VOLUME TWO: PART TWO
That friend of Kingcote's, Gabriel by name, of whom we have heard, had his studio on the north side of Regent's Park, in a house which also supplied him with a bedroom, this double accommodation sufficing to his needs. In regard to light the painting-room was badly contrived; formerly two rooms, it had been made into one by the simple removal of a partition, and of its three windows one looked south, the others west. From the latter was visible the smug, plebeian slope of Primrose Hill; the former faced a public-house. Gabriel would tell you impressively that the air in this part of London was very good. He lived here, in truth, because he could not afford to live in a better place.
He was the only friend Kingcote had retained from early years. Gabriel's father was a bookseller in Norwich, and the two boys had been companions at their first school. That their intimacy had survived to the present day was not easily accounted for, except perhaps by the fact that neither was fond of seeking acquaintances; knowing each other well, and continuing by the chances of life within reach of each other, they had found in this intercourse enough mutual support to keep their human needs from starving, and had been prevented by it from seeking new associates; it happens occasionally that, with reticent men, a friendship of this kind will terminate in a double isolation. In all other essentials of character they were very unlike. Kingcote we know pretty well by this time - his amiability, his dangerous passiveness, his diffidence, his emotional excess. Not one of these qualities manifested itself in Clement Gabriel. His temper was frankly sour; Kingcote had on occasions visited him and found him indisposed to speak. "Talk to me as much as you like," he said, when at length there came a question, "but don't expect me to answer; I shall say bearish things, and I'd rather not." They sat together for an hour, and the artist did not open his lips. It was his habit to declare that he loved idleness, that at times it cost him unheard-of efforts to go on with his work; that it would have been easier to cut off his hand than to take up the pencil. For all that, no man in London worked more continuously or with fiercer determination. He had not the physique of a robust man; at eighteen he had been declared consumptive; but the will in him was Samson. Ill-health was not allowed to affect his mind, and symptoms of positive disease he appeared to have outgrown; he was in the habit of saying that he could not afford the luxury of a delicate chest, any more than of delicate food. An end he had set before himself, an ideal in art - it was equivalent in his case to an ideal in life - and only the palsy of death would check his progress. Emotions he seemed to have none, outside the concerns of his pursuit. In friendship he made no pretence of warmth; he carried to excess the reserve of an Englishman, and even handshaking he would escape if he could. That he had ever been in love (he was thirty) could not for a moment be supposed, and he spoke with contempt of men who could not live without "women and brats" to hang about them and weight them in the race. "You will never marry?" Kingcote asked him, and the reply was: "Never! I have work to do." Not a little of arrogance he displayed now and then; as, for instance, in adding after a moment's pause, "What wife had Michael Angelo?"
His life had, since boyhood, been desperately hard. Till the age of fourteen or fifteen, no bent towards drawing had marked him; then it exhibited itself suddenly and decisively. His father had no other son, and had made up his mind that Clement should go into the book trade; the lad begged to be allowed to study art. For answer, he was at once taken from school, and put into the shop. He did not grumble, but spent every moment of leisure time in drawing, and deprived himself of sleep for the same purpose. When he was seventeen, and in appearance three years older, he told his father that he must go to London; might he have a few shillings a week to live upon? If not, he must still go; the shillings would come somehow. His resolve was so evident that the father consented to supply him with seven shillings a week for one year; after that, he must shift for himself. Clement accepted the offer. His father expected to see him back in Norwich very shortly; in effect, he had not set eyes upon him to the present day. For the lad, when his year was at an end, nourished such bitterness against the cruelty to which he had been subjected, was so marked by the hungry memories of those twelve months, that, in a letter home, he vowed that he would never meet his father again. The parent responded angrily, and they held intercourse no more.
Gabriel passed his South Kensington examinations, in order to enable himself to teach. During that first year he had also found miscellaneous kinds of employment. He always protested that there was not a mean or repulsive pursuit in London by which he had not at one time or another earned a copper; which was his exaggerated way of stating that he had been driven to strange expedients to keep himself alive and have time to work up without assistance for the successive grades of examination. One source of income he unearthed was the sketching in water-colours of pugilists and race-horses for a man who kept an open stall in Hampstead Road. It became a partnership, in fact; the salesman allowed Gabriel a certain percentage on the drawings sold; and they sold well, especially on Saturday night. Better days began when he got his first private pupil. He was admitted at length to study in the Academy schools, and only just missed a Travelling Studentship - it was a bitter loss. Not a penny did he receive in gift from any one (a prize at South Kensington excepted) after the remittances from Norwich ceased. An offer from Kingcote almost broke their friendship. Gabriel apologised for the violent way in which he had received this offer.
"Can't you see," he said, "that if I had not trained myself to savage independence, I should have broken down long since? I excite myself to anger lest I should yield."
Kingcote's respect for this character was unbounded. He had an ideal faith in Gabriel. To him he spoke with the utmost freedom of his own affairs, and did not feel the lack of corresponding openness on the other side. Gabriel would have found no relief in exhibiting his sorrows; shut up in his breast, they acted as a motive force. He worked at times in frenzy. Kingcote did not divine this; he regarded his friend as above the ordinary passions and needs; he accepted literally Gabriel's declaration that work was enough for him. Kingcote had not the power to maintain such reserve; sooner or later he had to find a confidant, and pour forth in sympathetic ears the stream of his miseries. His was essentially a feminine nature; in Gabriel masculine energy found its climax.
The days of race-horses and pugilists had gone by; with increased knowledge of his art, Gabriel had laid upon himself severe restrictions. He would not even paint portraits in the ordinary way, though therein he might easily have found a means of putting aside the teaching, which he hated. He was capable of stopping a girl who sold matches in the street and paying her to let him sketch her face, if it struck his peculiar fancy; but he would not paint the simpering daughter of a retired draper who sought him out. He said plainly that the head did not interest him; it would be waste of time, and he indulged himself in one of his rare laughs - a shockingly unmelodious cackle - as soon as the man had taken off himself and his dudgeon. He held that, as long as he could keep himself from starvation, the ideal exactions of art must be supreme with him. He followed no recognised school, and his early pictures found neither purchaser nor place of exhibition more dignified than a dealer's window. He was a realist, and could not expect his style to be popular.
Kingcote sought him out as soon as he had leisure after his arrival in London. He had written to announce his departure from Wood End but left the causes to be explained subsequently. Going over to the studio in the evening, he found the artist at work upon some drawings to illustrate a novel. Gabriel did not leave his seat, merely nodded as his friend came in; it was with a distinct look of annoyance that he found himself obliged to shake hands. Let us see what manner of man he outwardly was. Tall and excessively meagre to begin with; when regarding his work, he thrust his elbows into his sides, and one wondered that he did not hurt himself with the sharp bones. His face was hard set, the mouth somewhat too prominent, the cheeks hollow, the eyes small and keen. His hair was very light, his thin whiskers of the same colour. He had a very long throat, and made it appear still longer by a habit of pushing forward his chin defiantly. No one ever saw his teeth;. he even laughed with his mouth close shut. In speaking, his voice was high, often with a tendency to querulousness. When he walked, it was at a great rate, with head down, and cutting left and right with the stick he always carried. He was not at all of a refined type, but energy personified.
"What is the book you are illustrating?" Kingcote inquired.
"Oh, it's damned nonsense; but I manage to see some things the writer couldn't. It will be valued in future for the cuts."
This was characteristic of Gabriel. He said it in the most natural way, and seeing that he spoke truth there seemed no reason why he should not express himself freely.
"What are you going to send to the Academy this year?"
He rose, after a touch or two at the drawing, and took up the lamp, which was the only light in the room. (Though it was very cold he had no fire.) On an easel stood a large picture, nearly finished; he illuminated it. Kingcote started at the astonishing scene that was at once before him. It was a portion of an East End market-street at night; the chief group, a man at a stall selling quack-medicines to a thronging cluster of people. The main light came from a naphtha-lamp on the stall, but there was also the gleam from one of the ordinary lamps of the street. The assembled men, women, and children were of the poorest and vilest, and each face seemed a portrait. That of the medicine vendor was marvellous, with its look of low brag and cunning; on it was the full glare of the naphtha flame.
"Anything else?" Kingcote asked, looking at the painter.
"One or two small things, which they won't hang. This they will."
"There can be no doubt of that; it will be the picture of the year. But let me see the others."
One of these filled Kingcote with delight; he uttered an "Ah!" of pleasure. It was a little girl standing before a shop-window, and looking at an open illustrated paper which was exposed there. The subject was nothing, the pose and character of the child everything. Poor and ragged, she had lost for the moment sense of everything, but the rich and comfortable little maiden displayed in the coloured page; her look was envious, but had more of involuntary admiration. This too was a night piece; the light came from the front of the shop, above the picture.
"The face is exquisite!" Kingcote said; "you have made great strides this last half-year."
The artist uttered a "h'm," and no more.
"So you got tired of your cottage," he said seating himself, and taking up his pencil again.
"You know I was that, long since. But a different reason brought me back to London."
He explained his situation.
"And what shall you do?" Gabriel asked, simply.
"It is impossible to say. I must find work of some kind."
"Well, this is good news! At last you'll do something."
"My dear fellow, it is the opposite of good news. I shall do something, no doubt; but it will be drudgery of some kind to earn a living. There is nothing more to come out of me than that."
"Humbug! You are not as old as I am."
"No, but old enough to have seen the end of my tether."
"Why don't you go in for writing?"
"Because I am unable to. I can enjoy other men's work, but I can produce none of my own."
"Of course not, if you take it for granted. You could if you made up your mind to."
"Don't forget that that making up of the mind is everything; it is the very ability which I lack. But literature is a vain thought. How is it for a moment to be imagined that I could earn a sufficient income by it? I have written verses at times; you don't advise me to go into the market with those wares? Journalism I am utterly unfit for, as you must recognise. Equally unfit to write for magazines; I have neither knowledge nor versatility. There remains fiction, and for that I am vastly too subjective; I have no 'shaping spirit of imagination' - at all events not of the commercially valuable kind. If I had lived in days when Undine and Sintram were the approved style, I should probably have been tempted to try my hand; but now --"
"Because," he continued, "you are blessed with genius and will, you think all men should, can do great things by dint of mere exertion. I shall never do anything; do you understand? And why should I? There are other ways of enjoying life."
"What other ways?" Gabriel asked, strangely.
"One can receive happiness, as well as be active in bestowing it."
"Whence is your happiness to come?"
" Who knows? We must wait and see."
Such an attitude as this went near to excite Clement Gabriel's contempt; he ceased to argue and plied his pencil. The respect which Kingcote entertained for his strenuous friend was now and then mingled with vexation that the latter should fall short in finer sympathies; and Gabriel, though he liked Kingcote's company could scarcely be said to respect him. He was conscious that the dreamer saw visions and heard voices of a sphere whence there came no message to himself, but he acknowledged the superiority grudgingly, and would have asked to what end the revelations were made if Kingcote could not translate them into one or other form of human art. With the least strain of self-conceit in Kingcote, their friendship would have been at an end long since.
It seemed as if indeed Kingcote had determined to wait upon Providence. He had said to himself that he would vigorously turn to discovering an occupation in life, as soon as he should have settled his sister in the new home at Highgate; but the settlement was effected, and he did not appear to be exerting himself. He bought newspapers, it is true, and sickened his soul with the reading of advertisements, but it was seldom indeed that anything presented itself which seemed in the least likely to assist him. For it was not a temporary pursuit that he needed, but a fixed station of recognisable activity; work, in fact, which would enable him to stand before Isabel without shame when she was free to fulfil her promise. He was not in immediate need, nor likely to be; the capital which produced him sixty pounds a year would permit him to live and support his sister for some time to come, with economy such as they exercised. But it was idle to take comfort from that; practically he was a beggar.
A more admirable housekeeper than Mary could not have been found. Long experience of grinding poverty had taught her how to make a sovereign go very far indeed; Kingcote was astonished at the accounts with which she regularly presented him. He would have had her increase her own comfort in many little ways, but she always refused; self-denial, formerly a harsh necessity, had now become a pleasure; a kind of asceticism was becoming her motive in life. This, a common enough phenomenon, allied itself with increased rigour in religious performances. Her brother's indifference in such matters was a distress to her, but she would not have ventured to speak. Her gratitude to him was deep and fervent, but Mary felt what a distance there was between him and herself. She could love him as her heart desired, yet she was always hoping that time and use might make them more like brother and sister.
Before long there did happen something which resulted in a drawing nearer. Mary began to notice that her brother received frequent letters addressed in a female hand; she discovered, too, that they bore the Winstoke post-mark. Over this she mused much. It was clear to her that Bernard was anything but at rest in his mind, and that the source of his disquietude was something other than the mere difficulties of his position. His room was directly over that in which she slept, and she could hear him walking up and down sometimes half through the night; he would come down to breakfast looking ill and preoccupied. Now and then, when he had promised to sit with her in the evening and read aloud, which he often did, much to her joy, he would alter his mind at the last moment and leave the house. Then he was always very late in returning, and annoyed that she had sat up for him. She was obliged at length to leave supper on the table, and go to her room, though often she waited till she heard him enter the house before she hastened upstairs.
The morning that he went off to Knightswell, she had not noticed his early departure, and his absence throughout the day alarmed her. He reappeared about four in the afternoon. Looking anxiously at his face, she did not venture to question him. He took up a newspaper and glanced over it for a few moments.
"You wondered what had become of me?" he said at length, opening his lips for the first time, and trying to smile. "I went very early; I had to go out of London to see some one."
"I began to be very uneasy," Mary returned.
He sat down - not, to her surprise, going to his own room - and she began to lay the table for tea. He read the paper. In passing him she timidly touched his head with her fingers caressingly. Kingcote looked round; his face had the kindest smile.
"Do you know," he said, laughing, "what was in my mind at that moment? I was thinking how admirable the relations are between a brother and sister, when she is a good sister like you, Mary. Suppose you had been my wife instead of my sister. When I came in just now you would have overwhelmed me with questions, with complaints, with frettings, and made me angry. As it is, you have no anxiety but to put me at my ease, and your quiet kindness is a blessing to me."
"But all wives are surely not like that, Bernard?" she returned, with pleased protest.
"Most, I'm afraid; but no - not all."
The strangest speculations began to live in Mary's brain. Was it possible that her brother --? Oh, that was nonsense.
He was kind with the children when they came in from school, and, after tea, took a book and read to himself. Mary sent the youngsters a little earlier than usual to bed. When he and she sat alone, she saw that he made several beginnings of speaking; her eyes apparently busy over sewing, missed no phase of his countenance. At length he laid the book open on his knees.
"You remember my mentioning to you a large house called Knightswell, not far from my cottage?"
He did not look at her, but his eyes had an absent glimmer, not quite a smile, as they fixed themselves on the work she had on her lap.
"Yes, I do."
"I have been there to-day."
"Been all that way; Bernard?"
Mary did not fail to understand that it was now her turn to question.
"You have friends there?"
"A friend. If you will listen I will tell you a story."
He related all that he knew of the history of Isabel Clarendon, as if it had been told to him or he had read it somewhere, up to the time of his first meeting with her; he described her exactly, and described Ada Warren also, the latter, as far as his knowledge allowed, with perfect justice.
"One of those, Mary, is my friend; which do you think?"
"You have made it too easy to guess," his sister answered good-naturedly. She had listened with the utmost attention, leaning forward, her arms crossed upon her sewing. "Not Miss Warren!"
"But I do not dislike her; you mustn't think that."
"Still, you would not go all the way to Knightswell to see her."
He said nothing. Mary was nervously impatient.
"But what a strange, strange story! And she - Mrs. Clarendon - may be sent from her home any day? Is Miss Warren likely to marry?"
"She is engaged, but will not be married till she is of age. That will be in rather more than a year."
"And what will Mrs. Clarendon do then?"
He paused a moment before answering. But at length:
"She has promised to be my wife."
Mary threw her work down, and came and kissed his forehead. She could say nothing; stricken with wonder and confused emotions of pleasure, she strove to realise the truth of what he had told her. Then Kingcote took from his pocket the case in which he kept Isabel's portrait. Mary gazed at it in long silence.
"But how strange!" she murmured, when she turned her eyes away to dream absently.
"You think she might have made a better choice."
"I have no such thought, Bernard, as you know well. Is it known to her friends?"
"No," he replied, shortly.
"I wonder what Miss Warren would think?"
He mused, wondering himself.
They talked for a long time. To Kingcote the relief of having told his secret was so great, that he had become cheerful, hopeful. His sister did not show exuberant delight; she continued preoccupied, now and then, as if in result of her meditations, putting a question, and musing again upon the answer. A woman mentally occupied with woman possesses a lucidity of reasoning, a swiftness of apprehension, a shrewdness of inference, which may well render her a trifle contemptuous of male conclusions on the same subject. A very few details are enough for her to work upon; she has the categories by heart, and classifies with relentless acumen. It is the acme of the contradictions of her nature. Instinctively revolting against materialist views when held by the other sex; passionately, fiercely tenacious of spiritual interpretations where her own affections are concerned; the fountain of all purity that the world knows; she yet has in her heart that secret chamber for the arraignment of her sisters, where spiritual pleas are scoffed at, where the code administered is based on the most cynical naturalism. She will not acknowledge it; she will die rather than admit the fact as a working element of her own consciousness but she betrays herself too often. The countenance of a woman whose curiosity has been aroused concerning another is vaguely disturbing. She smiles, but the smile excites disagreeable thoughts, suspicions such as we would gladly put away. Happily she does most of such thinking when out of sight.
Kingcote said nothing of Isabel's pecuniary difficulties, and left the question of Ada's parentage as it was represented in the will. He laid stress all through, on the pathetic aspect of Isabel's position. Mary listened, questioned innocently, gathered data, and made her deduction.
