The band struck up a waltz. It chanced to be the one which they had last danced together at the Dome. How well he had danced, and how guilty she had felt! Conscious of what almost amounted to a sense of impropriety! Charlie had taken her; it was Charlie who had made her go–but then, in some eyes, Miss Wentworth might not have been regarded as the most unimpeachable of chaperons. That Cyril, for instance, would have had strong opinions of his own upon that point, Miss Strong was well aware.
While Miss Strong listened, thinking of the last time she had heard that waltz, the man with whom she had danced it stood, all at once, in front of her. She had half expected that it would be so–half had feared it. It was not the first time they had encountered each other on the pier; Miss Strong had already begun to more than suspect that the chance of encountering her was the magnet which drew Mr. Lawrence through the turnstiles. She did not wish to meet him; she assured herself that she did not wish to meet him. But, on the other hand, she did not wish to go out of her way so as to seem to run away from him.
The acquaintance had begun on the top of the Devil’s Dyke in the middle of a shower of rain. Miss Strong, feeling in want of occupation, and, to speak the truth, a little in the blues, had gone, on an unpromising afternoon in April, on the spur of the moment, and in something like a temper, on a solitary excursion to the Devil’s Dyke. On the Downs the wind blew great guns. She could hardly stand against it. Yet it did her good, for it suited her mood. She struggled on over the slopes, past Poynings, when, suddenly–she, in her abstraction, having paid no heed to the weather, and expecting nothing of the kind–it came down a perfect deluge of rain. She had a walking-stick, but neither mackintosh nor umbrella. There seemed every likelihood of her having to return like a drowned rat to Brighton, when, with the appropriateness of a fairy tale, some one came rushing to her with an umbrella in his hand. She could hardly refuse the proffered shelter, and the consequence was that the owner of the umbrella escorted her first to the hotel, then to the station, and afterwards to Brighton. Nor, after such services had been rendered, when they parted at the station did she think it necessary to inform him that, not under any circumstances, was he to notice her again; besides, from what she had seen of him, she rather liked the man. So, when, two days afterwards, he stopped her on the pier to ask if she had suffered any ill-effects from her exposure, it took her some five-and-twenty minutes to explain that she had not. There were other meetings, mostly on the pier; and then, as a climax, that Masonic Ball at the Dome. She danced with him five times! She felt all the time that she ought not; she knew that she would not have done it if Cyril had been there. Miss Wentworth, introduced by Miss Strong, danced with him twice, and when asked by Miss Strong if she thought that she–Miss Strong–ought to have three dances with him Miss Wentworth declared that she did not see why, if she liked, she should not have thirty. So Miss Strong had five–which shows that Miss Wentworth’s notions of the duties of a chaperon were vague.
And now the band was striking up that identical waltz; and there was Mr. Lawrence standing in front of the lady with whom he had danced it.
“I believe that that was ours, Miss Strong,” he said.
“I think it was.”
He was holding her hand in his, and looking at her with something in his eyes which there and then she told herself would never do. They threaded their way through the crowd of people towards the head of the pier, saying little, which was worse than saying much. Although Charlie had been working, Miss Strong wished she had stayed at home with her; it would have been better than this. A sense of pending peril made her positively nervous; she wanted to get away from her companion, and yet for the moment she did not see her way to do it.
Beyond doubt Mr. Lawrence was not a man in whose favour nothing could be said. He was of medium height, had a good figure, and held himself well. He was very fair, with a slight moustache, and a mouth which was firm and resolute. His eyes were blue–a light, bright blue–beautiful eyes they were, but scarcely of the kind which could correctly be described as sympathetic. His complexion was almost like a girl’s, it was so pink and white; he seemed the picture of health. His manners were peculiarly gentle. He moved noiselessly, without any appearance of exertion. His voice, though soft, was of so penetrating a quality and so completely under control that, without betraying by any movement of his lips the fact that he was speaking, he could make his faintest whisper audible in a way which was quite uncanny. Whatever his dress might be, on him it always seemed unobtrusive; indeed, the strangest thing about the man was that, while he always seemed to be the most retiring of human beings, in reality he was one of the most difficult to be rid of, as Miss Strong was finding now. More than once, just as she was about to give him his dismissal, he managed to prevent her doing so in a manner which, while she found it impossible to resent it, was not by any means to her taste. Finally, finding it difficult to be rid of him in any other way, and being, for some reason which she would herself have found it difficult to put into words, unusually anxious to be freed from his companionship, she resolved, in desperation, to leave the pier. She acquainted him with her determination to be off, and then, immediately afterwards, not a little to her surprise and a good deal to her disgust, she found herself walking towards the pier-gates with him at her side. Miss Strong’s wish had been to part from him there and then; but again he had managed to prevent the actual expression of her wish, and it seemed plain that she was still to be saddled with his society, at any rate, as far as the gates.
