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The Marquis, if he had been a keen physiognomist, might perhaps have read all that he had come to London to know in Marcia's expression as he made his unexpected entrance into her sitting room on the following day. She was seated at her desk, with a great pile of red roses on one side of her, and a secretary, to whom she was dictating, on the other. She swung round in her chair and for a moment was speechless. She looked at her visitor incredulously, a little helplessly, with some traces of an emotion which puzzled him. Her greeting, however, was hearty enough. She sprang to her feet and held out both her hands.
"My dear man, how unlike you! Really, I think that I like surprises. Give me both your hands—so! Let me look at you."
"I should have warned you of my coming," he said, raising the ink-stained fingers which he was clasping to his lips, "but to tell you the truth it was a caprice."
"I thought you were in the country, at Mandeleys!" she exclaimed.
"I was," he replied. "I have motored up from there this morning. I came to see you."
She dismissed her secretary, gazed at herself in the glass and made a grimace.
"And a nice sight I look! Never mind. Fancy motoring up from Mandeleys! What time did you start?"
"At six o'clock," he answered, with a little smile. "It was somewhat before my regular hour for rising. If you have no other arrangements, I should be glad if you would take luncheon with me."
"Bless the man, of course I will!" she assented, passing her arm through his and leading him to a chair. "You are not looking quite so well as you ought to after a breath of country air."
"I am passing through a time of some anxiety," he acknowledged.
She remained on the side of his chair, still holding his arm. The Marquis sank back with a little air of relief. There seemed to be something different, something warmer in the world. He was moved by a rare and unaccountable impulse—he drew her towards him and kissed her lips.
"I had a birthday last week," he said, with a very slight smile. "I think that it affected me. One begins to wonder after one has passed middle age, not what there is to look forward to, but how much it is worth while enduring."
"Of course," she declared, with a grimace, "you've been diving into musty old volumes at Mandeleys and reading the mutterings of one of those primitive philosophers who growled at life from a cave."
"I have found myself a little lonely at Mandeleys," he confessed.
"But this visit to London," she persisted. "Is it business? Is there anything wrong?"
"I came to see you."
"My head is going round," she declared. "This is Wednesday. Besides, I thought you were going to stay away until I wrote you—not that I wanted you to."
"I changed my mind," he told her, "in consequence of a visit which I received yesterday from a Mr. James Borden."
She gave vent to an exclamation of dismay.
"You mean that Jimmy has been down to see you?"
"If Jimmy and Mr. James Borden are identical," the Marquis replied, a little stiffly, "he undoubtedly has."
She looked at him helplessly.
"Oh, dear," she exclaimed, "how could he be so foolish!"
"He wanted, it seems," the Marquis continued, "to have what he called a man-to-man talk. I am not the sort of person, as you know, Marcia, who appreciates man-to-man talks with strangers. I listened to all that he had to say, and because I gathered that he was your friend, I was polite to him. That is all. He gave me to understand that he was your suitor."
"He'd no right to tell you anything of the sort," she declared, "but in a sense I suppose it is true. He wants me to marry him. It's most fearfully unsettling. But that he should come to you! I wish he hadn't, Reginald."
"It appeared to me to be a quixotic action," the Marquis assented. "However, indirectly it has been conducive of good—it has brought me a great pleasure. I have missed you very much, Marcia. I am very happy to be here again, for however short a time."
"You are going back, then, to Mandeleys?"
"When we part, directly after luncheon. I have guests arriving there to-night—my sister and Grantham, and I believe some others. But after my talk with Borden, or rather his talk to me, I felt that I must see you."
"Well, I've missed you," she confessed frankly. "I seem to have had lots to do, and I have been going to the theatres, and I have quite made up my mind to write a play. But I have missed you.—Shall I go and put on my hat?"
"If you will," he answered. "We can talk in the car and at luncheon."
