Read CHAPTER SEVEN - EDUCATION FOR THOSE OF RIPER YEARS of The Education of Eric Lane , free online book, by Stephen McKenna, on ReadCentral.com.

“Verily when an author can approve his wife she was deserving of a better fate.”
LEONARD MERRICK: “WHEN LOVE FLIES OUT O’ THE WINDOW.”

1

“After diagnosis,” said Dr. Gaisford, “the prudent physician bases treatment on self-interest. You’re not fit to travel by yourself yet, Eric; when I’ve patched you up, I shall send you away. If you don’t go, you’ll never do any decent work again.”

Having persuaded his patient to stay in bed for a week, the doctor looked in nightly “for five minutes” and stayed sixty-five, smoking three disreputable pipes instead of one and generalizing on life and health.

“It gives me a headache even to think of work,” said Eric, his brain half-paralyzed with bromide.

Perhaps it was the bromide, perhaps it was his nervous and bodily exhaustion; the most frightening part of this latest illness was the attendant utter incapacity to make up his mind. When Barbara left him for Crawleigh Abbey, he had resigned from his department and withdrawn the resignation, accepted an invitation to lecture in America and cancelled the acceptance; every night he led Gaisford through the same argumentative maze; complete rest, partial rest in London or the country, flight from England and all association with Barbara, full work as soon as he could resume it to keep him from brooding about her; he could not decide. And from time to time a mocking refrain told him that as an undergraduate and again in the first flush of fame he had aspired to be the new young Byron, dominating London. . . .

“Poisoned rat in a hole,” he whispered to himself. . . .

Gaisford would sit with his arms crossed over the back of a chair and his feet twisted round its legs, puffing thoughtfully at his pipe and frowning at his boots. In a long experience of practice among rich and self-conscious patients who would always rather be “interesting” than normal, it was not the first time that he had watched the bloom being rubbed off love; nine broken engagements and balked romances were born of doltish delay; but a mass of sensibility like Eric Lane had not the stamina to wait nor the placidity to go away and forget.

“You told me you had a novel on the stocks,” said Gaisford. “I suppose you wouldn’t let me see it?”

The first draft of the book was already in type, and, though Eric hated his work to be seen before he had set the last polish on it, the new indecision and weakness of will allowed him to be overpersuaded. Gaisford brought back the manuscript at the end of three days and talked of neurotic impressionism and the methods of literary jerry-builders.

“I hope you’re not writing yourself out,” he added.

Eric was frightened for the first time since the “Divorce” placed him beyond the reach of want. So many men seemed capable of one play or novel and then no more.

“One can’t always be at concert-pitch,” he sighed.

“Then you mustn’t go on to the platform till you are.”

“It’s easy to see you’ve never been a journalist! The agony, the violence to soul, when you have to come up to scratch, when your copy has to be delivered by a certain hour! Writing without time to revise or even to read what you’ve already written the compositors setting up the beginning of an article while you’re still writing the middle. . . . And the public pays its twopence and expects us to be always at our best!”

“Well, the public pays me its two guineas and expects me to be always at my best,” grunted the doctor. “If I’m off colour, I take things quietly. Otherwise I should defraud the public and ruin my practice at the same time. You must take things quietly until you’re fit to work again.”

After he had gone, Eric tried to make up his mind what to do. His thoughts ran uncontrolled to painters whose sight had become impaired and composers who had lost their hearing. If he had done violence to the indefinable blend of gift and acquisition which separated the man who could write from those who could not . . . This was a thing to be tested. The scenario of “The Singing-Bird” was ready; he had only been waiting because there was no hurry for another play. There was now every hurry to establish whether he could write a play. If Manders turned up his nose, it would be time indeed for a holiday.

For three months Eric buried himself in his flat, only emerging at the week-end. Lashmar Mill-House gave him proximity to Agnes Waring; and every week he made an excuse to walk over to Red Roofs and ask for tidings of Jack. The news that he was alive seemed better than the suspense of no news; but the tyranny of love was strange when a man could pray for the death of a friend. The Warings’ atmosphere of dignified expectancy rebuked him; they made no more pother than if a single letter had gone astray. The colonel motored daily into Winchester and sat on his tribunal; Mrs. Waring presided over her bandaging classes, and Agnes looked after the house. There was no fretting at Red Roofs; the errant letter would come to hand or it would not; the Warings were a military family. Sharing their suspense for the first time, Eric marvelled at their composure. His own heart quickened its beat whenever he asked with false solicitude whether Agnes had tried to get news through the American or Spanish Embassy, the Prisoners-of-War Clearing-House in Copenhagen or the Vatican. Peace of mind returned a step nearer each time that she shook her head and murmured, “Yes, we tried that. It was no good, though.” Then his growing security was checked by a gripe of conscience; he felt like a murderer who stole furtively into the woods by night to see whether prowling animal or pursuing man had disturbed the grave. Well, at least another week had passed. . . . But in a week’s time he must undergo the suspense again. Agnes might come to him, radiant as on that night when she dined with him, crying “Eric! You remember that cheque? Well, we heard to-day. . . .”

