing) that the head of an Oxford College was a weighty person, a successful person. Also Middleton was a good-looking-man, as good-looking as he, Boreham, was himself (only of a more conventional type), and therefore not to be despised from the mere woman's point of view.

Boreham peered eagerly at his companion's profile to see how she took this criticism of Middleton.

May was taking it quite calmly, and even smiled. “So far, good,” said Boreham to himself, and he went on to compare his larger view of life and deeper knowledge of “facts” with the restricted outlook of the Oxford Don. This she apparently accepted as “understood,” for she smiled again, and this triumph of Boreham's was achieved while they looked over the Christ Church library.

“The first thing,” said Boreham, when they came again into the open air—“the first thing that a man has to do is to be a man of the world that we actually live in, not of the world as it was!”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Dashwood “the world we actually live in.”

“You agree?” he said brightly.

She smiled again.

“Oxford might have been vitalised; might, I say, if, by good luck, somebody had discovered a coal mine under the Broad, or the High, and the University had been compelled to adjust itself to the practical requirements of the world of labour and of commerce, and to drop its mediæval methods for those of the modern world.”

May confessed that she had not thought of this way of improving the ancient University, but she suggested that some of the provincial universities had the advantage of being in the neighbourhood of coal mines or in industrial centres.

Boreham, however, waived the point, for his spirits were rising, and the sight of Bingham in the distance, carrying his table-cloth and slippers and looking wistfully at nothing in particular, gave him increased confidence in his main plan.

“This staircase,” said Boreham, “leads to the hall. Shall we go in? I suppose you ought to see it.”

“What a lovely roof!” exclaimed May, when they reached the foot of the staircase.

Boreham admitted that it was fine, but he insisted that it was too good for the place, and he went on with his main discourse.

When they entered the dining-hall, the dignity of the room, with its noble ceiling, its rich windows and the glow of the portraits on the walls, brought another exclamation from May's lips.

But all this academic splendour annoyed Boreham extremely. It seemed to jeer at him as an outsider.

“It's too good for the collection of asses who dine here,” he said.

As to the portraits, he insisted that among them all, among all these so-called distinguished men, there was not one that possessed any real originality and power—except perhaps the painter Watts.

“It's so like Oxford,” he added, “to produce nothing distinctive.”

May laughed now, with a subdued laughter that was a little irritating, because it was uncalled for.

“I am laughing,” she explained, “because 'the world we actually live in' is such a funny place and is so full of funny people—ourselves included.”

That was not a reason for laughter if it were true, and it was not true that she was, or that he was “funny.” If she had been “funny” he would not have been in love with her. He detained her in front of the portrait of Wesley.

“I wonder they have had the sense to keep him here,” said Boreham. “He is a perpetual reminder to them of the scandalous torpor of the Church which repudiated him. Yes, I wonder they tolerate him. Anyhow, I suppose they tolerate him because, after all, they tolerate anybody who tries to keep alive a lost cause. Religion was dying a natural death and, instead of letting it die, he revived it for a bit. It was as good as you could expect from an Oxford man! When an Oxford man revolts, he only revolts in order to take up some lost cause, some survival!”

“I suppose,” said May, “that if Wesley had had the advantage of being at one of the provincial colleges, he would have invented a new soap, instead of strewing the place with nonconformist chapels?”

This sarcasm of May's would have been exasperating, only that the mention of soap quite naturally suggested children who had to be soaped, and children did bring Boreham actually to an important point. He did not really care two straws about Wesley. He went straight for this point. He put a few piercing questions to May about her work among children in London. Strangely enough she did not respond. She gave him one or two brief answers of the vaguest description, while she turned away to look at more portraits. Boreham, however, had only put the questions as a delicate approach to the subject. He did not really want any answers, and he proceeded to point out to her that her work, though it was undertaken in the most altruistic spirit, and appeared to be useful to the superficial observer, was really not helpful but harmful to the community. And this for two reasons. He would explain them. Firstly, because it blinded people who were interested in social questions to the need for the endowment of mothers; and secondly, the care of other women's children did not really satisfy the maternal instinct in women. It excited their emotions and gave them the impression that these emotions were satisfying. They were not. He hinted that if May would consult any pathologist he would tell her that, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, a life like hers, seemingly so full, would not save a woman from the disastrous effects of being childless.

Now, Boreham was convinced that women rarely understand what it is they really want. Women believe that they want to become clerks or postmen or lawyers, when all the time what they want and need is to become mothers. For instance, it was a common thing for a woman who had no interest in drama and who couldn't act, to want to be an actress. What she really wanted then was an increased opportunity of meeting the other sex.

Boreham put this before May Dashwood, and was gratified at the reception of his remarks.

“What you say is true,” she said, “though so few people have the courage to say it.”

Boreham went on. He felt that May Dashwood, in spite of all her sharpness, was profoundly ignorant of her own psychology. It was necessary to enlighten her, to make her understand that it was not her duty to go on mourning for a husband who was dead, but that it was her duty to make the best of her own life. He entirely exonerated her from the charge of humbug in her desire to mother slum children; all he wanted was for her to understand that it wasn't of any use either to herself or to the community. How well she was taking it!

He had barely finished speaking when he became unpleasantly aware that two ladies, who had just entered, were staring at himself and his companion instead of examining the hall. The strangers were foreigners, to judge by the boldness with which they wore hats that bore no relation to the shape or the dignity of the human head. They were evidently arrested and curious.

May did not speak for some moments, after they both moved away from the portraits. Boreham watched her, rather breathlessly, for things were going right and coming to a crisis.

“You are quite right,” she repeated, at last. “But people haven't the courage to say so!”

“You think so?” he replied eagerly. He now appreciated, as he had never done before, how much he scored by possessing, along with the subtle intuitions of the Celt, the plain common-sense of his English mother.

“I am preparing my mind,” said May, as they approached the door of the hall, “to face a future chequered by fits of hysteria.”

“But why!” urged Boreham, and he could not conceal his agitation; “when I spoke of the endowment of mothers I did not mean that I personally wanted any interference (at present) with our system of monogamy. The British public thinks it believes in monogamy and I, personally, think that monogamy is workable, under certain circumstances. It would be possible for me under certain circumstances.”

The sublimity of his self-sacrifice almost brought tears to Boreham's eyes. May quickened her steps, and he opened the door for her to go into the lobby. As he went through himself he could see that the two strangers had turned and were watching them. He damned them under his breath and pulled the door to.

“There are women,” he went on, as he followed her down the stairs, “who have breadth of character and brains that command the fidelity of men. I need not tell you this.”

May was descending slowly and looked as if she thought she was alone.

“'Age cannot wither, nor custom stale thy infinite variety,'“ he whispered behind her, and he found the words strangely difficult to pronounce because of his emotion. He moved alertly into step with her and gazed at her profile.

“When that is said to a woman, well, a moderately young woman,” remarked May, “a woman who is, say, twenty-eight—I am twenty-eight—it has no point I am afraid!”

“No point?” exclaimed Boreham.

“No point,” repeated May. “How do you know that thirty years from now, when I am on the verge of sixty, that I shan't be withered—unless, indeed, I get too stout?” she added pensively.

“You will always be young,” said Boreham, fervently; “young, like Ninon de l'Enclos.”

May had now reached the ground, and she walked out on to the terrace into open daylight.

Boreham was at her side immediately, and she turned and looked at him. His pale blue eyes blinked at her, for he was aware that hers were hostile! Why?

“You would seem young to me,” he said, trying to feel brave.

“Men and women ought,” she said, with emphasis on the word “ought”—“men and women ought to wither and grow old in the service of Humanity. I think nothing is more pathetic than the sight of an old woman trying to look young instead of learning the lesson of life, the lesson we are here to learn!”

Boreham had had barely time to recover from the blow when she added in the sweetest tone—

“There, that's a scolding for you and for Ninon de l'Enclos!”

“But I don't mean——” began Boreham. “I haven't put it—you don't take my words quite correctly.”

May was already walking on into the open archway that led to the cathedral. Before them stood the great western doors, and she saw them and stopped. Boreham wished to goodness that he had waited till they were in the cathedral before he had made his quotation. Through the open doors of that ancient building he could hear somebody playing the organ. That would have been the proper emotional accompaniment for those immortal lines of Shakespeare. He pictured a corner of the Latin chapel and an obscure tender light. Why had he begun to talk in the glare of a public thoroughfare?

“Shall we go inside?” he asked urgently. “One can't talk here.”

But May turned to go back. “I should like to see the cathedral some other time,” she said. “I must thank you very much for having shown me over the College—and—explained everything.”

“Yes; but——” stammered Boreham. “We can get into the cathedral.”

She was actually beginning to hold out her hand as if to say Good-bye.

“Not now,” she said; and before he had time to argue further, Bingham came suddenly upon them from somewhere, and expressed so much surprise at seeing them that it was evident that he had been on the watch. He had disposed of his purchases and was a free man. He had actually pounced upon them like a bird of prey—and stealthily too. It was a mean trick to have played.

“Are you coming out or going in?” asked Bingham.

“Neither,” said May, turning to him as if she was glad of his approach.

“You've seen it before?” said Bingham.

“No, not yet,” said May.

“It's as nice a place as you could find anywhere,” said Bingham, calmly, “for doing a bit of Joss.”

Boreham's brain surged with indignation. This man's intrusion at such a moment was insupportable. Yes, and he had got rid of his miserable table-cloth and shoes, probably taken them to Harding's house, and was going to tea there too. Not only this, but here he was talking in his jesting way, exactly in the same soft drawling voice in which he reeled off Latin quotations, and so it went down—yes, went down when it ought to have given offence. May ought to have been offended. She didn't look offended!

“You forget,” said Boreham, looking through his eyeglass at Bingham and frowning, “that Mrs. Dashwood is, what is called a Churchwoman.”

“I'm a Churchman myself,” said the imperturbable Don. “To me a church is always first a sanctuary, as I have just remarked to Mrs. Dashwood. Secondly, it is the artistic triumph of some blooming engineer. Nowadays our church architects aren't engineers; they don't create a building, they just run it up from books. Our modern churches are failures not because we aren't religious, but because our architects are not big enough men to be great engineers.”

“Ah, yes,” said May, looking up with relief at Bingham's swarthy features.

“I deny that we are religious, as a whole,” said Boreham, stoutly.

“You may not be, my dear fellow,” said Bingham, in his oily voice; “but then you are the only genuine conservative I meet nowadays. You are still faithful to the 'Eighties'—still impressed by the discovery that religion don't drop out of the sky as we thought it did, but had its origin in the funk and cunning of the humanoid ape.”

May was standing between the two men, and all three had their backs to the cathedral, just as if they had emerged from its doors. And it was at this moment that she caught a sudden sight through the open archway of two figures passing along the terrace outside; one figure she did not know, but which she thought might be the Dean of Christ Church, and the other figure was one which was becoming to her more significant than any other in the world. He saw her; he raised his hat, and was already gone before she had time to think. When she did think it came upon her, with a rush of remorse, that he must have thought that she had been looking over the cathedral with her two companions, after having refused his guidance on the pretext that she wished to be alone. Yes, there was in his face surely surprise, surprise and reproach! How could she explain? He had gone! She vaguely heard the two men beside her speaking; she heard Boreham's protesting voice but did not follow his words.

“While we are engaged in peaceful persuasion,” said Bingham in her ear, “you are white with fatigue.”

“I'm not tired,” she said, “not really—only I think I will go to the rooms where Lady Dashwood is to meet me. Will you show me them?”

She spoke to Bingham, and touched his arm with her hand as if to ask for his support.

Boreham saw that he was excluded. It was obvious, and he stood staring after them, full of indignation.

“I shall see you later,” he said in a dry voice. How did it all happen?

As soon as they were on the terrace, May released Bingham's arm.

“You want to get a rest before you go to the Hardings,” he said. Then he added, in a voice that threw out the words merely as a remark which demanded no answer, “Was it physical—or—moral or both? Umph!” he went on. “Now, we have only a step to make. It's the third doorway!”

CHAPTER XVII. A TEA PARTY

Mrs. Harding had not succeeded in finding some chance of “casually” asking Mrs. Potten to have tea with her, but she had secured the Dashwoods. That was something. Mrs. Harding's drawing-room was spacious and looked out on the turreted walls of Christ Church. The house witnessed to Mrs. Harding's private means.

“We have got Lady Dashwood in the further room,” she murmured to some ladies who arrived punctually from the Sale in St. Aldates, “and we nearly got the Warden of Kings.”

The naïveté of Mrs. Harding's remark was quite unconscious, and was due to that absence of humour which is the very foundation stone of snobbishness.

“But the Warden is coming to fetch his party home,” added Mrs. Harding, cheerfully.

Harding, too, was in good spirits. He was all patriotism and full of courteous consideration for his friends. So heartened was he that, after tea, at the suggestion of Bingham, he sat down to the piano to sing a duet with his wife. This was also a sort of touching example of British respectability with a dash of “go” in it!

Bingham was turning over some music.

“What shall it be, Tina?” asked Harding, whose repertoire was limited.

“This!” said Bingham, and he placed on the piano in front of Hording the duet from “Becket.”

The room was crowded, khaki prevailing. “All the women are workers,” Mrs. Harding had explained.

Gwendolen Scott was there, of course, still conscious of the ten-shilling note in the pocket of her coat. Mrs. Potten had gone, along with the Buckinghamshire collar, just as if neither had ever existed. Boreham was there, talking to one or two men in khaki, because he could not get near May Dashwood. She had now somehow got wedged into a corner over which Bingham was standing guard.

At the door the Warden had just made his appearance. He had got no further than the threshold, for he saw his hostess about to sing and would not advance to disturb her.

From where he stood May Dashwood could be plainly seen, and Bingham stooping with his hands on his knees, making an inaudible remark to her.

The remark that gentleman was actually making was: “You'll have a treat presently—the greatest surprise in your life.”

Mrs. Harding stood behind her husband. She was dressed with strict regard to the last fashion. Dressing in each fashion as it came into existence she used to call quite prettily, “the simple truth about it.” Since the war she called it frankly and seriously “the true economy.” Her face usually expressed a superior self-assurance, and now it wore also a look of indulgent amiability. Her whole appearance suggested a happy peacock with its tail spread, and the surprise which Bingham predicted came when she opened her mouth and, instead of emitting screams in praise of diamonds and of Paris hats (as one would have expected), she piped in a small melancholy voice the following pathetic inquiry—

 “Is it the wind of the dawn that I hear in the pine overhead?”

And then came Harding's growling baritone, avoiding any mention of cigars or cocktails and making answer—

 “No! but the noise of the deep as it hollows the cliffs of the land.”

Mrs. Harding—

 “Is there a voice coming up with the voice of the deep from the strand,
 One coming up with the song in the flush of the glimmering red?”

Mr. Harding—

 “Love that is born of the deep coming up with the sun from the sea.”

Bingham was convulsed with inward laughter. May tried to smile a little—at the incongruity of the singers and the words they sang; but her thoughts were all astray. The Warden was here—so near!

No one else was in the least amused. Boreham was plainly worried, and was staring through his eyeglass at Bingham's back, behind which May Dashwood was half obliterated. Gwendolen Scott had only just caught sight of the Warden and had flushed up, and wore an excited look on her face. She was glancing at him with furtive glances—ready to bow. Now she caught his eye and bowed, and he returned the bow very gravely.

Lady Dashwood was leaning back in her chair listening with resigned misery.

May looked straight before her, past Bingham's elbow. She knew the song from Becket well. Words in the song were soon coming that she dreaded, because of the Warden standing there by the door.

The words came—

  “Love that is born of the deep coming up with the sun from the sea,
   Love that can shape or can shatter a life till the life shall have
                     fled.”

She raised her eyes to the Warden. She could see his profile. It looked noble among the faces around him, as he stood with his head bent, apparently very much aloof, absorbed in his own thoughts.

He, of all men she had ever met, ought to have understood “love that is born of the deep,” and did not. He turned his head slightly and met her eyes for the flash of a second. It was the look of a man who takes his last look.

She did not move, but she grasped the arms of her chair and heard no more of the music but sounds, vaguely drumming at her ears, without meaning.

She did not even notice Bingham's movement, the slow cautious movement with which he turned to see what had aroused her emotion. When he knew, he made a still more cautious and imperceptible movement away from her; the movement of a man who discerns that he had made a step too far and wishes to retrace that step without being observed.

May did not even notice that the song was over and that people were talking and moving about.

“We are going, May,” said Lady Dashwood. “Mr. Boreham has to go and hunt for a ten-shilling note that Mrs. Potten thinks she dropped at Christ Church. She has just sent me a letter about it. She can't remember the staircase. In any case we have to go and pick up our purchases there, so we are all going together.”

“She's always dropping things,” said Boreham, who had taken the opportunity of coming up and speaking to May. “She may have lost the note anywhere between here and Norham Gardens. She's incorrigible.”

The little gathering was beginning to melt away. Harding and Bingham had hurried off on business, and there was nobody now left but Boreham and the party from King's and Mrs. Harding, who was determined to help in the search for Mrs. Potten's lost note.

“Miss Scott is coming back with me—to help wind up things at the Sale,” said Mrs. Harding, “and on our way we will go in and help you.”

Gwendolen's first impulse, when Mrs. Potten's note was discussed, was to get behind somebody else so as not to be seen. Would Mr. Harding and Mr. Bingham remember about the extra note? Probably—so her second impulse was to say aloud: “I wonder if it's the note I quite forgot to give to Mrs. Potten? I've got it somewhere.” Alas! this impulse was short-lived. Ever since she had put the note in her pocket, the mental image of an umbrella had been before her eyes. She had begun to consider that mental umbrella as already a real umbrella and hers. She walked about already, in imagination, under it. She might have planned to spend money that had fallen into her hands on sweets. That would have been the usual thing; but no, she was going to spend it on something very useful and necessary. That ten shillings, in fact, so carelessly flung aside by Mrs. Potten, was going to be spent in a way very few girls would think of. To spend it on an umbrella was wonderfully virtuous and made the whole affair a sort of duty.

The umbrella, in short, had become now part of Gwendolen's future. Virtue walking with an umbrella. Without that umbrella there would be a distinct blank in Gwendolen's life!

If she obeyed her second impulse on the moment, that umbrella would never become hers. She would for ever lose that umbrella. But neither Mr. Harding nor Mr. Bingham seemed to think of her, or her note. They were already rushing off to lectures or chapels or something. The impulse died!

So the poor silly child pretended to search in the rooms at Christ Church with no less energy than Mrs. Harding and Mrs. Dashwood, and much more thoroughly than Boreham, who did nothing more than put up the lights and stand about looking gloomy.

The Warden was walking slowly with Lady Dashwood on the terrace below when the searchers came out announcing that no note could be found.

Boreham's arms were full of parcels, and these were distributed among the Warden, Lady Dashwood, and Mrs. Dashwood.

Mrs. Harding said “good-bye” outside the great gate.

“I shall bring Miss Scott home, after the work is over,” she said; and Gwendolen glanced at the Warden in the fading afternoon light with some confidence, for was not the affair of the note over? What more could happen? She could not be certain whether he looked at her or not. He moved away the moment that Mrs. Harding had ceased speaking. He bowed, and in another moment was talking to Mr. Boreham.

May Dashwood had slipped her hand into her aunt's arm, making it obvious to Boreham that he and the Warden must walk on ahead, or else walk behind. They walked on ahead.

“I've got to fetch Mrs. Potten from Eliston's,” he said fretfully, as he walked beside the Warden. All four went along in silence. They passed Carfax. There, a little farther on, was Mrs. Potten just at the shop's door, looking out keenly through her glasses, peering from one side of the street to the other.

She came forward to meet them, evidently charmed at seeing the Warden.

“I'm afraid I made a great fuss over that note. Did you find it, Bernard?”

Boreham felt too cross to answer.

“We didn't,” said May Dashwood. “I'm sorry!”

“No, we couldn't find it,” said Lady Dashwood.

“You really couldn't,” repeated Mrs. Potten. “Well, I wonder——But how kind of you!”

Now, Mrs. Potten rarely saw the Warden, and this fact made her prize him all the more. Mrs. Potten's weakness for men was very weak for the Warden, so much so that for the moment she forgot the loss of her note, and—thinking of Wardens—burst into a long story about the Heads of colleges she had known personally and those she had not known personally.

Her assumption that Heads of colleges were of any importance was all the more distasteful to Boreham because May Dashwood was listening.

“Come along, Mrs. Potten,” he said crossly; “we shall have to have the lamps lit if we wait any longer.”

But they were not her lamps that would have to be lit, burning her oil, and Mrs. Potten released the Warden with much regret.

“So the poor little note was never found,” she said, as she held out her hand for good-bye. “I know it's a trifle, but in these days everything is serious, everything! And after I had scribbled off my note to you from Eliston's I thought I might have given Miss Scott two ten-shilling notes instead of one, just by mistake, and that she hadn't noticed, of course.”

“I thought of that,” said Lady Dashwood, “and I asked Mrs. Harding; but she said that she had got the correct notes—thirty shillings.”

“Well, good-bye,” said Mrs. Potten. “I am sorry to have troubled everybody, but in war time one has to be careful. One never knows what may happen. Strange things have happened and will happen. Don't you think so, Warden?”

“Stranger than perhaps we think of,” said the Warden, and he raised his hat to go.

“Come, Bernard,” said Mrs. Potten, “I must try and tear you away. Good-bye, good-bye!” and even then she lingered and looked at the Warden.

“Good-bye, Marian,” said Lady Dashwood, firmly.

“I am afraid you are very tired,” whispered May in her aunt's ear, as they turned up the Broad.

“Rather tired,” said Lady Dashwood. “Too tired to hear Marian's list of names, nothing but names!”

They walked on a few steps, and then there came a sound of whirring in the sky. It was a sound new to Oxford, but which had lately become frequent. All three looked up. An aeroplane was skimming low over steeples, towers, and ancient chimney stacks, going home to Port Meadow, like a bird going home to roost at the approach of night. It was going safely. The pilot was only learning, playing with air, overcoming it with youthful keenness and light-heartedness. They could see his little solitary figure sitting at the helm. Later on he would play no more; the air would be full of glory, and horror—over in France.

The Warden sighed.

When they reached the Lodgings they went into the gloom of the dark panelled hall. The portraits on the walls glowered at them. The Warden put up the lights and looked at the table for letters, as if he expected something. There was a wire for him; more business, but not unexpected.

“I have to go to Town again,” he said. “A meeting and other education business.”

“Ah!” said Lady Dashwood. She caught at the idea, and her eyes followed the figure of May Dashwood walking upstairs. When May turned out of sight she said: “Do you mean now?”

“No, to-morrow early,” he said. “And I shall be back on Saturday.”

Lady Dashwood seated herself on a couch; her letters were in her hand, but she did not open them. Her eyes were fixed on her brother.

“Can you manage somehow so that I can speak to Gwendolen alone?” he asked. “I am dining in Hall, but I shall be back by half-past nine.”

Lady Dashwood felt her cheeks tingle. “Yes, I will manage it, if it is inevitable.” She dwelt lingeringly upon the word “inevitable.”

“Thank you,” said the Warden, and he turned and walked slowly upstairs. Very heavily he walked, so Lady Dashwood thought, as she sat listening to his footsteps. Of course it was inevitable. If vows are forgotten, promises are broken, there is an end to “honour,” to “progress,” to everything worth living for!

At the drawing-room he paused; the door was wide open, and he could see May Dashwood standing near one of the windows pulling her gloves off. She turned.

“I have to be in town early to-morrow and shall not return till the following day, Saturday,” he said, coming up slowly to where she was standing.

She glanced up at him.

“This is the second time I have had to go away since you came, but it is a time when so much has to be considered and discussed, matters relating to the future of education, and of the universities, and with the future of Oxford. Things have suddenly changed; it is a new world that we live in to-day, a new world.” Then he added bitterly, “Such as was the morrow of the Crucifixion.”

He glanced away from her and rested his eyes on the window. The curtains had not yet been drawn and the latticed panes were growing dim. The dull grey sky behind the battlements of the roof opposite showed no memory of sunset.

“Of course you have to go away,” said May, softly, and she too looked out at the dull sky now darkening into night.

Should she now tell him that she had kept her word, that she had not seen the cathedral because she had not been alone. She had had a strong desire to tell him when it was impossible to do so. Now, when she had only to say the words for he was there, close beside her, she could not speak. Perhaps he wouldn't care whether she had kept her word—and yet she knew that he did care.

They stood together for a moment in silence.

“And you were not able to go with me to the cathedral,” he said, turning and looking at her face steadily.

May coloured as she felt his eyes upon her, but she braced herself to meet his question as if it was a matter about which they cared nothing.

“I didn't want to waste your time,” she said, and she drew her gloves through her hand and moved away.

“Bingham,” he said, “knows more than I do, perhaps more than any man in Oxford, about mediæval architecture.”

“Ah yes,” said May, and she walked slowly towards the fireplace.

“And he will have shown you everything,” he persisted.

May was now in front of the portrait, though she did not notice it.

“I didn't go into the cathedral,” she said.

The Warden raised his head as if throwing off some invisible burden. Then he moved and came and stood near her—also facing the portrait. But neither noticed the large luminous eyes fixed upon them, visible even in the darkening room.

“I suppose one ought not to be critical of a drawing-room song,” said the Warden, and his voice now was changed.

May moved her head slightly towards him, but did not meet his eyes.

“I was inclined,” he said, “but then I am by trade a college tutor, to criticise one line of Tennyson's verse.”

She knew what he meant. “What line do you object to?” she asked, and the line seemed to be already dinning in her ears.

He quoted the line, pronouncing the words with a strange emphasis—

  “'Love that can shape or can shatter a life, till the life shall have
                     fled.'”

“Yes?” said May.

“It is a pretty sentiment,” he said. “I suppose we ought to accept it as such.”

“Oh!” said May, and her voice lingered doubtfully over the word.

“Have we any right to expect so much, or fear so much,” said the Warden, “from the circumstances of life?”

May turned her head away and said nothing.

“Why demand that life shall be made so easy?” Here he paused again. “Some of us,” he went on, “want to be converted, in the Evangelical sense; in other words, some of us want to be given a sudden inspiring illumination, an irresistible motive for living the good life, a motive that will make virtue easy.”

May looked down into the fire and waited for him to go on.

“Some of us demand a love that will make marriage easy, smooth for our temper, flattering to our vanity. Some demand”—and here there was a touch of passion in his voice that made May's heart heavy and sick—“they demand that it should be made easy to be faithful.”

And she gave no answer.

“Isn't it our business to accept the circumstances of life, love among them, and refuse either to be shaped by them or shattered by them? But you will accuse me of being hyper-critical at a tea-party, of arguing on ethics when I should have been thinking of—of nothing particular.”

This was his Apologia. After this there would be silence. He would be Gwendolen's husband. May tried to gather up all her self-possession.

“You don't agree with me?” he asked to break her obstinate silence.

She could hear Robinson coming in. He put up the lights, and out of the obscurity flashed the face of the portrait almost to the point of speech.

“Do you mean that one ought and can live in marriage without help and without sympathy?” she asked, and her voice trembled a little.

