ON the crest of that hill which was visible from the upper windows of Whitewebs, a village straggled for a mile; and all day in the cottages the looms were heard. The sound of looms, indeed, was always associated with that village in the minds of Pamela Mardale and Alan Warrisden, though they drove along its broad street but once, and a few hours included all their visit. Those few hours, however, were rich with consequence. For Pamela asked for help that day, and, in the mere asking, gave, as women must; and she neither asked nor gave in ignorance of what she did. The request might be small, the gift small, too; but it set her and her friend in a new relation each to each, it linked them in a common effort, it brought a new and a sweet intimacy into both their lives. So that the noise of a loom was never heard by them in the after times but there rose before their eyes, visible as a picture, that grey chill day of February, the red-brick houses crowding on the broad street in a picturesque irregularity, and the three tall poplars tossing in the wind. The recollection brought always a smile of tenderness to their faces; and in their thoughts they had for the village a strange and fanciful name. It was just a little Leicestershire village perched upon a hill, the village of looms, the village of the three poplars. But they called it Quetta.
At the very end of the street, and exactly opposite to the small house from whose garden the poplars rose, there stood an inn. It was on the edge of the hill, for just beyond the road dipped steeply down between high hedges of brambles and elder trees, and, turning at the bottom of the incline, wound thence through woods and level meadows towards Leicester. It was the old coach road, and the great paved yard of the inn and the long line of disused stables had once been noisy with the shouts of ostlers and the crack of whips. Now only the carrier’s cart drove twice a week down the steep road to Leicester, and a faint whistle from the low-lying land and a trail of smoke showed where now the traffic ran. On the platform of the little roadside station, three miles from the village, Pamela met Alan Warrisden on the morning after she had sent off her telegram. She had a trap waiting at the door, and as they mounted into it she said—
“I rode over to the village this morning and hired this dog-cart at the inn. I am not expected to be back at Whitewebs until the afternoon; so I thought we might lunch at the inn, and then a man can drive you back to the station, while I ride home again.”
“It was bad going for a horse, wasn’t it?” said Warrisden.
The thaw had fairly set in; the roads, still hard as cement, ran with water, and were most slippery. On each side patches of snow hung upon the banks half melted, and the air was raw.
“Yes, it was bad going,” Pamela admitted. “But I could not wait. It was necessary that I should see you to-day.”
She said no more at the moment, and Warrisden was content to sit by her side as she drove, and wait. The road ran in a broad straight line over the sloping ground. There was no vehicle, not even another person, moving along it. Warrisden could see the line of houses ahead, huddled against the sky, the spire of a church, and on his right the three sentinel poplars. He was to see them all that afternoon.
Pamela drove straight to the inn, where she had already ordered luncheon; and it was not until luncheon was over that she drew up her chair to the fire and spoke.
“Won’t you smoke?” she said first of all. “I want you to listen to me.”
Warrisden lit a pipe and listened.
“It is right that I should be very frank with you,” she went on, “for I am going to ask you to help me.”
“You need me, then?” said Warrisden. There was a leap in his voice which brought the colour to her cheeks.
“Very much,” she said; and, with a smile, she asked, “Are you glad?”
“Yes,” he answered simply.
“Yet the help may be difficult for you to give. It may occupy a long time besides. I am not asking you for a mere hour or a day.”
The warning only brought a smile to Warrisden’s face.
“I don’t think you understand,” he said, “how much one wants to be needed by those one needs.”
Indeed, even when that simple truth was spoken to her, it took Pamela a little while to weigh it in her thoughts and give it credence. She had travelled a long distance during these last years down her solitary road. She began to understand that now. To need—actually to need people, to feel a joy in being needed—here were emotions, familiar to most, and no doubt at one time familiar to her, which were, nevertheless, now very new and strange. At present she only needed. Would a time come when she would go further still? When she would feel a joy in being needed? The question flashed across her mind.
“Yes,” she admitted, “no doubt that is true. But none the less there must be no misunderstanding between you and me. I speak of myself, although it is not for myself that I need your help; but I am not blind. I know it will be for my sake that you give it, and I do not want you to give it in any ignorance of me, or, perhaps”—and she glanced at him almost shyly—“or, perhaps, expecting too much.”
Warrisden made no other answer than to lean forward in his chair, with his eyes upon Pamela’s face. She was going to explain that isolation of hers which had so baffled him. He would not for worlds have interrupted her lest he should check the utterance on her lips. He saw clearly enough that she was taking a great step for her, a step, too, which meant much to him. The actual explanation was not the important thing. That she should confide it of her own accord—there was the real and valuable sign. As she began to speak again, diffidence was even audible in her voice. She almost awaited his judgment.