Extravagant tension and violent relief destroyed the serenity required for good work; but Eric was not dissatisfied with the progress of his play. Ease and command had grown reassuringly; his psychology was surer, perhaps because his own psychological experience had been so much enriched; and his dialogue, losing nothing of its neatness and economy, had taken on an added verisimilitude. It was too early to judge dispassionately; but, as Eric made his last corrections and sent a copy of the script to Manders, he felt a warmer glow of confidence than either of his first plays had inspired.

It was the end of October before he had finished. The strain of work had buoyed him up, but it was succeeded by a debilitating reaction, which impelled him with guilty reluctance to Wimpole Street.

“I’m glad you don’t even pretend that you’ve been following my advice,” said the doctor with a hint of impatience, as he brought his examination to an end.

“You know, Gaisford, it’s not the least use telling me to do nothing,” Eric answered jauntily. “I’m not built that way.”

“So I’ve heard before from others as well. And the others have found themselves packed off to nursing-homes, which, my dear Eric, are very tedious institutions. Are you going abroad now?”

“Not at the moment.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going back to my office, if I’m still wanted.”

Gaisford shrugged his shoulders ruefully.

“You know, Eric, it’s a waste of my time and of your money for you to come to me for advice. You’ve definitely gone back since I saw you in the summer.”

“I’ve been working very hard; but I’m rather pleased with the results.”

“I hope it’s nothing like that novel you shewed me,” said the doctor gloomily.

“I’ll send you the script when I get it back from Manders,” Eric promised with a laugh.

2

On his return to official work, Eric found that he could not concentrate his attention on anything until he knew what Manders thought of “The Singing-Bird”; sometimes he wondered whether he could ever concentrate until Barbara had brought his suspense to an end. For three months they had not met or corresponded.

“Dr. Gaisford says I simply make you worse,” she told him. “I mustn’t add that to my other sins. If you want me, I’m there; but I shan’t write to you, and you mustn’t write to me. I shall miss you horribly, but your health’s more important than my happiness. We’re coming back to London in the autumn.”

A week before her return, the whole Mill-House party motored over to Red Roofs to dine with the Warings. It was an old promise, and Eric was glad to avail himself of it to break the continuity of his stilted Sunday calls. As he dressed, a note was brought him from Colonel Waring, and he read with some surprise:

I trust you are not going to fail us to-night. There is a matter on which I want your advice and, perhaps, your help.

Eric tore the note into small pieces and went on with his dressing, only frowning at his own want of control when he found his hand shaking until he could hardly part his hair. There was only one subject on which anybody at Red Roofs could want to consult him; from the fact that Colonel Waring wrote and wrote to him some official action was pending; otherwise Agnes would have whispered a word to him before dinner. They had received news that Jack was alive . . . or dead . . . or they had thought of a new means of getting in touch with him. . . .

Eric kept his surprise to himself and drove silently through two miles of thicket and clearing to the south end of Lashmar Wood. Beyond a cordial hand-shake and the smiling statement that he was glad to see him, Colonel Waring vouchsafed no explanation of his letter. Eric looked keenly at Agnes and her mother, but their faces and manner betrayed neither elation nor . . . What else could they betray? he wondered sinkingly. If Jack were dead, the dinner-party would have been postponed. They still hoped for him, but their hopes were not hardy enough to be exposed.

When the men were alone after dinner, Eric’s heart missed a beat and he gripped the arms of his chair. The colonel, after fidgeting with a decanter and tidying away the remains of two different conversations, carried his glass to Eric’s end of the table and sat beside him, asking with a smile whether his note had been delivered in time.

“This is between ourselves,” he began, leaning back with his legs stretched out and frowning at the blue flame of a grenade-shaped cigar-lighter. “We’ve had news of a kind about Jack.” He raised his hand as Eric tried to speak. “No, my dear boy, that’s just what we want to avoid! Don’t congratulate us yet. You see, we’ve been through the racket once. . . .”

“You don’t know for certain, then?” Eric asked and wondered whether he was imagining a tremor in his voice.

“No. Let me see, Agnes told you all about the cheque, didn’t she? He was missing in August last year, and the cheque was drawn in October. We now know that he was alive in December. It appears . . .”