He answered, “I mean that. May I quote you lines that you probably know, lines of a more strenuous character than that line from 'Becket.'“ And he quoted—

    “'For even the purest delight may pall,
    And power must fail, and the pride must fall,
    And the love of the dearest friends grow small,
    But the glory of the Lord is all in all.'”

They could hear the swish of the heavy curtains as Robinson pulled them over the windows.

“And yet——” she said. Here a queer spasm came in her throat. She was moving towards the open door, for she felt that she could not bear to hear any more. He followed her.

“And yet——?” he persisted.

“I only mean,” she said, and she compelled her voice to be steady, “what is the glory of the Lord? Is it anything but love—love of other people?”

She went through the open door slowly and turned to the shallow stairs that led to her bedroom. She could not hear whether he went to his library or not. She was glad that she did not meet anybody in the corridor. The doors were shut.

She locked her door and went up to the dressing-table. The little oval picture case was lying there. She laid her hand upon it, but did not move it. She stood, pressing her fingers upon it. Then she moved away. Even the memory of the past was fading from her life; her future would contain nothing—to remember.

She moved about the room. Wasn't duty enough to fill her life? Wasn't it enough for her to know that she was helping in her small way to build up the future of the race? Why could she not be content with that? Perhaps, when white hairs came and wrinkles, and her prime was past, she might be content! But until then....

CHAPTER XVIII. THE MORAL CLAIMS OF AN UMBRELLA

The ghost was, so to speak, dead, as far as any mention of him was made at the Lodgings. But in the servants' quarters he was very much alive.

The housemaid, who had promised not to tell “any one” that Miss Scott had seen a ghost, kept her word with literal strictness, by telling every one.

Robinson was of opinion that the general question of ghosts was still an open one. Also that he had never heard in his time, or his father's, of the Barber's ghost actually appearing in the Warden's library. When the maids expressed alarm, he reproved them with a grumbling scorn. If ghosts did ever appear, he felt that the Lodgings had a first-class claim to one; ghosts were “classy,” he argued. Had any one ever heard tell of a ghost haunting a red brick villa or a dissenting chapel?

Louise had gathered up the story without difficulty, but she had secret doubts whether Miss Scott might not have invented the whole thing. She did not put much faith in Miss Scott. Now, if Lady Dashwood had seen the ghost, that would have been another matter!

What really excited Louise was the story that the Barber came to warn Wardens of an approaching disaster. Now Louise was in any case prepared to believe that “disasters” might easily be born and bred in places like the Lodgings and in a city like Oxford; but in addition to all this there had been and was something going on in the Lodgings lately that was distressing Lady Dashwood, something in the behaviour of the Warden! A disaster! Hein?

When she returned from St. Aldates, Gwendolen Scott had had only time to sit down in a chair and survey her boots for a few moments when Louise came into her bedroom and suggested that Mademoiselle would like to have her hair well brushed. Mademoiselle's hair had suffered from the passing events of the day.

“Doesn't Lady Dashwood want you?” asked Gwendolen.

No, Lady Dashwood was already dressed and was reposing herself on the couch, being fatigued. She was lying with her face towards the window, which was indeed wide open—wide open, and it was after sunset and at the end of October—par example!

Gwendolen still stared at her boots and said she wanted to think; but Louise had an object in view and was firm, and in a few minutes she had deposited the young lady in front of the toilet-table and was brushing her black curly hair with much vigour.

“Mademoiselle saw the ghost last night,” began Louise.

“Who said that?” exclaimed Gwendolen.

“On dit,” said Louise.

“Then they shouldn't on dit,” said Gwendolen. “I never said I saw the ghost, I may have said I thought I saw one, which is quite different. The Warden says there are no ghosts, and the whole thing is rubbish.”

“There comes no ghost here,” said Louise, firmly, “except there is a disaster preparing for the Warden.”

“The Warden's quite all right,” said Gwen, with some scorn.

“Quite all right,” repeated Louise. “But it may be some disaster domestic. Who can tell? There is not only death—there is—par exemple, marriage!” and Louise glanced over Gwendolen's head and looked at the girl's face reflected in the mirror.

“Well, that is cool,” thought Gwendolen; “I suppose that's French!”

“The whole thing is rubbish,” she said.

“One cannot tell, it is not for us to know, perhaps, but it may be that the disaster is, that Mrs. Dashwood, so charming—so douce—will not permit herself to marry again—though she is still young. Such things happen. But how the Barber should have obtained the information—the good God only knows.”

Gwendolen blew the breath from her mouth with protruding lips.

“What has that to do with the Warden? I do wish you wouldn't talk so much, Louise.”

“It may be a disaster that there can be no marriage between Mrs. Dashwood and Monsieur the Warden,” continued Louise.

“The Warden doesn't want to marry Mrs. Dashwood,” replied Gwendolen, with some energy.

“Mademoiselle knows!” said Louise, softly.

“Yes, I know,” said Gwendolen. “No one has thought of such a thing—except you.”

“But perhaps he is about to marry—some one whom Lady Dashwood esteems not; that would be indeed a disaster,” said Louise, regretfully. “Ah, indeed a disaster,” and she ran the brush lengthily down Gwendolen's hair.

“I do wish you wouldn't talk,” said Gwen. “It isn't your business, Louise.”

“Ah,” murmured Louise, brushing away, “I will not speak of disasters; but I pray—I pray continually, and particularly I pray to St. Joseph to protect M. the Warden from any disaster whatever.” Then she added: “I believe so much in St. Joseph.”

“St. Joseph!” said Gwendolen, sharply. “Why on earth?”

“I believe much in him,” said Louise.

“I don't like him,” said Gwendolen. “He always spoils those pictures of the Holy Family, he and his beard; he is like Abraham.”

“He spoils! That is not so; he is no doubt much, much older than the Blessed Virgin, but that was necessary, and he is un peu homme du monde—to protect the Lady Mother and Child. I pray to St. Joseph, because the good God, who was the Blessed Child, was always so gentle, so obedient, so tender. He will still listen to his kind protector, St. Joseph.”

“Oh, Louise, you are funny,” said Gwendolen, laughing.

“Funny!” exclaimed Louise. “Holy Jesus!”

“Well, it all happened such ages ago, and you talk as if it were going on now.”

“It is now—always now—to God,” exclaimed Louise, fervently; “there is no past—all is now.”

This was far too metaphysical for Gwendolen. “You are funny,” she repeated.

“Funny—again funny. Ah, but I forget, Mademoiselle is Protestant.”

“No, I'm not,” said Gwen; “I belong to the English branch of the Catholic Church.”

“We have no branch, we are a trunk,” said Louise, sadly.

“Well, I'm exactly what the Warden is and what Lady Dashwood is,” said Gwendolen.

“Ah, my Lady Dashwood,” said Louise, breaking into a tone of tragic melancholy. “I pray always for her. Ah! but she is good, and the good God knows it. But she is not well.” And Louise changed her tone to one of mild speculation. “Madame perhaps is souffrante because of so much fresh air and the absence of shops.”

“It is foolish to suppose that the Warden does just what Lady Dashwood tells him. That doesn't happen in this part of the world,” said Gwendolen, her mind still rankling on Louise's remark about Lady Dashwood not esteeming—as if, indeed, Lady Dashwood was the important person, as if, indeed, it was to please Lady Dashwood that the Warden was to marry!

“Ah, no,” said Louise. “The monsieurs here come and go just like guests in their homes. They do as they choose. The husband in England says never—as he does in France: 'I come back, my dearest, at the first moment possible, to assist you entertain our dear grandmamma and our dear aunt.' No, he says that not; and the English wife she never says: 'Where have you been? It is an hour that our little Suzette demands that the father should show her again her new picture book!' Ah, no. I find that the English messieurs have much liberty.”

“It must be deadly for men in France,” said Gwendolen.

“It is always funny or deadly with Mademoiselle,” replied Louise.

But she felt that she had obtained enough information of an indirect nature to strengthen her in her suspicions that Lady Dashwood had arranged a marriage between the Warden and Mrs. Dashwood, but that the Warden had not played his part, and, notwithstanding his dignified appearance, was amusing himself with both his guests in a manner altogether reprehensible.

Ah! but it was a pity!

When Louise left the room Gwendolen went to the wardrobe, and took out the coat that Louise had put away. She felt in the wrong pocket first, which was empty, and then in the right one and found the ten-shilling note. Now that she had it in her hand it seemed to her amazing that Mrs. Potten, with her big income, should have fussed over such a small matter. It was shabby of her.

Gwendolen took her purse out of a drawer which she always locked up. Even if her purse only contained sixpence, she locked it up because she took for granted that it would be “stolen.”

As she put away her purse and locked the drawer a sudden and disagreeable thought came into her mind. She would not like the Warden to know that she was going to buy an umbrella with money that Mrs. Potten had “thrown away.” She would feel “queer” if she met him in the hall, when she came in from buying the umbrella. Why? Well, she would! Anyhow, she need not make up her mind yet what she would do—about the umbrella.

Meanwhile the Warden surely would speak to her this evening, or would write or something? Was she never, never going to be engaged?

She dressed and came down into the drawing-room. Dinner had already been announced, and Lady Dashwood was standing and Mrs. Dashwood was standing. Where was the Warden?

“I ought not to have to tell you to be punctual, Gwen,” said Lady Dashwood. “I expect you to be in the drawing-room before dinner is announced, not after.”

“So sorry,” murmured Gwen; then added lightly, “but I am more punctual than Dr. Middleton!”

“The Warden is dining in Hall,” said Lady Dashwood.

So the Warden had made himself invisible again! When was he going to speak to her? When was she going to be really engaged?

Gwendolen held open the door for the two ladies and, as she did so, glanced round the room. Now that she knew that the Warden was out somehow the drawing-room looked rather dreary.

Her eyes rested on the portrait over the fireplace. There was that odious man looking so knowing! She was not sure whether she shouldn't have that portrait removed when she was Mrs. Middleton. It would serve him right. She turned out the lights with some satisfaction, it left him in the dark!

As she walked downstairs behind the two ladies, she thought that they too looked rather dreary. The hall looked dreary. Even the dining-room that she always admired looked dreary, and especially dreary looked old Robinson, and very shabby he looked, as he stood at the carving table. And young Robinson's nose looked more turned-up, and more stumpy than she had noticed before. It was so dull without the Warden at the head of the table.

There was very little conversation at dinner. When the Warden was away, nobody seemed to want to talk. Lady Dashwood said she had a headache.

But Gwendolen gathered some information of importance. Mrs. Potten had turned up again, and had been told that the right money had gone to Mrs. Harding.

Gwendolen stared a good deal at her plate, and felt considerable relief when Lady Dashwood added: “She knows now that she did not lose her note in Christ Church. She is always dropping things—poor Marian! But she very likely hadn't the note at all, and only thought she had the note,” and so the matter ended.

Just as dinner was over Gwen gathered more information. The Warden was going away early to-morrow! That was dreary, only—she would go and buy the umbrella while he was away, and get used to having it before he saw it.

That the future Mrs. Middleton should not even have an umbrella to call her own was monstrous! She must keep up the dignity of her future position!

CHAPTER XIX. HONOUR

The drawing-room was empty except for the figure of Gwendolen Scott. Her slim length was in a great easy-chair, on the arms of which she was resting her hands, while she turned her head from side to side like a bird that anticipates the approach of enemies.

Mrs. Dashwood and Lady Dashwood had gone upstairs, and, to her astonishment, when she prepared to follow them, Lady Dashwood had quietly made her wait behind for the Warden!

The command, for it seemed almost like a command, came with startling abruptness. So Lady Dashwood knew all about it! She must have talked it over with the Warden, and now she was arranging it as if the Warden couldn't act without her! But the annoyance that Gwen felt at this proof of Lady Dashwood's power was swallowed up in the sense of a great victory, the prize was won! She was going to be really engaged at last! All the waiting and the bother was over!

She was ready for him, at least as ready as she could be. She was glad she had got on her white frock; on the whole, she preferred it to the others. Even Louise, who never said anything nice, said that it suited her.

When would he come? And when he did come, what would he do, what would he say?

Would he come in quietly and slowly as he had done last night, looking, oh, so strong, so capable of driving ghosts away, fears away? She would never be afraid of anything in his presence, except perhaps of himself! Here he was!

He came in, shut the door behind him, and advanced towards her. She couldn't help watching him.

“You're quite alone,” he said, and he came and stood by the hearth under the portrait and leaned his hand on the mantelshelf.

“Yes,” said Gwen, blushing violently. “Lady Dashwood and Mrs. Dashwood have gone. Lady Dashwood said I was to stay up!”

“Thank you,” said the Warden.

Gwen looked up at him wistfully.

“You wrote me a letter,” he began, “and from it I gather that you have been thinking over what I said the other evening.”

“Yes,” said Gwen; “I've been so—bothered. Oh, that's the wrong word—I mean——”

“You have thought it over quietly and seriously?” said the Warden.

Gwen's eyes flickered. “Yes,” she said; and then, as he seemed to expect her to say more, she added:

“I don't know whether you meant——” and here she stopped dead.

“Between us there must be absolute sincerity,” he said.

Gwen felt a qualm. Did absolute sincerity mean that she would have to tell about the—the umbrella that she was going to get?

“Yes,” she said, “I like sincerity; it's right, isn't it?”

He made no answer. She looked again at him wistfully.

“Suppose you tell me,” he said gently, “what you yourself think of your mother's letter in which she speaks to you with affection and pride, and even regrets that she will lose you. Her letter conveys the idea that you are loved and wanted.” He put emphasis on the “are.”

“It was a nice letter,” said Gwen, thinking hard as she spoke. “But you see we haven't got any home now,” she went on. “Mother stays about with people. It is hard lines, but she is so sporting.”

“Yes,” said the Warden, “and,” he said, as if to assist her to complete the picture, “yet she wants you!” As he spoke his eyes narrowed and his breath was arrested for a moment.

“Oh no,” said Gwen, eagerly. “She doesn't want to prevent—me—me marrying. You see she can't have me much, it's—it's difficult in other people's houses—at least it sometimes is—just now especially.”

“Thank you,” said the Warden, “I understand.” He sighed and moved slightly from his former position. “You mean that she wants you very much, but that she can't afford to give you a home.”

“Yes,” said Gwen, with relief. The way was being made very clear to her. She was telling “the truth” and he was helping her so kindly. “You see mother couldn't stand a small house and servant bothers. It's been such hard luck on her, that father left nothing like what she thought he had got. Mother has been so plucky, she really has.”

“I see,” said the Warden. “Then your mother's letter has your approval?”

Her approval! Yes, of course; it was simply topping of her mother to have written in the way she did.

“It was good of mother,” she said. If it hadn't been for her mother she would not have known what to do.

The Warden moved his hand away from the mantelshelf and now stood with his back against it, away from the blaze of the fire.

“You have never mentioned, in my presence,” he said, “what you think about the work that most girls of your age are doing for the war.”

“Oh yes,” said Gwen, eagerly; “mother is so keen about that. She does do such a lot herself, and she took me away from school a fortnight before time was up to go to a hospital for three months' training.”

“And you are having a holiday and want to go on,” suggested the Warden.

“No; mother thought I had better have a change. You can't think how horrid the matron was to me—she had favourites, worse luck; and now mother is looking—has been”—Gwen corrected herself sharply—“for something for me to do that would be more suitable, but the difficulty is to find anything really nice.”

The Warden meditated. “Yes,” he said.

Gwen continued to look at him, her face full of questioning.

“You have been thinking whether you should trust yourself to me,” he said very gravely, “and whether you could face the responsibility and the cares of a house, a position, like that of a Warden's wife?”

“Oh yes,” said Gwen.

“You think that you understand them?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” said Gwen. “At least, I would try; I would do my best.”

“There is nothing very amusing in my manner of life; in fact, I should describe it as—solemn. The business,” he continued, “of a Warden is to ward his college. His wife's business is to assist him.”

“I should simply love that,” said Gwen. “I should really! I'm not clever, I know, but I would try my best, and—I'm so—afraid of you,” she said with a gulp of emotion, “and admire you so awfully!”

The Warden's face hardened a little, but Gwen did not observe it; all she saw and knew was that the dismal part of the interview was over, for he accepted this outburst as a definite reply on her part to his offer. She was so glad she had said just what she had said. It seemed to be all right.

“That is your decision?” he said, only he did not move towards her. He stood there, standing with his back to the projection of the fireplace, his head on a level with the frame of the portrait. The two faces, of the present Warden of the year 1916 and the Warden of the eighteenth century, made a striking contrast. Both men had no lack of physical beauty, but the one had discovered the “rights” of man, and therefore of a Warden, and the other had discovered the “duties” of men, including Wardens.

He stood there and did not approach her. He was hesitating.

He could, if he wished it, exercise his power over her and make her answer “No.” He could make her shrink away from him, or even deny that she had wished for an interview. And he could do this safely, for Gwendolen herself was ignorant of the fact that he had on the previous night exercised any influence over her except that of argument. She would have no suspicion that he was tampering with her will for his own purposes. He could extricate himself now and at this moment. Now, while she was still waiting for him to tell her whether he would marry her.

The temptation was a heavy one. It was heavy, although he knew from the first that it was one which he could and would resist. There was no real question about it.

He stood there by the hearth, a free man still. In a moment he would be bound hand and foot.

Still, come what may, he must satisfy his honour. He must satisfy his honour at any price.

Gwendolen saw that he did not move and she became suddenly alarmed. Didn't he mean to keep his promise after all? Had he taken a dislike to her?

“Have I offended you?” she asked humbly. “You're not pleased with me. Oh, Dr. Middleton, you do make me so afraid!” She got up from her chair, looking very pale. “You've been so awfully kind and good to me, but you make me frightened!” She held out her hands to him and turned her face away, as if to hide it from him. “Oh, do be kind!” she pleaded.

He was looking at her with profound attention, but the tenseness of his eyes had relaxed. Here was this girl. Foolish she might be naturally, badly brought up she certainly was, but she was utterly alone in the world. He must train her. He must oblige her to walk in the path he had laid out for her. She, too, must become a servant of the College. He willed it!

“I hope, Gwendolen,” he said gently, “that I shall never be anything but kind to you. But do you realise that if you are my wife, you will have to live, not for pleasure or ease; and you will have not merely to control yourself, but learn to control other people? This may sound hard. Does it sound hard?”

Oh, she would try her very best. She would do whatever he told her to do. Just whatever he told her!

Whatever he told her to do! What an unending task he had undertaken of telling her what to do! He must never relax his will or his attention from her. It would be no marriage for him; it would be a heavy responsibility. But at least the College should not suffer! Was he sure of that? He must see that it did not suffer. If he failed, he must resign. His promise to her was not to love her. He had never spoken of love. He had offered her a home, and he must give her a home.

He braced himself up with a supreme effort and went towards her, taking her into his arms and kissing her brow and cheeks, and then, releasing himself from her clinging arms, he said—

“Go now, Gwendolen. Go to bed. I have work to do.”

“Are you—is it——” she stammered.

“We are engaged, if that is what you mean,” he said.

“Oh, Dr. Middleton!” she exclaimed. “And may I write to my mother?”

The Warden did not answer for a moment.

That was another burden, Gwendolen's mother! The Warden's face became hard. But he thought he knew how he should deal with Gwendolen's mother; he should begin from the very first.

“Yes,” he said; “but as to her coming here—she mentions it in her letter—Lady Dashwood will decide about that. I don't know what her plans are.”

Gwendolen looked disappointed. “And I may talk to Lady Dashwood, to Mrs. Dashwood, and anybody about our engagement?” she asked.

“Certainly,” he said, but he spoke stiffly.

“And—and—” said the girl, following him to the door and stretching out her hand towards his arm as she walked but not touching it,—“shall I see you to-morrow morning before you go to town?”

The Warden felt as if he had been dealt a light but acutely painful blow.

Shall I see you to-morrow morning? Already she was claiming her right over him, her right to see him, to know of his movements. He had for many years been the servant of the College. He had given the College his entire allegiance, but he had also been its master. He had been the strong man among weaker men, and, as all men of his type are, he had been alone, uninterfered with, rather remote in matters concerning his private personal life. And now this mere child demanded explanations of him. It was a bitter moment for his pride and independence. However strictly he might bind his wife to his will, his own freedom had gone; he was no longer the man he had been. If this simple question, “Shall I see you to-morrow morning?” tortured his self-respect, how would he be able to bear what was coming upon him day by day? He had to bear it. That was the only answer to the question!

“I am starting early,” he said. “But I shall be back on Saturday, some time in the afternoon probably.”

Gwendolen's brain was in a whirl. Her desire had been consummated. The Warden was hers, but, somehow, he was not quite what he had been on that Monday evening. He was cold, at least rather cold. Still he was hers; that was fixed.

She waited for a moment to see if he meant to kiss her again. He did not mean to, he held out his hand and smiled a little.

She kissed his hand. “I shall long for you to come back,” she said, and then ran out, leaving him alone to return to his desk with a heart sick and empty.

“There can be no cohesion, no progress in the world, no hope for the future of man, if men break their word; if there is no such thing as inviolable honour,” the Warden said to himself, just as he had said before. “After all, as long as honour is left, one has a right to live, to struggle on, to endure.”

CHAPTER XX. SHOPPING

Mrs. Potten found that it “paid” to do her own shopping, and she did it once every week, on Friday. For this purpose she was compelled to use her car. This grieved her. Her extreme desire to save petrol would have been more patriotic if she had not availed herself, on every possible occasion, of using other people's petrol, or, so to speak, other people's oats.

She had gone to the Sale of work in Boreham's gig, but there was not much room in it for miscellaneous parcels, so she was obliged to come into Oxford on the following morning as usual and do her regular shopping.

Mrs. Potten's acquaintance with the University consisted in knowing a member of it here and there, and in accepting invitations to any public function which did not involve the expenditure of her own money. No Greenleafe Potten had ever given any endowment to Oxford, nor, for the matter of that, had any Squire of Chartcote ever spent a penny for the advancement of learning. Indeed, the old County had been mostly occupied in preserving itself from gradual extinction, and the new County, the Nouveaux Riches, had been mainly occupied in the dissipation of energy.

But Mrs. Potten had given the Potten revenues a new lease of life. Not only did she make a point of not reducing her capital, but she was increasing it year by year. She did this by systematic and often minute economies (which is the true secret of economy). The surface of her nature was emotional, enclosing a core of flint, so that when she (being short-sighted) dropped things about in moments of excitement, agreeable or disagreeable, she made such losses good by drawing in the household belt. If she inadvertently dropped a half-crown piece down a grating while exchanging controversial remarks with a local tradesman, or mixed up a note with her pocket handkerchief and mislaid both when forced to find a subscription to some pious object, or if she left a purse containing one shilling and fivepence behind her on a chair in the agitation of meeting a man whom she admired (a man like the Warden, for instance); when such misfortunes happened she made them up—somehow!

Knowing her own weakness, she armed herself against it, by never carrying money about with her, except on rare occasions. When she travelled, her maid carried the money (with her head as the price of it).

This Friday morning, therefore, Mrs. Potten had a business duty before her, she had to squeeze ten shillings out of the weekly bills—a matter difficult in times of peace and more difficult in war time. It was a difficulty she meant to overcome.

Now on this Friday morning, after the Sale, Mrs. Potten motored into Oxford rather earlier than usual. She intended going to the Lodgings at King's before doing her shopping. Her reason for going to the Lodgings was an interesting one. She had just had a letter from Lady Belinda Scott, informing her that, even if she had been able to invite Gwendolen for Monday, Gwendolen could not accept the invitation, as the dear child was going to stay on at the Lodgings indefinitely. She was engaged to be married to the Warden! At this point in the letter Mrs. Potten put the paper upon the breakfast table and felt that the world was grey. Mrs. Potten liked men she admired to be bachelors or else widowers, either would do. She liked to feel that if only she had been ten years younger, and had not been so exclusively devoted to the memory of her husband, things might have——She never allowed herself to state definitely, even to herself, what they might have——, but as long as they might have——, there was over the world in which Mrs. Potten moved and thought a subtle veil of emotional possibilities.

So he was engaged! And what exasperated Mrs. Potten, as she read on, was Lady Belinda's playful hints that Lady Dashwood (dear old thing!) had manoeuvred Gwendolen's visit in the first instance, and then kept her firmly a prisoner till the knot was tied. Hadn't it been clever? Then as to the Warden, he was madly, romantically in love, and what could a mother do but resign herself to the inevitable? It wasn't what she had hoped for Gwen! It was very, very different—very! She must not trust herself to speak on that subject because she had given her consent and the thing was done, and she meant to make the best of it loyally.

With this news surging in her head Mrs. Potten raced along the moist roadways towards the ancient and sacred city.

Lena ought to have told her about this engagement when they were sitting together in the rooms at Christ Church. It wasn't the right thing for an old friend to have preserved a mysterious silence, unless (Mrs. Potten was a woman with her wits about her) the engagement had been not Lady Dashwood's plan, but exclusively Belinda's plan and the daughter's plan, and the Warden had been “caught”!

“A liar,” said Mrs. Potten, as she stared gloomily out of the open window, “is always a liar!”

Mrs. Potten rang the door-bell at the Lodging and waited for the answer with much warmth of interest. Suppose Lena was not at home? What should she do? She must thrash out this matter. Lena would be certain to be at home, it was so early!

She was at home!

Mrs. Potten walked upstairs, her mind agitated with mingled emotions, and also the hope of meeting the Warden, incidentally. But she did not meet the Warden. He was not either coming up or going down, and Mrs. Potten found herself alone in the drawing-room.

She could not sit down, she walked up to the fireplace and stared through her glasses for a moment at the portrait. It was quite true that the man was a very good-looking Warden! Yes, but scarcely the sort of person she would have thought suitable to look after young men; and then she walked away to the window. She was framing in her mind the way in which she should open the subject of her call at this early hour. She almost started when she heard the door click, and turned round to see Lady Dashwood coming towards her.

“Dear one, how tired you look!” said Mrs. Potten; “and I really ought not to have come at this unholy hour——”

“It's not so early,” said Lady Dashwood. “You know work begins in this house at eight o'clock in the morning.”

“So much the better,” said Mrs. Potten. “I don't like the modern late hours. In old days our Prime Ministers were up at six in the morning attending to their correspondence. When are they up now, I should like to know? Well,” she added, “I have come to offer you my congratulations. I got a letter this morning from Lady Belinda, telling me all about it. No, I won't sit down, I merely ran in for a moment.”

Lady Dashwood did not smile. She simply repeated: “From Belinda, telling you all about it!”

Mrs. Potten noted the sarcasm underlying the remark.

“Humph!” said Mrs. Potten. “And you, my dear, said nothing yesterday, though we sat together for half an hour.”

“They were not engaged till yesterday evening,” said Lady Dashwood.

“Belinda writing yesterday speaks of this engagement having already taken place,” said Mrs. Potten; “but, of course, she is wrong.”

“Yes,” said Lady Dashwood.

“Ah!” cried Mrs. Potten, nodding her head up and down once or twice.

“Jim has gone to town this morning,” said Lady Dashwood.

