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

The truants; a novel online

. (page 4 of 26)
Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 4 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

quick fervour, though the fervour might as quickly flicker
out. She saw that the sacrifice was really upon his side, for
upon him would be the unaccustomed burden of labour, and
the labour would be strange and difficult. She rose to his
height since he was with her and speaking to her with all
the conviction of his soul.

" Well, then, go," she cried. " I'll wait here, Tony, till
you send for me."

And when she passed the library door that night she did
not even shrink.




Millie's enthusiasm for her husband's plan increased each
day. The picture which his halting phrases evoked for her,
of a little farm very far away under Southern skies, charmed
her more by reason of its novelty than either she or Tony
quite understood. In the evenings of the following week,
long after the footsteps overhead had ceased, they sat
choosing the site of their house and building it. It was to
be the exact opposite of their house of bondage. The
windows should look out over rolling country, the simple
decorations should be bright of colour, and through every
cranny the sun should find its way. Millie's hopes, indeed,
easily outran her husband's. She counted the house already
built, and the door open for her coming. Colour and light
bathed it in beauty.

" There's my little fortune, Tony," she said, when once
or twice he tried to check the leap of her anticipations ;
" that will provide the capital."

" I knew you would offer it," Tony replied simply.
'• Your help will shorten our separation by a good deal. So
I'll take half."

" All '."cried Millie.

"And what would you do when you wanted a new
frock ? " asked Tony, with a smile.

Millie shrugged her shoulders.

" I shall join you so soon," .she said.

It dawned upon Tony that she was making too little of


the burden which she would be called upon to bear — the
burden of dull lonely months in that great shabby house.

" It will be a little while before I can send for you,
Millie," he protested. But she paid no heed to the protest.
She fetched her bank book and added up the figures.

" I have three thousand pounds," she said.

" I'll borrow half," he repeated. " Of course, I am only
borrowing. Should things go wrong with me, you are sure
to get it back in the end."

They drove down to Millie's bank the next morning, and
fifteen hundred pounds were transferred to his account.

" Meanwhile," said Tony, as they came out of the door
into Pall Mall, " we have not yet settled where our farm is to
be. I think I will go and see Chase."

" The man in Stepney Green ? " Millie asked.

" Yes. He's the man to help us."

Tony called a cab and drove off. It was late in the after-
noon when he returned, and he had no opportunity to tell his
wife the results of his visit before dinner was announced.
Millie was in a fever to hear his news. Never, even in this
house, had an evening seemed so long. Sir John sat upright
in his high-backed chair, and, as was his custom, bade her
read aloud the evening paper. But that task was beyond
her. She pleaded a headache and escaped. It seemed to her
that hours passed before Tony rejoined her. She had come
to dread with an intense fear that some hindrance would, at
any moment, stop their plan.

" Well ? " she asked eagerly, when Tony at last came into
their sitting-room.

" It's to be horses in Kentucky," answered Tony.
" Farming wants more knowledge and a long apprenticeship ;
but I know a little about horses."

" Splendid ! " cried Millie. " You will go soon ? "

" In a week. A week is all I need."

Millie was quiet for a little while. Then she asked, with
an anxious look —


" When do you mean to tell your father ? "

" To-morrow."

" Don't," said she. She saw his face cloud, she was well
aware of his dislike of secrecies, but she was too much afraid
that, somehow, at the last moment an insuperable obstacle
would bar the way. " Don't tell him at all," she went on.
" Leave a note for him. I will see that it is given to him
after you have gone. Then he can't stop you. Please do
this, I ask you."

" How can he stop me ?

" I don't know ; but I am afraid that he will. He
could threaten to disinherit you ; if you disobeyed, he
might carry out the threat. Give him no opportunity to

Very reluctantly Tony consented. He had all a man's
objections to concealments, she all a woman's liking for them ;
but she prevailed, and since the moment of separation was
very near, they began to retrace their steps through the years
of their married life, and back beyond them to the days of
their first acquaintance. Thus it happened that Millie men-
tioned the name of Pamela Mardale, and suddenly Tony drew
himself upright in his chair.

" Is she in town, I wonder ? " he asked, rather of himself
than of his wife.

