Another great bitterness in Mrs. Churton's cup resulted from the conduct of her irreclaimable husband. Even Fan, who had never regarded any living soul with contempt, had soon enough learned to experience such a feeling towards this man. But it was a kindly contempt, for after repulsing him two or three times when he had attempted to conduct himself in too fatherly a manner, he had ceased to trouble her in any way. He was very unobtrusive in the house, except at intervals, when he would rebel against his wife and say shocking things and screech at her. But when cold weather came, then poor Mr. Churton took an extra amount of alcohol for warmth, and the spirit and cold combined brought on a variety of ailments which sometimes confined him for days to his bedroom. At such times he would be deeply penitent, and beg his wife to sit with him and read the Bible, which she was always ready to do. Never again would he seek oblivion from pain in the cup that cheers, and, alas, inebriates, or do anything to make his beloved wife grieve; thus would he protest, kissing her hand and shedding weak tears. But as soon as she had nursed him back into better health he would seize the first opportunity when she was out of the way to slip off "for a constitutional," which would invariably end at the inn in the High Street; and in the evening he would return quarrelsome and abusive, or else groaning and ready to take to bed again.
Mr. Northcott, who might have melted into thin air for all we have seen or heard of him lately, was also unhappy in his mind at this period. He loved, and yet when it had almost seemed to him that he had not loved in vain, partly from prudential motives and partly because his religion stood in the way of his desire, he had refrained from speaking. Now it seemed to him that he had let his chance go by, and that Miss Churton, although still as friendly as any person not actually enamoured of her could have wished, was not so sympathetic, not so near to him, as formerly. Nevertheless, he still sought her out at every opportunity, and engaged her in long conversations which led to nothing; for they barely touched on the borders of those subjects which both felt most deeply about, and that other subject which he alone felt they never approached. His resolution had in some measure recovered its "native hue," but too late, alas! and at length one day his vicar took him to task about this inconvenient friendship.
"Mr. Northcott," he said very unexpectedly at the end of a conversation they had been having, "may I ask you whether you still hope to be able to win back Miss Churton to a more desirable frame of mind?"
The curate flushed a little, and glancing up encountered the suspicious eyes of his superior fixed on him.
"I regret that I am compelled to answer with a negative," he returned.
"Then," said the other, "you will not take it amiss if I warn you that your partiality for Miss Churton's society has been made the subject of remark among the ladies in the neighbourhood. That your motives are of the highest I do not question; at the same time, if they are misunderstood and if your efforts are futile, it would be prudent, I fancy, not to let it appear that you prefer this lady's company to that of others."
This about motives did not sound quite sincere; but the vicar was suave in manner, stroking his curate very kindly with soft velvet hand, only waiting for some slight movement before unsheathing the sharp hidden claws. One word of protest and of indignant remonstrance would have been enough; the reply was on his tongue, "Then, Mr. Northcott, I regret that we must part company."
But he made no movement such as the other had expected, perhaps even desired, for we are all cruel, even the best of us—so Bain says, and therefore it must be true. On the contrary, he took it with strange meekness—for which he did not fail afterwards to despise himself with his whole heart—regretting that anything had been said, and thanking the vicar for telling him. Nevertheless he was very indignant at this gossip of "a set of malignant old scandal-mongers," as he called the Eyethorne ladies in his wrath, and bitterly resented the interference of the vicar in his affairs. Only the hopeless passion that preyed on him, which made the prospect of a total separation from Miss Churton seem intolerable, kept him from severing his connection with Eyethorne. But after that warning he was more circumspect, and gave the ladies, old and young, less reason for ill-natured remarks.
All these troubles and griefs, real and imaginary, of which they were indirectly the cause, affected the two young friends not at all. They did not see these things, or saw them only dimly at a distance: they were perfectly happy in each other, and almost invariably together both in and out of doors. The Eyethorne woods still attracted them almost daily; for although the trees were barren of leaves and desolate, the robin still made blithe music there, and the wren and thrush were sometimes heard, and even the mournful cawing of the rooks, and the weird melodies of the wind in the naked trees inspired their hearts with a mysterious gladness. And on days when the sun shone—the February days when winter "wears on its face a dream of spring"—they never tired of talking about how they were going to spend their time out of doors during the coming vernal and summer months. For that Fan would remain another year at Eyethorne was now looked upon as practically settled, since three-quarters of the first year had gone by and Miss Starbrow had said no word in her letters about taking her away. They were going to watch every opening leaf and every tender plant as it sprouted from the soil, and Fan was to learn the names, vulgar and scientific, and the special beauty and fragrance, and all the secrets of "every herb that sips the dew." And the birds were also to be watched and listened to, and the peculiar melody of each kind noted on its arrival from beyond the sea.
One circumstance only interfered with Fan's happiness during the winter months. The letters she received from Mary, which came to her from various continental addresses, were few and short, growing fewer and shorter as time went on, and contained no allusion to many things in the long fortnightly epistles which, the girl imagined, required an answer. But one day, about the middle of March, when there had been no word for about six weeks, and Fan had begun to feel a vague anxiety, a letter came for her. It came while she was with Constance during study hours, and taking it she ran up to her own room to enjoy it in solitude.
Constance had also received a letter from London by the same post, and was well pleased to be left to read it by herself; and after reading and re-reading it, she continued sitting before the fire, the letter still in her hand and occupied with very pleasant thoughts. At length, glancing at the clock, she was surprised to find that half an hour had gone by since Fan left the room, and wondering at her delay, she went to look for her. Fan was sitting beside her bed, her cheek, wet with recent tears, resting on her arms on the coverlid; but she did not move when the other entered the room.
"Fan, dearest Fan, what have you heard?" exclaimed Constance in alarm.
For only reply the girl put a letter she was holding in her hand towards the other, and Constance, taking it, read as follows:
Since I wrote last I have had several letters from you, one or two since I returned to England, but there was nothing in them calling for an immediate reply.
I do not wish you to answer this, or to write to me again at any time.
After so much travelling about I feel disinclined to settle down in London, or even in England at present, and have made up my mind to re-let the house in Dawson Place—that is, if the present tenants should have any wish to give it up.
My brother and I separated some time ago, and he has gone, or is going, to India, and will be away two or three years, as, I believe, he also intends visiting Australia, China, and America. I am therefore quite alone now, and shall probably go over to France for a few months, perhaps to remain permanently abroad.
But so far as you are concerned, it does not matter in the least whether I go or stay, since I cannot take you back to live with me, or have anything more to do with you.
The clothes you have will, I dare say, last you some time longer, and I have instructed my agent in London to send you a small sum of money (L25) to start you with. You must in future take care of yourself, and I suppose that with all the knowledge you have acquired from Miss Churton, you will be able to get a situation of some kind.