“To buy a ring?” said Mrs. Potten. “Well, I really ought to have brought you Lady Belinda's letter to read. She thinks you have got your heart's desire. That's her way of looking at it.”

Lady Dashwood made no answer.

“I never think lies are amusing,” said Mrs. Potten, “when you know they are lies. But you see, you never said a word. Well, well, so Dr. Middleton is engaged!”

“Yes, engaged,” repeated Lady Dashwood.

“I'm afraid you're tired,” said Mrs. Potten. “You did too much yesterday.”

“I'm tired,” said Lady Dashwood.

“I always expected,” said Mrs. Potten, “that the Warden would have found some nice, steady, capable country rector's daughter. But I suppose, being a man as well as a Warden, he fell in love with a pretty face, eh?” and Mrs. Potten moved as if to go. “Well, she is a lucky girl.”

“Very lucky,” said Lady Dashwood.

Then Mrs. Potten stared closely with her short-sighted eyes into her friend's face and saw such resigned miseries there that Mrs. Potten felt a stirring movement of those superficial emotions of which we have already spoken.

“I could have wept for her, my dear,” said Mrs. Potten, addressing an imaginary companion as she went through the court of the Warden's Lodgings to the car, which she had left standing in the street. “I could have wept for her and for the Warden—poor silly man—and he looks so wise,” she added incredulously. “And,” she went on, “she wouldn't say a word against the girl or against Belinda. Too proud, I suppose.”

Just as she was getting into the car Harding was passing. He stopped, and in his best manner informed her that his wife had told him that the proceeds of the Sale amounted to ninety-three pounds ten shillings and threepence.

“Very good,” said Mrs. Potten; “excellent!”

“And we are much indebted to our kind friends who patronised the Sale.”

Mrs. Potten thought of her Buckinghamshire collar and the shilling pincushion that she need not have bought.

“I shall tell my wife,” said Harding, with much unction, “that you think it very satisfactory.”

It did indeed seem to Mrs. Potten (whose income was in thousands) that ninety-three pounds, ten shillings and threepence was a very handsome sum for the purpose of assisting fifty or sixty young mothers of the present generation.

But she had little time to think of this for just by her, walking past her from the Lodgings, came Miss Gwendolen Scott. Now, what was Mrs. Potten to do? Why, congratulate her, of course! The thing had to be done! She called to Gwendolen, who came to the side of the car all blushes.

“She's pleased—that's plain,” said Mrs. Potten to herself.

But Mrs. Potten was mistaken. Gwendolen's vivid colour came not from the cause which Mrs. Potten imagined. Gwendolen's colour came simply from alarm at the sight of Mrs. Potten and Mr. Harding speaking to one another, and this alarm was not lessened when Mrs. Potten exclaimed—

“Mr. Harding has been telling me that you made ninety-three pounds, ten shillings and threepence from the Sale?”

“Oh, did we?” murmured Gwendolen, and her colour came and went away.

“We did, thanks to Mrs. Potten's purchases,” said Harding, with obsequious playfulness, and he took his leave.

Then Mrs. Potten leaned over the car towards Gwendolen and whispered—

“I was waiting till he had gone, as I don't know if you intend all Oxford to know——”

Gwendolen's lips were pouted into a terrified expression.

“Your engagement, I mean,” explained Mrs. Potten.

Gwendolen breathed again, and now she laughed. Oh, why had she been so frightened? That silly little affair of yesterday was over, it was dead and buried! It was absolutely safe, and here was the first real proper congratulations and acknowledgment of her importance.

“You've got a charming man, very charming,” said Mrs. Potten.

Gwendolen admitted that she had, and then Mrs. Potten waved her hand and was gone.

That morning, when Gwendolen had come down to breakfast, she wondered how she was going to be received, and whether she would have to wait again for recognition as the future Mrs. Middleton. Breakfast had been put half an hour later.

She had found Lady Dashwood and Mrs. Dashwood already at breakfast. The Warden had had breakfast alone a little before eight. Lady Dashwood called to her and, when she came near, kissed her, and said very quietly—

“The Warden has told me.”

And then Mrs. Dashwood smiled and stretched out her hand and said: “I have been allowed to hear the news.”

And Gwendolen had looked at them both and said: “Thanks ever so much. I can scarcely believe it, only I know it's true!”

However, the glamour of the situation was gone because the Warden's seat was empty. He could be heard in the hall; the taxi could be heard and the door slamming, and he never came in to say “Good-bye”! Still it was all exhilarating and wonderfully full of hope and promise, and mysterious to a degree!

The conversation at breakfast was not about herself, but that did not matter, she was occupied with happy thoughts. Now all this, everything she looked at and everything she happened to touch, was hers. Everything was hers from the silver urn down to the very salt spoons. The cup that Lady Dashwood was just raising to her lips was hers, Gwendolen's.

And now as she walked along Broad Street, after leaving Mrs. Potten, how gay the world seemed—how brilliant! Even the leaden grey sky was joyful! To Gwendolen there was no war, no sorrow, no pain! There was no world beyond, no complexity of moral forces, no great piteous struggle for an ideal, no “Christ that is to be!” She was engaged and was going shopping!

It was, however, a pity that she had only ten shillings. That would not get a really good umbrella. Oh, look at those perfectly ducky gloves in the window they were only eight and elevenpence!

Gwendolen stared at the window. Stopping to look at shop windows had been strictly forbidden by her mother, but her dear mother was not there! So Gwendolen peered in intently. What about getting those gloves instead of the umbrella?

She marched into the shop, rather bewildered with her own thoughts. The gloves were shown her by the same woman who had served Lady Dashwood a day or two ago, and who recognised her and smiled respectfully. The gloves were sweet; the gauntlets were exactly what she preferred to any others. And the colour was right. Gwendolen was fingering her purse when the shopwoman said—

“Do you want to pay for them, or shall I enter them, miss?”

Gwendolen's brain worked. She was now definitely engaged, and in a few weeks no doubt would be Mrs. Middleton; after that a bill of eight and elevenpence would be a trifle.

“Enter them, please,” said Gwendolen, and she surprised herself by hearing her own voice asking for the umbrella department.

After this, problems that had in the past appeared insoluble, arranged themselves without any straining effort on her part; they just straightened themselves out and went “right there.”

She looked at a plain umbrella for nine and sixpence, and then examined one at fifteen and eleven. Thereupon she was shown another at twenty-five shillings, which was more respectable looking and had a nice top. It was clearly her duty to choose this, anything poorer would lower the dignity of the future Mrs. Middleton. Gwendolen was learning the “duties” she owed to the station in life to which God had called her. She found no sort of difficulty in this kind of learning, and it was far more really useful than book learning which is proverbially deleterious to the character. She had the umbrella, too, put down to Miss Scott, the Lodgings, King's College. When she got out of the shop the ten-shilling note was still in her purse.

“I shall get some chocolates,” she said. “A few!”

CHAPTER XXI. THE SOUL OF MRS. POTTEN

Mrs. Potten was emerging from a shop in Broad Street when she caught sight of Mr. Bingham, in cap and gown, passing her and called to him. He stopped and walked a few steps with her, while she informed him that the proceeds of the Sale had come to ninety-three pounds, ten shillings and threepence; but this was only in order to find out whether he had heard of that poor dear Warden's engagement. It was all so very foolish!

“Only that!” said Bingham, who was evidently in ignorance of the event; “and after I bought a table-cloth, which I find goes badly with my curtains, and bedroom slippers, that are too small now I've tried them on. Well, Mrs. Potten, you did your best, anyhow, flinging notes about all over Christ Church. Was the second note found?”

“The second note?” exclaimed Mrs. Potten. “What d'ye mean?”

“You dropped one note at Christ Church, and you would have lost another if Harding hadn't discovered that you had given him an extra note and restored it to Miss Scott. I suppose Miss Scott pretended that it was she who had been clever enough to rescue the note for you?”

“No, she did not,” said Mrs. Potten; and here she paused and remained silent, for her brain was seething with tumultuous thoughts.

“Well, but for Harding, the Sale would have made a cool ninety-three pounds, fifteen shillings and threepence. Do you follow me?”

Mrs. Potten did follow him and with much agitation.

“How do you know it was my note and not Miss Scott's own note?” she asked, and there was in her tone a twang of cunning, for Bingham's remarks had roused not only the emotional superficies of Mrs. Potten's nature, but had pierced to the very core where lay the thought of money.

“Because,” replied Bingham, “Miss Scott, who was running like a two-year-old, was not likely to have unfastened your note and fitted one of her own under it so tightly that Harding, whose mind is quite accustomed to the solution of simple problems, had to blow 'poof' to separate them. No, take the blame on yourself, Mrs. Potten, and in future have a purse-bearer.”

Mrs. Potten's mind was in such a state of inward indignation that she went past the chemist's shop, and was now within a few yards of the Sheldonian Theatre. She had become forgetful of time and place, and was muttering to herself—

“What a little baggage—what a little minx!” and other remarks unheard by Bingham.

“I see you are admiring that semicircle of splendid heads that crown the palisading of the Sheldonian,” said Bingham, as they came up close to the historic building.

“Admiring them!” exclaimed Mrs. Potten. “They are monstrosities.”

“They are perfectly sweet, as ladies say,” contradicted Bingham; “we wouldn't part with them for the world.”

“What are they?” demanded Mrs. Potten, trying hard to preserve an outward calm and discretion.

“Jupiter Tonans—or Plato,” said Bingham, “and in progressive stages of senility.”

“Why don't you have handsome heads?” said Mrs. Potten, and she began to cross the road with Bingham. Bingham was crossing the road because he was going that way, and Mrs. Potten drifted along with him because she was too much excited to think out the matter.

“They are handsome,” said Bingham.

Mrs. Potten was speechless. Suddenly she discovered that she was hurrying in the wrong direction, just as if she were running away with Mr. Bingham. She paused at the curb of the opposite pavement.

“Mr. Bingham,” she said, arresting him.

He stopped.

“I must go back,” she said. “I quite forgot that my car may be waiting for me at the chemist's!” and then she fumbled with her bag, and then looked thoughtfully into Bingham's face as they stood together on the curb. “Bernard always lunches with me on Sundays,” she said; “I shall be glad to see you any Sunday if you want a walk, and we can talk about the removal of those heads.”

Bingham gave a cordial but elusive reply, and, raising his cap, he sauntered away eastwards, his gown flying out behind him in the light autumn wind.

Mrs. Potten re-crossed the road and walked slowly back to the chemist's. Her car was there waiting for her, and it contained her weekly groceries, her leg of mutton, and the unbleached calico for the making of hospital slings which she had bought in Queen's Street, because she could obtain it there at 4 1/2d. per yard.

She went into the chemist's and bought some patent pills, all the time thinking hard. She had two witnesses to Gwendolen Scott's having possession of the note: Mr. Harding and Mr. Bingham; and one witness, Lady Dashwood, to her having delivered the collar and not the note! All these witnesses were unconscious of the meaning of the transaction. She, Mrs. Potten, alone could piece together the evidence and know what it meant, and it was by a mere chance that she had been able to do this. If she had not met Mr. Bingham (and she had never met him before in the street), and if she had not happened to have mentioned the proceeds of the Sale, she would still be under the impression that the note had been mislaid.

“And the impertinence of the young woman!” exclaimed Mrs. Potten, as she paid for her pills. “And she fancies herself in a position of trust, if you please! She means to figure, if you please, at the head of an establishment where we send our sons to be kept out of mischief for a bit! Well, I never heard of anything like it. Why, she'll be tampering with the bills!”

Mrs. Potten's indignation did not wane as the moments passed, but rather waxed.

“And her mother is condescending about the engagement! Why,” added Mrs. Potten to herself with emphasis, as she got into her car—“why, if this had happened with one of my maids, I should have put it into the hands of the police.”

“The Lodgings, King's,” she said to the chauffeur. What was she going to do when she got there?

Mrs. Potten had no intention of bursting into the Lodgings in order to demand an explanation from Miss Scott. No, thank you, Miss Scott must wait upon Mrs. Potten. She must come out to Potten End and make her explanation! But Mrs. Potten was going to the Lodgings merely to ensure that this would be done on the instant.

“Don't drive in,” she called, and getting out of the car she walked into the court and went up the two shallow steps of the front door and rang at the bell.

The retroussé nose of Robinson Junior appeared at the opened door. Lady Dashwood was not at home and was not expected till half-past one. It was then one o'clock. Mrs. Potten mused for a little and then asked if she might see Lady Dashwood's maid for a moment. Robinson Junior suppressed his scornful surprise that any one should want to see Louise, and ushered Mrs. Potten into the Warden's breakfast-room, and there, seating herself near the window, she searched for a visiting card and a pencil. Louise appeared very promptly.

“Madame wishes something?” she remarked as she closed the door behind her, and stood surveying Mrs. Potten from that distance.

“I do,” said Mrs. Potten, taking in Louise's untidy blouse, her plain features, thick complexion and luminous brown eyes in one comprehensive glance. “Can you tell me if Miss Scott will be in for luncheon?” Mrs. Potten spoke French with a strong English accent and much originality of style.

Yes, Miss Scott was returning to luncheon.

“And do you know if the ladies have afternoon engagements?”

Louise thought they had none, because Lady Dashwood was to be at home to tea. That she knew for certain, and she added in a voice fraught with import: “I shall urge Madame to rest after lunch.”

“Humph! I see you look after her properly,” said Mrs. Potten, beginning to write on her card with the pencil; “I thought she was looking very tired when I saw her this morning.”

“Tired!” exclaimed Louise; “Madame is always tired in Oxford.”

“Relaxing climate,” said Mrs. Potten as she wrote.

“And this house does not suit Madame,” continued Louise, motionless at the door.

“The drains wrong, perhaps,” said Mrs. Potten, with absolute indifference.

“I know nothing of drains, Madame,” said Louise, “I speak of other things.”

“Sans doute il y a du 'dry rot,'“ said Mrs. Potten, looking at what she had written.

“Ah!” exclaimed Louise, clasping her hands, “Madame has heard; I did not know his name, but what matter? Ghosts are always ghosts, and my Lady Dashwood has never been the same since that night, never!”

Mrs. Potten stared but she did not express surprise, she wanted to hear more without asking for more.

“Madame knows that the ghost comes to bring bad news about the Warden!”

“Bad news!” said Mrs. Potten, and she put her pencil back into her bag and wondered whether the news of the Warden's engagement had reached the servants' quarters.

“A disaster,” said Louise. “Always a disaster—to Monsieur the Warden. Madame understands?”

Louise gazed at Mrs. Potten as if she hoped that that lady had information to give her. But Mrs. Potten had none. She was merely thinking deeply.

“Well,” she said, rising, “I suppose most old houses pretend to have ghosts. We have one at Potten End, but I have never seen it myself, and, as far as I know, it does no harm and no good. But Madame didn't see the ghost you speak of?” and here Mrs. Potten smiled a little satirically.

“It was Miss Scott,” said Louise, darkly.

“Oh!” said Mrs. Potten, with a short laugh. “Oh, well!” and she came towards the maid with the card in her hand. “Now, will you be good enough to give this to Madame the moment that she returns and say that it is 'Urgent,' d'une importance extrème.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Potten to herself, as she walked through the court and gained the street, “and I should think it was a disaster for a quiet, respectable Warden of an Oxford college to marry a person of the Scott type.”

As to Louise, when she had closed the front door on Mrs. Potten's retreating figure, she gazed hard at the card in her hand. The writing was as follows:—

    “Dear Lena,

    “Can Miss Scott come to see me this afternoon without fail? Very
    kindly allow her to come early.

                     “M. P.”

It did not contain anything more.

Now, Mrs. Potten really believed in ghosts, but she thought of them as dreary, uninteresting intruders on the world's history. There was Hamlet's father's ghost that spoke at such length, and there was the spirit that made Abraham's hair stand on end as it passed before him, and then there was the ghost of Samuel that appeared to Saul and prophesied evil. But of all ghosts, the one that Mrs. Potten thought most dismal, was the ghost of the man-servant who came out from a mansion, full of light and music, one winter night on a Devon bye-road. There he stood in the snow directing the lost travellers to the nearest inn, and (this was what struck Mrs. Potten's soul to the core) the half-crown (an actual precious piece of money) that was dropped into his hand—fell through the palm—on to the snow—and so the travellers knew that they had spoken to a spirit, and were leaving behind them a ghostly house with ghostly lights and the merriment of the dead.

Mrs. Potten's mind worked in columns, and had she been calm and happy she would have spent the time returning to Potten End in completing the list of ghosts she was acquainted with; but she was excited and full of tumultuous thoughts.

There was, indeed, in Mrs. Potten's soul the strife of various passions: there was the desire to act in a high-handed, swift Potten manner, the desire to pursue and flatten any one who invaded the Potten preserves. There was the desire to put her heavy individual foot upon a specimen of the modern female who betrays the honour and the interest of her own class. There was also the general desire to show a fool that she was a fool. There was also the desire to snub Belinda Scott; and lastly, but not least, there was the desire to put her knife into any giddy young girl who had thrown her net over the Warden.

These desires fought tooth and nail with a certain dogged sentiment of fear—a fear of the Warden. If he was deeply in love, what might he do or not do? Would he put Potten End under a ban? Would he excommunicate her, Marian Potten?

And so Mrs. Potten's mind whirled.

At a certain shop in the High there was May Dashwood, looking at a window full of books. No doubt Lady Dashwood was inside, or, more probably, in the shop next door.

An inspiration came to Mrs. Potten. Was the Warden so very much in love? Belinda Scott laid great stress on his being very much in love, and the whole thing being a surprise! Belinda Scott was a liar! And the little daughter who could stoop to thieving ten shillings at a bazaar, might well have been put on by her mother to some equally noxious behaviour to the Warden. She might have lain in wait for him behind doors and on staircases; she might——Mrs. Potten stopped her car, got out of it, and went behind May Dashwood and whispered in her ear.

May turned, her eyebrows very much raised, and listened to what Mrs. Potten had to say.

Great urgency made Mrs. Potten as astute as a French detective.

“I'm quite sorry,” she whispered, “to find that your Aunt Lena seems worried about the engagement. Now why on earth, oh why, did the Warden run himself into an engagement with a girl he doesn't really care about?”

This question was a master-stroke. There was no getting out of this for May Dashwood. Mrs. Potten clapped her hand over her mouth and drew in a breath. Then she listened breathless for the answer. The answer must either be: “But he does really care about her,” or something evasive.

Not only Mrs. Potten's emotional superficies but her core of flint feared the emphatic answer, and yearned for an evasive one. What was it to be?

May's face had suddenly blanched. Had her Aunt Lena told? No—surely not; and yet Mrs. Potten seemed to know.

“How can I tell, Mrs. Potten?” said May, unsteadily. “I——”

“Evasive!” said Mrs. Potten to herself triumphantly.

“Never mind! things do happen,” she said, interrupting May. “I suppose, at any rate, he has to make the best of it, now it's done.”

Mrs. Potten was afraid that she was now going too far, and she swiftly turned the subject sideways before May had time to think out a reply.

“Tell your Aunt Lena that I expect Gwendolen, without fail, after lunch. Please tell her; so kind of you! Good-bye, good-bye,” and Mrs. Potten got fiercely into her car.

“Well, I never!” she said, and she said it over and over again. A cloud of thoughts seemed to float with her as the car skimmed along the road, and through that cloud seemed to peer at her, though somewhat dimly, the “beaux yeux” of the Warden of King's.

“I think I shall,” said Mrs. Potten, “I think I shall; but I shall make certain first—absolutely certain—first.”

CHAPTER XXII. MR. BOREHAM'S PROPOSAL

Boreham's purpose had been thwarted for the moment. But there was still time for him to make another effort, and this time it was to be a successful effort.

A letter to May would have been the easiest way in which to achieve his purpose, but Boreham shrank from leaving to posterity a written proposal of marriage, because there always was just the chance that such a letter might not be answered in the right spirit, and in that case the letter would appear to future readers of Boreham's biography as an unsolicited testimonial in favour of marriage—as an institution. So Boreham decided to continue “feeling” his way!

After all, there was not very much time in which to feel the way, for May was leaving Oxford on Monday. To-day was Friday, and Boreham knew the King's party were going to chapel at Magdalen. If he went, too, it would be possible for him to get May to himself on the way back to the Lodgings (in the dark).

So to Magdalen he went, hurrying along on that Friday afternoon, and the nearer he got to Magdalen the more sure he was that only fools lived in the country; the more convinced he was that Chartcote had become, even in three months, a hateful place.

Boreham was nearly late, he stumbled into the ante-chapel just as they were closing the doors with solemn insistence. He uncovered his head as he entered, and his nostrils were struck with a peculiar odour of stone and mortar; a sense of space around him and height above him; also with the warmth of some indefinable sense of community of purpose that annoyed him. He was, indeed, already warm enough physically with his haste in coming; he was also spiritually in a glow with the consciousness of his own magnanimity and toleration. Here was the enlightened Boreham entering a temple where they repeated “Creeds outworn.” Here he was entering it without any exhibition of violent hostility or even of contempt. He was entering it decorously, though not without some speed. He was warm and did not wish to be made warmer.

What he had not anticipated, and what disappointed him, was that from the ante-chapel he could not see whether the Dashwoods were in the Chapel or not. The screen and organ loft were in the way, they blocked his vision, and not having any “permit” for the Chapel, he had to remain in the ante-chapel, and just hope for the best. He seated himself as near to the door as he could, on the end of the back bench, already crowded. There he disposed of his hat and prepared himself to go through with the service.

Boreham did not, of course, follow the prayers or make any responses; he merely uttered a humming noise with the object of showing his mental aloofness, and yet impressing the fact of his presence on the devout around him.

Many a man who has a conscientious objection to prayer, likes to hear himself sing. But Boreham's singing voice was not altogether under his own control. It was as if the machinery that produced song was mislaid somewhere down among his digestive organs and had got rusted, parts of it being actually impaired.

It had been, in his younger days, a source of regret to Boreham that he could never hope to charm the world by song as well as by words. As he grew older that regret faded, and was now negligible.

Is there any religious service in the world more perfect than evensong at Magdalen? Just now, in the twilight of the ante-chapel, a twilight faintly lit above at the spring of the groined roof, the voices of the choir rose and fell in absolute unison, with a thrill of subdued complaint; a complaint uttered by a Hebrew poet dead and gone these many years, a complaint to the God of his fathers, the only true God.

Boreham marked time (slightly out of time) muttering—

    “Tum/tum tum/ti:
     Tum/tum tum/tum ti/tum?”

loud enough to escape the humiliation of being confounded with those weak-minded strangers who are carried away (in spite of their reason) by the charm of sacerdotal blandishments.

He stood there among the ordinary church-goers, conscious that he was a free spirit. He was happy. At least not so much happy as agreeably excited by the contrast he made with those around him, and excited, too, at what was going to happen in about half an hour. That is, if May Dashwood was actually behind that heavy absurd screen in the Chapel. He went on “tum-ing” as if she was there and all was well.

And within the chapel, in one of those deep embrasures against the walls, was May Dashwood. But she was alone. Lady Dashwood had been too tired to come with her, and Gwendolen had been hurried off to Potten End immediately after lunch, strangely reluctant to go. So May had come to the Chapel alone, and, not knowing that Boreham was in the ante-chapel waiting for her, she had some comfort in the seclusion and remoteness of that sacred place. Not that the tragedy of the world was shut out and forgotten, as it is in those busy market-places where men make money and listen too greedily to the chink of coin to hear any far-off sounds from the plain of Armageddon. May got comfort, not because she had forgotten the tragedy of the world and was soothed by soft sounds, but because that tragedy was remembered in this hour of prayer; because she was listening to the cry of the Hebrew poet, uttered so long ago and echoed now by distressful souls who feel just as he felt the desperate problem of human suffering and the desire for peace.

    “Why art thou so vexed, O my soul;
     And why art thou so disquieted within me?”

And then the answer; an answer which to some is meaningless, but which, to the seeker after the “things that are invisible,” is the only answer—the answer that the soul makes to itself—

    “O put thy trust in God!”

       * * * * *

May observed no one in the Chapel; she saw nothing but the written words in the massive Prayer-book on the desk before her; and when at last the service was over, she came out looking neither to right nor left, and was startled to find herself emerging into the fresh air with Boreham by her side, claiming her company back to the Lodgings.

It was just dusk and the moon was rising in the east. Though it could not be seen, its presence was visible in the thin vaporous lightness of the sky. The college buildings stood out dimly, as if seen by a pallid dawn.

“You leave Oxford on Monday?” began Boreham, as they went through the entrance porch out into the High and turned to the right.

“Yes,” said May, and a sigh escaped her. That Boreham noticed.

“I don't deny the attractions of Oxford,” he said. “All I object to is its pretensions.”

“You don't like originality,” murmured May.

She was thinking of the slums of London where she worked. What a contrast with this noble street! Why should men be allowed to build dens and hovels for other men to live in? Why should men make ugliness and endure squalor?

“I thought you knew me better,” said Boreham, reproachfully, “than to say that.”

“If you do approve of originality,” said May, “then why not let Oxford work out its own evolution, in its own way?”

“It needs entire reconstruction,” said Boreham, stubbornly.

“You would like to pass everything through a mill and turn it out to a pattern,” said May. “But that's not the way the world progresses. Entire reconstruction would spoil Oxford. What it wants is what we all want—the pruning of our vices and the development of our virtues. We don't want to be shorn of all that makes up our personality.”

Boreham said, “That is a different matter; but why should we argue?”

“To leave Oxford and speak of ourselves, of you and me,” said May, persisting. “You don't want to be made like me; but we both want to have the selfishness squeezed out of us. There! I warn you that, having once started, I shall probably go on lamenting like the prophet Jeremiah until I reach the Lodgings! So if you want to escape, do find some pressing engagement. I shan't be offended in the very least.”

How she longed for him to go! But was he capable of discovering this even when it was broadly hinted?

Boreham's beard moved irritably. The word “selfish” stung him. There was no such thing as being “unselfish”—one man wanted one thing, another man wanted another—and there you are!

“Human nature is selfish,” he retorted. “Saints are selfish. They want to have a good time in the next world. Each man always wants to please himself, only tastes differ.”

Boreham spoke in emphatic tones. If May was thinking of her husband, then this piece of truth must be put before her without delay. War widows had the habit of speaking of their husbands as heroes, when all they had done was to have got themselves blown to pieces while they were trying to blow other people to pieces.

“You make questions of taste very important,” said May, looking down the misty street. “Some men have a taste for virtue and generosity, and others have taste for vice and meanness.”

Boreham looked at her features closely in the dim light.

“Are you angry with me?” he asked.

“Not at all,” said May. “We are arguing about words. You object to the use of the word 'selfish,' so I adopt your term 'taste.'”

“There's no reason why we should argue just now,” said Boreham. “Not that argument affects friendship! Friendship goes behind all that, doesn't it?” He asked this anxiously.

“I don't expect my friends to agree with me in all points,” said May, smiling. “That would be very selfish!” She laughed. “I beg your pardon. I mean that my taste in friends is pretty catholic,” and here Boreham detected a sudden coldness in her voice.

