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Chapter 15

COLONEL ABINGER TAKES COMMAND

One misty morning, about three weeks after the picnic, Dick found himself a prisoner in the quadrangle of Frobisher's Inn. He had risen to catch an early train, but the gates were locked, and the porter in charge had vanished from his box. Dick chafed, and tore round the Inn in search of him. It was barely six o'clock; which is three hours after midnight in London. The windows of the Inn had darkened one by one, until for hours the black building had slept heavily with only one eye open. Dick recognised the window, and saw Rob's shadow cast on its white blind. He was standing there, looking up a little uneasily, when the porter tramped into sight.

'Is Mr. Angus often as late as this?' Mary's brother paused to ask at the gate.

'Why, sir,' the porter answered, 'I am on duty until eight o'clock, and as likely as not he will still be sitting there when I go. His shadow up there has become a sort of companion to me in the long nights, but I sometimes wonder what has come over the gentleman of late.'

'He is busy, I suppose; that is all,' Dick said sharply.

The porter shook his head doubtfully, like one who knew the ways of literary hands. He probably wrote himself.

'Mr. Angus only came in from his office at three o'clock,' he said, 'and you would think he would have had enough of writing by that time. You can see his arm going on the blind though yet, and it won't be out of his common if he has another long walk before he goes to bed.'

'Does he walk so late as this?' asked Dick, to whom six in the morning was an hour of the night.

'I never knew such a gentleman for walking,' replied the porter, 'and when I open the gate to him he is off at six miles an hour. I can hear the echo of his feet two or three streets off. He doesn't look as if he did it for pleasure either.'

'What else would he do it for?'

'I can't say. He looks as if he wanted to run away from himself.'

Dick passed out, with a forced laugh. He knew that since saying good-bye to Mary at Sunbury Station, Rob had hardly dared to stop working and face the future. The only rest Rob got was when he was striding along the great thoroughfares, where every one's life seemed to have a purpose except his own. But it was only when he asked himself for what end he worked that he stopped working. There were moments when he could not believe that it was all over. He saw himself dead, and the world going on as usual. When he read what he had written the night before, he wondered how people could be interested in such matters. The editor of the Wire began to think of this stolid Scotsman every time there was a hitch in the office, but Rob scarcely noticed that he was making progress. It could only mean ten or twenty pounds more a month; and what was that to a man who had only himself to think of, and had gathered a library on twenty shillings a week? He bought some good cigars, however.

Dick, who was longing for his father's return from the Continent, so that the responsibility for this miserable business might be transferred to the colonel's shoulders, frequently went into Rob's rooms to comfort him, but did not know how to do it. They sat silently on opposite sides of the very hearthrug which Mary had once made a remark about—Rob had looked interestedly at the rug after she went away—and each thought that, but for the other's sake, he would rather be alone.

What Dick felt most keenly was Rob's increased regard for him. Rob never spoke of the Tawny Owl without an effort, but he showed that he appreciated Dick's unspoken sympathy. If affairs could have righted themselves in that way, Mary's brother would have preferred to be turned with contumely out of Rob's rooms, where, as it was, and despite his friendship for Rob, he seemed now to be only present on false pretences. Dick was formally engaged to Nell now, but he tried at times to have no patience with Rob. Perhaps he thought a little sadly in his own rooms that to be engaged is not all the world.

Dick had hoped that the misunderstanding which parted Rob and Mary at Sunbury would keep them apart without further intervention from him. That was not to be. The next time he went to Molesey he was asked why he had not brought Mr. Angus with him, and though it was not Mary who asked the question, she stopped short on her way out of the saloon to hear his answer.

'He did not seem to want to come,' Dick replied reluctantly.

'I know why Mr. Angus would not come with you,' Nell said to Dick when they were alone; 'he thinks Mary is engaged to Sir Clement.'

'Nonsense,' said Dick.

'I am sure of it,' said Nell; 'you know we all thought so that day we were up the river.'

'Then let him think so if he chooses,' Dick said harshly. 'It is no affair of his.'

'Oh, it is!' Nell exclaimed. 'But I suppose it would never do, Dick?'

'What you are thinking of is quite out of the question,' replied Dick, feeling that it was a cruel fate which compelled him to act a father's part to Mary; 'and besides, Mary does not care for him like that. She told me so herself.'

'Oh, but she does,' Nell replied, in a tone of conviction.

'Did she tell you so?'

'No, she said she didn't,' answered Nell, as if that made no difference.

'Well,' said Dick wearily, 'it is much better that Angus should not come here again.'

Nevertheless, when Dick returned to London he carried in his pocket an invitation to Rob to spend the following Saturday at the Tawny Owl. It was a very nice note in Mary Abinger's handwriting, and Dick would have liked to drop it over the Hungerfield Bridge. He gave it to Rob, however, and stood on the defensive.

