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.
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.