You have until the middle of next May—I forget the exact date—to prepare for your new life; and you can mention to Mrs. Churton that my agent will send her the money for the last quarter before your time at Eyethorne expires.
I suppose you do not require to be told the reason of the determination I have come to. You cannot have forgotten the fair warning I gave you when we parted, and you must know, Fan, if you know me at all, that when I say a thing I distinctly mean it.
You must take this as my very last word to you.
"Oh, what a cruel thing to do! What a heartless letter! What a barbarous woman!" cried Constance, tears of keenest distress starting to her eyes, as she hastened to Fan's side, holding out her hands.
But Fan would not be caressed; she started as if stung to her feet, her kindling eyes and flushed cheeks showing that her grief and despondence had all at once been swallowed up in some other feeling.
"Give me the letter back," she demanded, holding out her hand for it, and then, when the other hesitated, astonished at her changed manner, snatched it from her hand, and began carefully smoothing and refolding it, for Constance had crumpled it up in her indignation.
"Fan, what has come over you? Are you going to quarrel with me because that unfeeling, purse-proud, half-mad woman has treated you so badly? Ah, poor Fan, to have been at the mercy of such a creature! I would tear her bank-notes into shreds and send them back to her agent—"
"Leave me!" screamed Fan at her, stamping on the floor in her rage.
Constance stood staring at her, mute and motionless with astonishment, so utterly unexpected was this tempest of anger, and so strange in one who had seemed incapable of any such violent feeling.
"Very well, Fan, I shall leave you if you wish it," she said at length with some dignity, but in a pained voice. "I did not understand this outburst at first. I had almost lost sight of the fact that I am in a sense to blame for your misfortune. I regret it very bitterly, but that is no comfort to you, and it is only natural that you should begin to hate me now."
"I do not hate you, Constance," said Fan, recovering her usual tone, but still speaking with a tremor in her voice. "Why do you say that?—it is a cruel thing to say. Do you not know that it is false? I shall never blame you for what has happened. You are not to blame. I have lost Mary, but she is not what you say. You do not know her—what right have you to call her bad names? I would go away this moment and never see you again rather than hear you talk in that way of her, much as I love you."
This speech explained the mystery, but it astonished her as much as the previous passionate outbreak. That the girl could be so just to her, so free from the least trace of bitterness against her for having indirectly caused that great unhappiness, and at the same time so keenly resent her sympathy, which she could not easily express without speaking indignantly of Miss Starbrow—this seemed so strange, so almost incongruous and contradictory, that if the case had not been so sad she would have burst into a laugh. As it was she only burst into tears, and threw her arms round the girl's neck.
"Darling Fan," she said, "I understand you now—at last; and shall say nothing to wound your feelings again. But I hope—with all my heart I hope that I shall one day meet this—meet Miss Starbrow, to have the satisfaction of telling her—"
"Telling her what?" exclaimed Fan, the bright resentful red returning to her pale cheeks.
"Of telling her what she has lost. That she never really knew you, and what an affection you had for her."
There was no comfort in this to Fan. Her loss—the thought that she would never see Mary again—surged back to her heart, and turning away, she went back to her seat and covered her face again from the other's sight.
After making her peace with Fan, there remained for Constance the heavy task of informing her mother. She found her engaged with her needle in the dining-room.
"Mother," she began, "I have got something very unpleasant to tell you. Miss Starbrow has written to Fan, casting her off. She tells her to remain here until her year is up, and then to take care of herself, as she, Miss Starbrow, will have nothing more to do with her. It is a cold, heartless letter; and what poor Fan is to do I don't know."
Mrs. Churton made no reply for some time, but the news disturbed her greatly. Much as she felt for Fan, she could not help thinking also of her own sad case; for after the last quarter had come, with no word from Miss Starbrow, she had taken it for granted that Fan was to stay another year with her. And the money had been a great boon, enabling her to order her house better, and even to pay off a few old accounts, and interest on the mortgage which weighed so heavily on her little property.
Constance, guessing what was passing in her mind, pitied her, but waited without saying more for her to speak; and at length when she did speak it was to put the question which Constance had been expecting with some apprehension.
"What is Miss Starbrow's reason for casting Fan off?" she said.
The other still considered a little before replying.
"Mother," she spoke at length, "will you read Miss Starbrow's letter for yourself? It is not very easy to see from it what she has to quarrel with Fan about. Her reason is perhaps only an excuse, it seems so fantastical. You must judge for yourself."
"I suppose you can tell me whether her quarrel with Fan—you say that there is a quarrel—is because the girl has been taught things she disapproves."
"No, nothing of the kind. She writes briefly, and, as I said, heartlessly. Not one word of affection for Fan or of regret at parting with her, and no allusion to the subject of her studies with you or me. Not a word of thinks to us—"
"That I never expected," said Mrs. Churton. "I could not look for such a thing from a person of Miss Starbrow's description. A kind word or message from her would have surprised me very much."
While she was speaking Fan had entered the room unnoticed. She was pale and looked sad, but calmer now, and the traces of tears had been washed away. Her face flushed when she heard Mrs. Churton's words, and she advanced and stood so that they could not help seeing her.
"Fan, I am deeply grieved to hear this," said Mrs. Churton. "I cannot tell you, my poor child, how much I feel this trouble that has come on you so early in life. But before I can speak fully about it I must know something more. I am in the dark yet—Constance has not told me why Miss Starbrow has seen fit to act in such a way. Will you let me see her letter?" and with trembling fingers she began to wipe her glasses, which had grown dim.
"I am very sorry, Mrs. Churton, but I cannot show you the letter."
They both looked at her, Constance becoming more and more convinced that there was a strength in Fan's character which she had never suspected; while in Mrs. Churton anxiety and sorrow for a moment gave place to a different feeling.
"You surprise me very much, Fan," she returned. "I understand that you have already shown the letter to Constance."
"Yes, but I am sorry now. I did it without thinking, and I cannot show it again."
"Fan, what is the meaning of this? It is only right and natural that you should confide in me about such a serious matter; and I cannot understand your motives in refusing to let me see a letter the contents of which are known to my daughter."
"Mother," said Constance, "I think I can guess her motives, which make it painful for her to show the letter, and will explain what I think they are. Fan, dear, will you leave us for a while, and let me tell mother why Miss Starbrow will not take you back?"
"You can say what you like, Constance, because I can't prevent you," said Fan, still speaking with that decision in her tone which seemed so strange in her. "But I said I was sorry that I let you read Mary's letter, and if you say anything about it, it will be against my wish."
