CHAPTERI Somewhere out in the night a woman was crying, crying desolately. The sad, rathermonotonoussoundbrokethesilenceofthestreetandfloatedthroughthe openwindowofaroomwhereMickyMelloweswaswonderinghowthedeuce heshouldgetthroughthelongeveninglyingbeforehim. Mickywasinabadtemper.Itwasnotoftenthathewasinabadtemper,buthe had begun the day by waking with a headache, which was still with him, and whichaccountedforthewideopenwindowandthebreathoficyairwhichwas
filling the room and fluttering the curtains; and half an hour ago some people withwhomhehadbeengoingtodinehadrungupandtoldhimthattheparty wasoffowingtothesuddendeathofarelative,therebyleavingtheeveninglong andemptyonhishands. ItwasNewYear’sEve,too,whichmademattersathunderingsightworse. HewonderedifMarieDelandwasfeelingassickaboutitashewas.Mickywas inthemiddleofaninterestingflirtationwithMarie,whichbadefairtodevelop into something deeper with careful engineering on the part of her family, for Mickywasacatch,andthoughsofarhehadprovedhimselfsingularlyadroitin avoiding mothers with marriageable daughters, the Delands were beginning to pateachotheronthebackandtolookpleased. 4 Whenthesoundofcryingreachedhimhehadbeenfeelingsothoroughlyfed-up withlifethatithadseemedimpossibleforanythingevertointeresthimagain; butnowheclimbedoutofhischairwithafaintshowofenergyandstrolledover tothewindow.
Hewashalf-waydownwhenanapologeticcoughathiselbowarrestedhim;he stoppedandturned. “Well,whatisit?” “If you please, sir, Mr. Ashton has just sent round to ask if you could make it convenient to be in at ten o’clock this evening, as he wants to see you particularly.” Micky looked surprised; Ashton had been very particularly engaged for that evening,heknew.Evidentlysomethinghadhappenedtoupsethisplansaswell. “Teno’clock?Allright;IdaresayIshallbein.” Hewentondownthestairs. Outonthepathhepausedandlookedupanddownthestreet. Theimpulsethathadsenthimouthaddiedaway;itwasbeastlycold,andmuch morecomfortablebythefire.Hehesitated,andinthatmomenthesawthefigure ofthegirlagain. Shehadstoppednowinthelightofastreetlamp,andseemedtobelookingat somethingshecarriedinherarms––achild!Surelynotachild! Micky’scuriositywasaroused.Hebuttonedthecollarofhiscoatmoreclosely roundhischinandwenton. The girl had moved too, almost as if she felt instinctively that she was being followed,andasMickydrewabreastwithhersheshrankalittletoonesideasif afraid. “What’sthematter?”askedMickybluntly. Theyweresomefewyardsfromthelampnow.But,assheturnedtolookupat him with startled eyes, its yellow light fell on her face; and Micky saw with amazement that she was quite young and exceedingly pretty, in spite of the distressinhereyes,andthetearsthatwerestillwetonhercheeks. “What’sthematter?”heaskedagain,moregently,andwaitedforthepathetically shakendenialwhichhefeltsurewouldcome. “Nothing––nothingatall.” “Nothing!”Therewasanoteofexasperationinhisvoice.“Youwerecrying––I heardyou,andpeopledon’twalkaboutthestreetsatthistimeofnightandcryif there’s nothing the matter. If that’s a baby you’ve got with you, you ought to
knowbetterthanto–––”Hebrokeoff.Shewaslaughing,aweak,uncertainlittle laugh. “Ababy!”shesaidtremulously.“Itisn’tababy;it’sacat.” “A cat!” Micky’s voice was full of disgust. He looked down at her from his superiorheightwithsuddensuspicion.Ifthiswasjustahoax? “Well,what’sthematteranyway?”heaskedagain. Shelookedawayfromhimwithoutanswering. Mickybegantofeelabitofafool;hewishedhehadnotyieldedtotheimpulse tofollowher.Afterall,itwasnobusinessofhisifastrangerchosetowalkabout hisroadandweep;helookedatherimpatiently. Her hair beneath its not very smart hat shone golden in the lamplight, and the littleovalofcheekandroundedchinwhichwasallhecouldseeofheraverted facesomehowtouchedaforgottenchordinhisheartandmadehimthinkofhis boyhoodandthegirl-motherwhohadnotlivedlongenoughtobemorethana memory.... “Don’tthinkI’minterferingortryingtoannoyyou,”hesaidagain.“Butifthere isanythingIcandotohelpyou....” Sheshookherhead. “Thereisn’tanything....IoughttohaveknownbetterthantoletyouhearthatI was crying ... there’s nothing the matter, I–––” Then quite suddenly she broke downagainintobittersobbing.“Oh,I’msomiserable––soutterlymiserable––I wishIweredead!” Mickywasappalled;hehadheardwomensaythatsortofthingbefore,andhad said it himself scores of times, but never with that note of tragedy which he heardinthisgirl’svoice. Ten minutes ago he had considered himself the most miserable of mortals becausehehadbeenletdownoveradinner;hewasashamedofhistempernow ashestoodthereinthestarlightandlistenedtothisgirl’ssobbing. “Lookhere,”hesaidafteramoment,“you’llneverfeelanybetterifyoustayout here in the cold. I don’t suppose you’ve had a respectable meal for hours either––I know what women are. Where do you live? You’ll soon feel better whenyougetbesideafireandhavesomethingtoeat.” “I’mnotgoinghomeanymore,”shesaid.
