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

The truants; a novel online

. (page 3 of 26)
Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 3 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

together. She invited Millie up to her house in Scotland,
the house Lady Millingham now has, and Mr. Stretton fell
in love. He was evidently very fond of Millie, and Millie
on her side liked him quite as much as any one else. They
were married. Lady Stretton hired them the house I told
you of, close to Park Lane, and took a great deal of trouble
to see that they were comfortable. You see, they were toys
for her. There, that's all I know. Are you satisfied ? "

She leaned back in her chair, smiling at "Warrisden's
serious face.


" And what about the old man, Sir John Stretton ? " he

" I never met him," replied Pamela. " He never went
nut to parties, and I never went to that house."

As she concluded the sentence, a man looked on to the
balcony and, seeing them, withdrew. Pamela rose at once
from her chair, and, with a sudden movement of jealousy,
Warrisden swung round and looked into the room. The
man was well past the middle age, stout of build, and with
a heavy careworn face with no pleasure in it at all. He was
the man who had been with Pamela when Warrisden had
arrived. Warrisden turned back to the girl with a smile of

" You are engaged ? "

" Yes, for this dance to Mr. Mudge," and she indicated
the man who was retiring. " But we shall meet again — at
Newmarket, at all events. Perhaps in Scotland too."

She held out her hand to Warrisden, and, as he took it,
her voice dropped to a plea.

" Please don't go away again without telling me first,
without talking it over, so that I may know where you are
from month to month. Please promise ! "

Warrisden promised, and went away from the house with
her prayer echoing in his ears. The very sound of her voice
was audible to him, and he never doubted the sincerity of
its appeal. But if she set such store on what she had, why
was she content with just that and nothing more, he asked
himself. Why did she not claim a little more and give a
little more in return ? Why did she come to a halt at
friendship, a mere turnpike on the great road, instead of
passing through the gate and going on down the appointed
way. He did not know that she passed the turnpike once,
and that if she refused to venture on that path again, it was
because, knowing herself, she dared not.

In the narrows of Berkeley Street Warrisden was shaken
out of these reflections. A hansom jingled past him, and by


the light of the lamp which hung at the back within it he
caught a glimpse of the truants. They were driving home
to the dark house in the Square, and they sat side by side
silent and with troubled faces. Warrisden's thoughts went
back to what Pamela had told him that night. She had
told him the half, but not the perplexing, interesting half of
their history. That indeed Pamela could not tell, for she
did not know Sir John Stretton, and the old man's warped
and churlish character alone explained it.

It was by his doing that the truants gave up their cheery
little house in Deanery Street and came to live in Berkeley
Square. The old man was a miser, who during his wife's
existence had not been allowed to gratify his instincts. He
made all the more ample amends after she had died. The
fine allowance on which the young couple had managed to
keep a pair of horses and a little brougham was stripped
from them.'

" Why should I live alone ? " said the old man. " I ani
old, Tony, and I need some attention. The house is big,
much too big for me, and the servants are eating their heads
off for the want of something to do." There were "indeed
more servants than were needed. Servants were the sL <rle
luxury Sir John allowed himself. Their liveries were faded,
they themselves were insolent and untidy, but they were
there, in the great bare dining-room at dinner-time, in the
hall when Sir John came home of an afternoon. For the
old man went out each day as the clock struck three ; he
came back each evening at half -past six. He went out
alone, he returned alone, and he never went to his club. He
took an omnibus from the corner of Berkeley Street and
journeyed eastwards as far as Ludgate Hill. There he took
a drink in the refreshment bar, and, coming out, struck
northwards into Holborn, where he turned westwards, and
walking as far as the inn at the corner of the Tottenham
Court Koad, stepped for an hour into the private bar.
Thence he took another omnibus, and finally reached home,


where his footmen received him solemnly in the hall. To
this home he brought Tony and his wife

« There choose your own rooms, Tony, he said ma
nanimou?. « Whit's that F Money ? But what for ?
You'll have it soon enough. '

Tony Stretton suggested that it was hardly possible for
any man, however careful, to retain a ™mmission m the
Stream without an allowance. Sir John, a tall thin
man wTa high bald forehead, and a prim puntamcal face,
looked at his son with a righteous severity.

