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The Doves' Nest and Other Stories



The morning whisked away as foreign mornings do. Mother had half decided to wear her hat at lunch.

" What do you think, Milly ? Do you think as head of the house it might be appropriate ? On the other hand one does not want to do anything at all extreme."

" Which do you mean, Mother ? Your mushroom or the jampot ? "

" Oh, not the jampot, dear." Mother was quite used to Milly's name for it. " I somehow don't feel myself in a hat without a brim. And to tell you the truth I am still not quite certain whether I was wise in buying the jampot. I cannot help the feeling that if I were to meet Father in it he would be a little too surprised. More than once lately," went on Mother quickly, " I have thought of taking off the trimming, turning it upside down, and making it into a nice little workbag. What do you think, dear ? But we must not go into it now, Milly. This is not the moment for such schemes. Come on to the balcony. I have page 101 told Marie we shall have coffee there. What about bringing out that big chair with the nice, substantial legs for Mr. Prodger ? Men are so fond of nice, substantial... No, not by yourself, love ! Let me help you."

When the chair was carried out Milly thought it looked exactly like Mr. Prodger. It was Mr. Prodger admiring the view.

" No, don't sit down on it. You mustn't," she cried hastily, as Mother began to subside. She put her arm through Mother's and drew her back into the salon.

Happily, at that moment there was a rustle and Miss Anderson was upon them. In excellent time, for once. She carried a copy of the Morning Post.

" I have been trying to find out from this," said she, lightly tapping the newspaper with her eyeglasses, " whether Congress is sitting at present. But unfortunately, after reading my copy right through, I happened to glance at the heading and discovered it was five weeks' old."

Congress! Would Mr. Prodger expect them to talk about Congress ? The idea terrified Mother. Congress! The American parliament, of course, composed of senators—grey-bearded old men in frock coats and turn-down collars, rather like missionaries. But she did not feel at all competent to discuss them.

" I think we had better not be too intellectual," she suggested, timidly, fearful of dis- page 102 appointing Miss Anderson, but more fearful still of the alternative.

" Still, one likes to be prepared," said Miss Anderson. And after a pause she added softly, " One never knows."

Ah, how true that is! One never does. Miss Anderson and Mother seemed both to ponder this truth. They sat silent, with head bent, as though listening to the whisper of the words.

" One never knows," said the pink-spotted dragons on the mantelpiece and the Turks' heads pondered. Nothing is known—nothing. Everybody just waits for things to happen as they were waiting there for the stranger who came walking towards them through the sun and shadow under the budding plane trees, or driving, perhaps, in one of the small, cotton-covered cabs... An angel passed over the Villa Martin. In that moment of hovering silence something timid, something beseeching seemed to lift, seemed to offer itself, as the flowers in the salon, uplifted, gave themselves to the light.

Then Mother said, " I hope Mr. Prodger will not find the scent of the mimosa too powerful. Men are not fond of flowers in a room as a rule. I have heard it causes actual hay-fever in some cases. What do you think,

Milly ? Ought we perhaps——" But there was no time to do anything. A long, firm trill page 103 sounded from the hall door. It was a trill so calm and composed and unlike the tentative little push they gave the bell that it brought them back to the seriousness of the moment. They heard a man's voice ; the door clicked shut again. He was inside. A stick rattled on the table. There was a pause, and then the door handle of the salon turned and Marie, in frilled muslin cutis and an apron shaped like a heart, ushered in Mr. Prodger.

Only Mr. Prodger after all ? But whom had Milly expected to see ? The feeling was there and gone again that she would not have been surprised to see somebody quite different, before she realised this wasn't quite the same Mr. Prodger as before. He was smarter than ever ; all brushed, combed, shining. The ears that Marie had seen white as wax flashed as if they had been pink enamelled. Mother fluttered up in her pretty little way, so hoping he had not found the heat of the day too trying to be out in . . . but happily it was a little early in the year for dust. Then Miss Anderson was introduced. Milly was ready this time for that fresh hand, but she almost gasped ; it was so very chill. It was like a hand stretched out to you from the water. Then together they all sat down.

" Is this your first visit to the Riviera ? " asked Miss Anderson, graciously, dropping her handkerchief.

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" It is," answered Mr. Prodger composedly, and he folded his arms as before. " I was in Florence until recently, but I caught a heavy cold——"

" Florence so——" began Mother, when the beautiful brass gong, that burned like a fallen sun in the shadows of the hall, began to throb. First it was a low muttering, then it swelled, it quickened, it burst into a clash of triumph under Marie's sympathetic fingers. Never had they been treated to such a performance before. Mr. Prodger was all attention.

" That's a very fine gong," he remarked approvingly.

" We think it is so very oriental," said Mother. " It gives our little meals quite an Eastern flavour. Shall we . . ."

Their guest was at the door bowing.

