“No indeed,” he protested on hearing her confession of age. “No indeed—why, you are the youngest person I ever saw, of course. But with men—it is quite different.”
“Is it? I always thought women were supposed to grow old faster than men. That is the reason why women always marry men so much older than themselves.”
“Oh—in that case—I have nothing more to say,” replied John in very indistinct tones. The perspiration was standing upon his forehead; the room swam with him and he felt a terrible, prickly sensation all over his body.
“Mamma, shan’t I open the door? Mr. Short is so very hot,” said Nellie looking at him in some astonishment. At that moment John felt as though he could have eaten little Nellie, long legs, ringlets and all, with infinite satisfaction. He rose suddenly to his feet.
“The fact is—it is late—I must really be saying good-bye,” he stammered.
“Must you?” said Mrs. Goddard, suspecting that something was the matter. “Well, I am very sorry to say good-bye. But you will be coming back soon, will you not?”
“Yes—I don’t know—perhaps I shall not come back at all. Good-bye—Mrs. Goddard—good-bye, Miss Nellie.”
“Good-bye, Mr. Short,” said Mrs. Goddard, looking at him with some anxiety. “You are not ill? What is the matter?”
“Oh dear no, nothing,” answered John with an unnatural laugh. “No thank you—good-bye.”
He managed to get out of the door and rushed down to the road. The cold air steadied his nerves. He felt better. With a sudden revulsion of feeling, he began to utter inward imprecations against his folly, against the house he had just left, against everybody and everything in general, not forgetting poor little Nellie.
“If ever I cross that threshold again—” he muttered with tragic emphasis. His face was still red, and he swung his stick ferociously as he strode towards the vicarage. Several little boys in ragged smock-frocks saw him and thought he had had some beer, even as their own fathers, and made vulgar gestures when his back was turned.
So poor John packed his portmanteau and left the vicarage early on the following morning. He sent an excuse to Mr. Juxon explaining that the urgency of his work called him back sooner than he had expected, and when the train moved fairly off towards Cambridge he felt that in being spared the ordeal of shaking hands with his rival he had at least escaped some of the bitterness of his fate; as he rolled along he thought very sadly of all that had happened in that short time which was to have been so gay and which had come to such a miserable end.