Those who had once enjoyed its entertainment were fain to return with gleeful frequency.

The Chesters of Pinnels End were as much an institution in the Fareham
neighbourhood as the Abbey Church, itself. Hospitality was a religion
with them, and William Chester and Olivia his wife were never so happy
as when their big wandering house was absolutely full. They had six
grown-up sons scattered about the world who were forever sending their
friends to “cheer up the old people,” so they were seldom lonely. They
were not particularly rich, certainly not smart–the interior of Pinnels
was almost conspicuously shabby–but they were the youngest and
cheeriest old people imaginable, and their house was comfortable as are
few houses. Those who had once enjoyed its entertainment were fain to
return with gleeful frequency.

For nearly four hundred years there had been Chesters at Pinnels
End–large families of Chesters, and however they may have differed as
to politics, religion, or personal taste, they were supremely unanimous
in one matter: they none of them could bear any changes at Pinnels.

Mrs. Chester used to declare that until a carpet there actually fell to
pieces and tripped up her husband and sons, she was never allowed to
replace it. That done, it was months before they became resigned, years
before they consented to regard it with any but the most grudging
toleration, and even then it was compared unfavourably with its
predecessors.

The party to be assembled at Pinnels consisted of three of the sons–two
on leave from India and Egypt respectively; the third an Oxford man who
had just taken his degree and was marking time at home while his father
sought out an agent with whom to place him to learn estate
management–Lallie, Sidney Ballinger, who was asked because he was a
neighbour, and because kind Mrs. Chester knew that he would rather be in
the same house with Lallie Clonmell than anywhere else on earth. There
was Celia Jones, the usual “nice girl” of house parties, who possessed
no striking characteristics whatsoever; and the remaining guest was a
Mrs. Atwood, the wife of a busy doctor in Carlisle.

Her host would have found it rather difficult to explain Mrs. Atwood’s
presence. He met her while he and his wife were spending a few days in
a house of a mutual friend about a fortnight before; and somehow,
although he could never remember exactly how it came about, Mrs. Atwood
had extracted an invitation from him for this particular week-end.

“Did you take such a fancy to her, father?” Mrs. Chester asked, when
informed of the lady’s projected visit. “I didn’t care much for her
myself, and I shouldn’t have thought she was your sort either.”

“I can’t say I was greatly attracted, though there’s something rather
pleasing and pathetic about her, and she wanted so badly to fill in
those four days between two visits. It’s such a deuce of a way back to
Carlisle–and she ’longed’ so to see Fareham–historic old town, you
know–and consulted me about hotels there, and so on. You’ve often done
the same thing yourself; you know you have.”

“Oh, I shall be most pleased to see her and, of course I’ve told her so.
Only–I wonder how she’ll fit in with the others.”

“She’ll fit in right enough; the more the merrier.”

“I can’t imagine Mrs. Atwood merry under any circumstances.”

“All the more reason to try and cheer her up,” Mr. Chester remarked
optimistically, and the subject dropped.

Eileen Atwood was thirty-six years old, and looked at least five years
younger. She was tall, slender, and fair, with a graceful, well-set
head, large heavy-lidded and generally downcast blue eyes, a small close
mouth, and a chin that would have been markedly receding had she not so
persistently drooped her head forward. It is only people with firm chins
who can afford to carry their heads in the air. She spoke very low, and
was fond of discussing what she was pleased to call “psychic things.”
She herself would have said that she “bore an aura of unhappiness”; and
the world in general concluded that Dr. Atwood was not simpatico. She
had no children nor, apparently, many domestic claims, for she spent a
large portion of her time in paying visits. Simple people considered
her intellectual because she used such long and unusual words. Others
of proved ability, such as her husband, had a different opinion.

