The Truants

Chapter XXI

Callon Redivivus

A.E.W. Mason

ALL through that autumn Pamela watched for Tony’s return, and watched in vain. Winter came, and with the winter a letter from Mr. Mudge. Lionel Callon had booked his passage home on a steamer which sailed on Christmas Eve from the port of Valparaiso. Pamela received the news one morning of December. She hunted that day with the Quorn, and for once her thoughts were set on other matters than this immediate business. The long grass meadows slipped away under her horse’s feet the while she pondered how once more the danger of Callon’s presence was to be averted. At times she hoped it would not need averting. Callon had been eighteen months away, and Millie was quick to forget. But she was no less quick to respond to a show of affection. Let Callon lay siege again persistently, and the danger at once was close. Besides, there were the letters. That he should have continued to write during the months of his absence was a sign that he had not forgone his plan of conquest.

Pamela returned home with a scheme floating in her mind. Some words which her mother had spoken at the breakfast-table had recurred to her, and at tea Pamela revived the subject.

“Did you say that you would not go to Roquebrune this winter, mother?” she asked.

“Yes,” Mrs. Mardale replied; “I have been for so many winters now. I shall stay in England, for a change. We can let the Villa Pontignard, no doubt.”

“Oh, there is no hurry,” said Pamela. She added, “I shall be going to London to-morrow, but I shall be back in the evening.”

She thought over her plan that evening. Its execution would cost her something, she realised. For many years she had not been out of England during the winter. She must leave her horses behind, and that was no small sacrifice for Pamela. She had one horse in particular, a big Irish horse, which had carried her in the days when her troubles were at their worst. He would follow her about the paddock or the yard nuzzling against her arm; a horse of blood and courage, yet gentle with her, thoughtful and kind for her as only a horse amongst the animals can be. She must leave him. On the other hand, her thoughts of late had been turning to Roquebrune for a particular reason. She had a feeling that she would rather like to tread again those hill-paths, to see once more those capes and headlands of which every one was a landmark of past pain—just as an experiment. She travelled to London the next day and drove from St. Pancras into Regent’s Park.

Millie Stretton had taken a house on the west side of the park. It looked east across the water and through the glades of trees, and in front of it were the open spaces of which Tony and she had dreamed; and the sunlight streamed through the windows and lay in golden splashes on the floors when there was sunlight in London anywhere at all. When she looked from her window on the first morning, she could not but remember the plans which Tony and she had debated long ago. They had been so certain of realising them. Well, they were realised now, for her, at all events. There was the sunlight piercing through every cranny; there were the wide expanses of green, and trees. Only the windows looked on Regent’s Park, and on no wide prairie; and of the two who, with so much enthusiasm, had marked out their imaginary site and built their house, there was only one to enjoy the fulfilment. Millie Stretton thought of Tony that morning, but with an effort. What Pamela had foreseen had come to pass. He had grown elusive to her thoughts, she could hardly visualise his person to herself; he was almost unreal. Had he walked in at that moment he would have been irksome to her as a stranger.

It was, however, Pamela Mardale who walked in. She was shown over the house, and until that ceremony was over she did not broach the reason for her visit. Then, however, Millie said with delight—

“It is what I have always wanted—sunlight.”

“I came to suggest more sunlight,” said Pamela. “There is our villa at Roquebrune in the south of France. It will be empty this winter. And I thought that perhaps you and I might go out there together as soon as Christmas is past.”

Millie was standing at the window with her back to Pamela. She turned round quickly.

“But you hate the place,” she said.

Pamela answered with sincerity—

“None the less I want to go this winter. I want to go very much. I won’t tell you why. But I do want to go. And I should like you to come with me.”

Pamela was anxious to discover whether that villa and its grounds, and the view from its windows, had still the power to revive the grief with which they had been so completely associated in her mind. Hitherto she had shrunk from the very idea of ever revisiting Roquebrune; of late, however, since Warrisden, in a word, had occupied so large a place in her thoughts, she had wished to put herself to the test, to understand whether her distress was really and truly dead, or whether it merely slumbered and could wake again. It was necessary, for Warrisden’s sake as much as her own, that she should come to a true knowledge. And nowhere else could she so certainly acquire it. If the sight of Roquebrune, the familiar look of the villa’s rooms, the familiar paths whereon she had carried so overcharged a heart, had no longer power to hurt and pain her, then she would be sure that she could start her life afresh. It was only fair—so she phrased it in her thoughts—that she should make the experiment.