These words, although spoken in rebuke, were a relief to Constance, for however "fantastical" she might consider Miss Starbrow's motives to be, she very much doubted that her mother would take the same view; and she knew that her mother, though entitled to know the whole matter, would never ask her to reveal a secret of Fan's.
But Mrs. Churton had not finished yet. "Fan, dear, come to me," she said, and putting her arm about the girl's waist, drew her to her side. "I think I have cause to be offended with your treatment of me, but I shall not be offended, because you are probably only doing what you think is right. But, dear child, you must allow me to judge for you in some things, and I am convinced that you are making a great mistake. I have been a great deal to you during all these months that you have been with us, and since you received this letter I have become more to you. You must not imagine that in a little time, in another two months, we must separate; you are too young, too weak yet to go out into the world, to face its temptations and struggle for your own livelihood. I have been a mother to you; look on me as a mother still, a natural protector, whose home is your home also. It might very well be that Miss Starbrow's motives for casting you off would be of no assistance to me in the future—I can hardly think that they could be; for I do not believe that she has any valid reason for treating you as she has done. Nor is it from mere curiosity that I ask you to show me her letter; but it is best that you should do so for various reasons, and chiefly because it will prove that you love me, and trust me, and are willing to be guided by me."
The tears rose to Fan's eyes, her strange self-collected mood seemed to be gone. "Dear Mrs. Churton," she said, with trembling voice, "please— please don't think me ungrateful! ... You have made me so happy ... oh, what can I do to show how much I love you ... that I do trust you?"
The girl was conquered, so they thought, mother and daughter; and Constance, with a little internal sigh and a twinge of shame at her cowardice, waited to see the letter read and to save Fan the pain of answering the searching questions which her mother would be sure to ask.
"Dear Fan, let me see the letter," said Mrs. Churton.
"Oh, dear Mrs. Churton, anything but that! I can't let you see it—I am so sorry! When Constance read it and began to speak angrily of Mary, I said to myself that no one should ever see it again."
"Have you then destroyed it?"
"Oh, no," she replied, involuntarily touching her bosom with her hand, "but I cannot show it."
"Very well, Fan, let us say no more about it," returned the other coldly, and withdrawing her arm from the girl's waist. And after a few moments of painful silence she rose and left the room.
Fan looking up met her friend's eyes fixed on her face. "Do you think Mrs. Churton is very angry with me, Constance?" she asked sadly.
"I think that she is offended. And surprised too, I believe." Then she came nearer and took the girl's hand. "You have surprised me a great deal, I know. I am not yet quite sure that I understand your motives for refusing to show the letter. Perhaps your only reason was that you would not allow Miss Starbrow to be blamed at all—I am not questioning you. In any case you make me feel ashamed of myself. You have made me feel such a coward, and—it was a poor spiteful thing to say that I would tear up the notes and send them back to the giver."
Fan made no reply, but stood with eyes cast down as if thinking of something else; and before long she made some excuse to go to her room, where she spent the rest of the day shut up by herself.
From that day a cloud rested on the ladies of Wood End House. Just when Nature called them to rejoice, when the sun laughed at the storm, and the blackbird fluted so loud in the orchard, and earth knew once more the glory of flowers, this great trouble had come on Fan, dimming the sweet visible world with a mist of tears. The poverty and toil which she must now face meant so much to her; day and night, at all times, the thought of it forced itself on her—the perpetual toiling for a bare subsistence, for bread to satisfy the cravings of hunger; the mean narrow, sordid, weary life, day after day, with no hope, no dream of joy to come; and worse than all, the evil things which she had seen and heard and were associated in her mind with the thought of poverty, all the things which made her old life seem like a hideous nightmare to her! The sunshine and flowers and the fluting of the blackbird, that would soon flute no more for her, could not drive this care from her heart; she was preoccupied, and silent, and sad, and Constance was sad from pure sympathy. Mrs. Churton, although still kind and even motherly in her manner, could not help showing that Fan's offence had not been forgotten; yet she loved the girl so well that she could not but feel the deepest pity for her and anxiety about her future. And she even still hoped to win her confidence.
"Fan," she said one evening, when bidding her good-night, "you must not think that what passed the other day between us makes any difference with regard to my plans about your future. What I said to you then still holds good, and my home while I have one is your home."
Fan knew very well that she might not accept this offer; she knew that the Churtons were poor and burdened with debt; and that even if it had not been so, after taking up an independent position in opposition to Mrs. Churton, she had no right to remain a day beyond the time for which payment had been made. All this in a faltering way she tried to explain to her kind friend, and Mrs. Churton confessed to herself that the girl took the right view. She made no further attempt to win her confidence or to make her change her mind; towards both Fan and her daughter she thereafter observed a somewhat cold and distant manner, grieving in her own heart, yearning over them in secret, but striving to hide it all from their eyes.
A fortnight after the receipt of Miss Starbrow's letter, one afternoon the girls came in from their walk, and Constance, seeing her mother at work in the dining-room, remained standing at the door until Fan went upstairs. Then she went inside and sat down near her mother. Mrs. Churton glanced at her with a swift startled glance, then bent her eyes on her work again. But her heart fluttered in her breast, for she knew that she was about to hear some new and perhaps painful thing.
"Mother," Constance began presently, "Fan has made up her mind to go back to London when her time is up with us. She is going to look for a situation."
"A situation—what do you mean, Constance?"
"Her own idea is that she would like best to be a shop-girl in some large London shop."
"Then all I can say is that it is very shocking. Does the poor child know what it means to be a shop-girl in a great city, where she has no home or friends, where she will associate with ignorant and vulgar people, and worse perhaps, and be exposed to the most terrible temptations? But what can I say, Constance, that will have the slightest weight with either Fan or you?"
"I should like it very much better if Fan could do something different— if she could find some more ladylike occupation. But nothing will move her. If she cannot get into a shop, she says that she must be a servant, because she must earn her own living, and she will not believe herself capable of anything higher. To be a shop-girl, or a nursery-governess, or failing that a nursemaid, is as high as her ambition goes; and though I am sorry that it must be so, I can't help admiring her independence and resolution."
"I am glad that there is anything in it all to be admired; it only makes me sad, and just now I can say no more about it. I only hope that before the time comes she will think better of it."
"I have something else to say to you, mother," said Constance, after a rather long interval of silence. "I have made up my mind to accompany Fan to London."
"What do you mean, Constance?" the other asked, with a tremor in her voice.
"To live in London, I mean. It has long been my wish, and I am surely as well able to earn my living now as I ever shall be. When Fan goes I shall not be needed at home any longer. And we are not happy together, mother."
"I know that, Constance; but you must put this idea of going to London out of your head. I cannot consent to it—I shall never consent to it."