Lallie arrived at Pinnels before luncheon. She left B. House by the
first available train in the morning–partly because she knew Tony and
Miss Foster to be very anxious about Tarrant, who was to be moved to the
hospital that morning, and she thought they would be glad to have her
out of the way; and partly because she was quite certain that Sidney
Ballinger would not travel by such an early train, and she did not
desire him as an escort. When they rode to the meet together he had
implored her to give him an idea of what time next day she would travel
to Fareham, but she persisted that her plans were too uncertain to admit
of any information on this point. Therefore did he choose a train that
would get him to Fareham in time for tea at Pinnels End, rightly
thinking that this was the usual and agreeable time to arrive. He
nearly lost his train through procrastination in the matter of taking
his seat, having walked the whole length of the train several times
peering into every carriage in a vain search for Lallie; and he endured
a miserable journey, assailed by dismal doubts and fears lest Lallie had
changed her mind and decided not to go at all.

It was therefore a great relief when he was ushered into the dark old
hall at Pinnels to hear Lallie’s voice raised in song in the duet “Thou
the stream and I the river,” which she and Billy Chester, the would-be
land agent, were performing with great enthusiasm.

The drawing-room was almost as dark as the hall, for the lamps had not
yet been brought in, and the only lights were from two candles upon the
piano and the big fire of logs on the hearth. For years the present
owner of Pinnels had been considering the installation of an
electric-light plant, but he had never been able to bring himself to
such an innovation. “It would pull the old place about,” he observed
apologetically, “and, after all, lamps are very handy, you can put ’em
wherever you want ’em.”




Ballinger waited at the open door till the duet had come to a triumphant
and crescendoed conclusion, and then preceded the footman bearing tea.

He was the last to arrive, and the various greetings over Mrs. Chester
led him over to the fireplace, remarking:

“I think you know everybody here except Mrs. Atwood.”

That lady, seated in a particularly dark corner, leant forward, saying
in her usual soft tones:

“Mr. Ballinger and I have met before; in fact, we are quite old
friends.”

“Why did you never tell me?” asked Mrs. Chester, and left them.

Mrs. Atwood was in the shadow, but Ballinger was standing in the circle
of red light thrown by the fire, and that may have been the cause of his
crimson face as he bent over the lady’s hand.

Lallie, standing back in the room beside the piano, noticed that he gave
a very perceptible start at the sound of Mrs. Atwood’s voice, and that
his flushed face betrayed no pleasure at the meeting, for he shook hands
with the lady in somewhat perfunctory fashion and immediately moved back
to a chair near Mrs. Chester, who was making tea on the other side of
the hearth.

When the lamps were brought in Mrs. Atwood, who wore a most becoming
tea-gown, came forth from her corner and went and sat down near Lallie,
who shared a deep window-seat with Billy Chester and was squabbling with
him for the last toasted scone.

“You are a very wonderful person, Miss Clonmell,” she said solemnly.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Lallie replied politely. “I’ve long been of that
opinion myself, but hitherto I haven’t been able to get people to share
it.”

“Of course they won’t share with you if you’re so greedy about keeping
things to yourself–what about that last scone?” Billy exclaimed
reproachfully.

Mrs. Atwood ignored Billy.

“I suppose you have studied singing seriously?” she continued.

“I’m afraid I’m not very serious about anything. But I love music, if
that’s what you mean.”

“I mean a great deal more than that. You are possessed by it. The true
artist always is. Don’t you feel every time you sing that you are
expressing in the fullest and most perfect form the essential you? That
your entity is completed–rounded off as it were; that your very soul
becomes tangible in song?”

Billy softly and silently vanished from Lallie’s side; and she, wishing
with all her heart that Mrs. Atwood would go and talk to some one else,
said humbly:

“I’m afraid I don’t feel nearly all that. I’m a very prosaic person
really, and sometimes the inane words one has to sing–well, they get
between me and the music and spoil it; though that, too, is inane enough
sometimes.”

Mrs. Atwood leant back in her chair and smiled indulgently at Lallie.