« A very expensive regiment. Leave it, Tony ! And
live quietly at home. Look after your father, my boy, and
2 won'/ need money," and he stalked upstairs leaving
Tony aghast in the hall. Tony had to sit down and think it
ovT/before he could quite realise the fate which had over-
taken him. Here he was, twenty-six years old brought up
fspend what he wanted and to ask for more when hat was
ended, and he was to live quietly on nothing at all. He
had no longer any profession, he was not clever enough to
e tr upon°a new one without some sort of start and in
addition he had a wife. His wife, it was true, had a few
thousands ; they had remained untouched ever since the
marriage and Tony shrank from touching them no*. He
sat on°one of the hall-chairs, twisting his moustacne and
Btaring with his blank blue eyes at the opposite wall A\ hat
n the" world was he to do ? Old Sir John was quite aware
of those few thousands. They might just as wel i tensed
now he thought, and save him expense. Tony could pay
horn back after his father was dead. Such was Sir John s
«hn and Tony had to fall in with it. The horses and the
Sham and 1 all the furniture, the prints the pictures and
S Which had decked <>u< s<> gaily the little house in
Deanery Street went to the hammer. Tony paid off hi
11 and ennd himself with a hundred pounds in hand at
2 en" : and when that was gone he was forced to come to
his wife.


" Of course," said she, " we'll share what I have, Tony."

" Yes, but we must go carefully," he replied. " Heaven
knows how long we will have to drag on like this."

So the money question was settled, but that was in reality
the least of their troubles. Sir John, for the first time in
his life, was master in fact as well as in name. He had
been no match for his wife, but he was more than a match
for his son. He was the fifth baronet of his name, and yet
there was no landed property. He was rich, and all the
money was safely tucked away in the public funds, and he
could bequeath it as he willed. He was in a position to put
the screw on Tony and his wife, and he did not let the
opportunity slip. The love of authority grew upon him.
He became exacting and portentously severe. In his black,
shabby coat, with his long thin figure, and his narrow face,
he had the look of a cold self-righteous fanatic. You would
have believed that he was mortifying his son for the sake of
bis son's soul, unless perchance you had peeped into that
private bar in the Tottenham Court Road and had seen him
drinking gloomily alone.

He laid down rules to which the unfortunate couple
must needs conform. They had to dine with him every
night and to sit with him every evening until he went to
bed. It followed that they lost sight of their friends, and
every month isolated them more completely. The mere
humiliation of the position in which they stood caused them
to shrink more and more into their privacy. When they
walked out in the afternoon they kept away from the Park ;
when they played truant in the evening, at the Savoy, they
chose a little table in an obscure corner. This was the real
history of the truants with whose fortunes those of Warrisden
and Pamela were to be so closely intermingled. For that life
in the dark house was not to last. Even as Warrisden
passed them in Berkeley Street, Tony Stretton was saying
over and over again in his inactive mind —

" It can't go on. It can't go on ! "


In the after times, when the yapping of dogs in the
street at night would wake Tony from his sleep, and set him
on dreaming of tent villages in a wild country of flowers, or
when the wind in the trees would recall to him a little ship
labouring on short steep seas in a mist of spray, he always
looked back to this night as that on which the venture of his
wife's fortunes and his own began.

( 33 )



Regular as "Warrisden had declared the lives of the truants
to be, on the night following the dance at Lady Millingham's
there came a break in the monotony of their habits. For
once in a way they did not leave the house in their search
for light and colour as soon as they were free. They stayed
on in their own sitting-room. But it seemed that they had
nothing to speak about. Millie Stretton sat at the table,
staring at the wall in front of her, moody and despairing.
Tony Stretton leaned against the embrasure of the window,
now and then glancing remorsefully at his wife, now and
then looking angrily up to the ceiling where the heavy
footsteps of a man treading up and down the room above
sounded measured and unceasing.

Tony lifted a corner of the blind and looked out.

" There's a party next door," he said, " there was
another at Lady Millingham's last night. You should have
been at both, Millie, and you were at neither. LTpon my
word, it's rough."