“Friendship—I will say more than that—love—has nothing to do with 'points of view,'“ he began hastily. “A man may fall in love with a woman as she passes his window, though he may never exchange a word with her. Such things have happened.”

“And it is just possible,” suggested May, “that a protracted conversation with the lady might have had the effect of destroying the romance.”

Here Boreham felt a wave of fear and hope and necessity surge through his whole being. The moment had arrived!

“Not if you were the lady,” he said in a convinced tone.

May still gazed down the street, etherealised beyond its usual beauty in this thin pale light.

“I don't think any man, however magnanimous, could stand a woman long if she made protracted lamentations after the manner of Jeremiah,” she said.

“You are purposely speaking ill of yourself,” said Boreham. “Yet, whatever you do or say makes a man fall in love with you.” He was finding words now without having to think.

“I was not aware of it,” said May, rather coldly.

“It is true,” he persisted. “You are different from other women; you are the only woman I have ever met whom I wanted to marry.”

It was out! Not as well put as he would have liked, but it was out. Here was a proposal of marriage by word of mouth. Here was the orthodox woman's definite opportunity. May would see the seriousness of it now.

“As a personal friend of yours,” said May, and her tone was not as serious as he had feverishly hoped, “I do not think you are consulting your own interests at this moment, Mr. Boreham.”

“No!” began Boreham. “Not mine exclusively——”

“Your remark was hasty—ill considered,” she said, interrupting him. “You don't really want to marry. You would find it an irksome bondage, probably dull as well as irksome.”

“Not with you!” exclaimed Boreham, and he touched her arm.

May's arm became miraculously hard and unsympathetic.

“Marriage is a great responsibility,” she said.

“I have thought that all out,” said Boreham. “There may be——”

“Then you know,” she replied, “that it means——”

“I have calculated the cost,” he said. “I am willing——”

“You have not only to save your own soul but to help some one else to save theirs,” she went on. “You have to exercise justice and mercy. You have to forgive every day of your life, and”—she added—“to be forgiven. Wouldn't that bore you?”

Boreham's heart thumped with consternation. It might take months to make her take a reasonable view of marriage. She was more difficult than he had anticipated.

“Marriage is a dreary business,” continued May, “unless you go into it with much prayer and fasting—Jeremiah again.”

Into Boreham's consternation broke a sudden anger.

“That is why,” continued May, “Herod ordered Mariamne to be beheaded, and why the young woman who married the 'beloved disciple' said she couldn't realise her true self and went off with Judas Iscariot.” May turned round and looked at him as she spoke.

“I was serious!” burst out Boreham.

“Not more serious than I am,” said May; “I am serious enough to treat the subject you have introduced with the fearless criticism you consider right to apply to all important subjects. You ought to approve!”

And yet she smiled just a little at the corners of her mouth, because she knew that, when Boreham demanded the right of every man to criticise fearlessly—what he really had in his mind was the vision of himself, Boreham, criticising fearlessly. He thought of himself, for instance, as trying to shame the British public for saying slimily: “Let's pretend to be monogamous!” He thought of himself calling out pluckily: “Here, you self-satisfied humbugs, I'm going to say straight out—we ain't monogamous——”

He never contemplated May Dashwood coming and saying to him: “And are you not a self-satisfied humbug, pretending that there is no courage, no endurance, no moral effort superior to your own?” It was this that made May smile a little.

“The fact remains,” he said, feeling his way hotly, blindly, “that a man can, and does, make a woman happy, if he loves her. All I ask,” he went on, “is to be allowed the chance of doing this, and you gibe.”

“I don't gibe,” said May, “I'm preaching. And, after all, I ought not to preach, because marriage does not concern me—directly. I shall not marry again, Mr. Boreham.”

Boreham stared hard at her and his eyebrows worked. All she had just been saying provoked his anger; it disagreed with him, made him dismal, and yet, at least, he had no rival! She hadn't got hold of any so-called saint as a future husband. Middleton hadn't been meddling, nor Bingham, and there was no shadowy third anywhere in town. She was heart free! That was something!

There was the dead husband, of course, but his memory would fade as time went on. “Just now, people who are dead or dying, are in the swim,” thought Boreham; “but just wait till the war is over!” He swiftly imagined publishers and editors of journals refusing anything that referred to the war or to any dismal subject connected with it. The British public would have no use for the dead when the war was over. The British public would be occupied with the future; how to make money, how to spend it. Stories about love and hate among the living would be wanted, or pleasant discourses about the consolations of religion and blessed hopes of immortality for those who were making the money and spending it!

Boreham sneered as he thought this, and yet he himself desired intensely that men, and especially women, should forget the dead, and, above all, that May should forget her dead and occupy herself in being a pretty and attractive person of the female sex.

“I will wait,” said Boreham, eagerly; “I won't ask you for an answer now.”

“Now you know my position, you will not put any question to me!” said May, very quietly.

There came a moment's oppressive silence.

“I may continue to be your friend,” he demanded; “you won't punish me?” and his voice was urgent.

“Of course not,” she said.

“I may come and see you?” he urged again.

“Any friends of mine may come and see me, if they care to,” she said; “but I am very much occupied during the day—and tired in the evenings.”

“Sundays?” he interrupted.

“My Sundays I spend with friends in Surrey.”

Boreham jerked his head nervously. “I shall be living in Town almost immediately,” he said; “I will come and see what times would be convenient.”

“I am very stupid when my day's work is done,” said May.

“Stupid!” Boreham laughed harshly. “But your work is too hard and most unsuitable. Any woman can attend to babies.”

“I flatter myself,” said May, “that I can wash a baby without forgetting to dry it.”

“Why do you hide yourself?” he exclaimed. “Why do you throw yourself away?” He felt that, with her beside him, he could dictate to the world like a god. “Why don't you organise?”

“Do you mean run about and talk,” asked May, “and leave the work to other people? Don't you think that we are beginning to hate people who run about and talk?”

“Because the wrong people do it,” said Boreham.

“The people who do it are usually the wrong people,” corrected May; “the right people are generally occupied with skilled work—technical or intellectual. That clears the way for the unskilled to run about and talk, and so the world goes round, infinite labour and talent quietly building up the Empire, and idleness talking about it and interrupting it.”

Boreham stared at her with petulant admiration. “You could do anything,” he said bluntly.

“I shall put an advertisement into the Times,” said May. “'A gentlewoman of independent means, unable to do any work properly, but anxious to organise.'”

They had now turned into a narrow lane and were almost at the gates of the Lodgings. May did not want Boreham to come into the Court with her, she wanted to dismiss him now. She had a queer feeling of dislike that he should tread upon the gravel of the Court, and perhaps come actually to the front door of the Lodgings. She stopped and held out her hand.

“I have your promise,” he said, “I can come and see you?” He looked thwarted and miserable.

“If you happen to be in town,” she said.

“But I mean to live there,” he said. This insinuation on her part, that she had not accepted the fact that he was going to live in town, was unsympathetic of her. “I can't stand the loneliness of Chartcote, it has become intolerable.”

The word “loneliness” melted May. She knew what loneliness meant. After all, how could he help being the man he was? Was it his fault that he had been born with his share of the Boreham heredity? Was he able to control his irritability, to suppress his exaggerated self-esteem; both of them, perhaps, symptoms of some obscure form of neurosis?

May felt a pang of pity for him. His face showed signs of pain and discontent and restlessness.

“I shall leave Chartcote any day, immediately. London draws me back to it. I can think there. I can't at Chartcote, the atmosphere is sodden at Chartcote, my neighbours are clods.”

May looked at him anxiously. “It is dull for you,” she said.

Encouraged by this he went on rapidly. “Art, literature is nothing to them. They are centaurs. They ought to eat grass. They don't know a sunset from a swede. They don't know the name of a bird, except game birds; they are ignorant fools, they are damned——” Boreham's breathing was loud and rapid.

“And yet you hate Oxford,” murmured May, as she held out her hand. She still did not mean Boreham to come inside the Court, her hand was a dismissal.

“Because Oxford is so smug,” said Boreham. “And the country is smug. England is the land that begets effeteness and smuggishness. Yes, I should be pretty desperate,” he added, and he held her hand with some pressure—“I should be pretty desperate, only you have promised to let me come and see you.”

May withdrew her hand. “As a friend,” she said. “Yes, come as a friend.”

Boreham gave a curious toss to his head. “I am under your orders,” he said, “I obey. You don't wish me to come with you to the door—I obey!”

“Thank you,” said May, simply. “And if you are lonely, well, so am I. There are many lonely people in this world just now, and many, many lonely women!” She turned away and left him.

Boreham raced rather than walked away from the Lodgings towards the stables where he had put up his horse. He hardly knew what his thoughts were. He was more strangely moved than he had ever thought he could be. And how solitary he was! What permanent joy is there in the world, after all? There is nothing permanent in life! It takes years to find that out—years—if you are well in health and full of vanity! But you do find it out—at last.

As he went headlong he came suddenly against an obstacle. Somebody caught him by the arm and slowed him down.

“Hullo, Boreham!” said Bingham. “Stop a moment!”

Boreham allowed himself to be fastened upon, and suffered Bingham's arm to rest on his, but he puffed with irritation. He felt like a poet who has been interrupted in a fit of inspiration.

“I thought this was one of your War Office days,” he said bluntly.

“It is,” replied Bingham, in his sweetest curate tones. “But there is special College business to-day, and I'm putting in an extra day next week instead. Look here, do you want a job of work?”

No, of course, Boreham didn't.

“I'm leaving Chartcote,” he said, and was glad to think it was true.

“This week?” asked Bingham.

“No,” said Boreham, suddenly wild with indignation, “but any time—next week, perhaps.”

“This job will only take four or five days,” said Bingham.

“What job?” demanded Boreham.

“There's a small library just been given us by the widow of a General.”

“Didn't know soldiers ever read books,” said Boreham.

“I don't know if he read them,” said Bingham, “but there they are. We want some one to look through them—put aside the sort suitable for hospitals, and make a catalogue raisonné of the others for the camps in Germany.”

Boreham wanted to say, “Be damned with your raisonné,” but he limited himself to saying: “Can't you get some college chaplain, or some bloke of the sort to do it?”

“All are thick busy,” said Bingham—“those that are left.”

“It must be a new experience for them,” said Boreham.

“There are plenty of new experiences going,” said Bingham.

“And you won't deny,” said Boreham, smiling the smile of self-righteousness, as he tried to assume a calm bantering tone, “that experience—of life, I mean—is a bit lacking in Oxford?”

“It depends on what you mean,” said Bingham, sweetly. “We haven't the experience of making money here. Also Oxford Dons are expected to go about with the motto 'Pereunt et imputantur' written upon our brows (see the sundial in my college), 'The hours pass and we must give an account of them.'”

Bingham always translated his Latin, however simple, for Boreham's benefit. Just now this angered Boreham.

“This motto,” continued Bingham, “isn't for ornament but for an example. In short, my dear man, we avoid what I might call, for want of a more comprehensive term, the Pot-house Experience of life.”

Boreham threw back his head.

“Well, you'll take the job, will you?” and Bingham released his arm.

“Can't you get one of those elderly ladies who frequent lectures during their lifetime to do the job?”

“We may be reduced to that,” said Bingham, “but even they are busy. It's a nice job,” he added enticingly.

“I know what it will be like,” grunted Boreham, and he hesitated. If May Dashwood had been staying on in Oxford it would have been different, but she was going away. So Boreham hesitated.

“Telephone me this evening, will you?” said Bingham.

“Very well,” said Boreham. “I'll see what I have got on hand, and if I have time——” and so the two men parted.

Boreham got into his gig with a heavy heart and drove back to Chartcote. How he hated the avenue that cut him off from the world outside. How he hated the clean smell of the country that came into his windows. How he hated to see the moon, when it glinted at him from between the tops of trees. He longed for streets, for the odour of dirt and of petrol and of stale-cooked food.

The noise of London soothed him, the jostling of men and women; he hungered for it. And yet he did not love those human beings. He knew their weaknesses, their superstitions, their follies, their unreason! Boreham remembered a much over-rated Hebrew (possibly only a mythical figure) who once said to His followers that when they prayed they should say: “Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.”

He got out of his gig slowly. “I don't forgive them,” he said, and, unconscious of his own sins, he walked up the steps into his lonely house.

CHAPTER XXIII. BY MOONLIGHT

May waited within the gates of the Lodgings for some moments. She did not open the door and enter the house. She walked up and down on the gravelled court. She wanted to be alone, to speak to no one just now; her heart was full of weariness and loneliness.

When she felt certain that Boreham was safely away, she went to the gates and out into the narrow street again, where she could hear subdued sounds of the evening traffic of the city.

The dusky streets had grown less dim; the shining overhead was more luminous as the moon rose.

The old buildings, as she passed them on her solitary walk, looked mysterious and aloof, as if they had been placed there magically for some secret purpose and might vanish before the dawn. This was the ancient Oxford, the Oxford of the past, the Oxford that was about to pass away, leaving priceless memories of learning and romance behind it, something that could never be again quite what it had been. Before dawn would it vanish and something else, still called Oxford, would be standing there in its place?

May was tempted to let her imagination wander thus, and to see in this mysterious Oxford the symbol of the personality of a single man, a personality that haunted her when she was alone, a personality which, when it stood before her in flesh and blood, seemed to fill space and obliterate other objects.

She had, in the chapel, re-affirmed over and over again her resolution to overcome this obsession, and now, as she walked that evening, her heart cried out for indulgence just for one brief moment, for permission to think of this personality, and to read details of it in every moonlit façade of old Oxford, in every turn of the time-worn lanes and passages.

The temptation had come upon her, because it was so dreary to be loved by Boreham. His talk seemed to mark her spiritual loneliness with such poignant insistence; it made it so desperately plain to her that those sharp cravings of her heart could not be satisfied except by one man. It had made her see, for the first time, that the sacred dead, to whom she had raised a shrine, was a memory and not a present reality to her; and this thought only added to her confusion and her grief.

What was there to hold on to in life?

“O, put thy trust in God!” came the answer.

“Help me to make the mischance of my life a motive for greater moral effort. Help me to be a willing sacrifice and not an unwilling victim.” And as she uttered these words she moved with more rapid steps.

Shadows were visible on the roadway; roofs glimmered and the edges of the deep window recesses were tinged with a dark silver. She passed under the walls of All Souls and emerged again into the High. A figure she recognised confronted her. She tried to pass it without appearing to be aware of it, and she hurried on with bent head. But it turned, and Bingham's voice spoke to her.

“Mrs. Dashwood,” he called softly.

She was forced to slacken her pace. “Oh, Mr. Bingham!” she said, and he came and walked by her, making pretence that he was disturbing her solitude because he had never been told the dinner-hour at the Lodgings, when Lady Dashwood invited him, and, what was more important, he had forgotten to say that he would be very glad if Mrs. Dashwood would make use of him as a cicerone if she wanted any more sight-seeing in Oxford and the Warden was unable to accompany her. This was the pretence he put before her.

Then, when he had said all this and had walked a few yards along the street with her, he seemed to forget that his business with her ought to be over, and remarked that he had been trying to save Boreham's soul.

“His soul!” said May, with a sigh.

“I've been trying to make him work.”

“Doesn't he work?” asked May.

“No, he preaches,” said Bingham. “If he had a touch of genius he might invent some attractive system of ethics in which his own characteristics would be the right characteristics; some system in which humility and patience would take a back seat.”

May could not help smiling a little, Bingham's voice was so smooth and soft; but she felt Boreham's loneliness again and ceased smiling.

“Or he might invent a new god,” said Bingham, “a sort of composite photograph of himself and the old gods. He might invent a new creed to go along with it and damn all the old creeds. But he is incapable of construction, so he merely preaches the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is a soft job. Wherever he is, there is Sodom and Gomorrah! You see my point? Egotism is always annoyed at egotisms. An egotist always sees the egotism of other people. The egotism of those round him, jump at him, they get on his nerves! He has to love people who are far, far away! You see my point? Well, I've been trying to make him take on a small bit of war work!”

“And will he take it?” asked May.

“I don't know,” said Bingham; “I've just left him, a prey to conflicting passions.”

May was silent.

“Are you going back to King's?” asked Bingham.

She and Bingham were walking along, just as she and Boreham had been walking along the same street, past these same colleges not an hour ago. Was she going back to the Lodgings? Yes, she thought, in fact she knew she was going back to the Lodgings.

“May I see you to the Lodgings?” asked Bingham.

There seemed no alternative but to say “Yes.”

“There are many things I should like to talk over with you, Mrs. Dashwood,” said Bingham, stepping out cheerfully. “I should like to roam the universe with you.”

“I'm afraid you would find me very ignorant,” said May.

“I would present you with facts. I would sit at your feet and hold them out for your inspection, and you, from your throne above, would pronounce judgment on them.”

“It is the ignorant people who always do pronounce judgment,” said May. “So that will be all right. You spoke of Mr. Boreham preaching. Well, I've just been preaching. It's a horrid habit.”

Bingham gave one of his surprising and most cultured explosions of laughter. May turned and looked at him with her eyebrows very much raised.

“I am laughing at myself,” he explained. “I thought to buy things too cheaply.”

May looked away, pondering on the meaning of his words. At last the meaning occurred to her.

“You mean you wanted to flatter me, and—and I began to talk about something else. Was that what made you laugh?” she asked.

“That's it,” said Bingham. “I wanted to flatter you because it is a pleasure to flatter you, and I forgot what a privilege it was.”

“Ah!” said May, quietly.

“Cheap, cheap, always cheap!” said Bingham. “Cheapness is the curse of our age. The old Radical belief in the right to buy cheaply, that poison has soaked into the very bone of politics. It has contaminated our religion. The pulpit has decided in favour of cheap salvation.”

May looked round again at Bingham's moonlit profile.

“No more hell!” he said, “no more narrow way, no more strait gate to heaven! On the contrary, we bawl ourselves blue asserting that the way is broad, and that every blessed man Jack of us will find it. Yes,” he went on more slowly, “we have no use now for a God who can deny to any one a cheap suburban residence in the New Jerusalem. And so,” he added, “I flatter you, stupidly, and—and you forgive me.”

They walked on together for a moment in silence.

“I don't deserve your forgiveness,” he said. “But I desire your forgiveness. I desire your toleration as far as it will go. Perhaps, if you were to let me talk on, I might go too far for your toleration,” and now he turned and looked at her.

“You would not go too far,” said May. “You are too much detached; you look on——” and here she hesitated.

“Oh, damn!” said Bingham, softly; “that is the accursed truth,” and he stared before him at the cracks in the pavement as they stood out sharply in the moonlight.

“You mustn't mind,” said May, soothingly.

“I do mind,” said Bingham; “I should like to be able to take my own emotions seriously. I should like to feel the importance of my being highly strung, imaginative, a lover of beauty and susceptible to the charms of women. Instead of which I am hopelessly critical of myself. I see myself a blinking fool, among other fools.” Bingham's lips went on moving as if he were continuing to speak to himself.

“When a woman takes you and your emotions seriously, what happens then?” asked May very softly, and she looked at him with wide open eyes and her eyebrows full of inquiry.

“Ah!” sighed Bingham, “that was long ago. I have forgotten—or nearly.” Then he added, after a moment's silence: “May I talk to you about the present?”

“Yes, do,” said May.

“There!” said Bingham, resentfully, “see how you trust me! You know that if I begin to step on forbidden ground, you have only to put out your finger and say 'Stop!' and I shall retire amiably, with a jest.”

“That is part of—of your—your charm,” said May, hesitatingly.

“My charm!” repeated Bingham, in a tone of sarcasm.

“I'm sorry I used the word charm,” said May. “I will use a better term, your personality. You are so alarming and yet so gentle.”

Bingham turned and gazed at her silently. They were now very near the Lodgings.

“Thanks,” he said at last. “I know where I am. But I knew it before.”

A great silence came upon them. Sounds passed them as they walked; men hurried past them, occasionally a woman, a Red Cross nurse in uniform. The sky above was still growing more and more luminous. All the rest of the way they walked in silence, each thinking their own thoughts, neither wishing to speak. When they reached the Lodgings Bingham walked into the court with her.

“Won't you come in?” she asked, but it was a mere formality, for she knew that he would refuse.

“It's too late,” he said.

“And you are coming to dinner to-morrow at eight?” She laid emphasis on the hour, to hide the fact that she was really asking whether he meant to come at all, after their talk about his personality.

“Yes, at eight,” he said. “Good-bye.”

As he spoke the moon showed full and gloriously, coming out for a moment sharply from the fine gauzy veil of grey that overspread the sky, and the Court was distinct to its very corners. The gravel, the shallow stone steps at the door, the narrow windows on each side of the door, the sombre walls; all were illumined. And Bingham's face, as he lifted his cap, was illumined too. It was a very dark face, so dark that May doubted if she really had quite grasped the details of it in her own mind. His eyes seemed scarcely to notice her as she smiled, and yet he too smiled. Then he went back over the gravel to the gate without saying another word. She did not look at his retreating figure. She opened the door and went in. Other people in the world were suffering. Why can't one always realise that? It would make one's own suffering easier to bear.

The house seemed empty. There was not a sound in it. The dim portraits on the walls looked out from their frames at her. But they had nothing to do with her, she was an outsider!

She walked up the broad staircase. She must endure torture for two—nearly three more days! The hours must be dealt with one by one, even the minutes. It would take all her strength.

At the head of the stairs she paused. Her desire was to go straight to her room, and not to go into the drawing-room and greet her Aunt Lena. Gwendolen would very likely be there in high spirits—the future mistress of the house—the one person in the world to whom the Warden would have to say, “May I? Can I?”

“Don't be a coward! Other people in the world are suffering besides you,” said the inner voice; and May went straight to the drawing-room door and opened it.

The room was dark except for a glimmer from a red fire. May was going out again, and about to close the door, when her aunt's voice called to her, and the lights went up on each side of the fireplace. May pushed the door back again and came inside.

“Aunt Lena!” she called.

Lady Dashwood had been sitting on the couch near it. She was standing now. It was she who had put up the lights. Her face was pale and her eyes brilliant.

“May, it's all over!” she called under her breath.

May stood by the door. It was still ajar and in her hand.

“All over! What is all over?” she asked apprehensively.

“Shut the door!” said Lady Dashwood, in a low voice.

May shut the door.

“Gwendolen has broken off her engagement!” said Lady Dashwood, controlling her voice.

May always remembered that moment. The room seemed to stretch about her in alleys fringed with chairs and couches. There was plenty of room to walk, plenty of room to sit down. There was plenty of time too. It was extraordinary what a lot of time there was in the world, time for everything you wanted to do. Then there was the portrait over the mantelpiece. He seemed to have nothing to do. She had not thought of that before. He was absolutely idle, simply looking on. And below these trivial thoughts, tossed on the surface of her mind, flowed a strange, confused, almost overwhelming, tide of joy.

CHAPTER XXIV. A CAUSE AND IMPEDIMENT

“Oh!” was all that May said.

Lady Dashwood looked at her and looked again. She put out her hand and rested it on the mantelshelf, and still looked at May. May was taking off one of her gloves. When she had unfastened the buttons she discovered that she was wearing a watch on her wrist, and she wound it up carefully.

Lady Dashwood was still looking, all her excitement was suppressed for the moment. What was May thinking of—what had happened to her?

“For how long?” asked May, and she suddenly perceived that there had been a rigid silence between them.

“For how long?” exclaimed Lady Dashwood.

“Yes,” said May.

“The engagement is broken off!” said Lady Dashwood. “Broken off, dear!”

“Not permanently?” said May, as if she were speaking of an incident of no particular importance.

Lady Dashwood's eyes gleamed. “For ever,” she said.

May looked at her watch again and began to wind it up again. It refused to be wound any more. May looked at it anxiously.

“Gwendolen goes to-morrow,” said Lady Dashwood. “It is she who has broken off the engagement, and she is going away before Jim returns. It is all over, May, and I have been waiting for half an hour to tell you the news. I have scarcely known how to wait.”

May went up and kissed her silently.

“You are the only person I can speak to,” said Lady Dashwood. “May, I feel as if this couldn't be true. Will you read this?” And she put a letter into May's hands. As she did so she saw, for the first time, that May's hands were trembling. She drew the letter back and said quietly: “No, let me read Marian Potten's letter to you. I want to read it again for my own sake, though I have read it half a dozen times already.”

“Mrs. Potten!” said May. “Aunt Lena, you'll think me stupid, but I haven't grasped things.”

“Of course not,” said Lady Dashwood. “And I am too much excited to explain properly. I suppose my nerves have been strained lately. I want to hear Marian's letter read aloud. Listen, May! Oh, my dear, do listen!”

Lady Dashwood turned the letter up to the light and began to read in a slow, emphatic, husky voice—

    “Dear Lena,

    “Certain things have happened of which I cannot speak, and which
    necessitated a private interview between Gwendolen and myself. But
    what I am going to tell you now concerns you, because it concerns
    the Warden. In our interview Gwendolen confided to me that she had
    serious misgivings about the wisdom of her engagement. They are more
    than misgivings. She feels that she ought not to have accepted the
    Warden's offer. She feels that she never considered the
    responsibilities she was undertaking, and she had nobody to talk the
    matter over with who could have given her sensible advice. She feels
    that neither her character nor her education fit her to be a
    Warden's wife, and she shrinks from the duties that it involves.
    All this came out! I hope that you and the Warden will forgive the
    fact that all this came out before me, and that I found myself in
    the position of Gwen's adviser. She has come to the conclusion that
    she ought to break off this engagement—so hastily made—and I agree
    with her that there should not be an hour's delay in breaking it
    off. She is afraid of meeting the Warden and having to give him a
    personal explanation. It is a natural fear, for she is only a silly
    child and he is a man of years and experience. She does not feel
    strong enough to meet him and tell him to his face that she cannot
    be his wife. You will understand how unpleasant it would be for you
    all. So, with my entire approval and help, she has taken the
    opportunity of his absence to write him a decisive letter. She will
    hand you over this letter and ask you to give it to the Warden on
    his return home. This letter is to tell him that she releases him
    from his promise of marriage. And to avoid a very serious
    embarrassment I have invited her to come to Potten End to-morrow
    morning and stay with me till I have heard from Lady Belinda. I am
    writing myself to Lady Belinda, giving her full details. I am sure
    she will be convinced of the wisdom of Gwendolen so suddenly
    breaking off her engagement. I will send the car for Gwendolen
    to-morrow at ten o'clock, and meanwhile will you spare her feelings
    and make no reference to what has taken place? The poor child is
    feeling very sore and very much ashamed of all the fuss, but feels
    that she is doing the right thing—at last.

                     “Yours ever,

                     “MARIAN POTTEN.”

Lady Dashwood folded up the letter and put it back into its envelope. She avoided looking at May just now.

“Marian must feel very strongly on the subject to offer to send her own car,” she said. “I have never known her do such a thing before,” and Lady Dashwood smiled and looked at the fire. “So the whole thing is over! But how did it all come about? What happened? I've been thinking over every possible accident that could have happened to make Gwen change her mind in this sudden way, and I am still in the dark,” she went on. “Do you think that Gwendolen had any misgivings about her engagement when she left this house after lunch, May? I'm sure she hadn't.” Here Lady Dashwood paused and looked towards May but not at her. “It all happened at Potten End! I'm certain of it,” she added.

