Chapter XIII. Number Three
 

It was the middle of November when I was shown once more into the old room at the old number in Elm Park Gardens. There was a fire, the windows were shut, and the electric light was a distinct improvement when the maid put it on; otherwise all was exactly as I had left it in August, and so often pictured it since. There was "Hope," presiding over the shelf of poets, and here "Paolo and Francesca," reminiscent as ever of Melbury Road, upon a wet Sunday, years and years ago. The day's Times and the week's Spectator were not less prominent than the last new problem novel; all three lay precisely where their predecessors had always lain; and my own dead self stood in its own old place upon the piano which had been in St. Helena with Napoleon. It is vanity's deserts to come across these unnecessary memorials of a decently buried boyhood; there is always something stultifying about them, and I longed to confiscate this one of me.

But there was a photograph on the chimney-piece that interested me keenly; it was evidently the very latest of Bob Evers, and I studied it with a painful curiosity. Was the boy really altered, or did I only imagine it from my secret knowledge of his affairs? To me he seemed graver, more sedate, less angelically trustful in expression, and yet something finer and manlier withal: to confirm the idea one had only to compare this new one with the racket photograph now relegated to a rear rank. The round-eyed look was gone. Had I here yet another memorial of yet another buried boyhood? If so, I felt I was the sexton, and I might be ashamed, and I was.

"Looking at Bob? Isn't it a dear one of him? You see--he is none the worse!"

And Catherine Evers stood smiling as warmly, as gratefully, as she grasped my hand; but with her warmth there was a certain nervousness of manner, which had the odd effect of putting me perversely at my ease; and I found myself looking critically at Catherine, really critically, for I suppose the first time in my life.

"He is playing foot-ball," she continued, full as ever of her boy. "I had a letter from him only this morning. He had his colours at Eton, you know (he had them for everything there), but he never dreamt of getting them at Cambridge, yet now he really thinks he has a chance! They tried him the other day, and he kicked a goal. Dear old Bob! If he does get them he will be a Blue and a half, he says. He writes so happily, Duncan! I have so much to be thankful for--to thank you for!"

Yes, Catherine was good to look at; there was no doubt of it; and this time she was not wearing any hat. Discoursing of the lad, she was animated, eager, for once as exclamatory as her pen, with light and life in every look of the thin intellectual face, in every glance of the large, intellectual eyes, and in every intonation of the keen dry voice. A sweet woman; a young woman; a woman with a full heart of love and sympathy and tenderness--for Bob! Yet, when she thanked me at the end, either upon an impulse, or because she thought she must, her eyes fell, and again I detected that slight embarrassment which was none the less a revelation, to me, in Catherine Evers, of all women in the world.

"We won't speak of that," I said, "if you don't mind. I am not proud of it."

Catherine scanned me more narrowly. I knew her better with that look. "Then tell me about yourself, and do sit down," she said, drawing a chair near the fire, but sitting on the other side of it herself. "I needn't ask you how you are. I never saw you looking so well. That comes of going right away and not hurrying back. I think you were so wise! But, Duncan, I am sorry to see both sticks still! Have you seen your man since you came back?"

"I have."

"Well?"

"I'm afraid there's no more soldiering for me."

Catherine seemed more than sorry and disappointed; she looked quite indignant with the eminent specialist who had finally pronounced this opinion. Was I sure he was the very best man for that kind of thing? She would have a second opinion, if she were me. Very well, then, a third and fourth! If there was one man she pitied from the bottom of her heart, it was the man without a profession or an occupation of some kind. Catherine looked, however, as though her pity were almost akin to horror.

"I have a trifle, luckily," I said. "I must try something else."

Catherine stared into the fire, as though thinking of something else for me to try. She seemed full of apprehension on my account.

"Don't you worry about me," I went on. "I came here to talk about somebody else, of course."

Catherine almost started.

"I've told you about Bob," she said, with a suspicious upward glance from the fire.

"I don't mean Bob," said I, "or anything you may think I did for him or you. I said just now that I didn't want to speak of it and no more I do. Yet, as a matter of fact, I do want to speak to you about the lady in that case."

Catherine's face betrayed the mixed emotions of relief and fresh alarm.

