It was the hour between tea and dinner, when the spirit of the country house was resting, conscious of its virtue, half asleep.
Having bathed and changed, George Pendyce took his betting-book into the smoking-room. In a nook devoted to literature, protected from draught and intrusion by a high leather screen, he sat down in an armchair and fell into a doze.
With legs crossed, his chin resting on one hand, his comely figure relaxed, he exhaled a fragrance of soap, as though in this perfect peace his soul were giving off its natural odour. His spirit, on the borderland of dreams, trembled with those faint stirrings of chivalry and aspiration, the outcome of physical well-being after a long day in the open air, the outcome of security from all that is unpleasant and fraught with danger. He was awakened by voices.
"George is not a bad shot!"
"Gave a shocking exhibition at the last stand; Mrs. Bellew was with him. They were going over him like smoke; he couldn't touch a feather."
It was Winlow's voice. A silence, then Thomas Brandwhite's:
"A mistake, the ladies coming out. I never will have them myself. What do you say, Sir James?"
"Bad principle--very bad!"
A laugh--Thomas Brandwhite's laugh, the laugh of a man never quite sure of himself.
"That fellow Bellew is a cracked chap. They call him the 'desperate character' about here. Drinks like a fish, and rides like the devil. She used to go pretty hard, too. I've noticed there's always a couple like that in a hunting country. Did you ever see him? Thin, high-shouldered, white-faced chap, with little dark eyes and a red moustache."
"She's still a young woman?"
"Thirty or thirty-two."
"How was it they didn't get on?"
The sound of a match being struck.
"Case of the kettle and the pot."
"It's easy to see she's fond of admiration. Love of admiration plays old Harry with women!"
Winlow's leisurely tones again
"There was a child, I believe, and it died. And after that--I know there was some story; you never could get to the bottom of it. Bellew chucked his regiment in consequence. She's subject to moods, they say, when nothing's exciting enough; must skate on thin ice, must have a man skating after her. If the poor devil weighs more than she does, in he goes."
"That's like her father, old Cheriton. I knew him at the club--one of the old sort of squires; married his second wife at sixty and buried her at eighty. Old 'Claret and Piquet,' they called him; had more children under the rose than any man in Devonshire. I saw him playing half-crown points the week before he died. It's in the blood. What's George's weight?--ah, ha!"
"It's no laughing matter, Brandwhite. There's time for a hundred up before dinner if you care for a game, Winlow?"
The sound of chairs drawn back, of footsteps, and the closing of a door. George was alone again, a spot of red in either of his cheeks. Those vague stirrings of chivalry and aspiration were gone, and gone that sense of well-earned ease. He got up, came out of his corner, and walked to and fro on the tiger-skin before the fire. He lit a cigarette, threw it away, and lit another.
Skating on thin ice! That would not stop him! Their gossip would not stop him, nor their sneers; they would but send him on the faster!
He threw away the second cigarette. It was strange for him to go to the drawing-room at this hour of the day, but he went.
Opening the door quietly, he saw the long, pleasant room lighted with tall oil-lamps, and Mrs. Bellew seated at the piano, singing. The tea-things were still on a table at one end, but every one had finished. As far away as might be, in the embrasure of the bay- window, General Pendyce and Bee were playing chess. Grouped in the centre of the room, by one of the lamps, Lady Maiden, Mrs. Winlow, and Mrs. Brandwhite had turned their faces towards the piano, and a sort of slight unwillingness or surprise showed on those faces, a sort of "We were having a most interesting talk; I don't think we ought to have been stopped" expression.
Before the fire, with his long legs outstretched, stood Gerald Pendyce. And a little apart, her dark eyes fixed on the singer, and a piece of embroidery in her lap, sat Mrs. Pendyce, on the edge of whose skirt lay Roy, the old Skye terrier.
"But had I wist, before I lost, That love had been sae ill to win; I had lockt my heart in a case of gowd And pinn'd it with a siller pin.... O waly! waly! but love be bonny A little time while it is new, But when 'tis auld, it waxeth cauld, And fades awa' like morning dew!"
This was the song George heard, trembling and dying to the chords of the fine piano that was a little out of tune.
He gazed at the singer, and though he was not musical, there came a look into his eyes that he quickly hid away.
A slight murmur occurred in the centre of the room, and from the fireplace Gerald called out, "Thanks; that's rippin!"
The voice of General Pendyce rose in the bay-window: "Check!"
Mrs. Pendyce, taking up her embroidery, on which a tear had dropped, said gently:
"Thank you, dear; most charming!"
Mrs. Bellew left the piano, and sat down beside her. George moved into the bay-window. He knew nothing of chess-indeed, he could not stand the game; but from here, without attracting attention, he could watch Mrs. Bellew.
The air was drowsy and sweet-scented; a log of cedarwood had just been put on the fire; the voices of his mother and Mrs. Bellew, talking of what he could not hear, the voices of Lady Malden, Mrs. Brandwhite, and Gerald, discussing some neighbours, of Mrs. Winlow dissenting or assenting in turn, all mingled in a comfortable, sleepy sound, clipped now and then by the voice of General Pendyce calling, "Check!" and of Bee saying, "Oh, uncle!"
A feeling of rage rose in George. Why should they all be so comfortable and cosy while this perpetual fire was burning in himself? And he fastened his moody eyes on her who was keeping him thus dancing to her pipes.
He made an awkward movement which shook the chess-table. The General said behind him: "Look out, George! What--what!"
George went up to his mother.
"Let's have a look at that, Mother."
Mrs. Pendyce leaned back in her chair and handed up her work with a smile of pleased surprise.
"My dear boy, you won't understand it a bit. It's for the front of my new frock."
George took the piece of work. He did not understand it, but turning and twisting it he could breathe the warmth of the woman he loved. In bending over the embroidery he touched Mrs. Bellew's shoulder; it was not drawn away, a faint pressure seemed to answer his own. His mother's voice recalled him:
"Oh, my needle, dear! It's so sweet of you, but perhaps"
George handed back the embroidery. Mrs. Pendyce received it with a grateful look. It was the first time he had ever shown an interest in her work.
Mrs. Bellew had taken up a palm-leaf fan to screen her face from the fire. She said slowly:
"If we win to-morrow I'll embroider you something, George."
"And if we lose?"
Mrs. Bellew raised her eyes, and involuntarily George moved so that his mother could not see the sort of slow mesmerism that was in them.
"If we lose," she said, "I shall sink into the earth. We must win, George."
He gave an uneasy little laugh, and glanced quickly at his mother. Mrs. Pendyce had begun to draw her needle in and out with a half- startled look on her face.
"That's a most haunting little song you sang, dear," she said.
Mrs. Bellew answered: "The words are so true, aren't they?"
George felt her eyes on him, and tried to look at her, but those half-smiling, half-threatening eyes seemed to twist and turn him about as his hands had twisted and turned about his mother's embroidery. Again across Mrs. Pendyce's face flitted that half- startled look.
Suddenly General Pendyce's voice was heard saying very loud, "Stale? Nonsense, Bee, nonsense! Why, damme, so it is!"
A hum of voices from the centre of the room covered up that outburst, and Gerald, stepping to the hearth, threw another cedar log upon the fire. The smoke came out in a puff.
Mrs. Pendyce leaned back in her chair smiling, and wrinkling her fine, thin nose.
"Delicious!" she said, but her eyes did not leave her son's face, and in them was still that vague alarm.
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