For some minutes after Claire had left him Bill remained where he was, motionless. He felt physically incapable of moving. All the strength that was in him he was using to throw off the insidious poison of her parting speech, and it became plainer to him with each succeeding moment that he would have need of strength.
It is part of the general irony of things that in life's crises a man's good qualities are often the ones that help him least, if indeed they do not actually turn treacherously and fight against him. It was so with Bill. Modesty, if one may trust to the verdict of the mass of mankind, is a good quality. It sweetens the soul and makes for a kindly understanding of one's fellows. But arrogance would have served Bill better now. It was his fatal habit of self-depreciation that was making Claire's words so specious as he stood there trying to cast them from his mind. Who was he, after all, that he should imagine that he had won on his personal merits a girl like Elizabeth Boyd?
He had the not very common type of mind that perceives the merit in others more readily than their faults, and in himself the faults more readily than the merit. Time and the society of a great number of men of different ranks and natures had rid him of the outer symbol of this type of mind, which is shyness, but it had left him still unconvinced that he amounted to anything very much as an individual.
This was the thought that met him every time he tried to persuade himself that what Claire had said was ridiculous, the mere parting shaft of an angry woman. With this thought as an ally her words took on a plausibility hard to withstand. Plausible! That was the devil of it. By no effort could he blind himself to the fact that they were that. In the light of Claire's insinuations what had seemed coincidences took on a more sinister character. It had seemed to him an odd and lucky chance that Nutty Boyd should have come to the rooms which he was occupying that night, seeking a companion. Had it been chance? Even at the time he had thought it strange that, on the strength of a single evening spent together, Nutty should have invited a total stranger to make an indefinite visit to his home. Had there been design behind the invitation?
Bill began to walk slowly to the house. He felt tired and unhappy. He meant to go to bed and try to sleep away these wretched doubts and questionings. Daylight would bring relief.
As he reached the open front door he caught the sound of voices, and paused for an instant, almost unconsciously, to place them. They came from one of the rooms upstairs. It was Nutty speaking now, and it was impossible for Bill not to hear what he said, for Nutty had abandoned his customary drawl in favour of a high, excited tone.
'Of course, you hate him and all that,' said Nutty; 'but after all you will be getting five million dollars that ought to have come to--'
That was all that Bill heard, for he had stumbled across the hall and was in his room, sitting on the bed and staring into the darkness with burning eyes. The door banged behind him.
So it was true!
There came a knock at the door. It was repeated. The handle turned.
'Is that you, Bill?'
It was Elizabeth's voice. He could just see her, framed in the doorway.
His throat was dry. He swallowed, and found that he could speak.
'Did you just come in?'
There was a long silence. Then the door closed gently and he heard her go upstairs.Next