The Truants

Chapter XIX

The Turnpike Gate

A.E.W. Mason

IT was not, however, only Millie Stretton whose fortunes were touched by Tony’s absence. Warrisden, whom Stretton had met but the once on board the City of Bristol, was no less affected. On a day of that summer, during which Tony camped far away on the edge of the Sahara, Warrisden rode down the steep hill from the village of the three poplars on his way to Whitewebs. Once Pamela had ridden along this road between the white wood rails and the black bare stems of trees on a winter’s evening of mist. That was more than fifteen months ago. The brown furrows in the fields were now acres of waving yellow; each black clump was now an ambuscade of green, noisy with birds. The branches creaked in a light wind and rippled and shook the sunlight from their leaves, the road glistened like chalk. It was ten o’clock on an August morning, very clear and light. Voices from far away amongst the corn sounded tiny and distinct, like voices heard through a telephone. Round this bend at the thicket corner Pamela had disappeared on that dim, grey evening. How far had she since travelled on the new road, Warrisden wondered. She was at Whitewebs now. He was riding thither to find out.

When he inquired for her at the door, he was at once led through the house into the big garden at the back. Pamela was sitting in a chair at the edge of the lawn under the shade of the great avenue of elms which ran straight from the back of the house to the shallow stream at the garden’s boundary. She saw him at once as he came out from the glass-door on to the gravel, and she rose from her chair. She did not advance to him, but just stood where she was, watching him approach; and in her eyes there was a great perplexity. Warrisden came straight to her over the lawn. There was no hesitation in his manner, at all events. On the other hand, there was no air of assurance. He came with a definite object; so much was evident, but no more. He stopped in front of her and raised his hat. Pamela looked at him and said nothing. She did not even give him her hand. She stood and waited almost submissively, with her troubled eyes resting quietly on his.

“You expected me?” he said.

“Yes. I received your letter this morning.”

“You have guessed why I have come?”


“And you are troubled,” said Warrisden.

They turned and walked under the branches into the avenue. Overhead there was a bustle of blackbirds and thrushes; a gardener sharpening his scythe in the rose garden made a little rasping sound. Over all the lawn the August sunlight lay warm and golden like a benediction.

“I have come to ask you the old question,” said Warrisden. “Will you marry me?”

Pamela gazed steadily ahead as she walked, and she walked very slowly. She was prepared for the question, yet she took her time to answer it. And the answer when at last she gave it was no answer at all.

“I do not know,” she said, in a low clear voice.

Warrisden looked at her. The profile of her face was towards him. He wondered for the thousandth time at its beauty and its gentleness. The broad, white forehead under the sweep of her dark hair, the big, dark eyes shining beneath her brows, the delicate colour upon her cheeks, the curve of the lips. He wondered and longed. But he spoke simply and without extravagance, knowing that he would be understood.

“I have done nothing for you of the things men often do when a woman comes into their lives. I have tried to make no career. I think there are enough people making careers. They make the world very noisy, and they raise a deal of dust. I have just gone on living quietly as I did before, believing you would need no such proof.”

“I do not,” said Pamela.

“There might be much happiness for both of us,” he continued. And again she answered, without looking at him—

“I do not know.”

She was not evading him. Evasions, indeed, were never to her liking; and here, she was aware, were very serious issues.

“I have been thinking about you a great deal,” she said. “I will tell you this. There is no one else. But that is not all. I can say too, I think, quite certainly, that there will be no one else. Only that is not enough, is it? Not enough, at all events, for you and me.”

Warrisden nodded his head.

“No, that is not enough,” he said gravely.

They walked on side by side in silence for a little while.

“It is only fair that I should be very frank with you,” she went on. “I have been thinking so much about you in order that when you came again with this old question, as I knew you would, I might be quite clear and frank. Do you remember that you once spoke to me about the turnpike gate—the gate which I was to open and through which I was to go, like other men and women down the appointed road?”

“Yes, I remember.”

“You meant, as I understand it, the gate between friendship and the ever so much more which lies beyond?”


And Pamela repeated his word. “Yes,” she said. “But one cannot open that gate at will. It opens of itself at a touch, or it stays shut.”

“And it stays shut now?”

Pamela answered him at once—

“Say, rather, that I have raised a hand towards the gate, but that I am afraid to try.” And she turned her face to him at last. Her eyes were very wistful.

They stopped upon the grass bank of the stream at the end of the avenue. Pamela looked down into the dark, swiftly running water, and went on choosing each word, testing it, as it were, before she uttered it.

