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Gaston led the way through the servants' hall. Lawrence, following, had to fight down a nausea of humiliation that was almost physical: he had never before done anything that so sickened him as this sneaking progress through the kitchen quarters in another man's house. At length Gaston, holding up a finger to enjoin silence, brought him out on the main landing overlooking the hall.
There was no carpet on the polished floor but Lawrence when he chose could tread like a cat. He stepped to the bal.u.s.trade. It was as dark as a dark evening, for the great doors were still fast shut, and what scanty light filtered through the painted panes was absorbed, not reflected, by raftered roof, panelled walls, and Jacobean stair. But as he grew used to the gloom he could distinguish Bernard's couch and the powerful prostrate figure stretched out on it like a living bar. Bernard's arms were crossed over his breast: his features were the colour of stone: he might have been dead.
Lawrence was startled. But he could do no good now, and the Frenchman was fidgeting at his bedroom door. Later . . .
Secure of privacy Gaston's decorum relaxed a trifle, for it was clear to him that confidences must be at least tacitly exchanged: M'sieur le captaine could not hope to keep him in the dark, there never was an elopement yet of which valet and lady's maid were not cognizant. Like Catherine, "You wish I pack for you, Sare?"
he asked in his lively imperfect English. He was naturally a chatterbox and brimful of a Parisian's salted malice, even after six years in the service of Captain Hyde, who did not encourage his attendants to be communicative.
Lawrence was tearing off his accursed evening clothes. (All day it had been the one drop of sweetness in his bitter cup that he had borrowed Lucian's razor and shaved in Lucian's rooms.) "Get me a tweed suit and boots."
Gaston frowned, wrinkling his nose: if M'sieur imagined that that nose had no scent for an affair of gallantry--! But still he persisted, even he, though the snub was a bitter pill: himself a gallant man, could allow for jaded nerves. "You wish I pack, yes?" he deprecated reticence by his insinuatingly sympathetic tone.
"No," said Lawrence, tying his tie before a mirror. "I'm coming back."
"'Ere? Back--so--'ere, m'sieur?"
"Yes, before tonight."
It was more than flesh and blood could stand. "Sir Clowes 'e say no," remarked Gaston in a detached and nonchalant tone, as he gathered up the garments which his master had strewn over the floor. "'E verree angree. 'E say 'Zut! m'sieur le captaine est parti!--il ne revient plus.'"
"Gaston." The Frenchman turned from the press in which he was hanging up Lawrence's coat. "You're a perfect scamp, my man,"
Lawrence spoke over his shoulder as he ran through the contents of a pocketbook, "and I should be sorry to think you were attached to me. But your billet is comfortable, I believe: I pay you jolly good wages, you steal pretty much what you like, and you have the additional pleasure of reading all my letters. Now listen: I'm coming back to Wanhope before tonight and so is Mrs.
Clowes. I'm not going to run away with her, as Major Clowes gave you all to understand. What you think is of no importance whatever to any one, what you say is equally trilling, but I don't choose to have my servant say it: so, if you continue to drop these interesting hints, I shall not only boot you out, but"
--he turned "I shall give you such a thras.h.i.+ng in the rear, Gaston--in this direction, Gaston--that you won't be able to sit down comfortably for a month."
"M'sieur is so droll," murmured Gaston, removing himself with dignified agility and an unabashed grimace.
Lawrence let himself out by the back stairs again and the kitchen --now in a state of great activity, the gas ring lit and preparations for lunch going on apace--and forth into the yard.
Out in the open air he drew a long breath: safe in tweeds and a felt hat, he was his own man again, but he felt as though he had been wading in mud. The mystified Catherine followed him at a sign into the drive. There Hyde stood still. "Take that path to the left. You'll find your mistress waiting for you. Help her to dress, and tell her I shall be at the lodge gates when she's ready. And, Catherine--"
He paused, feeling an almost insuperable distaste for his job.
But it had to be done, the girl must not find him tight with his money: that she would hold her tongue was beyond expectation, but if well tipped at least she might not invent lies. It went against the grain of his temper to bribe one of Bernard's maids, but fate was not now consulting his likes or dislikes. He thrust his hand into his pocket--"Look after your mistress, will you?"
The respectably brought up Catherine turned scarlet. She put her hand behind her back. "I'm sure, sir, I don't want your money to make me do that!"
"If you p.r.i.c.k us shall we not bleed?" It was the first time that Lawrence had ever discovered a servant to be a human being: and his philosophical musings were chequered, till he moved out of earshot, by the clamour of Catherine's irrepressible dismay.
"Oh madam!" he heard, and, "Well, if I ever-!" and then in a tone suddenly softened from horror to sympathy, "there now, there, let me get your dress off . . . ." From Mrs. Clowes came no answer, or none audible to him.
Laura joined him in ten minutes' time, neatly dressed, gloved, and veiled, her hair smoothed--it had never been rough so far as Lawrence could observe--her complexion regulated by Catherine's powder puff. "Are you better?" said Lawrence, examining her anxiously: "able to walk as far as the vicarage?"
"Wharton's too far off. You're dead tired: You'll have to lie down and keep quiet. Isabel will look after you." It speaks to the complete overthrow of Lawrence's ideas that for the last hour he had not recollected Isabel's existence. "And we shall have to wait till Bernard raises the siege: one can't bawl explanations through a keyhole. Besides, I must wire to Lucian." He slipped his hand under her arm. "Would you like this good girl of yours to come with you?"
"I will come, madam, directly I've fetched my hat," said Catherine eagerly. "You must have some one to look after you, and your hair never brushed and all."