Shespokequitequietly,butwithasortofdespairwhichtherewasnomistaking. Micky was a rapid thinker. He had clean forgotten his headache. This was adventurewithacapitalletter.Therewasstillsomethingofromanceintheworld whichhisjadedpalatehadnotyettasted. “I’msureyou’retired,”hesaidgently,“andprobablyfed-up.SoamI.Iwasjust wonderingwhatintheworldtodowithmyselfwhenIheardyoucrying.Itmade mefeelasortofkinshipwithyou––itdid,uponmyword.IfI’dbeenawomanI daresayIshouldhavebeenhowlinglikeanything.Willyoucomealongwithme andletmegiveyousomesupper?I’mhungrytoo....” Sheshrankbackfromhimwithalittlegestureoffear. “Ohno––pleaseletmego!...” Shetriedtopasshim,butMickybarredtheway. “Youcan’twalkaboutthestreetsallnight,”hesaiddeterminedly.“Thecatwill hate it anyway, even if you don’t mind.” There was a hint of laughter in his voice, though he had never felt more serious in all his life. “And if you don’t wantmetotakepityonyou,youmightatleasttakepityonme...pleasedon’t thinkI’maboundertryingtoannoyyouoranythinglikethat...perhapsIwanta friendjustasbadlyasyoudo....”Hestopped,aghastathisowntemerity. “Ifyoudo,”shesaidtremulously,“IammoresorryforyouthanIcansay.” “I’mgladyousaidthat,”Mickyanswered,“becausenowyou’llcomealongand havethatsupperwithme.There’salittlecaféquitenearherethatIknow.Ifwe arebothmiserable,wecanatleastbemiserabletogether.” Something told him that this girl was at the end of her tether; that she was desperate, and his first casual curiosity concerning her deepened in the most surprisingfashion. Hefeltinsomeinexplicablewaythatacurtainhadbeenliftedfromaphaseof lifehithertohiddenfromhim;asifhewerestandingonthethresholdofanew world,wherewomenonlyweepforsomethingrealandtragic,notjustbutterfly tearsofpetulancelikethewomenofhisownclass. Thegirlwassilentforamoment;thensuddenlyshelaughed,ahardlittlelaugh ofrecklessness. “Verywell,”shesaid.“IsupposeImayaswell.” Mickywasinfinitelyrelieved;somehowhehadnotreallythoughtthatshewould
allowhimtoaccompanyher. They walked along for a few steps in silence. Once or twice the cat, tucked underthegirl’sarm,gaveafaintmieowofprotest,andMickysmiledtohimself inthedarkness. It was the cat that seemed to give such a real touch of pathos to the whole adventure,hethought,andwonderedwhy.Helookeddownatherdeprecatingly. “Letmecarryit,”hesuggested. “Carry it?” she echoed. “What do you mean?––Oh, the cat; no, thank you. He wouldn’tlikeit:hehatesstrangers.” “Oh!”saidMicky.Hefeltchagrined.“Isitagreatpet?”heasked. “Yes.”Shehunchedherqueerburdenmorecloselyunderherarm.“Itisn’treally mine,”sheexplained.“ButtheyweresounkindtoitinthehousethatIhadto bringit.” Mickywasdyingtoaskquestions,butsomehowithardlyseemedapropitious moment.Hedidnotspeakagaintilltheyreachedthelittlecafé. Itwasaquietlittledownstairsplace,andjustnowwasalmostdeserted. Micky chose a corner table which was partially screened from the rest of the room.Ashestooduptotakeoffhiscoathelookedatthegirlinterestedly. Shewasbetterthanpretty,hedecidedwithalittlepleasurablethrill;hecouldnot rememberwhenhehadseenafacethatappealedtohimsostronglyinspiteofits pathosandthetearstainsroundhereyes. And such sweet eyes they were!––really grey with dark lashes and daintily pencilledbrows.Shelookedupsuddenly,meetinghisearnestregard. “Well?” she said. There was a touch of defiance in her voice; the colour had riseninherwhitecheeks. “Well?”saidMickywithafriendlysmile. Hesatdownoppositetoher;hewasthankinghisluckystarsthattheDelands’ messagehadreachedhimbeforehechangedintoeveningclothes;somehowas helookedatthisgirlhefeltslightlyashamedofhisownlazy,luxuriouslifeand thebankingaccountwhich,likethecruseofoil,neverfailed.Thatthisgirlhad nosurplusofthisworld’sgoodshewascertain,thoughshewasneatlydressed and was unmistakably a lady. Her gloves were worn and had been carefully mended,andhercoatlookedfartoothinforsuchacoldnight.
