Book Two
Chapter VII. Cutting the Tangled Knot
 

There are some men whose mission in life it appears to be to go about the world creating crises in the lives of other people. When there is thunder in the air they precipitate the thunderbolt.

Bailey Bannister was one of these. He meant extraordinarily well, but he was a dangerous man for that very reason, and in a properly constituted world would have been segregated or kept under supervision. He would not leave the tangled lives of those around him to adjust themselves. He blundered in and tried to help. He nearly always produced a definite result, but seldom the one at which he aimed.

That he should have interfered in the affairs of Ruth and Kirk at this time was, it must be admitted, unselfish of him, for just now he was having troubles of his own on a somewhat extensive scale. His wife's extravagance was putting a strain on his finances, and he was faced with the choice of checking her or increasing his income. Being very much in love, he shrank from the former task and adopted the other way out of the difficulty.

It was this that had led to the change in his manner noticed by Steve. In order to make more money he had had to take risks, and only recently had he begun to perceive how extremely risky these risks were. For the first time in its history the firm of Bannister was making first-hand acquaintance with frenzied finance.

It is, perhaps, a little unfair to lay the blame for this entirely at the door of Bailey's Sybil. Her extravagance was largely responsible; but Bailey's newly found freedom was also a factor in the developments of the firm's operations. If you keep a dog, a dog with a high sense of his abilities and importance, tied up and muzzled for a length of time and then abruptly set it free the chances are that it will celebrate its freedom. This had happened in the case of Bailey.

Just as her father's money had caused Ruth to plunge into a whirl of pleasures which she did not really enjoy, merely for the novelty of it, so the death of John Bannister and his own consequent accession to the throne had upset Bailey's balance and embarked him on an orgy of speculation quite foreign to his true nature. All their lives Ruth and Bailey had been repressed by their father, and his removal had unsteadied them.

Bailey, on whom the shadow of the dead man had pressed particularly severely, had been quite intoxicated by sudden freedom. He had been a cipher in the firm of Bannister & Son. In the firm of Bannister & Co. he was an untrammelled despot. He did that which was right in his own eyes, and there was no one to say him nay.

It was true that veteran members of the firm, looking in the glass, found white hairs where no white hairs had been and wrinkles on foreheads which, under the solid rule of old John Bannister, had been smooth; but it would have taken more than these straws to convince Bailey that the wind which was blowing was an ill-wind. He had developed in a day the sublime self-confidence of a young Napoleon. He was all dash and enterprise--the hurricane fighter of Wall Street.

With these private interests to occupy him, it is surprising that he should have found time to take the affairs of Ruth and Kirk in hand. But he did.

For some time he had watched the widening gulf between them with pained solicitude. He disliked Kirk personally; but that did not influence him. He conceived it to be his duty to suppress private prejudices. Duty seemed to call him to go to Kirk's aid and smooth out his domestic difficulties.

What urged him to this course more than anything else was Ruth's growing intimacy with Basil Milbank; for, in the period which had elapsed since the conversation recorded earlier in the story, when Kirk had first made the other's acquaintance, the gifted Basil had become a very important and menacing figure in Ruth's life.

To Ruth, as to most women, his gifts were his attraction. He danced well; he talked well; he did everything well. He appealed to a side of Ruth's nature which Kirk scarcely touched--a side which had only come into prominence in the last year.

His manner was admirable. He suggested sympathy without expressing it. He could convey to Ruth that he thought her a misunderstood and neglected wife while talking to her about the weather. He could make his own knight-errant attitude toward her perfectly plain without saying a word, merely by playing soft music to her on the piano; for he had the gift of saying more with his finger-tips than most men could have said in a long speech carefully rehearsed.

Kirk's inability to accompany Ruth into her present life had given Basil his chance. Into the gap which now lay between them he had slipped with a smooth neatness born of experience.

Bailey hated Basil. Men, as a rule, did, without knowing why. Basil's reputation was shady, without being actually bad. He was a suspect who had never been convicted. New York contained several husbands who eyed him askance, but could not verify their suspicions, and the apparent hopelessness of ever doing so made them look on Basil as a man who had carried smoothness into the realms of fine art. He was considered too gifted to be wholesome. The men of his set, being for the most part amiably stupid, resented his cleverness.