Millie turned back to the window.

“I do not think that I shall leave London this winter,” she said. “You see, I have only just got into the house.”

“It might spare you some annoyance,” Pamela suggested.

“I don’t understand,” said Millie.

“The annoyance of having to explain Tony’s absence. He will very likely have returned by the spring.”

Millie shrugged her shoulders.

“I have borne that annoyance for two years,” she replied. “I do not think I shall go away this winter.”

Was Millie thinking of Callon’s return? Pamela wondered. Was it on his account that she decided to remain? Pamela could not ask the question. Her plan had come to naught, and she returned that afternoon to Leicestershire.

Christmas passed, and half-way through the month of January Callon called, on a dark afternoon, at Millie Stretton’s house. Millie was alone; she was indeed expecting him. When Callon entered the room he found her standing with her back to the window, her face to the door, and so she stood, without speaking, for a few moments.

“You have been a long time away,” she said, and she looked at him with curiosity, but with yet more anxiety to mark any changes which had come in his face.

“Yes,” said he, “a long time.”

Millie rang the bell and ordered tea to be brought.

“You have not changed,” said she.

“Nor you.”

Millie had spoken with a noticeable distance in her manner; and she had not given him her hand. With her back towards the light she had allowed very little of her expression to be visible to her visitor. When tea was brought in, however, she sat between the fireplace and the window, and the light fell upon her. Callon sat opposite to her.

“At last I know that I am at home again,” he said, with a smile. Then he leaned forward and lowered his voice, although there was no third person in the room. He knew the value of such tricks. “I have looked forward during these eighteen months so very much to seeing you again.”

Millie’s face coloured, but it was with anger rather than pleasure. There was a hard look upon her face; her eyes blamed him.

“Yet you went away without a word to me,” she said. “You did not come to see me before you went, you never hinted you were going.”

“You thought it unkind?”

“It was unkind,” said Millie.

“But I wrote to you. I have written often.”

“In no letter have you told me why you went away,” said Millie.

“You missed me when I went, then?”

Millie shrugged her shoulders.

“Well, I had seen a good deal of you. I missed—I missed—something,” she said. Callon drank his tea and set down his cup.

“I have come to tell you why I went away without a word. I never mentioned the reason in my letters; I meant to tell you it with my lips. I did not go away, I was sent away.”

Millie was perplexed. “Sent away?” she repeated. “I understood, from what you wrote, that you accepted a post from Mr. Mudge?”

“I had to accept it,” said Callon. “It was forced on me. Mudge was only the instrument to get me out of the way.”

“Who sent you away, then?” asked Millie.

“A friend of yours—Miss Pamela Mardale.”

Millie Stretton leaned back in her chair. “Pamela!” she cried incredulously. “Pamela sent you away! Why?”

“Because she thought that I was seeing too much of you.”

Callon watched for the effect which his words would produce. He saw the change come in Millie’s face. There was a new light in her eyes, her face flushed, she was angry; and anger was just the feeling he had meant to arouse, anger against Pamela, anger which would drive Millie towards him. He had kept his explanation back deliberately until he could speak it himself. From the moment when he had started from England he had nursed his determination to tell it to Millie Stretton. He had been hoodwinked, outwitted by Pamela and her friend; he had been banished to Chili for two years. Very well. But the game was not over yet. His vanity was hurt as nothing had ever hurt it before. He was stung to a thirst for revenge. He would live frugally, clear off his debts, return to England, and prove to his enemies the futility of their plan. He thought of Pamela Mardale; he imagined her hearing of his departure and dismissing him straightway contemptuously from her thoughts. For eighteen months he nursed his anger, and waited for the moment when he could return. There should be a surprise for Pamela Mardale. She should understand that he was a dangerous fellow to attack. Already, within a day of his landing, he had begun to retaliate. The anger in Millie Stretton’s face was of good augury for him.

