The Truants

Chapter IV

Tony Stretton makes a Proposal.

A.E.W. Mason

REGULAR as Warrisden had declared the lives of the truants to be, on the night following the dance at Lady Millingham’s there came a break in the monotony of their habits. For once in a way they did not leave the house in their search for light and colour as soon as they were free. They stayed on in their own sitting-room. But it seemed that they had nothing to speak about. Millie Stretton sat at the table, staring at the wall in front of her, moody and despairing. Tony Stretton leaned against the embrasure of the window, now and then glancing remorsefully at his wife, now and then looking angrily up to the ceiling where the heavy footsteps of a man treading up and down the room above sounded measured and unceasing.

Tony lifted a corner of the blind and looked out.

“There’s a party next door,” he said, “there was another at Lady Millingham’s last night. You should have been at both, Millie, and you were at neither. Upon my word, it’s rough.”

He dropped the blind and came over to her side. He knew quite well what parties and entertainments meant to her. She loved them, and it seemed to him natural and right that she should. Light, admiration, laughter and gaiety, and fine frocks—these things she was born to enjoy, and he himself had in the old days taken a great pride in watching her enjoyment. But it was not merely the feeling that she had been stripped of what was her due through him which troubled him to-night. Other and deeper thoughts were vaguely stirring in his mind.

“We have quarrelled again to-night, Millie,” he continued remorsefully. “Here we are cooped up together with just ourselves to rely upon to pull through these bad years, and we have quarrelled again.”

Millie shrugged her shoulders.

“How did it begin?” he asked. “Upon my word I don’t remember. Oh yes, I——” and Millie interrupted him.

“What does it matter, Tony, how the quarrel began? It did begin, and another will begin to-morrow. We can’t help ourselves, and you have given the reason. Here we are cooped up by ourselves with nothing else to do.”

Tony pulled thoughtfully at his moustache.

“And we swore off quarrelling, too. When was that?”


“Yesterday!” exclaimed Tony, with a start of surprise. “By George, so it was. Only yesterday.”

Millie looked up at him, and the trouble upon his face brought a smile to hers. She laid a hand upon his arm.

“It’s no use swearing off, Tony,” she said. “We are both of us living all the time in a state of exasperation. I just—tingle with it, there’s no other word. And the least, smallest thing which goes wrong sets us quarrelling. I don’t think either of us is to blame. The house alone gets on our nerves, doesn’t it? These great empty, silent, dingy rooms, with their tarnished furniture. Oh! they are horrible! I wander through them sometimes and it always seems to me that, a long time ago, people lived here who suddenly felt one morning that they couldn’t stand it for a single moment longer, and ran out and locked the street door behind them; and I have almost done it myself. The very sunlight comes through the windows timidly, as if it knew it had no right here at all.”

She leaned back in her chair, looking at Tony with eyes that were hopeless and almost haggard. As Tony listened to her outburst the remorse deepened on his face.

“If I could have foreseen all this, I would have spared you it, Millie,” he said. “I would, upon my word.” He drew up a chair to the table, and, sitting down, said in a more cheerful voice, “Let’s talk it over, and see if we can’t find a remedy.”

Millie shook her head.

“We talked it over yesterday.”

“Yes, so we did.”

“And quarrelled an hour after we had talked it over.”

“We did that too,” Tony agreed, despondently. His little spark of hopefulness was put out and he sat in silence. His wife, too, did not speak, and in a short while it occurred to him that the silence was more complete than it had been a few minutes ago. It seemed that a noise had ceased, and a noise which, unnoticed before, had become noticeable by its cessation. He looked up to the ceiling. The heavy footsteps no longer dragged upon the floor overhead. Tony sprang up.

“There! He is in bed,” he exclaimed. “Shall we go out?”

“Not to-night,” replied Millie.

He could make no proposal that night which was welcomed, and as he walked over to the mantelshelf and filled his pipe, there was something in his attitude and bearing which showed to Millie that the quick rebuff had hurt.

“I can’t pretend to-night, Tony, and that’s the truth,” she added in a kinder voice. “For, after all, I do only pretend nowadays that I find the Savoy amusing.”

Tony turned slowly round with the lighted match in his hand and stared at his wife. He was a man slow in thought, and when his thoughts compelled expression, laborious in words. The deeper thoughts which had begun of late to take shape in his mind stirred again at her words.

“You have owned it,” he said.

“It had been pretence with you too, then?” she asked, looking up in surprise.

