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presence had secured for him an extra mark of distinction; but he had
rather the feeling of a man surfeited. He put it to himself in modern
slang: "I was fed up," he said. "She only wanted me to get the tickets
and look after her luggage, and turn up when I was wanted, and be a
kind of unpaid courier, while she travelled about getting experiences
and hunting for bigger fools than me. I'm about fed up."

Osborn was to stop in Paris for a week on his way back; it was a week
to which he had looked forward throughout the year. Paris and expenses
practically unlimited! How gay it sounded! What visions it conjured
up! But the week was a failure as far as pleasure went, though
business was brisk. For Osborn over all the pleasures of Paris there
was a frost. It was restless and light and bright, and all this living
in hotels and cafes wasn't worth while. He wanted at last, very badly,
to be at home again.

He half thought of wiring to Marie to join him. How surprised and
delighted and excited she'd be! But how would she arrange about the
kids? She couldn't come, of course.

Besides, there was an inimitable pleasure in picturing oneself
entering the flat and finding her there just the same as ever.

Home was essentially the place to look for one's wife.

Osborn did not know Paris with any intimacy. A week-end had been his
limit hitherto. So he went to the Bon Marché to look for a gift for
Marie, not knowing where else to look, and he bought her any trifle
that he could imagine - Roselle's teaching was useful here, - little
chiffon collars, and a glittering hair-band ornament that he thought
looked very French, and handkerchiefs, and a pair of silk stockings,
and garters with great big fluffy pompoms on them. She had had to be
rather a mouse during her married life, after the trousseau was worn
out and since her children came, anyway. How pleased she would be to
have these pretty things!

The evening he arrived, after dinner, they would sit down by the fire
and he would tell her all his business news - how well he'd done; all
about his hopes and prospects, and he would give her some of his
firm's letters to him to read. He would be sure of her sympathy and
appreciation.

He had made more than a thousand pounds in commissions that year, and
it was waiting for him, in a lump. He drew a long breath at the
thought of it.

A thousand pounds! And there would be more to follow, for poor Woodall
had died, and he was holding down the job.

He crossed to Dover on a still, cold day; it was an excellent crossing
for the time of year. He stood on deck, smoking, watching the white
cliffs approach, looking back over the last year and forward to those
that lay before him. The last year - how mad and jolly it had been for
the greater part! It had been a great piece of folly and a great piece
of fun, travelling about with a lovely woman like Roselle Dates; it
was a situation which half the men he knew would have envied him.
Coming as it did after a humdrum period of domesticity, where a man
could not afford either folly or fun, the danger signals had been
flying all the time.

He could recall fifty occasions on which he could, or would, gladly
have lost his head; but now, retrospecting, he was inclined to give
himself the credit rather than Roselle, that their relations had been
so innocuous. And at the moment, although every second the boat
brought him nearer to her, he felt strangely indifferent as to whether
they met again or not. He supposed that he might, perhaps, go to see
her in this new play, and perhaps take her out to supper.

At four o'clock in the afternoon he was home.

He ran up the grey stone stairs like a boy and attained that dear old
door, the portal of home. Having mislaid his latchkey, he had listened
eagerly, anticipating the sound of Marie's feet flying down the hall.
Feet came with a sort of drilled haste, but no eagerness.

A smart maid-servant of superior type opened his door to him.

He stepped past her, staring somewhat, and the hall porter followed
into the hall with the luggage. The sitting-room door opened and Marie
came out.

As she came towards her husband she motioned the hall porter to put
the bags in the dressing-room. There was about her an assurance and
authority, very quiet, but undeniable.

"Here you are, Osborn," she said.

"Hallo, dear!" he answered, rather stammeringly. "How are you? How are
the - "

The maid took from him the overcoat which he was shedding, and his
wife retreated into the sitting-room, he following.

When the door was shut, she turned, lifted her face, and murmured:
"How are you, Osborn?"

He kissed her and, loth to relinquish her, kept his arm about her
waist; she was unresponsive, but he did not notice that; they went
together to the chesterfield drawn up before the fire and sat down.
She took a corner, turning herself to face him a little, so that he
had to withdraw his arm from her, and she pushed a billowing cushion
which he did not remember into a comfortable position for her back.

