"FRIENDSHIP IMPLIES TRUST"
"Can you put me up? Tony."
Ann was sitting in the garden one morning, industriously occupied in shelling peas, when the foregoing terse wire was handed to her by the village telegraph boy. Tony's silence throughout the last few weeks had somewhat disturbed her. She had not received a single line from him since the day he had accompanied her to Victoria station and seen her safely on board the train for Silverquay, and now her brows drew together rather anxiously as she perused this unexpected message.
The telegram had been handed in at the local post office at Lorne, so it was obvious that Tony was at home, and the only reason she could surmise for his sudden request was that he had had a rather bigger quarrel than usual with his uncle.
She scribbled an affirmative reply on the prepaid form which had accompanied the wire and dispatched it by the telegraph boy, who was waiting placidly in the sunshine--and looked as though he were prepared to wait all day if necessary. Then, when she had slit the last fat pod in her basket and shelled its contents, she picked up the bowl of shiny green peas and carried it into the kitchen where Maria was busy making bread.
"Can we do with a visitor, Maria?" she asked, flapping the flimsy pink telegram gaily in front of her. "Here's Mr. Tony Brabazon wiring to know if we can put him up."
"Master Tony?" Maria relapsed into the familiar appellation of the days when she had been not infrequently moved to cuff the said Master Tony's ears with gusto, on occasions when he took nursery tea at Lovell Court and failed to comport himself, in Maria's eyes, "as a little gentleman should."
"Why, yes, miss, us could do with Master Tony." Her face broadened into a beaming smile. "'Twould be like the old days to have him back, scrawling round my kitchen again and stealing the jam pasties. Do you mind his ways when Mr. Lovell he was travelling in furrin parts an' I was cooking for you and Master Robin? And there's not many can better my jam pasties when I put my mind to it, though I do say it."
"Well, you'll have him 'scrawling round your kitchen' before long, I expect," replied Ann.
Maria searched her face with kindly curiosity.
"You'm well pleased, miss, bain't you?"
Evidently the answer did not convey all that Maria had hoped for, after kneading her dough energetically for a few moments, she threw out negligently:
"I used to fancy at one time that you and Master Tony might be thinking of getting married some day. I suppose I was wrong."
"Quite out of it, Maria." Ann looked preternaturally serious. "And, anyway, I thought you hadn't a very high opinion of matrimony and didn't recommend it?"
"Well, I will say my 'usband wasn't one to make you think a lot of it," acknowledged Maria, still kneading with vigour. "But there! There's a power of difference in men, same as there is in yeast. Some starts working right away, and when you puts it down afore the fire your bread plums up beautiful. But I've known yeast what you couldn't get to work as it should--stale stuff, maybe--and then the bread lies 'eavy on your stomach. It's like that with husbands. I dare say some of 'em be good enough, but there's some what isn't, and George Coombe, he was one of that sort. But I don't bear him no grudge. He was a bit plaguey to live with, but he died proper--with his face to the foe, as you may say, so I've no call to be ashamed of him."
"I'm sure you haven't," agreed Ann warmly, and, leaving Maria to her bread-making, she ran off to feed the poultry. Much to her delight, her first brood of fluffy youngsters had hatched out the previous day.
A few hours later Tony wired "Arriving 3.30 train to-morrow." And now "to-morrow" had become to-day, and Ann, alone in the ralli-cart, was sending Dick Turpin smartly along the road to the station.
The station at Silverquay, as is so often the case at a seaside town, was more or less of a common meeting ground for the inhabitants, and it was quite an unusual thing not to run across some one one knew there, exchanging a library book or purchasing a paper at the bookstall. So that it was no surprise to Ann, as she made her way on to the platform, to see Eliot Coventry coming towards her, an unfolded newspaper under his arm.
Otherwise, the platform was deserted. The train was not yet signalled, and neither stationmaster nor porter had emerged into view. Without absolute discourtesy it was impossible for Eliot to avoid speaking to her, and Ann's heart quickened its beat a little as, after one swift, almost perturbed glance, he approached her. He looked rather tired, and there was a restless, thwarted expression in his eyes. So might look the eyes of a man who habitually denied himself the freedom to act as his inclinations demanded, and Ann was conscious of a sudden impulse of compassion that overcame the feeling of hurt pride which his recent attitude towards her had inspired. She responded to his greeting with a small, friendly smile, leavened with just a spice of mischief.
"So you're not going to cut me altogether, then?"
"Cut you? Why should I?" he said quickly.
She shook her head.
"I don't know why. But you've been doing the next thing to it lately, haven't you?"
Then, as he stared moodily down, at her without answering, she continued with the quaint, courageous candour which was a part of her:
"Will you tell me quite honestly, Mr. Coventry--would you rather that Robin hadn't a sister living with him at the Cottage? Because, if so, I can easily go away again. I shouldn't have any difficulty in finding a job, and Maria Coombe is quite capable of looking after Robin!"
