Other travellers were becoming jammed in the corridor of the train, their tempers taking the tone of acerbity easy to those about to start on a railway journey. A determined young woman came up the step, and supported the conductor in an appeal for order, addressing herself more particularly to the English passengers; quiet obtained, she took the first advantage of it by presenting her ticket. The conductor showed gratitude by escorting her at once to her place.
“You don’t mean to say—” stammered the occupant of seat Number Twenty. “It can’t be! I shall begin to think I’m losing my senses.”
“If you’re Mr. Chiswell,” she replied briskly, “there’s no reason to be afraid of that.”
p. 161“A remark,” protested Mr. Chiswell, “so unkind that I can tell it comes from nobody but Miss Everitt.” She lifted her bag to the rack, and when she had succeeded in placing it there, he made a gesture of assistance. Glancing at herself in the mirror below the rack, she remarked that she looked a perfect bird frightener.
“I don’t agree with you,” he said.
“So far as I remember,” she said, “you seldom did.”
“We won’t exaggerate,” urged Mr. Chiswell. “For my part, I’m very glad that we’re to be fellow travellers, and I trust we shall have a pleasant journey. It’s clear enough to me, Miss Everitt, that fate has brought us together again.”
“Then I wish to goodness fate would mind its own business.”
The last passenger came into the saloon; the conductor’s forehead cleared of wrinkles, and he hung up his brown peaked cap with a sigh of relief. The train moved out from the Gare de Lyon in a casual way, as though it were going for a short stroll, and giving no indication that it intended to occupy the day by racing down the map of France. Folk p. 162on the low platform of the station waved handkerchiefs, blew kisses, cried.
“Is Freddy with you?” asked Miss Everitt.
“Need you ask! Is Emily with you?”
“Course she is.”
“Neither of ’em married?”
“Neither of them married,” agreed Miss Everitt. “Just as well perhaps. There are people who, so long as they remain single, can keep up a certain style and position; once they get spliced, first thing they do is to cut down expenses.”
“Exactly the view I took of it,” he cried eagerly. He leaned forward, and gave a glance around the saloon to make certain that no one listened. “Just the way I looked at the matter. Between ourselves, it was because of that I acted as I did.”
The attendant from the dining-car came to inquire whether the passengers wished to lunch in the first series, or in the second series; the two, after consultation, settled to take the meal together at the later hour. They found new grounds for agreement in the view that coffee and rolls at half-past seven in the morning, at a Paris hotel, formed but a mere imitation of a breakfast.
p. 163“I know perfectly well that what I’m going to tell you,” said Chiswell confidentially, “won’t go any further. I recollect how in the old days when we were—well, friends—you always knew when to keep your mouth shut. A great quality, that, in a girl, and I don’t want to flatter you when I say that one very seldom comes across it. What I’m about to tell you refers to—”
He jerked his head, and she nodded.
“They might meet,” she said.
“It wouldn’t matter,” he replied confidently. “They’re not on speaking terms now.”
“Fire away with what you were going to tell me.”
“As a Member of Parliament,” began Mr. Chiswell, “Freddy was not what the world might call a roaring success. Used to take a lot of trouble, and the Duke, his old father, was always getting at him, and asking when he was going to be asked to join the Cabinet. As a matter of fact, his speeches sounded all right when he said ’em off to me in Curzon Street, but apparently when he tried ’em in the House they didn’t go for nuts. I never went down there to hear him—got too much p. 164respect for myself to go near the place—but I always read the Parliamentary reports, and there, when he did get the chance of speaking, the papers mentioned his name amongst the ‘Also spokes,’ and that was about all. Whatever faults he may have had as a Member of Parliament, he was, and he is, a first-class chap to valet, and I don’t care”—Mr. Chiswell gave a resolute gesture—“I don’t care where the next comes from. I’ve only to say one word against a suit of clothes, and that suit of clothes is virtually handed over to me on the spot. I know to a penny what his income is, and I know to a penny what his expenses amount to. A peculiar chap, mind you, in some ways; never able, for instance, to bear the idea of being in debt. Most extraordinary, with people of his class.”
Chiswell dismissed this problem.