" So many gentlemen and only one lady," fluttered Mother. " What I mean is the boot is on the other shoe. That is to say—come, Milly, come, dear." And she led the way to the dining-room.

Well, there they were. The cold, fresh napkins were shaken out of their charming shapes and Marie handed the omelette. Mr. Prodger sat on Mother's right, facing Milly, and Miss Anderson had her back to the long windows. But after all—why should the fact of their having a man with them make such a difference ? It did ; it made all the difference.

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Why should they feel so stirred at the sight of that large hand outspread, moving among the wine glasses ? Why should the sound of that loud, confident " Ah-hm ! " change the very look of the dining-room ? It was not a favourite room of theirs as a rule ; it was overpowering. They bobbed uncertainly at the pale table with a curious feeling of exposure. They were like those meek guests who arrive unexpectedly at the fashionable hotel, and are served with whatever may be ready, while the real luncheon, the real guests lurk important and contemptuous in the background. And although it was impossible for Marie to be other than deft, nimble and silent, what heart could she have in ministering to that most uninspiring of spectacles— three ladies dining alone ?

Now all was changed. Marie filled their glasses to the brim as if to reward them for some marvellous feat of courage. These timid English ladies had captured a live lion, a real one, smelling faintly of eau de cologne, and with a tip of handkerchief showing, white as a flake of snow.

" He is worthy of it," decided Marie, eyeing her orchids and palms.

Mr. Prodger touched his hot plate with appreciative fingers.

"You'll hardly believe it, Mrs. Fawcett," he remarked, turning to Mother, " but this is the first hot plate I've happened on since I page 106 left the States. I had begun to believe there were two things that just weren't to be had in Europe. One was a hot plate and the other was a glass of cold water. Well, the cold water one can do without; but a hot plate is more difficult. I'd got so discouraged with the cold wet ones I encountered everywhere that when I was arranging with Cook's Agency about my room here I explained to them ' I don't mind where I go to. I don't care what the expense may be. But for mercy's sake find me an hotel where I can get a hot plate by ringing for it.'"

Mother, though outwardly all sympathy, found this a little bewildering. She had a momentary vision of Mr. Prodger ringing for hot plates to be brought to him at all hours. Such strange things to want in any numbers.

" I have always heard the American hotels are so very well equipped," said Miss Anderson. " Telephones in all the rooms and even tape machines."

Milly could see Miss Anderson reading that tape machine.

" I should like to go to America awfully," she cried, as Marie brought in the lamb and set it before Mother.

" There's certainly nothing wrong with America," said Mr. Prodger, soberly. " America's a great country. What are they ? Peas ? Well, I'll just take a few. I don't eat peas as page 107 a rule. No, no salad, thank you. Not with the hot meat."

" But what makes you want to go to America ? " Miss Anderson ducked forward, smiling at Milly, and her eyeglasses fell into her plate, just escaping the gravy.

Because one wants to go everywhere, was the real answer. But Milly's flower-blue gaze rested thoughtfully on Miss Anderson as she said, " The ice-cream. I adore ice-cream."

" Do you ? " said Mr. Prodger, and he put down his fork ; he seemed moved. " So you're fond of ice-cream, are you, Miss Fawcett ? "

Milly transferred her dazzling gaze to him. It said she was.

" Well," said Mr. Prodger quite playfully, and he began eating again, " I'd like to see you get it. I'm sorry we can't manage to ship some across. I like to see young people have just what they want. It seems right, somehow."

Kind man ! Would he have any more lamb ?

Lunch passed so pleasantly, so quickly, that the famous piece of gorgonzola was on the table in all its fatness and richness before there had been an awkward moment. The truth was that Mr. Prodger proved most easy to entertain, most ready to chat. As a rule men were not fond of chat as Mother understood it. They did not seem to understand that it does not matter very much what one says ; the important thing is not to let the conversation page 108 drop. Strange ! Even the best of men ignored that simple rule. They refused to realise that conversation is like a dear little baby that is brought in to be handed round. You must rock it, nurse it, keep it on the move if you want it to keep on smiling. What could be simpler ? But even Father ... Mother winced away from memories that were not as sweet as memories ought to be.

All the same she could not help hoping that Father saw what a successful little lunch party it was. He did so love to see Milly happy, and the child looked more animated than she had done for weeks. She had lost that dreamy expression, which, though very sweet, did not seem natural at her age. Perhaps what she wanted was not so much Easton's Syrup as taking out of herself.

" I have been very selfish," thought Mother, blaming herself as usual. She put her hand on Milly's arm; she pressed it gently as they rose from the table. And Marie held the door open for the white and the grey figure; for Miss Anderson, who peered shortsightedly, as though looking for something; for Mr. Prodger who brought up the rear, walking stately, with the benign air of a Monsieur who had eaten well.