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Philip Romilly was accosted, late that afternoon, by two young women whose presence on board he had noticed with a certain amount of disapproval. They were obviously of the chorus-girl type, a fact which they seemed to lack the ambition to conceal. After several would-be ingratiating giggles, they finally pulled up in front of him whilst he was promenading the deck.
"You are Mr. Romilly, aren't you?" one of them asked. "Bob Millet told us you were going to be on this steamer. You know Bob, don't you?"
Philip for a moment was taken aback.
"Bob Millet," he repeated thoughtfully.
"Of course! Good old Bob! I don't mind confessing," the young woman went on, "that though we were all out one night together--Trocadero, Empire, and Murray's afterwards--I should never have recognised you. Seems to me you've got thinner and more serious-looking."
"I am afraid my own memory is also at fault," Philip remarked, a little stiffly.
"I am Violet Fox," the young woman who had accosted him continued. "This my friend, Hilda Mason. She's a dear girl but a little shy, aren't you, Hilda?"
"That's just because I told her that we ought to wait until you remembered us," the slighter young woman, with the very obvious peroxidised hair, protested.
"Didn't seem to be any use waiting for that," her friend retorted briskly. "Hilda and I are dying for a cocktail, Mr. Romilly."
He led them with an unwillingness of which they seemed frankly unaware, towards the lounge. They drank two cocktails and found themselves unfortunately devoid of cigarettes, a misfortune which it became his privilege to remedy. They were very friendly young ladies, if a little slangy, invited him around to their staterooms, and offered to show him the runs around New York. Philip escaped after about an hour and made his way to where Elizabeth was reclining in her deck chair.
"That fellow Romilly," he declared irritably, "the other one, I mean, seems to have had the vilest tastes. If I am to be landed with any more of his ridiculous indiscretions, I think I shall have to go overboard. There was an enterprising gentleman named Gayes in Liverpool, who nearly drove me crazy, then there's this Mr. Lawton who wants to talk about lasts, and finally it seems that I dined at the Trocadero and spent the evening at the Empire and Murray's with the two very obvious-looking young ladies who accosted me just now. I am beginning to believe that Douglas' life was not above suspicion."
She smiled at him tolerantly. An unopened book lay by her side. She seemed to have been spending the last quarter of an hour in thought.
"I am rather relieved to hear," she confessed, "that those two young people are a heritage from the other Mr. Romilly. No, don't sit down," she went on. "I want you to do something for me. Go into the library, and on the left-hand side as you enter you will see all the wireless news. Read the bottom item and then come back to me."
He turned slowly away. All his new-found buoyancy of spirits had suddenly left him. He cursed the imagination which lifted his feet from the white decks and dragged his eyes from the sparkling blue sea to the rain-soaked, smut-blackened fields riven by that long thread of bleak, turgid water. The horrors of a murderous passion beat upon his brain. He saw himself hastening, grim and blind, on his devil-sped mission. Then the haze faded from before his eyes. Somehow or other he accomplished his errand. He was in the library, standing in front of those many sheets of typewritten messages, passing them all over, heedless of what their message might be, until he came to the last and most insignificant. Four lines, almost overlapped by another sheet--
STRANGE DISAPPEARANCE OF A LONDON ART TEACHER
Acting upon instructions received, the police are investigating a somewhat curious case of disappearance. Philip Romilly, a teacher of art in a London school, visited Detton Magna on Friday afternoon and apparently started for a walk along the canal bank, towards dusk. Nothing has since been heard of him or his movements, and arrangements have been made to drag the canal at a certain point.
The letters seemed to grow larger to him as he stood and read. He remained in front of the message for an inordinately long time. Again his imagination was at work. He saw the whole ghastly business, the police on the canal banks, watching the slow progress of the men with their drags bringing to the surface all the miserable refuse of the turgid waters, the dripping black mud, perhaps at last....
He was back again on the deck, walking quite steadily yet seeing little. He made his way to the smoking room, asked almost indifferently for a brandy and soda, and drained it to the last drop. Then he walked up the deck to where Elizabeth was seated, and dropped into a chair by her side.
"So I am missing," he remarked, almost in his ordinary tone. "I really had no idea that I was a person of such importance. Fancy reading of my own disappearance within a few days of its taking place, in the middle of the Atlantic!"
"There was probably some one there who gave information," she suggested.
"There was the young lady whom I went to visit," he assented. "She probably watched me cross the road and turn in at that gate and take the path by the canal side. Yes, she may even have gone to the station to see whether I took the only other train back to London, and found that I did not. She knew, too, that I could only have had a few shillings in my pocket, and that my living depended upon being in London for my school the next morning. Yes, the whole thing was reasonable."
"And they are going to drag the canal," Elizabeth said thoughtfully.
"A difficult business," he assured her. "It is one of the most ghastly, ill-constructed, filthiest strips of water you ever looked upon. It has been the garbage depository of the villages through which it makes its beastly way, for generations. I don't envy the men who have to handle the drags."
