* I am deeply indebted to Olivier Lefevre, who have meticulously read the proof of this e-text.
One travelling bag was all he carried. Some purchases that he had made in London -- especially the great work on French cathedrals -- were already despatched to Birmingham, to lie in the care of Robert Narramore.
He reached Charing Cross half an hour before train-time, and waited at the entrance. Several cabs that drove up stirred his expectation only to disappoint him. He was again in an anguish of fear lest Eve should not come. A cab arrived, with two boxes of modest appearance. He stepped forward and saw the girls' faces.
Between him and Eve not a word passed. They avoided each other's look. Patty, excited and confused, shook hands with him.
"Go on to the platform," he said. "I'll see after everything. This is all the luggage?"
"Yes. One box is mine, and one Eve's. I had to face it out with the people at home," she added, between laughing and crying. "They think I'm going to the seaside, to stay with Eve till she gets better. I never told so many fibs in my life. Uncle stormed at me, but I don't care."
"All right; go on to the platform."
Eve was already walking in that direction. Undeniably she looked ill; her step was languid; she did not raise her eyes. Hilliard, when he had taken tickets and booked the luggage through to Paris, approached his travelling companions. Seeing him, Eve turned away.
"I shall go in a smoking compartment," he said to Patty. "You had better take your tickets."
"But when shall we see you again?"
"Oh, at Dover, of course."
"Will it be rough, do you think? I do wish Eve would talk. I can't get a word out of her. It makes it all so miserable, when we might be enjoying ourselves."
"Don't trouble: leave her to herself. I'll get you some papers."
On returning from the bookstall, he slipped loose silver into Patty's hands.
"Use that if you want anything on the journey. And -- I haven't forgot my promise."
"Go and take your places now: there's only ten minutes to wait."
He watched them as they passed the harrier. Neither of the girls was dressed very suitably for travelling; but Eve's costume resembled that of a lady, while Patty's might suggest that she was a lady's-maid. As if to confirm this distinction, Patty had burdened herself with several small articles, whereas her friend carried only a sunshade. They disappeared among people upon the platform. In a few minutes Hilliard followed, glanced along the carriages till he saw where the girls were seated, and took his own place. He wore a suit which had been new on his first arrival in London, good enough in quality and cut to give his features the full value of their intelligence; a brown felt hat, a russet necktie, a white flannel shirt. Finding himself with a talkative neighbour in the carriage, he chatted freely. As soon as the train had started, he lit his pipe and tasted the tobacco with more relish than for a long time.
On board the steamer Eve kept below from first to last. Patty walked the deck with Hilliard, and vastly to her astonishment, achieved the voyage without serious discomfort. Hilliard himself, with the sea wind in his nostrils, recovered that temper of buoyant satisfaction which had accompanied his first escape from London. He despised the weak misgivings and sordid calculations of yesterday. Here he was, on a Channel steamer, bearing away from disgrace and wretchedness the woman whom his heart desired. Wild as the project had seemed to him when first he conceived it, he had put it into execution. The moment was worth living for. Whatever the future might keep in store for him of dreary, toilsome, colourless existence, the retrospect would always show him this patch of purple -- a memory precious beyond all the possible results of prudence and narrow self-regard.
The little she-Cockney by his side entertained him with the flow of her chatter; it had the advantage of making him feel a travelled man.
"I didn't cross this way when I came before," he explained to her. "From Newhaven it's a much longer voyage."
"You like the sea, then?"
"I chose it because it was cheaper -- that's all."
"Yet you're so extravagant now," remarked Patty, with eyes that confessed admiration of this quality.
"Oh, because I am rich," he answered gaily. "Money is nothing to me."
"Are you really rich? Eve said you weren't."
"I don't mean she said it in a disagreeable way. It was last night. She thought you were wasting your money upon us."
"If I choose to waste it, why not? Isn't there a pleasure in doing as you like?"
"Oh, of course there is," Patty assented. "I only wish I had the chance. But it's awfully jolly, this! Who'd have thought, a week ago, that I should be going to Paris? I have a feeling all the time that I shall wake up and find I've been dreaming."
"Suppose you go down and see whether Eve wants anything? You needn't say I sent you."
From Calais to Paris he again travelled apart from the girls. Fatigue overcame him, and for the last hour or two he slept, with the result that, on alighting at the Gare du Nord, he experienced a decided failure of spirits. Happily, there was nothing before him but to carry out a plan already elaborated. With the aid of his guide-book he had selected an hotel which seemed suitable for the girls, one where English was spoken, and thither he drove with them from the station. The choice of their rooms, and the settlement of details took only a few minutes; then, for almost the first time since leaving Charing Cross, he spoke to Eve.
"Patty will do everything she can for you," he said; "I shall be not very far away, and you can always send me a message if you wish. To-morrow morning I shall come at about ten to ask how you are -- nothing more than that -- unless you care to go anywhere."
The only reply was "Thank you," in a weary tone. And so, having taken his leave he set forth to discover a considerably less expensive lodging for himself. In this, after his earlier acquaintance with Paris, he had no difficulty; by half-past eight his business was done, and he sat down to dinner at a cheap restaurant. A headache spoilt his enjoyment of the meal. After a brief ramble about the streets, he went home and got into a bed which was rather too short for him, but otherwise promised sufficient comfort.
The first thing that came into his mind when he awoke next morning was that he no longer possessed a watch; the loss cast a gloom upon him. But he had slept well, and a flood of sunshine that streamed over his scantily carpeted floor, together with gladly remembered sounds from the street, soon put him into an excellent humour. He sprang tip, partly dressed himself, and unclasped the window. The smell of Paris had become associated in his mind with thoughts of liberty; a grotesque dance about the bed-room expressed his joy.
As he anticipated, Patty alone received him when he called upon the girls. She reported that Eve felt unable to rise.
"What do you think about her?" he asked. "Nothing serious, is it?"
"She can't get rid of her headache."
"Let her rest as long as she likes. Are you comfortable here?"
Patty was in ecstasies with everything, and chattered on breathlessly. She wished to go out; Eve had no need of her -- indeed had told her that above all she wished to be left alone.
"Get ready, then," said Hilliard, "and we'll have an hour or two."
They walked to the Madeleine and rode thence on the top of a tram-car to the Bastille. By this time Patty had come to regard her strange companion in a sort of brotherly light; no restraint whatever appeared in her conversation with him. Eve, she told him, had talked French with the chambermaid.
"And I fancy it was something she didn't want me to understand."
"Why should you think so?"
"Oh, something in the way the girl looked at me."
"No, no; you were mistaken. She only wanted to show that she knew some French."
But Hilliard wondered whether Patty could be right. Was it not possible that Eve had gratified her vanity by representing her friend as a servant -- a lady's-maid? Yet why should he attribute such a fault to her? It was an odd thing that he constantly regarded Eve in the least favourable light, giving weight to all the ill he conjectured in her, and minimising those features of her character which, at the beginning, he had been prepared to observe with sympathy and admiration. For a man in love his reflections followed a very unwonted course. And, indeed, he had never regarded his love as of very high or pure quality; it was something that possessed him and constrained him -- by no means a source of elevating emotion.
"Do you like Eve?" he asked abruptly, disregarding some trivial question Patty had put to him.
"Like her? Of course I do."
"And why do you like her?"
"Why? -- ah -- I don't know. Because I do."
And she laughed foolishly.
"Does Eve like you?" Hilliard continued.
"I think she does. Else I don't see why she kept up with me."
"Has she ever done you any kindness?"
"I'm sure I don't know. Nothing particular. She never gave anything, if you mean that. But she has paid for me at theatres and so on."
Hilliard quitted the subject.
"If you like to go out alone," he told her before they parted, "there's no reason why you shouldn't -- just as you do in London. Remember the way back, that's all, and don't be out late. And you'll want some French money."
"But I don't understand it, and how can I buy anything when I can't speak a word?"
"All the same, take that and keep it till you are able to make use of it. It's what I promised you."
Patty drew back her hand, but her objections were not difficult to overcome.
"I dare say," Hilliard continued, "Eve doesn't understand the money much better than you do. But she'll soon be well enough to talk, and then I shall explain everything to her. On this piece of paper is my address; please let Eve have it. I shall call to-morrow morning again."
He did so, and this time found Eve, as well as her companion, ready to go out. No remark or inquiry concerning her health passed his lips; he saw that she was recovering from the crisis she had passed through, whatever its real nature. Eve shook hands with him, and smiled, though as if discharging an obligation.
"Can you spare time to show us something of Paris?" she asked.
"I am your official guide. Make use of me whenever it pleases you."
"I don't feel able to go very far. Isn't there some place where we could sit down in the open air?"
A carriage was summoned, and they drove to the Fields Elysian. Eve benefited by the morning thus spent. She left to Patty most of the conversation, but occasionally made inquiries, and began to regard things with a healthy interest. The next day they all visited the Louvre, for a light rain was falling, and here Hilliard found an opportunity of private talk with Eve; they sat together whilst Patty, who cared little for pictures, looked out of a window at the Seine.
"Do you like the hotel I chose?" he began.
"Everything is very nice."
"And you are not sorry to be here?"
"Not in one way. In another I can't understand how I come to be here at all."
"Your physician has ordered it."
"Yes -- so I suppose it's all right."
"There's one thing I'm obliged to speak of. Do you understand French money?"
Eve averted her face, and spoke after a slight delay.
"I can easily learn."
"Yes. You shall take this Paris guide home with you. You'll find all information of that sort in it. And I shall give you an envelope containing money -- just for your private use. You have nothing to do with the charges at the hotel."
"I've brought it on myself; but I feel more ashamed than I can tell you."
"If you tried to tell me I shouldn't listen. What you have to do now is to get well. Very soon you and Patty will be able to find your way about together; then I shall only come with you when you choose to invite me. You have my address."
He rose and broke off the dialogue.
For a week or more Eve's behaviour in his company underwent little change. In health she decidedly improved, but Hilliard always found her reserved, coldly amicable, with an occasional suggestion of forced humility which he much disliked. From Patty he learnt that she went about a good deal and seemed to enjoy herself.
"We don't always go together," said the girl. "Yesterday and the day before Eve was away by herself all the afternoon. Of course she can get on all right with her French. She takes to Paris as if she'd lived here for years."
On the day after, Hilliard received a postcard in which Eve asked him to be in a certain room of the Louvre at twelve o'clock. He kept the appointment, and found Eve awaiting him alone.
"I wanted to ask whether you would mind if we left the hotel and went to live at another place?"
He heard her with surprise.
"You are not comfortable?"
"Quite. But I have been to see my friend Mdlle. Roche -- you remember. And she has shown me how we can live very comfortably at a quarter of what it costs now, in the same house where she has a room. I should like to change, if you'll let me."
"Pooh! You're not to think of the cost ----"
"Whether I am to or not, I do, and can't help myself. I know the hotel is fearfully expensive, and I shall like the other place much better. Miss Roche is a very nice girl, and she was glad to see me; and if I'm near her, I shall get all sorts of advantages -- in French, and so on."
Hilliard wondered what accounts of herself Eve had rendered to the Parisienne, but he did not venture to ask.
"Will Patty like it as well?"
"Just as well. Miss Roche speaks English, you know, and they'll get on very well together."
"Where is the place?"
"Rather far off -- towards the Jardin des Plantes. But I don't think that would matter, would it?"
"I leave it entirely to you."
"Thank you," she answered, with that intonation he did not like. "Of course, if you would like to meet Miss Roche, you can."
"We'll think about it. It's enough that she's an old friend of yours."
When this change had been made Eve seemed to throw off a burden. She met Hilliard with something like the ease of manner, the frank friendliness, which marked her best moods in their earlier intercourse. At a restaurant dinner, to which he persuaded her in company with Patty, she was ready in cheerful talk, and an expedition to Versailles, some days after, showed her radiant with the joy of sunshine and movement. Hilliard could not but wonder at the success of his prescription.
He did not visit the girls in their new abode, and nothing more was said of his making the acquaintance of Mdlle. Roche. Meetings were appointed by post-card -- always in Patty's hand if the initiative were female; they took place three or four times a week. As it was now necessary for Eve to make payments on her own account, Hilliard despatched to her by post a remittance in paper money, and of this no word passed between them. Three weeks later he again posted the same sum. On the morrow they went by river to St. Cloud -- it was always a trio, Hilliard never making any other proposal -- and the steam-boat afforded Eve an opportunity of speaking with her generous friend apart.
"I don't want this money," she said, giving him an envelope. "What you sent before isn't anything like finished. There's enough for a month more."
"Keep it all the same. I won't have any pinching."
"There's nothing of the kind. If I don't have my way in this I shall go back to London."
He put the envelope in his pocket, and stood silent, with eyes fixed on the river bank.
"How long do you intend us to stay?" asked Eve.
"As long as you find pleasure here."
"And -- what am I to do afterwards?"
He glanced at her.
"A holiday must come to an end," she added, trying, but without success, to meet his look.
"I haven't given any thought to that," said Hilliard, carelessly; "there's plenty of time. It will be fine weather for many weeks yet."
"But I have been thinking about it. I should be crazy if I didn't."
"Tell me your thoughts, then."
"Should you be satisfied if I got a place at Birmingham?"
There again Was the note of self-abasement. It irritated the listener.
"Why do you put it in that way? There's no question of what satisfies me, but of what is good for you."
"Then I think it had better be Birmingham."
"Very well. It's understood that when we leave Paris we go there."
A silence. Then Eve asked abruptly:
"You will go as well?"
"Yes, I shall go back."
"And what becomes of your determination to enjoy life as long as you can?"
"I'm carrying it out. I shall go back satisfied, at all events."
"And return to your old work?"
"I don't know. It depends on all sorts of things. We won't talk of it just yet."
Patty approached, and Hilliard turned to her with a bright, jesting face.
Midway in August, on his return home one afternoon, the concierge let him know that two English gentlemen had been inquiring for him; one of them had left a card. With surprise and pleasure Hilliard read the name of Robert Narramore, and beneath it, written in pencil, an invitation to dine that evening at a certain hotel in the Rue de Provence. As usual, Narramore had neglected the duties of a correspondent; this was the first announcement of his intention to be in Paris. Who the second man might be Hilliard could not conjecture.
He arrived at the hotel, and found Narramore in company with a man of about the same age, his name Birching, to Hilliard a stranger. They had reached Paris this morning, and would remain only for a day or two, as their purpose was towards the Alps.
"I couldn't stand this heat," remarked Narramore, who, in the very lightest of tourist garbs, sprawled upon a divan, and drank something iced out of a tall tumbler. "We shouldn't have stopped here at all if it hadn't been for you. The idea is that you should go on with us."
"Can't -- impossible ----"
"Why, what are you doing here -- besides roasting?"
"Eating and drinking just what suits my digestion."
"You look pretty fit -- a jolly sight better than when we met last. All the same, you will go on with us. We won't argue it now; it's dinner-time. Wait till afterwards."
At table, Narramore mentioned that his friend Birching was an architect.
"Just what this fellow ought to have been," he said, indicating Hilliard. "Architecture is his hobby. I believe he could sit down and draw to scale a front elevation of any great cathedral in Europe -- couldn't you, Hilliard?"
Laughing the joke aside, Hilliard looked with interest at Mr. Birching, and began to talk with him. The three young men consumed a good deal of wine, and after dinner strolled about the streets, until Narramore's fatigue and thirst brought them to a pause at a café on the Boulevard des Italiens. Birching presently moved apart, to reach a newspaper, and remained out of earshot while Narramore talked with his other friend.
