Again came springtime, and, as he stood behind the counter, Warburton thought of all that was going on in the world he had forsaken. Amusements for which he had never much cared haunted his fancy; feeling himself shut out from the life of grace and intellect, he suffered a sense of dishonour, as though his position resulted from some personal baseness, some crime. He numbered the acquaintances he had dropped, and pictured them as mentioning his name -- if ever they did so -- with cold disapproval. Godfrey Sherwood had ceased to write; it was six months since his last letter, in which he hinted a fear that the Irish enterprise would have to be abandoned for lack of capital. Even Franks, good fellow as he was, seemed to grow lukewarm in friendship. The painter had an appointment for a Sunday in May at Will's lodgings, to smoke and talk, but on the evening before he sent a telegram excusing himself. Vexed, humiliated, Warburton wasted the Sunday morning, and only after his midday meal yielded to the temptation of a brilliant sky, which called him forth. Walking westward, with little heed to distance or direction, he presently found himself at Kew; on the bridge he lingered awhile, idly gazing at boats, and; as he thus leaned over the parapet, the sound of a voice behind him fell startlingly upon his ear. He turned, just in time to catch a glimpse of the features which that voice had brought before his mind's eye, Bertha Cross was passing, with her mother. Probably they had not seen him. And even if they had, if they had recognised him -- did he flatter himself that the Crosses would give any sign in public of knowing their grocer?
With his eyes on the graceful figure of Bertha, he slowly followed. The ladies were crossing Kew Green; doubtless they would enter the Gardens to spend the afternoon there. Would it not be pleasant to join them, to walk by Bertha's side, to talk freely with her, forgetting the counter, which always restrained their conversation? Bertha was nicely dressed, though one saw that her clothes cost nothing. In the old days, if he had noticed her at all she would have seemed to him rather a pretty girl of the lower middle class, perhaps a little less insignificant than her like; now she shone for him against a background of "customers," the one in whom he saw a human being of his own kind, and who, within the imposed limits, had given proof of admitting his humanity. He saw her turn to look at her mother, and smile; a smile of infinite kindness and good-humour. Involuntarily his own lips responded; he walked on smiling -- smiling.
They passed through the gates; he, at a distance of a dozen yards, still followed. There was no risk of detection; indeed he was doing no harm; even a grocer might observe, from afar off, a girl walking with her mother. But, after strolling for a quarter of an hour, they paused beside a bench, and there seated themselves. Mrs. Cross seemed to be complaining of something; Bertha seemed to soothe her. When he was near enough to be aware of this Will saw that he was too near. He turned abruptly on his heels, and -- stood face to face with Norbert Franks.
"Hallo!" exclaimed the painter, with an air of embarrassment. "I thought that was your back!"
"Your engagement was here?" asked Will bluntly, referring to the other's telegram of excuse.
"Yes. I was obliged to----"
He broke off, his eyes fixed on the figures of Bertha and her mother.
"You were obliged----?"
"You see the ladies there," said Franks in a lower voice, "there, on the seat? It's Mrs. Cross and her daughter -- you remember the Crosses? I called to see them yesterday, and only Mrs. Cross was at home, and -- the fact is, I as good as promised to meet them here, if it was fine."
"Very well," replied Warburton carelessly, "I won't keep you."
Franks was in great confusion. He looked this way and that, as if seeking for an escape. As Will began to move away, he kept at his side.
"Look here, Warburton, let me introduce you to them. They're very nice people; I'm sure you'd like them; do let me----"
"Thank you, no. I don't want any new acquaintances."
"Why? Come along old man," urged the other. "You're getting too grumpy; you live too much alone. Just to please me----"
"No!" answered Will, resolutely, walking on.
"Very well -- just as you like. But, I say, should I find you at home this evening? Say, nine o'clock. I particularly want to have a talk."
"Good. I'll be there," replied Will, and so, with knitted brows strode away.
Very punctually did the visitor arrive that evening. He entered the room with that same look of embarrassment which he had worn during the brief colloquy at Kew; he shook hands awkwardly, and, as he seated himself, talked about the fall of temperature since sunset, which made a fire agreeable. Warburton, ashamed of the sullenness he could not overcome, rolled this way and that in his chair, holding the poker and making lunges with it at a piece of coal which would not break.
"That was a lucky chance," began Franks at length, "our meeting this afternoon."
"Because it has given me the courage to speak to you about something. Queerest chance I ever knew that you should be there close by the Crosses."
"Did they ask who I was?" inquired Warburton after a violent lunge with the poker, which sent pieces of coal flying into the room.
"They didn't happen to see me whilst I was talking with you. But, in any case," added Franks, "they wouldn't have asked. They're well-bred people, you know -- really ladies. I suspect you've had a different idea of them. Wasn't that why you wouldn't let me introduce you?"
"Not at all," answered Will, with a forced laugh. "I've no doubt of their ladyhood."
"The fact of the matter is," continued the other, crossing and uncrossing, and re-crossing his legs in nervous restlessness, "that I've been seeing them now and then since I told you I was going to call there. You guess why? It isn't Mrs. Cross, depend upon it."
"Mrs. Cross's tea, perhaps?" said Will, with a hard grin.
"Not exactly. It's the worst tea I ever tasted. I must advise her to change her grocer."
Warburton exploded in a roar of laughter, and cried, as Franks stared wonderingly at him:
"You'll never make a better joke in your life than that."
"Shows what I can do when I try," answered the artist. "However, the tea is shockingly bad."
"What can you expect for one and sevenpence halfpenny per pound?" cried Will.
"How do you know what she pays?"
Warburton's answer was another peal of merriment.
"Well, I shouldn't wonder," Franks went on. "The fact is, you know, they're very poor. It's a miserable sort of a life for a girl like Bertha Cross. She's clever, in her way; did you ever see any of her work? Children's book-illustrating? It's more than passable, I assure you. But of course she's wretchedly paid. Apart from that, a really nice girl."
"So this is what you had to tell me?" said Warburton, in a subdued voice, when the speaker hesitated.
"I wanted to talk about it, old man, that's the truth."
Franks accompanied these words with a shy smiling look of such friendly appeal that Will felt his hard and surly humour begin to soften, and something of the old geniality stirring under the dull weight that had so long oppressed him.
"I suppose it's settled," he asked, staring at the fire.
"When it comes to meetings at Kew Gardens--"
"Oh don't misunderstand," exclaimed Franks nervously, "I told you that it was with the mother I made the appointment -- not with Bertha herself. I'm quite sure Bertha never heard a word of it."
"Well, it comes to the same thing."
"Not at all! I half wish it did."
"Half?" asked Warburton, with a quick glance.
"Can't you see that I haven't really made up my mind," said Franks, fidgeting in his chair. "I'm not sure of myself -- and I'm still less sure of her. It's all in the air. I've been there perhaps half a dozen times -- but only like any other acquaintance. And, you know, she isn't the kind of girl to meet one half way. I'm sorry you don't know her. You'd be able to understand better. -- Then, you see, there's something a little awkward in her position and mine. She's the intimate friend of -- of the other one, you know; at least, I suppose she still is; of course we haven't said anything about that. It makes misunderstandings very possible. Suppose she thought I made friends with her in the hope of getting round to the other again? You see how difficult it is to judge her behaviour -- to come to any conclusion."
"Yes, I see," Warburton let fall, musingly.
"And, even if I were sure of understanding her -- there's myself. Look at the position, now. I suppose I may call myself a successful man; well on the way to success, at all events. Unless fortune plays me a dirty trick, I ought soon to be making my three or four thousand a year; and there's the possibility of double that. Think what that means, in the way of opportunity. Once or twice. when I was going to see the Crosses, I've pulled myself up and asked what the deuce I was doing -- but I went all the same. The truth is, there's something about Bertha -- I wish you knew her, Warburton; I really wish you did. She's the kind of girl any man might marry. Nothing brilliant about her -- but -- well, I can't describe it. As different as could be from -- the other. In fact, it isn't easy to see how they became such close friends. Of course, she knows all about me -- what I'm doing, and so on. In the case of an ordinary girl in her position, it would be irresistible; but I'm not at all sure that she looks at it in that way. She behaves to one -- well, in the most natural way possible. Now and then I rather think she makes fun of me."
Warburton allowed a low chuckle to escape him.
"Why do you laugh? -- I don't mean that she does it disagreeably. It's her way to look at things on the humorous side -- and I rather like that. Don't you think it a good sign in a girl?"
"That depends," muttered Will.
"Well, that's how things are. I wanted to tell you. There's nobody else I should think of talking to about it."
Silence hung between them for a minute or two.
"You'll have to make up your mind pretty soon, I suppose," said Warburton at length, in a not unpleasant voice.
"That's the worst of it. I don't want to be in a hurry -- it's just what I don't want."
"Doesn't it occur to you," asked Will, as if a sudden idea had struck him, "that perhaps she's no more in a hurry than you are?"
"It's possible. I shouldn't wonder. But if I seem to be playing the fool----?"
"That depends on yourself. -- But," Will added, with a twinkle in his eye, "there's just one piece of advice I should like to offer you."
"Let me have it," replied the other eagerly. "Very good of you, old man, not to be bored."
"Don't," said Warburton, in an impressive undertone, "don't persuade Mrs. Cross to change her grocer."
This conversation brought Warburton a short relief. Laughter, even though it come from the throat rather than the midriff, tends to dispel morbid humours, and when he woke next morning, after unusually sound sleep, Will had a pleasure in the sunlight such as he had not known for a long time. He thought of Norbert Franks, and chuckled; of Bertha Cross, and smiled. For a day or two the toil of the shop was less irksome. Then came sordid troubles which again overcast the sky. Acting against his trusty henchman's advice, Will had made a considerable purchase of goods from a bankrupt stock; and what seemed to be a great bargain was beginning to prove a serious loss. Customers grumbled about the quality of articles supplied to them out of this unlucky venture, and among the dissatisfied was Mrs. Cross, who came and talked for twenty minutes about some tapioca that had been sent to her, obliging Mr. Jollyman to make repeated apologies and promises that such a thing should never occur again. When the querulous-voiced lady at length withdrew, Will was boiling over with rage.
"Idiot!" he exclaimed, regardless of the fact that Allchin overheard him.
"You see, sir," remarked the assistant. "It's just as I said; but I couldn't persuade you."
Will held his lips tight and stared before him.
"There'll be a net loss of ten pounds on that transaction," pursued Allchin. "It's a principle of honest business, never buy a bankrupt stock. But you wouldn't listen to me, sir----"
"That'll do, Allchin, that'll do!" broke in the master, quivering with the restraint he imposed upon himself. "Can't you see I'm not in a mood for that sort of thing?"
This same day, there was a leakage of gas on the premises, due to bad workmanship in some new fittings which had cost Will more than he liked. Then the shop awning gave way, and fell upon the head of a passer-by, who came into the shop swearing at large and demanding compensation for his damaged hat. Sundry other things went wrong in the course of the week, and by closing-time on Saturday night Warburton's nerves were in a state of tension which threatened catastrophe. He went to bed at one o'clock; at six in the morning, not having closed his eves for a moment, he tumbled out again, dressed with fury, and rushed out of the house.
It was a morning of sunny showers; one moment the stones were covered with shining moisture, and the next were steaming themselves dry under unclouded rays. Heedless whither he went, so he did but move quickly enough, Will crossed the river, and struck southward, till he found himself by Clapham Junction. The sun had now triumphed; the day would be brilliant. Feeling already better for his exercise, he stood awhile reflecting, and decided at length to go by rail into the country. He might perhaps call on the Pomfrets at Ashtead; that would depend upon his mood. At all events he would journey in that direction.
It was some three months since he had seen the Pomfrets. He had a standing invitation to the pleasant little house, where he was always received with simple, cordial hospitality. About eleven o'clock, after a ramble about Ashtead Common, he pushed open the garden wicket, and knocked at the door under the leafy porch. So quiet was the house, that he half feared he would find nobody at home; but the servant at once led him in, and announced him at the door of her master's sanctum.
