A. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) Mason.

The truants; a novel online

. (page 14 of 26)
Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 14 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

touch, or it stays shut."


" And it stays shut now ? "

Pamela answered him at once —

" Say, rather, that I have raised a hand towards the
gate, but that I am afraid to try." And she turned her face
to him at last. Her eyes were very wistful.

They stopped upon the grass bank of the stream at the
end of the avenue. Pamela looked down into the dark,
swiftly running water, and went on choosing each word,
testing it, as it were, before she uttered it.

" You see that new road beyond the gate is no new road
to me. I have trodden it before, and crept back — broken.
Therefore, I am afraid." She paused. Warrisden was
aware from her attitude that she had not finished. He did
not stir lest he should check what more remained to say, and
that remnant never be spoken at all. And it was well for
him that he did not stir ; for she said, in the same clear, low
voice which she had hitherto used, and just as steadily —

" I am the more afraid because I think that if I did
touch that gate it might open of itself."

She had begun, in a word, to feel premonitions of that
suspense and of that glowing life in which for a few brief
months she had once been steeped. Did she expect a letter
from Warrisden, there was an eagerness in her anticipation
with which she was well familiar. Was the letter delayed,
there was a keenness in her disappointment which was like
the pang of an old wound. And this recognition that the
good days might come again, as in a cycle, brought to her
very vividly the memory of the bad black days which had
followed. Fear of those latter days, and the contrast of
their number with the number of those which had gone
before, drove her back. For those latter days in their turn
might come round again.

Warrisden looked at her and his heart filled with pity for
the great trouble which had overwhelmed her. She stood by
his side with the sunlight playing upon her face and her hair
— a girl brilliant with life, ripe to turn its possibilities into


facts ; and she shrank from the ordeal, so hardly had she
been hit ! She was by nature fearless, yet was she desperately

" Will nothing make you touch the gate and try ? " he
asked gently. And then, quietly as he spoke, the greatness
of his longing made itself heard. " My dear, my dear," he
said, " will nothing make you take your risks ? "

The words struck sharply upon her memories. She
turned her eyes to him.

" It is strange that you should use those words," she said.
"For there is one thing which might make me take my
risks. The return of the man who used them to you in the
North Sea."

" Tony Stretton ? " exclaimed "Warrisden.

" Yes. He is still away. It is said that he is on a long
shooting expedition somewhere in Central Africa, and out of
reach. But that is not the truth. "We do not know where
he is, or when he will come back."

" Shall I try to find him again ? " said "Warrisden. " This
time I might succeed in bringing him home."

Pamela shook her head.

" No," she answered. " I think I know why he stays
away. And there would be only one way of persuading him
to return. "Well — that means I must not use, unless things
have come to an extremity."

The one means of persuasion was the truth. If she sent
for Tony Stretton again she must explain what that saying
of hers spoken so long ago had meant. She must write why
he should not have left his wife. She must relate the sordid
story, which rendered his return imperative, That she was
prepared to do, if all else failed, in the last resort, but not
till then.

"But the extremity has not been reached," she continued,
"and I hope it never will. I hope Tony Stretton will come
back soon of his own accord. That would be the best thing
which could happen, ever so much the best." She did not


blame Tony for his absence, for she understood the motive
which caused it. In a way, she was inclined to approve of
it in itself, just as a motive, that is to say. It was the
character of Millie Stretton and his ignorance of it which
made his experiment so hazardous. Complete confidence in
his wife's honour, indeed, was to her thinking, and rightly, an
essential part of his motive. She wished him to return of
his own accord and keep that confidence.

"There is not the same necessity, 1 ' she continued,
choosing her words, " that he should return immediately, as
there was when I sent you out to the North Sea ; but it is
possible that the necessity might recur." For she knew that,
though Callon was far away in Chili, letters came from him
to Millie. Only lately a careless remark of Millie's with
reference to that State had assured her of this. And if the
letters still came, though Gallon had been away a year, it
followed that they were answered.

'• In that case you would send for me ? " said Wamsden,

'• Yes. I should rely on you."

And "Warrisden answered quietly, " Thank you."