Before they had gone half-way down the pier Miss Strong had cause to regret that she had not shown a trifle more firmness, for she saw advancing towards her a figure which, at the instant, she almost felt that she knew too well. It was Cyril Paxton. The worst of it was that she was not clear in her own mind as to what it would be best for her to do–the relations between herself and Mr. Paxton were of so curious a character. She saw that Mr. Paxton’s recognition of her had not been so rapid as hers had been of him; at first she thought that she was going to pass him unperceived. In that case she would go a few steps farther with Mr. Lawrence, dismiss him, return, and discover herself to Cyril at her leisure. But it was not to be. Mr. Paxton, glancing about him from side to side of the pier, observed her on a sudden–and he observed Mr. Lawrence too; on which trivial accident hinges the whole of this strange history.
Miss Strong knew that she was seen. She saw that Mr. Paxton was coming to her. Her heart began to beat. In another second or two he was standing in front of her with uplifted hat, wearing a not very promising expression of countenance.
“Where’s Charlie?” was his greeting.
The lady was aware that the question in itself conveyed a reproach, though she endeavoured to feign innocence.
“Charlie’s at home; I couldn’t induce her to come out. Her ‘copy’ for Fashion has to be ready by the morning; she says she’s behind, so she stayed at home to finish it.”
That was all that Mr. Paxton said, but the look with which he favoured Mr. Lawrence conveyed a very vivid note of interrogation.
“Cyril,” explained Miss Strong, “this is Mr. Lawrence. Mr. Lawrence, this is Mr. Paxton; and I am afraid you must excuse me.”
Mr. Lawrence did excuse her. She and Mr Paxton returned together up the pier; he, directly Mr. Lawrence was out of hearing, putting to her the question which, though she dreaded, she knew was inevitable.
“That is Mr. Lawrence.”
“Yes, you told me so much already; who is Mr. Lawrence?”
As she walked Miss Strong, looking down, tapped with the ferrule of her umbrella on the boards.
“Oh! he’s a sort of acquaintance.”
“You have not been long in Brighton, then, without making acquaintance?”
“Cyril! I have been here more than a month. Surely a girl can make an acquaintance in that time?”
“It depends, I fancy, on the girl, and on the circumstances in which she is placed. What is Mr. Lawrence?”
“I have not the faintest notion. I have a sort of general idea that, like yourself, he is something in the City. It seems to me that nowadays most men are.”
“Who introduced him?”
“A shower of rain.”
“An excellent guarantor of the man’s eligibility, though, even for the average girl, one would scarcely have supposed that that would have been a sufficient introduction.”
Miss Strong flushed.
“You have no right to talk to me like that. I did not know that you were coming to Brighton, or I would have met you at the station.”
“I knew that I should meet you on the pier.”
The lady stood still.
“What do you mean by that?”
The gentleman, confronting her, returned her glance for glance.
“I mean what I say. I knew that I should meet you on the pier–and I have.”
The lady walked on again; whatever she might think of Mr. Paxton’s inference, his actual statement was undeniable.
“You don’t seem in the best of tempera, Cyril. How is Mr. Franklyn?”
“He was all right when I saw him last–a good deal better than I was or than I am.”
“What is the matter with you? Are you ill?”
“Matter!” Mr. Paxton’s tone was bitter. “What is likely to be the matter with the man who, after having had the luck which I have been having lately, to crown it all finds the woman he loves philandering with a stranger–the acquaintance of a shower of rain–on Brighton pier.”
“You have no right to speak to me like that–not the slightest! I am perfectly free to do as I please, as you are. And, without condescending to dispute your inferences–though, as you very well know, they are quite unjust!–any attempt at criticism on your part will be resented by me in a manner which you may find unpleasant.”
A pause followed the lady’s words, which the gentleman did not seem altogether to relish.
“Still the fact remains that I do love you better than anything else in the world.”
“Surely if that were so, Cyril, at this time of day you and I would not be situated as we are.”
“By which you mean?”
“If you felt for me what you are always protesting that you feel, surely sometimes you would have done as I wished.”
“Which being interpreted is equivalent to saying that I should have put my money into Goschens, and entered an office at a salary of a pound a week.”
“If you had done so you would at any rate still have your money, and also, possibly, the prospect of a career.”