Bailey, just at present, was feeling strongly on the subject of Basil. He was at that stage of his married life when he would have preferred his Sybil to speak civilly to no other man than himself. And only yesterday Sybil had come to him to inform him with obvious delight that Basil Milbank had invited her to join his yacht party for a lengthy voyage.

This had stung Bailey. He was not included in the invitation. The whole affair struck him as sinister. It was true that Sybil had never shown any sign of being fascinated by Basil; but, he told himself, there was no knowing. He forbade Sybil to accept the invitation. To soothe her disappointment, he sent her off then and there to Tiffany's with a roving commission to get what she liked; for Bailey, the stern, strong man, the man who knew when to put his foot down, was no tyrant. But he would have been indignant at the suggestion that he had bribed Sybil to refuse Basil's invitation.

One of the arguments which Sybil had advanced in the brief discussion which had followed the putting down of Bailey's foot had been that Ruth had been invited and accepted, so why should not she? Bailey had not replied to this--it was at this point of the proceedings that the Tiffany motive had been introduced, but he had not forgotten it. He thought it over, and decided to call upon Ruth. He did so.

It was unfortunate that the nervous strain of being the Napoleon of Wall Street had had the effect of increasing to a marked extent the portentousness of Bailey's always portentous manner. Ruth rebelled against it. There was an insufferable suggestion of ripe old age and fatherliness in his attitude which she found irritating in the extreme. All her life she had chafed at authority, and now, when Bailey set himself up as one possessing it, she showed the worst side of herself to him.

He struck this unfortunate note from the very beginning.

"Ruth," he said, "I wish to speak seriously to you."

Ruth looked at him with hostile eyes, but did not speak. He did not know it, poor man, but he had selected an exceedingly bad moment for his lecture. It so happened that, only half an hour before, she and Kirk had come nearer to open warfare than they had ever come.

It had come about in this way. Kirk had slept badly the night before, and, as he lay awake in the small hours, his conscience had troubled him.

Had he done all that it was in him to do to bridge the gap between Ruth and himself? That was what his conscience had wanted to know. The answer was in the negative. On the following day, just before Bailey's call, he accordingly sought Ruth out, and--rather nervously, for Ruth made him feel nervous nowadays--suggested that he and she and William Bannister should take the air in each other's company and go and feed the squirrels in the park.

Ruth declined. It is possible that she declined somewhat curtly. The day was close and oppressive, and she had a headache and a general feeling of ill-will toward her species. Also, in her heart, she considered that the scheme proposed smacked too much of Sunday afternoon domesticity in Brooklyn. The idea of papa, mamma, and baby sporting together in a public park offended her sense of the social proprieties.

She did not reveal these thoughts to Kirk because she was more than a little ashamed of them. A year ago, she knew, she would not have objected to the idea. A year ago such an expedition would have been a daily occurrence with her. Now she felt if William Bannister wished to feed squirrels, Mamie was his proper companion.

She could not put all this baldly to Kirk, so she placed the burden of her refusal on the adequate shoulders of Lora Delane Porter. Aunt Lora, she said, would never hear of William Bannister wandering at large in such an unhygienic fashion. Upon which Kirk, whose patience was not so robust as it had been, and who, like Ruth, found the day oppressive and making for irritability, had cursed Aunt Lora heartily, given it as his opinion that between them she and Ruth were turning the child from a human being into a sort of spineless, effeminate exhibit in a museum, and had taken himself off to the studio muttering disjointed things.

Ruth was still quivering with the indignation of a woman who has been cheated of the last word when Bailey appeared and announced that he wished to speak seriously to her.

Bailey saw the hostility in her eyes and winced a little before it. He was not feeling altogether at his ease. He had had experience of Ruth in this mood, and she had taught him to respect it.