“I must tell you something which I thought never to tell to any one,” she said. “I meant to carry it as my secret out with me at the end of my life. I have been looking on all these last years. You noticed that; you thought perhaps I was just obeying my nature. But I wasn’t. I did not begin life looking on. I began it as eager, as expectant of what life could give me as any girl that was ever born. And I had just my first season, that was all.” She smiled rather wistfully as her thoughts went back to it. “I enjoyed my first season. I had hardly ever been in London before. I was eighteen; and everybody was very nice to me. At the end of July I went to stay for a month with some friends of mine on the coast of Devonshire, and—some one else stayed there, too. His name does not matter. I had met him during the season a good deal, but until he came down to Devonshire I had not thought of him more than as a friend. He was a little older than myself, not very much, and just as poor. He had no prospects, and his profession was diplomacy. . . . So that there was no possibility from the first. He meant never to say anything; but there came an hour, and the truth was out between us.”
She stopped and gazed into the fire. The waters of the Channel ran in sunlit ripples before her eyes; the red rocks of Bigbury Bay curved warmly out on her right and her left; further away the towering headlands loomed misty in the hot, still August air. A white yacht, her sails hardly drawing, moved slowly westwards; the black smoke of a steamer stained the sky far out; and on the beach there were just two figures visible—herself and the man who had not meant to speak.
“We parted at once,” she went on. “He was appointed a consul in West Africa. I think—indeed I know—that he hoped to rise more quickly that way. But trouble came and he was killed. Because of that one hour, you see, when he spoke what he did not mean to speak, he was killed.” It seemed that there was the whole story told. But Pamela had not told it all, and never did; for her mother had played a part in its unfolding. It was Mrs. Mardale’s ambition that her daughter should make a great marriage; it was her daughter’s misfortune that she knew little of her daughter’s character. Mrs. Mardale had remarked the growing friendship between Pamela and the man, she had realised that marriage was quite impossible, and she had thought, with her short-sighted ingenuity, that if Pamela fell in love and found love to be a thing of fruitless trouble, she would come the sooner to take a sensible view of the world and marry where marriage was to her worldly advantage. She thus had encouraged the couple to a greater friendliness, throwing them together when she could have hindered their companionship; she had even urged Pamela to accept that invitation to Devonshire, knowing who would be the other guests. She was disappointed afterwards when Pamela did not take the sensible view; but she did not blame herself at all. For she knew nothing of the suffering which her plan had brought about. Pamela had kept her secret. Even the months of ill-health which followed upon that first season had not opened the mother’s eyes, and certainly she never suspected the weary nights of sleeplessness and aching misery which Pamela endured. Some hint of the pain of that bad past time, however, Pamela now gave to Warrisden.
“I stayed as much at home in Leicestershire as possible,” she said. “You see there were my horses there; but even with them I was very lonely. The time was long in passing, and it wasn’t pleasant to think that there would be so much of it yet, before it passed altogether. I went up to London for the season each year, and I went out a great deal. It helped me to keep from thinking.”
The very simplicity with which she spoke gave an intensity to her words. There was no affectation in Pamela Mardale. Warrisden was able to fill out her hints, to understand her distress.
“All this is a great surprise to me,” he said. “I have thought of you always as one who had never known either great troubles or great joys. I have hoped that some day you would wake, that I should find you looking out on the world with the eagerness of youth. But I believed eagerness would be a new thing to you.”
He looked at her as she sat. The firelight was bright upon her face, and touched her hair with light; her dark eyes shone; and his thought was that which the schoolmaster at Roquebrune had once sadly pondered. It seemed needlessly cruel, needlessly wanton that a girl so equipped for happiness should, in her very first season, when the world was opening like a fairyland, have been blindly struck down. There were so many others who would have felt the blow less poignantly. She might surely have been spared.
“You can guess, now,” said Pamela, “why I have so persistently looked on. I determined that I would never go through such distress again. I felt that I would not dare to face it again.” She suddenly covered her face with her hands. “I don’t think I could,” she cried in a low, piteous voice. “I don’t know what I would do,” as though once more the misery of that time were closing upon her, so vivid were her recollections.
And once more Warrisden felt, as he watched her, the shock of a surprise. He had thought her too sedate, too womanly for her years, and here she sat shrinking in a positive terror, like any child, from the imagined recurrence of her years of trouble. Warrisden was moved as he had seldom been. But he sat quite still, saying no word; and in a little while she took her hands from her face and went on—
“My life was over, you see, at the very beginning, and I was resolved it should be over. For the future I would get interested only in trifling, unimportant things; no one should ever be more to me than a friend whom I could relinquish; I would merely look on. I should grow narrow, no doubt, and selfish.” And, as Warrisden started, a smile came on to her face. “Yes, you have been thinking that, too, and you were right. But I didn’t mind. I meant to take no risks. Nothing serious should ever come near me. If I saw it coming, I would push it away; and I have pushed it away.”
“Until to-day, when you need my help?” Warrisden interrupted.
“Yes, until to-day,” Pamela repeated softly.
Warrisden walked over to the window and stood with his back towards her. The three tall poplars stood leafless up in front of him; the sky was heavy with grey clouds; the wind was roaring about the chimneys; and the roads ran with water. It was as cheerless a day as February can produce, but to Warrisden it had something of a summer brightness. The change for which he had hoped so long in vain had actually come to pass.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked, turning again to the room.
