THE PROMISE which Pamela had given was a great relief to Tony; he went about the work of preparing for his departure with an easier mind. It was even in his thoughts when he stood with his wife upon the platform of Euston station, five minutes before his train started for Liverpool.
“She will be a good friend, Millie,” he said. “Count on her till I send for you. I think I am right to go, even though I don’t understand——”
He checked himself abruptly. Millie, however, paid heed only to the first clause of his sentence.
“Of course you are right,” she said, with a confidence which brought an answering smile to his face.
She watched the red tail-light of the train until it disappeared, and drove home alone to the big dreary house. It seemed ten times more dreary, ten times more silent than ever before. She was really alone now. But her confidence in herself and in Tony was still strong. “I can wait,” she said, and the consciousness of her courage rejoiced her. She walked from room to room and sat for a few moments in each, realising that the coldness, the dingy look of the furniture, and the empty silence had no longer the power to oppress her. She even hesitated at the library door with her fingers on the key. But it was not until the next day that she unlocked it and threw it open.
For Pamela, mindful of her promise, called in the afternoon. Millicent was still uplifted by her confidence.
“I can wait quite patiently,” she said; and Pamela scrutinised her with some anxiety. For Millicent was speaking feverishly, as though she laboured under an excitement. Was her courage the mere effervescence of that excitement, or was it a steady, durable thing? Pamela led her friend on to speak of the life which she and Tony had led in the big house, sounding her the while so that she might come upon some answer to that question. And thus it happened that, as they came down the stairs together, Millicent again stopped before the library door.
“Look!” she said. “This room always seemed to me typical of the whole house, typical too of the lives we led in it.”
She unlocked the door suddenly and flung it open. The floor of the library was below the level of the hall, and a smooth plane of wood sloped down to it very gradually from the threshold.
“There used to be steps here once, but before my time,” said Millicent. She went down into the room. Pamela followed her, and understood why those two steps had been removed. Although the book-shelves rose on every wall from floor to ceiling, it was not as a library that this room was used. Heavy black curtains draped it with a barbaric profusion. The centre of the room was clear of furniture, and upon the carpet in that clear space was laid a purple drugget; and on the drugget opposite to one another stood two strong wooden crutches. The room was a mortuary chamber—nothing less. On those two crutches the dead were to lie awaiting burial.
Millie Stretton shook her shoulders with a kind of shiver.
“Oh, how I used to hate this room, hate knowing that it was here, prepared and ready!”
Pamela could understand how the knowledge would work upon a woman of emotions, whose nerves were already strung to exasperation by the life she led. For even to her there was something eerie in the disposition of the room. It looked out upon a dull yard of stone at the back of the house; the light was very dim and the noise of the streets hardly the faintest whisper; there was a chill and a dampness in the air.
“How I hated it,” Millie repeated. “I used to lie awake and think of it. I used to imagine it more silent than any other of the silent rooms, and emptier—emptier because day and night it seemed to claim an inhabitant, and to claim it as a right. That was the horrible thing. The room was waiting—waiting for us to be carried down that wooden bridge and laid on the crutches here, each in our turn. It became just a symbol of the whole house. For what is the house, Pamela? A place that should have been a place of life, and is a place merely expecting death. Look at the books reaching up to the ceiling, never taken down, never read, for the room’s a room for coffins. It wasn’t merely a symbol of the house—that wasn’t the worst of it. It was a sort of image of our lives, the old man’s upstairs, Tony’s and mine down here. We were all doing nothing, neither suffering nor enjoying, but just waiting—waiting for death. Nothing you see could happen in this house but death. Until it came there would only be silence and emptiness.”
Millie Stretton finished her outburst, and stood dismayed as though the shadow of those past days were still about her. The words she had spoken must have seemed exaggerated and even theatrical, but for the aspect of her as she spoke them. Her whole frame shuddered, her face had the shrinking look of fear. She recovered herself, however, in a moment.
“But that time’s past,” she said. “Tony’s gone and I—I am waiting for life now. I am only a lodger, you see. A month or two, and I pack my boxes.”