They had reached the end of the pier, and were leaning over the side, looking towards the Worthing lights. Miss Strong’s words were followed by an interval of silence. When the gentleman spoke again, in his voice there was the suspicion of a tremor.
“Daisy, don’t be hard on me.”
“I don’t wish to be hard. It was you who began by being hard on me.”
He seemed to pay no heed to her speech, continuing on a line of his own–
“Especially just now!”
She glanced at him.
“Why especially just now?”
“Well—-” He stopped. The tremor in his voice became more pronounced. “Because I’m going for the gloves.”
If the light had been clearer he might have seen that her face assumed a sudden tinge of pallor.
“What do you mean by you’re going for the gloves?”
“I mean that probably by this time tomorrow I shall have either won you or lost you for ever.”
“Cyril!” There was a catching in her breath. “I hope you are going to do nothing–wild.”
“It depends upon the point of view.” He turned to her with sudden passion. “I’m sick of things as they are–sick to death! I’ve made up my mind to know either the best or the worst.”
“How do you propose to arrive at that state of knowledge?”
“I’ve gone a bull on Eries–a big bull. So big a bull that if they fall one I’m done.”
“I shall be done, because it will be for reasons, good, strong, solid reasons, the last deal I shall ever make on the London Stock Exchange.”
There was silence. Then she spoke again–
“You will lose. You always do lose!”
“It will be almost better for you that you should lose. I am beginning to believe, Cyril, that you never will do any good till you have touched bottom, till you have lost all that you possibly can lose.”
“Thank you, again.”
She drew herself up, drawing herself away from the railing against which she had been leaning. She gave a gesture which was suggestive of weariness.
“I too am tired. This uncertainty is more than I can stand; you are so unstable, Cyril. Your ideas and mine on some points are wide apart. It seems to me that if a girl is worth winning, she is worth working for. As a profession for a man, I don’t think that what you call ‘punting’ on the Stock Exchange is much better than pitch-and-toss.”
The word was an interrogation. She had paused.
“It appears to me that the girl who marries a man who does nothing else but ‘punt’ is preparing for herself a long line of disappointments. Think how many times you have disappointed me. Think of the fortunes you were to have made. Think, Cyril, of the Trumpit Gold Mine–what great things were to come of that!”
“I am quite aware that I did invest every penny I could beg, borrow, or steal in the Trumpit Gold Mine, and that at present I am the fortunate possessor of a trunkful of shares which are not worth a shilling a-piece. The reminder is a pleasant one. Proceed–you seem wound up to go.”
Her voice assumed a new touch of sharpness.
“The long and the short of it is, Cyril–it is better that we should understand each other!–if your present speculation turns out as disastrously as all your others have done, and it leaves you worse off than ever, the relations, such as they are, which exist between us must cease. We must be as strangers!”
“Which means that you don’t care for me the value of a brass-headed pin.”
“It means nothing of the kind, as you are well aware. It simply means that I decline to link my life with a man who appears incapable of keeping his own head above water. Because he insists on drowning himself, why should I allow him to drown me too?”
“I observe that you take the commercial, up-to-date view of marriage.”
“What view do you take? Are you nearer to being able to marry me than ever you were? Are you not farther off? You have no regular income–and how many entanglements? What do you propose that we should live on–on the hundred and twenty pounds a year which mother left me?”
There came a considerable silence. He had not moved from the position he had taken up against the railing, and still looked across the waveless sea towards the glimmering lights of Worthing. When he did speak his tones were cold, and clear, and measured–perhaps the coldness was assumed to hide a warmer something underneath.
“Your methods are a little rough, but perhaps they are none the worse on that account. As you say so shall it be. Win or lose, to-morrow evening I will meet you again upon the pier–that is, if you will come.”
“You know I’ll come!”
“If I lose it will be to say goodbye. Next week I emigrate.”
She was still, so he went on–
“Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll see you to the end of the pier, and say goodbye until tomorrow. I’ll get something to eat and hurry back to town.”
“Won’t you come and see Charlie?”
“Thank you, I don’t think I will. Miss Wentworth has not a sufficiently good opinion of me to care if I do or don’t. Make her my excuses.”
Another pause. Then she said, in a tone which was hardly above a whisper–
“Cyril, I do hope you’ll win.”
He stood, and turned, and faced her.
“Do you really mean that, Daisy?”
“You know that I do.”
“Then, if you really hope that I shall win–the double event!–as an earnest of your hopes–there is no one looking!–kiss me.”
She did as he bade her.
Categories: English Literature