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Chapter 6

  • If he had meant to speak he changed his mind after his first sight of her. H_erely came in and closed the door behind him. Curious experiences with whic_ife had provided him had added finish to an innate aptness of observation, and a fine readiness in action.
  • If she had been of another type he would have saved both her and himself _cene and steered ably through the difficulties of the situation towards _oint where they could have met upon a normal plane. A very pretty woman wit_hose affairs one has nothing whatever to do, and whose pretty home has bee_he perfection of modern smartness of custom, suddenly opening her front doo_n the unexplained absence of a footman and confronting a visitor, plainl_pon the verge of hysteria, suggests the necessity of promptness.
  • But Feather gave him not a breath's space. She was in fact not merely on th_erge of her hysteria. She had gone farther. And here he was. Oh, here he was!
  • She fell down upon her knees and actually clasped his immaculateness.
  • "Oh, Lord Coombe! Lord Coombe! Lord Coombe!" She said it three times becaus_e presented to her but the one idea.
  • He did not drag himself away from her embrace but he distinctly remove_imself from it.
  • "You must not fall upon your knees, Mrs. Lawless," he said. "Shall we go int_he drawing-room?"
  • "I—was writing to you. I am starving—but it seemed too silly when I wrote it.
  • And it's true!" Her broken words were as senseless in their sound as she ha_hought them when she saw them written.
  • "Will you come up into the drawing-room and tell me exactly what you mean," h_aid and he made her release him and stand upon her feet.
  • As the years had passed he had detached himself from so many weaknesses an_heir sequelae of emotion that he had felt himself a safely unreachabl_erson. He was not young and he knew enough of the disagreeableness o_onsequences to be adroit in keeping out of the way of apparently harmles_hings which might be annoying. Yet as he followed Mrs. Gareth-Lawless an_atched her stumbling up the stairs like a punished child he was aware that h_as abnormally in danger of pitying her as he did not wish to pity people. Th_ity was also something apart from the feeling that it was hideous that _reature so lovely, so shallow and so fragile should have been caught in th_reat wheels of Life.
  • He knew what he had come to talk to her about but he had really no clear ide_f what her circumstances actually were. Most people had of course guesse_hat her husband had been living on the edge of his resources and wa_ccustomed to debt and duns, but a lovely being greeting you by clasping you_nees and talking about "starving"—in this particular street in Mayfair, le_ne to ask oneself what one was walking into. Feather herself had not known, in fact neither had any other human being known, that there was a specia_eason why he had drifted into seeming rather to allow her about—why he ha_inally been counted among the frequenters of the narrow house—and why he ha_eemed to watch her a good deal sometimes with an expression of seriou_nterest—sometimes with an air of irritation, and sometimes with no expressio_t all. But there existed this reason and this it was and this alone which ha_aused him to appear upon her threshold and it had also been the power whic_ad prevented his disengaging himself with more incisive finality when h_ound himself ridiculously clasped about the knees as one who played the par_f an obdurate parent in a melodrama.
  • Once in the familiar surroundings of her drawing-room her ash-gold blondnes_nd her black gauzy frock heightened all her effects so extraordinarily tha_e frankly admitted to himself that she possessed assets which would hav_odified most things to most men.
  • As for Feather, when she herself beheld him against the background of the sam_ntimate aspects, the effect of the sound of his voice, the manner in which h_at down in a chair and a certain remotely dim hint in the hue of his clothe_nd an almost concealed note of some touch of colour which scarcely seemed t_elong to anything worn—were so reminiscent of the days which now seemed pas_orever that she began to cry again.
  • He received this with discreet lack of melodrama of tone.
  • "You mustn't do that, Mrs. Lawless," he said, "or I shall burst into tear_yself. I am a sensitive creature."
  • "Oh, DO say 'Feather' instead of Mrs. Lawless," she implored.
  • "Sometimes you said 'Feather'."
  • "I will say it now," he answered, "if you will not weep. It is an adorabl_ame."
  • "I feel as if I should never hear it again," she shuddered, trying to dry he_yes. "It is all over!"
  • "What is all over?"
  • "This—!" turning a hopeless gaze upon the two tiny rooms crowded with knick- knacks and nonsense. "The parties and the fun—and everything in the world! _ave only had some biscuits and raisins to eat today—and the landlord is goin_o turn me out."
  • It seemed almost too preposterous to quite credit that she was uttering nake_ruth.—And yet—! After a second's gaze at her be repeated what he had sai_elow stairs.
  • "Will you tell me exactly what you mean?"
  • Then he sat still and listened while she poured it all forth. And as h_istened he realized that it was the mere every day fact that they wer_itting in the slice of a house with the cream-coloured front and the grea_ady in her mansion on one side and the millionaire and his splendours on th_ther, which peculiarly added to a certain hint of gruesomeness in th_ituation.
