WHILE Tony Stretton was thus stating the problem of his life to Mr. Chase in Stepney Green, Lady Millingham was entertaining her friends in Berkeley Square. She began the evening with a dinner-party, at which Pamela Mardale and John Mudge were present, and she held a reception afterwards. Many people came, for Frances Millingham was popular. By half-past ten the rooms were already over-hot and overcrowded, and Lady Millingham was enjoying herself to her heart’s content. Mr. Mudge, who stood by himself at the end of a big drawing-room, close to one of the windows, saw the tall figure of Warrisden come in at the door and steadily push towards Pamela. A few moments later M. de Marnay, a youthful attaché of the French Embassy, approached Mr. Mudge. M. de Marnay wiped his forehead and looked round the crowded room.
“A little is a good thing,” said he, “but too much is enough.” And he unlatched and pushed open the window. As he spoke, Mr. Mudge saw Callon appear in the doorway.
“Yes,” he answered, with a laugh; “too much is enough.”
Mudge watched Callon’s movements with his usual interest. He saw him pass, a supple creature of smiles and small talk, from woman to woman. How long would he last in his ignoble career? Mudge wondered. Would he marry in the end some rich and elderly widow? Or would the crash come, and parties know Mr. Lionel Callon no more? Mudge never saw the man but he had a wish that he might get a glimpse of him alone in his own rooms, with the smile dropped from his face, and the unpaid bills piled upon his mantel-shelf, and his landlord very likely clamouring for the rent. He imagined the face grown all at once haggard and tired and afraid—afraid with a great fear of what must happen in a few years at the latest, when, with middle-age heavy upon his shoulders, he should see his coevals prospering and himself bankrupt of his stock-in-trade of good looks, and without one penny to rub against another. No presage of mind weighed upon Callon to-night, however, during his short stay in Frances Millingham’s house. For his stay was short.
As the clock upon the mantelpiece struck eleven, his eyes were at once lifted to the clock-face, and almost at once he moved from the lady to whom he was talking and made his way to the door.
Mr. Mudge turned back to the window and pushed it still more open. It was a clear night of April, and April had brought with it the warmth of summer. Mr. Mudge stood at the open window facing the coolness and the quiet of the square; and thus by the accident of an overcrowded room he became the witness of a little episode which might almost have figured in some bygone comedy of intrigue.
Callon passed through the line of carriages in the roadway beneath, and crossed the corner of the square to the pavement on the right-hand side. When he reached the pavement he walked for twenty yards or so in the direction of Piccadilly, until he came to a large and gloomy house. There a few shallow steps led from the pavement to the front door. Callon mounted the steps, rang the bell, and was admitted.
There were a few lights in the upper windows and on the ground floor; but it was evident that there was no party at the house. Callon had run in to pay a visit. Mr. Mudge, who had watched this, as it were, the first scene in the comedy, distinctly heard the door close, and the sound somehow suggested to him that the time had come for him to go home to bed. He looked at his watch. It was exactly a quarter past eleven—exactly, in a word, three-quarters of an hour since Tony Stretton, who “had something else to do,” had taken his leave of his friend Chase in Stepney.
Mr. Mudge turned from the window to make his way to the door, and came face to face with Pamela and Alan Warrisden. Pamela spoke to him. He had never yet met Warrisden, and he was now introduced. All three stood and talked together for a few minutes by the open window. Then Mudge, in that spirit of curiosity which Callon always provoked in him, asked abruptly—
“By the way, Miss Mardale, do you happen to know who lives in that house?” and he pointed across the corner of the square to the house into which Callon had disappeared.
Pamela and Warrisden looked quickly at one another. Then Pamela turned with great interest to Mr. Mudge.
“Yes, we both know,” she answered. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Mudge; “I think that I should like to know.”
The glance which his two companions had exchanged, and Pamela’s rather eager question, had quickened his curiosity. But he got no answer for a few moments. Both Pamela and Warrisden were looking out towards the house. They were standing side by side. Mr. Mudge had an intuition that the same thought was passing through both their minds.
“That is where the truants lived last July,” said Warrisden, in a low voice. He spoke to Pamela, not to Mr. Mudge at all, whose existence seemed for the moment to have been clean forgotten.
