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of orange-flower water, Marie wondered, without charity, who had given
her those earrings of green fire, and why.

The girl talked sweetly, as she was taught to do. She remarked on the
coldness of the day and the trials of shopping in such bleak weather;
on the bustle of the shops preparing for Christmas; on the smallness
of Madame's hands.

They were a charming shape, might she say? But Madame had abused them.
Madame had perhaps been gardening? Gardening was becoming so
fashionable, with a sweet glance at the client's _ensemble_. Was
that the reason for those broken cuticles, those swollen fingertips
and brittle nails? It was a thousand pities.

Knowing, as she spoke, the futility, the obviousness of the lie, yet
somehow unable to help speaking it, Marie answered in abrupt
confusion. Yes, she had been gardening; it - it was a favourite hobby
nowadays; all her friends....

With that sleek face before her, those fragile fingertips handling
hers, she would not for a fortune have confessed: "I spoil my hands
because I spend my days between the stove and the sink; because I've
cooked and swept and sewed for a man and three children; because I
wash and iron." Secretly the manicurist would laugh and ridicule; in
her smooth white face and twinkly eardrops was the story of what she
would think of such a domestic fool; of the woman who was the slave of
man and home; who had lost her looks and hope in the servitude of
married poverty.

Presently the finger-nails were done; they did not look a great deal
better even now, but they felt charmingly petted and soothed. Again
the manicurist ran her eye over the other from head to heel, letting
her glance rest at last upon her face.

"A face massage, madame?" she suggested.

Marie hesitated, and the girl added, smiling: "It would be half a
crown."

"I have not time to-day, thank you," Marie said, rising. She paid for
the manicure and left the warm and scented place; she had nowhere
particular to go, no one to talk to, and yet she did not wish to go
home so early. It would have been a tame ending to her day and,
besides, she had not seen all yet. She wanted to see the lights rise
and twinkle along the streets, to watch the evening life come in like
a tide, wave upon wave breaking musically upon the city's shore; and
to feel that even then, though six o'clock had passed, and seven, and
eight, she was yet her own mistress. She was sampling sensations, not
altogether new, but at any rate long forgotten. It occurred to her, as
she turned out of the Beauty Shop, to go and call upon someone; but
upon whom? She knew, as she asked the question of herself, that, while
she had lost a score of light-hearted acquaintances upon her wedding
day, she had since been too busy to make more. There were upon her
limited horizon, in fact, only Julia and Rokeby. Julia, at this moment
still afternoon, would be involved in much business, someone else's
business which she could not put aside as if it were her own to do as
she pleased with; but Rokeby called no man master.

She hardly knew why she thought of going to tell Rokeby her news, but
there was a want in her, a want of a wise someone's comments, a kind
someone's sympathy. She boarded a City omnibus and was carried to King
William Street.

Here Desmond had his prosperous shipbroking office, and made his
enviable thousands and sharpened his innately sharp brain, so well
concealed below his lacklustre, almost naïve, exterior.

A lift carried her up to the third floor, where she arrived before a
door upon the glass panels of which were blazoned his name and
profession, and pushing it open, she asked for him uncertainly. A
clerk said doubtfully: "Have you come about the typist's situation?"
and looked at her in a summary fashion which made her timid.

She hated this timidity which had grown upon her with the married
years; a timidity based upon loss of trust in her womanly powers, loss
of the natural arrogance of beauty. Holding her head very erect, she
replied:

"I am a friend of Mr. Rokeby's. Will you kindly say that Mrs. Osborn
Kerr has called?" Second thoughts sent her fumbling in her bag and
producing a card.

"You had better send in my card," she said.

Desmond was busy with a client when the card was laid before him, but
when he had glanced at it, he took it up and looked again, as if not
believing his eyes. "In five minutes," he told the clerk; and, turning
to the client, he clinched in that remarkably short while an
arrangement which they had been discussing and quarrelling over for
half an hour.

He stood up, waiting for Marie to enter. When she came, he was struck,
not having seen her since the birth of the third baby, by the further
alteration in her. How thin she was! And quiet! With that dullness
which, in his judgment, too much domesticity always brought to women.
Like most ultra-modern men, while secretly making a fetish of the
softer virtues in woman, he wanted them expressed somehow in an
up-to-the-minute setting. Yet he understood dimly the struggle of
twentieth-century woman in trying to make herself at once as new as
to-day and as old as creation.

