Were all the outfit

“My heart, my heart is like a singing bird,
Whose nest is in a watered shoot,”

sang Lallie, and Tony Bevan had set his study door open to listen.

There was no doubt whatever that Lallie was supremely glad to be back at
B. House. Even Miss Foster had, at dinner that night, thawed into a
semblance of geniality; the girl’s pleasure was so manifest, her high
spirits so infectious.

Now, alone in the drawing-room, she sang song after song, and, unlike
Lallie’s songs as a rule, not one of them was sad.

“Because my love, my love has come to me,”

she carolled.

The melody–exulting, triumphant, a very pæan of rapture, young, glad,
valorous–so entirely expressed Tony’s own feeling that it drew him with
irresistible force, and he went to her.

She did not pause in her song, but sang on with ever-increasing abandon;
and Tony, leaning against the end of the piano and watching her, was
hard put to it not to tell her there and then what she was to him.

But he was not given to act on the impulse of the moment, and even
before the last glad notes had died away there came the old chilling
consciousness of the disparity between them: a disparity not of age
only, but of temperament. Tony was very humble-minded. On such rare
occasions as he thought about himself at all he did not, like Sidney
Ballinger, tell himself he “was not a bad fellow.” He was only too
conscious of his many defects and shortcomings. He hoped he did his
best according to his lights, but he acknowledged that those lights were
neither brilliant nor searching. And just as there was for Lallie
something incongruous in the fact that he was a schoolmaster, so there
was for himself something almost ridiculous in the fact that he, of all
people in the world, should be hopelessly in love with one so elusive
and so complex as was the lady of his dreams.

For just as no mortal on earth could ever be sure what Lallie would do
next, Tony least of all: so she and the world in general had a habit of
depending upon Tony Bevan and always expecting from him a certain kind
of conduct. Nor were they ever disappointed.

“I wonder,” said Lallie, looking across the piano at him, “whether you
are half as glad to see me as I am to get back.”

“Don’t I look glad?”

“You always do that; but then, that might only be kindness and
politeness on your part. I seem to have been away years.”

“You went for three days and stayed three weeks. Were all the outfit,
and colds, and dire need for your presence genuine, or was it merely
that you were having a good time and wanted to stay at Pinnels?”

“I did have a good time at Pinnels: I always do; but I should have been
back long ago had it not been that Mrs. Chester really seemed to want
me.”

“Mrs. Chester’s desire is not incomprehensible, but I hope you are not
going away for any more long week-ends, or the holidays will be here,
and then—-”

“Then I pick up Paddy at the Shop dance, and we both go to Ireland for
Christmas; and if you think Aunt Emileen will be sufficient chaperon,
reinforced by Paddy, we shall be pleased to see you.”

“But I’m supposed to be a chaperon myself.”

“Not at all,” Lallie said emphatically. “Have you forgotten the dreadful
fuss you made because Miss Foster wasn’t here when I first came?”

“Ah, but that was different–I have to be away so much here. By the
way, have you nothing to say to me, in my capacity of chaperon–Uncle
Emileen, if you like–as to the momentous decision you told me you would
be called upon to make while you were at Pinnels.”

“Tony, dear”–Lallie spoke in a whisper, looking delightfully demure and
mischievous–“I was never called upon to make any decision at all. I
suppose it was conceit on my part to think I should have to do it.
Anyway, I hadn’t to, and it saved a lot of trouble.”

“Is that quite true, Lallie?”

“In the letter absolutely; in the spirit–well, it takes a lot of
explaining when you come to such subtleties. And sometimes one can’t
explain without bringing in other people who’d perhaps rather be left
out.”

“Who were the other guests at Pinnels besides you and Mr. Ballinger?”

“A young lady–a young lady after Miss Foster’s own heart, I’m sure; so
inconspicuous and characterless, she reminded me of the man in the
pantomime who is always running across the stage with a parcel and gets
knocked down and disappears only to be knocked down next time he crosses
the stage with the same inevitable parcel. I’m not sure whether she was
the man or the parcel, but she really doesn’t come into the story.”

“Yes; and who else?”

“Three Chester boys–all nice; there never was a nicer family. And then
there was a Mrs. Atwood.”

“What was she like?”

“She, Tony, was the kind of person described by their relations as
’highly strung’; she uses immense long words, of Greek origin if
possible–at least Billy Chester said so, and he ought to know, being
just fresh from Oxford.”

“Does Mrs. Chester like your Mr. Ballinger?”

“Why do you call him ’my’ Mr. Ballinger? He’s nothing of the sort. Yes,
Mrs. Chester does like him; she knew him when he was quite young and
used to come for the holidays to the uncle who left him all the money,
and she was dreadfully sorry for him.”

“Who? Ballinger or the uncle?”

