Chapter I. Reluctance.
 

I.

Neither life nor the lawn-tennis club was so full at Natterley that the news of Harry Sterling's return had not some importance.

He came back, moreover, to assume a position very different from his old one. He had left Harrow now, departing in the sweet aroma of a long score against Eton at Lord's, and was to go up to Oxford in October. Now between a schoolboy and a University man there is a gulf, indicated unmistakably by the cigarette which adorned Harry's mouth as he walked down the street with a newly acquiescent father, and thoroughly realized by his old playmates. The young men greeted him as an equal, the boys grudgingly accepted his superiority, and the girls received him much as though they had never met him before in their lives and were pressingly in need of an introduction. These features of his reappearance amused Mrs. Mortimer; she recollected him as an untidy, shy, pretty boy; but mind, working on matter, had so transformed him that she was doubtful enough about him to ask her husband if that were really Harry Sterling.

Mr. Mortimer, mopping his bald head after one of his energetic failures at lawn tennis, grunted assent, and remarked that a few years more would see a like development in their elder son, a remark which bordered on absurdity; for Johnny was but eight, and ten years are not a few years to a lady of twenty-eight, whatever they may seem to a man of forty-four.

Presently Harry, shaking himself free from an entangling group of the Vicarage girls, joined his father, and the two came across to Mrs. Mortimer.

She was a favorite of old Sterling's, and he was proud to present his handsome son to her. She listened graciously to his jocosities, stealing a glance at Harry when his father called him "a good boy." Harry blushed and assumed an air of indifference, tossing his hair back from his smooth forehead, and swinging his racket carelessly in his hand. The lady addressed some words of patronizing kindness to him, seeking to put him at his ease. She seemed to succeed to some extent, for he let his father and her husband go off together, and sat down by her on the bench, regardless of the fact that the Vicarage girls were waiting for him to make a fourth.

He said nothing, and Mrs. Mortimer looked at him from under her long lashes; in so doing she discovered that he was looking at her.

"Aren't you going to play any more, Mr. Sterling?" she asked.

"Why aren't you playing?" he rejoined.

"My husband says I play too badly."

"Oh, play with me! We shall make a good pair."

"Then you must be very good."

"Well, no one can play a hang here, you know. Besides I'm sure you're all right, really."

"You forget my weight of years."

He opened his blue eyes a little, and laughed. He was, in fact, astonished to find that she was quite a young woman. Remembering old Mortimer and the babies, he had thought of her as full middle-aged. But she was not; nor had she that likeness to a suet pudding, which his newborn critical faculty cruelly detected in his old friends, the Vicarage girls.

There was one of them--Maudie--with whom he had flirted in his holidays; he wondered at that, especially when a relentless memory told him that Mrs. Mortimer must have been at the parties where the thing went on. He felt very much older, so much older that Mrs. Mortimer became at once a contemporary. Why, then, should she begin, as she now did, to talk to him, in quasi maternal fashion, about his prospects? Men don't have prospects, or, anyhow, are spared questionings thereon.

Either from impatience of this topic, or because, after all, tennis was not to be neglected, he left her, and she sat alone for a little while, watching him play. She was glad that she had not played; she could not have rivaled the activity of the Vicarage girls. She got up and joined Mrs. Sterling, who was presiding over the club teapot. The good lady expected compliments on her son, but for some reason Mrs. Mortimer gave her none. Very soon, indeed, she took Johnnie away with her, leaving her husband to follow at his leisure.

In comparing Maudie Sinclair to a suet pudding, Harry had looked at the dark side of the matter.

The suggestion, though indisputable, was only occasionally obtrusive, and as a rule hushed almost to silence by the pleasant good nature which redeemed shapeless features. Mrs. Mortimer had always liked Maudie, who ran in and out of her house continually, and had made of herself a vice-mother to the little children.

The very next day she came, and, in the intervals of playing cricket with Johnnie, took occasion to inform Mrs. Mortimer that in her opinion Harry Sterling was by no means improved by his new status and dignity. She went so far as to use the term "stuck- up." "He didn't use to be like that," she said, shaking her head; "he used to be very jolly." Mrs. Mortimer was relieved to note an entire absence of romance either in the regretted past or the condemned present. Maudie mourned a friend spoiled, not an admirer lost; the tone of her criticisms left no doubt of it, and Mrs. Mortimer, with a laugh, announced her intention of asking the Sterlings to dinner and having Maudie to meet them. "You will be able to make it up then," said she.

"Why, I see him every day at the tennis club," cried Maudie in surprise.

The faintest of blushes tinged Mrs. Mortimer's cheek as she chid herself for forgetting this obvious fact.

