I don’t think I quite understand

Tony had been playing fives and only managed to change just in time for
the boys’ dinner. Lallie’s seat, at his right hand, was vacant, and he
concluded that she was lunching with the Wentworths. Miss Foster sat at
another table, and he had no opportunity till the meal was over of
asking her what had become of his guest.
Mr. Johns’ absence, without warning or explanation, certainly did
surprise him, for Mr. Johns was the least casual of men and prided
himself upon never being late for, or absent from, any duty whatsoever.
It never occurred to Tony to connect his absence with Lallie’s.
Tony had promised to take Lallie to the match in the afternoon, but had
that morning been unexpectedly summoned to Oxford on rather important
business, and the half-holiday made it possible for him to go.
He noticed that Miss Foster, contrary to her usual custom, went straight
to the drawing-room directly after lunch, and he followed her there with
his question as to the whereabouts of his guest.
Miss Foster stood on the hearthrug in front of the fire–luncheon was
always earlier on half-holidays, and it was not yet two-thirty. She
looked more than usually formidable, and Tony trembled before her. As
he asked his question she waved him to a chair with a majestic motion of
the hand.
“Please sit down, Mr. Bevan,” she remarked, in a hard voice. “I want to
speak to you on this very subject. I have no idea where Miss Clonmell
is. She flounced out of the house in a passion because I had to speak
to her about flirting with the boys; and I believe, but I am not certain
on this point–I believe that Mr. Johns accompanied her, which explains
his absence.”
Tony did not sit down. On the contrary he remained for a full minute
exactly where he was, just inside the half-open door, and stared
amazedly at Miss Foster. In perfect silence he shut the door and
crossed the room till, standing beside her on the hearthrug, he said
slowly:
“I don’t think I quite understand; did you say that in consequence of
something you had said to her Miss Clonmell left the house?”
“Not for good, Mr. Bevan; don’t look so anxious. She was in a temper
because I found fault with conduct that I know you, also, would be the
first to reprobate.”
Miss Foster spoke rather nervously. Tony’s face was quite
expressionless, but there was an indefinable something in his
excessively quiet manner that caused her for the first time to question
whether she had been quite wise.
“I’m afraid I must ask you to explain exactly what has happened, Miss
Foster. I can’t imagine any conduct on the part of Miss Clonmell that
could call for an expression of opinion so adverse as to drive her from
my house, even temporarily. And I cannot conceive it possible that you
should so address her if she was, as you say, accompanied by Mr. Johns.”
“Mr. Johns was not with her. He happened to be following me as I came
down the stairs. I did not see him when I spoke. What happened was
this: I found Miss Clonmell standing at the window of the staircase
trying to attract the attention of three of the bigger boys by kissing
her hand to them–a most—-”
“My dear Miss Foster,” Tony interrupted irritably, “how very absurd.
You must have misunderstood the whole occurrence. I’ve known Miss
Clonmell since she was a baby, and she is the very last girl in the
world to try to ’attract’ any one’s attention. She doesn’t need to. As
to kissing her hand, it’s a foreign gesture she has acquired from much
living abroad. I don’t suppose the most conceited ass of a boy in the
whole College would misunderstand her if he saw her.”
Tony’s face was no longer expressionless, and Miss Foster again
experienced that strange little tremor of fear.
“I can assure you, Mr. Bevan, had you seen what I saw, you would not
treat the affair so lightly. I beg you will not think I was animated by
any personal feeling in what I did.”
“Why should you be?” Tony asked simply, looking very hard at Miss Foster
the while.
“In speaking as I did to Miss Clonmell I was animated wholly by a desire
to do my duty by B. House. The honour of the house is very dear to me.”
Miss Foster’s voice broke, and Tony was melted at once.
“I am sure it is,” he said cordially; “but you must take my word for it
that in this instance you have been mistaken. And now, where do you
suppose that poor child is?”
“I should say she is almost certainly with Mrs. Wentworth, pouring her
fancied woes into a sympathetic ear.”
Again Tony bent his searching gaze upon Miss Foster.
“Ah,” he said thoughtfully, “that last remark of yours proves
conclusively how little you know Lallie. She would no more go and
complain of you to any one outside, than she would repeat a confidence
or carry a mischief-making tale.”
Miss Foster made no reply.