" Most likely," Millie replied. " Why ? "

" I think I must try to see her before I go," said Tony,
thoughtfully ; and more than once during the evening he
looked with anxiety towards his wife ; but in his look there
was some perplexity too.

He tried next day ; for he borrowed a horse from a friend,
and rode out into the Row at eleven o'clock. As he passed
through the gates of Hyde Park, he saw Pamela turning her
horse on the edge of the sand. She saw him at the same
moment and waited.

" You are a stranger here," she said, with a smile, as he
joined her.


" Here and everywhere," he replied. " I came out on
purpose to find you."

Pamela glanced at Tony curiously. Only a few days had
passed since "Warrisden had pointed out the truants from the
window of Lady Millingham's house, and had speculated upon
the seclusion of their lives. The memory of that evening was
still fresh in her mind.

" I want to ask you a question."

" Ask it and I'll answer," she replied carelessly.

" You were Millie's bridesmaid ? "

" Yes."

" You saw a good deal of her before we were married ? "


They were riding down the Row at a walk under the trees,
Pamela wondering to what these questions were to lead, Tony
slowly formulating the point which troubled him.

" Before Millie and I were engaged," he went on, " before
indeed there was any likelihood of our being engaged, you
once said to me something about her."

" I did ? "

"Yes. I remembered it last night. And it rather
worries me. I should like you to explain what you meant.
You said, ' The man who marries her should never leave her.
If he goes away shooting big game, he should take her with
him. On no account must she be left behind.' "

It was a day cloudless and bright. Over towards the
Serpentine the heat filled the air with a soft screen of mist,
and at the bottom of the Row the rhododendrons glowed.
As Pamela and Tony went forward at a walk the sunlight
slanting through the leaves now shone upon their faces and
now left them in shade. And when it fell bright upon
Pamela it lit up a countenance which was greatly troubled.
She did not, however, deny that she had used the words. She
did not pretend that she had forgotten their application.

" You remember what I said ? " she remarked. " It is a
long while ago."


" Before that," he explained, " I had begun to notice all
that was said of Millie."

" I spoke the words generally, perhaps too carelessly."

" Yet not without a reason," Tony insisted. " That's not
your way."

Pamela made no reply for a moment or two. Then she
patted her horse's head, and said softly —

" Not without a reason." She admitted his contention
frankly. She did more, for she turned in her saddle towards
him and, looking straight into his face, said —

" I was not giving you advice at the time. But, had I
been, I should have said just those words. I say them again


Tony put his question very earnestly. He held Pamela
in a great respect, believing her clear-sighted beyond her
fellows. He was indeed a little timid in her presence as a
rule, for she overawed him, though all unconsciously.
Nothing of this timidity, however, showed now. "That
was what I came out to ask you. "Why ? "

Again Pamela attempted no evasion.

"I can't tell you," she said quietly.

" You promised."

" I break the promise."

Tony looked wistfully at his companion. That the per-
plexing words had been spoken with a definite meaning he
had felt sure from the moment when he had remembered
them. And her refusal to explain proved to him that the
meaning was a very serious one — one indeed which he ought
to know and take into account.

"I ask you to explain," he urged, "because I am going
away, and I am leaving Millie behind."

Pamela was startled. She turned quickly towards


"Must you?" she said, and before he could answer she
recovered from her surprise. _" Never mind," she continued ;


" shall we ride on ? " and she put her horse to a trot. It
was not her business to advise or to interfere. She had said
too much already. She meant to remain the looker-on.

Stretton, however, was not upon this occasion to be so
easily suppressed. He kept level with her, and as they rode
he told her something of the life which Millie and he had led
in the big lonely house in Berkeley Square ; and in spite of
herself Pamela was interested. She had a sudden wish that
Alan "Warrisden was riding with them too, so that he might
hear his mystery resolved ; she had a sudden vision of his
face, keen as a boy's, as he listened.

" I saw Millie and you a few nights ago. I was at a dance
close by, and I was surprised to see you. I thought you had
left London," she said.