The situation now developed rapidly. The absurd thing happened: Harry Sterling began to take a serious view of his attachment to Mrs. Mortimer. The one thing more absurd, that she should take a serious view of it, had not happened yet, and, indeed, would never happen; so she told herself with a nervous little laugh. Harry gave her no opportunity of saying so to him, for you cannot reprove glances or discourage pressings of your hand in fashion so blunt.

And he was very discreet: he never made her look foolish. In public he treated her with just the degree of attention that gained his mother's fond eulogium, and his father's approving smile; while Mr. Mortimer, who went to London at nine o'clock every morning and did not return till seven, was very seldom bothered by finding the young fellow hanging about the house. Certainly he came pretty frequently between the hours named, but it was, as the children could have witnessed, to play with them. And, through his comings and goings, Mrs. Mortimer moved with pleasure, vexation, self-contempt, and eagerness.

One night she and her husband went to dine with the Sterlings. After dinner Mr. Mortimer accepted his host's invitation to stay for a smoke. He saw no difficulty in his wife walking home alone; it was but half a mile, and the night was fine and moonlit. Mrs. Mortimer made no difficulty either, but Mrs. Sterling was sure that Harry would be delighted to see Mrs. Mortimer to her house.

She liked the boy to learn habits of politeness, she said, and his father eagerly proffered his escort, waving aside Mrs. Mortimer's protest that she would not think of troubling Mr. Harry; throughout which conversation Harry said nothing at all, but stood smiling, with his hat in his hand, the picture of an obedient, well-mannered youth. There are generally two ways anywhere, and there were two from the Sterlings' to the Mortimers': the short one through the village, and the long one round by the lane and across the Church meadow. The path diverging to the latter route comes very soon after you leave the Sterlings', and not a word had passed when Mrs. Mortimer and Harry reached it. Still without a word, Harry turned off to follow the path. Mrs. Mortimer glanced at him; Harry smiled.

"It's much longer," she said.

"There's lots of time," rejoined Harry, "and it's such a jolly night." The better to enjoy the night's beauty, he slackened his pace to a very crawl.

"It's rather dark; won't you take my arm?" he said.

"What nonsense! Why, I could see to read!"

"But I'm sure you're tired."

"How absurd you are! Was it a great bore?"

"What?"

"Why, coming."

"No," said Harry.

In such affairs monosyllables are danger signals. A long protestation might have meant nothing: in this short, sufficient negative Mrs. Mortimer recognized the boy's sincerity. A little thrill of pride and shame, and perhaps something else, ran through her. The night was hot and she unfastened the clasp of her cloak, breathing a trifle quickly. To relieve the silence, she said, with a laugh:

"You see we poor married women have to depend on charity. Our husbands don't care to walk home with us. Your father was bent on your coming."

Harry laughed a short laugh; the utter darkness of Mr. Sterling's condition struck through his agitation down to his sense of humor. Mrs. Mortimer smiled at him; she could not help it: the secret between them was so pleasant to her, even while she hated herself for its existence.

They had reached the meadow now, halfway through their journey. A little gate led into it and Harry stopped, leaning his arm on the top rail.

"Oh, no! we must go on," she murmured.

"They won't move for an hour yet," he answered, and then he suddenly broke out:

"How--how funny it is! I hardly remembered you, you know."

"Oh, but I remembered you, a pretty little boy;" and she looked up at his face, half a foot above her. Mere stature has much effect and the little boy stage seemed very far away. And he knew that it did, for he put out his hand to take hers. She drew back.

"No," she said.

Harry blushed. She took hold of the gate and he, yielding his place, let her pass through. For a minute or two they walked on in silence.

"Oh, how silly you are!" she cried then, beginning with a laugh and ending with a strange catch in her throat. "Why, you're only just out of knickerbockers!"

"I don't care, I don't care, Hilda----"

"Hush, hush! Oh, indeed, you must be quiet! See, we are nearly home."

He seized her hand, not to be quelled this time, and, bending low over it, kissed it. She did not draw it away, but watched him with a curious, pained smile. He looked up in her face, his own glowing with excitement. He righted himself to his full stature and, from that stooping, kissed her on the lips.

"Oh, you silly boy!" she moaned, and found herself alone in the meadow. He had gone swiftly back by the way they had come, and she went on to her home.

"Well, the boy saw you home?" asked Mr. Mortimer when he arrived half an hour later.

"Yes," she said, raising her head from the cushions of the sofa on which he found her lying.

"I supposed so, but he didn't come into the smoking-room when he got back. Went straight to bed, I expect. He's a nice-mannered young fellow, isn't he?"

"Oh, very!" said Mrs. Mortimer.

