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    Chapter 18

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    Chapter 18
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    A THUNDERCLOUD

    Blue skies and shining sun, but far down on the horizon one dark cloud gathers and drifts slowly upwards unobserved. Frank Crosse was aware of its shadow when coming down to breakfast he saw an envelope with a well-remembered handwriting beside his plate. How he had loved that writing once, how his heart had warmed and quickened at the sight of it, how eagerly he had read it--and now a viper coiled upon the white table-cloth would hardly have given him a greater shock. Contradictory, incalculable, whimsical life! A year ago how scornfully he would have laughed, what contemptuous unbelief would have filled his soul, if he had been told that any letter of hers could have struck him cold with the vague apprehension of coming misfortune. He tore off the envelope and threw it into the fire. But before he could glance at the letter there was the quick patter of his wife's feet upon the stair, and she burst, full of girlish health and high spirits, into the little room. She wore a pink crepon dressing-gown, with cream guipure lace at the neck and wrists. Pink ribbon outlined her trim waist. The morning sun shone upon her, and she seemed to him to be the daintiest, sweetest tiling upon earth. He had thrust his letter into his pocket as she entered.

    'You will excuse the dressing-gown, Frank.'

    'I just love you in it. No, you mustn't pass. Now you can go.'

    'I was so afraid that you would breakfast without me that I had no time to dress. I shall have the whole day to finish in when you are gone. There now--Jemima has forgotten to warm the plates again! And your coffee is cold. I wish you had not waited.'

    'Better cold coffee with Maude's society.'

    'I always thought men gave up complimenting their wives after they married them. I am so glad you don't. I think on the whole that women's ideas of men are unfair and severe. The reason is that the women who have met unpleasant men run about and make a noise, but the women who are happy just keep quiet and enjoy themselves. For example, I have not time to write a book explaining to every one how nice Frank Crosse is; but if he were nasty my life would be empty, and so of course I should write my book.'

    'I feel such a fraud when you talk like that.'

    'That is part of your niceness.'

    'Oh don't, Maude! It really hurts me.'

    'Why, Frank, what is the matter with you to-day?'

    'Nothing, dear.'

    'Oh yes, there is. I can tell easily.'

    'Perhaps I am not quite myself.'

    'No, I am sure that you are not. I believe that you have a cold coming on. O Frank, do take some ammoniated quinine.'

    'Good heavens, no!'

    'Please! Please!'

    'My dear girlie, there is nothing the matter with me.'

    'But it is such splendid stuff.'

    'Yes, I know. But really I don't want it.'

    'Have you had any letters, Frank?'

    'Yes, one.'

    'Anything important?'

    'I have hardly glanced at it yet.'

    'Glance at it now.'

    'Oh, I will keep it for the train. Good-bye, dearest. It is time that I was off.'

    'If you would only take the ammoniated quinine. You men are so proud and obstinate. Good-bye, darling. Eight hours, and then I shall begin to live again.'

    He had a quiet corner of a carriage to himself, so he unfolded his letter and read it. Then he read it again with frowning brows and compressed lips. It ran in this way -

    -

    My Dearest Frankie,--I suppose that I should not address you like this now that you are a good little married man, but the force of custom is strong, and, after all, I knew you long before she did. I don't suppose you were aware of it, but there was a time when I could very easily have made you marry me, in spite of all you may know about my trivial life and adventures, but I thought it all over very carefully, and I came to the conclusion that it was not good enough. You were always a dear good chap yourself, but your prospects were not quite dashing enough for your festive Violet. I believe in a merry time even if it is a short one. But if I had really wanted to settle down in a humdrum sort of way, you are the man whom I should have chosen out of the whole batch of them. I hope what I say won't make you conceited, for one of your best points used to be your modesty.

    But for all that, my dear Frankie, I by no means give you up altogether, and don't you make any mistake about that. It was only yesterday that I saw Charlie Scott, and he told me all about you, and gave me your address. Don't you bless him? And yet I don't know. Perhaps you have still a kindly thought of your old friend, and would like to see her.

    But you are going to see her whether you like or not, my dear boy, so make up your mind to that. You know how you used to chaff me about my whims. Well, I've got a whim now, and I'll have my way as usual. I am going to see you to-morrow, and if you won't see me under my conditions in London, I shall call at Woking in the evening. Oh my goodness, what a bombshell! But you know that I am always as good as my word. So look out!