"What's going on?" he began. "What are you doing here? Seriously, I want you to go along with us. Birching is a very good sort of chap, but just a trifle heavy -- takes things rather solemnly for such hot weather. Is it the expense? Hang it! You and I know each other well enough, and, thanks to my old uncle ----"
"Never mind that, old boy," interposed Hilliard. "How long are you going for?"
"I can't very well be away for more than three weeks. The brass bedsteads, you know ----"
Hilliard agreed to join in the tour.
"That's right: I've been looking forward to it," said his friend heartily. "And now, haven't you anything to tell me? Are you alone here? Then, what the deuce do you do with yourself?"
"You're the rummest fellow I ever knew. I've wanted to write to you, but -- hang it! -- what with hot weather and brass bedsteads, and this and that ---- Now, what are you going to do? Your money won't last for ever. Haven't you any projects? It was no good talking about it before you left Dudley. I saw that. You were all but fit for a lunatic asylum, and no wonder. But you've pulled round, I see. Never saw you looking in such condition. What is to be the next move?"
"I have no idea."
"Well, now, I have. This fellow Birching is partner with his brother, in Brum, and they're tolerably flourishing. I've thought of you ever since I came to know him; I think it was chiefly on your account that I got thick with him -- though there was another reason I'll tell you about that some time. Now, why shouldn't you go into their office? Could you manage to pay a small premium? I believe I could square it with them. I haven't said anything. I never hurry -- like things to ripen naturally. Suppose you saw your way, in a year or two, to make only as much in an architect's office as you did in that ---- machine-shop, wouldn't it be worth while?"
Hilliard mused. Already he had a flush on his cheek, but his eyes sensibly brightened.
"Yes," he said at length with deliberation. "It would be worth while."
"So I should think. Well, wait till you've got to be a bit chummy with Birching. I think you'll suit each other. Let him see that you do really know something about architecture -- there'll be plenty of chances."
Hilliard, still musing, repeated with mechanical emphasis:
"Yes, it would be worth while."
Then Narramore called to Birching, and the talk became general again.
The next morning they drove about Paris, all together. Narramore, though it was his first visit to the city, declined to see anything which demanded exertion, and the necessity for quenching his thirst recurred with great frequency. Early in the afternoon he proposed that they should leave Paris that very evening.
"I want to see a mountain with snow on it. We're bound to travel by night, and another day of this would settle me. Any objection, Birching?"
The architect agreed, and time-tables were consulted. Hilliard drove home to pack. When this was finished, he sat down and wrote a letter:
"DEAR MISS MADELEY, -- My friend Narramore is here, and has persuaded me to go to Switzerland with him. I shall be away for a week or two, and will let you hear from me in the meantime. Narramore says I am looking vastly better, and it is you I have to thank for this. Without you, my attempts at 'enjoying life' would have been a poor business. We start in an hour or two, -- Yours ever,
He was absent for full three weeks, and arrived with his friends at the Gare de Lyon early one morning of September. Narramore and the architect delayed only for a meal, and pursued their journey homeward; Hilliard returned to his old quarters despatched a post-card asking Eve and Patty to dine with him that evening, and thereupon went to bed, where for some eight hours he slept the sleep of healthy fatigue.
The place he had appointed for meeting with the girls was at the foot of the Boulevard St. Michel. Eve came alone.
"And where's Patty?" he asked, grasping her hand heartily in return for the smile of unfeigned pleasure with which she welcomed him.
"Ah, where indeed? Getting near to Charing Cross by now, I think."
"She has gone back?"
"Went this very morning, before I had your card -- let us get out of the way of people. She has been dreadfully home-sick. About a fortnight ago a mysterious letter came for her she hid it away from me. A few days after another came, and she shut herself up for a long time, and when she came out again I saw she had been crying. Then we talked it over. She had written to Mr. Dally and got an answer that made her miserable; that was the first letter. She wrote again, and had a reply that made her still more wretched; and that was the second. Two or three more came, and yesterday she could bear it no longer."
"Then she has gone home to make it up with him?"
"Of course. He declared that she has utterly lost her character and that no honest man could have anything more to say to her! I shouldn't wonder if they are married in a few weeks' time."
Hilliard laughed light-heartedly.
"I was to beg you on my knees to forgive her," pursued Eve. "But I can't very well do that in the middle of the street, can I? Really, she thinks she has behaved disgracefully to you. She wouldn't write a letter -- she was ashamed. 'Tell him to forget all about me!' she kept saying."
"Good little girl! And what sort of a husband will this fellow Dally make her?"
"No worse than husbands in general, I dare say -- but how well you look! How you must have been enjoying yourself!"
"I can say exactly the same about you!"
"Oh, but you are sunburnt, and look quite a different man!"
"And you have an exquisite colour in your cheeks, and eyes twice as bright as they used to be; and one would think you had never known a care."
"I feel almost like that," said Eve, laughing.
He tried to meet her eyes; she eluded him.
"I have an Alpine hunger; where shall we dine?"
The point called for no long discussion, and presently they were seated in the cool restaurant. Whilst he nibbled an olive, Hilliard ran over the story of his Swiss tour.
"If only you had been there! It was the one thing lacking."
"You wouldn't have enjoyed yourself half so much. You amused me by your description of Mr. Narramore, in the letter from Geneva."
"The laziest rascal born! But the best-tempered, the easiest to live with. A thoroughly good fellow; I like him better than ever. Of course he is improved by coming in for money -- who wouldn't be, that has any good in him at all? But it amazes me that he can be content to go back to Birmingham and his brass bedsteads. Sheer lack of energy, I suppose. He'll grow dreadfully fat, I fear, and by when he becomes really a rich man -- it's awful to think of."
Eve asked many questions about Narramore; his image gave mirthful occupation to her fancy. The dinner went merrily on, and when the black coffee was set before them:
"Why not have it outside?" said Eve. "You would like to smoke, I know."
Hilliard assented, and they seated themselves under the awning. The boulevard glowed in a golden light of sunset; the sound of its traffic was subdued to a lulling rhythm.
"There's a month yet before the leaves will begin to fall," murmured the young man, when he had smoked awhile in silence.
"Yes," was the answer. "I shall be glad to have a little summer still in Birmingham."
"Do you wish to go?"
"I shall go to-morrow, or the day after," Eve replied quietly.
Then again there came silence.
"Something has been proposed to me," said Hilliard, at length, leaning forward with his elbows upon the table. "I mentioned that our friend Birching is an architect. He's in partnership with his brother, a much older man. Well, they have offered to take me into their office if I pay a premium of fifty guineas. As soon as I can qualify myself to be of use to them, they'll give me a salary. And I shall have the chance of eventually doing much better than I ever could at the old grind, where, in fact, I had no prospect whatever."
"That's very good news," Eve remarked, gazing across the street.
"You think I ought to accept?"
"I suppose you can pay the fifty guineas, and still leave yourself enough to live upon?"
"Enough till I earn something," Hilliard answered with a smile.
"Then I should think there's no doubt."
"The question is this -- are you perfectly willing to go back to Birmingham?"
"I'm anxious to go."
"You feel quite restored to health?"
"I was never so well in my life."
Hilliard looked into her face, and could easily believe that she spoke the truth. His memory would no longer recall the photograph in Mrs. Brewer's album; the living Eve, with her progressive changes of countenance, had obliterated that pale image of her bygone self. He saw her now as a beautiful woman, mysterious to him still in many respects, yet familiar as though they had been friends for years.
"Then, whatever life is before me," he said. "I shall have done one thing that is worth doing."
"Perhaps -- if everyone's life is worth saving," Eve answered in a voice just audible.
"Everyone's is not; but yours was."
Two men who had been sitting not far from them rose and walked away. As if more at her ease for this secession, Eve looked at her companion, and said in a tone of intimacy:
"How I must have puzzled you when you first saw me in London!"
He answered softly:
"To be sure you did. And the thought of it puzzles me still."
"Oh, but can't you understand? No; of course you can't -- I have told you so little. Just give me an idea of what sort of person you expected to find."
"Yes, I will. Judging from your portrait, and from what I was told of you, I looked for a sad, solitary, hard-working girl -- rather poorly dressed -- taking no pleasure -- going much to chapel -- shrinking from the ordinary world."
"And you felt disappointed?"
"At first, yes; or, rather, bewildered -- utterly unable to understand you."
"You are disappointed still?" she asked.
"I wouldn't have you anything but what you are."
"Still, that other girl was the one you wished to meet."
"Yes, before I had seen you. It was the sort of resemblance between her life and my own. I thought of sympathy between us. And the face of the portrait -- but I see better things in the face that is looking at me now."
"Don't be quite sure of that -- yes, perhaps. It's better to be healthy, and enjoy life, than broken-spirited and hopeless. The strange thing is that you were right -- you fancied me just the kind of a girl I was: sad and solitary, and shrinking from people -- true enough. And I went to chapel, and got comfort from it -- as I hope to do again. Don't think that I have no religion. But I was so unhealthy, and suffered so in every way. Work and anxiety without cease, from when I was twelve years old. You know all about my father? If I hadn't been clever at figures, what would have become of me? I should have drudged at some wretched occupation until the work and the misery of everything killed me."
Hilliard listened intently, his eyes never stirring from her face.
"The change in me began when father came back to us, and I began to feel my freedom. Then I wanted to get away, and to live by myself. I thought of London -- I've told you how much I always thought of London -- but I hadn't the courage to go there. In Birmingham I began to change my old habits; but more in what I thought than what I did. I wished to enjoy myself like other girls, but I couldn't. For one thing, I thought it wicked; and then I was so afraid of spending a penny -- I had so often known what it was to be in want of a copper to buy food. So I lived quite alone; sat in my room every evening and read books. You could hardly believe what a number of books I read in that year. Sometimes I didn't go to bed till two or three o'clock."
"What sort of books?"
"I got them from the Free Library -- books of all kinds; not only novels. I've never been particularly fond of novels; they always made me feel my own lot all the harder. I never could understand what people mean when they say that reading novels takes them 'out of themselves.' It was never so with me. I liked travels and lives of people, and books about the stars. Why do you laugh?"
"You escaped from yourself there, at all events."
"At last I saw an advertisement in a newspaper -- a London paper in the reading-room -- which I was tempted to answer; and I got an engagement in London. When the time came for starting I was so afraid and low-spirited that I all but gave it up. I should have done, if I could have known what was before me. The first year in London was all loneliness and ill-health. I didn't make a friend, and I starved myself, all to save money. Out of my pound a week I saved several shillings -- just because it was the habit of my whole life to pinch and pare and deny myself. I was obliged to dress decently, and that came out of my food. It's certain I must have a very good constitution to have gone through all that and be as well as I am to-day."
"It will never come again," said Hilliard.
"How can I be sure of that? I told you once before that I'm often in dread of the future. It would be ever so much worse, after knowing what it means to enjoy one's life. How do people feel who are quite sure they can never want as long as they live? I have tried to imagine it, but I can't; it would be too wonderful."
"You may know it some day."
"It was Patty Ringrose," she continued, "who taught me to take life more easily. I was astonished to find how much enjoyment she could get out of an hour or two of liberty, with sixpence to spend. She did me good by laughing at me, and in the end I astonished her. Wasn't it natural that I should be reckless as soon as I got the chance?"
"I begin to understand."
"The chance came in this way. One Sunday morning I went by myself to Hampstead, and as I was wandering about on the Heath I kicked against something. It was a cash-box, which I saw couldn't have been lying there very long. I found it had been broken open, and inside it were a lot of letters -- old letters in envelopes; nothing else. The addresses on the envelopes were all the same -- to a gentleman living at Hampstead. I thought the best I could do was to go and inquire for this address; and I found it, and rang the door-bell. When I told the servant what I wanted -- it was a large house -- she asked me to come in, and after I had waited a little she took me into a library, where a gentleman was sitting. I had to answer a good many questions, and the man talked rather gruffly to me. When he had made a note of my name and where I lived, he said that I should hear from him, and so I went away. Of course I hoped to have a reward, but for two or three days I heard nothing; then, when I was at business, someone asked to see me -- a man I didn't know. He said he had come from Mr. So and So, the gentleman at Hampstead, and had brought something for me -- four five-pound notes. The cash-box had been stolen by someone, with other things, the night before I found it, and the letters in it, which disappointed the thief, had a great value for their owner. All sorts of inquiries had been made about me and no doubt I very nearly got into the hands of the police, but it was all right, and I had twenty pounds reward. Think! twenty pounds!"
"I told no one about it -- not even Patty. And I put the money into the Post Office savings bank. I meant it to stay there till I might be in need; but I thought of it day and night. And only a fortnight after, my employers shut up their place of business, and I had nothing to do. All one night I lay awake, and when I got up in the morning I felt as if I was no longer my old self. I saw everything in a different way -- felt altogether changed. I had made up my mind not to look for a new place, but to take my money out of the Post Office -- I had more than twenty-five pounds there altogether -- and spend it for my pleasure. It was just as if something had enraged me, and I was bent on avenging myself. All that day I walked about the town, looking at shops, and thinking what I should like to buy: but I only spent a shilling or two, for meals. The next day I bought some new clothing. The day after that I took Patty to the theatre, and astonished her by my extravagance; but I gave her no explanation, and to this day she doesn't understand how I got my money. In a sort of way, I did enjoy myself. For one thing, I took a subscription at Mudie's, and began to read once more. You can't think how it pleased me to get my books -- new books -- where rich people do. I changed a volume about every other day -- I had so many hours I didn't know what to do with. Patty was the only friend I had made, so I took her about with me whenever she could get away in the evening."
"Yet never once dined at a restaurant," remarked Hilliard, laughing. "There's the difference between man and woman."
"My ideas of extravagance were very modest, after all."
Hilliard, fingering his coffee-cup, said in a lower voice:
"Yet you haven't told me everything."
Eve looked away, and kept silence.
"By the time I met you" -- he spoke in his ordinary tone -- "you had begun to grow tired of it."
"Yes -- and ----" She rose. "We won't sit here any longer."
When they had walked for a few minutes:
"How long shall you stay in Paris?" she asked.
"Won't you let me travel with you?"
"I do whatever you wish," Eve answered simply.
Her accent of submission did not affect Hilliard as formerly; with a nervous thrill, he felt that she spoke as her heart dictated. In his absence Eve had come to regard him, if not with the feeling he desired, with something that resembled it; he read the change in her eyes. As they walked slowly away she kept nearer to him than of wont; now and then her arm touched his, and the contact gave him a delicious sensation. Askance he observed her figure, its graceful, rather languid, movement; to-night she had a new power over him, and excited with a passion which made his earlier desires seem spiritless.
"One day more of Paris?" he asked softly.
"Wouldn't it be better ----?" she hesitated in the objection.
"Do you wish to break the journey in London?"
"No; let us go straight on."
"I don't think we ought to put it off. The holiday is over."
Hilliard nodded with satisfaction. An incident of the street occupied them for a few minutes, and their serious conversation was only resumed when they had crossed to the south side of the river, where they turned eastwards and went along the quays.
"Till I can find something to do," Eve said at length, "I shall live at Dudley. Father will be very glad to have me there. He wished me to stay longer."
"I am wondering whether it is really necessary for you to go back to your drudgery."
"Oh, of course it is," she answered quickly. "I mustn't be idle. That's the very worst thing for me. And how am I to live?"
"I have still plenty of money," said Hilliard, regarding her.
"No more than you will need."
"But think -- how little more it costs for two than for one ----"
He spoke in spite of himself, having purposed no such suggestion. Eve quickened her step.