Tony puffed at his pipe.

“Of late, yes,” he replied. “Perhaps chiefly since I saw that you were pretending.”

He came back to her side and looked for a long time steadily at her while he thought. It was a surprise to Millie that he had noticed her pretence, as much of a surprise as that he had been pretending too. For she knew him to be at once slow to notice any change in others and quick to betray it in himself. But she was not aware how wide a place she filled in all his thoughts, partly because her own nature with its facile emotions made her unable to conceive a devotion which was engrossing, and partly because Tony himself had no aptitude for expressing such a devotion, and indeed would have shrunk from its expression had the aptitude been his. But she did fill that wide place. Very slowly he had begun to watch her, very slowly and dimly certain convictions were taking shape, very gradually he was drawing nearer and nearer to a knowledge that a great risk must be taken and a great sacrifice made partly by him, partly too by her. Some part of his trouble he now spoke to her.

“It wasn’t pretence a year ago, Millie,” he said wistfully. “That’s what bothers me. We enjoyed slipping away quietly when the house was quiet, and snatching some of the light, some of the laughter the others have any time they want it. It made up for the days, it was fun then, Millie, wasn’t it? Upon my word, I believe we enjoyed our life, yes, even this life, a year ago. Do you remember how we used to drive home, laughing over what we had seen, talking about the few people we had spoken to? It wasn’t until we had turned the latch-key in the door, and crept into the hall——”

“And passed the library door,” Millie interrupted, with a little shiver.

Tony Stretton stopped for a moment. Then he resumed in a lower voice, “Yes, it wasn’t until we had passed the library door that the gloom settled down again. But now the fun’s all over, at the latest when the lights go down in the supper room, and often before we have got to them at all. We were happy last year”—and he shook her affectionately by the arm—“that’s what bothers me.”

His wife responded to the gentleness of his voice and action.

“Never mind, Tony,” she said. “Some day we shall look back on all of it—this house and the empty rooms and the quarrels”—she hesitated for a second—“Yes, and the library door; we shall look back on it all and laugh.”

“Shall we?” said Tony, suddenly. His face was most serious, his voice most doubtful.

“Why, what do you mean?” asked Millie. Then she added reassuringly, “It must end some time. Oh yes, it can’t last for ever.”

“No,” replied Tony; “but it can last just long enough.”

“Long enough for what?”

“Long enough to spoil both our lives altogether.”

He was speaking with a manner which was quite strange to her. There was a certainty in his voice, there was a gravity too. He had ceased to leave the remedy of their plight to time and chance, since, through two years, time and chance had failed them. He had been seriously thinking, and as the result of thought he had come to definite conclusions. Millie understood that there was much more behind the words he had spoken and that he meant to say that much more to her to-night. She was suddenly aware that she was face to face with issues momentous to both of them. She began to be a little afraid. She looked at Tony almost as if he were a stranger.

“Tony,” she said faintly, in deprecation.

“We must face it, Millie,” he went on steadily. “This life of ours here in this house will come to an end, of course, but how will it leave us, you and me? Soured, embittered, quarrelsome, or no longer quarrelsome, but just indifferent to each other, bored by each other?” He was speaking very slowly, choosing each word with difficulty.

“Oh no,” Millie protested.

“It may be even worse than that. Suppose we passed beyond indifference to dislike—yes, active dislike. We are both of us young, we can both reasonably look forward to long lives, long lives of active dislike. There might too be contempt on your side.”

Millie stared at her husband.

“Contempt?” she said, echoing his words in surprise.

“Yes. Here are you, most unhappy, and I take it sitting down. Contempt might come from that.”

“But what else can you do?” she said.

“Ah,” said Tony, as though he had been waiting for that question, couched in just those words. “Ask yourself that question often enough, and contempt will come.”

This idea of contempt was a new one to Millie, and very likely her husband was indiscreet in suggesting its possibility. But he was not thinking at all of the unwisdom of his words. His thoughts were set on saving the cherished intimacy of their life from the ruin which he saw was likely to overtake it. He spoke out frankly, not counting the risk. Millie, for her part, was not in the mood to estimate the truth of what he said, although it remained in her memory. She was rather confused by the new aspect which her husband wore. She foresaw that he was working towards the disclosure of a plan; and the plan would involve changes, great changes, very likely a step altogether into the dark. And she hesitated.

“We sha’n’t alter, Tony,” she said. “You can be sure of me, can’t you?”