Eric did not hear the next few sentences. Stoically, yet with an underlying measured jubilance, the old colonel was dragging Jack to security from the presumption of death two months at a time. Alive in October, alive in December! Thirteen months ago, eleven months ago. Some one would have heard of him in February or seen him in April! He was catching up hand over fist. And one day he would land in England, you would meet him in the street without warning; as you dawdled through Berkeley Square, you might see him standing on the door-step of Lord Crawleigh’s house.

“I don’t for one moment suppose that this is the only case.” Colonel Waring was commenting.

Eric looked up with an intelligent nod, wondering what he had been told. Waring, always soldierly and dapper, with a neat care of person which he had handed on to his children, seemed years fresher and younger to-night; the liverish tinge of yellow which settled on his face in cold weather had wholly departed.

“Would you mind giving me the dates again?” said Eric.

“Missing in August; the cheque in October; the row in December. This fellow Britwell” (Eric wished that he had listened to find out who was Britwell) “was taken prisoner at the same time, and they were in the same prisoner’s camp. Britwell couldn’t say how badly Jack was wounded, because he’d been in hospital himself until the day before the row came. Jack, according to the story, was hauled up for calling one of the guards a ‘Schweinhund.’ (You know Jack well enough to say if he’d be likely to fling about abuse of that kind without provocation). His only defence was that the guard had told him in German to do something, and almost the only German he knew was that word, because they’d shouted it at him when they found him half-unconscious in his trench and kicked him back behind the lines, and the women and children had screamed it at him, in the intervals of spitting in his face at all the stations. And it was the one word that all the camp guards used to every British prisoner. Well, he may have been given the opportunity of apologizing or he may not; if so, he refused it, and the last thing Britwell heard was that he’d been packed off to solitary confinement in a fortress for nine months. December ’15 . . . to September or October this year. That explains the cheque, but it doesn’t explain why he hasn’t written. . . . Of course, he hasn’t had much time. . . .”

The stoicism in Waring’s composed face became eclipsed for a moment. The boy might have died of his wounds or of ill-treatment; he might have offended a second time and been a second time imprisoned without power to communicate with his friends; he might have been transferred to another camp with an unrelaxing ban on all his letters lest he tried to describe the barbarism of which he had been made a victim. . . .

“I’ve got that straight so far,” said Eric slowly, “Now tell me what I can do.”

If the worst came to the worst, he would at least try to surrender his claim on Barbara with a good grace.

“Well, it’s the old business: we want news,” said Waring. “I tried the War Office as soon as I heard from Britwell, which was a week ago; he’s been transferred to Switzerland as one of the badly wounded cases. You know what the War Office is; I may be fed with printed forms for months. . . . Do you know anybody there who can take up the thing personally?”

“If I don’t know any one, I can soon get to know the right man.”

“We shall be very grateful. Meanwhile don’t talk about it to anybody.”

Eric refrained from giving a promise, for he knew that he would have to tell Barbara the following week. Within three hours of his return to London he had set half-a-dozen telephone wires humming, and, before leaving his department, the newly-found freemasonry of the public service had supplied him with all available information. Officially, Captain Waring was “missing;” but his name had not been reported from any German source; unofficially, the War Office had a copy of Major Britwell’s letter to Colonel Waring. Nothing more was known. On the other hand, a great deal of new information was pouring in since the convention for the exchange of wounded prisoners. If Captain Waring were incapacitated and if the official German conscience were not too uneasy, he might have the luck to be transferred to Switzerland at any moment.

Eric sent a report to Colonel Waring and wrote to Barbara that night for the first time in three months. “I want you to know as soon as possible that Jack was alive last December. That’s eleven months ago, and he may be alive still; the family simply doesn’t know. I’ll tell you the full story when we meet.

In thanking him, she suggested a night for dining together on her return; and Eric spent three days that were as restless and insupportable as the three hours before a first night. It would hurt intolerably if she behaved as a stranger, when they met; almost as intolerably if she threw herself into his arms and forced him to remember what he was threatened with losing.

On the evening before they were to meet, the telephone rang, and Manders’ voice, brisk and cheerful, enquired if Eric was likely to be at the Thespian Club that night.

“I wanted to talk about this play of yours,” he explained. “Well, can you lunch to-morrow, say, half-past one?”

“Yes. I should like to. What do you think of it, Manders?”

There was a pause.

“It’s too long to discuss now.”

“You can just say whether you like it or not.”

“I’ll tell you all about it to-morrow. Cheerio, boy.”

Eric was irritated by Manders’ uncommunicativeness. The fellow could at least have said, “First rate!” or “The best thing you’ve done.” “Too long to discuss now” meant hours of captiousness and months of heroic surgery. And with his late loss of assurance Eric could not say with confidence that it was the best thing he had done. . . .

3

When he reached the club next day, Eric found that Manders had arrived before him and was ordering luncheon for both.

“D’you like the ’06 Ruinart, or is it too dry for you?” he asked.