"Why not, mother?"
"Do not ask me. I cannot say—I scarcely know myself. I dare not think of such a thing; it is too dreadful. You must not, you cannot go. Do not speak of it again."
The other's task was all the harder because she knew the reason of her mother's reluctance, and understood her feeling so well—the terrible grief which only a mother can feel at the thought of an eternal separation from her child. She rose to her feet, but instead of going from the room remained standing, hesitating, twisting and untwisting her fingers together, and at length she moved to a chair close to her mother and sat down again.
"I must tell you something else, mother," she said. "I do not quite belong to myself now, but to another; and if the man I have promised to marry were to come for me to-morrow, or to send for me to go to him, I could no longer remain with you. As it happens, we are not going to be married soon—not for a year at least, perhaps not for two. Before that time comes I wish to know what it is to live by my own work.... He is a worker, working with his mind in London: I think it would be a good preparation for my future, that it would make me a better companion for him, if I were also to work now and be independent.... If you can only give me a little money—enough to pay my expenses for a short time—a few weeks in London, until I begin to make enough to keep myself!"
"And who is this person you speak of, Constance, of whose existence I now hear for the first time?"
"I have been for some months in correspondence with him, but our engagement is only recent, and that is why you have not heard of it before. He is a clerk in the Foreign Office, and from that you will know that he is a gentleman. He also employs his leisure time in literary work. I can show you his photograph if you would like to see it, mother."
"And have you, Constance, engaged yourself to a person you have not even seen?"
"No, mother, I have of course seen him."
"Here, in Eyethorne. Last August, when I was walking in the woods with Fan, we met him, and he recognised Fan, whom he had met in London at Miss Starbrow's house, and spoke to her. We had a long conversation on that day, and I met him again and talked with him the next day, and after that we kept up the acquaintance by letter."
"And you and Fan together met this man and never mentioned it to me! Let me ask you one question more, Constance. Is this person you are engaged to a Christian or an infidel?"
"Mother, it is not fair to put the question in that way. You call me an infidel, but I am not an infidel—I do not call myself one."
"Do not let us go into hair-splitting distinctions, Constance. I ask you again this simple question—Is he a Christian?"
"Not in the way that you understand it. He is not a Christian."
The other turned her face away, a little involuntary moan of pain escaping her lips; and for the space of two or three minutes there was silence between them, the daughter repenting that she had vainly given her confidence, and the mother revolving all she had heard in her mind, her grief changing gradually into the old wrath and bitterness. And at length she spoke.
"I don't know why you have condescended to tell me of this engagement. Was it only to show me how utterly you put aside and despise a mother's authority—a mother's right to be consulted before taking so important a step? But that is the principle you have acted on all along—to ignore and treat with silent contempt your mother's words and wishes. And you have succeeded in making Fan as bad as yourself. I can see it all better now. Your example, your teaching, has drawn her away from me, and I am as little to her now as to you. She would never have entered into these secret doings and plottings if you had not corrupted her. You have made her what she is; take her and go where you like together, and ruin yourself in any way that pleases you best, for I have no longer any influence over either of you. Only do not ask me to sanction what you do, or to give you any assistance."
Constance rose and moved away, but before reaching the door she turned and spoke. "Mother, I cannot pay any attention to such wild, unfounded accusations. If I must leave home without a shilling in my purse after teaching Fan for a year, I can only say that you are treating me with the greatest injustice, and that a stranger would have treated me better." Then she left the room, and for several days after no word passed between mother and daughter.
Nevertheless Mrs. Churton was keenly alive and deeply interested in all that was passing around her. She noted that the hours of study were very much shortened now, and that the girls were continually together in the house, and from their bedroom sweepings and stray threads clinging to their dresses, and the snipping sound of scissors, she judged that they were busy with their preparations. Fan had gone back to her ancient but happily not lost art of dressmaking, and was making Constance a dress from a piece of stuff which the latter had kept by her for some time. Mrs. Churton had continued hoping against hope, but the discovery that this garment was being made convinced her at last that her daughter's resolution was not to be shaken, and that the dreaded separation was very near.
At length one morning, just after receiving a letter from London, and when only one week of Fan's time at Wood End House remained, she spoke to her daughter, calling her into her own room.
"Constance," she said, speaking in a constrained tone and with studied words, "I fully deserved your reproach the other day. I should not have let you go from home without a shilling in your purse. I spoke hastily, in anger, that day, and I hope you will forgive me. Miss Starbrow's agent has just sent the eighteen pounds for the last quarter; I cannot do less than hand it over to you, and only wish that I had it in my power to give you more."
"Thank you, mother; but I would much rather that you kept part of it. I do not require as much as that."
"You will find it little enough—in London among strangers. We need not speak any more about it, and you owe me no thanks. It is only right that you should have one quarter's money of the four I have received." After an interval of silence, and when her daughter was about to leave the room, she continued, "Before you go, Constance, let me ask a favour of you. If you are going away soon this will be our last conversation."
"Our last! What favour, mother?"
"When you go, do so without coming to say goodbye to me. I do not feel very strong, and—would prefer it if you went away quietly without any leave-takings."
"If that is your wish, mother," she returned, and then remained standing, her face full of distress. Then she moved a little nearer and said, "Mother, if there is to be no good-bye, will you let me kiss you?"
Mrs. Churton's lips moved but made no sound. Constance after a moment's hesitation came nearer still, and bending forward kissed her cheek, not in a perfunctory way, but with a lingering, loving kiss; and after the kiss she still lingered close, so that the breath from her lips came warm and fragrant on the other's cold pale cheek. But her mother spoke no word, and remained cold and motionless as a statue, until with a slight sigh and lingering step the other left the room. Scarcely had she gone before the unhappy mother dropped on to a chair, and covering her face with her hands began to shed tears. Why, why, she asked herself again and again, had she not returned that loving kiss, and clasped her lost daughter once more to her heart? Too late! too late! She had restrained her heart and made herself cold as stone, and now that last caress, that sweet consolation was lost for ever! Ah, if her cold cheek might keep for all the remaining days of her life the sensation of those warm caressing lips, of that warm sweet breath! But her bitter tears of regret were in vain; that dread eternal parting was now practically over, and out of the infinite depths of her love no last tender word had risen to her lips!