"Warburton?" cried a high, hearty voice, before he had entered. "Good fellow. Every day this week I've been wanting to ask you to come; but I was afraid; it's so long since we saw you, I fancied you must have been bored the last time you were here."
A small, thin, dry-featured man, with bald occiput and grizzled beard, Ralph Pomfret sat deep in an easy chair, his legs resting on another. Humour and kindliness twinkled in his grey eye. The room, which was full of books, had a fair view of meadows, and hill. Garden perfumes floated in at the open window.
"Kind fellow, to come like this," he went on. "You see that the old enemy has a grip on me. He pinches, he pinches. He'll get at my vitals one of these days, no doubt. And I've not even the satisfaction of having got my gout in an honourable way. If it had come to me from a fine old three-bottle ancestor! But I, who never had a grandfather, and hardly tasted wine till I was thirty years old -- why, I feel ashamed to call myself gouty. Sit down, my wife's at church. Strange thing that people still go to church -- but they do, you know. Force of habit, force of habit. Rosamund's with her."
"Miss Elvan?" asked Warburton, with surprise.
"Ah, yes I forgot you didn't know she was here. Came back with those friends of hers from Egypt a week ago. She has no home in England now; don't know where she will decide to live."
"Have you seen Norbert lately?" continued Mr. Pomfret, all in one breath. "He's too busy to come out to Ashtead, perhaps too prosperous. But no, I won't say that; I won't really think it. A good lad, Norbert -- better, I suspect, than his work. There's a strange thing now; a painter without enthusiasm for art. He used to have a little; more than a little; but it's all gone. Or so it seems to me."
"He's very honest about it," said Warburton. "Makes no pretences -- calls his painting a trick, and really feels surprised, I'm sure, that he's so successful."
"Poor Norbert! A good lad, a good lad. I wonder -- do you think if I wrote a line, mentioning, by the way, that Rosamund's here, do you think he'd come?"
The speaker accompanied his words with an intimate glance. Will averted his eyes, and gazed for a moment at the sunny landscape.
"How long will Miss Elvan stay?" he asked.
"Oh, as long as she likes. We are very glad to have her."
Their looks met for an instant.
"A pity, a pity!" said Ralph, shaking his head and smiling. "Don't you think so?"
"Why, yes. I've always thought so."
Will knew that this was not strictly the truth. But in this moment he refused to see anything but the dimly suggested possibility that Franks might meet again with Rosamund Elvan, and again succumb to her charm.
"Heaven forbid!" resumed Ralph, "that one should interfere where lives are at stake! Nothing of that, nothing of that. You are as little disposed for it as I am. But simply to acquaint him with the fact----?"
"I see no harm. If I met him----?"
"Ah! To be sure. It would be natural to say----"
"I owe him a visit," remarked Will.
They talked of other things. All at once Warburton had become aware that he was hungry; he had not broken his fast to-day. Happily, the clock on the mantelpiece pointed towards noon. And at this moment there sounded voices within the house, followed by a tap at the study door which opened, admitting Mrs. Pomfret. The lady advanced with hospitable greeting; homely of look and speech, she had caught her husband's smile, and something of his manner -- testimony to the happiness of a long wedded life. Behind her came the figure of youth and grace which Warburton's eyes expected; very little changed since he last saw it, in the Valley of Trient, Warburton was conscious of an impression that the young lady saw him again with pleasure. In a minute or two, Mrs. Pomfret and her niece had left the room, but Warburton still saw those pure, pale features, the emotional eyes and lips, the slight droop of the head to one side. Far indeed -- so he said within himself -- from his ideal; but, he easily understood, strong in seductiveness for such a man as Franks, whom the old passion had evidently left lukewarm in his thought of other women.
The bell gave a welcome summons to lunch -- or dinner, as it was called in this household of simple traditions. Helped by his friend's arm, Ralph managed to hobble to table; he ate little, and talked throughout the meal in his wonted vein of cheerful reflection. Will enjoyed everything that was set before him; the good, wholesome food, which did credit to Mrs. Pomfret's housekeeping, had a rare savour after months of dining in the little parlour behind his shop, varied only by Mrs. Wick's cooking on Sundays. One thing, however, interfered with his ease; seated opposite to Rosamund Elvan, he called to mind the fact that his toilet this morning had been of the most summary description; he was unshaven, and his clothing was precisely what he had worn all yesterday at the counter. The girl's eyes passed observantly over him now and then; she was critical of appearances, no doubt. That his aspect and demeanour might be in keeping, he bore himself somewhat bluffly, threw out brief, blunt phrases, and met Miss Elvan's glance with a confident smile. No resentment of this behaviour appeared in her look or speech; as the meal went on, she talked more freely, and something of frank curiosity began to reveal itself in her countenance as she listened to him.
Ralph Pomfret having hobbled back to his study chair, to doze, if might be, for an hour or two, the others presently strolled out into the garden, where rustic chairs awaited them on the shadowy side.
"You have your pipe, I hope?" said the hostess, as Warburton stretched himself out with a sigh of content.
"Yes -- No! The box is empty."
"I'll send you some. I have one or two things to see to indoors."
So Will and Rosamund sat alone, gazing idly at the summer sky, hearing the twitter of a bird, the hum of insects, whilst the scents of flower and leaf lulled them to a restful intimacy. Without a word of ceremony, Will used the matches that were brought him, and puffed a cloud into the warm air. They were talking of the beauties of this neighbourhood, of the delightful position of the house.
"You often come out to see my uncle, I suppose," said Rosamund.
"Not often, I'm seldom free, and not always in the humour."
"Not in the humour for this?"
"It sounds strange, doesn't it?" said Will, meeting her eyes. "When I'm here, I want to be here always; winter or summer, there's nothing more enjoyable -- in the way of enjoyment that does only good. Do you regret Egypt?"
"No, indeed. I shall never care to go there again."
"Or the Pyrenees?"
"Have you seen them yet?" asked Rosamund.
Will shook his head.
"I remember your saying," she remarked, "you would go for your next holiday to the Basque country."
"Did I? Yes -- when you had been talking much about it. But since then I've had no holiday."
"No holiday -- all this time?"
Rosamund's brows betrayed her sympathy.
"How long is it since we were together in Switzerland?" asked Will, dreamily, between puffs. "This is the second summer, isn't it? One loses count of time, there in London. I was saying to Franks the other day----"
He stopped, but not abruptly; the words seemed to murmur away as his thoughts wandered. Rosamund's eyes were for a moment cast down. But for a moment only; then she fixed them upon him in a steady, untroubled gaze.
"You were saying to Mr. Franks----?"
The quiet sincerity of her voice drew Warburton's look. She was sitting straight in the cane chair, her hands upon her lap, with an air of pleasant interest.
"I was saying -- oh, I forget -- it's gone."
"Do you often see him?" Rosamund inquired in the same calmly interested tone.
"Now and then. He's a busy man, with a great many friends -- like most men who succeed."
"But you don't mean, I hope, that he cares less for his friends of the old time, before he succeeded?"
"Not at all," exclaimed Will, rolling upon his chair, and gazing at the distance. "He's the same as ever. It's my fault that we don't meet oftener. I was always a good deal of a solitary, you know, and my temper hasn't been improved by ill-luck."
Again there was sympathy in Rosamund's knitted brow; her voice touched a note of melodious surprise and pain.
"That's neither here nor there. We were talking of Franks. If anything, he's improved, I should say. I can't imagine any one bearing success better -- just the same bright, good-natured, sincere fellow. Of course, he enjoys his good fortune -- he's been through hard times."
"Which would have been harder still, but for a friend of his," said Rosamund, with eyes thoughtfully drooped.
Warburton watched her as she spoke. Her look and her voice carried him back to the Valley of Trient; he heard the foaming torrent; saw the dark fir-woods, felt a cool breath from the glacier. Thus had Rosamund been wont to talk; then, as now, touching his elementary emotions, but moving his reflective self to a smile.
"Have you seen Miss Cross since you came back?" he asked, as if casually.
"Oh, yes. If I stay in England, I hope to live somewhere near her. Perhaps I shall take rooms in London, and work at water-colours and black-and-white. Unless I go to the Basque country, where my sister is. Don't you think, Mr. Warburton, one might make a lot of drawings in the Pyrenees, and then have an exhibition of them in London? I have to earn my living, and I must do something of that kind."
Whilst Will was shaping his answer Mrs. Pomfret came toward them from the house, and the current of the conversation was turned. Presently Ralph summoned his guest to the book-room, where they talked till the kindly hour of tea. But before setting out for his homeward journey, Warburton had another opportunity of exchanging words with Miss Elvan in the garden.
"Well, I shall hear what you decide to do," he said, bluffly. "If you go to the Pyrenees -- but I don't think you will."
"No, perhaps not. London rather tempts me," was the girl's dreamy reply.
"I'm glad to hear it."
"I must get Bertha's advice -- Miss Cross'."
Will nodded. He was about to say something, but altered his mind; and so the colloquy ended.
Toward ten o'clock that evening, Warburton alighted from a train at Notting Hill Gate, and walked through heavy rain to the abode of Norbert Franks. With satisfaction, he saw the light at the great window of his studio, and learnt from the servant who admitted him that Franks had no company. His friend received him with surprise, so long was it since Warburton had looked in unexpectedly.
"Nothing amiss?" said Franks, examining the hard-set face, with its heavy eyes, and cheeks sunken.
"All right. Came to ask for news, that's all."
"News? Ah, I understand. There's no news."
"Yes. Keeping away, just to see how I like it. Sensible that, don't you think?"
Warburton nodded. The conversation did not promise much vivacity, for Franks looked tired, and the visitor seemed much occupied with his own thoughts. After a few words about a canvas which stood on the easel -- another woman the artist was boldly transforming into loveliness -- Will remarked carelessly that he had spent the day at Ashtead.
"By Jove, I ought to go and see those people," said Franks.
"Better wait a little, perhaps," returned the other with a smile. "Miss Elvan is with them."
"Ah! Lucky you told me -- not that it matters much," added Franks, after a moment's reflection, "at all events as far as I'm concerned. But it might be a little awkward for her. How long is she staying?"
Will told all he knew of Miss Elvan's projects. He went on to say that she seemed to him more thoughtful, more serious, than in the old time; to be sure, she had but recently lost her father, and the subduing influence of that event might have done her good.
"You had a lot of talk?" said Franks.
"Oh, we gossiped in the garden. Poor old Pomfret has his gout, and couldn't come out with us. What do you think, by the bye, of her chance of living by art? She says she'll have to."
"By that, or something else, no doubt," Franks replied disinterestedly. "I know her father had nothing to leave, nothing to make an income."
"Are her water-colours worth anything?"
"Not much, I'm afraid, I can't quite see her living by anything of that sort. She's the amateur, pure and simple. Now, Bertha Cross -- there's the kind of girl who does work and gets paid for it. In her modest line, Bertha is a real artist. I do wish you knew her, Warburton."
"So you have said a good many times," remarked Will. "But I don't see how it would help you. I know Miss Elvan, and----"
He paused, as if musing on a thought.
"And what?" asked Franks impatiently.
"Nothing -- except that I like her better than I used to."
As he spoke, he stood up.
"Well, I can't stay. It's raining like the devil. I wanted to know whether you'd done anything decisive, that's all."
"I'll let you know when I do," answered Franks, suppressing a yawn. "Good-night, old man."
For a fortnight, Warburton led his wonted life, shut off as usual from the outer world. About this time, Allchin began to observe with anxiety the change in his master's aspect and general behaviour.
"I'm afraid you're not feeling quite yourself, sir," he said at closing time one night. "I've noticed lately you don't seem quite well."
"Have you? Well, perhaps you are right. But it doesn't matter."
"If you'll excuse me, sir," returned the assistant, "I'm afraid it does matter. I hope, sir, you won't think I speak disrespectful, but I've been noticing that you didn't seem to care about waiting on customers lately."
"You've noticed that?"