But he was not going to shirk his duty. He resumed:

"I am only speaking for your own good," he said. "I know that it is nothing but thoughtlessness on your part, but I am naturally anxious----"

"Bailey," interrupted Ruth, "get to the point."

Bailey drew a long breath.

"Well, then," he said, baulked of his preamble, and rushing on his fate, "I think you see too much of Basil Milbank."

Ruth raised her eyebrows.

"Oh?"

The mildness of her tone deceived Bailey.

"I do not like to speak of these things," he went on more happily; "but I feel that I must. It is my duty. Basil Milbank has not a good reputation. He is not the sort of man who--ah--who--in fact, he has not a good reputation."

"Oh?"

"I understand that he has invited you to form one of his yacht party."

"How did you know?"

"Sybil told me. He invited her. I refused to allow her to accept the invitation."

"And what did Sybil say?"

"She was naturally a little disappointed, of course, but she did as I requested."

"I wonder she didn't pack her things and go straight off."

"My dear Ruth!"

"That is what I should have done."

"You don't know what you are saying."

"Oh? Do you think I should let Kirk dictate to me like that?"

"He is certain to disapprove of your going when he hears of the invitation. What will you do?"

Ruth's eyes opened. For a moment she looked almost ugly.

"What shall I do? Why, go, of course."

She clenched her teeth. A woman's mind can work curiously, and she was associating Kirk with Bailey in what she considered an unwarrantable intrusion into her private affairs. It was as if Kirk, and not Bailey, were standing there, demanding that she should not associate with Basil Milbank.

"I shall make it my business," said Bailey, "to warn Kirk that this man is not a desirable companion for you."

The discussion of this miserable yacht affair had brought back to Bailey all the jealousy which he had felt when Sybil had first told him of it. All the vague stories he had ever heard about Basil were surging in his mind like waves of some corrosive acid. He had become a leading member of the extreme wing of the anti-Milbank party. He regarded Basil with the aversion which a dignified pigeon might feel for a circling hawk; and he was now looking on this yacht party as a deadly peril from which Ruth must be saved at any cost.

"I shall speak to him very strongly," he added.

Ruth's suppressed anger blazed up in the sudden way which before now had disconcerted her brother.

"Bailey, what do you mean by coming here and saying this sort of thing? You're becoming a perfect old woman. You spend your whole time prying into other people's affairs. I'm sorry for Sybil."

Bailey cast one reproachable look at her and left the room with pained dignity. Something seemed to tell him that no good could come to him from a prolongation of the interview. Ruth, in this mood, always had been too much for him, and always would be. Well, he had done his duty as far as he was concerned. It now remained to do the same by Kirk.

He hailed a taxi and drove to the studio.

Kirk was busy and not anxious for conversation, least of all with Bailey. He had not forgotten their last tete-a-tete.

Bailey, however, was regarding him with a feeling almost of friendliness. They were bound together by a common grievance against Basil Milbank.

"I came here, Winfield," he said, after a few moments of awkward conversation on neutral topics, "because I understand that this man Milbank has invited Ruth to join his yacht party."

"What yacht party?"

"This man Milbank is taking a party for a cruise shortly in his yacht."

"Who is Milbank?"

"Surely you have met him? Yes, he was at my house one night when you and Ruth dined there shortly after your return."

"I don't remember him. However, it doesn't matter. But why does the fact that he has asked Ruth on his yacht excite you? Are you nervous about the sea?"

"I dislike this man Milbank very much, Winfield. I think Ruth sees too much of him."

Kirk stiffened. His eyebrows rose the fraction of an inch.

"Oh?" he said.

It seemed to Bailey for an instant that he had been talking all his life to people who raised their eyebrows and said "Oh!" but he continued manfully.

"I do not think that Ruth should know him, Winfield."

"Wouldn't Ruth be rather a good judge of that?"

His tone nettled Bailey, but the man conscious of doing his duty acquires an artificial thickness of skin, and he controlled himself. But he had lost that feeling of friendliness, of sympathy with a brother in misfortune which he had brought in with him.

"I disagree with you entirely," he said.