“Well, I must go, but I hope I have made it quite clear to you that you
were mistaken; and please remember in future, should any little
difficulty occur, you must come to me and not deal directly with Miss
Clonmell. I came to ask you to go with her in my place to the match
this afternoon, but in view of what has happened and the fact that Miss
Clonmell has not returned, I suppose that is impossible. I shall have
to stay the night at Oxford, but hope to be back in time for morning
school to-morrow. May I beg you to adopt as conciliatory a manner as
possible to Miss Clonmell–even if you cannot bring yourself to
apologise to her? She is my guest, you see, and it would be very
distressing to me to think she is unhappy in my house. Can I depend
upon you in this, Miss Foster?” Tony’s voice was so pleading and he
looked so unhappy that Miss Foster relented.
“I certainly could not apologise as I feel I was justified in what I
did. I shall make no reference whatever to what has passed. I think
that will be best; don’t you?”
“Much best,” said Tony warmly. “Please tell her how sorry I am not to
have seen her before I left.”
As the door was shut behind him Miss Foster exclaimed:
“Oh, you poor, dear, duped, deluded, man!”
Meanwhile Lallie still strolled slowly up and down the bit of road where
she had rested with Mr. Johns. A soft rain began to fall and she had no
umbrella, but she was unconscious of the fact. Physically she was tired
and chilled, and really faint from hunger. Mentally, now that her anger
and indignation had cooled, she was depressed, but inclined to think she
had exaggerated the importance of the whole affair.
“A storm in a teacup,” thought Lallie, “and I’ve gone and complicated
the whole thing by vanishing in the society of Paunch. Awfully decent
of him to come with me, but Tony will wonder. He’ll set Germs in her
place, but he’ll ask me what it was all about, and if he discovers that
Germs and I are not the dear friends he pictures us, he’ll worry, and to
be a worrying guest is what I can’t bear. I wonder what I’d better do?”
For a whole hour Lallie walked up and down that little bit of road in
the rain, resting at intervals upon the exceedingly wet green seat, till
at last the grey twilight of the short November afternoon began to close
about her. A passing man looked so hard at her that she grew nervous
and set off at a great pace for B. House.
Tony was worried and distressed. His interview with Miss Foster had
revealed to him a state of matters he had, it is true, once or twice
dimly conjectured: always putting his misgivings from him as unfair and
ungenerous to Miss Foster. He kept his hansom waiting till the last
minute in the hope that Lallie would return before he had to go.
With the excuse of getting her to keep Val till he was safely out of the
house, he sought the matron and begged her to see that tea was taken up
to Miss Clonmell’s room directly she came in, and that her fire should
be lit at once. He hung about looking so miserable and undecided, that
Matron, who had heard the whole story of the why and wherefore of
Lallie’s absence from Ford–how do servants always know everything that
goes on?–was emboldened to remark consolingly:
“It will be all right, sir; these little storms soon blow over. We all
know Miss Foster is just a little bit difficult at times; but she means
the best possible, and it soon passes. I’ll look after Miss Clonmell
myself; you may depend upon me. She’s a sweet young lady and we’re all
devoted to her.”
This was exactly what Tony wanted, and he departed somewhat comforted.


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As he was getting into his cab Matron watched him from the window, and
poor Val, whining dismally, paws on the window-sill, watched him too.
As the cab vanished out of the drive Matron leant down and patted Val,
remarking:
“After all, what’s thirty-seven? A man’s at his best then, and none the
worse because he has always been so busy that he doesn’t even know
what’s the matter with him when he’s got it–rash out all over him–got
it badly.”
Thus it was that when Lallie returned to B. House, front door, front
hall, front stairs, though her boots were dreadful, she found a lovely
fire in her bedroom and Matron there arranging a little tea-table beside
the armchair on the hearth. Moreover Matron insisted on her changing
everything there and then, and helped her to do it, finally dosing her
with ammoniated quinine before she would give her any tea. She asked no
questions of Lallie, but while the girl devoured crisp toast and a
boiled egg, entertained her with various items of College news, among
them that there was a case of scarlet fever in one of the houses.
“Isn’t Miss Foster in a dreadful state?” asked Lallie.
“Well, she’s worried and anxious, but so are we all. It’s not the right
term for it either, and the boy can’t have brought it back with
him–it’s too late in the term–so the question is where did he get it?
One always dreads an epidemic of any kind in a large school. We haven’t
had a real bad one for four years, and then it was in the summer term,
which was better. It’s always so much easier to get people well in
summer.”
“I got it that time too. Of course Paddy came back with it. Three
holidays in succession he came back with something, and gave it to me
every time; and he was so sick to have it in the holidays instead of
missing school. But I should think this house is pretty safe. I never
smelt so many disinfectants in my life till I came here–Come in!”
Miss Foster followed her knock, and she heard Lallie’s last words.
