The Place of Honour by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter VI. Mrs. Tudor's Confession
"Come in and sit down, Mrs. Tudor. Mrs. Raleigh isn't at home. But she can't be long now. I have been waiting nearly half an hour."
Phil Turner hoisted himself out of the easiest chair in the Raleighs' drawing-room as he uttered the words, and advanced with a friendly smile to greet the newcomer.
"Oh, isn't she in?" said Audrey. "I am afraid I took her for granted at the door."
"We all do," he assured her. "It is what she likes best. Do you know, I haven't seen you for nearly a fortnight? I called, you know, twice; but you were out."
Audrey laughed inconsequently.
"Why don't you treat me as you treat Mrs. Raleigh?" she said. "Come in and wait, next time."
Phil smiled as he handed her to the chair he had just vacated.
"The major isn't so kind to subalterns," he said. "He would certainly think, if he didn't say it, that it was like my cheek."
Audrey frowned over this.
"I don't see what he has to do with it," she declared finally. "But it doesn't signify. How is your arm?"
"Practically convalescent, thanks! There's nothing like first aid, you know. I say, Mrs. Tudor, you weren't any the worse? It didn't hurt you?"
He looked down at her with anxiety in his frank eyes, and Audrey was conscious suddenly that he was no longer a mere casual acquaintance. Perhaps she had been vaguely aware of it before, but the actual realisation of it had not been in her mind till that moment.
She laughed lightly.
"Of course not," she said. "How could it? Don't be so ridiculous, Phil."
His face cleared.
"That's right," he said heartily. "Don't mind me. But I couldn't help wondering. And I thought it was so decent of you to come round and look me up on that first morning."
Audrey's smile faded.
"I am glad you thought it was decent, anyhow," she said, with a touch of bitterness. "No one else did."
"Oh, rot, Mrs. Tudor!"
Phil spoke hastily. He was frowning, as his custom was when embarrassed.
She looked up at him and nodded emphatically.
"Yes, it was--just that," she said, an odd little note of passion in her voice. "I never thought of these things before, but it seems that here no one thinks of anything else."
"Don't take any notice of it," said Phil. "It isn't worth it."
"I can't help myself," said Audrey. "You see--I'm married!"
"So is Mrs. Raleigh." Phil spoke with sudden heat. "But she doesn't care."
"No, I know. But her husband is such an old dear. Everything she does is right in his eyes."
It was skating on thin ice, and Phil at least realised it. He made an abrupt effort to pull up.
"Yes, I'm awfully fond of Major Raleigh," he said. "By the way, he's an immense admirer of yours. Your promptitude the other night quite won his heart. He complimented your husband upon it."
"Did he? What did Eustace say?"
There was more than curiosity in Audrey's voice.
"I don't know."
Phil's eyes suddenly avoided hers. He spoke in a dogged, half-surly tone.
Audrey sat and looked at him for a moment. Then lightly she rose and stood before him.
"Tell me, please!" she said imperiously.
He made a sharp gesture of remonstrance.
"Sorry," he said, after a moment, as she waited inexorably. "I can't!"
"Oh, but you can!" she returned. "You're not to say you won't to me."
He looked down at her.
"I am sorry!" he said less brusquely. "But it can't be done. It isn't worth a tussle, I assure you, nor is it worth the possible annoyance it might cause you if you had your way. Look here, can't we talk of something else?"
She laid her hand impulsively on his arm.
"Tell me, Phil!" she said.
He drew back abruptly.
"You put me in a beastly position, Mrs. Tudor," he said. "I hate repeating things. It isn't fair to corner me like this."
"Don't be absurd!" said Audrey. Her face was flushed and determined. She was bent upon having her own way in this, at least. "I shall begin to hate you in a minute."
But Phil could be determined, too.
"Can't help it," he said; but there was genuine regret in his voice. "You'll have to, I'm afraid."
He was scarcely prepared for the effect of his words. She flung away from him in tempestuous anger and turned as if to leave the room. But before she reached the door some other impulse apparently overtook her. She stopped abruptly with her back to Phil, and stood for what seemed to him interminable seconds, fumbling with her handkerchief.
Then, before he had fully realised the approaching catastrophe, her self-control suddenly deserted her. She sank into a chair with her hands over her face and began to cry.
Now, Phil was young, and no woman had ever thus abandoned herself to tears in his presence before. The sight sent a sharp shock through him that was almost like a dart of physical pain. It paralysed him for an instant; but the next he strode forward, convention flung to the winds, desirous only to comfort. He reached her and bent over her, one hand upon her shaking shoulder.
"I say, Mrs. Tudor, don't--don't!" he urged. "What is the matter? You're not crying because I wouldn't do as you asked me? You couldn't care all that for such a trifle?"
His voice was husky with agitation. He felt guiltily that it was all his fault, and he could have kicked himself for his clumsiness.
She did not answer him, nor did her sobs grow less. It was the pent-up misery of weeks to which she was giving vent, and, having yielded, it was no easy matter to check herself again.
Phil became desperate and knelt down by her side, almost as distressed as she.
"I say," he pleaded--"I say, Audrey, don't cry! Tell me what is wrong. Let me help you. Give me a chance, anyhow. I--I'd do anything in the world, you know. Only tell me."
He drew one of her hands away from her face and held it between his own. She did not resist him. Her need of a comforter just then was very great. Her head was bowed almost against his shoulder and it did not occur to either of them that they were transgressing the most elementary laws of conventionality.
"You can't help me," she sobbed at last. "No one can. I'm just lonely and miserable and homesick. I hate this place and everyone in it except--except you--and a few others. I wish I were back in England. I wish I'd never left it. I wish--I wish--I'd never married."
Her voice came muffled and piteous. It was the cry of a desolate child. And all the deep chivalry in Phil's soul quivered and thrilled in response. Before he knew it, tender, consoling words had sprung to his lips.
"Don't cry, dear; don't cry!" he said. "You'll feel better about it presently. We all go through it, and it's beastly, I know, I know. But it won't last. Nothing does in this chancy world. So what's the good of fretting?"
She could not tell him. Her trouble was too immense at that moment to bear discussion. But he comforted her. She liked the feel of his hand upon her shoulder; the firm, friendly grasp of his fingers about her own.
"I sometimes think I can't go on," she whispered through her tears. "It's like being in prison, and I want to run away. Only I can't--I can't. I've got to bear it all my life."
A slight sound from the open window followed this confidence, and Phil looked up sharply. Audrey had not heard it, and she did not notice his movement.
Her head was still bent; and over it Phil, glaring like a tiger, met the quiet, critical eyes of the girl's husband.
He rose to his feet the next instant, but he did not utter a word.
As for Tudor, he stood quite motionless, quite inscrutable, for the space of seconds, looking gravely in upon them. Then, to Phil's unspeakable amazement, he turned deliberately and walked away. There was thick matting on Mrs. Raleigh's veranda, and his receding footsteps made no sound.