The Place of Honour by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter VIII. At the Dance
Audrey saw no more of Phil Turner for some days. She did not enjoy much of her husband's society, either. He appeared to be too busy to think of her, and she in consequence spent most of her time with Mrs. Raleigh. But Phil, who had been one of the latter's most constant visitors, did not show himself there.
It did not occur to Audrey that he absented himself on her account, and she was disappointed not to meet him. Next perhaps to the surgeon's wife, she had begun to regard him as her greatest friend. Certainly the tie of obligation that bound them together was one that seemed to warrant an intimate friendship. Moreover, Phil had been exceptionally kind to her in distress, kinder far than Eustace had ever been.
She was growing away from her husband very rapidly, and she knew it, mourned over it even in softer moments; but she felt powerless to remedy the evil. It seemed so obvious to her that he did not care.
So she spent more and more of her hours away from the bungalow that had been made so dainty for her presence, and Eustace never seemed to notice that she was absent from his side.
He accompanied her always when she went out in the evening, but he no longer intruded his guardianship upon her, and deep in her inmost heart this thing hurt his young wife as nothing had ever hurt her before. She had her own way in all matters, but it gave her no pleasure; and the feeling that, though he might not approve of what she did, he would never remonstrate, grew and festered within her till she sometimes marvelled that he did not read her misery in her eyes.
She met Phil Turner again at length at a regimental dance. As usual her card was quickly filled, but she reserved a waltz for him, and after a while he came across and asked her for one.
"You were very nearly too late," she told him. "Why didn't you come before?"
He looked awkward for a moment. Then--
"I was busy," he said rather shortly. "I'm one of the stewards."
He scrawled his initials across her card and left her again. Audrey concluded in her girlish way that something had made him cross, and dismissed him from her mind.
When at length he came to claim her she was hot and tired and suggested sitting out.
He frowned at the idea, but, upon Audrey waxing imperious, he yielded. They sat out together, but not in the cool dark of the veranda as she had anticipated, but in the full glare of the ballroom amidst all the hubbub of the dancers.
Audrey was annoyed, and showed it.
"I am sure we might find a seat on the veranda," she said.
But Phil was obstinate.
"I assure you, Mrs. Tudor," he said, "I looked in there just now, and every seat was occupied."
"I don't believe you are telling the truth," she returned.
He raised his eyebrows.
"Thank you!" he said briefly.
Something in the curt reply caught her attention, and she gave him a quick glance. He was looking remarkably handsome in his red and gold uniform with the scarlet cummerbund across his shirt. Vexed as she was with him, Audrey could not help admitting it to herself. His brown, resolute face attracted her irresistibly.
She allowed a considerable pause to ensue before she went to the inevitable attack. Somehow, notwithstanding his surliness, she had not the faintest desire to quarrel with him.
"You're very grumpy to-night," she remarked at length in her cheery young voice. "What's the matter?"
He started and looked intensely uncomfortable.
"Nothing--of course!" he said.
"Why of course? I wonder. With me it's the other way round. I am never cross without a reason."
Audrey was still cheery.
He smiled faintly.
"I congratulate you," he said.
Audrey smiled also. Fully exposed as was their position, there was no one near enough to overhear.
"Well, don't be cross any more, Phil," she said persuasively. "Cheer up, and come to tiffin with me to-morrow. Will you? I shall be quite alone."
Phil's smile departed instantly. He glanced at her for a second, and then fixed his eyes steadily upon the ground between his feet.
"You're awfully good!" he said at last. "But--thanks very much--I can't."
"Can't?" echoed Audrey, with genuine disappointment. "Oh, I'm sure that's nonsense! Why can't you? You're not on duty?"
"No," he said, speaking slowly, "I'm not on duty; but--fact is, I'm going up to the Hills shooting for a few days and--I shall be busy, packing guns and things. Besides--"
"Oh, do stop!" she broke in, with sudden impatience. "I know you are only making up as you go along. It's very horrid of you, besides being contemptible. Why can't you say at once that you are not coming because you don't want to come?"
Her quick pride had taken fire at sound of his deliberate excuse; and, as was its wont upon provocation, her anger flamed high at a moment's notice.
Phil did not look at her. His expression was decidedly uneasy, but there was a certain grimness about him that did not seem to indicate the probability of any excessive show of docility in face of a browbeating.
"I don't say it," he said doggedly at length, "because, besides being rude, it wouldn't be strictly true."
"I shouldn't have thought you would have had any scruples of that sort," rejoined Audrey, hitting her hardest because he had managed to hurt her. "They haven't been very apparent to-night."
Phil made no protest, but he was frowning heavily.
She leant slightly towards him, speaking behind her fan.
"Be honest just for a second," she said, "if you can, and tell me; are you tired of calling yourself a friend of mine? Are you trying to get out of it? Because, if you are, it's quite the easiest thing in the world to do so. But once done--"
She paused. Phil was looking at her at last, and there was something in his eyes that startled her. A sudden pity rushed over her heart. She felt as she had felt once long ago in England when a dog--an old friend of hers--had been injured. He had looked at her with just such eyes as those that were fixed upon her now. Their dumb pleading had been almost more than she could bear.
Involuntarily she laid her hand on his arm, music and dancers all forgotten in that moment of swift emotion.
"Phil," she whispered tremulously, "what is it? What is it?"
He did not answer her by a single word. He simply rose to his feet, as if by her action she had suggested it, and whirled her in among the dancers.
He kept her going to the very last chord, she too full of wonder and uncertainty to protest; and then he led her straight through the room to where Mrs. Raleigh stood, surrounded by the usual crowd of subalterns, muttered an excuse, and left her there.