Read CHAPTER SIXTEEN - THE MEETING IN HYDE PARK. of The Independence of Claire , free online book, by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey, on ReadCentral.com.

It was the end of May.  The weather was warm and sunny, the windows of the West End were gay with flowers; in the Park the great beds of rhododendrons blazed forth in a glow of beauty.  It was the season, and a particularly gay and festive season at that.  “Everybody” was in town, including a few million “nobodies.”  There were clerks toiling by their thousands in the City, chained all day long to their desks; there were clerks’ wives at home in the suburbs, toiling all day too, and sometimes far into the night; there were typists, and shop assistants, and prosperous heads of households, who worked steadily for five and a half days a week, in order that their families might enjoy comfort and ease, condensing their own relaxation into short Saturday afternoons.  And there were school-mistresses, too, who saw the sun through form-room windows, but felt its call all the same-the call of the whole glad spring-and grew restless, and nervous, and short in temper.  It was not the leaders of society whom they envied; they read of Court balls, and garden parties, of preparations for Ascot and Henley with a serene detachment, just as they read with indifference in the fashion page of a daily newspaper that “Square watches are the vogue this season, and our elegantes are ordering several specimens of this dainty bauble to match the prevailing colours of their costumes,” the while they suffered real pangs at the sight of an “alarming sacrifice” at twenty-nine and six.  The one was almost within their grasp; the other floated in the nebulous atmosphere of a different sphere.

In the staff-room at lunch-time the staff grew restless and critical.  The hot joints no longer appealed to their appetites, the watery vegetables and heavy puddings became things abhorred.  They thought of cool salads and compotes on ice, and hated the sight of the greasy brown gravy.  They blamed the cook, they blamed the Committee, they said repeatedly, “Nobody thinks of us!” and exchanged anecdotes illustrative of the dulness, the stupidity of their pupils.  As for the Matric. candidates, they would all fail!  There wasn’t a chance for a single one.  The stupidest set of girls the school had ever possessed!  Oh, certainly they would all fail!

“And then,” said Mary Rhodes bitterly, “we shall be blamed.”

The Arts mistress said with a sigh-

“Oh, wouldn’t it be heavenly to run away from it all, and have a week-end in the country!  The gorse will be out, and the hawthorn still in blossom.  What’s the very cheapest one could do it on for two days?”

Mademoiselle said-

“Absolutely, ma chère, there is no help for it.  It is necessary that I have a distraction.  I must buy a new hat.”

Sophie Blake said defiantly to herself-

“Crippled?  Ridiculous!  I refuse to be crippled.  I want to run, and run, and run, and run, and dance, and sing, and jump about!  I feel pent!  I feel caged!  And all that precious money squandered on injections...”

The six weeks’ course of treatment had been, from the doctor’s point of view, a complete success; from Sophie’s a big disappointment.  She argued that she was still stiff, still in pain, that the improvement was but small; he pointed out that without the injections she would of a certainty have been worse, and since in arthritis even to remain stationary was a success, to have improved in the smallest degree in six weeks’ time might be regarded as a triumph.  He prescribed a restful holiday during the Easter vacation, and a second course of treatment on her return.  Sophie resigned herself to do without new clothes for the summer, and sold her most treasured possession, a diamond ring which had belonged to her mother, so that the second ten pounds was secure.  But how was she to pay back the original loan?

Meanwhile Mrs Willoughby was inquiring among her friends for a suitable post, and had played the good fairy by arranging to send Sophie for the Easter holidays to a country cottage on the Surrey heights, which she ran as a health resort for gentlewomen.  Here on a fine dry soil, the air scented with the fragrant breath of the pines, with nothing to do, and plenty of appetising food to eat, the Gym. mistress’s general health improved so rapidly that she came back to school with her thin cheeks quite filled out.

“Very satisfactory,” said the doctor.  “Now I shall be able to get on to stronger doses!”

“What’s the good of getting better, only to be made worse?” cried Sophie in rebellion.

Cecil’s loan remained unpaid.  She had spent her holidays with her mother as arranged, but her finances did not appear to have profited thereby.  Dunning for bills became so incessant that the landlady spoke severely of the “credit of the house.”  She went out constantly in the evening, and several times Claire heard Major Carew’s voice at the door, but he never came into the house, and there was no talk of an open engagement.

