By E. R. PUNSHON
NO lady would have done such a thing. You see, it was not merely wrong; it was vulgar as well—despicably vulgar—and Molly did it. It was, in fact, just the sort of trick that a scullery-maid would have played, and Molly did it.
But she knew so well what the great flat cardboard box held, and she was all alone in the house, and it was so long, so very long, since she had worn a pretty frock—not, in fact, since the death of her father had left her penniless and forced her to take this situation with Mrs. Courtenay-Saunders, nominally as lady-companion, really as girl for any odd job the servants wouldn't do.
To-day everyone else, including all the servants, had gone to the flower show some local ladyship or other was opening. Mrs. Courtenay-Saunders had been sure that Miss Fayne would not mind staying at home, so that the house might not be left empty, as the maids would be so disappointed if they could not be present at the opening ceremony. Molly, of course, agreed at once, for she had long since learnt that she ranked far below the servants, since lady-companions are as common as dirt, and good servants grow rarer every day.
So, though she would have liked to be at the opening as much as anyone, she smiled as sweetly as she could, and protested she would just as soon stay at home as not, though why on earth the house could not be left to itself for a few hours she could not imagine.
However, here she was, all alone, and regarding with a smile that had in it rather more than a touch of satisfied malice the large flat cardboard box that had just arrived.
For in it was the wondrous smart new frock Ethel Saunders had meant to wear at the opening, but had insisted on sending back to the dressmaker time after time for one trifling alteration after another, till at last, when it was wanted, it was still there, and Ethel had had to go off in her old tussore and a simply frightful temper. Ten minutes after her departure, while the echo of her shrill denunciations and complaints still hung upon the air, a breathless messenger had arrived, bearing the box Molly was now contemplating with so much naughty satisfaction.
"It was her own fault entirely," Molly mused. "I suppose, though, I had better take it out and hang it up before it's all creased. She will be more furious than ever if Captain Marlowe is there, and she has missed the chance of dazzling him with her new frock."
Captain Christopher Marlowe was an exceedingly eligible young gentleman, who was to marry Miss Ethel Saunders—at least, that arrangement had been made by Mrs. Saunders and by Captain Marlowe's aunt, and warmly endorsed by Miss Ethel, who, it was true, had never seen Captain Marlowe, but knew that his rent-roll was five thousand pounds a year, that he was heir to a baronetcy, and that recently he had been "mentioned in dispatches" for "distinguished service at the Front." Captain Marlowe's views were more doubtful, and it was largely in order to resolve them that there had been designed this magnificent new frock Molly was now in the act of unpacking.
Carefully she withdrew it from the folds of tissue-paper in which it was wrapped, and held it up at arm's length. It was pretty—there was no denying that. The dressmaker had achieved the triumph of her life. What a great stupid Ethel had been to lose the chance of wearing it I It would have suited her quite well, though not, Molly wistfully thought, quite as well as it would have suited Molly Fayne.
And then the temptation came—the temptation that was so much worse than merely sinful because it was also so unspeakably vulgar.
The worst of it is, Molly fell with scarcely a show of resistance. It was so long since she had worn a really pretty frock, and she was nearly certain it would suit her, and sure it would fit her, for she and Ethel were much about the same size and build. In less time than it takes to tell, she had slipped off her modest blouse and skirt and had pulled on the new frock.
She was right. It fitted her to perfection, and it suited her rather better than that. To see herself better she ran into the drawing-room, a big, pleasant room, with large French windows opening on the garden, and a good deal of gaudy furniture, including a big gilt mirror. Yes, certainly it suited her admirably. And how nice it was to have on something decent once again, as in the happy old days that were gone for ever! Full of a guilty, pleasurable excitement, she jumped on a chair in order to see herself better in the big mirror, and never once thought of the open French window, till all at once she was aware of an awful feeling that there was someone watching her. She jumped down quickly from her chair with a little squeal of terror, and saw standing in the garden, just outside the open window, a tall, handsome, pleasant-faced young man in khaki.
"Oh, I beg your pardon! I hope I didn't startle you," he said, lifting his hand in military salute.
Molly fluttered to the window, her heart going like a steam-engine. Nor did it make matters any better that she was very clearly conscious of a gleam of amusement in the young man's eyes. She supposed she had looked an awful donkey, perched on the chair and preening herself before the mirror. One blessing was that he was a stranger. Suppose she had been caught by someone who knew her and Mrs. Courtenay-Saunders!
"I beg your pardon," said the young man again. "I'm so awfully sorry I startled you. You see, I just happened to catch a glimpse of you as I was passing, and it was a great relief, because I was afraid everybody would be out."
"Oh, yes, so they are," said Molly breathlessly. "Mrs. Saunders is out, and so is everyone."
"Not everyone, surely," the young man protested, smiling. "You will be Ethel, I suppose—Miss Ethel Saunders?"
"Oh, no, no!" cried Molly. "My name's Fayne—Molly Fayne. Miss Saunders is at the flower show with Mrs. Saunders."