“Pamela!” cried Millie, clenching her hands together suddenly. “Yes, it was Pamela.”

She bethought her of that pressing invitation to the south of France, an invitation from Pamela who looked on the shires as the only wintering-place. That was explained now. Mr. Mudge had informed Pamela, no doubt, that Lionel Callon was returning. Millie was furious. She looked on this interference as a gross impertinence.

Callon rose from his chair.

“You can imagine it, was humiliating to me to be tricked and sent away. But I was helpless. I am a poor man; I was in debt. Miss Mardale had an old rich man devoted to her in Mr. Mudge. He bought up my debts, his lawyer demanded an immediate settlement of them all, and I could not immediately settle them. I was threatened with proceedings, with bankruptcy.”

“You should have come to me,” cried Millie.

Callon raised a protesting hand.

“Oh, Lady Stretton, how could I?” he exclaimed in reproach. “Think for a moment! Oh, you would have offered help at a hint. I know you. You are most kind, most generous. But think, you are a woman. I am a man. Oh no!”

Callon did not mention that Mr. Mudge had compelled him to accept or refuse the post in Chili with only an hour’s deliberation, and that hour between seven and eight in the evening. He had thought of calling upon Millie to suggest in her mind the offer which she had now made, but he had not had the time. He was glad now. His position was thereby so much the stronger.

“I had to accept Mudge’s offer. Even the acceptance was made as humiliating as it possibly could be. For Mudge deliberately let me see that his only motive was to get me out of the country. He did not care whether I knew his motive or not. I did not count,” he cried, bitterly. “I was a mere pawn upon a chess-board. I had to withdraw from my candidature. My career was spoilt. What did they care—Mr. Mudge and your friend? I was got out of your way.”

“Oh, oh!” cried Millie; and Callon stepped quickly to her side.

“Imagine what these months have been to me,” he went on. “I was out there in Chili, without friends. I had nothing to do. Every one else upon the railway had his work, his definite work, his definite position. I was nothing at, all, a mere prisoner, in everybody’s way, a man utterly befooled. But that was not the worst of it. Shall I be frank?” He made a pretence of hesitation. “I will. I will take the risk of frankness. I was sent away just when I had begun to think a great deal about you.” Millie Stretton, who had been gazing into her companion’s face with the utmost sympathy, lowered her eyes to the floor. But she was silent.

“That was the worst,” he continued softly. “I was angry, of course. I knew that I was losing the better part of two years——”

And Millie interrupted him: “How did she know?” she exclaimed.

“Who? Oh, Miss Mardale. Do you remember the evening she came to Whitewebs? I was waiting for you in the hall. You came down the stairs and ran up again. There was a mirror on the mantelpiece. She guessed then. Afterwards she and Mudge discussed us in the drawing-room. I saw them.”

Millie got up from her chair and moved to the fireplace.

“It was on my account that you have lost two years, that your career has been injured,” she said, in a low voice. She was really hurt, really troubled. “I am so very sorry. What return can I ever make to you? I will never speak to Pamela again.”

Callon crossed and stood beside her.

“No, don’t do that,” he said. “It would be—unwise.”

Her eyes flashed up to his quickly, and as quickly fell. The colour slowly deepened in her cheeks.

“What does it matter about my career?” he continued, with a smile. “I see you again. If you wish to make me a return, let me see you very often!”

