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15. Chapter XV
When I reached London I found waiting for me an urgent request that I should go to Mrs. Strickland's as soon after dinner as I could. I found her with Colonel MacAndrew and his wife. Mrs. Strickland's sister was older than she, not unlike her, but more faded; and she had the efficient air, as though she carried the British Empire in her pocket, which the wives of senior officers acquire from the consciousness of belonging to a superior caste. Her manner was brisk, and her good-breeding scarcely concealed her conviction that if you were not a soldier you might as well be a counter-jumper. She hated the Guards, whom she thought conceited, and she could not trust herself to speak of their ladies, who were so remiss in calling. Her gown was dowdy and expensive.
Mrs. Strickland was plainly nervous.
"Well, tell us your news," she said.
"I saw your husband. I'm afraid he's quite made up his mind not to return." I paused a little. "He wants to paint."
"What do you mean?" cried Mrs. Strickland, with the utmost astonishment.
"Did you never know that he was keen on that sort of thing."
"He must be as mad as a hatter," exclaimed the Colonel.
Mrs. Strickland frowned a little. She was searching among her recollections.
"I remember before we were married he used to potter about with a paint-box. But you never saw such daubs. We used to chaff him. He had absolutely no gift for anything like that."
"Of course it's only an excuse," said Mrs. MacAndrew.
Mrs. Strickland pondered deeply for some time. It was quite clear that she could not make head or tail of my announcement. She had put some order into the drawing-room by now, her housewifely instincts having got the better of her dismay; and it no longer bore that deserted look, like a furnished house long to let, which I had noticed on my first visit after the catastrophe. But now that I had seen Strickland in Paris it was difficult to imagine him in those surroundings. I thought it could hardly have failed to strike them that there was something incongruous in him.
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