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Chapter III

In their most reputable hotel 'Le Coeur d'Or,' long since remodelled and renamed, Mrs. Ercott lay in her brass-bound bed looking by starlight at the Colonel in his brass-bound bed. Her ears were carefully freed from the pressure of her pillow, for she thought she heard a mosquito. Companion for thirty years to one whose life had been feverishly punctuated by the attentions of those little beasts, she had no love for them. It was the one subject on which perhaps her imagination was stronger than her common sense. For in fact there was not, and could not be, a mosquito, since the first thing the Colonel did, on arriving at any place farther South than Parallel 46 of latitude, was to open the windows very wide, and nail with many tiny tacks a piece of mosquito netting across that refreshing space, while she held him firmly by the coat-tails. The fact that other people did not so secure their windows did not at all trouble the Colonel, a true Englishman, who loved to act in his own way, and to think in the ways of other people. After that they would wait till night came, then burn a peculiar little lamp with a peculiar little smell, and, in the full glare of the gaslight, stand about on chairs, with slippers, and their eyes fixed on true or imaginary beasts. Then would fall little slaps, making little messes, and little joyous or doleful cries would arise: "I've got that one!" "Oh, John, I missed him!" And in the middle of the room, the Colonel, in pyjamas, and spectacles (only worn in very solemn moments, low down on his nose), would revolve slowly, turning his eyes, with that look in them of out-facing death which he had so long acquired, on every inch of wall and ceiling, till at last he would say: "Well, Dolly, that's the lot!" At which she would say: "Give me a kiss, dear!" and he would kiss her, and get into his bed.

There was, then, no mosquito, save that general ghost of him which lingered in the mind of one devoted to her husband. Spying out his profile, for he was lying on his back, she refrained from saying: "John, are you awake?" A whiffling sound was coming from a nose, to which--originally straight--attention to military duties had given a slight crook, half an inch below the level of grizzled eyebrows raised a little, as though surprised at the sounds beneath. She could hardly see him, but she thought: "How good he looks!" And, in fact, he did. It was the face of a man incapable of evil, having in its sleep the candour of one at heart a child-- that simple candour of those who have never known how to seek adventures of the mind, and have always sought adventures of the body. Then somehow she did say:

"John! Are you asleep?"

The Colonel, instantly alive, as at some old-time attack, answered:

"Yes."

"That poor young man!"

"Which?"

"Mark Lennan. Haven't you seen?"

"What?"

"My dear, it was under your nose. But you never do see these things!"

The Colonel slowly turned his head. His wife was an imaginative woman! She had always been so. Dimly he perceived that something romantic was about to come from her. But with that almost professional gentleness of a man who has cut the heads and arms off people in his time, he answered:

"What things?"

"He picked up her handkerchief."

"Whose?"

"Olive's. He put it in his pocket. I distinctly saw him."

There was silence; then Mrs. Ercott's voice rose again, impersonal, far away.

"What always astonishes me about young people is the way they think they're not seen--poor dears!"

Still there was silence.

"John! Are you thinking?"

For a considerable sound of breathing, not mere whiffling now, was coming from the Colonel--to his wife a sure sign.

And indeed he was thinking. Dolly was an imaginative woman, but something told him that in this case she might not be riding past the hounds.

Mrs. Ercott raised herself. He looked more good than ever; a little perplexed frown had climbed up with his eyebrows and got caught in the wrinkles across his forehead.

"I'm very fond of Olive," he said.

Mrs. Ercott fell back on her pillows. In her heart there was just that little soreness natural to a woman over fifty, whose husband has a niece.

"No doubt," she murmured.

Something vague moved deep down in the Colonel; he stretched out his hand. In that strip of gloom between the beds it encountered another hand, which squeezed it rather hard.

He said: "Look here, old girl!" and there was silence.

Mrs. Ercott in her turn was thinking. Her thoughts were flat and rapid like her voice, but had that sort of sentiment which accompanies the mental exercise of women with good hearts. Poor young man! And poor Olive! But was a woman ever to be pitied, when she was so pretty as that! Besides, when all was said and done, she had a fine-looking man for husband; in Parliament, with a career, and fond of her--decidedly. And their little house in London, so close to Westminster, was a distinct dear; and nothing could be more charming than their cottage by the river. Was Olive, then, to be pitied? And yet--she was not happy. It was no good pretending that she was happy. All very well to say that such things were within one's control, but if you read novels at all, you knew they weren't. There was such a thing as incompatibility. Oh yes! And there was the matter of difference in their ages! Olive was twenty-six, Robert Cramier forty-two. And now this young Mark Lennan was in love with her. What if she were in love with him! John would realize then, perhaps, that the young flew to the young. For men--even the best, like John, were funny! She would never dream of feeling for any of her nephews as John clearly felt for Olive.