As for Claire herself, she had had a happy time in Brussels, staying with both English and Belgian friends and re-visiting all the old haunts.  She thoroughly enjoyed the change, but could not honestly say that she wished the old life to return.  If she came back with a heavy heart, it was neither poverty nor work which she feared, but rather the want of that atmosphere of love and kindliness which make the very essence of home.  At the best of times Mary Rhodes was a difficult companion and far from affectionate in manner, but since the giving of that last loan, there had arisen a mental barrier which it seemed impossible to surmount.  It had become difficult to keep up a conversation apart from school topics, and both girls found themselves dreading the evening’s tete-a-tete.

Claire felt like a caged bird beating against the bars.  She wanted an outlet from the school life, and the call of the spring was insistent to one who until now had spent the summer in wandering about some of the loveliest scenes in Europe.  She wearied of the everlasting streets, and discovered that by hurrying home after afternoon school, making a quick change of clothing, and catching a motor-’bus at the corner of the road, she could reach Hyde Park by half-past five, and spend a happy hour sitting on one of the green chairs, enjoying the beauty of the flowers, and watching the never-ending stream of pedestrians and vehicles.  Sometimes she recognised Mrs Willoughby and Janet bowling past in their luxurious motor, but they never saw her, and she was not anxious that they should.  What she wanted was to sit still and rest.  Sometimes a smartly-dressed woman, obviously American, would seat herself on the next chair, and inquire as to the best chance of seeing the Queen, and the question being amiably answered, would proceed to unasked confidences.  She thought England “sweet.”  She had just come over to this side.  She was staying till the fall.  Who was the lady in the elegant blue auto?  The London fashions were just too cute!  When they parted, the fair American invariably said, “Pleased to have met you!” and looked as though she meant it into the bargain, and Claire whole-heartedly echoed the sentiment.  She liked these women with their keen, child-like enthusiasm, their friendly, gracious ways.  In contrast to them the ordinary Englishwoman seemed cold and aloof.

One brilliant afternoon when the Park was unusually bright and gay, Claire was seated near the Achilles statue, carelessly scanning the passers-by, when, with a sudden leap of the heart, she saw Erskine Fanshawe some twenty yards ahead, strolling towards her, accompanied by two ladies.  He was talking to his companions with every appearance of enjoyment, and had no attention to spare for the rows of spectators on the massed green chairs.  Claire felt the blood rush to her face in the shock of surprise and agitation.  She had never contemplated the possibility of such a meeting, for Captain Fanshawe had not appeared the type of man who would care to take part in a fashionable parade, and the sudden appearance of the familiar face among the crowd made her heart leap with a force that was physically painful.  Then, the excitement over, she realised with a second pang, almost as painful as the first, that in another minute he would have passed by, unseeing, unknowing, to disappear into space for probably months to come.  At the thought rebellion arose in her heart.  She felt a wild impulse to leave her seat and advance towards him; she longed with a sudden desperation of longing to meet his eyes, to see his smile, but pride held her back.  She sat motionless watching with strained eyes.

One of Captain Fanshawe’s companions was old, the other young-a pretty, fashionably-dressed girl, who appeared abundantly content with her escort.  All three were watching with amusement the movements of a stout elderly dame, who sauntered immediately ahead, leading by a leash a French poodle, fantastically shaved, and decorated with ribbon bows.  The stout dame was evidently extravagantly devoted to her pet, and viewed with alarm the approach of a jaunty black and white terrier.

The terrier cocked his ears, and elevating his stump of a tail, yapped at the be-ribboned spaniel with all a terrier’s contempt, as he advanced to the attack.  The stout dame screamed, dropped the leash, and hit at the terrier with the handle of her parasol.  The poodle evidently considering flight the best policy, doubled and fled in the direction of the green chairs, to come violently to anchor against Claire’s knee.  The crowd stared, the stout dame hurried forward.  Claire, placing a soothing hand on the dog’s head, lifted a flushed, smiling face, and in so doing caught the lift of a hat, met for the moment the glance of startled eyes.

The stout lady was not at all grateful.  She spoke as sharply as though Claire, and Claire alone, had been the cause of her pet’s upset.  She strode majestically away, leaving Claire trembling, confused, living over again those short moments.  She had seen him; he had seen her!  He was alive and well, living within a few miles of herself, yet as far apart as in another continent.  It was six months since they had last met.  It might be six years before they met again.  But he had seemed pleased to see her.  Short as had been that passing glance, there was no mistaking its interest.  He was surprised, but pleasure had overridden surprise.  If he had been alone, he would have hurried forward with outstretched hand.  In imagination she could see him coming, his grave face lightened with joy.  Oh, if only, only he had been alone!  But he was with friends; he had the air of being content and interested, and the girl was pretty, far prettier than Janet Willoughby.

