A morning of April, more than two years after his marriage, found Harvey Rolfe in good health and very tolerable spirits. As his wont was, he came down at half-past eight, and strolled in the open air before breakfast. There had been rain through the night; a grey mist still clung about the topmost larches of Cam Bodvean, and the Eifel summits were densely wrapped. But the sun and breeze of spring promised to have their way; to drive and melt the clouds, to toss white wavelets on a blue sea, to make the gorse shine in its glory, and all the hills be glad.
A gardener was at work in front of the house; Harvey talked with him about certain flowers he wished to grow this year. In the small stable-yard a lad was burnishing harness; for him also the master had a friendly word, before passing on to look at the little mare amid her clean straw. In his rough suit of tweed and shapeless garden hat, with brown face and cheery eye, Rolfe moved hither and thither as though native to such a life. His figure had filled out; he was more robust, and looked, indeed, younger than on the day when he bade farewell to Mrs Handover and her abominations.
At nine o'clock he entered the dining-room, where breakfast was ready, though as yet no other person had come to table. The sun would not touch this window for several hours yet, but a crackling fire made the air pleasant, and brightened all within. Seats were placed for three. An aroma of coffee invited to the meal, which was characterised by no suggestion of asceticism. Nor did the equipment of the room differ greatly from what is usual in middle-class houses. The clock on the mantelpiece was flanked with bronzes; engravings and autotypes hung about the walls; door and window had their appropriate curtaining; the oak sideboard shone with requisite silver. Everything unpretentious; but no essential of comfort, as commonly understood, seemed to be lacking.
In a minute or two appeared Mrs Frothingham; alert, lightsome, much improved in health since the first year of her widowhood. She had been visiting here for a fortnight, and tomorrow would return to her home in the south. Movement, variety, intimate gossip, supported her under the affliction which still seemed to be working for her moral good. Her bounty (or restitution) had long ago ceased to be anonymous, but she did not unduly pride herself upon the sacrifice of wealth; she was glad to have it known among her acquaintances, because, in certain quarters, the fact released her from constraint, and restored her to friendly intercourse. For her needs and her pleasures a very modest income proved quite sufficient. To all appearances, she found genuine and unfailing satisfaction in the exercise of benevolent sympathies.
'Alma will not come down,' was her remark, as she entered. 'A little headache -- nothing. We are to send her some tea and dry toast.'
'I thought she didn't seem quite herself last night,' said Harvey, as he cut into a ham.
Mrs Frothingham made no remark, but smiled discreetly, taking a place at the head of the table.
'We shall have to go somewhere,' Harvey continued. 'It has been a long winter. She begins to feel dull, I'm afraid.'
'A little, perhaps. But she's quite well -- it's nothing ----'
'Why won't she go on with her water-colours? She was beginning to do really good things -- then all at once gives it up.'
'Oh, she must! I think those last sketches simply wonderful. Anyone would suppose she had worked at it all her life, instead of just a few months. How very clever she is!'
'Alma can do anything,' said Harvey, with genial conviction.
'Almost anything, I really think. Now don't let her lose interest in it, as she did in her music. You have only to show that you think her drawings good, and speak about them. She depends rather upon encouragement.'
'I know. But it wasn't for lack of my encouragement that she dropped her violin.'
'So unfortunate! Oh, she'll come back to it, I'm sure.'
When Mrs Frothingham paid her first visit to the newly-married couple, it amused her to find a state of things differing considerably from her anxious expectations. True, they had only one servant within doors, the woman named Ruth, but she did not represent the whole establishment. Having bought a horse and trap, and not feeling called upon to act as groom, Harvey had engaged a man, who was serviceable in various capacities; moreover, a lad made himself useful about the premises during the day. Ruth was a tolerable cook, and not amiss as a housemaid. Then, the furnishing of the house, though undeniably 'simple', left little to be desired; only such things were eschewed as serve no rational purpose and are mostly in people's way. Alma, as could at once be perceived, ran no risk of overexerting herself in domestic duties; she moved about of mornings with feather-brush, and occasionally plied an unskilful needle, but kitchenward she never turned her steps. Imprudently, Mrs Frothingham remarked that this life, after all, much resembled that of other people; whereat Alma betrayed a serious annoyance, and the well-meaning lady had to apologise, to admit the absence of 'luxuries', the homeliness of their diet, the unmistakable atmosphere of plain living and high thinking.
She remained for nearly a month, greatly enjoying herself. Late in autumn, Alma begged her to come again, and this time the visit lasted longer; for in the first week of December the house received a new inhabitant, whose arrival made much commotion. Alma did not give birth to her son without grave peril. Day after day Harvey strode about the wintry shore under a cloud of dread. However it had been with him a year ago, he was now drawn to Alma by something other than the lures of passion; the manifold faults he had discerned in her did not seriously conflict with her peculiar and many-sided charm; and the birth of her child inspired him with a new tenderness, an emotion different in kind from any that he had yet conceived. That first wail of feeblest humanity, faint-sounding through the silent night, made a revolution in his thoughts, taught him on the moment more than he had learnt from all his reading and cogitation.
It seemed to be taken as a matter of course that Alma would not nurse the baby; only to Harvey did this appear a subject for regret, and he never ventured to speak of it. The little mortal was not vigorous; his nourishment gave a great deal of trouble; but with the coming of spring he took a firmer hold on life, and less persistently bewailed his lot. The names given to him were Hugh Basil. When apprised of this, the strong man out in Australia wrote a heart-warming letter, and sent with it a little lump of Queensland gold, to be made into something, or kept intact, as the parents saw fit. Basil Morton followed the old tradition, and gave a silver tankard with name and date of the new world-citizen engraved upon it.
Upon her recovery, Harvey took his wife to Madeira, where they spent three weeks. Alma's health needed nothing more than this voyage; she returned full of vitality. During her absence Mrs Frothingham superintended the household, the baby being in charge of a competent nurse. It occurred to Harvey that this separation from her child was borne by Alma with singular philosophy; it did not affect in the least her enjoyment of travel. But she reached home again in joyous excitement, and for a few days kept the baby much in view. Mrs Frothingham having departed, new visitors succeeded each other: Dora and Gerda Leach, Basil Morton and his wife, one or two of Alma's relatives. Little Hugh saw less and less of his mother, but he continued to thrive; and Harvey understood by now that Alma must not be expected to take much interest in the domestic side of things. It simply was not her forte.
She had ceased to play upon her violin, save for the entertainment and admiration of friends. After her return from Madeira she made the acquaintance of a lady skilled in water-colour drawing, and herewith began a new enthusiasm. Her progress was remarkable, and corresponded to an energy not less than that she had long ago put forth in music. In the pursuit of landscape she defied weather and fatigue; she would pass half the night abroad, studying moonlight, or rise at an unheard-of hour to catch the hues of dawn. When this ardour began to fail, her husband was vexed rather than surprised. He knew Alma's characteristic weakness, and did not like to be so strongly reminded of it. For about this time he was reading and musing much on questions of heredity.
In a moment of confidence he had ventured to ask Mrs Frothingham whether she could tell him anything of Alma's mother. The question, though often in his mind, could hardly have passed his lips, had not Mrs Frothingham led up to it by speaking of her own life before she married: how she had enjoyed the cares of country housekeeping; how little she had dreamt of ever being rich; how Bennet Frothingham, who had known her in his early life, sought her out when he began to be prosperous, therein showing the fine qualities of his nature, for she had nothing in the world but gentle birth and a lady's education. Alma was then a young girl of thirteen, and had been motherless for eight years. Thus came Harvey's opportunity. Alma herself had already imparted to him all she knew: that her mother was born in England, emigrated early with her parents to Australia, returned to London as a young woman, married, and died at twenty-seven. To this story Mrs Frothingham could add little, but the supplement proved interesting. Bennet Frothingham spoke of his first marriage as a piece of folly; it resulted in unhappiness, yet, the widow was assured, with no glaring fault on either side. Alma's mother was handsome, and had some natural gifts, especially a good voice, which she tried to use in public, but without success. Her education scarcely went beyond reading and writing. She died suddenly, after an evening at the theatre, where, as usual, she had excited herself beyond measure. Mrs Frothingham had seen an old report of the inquest that was held, the cause of death being given as cerebral haemorrhage. In these details Harvey Rolfe found new matter for reflection.
Their conversation at breakfast this morning was interrupted by the arrival of letters; two of them particularly welcome, for they bore a colonial postmark. Hugh Carnaby wrote to his friend from an out-of-the-way place in Tasmania; Sibyl wrote independently to Alma from Hobart.
'Just as I expected,' said Harvey, when he had glanced over a few lines. 'He talks of coming home: -- "There seems no help for it. Sibyl is much better in health since we left Queens land, but I see she would never settle out here. She got to detest the people at Brisbane, and doesn't like those at Hobart much better. I have left her there whilst I'm doing a little roaming with a very decent fellow I have come across, Mackintosh by name. He has been everywhere and done everything -- not long ago was in the service of the Indo-European Telegraph Company at Tehran, and afterwards lived (this will interest you) at Badgered, where he got a date-boi1, which marks his face and testifies to his veracity. He has been trying to start a timber business here; says some of the hard woods would be just the thing for street paving. But now his father's death is taking him back home, and I shouldn't wonder if we travel together. One of his ideas is a bicycle factory; he seems to know all about it, and says it'll be the most money-making business in England for years to come. What do you think? Does this offer a chance for me?"'
Harvey interrupted himself with a laugh. Smelting of abandoned gold ores, by the method of the ingenious Dando, had absorbed some of Hugh's capital, with very little result, and his other schemes for money-making were numerous.
'"The fact is, I must get money somehow. Living has been expensive ever since we left England, and it's madness to go on till one's resources have practically run out. And Sibyl must get home again; she's wasting her life among these people. How does she write to your wife? I rather wish I could spy at the letters. (Of course, I don't seriously mean that.) She bears it very well, and, if possible, I have a higher opinion of her than ever."'
Again Harvey laughed.
'Good old chap! What a pity he can't be cracking crowns somewhere!'
'Oh! I'm sure I'd rather see him making bicycles.'
''Tisn't his vocation. He ought to go somewhere and get up a little war of his own -- as he once told me he should like to. We can't do without the fighting man.'
'Will you bring Hughie up to it, then?'
Harvey fixed his eyes on a point far off.
'I fear he won't have the bone and muscle. But I should like him to have the pluck. I'm afraid he mayn't, for I'm a vile coward myself.'
'I should like a child never to hear or know of war,' said Mrs Frothingham fervently.
'And so should I,' Harvey answered, in a graver tone.
When Mrs Frothingham went upstairs with the letter for Alma, he broke open another envelope. It was from Mary Abbott, who wrote to him twice a year, when she acknowledged the receipt of his cheque. She sent the usual careful report concerning Wager's children -- the girl now seven years old, and the boy nine. Albert Wager, she thought, was getting too old for her; he ought to go to a boys' school. Neither he nor his sister had as yet repaid the care given to them; never were children more difficult to manage. Harvey read this between the lines; for Mary Abbott never complained of the task she had undertaken. He rose and left the room with a face of anxious thoughtfulness.
The day was wont to pass in a pretty regular routine. From half-past nine to half-past one Harvey sat alone in his study, not always energetically studious, but on the whole making progress in his chosen field of knowledge. He bought books freely, and still used the London Library. Of late he had been occupying himself with the authorities on education; working, often impatiently, through many a long-winded volume. He would have liked to talk on this subject with Mary Abbott, but had not yet found courage to speak of her paying them a visit. The situation, difficult because of Alma's parentage, was made more awkward by his reticence with Alma regarding the payment he made for those luckless children. The longer he kept silence, the less easily could he acquaint his wife with this matter -- in itself so perfectly harmless.
This morning he felt indisposed for study, and cared just as little to go out, notwithstanding the magnificent sky. From his windows he looked upon the larch-clad slopes of Cam Bodvean; their beauty only reminded him of grander and lovelier scenes in far-off countries. From time to time the wanderer thus awoke in him, and threw scorn upon the pedantries of a book-lined room. He had, moreover, his hours of regret for vanished conviviality; he wished to step out into a London street, collect his boon-companions, and hold revel in the bygone way. These, however, were still but fugitive moods. All in all, he regretted nothing. Destiny seemed to have marked him for a bookish man; he grew more methodical, more persistent, in his historical reading; this, doubtless, was the appointed course for his latter years. It led to nothing definite. His life would be fruitless ----
Fruitless? There sounded from somewhere in the house a shrill little cry, arresting his thought, and controverting it without a syllable. Nay, fruitless his life could not be, if his child grew up. Only the chosen few, the infinitesimal minority of mankind, leave spiritual offspring, or set their single mark upon the earth; the multitude are but parents of a new generation, live but to perpetuate the race. It is the will of nature, the common lot. And if indeed it lay within his power to shape a path for this new life, which he, nature's slave, had called out of nothingness, -- to obviate one error, to avert one misery, -- to ensure that, in however slight degree, his son's existence should be better and happier than his own, -- was not this a sufficing purpose for the years that remained to him, a recompense adequate to any effort, any sacrifice?
As he sat thus in reverie, the door softly opened, and Alma looked in upon him.
'Do I interrupt you?'
'I'm idling. How is your headache?'
She answered with a careless gesture, and came forward, a letter in her hand.
'Sibyl says she will certainly be starting for home in a few weeks. Perhaps they're on the way by now. You have the same news, I hear.'
'Yes. They must come to us straight away,' replied Harvey, knocking the ash out of his pipe 'Or suppose we go to meet them? If they come by the Orient Line, they call at Naples. How would it be to go overland, and make the voyage back with them?'
Alma seemed to like the suggestion, and smiled, but only for a moment. She had little colour this morning, and looked cold, as she drew up to the fire, holding a white woollen wrap about her shoulders. A slow and subtle modification of her features was tending to a mature beauty which would make bolder claim than the charm that had characterised her in maidenhood. It was still remote from beauty of a sensual type, but the outlines, in becoming a little more rounded, more regular, gained in common estimate what they lost to a more refined apprehension. Her eyes appeared more deliberately conscious of their depth and gleam; her lips, less responsive to the flying thought, grew to an habitual expression -- not of discontent, but something akin unto it; not of self-will, but something that spoke a spirit neither tranquil nor pliant.
'Had you anything else?' she asked, absently.
'A letter from Mrs Abbott.'
Alma smiled, with a shade of pleasantry not usual upon her countenance. Harvey generally read her extracts from these letters. Their allusion to money imposed the reserve; otherwise they would have passed into Alma's hands. From his masculine point of view, Harvey thought the matter indifferent; nothing in his wife's behaviour hitherto had led him to suppose that she attached importance to it.
'The usual report of progress?'
'Yes. I fancy those two children are giving her a good deal of trouble. She'll have to send the boy to a boarding school.'
'But can she afford it?'
'I don't know.'
'I've never understood yet why you take so much interest in those children.'
Her eyes rested upon him with a peculiarly keen scrutiny, and Harvey, resenting the embarrassment due to his own tactics, showed a slight impatience.
'Why, partly because I wish to help Mrs Abbott with advice, if I can: partly because I'm interested in the whole question of education.'
'Yes, it's interesting, of course. She has holidays, I suppose?'
'It's holiday time with her now.'
'Then why don't you ask her to come and see us?'
'I would at once,' Harvey replied, with hesitation, 'if I felt sure that ----' He broke off, and altered the turn of his sentence. 'I don't know whether she can leave those children.'
'You were going to make a different objection. Of course there's a little awkwardness. But you said long ago that all that sort of thing would wear away, and surely it ought to have done by now. If Mrs Abbott is as sensible as you think, I don't see how she can have any unpleasant feeling towards me.'
'I can't suppose that she has.'
'Then now is the opportunity. Send an invitation. -- Why shouldn't I write it myself?'
Alma had quite shaken off the appearance of lassitude; she drew herself up, looked towards the writing-table, and showed characteristic eagerness to carry out a project. Though doubtful of the result, Harvey assented without any sign of reluctance, and forthwith she moved to the desk. In a few minutes she had penned a letter, which was held out for her husband's perusal.
'Admirable!' he exclaimed. 'Couldn't be better. Nihil quod tetigit non ornavit.'
'And pray what does that mean?' asked Alma, her countenance a trifle perturbed by the emotions which blended with her delight in praise.
'That my wife is the most graceful of women, and imparts to all she touches something of her own charm.'
'Latin, you must know, is the language of compression.'
They parted with a laugh. As she left the study, Alma saw her little son just going out; the nurse had placed him in his mail-cart, where he sat smiling and cooing. Mrs Frothingham, who delighted in the child, had made ready for a walk in the same direction, and from the doorway called to Alma to accompany them.
'I may come after you, perhaps,' was the reply. 'Ta-ta, Hughie!'
With a wave of her hand, Alma passed into the sitting-room, where she stood at the window, watching till Mrs Frothingham's sunshade had disappeared. Then she moved about, like one in search of occupation; taking up a book only to throw it down again, gazing vacantly at a picture, or giving a touch to a bowl of flowers. Here, as in the dining-room, only the absence of conventional superfluities called for remark; each article of furniture was in simple taste; the result, an impression of plain elegance. On a little corner table lay Alma's colour-box, together with a drawing-board, a sketching-block, and the portfolio which contained chosen examples of her work. Not far away, locked in its case, lay her violin, the instrument she had been wont to touch caressingly; today her eyes shunned it.
She went out again into the little hall. The front door stood open; sunshine flooded the garden; but Alma was not tempted to go forth. All the walks and drives of the neighbourhood had become drearily familiar; the meanest of London streets shone by contrast as a paradise in her imagination. With a deep sigh of ennui, she turned and slowly ascended the stairs.
Above were six rooms; three of them the principal chambers (her own, Harvey's, and the guest-room), then the day-nursery, the night nursery, and the servant's bedroom. On her first coming, she had thought the house needlessly spacious; now it often seemed to her oppressively small, there being but one spare room for visitors. She entered her own room. It could not be called disorderly, yet it lacked that scrupulous perfection of arrangement, that dainty finish, which makes an atmosphere for the privacy of a certain type of woman. Ruth had done her part, preserving purity unimpeachable; the deficiency was due to Alma alone. To be sure, she had neither dressing-room nor lady's-maid; and something in Alma's constitution made it difficult for her to dispense with such aids to the complete life.
She stood before the mirror, and looked at herself, blankly, gloomily. Her eyes fell a little, and took a new expression, that of anxious scrutiny. Gazing still, she raised her arms, much as though she were standing to be measured by a dressmaker; then she turned, so as to obtain a view of her figure sideways. Her arms fell again, apathetically, and she moved away.
Somehow, the long morning passed. In the afternoon she drove with Harvey and Mrs Frothingham, conversing much as usual, giving no verbal hint of her overwhelming ennui. No reference was made to Mrs Abbott. Harvey had himself written her a letter, supporting Alma's invitation with all possible cordiality; but he gravely feared that she would not come.
At tea, according to custom, little Hugh was brought into the room, to be fondled by his mother, who liked to see him when he was prettily dressed, and to sit upon his father's knee. Hugh, aged sixteen months, began to have a vocabulary of his own, and to claim a share in conversation; he had a large head, well formed, and slight but shapely limbs; the sweet air of sea and mountain gave a healthful, though very delicate, colouring to his cheeks; his eyes were Alma's, dark and gleaming, but with promise of a keener intelligence. Harvey liked to gaze long at the little face, puzzled by its frequent gravity, delighted by its flashes of mirth. Syllables of baby-talk set him musing and philosophising. How fresh and young, yet how wondrously old! Babble such as this fell from a child's lips thousands of years ago, in the morning of the world; it sounded on through the ages, infinitely reproduced; eternally a new beginning; the same music of earliest human speech, the same ripple of innocent laughter, renewed from generation to generation. But he, listening, had not the merry, fearless pride of fathers in an earlier day. Upon him lay the burden of all time; he must needs ponder anxiously on his child's heritage, use his weary knowledge to cast the horoscope of this dawning life.
'Why are you looking at him in that way?' exclaimed Alma. 'You'll frighten him.'
'How did I look?'
'As if you saw something dreadful.'
Harvey laughed, and ran his fingers through the soft curls, and bade himself be of good heart. Had he not thrown scorn upon people who make a 'fuss' about their children. Had he not despised and detested chatter about babies? To his old self what a simpleton would he have seemed!
On the morrow Mrs Frothingham took her departure; leaving it, as usual, uncertain when she would come again, but pleasantly assured that it could not be very long. She thought Harvey the best of husbands; he and Alma, the happiest of married folk. In secret, no doubt, she sadly envied them. If her own lot had fallen in such tranquil places!
Two more days, and Alma received a reply to her invitation. Yes, Mrs Abbott would come, and be with them for a week; longer she could not. Her letter was amiable and well-worded as Alma's own. Harvey felt a great relief, and it pleased him not a little to see his wife's unfeigned satisfaction. This was Monday; the visitor promised to arrive on Tuesday evening.
'Of course you'll drive over with me to meet her,' said Harvey.
'I think not. I dislike making acquaintance at railway stations. If it should rain, you'll have to have a covered carriage, and imagine us three shut up together!'
Alma laughed gaily at the idea. Harvey, though at a loss to interpret her merriment, answered it with a smile, and said no more. Happily, the weather was settled; the sun shone gallantly each morning; and on Tuesday afternoon Harvey drove the seven miles, up hill and down, between hedges of gorse and woods of larch, to the little market-town where Mary Abbott would alight after her long journey.
Half an hour after sunset Alma heard the approach of wheels. She had long been ready to receive her visitor, and when the horse stopped, she stood by the open door of the sitting-room, commanding her nervousness, resolute to make an impression of grace and dignity. It would have eased her mind had she been able to form some idea of Mrs Abbott's personal appearance; Harvey had never dropped a hint on the subject, and she could not bring herself to question him. The bell rang; Ruth hastened to answer it; Harvey's voice sounded.
'It turns chilly after the warm sunshine. I'm afraid we ought to have had a covered carriage.'
'Then I should have seen nothing,' was replied in softer tones. 'The drive was most enjoyable.'
There came into the lamplight a rather tall figure in plain, serviceable travelling-costume. Alma discerned a face which gave her a shock of surprise, so unlike was it to anything she had imagined; the features regular and of intelligent expression, but so thin, pallid, worn, that they seemed to belong to a woman of nearly forty, weighted by years of extreme suffering. The demeanour which Alma had studiously prepared underwent an immediate change; she stepped forward with an air of frank kindliness, of cordial hospitality.
'Wasn't your train late? How tired you must be -- and how cold! In these fine spring days we have been living as if it were midsummer, but I'm sure you oughtn't to have had that long drive in the open trap so late. Harvey thinks everybody as robust as himself ----'
But the guest was in very good spirits, though manifestly fatigued. She spoke with pleasure of the beautiful wild country, glowing in sunset. A little tired, yes; she had not travelled so far for a long time; hut the air had braced her wonderfully, and after a night's rest ----
At dinner Alma behaved with the same friendliness, closely observing her guest, and listening to all she said, as if anxious not to miss a word. Mrs Abbott conversed in a very low voice; her manner was marked by a subdual which might partly be attributable to weariness, but seemed in a measure the result of timidity under novel circumstances. If she looked at either of her companions, her eyes were instantly withdrawn. A smile never lingered on her features; it came and passed, leaving the set expression of preoccupied gravity. She wore a dress of black silk, close at the neck; and Alma perceived that it was by no means new.
An hour after the meal she begged permission to retire to her room. The effort to talk had become impossible; she was at the end of her strength, and could hold up no longer.
When Alma came down again, she stood for a minute before the fire, smiling and silent. Harvey had picked up a newspaper; he said nothing.
'How very nice she is!' fell at length from Mrs Rolfe's lips.
'Astonishingly altered,' was her husband's murmured reply.
'Indeed? In what way?'
'Looks so wretchedly ill, for one thing.'
'We must take her about. What do you think of doing tomorrow?'
By feminine device of indirect question, Alma obtained some understanding of the change that had come upon Mrs Abbott during the past three years. Harvey's disclosures did not violate the reticence imposed upon him by that hour in which he had beheld a woman's remorseful anguish; he spoke only of such things as were manifest to everyone who had known Mary Abbott before her husband's death; of her social pleasures, her intellectual ambitions, suddenly overwhelmed by a great sorrow.
'I suppose she ought to be doing much better things than teaching children,' said Alma.
'Better things?' repeated Harvey, musing. 'I don't know. It all depends how you regard it.'
'Is she very clever?'
'Not appallingly,' he answered, with a laugh. 'It's very possible she is doing just what she ought to be -- neither more nor less. Her health seems to be the weak point.'
'Do you think she has enough to live upon?'
Harvey knitted his brows and looked uneasy.
'I hope so. Of course it must be a very small income; but I dare say those friends of hers at Gunnersbury make life a little easier.'
'I feel quite sorry for her,' said Alma, with cheerfulness. 'I hadn't realised her position. We must make her stay as long as she can. Yes, if it's fine again, we might drive to Tre'r Caeri. That would interest her, no doubt. She likes history, doesn't she? -- the same things that you are fond of.'
At breakfast Mrs Abbott appeared with a much brighter countenance; refreshed in body and mind, she entered gladly into the plans that had been made for the day, talked with less restraint, and showed an interest in all her surroundings. But her demeanour still had the air of self-subdual which seemed at moments to become a diffidence bordering on humility. This was emphasised by its contrast with the bearing of her hostess. Alma had never shown herself to more brilliant advantage; kind interpretation might have thought that she had set herself to inspirit the guest in every possible way. Her face was radiant with good humour and vivacity; she looked the incarnation of joyous, healthy life. The flow of her spirited talk seemed to aim at exhibiting the joys and privileges of existence in places such as this. She represented herself as glorying in the mountain heights, and in solitary tracts of shore. Here were no social burdens, or restrictions, or extravagances; one lived naturally, simply, without regrets for wasted time, and without fear of the morrow. To all this Mary Abbott paid the tribute of her admiration, perhaps of her envy; and Alma grew the more animated, the more she felt that she had impressed her hearer.
Harvey wondered at this sudden revival of his wife's drooping energies. But he did not consider the phenomenon too curiously; enough that Alma was brilliant and delightful, that she played her part of hostess to perfection, and communicated to their guest something of her own vitality.
They had an exhilarating drive through the mountains to Tre'r Caeri, a British fastness on a stern bare height; crumbled dwellings amid their great protecting walls, with cairn and cromlech and mystic circles; where in old time the noise of battle clanged amid these grey hills, now sleeping in sunlight. And from Tre'r Caeri down into the rocky gloom of the seaward chasm, Nant Gwrtheyrn, with its mound upon the desolate shore, called by legend the burial-place of Vortigern. Here Mrs Abbott spoke of the prehistoric monuments she had seen in Brittany, causing Alma to glance at her with a sudden surprise. The impulse was very significant. Thinking of her guest only as a poverty-stricken teacher of children, Alma forgot for the moment that this subdued woman had known happier days, when she too boasted of liberty, and stored her mind in travel. After all, as soon appeared, the travels had been of very modest extent; and Alma, with her knowledge of many European countries, and her recent ocean voyage, regained the confident superiority which kept her in such admirable humour.
Mary Abbott, reluctant to converse on things that regarded herself, afforded Alma every opportunity of shining. She knew of Mrs Rolfe's skill as a musician, and this same evening uttered a hope that she might hear her play. The violin came forth from its retirement. Playing, it seemed at first, without much earnestness, as though it were but a pastime, Alma presently chose one of her pageant pieces, and showed of what she was capable. Lack of practice had told upon her hand, but the hearers were uncritical, as she well knew.
'That's magnificent,' said Harvey, with a mischievous smile. 'But do condescend now to the primitive ear. Let us have something of less severity.'
Alma glanced at Mrs Abbott, who had softly murmured her thanks; then turned an eye upon her husband, saying wickedly, 'Home, Sweet Home?'
'I've no doubt you could play it wonderfully -- as you would "Three Blind Mice".'
Alma looked good-natured disdain, and chose next a Tarantelle of Schubert. The exertion of playing brought warm colour into her face; it heightened her beauty, and she was conscious of it; so that when she chanced to find Mrs Abbott's look fixed upon her, a boundless gratification flashed from her own dark eyes, and spoke in the quiver of her lips.
Next evening, when again requested to play, she sat down to the piano. On this instrument Alma had not the same confidence as with the violin; but she could not refrain from exhibiting such skill as she possessed, Mrs Abbott having declared that her own piano-playing was elementary. Meantime, the portfolio of water-colours had of course been produced for exhibition. In this art, though she did not admit it, Mrs Abbott had formerly made some progress; she was able to form a judgment of Alma's powers, and heard with genuine surprise in how short a time this point had been attained. Alma again glowed with satisfaction.
She found a new source of pride in her motherhood. Not having been told, or having forgotten, that Mrs Abbott had lost a child, she playfully offered assurance that the guest should not be worried with nursery talk.
'Children are anything but a delight to you, I'm afraid; you must have too much of them.'
'They often give me trouble,' Mrs Abbott replied. 'But I wish I had one more to trouble me. My little girl would have been six years old by now.
Alma gave one of those looks which occasionally atoned for many less amiable glances.
'I'm so sorry -- I didn't know ----'
Mrs Abbott did not dwell on the subject. Her reserve was still unbroken, though there never appeared the least coldness in her manner; she talked with perfect freedom of everything that contained no allusion to herself. The change was manifestly doing her good; even by the second day she showed an increase of vigour, and no longer wore the preoccupied, overstrained look. Becoming familiar with her face, Alma thought it more attractive than at first, and decidedly younger. She still had a great deal of curiosity to satisfy with regard to Mrs Abbott; especially it seemed strange to her that Harvey and his friend were so little inclined for conversation; they talked only of formal, uninteresting things, and she wondered whether, after all, they really had much in common.
'Take Mrs Abbott for a walk tomorrow morning,' she said in private; 'you must have so many things to talk about -- by yourselves.'
'I don't know that we have,' Harvey returned, looking at her with some surprise. 'I want to hear a little more about those youngsters, that's all.'
Mrs Abbott wished to climb Cam Bodvean the great hill, clad in tender green of larch-woods, which overlooked the town. For the toil of this ascent Alma had no mind; pleasantly excusing herself, she proposed at breakfast that Harvey and Mrs Abbott should go alone; they might descend on the far side of the mountain, and there, at a certain point known to her husband, she would meet them with the dogcart. Harvey understood this to mean that the man would drive her; for Alma had not yet added the art of driving to her various accomplishments; she was, indeed, timid with the reins. He readily assented to the plan, which, for some reason, appeared to amuse and exhilarate her.
'Don't be in a hurry,' she said. 'There'll be a good view on a day like this, and you can have a long rest at the top. If you meet me at half-past one, we shall be back for lunch at two.'
When they started, Alma came out to the garden gate, and dismissed them with smiling benignity; one might have expected her to say 'Be good!' as when children are trusted to take a walk without superintendence. On re-entering, she ran quickly to an upper room, where from the window she could observe them for a few minutes, as they went along in conversation. Presently she bade her servant give directions for the dogcart to be brought round at one o'clock.
'Williams to drive, ma'am?' said Ruth, who had heard something of the talk at breakfast.
'No,' Alma replied with decision. 'I shall drive myself.'
The pedestrians took their way along a winding road, between boulder walls thick-set with the new leaves of pennywort; then crossed the one long street of the town (better named a village), passing the fountain, overbuilt with lichened stone, where women and children filled their cans with sweet water, sparkling in the golden light. Rolfe now and then received a respectful greeting. He had wished to speak Welsh, but soon abandoned the endeavour. He liked to hear it, especially on the lips of children at their play. An old, old language, symbol of the vitality of a race; sounding on those young lips as in the time when his own English, composite, hybrid, had not yet begun to shape itself.
Beyond the street and a row of cottages, they began to climb; at first a gentle ascent, on either hand high hedges of flowering blackthorn, banks strewn with primroses and violets, and starred with the white stitchwort; great leaves of foxglove giving promise for future days. The air was bland, yet exquisitely fresh; scented from innumerable sources in field and heath and wood. When the lane gave upon open ground, they made a pause to look back. Beneath them lay the little grey town, and beyond it the grassy cliffs, curving about a blue bay. Near by rose the craggy slopes of a bare hill, and beyond it, a few miles to the north, two lofty peaks, wreathed against the cloudless heaven with rosy mist.
'Sure it won't be too much for you?' said Harvey looking upwards to the wooded height.
'I feel equal to anything,' answered his companion brightly. 'This air has given me new life.'
There was a faint colour on her cheeks, and for the first time Harvey caught an expression which reminded him of the face he had known years ago, when Mrs Abbott looked upon life much as Alma did now.
They entered upon a rising heath, green with mosses where the moisture of a hidden stream drew downwards, brown with dead bracken on dry slopes. Just above was a great thicket of flowering gorse; a blaze of colour, pure, aerial, as that of the sky which illumined it. Through this they made their way, then dropped into a green nook of pasture, among sheep that raised their heads distrustfully, and loud-bleating lambs, each running to its mother.
'If you can scale this wall, it will save us a quarter of an hour.'
'If you can, I can,' was the laughing reply.
Protruding boulders made it an easy clamber. They were then at the base of Cam Bodvean, and before them rose steep mountain glades. Mrs Abbott gazed upwards with unspoken delight.
'There are no paths,' said Harvey. 'It's honest woodland. Some day it will be laid out with roads and iron benches, with finger-posts, "To the summit".'
'You think so?'
'Why, of course. It's the destiny of every beautiful spot in Britain. There'll be a pier down yonder, and a switchback railway, and leagues of lodging-houses, and brass bands.'
'Let us hope we shall be dead.'
'Yes -- but those who come after us? What sort of a world will it be for Hugh? I often think I should be wrong if I taught him to see life as I do. Isn't it only preparing misery for him? I ought to make him delight in piers, and nigger minstrels, and switchbacks. A man should belong to his time.'
'But a man helps to make his time,' replied Mary Abbott.
'True. You are hopeful, are you?'
'I try very hard to be. What use am I, if I don't put a few thoughts into children's heads which will help to make their lives a little better?'
Their feet sank in the mossy ruin of immemorial summers. Overhead, the larch-boughs dangled green tresses, or a grove of beech shook sunlight through branches decked with translucent gold. Now and then they came out into open spaces, where trees rent from the soil, dead amid spring's leafage, told of a great winter storm; new grass grew thickly about the shattered trunks, and in the hollows whence the roots had been torn. One moment they stood in shadow; the next, moved upward into a great splash of sunshine, thrown upon moss that still glistened with the dews of the night, and on splints of crag painted green and gold with lichen. Sun or shadow; the sweet fir-scents breathed upon their faces, mingled with many a waft of perfume from little woodland plants.
More than once Mrs Abbott had to pause. Midway she was tempted by a singular resting-place. It was a larch tree, perhaps thirty feet high; at the beginning of its growth, the stem had by some natural means been so diverted as to grow horizontally for a yard or more at a couple of feet above the ground; it had then made a curve downwards, and finally, by way of a perfect loop across itself, had shot again in the true direction, growing at last, with straight and noble trunk, like its undistorted neighbours. Much wondering at so strange a deformity, Mrs Abbott seated herself on the level portion, and Harvey, as he stood before her, told a fancy that had come to him when for the first time he chanced to climb this way. Might not the tree represent some human life? A weak, dubious, all but hopeless beginning; a check; a return upon itself; a laboured circling; last a healthful maturity, upright, triumphing. He spoke with his eyes on the ground. Raising them at the end, he was astonished to see that his companion had flushed deeply; and only then it occurred to him that this parable might be applied by the hearer to herself.
'To make a confession,' he added at once, 'it forcibly reminded me of my own life -- except that I can't pretend to be "triumphing".'
His laugh did not cover the embarrassment with which he discovered that, if anything, he had made matters worse. Here was an instance of his incorrigible want of tact; much better to have offered no application of the fable at all, and to have turned the talk. He had told a simple truth, but with the result of appearing to glorify himself, and possibly at his friend's expense. Vexed beyond measure, he crushed his heel into the soft ground.
'That is a very striking thought,' said Mary Abbott, her look still downcast. 'I shall never forget it.'
And she rose to move onward. They climbed in silence, the flank of the mountain growing steeper.
'I should have brought you my old alpenstock,' jested Harvey. 'Go slowly; we have plenty of time.'
'I like to exert myself. I feel so well, and it does me good!'
He ventured to look at her again. All her confusion had passed away; she had the light of enjoyment in her eyes, and returned his look with a frankness hitherto lacking.
'You must stay a second week. Alma won't let you go.'
'Go, I must. The two children can't be left longer at Mrs Langland's -- it would be presuming upon her kindness.'
'I want to talk about them, but one hasn't much breath here. When we get to the top ----'
Last of all came a slippery scramble on broken stones, to where a shapeless cairn rose above tree-tops, bare to the dazzling sky. As they issued from the shelter of the wood, a breeze buffeted about them, but only for a moment; then the air grew still, and nothing was audible but a soft whispering among the boughs below. The larches circling this stony height could not grow to their full stature; beaten, riven, stunted, by fierce blasts from mountain or from wave, their trunks were laden, and their branches thickly matted, with lichen so long and hoary that it gave them an aspect of age incalculable. Harvey always looked upon them with reverence, if not with awe.
In the sunny stillness their eyes wandered far and wide, around a vast horizon. On two sides lay the sea; to the west, bounded only where it met the blue sky above (though yonder line of cloud might perchance be the hills of Wicklow); eastward, enfolded by the shores of a great bay, with mountains on the far side, faintly visible through silvery vapour. Northward rose a noble peak, dark, stern, beautiful in the swift fall of curving rampart to the waves that broke at its foot; loftier by the proximity of two summits, sharp-soaring like itself, but unable to vie with it. Alone among the nearer mountains, this crest was veiled; smitten by sea-gusts, it caught and held them, and churned them into sunny cloudlets, which floated away in long fleecy rank, far athwart the clear depths of sky. Farther inland, where the haze of the warm morning hung and wavered, loomed at moments some grander form, to be imagined rather than descried; a glimpse of heights which, as the day wore on, would slowly reveal themselves and bask in the broad glow under crowning Snowdon.
'We have time! We can stay here!' said Mrs Abbott, moved with a profound delight.
'We have an hour at least. The sun is too hot; you must sit on the shadowed side of the cairn.'
The great silence had nothing of that awesomeness which broods in the mountain calm of wilder solitudes. Upon their ear fell the long low hushing of the wood, broken suddenly from time to time by a fitful wind, which flapped with hollow note around the great heap of stones, whirled as if in sport, and was gone. Below, in leafy hollows, sounded the cry of a jay, the laugh of a woodpecker; from far heath and meadow trembled the bleat of lambs. Nowhere could be discovered a human form; but man's dwellings, and the results of his labour, painted the wide landscape in every direction. On mountain sides, and across the undulating lowland, wall or hedge mapped his conquests of nature, little plots won by the toil of successive generations for pasture or for tillage, won from the reluctant wilderness, which loves its fern and gorse, its mosses and heather. Near and far were scattered the little white cottages, each a gleaming speck, lonely, humble; set by the side of some long-winding, unfrequented road, or high on the green upland, trackless save for the feet of those who dwelt there.
From talk of the scenery they passed, by no agreeable transition, to the subject which as yet they had not found an opportunity of discussing. It was necessary to arrive at some new arrangement regarding Wager's children; for the boy, Albert, would soon be nine years old, and, as Mrs Abbott confessed, he had given her a great deal of trouble. Both the children were intractable, hated lessons, and played alarming pranks; Master Albert's latest feat might have cost him his life, for he struck furiously through a pane of glass at a child mocking him from the other side, and was all but fainting from loss of blood when Mrs Abbott came to his help. Plainly this youngster must be sent to a boarding-school. Minnie, his sister, would be more easily managed after he had gone.
