The Truants

Chapter VII

The Lady on the Stairs

A.E.W. Mason

WHITEWEBS, Frances Millingham’s house in Leicestershire, was a long white building with many level windows. The square main block of the building rose in the centre two storeys high, and on each side a wing of one storey projected. Behind the house a broad lawn sloped to the bank of a clear and shallow trout stream, with an avenue of old elms upon its left, and a rose garden upon its right. In front of the house a paddock made a ring of green, and round this ring the carriage drive circled from a white five-barred gate. Whitewebs stood in a flat grass country. From the upper windows you looked over a wide plain of meadows and old trees, so level that you had on a misty day almost an illusion of a smooth sea and the masts of ships; from the lower, you saw just as far as the nearest hedgerow, except in one quarter of the compass. For to the south-west the ground rose very far away, and at the limit of view three tall poplars, set in a tiny garden on the hill’s crest, stood clearly out against the sky like sentinels upon a frontier. These three landmarks were visible for many miles around. Pamela, however, saw nothing of them as she was driven over the three miles from the station to Whitewebs.

It was late on a February evening, and already dark. The snow had fallen heavily during the last week, and as Pamela looked out through the carriage windows she saw that the ground glimmered white on every side; above the ground a mist thickened the night air, and the cold was piercing. When she reached the house she found that Frances Millingham was waiting for her alone in the big inner hall, with tea ready; and the first question which she asked of her hostess was—

“Is Millie Stretton here?”

“Yes,” replied Frances Millingham. “She has been here a week.”

“I couldn’t come before,” said Pamela, rather remorsefully. “My father was at home alone. How is Millie? I have not seen her for a long time. Is she enjoying herself?”

Pamela’s conscience had been reproaching her all that afternoon. She could plead in her own behalf that after the arrival of Tony’s letter with its message of failure, she had deferred her visit into the country and had stayed in London for a week. But she had not returned to London since, and consequently she had not seen her friend. She had heard regularly from her, it is true; she also knew that there was yet no likelihood of the hoped-for change in the life of that isolated household in Berkeley Square. But there had been certain omissions of late in Millicent’s letters which began to make Pamela anxious.

“Yes,” Frances Millingham replied; “she seems to be happy enough.”

Lady Millingham related the names of her guests. There were twelve in all, but the first ten may be omitted, for they are in no way concerned with Pamela’s history. The eleventh name, however, was that of a friend.

“John Mudge is here, too,” said Frances Millingham; and Pamela said, with a smile—

“I like him.”

John Mudge was that elderly man whom Allan Warrisden had seen with Pamela at Lady Millingham’s dance, the man with no pleasure in his face. “And Mr. Lionel Callon,” said Frances; “you know him.”

“Do I?” asked Pamela.

“At all events, he knows you.”

It was no doubt a consequence of Pamela’s deliberate plan never to be more than an onlooker, that people who did not arouse her active interest passed in and out of her acquaintanceship like shadows upon a mirror. It might be that she had met Lionel Callon. She could not remember.

“A quarter past seven,” said Frances Millingham, glancing at the clock. “We dine at eight.”

Pamela dressed quickly in the hope that she might gain a few minutes before dinner wherein to talk to Millicent. She came down the stairs with this object a good quarter of an hour before eight, but she was to be disappointed. The stairs descended into the big inner hall of the house, and just below the roof of the hall they took a bend. As Pamela came round this bend the hall was exposed to her eyes, and she saw, below her, not Millicent at all, but the figure of a man. He was standing by the fireplace, on her left hand as she descended, looking into the fire indeed, so that his back was towards her. But at the rustle of her frock he swung round quickly and looked up. He now moved a few steps towards the foot of the stairs with a particular eagerness. Pamela at that moment had just come round the bend, and was on the small platform from which the final flight of steps began. The staircase was dimly lit, and the panelling of the wall against which it rested dark. Pamela took a step or two downwards, and the light of the hall struck upon her face. The man came instantly to a dead stop, and a passing disappointment was visible upon his upturned face. It was evident that he was expecting some one else. Pamela on her side was disappointed, too, for she had hoped to find Millicent. She went down the stairs and stopped on the third step from the bottom.