“Well,whatarewegoingtohave?”heasked.Itwassurprisinghowcheerfulhe felt. “And what about that wonderful cat of yours? By the way, hasn’t it got a name?” Shesmiledfaintly. “IcallhimCharlie,”shesaid. “Charlie!”Micky’seyes twinkled.“Well,it’s original,anyway,”hesaidwitha chuckle. “And Charlie must have some milk, I suppose. I say, he’s a bit thin, isn’the?”heaskeddubiously. She had taken off the shawl which had been wrapped about it, and the poor animal sat on her lap blinking in the light, a forlorn enough specimen, with a longtailandfierceeyes. Thegirlstrokeditshead. “He’sbeenhalfstarved,”shesaid.“You’dbethinifyouhadn’thadanymoreto eatthanhe’shad.” “I’msureIshould,”saidMickyhumbly.Hethoughtguiltilyofthewastewhich heknewwentoninhisownestablishment;itwasoddthatithadneverstruck him before that there must be many people in the world, not to mention cats, whowouldbegladenoughofthewastefromhistable. Hepickedupthemenutohidehisdiscomfort.Whenthewaitercameheordered the best dinner the restaurant served. He was conscious that the girl was watchinghimanxiously.Whenthewaiterhadgone,shesaid,“Ican’taffordto haveadinnerlikethat.” Mickyflushedcrimson. “I thought you were dining with me,” he stammered. “I––I hope you will––I shallbeonlytoohonoured....” Hergreyeyesmethisanxiously. “I’ve never done a thing like this before,” she said in distress. “I don’t know whatyouarethinkingofme...but...well,IsupposeIwasjustdesperate....”She brokeoffbitingherlip,thensherushedonagain.“Idon’tsupposeyou’llever seemeanymore,soitdoesn’treallymattermuch,but....” “I hope to see you again, many times,” said Micky, with an earnestness that surprisedhimself. Shelookedaway,andherfacehardened.
“I suppose men are all the same,” she said, after a moment. “However....” she shruggedhershoulderswithasortofrecklessnessthatmadeMickyfrown.She leanedbackinherchairwithsuddenweariness.“It’sverykindofyou,”shesaid disinterestedly. “It’snotkindatall,”hehastenedtoassureher.“I’mmuchmorepleasedtobe withyouthanyouaretobewithme.Ifithadn’tbeenforyouIshouldhavespent thiseveningalone––NewYear’sEve,too,”headded,withasortofchagrinanda suddenmemoryofMarieDeland. “NewYear’sEve!”sheechoed.She closedher eyesforamoment,andMicky hadanuncomfortablesortoffeelingthatshewaslookingbackontheyearthat was dying and could see nothing pleasant in the whole of the twelve months. Presentlysheopenedthemagainwithalittlesigh.“Well,Idon’twantanother yearlikethelastone,”shesaid. “Youwon’thave,”hetoldherpromptly.“I’vegotasortoffeelingthatthereare lotsofgoodthingscomingalongforyou.Theluckhastochangesometimeor other,andifyou’vehadarottentimeinthepastyouwon’thaveitinthefuture.” “Idon’tbelieveinluck,”shesaid. “Don’t you? I do,” Micky declared. He hated the despondency in her face; he felt a strong desire to see her smiling and happy. He rattled on, talking any nonsensethatcameintohishead. Thewaitercamedowntheroomandsetthedishesonthetable.Hegaveasortof supercilioussniffwhenMickyaskedforasaucerofmilkforthecat.Helooked at Charlie with scorn––Charlie, curled up on the girl’s lap now and purring lustily. “Of course, you know, we really ought to have a bottle of wine,” Micky said dubiously.“Justsomethingcheap,asit’sNewYear’sEve.” He would like to have given her champagne, but dared not suggest it. He was quitesurethatifsheknewhewasarichmanshewouldflyoffatatangent.He orderedaninexpensivebottleofredwineandfilledherglass. “Well, here’s luck to the New Year,” he said sententiously. “And to our delightfullyunexpectedmeeting,”headded. Sheflusheduptohereyes. “Areyoualwaysaskindtopeopleasyouhavebeentome?”sheaskedtensely.
