In trying interviews, as in sprint races, the start is everything. It was the fact that she recovered more quickly from her astonishment that enabled Claire to dominate her scene with Bill. She had the advantage of having a less complicated astonishment to recover from, for, though it was a shock to see him there when she had imagined that he was in New York, it was not nearly such a shock as it was to him to see her here when he had imagined that she was in England. She had adjusted her brain to the situation while he was still gaping.
This speech in itself should have been enough to warn Lord Dawlish of impending doom. As far as love, affection, and tenderness are concerned, a girl might just as well hit a man with an axe as say
'Well, Bill?' to him when they have met unexpectedly in the moonlight after long separation. But Lord Dawlish was too shattered by surprise to be capable of observing nuances. If his love had ever waned or faltered, as conscience had suggested earlier in the day, it was at full blast now.
'Claire!' he cried.
He was moving to take her in his arms, but she drew back.
'No, really, Bill!' she said; and this time it did filter through into his disordered mind that all was not well. A man who is a good deal dazed at the moment may fail to appreciate a remark like
'Well, Bill?' but for a girl to draw back and say, 'No, really, Bill!' in a tone not exactly of loathing, but certainly of pained aversion, is a deliberately unfriendly act. The three short words, taken in conjunction with the movement, brought him up with as sharp a turn as if she had punched him in the eye.
'Claire! What's the matter?'
She looked at him steadily. She looked at him with a sort of queenly woodenness, as if he were behind a camera with a velvet bag over his head and had just told her to moisten the lips with the tip of the tongue. Her aspect staggered Lord Dawlish. A cursory inspection of his conscience showed nothing but purity and whiteness, but he must have done something, or she would not be staring at him like this.
'I don't understand!' was the only remark that occurred to him.
'Are you sure?'
'What do you mean?'
'I was at Reigelheimer's Restaurant--Ah!'
The sudden start which Lord Dawlish had given at the opening words of her sentence justified the concluding word. Innocent as his behaviour had been that night at Reigelheimer's, he had been glad at the time that he had not been observed. It now appeared that he had been observed, and it seemed to him that Long Island suddenly flung itself into a whirling dance. He heard Claire speaking a long way off: 'I was there with Lady Wetherby. It was she who invited me to come to America. I went to the restaurant to see her dance--and I saw you!'
With a supreme effort Bill succeeded in calming down the excited landscape. He willed the trees to stop dancing, and they came reluctantly to a standstill. The world ceased to swim and flicker.
'Let me explain,' he said.
The moment he had said the words he wished he could recall them. Their substance was right enough; it was the sound of them that was wrong. They sounded like a line from a farce, where the erring husband has been caught by the masterful wife. They were ridiculous. Worse than being merely ridiculous, they created an atmosphere of guilt and evasion.
'Explain! How can you explain? It is impossible to explain. I saw you with my own eyes making an exhibition of yourself with a horrible creature in salmon-pink. I'm not asking you who she is. I'm not questioning you about your relations with her at all. I don't care who she was. The mere fact that you were at a public restaurant with a person of that kind is enough. No doubt you think I am making a great deal of fuss about a very ordinary thing. You consider that it is a man's privilege to do these things, if he can do them without being found out. But it ended everything so far as I am concerned. Am I unreasonable? I don't think so. You steal off to America, thinking I am in England, and behave like this. How could you do that if you really loved me? It's the deceit of it that hurts me.'
Lord Dawlish drew in a few breaths of pure Long Island air, but he did not speak. He felt helpless. If he were to be allowed to withdraw into the privacy of the study and wrap a cold, wet towel about his forehead and buckle down to it, he knew that he could draft an excellent and satisfactory explanation of his presence at Reigelheimer's with the Good Sport. But to do it on the spur of the moment like this was beyond him.
Claire was speaking again. She had paused for a while after her recent speech, in order to think of something else to say; and during this pause had come to her mind certain excerpts from one of those admirable articles on love, by Luella Delia Philpotts, which do so much to boost the reading public of the United States into the higher planes. She had read it that afternoon in the Sunday paper, and it came back to her now.
'I may be hypersensitive,' she said, dropping her voice from the accusatory register to the lower tones of pathos, 'but I have such high ideals of love. There can be no true love where there is not perfect trust. Trust is to love what--'
She paused again. She could not remember just what Luella Delia Philpotts had said trust was to love. It was something extremely neat, but it had slipped her memory.
