The Truants

Chapter III

The Truants.

A.E.W. Mason

WARRISDEN turned quickly to Pamela.

“You never mentioned them.”

“No,” she replied with a smile. “But there’s no mystery in my silence. I simply haven’t mentioned them because for two years I have lost sight of them altogether. I used to meet them about, and I have been to their house.”

“There?” asked Warrisden, with a nod towards the lighted window.

“No; but to the house Millie and Mr. Stretton had in Deanery Street. They gave that up two years ago when old Lady Stretton died. I thought they had gone to live in the country.”

“And all the while they have been living here,” exclaimed Warrisden. He had spoken truthfully of himself. The events, and the people with whom he came, however slightly, into contact always had interested and amused him. It was his pleasure to fit his observations together until he had constructed a little biography in his mind of each person with whom he was acquainted. And there was never an incident of any interest within his notice, but he sought the reason for it and kept an eye open for its consequence.

“Don’t you see how strange the story is?” he went on. “They give up their house upon Lady Stretton’s death, and they come to live here with Sir John. That’s natural enough. Sir John’s an old man. But they live in such seclusion that even their friends think they have retired into the country.”

“Yes, it is strange,” Pamela admitted. And she added, “I was Millie Stretton’s bridesmaid.”

Upon Warrisden’s request she told him what she knew of the couple who lived in the dark house and played truant. Millie Stretton was the daughter of a Judge in Ceylon who when Millie had reached the age of seventeen had married a second time. The step-mother had lacked discretion; from the very first she had claimed to exercise a complete and undisputed authority; she had been at no pains to secure the affections of her step-daughter. And very little trouble would have been needed, for Millie was naturally affectionate. A girl without any great depth of feeling, she responded easily to a show of kindness. She found it neither difficult to make intimate friends, nor hard to lose them. She was of the imitative type besides. She took her thoughts and even her language from those who at the moment were by her side. Thus her step-mother had the easiest of tasks but she did not possess the necessary tact. She demanded obedience, and in return offered tolerance. The household at Colombo, therefore, became for Millie a roofstead rather than a home, and a year after this marriage she betook herself and the few thousands of pounds which her mother had bequeathed her to London. The ostensible reason for departure was the invitation of Mrs. Charles Rawson, a friend of her mother’s. But Millie had made up her mind that a return to Ceylon was not to be endured. Somehow she would manage to make a home or herself in England.

She found her path at once made easy. She was pretty, with the prettiness of a child, she gave no trouble, she was fresh, she dressed a drawing-room gracefully, he fitted neatly into her surroundings, she picked up immediately the ways of thought and the jargon of her new companions. In a word, with the remarkable receptivity which was hers, she was very quickly at home in Mrs. Rawson’s house. She became a favourite no less for her modest friendliness than on account of her looks. Mrs. Rawson, who was nearing middle age, but whose love of amusements was not assuaged, rejoiced to have so attractive a companion to take about with her. Millie, for her part, was very glad to be so taken about. She had fallen from the obscure clouds into a bright and wonderful world.

It was at this time that Pamela Mardale first met Millicent Stretton, or rather, one should say, Millicent Rundell, since Rundell was at that time her name. They became friends, although so far as character was concerned they had little in common. It may have been that the difference between them was the actual cause of their friendship. Certainly Millie came rather to lean upon her friend, admired her strength, made her the repository of her confidences, and if she received no confidences in return, she was content to believe that there were none to make. It was at this time too that Millie fell in with Lady Stretton.

Lady Stretton, a tall old woman with the head of a Grenadier, had the characteristic of Sir Anthony Absolute. There was no one so good-tempered so long as she had her own way; and she generally had it.

“Lady Stretton saw that Millie was easily led,” Pamela continued. “She thought, for that reason, she would be a suitable wife for Tony, her son, who was then a subaltern in the Coldstream. So she did all she could to throw them together. She invited Millie up to her house in Scotland, the house Lady Millingham now has, and Mr. Stretton fell in love. He was evidently very fond of Millie, and Millie on her side liked him quite as much as any one else. They were married. Lady Stretton hired them the house I told you of, close to Park Lane, and took a great deal of trouble to see that they were comfortable. You see, they were toys for her. There, that’s all I know. Are you satisfied?”

She leaned back in her chair, smiling at Warrisden’s serious face.

“And what about the old man, Sir John Stretton?” he asked.

“I never met him,” replied Pamela. “He never went out to parties, and I never went to that house.”

As she concluded the sentence, a man looked on to the balcony and, seeing them, withdrew. Pamela rose at once from her chair, and, with a sudden movement of jealousy, Warrisden swung round and looked into the room. The man was well past the middle age, stout of build, and with a heavy careworn face with no pleasure in it at all. He was the man who had been with Pamela when Warrisden had arrived. Warrisden turned back to the girl with a smile of relief.

“You are engaged?”

“Yes, for this dance to Mr. Mudge,” and she indicated the man who was retiring. “But we shall meet again—at Newmarket, at all events. Perhaps in Scotland too.”

She held out her hand to Warrisden, and, as he took it, her voice dropped to a plea.

“Please don’t go away again without telling me first, without talking it over, so that I may know where you are from month to month. Please promise!”