Mickyblushed. “Oh,Isay!”heprotested.“Youdon’tcallthisbeingkind,doyou?Iassureyou it’s just pure selfishness. I should have spent my evening alone if we hadn’t met––and I hate being alone; I bore myself stiff in five minutes. I’m just–– honoured that you should have allowed me to eat my supper with you. If you knew how beastly fed-up I was feeling ... the world seemed a positively loathsomeplace.” She laughed; she leaned her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands, lookingathimwiththoughtfuleyes. “Areyoupoor?”sheaskedwithdisarmingfrankness. “Poor as a church mouse,” said Micky promptly. “At least”––he hastened to amendhiswords––“I’moneofthoseunfortunatebeggarswhospendmoneyas fastastheygetit.I’veneversavedahalfpennyinmylife.” Thisatleastwasthetruth. Shenodded. “NeitherhaveI––I’veneverhadonetosave....” Thedespondencywasbackagaininhervoice;Mickybrokeinhastily–– “BeforewegoanyfurtherIthinkweoughttoknowoneanother’snames.”He fumbledinapocketforacard,butchangedhismindquickly,rememberingthat his cards bore the address of the expensive flat which he honoured with his presence.“MynameisMellowes,”hesaid.“I’vegotseveralChristiannamesas well,butpeoplecallmeMicky....”Hewaited,lookingatherexpectantly.“Won’t youtellmeyours?”heasked. Shewasstaringdownatherplate.Hecouldseethedarkfringeoflashesagainst hercheeks.Suddenlyshelookedup. “Whydoyouwanttoknowmyname?Weshallnevermeetagain,I–––” Mickyleanedalittleforward. “Ifwedon’t,”hesaidquietly,“itwillbethegreatestdisappointmentIhaveever had.” Shelookedathimwithasortoffear. “You don’t mean that,” she said, with a catch in her voice. “You don’t really mean that ... you’re just one of those men who say things like that to every
woman you–––” She broke off, struck by the chagrin in Micky’s face. “No––I oughtn’ttohavesaidthat,”shewentonhurriedly.“Ibegyourpardon...Iought nottohavesaidit,andIwilltellyoumynameifyoureallywanttoknow.My nameisEsther––EstherShepstone.” “Thank you!” said Micky. “And now we’re going to drink to good resolutions fortheNewYear...haveyoumadeoneyet?” Sheshookherhead. “What’stheuse?Besides...Idon’twanttomakeany.” “Verywell,then,I’llmakeoneforyou.”Herefilledherglassandhandeditto her. “Now say after me: ‘I resolve that during the coming year I will be good friendswithMickyMellowes–––’Oh,Isay,don’t––pleasedon’t....” She had dropped her face in her hands again, and Micky had a miserable convictionthatshewascrying. But he was wrong, for presently she looked up again, and her eyes were dry, thoughalittlehardandbright. “Idon’tbelieveinaman’sfriendshipforawoman,”shesaid.“ButI’llsayit,if youlike,”andshetooktheglassfromhishand. “And to-morrow,” said Micky presently, “I’m going to take you out to tea or something––ifImay,”headdedhurriedly. Hewaited,butshedidnotspeak.“MayI?”heasked. Shewastwistingthestemofherwineglassnervously;afteramomentshebegan tospeakjerkily. “When I came out to-night I didn’t mean to go back any more,” she said. Her voicewaslowandfullofawearybitterness.“IwassounhappyIdidn’twantto live.”Shecaughtherbreath.“Ifithadn’tbeenforyou”––shewaslookingathim now with shame in her eyes. “If it hadn’t been for you I shouldn’t have gone back––ever–––”sheadded.“Butnow....” “But now,” said Micky as she paused, “you’re going back, and we’re going to startthenewyear––friends,youandI!Isthatabargain?”heasked. “Yes....” OutsideMickyhailedataxicab. “You’remuchtootiredtowalk,”hesaidwhensheprotested.“Anditwillbea
newexperienceforCharlie,”headdedwithatwinkle. Heputherintothecab,andstoodforamomentatthedoor. “Andtheaddress?”heasked. Shehesitated,lookingawayfromhim;thensuddenlyshetoldhim. “It’s Brixton Road––it’s––it’s a very horrid boarding-house,” she added with a half-sigh. “Boarding-houses are all horrid,” said Micky cheerily. “But I’ll come down myselfto-morrowandseehowbaditreallyis.” Hetriedtoseeherface. “ShallyoubeinifIcomeintheafternoon?”heaskedanxiously. “Yes.” “Aboutfour,then,”saidMicky.Hegropedforherhand,foundit,andpressedit. “Good-night,”hesaid. “Good-night.” AndthenextmomentMickywasaloneinthestarlight. He stood looking after the taxi with a queer sense of unreality. Had he just dreamtitall,andwastherereallynosuchgirlasEstherShepstone?NoCharlie? He shook himself together with a laugh. Of course it was real, all of it! He walkedonsoberlythroughthecoldnight. To-morrowhewouldgototheveryhorridboarding-houseintheBrixtonRoad andseeheragain. Esther!Helikedhername;therewassomethingquaintandold-worldaboutit.It seemedimpossiblethattheyhadonlymetafewhoursago. Hisheadachehadquitevanished.Hewaswhistlingasnatchofsongwhenhelet himselfintothehouseandwentupstairs. Heopenedthedoorofhissitting-room,andthenstoppeddeadonthethreshold. The lights were burning fully, and a man was ensconced in his favourite armchairbythefire––Ashton.Lord!hehadforgottenallaboutAshton. Mickylookedguiltilyattheclock––nearlyeleven!––hebeganahalf-apology. “Awfullysorry,oldman––Iwaskept....Beenwaitinglong?”