While she was speaking a startled look of dismay overspread his face.
"Good heavens!" he exclaimed in an aghast voice. "Have I been as rude as all that?"
"Not rude, exactly. Only when first I came you seemed quite pleased that I should be at the Cottage. But now--lately--" She broke off lamely. It was difficult to put the thing into words. There was nothing, actually, that he had done or left undone. It was a matter of atmosphere--an atmosphere of chilly indifference of which she was acutely conscious in his presence and which made her feel unwelcome.
But he refused to help her out. His eyes were bent on her face, and it seemed almost as though there were a certain eagerness behind their intent gaze.
"Yes," he repeated. "And now--lately?"
"You've been--unfriendly," she answered simply.
The eagerness died out of his eyes, replaced by the old brooding unhappiness which Ann had read in them the day she had first seen him at the Montricheux Kursaal.
"Friendship and I have very little to say to each other." He spoke with a quiet bitterness that was the growth of years. "Friendship implies trust."
A bell clanged somewhere, but the signal arm fell unheeded by the man and woman whose conversation had so suddenly become charged with a strange new kind of intimacy.
"Then you don't trust me?" There was a hurt note in Ann's voice. She was not used to being distrusted.
Coventry smiled ironically, as though at some secret jest of which the edge was turned against himself.
"Sometimes I almost do," he said. "But on the whole--forgive me!--I haven't a blind faith in your sex." He paused, then added rather grimly: "A burnt child fears the fire, and I had my lesson many years ago."
"So you really deserve your reputation?"
"Current gossip sets you down as a confirmed misogynist, you know."
"For once, then, current gossip is correct."
The whistle of the approaching train shrilled piercingly through the air and, startled back to a realisation of the present, Ann glanced hastily up the line.
"You're meeting some one?" asked Eliot, his eyes following the same direction. She assented, and he turned as though to leave her. All at once he swung round on his heel and said brusquely:
"You need never imagine you're not wanted at the Cottage. I like to think of you there."
Without waiting for an answer he lifted his hat and strode away, and a minute later, with a harsh grating of brakes, the train ran into the station and Ann moved quickly towards it.
Tony sprang out on to the platform and hurried forward to greet her. He was looking thinner than when she had last seen him. His face was a little haggard, and the eyes beneath their long lashes were hard and bright.
"This is awfully good of you, Ann," he said, speaking a trifle awkwardly. "Does Robin mind my suddenly billeting myself on you like this?"
"Mind? Why, of course not! We're both delighted. And there's some one else who is nearly bursting with excitement at the idea of seeing you again--Maria Coombe. You haven't forgotten her?"
"Forgotten old Maria? By Jove, no! My ears tingle yet when I think of her." And for an instant a smile of amused recollection chased away the moodiness of his expression. "Is she with you at the Cottage, then?"
"Yes. She volunteered to come to us, and you may guess we jumped at the idea. To have dear old Maria back smooths our path in life considerably, bless her! And I love to listen to her Devon accent! It sounds so homelike."
Tony seemed rather subdued on the homeward drive, but his spirits rallied when they reached the Cottage, where Robin was waiting for them at the gateway, with Billy Brewster hovering importantly in the middle distance. Maria welcomed the new arrival with open arms, and the tea she had prepared for the occasion was a rich display of what she could accomplish in the way of cakes and pasties when she "put her mind to it." Tony did full justice to them and chaffed her unmercifully, to her huge delight, and for the moment one might have imagined him nothing but a big gay schoolboy, home for the holidays.
It was not until later on, when Robin had gone out again, and he and Ann were sitting smoking together under the latter's favourite oak, that he unburdened his soul.
"I'm everlastingly grateful to you for answering my S.O.S. so promptly," he said then. "Uncle Philip was simply making life unbearable at home."
Ann was swinging gently in the hammock, while Tony had flung himself down at full length on the sun-warmed turf. Her eyes rested on him reflectively.
"How was that?" she asked.
"Oh"--impatiently--"the usual thing, of course! Money! I asked him to let me have a hundred or two extra, and he simply went straight up in the air over it."
"A hundred or two! Oh, Tony, have you got into debt again?"
"I haven't been running up bills, if that's what you mean. But I've had bad luck at cards--and of course I had to square things up."
Ann suppressed a sigh. It was the same old story--that ineradicable gaming spirit which had come down from sire to son through half a dozen generations, and which seemed to have concentrated in full strength in the offspring of poor Dick Brabazon.