The Marquis watched her cross the room and sighed. At thirty-nine, he thought, she was wonderfully young. Her figure was a little more mature, but in all other respects she seemed only to have found poise and assurance with the passing years. He leaned back in his chair almost with a sense of luxury. He was back again in the atmosphere which had kept him young, the atmosphere which unconsciously had hung around him and kept him warm and contented—kept him, too, from looking over the edge into strange places. The room was deliciously feminine, notwithstanding a certain fascinating disorder. There were magazines, Reviews and illustrated papers everywhere in evidence, an open box of cigarettes upon the chimneypiece, an armful of flowers thrown loose upon the table, as well as the roses upon her desk. One of her gloves lay upon a chair by the side of a pile of proofs. It seemed to him that there were some new photographs on the mantelpiece, but his own, in the uniform of his county yeomanry, still occupied the central position. There were songs upon the piano; on the sideboard a silver cocktail shaker, and, as he noticed with a little pang, two glasses. Nevertheless, he sat there waiting in great content until Marcia came in, dressed for the street. She was followed by a servant with some ice upon a tray, and bottles.
"Now for my new vice," she exclaimed gaily, taking up the cocktail shaker and half filling it with ice. "You are not going to be obstinate, are you?"
"I shall take anything you may give me, with great pleasure," he assured her, a little stiffly.
She saw him looking at the second glass, and laughed.
"It is Phyllis Grant who is responsible for this," she explained. "She lives in the next flat, you know, and she comes in most days, either before luncheon or before dinner, for an apéritif and a cigarette."
The Marquis's face cleared. He drank his cocktail and pronounced it delicious. On the threshold he paused and looked back.
"I like your little room, Marcia," he said. "I find it a strange thing to confess, but there is nowhere else in the world where I feel quite as much at home, quite as contented, as I do here."
She seemed almost startled, for a moment unresponsive. Such a speech was so unlike him that it seemed impossible that he could be in earnest. She walked down the stairs by his side with a new gravity in her face. Perhaps he noticed it. At any rate, as soon as they were seated in the car he began to talk to her.
"The object of Mr. Borden's visit to me, I gathered, was to impress upon me the fact that by marrying him you would gain many advantages from which you are at present debarred. I naturally made no comment, nor did I argue the matter with him. I have come to you."
She sat silent in her corner. Her eyes were fixed upon a nursemaid, with two or three young children, passing by. Suddenly she touched her companion on the arm and pointed to them.
"There is that, you know," she faltered.
The Marquis nodded.
"My great fear," he continued, "is that sometimes I am too much inclined to treat you as a contemporary, and to forget that you have never known those things which are a part of every woman's life. I must give Mr. Borden the credit for having had the good taste not to mention them."
"Oh, Jimmy isn't a cad," she answered, "but, without mentioning them, I cannot understand what he came to you for. As regards the other things you have spoken of, I don't care a rap about them, in fact I love my independence. I go where I choose, I have found no one indisposed to make my acquaintance, and the more I see of life—such life as comes to me—the more I love it. When Jim—Mr. Borden—uses such arguments, he bores me. They are directly against him instead of for him. If I were Mrs. James Borden, people would leave cards upon me and I should have to eat dinners with fellow-publishers' wives, and exchange calls, and waste many hours of my life in all the tomfoolery of middle-class respectable living. It doesn't appeal to me, Reginald. He is an idiot not to realise it."
"What does appeal to you, then?" he asked.
"That," she answered, moving her head backwards.
They crossed Battersea Bridge in silence.
"It's such a silly, ordinary problem," she went on presently, "and yet it's so difficult. It's either now or never, you know, Reginald. I shall say good-by to the thirties before long."
"It is your problem," he said sadly, "not mine."
She held his fingers in hers.
"If only, when we were both so much younger," she sighed, "we had had a little more courage. But I was so ignorant, and there was so much else, too, to distract. I shall never forget our first few months of travel—Paris, the Riviera, Italy. I was impressionable, too, and I loved it all so—the colour and the beauty, the rich, warm stream of life, after that wretched village school. I was so aching to understand, and you were such a good tutor. You fed my brain wonderfully. Oh, I suppose I ought to be content!"