She spoke very kindly and sympathetically, but it was with the
kindness and sympathy which someone who was a stranger might show.
"How well you look! I'm longing to hear all about your doings; your
letters did not say very much. I should have met you at Victoria, only
there's always a crush, and it's easy to miss people, so I thought I'd
stay here."

"I didn't suppose you could leave the children to meet me."

"Oh, I can leave them quite well with Ann."

One of those silences which fall between people who have been
estranged fell between them, during which he looked from her to the
room, and all about him, and back to her, while she regarded him with
that disinterested kindness.

"How nice everything looks!" he said, breaking the silence in a voice
which sounded crude to himself. "What a lot of flowers you have, and
all these cushions! I don't remember things, as a woman would do, but
surely there's something new."

"Only the cushions. I stuffed a lot with one of mother's feather beds.
She left me everything, you know."

"Yes. You didn't say much about it."

"No. The flowers _are_ nice, aren't they? I love flowers."

"So you do," he exclaimed suddenly. "I wish I'd brought you some;
there are such lovely ones at Victoria."

His wife smiled.

"But I've brought you something I hope you'll like as well."

"Have you, you dear kind person?"

He took her hand and drew nearer. "Marie, darling, it's awf'ly good to
see you again. This last week in Paris seemed such waste of time, with
you so near."

She looked at him with her eyes widening, a trick he found vivid in
his memory. A little more colour rose into her cheeks.

"Don't you want to see the children?" she asked, "or do you want tea
first?"

"I have an idea I want you. But - where are they?"

"In the dining-room. George will be back from school directly."

"School?"

"Yes, school."

"Things have been happening!" he exclaimed, getting up. He pulled
caressingly at the hand he held. "You're coming, too?"

"Go in and see them by yourself. See if they remember you. Dispense
with my introductions."

She laughed, pulling her hand from his, and he moved away. At the door
he looked back, puzzled. An element which he was unprepared for, could
not understand, seemed with them in the room. She leaned back among
the fat cushions, pretty and leisured as he had been used to seeing
her before their marriage, only now she had something else about her
which he could not define. She was not looking at him, but down at her
hands lying in her lap, and the curling sweep of her eyelashes, the
bend of her head, the white nape of her neck, the colour and contour
of her cheek - all these he found newly adorable. He almost came back,
with a rush of tenderness, longing for a real embrace, but something,
that element which he only sensed, restrained him.

He went into the dining-room, where a four-year-old girl nursed a doll
and played with a robust baby by turns. They were merry, healthy
children, and their chubby prettiness swelled his heart with pride.
These were his; he had fathered them. And just through that
partitioning wall was a woman who was all his, too; one of the
prettiest of women, and his wife.

"Hallo, kids!" he smiled at them from the door-way, "here's Daddy come
back. Come and see if you remember him. What a great girl Minna's
grown, and is that the baby Dadda left behind him?"

He picked up the baby and danced and dandled her, but the
four-year-old Minna came more sagely, more slowly; she had to be won
over by bribe and strategy, and her aloofness made him a trifle sore.
In a moment or two he heard the maid go down the corridor and let in a
boisterous boy, who ran into the dining-room swinging a satchel of
books and pulled up short at seeing the stranger among them.

But his memory, older and longer than Minna's, served him.

"Daddy!" said George, shy and very nervous.

Osborn wondered why this boy was nervous of him. Forgetting his
previous sharpness and irritation with the children, he now suddenly
wanted George's confidence.

"Daddy's back!" he said, "with lots of stories to tell you about great
big ships and trains and wonderful birds which _you_ never saw."

"How splendid!" said the boy, still very shy. He had a guilty feeling
about his boisterous entry.

"I was afraid you would be cross with me for making a noise when I
came in," he explained.

"Like you used to be," Minna added.

"I'm not cross, old son," Osborn said slowly.

"We're going to have tea now, Daddy," Minna continued, as the maid
entered with a cloth and a tray.

Osborn stayed talking to the children while the tea things were set
upon the table. He supposed that they would all have tea together in
the way which he had once so heartily deplored, and which at this
moment seemed so dear and homely, until he saw the maid standing
respectfully behind her chair waiting for his departure.

He spoke genially, but ill at ease.

"You give them their tea, do you?"