  • It was not necessary to add colour and desperation to the story. Any effor_eather had made in that direction would only have detracted from th_akedness of its stark facts. They were quite enough in themselves in thei_ormal inevitableness. Feather in her pale and totally undignified pani_resented the whole thing with clearness which had—without being aided b_er—an actual dramatic value. This in spite of her mental dartings to and fro_nd dragging in of points and bits of scenes which were not connected wit_ach other. Only a brain whose processes of inclusion and exclusion were fina_nd rapid could have followed her. Coombe watched her closely as she talked.
  • No grief-stricken young widowed loneliness and heart-break were the backgroun_f her anguish. She was her own background and also her own foreground. Th_trength of the fine body laid prone on the bed of the room she held i_orror, the white rigid face whose good looks had changed to something sh_ould not bear to remember, had no pathos which was not concerned with th_act that Robert had amazingly and unnaturally failed her by dying and leavin_er nothing but unpaid bills. This truth indeed made the situation mor_oignantly and finally squalid, as she brought forth one detail after another.
  • There were bills which had been accumulating ever since they began their lif_n the narrow house, there had been trades-people who had been juggled with, promises made and supported by adroit tricks and cleverly invente_isrepresentations and lies which neither of the pair had felt an_ompunctions about and had indeed laughed over. Coombe saw it all though h_lso saw that Feather did not know all she was telling him. He could realiz_he gradually increasing pressure and anger at tricks which betraye_hemselves, and the gathering determination on the part of the creditors t_nd the matter in the only way in which it could be ended. It had come to thi_efore Robert's illness, and Feather herself had heard of fierce interview_nd had seen threatening letters, but she had not believed they could mean al_hey implied. Since things had been allowed to go on so long she felt tha_hey would surely go on longer in the same way. There had been some seriou_hreatening about the rent and the unpaid-for furniture. Robert's supportin_dea had been that he might perhaps "get something out of Lawdor who wouldn'_njoy being the relation of a fellow who was turned into the street!"
  • "He ought to have done something," Feather plained. "Robert would have bee_ord Lawdor himself if his uncle had died before he had all those disgustin_hildren."
  • She was not aware that Coombe frequently refrained from saying things t_er—but occasionally allowed himself NOT to refrain. He did not refrain no_rom making a simple comment.
  • "But he is extremely robust and he has the children. Six stalwart boys and _talwart girl. Family feeling has apparently gone out of fashion."
  • As she wandered on with her story he mentally felt himself actually dragge_nto the shrimp-pink bedroom and standing an onlooker when the footman outsid_he door "did not know" where Tonson had gone. For a moment he felt consciou_f the presence of some scent which would have been sure to exhale itself fro_raperies and wardrobe. He saw Cook put the account books on the small table, he heard her, he also comprehended her. And Feather at the window breathlessl_atching the two cabs with the servants' trunks on top, and the servant_espectably unprofessional in attire and going away quietly without a_npractical compunction—he saw these also and comprehended knowing exactly wh_ompunctions had no part in latter-day domestic arrangements. Why should they?
  • When Feather reached the point where it became necessary to refer to Robi_ome fortunate memory of Alice's past warnings caused her to feel—quit_uddenly—that certain details might be eliminated.
  • "She cried a little at first," she said, "but she fell asleep afterwards. _as glad she did because I was afraid to go to her in the dark."
  • "Was she in the dark?"
  • "I think so. Perhaps Louisa taught her to sleep without a light.
  • There was none when I took her some condensed milk this morning.
  • There was only c-con-d-densed milk to give her."
  • She shed tears and choked as she described her journey into the lower region_nd the cockroaches scuttling away before her into their hiding-places.
  • "I MUST have a nurse! I MUST have one!" she almost sniffed. "Someone mus_hange her clothes and give her a bath!"
  • "You can't?" Coombe said.
  • "I!" dropping her handkerchief. "How—how CAN I?"
  • "I don't know," he answered and picked up the handkerchief with an aloof grac_f manner.
  • It was really Robin who was for Feather the breaking-point.
  • He thought she was in danger of flinging herself upon him again. She caught a_is arm and her eyes of larkspur blue were actually wild.
  • "Don't you see where I am! How there is nothing and nobody—Don't you SEE?"
  • "Yes, I see," he answered. "You are quite right. There is nothing AND nobody. I have been to Lawdor myself."
  • "You have been to TALK to him?"
  • "Yesterday. That was my reason for coming here. He will not see you or b_ritten to. He says he knows better to begin that sort of thing. It may b_hat family feeling has not the vogue it once had, but you may recall tha_our husband infuriated him years ago. Also England is a less certain quantit_han it once was—and the man has a family. He will allow you a hundred a yea_ut there he draws the line."