“Now you must understand—you know me well enough to realise it—that I’m not one of those who want to be always chopping and changing. If I’m in a nice comfortable easy-chair like this, I’m not the kind of chap to give it up, and go and sit out there in the corridor on a tip-up wooden seat. I’m the sort that—”
p. 165“Leave off bragging as soon as you’re tired,” suggested Miss Everitt, “and get on with your story.”
The young man, an elbow resting on the ledge of the window, and giving no attention to the scenery which flew past, with a straight road curling up like a length of white ribbon, applied himself to the task of describing the course of procedure adopted. The girl gave now and again a cough of criticism, here and there a slightly astonished lift of the eyebrows. Occasionally she sniffed at a bottle of Eau de Cologne with the air—obviously copied from some superior model—the air of having temporarily lost interest in the subject. Stated with a brevity that Chiswell, the day before him and personal exultation behind, could not be induced to show, the particulars might be fairly stated thus. Chiswell—
“Mind you,” he said firmly, “no one can call me a Paul Pryer. I look after myself; I don’t profess to look after others.”
—Chiswell happened, by chance, to come across a note addressed to his master which, so far as he could judge, had no reference to his master’s Parliamentary duties, or to any p. 166scheme for improvement of the masses; he founded his opinion on the fact that it commenced “My dearest.” Chiswell, a man of the world, would have been prepared to exercise tolerance and to pass it by with a wink, but for the fact that the communication was dated from an exclusive ladies’ club; the fact that the writer adopted a pen name baffled him and aroused his curiosity. He left the letter on the table, and concealed inquisitiveness until he should be entrusted with letters for the post. Looking through the bundle handed to him at four o’clock he felt pained and grieved to find that his master had not trusted him fully and entirely; the envelopes were addressed either to Esquires or to ladies known to the world as seriously interested in the work of the party. He particularly asked whether there were any other communications to be placed in the pillar box for despatch, and his master, on the point of running off to the House, distinctly and formally answered:
“No, Chiswell. That’s the lot. Don’t forget to post them.”
“Quite sure, sir?”
The reply to this polite and deferential p. 167question came in the form of a request, first that Chiswell should not be a fool, second that if he could not help being a fool, he would at any rate take steps to hide and to mask the circumstance. Chiswell was affected by these remarks as a duck is concerned by water running over its back; what did perturb him was the want of confidence shown between master and man after an acquaintance that had lasted for years. Chiswell, pondering on this, was placing the letters singly in the pillar box and giving to each a final examination when he discovered that one, addressed to—
“I know!” said Miss Everitt, much interested.
—Bore a special sign on the flap of the envelope. Mr. Chiswell, scarce hoping that he had struck the trail, retained this and kept it back for further consideration.
The custom of placing scarlet wax on the flap of an envelope and impressing the wax with a seal is probably an old-fashioned tradition dating from the days when gum could not be trusted. In the case of an envelope fastened in the ordinary way, Chiswell would have had to take the trouble of p. 168placing a kettle on the gas stove; in the present instance his work was rendered easy by the help of a penknife and, later, the use of a stick of wax and the seal. The matter appeared to be serious. A passing flirtation Chiswell might have permitted, although that he would have held undignified in a Member of the House of Commons, but within the few lines of the letter before him there seemed a plain hint of marriage. He was about to tear up the letter in the hope of thus giving a start to a misunderstanding when it suddenly occurred to him—
“An inspiration,” said Chiswell contentedly. “That’s what you may call it.”
—It suddenly occurred to him that the insertion of two words in the brief note, just two words in a space that seemed to have been left temptingly for them, would entirely alter the meaning: changing it from a hurried message of affection into a hasty intimation of dislike. “Do not” were the two words, and Chiswell took the pen and wrote them as quickly as he now, in the Cote d’Azur express, spoke them.
“You’re not blaming me,” urged Mr. Chiswell apprehensively.
p. 169“Go on,” she ordered.