“How do you do, Miss Mardale?” said the man. “You have arrived at last.”

The man was Lionel Callon. Pamela recognised him now that they stood face to face; she had met him, but she had retained no impression of him in her memory. For the future, however, she would retain a very distinct impression. For her instincts told her at once and clearly that she thoroughly disliked the man. He was thirty-three in years, and looked a trifle younger, although his hair was turning grey. He was clean shaven, handsome beyond most men, and while his features were of a classical regularity and of an almost feminine delicacy, they were still not without character. There was determination in his face, and his eyes were naturally watchful. It was his manner which prompted Pamela’s instinct of dislike. Assurance gave to it a hint of arrogance; familiarity made it distasteful. He might have been her host from the warmth of his welcome. Pamela put on her sedatest air.

“I am quite well,” she said, with just sufficient surprise to suggest the question, “What in the world has my health to do with you?” She came down the three steps, and added, “We are the first, I suppose.”

“There may be others in the drawing-room,” said Callon, with a glance towards the open door. But Pamela did not take the hint. For one thing no sound of any voice was audible in that room; for another Mr. Callon was plainly anxious to be rid of her. Even as he was speaking his glance strayed past her up the staircase. Pamela disliked him; she was, besides, disappointed by him of that private talk with Millicent which she desired. She was in a mood for mischief. She changed her manner at once, and, crossing over to the fireplace, engaged Mr. Callon in conversation with the utmost cordiality, and as she talked she began to be amused. Callon became positively uneasy; he could not keep still, he answered her at random. For instance, she put to him a question about the number of guests in the house. He did not answer at all for a moment or two, and when he did speak, it was to say, “Will the frost hold, do you think?”

“There’s no sign of a thaw to-night,” replied Pamela; and the sounds for which both were listening became audible—the shutting of a door on the landing above, and then the rustle of a frock upon the stairs. Mr. Callon was evidently at his wits’ end what to do; and Pamela, taking her elbow from the mantelpiece, said, with great sympathy—

“One feels a little in the way——”

“Oh, not at all, Miss Mardale,” Callon answered hurriedly, with a flustered air.

Pamela looked at her companion with the blankest stare of surprise.

“I was going to say, when you interrupted me,” she went on, “that one feels a little in the way when one has brought a couple of horses, as I have, and the frost holds.”

Callon grew red. He had fallen into a trap; his very hurry to interrupt what appeared to be almost an apology betrayed that the lady upon the stairs and Mr. Lionel Callon had arranged to come down early. He had protested overmuch. However, he looked Pamela steadily in the face, and said—

“I beg your pardon, Miss Mardale.”

He spoke loudly, rather too loudly for the ears of any one so near to him as Pamela. The sentence, too, was uttered with a note of warning. There was even a suggestion of command. The command was obeyed by the lady on the stairs, for all at once the frock ceased to rustle, and there was silence. Lionel Callon kept his eyes fixed upon Pamela’s face, but she did not look towards the stairs, and in a little while again the sound was heard. But it diminished. The lady upon the stairs was ascending, and a few minutes afterwards a door closed overhead. She had beaten a retreat.

Callon could not quite keep the relief which he felt out of his eyes or the smile from his lips. Pamela noticed the change with amusement. She was not in the mind to spare him uneasiness, and she said, looking at the wall above the mantelpiece—

“This is an old mirror, don’t you think? From what period would you date it?”