“Nothing’s too dry for me,” Eric answered, “but I decline to drink champagne at lunch. I’ve work to do this afternoon.”

His host smiled persuasively and continued to write his bill.

“It’ll do you good, boy. Buck you up. Well, how are you? The last time I was here, some old buffer told me you’d been seedy, but that was right away back in the summer. What was the matter?”

“I was only a bit run down,” Eric answered. “What did you think of the play?”

Manders gave his bill to a waiter and planted his elbows on the table, pressing his finger-tips together.

“Well, I read it very carefully,” he began. “By the way, before I forget it, ‘The Bomb-Shell’s’ doing very well on tour.”

Eric chewed his lips impatiently. He would gladly hear about “The Bomb-Shell” later, but he now wanted to pin Manders to a criticism of “The Singing Bird.”

“Well, let’s keep the wolf from the door as long as we can.”

The subject dismissed, he looked up expectantly and found Manders wholly absorbed with his oysters, rejecting red pepper for black, shaking a cautious drop of tabasco vinegar on each, adding a dash of lemon-juice and, when all else was ready, sipping his champagne with preliminary caution. The play would have to be cut about, then; perhaps the actor-manager was disappointed with his own part. . . .

“Well, let’s hear all about it,” Manders began heartily. “When did you find time to write it? After you’d got ‘The Bomb-Shell’ out of the way?”

“Not immediately. I knocked off all my other work and concentrated on this thing day and night for three months.”

“Three months? You’re a quick worker. You know, boy, that would have been a better play if you’d given more time to it.”

Manders slipped three oysters into his mouth in rapid succession, and Eric smiled with indulgent patience. One hard-dying school of critics always made quick work a synonym for hasty work.

“I managed to crowd about three years into the three months.”

“Ah, that means you’re writing with your nerves! Now, if I were you, I’d put the thing aside for six months, clear it out of your head; then, when you come to it with a fresh mind ”

“You don’t like it?” Eric interrupted. “Why not?”

“I don’t like it in its present form. I don’t suppose you want a line-by-line criticism. . . . If you look at it in six months’ time, you’ll see my objection for yourself.”

Eric raised his glass mechanically and was vaguely surprised to find himself drinking champagne. Then he remembered that champagne had been ordered to “buck” him “up”; he remembered, too, Manders’ solicitude for his health, the enquiries when the play had been written and how long he had taken to write it, the evasion and silence the night before on the telephone and again at the beginning of luncheon, when he tried to extract a frank opinion. . . . Manders, then, was rejecting the play . . . and trying to be considerate. . . .

“We don’t mince matters at rehearsal,” he said with a breathless laugh. “You think the play’s hopeless?”

Manders looked relieved, but he had known so many disappointments himself and seen others so often crushed by them that his brown, monkey eyes were full of pity.

“It’s no use at all. In its present form or any other. If it had been any one but you, I wouldn’t have read two pages of it. You may as well take the whole of your physic, boy; you’ve got to stop writing for the present, you’ve lost your sense of the theatre, you’re forgetting all the tricks you ever learned. D’you know, when I read that thing, I thought for a moment that you were trying to palm off some old thing that you’d written when you were an undergrad?”

For a moment Eric lost his sense of distance; the long coffee-room was full of shouting and discordant laughter; a waiter, who seemed quite near, asked in a remote voice whether he might take the black pepper. . . . Eric gripped the edge of the table, praying that he might not disgrace himself.

“I wonder why,” he murmured faintly.

Manders shrugged his shoulders and filled both glasses encouragingly.

“It often happens. Graham Lever had three plays running in London at the same time; then he chucked romantic comedy and tried to write a revolt-of-the-younger-generation problem play. . . .” Manders omitted to add that Lever had never had another play staged, but Eric’s ten years of dramatic criticism enabled him to fill the gap. “George Sharpe failed again and again for eight years; he had one success and then failed for three. It would be hard to think of a man who never loses his touch. Partly it’s the author and partly it’s the audience; they get tired . . . and, when one kind of play succeeds, all the other men unconsciously imitate, and the managers can only see money in that one kind, so that the public gets sated. With you . . .” He paused to tear his bread into lumps and throw it into his soup. “You probably want some fresh air. You’ve been living in the theatre too much, you’ve forgotten what real people are like. If you brought that play down and read it to the company ”

His aposiopesis suggested that there would be uproar and danger to life.

“What had I better do?” Eric asked weakly.

“Frankly? Well, scrap your ‘Singing Bird’ and throw your pen behind the fire. Don’t try to write for six months. After that, anything you like to send me . . . I hope you can eat this, by the way?”