Little else to go on about. The letter, resealed, went to its destination; the General Election came, and that meant a quick departure for the country. Freddy, greatly worried with one matter and another, seemed, so far as his valet could judge, to enter upon the contest in anything but a whole-hearted fashion; Chiswell managed to intercept and cancel a telegram sent to the same young party, urgently begging her to come and help. The meetings were noisy, and the candidate, who but a few years before made retorts which became classical, and delivered speeches the reports of which had to be decorated by reporters with “Loud laughter” and “Long and continued cheering,” gave no signs of alertness, falling back on dreary statistics which he himself could not understand, and his audiences declined to accept. Now that it was all over, they were on their way to Nice, where Chiswell hoped to meet no one but other defeated candidates and attendants who, it might be hoped, would, in their own interests, abstain from the vulgar chaff to which he and his master had been subjected in town.
p. 170“But what I want to point out to you, my dear—beg pardon—what I want to say is that I managed to stop him from entering upon marriage, and in doing so, I reckon I did a good turn for myself, and that I did a good turn for you.”
“She was very much worried and upset.”
Chiswell stretched himself luxuriously.
“It don’t do to share other people’s anxieties,” he said. “Great thing in this world is to keep trouble off your own shoulders. Do that, and you may reckon you’ve done pretty well. How have you been getting along since—since—”
“Since you dropped me?”
“Mutual consent,” he argued, rather uneasily, “mutual consent.” Both looked out of the window for a time. “By the by, do you ever see anything of that chap Miller? You don’t remember him perhaps; he was in Grosvenor Gardens when last I heard of him.”
“I believe he’s there still,” she answered, examining the tips of her boots.
“When did you—”
“Oh, don’t bother me!” cried Miss Everitt sharply. “You’re always wanting to know p. 171everything about everybody. A nuisance, that’s what you are.”
“I’ve got no grievance against Miller,” contended Chiswell. “You’re doing me an injustice. Me and Miller are good friends enough. Last time I met him he gave me some information, and we parted on what I may call the most amicable terms. I shouldn’t at all mind,” he went on generously, “I shouldn’t object in the least to running across poor Miller again.”
“You needn’t call him ‘poor.’”
“I’m not using the term,” said Mr. Chiswell, “in a monetary sense.”
“The monetary sense, as you call it, is about the only one you possess.”
Noting that she tapped the side of her easy-chair and that her head trembled, he decided to say nothing more on the subject, reverting instead to the matter already discussed. In going over some of the circumstances he found excuse for increased content; the swiftness of his action, and the general dexterity he had displayed made his eyes grow round and bulgy. The dining-car attendant came through to announce that the first series for lunch was ready, and Chiswell said he would smoke one p. 172cigarette and then go along and see whether his services were required by Freddy. Miss Everitt rose, remarking that it would be well, perhaps, for her to ascertain, at once, whether she could be of any use to Emily.
They returned to their chairs in less than five minutes: one perturbed, the other calm.
“Well, of all the—” he spluttered. “What I mean to say is, what in the world is going to happen next, I wonder?”
“That’s more than either of us can tell,” remarked Miss Everitt composedly. “What I know is that I do want my lunch. Sight of food in the dining-car has made me feel hungry.”
“The two of them! The two of them sitting there at a small table opposite each other!”
“I caught sight through the glass door of the bill of fare,” said Miss Everitt. “The name of the fish I couldn’t quite make out, but there were côtes de boeuf rôtis, and poularde, and haricots verts—”
“They were sharing a bottle of Chablis together. And he—he’d placed his hand on the top of her hand. Did you notice?”
“Wonder whether they’ll give us an ice?”
p. 173Chiswell found a handkerchief and rubbed his forehead.
“All very well for you to sit there and talk about food; how do you know that now they’ve met and made it up, that she won’t get rid of you in the same way that he’s jolly well certain to manage without me?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied, with calm. “I’ve saved!”
“The amount you’ve saved, my girl,” he declared, “will last you for just about five weeks.”
“What do you know about how much I’ve put by?” she demanded.
“I can tell you the sum to within a pound. I can write it down now, if you’ll lend me a lead pencil.”
He scribbled some figures on the margin of his newspaper, and handed it across to her.
“Guess again!” she said.
“It isn’t a question of guessing,” he said. “I happen to know. Unless you’ve made a considerable sum within the last three months, that’s the exact amount.”
“You really believed, then, what Mr. Miller told you?”
