She rang the bell at the small house where the window-boxes were gay with asters against very bright green paint. Whatever Lady Dryden said and whatever Lady Dryden did, she was going to see Lila. Lila might call Lady Dryden Aunt Sybil and be well down under her thumb, but when all was said and done they weren’t really relations at all. Old John Dryden had adopted Lila, and then five years later Sybil had married him and more or less bullied him into his grave. She remembered his giving them sweets behind Sybil’s back, and always finishing up with ‘Better not let your aunt know. She thinks they’re bad for you. But’-chuckling-‘we know better, don’t we?’ Not an awfully good way to bring up a child, but that was the sort of thing that happened under a totalitarian regime.
Lady Dryden’s elderly parlourmaid opened the door.
‘Good afternoon, Palmer. I’ve come to see Miss Lila.’
Palmer looked down her long thin rose. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but with the best will in the world it didn’t really come off. Lady Dryden had the nose for it and Palmer hadn’t, but she went on trying.
‘Well, I don’t know, I’m sure, Miss Ray. She fainted this morning after her last fitting, and her ladyship was very particular she should be kept quiet.’
Ray’s spirits soared. Lady Dryden had obviously gone out. A nice colour came up in her cheeks. She smiled her wide, warm smile and walked into the hall.
‘Oh, yes-she is doing far too much. Get a big stick and keep out everyone but me! I don’t count, but everyone else can just go home again. Where is she-in her room?’
She was half-way up the narrow stair before Palmer could finish a ‘Well, her ladyship said-’ and round the turn before she gave up with a sniff and went back down the basement stairs. Her ladyship wouldn’t be pleased-she knew that well enough-but how was she going to stop Miss Ray? First cousins are not much different from sisters. And Miss Ray a bridesmaid too. She sniffed again and prepared to be aggrieved.
Lila was on the sofa. She looked lovely and fragile. She had a make-up box on her lap with samples of lipstick, rouge, and nail-polish. She had just been trying a sample called apple-blossom, and was contemplating the result in the ivory hand-glass which belonged to her new dressing-case. She was sorry about its being ivory, but Herbert wouldn’t hear of anything else. All the things were inlaid with a delicately traced initial in pale gold, and everyone admired them very much. She looked up when Ray came in, and said in a languid voice.
‘I’m trying all my samples. Do you like this apple-blossom thing?’
Ray sat down and gave the matter her critical attention.
‘Yes, it’s very good. You’d better stick to it. The lipstick is a marvellous match.’
‘They all go together. I’ve just done one nail with the polish. I thought it was good. I look frightful in most of the shades- they’re too bright.’
‘You can’t stand those bright things. I’ve told you so again and again.’
‘You wear them.’ Lila’s voice had a fretful tone.
‘Well, if I didn’t decorate the face a bit, no one would look at it. Anyhow it’s not your style. You stick to your apple-blossom, and you can hand me over all those nice barbaric shades.’
Lila pushed the box away.
‘I look frightful anyway,’ she said, ‘I fainted this morning whilst I was having that horrible wedding-dress tried on.’ There was just the least trace of satisfaction in the mournful tone.
Ray took a good deep breath.
‘If it’s horrible, why wear it?’
Lila laid down the ivory glass. Her hand shook. Her voice shook too.
‘Aunt Sybil chose it.’
‘Can’t you choose anything for yourself?’
‘You know I can’t.’
‘Not even the man?’
Lila began to cry in a gentle, childish manner. The tears welled up in her lovely eyes and trickled down over her lovely cheeks. Her lips quivered.
‘You know I can’t.’
Ray fished a clean handkerchief out of the pocket of her brown suit and tossed it over.
‘Stop it!’ she said briskly. ‘What’s the good of going on spilling the milk and then crying because it’s spilt? I’ve come here to tell you something, and you’ve got to dry your eyes and listen.’
Lila dabbed with the handkerchief.
‘Wh-what is it?’
‘I met Mr. Rumbold this morning.’
‘He said Bill was coming home.’
Lila stopped dabbling and said, ‘Oh-’
Lila said ‘Oh-’ again.
‘Boat train from Southampton.’
Lila dropped her handkerchief. Her fingers twined helplessly.
‘What is the good?’
‘Well, there’s really nothing to stop you meeting the train, is there?’
‘Oh, yes, you could. You could meet the train. You could tell Bill that Lady Dryden has bullied you into saying you’ll marry Herbert Whitall but you don’t want to, and what about it? I gather Bill’s due for a rise, and it only takes three days to get married. What about it?’ Lila sat bolt upright. She looked terrified.
‘I couldn’t-I couldn’t-I couldn’t! He didn’t write-he hasn’t written for ages. Aunt Sybil always did say it wouldn’t come to anything, and that just showed. And it wasn’t a real engagement-Aunt Sybil always said it wasn’t.’
Ray’s brows made a stern dark line above eyes that were bright with anger.
‘And what Aunt Sybil says goes? For God’s sake, Lila, wake up! It’s you and Bill who know whether you were engaged to each other, not Lady Dryden. If you were happy, I wouldn’t say a word. If you wanted to marry Herbert Whitall, I wouldn’t say a word. But you’re not happy. And you don’t want to marry him. And you’re of age. You’re perfectly free to walk out of this house and meet Bill Waring’s train. You’re like a rabbit in a trap. Well, the door is open and you can walk out. Are you going to be mesmerized into staying in the trap until the door isn’t open any more and you can’t get out?’
Lila went on looking terrified.
‘He didn’t write,’ she said.
‘He didn’t write because he couldn’t. He was in an accident- he’s been in hospital. Mr. Rumbold told me. But he’s all right again now, and he’s coming home tomorrow. What are you going to do about it?’
Two big tears ran down over the apple-blossom. Lila said faintly.
‘I can’t-I can’t do anything-’
‘You can-if you want to.’
She shook her head.
‘It’s too late. All the invitations have gone out-there are three hundred wedding presents. I can’t do anything now.’
On the last word the door was briskly opened and Lady Dryden came in.
Bill Waring jumped down on to the platform. He hailed a porter and directed him briefly, but all the time his eyes were on the barrier, looking for Lila. There was a bit of a crowd there- people waiting to get through for the next train. He would see her in a moment. He had sent off his cable and followed it up by a telegram from Southampton, so she was simply bound to be there. The trouble was he couldn’t see her. He hurried the porter, picked out his luggage, and went striding away to give up his ticket.
But when he had passed the barrier it wasn’t Lila who came up to him with both hands out, but Ray-Ray Fortescue with her shining eyes and her wide, warm smile. She said, ‘Oh, Bill!’ and before he knew what he was going to do he had kissed her. It happened just like that. Her mouth smiled, her eyes shone, and he kissed her. And why not? They had known each other long enough. She was Lila’s cousin, and the best friend in the world.
He kept his hold of her a hand on either side of her shoulders, and said,