"Yes, sir," she answered, "and I have taken tea into the
sitting-room."

The baby was now sitting in a high chair, bland and fat and greedy, a
bib about her neck. George and Minna, after a propitiatory smile at
him, had climbed into their places.

"You don't mind if we begin, Daddy, do you?" George asked.

"Go on, old son," said Osborn hastily.

There was no more use there for the father who had been cross, so he
returned to his wife.

She was still sitting in the corner of the chesterfield, but she had
picked up some knitting, with which her hands were busy. As he entered
she looked up and gave him a contemplative regard such as he had given
her as he went out, only that it was colder, more detached. She saw
him big and splendid, handsome and virile, and the eagerness in his
eyes fell into her heart like a cold weight. Her hands became cold and
trembled.

She did not want him.

Beside her the tea table was drawn up. Its equipment seemed to him
very dainty. It was a picture he liked, this pretty woman by the fire,
with the environment suited to her charms.

Through the wall came faintly the jolly sound of their children's
voices.

He hurried forward, sat down close to her, and laid a hand over hers
which held the knitting.

"What's that?" he asked.

"George's winter stockings; they're to have turn-down tops like
grown-up ones."

He took the knitting and pretended to examine the pattern, though he
was not thinking of anything save her.

The year's parting had been a miracle. Love had slyly redecorated his
house throughout.

"Jolly nice," he commented on the stockings, "but, please, give me my
tea now."

He smiled at her a lazy, autocratic smile. All this flat and the
people in it were his, and he would not have changed it for a throne.
He thought again, though in a more mature fashion, much as he used to
do in the first married year, how good it was to come in and shut your
own door upon a snubbed world.

She answered the smile by one faint and chilly and reposeful. Leaning
forward she began to busy herself with the tea things. The sugar tongs
poised: "Let's see," she cogitated, "it _was_ two lumps, wasn't
it?"

He assented, surprised. "Time I came home," he said, affecting to
grumble lightly.

"What do you think of the children?" she asked. "I suppose you find
them grown? Did they remember you?"

"Yes, of course. I should think they did!"

"Muffin, Osborn?"

"Thank you, darling. I say," he smiled with gratification, "you look
as though you'd all done yourselves pretty well while I've been away.
This is cosy."

He indicated the tea table.

"Of course, after mother's death - "

"I was awf'ly sorry, Marie. I'm afraid I wrote rather a brief letter
about it; life was rather a rush, you know."

"It didn't matter. I was going to say, that after her death, I found
myself quite well off, comparatively."

"You didn't tell me much."

"No. Well, you didn't ask much. Surely, I answered all your questions?"

He remembered uncomfortably the many months of his abstraction with
Roselle; she had occupied his thoughts for a while almost to the
exclusion of everything else.

"I expect you did, dearest."

"However, I'm going into accounts with you presently, and then you'll
know everything."

"Overspent yourself?" he smiled complacently, with the knowledge of
that thousand pounds backing him. "Want money to go on with?"

She shook her head.

"I don't want anything, thanks."

The thought was to her like a bulwark; it was a thought which
thousands of wives would have loved to possess. It somehow completed
her sense of detachment from him. She puzzled him.

"How long have you had a maid?" he asked. "I must say I was awf'ly
surprised when what's - her - name - Ann - opened the door to me."

"Let's see," she considered, wrinkling her brows, "I've had her for
six months. Before that I had a woman in to do the rough work."

"Well, if you could manage it - "

"I managed it, and kept quite within our income, thank you, Osborn."

"I must say it's very jolly to have you all to myself like this. We
always used to talk of what we'd do when my ship came home, and now
here she is!"

"Poor Osborn! You _must_ be glad."

"Aren't _you_?"

"Of course I am."

"We'll have a bigger flat; it's rather a crowd here, isn't it?"

"Yes, I'd like another room."

"You shall have what you like, darling."

He put an arm round her shoulders, drawing her face to his. "You know
I'd like to give you the world!"

She was silent.

He kissed her cheek, holding her against him. "I must show you what
I've brought as soon as I unpack. I got you some things in the Bon
Marché - I think you'll like them."

"I'm sure to."

"Tell me what you've been doing. I want to hear all about you," he
said persistently.