On the day after Isabel's visit to Chelsea, Kingcote came and lunched with her. Her rooms, as he noticed, were sufficiently luxurious; a trouble weighed upon him as he talked with her. With a new dress - which of course became her perfectly - she seemed to him to have put on an air somewhat different from that which characterised her in the country. She was impulsively affectionate, but there was an absence in her manner, a shade of intermittence in her attention, a personal restlessness, an almost flippancy in her talk at times, which kept him uneasy. The atmosphere of town and of the season was about her; she seemed to be experiencing a vast relief, to have a reaction of buoyancy. It was natural that she should speak of indifferent things whilst servants were waiting at table, but Kingcote was none the less irritated and hurt in his sensibilities. He lacked the virtue of hypocrisy. The passion which had hold upon him felt itself wronged even by harmless compliance with the exactions of every-day artificial life. Something gnawed within his breast all the time that he was speaking as a mere acquaintance; he had a difficulty in overcoming a sullenness of temper which rose within him. The end of the meal was all but the limit of his patience.
"Don't ask me to come in this formal way again," he said, when they were alone in the drawing-room.
"Why not?" Isabel asked, in surprise.
"Because I am absurdly sensitive. It is pain to me to hear you speak as you would to any one whom you had asked out of mere politeness. I think I had rather not see you at all than in that way."
She laughed lightly.
"But isn't it enough to know what there is beneath my outward manner?"
"I know it, but --"
"But - your faith in me is so weak. Why cannot you trust me more?"
He was silent.
"You must get rid of these weaknesses. It all comes of your living so much alone. Besides, I want you particularly to come and dine with me on Sunday. Mr. Meres will be here, and I should like you to know him. I shouldn't wonder if he can be useful to you."
Kingcote made a gesture of impatience.
"But you won't refuse, if I wish it? He is the most delightful man, and such an old friend of mine."
"The less reason why I should like him."
"Now, Bernard, this is foolish. Are you going to be jealous of every one I know? Oh, what a terrible time is before you!"
She said the words with mirthful mockery, and to Kingcote they were like a sudden stab. It was as though a future of dreadful things had suddenly been opened before his eyes, black, yawning, thronged with the shapes of midnight agonies. Her laugh had a taunting cruelty; her very eyes looked relentless. In this moment he feared her.
She was sitting some little distance away, and could not let him feel the touch of her hand which would have soothed.
"Have you told your sister?" she asked, after regarding him for a moment.
He found it difficult to answer truthfully, but could not do otherwise. He admitted that he had.
"I knew you would," she returned, with a nod and an ambiguous smile. "And your friend, Gabriel?"
"No. I told you I should not. My sister is different."
"Yes. Why should you not tell her? And you showed her my portrait?"
"What did she say?"
"Many kind and pleasant things - things you would have liked to hear."
"Are you sure of that?"
"You don't dislike to be praised."
"No, on the whole I think not. But I could do with the praises of just one person - they would be enough."
"I may repeat your question - are you sure of that?"
"Very sure. But you will come on Sunday?"
"At what time? I thought you went to church."
"Only in the morning. We shall dine at eight o'clock."
"And will there only be Mr. Meres?"
"Only one other - a lady."
Kingcote looked about him restlessly.
"How long shall you stay in London?" was his next question.
"Not more than two months, I think."
"Two months - May, June. It will seem long."
"Long? Seem long to you?"
"Are you not glad that I am nearer to you?"
"Very glad. But I wish it were November, with no one else in town. I suppose you will be surrounded with people all the time."
"No, I shall see very few," she answered, rather coldly. "I should wish, if I can, to please you."
There was a struggle in him between obstinate jealousy and self-denial. She looked at him, with a half-suppressed smile about her lips, and the nobler feeling for the moment had its way.
"You will best please me," he said, with the old tenderness, "by pleasing yourself. You shall see nothing of my foolishness, even if I can't altogether overcome it; and I will try my hardest to do that, for my own peace indeed. I will bury myself in books."
Isabel was seeking for words to express what was in her mind.
"You see," she began at length, "I can't entirely isolate myself, even if I would. People find out that I am in town, and I cannot forbid them to come and see me. If they come, then I am bound to make calls in return, or to accept invitations."
"Yes, I understand it perfectly well," he assented, with a little too much of readiness. "It would be monstrous to ask you to live in solitude. Indeed, I will accept it all without murmuring."
"All that I can do I will. I promise you not to seek new acquaintances, and I will see no more of the old than I am absolutely obliged. You can trust me so far? It is rather hard to feel that you have not complete confidence in me. I have in you."
"Forgive me, and let us forget that I ever talked so unkindly. I ought to be proud of your successes in society. It would all be easier, I suppose, if --"
"Only if I valued myself more highly than I can. It is so hard to believe that you can compare me with others and not grow very cold."
"I should never think of comparing you with any one. Why should I? You are apart from all others; I should as soon think of asking whether the sun did really give more light than one or other of the stars."
She would not have used such a comparison in the days before his letters had revealed to her a gospel of passion. His pleasure in hearing the words was mitigated by a critical sense that she had the turn of thought from himself, that it did not come from the fountains of her heart. Few men surpassed Bernard Kingcote in ingenious refinement of self-torture. His faculty in that respect grew daily.
"Is any one likely to call this afternoon?" he asked, when they had sat together a little longer.
"I don't expect any one in particular, but it is quite possible."
"Then I will leave you now."
Isabel did not oppose his going.
"Oh," she said, as a thought struck her, "Rhoda and Hilda Meres are going to lunch with me to-morrow, and perhaps Ada, though I don't know whether she will come. In the afternoon I dare say we shall go to the Academy. Will you be there, and show us Gabriel's pictures?"
He gave a hesitating "Yes."
"Not unless you would like to. Be in the first room about half-past three."
Gabriel's "Market Night" was well hung, and kept a crowd about it through the day. Prelates, plutocrats, and even the British baby appeared on the whole to be less attractive. Setting aside landscapes, which we paint with understanding, our Exhibition cannot often boast of more than a couple of pictures which invite to a second examination on disinterested grounds; this of the unknown painter addressed itself successfully both to the vulgar and to the cultured. Its technical qualities were held to be high. Some people made a sermon of it, - which the painter never intended.
It being Saturday afternoon, Kingcote found himself waiting in a great press at the hour that Isabel had mentioned. The face for which he looked at length shone upon him, and he discerned the two young ladies upon whose appearance he had speculated - Rhoda Meres, with her tall, graceful figure and melancholy prettiness; Hilda, greatly more interesting, of flower-like freshness and purity, her keen look anticipating the pleasure that was before her. Kingcote was conscious of missing some one; whilst he was joining the three, he sought for Ada Warren, but she seemed not to be of the party. He could not understand why her absence should occasion him anything like disappointment, yet it assuredly did. He was wondering whether she had changed at all since he saw her.
He was presented to the two girls, and did what he could in the way of amiable interrogation and remark. Hilda, constraining her sister's companionship, began to examine the pictures.
"I must keep them within view," Mrs. Clarendon said to Kingcote, "but I have no intention of wearying myself by walking round each room. You have been here already; you can point out anything you would like me to see. Where are your friend's?"
"Much further on."
"What do you think of these girls?"
"The younger one is delightful."
"You don't care for Rhoda; yet she has always been my favourite. Poor things!" she added in a lower tone, "isn't it hard that they should have nothing in life to look forward to?"
Hilda turned to draw Mrs. Clarendon's attention to a picture.
"Miss Warren has not come with you?" Kingcote asked, when there was again opportunity.
"No; she kept at home. But the girls have just been surprising me. If you buy to day's Tattler you'll find something that she has written - a description - something about the river."
"No, prose. They are all in great excitement about it. I must get the paper; I don't suppose she'll send it to me."
Kingcote was much interested; he promised himself to read this contribution as soon as possible.
When at length they reached the "Market Night," it was very difficult to get a view of the canvas. But for Isabel a few glances were enough.
"Oh, I don't like that at all!" she exclaimed positively, moving away from the throng. "Those faces are disgusting. I should not like to have such a picture as that in my house."
"In that I agree with you," Kingcote said. Hilda had also come away and was listening. "But it is a wonderful picture for all that."
"What a pity he paints such things! Why don't you make him choose pleasant subjects?"
"I imagine Gabriel's answer if I said such a thing to HIM," said Kingcote, smiling. "I suppose the artist must paint what he can and will; our likes and dislikes will not much affect him. But don't you admire the skill and power, at all events?"
Hilda went to look again, guided by this remark; she snapped up anything that seemed likely to instruct her taste with the eager voracity of a robin.
But Isabel only shook her head and shuddered a little.
"Is the other picture as bad?" she asked.
"It's just opposite; come and look."
This was the child in front of the shop-window.
"No, not quite as bad," was Isabel's judgment. "But he has such a taste for low subjects. Why doesn't he paint decent people?"
"I'd rather keep clear of the gutter myself," conceded her companion. "Still --"
He did not conclude, and they crossed to the girls again. Shortly, Mrs. Clarendon met with a party of friends, and Kingcote drew away. A tall, heavy man of a military type bent insinuatingly as he talked to her; Kingcote fretted at the sight. To avoid and forget it he joined Hilda Meres. The bright intelligence which made way through her shyness charmed him; possibly the extreme respect with which she received every word of his utterance did not diminish his interest in her. Rhoda scarcely spoke, but her smile, too, was very sweet. How he wished that his sister could have companions such as these! And, as Mary came into his mind - she sitting alone in her widow's weeds - he felt impatient with the bright mob crushing about him. He did not need to be reminded, yet it reminded him again, how heartless the world is. . . .
Ada had made pretext of a headache to stay at home. Possibly she would not have done so, but for the fact of her first piece of writing having appeared to-day. She did not care to present herself before Mrs. Clarendon as if anxious to be congratulated. Yet it concerned her not a little to know that Mrs. Clarendon read what she had written; she had joy in the thought that at length she could prove herself not insignificant. Henceforth her position was far other than it had been, in her own eyes at all events. Formerly she was scarcely a person, rather a mere disagreeable fact, troubling and puzzling people; she had no rights, and no satisfaction save the illiberal one of feeling the brute power which circumstances had given her. Now she was a human being, and her heart was full.
This that The Tattler had printed was a little sketch called "River Twilight"; it occupied a column of the weekly paper, and was of course unsigned. Walking with Hilda along the Embankment a fortnight ago, when there was a finely dusky heaven, it had first of all struck her that she might find bits for her pencil about here; then came the suggestion to picture in words that which had so impressed her. She went home, and up to her own room, and by midnight had written her description. She resolved not to show this to Mr. Meres, but to try her luck at once with one of the papers which published similar things; it was despatched the first thing in the morning. In a day or two there came to her an envelope with which she hastened into privacy; she had seen the name of The Tattler stamped on the back. It contained a proof.
Perhaps it would be literally true to say that this was the first great pleasure that life had brought her. She sat and sobbed for joy; a vast gratitude possessed her whole being - gratitude to the Fates, as she would have said. She could not believe that in very truth her writing was going to be printed; nay, that it was printed, and lay before her! With eyes constantly blinded by a foolish rush of tears, she read through the composition - oh, how many times! One misprint there was, and one only; she laughed at the nonsense it made. Mr. Meres was not at home, or she could not have resisted showing him the proof; she could not delay the posting of it ("by return of post" was requested), and it was so much the better; she would astonish him with the paper on Saturday. She went out, dropped her envelope into the nearest pillar, and wandered along the Embankment, night-time though it was. The girls she had avoided - it was better to be alone. The blackness of the river was full of intense meaning; the stars above flashed and burned like beacons; the rush of the night air she drank like wine. Over to the south was a red glare; that was Lambeth - to her a mysterious region of toil and trouble. The fierceness of human conflict had all at once assumed for her the significance of kindred emotion. She, too - only a girl, and without that which in girls is prized - might perhaps find some work in the world. Would they pay her for this contribution? She stood still, as if her breath had been caught. The glare in the south became a mighty illumination of the heavens; it was like the rising of a new sun. She leaned upon the stone parapet, and strove to fix the idea which had shot so into birth. Would they pay her? Might she hope to earn by writing enough to live upon? Mr. Meres had always spoken of that aspect of literature very gloomily; he, indeed, had never ceased to find it the hardest struggle to earn a living. But then he had his children to support. . . .
She turned to go home. On one of the seats which she passed, a wretched woman was huddling herself in her rags, as if preparing to sleep. Ada took out her purse and gave money.
"Who knows?" she said to herself, "my mother may be such an one. . . ."
Thomas Meres was exultant when Ada showed him her achievement. He reminded himself just in time, and only just in time, that excess of laudation was not advisable, but he could not prevent his eyes from twinkling with delight. Hilda was less cautious, nothing less than enthusiasm could satisfy her. Rhoda gave approval, which surprised her sister and her father by its cool moderateness.
Ada had meant to send a copy of the paper to Mrs. Clarendon, but at the last she altered her mind; she could not bear the thought of being misinterpreted. One copy she did dispatch, and that was to Lacour, having pencilled her initials at the end of the article.
At dinner there was of course talk of Academy experiences. It was mentioned that Mr. Kingcote had been met with and introduced.
"There were two pictures by a friend of his, a Mr. Gabriel," Hilda said, and described what they were. "Mrs. Clarendon couldn't bear them, but Mr. Kingcote said they were very powerful, and so they seemed to me. I wish I could have looked at them longer and closer, but there was such a crowd."
"I have seen mention of the 'Market Night,'" observed her father. "I must manage to get a look at it. I am not surprised Mrs. Clarendon didn't like it."
"Oh, but she didn't look at it from an artistic point of view," Hilda went on to explain with much zeal. "Very likely it wasn't a pretty subject, but that has nothing to do with its merits as a picture."
"You are an advanced young lady," jested Mr. Meres. "Art for art's sake, eh? What's your opinion, Ada? Must a picture necessarily be pleasant to look at?"
"It depends what we call pleasant," hazarded Ada. "I fancy people think very differently about that."
"Yes, I suppose that's the fact of the matter. What view did Mr. Kingcote take?"
Ada turned her eyes to Hilda and listened.
"I fancy," said the girl, with a roguish smile, "he didn't like to disagree with Mrs. Clarendon; but he thought the picture good for all that. I like Mr. Kingcote, don't you, Ada?"
The question was unexpected, and Ada was not ready with an answer. She tried to say something natural and off-hand, and could not hit on the right words. To her extreme annoyance, she saw that her embarrassment was attracting attention. Mr. Meres glanced at her, and then showed artificial interest in something at the other end of the room.
"I can't say that I have thought much about him," she uttered at length, with exaggerated indifference. She was intensely angry with herself for her utterly groundless difficulty. If she had not thought of Kingcote before, she at all events did so now, and with not a little acrimony.
She and Mr. Meres passed each other by chance about an hour after dinner.
"Will you come and give me some help?" the latter asked.
He wanted her to read aloud several pages from a German book, the while he scanned an English translation which was under review. When this was done, he sat musing, and stroked his nose.
"You couldn't have done better," he exclaimed at length with abruptness. "That little thing is rounded and polished, complete in short pieces for awhile, and polish, polish! itself, an artistic bit of work. Stick to quite By-the-bye, you have been reading De Quincey of late?"
"How do you know?"
"A word or two, a turn in the style, that's all," he said, smiling.
"Will they pay me for it?" Ada brought herself to ask.
"Oh, yes; you'll have your guinea for the column. The Tattler pays at the end of each month, I believe. You look as pleased," he added, with a laugh, "as if your bread and cheese depended on it."
"The labourer is worthy of his - or her - hire," Ada remarked.
"Don't, for heaven's sake, don't begin to look on it in that way! Happily you are under no such vile necessity. Rejoice in your freedom. No man can bid you write your worst, that the public may be caught."
"Yet not long ago you made light of my efforts just because I was not dependent on literature."
"I have seen since that you mean serious things. Beggary is an aid to no one; if it impels to work, it embitters the result. With the flow of a hungry man's inspiration there cannot but mingle something of the salt of tears. One's daily bread at least must be provided - I don't say one's daily banquet. If the absence of need checks your creative impulse, it doesn't greatly matter; in that case you would never have done anything worth speaking of. No, no; rejoice in your freedom. Thank heaven that you can live, as old Landor says, 'Beyond the arrows, shouts, and views of men.'"
There was silence; then he asked:
"Have you sent the paper to Mrs. Clarendon?"
Ada replied with a negative.
He kept his eyes from her, and stirred in his seat.
"You think she would not care to see it?"
"I don't think she would."
"Do you remember," he began, with uncertain voice, "that not long ago I was going to ask you to do something to please me."
"I remember it."
"Can you guess what that was?"
She did not answer at once. Her face showed inner movements of conflicting kinds; she seemed to struggle to banish that hardness of expression which fixed her features against an unwelcome thought.
" Had it," she asked at length, "anything to do with Mrs. Clarendon?"
"Yes, Ada, it had. You do not like her. One's likes and dislikes cannot easily be altered to suit another's wish, but if by any means I could bring you to kind thoughts of her, I think I should be content to forget every other hope that life still nourishes in me."
She did not speak.
"Can you be open enough with me to say why it is you dislike her?" He spoke very softly and kindly, and with a hint of things which could not but touch a listener.
Ada began with trembling:
"It seems to have grown with me. I shrank from her when, as a child, I was first brought into her presence. Her look was contemptuous, cruel; for all that I was such a poor, helpless creature, and should have moved her pity. Since I have known everything, she has seemed to me the more to be blamed. I cannot sympathise with her, though I know others do. There is no motive in her life that seems to me noble or lovable. I think her selfish; I think she has brought upon herself all her troubles by her deliberate choice of lower things. I may miss the better points in her character; I am intensely prejudiced."
Meres listened with pain which at length compelled him to turn his head away. Ada would not look at him. She knew what she was inflicting, but could not stay her tongue sooner. One of the million forms of jealousy fretted her, and jealousy is cruel.