'He'll grow up a fighter,' said Harvey. 'We can't do without fighters. I'll make inquiry at once about a school for him, and in a year or two we'll take counsel with his teachers. Perhaps he might go into the navy.'
'The cost of it all,' fell from his companion in a nervous undertone.
'We had that out long ago. Don't think about it.'
'Of course, you will send only half the money when Albert leaves me,' said Mrs Abbott earnestly. 'I shall be in no difficulty. I have had letters from several people, asking me to take their little children to live with me. Albert's place will be filled at once. I can't take more into the house; there's no room. With them, and my kindergarten, and the lessons I give in the evening, I can live very well.'
Harvey mused. Wishing to feel himself in complete sympathy with his friend, he knew that something of the old criticism still tempered his liking. Mary Abbott had fine qualities, but lacked the simplicity, the directness, which would have made her courage wholly admirable. He suspected that she continually mourned over what seemed to her a waste of life. Proud of her 'culture', remembering her distinction as a teacher of grown-up girls, she had undertaken as a penitence the care of little children, and persevered in it with obstinacy rather than with inspired purpose. Mary Abbott, doubtless, had always regarded life as a conflict; she had always fought for her own hand. When such a nature falls into genuine remorse, asceticism will inevitably follow; with it comes the danger of more or less conscious embitterment. Harvey had a conviction of his friend's sincerity, and believed her in every way a better woman than in the days before her great sorrow; but he could not yet assure himself that she had found her true vocation.
They spoke of the people who were so anxious to be relieved of their children.
'One lady wrote to me that she would pay almost anything if I would take her little boy and keep him all the year round; she has only a small house, and the child utterly upsets her life. Of course, I understand her; I should have sympathised with her once.'
'It's intelligible enough,' replied Harvey, with a laugh. 'Presently there will be huge establishments for the young children of middle-class people. Naturally, children are a nuisance; especially so if you live in a whirlpool.'
'Yes, I know it too well, the whirlpool way of life,' said Mrs Abbott, her eyes on the far mountains. 'I know how easily one is drawn into it. It isn't only idle people.'
'Of course not. There's the whirlpool of the furiously busy. Round and round they go; brains humming till they melt or explode. Of course, they can't bother with children.'
'One loses all sense of responsibility.'
'Rather, they have never had it, and it has no chance of developing. You know, it isn't a matter of course for people to see that they are under an enormous obligation to the children they bring into the world; except in a parent here and there, that comes only with very favourable circumstances. When there's no leisure, no meditation, no peace and quietness, -- when, instead of conversing, people just nod or shout to each other as they spin round and round the gulf, -- men and women practically return to the state of savages in all that concerns their offspring. The brats have come into existence, and must make the best of it. Servants, governesses, schoolmasters -- anybody but the parents -- may give thought to children. Well, it's a matter for the individual. I shouldn't feel comfortable myself.'
'It's a matter for the world, too,' said Mary.
Harvey nodded. As he sat at the foot of the piled stones, his hand touched a sprig of last year's heather; the stem was hung with dry, rustling, colourless bells, which had clung there all through the cold, stormy months, telling of beauty that was past, and of beauty that was to come. He broke it off, and showed it to his companion. Until the time for moving, they talked of simpler things, and Mary Abbott recovered her spirits.
Turning regretfully from the place of rest, with its lulling sounds and noble prospects, they began to descend the other side of the mountain, which was more rugged than that by which they had come up. Harvey timed the walk so well, that they reached the point of the road where Alma would meet them, at a few minutes before the time agreed upon. No one was in sight. The road in its inland direction could be scanned for a quarter of a mile; the other way it curved rapidly, and was soon hidden by gorse-bushes.
'I hear nothing,' said Rolfe, when they had stood silent for a little. 'A mistake is impossible; the man has driven to meet us here before. Shall we walk on?'
They proceeded slowly, stopping from time to time. Harvey was puzzled by this unpunctuality; it would soon be a quarter to two. He began to feel hungry, and his companion looked tired. Of a sudden they heard the sound of a vehicle approaching behind them.
'It can't be Alma. She wouldn't have gone farther than ----'
But the horse appeared round the curve of the road, and behind it was a dogcart, and in the dogcart sat Alma, alone. At sight of them she pulled up abruptly, so abruptly that the horse reared a little. Harvey walked forward.
'You've been driving yourself?'
'Of course. Why not?' replied Alma in a strangely high key.
'How have we missed you?'
As he put this question he became aware of something very unusual in his wife's appearance. Alma was pallid and shaking; her small felt hat had got out of position, and her hair was disordered, giving her a wild, rakish aspect. He saw, too, that the horse dripped with sweat; that it glared, panted, trembled, and could not for a moment stand still.
'What on earth have you been doing? She's run away with you!'
'No, no!' cried Alma, laughing, as she looked at Mrs Abbott, who had just come up. 'She was rather fresh, and I gave her a good run, that's all. I'm sorry I missed you at the place ----'
'Why didn't Williams drive?' asked Harvey in a voice turning to anger.
'Williams? Why should Williams drive?' Alma returned, her eyes flashing. 'I'm only a few minutes late; I don't see anything to make a fuss about!'
This temper was as strange in Alma as the personal appearance she presented. Harvey said no more, but, after quickly examining the horse, helped Mrs Abbott to a seat at the back of the vehicle; he then jumped up to his wife's side, and without a word took the reins from her hand. Alma made no remark as she surrendered them.
'Put your hat straight,' he said to her in a low voice.
'My hat? What's the matter with it The wind, I suppose. Did you enjoy it, Mrs Abbott?'
She turned, in speaking, so as to have her back towards Harvey, and kept this position all the way, talking with her guest as if nothing had happened. Rolfe, his face grimly set, uttered only a word or two. He had to drive very slowly and with all caution, for the animal shied every other minute, and he felt heartily glad when they all alighted. Williams, who ran out from the stable, stood in astonishment at sight of the horse's condition.
'Rather fresh this morning,' said Harvey, as the ladies went in. 'Mrs Rolfe had a little trouble with her.'
This mild explanation by no means satisfied the coachman, though he pretended to acquiesce. Seeing him give a look at the horse's knees, Harvey did the same; nothing was wrong there. Williams pointed to marks on one of the wheels; the cart had evidently grazed against a wall. Alma must have lost control of the horse, and have been carried a considerable distance before, somehow, it was stopped. Without doubt, she had had a very narrow escape. Her anger seemed to be the result of nerves upset and mortified vanity; she wished to show Mrs Abbott that she could drive -- the explanation of the whole matter. Harvey was vexed at such a piece of childishness; irritated, too, by the outbreak of temper with which Alma had replied to his very natural alarm. Of course, he would say nothing more; it would be interesting to await the outcome of his wife's mature reflection on her folly.
As he stepped into the house, something like a cry for help sounded from above stairs. He shouted, 'What's that?' and in the same moment Mary Abbott called to him that Mrs Rolfe had fainted. On rushing up, he found Mary with difficulty supporting Alma's unconscious form.
'I saw she could hardly get upstairs,' said Mrs Abbott. 'Just here on the landing she gave a moan and fell back. I was luckily close by her.'
They carried her into her room, and gave what help they could whilst the doctor was being summoned. In a few minutes Alma regained consciousness, and declared herself quite well again; but when she tried to rise, strength failed her; she began to moan in physical distress. Harvey went downstairs, whilst Mrs Abbott and Ruth tended the sufferer.
Their ordinary medical man was far away among the hills; his assistant had to be searched for, and came only after the lapse of two hours, by which time Rolfe had worked himself into a fever. Whilst Mrs Abbott, faint with agitation and weariness, took a hurried meal, he went to the bedside, and tried to learn whether Alma was suffering merely from shock, or had sustained an actual injury; but she still nursed her grievance against him, and would say very little. Why did not the doctor come? She wished to see the doctor; no one else was of any use.
'Go down and have lunch with Mrs Abbott properly. Do go, please; I hate all this fuss, and it's quite unnecessary. Let me be alone till the doctor comes.'
Before the arrival of Dr Evans's assistant she again fainted, and upon that followed an attack of hysteria. When at length the medical man had seen her, Harvey received an adequate, but far from reassuring, explanation of the state of things. At nightfall Dr Evans came in person, and was with the patient for a long time. He spoke less gravely of the case, offered a lucid diagnosis, and thought that the services of an ordinary nurse for a few days would meet every necessity. Williams was sent with a hired vehicle to the market town, seven miles away, and late at night returned with the woman recommended. Alma meanwhile had lain quietly, and the household at length went to rest without renewal of alarms.
Twice before dawn Harvey left his room and stepped silently to Alma's door. The first time, he heard low voices; the second, there was no sound. When, about eight o'clock, he went down and out into the garden, he was surprised to meet Mrs Abbott. She had already seen the nurse this morning, and reported that all was going well. Rolfe talked cheerfully again, and would not listen to his guest's timid suggestion that she should take leave today. Not a bit of it; she was to go down to the seashore and enjoy the sunshine, and worry herself just as little as possible. At breakfast-time came a message from Alma to the same effect. Mrs Abbott was on no account to cut short her visit, and Harvey was to do his duty as host. She herself, said Mrs Rolfe, would be as well as ever in a day or two.
For all that, when the appointed day for the guest's departure came, Alma still lay blanched and feeble, not likely to leave her bed for another week. She was, however, in a remarkably cheerful frame of mind. Having to start on her journey as early as half-past eight, Mrs Abbott bade good-bye to her hostess the evening before, and nothing could have been kinder or more amiable than Alma's behaviour.
'Don't bear a grudge against me for spoiling your holiday,' she said, holding her guest's hand and smiling brightly. 'If I say all is for the best, perhaps you'll understand me, and perhaps you won't; it sounds pious at all events, doesn't it? We must see each other again, you know -- here or somewhere else. I'm quite sure we can be friends. Of course, Harvey will go with you in the morning.'
Mrs Abbott begged he would do nothing of the kind, but Alma was imperative.
'Of course he will! If it rains, a covered carriage will be here in time. And write to me -- mind you write to me; not only to say you've got safe home, but in future. You promise?'
In the morning it did rain, and heavily, so Harvey and his friend drove to the station shut up together, with scarce a glimpse of anything beyond the boulder walls and gorse hedges and dripping larch-trees. They spoke a good deal of Alma. As soon as she was well again, said Rolfe, he must take her for a thorough change. In truth, he was beginning, he said, to doubt whether she could live in this out-of-the-world place much longer. She liked it -- oh yes, she liked it -- but he feared the solitude was telling upon her nerves. Mrs Abbott admitted that there might be something in this.
'Should you return to London?' she asked.
Whereupon Harvey stared before him, and looked troubled, and could only answer that he did not know.
When, two days after, the promised letter came from Mrs Abbott, Harvey took it up to the invalid's room, and sat by her whilst she read it.
'She writes so nicely,' said Alma, who never in her life had showed such sweetness of disposition as during this convalescence. 'Read it for yourself, Harvey. Isn't it a nice letter? I feel so sorry we haven't known each other before. But we're going to be friends now.'
'I'm sure I'm very glad.'
'Nothing from Mamma? I almost think I could write to her to-day. Of course, she'll fall into a dreadful state of mind, and want to know why she wasn't sent for, and lament over -- everything. But it's no use her coming here now. When we go away we must manage to see her.'
'Yes. Have you thought where you would like to go?'
'Not yet. There's plenty of time.'
Not a word had passed between them with reference to the perilous drive. Alma spoke as if her illness were merely natural, due to nothing in particular; but her husband fancied that she wished to atone, by sweet and affectionate behaviour, for that unwonted ill-usage of him. He saw, too, beyond doubt, that the illness seemed to her a blessing; its result, which some women would have wept over, brought joy into her eyes. This, in so far as it was unnatural, caused him some disturbance; on the other hand, he was quite unable to take a regretful view of what had happened, and why should he charge upon Alma as a moral fault that which he easily condoned in himself?
A few days more and the convalescent was allowed to leave her room. As if to welcome her, there arrived that morning a letter from Melbourne, with news that Sibyl and her husband would sail for England in a fortnight's time after the date of writing, by the Orient Line steamer Lusitania.
'You know what you suggested?' cried Alma delightedly. 'Shall we go?'
'What -- to Naples? We should have to be off immediately. If they come by the next ship after the one that brought this letter, they are now only a fortnight from the end of the voyage. That means -- allowing for their nine days from Naples to London -- that we should have to be at Naples in four or five days from now.'
'Well? That's easily managed, isn't it?'
'Not by anyone in your state of health,' replied Harvey gently.
'I am perfectly well! I could travel night and day. Why not? One eats and sleeps as usual. Besides, are you quite sure They may be longer than you think. Telegraph to the London office and ask when the Lusitania will reach Naples.'
'If you like. But, for one thing, it's quite certain you oughtn't to travel in less than a week; and then -- what about Hughie?'
Alma's face darkened with vexation.
'It doesn't matter,' she said coldly. 'I had counted on it; but, of course, that's nothing. There's the baby to be considered first.'
Harvey had never been so near the point of answering his wife in rough, masculine fashion. This illness of hers had unsettled his happy frame of mind, perturbing him with anxious thoughts, and making confusion of the quiet, reasonable prospect that lay before him only a week or two ago. He, too, could much have enjoyed the run to Naples and the voyage back, and disappointment taxed his patience. Irritated against Alma, and ashamed of himself for not being better tempered, he turned and left the room. A few minutes afterwards he walked to the post-office, where he addressed a telegram of inquiry to the Orient Line people in London. It was useless, of course; but he might as well satisfy Alma.
The reply telegram was delivered to him as he sauntered about in the garden. It merely confirmed his calculation; there might possibly be a clear five days before the Lusitania touched at Naples -- most likely not more than four. He went into the sitting-room, but Alma was not there; he looked into the study, and found it vacant. As Ruth happened to pass, he bade her take the telegram to Mrs Rolfe upstairs.
He had no mind for reading or for any other occupation. He shut his door, and began to smoke. In the whiffs curling from his pipe he imagined the smoke of the great steamer as she drove northward from Indian seas; he heard the throb of the engines, saw the white wake. Naples; the Mediterranean; Gibraltar frowning towards the purple mountains of Morocco; the tumbling Bay; the green shores of Devon; -- his pulses throbbed as he went voyaging in memory. And he might start this very hour, but for the child, who could not be left alone to servants. With something like a laugh, he thought of the people who implored Mary Abbott to relieve them of their burdensome youngsters. And at that moment Alma opened the door.
Her face, thinned a little by illness, had quite recovered its amiable humour.
'Of course you are quite right, Harvey. We can't rush across Europe at a moment's notice.'
He rose up, the lover's light in his eyes again, and drew her to him, and held her in a laughing embrace.
'What has been wrong between us? It's a new thing for you and me to be scowling and snarling.'
'I hope I neither scowled nor snarled, dear boy, though I'm not sure that you didn't. No doubt, Mrs Abbott went away thinking we lead rather a cat and dog life.'
'Hang it, no! How could she have any such thoughts?'
'Oh, the drive home that day.'
'Why, whose fault was that? I should have been all right, except that I couldn't understand why you had run the chance of killing yourself.'
'I don't think I should have cared very much that morning,' said Alma idly. 'I was more miserable than you can imagine.'
'Oh, I don't know -- foolishness. But you never gave me a word of praise, and I'm sure I deserved it. Why, she galloped with me like mad for nearly two miles, and I never lost hold of the reins, and I pulled her up by myself and got her round, and drove back to meet you as if nothing had happened. I told Mrs Abbott all about it, and she was astonished at my pluck.'
'Must have been. So am I.'
'I doubt it. I doubt whether you ever think much of anything I do.'
'That's rather unkind, because you know it isn't true.'
'I always thought very much the same, you know.'
'Rubbish! But come, what are we going to do? Naples seems out of the question; but there's no reason why we shouldn't go to meet them in London.'
'You would much rather wait here, and let them come,' said Alma. 'I don't care particularly about going away. So long as we keep on good terms with each other -- that's the chief thing.'
'There has never been a dream of anything else. We are on good terms as a matter of course. It's part of the order of the universe.'
'I'm very sorry, dear, that I threatened the universe with catastrophe; but I won't do it again -- indeed I won't. I will watch your face, and be on my guard. And really, you know, under ordinary circumstances, I am good-tempered enough.'
'What's all this about?' cried Harvey. For she seemed to be in earnest, and spoke with a soft humility, such as might have become the least original of wives. 'Watch my face, and be on your guard? Since when have I desired you to be a simpleton?'
'I'm quite serious. It isn't foolish at all. I want to please you; that's all I mean, dear.'
He gazed at her, wondering, inclined to laugh, yet withheld from it by an uneasy feeling.
'This kind of talk means defective circulation, lost appetite, and so on,' was his half-joking answer. 'The way to please me is to get some colour into your cheeks again, and snub me for my ignorance of music, and be your own arrogant self. But listen. You're quite mistaken in thinking I want to stay here till Hugh and his wife come. It won't do. You're getting far too sweet and docile, and everything detestable. I had no idea of marrying an angel; it's too bad if you turn seraphic upon my hands. I wonder, now, whether, by way of pleasing me, you would answer a plain question?'
'Have you been wanting to get away from this place -- I mean, to live somewhere else?'
'I? What can have made you think so?'
'That isn't trying to answer a question, you know.'
Alma, after looking keenly at him, had turned her face to the window. She kept silence, and wore a look of calm reflectiveness.
'Have you been bored and wearied by this life?' Harvey asked in his most good-natured tone.
'I don't think I have ever for a moment shown a sign of it,' replied Alma, with grave conviction.
'So much the worse, if it meant that you concealed your thoughts.'
'I shall always be content, Harvey, so long as I see you are living the kind of life that suits you.'
He uttered a shout of humorous, yet half-genuine, exasperation.
'Do you want me to swear it's a long time since I lost the habit, but it might strike you as manly, and perhaps I had better practise again. What has it to do with you, the kind of life that suits me? Don't you remember my talking about that before we were married? I've had a suspicion that you were getting rather into that state of mind. You dropped your music, and partly, I've no doubt, because you didn't find enough intelligent sympathy in me. You went in for painting, and you've dropped that ----'
'It was winter, you see,' Alma interrupted.
'Yes, but that wasn't the only reason. It meant general failure of energy -- the kind of thing I've known myself, only too well.'
'What -- here?' asked Alma, with some alacrity.
'I meant now and again, all through my life. No; here I've gone on right enough, with a tolerably even mind; and for that very reason I haven't noticed any signs of the other thing in you -- till just now, when you lost your head. Why haven't you been frank with me?'
'You take it for granted that I had anything to be frank about,' Alma remarked.
'Yes -- and you don't contradict me.'
'Then what were you going to say, Harvey?'
She bent towards him, with that air of sweet reasonableness which showed her features at their best: eye tranquil and intelligent, lips ingenuously smiling; a countenance she wore not thrice in a twelvemonth, but by Harvey well remembered amid all changes, and held to express the true being of the woman he loved.
'Why, I was going to say, dear,' he replied tenderly, 'that no good can come of sacrificing your instincts. You have not to ask yourself whether I am lazily comfortable -- for that's what it amounts to -- but what you are making of your life. Remember, for one thing, that I am considerably older ----'
'Please!' She checked him with an extended hand. 'I don't want to remember anything of the kind.'
'There's no harm in it, I hope.' He laughed a little. 'The difference isn't distressing, but just enough to be taken into account. At forty, or near it, a man who is happily married gets used to his slippers and his pipe -- especially if comfort, and all the rest of it, have come after half a lifetime of homelessness. I might often say to myself that I was wasting time, rusting, and so on; but the next day I should fall back into the easy-chair again, and hate the thought of changes. But you, with thirty still far ahead, slippers and pipe have no particular attraction for you.'
He saw a thought in her eyes, and paused.
'Hughie will soon be able to talk,' fell from Alma, her look no longer that of ingenuous sweetness, but of virtue just a trifle self-conscious. And her husband, though he read this meaning in the change, was yet pleased by the words that accompanied it.
'Yes; and then there will be more for you to do, you were going to say. But that won't occupy you entirely, and it doesn't bind you to any particular spot.'
She had become almost demure. Harvey took his eyes away.
'It comes to this -- you're not to subordinate your life to mine. That's the old idea, and it still works well with some people. Yet I don't know; perhaps it doesn't, really; one knows little enough about people's lives. At all events, it won't work in our case, and remember that we never thought it would. We talked it all over, with no humbug on either side -- rather an unusual sort of talk, when one comes to think of it. I liked you for the common-sense you showed, and I remember patting myself on the back for a rational bit of behaviour at a time when I felt rather crazy.'
Alma laughed in her gayest key.
'You were delicious. I didn't quite know what to make of you. And perhaps that was the very reason ----'
'Reason for what?' asked Harvey, when she broke off and looked not quite so pale as a moment before.
'I forget what I was going to say. But please go on. It's very interesting -- as your talk always is.'
'I've said about all. You're not to be dutiful and commonplace; that's the matter in a nutshell.'
'I don't think you can accuse me of ever being commonplace.'
'Perhaps not,' said Harvey.
'And as for dutiful, our duty is to be consistent, don't you think?'
'Yes -- if by consistency you mean the steady resolve to make the most of yourself. That's what you had in mind when you came here. As soon as you begin to grow limp, it's time to ask what is the matter. I don't offer any advice; you know yourself better than I can know you. It's for you to tell me what goes on in your mind. What's the use of our living together if you keep your most serious thoughts to yourself?'
Harvey Rolfe glowed with a sense of his own generous wisdom. He had never felt so keen a self-approval. Indeed, that emotion seldom came to solace him; for the most part he was the severest critic of his own doings and sayings. But for once it appeared to him that he uttered golden words, the ripe fruit of experience and reflection. That personal unrest had anything to do with the counsel he offered to his wife, he did not for the moment even suspect. Alma had touched him with her unfamiliar note of simple womanhood, and all at once there was revealed to him a peril of selfishness, from which he strongly recoiled. He seemed to be much older, and Alma much more youthful, than he was wont to perceive. Very gently and sweetly she had put him in mind of this fact; it behoved him to consider it well, and act upon the outcome of such reflection. Heavens! was he in danger of becoming the typical husband -- the man who, as he had put it, thinks first of his pipe and slippers? From the outside, no man would more quickly or more contemptuously have noted the common-sense moral of this present situation. Being immediately concerned, he could see nothing in his attitude but a wise and noble disinterestedness. And thus, at a moment when he wittingly held the future in his hands, he prided himself on leaving to Alma an entire responsibility -- making her, in the ordinary phrase, mistress of her own fate, and waiting upon her decisions.
'I will think a little longer,' said Alma, sighing contentedly, 'and then we'll talk about it again. It's quite true I was getting a little run down, and perhaps -- but we'll talk about it in a day or two.'
'Could we decide anything for the present? Would you care to go and meet the steamer at Plymouth?'
'And take Hughie? Suppose I wrote very nicely to Mamma, and asked if we might leave Hughie with her, in Hampshire, for a few days? I dare say she would be delighted, and the other people too. The nurse could be with him, I dare say. We could call there on our way. And Ruth would look after the house very well.'
'Write and ask.'
'Then you and I' -- Alma began to talk joyously -- 'might ramble about Devonshire till the ship comes. Let me see -- if we travelled on Monday, that would give us several days, wouldn't it? And the Carnabys might either land at Plymouth, or we go on with them in the ship to London. That's a very good plan. But why lose time by writing? Send a telegram to Mamma -- "Could we leave Hughie and nurse with you for a day or two?"'
Harvey again turned his steps to the post-office, and this message was despatched. A few hours elapsed before the reply came, but it was favourable.
'Then we'll leave on Monday!' exclaimed Alma, whose convalescence was visibly proceeding. 'Just send another telegram -- a word or two, that they may be ready.'
'Might as well have mentioned the day in the other,' said Harvey, though glad to have something more to do.
'Of course; how thoughtless!'
And they laughed, and were in the best of tempers.
On the morrow, Sunday, they walked together as they had used to do in the first spring after their marriage; along the grassy cliffs, then down to the nook where the sand is full of tiny shells, and round the little headland into the next bay, where the quaint old fishing-village stands upon the edge of the tide. And Alma was again in love, and held her husband's hand, and said the sweetest things in the most wonderful voice. She over-tired herself a little, so that, when they ascended the cliff again, Harvey had to support her; and in the sunny solitude she thanked him with her lips -- in two ways.
It was a second honeymoon.
Mrs Frothingham's sister, who lived near Basingstoke, gave a warm welcome to little Hugh Rolfe; and Mrs Frothingham, who had all but forgotten that the child was not really her grandson, took charge of him with pride and joy. He stayed a week; he stayed a fortnight; -- he stayed two months.
For when the Carnabys -- who landed at plymouth and rested there for a couple of days -- made known their intention of straightway taking a flat in town, it seemed to Alma that the very best thing for her health would be to spend a week or two in London, and see her old friends, and go to a few concerts. The time was favourable, for June had only just set in. Harvey, nothing loath, took his wife to a quiet hotel in the Portman Square region, whither also went their friends from abroad; his project being to look for furnished rooms, where child and nurse could join them. But Mrs Frothingham thought it a pity of pities to take little Hugh into the town, when all was so pleasantly arranged for him down in Hampshire; and, as Alma evidently inclined to the same view, the uninviting thought of 'apartments' was laid aside. They might as well remain at the hotel, said Harvey. Alma, with a pretty show of economical hesitation, approved the plan, saying that she would be quite ready to go home again when Sibyl had established herself in a flat. This event came to pass in about three weeks; the Carnabys found a flat which suited them very well at Oxford and Cambridge Mansions, and thither, with the least possible delay, transferred a portion of their furniture, which had lain in warehouse. Thereupon, sweetly reasonable, Mrs Rolfe made known that it was time to fetch her baby and return to Carnarvonshire. She felt incalculably better; the change had been most refreshing; now for renewed enjoyment of her dear home!
But Harvey wore his wisest countenance; no owl could have surpassed it for sage gravity.
'You are very much better, and don't you think you would be better still after another week or two? The concerts are in full swing; it seems a pity -- now you are here ----'
Alma looked gracefully reluctant. Were not the hotel expenses rather heavy?
'Pooh! You must remember that at home we live on half our income, or less. If that's all that troubles you ----'
'You are very kind, Harvey!'
'Why, as for that, I'm enjoying myself. And I like to see you in such capital spirits.'
So, with a happy sigh, Alma gave up the packing of her trunk, and wrote to Mrs Frothingham that if baby really was not a trouble, they might stay for another fortnight. 'Harvey is in such capital spirits, and does so enjoy himself, that I don't think he ought to go home whilst all the life of the season is in full swing. Of course, I could leave him here, but -- if you will credit it -- he seems really to wish to have me with him. If I tried to say how thoroughly good and kind he is, I should make you laugh. It amuses me to see him turned into a sort of bachelor again. This is no contradiction; I mean that here, among his men friends, he shows a new side of himself, seems younger (to tell the truth), and has a kind of gaiety quite different from his good humour at home. You can't think how he enjoys a dinner at the club, for instance, quite in a boyish way; and then he comes back with all sorts of stories and bits of character and I don't know what; we forget the time, and sit talking till I daren't tell you when. But I am doing the same thing now, for it is half-past twelve (noon), and I have promised to lunch with Sibyl at half-past one. Her flat is just finished, and looks very pretty indeed. A thousand kisses to my little darling! Try and make him understand that mum-mum has not gone for ever.'
She dressed with care (her wardrobe had undergone a complete renewal), and drove off in a hansom to Oxford and Cambridge Mansions. It was to be a luncheon of intimacy, for Sibyl had not yet gathered her acquaintances. When Alma entered, Mrs Carnaby was sitting just as in the days before her great migration, perfectly at ease, admirably self-possessed, her beauty arrayed with all the chastity of effect which distinguished her among idle and pleasure-loving women. She had found a new way of doing her hair, a manner so young, so virginal, that Alma could not but gaze with wonder and admiration.
'You do look sweet today!'
'Do I? I'm glad you think so. -- I want your opinion. Would you have the piano there, or there?'
This matter was discussed, and then they obeyed the tuneful gong that summoned them to the dining-room. Alma surveyed everything, and felt a secret envy. Here was no demonstration of the simple life; things beautiful and luxurious filled all available space, and indeed over-filled it, for Sibyl had tried to use as much as possible of the furniture formerly displayed in Hamilton Terrace, with such alterations and novelties as were imposed by the fashion of today. She offered her guest a most dainty little meal; a luncheon such as Alma could not possibly have devised, in spite of all her reminiscences.
'Civilisation is a great thing,' Sibyl remarked. 'It's good to have been in savagery, just to appreciate one's privileges.'
'But you liked Honolulu?'
'Honolulu -- yes. I was thinking of Queensland. There's no barbarism at Honolulu, if you keep out of sight of the Americans and Europeans. Yes, I enjoyed myself there. I think I could go back and live out my life at Waikiki.'
'It astonished me that you didn't make an effort to go with Hugh to that great volcano. I have read about it since, and I'm sure I should have faced anything.'
'Kilauea,' murmured Sibyl, with a dreamy air, as she raised the wine-glass to her lips. 'I was lazy, no doubt. The climate, you know; and then I don't care much about bubbling lava. It was much nicer to watch the gold-fish at Waikiki. -- Where is your husband today?'
'Of all things in the world, gone to Lord's! He says he never saw a cricket match in his life, and it struck him this morning that it really was a defect in his education. Of course, he was thinking of Hughie. He wants Hughie to be a cricketer and horseman and everything that's robust.'
'Just like Hugh,' replied Sibyl, laughing. 'I should feel the same if I had a boy. I like open-air men -- though I shouldn't care always to live among them.'
'Hugh at Coventry still?' Alma inquired.
Her hostess gave a nod, with a look intimating that she would say more when the servant left them free to talk. She added ----
'Do you know Mrs Strangeways?'
'I seem to remember a Mr Strangeways,' replied Alma, 'but I can't think how or where.'
'Yes, he's a man who goes about a good deal. His wife was the widow of that artist who promised so well, and got into a scrape, and died miserably -- Edward -- no, Egbert Dover. Don't you know that big landscape that hangs in Mrs Holt's boudoir? -- that was one of his. He hid himself away, and died in a garret or a workhouse -- something cheerful. I met Mrs Strangeways at Brisbane; she and her husband were globe-trotting. She might look in this afternoon. I don't know whether you would care for her; she's rather -- rapid, you know. But she remembers hearing you play somewhere -- spoke of you with great admiration.'
Alma's eyes shone.
'Oh, I should be glad to meet her! Are you going to let me stay with you all the afternoon, then?'
'If you have nothing better to do. I suppose I shall be losing you presently. I'm very sorry. I wish you lived in London.'
'On this one account,' replied Alma, 'I wish I did. But I've got so out of it. Don't you think I carry a rustic atmosphere about with me?'
Sibyl laughed, in the tone her friend wished to hear. Alma would have been profoundly mortified if Mrs Carnaby had seemed ever so little to agree with her.
For all that, they were not quite so well attuned to each other as when the young married woman, indifferent seemingly to social distinction, patronised the ambitious girl, and, by the mere bestowal of confidence, subtly flattered her. In those days Alma did not feel it as patronage, for Sibyl's social position was perhaps superior to her own, and in things of the intellect (apart from artistic endowment) she sincerely looked up to her friend. Together they trod ground above the heads of ordinary women in their world. But changes had been at work. Alma now felt herself, to say the least, on equal terms with Mrs Carnaby. Economically, she was secure; whereas Sibyl, notwithstanding the show she made, drew daily nearer to a grave crisis, and might before long find herself in a very unpleasant situation. Intellectually, Alma saw herself in a less modest light than before marriage; the daily companionship of such a man as her husband had been to her as a second education; she had quite overtaken Sibyl, if not gone a little beyond her. The deference she still showed was no longer genuine, and this kind of affectation, hard to support and readily perceived, is very perilous to friendship. Conscious of thoughts she must not utter, Alma naturally attributed to her friend the same sort of reticence. She feared that Sibyl must often have in mind the loss she had suffered three years ago, and would contrast her own precarious circumstances with the comfort of Bennet Frothingham's daughter. Moreover, Mrs Carnaby was not in all respects her own self; she had lost something on her travels; was it a shade of personal delicacy, of mental refinement? She seemed more inclined to self-assertion, to aim somewhat at worldly success, to be less careful about the friends she made. Alma felt this difference, though not clear as to its nature, and insensibly it helped to draw them apart.
'Yes, Hugh is at Coventry,' said Sibyl, when the servant had withdrawn. 'He'll go backwards and forwards, you know. I don't think he'll have very much to do practically with the business; but just at first he likes to see what's going on.'
'I hope it will prosper.'
'Oh, no doubt it will. It was a very good idea.'
Sibyl spoke as though she had never contemplated the possibilities which were in Alma's mind. Her husband, as Alma knew from Rolfe, was in anything but a sanguine mood; he saw his position in all its gravity, and could hardly rest for fear that this latest enterprise should not succeed. Sibyl, however, enjoyed her lunch with complete tranquillity. She had the air of being responsible for nothing.
'I'm not at all sorry we went away for a time. Travelling suits Hugh; it has done him a great deal of good. I believe he would have liked to stay in Tasmania; but he saw it wouldn't do for me, and the good fellow could think of nothing else but my comfort. I have a great admiration for Hugh,' she added, with a smile, not exactly of superiority or condescension, but of approval distinct from tenderness. 'Of course, I always had, and it has increased since I've travelled with him. He shows to far more advantage on a ship than in a drawing-room. On this last voyage we had some very bad weather, and then he was at his best. I admired him immensely!'
'I can quite imagine how he would be,' said Alma.
'And how glad I was when I heard you had married his best friend! It had crossed my mind more than once. Perhaps you don't remember -- you didn't notice it at the time -- but I ventured a discreet hint before we parted. You couldn't have done a more sensible thing, Alma.'
Though quite willing to believe this, Alma, for some reason, did not care to hear it thus asserted. The manner of the remark, for all its friendliness, reminded her that marriage had signified her defeat, the end of high promises, brave aspirations.
'I couldn't tell you how it happened,' she said, with a little awkwardness. 'And I dare say you would say the same about your own marriage.'
'Of course So would every woman. One never does know how it happens'
And Sibyl laughed with quiet merriment which had a touch of cynicism. Alma had not yet spoken of the impulse which carried her away to the little house in Carnarvonshire, to the life of noble simplicity and calm retirement, and she had no disposition now to touch on the matter. Even in her early letters to Sybil not much was said of it, for she felt that her friend might have a difficulty in sympathising with such enthusiasm. She would have liked to make Sibyl understand that her rustication was quite voluntary; but the subject embarrassed her, and she preferred to keep silence.
'I didn't hear very much about your time in Germany,' Mrs Carnaby resumed. 'Nothing much to tell, I suppose.'
'Any -- any adventures?'
Alma felt herself grow warm, less at the thought of the adventures which really had befallen her than from vexation at the feeling of insignificance. She understood very well what Sibyl meant by her smiling question, and it would almost have been a relief to tell certain stories, in proof that she had not utterly fallen out of sight and mind on her self-banishment from society. There was no reason, indeed, why she should not make fun of Felix Dymes and his proposal; but the episode seemed idle in comparison with another, on which she had never ceased to reflect. Perhaps a certain glory attached to that second incident; Sibyl might be impressed alike with the character of the temptation and with her friend's nobility in scorning it. But the opportunity had gone by.
On rising from table, Sibyl remarked that she wished to make one or two purchases; would Alma accompany her to the shop? They went forth, and drove as far as Regent Street. Mrs Carnaby's requirements were one or two expensive trifles, which she chose with leisurely gratification of her taste. It surprised Alma to see this extravagance; one would have thought the purchaser had never known restricted means, and dreamt of no such thing; she bought what she happened to desire, as a matter of course. And this was no ostentation for Alma's benefit. Evidently Sibyl had indulged herself with the same freedom throughout her travels; for she had brought back a museum of beautiful and curious things, which must have cost a good deal. Perhaps for the first time in her life Alma experienced a sense of indignation at the waste of money. She was envious withal, which possibly helped to explain the other impulse.
They returned in an hour's time. Sibyl then withdrew for a few minutes, and reappeared in an exquisite tea-gown, which made her friend's frock, though new and handsome, look something less than suitable to the occasion. Alma, glancing about the room, spoke as if in pursuance of a train of thought.
'People do make a lot of money out of bicycles, I think?'
'I have heard so,' answered her hostess indifferently. 'Will you play me something? The piano has been tuned; I should like to know if you think it all right.'
'I have quite given up playing the piano.'
'Indeed? And the violin too?'
'No, no; the violin is my instrument. Whose is that little water-colour, Sibyl? I tried for just that effect of sun through mist not long ago.'
'Oh yes, to be sure, you have gone in for water-colours; you told me in a letter. I must see some of your things. Of course, I shall becoming ----'
The door opened, and a small page, very smartly equipped, to Alma; she had not as yet seen this functionary; but Mrs announced Mrs Herbert Strangeways. The page was a surprise Strangeways drew her attention. A lady of perhaps thirty-five, with keen, thin face, and an artificial bloom on her hollow cheeks; rather overdressed, yet not to the point of vulgarity; of figure very well proportioned, slim and lissom. Her voice was a trifle hard, but pleasant; her manner cordial in excess.
'So here you are, chez vous. Charming! Charming! The prettiest room I have seen for a long time. Mrs Rolfe? Oh, Mrs Rolfe, the name put me out for a moment; but I remember you perfectly, perfectly. It was at the Wigrams'; you played the violin wonderfully!'
Alma did not much care to be reminded of this. Mr Wigram, one of her father's co-directors, was lying at this moment in durance vile, and his wife lived somewhere or other on charity. But Mrs Strangeways uttered the name without misgiving, and behaved as though nothing conceivable could have afforded her more delight than to meet Alma again. It was her habit to speak in superlatives, and to wear a countenance of corresponding ecstasy. Any casual remark from either of the ladies she received with a sort of rapture; her nerves seemed to be in a perpetual thrill. If she referred to herself, it was always with depreciation, and not at all the kind of depreciation which invites compliment, but a tremulous self-belittlement, such as might be natural in a person who had done something to be ashamed of, and held her place in society only on sufferance.
'You still play, of course?' she said to Mrs Rolfe presently. 'I so hope I may have the pleasure of hearing you again. I wonder whether I could persuade you to come next Wednesday? We have a little house in Porchester Terrace. Of course, I don't mean to ask you to play; I shouldn't venture to. Just a few friends in the evening -- if you didn't think it tiresome? I'll send you a card.'
There entered a tall young man of consumptive features, accompanied by a stout, florid woman, older than himself; and upon this couple followed half-a-dozen miscellaneous callers, some of whom Alma knew. These old acquaintances met her with a curiosity they hardly troubled to disguise; she herself was reserved, and took no part in the general chatter. Mrs Strangeways withdrew into a corner, as if wishing to escape observation. When Mrs Rolfe took a chair by her side, she beamed with gratitude, and their gossip grew quite intimate. Alma could not understand why Sibyl had stigmatised this woman as 'rapid' -- that is to say, 'fast'; she gabbled, indeed, at a great rate, but revealed no startling habits of life or thought, and seemed to have rather an inclination for childish forms of amusement. Before they parted, Alma gave a promise that she would go to Mrs Strangeways 'at home' next Wednesday.
'And your husband, if he would care to come. I should be so delighted to know him. But perhaps he doesn't care about that kind of thing. I hate to bore anyone -- don't you? But then, of course, you're never in danger of doing it. So very, very glad to have met you! And so exceedingly kind of you to promise! -- so very kind!'
As Sibyl also was going to Porchester Terrace, they arranged to chaperon each other and to start from Mrs Rolfe's hotel.
'It's no use making Harvey uncomfortable,' said Alma. 'He would go if I asked him but sorely against the grain. He always detested 'at homes' -- except when he came to admire me! And he likes to see me going about independently.'