The conductor came, and returned to each p. 174the green cardboard covers enclosing their tickets. Under the impression that Chiswell was still a blade, a chum, a jovial companion, the conductor aimed at him a cheerful blow on the shoulder, and the train giving at this moment a lurch, the action took something of a more aggressive nature. Chiswell blazed up, trying to disengage himself from his coat. Other passengers in the saloon looked around interestedly; Miss Everitt interposed and ordered Chiswell to behave himself, to remember that he was in the presence of ladies. The conductor apologised and went on; the French passengers remarked to each other that the English formed an excitable nation.
“Pardon me,” said Chiswell to his companion, “but I should like to know your facts. I should be very glad indeed if you’ll kindly place me in possession of the true circumstances. To put it plainly—here’s your pencil—how much have you actually got in the bank on deposit, or on current account at the present moment? That’s all I want to know.”
She struck out his figures and wrote underneath. Leaning over he gave a whistle of astonishment.
p. 175“My dear,” he said deferentially. “There’s been a misunderstanding, due to the interference of outsiders. It’s not too late to put it all smooth and right again, but at the same time I’m bound to say such conduct is altogether inexcusable. When I come across Miller, I shall tell him so to his face. Who asked him to come to me, and give me wrong information, I should like to know?”
“I did!” she remarked. “But I’ve just made up for it by giving correct information on another subject to my young mistress.”
Chiswell threw himself back in his chair, and gazed severely at the roof of the saloon carriage.
“All I can say is,” he declared, “it’s absolutely ruined my lunch.”
Half the time I don’t trouble to look up at them, especially when I happen to be busy. They put their money underneath the brass wire; they ask for what they want; it’s given to them, and off they go. If any other plan was adopted we should never get through the work at our office, and there would be complaints to answer, and the superintendent might send some one along to kick up a row. As Miss Maitland says, when all the customers are made on one pattern everything will be much easier to manage; meanwhile we can’t do better than to do the best we can, and to recognise that some are in a hurry, some are just the reverse.
“Above all,” mentioned Miss Maitland, when I first came here, “no carrying on across the counter with young gentlemen.”
p. 177“When you’ve known me longer, Miss Maitland,” I said, “you’ll see how unnecessary it is to make a remark like that.”
“I’m only warning you for your own good.”
“I can behave myself,” I said, “as well as most girls. The fact that I’m a bit above the average in regard to looks—”
“Is that really a fact?” inquired Miss Maitland.
The very queer thing about it all was that he came in on the afternoon of the very second day I was there. I was having an argument about a halfpenny with a lady sending a telegram, and she said that she always understood we were well paid, and if that was true we ought not to try to make anything extra. I kept my temper, but I daresay I managed to say what I wanted to say—I generally do—and eventually she took the telegram back and decided to take a cab to Charing Cross and send it from there.
“Shilling’sworth of your best stamps,” he requested; “I want them to match my necktie.”
“Pennies or halfpennies?” I asked. You can understand I wasn’t in the mood for nonsense just then.
p. 178“Which are most fashionable just now, miss? I don’t want to look odd or conspicuous.”
“You’ll do that in any case. Kindly say what you want.”
“Perhaps I’ll try sixpennyworth of each,” he said.
I tore them off and pushed them underneath the trellis.
“Are these absolutely fresh? I may not be cooking them at once, you see. They’ll be all right, I suppose, if I keep them on ice?”
“You may as well put your head there at the same time,” I said.
The other girls on my side of the counter looked around, and Miss Maitland gave a cough.
“Heavens!” he said, putting on a deep voice, “how I adore the fair creature! Ere yonder sun sinks to its rest she must, she shall, be mine.”
I glanced up at him, prepared to give him such a haughty look, but I found he was a good-tempered-looking young fellow with his straw hat tipped to the back of his head, and somehow I couldn’t manage my cold stare quite so well as usual. Two or three people p. 179entered through the swing doors at that moment and came straight to my part of the counter.
“Very well then,” he said loudly, “that’s arranged. Outside the British Museum Tube Station half-past eight to-night. Mind, I shan’t wait more than ten minutes.”
The fuss Miss Maitland made just because I’d answered him back! I had a good mind to say something about old maids, but I stopped it just in time; instead I thought it the best plan to say he was a great friend of my brother’s and that he was one of those peculiar young gentlemen who had the impression that he ought to keep up his reputation for being comic.