"Well, this is nice," he said very kindly, taking her hand with
deference. "I've a free hour, and lo! you come to fill it. Let me pull
the visitor's chair right up to this fire, and give you a cup of tea."

His kindness and attention were all about Marie with the benevolence
of a new warm garment on a cold day. She sat down in the great soft
chair which he wheeled forwards for her, loosened her out-of-date fur
neckwear, and looked around her with feminine interest.

"What a pretty office!" she said. "And you have flowers."

"Ladies sometimes come to tea," he replied smilingly, pressing a bell.

To the clerk he said: "Get tea from Fuller's, right away."

"I ought not to hinder you," said Marie; and, as she said it, there
came to her the fragrance of the memory how in her girl days she had,
in the course of her business and pleasure, hindered many men like
this, and how pleased and flattered they were to be thus hindered. She
wished she could feel as sure of herself and her power to charm
without the least exertion as she was then. She went on: "I really
hardly know why I came, but I was in town; and I thought you'd like to
hear the news about Osborn. He's gone, you know; gone."

Rokeby wheeled right round to face her, in his swing chair: "I know,"
he nodded, "at least I know the bare bones of it. He found time to
ring me up yesterday and give me an inkling. So you've really sent him
off, have you?"

"Yes; this morning, at ten."

Rokeby felt for his words carefully, in view of what he saw in her
face.

"It must have been a rush for both of you."

"It was. But things are better like that. There isn't so much time to
think."

"No," said Rokeby.

"If I'd known he'd told you, I wouldn't have come round to hinder you
this afternoon."

"Don't mention that word again, Mrs. Kerr. I'm proud and delighted.
And I didn't hear much yesterday, and I want all of it. What's the
whole game?"

She sat there telling him; the fire flushed her face so that its
wanness disappeared; and in their wonder and bewilderment her eyes
were big and solemn like a child's. But the composure to which she had
won was complete.

"It will be a splendid holiday for him," she finished. "He hasn't had
one since we were married. Of course, we've been nearly every year to
the same rooms at Littlehampton, but with children it's different. You
can hardly call it a holiday."

"_You_ can't, I should think."

She smiled seriously and passed it by. "He was like a schoolboy let
out of school," she said with a sudden jerkiness, "he was so pleased.
Poor boy! I knew it must mean a lot to him not to have to worry about
money any more for a whole year, and - and to get away."

"Yes," said Rokeby gravely, "yes. And how are _you_ going to
celebrate _your_ holiday, Mrs. Kerr?"

She looked at him quickly. A smile broke round her lips. "Do you
know," she dared, as if shocked at herself, "last night I was
heartbroken; this morning I was bitter; this afternoon I came up to
town to try to shake it off - "

"I hope you've shaken it?"

"I - I hardly know. I shall miss him so when I get back. But - but I've
got a whole year. _A year!_ But why bother you with these things?
A woman would understand; Julia would."

"I suppose you're making a day of it? Going to see Miss Winter this
evening perhaps, and tell her all about it?"

She scarcely noticed the eager note in his voice.

"That's an idea!" she exclaimed. "I was wondering what I'd do about
this evening, and I was determined not to go home till ten o'clock. I
don't know why, but if I can make myself stay right away on my own
pleasure till then it will be like breaking a spell. But why I'm
talking like this to you I don't know. You'll think me mad."

"No, I shan't."

An office-boy staggered in with tea, and for a while the business of
it kept them lightly occupied, and talking inconsequently; but
presently Rokeby went back to:

"So you _are_ going to see Miss Winter this evening? Look here,
Mrs. Kerr, Osborn would never forgive me if I let you go alone. I'll
take you - yes, please. Do let me! We'll both give her a surprise."

Recovering a spark of the old audacity which her prettiness used to
justify, she laughed: "No, you won't. We shall want to talk - and
_talk_. You'd be in the way."

"I solemnly swear I won't. I'll wash up and do a lot of the jobs
bachelor girls always keep for their men friends to do. I'll sit and
smoke in the kitchen. Honest, I will! There, now?"

Her laughter was real and merry. "_You_? What's come to you?"

"I hardly know," said Rokeby quickly, in a low voice.

Marie's hand and eyes were hovering critically over the dish of cakes;
youth and delicious silliness had visited her, if but for an hour, and
a curious kind of champagne happiness fizzed through her. The
earnestness of Desmond's sudden look passed her by; at the moment
there was nothing earnest in her; she was, all so suddenly, a holiday
woman out for the day. Selecting her cake, she began to eat it.