The fire, lit three hours before its proper time; the tea-table; the
presence of Matron; above all the certainty from the few words she had
overheard that she, herself, was the subject of their discourse, all
combined to rob her manner of any geniality she might have intended to
impart to it. So annoyed was she that Matron should have taken upon
herself to give Lallie tea without her–Miss Foster’s orders, and that
Lallie, as she concluded, had actually lit her own fire in the middle of
the afternoon without by your leave of any sort, that she found nothing
to say but:
“You’re back I see, and have had tea–are you unwell?”
“Thank you, no,” Lallie answered with quite equal frigidity, “but I was
tired and hungry and very wet, and Matron was kind enough to bring me
some tea.”
“Mr. Bevan asked me to tell you that he has been unexpectedly called to
Oxford and will not be back to-night.”
“Won’t you sit down, Miss Foster? Must you go, Matron? Thank you so
much. Matron told me Tony had to go; it was he who asked her to see that
I had tea. I hope it has not been troublesome?” Lallie added politely,
rising from her chair.
Miss Foster stood in the middle of the room, large, remote,
unapproachable; manifestly disapproving.
“I shall esteem it a favour, Miss Clonmell, if, in future, you will let
me know beforehand when you intend to be absent from a meal.”
“Certainly, Miss Foster; then I may as well tell you now that I shall
not be home for luncheon to-morrow. I’m so glad you reminded me. Won’t
you sit down?”
Lallie herself sat down again in the big deep chair; so large was it
that she almost seemed to lie down in it as she leaned back and stared
fixedly at the fire. She looked so comfortable, so entirely at her
ease, that Miss Foster simply longed to give this impudent girl a piece
of her mind, but the events of the early afternoon had somewhat shaken
her serene faith in the innate wisdom of her instincts. For years she
had religiously tended the flame of her self-confidence till it burned
with a steady radiance upon the altar of her beliefs. To-day, however,
the flame had been blown upon by an adverse wind of criticism; it
flickered until its light resembled a will-o’-the-wisp rather than the
clear light of reason she had always supposed it to be. Even the sight
of the denuded eggshell upon Lallie’s empty plate, annoying anachronism
at that hour though it was, could not stir Miss Foster to engage in open
conflict.
The graceful little figure in the loose white dressing-gown, lolling in
the chair, plainly awaited the first onslaught. Lazy and luxurious,
Lallie looked sideways at Miss Foster under her long lashes and said
sweetly:
“Do sit down: you look so uncomfortable standing there.”
“No, thank you”; and in spite of herself Miss Foster replied quite
civilly. “I only came to deliver Mr. Bevan’s message. Do you think you
will be well enough to come down to dinner?”
“I assure you I am not in the least ill. I will come down most
punctually. But, if you will excuse me, I will not change till it’s
time to dress. I have letters to write and will do them here by this
nice fire. Thank you so much for coming to inquire for me.”
Miss Foster nearly answered: “I did nothing of the kind,” but again
mistrust of the “will-o’-the-wisp” prevented her, and she sailed out of
the room without another word.
Lallie thrust out her little feet to the warmth and laughed.
“Dinner alone with Paunch and Germs will be rather a silent meal,” she
reflected, “unless we discuss the probabilities of scarlet fever, which
we are sure to do. I’ll finish Tony’s waistcoat this evening, for
to-morrow I shall be out all day. Tony will be so annoyed with me
to-morrow that he’ll forget all about the stupid little stramash to-day.
I hate to vex him, but I know if he guessed half I have to bear from
Germs it would vex him far more; and if he got questioning me I might
let out something, and for all his quiet ways Tony is very observant.
Germs was very civil this evening. I wonder why? I suppose poor old
Tony gave her a dressing down, but it would hurt him frightfully to do
it. She really is so splendid in the house, and he does love to live at
peace with all his fellow creatures. He’d never enjoy a row as I do;
but then, he’s as English as ever he can be. It’s quite suitable that
he should find fault with a harum-scarum like me, that won’t hurt him;
but it’s upsetting in the extreme to run against such a solid body as
old Germs, all knobs and hard things that hurt when you charge into
her…. I hope Mr. Ballinger won’t look upon it as encouragement if I
ride Kitty to-morrow. After all, why shouldn’t I? We lent him a horse
several times when he was over in Kerry last spring, and it’s much safer
to lend me a horse than him. I wish he was big and benevolent like
Tony. You always feel you could lean against Tony and he’d stand steady
as a rock. If you leant heavily against Mr. Ballinger he might
collapse. Tony really is a very great dear, he’s so big all round–I
hate to vex him–but perhaps it’ll clear the atmosphere a bit. I wish
Mr. Ballinger looked less like a passenger when he’s outside a horse….
I wonder—-”
Lallie had ceased to wish or wonder, for she was fast asleep.