Oleron knew very well what Elsie had meant when she had said that her next visit would be preceded by a postcard. She, too, had realised that at last, at last he knew--knew, and didn't want her. It gave him a miserable, pitiful pang, therefore, when she came again within a week, knocking at the door unannounced. She spoke from the landing; she did not intend to stay, she said; and he had to press her before she would so much as enter.
Her excuse for calling was that she had heard of an inquiry for short stories that he might be wise to follow up. He thanked her. Then, her business over, she seemed anxious to get away again. Oleron did not seek to detain her; even he sw through the pretext of the stories; and he accompanied her down the stairs.
But Elsie Bengough had no luck whatever in that house. A second accident befell her. Half-way down the staircase there was a sharp sound of splintering wood, and she checked a loud cry. Oleron knew the woodwork to be old, but he himself had ascended and descended frequently enough without mishap. . .
Elsie had put her foot through one of the stairs.
He sprang to her side in alarm.
"Oh, I say! My poor girl!"
She laughed hysterically.
"It's my weight--I know I'm getting fat--"
"Keep still--let me clear those splinters away," he muttered between his teeth.
She continued to laugh and sob that it was her weight--she was getting fat--
He thrust downwards at the broken boards. The extrication was no easy matter, and her torn boot shows him how badly the foot and ankle within it must be abraded.
"Good God--good God!" he muttered over and over again.
"I shall be too heavy for anything soon,": she sobbed and laughed.
But she refused to reascend and to examine her hurt.
"No, let me go quickly--let me go quickly," she repeated."
"But it's a frightful gash!"
"No--not so bad--let me gt away quickly--I'm--I'm not wanted."
At her words, that she was not wanted, his head dropped as if she had given him a buffet.
"Elsie!" he choked, brokenly and shocked.
But she too made a quick gesture, as if she put something violently aside.
"Oh, Paul, not that--not you--of course I do mean that too in a sense--oh, you know what I mean! . . . But if the other can't be, spare me this now! I--I wouldn't have come, but--but oh, I did, I did try to keep away!"
It was intolerable, heartbreaking; but what could he do--what could he say? He did not love her. . . .
"Let me go--I'm not wanted--let me take away what's left of me--"
"Dear Elsie--you are very dear to me---"
But again she made the gesture, as of putting something violently aside.
"No, not that--not anything less--don't offer me anything less--leave me a little pride---"
"Let me get my hat and coat--let me take you to a doctor," he muttered.
But she refused. She refused even the support of his arm. She gave another unsteady laugh.
"I'm sorry I broke your stairs, Paul. . . . You will go and see about the short stories, won't you?"
"Then if you won't see a doctor, will you go across the square and let Mrs. Barrett look at you? Look, there's Barrett passing now---"
The long-nosed Barrett was looking curiously down the alley, but as Oleron was about to call him he made off with our a word. Elsie seemed anxious for nothing so much as to be clear of the place, and finally promised to go straight to a doctor, but insisted on going alone.
"Good-bye," she said.
And Oleron watched her until she was past the hatchet-like "To Let" boards, as if he feared that even they might fall upon her and maim her.
That night Oleron did not dine. He had far too much on his mind. He walked from room to room of his flat, as if he could have walked way from Elsie Bengough's haunting cry that still rang in his ears. "I'm not wanted--don't offer me anything less--let me take away what's left of me-------"
Oh, if he could have persuaded himself that he loved her!
He walked until twilight fell, then, without lighting candles, he stirred up the fire and flung himself into a chair.
Poor, poor Elsie!...
But even while his heart ached for her, it was out of the question. If only he had known! If only he had used common observation! But those walks, those sisterly takings of the arm--what a fool he had been!. . . Well, it was too late now. It was she, not he, who must now act--act by keeping away. He would help her all he could. He himself would not sit in her presence. If she came, he would hurry her out again as fast as he could. . . . Poor, poor Elsie!
His room grew dark; the fire burned dead; and he continued to it, wincing from time to time as a fresh tortured phrase rang in his ears.
Then suddenly, he knew not why, he found himself anxious for her in a new sense--uneasy about her personal safety. A horrible fancy that even then he might be looking over an embankment down into dark water, that she might even now be glancing up at the hook on the door, took him. Women had been known to do these things! . . . Then there would be an inquest, and he himself would be called upon to identify her, and would be asked how she had come by an ill-healed wound on the hand and a bad abrasion of the ankle. Barrett would say that he had seen her leaving his house. . . .
The Beckoning Fair One -by- Oliver Onions