“Oh, how I envy you,” she exclaimed; “but at the same time I am quite
sure that we agree in _diathesis_: that although we may arrive at our
conclusions by different methods, they are practically identical. I
cannot conceive that you can possess such a power of self-revelation
without the artistic temperament, any more than I can allow that I,
lacking means of self-expression, must necessarily lack temperament. I
feel that we shall have much in common.”

Lallie looked as though she feared this confidence on Mrs. Atwood’s part
was somewhat misplaced and said gravely:

“I should never say that you lacked means of self-expression. You seem
to me to have an unusually large vocabulary.”

Mrs. Atwood laughed. “Now you are making game of me, and I believe I
must have frightened Mr. Chester away–too bad. I suppose you know
every one here very well. This is my first visit, you know–all strange
except dear Mr. and Mrs. Chester, such kind people! Who is that man
sitting so close by her?”

Lallie’s seat was considerably higher than Mrs. Atwood’s, and the girl
looked down at her with a curiously appraising glance.

“I thought I heard you say just before tea that he is an old friend of
yours.”

Mrs. Atwood laughed nervously.

“Oh, that one! Mr. Ballinger; yes, I know him. I meant the tall one
leaning against the chimneypiece.”

“That is Mr. Arnold Chester. He was here at lunch, you know.”

“So he was, how stupid of me. This lamplight is very confusing.”

It seemed that although Mrs. Atwood spoke in her usual subdued tones
that Sidney Ballinger heard his name, for he turned right round and saw
Lallie sitting in the deep window-seat. Her head was sharply silhouetted
against the white casement curtain, and her eyes, star-sweet and
serious, met his in mute challenge. He did not see Mrs. Atwood, his
eager gaze was concentrated on the little figure in the window. Hastily
setting down his empty cup upon the tray he crossed the room and sat
down in Billy Chester’s vacant place, and not even his pince-nez could
conceal the gladness in his eyes.

“When did you arrive?” he asked eagerly; “I’ve not had the chance to
speak to you yet; you might have told me your train—-”

Then he saw Mrs. Atwood.

His face changed and clouded, and his sudden pause was so marked that
Lallie said hastily:

“I came very early; Mrs. Atwood and I arrived almost at the same time
from different directions. It was convenient, for it saved the motor
going in twice.”

“And gave us an opportunity to become acquainted on our way out,” Mrs.
Atwood added. She leant back in her low chair and with half-shut eyes
lazily looked at the two in the window.

Lallie longed to disclaim any sort of acquaintance with Mrs. Atwood,
Ballinger seemed possessed by a demon of glum silence, only Mrs. Atwood,
in graceful comfort, easily reclining in her deep chair, seemed
insensible of any tension in the atmosphere.

Lallie felt intensely impatient at Ballinger’s sudden and inconvenient
taciturnity. Every one else in the room was talking. Why couldn’t he?
Why couldn’t she? For the life of her she couldn’t think of a suitable
remark to make. Mrs. Atwood sat very still, a serene little smile just
tinging her face with a suspicion of ironical amusement.

Lallie became unendurably restless. She felt that if she sat where she
was another minute she would say or do something desperate. To get out
of her corner she had to pass in front of her neighbour and almost
squeeze behind Mrs. Atwood’s chair; with a remark to the effect that it
was chilly sitting so far from the fire, she achieved the difficult feat
and joined the cheerful group round the tea-table.

“Well?” said Mrs. Atwood.

Ballinger looked at her rather helplessly. He had an irritating habit
when embarrassed of holding his hands out in front of him and feebly
dangling them from the wrists. He did this now as he remarked
obviously:

“I had no idea you were here.”

Mrs. Atwood leaned suddenly toward him. “Don’t talk banalities,” she
said almost fiercely. “Have you nothing else to say to me after all
these months?”

He pulled himself together. “Well, really”–he spoke as though weighing
the question carefully–“I don’t know that I have.”

“Nevertheless, I shall have something to say to you,” said Mrs. Atwood.