We turned off through the shrubbery, and went out by the side gate along the bypath to the links.
Ranny walked behind, absolutely silent, till he burst out: "May I smoke?"
When he had lit a cigarette, I glanced back. I thought he looked a shade less miserable. I could see the four figures standing out against the house, and still no sign anywhere of Eric.
I asked Ranny if he was to be one of the yachting party.
Perhaps they had not asked him. Maybe that was it. I said something about how we should miss Hermione.
"Er--yes," he said. "I suppose you will," and I noticed his voice was steadier.
"Don't be ungrateful," I said. "So will you."
Then, as I reproached him, he said: "Oh, yes; awfully nice people the Helmstones. I used to be rather fond of Lady Helmstone. But she's a
woman who doesn't know how to take 'No.' That's partly why I came."
I looked back again: "Is that the only reason?"
"Well, she kept writing, and making out, in spite of what I'd said, that she was expecting me to join them at Marseilles. And had put off somebody else who wanted to go. If I backed out--I had never backed in--I would be breaking up the party and behaving like the devil." He spoke more ill-temperedly than I had ever heard him.
"How will it end?" I asked.
"End? I'm hanged if I'll go. I've told her I wouldn't, from the beginning. But I only convinced her yesterday."
We walked on.
"They've asked Betty," I said.
"No!" He caught me up and walked at my side. "When did they do that?"
"Is Betty going?"
"No," I said.
And very sharp on that: "Why not?" he asked. "Doesn't she want to?"
"She doesn't know anything about it. My
mother doesn't want her to go." And while he fell into silence again, I sent my eyes about the heath. No sign.
Suddenly I remembered Betty's "find out." I had not found out. I hadn't even tried, and I realised myself, for a monster of selfishness--thinking Eric, Eric, and nothing but Eric the live-long day.
I pulled myself together and asked Ranny what he had been doing since Christmas.
"Since New Year's Eve, you mean." He frowned, and threw away a cigarette half-smoked, and lit another. When he had puffed and frowned a little more he said he had been going through a ghastly experience with a great friend of his. "Not a bad chap on the whole," he said, in a hesitating, almost appealing voice. But this not bad chap had "got himself badly bunkered." Ranny hesitated, and then: "Yes, I've been thinking I'd tell you about it, and see if--if you thought I've advised him right. . . . " The friend, he said, had been "one of a house party at a place up in Norfolk. He'd gone for the fag end of the shooting. Last month it was. Beastly dull people. Awful good shooting--as a rule. But the weather
was rotten. All shut up together in that beastly dull house. Nothing earthly to do, except rag, and--you know the kind of thing."
I didn't know a bit, but I said I did.
"Well, his friend had nothing to do, and he got it into his head that the girl of the house rather liked him. And there wasn't another blessed thing to do, so-- Oh, well, they got engaged."
He waited for a moment, and then he said that when his friend wend back to Aldershot he found "he wasn't any more in love with that girl than he was with the cat. It was all just a beastly mistake. So he got leave and went home to think it out. Couldn't think it out. Felt he'd better go and talk it over with somebody--" Ranny hesitated again. "Awful hole to be in, isn't it?"
I agreed it must have been very dreadful for his friend to have to tell the girl he'd made a mistake.
"Oh, but he couldn't do that!" With a shocked look, Ranny stopped dead for a second. Then, as he went on, he said that he had told his friend of course he'd have to go through with it.
"You don't mean," I said, "that when he was
feeling like that you think he ought to let the poor girl marry him!"
He said I didn't see the point. It would probably spoil the girl's life if his friend drew back.
I said he would spoil her life if he didn't draw back.
Ranny looked merely bewildered. "Oh . . . but . . . " then he caught hold of a mainstay, "my friend--he isn't a cad you know. A man can't back out of a thing like that."
Then I told him, without the names, about Guy Whitby-Dawson. Guy had "backed out." Guy had made up his mind to the sacrifice of "running in single harness," and had said so, frankly. I praised him.
"Naturally," Ranny answered, "if people hadn't enough money to marry, nobody would expect them to marry. But in the case I'm talking about," he said gloomily, "the man, my friend, is an eldest son. He is going to have--oh, it's rotten luck!"
I asked him if he really thought that not to have enough money to keep house on was worse than not to have enough love to keep house on. He said that what he thought wasn't the question.
The question was what the girl would think. And what the girl's family would think. I asked how anybody was to know what the girl would think unless she was asked. Ranny gave his rough head a despairing shake.
Of course I couldn't tell him half of what I felt about that girl, but I kept seeing her. Very happy. Never dreaming what her lover was feeling. I saw them going up the church aisle to be married. All the smiling and congratulating afterwards. I saw them "going away." And I felt sick.
But I did try to make him feel a little for the girl. He said that "feeling for the girl" was precisely what had decided the business. The girl couldn't be told the truth.
"She'll guess it!"
But that didn't comfort him as I had expected. "Even if she guesses she couldn't be expected to release--m--my friend."
"Because," said Ranny with his childlike air, "because she'll probably never have as good an offer again."
I was conscious of an inner fury when he said
that. I turned on him. And all of a sudden, quite curiously, my feeling changed. His face showed not only utter innocence of any arrogance, the expression on it was of great misery. And this was so at odds with the roundness and the hint of dimples, the roughened hair that the damp air had begun to curl, that as I looked at him, I felt the queer, stirring-at the heart sort of softness perhaps only women know, when they catch a glimpse in some man's face of the child that died when he grew up. I could see just what Ranny had been like when he was in short dresses. Full of laughter; as he was still when we first knew him. And in the face of those earlier bumps and bruises, just this bewilderment overmastering the pain of the baby who is outraged at the disproportion between desert and reward--the baby who thinks, if he doesn't say: "I never did a single thing, and here all this has tumbled down on my head."
In that instant I saw how lovable Ranny Dallas was, and instead of reproaching him, I found myself saying: "If that's true--what you say--it is very horrible for the girl, but I see it is probably nearly as horrible for the man."
And Ranny sat down on the wet heather under a gorse bush and buried his face in his hands.
"Get up," I said; "here's my handkerchief. Get up quickly. Lady Helmstone is coming."
But who was the man with her?
It was Eric Annan.
End Chapter XIX
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