“Thank you! But I wasn’t going to say anything of the sort. The fact is that for a long while I’ve been making up my mind to see you some time when you were in England: there was no hurry, because so long as my father’s alive I can do nothing, but when I heard you were coming to Wanhope the opportunity was too good to be missed. Railway fares,” Val added with a preoccupied smile, “are a consideration to me. So don’t walk away yet, Hyde, please. I have such a vivid recollection of the last time we met. Between the lines at dawn. Do you remember?”
“You were badly hurt, but before you fainted you dragged a promise out of me.”
“Dragged it out of you?” Lawrence repeated: “that’s one way of putting it!”
“But I made some feeble resistance at the time,” said Val mildly. “My head wasn’t clear then or for a long while after, but I had a—a presentiment that it was a mistake. You meant it kindly.” Had he? Lawrence laughed. He had never been able, to analyse the complex of instincts and passions that had determined his dealings with Stafford on that dim day between the lines.
“You were in a damned funk weren’t you, Val?”
Stafford gave a slight start, the reaction of the prisoner under a blow. But apart from the coarse cynicism of it, which irritated him, it was no more than he had foreseen, and from then on till the end he did not flinch.
“Yes, anything you like: you can’t overstate it. But my point is that I gave you my parole. Will you release me from it?”
“Good God!” said Lawrence.
He had never been more surprised in his life. “Come in: let us talk this over in the light.”
Through the open windows of the drawingroom, where candlesticks of twisted silver glimmered among Laura’s old, silvery brocades, and dim mirrors, and branches of pink and white rosebuds blooming deliciously in rose-coloured Dubarry jars, the two men came in together, Lawrence keenly on the watch. But observation was wasted on Stafford who had nothing to conceal, who was merely what he appeared to be, a faded and tired-looking man of middle height, with blue eyes and brown hair turning grey, and wellworn evening clothes a trifle rubbed at the cuffs. It was difficult to connect this gentle and unassuming person with the fiery memory of the war, and Lawrence without apology took hold of Stafford’s arm like a surgeon and tried to flex the rigid elbow-muscles, and to distinguish with his fingers used to handling wounds the hard seams and hollows below its shrunken joint. The action, which was overbearing was by no means redeemed by the intention, which was brutal.
“Surely after all these years you don’t propose to confess, Val?”
“I should like to make some sort of amends.”
“Too late: these things can never be undone.”