The note began, 'Dear Mr. Angus, Mrs. Meredith would be very pleased if you could——'

The blood came to Rob's face as he saw the handwriting, but it went as quickly.

'They ask me down next Saturday,' Rob said bluntly to Dick, 'but you know why I can't go.'

'You had better come,' miserable Dick said, defying himself.

'She is to marry Dowton, is she not?' Rob asked, but with no life in his voice.

Dick turned away his head, to leave the rest to fate.

'So, of course I must not go,' Rob continued bravely.

Dick did not dare to look him in the face, but Rob put his hand on the shoulder of Mary's brother.

'I was a madman,' he said, 'to think that she could ever have cared for me, but this will not interfere with our friendship, Abinger?'

'Surely not,' said Dick, taking Rob's hand.

It was one of those awful moments in men's lives when they allow, face to face, that they like each other.

Rob concluded that Mrs. Meredith, knowing nothing of his attachment for Mary, saw no reason why he should not return to the house-boat, and that circumstances had compelled Mary to write the invitation. His blundering honesty would not let him concoct a polite excuse for declining it, and Mrs. Meredith took his answer amiss, while Nell dared not say what she thought for fear of Dick. Mary read his note over once, and then went for a solitary walk round the island. Rob saw her from the tow-path where he had been prowling about for hours in hopes of catching a last glimpse of her. Her face was shaded beneath her big straw hat, and no baby-yacht, such as the Thames sports, ever glided down the river more prettily than she tripped along the island path. Once her white frock caught in a dilapidated seat, and she had to stoop to loosen it. Rob's heart stopped beating for a moment just then. The way Mary extricated herself was another revelation. He remembered having thought it delightful that she seldom knew what day of the month it was, and having looked on in an ecstasy while she searched for the pocket of her dress. The day before Mrs. Meredith had not been able to find her pocket, and Rob had thought it foolish of ladies not to wear their pockets where they could be more easily got at.

Rob did not know it, but Mary saw him. She had but to beckon, and in three minutes he would have been across the ferry. She gave no sign, however, but sat dreamily on the ramshackle seat that patient anglers have used until the Thames fishes must think seat and angler part of the same vegetable. Though Mary would not for worlds have let him know that she saw him, she did not mind his standing afar off and looking at her. Once after that Rob started involuntarily for Molesey, but realising what he was about by the time he reached Surbiton, he got out of the train there and returned to London.

An uneasy feeling possessed Dick that Mary knew of the misunderstanding which kept Rob away, and possibly even of her brother's share in fostering it. If so, she was too proud to end it. He found that if he mentioned Rob to her she did not answer a word. Nell's verbal experiments in the same direction met with a similar fate, and every one was glad when the colonel reappeared to take command.

Colonel Abinger was only in London for a few days, being on his way to Glen Quharity, the tenant of which was already telegraphing him glorious figures about the grouse. Mary was going too, and the Merediths were shortly to return to Silchester.

'There is a Thrums man on this stair,' Dick said to his father one afternoon in Frobisher's Inn, 'a particular friend of mine, though I have treated him villainously.'

'Ah,' said the colonel, who had just come up from the house-boat, 'then you might have him in, and make your difference up. Perhaps he could give me some information about the shooting.'

'Possibly,' Dick said; 'but we have no difference to make up, because he thinks me as honest as himself. You have met him, I believe.'

'What did you say his name was?'

'His name is Angus.'

'I can't recall any Angus.'

'Ah, you never knew him so well as Mary and I do.'

'Mary?' asked the colonel, looking up quickly.

'Yes,' said Dick. 'Do you remember a man from a Silchester paper who was at the castle last Christmas?'

'What!' cried the colonel, 'an underbred, poaching fellow who——'

'Not at all,' said Dick, 'an excellent gentleman, who is to make his mark here, and, as I have said, my very particular friend.'

'That fellow turned up again,' groaned the colonel.

'I have something more to tell you of him,' continued Dick remorselessly. 'I have reason to believe, as we say on the Press when hard up for copy, that he is in love with Mary.'

The colonel sprang from his seat. 'Be calm,' said Dick.

'I am calm,' cried the colonel, not saying another word, so fearful was he of what Dick might tell him next.

'That would not, perhaps, so much matter,' Dick said, coming to rest at the back of a chair, 'if it were not that Mary seems to have an equal regard for him.'

Colonel Abinger's hands clutched the edge of the table, and it was not a look of love he cast at Dick.

'If this be true,' he exclaimed, his voice breaking in agitation, 'I shall never forgive you, Richard, never. But I don't believe it.'

Dick felt sorry for his father.

'It is a fact that has to be faced,' he said, more gently.

'Why, why, why, the man is a pauper!'

'Not a bit of it,' said Dick. 'He may be on the regular staff of the Wire any day now.'