"Did she ever tell you anything of my earlier life?" he asked, when he could command his voice.
"Nothing, except that you had - had not been happy in your marriage."
It was a little strange for her to be speaking thus with a man so much her elder, but the subject of their emotions put them on equal ground.
"Do you know that I was once secretary to Mr. Clarendon?"
She gazed at him with agitated interest.
"I did not know that."
"Yes, I was; all through the five years of his married life. I had many opportunities of understanding his private affairs, and I could not help seeing what the relations were between him and his wife. Mrs. Clarendon is to be forgiven everything."
Ada heard, with bowed head.
"What her moral claims and standing may be - with that we have no concern. Such judgments have little to do with personal feeling, and I want, if it be possible, to soften your heart to her, that is all. I owe Mrs. Clarendon more than I owe any one, dead or living. At her husband's death I was plunged into sufferings which I cannot speak of in detail - they would have been bad enough in any case, and were made all but intolerable by the completest poverty. If it had not been for the children, I should assuredly have killed myself. In my despair I wrote to her. I had never been on such terms with her as warranted me in doing this, but --" he waved his hand. "It would have been natural enough if she had thrown aside my letter, as awakening disagreeable memories, and left it unanswered. Instead of that, she met me with such kindness as one human being seldom shows to another. She invited me to come to Knightswell, and insisted on my bringing the children - they had, happily, no mother. I was wretchedly ill, unable to exert myself in any way, only the workhouse was before me."
His voice failed him for a moment.
"I remember your coming," Ada said quietly.
"After that life was hard enough, but never what it had been. If I were to tell you all she has been to the girls since then --" He broke off "Perhaps you would think there was shame in it; that I should have been too proud to accept so much help. It may be so. A man submits for the sake of his children to what would perhaps degrade him if he stood alone. Well, these are the things that I wanted you to know. And more; Mrs. Clarendon has never spoken to me of you in any but the justest and most generous way. She has recognised your talents, and has always accepted gladly any suggestion I made for your good. Think, Ada - that cannot have been easy to her."
There was a long silence. Then the girl asked:
"Did you ever see my mother?"
"Your parents were unknown to me."
"I did not say my parents - my mother."
She corrected him with cold emphasis, looking into his face. Meres averted his eyes.
"No, I never saw her," was his uneasy reply.
"Mr. Ledbury, one of the trustees, tells me that she was on the stage."
He looked surprised.
"Mrs. Clarendon referred me to him," Ada explained, "for information she herself could not, or did not wish to give. He says she was in the habit of applying to him for money up to about two years ago, and that he knows nothing of her at present."
"My child, why should you make those inquiries?"
"Because I have a very natural desire to know whether my mother is suffering from want, and to help her if she is. It appears that nothing was left to her."
"Ada, there is only one thing I can say on this subject. I think it very unlikely indeed that you will ever hear any more of your mother. Mr. Ledbury will say no more than he has done, be sure of that."
"Then he should not have said so much."
"I myself think so. Try to put all that out of your thoughts. You are impelled by a sense of duty, I know; but remember that in the case of parent and child duties are reciprocal, or they do not exist at all. I earnestly beg you to put your mother's existence utterly from your mind; it can never be anything but a source of misery to you. I had hoped the subject would never give you trouble. Pray do not let it, Ada."
He spoke with extreme earnestness, and his words seemed to produce an effect. When, shortly afterwards, Ada shook hands and bade him good-night, she added:
"I will think much of all you have said tonight." Then, in a lower voice, "I am not unprepared for what you would teach me."
The listener attached no special meaning to the last words; they seemed to him only dictated by good-will to himself.
It was with a good deal of interest that Meres went to meet Kingcote at dinner on the following day. He had got one or two fancies about the young man, which made him anxious to gauge his character for himself. He was the first of the party to arrive, and Isabel's talk to him was about the object of his thoughts.
"If you find him congenial," she said, "it would be very good of you to ask him to come and see you now and then. You and Ada can talk about the things he cares for. Has Ada spoken of him?"
"She has told me about his singular rustication," Mr. Meres replied, trying to meet her eye. But he did not succeed.
"He lives with his sister, a widow. Her I don't know. I think - well, it seems she married somebody of an undesirable kind, and I don't suppose she sees people. Will you make a note of his address? Pray, pray don't let me put a burden upon you; it's only that he has need of pleasant acquaintances --"
"I quite understand," replied the other, smiling. And, in truth, he thought he did.
The lady who was the third guest was a genial and rather homely creature; she and Isabel talked women's talk whilst the gentlemen became friendly after dinner. In the course of chat Mr. Meres did not fail to say that he and his family were always at home after three o'clock on Sunday, and would be pleased as often as Kingcote chose to look in. He mentioned Ada's appearance in The Tattler, and was gratified to hear Kingcote's praise. The two got on very well together. Mr. Meres felt surer than ever that he understood. . . .
Kingcote did not look well to-night; he had the appearance of one who lacks sleep. The night before, Mary, after listening to his ceaseless footsteps till three o'clock, had gone up and knocked at his door. After a word or two he opened.
"Why are you up so late, Bernard?" she asked. "I heard you moving, and feared you might be unwell."
"I have been reading," he replied. "I quite forgot that you were underneath. It's too bad to wake you."
"I have not been asleep. I am anxious about you. Won't you go to bed?"
"To be sure I will. It's later than I thought. You shan't hear another sound."
"But it's not that I care about," she urged. "I would rather sit with you, if you can't rest."
"No, no; there's nothing to be anxious about. We shall wake the children if we talk so much. Be off and sleep, Mary."
She went, with a heavy heart. She was much disturbed on her brother's account.
To-night it was misery to him to have to go away with the others, without one word for himself. After walking to the end of the street, he came back and stood looking at the lighted windows. Presently the drawing-room became dark. He set out on his long journey to Highgate.
"Has it been a pleasant evening?" Mary asked. She liked to look at her brother in his evening dress; it gave her all manner of thoughts. At his entrance she had closed a folio volume of Jeremy Taylor's sermons, which, in impatience at some unwholesome little book she was bent over, Kingcote had put into her hands a few days ago. "At least read good English," had been the accompanying remark.
In answer to her question he gave a weary, indifferent affirmative.
"How did you like Mr. Meres?"
"Oh, he's a very decent fellow. He wants me to visit him next Sunday. I believe I promised, but it is scarcely likely that I shall go."
"Why not? Certainly you ought to. Society is just what you want."
"I can't talk!" he exclaimed impatiently. "I should be a bore. It was only out of politeness that he asked me."
"You wouldn't find it too disagreeable to meet Miss Warren?"
"Why should I? Rather the contrary."
During the next days he was not often at home. He tried to make distractions for himself in picture galleries and museums, and for a little while half succeeded. But when the fourth day brought no letter from Isabel, impatience overcame him. In the afternoon he called to see her. He was conducted upstairs, and, as soon as the door opened for the announcement of his name, he heard the voices of people in conversation. It was too late to retreat, and, indeed, he had half expected this; he could not ask below whether Mrs. Clarendon was alone. He entered, and found half-a-dozen strangers; Isabel interrupted her vivacious talk, and received him.
It might have been five minutes or half-an-hour that he stayed; he could not have said which. He found himself introduced to some one, he said something, he drank tea. He was only conscious of Jiving when at length in the street again. It was as if madness had got hold upon him; the tension of preserving a calm demeanour whilst he sat in the room made his blood rise to fever-heat. The voices of the polite triflers about him grew to the intolerable screaming and chattering of monkeys. Insensate jealousy frenzied him. He could not look at Isabel's face, and when she spoke to him he felt a passion almost of hatred, so fiercely did he resent the friendly indifference of her tone. . . .
He entered a stationer's shop, and bought a sheet of note-paper and an envelope, then walked into the park, and, on the first seat he reached, sat down and began to write in pencil. He poured forth all the fury of his love and the bitterness of his misery, overwhelmed her with reproaches, bade her choose between him and this hateful world which was his curse. Only lack of paper brought him to a close. This astonishing effusion he deliberately - nay, he was incapable of deliberation - but with a savage determinedness posted at the first pillar. Then he walked on and on, heedless whitherwards - Oxford Street, Holborn, the City, round to Pentonville, to Highbury. He was chased by demons; thought had become a funeral pyre of reason and burned ceaselessly The last three days had been a preparation for this, only a trivial occasion was needed to drive him out of brooding into delirium. Alas, it was only the beginning! May - June. Could he live to the end of that second month?
Kingcote had often asked himself what was the purpose of his life - here it had declared itself at length. This was the fulfilment of his destiny - to suffer. He was born with the nerves of suffering developed as they are in few men. "Resist not, complain not!" Fate seemed whispering to him. "To this end was this nature, developing antecedents which were your frame cast. Your parents bequeathed you the preparation for it. Endure, endure, for the end is not yet."
"I cannot endure! This anguish is more than humanity can bear."
"Yes, you can and will endure it. Nature is cunning, and fits the fibre to the strain. Be proud of your finer sensibilities. Coarse men do not feel and suffer thus."
"There is nothing high in my torment. It is of vanity and of the flesh. In agonising, I revile myself."
"Do so. That also is the result of your compounding. Coarse natures never revile themselves."
"And what will come of it, if I live?"
"That is of the future. Suffer!" . . . .
He reached home when it was dark, he knew not at what time. Refusing the tea which Mary offered, he went to the solitude of his room. And there, in weariness, his frenzy passed. Wretchedness at what he had done took its place. He tried to remember all he wrote; a few phrases clung in his memory, and became his despair. How could he speak so to Isabel? And the letter would be delivered to-night.
He wrote another, explaining, imploring her forbearance, throwing himself at her feet. It was even now not nine o'clock, and she must not sleep with the other letter alone to think of. He went forth, took a hansom, and drove as far as Portman Square, then walked to the door of the house and rang the servant's bell as he dropped his letter into the box.
He purposed to return on foot, but a very short distance proved that his strength would not bear him half-way. By means of omnibuses he found himself at home again. This time he ate what his sister put for him, but scarcely spoke. Mary asked no questions, only looked at him with infinite sorrow and wonder. After eating he went to his bed and slept.
The postman brought him a letter in the morning.
"Bernard, Bernard, how can you be so foolish? Your first letter pained me dreadfully; your second makes all right again. Come and see me at eleven to-morrow morning; I promise you to be alone. I cannot write more now, as I must send my maid out to post this, and it is late. For ever yours, whether you believe it or not."
It quieted him, but he said to himself that it was cold, very cold; not one word of endearment. It would have pleased him better if she had resented his ill behaviour. She seemed to care little for those words of fire, to have already forgotten them.
He was with her at the hour named. Isabel met him with scarcely a sign of reproach, but he felt that her smile was not what he had once known. She had, too, a slight air of fatigue, and seated herself before she spoke to him.
"I shouldn't have come," he explained, referring to the previous afternoon, "but that it was so long since I had heard from you. Why didn't you write?"
"I meant to, really; but all sorts of unexpected things have been taking up my time."
"And it is a week since I saw you."
"No; last Sunday."
"Oh, that is not seeing you. It is mere misery to be in your presence with others. I avoid seeing your face, try not to hear you speaking."
"But why? It is very hard to understand you, Bernard."
"That is my fear. You don't understand me. You can't see what a difference there is for me between love and friendship. I cannot treat you as a friend. All the time that I am near you, I am shaken with passion; to play indifference is a sort of treachery. I must never again see you when others are by - I can't bear it!"
She looked before her in a kind of perplexity, and did not move when he took her hand.
"You said very cruel things in your letter. I felt them more than you think."
"Don't speak of that, Isabel. I was mad when I wrote it. Try and bear with me, dear one; I am so wretchedly weak, but I love you more than you will ever know. Never tell me anything of what you do or whom you see; let me come to you when you have a spare half-hour, and that shall be enough. But write to me often. Give me constant assurance of your love. Promise that, for I suffer terribly!"
She was about to say something, but he went on.
"It is so hard that all these people can come and talk with you freely, and you can waste on them your smiles and your brightness, whilst I stand apart and am hungry for one little word. What is it that pleases you in their society? Are they better than I - those people who were about you yesterday? With a little trouble one might make a wax-work figure which would go through those forms every bit as well, even to the talking. Cannot you see how unworthy they are of you - you who are more beautiful than all women, whose heart can speak such true and tender and noble things! It is sacrilege that they should dare to touch your hands!"
Her lips trembled; as he came and knelt by her, she knew again an impulse of pure devotion.
"Bernard, do you wish me to go back again? Shall I go to Knightswell?"
"How can I say yes? It is your happiness to be here. You feel and enjoy your power."
"Bid me leave London, and I will not remain another day."
She feared his answer, yet longed to arouse in him the energy which should make her subject. A woman cannot be swayed against her instincts by mere entreaty, but she will bow beneath the hand that she loves. Had he adored her less completely, had the brute impulse of domination been stronger in him, his power and her constancy could have defied circumstances. But he would not lay upon her the yoke for which her neck was bowed in joyful trembling. He would not save her from herself by the exertion of a stronger selfishness. Neither his reverence nor his delicacy would allow him to constrain her. It is the difference between practice and theory; the latter is pure, abstract, ideal; the former must soil itself in the world's conditions.
"I cannot make myself so selfish in your eyes," he said. "If your love will not bear this test, how can it face those yet harder ones?"
"What have I done that you should doubt my love? Do you - do you doubt me?"
"Not when you look so into my eyes, bright angel!"
On Sunday the Meres dined early. It was very seldom that any one came to see them in the afternoon, which was generally much taken up with music. Mr. Meres had the habit of dozing over a book in his study. In theory he set apart Sunday for those great authors who are more talked about than read, for whom so little time is left amid the manifold demands of necessary labour and the literature of the day, yet for lack of whose sustaining companionship we are apt to fail so in the ways of plain living and high thinking. But between two and five o'clock the spell of drowsiness lay heavy upon our well-intentioned friend. On Sunday most people find it hard to exert themselves to much purpose. The atmosphere is soporific.
To-day there was expectation of Kingcote's visit. Mr. Meres had made up his mind that if he just showed himself, and then left the young ladies to entertain their visitor, he would be exercising commendable discretion. After dinner he went to his study as usual; Ada and the two sisters remained in the sitting-room. There was no mention of the subject which occupied the minds of all; other things were talked of; but in an artificial way. Hilda presently began to play upon the piano. An hour passed, and there was a knock at the front door.
Kingcote had had a long letter from Isabel the evening before, and his mind was not ill-tuned for the visit. He was pleased with the aspect of the small house; here at all events there would be what he longed for, domestic peace and simplicity. He was conducted to the study, and found Mr. Meres with a Shakespeare open before him. He smiled, reminded of the rector of Winstoke.
"Which is your favourite play?" asked Mr. Meres by way of greeting, taking it for granted that Kingcote would know to what author he referred.
"Antony and Cleopatra," was the unhesitating reply.
"Ha! I think my weakness is for the Winter's Tale. Perhaps it is because I grow old."
They talked awhile. Kingcote listened to notes of music from an adjoining room. Mr. Meres presently proposed that they should invade what he called the gynæceum.
The little front room looked very bright and pleasant; its occupants were each one interesting, and in different ways. Kingcote's eyes sought Ada first of all. It surprised him that she did not suffer so much by comparison with the other girls as he had anticipated. Perhaps it was familiarity with her face which enabled him to see it in a more favourable light than formerly. She was perfectly grave and, as usual, distant, but somehow she seemed more feminine than at Knightswell.
There was miscellaneous gossip, chiefly about the Academy. The old question of the artistic and the merely pleasing was rung upon in all its changes. Ada spoke very little, but Rhoda was unusually cheerful - perhaps she thought it became her to represent the hostess; perhaps also there were other reasons - and Hilda could not be other than charming. Only to look at her fresh, dainty youthfulness rested the eye like the hue of spring verdure. She was asked at length to sing.
"I have no sacred songs," she remarked with a dubious glance.
"You have many that are not exactly profane," returned her father, smiling.
Whilst she sang, Mr. Meres quietly left the room. There followed an hour or two of such pleasant animation as Kingcote had never known. Wholly at his ease, and forgetful of everything but the present, he surprised himself by the natural flow of his talk. The music stirred his faculties; the unwonted companionship soothed him. All he said was received with a certain deference anything but disagreeable; even Ada gave him respectful attention, and made not a single caustic remark. The girls' conversation was of a very pleasing kind, remarkably intelligent, as different as possible from that of girls of corresponding age who are trained in the paces of society. In Rhoda and Hilda the influence of their father and of Ada Warren was evident; they appeared absolutely free from unreasoning kinds of prejudice, and were strong in the faith of the beautiful, which is woman's salvation.
This visit Kingcote repeated twice before the end of July, not oftener, though he had invitations to do so. In the days through which he now began to live, it was seldom that he could regain the mood in which it was possible to mingle with society of any kind, even though the process might have relieved him. It was nothing less than an illness which fell upon him, an illness of the nerves and the imagination. There were intermissions of suffering, mostly the results of exhaustion; his torment rose to the point at which a mental catastrophe seemed imminent, then came a period of languor, in which he resumed strength to suffer again. Later, these three months became all but a blank in his memory, the details of the time, with the exception of one or two moments, forgotten.
He waited several days into the new week without hearing from Isabel, and at last had a very brief note from her, asking him to call before three o'clock. It was in his mind to write a refusal, saying that he was sure she had no time to give him, but this he could not carry out. He found her just leaving the dining-room; she had lunched alone. Her spirits were extravagant; he had never seen her so gay. The contrast with his own gloomy state did not tend to brighten him.
"What has happened to excite you so?" he asked.
"Happened? Nothing at all. Only I am well, and happy, and the sun shines; isn't that enough to put one in good spirits?"
"Happy?" he repeated, rather bitterly.