May, having at last completely drawn off both her gloves, was folding and unfolding them with unsteady hands.

“It's a mystery,” said May.

“But I don't care what happened!” said Lady Dashwood, solemnly; “I don't really want to know. It is over! I can't rest, I can't read, I can't think coherently. I can only be thankful—thankful beyond words.”

May walked slowly in the direction of the door. “Yes, all your troubles are over,” she said.

“Do you remember, May,” went on Lady Dashwood, “how you and I stood together just here, under the portrait, when you arrived on Monday? Well, all that torment is over. All that happened between then and now has been wiped clean out, as if it had never been.”

But all had not been wiped out. Some of what happened had been written down in May's mind and couldn't be wiped out.

“Don't go this moment; sit down for a little, before you go and dress,” said Lady Dashwood, “and I'll try and sit, for I must talk, I must talk, and, May dear, you must listen. Come back, dear!”

Lady Dashwood sat down on one side of the fireplace and looked at May, as she came back and seated herself on the opposite side. There was the fireplace between them.

“Aren't you glad?” asked Lady Dashwood. “Aren't you glad, May?”

“I am very glad,” said May. “I rejoice—in your joy.”

Lady Dashwood leaned back in her chair, and let her eyes rest on May's face.

“I can't describe to you what I felt when Gwendolen came in half an hour ago. She came in quietly, her face pale and her eyes swollen, and said quite abruptly: 'I have broken on my engagement with Dr. Middleton. Please don't scold me, please don't talk about it; please let me go. I'm miserable enough as it is,' and she put two letters into my hand and went. May, I took the letter addressed to Jim and locked it up, for a horrible fear came on me that some one might destroy that letter. Besides, I had also the fear that because the thing was so sudden it might somehow not be true. Well, then I came down here again and waited for you. I waited in the dark, trying to rest. You came in very late. I scarcely knew how to wait. I suppose I am horribly excited. I am feeling now as Louise feels constantly, but I can't get any relief in the way she does. A Frenchwoman never bottles up anything; her method is to wear other people out and save her own strength by doing so. From our cradles we are smacked if we express our emotions; but foreigners have been encouraged to express their emotions. They believe it necessary and proper to do so. They gesticulate and scream. It is a confirmed habit with them to do so, and it doesn't mean much. I dare say when you or I just say 'Oh!' it means more than if Louise uttered persistent shrieks for half an hour. But she is a good soul——” And Lady Dashwood ran on in this half-consequent, half-inconsequent way, while May sat in her chair, busy trying to hide the trembling of her knees. They would tremble. She tried holding them with her hands, but they refused to stop shaking. Once they trembled too obviously, and Lady Dashwood said, in a changed tone, as if she had suddenly observed May: “You have caught cold! You have caught a chill!”

“Perhaps I have,” said May, and her knees knocked against each other.

“You have, my dear,” said Lady Dashwood; and as she pronounced this verdict, she rose from her chair with great suddenness. There was on her face no anxiety, not a trace of it, but a certain great content. But as she rose she became aware that her head ached and she felt a little dizzy. What matter!

“I may have got just the slightest chill,” said May, rising too, “but if so, it's nothing!”

“Most people like having chills, and that's why they never take any precautions, and refuse all remedies,” said Lady Dashwood, making her way to the door with care, and speaking more slowly and deliberately; “but I know you're not like that, and I'm going to give you an infallible cure and preventive. It'll put you right, I promise. Come along, dear child. I ought to have known you had a chill. I ought to have seen it written on your brow 'Chill' when you came in; but I've been too much excited by events to see anything. I've been chattering like a silly goose. Come upstairs, I'm going to dose you.”

And May submitted, and the two women went out of the drawing-room together up the two or three steps and into the corridor. They walked together, both making a harmless, pathetic pretence: the one to think the other had a chill, the other to own that a chill it was, indeed, though not a bad chill!

What was Gwendolen doing now? Was she crying? “Poor thing, poor little neglected thing!” thought Lady Dashwood.

“Marian can be very high-handed,” she whispered to May. “I have known her do many arbitrary things. She would be quite capable of——But what's the good! Poor Gwen! I couldn't pity her before, I felt too hard. But now Jim is safe I can think reasonably. I'm sorry for her. But,” she added, “I'm not sorry for Belinda.”

Now that they had reached May's room, May declared that she was not as sure as she had been that she had got a chill.

But the chill could not be dropped like that. Lady Dashwood felt the impropriety of suddenly giving up the chill, and she left the room and went to search for the infallible cure and preventive. As she did so she began to wonder why she could not will to have no headache. She was so happy that a headache was ridiculous.

When she returned, May was in her dressing-gown and was moving about with decision, and her limbs no longer trembled.

“I don't pity Belinda,” said Lady Dashwood, pretending not to see the change. “I don't pity her, though I suppose that she, too, is merely a symptom of the times we live in.” Here she began to pour out a dose from the bottle in her hand. “It can't be a good thing, May, for the community that there should be women who live to organise amusement for themselves; who merely live to meet each other and their men folk, and play about. It can't be good for the community? We ought all to work, May, every one of us. Writing invitations to each other to come and play, buying things for ourselves, seeing dressmakers isn't work. There, May!” She held out the glass to May. Each kept up the pretence—pretending with solemnity that May had been trembling because she had possibly got a chill. It was a pretence that was necessary. It was a pretence that covered and protected both of them. It was a brave pretence. “No,” said Lady Dashwood again, and firmly, as she released the glass. “It isn't good for the community to have a class of busy idlers at the top of the ladder.”

May had taken the glass, and now she tipped it up and drank the contents. They were hot and stinging!

Then May broke her silence, and imitating a voice that Lady Dashwood knew well, uttered these words:

“Oh, damn the community!”

“Was it very nasty?” said Lady Dashwood, laughing. “Ah, May, I can laugh now at Belinda! Alas! I can laugh!”

CHAPTER XXV. CONFESSIONS

What stung Gwendolen, what made her smart almost beyond endurance, was that she had exchanged the Warden for an umbrella. The transaction had been simple, and sudden, and inevitable. The Warden was in London, a free man, and there was the umbrella in the corner of the room, hers. It was looking at her, and she had not paid for it. The bill would be sent to the Lodgings, the bill for the umbrella and the gloves. The bill would be re-directed and would reach her—bills always did reach one, however frequently one changed one's address. Private letters sometimes got misdirected and mislaid, but never bills. Friends sometimes say, “We couldn't write because we didn't know your address.” Tradespeople never say this, they don't omit to send their bills merely because they don't know your address. If they don't know your address, they search for it!

The pure imbecility of her behaviour at Christ Church about that ten-shilling note was now apparent to Gwendolen. She could not think, now, how she could have done anything so inconceivably silly, and so useless as to put herself in the power of Mrs. Potten. She would never, never in all her life, do such a thing again. Another time, when hard up and needing something necessary, she would borrow, or she would go straight to the shop and order “the umbrella” (as after all, she had done), and she would take the sporting chance of being able to pay the bill some time. But never would she again touch notes or coins that belonged to people she knew, and especially those belonging to Mrs. Potten! Oh, what a wickedly cruel punishment she had to bear, merely because she had had a sort of joke about ten shillings belonging to Mrs. Potten.

One thing she would never forgive as long as she lived, and that was Mrs. Potten's meanness. She would never forget the way in which Mrs. Potten took advantage of her by getting her into Potten End alone, with nobody to protect her.

First of all Mrs. Potten had pretended to be merely sorry. Then she spoke about Mr. Harding and Mr. Bingham being witnesses and made the whole thing appear as a sort of crime, and then she ended up with saying: “The Warden must not be kept in ignorance of all this! That is out of the question. He has a right to know.” That came as an awful shock to Gwendolen, and made her burst into tears.

“Are you afraid, child, he will break off the engagement?” was all that Mrs. Potten said, and then the horrid old woman asked all sorts of horrid questions, and wormed out all kinds of things: that the Warden had not actually said he was in love, that he had scarcely spoken to her for three days, and that he had not said “good-bye” that morning when he left for London. How Mrs. Potten had managed to sneak it out of her Gwendolen did not know, but Mrs. Potten gave her no time to think of what she was saying, and being so much upset and so much afraid of Mrs. Potten lots of things came out. And yet all the time she knew things were going wrong because of the wicked look on Mrs. Potten's face.

However, Gwendolen had all through stuck to it (and it was the truth) that she had never intended to do more than “sort of joke” with the note, and this Mrs. Potten simply wouldn't understand. And when she, Gwendolen, promised, on her honour, to make it “all right,” by wiring to her mother to send her a postal order for ten shillings by return, Mrs. Potten sprang like a tiger on her: “Why wire for it? Why not return it now?” Oh, the whole thing was awful!

After this Mrs. Potten's voice had changed to ice, and she put on a perfectly beastly tone.

“Gwendolen, you shock me beyond words, and oblige me to take a very decided step in the matter.”

Then she stopped, and Gwendolen could recall that horrible moment of suspense. Then came words that made Gwendolen shudder to think of.

“I have a very great respect for the position of a Warden—it is a position of trust; and I have also personally a very great respect for the Warden of King's. I give you an alternative. Break off your engagement with him at once, quietly, or I shall make this little affair of the note known in Oxford, so that the Warden will have to break the engagement off. Which alternative do you choose?”

The very words repeated themselves over and over in Gwendolen's memory, and she flung herself on her bed and gave way to a passion of tears. No, she would never forgive Mrs. Potten.

When the bell sounded for dinner, Gwendolen struggled off the bed and went to look at herself in the glass. She couldn't possibly go downstairs looking like that, even if she were dressed. Yet pangs of hunger seized Gwendolen. She had eaten one wretched little slice of bread and butter at Potten End, moistening it with her tears, and now she wanted food. Several minutes passed.

“They won't care even if I'm dead,” moaned Gwendolen, and she listened.

A knock came at her door, and Louise entered.

“If mademoiselle has a headache would she like to have some dinner brought up to her?”

“Yes, thanks,” said Gwendolen, and she kept her face away from the direction of the door so that Louise could not see it.

“What would mademoiselle like? Some soup?”

Oh, how wretched it all was! And when all might have been so different! And soup—only soup!

“I don't care,” said Gwendolen, “some sort of dinner—any dinner.”

“Ah, dinner!” said Louise.

When she had gone, Gwendolen tied two handkerchiefs together and fastened them round her forehead to look as if she had a headache—indeed, she had a headache—and a heartache too!

Presently dinner was brought up, and Gwendolen ate it in loneliness and sadness. She did not leave anything. She had thought of leaving some of the meat, but decided against it. After she had finished, and it had been cleared away, she had sat looking at the fire for a few minutes with eyes that were sore from weeping. Then she got up and began to undress. Life was a miserable thing! She got into bed and laid her hot head down on the cool pillow and tried not to think. But she listened to every sound that passed her door. It was horrible to be alone and forgotten. She had asked to be left alone, but she had not meant to be alone so long. Then there suddenly sprang into her mind the recollection of the strange form she thought she had seen in the library. She really had thought she had seen him. Were such things true?

What about the disaster? Perhaps it was her disaster he had come to warn her about and that was why she saw him. Perhaps God sent him! This thought thrilled her whole being, and she lay very still. Perhaps God had meant to tell her that she must be careful, and she had not been careful. But then how could she have guessed?

Gwendolen had been confirmed only two years ago. She remembered that the preparation for confirmation had been a bore, and yet had given her a pleasant sensation of self-approbation, because she was serving God in a manner peculiarly agreeable to Him by being in the right Church, especially now in these times of unbelief and neglect of religion. She had a pleasant feeling that there were a great many people disobeying Him; and that heaps of priggish people who fussed about living goody-goody lives, were not really approved of by Him, because they didn't go to church or only went to wrong churches.

Then she recalled the afternoon when she was confirmed. She was at school and there were other girls with her, and the old bishop preached to them, and went on and on and on so long, and was so dull that Gwendolen ceased to listen. But she had gone through it all, and had felt very happy to have it over. She felt safe in God's keeping. But now she was alone and miserable, and felt strangely unprotected by God, as if God didn't care!

Was that strange form she had seen in the library sent not by God but by the devil to frighten her? If the Warden had been in the house she would have felt less frightened, only now—now she was so horribly alone. Even if he had been in the house, though she couldn't speak to him, she would have been less frightened.

Gwendolen listened for footsteps in the corridor—would any one come to her? Why had she spoken to Lady Dashwood as if she didn't want to be disturbed? Suppose nobody came? And what about the devil? Should she ring?

At last, unable to bear herself and her thoughts any longer she rose from her bed and put on her dressing-gown. She opened her door and peeped out into the corridor. There was just a glimpse of light, and she could see pretty clearly from end to end. She could hear what sounded like a person near the head of the staircase. Gwendolen darted forwards towards the curtained end of the corridor. But when she reached the curtain she saw old Robinson going down the staircase.

Gwendolen went back a few steps along the corridor and returned to her room. She pushed the door open. It was too silent and too empty, it frightened her. Should she ring the bell? If she rang the bell what would she say? The dinner had been cleared away. What should she ask for if she rang?

With a groan of despair she went outside again and again listened. Somebody was approaching the corridor. Somebody was coming into the corridor. She stood where she was. It was Mrs. Dashwood who was coming. She had mounted the steps, and here she was walking towards her. Gwendolen stood still and waited.

May saw the figure of the girl, clutching her dressing-gown round her, and staring with large distended eyes like a hunted animal.

“What is it?” asked May. “Do you feel ill, Gwen?”

“Oh!” said the girl, with a shiver, “I'm so glad you've come! I can't go into my bedroom alone. Oh, I am so wretched!”

“I'll take you into your bedroom,” said May, and she led Gwen in and closed the door behind them.

“You were in bed,” she said. “Get in again and I will straighten you up.” She helped Gwendolen to take off her dressing-gown.

“You can't stay with me a little?” demanded Gwen, and her lips trembled. “I've such a headache.”

The handkerchiefs were still bound round her head, and were making her hot and uncomfortable.

“Poor Gwen!” said May. “Yes, I'll stay a little. I dare say some Eau-de-Cologne would help your headache to go.”

“I haven't got any. I've only got scent,” said Gwen, as she stepped into bed.

“I have some,” said May. “I'll go and fetch it. I'll be back in a moment.”

Gwendolen sat up in bed, drawing the clothes up to her neck, waiting. The moment she was alone in the room, the room seemed so dismal, and the solitude alarming. There was always the devil——

“Sitting up?” said May, when she came back with the Eau-de-Cologne in her hand.

Gwendolen sank down in the bed. How comforting it was to have Mrs. Dashwood waiting on her and talking about her and being sympathetic. She had always loved Mrs. Dashwood. She was so sweet. Now, if only, only she had not made that horrible blunder, she would have had the whole household waiting on her, talking about her and being sympathetic! Oh!

May brought a chair to the bed, and began to smooth the dark hair away from Gwen's face.

“I think you would be cooler with those handkerchiefs off,” she said. “I can't get to your forehead very well with the Eau-de-Cologne.”

Gwen signified her consent with a deep sigh, and May slipped the bandage off and put it away on the dressing-table.

Then she dabbed some of the Eau-de-Cologne softly on to the girl's forehead.

“I suppose you know,” whispered Gwen, as the scent of the perfume came into her nostrils.

“Yes,” said May.

“I hope the servants don't know,” groaned Gwen.

“I don't think any one knows, but just ourselves,” said May, in a soothing voice; “and no one but ourselves need know about it.”

“Oh, it's horrible!” groaned Gwen again. “I can't bear it!”

“It is hard to bear,” said May, as she smoothed the girl's brow.

After a little silence Gwendolen suddenly said—

“You don't believe in that ghost?”

“The ghost?” said May, a little surprised at this sudden deviation from the cause of Gwendolen's grief.

“You thought it was silly?” said Gwen, tentatively.

“Not silly, but fanciful,” said May.

Gwendolen moved her head. “I think I was; but I still see him, and I don't want to. I have begun to think about him, now, this evening. I had forgotten before——”

“You must make up your mind not to think of it. It isn't a real person, Gwen.”

Gwendolen still kept her head slightly round towards May Dashwood, though she had her eyes closed so as not to interfere with the movements of May's hand on her brow.

“Do you think the devil does things?” she asked in an awed voice.

May hesitated for a moment and then said: “We do things, and some of us call it the devil doing things.”

“Then you don't believe in the devil?” asked Gwendolen, opening her eyes.

“I don't think so, Gwen,” said May. “But God I am sure of.”

Gwendolen lay still for a little while. She was thinking now of her troubles.

“You don't do any wrong things?” asked Gwendolen, tentatively.

“We all do wrong things,” said May.

“I mean wrong things that people make a fuss about,” said Gwendolen, thinking of Mrs. Potten, and the drawing-room at Potten End.

“Some things are more wrong than others,” said May. “It depends upon whether they do much harm or not.”

Gwendolen pondered. This was a new proof of Mrs. Potten's meanness. What she, Gwen, had done had harmed nobody practically.

“I'm miserable!” she burst out.

“Poor Gwen!” murmured May.

Gwendolen lay still. Her heart was full. When she had once left the Lodgings, and was at Mrs. Potten's she would be among enemies. Now, here, at least she had one friend—some one who was not mean and didn't scold. She must speak to this one kind friend—she would tell her troubles. She must have some one to confide in.

“I didn't want to break off the engagement,” she said at last, unable to keep her thoughts much longer to herself.

“You didn't want to!” said May gently. It was scarcely a question, but it drew Gwendolen to an explanation of her words.

“Mrs. Potten made me,” she said.

“No one could make you,” said May, quietly. “Could they?”

“She did,” said Gwen, with a burst of tears. “I wanted to make it all right, and she wouldn't let me. If only I could have seen the Warden, he would have taken my side, perhaps,” and here Gwen's voice became less emphatic. “But Mrs. Potten simply made me. She was determined. She hates me. I can't bear her.”

“Had you done absolutely nothing to make her so determined?” asked May wondering.

“Nothing—except a little joke——” began Gwen. “It was merely a sort of a joke.”

“A joke!” said May, and her voice was very low and strange.

The umbrella standing in the corner of the room in the shadow seemed to make faces at Gwen. Why hadn't she put the horrid thing in the wardrobe?

“It was only meant as a sort of joke,” she repeated, and then the overwhelming flood of bitter memory coming upon her, she yielded to her instinct and poured out to May, bit by bit, a broken garbled history of the whole affair—a story such as Belinda and Co. would tell—a story made, unconsciously, all the more sordid and pitiful because it was obviously not the whole truth.

And this was a story told by one who might have been the Warden's wife! May went on soothing the girl's hair and brow with her hand.

“And Mrs. Potten wouldn't let me make it all right. She refused to let me, though I begged her to, and gave her my word of honour,” wept Gwen, indignantly. Then she suddenly said, “Oh, the fire's going out and perhaps you're cold!” for she was fearful lest her visitor would leave her. “When my dinner was taken away too much coal was put on my fire, and I was too miserable to make a fuss.”

“I'm not cold,” said May. “But I will stir up the fire.” She rose from her chair and went to the fire, and poked it up into a blaze.

“I'm afraid, Gwen, that you couldn't make it all right with Mrs. Potten, except by——”

“By what?” asked Gwen, becoming suddenly excited. “If only Dr. Middleton had not been away, I might have borrowed from him. Do you mean that?”

“No,” said May, with a profound sigh, as she came back to the bedside. “It was a question of honour, don't you see? You couldn't have made it right, except by being horrified at what you had done and feeling that you could never, never make it right! Do you understand what I mean?”

Gwen was trying to understand.

“That would have made Mrs. Potten worse,” she said hoarsely.

“No,” said May, with a quiet emphasis on the word. “If you had really been terribly unhappy about your honour, Mrs. Potten would have sympathised! Don't you see what I mean?”

“But how could I be so terribly unhappy about such a mere accident?” protested Gwen, tearfully. “I might have returned the money. I very nearly did twice, only somehow I didn't. It just seemed to happen like that, and it was such a little affair.”

May sat down again and put her cool hand on the girl's brow. It was no use talking about honour to the child. To Belinda and Co. honour was, what was expected of you by people who were in the swim, and if Mrs. Potten had made no discovery, or had forgiven it when it was made, Gwendolen's “honour” would have remained bright and untarnished. That was Gwendolen's sense of the moral situation! Her vision went no further. Still May's silence was disturbing. Gwendolen felt that she had not been understood, and that she was being reproved by that silence, though the reproof was gentle, very different from the kind of reproof that would probably be administered by her mother. On the other hand, the reproof was not merited.

“Would you,” said Gwendolen, with a gulp in her throat, “would you spoil somebody's whole life because they took some trifle that nobody really missed or wanted, intending to give it back, only didn't somehow get the opportunity? Would you?”

“Your whole life isn't spoiled,” said May. “If you take what has happened very seriously you may make your life more honourable in the future than it has been. Don't you see that if what you had done had not been discovered you might have gone on doing these things all your life. That would have spoiled your life!”

“But my engagement!” moaned Gwen. “I shall have to go to that horrid Stow, unless mother has got an invitation for me, and mother will be so upset. She'll be so angry!”

What could May say to give the girl any real understanding of her own responsibilities? Was she to drift about like a leaf in the wind, without principles, with no firm basis upon which she could stand and take her part in the struggle of human life?

What was to be done?

May did her best to put her thoughts into the plainest, simplest words. She had to begin at the beginning, and speak as to a child. As she went on May discovered that one thing, and one thing only, really impressed Gwen, and that was the idea of courage. Coward as she was, she did grasp that courage was of real value. Gwen had a faint gleam of the meaning of honour, when it was a question of courage, and upon this one string May played, for it gave a clear note, striking into the silence of the poor girl's moral nature.

She got the girl to promise that she would try and take the misfortune of her youth with courage and meet the future bravely. She even induced Gwendolen then and there to pray for more courage, moral and physical, and she did not leave her till she had added also a prayer for help in the future when difficulties and temptations were in her path. They were vague words, “difficulties and temptations,” and May knew that, but it is not possible in half an hour to straighten the muddle of many years of Belinda and Co.

“Have courage,” she said at last, “I must go, Gwen. Good-night,” and May stooped down to kiss the dark head on the pillow. “God protect you; God help you!”

“Good-night,” sighed Gwen; “I'll try and go to sleep. But could you—could you put that umbrella into the wardrobe and poke up the fire again to make a little light?”

And May put the umbrella away in the wardrobe and poked up the fire.

CHAPTER XXVI. THE ANXIETIES OF LOUISE

The one definite thought in May's mind now was that she must leave Oxford before the Warden's return. A blind instinct compelled her to take this course.

It was not easy for her to say to Lady Dashwood quite unconcernedly: “You won't mind my running away to-morrow, will you? You won't mind if I run off, will you? All your troubles are over, and I do want to get back to-morrow. I have lots of things to do—to get ready before Monday.”

It was not easy to say all this, but May did say it. She said it in the corridor as they were bidding each other good night.

Lady Dashwood's surprise was painful. “I do mind your running off,” she said, and she looked a little bewildered. “Must you go to-morrow? Must you? To-morrow!”

Lady Dashwood had talked a great deal, both before May went into Gwendolen's room and afterwards, when May came back again to the drawing-room. May had told the reason for her long absence from the drawing-room, but in an abstracted manner; and Lady Dashwood, observing this, looked long and wistfully at her, but had asked no questions. All she had said was, “I'm glad you've been with the child,” and she spoke in a low voice. Then she had begun talking again of things relevant and irrelevant, and in doing so had betrayed her excitement. It was indeed May now who was calm and self-contained, all trace of her “chill” gone, whereas Lady Dashwood was obviously over-excited.

It was only when May said good night, and made this announcement about going away on the following day, that Lady Dashwood's spirits showed signs of flagging.

That moment all her vivacity suddenly died down and she looked no longer brisk and brilliant, but limp and tired, a hollow-eyed woman.

“I do mind,” she repeated. But she gave no reason for minding, she merely added: “Don't go!” and stared at her niece pathetically.

But May was firm. She kissed her aunt very affectionately, and was very tender in her manner and voice, but she was immovable.

“I must go, dear,” she said; and then she repeated again: “Your troubles are over! Seriously, Aunt Lena, I want to go!”

Lady Dashwood sighed. “You have done a great deal for me, May,” she said, and this gratitude from her Aunt Lena shook May's courage more than any protest.

“I don't want to go,” she said, “but I must go.” That was her last word.

And May wanted to go early. Everything must be ready. She wanted to get away as soon as Gwendolen had gone. She must not risk meeting the Warden! He might return to lunch, she must go before lunch. She must not see him come back. She could not bear to be in the house when he read the letter from Gwendolen. That was what made her fly. To stay on and witness in cold blood his feelings at being rescued, to witness his humiliation, because he was rescued, would be an intrusion on the privacy of a human soul. She must go. So May packed up over night, slept uneasily and in snatches, conscious of Oxford all the time, conscious of all that it meant to her!

It was a grey morning when she got up and looked out of narrow window's on to the quiet, narrow grey street. She heard no one moving about when she came down the broad staircase and into the hall, prepared to go, hardening herself to go, because to stop would be impossible.

In the breakfast-room she found Lady Dashwood. The two women looked at each other silently with a smile only of greeting. They could hear steps outside, and Gwendolen came in with swollen eyes and smiled vaguely round the room.

“Good morning,” she said, and then gulped. Poor girl! She was making an effort to be brave, and May gave her a glance that said plainly her approval and her sympathy.

Lady Dashwood was almost tender in her manner.

Gwen ate hurriedly, and once or twice made spasmodic faces in trying not to break down.

Of course, no reference was made to anything that had happened, but it was necessary to talk a little. Silence would have made things worse. So Lady Dashwood praised Potten End, and said it was more bracing there than at Oxford; and May said she had not seen Potten End. Then both ladies looked at each other and started some other subject. They spoke at great length about the weather. At last breakfast was over, and Lady Dashwood rose from her chair and looked rather nervously across at Gwendolen.

“I'm ready,” said Gwendolen, bravely. “At least, I've only got to put my hat on.”

“There is no hurry, dear,” said Lady Dashwood. “Let me see, you have nearly an hour.” The car was to come at ten—an unearthly hour except in Oxford and at Potten End.

Gwendolen disappeared upstairs, and the two ladies lingered about in the breakfast-room, neither able to attend to the papers, though both read ostentatiously. At last the car was announced and they went into the hall.

Gwendolen came downstairs hastily. That horrible umbrella was in her hand, in the other hand was a handkerchief. She was frowning under her veil to keep herself from crying.

“Well, good-bye, Gwen,” said Lady Dashwood, and she kissed the girl on both cheeks. “Good-bye, dear; give my love to Mrs. Potten.”

“Thanks——” began Gwen, but her voice began to fail her. “Thanks——”

“My love to Mrs. Potten,” repeated Lady Dashwood hurriedly, and Gwendolen turned away without finishing her sentence.

May kissed Gwendolen and murmured in her ear: “Brave girl!” “Good-bye,” she said aloud.

“Good-bye,” said Gwen.