'You dare to look me in the face, and tell me you have encouraged this, this——' cried the colonel, choking in a rush of words.

'Quite the contrary,' Dick said; 'I have done more than I had any right to do to put an end to it.'

'Then it is ended?'

'I can't say.'

'It shall be ended,' shouted the colonel, making the table groan under his fist.

'In a manner,' Dick said, 'you are responsible for the whole affair. Do you remember when you were at Glen Quharity two or three years ago asking a parson called Rorrison, father of Rorrison the war correspondent, to use his son's Press influence on behalf of a Thrums man? Well, Angus is that man. Is it not strange how this has come about?'

'It is enough to make me hate myself,' replied the irate colonel, though it had not quite such an effect as that.

When his father had subsided a little, Dick told him of what had been happening in England during the last month or two. There had been a change of Government, but the chief event was the audacity of a plebeian in casting his eyes on a patrician's daughter. What are politics when the pipes in the bath-room burst?

'So you see,' Dick said in conclusion, 'I have acted the part of the unrelenting parent fairly well, and I don't like it.'

'Had I been in your place,' replied the colonel, 'I would have acted it a good deal better.'

'You would have told Angus that you considered him, upon the whole, the meanest thing that crawls, and that if he came within a radius of five miles of your daughter you would have the law of him? Yes; but that sort of trespassing is not actionable nowadays; and besides, I don't know what Mary might have said.'

'Trespassing!' echoed the colonel; 'I could have had the law of him for trespassing nearly a year ago.'

'You mean that time you caught him fishing in the Dome? I only heard of that at second-hand, but I have at least no doubt that he fished to some effect.'

'He can fish,' admitted the colonel; 'I should like to know what flies he used.'

Dick laughed.

'Angus,' he said, 'is a man with a natural aptitude for things. He does not, I suspect, even make love like a beginner.'

'You are on his side, Richard.'

'It has not seemed like it so far, but, I confess, I have certainly had enough of shuffling.'

'There will be no more shuffling,' said the colonel fiercely. 'I shall see this man and tell him what I think of him. As for Mary——'

He paused.

'Yes,' said Dick, 'Mary is the difficulty. At present I cannot even tell you what she is thinking of it all. Mary is the one person I could never look in the face when I meditated an underhand action—I remember how that sense of honour of hers used to annoy me when I was a boy—and so I have not studied her countenance much of late.'

'She shall marry Dowton,' said the colonel decisively.

'It is probably a pity, but I don't think she will,' replied Dick. 'Of course you can prevent her marrying Angus by simply refusing your consent.'

'Yes, and I shall refuse it.'

'Though it should break her heart she will never complain,' said Dick, 'but it does seem a little hard on Mary that we should mar her life rather than endure a disappointment ourselves.'

'You don't look at it in the proper light,' said the colonel, who, like most persons, made the proper light himself; 'in saving her from this man we do her the greatest kindness in our power.'

'Um,' said Dick, 'of course. That was how I put it to myself, but just consider Angus calmly, and see what case we have against him.'

'He is not a gentleman,' said the colonel.

'He ought not to be, according to the proper light, but he is.'

'Pshaw!' the colonel exclaimed pettishly. 'He may have worked himself up into some sort of position, like other discontented men of his class, but he never had a father.'

'He says he had a very good one. Weigh him, if you like, against Dowton, who is a good fellow in his way, but never, so far as I know, did an honest day's work in his life. Dowton's whole existence has been devoted to pleasure-seeking, while Angus has been climbing up ever since he was born, and with a heavy load on his back, too, most of the time. If he goes on as he is doing, he will have both a good income and a good position shortly.'

'Dowton's position is made,' said the colonel.

'Exactly,' said Dick, 'and Angus is making his for himself. Whatever other distinction we draw between them is a selfish one, and I question if it does us much credit.'

'I have no doubt,' said the colonel, 'that Mary's pride will make her see this matter as I do.'

'It will at least make her sacrifice herself for our pride, if you insist on that.'

Mary's father loved her as he had loved her mother, though he liked to have his own way with both of them. His voice broke a little as he answered Dick.

'You have a poor opinion of your father, my boy,' he said. 'I think I would endure a good deal if Mary were to be the happier for it.'

Dick felt a little ashamed of himself.

'Whatever I may say,' he answered, 'I have at least acted much as you would have done yourself. Forgive me, father.'

The colonel looked up with a wan smile.

'Let us talk of your affairs rather, Richard,' he said. 'I have at least nothing to say against Miss Meredith.'

Dick moved uncomfortably in his chair, and then stood up, thinking he heard a knock at the door.

'Are you there, Abinger?' some one called out. 'I have something very extraordinary to tell you.'

Dick looked at his father, and hesitated. 'It is Angus,' he said.

'Let him in,' said the colonel.

James M. Barrie

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