'Does he?' said Sibyl, with an inquiring look.
'Yes -- seriously. We do our best not to encumber each other. Don't you think it's the best way?'
'No doubt whatever.'
Mrs Carnaby smiled, and the smile grew to a laugh; but she would not explain what she meant by it.
On the Wednesday evening, they reached Mrs Strangeways' house at ten o'clock. Carriages and cabs made a queue up to the door, and figures succeeded each other rapidly on the red cloth laid down across the pavement. Alma was nervous. More than three years had passed since the fatal evening when, all unconsciously, she said goodbye to social splendours; from then till now she had taken part in no festivity. The fact that her name was no longer Frothingham gave her some encouragement; but she must expect to be recognised, perhaps to be stared at. Well, and would it be so very disagreeable? An hour before, the mirror had persuaded her that she need not shrink from people's eyes; her dress defied criticism, and she had not to learn how to bear herself with dignity. Sibyl was unusually lavish of compliments, and in a matter such as this Sibyl's judgment had weight. As soon as she found herself on the stairs, amid perfumes and brilliances, she breathed freely; it was the old familiar atmosphere; her heart leaped with a sudden joy, as in a paradise regained.
Already the guests were very numerous, and they continued to arrive. The drawing-rooms filled; a crowd of men smoked in the 'library' and the billiard-room; women swarmed in passages and staircase. After welcoming Mrs Rolfe with the ardour of a bosom friend and the prostration of a devotee, the hostess turned to the next comer with scarcely less fervency. And Alma passed on, content for the present to be lost amid thronging strangers.
'Who are all these people?' she asked of Sibyl, who had moved along by her side.
'Nobodies, most of them, I should imagine. There's no need to stay very long, you know. That's Mr Strangeways, the little man with a red face talking to that mountain of a woman in green. Mercy, what a dress! He's coming this way; I'll introduce him to you.'
The host had a jovial carriage and a bluff way of speaking, both obviously affected. His eyes wandered as he talked, and never met anyone else's with a steady look. Alma thought him offensively familiar, but he did not inflict himself upon her for long.
When the hostess began to go hither and thither, she pounced eagerly on Mrs Rolfe, and soon made her the centre of a group. Alma began to taste the old delight of homage, though she perceived that her new acquaintances were not of the world in which she had formerly shone. About midnight, when she was a little tired of the crush, and thought of going, there fell upon her ear a voice which startled and aroused her like an unexpected grasp. On the instant she saw an open place in Munich; the next, a lake and mountains.
'I wasn't in town then. I got out of sorts, and ran away to a little place I have on the Lake of Garda.'
The speaker was immediately behind her. She all but turned her head, and grew hot in the effort to command herself. Amid the emotions naturally excited in her she was impressed by a quality in the voice, a refinement of utterance, which at once distinguished it from that of the men with whom she had been talking. It belonged to a higher social grade, if it did not express a superiority of nature. For some moments she listened, catching now and then a word; then other voices intervened. At length, turning where she stood, she let her eyes range, expressionless, over the faces near by. That which she sought was not discoverable, but at the same moment the hostess came up to her.
Mrs Rolfe, do you know Mr Cyrus Redgrave?'
'Mr Redgrave ----?'
The confused, hesitating repetition of the name was taken by Mrs Strangeways for a reply in the negative.
'A charming man, and a great friend of mine -- oh, a very old friend. Let me bring him.'
She rustled away, and Mrs Rolfe sank back on to the causeuse from which she had newly risen. Quickly the hostess returned, and, in the track she made through crowded clusters of people who stood talking, there followed a gentleman of easy carriage, with handsome features and thin hair. He was looking for Alma, and as soon as his eyes perceived her, they fell. Of what Mrs Strangeways said, Alma heard not a syllable; she bowed mechanically, clutching her fan as though in peril of a fall and this the only thing within reach; she knew that Redgrave bent solemnly, silently; and then, with sudden relief, she saw the hostess retire.
'I beg your pardon.' The voice was addressing her in a respectful undertone. 'I had no choice. I did not feel justified in saying I knew you.'
'You were quite right,' she replied coldly, her fingers now relaxed upon the fan. 'Mrs Strangeways is a little impulsive; she gave me no opportunity of preventing the introduction.'
'Will you let me say, Mrs Rolfe, that I am glad to have been presented to you as a stranger? I should be happy indeed if our acquaintance might begin anew.'
It was polite in terms, but sounded to Alma very like the coolest impertinence. She bent her head, ever so little. The second seat of the causeuse being unoccupied, Redgrave hereupon took possession of it. No sooner had he done so than Alma rose, let a smile of indifference just fall upon him, and lost herself amid the buzzing assembly.
Ten minutes later, Redgrave and Mrs Carnaby were lounging in these same seats, conversing with perfect mutual intelligence. They had not met for three years, but the interval signified very little in their lives, and they resumed conversation practically at the point where it had broken off in Mrs Frothingham's drawing-room. A tactful question assured the man of the world that Mrs Carnaby knew nothing of certain passages at Munich and Bregenz.
'I'm afraid,' he added, 'Mrs Rolfe has become a little reserved. Natural, no doubt.'
'She lives in a wild part of Wales,' Sibyl answered, smiling tolerantly. 'And her husband detests society.'
'Indeed? Odd choice for her to have made, don't you think? -- And so your Odyssey is over? We shall have some chance of seeing you again.'
'But your own Odyssey is perpetually going on. Are you ever in town except for a few weeks of the season?'
'Oh, I go about very little now; I'm settling down. -- You never met my sister, I think? She has a house at Wimbledon with a good-sized garden -- sort of little park, in fact, -- and I have persuaded her to let me build myself a bungalow among the trees.'
'Not bad, I think. One is free there; a member of the family whenever one likes; domesticated; all that's respectable; and only a few steps away, the bachelor snuggery, with all that's ----. No, no! I was not going to complete the antithesis, though by your smiling you seem to say so.'
'The suggestion was irresistible,' said Sibyl, with the composure, the air of security, which always covered her excursions on to slippery ground.
'When the weather is good, I ask a few of my friends to come and sit there in the shade. They may or may not be my sister's friends also; that doesn't matter. I have a separate entrance from the road. -- But I wish you knew Mrs Fenimore. She lived a year or two at Stuttgart, for her children to learn German. Her husband's in India. She tried it, but couldn't stand the climate.'
'And you really live in the bungalow?' inquired Mrs Carnaby, disregarding this information about Redgrave's sister.
'Yes, it's my headquarters in England. Let me send you a card, will you, when I have my next afternoon? It might amuse you, and I assure you it is perfectly respectable.'
'How could I doubt it, if you invite me?'
Alma drove home by herself in a hansom. She liked this disregard of conventionalities; all the more because Harvey, who, of course, had sat up for her, seemed a trifle anxious. Her spirits were exuberant; she gave a merry, mocking account of the evening, but it included no mention of Cyrus Redgrave.
At the end of June her friends the Leaches moved from their old house in Elgin Road to a new one out at Kingsbury-Neasden, and when the removal was completed Alma went there to make a call, taking her husband. Harvey had never been beyond Swiss Cottage on this extension of the Metropolitan Railway; he looked with interest at the new districts springing up towards Harrow, and talked of them with Mrs Leach. A day or two after, he travelled by himself to a greater distance on the same line, making a survey of the country from Harrow to Aylesbury. At his next meeting with Hugh Carnaby, which took place about the middle of July, he threw out a suggestion that for anyone who wished to live practically in London and yet away from its frenzy, the uplands towards Buckinghamshire were convenient ground.
'I wish you were thinking of it yourself,' replied Hugh. 'Your wife is about the only woman Sibyl cares to see much of, and the only woman I know that she'll get any good from.'
The strong man did not look very cheerfully on the world just now, and it was evident that he felt some sort of trouble with regard to his wife. For her sake solely he had returned to England, where he was less than ever at his ease. He wished Sibyl to live in her own way, grudged her nothing, admired and cherished her with undiminished fervour; but in Oxford and Cambridge Mansions it cost him a great effort to pretend to be at home. The years of wandering had put him hopelessly out of touch with what Sibyl called society. Little as he understood about manufactures, or cared for the details of commerce, he preferred to stay down at Coventry with his partner Mackintosh, living roughly, smoking his pipe and drinking his whisky in the company of men who had at least a savour of sturdy manhood. His days of sport were gone by; he was risking the solid remnant of his capital; and if it vanished -- But of that possibility he would not speak, even with Harvey Rolfe. As he meditated, his teeth were set, his eyes darkened. And it appeared to Harvey that the good fellow drank a little more whisky than was needful, even in these warm days.
'I want to see the little chap, my namesake,' he said. 'Why don't you have him up here? Doesn't your wife feel she wants him?'
'Alma will think more of him in a year or two,' Harvey replied.
'Yes. I've noticed that women -- one sort of women -- don't care much about babies nowadays. I dare say they're right. The fewer children people have, the better. It's bad to see the poor little squalling brats in the filth and smoke down yonder, and worse still in this damned London. Great God! when there's so much of the world clean and sweet, here we pack and swelter together, a million to the square mile! What eternal fools we are!'
Harvey growled his heartiest agreement. None the less, a day or two after, he was holding a conversation with Alma which encouraged her secret weariness of the clean and sweet places of the earth. They had come home from a Richter concert, and Alma uttered a regret that she had not her violin here. A certain cadenza introduced by a certain player into a certain violin solo did not please her; why, she could extemporise a cadenza far more in keeping with the spirit of the piece. After listening, with small attention to the matter, but much to the ardent speech and face of enthusiasm, Harvey made a quiet remark.
'I want you to decide very soon what we are going to do.'
'Going to do?'
'About the future -- where we are to live.'
Alma strummed lightly with her finger-tips upon the table, and smiled, but did not look up.
'Do you really think of making any change?'
'I leave it entirely to you. You remember our last talk before we came away. You have simply to ask yourself what your needs are. Be honest with yourself and with me. Don't sacrifice life to a whim, one way or the other. You have had plenty of time to think; you have known several ways of life; you're old enough to understand yourself. Just make up your mind, and act.'
'But it's ridiculous, Harvey, to speak as if I had only myself to consider.'
'I don't want you to do so. But supposing that were your position, now, after all your experience, where would you choose to live?'
He constrained her to answer, and at length she spoke, with a girlish diffidence which seemed to him very charming.
'I like the concerts -- and I like to be near my musical friends -- and I don't think it's at all necessary to give up one's rational way of living just because one is in London instead of far away.'
'Precisely. That means we ought to come back.'
'Not if you do it unwillingly.'
'I'll be frank in my turn. For Hughie's sake, I don't think we ought to live in the town; but it's easy enough to find healthy places just outside.'
'I shouldn't wish to be actually in the town,' said Alma, her voice tremulous with pleasure. 'You know where the Leaches are living?'
'Yes. Or just a little farther away, on the higher ground. Very well, let us regard that as settled.'
'But you, dear -- could you live there?'
'Well enough. It's all the same to me if I have my books, and a field to walk in -- and if you don't want me to see too many women.'
Alma laughed gaily, and had done with semblance of hesitation.
They began to search for a house, and in a week's time had found one, newly built, which seemed to answer their requirements. It was at Pinner, not many minutes by rail from Alma's friends at Kingsbury-Neasden, and only about half an hour from Baker Street -- 'so convenient for the concerts'. A new house might be damp, but the summer months were hastening to dry it, and they would not enter into residence before the end of autumn. 'We must go and enjoy our heather,' said Alma brightly. The rent was twice what Harvey had been paying; there was no stabling, but Alma agreed that they ought not to keep a horse, for naturally there would be 'other expenses'.
Other expenses, to be sure. But Harvey signed the three years' lease without misgiving. A large surplus lay in hand after the 'simple life' in Carnarvonshire, and his position was not that of men who have extravagant wives.
The Leach family gave it to be understood by their friends that they had moved out of town because of Mrs Leach's health. Other explanations were suspected; for the new establishment seemed to be on a more modest footing than that in Elgin Road, and the odd arrangement whereby Mr Leach came home only on Saturday could not be without significance. Mrs Leach, it was true, suffered from some obscure affection of the nerves, which throughout the whole of her married life had disabled her from paying any continuous regard to domestic affairs; this debility had now reached such a point that the unfortunate lady could do nothing but collapse in chairs and loll on sofas. As her two daughters, though not debilitated, had never dreamt of undertaking household management, all such matters were left to a cook-housekeeper, changed every few months, generally after a quarrel, wherein Mrs Leach put forth, for an invalid, very surprising energy. Mr Leach, a solicitor, had no function in life but to toil without pause for the support of his family in genteel leisure; he was a mild man, dreading discord, and subservient to his wife. For many years he had made an income of about £2000, every penny of which, excepting a small insurance premium, had been absorbed by expenses of the house. At the age of fifty, prematurely worn by excessive labour, he was alarmed to find his income steadily diminishing, with no corresponding diminution -- but rather the opposite -- in the demands made upon him by wife and daughters. In a moment of courage, prompted by desperation, he obtained the consent of Dora and Gerda to this unwelcome change of abode. It caused so much unpleasantness between himself and Mrs Leach, that he was glad to fit up a sleeping-room at his office and go home only once a week; whereby he saved time, and had the opportunity of starving himself as well as of working himself to death.
Dora and Gerda, having grown up in such domestic circumstances, accepted them with equanimity. When their father spoke nervously of retrenchment, saying that he grew old and must save money to provide for their future, they made no objection, but were as far as ever from perceiving the sordid tragedy of his lot. Dora lived for her music; Gerda sang a little, but was stronger on the social side, delighting in festivities and open-air amusements. They were amiable and intelligent girls, and would have been amazed had anyone charged them with selfishness; no less if it had been suggested to them that they personally might rectify the domestic disorder of which at times they were moved to complain. They had no beauty, and knew it; neither had received an offer of marriage, and they looked for nothing of the kind. That their dresses cost a great deal, was taken as a matter of course; also that they should go abroad when other people did, and have the best places at concert or theatre, and be expansively 'at home'. With all sincerity they said of themselves that they lived a quiet life. How could it be quieter? -- unless one followed the example of Alma Rolfe; but Alma was quite an exceptional person -- to be admired and liked, not to be imitated.
Yet even Alma, it seemed, had got tired of her extraordinary freak. She was back again within the circle of civilisation; or, as she put it in her original, amusing way, 'on the outer edge of the whirlpool'. She had a very nice little house, beautifully furnished; everyone knew Alma's excellent taste. She came frequently to Kingsbury-Neasden, and ran up to town at least as often as they (Dora and Gerda) did. Like them she found it an annoyance to have to rush to the station before midnight; but, being married, she could allow herself more freedom of movement than was permissible to single young women, and having once missed the last train, she simply went to a hotel where she was known, and quietly returned to Pinner next morning. That Mrs Rolfe had such complete liberty and leisure seemed to them no subject for remark; being without cares, she enjoyed life; a matter of course. And she was so very clever. No wonder Mr Rolfe (charming man) always had admiration in his eyes when he looked at her. Some husbands (miserable churls) can see nothing in their wives, and never think of encouraging what talent they may have. But when Alma grew a little dissatisfied with her violin (a 'Vuillaume', which poor Mr Bennet Frothingham had given her in the days gone by), Mr Rolfe did not hesitate to spend fifty pounds on an instrument more to her liking; and the dear girl played on it divinely.
There was no shadow of envy in Dora Leach. 'I don't play quite badly,' she said to Alma. 'Goodness knows, I oughtn't to, after all the lessons I've had and the pains I've given. But with you it's different, dear. You know very well that, if you liked, you could become a professional, and make a name.
'I might have done,' Alma admitted; 'but marriage put an end to that. You have too much sense to think I mean that I repent it.'
'I don't see why marriage should put an end to it,' urged Dora. 'I'm quite sure your husband would be very proud if you came out and had a great success.'
'But if I came out and made a fiasco?'
That was in the summer of 1890, when the Rolfes had been living at Pinner for eight months. The new violin (new to her, old and mellow in itself) had inspired Alma to joyous exertions. Again she took lessons from Herr Wilenski, who was sparing of compliment, but, by the mere fact of receiving her at all, showed his good opinion. And many other people encouraged her in a fine conceit of herself. Mrs Strangeways called her 'an unrecognised genius', and worshipped at her feet. To be sure, one did not pay much attention to Mrs Strangeways, but it is sweet to hear such phrases, and twice already, though against her better judgment, Alma had consented to play at that lady's house.
On both these occasions Cyrus Redgrave was present. Choosing his moment, he approached her, looked in her face with a certain timidity to which Alma was not insensible, and spoke as an ordinary acquaintance. There was no helping it; the man had been formally introduced, and, as he suggested, they had begun to know each other afresh. Alma liked to remember how severely she had treated him at that first encounter; perhaps that was enough for dignity. Mr Redgrave would hardly forget himself again. For the rest, she could not pretend, within herself, to dislike him; and if he paid homage to her beauty, to her social charm, to her musical gifts (all of which things Alma recognised and tabulated), it might be only just to let him make amends for something known to both of them. The insult Alma was far from forgiving. But when she had talked twice with Redgrave distantly, as a stranger to all his affairs -- it began to steal upon her mind that there would be a sweetly subtle satisfaction in allowing the man to imagine that her coldness was not quite what it seemed; that so, perchance, he might be drawn on and become enslaved. She had never been able to congratulate herself on a conquest of Cyrus Redgrave. The memory of Bregenz could still, at moments, bring the blood to her face; for it was a memory of cool, calculating outrage, not of passion that had broken bounds. To subdue the man in good earnest would be another thing, and a peculiarly delicious morsel of revenge. Was it possible? Not long ago she would have scoffed at the thought, deeming Redgrave incapable of love in any shape. But her mind was changing in an atmosphere of pleasure and flattery, and under the influence of talk such as she heard in this house and one or two others like it.
To her husband, she represented Mrs Strangeways as a very pleasant woman with a passion for all the arts; formerly wife of a painter, and now married to a wealthy man who shared her tastes. This satisfied Harvey; but Alma had not deceived herself, and could not be quite comfortable with Mrs Strangeways. She no longer puzzled over the flow of guests to the house in Porchester Terrace, having discovered not only that most of these were people, as Sibyl said, of no account, who had few houses open to them, but that several would not be admitted to any circle of scrupulous respectability. The fact was that Mrs Strangeways largely entertained the demi-monde, to use in its true sense a term persistently misapplied. Not impossibly she thought the daughter of Bennet Frothingham might, from one point of view, be included among such persons; on the other hand, her warmth proved that she regarded Mrs Rolfe as a social acquisition, if indeed she was not genuinely attracted to her. What circumstances had led, or forced, Mrs Strangeways into this peculiar position, Alma could not discover; it might be simply one result of an unfortunate marriage, for undoubtedly there was something sinister in the husband, a coarseness varnished with sham geniality, which made Alma dislike to be near him. In the woman herself she found little that was objectionable; her foolish effusiveness, and her artificial complexion, seemed to indicate merely a weak character; at times her talk was interesting, and she knew many people of a class superior to that represented in her drawing-room. But for the illumination she had received, Alma would have felt surprised at meeting Cyrus Redgrave in these assemblies; formerly she had thought of him as belonging to a sphere somewhat above her own, a quasi-aristocratic world, in which Sibyl Carnaby, the daughter of Mrs Ascott Larkfield, also moved by right of birth and breeding. Sibyl, however, was not above accepting Mrs Strangeways' invitations, though she continued to speak of her slightingly; and Redgrave had known the lady for a long time -- even, it appeared, before her first marriage.
In a year's time Alma had made and renewed a large number of acquaintances. She spoke of herself as living 'in the country', and still professed a dislike of mere gaiety, a resolve to maintain her simple, serious mode of existence. At half-an-hour's journey from town, she was protected against the time-wasting intrusion of five-o'clock babblers; a luncheon or two in the season, and a modest dinner at long intervals, would discharge her social liabilities; and she had the precious advantage of being able to use London for all legitimate purposes, without danger of being drawn into the vortex of its idle temptations. Once more she was working earnestly at her music -- much, it seemed, to Harvey's satisfaction. He wanted her to go on also with water-colours, but she pointed out to him that one art was all she had time for.
'It's all very well for mere amateurs to take up half-a-dozen things. I aim at more than that. You would like me, wouldn't you, to become really something as a violinist?'
'And you understand,' she pursued, regarding him with her bright smile, 'that the life of an artist can't be quite like that of other women?'
'Of course, I understand it. You know I don't wish to put the least restraint upon you.'
'My one fear was, that you might think I went about rather too much -- didn't pay enough attention to home ----'
'We manage pretty well, I think. You needn't have any such fear.'
'Of course, when Hughie gets older -- when I can really begin to teach him ----'
The child was now approaching the close of his third year, and, in Harvey's opinion, needed more than the attention of an ordinary nursemaid. They had recently engaged a nursery-governess, her name Pauline Smith; a girl of fair education and gentle breeding, who lived as a member of the family. It appeared to Rolfe that Hughie was quite old enough to benefit by his mother's guidance and companionship; but he had left himself no ground for objection to Alma's ordering of her life. The Welsh servant, Ruth, still remained with them, acting to a great extent as housekeeper, and having under her a maid and a boy. Ruth, a trustworthy woman, was so well paid that they had not to fear her desertion. Regularity and comfort prevailed to a much greater extent than might have been looked for under the circumstances. Expenditure had of course greatly increased, and now touched the limit of Harvey's ordinary income; but this was a matter which did not immediately concern Mrs Rolfe. For domestic and private purposes she had a bank-account of her own; an arrangement made on their removal to Pinner, when Harvey one morning handed her a pass-book and a cheque-book, remarking that she would find to her credit a couple of hundred pounds. Alma pretended to think this unnecessary, but her countenance betrayed pleasure. When he thought the fund must be nearly exhausted, he made a new payment to the account, without saying anything; and Alma preserved an equally discreet silence.
One of her new acquaintances was Mrs Rayner Mann, a lady who desired to be known as the patroness of young people aiming at success on the stage or as musicians. Many stories were told of Mrs Mann's generosity to struggling artists, and her house at Putney swarmed with the strangest mingling of people, some undoubtedly in society others no less decidedly out of it. Here Alma encountered Felix Dymes, whose reputation and prosperity had much advanced since their meeting at Munich. The comic opera of which he then spoke had been brought out at a provincial theatre with considerable success, and was shortly to be produced in London; his latest songs, 'The Light of Home', and 'Where the Willow Dips', had caught the ear of the multitude. Alma ridiculed these compositions, mocking at the sentimentalism of the words, and declaring that the airs were mere popular tinkle; but people not inferior to her in judgment liked the music, which certainly had a sweetness and pathos not easy to resist. The wonder was how such a man as Felix Dymes could give birth to such tender melody. The vivacity of his greeting when of a sudden he recognised Alma, contrasted markedly with Cyrus Redgrave's ill-concealed embarrassment in the like situation. Dymes had an easy conscience, and in the chat that followed he went so far as to joke about his ill-luck some four years ago.
'You didn't think much of me. But I'm going ahead, you know. You have to admit I'm going ahead.'
Prosperity was manifest in his look and voice. He had made no advance in refinement, and evidently thought himself above the necessity of affecting suave manners; his features seemed to grow even coarser; his self-assertion was persistent to the point of grotesque conceit.
'Is your husband musical?' he asked.
'Well, there's something to be said for that. One doesn't always want to be talking shop. -- I can't help looking at you; you've altered in a queer sort of way. You were awfully fetching, you know, in those days.'
'You were awfully impertinent,' replied Alma, with a laugh. 'And I don't see that you've altered at all in that respect.'
'Do you play still?'
'A good deal better than I used to.'
'Really? If it's true, why don't you come out? I always believed in you -- I did really. There's no better proof of it than what I said at Munich; you were the only girl that could have brought me to that, you know; it was quite against my principles. Have you heard of Ada Wellington? -- a girl I'm going to bring out next spring -- a pianist; and she'll make a hit. I should like you to know her.'
'How do you mean you are going to bring her out?'
'Do all the business for her, you know; run the show. Not as a speculation; I don't want to make anything out of it, more than expenses. I know her 'people; they're very badly off, and I shall be glad if I can do them a good turn. There's nothing between us; just friends, that's all. If ever you come out, put the business into my hands, will you?'
'I won't promise,' replied Alma, 'until I see how you succeed with Miss Wellington.'
'Shall it be an understanding? If I float Ada, you'll let me have a try with you?'
'We'll talk of it, Mr Dymes, when you have learnt the elements of good manners.'
She nodded in a friendly way, and left him.
Their next meeting was at a music-shop, where Dymes came in whilst Alma was making purchases. The composer, clad in a heavy fur overcoat, entered humming a tune loudly, by way of self-advertisement; he was at home here, for the proprietors of the business published his songs. On perceiving Alma, he dropped his blustering air, bowed with exaggerated politeness, and professed himself overjoyed.
'I looked in just to try over a thing I've got in my head. Do come and listen to it -- will you? It would be so kind of you to give me your opinion.'
He pointed to a room at the back, visible between plush curtains. Alma, wishing to refuse, murmured that she had very little time; but Dymes prevailed, and she followed him. They passed into the pleasant warmth of a blazing fire. The musician flung off his coat, and at once sat down at the grand piano, open for the convenience of such favoured persons as himself; whilst Alma seated herself in an easy-chair, which she had pushed forward so as to allow of her being seen from the shop. After some preliminary jingling, Dymes played an air which the listener could not but like; a dainty, tripping melody, fit for a fairy song, with strange little echoes as of laughter, and a half-feigned sadness in the close. With hands suspended, Dymes turned to see the effect he had produced.
'Is that your own?' Alma asked.
'I'm under that impression. Rather good, I think -- don't you?'
She hardly believed his assurance, so strong was the contrast between that lightsome lyric and the coarse vanity of the man himself. He played it again, and she liked it still better, uttering a more decided word of praise.
'Dicky must write me patter for that!' Dymes exclaimed, when he saw that she smiled with pleasure. 'You don't know Dicky Wellington? A cousin of Ada's. By-the-bye, her concert will be at the end of May -- Prince's Hall, most likely. You shall have a ticket.'
'Very kind of you.'
'You know that Mrs Rayner Mann is giving a charity concert next week?'
'I have been asked to take part in it,' said Alma quietly.
'I'm awfully glad of that!' shouted Dymes. 'So I shall hear you again. The fact is, you know, I don't think of you as an amateur. I can't stand amateurs, except one or two. I've got it into my head that you've been one of us, and retired. Queer thing, isn't it?'
Alma enjoyed the flattery. Comfortable in her chair, she showed no disposition to move. Dymes asked her what she thought of playing, and she told him, Hauser's 'Rhapsodie Hongroise'.
'I'm always being bored by amateurs,' he resumed. 'A silly woman who belongs to a Symphony Society asked me yesterday to go and hear her play in the C minor! I begged to be told what harm I had ever done her, and she said I was very rude. But I always am to people of that sort; I can't help it. Another of them asked me to tell her of a nice piece for the piano -- a really nice piece. At once I suggested Chopin's A flat major Polonaise. Do you know it?'
'Of course I do. Could you play it yourself?'
'I? Of course not. You don't imagine that because one is a successful composer he must be a brilliant virtuoso. I hardly ever touch a musical instrument. Wagner was a very poor player, and Berlioz simply couldn't play at all. I'm a musical dreamer. Do you know that I literally dreamt "The Light of Home"? Now, that's a proof of genius.'
'But it is! Do you know how most songs get made nowadays? There's Sykes' "Come when the Dawn" -- you remember it? I happen to know all about that. A fellow about town somehow got hold of an idea for a melody; he didn't know a note, but he whistled it to Sykes, and Sykes dotted it down. Now, Sykes knows no more of harmony than a broomstick, so he got another man to harmonise it, and then a fourth fellow wrote an orchestral accompaniment. That's the kind of thing -- division of labour in art.'
'You're quite sure you do everything for yourself?' said Alma mischievously, rising at length.
'I forgive you, because you're really one of us -- you are, you know. You haven't the look of an amateur. Now, when you've gone out, I'll ask Sammy, behind the counter there, who he thinks you are, and I'll give Mrs Rayner Mann a guinea for her charity if he doesn't take you for a professional musician.'
'You will be good enough, Mr Dymes,' said Alma severely, 'not to speak of me at all to anyone behind a counter.'
'It was only a joke. Of course, I shouldn't have done anything of the kind. Goodbye; shall see you at Putney.'
For all that, no sooner was Mrs Rolfe gone than Dymes did talk of her with the salesman, and in a way peculiar to his species, managing, with leers and half-phrases, to suggest not only that the lady was a performer of distinction, but that, like women in general, she had found his genius and his person fatally attractive. Dymes had the little weaknesses of the artistic temperament.
As usual, Mrs Rayner Mann's concert was well attended, and Alma's violin solo, though an audience more critical than she had yet faced made her very nervous to begin with, received much applause. Felix Dymes, not being able to get a seat at her side, stood behind her, and whispered his admiration.
'You've gone ahead tremendously. That isn't amateur playing. All the others are not fit to be heard in the same day. Really, you know, you ought to think of coming out.'
Many other persons were only less complimentary, and one, Mrs Strangeways, was even more so; she exhausted herself in terms of glowing eulogy. At the end of the concert this lady drew Alma apart.
'Dear Mrs Rolfe, I wonder whether I could ask you to do me a kindness? Are you in any hurry to get home?'
It was six o'clock, on an evening of January. Delighted with her success, Alma felt very much like a young man whose exuberant spirits urge him to 'make a night of it'. She declared that she was in no hurry at all, and would be only too glad to do Mrs Strangeways any kindness in her power.
'It will sound rather odd to you,' pursued the lady in a low voice, 'but I would rather trust you than anyone else. You know that Mr Redgrave and I are very old friends -- such old friends that we are really almost like brother and sister.'
'You've heard us speak of his bungalow at Wimbledon. Just now he is in Paris, and he happens to want a portrait, a photograph, out of an album in the bungalow. Naturally he would have asked his sister to look for it and send it, but Mrs Fenimore is also away from home; so he has written to me, and begged me to do him the kindness. I know exactly where the photo is to be looked for, and all I have to do is to drive over to Wimbledon, and a servant will be waiting to admit me. Now, you will think it childish, but I really don't like to go alone. Though Mr Redgrave and I are such great friends, of course I have only been to the bungalow when he had people there -- and -- of course it's very foolish at my age -- but I'm sure you understand me ----'
'You mean you would like me to go with you?' said Alma, with uncertain voice.
'Dare I ask it, dear Mrs Rolfe? There will be no one but the servant, who is told to expect a friend of her master's. I am very foolish, but one cannot be too careful, you know, and with you I shall feel everything so simple and natural and straightforward. I'm sure you understand me.'
'Certainly,' faltered Alma. 'Yes -- I will go ----'
'Oh, how sweet of you, dear! Need I say that I should never breathe a word to Mr Redgrave? He will think I went alone -- as of course I very well might ----'
'But -- if the servant should mention to him ----?'
'My dear, keep your fall down. And then it is perfectly certain he will never ask a question. He thinks it such a trivial matter ----'
Alma did not entertain the least doubt of her friend's veracity, and the desire to have a companion on such an expedition seemed to her natural enough; yet she felt so uneasy at the thought of what she had consented to do, that even whilst descending the stairs she all but stopped and begged to be excused. The thought of stealing into Redgrave's bachelor home, even with Mrs Strangeways, startled and offended her self-respect; it seemed an immodesty. She had never been invited to the bungalow; though Mrs Carnaby had received and accepted such an invitation for an afternoon in the summer, when Mrs Strangeways did the honours. Redgrave was now scrupulously respectful; he would not presume so far on their revived acquaintance as to ask her to Wimbledon. For this very reason -- and for others -- she had a curiosity about the bungalow. Its exotic name affected her imagination; as did the knowledge that Cyrus Redgrave, whom she knew so particularly well, had built it for his retreat, his privacy. Curiosity and fear of offending Mrs Strangeways overcame her serious reluctance. On entering the carriage she blushed hotly. It was the first time in her life that she had acted with deliberate disregard of grave moral compunction, and conscience revenged itself by lowering her in her own eyes.
Mrs Strangeways talked all the way, but not once of Redgrave; her theme was the excellence of Alma's playing, which, she declared, had moved everyone with wonder and delight.
'Several people took it for granted that you were a professional violinist. I heard one man saying, "How is it I don't know her name?" Of course, your playing in an amateur is altogether exceptional. Did it ever occur to you to come forward professionally?'
'I thought of it once, before my marriage.'
'Ah! you really did? I'm not at all surprised. Would Mr Rolfe look with disapproval ----?'
'I hardly know,' replied Alma, who was not mistress of herself, and paid little attention to what she was saying. 'I dare say he wouldn't mind much, one way or another.'
The intimate significance of this word warned Alma that she had spoken too carelessly. She hastened to add that, of course, in such a matter, her husband's wish would be final, and that she had never thought of seeking his opinion on the subject.
'If ever you should take that step, my dear, it will mean a great triumph for you -- oh! a great triumph! And there is room just now for a lady violinist -- don't you think? One has to take into account other things besides mastery of the instrument; with the public naturally, a beautiful face and a perfect figure ----'
This was too much even for Alma's greediness of flattery; she interrupted the smooth, warm adulation with impatient protest and told herself -- though she did not quite know the reason -- that after that day she would see less of Mrs Strangeways.
The carriage stopped. Glancing to either side, Alma saw that they were in a country road, its darkness broken at this spot by the rays of two gas-lamps which flanked a gateway. The footman had alighted; the gate was thrown open; the carriage passed through on to a gravel drive. Her nerves strung almost beyond endurance, and even now seeking courage to refuse to enter the house, Alma felt the vehicle turn on a sharp curve, and stop.
'We shall not be more than a minute,' said Mrs Strangeways, just above her breath, as though she spoke with effort.
Involuntarily, Alma laid a hand on her arm
'I will -- wait for you here -- please ----'
'But, dear, your promise! Oh, you wouldn't fail me?'
The carriage door had opened; the footman stood beside it. Scarce knowing what she did, Alma stepped out after her companion, and in the same moment found a glow of light poured suddenly about her; it came from the entrance-hall of a house, where a female servant had presented herself. A house of unusual construction, with pillars and a veranda; nothing more was observable by her dazzled and confused senses. Mrs Strangeways said something to the servant; they entered, crossed a floor of smooth tiles, under electric light ruby-coloured by glass shades, and were led into a room illumined only by a fire until the servant turned on a soft radiance like that in the hall.
Mrs Strangeways glanced about her as if surprised.
'You are riot expecting Mr Redgrave?' she said quickly.
'No, madam. We always have fires against the damp.'
Thereupon the woman withdrew, closing the door, and Mrs Strangeways, who was very pale save for her rouge spots, said in a low tone of great relief ----
'I began to fear there might be some mistake. Put up your veil for a moment, dear, and glance at the pictures. Every one has cost a small fortune. Oh, he is immensely rich -- and knows so well what to buy!'
Alma's agitation did not permit her to examine details. The interior of Redgrave's house was very much what she had imagined; its atmosphere of luxurious refinement, its colour, perfume, warmth, at once allured and alarmed her. She wished to indulge her senses, and linger till she had seen everything; she wished to turn at once and escape. Mrs Strangeways, meanwhile, seemed to be looking for the album of which she had spoken, moving hither and thither, with a frequent pause as of one who listens, or a glance towards the door.
'You won't be long?' said Alma, turning abruptly to her.
'It's my silly nervousness, dear. I thought I remembered perfectly where the album lay. How foolish of me! I quite tremble -- anyone would think we were burglars.'
She laughed, and stood looking about the room.
'Is that it?' asked Alma, pointing to a volume on a table near her.
'Yes! -- no -- I'm not sure.'
An album it was; Mrs Strangeways unclasped it, and turned over a few pages with quivering hand.
'No, I thought not. It's a smaller one. Oh, what a good photo of Mrs Carnaby! Have you seen this one?'
Alma stepped forward to look, strangely startled by the name of her friend; it was as though Sibyl herself had suddenly entered the room and found her here. The photograph she already knew; but its eyes seemed to regard her with the very look of life, and at once she drew back.
'Do find the right one, Mrs Strangeways,' she spoke imploringly. 'It must be -- What bell was that?'
An electric bell had rung within the house; it still trembled in her ears, and she turned sick with fright. Mrs Strangeways, flushing red, stammered a reassurance.
'There -- here is the right one -- in a minute ----'
The door opened. As she saw it move, a dreadful certainty of what was about to happen checked Alma's breath, and a sound like a sob escaped her; then she was looking straight into the eyes of Cyrus Redgrave. He, wearing an ulster and with a travelling-cap in his hand, seemed not to recognise her, but turned his look upon her companion, and spoke with mirthful friendliness.
'What! I have caught you, Mrs Strangeways? Police! Oh, I am so sorry I didn't send you a wire. I thought you would come tomorrow, or the day after. How very kind of you to take this trouble immediately. I had to run over at a moment's notice. -- Mrs Rolfe! Forgive me; for the moment I didn't know you, coming out of the darkness. So glad to see you.'
He had shaken hands with both of them, behaving as though Mrs Rolfe's presence were the most natural thing in the world. But Alma's strength failed her; she trembled towards the nearest chair, and sank upon it. Mrs Strangeways, who had watched her with anxiety, took a step to her side, speaking hurriedly.
'Mr Redgrave, I took the liberty to use your house as if it were my own. Mrs Rolfe has over-tired, over-excited herself. She has been playing this afternoon at a concert at Mrs Rayner Mann's. We were to drive back together, and came this way that I might call here -- for the photo. But Mrs Rolfe became faint -- after her exertions ----'
Redgrave surpassed himself in graceful courtesy. How could Mrs Strangeways dream of offering excuses? Why had she not called for tea -- or anything? He would give orders at once, and the ladies would permit him to get rid of his travelling attire, whilst they rested. He was turning to leave the room when Alma rose and commanded her voice.
'I am perfectly well again -- thank you so much, Mr Redgrave -- indeed I mustn't stay ----'
With admirable suavity Redgrave overcame her desire to be gone. Pleading, he passed playfully from English into French, of which he had a perfect command; then, in his own language, declared that French alone permitted one to make a request without importunity, yet with adequate fervour. Alma again seated herself. As she did so, her host and Mrs Strangeways exchanged a swift glance of mutual intelligence.
'How can I hope you will forgive me?' the lady murmured at Alma's ear as soon as they were alone.
'It's very annoying, and there's nothing more to be said,' was the cold reply.
'But it isn't of the least importance -- do believe me. We are such old friends. And no one can ever know -- though it wouldn't matter if all the world did.'
'I dare say not. But, please, let our stay be as short as possible.'
'We will go, dear, as soon as ever we have had a cup of tea. I am so sorry; it was all my foolishness.'
The tea was brought, and Mrs Strangeways, her nervousness having quite passed away, began to talk as if she were in her own drawing-room. Alma, too, had recovered control of herself, held the teacup in an all but steady hand, and examined the room at her leisure. After ten minutes' absence, Redgrave rejoined them, now in ordinary dress; his face warm from rapid ablution, and his thin hair delicately disposed. He began talking in a bright, chatty vein. So Mrs Rolfe had been playing at a concert; how he regretted not having been there! What had she played? Then, leaning forward with an air of kindness that verged on tenderness ----
'I am sure it must be very exhausting to the nerves; you have so undeniably the glow, the fervour, of a true artist; it is inspiring to watch you as you play, no less than to hear you. You do feel better now?'
Alma replied with civility, but did not meet his look. She refused another cup of tea, and glanced so meaningly at her friend that in a few moments Mrs Strangeways rose.
'You won't leave me yet to my solitude?' exclaimed Redgrave. With a sigh he yielded to the inevitable, inquired gently once more whether Mrs Rolfe felt quite restored, and again overwhelmed Mrs Strangeways with thanks. Still the ladies had to wait a few minutes for their carriage, which, at Redgrave's direction, had made a long detour in the adjacent roads; and during this delay, as if the prospect of release inspirited her, Alma spoke a few words in a more natural tone. Redgrave had asked what public concerts she usually attended.
'None regularly,' was her reply. 'I should often go on Saturdays to the Crystal Palace, if it were not so far for me. I want to get there, if possible, on Saturday week, to hear Sterndale Bennett's new concerto.'
'Ah, I should like to hear that!' said Redgrave. 'We may perhaps see each other.'
This time she did not refuse to encounter his look, and the smile with which she answered it was so peculiarly expressive of a self-confident disdain that he could scarcely take his eyes from her. Cyrus Redgrave knew as well as most men the signals of challenge on a woman's features; at a recent meeting he had detected something of the sort in Alma's behaviour to him, and at this moment her spirit could not be mistaken. Quite needlessly she had told him where he might find her, if he chose. This was a great step. To be defied so daringly meant to him no small encouragement.
'It's fortunate,' said Alma, as the carriage bore her away, 'that we had this adventure with a gentleman.'
The remark sounded surprising to Mrs Strangeways.
'I'm so glad you have quite got over your annoyance, dear,' she replied.
'It was as bad for you as for me, under the circumstances. But I'm sure Mr Redgrave won't give it another thought.'
And Alma chatted very pleasantly all the way back to town, where she dined with Mrs Strangeways. At eleven o'clock she reached home. Her husband, who was recovering from a sore throat, sat pipeless and in no very cheerful mood by the library fire; but the sight of Alma's radiant countenance had its wonted effect upon him; he stretched his arms, as if to rouse himself from a long fit of reverie, and welcomed her in a voice that was a little husky.
'Well, how did it go?'
'Not badly, I think. And how have you been getting on, poor old boy?'
'So so; swearing a little because I couldn't smoke. But Hughie has a cold tonight; caught mine, I dare say, confound it! Miss Smith took counsel with me about it, and we doctored him a little.'
'Poor dear little man! I wish I had been back in time to see him. But there was no getting away -- had to stay to dinner ----'
Alma had not the habit of telling falsehoods to her husband, but she did it remarkably well -- even better, perhaps, than when she deceived her German friend, Fraulein Steinfeld, in the matter of Cyrus Redgrave's proposal; the years had matured her, endowing her with superior self-possession, and a finish of style in dealing with these little difficulties. She was unwilling to say that she had dined in Porchester Terrace, for Harvey entertained something of a prejudice against that household. His remoteness nowadays from the world in which Alma amused herself made it quite safe to venture on a trifling misstatement.
'I have a note from Carnaby,' said Rolfe. 'He wants to see me in town tomorrow. Says he has good news -- "devilish good news", to be accurate. I wonder what it is.'
'The lawsuit won, perhaps.'
'Afraid not; that'll take a few more years. Odd thing, I have another letter -- from Cecil Morphew, and he, too, says that he has something hopeful to tell me about.'
Alma clapped her hands, an unusual expression of joy for her.
'We are cheering up all round!' she exclaimed. 'Now, if only you could light on something fortunate.'
He gave her a quick look.
'What do you mean by that?'
'Only that you haven't seemed in very good spirits lately.'
'Much as usual, I think. -- Many people at Putney?'
'About a hundred and twenty. Compliments showered on me; I do so wish you could have heard them. Somebody told me that some man asked her how it was he didn't know my name -- he took me for a professional violinist.'
'Well, no doubt you are as good as many of them.'
'You really think that?' said Alma, pulling her chair a little nearer to the fire and looking eagerly at him.
'Why shouldn't you be? You have the same opportunities, and make all possible use of them.'
Alma was silent for a few ticks of the clock. Once, and a second time, she stole a glance at Harvey's face; then grasping with each hand the arms of her chair, and seeming to string herself for an effort, she spoke in a half-jesting tone.
'What should you say if I proposed to come out -- to be a professional?'
Harvey's eyes turned slowly upon her; he read her face with curiosity, and did not smile.
'Do you mean you have thought of it?'
'To tell you the truth, it is so often put into my head by other people. I am constantly being asked why I'm content to remain an amateur.'
'By professional musicians?'
'All sorts of people.'
'It reminds me of something. You know I don't interfere; I don't pretend to have you in surveillance, and don't wish to begin it. But are you quite sure that you are making friends in the best class that is open to you?'
Alma's smile died away. For a moment she recovered the face of years gone by; a look which put Harvey in mind of Mrs Frothingham's little drawing-room at Swiss Cottage, where more than once Alma had gazed at him with a lofty coldness which concealed resentment. That expression could still make him shrink a little and feel uncomfortable. But it quickly faded, giving place to a look of perfectly amiable protest.
'My dear Harvey, what has caused you to doubt it?'
'I merely asked the question. Perhaps it occurred to me that you were not exactly in your place among people who talk to you in that way.'
'You must allow for my exaggeration,' said Alma softly. 'One or two have said it -- just people who know most about music. And there's a way of putting things.'
'Was Mrs Carnaby there today?'
'You don't see her very often now?'
'Perhaps not quite so often. I suppose the reason is that I am more drawn to the people who care about music. Sibyl really isn't musical -- though, of course, I like her as much as ever. Then -- the truth is, she seems to have grown rather extravagant, and I simply don't understand how she can keep up such a life -- if it's true that her husband is only losing money. Last time I was with her I couldn't help thinking that she ought to -- to deny herself rather more. It's habit, I suppose.'
Harvey nodded -- twice, thrice; and kept a grave countenance.
'And you don't care to see much of Mrs Abbott?' he rather let fall than spoke.
'Well, you know, dear, I don't mean to be at all disagreeable, but we have so little in common. Isn't it so? I am sure Mrs Abbott isn't anxious for my society.'
Again Rolfe sat silent, and again Alma stole glances at him.
'Shall I tell you something I have in mind?' he said at length, with deliberation. 'Hughie, you know, is three years old. Pauline does very well with him, but it is time that he had companions -- other children. In half a year or so he might go to a kindergarten, and' -- he made an instant's pause -- 'I know only of one which would be really good for him. I think he will have to go to Mrs Abbott.'
Their eyes met, and the speaker's were steadily fixed.
'But the distance?' objected Alma.
'Yes. If we want to do that, we must go to Gunnersbury.'
Alma's look fell. She tapped with her foot and meditated, slightly frowning. But, before Harvey spoke again, the muscles of her face relaxed, and she turned to him with a smile, as though some reflection had brought relief.
'You wouldn't mind the bother of moving?'
'What is that compared with Hughie's advantage? And if one lives in London, it's in the nature of things to change houses once a year or so.'
'But we don't live in London!' returned Alma, with a laugh.
'Much the same thing. At Gunnersbury you would be nearer to everything, you know.'
'Then you would send away Pauline?'
Harvey made a restless movement, and gave a husky cough.
'Well, I don't know. You see, Hughie would be with Mrs Abbott only a few hours each day. Who is to look after the little man at other times? I suppose I can't very well undertake it myself -- though I'm glad to see as much of him as possible; and I won't let him be with a servant. So ----'
Alma was gazing at the fire, and seemed to give only a divided attention to what her husband said. Her eyes grew wide; their vision, certainly, was of nothing that disturbed or disheartened her.
'You have given me two things to think about, Harvey. Will you reflect on the one that I suggested?'
'Then you meant it seriously?'
'I meant that I should like to have your serious opinion about it. Only we won't talk now. I am very tired, and you, I'm sure, oughtn't to sit late with your bad throat. I promise to consider both the things you mentioned.'
She held her hands to him charmingly, and kissed his cheek as she said goodnight.
Harvey lingered for another hour, and -- of all people in the world -- somehow found himself thinking of Buncombe. Buncombe, his landlord in the big dirty house by Royal Oak. What had become of Buncombe? It would be amusing, some day to look at the old house and see if Buncombe still lived there.
They never talked about money. Alma took it for granted that Harvey would not allow their expenditure to outrun his income, and therewith kept her mind at rest. Rolfe had not thought it necessary to mention that he derived about three hundred pounds from debenture stock which was redeemable, and that the date of redemption fell early in this present year, 1891. He himself had all along scarcely regarded the matter. When the stock became his, 1891 seemed very remote; and on settling in North Wales he felt financially so secure that the question of reinvestment might well be left for consideration till it was pressed upon him.
As now it was. He could no longer disregard percentages; he wanted every penny that his capital would yield. Before marriage he would have paid little heed to the fact that his canal shares (an investment which he had looked upon as part of the eternal order of things) showed an inclination to lose slightly in value; now it troubled him day and night. As for the debenture stock, he might, if he chose, 'convert' it without withdrawal, but that meant a lower dividend, which was hardly to be thought of. Whither should he turn for a security at once sound and remunerative? He began to read the money article in his daily paper, which hitherto he had passed over as if it did not exist, or turned from with contemptuous impatience. He picked up financial newspapers at railway bookstalls, and in private struggled to comprehend their jargon, taking care that they never fell under his wife's eyes. At the Metropolitan Club -- of which he had resumed membership, after thinking that he would never again enter clubland -- he talked with men who were at home in City matters, and indirectly tried to get hints from them. He felt like one who meddles with something forbidden -- who pries, shamefaced, into the secrets of an odious vice. To study the money-market gave him a headache. He had to go for a country walk, to bathe and change his clothes, before he was at ease again.
Two only of his intimates had any practical acquaintance with methods of speculation, and their experiences hitherto were not such as to suggest his seeking advice from them. Hugh Carnaby might or might not reap profit from his cycle factory; as yet it had given him nothing but worry and wavering hopes. Cecil Morphew had somehow got into better circumstances, had repaid the loan of fifty pounds, and professed to know much more about speculation than in the days when he made money only to lose it again; but it was to be feared that Cecil associated with people of shady character, and might at any moment come to grief in a more or less squalid way. He confessed that there was a mystery in his life -- something he preferred not to speak of even with an old friend.
Oddly enough, Carnaby and Morphew wrote both at the same time, wishing to see him, and saying that they had cheering news to impart. Amid his perplexities, which were not concerned with money alone, Harvey welcomed this opportunity of forgetting himself for a few hours. He agreed to lunch with Hugh at a restaurant (Carnaby would have nothing to do with clubs), and bade Morphew to dinner at the Metropolitan.
It was a day of drizzle and slush, but Harvey had got over his sore throat, and in ordinary health defied the elements. Unlike himself, Carnaby came a little late for his appointment, and pleaded business with a 'blackguard' in the City. Rheums and bronchial disorders were to him unknown; he had never possessed an umbrella, and only on days like this donned a light overcoat to guard himself against what he called 'the sooty spittle' of a London sky. Yet he was not the man of four or five years ago. He had the same appearance of muscularity, the same red neck and mighty fists; but beneath his eyes hung baggy flesh that gave him a bilious aspect, his cheeks were a little sunken, and the tone of his complexion had lost its healthy clearness. In temper, too, he had suffered; perhaps in manners. He used oaths too freely; intermingled his good bluff English -- the English of a country gentleman -- with recent slang; tended to the devil-may-care rather than to the unconsciously breezy and bold.
'Let us find a corner,' he said, clutching his friend by the shoulder, 'out of the damned crowd.'
'Lawsuit finished?' asked Harvey, when they had found a place and ordered their meal.
Hugh answered with a deep rolling curse.
When he returned to England, in the summer of 1889, he entered at once into partnership with the man Mackintosh, taking over an established business at Coventry, with which his partner already had some connection. Not a week passed before they found themselves at law with regard to a bicycle brake -- a patent they had begun by purchasing, only to find their right in it immediately contested. The case came on in November; it occupied nine days, and was adjourned. Not until July of the following year, 1890, was judgment delivered; it went for Mackintosh & Co, the plaintiffs, whose claim the judge held to be proved. But this by no means terminated the litigation. The defendants, who had all along persisted in manufacturing and selling this patent brake, now obtained stay of injunction until the beginning of the Michaelmas term, with the understanding that, if notice of appeal were given before then, the injunction would be stayed until the appeal was settled. And notice was given, and the appeal would doubtless be heard some day or other; but meanwhile the year 1891 had come round, and Mackintosh & Co. saw their rivals manufacturing and selling as gaily as ever. Hugh Carnaby grew red in the face as he spoke of them; his clenched fist lay on the tablecloth, and it was pretty clear how he longed to expedite the course of justice.
Still, he had good news to communicate, and he began by asking whether Harvey saw much of Redgrave.
'Redgrave?' echoed the other in surprise. 'Why, I hardly know him.'
'But your wife knows him very well.'
'Yes; I dare say she does.'
Carnaby did not observe his friend's countenance; he was eating with great appetite. 'Redgrave isn't at all a bad fellow. I didn't know him much till lately. Used to see him at B. F.'s, you know, and one or two other places where I went with Sibyl. Thought him rather a snob. But I was quite mistaken. He's a very nice fellow when you get near to him.'
Harvey's surprise was increased. For his own part, he still thought of Redgrave with the old prejudice, though he had no definite charge to bring against the man. He would have supposed him the last person either to seek or to obtain favour with Hugh Carnaby.
'Sibyl has known him for a long time,' Hugh continued. 'Tells me he did all sorts of kindnesses for her mother at Ascott Larkfield's death; fixed up her affairs -- they were in a devil of a state, I believe. Last autumn we met him in Scotland; he was with his sister and her family -- Mrs Fenimore. Her husband's in India, and he seems to look after her in a way that does him credit. In fact, I saw a new side of the fellow. We got quite chummy, and I happened to speak about Mackintosh & Co. Well, now, what do you think? Two days ago, at Coventry, I got a note from him: he was coming through, and would like to see me; would I lunch with him at a hotel? I did, and he surprised me by beginning to talk about business. The fact was, he had some money lying loose, wanted to place it somewhere, and had faith in cycles. Why shouldn't he make an offer to a friend? Would Mackintosh & Co. care to admit a new partner? Or -- anyhow -- could we make use of a few thousand pounds?'
Rolfe had ceased to eat, and was listening intently. The story sounded very strange to him; it did not fit at all with his conception of Cyrus Redgrave.
'I suppose a few thousands would come very handy?' he remarked.
'Well, old man, to tell you the truth, -- I can do it now, -- for me it means a jump out of a particularly black hole. You must understand that we're not doing downright badly; we pay our way, but that was about all. I, individually, shouldn't have paid my way for many months longer. God! how I clutched at it! You don't know what it is, Rolfe, to see your damned account at the bank slithering away, and not a cent to pay in. I've thought of all sorts of things -- just stopping short of burglary, and I shouldn't have stopped at that long.'
'You mean that this new capital will give such a push to the business ----'
'Of course! It was just what we wanted. We couldn't advertise -- couldn't buy a new patent -- couldn't move at all. Now we shall make things hum.'
'Does Redgrave become a partner, then?'
'A sleeping partner. But Redgrave is wide enough awake. Mackintosh says he never met a keener man of business. You wouldn't have thought it, would you? I should fancy he manages all his own property, and does it devilish well, too. Of course, he has all sorts of ways of helping us on. He's got ideas of his own, too, about the machines; I shouldn't wonder if he hits on something valuable. I never half understood him before. He doesn't shoot much, but knows enough about it to make pleasant talk. And he has travelled a good deal. Then, of course, he goes in for art, music -- all that sort of thing. There's really no humbug about him. He's neither prig nor cad, though I used to think him a little of both.'
Harvey reflected; revived his mental image of the capitalist, and still found it very unlike the picture suggested by Hugh.
'Who is Redgrave?' he asked. 'How did he get his money?'
'I know nothing about that. I don't think he's a university man. He hinted once that he was educated abroad. Seems to know plenty of good people. Mrs Fenimore, his sister, lives at Wimbledon. Sibyl and I were over there not long ago, dining; one or two titled people, a parson, and so on; devilish respectable, but dull -- the kind of company that makes me want to stand up and yell. Redgrave has built himself what he calls a bungalow, somewhere near the house; but I didn't see it.'
'You're a good deal at Coventry?' asked Rolfe.
'Off and on. Just been down for ten days. If it were possible, I should go steadily at the business. I used to think I couldn't fit into work of that sort, but a man never knows what he can do till he tries. I can't stand doing nothing; that floors me. I smoke too much, and drink too much, and get quarrelsome, and wish I was on the other side of the world. But it's out of the question to live down yonder; I couldn't ask Sibyl to do it.'
'Do you leave her quite alone, then?'
Carnaby made an uneasy movement.
'She has been visiting here and there for the last month; now her mother wants her to go to Ventnor. Much better she shouldn't; they hate each other -- can't be together a day without quarrelling. Pretty plain on which side the fault lies. I shouldn't think there are many women better tempered than Sibyl. All the time we've been married, and all we've gone through, I have never once seen an unpleasant look on her face -- to me, that is. It's something to be able to say that. Mrs Larkfield is simply intolerable. She's always either whining or in a fury. Can't talk of anything but the loss of her money.'
'That reminds me,' interposed Harvey. 'Do you know that there seems to be a chance of getting something out of the great wreck?'
'What? Who says so?'
'Mrs Frothingham. The creditors come first, of course. Was your wife creditor or shareholder?'
'Then she may hear something before long. I don't pretend to understand the beastly affair, but Mrs Frothingham wrote to us about it the day before yesterday, with hints of eighteenpence in the pound, which she seemed to think very glorious.'
Carnaby growled in disgust.
'Eighteenpence be damned! Well, perhaps it'll buy her a hat. I tell you, Rolfe, when I compare Sibyl with her mother, I almost feel she's too good for the world. Suppose she had turned out that sort of woman! What would have been the end of it? Murder, most likely. But she bore the loss of all her money just as she did the loss of her jewellery and things when our house was burgled -- never turned a hair. There's a girl to be proud of, I tell you!'
He insisted upon it so vehemently that one might have imagined him in conflict with secret doubts as to his wife's perfection.
'It's a very strange thing,' said Rolfe, looking at his wine, 'that those thieves got clean away -- not a single thing they stole ever tracked. There can't be many such cases.'
'I have a theory about that.' Hugh half-closed his eyes, looking at once shrewd and fierce. 'The woman herself -- the housekeeper -- is at this moment going about in society, somewhere. She was no Whitechapel thief. There's a gang organised among the people we live with. If I go out to dine, as likely as not I sit next to a burglar or a forger, or anything you like. The police never get on the scent, and it's the same in many another robbery. Some day, perhaps, there'll be an astounding disclosure, a blazing hell of a scandal -- a dozen men and women marched from Belgravia and Mayfair to Newgate. I'm sure of it! What else can you expect of such a civilisation as ours? Well, I should know that woman again, and if ever I find myself taking her down to dinner ----'
Harvey exploded in laughter.
'I tell you I'm quite serious,' said the other angrily. 'I know that's the explanation of it! There are plenty of good and honest people still, but they can't help getting mixed up among the vilest lot on the face of the earth. That's why I don't like my wife to make new acquaintances. She won't get any harm, but I hate to think of the people she perhaps meets. Mackintosh was telling me of a woman in London who keeps up a big house and entertains all sorts of people -- and her husband knows where the money comes from. He wouldn't mention her name, because, by Jove, he had himself contributed to the expenses of the establishment! It was three or four years ago, when he had his money and ran through it. For all I know, Sibyl may go there -- I can't tell her about such things, and she wouldn't believe me if I did. She's an idealist -- sees everything through poetry and philosophy. I should be a brute if I soiled her mind. And, I say, old man, why don't your wife and she see more of each other? Is it just the distance?'
'I'm afraid that has something to do with it,' Harvey replied, trying to speak naturally.
'I'm sorry. They're both of them too good for ordinary society. I wish to God we could all four of us go out to a place I know in Tasmania, and live honest, clean, rational lives! Can't be managed. Your wife has her music; Sibyl has her books and so on ----'
'By-the-bye, you know Mrs Strangeways?'
'I know of her.'
'And not much good?'
'No particular harm. Sibyl saw a little of her, but I don't think they meet now. Your wife know her?' 'She has met her here and there: you and I are alike in that. We can't stand the drawing-room, so our wives have to go about by themselves. The days are past when a man watched over his wife's coming and going as a matter of course. We should only make fools of ourselves if we tried it on. It's the new world, my boy; we live in it, and must make the best of it.'
Hugh Carnaby drank more wine than is usually taken at luncheon. It excited him to boisterous condemnation of things in general. He complained of the idleness that was forced upon him, except when he could get down to Coventry.
'I hang about for whole days doing literally nothing. What should I do? I'm not the man for books; I can't get much sport nowadays; I don't care for billiards. I want to have an axe in my hand!'
Gesticulating carelessly, he swept a wine-glass off the table.
'There -- damn it! shows we've sat long enough. Come and talk to Sibyl, and let her give you a cup of tea. You never see her -- never; yet she thinks better of you than of any other man we know. Come, let's get out of this beastly air. The place reeks of onions.'
They went to Oxford and Cambridge Mansions, where Rolfe spent the time until he had to leave for his appointment with Cecil Morphew. Sibyl was very kind, but gently reproachful. Why had Alma forsaken her? Why did Harvey himself never drop in?
'I'm often quite lonely, Mr Rolfe, and as one result of it I'm getting learned. Look at these books. Won't you give me a word of admiration?'
There was a volume of Crowe and Cavalcaselle, one of Symonds's 'Renaissance', Benvenuto's 'Memoirs' in the original.
'I can't help clinging to the old world,' she said sweetly. 'Hugh forgives me, like a good boy; and you, I know, not only forgive, but sympathise.'
Of course, not a word passed with reference to Hugh Carnaby's business; Redgrave's name was not mentioned. Sibyl, one felt, would decline to recognise, in her own drawing-room, the gross necessities of life. Had bankruptcy been impending, she would have ignored it with the same perfection of repose. An inscrutable woman, who could look and smile at one without conveying the faintest suggestion of her actual thoughts.
On his way to the club, Harvey puzzled over what seemed to him Redgrave's singular behaviour. Why should a man in that position volunteer pecuniary aid to an obscure and struggling firm? Could it be genuine friendship for Hugh Carnaby? That sounded most improbable. Perhaps Redgrave, like the majority of people in his world, appeared much wealthier than he really was, and saw in Mackintosh's business a reasonable hope of profit. In that case, and if the concern began to flourish, might not an older friend of Carnaby's find lucrative employment for his capital?
He had always thought with uttermost contempt of the man who allows himself to be gripped, worried, dragged down, by artificial necessities. Was he himself to become a victim of this social disease? Was he, resistless, to be drawn into the muddy whirlpool, to spin round and round among gibbering phantoms, abandoning himself with a grin of inane conceit, or clutching in desperation at futile hopes? He remembered his tranquil life between the mountains and the sea; his earlier freedom, wandering in the sunlight of silent lands. Surely there needed but a little common-sense, a little decision, to save himself from this rushing current. One word to Alma -- would it not suffice? But of all things he dreaded to incur the charge of meanness, of selfishness. That had ever been his weak point: in youth, well-nigh a cause of ruin; in later life, impelling him to numberless insincerities and follies.
However, the danger as yet only threatened. He was solvent; he had still a reserve. It behoved him merely to avoid the risks of speculation, and to check, in natural, unobtrusive ways, that tendency to extravagance of living which was nowadays universal. Could he not depend upon himself for this moderate manliness?
Cecil Morphew, though differing in all other respects from Hugh Carnaby, showed a face which, like Hugh's, was growing prematurely old; a fatigued complexion, sunken eyes; an expression mingled of discontent and eagerness, now furtive, now sanguine, yet losing the worse traits in a still youthful smile as he came forward to meet his friend. Year after year he clung to the old amorous hope, but he no longer spoke of it with the same impulsive frankness; he did not shun the subject -- brought it, indeed, voluntarily forward, but with a shamefaced hesitance. His declaration in a letter, not long ago, that he was unworthy of any good woman's love, pointed to something which had had its share in the obvious smirching of his character; something common enough, no doubt; easily divined by Harvey Rolfe, though he could not learn how far the man's future was compromised. Today Morphew began with talk of a hopeful tenor. He had got hold of a little money; he had conceived a project for making more. When the progress of their eating and drinking cleared the way for confidential disclosures, Morphew began to hint at his scheme.
'You've heard me speak of Denbow?' This was a man who had given him lessons in photography; a dealer in photographic apparatus, with a shop in Westminster Bridge Road. 'He's a very decent fellow, but it's all up with him. His wife drinks, and he has lost money in betting, and now he wants to clear out -- to sell his business and get away. He came to me to apologise for spoiling some negatives -- he does a little printing for me now and then and told me what he meant to do. Did I know of anyone likely to take his shop?'
'You're in with a queer lot of people, it seems to me.'
'Oh, Denbow is all but a gentleman, I assure you. He was educated at Charterhouse, but made a fool of himself, I believe, in the common way. But about his business. I've seen a good deal of it, going in and out, and talking with them, and I know as much about photography as most amateurs -- you'll admit that, Rolfe?'
It was true that he had attained more than ordinary skill with the camera. Indeed, but for this resource, happily discovered in the days of his hopelessness, he would probably have sunk out of sight before now.
'Denbow's salesman is a thoroughly honest and capable fellow -- Hobcraft, his name. He's been at the shop three or four years, and would be only too glad to carry on the business, but he can't raise money, and Denbow must have cash down. Now the fact is, I want to buy that business myself.'
'I see. What does the man ask for it?'
Morphew fidgeted a little.
'Well, just at present there isn't much stock -- nothing like what there ought to be. Denbow has been coming down the hill; he's stopped himself only just in time. When I first knew him he was doing reasonably well. It's a good position for that kind of shop. Swarms of men, you know, go backwards and forwards along the Westminster Bridge Road, and just the kind of men, lots of them, that take up photography -- the better kind of clerk, and the man of business who lives in the south suburbs. And photography is going ahead so. I have all sorts of ideas. One might push the printing branch of the business -- and have dark rooms for amateurs -- and hit on a new hand-camera -- and perhaps even start a paper, call it Camera Notes, or something of that kind. Don't smile and look sceptical ----'
'Not at all. It seems to me the best suggestion I've heard from you yet.'
'Think so? I'm awfully glad of that. You know, Rolfe, a fellow like myself -- decent family, public school, and that kind of thing -- naturally fights shy of shopkeeping. But I've got to the point that I don't care what I do, if only it'll bring me a steady income in an honest way. I ought to be able to make several hundreds a year, even at starting, out of that business.'
'Have you spoken of it in the usual quarter?'
'No, I haven't.' Cecil's countenance fell. 'I should if I made a successful start. But I've talked of so many things, I'm ashamed. And she mightn't quite understand; perhaps she would think I was going down -- down ----'
'How is her father?'
'Neither better nor worse. That man will take another ten years over his dying -- see if he doesn't. Well, we've got used to it. We're neither of us young any longer; we've lost the best part of our lives. And all for what? Because we hadn't money enough to take a house three times bigger than we needed! Two lives wasted because we couldn't feed fifty other people for whom we didn't care a damn! Doesn't it come to that?'
'No doubt. What does Denbow ask?'
'For the stock, two hundred pounds; shop-fittings, fifty; business as it stands, say three hundred. The rent is ninety-five. Floor above the shop let to a family, who pay twenty-four shillings a week -- a substantial set-off against the rent; but I should like to get rid of the people, and use the whole house for business purposes. There's three years of Denbow's lease to run, but this, he says, the landlord would be willing to convert into a seven years' lease to a new tenant. Then one must allow something for repairs and so on at the fresh start. Well, with purchase of a little new stock, say another hundred and fifty pounds. Roughly speaking, I ought to have about five hundred pounds to settle the affair.'
'And you have the money?'
'Not quite; I've got -- well, I may say three hundred. I'm not speaking of my own private income; of course, that goes on as usual, and isn't a penny too much for -- for ordinary expenses..' He fidgeted again. 'Would you care to know how I made this bit of capital?'
'If you care to tell me.'
'Yes, I will, just to show you what one is driven to do. Two years ago I was ill -- congestion of the lungs -- felt sure I should die. You were in Wales then. I sent for Tripcony, to get him to make my will -- he used to be a solicitor, you know, before he started the bucket-shop. When I pulled through, Trip came one day and said he had a job for me. You'll be careful, by-the-bye, not to mention this. The job was to get the City editor of a certain newspaper (a man I know very well) to print a damaging rumour about a certain company. You'll wonder how I could manage this. Well, simply because the son of the chairman of that company was a sort of friend of mine, and the City editor knew it. If I could get the paragraph inserted, Tripcony would -- not pay me anything, but give me a tip to buy certain stock which he guaranteed would be rising. Well, I undertook the job, and I succeeded, and Trip was as good as his word. I bought as much as I dared -- through Trip, mind you, and he wouldn't let me of the cover, which I thought suspicious, though it was only habit of business. I bought at 75, and on settling day the quotation was par. I wanted to go at it again, but Trip shook his head. Well, I netted nearly five hundred. The most caddish affair I ever was in; but I wanted money. Stop, that's only half the story. Just at that time I met a man who wanted to start a proprietary club. He had the lease of a house near Golden Square, but not quite money enough to furnish it properly and set the club going. Well, I joined him, and put in four hundred pounds; and for a year and a half we didn't do badly. Then there was a smash; the police raided the place one night, and my partner went before the magistrates. I trembled in my shoes, but my name was never mentioned. It only ended in a fifty-pound fine, and of course I went halves. Then we sold the club for two hundred, furniture and all, and I found myself with -- what I have now, not quite three hundred.'
'My boy, you've been going it,' remarked Rolfe, with a clouded brow.
'That's what I tell you. I want to get out of all that kind of thing. Now, how am I to get two or three hundred honestly? I think Denbow would take less than he says for cash down. But the stock, I guarantee, is worth two hundred.'
'You have the first offer?'
'Till day after tomorrow -- Monday.'
'Tomorrow's Sunday -- that's awkward. Never mind. If I come over in the morning, will you take me to the place, and let me look over it with you, and see both Denbow and the shopman?'
'Of course I will!' said Morphew delightedly. 'It's all aboveboard. There's a devilish good business to be made; it depends only on the man. Why, Denbow has made as much as two hundred in a year out of printing for amateurs alone. It's his own fault that he didn't keep it up. I swear, Rolfe, that with capital and hard work and acuteness, that place can be made the establishment of the kind south of the Thames. Why, there's no reason why one shouldn't net a thousand a year in a very short time.'
'Is Denbow willing to exhibit his books?'
'Of course he is. I've seen them. It isn't speculative, you know; honest, straightforward business.'
'What part do you propose to take in it yourself?'
'Why, Denbow's part -- without the betting. I shall go in for the business for all I'm worth; work day and night. And look here, Rolfe. It isn't as if I had no security to offer. You see, I have my private income; that gives me a pull over the ordinary man of business just starting. Suppose I borrow three -- four -- five hundred pounds; why, I can afford to make over stock or receipts -- anything in that way -- to the lender. Four per cent, that's what I offer, if it's a simple loan.'
'You would keep the man -- what's his name?'
'Hobcraft. Decidedly. Couldn't do without him. He has been having thirty-five shillings a week.'
Harvey rose, and led the way to the smoking-room. His companion had become a new man; the glow of excitement gave him a healthier look, and he talked more like the Cecil Morphew of earlier days, whom Rolfe had found and befriended at the hotel in Brussels.
'There's nothing to be ashamed of in a business of this kind. If only her father was dead, I'm sure she wouldn't mind it. -- Ah, Rolfe, if only she and I, both of us, had had a little more courage! Do you know what I think? It's the weak people that do most harm in the world. They suffer, of course, but they make others suffer as well. If I were like you -- ah, if I were like you!' Harvey laughed.
To Alma, on his return, he gave a full account of all he had heard and done. The story of Hugh Carnaby's good fortune interested her greatly. She elicited every detail of which Harvey had been informed; asked shrewd questions; and yet had the air of listening only for her amusement.
'Should you have thought Redgrave likely to do such a thing?' Rolfe inquired.
'Oh, I don't know him at all well. He has been a friend of Sibyl's for a long time -- so, of course ----'
Her voice dropped, but in a moment she was questioning again.
'You say that Mr Redgrave went to see him at Coventry?'
'Yes. Redgrave must have heard he was there, from Sibyl, I suppose.'
'And that was two days ago?'
'So Carnaby said -- Why?'
'Somebody -- oh, I think it was Mrs Rayner Mann, yesterday -- said Mr Redgrave was in Paris.'
Cecil Morphew's affairs had much less interest for her; but when Harvey said that he was going to town again tomorrow, to look at the shop in Westminster Bridge Road, she regarded him with an odd smile.
'You surely won't get mixed up in things of that kind?'
'It might be profitable,' he answered very quietly; 'and -- one doesn't care to lose any chance of that kind -- just now ----'
He would not meet her eyes; but Alma searched his face for the meaning of these words, so evidently weighted.
'Are you at all uneasy, Harvey?'
'Not a bit -- not a bit,' answered the weak man in him. 'I only meant that, if we are going to remove ----'
They sat for more than five minutes in silence. Alma's brain was working very rapidly, as her features showed. When he entered, she looked rather sleepy; now she was thrilling with vivid consciousness; one would have thought her absorbed in the solution of some exciting problem. Her next words came unexpectedly.
'Harvey, if you mean what you say about letting me follow my own instincts, I think I shall decide to try my fortune -- to give a public recital.'
He glanced at her, but did not answer.
'We made a sort of bargain -- didn't we?' she went on, quickly, nervously, with an endeavour to strike the playful note. 'Hughie shall go to Mrs Abbott's, and I will attend to what you said about the choice of acquaintances.'
'But surely neither of those things can be a subject of bargaining between us? Isn't your interest in both at least equal to my own?'
'Yes -- I know -- of course. It was only a joking way of putting it.'
'Tell me plainly' -- he looked at her now -- 'have you the slightest objection, on any ground, to Hughie's being taught by Mrs Abbott? If so, do let us clear it up.'
'Dear, I have not a shadow of objection,' replied Alma, straightening herself a little, and answering his gaze with excessive frankness. 'How could I have? You think Mrs Abbott will teach him much better than I could, and in that you are quite right. I have no talent for teaching. I haven't much patience -- except in music. It's better every way, that he should go to Mrs Abbott. I feel perfect confidence in her, and I shouldn't be able to in a mere stranger.'
Harvey gave a slow nod, and appeared to have something more of importance to say; but he only asked how the child's cold had been tonight. Alma replied that it was neither better nor worse; she spoke absently.
'On whose encouragement do you principally rely?' was Rolfe's next question.
'On that of twenty people!'
'I said "principally".'
'Herr Wilenski has often praised me; and he doesn't throw his praise away. And you yourself, Harvey, didn't you say last might that I was undoubtedly as good as most professionals?'
'I don't think I used quite those words; and, to tell you the truth, it had never entered my head that you would take them for encouragement to such a step as this.'
Alma bent towards him, smiling.
'I understand. You don't think me good enough. Now the truth, the truth!' and she held up a finger -- which she could not succeed in keeping steady.
'Yes, you shall have the truth. It's too serious a matter for making pretences. My own judgment is worthless, utterly; it should neither offend nor encourage you. But it's very plain to me that you shouldn't dream of coming before the public unless Wilenski, and perhaps some one else of equal or better standing, actually urges you to it. Now, has he done anything like that?'
She reddened, and hardly tried to conceal her vexation.
'This only means, Harvey, that you don't want me to come out.'
'Come now, be more reasonable. It does not only mean that; in fact, I can say honestly it doesn't mean that at all. If Wilenski tells you plainly that you ought to become a professional violinist, there's no one will wish you luck half so heartily as I. But if it's only the encouragement of "twenty people" -- that means nothing. I'm speaking simply as the best friend you have. Don't run the risk of a horrible disappointment. I know you wouldn't find that easy to bear -- it would be bad for you, in every way.
Impelled by annoyance -- for the project seemed to him delusive, and his sense of dignity rose against it -- Harvey had begun with unwonted decision, but he was soon uncomfortably self-conscious and self-critical; he spoke with effort, vainly struggling against that peculiar force of Alma's personality which had long ago subdued him. When he looked at her, saw her distant smile, her pose of the head as in one who mildly rebukes presumption, he was overcome with a feeling of solemn ineptitude. Quite unaware that his last sentence was to Alma the most impressive -- the only impressive -- part of his counsel, suddenly he broke off, and found relief in unexpected laughter.
'There now, I've done my duty -- I've discharged the pedagogue. Get rid of your tragic mask. Be yourself; do as you wish. When the time comes, just tell me what you have decided.'
So, once more, did he oust common-sense with what he imagined a riper wisdom. One must not take things funereally. Face to face with a woman in the prime of her beauty, he heard a voice warning him against the pedantic spirit of middle age, against formalism and fogeyishness.
'Now I know you again,' said Alma, softening, but still reserved; for she did not forget that he had thrown doubt upon her claims as an artist -- an incident which would not lose its importance as she pondered it at leisure.
Harvey sat late. On going upstairs, instead of straightway entering his own room, he passed it with soft step and paused by another door, that of the chamber in which Hughie slept under the care of Miss Smith. The child had coughed in the night during this last week. But at present all was quiet, and with comfortable reassurance the father went to rest.
Alma had matters to occupy her more important than a child's passing ailment. As she slowly unrobed herself by the fire, combed out her warm, fragrant, many-rippled tresses, or held mute dialogue with her eyes in the glass, from a ravel of uneasy thoughts there detached itself, first and foremost, the discovery that Redgrave had not been in Paris when Mrs Strangeways said he was. What was the meaning of this contradiction? Thereto hung the singular coincidence of Redgrave's return home exactly at the time when she and Mrs Strangeways happened to be there. She had thought of it as a coincidence and nothing more; but if Redgrave had deceived Mrs Strangeways as to his movements, the unlooked-for arrival took a suspicious significance. There remained a dark possibility: that Mrs Strangeways knew what was about to happen. Yet this seemed inconceivable.
Was it inconceivable? Why should a woman of that age, and of so much experience, feel nervous about going alone to her friend's house on such a simple mission? It appeared odd at the time, and was more difficult to understand the more she thought of it. And one heard such strange stories -- in society of a certain kind -- so many whispered hints of things that would not bear to be talked about.
Redgrave had not been in Paris, but at Coventry. There again was a puzzling circumstance. Harvey himself declared his surprise at hearing that Redgrave had entered into partnership with Hugh Carnaby. Had Sibyl anything to do with this? Could she have hinted to her friend the millionaire that her husband's financial position was anything but satisfactory, and had Redgrave, out of pure friendship -- of course, out of pure friendship -- hastened to their succour?
This perplexity was almost as disturbing as that which preceded it. Knowing the man of money as she did, Alma found it disagreeable to connect his name thus closely with Sibyl's. Disagreeable in a complicated sense; for she had begun to think of Cyrus Redgrave as intimately associated with her own ambitions, secret and avowed. He was to aid her in winning fame as a violinist; and, to this end, all possible use (within certain limits) was to be made of the power she had over him. Alma viewed the position without the least attempt at disguising its true nature. She was playing with fire; knew it; enjoyed the excitement of it; trusted herself with the completest confidence to come out of the game unscorched. But she felt assured that other women, in similar circumstances, had engaged in much the same encounter with Cyrus Redgrave; and could it be imagined that Sibyl Carnaby was one of them -- Sibyl, the woman of culture, of high principle, the critic of society -- Sibyl, to whom she had so long paid homage, as to one of the chosen of her sex? That Redgrave might approach Sibyl with lawless thought, she could well believe, and such a possibility excited her indignation; that Sibyl would meet him on his own terms, she could not for a moment have credited, but for a traitor-voice that spoke in her for the first time, the voice of jealousy.
Where and how often did they meet? To ask this question was to touch another motive of discontent. Ever since the return to London life, Alma had felt dissatisfied with her social position. She was the wife of a gentleman of independent means; in theory, all circles should be open to her. Practically, she found herself very much restricted in the choice of acquaintances. Harvey had hinted that she should be careful where she went, and whom she knew; that she recognised the justice of this warning served merely to irritate her against its necessity. Why, then, did not her husband exert himself to obtain better society for her? Plainly, he would never take a step in that direction; he had his two or three friends, and found them sufficient; he would have liked to see her very intimate with Mrs Abbott -- perhaps helping to teach babies on the kindergarten system! Left to her own resources, she could do little beyond refusing connections that were manifestly undesirable. Sibyl, she knew, associated with people of much higher standing, only out of curiosity taking a peep at the world to which her friend was restricted. There had always been a slight disparity in this respect between them, and in former days Alma had accepted it without murmuring; but why did Sibyl, just when she could have been socially helpful, show a disposition to hold aloof? 'Of course, you care nothing for people of that kind,' Mrs Carnaby had said, after casually mentioning some 'good' family at whose country house she had been visiting. It was intended, perhaps, as a compliment, with allusion to Alma's theories of the 'simple life'; but, in face of the very plain fact that such theories were utterly abandoned, it sounded to Alma a humiliating irony.
Could it be that Sibyl feared inquiries, shrank from having it known that she was on intimate terms with the daughter of the late Bennet Frothingham -- a name still too often mentioned in newspapers and elsewhere? The shadow of this possibility had ere now flitted over Alma's mind; she was in the mood to establish it as a certainty, and to indulge the resentment that naturally ensued. For on more than one occasion of late, at Mrs Rayner Mann's or in some such house, she had fancied that one person and another had eyed her in a way that was not quite flattering, and that remarks were privately exchanged about her. Perhaps Harvey himself saw in the fact of her parentage a social obstacle, which made him disinclined to extend their circle of common acquaintances. Was that what he meant by his grave air this evening? Was he annoyed at the thought of a publicity which would reveal her maiden name?
These currents of troubled feeling streamed together and bore her turbidly onwards whither her desires pointed. In one way, and one way only, could she hope to become triumphantly conspicuous, to raise herself quite above petty social prejudices, to defeat ill-wishers and put to shame faint-hearted friends. She had never been able to endure the thought of mediocrity. One chance there was; she must grasp it energetically and without delay. And she must make use of all subsidiary means to her great conquest -- save only the last dishonour.
That on her own merit she might rise to the first rank of musicians, Alma did not doubt. Her difficulty lay in the thought that it might require a long time, a wearisome struggle, to gain the universal recognition which alone would satisfy her. Therefore must Cyrus Redgrave be brought to the exertion of all his influence, which she imagined would assist her greatly. Therefore, too, must Felix Dymes be retained as her warm friend, probably (his own suggestion) as her man of business.
It was January. Her 'recital' must take place in the coming season, in May or June. She would sketch a programme at once -- tomorrow morning -- and then work, work, work terrifically!
Saved by the fervour of this determination from brooding over mysteries and jealousies, Alma lay down with a contented sigh, and was soon asleep, thanks to the health she still enjoyed. Her excitability was of the imagination rather than of the blood, and the cool, lymphatic flow, characteristically feminine, which mingled with the sanguine humour, traceable perhaps to a paternal source, spared her many an hour of wakefulness, as it guarded her against much graver peril.
On Sunday morning she generally went to church -- not because of any spiritual impulse, but out of habit. In Wales, Harvey often accompanied her; at Pinner he ceased to do so; but neither then nor now had any talk on the subject passed between them. Alma took it for granted that her husband was very 'broad' in matters of faith. She gathered from her reading that every man of education nowadays dispensed with dogmas, and, for her own part, it was merely an accident that she had not sought to attract attention by pronounced freethinking. Sibyl Carnaby went to church as a matter of course, and never spoke for or against orthodoxy. Had Sibyl been more 'advanced' in this direction, undoubtedly Alma would long ago have followed her example. Both of them, in girlhood, had passed through a great deal of direct religious teaching -- and both would have shrunk amazed if called upon to make the slightest sacrifice in the name of their presumed creed.
This morning, however, Alma remained at home, and one of the first things she did was to write to Sibyl, asking when it would be convenient for her friend to give her half-an-hour's private talk. Then she wrote to Felix Dymes, addressing the letter to the care of his publishers. At midday, as Harvey had gone to town on his business with Cecil Morphew, she decided to run over to Kingsbury-Neasden and ask her friends for lunch, in return for which she would make known to them her startling project. It was a wretched day; Hughie must not go out, and Pauline -- good creature -- would amuse him in one way and another all the afternoon.
As it chanced, her surprise visit could not have been worse timed, for Mrs Leach was in a state of collapse after a violent quarrel, the day before, with her cook-housekeeper, who quitted the house at a moment's notice. Luncheon, in the admissible sense of the word, there was none to be had. Mr Leach, finding the house intolerable when he arrived on Saturday afternoon, had gone back to his bachelor quarters, and the girls, when Alma presented herself, were just sitting down alone to what the housemaid chose to give them. But such an old friend could not be turned away because of domestic mishap.
Not until they had despatched the unsatisfactory meal, and were cosy in the drawing-room, did Alma reveal her great purpose. Dora Leach happened to have a slight acquaintance with a professional pianist who had recently come before the public, and Alma began by inquiring whether her friend could obtain information as to the expenses of the first 'recital' given by that lady.
'I'm afraid I don't know her quite well enough,' replied Miss Leach. 'What's it for? Are you thinking ----? Really? You really are?'
The sisters became joyously excited. Splendid idea! They had feared it was impossible. Oh, she might count with certainty upon a brilliant success! They began to talk about the programme. And what professionals would she engage to take part in the concert? When Alma mentioned that the illustrious Felix Dymes had offered to undertake the management of her business, interest rose to the highest point. Felix Dymes would of course be a tower of strength. Though tempted to speak of the support she might expect from another great man, Alma refrained; her reason being that she meant to ask Dora to accompany her to the Crystal Palace next Saturday. If, as was almost certain, Redgrave met them there, it would be unpleasant to let Dora surmise that the meeting was not by chance.
They chattered for two or three hours, and, among other things, made merry over a girl of their acquaintance (struggling with flagrant poverty), who aimed at a professional career.
'It really would be kindness,' said Dora, 'to tell her she hasn't the least chance; but one can't do that. She was here the other day playing to us -- oh, for such a time! She said her bow would have to be rehaired, and when I looked at it, I saw it was all greasy and black near the frog, from her dirty fingers; it only wanted washing. I just managed to edge in a hint about soap and water. But she's very touchy; one has to be so careful with her.'
'It's dreadfully awkward, you know,' put in Gerda, 'to talk to people who are so poor -- isn't it? It came out one day that she had been peeling potatoes for their dinner! It makes one so uncomfortable -- she really need not have mentioned it.'
The public halls were discussed. Which would Alma select? Then again the programme. Would she play the Adagio? -- meaning, of course, that in Spohr's Concerto 9. No, no; not the Adagio -- not on any account the Adagio! Something of Bach's? -- yes; perhaps the Chaconne. And Brahms? There was the Sonata in A for violin and piano. A stiff piece, but one must not be too popular -- Heaven forbid that one should catch at cheap applause! How about a trio? What was that thing of Dvorák's, at St James's Hall not long ago? Yes, the trio in B flat -- piano, violin, and 'cello. At least a score of pieces were jotted down, some from memory, some picked out of old programmes, of which Dora produced a great portfolio. Interruption came at length -- a servant entering to say that Mrs Leach felt so ill, she wished the doctor to be summoned.
'Oh, bother Mamma and her illnesses!' exclaimed the vivacious Gerda when the intruder was waved off. 'It's all nonsense, you know. She will quarrel with servants and get herself into a state. It'll have to be a boarding-house; I see it coming nearer every day.'
Having made an appointment with Dora for next Saturday, Alma took leave, and went home in excellent spirits. Everything seemed to plan itself; the time had come, the moment of destiny. Doubtless she had been wise in waiting thus long. Had she come forward only a year or so after her father's tragedy, people might have said she was making profit of a vulgar sensation; it would have seemed in bad taste; necessity would have appeared to urge her. Now, such remarks were impossible. Mrs Harvey Rolfe sounded much better than Miss Alma Frothingham. By-the-bye, was it to be 'Mrs', or ought she to call herself 'Madame'? People did use the Madame, even with an English name. Madame Rolfe? Madame Harvey Rolfe? That made her laugh; it had a touch of the ridiculous; it suggested millinery rather than music. Better to reject such silly affectations and use her proper name boldly.
It was to be expected, of course, that people in general would soon discover her maiden name. Whispers would go round; facts might even get into the newspapers. Well? She herself had done nothing to be ashamed of, and if curiosity helped her to success, why, so much the better. In all likelihood it would help her; but she did not dwell upon this adventitious encouragement. A more legitimate source of hope revealed itself in Mrs Strangeways' allusion to her personal advantages. She was not ill-looking; on that point there needed no flatterer's assurance. Her looks, if anything, had improved, and possibly she owed something to her experiment in 'simplicity', to the air of mountain and of sea. Felix Dymes, Cyrus Redgrave, not to speak of certain other people -- no matter. For all that, she must pay grave attention to the subject of dress. Her recital would doubtless be given in the afternoon, according to custom; so that it was not a case of grande tenue; but her attire must be nothing short of perfection in its kind. Could she speak about it with Sibyl? Perhaps -- yet perhaps not. She was very anxious to see Sibyl, and felt that a great deal depended upon their coming interview.
This took place on Tuesday; for Sibyl replied at once to the note, and begged her to come without delay. 'Tuesday at twelve. I do little in these gloomy days but read -- am becoming quite a bookworm. Why have you been silent so long? I was on the very point of writing to you, for I wish to see you particularly.'
And, when the servant opened her door, Sibyl was discovered in the attitude of a severe student, bending over a table on which lay many volumes. She would not have been herself had there appeared any neglect or unbecomingness in her costume, but she wore the least pretentious of morning gowns, close at throat and wrist, which aided her look of mental concentration and alertness. She rose with alacrity, and the visitor, using her utmost keenness in scrutiny of countenance, found that her own eyes, not Sibyl's, were the first to fall.
'Yes -- working as if I had an examination to pass. It's the best thing in weather such as this -- keeps one in health, I believe. You, of course, have your music, which answers the same purpose. I'm going in for the Renaissance; always wished to make a thorough study of it. Hugh is appalled; he never imagined I had so much energy. He says I shall be writing a book next -- and why not?'
'Of course you could,' replied Alma. 'You're clever enough for anything.'
Her suspicions evaporated in this cosy cloister. She wondered how she could have conceived such a thought of Sibyl, who, dressed so simply, had a girlish air, a beauty as of maidenhood. Exhilarated by her ambitious hopes, she turned in heart to the old friendship, felt her admiration revive, and spoke it freely.
'I know I'm not stupid,' said Sibyl, leaning back as if a little weary; 'and there's the pity of it, that I've never made more use of my brains. Of course, those years abroad were lost, though I suppose I got to know a little more of the world. And since we came back I have had no peace of mind. Did you guess that? Perhaps your husband knew about things from Hugh?'
'I was afraid you might be getting rather anxious; but as you never said anything yourself ----'
'I never should have done -- I hate talking about money. And you know that things are looking better?'
Sibyl's confident smile drew one of like meaning from Alma.
'Your husband had good news, I know, when Harvey met him on Saturday.'
'It sounds good,' said Sibyl, 'and I take it for granted it will be as good as it sounds. If that's complicated, well, so is business, and I don't profess to understand the details. I can only say that Hugh seems to be a good deal shrewder and more practical than I thought him. He is always making friends with what I consider the wrong kind of people; now at last he has got hold of just the right man, and it very much puzzles me how he did it. I have known Mr Redgrave -- you've heard it's Mr Redgrave? -- I've known him for several years now, and, between ourselves, I never expected to benefit by the acquaintance.'
Her laugh was so significant that Alma had much ado to keep a steady face.
'I know -- things are said about him,' she murmured.
'Things are said about him, as you discreetly put it, my dear Alma.' The voice still rippled with laughter. 'I should imagine Hugh has heard them, but I suppose a man of the world thinks nothing of such trifles. And after all' -- she grew serious -- 'I would rather trust Hugh's judgment than general gossip. Hugh thinks him a "very good fellow". They were together a little in Scotland last autumn, you know, and -- it's very wrong to make fun of it, and I shouldn't repeat the story to anyone but you -- Mr Redgrave confided to him that he was a blighted being, the victim of an unhappy love in early life. Can you quite picture it?'
'It has an odd sound,' replied Alma, struggling with rather tense nerves. 'Do you believe the story?'
'I can't see why in the world such a man should invent it. It seems he wanted to marry someone who preferred someone else; and since then he has ----'
Sibyl rippled off again.
'He has -- what?'
'Been blighted, my dear! Of course, people have different ways of showing blight. Mr Redgrave, it is rumoured, hides his head in a hermitage, somewhere in the north of Italy, by one of the lakes. No doubt he lives on olives and macaroni, and broods over what might have been. Did you ever hear of that hermitage?'
Alma's colour heightened ever so little, and she kept her eyes on the questioner with involuntary fixedness. The last shadow of doubt regarding Sibyl having disappeared (no woman with an uneasy conscience, she said to herself, could talk in this way), she had now to guard herself against the betrayal of suspicious sensibilities. Sibyl, of course, meant nothing personal by these jesting allusions -- how could she? But it was with a hard voice that Alma declared her ignorance of Mr Redgrave's habits, at home, or in retreat by Italian lakes.
'It doesn't concern us,' agreed her friend. 'He has chosen to put his money into Hugh's business, and, from one point of view, that's a virtuous action. Hugh says he didn't suggest anything of the kind, but I fancy the idea must have been led up to at some time or other. The poor fellow has been horridly worried, and perhaps he let fall a word or two he doesn't care to confess. However it came about, I'm immensely glad, both for his sake and my own. My mind is enormously relieved -- and that's how I come to be working at the Renaissance.'
Alma took the first opportunity of giving the conversation a turn. It was not so easy as she had anticipated to make her announcement; for, to her own mind, Cyrus Redgrave and the great ambition were at every moment suggestive of each other, and Sibyl, in this peculiar mood, might throw out disturbing remarks or ask unwelcome questions. Only one recent occurrence called for concealment. Happily, Sibyl no longer met Mrs Strangeways (whose character had taken such a doubtful hue), and Redgrave himself could assuredly be trusted for discretion, whatever his real part in that perplexing scene at he bungalow.
'I feel the same want as you do,' said Alma, after a little transitional talk, 'of something to keep me busy. Of course, it must be music; but music at home, and at other people's homes, isn't enough. You know my old revolt against the bonds of the amateur. I'm going to break out -- or try to. What would you give for my chances?'
'My dear, I am no capitalist,' replied her friend, with animation. 'For such a bargain as that you must go among the great speculators. Hugh's experience seems to point to Mr Redgrave.'
'Sibyl, please be serious.'
'So I am. I should like to have the purchase of your chances for a trifle of a few thousand pounds.'
Alma's flush of discomposure (more traitorous than she imagined) transformed itself under a gratified smile.
'You really think that I might do something worth the trouble? -- I don't mean money-making -- though, of course, no one despises money -- but a real artistic success?'
Sibyl made no half-hearted reply. She seemed in thorough agreement with those other friends of Alma's who had received the project enthusiastically. A dozen tickets, at least a dozen, she would at once answer for. But, as though an unwelcome word must needs mingle with her pleasantest talk today, she went on to speak of Alma's husband; what did he think of the idea?
'He looks on, that's all,' Alma replied playfully. 'If I succeed, he will be pleased; if I don't, he will have plenty of consolation to offer. Harvey and I respect each other's independence -- the great secret of marriage, don't you think? We ask each other's advice, and take it or not, as we choose. I fancy he doesn't quite like the thought of my playing for money. But if it were necessary he would like it still less. He finds consolation in the thought that I'm just amusing myself.'
'I wish you would both come over and dine with us quietly,' said Sibyl, after reflecting, with a smile. 'It would do us all good. I don't see many people nowadays, and I'm getting rather tired of ordinary society; after all, it's great waste of time. I think Hugh is more inclined to settle down and be quiet among his friends. What day would suit you?'
Alma, engrossed in other thoughts, named a day at random. Part of her scheme was still undisclosed: she had a special reason for wishing Sibyl to know of her relations with Felix Dymes, yet feared that she might not hit exactly the right tone in speaking of him.
'Of course, I must have a man of business -- and who do you think has offered his services?'
Sibyl was not particularly impressed by the mention of Dymes's name; she had only a slight personal acquaintance with him, and cared little for his reputation as a composer.
'I had a note from him this morning,' Alma continued. 'He asks me to see him today at the Apollo -- the theatre, you know. They're going to produce his comic opera, "Blue Roses" -- of course, you've heard of it. I shall feel rather nervous about going there -- but it'll be a new experience. Or do you think it would be more discreet if I got him to come to Pinner?'
'I didn't think artists cared about those small proprieties,' answered Sibyl, laughing.
'No -- of course, that's the right way to regard it. Let me show you his letter.' She took it from her little seal-skin bag. 'A trifle impudent, don't you think? Mr Dymes has a great opinion of himself, and absolutely no manners.'
'Well -- if you can keep him in hand ----'
They exchanged glances, and laughed together.
'No fear of that,' said Alma 'And he's just the kind of man to be very useful. His music -- ah well! But he has popularity, and a great many people take him at his own estimate. Impudence does go a long way.'
Sibyl nodded, and smiled vaguely.
Dymes had suggested a meeting at three o'clock, and to this Alma had already given her assent by telegraph. She lunched with Mrs Carnaby, -- who talked a great deal about the Renaissance, -- left immediately after, to visit a few shops, and drove up to the Apollo Theatre at the appointed time. Her name sufficed; at once she was respectfully conducted to a small electric-lighted room, furnished only with a table and chairs, and hung about with portraits of theatrical people, where Dymes sat by the fire smoking a cigarette. The illustrious man apologised for receiving her here, instead of in the manager's room, which he had hoped to make use of.
'Littlestone is in there, wrangling about something with Sophy Challis, and they're likely to slang each other for an hour or two. Make yourself comfortable. It's rather hot; take off those furry things.'
'Thank you,' replied Alma, concealing her nervousness with malapert vivacity, 'I shall be quite comfortable in my own way. It is rather hot, and your smoke is rather thick, so I shall leave the door a little open.'
Dymes showed his annoyance, but could offer no objection.
'We're getting into shape for this day week. Littlestone calls the opera "Blue Noses" -- it has been so confoundedly cold at rehearsals.'
Alma was seized by the ludicrous suggestion, and laughed without restraint; her companion joined in, his loud neigh drowning her more melodious merriment. This put them on natural terms of comradeship, and then followed a long, animated talk. Dymes was of opinion that the hiring of a hall and the fees of supplementary musicians might be defrayed out of the sale of tickets; but there remained the item of advertisement, and on this subject he had large ideas. He wanted 'to do the thing properly'; otherwise he wouldn't do it at all. But Alma was to take no thought for the cost; let it all be left to him.
'You want to succeed? All right; let your fiddling be up to the mark, and I answer for the public. It's all between you and me; you needn't say who is doing the job for you. Ada Wellington comes off on May the 10th; I shall put you down for a fortnight later. That gives you nearly four months to prepare. Don't overdo it; keep right in health; take plenty of exercise. You look very well now; keep it up, and you'll knock 'em. I only wish it was the stage instead of the platform -- but no use talking about that, I suppose?'
'No use whatever,' Alma replied, flushing with various emotions.
In the course of his free talk, it happened that he addressed her as 'Alma'. She did not check him; but when the name again fell from his lips, she said quietly, with a straight look ----
'I think not. The proper name, if you please.'
Dymes took the rebuke good-humouredly. When their conversation was over, he wished her to go with him to a restaurant for tea; but Alma insisted on catching a certain train at Baker Street, and Dymes had to be satisfied with the promise of another interview shortly.
A visit was due from Mrs Frothingham, who had not been seen at Pinner for more than six months. She would have come at New Year, but an attack of influenza upset her plans. Now she wrote to announce her arrival on Saturday.
'I wish it had been Monday,' said Alma; 'I have to go to the Crystal Palace.'
'Is it imperative?' asked her husband.
'Yes; there's something new of Sterndale Bennett's, and I've asked Dora.'
It seemed to Harvey that this arrangement might have been put aside without great inconvenience, but, as usual, he made no comment. As he would be in town on Saturday, he promised to meet their visitor at Waterloo. Alma, he thought, had never shown much gratitude for her step-mother's constant kindness; during the past half-year she had now and then complained of the trouble of answering Mrs Frothingham's letters, and the news of illness at Basingstoke drew from her only a few words of conventional sympathy. To Hughie, who frequently received presents from 'Grandmamma', she rarely spoke of the affectionate giver. A remark of hers recently on some piece of news from Mrs Frothingham bore an obvious suggestion.
'I wonder,' she said, 'if a single person has been really benefited by all the money Mamma has given away? Isn't it likely she has done much more harm than good?'
There was truth in his surmise that Alma sometimes thought with jealousy of Mrs Frothingham's having had control of a fortune, whilst she, the only child of him who made the money, possessed nothing of her own. The same trend of feeling appeared in a word or two of Alma's, when a daily paper, in speaking of a paltry dividend offered at last to the creditors in one branch of Bennet Frothingham's speculations, used a particularly bitter phrase.
'I should have felt that once; now ----'
In these days Alma suffered from a revival of the indignation which had so perturbed her in the time just before her marriage. If now she had possessed even a little money, it would have made her independent in a sense far more tangible than that of the friendly understanding with her husband. She strongly disliked the thought of making Harvey responsible for the expenses of her 'recital'. Had it been possible to procure a small sum by any honest means, she would eagerly have turned to it; but no method seemed discoverable. On her journey homeward after the interview with Felix Dymes, her mind was full of the money question. What did Dymes mean by bidding her take no thought for expenses? Could it have occurred to his outrageous vanity that she might be persuaded to become his debtor, with implied obligation of gratitude?
Not with impunity could her thought accustom itself to stray in regions forbidden, how firm soever her resolve to hold bodily aloof. Alma's imagination was beginning to show the inevitable taint. With Cyrus Redgrave she had passed from disdainful resentment, through phases of tolerance, to an interested flirtation, perilous on every side. In Felix Dymes she easily, perhaps not unwillingly, detected a motive like to Redgrave's, and already, for her own purposes, she was permitting him to regard her as a woman not too sensitive, not too scrupulous. These tactics might not be pleasant or strictly honourable, but she fancied they were forced upon her. Alma had begun to compassionate herself -- a dangerous situation. Her battle had to be fought alone; she was going forth to conquer the world by her mere talents, and can a woman disregard the auxiliary weapons of beauty? If Dymes chose to speculate in hopes ludicrously phantasmal, was that her affair? She smiled at the picture of two men, her devoted servants, exerting themselves t9 the utmost for her advantage, yet without a syllable of express encouragement, and foredoomed to a disappointment which would be perfectly plain to them could they but use their common-sense.
Throughout this week Harvey did not behave quite as usual to her; or so Alma thought. He had not the customary jocoseness when they met at the close of day; he asked no questions about how she had spent her time; his manner was preoccupied. One evening she challenged him.
'You are worrying about what you think my foolishness.'
'Foolishness? Of what folly are you guilty?'
'My ambition, then.'
'Oh no!' He laughed as if the thought genuinely amused him. 'Why should I worry about it? Don't work too hard, that's all. No, I was thinking of a squalid little ambition of my own. I have an idea Morphew may make something of that business; and I want him to, for the fellow's own good. It's wonderful how near he has been to going to the devil, once for all. I fancy I've got him now by the coat-tail; I may hold him.'
'You can't call that a squalid ambition,' said Alma, wishing to be amiable.
'Not that side of it -- no. But I've decided to put a little money into the business -- nothing that matters, but it may just as well be made safe, if a little trouble will do it. I was wondering how it would be if I worked a little down yonder -- kept Morphew in sight. Distance is the chief objection.'
'But you think of moving to Gunnersbury?'
'Yes, I do. I'm thinking of it seriously. Will you go over with me one day next week! Better be Saturday -- Mrs Abbott will be free.'
It was unfortunate that Alma had not been able to establish an intimacy with Mary Abbott. They saw each other very rarely, and, as Harvey perceived, made no progress in friendship. This did not surprise him; they were too unlike in temper, intellect, and circumstances. Whether to these obstacles should be added another more serious, Harvey could not quite assure himself. He had suspected that Alma entertained a slight jealousy -- natural, perhaps, though utterly without substantial cause. He even reckoned with this when proposing to put the child under Mrs Abbott's care, thinking that, in revolt against such an alternative, Alma might be impelled to take the duty upon herself. That nothing of the kind had resulted, seemed to prove that, whatever feeling might occasionally have arisen in Alma, she did not regard his friend with any approach to hostility. For his own part, he had always felt that the memory of Bennet Frothingham must needs forbid Mrs Abbott to think with unrestrained kindliness of Alma, and, but for Alma herself, he would scarce have ventured to bring them together. That they were at least on amiable terms must be held as much as could be hoped for. With regard to Mary's efficiency as a teacher, his opinion had grown more favourable since he had seen her in her own home. Time and experience were moulding her, he thought, to a task undertaken first of all in a spirit of self-discipline. She appeared to be successful in winning the confidence of parents, and she no longer complained of inability to make herself liked by her little pupils. Best of all, she was undoubtedly devoting herself to the work with all the powers of her mind, making it the sole and sufficient purpose of her life. Harvey felt no misgiving; he spoke his true thought when he said that he would rather trust Hughie to Mrs Abbott than to any other teacher. It was with surprise, therefore, and some annoyance, that he received Alma's reply to his proposal for their going over to Gunnersbury next week.
'Are you quite sure,' she said, rather coldly, 'that Mrs Abbott will teach better than Pauline?'
'It isn't only that. Hughie must have companions. I thought we had agreed about it.'
'Have you inquired who his companions will be?'
'Oh -- the ordinary children of ordinary people,' he replied, with some impatience. 'I don't know that babies are likely to corrupt each other. But, of course, you will ask Mrs Abbott all about that kind of thing -- or anything else you wish.'
Alma shook her head, laughing carelessly.
'No, no. That is all in your hands. You have discussed it with her, haven't you?'
'I haven't so much as mentioned it. But, of course, I am quite willing to relieve you of all trouble in the matter.'
His tone seemed to startle Alma, for she looked up at him quickly, and spoke in a more serious voice.
'I don't think we quite understand each other about Hughie. Why should you be so anxious? He seems to me to be doing very well. Remember, he's only a little more than three years old -- quite a baby, as you say. I don't think he would feel the want of companions for another year at least.'
Harvey met her look, and replied quietly.
'It isn't that I'm anxious about him. I have to plan for his education, that's all.'
'You're beginning rather early. Fathers don't generally look after their children so young.'
'Unfortunately, they don't,' said Harvey, with a laugh. 'Mothers do, here and there.'
'But surely you don't mean that I am neglectful, Harvey?'
'Not at all. Teaching isn't your métier, Alma.'
'I have always confessed that. But, then, the time for teaching Hughie has hardly come. What can Pauline do but just see that he doesn't get into mischief?'
'That's the very reason why he would be better for two or three hours a day with some one who knows how to teach a child of his age. It isn't as unimportant as you think. Pauline does very well, but Mrs Abbott will do better.'
Vexed at his own cowardliness -- for he could not utter the words that leaped to his tongue -- Harvey fell into a perverse insistence on Mrs Abbott's merits. He had meant to confine himself within the safe excuse that the child needed companionship. Forbidden the natural relief of a wholesome, hearty outburst of anger -- which would have done good in many ways -- his nerves drove him into smothered petulance, with the result that Alma misread him, and saw in his words a significance quite apart from their plain meaning.
'I have not the least intention of interfering, Harvey,' she said, with her distant smile. 'For the next few months I shall be very busy indeed. Only one thing I would ask -- you don't think of leaving this house before midsummer?'
'Because I shall probably give my recital in May, and it would be rather inconvenient ----'
'Everything shall be arranged to suit you.'
'Not at all, not at all!' she exclaimed cheerfully. 'I don't ask so much as that; it would be unreasonable. We are neither of us to stand in the other's way -- isn't that the agreement? Tell me your plans, and you shall know mine, and I'm sure everything will be managed very well.'
So the conversation ended, satisfactorily to neither. Harvey, aware of having spoken indiscreetly, felt that he was still more to blame for allowing his wife a freedom of which she threatened to make absurd use; and Alma, her feelings both as wife and mother sensibly perturbed, resented the imputation which seemed to have been thrown upon her conduct. This resentment was of course none the less enduring because conscience took her husband's side. She remembered her appointment tomorrow (practically an appointment) with Cyrus Redgrave at the Crystal Palace; would not that be more difficult to confess than anything she could reasonably suppose to have happened between Harvey and Mary Abbott? Yet more than ever she hoped to meet Redgrave, to hold him by a new link of illusory temptation, that he might exert himself to the utmost in promoting her success. For among the impulses which urged her forward, her reasons for desiring a public triumph, was one which Harvey perhaps never for a moment imagined -- a desire to shine gloriously in the eyes of her husband. Harvey would never do her justice until constrained by the voice of the world. Year after year he held her in less esteem; he had as good as said that he did not think her capable of taking a place among professional violinists. Disguise it how he might, he secretly wished her to become a mere domestic creature, to abandon hopes that were nothing better than a proof of vanity. This went to Alma's heart, and rankled there. He should see! He should confess his error, in all its injurious and humiliating extent! At whatever cost -- at all but any cost -- the day of her triumph should come about! Foreseeing it, she had less difficulty in keeping calm when the excellencies of Mrs Abbott were vaunted before her, when Harvey simply ignored all that in herself compensated the domestic shortcoming. Of course, she was not a model of the home-keeping virtues; who expected an artist to be that? But Harvey denied this claim; and of all the motives contributing to her aspiration, none had such unfailing force as the vehement resolve to prove him wrong.
Next morning the weather was so bad that Harvey asked whether she had not better give up her expedition to the Crystal Palace. Alma smiled and shook her head.
'You think I go only for amusement. It's so difficult to make you understand that these things are serious.'
'Congestion of the lungs is serious. I don't think Mrs Frothingham will face it. There'll probably be a telegram from her.'
But by midday the fierce wind and driving sleet had abated, though the outlook remained cheerless enough. After an early lunch, Alma set forth. Dora Leach joined her in the train, and thus they travelled, through sooty gloom, under or above ground, from the extreme north to the farthest south of London; alighting at length with such a ringing of the ears, such an impression of roar and crash and shriek, as made the strangest prelude to a feast of music ever devised in the world's history. Their seats having been taken in advance, they entered a few moments before the concert began, and found themselves amid a scanty audience; on either side of them were vacant places. Alma did not dare to glance round about. If Redgrave were here, and looked for her, he would have no difficulty in discovering where she sat; probably, too, he could manage to take possession of the chair at her side. And this was exactly what happened, though not until the first piece had been performed.
'I congratulate you on your zeal,' spoke the voice which always put her in mind of sunny mountains and a blue lake.
'Inviting a compliment in return,' said Alma, with a sudden illumination of her features. 'Are you one of the regular attendants?'
'Don't you remember?' His voice dropped so low that he hardly seemed to address her. 'I promised myself the pleasure ----'
Alma pretended not to hear. She turned to her companion, spoke a word, and renewed the very slight acquaintance which had existed a few years ago between Redgrave and Miss Leach. Then the sound of an instrument imposed silence.
It was not the first time that Alma affected to be absorbed in music when not consciously hearing it at all. Today the circumstances made such distraction pardonable; but often enough she had sat thus, with countenance composed or ecstatic, only seeming to listen, even when a master played. For Alma had no profound love of the art. Nothing more natural than her laying it completely aside when, at home in Wales, she missed her sufficient audience. To her, music was not an end in itself. Like numberless girls, she had, to begin with, a certain mechanical aptitude, which encouraged her through the earlier stages, until vanity stepped in and urged her to considerable attainments. Her father's genuine delight in music of the higher kind served as an encouragement whenever her own energies began to fail; and when at length, with advancing social prospects, the thought took hold of her that, by means of her violin, she might maintain a place of distinction above ordinary handsome girls and heiresses, it sufficed to overcome her indolence and lack of the true temper. She founded her Quartet Society, and queened it over amateurs, some of whom were much better endowed than herself. Having set her pride on winning praise as a musician, of course she took pains, even working very hard from time to time. She had first-rate teachers, and was clever enough to profit by their lessons. With it all, she cared as little for music as ever; to some extent it had lost even that power over her sensibilities which is felt by the average hearer. Alma had an emotional nature, but her emotions responded to almost any kind of excitement sooner than to the musical. So much had she pretended and posed, so much had she struggled with mere manual difficulties, so much lofty cant and sounding hollowness had she talked, that the name of her art was grown a weariness, a disgust. Conscious of this, she was irritated whenever Harvey begged her to play simple things; for indeed, if she must hear music at all, it was just those simple melodies she would herself have preferred. And among the self-styled musical people with whom she associated, were few, if any, in whom conceit did not sound the leading motive. She knew but one true musician, Herr Wilenski. That the virtuoso took no trouble to bring her in touch with his own chosen circle, was a significant fact which quite escaped Alma's notice.
Between the pieces Redgrave chatted in a vein of seductive familiarity, saying nothing that Dora Leach might not have heard, but frequently softening his voice, as though to convey intimate meanings. His manner had the charm of variety; he was never on two occasions alike; today he seemed to relax in a luxurious mood, due in part to the influence of sound, and in part, as his eyes declared, to the sensuous pleasure of sitting by Alma's side.
'What an excellent fellow Carnaby is!' he remarked unexpectedly. 'I have been seeing a good deal of him lately -- as you know, I think?'
'So I have heard.'
'I like him all the better because I am rather sorry for him.'
'Don't you feel that he is very much out of place? He doesn't belong to our world at all. He ought to be founding a new civilisation in some wild country. I can sympathise with him; I have something of the same spirit.'
'I never observed it,' said Alma, allowing her glance to skim his features.
'Perhaps because you yourself represent civilisation in its subtlest phase, and when I am with you I naturally think only of that. I don't say I should have thriven as a backwoodsman; but I admire the type in Carnaby. That's one of our privileges, don't you think? We live in imagination quite as much as in everyday existence. You, I am sure, are in sympathy with infinite forms of life -- and,' he added, just above his breath, 'you could realise so many of them.'
'I shall be content with one,' replied Alma.
'And that ----?'
She nodded towards the concert platform, where, at the same moment, a violinist stepped forward. Redgrave gazed inquiringly at her, but she kept silence until the next interval. Then, in reply to his direct question, she told him, with matter-of-fact brevity, what her purpose was. He showed neither surprise nor excessive pleasure, but bent his head with a grave approving smile.
'So you feel that the time has come. Of course I knew that it would. Are any details arranged? -- or perhaps I mustn't ask?'
'I wanted to talk it over with you,' she answered graciously.
After the concert they had tea together. Redgrave was very attentive to Miss Leach, whom his talk amused and flattered. Alma's enterprise was discussed with pleasant freedom, and Redgrave learnt that she had decided to employ Mr Felix Dymes as her agent. The trio set forth at length on their homeward journey in a mood of delightful animation, and travelled together as far as Victoria.
'I haven't said that you can rely on me for all possible assistance,' Redgrave remarked, as he walked along the roaring platform by Alma's side. 'That is a matter of course. We shall meet again before long?'
'In Porchester Terrace perhaps?'
Alma met his eyes, and took away with her the consciousness of having dared greatly. But the end was a great one.
In spite of the bad weather, Mrs Frothingham had travelled up from Basingstoke. Alma found her in the drawing-room, and saw at a glance that there had been conversation on certain subjects between her and Harvey; but not until the next day did Mrs Frothingham speak of what she had heard, and make her private comments for Alma's benefit.
'I thought Harvey was joking, dear. Have you reflected how many reasons there are why you shouldn't ----?'
The pathetic gaze of appeal produced no effect.
'Did Harvey ask you to talk about it, Mamma?'
'No. He takes it in the kindest way. But, Alma, you surely see that it pains him?'
'Pains him? That shows you don't understand us, dear Mamma. We could neither of us possibly do anything that would pain the other. We are in perfect harmony, yet absolutely independent. It has all been talked over and settled. You must have misunderstood Harvey altogether.'
From this position Alma could not be moved, and Mrs Frothingham, too discreet to incur the risk of interference, spoke no more of the matter as it concerned man and wife. But another objection she urged with almost tearful earnestness. Did Alma forget that her appearance in public would give occasion to most disagreeable forms of gossip? And even if she disregarded the scandal of a few years ago, would not many of her acquaintances say and believe that necessity had driven her into a professional career?
'They may say what they like, and think what they like,' was Alma's lofty reply. 'If artists had always considered such trivial difficulties, where should we have been? Suppose gossip does its worst -- it's all over in a few months; then I stand by my own merit. Dear Mamma, don't be old fashioned! You look so young and so charming -- indeed you do -- that I can't bear to hear you talk in that early Victorian way. Art is art, and all these other things have nothing whatever to do with it. There, it's all over. Be good, and amuse yourself whilst you are with us. I assure you we are the most reasonable and the happiest people living.'
Mrs Frothingham smiled at the compliment to herself; then sighed, and held her peace.
So day by day Alma's violin sounded, and day after day Harvey heard it with a growing impatience. As is commonly the case with people of untrained ear, he had never much cared for this instrument; he preferred the piano. Not long ago he would have thought it impossible that he could ever come to dislike music, which throughout his life had been to him a solace and an inspiration; but now he began to shrink from the sound of it. As Alma practised in the morning, he was driven at length to alter his habits, and to leave home after breakfast. Having no other business, he went to Westminster Bridge Road, met Cecil Morphew at the shop, watched the progress of alterations that seemed advisable, picked up a little knowledge of photography, talked over prices, advertisements, and numerous commercial matters of which he had hitherto been contentedly ignorant. Before long, his loan to Morphew was converted into an investment; he became a partner in the concern, which, retaining the name of the old proprietor, they carried on as Den bow & Co.
The redemption of his debentures kept him still occupied with a furtive study of the money-market. He did not dare to face risk on a large scale; the mere thought of a great reduction of income made him tremble and perspire. So in the end he adopted the simple and straightforward expedient of seeking an interview with his banker, by whom he was genially counselled to purchase such-and-such stock, a sound security, but less productive than that he had previously held. An unfortunate necessity, seeing that his expenses increased and were likely to do so. But he tried to hope that Westminster Bridge Road would eventually reimburse him. With good luck, it might do more.
His days of quietude were over. He, too, was being drawn into the whirlpool. No more dreaming among his books; no more waking to the ordinary duties and cares of a reasonable life. As a natural consequence of the feeling of unsettlement, of instability, he had recourse more often than he wished to the old convivial habits, gathering about him once again, at club or restaurant, the kind of society in which he always felt at ease -- good, careless, jovial, and often impecunious fellows, who, as in days gone by, sometimes made a demand upon his purse which he could not resist, though he had now such cause for rigid economy. Was it that he grew old? -- he could no longer take his wine with disregard of consequence. The slightest excess, and too surely he paid for it on the morrow, not merely with a passing headache, but with a whole day's miserable discomfort. Oh, degeneracy of stomach and of brain! Of will, too; for he was sure to repeat the foolish experience before a week had passed.
It was not till Mrs Frothingham had left them after a fortnight's visit that he reminded Alma of her promise to go with him to Gunnersbury.
'Did I promise?' she said. 'I thought we agreed that you should settle all that yourself.'
'I had rather you came with me to see Mrs Abbott. Shall it be Saturday?'
'Can't,' replied Alma, with a shake of the head and a smile. 'I have to see Mr Dymes.'
'Dymes? Who is he?'
'Oh! very well; then I'll go alone.'
He would not permit himself any further inquiry. Alma had never spoken to him of Dymes, her 'agent'. Harvey pictured an ill-shaven man in a small office, and turned from the thought with disgust. Too late to interpose, to ask questions; anything of that kind would but make him seem small, ridiculous, fussy. He had chosen his course, and must pursue it.
Not that Alma behaved in such a way as to suggest estrangement; anything but so. Her manner was always amiable, frequently affectionate. When they spent an evening together -- it did not often happen -- she talked delightfully; avoiding, as did Harvey himself, the subjects on which they were not likely to agree. Her gaze had all the old directness, her smile was sweet as ever, and her laugh as melodious. If ever he felt uneasy during her long absences in town, one of these evenings sufficed to reassure him. Alma was Alma still, and could he but have reconciled himself to the thought of her playing in public, she would have been yet the wife he chose, frankly self-willed, gallantly independent.
Until a certain day at the end of March, when something happened of which Harvey had no suspicion, but which affected Alma in a way he soon perceived.
That morning he had left home early, and would not return till late. Alma practised as usual, had luncheon alone, and was thinking of going out, when the post delivered two letters -- one for herself from Dymes, the other for her husband. A glance showed her that Harvey's correspondent was Mrs Abbott, and never till today had one of Mrs Abbott's letters come into her hand. She regarded it with curiosity, and the longer she looked the stronger her curiosity became. Harvey would of course tell her what his friend wrote about -- as he always did; but the epistle itself she would not be asked to read. And did she, as a matter of fact, always know when Harvey heard from Mrs Abbott? A foolish question, probably; for if the correspondence were meant to be secret, it would be addressed to Harvey at his club, not to the house. All the same, a desire of years concentrated itself in this moment. Alma wished vehemently to read one of Mary Abbott's letters with her own eyes.
She turned the envelope. It was of very stout paper, and did not look quite securely gummed. Would not a touch of the finger -- almost ----? Why, there, just as she thought; a mere touch, and the envelope came open. 'Now, if I ever wrote a dangerous word,' mused Alma -- 'which I don't, and never shall -- this would be a lesson to me.'
Well, it was open, and, naturally enough, the letter came forth. What harm? There could be nothing in it that Harvey would wish to hide from her. So, with hands that trembled, and cheeks that felt warm, she began to read.
The letter was Mrs Abbott's acknowledgment of the quarterly cheque she received from Rolfe. Alma was surprised at the mention of money in the first line, and read eagerly on. As Mary Abbott and her friend had seen each other so recently, there was no need of a full report concerning Minnie Wager (her brother had long since gone to a boarding-school), but the wording allowed it to be understood that Harvey paid for the child, and, what was more, that he held himself responsible for her future. What could this mean? Alma pondered it in astonishment; gratified by the discovery, but disturbed beyond measure by its mysterious suggestiveness. The letter contained little more, merely saying, towards the end, how very glad the writer would be to give her utmost care to little Hugh when presently he came into her hands. Last of all -- 'Please remember me kindly to Mrs Rolfe.'
At this point of her life Alma had become habitually suspicious of any relation between man and woman which might suggest, however remotely, dubious possibilities. Innocence appeared to her the exception, lawlessness the rule, where man and woman were restrained by no obvious barriers. It was the natural result of her experience, of her companionship, of the thoughts she deliberately fostered. Having read the letter twice, having mused upon it, she leaped to a conclusion which seemed to explain completely the peculiar intimacy subsisting between Harvey and Mary Abbott. These two children, known as Albert and Minnie Wager, were Harvey's offspring, the result of some liaison before his marriage; and Mrs Abbott, taking charge of them for payment, had connived at the story of their origin, of their pitiful desertion. What could be clearer?
She did not go further in luminous conjectures. Even with her present mind, Alma could not conceive of Mary Abbott as a wanton, of Harvey Rolfe as a shameless intriguer; but it stung her keenly to think that for years there had been this secret between them. Probably the matter was known to Mrs Abbott's husband, and so, at his death, it had somehow become possible for Harvey to suggest this arrangement, whereby he helped the widow in her misfortunes, and provided conscientiously for his own illegitimate children. Harvey was so very conscientious about children!
Did they resemble him? She had seen the little girl, but only once, and without attention. She would take an early opportunity of going over to Gunnersbury, to observe. But no such evidence was necessary; the facts stared one in the face.
That Harvey should have kept this secret from her was intelligible enough; most men, no doubt, would have done the same. But it seemed to Alma only another proof of her husband's inability to appreciate her. He had no faith in her as artist; he had no faith in her as woman. Had she not felt this even from the very beginning of their intimate acquaintance? Perhaps the first thing that awakened her interest in Harvey Rolfe was the perception that he did not, like other men, admire her unreservedly, that he regarded her with something of criticism. She could attract him; she could play upon his senses; yet he remained critical. This, together with certain characteristics which distinguished him from the ordinary drawing-room man, suggestions of force and individuality, drew her into singular relations with him long before she dreamt that he would become her husband. And his attitude towards her was unchanged, spite of passionate love-making, spite of the tenderness and familiarity of marriage; still he viewed her with eyes of tolerance, rather than of whole-hearted admiration. He compared, contrasted her with Mary Abbott, for whose intellect and character he had a sincere respect. Doubtless he fancied that, if this secret became known to her, she would sulk or storm, after the manner of ordinary wives. What made him so blind to her great qualities? Was it that he had never truly loved her? Had it been owing to mere chance, mere drift of circumstances, that he offered her marriage, instead of throwing out a proposal such as that of Cyrus Redgrave at Bregenz?
Though but darkly, confusedly, intermittently conscious of the feeling, Alma was at heart dissatisfied with the liberty, the independence, which her husband seemed so willing to allow her. This, again, helped to confirm the impression that Harvey held her in small esteem. He did not think it worth while to oppose her; she might go her frivolous way, and he would watch with careless amusement. At moments, it was true, he appeared on the point of ill-humour; once or twice she had thought (perhaps had hoped) that he could lay down the law in masculine fashion; but no -- he laughed, and it was over. When, at the time of her misery in Wales -- her dim jealousy of Mrs Abbott, and revolt against the prospect of a second motherhood -- she had subdued herself before him, spoken and behaved like an everyday dutiful wife, Harvey would have none of it. He wished -- was that the reason? -- to be left alone, not to be worried with her dependence upon him. That no doubt of her fidelity ever seemed to enter his mind, was capable of anything but a complimentary interpretation; he simply took it for granted that she would be faithful -- in other words, that she had not spirit or originality enough to defy conventional laws. To himself, perhaps, he reserved a much larger liberty. How could she tell where, in what company, his evenings were spent? More than once he had been away from home all night -- missed the last train, he said. Well, it was nothing to her; but his incuriousness as to her own movements began to affect her sensibly, now that she imagined so close a community of thoughts and interests between Harvey and Mary Abbott.
Before his return tonight other letters had arrived for him, and all lay together, as usual, upon his desk. Alma, trying to wear her customary face, waited for him to mention that he had heard from Gunnersbury, but Harvey said nothing. He talked, instead, of a letter from Basil Morton, who wanted him to go to Greystone in the spring, with wife and child.
'You mustn't count on me,' said Alma.
'But after your concert -- recital -- whatever you call it; it would be a good rest.'
'Oh, I shall be busier than ever. Mr Dymes hopes to arrange for me at several of the large towns.'
Harvey smiled, and Alma observed him with irritation she could scarcely repress. Of course, his smile meant a civil scepticism.
'By-the-bye,' he asked, 'is Dymes the comic opera man?'
'Yes. I rather wondered, Harvey, whether you would awake to that fact. He will be one of our greatest composers.'
She went on with enthusiasm, purposely exaggerating Dymes's merits, and professing a warm personal regard for him. In the end, Harvey's eye was upon her, still smiling, but curiously observant.
'Why hasn't he been here? Doesn't he think it odd that you never ask him?'
'Oh, you know that I don't care to ask people. They are aware' -- she laughed -- 'that my husband is not musical.'
Harvey's countenance changed.
'Do you mean that you tell them so?'
'Not in any disagreeable way, of course. It's so natural, now, for married people to have each their own world.'
'So it is,' he acquiesced.
Alma would have gone to Gunnersbury the very next day, but she feared to excite some suspicion in her husband's mind. He little imagined her capable of opening his letters, and to be detected in such a squalid misdemeanour would have overwhelmed her with shame. In a day or two she would be going to Mrs Rayner Mann's, to meet a certain musical critic 'of great influence', and by leaving home early she could contrive to make a call upon Mrs Abbott before lunching at Putney. This she did. She saw little Minnie Wager, scrutinised the child's features, and had no difficulty whatever in discerning Harvey's eyes, Harvey's mouth. Why should she have troubled herself to come? It was very hard to control her indignation. If Mrs Abbott thought her rather strange, rather abrupt, what did it matter?
At Mrs Rayner Mann's she passed into a soothing and delicious atmosphere. The influential critic proved to be a very young man, five-and-twenty at most; he stammered with nervousness when first addressing the stranger, but soon gave her to understand, more or less humorously, that his weekly article was 'quite' the most important thing in latter-day musical criticism, and that he panted for the opportunity of hearing a new violinist of real promise. But Alma had not brought her violin; lest she should make herself cheap, she never played now at people's houses. The critic had to be satisfied with hearing her talk and gazing upon her beauty. Alma was become a very fluent talker, and her voice had the quality which fixes attention. At luncheon, whilst half-a-dozen persons lent willing ear, she compared Sarasate's playing of Beethoven's Concerto with that of Joachim, and declared that Sarasate's cadenza in the first movement, though marvellous for technical skill, was not at all in the spirit of the work. The influential writer applauded, drawing her on to fresh displays of learning, taste, eloquence. She had a great deal to say about somebody's 'technique of the left hand', of somebody else's 'tonal effects', of a certain pianist's 'warmth of touch'. It was a truly musical gathering; each person at table had some exquisite phrase to contribute. The hostess, who played no instrument, but doted upon all, was of opinion that an executant should 'aim at mirroring his own nature in his interpretation of a tone-poem'; whereupon another lady threw out remarks on 'subjective interpretation', confessing her preference for a method purely 'objective'. The influential critic began to talk about Liszt, with whom he declared that he had been on intimate terms; he grew fervent over the master's rhapsodies, with their 'clanging rhythm and dithyrambic fury'.
'I don't know when I enjoyed myself so much,' said Alma gaily, as the great young man pressed her hand at parting and avowed himself her devoted admirer.
'My dear Mrs Rolfe,' said the hostess privately, 'you were simply brilliant! We are all looking forward so eagerly!'
And as soon as Alma was gone, the amiable lady talked about her to the one remaining guest.
'Isn't she delightful! I do so hope she will be a success. I'm afraid so much depends upon it. Of course, you know that she is the daughter of Bennet Frothingham? Didn't you know? Yes, and left without a farthing. I suppose it was natural she should catch at an offer of marriage, poor girl, but it seems to have been most ill-advised. One never sees her husband, and I'm afraid he is anything but kind to her. He may have calculated on her chances as a musician. I am told they have little or nothing to depend upon. Do drum up your friends -- will you? It is to be at Prince's Hall, on May the 16th -- I think. I feel, don't you know, personally responsible; she would never have come out but for my persuasion, and I'm so anxious for a success!'
The day drew near for Ada Wellington's début. Alma met this young lady, but they did not take to each other; Miss Wellington was a trifle 'loud', and, unless Alma mistook, felt fiercely jealous of any one admired by Felix Dymes. As she could not entertain at their own house (somewhere not far south of the Thames), Mrs Wellington borrowed Dymes's flat for an afternoon, and there, supported by the distinguished composer, received a strange medley of people who interested themselves in her daughter's venture. Alma laughed at the arrangement, and asked Dymes if he expected her congratulations.
'Don't make fun of them,' said Felix. 'Of course, they're not your sort, Alma. But I've known them all my life, and old Wellington did me more than one good turn when I was a youngster. Ada won't make much of it, but she'll squeeze in among the provincial pros after this send off.'
'You really are capable of generosity?' asked Alma.
'I swear there's nothing between us. There's only one woman living that I have eyes for -- and I'm afraid she doesn't care a rap about me; at all events, she treats me rather badly.'
This dialogue took place in a drawing-room the evening before Miss Wellington's day. Alma had declined to meet her agent a second time at the Apollo Theatre; they saw each other, by arrangement, at this and that house of common friends, and corresponded freely by post, Dymes's letters always being couched in irreproachable phrase. Whenever the thing was possible, he undisguisedly made love, and Alma bore with it for the sake of his services. He had obtained promises from four musicians of repute to take part in Alma's concert, and declared that the terms they asked were lower than usual, owing to their regard for him. The expenses of the recital, without allowing for advertisements, would amount to seventy or eighty pounds; and Dymes guaranteed that the hall should produce at least that. Alma, ashamed to appear uneasy about such paltry sums, always talked as though outlay mattered nothing.
'Don't stint on advertisements,' she said.
'No fear! Leave that to me,' answered Felix, with a smile of infinite meaning.
Ada Wellington could not afford to risk much money, and Alma thought her announcements in the papers worth nothing at all. However, the pianist was fairly successful; a tolerable audience was scraped together (at Steinway Hall), and press notices of a complimentary flavour, though brief, appeared in several quarters. With keen anxiety Alma followed every detail. She said to herself that if her appearance in public made no more noise than this, she would be ready to die of mortification. There remained a fortnight before the ordeal; had they not better begin to advertise at once? Thus she wrote to Dymes, who replied by sending her three newspapers, in each of which a paragraph of musical gossip informed the world that Mrs Harvey Rolfe was about to give her first public violin recital at Prince's Hall. Mrs Rolfe, added the journalists in varying phrase, was already well known to the best musical circles as an amateur violinist, and great interest attached to her appearance in public, a step on which she had decided only after much persuasion of friends and admirers. Already there was considerable demand for tickets, and the audience would most certainly be both large and distinguished. Alma laughed with delight.
The same day, by a later post, she received a copy of a 'society' journal, addressed in a hand unknown to her. Guided by a red pencil mark, she became aware of no less than a quarter of a column devoted to herself. From this she might learn (if she did not already know it) that Mrs Harvey Rolfe was a lady of the utmost personal and social charm; that her beauty was not easily described without the use of terms that would sound extravagant; that as a violinist she had stood for a year or two facile princeps amid lady amateurs; that she had till of late lived in romantic seclusion 'amid the noblest scenery of North Wales', for the sole purpose of devoting herself to music; and that only with the greatest reluctance had she consented to make known to the public a talent -- nay, a genius -- which assuredly was 'meant for mankind'. She was the favourite pupil of that admirable virtuoso, Herr Wilenski. At Prince's Hall, on the sixteenth of May, all lovers of music would have, &c, &c.
This batch of newspapers Alma laid before dinner on Harvey's desk, and about an hour after the meal she entered the library. Her husband, smoking and meditating, looked up constrainedly.
'I have read them,' he remarked, in a dry tone.
Alma's coldness during the last few weeks he had explained to himself as the result of his failure to take interest in her proceedings. He knew that this behaviour on his part was quite illogical; Alma acted with full permission, and he had no right whatever to 'turn grumpy' just because he disliked what she was doing. Only today he had rebuked himself, and meant to make an effort to restore goodwill between them; but these newspaper paragraphs disgusted him. He could not speak as he wished.
'This is your agent's doing, I suppose?'
'Of course. That is his business.'
'Well, I won't say anything about it. If you are satisfied, I have no right to complain.'
'Indeed, I don't think you have,' replied Alma, putting severe restraint upon herself to speak calmly. Thereupon she left the room.
Harvey rose to follow her. He took a step forward -- stood still -- returned to his chair. And they did not see each other again that night.
In the morning came a letter from Dymes. He wrote that a certain newspaper wished for an 'interview' with Mrs Rolfe, to be published next week. Should the interviewer call upon her, and, if so, when? Moreover, an illustrated paper wanted her portrait with the least possible delay. Were her new photographs ready? If so, would she send him a dozen? Better still if he could see her today, for he had important things to speak of. Might he look for her at Mrs Littlestone's at about four o'clock?
At breakfast Alma was chatty, but she directed her talk almost exclusively to Pauline Smith and to little Hugh, who now had his place at table -- a merry, sunny-haired little fellow, dressed in a sailor suit. Harvey also talked a good deal -- he, too, with Pauline and the child. When Alma rose he followed her, and asked her to come into the library for a moment.
'I'm a curmudgeon,' he began, facing her with nervous abruptness. 'Forgive me for that foolery last night, will you?'
'Of course,' Alma replied distantly.
'No, but in the same spirit, Alma. I'm an ass! I know that if you do this thing at all, you must do it in the usual way. I wish you success heartily, and I'll read with pleasure every scrap of print that praises you.'
'I'm hurrying to town, Harvey. I have to go to the photographer, and see Mr Dymes, and all sorts of things.'
'The photographer? I hope they'll be tolerable; I know they won't do you justice. Will you sit to a painter if I arrange it? Unfortunately, I can't afford Millais, you know; but I want a good picture of you.'
'We'll talk about it,' she replied, smiling more pleasantly than of late. 'But I really haven't time now.'
'And you forgive me my idiotics?'
She nodded and was gone.
In the afternoon she met Dymes at Mrs Littlestone's, a house of much society, for the most part theatrical. When they had moved aside for private talk, he began by asking a brusque question.
'Who got that notice for you into the West End?'
'Why, didn't you?'
'Know nothing about it. Come, who was it?'
'I have no idea. I took it for granted ----'
'Look here, Alma, I think I'm not doing badly for you, and the least you can do is to be straight with me.'
Alma raised her head with a quick, circuitous glance, then fixed her eyes on the man's heated face, and spoke in an undertone: 'Please, behave yourself, or I shall have to go away.
'Then you won't tell me? Very well. I chuck up the job. You can run the show yourself.'
Alma had never looked for delicacy in Felix Dymes, and his motives had from the first been legible to her, but this revelation of brutality went beyond anything for which she was prepared. As she saw the man move away, a feeling of helplessness and of dread overcame her anger. She could not do without him. The only other man active on her behalf was Cyrus Redgrave, and to seek Redgrave's help at such a juncture, with the explanation that must necessarily be given, would mean abandonment of her last scruple. Of course, the paragraph in the West End originated with him; since Dymes knew nothing about it, it could have no other source. Slowly, but very completely, the man of wealth and social influence had drawn his nets about her; at each meeting with him she felt more perilously compromised; her airs of command served merely to disguise defeat in the contest she had recklessly challenged. Thrown upon herself, she feared Redgrave, shrank from the thought of seeing him. Not that he had touched her heart or beguiled her senses; she hated him for his success in the calculated scheme to which she had consciously yielded step by step; but she was brought to the point of regarding him as inseparable from her ambitious hopes. Till quite recently her thought had been that, after using him to secure a successful debut, she could wave him off, perhaps tell him in plain words, with a smile of scorn, that they were quits. She now distrusted her power to stand alone. To the hostility of such a man as Dymes -- certain, save at intolerable cost -- she must be able to oppose a higher influence. Between Dymes and Redgrave there was no hesitating on whatever score. This advertisement in the fashionable and authoritative weekly paper surpassed Dymes's scope; his savage jealousy was sufficient proof of that. All she could do for the moment was to temporise with her ignobler master, and the humiliation of such a necessity seemed to poison her blood.
She rose, talked a little of she knew not what with she knew not whom, and moved towards the hostess, by whom her enemy was sitting. A glance sufficed. As soon as she had taken leave, Dymes followed her. He came up to her side at a few yards from the house, and they walked together, without speaking, until Alma turned into the first quiet street.
'I give you my word,' she began, 'that I know nothing whatever about that paper.'
'I believe you, and I'm sorry I made a row,' Dymes replied. 'There's no harm done. I dare say I shall be hearing more about it.'
'I have some photographs here,' said Alma, touching her sealskin bag. 'Will you take them?'
'Thanks. But there's a whole lot of things to be arranged. We can't talk here. Let's go to my rooms.'
He spoke as though nothing were more natural. Alma, the blood throbbing at her temples, saw him beckon a crawling hansom.
'I can't come -- now. I have a dreadful headache.'
'You only want to be quiet. Come along.'
The hansom had pulled up. Alma, ashamed to resist under the eyes of the driver, stepped in, and her companion placed himself at her side. As soon as they drove away he caught her hand and held it tightly.
'I can't go to your rooms,' said Alma, after a useless resistance. 'My head is terrible. Tell me whatever you have to say, and then take me to Baker Street Station. I'll see you again in a day or two.'
She did not feign the headache. It had been coming on since she left home, and was now so severe that her eyes closed under the torture of the daylight.
'A little rest and you'll be all right,' said Dymes.
Five minutes more would bring them to their destination. Alma pulled away her hand violently.
'If you don't stop him, I shall.'
'You mean it? As you please. You know what I ----'
Alma raised herself, drew the cabman's attention, and bade him drive to Baker Street. There was a short silence, Dymes glaring and muttering inarticulately.
'Of course, if you really have a bad headache,' he growled at length.
'Indeed I have -- and you treat me very unkindly.'
'Hang it, Alma, don't speak like that! As if I could be unkind to you!'
He secured her hand again, and she did not resist. Then they talked of business, settled one or two matters, appointed another meeting. As they drew near to the station, Alma spoke impulsively, with a bewildered look.
'I shouldn't wonder if I give it up, after all.'
'Rot!' was her companion's amazed exclamation.
'I might. I won't answer for it. And it would be your fault.'
Stricken with alarm, Dymes poured forth assurances of his good behaviour. He followed her down to the platform, and for a quarter of an hour she had to listen, in torment of mind and body, to remonstrances, flatteries, amorous blandishments, accompanied by the hiss of steam and the roar of trains.
On reaching home she could do nothing but lie down in the dark. Her head ached intolerably; and hour after hour, as often happens when the brain is over-wearied, a strain of music hummed incessantly on her ear, till inability to dismiss it made her cry in half-frenzied wretchedness.
With sleep she recovered; but through the next day, dull and idle, her thoughts kept such a gloomy colour that she well-nigh brought herself to the resolve with which she had threatened Felix Dymes. But for the anticipation of Harvey's triumph, she might perhaps have done so.
For several days she had not touched the violin. There was no time for it. Correspondence, engagements, intrigues, whirled her through the waking hours and agitated her repose. The newspaper paragraphs resulted in a shower of letters, inquiring, congratulating, offering good wishes, and all had to be courteously answered, lest the writers should take offence. Invitations to luncheon, to dinner, to midnight 'at homes', came thick and fast. If all this resulted from a few preliminary 'puffs' what, Alma asked herself, would be the consequence of an actual success? How did the really popular musicians contrive to get an hour a day for the serious study of their art? Her severe headache had left behind it some nervous disorder, not to be shaken off by any effort -- a new distress, peculiarly irritating to one who had always enjoyed good health. When she wrote, her hand was unsteady, and sometimes her eyes dazzled. This would be alarming if it went on much longer; the day approached, the great day, the day of fate, and what hope was there for a violinist who could not steady her hand?
The 'interviewer' called, and chatted for half an hour, and took his leave with a flourish of compliments. The musicians engaged to play with her at Prince's Hall's came down to try over pieces, a trio, a duet; so that at last she was obliged to take up her instrument -- with results that did not reassure her. She explained that she was not feeling quite herself; it was nothing; it would pass in a day or two. Sibyl Carnaby had asked her and Harvey to dine next week, to meet several people; Mrs Rayner Mann had arranged a dinner for another evening; and now Mrs Strangeways, whom she had not seen for some weeks, sent an urgent request that she would call in Porchester Terrace as soon as possible, to speak of something 'very important'.
This summons Alma durst not disregard. Between Mrs Strangeways and Cyrus Redgrave subsisted an intimacy which caused her frequent uneasiness. It would not have surprised her to discover that this officious friend knew of all her recent meetings with Redgrave -- at the Crystal Palace and elsewhere; and, but for her innocence, she would have felt herself at the woman's mercy. That she had not transgressed, and was in no danger of transgressing, enabled her to move with head erect among the things unspeakable which always seemed to her to be lurking in the shadowed corners of Mrs Strangeways' house. The day was coming when she might hope to terminate so undesirable an acquaintance, but for the present she must show a friendly face.
She made this call at three o'clock, and was received in that over-scented, over-heated boudoir, which by its atmosphere invariably turned her thoughts to evil. The hostess rose languidly, with a pallid, hollow-eyed look of illness.
'Only my neuralgic something or other,' she said, in reply to a sympathetic inquiry. 'It's the price one pays for civilisation. I've had two terrible days and nights, but it's over for the present. But for that I should have written to you before. Why, you don't look quite so well as usual. Be careful -- do be careful!'
'I mean to be, if people will let me.'
'You have eight days, haven't you? Yes, just eight days. You ought to keep as quiet as possible. We are all doing our best; but, after all, success depends greatly upon yourself, you know.'
The voice, as always, seemed to fondle her, but Alma's ear detected the usual insincerity. Mrs Strangeways spoke in much the same way to numbers of people, yet not quite so caressingly. Some interest she undoubtedly had to serve by this consistent display of affection, and with all but certainty Alma divined it. She shrank from the woman; it cost her an unceasing effort not to betray dislike, or even hostility.
'Of course, you saw last week's West End?' pursued the hostess, smiling. 'You know whose doing that was?'
'I only guessed that it might be Mr Redgrave's kindness.'
'I have the same suspicion. He was here the other day -- we talked about you. You haven't seen him since then?'
'He hinted to me -- just a little anxiety. I hardly know whether I ought to speak of it.'
Alma looked an interrogation as unconcerned as she could make it, but did not open her lips.
'It was with reference to -- your man of business. It seems he has heard something -- I really don't know what -- not quite favourable to Mr Dymes. I shall not offend you, dear?'
'I don't take offence, Mrs Strangeways,' Alma answered, with a slight laugh to cover her uneasiness. 'It's so old-fashioned.'
The hostess uttered a thin trill of merriment.
'One is always safe with people who have humour, dear. It does make life easier, doesn't it? Oh, the terrible persons who take everything with tragic airs! Well, there's not a bit of harm in it. Between ourselves, it struck me that our friend was just a little inclined to be -- yes, you understand.'
'I'm afraid I don't.'
'I hate the word -- well, just a trifle jealous.'
Alma leaned back in her chair, glanced about her, and said nothing.
'Of course, he would never allow you to suspect anything of the kind. It will make no difference. You can count upon his utmost efforts. But when one thinks how very much he has it in his power to do ----. That bit of writing in the West End, you know -- only the highest influence can command that kind of thing. The West End can't be bought, I assure you. And one has to think of the future. A good beginning is much, but how many musicians are able to follow it up? My dear Alma, let me implore you not to imagine that you will be able to dispense with this kind of help.'
'Do you mean that Mr Redgrave is likely to withdraw it?'
'Impossible for me to say, dear. I am only telling you how his conversation struck me. He appeared to think -- to be apprehensive that you might in future look to Mr Dymes rather than to him. Of course, I could say nothing -- I would not venture a syllable.'
'Of course not,' Alma murmured mechanically, her eyes wandering.
'Are you likely, I wonder, to see him in the next few days?'
'I hardly know -- I think not.'
'Then let me -- will you? -- let me contrive a chance meeting here.'
Loathing herself, and burning with hatred of the woman, in whose hands she felt powerless, Alma gave an assenting nod.
'I am sure it will be a measure of prudence, dear. I thought possibly you might be seeing him at Mrs Carnaby's. He is there sometimes, I believe?'
Alma looked at the speaker, detecting some special significance in her inquiry. She replied that Redgrave of course called upon Mrs Carnaby -- but not often, she thought.
'No?' threw out Mrs Strangeways. 'I fancied he was there a good deal; I don't quite know why.'
'Have you met him there?'
'No. It's quite a long time since I called -- one has so many people to see.'
Alma knew that Sibyl was now holding aloof from Mrs Strangeways, and it seemed not improbable that this had excited some ill-feeling in the latter. But her own uneasiness regarding Sibyl's relations with Redgrave, uneasiness never quite subdued; made her quick to note, and eager to explore, any seeming suspicion on that subject in another's mind. Mrs Strangeways was a lover of scandal, a dangerous woman, unworthy of confidence in any matter whatsoever. Common prudence, to say nothing of loyalty to a friend, bade Alma keep silence; but the subtly-interrogating smile was fixed upon her; hints continued to fall upon her ear, and an evil fascination at length compelled her to speak.
'You know,' she said, as if mentioning an unimportant piece of news, 'that Mr Redgrave has joined Mr Carnaby in business?'
The listener's face exhibited a surprise of which there was no mistaking the sincerity. Her very features seemed to undergo a change as the smile vanished from them; they became on the instant hard and old, lined with sudden wrinkles, the muscles tense, every line expressive of fierce vigilance.
'In business? -- what business?'
'Oh, I thought you would have heard of it. Perhaps Mr Redgrave doesn't care to have it known.'
'My dear, I am discretion itself.'
Everything was told, down to the last detail of which Alma had any knowledge. As she listened and questioned, Mrs Strangeways resumed her smiling manner, but could not regain the perfect self-command with which she had hitherto gossiped. That she attached great importance to this news was evident, and the fact of its being news to her brought fresh trouble into Alma's thoughts.
'How very interesting!' exclaimed Mrs Strangeways at length. 'Another instance of Mr Redgrave's kindness to his friends. Of course, it was done purely out of kindness, and that is why he doesn't speak of it. Quite amusing, isn't it, to think of him as partner in a business of that kind. I wonder whether ----'
She broke off with a musing air.
'What were you wondering?' asked Alma, whose agitation increased every moment, though the seeming tendency of her companion's words was to allay every doubt.
'Oh, only whether it was Mr Carnaby who first made known his difficulties.'
'I am told so.'
'By Mrs Carnaby? Yes, no doubt it was so. I don't think Mrs Carnaby could quite have -- I mean she is a little reserved, don't you think? She would hardly have spoken about it to -- to a comparative stranger.'
'But Mr Redgrave can't be called a stranger,' said Alma. 'They have been friends for a long time. Surely you know that.'
'Friends in that sense? The word has such different meanings. You and Mr Redgrave are friends, but I don't think you would care to tell him if your husband were in difficulties of that kind -- would you?'
'But Sibyl -- Mrs Carnaby didn't tell him,' replied Alma, with nervous vehemence.
'No, no; we take that for granted. I don't think Mr Carnaby is -- the kind of man ----'
'What kind of man?'
'I hardly know him; we have met, that's all. But I should fancy he wouldn't care to know that his wife talked about such things to Mr Redgrave or any one else. There are men' -- her voice sank, and the persistent smile became little better than an ugly grin -- 'there are men who don't mind it. One hears stories I shouldn't like to repeat to you, or even to hint at. But those are very different people from the Carnabys. Then, I suppose,' she added, with abrupt turn, 'Mr Carnaby is very often away from home?'
Trying to reply, Alma found her voice obstructed.
'I think so.'
'How very kind of Mr Redgrave, wasn't it! Has he spoken about it to you?'
'Of course not.'
'Naturally, he wouldn't. -- Oh, don't go yet, dear. Why, we have had no tea; it isn't four o'clock. Must you really go? Of course, you are overwhelmed with engagements. But do -- do take care of your health. And remember our little scheme. If Mr Redgrave could look in -- say, the day after tomorrow? You shall hear from me in time. I feel -- I really feel -- that it wouldn't be wise to let him think -- you understand me.'
With scarce a word of leave-taking, Alma hastened away. The air of this room was stifling her, and the low cooing voice had grown more intolerable than a clanging uproar. From Porchester Terrace she walked into Bayswater Road, her eyes on the pavement. It was a sunny afternoon, but there had been showers, and now again large spots of rain began to fall. As she was opening her umbrella, a cabman's voice appealed to her, and fixed her purpose. She bade him drive her to Oxford and Cambridge Mansions.
Sibyl was not at home. The maid-servant could not say when she might return; she had been absent since yesterday morning. Unable to restrain herself, Alma inquired whether Mr Carnaby was in town. He was not; he had been away for several days.
On the morrow a letter from Sibyl came to Pinner. She was grieved to hear that Alma had called during her absence. Was it anything of importance, or would it keep till she and Harvey came to dine on Saturday? 'I have been down to Weymouth -- not to enjoy myself, but to see my mother. She says she is very ill, and thinks it monstrous that I don't feel inclined to devote myself to the care of her. Her illness, I am sure, is nothing but discontent and bad temper, just because she feels herself dropping out of society. She must get used to it. In any case, we could never endure each other; and how can I be expected to make any sacrifice for a mother who never gave me an hour of motherly care from the day of my birth? But you know all about this, and don't want to hear of it again just when you are so busy. If there is anything in the world I can do for you, let me know at once.'
But for her conversation with Mrs Strangeways, it would not have occurred to Alma to doubt the truth of what Sibyl wrote; as it was, she tortured herself with dark surmises. Jealousy without love, a passion scarcely intelligible to the ordinary man, is in woman common enough, and more often productive of disaster than the jealousy which originates in nobler feeling. To suspect that she was the plaything of Sibyl's subtlety, and that Redgrave smiled at her simplicity in never having discovered an obvious rival, fired her blood to the fever point. She could no longer balance probabilities; all the considerations which hitherto declared for Sibyl's innocence lost their weight. Her overexcited mind, her impaired health, were readily receptive of such poison as distilled from the lips of Mrs Strangeways. What she now desired was proof. Only let evidence be afforded her, cost what it might! After that, she saw her way.
No! Hugh Carnaby was assuredly not one of the men who wink at their wives' dishonour, nor one of the men who go slinking for a remedy to courts of law -- or she mistook him strangely
At receipt of the expected note from Porchester Terrace -- it said merely, 'Pray be here, if possible, at three tomorrow afternoon' -- she quivered with anticipation of seeing Redgrave. How it was to come about, she did not ask, but Redgrave should not part from her before she had obtained light upon his relations with Sibyl. She believed herself irresistible if she chose to put forth all her power. With two men, dangerous both of them, she had played the game of her own interests, played it safely, and for a long time; she made them her instruments, mocking at their hopes, holding them at arm's-length, in spite of all their craft and their vehemence. Only a very clever woman could do this. In giddiness of self-admiration, she felt everything to be possible. Boldness was necessary -- far more boldness than she had yet dared to use. The rivalry of such a woman as Sibyl could not be despised; it threatened her ambitions. But in the struggle now to be decided she had a supreme advantage; for Sibyl, having gained her object, assuredly had paid its price. Hence her pretended absorption in study, hence the revival of her friendliness; what were these things but blinds to mislead the only woman whose observation she had much reason to fear?
How astonishing it now seemed to her that she could have accepted such shallow explanations of Redgrave's partnership with Hugh Carnaby! Why, Harvey himself, least suspicious of men, was perplexed, and avowed his inability to understand it. As for Mrs Strangeways -- a woman of the world, if there was one -- the fact had but to be mentioned to her, and on the moment she saw its meaning. No wonder the matter had been kept so quiet. But for the honesty of the duped husband no one at all would have heard of it.
Arriving at the house a little before her time, she found her hostess a prey to vexation.
'My dear, he can't come. It's most annoying. Only an hour ago I had a telegram -- look ----'
The despatch was from Coventry: 'Don't expect me. Detained on business. Redgrave.' It rustled in Alma's hand, and she had much ado to keep herself from tears of angry chagrin.
'He had promised to be here,' went on Mrs Strangeways. 'I thought nothing would have kept him away.'
'Do you mean,' asked Alma bluntly, 'that he knew I was coming?'
'I had said that I half expected you. Don't be vexed, dear. I did so wish you to meet.'
'If he's at Coventry,' Alma continued, 'it must be on that business.'
'It seems likely. Do sit down. You still look anything but yourself. Pray, pray remember that you have only a day or two ----'
'Don't worry me, please,' said Alma, with a contemptuous gesture.
She had thrown off reserve, caring only, now the first step was taken, to make all possible use of this woman whom she detested. Her voice showed the change that had been wrought in her; she addressed her hostess almost as though speaking to an inferior.
'What do you think it means, his keeping away?'
'Business, possibly. More likely -- the other thing I spoke of.'
In this reply Mrs Strangeways modified her tone, discarding mellifluous tenderness, yet not going quite so far as Alma in neglect of appearances. She was an older woman, and had learnt the injudiciousness of impulsive behaviour.
'Speak plainly -- it saves time. You think he won't care to meet me at all again?'
'I don't say that. I should be very sorry indeed to think it. But -- to speak as plainly as you wish, dear -- I know that someone must have said unpleasant things to him about your -- your friendship with Mr Dymes.'
'Are you hinting at anyone in particular?' Alma asked, salving her self-respect with a poor affectation of haughtiness.
'Ask yourself, my dear, who is at all likely to give him such information.'
'Information?' Alma's eyes flashed. 'That's a strange word to use. Do you imagine there is any information of that kind to be given?'
'I spoke carelessly,' answered the other, smiling. 'Do sit down, dear Mrs Rolfe. I'm sure you will overtax your strength before Tuesday. I meant nothing whatever, I assure you.'
Reluctantly Alma became seated, and the conversation was prolonged. Without disguise they debated the probability that Redgrave was being estranged from Alma by Sibyl Carnaby; of course, taking for granted Sibyl's guilt, and presuming that she feared rivalry. From time to time Alma threw out scornful assertion of her own security; she was bold to the point of cynicism, and recklessly revealed herself. The other listened attentively, still smiling, but without constraint upon her features; at moments she appeared to feel something of admiration.
'There are several things in your favour,' she remarked deliberately, when Alma had declared a resolve to triumph at all hazards. 'Above all -- but one need not mention it.'
'What? I don't understand.'
'Oh, I'm sure you do! You alluded to it the other day. Some women have such tiresome husbands.'
The look which accompanied this struck Alma cold. She sat motionless, staring at the speaker.
'What do you mean? You think that my husband ----?'
'I meant only to encourage you, my dear.'
'You think that my husband has less sense of honour than Mr Carnaby?'
Mrs Strangeways looked wonderingly at her.
'How strange you are! Could I have dreamt of saying anything so ill-mannered?'
'You implied it!' exclaimed Alma, her voice thrilling on the note of indignation. 'How dare you so insult me! Is it possible that you have such thoughts?'
Overcome by what seemed to her the humour of the situation, Mrs Strangeways frankly laughed.
'I beg your pardon a thousand times, my dear Mrs Rolfe! I have misunderstood, I am afraid. You are quite serious? Yes, yes, there has been a misunderstanding. Pray forgive me.'
Alma rose from her chair. 'There has been a misunderstanding. If you knew my husband -- if you had once met him -- such a thought could never have entered your mind. You compare him to his disadvantage with Mr Carnaby? What right have you to do that? I believe in Mr Carnaby's honesty, and do you know why? -- because he is my husband's friend. But for that, I should suspect him.'
'My dear,' replied Mrs Strangeways, 'you are wonderful. I prophesy great things for you. I never in my life met so interesting a woman.'
'You may be as sarcastic as you please,' Alma retorted, in a low, passionate voice. 'I suppose you believe in no one?'
'I have said, dear, that I believe in you; and I shall think it the greatest misfortune if I lose your friendship for a mere indiscretion. Indeed, I was only trying to understand you completely.'
'You do -- now.'
They did not part in hostility. Mrs Strangeways had the best of reasons for averting this issue, at any cost to her own feelings, which for the moment had all but escaped control. Though the complications of Alma's character puzzled her exceedingly, she knew how to smooth over the trouble which had so unexpectedly arisen. Flattery was the secret of her influence with Mrs Rolfe, and it still availed her. With ostentation of frankness, she pointed a contrast between Alma and her presumed rival. Mrs Carnaby was the corrupt, unscrupulous woman, who shrank from nothing to gratify a base selfishness. Alma was the artist, pursuing a legitimate ambition, using, as she had a perfect right to do, all her natural resources, but pure in soul.
'Yes, I understand you at last, and I admire you more than ever. You will go far, my dear. You have great gifts, and, more than that, you have principle. It is character that tells in the long run. And depend upon me. I shall soon have news for you. Keep quiet; prepare yourself for next Tuesday. As for all that -- leave it to me.'
Scarcely had Alma left the house, when she suddenly stood still, as though she had forgotten something. Indeed she had. In the flush of loyal resentment which repelled an imputation upon her husband's honour, she had entirely lost sight of her secret grievance against Harvey. Suddenly revived, the memory helped her to beat down that assaulting shame which took advantage of reaction in mind and blood. Harvey was not honest with her. Go as far as she might, short of the unpardonable, there still remained to her a moral superiority over the man she defended. And yet -- she was glad to have defended him; it gave her a sense of magnanimity. More than that, the glow of an honest thought was strangely pleasant.
She had sundry people to see and pieces of business to transact. What a nuisance that she lived so far from the centre of things! It was this perpetual travelling that had disordered her health, and made everything twice as troublesome as it need be. Today, again, she had a headache, and the scene with Mrs Strangeways had made it worse.
In Regent Street she met Dymes. She was not afraid of him now, for she had learnt how to make him keep his distance; and after the great day, if he continued to trouble her, he might be speedily sent to the right-about. He made an inspiriting report: already a considerable number of tickets had been sold -- enough, he said, or all but enough, to clear expenses.
'What, advertising and all?' asked Alma.
'Oh, leave that to me. Advertising is a work of art. If you like just to come round to my rooms, I'll ----'
'Haven't time today. See you at the Hall on Monday.'
A batch of weekly newspapers which arrived next morning, Saturday, proved to her that Dymes was sufficiently active. There were more paragraphs; there were two reproductions of her portrait; and as for advertisements, she tried, with some anxiety, to conjecture the cost of these liberal slices of page, with their eye-attracting type. Naturally the same question would occur to her husband, but Harvey kept his word; whatever he thought, he said nothing. And Alma found it easier to be good-humoured with him than at any time since she had read Mary Abbott's letter; perhaps yesterday's event accounted for it.
They dined at the Carnabys', the first time for months that they had dined from home together. Harvey would have shirked the occasion, had it been possible. With great relief, he found that the guests were all absolute strangers to him, and that they represented society in its better sense, with no suggestion of the 'half-world' -- no Mrs Strangeways or Mrs Rayner Mann. Alma, equally conscious of the fact, viewed it as a calculated insult. Sibyl had brought her here to humiliate her. She entered the doors with jealous hatred boiling in her heart, and fixed her eyes on Sibyl with such fire of malicious scrutiny that the answer was a gaze of marked astonishment. But they had no opportunity for private talk. Sibyl, as hostess, bore herself with that perfect manner which no effort and no favour of circumstance would ever enable Mrs Rolfe to imitate. Envying every speech and every movement, knowing that her own absent behaviour and forced talk must produce an unpleasant impression upon the well-bred strangers, she longed to expose the things unspeakable that lay beneath this surface of social brilliancy. What was more, she would do it when time was ripe. Only this consciousness of power to crush her enemy enabled her to bear up through the evening.
At the dinner-table she chanced to encounter Sibyl's look. She smiled. There was disquiet in that glance -- furtive inquiry and apprehension.
No music. Alma would have doubted whether any of these people were aware of her claim to distinction, had not a lady who talked with her after dinner hinted, rather than announced, an intention of being present at Prince's Hall next Tuesday. None of the fuss and adulation to which she was grown accustomed; no underbred compliments; no ambiguous glances from men. It angered her to observe that Harvey did not seem at all wearied; that he conversed more naturally than usual in a mixed company, especially with the hostess. One whisper -- and how would Harvey look upon his friend's wife? But the moment had not come.
She left as early as possible, parting from Sibyl as she had met her, with eyes that scarce dissembled their malignity.
When Hugh and his wife were left together, Sibyl abstained from remark on Alma; it was Carnaby who introduced the subject. 'Don't you think Mrs Rolfe looked seedy?'
'Work and excitement,' was the quiet answer. 'I think it more than likely she will break down.'
'It's a confounded pity. Why, she has grown old all at once. She's losing her good looks. Did you notice that her eyes were a little bloodshot?'
'Yes, I noticed it. I didn't like her look at all.'
Hugh, as his custom was, paced the floor. Nowadays he could not keep still, and he had contracted an odd habit of swinging his right arm, with fist clenched, as though relieving his muscles after some unusual constraint.
'By Jove, Sibyl, when I compare her with you! -- I feel sorry for Rolfe; can't help it. Why didn't you stop this silly business before it went so far?'
'That's a characteristic question, dear boy,' Sibyl replied merrily. 'There are more things in life -- particularly woman's life -- than your philosophy ever dreamt of. Alma has quite outgrown me, and I begin to suspect that she won't honour me with her acquaintance much longer.'
'For one thing, we belong to different worlds, don't you see; and the difference, in future, will be rather considerable.'
'Well, I'm sorry. Rolfe isn't half the man he was. Why on earth didn't he stop it? He hates it, anyone can see. Why, if I were in his place ----'
Sibyl interrupted with her mellow laughter.
'You wouldn't be a bit wiser. It's the fate of men -- except those who have the courage to beat their wives. You know you came back to England at my heels when you didn't want to. Now, a little energy, a little practice with the horsewhip ----'
Carnaby made pretence of laughing. But he turned away his face; the jest had too serious an application. Yes, yes, if he had disregarded Sibyl's wishes, and stayed on the other side of the world! It seemed to him strange that she could speak of the subject so lightly; he must have been more successful than he thought in concealing his true state of mind.
'Rolfe tells me he has got a house at Gunnersbury.'
'Yes; he mentioned it to me. Why Gunnersbury? There must be some reason they don't tell us.'
'Ask his wife,' said Hugh, impatiently. 'No doubt the choice is hers.'
'No doubt. But I don't think,' added Sibyl musingly, 'I shall ask Alma that or anything else. I don't think I care much for Alma in her new development. For a time I shall try leaving her alone.'
'Well, I'm sorry for poor old Rolfe,' repeated Hugh.
On Monday morning Hugh Carnaby received a letter from Mrs Ascott Larkfield. It was years since Sibyl's mother had written to him, and the present missive, scrawled in an unsteady hand, gave him some concern. Mrs Larkfield wrote that she was very ill, so ill that she had abandoned hope of recovery. She asked him whether, as her son-in-law, he thought it right that she should be abandoned to the care of strangers. It was the natural result, no doubt, of her impoverished condition; such was the world; had she still been wealthy, her latter days would not have been condemned to solitude. But let him remember that she still had in her disposal an income of about six hundred pounds, which, under ordinary circumstances, would have passed to Sibyl; by a will on the point of being executed, this money would benefit a charitable institution. To him this might be a matter of indifference; she merely mentioned the fact to save Sibyl a possible disappointment.
Hugh and his wife, when both had read the letter, exchanged uneasy glances.
'It isn't the money,' said Carnaby. 'Hang the money! But -- after all, Sibyl, she's your mother.'
'And what does that mean?' Sibyl returned coldly. 'Shall I feel the least bit of sorrow if she dies? Am I to play the hypocrite just because this woman brought me into the world? We have always hated each other, and whose fault? When I was a child, she left me to dirty-minded, thieving servants; they were my teachers, and it's wonderful enough that -- that nothing worse came of it. When I grew up, she left me to do as I pleased -- anything so that I gave her no trouble. Do you wish me to go and pretend ----'
'I tell you what -- I'll run down to Weymouth myself, shall I? Perhaps I might arrange something -- for her comfort, I mean.'
Sibyl carelessly assented. Having business in town, Hugh could not start till afternoon, but he would reach Weymouth by half-past six, and might manage to be back again in time for Mrs Rolfe's concert tomorrow.
'I shouldn't put myself to any inconvenience on that account,' said Sibyl, smiling.
'Out of regard for Rolfe, that's all.'
He left home at eleven, transacted his business, and at half-past one turned in for lunch at a Strand restaurant before proceeding to Waterloo. As he entered, he saw Mrs Rolfe, alone at one of the tables; she was drawing on her gloves, about to leave. They met with friendly greeting, though Hugh, from the look with which Mrs Rolfe recognised him, had a conviction that his growing dislike of her was fully reciprocated. In the brief talk before Alma withdrew, he told her that he was going down into the country.
'To Coventry?' she asked, turning her eyes upon him.
'No; to Weymouth. Mrs Larkfield is no better, I'm afraid, and -- Sibyl wants me to see her.'
'Then you won't be back ----'
'For tomorrow? -- oh yes, I shall certainly be back in time, unless anything very serious prevents me. There's a good train from Weymouth at 10.10 -- gets in about half-past two. I shall easily get to Prince's Hall by three.'
Alma again regarded him, and seemed on the point of saying something, but she turned her head, rose, and rather hastily took leave. Hugh remarked to himself that she looked even worse by daylight than in the evening; decidedly, she was making herself ill -- perhaps, he added, the best thing that could happen.
For his luncheon he had small appetite. The journey before him was a nuisance, and the meeting at the end of it more disagreeable than anything he had ever undertaken. What a simple matter life would be, but for women! That Sibyl should detest her mother was perhaps natural enough, all things considered; but he heartily wished they were on better terms. He felt that Sibyl must have suffered in character, to some extent, by this abnormal antipathy. He did not blame her; her self-defence this morning proved that she had ground for judging her mother sternly; and perhaps, as she declared, only by her own strength and goodness had she been saved from the worst results of parental neglect. Hugh did not often meditate upon such things, but just now he felt impatience and disgust with women who would not care properly for their children. Poor old Rolfe's wife, for instance, what business had she to be running at large about London, giving concerts, making herself ill and ugly, whilst her little son was left to a governess and servants! He had half a mind to write a letter to old Rolfe. But no; that kind of thing was too dangerous, even between the nearest friends. Men must not quarrel; women did more than enough of that. Sibyl and Alma had as good as fallen out; the less they saw of each other the better. And now he had to face a woman, perhaps dying, who would doubtless rail by the hour at her own daughter.
O heaven! for a breath of air on sea or mountain or prairie! Could he stand this life much longer?
Driving to Waterloo, he thought of Mrs Larkfield's bequest to the charitable institution. Six hundred pounds might be a paltry income, but one could make use of it. A year ago, to be sure, he would have felt more troubled by the loss; at present he had reason to look forward hopefully, so far as money could represent hope. The cycle business was moving; as likely as not, it would ultimately enrich him. There was news, too, from that fellow Dando in Queensland, who declared that his smelting process, gradually improved, had begun to yield results, and talked of starting a new company. Hugh's business of the morning had been in this connection: by inquiry in the City he had learnt that Dando's report might be relied upon, and that capital which had seemingly vanished would certainly yield a small dividend this year. He was thankful that he could face Mrs Larkfield without the shame of interested motives. Let her do what she liked with her money; he went to see the woman merely out of humane feeling, sense of duty; and assuredly no fortune-hunter had ever imposed upon himself a more distasteful office.
On alighting at the station, he found that the only coin, other than gold, which he had in his pocket was a shilling. In accordance with usage, he would have given the cabman an extra sixpence, had he possessed it. When the man saw a tender of his legal fare, he, also in accordance with usage, broadened his mouth, tossed the coin on his palm, and pointedly refrained from thanks. At another time Hugh might have disregarded this professional suavity, but a little thing exasperated his present mood.
'Well?' he exclaimed, in a voice that drew the attention of everyone near. 'Is it your fare or not? Learn better manners, vicious brute!'
Before the driver could recover breath to shout a primitive insult, Hugh walked into the station. Here, whilst his wrath was still hot, a man tearing at full speed to catch a train on another platform bumped violently against him. He clenched his fist, and, but for the gasped apology, might have lost himself in blind rage. As it was, he inwardly cursed railway stations, cursed England, cursed civilisation. His muscles were quivering; sweat had started to his forehead. A specialist in nervous pathology would have judged Hugh Carnaby a dangerous person on this Monday afternoon.
He took his ticket, and, having some minutes to wait, moved towards the bookstall. By his side, as he scanned the papers, stood a lady who had just made a purchase; the salesman seemed to have handed her insufficient change, for she said to him, in a clear, business-like voice, 'It was half-a-crown that I gave you.'
At the sound of these words, Hugh turned sharply and looked at the speaker. She was a woman of thirty-five, solidly built, well dressed without display of fashion; the upper part of her face was hidden by a grey veil, through which her eyes shone. Intent on recovering her money, she did not notice that the man beside her was looking and listening with the utmost keenness; nor, on turning away at length, was she aware that Hugh followed. He pursued her, at a yard's distance, down the platform, and into the covered passage which leads to another part of the station. Here, perhaps because the footstep behind her sounded distinctly, she gave a backward glance, and her veiled eyes met Carnaby's. At once he stepped to her side. 'I don't think I can be mistaken,' were his low, cautiously-spoken words, whilst he gazed into her face with stern fixedness. 'You remember me, Mrs Maskell, no doubt.'
'I do not, sir. You certainly are mistaken.'
She replied in a voice which so admirably counterfeited a French accent that Hugh could not but smile, even whilst setting his teeth in anger at her impudence.
'Oh! that settles it. As you have two tongues, you naturally have two names -- probably more. I happened to be standing by you at the bookstall a moment ago. It's a great bore; I was just starting on a journey; but I must trouble you to come with me to the nearest police station. You have too much sense to make any fuss about it.'
The woman glanced this way and that. Two or three people were hurrying through the passage, but they perceived nothing unusual.
'You have a choice,' said Carnaby, 'between my companionship and that of the policeman. Make up your mind.'
'I don't think you will go so far as that, Mr Carnaby,' said the other, with self-possession and in her natural voice.
'Because I can tell you something that will interest you very much -- something that nobody else can.'
'What do you mean?' he asked roughly.
'It refers to your wife; that's all I need say just now.'
'You are lying.'
'As you please. Let us go.'
She moved on with unhurried step, and turned towards the nearest cab-rank. Pausing within sight of the vehicles, she looked again at her companion.
'Would you rather have a little quiet talk with me in a four-wheeler, or drive straight to ----?'
Hugh's brain was in commotion. The hint of secrets concerning his wife had not its full effect in the moment of utterance; it sounded the common artifice of a criminal. But Mrs Maskell's cool audacity gave significance to her words; the two minutes' walk had made Hugh as much afraid of her as she could be of him. He stared at her, beset with horrible doubts.
'Won't it be a pity to miss your train?' she said, with a friendly smile. 'I can give you my address.'
'No doubt you can. Look here -- it was a toss-up whether I should let you go or not, until you said that. If you had begged off, ten to one I should have thought I might as well save myself trouble. But after that cursed lie ----'
'That's the second time you've used the word, Mr Carnaby. I'm not accustomed to it, and I shouldn't have thought you would speak in that way to a lady.'
He was aghast at her assurance, which, for some reason, made him only the more inclined to listen to her. He beckoned a cab.
'Where shall we drive to?'
'Say Clapham Junction.'
They entered the four-wheeler, and, as soon as it began to move out of the station, Mrs Maskell leaned back. Her claim to be considered a lady suffered no contradiction from her look, her movements, or her speech; throughout the strange dialogue she had behaved with remarkable self-command, and made use of the aptest phrases without a sign of effort. In the years which had elapsed since she filled the position of housekeeper to Mrs Carnaby, she seemed to have gained in the externals of refinement; though even at that time her manners were noticeably good.
'Raise your veil, please,' said Hugh, when he had pulled up the second window.
She obliged him, and showed a face of hard yet regular outline, which would have been almost handsome but for its high cheek-bones and coarse lips.
'And you have been going about all this time, openly?'
'With discretion. I am not perfect, unfortunately. Rather than lose sixpence at the bookstall, I forgot myself. That's a woman's weakness; we don't easily get over it.'
'What put it into your head to speak of my wife?'
'I had to gain time, had I not?'
In a sudden burst of wrath, Hugh banged the window open; but, before he could call to the cabman, a voice sounded in his ear, a clear quick whisper, the lips that spoke all but touching him.
'Do you know that your wife is Mr Redgrave's mistress?'
He fell back. There was no blood in his face; his eyes stared hideously.
'Say that again, and I'll crush the life out of you!'
'You look like it, but you won't. My information is too valuable.'
'It's the vilest lie ever spoken by whore and thief.'
'You are not polite, Mr Carnaby.'
She still controlled herself, but in fear, as quick glances showed. And her fear was not unreasonable; the man glared murder.
'Stop that, and tell me what you have to say.'
Mrs Maskell raised the window again.
'You have compelled me, you see. It's a pity. I don't want to make trouble.'
'What do you know of Redgrave?'
'I keep house for him at Wimbledon.'
'Yes. I have done so for about a year.'
'And does he know who you are?'
'Well -- perhaps not quite. He engaged me on the Continent. A friend of his (and of mine) recommended me, and he had reason to think I should be trustworthy. Don't misunderstand me. I am housekeeper -- rien de plus. It's a position of confidence. Mr Redgrave -- but you know him.'
The listener's face was tumid and discoloured, his eyes bloodshot. With fearful intensity he watched every movement of Mrs Maskell's features.
'How do you know I know him?'
'You've been at his place. I've seen you, though you didn't see me; and before I saw you I heard your voice. One remembers voices, you know.'
'Go on. What else have you seen or heard?'
'Mrs Carnaby has been there too.'
'I know that!' Hugh shouted rather than spoke. 'She was there with Mrs Fenimore -- Redgrave's sister -- and several other people.'
'Yes; last summer. I caught sight of her as she was sitting in the veranda, and it amused me to think how little she suspected who was looking at her. But she has been there since.'
Mrs Maskell consulted her memory, and indicated a day in the past winter. She could not at this moment recall the exact date, but had a note of it. Mrs Carnaby came at a late hour of the evening, and left very early the next day.
'How are you going to make this lie seem probable?' asked Hugh, a change of voice betraying the dread with which he awaited her answer; for the time of which she spoke was exactly that when Redgrave had offered himself as a partner in the firm of Mackintosh & Co. 'Do you want me to believe that she came and went so that every one could see her?'
'Oh no. I was new to the place then, and full of curiosity. I have my own ways of getting to know what I wish to know. Remember, once more, that it's very easy to recognise a voice. I told you that I was in a position of confidence. Whenever Mr Redgrave wishes for quietness, he has only to mention it; our servants are well disciplined. I, of course, am never seen by visitors, whoever they may be, and whenever they come; but it happens occasionally that I see them, even when Mr Redgrave doesn't think it. Still, he is sometime very careful indeed, and so he was on that particular evening. You remember that his rooms have French windows -- a convenient arrangement. The front door may be locked and bolted, but people come and go for all that.'
'That's the bungalow, is it?' muttered Carnaby. 'And how often do you pretend you have heard her voice?'
'Only that once.'
It was worse than if she had answered 'Several times.' Hugh looked long at her, and she bore his gaze with indifference.
'You don't pretend that you saw her?'
'No, I didn't see her.'
'Then, if you are not deliberately lying, you have made a mistake.'
Mrs Maskell smiled and shook her head.
'What words did you hear?'
'Oh -- talk. Nothing very particular.'
'I want to know what it was.'
'Well, as far as I could make out, Mrs Carnaby was going to get a bicycle, and wanted to know what was the best. Not much harm in that,' she added, with a silent laugh.
Hugh sat with his hands on his knees, bending forward. He said nothing for a minute or two, and at length looked to the window.
'You were going back to Wimbledon?'
'Yes. I have only been in town for an hour or two.'
'Is Redgrave there?'
'No; he's away.'
'Very well; I am going with you. You will find out for me on what date that happened.'
'Certainly. But what is the understanding between us?'
Hugh saw too well that any threat would be idle. Whether this woman had told the truth or not, her position in Redgrave's house, and the fact of Redgrave's connection with the firm of Mackintosh -- of which she evidently was not aware -- put it in her power to strike a fatal blow at Sibyl. He still assured himself that she was lying -- how doubt it and maintain his sanity? -- but the lie had a terrible support in circumstances. Who could hear this story without admitting the plausibility of its details? A man such as Redgrave, wealthy and a bachelor; a woman such as Sibyl, beautiful, fond of luxurious living; her husband in an embarrassed position -- how was it that he, a man of the world, had never seen things in this light? Doubtless his anxiety had blinded him; that, and his absolute faith in Sibyl, and Redgrave's frank friendliness. Even if he obtained (as he would) complete evidence of Sibyl's honesty, Mrs Maskell could still dare him to take a step against her. How many people were at her mercy? He might be sure that she would long ago have stood in the dock but for her ability to make scandalous and ruinous revelations. Did Redgrave know that he had a high-class criminal in his employment? Possibly he knew it well enough. There was no end to the appalling suggestiveness of this discovery. Hugh remembered what he had said in talk with Harvey Rolfe about the rottenness of society. Never had he felt himself so much a coward as in face of this woman, whose shameless smile covered secrets and infamies innumerable.
The cabman was bidden drive on to Wimbledon, and, with long pauses, the dialogue continued for an hour. Hugh interrogated and cross-examined his companion on every matter of which she could be induced to speak, yet he learned very little in detail concerning either her own life or Redgrave's; Mrs Maskell was not to be driven to any disclosure beyond what was essential to her own purpose. By dint of skilful effrontery she had gained the upper hand, and no longer felt the least fear of him.
'If I believed you,' said Carnaby, at a certain point of their conversation, 'I should have you arrested straight away. It wouldn't matter to me how the thing came out; it would be public property before long.'
'Where would you find your witnesses?' she asked. 'Leave me alone, and I can be of use to you as no one else can. Behave shabbily, and you only make yourself look foolish, bringing a charge against your wife that you'll never be able to prove. You would get no evidence from me. Whether you want it kept quiet or want to bring it into court, you depend upon my goodwill.'
They reached the end of the road in which was the approach to Redgrave's house.
'You had better wait here,' said the woman. 'I shall be ten minutes or a quarter of an hour. You needn't feel uneasy; I haven't the least intention of running away. Our interests are mutual, and if you do your part you can trust me to do mine.'
She stopped the cab, alighted, told the driver to wait, and walked quickly down the by-road. Hugh, drawn back into a corner, sat with head drooping; for a quarter of an hour he hardly stirred. Twenty minutes, thirty minutes, passed, but Mrs Maskell did not show herself. At length, finding it impossible to sit still any longer, he sprang out, and paced backwards and forwards. Vastly to his relief, the woman at length appeared.
'He is there,' she said. 'I couldn't get away before.'
'Is he alone?'
'Yes. Don't do anything foolish.' Carnaby had looked as if he would move towards the house. 'The slightest imprudence, and you'll only harm yourself.'
'Tell me that date.'
She named it.
'I can't stay longer, and I advise you to get away. If you want to write to me, you can do so without fear; my letters are quite safe. Address to Mrs Lant. And remember ----!'
With a last significant look she turned and left him. Hugh, mentally repeating the date he had learnt, walked back to the cab, and told the man to drive him to the nearest railway station, whichever it was.
When he reached home, some four hours had elapsed since his encounter with Mrs Maskell (or Mrs Lant) at Waterloo; it seemed to him a whole day. He had forgotten all about his purposed journey to Weymouth. One sole desire had possession of him to stand face to face with Sibyl, and to see her innocence, rather than hear it, as soon as he had brought his tongue to repeat that foul calumny. He would then know how to deal with the creature who thought to escape him by slandering his wife.
He let himself in with his latchkey, and entered the drawing-room; it was vacant. He looked into other rooms; no one was there. He rang, and a servant came.
'Has Mrs Carnaby been out long?'
She had left, was the reply, at half-past two. Whilst she sat at luncheon a telegram arrived for her, and, soon after, she prepared to go out, saying that she would not return tonight.
Not return tonight? Hugh scarcely restrained an exclamation, and had much ado to utter his next words.
'Did she mention where she was going?'
'No, sir. I took the dressing-bag down to the cab, and the cabman was told to drive to the post-office.'
'Very well. That will do.'
'Shall you dine at home, sir?'
Sibyl gone away for the night? Where could she have gone to? He began to look about for the telegram she had received; it might be lying somewhere, and possibly would explain her departure. In the waste-paper basket he found the torn envelope lying at the top; but the despatch itself was not to be discovered.
Gone for the night? and just when he was supposed to have left town? The cabman told to drive to the post-office? This might be for the purpose of despatching a reply. Yet no; the reply would have been written at once and sent by the messenger in the usual way. Unless -- unless Sibyl, for some reason, preferred to send the message more privately? Or again, she might not care to let the servant know whither the cab was really to convey her.
Sheer madness, all this. Had not Sibyl fifty legitimate ways of spending a night from home? Yet there was the fact that she had never before done so unexpectedly. Never before ----?
He looked at his watch; half-past six. He rang the bell again.
'Has any one called since Mrs Carnaby left home?'
'Yes, sir; there have been three calls. Mrs Rolfe ----'
'Yes, sir. She seemed very disappointed. I told her Mrs Carnaby would not be back tonight.'
'And the others?'
Two persons of no account. Hugh dismissed them, and the servant, with a wave of the hand.
He felt a faintness such as accompanies extreme hunger, but had no inclination for food. The whisky bottle was a natural resource; a tumbler of right Scotch restored his circulation, and in a few minutes gave him a raging appetite. He could not eat here; but eat he must, and that quickly. Seizing his hat, he ran down the stairs, hailed a hansom, and drove to the nearest restaurant he could think of.
After eating without knowledge of the viands, and drinking a bottle of claret in like unconsciousness, he smoked for half an hour, his eyes vacantly set, his limbs lax and heavy, as though in the torpor of difficult digestion. When the cigar was finished, he roused himself, looked at the time, and asked for a railway guide. There was a train to Wimbledon at ten minutes past eight; he might possibly catch it. Starting into sudden activity, he hastily left the restaurant, and reached Waterloo Station with not a moment to spare.
At Wimbledon he took a cab, and was driven up the hill. Under a clouded sky, dusk had already changed to darkness; the evening was warm and still. Impatient with what he thought the slow progress of the vehicle, Hugh sat with his body bent forward, straining as did the horse, on which his eyes were fixed, and perspiring in the imaginary effort. The address he had given was Mrs Fenimore's; but when he drew near he signalled to the driver: 'Stop at the gate. Don't drive up.'
From the entrance to Mrs Fenimore's round to the by-road which was the direct approach to Redgrave's bungalow would be a walk of some ten minutes. Hugh had his reasons for not taking this direction. Having dismissed his cab, he entered by the lodge-gate, and walked up the drive, moving quickly, and with a lighter step than was natural to him. When he came within view of the house, he turned aside, and made his way over the grass, in the deep shadow of leafy lime-trees, until the illumined windows were again hidden from him. He had seen no one, and heard no sound. A path which skirted the gardens would bring him in a few minutes to Redgrave's abode; this he found and followed.
The bungalow was built in a corner of the park where previously had stood a gardener's cottage; round about it grew a few old trees, and on two sides spread a shrubbery, sheltering the newly-made lawn and flower-beds. Here it was very dark; Hugh advanced cautiously, stopping now and then to listen. He reached a point where the front of the house became visible. A light shone at the door, but there was no movement, and Hugh could hear only his own hard breathing.
He kept behind the laurels, and made a half-circuit of the house. On passing to the farther side, he would come within view of those windows which opened so conveniently, as Mrs Maskell had said -- the windows of Redgrave's sitting-room, drawing-room, study, or whatever he called it. To this end it was necessary to quit the cover of the shrubs and cross a lawn. As he stepped on to the mown grass, his ear caught a sound, the sound of talking in a subdued tone; it came, he thought, from that side of the building which he could not yet see. A few quick silent steps, and this conjecture became a certainty: someone was talking within a few yards of him, just round the obstructing corner, and he felt sure the voice was Redgrave's. It paused; another voice made reply, but in so low a murmur that its accents were not to be recognised. That it was the voice of a woman the listener had no doubt. Spurred by a choking anguish, he moved forward. He saw two figures standing in a dim light from the window-door -- a man and a woman; the man bareheaded, his companion in outdoor clothing. At the same moment he himself was perceived. He heard a hurried 'Go in!' and at once the woman disappeared.
Face to face with Redgrave, he looked at the window; but the curtain which dulled the light from within concealed everything.
'Who was that?'
'Why -- Carnaby? What the deuce ----?'
'Who was that?'
'Who? -- what do you mean?'
Carnaby took a step; Redgrave laid an arresting hand upon him. There needed but this touch. In frenzied wrath, yet with the precision of trained muscle, Hugh struck out; and Redgrave went down before him -- thudding upon the door of the veranda like one who falls dead.
He forced the window; he rushed into the room, and there before him, pallid, trembling, agonising, stood Alma Rolfe.
She panted incoherent phrases. She was here to speak with Mr Redgrave on business -- about her concert tomorrow. She had not entered the house until this moment. She had met Mr Redgrave in the garden ----
'What is that to me?' broke in Hugh, staring wildly, his fist still clenched. 'I am not your husband.'
'Mr Carnaby, you will believe me? I came for a minute or two -- to speak about ----'
'It's nothing to me, Mrs Rolfe,' he again interrupted her, in a hoarse, faint voice. 'What have I done?' He looked to the window, whence came no sound. 'Have I gone mad? By God, I almost fear it!'
'You believe me, Mr Carnaby?' She moved to him and seized his hand. 'You know me too well -- you know I couldn't -- say you believe me! Say one kind, friendly word!'
She looked distracted. Clinging to his hand, she burst into tears. But Hugh hardly noticed her; he kept turning towards the window, with eyes of unutterable misery.
'Wait here; I'll come back.'
He stepped out from the window, and saw that Redgrave lay just where he had fallen -- straight, still, his face turned upwards. Hugh stooped, and moved him into the light; the face was deathly -- placid, but for its wide eyes, which seemed to look at his enemy. No blood upon the lips; no sign of violence.
'Where did I hit him? He fell with his head against something, I suppose.'
From the parted lips there issued no perceptible breath. A fear, which was more than half astonishment, took hold upon Carnaby. He looked up -- for the light was all at once obstructed -- and saw Alma gazing at him.
'What is it?' she asked in a terrified whisper. 'Why is he lying there?'
'I struck him -- he is unconscious.'
He drew her into the room again.
'Mrs Rolfe, I shall most likely have to send for help. You mustn't be seen here. It's nothing to me why you came -- yes, yes, I believe you -- but you must go at once.'
'You won't speak of it?'
Her appeal was that of a child, helpless in calamity. Again she caught his hand, as if clinging for protection. Hugh replied in thick, hurried tones.
'I have enough trouble of my own. This is no place for you. For your own sake, if not for your husband's, keep away from here. I came because someone was telling foul lies -- the kind of lies that drive a man mad. Whatever happens -- whatever you hear -- don't imagine that she is to blame. You understand me?'
'No word shall ever pass my lips!'
'Go at once. Get home as soon as you can.'
Alma turned to go. Outside, she cast one glance at the dark, silent, unmoving form, then bowed her head, and hastened away into the darkness.
Again Hugh knelt by Redgrave's side, raised his head, listened for the beating of his heart, tried to feel his breath. He then dragged him into the room, and placed him upon a divan; he loosened the fastenings about his neck; the head drooped, and there was not a sign of life. Next he looked for a bell; the electric button caught his eye, and he pressed it. To prevent any one from coming in, he took his stand close by the door. In a moment there was a knock, the door opened, and he showed his face to the surprised maid-servant.
'Is Mrs Lant in the house?'
'Mr Redgrave wants her at once; he is ill.'
The servant vanished. Keeping his place at the door, and looking out into the hall, Hugh, for full two minutes, heard no movement; then he was startled by a low voice immediately behind him.
'What are you doing here?'
The housekeeper, who had entered from the garden, and approached in perfect silence, stood gazing at him; not unconcerned, but with full command of herself.
'Look!' he replied, pointing to the figure on the divan. 'Is he only insensible -- or dead?'
She stepped across the room, and made a brief examination by the methods Carnaby himself had used.
'I never saw any one look more like dead,' was her quiet remark. 'What have you been up to? A little quiet murder?'
'I met him outside. We quarrelled, and I knocked him down.'
'And why are you here at all?' asked the woman, with fierce eyes, though her voice kept its ordinary level.
'Because of you and your talk -- curse you! Can't you do something? Get some brandy; and send someone for a doctor.'
'Are you going to be found here?' she inquired meaningly.
Hugh drew a deep breath, and stared at the silent figure. For an instant his face showed irresolution; then it changed, and he said harshly -- 'Yes, I am. Do as I told you. Get the spirits, and send someone -- sharp!'
'Mr Carnaby, you're a great blundering thickhead -- if you care for my opinion of you. You deserve all you've got and all you'll get.'
Hugh again breathed deeply. The woman's abuse was nothing to him.
'Are you going to do anything!' he said. 'Or shall I ring for someone else?'
She left the room, and speedily returned with a decanter of brandy. All their exertions proved useless; the head hung aside, the eyes stared. In a few minutes Carnaby asked whether a doctor had been sent for.
'Yes. When I hear him at the door I shall go away. You came here against my advice, and you've made a pretty job of it. Well, you'll always get work at a slaughter-house.'
Her laugh was harder to bear than the words it followed. Hugh, with a terrible look, waved her away from him.
'Go -- or I don't know what I may do next. Take yourself out of my sight! --out!'
She gave way before him, backing to the door; there she laughed again, waved her hand in a contemptuous farewell, and withdrew.
For half an hour Carnaby stood by the divan, or paced the room. Once or twice he imagined a movement of Redgrave's features, and bent to regard them closely; but in truth there was no slightest change. Within doors and without prevailed unbroken silence; not a step, not a rustle. The room seemed to grow intolerably hot. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, Hugh went to the window and opened it a few inches; a scent of vegetation and of fresh earth came to him with the cool air. He noticed that rain had begun to fall, large drops pattering softly on leaves and grass and the roof of the veranda. Then sounded the rolling of carriage wheels, nearer and nearer. It was the doctor's carriage, no doubt.
Uncertainty soon came to an end. Cyrus Redgrave was beyond help: he must have breathed his last -- so said the doctor -- at the moment when he fell. Not as a result of the fall; the blow of Carnaby's fist had killed him. There is one stroke which, if delivered with sufficient accuracy and sufficient force, will slay more surely than any other: it is the stroke which catches an uplifted chin just at the right angle to drive the head back and shatter the spinal cord. This had plainly happened. The man's neck was broken, and he died on the spot.
Carnaby and the doctor stood regarding each other. They spoke in subdued voices.
'It was not a fight, you say?'
'One blow from me, that was all. He said something that maddened me.'
'Shall you report yourself?'
'Yes. Here is my card.'
'A sad business, Mr Carnaby, Can I be of any use to you?'
'You can -- though I hesitate to ask it. Mrs Fenimore should be told at once. I can't do that myself.'
'I know Mrs Fenimore very well. I will see her -- if she is at home.'
On this errand the doctor set forth. As soon as he was gone, Hugh rang the bell; the same domestic as before answered it, and again he asked for Mrs Lant. He waited five minutes; the servant came back, saying that Mrs Lant was not in the house. This did not greatly surprise him, but he insisted on a repetition of the search. Mrs Lant could not be found. Evidently her disappearance was a mystery to this young woman, who seemed ingenuous to the point of simple-mindedness.
'You are not to go into that room,' said Hugh. (They were talking in the hall.) 'The doctor will return presently.'
And therewith he left the house. But not the grounds; for in rain and darkness he stood watching from a place of concealment, watching at the same time Redgrave's curtained window and the front entrance. His patience was not overtaxed. There sounded an approaching vehicle; it came up the drive and stopped at the front door, where at once alighted the doctor and a lady. Hugh's espial was at an end. As the two stepped into the house he walked quickly away.
Yes, he would 'report himself', but not until he had seen Sibyl. To that end he must go home and wait there. The people at Wimbledon, who doubtless would communicate with the police, might cause him to be arrested before his wife's return. He feared this much more than what was to follow. Worse than anything that could befall him would be to lose the opportunity of speaking in private with Sibyl before she knew what had happened.
In the early hours of the morning he lay down upon his bed and had snatches of troubled sleep. Knowing that he was wrong in the particular surmise which led him to Redgrave's house, Sibyl's absence no longer disturbed him with suspicions; a few hours would banish from his mind the last doubt of her, if any really remained. He had played the madman, bringing ruin upon himself and misery incalculable upon his wife, just because that thieving woman lied to him. She, of course, had made her speedy escape; and was it not as well? For, if the whole story became known, what hope was there that Sibyl would come out of it with untarnished fame? Merely for malice' sake, the woman would repeat and magnify her calumnies. If she successfully concealed herself, it might be possible to avoid a mention of Sibyl's name. He imagined various devices for this purpose, his brain plotting even when he slept.
To Alma Rolfe he gave scarcely a thought. If the worst were true of her, Rolfe had only to thank his own absurdity, which allowed such a conceited simpleton to do as she chose. The case looked black against her. Well, she had had her lesson, and in that quarter could come to no more harm. What sort of an appearance was she likely to make at Prince's Hall today? -- feather-headed fool!
Before five o'clock the sunlight streamed into his bedroom. Sparrows twittered about the window, and somewhere close by, perhaps in a neighbour's flat, a caged throstle piped as though it were in the fields. Then began the street noises, and Hugh could lie still no longer. Remembering that at any moment his freedom might come to an end, he applied himself to arranging certain important matters. The housemaid came upon him with surprise; he bade her get breakfast, and, when the meal was ready, partook of it with moderate appetite.
The postman brought letters; nothing of interest for him, and for Sibyl only an envelope which, as one could feel, contained a mere card of invitation. But soon after nine o'clock there arrived a telegram. It was from Sibyl herself, and -- from Weymouth.
'Why are you not here? She died yesterday. If this reaches you, reply at once.'
He flung the scrap of paper aside and laughed. Of all natural explanations, this, of course, had never occurred to him. Yesterday's telegram told of Mrs Larkfield's serious condition, and Sibyl had started at once for Weymouth, expecting to meet him there. One word of hers to the servant and he would simply have followed her. But Sibyl saw no necessity for that word. She was always reserved with domestics.
By the messenger, he despatched a reply. He would be at Weymouth as soon as possible.
He incurred the risk of appearing to run away; but that mattered little. Sibyl could hardly return before her mother's burial, and by going yonder to see her he escaped the worse danger, probably the certainty, of arrest before any possible meeting with her in London. Dreading this more than ever, he made ready in a few minutes; the telegraph boy had hardly left the building before Hugh followed. A glance at the timetables had shown him that, if he travelled by the Great-Western, he could reach Weymouth at five minutes past four; whereas the first train he could catch at Waterloo would not bring him to his destination until half an hour later; on the other hand, he could get away from London by the South-Western forty minutes sooner than by the other line, and this decided him. Yesterday, Waterloo had been merely the more convenient station on account of his business in town; today he chose it because he had to evade arrest on a charge of homicide. So comforted was he by the news from Sibyl, that he could reflect on this joke of destiny, and grimly smile at it.
At the end of his journey he betook himself to an hotel, and immediately sent a message to Sibyl. Before her arrival he had swallowed meat and drink. He waited for her in a private room, which looked seaward. The sight of the blue Channel, the smell of salt breezes, made his heart ache. He was standing at the window, watching a steamer that had just left port, when Sibyl entered; he turned and looked at her in silence.
'What are these mysterious movements?' she asked, coming forward with a smile. 'Why did you alter your mind yesterday?'
'I wasn't well.'
He could say nothing more, yet. Sibyl's face was so tranquil, and she seemed so glad to rejoin him, that his tongue refused to utter any alarming word; and the more he searched her countenance, the more detestable did it seem that he should insult her by the semblance of a doubt.
'Not well? Indeed, you look dreadfully out of sorts. How long had I been gone when you got home again?'
