"Oh, don't you believe her," she advised Mr. Halliday. "She loves you still. She's only teasing you. This is Joan."
She introduced her. Miss Tolley bowed; and allowed herself to be drawn away by a lank-haired young man who had likewise been waiting for an opening. He represented the Uplift Film a.s.sociation of Chicago, and was wishful to know if Miss Tolley would consent to altering the last chapter and so providing "Running Waters" with a happy ending. He pointed out the hopelessness of it in its present form, for film purposes.
The discussion was brief. "Then I'll send your agent the contract to- morrow," Joan overheard him say a minute later.
Mr. Sam Halliday she liked at once. He was a clean-shaven, square-jawed young man, with quiet eyes and a pleasant voice.
"Try and find me brainy," he whispered to her, as soon as Flossie was out of earshot. "Talk to me about China. I'm quite intelligent on China."
They both laughed, and then shot a guilty glance in Flossie's direction.
"Do the women really crush their feet?" asked Joan.
"Yes," he answered. "All those who have no use for them. About one per cent. of the population. To listen to Miss Tolley you would think that half the women wanted a new husband every ten years. It's always the one per cent. that get themselves talked about. The other ninety-nine are too busy."
"You are young for a philosopher," said Joan.
He laughed. "I told you I'd be all right if you started me on China," he said.
"Why are you marrying. Flossie?" Joan asked him. She thought his point of view would be interesting.
"Not sure I am yet," he answered with a grin. "It depends upon how I get through this evening." He glanced round the room. "Have I got to pa.s.s all this crowd, I wonder?" he added.
Joan's eyes followed. It was certainly an odd collection. Flossie, in her hunt for brains, had issued her invitations broadcast; and her fate had been that of the Charity concert. Not all the stars upon whom she had most depended had turned up. On the other hand not a single freak had failed her. At the moment, the centre of the room was occupied by a gentleman and two ladies in cla.s.sical drapery. They were holding hands in an att.i.tude suggestive of a bas-relief. Joan remembered them, having seen them on one or two occasions wandering in the King's Road, Chelsea; still maintaining, as far as the traffic would allow, the bas-relief suggestion; and generally surrounded by a crowd of children, ever hopeful that at the next corner they would stop and do something really interesting. They belonged to a society whose object was to lure the London public by the force of example towards the adoption of the early Greek fashions and the simpler Greek att.i.tudes. A friend of Flossie's had thrown in her lot with them, but could never be induced to abandon her umbrella. They also, as Joan told herself, were reformers. Near to them was a picturesque gentleman with a beard down to his waist whose "stunt"--as Flossie would have termed it--was hygienic clothing; it seemed to contain an undue proportion of fresh air. There were ladies in coats and stand-up collars, and gentlemen with ringlets. More than one of the guests would have been better, though perhaps not happier, for a bath.
"I fancy that's the idea," said Joan. "What will you do if you fail? Go back to China?"
"Yes," he answered. "And take her with me. Poor little girl."
Joan rather resented his tone.
"We are not all alike," she remarked. "Some of us are quite sane."
He looked straight into her eyes. "You are," he said. "I have been reading your articles. They are splendid. I'm going to help."
"How can you?" she said. "I mean, how will you?"
"Shipping is my business," he said. "I'm going to help sailor men. See that they have somewhere decent to go to, and don't get robbed. And then there are the Lascars, poor devils. n.o.body ever takes their part."
"How did you come across them?" she asked. "The articles, I mean. Did Flo give them to you?"
"No," he answered. "Just chance. Caught sight of your photo."
"Tell me," she said. "If it had been the photo of a woman with a bony throat and a beaky nose would you have read them?"
He thought a moment. "Guess not," he answered. "You're just as bad," he continued. "Isn't it the pale-faced young clergyman with the wavy hair and the beautiful voice that you all flock to hear? No getting away from nature. But it wasn't only that." He hesitated.
"I want to know," she said.
"You looked so young," he answered. "I had always had the idea that it was up to the old people to put the world to rights--that all I had to do was to look after myself. It came to me suddenly while you were talking to me--I mean while I was reading you: that if you were worrying yourself about it, I'd got to come in, too--that it would be mean of me not to. It wasn't like being preached to. It was somebody calling for help."
Instinctively she held out her hand and he grasped it.
Flossie came up at the same instant. She wanted to introduce him to Miss Lavery, who had just arrived.
"Hullo!" she said. "Are you two concluding a bargain?"
"Yes," said Joan. "We are founding the League of Youth. You've got to be in it. We are going to establish branches all round the world."
Flossie's young man was whisked away. Joan, who had seated herself in a small chair, was alone for a few minutes.
Miss Tolley had chanced upon a Human Doc.u.ment, with the help of which she was hopeful of starting a "Press Controversy" concerning the morality, or otherwise, of "Running Waters." The secretary stood just behind her, taking notes. They had drifted quite close. Joan could not help overhearing.
"It always seemed to me immoral, the marriage ceremony," the Human Doc.u.ment was explaining. She was a thin, sallow woman, with an untidy head and restless eyes that seemed to be always seeking something to look at and never finding it. "How can we pledge the future? To bind oneself to live with a man when perhaps we have ceased to care for him; it's hideous."
Miss Tolley murmured agreement.
"Our love was beautiful," continued the Human Doc.u.ment, eager, apparently, to relate her experience for the common good; "just because it was a free gift. We were not fettered to one another. At any moment either of us could have walked out of the house. The idea never occurred to us; not for years--five, to be exact."
The secretary, at a sign from Miss Tolley, made a memorandum of it.
"And then did your feelings towards him change suddenly?" questioned Miss Tolley.
"No," explained the Human Doc.u.ment, in the same quick, even tones; "so far as I was concerned, I was not conscious of any alteration in my own att.i.tude. But he felt the need of more solitude--for his development. We parted quite good friends."
"Oh," said Miss Tolley. "And were there any children?"
"Only two," answered the Human Doc.u.ment, "both girls."
"What has become of them?" persisted Miss Tolley.
The Human Doc.u.ment looked offended. "You do not think I would have permitted any power on earth to separate them from me, do you?" she answered. "I said to him, 'They are mine, mine. Where I go, they go.
Where I stay, they stay.' He saw the justice of my argument."
"And they are with you now?" concluded Miss Tolley.
"You must come and see them," the Human Doc.u.ment insisted. "Such dear, magnetic creatures. I superintend their entire education myself. We have a cottage in Surrey. It's rather a tight fit. You see, there are seven of us now. But the three girls can easily turn in together for a night, Abner will be delighted."
"Abner is your second?" suggested Miss Tolley.
"My third," the Human Doc.u.ment corrected her. "After Eustace, I married Ivanoff. I say 'married' because I regard it as the holiest form of marriage. He had to return to his own country. There was a political movement on foot. He felt it his duty to go. I want you particularly to meet the boy. He will interest you."
Miss Tolley appeared to be getting muddled. "Whose boy?" she demanded.
"Ivanoff's," explained the Human Doc.u.ment. "He was our only child."
Flossie appeared, towing a white-haired, distinguished-looking man, a Mr.
Folk. She introduced him and immediately disappeared. Joan wished she had been left alone a little longer. She would like to have heard more.
Especially was she curious concerning Abner, the lady's third. Would the higher moral law compel him, likewise, to leave the poor lady saddled with another couple of children? Or would she, on this occasion, get in--or rather, get off, first? Her own fancy was to back Abner. She did catch just one sentence before Miss Tolley, having obtained more food for reflection than perhaps she wanted, signalled to her secretary that the note-book might be closed.
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