“You see that new road beyond the gate is no new road to me. I have trodden it before, and crept back—broken. Therefore, I am afraid.” She paused. Warrisden was aware from her attitude that she had not finished. He did not stir lest he should check what more remained to say, and that remnant never be spoken at all. And it was well for him that he did not stir; for she said, in the same clear, low voice which she had hitherto used, and just as steadily—

“I am the more afraid because I think that if I did touch that gate it might open of itself.”

She had begun, in a word, to feel premonitions of that suspense and of that glowing life in which for a few brief months she had once been steeped. Did she expect a letter from Warrisden, there was an eagerness in her anticipation with which she was well familiar. Was the letter delayed, there was a keenness in her disappointment which was like the pang of an old wound. And this recognition that the good days might come again, as in a cycle, brought to her very vividly the memory of the bad black days which had followed. Fear of those latter days, and the contrast of their number with the number of those which had gone before, drove her back. For those latter days in their turn might come round again.

Warrisden looked at her and his heart filled with pity for the great trouble which had overwhelmed her. She stood by his side with the sunlight playing upon her face and her hair—a girl brilliant with life, ripe to turn its possibilities into facts; and she shrank from the ordeal, so hardly had she been hit! She was by nature fearless, yet was she desperately afraid.

“Will nothing make you touch the gate and try?” he asked gently. And then, quietly as he spoke, the greatness of his longing made itself heard. “My dear, my dear,” he said, “will nothing make you take your risks?”

The words struck sharply upon her memories. She turned her eyes to him.

“It is strange that you should use those words,” she said. “For there is one thing which might make me take my risks. The return of the man who used them to you in the North Sea.”

“Tony Stretton?” exclaimed Warrisden.

“Yes. He is still away. It is said that he is on a long shooting expedition somewhere in Central Africa, and out of reach. But that is not the truth. We do not know where he is, or when he will come back.”

“Shall I try to find him again?” said Warrisden. “This time I might succeed in bringing him home.”

Pamela shook her head.

“No,” she answered. “I think I know why he stays away. And there would be only one way of persuading him to return. Well—that means I must not use, unless things have come to an extremity.”

The one means of persuasion was the truth. If she sent for Tony Stretton again she must explain what that saying of hers spoken so long ago had meant. She must write why he should not have left his wife. She must relate the sordid story, which rendered his return imperative, That she was prepared to do, if all else failed, in the last resort, but not till then.

“But the extremity has not been reached,” she continued, “and I hope it never will. I hope Tony Stretton will come back soon of his own accord. That would be the best thing which could happen, ever so much the best.” She did not blame Tony for his absence, for she understood the motive which caused it. In a way, she was inclined to approve of it in itself, just as a motive, that is to say. It was the character of Millie Stretton and his ignorance of it which made his experiment so hazardous. Complete confidence in his wife’s honour, indeed, was to her thinking, and rightly, an essential part of his motive. She wished him to return of his own accord and keep that confidence.

“There is not the same necessity,” she continued, choosing her words, “that he should return immediately, as there was when I sent you out to the North Sea; but it is possible that the necessity might recur.” For she knew that, though Callon was far away in Chili, letters came from him to Millie. Only lately a careless remark of Millie’s with reference to that State had assured her of this. And if the letters still came, though Callon had been away a year, it followed that they were answered.

“In that case you would send for me?” said Warrisden.

“Yes. I should rely on you.”

And Warrisden answered quietly, “Thank you.”

He asked no questions. He seemed to understand that Pamela must use him, and, while using him, not fail of loyalty to her sex. A feeling of self-reproach suddenly troubled Pamela. She had never told him that she had used another’s help and not his. She wondered whether it was quite fair not to tell him. But she kept silent. After all, she thought, the news would only hurt him; and Mr. Mudge’s help had been help which he could not have given. She went back to the matter of their relationship to one another.

“So you understand what I think,” she said. “I am afraid. I look for signs. I cannot help doing that. I have set my heart on keeping a promise which I made to Tony Stretton. If he returns, whether of his own accord or by my persuasion, and things go well—why, then”—and she turned her face from him and said, looking steadily in front of her—“why, then, perhaps.”

As she spoke her face changed wonderfully. The mere utterance of the word aloud conjured up dreams. A wistful smile made her lips beautiful, her eyes grew dim. Just for a moment she gave those dreams their way. She looked across the garden through a mist, seeing nothing of the trees or the coloured flowers, but gazing into a vision of other and golden days—of days perhaps to come. Warrisden stood at her side, and did not speak. But something of those dreams he guessed, her face had grown so young.

She shook her dreams from her in a few moments.