In London once more! It was Fan's birth-place, the home she had known continuously up till one short year ago; yet now on her return how strange, how foreign to her soul, how even repelling it seemed! The change had come so unexpectedly and in such unhappy circumstances, and the contrast was so great to that peaceful country life and all its surroundings, which had corresponded so perfectly with her nature. To Constance, who knew little of London except from reading, the contrast seemed equally great, but it affected her in a different and much pleasanter way. To Fan town and town-life could be repelling because, owing to her past experiences, and to something in her mental character, she was able vividly to realise her present position. Even when the brilliant May sun shone on her, and the streets and parks were thronged with fashionable pleasure-seekers, and London looked not unbeautiful, she realised it. For all that made town-life pleasant and desirable was now beyond her reach. It was sweet when Mary loved her and gave her a home; but in all this vast world of London there was no second Mary who would find her and take her to her heart. Now she might sink into a state of utter destitution, and she would be powerless to win help or sympathy, or even a hearing, from any one of the countless thousands of fellow- creatures that would pass her in the streets, all engrossed with their own affairs, so accustomed to the sight of want and suffering that it affected them not at all. To find some work which she might be able to do, and for which the payment would be sufficient to provide her with food, clothing, and shelter, was the most she could hope. She could dream of no wonderful second deliverance in the long years of humble patient drudgery that awaited her—no impossible good fortune passing over the heads of thousands as deserving as herself to light on hers and give a new joy and glory to her life.
To Constance, with her more vigorous intellect and ardent imagination, no such dreary prospect could present itself. The thunderous noise and shifting panorama of the streets, the interminable desert of brick houses, and even the smoke-laden atmosphere only served to exhilarate her mind. These things continually reminded her that she was now where she had long wished to be, in the great intellectual laboratory, where thousands of men and women once as unknown and poor as herself had made a reputation. Not without great labour and pains certainly; but what others had done she could do; and with health and energy, and a bundle of carefully-prepared manuscripts in her box to begin with, she could feel no serious anxiety about the future.
During their second day in town they managed after much searching to find cheap furnished apartments—a bed and small sitting-room—on the second floor of a house in a monotonous street of yellow brick houses in the monotonous yellow brick wilderness of West Kensington. Their search for rooms would not have occupied them very long if Constance had been as easily satisfied as her companion; but although in most of the places they visited she found the bedrooms "good enough," wretched as they were compared with her own fragrant and spotless bower at Wood End House, she was not so readily pleased with the sitting-room. That, at all events, must not wear so mean and dingy a look as one usually has to put up with when the rent is only ten shillings a week; and beyond that sum they were determined not to go. The reason of this fastidiousness about a sitting- room presently appeared. Fan was told the secret of the engagement with Merton Chance; also that Merton was now for the first time about to be informed of the step Constance had taken without first consulting him, and asked to visit her at her lodgings. Constance felt just a little hurt at the way her news was received, for Fan said little and seemed unsympathetic, almost as if her friend's happiness had been a matter of indifference to her.
Next day, after moving into their new quarters, Constance wrote her letter, addressing it to the Foreign Office, posting it herself in the nearest pillar-box, and then settled herself down to wait the result. It was weary waiting, she found, when the next morning's post brought her no answer, and when the whole day passed and no Merton came, and no message. She was restless and anxious, and in a feverish state of anxiety, fearing she knew not what; but outwardly she bore herself calmly; and remembering with some resentment still how little her engagement had seemed to rejoice her friend, she proudly held her peace. But she would not leave the house, for the lover might come at any moment, and it would not do to be out of the way when he arrived. She remained indoors, pretending to be much occupied with her writing, while Fan went out for long walks alone. The next day passed in like manner, the two friends less in harmony and less together than ever; and when still another morning came and brought no letter, Fan began to feel extremely unhappy in her mind, for now the long-continued strain was beginning to tell on her friend, robbing her cheeks of their rich colour, and filling her hazel eyes with a great unexpressed trouble. But on that day about three o'clock, while Constance sat at her window, which commanded a view of the street, she saw a hansom-cab arrive at the door, and the welcome form of her lover spring rapidly out and run up the steps. He had come to her at last! But why had he left her so long to suffer? She heard his steps bounding up the stairs, and stood trembling with excitement, her hand pressed to her wildly-beating heart. One glance at his face was enough to show her that her fears had been idle, that her lover's heart had not changed towards her; the next moment she was in his arms, feeling for the first time his kisses on her lips. After the excitement of meeting was over, explanations followed, and Merton informed her that he had only just received her letter, and greatly blamed himself for not having sent her his new address immediately after having left the Foreign Office.
"Left the Foreign Office! Do you mean for good?" asked Constance in a kind of dismay.
"I hope for good," he replied, smiling at her serious face. "The uncongenial work I had to do there has chafed me for a long time. It interfered with the real and serious business of my life, and I threw it up with a light heart. I must be absolutely free and master of my own time before I can do, and do well, the work for which I am fitted."
"But, dear Merton, you told me that your work was so light there, and that the salary you had relieved you from all anxiety, and left you free to follow the bent of your own mind in literary work."
"Did I? That was one of my foolish speeches then. However light any work may be, if it occupies you during the best hours of the day, it must to some extent take the freshness out of you. And to look at the matter in a practical way, I consider that I am a great gainer, since by resigning a salary of L250 a year I put myself in a position to make five hundred. I hope before very long to make a thousand."
His news had given a considerable shock to Constance, but he seemed so confident of success, laughing gaily at her doubts, that in a little while he succeeded in raising her spirits, and she began to believe that this exceedingly clever young man had really done a wise thing in throwing up an appointment which would have secured him against actual want for the whole term of his life.
After a while she ventured to speak of her own plans and hopes. He listened with a slight smile.
"I have not the slightest doubt that you could make your living in that way," he said; "for how many do it who are not nearly so gifted as you are! But, Connie, if I understand you rightly, you wish to begin making money at once, and that is scarcely possible, as you have not been doggedly working away for years to make yourself known and useful to editors and publishers."
He then went very fully into this question, and concluded with a comical description of the magazine editor as a very unhappy spider, against whose huge geometric web there beats a continuous rain of dipterous insects of every known variety, besides innumerable nondescripts. The poor spider, unable to eat and digest more than about half a dozen to a dozen flies every month, was forced to spend his whole time cutting and dropping his useless captures from the web. As a rule Merton did not talk in this strain: the editors had cut away too many of his own nondescript dipterous contributions to their webs for him to love them; but for some mysterious reason it suited him just now to take the side of the enemy in the old quarrel of author versus editor.
"Do you think then that I have made a mistake in coming to London?" she asked despondingly.
He smiled and drew her closer to him. "Connie, dear, I am exceedingly glad you did come, for there is no going back, you say; and now that you are here there is only one thing to do to smooth the path for us, and that is—to consent to marry me at once."
This did not accord with her wishes at all. To consent would be to confess herself beaten, and that dream of coming to London and keeping herself, for a time at all events, by means of her own work, had been so long and so fondly cherished, and she wished so much to be allowed to make the trial. But he pleaded so eloquently that in the end he overcame her reluctance.