He asked no questions. He seemed to understand that
Pamela must use him, and, while using him, not fail of
loyalty to her sex. A feeling of self-reproach suddenly
troubled Pamela. She had never told him that she had
used another's help and not his. She wondered whether it
was quite fair not to tell him. But she kept silent. After all,
she thought, the news would only hurt him ; and Mr. Mudge's
help had been help which he could not have given. She went
back to the matter of their relationship to one another.

" So you understand what I think," she said. " I am
afraid. I look for signs. I cannot help doing that. I
have set my heart on keeping a promise which I made to
Tony Stretton. If he returns, whether of his own accord or
by my persuasion, and things go well — why, then " — and she
turned her face from him and said, looking steadily in front
of her — " why, then, perhaps."


As she spoke her face changed wonderfully. The mere
utterance of the word aloud conjured up dreams. A wistful
smile made her lips beautiful, her eyes grew dim. Just for a
moment she gave those dreams their way. She looked across
the garden through a mist, seeing nothing of the trees or the
coloured flowers, but gazing into a vision of other and golden
days — of days perhaps to come. Warrisden stood at her
side, and did not speak. But something of those dreams he
guessed, her face had grown so young.

She shook her dreams from her in a few moments.

" So you see, at present," she resumed, " marriage is
impossible. It will always be impossible to me unless I can
bring — everything, not merely companionship, not merely
liking ; out the ever so much more which there is. I cannot
contemplate it at all under any other conditions " — and now
she looked at her companion — " and I believe it is the same
with you."

" Yes," Warrisden replied, " I ask for everything."

He had his convictions, and since there was complete
conlidence between these two, he spoke them now.

" It is unsafe, of course, to generalise on the subject of
women. But I do think this : If a man asks little from a
woman, she will give him even less than he asks, and she will
give it grudgingly, sparingly ; counting what she gives.
And that little, to my mind, is worth rather less than nothing.
Better have no ties than weak ones. If, on the other hand,
a man asks a great deal, and continually asks it, why, the
woman may get bored, and he may get nothing. In which
case he is no worse off than he was before. But if, on the
other hand, the woman does give in return "

" Well ? " tusked Pamela.

" Well, then, she gives ever so much more than he asks,
and gives it willingly with open hands."

Pamela thought the theory over.

" Yes, I think that is generally true," she said. " But,
after all, I am giving you very little."


Warrisden laughed.

44 That's true," he replied. " But then you are not
bored, and I have not done asking."

Pamela laughed too, and their talk thus ended in a
lighter note. They walked towards the house, and as they
did so a woman came out on to the lawn.

" This is Millie Stretton," said Pamela.

" She is staying here ? " cried "Warrisden.

" Yes," replied Pamela, " Before she comes I want to
ask you to do something for me. Oh, it is quite a small
thing. But I should like you very much to do it. Where
do you go to from here ? "

" To London," said "Warrisden, " I have business there."

The business which called him to town had, indeed, only
occurred to him during the last half-hour. It had arisen
from their conversation. It seemed to "Warrisden immediate
and imperative.

" "Will you be in London to-morrow ? " asked Pamela.
" Yes."

" Then I want you to write to me. Just a little letter —
nothing much, a line or two. And I want you to post it,
not by the country post, but afterwards, so that it will
reach me in the evening. Don't write here, for I am going
home. And please don't forget."

Millie Stretton joined them a moment afterwards, and
"Warrisden was introduced to her.

" I have had an offer for the house in Berkeley Square,"
she said to Pamela. " I think I will take it. I shall be
glad to be rid of it."

They went back into the house. "Warrisden wondered
at Pamela's request for a letter, and at her urgency that it
should arrive at a particular time. He was not discontented
with the walk which they had taken under the avenue of
elms. It seemed to him that Pamela was coming slowly
towards him. There was a great difference between her
"No" of last year and her "I do not know" of to-day.


Even that " I do not know " while they talked had become
'• perhaps." Had she not owned even more, since she was
afraid the gate would open of itself did she but touch and
try ? His hopes, therefore, rode high that day, and would
have ridden yet higher, could he have guessed why she so
desired a few lines in his handwriting in the evening of the
day after to-morrow.