"Another thing," went on Kirk. "If this man Milbank--I still can't place him--is such a thug, or whatever it is that he happens to be, how did he come to be at your house the night you say I met him?"

Bailey winced. He wished the world was not perpetually reminding him that Basil and Sybil were on speaking terms.

"Sybil invited him. I may say he has asked Sybil to make one of the yacht party. I absolutely forbade it."

"But, Heavens! What's wrong with the man?"

"He has a bad reputation."

"Has he, indeed!"

"And I wish my wife to associate with him as little as possible. And I should advise you to forbid Ruth to see more of him than she can help."

Kirk laughed. The idea struck him as comic.

"My good man, I don't forbid Ruth to do things."

Bailey, objecting to being called any one's good man, especially Kirk's, permitted his temper to get the better of him.

"Then you should," he snapped. "I have no wish to quarrel with you. I came in here in a friendly spirit to warn you; but I must say that for a man who married a girl, as you married Ruth, in direct opposition to the wishes of her family, you take a curious view of your obligations. Ruth has always been a headstrong, impulsive girl, and it is for you to see that she is protected from herself. If you are indifferent to her welfare, then all I can say is that you should not have married her. You appear to think otherwise. Good afternoon."

He stalked out of the studio, leaving Kirk uncomfortably conscious that he had had the worst of the argument. Bailey had been officious, no doubt, and his pompous mode of expression was not soothing, but there was no doubt that he had had right on his side.

Marrying Ruth did not involve obligations. He had never considered her in that light, but perhaps she was a girl who had to be protected from herself. She was certainly impulsive. Bailey had been right there, if nowhere else.

Who was this fellow Milbank who had sprung suddenly from nowhere into the position of a menace? What were Ruth's feelings toward him? Kirk threw his mind back to the dinner-party at Bailey's and tried to place him.

Was it the man--yes, he had it now. It was the man with the wave of hair over his forehead, the fellow who looked like a poet. Memory came to him with a rush. He recalled his instinctive dislike for the fellow.

So that was Milbank, was it? He got up and put away his brushes. There would be no more work for him that afternoon.

He walked slowly home. The heat of the day had grown steadily more oppressive. It was one of those airless, stifling afternoons which afflict New York in the summer. He remembered seeing something about a record in the evening paper which he had bought on his way to the studio, a whole column about heat and humidity. It certainly felt unusually warm even for New York.

It was one of those days when nerves are strained, when molehills become mountains, and mountains are all Everests. He had felt it when he talked with Ruth about Bill and the squirrels, and he felt it now. He was conscious of being extraordinarily irritated, not so much with any particular person as with the world in general. The very vagueness of Bailey's insinuations against Basil Milbank increased his resentment.

What a pompous ass Bailey was! What a fool he had been to give Bailey such a chance of snubbing him! What an extraordinarily futile and unpleasant world it was altogether!

He braced himself with an effort. It was this heat which was making him magnify trifles. Bailey was a fool. Probably there was nothing whatever wrong with this fellow Milbank. Probably he had some personal objection to the man, and that was all.

And yet the image of Basil which had come back to his mind was not reassuring. He had mistrusted him that night, and he mistrusted him now.

What should he do? Ruth was not Sybil. She was not the sort of woman a man could forbid to do things. It would require tact to induce her to refuse Basil's invitation.

As he reached the door an idea came to him, so simple that he wondered that it had not occurred to him before. It was, perhaps, an echo of his conversation with Steve.

He would get Ruth to come away with him to the shack in the Connecticut woods. As he dwelt on the idea the heat of the day seemed to become less oppressive and his heart leaped. How cool and pleasant it would be out there! They would take Bill with them and live the simple life again, in the country this time instead of in town. Perhaps out there, far away from the over-crowded city, he and Ruth would be able to come to an understanding and bridge over that ghastly gulf.

As for his work, he could do that as well in the woods as in New York. And, anyhow, he had earned a vacation. For days Mr. Penway had been hinting that the time had arrived for a folding of the hands.

Mr. Penway's views on New York and its record humidity were strong and crisply expressed. His idea, he told Kirk, was that some sport with a heart should loan him a couple of hundred bucks and let him beat it to the seashore before he melted.