“Mr. Ballinger, of course. His parents died when he was quite little,
and this uncle and aunt brought him up. There was an aunt then, a
dreadful aunt, who thought that everything in the least pleasant was
wicked. She considered all games a waste of time. Novels and poetry
were an invention of the devil, and such people as the kind, good, merry
Chesters ’dangerous companions.’ So the poor boy had rather dismal
holidays. The only thing she thought good about Rugby was a volume of
Dr. Arnold’s sermons. Oh, he had a poor time of it.”

“Still, they sent him to a good school and then to the ’Varsity. They
didn’t do very badly by him.”

“The aunt died before he went to Cambridge, and his uncle became much
more human. For one thing he was awfully pleased because Mr. Ballinger
was so quiet and industrious. _He_ didn’t waste his time playing
cricket and getting blues and things, and so he got a splendid degree–a
something first! Are you listening, Tony?”

“I am, most attentively, and it strikes me that if that young man had
spent a little more of his time playing games, he might not have got
into the particular kind of mischief he did get into–mischief that is
apt to make things very uncomfortable later on.”

All the time she was talking Lallie had been playing very softly in
subdued accompaniment to her remarks. Now she suddenly ceased, and
sitting up very straight stared hard at Tony, who still lounged against
the other end of the piano devouring her with his eyes.

“What do you mean, Tony?”

“I mean, Lallie, that a young man is apt to pay dearly for a sentimental
friendship with a lady of ’highly strung’ temperament.”

“Where in the world did you hear anything about it?”

“Now where do you think?”

“You don’t mean to say that he has actually been to see you and told you
himself?”

“That is precisely what I do mean; and having heard the story, I feel it
my duty to ask you not to be too hard on the fellow–not to let it
influence your decision one way or other; especially now that you have
told me of his boyhood, would I beg you to judge leniently.”

Lallie’s little face grew set and hard, her grey eyes darkened, and the
soft curves of her chin took on stern, purposeful lines.

“Just tell me this,” she said. “Did he, when he described the somewhat
stormy interview with Mrs. Atwood, give you to understand that it was
his _flirtation_ with the lady that I objected to? Did he say that
now?”

“Well, naturally.”

“Then he lied.”

“Lallie, my dear child!”

“Since _he_ has chosen to confide in you–though why, Heaven only
knows–I will tell you exactly what happened. She made a scene, and he
behaved like a brute to her; and it’s because he behaved like a brute
that I will have nothing more to do with him. He went back on her,
Tony; denied that he’d ever cared a toss for her, and before me, too.”

“Perhaps there was enormous provocation. You see, he is very much in
love with you, and he wouldn’t know how you would take it.”

“That was evident. He did the one thing that I could never, never
forgive. And now let’s have an end of this, Tony; you’ve done your duty
and pleaded his cause, and for your comfort I’ll first tell you this:
that if I had cared for him and there had been twenty Mrs. Atwoods, and
each had come with a tale as long as your arm about him, it wouldn’t
have moved me an inch provided he was straight with me and generous and
honest to them. As it happened I didn’t care for him. I had decided
that before there was any fuss at all with Mrs. Atwood. But when she
came and, so to speak, put a pistol at my head, commanding me to give
him up, I wasn’t going to tell her that I’d done it already.”

“But why not, if you had? It would have saved all the fuss.”

“If you think I’m going to knuckle under to any idiotic, hysterical
woman that chooses to bully me, just to save a fuss, you little know me,
or any woman.”

Tony shook his head solemnly, but his heart was light, as he said:




“No one can pretend to understand a woman. I have no doubt whatever
that you did everything you could to annoy and rouse that poor lady, and
then, having achieved your object and forced Ballinger’s hand, you turn
and rend him for crying out when he’s hurt.”

“It’s only women who may cry out. A man that is a man suffers in
silence.”

“H’m–I’m not so sure; it depends on the man.”

“Well, I’ll tell you this: that I _won’t_ marry any one I can’t lean
against in a crisis. If I think a man can’t bear my light weight
without crumpling up, I’ve no use for him; and the man who goes back on
one woman will go back on another. _No_, thank you.”

“Will you tell your father this?”

“Oh, dear, yes; and tell him you pleaded Mr. Ballinger’s cause and made
my life a burden generally. I’ll be a sister to him, Tony, and tell him
a few home truths; it would do him all the good in the world.”

“Well, I sincerely trust no more young men will come to me about you;
upon my word, this sort of thing is twenty times worse than parents.
You’re a frightful responsibility, Lallie.”

Her lips trembled, she gave him a long reproachful look, and then seemed
to collapse into a pathetic little heap on the keyboard of the piano,
her arms spread out on the protesting notes, her head down on her arms.

Lallie was crying, and crying bitterly.

With a muttered and intensely sincere “God help me!” Tony went round and
stood beside her, patting her shoulder awkwardly, but very gently.

“My dear, my dear, what is it? Why do you cry?”

She lifted her little face, all tear-stained and piteous.