There was the familiar hall, its great bevelled doors, its oak panelling and its wide oak staircase. There was the round table in the middle under the electric chandelier and the dim portraits on the walls. All was familiar, and all had been thought of as hers for a time, all too short; for a day that now seemed as if it could never have been; for a dream and no part of the reality of Gwen's life.

There outside was the car which was to take her away for ever. Robinson Junior was holding open the door, his snub nose well in the air, his cheeks reddened by the chill autumn wind. He was waiting for her to get in. Then he would bang the door to, and have done with her, and the Lodgings would never again have anything to do with her—nor Oxford.

Oh, it was too wretched, but brave she would be, and Mrs. Dashwood at least would pity her and understand. What Lady Dashwood thought she did not care so very much.

Gwen went down the steps and got into the car. Robinson Junior did bang the door. He banged it and caught a piece of Gwendolen's skirt. Then he opened the door with ferocity as if it was somebody else's fault. Gwendolen pulled her skirt and he banged the door to again. This time it shut her out from the Lodgings. The last moment had come. The car moved. The two ladies waved their hands. Robinson Junior raised his finger to his ear. The car turned and went out of the Court into the narrow street.

It was all over! Robinson Junior did not come in. He slipped somewhere round at the back with mysterious swiftness, and Lady Dashwood shut the door herself. It was like closing a book at “The End” or writing a last Will and Testament. It was all over!

Then Lady Dashwood, who had been so composed that May had been deceived into thinking that she had almost recovered from her excitement and fatigue, suddenly leaned against the hall table. “May!” she called.

May did not hear her name called, she was already retreating up the staircase to her room as hastily as she dared. There was not much time, and yet she had not told her Aunt Lena yet that she meant to leave that very morning; she had mentioned no hour.

Her luggage was packed and labelled. Her hat and coat and gloves, exactly the things she had arrived in from Malvern, were there waiting for her to put them on and go away. Meanwhile he was in Town, little dreaming of what was happening. He would be back soon. It would be horrible if he arrived before she left, and there was still an hour before she must start for the station! She would put on her hat and then go down, tell her Aunt Lena that she must go in an hour, and talk to her, give herself up to her till the taxi came. No, it would be impossible for him to arrive before she left; she was foolish to worry about it. It was pure nonsense—merely a nervous fear.

When she had put on her hat, it flashed into her mind that Mr. Bingham was coming to dinner, ostensibly to meet her. After their talk together she must write to him. She must scribble a little note and get it taken to All Souls. She must tell him that she had to leave Oxford quite unexpectedly.

She sat down at her writing table and took up a pen. She wrote a few words, and thought the words too cold and too abrupt. She must begin again, and she tore up the letter and threw it into the waste-paper basket. She wanted to write sympathetically and yet not to appear to think he needed sympathy. She wanted to write as if she was very much disappointed at not meeting him again, but without putting it into words that would sound self-assured—as if she knew and counted on his being grateful at her disappointment. And indeed, she thought, he was not much in love with her. Why should he be? That was a question May always asked herself when a man professed to be in love with her. Why? Why in the name of all——, etc. May always failed to see why.

This lack of vanity in May had led many people, who did not understand her, to accuse her of flirting.

But May, in writing to Bingham, realised to the full his attractions. He was too interesting a personality to be going about unclaimed. He ought to make some woman happy—some nice woman—not herself.

She began a fresh letter and was at the first sentence when a knock came at the door.

“Come in,” she called.

In came Louise, looking full of sinister importance. Her hair, which was never very tidy, looked as if it had taken an intelligent interest in some crisis.

Louise glanced round the room at the luggage, at the coat, at the hat on May's head.

“Oh, Madame, what a desolation!” cried Louise, and she wrung her hands.

“I have packed very well, Louise,” said May Dashwood. “I am accustomed to do it—I have no maid.”

“Oh, what a desolation!” repeated Louise, as she advanced further into the room. Then she stopped and announced, with an affectation of horrible composure: “I come to inform Madame that it is impossible for her to depart.”

May put down her pen. “What is the matter, Louise?”

Louise drew in her breath. “My lady suffers,” she began, and as she proceeded her words flowed more and more quickly: “while Madame prepares to forsake her, my lady faints upon the floor in the breakfast parlour, she expires.”

May rose, her heart beating.

“She now swallows a glass of brandy and a biscuit brought by Mrs. Robinson, who is so slow, so slow and who understands nothing, but has the keys. I call and I call, eh bien, I call—oh, but what slowness, what insupportable delay.”

May put her letter inside the writing case and moved away from the writing-table. She was composed now.

“Is she very ill?” she asked quietly.

“My lady has died every day for two weeks,” continued Louise; “for many days she has died, and no one observes it but myself and the angels in heaven. Madame agonises, over what terrible events I know not. But they know, the spirits of the dead—they know and they come. I believe that, for this house, this Lodgings is gloomy, this Oxford is so full of sombre thought. My Lady Dashwood martyrs herself for others. I see it always with Monsieur le General Sir John Dashwood, excellent man as he is, but who insists on catching severe colds in the head—colds heavy, overpowering—he sneezing with a ferocity that is impossible. At last old Robinson telephones for a doctor at my demand, oh, how I demand! It was necessary to overcome the phlegm and the stupidity of the Robinson family. I say! I demand! It is only when Mrs. Robinson comes to assist at this terrible crisis, that I go to rush upstairs for Madame. I go to rush, but I am detained! 'Stay!' cries my lady, 'I forbid you to speak of it. I am not ill—it is an indisposition of the mildest.' You see, Madame, the extraordinary generosity of my Lady Dashwood! Her soul full of sublime resignation! 'I go to prevent Madame Mrs. Dashwood's departure,' I cry! My lady replies with immense self-renunciation, like that of the blessed saints: 'Say nothing, my poor Louise. I exist only to do good on this earth. I ask for nothing for myself. I suffer alone. I endure without complaint. I speak not of my extreme agony in the head. I do not mention the insupportable nausea of the stomach. I subdue my cries! I weep silently, alone in the presence of my God.'”

Louise paused for a second for breath.

Nothing at this moment could have made May smile. She looked at Louise with gravity.

“But,” continued Louise, with the same vehement swiftness, “a good moment arrives. The form too full of Mrs. Robinson hides me as I escape from the room. I come to Madame here. Eh bien!” Here Louise broke off and, glancing round the room, made a gesture that implied unpacking May's luggage and putting everything back in the proper place. “I unpack for Madame, immediately, while Madame descends and assures my lady that she does not forsake her at the supreme moment.”

Louise's eyes now seemed to pierce the space in front of her, she defied contradiction.

“I will go and see Lady Dashwood,” said May, calmly. “But don't unpack yet for me. I shall put her ladyship to bed, Louise. Go and see that everything is ready, please.”

“I go to countermand Madame's taxi,” said Louise, astutely.

“You can do that,” said May; “I shall wait till the doctor comes—anyhow. Ask Robinson to telephone at once.”

May went down to the breakfast-room, and found Mrs. Robinson's stout form coming out of the door. Within Lady Dashwood was seated in a chair by the fire.

“I am perfectly well, May,” said Lady Dashwood, lifting up a white face to her niece as she came up to her. “I have sent Mrs. Robinson away. That silly old fool, Louise, has made Robinson telephone for a doctor.”

“Quite right of her,” said May, quietly, “and I shall stop till he has come and gone.”

“You didn't mean to go before lunch?” murmured Lady Dashwood.

“I can go after lunch,” said May.

Lady Dashwood leaned her head back in a weak manner.

“Not so convenient to you perhaps, dear,” she murmured, but in a voice that accepted the delay to May's departure. She accepted it and sighed and stared into the fire, and said not one word about the Warden, but she said: “I'm not going to bed. The house will be empty enough as it is;” and May knew she was thinking of the Warden's return.

“You must go to bed,” May replied.

“I can't go to bed, child. I shall stay up and look after things,” said Lady Dashwood, and she knew she was speaking with guile. “You forget, dear, that—the house will be so empty!”

“I shall put you to bed,” said May.

“How do you know I shall remain?” said Lady Dashwood. “The doctor will say that there is nothing wrong.” She looked white and obstinate and clung to her chair.

Then at last May said: “I am going to stay on till the doctor comes. Like all managing people, you are absolutely irresponsible about yourself, Aunt Lena. I shall have to stay and make you obey me.”

“Oh, I didn't know I was so wicked!” sighed Lady Dashwood, in a suddenly contented voice. Now she allowed herself to be helped out of her chair and led upstairs to her room. “And can you really stay, May? Really, dear?”

“I must,” said May. “You are so wicked.”

“Oh dear, am I wicked?” said Lady Dashwood. “I knew my dear old John was very tiresome, but I didn't know I was!”

So May remained. What else could she do? She left Lady Dashwood in Louise's hands and went to her room. What was to be done about Mr. Bingham? May looked round the room.

Her boxes had disappeared. Her clothes were all put away and the toilet table carefully strewn with her toilet things. Louise had done it. On the little table by the bed stood something that had not been there before. It was a little plaster image of St. Joseph. It bore the traces of wear and tear from the hands of the pious believer—also deterioration from dust, and damage from accidents. Something, perhaps coffee, had been spilt upon it. The machine-made features of the face also had shared this accidental ablution, and one foot was slightly damaged. The saint was standing upon a piece of folded paper. May pulled out the paper and unfolded it. Written in faultless copper-plate were the words: “Louise Dumont prays for the protection of Madame every day.”

CHAPTER XXVII. THE FORGIVENESS OF THE FATES

Lady Dashwood submitted gracefully to being put to bed and propped up by pillows.

The doctor had come, pronounced his patient very greatly over-fatigued though not seriously ill, but he had forbidden her to leave her bed till he gave permission.

“Keep a strict watch over her,” he had said to May, outside in the corridor. “She has got to the point when rest will put her right, or fatigue will put her all wrong.”

When he had gone May came back into her aunt's room.

“Now you know what it is to be under orders,” she said with a smile.

“And what about you, dear?” murmured Lady Dashwood, sweetly. “You can't stay on, of course, darling?”

May frowned to herself and then smiled. “I shall stay till the doctor comes again, because I can't trust you, dear aunt, to keep in bed, if I go.”

“You can't trust me,” sighed Lady Dashwood, blissfully. “I am beginning to realise that I am not the only reasonable person in the world. I suppose it is good for me, but it is very sad for you, May, to be sacrificed like this.”

May said she wasn't being sacrificed, and refused to discuss the matter any longer.

So Lady Dashwood lay quietly looking at the narrow windows, from which college roofs opposite could be seen in a grey Oxford daylight. She made no reference to the Warden's return. She did not tell May when he was expected home, whether he was coming back to lunch, or whether he was coming by a late afternoon train. She did not even mention his name. And May, too, kept up the appearance of not thinking about him. She merely looked up with a rather strained attention if the door opened, or there were sounds in the corridor.

The time came for her to go down to lunch, and Lady Dashwood did not even say: “You will have to take lunch alone.” But she said: “I wonder what Marian Potten and Gwendolen are doing?”

So May went into the dining-room and glanced round her with apprehension.

Two places were laid, one for the Warden at the head of the table and one at his right hand.

“You expect the Warden?” she asked of Robinson, who was standing in the room alone, and she came towards the table apprehensively.

He pulled out her chair and said: “No, m'm, I don't think 'e will be in to lunch.”

May sat down and breathed again. “You think he will be late?” she asked, speaking as one who cares not, but who needs the information for purposes of business.

“'E said to me, m'm,” said Robinson, as he handed a dish to her with old gnarled hands that were a little shaky but still full of service, “as I was 'andin' 'im 'is 'at what 'e wears in London: 'If I'm not 'ome in time for lunch, I shall be 'ome by 'alf-past five.'”

“Oh yes,” said May. “Then you'll be putting tea for him in the library, won't you, Robinson?”

Robinson assented. “Yes, m'm, if you 'as tea with 'er ladyship.” Then he added, “We're glad, m'm, that you're stayin' on,”—now he dropped his voice to a confidential whisper, and wore the air of one who is privileged to communicate private information to a member of the family—“because that French Louise is so exactin' and that jealous of Mrs. Robinson, and no one can't expect a learned gentleman, what 'as the 'ole college on 'is shoulders and ain't used to ladies, to know what to do.”

“No, of course not,” said May.

“But we've all noticed,” said Robinson, solemnly, as he poured out some water into May's glass, “as 'ow 'er ladyship's indisposition 'as come on gradual.”

Here he ended his observations, and he went and stood by his carving table with his accustomed bearing of humble importance.

But it would have been a mistake to suppose that Robinson was really humble. He was, on the contrary, proud. Proud because he was part of King's College and had been a part thereof for fifty years, and his father had been part before him. But his pride went further. He was proud of the way he waited. He moved about the room, skimming the edges of the long table and circumventing chairs and protruding backs of awkward guests with peculiar skill. Robinson would have had much sympathy with the Oxford chaplain who offered to give any other clerical gentlemen a generous handicap in the Creed and beat them. Robinson, had he been an ecclesiastic, would have made such a boast himself. As it was, he prided himself on being able to serve round an “ontray” on his own side of the table and lap over two out of the other man's, easy. Robinson was also proud of having a master with a distinguished appearance, and this without any treachery to the late Warden's bald head and exceedingly casual nose. There was no obligation on Robinson's part to back up the old Warden against the new, or indeed the new against the old, because all Wardens were Wardens, and the College was continuous and eternal.

Robinson gloried on there being many thousand volumes in the library. Mrs. Robinson did not share his enthusiasm. He enjoyed opening the door to other Heads of colleges and saying: “Not at 'ome, sir. Is there any message I can take, sir?” for Robinson felt that he was negotiating important affairs that affected the welfare of Oxford. When waiting on the Warden, Robinson's solemnity was not occasioned by pure meekness, nor was his deferential smile (when a smile was suitable) an exposition of snobbery nor the flattery of the wage-earner. Robinson was gratifying his own vanity; he was showing how he grasped the etiquette of his profession. Also he experienced pleasure in being necessary to a human being whose manner and tastes were as impressive as they were unaccountable.

“There's more of these 'ere periodicals coming in,” he said that very afternoon, as he arranged the lamp in the library, “though there aren't no more Germans among 'em, than there ever were before in my time.” He spoke to Robinson Junior, who had followed him into the library.

“'E don't read 'em,” said Robinson Junior, his nose elevated, in the act of drawing the curtains.

“'Ow d'you know?” asked Robinson.

“They ain't cut, not all of 'em,” said Junior.

“'E don't read the stuff what is familiar to 'im,” explained Robinson, and so saying, he took from some corner of the room a little table and set it up by a chair by the fire, for the Warden's tea-tray.

Meanwhile May Dashwood had taken tea with her Aunt Lena and then had gone to her own room. So that when the Warden did arrive, just about half-past five, he found no one moving about, no one visible. He came in like a thief in the night, pale and silent. He glanced round the hall, preoccupied apparently, but really aware of things that were around him to a high degree of sensitiveness. He moved noiselessly, rang the bell, and then looked at the table for letters. Robinson appeared immediately. The Warden's narrow eyes, that seemed to absorb the light that fell upon them, rested upon Robinson's face with that steady but veiled regard with which a master controls those who are under him.

The Warden did not ask “Where are the ladies?” he asked whether Lady Dashwood was in.

“In 'er room, sir,” said Robinson; and he then proceeded to explain why, and gave the doctor's report. “Nothin' alarmin', sir.”

The Warden said “Ah!” and looked down at the table. He glanced over the letters that were waiting for him. He gathered them in his hands.

“Tea is in the library for you, sir,” said old Robinson; “I will bring it in a minute.”

The Warden went upstairs.

He went past the drawing-room and past his bedroom into the library. He threw his letters down on the writing-desk, walked to the fire, and then walked back again to the desk. Then he finally went out of the room and passed the head of the staircase and up the two or three steps into the corridor.

He had been into the corridor three times since the arrival of his sister. Once when he conducted her to her room, on her arrival, once again when she had made alterations in the bedrooms and had asked for his approval, and then on that wretched night when he had gone to calm Gwendolen and assure her that there were no such things as ghosts. Now he went along over the noiseless floor, anxious to meet no one. Why was Lena ill? He knew why Lena was ill, but for a moment he felt wearily vexed with her. Why did she make things worse? This feeling vanished when he opened her door and went in, and saw her sitting up in bed supported by pillows. Then his feeling was of remorse, of anger increased against himself, and himself only.

She was turning the pages of a paper, ostentatiously looking at the illustrations, but she was really waiting in suspense for his arrival and thinking of nothing else.

She looked up at him with a strange smile. “Back!” she said. “And you find me malingering!”

He came up to the bed. “You've been ill,” he said, and he did not return her smile. “I'm very sorry, Lena.”

“No, only tired,” she said. “And I am already better, Jim,” she went on, and now she showed great nervousness and her voice was jerky. “I have a letter for you. I want you to read it at once, dear, but not here; read it in the library. Don't stay now; go away, dear, and come and see me afterwards.”

She gave him the letter with the handwriting downwards. She had thought this out beforehand. She feared the sight of his emotion. She could not bear it—just now. She was still feeling very shaky and very weak.

He took the letter and turned it over to see the handwriting. She thought he made a movement of surprise. His face she did not look at, she looked at the paper that was lying before her. She longed for him to go away, now that the letter was safely in his hands. He guessed, no doubt, what the letter was about! He must guess!

She little knew. He no more guessed its contents than he would have guessed that in order to secure his salvation some one would be allowed to rise from the dead! The letter he regarded as ominous—of some trouble, some dispute, something inevitable and miserable.

“I hope you have everything you want, Lena,” he said as he walked to the door. “I hope Louise doesn't fuss you.” Then he asked: “Have you ever fainted before?”

Lady Dashwood said she hadn't, but added that people over fifty generally fainted, and that she would not have gone to bed had not dear May insisted on it as well as Louise.

He went out. He found the corridor silent. He walked along with that letter in his pocket, feeling a great solitude within him. When he passed Gwendolen's door, something gripped him painfully. And then there was her door, too!

He returned to the library and sat down by the tea-table and the fire.

From his chair his eyes rested upon the great window at the end of the library. It was screened by curtains now. It was there, at that exact spot by the right-hand curtain, that Gwendolen had fancied she saw the ghost. A ghost, a thin filmy shape was probably her only conception of something Spiritual. That the story of the Barber's ghost, the story that he came as a prophet of ill tidings to the Warden of the College, seemed to fit in with recent events, the events of the last few days; this only made the whole episode more repulsive. He must train Gwendolen—if indeed she were capable of being trained! The mother would be perhaps even a greater obstacle to a sane and useful life than Gwendolen herself.

Very likely Gwendolen's letter was to announce that Lady Belinda insisted on coming at once, whether there was room for her or not; or possibly the letter contained some foolish enclosure from Lady Belinda, and Gwendolen was shy of communicating it, but had been ordered to do so.

Possibly the letter contained a cutting announcing the engagement! He had glanced through the Times yesterday and this morning very hastily. Gwendolen's mother might be capable of announcing the engagement before it had actually taken place!

He poured out a cup of tea and drank it, and then took the letter from his pocket.

He started at the opening of his door. Robinson brought in an American visitor, who came with an introduction. The introduction was lying on the desk, not yet opened. The Warden rose—escape was impossible. He put the letter back into his pocket.

“Bring fresh tea, Robinson,” said the Warden.

But the stranger declined it. He had business in view. He had a string of solemn questions to ask upon world matters. He wanted the answers. He was writing a book, he wanted copy. He had come, metaphorically speaking, note-book and pencil in hand.

The Warden, with his mind upon private matters, looked gloomily at this visitor to Oxford. Even about “world” matters, with that letter in his pocket, he found it difficult to tolerate an interviewer. How was he to get through his work if he felt like this?

The American, too, became uneasy. He found the Warden unwilling to give him any dogmatic pronouncements on the subject of Literature, on the subject of Education, or the subject of Woman now and Woman in the immediate future. The Warden declined to say whether the Church of England would work for union or whether it was going to split up and dwindle into rival sects. He was also guarded in his remarks about the political situation in England. He would not prophesy the future of Labour, or the fate of Landowners. The Warden was not encouraging. With that letter in his pocket the Warden found it difficult to assume the patient attention that was due to note-book visitors from afar.

This was a bad beginning, surely! How was the future to be met?

The American was about to take his leave, considerably disappointed with the Heads of Oxford colleges, but he suspected that American neutrality might be at the bottom of the Warden's reticence.

“I am not one of those Americans,” he said, rising, “who regard President Woodrow Wilson as the only statesman in the world at this present moment.”

The Warden threw his cigarette into the fire. “Wilson has one qualification for statesmanship,” he said, rising and speaking as if he was suddenly roused to interest by this highly contentious subject.

The American was surprised. “I presume, coming from you, Professor, that you speak of the President's academic training?” he said.

“I am not a Professor,” said the Warden, at last sufficiently awakened from his preoccupation to make a correction that he should have made before. “The University has not conferred that honour upon me. Yes, I mean an academic training. When a man who is trained to think meets a new problem in politics he pauses to consider it; he takes time; and for this the crowd jeer at him! The so-called practical man rarely pauses; he doesn't see, unless he has genius, that he mustn't treat a new problem as if it were an old one. He decides at once, and for this the crowd admire him. 'He knows his own mind,' they say!”

The Warden spoke with a ring of sarcasm in his voice. It was a sarcasm secretly directed against himself. That letter in his pocket was the cause.

He had been confronted in the small world of his own life with a new problem—marriage, and he ought to have understood that it was new, new to himself, complicated by his position and needing thought; and he had not thought, he had acted. He had belied the use and dignity of his training. Had he any excuse? There was the obligation to marry, and there was “pity.” Were these excuses? They were miserable excuses.

But he had no time to argue further with himself, the inexorable voice of the man standing opposite to him broke in.

“In your view, Warden, the practical man is too previous?” said the American, making notes (in his own mind).

“He is too confident,” said the Warden. “It is difficult enough to make an untrained man accept a new fact. It is still more difficult to make him think out a new method!”

“I opine,” said the American, “that in your view President Wilson has only one qualification for statesmanship?”

“I didn't say that,” said the Warden. “He may have the other, I mean character. Wilson may have the moral courage to act in accordance with his mental insight, and if so, if he has both the mental and moral force necessary, he might well be, what you do not yourself hold, the only living statesman in the world. Time will tell.”

Here the Warden smiled a curious smile and made a movement to indicate that the visit must come to an end. He must be alone—he needed to think—alone. How was he at this moment showing “character, moral courage?” Here he was, unable to bear the friction of an ordinary interview. Here he was, almost inclined to be discourteous. Here he was, determined to bear no longer with his visitor.

When the door closed upon the stranger, the Warden, sick with himself and sick with the world, turned to his desk. His letters must be looked through at once. Very well, let him begin with the letter in his pocket.

But he first sorted his other letters, throwing away advertisements and useless papers. Then he took the letter from his pocket. The very handwriting showed incapacity and slackness. At dinner he would have the writer of this letter on one side of him, and on the other—he dared not think! The Warden ground his teeth and tore open the letter, and then a knock came at his door.

“Come in,” he said almost fiercely.

Robinson came in. “I was to remind you, sir, that Mr. Bingham would be here to dinner.”

So much the better. “Very well, Robinson,” he said.

Robinson withdrew.

The letter was a long one. It was addressed at the top “Potten End.”

“Potten End,” said the Warden, half aloud. This was strange! Then she was not in the house!

The letter began—

    “Dear Dr. Middleton,

    “When you get this letter I shall have left your house and I shan't
    return. I hope you will forgive me. I don't know how to tell you,
    but I have broken off our engagement——”

The Warden stared at the words. There were more to come, but these—these that he had read! Were they true?

“My God!” he exclaimed, below his breath, “I don't deserve it!” and he made some swift strides in the room; “I don't deserve it!”

CHAPTER XXVIII. ALMA MATER

The Warden went to the door and turned the key. Why, he did not know. He simply did it instinctively. Then he finished reading the letter; and having read it through, read it again a second time. He was a free man, and he had obtained his freedom through a circumstance that was pitifully silly, a circumstance almost incredibly sordid and futile.

Her humiliation was his humiliation, for had he not chosen her to be his companion for life? Had he not at this time, when the full responsibility of manhood was placed on every man, had he not chosen as the mother of his children, a moral weakling?

He locked the letter up in his desk and paced the length of the room once or twice. Then he threw himself into a chair and, clasping his head in his hands, remained there motionless. Could he be the same man who had a few days ago, of his own free will, without any compulsion, without any kind of necessity, offered himself for life to a girl of whom he knew absolutely nothing, except that she had had a miserable upbringing and an heredity that he could not respect? Was it her slender beauty, her girlishness, that had made him so passionately pitiful?

From an ordinary man this action would have been folly, but from him it was an offence! A very great offence, now, in these times. On the desk lay some pages of notes—notes of a course of public lectures he was about to give, lectures on the responsibility of citizenship, in which he was going to make a strong appeal to his audience for a more conscious philosophy of life. He was going to urge the necessity for greater reverence for education. He was going to speak not only of the burden of Empire, but of the new burden, the burden of Democracy, a Democracy that is young, independent, and feeling its way. He was going to speak of the true meaning of a free Democracy, no chaotic meaningless freedom, but the sane and ordered freedom of educated men, Democracy open-eyed and training itself, like a strong man, to run a race for some far-off, some desired goal to which “all creation moves.”

He was in these lectures going to pose not only as a practical man but as a preacher, one of those who “point the way”; and meanwhile he had bound himself to a girl who not only would be unable to grasp the meaning of any strenuous moral effort, but who would have to be herself guarded from every petty temptation that came in her way. He was (so he said to himself, as he groaned in his spirit) one of those many preachers who, in all ages, have talked of moral progress, and who have missed the road that they themselves have pointed out!

He was fiercely angry with himself because he had called the emotion that he had felt for Gwendolen in her mischance a “passionate pity.” It was a very different emotion from that which wrung him when his old pupils, one by one, gave up their youth and hope in the service of their country. That indeed was a passionate pity, a pity full of remorseful gratitude, full of great pride in their high purpose and their noble self-sacrifice. On his mantelpiece, within arm's length of him, lay an open book. It was a book of poems, and there were verses that the Warden had read more than once.

    “City of hope and golden dreaming.”

A farewell to Oxford. It was the farewell of youth in its heyday to

    “All the things we hoped to do.”

And then followed the lines that pierced him now with poignant sadness as he thought of them—

    “Dreams that will never be clothed in being,
     Mother, your sons have left with you.”

The Warden groaned within himself. He was part of that Alma Mater; that city left behind in charge of that sacred gift!

He loathed himself, and this deep self-humiliation of a scrupulous gentleman was what his sister had shrunk from witnessing. It was this deep humiliation that May Dashwood fled from when she hid herself in her room that afternoon.

The Warden was not a man who spent much time in introspection. He had no subtlety of self-analysis, but what insight he had was spent in condemning himself, not in justifying himself. But now he added this to his self-accusations, that if May Dashwood had not suddenly stepped across his path and revealed to him true womanhood, gilded—yes, he used that term sardonically—gilded by beauty, he might not have seen the whole depth of his offence until now, when the crude truth about Gwendolen was forced upon him by her letter.