“If he comes in again,” said Miss Maitland, “call me, and I’ll show you how to deal with him.”
The next day at about the same time I noticed out of the corner of my eye his lordship at the doors. He came in and I knew he was looking for me; to please Miss Maitland I went along to deal with some registered letters; she left her stool and took my place. “Now,” I said to myself, “now he’ll get his head bitten off.” I was engaged with work for about five p. 180minutes, and to my surprise, when I had finished, there was Miss Maitland chatting away with him as amiably as possible. “I like to go somewhere fresh every year,” she was saying. “That’s why I went to Windermere last summer.” He said, “Not in July by any chance?” and she said, “Yes, the middle of July.” It appeared he had been there at that date; not exactly Windermere but at Bowness, and he remarked—talking to her in a very different way from the one he had adopted with me—that it would have greatly improved his holiday if he had been so fortunate as to meet her. Maity gave a sort of smile and was about to make some further remark when he took out his watch, lifted his straw hat, hurried away.
“Really,” she said to me, still flushed with the conversation and looking quite young, “really a very well-spoken gentleman. Depends a good deal on how we approach them. If they think we want silly talk, why naturally enough they give it. In a general way,” concluded Maity, as though she possessed a wide and considerable experience, “in a general way men treat us as we deserve to be treated.”
He came in again that afternoon to use the p. 181telephone; the box was occupied and he had to wait. We were all watching to see how he would behave this time; lo and behold if he didn’t take a big book from underneath his arm called The Horse and his Health and read carefully, taking no notice of any of us. Maity looked disappointed, and one of the girls said the great drawback about men was that they were never twice alike.
That was the evening I found him waiting outside. It always rains when I leave my umbrella at home, and I couldn’t very well refuse his offer to see me into the motor omnibus, and it was certainly kind of him to suggest that I should take his gamp. I told him that the bus took me within a minute and a half of mother’s house.
At the time I was in the habit of telling mother everything, and she decided—not often she praised me—that I had behaved in a ladylike manner, and mentioned it would be a good thing if every mother brought up children as she had treated me. Mother told me about one or two half-engagements that occurred before she married poor father, and gave me one piece of advice which she said was worth its weight in gold, namely, that the p. 182moment you saw a young man getting fond of you the best plan was to pretend to be indifferent and in this way to make him see that there was a lot of hard work in front of him. Mother said this three times to impress it on my memory.
How in the world he found out the name it was not easy to see, but, as every one is aware, people spare themselves no trouble when they become fond of anybody. However that may be, the fact remains that a letter came, signed W. J. C., saying the writer would be at the statue on a certain day and at a certain hour, and, just for fun, I kept the appointment. Maity was very nice about giving me leave, and I waited there ten minutes. For a full ten minutes nothing happened, and I had to look at the omnibuses as they stopped in order to pretend I wanted to catch one of them. Presently I caught sight of him looking in a newspaper shop, and taking his time over it too. I became so mad that if there had been a pebble about I think I should have picked it up and thrown it at him. He turned, and I had to wave my muff in order to gain his attention.
“Hullo,” he said, coming across. “Taking p. 183up express messenger-boy work? Where’s your parcel?”
“I came here,” I said coldly, “because I was asked to do so, and for no other reason. I’ve no desire to be made to look like an idiot.”
“Plenty of easier tasks than that,” he mentioned. “I should reckon you were one of the most sensible girls going.”
“People say that about a lady when they can’t think of any other compliment to pay her.”
“Are you waiting for anybody, I wonder?”
“I wish you wouldn’t try to make jokes.”
“My dear girl,” he cried, and he seemed greatly concerned, “please forgive me. And now that we’re here, what shall we do?” He looked around, glanced at his watch, and sighed. “Come along and see a bioscope show.”
We caught a bus and went to one of the swell places in Oxford Street; I couldn’t help feeling pleased when I noticed that he paid eighteenpence each for seats. You can say what you like, and you can talk about the joys of being independent, but there’s something very gratifying in discovering for the first time that a gentleman is willing to take p. 184your ticket for you. Of course the place was all darkened whilst the pictures were going on, and I thought perhaps he would try to take my hand, and I was prepared to give him a pretty sharp remark if he did; but nothing happened, and I couldn’t make it out at all. It was nothing like what I’d read in books; nothing like what other girls had told me.
