Read CHAPTER XXVII of People of Position , free online book, by Stanley Portal Hyatt, on ReadCentral.com.

Jimmy’s engagement to Vera Farlow was an accomplished fact.

“You have got to thank me for it all, Jimmy,” Ethel said, when he came to her for congratulations. “You would certainly never have done it alone. In fact, once or twice lately I have been afraid that my suggestions and advice were going to be wasted after all. Yet, I don’t quite know what to think of you, even now.” She put her head on one side and surveyed him critically.

“What do you mean?” he asked, smiling.

Ethel laughed. “I’ve known you to make love more ardently. Oh, yes. I have a very good memory. Still, I won’t tell Vera. And now I’m going to write to your sister May and gloat over her. Of course I shall gloat, because I suggested getting you married off when we first heard you were coming home, and May got furious with me. Will you write too?”

Jimmy shook his head. “No, yours will do, at least for a start. I’ve got to write to Canon Farlow. Vera says he won’t be home from Switzerland for another week. Otherwise, I would have gone to see him.”

“He’s rather an old stick, if I may say that of your beloved’s father,” Ethel went on. “You will find that out, and his sermons are very long, so don’t live in his parish if you can help it. You’ll have plenty of church in any case, you poor Jimmy.”

“Why ‘poor Jimmy,’ when you’ve just been congratulating me?”

Ethel gave an impatient little sigh. “I don’t know, I’m sure. Now I’ve done it I’m wondering if I was right. It’s a big responsibility, and you may both end by hating me ever after. Promise me you won’t, Jimmy, do promise that.” Her voice had grown unusually earnest, and her eyes were suspiciously bright.

“Of course I promise, Ethel,” he said gravely. “But I don’t think there is much fear of my feeling anything except gratitude.”

But Mrs. Grimmer was not satisfied. “I wish I had left it alone. I don’t know how it is, but you’re not the old Jimmy any longer, and I can’t understand you. You’re not half as happy as you ought to be under the circumstances. Now, are you?”

He protested vigorously against the idea, and yet he left her so entirely unconvinced that, instead of going to Vera, she sought out her husband and had a good cry on his shoulder.

“I ought not to have done it, Billy,” she sobbed. “If anything goes wrong when it’s too late, Jimmy will take it to heart so terribly. I wish I wasn’t responsible, but I am, and I can’t deny it.”

Billy tried to comfort her. “My dear, they seem happy enough over it. I know Vera is very grateful to you.”

Ethel shrugged her shoulders. “Vera! Oh, she would be happy, because she doesn’t feel very deeply. She never did about anything. It was always the same with her when she was a child. But Jimmy is different. He’s not in love.”

“Then why did he propose?” Billy retorted. “Was it her money?”

“No, no,” Ethel repudiated the idea emphatically. “Jimmy is not that sort. I think he proposed because he’s been very miserable over something, and Vera took his thoughts off his other troubles. But he won’t be happy.”

There was no mistaking the conviction in her voice, and, for a moment, even her husband was moved out of his usual good-humoured complacency; but he soon recovered and tried to laugh away her fears, without, however, achieving much success. She was not in a mood to be reassured, although she contrived to put on a smiling face when she met the newly engaged pair at dinner.

Vera was a little inclined to blush, but obviously happy. Jimmy, on the other hand, was by turns silent, almost moody, and then feverishly talkative. Vera seemed to notice nothing amiss possibly she put it down to natural excitement but Ethel watched him with anxiety, which she tried hard to conceal. As she said, the whole thing was her doing. She had engineered it carefully, and she was, at least in matters like these, a clever woman. True, once or twice, she felt a slight misgiving, but she had made up her mind to succeed, and had brushed her fears aside. Only when Jimmy came with the news that her scheme had become an accomplished fact did she realise that match-making is a dangerous occupation. He neither looked nor spoke like a lover who had just been accepted, but rather like a man who sees the crisis of his life a little way ahead of him, and is fearful of his own capacity to pass through it.

Vera was quite satisfied with Jimmy’s farewell kiss. Had there been passion in it she might have been frightened; but, as it was, the caress he gave her seemed very sweet. She was very proud of this lover of hers, of his undoubted cleverness, his good looks, and his powers of conversation. It would be very pleasant to see his name on all the bookstalls, to know that almost every other girl of her acquaintance would envy her the possession of her author. So far, she had hardly thought of marriage and its responsibilities; all that part seemed a long way off, in the distant future, and, for the moment, she thought only of the engagement. But as Jimmy walked home in the moonlight, Vera Farlow was hardly in his mind at all; he was thinking of other kisses he had given and received, and, try as he would, he could not drive out a horrible feeling that, every time his lips touched Vera’s, he was being unfaithful to Lalage. It was absurd, wholly ridiculous, he told himself so savagely; but still a sense of shame and ingratitude remained. Lalage, who had suffered so much, and, as he realised now, had suffered, too, for him, was in that shop, the sort of place where one could spend one’s whole life, and he was going to marry Vera Farlow, and cut the last slender link between himself and the girl he had once loved, was going to make her a last present, of money, and ask her not to write again.

