The Return Game by Ethel M. Dell
Teddy Duncombe, airily clad in pyjamas, stood a moment on the verandah to peer in upon his major, then stepped into the room with the assurance of one who had never yet found himself unwelcome.
"Hullo, my son!" responded Hone, who, clad still more airily, was exercising his great muscles with dumb-bells before plunging into his morning tub.
Duncombe seated himself to watch the operations with eyes of keen appreciation.
"By Jove," he said admiringly at length, "you are a mighty specimen! I believe you'll live for ever."
"Not on this plaguey little planet, let us trust!" said Hone, speaking through his teeth by reason of his exertions.
"You ought to marry," said Duncombe, still intently observant. "Giants like you have no right to remain single in these degenerate days."
"Faith!" scoffed Hone. "It's an age of feather-weights, and I'm out of date entirely."
He thumped down his dumb-bells, and stood up with arms outstretched. He saw the open admiration in his friend's eyes, and laughed at it.
But Duncombe remained serious.
"Why don't you get married, Pat?" he said.
Hone's arms slowly dropped. His brown face sobered. But the next instant he smiled again.
"Find the woman, Teddy!" he said lightly.
"I've found her," said Teddy unexpectedly.
"The deuce you have!" said Hone. "Sure, and it's truly grateful I am! Is she young, my son, and lovely?"
"She is the loveliest woman I know," said Teddy Duncombe, with all sincerity.
"Faith!" laughed the Irishman. "But that's heartfelt! Why don't you enter for the prize yourself?"
"I'm going to marry little Lucy Fabian as soon as she will have me," explained Duncombe. "We settled that ages ago, almost as soon as she came out. It's not a formal engagement even yet, but she has promised to bear it in mind. We had a talk last night, and--I believe I haven't much longer to wait."
"Good luck to you, dear fellow!" said Hone. "You deserve the best." He laid his hand for a moment on Duncombe's shoulder. "It's been a good partnership, Teddy boy," he said. "I shall miss you."
Teddy gripped the hand hard.
"You'll have to get married yourself, Pat," he declared urgently. "It isn't good for man to live alone."
"And so you are going to provide for my future also," laughed Hone. "And the lady's name?"
"Oh, she's an old friend!" said Duncombe. "Can't you guess?"
Hone shook his head.
"I can't imagine any old friend taking pity on me. Have you sounded her feelings on the subject? Or perhaps she hasn't got any where I am concerned."
"Oh, yes, she has her feelings about you!" said Duncombe, with confidence. "But I don't know what they are. She wasn't particularly communicative on that point."
"Or you, my son, were not particularly penetrating," suggested Hone.
"I certainly didn't penetrate far," Duncombe confessed. "It was a case of 'No admission to outsiders.' Still, I kept my eyes open on your behalf; and the conclusion I arrived at was that, though reticent where you were concerned, she was by no means indifferent."
Hone stooped and picked up his dumb-bells once more.
"Your conclusions are not always very convincing, Teddy," he remarked.
Duncombe got to his feet in leisurely preparation for departure.
"There was no mistake as to her reticence anyhow," he observed. "It was the more conspicuous, as all the rest of us were yelling ourselves hoarse in your honour. I was watching her, and she never moved her lips, never even smiled. But her eyes saw no one else but you."
Hone grunted a little. He was poising the dumb-bells at the full stretch of his arms.
Duncombe still loitered at the open window.
"And her name is Nina Perceval," he said abruptly, shooting out the words as though not quite certain of their reception.
The dumb-bells crashed to the ground. Hone wheeled round. For a single instant the Irish eyes flamed fiercely; but the next he had himself in hand.
"A pretty little plan, by the powers!" he said, forcing himself to speak lightly. "But it won't work, my lad. I'm deeply grateful all the same."
"Rats, man! She is sure to marry again." Duncombe spoke with deliberate carelessness. He would not seem to be aware of that which his friend had suppressed.
"That may be," Hone said very quietly. "But she will never marry me. And--faith, I'll be honest with you, Teddy, for the whole truth told is better than a half-truth guessed--for her sake I shall never marry another woman."
He spoke with absolute steadiness, and he looked Duncombe full in the eyes as he said it.
A brief silence followed his statement; then impulsively Duncombe thrust out his hand.
"Hone, old chap, forgive me! I'm a headlong, blundering jackass!"
"And the best friend a man ever had," said Hone gently. "It's an old story, and I can't tell you all. It was just a game, you know; it began in jest, but it ended in grim earnest, as some games do. It happened that time we travelled out together, eight years ago. I was supposed to be looking after her; but, faith, the monkey tricked me! I was a fool, you see, Teddy." A faint smile crossed his face. "And she gave me an elderly spinster to dance attendance upon while she amused herself. She was only a child in those days. She couldn't have been twenty. I used to call her the Princess, and I was St. Patrick to her. But the mischief was that I thought her free, and--I made love to her." He paused a moment. "Perhaps it's hardly fair to tell you this. But you're in love yourself; you'll understand."
"I understand," Duncombe said.
"And she was such an innocent," Hone went on softly. "Faith, what an innocent she was! Till one day she saw what had happened to me, and it nearly broke her heart. For she hadn't meant any harm, bless her. It was all a game with her, and she thought I was playing, too, till--till she saw otherwise. Well, it all came to an end at last, and to save her from grieving I pretended that I had known all along. I pretended that I had trifled with her from start to finish. She didn't believe me at first, but I made her--Heaven pity me!--I made her. And then she swore that she would never forgive me. And she never has."
Hone turned quietly away, and put the dumb-bells into a corner. Duncombe remained motionless, watching him.
"But she will, old chap," he said at last. "She will. Women do, you know--when they understand."
"Yes, I know," said Hone. "But she never can understand. I tricked her too thoroughly for that." He faced round again, his grey eyes level and very steady.
"It's just my fate, Teddy," he said; "and I've got to put up with it. However it may appear, the gods are not all-bountiful where I am concerned. I may win everything in the world I turn my hand to, but I have lost for ever the only thing I really want!"