"Did you wish me to be miserable?" she exclaimed merrily. "It is you who make my happiness; why don't you keep some for yourself?"
"There you mistake. I have nothing whatever to do with it."
"No, the mistake is yours, Bernard. I tell you the truth, but you will not, will not believe me. I can't help it; I only know that you will believe me some day. Time will be on my side."
He sat mute and downcast.
"Oh, why do you take life so hard?" she asked him. "It is full of good things to make the time pass, if you will only see them. Tell me now, what have you been doing since I saw you?"
"Nothing - waiting to hear from you."
"Ah, that is not true! Who was it that went to Chelsea on Sunday, and made himself very agreeable indeed, charmingly agreeable, so that young ladies speak most flatteringly of him? I know, you see. Indeed I was just a little jealous, or should have been, if jealousy were not such a foolish thing."
"That I don't think you would ever feel."
"Perhaps not. I certainly should not without cause, and, if I had cause, that would be a better reason still for resisting it."
"Not if you ---"
He interrupted himself, and turned away impatiently.
"You were going to say something very unkind, and you thought better of it. But you sadden me; it is dreadful to see you so low-spirited. Have you thought," she asked, with a little hesitation, "of finding some occupation for your time?"
"Yes, I have thought constantly, but of course without result. You think I should not trouble you so often if my time were taken up?"
He could not help it. Almost everything she said converted itself in his seething mind to a bitter significance. This was the first reference she had made to the necessity under which he stood. It was natural enough that the subject should occupy her thoughts; he had several times wondered, indeed, that she kept silence about it. Now that she spoke, he attributed to her unkind motives.
They talked on in this fruitless way. He saw her look at the clock, and endeavoured to leave his seat; no doubt she was going somewhere, or expected visitors. Minute after minute he said to himself that he would go, yet still remained. The door opened, and Mr. Asquith was announced.
Robert had been long back from his yachting at present he was entering with heartiness into the pleasures of the London season. His mode of life seemed to agree with him; there was ruddy health on his cheeks, and his whole appearance bespoke the man who found life one with enjoyment. Kingcote had heard his name in former times from the Vissians, but Isabel had never mentioned her cousin to him. He regarded him with involuntary dislike; the placid good-humour, the genial contentment of Asquith's look and voice were enough to excite this feeling under the circumstances, and the frank kindness with which Isabel received him naturally increased it.
"Colonel Stratton," Robert remarked, more suo, as he seated himself. "I met him at the top of Park Lane, and he was most anxious to discover my exact opinion of the atmospheric conditions of the day; seemed delighted when I agreed with him that there was moisture in the air."
Isabel laughed heartily.
"Was that all that passed between you?" she inquired.
"Not quite. He wanted me to go with him to Barnet - was it Barnet? on a coach driven by a friend of his, a Captain Cullen - Hullen --"
"Captain Mullen," Isabel corrected, much amused. "He is a first-rate whip. Why didn't you go? It would have been delightful."
"I'm afraid the company would have been rather too military for my tastes. Besides, I told him I was coming to see you. He begged me to --"
"To do what?"
"Nay, he himself paused at the 'to'; the rest I was doubtless to understand. I presume from his manner that I was to present his respects to you."
"Our friend Colonel Stratton," Isabel explained to Kingcote, "is habitually at a loss for words. He really is the shyest man I ever knew. I tease him dreadfully, and I don't think he minds it a bit."
"Coach-driving," remarked Robert. "Singular taste that. One is disposed to suggest hereditary influences."
"Must you go?" Isabel asked.
"I must," was the brief reply.
"I don't think you ever met Mr. Kingcote at Knightswell?" Isabel said, when the door had closed.
"I remember your speaking of him. Is he in London permanently?"
"I believe so."
A purpose, which Isabel had had in mentioning him, passed, and she spoke of other things. . . .
Kingcote was walking about the streets. He avoided home nowadays as much as possible; his madness seemed harder to bear in his own room, or with Mary watching him; it was always best to walk himself into fatigue, that there might be a chance of sleep in the night. Why had he not obeyed her hint, and left before visitors could arrive? And there again was the sting; she wished him to leave. Did she expect this cousin of hers, this prosperous, well-fed, easy-mannered gentleman? That mattered little; the one certainty was that her love grew less and less. She had not even the outward affectionateness which had once marked her when she spoke with him alone. Knowing perfectly the power of help and soothing that lay in her lightest loving word, she would not trouble to find one, not one. She was gay in the face of his misery. Love would be affected by subtle sympathies; yet she slept peacefully through those nights when he wrestled with anguish; when he called upon her, she was deaf to the voice she should have heard. So many other voices claimed her ear; those that murmured graceful things in bright drawing-rooms, those that flattered insidiously when she was enjoying her triumphs. It had been a mistake; to her an occasion, perhaps, for regrets and annoyances, to him a source of unutterable woe. Even if she really loved him at first, how could she continue to, now that every day brought something to lower him in her estimation? The worst of his suffering was in the thought that he himself was his own ruin. Could he from the first have borne himself like a man, have been affectionate without excess, have taken some firm, direct course in his difficulties, above all have seemed to be independent of her, then he might have held her his own. But that was requiring of him to be another than he was. Out of weakness strength could not come. His passion was that of a woman. Could he even now put on a consistent show of independence, it might not be too late. Why had he not taken her at her word when she offered to return to Knightswell? Was it too late?
Too late; for in love that which is undone never can be made good. He was not worthy of her love; the consciousness was burnt in upon his brain. Had she met him now for the first time, and seen him as now he was, would she have loved him? Never; to think it was to rob her of woman's excellence. He had no one but himself to blame. He must bear it; go lower in her sight day after day, see her impatience grow, feel friendship wholly supplanting love, and fatigued endurance take the place of friendship. It was his fate; he was himself, and could not become another. . . .
Ah, he had indeed drunk too deeply of that magic water of the Knight's Well, the spring at her gates! One draught, and it would have sent him on his way refreshed. But the water was so insidiously sweet. . . .
He wrote her letters again, in which he spared neither reproach nor charge of cruelty. Isabel replied to him very shortly, but in pitying forbearance. At length she begged him earnestly to seek employment. He was undermining his health; it was imperative that he should apply his mind to some regular pursuit. Her he was making grievously unhappy; she would have to leave London. "Why, then, does she not?" he exclaimed angrily when he read this. "She knows it would be better for me." Another cause of complaint had grown up in his thoughts why had she never offered to come and see his sister? It would have been graceful, it would have been kind. But it would have been to commit herself too far, he reasoned. She was doing her best to show him in the gentlest way that the past must not be remembered too seriously. She never spoke now, never, of the day when she would become his wife. That was in any case at a year's distance. Another year! He laughed scornfully. In a year it would be as if they had never met.
"Isabel," he wrote to her one day, when memories had touched him, "I have given you all the love of which my soul is capable, and the soul of man never gave birth to more. I am weak and contemptible in your sight; it is because I faint for love of you. Oh, why have you stripped from my life every leaf and blossom, leaving only that red flower of passion which burns itself away? Every interest I once cherished has died in feeding this love. I cannot see the world around me; wherever I look there is your face, in thousandfold repetition, with every difference of expression I have ever beheld upon it. I see the first smile with which you greeted me - the first of all; I see the look in which your love dawned, the flush of rapture with which you listened to my earliest words of gratitude and devotion. I see you in your careless merriment, and in your pained coldness; I see you when you smile on others. I shall never know again that heaven of your unspoken tenderness, never, never! It was well that you made no vows to me; how well it is that you have seen my unworthiness before it was too late!"
She found that letter waiting for her when she reached home long after midnight, coming from a crowded scene, with laughter and music still ringing in her ears. Till her maid had left her she did not open it; it was with fear - as always of late - that she at length broke the envelope. She read, and tears filled her eyes. They came rushing, irresistible; she ceased from her endeavour to check them, and wept as she had not wept for long years. Through the dark hours she lay, with the letter in her hand, and only slept when morning was at her window.
She wrote, but did not ask him to come to her. . . .
Two occasions marked themselves afterwards in his memory. To lose himself for an hour he went one night to the theatre. It was now early in July; Isabel was staying in town longer than she had purposed. He reached a seat in the pit, and sat through a farce which he in vain tried to follow. Then he watched the people who were beginning to fill the stalls. Two ladies came forward; he thought he knew the first, and remembered Mrs. Stratton; behind her was Isabel, then a gentleman - Colonel Stratton, he supposed. She was exquisitely beautiful, dressed as he had never seen her; the lights flashed upon her; her face had its own radiance. He forced his way out of the crowd, and into the street. . . .
He called and asked for her, early one afternoon, and was told that she was not at home. Half-an-hour's wandering brought him, scarcely with purpose, back into the same street. From a distance he saw that her carriage was waiting before the door, and immediately she came out and entered it. He turned away with blackness before his eyes. . . .
He wrote and told her of that. "It is true, dear," she answered, "and you must not blame me. I was obliged to leave home early, and I knew that if I saw you for a moment it would only cause you worse trouble than to believe I was away. You oblige me to do such things as this; I dare not be quite frank with you as I wish to be; you often frighten me. There is nothing that I wish to hide from you on my own account. What should there be?"
And so the time wore on to the end of July. Poor Mary's existence had become one of ceaseless grief. Only two or three times had she ventured to entreat her brother to take her into his confidence, and let her share his trouble. He could not tell her the truth; it would have shamed him to open his heart even to her. He put it all on the troubles which were in the future, the impossibility of marrying whilst he remained penniless.
"And I am the cause of that," Mary said, in deep sorrow.
"You the cause? You misunderstand me entirely. It would have been precisely the same if the old state of things had remained unaltered. In any case I was penniless - from her point of view."
Mary could gather from the last words a sense he did not consciously put into them. She had her own explanation of her brother's dreadful state. Dreadful it was, no less. His face was wasted as if by consumption. He scarcely ate enough to support life. His sleeplessness had become a disease. He never smiled, and spoke for the most part in a weary, listless tone. Mary believed that there was death in his hands.
There came the day for leave-taking; he was to go to her - Isabel wrote - in the afternoon, and she would be at home to no one else.
"You are glad that I am going?" she said.
"Yes, I am glad. I had rather think of you among the fields."
"Ada is going with me, to stay for a week or two. She proposed it herself; I was surprised."
"But she had not left you finally?"
"I quite believed she had."
They talked without any kind of emotion, but each avoided the other's eyes. Kingcote had his usual look of illness and fatigue; Isabel was not without signs that the season had been a little too much for her strength.
"I am going to Scotland in a fortnight," she mentioned. "Of course you shall have my address. Then in October you will come down some day and see me, will you not?"
"It is better that I should promise nothing. I can't say where I may be in October."
"Always distrusting the future! I dare not do that. The future is my best friend."
"Doubtless!" he replied.
"And are not our futures one and the same, Bernard?"
"Let us say so, and think so if we can. But I know you have many things to occupy you. Let us say good-bye."
"I don't like that word. Au revoir is better."
"Why not good-bye? It only means 'God be with you.'"
"Does it? Then, good-bye!"
She offered her lips and he just touched them. Otherwise his self-torment would not have been complete.
Isabel and Ada were alone at Knightswell for a week. Though not in reality nearer to each other, their intercourse was easier than formerly, and chiefly owing to a change in Ada's manner. Her character seemed to be losing some of its angularities, she was less given to remarks of brusque originality, and entertained common subjects without scornful impatience. She had grown much older in the past six months. The two did not unduly tax each other's tolerance; during a great part of the day, indeed, they kept apart; but at meals and in the evenings they found topics for conversation. Ada was taking a holiday; she got as much fresh air as possible, and sketched a good deal.
"Ada, I don't think you have ever given me one of your sketches," Isabel said to her one evening, after praising a little water-colour drawn that day.
"Would you care for one?"
"Yes, I should."
"Any one in particular?"
"Let me see. Yes I should like the sketch you made of the cottage at Wood End. If you'll give it me I'll have it framed for the boudoir."
Ada kept her eyes fixed on the drawing she held.
She gazed directly at the speaker; Isabel met her look with steady countenance.
"You can have it; but it isn't one of my best," the girl said, still gazing.
"Never mind; it is the one I should like."
Ada went from the room, and brought back the drawing with her. She was looking at some pencilling on the back.
"Midsummer Day of last year," she said.
"I know," was Isabel's remark. "Thank you."
As she spoke, she moved nearer, and, as if at an impulse, kissed the giver. Ada reddened deeply, and almost immediately left the room again; nor did she return that evening.
On the morrow they met just as before.
At the end of that week the Strattons came to stay until Mrs. Clarendon's departure for Scotland, where she was to be the guest of friends. With the colonel and his wife came their eldest son, the young gentleman studying at Sandhurst. He had very much of his father's shyness, curiously imposed on a disposition fond of display. He liked to show his knowledge of the world, especially of its seamy sides and, though not a little afraid of her, sought Ada's society for the purpose of talking in a way which he deemed would be impressive to a girl. There was no harm in his rather simpleminded bravado, and Ada found a malicious pleasure in drawing him out. In her own mind she compared conversation with him to prodding the shallowness of a very muddy stream. Here the stick hit on an unexpected stone there it sank into ooze not easily fathomed; there again it came in contact with much unassimilated refuse, portions of which could be jerked up to the surface. With the others she seldom spoke, and Isabel also she had begun to avoid again. She took long walks, or read in the open air. Sketching for the present she seemed to have had enough of.
One morning in the second week, Robert Asquith joined the party. He came half-an-hour before luncheon. Isabel and Mrs. Stratton were on the lawn; after a little conversation, the latter moved towards the house.
"By-the-bye," Robert said, when he was alone with Isabel, "have you heard of the death of Sir Miles Lacour?"
"The death!" exclaimed Isabel. "Indeed I have not."
"He died last night, in London, after a week's illness. I heard it by chance at my club. They say it was the consequence of an accident on the ice last winter."
Isabel became thoughtful.
"Probably Miss Warren will hear of it very shortly," Asquith remarked.
"I don't know, I'm sure. I can't even say whether she is in communication with Mr. Lacour. But it does not concern us. You won't, of course, mention the news."
She spoke of it in private with Mrs. Stratton.
"Whatever the state of things may be," said the latter, "I don't see that this can alter it practically. The match becomes a respectable one, that's all. And he can't marry at once."
"Ada, in any case, won't marry till next June; I'm sure of that," said Isabel.
Nothing was said openly, nor did Ada appear to receive any news which affected her.
The heat of the weather was excessive; only the mildest kinds of recreation could be indulged in. In the afternoon there was much seeking for cool corners, and a favourite spot was that embowered portion of the shrubbery in which we first saw Isabel. Tea was brought here. Colonel Stratton lay on the grass, deep-contemplative; his wife read a novel; Robert Asquith smoked cigarettes, and was the chief talker. Sandhurst Stratton was in the stables, a favourite haunt, and Ada sat by herself in the library.
Robert talked of Smyrna, and developed projects for settling there, causing Mrs. Stratton every now and then to look up from her book and view him askance.
"By-the-bye," he said, "who knows a meritorious youth out of employment? An English friend of mine out there writes to ask me to find him a secretary, some one who knows French well, a man of good general education. Can you help me, colonel?"
"'Fraid not," murmured the one addressed, whose straw hat had slipped over his eyes.
"What salary does he offer?" inquired Isabel.
"A hundred and fifty pounds, and residence in his own house."
"Would he take me?" she asked, turning it into a jest.
The subject dropped; but on the following morning, as she was riding with her cousin, Isabel referred to it again.
"Is it the kind of thing," she asked, "that would suit Mr. Kingcote?"
"Kingcote?" He seemed to refresh his memory. "Does he want something of the sort?"
"A few weeks ago he did. I don't know that he would care to leave England; but I think it might be suggested to him," she added, patting her horse's neck. "He has a sister, a widow, with her two children dependent on him."
"But, in that case, so small a salary would be no use."
"I believe he has some small means of his own. If he were disposed to offer himself, would you give him your recommendation?"
"Certainly. If you recommend him it is quite enough."
"He lived some time on the Continent, and I am sure he would be suitable - unless any knowledge of business is required."
"None at all; purely private affairs."
"I should like to have a list," he said, looking at her with admiration, "of the people you have befriended in your life. Did you ever let one opportunity slip by?"
Isabel reddened, and did not speak.
"Yes, one," Robert added, bethinking himself.
"What do you refer to?" she asked, still in some confusion, variously caused.
"Myself. Shall we give them a canter?"
After luncheon, Isabel went to her boudoir and sat down at the little writing-table. The sun had been on the windows all the morning, and in spite of curtains the room was very hot; cut flowers surcharged the air with heavy sweetness. She put paper before her, but delayed the commencement of writing. A languor oppressed her; she played with the pen, and listened to the chirping of birds in the trees just outside the windows; there was no other sound.
"Dear, Bernard," she wrote; then paused, resting her head on her hands. Why should he not pass a year so? she was asking herself. The change would be the very thing for him in his deplorable state of mind. There was no harm in her mentioning it, at all events. His moods were impossible to be anticipated; he might be delighted with the chance of going to the East. And it might easily lead to something much better. He would never do anything whilst he remained in London - nothing but suffer. He looked so ill, poor fellow; he would fret himself to death if there came no change. Why not go to Smyrna for a year, until --
She took up her pen again, and at the same moment Mrs. Stratton entered the room.
"Oh, you are busy," she said.
"Do you want me?" Isabel asked, without turning.
"I was going to read you an account of Fred's last cricket-match; it's at full length in a paper I got this morning."
"Only five minutes; I have just to finish a note."
She wrote on.
This letter went into the post-bag, and Isabel only thought of it from time to time. On the following afternoon she was again in the arbour, and alone with Asquith. She had found him here talking to Ada, and the latter had subsequently left them.