"I have, sir, if the truth must be told. And I kept saying to myself as it wasn't like you. What I'm afraid of, sir, if you don't mind me saying it, is that the customers themselves are beginning to notice it. Mrs. Gilpin said to me yesterday -- 'What's come to Mr. Jollyman?' she says. 'He hasn't a civil word for me!' she says. Of course, I made out as you'd been suffering from a bad 'eadache, and I shouldn't wonder if that's the truth, sir."
Warburton set his teeth and said nothing.
"You wouldn't like to take just a little 'oliday, sir?" returned Allchin. "This next week, I could manage well enough. It might do you good, sir, to have a mouthful of sea air--"
"I'll think about it," broke in the other abruptly.
He was going away without another word, but, in crossing the shop, he caught his henchman's eye fixed on him with a troublous gaze. Self-reproach checked his steps.
"You're quite right, Allchin," he said in a confidential tone. "I'm not quite up to the mark, and perhaps I should do well to take a holiday. Thank you for speaking about it."
He walked home, and there, on his table, he found a letter from Franks, which he eagerly tore open. "I have as good as decided," wrote the artist. "Yesterday, I went to Ashtead, and saw R. We met like old friends -- just as I wished. Talked as naturally as you and I. I suspect -- only suspect of course -- that she knows of my visits to Walham Green, and smiles at them! Yes, as you say, I think she has improved -- decidedly. The upshot of it all is that I shall call on the Crosses again, and, when an opportunity offers, try my chance. I think I am acting sensibly, don't you?"
After reading this, Will paced about his room for an hour or two. Then he flung himself into bed, but got no sleep until past dawn. Rising at the usual hour, he told himself that this would not do; to live on in this way was mere moral suicide; he resolved to run down to St. Neots, whence, if his mother were capable of the journey, she and Jane might go for a week or two to the seaside. So, having packed his travelling bag, he walked to the shop, and arranged with Allchin for a week's absence, greatly to the assistant's satisfaction. Before noon he was at The Haws. But the idea of a family expedition to the seaside could not be carried out: Mrs. Warburton was not strong enough to leave home, and Jane had just invited a friend to come and spend a week with them. Disguising as best he could his miserable state of mind and body, Will stayed for a couple of days. The necessity for detailed lying about his affairs in London -- lying which would long ago have been detected, but for the absolute confidence of his mother and sister, and the retired habits of their life -- added another cause of unrest to those already tormenting him, and he was glad to escape into solitude. Though with little faith in the remedy, he betook himself to a quiet spot on the coast of Norfolk, associated with memories of holiday in childhood, and there for the rest of the time he had allowed himself did what a man could do to get benefit from sea and sky.
And in these endless hours of solitude there grew upon him a perception of the veritable cause of his illness. Not loss of station, not overwork, not love; but simply the lie to which he was committed. There was the root of the matter. Slowly, dimly, he groped toward the fact that what rendered his life intolerable was its radical dishonesty. Lived openly, avowedly, it would have involved hardships indeed, but nothing of this dull wretchedness which made the world a desert. He began to see how much better, how much easier, it would have been to tell the truth two years ago. His mother was not so weak-minded a woman as to be stricken down by loss of money; and as for Sherwood, his folly merited more than the unpleasantness that might have resulted to him from disclosure. Grocerdom with a clear conscience would have been a totally different thing from grocerdom surreptitiously embraced. Instead of slinking into a corner for the performance of an honourable act, he should have declared it, frankly, unaffectedly, to all who had any claim upon him. At once, the enterprise became amusing, interesting. If it disgraced him with any of his acquaintances, so much the worse for them; all whose friendship was worth having would have shown only the more his friends; as things stood, he was ashamed, degraded, not by circumstances, but by himself.
To undo it all--? To proclaim the truth--? Was it not easy enough? He had proved now that his business would yield income sufficient for his mother and sister, as well as for his own needs; the crisis was surmounted; why not cast off this load of mean falsehood, which was crushing him to the ground? By Heaven! he would do so.
Not immediately. Better wait till he had heard from Jane that their mother was a little stronger, which would probably be the case in a week or two. But (he declared ill his mind) the resolve was taken. At the first favourable moment he would undo his folly. Before taking this step, he must of course announce it to Godfrey Sherwood; an unpleasant necessity; but no matter.
He walked about the beach in a piping wind, waved his arms, talked to himself, now and then raised a great shout. And that night he slept soundly.
He got back to Fulham Road in time for the press of Saturday night. Allchin declared that he looked much better, and customers were once more gratified by Mr. Jollyman's studious civility. On Sunday morning he wrote a long letter to Sherwood, which, for lack of other address, he sent to the care of Godfrey's relative in Wales. This was something done. In the afternoon he took a long walk, which led him through the Holland Park region. He called to see Franks, but the artist was not at home; so he left a card asking for news. And the next day brought Franks' telegraphic reply. "Nothing definite yet. Shall come to see you late one of these evenings. I have not been to Walham Green." Though he had all but persuaded himself that he cared not at all, one way or the other, this message did Warburton good. Midway in the week, business being slack, he granted himself a half holiday, and went to Ashtead, merely in friendliness to Ralph Pomfret -- so he said to himself.
From Ashtead station to the Pomfrets' house was a good twenty minutes' walk. As he strode along, eyes upon the ground, Will all at once saw the path darkened by a shadow; he then became conscious of a female figure just in front of him, and heedlessly glancing at the face, was arrested by a familiar smile.
"You were coming to see us?" asked Miss Elvan, offering her hand. "What a pity that I have to go to town! Only just time to catch the train."
"Then I'll walk back to the station with you -- may I?"
"I shall be delighted, if you don't mind the trouble. I have an appointment with Miss Cross. She has found rooms which she thinks will suit me, and we're going to look at them together."
"So you have decided for London?"
"I think so. The rooms are at Chelsea, in Oakley Crescent. I know how fond you are of London, and how well you know it. And I know so little; only a street or two here and there. I mean to remedy my ignorance. If ever you have an afternoon to spare, Mr. Warburton, I should be so glad if you would let me go with you to see interesting places."
For an instant, Will was surprised, confused, but Rosamund's entire simplicity and directness of manner rebuked this sensation. He replied in a corresponding tone that nothing would please him more. They were now at the railway station, and the train approached. Rosamund having sprung into a carriage, gave her hand through the window, saying:
"I may be settled in a day or two. You will hear----"
With the sentence unfinished, she drew back, and the train rolled away. For a minute or two, Warburton stood on the platform, his lips mechanically prolonging the smile which had answered Miss Elvan's, and his thoughts echoing her last words. When he turned, he at first walked slowly; then his pace quickened, and he arrived at the Pomfrets' house, as though on urgent business. In the garden he caught sight of Ralph, recovered from his attack of gout, sitting at his ease, pipe in mouth. Will told of his meeting with Miss Elvan.
"Yes, yes; she's off to London town -- wants to live there, like all the rest of the young people. In thirty years' time she'll have had enough of it, and be glad to creep into a quiet corner like this. My wife's in the house, teaching our new maid to make tea-cakes -- you shall have some at five o'clock. I wonder whether any girl could be found nowadays who knows how to make tea-cakes? There's Rosamund -- she knows no more about that kind of thing than of ship-building. Do you know any young lady who could make a toothsome tea-cake?"
"I'm not quite sure," answered Will reflectively, "but I have one in mind who perhaps does -- it wouldn't surprise me."
"That's to your credit. By the bye, you know that Norbert has been here."
"Yes, I heard of it. He wrote to tell me."
"Aye, but he's been twice -- did you know that? He was here yesterday."
Ralph looked at the other with an odd smile.
"One might have expected a little awkwardness between them," he continued. "Not a bit of it. There again -- your girl of to-day; she has a way of her own with all this kind of thing. Why they just shook hands as if they'd never been anything but pleasant friends. All the same, as I tell you, Norbert has been a second time."
"I'm glad to hear it," said Warburton.
Will had purposed getting back to the shop about seven o'clock. He was, indeed, back in London at that hour, but his state of mind tempted him to shirk squalid duty; instead of turning toward Fulham Road, he took his way into the Strand, and there loitered in the evening sunshine, self-reproachful, yet enjoying the unwonted liberty. It was dinner-time; restaurants exhaled their pungent odours, and Will felt sharpening appetite. For the first time since his catastrophe, he granted himself the dinner of a well-to-do man, and, as would naturally befall in such a case, made his indulgence large.
Several days passed and brought no letter from any one. But at midnight on Saturday, there lay awaiting him a letter addressed in Sherwood's well-known hand. Godfrey began by excusing himself for his delay in replying; he had had rather a nasty attack of illness, and was only now able to hold his pen. But it was lucky he had not written before; this very morning there had reached him the very best news. "The father of the man who owes me ten thousand pounds is dying. Off and on he has been ill for a long time, but I hear at length that there can be no doubt whatever that the end is near. I can't pretend to any human feeling in this matter; the man's death means life for us -- so the world goes. Any day now, you may have a telegram from me announcing the event. Of the prompt payment of the debt as soon as my friend inherits, there is no shadow of doubt. I therefore urge you very strongly not to make a disclosure. It will be needless. Wait till we see each other. I am still in Ireland -- for a reason which I will explain when we meet"
Will drew a long breath. If ever news came opportunely, it was this. He threw up the window of his stuffy little sitting-room, and looked out into the summer night. The murmur of London once more made music to his ears.
Rosamund took the Chelsea lodgings proposed to her by Bertha Cross, and in a few days went to live there. The luggage which she brought from Ashtead enabled her to add a personal touch to the characterless rooms: in the place of the landlady's ornaments, which were not things of beauty, she scattered her own bibelots, and about the walls she hung a number of her own drawings, framed for the purpose, as well as several which bore the signature, "Norbert Franks." Something less than a year ago, when her father went abroad, their house at Bath had been given up, and the furniture warehoused; for the present, Rosamund and her sister were content to leave things thus. The inheritance of each amounted only to a few hundred pounds.
"It's enough to save one from worry for a year or two," said Rosamund to her friend Bertha. "I'm not extravagant; I can live here very comfortably. And there's a pleasure in the thought that one's work not only may succeed but must."
"I'm sure I hope so," replied Bertha, "but where's the must?"
"What am I to do if it doesn't?" asked Miss Elvan, with her sweet smile, and in a tone of irresistible argument.
"True," conceded her humorous friend. "There's no other way out of the difficulty."
This was on the day of Rosamund's coming to Chelsea. A week later, Bertha found the sitting-room brightened with the hanging water-colours, with curtains of some delicate fabric at the windows, with a new rug before the fire place.
"These things have cost so little," said Rosamund, half apologetically. "And -- yes, I was obliged to buy this little tea service; I really couldn't use Mrs. Darby's; it spoilt the taste of the tea. Trifles, but they really have their importance; they help to keep one in the right mind. Oh, I must show you an amusing letter I've had from Winnie. Winifred is prudence itself. She wouldn't spend a sixpence unnecessarily. 'Suppose one fell ill,' she writes, 'what a blessing it would be to feel that one wasn't helpless and dependent. Oh, do be careful with your money, and consider very, very seriously what is the best course to take in your position.' Poor, dear old Winnie! I know she frets and worries about me, and pictures me throwing gold away by the handful. Yet, as you know, that isn't my character at all. If I lay out a few sovereigns to make myself comfortable here, I know what I'm doing; it'll all come back again in work. As you know, Bertha, I'm not afraid of poverty -- not a bit! I had very much rather be shockingly poor, living in a garret and half starved, than just keep myself tidily going in lodgings such as these were before I made the little changes. Winnie has a terror of finding herself destitute. She jumped for joy when she was offered that work, and I'm sure she'd be content to live there in the same way for years. She feels safe as long as she needn't touch her money."
Winifred Elvan, since her father's death, had found an engagement as governess in an English family at St. Jean de Luz. This, in the younger sister's eyes, involved a social decline, more disagreeable to her than she chose to confess.