"No, no, no! You have a struggle before you; you don't know what ----"
"And if it would make it easier for me? -- there's no real doubt about my getting on well enough ----"
"Everything is doubtful." She spoke in a voice of agitation. "We can't see a day before us. We have arranged everything very well ----"
Hilliard was looking across the river. He walked more and more slowly, and turned at length to stand by the parapet. His companion remained apart from him, waiting. But he did not turn towards her again, and she moved to his side.
"I know how ungrateful I must seem." She spoke without looking at him. "I have no right to refuse anything after all you ----"
"Don't say that," he interrupted impatiently. "That's the one thing I shall never like to think of."
"I shall think of it always, and be glad to remember it ----"
"Come nearer -- give me your hand ----"
Holding it, he drew her against his side, and they stood in silence looking upon the Seine, now dark beneath the clouding night.
"I can't feel sure of you," fell at length from Hilliard.
"I promise ----"
"Yes; here, now, in Paris. But when you are back in that hell ----"
"What difference can it make in me? It can't change what I feel now. You have altered all my life, my thoughts about everything. When I look back, I don't know myself. You were right; I must have been suffering from an illness that affected my mind. It seems impossible that I could ever have done such things. I ought to tell you. Do you wish me to tell you everything?"
Hilliard spoke no answer, but he pressed her hand more tightly in his own.
"You knew it from Patty, didn't you?"
"She told me as much as she knew that night when I waited for you in High Street. She said you were in danger, and I compelled her to tell all she could."
"I was in danger, though I can't understand now how it went so far as that. It was he who came to me with the money, from the gentleman at Hampstead. That was how I first met him. The next day he waited for me when I came away from business."
"It was the first time that anything of that kind had happened?"
"The first time. And you know what the state of my mind was then. But to the end I never felt any -- I never really loved him. We met and went to places together. After my loneliness -- you can understand. But I distrusted him. Did Patty tell you why I left London so suddenly?"
"When that happened I knew my instinct had been right from the first. It gave me very little pain, but I was ashamed and disgusted. He hadn't tried to deceive me in words; he never spoke of marriage; and from what I found out then, I saw that he was very much to be pitied."
"You seem to contradict yourself," said Hilliard. "Why were you ashamed and disgusted?"
"At finding myself in the power of such a woman. He married her when she was very young, and I could imagine the life he had led with her until he freed himself. A hateful woman!"
"Hateful to you, I see," muttered the listener, with something tight at his heart.
"Not because I felt anything like jealousy. You must believe me. I should never have spoken if I hadn't meant to tell you the simple truth."
Again he pressed her hand. The warmth of her body had raised his blood to fever-heat.
"When we met again, after I came back, it was by chance. I refused to speak to him, but he followed me all along the street, and I didn't know it till I was nearly home. Then he came up again, and implored me to hear what he had to say. I knew he would wait for me again in High Street, so I had no choice but to listen, and then tell him that there couldn't be anything more between us. And, for all that, he followed me another day. And again I had to listen to him."
Hilliard fancied that he could feel her heart beat against his arm.
"Be quick!" he said. "Tell all, and have done with it."
"He told me, at last, that he was ruined. His wife had brought him into money difficulties; she ran up bills that he was obliged to pay, and left him scarcely enough to live upon. And he had used money that was not his own -- he would have to give an account of it in a day or two. He was trying to borrow, but no one would lend him half what he needed ----"
"That's enough," Hilliard broke in, as her voice became inaudible.
"No, you ought to know more than I have told you. Of course he didn't ask me for money; he had no idea that I could lend him even a pound. But what I wish you to know is that he hadn't spoken to me again in the old way. He said he had done wrong, when he first came to know me; he begged me to forgive him that, and only wanted me to be his friend."
"Oh, don't be ungenerous: that's so unlike you."
"I didn't mean it ungenerously. In his position I should have done exactly as he did"
"Say you believe me. There was not a word of love between us. He told me all about the miseries of his life -- that was all; and I pitied him so. I felt he was so sincere."
"I believe it perfectly."
"There was no excuse for what I did. How I had the courage -- the shamelessness -- is more than I can understand now."
Hilliard stirred himself, and tried to laugh.
"As it turned out, you couldn't have done better. Well, there's an end of it. Come."
He walked on, and Eve kept closely beside him, looking up into his face.
"I am sure he will pay the money back," she said presently.
"Hang the money!"
Then he stood still.
"How is he to pay it back? I mean, how is he to communicate with you?"
"I gave him my address at Dudley."
Again Hilliard moved on.
"Why should it annoy you?" Eve asked. "If ever he writes to me, I shall let you know at once: you shall see the letter. It is quite certain that he will pay his debt; and I shall be very glad when he does."
"What explanation did you give him?"
"The true one. I said I had borrowed from a friend. He was in despair, and couldn't refuse what I offered."
"We'll talk no more of it. It was right to tell me. I'm glad now it's all over. Look at the moon rising -- harvest moon, isn't it?"
Eve turned aside again, and leaned on the parapet. He, lingering apart for a moment, at length drew nearer. Of her own accord she put her hands in his.
"In future," she said, "you shall know everything I do. You can trust me: there will be no more secrets."
"Yet you are afraid ----"
"It's for your sake. You must be free for the next year or two. I shall be glad to get to work again. I am well and strong and cheerful."
Her eyes drew him with the temptation he had ever yet resisted. Eve did not refuse her lips.
"You must write to Patty," she said, when they were at the place of parting. "I shall have her new address in a day or two."
"Yes, I will write to her."
By the end of November Hilliard was well at work in the office of Messrs. Birching, encouraged by his progress and looking forward as hopefully as a not very sanguine temperament would allow. He lived penuriously, and toiled at professional study night as well as day. Now and then he passed an evening with Robert Narramore, who had moved to cozy bachelor quarters a little distance out of town, in the Halesowen direction. Once a week, generally on Saturday, he saw Eve. Other society he had none, nor greatly desired any.
But Eve had as yet found no employment. Good fortune in this respect seemed to have deserted her, and at her meetings with Hilliard she grew fretful over repeated disappointments. Of her day-to-day life she made no complaint, but Hilliard saw too clearly that her spirits were failing beneath a burden of monotonous dulness. That the healthy glow she had brought back in her cheeks should give way to pallor was no more than he had expected, but he watched with anxiety the return of mental symptoms which he had tried to cheat himself into believing would not reappear. Eve did not fail in pleasant smiles, in hopeful words; but they cost her an effort which she lacked the art to conceal. He felt a coldness in her, divined a struggle between conscience and inclination. However, for this also he was prepared; all the more need for vigour and animation on his own part.
Hilliard had read of the woman who, in the strength of her love and loyalty, heartens a man through all the labours he must front he believed in her existence, but had never encountered her -- as indeed very few men have. From Eve he looked for nothing of the kind. If she would permit herself to rest upon his sinews, that was all he desired. The mood of their last night in Paris might perchance return, but only with like conditions. Of his workaday passion she knew nothing; habit of familiarity and sense of obligation must supply its place with her until a brightening future once more set her emotions to the gladsome tune.
Now that the days of sun and warmth were past, it was difficult to arrange for a meeting under circumstances that allowed of free comfortable colloquy. Eve declared that her father's house offered no sort of convenience; it was only a poor cottage, and Hilliard would be altogether out of place there. To his lodgings she could not come. Of necessity they had recourse to public places in Birmingham, where an hour or two of talk under shelter might make Eve's journey hither worth while. As Hilliard lived at the north end of the town, he suggested Aston Hall as a possible rendezvous, and here they met, early one Saturday afternoon in December.
From the eminence which late years have encompassed with a proletarian suburb, its once noble domain narrowed to the bare acres of a stinted breathing ground, Aston Hall looks forth upon joyless streets and fuming chimneys, a wide welter of squalid strife. Its walls, which bear the dints of Roundhead cannonade, are blackened with ever-driving smoke; its crumbling gateway, opening aforetime upon a stately avenue of chestnuts, shakes as the steam-tram rushes by. Hilliard's imagination was both attracted and repelled by this relic of what he deemed a better age. He enjoyed the antique chambers, the winding staircases, the lordly gallery, with its dark old portraits and vast fireplaces, the dim-lighted nooks where one could hide alone and dream away the present; but in the end, reality threw scorn upon such pleasure. Aston Hall was a mere architectural relic, incongruous and meaningless amid its surroundings; the pathos of its desecrated dignity made him wish that it might be destroyed, and its place fittingly occupied by some People's Palace, brand new, aglare with electric light, ringing to the latest melodies of the street. When he had long gazed at its gloomy front, the old champion of royalism seemed to shrink together, humiliated by Time's insults.
It was raining when he met Eve at the entrance.
"This won't do," were his first words. "You can't come over in such weather as this. If it hadn't seemed to be clearing tip an hour or two ago, I should have telegraphed to stop you."
"Oh, the weather is nothing to me," Eve answered, with resolute gaiety. "I'm only too glad of the change. Besides, it won't go on much longer. I shall get a place."
Hilliard never questioned her about her attempts to obtain an engagement; the subject was too disagreeable to him.
"Nothing yet," she continued, as they walked up the muddy roadway to the Hall. "But I know you don't like to talk about it."
"I have something to propose. How if I take a couple of cheap rooms in some building let out for offices, and put in a few sticks of furniture? Would you come to see me there?"
He watched her face as she listened to the suggestion, and his timidity seemed justified by her expression.
"You would be so uncomfortable in such a place. Don't trouble. We shall manage to meet somehow. I am certain to be living here before long."
"Even when you are," he persisted, "we shall only be able to see each other in places like this. I can't talk -- can't say half the things I wish to ----"
"We'll think about it. Ah, it's warm in here!"
This afternoon the guardians of the Hall were likely to be troubled with few visitors. Eve at once led the way upstairs to a certain suite of rooms, hung with uninteresting pictures, where she and Hilliard had before this spent an hour safe from disturbance. She placed herself in the recess of a window: her companion took a few steps backward and forward.
"Let me do what I wish," he urged. "There's a whole long winter before us. I am sure I could find a couple of rooms at a very low rent, and some old woman would come in to do all that's necessary."
"If you like."
"I may? You would come there?" he asked eagerly.
"Of course I would come. But I sha'n't like to see you in a bare, comfortless place."
"It needn't be that. A few pounds will make a decent sort of sitting-room."
"Anything to tell me?" Eve asked, abruptly quitting the subject.
She seemed to be in better spirits than of late, notwithstanding the evil sky; and Hilliard smiled with pleasure as he regarded her.
"Nothing unusual. Oh, yes; I'm forgetting. I had a letter from Emily, and went to see her."
Hilliard had scarcely seen his quondam sister-in-law since she became Mrs. Marr. On the one occasion of his paying a call, after his return from Paris, it struck him that her husband offered no very genial welcome. He had expected this, and willingly kept aloof.
"Read the letter."
Eve did so. It began, "My dear Maurice," and ended, "Ever affectionately and gratefully yours." The rest of its contents ran thus:
"I am in great trouble -- dreadfully unhappy. It would be such a kindness if you would let me see you. I can't put in a letter what I want to say, and I do hope you won't refuse to come. Friday afternoon, at three, would do, if you can get away from business for once. How I look back on the days when you used to come over from Dudley and have tea with us in the dear little room. Do come!"
"Of course," said Hilliard, laughing as he met Eve's surprised look. "I knew what that meant. I would much rather have got out of it, but it would have seemed brutal. So I went. The poor simpleton has begun to find that marriage with one man isn't necessarily the same thing as marriage with another. In Ezra Marr she has caught a Tartar."
"Surely he doesn't ill-use her?"
"Not a bit of it. He is simply a man with a will, and finds it necessary to teach his wife her duties. Emily knows no more about the duties of life than her little five-year-old girl. She thought she could play with a second husband as she did with the first, and she was gravely mistaken. She complained to me of a thousand acts of tyranny -- every one of them, I could see, merely a piece of rude commonsense. The man must be calling himself an idiot for marrying her. I could only listen with a long face. Argument with Emily is out of the question. And I shall take good care not to go there again."
Eve asked many questions, and approved his resolve.
"You are not the person to console and instruct her. But she must look upon you as the best and wisest of men. I can understand that."
"You can understand poor, foolish Emily thinking so ----"
"Put all the meaning you like into my words," said Eve, with her pleasantest smile. "Well, I too have had a letter. From Patty. She isn't going to be married, after all."
"Why, I thought it was over by now."
"She broke it off less than a week before the day. I wish I could show you her letter, but, of course, I mustn't. It's very amusing. They had quarrelled about every conceivable thing -- all but one, and this came up at last. They were talking about meals, and Mr. Dally said that he liked a bloater for breakfast every morning. 'A bloater!' cried Patty. 'Then I hope you won't ask me to cook it for you. I can't bear them.' 'Oh, very well: if you can't cook a bloater, you're not the wife for me.' And there they broke off, for good and all."
"Which means for a month or two, I suppose."
"Impossible to say. But I have advised her as strongly as I could not to marry until she knows her own mind better. It is too bad of her to have gone so far. The poor man had taken rooms, and all but furnished them. Patty's a silly girl, I'm afraid."
"Wants a strong man to take her in hand -- like a good many other girls."
Eve paid no attention to the smile.
"Paris spoilt her for such a man as Mr. Dally. She got all sorts of new ideas, and can't settle down to the things that satisfied her before. It isn't nice to think that perhaps we did her a great deal of harm."
"Nonsense! Nobody was ever harmed by healthy enjoyment."
"Was it healthy -- for her? That's the question."
Hilliard mused, and felt disinclined to discuss the matter.
"That isn't the only news I have for you," said Eve presently. "I've had another letter."
Her voice arrested Hilliard's step as he paced near her.
"I had rather not have told you anything about it, but I promised. And I have to give you something."
She held out to him a ten-pound note.
"He has sent it. He says he shall be able to pay something every three months until he has paid the whole debt. Please to take it."
After a short struggle with himself, Hilliard recovered a manly bearing.
"It's quite right he should return the money, Eve, but you mustn't ask me to have anything to do with it. Use it for your own expenses. I gave it to you, and I can't take it back."
She hesitated, her eyes cast down,
"He has written a long letter. There's not a word in it I should be afraid to show you. Will you read it -- just to satisfy me? Do read it!"
Hilliard steadily refused, with perfect self-command.
"I trust you -- that's enough. I have absolute faith in you. Answer his letter in the way you think best, and never speak to me of the money again. It's yours; make what use of it you like."
"Then I shall use it," said Eve, after a pause, "to pay for a lodging in Birmingham. I couldn't live much longer at home. If I'm here, I can get books out of the library, and time won't drag so. And I shall be near you."
"Do so, by all means."
As if more completely to dismiss the unpleasant subject, they walked into another room. Hilliard began to speak again of his scheme for providing a place where they could meet and talk at their ease. Eve now entered into it with frank satisfaction.
"Have you said anything yet to Mr. Narramore?" she asked at length.
"No. I have never felt inclined to tell him. Of course I shall some day. But it isn't natural to me to talk of this kind of thing, even with so intimate a friend. Some men couldn't keep it to themselves: for me the difficulty is to speak."
"I asked again, because I have been thinking -- mightn't Mr. Narramore be able to help me to get work?"
Hilliard repelled the suggestion with strong distaste. On no account would he seek his friend's help in such a matter. And Eve said no more of it.
On her return journey to Dudley, between eight and nine o'clock, she looked cold and spiritless. Her eyelids dropped wearily as she sat in the corner of the carriage with some papers on her lap, which Hilliard had given her. Rain had ceased, and the weather seemed turning to frost. From Dudley station she had a walk of nearly half an hour, to the top of Kate's Hill.
