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The phantom lover


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Title:ThePhantomLover
Author:RubyM.Ayres
ReleaseDate:October19,2009[EBook#30286]
Language:English

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THE

PHANTOMLOVER
BY


RUBYM.AYRES
AUTHOROF

ABACHELORHUSBAND,
THESCAR,ETC.
emblem
NEWYORK

GROSSET&DUNLAP
PUBLISHERS
MadeintheUnitedStatesofAmerica


COPYRIGHT,1921,BY

W.J.WATT&COMPANY
PrintedintheUnitedStatesofAmerica


DEDICATED
TOMYFRIEND

JanetMoore
THEREAL‘JUNEMASON’
INTHISSTORY


THEPHANTOMLOVER
3


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.

Itwasacold,clearnight,withmyriadsofstarsinthedarkskythatseemedto
shedafaintlyluminouslighttoearth,brightenoughatalleventsforMickyto
distinguishthefigureofagirlwalkingslowlyalongthepathwaybelow.
Shewaswalkingsoslowlyanddispiritedlythatasortofvaguecuriositystirred
inMicky’sheart;here,atleast,wassomeoneevenmorefed-upwithlifethanhe
himself,andwithasuddenimpulseheturnedfromthewindow,and,snatching
upahatandcoatwhichhehadthrowndownwhenhecameinanhourearlier,
madeforthestairs.


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.


Outinthenightthebellswerestillringingjoyously.

25

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.

Heflickedoverapageandreadon:––


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