Eric found that a sole, half-hidden by mussels, had been placed before him. Manders had taken trouble about the luncheon; he was a good fellow and had tried to soften the blow; throughout the time that they had worked together he had been patient and very human; he was trying to part now on a pleasant note. “Anything you like to send me . . .” It would certainly be read; for a time he would read it himself the next three failures, say. And then . . . Eric wondered whether he would be able to go back to journalism. The two successful plays would keep him from starving, but he must make a livelihood again . . . and count every shilling before he spent it. The flat must go. . . .

The long triumphal progress which he had enjoyed and disdained rose up in accusing mockery. Here, then, was the end of that life-long dream of domination. For a time Lady Poynter would invite him to her house and ask when the next play was coming out, but her nature and the requirements of her sham-intellectual life demanded that she should drop him when he no longer had any tricks to display. Young Forbes Standish or Carlton Haig “most promising young playwrights” would take his place. Perhaps some one like George Oakleigh, who liked him personally, would ask what had become of him; and Lady Poynter would answer easily: “I haven’t seen him for a long time. I must find out whether he’s in London and get him to lunch one day.” And then young Forbes Standish would begin to criticize “The Bomb-Shell” or the “Divorce” with bland patronage. And every one at the Thespian would be tactful and considerate.

“I feel as if I should never be able to write anything again,” Eric sighed. “This is the second facer I’ve had. There was a novel I started. . . . I’m used up, Manders.”

“Take a holiday and don’t talk rot!”

Conversation languished through the rest of the meal, and Eric hurried back to his office, pretending that he could not spare time for coffee or a liqueur. It was an office which he had once hated, because it absorbed time and strength which he needed for his own work; he had treated it cavalierly, from time to time writing letters of resignation and throwing them into a drawer. As he settled to the familiar table in the crowded, ill-lit room, he wondered whether he would be of the lucky number for whom the Government service would find openings at the end of the war. He had yet to prove that he could earn a living again as a journalist; and efficiency mattered little in a civil servant, for, if his work were good, some one else would get the credit, and, if it were bad, it would be undiscovered. . . .

A drawling voice from the War Office broke in upon his musings. Had not Mr. Lane been making enquiries about a Captain Waring? His name was on the next list of prisoners to be transferred to Switzerland; his relations would be informed officially.

Eric telephoned at once to Colonel Waring and Barbara. As he dressed for dinner, Agnes arrived in a laden car with both her parents, clamorous for help in securing passports. They were staying at the Charing Cross Hotel with their boxes packed, waiting for further news, and the radiance in their eyes scorched him. Barbara had received the news almost without comment; he wondered what manner she would shew him; perhaps this was the last time that they would ever meet. . . .

“I’m not sure that her ladyship’s dressed yet. . . . If you wouldn’t mind waiting, sir. . . . I have taken the paper into her ladyship’s room. . . . I hope you’ve been keeping well, sir. . . .?”

Eric started in physical pain at the familiar friendliness of the old butler. The little confidences, introduced with a deprecatory cough, floated down from a height one stair above him. Barbara’s room, as ever, was in chaos; her kitten, roused by his entrance, stretched herself and arched her back. Then the other door opened, and Barbara hurried in. Her arms were soft and cool as ever against his cheeks, and he caught a well-remembered breath of carnations as her head bent low on to his breast. He held her close; but his pressure suddenly relaxed, and he stepped back.

“Don’t you like kissing me any more?” she asked. “I’ve been hungry for you all these months!”

“I was thinking what it would be like if you suddenly took yourself out of my life,” said Eric.

“Darling, why must you spoil the present by dragging in the future?”

“I can’t think of anything else.”

Barbara took his arm and led him to a chair.

“I wish you didn’t look so frightfully ill,” she whispered. “Have you been missing me? My dear, what a mess I seem to have made of our lives! Sit down! Let me take care of you! Let me do what I can for you, darling! It isn’t much!”

“I don’t think I’d better stay, Babs,” said Eric with nervous indecision. “I’m bad company; I shall only get on your nerves and upset you.”

The girl shook her head sadly.

“I’m not so happy that there’s much to spoil. Eric, I sometimes think you don’t quite understand. I’m not miserable because I want Jack and can’t get him. I don’t know whether I want him or not; that’s what makes the suspense such a hell. . . . There was a time when I wasn’t sure whether I was in love with him or not. . . . He was stronger that I was, he could have done anything with me. If I hadn’t felt his power, I should have paid no attention to him, he couldn’t have hurt me, I shouldn’t have wanted to punish him. Is that love? I suppose it’s one form. . . . When I see him . . . if he says he wants me . . . I don’t know what I shall feel like. Love . . . ordinary love. . . . There’s never been anything to equal my love for you. . . . So it hasn’t been easy for me, has it? Ever since I met you, I’ve pined to know what was going to happen to me.”