Kate's Hill is covered with an irregular assemblage of old red-tiled cottages, grimy without, but sometimes, as could be seen through an open door admitting into the chief room, clean and homely-looking within. The steep, narrow alleys leading upward were scarce lighted; here and there glimmered a pale corner-lamp, but on a black night such as this the oil-lit windows of a little shop, and the occasional gleam from doors, proved very serviceable as a help in picking one's path. Towards the top of the hill there was no paving, and mud lay thick. Indescribable the confusion of this toilers' settlement -- houses and workshops tumbled together as if by chance, the ways climbing and winding into all manner of pitch-dark recesses, where rats prowled stealthily. In one spot silence and not a hint of life; in another, children noisily at play amid piles of old metal or miscellaneous rubbish. From the labyrinth which was so familiar to her, Eve issued of a sudden on to a sort of terrace, where the air blew shrewdly: beneath lay cottage roofs, and in front a limitless gloom, which by daylight would have been an extensive northward view, comprising the towns of Bilston and Wolverhampton. It was now a black gulf, without form and void, sputtering fire. Flames that leapt out of nothing, and as suddenly disappeared; tongues of yellow or of crimson, quivering, lambent, seeming to snatch and devour and then fall back in satiety. When a cluster of these fires shot forth together, the sky above became illumined with a broad glare, which throbbed and pulsed in the manner of sheet-lightning, though more lurid, and in a few seconds was gone.
She paused here for a moment, rather to rest after her climb than to look at what she had seen so often, then directed her steps to one of the houses within sight. She pushed the door, and entered a little parlour, where a fire and a lamp made cheery welcome. By the hearth, in a round-backed wooden chair, sat a grizzle-headed man, whose hard features proclaimed his relation to Eve, otherwise seeming so improbable. He looked up from the volume open on his knee -- a Bible -- and said in a rough, kind voice:
"I was thinkin' it 'ud be about toime for you. You look starved, my lass."
"Yes; it has turned very cold."
"I've got a bit o' supper ready for you. I don't want none myself; there's food enough for me here." He laid his hand on the book. "D'you call to mind the eighteenth of Ezekiel, lass? -- 'But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed ----'"
Eve stood motionless till he had read the verse, then nodded and began to take off her out-of-door garments. She was unable to talk, and her eyes wandered absently.
After a week's inquiry, Hilliard discovered the lodging that would suit his purpose. It was Camp Hill; two small rooms at the top of a house, the ground-floor of which was occupied as a corn-dealer's shop, and the story above that tenanted by a working optician with a blind wife. On condition of papering the rooms and doing a few repairs necessary to make them habitable, he secured them at the low rent of four shillings a week.
Eve paid her first visit to this delectable abode on a Sunday afternoon; she saw only the sitting-room, which would bear inspection; the appearance of the bed-room was happily left to her surmise. Less than a five-pound note had paid for the whole furnishing. Notwithstanding the reckless invitation to Eve to share his fortunes straightway, Hilliard, after paving his premium of fifty guineas to the Birching Brothers, found but a very small remnant in hand of the money with which he had set forth from Dudley some nine months ago. Yet not for a moment did he repine; he had the value of his outlay; his mind was stored with memories and his heart strengthened with hope.
At her second coming -- she herself now occupied a poor little lodging not very far away -- Eve beheld sundry improvements. By the fireside stood a great leather chair, deep, high-backed, wondrously self-assertive over against the creaky cane seat which before had dominated the room. Against the wall was a high bookcase, where Hilliard's volumes, previously piled on the floor, stood in loose array; and above the mantelpiece hung a framed engraving of the Parthenon.
"This is dreadful extravagance!" she exclaimed, pausing at the threshold, and eying her welcomer with mock reproof.
"It is, but not on my part. The things came a day or two ago, simply addressed to me from shops."
"Who was the giver, then?"
"Must be Narramore, of course. He was here not long ago, and growled a good deal because I hadn't a decent chair for his lazy bones."
"I am much obliged to him," said Eve, as she sank back in the seat of luxurious repose. "You ought to hang his portrait in the room. Haven't you a photograph?" she added carelessly.
"Such a thing doesn't exist. Like myself, he hasn't had a portrait taken since he was a child. A curious thing, by-the-bye, that you should have had yours taken just when you did. Of course it was because you were going far away for the first time; but it marked a point in your life, and put on record the Eve Madeley whom no one would see again If I can't get that photograph in any other way I shall go and buy, beg, or steal it from Mrs. Brewer."
"Oh, you shall have one if you insist upon it."
"Why did you refuse it before?"
"I hardly know -- a fancy -- I thought you would keep looking at it, and regretting that I had changed so."
As on her previous visit, she soon ceased to talk, and, in listening to Hilliard, showed unconsciously a tired, despondent face.
"Nothing yet," fell from her lips, when he had watched her silently.
"Never mind; I hate the mention of it."
"By-the-bye," he resumed, " Narramore astounded me by hinting at marriage. It's Miss Birching, the sister of my man. It hasn't come to an engagement yet, and if it ever does I shall give Miss Birching the credit for it. It would have amused you to hear him talking about her, with a pipe in his mouth and half asleep. I understand now why he took young Birching with him to Switzerland. He'll never carry it through; unless, as I said, Miss Birching takes the decisive step."
"Is she the kind of girl to do that?" asked Eve, waking to curiosity.
"I know nothing about her, except from Narramore's sleepy talk. Rather an arrogant beauty, according to him. He told me a story of how, when he was calling upon her, she begged him to ring the bell for something or other, and he was so slow in getting up that she went and rang it herself. 'Her own fault,' he said; 'she asked me to sit on a chair with a seat some six inches above the ground, and how can a man hurry up from a thing of that sort?'"
"He must be a strange man. Of course he doesn't care anything about Miss Birching."
"But I think he does, in his way."
"How did he ever get on at all in business?"
"Oh, he's one of the lucky men." Hilliard replied, with a touch of good-natured bitterness. "He never exerted himself; good things fell into his mouth. People got to like him -- that's one explanation, no doubt."
"Don't you think he may have more energy than you imagine?"
"It's possible. I have sometimes wondered."
"What sort of life does he lead? Has he many friends I mean?"
"Very few. I should doubt whether there's anyone he talks with as he does with me. He'll never get much good out of his money; but if he fell into real poverty -- poverty like mine -- it would kill him. I know he looks at me as an astonishing creature, and marvels that I don't buy a good dose of chloral and have done with it."
Eve did not join in his laugh.
"I can't bear to hear you speak of your poverty," she said in an undertone. "You remind me that I am the cause of it."
"Good Heavens! As if I should mention it if I were capable of such a thought!"
"But it's the fact," she persisted, with something like irritation. "But for me, you would have gone into the architect's office with enough to live upon comfortably for a time."
"That's altogether unlikely," Hilliard declared. "But for you, it's improbable that I should have gone to Birching's at all. At this moment I should be spending my money in idleness, and, in the end, should have gone back to what I did before. You have given me a start in a new life."
This, and much more of the same tenor, failed to bring a light upon Eve's countenance. At length she asked suddenly, with a defiant bluntness ----
"Have you ever thought what sort of a wife I am likely to make?"
Hilliard tried to laugh, but was disagreeably impressed by her words and the look that accompanied them.
"I have thought about it, to be sure," he answered carelessly
"And don't you feel a need of courage?"
"Of course. And not only the need but the courage itself."
"Tell me the real, honest truth." She bent forward, and gazed at him with eyes one might have thought hostile. "I demand the truth of you: I have a right to know it. Don't you often wish you had never seen me?"
"You 're in a strange mood."
"Don't put me off. Answer!"
"To ask such a question," he replied quietly, "is to charge me with a great deal of hypocrisy. I did once all but wish I had never seen you. If I lost you now I should lose what seems to me the strongest desire of my life. Do you suppose I sit down and meditate on your capacity as cook or housemaid? It would be very prudent and laudable, but I have other thoughts -- that give me trouble enough."
"Such as one doesn't talk about -- if you insist on frankness."
Her eyes wandered.
"It's only right to tell you," she said, after silence, "that I dread poverty as much as ever I did. And I think poverty in marriage a thousand times worse than when one is alone."
"Well, we agree in that. But why do you insist upon it just now? Are you beginning to be sorry that we ever met?"
"Not a day passes but I feel sorry for it."
"I suppose you are harping on the old scruple. Why will you plague me about it?"
"I mean," said Eve, with eyes down, "that you are the worse off for having met me, but I mean something else as well. Do you think it possible that anyone can owe too much gratitude, even to a person one likes?"
He regarded her attentively.
"You feel the burden?"
She delayed her answer, glancing at him with a new expression -- a deprecating tenderness.
"It's better to tell you. I do feel it, and have always felt it."
"Confound this infernal atmosphere!" Hilliard broke out wrathfully. "It's making you morbid again. Come here to me! Eve -- come!"
As she sat motionless, he caught her hands and drew her forward, and sat down again with her passive body resting upon his knees. She was pale, and looked frightened.
"Your gratitude be hanged! Pay me back with your lips -- so -- and so! Can't you understand that when my lips touch yours, I have a delight that would be well purchased with years of semi-starvation? What is it to me how I won you? You are mine for good and all -- that's enough."
She drew herself half away, and stood brightly flushed, touching her hair to set it in order again. Hilliard, with difficulty controlling himself, said in a husky voice --
"Is the mood gone?"
Eve nodded, and sighed.
At the time appointed for their next meeting, Hilliard waited in vain. An hour passed, and Eve, who had the uncommon virtue of punctuality, still did not come. The weather was miserable -- rain, fog, and slush -- but this had heretofore proved no obstacle, for her lodgings were situated less than half a mile away. Afraid of missing her if he went out, he fretted through another hour, and was at length relieved by the arrival of a letter of explanation. Eve wrote that she had been summoned to Dudley; her father was stricken with alarming illness, and her brother had telegraphed.
For two days he heard nothing; then came a few lines which told him that Mr. Madeley could not live many more hours. On the morrow Eve wrote that her father was dead.
To the letter which he thereupon despatched Hilliard had no reply for nearly a week. When Eve wrote, it was from a new address at Dudley. After thanking him for the kind words with which he had sought to comfort her, she continued --
"I have at last found something to do, and it was quite time, for I have been very miserable, and work is the best thing for me. Mr. Welland, my first employer, when I was twelve years old, has asked me to come and keep his books for him, and I am to live in his house. My brother has gone into lodgings, and we see no more of the cottage on Kate's Hill. It's a pity I have to be so far from you again, but there seems to be no hope of getting anything to do in Birmingham, and here I shall be comfortable enough, as far as mere living goes. On Sunday I shall be quite free, and will come over as often as possible; but I have caught a bad cold, and must be content to keep in the house until this dreadful weather changes. Be more careful of yourself than you generally are, and let me hear often. In a few months' time we shall be able to spend pleasant hours on the Castle Hill. I have heard from Patty, and want to tell you about her letter, but this cold makes me feel too stupid Will write again soon."
It happened that Hilliard himself was just now blind and voiceless with a catarrh. The news from Dudley by no means solaced him. He crouched over his fire through the long, black day, tormented with many miseries, and at eventide drank half a bottle of whisky, piping hot, which at least assured him of a night's sleep.
Just to see what would be the result of his silence, he wrote no reply to this letter. A fortnight elapsed; he strengthened himself in stubbornness, aided by the catarrh, which many bottles of whisky would not overcome. When his solitary confinement grew at length insufferable, he sent for Narramore, and had not long to wait before his friend appeared. Narramore was rosy as ever: satisfaction with life beamed from his countenance.
"I've ordered you in some wine," he exclaimed genially, sinking into the easy-chair which Hilliard had vacated for him -- an instance of selfishness in small things which did not affect his generosity in greater. "It isn't easy to get good port nowadays, but they tell me that this is not injurious. Hasn't young Birching been to see you? No, I suppose he would think it infra dig. to come to this neighbourhood. There's a damnable self-conceit in that family: you must have noticed it, eh? It comes out very strongly in the girl. By-the-bye I've done with her -- haven't been there for three weeks, and don't think I shall go again, unless it's for the pleasure of saying or doing something that'll irritate her royal highness."
"Did you quarrel?"
"Quarrel? I never quarrel with anyone; it's bad for one's nerves."
"Did you get as far as proposing?"
"Oh, I left her to do that. Women are making such a row about their rights nowadays, that it's as well to show you grant them perfect equality. I gave her every chance of saying something definite. I maintain that she trifled with my affections. She asked me what my views in life were. Ah, thought I, now it's coming; and I answered modestly that everything depended on circumstances. I might have said it depended on the demand for brass bedsteads; but perhaps that would have verged on indelicacy -- you know that I am delicacy personified. 'I thought,' said Miss Birching, 'that a man of any energy made his own circumstances?' 'Energy!' I shouted. 'Do you look for energy in me? It's the greatest compliment anyone ever paid me.' At that she seemed desperately annoyed, and wouldn't pursue the subject. That's how it always was, just when the conversation grew interesting."
"I'm sorry to see you so cut up about it," remarked Hilliard.
"None of your irony, old fellow. Well, the truth is, I've seen someone I like better."
"It's a queer story; I'll tell it you some day, if it comes to anything. I'm not at all sure that it will, as there seems to be a sort of lurking danger that I may make a damned fool of myself."
"Improbable?" commented the listener. "Your blood is too temperate."
"So I thought; but one never knows. Unexpected feelings crop up in a fellow. We won't talk about it just now. How have things been going in the architectural line?"
"Not amiss. Steadily, I think."
Narramore lay back at full length, his face turned to the ceiling.
"Since I've been living out yonder, I've got a taste for the country. I have a notion that, if brass bedsteads keep firm, I shall some day build a little house of my own; an inexpensive little house, with a tree or two about it. Just make me a few sketches, will you? When you've nothing better to do, you know."
He played with the idea, till it took strong hold of him, and he began to talk with most unwonted animation.
"Five or six thousand pounds -- I ought to be able to sink that in a few years. Not enough, eh? But I don't want a mansion. I'm quite serious about this, Hilliard. When you re feeling ready to start on your own account, you shall have the job."
Hilliard laughed grimly at the supposition that he would ever attain professional independence, but his friend talked on, and overleaped difficulties with a buoyancy of spirit which ultimately had its effect upon the listener. When he was alone again, Hilliard felt better, both in body and mind, and that evening, over the first bottle of Narramore's port, he amused himself with sketching ideal cottages.
"The fellow's in love, at last. When a man thinks of pleasant little country houses, 'with a tree or two' about them ----"
He sighed, and ground his teeth, and sketched on.
Before bedtime, a sudden and profound shame possessed him. Was he not behaving outrageously in neglecting to answer Eve's letter? For all he knew the cold of which she complained might have caused her more suffering than he himself had gone through from the like cause, and that was bad enough. He seized paper and wrote to her as he had never written before, borne on the very high flood of passionate longing. Without regard to prudence he left the house at midnight and posted his letter.
"It never occurred to me to blame you for not writing," Eve quickly replied; "I'm afraid you are more sensitive than I am, and, to tell the truth, I believe men generally are more sensitive than women in things of this kind. It pleased me very much to hear of the visit you had had from Mr. Narramore, and that he had cheered you. I do so wish I could have come, but I have really been quite ill, and I must not think of risking a journey till the weather improves. Don't trouble about it; I will write often."