II.

Mr. Mortimer had never been so looked after, cosseted, and comforted for his early start as the next morning, nor the children found their mother so patient and affectionate. She was in an abasement of shame and disgust at herself, and quite unable to treat her transgression lightly. That he was a boy and she-- not a girl--seemed to charge her with his as well as her own sins, and, besides this moral aggravation, entailed a lower anxiety as to his discretion and secrecy that drove her half mad with worry. Suppose he should boast of it! Or, if he were not bad enough for that, only suppose he should be carried away into carelessness about it! He had nothing to fear worse than what he would call "a wigging" and perhaps summary dismissal to a tutor's: she had more at risk than she could bear to think of. Probably, by now, he recognized his foolishness, and laughed at himself and her. This thought made her no happier, for men may do all that--and yet, very often, they do not stop.

She had to go to a party at the Vicarage in the afternoon. Harry would be sure to be there, and, with a conflict of feeling finding expression in her acts, she protected herself by taking all the children, while she inconsistently dressed herself in her most youthful and coquettish costume. She found herself almost grudging Johnnie his rapidly increasing inches, even while she relied on him for an assertion of her position as a matron. For the folly of last night was to be over and done with, and her acquaintance with Harry Sterling to return to its only possible sane basis; that she was resolved on, but she wanted Harry honestly--even keenly--to regret her determination.

He was talking to Maudie Sinclair when she arrived; he took off his hat, but did not allow his eyes to meet hers. She gathered her children round her, and sat down among the chaperons. Mrs. Sterling came and talked to her; divining a sympathy, the good mother had much to say of her son, of her hopes and her fears for him; so many dangers beset young men, especially if they were attractive, like Harry; there were debts, idleness, fast men, and--worst of all--there were designing women, ready to impose on and ruin the innocence of youth.

"He's been such a good boy till now," said Mrs. Sterling, "but, of course, his father and I feel anxious. If we could only keep him here, out of harm's way, under our own eyes!"

Mrs. Mortimer murmured consolation.

"How kind of you! And your influence is so good for him. He thinks such a lot of you, Hilda."

Mrs. Mortimer, tried too hard, rose and strolled away. Harry's set seemed to end almost directly, and a moment later he was shaking hands with her, still keeping his eyes away from hers. She made her grasp cold and inanimate, and he divined the displeasure she meant to indicate.

"You must go and play again," she said, "or talk to the girls. You mustn't come and talk to me."

"Why not! How can I help it--now?"

The laughing at her and himself had evidently not come, but, bad as that would have been to bear, his tone threatened something worse.

"Don't," she answered sharply. "I'm very angry. You were very unkind and--and ungentlemanly last night."

He flushed crimson.

"Didn't you like it?" he asked, with the terrible simplicity of his youth.

For all her trouble, she had to bite her lip to hide a smile. What a question to ask--just in so many words!

"It was very, very wicked, and, of course, I didn't like it," she answered. "Oh, Harry! don't you know how wicked it was?"

"Oh, yes! I know that, of course," said he, picking at the straw of his hat, which he was carrying in his hand.

"Well, then!" she said.

"I couldn't help it."

"You must help it. Oh, don't you know--oh, it's absurd! I'm years older than you."

"You looked so--so awfully pretty."

"I can't stand talking to you. They'll all see."

"Oh, it's all right. You're a friend of mother's, you know. I say, when shall I be able to see you again--alone, you know?"

Mrs. Mortimer was within an ace of a burst of tears. He seemed not to know that he made her faint with shame, and mad with exultation, and bewildered with terror all in a moment. His new manhood took no heed, save of itself. Was this being out of harm's way, under the eyes of those poor blind parents?

"If--if you care the least for me--for what I wish, go away, Harry," she whispered.

He looked at her in wonder, but, with a frown on his face, did as he was told. Five minutes later he was playing again; she heard him shout "Thirty--love," as he served, a note of triumphant battle in his voice. She believed that she was altogether out of his thoughts.

Her husband was to dine in town that night, and, for sheer protection, she made Maudie Sinclair come and share her evening meal. The children were put to bed, and they sat down alone together, talking over the party. Maudie was pleased to relax a little of her severity toward Harry Sterling; she admitted that he had been very useful in arranging the sets, and very pleasant to everyone.

"Of course, he's conceited," she said, "but all boys are. He'll get over it."

"You talk as if you were a hundred, Maudie," laughed Mrs. Mortimer. "He's older than you are."

"Oh, but boys are much younger than girls, Mrs. Mortimer. Harry Sterling's quite a boy still."