“Igothereatten.” Ashton climbed out of the chair and looked at Micky with a sort of shamefacedness. “Don’ttakeyourcoatoff,”hesaidsuddenly.“Iwantyoutocomeoutagain–––” “Out!Now!Lookatthetime,man!” “Iknow––it’sonlyeleven....I’mcatchingthemidnighttoDover....” Mickystared. “Dover!Whatintheworld....” Ashtonturnedroundandlookeddownatthefirewithasortofembarrassment. “It’sthemater,”hesaidjerkily.“She’sfoundout–––” Mickylookedpuzzled. “Foundout!Whatonearth....” Ashtonmadeanimpatientgesture.Hewasagood-lookingman,withdarkeyes thatcouldlookallmannerofthingswithoutintheleastmeaningthem. “AboutthatgirlatEldred’s,”hesaidinastrangledvoice.“Youknow!Itoldyou about her. Lord, man, don’t look so confoundedly ignorant! I told you about her,” he broke off. “Well, some one’s told the mater, and this morning....” he shruggedhisshoulders.“There’sbeenoldHarrytopay!ShetoldmeifIdidn’t giveherupshe’dcutmeoutofherwill.Shewould,too!”headded,insavage parenthesis. “Well!andwhatdidyousay?” Ashtonlookedround. “Hangitall!whatcouldIsay?ToldherIwould,ofcourse.” Therewasasharpsilence. “Ithoughtyoulikedthegirl,”saidMickybluntly. Theothermanwinced. “So I did––so I do.... It’s a rotten shame. If you’d ever seen her ... you never have,haveyou?” “No.” “Neitherhasthemater....Womenareallthesame;becausethegirlhastowork
for her living they think she isn’t fit for me to marry.... It’s all a lot of rot.... However––beggarscan’tbechoosers––andsoI’moffto-night.” Mickylookedathimkeenly. “Youmeanthatyou’regoingwithoutawordtothegirl?” “What can I do?––I went and saw her this morning––we had a rotten scene. I meanttotellheritwasallup,butsomehowIcouldn’t;I’mtoodashedfondof her, and that’s the truth. I can’t bear to see her cry––it makes me feel such a cur....” Hewaitedamoment,butMickymadenocomment. “So the only thing is to clear out,” Ashton went on jerkily. “I can’t afford to quarrel with the mater, you know that.... Perhaps some day....” He stopped. “Afterall,shecan’tliveforever,”headdedbrutally. Mickysaidnothing. “So I’m off to-night,” Ashton went on with an effort. “I wanted to see you––I knewIcouldtrustyou....”Hefumbledinapocket.“There’saletterhere....I’ve written––Icouldn’tseeheragain.IknowI’macoward,but...well,thereitis!” Hethrewtheletterdownonthetable. “Willyougoandseeher,oldchap,andgiveherthat?”heaskedwithaneffort. “TellherI––oh,tellherwhatyoulike,”hewentonfiercely.“TellherthatifI couldaffordit....” Hestoppedagain,andthistimethesilencewasunbrokenforsomeminutes. Thenherousedhimselfandpickeduphiscoat.“Well,Imustbegettingalong.I leftmybaggageatthestation.” HelookedatMicky.“IsupposeyouthinkI’maninfernalsweep,eh?”heasked curtly. “No,”saidMicky. HehadalwaysexpectedthatAshton’sromancewouldendlikethis,andhefelt vaguelysorryforthegirl,thoughhehadneverseenher.Shemusthaveexpected it, too, he thought. She must have known Ashton’s position all along. He followedhisfriendoutoftheroom. “Youhaven’ttoldmeheraddress,”hesaidsuddenly. Hedecidedthatitwouldbebettertosendtheletter––hedidnotwanttoseeher.
HehatedasceneasmuchasAshtondid. Ashtonwasatthetopofthestairs. “It’sontheletter.Whathaveyoudonewithit?” Therewasanirritablenoteinhisvoice.“Don’tleaveitlyingthereforthatman ofyourstosee.” Micky went back into the room. The letter lay on the table where Ashton had thrownitdown. He picked it up, glancing casually at the written address as he did so. Then suddenlyhistallfigurestiffened,andacuriouslyblanklookfilledhiseyes,for thenamescribbledthereinAshton’swritingwas–– “MissEstherShepstone,”and,belowit,thenumberoftheveryhorridboardinghouseintheBrixtonRoad.