But Laura shook her head, Catherine must not defy her master.
"If you want to please me," she said not without humour "--I can't help it, Lawrence--try to look after Major Clowes. You had better not go near him yourself, because as you know he isn't very pleased with me just now, but see that Mrs. Fryar sends him in a nice lunch and ask Barry to try to get him to eat it. I ordered some oysters to come this morning, and Major Clowes will enjoy those when he won't touch anything else."
Catherine watched her lady up the road with a disappointed eye.
It was a tame conclusion to a promising adventure. Although respectably brought up, her sympathies were all with Captain Hyde: she had foreseen herself, the image of regretful discretion, sacrificing her lifelong principles to escort Mrs. Clowes to Brighton, or Switzerland, or that place where they had the little horses that Mr. Duval made such a 'mysterious joke about--it would have been amusing to do foreign parts with Mr. Duval. But when Laura took the turning to the vicarage Catherine was invaded by a creeping chill of doubt. Was it possible that Captain Hyde was not Mrs.
Clowes's lover after all?
"I know which I'd choose," she said to Gordon. "I've no patience with the Major. Such a way to behave! and my poor lady with the patience of an angel, putting up and putting up-- No man's worth it, that's what I say."
"Well, it is a bit thick," said Gordon: "calling his own wife a--"
The son of the Clyde was a contentious young man, and a jealous one. "You didn't seem to mind when the French chap was talking about a fille de joy. What d'ye suppose a fille de joy is in English? but there's some of us can do no wrong."
"French sounds so much more refined," said Catherine firmly.
Inaction was hard on Lawrence. He hated it: and he was not used to it: his impulse was to go direct to Wanhope and break down the door: but it was not to be done. When he reached the vicarage Mr. Stafford had gone out after an early lunch to take a wedding in Countisford, while Val had been obliged to ride over to a neighbouring farm. Leaving Laura to Isabel, who startled him by her cool "So Major Clowes has done it at last?" he hurried down to the post office to telephone to Selincourt (aware on his way that every eye was staring at him: no doubt the tale was already on every lip), but Selincourt too was out, and he had to be content with despatching colourless duplicate telegrams to his rooms and club. From a hint let fall during the night he was aware that no more than the most laconic wire would be needed, but he fretted under the delay, which meant that Selincourt could not arrive before six o'clock. After that he would have liked to go to Wharton, but dared not, for, though Jack's grandfather was what Yvonne called a Romantic, the Grantchesters were old-fas.h.i.+oned straightlaced people who had better not hear of the scandal till it was over. No, till Selincourt and Val appeared there was no more to be done, and Lawrence, returned to the vicarage and flung himself into a chair to wait. He dreaded inaction: inaction meant thought: and thought meant such bitter realities as he knew not how to stand up against: but what he liked or disliked was no longer to the point.
In that easy-going household, where comfort was obtained at the expense of appearances, there was always a diningroom fire in cold weather, and on this September morning the glow of the flames had a lulling effect. Dead tired, he dropped asleep, to be roused by the feeling that there was some one in the room.
There was, it was Isabel; and in the drugged heaviness that follows daylight slumber Hyde simply held out his arms to her in oblivion of last night. "Oh, oh!" said Isabel smiling at him and touching his palms with the tips of her fingers, "were you dreaming of me?" Hyde drew back, a deep flush covering his face.
What had changed Isabel? she was pure fascination. "I've been watching you a long time while you were asleep. I thought you would never wake. You're so, so tired! Here's a cup of coffee for you."
"Thank you," said Lawrence, entirely subdued.
He still felt half dazed: confused and shy, emotions the harder to disguise because they were so unfamiliar: and restless under Isabel's merry eyes. How near she was to him, the leaping flames flinging a dance of light and shadow over her silk s.h.i.+rt, and the bloom on her cheek, and the dark hair parted on one side (a boyish fas.h.i.+on which he had always disliked) and waved over her head! So near that without rising he could have pressed his lips to that white throat of hers. . . . Last night it had been beauty clouded, beauty averse, but this morning it was beauty in the most delicate and derisive and fleeting sunlight of pleasure; and the temperament of his race delivered Lawrence hand and foot into its power. The deep waters went over him and he ceased to struggle--"Isabel," he heard himself saying in a level voice but without his own volition, "should you mind if I were to kiss you?"
What a ba.n.a.lity to ask of a woman, his second self scoffed at him: a woman who should be kissed or left alone, but never asked for a kiss!
"Not very much," said Isabel, presenting her smooth cheek. "Not if it would do you any good."
Oh irony, oh disenchantment! "Thank you." He curbed his pa.s.sion and sat still. "I am not Val."
"Shut your eyes then."
He held his breath: the thick beating of his heart was like a m.u.f.fled hammer.
"This isn't the way I kiss Val."
"Isabel!" exclaimed Lawrence. He held out his arms again but they closed on the empty firelight: she had gone dancing off, the most fugitive, the most insubstantial of mistresses, nothing left of her to him but the memory of that moth's wing touch.
"Isabel, come here!" He, sprang to his feet. From the other end of the room Isabel turned round, wistful, her head bent, glancing up at him under her eyelashes.
"Oh must you have me?--all of me? Oh Lawrence!--well then--"
She advanced step by step, slowly. Lawrence waited, convinced that if he tried to seize her she would be gone, such a vague thistledown grace there was in her slender immaturity. He waited and Isabel came to him, drifted into his arms, was lying for a moment on his breast, and then, "Let me go: dearest, don't hold me!"