Oleron knew very well what Elsie had meant when she had said that her next visit would be preceded by a postcard. She, too, had realised that at last, at last he knew—knew, and didn’t want her. It gave him a miserable, pitiful pang, therefore, when she came again within a week, knocking at the door unannounced. She spoke from the landing; she did not intend to stay, she said; and he had to press her before she would so much as enter.
Her excuse for calling was that she had heard of an inquiry for short stories that he might be wise to follow up. He thanked her. Then, her business over, she seemed anxious to get away again. Oleron did not seek to detain her; even he saw through the pretext of the stories; and he accompanied her down the stairs.
But Elsie Bengough had no luck whatever in that house. A second accident befell her. Half-way down the staircase there was the sharp sound of splintering wood, and she checked a loud cry. Oleron knew the woodwork to be old, but he himself had ascended and descended frequently enough without mishap....
Elsie had put her foot through one of the stairs.
He sprang to her side in alarm.
“Oh, I say! My poor girl!”
She laughed hysterically.
“It’s my weight—I know I’m getting fat—”
“Keep still—let me clear these splinters away,” he muttered between his teeth.
She continued to laugh and sob that it was her weight—she was getting fat—
He thrust downwards at the broken boards. The extrication was no easy matter, and her torn boot showed him how badly the foot and ankle within it must be abraded.
“Good God—good God!” he muttered over and over again.
“I shall be too heavy for anything soon,” she sobbed and laughed.
But she refused to reascend and to examine her hurt.
“No, let me go quickly—let me go quickly,” she repeated.
“But it’s a frightful gash!”
“No—not so bad—let me get away quickly—I’m—I’m not wanted.”
At her words, that she was not wanted, his head dropped as if she had given him a buffet.
“Elsie!” he choked, brokenly and shocked.
But she too made a quick gesture, as if she put something violently aside.
“Oh, Paul, not that—not you—of course I do mean that too in a sense—oh, you know what I mean!... But if the other can’t be, spare me this now! I—I wouldn’t have come, but—but—oh, I did, I did try to keep away!”
It was intolerable, heartbreaking; but what could he do—what could he say? He did not love her...
“Let me go—I’m not wanted—let me take away what’s left of me—”
“Dear Elsie—you are very dear to me—”
But again she made the gesture, as of putting something violently aside.
“No, not that—not anything less—don’t offer me anything less—leave me a little pride—”