The Colonel's voice broke in on her thoughts.

"Nice young fellow--Lennan! Great pity! Better sheer off--if he's getting--"

And, rather suddenly, she answered:

"Suppose he can't!"

"Can't?"

"Did you never hear of a 'grande passion'?"

The Colonel rose on his elbow. This was another of those occasions that showed him how, during the later years of his service in Madras and Upper Burmah, when Dolly's health had not been equal to the heat, she had picked up in London a queer way of looking at things--as if they were not--not so right or wrong as--as he felt them to be. And he repeated those two French words in his own way, adding:

"Isn't that just what I'm saying? The sooner he stands clear, the better."

But Mrs. Ercott, too, sat up.

"Be human," she said.

The Colonel experienced the same sensation as when one suddenly knows that one is not digesting food. Because young Lennan was in danger of getting into a dishonourable fix, he was told to be human! Really, Dolly was--! The white blur of her new boudoir cap suddenly impinged on his consciousness. Surely she was not getting--un-English! At her time of life!

"I'm thinking of Olive," he said; "I don't want her worried with that sort of thing."

"Perhaps Olive can manage for herself. In these days it doesn't do to interfere with love."

"Love!" muttered the Colonel. "What? Phew!"

If one's own wife called this--this sort of--thing, love--then, why had he been faithful to her--in very hot climates--all these years? A sense of waste, and of injustice, tried to rear its head against all the side of him that attached certain meanings to certain words, and acted up to them. And this revolt gave him a feeling, strange and so unpleasant. Love! It was not a word to use thus loosely! Love led to marriage; this could not lead to marriage, except through--the Divorce Court. And suddenly the Colonel had a vision of his dead brother Lindsay, Olive's father, standing there in the dark, with his grave, clear-cut, ivory-pale face, under the black hair supposed to be derived from a French ancestress who had escaped from the massacre of St. Bartholomew. Upright fellow always, Lindsay--even before he was made bishop! Queer somehow that Olive should be his daughter. Not that she was not upright; not at all! But she was soft! Lindsay was not! Imagine him seeing that young fellow putting her handkerchief in his pocket. But had young Lennan really done such a thing? Dolly was imaginative! He had mistaken it probably for his own; if he had chanced to blow his nose, he would have realized. For, coupled with the almost child-like candour of his mind, the Colonel had real administrative vigour, a true sense of practical values; an ounce of illustration was always worth to him a pound of theory! Dolly was given to riding off on theories. Thank God! she never acted on 'em!

He said gently:

"My dear! Young Lennan may be an artist and all that, but he's a gentleman! I know old Heatherley, his guardian. Why I introduced him to Olive myself!"

"What has that to do with it? He's in love with her."

One of the countless legion that hold a creed taken at face value, into whose roots and reasons they have never dreamed of going, the Colonel was staggered. Like some native on an island surrounded by troubled seas, which he has stared at with a certain contemptuous awe all his life, but never entered, he was disconcerted by thus being asked to leave the shore. And by his own wife!

Indeed, Mrs. Ercott had not intended to go so far; but there was in her, as in all women whose minds are more active than their husbands', a something worrying her always to go a little farther than she meant. With real compunction she heard the Colonel say:

"I must get up and drink some water."

She was out of bed in a moment. "Not without boiling!"

She had seriously troubled him, then! Now he would not sleep--the blood went to his head so quickly. He would just lie awake, trying not to disturb her. She could not bear him not to disturb her. It seemed so selfish of her! She ought to have known that the whole subject was too dangerous to discuss at night.

She became conscious that he was standing just behind her; his figure in its thin covering looked very lean, his face strangely worn.

"I'm sorry you put that idea into my head!" he said. "I'm fond of Olive."

Again Mrs. Ercott felt that jealous twinge, soon lost this time in the motherliness of a childless woman for her husband. He must not be troubled! He should not be troubled. And she said:

"The water's boiling! Now sip a good glass slowly, and get into bed, or I'll take your temperature!"

Obediently the Colonel took from her the glass, and as he sipped, she put her hand up and stroked his head.

John Galsworthy