Jimmy let himself into the cottage, fully determined to go through with the task there and then, to write the letter almost before he had time to think, and to post it immediately. Yet dawn found him still sitting at his desk with a pile of cigarette ends and an empty decanter on the tray, and a blank sheet of paper in front of him. At last, he got up with a sigh, extinguished the lamp, and stumbled wearily to bed. It was not that the spirit had affected him he felt he would have given anything to have it do so but he was utterly exhausted mentally, and, the moment he lay down, he went into a heavy, dreamless sleep, which lasted until ten o’clock.

When Jimmy awakened in the morning the first thing he remembered was that he had promised to meet Vera at eleven. He would have no time for breakfast, but that did not trouble him, as he would have eaten nothing in any case. His meal, however, was not the only matter which would have to be left over. He would only have just sufficient time to shave and dress and walk up to Drylands; consequently, as he told himself with an undeniable sense of relief, his letter to Lalage must be put off until the evening, if not until the following day.

Vera did not seem to notice anything unusual in his appearance, or, if she did, she made no remark on it; but when they met Ethel a little later, that lady scanned his face anxiously, and took the first opportunity of calling him aside.

“You didn’t sleep, Jimmy. You’re worrying about something,” she said, bluntly.

Jimmy made a rather unsuccessful attempt to laugh. “I’m taking on responsibilities,” he said. “I realise it now, and the letter to Canon Farlow is still unwritten, although I must do it before the afternoon post goes out. Vera had better help me, I think. Did you write to May?”

“Last night, after you had gone,” Ethel answered. “It went by the nine-thirty this morning, so May will know before she goes to bed to-night.” Then she went back to the subject of himself. “What is it you are worrying about, Jimmy? Is it anything that I can help you with?”

He shook his head. “There’s no trouble, really there isn’t. What can there be? Vera and I both know our own minds, and in another year’s time I ought to be making a decent income. You will be able to point us out proudly as a couple whose happiness you secured.”

He tried to speak lightly, but he did not convince her in the least; though she put on a smile when Vera came out again.

“Jimmy hasn’t written to your father yet, Vera,” she said. “You had better take him into the library now, and make him do it at once, or else he’ll keep on putting it off. I know his ways of old. He lacks all his family’s instinct for business-like promptitude. Now, his brother Walter probably had all such letters ready, or at least drafted out, before he proposed. Jimmy has none of the Grierson ways, as May will doubtless tell you.”

Vera frowned slightly. Sometimes Ethel’s flippant speech jarred on her a little. Family matters are treated as serious things in the household of a canon who has relatives possessing influence; moreover, it was by no means pleasant to be told that Jimmy was different from the Griersons. It was almost an implied slur on his respectability. However, before she had time to make any protest, Ethel had moved off, and Jimmy changed the current of her thoughts by suggesting that the letter to Canon Farlow had better be written at once, and she led the way into the library, well pleased at the idea.

Possibly because the letter to Lalage would be so terribly difficult to compose, Jimmy found that to his future father-in-law comparatively easy. There was not much feeling in it perhaps even Vera, who read it with partial eyes, could not help noting the fact but, after all, it was in a sense a matter of business; and so she was able to find consolation in its clear, incisive phrasing. She was glad when it was finished, more glad still when they had strolled down to the pillar box outside the gates, and dropped the envelope in it. Their relations were on a definite footing now, and she had little doubt that her father would be well pleased. Of course, Jimmy was still a poor man; he had been perfectly frank on that point; but still he was making a name, and, as he said, he would now have a still stronger incentive to work. Altogether, she was quite satisfied with her prospects, and convinced that she had done a wise thing in saying “Yes.” Perhaps, somewhere at the back of her mind, there was sense of disappointment, a feeling that both she and her lover were wanting in enthusiasm; but, if she did experience anything of the sort, she crushed it down resolutely, knowing well that passion is closely allied to wickedness, if it is not even a form of wickedness. She had been taught from childhood that sentiment is of necessity either sinful or ridiculous, and that the basis of a successful marriage which was her people’s phrase for a happy marriage is equality of position, combined with business instincts on the part of the man. People in her world lived to get on; it was a sacred duty with them; failure to do so was discreditable, almost criminal, as she had often heard her mother say when engaged in district visiting amongst the homes of the improvident poor. Jimmy would get on, she fully believed that, especially when he had a sensible wife to help him; moreover, he was both good looking and sweet natured; consequently, she told herself that he was all she could have wished for. It had never occurred to her that he might have a past, because neither the Griersons, nor the Farlows, nor anyone in their world, ever had such things. They seemed to live in a monotonous present of negative virtue, wholly safe and solid. So she had asked him no questions, and he had volunteered no confessions.

The day passed all too quickly for Jimmy, too quickly, not because he was revelling in the society of his fiancee, but because each hour brought him nearer the moment when he must write that final letter to Lalage. He stayed later than usual, so late that Ethel had a hard task to hide her yawns; but when, at last, he did go back to the cottage, he made no attempt to carry out what had now become the most hateful task of his life.

“It will do in the morning,” he muttered as he turned out the lamp.