‘She couldn’t come.’
A first premonitory fear made him say quickly,
‘She’s not ill?’
‘She’s not in town? But I wired to Holmbury as well-’ Ray Fortescue said,
‘She couldn’t come. Lady Dryden… Look here, I’ll tell you all about it-there’s been rather a hoo-ha. But we must get away from here. You’re coming back with me. Cousin Rhoda will be out. We’ll have the flat to ourselves, and I’ll tell you all about everything. Lila isn’t ill-she just couldn’t come. Look-that’s your porter, isn’t it? We’ll have to go and queue for a taxi.’
He gave her a long look before he let go. There was something up, but she wasn’t going to tell him what it was-not here. The deep antagonism which had always been between him and Sybil Dryden rose up in him. Lila was a great deal too much under her thumb. Just because your husband adopts a distant relation it doesn’t mean you’ve a right to own her body and soul. When they were married Lady Dryden was going to be put in her place. It was nice of Ray to come and meet him. He felt warmly towards her.
She walked beside him and made pleasant talk. Underneath she stiffened herself. If you’ve got to run knives into the person you love best in the world, well, you’ve got to. No good sickening and shrinking. It was better for her to do it than anyone else, because she loved him. She never made any bones about that. She loved Bill, and Bill loved Lila. As a matter of fact she loved Lila, too. You couldn’t help it. Lila was the sort of fragile, helpless creature who needed to be loved. But loving her wasn’t enough. Neither she, nor Bill, nor anyone else could speak with her voice and say no to Herbert Whitall and Sybil Dryden. Between them they gave her about as much chance as a gossamer thread would have in a roaring gale.
She looked at Bill and saw him grave, with a waiting look. He was thinner. His hair wanted brushing-the rough fair hair which never would lie down for very long. In his blunt-featured way he was as fair as Lila. He oughtn’t to have fallen in love with her, but of course he had. Those large men always did fall for something lovely and helpless.
Their eyes met.
‘What is it? Ray, what is it?’
Not here-not now. She said quickly as the taxi turned a corner,
‘I was in a train crash. It knocked me out for a month.’
Ray felt her heart miss a beat. That was what could happen when seas divided you. He could be in a train smash-in hospital. He could have been dead and buried, and she wouldn’t have known-not till she met Mr. Rumbold as she had met him yesterday, by chance. He had said, ‘Waring’s back home tomorrow-Bill Waring.’ But if Bill had died out there in America she would have had to hear him say, ‘I suppose you’ve heard about Bill Waring. A train crash-shocking affair… Yes, he’s dead.’
She said, ‘Oh, Bill!’ and put her hand on his arm. She didn’t know that her colour was all gone, and that fear had brimmed up in her eyes. He laughed and said,
‘Don’t look like that-I’m all here. I cabled as soon as I came round, so I hope no one worried.’
She took her hand away.
‘I didn’t know-I don’t think anyone knew.’
He was frowning.
‘It’s the best part of three weeks since I cabled Lila. Haven’t you been seeing her?’
‘Not very often.’
‘Ray-what is all this? Why haven’t you seen her? Has she been ill? Have you quarrelled?’
‘No, of course not. She just hasn’t had time. Lady Dryden’s been rushing her off her feet-and you know what she’s like. Lila just can’t stand up to her.’
He turned away with an abrupt movement and sat staring out of the window for the rest of the way. But when they had paid off the taxi, and left the luggage in the hall, and gone up in the small automatic lift to the flat where Ray boarded with a middle-aged cousin, he turned round from shutting the sitting-room door and said bluntly,
‘What’s wrong? You’d better let me have it.’
Ray said, ‘Yes.’
She went over to the piano and stood there looking down at the polished rosewood top and stripping off her gloves. Cousin Rhoda always would keep flowers on the piano. The red and bronze chrysanthemums were reflected in the polished wood, their colours dimmed and withdrawn. She said slowly,
‘Yes, there’s something wrong.’
‘What is it?’
‘Haven’t you heard from Lila?’
She said, ‘Oh!’ It was an involuntary sound of pain. She came a step nearer. ‘She ought to have written-somebody ought to have written.’
‘What is it?’
After all, you can’t break bad news, you can only tell it. She made her voice steady and told him.
‘She is going to marry Sir Herbert Whitall.’
There was a frightful silence. Herbert Whitall’s name seemed to hang in it. It went on and on.
In the end Ray made herself move-look at him. He had the thick pale skin which sometimes goes with great physical strength. Now, with all the blood drained from it, he had a ghastly Mr. He said in a horrid strained voice,
‘It’s not true.’
Well, she had to convince him, push the knife right home and kill the thing which wouldn’t let go of its belief in Lila. It was quite horrible, but it had got to be done. She said, ‘Bill-’ And in a moment he had her by the shoulders.
‘It’s a lie! I say it’s a lie!’
She was held in a bruising grip. His eyes blazed, his voice came thick with stumbling words.
‘It’s a lie! She couldn’t-you’re making it up! Say it isn’t true!’
She said nothing at all, only let her eyes meet the fury in his with a long sorrowful look.
They stayed like that until suddenly he took his hands away and stood back.
‘I’m sorry.’ He looked at his hands in an odd bewildered manner, and then at her. ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you.’
Her bruised shoulders were rather a relief than otherwise, but she couldn’t tell him that. She said,
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘What’s been going on?’
‘You didn’t write. Lady Dryden made the most of that. Herbert Whitall made the running.’
He said in that stumbling voice,
‘I sent her a cable-three weeks ago. And one the day I sailed. I wrote five letters-after I came round-in the hospital.’
‘She hasn’t had them-I’m sure she hasn’t had them.’
‘Someone is going to pay for that.’
His voice had cleared and steadied. There was a frightening edge to it. She wanted to cry out. Instead she rushed into speech.
‘Bill-you mustn’t-it’s no good. I’ve done my best-I really have. I’d do anything-you know I would.’
‘Yes. It’s not your fault. I must see Lila.’
Ray looked at him. In her own mind something said, ‘You can’t help people who won’t help themselves. Lila won’t help herself.’ She stood silent because she had nothing to say.
And then Bill had himself in hand. Something closed down over the naked anger which had dominated him. She knew that it was there, but a door had been shut on it and a guard set. He began to fire questions at her.
‘Are they engaged?’
‘It’s given out?’
‘Rather fast work, wasn’t it? But they couldn’t afford to let the grass grow under their feet. I might have come home. I have come home. They’ve not been quite clever enough. Anything fixed about the wedding?’
She wanted to look away, but she couldn’t. She said,
There was no change in his face.
‘I’ve got to see her.’
‘Lady Dryden won’t let you in.’
‘Let her try and keep me out!’
Her colour rose. She came a step nearer.
‘Bill, that’s no good. If you crash your way in there’ll be a scene.’
‘Do you think I care?’
‘No, but Lila will. If there’s a scene she’ll be frightened, and if she’s frightened she’ll go to bits.’