The reason was this. Repairs, long needed, had at last
been undertaken in the house of Pamela's father, a few
miles away ; and those repairs involved the rooms reserved
for Pamela. There were certain drawers in that room which
had not been unlocked for years, and of which Pamela
sedulously guarded the keys. They held letters, a few small
presents, one or two photographs, and some insignificant
trifles which could not be valued, since their value depended
only on their associations. There were, for instance, some
cheap red beads, and the history of those beads tells all that
need be said of the contents of those locked drawers.

Two hundred years before, a great full-rigged ship,
bound with a general cargo for the Guinea Coast, sailed
down the Channel out of Portsmouth. Amongst the cargo
was a great store of these red beads. The beads were to buy
slaves for the plantations. But the great ship got no further
on her voyage than Bigbury Bay in Devonshire. She
damaged her rudder in a storm, and the storm swept her on
to the bleak rocks of Bolt Tail, dragged her back again into
the welter of the sea, drove her into Bigbury Bay, and
flung her up there against the low red cliffs, where all her
crew perished. The cargo was spilt amongst the breakers,
and the shores of that bay were littered with red beads.
You may pick them up to this day amongst the pebbles.
There Pamela had picked them upon a hot August morning,
vi'iy like to that which now dreamed over this green, quiel
V mini of Leicestershire ; and when she had picked them up
she had not been alone. The locked cabinets held all the
relics which remained to her from those few bright weeks in


Devon ; and the mere touch of any one, however trifling,
would have magic to quicken her memories. Yet now the
cabinets must be unlocked, and all that was in them removed.
There was a bad hour waiting for Pamela, when she would
remove these relics one by one — the faded letters in the
handwriting which she would never see again on any
envelope ; the photograph of the face which could exchange
no look with her ; the little presents from the hand which
could touch hers no more. It would be a relief, she thought,
to come downstairs when that necessary work was done, that
bad hour over, and find a letter from Warrisden upon the
table. Just a few lines. She needed nothing more.




Both Pamela and Millie Stretton walked with Warrisden
through the hall to the front door. Upon the hall-table
letters were lying. Pamela glanced at them as she passed,
and caught one up rather suddenly. Then she looked at
Warrisden, and there was something of appeal in her look.
It was as though she turned to a confederate on whom she
could surely rely. But she said nothing, since Millie Stretton
was at her side. For the letter was in the handwriting of
Mr. Mudge, who wrote but rarely, and never without a
reason. She read the letter in the garden as soon as
Warrisden had ridden off, and the news which it contained
was bad news. Callon had lived frugally in South America —
by Christmas he would have discharged his debts ; and he
had announced to Mudge that he intended at that date to
resign his appointment. There were still four months,
Pamela reflected — nay, counting the journey home, five
months ; and within that time Tony Stretton might re-
appear. If he did not, why, she could summon Warrisden
to her aid. She looked at Millie, who was reading a book
in a garden-chair close by. Did she know, Pamela wondered ?
But Millie gave no sign.

Meanwhile, Warrisden travelled to London upon that
particular business which made a visit there in August so
imperative. It had come upon him while he had been
talking with Pamela that it would be as well for him to
know the whereabouts of Tony Stretton at once ; so that if


the need came he should be ready to set out upon the instant.
On the following evening, accordingly, he drove down to
Stepney. It was very likely that Chase would be away upon
a holiday. But there was a chance that he might find him
clinging to his work through this hot August, a chance
worth the trouble of his journey. He drove to the house
where Chase lodged, thinking to catch him before he set out
for his evening's work at the mission. The door of the
house stood open to the street. Warrisden dismissed his
cab, and walked up the steps into the narrow hall. A door
upon his right hand was opened, and a young man politely
asked Warrisden to step in. He was a fair-haired youth,
with glasses upon his nose, and he carried a napkin in his
hand. He had evidently been interrupted at his dinner by
Warrisden's arrival. He was not dining alone, for a youth
of the same standing, but of a more athletic mould, sat at
the table. There was a third place laid, but not occupied.

Warrisden looked at the third chair.

" I came to see Mr. Chase," he said. " I suppose that
he has gone early to the mission ? "

" No," said the youth who had opened the door. " He
has not been well of late. The hot weather in these close
streets is trying. But he certainly should have something
to eat by now, even if he does not intend to get up."