"It will be awf'ly good of you to take me there," she answered; "it
will be something to write and tell Osborn about."

"Do wives have to hunt for topics for letters, as they have to hunt
for suitable conversation, when husbands want it?"

"Oh! have you noticed that?"

"I've noticed my married friends seem to have very little of interest
to say to each other."

"Why is it?"

"I don't know. I think they give each other all they've got in a great
big lump too soon. But I don't know; how should I?"

"I wonder if I could tell you. _I_ think it's because a man
carefully robs a woman of all power to have any interest outside her
home; but at the same time he votes her home interests too dull to
talk about."

"Married life!" said Rokeby quizzically.

"But there are beautiful things in it; children, you know. I shouldn't
have said what I did."

They let a silence elapse as if to swallow up the memory of the things
Marie shouldn't have said, and after it he asked: "What time shall we
go?"

At six o'clock they were speeding down Cannon Street, along the
Strand, and the gaudier thoroughfares of the West, in a taxicab, to
Julia's flat.

Her delight at seeing Marie was obvious, but a veil of reserve seemed
to drop over her vivid, strong face when she saw who escorted her.

Rokeby would not take leave of Marie on the threshold, though; he
followed her in and sat down, asking if he might stay. There was about
him an air of smiling determination, and his eyes obstinately sought
Julia's, which as obstinately avoided his. She began to chatter, as if
to slur over a momentary confusion.

"I've only been in ten minutes, and I was going to settle down to a
lonely evening. I'm awf'ly glad to have you, Marie darling. If Mr.
Rokeby's going to stay he'll have to be useful. I'm afraid you find me
almost déshabillée, but I'm one of these sloppy bachelors, as you
know."

But Julia had a taut way of putting on even a silk kimono, and she
could not have been sloppy had she tried; her lines were too fine and
clean.

The two women went away to Julia's bedroom, a little box like a
furnisher's model, and there Julia gleaned Marie's news. But far from
giving unmitigated sympathy, she was almost crudely congratulatory.

"It's what most wives of your standing want badly. A year off. A year
to go to some theatres, to find their own minds again; to look after
their wardrobes, and thread all the ribbons in their cammies that
they've been too busy to thread for ages. It's no good coming to me
for pity. I'm not sorry for you."

"I - I'm not sure that I want you to be. I see what you mean. But - "

"But?"

"Last night, when I knew, I was just heartbroken. I don't know when
I've cried as I did. For a while I thought I'd just have to die."

"You won't die. You'll renovate yourself; you'll get new feathers,
like a bird in spring."

Marie looked slowly at Julia.

"I know."

Julia began to smile, first a smile of inquiry, then of delight.
"'Rah! 'rah!" she screamed softly; "we'll have Marie pretty again."

Marie took off her hat and coat and began to fluff her crushed hair.

"See my grey hairs, though, Julia?"

"They're nothing."

"My teeth, of course, haven't been touched since I was married. I
don't know if I'll be able to afford that, but I'll try."

"Marie," said Julia, at an inexplicable tangent, "for heaven's sake
why bring Desmond Rokeby here?"

"Oh, do you mind, dear? He brought me."

"Mind!" said Julia, now inexplicably tart, "I don't mind! Why should I
mind anything about him? Only - "

"Only?"

"Oh, well, it doesn't matter! Let's all be jolly, if he's got to
stay."

It was one of those gay, rowdy, delightful, laughing evenings which
can happen sometimes. They were all three in the minute kitchen
together, Desmond taking off his coat and rolling up his sleeves to
cook, and excellently he cooked, too. Julia tied an apron around him,
and Marie twisted up a cook's cap from grease-proof paper, and they
laughed like people who have discovered the finest jokes in the world.
There was no care; there was no worry; no time-table. No Jove-like
husband, no fretting, asking wife, no shades of grocers and butchers
had a place there. It was a great evening. No one was married.
Everyone was young. Oh! it was jolly! jolly! jolly! All one wished - if
one stopped to wish at all - was that it might never end.

But the end was at 9.30, punctual to the stroke of Marie's conscience.
At No. 30 Welham Mansions, Hampstead, were three little sleepers who
depended upon her for all they needed in the world, and over them
watched a tired old grannie who would fain go home to bed. Marie left
the others suddenly, in case the strength of her resolution should
fail her, crying, as she ran out:

"Now don't stop me! I'm going to put on my hat - and GO!"

