Each Sunday afternoon my fiance and I rode about the English countryside, looking at houses. He had set the date for the wedding: two weeks after Easter. I was like a woman in a spell. We wandered through huge mansions while agents droned in my ear. I was numb. I had been sentenced to a lifetime as Mrs. Monte Collins, a sentence I dreaded to serve but was powerless to escape. As we left each house Monte asked, “Did you like that? Did you like that?” and once he added, “Lots of room there”—he all but nudged me in the ribs—”for babies!” He chuckled in great good humor. I felt nothing. I was trapped.
Why, I asked myself, did he not sweep me into his arms, hold me tight and kiss me passionately? Perhaps then I might have seen the man through the powder, through the money, and fallen in love with him. But he was saving me; I know now that he who had been so dissolute, who had had so many women, was saving me for the wedding night so that his every touch was chaste and cold and discouraging. It was Johnny—Johnny, who I could not bear to tell about Monte—who kissed me ardently and bolstered my spirits and made me breathless for love. I would tell him after the marriage. Then it could not matter.
The denouement, however, came sooner than I expected.
“I’d Hke you to come to Brighton with me for Easter,” Monte had said. He had added hastily, “It’s perfecdy proper—we’ll have rooms on separate floors, of course.”
Brighton. This was poetic justice. I had left a skivy: I would return a lady in silks and jewels.
I lied to Johnny. He was to spend Easter with his sister, visiting relatives in Wales. What would I do over the holiday? I told him that Ruth Houghton of Gamage’s had asked me to go to Brighton with her for the weekend.
When Monte and I arrived in Brighton, we registered at the resort’s finest hotel, the Metropole, my room on the third floor, his on the fourth.
We went down to dinner our first night. I dressed carefully. I wore my shimmering white evening gown flecked with silver. My diamond brooch glittered on my left shoulder; my diamond bracelet gleamed on my wrist: my diamond ring flashed on my engagement finger. We entered the dining room and gracefully, regally, I followed the deferential maitre d’hotel—with Monte bringing up the rear—^to a choice table at the edge of the small dance floor. We sat down and ordered. I looked about at the dancing couples. We knew no one. I thought, with a heavy heart, I’m bored already and we have only begun our holiday.
Suddenly I felt a slow hot flush creep up my face. It was mcredible. I was staring directly at Johnny, seated alone at a small table along the wall. He sat less than twenty feet away and he was looking directly at us with an expression on his face that was beyond description. What could he be thinking! I sat, paralyzed.
At that moment Johnny rose deliberately and made his way relendessly to our table. He did not look at me. Courteously, in his low voice, he addressed Monte: “I know this lady. May I dance with her?”
Monte, taken aback, shot a sharp glance at me, then at Johnny. He was surprised, annoyed, suspicious. “All right,” he muttered.
Johnny held out his hand to me. I turned to Monte. Hardly knowing what I was doing, I pulled off my ring and pressed it in Monte’s hand. “Hold it! Hold it for me!” I blurted. “He doesn’t know we’re engaged!”
And I went into Johnny’s arms.
He maneuvered me to the center of the floor. “Who gave you these jewels?” he demanded.
“That man did,” I gasped. “We’re engaged.” I could only make a clean breast of it. “He wants to marry me.”
Monte’s table was still in sight as we turned on the floor. I saw him watching me as a cat watches a mouse, watching every movement of my lips, my eyes, watching Johnny as he held me, as he danced with me. Suddenly I knew that I could not marry Monte, millions or not. I clung to Johnny. “Do you really want to marry me?” I whispered in his ear.
He stopped for a moment, as though struck. Then he held me tighter.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, LUy!”
I nodded. “All right. Let’s get married right away.”
We stopped dancing. Johnny escorted me to my table, bowed to Monte, and walked out of the dining room. I was to telephone him in the morning.
I sat down, trembling.
Monte said, ominously, “Lily, what is this man to you?”
“He’s Major Giilam, the man I work for,” I faltered.
“The man you work for?” Monte ground the words out. He made them ugly. “Why, that man’s in love with you. Anyone can see it.” He grabbed my hand, hard. “What has been going on behind my back?”
It was too much. I exploded. “If you think there’s anything between me and my boss—” I tore off the diamond bracelet and threw it at him. “I gave you back your ring,” I cried. “Now you can have your bracelet, too!” My fingers shook so that I could hardly unfasten the brooch. “And this, too!” I shouted, sending it sliding across the table. “I never want to see you again!” I jumped up and rushed out of the dining room. I was too agitated to wait for the elevator. I ran about distractedly until I found the service stairs and dashed up to my room and locked the door. I sat on my bed, shaking. My mind was in a whirl. I was furious at myself for having been so greedy, at Monte for having tempted me, at Johnny for not having swept me off my feet long ago. Over and over I re-enacted the scene in the dining room. I had made such a tremendous gesture—throwing away a millionaire for a man I knew was going broke. Yet I was thrilled that I was going to marry Johnny. I was in love with him. It was as simple as that. I would marry the man I loved.
I did not undress that night. All night long I sat on the bed, excited, disturbed, swept by fits of trembling, alternately happy and frightened. I reviewed every word I had said, Monte had said, Johnny had said, but never once asked myself, am I doing the right thing? I had done it. The very audacity of my act, of what I had given up, took my breath away. I felt a little regret about the brooch. I couldn’t have kept the ring or bracelet, but I might have kept the brooch…
At one point in that long night I looked up to see dawn coming through the window. I had to talk to Johnny: I called him. He came to my room, we breakfasted and, so that I could tell him everything without interruption, we went for a long bus ride. Johnny listened sympathetically, shaking his head. “I never had any idea— why didn’t you confide in me? You could never have married that terrible man!” But when I spoke of our marriage, Johnny said, a little uncomfortably, “I really should tell my sister first.”
“No, Johnny,” I said. I was afraid she would be furious and even stop the marriage.
We agreed that we would go at once to Lx)ndon, be married in a registry ofl&ce, and immediately return to Brighton for our honeymoon—the remainder of our holiday.
How had he happened to be in Brighton? Why was he not in Wales?
He had been about to go. Suddenly the prospect bored him. He longed to see me. He came to Brighton, registered at the Metropole, and spent the entire day searching for Miss Houghton and me in every Httle pension and side-street hotel. Finally, utterly dejected, he had returned to the Metropole for dinner. He looked up from his menu just as I made my entrance—ablaze with diamonds, preceded by a bowing head waiter and followed by a shuffling, heavy-set man with bags under his eyes. “I was dumbfounded,” Johnny said. “I was sure you were a fallen woman. Lost, ruined, gone forever from me—”
When we returned from the bus ride I found a note under my door. It was from Monte: “My dear Lily. I am very unhappy and deeply disappointed, as I do not need to tell you. If you have an explanation I am willing to hear it.”
I could reverse it all now, I could make it up with Monte Collins.
I let the moment pass.
Ten minutes later Johnny and I were in a taxi bound for the station and the London train.
At eleven o’clock that morning we stood before the clerk in the Henrietta Street Registry Office near Covent Garden, with two charwomen as witnesses. They leaned their mops against the wall, dried their hands on their aprons, and stood smiling at our sides. I wore the pale blue suit I had bought in Paris with Monte’s money. I felt a pang at the thought. Yet it was far more honorable for me to many Johnny than to marry Monte without loving him.
At three minutes after eleven I was Mrs. John Graham Gillam.
I trembled as the clerk droned the words. But I was very happy. Until now it had been Lily Shell alone against the world, a very uncertain world. Now it was the two of us, together, Johnny and me.