In the drawing-room Ruth was playing the piano softly, as she had done so often at the studio. Kirk went to her and kissed her. A marked coolness in her reception of the kiss increased the feeling of nervousness which he had felt at the sight of her. It came back to him that they had parted that afternoon, for the first time, on definitely hostile terms.

He decided to ignore the fact. Something told him that Ruth had not forgotten, but it might be that cheerfulness now would blot out the resentment of past irritability.

But in his embarrassment he was more than cheerful. As Steve had been on the occasion of his visit to old John Bannister, he was breezy, breezy with an effort that was as painful to Ruth as it was to himself, breezy with a horrible musical comedy breeziness.

He could have adopted no more fatal tone with Ruth at that moment. All the afternoon she had been a complicated tangle of fretted nerves. Her quarrel with Kirk, Bailey's visit, a conscience that would not lie down and go to sleep at her orders, but insisted on running riot--all these things had unfitted her to bear up amiably under sudden, self-conscious breeziness.

And the heat of the day, charged now with the oppressiveness of long-overdue thunder, completed her mood. When Kirk came in and began to speak, the softest notes of the human voice would have jarred upon her. And Kirk, in his nervousness, was almost shouting.

His voice rang through the room, and Ruth winced away from it like a stricken thing. From out of the hell of nerves and heat and interfering brothers there materialized itself, as she sat there, a very vivid hatred of Kirk.

Kirk, meanwhile, uneasy, but a little guessing at the fury behind Ruth's calm face, was expounding his great scheme, his panacea for all the ills of domestic misunderstandings and parted lives.

"Ruth, old girl."

Ruth shuddered.

"Ruth, old girl, I've had a bully good idea. It's getting too warm for anything in New York. Did you ever feel anything like it is to-day? Why shouldn't you and I pop down to the shack and camp out there for a week or so? And we would take Bill with us. Just we three, with somebody to do the cooking. It would be great. What do you say?"

What Ruth said languidly was: "It's quite impossible."

It was damping; but Kirk felt that at all costs he must refuse to be damped. He clutched at his cheerfulness and held it.

"Nonsense," he retorted. "Why is it impossible? It's a great idea."

Ruth half hid a yawn. She knew she was behaving abominably, and she was glad of it.

"It's impossible as far as I'm concerned. I have a hundred things to do before I can leave New York."

"Well, I could do with a day or two to clear up a few bits of work I have on hand. Why couldn't we start this day week?"

"It is out of the question for me. About then I shall be on Mr. Milbank's yacht. He has invited me to join his party. The actual day is not settled, but it will be in about a week's time."

"Oh!" said Kirk.

Ruth said nothing.

"Have you accepted the invitation?"

"I have not actually answered his letter. I was just going to when you came in."

"But you mean to accept it?"

"Certainly. Several of my friends will be there. Sybil for one."

"Not Sybil."

"Oh, I know Bailey has made some ridiculous objection to her going, but I mean to persuade her."

Kirk did not answer. She looked at him steadily.

"So Bailey did call on you this afternoon? He told me he was going to, but I hoped he would think better of it. But apparently there are no limits to Bailey's stupidity."

"Yes, Bailey came to the studio. He seemed troubled about this yacht party."

"Did he advise you to forbid me to go?"

"Well, yes; he did."

"And now you have come to do it?"

"Not at all. I told Bailey that you were not the sort of woman one forbade to do things."

"I'm not."

There was a pause.

"All the same, I wish you wouldn't go."

Ruth did not answer.

"It would be very jolly out at the shack."

Ruth shuddered elaborately and gave a little laugh.

"Would it? It's rather a question of taste. Personally, I can't imagine anything more depressing and uncomfortable than being cooped up in a draughty frame house miles away from anywhere. There's no reason why you should not go, though, if you like that sort of thing. Of course, you must not take Bill."

"Why not?"

Kirk spoke calmly enough, but he was very near the breaking point. All his good resolutions had vanished under the acid of Ruth's manner.

"I couldn't let him rough it like that. Aunt Lora would have a fit."