"I will promise to do what you wish," she said, "if after you have thought it over for a few days you should still continue in the same mind. But, Merton, I hope you will not think me too careful and anxious if I ask you whether it does not seem imprudent, when you have just given up your salary and are only beginning to work at something different, to marry a penniless girl? You have told me that you have no money, and that you cannot look to your relations for any assistance."
"By no money I simply meant no fortune. Of course we could not get married without funds, and just now I have a couple of hundreds standing to my credit in the bank. If we are careful, and content to begin married life in apartments, we need not spend any more than I am spending now by myself."
He omitted to say that this money was all that was left of a legacy of L500 which had come to him from an aunt, and that he had been spending it pretty freely. His words only gave the impression that he knew the value of money, and was not one to act without careful consideration.
They were still discussing this point when Fan came in, and after shaking hands with their visitor sat down in her hat and jacket. Merton, after expressing his regret that she had lost her protectress, proceeded to make some remarks about Miss Starbrow's eccentric temper. Nothing which that lady did, he said, surprised him in the least. Fan sat with eyes cast down; she looked pale and fatigued, and her face clouded at his words; then murmuring some excuse, she rose and went to her bedroom.
"I must warn you, Merton," said Constance, "that Fan can't endure to hear anything said in dispraise of Miss Starbrow. I have discovered that it is the one subject about which she is capable of losing her temper and quarrelling with her best friend."
"Is that so?" he returned, laughingly. "Then she must be as eccentric as Miss Starbrow herself. But what does the poor girl intend doing—she must do something to live, I suppose?"
Constance told him all about Fan's projects. "Why do you smile?" she said. "You do not approve, I suppose?"
"You are mistaken, Connie. I neither approve nor disapprove. She does not ask us to shape her future life for her, and we owe her thanks for that."
"Yes, but still you are a little shocked that she has not set her mind on something a little higher."
"Not at all. On the contrary. It is really disgusting to find how many there are who take 'Excelsior' for their motto. In a vast majority of cases they get killed by falling over a precipice, or smothered in the snow, or crawl back to the lower levels to go through life as frost- bitten, crippled, pitiful objects. You can see scores of these would-be climbers any day in the streets of London, and know them by their faces. If you are not a real Whymper it is better not to be in the crowd of foolish beings who imagine themselves Whympers, but to rest content, like Fan, in the valley below. I am very glad not to be asked for advice, but if you ask my opinion I can say, judging from what I have seen of Fan, that I believe she has made a wise choice. Her capabilities and appearance would make her a very nice shop-girl."
"Oh, you have too poor an opinion of her!" exclaimed Constance. Nevertheless she could not help thinking that he was perhaps right. It was very pleasant to listen to him, this eloquent lover of hers, to see how
With a Reaumur's skill his curious mind Classed the insect tribes of human kind.
It was impossible to doubt that he, at any rate, would know very well where to set his foot on those perilous heights to which he aspired.
Later in the evening the lovers went out for a walk, from which Constance came home looking very bright and happy. The girls slept together, and after going to bed that night there was a curious little scene between them, in which Fan's part was a very passive one. "Darling, we have talked so little since we have been here," said Constance, putting her arm round her friend, "and now I have got so many things to say to you." And as Fan seemed anxious to hear her story, she began to talk first about Merton's wish for an early marriage, but before long she discovered that her companion had fallen asleep. Then she withdrew her arm and turned away disgusted, all the story of her happiness untold. "I verily believe," she said to herself, "that I have credited Fan with a great deal more sensibility than she possesses. To drop asleep like a plough- boy the moment I begin to talk to her—how little she cares about my affairs! I think Merton must be right in what he said about her. She is very keen and wideawake about her shop, and seems to think and care for nothing else." Much more she thought in her vexation, and then glanced back at the face at her side, so white and pure and still, framed in its unbound golden hair, so peaceful and yet with a shade of sadness mingling with its peacefulness; and having looked, she could not withdraw her eyes. "How beautiful she looks," said Constance, relenting a little. And then, "Poor child, she must have overtired herself to-day.... And perhaps it is not strange that she has shown herself so cold about my engagement. She thinks that Merton is taking me away from her. She is grieving secretly at the thought of losing me, as she lost her bitter, cruel- hearted Mary. Oh, dearest, I am not so fantastical as that woman, and you shall never lose me. Married or single, rich or poor, and wherever you may be, in or out of a shop, my soul shall cleave to you as it did at Eyethorne, and I shall love you as I love no other woman—always, always." And bending she lightly kissed the still white face; but Fan slept soundly and the light kiss disturbed her not.
The next few days were devoted to sightseeing under Merton's guidance, and a better-informed cicerone they could not well have had. The little cloud between the girls had quite passed away; and Fan, who was not always abnormally drowsy after dark, listened to her friend's story and entered into all her plans. Then a visit to the National Gallery was arranged for a day when Merton would only have a few hours of the afternoon to spare: he was now devoting his energies to the business of climbing. At three o'clock they were to meet at Piccadilly Circus, but the girls were early on the scene, as they wished to have an hour first in Regent Street. To unaccustomed country eyes the art treasures displayed in the shop-windows there are as much to be admired as the canvases in Trafalgar Square. They passed a large drapery establishment with swinging doors standing open, and the sight of the rich interior seemed to have a fascinating effect on Fan. She lingered behind her companion, gazing wistfully in—a poor, empty-handed peri at the gates of Paradise. Long room succeeded long room, until they appeared to melt away in the dim distance; the floors were covered with a soft carpet of a dull green tint, and here and there were polished red counters, and on every side were displayed dresses and mantles artistically arranged, and textures of all kinds and in all soft beautiful colours. Within a few ladies were visible, moving about, or seated; but it was the hour of luncheon, when little shopping was done, and the young ladies of the establishment, the assistants, seemed to have little to occupy them. They were very fine-looking girls, all dressed alike in black, but their dresses were better in cut and material than shop-girls usually wear, even in the most fashionable establishments. At length Fan withdrew her longing eyes, and turned away, remarking with a sigh, "Oh, how I should like to be in such a place!"
"Should you?" said Constance. "Well, let's go in and ask if there is a vacancy. You must make a beginning, you know."
"But, Constance, we can't do that! I don't know how to begin, but I'm sure you can't get a place by going into a grand shop and asking in that way."
"Possibly not; but there's no harm in asking. Come, and I'll be spokesman, and take all the dreadful consequences on my own head. Come, Fan."