He dropped the blind and came over to her side. He
knew quite well what parties and entertainments meant to
her. She loved them, and it seemed to him natural and
right that she should. Light, admiration, laughter and
gaiety, and fine frocks — these things she was born to enjoy,
and he himself had in the old days taken a great pride in
watching her enjoyment. But it was not merely the feeling
that she had been stripped of what was her due through



him which troubled him to-night. Other and deeper
thoughts were vaguely stirring in his mind.

" We have quarrelled again to-night, Millie," he con-
tinued remorsefully. " Here we are cooped up together
with just ourselves to rely upon to pull through these bad
years, and we have quarrelled again."

Millie shrugged her shoulders.

" How did it begin ? " he asked. " Upon my word I

don't remember. Oh yes, I " and Millie interrupted


" "What does it matter, Tony, how the quarrel began ?
It did begin, and another will begin to-morrow. We can't
help ourselves, and you have given the reason. Here we are
cooped up by ourselves with nothing else to do."

Tony pulled thoughtfully at his moustache.

" And we swore off quarrelling, too. When was that ? "

" Yesterday."

"Yesterday ! " exclaimed Tony, with a start of surprise.
" By George, so it was. Only yesterday."

Millie looked up at him, and the trouble upon his face
brought a smile to hers. She laid a hand upon his arm.

"It's no use swearing off, Tony," she said. "We are
both of us living all the time in a state of exasperation. I
just — tingle with it, there's no other word. And the least,
smallest thing which goes wrong sets us quarrelling. I
don't think either of us is to blame. The house alone gets
on our nerves, doesn't it ? These great empty, silent, dingy
looms, with their tarnished furniture. Oh ! they are
horrible ! I wander through them sometimes and it always
seems to me that, a long time ago, people lived here who
suddenly felt one morning that they couldn't stand it for a
single moment longer, and ran out and locked the street
door behind them ; and I have almost done it myself. The
very sunlight conies through the windows timidly, as if it
knew it had no right here at all."

She leaned back in her chair, looking at Tony with eyes


that were hopeless and almost haggard. As Tony listened
to her outburst the remorse deepened on his face.

" If I could have foreseen all this, I would have spared
you it, Millie," he said. " I would, upon my word." He
drew up a chair to the table, and, sitting down, said in a
more cheerful voice, " Let's talk it over, and see if we can't
find a remedy."

Millie shook her head.

" We talked it over yesterday."

" Yes, so we did."

" And quarrelled an hour after we had talked it over."

"We did that too," Tony agreed, despondently. His
little spark of hopefulness was put out and he sat in silence.
His wife, too, did not speak, and in a short while it occurred
to him that the silence was more complete than it had been
a few minutes ago. It seemed that a noise had ceased, and
a noise which, unnoticed before, had become noticeable by
its cessation. He looked up to the ceiling. The heavy
footsteps no longer dragged upon the floor overhead. Tony
sprang up.

"There! He is in bed," he exclaimed. "Shall we
go out ? "

"Not to-night," replied Millie.

He could make no proposal that night which was
welcomed, and as he walked over to the mantelshelf and
filled his pipe, there was something in his attitude and
bearing which showed to Millie that the quick rebuff had hurt.

" I can't pretend to-night, Tony, and that's the truth,"
she added in a kinder voice. " For, after all, I do only
pretend nowadays that I find the Savoy amusing."

Tony turned slowly round with the lighted match in his
hand and stared at his wife. He was a man slow in thought,
and when his thoughts compelled expression, laborious in
words. The deeper thoughts which had begun of late to
take shape in his mind stirred again at her words.

" You have owned it," he said.


Id had been pretence with you too, then ? " she asked,
looking up in surprise.

Tony puffed at his pipe.

" Of late, yes," he replied. " Perhaps cliiefly since I saw
that you were pretending."