"Miss Warren is - what shall I say? - considerably humanised since I last talked with her," Robert observed.
"I notice it."
When they had exchanged a few words, Isabel spoke of seeking the other people, and rose from her seat.
"Will you stay a minute?" he said, quite composedly.
She did not resume her seat, and did not reply.
"I said something in a jesting way yesterday, which I meant in earnest," Robert continued, leaning his elbow on a rustic table. "I thought of waiting another year before saying it, but a year after all is a good piece of life."
"Robert, don't say it!" she broke in. "I cannot answer as you wish me to, and - it is too painful. It was a jest, and nothing more."
He took her hand, and she allowed him to hold it.
"Very much more," he said, with earnestness which did not rob his voice of its pleasant tone. "I am disposed to think that everything has been a jest for a good many years, except that one hope. Do you mean that the hope must be vain?"
"My good, kind cousin! It is so hard to say it. I thought I had made it clear to you, that you understood."
"What should I have understood, Isabel?"
"That I am not free. I have given my promise."
He relinquished her hand, after pressing it, and said, with half a smile:
"Then I can only envy him, whoever he may be."
There was a motion behind the bushes, a rustling as of some one moving away. Robert looked round, but could see no one. Isabel hastily quitted him.
For a couple of days Kingcote had been too unwell to leave the house. For the most part he sat in his own room, with the windows darkened; his head was racked with pain. Mary's anxious pleading to be allowed to send for aid drove him to angry resistance. He could not talk with her, and could not bear to have her sitting by him in silence. He wished to be alone.
On the third morning he did not rise at the usual time; Mary went to his room and entered. Her coming woke him from a light slumber; he said he had been awake through the night, and felt as if now he could sleep. An hour later she returned, and again he woke.
"Has any letter come this morning?" he asked.
"Yes, there is one. I thought I had better leave it till --"
"Let me have it at once!" he exclaimed fretfully. "You should not have kept it."
There was fever on his lips, and his eyes had an alarming brightness. When Mary returned, he was sitting in expectation, and took the letter eagerly. She left the room as he began to read it.
It could not have been a quarter of an hour before Mary, who was just about to take up such breakfast as she thought he might accept, saw her brother descend the stairs.
"I have to go out," he said. "Give me a cup of tea; I want nothing more."
She turned into their sitting-room, and he followed her.
"But you mustn't go out, Bernard," she objected timidly, looking at him in distress. "You are not fit --"
"I have to go," he repeated, in a dogged manner. "Is there tea here? If you won't give me any I must go without it."
"But you are so ill, dear! Bernard, do, do wait till you are better! I cannot let you go out like this!"
He looked at her, and spoke with perfect calmness.
"I am not ill. My head is much better. I am going into the country, and it will do me good."
"Are you going to Knightswell?" she asked, laying a hand gently upon him.
"Yes, I am. She goes into Scotland tomorrow; I must see her before. I am dreadfully thirsty. Give me some tea, Mary, there's a good girl."
When she brought it from the kitchen, he had his hat in his hand. She in vain tried to persuade him to eat. He said he should have an appetite when he reached Winstoke. In a few minutes he was ready to start.
"I may be late back; don't trouble yourself about me."
"But I shall trouble dreadfully about you, Bernard; how can I help?"
But she was as helpless to prevent his going. He merely waved his hand, and hastened into the street.
He knew by heart all the trains by which he could reach Winstoke. One at twenty minutes to eleven he should not be able to catch, and the next was at five minutes past twelve; for that he had more than enough time. He loitered on till an omnibus should overtake him; fortunately the first that came was one which would carry him as far as Charing Cross. He sat through the journey with closed eyes; at every jolt of the vehicle it was as though a blow fell upon his aching brain. Alighting at Charing Cross, he proceeded to pass the river by the foot-bridge; the clock at Westminster told him that it was only half-past eleven. At one time he had never crossed this bridge without pausing to admire the fine view eastwards, the finest obtainable, from any point, of the City of London; the river winding on beneath many arches, the dome of St. Paul's crowning the hilly mass of edifices, and beyond it the dark-drifting vapours of the region of toil. Even now he leaned upon the parapet, but only to look down into the dull, gross, heavy-flowing stream. He took from his pocket the letter which he had received from Isabel, and tore it mechanically into small fragments; they fell from his hands, wavered downwards in the still, hot air, and made specks upon the water. Thames knows many such offerings.
Yet he had to wait at Waterloo, and the last few minutes were the most impatient. Then it seemed to him that he travelled for hours and hours. Constantly he looked at his watch; when it assured him that but a few minutes had passed, he examined it in the belief that it had stopped. With his impatience his fever grew. His brain throbbed to agony; he could not bear to look at the sunlight on the meadows.
There were two young people, a man and a girl, travelling with him for some distance; they seemed a couple recently wedded. It was holiday with them; they talked over what they would do at the place to which they were going, talked and laughed right joyfully. The sick man who sat opposite, perforce hearing and seeing their happiness, hated them as he had never hated mortal.
The end came. With difficulty he descended from the carriage; then drew back for a few moments under the shed of the station, to recover from his dizziness and shield his eyes against the light. In walking towards Knightswell the sun was full in his face; he held his hands clasped upon his brows as a shelter. Quicker and quicker he paced on; strangely, he could not feel the ground upon which he trod; he often stumbled.
It was not necessary to go round to the front gates. There was an entrance to the back of the park, and through this he passed. It led him into the garden by the rear of the shrubbery; to reach the house-door he would have to go past the arbour, where, at this. moment, Isabel and her cousin were together. He came near, and, through the leaves, saw them.
Isabel stood looking down at Asquith, who, holding her hands, seemed to speak affectionately. Kingcote did not watch them. He turned, pushed between boughs, and, without consciousness of purpose, went from the garden into the park again. . . .
He was standing by a great elm-tree, his arms hanging at his sides, his eyes fixed on the ground. He must have stood there long and unmoving, for a rabbit nibbled a few paces off. Presently the rabbit showed its white tail in flight. Kingcote saw a shadow move near to him; he looked up, and there was Ada Warren.
She uttered his name with surprise; then the sight of his face held her speechless. He seemed to recognise her, for a dreadful smile came to his lips; but, without speaking, he walked from the spot, shielding his eyes with one hand. Ada gazed after him for a moment, then hastened up to him again.
"Mr. Kingcote, are you ill? - can I help you?"
He smiled in the same way as before, and shook his head.
"No; you can't help me," he rather muttered than spoke, only half facing her.
"Are you going to London?"
"To London, yes," was his answer.
And he pursued his way. . . .
Ada went to the house. Mrs. Stratton was in the drawing-room.
"Can you tell me where Mrs. Clarendon is?" the girl asked of her.
"She has gone up to her room, Ada," was the reply. "Do you want her? She has a little headache, and meant to lie down for an hour."
"In that case I won't trouble her; it is nothing."
She wandered back into the park. Kingcote was long since out of sight. She went as far as the gate leading out into the road, and stood by it for a long time. . . .
He did not walk towards Winstoke station, but turned into a lane which would bring him to Salcot East. Going slowly at first, even standing still at times, his pace at length quickened, and before long he was walking at his utmost speed. Even thus, it took him an hour and a half to reach Salcot. He went straight to the post-office, which was also a shop where stationery and very various things were sold. Having purchased paper and a large envelope, he wrote this:
"I cannot please you by leaving England, but there are much simpler ways of giving you what you wish. I send your portrait. It is a long time since I have dared to look at it, and I cannot do so now. May you be happy!"
He enclosed Isabel's picture, without taking it from the envelope in which he always carried it about with him; then addressed the letter to her and posted it.
He walked towards the railway station. Ah, there was the inn at which he lost his purse; he stood and looked at it for a moment. He looked, too, towards the branching of the old and the new roads to Winstoke. He had chosen the old road that day; it was picturesque. Even so it looked now, descending into the hollows, leafy, grass-grown, peaceful. To what had it led him!
He found at the station that there would not be a train for nearly two hours. But he dreaded waiting; motion was imperative. He would walk back again to Winstoke station, by the way he had come, and catch the train there. His head did not ache so badly now. Though he had eaten nothing all day, hunger he felt none, but much thirst. He remembered a stream on the way, and, hastened that he might reach it.
The stream he had in view ran across the lane; he made his way into the field, lay down, and drank at a convenient spot. The water had an ill taste, or seemed to have, but it refreshed him. Still, he found it hard to rise again; a heaviness tempted him to rest here. His head lay upon his arm, and for a time he dozed.
Then up and on again, or he would miss the train. The last half-mile he walked by the railway. He was not yet in sight of the station when the train he had hoped to take came along. He watched it with a strange sort of indifference, as if incapable of the effort of feeling annoyed. Nothing greatly mattered, it seemed as if nothing henceforth would greatly matter. Still more singular, he found himself confused with the idea of the future, unable to make it a subject of conscious speculation. His mind was occupied with a fixed idea that his life had been, as it were, broken off short, and had a ragged edge; no forward continuity seemed possible.
It was a possession; he could not think of the details of his present, scarcely suffered from the thought of what he had done; his trouble took the shape of an intellectual difficulty. Wrestling with it he walked straight on, past the station, and in a direction away from Winstoke. His mental distress was the same in kind as that we experience when striving with wearied faculties to see clearly into a mathematical problem, a dogged exertion of the brain, painful, acharné, but accompanied with a terrible desolation of the heart. He would half forget what had brought him to this pass, and set to work to review events. There were no passionate outbreaks; a dead weight lay upon his emotions, and vitality was in the brain alone. He did not even pity himself; the calamity which crushed him was too vast.
He was conscious again of a torturing thirst, and the object of his progress became to discover a wayside inn where he might drink. He came to one at last, and entered it very much as any pedestrian might have done. What could they give him to drink? - he asked. Beer; no, for beer he had no palate. They had spirits. He diluted two half-tumblers, and drank them off in quick succession. A couple of men were talking in the parlour, discussing politics. One of them jocularly appealed to him, and he replied energetically, laying down the law on a subject which never occupied his thoughts, or had not done for years. Again he set forth, with understanding that he must make for Winstoke station. His limbs were of iron, he had not a sensation of weariness. The sun was no longer shining; there were clouds in the west, and the evening was drawing on. Again with dogged mental effort he clung to the fact that his end was Winstoke station; he did not question but that he was on the right road. On and on, and it grew dusk about him. Presently something shot painfully into his eyes; it was a flash of summer lightning; no thunder followed. He pressed his hands against his head, and moaned a little. The flashes became frequent, and then, of a sudden, the strength of his limbs failed him. He would have to rest, and the grassy edge of the road gave an opportunity. He lay down at full length, and hid his face; the lightning pained him too much.
It was as if he slept, but always with the weight of shapeless woe burdening his heart and brain. He turned at times, and knew that he was lying by the road-side, knew, too, that night was coming on, but was powerless to rise. He talked much and loud, inveighed with forceful bitterness against some one who had done him a wrong, vast and vague. If he could but get one hour's quiet sleep; and that cruel tormentor would not suffer him. . . .
The summer lightning ceased, and it grew very dark. Over the meadows swept a warm wind, bearing mysterious voices, wafting sobs and sighs. Then a cloud broke, and rain began to fall. . . .
That night Mary sat long after every one else in the house had gone to rest. Till eleven o'clock she was only in a vague uneasiness, an anxious expectation of her brother's return; when midnight came her fears were excited. She constantly opened her window and looked up and down the street. It had rained since evening, and the street lamps shimmered drearily on the wet pavement. It grew too late to hope for his return.
It was easy to find plausible explanations of his absence, if only they could have given her genuine comfort. What more simple than that Bernard should have remained for the night either in Mrs. Clarendon's house, or with his friend the rector, of whom she had heard so much? Possibly there might not be a telegraph-office near enough to allow of his relieving her by a message, as he assuredly would wish to do. Her reason listened, but she could not overcome the presage of evil which had lurked in her heart since he left home. He was utterly unfit to take such a journey; his condition, she knew, was graver than he had been willing to admit. If illness prostrated him somewhere, quite away from friends, what would become of him? She could not try to sleep. The misery of suspense was scarcely to be borne.
She rose at a very early hour, and tried to occupy herself till the arrival of the post; if all were well, she could not but have a line of explanation. He had spoken of possibly being late, but not of remaining away all night; it would be cruelty most unlike him if he had not anticipated her anxiety. But the postman came and for her brought nothing. With difficulty she discharged her morning duties to the children. The trial was harder to bear because of her loneliness. The engraver and his wife from whom their rooms were rented, belonged to a decent class of people, but Kingcote had uniformly discouraged anything like intimacy with them. Mary could not relieve her mind with interchange of suggestion and encouragement. When the children had gone to school, she sat at the open window, watching the end of the street with painful intentness. Often she deceived herself into a belief that she had caught sight of him, but a moment undid her hope.
What should she do if he neither came nor sent news of himself? There was but one source of help; she must write to Mrs. Clarendon. Only the extremest need could justify that; but what point was to be the limit of her endurance? She dare not wait for day after day to pass. One day she must live through, with what strength she might be able to summon. If he still remained silent, evil had surely befallen him.
It was about three o'clock in the afternoon, when, still looking from the window, she saw a policeman pause before the house, and ring the bell. Any unknown visitor would have filled her with apprehension; the sight of this one shook her with terror. She could not let any one else go to the door, it was so certain that the visit must be for her. It did not seem by her own strength that she reached the foot of the stairs; she opened, and stood for an instant in fearful waiting.
The constable made inquiry if any person of the name of Kingcote was known in the house.
"Yes. I am his sister."
"We have received information," the man continued, "that a Mr. B. Kingcote has been brought to the hospital at Lindow, in --shire, in an insensible state, and lies there very ill."
He showed her a telegram from the police-station in the town of Lindow. She looked at it, but could not read.
"May I keep this?" she asked.
He allowed her to do so, and, after naming the line of railway by which Lindow could be reached, took his departure with constabulary tramp.
Mary had to act, and she found the strength. She went to her landlady, communicated in part the news she had received, and begged that the children might be cared for in case she should have to be absent through the night. The charge was readily undertaken. Then she took a cab and drove to Gabriel's lodgings. This was the only friend whose aid she could seek. Gabriel put himself at her disposal immediately, discovered the first train to Lindow, and, better still, offered to accompany her.
"Is it far?" Mary asked, moved to her first tears by the blessed relief of a friend's helpful presence.
"A journey of two hours and a quarter," Gabriel replied. "We shall be there a little after six."
They had not too much time to reach Waterloo Station, even with the aid of a cab.
"What on earth does this mean?" Gabriel asked as they went along.
"He left home yesterday very ill," she answered, "to go to - to Winstoke, to see friends."
"What friends?" asked the artist, with his natural abruptness. "Why did he go when he was ill?"
Mary professed that she knew nothing certainly, and after that they scarcely exchanged half-a-dozen words all the way to their destination. Lindow is some ten miles nearer to London than Winstoke, a flourishing market-town. They had no difficulty in finding the hospital; it was a very new building in the centre of the town. The house-surgeon came to them in the waiting-room; a young-looking man, with an apparent difficulty in suppressing native high spirits; he seemed often on the point of chuckling as he talked with them. The information he had to give amounted to this: Kingcote had been found early in the morning lying by the road-side a mile out of the town, and found, as good luck would have it, by a doctor, who was driving past. The respectable attire of the prostrate man had naturally invited close inspection, with the result that he was discovered to be in a state of coma. The night-long rain had completely soaked his garments. Robbery with violence had at the first glance suggested itself; but on examination, watch and purse was found untouched. He was carried straightway to the hospital. A letter in his pocket had disclosed his name and address, and the police had been communicated with. He lay at present in high fever; there had been as yet no return of consciousness.
The house-surgeon proceeded to interrogations, several of them so obviously needless that Gabriel made decisive interposal.
"The facts seem to be these," he said at length: "Our friend, Mr. Kingcote, left London yesterday morning to see friends in Winstoke. The need being urgent, he set forth in an unfit state, having suffered for two or three days from severe headache and feverish symptoms. He had, Mrs. Jalland tells us, experienced a good deal of mental trouble for some time. I suppose we may take it for granted that he, for some reason or other, tried to walk to your town here, and failed by the way."
The medical man gave a somewhat grudging assent to these propositions, as probably true. Mary, at her pressing wish, was then permitted to see her brother. The doctor could not tell her as yet whether or not the fever was infectious; mindful of her children, she kept at some distance from the bedside. Poor Kingcote lay in a sad state. There was no intelligence in his wide eyes; he muttered incessantly.
"My proposal is this," said Gabriel, when she returned to him in the waiting-room, "you had better take a lodging in the town, and I will fetch the children to you. Can they be left where they are over night?"
They could; so Gabriel would bring them in the morning. The house-surgeon was able to suggest a likely quarter for finding lodgings, and Mary rested at the hospital - subject to much interrogation - whilst her friend sought and discovered a suitable abode.
He saw her installed, said what he could in the way of encouragement, and took train back to London.
Mary continued to live in the town of Lindow for several weeks. The night of exposure had brought upon Kingcote a complication of ills; his life was in the balance. It was something for Mary to have her children with her, yet as often as not the sight of them was an added misery. What would become of her and of them if Bernard died? Kingcote was a frail reed to represent the support in life of any mortal. It was anything but clear how, if he lived, the responsibilities which had come upon him would be discharged. But his sister had all the shrinking from the world's demands which marked Kingcote himself, heightened by the sensibilities and incapacity of a gently-nurtured woman. He was her only stay. Her gratitude to him was very deep, and it had grown of late to a sisterly love which she had not known in earlier days.
Gabriel came from London once a week, after bringing the children. That morning he also brought a letter which had arrived for Kingcote. Mary saw that it was from Mrs. Clarendon; she put it away. At first she was much troubled with doubt whether it was her duty to send Mrs. Clarendon news of what had happened; she determined ultimately to wait and see if other letters came for her brother. But that which she kept had no successor. The fact strengthened a suspicion she had conceived, and she sent no news to Knightswell. . . .