“Good afternoon!”

She turned gasping; he was standing before her, holding out his hand.  He had left his companions and come back to join her.  His face looked flushed, as though he had rushed back at express speed.  He had seemed interested and content, and the girl was pretty, yet he had come back to her!  He seated himself on the chair by her side, and looked at her with eager eyes.

“I haven’t seen you for six months!”

“I was just-” Claire began impulsively, drew herself up, and finished demurely-“I suppose it is.”

“You haven’t been at either of Mrs Willoughby’s `At Homes.’”

“No; but I’ve seen a good deal of them all the same.  They have been so kind.”

“Don’t you care for the `At Homes’?  I asked Mrs Willoughby about you, and she seemed to imply that you preferred not to go.”

“Oh, no!  Oh, no!  That was quite wrong.  I did enjoy that evening.  It was a-a misunderstanding, I think,” said Claire, much exercised to find an explanation of what could really not be explained.  Of the third “At Home” she had heard nothing until this moment, and a pang of retrospective disappointment mingled with her present content.  “I have been to the house several times when they were alone,” she continued eagerly.  “They even asked me on Christmas Day.”

“I know,” he said shortly.  “I was in Saint Moritz, skating in the sunshine, when I heard how you were spending your Christmas holidays.”  His face looked suddenly grim and set.  “A man feels pretty helpless at a time like that.  I didn’t exactly enjoy myself for the rest of that afternoon.”

“That was stupid of you, but-but very nice all the same,” Claire said softly.  “It wouldn’t have made things easier for me if other people had been dull, and, after all, I came off better than I expected.”

“You were all alone-in your Grand Hotel?”

“Only for a week.”  Claire resolutely ignored the hit.  “Then my friend came back, and we made some little excursions together, and enjoyed being lazy, and getting up late, and reading lots of nice books.  I had made all sorts of good resolutions about the work I was going to get through in the holidays, but I never did one thing.”

“Do you often come to the Park?”

Claire felt a pang of regret.  Was it possible that even this simple pleasure was to be denied her?  She knew too well that if she said “yes,” Captain Fanshawe would look out for her again, would come with the express intention of meeting her.  To say “yes” would be virtually to consent to such meetings.  It was a temptation which took all her strength to reject, but rejected it must be.  She would not stoop to the making of a rendez-vous.

“I have been several times, but I shan’t be able to come any more.  We get busier towards the end of the term.  Examinations-”

Captain Fanshawe straightened himself, and said in a very stiff voice-

“I also, unfortunately, am extremely busy, so I shall not be able to see the rhododendrons in their full beauty.  I had hoped you might be more fortunate.”

Claire stared at a passing motor, of which she saw nothing but a moving mass; when she turned back it was to find her companion’s eyes fixed on her face, with an expression half guilty, half appealing, altogether ingratiating.  At the sight her lips twitched, and suddenly they were laughing together with a delicious consciousness of understanding.

“Well!” he cried, “it’s true!  I mean it!  There’s no need to stay away because of me; but as I am here to-day, and it’s my last chance, won’t you let me give you tea?  If we walk along to Victoria Gate-”

Claire thought with a spasm of longing of the little tables under the awning; of the pretty animated scene; but no, it might not be.  Her acquaintance with this man was too casual to allow her to accept his hospitality in a public place.

“Thank you very much, but I think not.  I would rather stay here.”

“Well, at any rate,” he said defiantly, “I’ve paid for my chair, and you can’t turn me out.  Of course, you can move yourself.”

“But I don’t want to move.  I like being here.  I’m very glad to see you.  I should like very much to have tea, too.  Oh, if you don’t understand I can’t explain!” cried poor Claire helplessly; and instantly the man’s expression altered to one of sympathy and contrition.

“I do understand!  Don’t mind what I say.  Naturally it’s annoying, but you’re right, I suppose-you’re perfectly right.  I am glad, at any rate, that you allow me to talk to you for a few minutes.  You are looking very well!” His eyes took her in in one rapid comprehensive sweep, and Claire thanked Providence that she had put on her prettiest dress.  “I am glad that you are keeping fit.  Did you enjoy your holiday in Belgium?”

“How did you know I was in Belgium?”

He laughed easily, but ignored the question.

“You have good news of your mother, I hope?”

“Very good.  She loves the life, and is very happy and interested, and my stepfather writes that his friends refuse to believe in the existence of a grown-up daughter.  He is so proud of her youthful looks.”

“How much did you tell her about your Christmas holidays?”

