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- The Head of the House of Coombe - 10/65 -

If he had meant to speak he changed his mind after his first sight of her. He merely came in and closed the door behind him. Curious experiences with which life 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 a scene and steered ably through the difficulties of the situation towards a point where they could have met upon a normal plane. A very pretty woman with whose affairs one has nothing whatever to do, and whose pretty home has been the perfection of modern smartness of custom, suddenly opening her front door in the unexplained absence of a footman and confronting a visitor, plainly upon 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 the verge 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 because he presented to her but the one idea.

He did not drag himself away from her embrace but he distinctly removed himself from it.

"You must not fall upon your knees, Mrs. Lawless," he said. "Shall we go into the 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 had thought them when she saw them written.

"Will you come up into the drawing-room and tell me exactly what you mean," he said and he made her release him and stand upon her feet.

As the years had passed he had detached himself from so many weaknesses and their sequelae of emotion that he had felt himself a safely unreachable person. He was not young and he knew enough of the disagreeableness of consequences to be adroit in keeping out of the way of apparently harmless things which might be annoying. Yet as he followed Mrs. Gareth-Lawless and watched her stumbling up the stairs like a punished child he was aware that he was abnormally in danger of pitying her as he did not wish to pity people. The pity was also something apart from the feeling that it was hideous that a creature so lovely, so shallow and so fragile should have been caught in the great wheels of Life.

He knew what he had come to talk to her about but he had really no clear idea of what her circumstances actually were. Most people had of course guessed that her husband had been living on the edge of his resources and was accustomed to debt and duns, but a lovely being greeting you by clasping your knees and talking about "starving"--in this particular street in Mayfair, led one 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 special reason why he had drifted into seeming rather to allow her about--why he had finally been counted among the frequenters of the narrow house--and why he had seemed to watch her a good deal sometimes with an expression of serious interest--sometimes with an air of irritation, and sometimes with no expression at all. But there existed this reason and this it was and this alone which had caused him to appear upon her threshold and it had also been the power which had prevented his disengaging himself with more incisive finality when he found himself ridiculously clasped about the knees as one who played the part of an obdurate parent in a melodrama.

Once in the familiar surroundings of her drawing-room her ash-gold blondness and her black gauzy frock heightened all her effects so extraordinarily that he frankly admitted to himself that she possessed assets which would have modified most things to most men.

As for Feather, when she herself beheld him against the background of the same intimate aspects, the effect of the sound of his voice, the manner in which he sat down in a chair and a certain remotely dim hint in the hue of his clothes and an almost concealed note of some touch of colour which scarcely seemed to belong to anything worn--were so reminiscent of the days which now seemed past forever 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 tears myself. 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 adorable name."

"I feel as if I should never hear it again," she shuddered, trying to dry her eyes. "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! I have only had some biscuits and raisins to eat today--and the landlord is going to turn me out."

It seemed almost too preposterous to quite credit that she was uttering naked truth.--And yet--! After a second's gaze at her be repeated what he had said below stairs.

"Will you tell me exactly what you mean?"

Then he sat still and listened while she poured it all forth. And as he listened he realized that it was the mere every day fact that they were sitting in the slice of a house with the cream-coloured front and the great lady in her mansion on one side and the millionaire and his splendours on the other, which peculiarly added to a certain hint of gruesomeness in the situation.

It was not necessary to add colour and desperation to the story. Any effort Feather had made in that direction would only have detracted from the nakedness of its stark facts. They were quite enough in themselves in their normal inevitableness. Feather in her pale and totally undignified panic presented the whole thing with clearness which had--without being aided by her--an actual dramatic value. This in spite of her mental dartings to and from and dragging in of points and bits of scenes which were not connected with each other. Only a brain whose processes of inclusion and exclusion were final and rapid could have followed her. Coombe watched her closely as she talked. No grief-stricken young widowed loneliness and heart-break were the background of her anguish. She was her own background and also her own foreground. The strength of the fine body laid prone on the bed of the room she held in horror, the white rigid face whose good looks had changed to something she could not bear to remember, had no pathos which was not concerned with the fact that Robert had amazingly and unnaturally failed her by dying and leaving her nothing but unpaid bills. This truth indeed made the situation more poignantly and finally squalid, as she brought forth one detail after another. There were bills which had been accumulating ever since they began their life in the narrow house, there had been trades-people who had been juggled with, promises made and supported by adroit tricks and cleverly invented misrepresentations and lies which neither of the pair had felt any compunctions about and had indeed laughed over. Coombe saw it all though he also saw that Feather did not know all she was telling him. He could realize the gradually increasing pressure and anger at tricks which betrayed themselves, and the gathering determination on the part of the creditors to end the matter in the only way in which it could be ended. It had come to this before Robert's illness, and Feather herself had heard of fierce interviews and had seen threatening letters, but she had not believed they could mean all they implied. Since things had been allowed to go on so long she felt that they would surely go on longer in the same way. There had been some serious threatening about the rent and the unpaid-for furniture. Robert's supporting idea had been that he might perhaps "get something out of Lawdor who wouldn't enjoy being the relation of a fellow who was turned into the street!"

"He ought to have done something," Feather plained. "Robert would have been Lord Lawdor himself if his uncle had died before he had all those disgusting children."

She was not aware that Coombe frequently refrained from saying things to her--but occasionally allowed himself NOT to refrain. He did not refrain now from making a simple comment.

"But he is extremely robust and he has the children. Six stalwart boys and a stalwart girl. Family feeling has apparently gone out of fashion."

As she wandered on with her story he mentally felt himself actually dragged into the shrimp-pink bedroom and standing an onlooker when the footman outside the door "did not know" where Tonson had gone. For a moment he felt conscious of the presence of some scent which would have been sure to exhale itself from draperies 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 breathlessly watching the two cabs with the servants' trunks on top, and the servants respectably unprofessional in attire and going away quietly without an unpractical compunction--he saw these also and comprehended knowing exactly why compunctions had no part in latter-day domestic arrangements. Why should they?

When Feather reached the point where it became necessary to refer to Robin some fortunate memory of Alice's past warnings caused her to feel--quite suddenly--that certain details might be eliminated.

"She cried a little at first," she said, "but she fell asleep afterwards. I was 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 regions and the cockroaches scuttling away before her into their hiding-places.

The Head of the House of Coombe - 10/65

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