"And I," he murmured, "I, too, ought to be ready to creep into my own little shelter and be content with—memories."
"Ah, no!" she protested, laying her hand upon his. "If you feel like that, it is ended.—Now come, this is a gala day. You have come so far to see me. I am seriously flattered. You must be starved, too. Not another word until we have lunched."
At Trewly's their entrance produced a mild sensation. Their usual table was fortunately unoccupied. The manager himself welcomed them with many compliments. Marcia glanced around her a little listlessly.
"There is something rather mausoleum-like about this restaurant in the daytime," she declared. "Won't you take me somewhere else one day, Reginald?"
"Why not?" he answered. "It is for you to choose."
"There are some queer, foreign little places," she went on hastily. "The things to eat, perhaps, are not so good, but the people seem alive. There is an air here, isn't there, of faded splendour about the decorations and the people, too."
"I will make enquiries," the Marquis promised.
"Don't," she begged. "You must leave it to me. I will find somewhere. And now let us be serious, Reginald. Here we are come to rather a late crisis in our lives. Tell me, how much do I really mean to you? Am I just a habit, or have you really in the background memories and thoughts about me which you seldom express?"
He leaned across the table.
"I will confess," he said, "that I have been surprised, during the last few days, to discover how much you do mean to me, Marcia. Your quicker apprehension, perhaps, finds fault with me, rebels against the too great passivity of my appreciation. You have been the refuge of my life. Perhaps I have accepted too much and given too little. That is what may reasonably happen when there is a disparity in years and vitality as great as exists between us. What seemed to you to be habit, Marcia, is really peace. I have forgotten what I should always have remembered—that you are still young."
Her eyes glistened as she looked at him. A ray of sunshine which found its way through an overhead window was momentarily unkind. The lines under his eyes, the wrinkles in his face, the thinning of his hair, were all a little more apparent. Marcia was conscious of an unworthy, a hateful feeling, a sensation of which she was hideously ashamed. And yet, though her voice shook, there was still self-pity in her heart.
"I am so glad that you came," she said. "I am so glad that you have spoken to me like this. You need have no fear. Those other things were born of just a temperamental fancy. They will pass. Be to me just what you have been. I shall be satisfied."
A cloud passed over the sun. His face was once more in the shadow, and curiously enough her fancy saw him through strangely different eyes. Age seemed to pass, although something of the helpless wistfulness remained. It was the pleading of a boy, the eager hope of a child, of which she suddenly seemed conscious.
"Do you think that you can be happy—as things are, Marcia?" he asked. "Your friend, Mr. Borden, doesn't think so. He came down—he was just a little melodramatic, I think—hoping to incite me to a great sacrifice. I was to play the part of the self-denying hero. I was to give away the thing I loved, for its own sake. I had no fancy for the rôle, Marcia."
"And I should hate you in it, dear," she assured him.
"Mr. James Borden will always be a dear friend, but he must learn what every one else in the world has had to learn—a lesson of self-denial. He will find some one else."
"I am not jealous of the man," the Marquis said. "I am jealous of just one thought that his coming may have brought into your brain—one instinct."
"Don't be," she begged. "It will go just as it came. It is part of a woman's nature, I suppose. Every now and then it tortures."
Luncheon was served excellently but without undue haste. They fell to discussing lighter topics.
"You will be interested to hear," he told her, "that my daughter Letitia is engaged to be married to Charles Grantham. I am quite expecting that by Christmas I shall be alone. I find Letitia a charming and dutiful companion," he went on, "but I must confess that I look forward to her marriage with some satisfaction. It has occurred to me that if it suited your work, we might travel for a time, or rather settle down—in Italy, if you prefer it. There is so much there to keep one always occupied. In Florence, for instance, one commences a new education every spring."
"I should love it," she answered, with an enthusiasm which still lacked something.
