Neither life nor the lawn-tennis club was so full at Natterley that the news of Harry Sterling’s return had not some importance.
He came back, moreover, to assume a position very different from his old one. He had left Harrow now, departing in the sweet aroma of a long score against Eton at Lord’s, and was to go up to Oxford in October. Now between a schoolboy and a University man there is a gulf, indicated unmistakably by the cigarette which adorned Harry’s mouth as he walked down the street with a newly acquiescent father, and thoroughly realized by his old playmates. The young men greeted him as an equal, the boys grudgingly accepted his superiority, and the girls received him much as though they had never met him before in their lives and were pressingly in need of an introduction. These features of his reappearance amused Mrs. Mortimer; she recollected him as an untidy, shy, pretty boy; but mind, working on matter, had so transformed him that she was doubtful enough about him to ask her husband if that were really Harry Sterling.
Mr. Mortimer, mopping his bald head after one of his energetic failures at lawn tennis, grunted assent, and remarked that a few years more would see a like development in their elder son, a remark which bordered on absurdity; for Johnny was but eight, and ten years are not a few years to a lady of twenty-eight, whatever they may seem to a man of forty-four.
Presently Harry, shaking himself free from an entangling group of the Vicarage girls, joined his father, and the two came across to Mrs. Mortimer.
She was a favorite of old Sterling’s, and he was proud to present his handsome son to her. She listened graciously to his jocosities, stealing a glance at Harry when his father called him “a good boy.” Harry blushed and assumed an air of indifference, tossing his hair back from his smooth forehead, and swinging his racket carelessly in his hand. The lady addressed some words of patronizing kindness to him, seeking to put him at his ease. She seemed to succeed to some extent, for he let his father and her husband go off together, and sat down by her on the bench, regardless of the fact that the Vicarage girls were waiting for him to make a fourth.
He said nothing, and Mrs. Mortimer looked at him from under her long lashes; in so doing she discovered that he was looking at her.
“Aren’t you going to play any more, Mr. Sterling?” she asked.
“Why aren’t you playing?” he rejoined.
“My husband says I play too badly.”
“Oh, play with me! We shall make a good pair.”
“Then you must be very good.”
“Well, no one can play a hang here, you know. Besides I’m sure you’re all right, really.”
“You forget my weight of years.”
He opened his blue eyes a little, and laughed. He was, in fact, astonished to find that she was quite a young woman. Remembering old Mortimer and the babies, he had thought of her as full middle-aged. But she was not; nor had she that likeness to a suet pudding, which his newborn critical faculty cruelly detected in his old friends, the Vicarage girls.
There was one of them—Maudie—with whom he had flirted in his holidays; he wondered at that, especially when a relentless memory told him that Mrs. Mortimer must have been at the parties where the thing went on. He felt very much older, so much older that Mrs. Mortimer became at once a contemporary. Why, then, should she begin, as she now did, to talk to him, in quasi maternal fashion, about his prospects? Men don’t have prospects, or, anyhow, are spared questionings thereon.
Either from impatience of this topic, or because, after all, tennis was not to be neglected, he left her, and she sat alone for a little while, watching him play. She was glad that she had not played; she could not have rivaled the activity of the Vicarage girls. She got up and joined Mrs. Sterling, who was presiding over the club teapot. The good lady expected compliments on her son, but for some reason Mrs. Mortimer gave her none. Very soon, indeed, she took Johnnie away with her, leaving her husband to follow at his leisure.
In comparing Maudie Sinclair to a suet pudding, Harry had looked at the dark side of the matter.
The suggestion, though indisputable, was only occasionally obtrusive, and as a rule hushed almost to silence by the pleasant good nature which redeemed shapeless features. Mrs. Mortimer had always liked Maudie, who ran in and out of her house continually, and had made of herself a vice-mother to the little children.
The very next day she came, and, in the intervals of playing cricket with Johnnie, took occasion to inform Mrs. Mortimer that in her opinion Harry Sterling was by no means improved by his new status and dignity. She went so far as to use the term “stuck-up.” “He didn’t use to be like that,” she said, shaking her head; “he used to be very jolly.” Mrs. Mortimer was relieved to note an entire absence of romance either in the regretted past or the condemned present. Maudie mourned a friend spoiled, not an admirer lost; the tone of her criticisms left no doubt of it, and Mrs. Mortimer, with a laugh, announced her intention of asking the Sterlings to dinner and having Maudie to meet them. “You will be able to make it up then,” said she.
“Why, I see him every day at the tennis club,” cried Maudie in surprise.
The faintest of blushes tinged Mrs. Mortimer’s cheek as she chid herself for forgetting this obvious fact.