Warrisden promised, and went away from the house with her prayer echoing in his ears. The very sound of her voice was audible to him, and he never doubted the sincerity of its appeal. But if she set such store on what she had, why was she content with just that and nothing more, he asked himself. Why did she not claim a little more and give a little more in return? Why did she come to a halt at friendship, a mere turnpike on the great road, instead of passing through the gate and going on down the appointed way. He did not know that she passed the turnpike once, and that if she refused to venture on that path again, it was because, knowing herself, she dared not.

In the narrows of Berkeley Street Warrisden was shaken out of these reflections. A hansom jingled past him, and by the light of the lamp which hung at the back within it he caught a glimpse of the truants. They were driving home to the dark house in the Square, and they sat side by side silent and with troubled faces. Warrisden’s thoughts went back to what Pamela had told him that night. She had told him the half, but not the perplexing, interesting half of their history. That indeed Pamela could not tell, for she did not know Sir John Stretton, and the old man’s warped and churlish character alone explained it.

It was by his doing that the truants gave up their cheery little house in Deanery Street and came to live in Berkeley Square. The old man was a miser, who during his wife’s existence had not been allowed to gratify his instincts. He made all the more ample amends after she had died. The fine allowance on which the young couple had managed to keep a pair of horses and a little brougham was stripped from them.

“Why should I live alone?” said the old man. “I am old, Tony, and I need some attention. The house is big, much too big for me, and the servants are eating their heads off for the want of something to do.” There were indeed more servants than were needed. Servants were the single luxury Sir John allowed himself. Their liveries were faded, they themselves were insolent and untidy, but they were there, in the great bare dining-room at dinner-time, in the hall when Sir John came home of an afternoon. For the old man went out each day as the clock struck three; he came back each evening at half-past six. He went out alone, he returned alone, and he never went to his club. He took an omnibus from the corner of Berkeley Street and journeyed eastwards as far as Ludgate Hill. There he took a drink in the refreshment bar, and, coming out, struck northwards into Holborn, where he turned westwards, and walking as far as the inn at the corner of the Tottenham Court Road, stepped for an hour into the private bar. Thence he took another omnibus, and finally reached home, where his footmen received him solemnly in the hall. To this home he brought Tony and his wife.

“There choose your own rooms, Tony,” he said magnanimously. “What’s that? Money? But what for? You’ll have it soon enough.”

Tony Stretton suggested that it was hardly possible for any man, however careful, to retain a commission in the Coldstream without an allowance. Sir John, a tall thin man, with high bald forehead, and a prim puritanical face, looked at his son with a righteous severity.

“A very expensive regiment. Leave it, Tony! And live quietly at home. Look after your father, my boy, and you won’t need money,” and he stalked upstairs leaving Tony aghast in the hall. Tony had to sit down and think it over before he could quite realise the fate which had over-taken him. Here he was, twenty-six years old brought up to spend what he wanted and to ask for more when that was ended, and he was to live quietly on nothing at all. He had no longer any profession, he was not clever enough to enter upon a new one without some sort of start and in addition he had a wife. His wife, it was true, had a few thousands; they had remained untouched ever since the marriage and Tony shrank from touching them now. He sat on one of the hall-chairs, twisting his moustache and staring with his blank blue eyes at the opposite wall. What in the world was he to do? Old Sir John was quite aware of those few thousands. They might just as well be used now he thought, and save him expense. Tony could pay them back after his father was dead. Such was Sir John’s plan and Tony had to fall in with it. The horses and the brougham and all the furniture, the prints, the pictures and the mirrors which had decked out so gaily the little house in Deanery Street went to the hammer. Tony paid off his debts and found himself with a hundred pounds in hand at the end; and when that was gone he was forced to come to his wife.

“Of course,” said she, “we’ll share what I have, Tony.”

“Yes, but we must go carefully,” he replied. “Heaven knows how long we will have to drag on like this.”

So the money question was settled, but that was in reality the least of their troubles. Sir John, for the first time in his life, was master in fact as well as in name. He had been no match for his wife, but he was more than a match for his son. He was the fifth baronet of his name, and yet there was no landed property. He was rich, and all the money was safely tucked away in the public funds, and he could bequeath it as he willed. He was in a position to put the screw on Tony and his wife, and he did not let the opportunity slip. The love of authority grew upon him. He became exacting and portentously severe. In his black, shabby coat, with his long thin figure, and his narrow face, he had the look of a cold self-righteous fanatic. You would have believed that he was mortifying his son for the sake of his son’s soul, unless perchance you had peeped into that private bar in the Tottenham Court Road and had seen him drinking gloomily alone.

He laid down rules to which the unfortunate couple must needs conform. They had to dine with him every night and to sit with him every evening until he went to bed. It followed that they lost sight of their friends, and every month isolated them more completely. The mere humiliation of the position in which they stood caused them to shrink more and more into their privacy. When they walked out in the afternoon they kept away from the Park; when they played truant in the evening, at the Savoy, they chose a little table in an obscure corner. This was the real history of the truants with whose fortunes those of Warrisden and Pamela were to be so closely intermingled. For that life in the dark house was not to last. Even as Warrisden passed them in Berkeley Street, Tony Stretton was saying over and over again in his inactive mind—

“It can’t go on. It can’t go on!”

In the after times, when the yapping of dogs in the street at night would wake Tony from his sleep, and set him on dreaming of tent villages in a wild country of flowers, or when the wind in the trees would recall to him a little ship labouring on short steep seas in a mist of spray, he always looked back to this night as that on which the venture of his wife’s fortunes and his own began.

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