CHAPTERII Micky stood staring at the envelope in his hand. He felt as if something had happenedtoparalyseallpowerofaction. Esther Shepstone and Ashton’s girl from Eldred’s were one and the same; that wasallhecouldgrasp,anditsoundedabsurdandimpossible. Hehadheardsomuchofthisgirl––Ashtonhadtalkedabouthertimeswithout number––Lalliehehadcalledher;nowhecametothinkofit,Mickycouldnot remember having ever heard her spoken of by any other name; and Lallie and EstherShepstonewereoneandthesame. Wasthis,then,whyshehadcried,becauseofAshton...? Ashtoncalledtohimimpatientlyfromthestairs. “Whatthedeuceareyoudoing?Ishallmissmytrain.” Mickyrousedhimselfwithastart,and,droppingtheletterintohispocket,went slowly out of the room; he felt as if he could not have hurried had his life dependeduponit;therewasanabsurdlycoldsortoffeelingroundhisheart. Itwasridiculous,ofcourse;itwasnothingtohimifthegirlwithwhomhehad dinedanhouragolovedAshton;hehadneverseenherbefore.Thatsoundedan absurd truth, too; it seemed impossible that until this evening he and she had nevermet. “Forheaven’ssake,hurryup,man,”saidAshtonagainsharply. Hewasatthebottomofthestairs;thefaceheturnedoverhisshouldertoMicky lookedpaleandharassed. Mickyquickenedhisstepsandjoinedhisfriendintheporchbelow;theystood togetheroutonthepathwaitingforataxicab. 19 MickyglancedatAshtonwithacurioussenseofunreality;hefeltasifhehad never seen him before; it seemed impossible that this Ashton could know Esther––andCharlie!
Ataxicabdrewuptothekerb;Ashtonbangedopenthedoorandgotin.Micky followed,andtheydrovesomewayinsilence. “I’ll take thundering good care I don’t stay away long,” Ashton said suddenly, withasortofgrowl.“AndifthematerthinksitwillmakemeforgetLallie–––” “IthoughthernamewasEsther,”saidMickyquietly.Hewaslookingoutofthe windowintothestarrynight. “So it is––but I always call her Lallie.” He looked at his friend with a sort of vaguesuspicion.“Howdoyouknowwhathernameis?”heasked. “Isawitontheletteryougaveme.” Ashtongrunted. “Ithinkitwouldbebetterifyoupostedittoheryourselfandhavedonewithit,” Mickysaidwithaneffort.“I’marottenhandatthissortofthing.Itcan’tdoany goodifIgoandseeher.” “Yousaidyouwouldgo––youmightbeasportandsticktoyourword,”Ashton protested.“I’ddothesameforyouanyday.” Mickyratherdoubtedit,butdidnotliketosayso. “IfyouknewhowsickIamaboutthewholebusiness,”Ashtonwentonjerkily. “You may not believe me, but I tell you, Micky, that I’d marry that girl tomorrowifonly–––” “Ifonly––what?”Mickyaskedashepaused. “Oh, you know! What the dickens can I do without a bob to my name except whatthematerchoosestodoleout?Itellyou,”hewentonwithasortofsnarl, “it’llbeverydifferentwhenIgetthemoney.Gad!ifonlyI’dgotitnow!” “Money isn’t everything,” said Micky sententiously. “And if you like the girl, whynotmarryherandfaceitout?” Ashtongaveasavagelittlelaugh. “It’sallveryfineforyoutosaythatmoneyisn’teverything––that’sonlybecause you’vegotit,andareneverlikelytobewithoutit.Youdon’tknowwhatitfeels liketobeuptoyoureyesindebtandnotknowingwheretoturnforafiver.Bah! what’sthegoodoftalking?”Heletdownthewindowwitharun,turninghisface tothekeennightair. Theywerenearingtheirdestination,andtherewasstillsomethinghewantedto