Callon’s thoughts had been so intent upon the stairs that he had paid no heed to the ornaments above the mantelshelf. Now, however, he took note of them with a face grown at once anxious. The mirror was of an oval shape and framed in gold. Under the pretence of admiring it, he moved and stood behind Pamela, looking into the mirror over her shoulder, seeing what she could see, and wondering how much she had seen. He was to some extent relieved. The stairs were ill-lighted, the panelling of the wall dark mahogany; moreover, the stairs bent round into the hall just below the level of the roof, and at the bend the lady on the stairs had stopped. Pamela could not have seen her face. Pamela, indeed, had seen nothing more than a black satin slipper arrested in the act of taking a step, and a black gown with some touches of red at the waist. She had, however, noticed the attitude of the wearer of the dress when the warning voice had brought her to a stop. The lady had stooped down and had cautiously peered into the hall. In this attitude she had been able to see, and yet had avoided being seen.

Pamela, however, did not relieve Mr. Callon of his suspense. She walked into the drawing-room and waited, with an amused curiosity, for the appearance of the black dress. It was long in coming, however. Pamela had no doubt that it would come last, and in a hurry, as though its wearer had been late in dressing. But Pamela was wrong. Millicent Stretton came into the room dressed in a frock of white lace, and at once dinner was announced. Pamela turned to Frances Millingham with a startled face—

“Are we all here?”

Frances Millingham looked round.

“Yes;” and Lord Millingham at that moment offered his arm to Pamela. As she took it, she looked at Millicent, who was just rising from her chair. Millicent was wearing with her white dress black shoes and stockings. She might be wearing them deliberately, of course; on the other hand, she might be wearing them because she had not had time to change them. It was Millicent, certainly, who had come down last. “I beg your pardon, Miss Mardale,” Callon had said, and it was upon the “Miss Mardale” that his voice had risen. The emphasis of his warning had been laid upon the name.

As she placed her hand on her host’s arm, Pamela said—

“It was very kind of Frances to ask Millie Stretton here.”

“Oh no,” Lord Millingham replied. “You see, Frances knew her. We all knew, besides, that she is a great friend of yours.”

“Yes,” said Pamela; “I suppose everybody here knows that?”

“Mrs. Stretton has talked of it,” he answered, with a smile.

The “Miss Mardale” might be a warning, then, to Millicent that her friend had arrived—was actually then in the hall. There was certainly no one but Millicent in that house who could have been conscious of any need to shrink back at the warning, who would have changed her dress to prevent a recognition; and Millicent herself need not have feared the warning had there not been something to conceal—something to conceal especially from Pamela, who had said, “I have promised your husband I would be your friend.” There was the heart of Pamela’s trouble.

She gazed down the two lines of people at the dinner-table, hoping against hope that she had overlooked some one. There was no one wearing a black gown. All Pamela’s amusement in outwitting Callon had long since vanished. If Tony had only taken her advice without question, she thought. “Millie’s husband should never leave her. If he goes away he should take her with him.” The words rang in her mind all through dinner like the refrain of a song of which one cannot get rid. And at the back of her thoughts there steadily grew and grew a great regret that she had ever promised Tony to befriend his wife.

That Millicent was the lady on the stairs she no longer dared to doubt. Had she doubted, her suspicions would have been confirmed immediately dinner was over. In the drawing-room Millicent avoided any chance of a private conversation, and since they had not met for so long such avoidance was unnatural. Pamela, however, made no effort to separate her friend from the other women. She had a plan in her mind, and in pursuit of it she occupied a sofa, upon which there was just room for two. She sat in the middle of the sofa, so that no one else could sit on it, and just waited until the men came in. Some of them crossed at once to Pamela, but she did not budge an inch. They were compelled to stand. Finally, Mr. Mudge approached her, and immediately she moved into one corner and bade him take the other. Mr. Mudge accepted the position with alacrity. The others began to move away; a couple of card-tables were made up. Pamela and John Mudge were left alone.

“You know every one here?” she asked.

“No, very few.”

“Mr. Callon, at all events?”

Mr. Mudge glanced shrewdly at his questioner.

“Yes, I know him slightly,” he answered.

“Tell me what you know.”

