FRANCIS WILMOT REVERSES
About that moment Francis Wilmot sat down in the lounge of the Cosmopolis Hotel, and as suddenly sat up. In the middle of the parquet floor, sliding and lunging, backing and filling, twisting and turning in the arms of a man with a face like a mask, was she, to avoid whom, out of loyalty to Fleur and Michael, he had decided to go to Paris. Fate! For he could hardly know that she came there most afternoons during the dancing hours. She and her partner were easily the show couple; and, fond of dancing, Francis Wilmot knew he was looking at something special. When they stopped, quite close to him, he said in his soft drawl:
“That was beautiful.”
“How do you do, Mr. Wilmot?”
Why! She knew his name! This was the moment to exhibit loyalty! But she had sunk into a chair next his.
“And so you thought me a traitress last night?”
“Because I heard you call your hostess a snob.”
Marjorie Ferrar uttered an amused sound.
“My dear young man, if one never called one’s friends anything worse than that—! I didn’t mean you to hear, or that poptious old person with the chin!”
“He was her father,” said Francis Wilmot, gravely. “It hurt him.”
“Well! I’m sorry!”
A hand without a glove, warm but dry, was put into his. When it was withdrawn the whole of his hand and arm were tingling.
“Do you dance?”
“Yes, indeed, but I wouldn’t presume to dance with you.”
“Oh! but you must.”
Francis Wilmot’s head went round, and his body began going round too.
“You dance better than an Englishman, unless he’s professional,” said her lips six inches from his own.
“I’m proud to hear you say so, ma’am.”
“Don’t you know my name? or do you always call women ma’am? It’s ever so pretty.”
“Certainly I know your name and where you live. I wasn’t six yards from you this morning at four o’clock.”
“What were you doing there?”
“I just thought I’d like to be near you.”
Marjorie Ferrar said, as if to herself:
“The prettiest speech I ever heard. Come and have tea with me there tomorrow.”
Reversing, side-stepping, doing all he knew, Francis Wilmot said, slowly:
“I have to be in Paris.”
“Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you.”
“I’m not afraid, but—”
“Well, I shall expect you.” And, transferring herself again to her mask-faced partner, she looked back at him over her shoulder.
Francis Wilmot wiped his brow. An astonishing experience, another blow to his preconception of a stiff and formal race! If he had not known she was the daughter of a lord, he would have thought her an American. Would she ask him to dance with her again? But she left the lounge without another glance.
An up-to-date young man, a typical young man, would have felt the more jaunty. But he was neither. Six months’ training for the Air Service in 1918, one visit to New York, and a few trips to Charleston and Savannah, had left him still a countryman, with a tradition of good manners, work, and simple living. Women, of whom he had known few, were to him worthy of considerable respect. He judged them by his sister, or by the friends of his dead mother, in Savannah, who were all of a certain age. A Northern lady on the boat had told him that Southern girls measured life by the number of men they could attract; she had given him an amusing take-off of a Southern girl. It had been a surprise to this young Southerner. Anne was not like that; she had never had the chance to be, anyway, having married at nineteen the first young man who had asked her!
By the morning’s post he received Fleur’s little letter. ‘Limit!’ Limit of what? He felt indignant. He did not go to Paris, and at four o’clock he was at Wren Street.
In her studio Marjorie Ferrar, clad in a flax-blue overall, was scraping at a picture with a little knife. An hour later he was her slave. Cruft’s Dog Show, the Beefeaters, the Derby—he could not even remember his desire to see them; he only desired to see one English thing—Marjorie Ferrar. He hardly remembered which way the river flowed, and by mere accident walked East instead of West. Her hair, her eyes, her voice—he ‘had fallen for her!’ He knew himself for a fool, and did not mind; farther man cannot go. She passed him in a little open car, driving it herself, on her way to a rehearsal. She waved her hand. Blood rushed to his heart and rushed away; he trembled and went pale. And, as the car vanished, he felt lost, as if in a world of shadows, grey and dreary! Ah! There was Parliament! And, near by, the one spot in London where he could go and talk of Marjorie Ferrar, and that was where she had misbehaved herself! He itched to defend her from the charge of being ‘the limit.’ He could perceive the inappropriateness of going back there to talk to Fleur of her enemy, but anything was better than not talking of her. So, turning into South Square, he rang the bell.
Fleur was in her ‘parlour,’ if not precisely eating bread and honey, at least having tea.
“Not in Paris? How nice! Tea?”
“I’ve had it,” said Francis Wilmot, colouring. “I had it with HER.”
“Oh!” she said, with a laugh. “How interesting! Where did she pick you up?”
Without taking in the implication of the words, Francis Wilmot was conscious of something deadly in them.
“She was at the ‘the dansant’ at my hotel yesterday. She’s a wonderful dancer. I think she’s a wonderful person altogether; I’d like to have you tell me what you mean by calling her ‘the limit’?”
“I’d like to have you tell me why this volte face since Wednesday night?”
Francis Wilmot smiled: “You people have been ever so kind to me, and I want you to be friends with her again. I’m sure she didn’t mean what she said that night.”
“Indeed! Did she tell you that?”
“Why—not exactly! She said she didn’t mean us to hear them.”
He looked at her smiling face, conscious, perhaps, of deep waters, but youthfully, Americanly, unconscious of serious obstacle to his desire to smooth things out.
“I just hate to think you two are out after each other. Won’t you come and meet her at my hotel, and shake hands?”
Fleur’s eyes moved slowly over him from head to toe.
“You look as if you might have some French blood in you. Have you?”
“Yes. My grandmother was of French stock.”
“Well, I have more. The French, you know, don’t forgive easily. And they don’t persuade themselves into believing what they want to.”
Francis Wilmot rose, and spoke with a kind of masterfulness.
“You’re going to tell me what you meant in your letter.”
“Am I? My dear young man, the limit of perfection, of course. Aren’t you a living proof?”
Aware that he was being mocked, and mixed in his feelings, Francis Wilmot made for the door.
“Good-bye,” he said. “I suppose you’ll have no use for me in future.”
“Good-bye!” said Fleur.
He went out rueful, puzzled, lonelier even than when he went in. He was guideless, with no one to ‘put him wise’! No directness and simplicity in this town. People did not say what they meant; and his goddess—as enigmatic and twisting as the rest! More so—more so—for what did the rest matter?