A knock sounded at the door. A minute later the boy walked in. The sight of Maudie Sinclair produced a momentary start, but he recovered himself and delivered a note from his mother, the excuse for his visit. It was an invitation for a few days ahead; there could certainly have been no hurry for it to arrive that night. While Mrs. Mortimer read it, Harry sat down and looked at her. She was obliged to treat his arrival as unimportant, and invited him to have a glass of wine.

"Why are you in evening dress?" asked Maudie wonderingly.

"For dinner," answered Harry.

"Do you dress when you're alone at home?"

"Generally. Most men do."

Maudie allowed herself to laugh. Mrs. Mortimer saw the joke, too, but its amusement was bitter to her.

"I like it," she said gently. "Most of the men I know do it."

"Your husband doesn't," observed Miss Sinclair.

"Poor George gets down from town so tired."

She gave Harry the reply she had written (it was a refusal--she could not have told why), but he seemed not to understand that he was to go. Before he apprehended, she had to give him a significant glance; she gave it in dread of Maudie's eyes. She knew how sharp schoolgirls' eyes are in such things. Whether Maudie saw it or not, Harry did; he sprang to his feet and said good-night.

Maudie was not long after him. The conversation languished, and there was nothing to keep her. With an honest yawn she took her leave. Mrs. Mortimer accompanied her down the garden to the gate. As she went, she became to her startled horror aware of a third person in the garden. She got rid of Maudie as soon as she could, and turned back to the house. Harry, emerging from behind a tree, stood before her.

"I know what you're going to say," he said doggedly, "but I couldn't help it. I was dying to see you again." She spread out her hands as though to push him away. She was like a frightened girl.

"Oh, you're mad!" she whispered. "You must go. Suppose anyone should come. Suppose my husband----"

"I can't help it. I won't stay long."

"Harry, Harry, don't be cruel! You'll ruin me, Harry. If you love me, go--if you love me."

Even now he hardly fathomed her distress, but she had made him understand that this spot and this time were too dangerous.

"Tell me where I can see you safely," he asked, almost demanded.

"You can see me safely--nowhere."

"Nowhere? You mean that you won't----"

"Harry, come here a minute--there--no closer. I just want to be able to touch your hair. Go away, dear--yes, I said `dear.' Do please go away. You--you won't be any happier afterward for having--if--if you don't go away."

He stood irresolutely still. Her fingers lightly touched his hair, and then her arm dropped at her side. He saw a tear run down her cheek. Suddenly his own face turned crimson.

"I'm--I'm very sorry," he muttered. "I didn't mean----"

"Good-night. I'm going in."

She held out her hand. Again he bent and kissed it, and, as he did so, he felt the light touch of her lips among his hair.

"I'm such a foolish, foolish woman," she whispered, "but you're a gentleman, Harry," and she drew her hand away and left him.

Two days later she took her children off to the seaside. And the Mortimers never came back to Natterley. She wrote and told Mrs. Sterling that George wanted to be nearer his work in town, and that they had gone to live at Wimbledon.

"How we shall miss her!" exclaimed good Mrs. Sterling. "Poor Harry! what'll he say?"

III.

One day, at Brighton, some six years later, a lady in widow's weeds, accompanied by a long, loose-limbed boy of fourteen, was taking the air by the sea. The place was full of people, and the scene gay.

Mrs. Mortimer sat down on a seat and Johnnie stood idly by her. Presently a young man and a girl came along. While they were still a long way off, Mrs. Mortimer, who was looking in that direction, suddenly leaned forward, started a little, and looked hard at them. Johnnie, noticing nothing, whistled unconcernedly.

The couple drew near. Mrs. Mortimer sat with a faint smile on her face. The girl was chatting merrily to the young man, and he listened to her and laughed every now and then, but his bright eyes were not fixed on her, but were here, there, and everywhere, where metal attractive to such eyes might be found. The discursive mood of the eyes somehow pleased Mrs. Mortimer. Just as the young man came opposite her, he glanced in her direction.

Mrs. Mortimer wore the curious, half-indifferent, half-expectant air of one ready for recognition, but not claiming it as a right.

At the first glance, a puzzled look came into the young man's eyes. He looked again: then there was a blank in his eyes. Mrs. Mortimer made no sign, but sat still, half-expectant. He was past her now, but he flung a last glance over his shoulder. He was evidently very doubtful whether the lady on the seat, in the heavy mourning robes, were someone he knew or not. First he thought she was, and then he thought she wasn't. The face certainly reminded him of--now who the deuce was it? Harry knit his brows and exclaimed:

"I half believe that's somebody I know!"

And he puzzled over it, for nearly five minutes, all in vain. Meanwhile Mrs. Mortimer looked at the sea, till Johnnie told her that it was dinner-time.