“Yes,” Pamela replied softly. “The dark house, where the truants lived and where”—she looked at Warrisden and smiled with a great friendliness—“where the new road began. For it was there really. It’s from the steps of the dark house, not from the three poplars that the new road runs out.”
“Yes, that is true,” said Warrisden.
And again both were silent.
Mr. Mudge broke in upon the silence. “I have no doubt that the truants lived there, and that the new road begins at the foot of the steps,” he said plaintively; “but neither statement adds materially to my knowledge.”
Pamela and Warrisden turned to him and laughed. It was true that they had for a moment forgotten Mr. Mudge. The memory of the star-lit night, in last July, when from this balcony they had watched the truants slip down the steps and furtively call a cab, was busy in their thoughts. From that night their alliance had dated, although no suspicion of it had crossed their minds. It seemed strange to them now that there had been no premonition.
“Well, who lives there?” asked Mudge.
But even now he received no answer; for Warrisden suddenly exclaimed in a low, startled voice—
“Look!” and with an instinctive movement he drew back into the room.
A man was standing in the road looking up at the windows of the dark house. His face could not be seen under the shadow of his hat. Pamela peered forward.
“Do you think it’s he?” she asked in a whisper.
“I am not sure,” replied Warrisden.
“Oh, I hope so! I hope so!”
“I am not sure. Wait! Wait and look!” said Warrisden.
In a few moments the man moved. He crossed the road and stepped on to the pavement. Again he stopped, again he looked up to the house; then he walked slowly on. But he walked northwards, that is, towards the watchers at the window.
“There’s a lamp-post,” said Warrisden; “he will come within the light of it. We shall know.”
And the next moment the light fell white and clear upon Tony Stretton’s face.
“He has come back,” exclaimed Pamela, joyfully.
“Who?” asked Mr. Mudge; “who has come back?”
This time he was answered.
“Why, Tony Stretton, of course,” said Pamela, impatiently. She was hardly aware of Mr. Mudge, even while she answered him; she was too intent upon Tony Stretton in the square below. She did not therefore notice that Mudge was startled by her reply. She did not remark the anxiety in his voice as he went on—
“And that is Stretton’s house?”
“And his wife, Lady Stretton, is she in London? Is she there—now?”
Mr. Mudge spoke with an excitement of manner which at any other time must have caused surprise. It passed now unremarked; for Warrisden, too, had his preoccupation. He was neither overjoyed, like Pamela, nor troubled, like Mr. Mudge; but as he looked down into the square he was perplexed.
“Yes,” replied Pamela, “Millie Stretton is at home. Could anything be more fortunate?”
To Mudge’s way of thinking, nothing could be more unfortunate. Pamela had come late to the play; Mr. Mudge, on the other hand, had seen the curtain rise, and had a clearer knowledge of the plot’s development. The husband outside the house, quite unexpected, quite unsuspicious, and about to enter; the wife and the interloper within: here were the formulas of a comedy of intrigue. Only, Mr. Mudge doubtfully wondered, after the husband had entered, and when the great scene took place, would the decorous accent of the comedy be maintained? Nature was after all a violent dramatist, with little care for the rules and methods. Of one thing, at all events, he was quite sure, as he looked at Pamela: she would find no amusement in the climax. There was, however, to be an element of novelty, which Mr. Mudge had not foreseen.
“What puzzles me,” said Warrisden, “is that Stretton does not go in.”
Stretton walked up to the corner of the square, turned, and retraced his steps. Again he approached the steps of the house. “Now,” thought Mr. Mudge, with a good deal of suspense, “now he will ascend them.” Pamela had the same conviction, but in her case hope inspired it. Tony, however, merely cast a glance upwards and walked on. They heard his footsteps for a little while upon the pavement; then that sound ceased.
“He has gone,” cried Pamela, blankly; “he has gone away again.”
Mr. Mudge turned to her very seriously.
“Believe me,” said he, “nothing better could have happened.”