“But we are altering,” he replied. “Already the alteration has begun. Did we quarrel a year ago as we do now? We enjoyed those evenings when we played truant, a year ago”; and then he indulged in a yet greater indiscretion than any which he had yet allowed himself to utter. But he was by nature simple and completely honest. Whatever occurred to him, that he spoke without reserve, and the larger it loomed in his thoughts the more strenuous was its utterance upon his lips. He took a seat at the table by her side.

“I know we are changing. I take myself, and I expect it is the same with you. I am—it is difficult to express it—I am deadening. I am getting insensible to the things which not very long ago moved me very much. I once had a friend who fell ill of a slow paralysis, which crept up his limbs little by little and he hardly noticed its advance. I think that’s happening with me. I am losing the associations—that’s the word I want—the associations which made one’s recollections valuable, and gave a colour to one’s life. For instance, you sang a song last night, Millie, one of those coon songs of yours—do you remember? You sang it once in Scotland on a summer’s night. I was outside on the lawn, and past the islands across the water, which was dark and still, I saw the lights in Oban bay. I thought I would never hear that song again without seeing those lights in my mind far away across the water, clustered together like the lights of a distant town. Well, last night all those associations were somehow dead. I remembered all right, but without any sort of feeling, that that song was a landmark in one’s life. It was merely you singing a song, or rather it was merely some one singing a song.”

It was a laboured speech, and Tony was very glad to have got it over.

“I am very sorry,” replied Millie in a low voice. She did not show him her face, and he had no notion whatever that his words could hardly have failed to hurt. He was too intent upon convincing her, and too anxious to put his belief before her with unmistakable clearness to reflect in what spirit she might receive the words. That her first thought would be “He no longer cares” never occurred to him at all, and cheerfully misunderstanding her acquiescence, he went on—

“You see that’s bad. It mustn’t go on, Millie. Let’s keep what we’ve got. At all costs let us keep that!”

“You mean we must go away?” said Millie, and Tony Stretton did not answer. He rose from his chair and walked back to the fireplace and knocked the ashes from his pipe. Millie was accustomed to long intervals between her questions and his replies, but she was on the alert now. Something in his movements and his attitude showed her that he was not thinking of what answer he should make. He was already sure upon that point. Only the particular answer he found difficult to speak. She guessed it on the instant and stood up erect, in alarm.

“You mean that you must go away, and that I must remain?”

Tony turned round to her and nodded his head.

“Alone! Here?” she exclaimed, looking round her with a shiver.

“For a little while. Until I have made a home for you to come to. Only till then, Millie. It needn’t be so very long.”

“It will seem ages!” she cried, “however short it is. Tony, it’s impossible.”

The tedious days stretched before her in an endless and monotonous succession. The great rooms would be yet more silent, and more empty than they were; there would be a chill throughout all the house; the old man’s exactions would become yet more oppressive, since there would be only one to bear them. She thought of the long dull evenings, in the faded drawing-room. They were bad enough now, those long evenings during which she read the evening paper aloud, and Sir John slept, yet not so soundly but that he woke the instant her voice stopped, and bade her continue. What would they be if Tony were gone, if there were no hour or so at the end when they were free to play truant if they willed? What she had said was true. She had been merely pretending to enjoy their hour of truancy, but she would miss it none the less. And in the midst of these thoughts she heard Tony’s voice.

“It sounds selfish, I know, but it isn’t really. You see, I sha’n’t enjoy myself. I have not been brought up to know anything well or to do anything well—anything, I mean, really useful—I’ll have a pretty hard time too.” And then he described to her what he thought of doing. He proposed to go out to one of the colonies, spend some months on a farm as a hand, and when he had learned enough of the methods, and had saved a little money, to get hold of a small farm to which he could ask her to come. It was a pretty and a simple scheme, and it ignored the great difficulties in the way, such as his ignorance and his lack of capital. But he believed in it sincerely, and every word in his short and broken sentences proved his belief. He had his way that night with Millicent. She was capable of a quick fervour, though the fervour might as quickly flicker out. She saw that the sacrifice was really upon his side, for upon him would be the unaccustomed burden of labour, and the labour would be strange and difficult. She rose to his height since he was with her and speaking to her with all the conviction of his soul.

“Well, then, go,” she cried. “I’ll wait here, Tony, till you send for me.”

And when she passed the library door that night she did not even shrink.

The Truants - Contents    |     Chapter V

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