The Warden sat on, crushed by the weight of his humiliation. And he had been forgiven, he had been rescued from his own folly. His mistake had been wiped out, his offence pardoned.

And what about Gwendolen herself? What about this poor solitary foolish girl? What was to be her future? Swiftly she had come into his life and swiftly gone! What, indeed, was to become of her and her life?

And so the Warden sat on till the dressing-bell rang, and then he got up from his chair blindly.

He had been forgiven and rescued too easily. He did not deserve it. How was it that he had dared to quote to May Dashwood those solemn, awful words—

    “And the glory of the Lord is all in all!”

It must have seemed to her a piece of arrogant self-righteousness.

And she had said: “What is the glory of the Lord?” and had answered the question herself. Her answer had condemned him; the glory of the Lord was not merely self-restraint, stoical resignation, it was something more, it was “Love” that “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”

“For he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?”

The Warden dressed, moving about automatically, not thinking of what he was doing. When he left his bedroom he passed the head of the staircase. There were letters lying on the table, just as letters had lain waiting for him on that evening, on that Monday evening, when he found Gwendolen reading the letter from her mother and crying over it. Within those few short days he had risked the happiness and the usefulness of his whole life, and—God had forgiven him.

He passed the table and went on. Lena must have been waiting for him, expecting him! Perhaps she had been worrying. The thought made him walk rapidly along the corridor.

He knocked at her door. Louise opened it.

“Entrez, Monsieur,” she said, in the tone and manner of one who mounts guard and whose permission must be obtained.

She stood aside to let him pass, and then went out and pulled the door to after her.

The Warden walked up to the bed.

Lady Dashwood's face was averted from him. “Jim,” she said wistfully, and she put her hand over her eyes and waited for the sound of his voice.

She was there, waiting for him to show her what sort of sympathy he needed. He did not speak. He came round to the side of the bed where she was lying, by the windows. There he stood for a moment looking down upon her. She did not look up. She looked, indeed, like a culprit, like one humbled, who longed for pardon but did not like to ask for it. And it was this profound humble sympathy that smote his heart through and through. What if anything had happened to this dear sister of his? What if her unhappiness had been too great a strain upon her?

He knelt down by the bed and laid his face on her shoulder, just as he used to do when he was a child. Neither of them spoke. She moved her hand and clasped his arm that he placed over her, and they remained like this for some minutes, while a great peace enclosed them. In those few minutes it seemed as if years dropped away from them and they were young again. She the motherly young woman, and he the motherless boy to whom she stood as mother. All the interval was forgotten and there they were still, mother and son.

When at last he raised himself he found that her eyes were dim with tears. As to himself, he felt strangely quieted and composed. He pulled a chair to the bedside and sat down, not facing her, but sideways, and he rested his elbow on the edge of her pillow his other hand resting on hers.

“Did you get through all you wanted to, in Town?” she asked, smiling through her tears.

“Lena!” he said in a low voice, “you want to spare me. You always do.”

His voice overwhelmed her. His humility pierced her like a sword.

“It was all my fault, dear,” she began; “entirely my fault.”

“No,” he said, in a low emphatic voice.

“It was.” She reiterated this with almost a sullen persistence.

“How could it possibly be your fault?” he said, with deep self-reproach.

“It was,” she said, “though I cannot make you understand it. Jim, you must forget it all, for my sake. You must forget it at once, you have things to do.”

“I have things to do,” he said. “I seemed in danger of forgetting those things,” he said huskily. “As to forgetting, that is a difficult matter.”

“You must put it aside,” she said, and now she raised herself on her pillows and stared anxiously into his face. “You made a mistake such as the best man would make,” she argued passionately. “How can a strong man suspect weakness in others? You know how it is, we suspect in others virtues and vices that we have ourselves. You know what I mean, dear. A drunkard always suspects other men of wanting to drink!” and she laughed a little, and her voice trembled with an excitement she found it difficult to suppress. “Thieves always suspect others of thieving. An amorous man sees sex motives in everything. Do you suppose an honourable man doesn't also suspect others of honourable intentions?”

He made no reply.

“Besides, you have always been eager to think the best of women. You've credited them, even with mental gifts that they haven't got! You have been over-loyal to them all your life! And now”—here Lady Dashwood put out her hand and laid it on his arm as if to compel him to agree—“and now you are suffering for it, or rather you have suffered. You thought you were doing your duty, that you ought to marry. You were right; you ought to marry, and I, just at that moment, thrust somebody forward who looked innocent and helpless. And how could you tell? Of course you couldn't tell,” and now her voice dropped a little and she seemed suddenly to have become tired out, and she sank back on her pillows.

The Warden leant over her. Her special pleading for him was so familiar to him. She had corrected his faults, admonished him when necessary, but had always upheld his self-respect, even in small matters. She was fighting now for the preservation of his sense of honour.

“Anyhow, darling,” she said, “you must forget!”

“You are exhausted,” he said, “in trying to make black white. I ought not to have come in and let you talk. Lena, what has happened this week has knocked you up. I know it, and even now you are worrying because of me. I will forget it, dear, if you will pick up again and get strong.”

“I am better already,” she said, and the very faintest smile was on her face. “I am rather tired, but I shall be all right to-morrow. All I want is a good night's sleep. I want to sleep for hours, and I shall sleep for hours now that I have seen you.”

A knock came on the door.

“They are looking for you, dear,” said Lady Dashwood.

The Warden slowly rose from his seat. “I must go now, Lena,” he said, “but I shall come in again the last thing. I shall come in without knocking if I may, because I hope you will be asleep, and I don't want to wake you.”

“Very well,” she said smiling. “You'll find me asleep. I feel so calm, so happy.”

He bent down and kissed her and then went to the door. She turned her head and looked after him. Louise was at the door.

“Monsieur Bingham is arrived,” she said; “I regret to have disturbed Monsieur.”

The Warden walked slowly down the corridor. There was something that he dreaded, something that was going to happen—the first meeting of the eyes—the first moment when May Dashwood would look at him, knowing all that had happened!

He passed the table again on which lay his letters. He would look through all that pile of correspondence after Bingham had gone.

Robinson was hovering at the stairhead. “Mr. Bingham is in the drawing-room, sir.”

“Alone?” asked the Warden.

“Mrs. Dashwood is there, sir,” said Robinson.

“How have you arranged the table?” asked the Warden.

“I've put Mrs. Dashwood close on your right, sir,” said Robinson, secretly amazed at the question; “Mr. Bingham on your left, sir.”

“Yes,” said the Warden. “Yes, of course!” passing his servant with an abstracted air.

“Shall I announce dinner, sir?” asked Robinson, hurrying behind and measuring his strength for what he was about to perform in the exercise of his duty.

“Yes,” said the Warden, still moving on, and now near the drawing-room door.

Robinson made a wondrous skip, a miracle it was of service in honour of the Warden; he flew past his master like an aged but agile Mercury and pounced upon the drawing-room door handle. Then he threw the door open. He waited till the Warden had advanced to a sufficient distance in the room towards the guests who were waiting by the fireside, and then he uttered, in his penetrating but quavering voice, the familiar and important word—

“Dinner!”

CHAPTER XXIX. DINNER

“I am sorry I'm late,” said the Warden quietly, and he looked at both his guests. “I have been with Lady Dashwood. I must apologise, Bingham, for her absence. I expect Mrs. Dashwood has already told you that she is not well.”

The bow with which the Warden offered his arm to May was one which included more than the mere formal invitation to go down to dinner, it meant a greeting after absence and an acknowledgment that she was acting as his hostess. It was one of those ceremonial bows which men are rarely able to make without looking pompous. He had the reputation, in Oxford, of being one of the very few men who, in his tutorial days, could present men for degrees with academic grace.

“I'm sorry, Bingham,” he said; “I have only just returned, or I might have secured a fourth to dinner—yes, even in war time.”

May went downstairs, wondering. Wondering how it was that the worst was so soon over, and that, after all, instead of feeling a painful pity for the man whose arm held hers in a light grasp, she felt strangely timorous of him.

She was profoundly thankful for the presence of Bingham, who was following behind, cheerful and chatty, having put aside, apparently, all recollection of the conversation of the evening before. Yes, whatever his secret thoughts might have been, Bingham appeared to have forgotten that there were any moonlight nights in the streets of Oxford. For this, May blessed him.

They entered the long dining-room and, sitting at the Warden's end of the table, formed a bright living space of light and movement. Outside that bright space the room gradually sombred to the dark panelled walls. The Warden, in his high-backed chair, looked the very impersonation of Oxford. This was what struck Bingham as he glanced at his host, and the thought suggested that hater of Oxford, the Warden's relative, Bernard Boreham.

“I have just got your friend Boreham to undertake a job of work,” said Bingham. “It'll do him a world of good to have work, a library to catalogue for the use of our prisoners. He wanted to shove off the job to some chaplain. I was to procure the chaplain, just as if all men weren't scarce, even chaplains!”

Composed as the Warden was, he looked at Bingham with something of eager attention on his face, as if relying on him for support and conversation.

“Poor old Boreham, he is a connection of mine by marriage,” he said, and as the words fell from his lips, he, in his present sensitive mood, recoiled from them, for they implied that Boreham was not a friend. Why was he posing as one who was too superior to choose Boreham as a friend?

“Talking of chaplains,” said Bingham, who knew nothing of what was going on in the Warden's mind, and thought this sudden stop came from dislike of any reference to Boreham—“talking of parsons, why not release all parsons in West End churches for the war?”

A smile came into May's face at the extreme sweetness of Bingham's voice; a warning that he was about to say something biting.

“Release all parsons who have smart congregations,” continued Bingham, in honied tones; “parsons with congregations of jolly, well-dressed women, women who enjoy having their naughtiness slanged from the pulpit just as they enjoy having their photographs in the picture papers. Their spiritual necessities would be more than adequately provided for if they were given a dummy priest and a gramophone.”

May's smile seemed to stimulate Bingham's imagination.

“To waste on them a real parson with a soul and a rudimentary intellect,” he went on, “is like giving a glass of Moselle to an agricultural labourer when he would be happy with a mug of beer. But the Church wastes its energies even in this time of heartbreakings.”

“I should like to see you, Bingham,” said the Warden, smiling too, and turning his narrow eyes, in his slow deliberate manner, towards his guest, “as chairman to a committee of English bishops, on the Reconstruction of the Church.”

“I've no quarrel with our bishops,” said Bingham; “I don't want them to extol every new point of view as they pass along. I don't expect them to behave like young men. Nor do I expect them to be like the Absolute, without 'body, parts or passions.' My indictment is not even against that mere drop in the ocean, 'good Christian souls,' but against humanity and human nature!” Bingham looked from one to the other of his listeners. “Until now, the only people we have taken quite seriously are the very well dressed and the—well, the undressed. The two classes overlap continually. But now we've got to take everybody seriously; we are going to have a Democracy. Human nature has got a new tool, and the tool is Democracy. The new tool is to be put into the same foolish old hands, and we shall very soon discover what we shall call 'the sins of Democracy.' What is fundamentally wrong with us is what apparently we can't help: it's that we are ourselves, that we are human beings.” Bingham smiled into his plate. “We adopt Christianity, and because we are human beings we make it intellectually rigid and morally sloppy. We are patronising Democracy, and we shall make it intellectually rigid and morally sloppy too—if we don't take care. Everything we handle becomes intellectually rigid and morally sloppy. And yet we still fancy that, if only we could get hold of the right tools, our hands would do the right work.”

“The Reconstruction of Human Nature is what you are demanding,” said the Warden.

“Yes, that's what we want,” sighed Bingham. “When we have got rid of the Huns, we must begin to think about it.”

“If you saw the children I have seen, Mr. Bingham,” said May, quietly, “you would want to begin at once, and I think you would be hopeful.”

There was on the Warden's face a sudden passionate assent that Bingham detected.

“All men,” said Bingham, leaning back in his chair and regarding his two listeners with veiled attention—“all men like to hear a woman say sweet, tender, hopeful things, even if they don't believe them. As for myself, Mrs. Dashwood, I admit that your 'higher optimism' haunts me too at times; at rare times when, for instance, the weather in Oxford is dry and bright and bracing.”

If he had for a moment doubted it since the afternoon at the Hardings', Bingham was now sure, as sure as a man can be of what is unconfessed in words, that between this man and woman sitting at the table with him was some secret sensitive interest that was not friendship.

How did this conviction affect Bingham and Bingham's spirits? It certainly did not put a stop to his flow of talk. Rather, he talked the more; he was even more sweetly cynical and amiably scintillating than usual. If his heart was wounded, and he himself was not sure whether it was or not, he hid that heart successfully in a sheath of his own sparks.

A pause came when Robinson put out the light over the carving-table and withdrew with Robinson Junior. The dining-room was silent. Bingham drank some wine, the Warden mused, and May Dashwood sat with her eyes on a glass of water by her, looking at it as if she could see some vision in its transparency. The fire was glowing a deep red in the great stone chimney-piece at the further end of the room. A coal fell forward upon the hearth with a strangely solitary sound. Bingham glanced towards the fire and then round the room, and then at his host, and lastly at May Dashwood.

“I heard a rumour,” he said, and he took a sip of his claret, “that your college ghost had made an appearance!”

There came another silence in the room.

“One doesn't know how such rumours come about,” continued Bingham; “perhaps you hadn't even heard of this one?” He looked across at May and round at the Warden. Neither of them seemed to be aware that a question was being asked.

“I didn't know King's even claimed a ghost,” said Bingham again. “I've heard of the ghost of Shelley in the High,” he added, smiling. “A ghost for the tourist who comes to see the Shelley Memorial.”

May looked down rather closely at the table.

The Warden moved stiffly. “I don't believe Shelley would want to come,” he said. “He always despised his Alma Mater.”

“He was a bit of an enfant terrible,” said Bingham, “from the tutor's point of view.”

May raised her eyes with relief; the Warden had parried the question of the ghost with skill.

“And I don't believe,” said the Warden, “that any one returns who has merely roystered within our walls,” and he smiled.

Bingham was now looking very attentively at the Warden out of his dark eyes.

“Jeremy Bentham,” he said, “seems to have been afraid of ghosts, when he was an undergraduate here. He was afraid of barging against them on dark college staircases. It's a fear I can't grasp. I would much rather come into collision with any ghost than with the Stroke of the 'Varsity Eight, whether the staircase was dark or not.”

“If there are ghosts,” said the Warden, pensively, “I should expect to see Cranmer, on some wild night, wandering near the places where he endured his passion and his death. Or I should expect to see Laud pacing the streets, amazed at the order and discipline of modern Oxford. If personal attachment could bring a man from the grave,” he went on, meeting Bingham's eyes with a smile, “why shouldn't that least ghostly of all scholars, your old master, Jowett—why shouldn't he walk at night when Balliol is asleep?”

“Then there was nothing in the rumour,” said Bingham, “that your King's ghost has turned up?”

“The Warden doesn't believe in ghosts,” said May, looking across the table eagerly. She remembered how he had stood by the bedside of Gwendolen that night. She recalled the room vividly, the gloom of the room and he alone standing in the light thrown upon him by the lamp. She could recall every tone of his voice as he said: “You thought you saw something. You made a mistake. You saw nothing, you imagined that you saw—there was nothing,” and how his voice convinced her, as she stood by the fire and listened. How long ago was that—only three days—it seemed like a month.

“No,” said the Warden, “I don't believe in ghosts. At least, I don't believe that our dead”—and he pronounced the last word reverently—“are such that they can return to us in human form, or through the intervention of some hired medium. But if there are ghosts in Oxford,” he went on, and now he turned to Bingham, as if he were answering his question—“if there are ghosts in Oxford they will be the ghosts of those who were, in life, bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh. I am thinking of those men who lived and died in Oxford, recluses who knew no other world, and of whom the world knew nothing—men who used to flit like shadows from their solitary rooms to the Lecture hall and to High table and to the Common room. Those men were monks in all but name; celibates, solitaries—men to whom the laughter of youth was maddening pain.”

May's eyes dropped! What the Warden was saying stabbed her, not merely because of the words he said, but because his voice conveyed the sense of that poignant pain.

“Such men as I speak of,” he went on, “Oxford must always have possessed, even in the boisterous days when you fellows of All Souls,” he said, addressing Bingham, “used to pull your doors off their hinges to make bonfires in honour of the mallard. There always have been these men, students shy and sensitive, shrinking from the rougher side of the ordinary man, shrinking from ordinary social life; men who are only courageous in their devotion to learning and to truth; men who are lonely with that awful loneliness of those who live in the world of thoughts. I knew one such man myself. Those who believe in ghosts may come upon the shades of these men in the passages and in the cloisters at night, or hiding in the dark recesses of our college windows. Why, I can feel them everywhere—and yet I don't believe in ghosts.” The Warden placed his elbows upon the table and rested his chin upon his hands, and looked down at the table-cloth.

May said nothing; she was listening, her face bent but expressive even to her eyebrows.

“Neither do I,” said Bingham, in an altered voice. “I don't believe in ghosts, and yet, what do we know of this world? We talk of it glibly. But what do we know of the forces which make up the phantasmagoria that we call the World? What do we know of this vast universe? We perceive something of it by touch, by sight, sound and smell. These are the doors through which its forces penetrate the brain of man. These doors are our way of 'being aware' of life. The psychology of man is in its infancy. And remember”—here Bingham leaned over the table and rested his eyes on May—“it is man studying himself! That makes the difficulty!” Bingham was serious now, and he had slipped from slang into the academic form in which his thoughts really moved.

“And we don't even know whether our ways of perceiving are the only ways,” said the Warden.

“Anyhow,” said Bingham, turning to him, “the ghosts you 'feel,' and which you and I don't believe in, belong to the old Oxford, the Oxford which is gone.”

There came a sudden silence in the long room, and May felt that she ought to make a move. She looked at the Warden.

“That Oxford,” continued Bingham, “is gone for ever. It began to go when men hedged it round with red brick, and went to live under red-tiled roofs with wives and children.”

“Yes, it has gone,” said the Warden. “Must you leave us!” he asked, rising, as May looked at him and made a movement to rise.

Bingham rose to his feet, but he stood with his hand holding the foot of his glass and gazing into its crimson depths.

“Pardon, Middleton! Mrs. Dashwood, one moment,” he said, and he raised his glass solemnly till it was almost on a level with his dark face. “Will you pledge me?” he asked. “To the old Oxford that is past and gone!”

The Warden and May were both drinking water. They raised their glasses and touched Bingham's wine which glowed in the light from above, almost suggesting something sacramental. And Bingham himself looked like a smooth, swarthy priest of mediæval story, half-serious and half-gay, disguised in modern dress.

“To the Oxford of sacred memory,” he said.

They drank.

May was thinking deeply and as she was about to place her glass back upon the table, the thought that was struggling for expression came to her. She lifted her glass: “To the Oxford that is to be,” she said gently. She glanced first at Bingham, and then her eyes rested for a moment upon the Warden.

Bingham watched her keenly. He could see that at that moment she had no thought of herself. Her thoughts were of Oxford alone, and, Bingham guessed, with the man with whom she identified Oxford.

Bingham hesitated to raise his glass. Was it a flash of jealousy that went through him? A jealousy of the new Oxford and all that it might mean to the two human beings beside him? If it was jealousy it died out as swiftly as it had come.

He raised his glass.

“To the Oxford of the Future,” said the Warden.

“Ad multos annos,” said Bingham.

CHAPTER XXX. THE END OF BELINDA AND CO.

Lady Dashwood professed to be very much better the next morning when May looked in to see how she had slept.

“I'm a new woman,” she said to May; “I slept till seven, and then, my dear, I began to think, and what do you think my thoughts were?”

May shook her head. “You thought it was Sunday morning.”

“Quite true,” said Lady Dashwood; “I heard the extra bells going on round us. No, what I was thinking of was, what on earth Marian Potten did with Gwendolen yesterday afternoon. I'm quite sure she will have made her useful. I can picture Marian making her guest put on a big apron and some old Potten gloves and taking her out into the garden to gather beans. I can picture them gathering beans till tea-time. Marian is sure to be storing beans, and she wouldn't let the one aged gardener she has got left waste his time on gathering beans. I can see Marian raking the pods into a heap and setting fire to the heap. I imagined that after tea Gwendolen played the 'Reverie' by Slapovski. After dinner: 'Patience.'”

May pondered.

“And now. May,” said Lady Dashwood, looking tired in spite of her theory that she had become a new woman, “it's a lovely day; even Louise allows that the sun is shining, and I can't have you staying indoors on my account. I won't allow you in my bedroom to-day. I shall be very busy.”

“No!” said May, reproachfully. “I shall not allow business.”

“I'm just going to write a letter to my dear old John, whom I've treated shamefully for a week, only sending him a scrawl on half a page. Now, I want you to go to church, or else for a walk. I can tell you what the doctor says when you come back.”

May said neither “Yes” nor “No.” She laughed a little and went out of the room.

In the breakfast-room the Warden was already there. They greeted each other and sat down together, and talked strict commonplaces till the meal was over. He did not ask May what she was going to do, neither did she ask him any questions. They both were following a line of action that they thought was the right one. Neither intended meeting the other unless circumstances compelled the meeting; circumstances like breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was clear to both of them that, except on these occasions, they had no business with each other. The Warden was clear about it because he was a man still ashamed.

May was clear that she had no business to see the Warden except when necessity occasioned it, because each moment made her more unfaithful to the memory of the dead, to the memory of the dead man who could no longer claim her, who had given away his all at the call of duty and who had no power to hold her now. So she, too, being honourably proud, felt ashamed in the presence of the Warden.

All that morning was wasted. The doctor did not come, and May spent the time waiting for him. Lady Dashwood sat up in bed and wrote an apparently interminable letter to her husband. Whenever May appeared she said: “Go away, May!” and then she looked long and wistfully at her niece.

Two or three men came to lunch and went into the library afterwards with the Warden, and May went to her Aunt Lena's room.

“The doctor won't come now till after three, May, so you must go out, or you will really grieve me,” said Lady Dashwood. “Jim will take you out. He came in just after you left me before lunch, and I told him you would go out.”

“You are supposed to be resting,” said May, “and I can't have you making arrangements, dear Aunt Lena. I shall do exactly what I please, and shall not even tell you what I please to do. I do believe,” she added, as she shook up the pillows, “that in the next world, dear, you will want to make plans for God, and that will get you into serious trouble.”

Lady Dashwood sighed deeply. “Oh dear, oh dear,” she said, “I suppose I must go on pretending I'm ill.”

May shook her head at her and pulled down the blinds, and left her in the darkness suitable for repose.

The Warden had not mentioned a walk. Perhaps he hadn't found an opportunity with those men present! Should she go for a walk alone? She found herself dressing, putting on her things with a feverish haste. Then she took off her coat and sat down, and took her hat off and held it on her knees.

She thought she heard the sound of a voice in the corridor outside, and she put on her hat with trembling fingers and caught up the coat and scarf and her gloves.

She went out into the corridor and found it empty and still. She went to the head of the stairs. There was no sound coming from the library. But even if the Warden were still there with the other men, she might not hear any sounds of their talk. They might be there or they might not. It was impossible to tell.

Perhaps he had gone to look for her in the drawing-room and, finding no one there, had gone out.

The drawing-room door was open. She glanced in. The room was empty, of course, and the afternoon sunshine was coming in through the windows, falling across the floor towards the fireplace. It would soon creep up to the portrait over the fireplace.

May waited several minutes, walking about the room and listening, and then she went out and closed the door behind her. She went down the staircase into the hall, opened the front door very slowly and went out.

An indescribable loneliness seized her as she walked over the gravelled court to the gates. The afternoon sunshine was less friendly than rain and bitter wind. She took the road to the parks, meeting the signs of the war that had obliterated the old Sunday afternoons of Oxford in the days of peace. Here was suffering, a deliberate preparation for more suffering. Did all this world-suffering make her small personal grief any less? Yes, it did; it would help her to get over the dreary space of time, the days, months, years till she was a grey-haired woman and was resigned, having learned patience and even become thankful!

Once she thought she saw the figure of the Warden in the distance, and then her heart beat suffocatingly, but it was not he. Once she thought she saw Bingham walking with some other man. He rounded the walk by the river and—no, it was not Mr. Bingham—the face was different. She began asking herself questions that had begun to disturb her. Was the real tragedy of the Warden's engagement to him not the discovery that Gwendolen was silly and weak, but that she was not honourable? Had he suspected something of the kind before he received that letter? Wasn't it a suspicion of the kind that had made him speak as he did in the drawing-room after they had returned from Christ Church? Might he not have been contented with Gwendolen if she had been straight and true, however weak and foolish? Was he the sort of man who demands sympathy and understanding from friends, men and women, but something very different from a wife? Was the Warden one of those men who prefer a wife to be shallow because they shrink from any permanent demand being made upon their moral nature or their intellect? Perhaps the Warden craved a wife who was thoughtless, and, choosing Gwendolen, was disappointed in her, solely because he found she was not trustworthy. That suspicion was a bitter one. Was it an unjust suspicion?

As May walked, the river beside her slipped along slowly under the melancholy willows. The surface of the water was laden with fallen leaves and the wreckage of an almost forgotten summer. It was strangely sad, this river!

May turned away and began walking back to the Lodgings. There was a deepening sunshine in the west, a glow was coming into the sky. Oh, the sadness of that glorious sunset!

May was glad to hide away from it in the narrow streets. She was glad to get back to the court and to enter the darkened house, and yet there was no rest for her there. Soon, very soon, she would say good-bye to this calm secluded home and go out alone into the wilderness!

She walked straight to her room and took off her things, and then went into Lady Dashwood's room. Louise was arranging a little table for tea between the bed and the windows.

“Well!” cried Lady Dashwood. “So you have had a good walk!”

“It was a lovely afternoon,” said May. She looked out of the window and could see the colour of the sunset reflected on the roof opposite.

Lady Dashwood watched Louise putting a cloth on the table, and remarked that “poor Jim” would be having tea all alone!

“I think the Warden is out,” said May, as she stood at the window.

“Oh!” exclaimed Lady Dashwood, but at that moment the doctor was ushered into the room. He apologised for coming so late in the day, he had been pressed with work. “I'm perfectly well,” said Lady Dashwood; “I don't need a doctor, you are simply wasted on me. I can come down to dinner.”

There was no doubt that she was better. The doctor admitted it and praised her, but he refused to let her get up till the next day, and then only for tea in the drawing-room; and, strange to say, Lady Dashwood did not argue the point, merely remarking that she wasn't sure whether she could be trusted to remain in bed. She wouldn't promise that she could be trusted.

When the doctor left May slipped out with him, and they went along the corridor together.

“How much better is she?” she asked. “Is she really on the road to being quite well?”

“She's all right,” said the doctor, as they went down the staircase, “but she mustn't be allowed to get as low as she was yesterday, or there will be trouble.”

“And,” said May, “what about me?” and she explained to him that she was only in Oxford on a visit and had work in London that oughtn't to be left.

“Has she got a good maid?” asked the doctor.

“An excitable Frenchwoman, but otherwise useful.” They were at the front door now.