He spoke in a pedantic, self-satisfied voice, and intro-
duced himself as Mr. Raphael Princkley, and his companion
as Mr. Jonas Stiles, both undergraduates of Queen's College,

"We are helping Chase in his work," continued Mr.
Princkley. " It is little we can do, but you are no doubt
acquainted with the poetry of Robert Browning : ' The little
more, and how much it is ' ? In that line we find our

The fair-haired youth rang the bell for the housekeeper.
She was an old woman, fat and slow, and she took her time
in answering the summons.


" Mrs. Wither, have you called Mr. Chase ? " he asked
"when the old lady appeared at the door.

" No, Mr. Princkley, sir," she replied. " You told mc
yesterday evening not to disturb him on any account until
he rang."

Mr. Princkley turned to Warrisden.

" Mr. Chase was unwell all yesterday, " he said, " and at
dinner-time he told us that he felt unequal to his duties.
lie was sitting in that empty place, and we both advised him
not to overtax his strength."

He appealed with a look to Mr. Stiles for corroboration.

" Yes ; we both advised him," said Stiles, between two
niouthf uls ; " and, very wisely, he took our advice. "

" He rose from his chair," continued Princkley. " There
was some fruit upon the table. He took an apple from the
dish. I think, Stiles, that it was an apple which he took ? "

Mr. Stiles agreed, and went on with his dinner.

" It was certainly an apple which he took. He took it
in his hand."

" You hardly expected him to take it with his foot ! "
rejoined Warrisden, politely. Warrisden was growing a little
restive under this detailed account of Chase's indisposition.

"No," replied Princkley, with gravity. " He took it in
quite a natural way, and went upstairs to his sitting-room.
I gave orders to Mrs. Wither that he must not be disturbed
until he rang. That is so, Mrs. Wither, is it not ? Yes. I
thank you."

"That was yesterday evening ! " cried Warrisden.

" Yesterday evening," replied Mr. Princkley.

" And no one has been near him since ? "

Then Mrs. Wither intervened.

"Oh yes. I went into Mr. Chase's room nn hour
afterwards. lie was sitting in his armchair before the
grata ■"

" Holding the apple in his hand. I think. Mrs. Wither,
you said ? " continued Stiles,


"Yes, sir,"' said Mrs. Wither. "He had his arm out
resting on the arm of the chair, and the apple was in his

" Well, well ! " exclaimed Warrisden.

" I told him that I would not call him in the morning
until he rang, as he wanted a good rest."

" What did he say ? " asked Warrisden.

" Nothing, sir. As often as not he does not answer when
he is spoken to."

A sudden fear seized upon Warrisden. He ran out of
the room and up the stairs to Chase's sitting-room. He
knocked on the door ; there was no answer. He turned the
handle and entered. Chase had not gone to bed last night.
He was still sitting in his armchair before the grate. One
arm was extended along the arm of the chair, with the palm
turned upwards, and in the palm lay an apple. Chase was
sitting huddled up, with his head fallen forward upon his
breast like a man asleep. Warrisden crossed the room and
touched the hand which held the apple. It was quite cold.
The apple rolled on to the floor. Warrisden turned to the
housekeeper. She was standing in the doorway, and staring
over her shoulder were the two undergraduates.

" He was dead," said Warrisden, " when you looked into
the room an hour afterwards ! "

The three people in the doorway stood stupidly aghast.
Warrisden pushed them out, locked the door on the outside,
and removed the key.

" Mr. Princkley, will you run for a doctor ? " he asked.

Princkley nodded his head, and went off upon his

Warrisden and Stiles descended the stairs into the

" I think you had better take the news to the mission,"
said Warrisden ; and Stiles in his turn went off without a
word. Mrs. Wither for her part had run out of the house
as quickly as she could. She hardly knew what she was


doing. She had served as housekeeper to Mr. Chase ever
since he had come to Stepney, and she was dazed by the
sudden calamity. She was aware of a need to talk, to find
the neighbours and talk.