saytoMickywhichsofar,hehadbeenafraidtoputintowords. “Well, I suppose I shan’t be seeing you again for a bit,” he said, with rather a forcedlaugh.“You’vebeenagoodpaltome,Micky–––” Mickysaid“Rot!”rathershortly;hefrownedinthedarkness;Ashtongotonhis nerves;heratherwishedhehadnotcometoseehimoff. “Oh,butyouhave––whetheryoulikemetosaysoornot,”theothermanwent on obstinately.“And––and there’sonelastthingI’mgoingtoask youbeforeI go....” Hewaited,butMickydidnotspeak. The taxi was turning into the station yard now, moving slowly because of the congestedtraffic. “IfyoucouldgiveLalliesomemoney,”Ashtonwentonwitharush.“I’dsend hersome,butI’veonlyjustgotenoughtogetoutofthewaywith.I’llpayyou backassoonasthematercondescendstosendmeanothercheque....” Micky’sfacefelthot. “Hasn’tshe––hasn’tshegotany,then?”heaskedwithaneffort. “No––atleastIpromisedhersomewhenIsawherthismorning.She––she’sleft Eldred’s.Yousee”––hedrewahardbreath––“yousee,Ihopedwe’dbeableto getmarried,andso––well,therewasnosenseinherstayingonthere.Shewas workedtodeath,poorkid.” HeglancedatMicky,butcouldnotseehisface. “You understand, don’t you?” he said, encouraged by his silence. “She owes themabitattheboarding-housewheresheisliving.Ipromisedtowipeitofffor her,butthematercuttinguproughalteredeverything,andso...ifyoucouldgive heralittle–––” “I’llseetoit,”saidMicky.Heopenedthedoorofthetaxiandgotoutbeforeit was at a standstill. He took off his hat and let the cold air play on his hot forehead.Hecouldhardlytrusthimselftospeak. HewasthankfulwhenAshtonwentofftoseetohisluggage.Hewalkedintothe station and found himself aimlessly staring at a notice board. He could not rememberwhenhehadfeltsofuriouslyangry. HadAshtonchanged?hewasaskinghimselfinbewilderment.Orwasitmerely thathehadneverseenthemanhereallywasuntilto-night?
HetriedtorememberwhatAshtonhadtoldhimaboutEstherShepstoneinthe past.ThatshehadbeenatEldred’sheknew,andthatEldred’swasaplacewhere women bought silk petticoats and things he also knew. He had heard Marie Delandandherfriendstalkingaboutitlotsoftimes.Mariehadonceinvitedhim toaccompanyhertherewhentheyhadbeenouttogether,buthehadrefusedand hadwaitedoutsideforher.Nowhecametothinkofit,thatwasaboutallAshton hadevertoldhimofEstherShepstone. He knew that Ashton had been seen about with her a great deal; knew that he had had to stand a lot of harmless chaff in consequence; he himself had joked about Ashton’s “latest” as they had all called her: it seemed a memory to be ashamedof,whenhethoughtofthewayhehadheardhersobbinginthestreet that night, of the distress in her eyes, of the hopeless way in which she had spoken. Ashtonrejoinedhim. “Buckup!Thetrain’sin.” They went along the platform, followed by a porter with Ashton’s baggage. Mickylookedatitresentfully;Ashtonwasevidentlypreparedtoenjoyhimself; thiswasnorushaftermeresolitudeandforgetfulness. HestoodstifflyatthecarriagedoorwhileAshtonstowedhissmallertrapsonthe rack.Presentlyhecametothewindow. “You’lldothebestyoucan,won’tyou,oldman?”Therewasarealanxietyin hiseyes,butMickywasnotlookingathim;heansweredstiffly–– “Yes,I’lldowhatIcan.” “She’ll soon get another job,” Ashton went on, with forced confidence. “I’m sorry she left Eldred’s, now it’s come to this, but how was I to know?” he appealed to Micky, but he might as well have appealed to a brick wall for all responsehegot. “And when I come back–––” he said again. “Tell her that when I come back manythingsmaybeallrightagain...tellherthat,willyou?” “I’lltellher,”saidMickystolidly. Theguardwasblowinghiswhistlenow,doorswerebeingshut. Mickyrousedhimselfandlookedathisfriend. “Areyou––er––areyougoingtowritetoher?”heaskedconstrainedly.