“So you see, at present,” she resumed, “marriage is impossible. It will always be impossible to me unless I can bring—everything, not merely companionship, not merely liking; out the ever so much more which there is. I cannot contemplate it at all under any other conditions”—and now she looked at her companion—“and I believe it is the same with you.”

“Yes,” Warrisden replied, “I ask for everything.”

He had his convictions, and since there was complete confidence between these two, he spoke them now.

“It is unsafe, of course, to generalise on the subject of women. But I do think this: If a man asks little from a woman, she will give him even less than he asks, and she will give it grudgingly, sparingly; counting what she gives. And that little, to my mind, is worth rather less than nothing. Better have no ties than weak ones. If, on the other hand, a man asks a great deal, and continually asks it, why, the woman may get bored, and he may get nothing. In which case he is no worse off than he was before. But if, on the other hand, the woman does give in return——“

“Well?” asked Pamela.

“Well, then, she gives ever so much more than he asks, and gives it willingly with open hands.”

Pamela thought the theory over.

“Yes, I think that is generally true,” she said. “But, after all, I am giving you very little.”

Warrisden laughed.

“That’s true,” he replied. “But then you are not bored, and I have not done asking.”

Pamela laughed too, and their talk thus ended in a lighter note. They walked towards the house, and as they did so a woman came out on to the lawn.

“This is Millie Stretton,” said Pamela.

“She is staying here?” cried Warrisden.

“Yes,” replied Pamela, “Before she comes I want to ask you to do something for me. Oh, it is quite a small thing. But I should like you very much to do it. Where do you go to from here?”

“To London,” said Warrisden, “I have business there.”

The business which called him to town had, indeed, only occurred to him during the last half-hour. It had arisen from their conversation. It seemed to Warrisden immediate and imperative.

“Will you be in London to-morrow?” asked Pamela.


“Then I want you to write to me. Just a little letter—nothing much, a line or two. And I want you to post it, not by the country post, but afterwards, so that it will reach me in the evening. Don’t write here, for I am going home. And please don’t forget.”

Millie Stretton joined them a moment afterwards, and Warrisden was introduced to her.

“I have had an offer for the house in Berkeley Square,” she said to Pamela. “I think I will take it. I shall be glad to be rid of it.”

They went back into the house. Warrisden wondered at Pamela’s request for a letter, and at her urgency that it should arrive at a particular time. He was not discontented with the walk which they had taken under the avenue of elms. It seemed to him that Pamela was coming slowly towards him. There was a great difference between her “No” of last year and her “I do not know” of to-day. Even that “I do not know” while they talked had become “perhaps.” Had she not owned even more, since she was afraid the gate would open of itself did she but touch and try? His hopes, therefore, rode high that day, and would have ridden yet higher, could he have guessed why she so desired a few lines in his handwriting in the evening of the day after to-morrow.

The reason was this. Repairs, long needed, had at last been undertaken in the house of Pamela’s father, a few miles away; and those repairs involved the rooms reserved for Pamela. There were certain drawers in that room which had not been unlocked for years, and of which Pamela sedulously guarded the keys. They held letters, a few small presents, one or two photographs, and some insignificant trifles which could not be valued, since their value depended only on their associations. There were, for instance, some cheap red beads, and the history of those beads tells all that need be said of the contents of those locked drawers.

Two hundred years before, a great full-rigged ship, bound with a general cargo for the Guinea Coast, sailed down the Channel out of Portsmouth. Amongst the cargo was a great store of these red beads. The beads were to buy slaves for the plantations. But the great ship got no further on her voyage than Bigbury Bay in Devonshire. She damaged her rudder in a storm, and the storm swept her on to the bleak rocks of Bolt Tail, dragged her back again into the welter of the sea, drove her into Bigbury Bay, and flung her up there against the low red cliffs, where all her crew perished. The cargo was spilt amongst the breakers, and the shores of that bay were littered with red beads. You may pick them up to this day amongst the pebbles. There Pamela had picked them upon a hot August morning, very like to that which now dreamed over this green, quiet garden of Leicestershire; and when she had picked them up she had not been alone. The locked cabinets held all the relics which remained to her from those few bright weeks in Devon; and the mere touch of any one, however trifling, would have magic to quicken her memories. Yet now the cabinets must be unlocked, and all that was in them removed. There was a bad hour waiting for Pamela, when she would remove these relics one by one—the faded letters in the handwriting which she would never see again on any envelope; the photograph of the face which could exchange no look with her; the little presents from the hand which could touch hers no more. It would be a relief, she thought, to come downstairs when that necessary work was done, that bad hour over, and find a letter from Warrisden upon the table. Just a few lines. She needed nothing more.

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