He spoke with tenderness, and he was not pretending. What space did Millie Stretton fill in his thoughts? She was pretty, she was sympathetic, she was ready to catch the mood of her companion. It was not merely an act of retaliation which Callon projected. Such love as he had to give was hers. It was not durable, it was intertwined with meanness, it knew no high aims; yet, such as it was, it was hers. It gained, too, a fictitious strength from the mere fact that he had been deliberately kept from her. The eighteen months of bondage had given her an importance in his eyes, had made her more desirable through the very difficulty of attaining her. Millie allowed him to come again and again. She had a natural taste for secrecies, and practised them now, as he bade her do, without any perception of the humiliation which they involved. If he called at her house, it was after the dusk had fallen, and when she was at home to no other visitors. They dined together in the restaurants of unfashionable hotels, and if she drove to them in her brougham, she sent it away, and was escorted to her door in a cab. Callon was a past-master in concealment; he knew the public places where the public never is, and rumour did not couple their names. But secrecy is not for the secret when the secret ones are a man and a woman. It needs too much calculation in making appointments, too much punctuality in keeping them, too close a dependence upon the probable thing happening at the probable time. Sooner or later an accident, which could not be foreseen, occurs. It may be no more than the collision of a cab and the summons of the driver. Or some one takes, one morning, a walk in an unaccustomed spot. Or the intriguers fall in quite unexpectedly with another, who has a secret too, of which they were not aware. Sooner or later some one knows.

It was the last of these contingencies which brought about the disclosure in the case of Callon and Millie Stretton. Six weeks had passed since Callon’s return. It was just a month from Easter. Millie dined with some friends, and went with them afterwards to a theatre in the Haymarket. At the door she sent her carriage home, and when the performance was over she took a hansom cab. She declined any escort, and was driven up Regent Street towards her home. At the corner of Devonshire Street, in Portland Place, a man loitered upon the pavement with a white scarf showing above his coat-collar. Millie opened the trap and spoke to the driver. The cab stopped by the loiterer at the street corner, who opened the doors and stepped in. The loiterer was Lionel Callon.

“Drive round Regent’s Park,” he said.

The cab drove northwards through Park Place and along the broad road towards Alexandra Gate. The air was warm, the stars bright overhead, the dark trees lined the roadway on the left, the road under the wheels was very white. There was a great peace in the park. It was quite deserted. In a second it seemed they had come out of the glare, and the roar of streets, into a land of quiet and cool gloom. Millie leaned back while Callon talked, and this was the burden of his talk.

“Let us go to the south of France. I will go first. Do you follow! You go for Easter. It will be quite natural. You stay at Eze, I at the little Reserve by the sea a mile away. There is a suite of rooms there. No one need know.” Three times the cab drove round the park while Callon urged, and Millie more and more faintly declined. The driver sat perched upon his box, certain of a good fare, indifferent. Inside his cab, on this quiet night, the great issues of life and honour were debated. Millie had just her life in her hands. One way or the other, by a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No,’ she must decide what she would do with it, and, to whatever decision she came, it must reach out momentous with consequences and touch other lives beyond hers and beyond those others, others still. Her husband, her relations, her friends—not one of them but was concerned in this midnight drive. It seemed to Millie almost that she heard them hurrying about the cab, calling to her, reaching out their hands. So vivid was her thought, that she could count them, and could recognise their faces. She looked amongst them for her husband. But Tony was not there. She could not see him, she could not hear his voice. Round and round past the trees, on the white road, the cab went jingling on, the driver, indifferent, upon his perch, the tempter and the tempted within.

“Your husband does not care,” said Callon. “If he did, would he stay so long away?”

“No, he does not care,” said Millie. If he cared, would he not be among that suppliant throng which ran about the cab? And all at once it seemed that the hurrying footsteps lagged behind. The voices called more faintly; she could not see the outreaching hands.

“No one need know,” said Callon.

Someone always knows,” replied Millie.

“What then?” cried Callon. “If you love, you will not mind. If you love, you will abandon everything—everyone. If you love!”

He had taken the right way to persuade her. Call upon Millie for a great sacrifice, she would make it, she would glory in making it, just for the moment. Disenchantment would come later; but nothing of it would she foresee. As she had matched herself with Tony, when first he had proposed to leave her behind in ‘his father’s house, so now she matched herself with Callon, she felt strong.

“Very well,” she said. “I will follow.”

Callon stopped the cab and got out. As he closed the doors and told the cabman where to drive, a man, wretchedly clad, slouched past and turned into the Marylebone Road. That was all. Sooner or later some one was sure to discover their secret. It happened that the some one passed them by to-night.

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