“I thought you’d be glad it was all at an end and done with,” she
sobbed, “but your chief concern seems to be that you’ll still have the
bother of me. I can’t get married just to get out of the way. I’ve a
great mind to accept Cripps and see what you’d say then: _that_ would be
bother enough—-”

“Cripps! What on earth do you mean?”

“Cripps is a gentleman, a dear, nice boy; he wrote to me–it was one of
the letters you forwarded, but he’d disguised his writing so you never
noticed–saying he thought I’d got into trouble through waving my hand
to him, and that was why I’d gone away; and he was dreadfully sorry, and
he’d go to you immediately if I gave him leave–he’s going to Sandhurst
next term if he passes, you know–and that there was nobody in the
world–oh, you know the sort of thing—-”

“Indeed, I don’t,” cried Tony, in vigorous disclaimer. “I never heard
such nonsense. And what did you do?”

“I wrote him ever such a pretty letter, but I pointed out that the
damsel destined for him is probably at this moment wearing a pinafore
and a pigtail. I was motherly and kind and judicious.”

Lallie’s face was still wet with tears, but her eyes sparkled and were
full of mischief again.

“I’m glad one of you showed a modicum of sense. Remember, I know
nothing of Cripps and his vagaries; don’t send him to me, whatever you
do.”

“_I_ didn’t send Mr. Ballinger.”

“I don’t suppose you did; still, if you happen to know of any one else
likely to come and ask my assistance in his wooing, you might break it
to me gently–now, that I may be prepared.”

Lallie looked down; she smiled and dimpled distractingly, as she said
softly:

“You must promise not to be cross–Mr. Johns wrote too, very seriously.
He asked me to live the higher life with him.”

“The deuce he did! And you?”

“I think a sisterly feeling is all I can muster up for Mr. Johns at
present.”

Tony groaned.

“Will he come to me, do you suppose? I warn you, _he’ll_ hear some home
truths if he does.”

“I don’t think he’ll worry you, Tony. He’s on probation–as it were.”

Softly, very softly, Lallie began to play the “Widdy Malone,” and almost
unconsciously Tony found himself humming:

“She broke all the hearts of the swains in thim parts.”

Lallie laughed.

“No ’Lucius O’Brian of Clare’ has come as yet,” she said.

She had turned her face back to Tony, with laughing challenge in her
eyes.

“Upon my soul, I can’t stand this,” cried Tony Bevan, and fled from the
room.

Lallie sat where she was, staring after him in speechless astonishment.

“I can’t make out Tony these days at all, at all,” she sighed.

But she did not get up and run after him as she would have done a month
ago.

Tony held old-fashioned and chivalrous notions regarding his duties as
host and guardian to his friend’s daughter. It seemed to him that in no
way was it possible for him to declare his feeling for Lallie without
putting her in a false and painful position. And not to declare that
feeling emphatically and at length was becoming every day more
difficult. He knew the girl to be so fond of him in the dear, natural,
unrestrained fashion that had grown with her growth, that had become as
much a pleasant habit of mind as her love for Paddy or her father, that
he dreaded, should he ask more, lest she might mistake her present
feeling for something deeper, and in sheer gratitude and affection
promise what it was not really hers to give. Again, should she feel it
impossible even to consider him in the light of a lover, he made the
situation difficult–nay, impossible–for her. She could not then
return to B. House, and she had nowhere else to go.

Sometimes Tony let himself consider a third and glorious
contingency–that Lallie cared even as he cared. Even so, she could not
come back to B. House, but old Fitz would have to come back a bit
sooner, and she could stay with the Wentworths till he did; at such
moments as these Tony’s lined face would grow boyishly radiant. But all
too soon the good moment passed and stern realities hemmed him in on
every side: loyalty to Fitz, the best and kindest thing to Lallie.

Yet, with the temptation to tell her all he felt for her assailing him
all day long, it was positive agony to think of her as out of his reach
with all the world free to make love to her.

The strain was telling on Tony. He looked old and harassed, and as the
Christmas term drew to an end the boys in his form declared that in all
their experience his temper had never been so fiendish.

Even Miss Foster noticed that he was looking unwell and, quite rightly,
attributed his indisposition to the worry of having “that upsetting
girl” in the house.

Mr. Johns was not wholly discouraged by Lallie’s sisterly attitude, and
in somewhat solemn fashion showed her plainly that he was there, ready
to respond to any warmer feeling on her part. Lallie was consistently
gracious to him, and the young man’s smug acceptance of her favours
drove Tony to desperation.

Lallie spent a great deal of her time with the Wentworths. Mr.
Ballinger would not take no for an answer. He called frequently, he
managed to ingratiate himself with Mrs. Wentworth, and often met Lallie
there as Tony knew. He even, with artless belief in Tony’s sympathy,
sought him again, begging for his good word.

Tony was bitterly conscious that all the world, that all his little
circle–boys, masters, and masters’ wives–seemed to see more of Lallie
than he did, but he never sought her society, and lately she never came
to say good-night to him in his study as she always did at first.