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   Chapter 28 No.28

Through stained glass By George Agnew Chamberlain Characters: 8992

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


For a week Lewis missed his father very much. Every time he came into the flat its emptiness struck him, robbed him of gaiety, and made him feel as though he walked in a dead man's shoes. He was very lonely.

"Helton," he said one night, "I wish things could talk-these old chairs and the table and that big worn-out couch, for instance."

"Lucky thing they can't, sir," mumbled Helton, holding the seam of the table-cloth in his teeth while he folded it.

"Why?" said Lewis. "Why should it be lucky they can't? Don't you suppose if they had the power of talk, they'd have the power of discretion as well, just as we have?"

"I don't know about that, sir," said Helton. "Things is servants just like us serving-men is. The more wooden a serving-man is in the matter of talk, the easier it is for 'im to get a plice. If you ask me, sir, I would s'y as chairs is wooden and walls stone an' brick for the comfort of their betters, an' that they 'aven't any too much discretion as it is, let alone talking."

"Nelton," said Lewis, "I've been waiting to ask you something. I wonder if you could tell me."

"Can't s'y in the dark," said Nelton.

"It's this," said Lewis. "Everybody here-all dad's friends except Lady Derl-call him Grapes Leighton. Why? I've started to ask him two or three times, but somehow something else seems to crop up in his mind, and he doesn't give me a chance to finish."

Nelton's lowered eyes flashed a shrewd look at Lewis's face.

"The exercise of discretion ennobles the profession," he said, and stopped, a dazed, pleased look in his face at hearing his own rhyme. He laid the table-cloth down, took from his pocket the stub of a pencil, and wrote the words on his cuff. Then he picked up the cloth, laid it over his arm, and opened the door. As he went out he paused and said over his shoulder: "Master Lewis, it would hurt the governor's feelin's if you asked him or anybody else how he got the nime of Gripes."

Let a man but feel lonely, and his mind immediately harks along the back trail of the past. In his lonely week Lewis frequently found himself thinking back. It was only by thinking back that he could stay in the flat at all. Now for the first time he realized that he had been stepping through life with seven-league boots. The future could not possibly hold for him the tremendous distances of his past. How far he had come since that first dim day at Consolation Cottage!

To every grown-up there is a dim day that marks the beginning of things, the first remembered day of childhood. Lewis could not fasten on any memory older than the memory of a rickety cab, a tall, gloomy man, and then a white-clad group on the steps of Consolation Cottage. Black mammy, motherly Mrs. Leighton, curly-headed Shenton, and little Natalie, with her 'wumpled' skirt, who had stood on tiptoe to put her lips to his, appeared before him now as part of the dawn of life.

As he looked back, he saw that the sun had risen hot on his day of life. It had struck down Shenton, blasted the Reverend Orme, withered Ann Leighton, and had turned plump little Natalie's body into a thin, wiry home for hope. Natalie had always demanded joy even of little things. Did she still demand it? Where was Natalie? Lewis asked himself the question and felt a twinge of self-reproach. Life had been so full for him that he had not stopped to think how empty it might be for Natalie, his friend.

How little he had done to trace her! Only the one letter. He decided to write again, this time to Dom Francisco. If only he could talk to Natalie, what long tours it would take to tell and to hear all! A faint flush of anticipation was rising to his cheeks when a rap on the door startled him. Before he could look around Nelton announced, "A lady to see you, sir."

Lewis leaped to his feet and stepped forward. Had one of the miracles he had been taught to believe in come to pass? Had prayer been answered? The lady raised her arms and started to take off her veil. Then she turned her back to Lewis.

"Do untie it for me," she drawled in the slow voice of Lady Violet

Manerlin.

Lewis felt his face fall, and was glad she had her back to him. He undid her veil with steady, leisurely fingers.

"This is awfully good of you," he said. "How did you know I was alone?"

"Telephoned Nelton, and told him not to say anything."

Vi took off her hat and jacket as well as her veil, and tossed the lot into a chair. Then she sat down in a corner of the big

couch before the fire, doubled one foot under her, tapped the floor with the other, and yawned. Lewis offered her a cigarette, took one himself, and then shared a match with her.