“I want you to find Millie Stretton’s husband,” she replied; “and, at all costs, to bring him home again.”
“Millie Stretton’s husband?” he repeated, in perplexity.
“Yes. Don’t you remember the couple who stepped out of the dark house in Berkeley Square and dared not whistle for a hansom—the truants?”
Warrisden was startled. “Those two!” he exclaimed. “Well, that’s strange. On the very night when we saw them, you were saying that there was no road for you, no new road from Quetta to Seistan. I was puzzling my brains, too, as to how in the world you were to be roused out of your detachment; and there were the means visible all the time, perhaps—who knows?—ordained.” He sat down again in his chair.
“Where shall I look for Mr. Stretton?” he asked.
“I don’t know. He went away to New York, six months ago, to make a home for Millie and himself. He did not succeed, and he has disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” cried Warrisden.
“Oh, but of his own accord,” said Pamela. “I can’t tell you why; it wouldn’t be fair. I have no right to tell you. But he must be found, and he must be brought back. Again I can’t tell you why; but it is most urgent.”
“Is there any clue to help us?” Warrisden asked. “Had he friends in New York?”
“No; but he has a friend in England,” said Pamela, “and I think it’s just possible that the friend may know where he is to be found, for it was upon his advice that Mr. Stretton went to New York.”
“Tell me his name.”
“Mr. Chase,” Pamela replied. “He is head of a mission in Stepney Green. Tony Stretton told me of him one morning in Hyde Park just before he went away. He seemed to rely very much upon his judgment.”
Warrisden wrote the name down in his pocket-book.
“Will he tell me, do you think, where Stretton is, even if he knows? You say Stretton has disappeared of his own accord.”
“I have thought of that difficulty,” Pamela answered. “There is an argument which you can use. Sir John Stretton, Tony’s father, is ill, and in all probability dying.”
“I see. I can use the same argument to Stretton himself, I suppose, when I find him?”
“I can give you no other,” said Pamela; “but you can add to it. Mr. Stretton will tell you that his father does not care whether he comes back in time or not. He is sure to say that. But you can answer that every night since he went away the candles have been lit in his dressing-room and his clothes laid out by his father’s orders, on the chance that some evening he might walk in at the door.”
That Sir John Stretton’s illness was merely the pretext for Tony’s return both understood. The real reason why he must come home Pamela did not tell. To her thinking Millie was not yet so deeply entangled with Lionel Callon but that Tony’s home-coming might set the tangle right. A few weeks of companionship, and surely he would resume his due place in his wife’s thoughts. Pamela, besides, was loyal to her sex. She had promised to safeguard Millicent; she was in no mind to betray her.
“But bring him back,” she cried, with a real passion. “So much depends on his return, for Millie, for him, and for me, too. Yes, for me! If you fail, it is I who fail; and I don’t want failure. Save me from it!”
“I’ll try,” Warrisden answered simply; and Pamela was satisfied.
Much depended, for Warrisden too, upon the success of his adventure. If he failed, Pamela would retire again behind her barrier; she would again resume the passive, indifferent attitude of the very old; she would merely look on as before and wait for things to cease. If, however, he succeeded, she would be encouraged to move forward still; the common sympathies would have her in their grasp again; she might even pass that turnpike gate of friendship and go boldly down the appointed road of life. Thus success meant much for him. The fortunes of the four people—Millicent, Tony, Pamela, and Warrisden—were knotted together at this one point.
“Indeed, I’ll try,” he repeated,
Pamela’s horse was brought round to the inn door. The dusk was coming on.
“Which way do you go?” asked Warrisden.
“Down the hill.”
“I will walk to the bottom with you. The road will be dangerous.”
They went slowly down between the high elder hedges, Pamela seated on her horse, Warrisden walking by her side. The wide level lowlands opened out beneath them—fields of brown and green, black woods with swinging boughs, and the broad high road with its white wood rails. A thin mist swirled across the face of the country in the wind, so that its every feature was softened and magnified. It loomed dim and strangely distant, with a glamour upon it like a place of old romance. To Pamela and Warrisden, as the mists wove and unwove about it, it had a look of dreamland.
They reached the end of the incline, and Pamela stopped her horse.
“This is my way,” said she, pointing along the highway with her whip.
“Yes,” answered Warrisden. The road ran straight for some distance, then crossed a wooden bridge and curved out of sight round the edge of a clump of trees. “The new road,” he said softly. “The new road from Quetta to Seistan!”
“This is Quetta,” said she.
Warrisden laid his hand upon her horse’s neck, and looked suddenly up into her face.
“Where will be Seistan?” he asked in a low voice.
Pamela returned the look frankly. There came a softness into her dark eyes. For a moment she let her hand rest lightly upon his sleeve, and did not speak. She herself was wondering how far she was to travel upon this new road.
“I cannot tell,” she said very gently. “Nor, my friend, can you. Only”—and her voice took on a lighter and a whimsical tone—“only I start alone on my new road.”
And she went forward into the level country. Warrisden climbed the hill again, and turned when he had reached the top; but Pamela was out of sight. The dusk and the mists had enclosed her.