Tony, in fact, had never had a thought of entering the house. Having this one night in London, he had yielded to a natural impulse to revisit again the spot where he and Millie had lived—where she still lived. The bad days of the quarrels and the indifference and the weariness were forgotten by him to-night. His thoughts went back to the early days when they played truant, and truancy was good fun. The escapes from the house, the little suppers at the Savoy, the stealthy home-comings, the stumbling up the stairs in the dark, laughing and hushing their laughter—upon these incidents his mind dwelt, wistfully, yet with a great pleasure and a great hopefulness. Those days were gone, but in others to come all that was good in them might be repeated. The good humour, the intimacy, the sufficiency of the two, each to the other, might be recovered if only he persisted. To return now, to go in at the door and say, “I have come home,” that would be the mistake which there would be no retrieving. He was at the cross-ways, and if he took the wrong road life would not give him the time to retrace his steps. He walked away, dreaming of the good days to come.
Meanwhile, Lionel Callon was talking to Millie in that little sitting-room which had once been hers and Tony’s.
Millie was surprised at the lateness of his visit, and when he was shown into the room she rose at once.
“Something has happened?” she said.
“No,” Callon replied. “I was at Lady Millingham’s party. I suddenly thought of you sitting here alone. I am tired besides, and overworked. I knew it would be a rest for me if I could see you and talk to you for a few minutes. You see, I am selfish.”
Millie smiled at him.
“No, kind,” said she.
She asked him to sit down.
“You look tired,” she added. “How does your election work go on?”
Callon related the progress of his campaign, and with an air of making particular confidences. He could speak without any reserve to her, he said. He conveyed the impression that he was making headway against almost insuperable obstacles. He flattered her, moreover, by a suggestion that she herself was a great factor in his successes. The mere knowledge that she wished him well, that perhaps, once or twice in the day, she gave him a spare thought, helped him much more than she could imagine. Millie was induced to believe that, although she sat quietly in London, she was thus exercising power through Callon in his constituency.
“Of course, I am a poor man,” said Callon. “Poverty hampers one.”
“Oh, but you will win,” cried Millie Stretton, with a delighted conviction; “yes, you will win.”
She felt strong, confident—just, in a word, as she had felt when she had agreed with Tony that he must go away.
“With your help, yes,” he answered; and the sound of his voice violated her like a caress. Millie rose from her chair.
At once Callon rose too, and altered his tone.
“You have heard from Sir Anthony Stretton?” he said. “Tell me of yourself.”
“Yes, I have heard. He will not return yet.”
There came a light into Callon’s eyes. He raised his hand to his mouth to hide a smile.
“Few men,” he said, with the utmost sympathy, “would have left you to bear these last weeks alone.”
He was standing just behind her, speaking over her shoulder. He was very still, the house was very silent. Millie was suddenly aware of danger.
“You must not say that, Mr. Callon,” she said rather sharply.
And immediately he answered, “I beg your pardon. I had no idea my sympathy would have seemed to you an insult.”
He spoke with a sudden bitterness. Millicent turned round in surprise. She saw that his face was stern and cold.
“An insult?” she said, and her voice was troubled. “No, you and I are friends.”
But Callon would have none of these excuses. He had come to the house deliberately to quarrel. He had a great faith in the efficacy of quarrels, given the right type of woman. As Mudge had told Pamela, he knew the tactics of the particular kind of warfare which he waged. To cause a woman some pain, to make her think with regret that in him she had lost a friend; that would fix him in her thoughts. So Callon quarrelled. Millie Stretton could not say a word but he misinterpreted it. Every sentence he cleverly twisted into an offence.
“I will say good-bye,” he said, at length, as though he had reached the limits of endurance.
Millie Stretton looked at him with troubled eyes.
“I am so sorry it should end like this,” she said piteously. “I don’t know why it has.”
Callon went out of the room, and closed the door behind him. Then he let himself into the street. Millie Stretton would miss him, he felt sure. Her looks, her last words assured him of that. He would wait now without a movement towards a reconciliation. That must come from her, it would give him in her eyes a reputation for strength. He knew the value of that reputation. He had no doubt, besides, that she would suggest a reconciliation. Other women might not, but Millie—yes. On the whole, Mr. Callon was very well content with his night’s work. He had taken, in his way of thinking, a long step. The square was empty, except for the carriages outside Lady Millingham’s door. Lionel Callon walked briskly home.