"Oh, is she?" said the young man. "Well, may I introduce myself? My name is Marlowe—Christopher Marlowe, more commonly known as Chris to my friends."
"Oh, oh!" moaned Molly. "Not—not the Captain Marlowe Mrs. Saunders is expecting?"
By this time the young man had approached so near the French window that another step would bring him into the room, as seemed, indeed, to be his intention. Not that Molly cared. All was over. For no doubt Captain Marlowe would often be coming to the house, and he would be sure, sooner or later, to tell in what gorgeous guise he had found the modest little companion on his first visit. Ethel would never forgive her, never. Nor would Mrs. Saunders, nor would anybody. The worst of it was, Molly knew very well she did not deserve to be forgiven.
"Well, yes"—Marlowe smiled—"I suppose Mrs. Saunders would be expecting me. Jolly awfully unlucky she is out." But this he did not say as if he meant it in the very least. "Rotten luck, I had forgotten all about the flower show! I suppose you are off there, too?" he added, with a glance at her gorgeous attire, and a manner as if he meant to ask if he might accompany her.
"Oh, no!" said Molly, with a shiver of horror at the mere idea.
Captain Marlowe was plainly a little puzzled. He found it a trifle difficult to understand what this girl was doing all alone in the house in such a very smart frock. The situation was interesting, and the girl herself the prettiest he had seen for a long time. He put one foot inside the room and then the other, and Molly stood and watched him with great miserable eyes, and very sincerely wished herself dead.
"Jolly lucky for me," he said. "By Jove," he added pathetically, "suppose I had come all this way and then found no one in, and had to go all the way back without a drop of tea or anything, when I'm pretty nearly dead beat! A nice fix I should have found myself in."
Molly said nothing. She was thinking that a nice fix was precisely what she was in. And her smart frock seemed to burn her to the bones, like a veritable shirt of Nessus.
"I'm awfully done up; you've no idea what a walk I've had," said the Captain, more and more pathetic. "What time do you think Mrs. Saunders will he back?"
Molly was understood to murmur something to the effect that Mrs. Saunders would probably be back soon after six. At six the price of admission was reduced from two shillings and sixpence to sixpence, and therewith the best people retired, so simply can the distinction be drawn between the best people and the others.
"Six o'clock," echoed Captain Marlowe, "and it's not four yet!" And he did his best to look dismayed.
"You—you don't mean to wait?" gasped Molly, who had no need to try to look dismayed.
"You won't mind if I do, will you?" asked the Captain very pleadingly. "I'm just about fagged out. I've come an awful way. I was wondering if you would be a good Samaritan and give me a cup of tea?"
"With the greatest pleasure," said Molly, emitting a hollow groan as she pictured to herself what it would be like when Mrs. Courtenay-Saunders returned and found her lady-companion, dressed in Ethel's new frock, entertaining Ethel's fiancé to tea.
However, there was one thing about it—the situation could not be worse; nothing could by any possibility make it more awful than it was. A man condemned to be hanged may be excused for caring comparatively little about anything else, and Molly's mood was like that. Two hours still remained before the crack of doom, and a whisper suggested to Molly that she had better make the most of them.
For even in her dismay, even in her horror, even in her remorse and misery and despair, she had been able to perceive the admiration that was in truth very visible in Christopher Marlowe's eyes. Instinct told her that he found her not unpleasing. Even in spite of her contrite and guilty knowledge that she had no right to be wearing Ethel's frock, the additional knowledge that Ethel's frock suited her so well gave her a self-confidence her rightful but plain blouse and skirt would quite have failed to create in her. Lamentable is it that one should stand more firmly on fraudulent glories than on honest dowdiness, but so, alas, it is—or was, with Molly.
Behold them, then, at half-past four, firm friends, Molly, in all her stolen splendour, pouring out the tea for a young man about s helplessly in the toils as any young man could well be, which is saying a good deal.
The very horror of her position lent a brightness to Molly's eyes, a flush to her cheek, a sparkle to her conversation. No one could have recognised Mrs. Saunders's prim, dull, suppressed little companion in this radiant vision presiding at the tea-table. With every minute that passed Christopher Marlowe became more hopelessly her slave, signed, sealed, and delivered, so to speak, and with a little cry of horror Molly jumped to her feet.
"It's nearly six!" she cried.
"Impossible!" said Christopher. "Ridiculous! Clock's wrong."
"It isn't," said Molly. "I must fly."
"Why?" asked Chris.
"Because——" she said, and paused. She turned and faced him. She held herself bolt upright, her small head thrown a little back, her hands tightly clenched, hanging by her side. "I don't care," she said, very loudly and distinctly.
"Eh?" said Chris, puzzled.
"What's more," said Molly, "I'm jolly glad I did!"
"So am I," said Chris, with enthusiasm.
"What's more," said Molly, "I don't care a snap!" And she emphasised this fact by snapping a dainty finger and thumb in the air.
"Good!" said Chris, and he thought her the most enchanting, puzzlingly mysterious, fascinating person he had ever come across.
