― 90 ―

The Five-Thirty from Sydney.

It wanted but one moment to half-hour past 5 as Martin Forbes walked along the platform.

He moved briskly enough, and took his seat in the train with a proper show of energy that had become second nature to him, all the time conscious of a feeling of irritable impotence, because of the weary monotony of city life, as it appeared to him.

How he hated the city, the journey to it, and not less the homeward journey.

The very passengers, as they came along the platform in a constant stream, turning in at that door or this, as it suited their purpose or their tickets, chatting and laughing, too, most of them, as most of them were every afternoon, were all more or less of a grievance to him in certain of his moods.

Nothing to relieve the monotony of the fifteen minutes' cityward or return journey; never an instant's unconsciousness, he complained, from its attendant petty discomfort. Other passengers, with their apparent philosophy, he had no patience with.

To-day, as the “fast” passes suburb after suburb, and occasionally also a slow, with all the arrogance of a train of more than ordinary importance, he wonders casually how so-and-so, an argumentative friend, could contend that a study of faces in the train would serve to distract one's mind from irritating worries.

They were only men and women, uninteresting in whatever mood one studied them. That boy sitting opposite him now, for instance. Innumerable times they had been fellow passengers, and what cause of a second look at his thin—unnaturally thin—pale face?

This—that, instead of opening the new book of reputed interest that is on his knee, Martin Forbes leans back again and strives to conjure up a picture of this youngster's private life.

The youngster, who had all a man's dignity of bearing when he first took his seat, but who now seems one moment preoccupied to a degree, and the next in some danger of losing his self-control. Perhaps he is in difficulties, and sees no way out; and the girl-wife must at last be told of the inevitable—a smaller cottage and less to live on.

Martin pictures it all as clearly as if the boy were his own cousin Rolf, and the wife, little Joan—the cheerful, plucky little wife of brave, happy-go-lucky young Rolf. Once again his dark eyes go back to a surreptitious contemplation of the pale, contracted brow, over which a panama is now drawn.

  ― 91 ―

This time a pair of wide-open grey eyes meet the drooping dark ones.

Each looks steadily into the other, and then there is nothing for either to do but turn away simultaneously.

The older man unconsciously lifts his book, and opens it, but the train has sped on, and before very long he is otherwise occupied than in studying the character of a fletitious hero.

In utter contradiction to his ordinary work-day instincts, he, in his present mood, sees nothing indiscreet in a man of his standing deliberately dogging a stranger's footsteps, and in return for an unconventional offer of help receiving a spontaneous invitation to a ball that evening.

Why he felt so strangely drawn to this man he does not stop to consider when deciding that he should appear at his house, suitably attired, with as little delay as possible.

Later, as he is telling himself that never has he felt so completely in sympathy with a fellow-creature, his sympathies are for the moment diverted into another channel by the sudden opening of an outer door, the swish, swish of a woman's gown, a hand lightly—how lightly, he alone knows—touching his shoulder, and a voice whispering in his ears, “The first is yours. I managed to get away.”

Her face, but not her gleaming eyes, is hidden beneath the hood of her long cloak. Does she, or does she not, as she hurries on without so much as a glance at the man beside Forbes, hear that man say in tones that tell of despair, “You'll repent of your good-natured offer, of course; but we must not let her escape a second time.”

“Good Lord!”

Martin does not say it—he thinks it, and ponders over unspoken tragedies, skeletons in cupboards, and beautiful, gleaming eyes.

He waits, but not in absolute silence, though of that he is not conscious, nor is he aware that a pale, thin, boyish face flushes a little and quivers.

He has always considered himself a trustworthy man, and he is conscious a little later of being a determined one, as he sits under the glare of a gas-light and listens with what patience he can to such purely feminine excuses for restlessness as “I've lost my handkerchief; I'd better look for it myself.” “It's positively stifling in here with the shutters closed.”

There is little doubt that he does not see in a certain pair of eyes a gleam of mischief—mischief that is to come. He sits on stolidly for a time, feeling horribly uncomfortable. Then he begins to fidget uneasily, and mutters: “Must I sit here much longer?”

“You'll be overcarried if you do,” a thin-faced passenger gravely said.

“Um! eh! what! .… Oh, thanks,” and seizing his book and umbrella, Martin Forbes follows the youthful man out to the car-platform in readiness to step off as the train slows up. One glance at the boyish face shows him a pair of quivering lips, and who knows but that an impulse may have prompted him to take a turning other than his usual one, and so see a little more of this passenger with the thin, white face, had not a voice beside him said, “I would not go to sleep in full view of a possibly-admiring public, if I were you.”

  ― 92 ―

“Ah, Miss Rene. How do you do? Asleep? I was not asleep in the train, I assure you. I was thinking of the first dance.”

“When I saw you from the other carriage and came through? Yes, and touched your arm and spoke to you. Oh, never mind what I said. Perhaps it was something about the ball to-night. At any rate, that boy opposite you was in an agony of repressed amusement. I noted that particularly. Yes, I managed to get away from the children's party earlier than I hoped to. I wonder you could sleep so soundly when that child was fidgetting about her handkerchief and the window, and sundry other things. Did you hear the elderly man beside you tell his friend in piteous tones not to allow her to escape? One would think he was speaking of a wild animal. Good-bye. No; do not come with me. Go home and dress, otherwise you may miss the first dance.”