Eric looked away and was silent for several moments. She had made a romance of her oath to Jack and had played dramatically with alternate ecstasy and despair, seeing herself as a woman cursed by God. She made a romance of her twin loves and dual obligations, seeing herself as a woman fated to blight all who loved her. She lived for “situations” and conflicts, experimenting in emotion; already a garment of romance had been woven round Jack.

“I came to tell you that I’d seen the Warings to-day,” Eric said at length. “They’re off to Switzerland as soon as they can get their passports. If you’d care . . . I mean, I can write a letter from my office and enclose anything; it wouldn’t be censored then.”

Barbara bent her head until her trembling lips were hidden from him.

“It’s like you to think of that! Nobody’s ever loved any one as you love me! But I won’t, Eric. If he wants me . . .”

Eric stared at the fire, kicking one heel against the other toe. If she was in agony of spirit, he could have sworn that she was enjoying the agony.

“Yes, I love you more than any one else ever has. . . . It gives you enormous gratification. . . . But I wonder if you think it’s anything more than your own cleverness. I suppose you have some love for me. . . . But, if he wants you, I shall drop out of your life. . . . I was happy, I didn’t need you! You wrapped yourself round my life until you saw that I couldn’t do without you, and then if he wants you! What have you left for me?”

“Is it nothing to have brought me happiness?” she asked; but his deep-toned reproach, unrehearsed, unstudied and faltering, had broken through her surface emotions and shattered her self-absorption. “Eric, I’m not every one! Your work ”

“D’you think I can ever write again? You never did think much of anything I wrote ”

“You know that I was only teasing you! That first night, when you were so dreadfully pleased with yourself. . . . But I found you were human, after all, when I came home with you ”

“And broke ‘the child’s toy.’”

“Ah, why did you remind me of that?”

“I was reminded of it myself to-day. I’m not superstitious, but my luck has gone. I can’t write any more.”

“Eric, that’s not true!”

He compressed his lips and shrugged his shoulders, resignedly.

“You know best, no doubt. Since we met, I’ve written the first draft of a novel, which is unreadable, and a play. . . . I sent the play to Manders about a fortnight ago.”

“Without telling me? Don’t you like sharing things with me any longer?”

The soft reproach in her voice maddened him. She seemed incapable of seeing that she wanted the whole of him at a time when she was herself momentarily drawing away.

“You choose a curious time to ask that question! There’s nothing to share. It’s turned down, rejected. Nothing I can do to it will make it even possible. I can’t write any more, I’m used up. . . . Yes, we may fairly say that my luck has gone. And that night, you may remember, you recommended me to fall in love, because it would be so good for me. . . .”

4

Since the exchange of incapacitated prisoners began, there had been so many delays and disappointments that the Warings remained in London, with what patience they could muster, until they received news that Jack’s party was proceeding to Chateau d’Oex.

For reasons which he was at a loss to define Eric saw them off at Charing Cross. They found time amid their jubilation to be grateful to him for his trouble in making enquiries at the War Office and in expediting the issue of their passports. As chairman of his local military tribunal, the colonel could not be absent from England for any long time on end, but they were proposing tentatively and subject to Jack’s condition of health to take a villa and to stay with him by turns. Agnes and her father expected to come back after a week or ten days, leaving Mrs. Waring in charge until Christmas.

As they chatted artificially by the carriage door, there was radiance in the faces of all three; the colonel seemed more upright, Mrs. Waring had shed her set, stoical calm and, with it, about ten years.

“You won’t forget to write, Agnes,” said Eric, as the guard bustled along the platform, breaking up the little groups like a sheep-dog.

“It may be only a line, but I’ll tell you everything when we get back,” she promised.

A week passed before her letter reached him.

We got here after the most impossible journey,” Agnes wrote from Chateau d’Oex, “and Jack came to us yesterday. You can’t imagine what it was like, seeing him again when we’d NEARLY given up hope! He’s very bad but I suppose I’d better start at the beginning. When he was taken prisoner, he’d been wounded in the head and slightly gassed. The gassing doesn’t matter, except that he will always have to take care of his lungs; the head wound has left a scar and a bald place, but he can cover that up. At present he gets the most awful head-aches if he tries to do any work. The Germans let him go because he was simply wasting away on the horrible food they gave him to eat, and he’s like a skeleton now. But we’re going to feed him up and put that right, and then it’ll just be a question how much work and what kind of work he’ll be able to do when he’s well.

He’s alive, Eric, and that’s the great thing. And he’s well and strong compared with some of the ghastly wrecks that you see here. I must wait till we meet before I give you a full account of all he’s been through, but Major Britwell’s story was quite true so far as it went. He DID insult the guard and he WAS carried off to solitary confinement for nine months. He won’t talk much about that, though, but he had a most awful time; I honestly wonder that he came through it alive and in his right mind. I could cry when I look at the men here and think what they’ve suffered. But they CAN’T go through it again, Eric; that’s one of the terms of their release, of course. They’re out of the war for good; and it may be very unpatriotic, but I for one say ’Thank God!’

