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Authors: Phyllis Bentley

The Partnership

THE
PARTNERSHIP
Phyllis Bentley

TO
LYDIA

WHEREVER SHE MAY BE FOUND

Contents

I. TOLEFREE

II. ENCOUNTER

III. PROFIT AND LOSS

IV. INTERIM

V. RECALL

VI. CATASTROPHE

VII. THE PARTNERSHIP

A Note on the Author

THE PARTNERSHIP
I
TOLEFREE

1

“Come, children!” commanded Lydia in her high light tones. “Make a nice circle, and sing those last two verses again; then we'll go in.”

The children, nothing loth to leave the biting air of the spring evening for the cosy warmth of the room which formed the headquarters of their troop, obeyed—those in uniform, with solemn and attentive faces; those newcomers who were not yet formally enrolled, with occasional bursts of childish laughter at the oddity of these novel proceedings. Scandalized by their own merriment, they held their heads down and tried to stifle it, but broke into irrepressible gigglings, tossing their slim torsos up and down, staggering back a few paces and putting their hands between their knees in the ecstasy of their enjoyment. At the sound of the childish voices ringing through the evening air two or three passers-by, on their way perhaps to some mournful errand in the neighbouring cemetery, perhaps to some clinching of
betrothal in the wood below, put their heads over the schoolyard wall to see what was going on. They stared curiously at the uniformed young woman who was giving other people's children ethical instruction with such a conscientious, not to say priggish, air; then as their eyes passed on to the circle of giggling children, a sympathetic grin gradually spread over their features, and they nudged each other, whispering. Lydia, conscious of something obscurely hostile in their attitude to her, coloured and felt embarrassed, but broke bravely into the song with which she was trying to inculcate the virtues of early rising. The children obediently followed her, and after a few quaverings settled into the tune.

“This is the way we sleep too long,” they sang, pillowing their charming young heads on their folded hands: “Sleep too long, sleep too long; this is the way we sleep too long, on a cold and frosty morning.”

Titters from the wall showed that this realistic treatment of a common human failing was highly appreciated. But this was the end of a verse; they then proceeded to indicate, in song and pantomime, the lively and punctual manner of rising practised by all who were entitled to wear their uniform; and finally, to show the élan with which they daily greeted the world, they joined hands and danced round in a ring.

“It's a very good thing to teach them like that,” spoke an elderly voice from the wall, approvingly.

A couple of younger voices tittered in reply, and somebody observed philosophically: “Well, rather her than me.”

The song came to an end; the spectacle was over; the gazers by the wall passed on to their several destinies, and Lydia led the children into the school.

2

Half an hour later, as Lydia passed her uncle's house on her way to her own home in that respectable private terrace, Cromwell Place, an imperative rapping on one of its side windows startled her from thoughts of the children she had just left. Looking up, she saw the expanse of fresh pink cheek, the mane of long white hair rolling smoothly back from a broad brow, the lively well-opened grey eyes, the full nose, the oratorical lips and the well-worn clerical attire which were familiar to her as comprising the external personality of her father. As usual, he was smiling that jovial, benign smile of his, which with its lurking hint of boyish malice gave a flavour to his mildest platitudes and had made him a man to be reckoned with in his circuit; and his plump white hands beat a humorous tattoo on the pane. Lydia waved to him, whereat he beckoned; without consulting her own inclinations—which were indeed sufficiently undecided—she dutifully turned at once into the short sandy drive of Boothroyd House, the large new residence which her twice-widowed uncle had
lately built himself in the vacant land at the end of Cromwell Place. Before she reached the house the door was opened to her, not by her uncle's eldest son, Wilfred, as she had half hoped, but by Wilfred's stepbrother, her cousin Eric Dyson. Eric, who was a rather overgrown and awkward lad of twenty, with thick light hair which hung over his forehead, prominent teeth, soft grey eyes, and a muddy complexion disfigured by a birthmark down one side of his face, gave her a sheepish grin in response to her greeting, and without saying anything showed her familiarly into the dining-room.

In this large apartment, which had been recently re-decorated and upholstered in blue velvet regardless of expense, the diffused radiance of several electric lamps of the last word of modernity contended successfully with the spring twilight, and showed the remains of a substantial cold supper on the long table. Herbert Dyson, Lydia's uncle and the owner of the house, a man in the fifties, with sandy hair and eyebrows just going grey, a bristling moustache of a darker colour, and fierce red-rimmed grey eyes, sat on one side of the blazing fire, wearing excellent cloth and linen, and smoking a good cigar. Facing him Lydia's mother, Louise, knitted with her usual air of dreamy abstraction, her thick coils of fair hair crowning suitably the placidity of her serene, rather heavily moulded face. Lydia kissed her mother's forehead, and greeted her uncle, who nodded silently in reply.

“Well, Lydia,” began her father in a tone of genial malice, advancing upon her from the window, “no doubt you wonder why we are supping here, instead of in the more frugal precincts of number seven.”

Lydia sat down at the table and intimated, in her high pleasant voice, that such was indeed the case.

“The maid's grandmother,” explained Mr. Mellor in the flowing rhythmic style which thirty years of pulpit oratory had made second nature to him, “—Am I right, love?” he broke off, addressing Louise—“Or was it her aunt? Some female ancestor, at any rate—is ill; and she has had to go home to nurse her.”

“Oh dear!” said Lydia, distressed. “Poor thing!”