Mr. Mudge sat for a moment or two with his hands upon his knees and his eyes staring in front of him. Pamela knew his history, and esteemed his judgment. He had built up a great contracting business from the poorest beginnings, and he remained without bombast or arrogance. He was to be met nowadays in many houses, and, while he had acquired manners, he had lost nothing of his simplicity. The journey from the Seven Dials to Belgrave Square is a test of furnace heat, and John Mudge had betrayed no flaws. There was a certain forlornness, too, in his manner which appealed particularly to Pamela. She guessed that the apples, for which through a lifetime he had grasped, had crumbled into ashes between his fingers. Sympathy taught her that the man was lonely. He wandered through the world amidst a throng of acquaintances; but how many friends had he, she wondered? She did not interrupt his reflections, and he turned to her at last, with an air of decision.

“I am on strange ground here,” he said, “as you know. I am the outsider; and when I am on strange ground I go warily. If I am asked what I think of this man or that I make it a rule to praise.”

“Yes; but not to me,” said Pamela, with a smile. “I want to know the truth to-night.”

Mudge looked at her deliberately, and no less deliberately he spoke—

“And I think you ought to know the truth to-night.”

Mudge, then, like the rest, knew that she was Millicent’s friend. Was it for that reason that she ought to know the truth?

“I know Callon a little,” he went on, “but I know a good deal about him. Like most of the men who know him I dislike him heartily. Women, on the other hand, like him, Miss Mardale—like him too well. Women make extraordinary mistakes over men just as men do over women. They can be very blind—like your friend——”

Mudge paused for an appreciable time. Then he went on steadily—

“Like your friend Lady Millingham, who invites him here.”

Pamela was grateful for the delicacy with which the warning was conveyed, but she did not misunderstand it. She had been told indirectly, but no less definitely on that account, that Millie was entangled.

“Callon has good looks, of course,” continued Mudge; and Pamela uttered a little exclamation of contempt. Mudge smiled, but rather sadly.

“Oh, it’s something. All people have not your haughty indifference to good looks. He is tall, he has a face which is a face and not a pudding. It’s a good deal, Miss Mardale.”

Pamela looked in surprise at the stout, heavily-built bald man who spoke. That he should ever have given a thought to how he looked was a new idea to her. It struck her as pathetic.

“But he is not merely good-looking. He is clever, persistent besides, and, so far as I can judge, untroubled by a single scruple in the management of his life. Altogether, Miss Mardale, a dangerous man. How does he live?” he asked suddenly.

“I neither know nor care,” said Pamela.

“Ah, but you should care,” replied Mudge. “The answer is instructive. He has a small income—two hundred a year, perhaps; a mere nothing compared with what he spends—and he never does an hour’s work, as we understand work. Yet he pays his card debts at his club, and they are sometimes heavy, and he wants for nothing. How is it done? He has no prospect of an inheritance, so post-obits are not the explanation.”

Mr. Mudge leaned back in his chair and waited. Pamela turned the question over in her mind. “I can’t guess how it’s done,” she said. “And I can do no more than hint the answer,” he replied. “He rides one woman’s horses, he drives another woman’s phaeton, he is always on hand to take a third to a theatre, or to make up a luncheon party with a fourth. Shall we say he borrows money from a fifth? Shall we be wrong in saying it?” And suddenly Mr. Mudge exclaimed, with a heat and scorn which Pamela had never heard from him before, “A very contemptible existence, anyway, Miss Mardale. But the man’s not to be despised, mind. No, that’s the worst of it. Some day, perhaps, a strong man will rise up and set his foot on him. Till that time he is to be feared.” And when Pamela by a gesture rejected the word, Mudge repeated it. “Yes, feared. He makes his plans, Miss Mardale. Take a purely imaginary case,” and somehow, although he laid no ironic stress on the word imaginary, and accompanied it with no look, but sat gazing straight in front of him, Pamela was aware that it was a real case he was going to cite. “Imagine a young and pretty woman coming to a house where most of the guests were strangers to her; imagine her to be of a friendly, unsuspecting temperament, rather lonely, perhaps, and either unmarried or separated for a time from her husband. Add that she will one day be very rich, or that her husband will be. Such a woman might be his prey, unless——”

Pamela looked up inquiringly.