She turned towards the door and stopped. The hall door had just at that moment opened. Pamela heard a man’s footsteps sound heavily upon the floor of the hall and then upon the stairs.
“My father-in-law,” said Millie.
“This was his doing?” asked Pamela.
“Yes,” replied Millie. “It’s strange, isn’t it? But there’s something stranger still.”
The footsteps had now ceased. Millie led the way back to her room.
“When I got home yesterday,” she related, “I had Tony’s letter announcing his departure taken up to Sir John. I waited for him to send for me. He did not. I am not sure that I expected he would. You see, he has never shown the least interest in us. However, when I went up to my room to dress for dinner, I saw that the candles were all lighted in Tony’s room next door, and his clothes laid out upon the bed. I went in and put the candles out—rather quickly.” Her voice shook a little upon those last two words. Pamela nodded her head as though she understood, and Millicent went on, after a short pause—
“It troubled me to see them burning; it troubled me very much. And when I came downstairs I told the footman the candles were not to be lit again, since Tony had gone away. He answered that they had been lit by Sir John’s orders. At first I thought that Sir John had not troubled to read the letter at all. I thought that all the more because he never once, either during dinner or afterwards, mentioned Tony’s name or seemed to remark his absence. But it was not so. He has given orders that every night the room is to be ready and the candles lit as though Tony were here still, or might walk in at the door at any moment. I suppose that after all in a queer way he cares.”
Again her voice faltered; and again a question rose up insistent in Pamela’s mind. She knew her friend, and it was out of her knowledge that she had spoken long ago in Tony’s presence when she had said, “her husband should never leave her.” It was evident that Tony’s departure had caused his wife great suffering.
Millicent had let that fact escape in spite of her exaltation. Pamela welcomed it, but she asked, “Was that regret a steady and durable thing?”
Pamela left London the next day with her question unanswered, and for two months there was no opportunity for her of discovering an answer. Often during that August and September, on the moors in Scotland, or at her own home in Leicestershire, she would think of Millie Stretton, in the hot and dusty town amongst the houses where the blinds were drawn. She imagined her sitting over against the old stern impassive man at dinner, or wearily reading to him his newspaper at night. Had the regret dwindled to irritation, and the loneliness begotten petulance?
Indeed, those months were dull and wearisome enough for Millicent. No change of significance came in the routine of that monotonous household. Sir John went to his room perhaps a little earlier than had been his wont, his footsteps dragged along the floor for a while longer, and his light burned in the window after the dawn had come. Finally he ceased to leave his room at all. But that was all. For Millicent, however, the weeks passed easily. Each day brought her a day nearer to the sunlit farm fronting the open plain. She marked the weeks off in her diary with a growing relief; for news kept coming from America, and the news was good.
Early in October, Pamela passed through London on her way to Sussex, and broke her journey that she might see her friend.
“Frances Millingham is writing to you,” she said. “She wants you to stay with her in Leicestershire. I shall be there too. I hope you will come.”
“At the beginning of the New Year.”
“I shall have left England before then. Tony will have made his way,” she said, with a joyous conviction.
“There might be delays,” Pamela suggested, in a very gentle voice. For suddenly there had risen before her mind the picture of a terrace high above a gorge dark with cypresses. She saw again the Mediterranean, breaking in gold along the curving shore, and the gardens of the Casino at Monte Carlo. She heard a young girl prophesying success upon that terrace with no less certainty than Millicent had used. Her face softened and her eyes shone with a very wistful look. She took out her watch and glanced at it. It was five o’clock. The school children had gone home by now from the little school-house in the square of Roquebrune. Was the schoolmaster leaning over the parapet looking downwards to the station or to the deserted walk in front of the Casino? Was a train passing along the sea’s edge towards France and Paris?
“One must expect delays, Millie,” she insisted; and again Millie laughed.
“I have had letters. I am expecting another. It should have come a fortnight since.” And she told Pamela what the letters had contained.