Well, I must come to business. Father and I are staying here for another week, and I want you to do a lot of jobs for us. On a separate sheet you’ll find a number of things that I want you to order and have sent out here. And on the back of this you’ll find a list of names and addresses. There’s so much to do, getting this house straight, that I’ve very little time for writing. I want you to be an angel and ring up all these people and just tell them (you know them all, I think) what I’ve told you.

Jack sends love to you, and we are all deeply grateful for what you have done and what I know you will do for us. I don’t think there are any other messages.

The list of names did not contain Barbara’s. Eric telephoned to her as soon as he had received the letter, though he knew that she would be in bed and that a tiresome footman would say: “I don’t think her ladyship’s been called yet, sir. Perhaps you would ring up later.” With patience he got into communication with her and read out the first pages of the letter. When she had thanked him, he asked with trepidation whether she had heard from Jack. An hour seemed to pass while she rang for her letters and looked at the postmarks.

“There’s nothing from Switzerland,” she announced at length.

Eric’s heart leapt with relief. Agnes had written; surely Jack could have written, too, had he wished? In the ensuing silence Barbara’s voice, suddenly toneless, came back to him.

“I’m sorry, Babs, for your sake.”

“Thank you, darling.”

“I’ll make a point of seeing Agnes as soon as she gets back to England,” he went on.

“Thank you, darling.”

“And, of course, I’ll let you know anything there is to know. Very likely you’ll get a letter before I see her.”

“Perhaps I shall.” Her voice trembled; and Eric, ceasing to weight justice or consider provocation, wished that he had Jack Waring’s throat between his hands. “Well, I mustn’t keep you from your work. Thank you for telling me, Eric.”

“Good-bye, Babs. I suppose it wouldn’t amuse you to lunch or dine with me anywhere?”

“Not to-day, I think. But I love you for asking me. Good-bye.”

For a week he wrote to her twice daily, trying to forget himself in the effort to keep her amused. They met once at dinner with Lady Maitland; and it hurt him absurdly when as a matter of ritual he was detailed to see Barbara home. On the day named, Colonel Waring and Agnes arrived in London and telephoned, asking him to dine with them at their hotel.

Trepidation hid become his normal mood, and Eric walked into the lounge with his teeth set and the muscles of his cheeks hard. The burgeoning happiness of Agnes was harder to bear than ever, but he achieved a tolerable effect as the undemonstrative, phlegmatic Englishman and mingled suitable congratulations with his many questions.

“I handed on the good news to every one you mentioned,” he said at the end of dinner. “And to one or two others who I thought would be interested to hear it. Did he send me any jobs or messages?”

“He wants a pipe, but father can get that. I don’t think he sent any messages.”

Eric looked at his watch and begged to be excused. It was half-past ten, and he had telephoned to say that he would call for Barbara at eleven and bring her home from a party in Portman Square.

When he reached the house, Eric was disconcerted to learn that Barbara had already left. He was slightly less surprised, on reaching home, to find the hall ablaze with light and Barbara lying at full length on a sofa with her cloak trailing on the carpet and a bottle of eau-de-Cologne clutched in one hand.

She started and opened her eyes as he came into the room.

“Eric, did you go . . .? I’m sorry! I couldn’t wait, I couldn’t bear being with people. I’ve been asleep. I’ve got such a racking headache, darling.”

Eric took a bottle of aspirin from the drawer of his writing-table.

“Have you had any of this to-day?” he asked. “Then I can give you fifteen grains. Wait till I’ve got some water.” He returned with a tumbler and two cushions and seated himself at her feet. “Have you heard anything fresh from Switzerland?” he asked. “Well, I’m afraid I haven’t, either. I dined with Colonel Waring and Agnes to-night, as you know.”

Barbara had uncovered her eyes to hold the tumbler; but she set it on the floor, as he began to speak, and shielded her face.

“H-how is he?” she asked.

“He gets tired rather quickly, but otherwise he’s all right. Leading quite a normal life, I mean.”

His words were deliberately chosen to shew that Jack was in a state to have written, had he wished. His choice was not wasted on her.

“And what now, Eric?” she asked.

“Isn’t that for you to say?”

Barbara uncovered her eyes again and looked slowly round the room. It had become so familiar that she no longer noticed its shape or colouring. Instinctively she knew that the sofa demanded a cushion at her back and that the arm-chair between the fire and window did not. But she had never, until now, consciously observed the carpet and curtains, the breast-high white book-cases and Chippendale writing-table, since the first night when she came there and stood tossing a glass horse-shoe idly into the air and stealing curious glances at the furniture.