'An hour or two. But tell me first about your mother. She died before you came?'
'Very soon after they sent the telegram.'
Gravely, but with no affectation of distress, she related the circumstances; making known, finally, that Mrs Larkfield had died intestate.
'You are quite sure of that?' asked Hugh, with an eagerness which surprised her.
'Quite. Almost with her last breath she talked about it, and said that she must make her will. And she had spoken of it several times lately. The people there knew all about her affairs. She kept putting it off -- and as likely as not she wished the money to be mine, after all. I am sure she must have felt that she owed me something.'
Carnaby experienced a profound relief. Sibyl was now provided for, whatever turn his affairs might take. She had seated herself by the window, and, with her gloved hands crossed upon her lap, was gazing absently towards the sea. How great must be her relief! thought Hugh. And still he looked at her smooth, pure features; at her placid eyes, in which, after all, he seemed to detect a little natural sadness; and the accusation in his mind assumed so grotesque an incredibility that he asked himself how he should dare to hint at it.
'Isn't there something you haven't told me?' she said, regarding him with anxiety, when he had just uttered her name and then averted his look. 'I never saw you look so ill.'
'Yes, dear, there is something.'
It was not often he spoke so gently. Sibyl waited, one of her hands clasping the other, and her lips close set.
'I was at Wimbledon last night -- at Redgrave's.'
He paused again, for the last word choked him. Unless it were a tremor of the eyelids, no movement betrayed itself in Sibyl's features; yet their expression had grown cold, and seemed upon the verge of a disdainful wonder. The pupils of her eyes '1 insensibly dilated, as though to challenge scrutiny and defy it.
'What of that?' she said, when his silence urged her to speak.
'Something happened between us. We quarrelled.'
Her lips suddenly parted, and he heard her quick breath; but the look that followed was of mere astonishment, and in a moment, before she spoke, it softened in a smile.
'This is your dreadful news? You quarrelled -- and he is going to withdraw from the business. Oh, my dear boy, how ridiculous you are! I thought all sorts of horrible things. Were you afraid I should make an outcry? And you have worried yourself into illness about this? Oh, foolish fellow!'
Before she ceased, her voice was broken with laughter -- a laugh of extravagant gaiety, of mocking mirth, that brought the blood to her face and shook her from head to foot. Only when she saw that her husband's gloom underwent no change did this merriment cease. Then, with abrupt gravity, which was almost annoyance, her eyes shining with moisture and her cheeks flushed, she asked him ----
'Isn't that it?'
'Worse than that,' Hugh answered.
But he spoke more freely, for he no longer felt obliged to watch her countenance. His duty now was to soften the outrage involved in repeating Mrs Maskell's fiction by making plain his absolute faith in her, and to contrive his story so as to omit all mention of a third person's presence at the fatal interview.
'Then do tell me and have done!' exclaimed Sibyl, almost petulantly.
'We quarrelled -- and I struck him -- and the blow was fatal.'
'Fatal? -- you mean he was killed?'
The blood vanished from her face, leaving pale horror.
'A terrible accident -- a blow that happened to -- I couldn't believe it till the doctor came and said he was dead.'
'But tell me more. What led to it? How could you strike Mr Redgrave?'
Sibyl had all at once subdued her voice to an excessive calmness. Her hands were trembling; she folded them again upon her lap. Every line of her face, every muscle of her body, declared the constraint in which she held herself. This, said Hugh inwardly, was no more than he had expected; disaster made noble proof of Sibyl's strength.
'I'll tell you from the beginning.'
He recounted faithfully the incidents at Waterloo Station, and the beginning of Mrs Maskell's narrative in the cab. At the disclosure of her relations with Redgrave, he was interrupted by a short, hard laugh.
'I couldn't help it, Hugh. That woman! -- why, you have always said you were sure to meet her somewhere. Housekeeper at Mr Redgrave's! We know what the end of that would be!'
Sibyl talked rapidly, in an excited chatter -- the kind of utterance never heard upon her lips.
'It was strange,' Hugh continued. 'Seems to have been mere chance. Then she began to say that she had learnt some of Redgrave's secrets -- about people who came and went mysteriously. And then -- Sibyl, I can't speak the words. It was the foulest slander that she could have invented. She meant to drive me mad, and she succeeded -- curse her!'
Drops of anguish stood upon his forehead. He sprang up and crossed the room. Turning again, he saw his wife gazing at him, as if in utmost perplexity.
'Hugh, I don't in the least understand you. What was the slander? Perhaps lam stupid -- but ----'
He came near, but could not look her in the eyes.
'My dearest' -- his voice shook -- 'it was an infamous lie about you -- that you had been there ----'
'Why, of course I have! You know that I have.'
'She meant more than that. She said you had been there secretly -- at night ----'
Hugh Carnaby -- the man who had lived as high-blooded men do live, who had laughed by the camp-fire or in the club smoking-room at many a Rabelaisian story and capped it with another, who hated mock modesty, was all for honest openness between man and woman -- stood in guilty embarrassment before his own wife's face of innocence. It would have been a sheer impossibility for him to ask her where and how she spent a certain evening last winter; Sibyl, now as ever, was his ideal of chaste womanhood. He scorned himself for what he had yet to tell.
Sibyl was gazing at him, steadily, inquiringly.
'She made you believe this?' fell upon the silence, in her softest, clearest tones.
'No! She couldn't make me believe it. But the artful devil had such a way of talking ----'
'I understand. You didn't know whether to believe or not. Just tell me, please, what proof she offered you.'
Hugh hung his head.
'She had heard you talking -- in the house -- on a certain ----'
He looked up timidly, and met a flash of derisive scorn.
'She heard me talking? Hugh, I really don't see much art in this. You seem to have been wrought upon rather easily. It never occurred to you, I suppose, to ask for a precise date?'
He mentioned the day, and Sibyl, turning her head a little, appeared to reflect.
'It's unfortunate; I remember nothing whatever of that date. I'm afraid, Hugh, that I couldn't possibly prove an alibi.'
Her smiling sarcasm made the man wince. His broad shoulders shrank together; he stood in an awkward, swaying posture.
'Dear, I told her she lied!'
'That was very courageous. But what came next? You had the happy idea of going to Wimbledon to make personal inquiries?'
'Try to put yourself in my place, Sibyl,' he pleaded. 'Remember all the circumstances. Can't you see the danger of such a lie as that? I went home, hoping to find you there. But you had gone, and nobody knew where -- you wouldn't be back that night. A telegram had called you away, I was told. When I asked where you told the cabman to drive you to -- the post-office.'
'Oh, it looked very black! -- yes, yes, I quite understand. The facts are so commonplace that I'm really ashamed to mention them. At luncheon-time came an urgent telegram from Weymouth. I sent no reply then, because I thought I knew that you were on your way. But when I was ready to start, it occurred to me that I should save you trouble by wiring that I should join you as soon as possible -- so I drove to the post-office before going to Paddington. -- Well, you rushed off to Wimbledon?'
'Not till later, and because I was suffering damnably. If I hadn't -- been what would it have meant? When a man thinks as much of his wife as I do of you ----'
'He has a right to imagine anything of her,' she interrupted in a changed tone, gently reproachful, softening to tenderness. A Singularity of Sibyl's demeanour was that she seemed utterly forgetful of the dire position in which her husband stood. One would have thought that she had no concern beyond the refutation of an idle charge, which angered her indeed, but afforded scope for irony, possibly for play of wit. For the moment, Hugh himself had almost forgotten the worst; but he was bidden to proceed, and again his heart sank.
'I went there in the evening. Redgrave happened to be outside -- in that veranda of his. I saw him as I came near in the dark, and I fancied that -- that he had been talking to someone in the room -- through the folding windows. I went up to him quickly, and as soon as he saw me he pulled the window to. After that -- I only remember that I was raving mad. He seemed to want to stop me, and I struck at him -- and that was the end.'
'You went into the room?'
'Yes. No one was there.'
Both kept silence. Sibyl had become very grave, and was thinking intently. Then, with a few brief questions, vigilant, precise, she learnt all that had taken place between Hugh and Mrs Maskell, between Hugh and the doctor; heard of the woman's disappearance, and of Mrs Fenimore's arrival on the scene.
'What shall you do now?'
'Go back and give myself up. What else can I do?'
'And tell everything -- as you have told it to me?'
Hugh met her eyes and moved his arms in a gesture of misery.
'No! I will think of something. He is dead, and can't contradict; and the woman will hide -- trust her. Your name shan't come into it at all. I owe you that, Sibyl. I'll find some cause for a quarrel with him. Your name shan't be spoken.'
She listened, her eyes down, her forehead lined in thought.
'I know what!' Hugh exclaimed, with gloomy resolve. 'That woman -- of course, there'll be a mystery, and she'll be searched for. Why' -- he blustered against his shame -- 'why shouldn't she be the cause of it? Yes, that would do.'
His hoarse laugh caused a tremor in Sibyl; she rose and stepped close to him, and laid a hand upon his shoulder.
'So far you have advised yourself. Will you let me advise you now, dear?'
'Wouldn't that seem likely?'
'I think not. And if it did -- what is the result? You will be dealt with much more severely. Don't you see that?'
'What's that to me? What do I care so long as you are out of the vile business? You will have no difficulties. Your mother's money; and then Mackintosh ----'
'And is that all?' asked Sibyl, with a look which seemed to wonder profoundly. 'Am I to think only of my own safety?'
'It's all my cursed fault -- just because I'm a fierce, strong brute, who ought to be anywhere but among civilised people. I've killed the man who meant me nothing but kindness. Am I going to drag your name into the mud -- to set people grinning and winking ----'
'Be quiet, Hugh, and listen. I have a much clearer head than yours, poor boy. There's only one way of facing this scandal, and that is to tell everything. For one thing, I shall not let you shield that woman -- we shall catch her yet. I shall not let you disgrace yourself by inventing squalid stories. Don't you see, too, that the disgrace would be shared by -- by the dead man? Would that be right? And another thing -- if shame comes upon you, do you think I have no part in it? We have to face it out with the truth.'
'You don't know what that means,' he answered, with a groan. 'You don't know the world.'
Sibyl did not smile, but her lips seemed only to check themselves when the smile was half born.
'I know enough of it, Hugh, to despise it; and I know you much better than you know yourself. You are not one of the men who can tell lies and make them seem the truth. I don't think my name will suffer. I shall stand by you from first to last. The real true story can't possibly be improved upon. That woman had every motive for deceiving you, and her disappearance is all against her. You have to confess your hot-headedness -- that can't be helped. You tell everything -- even down to the mistake about the telegram. I shall go with you to the police-station; I shall be at the inquest; I shall be at the court. It's the only chance.'
'Good God! how can I let you do this?'
'You had rather, then, that I seemed to hide away? You had rather set people thinking that there is coldness between us? We must go up tonight. Look out the trains, quick.'
'But your mother, Sibyl ----'
'She is dead; she cares nothing. I have to think of my husband.'
Hugh caught her and crushed her in his arms.
'My darling, worse than killing a man who never harmed me was to think wrong of you!'
Her face had grown very pale. She closed her eyes, smiled faintly as she leaned her head against him, and of a sudden burst into tears.
'It shows one's ignorance of such matters,' said Harvey Rolfe, with something of causticity in his humour, when Alma came home after midnight. 'I should have thought that, by way of preparing for tomorrow, you would have quietly rested today.'
He looked round at her. Alma had entered the study as usual, and was taking off her gloves; but the effort of supporting herself seemed too great, she trembled towards the nearest chair, and affected to laugh at her feebleness as she sank down.
'Rest will come after,' she said, in such a voice as sounds from a parched and quivering throat.
'I'll take good care of that,' Harvey remarked. 'To look at you is almost enough to make me play the brutal husband, and say that I'll be hanged if you go out tomorrow at all.'
She laughed -- a ghostly merriment.
'Where have you been?'
'Oh, at several places. I met Mr Carnaby at lunch,' she added quickly. 'He told me he was going somewhere -- I forget -- oh, to Weymouth, to see Mrs Larkfield.'
Harvey was watching her, and paid little attention to the news.
'Do you know, it wouldn't much surprise me if you couldn't get up tomorrow morning, let alone play at a concert. Well, I won't keep you talking. Go to bed.'
She rose, but instead of turning to the door, moved towards where Harvey was sitting.
'Don't be angry with me,' she murmured in a shamefaced way. 'It wasn't very wise -- I've over-excited myself but I shall be all right tomorrow; and afterwards I'll behave more sensibly -- I promise ----'
He nodded; but Alma bent over him, and touched his forehead with her lips.
'You're in a fever, I suppose you know?'
'I shall be all right tomorrow. Goodnight, dear.'
In town, this morning, she had called at a chemist's, and purchased a little bottle of something in repute for fashionable disorder of the nerves. Before lying down she took the prescribed dose, though with small hope that it would help her to a blessed unconsciousness. Another thing she did which had not occurred to her for many a night: she knelt by the bedside, and half thought, half whispered through tearless sobs, a petition not learnt from any book, a strange half-heathen blending of prayer for moral strength, and entreaty for success in a worldly desire. Her mind shook perilously in its balance. It was well for Alma that the fashionable prescription did not fail her. In the moment of despair, when she had turned and turned again upon her pillow, haunted by a vision in the darkness, tortured by the never-ending echo of a dreadful voice, there fell upon her a sudden quiet; her brain was soothed by a lulling air from dreamland; her limbs relaxed, and forgot their aching weariness; she sighed and slept.
'I am much better this morning,' she said at breakfast. 'Not a trace of fever -- no headache.'
'And a face the colour of the table-cloth,' added Harvey.
There was a letter from Mrs Frothingham, conveying good wishes not very fervently expressed. She had decided not to come up for the concert, feeling that the excitement would be too much for her; but Alma suspected another reason.
She had not asked her husband whether he meant to have a seat in Prince's Hall this afternoon; she still waited for him to speak about it. After breakfast he asked her when she would start for town. At noon, she replied. Every arrangement had been completed; it would be enough if she reached the Hall half an hour before the time of the recital, and after a light luncheon at a neighbouring restaurant.
'Then we may as well go together,' said her husband.
'You mean to come, then?' she asked dreamily.
'I shall go in at the last moment -- a seat at the back.'
Anything but inclined for conversation, Alma acquiesced. For the next hour or two she kept in solitude, occasionally touching her violin, but always recurring to an absent mood, a troubled reverie. She could not fix her thoughts upon the trial that was before her. In a vague way she feared it; but another fear, at times amounting to dread, dimmed the day's event into insignificance. The morning's newspapers were before her, sent, no doubt, by Dymes's direction, and she mused over the eye-attracting announcements of her debut. 'Mrs Harvey Rolfe's First Violin Recital, Prince's Hall, this afternoon, at 3.' It gave her no more gratification than if the name had been that of a stranger.
The world had grown as unreal as a nightmare. People came before her mind, people the most intimately known, and she seemed but faintly to recognise them. They were all so much changed since yesterday. Their relations to each other and to her were altered, confused. Scarce one of them she could regard without apprehension or perplexity.
What faces would show before her when she advanced upon the platform? Would she behold Sibyl, or Hugh Carnaby, or Cyrus Redgrave? Their presence would all but convince her that she had passed some hours of yesterday in delirium. They might be present; for was not she -- she herself -- about to step forward and play in public? Their absence -- what would it mean? Where were they at this moment? What had happened in the life of each since last she saw them?
When it was time to begin to dress, she undertook the task with effort, with repugnance. She would have chosen to sit here, in a drowsy idleness, and let the hours go by. On her table stood the little vial with its draught of oblivion. Oh to drink of it again, and to lay her head upon the pillow and outsleep the day!
Nevertheless, when she had exerted herself, and was clad in the fresh garments of spring, the mirror came to her help. She was pale yet; but pallor lends distinction to features that are not commonplace, and no remark of man or woman had ever caused her to suspect that her face was ordinary. She posed before the glass, holding her violin, and the picture seemed so effective that she began to regain courage. A dreadful thing had happened -- perhaps more dreadful than she durst imagine -- but her own part in it was nothing worse than folly and misfortune. She had no irreparable sin to hide. Her moment of supreme peril was past, and would not return. If now she could but brace her nerves, and pass successfully through the ordeal of the next few hours, the victory for which she had striven so hard, and had risked so much, would at length be won. Everything dark and doubtful she must try to forget. Success would give her new strength; to fail, under any circumstances ignominious, would at this crisis of her life he a disaster fraught with manifold and intolerable shame.
She played a few notes. Her hand was steady once more; she felt her confidence revive. Whenever she had performed before an audience, it had always seemed to her that she must inevitably break down; yet at the last minute came power and self-control. So it would be today. The greater the demand upon her, so much the surer her responsive energy. She would not see faces. When all was over, let the news be disclosed, the worst that might be waiting; between now and then lay an infinity of time.
So, when she went downstairs to meet Harvey, the change in her appearance surprised him. He had expected a bloodless countenance, a tremulous step; hut Alma came towards him with the confident carriage of an earlier day, with her smile of superiority, her look that invited or demanded admiration.
'Well? You won't be ashamed of me?'
'To tell the truth,' said Harvey, 'I was going because I feared someone would have to look after you in the middle of the affair. If there's no danger of that, I think I shall not go into the place at all.'
'I don't care for it. I prefer to hear you play in private.'
'You needn't have the least fear for me,' said Alma loftily.
'Very well. We'll lunch together, as we arranged, and I'll be at the door with a cab for you after the people have gone.'
'Why should you trouble?'
'I had rather, if you don't mind.'
They drove from Baker Street to the Hall, where Alma alighted for a minute to leave her instrument, and thence to a restaurant not far away. Alma felt no appetite, but the necessity of supporting her strength obliged her to choose some suitable refreshment. When their order had been given, Harvey laid his hand upon an evening newspaper, just arrived, which the waiter had thrown on to the next table. He opened it, not with any intention of reading, but because he had no mind to talk; Alma's name, exhibited in staring letters at the entrance of the public building, had oppressed him with a sense of degradation; he felt ignoble, much as a man might feel who had consented to his own dishonour. As his eyes wandered over the freshly-printed sheet, they were arrested by a couple of bold headlines: 'Sensational Affair at Wimbledon -- Mysterious Death of a Gentleman'. He read the paragraph, and turned to Alma with a face of amazement.
'Look there -- read that ----'
Alma took the paper. She had an instantaneous foreboding of what she was to see; her heart stood still, and her eyes dazzled, but at length she read. On the previous evening (said the report), a gentleman residing at Wimbledon, and well known in fashionable circles, Mr Cyrus Redgrave, had met his death under very strange and startling circumstances. Only a few particulars could as yet be made public; but it appeared that, about nine o'clock in the evening, a medical man had been hastily summoned to Mr Redgrave's house, and found that gentleman lying dead in a room that opened upon the garden. There was present another person, a friend of the deceased (name not mentioned), who made a statement to the effect that, in consequence of a sudden quarrel, he had struck Mr Redgrave with his fist, knocking him down, and, as it proved, killing him on the spot. Up to the present moment no further details were obtainable, but it was believed that the self-accused assailant had put himself in communication with the police. There was a rumour, too, which might or might not have any significance, that Mr Redgrave's housekeeper had suddenly left the house and could not be traced.
The word fell from her lips involuntarily.
'And who killed him?' said Harvey, just above his breath.
'It isn't known -- there's no name ----'
'No. But I had a sudden thought. Absurd -- impossible ----'
As Harvey whispered the words, a waiter drew near with the luncheon. It was arranged upon the table, but lay there disregarded. Alma took up the newspaper again. In a moment she leaned towards her husband.
'What did you think?'
'Nothing -- don't talk about it.'
Two glasses of wine had been poured out; Harvey took his and drank it off.
'It's a pity I saw this,' he said; 'it has shaken your nerves. I ought to have kept it to myself.'
Alma dipped a spoon in the soup before her, and tried to swallow. Her hand did not tremble; the worst had come and gone in a few seconds; but her palate refused food. She drank wine, and presently became so collected, so quiet, that she wondered at herself. Cyrus Redgrave was dead -- dead! -- the word kept echoing in her mind. As soon as she understood and believed the fact of Redgrave's death, it became the realisation of a hope which she had entertained without knowing it. Only by a great effort could she assume the look of natural concern; had she been in solitude, her face would have relaxed like that of one who is suddenly relieved from physical torment. She gave no thought to wider consequences: she saw the event only as it affected herself in her relations with the dead man. She had feared him; she had feared herself; now all danger was at an end. Now -- now she could find courage to front the crowd of people and play to them. Her conscience ceased from troubling; the hope of triumph no longer linked itself with dread of a fatal indebtedness. No touch of sorrow entered into her mood; no anxiety on behalf of the man whose act had freed her. He, her husband's friend, would keep the only secret which could now injure her. Cyrus Redgrave was dead, and to her it meant a renewal of life.
Harvey was speaking; he reminded her of the necessity of taking food.
'Yes, I am going to eat something.'
'Look here, Alma,' -- he regarded her sternly, -- 'if you have any fear, if you are unequal to this, let me go and make an excuse for you.'
'I have not the least fear. Don't try to make me nervous.'
She ate and drank. Harvey, the while, kept his eyes fixed on the newspaper.
'Now I must go,' she said in a few minutes, after looking at her watch. 'Don't come out with me. Do just as you like about going into the Hall and about meeting me afterwards. You needn't be the least bit anxious, I assure you; I'm not going to make myself ridiculous.'
They stood up.
'I shall be at the door with a cab,' said Harvey.
'Very well; I won't keep you waiting.'
She left him, and walked from the restaurant with a quick step. Harvey drank a little more wine, and made a pretence of tasting the dish before him, then paid his bill and departed. He had now no intention whatever of going to hear Alma play; but he wished to know whether certain persons were among her audience, and, as he could not stand to watch the people entering, he took the only other means of setting his mind at rest -- this was to drive forthwith to Oxford and Cambridge Mansions.
On his knocking at the Carnabys' door, a servant informed him that neither her master nor her mistress was at home. Something unusual in the girl's manner at once arrested his attention; she was evidently disinclined to say anything beyond the formula of refusal, but with this Harvey would not be satisfied. He mentioned his name, and urged several inquiries, on the plea that he had urgent business with his friends. All he could gather was that Carnaby had left home early this morning, and that Mrs Carnaby was out of town; it grew more evident that the girl shrank from questions.
'Has anyone been here before me, anxious to see them?'
'I don't know, sir; I can't tell you anything else.'
'And you have no idea when either of them will be back?'
'I don't know at all; I don't know anything about it.'
He turned away, as if to descend the stairs; but, as there was no sound of a closing door, he glanced back, and caught a glimpse of the servant, who stood looking after him. No sooner did their eyes meet than the girl drew hastily in and the door was shut.
Beset by a grave uneasiness, he walked into Edgware Road, and followed the thoroughfare to its end at the Marble Arch. One thing seemed certain: neither Carnaby nor his wife could be at Prince's Hall. It was equally certain that only a serious cause could have prevented their attendance. The servant manifestly had something to conceal; under ordinary circumstances she would never have spoken and behaved in that strange way.
At the Marble Arch boys were crying newspapers. He bought two, and in each of them found the sensational headlines; but the reports added nothing to that he had already seen; all, it was clear, came from the same source.
He turned into the Park, and walked aimlessly by crosspaths hither and thither. Time had to be killed; he tried to read his papers, but every item of news or comment disgusted him, and he threw the sheets away. When he came out at Knightsbridge, there was still half an hour to be passed, so he turned eastward, and walked the length of Piccadilly. Now at length Alma's fate was decided; the concert drew to its close. In anxiety to learn how things had gone with her, he all but forgot Hugh Carnaby, until, just as he was about to hail a cab for the purpose of bringing Alma from the Hall, his eye fell on a fresh newspaper placard, which gave its largest type to the Wimbledon affair, and promised a 'Startling Revelation'. He bought the paper, and read. It had become known, said the reporter, that the gentleman who, on his own avowal, had caused Mr Redgrave's death, was Mr H. Carnaby, resident at Oxford and Cambridge Mansions. The rumour that Mr Carnaby had presented himself to the authorities was unfounded; as a matter of fact, the police had heard nothing from him, and could not discover his whereabouts. As to the mysterious disappearance of Mr Redgrave' s housekeeper -- Mrs Lant by name -- nothing new could be learnt. Mrs Lant had left all her personal belongings, and no one seemed able to conjecture a reason for her conduct.
Harvey folded up the paper, and crushed it into his pocket. He felt no surprise; his brooding on possibilities had prepared him for this disclosure, and, from the moment that his fears were confirmed, he interpreted everything with a gloomy certainty. Hugh's fatal violence could have but one explanation, and that did not come upon Harvey with the shock of the incredible. Neither was he at any loss to understand why Hugh had failed to surrender himself. Ere-long the newspapers would rejoice in another 'startling revelation', which would make the tragedy complete.
In this state of mind he waited for Alma's coming forth. She was punctual as she had promised. At the first sight of her he knew that nothing disagreeable had befallen, and this was enough. As soon as the cab drove off with them he looked an inquiry.
'All well,' she answered, with subdued exultation. 'Wait till you see the notices.'
Her flushed face and dancing eyes told that she was fresh from congratulation and flattery. Harvey could not spoil her moment of triumph by telling what he had just learnt. She wished to talk of herself, and he gave her the opportunity.
'A very good hall. They say such an audience at a first recital has hardly ever been known.'
'You weren't nervous?'
'I've often been far more when I played in a drawing-room; and I never played so well -- not half so well!'
She entered upon a vivid description of her feelings. On first stepping forward, she could see nothing but a misty expanse of faces; she could not feel the boards she trod upon; yet no sooner had she raised her violin than a glorious sense of power made her forget everything but the music she was to play. She all but laughed with delight. Never had she felt so perfect a mastery of her instrument. She played without effort, and could have played for hours without weariness. Her fellow-musicians declared that she was 'wonderful'; and Harvey, as he listened to this flow of excited talk, asked himself whether he had not, after all, judged Alma amiss. Perhaps he had been the mere dull Philistine, unable to recognise the born artist, and doing his paltry best to obstruct her path. Perhaps so; but he would look for the opinion of serious critics -- if any such had been present.
At Baker Street they had to wait for a train, and here it happened that Alma saw the evening placards. At once she changed; her countenance was darkened with anxiety.
'Hadn't you better get a paper?' she asked in a quick undertone.
'I have one. Do you wish to see it now?'
'Is there anything more?'
'Yes, there is. You don't know, I suppose, whether Carnaby and his wife were at the Hall?'
'I could hardly distinguish faces,' she replied, with tremor. 'What is it? Tell me.'
He took out his newspaper and pointed to the paragraph which mentioned Carnaby's name. Alma seemed overcome with painful emotion; she moved towards the nearest seat, and Harvey, alarmed by her sudden pallor, placed himself by her side.
'What does it mean?' she whispered.
'Who can say?'
'They must have quarrelled about business matters.'
'Do you think he -- Mr Carnaby -- means to hide away -- to escape?'
'He won't hide away,' Harvey answered. 'Yet he may escape.'
'What do you mean? Go by ship? -- get out of the country?'
'I don't think so. He is far more likely to be found somewhere -- in a way that would save trouble.'
Alma flashed a look of intelligence.
'You think so,' she panted. 'You really think he has done that?'
'I feel afraid of it.'
Alma recovered breath; and, but that her face was bent low over the newspaper, Harvey must have observed that the possibility of his friend's suicide seemed rather to calm her agitation than to afflict her with fresh dismay.
But she could speak no more of her musical triumph. With the colour of her cheeks she had lost all animation, all energy; she needed the support of Harvey's arm in stepping to the railway carriage; and on her arrival at home, yielding, as it seemed, to physical exhaustion, she lay pallid, mute, and nerveless.
At night she had recourse to the little bottle, but this time it was less efficacious. Again and again she woke from terrifying dreams, wearied utterly, unable to rest, and longing for the dawn. Soon after daybreak she arose and dressed; then, as there was yet no sound of movement in the house, she laid her aching head upon the pillow again, and once more fell into a troubled sleep. The usual call aroused her; she went to the door and bade the servant bring her some tea and the morning paper as soon as it was delivered.
In a few minutes the tea and the newspaper were both brought. First she glanced at the paragraphs relating to the Wimbledon tragedy; there was nothing added to yesterday's news except that the inquest would be held this morning. Then she looked eagerly for the report of her recital, and found it only after much searching, barely a dozen lines, which spoke of her as 'a lady of some artistic promise', said that much allowance must be made for her natural nervousness, and passed on to the other performers, who were unreservedly praised. Anger and despondency struggled within her as she read the lines over and over again. Nervous! Why, the one marvellous thing was her absolute conquest of nervousness. She saw the hand of an enemy. Felix Dymes had warned her of the envy she must look for in certain quarters, and here appeared the first instance of it. But the post would bring other papers.
It brought half a dozen and a number of letters. At the sound of the knock, Alma hurried downstairs, seized upon her budget, and returned to the bedroom. Yes; as it happened, she had seen the least favourable notice first of all. The other papers. devoted more space to her (though less than she had expected), and harmonised in their tone of compliment; one went so far as to congratulate those who were present on 'an occasion of undoubted importance'. Another found some fault with her choice of pieces, but hoped soon to hear her again, for her 'claims to more than ordinary attention' were 'indubitable'. There was a certain lack of 'breadth', opined one critic; but 'natural nervousness', &c. Promise, promise -- all agreed that her 'promise' was quite exceptional.
Tremulous from these lines of print, she turned to the letters, and here was full-fed with flattery. 'Your most brilliant début' -- 'How shall we thank you for such an artistic treat?' -- 'Oh, your divine rendering of,' &c. -- 'You have taken your place, at once and sans phrase, in the very front rank of violinists.' She smiled once more, and lost a little of her cadaverous hue. Felix Dymes, scribbling late, repeated things that he had heard since the afternoon. He added: 'I'm afraid you'll be awfully upset about your friends the Carnabys. It's very unfortunate this should have happened just now. But cheer up, and let me see you as soon as possible. Great things to come!'
She went down to breakfast with shaking limbs, scarce able to hold up her head as she sat through the meal. Harvey ran his eye over the papers, but said nothing, and kept looking anxiously at her. She could not touch food; on rising from table she felt a giddiness which obliged her to hold the chair for support. At her husband's beckoning she followed him into the library.
'Hadn't you better go back to bed?'
'I shall lie down a little. But perhaps if I could get out ----'
'No, that you won't. And if you feel no better by afternoon I shall send for the doctor.'
'You see what the papers say ----?'
'Wouldn't it be graceful to own that you are surprised?'
'We'll talk about that when you look less like a corpse. Would you like me to send any message to Mrs Carnaby?'
Alma shook her head.
'I'll write -- today or tomorrow -- there's no hurry ----'
'No hurry?' said Rolfe, surprised by something in her tone. 'What do you mean by that?'
'Are you going to see Mr Carnaby?' was her answer.
'I don't know where to find him, unless I go to the inquest.'
'I had rather you stayed here today,' said Alma; 'I feel far from well.'
'Yes, I shall stay. But I ought to let him hear from me. Best, perhaps, if I send a telegram to his place.'
The morning passed miserably enough. Alma went to her bedroom and lay there for an hour or two, then she strayed to the nursery and sat a while with Hugh and his governess. At luncheon she had no more appetite than at breakfast, though for very faintness her body could scarce support itself. After the meal Harvey went out to procure the earliest evening papers, and on his way he called at the doctor's house. Not till about five o'clock was a report of the Wimbledon inquest obtainable. Having read it, Harvey took the paper home, where he arrived just as the doctor drove up to the door.
Alma was again lying down; her eyes showed that she had shed tears. On Harvey's saying that the doctor was in the house, she answered briefly that she would see him. The result of the interview was made known to Rolfe. Nervous collapse; care and quiet; excitement of any kind to be avoided; the patient better in bed for a few days, to obtain complete rest. Avoidance of excitement was the most difficult of all things for Alma at present. Newspapers could not be kept from her; she waited eagerly for the report of the inquest.
'Carnaby tells an astonishing story,' said Rolfe, as he sat down by her when the doctor was gone.
'Let me read it for myself.'
She did so with every sign of agitation; but on laying the paper aside she seemed to become quieter. After a short silence a word or two fell from her.
'So Sibyl was at Weymouth.'
Harvey communed with his thoughts, which were anything but pleasant. He did not doubt the truth of Hugh Carnaby's narrative, but he had a gloomy conviction that, whether Hugh knew it or not, an essential part of the drama lay unrevealed.
'Will they find that woman, do you think?' were Alma's next words.
'It doesn't seem very likely.'
'What is the punishment for manslaughter?'
'That depends. The case will go for trial, and -- in the meantime ----'
'What?' asked Alma, raising herself.
'The woman may be found.'
There was another silence. Then Alma asked ----
'Do you think I ought to write to Sibyl?'
'No,' he answered decisively. 'You must write to no one. Put it all out of your mind as much as possible.'
'Shall you see Mr Carnaby?'
'Only if he sends for me.'
And this was just what happened. Admitted to bail by the magistrate, Hugh presently sent a note from Oxford and Cambridge Mansions, asking his friend to see him there. Harvey did not let Alma know of it. He found some difficulty in getting away from home for a couple of hours, so anxious had she become to keep him within call, and, when he of necessity went out, to be informed of his movements. He attributed this to her morbid condition; for, in truth, Alma was very ill. She could take only the lightest food, and in the smallest quantities; she fell repeatedly into fits of silent weeping; she had lost all strength, and her flesh had begun to waste. On this same day Harvey heard that Mrs Frothingham was making ready to come, and the news relieved him.
On reaching the Carnabys', he was admitted by the same servant whose behaviour had excited his suspicions a day or two ago. Without a word she conducted him to Hugh's room.
'Well, old man,' said the familiar voice, though in the tone of one who is afraid of being overheard, 'it has come to this, you see. You're not surprised? What else could be expected of a fellow like me, sooner or later?'
His face had the marks of sleeplessness; his hand was hot. He pressed Harvey into a chair, and stood before him, making an obvious effort to look and speak courageously.
'It never struck me before how devilish awkward it is for a man in his own home when he gets into a public scrape -- I mean the servants. One has to sit under them, as usual, you know, and feel their eyes boring into one's back. Did you ever think of it?'
'How long have you to wait?' asked Rolfe.
'Only a fortnight. But there may be bother about that woman. I wish to God they could catch her!'
Harvey made no reply, and his eyes wandered. In a moment he became aware that Hugh was looking at him with peculiar intentness.
'I wish I could do anything for you, Carnaby.'
'You can,' replied the other, with emphasis, his face growing stern.
'What is it?'
'Get rid of that ugly thought I see you have in your mind.'
Hugh's voice, though still cautious, had risen a little; he spoke with severity that was almost harshness. Their eyes met.
'What ugly thought?'
'Don't be dishonest with me, Rolfe. It's a queer-sounding tale, and you're not the only man, I warrant, who thinks there's something behind it. But I tell you there isn't -- or nothing that concerns me.' He paused for an instant. 'I shouldn't have dared to tell it, but for my wife. Yes, my wife,' he repeated vehemently. 'It was Sibyl forced me to tell the truth. Rather than have her mixed up in such a thing as this, I would have told any lie, at whatever cost to myself; but she wouldn't let me. And she was right; I see now that she was, though it a been hard enough, I tell you, to think of what people might be saying -- damn them! Don't you be one, Rolfe. My wife is as pure and innocent as any woman living. I tell you that. I ask you to believe that; and it's the one thing, the only thing, you can do for me.'
His voice quivered, and he half-choked upon the passionate words. Moved, though not to conviction, Harvey made the only possible reply.
'I believe you; and if ever I have the chance I will repeat what you say.'
'Very well. But there's something else. I don't ask you to see anything of Sibyl, or to let your wife see her; it will be much better not. I don't know whether she will stay here, or in London at all; but she will see as few people as possible. Don't think it necessary to write to her; don't let your wife write. If we all live through it -- and come out again on the other side -- things may be all right again; but I don't look forward to anything. All I can think of now is that I've killed a man who was a good friend to me, and have darkened all the rest of Sibyl's life. And I only wish someone had knocked my brains out ten years ago, when nobody would have missed such a blackguard and ruffian.'
'Is it on your wife's account, or on ours that you want us to keep apart?' asked Rolfe gravely.
'Both, my dear fellow,' was the equally grave reply. 'I'm saying only what I mean; it's no time for humbug now. Think it over, and you'll see I'm right.'
'Alma won't see any one just yet awhile,' said Harvey. 'She has made herself ill, of course.'
'The concert, and the frenzy that went before it.'
'The concert ----.' Carnaby touched his forehead. 'I remember. If I were you, Rolfe ----'
'I don't want to take advantage of my position and be impertinent but do you think that kind of thing will do her any good in the end?'
'It's going to stop,' replied Harvey, with a meaning nod.
'I'm glad to hear you say so -- very glad. Just stick to that. You're more civilised than I am, and you'll know how to go about that kind of thing as a man should.'
'I mean to try.'
'She is not seriously ill, I hope?' Hugh inquired, after reflecting for a moment.
'Oh, the nerves -- breakdown -- nothing dangerous, I believe.'
'Life ought to be easy enough for you, Rolfe,' said the other. 'You're at home here.'
'It depends what you mean by "here". I'm at home in England, no doubt; but it's very uncertain whether I shall hold out in London. You know that we're going west to Gunnersbury. That's on the child's account; I want him to go to school with a friend of ours. If we can live there quietly and sanely, well and good; if the whirlpool begins to drag us in again -- then I have another idea.'
'The whirlpool!' muttered Carnaby, with a broken laugh. 'It's got hold of me, and I'm going down, old man -- and it looks black as hell.'
'We shall see the sunlight again together,' replied Rolfe, with forced cheerfulness.
'You think so? I wish I could believe it.'
In less than half an hour Harvey was back at the station, waiting for his train. He suffered pangs of self-rebuke; it seemed to him that he ought to have found some better way, in word or deed, for manifesting the sympathy of true friendship. He had betrayed a doubt which must for ever affect Hugh's feeling towards him. But this was his lot in life, to blunder amid trying circumstances, to prove unequal to every grave call upon him. He tried vainly to see what else he could have done, yet felt that another man would have faced the situation to better purpose. One resolve, at all events, he had brought out of it: Hugh Carnaby's reference to Alma declared the common-sense view of a difficulty which ought to be no difficulty at all, and put an end to vacillation. But in return for this friendly service he had rendered nothing, save a few half-hearted words of encouragement. Rolfe saw himself in a mean, dispiriting light.
On the next day Mrs Frothingham arrived at Pinner, and Harvey's anxieties were lightened. The good, capable woman never showed to such advantage as in a sick-room; scarcely had she entered the house when Alma's state began to improve. They remarked that Alma showed no great concern on Sibyl's account, but was seemingly preoccupied with thought of Carnaby himself. This being the case, it was with solicitude that Harvey and Mrs Frothingham awaited the result of Hugh's trial for manslaughter. Redgrave's housekeeper could not be found; the self-accused man stood or fell by his own testimony; nothing was submitted to the court beyond the fact of Redgrave's death, and Hugh Carnaby's explanation of how it came about. Nothing of direct evidence; indirect, in the shape of witness to character, was abundantly forthcoming, and from 'people of importance. But the victim also was a person of importance, and justice no doubt felt that, under whatever provocation, such a man must not be slain with impunity. It sentenced the homicide to a term of two years' imprisonment, without hard labour.
Alma heard the sentence with little emotion. Soon after she fell into a deeper and more refreshing sleep than any she had known since her illness began.
'It is the end of suspense,' said Mrs Frothingham.
'No doubt,' Harvey assented.
A few days more and Mrs Frothingham took Alma away into Hampshire. Little Hugh went with them, his mother strongly desiring it. As for Rolfe, he escaped to Greystone, to spend a week with Basil Morton before facing the miseries of the removal from Pinner to Gunnersbury.
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