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- The Head of the House of Coombe - 5/65 -


He had a haggard look about his mouth and eyes then. He looked as if a spangled pink and blue gauze soul with little floating streamers was a relief to him."

The child Robin was a year old by that time and staggered about uncertainly in the dingy little Day Nursery in which she passed her existence except on such occasions as her nurse--who had promptly fallen in love with the smart young footman--carried her down to the kitchen and Servants' Hall in the basement where there was an earthy smell and an abundance of cockroaches. The Servants' Hall had been given that name in the catalogue of the fashionable agents who let the home and it was as cramped and grimy as the two top-floor nurseries.

The next afternoon Robert Gareth-Lawless staggered into his wife's drawing-room and dropped on to a sofa staring at her and breathing hard.

"Feather!" he gasped. "Don't know what's up with me. I believe I'm--awfully ill! I can't see straight. Can't think."

He fell over sidewise on to the cushions so helplessly that Feather sprang at him.

"Don't, Rob, don't!" she cried in actual anguish. "Lord Coombe is taking us to the opera and to supper afterwards. I'm going to wear--" She stopped speaking to shake him and try to lift his head. "Oh! do try to sit up," she begged pathetically. "Just try. DON'T give up till afterwards." But she could neither make him sit up nor make him hear. He lay back heavily with his mouth open, breathing stertorously and quite insensible.

It happened that the Head of the House of Coombe was announced at that very moment even as she stood wringing her hands over the sofa.

He went to her side and looked at Gareth-Lawless.

"Have you sent for a doctor?" he inquired.

"He's--only just done it!" she exclaimed. "It's more than I can bear. You said the Prince would be at the supper after the opera and--"

"Were you thinking of going?" he put it to her quietly.

"I shall have to send for a nurse of course--" she began. He went so far as to interrupt her.

"You had better not go--if you'll pardon my saying so," he suggested.

"Not go? Not go at all?" she wailed.

"Not go at all," was his answer. And there was such entire lack of encouragement in it that Feather sat down and burst into sobs.

In few than two weeks Robert was dead and she was left a lovely penniless widow with a child.

CHAPTER III

Two or three decades earlier the prevailing sentiment would have been that "poor little Mrs. Gareth-Lawless" and her situation were pathetic. Her acquaintances would sympathetically have discussed her helplessness and absolute lack of all resource. So very pretty, so young, the mother of a dear little girl--left with no income! How very sad! What COULD she do? The elect would have paid her visits and sitting in her darkened drawing-room earnestly besought her to trust to her Maker and suggested "the Scriptures" as suitable reading. Some of them--rare and strange souls even in their time--would have known what they meant and meant what they said in a way they had as yet only the power to express through the medium of a certain shibboleth, the rest would have used the same forms merely because shibboleth is easy and always safe and creditable.

But to Feather's immediate circle a multiplicity of engagements, fevers of eagerness in the attainment of pleasures and ambitions, anxieties, small and large terrors, and a whirl of days left no time for the regarding of pathetic aspects. The tiny house up whose staircase--tucked against a wall--one had seemed to have the effect of crowding even when one went alone to make a call, suddenly ceased to represent hilarious little parties which were as entertaining as they were up to date and noisy. The most daring things London gossiped about had been said and done and worn there. Novel social ventures had been tried--dancing and songs which seemed almost startling at first--but which were gradually being generally adopted. There had always been a great deal of laughing and talking of nonsense and the bandying of jokes and catch phrases. And Feather fluttering about and saying delicious, silly things at which her hearers shouted with glee. Such a place could not suddenly become pathetic. It seemed almost indecent for Robert Gareth-Lawless to have dragged Death nakedly into their midst--to have died in his bed in one of the little bedrooms, to have been put in his coffin and carried down the stairs scraping the wall, and sent away in a hearse. Nobody could bear to think of it.