Conditions being favourable, it only needs a spark to explode a powder magazine; and there are moments when a word can turn an outwardly calm and patient man into a raging maniac. This introduction of Mrs. Porter's name into the discussion at this particular point broke down the last remnants of Kirk's self-control.

For a few seconds his fury so mastered him that he could not speak. Then, suddenly, the storm passed and he found himself cool and venomous. He looked at Ruth curiously. It seemed incredible to him that he had ever loved her.

"We had better get this settled," he said in a hard, quiet voice.

Ruth started. She had never heard him speak like this before. She had not imagined him capable of speaking in that way. Even in the days when she had loved him most she had never looked up to him. She had considered his nature weak, and she had loved his weakness. Except in the case of her father, she had always dominated the persons with whom she mixed; and she had taken it for granted that her will was stronger than Kirk's. Something in his voice now told her that she had under-estimated him.

"Get what settled?" she asked, and was furious with herself because her voice shook.

"Is Mrs. Porter the mother of the child, or are you? What has Mrs. Porter to do with it? Why should I ask her permission? How does it happen to be any business of Mrs. Porter's at all?"

Ruth felt baffled. He was giving her no chance to take the offensive. There was nothing in his tone which she could openly resent. He was not shouting at her, he was speaking quietly. There was nothing for her to do but answer the question, and she knew that her answer would give him another point in the contest. Even as she spoke she knew that her words were ridiculous.

"Aunt Lora has been wonderful with him. No child could have been better looked after."

"I know she has used him as a vehicle for her particular form of insanity, but that's not the point. What I am asking is why she was introduced at all."

"I told you. When you were away, Bill nearly----"

"Died. I know. I'm not forgetting that. And naturally for a time you were frightened. It is just possible that for the moment you lost your head and honestly thought that Mrs. Porter's methods were the only chance for him. But that state of mind could not last all the time with you. You are not a crank like your aunt. You are a perfectly sensible, level-headed woman. And you must have seen the idiocy of it all long before I came back. Why did you let it go on?"

Ruth did not answer.

"I will tell you why. Because it saved you trouble. Because it gave you more leisure for the sort of futile waste of time which seems to be the only thing you care for nowadays. Don't trouble to deny it. Do you think I haven't seen in these last few months that Bill bores you to death? Oh, I know you always have some perfect excuse for keeping away from him. It's too much trouble for you to be a mother to him, so you hedge with your conscience by letting Mrs. Porter pamper him and sterilize his toys and all the rest of it, and try to make yourself think that you have done your duty to him. You know that, as far as everything goes that matters, any tenement child is better off than Bill."

"I----"

"You had better let me finish what I have got to say. I will be as brief as I can. That is my case as regards Bill. Now about myself. What do you think I am made of? I've stood it just as long as I could; you have tried me too hard. I'm through. Heaven knows why it should have come to this. It is not so very long ago that Bill was half the world to you and I was the other half. Now, apparently, there is not room in your world for either of us."

Ruth had risen. She was trembling.

"I think we had better end this."

He broke in on her words.

"End it? Yes, you're right. One way or the other. Either go back to the old life or start a new one. What we are living now is a horrible burlesque."

"What do you mean? How start a new life?"

"I mean exactly what I say. In the life you are living now I am an anachronism. I'm a survival. I'm out of date and in the way. You would be freer without me."

"That's absurd."

"Is the idea so novel? Is our marriage the only failure in New York?"

"Do you mean that we ought to separate?"

"Only a little more, a very little more, than we are separated now. Never see each other again instead of seeing each other for a few minutes every day. It's not a very big step to take."

Ruth sat down and rested her chin on her hand, staring at nothing. Kirk went to the window and looked out.

Over the park the sky was black. In the room behind him the light had faded till it seemed as if night were come. The air was heavy and stifling. A flicker of lightning came and went in the darkness over the trees.

He turned abruptly.

"It is the only reasonable thing to do. Our present mode of life is a farce. We are drifting farther apart every day. Perhaps I have changed. I know you have. We are two strangers chained together. We have made a muddle of it, and the best thing we can do is to admit it.

