Chapter XXII
 

Mrs. Sherwood was completely right. Keith had seen Mrs. Morrell. The glamour had fallen from her at a touch. He did not in the least understand how this had happened, and considered that it was his own fault. Mrs. Morrell had not changed in the least, but he had, somehow. He looked upon himself as fickle, disloyal, altogether despicable. Yet for the life of him he could not get up the slightest spark of enthusiasm for musical evenings, Sunday night suppers, or week-end excursions into the country. They had fallen dead to his taste; and with the sudden revolt to which such temperaments as his are subject, he could not bear even the thought of them without a feeling of incipient boredom. The blow administered to his self- respect put him quite out of conceit with himself and the world in general. If he had followed his natural instinct, he would instanter have thrown, overboard all the Morrell episode, bag and baggage.

But that was, of course, impossible. Keith felt his obligations; he was a man of honour; he had respect for the feelings of others; he could not make friendly people the victims of his own outrageous freaks. That was out of the question!

Mrs. Morrell sent for him. She had been puzzled by the episode of the evening before. It would have been absolutely incredible to her that a hundred words from a woman who was not her rival could have destroyed her influence over this man. She had considerable knowledge of men, and she had played her cards carefully. But she realized that something was the matter; and she thought that the time had come to use the power she had gained. A note dispatched by the Chinaman would do.

Keith obeyed the summons. He knew himself well enough to realize that the intimacy, such as it was, must come to a pretty abrupt termination. Otherwise, he would shortly get very bored; and when he got very bored he became, in spite of himself, reserved and self-contained to the point of rudeness. For the exact reason that he saw thus clearly, his conscience was smiting him hard. Mrs. Morrell had done nothing to deserve this treatment. He was a dastard, a coward, ashamed of himself. If she wanted to see him, it was her due that he obey her summons promptly. He went with the vague idea of making amends by doing whatever she seemed to require--for this once.

She entered the dim sitting-room clad in a flowing silken negligee, which she excused on the ground of laziness.

"I'm still a little tired from last night," she said, with a laugh.

The soft material and informal cut clung to and defined the lines of her figure, showing to especial advantage the long sweep of her hips, the pliancy of her waist, the swell of her fine bust. A soft lilac colour set off the glint of her fair hair. She was, in fact, feeling a little languid from the reaction of the ball and in a sudden rush of emotion she admired Keith's crisp freshness. Her eyes swam a little and her breast heaved.

But the preliminary conversation went by jerks. Keith answered her advances with an effort toward ease and cordiality, but with a guarded, unnatural manner that sent a sudden premonitory chill to the woman's heart. Her instinct warned her. As the minutes passed, her uneasiness grew to the point of fear. Was she losing him? Why? This was no time for ordinary methods.

She arose and went to sit by his side.

"What's the matter, dear?" she asked.

"Nothing."

"Why are you acting in this manner? What have I done?"

"I'm not; you haven't done anything--of course."

She suddenly leaned forward, looking into his eyes, projecting all the force of her magnetism. She had before seen him respond, felt him quiver to her tentative, mischievous advances,

"Kiss me," she breathed.

Poor Keith was having a miserable enough time. He clung to his first thought--that this evening was her due, that he was in some way bound, in ending everything, to pay whatever coin he had left. He obeyed her, touching her lips lightly and coldly with his own. Never was chaster caress bestowed on melting mood!

She flung him violently aside, her face writhing and contorted with fury. She was enlightened, completely, as she could have been enlightened in no other manner.

"You can go!" she cried hoarsely. "Get out! Don't dare enter this house again!"

He made some sort of spiritless, feeble protest, trying his best to put some convincing quality into it. But she did not even listen. The ungoverned tiger-cat part of her nature was in the ascendant, the fierce pride of the woman living near the edge of the half-world. She would gladly have killed him. At length he went, very confused, bewildered, miserable-- and relieved! He left behind him a bitter enemy.