'A woman has the right to expect the man she is about to marry to regard their troth as a sacred obligation that shall keep him as pure as a young knight who has dedicated himself to the quest of the Holy Grail. And I find you in a public restaurant, dancing with a creature with yellow hair, upsetting waiters, and staggering about with pats of butter all over you.'
Here a sense of injustice stung Lord Dawlish. It was true that after his regrettable collision with Heinrich, the waiter, he had discovered butter upon his person, but it was only one pat. Claire had spoken as if he had been festooned with butter.
'I am not angry with you, only disappointed. What has happened has shown me that you do not really love me, not as I think of love. Oh, I know that when we are together you think you do, but absence is the test. Absence is the acid-test of love that separates the base metal from the true. After what has happened, we can't go on with our engagement. It would be farcical. I could never feel that way toward you again. We shall always be friends, I hope. But as for love--love is not a machine. It cannot be shattered and put together again.'
She turned and began to walk up the drive. Hanging over the top of the gate like a wet sock, Lord Dawlish watched her go. The interview was over, and he could not think of one single thing to say. Her white dress made a patch of light in the shadows. She moved slowly, as if weighed down by sad thoughts, like one who, as Luella Delia Philpotts beautifully puts it, paces with measured step behind the coffin of a murdered heart. The bend of the drive hid her from his sight.
About twenty minutes later Dudley Pickering, smoking sentimentally in the darkness hard by the porch, received a shock. He was musing tenderly on his Claire, who was assisting him in the process by singing in the drawing-room, when he was aware of a figure, the sinister figure of a man who, pressed against the netting of the porch, stared into the lighted room beyond.
Dudley Pickering's first impulse was to stride briskly up to the intruder, tap him on the shoulder, and ask him what the devil he wanted; but a second look showed him that the other was built on too ample a scale to make this advisable. He was a large, fit-looking intruder.
Mr Pickering was alarmed. There had been the usual epidemic of burglaries that season. Houses had been broken into, valuable possessions removed. In one case a negro butler had been struck over the head with a gas-pipe and given a headache. In these circumstances, it was unpleasant to find burly strangers looking in at windows.
'Hi!' cried Mr Pickering.
The intruder leaped a foot. It had not occurred to Lord Dawlish, when in an access of wistful yearning he had decided to sneak up to the house in order to increase his anguish by one last glimpse of Claire, that other members of the household might be out in the grounds. He was just thinking sorrowfully, as he listened to the music, how like his own position was to that of the hero of Tennyson's Maud--a poem to which he was greatly addicted, when Mr Pickering's 'Hi!' came out of nowhere and hit him like a torpedo.
He turned in agitation. Mr Pickering having prudently elected to stay in the shadows, there was no one to be seen. It was as if the voice of conscience had shouted 'Hi!' at him. He was just wondering if he had imagined the whole thing, when he perceived the red glow of a cigar and beyond it a shadowy form.
It was not the fact that he was in an equivocal position, staring into a house which did not belong to him, with his feet on somebody else's private soil, that caused Bill to act as he did. It was the fact that at that moment he was not feeling equal to conversation with anybody on any subject whatsoever. It did not occur to him that his behaviour might strike a nervous stranger as suspicious. All he aimed at was the swift removal of himself from a spot infested by others of his species. He ran, and Mr Pickering, having followed him with the eye of fear, went rather shakily into the house, his brain whirling with professional cracksmen and gas pipes and assaulted butlers, to relate his adventure.
'A great, hulking, ruffianly sort of fellow glaring in at the window,' said Mr Pickering. 'I shouted at him and he ran like a rabbit.'
'Gee! Must have been one of the gang that's been working down here,' said Roscoe Sherriff. 'There might be a quarter of a column in that, properly worked, but I guess I'd better wait until he actually does bust the place.'
'We must notify the police!'
'Notify the police, and have them butt in and stop the thing and kill a good story!' There was honest amazement in the Press-agent's voice. 'Let me tell you, it isn't so easy to get publicity these days that you want to go out of your way to stop it!'
Mr Pickering was appalled. A dislike of this man, which had grown less vivid since his scene with Claire, returned to him with redoubled force.
'Why, we may all be murdered in our beds!' he cried.
'Front-page stuff!' said Roscoe Sherriff, with gleaming eyes. 'And three columns at least. Fine!'
It might have consoled Lord Dawlish somewhat, as he lay awake that night, to have known that the man who had taken Claire from him--though at present he was not aware of such a man's existence--also slept ill.Next