    Now I'll give you your orders for the day, and don't you forget them. To-morrow (Thursday, 14th, no excuses about the date) you will leave your office at 3.30. I know that you can when you like. You will drive to Mariani's, and you will find me at the door. We shall go up to our old private room, and we shall have tea together, and a dear old chat about all sorts of things. So come! But if you don't, there is a train which leaves Waterloo at 6.10 and reaches Woking at 7. I will come by it and be just in time for dinner. What a joke it will be!

    Good-bye, old boy! I hope your wife does not read your letters, or this will rather give her fits.

    - Yours as ever, VIOLET WRIGHT.

    -

    At the first reading this letter filled him with anger. To be wooed by a very pretty woman is pleasant even to the most austere of married men (and never again trust the one who denies it), but to be wooed with a very dangerous threat mixed up with the wooing is no such pleasant experience. And it was no empty threat. Violet was a woman who prided herself upon being as good as her word. She had laughingly said with her accustomed frankness upon one occasion that it was her sole remaining virtue. If he did not go to Mariani's, she would certainly come to Woking. He shuddered to think of Maude being annoyed by her. It was one thing to speak in a general way to his wife of prematrimonial experiences, and it was another to have this woman forcing herself upon her and making a scene. The idea was so vulgar. The sweet, pure atmosphere of The Lindens would never be the same again.

    No, there was no getting out of it. He must go to Mariani's. He was sufficiently master of himself to know that no harm could come of that. His absolute love for his wife shielded him from all danger. The very thought of infidelity nauseated him. And then, as the idea became more familiar to him, other emotions succeeded that of anger. There was an audacity about his old flame, a spirit and devilment, which appealed to his sporting instincts. Besides, it was complimentary to him, and flattering to his masculine vanity, that she should not give him up without a struggle. Merely as a friend it would not be disagreeable to see her again. Before he had reached Clapham Junction his anger had departed, and by the time that he arrived at Waterloo he was surprised to find himself looking forward to the interview.

    Mariani's is a quiet restaurant, famous for its lachryma christi spumante, and situated in the network of sombre streets between Drury Lane and Covent Garden. The fact of its being in a by-street was not unfavourable to its particular class of business. Its customers were very free from the modern vice of self-advertisement, and would even take some trouble to avoid publicity. Nor were they gregarious or luxurious in their tastes. A small, simple apartment was usually more to their taste than a crowded salon, and they were even prepared to pay a higher sum for it.

    It was five minutes to four when Frank arrived, and the lady had not yet appeared. He stood near the door and waited. Presently a hansom rattled into the narrow street, and there she sat framed in its concavity. A pretty woman never looks prettier than in a hansom, with the shadows behind to give their Rembrandt effect to the face in front. She raised a yellow kid hand, and flashed a smile at him.

    'Just the same as ever,' said she, as he handed her down.

    'So are you.'

    'So glad you think so. I am afraid I can't quite agree with you. Thirty-four yesterday. It's simply awful. Thank you, I have some change. All right, cabby. Well, have you got a room?'

    'No.'

    'But you'll come?'

    'Oh yes, I should like to have a chat.'

    The clean-shaven, round-faced manager, a man of suave voice and diplomatic manner, was standing in the passage. His strange life was spent in standing in the passage. He remembered the pair at once, and smiled paternally.

    'Not seen you for some time, sir!'

    'No, I have been engaged.'

    'Married,' said the lady.

    'Dear me!' said the proprietor. 'Tea, sir?'

    'And muffins. You used to like the muffins.'

    'Oh yes, muffins by all means.'

    'Number ten,' said the proprietor, and a waiter showed them upstairs. 'All meals nine shillings each,' he whispered, as Frank passed him at the door. He was a new waiter, and so mistook every one for a new customer, which is an error which runs through life.

    It was a dingy little room with a round table covered by a soiled cloth in the middle. Two windows, discreetly blinded, let in a dim London light. An armchair stood at each side of the empty fireplace, and an uncomfortable, old-fashioned, horsehair sofa lined the opposite wall. There were pink vases upon the mantelpiece, and a portrait of Garibaldi above it.

    The lady sat down and took off her gloves. Frank stood by the window and smoked a cigarette. The waiter rattled and banged and jingled with the final effect of producing a tea-tray and a hot-water dish. 'You'll ring if you want me, sir,' said he, and shut the door with ostentatious completeness.

    'Now we can talk,' said Frank, throwing his cigarette into the fireplace. 'That waiter was getting on my nerves.'