"No; but I am leaving," Stretton returned; and he
went on to describe that idyllic future which Millie and he
had allotted to themselves. The summer sunlight was golden
in the air about them ; already it seemed that new fresh life
was beginning. " I shall breed horses in Kentucky. I was
recommended to it by an East End parson called Chase, who
runs a mission on Stepney Green. I used to keep order in
a billiard room at his mission one night a week, when I was
quartered at the Tower. A queer sort of creature, Chase ;
but his judgment's good, and of course he is always meeting
all sorts of people."

" Chase ? " Pamela repeated ; and she retained the name
in her memory.

" But he doesn't know Millie," said Stretton, " and you
do. And so what you said troubles me very much. If I go
away remembering your words and not understanding them,
I shall go away uneasy. I shall remain uneasy."

" I am sorry," Pamela replied. " I broke a rule of mine
in saying what I did, a rule not to interfere. And I see
now that I did very wrong in breaking it. I will not break
it again. You must forget my words."

There was a quiet decision in her manner which warned


Tony that no persuasions would induce her to explain. He
gave up his attempt and turned to another subject.

" I have something else to ask — not a question this time,
but a favour. You could be a very staunch friend, Miss
Mardale, if you chose. Millie will be lonely after I have
gone. You were a great friend of hers once — be a friend of
hers again."

Pamela hesitated. The promise which he sought on the
face of it no doubt looked easy of fulfilment. But Tony
Stretton had been right in one conjecture. She had spoken
the words which troubled him from a definite reason, and
that reason assured her now that this promise might lay upon
her a burden, and a burden of a heavy kind. And she shrank
from all burdens. On the other hand, there was no doubt
that she had caused Tony much uneasiness. He would go
away, on a task which, as she saw very clearly, would be
more arduous by far than even he suspected — he would go
away troubled and perplexed. That could not be helped.
But she might lighten the trouble, and make the perplexity
less insistent, if she granted the favour which he sought. It
seemed churlish to refuse.

" Very well," she said reluctantly. " I promise."

Already Tony's face showed his relief. She had given
her promise reluctantly, but she would keep it now. Of that
he felt assured, and, bidding her good-bye, he turned his
horse and cantered back.

Pamela rode homewards more slowly. She had proposed
to keep clear of entanglements and responsibilities, and,
behold! the meshes were about her. She had undertaken
a trust. In spite of herself she had ceased to be the

( 49 )



The promise which Pamela had given was a great relief to
Tony ; he went about the work of preparing for his
departure with an easier mind. It was even in his thoughts
when he stood with his wife upon the platform of Euston
station, five minutes before his train started for Liverpool.

" She will be a good friend, Millie," he said. " Count
on her till I send for you. I think I am right to go, even
though I don't understand "

He checked himself abruptly. Millie, however, paid heed
only to the first clause of his sentence.

" Of course you are right," she said, with a confidence
which brought an answering smile to his face.

She watched the red tail-light of the train until it dis-
appeared, and drove home alone to the big dreary house. It
seemed ten times more dreary, ten times more silent than
ever before. She was really alone now. But her confidence
in herself and in Tony was still strong. " I can wait," she
said, and the consciousness of her courage rejoiced her. She
walked from room to room and sat for a few moments in
each, realising that the coldness, the dingy look of the
furniture, and the empty silence had no longer the power to
oppress her. She even hesitated at the library door with her
fingers on the key. But it was not until the next day that
she unlocked it and threw it open.

For Pamela, mindful of her promise, called in the after-
noon. Millicent was still uplifted by her confidence.



% - 1 can wait quite patiently," she said ; and Pamela
scrutinised her with some anxiety. For Millicent was
speaking feverishly, as though she laboured under an excite-
ment. Was her courage the mere effervescence of that
excitement, or was it a steady, durable thing ? Pamela led
her friend on to speak of the life which she and Tony had
led in the big house, sounding her the while so that she
might come upon some answer to that question. And thus
it happened that, as they came down the stairs together,
Millicent again stopped before the library door.

" Look ! " she said. " This room always seemed to me
typical of the whole house, typical too of the lives we led
in it."

She unlocked the door suddenly and flung it open. The
floor of the library was below the level of the hall, and a
smooth plane of wood sloped clown to it very gradually from
the threshold.