He came back to her side and looked for a long time
steadily at her while he thought. It was a surprise to
Millie that he had noticed her pretence, as much of a
surprise as that he had been pretending too. For she knew
him to be at once slow to notice any change in others and
quick to betray it in himself. But she was not aware how
wide a place she rilled in all his thoughts, partly because her
own nature with its facile emotions made her unable to
conceive a devotion which was engrossing, and partly
because Tony himself had no aptitude for expressing such a
devotion, and indeed would have shrunk from its expression
had the aptitude been his. But she did fill that wide place.
Very slowly he had begun to watch her, very slowly and
dimly certain convictions were taking shape, very gradually
he was drawing nearer and nearer to a knowledge that a
great risk must be taken and a great sacrifice made partly
by him, partly too by her. Some part of his trouble he now
spoke to her.

" It wasn't pretence a year ago, Millie," he said wistfully.
" That's what bothers me. "We enjoyed slipping away
quietly when the house was quiet, and snatching some of the
light, some of the laughter the others have any time they
want it. It made up for the days, it was fun then, Millie,
wasn't it ? Upon my word, I believe we enjoyed our life,
yes, even this life, a year ago. Do you remember how we
used to drive home, laughing over what we had seen, talking
about the few people we had spoken to ? It wasn't until we
had turned the latch-key in the door, and crept into the
hall "

" And passed the library door," Millie interrupted, with
a little shiver.


Tony Stretton stopped for a moment. Then he resumed
in a lower voice, " Yes, it wasn't until we had passed the
library door that the gloom settled down again. But now
the fun's all over, at the latest when the lights go down in
the supper room, and often before we have got to them
at all. We were happy last year" — and he shook her
affectionately by the arm — " that's what bothers me."

His wife responded to the gentleness of his voice and

" Never mind, Tony," she said. " Some day we shall
look back on all of it — this house and the empty rooms and
the quarrels " — she hesitated for a second — " Yes, and the
library door ; we shall look back on it all and laugh."

" Shall we ? " said Tony, suddenly. His face was most
serious, his voice most doubtful.

" Why, what do you mean ? " asked Millie. Then she
added reassuringly, " It must end some time. Oh yes, it
can't last for ever."

" No," replied Tony ; " but it can last just long enough."

" Long enough for what ? "

" Long enough to spoil both our lives altogether."

He was speaking with a manner which was quite strange
to her. There was a certainty in his voice, there was a
gravity too. He had ceased to leave the remedy of their
plight to time and chance, since, through two years, time
and chance had failed them. He had been seriously thinking,
and as the result of thought he had come to definite con-
clusions. Millie understood that there was much more
behind the words he had spoken and that he meant to say
that much more to her to-night. She was suddenly aware
that she was face to face with issues momentous to both of
them. She began to be a little afraid. She looked at Tony
almost as if he were a stranger.

" Tony," she said faintly, in deprecation.

" We must face it, Millie," he went on steadily. " This
life of ours here in this house will come to an end, of course,


but how will it leave us, you and me ? Soured, embittered,
quarrelsome, or no longer quarrelsome, but just indifferent to
each other, bored by each other ? " He was speaking very
slowly, choosing each word with difficulty.
" Oh no," Millie protested.

" It may be even worse than that. Suppose we passed
beyond indifference to dislike— yes, active dislike. We are
both of us young, we can both reasonably look forward to
long lives, long lives of active dislike. There might too be
contempt on your side."

Millie stared at her husband.

" Contempt ? " she said, echoing his words in surprise. _
"Yes. Here are you, most unhappy, and I take it
sitting down. Contempt might come from that."
" But what else can you do ? " she said.
" Ah," said Tony, as though he had been waiting for
that question, couched in just those words. " Ask yourself
that question often enough, and contempt will come."

This idea of contempt was a new one to Millie, and very
likely her husband was indiscreet in suggesting its possibility.
But he was not thinking at all of the unwisdom of his
words His thoughts were set on saving the cherished
intimacy of their life from the ruin which he saw was likely
to overtake it. He spoke out frankly, not counting the
risk Millie, for her part, was not in the mood to estimate
the truth of what he said, although it remained in her
memory She was rather confused by the new aspect which
her husband wore. She foresaw that he was working
towards the disclosure of a plan ; and the plan would involve
changes, great changes, very likely a step altogether into the
dark. And she hesitated.