The return to London was scarcely a cheerful home-coming. Kingcote, still feeble, very seldom spoke; after the first natural questions, when he entered upon convalescence, he was possessed by muteness; no interests reawoke in him; he watched his fraction of the world without curiosity, and, beyond a pressure given to Mary's hand from time to time, gave no sign that others' presence had significance for him. His catastrophe he briefly explained exactly as Gabriel had done. Already they had reached home, and he had not as much as asked if letters awaited him.
Mary determined to wait a few days before she gave him the letter which was in her possession; she feared for the result it might have upon him. Yet, on the other hand, it might be that to withhold it was an unwise thing. The contents of this letter she felt that she knew; what she could not know was how far her brother was prepared for them. But his very silence was significant; he expected nothing from Knightswell.
His health established itself day by day; of that there was, happily, every assurance. Yet he could not interest himself in anything. His mind was much like that of a child when it is weary. He would sit in his chair and watch what went on about him; even to read demanded too much exertion. She read to him for several hours daily, and he listened, or seemed to. At length Mary persuaded herself that to speak with him freely might perchance be the best course. She began to do so one day when she had been reading aloud.
"Bernard, can you remember all that happened on the day when you went to Winstoke?"
"Remember? Certainly; everything, till I lost my senses in walking along the roads."
"Did you go to Knightswell?"
He replied in the affirmative, without constraint.
"And did you see Isabel?"
"I saw Mrs. Clarendon."
It was a correction, but with no remarkable emphasis.
"Have you not expected to hear from her?"
He looked at her with more interest, but replied without emotion:
"No, I have not."
Then he asked calmly: "Is there any letter?"
"Yes, there is one. It came the second day after you left London."
"I will have it, please."
Mary had the letter by her in readiness, and, having given it him, left the room.
Kingcote examined the envelope deliberately, and opened it with equal deliberation. He read this:
He sat for a while musing, then went up to his own room. He walked up and down with the letter in his hands; at length, as if unwillingly, he destroyed it. When he had done so, he unlocked a drawer, and took out a collection of letters, all from Isabel. One of them he held to the paper still burning in the fireplace, then threw the others, one by one, upon the flame. As he watched the last sparks flicker, he was overcome with a rush of tears. He covered his face with his hands, and stood weeping.
There was a change in him after that day. He walked for several hours each morning, and the rest of his time gave to new books, which he got from a library. His own volumes did not attract him; he read simply with the pleasure in novelty, which is as far as most people ever get to in the matter of reading. His mind appeared to be quite calm, and in the evenings he spoke freely with his sister. By degrees the question of what he should do for a living actively occupied him. He answered advertisements persistently, and received no replies; that, circumstances considered, was in the order of things. The world has no place for a man who is possessed merely of general intelligence and a fair amount of reading. No one will take him on trust or on trial. There must be specific capacity, estimable in terms of the ledger. Lacking this, and lacking the aid of influential friends, a man may starve - or there is the workhouse. What would you have? We are civilised, and enjoy the blessings of a social order.
Kingcote believed that Mr. Meres might have helped him, but in that quarter he could not apply. Gabriel was his only friend; Mr. Vissian, though correspondence with him continued, could scarcely be counted. But neither had Gabriel any practical suggestions to offer. He always talked of literary work, and literary work Kingcote could not undertake; it was perhaps his one note of actual wisdom, that he recognised his unfitness for earning money by the pen, and did not waste time in efforts that way. He was prepared, he said, to do anything that promised an income whereon he and his sister could live. Were it manual labour, well and good; were it the basest of clerkships, equally well.
"I have a need of work," he said to Gabriel, one day about Christmas time. "It is getting to be a physical need. I must do something which calls for exertion. Do you know that I am at present exactly in the state which leads men to any kind of dissipation, which tests their character. If I had not my home and my sister, I should fall into the gulf by the edge of which walk such men as I am. And, if I fell, there would be no ascent to the light."
"In other words, you are nursing your weakness," said Gabriel unsympathetically. He was seldom sympathetic. It may have been as a tonic that Kingcote relished his society. "I perfectly believe what you say; you are capable of going to the devil. But remember that other people cannot devote themselves to hanging on at your coat-tails; you must put the drag on yourself."
Gabriel always worked during their sittings together; idleness was abhorrent to him.
"I," he went on, throwing himself back in his chair, "should have had as natural an alacrity in going to the devil as any man. I was made for it. I am by nature the most indolent fellow alive. I fight it, and I shall go on fighting."
It was stimulating, but without practical direction; nor was the artist to blame for this. Kingcote was not adapted for any one of the plain categories of money-earning labour. Only the benevolence of fate could come to his aid.
He was a sad man to regard in these days. Seldom or never came a smile to his face; the springs of his natural vivacity seemed broken. He was not consciously melancholy, but then he did not give himself opportunities of brooding. The character of his countenance was a complete hopelessness; there was no forward-looking, no gleam of the joy of living. Anxiety gained upon him as the months succeeded each other, and when he was actively anxious his face had a look of age, which was more painful to observe than the passionate misery of youth. He often said that he felt he had lived his life, and that was indeed the impression his habitual look conveyed. When he turned back to the past, he saw hills and valleys; henceforth his path was on a dull plain, with the latter darkness upon the horizon. Formerly, when he said in conversation that he had come to know himself, and that he acquiesced in his inefficiency, it was always with the pleasurable expectation of being contradicted; there was a youthful insincerity in his confession. At present he made no such statements, as a general thing, and for the melancholy reason that they would no longer have been insincere; he believed in truth that his character was an inefficient one. He had not an ambition left. He had no passion left, which was worse.
He did at times think of Isabel, and with strange coldness. He had lost the power of realising her to his mind's eye; she was more of an abstraction than a living woman. In certain moods there came to him the temptation to dwell upon those tenderest memories, to try and hear the voice which had once haunted him only too persistently, to see her face as a living thing. He could not; her very features escaped him, when he closed his eyes to fix them on the darkness. It was all so remote, that happiness and suffering; it affected him only as would the poet's telling of a sweet and sad story. Anger he felt himself still capable of, had he allowed himself to indulge in it. What he had seen in the arbour at Knightswell could still be a source of indignation. That last letter she wrote in ignorance of his having seen her then; and it was a false letter. He accused her of paltry insincerity. That was why he had at once burnt all her other letters; and the tears he had shed were not so much on his own account as of regret for the vanished image of her nobleness and truth. Noble he had tried to think her, in the face of all he knew about her past; but it was all illusion, wrought in him by her beauty. Her love was her vanity. She liked to make slaves of men, and her coldness would preserve her independence to the end. That letter, she thought, would bring him back to her feet; so noble it seems to forgive. It was her better self that dictated the attempt to send him abroad; having won her rich cousin, who freed her from fear of the future. She meant for a moment to act honourably, and dismiss the lover who had nothing to give her. When he took her at her word, the woman's instinct overcame her; she could not wholly lose her plaything. Nay, she was piqued that he broke so easily; she would have had a passionate scene, reproaches, entreaties - such as he, poor wretch, excelled in. There should be punishment for his literalness. . . .
It was in this way that he reasoned of Isabel. He entertained no doubt of his interpretations. This view of her character became fixed; and it made his heart as cold and heavy as a stone within his breast.
There was more truth in the words he spoke to his sister as they sat together late on New Year's Eve. Mary had not mentioned Isabel or Knightswell since she gave him the last letter, and he himself only now broke silence. He had closed his book, and was thoughtful for some minutes, then said:
"Mary, we will never speak of the things that have happened in this past year. I dare say you feel as if I were your debtor for a story, but the story is too simple to tell; you must have gathered it for yourself from what you have seen and heard."
"I would not ask you to speak of what pains you, Bernard," she replied.
"I scarcely think it does any longer pain me. There are some things," he added, after a pause, "which, however possible in themselves, the world agrees to make impossible in practice. My story is one of these cases. We forgot the world, or thought we were strong enough to overcome it. But" - he laughed - "it is the latter end of the nineteenth century."
Mary was not satisfied, naturally; but she only sighed, saying: "You have suffered so much, dear!"
"Yes, but what else are we born for?"
This evening they were to have had Gabriel with them, but the day before he had been called away to Norwich. A telegram came to him, saying that his father was dead; the old man had been killed in a couple of days by bronchitis. For the past half-year there had been communication between father and son. The bookseller was alone in his old age; a sister who had kept his house for many years was dead, and he had no near relatives to take her place. He wished to see his son, and the artist had promised to go to Norwich early in the new year. The journey had to be taken sooner.
Within a week Kingcote received a note, asking him to go to his friend's studio. Gabriel was at work as usual. There was no need for hypocritical words on one side or the other; Gabriel pointed in silence to a chair, and talked for five minutes of an artist whose works were then on exhibition at Burlington house.
"My father seems to have left no will. But his affairs are in order, and I shall be a good deal better off than I was. In fact, the business has been profitable. No doubt his successor will continue to find it so."
"Who succeeds him?"
"I don't know."
He mixed colours on his pallet.
"The shop, and the house above it, were his freehold property; they belong, of course, to me. There is a good deal of stock, and there is an assistant who has been in the shop nine years. The immediate capital required to carry on the business will be next to nothing."
Kingcote was silent, and moved uneasily on his chair. The artist worked for a few minutes, then, turning suddenly round:
"Well, what do you say?"
"You surely don't mean --?"
"Certainly not, if it disagrees with you. Let us talk of something else."
Kingcote's face was gloomy, but at length he broke into a laugh.
"The idea is amazing!" he exclaimed. "And it really occurred to you that I should be capable of conducting a business?"
"Yes, it occurred to me," admitted Gabriel, in his unsmiling way. "There are many more disagreeable ways of getting a living. I went so far as to think that the chance savoured of the providential."
"But, my good friend, supposing for a moment that I were at all fitted for such things" - the touch of depreciation was involuntary - "how would it be possible for me to take over your father's business? What securities can I give you? What --"
Gabriel checked him with a peculiar look, very nearly a smile.
"You are giving yourself a testimonial. I scarcely credited you with such business faculty."
"Any man is aware that he cannot take a flourishing concern as a gift," said Kingcote, with a little annoyance.
"Please to remember," Gabriel remarked, "that I am an artist, and that you have certain pretensions to culture. I did not imagine that we ever talked on any other basis."
He painted on.
"Is that man in the shop to be depended on?" was Kingcote's next question. He had thrust his hands into his trouser-pockets, and was swaying one foot up and down, looking at the ground.
"Entirely. A first-rate man of business, and on the whole a gentleman; I have been at much trouble to get to know him."
Kingcote rose, and walked about the studio. He smiled frequently, though there was a twitching in his lips to show that his thoughts had their prickly points.
"If I am to be a man of business," he said at length, "I must accept the responsibilities of one from the first. Let me be bound by conditions you would lay upon a stranger, whom for some reason you were trusting rather liberally, and - I will go to Norwich."
The artist smiled, but did not look from his canvas.
"Your sister would have no objection?"
"I can foresee none. Rather the contrary, I should say."
"In that case, will you go down with me to-morrow?"
Kingcote walked home in a singular mood. He was glad, but without rejoicing; he was mortified, but without pain. It was done. His life had fallen from insubstantial cloud-heights to the lower level, to which fate had foredoomed it. To this end he had been travelling by how indirect a way! He began with thoughts of glory; he would finish his career as a shop-keeper. The sting was in the fact that he acknowledged the justice of Gabriel's estimate of him. Of himself he could never have taken this step, however ready for it he might declare himself to be; a push by a friendly hand, and he yielded with a sense of relief. Behind the counter at Norwich, he would not be out of his place. He could not make books, but he might very well sell them; he could foresee a pleasure in the pursuit. The life would be restful. To dwell once more in his native town would make a continuity between his boyhood and his maturity; all between was air-building and moonshine. A few of those people whom he used to know would still be living; perhaps it would cost him a twinge or two to put up his name over the shop, and invite the attention of all who remembered it; but a week of custom - in both senses of the word - would put an end to sentimental difficulties. And at length he would rest. His business would probably continue to flourish; in a few years he might achieve independence. He might marry, children would sit upon his knee. . . .
Mary listened with wonder, in the end with extreme happiness. He told her in the quietest way; it was not a future to excite enthusiasm, even had he been capable of it in any cause. To her, poor woman, it was admission to Elysian fields. This terrible London would be left behind, and with it her unceasing fears. Her children would be brought up in comfort, and enter naturally upon decent walks of life. The thought that it was the end of all her brother's hopes could not long dwell with her; he and she were safe. What more can one ask, when the world is over-full, and every day the internecine war grows deadlier?
Mrs. Clarendon did not hunt the next winter.
Her sojourn with her friends in Scotland was to have been for six weeks, but the end of a little more than half that time saw her back at Knightswell. She returned in uncertain health, and a very dull, wet autumn aided in depressing her spirits. Throughout September she lived almost alone; then, at the impulse of a moment, she set off for Chislehurst, and presented herself quite unexpectedly at the Strattons', where she dwelt till November was half spent. For a week after her arrival, she was so unwell that she had to keep her room.
It was the termination of a serious attempt to live by herself. Since receiving and answering Kingcote's last letter (it came to her on the morning of her departure for Scotland, and in hurriedly opening the envelope she had not even noticed that the post-mark was not of London), she had been in ceaseless nervousness of anticipation; that Kingcote would maintain silence, she could not believe. By every post she expected a letter, in which he would once more overwhelm himself with reproaches, and implore the continuance of her love. She could not have said, she did not in truth know, whether she hoped for such a letter; that she feared it was no proof of the contrary. In Scotland, the feeling of her distance from London was a trouble, growing day by day. That she should seem to be enjoying herself at such a time was an injustice to herself; enjoyment she had none. Apprehensions lay upon her in the night-time. Was he not capable of doing rash things in such a crisis of his life? Not seldom she rose with her eyelids swollen; Isabel wept more in three days than in all her life before. Of mere woman's resentment she felt nothing, for the accusation with which she visited herself was sincere and constant. At length she could not bear her remoteness, and, in her journey to the south, purposes the most various strove for the conduct of her mind. She reached Knightswell with a resolve to proceed on the following day to London.
It was not the anxiety and impatience of love; she knew it, and did not endeavour to deceive herself. But she suffered keenly in the thought of having inflicted pain. It was rather late, one may hint, to experience the reality of trouble on this score; but do not be unjust to her. When she went to London at the beginning of the season, it was in the full expectation that Kingcote would be part of her world; it had been her intention to introduce him to the more intimate of her friends, and little by little to allow people to surmise the situation. The dream of breaking wholly with her past was already forgotten; Isabel did not lack sincerity of thought, and she knew that the projects she had at first entertained were impossible. Their marriage must be planned in a more practical way; let details be left for the future, but an essential was that Kingcote should understand the kind of life which custom had made her second nature, and should adapt himself to it. She could see nothing unreasonable in this, nothing too exigent. Quite failing of insight into his modes of thought and the peculiarities of his character, she believed that it lay with her to draw him forth from his unwholesome retirement, and to accustom him to a measure of social activity which could not interfere with his favourite pursuits, and might very well lead to something - that vague something which she kept well away on the horizon of her speculations, the indispensable help which good fortune would provide. This plan had lamentably fallen through; Kingcote would not adapt himself to the situation. There followed in her mind some irritation; she thought him unjust to her. Conscious of her perfect faithfulness in word and deed, she could not understand his frantic jealousy. It was something, she said to herself, that would pass; both for his sake and her own she must hold on her way, and he would overcome his weakness. Oh, if he had not been so weak! Had he but been led by his jealousy to take a strong attitude; had he, when she gave him the chance, bidden her return to Knightswell; she could have subdued her will to his, and love would have been strengthened by the act of obedience. He would do neither one thing nor another; it was she who must be strong. The prolongation of her stay in London was partly due to her lingering hope that he would still take the rational view of things, though in part it arose from a slight perversity excited by his behaviour. He accused her daily, he put her in the wrong, and she felt that it was neither just nor generous in him to do so.
She went from London with an unsettled mind, but with a distinct sense of relief. She had come to dread his visits, and to fear the letters he wrote her. She promised herself to think it all over whilst in Scotland. The idea of frankly admitting to Mrs. Stratton the nature of her interest in Kingcote, that together with her some plan might be contrived for obtaining him a reputable position, was just now uppermost in her mind. Then came Asquith's mention of the secretaryship in Smyrna. We have seen in what mood she wrote to Kingcote. His interpretation of her letter was unjust, for Isabel had not consciously the thought which he attributed to her. Yet she wrote it, and certainly would not have done so four months ago.
Now she suffered in the feeling that she had inflicted pain. She remembered his face when she parted with him - its worn and haggard look. With all her soul she tried to yearn towards him as she had in those winter days at Chislehurst, when the flame of her love was new-kindled, and each letter that came from him was fuel of passion. That was what made her weep - the misery of knowing that her heart did not live as for a short space it had done, the sadness of a death within her. Was he less lovable than when first she knew him? Tears came for an answer; they meant that she did indeed think him so. But the loss, the loss! She had let slip from her hand something which had been like a gift from heaven. The loss was one that would affect the whole of the life that lay before her.
The last of her youth was gone.
Coming from Scotland, she reached Knightswell late in the evening; she gave orders that preparations should be made for a journey to London the first thing next morning. At the last moment that journey was postponed. It rained heavily; she made it her excuse. Then, in her changing purposes, another plan seemed better. She would live at Knightswell in complete isolation. Solitude would make him an ever-present need; her heart would soften to the old tenderness; at the end of the year she would write to him, tell him how she had spent her time, bid him come to her. She began a diary, in which she would set down her thoughts of him daily; this she would send. But when a week had passed she no longer wrote in the pages of the book; on the last which her pen touched there were marks of tears. . . .