" There used to be steps here once, but before my time,"
said Millicent. She went down into the room. Pamela
followed her, and understood why those two steps had been
removed. Although the book-shelves rose on every wall
from floor to ceiling, it was not as a library that this room
was used. Heavy black curtains draped it with a barbaric
profusion. The centre of the room was clear of furniture,
and upon the carpet in that clear space was laid a purple
drugget ; and on the drugget opposite to one another stood
two strong wooden crutches. The room was a mortuary
. chamber — nothing less. On those two crutches the dead
were to lie awaiting burial.

Millie Stretton shook her shoulders with a kind of

" Oh, how I used to hate this room, hate knowing that
it was here, prepared and ready ! "

Pamela could understand how the knowledge would work
upon a woman of emotions, whose nerves were already strung
to exasperation by the life she led. For even to her there


was something eerie in the disposition of the room. It
looked ont upon a dull yard of stone at the back of the
house ; the light was very dim and the noise of the streets
hardly the faintest whisper ; there was a chill and a dampness
in the air.

" How I hated it," Millie repeated. " I used to lie awake
and think of it. I used to imagine it more silent than any
other of the silent rooms, and emptier — emptier because day
and night it seemed to claim an inhabitant, and to claim it
as a right. That was the horrible thing. The room was
waiting — waiting for us to be carried down that wooden
bridge and laid on the crutches here, each in our turn. It
became just a symbol of the whole house. For what is the
house, Pamela ? A place that should have been a place of
life, and is a place merely expecting death. Look at the
books reaching up to the ceiling, never taken down, never
read, for the room's a room for coffins. It wasn't merely a
symbol of the house — that wasn't the worst of it. It was a
sort of image of our lives, the old man's upstairs, Tony's
and mine down here. We were all doing nothing, neither
suffering nor enjoying, but just waiting — waiting for death.
Nothing you see could happen in this house but death. Until
it came there would only be silence and emptiness."

Millie Stretton finished her outburst, and stood dismayed
as though the shadow of those past days were still about her.
The words she had spoken must have seemed exaggerated
and even theatrical, but for the aspect of her as she spoke
them. Her whole frame shuddered, her face had the shrink- *•
ing look of fear. She recovered herself, however, in a moment.

" But that time's past," she said. " Tony's gone and I —
I am waiting for life now. I am only a lodger, you see. A
month or two, and I pack my boxes."

She turned towards the door and stopped. The hall
door had just at that moment opened. Pamela heard a
man's footsteps sound heavily upon the floor of the hall and
then upon the stairs.


" My father-in-law," said Millie.

" This was his doing ? " asked Pamela.

"Yes," replied Millie. "It's strange, isn't it? But
there's something stranger still."

The footsteps had now ceased. Millie led the way back
to her room.

" When I got home yesterday," she related, " I had
Tony's letter announcing his departure taken up to Sir John.
I waited for him to send for me. He did not. I am not
sure that I expected he would. You see, he has never shown
the least interest in us. However, when I went up to my
room to dress for dinner, I saw that the candles were all
lighted in Tony's room next door, and his clothes laid out
upon the bed. I went in and put the candles out — rather
quickly." Her voice shook a little upon those last two
words. Pamela nodded her head as though she understood,
and Millicent went on, after a short pause —

" It troubled me to see them burning ; it troubled me
very much. And when I came downstairs I told the foot-
man the candles were not to bo lit again, since Tony had
gone away. He answered that they had been lit by Sir John's
orders. At first I thought that Sir John had not troubled
to read the letter at all. I thought that all the more because
he never once, either during dinner or afterwards, mentioned
Tony's name or seemed to remark his absence. But it was
not so. He has given orders that every night the room is
to be ready and the candles lit as though Tony were here
still, or might walk in at the door at any moment. I suppose
that after all in a queer way he cares."

Again her voire faltered ; and again a question rose np
insistent in Pamela's mind. She knew her friend, and it

3 out of her knowledge that she had spoken long ago in
Tony's presence when she had said, "her husband should
never leave her." It was evident that Tony's departure had
caused his wife great suffering.