She dropped him a low curtsey. He stepped forward with his hand out, as if to take hold of her, but, with a little laugh, she slipped away and ran out of the room. He made as if to follow, and then checked himself. After a very short interval, that seemed to him an age, she reappeared, and he stared open-eyed. For she had stripped herself of all her glory. The smart new frock hung where it ought to have hung all the afternoon—in Ethel's bedroom—and Molly had on her very plainest shirt blouse and an equally plain skirt. And it was not her fault, but that of the sheer obstinate contradictoriness of the male character, thatMarlowe thought her ten times as charming now as before in all her finery. Besides, his curiosity was piqued, for he could imagine neither why she had been so smart when he first arrived, nor have chosen to dress so plainly now.
"Please let me help you," he said, stepping forward as she began to clear away the tea-things.
"Please sit down," she retorted.
The sparkle still lingered in her eye, the flush on her cheek. She had had her hour, and, if it had to be paid for, she didn't care.
She felt absolutely reckless.
"Here they are," she said, hearing a noise at the front door.
She went to open it, and found Mrs. Courtenay-Saunders and Miss Ethel Courtenay-Saunders back from the show, looking both tired and cross.
"Has my frock come?" demanded Ethel. "Everyone had a new frock but me."
"Yes, it came almost at once," answered Molly. "Oh, and Captain Marlowe is here. I've given him some tea, and he is waiting in the drawing-room."
"Goodness gracious!" cried Mrs. Saunders.
"You go in, ma—I'll come in a minute," exclaimed Ethel, and rushed upstairs as fast as she could tear, while Mrs. Courtenay-Saunders entered the drawing-room, lifting up her voice in loud exclamations of wonder and delight.
Molly, lingering in the hall as a murderer is said to linger near the scene of his crime, could hear her talking ceaselessly, and Chris occasionally murmuring a response. A noise behind made Molly turn, and coming down the stairs was Ethel, wearing the new frock.
Molly could have screamed. It was indeed the very extremity of the awfulness of the thing that kept her silent.
All unconscious, the miserable Ethel came swiftly down the stairs. She had torn off the things she had worn at the flower show, hurriedly donned this new frock, and with the effect she was fully satisfied. To herself she was saying that, after all, it was a good thing she had not had it on at the flower show. It would have become draggled and soiled in the crowded tent, and now she had it in all its pristine glory, to aid her in the conquest she contemplated of Christopher Marlowe. Little she knew as, smiling and satisfied, she said to Molly—
"I think it suits me, don't you? I hope Captain Marlowe will like it. Is it all right behind?"
"Oh, yes," said the awe-stricken Molly.
Ethel opened the door of the drawing-room and entered. Drawn by an awful fascination, Molly followed. She simply could not help it—a morbid horror she could not resist compelled her.
It was such a position as, Molly supposed, turned people's hair white in a single hour. What made it so much worse was Ethel's total happy unconsciousness. Complacently she stood there in her new frock, and thought she looked her best, and that Marlowe could not help but be impressed.
Ethel, knowing nothing, dreaming nothing, suspecting nothing, was shaking bands with the Captain. From the background Molly ventured to steal a look at him. What would he do? His face remained impassive as he shook hands. Ethel put herself in the best light, gave her skirt a little shake to show it to the best advantage, visibly preened herself as much as to say: "Well, I think you must admit I have a pretty gown, anyhow." Unable to bear it any longer, Molly crept from the room.
She felt she no longer desired to live, and she felt that, if Ethel ever came to know the truth, Ethel would no longer desire to live.
A little later—for Captain Marlowe, pleading the lateness of the hour, would not stay longer—he met in the lane that took him back to the railway station a forlorn, miserable, abashed little figure sitting sadly under a tree by the wayside.
"Miss Fayne!" he exclaimed eagerly.
"What you must think of me!" she sighed.
"I think——" he began, and paused, not daring to put his thoughts into words.
"That frock," she whispered tragically—"Ethel's frock!"
"Was it hers?" he asked. "It suited you miles better."
"What does that matter," she demanded, with undiminished gloom, "when it was hers and not mine? Listen!" She held him with a bright eye. and an uplifted finger as she poured out the story of her wrong-doing. "There," she said, when she had finished, "what do you think of me now?"
For answer he kissed her. Without the least word or warning he kissed her, and this so utterly astonished her that she never made the least resistance or protest, but merely blinked her eyes and looked at him in bewilderment.
"Secret for secret," he said. "Do you know why I called to-day? Because my aunt made me promise, and as I was pretty sure they would be at the flower show, I thought I could safely. What do you think of me now?"
"Oh, that was nothing to what I did," she sighed. "If Ethel knew——"
"Yes," he agreed, "if she knew——"
Then he began to laugh. It was very wrong of him, because, after a time, Molly had to laugh, too, his merriment was so infectious.
"All the same," she whispered, "I'm awfully ashamed of myself."
And then he kissed her again.
Copyright, 1916, by E. R. Punshon, in the United States of America