"It's good of you to take it so calmly," said Vi. "Are you one of the fools that must always have an explanation? I'll give you one, if you like."

"Don't bother," said Lewis, smiling. "You've been bored-horribly bored. You looked out of the window, and saw the green things in the park, and remembered that there was only one bit in your list of humanity as green and fresh as they, and you headed straight for it."

"Yes," drawled Vi, "like a cow making for the freshest tuft of grass in the pasture. Thanks; but I'm almost sorry you told me why I came. That's the disappointing thing to us women. When we think we're doing something original, somebody with a brain comes along and reduces it to first elements, and we find we've only been natural."

Lewis straddled a chair, folded his arms on the back of it, and looked Vi over with a professional eye. She was posed for a painter, not for a sculptor, but even so he found her worth looking at. A woman can't sit on one foot, tap the floor with the other, and lean back, without showing the lines of her body.

"Mere length," said Lewis, "is a great handicap to a woman, but add proportion to length, and you have the essentials of beauty. Short and pretty; long and beautiful. D'you get that? A short woman may be beautiful as a table decoration, but let her stand up or lie down and, presto! she's just pretty."

Vi reached out one long arm toward the fire, and nicked off the ash from her cigarette. She tried to hide the tremor that Lewis's words brought to her limbs and the color that his frankly admiring eyes brought to the pallor of her cheeks. She was a woman that quivered under admiration.

"Have you never-don't you ever kiss women?" she asked, looking at him with slanted eyes.

Lewis shrugged his shoulders.

"Oh, I suppose so. That is-well, to tell you the truth, I don't remember."

For a second Vi stared at him; then she laughed, and he laughed with her.

"Oh! oh!" she cried, "I believe you're telling the truth!"

They sat and talked. Nelton brought in tea; then they sat and talked some more. A distant bell boomed seven o'clock. Vi started, rose slowly to her feet, and stretched.

"Have you got your invitation for the Ruttle-Marter fancy-dress ball next week?" she asked, stifling a yawn.

"No," said Lewis; "don't know 'em."

"That doesn't matter," said Vi. "I'll see that you get a card to-morrow. I'd like you to come. Nobody is supposed to know it, but I'm going to dance. Will you come?"

"Oh, yes," said Lewis, rising; "I'll come. I've been a bit lonely since dad went away." Then he smiled. "So I was wrong, after all."

"Wrong?" said Vi, staring at him, "When, how?"

"This is what you really came for-to ask me to see you dance," he said, laughing.

"Oh, was it?" said Vi. "I'm always wondering why I do things. Well, I suppose I'd better go, but I hate to. I've been so comfy here. If you'd only press me, I might stay for dinner."

Lewis shook his head.

"Better not."

"Why?"

"Well, you're married, aren't you?"

"Yes," said Vi, grimly, her eyes narrowing.

"Well," said Lewis, "you've heard dad talk. He says marriage is just an insurance policy to the mind of woman."

"Yes," said Vi, "and that the best place to keep it is away from the fire. Your dad's insight is simply weird. But if you think you're going to start on life where he left off, let me tell you you'll be chewing a worn-out cud."

Lewis laughed.

"You would be right if I were to live life over on his lines. But I won't. He doesn't want me to. He never said so, but I just know."

Vi shrugged her shoulders.

"You have a lot of sense," she said. "There's nothing women dislike more. Good-by." She held out her hand and stepped toward him. She seemed to misjudge the distance and half lose her balance. The full length of her quivering body came up against Lewis. He felt her hot, sweet breath almost on his mouth. He flushed. His arms started up from his sides and then dropped again.

"Touch and go!" he gasped.

"Which?" drawled Vi, her mouth almost on his, her wide, gray eyes so near that he closed his to save himself from blindness.

"Better make it 'go,'" said Lewis, and grinned.

"You've saved yourself," said Vi, with a laugh. "If you hadn't grinned,

I'd have kissed you."

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