  • "A hundred a year!" Feather breathed. From her delicate shoulders hun_loating scarf-like sleeves of black transparency and she lifted one of the_nd held it out like a night moth's wing—"This cost forty pounds," she said, her voice quite faint and low. "A good nurse would cost forty! A cook—and _ootman and a maid—and a coachman—and the brougham—I don't know how much the_ould cost. Oh-h!"
  • She drooped forward upon her sofa and laid face downward on a cushion—slim, exquisite in line, lost in despair.
  • The effect produced was that she gave herself into his hands. He felt as wel_s saw it and considered. She had no suggestion to offer, no reserve. Ther_he was.
  • "It is an incredible sort of situation," he said in an even, low-pitched ton_ather as if he were thinking aloud, "but it is baldly real. It is actuall_imple. In a street in Mayfair a woman and child might—" He hesitated a secon_nd a wailed word came forth from the cushion.
  • "Starve!"
  • He moved slightly and continued.
  • "Since their bills have not been paid the trades-people will not send in food.
  • Servants will not stay in a house where they are not fed and receive no wages.
  • No landlord will allow a tenant to occupy his property unless he pays rent. I_ay sound inhuman—but it is only human."
  • The cushion in which Feather's face was buried retained a faint scent o_obert's cigar smoke and the fragrance brought back to her things she ha_eard him say dispassionately about Lord Coombe as well as about other men. H_ad not been a puritanic or condemnatory person. She seemed to see hersel_roveling again on the floor of her bedroom and to feel the darkness an_ilence through which she had not dared to go to Robin.
  • Not another night like that! No! No!
  • "You must go to Jersey to your mother and father," Coombe said.
  • "A hundred a year will help you there in your own home."
  • Then she sat upright and there was something in her lovely little countenanc_e had never seen before. It was actually determination.
  • "I have heard," she said, "of poor girls who were driven—by starvation to—t_o on the streets. I—would go ANYWHERE before I would go back there."
  • "Anywhere!" he repeated, his own countenance expressing—or rather refusing t_xpress something as new as the thing he had seen in her own.
  • "Anywhere!" she cried and then she did what he had thought her on the verge o_oing a few minutes earlier—she fell at his feet and embraced his knees. Sh_lung to him, she sobbed, her pretty hair loosened itself and fell about he_n wild but enchanting disorder.
  • "Oh, Lord Coombe! Oh, Lord Coombe! Oh, Lord Coombe!" she cried as she ha_ried in the hall.
  • He rose and endeavoured to disengage himself as he had done before. This tim_ith less success because she would not let him go. He had the greates_ossible objection to scenes.
  • "Mrs. Lawless—Feather—I beg you will get up," he said.
  • But she had reached the point of not caring what happened if she could kee_im. He was a gentleman—he had everything in the world. What did it matter?
  • "I have no one but you and—and you always seemed to like me, I would do anything—ANYONE asked me, if they would take care of me.
  • I have always liked you very much—and I did amuse you—didn't I?
  • You liked to come here."
  • There was something poignant about her delicate distraught loveliness and, i_he remoteness of his being, a shuddering knowledge that it was quite tru_hat she would do anything for any man who would take care of her, produced a_ffect on him nothing else would have produced. Also a fantastic and finel_ronic vision of Joseph and Potiphar's wife rose before him and the vision o_imself as Joseph irked a certain complexness of his mentality. Poignant a_he thing was in its modern way, it was also faintly ridiculous.
  • Then Robin awakened and shrieked again. The sound which had gained strengt_hrough long sleep and also through added discomfort quite rang through th_ouse. What that sound added to the moment he himself would not have been abl_o explain until long afterwards. But it singularly and impellingly added.
  • "Listen!" panted Feather. "She has begun again. And there is no one to go t_er."
  • "Get up, Mrs. Lawless," he said. "Do I understand that you are willing tha_I_  arrange this for you!"
  • He helped her to her feet.
  • "Do you mean—really!" she faltered. "Will you—will you—?"
  • Her uplifted eyes were like a young angel's brimming with crystal drops whic_lipped—as a child's tears slip—down her cheeks. She clasped her hands i_xquisite appeal. He stood for a moment quite still, his mind fled far awa_nd he forgot where he was. And because of this the little simpleton's shallo_iscretion deserted her.
  • "If you were a—a marrying man—?" she said foolishly—almost in a whisper.
  • He recovered himself.
  • "I am not," with a finality which cut as cleanly as a surgical knife.
  • Something which was not the words was of a succinctness which filled her wit_ew terror.
  • "I—I know!" she whimpered, "I only said if you were!"
  • "If I were—in this instance—it would make no difference." He saw the kind o_lippery silliness he was dealing with and what it might transform itself int_f allowed a loophole. "There must be no mistakes."
  • In her fright she saw him for a moment more distinctly than she had ever see_im before and hideous dread beset her lest she had blundered fatally.
  • "There shall be none," she gasped. "I always knew. There shall be none a_ll."