“And you really ought to go to-morrow?”

“I ought,” said May, and her heart seemed to be sinking low down—lower and lower.

“Very well,” said the doctor, “I suppose we must let you go, Mrs. Dashwood,” and as he spoke he pulled the door wide open. “Here is the Warden!” he said.

There was the Warden coming in at the gate. May was standing so that she could not see into the court. She started at the doctor's remark.

“I'll speak to him,” he said, and, bowing, he went down the steps, leaving the door open behind him. May turned away and walked upstairs. She wouldn't have to tell the Warden that she was going to-morrow; the doctor would tell him, of course. Would he care?

She went back to the bedroom, and Lady Dashwood looked round eagerly at her, but did not ask her any questions.

“Now, dear, pour out the tea,” she said. “The doctor was a great interruption. My dear May, I wish I wasn't such an egotist.”

“You aren't,” said May, sitting down and pouring out two cups of tea.

“I am,” said Lady Dashwood.

“Why?” asked May.

“Well, you see,” said Lady Dashwood, “I was terribly upset about Belinda and Co., because Belinda and Co. had pushed her foot in at my front door, or rather at Jim's front door; but she's gone now, as far as I'm personally concerned. She's a thing of the past. But, and here it comes, Belindas are still rampant in the world, and there are male as well as female Belindas; and I bear it wonderfully. I shall quite enjoy a cup of tea. Thanks, darling.”

“If anybody were to come and say to you,” said May, looking deeply into her cup, “'Will you join a Society for the painless extermination of Belindas—Belindas of both classes—Belindas in expensive furs, and tattered Belindas,' wouldn't you become a member, or at least give a guinea?”

Lady Dashwood smiled a little. “Dear May, how satirical you are with your poor old aunt!”

“I'm not satirical,” said May.

“I'm afraid,” groaned Lady Dashwood, “it's mainly because we think things will be made straight in the next world that we don't do enough here. Now, I haven't that excuse, May, because you know I never have looked forward to the next world. Somehow I can't!”

Something in her aunt's voice made May look round at her.

“Don't be sorrowful, dear,” she said.

“Now that I've slanged Belinda,” murmured Lady Dashwood, “I've begun to think about my own short-comings.”

“Nonsense, dear aunt,” said May. “You are not accustomed to think about yourself; it must be a sign that you are not feeling well. I shall ring for Louise.” May spoke in a bantering voice, but her eyes did not smile.

“For mercy's sake, don't,” said Lady Dashwood.

The glow had faded from the roof of the college opposite, and had become grey and cold when May got up and took the little tea tray from her Aunt Lena's bed.

“Now, I've got just a few lines more to add to my letter to my old dear one,” said Lady Dashwood. “Suppose you go down and see what's happening?”

“What's happening!” said May, but she did not ask a question, merely she repeated her aunt's words.

“Yes, dear,” said Lady Dashwood. “What's happening. All sorts of things happen, you know; things go on! Please ring, I want Louise to clear away. Now, go down into the drawing-room and, if you see Jim, give him my love.”

May went into the empty drawing-room and sat there till it grew dark, doing nothing. Robinson came in to make up the fire and draw the curtains. He apologised for his lateness, explaining that he did not think any one was in the drawing-room.

“Will you have dinner with 'er ladyship?” he asked, “or in the dining-room, m'm? The Warden is dining in 'all.”

May walked to a little table and took up one of the books that were lying there.

“Upstairs, please, Robinson,” she answered.

She began looking through the book, turning over the pages, but the print seemed unintelligible. She stood listening to Robinson's movements in the room. Then the door opened and the Warden came in and startled her so much that she dropped the book upon the table.

He was in his gown, just come back from chapel. He came some way into the room and stood at a little distance from her. She did not look at him, though she turned towards him in acknowledgment of his presence.

“Wasn't the sunset wonderful?” she said.

“It was a wonderful sunset!” he said.

Robinson was still busy in the room, and the Warden moved to the fireplace and stood looking as if he was undecided whether to stay or to go.

“I'm sorry I have to dine out this evening,” said the Warden. “I have no choice in the matter, unfortunately.”

“Of course,” said May. “Please don't think of me. I have Aunt Lena to look after.”

“You are very good to her,” he said, and lingered for a moment.

Robinson was now going towards the door with his soft, light, though rather shambling movements.

The Warden moved towards the door too, and then stopped and said—

“There isn't anything I can do for you, any book I can lend you for this evening?”

“No, thanks very much,” said May. “I have all I want,” and she took up the book she had dropped with an air of wanting it very much, and went towards the chair she had been sitting in before Robinson disturbed her.

The Warden swung himself round. She could hear the sound of his robe against the lintel of the door as he went out and left her alone. He might have stayed a few minutes if he had wished! He didn't wish!

When she went to her Aunt Lena's bedroom, half an hour later, she found that he had been there, sitting with her and talking, and had gone five minutes ago. The Warden seemed to move like some one in a dream. He came and went and never stayed.

During dinner Lady Dashwood said, not à propos of anything—

“Your poor Uncle John is beginning to get restive, and I suppose I shall have to go back to him in a few days. Having done all the mischief that I could, I suppose it is time I should leave Oxford. Louise will be glad and Jim will be sorry, I am afraid. I haven't broken to him yet that my time is coming to an end. I really dread telling him. It was different when he was a college tutor—he had only rooms then. Now he has a house. It's very dismal for him to be alone.”

Here Lady Dashwood stopped abruptly and went on eating. About nine o'clock she professed to be ready “to be put to bed,” and May, who had been knitting by her side, got up and prepared to leave her for the night.

As she kissed her she wondered why her Aunt Lena had never asked her how long she was going to stay. Why hadn't she told her after seeing the doctor, and got it over? The Warden knew and yet did not say a word, but that was different!

Should she tell her aunt now? She hesitated. No, it might perhaps make her wakeful. It would be better to give her nothing to think about. There would be time to-morrow. She would tell her before breakfast, on the way downstairs. It would be giving her long enough notice if she put off her journey till the late afternoon. And there was no need to leave on Monday till the late afternoon.

“You are going down into the drawing-room again?” said Lady Dashwood.

“Yes; you must sleep well, dear,” said May, bending down and kissing her.

“Oh, very well,” said Lady Dashwood, closing her eyes.

Later on disturbing thoughts came to her. Why had May ceased to show any emotion? Why had she become quiet and self-contained? That wasn't a good sign. And what about to-morrow? Did she mean to go? She had said nothing, but she might have made up her mind to go. And there was Jim going in and out and doing nothing! Oh, why couldn't the dear things see that they were made for one another? Why couldn't they go about mysterious, blown up with self-importance—and engaged?

When Louise came in she found her mistress still awake.

“Louise, before you settle me, see if Mrs. Dashwood has gone to bed. Don't disturb her, of course.”

“Bien, Madame,” said Louise; and she left the room with the air of one who is going to fathom a mystery.

“What a nuisance Louise is,” sighed Lady Dashwood, turning on her pillow. She did not turn her head again when Louise came back.

“Madame is not in her room,” said Louise, in a voice of profound interest, and she waited to hear the result.

“Oh!” said Lady Dashwood, brightening a little. “Well, Louise, light a night light and leave it at the other end of the room, so that the light doesn't come on my face! I don't want to be in complete darkness or the Warden will not come in. He will think I am asleep.”

“Madame will not sleep?” demanded Louise.

“Of course I shall sleep,” said Lady Dashwood, and she began thinking again.

CHAPTER XXXI. A FAREWELL

When May went back again to the drawing-room she did not sit down immediately but walked round, taking up the books that were lying about. Some she had read, and the book she had taken up by accident before dinner did not interest her. She took up one after another and read the title, and then, seeing a small soft yellow volume full of verse, she carried it with her to her chair. She might be able to read and follow something slight; she could not concentrate herself on anything that needed thought.

She opened the volume. It was an anthology of Victorian verse. She began looking through it. She read and read—at least she turned over page after page, following the sense here and there. Books could not distract her from painful thoughts about herself; hard work with hands and eyes, work such as hers would be able to distract her. She was relying upon it to do so; she felt that her work was her refuge. She was thankful that she had a refuge—very thankful, and yet she was counting how many more hours she still had before her in Oxford. There she showed her weakness; she knew that every hour in Oxford meant pain, and yet she did not want to go away! At last she had turned over all the pages and had come to the last page. There her eyes were caught, and they held on to some printed words. She read! The words were like the echo of a voice, a voice that thrilled her even in memory!

    “And the Glory of the Lord shall be all in all.”

She read the poem through and through again. It took hold of her.

She sat musing over it. The clock struck ten. To sit on and on was like waiting for him! She resented the thought bitterly. She rose from her chair, meaning to take the book up with her to her room. To have it beside her would be a little consolation. She would read it through again the last thing before trying to sleep. She was already walking to the door, very slowly, her will compelling unwilling limbs.

“You are just going?” said the Warden's voice. He had suddenly opened the door and stood before her.

“I was going,” she said, and held on to the book, open as it was at the last page. “Have you just come back from dinner?”

“I have just come back,” he said, and he closed the door behind him. But he stayed near the door, for May was standing just where she had stood when he came in, the book in her hand. “I regretted very much that you should be alone this last evening of your stay——” He paused and looked at her.

“I ought to have asked some one to dine with you. I am so little accustomed to guests, but I ought to have thought of it.”

“I am used to being alone in the evening,” said May, now smoothing the page of her book with her free hand. “Except on Saturdays and Sundays, when I go to friends of mine, I am usually alone—and generally glad to be, after my day's work. Besides, I have been with Aunt Lena this evening. I only left her an hour ago.”

He came nearer and stood looking at her and at the book in her hands. He seemed suddenly to recognise the book, and saw that it was open at the last page.

“I ought not to have quoted that to you,” he said in a low voice; “those words of that poem—there under your hand.”

“Why not?” she asked, shutting the book up and holding it closed between her hands. “Why shouldn't you have quoted it?” and she looked at the book intently, listening for his voice again.

“Because it savoured of self-righteousness, and that was not becoming in a man who had brought his own troubles upon himself.”

May did not look up at him; she felt, too keenly the poignancy of that brief confession, dignified in its simplicity, a confession that a weaker man would have been afraid to make, and a man of less intelligence could not have made because he would not have understood the dignity of it. May found no words with which to speak to him; she could only look at the carpet stupidly and admire him with all the pulses in her body.

“Your interpretation of 'the Glory of the Lord' is the right one; I think—I feel convinced of it.”

He stood before her, wearing a curiously pathetic expression of diffidence.

That moment passed, and then he seemed to force himself back into his old attitude of courteous reserve.

“You were just going when I came in,” he said, moving and putting out his hand to open the door for her. “I am keeping you.”

“I was going,” said May, “but, Dr. Middleton——”

He let his arm drop. “Yes?” he said.

“You have, I am afraid, a totally wrong idea of me.”

He stared straight into her face as she spoke, but it was his veiled stare, in which he held himself aloof for reasons of his own.

“I don't think so,” he said quickly.

“I talked about 'my interpretation' of the words you quoted,” she said, “just as if I spoke from some special knowledge, from personal experience, I mean. I had no intention of giving you that idea; it was merely a thought I expressed.”

How could she say what her heart was full of without betraying herself? He was waiting for her to speak with a strained look in his eyes.

“And, of course, any one can 'think.' I am afraid——Somehow—I find it impossible to say what I mean—I—I am horribly stupid to-night.”

She moved forward and he opened the door, and held it open for her. She went out with only a brief “Good-night,” because no more words would come. She had said all she was able to say, and now she walked along trying to get her breath again. In the corridor she came upon Louise, who seemed to have sprung suddenly from nowhere.

“Can I assist Madame?” said Louise, her face full of unrestrained curiosity. “Can I brush Madame's hair?”

May made one or two more steps without finding her voice, then she said—

“No, thank you, Louise.” And feeling more than seeing the Frenchwoman's ardent stare of interrogation, she added: “Louise, you may bring back my travelling things, please, the first thing to-morrow morning. I shall want them.”

Louise was silent for a moment, just as a child is voiceless for a moment before it bursts into shrieks. She followed May to her door.

“I shall pack everything for Madame,” she exclaimed, and her voice twanged like steel. She followed May into her bedroom. “I shall pack everything when Madame goes truly.” Here she glanced round the room, and her large dark eyes rested with wild indignation on the little stained figure of St. Joseph standing on the table by the bed.

The small pathetic saint stood all unconscious, its machine-made face looking down amiably upon the branch of lilies in its hands.

“I want them early,” said May, “because I prefer to pack myself, Louise. You are such a kind creature, but I really prefer waiting upon myself.”

“I shall pack for Madame,” repeated Louise.

May went to the toilet table and put down the book that she was carrying.

“Good night, Louise,” was all she said.

Louise moved. She groaned, then she took hold of the door and began to withdraw herself behind it.

“I wish Madame a good repose. I shall pack for Madame, comme il faut,” she said with superb obstinacy, and she closed the door after her.

Good repose! Repose seemed to May the last word that was suitable. Fall asleep she might, for she was strong and full of vigour, but repose——!

She read the poem once again through when she was in bed. Then she laid the book under the pillow and turned out the light.

How many hours had she still in Oxford? About seventeen hours. And even when she was back again at her work—sundered for ever from the place that she had learned to love better than any other place in the world—she would have something precious to remember. Even if they never met again after those seventeen hours were over, even though they never saw each other's faces again, she would have something to remember: words of his spoken only to her, words that betrayed the fineness of his nature. Those words of his belonged to her.

       * * * * *

And it was in this spirit of resignation, held more fully than before, that she met him again at breakfast. She was in the breakfast-room first and seized the paper, determined to behave as cheerfully as if she had arrived, and not as if she was going away. She was going to make a successful effort to start her new life at once, her life with Oxford behind her. She was not going to be found by him, when he entered, silent and reminiscent of last evening.

When the Warden came in she put down the paper with the air of one who has seen something that suggests conversation.

“I suppose,” she said, starting straight away without any preliminary but a smile at him and an inclination of her head in answer to his old-fashioned courteous bow as he entered—“I suppose when I come back to Oxford—say in ten years' time, if any one invites me—I shall find things changed. The New Oxford we talked of with Mr. Bingham will be in full swing. You will perhaps be Vice-Chancellor.”

The Warden did not smile. “Ah, yes!” he remarked, and he looked abstractedly at the coffee-pot and at the chair that May was about to seat herself in. “Ah, yes!” he said again; then he added: “Have I kept you waiting?”

“Not a bit,” said May.

“I ran in to see Lena,” he explained.

May took her place opposite the coffee. He watched her, and then went and sat down at the opposite end of the table in his own seat. Then he got up and went to the side table.

Try as they would they were painfully conscious of each other's movements. Everything seemed strangely, cruelly important at that meal. May poured out the Warden's cup, and that in itself was momentous. He would come and take it, of course! She moved the cup a little. He waited on her from the side table and then looked at his coffee.

“Is this for me?” he asked.

“Yes,” said May; “it is yours.”

He took up the cup and went round with it to his place, as if he was carrying something rare and significant.

They sat opposite each other, these two, alone together, and for the last time—possibly. They talked stiffly in measured sentences to each other, talk that merely served as a defence. And behind this talk both were painfully aware that the precious moments were slipping away, and yet nothing could be done to stay them. It was only when the meal was over, and there was nothing left for them to do but to rise and go, that they stopped talking and looked at each other apprehensively.

“You are not going till the afternoon?” he questioned.

“Not till the afternoon,” she answered, but she did not say whether she was going early or late. She rose from the table and stood by it.

“The reason why I ask,” he said, rising too, “is that I cannot be at home for lunch, and afterwards there is hospital business with which I am concerned.”

May had as yet only vaguely decided on her train, though she knew the trains by heart. She had now to fix it definitely, it was wrung from her.

“I may not be able to get back in time to go with you to the station, but I hope to be in time to meet you there, to see you off,” he said; and he added: “I hope to be in time,” as if he doubted it nevertheless.

“You mustn't make a point of seeing me off,” said May. “And don't you think railway-stations are places which one avoids as much as possible?” She asked the question a little tremulously and smiled, but did not look at him.

“Ours is pretty bad,” he said, without a smile. “But I hope it won't have the effect of making you forget that there is any beauty in our old city. I hope you will carry away with you some regret at parting—some memory of us.”

“Of course I shall,” said May; and detecting the plaintiveness of her own voice, she added: “I shall have to come and see it again—as I said—perhaps ten years hence, when—when it will be different! It will be most interesting.”

He moved slowly away as if he was going out, and then stopped.

“I shall manage to be in time to see you off,” he said, as if some alteration in his plans suddenly occurred to him. “I shall manage it.”

“You mustn't put off anything important for me,” May called softly after him. “In these days women don't expect to be looked after; we are getting mighty independent,” and there was much courage in her voice.

He wavered at the door. “You don't forbid me to come?” he questioned, and he turned and looked at her.

“Of course not,” said May, and she turned away quickly and went to the window and looked out. “I hope I am not brazenly independent!” She added this last sentence airily at the window and stared out of it, as if attracted by something in the quadrangle.

She heard him go out and shut the door.

She waited some little time doing nothing, standing still by the window—very still. Then she went out of the room, up the staircase and into the corridor towards her aunt's bedroom.

She knocked and went in.

Lady Dashwood turned round and looked at her. Something in May's face arrested her.

“A lovely morning, May. Just the day for seeing Oxford at its best.”

And this forced May to say, at once, what she was going to say. She was going away in the afternoon.

Lady Dashwood received May's news quietly. She gave May a look of meek resignation that was harder to bear than any expostulation would have been.

“Everybody is going,” she said slowly, and lying back on her pillows with a sigh. “I must be going directly, as soon as I am up and about. I can't leave your Uncle John alone any longer, and there is so much that even an old woman can do, and that I had to put aside to come here.”

May was standing at the foot of the bed looking at her very gravely.

“I can't imagine you not doing a lot,” she said.

“I shall be all right in a couple of days,” said Lady Dashwood. “What was wrong with me, dear, was nerves, nerves, nothing but nerves, and I am ashamed of it. When I am bouncing with vigour again, May, I shall go. I shall leave Oxford. I shall leave Jim.”

“I suppose you will have to,” said May, vaguely.

“Jim will be horribly lonely,” said Lady Dashwood.

“I'm afraid so,” said May, slowly.

“Imagine,” said Lady Dashwood, “Jim seeing me off at the station and then coming back here. Imagine him coming back alone, crunching over the gravel and going up the steps into the hall. You know what the hall is like—a sweet place—and those dim portraits on the walls all looking down at him out of their faded eyes! All men!”

May looked at her Aunt Lena gravely.

“Then see him look round! Silence—nobody there. Then see him go up that staircase. He looks into the drawing-room, that big empty room. Nobody, my dear, but that fast-looking clergyman over the fireplace. That's not all, May. I can see him go out and go to his library. Nobody there—everything silent—books—the Cardinal—and the ghost.”

“Oh!” said May. She did not smile.

“Now, my dear,” said Lady Dashwood, “I'm not going to think about it any more! I've done with it. Let's talk of something else.” That, indeed, was the last that Lady Dashwood said about it.

When lunch time came May found herself seized with a physical contraction over her heart that prevented food from taking its usual course downward. She endured as long as she could, but at last she got up from the long silent table just as Robinson was about to go for a moment into the pantry. She threw a hurried excuse for going at his thin stooping back. She said she found she “hadn't time,” and she examined her watch ostentatiously as she went out of the room.

“I'm going to take my last farewell of Oxford,” May said, looking for a moment into Lady Dashwood's room. “I'm going for a walk. I am going to look at the High and at Magdalen Bridge.”

Lady Dashwood smiled rather sadly. “Ah, yes,” she said.

May found Louise packing with a slowness and an elaborate care that was a reproof somehow in itself. It seemed to say: “Ungrateful! All is thrown away on you. You care not——”

May put on her hat, and through the mirror she saw Louise rolling up Saint Joseph with some roughness in a silk muffler.

“Madame does not like Oxford?” said Louise, drily, as she stuffed the saint into a hat.

“I care for it very much, Louise,” said May, hastily putting on her coat. “Oxford is a place one can never forget.”

“Eh, bien oui,” said Louise, enigmatically.

Then May went out and said farewell to the towers and spires and the ancient walls, and went to look at the trees weeping by Magdalen Bridge. It was all photographed on her memory. In the squalid streets of London, where her work lay, she would remember all this beauty and this ancient peace. There would be no possibility of her forgetting it! She would dream of it at night. It would form the background of her life.

       * * * * *

Back again in the Lodgings, she found that she had only a few minutes more to spare before she must leave. She took farewell of Louise, and left her standing, her hand clasping money and her eyes luminous with reproach. There was, indeed, more than reproach, a curious incredulity, a wonder at something. May did not fathom what it was. She did not hear Louise muttering below her breath—

“Ah, mon Dieu! these English people—this Monsieur the Warden—this Madame la niece. Ah, this Lodgings! Ah, this Oxford!”

In the drawing-room May found Lady Dashwood in a loose gown, seated on a couch and “Not at home” to callers.

Only a few minutes more!

“I'm afraid I've been very long,” said May. “But it is difficult to part with Oxford.”

“Is it so difficult?” asked Lady Dashwood, then she suddenly pulled herself up and said: “Oh, May, a note was left just after you went out by Mrs. Potten. She wouldn't come in. Mark that, May! She had been seeing Gwendolen off. The girl has gone to her mother. Marian wants me to lunch with her to-morrow. I telephoned her a few moments ago that I would go and see her later in the week. I wonder if she wants to speak to me about Gwen? I can't help wondering. Oh dear, the whole thing seems like a dream now! Don't you think so?”

May was drinking a hurried cup of tea. “No, it seems very real to me,” she said.

Lady Dashwood looked at her silently. The Warden had not returned. At least there was no sign of his being in the house.

Robinson came in to announce the taxi.

“Is the Warden in?” asked Lady Dashwood, half raising herself.

No, the Warden was not in.

“He will meet you at the station,” said Lady Dashwood, nodding her head slowly at her niece.

“He may not be able to,” said May, going up to the sofa. She spoke as if it were a matter of unconcern. She must keep this up. She had counselled Gwendolen to be brave! This thought brought with it a little sob of laughter that nearly choked her. “Good-bye, Aunt Lena,” she said, throwing her arms round Lady Dashwood, and the two rested their heads together for a moment in a silent embrace. Then they parted.

“Good-bye,” said Lady Dashwood. “Look out for poor Jim on the platform. Look out for him!”

They kissed once or twice in formal fashion, and then May walked away to the door and went out without looking back.

The door closed behind her and Lady Dashwood was left alone.

She lay back on the cushions. The sun was coming in through the windows much as it had done that afternoon when she was reading the telegram from May.

“I can't do any more,” she murmured half aloud; “I can't.”

Her eyes wandered to the fire and up to the portrait over the fireplace. The light falling on the painted face obliterated the shadows at the corners of the mouth, so that he seemed to be smiling.

CHAPTER XXXII. THE WARDEN HURRIES

The Warden was on his way to the station. For three days he had done what he could to keep out of May Dashwood's presence. He had invented no excuses for seeing her, he had invented reasons for not seeing her. These three days of self-restraint were almost over.

He could have returned home in time to take her to the railway-station himself if he had intended to do so. His business was over and he lingered, a desperate conscientiousness forcing him to linger. He allowed himself to be button-holed by other men, not completely aware of what was being said to him, because all the time in his imagination he saw May waiting for him. He pictured her going down the staircase to the hall and getting into her taxi alone. He pictured this while some one propounded to him plans, not only for successfully getting rid of party politics, but for the regeneration of the whole human race. It was at that point that he broke away. Some one else proposed walking back to King's with him.

“I'm going to the station,” said the Warden, and he struck off by himself and began to walk faster. He had run it too close, he risked missing her altogether. That he did not intend. He meant to arrive a moment before the train started. It was surely not part of his duty to be absolutely discourteous! He must just say “Good-bye.” He began to walk still faster, for it seemed likely that he might be too late even to say “Good-bye.”

In Beaumont Street a taxi was in sight. He hailed it and got in. The man seemed an outrageously long time getting the car round and started. He seemed to be playing with the curb of the pavement. At last he started.

The squalor of the approach to the station did not strike the Warden this afternoon. It always had struck him before unpleasantly. Just now he was merely aware of vehicles to be passed before he could reach the station, and he had his eyes on his watch continually to see how the moments were going. Suppose the train moved off just as he reached the platform? The Warden put his hand on the door ready to jump out. He had the fare already in the other hand. The station at last!

He got out of the taxi swiftly. No, the train was there and the platform was sprinkled with people—some men in khaki; many women. He was just in time, but only just—not in time to help her, or to speak with her or say anything more than just “Good-bye.”

A sudden rage filled him. He ran his eyes along the whole length of the platform. She was probably seated in a carriage already, reading, Oxford forgotten perhaps! In that case why was he hurrying like this? Why was he raging?

No, there she was! The sight of her made his heart beat wildly. She was there, standing by an open carriage door, looking wistfully along the platform, looking for him! A porter was slamming the doors to already.

The Warden strode along and came face to face with her. Under the large brimmed hat and through the veil, he could see that she had turned ashy pale. They stared for a moment at each other desperately, and he could see that she was trembling. The porter laid his hand on the door. “Are you getting in, m'm?”

Only a week ago the Warden had committed the one rash and foolish action of his life. He had done it in ignorance of his own personal needs and with, perhaps, the unconscious cynicism of a man who has lived for forty years unable to find his true mate. But since then his mind had been lit up with the flash of a sudden poignant experience. He knew now what he wanted; what he must have, or fail. He knew that there was nothing else for him. It was this or nothing. The sight of her face, her trembling, pierced his soul with an amazing joy, and it seemed as if the voice of some invisible Controller of all human actions, great and small, breathed in his ear saying: “Now! Take your chance! This is your true destiny!”

There was no one in the carriage but a young girl at the further end huddled behind a novel. But had there been twenty there, it would not have altered his resolution. The Warden placed his hand on May's arm.

“I am travelling with this lady as far as Reading,” he said to the porter, “but I have come too late to get a ticket. Tell the guard, please.”

The Warden showed no sign now of haste or excitement; he had regained his usual courteous and deliberate manner, for the purpose of his life was his again. He helped her in and followed her. The door was banged behind them. There was May's little bundle of rug and umbrella on the seat. He moved it on one side so that she could sit there. The train began to slide off.

May sank into her seat too dazed to think. He sat down opposite to her. They both knew that the moment of their lives had come.

Then he leaned forward, not caring whether he was observed or not observed from the other end of the carriage. He leaned forward and grasping both of May's hands in his, he looked into her eyes with his own slow moving, narrow eyes that absorbed the light. The corners of her mouth were trembling, her eyelids trembling.

They never spoke a word as the train moved away and left behind that fair ancient city enshrined in squalor and in raucous brick; left behind the flat meadows, the sluggish river and the leafless crooked willows; but a strange glory came from the west and flooded the whole earth and the carriage where they sat.

THE END

PRINTED BY WILLIAM CLOWES AND SONS, LIMITED, LONDON AND BECCLES, ENGLAND

 
 
 

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