A few questions elicited the facts. Following upon his return from Switzerland Tony had been playing cards regularly, with, as he explained, "the most infernal luck--I made an absolute corner in Yarboroughs night after night." The set of people with whom he mixed played unusually high points--Brett Forrester's set, as a matter of fact, although he himself had cleared out of town early in order to go yachting. Then, after losing far more than he could afford to pay, Tony had tried to recoup his fortunes by backing a few horses, and another hundred had been added to his original losses. Ultimately, when he and his uncle had gone down to Lorne, he had been compelled to make a clean breast of things and ask for money with which to settle his debts. "Debts of honour," he had termed them, and the description acted like a red rag to a bull. Sir Philip had lost his temper completely.
"'Debts of honour' you call 'em, you young jackanapes!" he had raged. "I call them debts of the dirtiest dishonour you could pick up out of the gutter!" He swept Tony's indignant remonstrances to one side. "If you call it honourable to play for money when you haven't got it to pay with if you lose, a sense of honour's a different thing from what it was in my young days. Why--why--why--" he spluttered, "it's no better than stealing! You deserve a damn good hiding, let me tell you, and it's what you'll get one of these days if you can't keep straight, you young devil!"
The old man had stormed on for a heated half-hour or so, while Tony had stood by and listened to him, white-faced and furious, his haughty young head flung up and his teeth clenched to keep back the bitter answers that fought for utterance. Finally, his hand still shaking with rage, Sir Philip had written a cheque that would cover his nephew's losses.
"That's the last time I pay your gambling debts," he had said as he flung down the pen. "You've an allowance of six hundred a year, and if you exceed that again I'll fire you out of the house neck and crop, and be damned to you!"
"I'll go now, sir--at once, if you wish!" Tony had returned with cool insolence.
"Go? Where would you go, I'd like to know?" Sir Philip had flung at him sneeringly. And just to prove that he could and would go if he chose, and because he was filled with a wild spirit of revolt and anger, Tony had despatched a telegram to Ann and had quitted Lorne the very next day.
"He was insufferable!" he declared stormily. "Great Scott! Does the man think I'm a child to be cuffed into obedience? I warned him for his own sake he'd better never lay a finger on me!"
"He never would, Tony," said Ann. "Of that I'm sure. He's far too fond of you, for one thing."
"No, I don't suppose he would, really," conceded Tony. "But when he flies into a rage, he hardly knows what he's saying or doing. He's got the Brabazon temper all right, the same as I've got the family love of gambling."
"Oh, Tony, I wish you'd give it all up!" exclaimed Ann impulsively. And then the colour rushed hotly into her face as she recalled with sudden vividness the circumstances in which he had once offered to renounce every form of gambling.
Absorbed in the interests of the new life in which she found herself, the recollection of that moonlit night on the steep side of Roche d'Or had slipped into the background of her thoughts. Now it leaped abruptly into the forefront, and she felt helpless and constrained, unable to urge her appeal. The answer Tony could give back was so obvious.
"I haven't the least intention of giving it up," he said in a hard voice. "It's the chief pleasure in life to me. Trailing around Lorne and harrying his tenants happen to be Uncle Philip's pet enjoyments. I don't ask him to give those up. And I reserve the right to amuse myself in my own way."
He switched the conversation on to another subject, and, after a decent interval, excused himself on the plea that he must "unpack his traps."
Ann watched him stalking back to the house with gravely wistful eyes. Neither by word nor look had he implied the slightest recollection of the occasion when he had asked her to be his wife nor of her answer, and she realised that with the ingrained pride of his race he chose to consider the incident as closed. "Then that's finished," he had said at the time. "I shan't ask you again." And he had meant every word of it. With a headstrong determination he had accepted his dismissal and henceforward regarded himself as free to make ducks and drakes of his life if it so pleased him. She shrank from the knowledge. It seemed to lay a heavy sense of responsibility upon her.
Yet she could not find it in her heart to regret her decision. She felt deeply thankful that the mothering, protective impulse which had almost led her into promising to marry Tony had been stayed by Lady Susan's wise words. This hot-headed, undisciplined boy, despite his lovableness and charm, was not the type of man who would make a woman of Ann's fine fibre happy as his wife. Perhaps, unconsciously to herself, she was mentally contrasting him with some one else--with a man who, stern, and embittered though he might be, yet gave her a curious feeling of reliance, a sense of secret reserves of strength that would never fail whatever demand life might make upon them.
It seemed to her as if she and Eliot had drawn nearer to each other during their talk together on the deserted railway platform--as though some intangible barrier between them had been broken down. She could not put into actual words the thought which flitted fugitively through her mind--it was too vague and indeterminate. Only she was subconsciously aware that some change had taken place--that their relation to each other was curiously altered.
As she lay in bed that night, her mind a confused jumble of the day's happenings, one thought rose clear above the medley--the memory of his last words to her:
"You need never imagine you're not wanted at the Cottage. I like to think of you there."
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