“Poor thing, indeed! To my mind you're well rid of her,” observed Mr. Dyson, drawing at his cigar. “She was an idle, sluttish piece of goods.”

“I liked her,” said Louise mildly.

“I dare say—you like such odd people, Louise,” was her brother-in-law's contemptuous comment.

“Well, it takes all sorts to make a world,” contended Louise.

“It's very awkward in any case that she should leave just now,” said Lydia, frowning a little, ‘when I'm going away to-morrow. I suppose it was necessary for her to go at once?”

“Oh, yes! A telegram came,” explained Mr. Mellor, “to command her instant return; Wilfred was in the house at the time, and he very kindly
offered to take her down to the station in the car.”

“And he hasn't come back yet,” put in Louise in her gentle tones. “I can't think what delays him.”

“Oh, Wilfred'll be all right,” said Mr. Dyson rather dryly. “Nothing ever goes wrong with Wilfred.”

“He's missed his supper,” suggested Louise with a glance at the table.

“Eric!” said Mr. Dyson sharply at this, turning in his chair. “Give your cousin some meat.”

Eric started sheepishly forward, and taking up the carving-knife unskilfully hacked some fragments from the joint. Lydia, watching him with an encouraging smile, thought how like he was to the tinted and enlarged photograph of his mother which hung above his head—he had the same faint colouring, the same rather silly but appealing smile, the same moist and gentle gaze, the same drooping angle of nose and jaw, the same childish plumpness. It was odd, she mused, that she and Eric, being first cousins, were so utterly unlike; whereas she and Wilfred, who were no relation at all, might easily have been taken for brother and sister—both had abundant crisp dark hair, brown eyes, high cheekbones, clear sallow faces, and slender sinewy limbs. It was even more odd, to her mind, that whereas her aunt's fair, feeble face looked out from half a dozen ostentatious frames in that
room alone, the portrait of Wilfred's mother—her uncle's first wife and therefore presumably his first love—was not to be found anywhere in the house. Perhaps Mr. Dyson cared too much for her to be able to look at misleading photographs, thought Lydia, dismissing the matter from her mind as she had done many times before. She thanked Eric for the plate of scraps he offered her, and tried to eat.

Her father could have enlightened her considerably on the subject of her uncle's first wife.

Thirty years ago the Reverend Charles Tolefree Mellor—son of that eminent Yorkshire Non-conformist divine, the Reverend Tolefree Mellor, whose work on the Atonement still crumbles on the theological shelves of all standard libraries—had accepted his first call to a certain chapel in the West Riding town of Hudley, and had brought his sister, Miss Fanny Tolefree Mellor, with him to keep his house and share his ministerial enthusiasms. At that time Herbert Dyson was an ambitious young working man with a good voice, who sang in the chapel choir, and attended all the educational classes and lectures within his reach with a kind of fierce acquisitive energy which struck the Reverend Charles very forcibly—so forcibly, indeed, that he became a devoted friend to Herbert, lent him books, invited him to the house, and introduced him to his sister. To Dyson, whose life had hitherto been rough and altogether lacking in social amenity, the genteel, if insipid, fairness of Fanny Mellor
seemed like the beauty of an angel, and as far above him; he fell deeply in love with her, and as Fanny proved willing to listen to his suit, announced to the not unsympathetic Charles his determination to make her his wife. Charles lent him a sum of money—the Reverend Tolefree had lately died—to begin a business of his own; Dyson plunged into the project with tremendous vigour, and it seemed as though the consummation of his hopes was sure if distant, when a deplorable scandal broke about his head. The Reverend Charles was visited one afternoon by a violent woman in a shawl, who stated emphatically that if Herbert Dyson meant to marry any woman, her daughter ought to be the one. The young minister, horrified, investigated the allegation at once; and when he found that Dyson could not deny it, he used all the force of his strong moral nature to urge his friend into marriage with the woman he had wronged. Poor Fanny, heartbroken, retracted her pledges at her brother's command and went away to live with her widowed mother. Even then Dyson offered a long and stubborn resistance to the urgings of his friend; but he was finally beaten by Charles's threat—for it amounted to that—to demand the immediate repayment of his loan if Dyson continued to live, as Charles said, in sin. This would have been so disastrous that Dyson gave in, and with the utmost bitterness and resentment married Wilfred's mother a few weeks before the birth of their child. The ceremony was
the occasion of great rejoicing to Dyson's mother-in-law, who went about the Hudley public-houses announcing her pleasure and surprise in terms rendered more emphatic by her indulgence in the staple commodity of those places. From an obscure and complex impulse, composed partly of sentiment over his lost love, partly of ironic comment on his situation, and partly of the desire to vex his wife—who, indeed, made an outrageous scene about it at the very font—Dyson gave the child “Tolefree” as his second name. This was by no means pleasing to the Reverend Charles, for the name of Tolefree was of respectable antiquity in the Mellor family, being derived from that of a maternal grandmother whose portrait, in a frilled head-gear like a nightcap and a large severe brooch, always occupied the place of honour over the mantelpiece in his dining-room.

“You shouldn't have called the child by that name, Herbert,” he told his friend emphatically when he heard of it, speaking in his customary full and resonant tones and looking him squarely in the face as he did so.

Herbert informed him with equally customary bluntness that the child was his own—or at least he'd been told so often enough—and he should call him what he liked. The two men glared angrily at each other, but in spite of everything remained friends.

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