    'I say, I hope you're not angry.'

    'What at?'

    'Well, my saying I should come down to Woking, and all that.'

    'I should have been angry if I thought you had meant it.'

    'Oh, I meant it right enough.'

    'But with what object?'

    'Just to get level with you, Frankie, if you threw me over too completely. Hang it all, she has three hundred and sixty-five days in the year! Am I to be grudged a single hour?'

    'Well, Violet, we won't quarrel about it. You see I came all right. Pull up your chair and have some tea.'

    'You haven't even looked at me yet. I won't take any tea until you do.'

    She stood up in front of him, and pushed up her veil. It was a face and a figure worth looking at. Hazel eyes, dark chestnut hair, a warm flush of pink in her cheeks, the features and outline of an old Grecian goddess, but with more of Juno than of Venus, for she might perhaps err a little upon the side of opulence. There was a challenge and defiance dancing in those dark devil-may-care eyes of hers which might have roused a more cold-blooded man than her companion. Her dress was simple and dark, but admirably cut. She was clever enough to know that a pretty woman should concentrate attention upon herself, and a plain one divert it to her adornments.

    'Well?'

    'By Jove, Violet, you look splendid.'

    'Well?'

    'The muffins are getting cold.'

    'Frankie, what IS the matter with you?'

    'Nothing is the matter.'

    'Well?'

    She put out her two hands and took hold of his. That well-remembered sweet, subtle scent of hers rose to his nostrils. There is nothing more insidious than a scent which carries suggestions and associations. 'Frankie, you have not kissed me yet.'

    She turned her smiling face upwards and sideways, and for an instant he leaned forward towards it. But he had himself in hand again in a moment. It gave him confidence to find how quickly and completely he could do it. With a laugh, still holding her two hands, he pushed her back into the chair by the table.

    'There's a good girl!' said he. 'Now we'll have some tea, and I'll give you a small lecture while we do so.'

    'You are a nice one to give lectures.'

    'Oh, there's no such preacher as a converted sinner.'

    'You really are converted then?'

    'Rather. Two lumps, if I remember right. You ought to do this, not I. No milk, and very strong--how you keep your complexion I can't imagine. But you do keep it; my word, you do! Now please don't look so crossly at me.'

    Her flushed cheeks and resentful eyes had drawn forth the remonstrance.

    'You ARE changed,' she said, with surprise as well as anger in her voice.

    'Why, of course I am. I am married.'

    'For that matter Charlie Scott is married.'

    'Don't give Charlie Scott away.'

    'I think I give myself away. So you have lost all your love for me. I thought it was to last for ever.'

    'Now, do be sensible, Violet.'

    'Sensible! How I loathe that word! A man only uses it when he is going to do something cold-blooded and mean. It is always the beginning of the end.'

    'What do you want me to do?'

    'I want you to be my own Frankie--just the same as before. Ah do, Franck--don't leave me! You know I would give any of them up for you. And you have a good influence over me--you have really! You call't think how hard I am with other people. Ask Charlie Scott. He will tell you. I've been so different since I have lost sight of you. Now, Frankie, don't be horrid to me! Kiss and be nice!' Again her soft warm hand was upon his, and the faint sweet smell of violets went to his blood like wine. He jumped up, lit another cigarette, and paced about the room.

    'You shan't have a cigarette, Frankie.'

    'Why not?'

    'Because you said once it helped you to control yourself. I don't want you to control yourself. I want you to feel as I feel.'

    'Do sit down, like a good girl!'

    'Cigarette out!'

    'Don't be absurd, Violet!'

    'Come, out with it, sir.'

    'No, no, leave it alone!'

    She had snatched it from his lips and thrown it into the grate.

    'What is the use of that? I have a case full.'

    'They shall all follow the first.'

    'Well, then, I won't smoke.'

    'I'll see that you don't.'

    'Well, what the better are you for that?'

    'Now, be nice.'

    'Go back to your chair and have some more tea.'

    'Oh, bother the tea!'

    'Well, I won't speak to you unless you sit down and behave yourself.'

    'There now! Speak away.'

    'Look here, dear Violet, you must not talk about this any more. Some things are possible and some are impossible. This is absolutely, finally impossible. We can never go back upon the past. It is finished and done with.'

    'Then what did you come here for?'

    'To bid you good-bye.'

    'A Platonic good-bye.'

    'Of course.'