"I told you about a letter I had had from poor Patty, and I want to ask you to do something. Will you write to her? Just a nice, friendly little letter. She would be so delighted, she would indeed. There's no harm in copying a line or two from what she sent me. 'Has Mr. Hilliard forgotten all about me?' she says. 'I would write to him, but I feel afraid. Not afraid of you, dear Eve, but he might feel I was impertinent. What do you think? We had such delicious times together, he and you and I, and I really don't want him to forget me altogether?' Now I have told her that there is no fear whatever of your forgetting her, and that we often speak of her. I begin to think that I have been unjust to Patty in calling her silly, and making fun of her. She was anything but foolish in breaking off with that absurd Mr. Dally, and I can see now that she will never give a thought to him again. What I fear is that the poor girl will never find any one good enough for her. The men she meets are very vulgar, and vulgar Patty is not -- as you once said to me, you remember. So, if you can spare a minute, write her a few lines, to show that you still think of her. Her address is ----, etc."
To Hilliard all this seemed merely a pleasant proof of Eve's amiability, of her freedom from that acrid monopolism which characterises the ignoble female in her love relations. Straightway he did as he was requested, and penned to Miss Ringrose a chatty epistle, with which she could not but be satisfied. A day or two brought him an answer. Patty's handwriting lacked distinction, and in the matter of orthography she was not beyond reproach, but her letter chirped with a prettily expressed gratitude. "I am living with my aunt, and am likely to for a long time. And I get on very well at my new shop, which I have no wish to leave." This was her only allusion to the shattered matrimonial project: "I wish there was any chance of you and Eve coming to live in London, but I suppose that's too good to hope for. We don't get many things as we wish them in this world. And yet I oughtn't to say that either, for if it hadn't been for you I should never have seen Paris, which was so awfully jolly! But you'll be coming for a holiday, won't you? I should so like just to see you, if ever you do. It isn't like it was at the old shop. There's a great deal of business done here, and very little time to talk to anyone in the shop. But many girls have worse things to put up with than I have, and I won't make you think I'm a grumbler."
The whole of January went by before Hilliard and Eve again saw each other. The lover wrote at length that he could bear it no longer, that he was coming to Dudley, if only for the mere sight of Eve's face; she must meet him in the waiting-room at the railway station. She answered by return of post, "I will come over next Sunday, and be with you at twelve o'clock, but I must leave very early, as I am afraid to be out after nightfall." And this engagement was kept.
The dress of mourning became her well; it heightened her always noticeable air of refinement, and would have constrained to a reverential tenderness even had not Hilliard naturally checked himself from any bolder demonstration of joy. She spoke in a low, soft voice, seldom raised her eyes, and manifested a new gentleness very touching to Hilliard, though at the same time, and he knew not how or why, it did not answer to his desire. A midday meal was in readiness for her; she pretended to eat, but in reality scarce touched the food.
"You must taste old Narramore's port wine," said her entertainer. "The fellow actually sent a couple of dozen."
She was not to be persuaded; her refusal puzzled and annoyed Hilliard, and there followed a long silence. Indeed, it surprised him to find how little they could say to each other to-day. An unknown restraint had come between them.
"Well," he exclaimed at length, "I wrote to Patty, and she answered."
"May I see the letter?"
"Of course. Here it is."
Eve read it, and smiled with pleasure.
"Doesn't she write nicely! Poor girl!"
"Why have you taken so to commiserating her all at once?" Hilliard asked. "She's no worse off than she ever was. Rather better, I think."
"Life isn't the same for her since she was in Paris," said Eve, with peculiar softness.
"Well, perhaps it improved her."
"Oh, it certainly did! But it gave her a feeling of discontent for the old life and the people about her."
"A good many of us have to suffer that. She's nothing like as badly off as you are, my dear girl."
Eve coloured, and kept silence.
"We shall hear of her getting married before long," resumed the other. "She told me herself that marriage was the scourge of music-shops -- it carries off their young women at such a rate."
"She told you that? It was in one of your long talks together in London? Patty and you got on capitally together. It was very natural she shouldn't care much for men like Mr. Dally afterwards."
Hilliard puzzled over this remark, and was on the point of making some impatient reply, but discretion restrained him. He turned to Eve's own affairs, questioned her closely about her life in the tradesman's house, and so their conversation followed a smoother course. Presently, half in jest, Hilliard mentioned Narramore's building projects.
"But who knows? It might come to something of importance for me. In two or three years, if all goes well, such a thing might possibly give me a start."
A singular solemnity had settled upon Eve's countenance. She spoke not a word, and seemed unaccountably ill at ease.
"Do you think I am in the clouds?" said Hilliard.
"Oh, no! Why shouldn't you get on -- as other men do?"
But she would not dwell upon the hope, and Hilliard, not a little vexed, again became silent.
Her next visit was after a lapse of three weeks. She had again been suffering from a slight illness, and her pallor alarmed Hilliard. Again she began with talk of Patty Ringrose.
"Do you know, there's really a chance that we may see her before long! She'll have a holiday at Easter, from the Thursday night to Monday night, and I have all but got her to promise that she'll come over here. Wouldn't it be fun to let her see the Black Country? You remember her talk about it. I could get her a room, and if it's at all bearable weather, we would all have a day somewhere. Wouldn't you like that?"
"Yes; but I should greatly prefer a day with you alone."
"Oh, of course, the time is coming for that, Would you let us come here one day?"
With a persistence not to be mistaken Eve avoided all intimate topics; at the same time her manner grew more cordial. Through February and March, she decidedly improved in health. Hilliard saw her seldom, but she wrote frequent letters, and their note was as that of her conversation, lively, all but sportive. Once again she had become a mystery to her lover; he pondered over her very much as in the days when they were newly acquainted. Of one thing he felt but too well assured. She did not love him as he desired to be loved. Constant she might be, but it was the constancy of a woman unaffected with ardent emotion. If she granted him her lips they had no fervour respondent to his own; she made a sport of it, forgot it as soon as possible. Upon Hilliard's vehement nature this acted provocatively; at times he was all but frenzied with the violence of his sensual impulses. Yet Eve's control of him grew more assured the less she granted of herself; a look, a motion of her lips, and he drew apart, quivering but subdued. At one such moment he exclaimed:
"You had better not come here at all. I love you too insanely."
Eve looked at him, and silently began to shed tears. He implored her pardon, prostrated himself, behaved in a manner that justified his warning. But Eve stifled the serious drama of the situation, and forced him to laugh with her.
In these days architectural study made little way.
Patty Ringrose was coming for the Easter holidays. She would arrive on Good Friday. "As the weather is so very bad still," wrote Eve to Hilliard, "will you let us come to see you on Saturday? Sunday may be better for an excursion of some sort."
And thus it was arranged. Hilliard made ready his room to receive the fair visitors, who would come at about eleven in the morning. As usual nowadays, he felt discontented, but, after all, Patty's influence might be a help to him, as it had been in worse straits.
To-day he had the house to himself. The corn-dealers shop was closed, as on a Sunday; the optician and his blind wife had locked up their rooms and were spending Easter-tide, it might be hoped, amid more cheerful surroundings. Hilliard sat with his door open, that he might easily hear the knock which announced his guests at the entrance below.
It sounded, at length, but timidly. Had he not been listening, he would not have perceived it. Eve's handling of the knocker was firmer than that, and in a different rhythm. Apprehensive of disappointment, he hurried downstairs and opened the door to Patty Ringrose -- Patty alone.
With a shy but pleased laugh, her cheeks warm and her eyes bright, she jerked out her hand to him as in the old days.
"I know you won't be glad to see me. I'm so sorry. I said I had better not come."
"Of course I am glad to see you. But where's Eve?"
"It's so unfortunate -- she has such a bad headache!" panted the girl. "She couldn't possibly come, and I wanted to stay with her, I said . I should only disappoint you."
"It's a pity, of course; but I'm glad you came, for all that." Hilliard stifled his dissatisfaction and misgivings. "You'll think this a queer sort of place. I'm quite alone here to-day. But after you have rested a little we can go somewhere else."
"Yes. Eve told me you would be so kind as to take me to see things. I'm not tired. I won't come in, if you'd rather ----"
"Oh, you may as well see what sort of a den I've made for myself."
He led the way upstairs. When she reached the top, Patty was again breathless, the result of excitement more than exertion. She exclaimed at sight of the sitting-room. How cosy it was! What a scent from the flowers! Did he always buy flowers for his room? No doubt it was to please Eve. What a comfortable chair! Of course Eve always sat in this chair?
Then her babbling ceased, and she looked up at Hilliard, who stood over against her, with nervous delight. He could perceive no change whatever in her, except that she was better dressed than formerly. Not a day seemed to have been added to her age; her voice had precisely the intonations that he remembered. After all, it was little more than half a year since they were together in Paris; but to Hilliard the winter had seemed of interminable length, and he expected to find Miss Ringrose a much altered person.
"When did this headache begin?" he inquired, trying to speak without over-much concern.
"She had a little yesterday, when she met me at the station. I didn't think she was looking at all well."
"I'm surprised to hear that. She looked particularly well when I saw her last. Had you any trouble in making your way here?"
"Oh, not a bit. I found the tram, just as Eve told me. But I'm so sorry! And a fine day too! You don't often have fine days here, do you, Mr. Hilliard?"
"Now and then. So you've seen Dudley at last. What do you think of it?"
"Oh, I like it! I shouldn't mind living there a bit. But of course I like Birmingham better."
"Almost as fine as Paris, isn't it?"
"You don't mean that, of course. But I've only seen a few of the streets, and most of the shops are shut up to-day. Isn't it a pity Eve has to live so far off? Though, of course, it isn't really very far -- and I suppose you see each other often?"
Hilliard took a seat, crossed his legs, and grasped his knee. The girl appeared to wait for an answer to her last words, but he said nothing, and stared at the floor.
"If it's fine to-morrow," Patty continued, after observing him furtively, "are you coming to Dudley?"
"Yes, I shall come over. Did she send any message?"
"No -- nothing particular ----"
Patty looked confused, stroked her dress, and gave a little cough.
"But if it rains -- as it very likely will -- there's no use in my coming"
"No, she said not."
"Or if her headache is still troubling her ----"
"Let's hope it will be better. But -- in any case, she'll be able to come with me to Birmingham on Monday, when I go back I must be home again on Monday night."
"Don't you think," said Hilliard carelessly, "that Eve would rather have you to herself, just for the short time you are here?"
Patty made vigorous objection.
"I don't think that at all. It's quite settled that you are to come over to-morrow, if it's fine. Oh, and I do hope it will be! It would be so dreadful to be shut up in the house all day at Dudley. How very awkward that there's no place where she can have you there! If it rains, hadn't we better come here? I'm sure it would be better for Eve. She seems to get into such low spirits -- just like she was sometimes in London."
"That's quite news to me," said the listener gravely.
"Doesn't she let you know? Then I'm so sorry I mentioned it. You won't tell her I said anything?"
"Wait a moment. Does she say that she is often in low spirits?"
Patty faltered, stroking her dress with the movement of increasing nervousness.
"It's better I should know," Hilliard added, "I'm afraid she keeps all this from me. For several weeks I have thought her in particularly good health."
"But she tells me just the opposite. She says ----"
"Perhaps it's only the place that doesn't agree with her. I don't think Dudley is very healthy, do you?"
"I never heard of doctors sending convalescents there. But Eve must be suffering from some other cause, I think. Does it strike you that she is at all like what she used to be when -- when you felt so anxious about her?"
He met the girl's eyes, and saw them expand in alarm.
"I didn't think -- I didn't mean ----" she stammered.
"No, but I have a reason for asking. Is it so or not?"
"Don't frighten me, Mr. Hilliard! I do so wish I hadn't said anything. She isn't in good health, that's all. How can you think ----? That was all over long ago. And she would never -- I'm sure she wouldn't, after all you've done for her."
Hilliard ground the carpet with his foot, and all but uttered a violent ejaculation.
"I know she is all gratitude," were the words that became audible.
"She is indeed!" urged Patty. "She says that -- even if she wished -- she could never break off with you; as I am sure she would never wish!"
"Ah! that's what she says," murmured the other. And abruptly he rose. "There's no use in talking about this. You are here for a holiday, and not to be bored with other people's troubles. The sun is trying to shine. Let us go and see the town, and then -- yes, I'll go back with you to Dudley, just to hear whether Eve is feeling any better. You could see her, and then come out and tell me."
"Mr. Hilliard, I'm quite sure you are worrying without any cause -- you are, indeed!"
"I know I am. It's all nonsense. Come along, and let us enjoy the sunshine."
They spent three or four hours together, Hilliard resolute in his discharge of hospitable duties, and Miss Ringrose, after a brief spell of unnatural gravity, allowing no reflection to interfere with her holiday mood. Hilliard had never felt quite sure as to the limits of Patty's intelligence; he could not take her seriously, and yet felt unable to treat her altogether as a child or an imbecile. To-day, because of his preoccupied thoughts, and the effort it cost him to be jocose, he talked for the most part in a vein of irony which impressed, but did not much enlighten, his hearer.
"This," said he, when they had reached the centre of things, "is the Acropolis of Birmingham. Here are our great buildings, of which we boast to the world. They signify the triumph of Democracy -- and of money. In front of you stands the Town Hall. Here, to the left, is the Midland Institute, where a great deal of lecturing goes on, and the big free library, where you can either read or go to sleep. I have done both in my time. Behind yonder you catch a glimpse of the fountain that plays to the glory of Joseph Chamberlain -- did you ever hear of him? And further back still is Mason College, where young men are taught a variety of things, including discontent with a small income. To the right there, that's the Council Hall -- splendid, isn't it! We bring our little boys to look at it, and tell them if they make money enough they may some day go in and out as if it were their own house. Behind it you see the Art Gallery. We don't really care for pictures; a great big machine is our genuine delight; but it wouldn't be nice to tell everybody that."
"What a lot I have learnt from you!" exclaimed the girl ingenuously, when at length they turned their steps towards the railway station. "I shall always remember Birmingham. You like it much better than London, don't you?"
"I glory in the place!"
Hilliard was tired out. He repented of his proposal to make the journey to Dudley and back, but his companion did not suspect this.
"I'm sure Eve will come out and have a little walk with us," she said comfortingly. "And she'll think it so kind of you."
At Dudley station there were crowds of people; Patty asked leave to hold by her companion's arm as they made their way to the exit. Just outside Hilliard heard himself hailed in a familiar voice; he turned and saw Narramore.
"I beg your pardon," said his friend, coming near. "I didn't notice -- I thought you were alone, or, of course I shouldn't have shouted. Shall you be at home to-morrow afternoon?"
"If it rains."
"It's sure to rain. I shall look in about four."
With a glance at Miss Ringrose, he raised his hat and passed on. Hilliard, confused by the rapid rencontre, half annoyed at having been seen with Patty, and half wishing he had not granted the appointment for tomorrow, as it might interfere with a visit from the girls, walked forward in silence.
"So we really sha'n't see you if it's wet tomorrow," said Patty.
"Better not. Eve would be afraid to come, she catches cold so easily."
"It may be fine, like to-day. I do hope ----"
She broke off and added:
"Why, isn't that Eve in front?"
Eve it certainly was, walking slowly away from the station, a few yards in advance of them. They quickened their pace, and Patty caught her friend by the arm. Eve, startled out of abstraction, stared at her with eyes of dismay and bloodless cheeks.
"Did I frighten you? Mr. Hilliard has come back with me to ask how you are. Is your head better?"
"I've just been down to the station -- for something to do," said Eve, her look fixed on Hilliard with what seemed to him a very strange intensity. "The afternoon was so fine."
"We've had a splendid time," cried Patty. "Mr. Hilliard has shown me everything."