She recognized it all now and remembered her earliest emotions, remembered even telling him that the first burning cigarette would spoil his grey carpet. But her vision was blurred; she fancied herself seeing through the walls, penetrating a belt of darkness and piercing other walls beyond which she sat at supper with an undemonstrative, quietly determined young man. The jig and stamp of ragtime echoed overhead “Dixie! All abo-o-oard for Dixie! Dixie! Tak your tickuts heere for Dixie!”; she heard her own voice “I love that one-step. Why did you drag me away in the middle?” and Jack Waring’s in answer “Well, you ought to be grateful to me for getting you a table before the rush starts.” That was a few hours before war was declared, though the long banqueting-hall of Loring Castle had resounded with rumours and expositions of war throughout dinner. Almost at once Jack asked her to marry him; she once more heard his tranquil explanation “I’ve just been received into your church.”

A blaze of light. . . . A thunder of voices. . . . Out of the distance she heard him saying, “In fact, you’ve been lying to me all along? You never intended to marry me?”

A blaze of light; and silence that made her head sing. Jack’s face seemed to grow thinner and the gleam in his eyes more brightly cold. The supper-room was emptying, but neither could decide to stand up and say good-bye. Lord Summertown and a brother-officer waltzed in and became noisily cheerful in one corner. Later they heard a car driving past the open windows; George Oakleigh appeared in the doorway; Summertown’s companion finished the champagne and rose to his feet protesting fretfully: “To declare war in the middle of supper is not the act of a gentleman. . . .” Then at last she had seen that she had tempted Jack to imperil his soul. . . .

War had seemed a small thing then, though Jack Summertown was to be killed within six weeks and her cousin Jim within a year. It was a thing remote and only important as postponing her punishment from Jack.

“I must get back to London,” he said suddenly. “I’m going to ask Summertown for a seat in his car.”

For dragging minutes she felt her soul being crucified. While Jack stood talking in the hall or on the steps, she tried to conceal from herself what she had done and, when that was impossible, to nerve herself to make reparation. Then she was blinded by the glare of the head-lights and opened her eyes to find that the car had swept beyond reach of her voice. . . .

Once again everything was warm and dark in the summer night. . . . Slowly the distant wail of the orchestra died from her ears. She had a vague memory of going upstairs with Oakleigh and of seeing him draw Jim aside and whisper to him, but between them lingered a white face with incredulous eyes, and above the music hammered the sound of a broken sentence: “So this was your revenge?” And then, calling Jim to witness, she made the sign of the Cross and swore that she would offer herself, body and soul, to Jack, if he wanted her. . . .

The noise faded out of hearing, and she was once more in a room of blazing light; a man was looking at her, silent, white-faced and reproachful; and a new phrase was beating on her brain.

I want to know what you’re going to do now?

She stretched out her hand; but Eric did not take it, and her eyes wandered once more idly round the room. The forgotten curtains and grey carpet, the writing-table and neat pile of manuscript flung back to her memory the summer night when she had first come to disturb his peace of mind.

“I make every one miserable!” she cried, and both started at the violation of their long silence.

Eric’s head sank lower; but his eyes never left her face. That night she had been like an animal tortured to madness; since that night she had taken all that his love could give her and had repaid it by torturing him to madness in his turn, by destroying his health and ruining his work.

“Eric, I want to give you everything, but I’ve sworn to God! Until I’ve seen Jack. . . .”

“You’ve broken your oath in everything but form. From the first night we met you’ve belonged to me in all but name.”

“But won’t you wait? Oh, why will you drive me?”

“I’m not driving you, Babs. I’ve not asked for anything.”

She stood up and drew her cloak round her, glancing once at him and turning quickly away as she saw his hunched body and haggard face. One after the other she slowly drew on her gloves, looking with misty eyes for her bag. As she moved to the door, Eric rose and opened it, gathering up his overcoat with the other hand. They had parted like this so often that he no longer seemed to care. . . . A four-wheeler was ambling along Ryder Street, and he hailed it. Neither spoke until it drew up opposite her house and she saw him fumbling with the handle. Then she laid her fingers on his wrist and chokingly bade him stop.

“I’ll marry you, Eric,” she said.

“Thank you, Barbara.”

She hurried out before he could kiss her and stood with face upturned and eyes tightly shut. God, who had heard the oath taken and broken, was free to strike her now; if He held His hand, it was because He had more subtle punishment in store. . . .

Barbara pulled her cloak over her chest and ran despairingly into the house.

Loneliness may be so intolerable that I believe God would forgive us our blindest groping after alleviation. But would God forgive me, if, in my groping, I brought such misery of loneliness to another, knowing now what manner of thing it is?” From the Diary of Eric Lane.