She was as struck with the beauty of his plural pronoun as she had judged he might be with that of her own; but she knew now so well what she was about that she could almost play with him and with her new-born joy. "You say 'about the time you speak of.' But I don't think you speak of an exact time--do you?"
He looked splendidly helpless. "That's just what I want to find out. Don't you keep the old ones?--can't you look it up?"
Our young lady--still at Paddington--turned the question over. "It wasn't delivered?"
"Yes, it was; yet, at the same time, don't you know? it wasn't." He just hung back, but he brought it out. "I mean it was intercepted, don't you know? and there was something in it." He paused again and, as if to further his quest and woo and supplicate success and recovery, even smiled with an effort at the agreeable that was almost ghastly and that turned the knife in her tenderness. What must be the pain of it all, of the open gulf and the throbbing fever, when this was the mere hot breath? "We want to get what was in it--to know what it was."
"I see--I see." She managed just the accent they had at Paddington when they stared like dead fish. "And you have no clue?"
"Not at all--I've the clue I've just given you."
"Oh the last of August?" If she kept it up long enough she would make him really angry.
"Yes, and the address, as I've said."
"Oh the same as last night?"
He visibly quivered, as with a gleam of hope; but it only poured oil on her quietude, and she was still deliberate. She ranged some papers. "Won't you look?" he went on.
"I remember your coming," she replied.
He blinked with a new uneasiness; it might have begun to come to him, through her difference, that he was somehow different himself. "You were much quicker then, you know!"
"So were you--you must do me that justice," she answered with a smile. "But let me see. Wasn't it Dover?"
"Yes, Miss Dolman--"
"Parade Lodge, Parade Terrace?"
"Exactly--thank you so awfully much!" He began to hope again. "Then you have it--the other one?"
She hesitated afresh; she quite dangled him. "It was brought by a lady?"
"Yes; and she put in by mistake something wrong. That's what we've got to get hold of!" Heavens, what was he going to say?--flooding poor Paddington with wild betrayals! She couldn't too much, for her joy, dangle him, yet she couldn't either, for his dignity, warn or control or check him. What she found herself doing was just to treat herself to the middle way. "It was intercepted?"
"It fell into the wrong hands. But there's something in it," he continued to blurt out, "that may be all right. That is, if it's wrong, don't you know? It's all right if it's wrong," he remarkably explained.
What was he, on earth, going to say? Mr. Buckton and the counter- clerk were already interested; no one would have the decency to come in; and she was divided between her particular terror for him and her general curiosity. Yet she already saw with what brilliancy she could add, to carry the thing off, a little false knowledge to all her real. "I quite understand," she said with benevolent, with almost patronising quickness. "The lady has forgotten what she did put."
"Forgotten most wretchedly, and it's an immense inconvenience. It has only just been found that it didn't get there; so that if we could immediately have it--"
"Every minute counts. You have," he pleaded, "surely got them on file?"
"So that you can see it on the spot?"
"Yes, please--this very minute." The counter rang with his knuckles, with the knob of his stick, with his panic of alarm. "Do, do hunt it up!" he repeated.
"I dare say we could get it for you," the girl weetly returned.
"Get it?"--he looked aghast. "When?"
"Probably by to-morrow."
"Then it isn't here?"--his face was pitiful.
She caught only the uncovered gleams that peeped out of the blackness, and she wondered what complication, even among the most supposable, the very worst, could be bad enough to account for the degree of his terror. There were twists and turns, there were places where the screw drew blood, that she couldn't guess. She was more and more glad she didn't want to. "It has been sent on."
"But how do you know if you don't look?"
She gave him a smile that was meant to be, in the absolute irony of its propriety, quite divine. "It was August 23rd, and we've nothing later here than August 27th."
Something leaped into his face. "27th--23rd? Then you're sure? You know?"
She felt she scarce knew what--as if she might soon be pounced upon for some lurid connexion with a scandal. It was the queerest of all sensations, for she had heard, she had read, of these things, and the wealth of her intimacy with them at Cocker's might be supposed to have schooled and seasoned her. This particular one that she had really quite lived with was, after all, an old story; yet what it had been before was dim and distant beside the touch under which she now winced. Scandal?--it had never been but a silly word. Now it was a great tense surface, and the surface was somehow Captain Everard's wonderful face. Deep down in his eyes a picture, a scene--a great place like a chamber of justice, where, before a watching crowd, a poor girl, exposed but heroic, swore with a quavering voice to a document, proved an alibi, supplied a link. In this picture she bravely took her place. "It was the 23rd."
"Then can't you get it this morning--or some time to-day?"
She considered, still holding him with her look, which she then turned on her two companions, who were by this time unreservedly enlisted. She didn't care--not a scrap, and she glanced about for a piece of paper. With this she had to recognise the rigour of official thrift--a morsel of blackened blotter was the only loose paper to be seen. "Have you got a card?" she said to her visitor. He was quite away from Paddington now, and the next instant, pocket-book in hand, he had whipped a card out. She gave no glance at the name on it--only turned it to the other side. She continued to hold him, she felt at present, as she had never held him; and her command of her colleagues was for the moment not less marked. She wrote something on the back of the card and pushed it across to him.
He fairly glared at it. "Seven, nine, four--"
"Nine, six, one"--she obligingly completed the number. "Is it right?" she smiled.
He took the whole thing in with a flushed intensity; then there broke out in him a visibility of relief that was simply a tremendous exposure. He shone at them all like a tall lighthouse, embracing even, for sympathy, the blinking young men. "By all the powers--it's wrong!" And without another look, without a word of thanks, without time for anything or anybody, he turned on them the broad back of his great stature, straightened his triumphant shoulders, and strode out of the place.
She was left confronted with her habitual critics. "'If it's wrong it's all right!'" she extravagantly quoted to them.
The counter-clerk was really awe-stricken. "But how did you know, dear?"
"I remembered, love!"
Mr. Buckton, on the contrary, was rude. "And what game is that, miss?"
No happiness she had ever known came within miles of it, and some minutes elapsed before she could recall herself sufficiently to reply that it was none of his business.
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