- We sha'n't alter, Tony," she said. " You can be sure
of me, can't you ? "

« But wo are altering," he replied. " Already the altera-
tion bus begun. Did we quarrel a year ago as we do now ?
We enjoyed those evenings when we played truant, a year


ago " ; and then he indulged in a yet greater indiscretion
than any which he had yet allowed himself to utter. But
he was by nature simple and completely honest. Whatever
occurred to him, that he spoke without reserve, and the
larger it loomed in his thoughts the more strenuous was its
utterance upon his lips. He took a seat at the table by her

" I know we are changing. I take myself, and I expect
it is the same with you. I am — it is difficult to express it —
I am deadening. I am getting insensible to the things
which not very long ago moved me very much. I once had
a friend who fell ill of a slow paralysis, which crept up his
limbs little by little and he hardly noticed its advance. I
think that's happening with me. I am losing the associa-
tions — that's the word I want — the associations which made
one's recollections valuable, and gave a colour to one's life.
For instance, you sang a song last night, Millie, one of those
coon songs of yours — do you remember ? You sang it once
in Scotland on a summer's night. I was outside on the
lawn, and past the islands across the water, which was dark
and still, I saw the lights in Oban bay. I thought I would
never hear that song again without seeing those lights in my
mind far away across the water, clustered together like the
lights of a distant town. Well, last night all those associa-
tions were somehow dead. I remembered all right, but
without any sort of feeling, that that song was a landmark
in one's life. It was merely you singing a song, or rather it
was merely some one singing a song."

It was a laboured speech, and Tony was very glad to
have got it over.

" I am very sorry," replied Millie in a low voice. She
did not show him her face, and he had no notion whatever
that his words could hardly have failed to hurt. He was too
intent upon convincing her, and too anxious to put his belief
before "her with unmistakable clearness to reflect in what
spirit she might receive the words. That her first thought


would be " He no longer cares " never occurred to hirn at

all, and cheerfully misunderstanding her acquiescence, he

went on —

" You see that's bad. It mustn't go on, Millie. Let's

keep what we've got. At all costs let us keep that ! "

" You mean we must go away ? " said Millie, and Tony

Sfcretton did not answer. He rose from his chair and walked

back to the fireplace and knocked the ashes from his pipe.

Millie was accustomed to long intervals between her

questions and his replies, but she was on the alert now.

Something in his movements and his attitude showed her

that he was not thinking of what answer he should make.

He was already sure upon that point. Only the particular

answer he found difficult to speak. She guessed it on the

instant and stood up erect, in alarm.

" You mean that you must go away, and that I must

remain ? "

Tony turned round to her and nodded his head.

" Alone ! Here ? " she exclaimed, looking round her

with a shiver.

" For a little while. Until I have made a home for you
to come to. Only till then, Millie. It needn't be so very

xv "It will seem ages 1 " she cried, "however short it is.
Tony, it's impossible."

The tedious days stretched before her in an endless and
monotonous succession. The great rooms would be yet
more silent, and more empty than they were ; there would
be a chill throughout all the house ; the old man's exactions
would become yet more oppressive, since there would be only
one to bear them. She thought of the long dull evenings,
in the faded drawing-room. They were bad enough now,
those long evenings during which she read the evening paper
aloud, and Sir John slept, yet not so soundly but that he
woke the instant her voice stopped, and bade her continue.
What would they ^ if Tony were gone, if there were no


hour or so at the end when they were free to play truant if
they willed ? What she had said was true. She had been
merely pretending to enjoy their hour of truancy, but she
would miss it none the less. And in the midst of these
thoughts she heard Tony's voice.

" It sounds selfish, I know, but it isn't really. You see,
I sha'n't enjoy myself. I have not been brought up to
know anything well or to do anything well — anything, I
mean, really useful — I'll have a pretty hard time too." And
then he described to her what he thought of doing. He
proposed to go out to one of the colonies, spend some months
on a farm as a hand, and when he had learned enough of
the methods, and had saved a little money, to get hold of a
small farm to which he could ask her to come. It was a
pretty and a simple scheme, and it ignored the great
difficulties in the way, such as his ignorance and his lack of
capital. But he believed in it sincerely, and every word in
his short and broken sentences proved his belief. He had
his way that night with Millicent. She was capable of a

Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 3 of 26)