"There's very little to tell. I've been able to go out a great deal
more lately; and I've been resting and reading while I had the
opportunity. I took the children to the sea in the summer. Ann went
with us, so I was very free and had long walks and swims. It was
delightful."

"And you've missed me?" he asked quickly. "I don't hear anything about
that."

"We have all missed you."

Her assurance left him vaguely unsatisfied. She drew away from him
with a sidelong glance, half sad, half ribald, as if she knew and was
regretfully amused at what he was thinking. She leaned over the table,
cake knife in hand.

"Have some of this iced cake, Osborn? Bought specially for you."

For a while that pleased and appeased him. He asked more casually for
news, and she told him of Rokeby's and Julia's surprise wedding.

He sat back, astonished, exclaiming:

"Good heavens! How unsuitably people marry!"

"They do, don't they?"

The noise in the next room had subsided; and presently the handle of
the sitting-room door turned quietly, and three inquiring faces looked
in, Minna holding the baby steady.

Over Marie's face there came a change. From its half-cold
inconsequence and restraint, it warmed and lighted, as her hands went
out eagerly.

"Come along, chicks," she said; and then, turning to her husband, she
added quickly: "If you don't mind? I always read to them before
bedtime. Do you mind?"

"Why should I, darling?" he said, surprised.

The three children, encouraged, came forward. George had the chosen
book under his arm and, opening it at a favourite story, he laid it on
his mother's knee. Nursing the baby and with Minna snuggled into her
other arm, she prepared to read.

"Come and sit on my knee, old chap," Osborn whispered to George.

The child came dutifully, but his attention was for his mother. She
began to read in her light, clear voice, and for some while that was
the only sound in the room; the man and the three children listened,
as if entranced. During the progress of the reading Ann came in
without interrupting and took the baby away to bed.

A quarter of an hour later it was Minna's turn, and only George
remained; he was eager to tell his mother of the day's experiences at
school; clambering down from his father's lap he went to her, and,
with an arm flung about her neck, began an involved account.

She listened with interest and comprehension. And Osborn looked at
George's rapt face and her loving one, and drew a sharp comparison
between what mattered and trash.

At last George went, and the husband and wife were alone again.

He started to the door on a sudden impulse.

"I'll unpack and get those things," he said over his shoulder.

"Yes, do," she nodded, "before George goes to sleep. Your things are
in the dressing-room, and he will be there."

"We've simply got to have another flat," he replied, with a pleasant
sensation of the power to pay for it.

For a few minutes Marie Kerr sat quiet, staring at the fire. The
home-coming, so stimulating to Osborn, had for her been inexpressibly
stale. She was not thrilled; she was left cold as the November night
outside. The new and pretty habits of her life were in peril of being
broken, and her reluctance that it should be so was keen. She got up
and mended the fire and patted the cushions absently. She could hear
Osborn talking to his son, and Ann busy in the kitchen.

A man in the house was once more going to set the clock of life.

Before Osborn had found what he sought she went to her bedroom. The
baby and Minna were sleeping side by side in their cots, a screen
drawn round them to shade them from the light. Deep in the perfect
slumber of childhood, they did not awake at her careful entry. She
switched up the electric light over her dressing-table, and began to
change her blouse and skirt for the black frock in which she dined.
While she was standing thus, half dressed, Osborn came in.

She swung round upon him, hands raised in the act of smoothing her
hair, and there was something in her face which made him halt. He
looked at her uncertainly.

She could not have helped saying if she would:

"You startled me. I didn't hear you knock."

He had not knocked. The puzzle in his head increased. Why should he
knock? His mouth opened and shut again. He came forward hesitatingly.

"I - I - what do you mean, darling?" he began. "I wanted to bring you
these."

His coming thus was to her symbolic of legal intrusion upon all her
future privacy. In that year, privacy had been one of the things she
enjoyed most, after the edge was off the first loneliness. She found
it hard to relinquish her right to it. She stepped into the frock
quickly, and drew it upwards before he reached her. His hands were
full of little things, which he cast in a hurry upon the
dressing-table. She knew that he wanted to touch, to fondle her. She
slipped her arms swiftly into the sleeves and fastened the first hook
across her breast; in her eyes a shrinking antagonism unveiled itself.