Julia got up to follow her quickly, but quick as she was, Desmond was
quicker. He had his back against the closed door, facing her, and he
said:

"Julia! we'll stop ragging. We're alone for just two minutes. Let me
ask you - "

"No!" she exclaimed rebelliously.

"Yes, I will! You couldn't get the door open if you tried. Julia, ever
since I saw you I believe I've wanted you, and every time I've tried
to tell you you've checked me or driven me off somehow. Yet won't you
think - "

"I don't want to."

"If you'd marry me - "

"You know you don't believe in marriage any more than I do."

"Not for any fools. But we're different. Besides, you've altered me;
converted me. You can do absolutely what you like with me. I'm yours.
Let's - let's get married to-morrow and set an example to 'em all of
what married people should be."

"Are you mad?"

"Yes, about you," Rokeby replied. He had lost his naïve and lacklustre
bearing, his eyes were alight and quick, and his fire warmed her as
she stood before him, mutinous yet afraid.

"I shall never marry," she said defiantly.

"You will, sooner or later," said Rokeby, "and you will marry me. I'll
never leave you till you've done it, and then - then I'll never leave
you, either, Julia." He advanced upon her, a sudden whirlwind, before
whom she cringed back with a helpless sense she had never known
before. He opened his arms, enclosed her in them, and kissed her by
force, while she struggled and protested furiously under his lips.

"Do you know," he asked, "I came here to-night just to kiss you. Only
that! I didn't hope for any more satisfaction, but some day I shall
have it. You're not what you think you are. And I'll make you very
happy. As a looker-on I've seen a lot of the game called marriage, and
I'd know _how_ to make you happy. Don't you believe it?"

Released, she retreated to the other side of the room.

"I don't want to believe it; you'd better go; you've behaved
disgracefully, and I don't feel in the least like forgiving you."

"Very well," said Rokeby, as Marie's footsteps sounded on the
parquetry of the corridor, "I'm going, but I shall come again, and
again! You won't get rid of me, I say, till you've married me. And
then you'll never be rid of me."

He swung round, laughing, and opened the door for Marie.

"Now, Mrs. Kerr, I'm to see you well on your way home."

She looked from one to the other, at Julia tall and flaming, and
Desmond diffusing a kind of electricity.

"I believe you two have been quarrelling; I ought not to have left you
alone."

"We have been quarrelling frightfully. Miss Winter is never going to
allow me here again."

"Glad you realise _that_," said Julia frostily.

He went out into the hall goodhumouredly to find his coat and hat, and
Marie's umbrella, while the two women kissed good-bye. The fold of
kimono that covered Julia's bosom heaved rapidly and her eyes were
very bright. She would not offer Rokeby her hand, but went to the
front door with her arm round Marie's waist.

They looked back to wave at her before they ran downstairs; she looked
very tall and brilliant as she stood in her doorway, her head held
high, and her mouth tightly set, and when the door had shut upon her,
Marie wondered aloud:

"What can have happened to annoy her so?"

"I've done it," said Rokeby, "but don't worry over it. These things
adjust themselves, and nothing matters at the moment, anyway, but
seeing you safely home."

"You can't come right out to Hampstead."

"I can; and I should certainly like to, if I may. Osborn would never
forgive me for leaving you at this time of night."

She thought how kind he was, and how restful. It was attractive to be
looked after again, deferred to and considered. Rokeby drove her the
whole way out in a taxicab and found the sincerity of her thanks, as
they parted, very touching. As for Marie, not for years had she
climbed all those cold stairs so buoyantly; and after her long day, as
she put her latchkey in the lock, she suddenly sensed the pleasure of
coming home. There was nothing to do, in a rush, when she got in; no
preparations to make, or food to cook; no setting forward of work for
to-morrow, for the charwoman was coming early.

A man was a man certainly, and a quality to miss, but without him
there was a great still peace in the flat.

Grannie Amber, blinking drowsily, came out of the dining-room to meet
her daughter.

She noted the bright eyes and cheeks, and her heart beat joyfully.

"Had a nice time, duck?"