"The one thing," pursued Rosamund, "that I really dread, is the commonplace. If I were utterly, wretchedly, grindingly poor, there'd be at all events a savour of the uncommon about it. I can't imagine myself marrying a prosperous shopkeeper; but if I cared for a clerk who had nothing but a pound a week, I would marry him to-morrow."
"The result," said Bertha, "might be lamentably commonplace."
"Not if it was the right sort of man. -- Tell me what you think of that bit." She pointed to a framed drawing. "It's in the valley of Bidassoa."
They talked art for a little, then Rosamund fell into musing, and presently said:
"Don't you think Norbert has behaved very well."
"I mean, it would have been excusable, perhaps, if he had betrayed a little unkind feeling toward me. But nothing of the kind, absolutely nothing. I'm afraid I didn't give him credit for so much manliness. When he came to Ashtead the second time, of course I understood his motive at once. He wished to show me that his behaviour at the first meeting wasn't mere bravado and to assure me that I needn't be afraid of him. There's a great deal of delicacy in that; it really pleased me."
Bertha Cross was gazing at her friend with a puzzled smile.
"You're a queer girl," she remarked.
"Do you mean that you were really and truly surprised that Mr. Franks behaved like a gentleman?"
"Oh, Bertha!" protested the other. "What a word!"
"Well, like a man, then."
"Perhaps I oughtn't to have felt that," admitted Rosamund thoughtfully. "But I did, and it meant a good deal. It shows how very right I was when I freed myself."
"Are you quite sure of that?" asked Bertha, raising her eyebrows and speaking more seriously than usual.
"I never was more sure of anything."
"Do you know, I can't help thinking it an argument on the other side."
Rosamund looked her friend in the eyes.
"Suppose it means that you were altogether mistaken about Mr. Franks?" went on Bertha, in the same pleasant tone between jest and earnest.
"I wasn't mistaken in my own feeling," said Rosamund in her melodious undertone.
"No; but your feeling, you have always said, was due to a judgment you formed of Mr. Franks' character and motives. And now you confess that it looks very much as if you had judged him wrongly."
Rosamund smiled and shook her head.
"Do you know," asked Bertha, after a pause, "that he has been coming to our house lately?"
"You never mentioned it. But why shouldn't he go to your house?"
"Rather, why should he?" asked Bertha, with a laugh. "Don't trouble to guess. The reason was plain enough. He came to talk about you."
"Oh!" exclaimed the listener with amused deprecation.
"There's no doubt of it; no -- shadow -- of -- doubt. In fact, we've had very pleasant little chats about you. Of course I said all the disagreeable things I could; I knew that was what you would wish."
"Certainly," fell from Rosamund.
"I didn't positively calumniate you, but just the unpleasant little hints that a friend is so well able to throw out; the sort of thing likely to chill any one. I hope you quite approve?"
"Well, the odd thing was that they didn't quite have the effect I aimed at. He talked of you more and more, instead of less and less. Wasn't it provoking, Rosamund?"
Again their eyes encountered.
"I wish," continued Miss Elvan, "I knew how much of this is truth, and how much Bertha's peculiar humour."
"It's substantial truth. That there may be humour in it, I don't deny, but it isn't of my importing."
"When did he last come to see you?" Rosamund inquired.
"Let me see. Just before he went to see you."
"It doesn't occur to you," said Rosamund, slowly meditative, "that he had some other reason -- not the apparent one -- for coming to your house?"
"It doesn't occur to me, and never will occur to me," was Bertha's amused answer.
When it was time for Bertha to walk home wards, Rosamund put her hat on, and they went out together. Turning to the west, they passed along Cheyne Walk, and paused awhile by old Chelsea Church. The associations of the neighbourhood moved Miss Elvan to a characteristic display of enthusiasm. Delightful to live here! A joy to work amid such memories, of ancient and of latter time!
"I must get Mr. Warburton to come and walk about Chelsea with me," she added.
"He's a great authority on London antiquities. Bertha, if you happen to see Norbert these days, do ask him for Mr. Warburton's address."
"Why not ask your people at Ashtead? " said Bertha.
"I shan't be going there for two or three weeks. Promise to ask Norbert -- will you? For me, of course."
Bertha had turned to look at the river. Her face wore a puzzled gravity.
"I'll try to think of it," she replied, walking slowly on.
"He's a great mystery," were Rosamund's next words. "My uncle has no idea what he does, and Norbert, they tell me, is just as ignorant, or at all events, professes to be. Isn't it a queer thing? He came to grief in business two years ago, and since then he has lived out of sight. Uncle Ralph supposes he had to take a clerk's place somewhere, and that he doesn't care to talk about it."
"Is he such a snob?" asked Bertha, disinterestedly.
"No one would think so who knows him. I'm convinced there's some other explanation."
"Perhaps the truth is yet more awful," said Bertha solemnly. "He may have got a place in a shop."
"Hush! hush!" exclaimed the other, with a pained look. "Don't say such things! A poor clerk is suggestive -- it's possible to see him in a romantic light -- but a shopman! If you knew him,' you would laugh at the idea. Mystery suits him very well indeed; to tell the truth, he's much more interesting now than when one knew him as a partner in a manufactory of some kind. You see he's unhappy -- there are lines in his face----"
"Perhaps," suggested Bertha, "he has married a rich widow and daren't confess it."
It was on Saturday night that Godfrey Sherwood came at length to Warburton's lodgings. Reaching home between twelve and one o'clock Will saw a man who paced the pavement near Mrs. Wick's door; the man, at sight of him, hastened forward; there were exclamations of surprise and of pleasure.
"I came first of all at nine o'clock," said Sherwood. "The landlady said you wouldn't be back before midnight, so I came again. Been to the theatre, I suppose?"
"Yes," answered Will, "taking part in a play called 'The Grocer's Saturday Night.'
"I'd forgotten. Poor old fellow! You won't have much more of that thank Heaven! -- Are you too tired to talk to-night?"
"No, no; come in."
The house was silent and dark. Will struck a match to light the candle placed for him at the foot of the stairs, and led the way up to his sitting-room on the first floor. Here he lit a lamp, and the two friends looked at each other. Each saw a change. If Warburton was thin and heavy-eyed, Sherwood's visage showed an even more noticeable falling-off in health.
"What's been the matter with you?" asked Will. "Your letter said you had had an illness, and you look as if you hadn't got over it yet."
"Oh, I'm all right now," cried the other. "Liver got out of order -- or the spleen, or something -- I forget. The best medicine was the news I got about old Strangwyn. -- There, by Jove! I've let the name out. The wonder is I never did it before, when we were talking. It doesn't matter now. Yes, it's Strangwyn, the whisky man. He'll die worth a million or two, and Ted is his only son. I was a fool to lend that money to Ted, but we saw a great deal of each other at one time, and when he came asking for ten thousand -- a mere nothing for a fellow of his expectations -- nobody thought his father could live a year, but the old man has held out all this time, and Ted, the rascal, kept swearing he couldn't pay the interest on his debt. Of course I could have made him; but he knew I shouldn't dare to risk the thing coming to his father's ears. I've had altogether about three hundred pounds, instead of the four hundred a year he owed me -- it was at four per cent. Now, of course, I shall get all the arrears -- but that won't pay for all the mischief that's been done."
"Is it certain," asked Will, "that Strangwyn will pay?"
"Certain? If he doesn't I sue him. The case is plain as daylight."
"There's no doubt that he'll have his father's money?"
"None whatever. For more than a year now, he's been on good terms with the old man. Ted is a very decent fellow, of his sort. I don't say that I care as much for him now as I used to; we've both of us altered; but his worst fault is extravagance. The old man, it must be confessed, isn't very good form; he smells rather of the distillery; but Ted Strangwyn might come of the best family in the land. Oh, you needn't have the least anxiety. Strangwyn will pay, principal and interest, as soon as the old man has retired; and that may happen any day, any hour. -- How glad I am to see you again, Will! I've known one or two plucky men, but no one like you. I couldn't have gone through it; I should have turned coward after a month of that. Well, it's over, and it'll be something to look back upon. Some day, perhaps, you'll amuse your sister by telling her the story. To tell you the truth, I couldn't bear to come and see you; I should have been too miserably ashamed of myself. -- And not a soul has found you out, all this time?"
"No one that I know of."
"You must have suffered horribly from loneliness. -- But I have things to tell you, important things." He waved his arm. "Not to-night; it's too late, and you look tired to death."
"Tell on," said Warburton. "If I went to bed I shouldn't sleep -- where are you staying?"
"Morley's Hotel. Not at my own expense," Sherwood added hastily. "I'm acting as secretary to a man -- a man I got to know in Ireland. A fine fellow! You'll know him very soon. It's about him that I want to tell you. But first of all, that idea of mine about Irish eggs. The trouble was I couldn't get capital enough. My cousin Hackett risked a couple of hundred pounds; it was all lost before the thing could really be set going. I had a bad time after that, Will, a bad time, I tell you. Yet good results came of it. For two or three months I lived on next to nothing -- a few pence a day, all told. Of course, if I had let Strangwyn know how badly off I was, he'd have sent a cheque; but I didn't feel I had any right to his money, it was yours, not mine. Besides, I said to myself that, if I suffered, it was only what I deserved; I took it as a sort of expiation of the harm I'd done. All that time I was in Dublin, I tried to get employment but nobody had any use for me -- until at last, when I was all but dying of hunger, somebody spoke to me of a certain Milligan, a young and very rich man living in Dublin. I resolved to go and see him, and a lucky day it was. You remember Conolly -- Bates's traveller? Well, Milligan is just that man, in appearance; a thorough Irishman, and one of the best hearted fellows that ever lived. Though he's rich I found him living in a very plain way, in a room which looked like a museum, full of fossils, stuffed birds and animals, queer old pictures, no end of such things. Well, I told him plainly who I was, and where I was; and almost without thinking, he cried out -- 'What could be simpler? Come and be my secretary.' -- 'You want a secretary?' -- 'I hadn't thought of it,' said Milligan, 'but now it strikes me it's just what I do want. I knew there was something. Yes, yes. come and be my secretary; you're just the man.' He went on to tell me he had a lot of correspondence with sellers of curiosities, and it bored him to write the letters. Would I come for a couple of hours a day? He'd pay me twenty pounds a month. You may suppose I wasn't long in accepting. We began the next day, and in a week's time we were good friends. Milligan told me that he'd always had weak health, and he was convinced his life had been saved by vegetarianism. I myself wasn't feeling at all fit just then; he persuaded me to drop meat, and taught me all about the vegetarian way of living. I hadn't tried it for a month before I found the most wonderful results. Never in my life had I such a clear mind, and such good spirits. It remade me."
"So you've come to London to hunt for curios?" interposed Will.
"No, no; let me go on. When I got to know Milligan well, I found that he had a large estate somewhere in Connaught. And, as we talked, an idea came to me." Again he sprang up from his chair. "'If I were a landowner on that scale,' I said, 'do you know what I should do -- I should make a vegetarian colony; a self-supporting settlement of people who ate no meat, drank no alcohol, smoked no tobacco; a community which, as years went on, might prove to the world that there was the true ideal of civilised life -- health of mind and of body, true culture, true humanity!'" The eyes glowed in his fleshless, colourless face; he spoke with arm raised, head thrown back -- the attitude of an enthusiastic preacher. "Milligan caught at the idea -- caught at it eagerly. 'There's something fine in that!' he said. 'Why shouldn't it be done?' 'You're the man that could do it,' I told him. 'You'd be a benefactor to the human race. Isolated examples are all very well, but what we want is an experiment on a large scale, going on through more than one generation. Let children be born of vegetarian parents, brought up as vegetarians, and this in conditions of life every way simple, natural, healthy. This is the way to convert the world.' So that's what we're working at now, Milligan and I. Of course there are endless difficulties; the thing can't be begun in a hurry; we have to see no end of people, and correspond with the leaders of vegetarianism everywhere. But isn't it a grand idea? Isn't it worth working for?"
Warburton mused, smiling.
"I want you to join us," said Sherwood abruptly.
"Ho, ho! That's another matter."
"I shall bring you books to read."
"I've no time. I'm a grocer."
"Pooh!" exclaimed Sherwood. "In a few days you'll be an independent man. -- Yes, yes, I know that you'll have only a small capital, when things are settled; but it's just people with a small capital that we want to enlist; the very poor and the well-to-do will be no use to us. It's too late to-night to go into details. We have time to talk, plenty of time. That you will join us, I feel sure. Wait till you've had time to think about it. For my own part, I've found the work of my life, and I'm the happiest man living!"
He walked round and round the table, waving his arms, and Warburton, after regarding him curiously, mused again, but without a smile.
Behind his counter next morning, Will thought over Sherwood's story, and laughed to himself wonderingly. Not that any freak of his old partner's -- of the man whom he had once regarded as, above all, practical and energetic -- could now surprise him; but it seemed astonishing that Godfrey should have persuaded a man of solid means, even a Celt, to pledge himself to such an enterprise Was the story true? Did Milligan really exist? If any doubt were possible on this point, did it not also throw suspicion on the story of Strangwyn, and the ten thousand pounds? Will grew serious at the reflection. He had never conceived a moment's distrust of Sherwood's honesty, nor did his misgiving now take that form; the question which troubled him throughout to-day was -- whether Godfrey Sherwood might be a victim of delusions. Certainly he had a very strange look; that haggard face, those brilliant eyes----
So disquieting was the suspicion that, at dosing time, Will could no longer resist an impulse to betake himself to Morley's Hotel. Sherwood had said that Milligan was there only for a few days, until the wealthy Irishman could find a furnished house suitable to his needs whilst he remained in London. Arrived at the hotel, he inquired for his friend; Sherwood had dined and gone out. Will hesitated a moment, then asked whether Mr. Milligan was to be seen. Mr. Milligan, he learnt, had gone out with Mr. Sherwood. So Milligan did exist. Will's relief at settling this point banished his doubts on all the others. He turned westward again, and through a night of soft, warm rain walked all the way to his lodgings.
On the third day after, late in the evening, Sherwood paid him a second visit. Godfrey was in high spirits. He announced that Milligan had taken a house near the Marble Arch, where he also, as secretary, would have his quarters, and that already a meeting had been convened of the leading London vegetarians. Things were splendidly in train. Then he produced an evening newspaper, with a paragraph, which spoke of the serious illness of Mr. Strangwyn; recovery, it was said, could hardly be hoped for.
"What's more," cried Sherwood. "I've seen Ted Strangwyn himself. Nobody could behave better. The old man, he assured me, couldn't last more than a day or two, and he promised -- quite spontaneously, I didn't say a word -- to pay his debt in full as soon as ever his father's will was proved, which will be done as quickly as possible. -- And now, have you thought over what I said the other night?"
"Thought -- yes."
"With not much result, I see. Never mind; you must have time. I want you to meet Milligan. Could you come to lunch next Sunday? He invites you."
Warburton shook his head. He had never cared for the acquaintance of rich men, and was less than ever disposed to sit at their tables. All his anxieties regarding Sherwood's mental condition having been set at rest, he would go on with his grocer's life as long as need be, strengthened with the hope that shone before him.
The end of July had come. After a week of rain, the weather had turned bright, with a coolness at morning and evening very pleasant at this time of year in London streets. Warburton had business in the City which he must needs see to personally; he was on the point of leaving the shop, dressed as became a respectable citizen, silk hat and all, when in the doorway appeared Miss Bertha Cross. A certain surprise marked her smile of recognition; it meant, no doubt, that, never before having seen Mr. Jollyman save bareheaded and aproned, she was struck with the change in his aspect when thus equipped for going abroad. Immediately Mr. Jollyman doffed his hat and stepped behind the counter.
"Please don't let me keep you," said Bertha, with a glance towards Allchin, who was making parcels at the back of the shop. "I only want some -- some matches, and one or two trifling things."
Never had she seemed so embarrassed in making a purchase. Her eyes fell, and she half turned away. Mr. Jollyman appeared to hesitate, he also glancing towards Allchin; but the young lady quickly recovered herself, and, taking up a packet of something exhibited on the counter, asked its price. The awkwardness was at an end; Bertha made her purchases, paid for them, and then left the shop as usual.
It was by the last post on the evening after this day that Warburton received a letter of which the exterior puzzled him. Whose could be this graceful, delicate hand? A woman's doubtless; yet he had no female correspondent, save those who wrote from St. Neots. The postmark was London. He opened, "Dear Mr. Warburton" -- a glance over the leaf showed him -- "Sincerely yours, Rosamund Elvan." H'm!
"Dear Mr. Warburton, -- I am settled in my lodgings here, and getting seriously to work. It has occurred to me that you might be able to suggest some quaint corner of old London, unknown to me, which would make a good subject for a water-colour. London has been, I am sure, far too much neglected by artists; if I could mark out a claim here, as the colonists say, I should be lucky. For the present, I am just sketching (to get my hand in) about Chelsea. To-morrow afternoon, about six o'clock, if this exquisite mellow weather continues, I shall be on the Embankment in Battersea Park, near the Albert Bridge, where I want to catch a certain effect of sky and water."
That was all. And what exactly did it mean? Warburton's practical knowledge of women did not carry him very far, but he was wont to theorise at large on the subject, and in this instance it seemed to him that one of his favourite generalities found neat application. Miss Elvan had in a high degree the feminine characteristic of not knowing her own mind. Finding herself without substantial means, she of course meant to marry, and it was natural that she should think of marrying Norbert Franks; yet she could not feel at all sure that she wished to do so; neither was she perfectly certain that Franks would again offer her the choice. In this state of doubt she inclined to cultivate the acquaintance of Franks' intimate friend, knowing that she might thus, very probably, gather hints as to the artist's state of mind, and, if it seemed good to her, could indirectly convey to him a suggestion of her own. Warburton concluded, then, that he was simply being made use of by this typical young lady. That point settled, he willingly lent himself to her device, for he desired nothing better than to see Franks lured back to the old allegiance, and away from the house at Walham Green. So, before going to bed, he posted a reply to Miss Elvan's letter, saying that he should much like a talk with her about the artistic possibilities of obscure London, and that he would walk next day along the Battersea Embankment, with the hope of meeting her.
And thus it came to pass. Through the morning there were showers, but about noon a breeze swept the sky fair, and softly glowing summer reigned over the rest of the day. In his mood of hopefulness, Warburton had no scruple about abandoning the shop at tea-time; he did not even trouble himself to invent a decorous excuse, but told Allchin plainly that he thought he would have a walk. His henchman, who of late had always seemed rather pleased than otherwise when Warburton absented himself, loudly approved the idea.
"Don't you 'urry back, sir. There'll be no business as I can't manage. Don't you think of 'urrying. The air'll do you good."
As he walked away, Will said to himself that no doubt Allchin would only be too glad of a chance of managing the business independently, and that perhaps he hoped for the voluntary retirement of Mr. Jollyman one of these days. Indeed, things were likely to take that course. And Allchin was a good, honest fellow, whom it would be a pleasure to see flourishing. -- How much longer would old Strangwyn cumber the world?
With more of elasticity than usual in his rapid stride, Will passed out of Fulham Road into King's Road, and down to the river at Cheyne Walk, whence his eye perceived a sitting figure on the opposite bank. He crossed Albert Bridge; he stepped down into the Park; he drew near to the young lady in grey trimmed with black, who was at work upon a drawing. Not until he spoke did she seem aware of his arrival; then with her brightest smile of welcome, she held out a pretty hand, and in her melodious voice thanked him for so kindly taking the trouble to come.
"Don't look at this," she added. "It's too difficult -- I can't get it right----"
What his glance discovered on the block did not strengthen Will's confidence in Rosamund's claim to be a serious artist. He had always taken for granted that her work was amateurish, and that she had little chance of living by it. On the whole, he felt glad to be confirmed in this view; Rosamund as an incompetent was more interesting to him than if she had given proof of great ability.
"I mustn't be too ambitious," she was saying. "The river suggests dangerous comparisons. I want to find little corners of the town such as no one ever thought of painting----"
"Unless it was Norbert Franks," said Will genially, leaning on his stick with both hands, and looking over her head.
"Yes, I had almost forgotten," she answered with a thoughtful smile. "In those days he did some very good things."
".Some remarkably good things. Of course you know the story of how he and I first met?"
"Oh, yes. Early morning -- a quiet little street -- I remember. Where was that?"
"Over yonder." Will nodded southward. "I hope he'll take that up again some day."
"Oh, but let me do it first," exclaimed Rosamund, laughing. "You mustn't rob me of my chance, Mr. Warburton? Norbert Franks is successful and rich, or going to be; I am a poor struggler. Of course, in painting London, it's atmosphere one has to try for above all. Our sky gives value, now and then, to forms which in themselves are utterly uninteresting."
"Exactly what Franks used to say to me. There was a thing I wanted him to try -- but then came the revolution. It was the long London street, after a hot, fine day, just when the lamps have been lit. Have you noticed how golden the lights are? I remember standing for a long time at the end of Harley Street, enjoying that effect. Franks was going to try it -- but then came the revolution."
"For which -- you mean, Mr. Warburton -- I was to blame."
Rosamund spoke in a very low voice and a very sweet, her head bent.
"Why, yes," replied Will, in the tone of corresponding masculinity, "though I shouldn't myself have used that word. You, no doubt, were the cause of what happened, and so, in a sense, to blame for it. But I know it couldn't be helped."
"Indeed, it couldn't," declared Rosamund, raising her eyes a little, and looking across the river.
She had not in the least the air of a coquette. Impossible to associate any such trivial idea with Rosamund's habitual seriousness of bearing, and with the stamp of her features, which added some subtle charm to regularity and refinement. By temper critical, and especially disposed to mistrustful scrutiny by the present circumstances, Warburton was yet unable to resist the softening influence of this quintessential womanhood. In a certain degree, he had submitted to it during that holiday among the Alps, then, on the whole, he inclined to regard Rosamund impatiently and with slighting tolerance. Now that he desired to mark her good qualities, and so justify himself in the endeavour to renew her conquest of Norbert Franks, he exposed himself to whatever peril might lie in her singular friendliness. True, no sense of danger occurred to him, and for that very reason his state was the more precarious.
"You have seen him lately at Ashtead?" was his next remark.
"More than once. And I can't tell you how glad we were to see each other! I knew in a moment that he had really forgiven me -- and I have always wanted to be assured of that. How thoroughly good and straightforward he is! I'm sure we shall be friends all our lives."
"I agree with you," he said, "that there's no better fellow living. Till now, I can't see a sign of his being spoilt by success. And spoilt in the worst sense, I don't think he ever will be, happen what may, there's a simplicity about him which makes his safeguard. But, as for his painting -- well, I can't be so sure, I know little or nothing about it, but it's plain that he no longer takes his work very seriously. It pleases people -- they pay large prices for it -- where's the harm? Still, if he had some one to keep a higher ideal before him----"
He broke off, with a vague gesture. Rosamund looked up at him.
"We must try," she said, with quiet earnestness.
"Oh, I don't know that I'm any use," replied Will, with a laugh. "I speak with no authority. But you -- yes. You might do much. More than any one else possibly could."
"That is exaggerating, Mr. Warburton," said Rosamund. "Even in the old days my influence didn't go for much. You speak of the 'revolution' caused by -- by what happened; but the truth is that the revolution had begun before that. Remember I saw 'Sanctuary' while he was painting it, and, but we won't talk of that"
"To tell you the truth," returned Warburton, meeting her eyes steadily, with his pleasantest look, "I saw no harm in 'Sanctuary.' I think he was quite right to do what he could to earn money. He wanted to be married; he had waited quite long enough; if he hadn't done something of the kind, I should have doubted whether he was very much in earnest. No, no; what I call the revolution began when he had lost all hope. At the time he would have given up painting altogether, I believe; if it hadn't been that he owed me money, and knew I wanted it."
Rosamund made a quick movement of interest.
"I never heard about that."
"Franks wouldn't talk about it, be sure. He saw me in a hobble -- I lost everything, all at once -- and he went to work like a brick to get money for me. And that, when he felt more disposed to poison himself than to paint. Do you think I should criticise the work he did under these circumstances?"
"No, indeed! Thank you, Mr. Warburton, for telling me that story."
"How exquisite London is at this time of the year!" Rosamund murmured, as having declared it was time to be walking homewards, they walked slowly towards the bridge. "I'm glad not to be going away. Look at that lovely sky! Look at the tones of those houses. -- Oh, I must make use of it all! Real use, I mean, as splendid material for art, not only for money-making. Do advise me, Mr. Warburton. Where shall I go to look for bits?"
Walking with bent head, Will reflected.
"Do you know Camberwell?" he asked. "There are good little corners----"
"I don't know it at all. Could you -- I'm afraid to ask. You couldn't spare time----?"
"Oh yes, easily. That's to say, during certain hours."
"On Monday say? In the afternoon?"
"How kind of you!" murmured Rosamund. "If I were only an amateur, amusing myself, I couldn't give you the trouble; but it's serious I must earn money before long. You see, there's nothing else I can do. My sister -- you know I have a sister? -- she has taken to teaching; she's at St. Jean de Luz. But I'm no use for anything of that kind. I must be independent. Why do you smile?"
"Not at you, but at myself. I used to say the same thing. But I had no talent of any kind, and when the smash came----"
They were crossing the bridge. Will looked westward, in the direction of his shop, and it struck him how amusing it would be to startle Rosamund by a disclosure of his social status. Would she still be anxious for his company in search of the picturesque? He could not feel sure -- curiosity urged him to try the experiment, but an obscure apprehension closed his lips.
"How very hard for you!" sighed Rosamund. But don't think," she added quickly, "that I have a weak dread of poverty. Not at all! So long as one can support oneself. Nowadays, when every one strives and battles for money, there's a distinction in doing without it."
Five minutes more, and they were in Oakley Crescent. Rosamund paused before reaching the house in which she dwelt, took the camp-stool from her companion, and offered her hand for good-bye. Only then did Warburton become aware that he had said nothing since that remark of hers about poverty; he had walked in a dream.
August came, and Strangwyn, the great whisky distiller, was yet alive. For very shame, Will kept his thoughts from that direction. The gloomy mood had again crept upon him, in spite of all his reasons for hope; his sleep became mere nightmare, and his day behind the counter a bilious misery.
Since the occasion last recorded, Bertha Cross had not been to the shop. One day, the order was brought by a servant; a week later, Mrs. Cross herself appeared. The querulous lady wore a countenance so nearly cheerful that Warburton regarded her uneasily. She had come to purchase tea, and remarked that it was for use during a seaside holiday; you could never depend on the tea at seaside places. Perhaps, thought Will, the prospect of change sufficed to explain her equanimity. But for the rest of the day he was so glum and curt, that Allchin frequently looked at him with pained remonstrance.
At home, he found a telegram on his table. He clutched at it, rent the envelope. But no; it was not what he expected. Norbert Franks asked him to look in that evening. So, weary and heartsick as he was, he took the train to Notting Hill Gate.
"What is it?" he asked bluntly, on entering the studio.
"Wanted a talk, that was all," replied his friend. "Hope I haven't disturbed you. You told me, you remember, that you preferred coming here."
"All right. I thought you might have news for me."
"Well," said Franks, smiling at the smoke of his cigarette, "there's perhaps something of the sort."
The other regarded him keenly.
"You've done it."
"No -- o -- o; not exactly. Sit down; you're not in a hurry? I went to Walham Green a few days ago, but Bertha wasn't at home. I saw her mother. They're going away for a fortnight, to Southwold, and I have a sort of idea that I may run down there. I half promised."
Will nodded, and said nothing.
"You disapprove? Speak plainly, old man. What's your real objection? Of course I've noticed before now that you have an objection. Out with it!"
"Have you seen Miss Elvan again?"
"No. Have you?"
"Two or three times."
Franks was surprised.
"Oh, we've had some walks together."
"The deuce you have!" cried Franks, with a laugh.
"Don't you want to know what we talked about," pursued Warburton, looking at him with half-closed eyelids. "Principally about you."
"That's very flattering -- but perhaps you abused me?"
"On the whole, no. Discussed you, yes, and in considerable detail, coming to the conclusion that you were a very decent fellow, and we both of us liked you very much."
Franks laughed gaily, joyously.
"Que vous êtes aimables, tous-les-deux! You make me imagine I'm back in Paris. Must I round a compliment in reply?"
"That's as you like. But first I'll tell you the upshot of it all, as it shapes itself to me. Hasn't it even dimly occurred to you that, under the circumstances, it would be -- well, say a graceful thing -- to give that girl a chance of changing her mind again?"
"What -- Rosamund?"
"It never struck you?"
"But, hang it all, Warburton!" exclaimed the artist. "How should I have thought of it? You know very well -- and then, it's perfectly certain she would laugh at me."
"It isn't certain at all. And, do you know, it almost seems to me a point of honour."
"You're not serious? This is one of your solemn jokes -- such as you haven't indulged in lately."
"No, no. Listen," said Will, with a rigid earnestness on his face as he bent forward in the chair. "She is poor, and doesn't know how she's going to live. You are flourishing, and have all sorts of brilliant things before you; wouldn't it be a generous thing -- the kind of thing one might expect of a fellow with his heart in the right place--? You understand me?"
Franks rounded his eyes in amazement.
"But -- am I to understand that she expects it?"
"Not at all. She hasn't in the remotest way betrayed such a thought -- be assured of that. She isn't the sort of girl to do such a thing. It's entirely my own thought."
The artist changed his seat, and for a moment wore a look of perturbed reflection.
"How the deuce," he exclaimed, "can you come and talk to me like this when you know I've as good as committed myself----?"
"Yes, and in a wobbling, half-hearted way which means you had no right even to think of committing yourself. You care nothing about that other girl----"
"You're mistaken. I care a good deal. In fact----"
"In fact" echoed Warburton with good-natured scorn so much that you've all but made up your mind to go down to Southwold whilst she is there! Bosh! You cared for one girl in a way you'll never care for another."
"Well -- perhaps -- yes that may be true----"
"Of course it's true. If you don't marry her, go in for a prize beauty or for an heiress or anything else that's brilliant. Think of the scope before a man like you."
Franks smiled complacently once more.
"Why, that's true," he replied." I was going to tell you about my social adventures. Who do you think I've been chumming with? Sir Luke Griffin -- the great Sir Luke. He's asked me down to his place in Leicestershire, and I think I shall go. He's really a very nice fellow. I always imagined him loud, vulgar, the typical parvenu. Nothing of the kind -- no one would guess that he began life in a grocer's shop. Why, he can talk quite decently about pictures, and really likes them."
Warburton listened with a chuckle.
"Has he daughters?"
"Three, and no son. The youngest, about seventeen, an uncommonly pretty girl. Well, as you say, why shouldn't I marry her and a quarter of a million? By Jove! I believe I could. She was here with her father yesterday. I'm going to paint the three girls together. -- Do you know, Warburton, speaking without any foolish vanity, what astonishes me is to think of the enormous choice of wives there is for a man of decent appearance and breeding who succeeds in getting himself talked about. Without a joke, I am convinced I know twenty girls, and more or less nice girls, who would have me at once, if I asked them. I'm not a conceited fellow -- am I now? I shouldn't say this to any one else. I'm simply convinced of its being a fact."
Warburton declared his emphatic agreement.
"Seeing that," he added, "why are you in such a hurry? Your millionaire grocer is but a steppingstone; who knows but you may soon chum with dukes? If any man living ought to be cautious about his marriage, it's you."
The artist examined his friend with a puzzled smile.
"I should like to know, Warburton, how much of this is satire, and how much serious advice. Perhaps it's all satire -- and rather savage?"
"No, no, I'm speaking quite frankly."
"But, look here, there's the awkward fact that I really have gone rather far with the Crosses."
Will made a movement of all but angry impatience.
"Do you mean," he asked quickly, "that she has committed herself in any way?"
"No, that she certainly hasn't," was Franks, deliberate reply, in a voice as honest as the smile which accompanied it.
"My advice then is -- break decently off, and either do what I suggested, or go and amuse yourself with millionaire Sir Luke, and extend your opportunities."
"You are serious about Rosamund?" he asked, after a glance at Warburton's set face.
"Think it over," Will replied, in a rather hard voice. "I saw the thing like that. Of course, it's no business of mine; I don't know why I interfere; every man should settle these matters in his own way. But it was a thought I had, and I've told it you. There's no harm done."
When Warburton reached his lodging the next evening he found a letter on his table. Again the fine feminine hand; it was the second time that Rosamund had written to him. A vague annoyance mingled with his curiosity as he tore the envelope. She began by telling him of a drawing she had made in Camberwell Grove -- not bad, it seemed to her, but she wished for his opinion. Then, in a new paragraph:
"I have seen Norbert again. I call him Norbert, because I always think of him by that name, and there's an affectation in writing 'Mr. Franks.' I felt that, when we talked of him, and I really don't know why I didn't simply call him Norbert then. I shall do so in future. You, I am sure, have little respect for silly social conventions, and you will understand me. Yes, I have seen him again, and I feel obliged to tell you about it. It was really very amusing. You know, of course, that all embarrassment was over between us. At Ashtead we met like the best of friends. So, when Norbert wrote that he wanted to see me, I thought nothing could be more natural, and felt quite glad. But, as soon as we met, I saw something strange in him, something seemed to have happened. And -- how shall I tell you? It's only a guess of mine -- things didn't come to foolish extremities -- but I really believe that the poor fellow had somehow persuaded himself that it's his duty to -- no, I can't go on, but I'm sure you will understand. I was never so amused at anything.
"Why do I write this to you? I hardly know. But I have just a suspicion that the story may not come to you quite as a surprise. If Norbert thought he had a certain duty -- strange idea! -- perhaps friends of his might see things in the same way. Even the most sensible people are influenced by curious ideas on one subject. I need not say that, as soon as the suspicion dawned upon me, I did my best to let him understand how far astray he was going. I think he understood. I feel sure he did. At all events he got into natural talk again, and parted in a thoroughly reasonable way.
"I beg that you won't reply to this letter. I shall work on, and hope to be able to see you again before long."
Warburton threw the sheet of paper on to the table, as if dismissing it from his thoughts. He began to walk about the room Then he stood motionless for ten minutes. "What's the matter with me?" this was the current of his musing. "I used to think myself a fellow of some energy; but the truth is, I know my mind about nothing, and I'm at the mercy of every one who chooses to push me this way or that."
He took up the letter again, and was about to re-read it, but suddenly altered his mind, and thrust the folded paper into his pocket.
Eight days went by. Will had a visit from Sherwood, who brought news that the whisky distiller had seemed a little better, but could not possibly live more than a week or two. As regards the vegetarian colony all went well; practical men were at work on the details of the scheme; Sherwood toiled for ten hours a day at secretarial correspondence. Next day, there came a postcard from Rosamund.
"Work ready to show you. Could you come and have a cup of tea to-morrow afternoon?"
At the conventional hour Will went to Oakley Crescent. Not, however, as he had expected, to find Miss Elvan alone; with her sat Mrs. Pomfret, in London for the afternoon. The simple and kindly lady talked as usual, but Will, nervously observant, felt sure that she was not quite at her ease. On the other hand, nothing could have been more naturally graceful than Rosamund's demeanour; whether pouring out tea, or exhibiting her water-colours, or leading the talk to subjects of common interest, she was charming in her own way, a way which borrowed nothing from the every-day graces of the drawing-room. Her voice, always subdued, had a range of melodious expression which caressed the ear, no matter how trifling the words she uttered, and at moments its slightly tremulous murmur on rich notes suggested depths of sentiment lying beneath this familiar calm. To her aunt she spoke with a touch of playful affection; when her eyes turned to Warburton, their look almost suggested the frankness of simple friendship, and her tone was that of the largest confidence.
Never had Will felt himself so lulled to oblivion of things external; he forgot the progress of time, and only when Mrs. Pomfret spoke of the train she had to catch, made an effort to break the lazy spell and take his leave.
On the morrow, and on the day after that, he shirked business during the afternoon, excusing himself with the plea that the heat of the shop was insufferable. He knew that neglect of work was growing upon him, and again he observed that Allchin seemed rather pleased than vexed by these needless absences. The third day saw him behind the counter until five o'clock, when he was summoned as usual to the back parlour to tea. Laying before him a plate of watercress and slices of brown bread and butter, Mrs. Allchin, a discreetly conversational young woman, remarked on the continued beauty of the weather, and added a hope that Mr. Jollyman would not feel obliged to remain in the shop this evening.
"No, no, it's your husband's turn," Will replied good-naturedly. "He wants a holiday more than I do."
"Allchin want a 'oliday, sir!" exclaimed the woman. "Why he never knows what to do with himself when he's away from business. He enjoys business, does Allchin. Don't you think of him, sir. I never knew a man so altered since he's been kept to regular work all the year round. I used to dread the Sundays, and still more the Bank holidays when we were here first; you never knew who he'd get quarrelling with as soon as he'd nothing to do But now, sir, why I don't believe you'll find a less quarrelsome man anywhere, and he was saying for a joke only yesterday, that he didn't think he could knock down even a coster, he's so lost the habit."
Will yielded and stole away into the mellowing sunshine. He walked westward, till he found himself on the Embankment by Albert Bridge; here, after hesitating awhile, he took the turn into Oakley Street. He had no thought of calling to see Miss Elvan; upon that he could not venture; but he thought it barely possible that he might meet with her in this neighbourhood, and such a meeting would have been pleasant. Disappointed, he crossed the river, lingered a little in Battersea Park, came back again over the bridge, -- and, with a sudden leap of the heart, which all but made his whole body spring forward, saw a slim figure in grey moving by the parapet in front of Cheyne Walk.
They shook hands without speaking, very much as though they had met by appointment.
"Oh, these sunsets!" were Rosamund's first words, when they had moved a few steps together.
"They used to be my delight when I lived there," Will replied, pointing eastward.
"Show me just where it was, will you?"
They turned, and went as far as Chelsea Bridge, where Warburton pointed out the windows of his old flat.
"You were very happy there?" said Rosamund.
"Happy--? Not unhappy, at all events. Yes, in a way I enjoyed my life; chiefly because I didn't think much about it."
"Look at the sky, now."
The sun had gone down in the duskily golden haze that hung above the river's vague horizon. Above, on the violet sky, stood range over range of pleated clouds, their hue the deepest rose, shading to purple in the folds.
"In other countries," continued the soft, murmuring voice, "I have never seen a sky like that. I love this London!"
"As I used to," said Warburton, "and shall again."
They loitered back past Chelsea Hospital, exchanging brief, insignificant sentences. Then for many minutes neither spoke, and in this silence they came to the foot of Oakley Street, where again they stood gazing at the sky. Scarcely changed in form, the western clouds had shed their splendour, and were now so coldly pale that one would have imagined them stricken with moonlight; but no moon had risen, only in a clear space of yet blue sky glistened the evening star.
"I must go in," said Rosamund abruptly, as though starting from a dream.
She was gone, and Warburton stood biting his lips. Had he shaken hands with her? Had he said good-night? He could not be sure. Nothing was present to him but a sense of gawkish confusion, following on a wild impulse which both ashamed and alarmed him, he stood in a bumpkin attitude, biting his lips.
A hansom came crawling by, and the driver called his attention -- "Keb, sir?" At once he stepped forward, sprang on to the footboard, and -- stood there looking foolish.
"Where to, sir?"
"That's just what I can't tell you," he answered with a laugh. "I want to go to somebody's house, but don't know the address."
"Could you find it in the Directory, sir? They've got one at the corner."
The cab keeping alongside with him, he walked to the public-house, and there, midway in whisky-and-soda, looked up in the great red volume the name of Strangwyn. There it was, -- a house in Kensington Gore. He jumped into the hansom, and, as he was driven down Park Lane, he felt that he had enjoyed nothing so much for a long time; it was the child's delight in "having a ride"; the air blew deliciously on his cheeks, and the trotting clap of the horse's hoofs, the jingle of the bells, aided his exhilaration. And when the driver pulled up, it was with an extraordinary gaiety that Will paid him and shouted good-night.
He approached the door of Mr. Strangwyn's dwelling. Some one was at that moment turning away from it, and, as they glanced at each other, a cry of recognition broke from both.
"Coming to make inquiry?" asked Sherwood. "I've just been doing the same thing."
"No better, no worse. But that means, of course, nearer the end."
"Queer we should meet," said Warburton. "This is the first time I've been here."
"I can quite understand your impatience. It seems an extraordinary case; the poor old man, by every rule, ought to have died weeks ago. Which way are you walking?"
Will answered that he did not care, that he would accompany Sherwood.
"Let us walk as far as Hyde Park Corner, then," said Godfrey. "Delighted to have a talk with you." He slipped a friendly hand under his companion's arm. "Why don't you come, Will, and make friends with Milligan? He's a splendid fellow; you couldn't help taking to him. We are getting on gloriously with our work. For the first time in my life I feel as if I had something to do that's really worth doing. I tell you this scheme of ours has inconceivable importance; it may have results such as one dare not talk about."
"But how long will it be before you really make a start?" asked Warburton, with more interest than he had yet shown in this matter.
"I can't quite say -- can't quite say. The details are of course full of difficulty -- the thing wouldn't be worth much if they were not. One of Milligan's best points is, that he's a thoroughly practical man -- thoroughly practical man. It's no commercial enterprise we're about, but, if it's to succeed, it must be started on sound principles. I'd give anything if I could persuade you to join us, old fellow. You and your mother and sister -- you're just the kind of people we want. Think what a grand thing it will be to give a new start to civilisation! Doesn't it touch you?"
Warburton was mute, and, taking this for a sign of the impressionable moment, Sherwood talked on, ardently, lyrically, until Hyde Park Corner was reached.
"Think it over, Will. We shall have you yet; I know we shall. Come and see Milligan."
They parted with a warm hand-grip, and Warburton turned toward Fulham Road.
When Warburton entered the shop the next morning, Allchin was on the lookout for him.
"I want to speak to you, sir," he said, "about this golden syrup we've had from Rowbottom's--"
Will listened, or seemed to listen, smiling at vacancy. To whatever Allchin proposed, he gave his assent, and in the afternoon, without daring to say a word he stole into freedom.
He was once more within sight of Albert Bridge. He walked or prowled -- for half an hour close about Oakley Crescent. Then, over the bridge and into the Park. Back again, and more prowling. At last, weary and worn, to the counter and apron, and Allchin's talk about golden syrup.
The next day, just before sunset, he sauntered on the Embankment. He lifted up his eyes, and there, walking towards him, came the slim figure in grey.
"Not like the other evening," said Rosamund, before he could speak, her eyes turning to the dull, featureless west.
He held her hand, until she gently drew it away, and then was frightened to find that he had held it so long. From head to foot, he quivered, deliciously, painfully. His tongue suffered a semi-paralysis, so that, trying to talk, he babbled -- something about the sweetness of the air -- a scent from the gardens across the river----
"I've had a letter from Bertha Cross," said his companion, as she walked slowly on. "She comes home to-morrow."
"Bertha Cross--? Ah, yes, your friend----"
The name sounded to Warburton as if from a remote past. He repeated it several times to himself.
They stood with face turned toward the lurid south. The air was very still. From away down the river sounded the bells of Lambeth Church, their volleying clang softened by distance to a monotonous refrain, drearily at one with the sadness of the falling night. Warburton heard them, yet heard them not; all external sounds blended with that within him, which was the furious beating of his heart. He moved a hand as if to touch Rosamund's, but let it fall as she spoke.
"I'm afraid I must go. It's really raining----"
Neither had an umbrella. Big drops were beginning to splash on the pavement. Warburton felt one upon his nose.
"To-morrow," he uttered thickly, his tongue hot and dry, his lips quivering.
"Yes, if it's fine," replied Rosamund.
"Early in the afternoon?"
"I can't. I must go and see Bertha."
They were walking at a quick step, and already getting wet.
"At this hour then," panted Will.
Lambeth bells were lost amid a hollow boom of distant thunder.
"I must run," cried Rosamund. "Good-bye."
He followed, keeping her in sight until she entered the house. Then he turned and walked like a madman through the hissing rain -- walked he knew not whither -- his being a mere erratic chaos, a symbol of Nature's prime impulse whirling amid London's multitudes.
Tired and sullen after the journey home from the seaside, Mrs. Cross kept her room. In the little bay-windowed parlour, Bertha Cross and Rosamund Elvan sat talking confidentially.
"Now, do confess," urged she of the liquid eyes and sentimental accent. "This is a little plot of yours -- all in kindness, of course. You thought it best -- you somehow brought him to it?"
Half laughing, Bertha shook her head.
"I haven't seen him for quite a long time. And do you really think this kind of plotting is in my way? It would as soon have occurred to me to try and persuade Mr. Franks to join the fire-brigade."
"Bertha! You don't mean anything by that? You don't think I am a danger to him?"
"No, no, no! To tell you the truth, I have tried to think just as little about it as possible, one way or the other. Third persons never do any good in such cases, and more often than not get into horrid scrapes."
"Fortunately," said Rosamund, after musing a moment with her chin on her hand, "I'm sure he isn't serious. It's his good-nature, his sense of honour. I think all the better of him for it. When he understands that I'm in earnest, we shall just be friends again, real friends."
"Then you are in earnest?" asked Bertha, her eyelids winking mirthfully.
Rosamund's reply was a very grave nod, after which she gazed awhile at vacancy.
"But," resumed Bertha, after reading her friend's face, "you have not succeeded in making him understand yet?"
"Perhaps not quite. Yesterday morning I had a letter from him, asking me to meet him in Kensington Gardens. I went, and we had a long talk. Then in the evening, by chance, I saw Mr. Warburton."
"Has that anything to do with the matter?"
"Oh, no!" replied Miss Elvan hastily. "I mention it, because, as I told you once before, Mr. Warburton always likes to talk of Norbert."
"I see. And you talked of him?"
"We only saw each other for a few minutes. The thunder-storm came on. -- Bertha, I never knew any one so mysterious as Mr. Warburton. Isn't it extraordinary that Norbert, his intimate friend, doesn't know what he does? I can't help thinking he must write. One can't associate him with anything common, mean."
"Perhaps his glory will burst upon us one of these days," said Bertha.
"It really wouldn't surprise me. He has a remarkable face -- the kind of face that suggests depth and force. I am sure he is very proud. He could bear any extreme of poverty rather than condescend to ignoble ways of earning money."
"Is the poor man very threadbare?" asked Bertha. "Has his coat that greenish colour which comes with old age in cheap material?"
"You incorrigible! As far as I have noticed, he is quite properly dressed."
"Oh, oh!" protested Bertha, in a shocked tone. "Properly dressed! What a blow to my romantic imagination! I thought at least his coat-cuffs would be worn out. And his boots? Oh, surely he is down at heel? Do say that he's down at heel, Rosamund!"
"What a happy girl you are, Bertha," said the other after a laugh. "I sometimes think I would give anything to be like you."
"Ah, but you don't know -- you can t see into the gloomy depths, hidden from every eye but my own. For instance, while here we sit, talking as if I hadn't a care in the world I am all the time thinking that I must go to Mr. Jollyman's -- the grocer's, that is -- as we haven't a lump of sugar in the house."
"Then let me walk with you," said Rosamund. "I oughtn't to have come worrying you to-day, before you had time to settle down. Just let me walk with you to the grocer's, and then I'll leave you at peace."
They presently went forth, and walked for some distance westward along Fulham Road.
"Here's Mr. Jollyman's," said Bertha. "Will you wait for me, or come in?"
Rosamund followed her friend into the shop. Absorbed in thought, she scarcely raised her eyes, until a voice from behind the counter replied to Bertha's "Good-morning"; then, suddenly looking up, she saw that which held her motionless. For a moment she gazed like a startled deer; the next her eyes fell, her face turned away; she fled out into the street.
And there Bertha found her, a few yards from the shop.
"Why did you run away?"
Rosamund had a dazed look.
"Who was that behind the counter?" she asked, under her breath.
"Mr. Jollyman. Why?"
The other walked on. Bertha kept at her side.
"What's the matter?"
"Bertha -- Mr. Jollyman is Mr. Warburton."
"But he is! Here's the explanation -- here's the mystery. A grocer -- in an apron!"
Bertha was standing still. She, too, looked astonished, perplexed.
"Isn't it a case of extraordinary likeness?" she asked, with a grave smile.
"Oh, dear, no! I met his eye -- he showed that he knew me -- and then his voice. A grocer -- in an apron?"
"This is very shocking," said Bertha, with a recovery of her natural humour. "Let us walk. Let us shake off the nightmare."
The word applied very well to Rosamund's condition; her fixed eyes were like those of a somnambulist.
"But, Bertha!" she suddenly exclaimed, in a voice of almost petulant protest. "He knew you all the time -- oh, but perhaps he did not know your name?"
"Indeed he did. He's constantly sending things to the house."
"How extraordinary! Did you ever hear such an astonishing thing in your life?"
"You said more than once," remarked Bertha, "that Mr. Warburton was a man of mystery."
"Oh, but how could I have imagined--! grocer!"
"In an apron!" added the other, with awed voice.
"But, Bertha, does Norbert know? He declared he had never found out what Mr. Warburton did. Was that true, or not?"
"Ah, that's the question. If poor Mr. Franks has had this secret upon his soul! I can hardly believe it. And yet -- they are such intimate friends."
"He must have known it," declared Rosamund.
Thereupon she became mute, and only a syllable of dismay escaped her now and then during the rest of the walk to the Crosses' house. Her companion, too, was absorbed in thought. At the door Rosamund offered her hand. No, she would not come in; she had work which must positively be finished this afternoon whilst daylight lasted.
Out of the by-street,. Rosamund turned into Fulham Road, and there found a cab to convey her home. On entering the house, she gave instructions that she was at home to nobody this afternoon; then she sat down at the table, as though to work on a drawing, but at the end of an hour her brush had not yet been dipped in colour. She rose, stood in the attitude of one who knows not what to do, and at length moved to the window. Instantly she drew back. On the opposite side of the little square stood a man, looking toward her house; and that man was Warburton.
From safe retirement, she watched him. He walked this way; he walked that; again he stood still, his eyes upon the house. Would he cross over? Would he venture to knock at the door? No, he withdrew; he disappeared.
Presently it was the hour of dusk. Every few minutes Rosamund reconnoitred at the window, and at length, just perceptible to her straining eyes, there again stood Warburton. He came forward. Standing with hand pressed against her side, she waited in nervous anguish for a knock at the front door; but it did not sound. She stood motionless for a long, long time, then drew a deep, deep breath, and trembled as she let herself sink into a chair.
Earlier than usual, she went up to her bedroom. In a corner of the room stood her trunk; this she opened, and from the chest of drawers she took forth articles of apparel, which she began to pack, as though for a journey. When the trunk was half full, she ceased in weariness, rested for a little, and then went to bed.
And in the darkness there came a sound of subdued sobbing. It lasted for some minutes -- ceased -- for some minutes was again audible. Then silence fell upon the chamber.
Lying awake between seven and eight next morning, Rosamund heard the postman's knock. At once she sprang out of bed, slipped on her dressing-gown, and rang the bell. Two letters were brought up to her; she received them with tremulous hand. Both were addressed in writing, unmistakably masculine; the one was thick, the other was thin and this she opened first.
"Dear Miss Elvan" -- it was Warburton who wrote -- "I hoped to see you this evening, as we had appointed. Indeed, I must see you, for, as you may imagine, I have much to say. May I come to your house? In any case, let me know place and hour, and let it be as soon as possible. Reply at once, I entreat you. Ever sincerely yours----"
She laid it aside, and broke the other envelope.
"Dear, dearest Rosamund" -- thus began Norbert Franks -- "our talk this morning has left me in a state of mind which threatens frenzy. You know I haven't too much patience. It is out of the question for me to wait a week for your answer, though I promised. I can't wait even a couple of days. I must see you again to-morrow -- must, must, must. Come to the same place, there's a good, dear, sweet, beautiful girl! If you don't, I shall be in Oakley Crescent, breaking doors open, behaving insanely. Come early----"
And so on, over two sheets of the very best notepaper, with Norbert's respectable address handsomely stamped in red at the top. (The other missive was on paper less fashionable, with the address, sadly plebeian, in mere handwriting.) Having read to the end, Rosamund finished her dressing and went down to the sitting-room. Breakfast was ready, but, before giving her attention to it, she penned a note. It was to Warburton. Briefly she informed him that she had decided to join her sister in the south of France, and that she was starting on the journey this morning. Her address, she added, would be "c/o Mrs. Alfred Coppinger, St. Jean de Luz, Basses Pyrénées." And therewith she remained Mr. Warburton's sincerely.
"Please let this be posted at once," said Rosamund when the landlady came to clear away.
And posted it was.
His hands upon the counter, Warburton stared at the door by which first Rosamund, then Bertha Cross, had disappeared. His nerves were a-tremble; his eyes were hot. Of a sudden he felt himself shaken with irresistible mirth; from the diaphragm it mounted to his throat, and only by a great effort did he save himself from exploding in laughter. The orgasm possessed him for several minutes. It was followed by a sense of light-heartedness, which set him walking about, rubbing his hands together, and humming tunes.
At last the burden had fallen from him; the foolish secret was blown abroad; once more he could look the world in the face, bidding it think of him what it would.
They were talking now -- the two girls, discussing their strange discovery. When he saw Rosamund this evening -- of course he would see her, as she had promised -- her surprise would already have lost its poignancy; he had but to tell the story of his disaster, of his struggles, and then to announce the coming moment of rescue. No chance could have been happier than this which betrayed him to these two at the same time; for Bertha Cross's good sense would be the best possible corrective of any shock her more sensitive companion might have received. Bertha Cross's good sense -- that was how he thought of her, without touch of emotion; whilst on Rosamund his imagination dwelt with exultant fervour. He saw himself as he would appear in her eyes when she knew all -- noble, heroic. What he had done was a fine thing, beyond the reach of ordinary self-regarding mortals, and who more capable than Rosamund of appreciating such courage? After all, fate was kind. In the byways of London it had wrought for him a structure of romance, and amid mean pursuits it exalted him to an ideal of love.
And as he thus dreamt, and smiled and gloried -- very much like an aproned Malvolio -- the hours went quickly by. He found himself near Albert Bridge, pacing this way and that, expecting at every moment the appearance of the slim figure clad in grey. The sun set; the blind of Rosamund's sitting-room showed that there was lamplight within; and at ten o'clock Warburton still hung about the square, hoping -- against his reason -- that she might come forth. He went home, and wrote to her.
In a score of ways he explained to himself her holding aloof. It was vexation at his not having confided in her; it was a desire to reflect before seeing him again; it was -- and so on, all through the night, which brought him never a wink of sleep. Next morning, he did not go to the shop; it would have been impossible to stand at the counter for ten minutes, he sent a note to Allchin, saying that he was detained by private affairs, then set off for a day-long walk in the country, to kill time until the coming of Rosamund's reply. On his return in the afternoon, he found it awaiting him.
An hour later he was in Oakley Crescent. He stood looking at the house for a moment, then approached, and knocked at the door. He asked if Miss Elvan was at home.
"She's gone away," was the reply of the landlady, who spoke distantly, her face a respectable blank.
"Left for good?"
"Yes, sir," answered the woman, her eyes falling.
"You don't know where she has gone to?"
"It's somewhere abroad, sir -- in France, I think. She has a sister there."
This was at five o'clock or so. Of what happened during the next four hours, Will had never a very distinct recollection. Beyond doubt, he called at the shop, and spoke with Allchin; beyond doubt, also, he went to his lodgings and packed a travelling bag. Which of his movements were performed in cabs, which on foot, he could scarce have decided, had he reflected on the matter during the night that followed. That night was passed in the train, on a steamboat, then again on the railway And before sunrise he was in Paris.
At the railway refreshment-room, he had breakfast, eating with some appetite; then he drove to the terminus of another line. The streets of Paris, dim vistas under a rosy dawn, had no reality for his eyes; the figures flitting here and there, the voices speaking a foreign tongue, made part of a phantasm in which he himself moved no less fantastically. He was in Paris; yet how could that be? He would wake up, and find himself at his lodgings, and get up to go to business in Fulham Road; but the dream bore him on. Now he had taken another ticket. His bag was being registered -- for St. Jean de Luz. A long journey lay before him. He yawned violently, half remembering that he had passed two nights without sleep. Then he found himself seated in a corner of the railway carriage, an unknown landscape slipping away before his eyes.
Now for the first time did he seem to be really aware of what he was doing. Rosamund had taken flight to the Pyrenees, and he was in hot pursuit. He grew exhilarated in the thought of his virile energy. If the glimpse of him aproned and behind a counter had been too great a shock for Rosamund's romantic nature, this vigorous action would more than redeem his manhood in her sight. "Yes, I am a grocer; I have lived for a couple of years by selling tea and sugar -- not to speak of treacle; but none the less I am the man you drew on to love you. Grocer though I be, I come to claim you!" Thus would he speak and how could the reply be doubtful? In such a situation, all depends on the man's strength and passionate resolve. Rosamund should be his; he swore it in his heart. She should take him as he was, grocer's shop and all; not until her troth was pledged would he make known to her the prospect of better things. The emotions of the primitive lover had told upon him. She thought to escape him, by flight across Europe? But what if the flight were meant as a test of his worthiness ? He seized upon the idea, and rejoiced in it. Rosamund might well have conceived this method of justifying both him and herself. "If he loves me as I would be loved, let him dare to follow!"
To-morrow morning he would stand before her, grocerdom a thousand miles away. They would walk together, as when they were among the Alps. Why, even then, had his heart prompted, had honour permitted, he could have won her. He believed now, what at the time he had refused to admit, that Franks' moment of jealous anger was not without its justification. Again they would meet among the mountains, and the shop in Fulham Road would be seen as at the wrong end of a telescope -- its due proportions. They would return together to England, and at once be married. As for the grocery business----
Reason lost itself amid ardours of the natural man.
He paid little heed to the country through which he was passing. He flung himself on to the dark platform, and tottered drunkenly in search of the exit. Billet? Why, yes, he had a billet somewhere. Hotel? Yes, yes, the hotel, -- no matter which. It took some minutes before his brain could grasp the idea that his luggage cheque was wanted; he had forgotten that he had any luggage at all. Ultimately, he was thrust into some sort of a vehicle, which set him down at the hotel door. Food? Good Heavens, no; but something to drink, and a bed to tumble into -- quick.
He stood in a bedroom, holding in his hand a glass of he knew not what beverage. Before him was a waiter, to whom -- very much to his own surprise -- he discoursed fluently in French, or something meant for that tongue. That it was more than sixty hours since he had slept; that he had started from London at a moment's notice; that the Channel had been very rough for the time of the year; that he had never been in this part of France before, and hoped to see a good deal of the Pyrenees, perhaps to have a run into Spain; that first of all he wanted to find the abode of an English lady named Mrs. Cap -- Cop -- he couldn't think of the name, but he had written it down in his pocket-book.
The door closed; the waiter was gone; but Warburton still talked French.
"Oui, oui -- en effet -- très fatigué, horriblement fatigueé! Trois nuits sans sommeil -- trois nuits -- trois!"
His clothes fell in a heap on the floor; his body fell in another direction. He was dead asleep.
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