“All the nice bits!  I don’t approve of burdening other people!”

“Evidently not.  Then there have been burdens?  You’ve implied that!  Nothing by any chance, in which a man-fairly intelligent, and, in this instance, keen after work-could possibly be of some use?”

The two pairs of eyes met, gazed, held one another steadily for a long eloquent moment.

“Yes,” said Claire.

Captain Fanshawe bent forward quickly, holding his stick between his knees.  The side of his neck had flushed a dull red colour.  For several moments he did not speak.  Claire had a curious feeling that he could not trust his voice.

“Good!” he said shortly at last.  “Now may I hear?”

“I should like very much to ask you some questions about-about a man whom I think you may know.”

The grey eyes came back to her face, keen and surprised.

“Yes!  Who is he?”

“A Major Carew.  His Christian name is Frank.  He belongs to your Club.”

“I know the fellow.  Yes!  What do you want to know about him?”

“Everything, I think; everything you can tell me!”

“You know him personally, then?  You’ve met him somewhere?”

“Yes,” Claire answered to the last question, “and I’m anxious-I’m interested to know more.  Do you know his people, or anything about him?”

“I don’t know them personally.  I know Carew very slightly.  Good family, I believe.  Fine old place in Surrey.”

The Elizabethan manor house was true, then!  Claire felt relieved, but not yet satisfied.  Her suspicion was so deep-rooted that it was not easily dispelled.  She sat silent for a moment, considering her next question.

“Is he the eldest son?”

“I believe he is.  I’ve always understood so.”

The eldest son of a good family possessing a fine old place!  Claire summoned before her the picture of the coarse florid-faced man who had tried to flirt with her in the presence of the woman to whom he was engaged; a man who stooped to borrow money from a girl who worked for her own living. What excuse could there be for such a man?  She drew her brows together in puzzled fashion, and said slowly-

“Then surely, if he is the heir, he ought to be rich!”

“It doesn’t necessarily follow.  I should say Carew was not at all flush.  Landed property is an expensive luxury in these days.  I’ve heard, too, that the father is a bit of a miser.  He may not be generous in the matter of allowance!”

Claire sat staring ahead, buried in thought, and Captain Fanshawe stared at her in his turn, and wondered once more why this particular girl was different from every other girl, and why in her presence he felt a fullness of happiness and content.  She was very pretty; but pretty girls were no novelty in his life; he knew them by the score.  It was not her beauty which attracted him, but a mysterious affinity which made her seem nearer to him than he had hitherto believed it possible for any human creature to be.  He had recognised this mysterious quality at their first meeting; he had felt it more strongly at Mrs Willoughby’s “At Home”; six months’ absence had not diminished his interest.  Just now, when he had caught sight of her flushed upturned face, his heart had leapt with a violence which startled him out of his ordinary calm.  Something had happened to him.  When he had time he must think the thing out and discover its meaning.  But how did she come to be so uncommonly interested in Carew?  He met Claire’s eyes, and she asked falteringly-

“I wish you would tell me what you think of him personally!  Do you think he is-nice?”

“Tell me first what you think yourself.”

“Honestly?  You won’t mind?”

“Not one single little bit!  I told you he is a mere acquaintance.”

“Then,” said Claire deliberately, “I think he is the most horrible, detestable, insufferable, altogether despicable creature I have ever met in the whole of my life!”

“What!  What!  I say, you are down on him!” Captain Fanshawe stared, beamed with an obvious relief, then hastened to defend an absent man.  “You’re wrong, you know; really you’re wrong!  I don’t call Carew the most attractive fellow you can meet; rather rough manners, don’t you know, but he’s all right-Carew’s all right.  You mustn’t judge by appearances, Miss Gifford.  Some of the most decent fellows in the Club are in his set.  Upon my word, I think he is quite a good sort.”  Captain Fanshawe waxed the more eloquent as Claire preserved her expression of incredulous dislike.  He looked at her curiously, and said, “I suppose I mustn’t ask-I suppose you couldn’t tell me exactly why you are so interested in Carew?”

“I’m afraid not.  No; I’m afraid I can’t,” Claire said regretfully.  Then suddenly there flashed through her mind a remembrance of the many tangles and misunderstandings which take place in books for want of a little sensible out-speaking.  She looked into Captain Fanshawe’s face with her pretty dark-lashed eyes and said honestly, “I wanted to know about him for the sake of-another person? Nothing to do with myself!  I have only met him twice.  I hope I shall never meet him again!”

