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PAGE 2

The Pretext
by [?]

She clasped her hands on the arms of the chair, checked its swaying with a firm thrust of her foot, and fixed her eyes upon the inward vision. . . .

To begin with, what had made to-day’s visit so different from the others? It became suddenly vivid to her that there had been many, almost daily, others, since Guy Dawnish’s coming to Wentworth. Even the previous winter–the winter of his arrival from England–his visits had been numerous enough to make Wentworth aware that–very naturally–Mrs. Ransom was “looking after” the stray young Englishman committed to her husband’s care by an eminent Q. C. whom the Ransoms had known on one of their brief London visits, and with whom Ransom had since maintained professional relations. All this was in the natural order of things, as sanctioned by the social code of Wentworth. Every one was kind to Guy Dawnish–some rather importunately so, as Margaret Ransom had smiled to observe–but it was recognized as fitting that she should be kindest, since he was in a sense her property, since his people in England, by profusely acknowledging her kindness, had given it the domestic sanction without which, to Wentworth, any social relation between the sexes remained unhallowed and to be viewed askance. Yes! And even this second winter, when the visits had become so much more frequent, so admitted a part of the day’s routine, there had not been, from any one, a hint of surprise or of conjecture. . . .

Mrs. Ransom smiled with a faint bitterness. She was protected by her age, no doubt–her age and her past, and the image her mirror gave back to her. . . .

Her door-handle turned suddenly, and the bolt’s resistance was met by an impatient knock.

“Margaret!”

She started up, her brightness fading, and unbolted the door to admit her husband.

“Why are you locked in? Why, you’re not dressed yet!” he exclaimed.

It was possible for Ransom to reach his dressing-room by a slight circuit through the passage; but it was characteristic of the relentless domesticity of their relation that he chose, as a matter of course, the directer way through his wife’s bedroom. She had never before been disturbed by this practice, which she accepted as inevitable, but had merely adapted her own habits to it, delaying her hasty toilet till he was safely in his room, or completing it before she heard his step on the stair; since a scrupulous traditional prudery had miraculously survived this massacre of all the privacies.

“Oh, I shan’t dress this evening–I shall just have some tea in the library after you’ve gone,” she answered absently. “Your things are laid out,” she added, rousing herself.

He looked surprised. “The dinner’s at seven. I suppose the speeches will begin at nine. I thought you were coming to hear them.”

She wavered. “I don’t know. I think not. Mrs. Sperry’s ill, and I’ve no one else to go with.”

He glanced at his watch. “Why not get hold of Dawnish? Wasn’t he here just now? Why didn’t you ask him?”

She turned toward her dressing-table, and straightened the comb and brush with a nervous hand. Her husband had given her, that morning, two tickets for the ladies’ gallery in Hamblin Hall, where the great public dinner of the evening was to take place–a banquet offered by the faculty of Wentworth to visitors of academic eminence–and she had meant to ask Dawnish to go with her: it had seemed the most natural thing to do, till the end of his visit came, and then, after all, she had not spoken. . . .

“It’s too late now,” she murmured, bending over her pin cushion.

“Too late? Not if you telephone him.”

Her husband came toward her, and she turned quickly to face him, lest he should suspect her of trying to avoid his eye. To what duplicity was she already committed!

Ransom laid a friendly hand on her arm: “Come along, Margaret. You know I speak for the bar.” She was aware, in his voice, of a little note of surprise at his having to remind her of this.