  • "Do you know what you are asking me?" he inquired.
  • "Yes, yes—I'm not a girl, you know. I've been married. I won't go home. _an't starve or live in awful lodgings. SOMEBODY must save me!"
  • "Do you know what people will say?" his steady voice was slightly lower.
  • "It won't be said to me." Rather wildly. "Nobody minds—really."
  • He ceased altogether to look serious. He smiled with the light detached ai_is world was most familiar with.
  • "No—they don't really," he answered. "I had, however, a slight preference fo_nowing whether you would or not. You flatter me by intimating that you woul_ot."
  • He knew that if he had held out an arm she would have fallen upon his breas_nd wept there, but he was not at the moment in the mood to hold out an arm.
  • He merely touched hers with a light pressure.
  • "Let us sit down and talk it over," he suggested.
  • A hansom drove up to the door and stopped before he had time to seat himself.
  • Hearing it he went to the window and saw a stout businesslike looking man ge_ut, accompanied by an attendant. There followed a loud, authoritative ringin_f the bell and an equally authoritative rap of the knocker. This repeate_tself. Feather, who had run to the window and caught sight of the stout man, clutched his sleeve.
  • "It's the agent we took the house from. We always said we were out. It'_ither Carson or Bayle. I don't know which."
  • Coombe walked toward the staircase.
  • "You can't open the door!" she shrilled.
  • "He has doubtless come prepared to open it himself." he answered and proceede_t leisure down the narrow stairway.
  • The caller had come prepared. By the time Coombe stood in the hall a latchke_as put in the keyhole and, being turned, the door opened to let in Carson—o_ayle—who entered with an air of angered determination, followed by his youn_an.
  • The physical presence of the Head of the House of Coombe was always describe_s a subtly impressive one. Several centuries of rather careful breeding ha_esulted in his seeming to represent things by silent implication. A man wh_as never found the necessity of explaining or excusing himself inevitabl_resents a front wholly unsuggestive of uncertainty. The front Coomb_resented merely awaited explanations from others.
  • Carson—or Bayle—had doubtless contemplated seeing a frightened servant tryin_o prepare a stammering obvious lie. He confronted a tall, thin man abou_hom—even if his clothes had been totally different—there could be no mistake.
  • He stood awaiting an apology so evidently that Carson—or Bayle—began t_tammer himself even before he had time to dismiss from his voice th_uggestion of bluster. It would have irritated Coombe immensely if he ha_nown that he—and a certain overcoat—had been once pointed out to the man a_andown and that—in consequence of the overcoat—he vaguely recognized him.
  • "I—I beg pardon," he began.
  • "Quite so," said Coombe.
  • "Some tenants came to look at the house this morning. They had an order t_iew from us. They were sent away, my lord—and decline to come back. The ren_as not been paid since the first half year. There is no one now who can eve_RETEND it's going to be paid. Some step had to be taken."
  • "Quite so," said Coombe. "Suppose you step into the dining-room."
  • He led the pair into the room and pointed to chairs, but neither the agent no_is attendant was calm enough to sit down.
  • Coombe merely stood and explained himself.
  • "I quite understand," he said. "You are entirely within your rights. Mrs.
  • Gareth-Lawless is, naturally, not able to attend to business. For th_resent—as a friend of her late husband's—I will arrange matters for her. I a_ord Coombe. She does not wish to give up the house. Don't send any mor_ossible tenants. Call at Coombe House in an hour and I will give you _heque."
  • There were a few awkward apologetic moments and then the front door opened an_hut, the hansom jingled away and Coombe returned to the drawing-room. Robi_as still shrieking.
  • "She wants some more condensed milk," he said. "Don't be frightened. Go an_ive her some. I know an elderly woman who understands children. She was _urse some years ago. I will send her here at once. Kindly give me the accoun_ooks. My housekeeper will send you some servants. The trades-people will com_or orders."
  • Feather was staring at him.
  • "W-will they?" she stammered. "W-will everything—?"
  • "Yes—everything," he answered. "Don't be frightened. Go upstairs and try t_top her. I must go now. I never heard a creature yell with such fury."
  • She turned away and went towards the second flight of stairs with a rathe_azed air. She had passed through a rather tremendous crisis and she WA_azed. He made her feel so. She had never understood him for a moment and sh_id not understand him now—but then she never did understand people and th_hole situation was a new one to her. If she had not been driven to the wal_he would have been quite as respectable as she knew how to be.
  • Coombe called a hansom and drove home, thinking of many things and lookin_ven more than usually detached. He had remarked the facial expression of th_hort and stout man as he had got into his cab and he was turning ove_entally his own exact knowledge of the views the business mind would hav_eld and what the business countenance would have decently covered i_e—Coombe—had explained in detail that he was so far—in this particula_ase—an entirely blameless character.