Ashtoncoloured. “No––it’sbetternot––farbetterletthethingdroptillIcomeback.I’veexplained it all in my letter––she’ll understand. It’s no use writing––don’t you think it’s betternot–––” Mickyhunchedhisshoulders. “It’syouraffair,”hesaidlaconically. “Yes, well, I shan’t write––I’ll send you my address as soon as I know where I’mstaying,andyoucanletmeknowwhatshesaidandhowshetakesit....Oh, confoundit!” A porter had come along and slammed the door; the train was slowly moving; Mickywasvaguelygladthattherehadbeennotimeinwhichtoshakehands.A moment,andhewaswalkingawayalonedowntheplatform. His hands were deep thrust in the pockets of his coat; he took no notice of anything;hewalkedonandoutofthestation. Well,thishadbeenaneventfulNewYear’sEvewithavengeance;heglancedup attheclockinthedomebehindhim––onlyaquartertotwelvenow,andyetso much had been crowded into the past four hours. Since the moment when the Delandsranguptocancelhisengagementtodineheseemedtohavesteppedout oftheoldworldintoanew.HewonderedwhatEstherShepstonewasdoingin theveryhorridboarding-houseofwhichshehadtoldhim––ifshewasthinking ofAshton. What a cad the man was, what a cad!––he was amazed that he had not discovered it before––to clear off and leave a girl like this, without a word of farewellexcepttheletter.Hewonderedifhemeanttodeliveritandadmitthathe knewAshton,orifhemeantjusttostickastamponandpostittoher. Herealisedthattherewasnothingverymuchtobeproudofinanadmissionthat heknewAshton,andyettheyhadbeenfriendsforyears. Itwasstrikingtwelvewhenhegothome;hestoodforamomentonthedoorstep, lookingupatthestarrysky. Severalclockswerechimingmidnightinthedistance;helistenedwithaqueer senseoffatalism. ThiswasthestrangestNewYear’sEvehehadeverspentinhislife.Atthishour lastyearhehadbeendancingtheoldyearout,andto-night,hadthingsgoneas
hehadthought,hewouldhavebeensomewherewithMarieDeland––hemight evenhaveproposedtoherbythistime.Hesmiledfaintly,rememberingthatthe intention had really been somewhere in the background of his mind; but that, too,hadfadedoutnowtogiveplacetoother,moreimportant,factors. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve! He counted the strokes mechanically; there was a breathlesspause,thentheclashofbells. Someirrepressiblesinablockofflatsnearbyraisedacheer;thefrontdoorofa house opposite was open, and Micky caught a glimpse of a crowded hall and black-coatedmenandgirlsinprettyfrocks. He felt strangely removed from all the noise and laughter; after a moment he turnedandwentuptohisroom. Thefirehadbeencarefullymadeupandhisslippersanddressing-gownputto warm.Mickylookedatthemwithasortofdisgust;itwassickeningforahealthy grown man to be so pampered; he kicked the slippers into a corner and tossed thedressing-gownontothecouch. He wondered what sort of a room Esther Shepstone had in the very horrid boarding-house––whatoddcornerthethinblackcatcurledintotosleep. HetookAshton’sletterfromhispocketandstuckitupagainsttheclockonthe mantelshelf. “MissEstherShepstone....” Itwasfate,that’swhatitwas!Hewonderedifshewouldeverhavelivedtoget thatletterhadfatenotthrownheracrosshispaththatnight. Shehadbeendesperate––attheendofhertether,andallforthesakeofthatcad Ashton. Heturnedhisbackontheletterandlitacigarette,butheletitgooutalmostat once, and turned back again to stare once more at the name scrawled on the envelope. What had Ashton written to her? It worried him because he did not know. Ashtonhadhadotherlove-affairs––notquitesuchseriousones,perhaps,butstill seriousenough––andMickyknewthatwhenhehadweariedofthemhehadset about getting free of them by the shortest route, caring little if it were also a brutalone.HethoughtofthedespairhehadseeninEsther’sfacethatevening; hedreadedthattheremightbesomethinginAshton’sfarewellletterthatwould plungeherbackmoredeeplyintohermisery.
ItwasNewYear’smorning,andperhaps,ifhesentthatletter...Hestoodquite stillforamoment,staringatit;thensuddenlyhethrewhiscigaretteintothefire andsnatchedtheletterdownfromtheshelf. He tore it open impulsively and drew out the enclosure. He unfolded it and began to read. The silence of the room was unbroken save for the little crisp soundas Mickyturnedthepaper;thentheletterflutteredtotherugathis feet and lay there, half-curled up, as if it were ashamed of the words it bore and wishedtohidethem. Micky raised his eyes and looked at his reflection in the glass above the mantelshelf. The pallor of his face surprised him, and the look of passionate angerinhiseyes. He was a man of the world. He was no better and no worse than many of the men whom he knew and called his friends, but this letter, in its brutal callousness,seemedtoshamehisverymanhood. HehadlikedAshton,hadbeenhisconstantcompanionformonths,buthehad neversuspectedhimofbeingcapableofthis. Hesupposedheoughttobeashamedofhavingopenedtheletter,buthewasnot ashamed;hewasgladthathehadbeenabletosparethegirlthislastandhardest blow of all––the knowledge that the man whom she loved and trusted was unworthy. Presentlyhepickedtheletterupfromtherug.Hepickeditupwiththetipsofhis fingers,asifitweresomethingrepulsivetohim,andthrewitdownonthetable. Thefirstfewwordsstaredupathimasitlaythere. “DEARLALLIE,––BythetimeyougetthisletterIshallbeoutofEngland, andIhopeyouwon’tmakethingsworseformethantheyalreadyareby trying to find out where I have gone or by writing to my people and making a scene. The worst of these little flirtations is that they always havetoend,asthismust,andyoumusthaveknownit.”... 26 Micky drew in his breath hard; not an hour ago in this very room Ashton had madeouthowcut-uphewasattheturnhisaffairshadtaken,andyetallthetime hehadwrittenthisletter.