The visit at Chislehurst restored her health, and shortly after her return to Knightswell friends came to stay with her. Parties succeeded each other through the winter; she would not hunt - she did not clearly know why - but her stables were used by those who did. When, at the end of February, she was a whole week without guests, an uneasy loneliness possessed her.
Mr. Vissian visited her during that week. In September, that dread month of solitude, she had asked him if he had news from Mr. Kingcote; but the rector had then heard nothing. He was now, however, in a position to answer more satisfactorily, when she again asked the question. It was late in the afternoon; they were by the fire in the drawing-room, drinking tea.
"Kingcote? Oh, yes!" said Mr. Vissian. "He has gone to live in Norwich. I thought I should never hear from him again; but I find he has been seriously ill."
"Ill?" Isabel asked, not immediately. "Is that lately?"
"He speaks of the end of last year; a bad fever of some kind, which nearly ended his days - those are his words."
She murmured an "Indeed!" and looked at the fire.
"What is he doing in Norwich?" was her next question.
"Well, I was somewhat surprised to hear that he has turned bookseller, has a shop there."
Isabel looked at him without astonishment, but rather as if she were reflecting on what he had told her.
"He writes in a melancholy way," the rector pursued. "Circumstances have urged him to this step, it seems. I fear he will find business, even that of a bookseller, very uncongenial. He is a man of singular delicacy of temperament; quite unfitted to face practical troubles, I should say. Possibly you know that he has relatives dependent upon him."
"Yes, I know," Isabel answered mechanically.
When the rector went, she sat till dinnertime thinking. Whatever her thoughts were, they only ended in a sigh.
More visitors, then the season once more at hand. At hand, too, the month of June - but of that she had resolved not to think. Not till the very day came would she turn a thought to the future.
Kingcote was not in London. She was glad of that; otherwise she would have gone up with a troublesome nervousness.
Vincent Lacour - now Sir Vincent - had a letter to answer. It was the end of May, and his time was much taken up. A young and handsome baronet, of manner which many people held fascinating, of curious originality in drawing-room conversation, possessed of a considerable fortune, and without encumbrances - it was natural that he should be in request when mornings were too short for the round of seasonable pleasures, and nights were melodious with the strains of Strauss and Waldteufel. For full four days he had postponed the answering of this particular letter, and mentally he characterised the neglect as disgraceful. However, a Certain event had just come to pass, which made discharge of the duty imperative. He dined at his club, and there penned his reply. Afterwards he had a ball to go to.
It concerns us to know what he wrote:
"My DEAR Miss WARREN,
Vincent paused at this point: "I'm hanged if I couldn't write a book," he said to himself. "Well turned, those sentences, and they come so easy. I dare say the Amontillado has something to do with it."
"I can well understand a certain delicacy which has kept you silent so long; perhaps my last letter erred in the same direction, and you took for coldness what was merely an ill expression of my deep respect. You ask me now in what light I regard our relations to each other. Shall I answer that I have no will but yours, and that you have not mis-estimated me in conveying so delicately the wish you are too generous to express as a demand? Circumstances have treated us cruelly; to whom are not circumstances cruel at one time or another? Our misfortune is that they have declared themselves hostile in a matter of the gravest moment. Which of us could say what utterance on either side, what instant in our relations, had the influence we both feel to have been so fatal? My life has been an unhappy one; your letter makes it clear to me that I must go my way with one more sad, the saddest, memory. I cannot reproach myself; it is still less possible to reproach you. There is a fate in these things; you feel it yourself. I wish my loss were no heavier than your own. I never was worthy of you, and of that you must be conscious. I may have abilities, but they are very poor compared with yours, and, such as they are, I have made a poor use of them. That you should desire to be free from the bonds, which, you so nobly say, you still deem binding, is only natural; you deserve, and will win, devotion of a higher kind than my nature is capable of. In plain English, I am a sorry fellow. You know it. Let us say no more."
At this point he made no internal comment, but hurried on to the end.
"Some day we shall, I trust, meet as friends; that is a privilege I shall covet. I am not incapable of appreciating high things, whether in character or in art. I think of you with reverence. Perhaps you will come to think, at all events, with tolerant kindness, of
"Yours very sincerely,
A couple of hours later he went to a ball given by his friends, the Hagworth Lewinsons, at their house in Cromwell Road. Mr. Lewinson had formerly held a position in the Queensland Mint; he was now a member of Parliament, with a specialty in matters concerning currency, his own practical dealings therewith being on a substantial scale. He had one fair daughter and no more; Miss Lewinson was beautiful, and not more insipid than it generally falls to the lot of beautiful girls to be. To this young lady, Vincent Lacour had, a day or two ago, offered himself as a husband. To-night he appeared in the capacity of accepted suitor. Society inspected the two as they stood together, and discussed them with Society's freedom; a coming marriage is so obviously a fit subject for light and frivolous chat. One circumstance was highly amusing; the bride-elect had a pronounced turn for jealousy, and did not conceal as well as she might have done, her anxiety to keep Sir Vincent well within view. There were not wanting ladies who remarked that Lady Lacour would have a busy time of it.
Vincent managed to sit out during one dance in which Miss Lewinson was engaged. He was looking rather absently at the couples when Mrs. Bruce Page placed herself beside him.
"Ah, you here?" he exclaimed, with something less than his usual politeness.
"Aren't we going to be friends again?" said the vivacious lady, casting her eyes about her.
"I didn't know we were anything else," said Lacour drily.
"You always take it for granted that you are forgiven. And is this true that I hear?"
"You must hear so many things."
"I do," was the pithy reply. "But of course you know what I mean. When, pray, did you get rid of poor A. W.?"
The music was loud, but there were people sitting very near, and Mrs. Bruce Page had a habit of referring to her acquaintances thus cautiously. She allowed herself the solecism, as she allowed herself sundry other freedoms which had got her a worse name than she deserved.
"I don't think we need talk of such things," said Vincent coolly. "You are abundantly gifted with imagination. It will supply your needs in conversation for the next few days."
"You are monstrously unkind," she said, in a lower voice, and with a manner which would imply to observers that she was saying the most indifferent things. "If I liked to talk, now - but I won't betray you. You might tell me all about it in return."
"There is nothing to tell. Engagements are broken off every day."
"True. A pity the practice isn't more extensive. I suppose she got tired of you? You were too conceited for her?"
"We'll say so," conceded Vincent, more good-humouredly.
"Then it was her doing?"
"You are impertinent, but I don't mind telling you that it was."
"Oh, what a frank boy! There was no reason on your side for - drawing back a little, eh? waiting to see what time would bring, eh?"
"Your insinuations are best not understood."
"It didn't by chance occur to you that - let us say, that A. W. might not in the end prove what she seemed?"
Vincent looked at her out of the corners of his eyes.
"There was nobody, I suppose, interested in hinting that perhaps the will --? You understand?"
"Look here, what do you mean?" he asked, thoroughly roused.
"Nothing. I only thought that perhaps some one might, in some way or other - let us say by an anonymous letter --"
She was off to another part of the room before he could detain her, though he even clutched at her dress; her mocking laughter was quite distinct through the music.
"That woman's the very devil!" was Sir Vincent's muttered exclamation. . . .
From the ball-room to the gardens and sunny glades of Knightswell. Ada went thither the day after she received Lacour's letter, purposing a week of solitude. Mrs. Clarendon was tasting the sweets of the season in her wonted way, and the girl had Knightswell to herself. She enjoyed it. Up but little later than the sun, she went to see the rabbits at their dewy breakfast in the park, and to hear the thrushes pipe their morning rapture. And she, too, sang out loud in the joy of her youth, and health, and freedom, in the delight of things achieved, and in glorious anticipation of effort that lay before her. Her spirits were as the weather, sunny, fresh, unclouded. Dark moods had fled from the strong and gracious presence which thrived in her heart. She knew delight. The current of her blood was for the time cool and even-flowing. Life would not bring her many days like these, so free from regret and from desire; that she knew well, and ate the golden fruit of the present with unabated joy.
There were changes in her face. The harshness of her features was softening by some mysterious outward working of the soul within. If she lived another five years, that which had made her plain by over-emphasis of individuality would have become the principle of a noble type of beauty. She was not unconscious of it, and it contributed to her energy of hope. Face would ally itself with form; her body had strength and graceful ease of motion; the moulding of her limbs was ideal. Every drop of the blood in her veins was charged with health. The physical sufferings which had formerly assailed her, she seemed to have outgrown. Passion slept, but only to arise with new force; the heart would not always lie in subjection to the mind.
A walk one day brought her back from Salcot by the old road. When she came to the Cottage at Wood End, she paused to view it. A labourer's family lived there now, and there were two children playing by the oak trunk. As she stood the cottage-door opened, and Mr. Vissian came forth.
He raised his eyes and saw her; she met him half-way, and greeted him with a frank friendliness which he did not look for.
"Mrs. Vissian and myself were about to call on you," the rector said, with a little embarrassment. "I am rejoiced to see you looking so well, Miss Warren."
"You have been making a pastoral visit?" Ada remarked, as they walked on together.
"Yes. I dare say I come here rather oftener than I should in the natural course of things, owing to my associations with the place. My good friend Kingcote used to live here. I believe you met him once or twice at Knightswell?"
"Oh yes, and in London, at a friend's house."
"It was a loss to me when he went away, a serious loss. I am doing my utmost to persuade him to come over and spend a week with me, but he won't promise. We had a surprising similarity of tastes. He enjoyed the old dramatists, who, I think, you know are my favourite study."
"Does he live in London?"
"No. In Norwich. It is his native town."
Mr. Vissian, ever discreet, made no mention of his friend's pursuits.
"Really, Miss Warren," he continued, "you must allow me to tell you what pleasure you have been giving me of late. That story of yours in Roper's Miscellany is one of the most delightful things I have read for a long time. I don't read modern fiction as a rule, but it is my hope that I may not miss anything you publish henceforth. I should not have seen this, I fear, but for my friend Kingcote. He sent me a copy of the magazine, and with it words of such strong commendation that I fell to at the feast forthwith."
There was a glow of pleasure on the girl's face; she said nothing, and looked away over the sunny meadows.
"There is an energy in your style," pursued the rector, "which I relish exceedingly. Clearly you have drunk of the pure wells of English. Doubtless you read your Chaucer devoutly? A line of him has been ringing in my head for the last two days; no doubt you remember it, in the 'Legende of Goode Women' -
One of the sweetest lines in all English poetry."
He repeated it enthusiastically several times.
"Ah, Kingcote and I used to hunt up lines like that and revel over them! I have no one now with whom to talk in that way. He had a fine taste, a wonderful palate for pure literary flavour. His ear was finer than my own, much finer. He showed me metrical effects in Marlowe which I am ashamed to say I had utterly missed. There was one sonnet of old Drummond's - Drummond of Hawthornden - that we relished together. Of course you know it well; the one beginning -
In it comes that phrase, 'Apelles of the flowers.' A grievous loss to me, an irreparable loss! I am engaged at present on an edition of Twelfth Night, in which, by-the-bye" - his eye twinkled - "I explain 'the lady of the Strachy,' I constantly miss Kingcote's comments."
Ada listened with thoughtful countenance.
"He ought to do something himself," Mr. Vissian added, "but I fear his health is very bad. Last autumn he had a severe illness --"
She interrupted involuntarily, and at once dismissed the curiosity which had risen to her face.
"Yes; I didn't hear from him for a long time. He told me afterwards that he had been at the point of death."
"I hope you will let me have your Twelfth Night when it appears," Ada said, after a short silence.
"With pleasure; if only you will promise to keep me apprised of your own publications. Ah me! how delightful it is to talk literature. I with difficulty part from you, Miss Warren; I could gossip through the day. If I only durst invite you in Mrs. Vissian's name to take a cup of tea at the rectory this afternoon. It would be a charity. You have never seen my books, I believe; I have one or two things you would not disdain to look at; one or two first editions, among them a 'Venice Preserved,' which Kingcote gave me."
"I will gladly come," said Ada.
"Ah, you rejoice me! I shall go about my parish with the delight of anticipation."
The tea-drinking duly took place. Mrs. Vissian was a little alarmed at the prospect of such a visitor, but went through the ceremony very well. The change in Ada surprised both the rector and his wife.
"I suppose it is the thought of coming into possession," Mrs. Vissian said, when alone with her husband. "But really I don't envy her. It ought to be very painful to her to take everything from poor Mrs. Clarendon."
"I shouldn't wonder," remarked the rector, "if Mrs. Clarendon lives at Knightswell just as before. Miss Warren cannot but insist upon it."
"I couldn't do that!" exclaimed Mrs. Vissian, shaking her head. "No, I'm sure it won't be so. No woman who respects herself could submit to that."
"But, my dear --"
"Ah, I really forgot what I was going to say; something about Mrs. Clarendon. Never mind."
Returning to London by the first of June, Ada brought all her high spirits with her. With Rhoda and Hilda she was an affectionate sister, and outdid them both in mirthfulness. Rhoda had got over her long depression; she was in the habit of looking forward with a very carefully-concealed expectation to the not infrequent visits of a certain friend of her father's, a gentleman of something less than forty, who was a widower, with one little boy of his own. This youngster occasionally accompanied his father, and received much affectionate attention from Rhoda; Hilda looked askance at the exhibition of his graces. The house in Chelsea had certainly a brighter air than of old.
On the evening of the day after her return, Ada went to walk by herself along the river. Hilda wished to accompany her, and was surprised by her friend's request to be alone.
"Oh, you are thinking out another story," Hilda exclaimed.
"Yes, I am; a very interesting one."
Her face was very bright, but grave. She walked till the sun had set, watching the changing clouds and the gold on the river. On her way home, she paused a moment before each of the historic houses close at hand, and stood to look at the face of Thomas Carlyle, who had just been set up in effigy on the Embankment. At ten o'clock, when the sisters went up to bed, Ada knocked in her usual way at the door of Mr. Meres' study.
Mr. Meres was reading; he welcomed her with a smile.
"Have you got Drummond's poems?" she began by asking.
"Drummond of Hawthornden? Alas, no!"
"No matter. Mr. Vissian happened to mention him to me with some fervour."
She was silent for a little, seemingly thinking of another matter. Then she said:
"Mr. Meres, I shall be one-and-twenty a fortnight to-day."
"I know it, Ada."
He watched her under his brows; she was smiling, with tremor of the lips.
"I went down to look at my property," were her next words.
Mr. Meres made no answer.
"You will never, I fear, be able to congratulate me."
He shifted on his chair, but still said nothing.
"And if you do not, who will?" pursued the girl. "I am afraid I shall be very friendless. Do you think it will be worth while to have a London house as well as Knightswell?"
"You will scarcely need one," said the other, tapping his knee with a paper-knife, and speaking in rather a gruff voice.
"Some people in my position," Ada went on, "would half wish that such wealth had never come to trouble them. They might be tempted to say they would have nothing to do with it."
Mr. Meres raised his face.
"And so give much trouble," he remarked, in a tone of suppressed agitation. "A state of things would follow equivalent to intestacy. Ten to one there would be law-suits. The property would be broken up."
"Yes, I have thought of that," Ada assented, looking up at the Madonna over the fireplace. "Still there would be a resource for such a person's foolishness. There would be nothing to prevent him or her from giving it all away when once possessed of it."
"Nothing in the world," said Mr. Meres, scarcely above a whisper.
"Mr. Meres, will you help me to get that legally performed?"
He half rose, his hands trembling on the arms of his chair.
"Ada, you mean that?"
"Yes, I mean it."
He caught her head between his hands, and kissed her several times on the forehead.
"That's my brave girl!" was all he could say. Then he sat down again in the utmost perturbation. He was completely unnerved, and had to press his hands upon his brows to try and recover calm.
Ada kept her eyes upon Raphael's Madonna. She could not see quite clearly, but the divine face was glowed around with halo, and seemed to smile.
"I cannot be quite independent, you know, she said at length. "For the present I must ask Mrs. Clarendon to give me just what I need to live upon - that, and no more. I shall be glad to do that. I had rather have it from her as a gift than keep a sum for myself."
"When did you first think of this?" Mr. Meres asked, when he could command his voice.
"I cannot tell you. I think the seed was in my mind long ago, and it has grown slowly."
She spoke with much simplicity, and with natural earnestness.
"I never rejoiced in my future," she continued, "unless, perhaps, in a few moments of misery. I never in earnest realised the possession of it. How could I? This wealth was not mine; a mere will could give me no right in it. I have often, in thinking over it, been brought to a kind of amazement at the unquestioning homage paid to arbitrary law. You know that mood in which simple, every-day matters are seen in their miraculous light. My whole self revolted against such laws. It seemed a kind of conjuring with human lives - something basely ludicrous. And the surrender costs me nothing; I assure you it costs me nothing! To say there was merit in it would be ridiculous. I simply could not accept what is offered me. Oh, how light I feel!"
Meres looked at her admiringly.
"And to consent to be the instrument of a dead man's malice!" Her scorn was passionate. "Isn't it enough to think of that? What did he care for me, a wretched, parentless child, put out to nurse with working-people! It was baser cruelty to me than to Mrs. Clarendon. Oh, how did she consent to be rich on those terms?"
"Ada, you must try and think tenderly of her," said Meres, with the softness which always marked his voice when he spoke of Isabel. "I have told you of her early poverty. She was a beautiful girl, and without the education which might have given her high aims; the pleasant things of the world tempted her, and frivolous society did its best to ruin her. It did not touch her heart; that has always been pure, and generous, and womanly. Try never to think of her failings."
"I wish I were not a woman!" Ada exclaimed. "It is that which makes me judge her hardly. Men - all men - see her so differently."
"Ada Warren!" he grasped the arm of his chair convulsively, speaking in sudden forgetfulness of everything but his passion, "if by my death I could save her from the most trifling pain I would gladly die this hour!"