    'In a private room at Mariani's.'

    'Why not?'

    She laughed bitterly.

    'You were always a little mad, Frankie.'

    He leaned earnestly over the table.

    'Look here, Violet, the chances are that we shall never meet again.'

    'It takes two to say that.'

    'Well, I mean that after to-day I should not meet you again. If you were not quite what you are it would be easier. But as it is I find it a little too much of a test. No, don't mistake me or think that I am weakening. That is impossible. But all the same I don't want to go through it again.'

    'So sorry if I have upset you.'

    He disregarded her irony.

    'We have been very good friends, Violet. Why should we part as enemies?'

    'Why should we part at all?'

    'We won't go back over that. Now do please look facts in the face and help me to do the right thing, for it would be so much easier if you would help me. If you were a very good and kind girl you would shake my hand, like any other old pal, and wish me joy of my marriage. You know that I should do so if I knew that you were going to be married.'

    But the lady was not to be so easily appeased. She took her tea in silence or answered his remarks with monosyllables, while the occasional flash of her dark eyes as she raised them was like the distant lightning which heralds the storm. Suddenly, with a swift rustle of skirts, she was between the door and his chair.

    'Now, Frankie, we have had about enough of this nonsense,' said she. 'Don't imagine that you are going to get out of this thing so easily. I've got you, and I'll keep you.'

    He faced round in his chair and looked helplessly at her with a hand upon each knee.

    'O Lord! Don't begin it all over again,' said he.

    'No, I won't,' she answered with an angry laugh. 'I'll try another line this time, Master Frank. I'm not the sort of woman who lets a thing go easily when once I have set my heart upon it. I won't try coaxing any longer--'

    'So glad,' he murmured.

    'You may say what you like, but you can't do it, my boy. I knew you before she did, and I'll keep you, or else I'll make such a row that you will be sorry that you ever put my back up. It's all very fine to sit there and preach, but it won't do, Frankie. You can't slip out of things as easily as all that.'

    'Why should you turn nasty like this, Violet? What do you think you will gain by it?'

    'I mean to gain YOU. I like you, Frankie. I'm not sure that I don't really love you--real, real love, you know. Any way, I don't intend to let you go, and if you go against my will I give you my word that I shall make it pretty sultry for you down at Woking.'

    He stared moodily into his teacup.

    'Besides, what rot it all is!' she continued, laying her hand upon his shoulder. 'When did you begin to ride the high moral horse? You were just as cheerful as the rest of them when last I saw you. You speak as if a man ceased to live just because he is married. What has changed you?'

    'I'll tell you what has changed me,' said he, looking up. 'My wife has changed me.'

    'Oh, bother your wife!'

    A look which was new to her came over his face.

    'Stop that!' said he sharply.

    'Oh, no harm! How has your wife made this wonderful change?'

    His mood softened as his thoughts flew back to Woking.

    'By her own goodness--the atmosphere that she makes round her. If you knew how wholesome she was, how delicate in her most intimate thoughts, how fresh and how sweet and how pure, you would understand that the thought of being false to her is horrible. When I think of her as she sat at breakfast this morning, so loving and so innocent-- '

    He would have been more discreet if he had been less eloquent. The lady's temper suddenly overflowed.

    'Innocent!' she cried. 'As innocent as I am.'

    He sprang to his feet with eyes which were more angry than her own.

    'Hold your tongue! How dare you talk against my wife! You are not fit to mention her name.'

    'I'll go to Woking,' she gasped.

    'You can go to the devil!' said he, and rang the bell for his bill. She stared at him with a surprise which had eclipsed her anger, while she pulled on her gloves with little sharp twitches. This was a new Frank Crosse to her. As long as a woman gets on very well with a man, she is apt, at the back of her soul, to suspect him of weakness. It is only when she differs from him that she can see the other side, and it always comes as a surprise. She liked him better than ever for the revelation.

    'I'm not joking,' she whispered, as they went down the stair. 'I'll go, as sure as fate.'

    He took no notice, but passed on down the street without a word of farewell. When he came to the turning he looked back. She was standing by the curb, with her proud head high in the air, while the manager screamed loudly upon a whistle. A cab swung round a distant corner. Crosse reached her before it did.

    'I hope I haven't hurt your feelings,' said he. 'I spoke too roughly.'

    'Trying to coax me away from Woking,' she sneered. 'I'm coming all the same.'

    'That's your affair,' said he, as he handed her into the cab.
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