"You don't mean to say the creature--? But it's impossible. I heard from Bob only this morning. He wrote so happily!"

I could not help smiling at the nature and quality of the alarm.

"They have seen nothing more of each other, if that's what you fear," said I. "But what I do want to speak about is this creature, as you call her, and no one else. She has done nothing to deserve quite so much contempt. I want you to be just to her, Catherine."

I was serious. I may have been ridiculous. Catherine evidently found me so, for, after gauging me with that wry but humourous look which I knew so well of old, for which I had been waiting this afternoon, she went off into the decorous little fit of laughter in which it had invariably ended.

"Forgive me, Duncan dear! But you do look so serious, and you are so dreadfully broad! I never was. I hope you remember that? Broad minds and easy principles--the combination is inevitable. But, really though, Duncan, is there anything to be said for her? Was she a possible person, in any sense of the word?"

"Quite a probable person," I assured Catherine.

"But I have heard all sorts of things about her!"

"From Bob?"

"No, he never mentioned her."

"Nor me, perhaps?"

"Nor you, Duncan. I am afraid there may be just a drop of bad blood there! You see, he looked upon you as a successful rival. You wrote and told me so, if you remember, from some place on your way down from the mountains. Your letter and Bob arrived the same night."

I nodded.

"It was so clever of you!" pursued Catherine. "Quite brilliant; but I don't quite know what to say to your letting my baby climb that awful Matterhorn; in a fog, too!"

And there was real though momentary reproach in the firelit face.

"I couldn't very well stop him, you know. Besides," I added, "it was such a chance."

"Of what?"

"Of getting rid of Mrs. Lascelles. I thought you would think it worth the risk."

"I do," declared Catherine, on due consultation with the fire. "I really do! Bob is all I have--all I want--in this world, Duncan; and it may seem a dreadful thing to say, and you mayn't believe it when I've said it, but--yes!--I'd rather he had never come home at all than come home married, at his age, and to an Indian widow, whose first husband had divorced her! I mean it, Duncan; I do indeed!"

"I am sure you do," said I. "It was just what I said to myself."

"To think of my Bob being Number Three!" murmured Catherine, with that plaintive drollery of hers which I had found irresistible in the days of old.

I was able to resist it now. "So those were the things you heard?" I remarked.

"Yes," said Catherine; "haven't you heard them?"

"I didn't need. I knew her in India years ago."

Catherine's eyes opened.

"You knew this Mrs. Lascelles?"

"Before that was her name. I have also met her original husband. If you had known him, you would be less hard on her."

Catherine's eyes were still wide open. They were rather hard eyes, after all. "Why did you not tell me you had known her, when you wrote?" she asked.

"It wouldn't have done any good. I did what you wanted done, you know. I thought that was enough."

"It was enough," echoed Catherine, with a quick return of grace. She looked into the fire. "I don't want to be hard upon the poor thing, Duncan! I know you think we women always are, upon each other. But to have come back married--at his age--to even the nicest woman in the world! It would have been madness ... ruination ... Duncan, T'm going to say something else that may shock you."

"Say away," said I.

Her voice had fallen. She was looking at me very narrowly, as if to measure the effect of her unspoken words.

"I am not so very sure about marriage," she went on, "at any age! Don't misunderstand me ... I was very happy ... but I for one could never marry again ... and I am not sure that I ever want to see Bob...."

Catherine had spoken very gently, looking once more in the fire; when she ceased there was a space of utter silence in the little room. Then her eyes came back furtively to mine; and presently they were twinkling with their old staid merriment.

"But to be Number Three!" she said again. "My poor old Bob!"

And she smiled upon me, tenderly, from the depths of her alter-egoism.

"Well," I said, "he never will be."

"God forbid!" cried Catherine.

"He has forbidden. It will never happen."

"Is she dead?" asked Catherine, but not too quickly for common decency. She was not one to pass such bounds.

"Not that I know of."

It was hard to repress a sneer.

"Then what makes you so sure--that he never could?"

"Well, he never will in my time!"

"You are good to me," said Catherine, gratefully.

"Not a bit good," said I, "or--only to myself ... I have been good to no one else in this whole matter. That's what it all amounts to, and that's what I really came to tell you. Catherine ... I am married to her myself!"

THE END