"I'm so glad. I should only have spoilt it if I had been with you. It's wretched going about with a headache, and I can't make believe to enjoy Birmingham."
Eve spoke hurriedly, still regarding Hilliard, who looked upon the ground.
"Have you been alone all day?" he asked, taking the outer place at her side, as they walked on.
"Of course -- except for the people in the house," was her offhand reply.
"I met Narramore down at the station; he must have passed you. What has brought him here to-day, I wonder?"
Appearing not to heed the remark, Eve glanced across at Patty, and said with a laugh:
"It's like Paris again, isn't it -- we three? You ought to come and live here, Patty. Don't you think you could get a place in Birmingham? Mr. Hilliard would get a piano for his room, and you could let him have some music. I'm too old to learn."
"I'm sure he wouldn't want me jingling there."
"Wouldn't he? He's very fond of music indeed."
"Well, I don't think I'll go any further," he said mechanically. "You're quite well again, Eve, and that's all I wanted to know."
"What about to-morrow?" Eve asked.
The sun had set, and in the westward sky rose a mountain of menacing cloud. Hilliard gave a glance in that direction before replying.
"Don't count upon me. Patty and you will enjoy the day together, in any case. Yes, I had rather have it so. Narramore said just now he might look in to see me in the after' noon. But come over on Monday. When does Patty's train go from New Street?"
Eve was mute, gazing at the speaker as if she did not catch what he had said. Patty answered for herself.
"Then you can either come to my place," he continued, "or I'll meet you at the station."
Patty's desire was evident in her face; she looked at Eve.
"We'll come to you early in the afternoon," said the latter, speaking like one aroused from reverie. "Yes, we'll come whatever the weather is."
The young man shook hands with them, raised his hat, and walked away without further speech. It occurred to him that he might overtake Narramore at the station, and in that hope he hastened; but Narramore must have left by a London and North-Western train which had just started; he was nowhere discoverable. Hilliard travelled back by the Great Western, after waiting about an hour; he had for companions half-a-dozen beer-muddled lads, who roared hymns and costers' catches impartially.
His mind was haunted with deadly suspicions: he felt sick at heart.
Eve's headache, undoubtedly, was a mere pretence for not accompanying Patty to-day. She had desired to be alone, and -- this he discovered no less clearly -- she wished the friendship between him and Patty to be fostered. With what foolish hope? Was she so shallow-natured as to imagine that he might transfer his affections to Patty Ringrose? it proved how strong her desire had grown to be free from him.
The innocent Patty (was she so innocent?) seemed not to suspect the meaning of her friend's talk. Yet Eve must have all but told her in so many words that she was weary of her lover. That hateful harping on "gratitude"! Well, one cannot purchase a woman's love. He had missed the right, the generous, line of conduct. That would have been to rescue Eve from manifest peril, and then to ask nothing of her. Could he but have held his passions in leash, something like friendship -- rarest of all relations between man and woman -- might have come about between him and Eve. She, too, certainly had never got beyond the stage of liking him as a companion; her senses had never answered to his appeal He looked back upon the evening when they had dined together at the restaurant in Holborn. Could he but have stopped at that point! There would have been no harm in such avowals as then escaped him, for he recognised without bitterness that the warmth of feeling was all on one side, and Eve, in the manner of her sex, could like him better for his love without a dream of returning it. His error was to have taken advantage -- perhaps a mean advantage -- of the strange events that followed. If he restrained himself before, how much more he should have done so when the girl had put herself at his mercy, when to demand her love was the obvious, commonplace, vulgar outcome of the situation? Of course she harped on "gratitude." What but a sense of obligation had constrained her?
Something had taken place to-day; he felt it as a miserable certainty. The man from London had been with her. She expected him, and had elaborately planned for a day of freedom. Perhaps her invitation of Patty had no other motive.
That Patty was a conspirator against him he could not believe. No! She was merely an instrument of Eve's subtlety. And his suspicion had not gone beyond the truth. Eve entertained the hope that Patty might take her place. Perchance the silly, good-natured girl would feel no objection; though it was not very likely that she foresaw or schemed for such an issue.
At Snow Hill station it cost him an effort to rise and leave the carriage. His mood was sluggish; he wished to sit still and think idly over the course of events.
He went byway of St. Philip's Church, which stands amid a wide graveyard, enclosed with iron railings, and crossed by paved walks. The locality was all but forsaken; the church rose black against the grey sky, and the lofty places of business round about were darkly silent. A man's footstep sounded in front of him, and a figure approached along the narrow path between the high bars. Hilliard would have passed without attention, but the man stopped his way.
"Hollo! Here we are again!"
He stared at the speaker, and recognised Mr. Dengate.
"So you've come back?"
"Where from?" said Hilliard. "What do you know of me?"
"As much as I care to," replied the other with a laugh. "So you haven't quite gone to the devil yet? I gave you six months. I've been watching the police news in the London papers."
In a maddening access of rage, Hilliard clenched his fist and struck fiercely at the man. But he did no harm, for his aim was wild, and Dengate easily warded off the blows.
"Hold on! You're drunk, of course. Stop it, my lad, or I'll have you locked up till Monday morning. Very obliging of you to offer me the pleasure I was expecting, but you will have it, eh?"
A second blow was repaid in kind, and Hilliard staggered back against the railings. Before he could recover himself, Dengate, whose high hat rolled between their feet, pinned his arms.
"There's someone coming along. It's a pity. I should enjoy thrashing you and then running you in. But a man of my position doesn't care to get mixed up in a street row. It wouldn't sound well at Liverpool. Stand quiet, will you!"
A man and a woman drew near, and lingered for a moment in curiosity. Hilliard already amazed at what he had done, became passive, and stood with bent head.
"I must have a word or two With you," said Dengate, when he had picked up his hat. "Can you walk straight? I didn't notice you were drunk before I spoke to you. Come along this way."
To escape the lookers-on, Hilliard moved forward.
"I've always regretted," resumed his companion, "that I didn't give you a sound thrashing that night in the train. It would have done you good. It might have been the making of you. I didn't hurt you, eh?"
"You've bruised my lips -- that's all. And I deserved it for being such a damned fool as to lose my temper."
"You look rather more decent than I should have expected. What have you been doing in London?"
"How do you know I have been in London?"
"I took that for granted when I knew you'd left your work at Dudley."
"Who told you I had left it?"
"What does it matter?"
"I should like to know," said Hilliard, whose excitement had passed and left him cold. "And I should like to know who told you before that I was in the habit of getting drunk?"
"Are you drunk now, or not?"
"Not in the way you mean. Do you happen to know a man called Narramore?"
"Never heard the name."
Hilliard felt ashamed of his ignoble suspicion. He became silent.
"There's no reason why you shouldn't be told," added Dengate; "it was a friend of yours at Dudley that I came across when I was making inquiries about you: Mullen his name was."
A clerk at the ironworks, with whom Hilliard had been on terms of slight intimacy.
"Oh, that fellow," he uttered carelessly. "I'm glad to know it was no one else. Why did you go inquiring about me?"
"I told you. If I'd heard a better account I should have done a good deal more for you than pay that money. I gave you a chance, too. If you'd shown any kind of decent be haviour when I spoke to you in the train -- but it's no good talking about that now. This is the second time you've let me see what a natural blackguard you are. It's queer, too, you didn't get that from your father. I could have put you in the way of something good at Liverpool. Now, I'd see you damned first, Well, have you run through the money?"
"Every penny of it gone in drink."
"And what are you doing?"
"Walking with a man I should be glad to be rid of."
"All right. Here's my card. When you get into the gutter, and nobody'll give you a hand out, let me know."
With a nod, Dengate walked off. Hilliard saw him smooth his silk hat as he went; then, without glancing at the card, he threw it away.
The next morning was cold and wet. He lay in bed till eleven o'clock, when the charwoman came to put his rooms in order. At mid-day he left home, had dinner at the nearest place he knew where a meal could be obtained on Sunday, and afterwards walked the streets for an hour under his umbrella. The exercise did him good; on returning he felt able to sit down by the fire, and turn over the plates of his great book on French Cathedrals. This, at all events, remained to him out of the wreck, and was a joy that could be counted upon in days to come.
He hoped Narramore would keep his promise, and was not disappointed. On the verge of dusk his friend knocked and entered.
"The blind woman was at the door below," he explained, "looking for somebody."
"It isn't as absurd as it sounds. She does look for people -- with her ears. She knows a footstep that no one else can hear. What were you doing at Dudley yesterday?"
Narramore took his pipe out of its case and smiled over it.
"Colours well, doesn't it?" he remarked. "You don't care about the colouring of a pipe? I get a lot of satisfaction out of such little things! Lazy fellows always do; and they have the best of life in the end. By-the-bye, what were you doing at Dudley?"
"Had to go over with a girl."
"Rather a pretty girl, too. Old acquaintance?"
"Someone I got to know in London. No, no, not at all what you suppose."
"Well, I know you wouldn't talk about it. It isn't my way, either, to say much about such things. But I half-promised, not long ago, to let you know of something that was going on -- if it came to anything. And it rather looks as if it might. What do you think! Birching has been at me, wanting to know why I don't call. I wonder whether the girl put him up to it?"
"You went rather far, didn't you?"
"Oh, I drew back in time. Besides, those ideas are old-fashioned. It'll have to be understood that marriageable girls have nothing specially sacred about them. They must associate with men on equal terms. The day has gone by for a hulking brother to come asking a man about his 'intentions.' As a rule, it's the girl that has intentions. The man is just looking round, anxious to be amiable without making a fool of himself. We're at a great disadvantage. A girl who isn't an idiot can very soon know all about the men who interest her; but it's devilish difficult to get much insight into them -- until you've hopelessly committed yourself -- won't you smoke? I've something to tell you, and I can't talk to a man who isn't smoking, when my own pipe's lit."
Hilliard obeyed, and for a few moments they puffed in silence, twilight thickening about them.
"Three or four months ago," resumed Narramore, "I was told one day -- at business -- that a lady wished to see me. I happened to have the room to myself, and told them to show the lady in. I didn't in the least know who it could be, and I was surprised to see rather a good-looking girl -- not exactly a lady -- tallish, and with fine dark eyes -- what did you say?"
"A twinge of gout?"
Narramore scrutinised his friend, who spoke in an unusual tone.
"She sat down, and began to tell me that she was out of work -- wanted a place as a bookkeeper, or something of the kind. Could I help her? I asked her why she came to me. She said she had heard of me from someone who used to be employed at our place. That was flattering. I showed my sense of it. Then I asked her name, and she said it was Miss Madeley."
A gust threw rain against the windows. Narramore paused, looking into the fire, and smiling thoughtfully.
"You foresee the course of the narrative?"
"Better tell it in detail," muttered Hilliard.
"Why this severe tone? Do you anticipate something that will shock your moral sense? I didn't think you were so straitlaced."
"Do you mean to say ----"
Hilliard was sitting upright; his voice began on a harsh tremor, and suddenly failed. The other gazed at him in humorous astonishment.
"What the devil do you mean? Even suppose -- who made you a judge and a ruler? This is the most comical start I've known for a long time. I was going to tell you that I have made up my mind to marry the girl."
"I see -- it's all right ----"
"But do you really mean," said Narramore, "that anything else would have aroused your moral indignation?"
Hilliard burst into a violent fit of laughter. His pipe fell to the floor, and broke; whereupon he interrupted his strange merriment with a savage oath.
"It was a joke, then?" remarked his friend.
"Your monstrous dulness shows the state of your mind. This is what comes of getting entangled with women. You need to have a sense of humour."
"I'm afraid there's some truth in what you say, old boy. I've been conscious of queer symptoms lately -- a disposition to take things with absurd seriousness, and an unwholesome bodily activity now and then."
"Go on with your tragic story. The girl asked you to find her a place ----"
"I promised to think about it, but I couldn't hear of anything suitable. She had left her address with me, so at length I wrote her a line just saying I hadn't forgotten her. I got an answer on black-edged paper. Miss Madeley wrote to tell me that her father had recently died, and that she had found employment at Dudley; with thanks for my kindness -- and so on. It was rather a nicely written letter, and after a day or two I wrote again. I heard nothing -- hardly expected to; so in a fortnight's time I wrote once more. Significant, wasn't it? I'm not fond of writing letters, as you know. But I've written a good many since then. At last it came to another meeting. I went over to Dudley on purpose, and saw Miss Madeley on the Castle Hill. I had liked the look of her from the first, and I liked it still better now. By dint of persuasion, I made her tell me all about herself."
"Did she tell you the truth?"
"Why should you suppose she didn't?" replied Narramore with some emphasis. "You must look at this affair in a different light, Hilliard. A joke is a joke, but I've told you that the joking time has gone by. I can make allowance for you: you think I have been making a fool of myself, after all."
"The beginning was ominous."
"The beginning of our acquaintance? Yes, I know how it strikes you. But she came in that way because she had been trying for months ----"
"Who was it that told her of you?"
"Oh, one of our girls, no doubt. I haven't asked her -- never thought again about it."
"And what's her record?"
"Nothing dramatic in it, I'm glad to say. At one time she had an engagement in London for a year or two. Her people, 'poor but honest' -- as the stories put it. Father was a timekeeper at Dudley; brother, a mechanic there. I was over to see her yesterday; we had only just said good-bye when I met you. She's remarkably well educated, all things considered: very fond of reading; knows as much of books as I do -- more, I daresay. First-rate intelligence; I guessed that from the first. I can see the drawbacks, of course. As I said, she isn't what you would call a lady; but there's nothing much to find fault with even in her manners. And the long and the short of it is, I'm in love with her."
"And she has promised to marry you?"
"Well, not in so many words. She seems to have scruples -- difference of position, and that kind of thing."
"Very reasonable scruples, no doubt."
"Quite right that she should think of it in that way, at all events. But I believe it was practically settled yesterday. She isn't in very brilliant health, poor girl! I want to get her away from that beastly place as soon as possible. I shall give myself a longish holiday, and take her on to the Continent. A thorough change of that kind would set her up wonderfully.
"She has never been on to the Continent?"
"What a preposterous question! You're going to sleep, sitting here in the dark. Oh, don't trouble to light up for me; I can't stay much longer."
Hilliard had risen, but instead of lighting the lamp he turned to the window and stood there drumming with his fingers on a pane.
"Are you seriously concerned for me?" said his friend. "Does it seem a piece of madness?"
"You must judge for yourself, Narramore."
"When you have seen her I think you'll take my views. Of course it's the very last thing I ever imagined myself doing; but I begin to see that the talk about fate isn't altogether humbug. I want this girl for my wife, and I never met any one else whom I really did want. She suits me exactly. It isn't as if I thought of marrying an ordinary, ignorant, low-class girl. Eve -- that's her name -- is very much out of the common, look at her how you may. She's rather melancholy, but that's a natural result of her life."
"No doubt, as you say, she wants a thorough change," remarked Hilliard, smiling in the gloom.
"That's it. Her nerves are out of order. Well, I thought I should like to tell you this, old chap. You'll get over the shock in time. I more than half believe, still, that your moral indignation was genuine. And why not? I ought to respect you for it."
"Are you going?"
"I must be in Bristol Road by five -- promised to drink a cup of Mrs. Stocker's tea this afternoon. I'm glad now that I have kept up a few homely acquaintances; they may be useful, Of course I shall throw over the Birchings and that lot. You see now why my thoughts have been running on a country house!"
He went off laughing, and his friend sat down again by the fireside.
Half an hour passed. The fire had burnt low, and the room was quite dark. At length, Hilliard bestirred himself. He lit the lamp, drew down the blind, and seated himself at the table to write. With great rapidity he covered four sides of note-paper, and addressed an envelope. But he had no postage-stamp. It could be obtained at a tobacconist's.