And in she walked, boldly enough, and after a moment's hesitation the other followed. When they had proceeded a dozen or twenty steps a young man, a shop-walker, came treading softly to them, and with profoundest respect in his manner, and in a voice trained to speak so low that at a distance of about twenty-five inches it would have been inaudible, begged to know to which department he could have the pleasure of directing them. He was a very good-looking, or perhaps it would be more correct to say a very beautiful young man, with raven-black hair, glossy and curled, and parted down the middle of his shapely head, and a beautiful small moustache to match. His eyes were also dark and fine, and all his features regular. His figure was as perfect as his face; many a wealthy man, made ugly by that mocker Nature, would have gladly given half his inheritance in exchange for such a physique; and his coat of finest cloth fitted him to perfection, and had evidently been built by some tailor as celebrated for his coats as Morris for his wall-papers, and Leighton for his pictures of ethereal women.
Constance, a little surprised at being obsequiously addressed by so exquisite a person, stated the object of their visit. He looked surprised, and, losing his obsequiousness, replied that he was not aware that an assistant had been advertised for. She explained that they had seen no advertisement, but had merely come in to inquire, as her friend wished to get a situation in a shop. He smiled at her innocence—he even smiled superciliously—and, with no deference left in his manner, told them shortly that they had made a great mistake, and was about to show them out, when, wonderful to relate, all at once a great change came over his beautiful countenance, and he stood rooted to the spot, cringing, confused, crimson to the roots of his raven ringlets. His sudden collapse had been caused by the sight of a pair of cold, keen grey eyes, with an expression almost ferocious in them, fixed on his face. They belonged to an elderly man with a short grizzly beard and podgy nose; a short, square, ugly man, who had drawn near unperceived with cat-like steps, and was attentively listening to the shop-walker's words, and marking his manner. He was the manager.
"I am sorry I made a mistake," said Constance a little stiffly, and turned to go.
The young man made no reply. The manager, still keeping his basilisk eyes on him, nodded sharply, as if to say, "Go and have your head taken off." Then he turned to the girls.
"One moment, young ladies," he said. "Kindly step this way, and let me know just what you want."
They followed him into a small private office, where he placed chairs for them, and then allowed Constance to repeat what he had already heard, and to add a few particulars about Fan's history. He appeared to be paying but little attention to what she said; while she spoke he was keenly studying their faces—first hers, then Fan's.
"There is no vacancy at present," he replied at length. "Besides, when there is one, which is not often, we usually have the names of several applicants who are only waiting to be engaged by us. We have always plenty to choose from, and of course select the one that offers the greatest advantages—experience, for instance; and you say that your friend has no experience. The fact is," he continued, expanding still more, "our house is so well known that scores of young ladies would be glad at any moment to throw up the places they have in other establishments to be taken on here."
Constance rose from her seat.
"It was hardly necessary," she said, with some dignity, "to bring us into your private office to tell us all this, since we already knew that we had made a mistake in coming."
"Wait a minute," he returned, with a grim smile. "Please sit down again. I understand that it is for your friend and not for yourself. Well, I find it hard to say—" and here with keenly critical eyes he looked first at her, then at Fan, making little nods and motions with his head, and moving his lips as if very earnestly talking to himself. "All I can say is this," he continued, "if this young lady is willing to come for a month without pay to learn the business, and afterwards, should she suit us, to remain at a salary of eighteen shillings a week and her board for the first six months, why, then I might be willing to engage her. You can give a reference, I suppose?"
Both girls were fairly astonished at the sudden turn the affair had taken, and could scarcely credit their own senses, so illogically did this keen grim man seem to act. They did not know his motive.
Not to make a secret of a very simple matter, he thought a great deal more than most men in his way of life about personal appearance. He made it an object to have only assistants with fine figures and pretty faces, with the added advantage of a pleasing manner. When he discovered that these two young ladies with graceful figures and refined, beautiful faces had not come into the shop to purchase anything, but in quest of an engagement for one of them, he instantly resolved not to let slip so good an opportunity of adding to his collection of fair women. It was not that he had any soft spot in his heart with regard to pretty women: so long as his assistants did their duty, he treated them all with the strictest impartiality, blonde or brunette, grave or gay, and was somewhat stern in his manner towards them, and had an eagle's eye to detect their faults, which were never allowed to go unpunished. He worshipped nothing but his shop, and he had pretty girls in it for the same reason that he had Adonises for shop-walkers, artistically-dressed windows, and an aristocratic-looking old commissionaire at the door—namely, to make it more attractive.
It is true that some great dames, with thin lips, oblique noses, green complexions, and clay-coloured eyes, hate to be served by a damsel wearing that effulgent unbought crown of beauty which makes all other crowns seem such pitiful tinsel gewgaws to the sick soul. That was one disadvantage, but it was greatly overweighed by a general preference for beauty over ugliness. The flower-girl with beautiful eyes stands a better chance than her squinting sister of selling a penny bunch of violets to the next passer-by. If a girl ceased to look ornamental, however intelligent or trustworthy she might be, he got rid of her at once without scruple. His seeming hesitation when he spoke to the girls before making his offer was due simply to the fact that he was mentally occupied in comparing them together. Both so perfect in figure, face, manner —which would he have taken if he had had the choice given him?
For some moments he half regretted that it was not the more developed, richer-coloured girl with the bronzed tresses who had aspired to join his staff. Then he shook his head: that exquisite brown tint would not last for ever in the shade, and the bearing was also just a shade too proud. He considered the other, with the slimmer figure, the far more delicate skin, the more eloquent eyes, and he concluded that he had got the best of the pair.
"I should so like to come," said Fan, for they were both waiting for her to speak, "but am afraid that I can give no reference."
"Oh, Fan, surely you can!" said the other.
"I have no friend but you, Constance; I could not write to Mary now."
The other considered a little.
"Oh, yes; there is Mr. Northcott," she said, then turning to the manager asked, "Will the name of a clergyman in the country place where Miss Affleck has spent the last year be sufficient?"
"Yes, that will do very well," he said, giving her pencil and paper to write the name and address. Then he asked a few questions about Fan's attainments, and seemed pleased to hear that she had learnt dressmaking and embroidery. "So much the better," he said. "You can come to-morrow to receive instructions about your dress, and to hear when your attendance will begin. The hours are from half-past eight to half-past six. Saturdays we close at two. You have breakfast when you come in, dinner at twelve or one, tea at four. You must find your own lodgings, and it will be better not to get them too far away."
"May I ask you not to write about Miss Affleck until to-morrow?" Constance said. "I must write to-day first to Mr. Northcott to inform him. He will be a little surprised, I suppose, that Miss Affleck is going into a shop, but he will tell you all about her disposition, and"—with a pause and a hot blush—"her respectability."
