“I’ll tell you why. Strett always posts all my answers. He comes in for them every day before I leave. He posted the letter to the misunderstood party—the letter from you that the Dead Letter Office didn’t return. I posted my own letter to her; and that came back.”
A measurable silence followed the emission of this ingenious conjecture; then Betton observed with gentle irony: “Extremely neat. And of course it’s no business of yours to supply any valid motive for this remarkable attention on my valet’s part.”
Vyse cast on him a slanting glance.
“If you’ve found that human conduct’s generally based on valid motives—!”
“Well, outside of mad-houses it’s supposed to be not quite incalculable.”
Vyse had an odd smile under his thin moustache. “Every house is a mad-house at some time or another.”
Betton rose with a careless shake of the shoulders. “This one will be if I talk to you much longer,” he said, moving away with a laugh.
BETTON did not for a moment believe that Vyse suspected the valet of having written the letters.
“Why the devil don’t he say out what he thinks? He was always a tortuous chap,” he grumbled inwardly.
The sense of being held under the lens of Vyse’s mute scrutiny became more and more exasperating. Betton, by this time, had squared his shoulders to the fact that “Abundance” was a failure with the public: a confessed and glaring failure. The press told him so openly, and his friends emphasized the fact by their circumlocutions and evasions. Betton minded it a good deal more than he had expected, but not nearly as much as he minded Vyse’s knowing it. That remained the central twinge in his diffused discomfort. And the problem of getting rid of his secretary once more engaged him.
He had set aside all sentimental pretexts for retaining Vyse; but a practical argument replaced them. “If I ship him now he’ll think it’s because I’m ashamed to have him see that I’m not getting any more letters.”
For the letters had ceased again, almost abruptly, since Vyse had hazarded the conjecture that they were the product of Strett’s devoted pen. Betton had reverted only once to the subject—to ask ironically, a day or two later: “Is Strett writing to me as much as ever?”—and, on Vyse’s replying with a neutral head-shake, had added with a laugh: “If you suspect him you might as well think I write the letters myself!”
“There are very few to-day,” said Vyse, with his irritating evasiveness; and Betton rejoined squarely: “Oh, they’ll stop soon. The book’s a failure.”
A few mornings later he felt a rush of shame at his own tergiversations, and stalked into the library with Vyse’s sentence on his tongue.
Vyse started back with one of his anaemic blushes. “I was hoping you’d be in. I wanted to speak to you. There’ve been no letters the last day or two,” he explained.