Millicent had let that fact escape in spite of her exaltation.


Pamela welcomed it, but she asked, "Was that regret a
steady and durable thing ? "

Pamela left London the next day with her question
unanswered, and for two months there was no opportunity
for her of discovering: an answer. Often during; that August
and September, on the moors in Scotland, or at her own
home in Leicestershire, she would think of Millie Stretton,
in the hot and dusty town amongst the houses where the
blinds were drawn. She imagined her sitting over against
the old stern impassive man at dinner, or wearily reading to
him his newspaper at night. Had the regret dwindled to
irritation, and the loneliness begotten petulance ?

Indeed, those months were dull and wearisome enough
for Millicent. No change of significance came in the routine
of that monotonous household. Sir John went to his room
perhaps a little earlier than had been his wont, his footsteps
dragged along the floor for a wliile longer, and his light
burned in the window after the dawn had come. Finally he
ceased to leave his room at all. But that was all. For
Millicent, however, the weeks passed easily. Each day
brought her a day nearer to the sunlit farm fronting the
open plain. She marked the weeks off in her diary with a
growing relief ; for news kept coming from America, and
the news was good.

Early in October, Pamela passed through London on her
way to Sussex, and broke her journey that she might see
her friend.

" Frances Millingham is writing to you," she said. " She
wants you to stay with her in Leicestershire. I shall be
there too. I hope you will come."

" When ? "

" At the beginning of the New Year."

Millicent laughed.

" I shall have left England before then. Tony will have
made his way," she said, with a joyous conviction.

" There might be delays," Pamela suggested, in a very


gentle voice. For suddenly there had risen before her mind
the picture of a terrace high above a gorge dark with
cypresses. She saw again the Mediterranean, breaking in
gold along the curving shore, and the gardens of the Casino
at Monte Carlo. She heard a young girl prophesying success
upon that terrace with no less certainty than Millicent had
used. Her face softened and her eyes shone with a very
wistful look. She took out her watch and glanced at it. It
was five o'clock. The school children had gone home by
now from the little school-house in the square of Eoquebrune.
Was the schoolmaster leaning over the parapet looking down-
wards to the station or to the deserted walk in front of the
Casino ? Was a train passing along the sea's edge towards

France and Paris ?

" One must expect delays, Millie," she insisted ; and

again Millie laughed.

" I have had letters. I am expecting another. It should

have come a fortnight since." And she told Pamela what

the letters had contained.

At first Tony had been a little bewildered by the activity

of New York, after his quiescent years. But he had soon

made an acquaintance, and the acquaintance had become a

friend. The two men had determined to go into partnership ;

a farm in Kentucky was purchased, each man depositing an

equal share of the purchase money.

" Six weeks ago they left New York. Tony said I would

not hear from him at once."

And while they were sitting together there came a knock

upon the door, and two letters were brought in for Millicent,

One she tossed upon the table. With the other in her hand

Bhe turned triumphantly to Pamela.

" Do you mind ? " she asked. " I have been wailing so


" Read it, of course," said Pamela.

Millie tore the letter open, and at once the light died out
of her eyes, and the smile vanished from her lips.


" From New York," she said, halfway between perplexity
and fear. " He writes from New York." And with trem-
bling fingers she turned over the sheets and read the letter

Pamela watched her, saw the blood ebb from her cheeks,
and dejection overspread her face. A great pity welled up
in Pamela's heart, not merely for the wife who read, but for
the man who had penned that letter — with what difficulty,
she wondered, with how much pain ! Failure was the
message which it carried. Millicent's trembling lips told
her that. And again the village of Roquebrune rose up
before her eyes as she gazed out of the window on the London
square. What were the words the schoolmaster had spoken
when, stripped of his dreams, he had confessed success was
not for him ? " We must forget these fine plans. The
school at Roquebrune will send no deputy to Paris."
Pamela's eyes grew dim.

She stood looking out of the window for some while, but
hearing no movement she at length turned back again. The
sheets of the letter had fallen upon the floor, they lay
scattered, written over in a round, sprawling, schoolboy's
hand. Millicent sat very still, her face most weary and

Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 4 of 26)