The situation now developed rapidly. The absurd thing happened: Harry Sterling began to take a serious view of his attachment to Mrs. Mortimer. The one thing more absurd, that she should take a serious view of it, had not happened yet, and, indeed, would never happen; so she told herself with a nervous little laugh. Harry gave her no opportunity of saying so to him, for you cannot reprove glances or discourage pressings of your hand in fashion so blunt.
And he was very discreet: he never made her look foolish. In public he treated her with just the degree of attention that gained his mother’s fond eulogium, and his father’s approving smile; while Mr. Mortimer, who went to London at nine o’clock every morning and did not return till seven, was very seldom bothered by finding the young fellow hanging about the house. Certainly he came pretty frequently between the hours named, but it was, as the children could have witnessed, to play with them. And, through his comings and goings, Mrs. Mortimer moved with pleasure, vexation, self-contempt, and eagerness.
One night she and her husband went to dine with the Sterlings. After dinner Mr. Mortimer accepted his host’s invitation to stay for a smoke. He saw no difficulty in his wife walking home alone; it was but half a mile, and the night was fine and moonlit. Mrs. Mortimer made no difficulty either, but Mrs. Sterling was sure that Harry would be delighted to see Mrs. Mortimer to her house.
She liked the boy to learn habits of politeness, she said, and his father eagerly proffered his escort, waving aside Mrs. Mortimer’s protest that she would not think of troubling Mr. Harry; throughout which conversation Harry said nothing at all, but stood smiling, with his hat in his hand, the picture of an obedient, well-mannered youth. There are generally two ways anywhere, and there were two from the Sterlings’ to the Mortimers’: the short one through the village, and the long one round by the lane and across the Church meadow. The path diverging to the latter route comes very soon after you leave the Sterlings’, and not a word had passed when Mrs. Mortimer and Harry reached it. Still without a word, Harry turned off to follow the path. Mrs. Mortimer glanced at him; Harry smiled.
“It’s much longer,” she said.
“There’s lots of time,” rejoined Harry, “and it’s such a jolly night.” The better to enjoy the night’s beauty, he slackened his pace to a very crawl.
“It’s rather dark; won’t you take my arm?” he said.
“What nonsense! Why, I could see to read!”
“But I’m sure you’re tired.”
“How absurd you are! Was it a great bore?”
“No,” said Harry.
In such affairs monosyllables are danger signals. A long protestation might have meant nothing: in this short, sufficient negative Mrs. Mortimer recognized the boy’s sincerity. A little thrill of pride and shame, and perhaps something else, ran through her. The night was hot and she unfastened the clasp of her cloak, breathing a trifle quickly. To relieve the silence, she said, with a laugh:
“You see we poor married women have to depend on charity. Our husbands don’t care to walk home with us. Your father was bent on your coming.”
Harry laughed a short laugh; the utter darkness of Mr. Sterling’s condition struck through his agitation down to his sense of humor. Mrs. Mortimer smiled at him; she could not help it: the secret between them was so pleasant to her, even while she hated herself for its existence.
They had reached the meadow now, halfway through their journey. A little gate led into it and Harry stopped, leaning his arm on the top rail.
“Oh, no! we must go on,” she murmured.
“They won’t move for an hour yet,” he answered, and then he suddenly broke out:
“How—how funny it is! I hardly remembered you, you know.”
“Oh, but I remembered you, a pretty little boy;” and she looked up at his face, half a foot above her. Mere stature has much effect and the little boy stage seemed very far away. And he knew that it did, for he put out his hand to take hers. She drew back.
“No,” she said.
Harry blushed. She took hold of the gate and he, yielding his place, let her pass through. For a minute or two they walked on in silence.
“Oh, how silly you are!” she cried then, beginning with a laugh and ending with a strange catch in her throat. “Why, you’re only just out of knickerbockers!”
“I don’t care, I don’t care, Hilda——”
“Hush, hush! Oh, indeed, you must be quiet! See, we are nearly home.”
He seized her hand, not to be quelled this time, and, bending low over it, kissed it. She did not draw it away, but watched him with a curious, pained smile. He looked up in her face, his own glowing with excitement. He righted himself to his full stature and, from that stooping, kissed her on the lips.
“Oh, you silly boy!” she moaned, and found herself alone in the meadow. He had gone swiftly back by the way they had come, and she went on to her home.
“Well, the boy saw you home?” asked Mr. Mortimer when he arrived half an hour later.
“Yes,” she said, raising her head from the cushions of the sofa on which he found her lying.
“I supposed so, but he didn’t come into the smoking-room when he got back. Went straight to bed, I expect. He’s a nice-mannered young fellow, isn’t he?”
“Oh, very!” said Mrs. Mortimer.
Categories: English Literature