“You seem a very comfortable set in your office,” he said when the lights went up. “All on good terms with each other, aren’t you?”
“I suppose so,” I answered. “It’s my first experience, you see. What age do you think I am?”
“I should say that you are young enough to be pleased if I guessed you to be older than you really are. Shall we say nineteen?”
“Eighteen next birthday, and that’s on Tuesday of next week.” (There’s nothing like giving a hint.)
“What have you been doing all these eighteen years?”
“Improving myself,” I said.
“You can give that up now you are perfect.”
The lights went down again, and there was set of pictures about a girl who was being loved by two gentlemen—one rather plain p. 185with plenty of money and the other much better-looking but apparently only a clerk. I thought over his last remark and tried to discover whether he was still joking or whether he really meant it—if he did mean it it was a very gratifying thing to be said, especially in view of the fact that mother is generally finding fault with me. She has often said that I’m the worst girl in the world for leaving my shoes about and not putting a book away when I have done with it, and all this going on day after day, week after week, had given me a kind of a lurking suspicion that I wasn’t quite up to the mark. When the pictures showed that the plain man’s money really belonged to the good-looking chap he began to talk again and went back once more to the subject of the post office. I would rather he had spoken of something else; I wanted to forget Maity and the rest of them for awhile.
“Are many of them engaged?” he asked.
“Two of them say they are,” I replied. “I should feel inclined to guess it was only a half-and-half affair in either case.”
“Wonder what their names are?” I told him and he seemed relieved. “It’s very strange,” he went on, speaking in a more p. 186serious way than usual, “how these affairs happen. Looks as though some one who exercises control jumbles all the names into two hats and picks out one from each at random and decides that they shall meet each other and fall in love.”
“A good deal of it is mere luck,” I agreed. “Mother met father at a dance at the Athenæum up at the end of Camden Road. Of course a steward introduced them, but to all intents and purposes they were strangers.”
“A man goes on,” he said, still thoughtfully, “fighting pretty hard and not giving much attention to the other sex and all at once he catches sight of a face, through, say, brass trelliswork, and instantly he decides ‘That’s the girl for me.’ And he thinks of nothing else, can’t keep away from the neighbourhood of her, and—” He put his hands over his eyes and bent down.
I felt sorry and I felt pleased if you understand that; sorry for him, pleased for myself—seemed as though I had done him an injustice. It showed that you could not reckon any one up correctly by their outside manner. At the first I had no idea he was anything but the ordinary chaffing sort of young gentleman, p. 187and here he was obviously upset. All very well for mother to say that you ought to keep them at arm’s length when they are fond of you, but I simply couldn’t help patting his sleeve gently.
“Thanks very much,” he said gratefully. “You’re a good little girl and I’m really obliged to you.”
There was a funny set after this, with a short-sighted old gentleman blundering over everything he did, getting mixed up with motor cars, carried up by a balloon, tumbling down the funnel of a ship, and finally being rolled out flat by a steam roller, and pulling himself together and walking off.
“Always feel sorry for people who have to wear glasses,” I remarked.
“It improves some people.”
“I don’t agree with you. See how peculiar our old joker looks at the office.”
He stared at me.
“Surely you don’t mean that Miss Maitland?” he said.
“Of course I mean that Miss Maitland. Who else should I be referring to?”
He pressed the palm of a hand against his forehead.
p. 188“Let us get this straight,” he urged. “We seem to be in a muddle. Your name is Maitland, isn’t it?”
“My name is Barnes. Up to the present.”
“Then that confounded new messenger boy took my shilling and mixed up the information, and”—he stopped and fanned himself—“and you received the letter I intended for her.”
“I wish to goodness,” I said forcibly, “that some of you men had got a little more common sense.”
* * * * *
Mother says everything in this world happens for the best, and in all probability there’s some one else waiting for me somewhere. Mother says I have plenty of time in front of me; mother herself was twenty-eight before she married. Mother says there is no need for me to feel nervous until I get past that age.