“Thank you,” said the man simply, and at the time neither of the two realised the full significance of those quiet words.  It was only on living over the interview on her return home that Claire remembered and understood!

For the next quarter of an hour they abandoned the personal note, and discussed the various topics of the hour.  They did not always agree, and neither was of the type to be easily swayed from a preconceived opinion, but always they were interested, always they felt a sympathy for the other view, never once was there a fraction of a pause.  They had so much to say that they could have talked for hours.

Gradually the Park began to empty, the string of motors grew less, the crowd on the footpath no longer lounged, but walked quickly with a definite purpose; the green chairs stood in rows without a single occupant.  Claire looked round, realised her isolation, drew an involuntary sigh, and rose in her turn.

“It’s getting late.  I must be hurrying home.  I go to the Marble Arch and take a motor-’bus.  Please don’t let me take you out of your way!”

He looked at her straightly but did not reply, and they paced together down the broad roadway, past the sunken beds of rhododendrons with the fountain playing in the centre, towards the archway which seemed to both so unnecessarily near!  Claire thought of the six months which lay behind, saw before her a vision of months ahead unenlightened by another meeting, and felt suddenly tired and chill.  Captain Fanshawe frowned and bit at his lower lip.

“I am going away to-morrow.  We shall be in camp.  In August I am taking part of my leave to run up to Scotland, but I can always come to town if I’m needed, or if there’s a special inducement.  I came up for both the Willoughbys’ `At Homes.’”

“Did you?” Claire said feebly, and fell a-thinking.  The inference was too plain to be misunderstood.  The “special inducement” in this instance had been the hope of meeting herself.  Actually it would appear that he had travelled some distance to ensure this chance, but the chance had been deliberately denied.  Kind Mrs Willoughby would have welcomed her with open arms; it was Janet who had laid the ban.  Janet was friendly, almost affectionate.  As spring progressed she had repeatedly called at Saint Cuthbert’s after afternoon school and carried Claire off for refreshing country drives.  Quite evidently she enjoyed Claire’s society, quite evidently also she preferred to enjoy it when other visitors were not present.  Claire was not offended, for she knew that there was no taint of snobbishness in this decision; she was just sorry, and, in a curious fashion, remorseful into the bargain.  She did not argue out the point, but instinctively she felt that Janet, not herself, was the one to be pitied!

They reached the end of the footpath:  in another minute they would be in the noise and bustle of Oxford Street.  Erskine Fanshawe came to an abrupt halt, faced Claire and cried impulsively-

“Miss Gifford!”

“Yes?”

Claire shrank instinctively.  She knew that she was about to be asked a question which it would be difficult to answer.

Erskine planted his stick on the ground, and stared straight into her eyes.

“Why are you so determined to give me no chance of meeting you again?”

“I-I’m not determined!  I hope we shall meet.  Perhaps next winter-at Mrs Willoughby’s.”

He laughed grimly.

“But if I were not content to wait for `perhaps next winter-at Mrs Willoughby’s.’ ...  What then?”

Claire looked at him gravely.

“What would you suggest?  I have no home in London, and no relations, and your mother, Captain Fanshawe, would not introduce me to you when she had the chance!”

He made a gesture of impatience.

“Oh, my mother is the most charming of women-and the most indiscreet.  She acts always on the impulse of the moment.  She introduced you to Mrs Willoughby, or asked Mrs Willoughby to introduce herself, which comes to the same thing.  Surely that proves that she-she-”

He broke off, finding a difficulty in expressing what he wanted to say; but Claire understood, and emphatically disagreed.  To enlist a friend’s sympathy was a very different thing from running the risk of entangling the affections of an only son!  Obviously, however, she could not advance this argument, so they stood, the man and the girl, looking at one another, helpless, irresolute, while the clock opposite ticked remorselessly on.  Then, with an abruptness which lent added weight to his words, Erskine said boldly-

“I want to meet you again!  I am not content to wait upon chance.”

Claire did not blush; on the contrary, the colour faded from her cheeks.  Most certainly she also was not content, but she did not waver in her resolution.

“I’m afraid there’s nothing else for it.  It’s one of the hardships of a working girl’s life that she can’t entertain or make plans.  It seems more impossible to me, perhaps, from having lived abroad where conventions are so strict.  English girls have had more freedom.  I don’t see what I can do.  I’m sorry!”-she held out her hand in farewell.  “I hope some day I shall see you again!”

Quite suddenly Captain Fanshawe’s mood seemed to change.  The set look left his face; he smiled-a bright confident smile.

“There’s not much fear about that!  I shall take very good care that we do!”