"Warrisden was thus left alone in the house. It had
come about without any premeditation upon his part. He
was the oldest man of the three who had been present, and
the only one who had kept his wits clear. Both Princkley
and Stiles had looked to him to decide what must be done.
They regarded him as Chase's friend, whereas they were
mere acquaintances. It did not even occur to "Warrisden at
first that he was alone in the house, that he held in his hand
the key to Chase's room. He was thinking of the strange
perplexing life which had now so strangely ended. He
thought of his first meeting with Chase in the mission, and
of the distaste which he had felt ; he remembered the array
of liqueur bottles on the table, and the half-hour during
which Chase had talked. A man of morbid pleasures, that
had been Warrisden's impression. Yet there were the years
of work, here, amongst these squalid streets. Even August
had seen him clinging to — nay, dying at — his work. As
Warrisden looked out of the window he saw a group of men
and women and children gather outside the house. There
was not a face but wore a look of consternation. If they
spoke, they spoke in whispers, like people overawed. A very
strange life I Warrisden knew many — as who does not ? —
who saw the high-road distinctly, and could not for the
life of them but walk upon the low one. But to use both
deliberately, as it seemed Chase had done ; to dip from the
high-road on to the low, and then painfully to scramble up
again, and again willingly to drop, as though the air of
those stern heights were too rigorous for continuous walking;
to live the double life because he could not entirely live the
one, and would not entirely live the other. Thus Warrisdcu
solved the problem of the dilettante curate and his devotion
to his work, and his solution was correct.


But he held the key of Chase's room in his hand ; and
there was no one but himself in the house. His thoughts
came back to Pamela and the object of his journey up to
town. He was sorely tempted to use the key, since now the
means by which he had hoped to discover in what quarter
of the world Stretton wandered and was hid were tragically
closed to him. Chase could no longer speak, even if he
would. Very likely there were letters upstairs lying on the
table. There might be one from Tony Stretton. Warrisden
did not want to read it — a mere glance at the postmark, and
at the foreign stamp upon the envelope. Was that so great
a crime ? Warrisden was sorely tempted. If only he could
be sure that Chase would a second time have revealed what
he was bidden to keep hid, why, then, would it not be just
the same thing as if Chase were actually speaking with his
lips ? Warrisden played with the key. He went to the
door and listened. There was not a sound in the house
except the ticking of a clock. The front door still stood
open. He must be quick if he meant to act. Warrisden
turned to the stairs. The thought of the dead man huddled
in the chair, a silent guardian of the secret, weighted his
steps. Slowly he mounted. Such serious issues hung upon
his gaining this one piece of knowledge. The fortunes of
four people — Pamela and himself, Tony Stretton and his
wife — might all be straightened out if he only did this one
thing, which he had no right to do. He would not pry
amongst Chase's papers ; he would merely glance at the
table, that was all. He heard voices in the hall while he
was still upon the stairs. He turned back with a feeling of

At the foot of the stairs stood Mr. Princkley and the
doctor. Warrisden handed the key of the room to the latter,
and the three men went up. The doctor opened the door
and crossed to the armchair. Then he looked about the

" N/othing has been touched, of course ? "



" Nothing," replied Warrisden.

The doctor looked again at the dead man. Then he
turned to Warrisden, mistaking him, as the others had done,
for some relation or near friend.

" I can give no certificate," said he.

" There must be an inquest? "

" Yes."

Then the doctor moved suddenly to the table, which
stood a few feet from the armchair. There was a decanter
upon it half filled with a liquid like brown sherry, only a
little darker. The doctor removed the stopper and raised the
decanter to his nose.

" Ah ! " said he, in a voice of comprehension. Ee turned
again to Warrisden.

" Did you know ? " he asked.


The doctor held the decanter towards "Warrisden. War-
risden took it, moistened the tip of a finger with the liquid,
and tasted it. It had a bitter flavour.

" What is it ? " he asked.

" Laudanum," said the doctor. " An overdose of it."

" Where is the glass, then, in which it was taken ? "

A tumbler stood upon the table close to the decanter-
Btopper. The doctor took it up.

" Yes, I noticed that," said Warrisden ; " I noticed that
it is clean."

The doctor took the glass to the window, turned it
upside down, and held it to the light. It was quite dry,
quite clean.

" Surely it's evident what happened," said Warrisden.
" Chase came into the room, opened that cupboard door in

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26

Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 14 of 26)