THE PHANTOM LOVER
Somewhere out in the night a woman was crying, crying desolately. The sad, rather monotonous sound broke the silence of the street and floated through the open window of a room where Micky Mellowes was wondering how the deuce he should get through the long evening lying before him.
Micky was in a bad temper. It was not often that he was in a bad temper, but he had begun the day by waking with a headache, which was still with him, and which accounted for the wide open window and the breath of icy air which was filling the room and fluttering the curtains; and half an hour ago some people with whom he had been going to dine had rung up and told him that the party was off owing to the sudden death of a relative, thereby leaving the evening long and empty on his hands.
It was New Year’s Eve, too, which made matters a thundering sight worse.
He wondered if Marie Deland was feeling as sick about it as he was. Micky was in the middle of an interesting flirtation with Marie, which bade fair to develop into something deeper with careful engineering on the part of her family, for Micky was a catch, and though so far he had proved himself singularly adroit in avoiding mothers with marriageable daughters, the Delands were beginning to pat each other on the back and to look pleased.
When the sound of crying reached him he had been feeling so thoroughly fed-up with life that it had seemed impossible for anything ever to interest him again; but now he climbed out of his chair with a faint show of energy and strolled over to the window.
It was a cold, clear night, with myriads of stars in the dark sky that seemed to shed a faintly luminous light to earth, bright enough at all events for Micky to distinguish the figure of a girl walking slowly along the pathway below.
She was walking so slowly and dispiritedly that a sort of vague curiosity stirred in Micky’s heart; here, at least, was some one even more fed-up with life than he himself, and with a sudden impulse he turned from the window, and, snatching up a hat and coat which he had thrown down when he came in an hour earlier, made for the stairs.
He was half-way down when an apologetic cough at his elbow arrested him; he stopped and turned.
“Well, what is it?”
“If you please, sir, Mr. Ashton has just sent round to ask if you could make it convenient to be in at ten o’clock this evening, as he wants to see you particularly.”
Micky looked surprised; Ashton had been very particularly engaged for that evening, he knew. Evidently something had happened to upset his plans as well.
“Ten o’clock? All right; I dare say I shall be in.”
He went on down the stairs.
Out on the path he paused and looked up and down the street.
The impulse that had sent him out had died away; it was beastly cold, and much more comfortable by the fire. He hesitated, and in that moment he saw the figure of the girl again.
She had stopped now in the light of a street lamp, and seemed to be looking at something she carried in her arms––a child! Surely not a child!
Micky’s curiosity was aroused. He buttoned the collar of his coat more closely round his chin and went on.
The girl had moved too, almost as if she felt instinctively that she was being followed, and as Micky drew abreast with her she shrank a little to one side as if afraid.
“What’s the matter?” asked Micky bluntly.
They were some few yards from the lamp now. But, as she turned to look up at him with startled eyes, its yellow light fell on her face; and Micky saw with amazement that she was quite young and exceedingly pretty, in spite of the distress in her eyes, and the tears that were still wet on her cheeks.
“What’s the matter?” he asked again, more gently, and waited for the pathetically shaken denial which he felt sure would come.
“Nothing––nothing at all.”
“Nothing!” There was a note of exasperation in his voice. “You were crying––I heard you, and people don’t walk about the streets at this time of night and cry if there’s nothing the matter. If that’s a baby you’ve got with you, you ought to know better than to–––” He broke off. She was laughing, a weak, uncertain little laugh.