She uttered hurriedly: "We have to be very quiet; the children are
asleep."

He cast a cursory glance towards the screened corner.

"They're all right; they can't see or hear or anything else. Come here
and let me put this hair-band thing on."

She stood a dressing-table length away, fumbling with the hooks, her
eyes fixed on him.

"I have lots of things to say to you," she began suddenly.

"Say them to-morrow," he replied in his old way.

"No," she said, "they have to be said to-night - not this minute,
perhaps, but presently."

She was in Osborn's arms again, and he was touching her throat, her
hair, and the velvet texture of her cheek.

"You've got fatter again," he was saying delightedly; "you look just
like the little girl I married, only there's something bigger about
you; firmer. There's no doubt marriage stiffens a woman up. That's it,
isn't it? You're sure of yourself."

She gazed full into his eyes. "Yes. I'm sure of myself; absolutely
sure."

"You always had ripping hair; but I think it's got thicker, hasn't it?
It's springy, sort of electric."

"It used to be thick; and then it was thin; and now it's thick again,
I think."

"You do it differently."

"One changes with the styles."

"_You_ would, you up-to-date thing. Now, you're going to look at
these souvenirs of Paris, aren't you?"

He held her close to his side, while he showed her what he had chosen;
the pale-pink collars - "You were always gone on pink, weren't you?" he
asked - the silk stockings and the vanity garters. With clumsy fingers
he tried to adjust the hair-band.

"Let me do it," she protested, "if you really want me to wear it."

"Well, don't _you_ want to?" he asked, a little hurt.

"I'd love to, if I may put it on properly. It's sweet."

"It makes you look awf'ly French!"

"Does that improve me?"

"You don't want improving."

He sat down by the dressing-table, while she stood, fixing the
glittering circle round her hair with clever fingers. He kept his hand
on her waist and, leaning forward, looked at her in the glass. She had
a lithe naturalness, a slim strength, which newly arrested his
admiration. Struck by the charm of his own wife, he missed no detail
of her appearance. She had dressed to please herself with a true
woman's delight in _dessous_; and he was quick to notice the
mauve gleam of ribbon shoulder straps under the filmy black of her
bodice, which gave the sombre gown a charming colour-note; her
sleeves, transparent, long, and braceleted round the wrists with black
velvet bands, showed the whole length of her white arms; in her ears
amethyst earrings repeated the note of the mauve ribbons. Her
stockings were silk and her slippers of velvet.

She was as amazing to him as a beautiful stranger.

"It doesn't go with my earrings," she said carelessly when she had
fixed the band, "but it's so pretty, and thank you ever so much."

She turned and showed him; and she showed him, too, the interest she
took in herself, which had caused her to pull out those waves of
fluffy hair over the tops of her ears, from under the hair-band, and
the curls she had pulled from beneath to dance on her forehead.

"Give me a kiss for it," he said, drawing her down.

She kissed him lightly.

"Fancy you the mother of a family!" he remarked, with a look at the
screened corner.

She smiled to herself, and began fingering the other things. "How nice
they are! And silk stockings! They're always welcome."

"But you're wearing them already," he said, with rather a disappointed
glance at her ankles.

"That doesn't matter. If there's one thing you can't glut a woman
with, it's silk stockings."

"Thanks, Mrs. Kerr! I'll remember that when I come home in the small
hours and have to provide a peace offering."

"Come home any time you like," she said goodhumouredly, "there will
always be peace as far as I am concerned."

When he had entered the room, he had missed something in it; and now
it occurred to him what it was.

"Where's my bed?" he demanded.

"In the dressing-room. I had it moved there, when you went; I thought
I might as well give myself more space."

"Of course! I noticed something unusual about the dressing-room. You
waited for me to move it back here, I suppose? It's rather a tough job
for women."

"The hall-porter would have done it, you know."

"Never mind, pet. I'll do it ever so quietly after dinner."

She did not reply.

"Are you ready?" he asked. "Come back to the fire, and sit down.
There's so much to tell each other about, isn't there?"

She moved to the door acquiescently and switched out the light, he
following. A savoury smell crept through the chinks of the kitchen
door, with the all-pervasiveness of cookery in flats. He sniffed it.

"How familiar! But you don't do the cooking now?"


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