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"I'm thinking of going away for a little while, Elsie," he said.
She merely said, "Oh?"
"Somewhere for a change. I need a change. I think I shall go to-morrow, or the day after. Yes, to-morrow, I think."
"Yes," she replied.
"I don't quite know how long I shall be," he continued. "I shall have to let you know when I am back."
"Yes, let me know," she replied in an even tone.
The tone was, for her, suspiciously even. He was a little uneasy.
"You don't ask me where I'm going," he said, with a little cumbrous effort to rally her.
She was looking straight before her, past the bus-driver.
"I know," she said.
He was startled. "How, you know?"
"You're not going anywhere," she replied.
He found not a word to say. It was a minute or so before she continued, in the same controlled voice she had employed from the start.
"You're not going anywhere. You weren't going out this morning. You only came out because I appeared; don't behave as if we were strangers, Paul."
A flush of pink had mounted to his cheeks. He noticed that the wind had given her the pink of early rhubarb. Still he found nothing to say.
"Of course, you ought to go away," she continued. "I don't know whether you look at yourself often in the glass, but you're rather noticeable. Several people have turned to look at you this morning. So, of course, you ought to go away. But you won't, and I know why."
He shivered, coughed a little, and then broke silence.
"Then if you know, there's no use in continuing this discussion" he said curtly.
"Not for me, perhaps, but there is for you, " she replied."Shall I tell you what I know?"
"No," he said in a voice slightly raised.
"No?" she asked, her round eyes earnestly on him.
"No." Again he was getting out of patience with her; again he was conscious of the strain. Her devotion and fidelity and love plagued him; she was only humiliating both herself and him. It would have been bad enough had he ever, by word or deed, given her cause for thus fastening herself on him ...but....there; that was the worst of that kind of life for a woman. Women such as she, businesswomen, in and out of offices all the time, always, whether they realised it or not, made comradeship a cover for something else. They accepted the unconventional status, came and went freely, as men did, were honestly taken by men at their own valuation--and then it turned out to be the other thing after all, and they went and fell in love. No wonder there was gossip in shops and squares and public houses! In a sense the gossipers were in the right of it. Independent, yet not efficient; with some of womanhood's graces forgone, and yet with all the woman's hunger and need; half sophisticated, yet not wise; Oleron was tired of it all ....
And it was time he told her so.
"I suppose," he said tremblingly, looking down between his knees, "I suppose the real trouble is in the life women who earn their own living are obliged to lead."
He could not tell in what sense she took the lame generality; she merely replied, "I suppose so."
"It can't be helped," he continued, "but you do sacrifice a good deal."
She agreed: a good deal; and then she added after a moment, "What, for instance?"
"You may or may not be gradually attaining a new status, but you're in a false position to-day."
It was very likely, she said; she hadn't thought of it much in that light-----
"And," he continued desperately, "you're bound to suffer. Your most innocent acts are misunderstood; motives you never dreamed of are attributed to you; and in the end it comes to"--he hesitated a moment and then took the plunge,--" to the sidelong look and the leer."
She took his meaning with perfect ease. She merely shivered a little as she pronounced the name.
His silence told her the rest.
Anything further that was to be said must come from her. It came as the bus stopped at a stage and fresh passengers mounted the stairs.
"You'd better get down here and go back, Paul," she said. "I understand perfectly--perfectly. It isn't Barrett. You'd be able to deal with Barrett. It's merely convenient for you to say it's Barrett. I know what it is . . . but you said I wasn't to tell you that. Very well. But before you go let me tell you why I came up this morning."
In a dull tone he asked her why. Again she looked straight before her as she replied:
"I came to force your hand. Things couldn't go on as they have been going, you know; and now that's all over. ' '
"All over," he repeated stupidly.
"All over. I want you now to consider yourself, as far as I'm concerned, perfectly free. I make only one reservation."
He hardly had the spirit to ask her what that was.
"If I merely need you," she said, "please don't give that a thought; that's nothing; I shan't come near for that. But," she dropped her voice, "if you're in need of me, Paul--I shall know if you are, and you will be--then I shall come at no matter what cost. You understand that?"
He could only groan.
"So that's understood," she concluded. "And I think all. Now go back. I should advise you to walk back, for you're shivering--good-bye---"
She gave him a cold hand, and he descended. He turned on the on the edge of the kerb as the bus started again. For the first time in all the years he had known her she parted from him with no smile and no wave of her long arm.
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The Beckoning Fair One -by- Oliver Onions