“Unless she had good friends to help her.”

Pamela’s face, distressed before, grew yet more troubled now. The burden of her promise was being forced upon her back. It seemed she was not for one moment to be allowed to forget it.

“I’ll tell you my philosophy, Miss Mardale,” Mudge continued, “and I have inferred it from what I have seen. I do not believe that any man really comes to good unless he has started in life with the ambition to make a career for himself, with no help other than his hands and his brains afford. Later on he will learn that women can be most helpful; later on, as he gets towards middle life, as the years shorten and shorten, he will see that he must use whatever extraneous assistance comes his way. But he will begin with a fearless ambition to suffice with his own hands and head.” Mr. Mudge dropped from the high level of his earnestness. He looked towards Lionel Callon, who was seated at a card-table, and the contempt again crept into his voice. “Now that man began life meaning to use all people he met, and especially women. Women were to be his implements.” Mr. Mudge smiled suddenly. “He’s listening,” he said.

“But he is too far away to hear,” replied Pamela.

“No doubt; but he knows we are speaking of him. Look, his attitude shows it. This, you see, is his battleground, and he knows the arts of his particular warfare. A drawing-room! Mr. Lionel Callon fights among the teacups. Cajolery first, and God knows by what means afterwards. But he wins, Miss Mardale; don’t close your eyes to that! Look, I told you he was listening. The rubber’s over, and he’s coming towards us. Oh, he’s alert upon his battle-ground! He knows what men think of him. He’s afraid lest I should tell what men think to you. But he comes too late.”

Callon crossed to the sofa, and stood talking there until Frances Millingham rose. Pamela turned to Mr. Mudge as she got up.

“I thank you very much,” she said gratefully.

Mr. Mudge smiled.

“No need for thanks,” said he. “I am very glad you came to-night, for I go away to-morrow.”

Pamela went to her room and sat down before the fire. What was to be done, she wondered? She could not get Lionel Callon sent away from the house. It would be no use even if she could, since Millie had an address in town. She could not say a word openly.

She raised her head and spoke to her maid.

“Which is Mrs. Stretton’s room?” And when she had the answer she rose from her chair and stood, a figure of indecision. She did not plead that John Mudge had exaggerated the danger; for she had herself foreseen it long-ago, before Millie’s marriage—even before Millie’s engagement. It was just because she had foreseen it that she had used the words which had so rankled in Tony’s memory. Bitterly she regretted that she had ever used them; greatly she wished that she could doubt their wisdom. But she could not. Let Millie’s husband leave her, she would grieve with all the strength of her nature; let him come back soon, she would welcome him with a joy as great. Yes; but he must come back soon. Otherwise she would grow used to his absence; she would find his return an embarrassment, for it would be the return of a stranger with the prerogative of a husband; she might even have given to another the place he once held in her thoughts. And the other might be a Lionel Callon. For this was Millicent’s character. She yielded too easily to affection, and she did not readily distinguish between affection and the show of it. She paddled in the shallows of passion, and flattered herself that she was swimming in the depths. Grief she was capable of—yes; but a torrent of tears obliterated it. Joy she knew; but it was a thrill with her lasting an hour.

Pamela walked along the passage and knocked at Millicent’s door, saying who she was. Millicent opened the door, and received her friend with some constraint.

“Can I come in?” said Pamela.

“Of course,” said Millie.

They sat opposite to one another on each side of the fire.

“I wanted to see you before I went to bed,” said Pamela. “You have not told me lately in your letters how Tony is getting on.”

Millie raised her hand to shield her face from the blaze of the fire. She happened to shade it also from the eyes of Pamela; and she made no reply.

“Is he still in New York?” Pamela asked; and then Millie replied.

“I do not know,” she answered slowly. She let her hand fall, and looked straight and defiantly at her friend.

“I have not heard from him for a long while,” she added; and as she spoke there crept into her face a look of disdain.

The Truants - Contents    |     Chapter VIII

Back    |    Words Home    |    A.E.W. Mason Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback