Authors: Mary Whistler
Though Stephen had married Penny on the rebound, she hoped to find happiness with him — until the motor smash that deprived him of sight and embittered his spirit. What future was there for them now?
treamed through the great mu
ioned window, turning the splendid array of silver amongst the wedding gifts to silver fire. The canteens of cutlery, the silver rose bowls, the epergnes and cigar-boxes, all shone with a magnificence that could hardly have been more impressive.
Then there were the sets of delicate china, the quantities of table linen and glass that had been bestowed on the happy pair, all displayed to perfection in the library at Grangewood. Penny set the little cards that provided a key to the various donors in close proximity to their gifts, and then stood back to view the whole effect.
She sighed a sigh compounded of pleasure, satisfaction and envy.
Lucky, lucky Veronica, she thought, to have been born to so much good fortune. First, there was the good fairy who attended her christening insisting that she grow up beautiful—guaranteeing the quality of her looks with a wave of her wand!—and then she was to have a devoted and self-sacrificing mother who could overcome the slight awkwardness of being deprived of a husband while she was still a young wife. And finally—following an expensive education and a careful grooming for the “right” sort of marriage (the only
acceptable sort to Penny’s Aunt Heloise)—she was to become the wife of Stephen Blair, the eminent London surgeon, who had a large private income in addition to anything he received from serving the needs of humanity.
Penny walked over to the window and looked out at the semi-circular sweep before the house, and saw that Stephen’s car was still standing there in the sunshine. Long and black, glistening and opulent, with dove-grey upholstery, it waited for Stephen to go running down the flight of steps which led to the porch, slip into the seat behind the wheel, and glide off down the drive.
When the car started up it made absolutely no noise, and Penny always thought of it as a luxurious modern chariot. She thought of Stephen, with his black hair and blue eyes and utterly immaculate linen, as someone who could be far more fascinating than any Roman charioteer or gladiator. He was a slim and elegant man with unexpected charm who had got to the top before he was forty.
Before he was thirty-six in fact.
The house was very silent, and Penny couldn’t quite make it out. She hadn’t been able to make out why her aunt had looked so distracted at breakfast, and why Stephen had arrived at Grangewood in the middle of the morning—a working morning, at that!—thereby disturbing his appointment book.
With only a few days to go before the wedding, a dinner party arranged for that night, and every minute of Veronica’s time carefully organized, it seemed a little odd, to say the least. Veronica had an appointment with the hairdresser at twelve o’clock—she was sacrificing her lunch in order to be made still more beautiful—and Grangewood was nearly fifty miles from London.
Quite a drive for a busy man who was trying to clear up everything that was pressing in order to leave himself free for a honeymoon of several weeks in Italy.
Penny pushed back the soft gold hair from her brow and wandered back to the presents. She didn’t exactly feel uneasy, but she was strangely apprehensive ... for Aunt Heloise, who had been reasonably good to her all her life.
There was a slight sound in the hall, as if someone had reached the bottom of the thickly-carpeted stairs and then hesitated before striding to the front door to open it. Penny felt her ears prick as she waited for whoever it was to make up her—or his—mind; and then while she was still standing with an alert expression on her face, the library door was pushed inwards, and Stephen himself stood there.
“Hello, little one,” he said, in a toneless voice.
Penny wheeled round to confront him. She felt the eager colour leap to her cheeks, and she had to strive very hard to prevent her smile from appearing too eager.
“Oh, hello!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t expect to see you this morning.”
“I don’t suppose you did.” He walked to the presents and stood surveying them with a strange, sardonic expression on his face. As always, he was impeccably turned out, and his linen appeared even more pristine than usual, but his face, also, was a trifle pale. “That’s a natty contrivance for snipping the ends of cigars.” He picked it up and examined it as if its mechanics intrigued him. “Not that I smoke the things myself—they always make me think of bloated plutocrats and stockbrokers!—but for those who do, this would be a welcome addition to the family background. Do you know anyone who smokes cigars, Penny?”
Penny shook her head, finding his light, hard tone somewhat disconcerting.
“Then you’d better send it back to whoever it was who thought I’d appreciate it.” He glanced at the card. “Great-Aunt Agatha. That’ll be Veronica’s Great-Aunt Agatha, and I’ve never met her. Tell her I’m sure she’s quite a delightful old thing, but I shall never call her Great-Aunt. Tell her the cigar-lighter will come in handy when she receives an invitation to another wedding!”
“W-what—what do you mean?” Penny stammered.
He glanced at her with his vivid blue eyes.
“I’m sorry you’ve had so much trouble, Penny, setting all these things out to such great advantage, but I’m afraid you’re going to have even more trouble returning them. Packing them all up in their boxes, and so forth. Do you mind doing it? Or shall we get someone else to undertake the nasty task?”
Penny wondered whether there was something wrong with her ears, or whether it was simply that she was not properly awake and merely dreaming that this was happening.
you mean?” she repeated, in rather a hollow voice. “You can’t mean that you’re not
not getting married after all?”
“That’s precisely what I do mean, little one.”
He walked over to the fireplace and stood looking down at the spring blooms that were massed on the hearth.
“You might as well know now as later that Veronica and I have decided we wouldn’t run well in double harness. We’ve decided to let all our friends know and cut the wedding.” His chin went up, and she could see how square his jaw was, how taut the lines of his mouth. His voice was utterly without expression.
“So you see, little one, there’s no way out of it
you’ll have to send back all those presents!”
“I can’t believe it,” Penny whispered.
“No doubt a lot of people will be surprised. But it’s better to admit when you’ve made a mistake than to go through with a thing just because everyone expects you to do so. What point is there in ending up in the divorce court?” his tone suddenly grating.
with only three days to go to the wedding!” Penny sounded as if she simply couldn’t comprehend such an attitude. “It’s beyond me ... I simply don’t understand, Stephen!” She spread her hands helplessly. “You can’t change your mind about a person—about wanting to marry them!—only three days before a wedding!”
“Can’t you, you poor innocent?” His gaze was fixed on her, broodingly. “That’s what you think. But believe me, you can do all sorts of things when—and
—you’re in love. You can be persuaded to believe that black is white, and white is black. You can discover within yourself a fund of understanding that normally you wouldn’t believe you possessed! If you’re sufficien
y in love you can even make a martyr of yourself and shut the door on your own happiness!” He bit fiercely at his lower lip. “As I’m doing!”
“You mean that it’s Veronica
who doesn’t want to go through with the marriage?” she lowered her voice to a mere thread-like whisper again to inquire.
For one instant the bitterness in his heart—possibly even in the depths of his soul!—was plainly written on his face, and the unguarded nakedness of it startled and shocked her.
“That’s what I mean, Penny Wise!” His eyes were so blue that they made her think of blue flames, or
the harsh blue beam of a searchlight. And suddenly they were clouded with hurt and desperation, the naked suffering in his face became a kind of torment that, in order to put up some sort of camouflage, he overlaid with mockery and a kind of harsh cynicism. His voice cracked with cynicism as he spoke. “Take this lesson to heart, Sunshine—” he sometimes called her Sunshine because her hair was so yellow—“and don’t fall in love easily, or unless you have to. Better still, don’t fall in love at all!”
She moved to him suddenly and touched his arm. Her clear voice throbbed with sympathy—and something that was somehow more maternal than sympathy—as she said with the greatest simplicity:
“I’m sorry, Stephen. So dreadfully sorry! But please don’t do anything—anything that is absolutely irrevocable, I mean—until you’re both quite certain
“We are certain,” he interrupted her dully. “Or Veronica’s certain, and that’s the important thing.”
“She may change her mind...”
He drew himself up to his full, and rather graceful, height, and his face hardened so noticeably that for an instant she was faintly repelled by it.
“If she does,” he said quietly, “it will be too late. I’m not the type of man to allow himself to be caught and flung off the line, only to be angled for again. Once I slip off the line I slip off for good!”
He turned towards the door, and she allowed her hand to drop from his sleeve. Then tentatively she caught at it again, and he checked in his sudden decision to leave without further discussion.
“Please don’t be bitter, Stephen,” she pleaded. “Veronica is rather spoiled, and she doesn’t always th
k before she acts. She may be suffering from ... from pre
wedding nerves. Perhaps, if you gave her time
as a doctor—and you are a doctor as well as a surgeon!—should know how people react to various sets of circumstances, and marriage is awfully final. Perhaps Veronica is merely recoiling a little from the finality of it!”
He looked down into her face, his eyes suddenly curious. She was not very tall, and almost painfully slender, and she had the unusual combination of brown eyes and very fair hair. They were very soft brown eyes, as timid as a doe’s sometimes, but just now they were frankly pleading.
“How old are you, Penny?” he inquired.
She told him. “Twenty-four.”
His eyebrows shot upwards.
“And that’s at least ten years older than you look! I’ve always thought of you as a mere schoolgirl, Penny.” He shook off her hand impatiently. “I must go! Because I’m not going to be married that doesn’t mean I can neglect my patients.”
She followed him to the door.
“Don’t ask me to send back the presents
“Get rid of them as quickly as you can,” he instructed harshly. “Never again, as long as I live, will I look a silver rose bowl in the face! And as for that contraption for lighting and cutting cigars...!”
His mouth was twisted, his eyes a trifle blind. Suddenly she clutched at his arm and hung on to it. “Oh, Stephen, you’re hurt,” she cried, “and I can’t let you go like this!” Her whole being was dissolved in pity for him, she wished frantically that she could do something to help him. “Stephen...!”
He wrenched away his arm.
“Don’t be so pitifully young,” he said, even more harshly. “There’s nothing you can do!”
ngagement ended in a blaze of publicity and provided nine days of gossip and speculation for those who enjoyed gossip and speculation.
Penny’s Aunt Heloise rose manfully to the occasion, and although she was bitterly disappointed she managed to conceal it very cleverly and devote herself to the task of making things as easy as possible for Veronica. Aunt Heloise lived for Veronica, thought and planned only for her, and Penny as the orphan niece who had been more or less wished on her when both her parents were killed in a car crash had only a very lukewarm corner of her affections.
Penny was a useful little thing, wrote letters very adequately and could be depended upon to match embroidery silks, in addition to which she drove a car and looked after the herbaceous borders. Unable to maintain a full-time chauffeur or gardener Mrs. Wilmott depended on her niece for a great deal of help in one way or another, and Penny was only too happy to give that help, in return for her board and lodging and a little room at the top of the house that she was able to call her own.