She gazed at him with a daughter's tenderness, and sighed:
"I shall never hear such words as those."
"My child, your reward is in the future. Fate has given you nobility alike of heart and brain, and, if you live, you will lack no happiness that time has in its bestowal. Go, now, Ada, and leave me to myself. This hour has made me feel old. My quiet life does not fit me for these scenes. I am horribly shaken."
She rose, and bent her head that again he might kiss her on the brows.
"You shall be my father," she said, her voice faltering. "May I call you father from now?"
He turned from her, pressing her hand, and she left him.
Kingcote's abode was in one of the principal streets of Norwich. The shop was narrow but ran back some distance, and above it were two storeys for dwelling; to reach the house door you went up a yard, beneath an archway, the side entrance to a respectable public-house being opposite. The name of Gabriel had been left undisturbed along the top of the shop-front; above it, in fresh gilt letters, was the name of the present tradesman; a small "late" connected the two.
In the rear of the shop, a small dark room, with windows of which the lower half was in ground glass, served during the day-time as counting-house; after business hours it became the private sitting-room of Mr. Billimore. It was to Mr. Billimore that Gabriel referred, when he spoke in terms of confidence of the assistant who had so long been his father's right-hand man. He was middle-aged, rather above six feet in stature, and entirely bald; not a hair remained upon his head. He had, however, a thin moustache, reddish mixed with gray, and a goat-beard beneath his chin; the chin itself, for some strange reason, he carefully shaved. His cheeks were marked with healthful ruddiness, and he had eyes which twinkled with a pleasant and kindly humour. When he met a customer, he stood with bowed head, performing the action of hand-washing; when discussing a matter with his employer, he invariably took his handkerchief from the breast-pocket of his coat, and polished his head with it, as if the act implied a seemly combination of self-respect and deference. Never was a worthier assistant, never a more capable. His knowledge of the outsides of books was considerable; his acquaintance with them as literature was such as might be gained by a complete perusal each Sunday morning of The Athenæum. In the pleasantest manner possible, he set to work from the first day to instruct Kingcote in the details of shop-keeping; without a smile of presumption he answered questions which Kingcote himself put with a half-ashamed laugh; his seriousness and honesty were beyond suspicion.
Mr. Billimore had a bedroom at the top of the house; breakfast, mid-day dinner, and tea, he took with the family; his supper, consisting of bread and cheese and a pint of beer, was, in accordance with immemorial usage, laid for him in the counting-house at nine o'clock. Kingcote wondered much what his assistant did with himself during his free hours, for no acquaintance ever came to see him, and his excursions were limited to a walk before breakfast on Sunday morning, and another after supper on the same day. If Kingcote went by chance through the counting-house after the shop was closed, he found Mr. Billimore sitting with a glass of beer at his elbow, a churchwarden pipe between his lips, either musing or reading some periodical. The pipe and glass were invariable; the assistant had the habit at Sunday dinner of pouring out his second tumbler of ale just before the meal ended, and carrying it with him into his own quarters, that the afternoon tobacco might not be unmoistened. That he suffered no ennui was demonstrable, for it was no uncommon thing to hear him laughing by himself, a remarkable laugh, half a crow and half a scream. When Kingcote heard the sound for the first time, he had apprehensions that Mr. Billimore was unwell; discovering the truth, he was annoyed by the thought that it was himself and his inaptitude that occasioned the assistant's mirth. This, however, he was soon convinced was equally a mistake, and he and Mary derived not a little amusement from these grotesque outbursts of solitary mirth; occasionally they could hear them even when seated in their drawing-room, which was immediately above the shop. It only remained to suppose that Mr. Billimore was a philosopher of the school of Democritus, a conclusion not perhaps wide of the mark.
By the end of his first three months, Kingcote was acquiescent in his life, even contented with it. The customers who had been in the habit of using the shop still came, for Mr. Billimore's continued presence was reassuring, and the little that was seen of the new proprietor was not repellent; there was every likelihood that the business would still be what it had been. It was a week or two before Kingcote broke himself to the habit of remaining at the counter when a purchaser entered, but even this grew to be very simple, and quite in the order of things. With the bookselling proper was joined a stationery business, and perhaps on the whole it was a little harder to sell a newspaper or a quire of note, or a bottle of gum, than to take an order for a volume or part with one from the shelves; still, no mortal is above satisfaction in receiving cash payment, part whereof is calculable profit, and the very till soon began to be more than endurable in our friend's eyes.
The trial was when acquaintances of old time presented themselves to claim recognition. There were not more than half-a-dozen who did so, and two or three of these were not, in the end, unwelcome. They were worthy people of the middle-class provincial sort, full of natural curiosity, but also not lacking kindliness. Their curiosity Kingcote satisfied only in broad terms, and perhaps the fixed melancholy of his face prevented the grosser kind of inquisitiveness. He let it be known that his sister kept house for him, and that she was a widow, but it was some time before any one called to see Mary. The circumstances of her marriage were remembered, and created prejudice; there had not been wanting those who, at the time, hinted at worse things than a mere elopement, and now such points were rediscussed with the relish of a provincial appetite which has only limited diet. Still, even Mary was in the end accepted. The first lady who called upon her no doubt suppressed a hesitation for the sake of getting a glimpse of the domestic interior; one or two others justified themselves by the precedent. There followed invitations to heavy tea, and it was made known to Kingcote that he would be welcome here or there at supper. For his sister's sake he obliged himself to go wherever he was sought. He might not enjoy the conversation at these houses, but in future he must have that or none, and to keep up pretences would savour of the ludicrous. He was a shopkeeper, and likely to remain one to the end of his days. Nor did he in truth repine.
He rested. From his illness there had remained a good deal of physical weakness; it was more apparent now than it had been during the late months of the past year. He had no longer a desire to take walks, and indeed seldom left the house for such a purpose; when at leisure, he sat with a book, and it was a trouble to stir from his chair. His appearance was that of a man ten years beyond his own age; always grave, he had only to sit in silence for a quarter of an hour to fall into a dreamy state of absent-mindedness; as often as not he turned the pages of his book without knowledge of what he seemed to be reading. This was not the same thing as unhappiness; his mood was emphatically one of contentment. He interested himself in the details of his business, and was in nothing neglectful. Only it was all done without active pleasure; his life remained joyless.
"What are those lines you are repeating, Bernard?" his sister asked him one evening, when he had turned from the finished supper, to take up a magazine.
"Did I say them aloud?" he asked. Then he quoted:
"I am not far from that end," he added; then went on with his reading.
There was truth in what he said, and he would not have exchanged his state for one more active, even though it had been an activity that promised happiness. For in happiness he had no faith. It did exist on earth - in the form of sleep; all other bliss he held to be illusion. Heights to which he had once looked up with envious eyes, he did not now contemplate; if a glimpse of them arrested him, he hurriedly turned away, pained by a sudden sense of unrest. The thought of exertion was intolerable. His reading was no longer study, but mere pastime in idle pages; books which demanded thought or suggested a high and energetic ideal, he put aside. This habit of mind, at first involuntary, he was beginning to take consciously for his direction; it preserved to him an even calm, which was now the most desirable of things.
"Do not tell me of your work," he wrote to Gabriel in London. "It will seem unfriendly that I should not wish to hear of it, but your progress and achievements I take for granted; they are the essence of the distinction between your world and my own. When you say you have done this, and are planning that, it disturbs me, I know not how; I neither act nor plan, and hope never again to do either. Formerly, when I should gladly have heard these details, you kept them from me; pray do so now. The change in yourself which this new habit implies, I believe I understand. There is a joyful tone in all you write, formerly never to be found. You are less severe, more human. Naturally so; success is before you, and the anxious toil of your years of poverty is at an end. I, too, have ceased to fear poverty - thanks to you - but I dread the more anything that can give a shock to my placid materialism. I dread awakenings of sympathy, I dread discontent, I dread the ideal."
Whereto Clement Gabriel took occasion to reply:
"My friend, you are in a bad way. Fortunately you are young; there is hope for you in the years that bring the philosophic mind. Allow me to suggest that your present mind contains as little of the philosophic as it well could. I will not for the present trouble you about my doings. We will talk over them when you have recovered your interest in the things which alone are worth living for."
So the days moved on. Towards the end of the first week in June, Kingcote exhibited a slight return of restlessness; he complained, when Mary questioned him, that he could not sleep; it was nothing, it would pass. It did not, however, pass immediately. For ten days the trouble of mind or body rather grew than diminished; the old dislike of society showed itself, and at length he seemed to be shrinking from his daily occupations. Mr. Billimore, who was observant, noticed that he displayed much anxiety to take the letters from the post man, when the latter came into the shop each morning, and that an examination of the batch seemed always to occasion him some disappointment. But the trouble did in the end prove transitory. A day or two of headache, which kept him to his room, led back to the ordinary routine of life. Business received attention in the usual way, and his impassive countenance was restored. . . .
A week later, there came to the shop a messenger from a hotel, with a note addressed to Mr. Kingcote. He was at that moment in the house; knowing he would appear speedily, Mr. Billimore laid the note on his masters desk in the counting-house. Within a few minutes Kingcote entered, and took up the envelope carelessly. He dropped it again as if it had burnt him.
Mr. Billimore was advancing to explain by whom the note had been left. Kingcote's face struck him as so singular, that he retired into the shop without having spoken.
Had he still power to feel this? That terrible sinking at the heart which had once been so common an experience had again come upon him. He had to sit down; his limbs would not support him. His face was hot, his mouth all at once parched; his hands shook as if they never could regain their steadiness.
When he opened the envelope, he found two lines:
"If you could come to see me here before five o'clock, I should be glad. I have a private room; ask for me by name.
It was now two in the afternoon. Kingcote, after consulting his watch, went upstairs to his bedroom. There he paced up and down for half-an-hour. On recovering from the shock of agitation which was incompatible with thought of any kind, his first sentiment was one of anger. He had thought that the time for this was gone by; the assurance of it had been a new beginning of calm. What right had she to disturb him? As she was in the town, she doubtless knew what his position was; probably she had heard that from Mr. Vissian long ago. What inspiration save of woman's cruelty could have led to this summons? He had forgotten her; she had gone from his life; was he never to be secure from a renewal of that intolerable anguish, anguish even physical, which she had it in her power to inflict upon him?
Nay, she had worse power than that. From the long-sealed chambers of his heart came a low cry as of reawakening life, life which would fain be free again. The sweat stood on his forehead as he crushed down the tenderness, the passion which he had thought dead. The sight of her handwriting, after so long, had given back to him the dreadful power of seeing herself, her features, her beautiful form. He flung himself by the bedside, and smothered his face; the striving of the old spirit drew groans from him.
What, what was he to her, or she to him? What conceivable circumstances could render possible the realisation of that mad dream, of which he had well-nigh died? It was imbecility to flatter himself with the fancy that she loved him; but, if he could believe it, if she proved it to him --. Had all his suffering been mere frantic jealousy? Had he misunderstood? Had time proved to her that his love was worth more than the pleasures the world could give her? Had it grown within her soul, whilst he had sunk to brutish indifference?
At first it had seemed possible to refuse to see her; would it not be fair reprisal for all that he had borne at her hands? Would it not gratify his pride to coldly tell her that he saw no good end to be gained by a personal interview? It needed another than himself to act upon such a thought. Already he was preparing to go and see her. He threw water upon his face to cool its burning. The fear now had become lest his delay in answering her summons should have led her to conclude that he would not answer it. With haste which only heightened his nervousness, he completed his preparations, and went downstairs. Fortunately he met no one; he could take his hat and leave by the house-door unobserved.
The walk to the hotel was short. On reaching the entrance he had to turn aside and go a little further on, that he might be able to use his voice and present any appearance but that of a man under stress of violent emotion. Between the door of the hotel and the private room to which he was conducted, he knew nothing but the pain which came from the throbbing at his temples and the rush of blood in his ears.
She stood at the farther end of the room, a dark object to him. She wore a summer travelling dress, but of that he could take no note; her face alone came out of the confused mist, and he saw that it was pale and agitated. There was no joy in it; that he knew at once. None of the old sweetness dwelt in her eyes and about her lips. She was austere, fear-stricken.
"You have kept me long," were her first words, and as she spoke them her hand pressed upon her bosom. "I thought you would come at once."
The sound of her speaking had the effect of a cold hand upon his forehead. He saw with clear vision; the throbbing at his temples allayed itself.
"Why are you here?" he asked. "Why have you sent for me?"
With perfect consciousness he made his tone as gentle as he could. His words did not seem to himself spontaneous; these were prompted to him from within, and she repeated them as if playing a part.
Isabel came nearer, and held to him the photograph he had returned her. Since sending the note, she had stood there with it in her hand; it was bent.
"Will you take it back again?" she asked. He saw her throat swell; she seemed to swallow something before she spoke.
He did not move to take it.
"You wish," he replied, "to be a shopkeeper's wife?"
With no smile he said it; yet it cost him an effort. Again it was the repetition of prompted words.
"I thought you had perhaps heard," Isabel said, letting her hand fall again, and speaking quickly, still with that swelling of the throat. "Ada refuses to take what is hers by law. She has given it back to me."
Kingcote's eyes held themselves fixed upon her face. The silence seemed to be long; he was conscious of prolonging it purposely. He saw her put her hand upon the table and lean heavily on it.
"Will you answer me?" she uttered in an agitated whisper.
"Surely it is needless to answer in words," he said at length. "Why have you come to offer me that which you know I cannot accept?"
The evil spirit stirred in his breast, and, with scarcely a pause, he continued vehemently:
"Why did you not spare both of us this? Do you think so basely of me? Cannot I read in your face that you believed it to be your duty to make this offer to me, at whatever cost to yourself? You are conscious that your unkindness drove me to part from you in frenzy, and what has happened seemed to impose a necessity of restoring to me a piece of good fortune which I had thrown away. And you have feared lest I should take you at your word! If you had ever loved me you would know me better."
Her head bowed itself before his violence; he could scarcely catch the words when she said:
"I did love you."
"For a day - for an hour; I believe it. You gave me your love in recklessness. It was a fatal gift."
"I think you should not reproach me," she said, in the same faint voice. "I gave you the one love of my life. I would have married you then. It would have been truer kindness to take me - to have given me something to live for. My love would not have failed you."
For an instant he could have implored what fate had written unattainable. He knew the unreality of the vision that tempted him, and could not have uttered the words his tongue half-formed. But the mood showed itself in gentler speech.
"I have no right to speak so harshly. The last words we shall ever say to each other must not be unkind. If I did not still love you it would be easier to speak smooth things."
Her tears were falling.
"If you still love me," she said brokenly, "it is your right to take me, whatever seems to hinder." She held forth her hands, but without looking up. "Your voice is the highest leading that I know. Oh, are you not strong enough? Can you not bend me to your will?"
A sob stayed her, but there came another cry:
"If I were young!"
Kingcote quivered, then fell to his knees, holding the hands she had outstretched.
"Say good-bye to me in the kind voice I once knew!" He spoke in hoarse, choked accents. "Say it kindly, that it may be a sacred memory whilst I live, and a hope in death!"
She did utter the word, but in such a passion of weeping that it fell upon his ears like a moan. Then he kissed both her hands, and broke away. . . .
"The tragedy," Kingcote had once said, "is not where two who love each other die for the sake of their love; but where love itself dies, blown upon by the cold breath of the world, and those who loved live on with hearts made sepulchres." . . .
Here is a letter which came to Kingcote from Mr. Vissian some six months later:
"Methinks, my friend, I have grounds of complaint against you. Though I have submitted to your judgment three conjectural emendations which, in my poor thinking, do not lack propriety, you fail even to acknowledge the receipt of them. I trust this does not signify any incapacity to write; for you are of those whom I would rather challenge for unkindness than pity for mischance. I should - taking the more probable view of the case - scarcely have written again thus soon, but that I have sundry items of news to communicate, one of which concerns me nearly. Learn, then, that at the end of the year I surrender my present living, on the ground that another and a better has been offered me. When I say 'better,' I mean in the worldly sense; that, I fear, my usual way of speaking will have made you too ready to take for granted. I shall in future be nearer to you by a matter of fifty miles, my new parish being that of S--. There will be a necessity for keeping a curate, as the work is much more considerable than what has here been my share. It is in no spirit of levity that I express my hope of being able to adapt my energies to the larger sphere. It is possible that I have occasionally been remiss, owing to the manifold temptations of pursuits which my graver judgment often condemns as incompatible with my duties.
"I should hardly have consented to leave Winstoke were it not for an event which has weakened the tie which bound me to the spot. I refer to the final departure from Knightswell of that gracious lady whom I have so long regarded with affectionate reverence, and whom my wife truly loves. Mrs. Clarendon is Mrs. Clarendon no longer; she has just married a wealthy and, I doubt not, worthy gentleman, her cousin Mr. Asquith, who takes her to live in another part of England. Knightswell is to be sold. The marriage was celebrated privately in London. I am glad I was not asked to officiate; it would have been painful to me. The old name has come to mean so much in my ears; I should but grudgingly have aided in its casting off.
"Now here be news. Moreover, I have it in charge from Mrs. Vissian to say unto you, that, as a final test of your good will to us, we invite you to visit us in our new home not later than the end of January. That you can come, I am convinced, and in very truth we want to see you."
"I must not forget to add that I have just received from Miss Warren a weekly paper containing a poem by herself, and, it seems to me, one of striking merit. After the unprecedented act of generosity which this young lady has performed, I am disposed to regard everything she writes as the outcome of a very noble nature, and to study it in a serious spirit. I am very anxious to know her better, personally, for I have always grievously misjudged her. I do not think she will refuse to come and spend a few days with us in the spring. Would it not be agreeable to you to renew your acquaintance with her at some time?"