So he went out, and turned towards a little shop hard by. But when he had stamped the letter he felt undecided about posting it. Eve had promised to come to-morrow with Patty. If she again failed him it would be time enough to write. If she kept her promise the presence of a third person would be an intolerable restraint upon him. Yet why? Patty might as well know all, and act as judge between them. There needed little sagacity to arbitrate in a matter such as this.
To sit at home was impossible. He walked for the sake of walking, straight on, without object. Down the long gas-lit perspective of Bradford Street, with its closed, silent workshops, across the miserable little river Rea -- canal rather than river, sewer rather than canal -- up the steep ascent to St. Martin's and the Bull Ring, and the bronze Nelson, dripping with dirty moisture; between the big buildings of New Street, and so to the centre of the town. At the corner by the Post Office he stood in idle contemplation. Rain was still falling, but lightly. The great open space gleamed with shafts of yellow radiance reflected on wet asphalt from the numerous lamps. There was little traffic. An omnibus clattered by, and a tottery cab, both looking rain-soaked. Near the statue of Peel stood a hansom, the forlorn horse crooking his knees and hanging his hopeless head. The Town Hall colonnade sheltered a crowd of people, who were waiting for the rain to stop, that they might spend their Sunday evening, as usual, in rambling about the streets. Within the building, which showed light through all its long windows, a religious meeting was in progress, and hundreds of voices peeled forth a rousing hymn, fortified with deeper organ-note.
Hilliard noticed that as rain-drops fell on the heated globes of the street-lamps they were thrown off again in little jets and puffs of steam. This phenomenon amused him for several minutes. He wondered that he had never observed it before.
Easter Sunday. The day had its importance for a Christian mind. Did Eve think about that? Perhaps her association with him, careless as he was in all such matters, had helped to blunt her religious feeling. Yet what hope was there, in such a world as this, that she would retain the pieties of her girlhood?
Easter Sunday. As he walked on, he pondered the Christian story, and tried to make something out of it. Had it any significance for him? Perhaps, for he had never consciously discarded the old faith; he had simply let it fall out of his mind. But a woman ought to have religious convictions. Yes; he saw the necessity of that. Better for him if Eve were in the Town Hall yonder, joining her voice with those that sang.
Better for him. A selfish point of view. But the advantage would be hers also. Did he not desire her happiness? He tried to think so, but after all was ashamed to play the sophist with himself. The letter he carried in his pocket told the truth. He had but to think of her as married to Robert Narramore and the jealous fury of natural man drove him headlong.
Monday was again a holiday. When would the cursed people get back to their toil, and let the world resume its wonted grind and clang? They seemed to have been making holiday for a month past.
He walked up and down on the pavement near his door, until at the street corner there appeared a figure he knew. It was Patty Ringrose, again unaccompanied.
They shook hands without a word, their eyes meeting for an instant only. Hilliard led the way upstairs; and Patty, still keeping an embarrassed silence, sat down on the easy-chair. Her complexion was as noticeably fresh as Hilliard's was wan and fatigued. Where Patty's skin showed a dimple, his bore a gash, the result of an accident in shaving this morning.
With hands behind he stood in front of the girl.
"She chose not to come, then?"
"Yes. She asked me to come and see you alone."
"No pretence of headache this time."
"I don't think it was a pretence," faltered Patty, who looked very ill at ease, for all the bloom on her cheeks and the clear, childish light in her eyes.
"Well, then, why hasn't she come to-day?"
"She has sent a letter for you, Mr. Hilliard."
Patty handed the missive, and Hilliard laid it upon the table.
"Am I to read it now?"
"I think it's a long letter."
"Feels like it. I'll study it at my leisure. You know what it contains?"
Patty nodded, her face turned away.
"And why has she chosen to-day to write to me?" Patty kept silence. "Anything to do with the call I had yesterday from my friend Narramore?"
"Yes -- that's the reason. But she has meant to let you know for some time."
Hilliard drew a long breath. He fixed his eyes on the letter.
"She has told me everything," the girl continued, speaking hurriedly. "Did you know about it before yesterday?"
"I'm not so good an actor as all that. Eve has the advantage of me in that respect. She really thought it possible that Narramore had spoken before?"
"She couldn't be sure."
"H'm! Then she didn't know for certain that Narramore was going to talk to me about her yesterday?"
"She knew it must come."
"Patty, our friend Miss Madeley is a very sensible person -- don't you think so?"
"You mustn't think she made a plan to deceive you. She tells you all about it in the letter, and I'm quite sure it's all true, Mr. Hilliard. I was astonished when I heard of it, and I can't tell you how sorry I feel ----"
"I'm not at all sure that there's any cause for sorrow," Hilliard interrupted, drawing up a chair and throwing himself upon it. "Unless you mean that you are sorry for Eve."
"I meant that as well."
"Let us understand each other. How much has she told you?"
"Everything, from beginning to end. I had no idea of what happened in London before we went to Paris. And she does so repent of it! She doesn't know how she could do it. She wishes you had refused her."
"So do I."
"But you saved her -- she can never forget that. You mustn't think that she only pretends to be grateful. She will be grateful to you as long as she lives. I know she will."
"On condition that I -- what?"
Patty gave him a bewildered look.
"What does she ask of me now?"
"She's ashamed to ask anything. She fears you will never speak to her again."
Hilliard meditated, then glanced at the letter.
"I had better read this now, I think, if you will let me."
"Yes -- please do ----"
He tore open the envelope, and disclosed two sheets of note-paper, covered with writing. For several minutes there was silence; Patty now and then gave a furtive glance at her companion's face as he was reading. At length he put the letter down again, softly.
"There's something more here than I expected. Can you tell me whether she heard from Narramore this morning?"
"She has had no letter."
"I see. And what does she suppose passed between Narramore and me yesterday?"
"She is wondering what you told him."
"She takes it for granted, in this letter, that I have put an end to everything between them. Well, hadn't I a right to do so?"
"Of course you had," Patty replied, with emphasis. "And she knew it must come. She never really thought that she could marry Mr. Narramore. She gave him no promise."
"Only corresponded with him, and made appointments with him, and allowed him to feel sure that she would be his wife."
"Eve has behaved very strangely. I can't understand her. She ought to have told you that she had been to see him, and that he wrote to her. It's always best to be straightforward. See what trouble she has got herself into!"
Hilliard took up the letter again, and again there was a long silence.
"Have you said good-bye to her?" were his next words.
"She's going to meet me at the station to see me off."
"Did she come from Dudley with you?"
"It's all very well to make use of you for this disagreeable business ----"
"Oh, I didn't mind it!" broke in Patty, with irrelevant cheerfulness.
"A woman 'who does such things as this should have the courage to go through with it. She ought to have come herself, and have told me that. She was aiming at much better things than I could have promised her. There would have been something to admire in that. The worst of it is she is making me feel ashamed of her. I'd rather have to do with a woman who didn't care a rap for my feelings than with a weak one, who tried to spare me to advantage herself at the same time. There's nothing like courage, whether in good or evil. What do you think? Does she like Narramore?"
"I think she does," faltered Patty, nervously striking her dress.
"Is she in love with him?"
"I -- I really don't know!"
"Do you think she ever was in love with anyone, or ever will be?"
Patty sat mute.
"Just tell me what you think."
"I'm afraid she never -- Oh, I don't like to say it, Mr. Hilliard!"
"That she never was in love with me? I know it."
His tone caused Patty to look up at him, and what she saw in his face made her say quickly:
"I am so sorry; I am indeed! You deserve ----"
"Never mind what I deserve," Hilliard interrupted with a grim smile. "Something less than hanging, I hope. That fellow in London; she was fond of him?"
The girl whispered an assent.
"A pity I interfered."
"Ah! But think what ----"
"We won't discuss it, Patty. It's a horrible thing to be mad about a girl who cares no more for you than for an old glove; but it's a fool's part to try to win her by the way of gratitude. When we came back from Paris I ought to have gone my way, and left her to go hers. Perhaps just possible -- if I had seemed to think no more of her ----"
Patty waited, but he did not finish his speech.
"What are you going to do, Mr. Hilliard?"
"Yes, that's the question. Shall I hold her to her promise? She says here that she will keep her word if I demand it."
"She says that!" Patty exclaimed, with startled eyes.
"Didn't you know?"
"She told me it was impossible. But perhaps she didn't mean it. Who can tell what she means?"
For the first time there sounded a petulance in the girl's voice. Her lips closed tightly, and she tapped with her foot on the floor.
"Did she say that the other thing was also impossible -- to marry Narramore?"
"She thinks it is, after what you've told him."
"Well, now, as a matter of fact I told him nothing."
Patty stared, a new light in her eyes.
"You told him -- nothing?"
"I just let him suppose that I had never heard the girl's name before."
"Oh, how kind of you! How ----"
"Please to remember that it wasn't very easy to tell the truth. What sort of figure should I have made?"
"It's too bad of Eve! It's cruel! I can never like her as I did before."
"Oh, she's very interesting. She gives one such a lot to talk about."
"I don't like her, and I shall tell her so before I leave Birmingham. What right has she to make people so miserable?"
"Only one, after all."
"Do you mean that you will let her marry Mr. Narramore?" Patty asked with interest.
"We shall have to talk about that."
"If I were you I should never see her again!"
"The probability is that we shall see each other many a time."
"Then you haven't much courage, Mr. Hilliard!" exclaimed the girl, with a flush on her cheeks.
"More than you think, perhaps," he answered between his teeth.
"Men are very strange," Patty commented in a low voice of scorn, mitigated by timidity.
"Yes, we play queer pranks when a woman has made a slave of us. I suppose you think I should have too much pride to care any more for her. The truth is that for years to come I shall tremble all through whenever she is near me. Such love as I have felt for Eve won't be trampled out like a spark. It's the best and the worst part of my life. No woman can ever be to me what Eve is."
Abashed by the grave force of this utterance, Patty shrank back into the chair, and held her peace.
"You will very soon know what comes of it all," Hilliard continued with a sudden change of voice. "It has to be decided pretty quickly, one way or another."
"May I tell Eve what you have said to me?" the girl asked with diffidence.
"Yes, anything that I have said."
Patty lingered a little, then, as her companion said no more, she rose.
"I must say good-bye, Mr. Hilliard."
"I am afraid your holiday hasn't been as pleasant as you expected."
"Oh, I have enjoyed myself very much. And I hope" -- her voice wavered -- "I do hope it'll be all right. I'm sure you'll do what seems best."
"I shall do what I find myself obliged to, Patty. Good-bye. I won't offer to go with you, for I should be poor company."
He conducted her to the foot of the stairs, again shook hands with her, put all his goodwill into a smile, and watched her trip away with a step not so light as usual. Then he returned to Eve's letter. It gave him a detailed account of her relations with Narramore. "I went to him because I couldn't bear to live idle any longer; I had no other thought in my mind. If he had been the means of my finding work, I should have confessed it to you at once. But I was tempted into answering his letters. . . . I knew I was behaving wrongly; I can't defend myself. . . . I have never concealed my faults from you -- the greatest of them is my fear of poverty. I believe it is this that has prevented me from returning your love as I wished to do. For a long time I have been playing a deceitful part, and the strange thing is that I knew my exposure might come at any moment. I seem to have been led on by a sort of despair. Now I am tired of it; whether you were prepared for this or not, I must tell you. . . . I don't ask you to release me. I have been wronging you and acting against my conscience, and if you can forgive me I will try to make up for the ill I have done. . . ."
How much of this could he believe? Gladly he would have fooled himself into believing it all, but the rational soul in him cast out credulity. Every phrase of the letter was calculated for its impression. And the very risk she had run, was not that too a matter of deliberate speculation? She might succeed in her design upon Narramore; if she failed, the 'poorer man was still to be counted upon, for she knew the extent of her power over him. It was worth the endeavour. Perhaps, in her insolent self-confidence, she did not fear the effect on Narramore of the disclosure that might be made to him. And who could say that her boldness was not likely to be justified?
He burned with wrath against her, the wrath of a hopelessly infatuated man. Thoughts of revenge, no matter how ignoble, harassed his mind. She counted on his slavish spirit. and even in saying that she did not ask him to release her, she saw herself already released. At each reperusal of her letter he felt more resolved to disappoint the hope that inspired it. When she learnt from Patty that Narramore was still ignorant of her history how would she exult! But that joy should be brief. In the name of common honesty he would protect his friend. If Narramore chose to take her with his eyes open ----
Jealous frenzy kept him pacing the room for an hour or two. Then he went forth and haunted the neighbourhood of New Street station until within five minutes of the time of departure of Patty's train. If Eve kept her promise to see the girl off he might surprise her upon the platform.
From the bridge crossing the lines he surveyed the crowd of people that waited by the London train, a bank-holiday train taking back a freight of excursionists. There-amid he discovered Eve, noted her position, descended to the platform, and got as near to her as possible. The train moved off. As Eve turned away among the dispersing people, he stepped to meet her.
She gave no sign of surprise. Hilliard read in her face that she had prepared herself for this encounter.
"Come away where we can talk," he said abruptly.
She walked by him to a part of the station where only a porter passed occasionally. The echoings beneath the vaulted roof allowed them to speak without constraint, for their voices were inaudible a yard or two off. Hilliard would not look into her face, lest he should be softened to foolish clemency.
"It's very kind of you," he began, with no clear purpose save the desire of harsh speech, "to ask me to overlook this trifle, and let things be as before."
"I have said all I can say in the letter. I deserve all your anger."
That was the note he dreaded, the too well remembered note of pathetic submission. It reminded him with intolerable force that he had never held her by any bond save that of her gratitude.
"Do you really imagine," he exclaimed, "that I could go on with make-believe -- that I could bring myself to put faith in you again for a moment?"
"I don't ask you to," Eve replied, in firmer accents. "I have lost what little respect you could ever feel for me. I might have repaid you with honesty -- I didn't do even that. Say the worst you can of me, and I shall think still worse of myself."
The voice overcame him with a conviction of her sincerity, and he gazed at her, marvelling.
"Are you honest now? Anyone would think so; yet how am I to believe it?"
Eve met his eyes steadily.
"I will never again say one word to you that isn't pure truth. I am at your mercy, and you may punish me as you like."
"There's only one way in which I can punish you. For the loss of my respect, or of my love, you care nothing. If I bring myself to tell Narramore disagreeable things about you, you will suffer a disappointment, and that's all. The cost to me will be much greater, and you know it. You pity yourself. You regard me as holding you ungenerously by an advantage you once gave me. It isn't so at all. It is I who have been held by bonds I couldn't break, and from the day when you pretended a love you never felt, all the blame lay with you."
"What could I do?"
"Be truthful -- that was all."
"You were not content with the truth. You forced me to think that I could love you, Only remember what passed between us."
"Honesty was still possible, when you came to know yourself better. You should have said to me in so many words: 'I can't look forward to our future with any courage; if I marry it must be a man who has more to offer.' Do you think I couldn't have endured to hear that? You have never understood me. I should have said: 'Then let us shake hands, and I am your friend to help you all I can.'"
"You say that now ----"
"I should have said it at any time."
"But I am not so mean as you think me. If I loved a man I could face poverty with him, much as I hate and dread it. It was because I only liked you, and could not feel more ----"
"Your love happens to fall upon a man who has solid possessions."
"It's easy to speak so scornfully. I have not pretended to love the man you mean."
"Yet you have brought him to think that you are willing to marry him."