At first Tony had been a little bewildered by the activity of New York, after his quiescent years. But he had soon made an acquaintance, and the acquaintance had become a friend. The two men had determined to go into partnership; a farm in Kentucky was purchased, each man depositing an equal share of the purchase money.
“Six weeks ago they left New York. Tony said I would not hear from him at once.”
And while they were sitting together there came a knock upon the door, and two letters were brought in for Millicent. One she tossed upon the table. With the other in her hand she turned triumphantly to Pamela.
“Do you mind?” she asked. “I have been waiting so long.”
“Read it, of course,” said Pamela.
Millie tore the letter open, and at once the light died out of her eyes, and the smile vanished from her lips.
“From New York,” she said, halfway between perplexity and fear. “He writes from New York.” And with trembling fingers she turned over the sheets and read the letter through.
Pamela watched her, saw the blood ebb from her cheeks, and dejection overspread her face. A great pity welled up in Pamela’s heart, not merely for the wife who read, but for the man who had penned that letter—with what difficulty, she wondered, with how much pain! Failure was the message which it carried. Millicent’s trembling lips told her that. And again the village of Roquebrune rose up before her eyes as she gazed out of the window on the London square. What were the words the schoolmaster had spoken when, stripped of his dreams, he had confessed success was not for him? “We must forget these fine plans. The school at Roquebrune will send no deputy to Paris.” Pamela’s eyes grew dim.
She stood looking out of the window for some while, but hearing no movement she at length turned back again. The sheets of the letter had fallen upon the floor, they lay scattered, written over in a round, sprawling, schoolboy’s hand. Millicent sat very still, her face most weary and despairing.
“It’s all over,” she said. “The friend was a swindler. He left the train at a station on the way and disappeared. Tony went on, but there was no farm. He is back in New York.”
“But the man can be found?”
“He belongs to a gang. There is little chance, and Tony has no money. He will take no more of mine.”
“He is coming home, then?” said Pamela.
“No; he means to stay and retrieve his failures.”
Pamela said nothing, and Millicent appealed to her. “He will do that, don’t you think? Men have started badly before, and have succeeded, and have not taken so very long to succeed.”
“No doubt,” said Pamela; and she spoke with what hopefulness she could. But she remembered Tony Stretton. Simplicity and good-humour were amongst his chief qualities; he was a loyal friend, and he had pluck. Was that enough? On the other hand, he had little knowledge and little experience. The schoolmaster of Roquebrune and Tony Stretton stood side by side in her thoughts. She was not, however, to be put to the task of inventing encouragements. For before she could open her lips again, Millicent said gently—
“Will you mind if I ask to be left alone? Come again as soon as you can. But this afternoon——” Her voice broke so that she could not finish her sentence, and she turned hastily away. However, she recovered her self-control and went down the stairs with Pamela, and as they came into the hall their eyes turned to the library door, and then they looked at one another. Both remembered the conversation they had had within that room.
“What if you told Sir John?” said Pamela. “It seems that he does after all care.”
“It would be of no use,” said Millicent, shaking her head. “He would only say, ‘Let him come home,’ and Tony will not. Besides, I never see him now.”
“Never?” exclaimed Pamela.
“No; he does not leave his room.” She lowered her voice. “I do not believe he ever will leave it again. It’s not that he’s really ill, his doctor tells me, but he’s slowly letting himself go.”
Pamela answered absently. Sir John Stretton and his ailments played a small part in her thoughts. It seemed that the library was again to become typical of the house, typical of the life its inhabitants led. Nothing was to happen, then. There was to be a mere waiting for things to cease.
But a second letter was lying upstairs unopened on the table, and that letter, harmless as it appeared, was strangely to influence Millicent Stretton’s life. It was many hours afterwards when Millicent opened it, and, compared with the heavy tidings she had by the same post received, it seemed utterly trifling and unimportant. It was no more indeed than the invitation from Frances Millingham of which Pamela had spoken. Pamela forgot it altogether when she heard the news which Tony had sent, but she was to be affected by it too. For she had made a promise to Tony Stretton, and, as he had foreseen, she would at any cost fulfil it.