"You do not believe, then, that they will find anything--interesting?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"That type of man," he continued, "must have a morbid mind. There will be dead animals without a doubt, worn-out boots, filthy and decomposed articles of clothing--"
"Don't!" she interrupted. "You know what I mean. Do leave off painting your ghastly pictures. You know quite well what I mean. Philip Romilly is here by my side. What can they hope to find there in his place?"
His evil moments for that afternoon were over. He answered her almost carelessly.
"Not what they are looking for. Have you brought the paper and pencil you spoke of? I have an idea--I am getting fresh ideas every moment now that I picture you as my heroine. It is queer, isn't it, how naturally you fall into the role?"
She drew a little nearer to him. He was conscious of a mysterious and unfamiliar perfume, perhaps from the violets half hidden in her furs, or was it something in her hair? It reminded him a little of the world the keys into which he had gripped--the world of joyousness, of light-hearted pleasures, the sunlit world into which he had only looked through other men's eyes.
"Perhaps you knew that I was somewhere across the threshold," she suggested. "Did you drag your Mona wholly from your brain, or has she her prototype somewhere in your world?"
He shook his head.
"Therein lies the weakness of all that I have ever written," he declared. "There have been so few in my world from whom I could garner even the gleanings of a personality. They are all, my men and women, artificially made, not born. Twenty-three shillings a week has kept me well outside the locked doors."
"Yet, you know, in many ways," she reflected, "Mona is like me."
"Like you because she was a helper of men," he assented swiftly, "a woman of large sympathies, appealing to me, I suppose, because in my solitude, thoughts of my own weakness taunted me, weakness because I couldn't break out, I mean. Perhaps for that reason the thought of a strong woman fascinated me, a woman large in thoughts and ways, a woman to whom purposes and tendencies counted most. I dreamed of a woman sweetly omnipotent, strong without a shadow of masculinity. That is where my Mona was to be different from all other created figures."
"Chance," she declared, "is a wonderful thing. Chance has pitchforked you here, absolutely to my side, I, the one woman who could understand what you mean, who could give your Mona life. Don't think I am vain," she went on. "I can assure you that my head isn't the least turned because I have been successful. I simply know. Listen. I have few engagements in New York. I should not be going back at all but to see my mother, who is too delicate to travel, and who is miserable when I am away for long. Take this pencil and paper. Let us leave off dreaming for a little time and give ourselves up to technicalities. I want to draft a new first act and a new last one, not so very different from your version and yet with changes which I want to explain as we go on. Bring your chair a little nearer--so. Now take down these notes."
They worked until the first gong for dinner rang. She sat up in her chair with a happy little laugh.
"Isn't it wonderful!" she exclaimed. "I never knew time to pass so quickly. There isn't any pleasure in the world like this," she added, a little impulsively, "the pleasure of letting your thoughts run out to meet some one else's, some one who understands. Take care of every line we have written, my friend."
"We might go on after dinner," he suggested eagerly.
She shook her head.
"I'd rather not," she admitted. "My brain is too full. I have a hundred fancies dancing about. I even find myself, as we sit here, rehearsing my gestures, tuning myself to a new outlook. Oh! You most disturbing person--intellectually of course, I mean," she added, laughing into his face. "Take off my rugs and help me up. No, we'll leave them there. Perhaps, after dinner, we might walk for a little time."
"But the whole thing is tingling in my brain," he protested. "Couldn't we go into the library? We could find a corner by ourselves."
She turned and looked at him, standing up now, the wind blowing her skirts, her eyes glowing, her lips a little parted. Then for the first time he understood her beauty, understood the peculiar qualities of it, the dissensions of the Press as to her appearance, the supreme charm of a woman possessed of a sweet and passionate temperament, turning her face towards the long-wished-for sun. Even the greater things caught hold of him in that moment, and he felt dimly what was coming.
"Do you really wish to work?" she asked.
He looked away from her.
"No!" he answered, a little thickly. "We will talk, if you will."
They neither of them moved. The atmosphere had suddenly become charged with a force indescribable, almost numbing. In the far distance they saw the level line of lights from a passing steamer. Mr. Raymond Greene, with his hands in his ulster pockets, suddenly spotted them and did for them what they seemed to have lost the power to do.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed. "I've been looking for you two everywhere. I don't want to hurt that smoking room steward's feelings. He's not bad at his job. But," he added confidentially, dropping his voice and taking them both by the arm, "I have made a cocktail down in my stateroom--it's there in the shaker waiting for us, something I can't talk about. I've given Lawton one, and he's following me about like a dog. Come right this way, both of you. Steady across the gangway--she's pitching a little. Why, you look kind of scared, Mr. Romilly. Been to sleep, either of you?"
Philip's laugh was almost too long to be natural. Elizabeth, as though by accident, had dropped her veil. Mr. Raymond Greene, bubbling over with good nature and anticipation, led them towards the stairs.
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