"I am no good to you. I have no part in your present life. You're the queen and I'm just the prince consort, the fellow who happens to be Mrs. Winfield's husband. It's not a pleasant part to have to play, and I have had enough of it. We had better separate before we hate each other. You have your amusements. I have my work. We can continue them apart. We shall both be better off."

He stopped. Ruth did not speak. She was still sitting in the same attitude. It was too dark to see her face. It formed a little splash of white in the dusk. She did not move.

Kirk went to the door.

"I'm going up to say good-bye to Bill. Have you anything to say against that? And I shall say good-bye to him in my own way."

She made no sign that she had heard him.

"Good-bye," he said again.

The door closed.

Up in the nursery Bill crooned to himself as he played on the floor. Mamie sat in a chair, sewing. The opening of the door caused them to look up simultaneously.

"Hello," said Bill.

His voice was cordial without being enthusiastic. He was glad to see Kirk, but tin soldiers were tin soldiers and demanded concentrated attention. When you are in the middle of intricate manoeuvres you cannot allow yourself to be more than momentarily distracted by anything.

"Mamie," said Kirk hoarsely, "go out for a minute, will you? I shan't be long."

Mamie obediently departed. Later, when Keggs was spreading the news of Kirk's departure in the servants' hall, she remembered that his manner had struck her as strange.

Kirk sat down in the chair she had left and looked at Bill. He felt choked. There was a mist before his eyes.

"Bill."

The child, absorbed in his game, did not look up.

"Bill, old man, come here a minute. I've something to say."

Bill looked up, nodded, moved a couple of soldiers, and got up. He came to Kirk's side. His chosen mode of progression at this time was a kind of lurch. He was accustomed to breathe heavily during the journey, and on arrival at the terminus usually shouted triumphantly.

Kirk put an arm round him. Bill stared gravely up into his face. There was a silence. From outside came a sudden rumbling crash. Bill jumped.

"Funder," he said in a voice that shook a little.

"Not afraid of thunder, are you?" said Kirk.

Bill shook his head stoutly.

"Bill."

"Yes, daddy?"

Kirk fought to keep his voice steady.

"Bill, old man, I'm afraid you won't see me again for some time. I'm going away."

"In a ship?"

"No, not in a ship."

"In a train?"

"Perhaps."

"Take me with you, daddy."

"I'm afraid I can't, Bill."

"Shan't I ever see you again?"

Kirk winced. How direct children are! What was it they called it in the papers? "The custody of the child." How little it said and how much it meant!

The sight of Bill's wide eyes and quivering mouth reminded him that he was not the only person involved in the tragedy of those five words. He pulled himself together. Bill was waiting anxiously for an answer to his question. There was no need to make Bill unhappy before his time.

"Of course you will," he said, trying to make his voice cheerful.

"Of course I will," echoed Bill dutifully.

Kirk could not trust himself to speak again. The old sensation of choking had come back to him. The room was a blur.

He caught Bill to him in a grip that made the child cry out, held him for a long minute, then put him gently down and made blindly for the door.

The storm had burst by the time Kirk found himself in the street. The thunder crashed and great spears of lightning flashed across the sky. A few heavy drops heralded the approach of the rain, and before he had reached the corner it was beating down in torrents.

He walked on, raising his face to the storm, finding in it a curious relief. A magical coolness had crept into the air, and with it a strange calm into his troubled mind. He looked back at the scene through which he had passed as at something infinitely remote. He could not realize distinctly what had happened. He was only aware that everything was over, that with a few words he had broken his life into small pieces. Too impatient to unravel the tangled knot, he had cut it, and nothing could mend it now.

"Why?"

The rain had ceased as suddenly as it had begun. The sun was struggling through a mass of thin cloud over the park. The world was full of the drip and rush of water. All that had made the day oppressive and strained nerves to breaking point had gone, leaving peace behind. Kirk felt like one waking from an evil dream.

"Why did it happen?" he asked himself. "What made me do it?"

A distant rumble of thunder answered the question.