"A villa somewhere on the slopes of Fiesole," he continued, "with a garden, a real Italian garden, with fountains and statuary, and straight paths, and little strips of deep lawn, and a few cypress trees. And there must be a view of Florence. I think that you would work well there, Marcia. If things go as I expect, I thought that we might leave England about Christmas-time, and loiter a little on the Riviera till the season for the cold winds has passed. Browning wrote of the delights of an English spring, but he lived in Florence."
"There is so much there that I am longing to see again," she murmured.
"You shall see it all," he promised. "If you wish, you shall live with it. I do not know whether there is anything strange about me," he went on, after a moment's hesitation, "but I must confess that I find myself a little out of touch with modern English life. The atmosphere of my sister's house, for instance, invariably repels me. The last generation was amused by the efforts of those without just claims to penetrate into the circles of their social superiors. To-day the reverse seems to be the case. The men, and the women especially, of my order, seem to be perpetually struggling to imitate the manners and weaknesses of a very interesting but irresponsible world of Bohemia. I find myself with few friends, nowadays. The freedom and yet the isolation of foreign life, therefore, perhaps appeals to me all the more.
"But you would not care to leave Mandeleys, surely?"
"My dear Marcia," he said, "I am possessed, perhaps, of a peculiar temperament, but I can assure you that Mandeleys is spoiled for me so long as that—that ridiculous old man—you will forgive me—your father, sits at the end of his garden, invoking curses upon my head. To every one except myself, the humour of the situation is obvious. To me there is something else which I cannot explain. Whether it is a presentiment, a fear, an offence to my dignity, I cannot tell. I have spent all the spare money I have in the world trying to get that Vont cottage back again into the family estates, but I have failed. Really, your father might just as well have Mandeleys itself."
"You know that I went to see him?" she asked.
"I remember your telling me that you were going," he replied.
"My mission was a dismal failure," she confessed. "I felt as though I were talking to a stranger, and he looked as though he were speaking to a Jezebel. We stood in different worlds, and called to one another over the gulf in different languages."
"Perhaps," the Marquis sighed, "it is as well that he is your father. The other morning I passed down the fencing gallery and examined my father's collection of rifles. There was one there with a range of six hundred yards, which was supposed in those days to be marvellous, and some cartridges which fitted it. The window was open. You think, Marcia, that I am too placid for impulses, yet I can assure you that I slipped a cartridge into the magazine of that rifle, closed it, and knelt down before the open window. I held your father covered by the sight until I could have shrieked. Then I turned away and fired at a log of wood in the park. I found the bullet afterwards, half a foot deep in the centre of it."
She shivered a little.
"For heaven's sake, don't go near that fencing gallery again!" she begged.—"You see the time?"
He rose to his feet, and they passed down the restaurant together. Outside, the car was waiting.
"Will you think me very discourteous," he asked, "if I send you back in a taxicab? I shall be hard pushed, as it is, to reach home before my guests."
"Of course," she assented.
He stood for a moment after she had taken her place in the vehicle, with her hand in his.
"My visit," he whispered, "has made me very happy."
She looked at him through a mist of unexpected tears.
"Come to me soon," she begged a little abruptly. "I shall want you."
"Early next month," he promised, "or, if you send for me, before."
She seemed restless, indisposed to let him go. "I wish you weren't going away at all," she declared with unusual fervour. "I wish—Come back with me now, won't you? Do!"
For a moment he hesitated. He felt an extraordinary impulse to throw everything on one side and accept her invitation. The crisis passed, however, before he could yield. Marcia, with a little laugh, became her normal self.
"What an idiot I am!" she exclaimed good-humouredly. "Of course, you must get down to Mandeleys as quickly as you can. Good-by!"
She threw herself back in the corner of the taxicab and waved her farewells. The Marquis stood for a moment bareheaded upon the pavement. He watched the vehicle until it became lost in the stream of traffic. The impulse of a few moments ago was stronger than ever, linked now, too, with an intolerable sense of depression. It was with an extraordinary effort of will that he took his place in his own car and motioned the chauffeur to proceed.
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