Feather could bear it less than anybody else. It seemed incredible that such a trick could have been played her. She shut herself up in her stuffy little bedroom with its shrimp pink frills and draperies and cried lamentably. At first she cried as a child might who was suddenly snatched away in the midst of a party. Then she began to cry because she was frightened. Numbers of cards "with sympathy" had been left at the front door during the first week after the funeral, they had accumulated in a pile on the salver but very few people had really come to see her and while she knew they had the excuse of her recent bereavement she felt that it made the house ghastly. It had never been silent and empty. Things had always been going on and now there was actually not a sound to be heard--no one going up and down stairs--Rob's room cleared of all his belongings and left orderly and empty--the drawing-room like a gay little tomb without an occupant. How long WOULD it be before it would be full of people again--how long must she wait before she could decently invite anyone?--It was really at this point that fright seized upon her. Her brain was not given to activities of reasoning and followed no thought far. She had not begun to ask herself questions as to ways and means. Rob had been winning at cards and had borrowed some money from a new acquaintance so no immediate abyss had yawned at her feet. But when the thought of future festivities rose before her a sudden check made her involuntarily clutch at her throat. She had no money at all, bills were piled everywhere, perhaps now Robert was dead none of the shops would give her credit. She remembered hearing Rob come into the house swearing only the day before he was taken ill and it had been because he had met on the door-step a collector of the rent which was long over-due and must be paid. She had no money to pay it, none to pay the servants' wages, none to pay the household bills, none to pay for the monthly hire of the brougham! Would they turn her into the street--would the servants go away--would she be left without even a carriage? What could she do about clothes! She could not wear anything but mourning now and by the time she was out of mourning her old clothes would have gone out of fashion. The morning on which this aspect of things occurred to her, she was so terrified that she began to run up and down the room like a frightened little cat seeing no escape from the trap it is caught in.

"It's awful--it's awful--it's awful!" broke out between her sobs. "What can I do? I can't do anything! There's nothing to do! It's awful--it's awful--it's awful!" She ended by throwing herself on the bed crying until she was exhausted. She had no mental resources which would suggest to her that there was anything but crying to be done. She had cried very little in her life previously because even in her days of limitation she had been able to get more or less what she wanted--though of course it had generally been less. And crying made one's nose and eyes red. On this occasion she actually forgot her nose and eyes and cried until she scarcely knew herself when she got up and looked in the glass.

She rang the bell for her maid and sat down to wait her coming. Tonson should bring her a cup of beef tea.

"It's time for lunch," she thought. "I'm faint with crying. And she shall bathe my eyes with rose-water."

It was not Tonson's custom to keep her mistress waiting but today she was not prompt. Feather rang a second time and an impatient third and then sat in her chair and waited until she began to feel as she felt always in these dreadful days the dead silence of the house. It was the thing which most struck terror to her soul--that horrid stillness. The servants whose place was in the basement were too much closed in their gloomy little quarters to have made themselves heard upstairs even if they had been inclined to. During the last few weeks feather had even found herself wishing that they were less well trained and would make a little noise--do anything to break the silence.

The room she sat in--Rob's awful little room adjoining--which was awful because of what she had seen for a moment lying stiff and hard on the bed before she was taken away in hysterics--were dread enclosures of utter silence. The whole house was dumb--the very street had no sound in it. She could not endure it. How dare Tonson? She sprang up and rang the bell again and again until its sound came back to her pealing through the place.

Then she waited again. It seemed to her that five minutes passed before she heard the smart young footman mounting the stairs slowly. She did not wait for his knock upon the door but opened it herself.

"How dare Tonson!" she began. "I have rung four or five times! How dare she!"

The smart young footman's manner had been formed in a good school. It was attentive, impersonal.

"I don't know, ma'am," he answered.

"What do you mean? What does SHE mean? Where is she?" Feather felt almost breathless before his unperturbed good style.

"I don't know, ma'am," he answered as before. Then with the same unbiassed bearing added, "None of us know. She has gone away."


The Head of the House of Coombe - 5/65

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