"Lovely, mother. I lunched by myself at the Royal Red, and watched the
people. Then I had my fingers manicured, and went to tell Mr. Rokeby
about Osborn, and had such a nice tea in his office; he's got such a
pretty office. Then he took me to Julia's flat, and we three had
dinner together. Oh! we were jolly. Mr. Rokeby cooked; how we laughed!
Julia made him wear one of her aprons, and I made him the sweetest
cook-cap you ever saw. I don't know when I've enjoyed myself so much."

"He's a nice man," said Grannie approvingly; "I wonder if he's
thinking of marrying Miss Winter?"

"Mother, your head always runs on somebody marrying somebody else."

"Well, duck, I'm an old woman, and in my long life I've noticed that
they always do."

"Julia hates men."

"I don't believe it, my love."

Marie went into her dining-room and looked around it with a new sense
of authority; she was now a complete law unto that room and all in it.

"I've got a cup of soup for you here, dear," said Grannie Amber,
bustling to the fireplace.

"Mother, you shouldn't trouble yourself! But how nice it is!" She
drank gratefully, then put the usual question with the usual anxiety:

"Babes been well? And good?"

"They've been lambs," said Grannie warmly.

"What a pity I folded up Osborn's bed, and put it in the children's
room! You could have slept here to-night, mother."

"My duck, I'd rather sleep in my own bed," said the old lady, "and
I'll be putting my things on, and going there now. You have the woman
coming in the morning?"

"Yes - and every morning."

Mrs. Amber nodded approvingly.

"You'll be very comfortable now, love."

Then she muffled herself in her wraps and went out bravely into the
cold towards the old-fashioned flat across the Heath; and Marie,
undressing, went to her bed, too. How still it was! The tiny breaths
of the baby scarce stirred the immediate air.

Where would Osborn be now?




CHAPTER XVIII

INTRIGUE


Osborn passed that first night at the best hotel in Liverpool. The
term "expenses" provided for the best, in reason, of everything; and a
good man at his job need not be afraid of making claims. Osborn was
going to be a very good man at his job and, somehow, without any undue
swelling of the head, he knew it. His chance had come, the big chance
which had laid poor Woodall low, and sent him up, up, rejoicing. When
they carried his rather goodlooking luggage - which he had bought new
for his honeymoon - into a palatial bedroom of the Liverpool hotel, he
experienced, only with a thousand degrees more conviction, that sense
of freedom from care which his wife was even then timidly grasping,
far away in London. He was provided for handsomely and agreeably for
three hundred and sixty-five days.

All his liabilities were provided for, too. No unexpected call could
come to him, no fingers delve into the purse that he might now keep
privately to himself. He was going out into a big world where life had
never taken him before, and he was going untrammeled; strong, young.

Osborn dressed for dinner that evening; he wore the links his
mother-in-law had given him as a wedding present, and a shirt
whose laundering had been paid for out of that omnipresent
thirty-two-and-sixpence, and the jacket cut by the tailor whom he had
never been able to afford since. He looked a very nice young man,
fresh, broad and spruce, but not too spruce; open-browed, clear-eyed
and keen. He was now at the zenith of his physical strength, in his
thirty-second year, untired and still eager. As he dressed, he looked
at himself in the glass as a man regards himself upon his wedding day.

He had remembered to find out about mails from Cook's and, before
going in to dinner, sat down in a great lounge and scribbled a note to
his wife; just this information, love, and a further injunction to
take care of herself; and no more. Like other husbands who had been
similarly placed domestically, he had no idea how this process of
taking care was to be accomplished by a harassed and busy woman, but
it was some satisfaction to express a verdant hope that it should be
done.

He went in, duty done, to an aldermanic dinner. He passed a very
successful evening. Actually, only on the eve of his mission, he sold
a Runaway car to a fat merchant prince who dined opposite to him; or
at least he went as near to the actual selling as it was possible to
go in the circumstances. He recommended him to their Liverpool agent,
wrote a personal letter, gave his card and received one in return, and
parted from his probable client with a feeling that the transaction
was going through.

He was off at daybreak next morning.

A stupendous piece of luck befell him on board. They were only two
days out when he found that a well-known theatrical management was
taking a play, with the entire London cast, to New York. It was only
on the second day, when, looking across the dining saloon, he saw a
raven head on the top of a rather full neck and high shoulders, and
met the gay and luring glance which he had met once before, to his
secret thrill, across the Royal Red, on the night when he dined there
with his wife to celebrate her birthday.


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