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This intrusion of the first Romilly's prototype into his thought again was a factor that for the moment brought his inquiry into the nature of his problem to a termination; the mere thought of Elsie was fatal to anything abstract. For another thing, he could not yet think of that letter of Barrett's, nor of a little scene that had followed it, without a mounting of colour and a quick contraction of the brow. For, wisely or not, he had had that argument out at once. Striding across the square on the following morning, he had bearded Barrett on his own doorstep. Coming back again a few minutes later, he had been strongly of opinion that he had only made matters worse. The man had been vagueness itself. He had not been able to be either challenged or brow beaten into anything more definite than a muttered farrago in which the words "Certain things . Mrs. Barrett . . . . respectable house . . . if the cap fits . . . proceedings that shall be nameless," had been constantly repeated.
"Not that I make any charge----" he had concluded.
"Charge!" Oleron had cried.
"I 'ave my idears of things, as I don't doubt you 'ave yours---"
"Ideas--mine!" Oleron had cried wrathfully, immediately dropping his voice as heads had appeared at windows of the square. "Look you here, my man; you've an unwholesome mind, which probably you can't help, but a tongue which you. can help, and shall! If there is a breath of this repeated . . ."
"I'll not be talked to on my own doorstep like this by anybody, . . ." Barrett had blustered....
"You shall, and I'm doing it . . ."
"Don't you forget there's a Gawd above all, Who 'as said..."
"You're a low scandalmonger! . . ."
And so forth, continuing badly what was already badly begun. Oleron had returned wrathfully to his own house, and thenceforward, looking out of his windows, had seen Barrett's face at odd times, lifting blinds or peering round curtains, as if he sought to put himself in possession of Heaven knew what evidence, in case it should be required of him.
The unfortunate occurrence made certain minor differences in Oleron's domestic arrangements. Barrett's tongue, he gathered, had already been busy; he was looked at askance by the dwellers of the square; and he judged it better, until he should be able to obtain other help, to make his purchases of provisions a little farther afield rather than at the small shops of the immediate neighbourhood. For the rest, housekeeping was no new thing to him, and he would resume his old bachelor habits ....
Besides, he was deep in certain rather abstruse investigations, in which it was better that he should not be disturbed.
He was looking out of his window one midday rather tired, not very well, and glad that it was not very likely he would have to stir out of doors, when he saw Elsie Bengough crossing the square towards his house. The weather had broken; it was a raw and gusty day; and she had to force her way against the wind that set her ample skirts bellying about her opulent figure and her veil spinning and streaming behind her.
Oleron acted swiftly and instinctively. Seizing his hat, he sprang to the door and descended the stairs at a run. A sort of panic had seized him. She must be prevented from setting foot in the place. As he ran along the alley he was conscious that his eyes went up to the caves as if something drew them. He did not know that a slate might not accident ally fall ....
He met her at the gate, and spoke with curious volubleness.
"This is really too bad, Elsie! Just as I'm urgently called away! I'm afraid it can't be helped though, and that you'll have to think me an inhospitable beast." He poured it out just as it came into his head.
She asked if he was going to town.
"Yes, yes--to town," he replied. "I've got to call on--on Chambers. You know Chambers, don't you? No, I remember you don't; a big man you once saw me with. . . I ought to have gone yesterday, and--" this he felt to be a brilliant effort--" and he's going out of town this after noon. To Brighton. I had a letter from him this morning."
He took her arm and led her up the square. She had to remind him that his way to town lay in the other direction.
"Of course--how stupid of me l" he said, with a little loud laugh. "I'm so used to going the other way with you--of course; it's the other way to the bus. Will you come along with me? I am so awfully sorry it's happened like this ....
They took the street to the bus terminus.
This time Elsie bore no signs of having gone through interior struggles. If she detected anything unusual in his manner she made' no comment, and he, seeing her calm, began to talk less recklessly through silences. By the time they reached the bus terminus, nobody, seeing the pallid-faced man without an overcoat and the large ample skirted girl at his side, would have supposed .that one of them was ready to sink on his knees for thankfulness that he had, as he believed, saved the other from a wildly unthinkable danger.
They mounted to the top of the bus, Oleron protesting that he should not miss his overcoat, and that he found the day, if anything, rather oppressively hot. They sat down on a front seat.
Now that this meeting was forced upon him, he had something else to say that would make demands upon his tact. It had been on his mind for some time, and was, indeed, peculiarly difficult to put. He revolved it for some minutes, and then, remembering the success of his story of a sudden call to town, cut the knot of his difficulty with another lie.
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The Beckoning Fair One -by- Oliver Onions