"Without any word of love from me. If I had been free I would have married him -- just because I am sick of the life I lead, and long for the kind of life he offered me."
"When it's too late you are frank enough."
"Despise me as much as you like. You want the truth, and you shall hear nothing else from me."
"Well, we get near to understanding each other. But it astonishes me that you spoilt your excellent chance. How could you hope to carry through this ----"
Eve broke in impatiently.
"I told you in the letter that I had no hope of it. It's your mistake to think me a crafty, plotting, selfish woman. I'm only a very miserable one -- it went on from this to that, and I meant nothing. I didn't scheme; I was only tempted into foolishness. I felt myself getting into difficulties that would be my ruin, but I hadn't strength to draw back."
"You do yourself injustice," said Hilliard, coldly. "For the past month you have acted a part before me, and acted it well. You seemed to be reconciling yourself to my prospects, indifferent as they were. You encouraged me -- talked with unusual cheerfulness -- showed a bright face. If this wasn't deliberate acting what did it mean?"
"Yes, it was put on," Eve admitted, after a pause. "But I couldn't help that. I was obliged to keep seeing you, and if I had looked as miserable as I felt ----" She broke off. "I tried to behave just like a friend. You can't charge me with pretending -- anything else. I could be your friend: that was honest feeling."
"It's no use to me. I must have more, or nothing."
The flood of passion surged in him again. Some trick of her voice, or some indescribable movement of her head -- the trifles which are all-powerful over a man in love -- beat down his contending reason.
"You say," he continued, "that you will make amends for your unfair dealing. If you mean it, take the only course that shows itself. Confess to Narramore what you have done; you owe it to him as much as to me."
"I can't do that," said Eve, drawing away. "It's for you to tell him -- if you like."
"No. I had my opportunity, and let it pass. I don't mean that you are to inform him of all there has been between us; that's needless. We have agreed to forget everything that suggests the word I hate. But that you and I have been lovers and looked -- I, at all events -- to be something more, this you must let him know."
"I can never do that."
"Without it, how are you to disentangle yourself?"
"I promise you he shall see no more of me."
"Such a promise is idle, and you know it. Remember, too, that Narramore and I are friends. He will speak to me of you, and I can't play a farce with him. It would be intolerable discomfort to me, and grossly unfair to him. Do, for once, the simple, honourable thing, and make a new beginning. After that, be guided by your own interests. Assuredly I shall not stand in your way."
Eve had turned her eyes in the direction of crowd and bustle. When she faced Hilliard again, he saw that she had come to a resolve.
"There's only one way out of it for me," she said impulsively. "I can't talk any longer. I'll write to you."
She moved from him; Hilliard followed. At a distance of half-a-dozen yards, just as he was about to address her again, she stopped and spoke --
"You hate to hear me talk of 'gratitude.' I have always meant by it less than you thought. I was grateful for the money, not for anything else. When you took me away, perhaps it was the unkindest thing you could have done."
An unwonted vehemence shook her voice. Her muscles were tense; she stood in an attitude of rebellious pride.
"If I had been true to myself then ---- But it isn't too late. If I am to act honestly, I know very well what I must do. I will take your advice."
Hilliard could not doubt of her meaning. He remembered his last talk with Patty. This was a declaration he had not foreseen, and it affected him otherwise than he could have anticipated.
"My advice had nothing to do with that," was his answer, as he read her face. "But I shall say not a word against it. I could respect you, at all events."
"Yes, and I had rather have your respect than your love."
With that, she left him. He wished to pursue, but a physical languor held him motionless. And when at length he sauntered from the place, it was with a sense of satisfaction at what had happened. Let her carry out that purpose: he faced it, preferred it. Let her be lost to him in that way rather than any other. It cut the knot, and left him with a memory of Eve that would not efface her dishonouring weakness.
Late at night, he walked about the streets near his home, debating with himself whether she would act as she spoke, or had only sought to frighten him with a threat. And still he hoped that her resolve was sincere. He could bear that conclusion of their story better than any other -- unless it were her death. Better a thousand times than her marriage with Narramore.
In the morning, fatigue gave voice to conscience. He had bidden her go, when, perchance, a word would have checked her. Should he write, or even go to her straightway and retract what he had said? His will prevailed, and he did nothing.
The night that followed plagued him with other misgivings. It seemed more probable now that she had threatened what she would never have the courage to perform. She meant it at the moment -- it declared a truth but an hour after she would listen to commonplace morality or prudence. Narramore would write to her; she might, perhaps, see him again. She would cling to the baser hope.
Might but the morrow bring him a letter from London!
It brought nothing; and day after day disappointed him. More than a week passed: he was ill with suspense, but could take no step for setting his mind at rest. Then, as he sat one morning at his work in the architect's office, there arrived a telegram addressed to him --
"I must see you as soon as possible. Be here before six. -- Narramore."
"What the devil does this mean, Hilliard?"
If never before, the indolent man was now thoroughly aroused. He had an open letter in his hand. Hilliard, standing before him in a little office that smelt of ledgers and gum, and many other commercial things, knew that the letter must be from Eve, and savagely hoped that it was dated London.
"This is from Miss Madeley, and it's all about you. Why couldn't you speak the other day?"
"What does she say about me?"
"That she has known you for a long time; that you saw a great deal of each other in London; that she has led you on with a hope of marrying her, though she never really meant it; in short, that she has used you very ill, and feels obliged now to make a clean breast of it."
The listener fixed his eye upon a copying-press, but without seeing it. A grim smile began to contort his lips.
"Where does she write from?"
"From her ordinary address -- why not? I think this is rather too bad of you. Why didn't you speak, instead of writhing about and sputtering? That kind of thing is all very well -- sense of honour and all that -- but it meant that I was being taken in. Between friends -- hang it! Of course I have done with her. I shall write at once. It's amazing; it took away my breath. No doubt, though she doesn't say it, it was from you that she came to know of me. She began with a lie. And who the devil could have thought it! Her face -- her way of talking! This will cut me up awfully. Of course, I'm sorry for you, too, but it was your plain duty to let me know what sort of a woman I had got hold of. Nay, it's she that has got hold of me, confound her! I don't feel myself! I'm thoroughly knocked over!"
Hilliard began humming an air. He crossed the room and sat down.
"Have you seen her since that Saturday?"
"No; she has made excuses, and I guessed something was wrong. What has been going on? You have seen her?"
"It's devilish underhand behaviour! Look here, old fellow, we're not going to quarrel. No woman is worth a quarrel between two old friends. But just speak out -- can't you? What did you mean by keeping it from me?"
"It meant that I had nothing to say," Hilliard replied, through his moustache.
"You kept silence out of spite, then? You said to yourself, 'Let him marry her and find out afterwards what she really is!'"
"Nothing of the kind." He looked up frankly. "I saw no reason for speaking. She accuses herself without a shadow of reason; it's mere hysterical conscientiousness. We have known each other for half a year or so, and I have made love to her, but I never had the least encouragement. I knew all along she didn't care for me. How is she to blame? A girl is under no obligation to speak of all the men who have wanted to marry her, provided she has done nothing to be ashamed of. There's just one bit of insincerity. It's true she knew of you from me. But she looked you up because she despaired of finding employment; she was at an end of her money, didn't know what to do. I have heard this since I saw you last. It wasn't quite straightforward, but one can forgive it in a girl hard driven by necessity."
Narramore was listening with eagerness, his lips parted, and a growing hope in his eyes.
"There never was anything serious between you?"
"On her side, never for a moment. I pursued and pestered her, that was all."
"Do you mind telling me who the girl was that I saw you with at Dudley?"
"A friend of Miss Madeley's, over here from London on a holiday. I have tried to make use of her -- to get her influence on my side ----"
Narramore sprang from the corner of the table on which he had been sitting.
"Why couldn't she hold her tongue! That's just like a woman, to keep a thing quiet when she ought to speak of it, and bring it out when she had far better say nothing. I feel as if I had treated you badly, Hilliard. And the way you take it -- I'd rather you eased your mind by swearing at me."
"I could swear hard enough. I could grip you by the throat and jump on you ----"
"No, I'm hanged if you could!" He forced a laugh. "And I shouldn't advise you to try. Here, give me your hand instead." He seized it. "We're going to talk this over like two reasonable beings. Does this girl know her own mind? It seems to me from this letter that she wants to get rid of me."
"You must find out whether she does or not."
"Do you think she does?"
"I refuse to think about it at all."
"You mean she isn't worth troubling about? Tell the truth, and be hanged to you! Is she the kind of a girl a man may marry?"
"For all I know."
"Do you suspect her?" Narramore urged fiercely.
"She'll marry a rich man rather than a poor one -- that's the worst I think of her."
"What woman won't?"
When question and answer had revolved about this point for another quarter of an hour, Hilliard brought the dialogue to an end. He was clay-colour, and perspiration stood on his forehead.
"You must make her out without any more help from me. I tell you the letter is all nonsense, and I can say no more."
He moved towards the exit.
"One thing I must know, Hilliard -- Are you going to see her again?"
"Can we be friends still?"
"If you never mention her name to me."
Again they shook hands, eyes crossing in a smile of shamed hostility. And the parting was for more than a twelvemonth.
Late in August, when Hilliard was thinking of a week's rest in the country. after a spell of harder and more successful work than he had ever previously known, he received a letter from Patty Ringrose.
"Dear Mr. Hilliard," wrote the girl, "I have just heard from Eve that she is to be married to Mr. Narramore in a week's time. She says you don't know about it; but I think you ought to know. I haven't been able to make anything of her two last letters, but she has written plainly at last. Perhaps she means me to tell you. Will you let me have a line? I should like to know whether you care much, and I do so hope you don't! I felt sure it would come to this, and if you'll believe me, it's just as well. I haven't answered her letter, and I don't know whether I shall. I might say disagreeable things. Everything is the same with me and always will be, I suppose." In conclusion, she was his sincerely. A postscript remarked: "They tell me I play better. I've been practising a great deal, just to kill the time."
"Dear Miss Ringrose," he responded, "I am very glad to know that Eve is to be comfortably settled for life. By all means answer her letter, and by all means keep from saying disagreeable things. It is never wise to quarrel with prosperous friends, and why should you? With every good wish ----" he remained sincerely hers.
When Hilliard and his friend again shook hands it was the autumn of another year. Not even by chance had they encountered in the interval and no written message had passed between them. Their meeting was at a house newly acquired by the younger of the Birching brothers, who, being about to marry, summoned his bachelor familiars to smoke their pipes in the suburban abode while yet his rule there was undisputed. With Narramore he had of late resumed the friendship interrupted by Miss Birching's displeasure, for that somewhat imperious young lady, now the wife of an elderly ironmaster, moved in other circles; and Hilliard's professional value, which was beginning to be recognised by the Birchings otherwise than in the way of compliment, had overcome the restraints at first imposed by his dubious social standing.
They met genially, without a hint of estrangement.
"Your wife well?" Hilliard took an opportunity of asking apart.
"Thanks, she's getting all right again. At Llandudno just now. Glad to see that you're looking so uncommonly fit."
Hilliard had undoubtedly improved in personal appearance. He grew a beard, which added to his seeming age, but suited with his features; his carriage was more upright than of old.
A week or two after this, Narramore sent a friendly note --
"Shall I see you at Birching's on Sunday? My wife will be there, to meet Miss Marks and some other people. Come if you can, old fellow. I should take it as a great kindness."
And Hilliard went. In the hall he was confronted by Narramore, who shook hands with him rather effusively, and said a few words in an undertone.
"She's out in the garden. Will be delighted to see you. Awfully good of you, old boy! Had to come sooner or later, you know."
Not quite assured of this necessity, and something less than composed, Hilliard presently passed through the house into the large walled garden behind it. Here he was confusedly aware of a group of ladies, not one of whom, on drawing nearer, did he recognise. A succession of formalities discharged, he heard his friend's voice saying --
"Hilliard, let me introduce you to my wife."
There before him stood Eve. He had only just persuaded himself of her identity; his eyes searched her countenance with wonder which barely allowed him to assume a becoming attitude. But Mrs. Narramore was perfect in society's drill. She smiled very sweetly, gave her hand, said what the occasion demanded. Among the women present -- all well bred -- she suffered no obscurement. Her voice was tuned to the appropriate harmony; her talk invited to an avoidance of the hackneyed.
Hilliard revived his memories of Gower Place -- of the streets of Paris. Nothing preternatural had come about; nothing that he had not forecasted in his hours of hope. But there were incidents in the past which this moment blurred away into the region of dreamland, and which he shrank from the effort of reinvesting with credibility.
"This is a pleasant garden."
Eve had approached him as he stood musing, after a conversation with other ladies.
"Rather new, of course; but a year will do wonders. Have you seen the chrysanthemums?"
She led him apart, as they stood regarding the flowers, Hilliard was surprised by words that fell from her.
"Your contempt for me is beyond expression, isn't it?"
"It is the last feeling I should associate with you," he answered.
"Oh, but be sincere. We have both learnt to speak another language -- you no less than I. Let me hear a word such as you used to speak. I know you despise me unutterably."
"You are quite mistaken. I admire you very much."
"What -- my skill? Or my dress?"
"Everything. You have become precisely what you were meant to be."
"Oh, the scorn of that!"
"I beg you not to think it for a moment. There was a time when I might have found a foolish pleasure in speaking to you with sarcasm. But that has long gone by."
"What am I, then?"
"An English lady -- with rather more intellect than most."
Eve flushed with satisfaction.
"It's more than kind of you to say that. But you always had a generous spirit. I never thanked you. Not one poor word. I was cowardly -- afraid to write. And you didn't care for my thanks."
"I do now."
"Then I thank you. With all my heart, again and again!"
Her voice trembled under fulness of meaning.
"You find life pleasant?"
"You do, I hope?" she answered, as they paced on.
"Not unpleasant, at all events. I am no longer slaving under the iron gods. I like my work, and it promises to reward me."
Eve made a remark about a flower-bed. Then her voice subdued again.
"How do you look back on your great venture -- your attempt to make the most that could be made of a year in your life?"
"Quite contentedly. It was worth doing, and is worth remembering."
"Remember, if you care to," Eve resumed, "that all I am and have I owe to you. I was all but lost -- all but a miserable captive for the rest of my life. You came and ransomed me. A less generous man would have spoilt his work at the last moment. But you were large minded enough to support my weakness till I was safe."
Hilliard smiled for answer.
"You and Robert are friends again?"
She turned, and they rejoined the company.
A week later Hilliard went down into the country, to a quiet spot where he now and then refreshed his mind after toil in Birmingham. He slept at a cottage, and on the Sunday morning walked idly about the lanes.
A white frost had suddenly hastened the slow decay of mellow autumn. Low on the landscape lay a soft mist, dense enough to conceal everything at twenty yards away, but suffused with golden sunlight; overhead shone the clear blue sky. Roadside trees and hedges, their rich tints softened by the medium through which they were discerned, threw shadows of exquisite faintness. A perfect quiet possessed the air, but from every branch, as though shaken by some invisible hand, dead foliage dropped to earth in a continuous shower; softly pattering from beech to maple, or with the heavier fall of ash-leaves, while at long intervals sounded the thud of apples tumbling from a crab-tree. Thick-clustered berries arrayed the hawthorns, the briar was rich in scarlet fruit; everywhere the frost had left the adornment of its subtle artistry. Each leaf upon the hedge shone silver-outlined; spiders' webs, woven from stein to stem, glistened in the morning radiance; the grasses by the way side stood stark in gleaming mail.
And Maurice Hilliard, a free man in his own conceit, sang to himself a song of the joy of life.
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