He smiled again grimly.
"I have no doubt that Miss Affleck is a lady by birth," he said. "But do not run away with the idea that she is doing anything peculiar. There are several daughters of gentlemen in our house, as she will probably discover when she comes to associate with them."
"I am glad," said Constance, rising to go.
He was turning the paper with the address on in his hand. "You need not trouble to write to this gentleman," he said. "I shall not write to him. If you are fairly intelligent, Miss Affleck, and anxious to do your best, you will do very well, I dare say. References are of little use to me; I prefer to use my own judgment. But you must understand clearly that for every dereliction there is a fine, which is deducted from the salary. A printed copy of the rules will be given you. And you may be discharged at a moment's notice at any time."
"Only for some grave fault, I suppose?" said Constance.
"Not necessarily," he returned.
"That seems hard."
"I do not trouble myself about that. The business is of more consequence than any individual in it," he replied; and then walked to the door with them and bowed them out with some ceremony.
For the rest of the day Fan was in a state of bewilderment at her own great good fortune; for this engagement meant so much to her. That horrible phantom, the fear of abject poverty, would follow her no more. With L20 in hand and all Mary's presents, and eighteen shillings a week in prospect, she considered herself rich; and with her evenings, her Sundays and holidays to spend how she liked, and Constance always near, how happy she would be! But why, when crowds of experienced girls were waiting and anxiously wishing to get into this establishment, had she, utterly ignorant of business, been taken in this sudden off-hand way? It was a mystery to her, and a mystery also to the clever Constance, and to the still more clever Merton when he was told about it. Unknowingly she had submitted herself to a competitive examination in which useless knowledge was not considered, and in which those who possessed pretty faces and fine figures scored the most marks. After this she was scarcely in the right frame to appreciate the works of art they went on to see. That long interior in Regent Street, with its costly goods and pretty elegantly-dressed girls, and perfumed glossy shop-walker, and ugly bristling fierce-eyed manager, continually floated before her mental vision, even when she looked on the most celebrated canvases—even on those painted by Turner.
These same celebrated pieces startled Constance somewhat, although she had come prepared by a childlike faith in Ruskin's infallibility to worship them. She was, however, too frank to attempt to conceal her real impressions, and then Merton consolingly informed her that no person could appreciate a Turner before seeing it many times. One's first impression is, that over this canvas the artist has dashed a bucket of soap-suds, and over that a pot of red and yellow ochre. Well, after all, what was a snowstorm but a bucket of soap-suds on a big scale! Call it suds, a mad smudge, anything you like, but it was a miracle of art all the same if it produced the effect aimed at, and gave one some idea of that darkness and whiteness, and rush and mad mingling of elements, and sublime confusion of nature.
"But my trouble is," objected Constance, "that, the effect does not seem right—that it is not really like nature."
"No, certainly not. Nature is nature, and you cannot create another nature in imitation of it, any more than you can comprehend infinity. This is only art, the highest thing, in this particular direction, which the poor little creature man has been able to attain. You have doubtless heard the story of the old lady who said to the painter of these scenes, 'Oh, Mr. Turner, I never saw such lights and colours in nature as you paint!' 'No, don't you wish you could?' replied the artist. Now the old lady was perfectly right. You cannot put white quivering tropical heat on a canvas, but Turner dashes unnatural vermilion over his scene and the picture is not ridiculous; the effect of noonday heat is somehow produced. Look at those sunsets! In one sense they are failures, every one of them; but what a splendid audacity the man had, and what a genius, to attempt to portray nature in those special moments when it shines with a glory that seems unearthly, and not to have failed more signally! Failures they are, but nobler works than other men's successes. You are perfectly right, Connie, but when you look at a great picture do not forget to remember that art is long and life short. That is what the old lady didn't know, and what Turner should have told her instead of making that contemptuous speech."
Constance was comforted, and continued to listen delightedly as he led them from room to room, pointing out the most famous pictures and expatiating on their beauties.
From the Gallery they went to Marshall's in the Strand and drank tea; then Merton put them in an Underground train at Charing Cross and said goodbye, being prevented by an engagement from seeing them home. He had put them into a compartment of a first-class carriage which was empty, but after the train had started the door was opened, and in jumped two young gentlemen, almost tumbling against the girls in their hurry.
"Just saved it!" exclaimed one, throwing himself with a laugh into the seat.
"It was a close shave," said the other. "Did you see that young fellow standing near the edge of the platform? I caught him on the side and sent him spinning like a top."
"Why, that was Chance—didn't you know him? I was in too much of a hurry even to give the poor devil a nod."
"Good gracious, was that Chance—that madman that threw up his clerkship at the F.O.!"
"No, he didn't," his friend replied. "That's what he says, but the truth is he got mixed up in a disreputable affair and had to resign. No doubt he has been going to the 'demnition bow-bows,' as Mr. Mantalini says, but he wasn't so mad as to throw away his bread just to have the pleasure of starving. He hasn't a ha'penny."
"Well, I don't care," said the other with a laugh, and then went on to talk of other things.
During this colloquy Fan had glanced frequently at her companion, but Constance, who had grown deathly pale, kept her face averted and her eyes fixed on the window, as if some wide prospect, and not the rayless darkness of the tunnel, had been before them. From their station they walked rapidly and in silence home, and when inside, Constance spoke for the first time, and in a tone of studied indifference.
"So much going about has given me a headache, Fan," she said. "I shall lie down in my room and have a little sleep, and don't call me, please, when you have supper. I am sorry to leave you alone all the evening, but you will have something pleasant to think about as you have been so successful to-day."
She was about to move away, when Fan came to her side and caught her hand.
"Don't go just yet, dear Constance," she said. "Why do you try to—shut me out of your heart? Oh, if you knew how much—how very much I feel for you!"
"What about?" said the other a little sharply, and drawing herself back.
"What about! We are both thinking of the same thing."
"Yes, very likely, but what of that? Is it such a great thing that you need to distress yourself so much about it?"
"How can I help being distressed at such a thing; it has changed everything, and will make you so unhappy. You know that you can't marry Mr. Chance now after he has deceived you in that way."
"Can't marry Mr. Chance!" exclaimed Constance, putting her friend from her. "Do you imagine that the wretched malicious gossip of those two men in the train will have the slightest effect on me! What a mistake you are making!"
"But you know it is true," returned Fan with strange simplicity; and this imprudent speech quickly brought on her a tempest of anger. When the heart is burdened with a great anguish which cannot be expressed there is nothing like a burst of passion to relieve it. Tear-shedding is a weak ineffectual remedy compared with this burning counter-irritant of the mind.
"I do not know that it is true!" she exclaimed. "What right have you to say such a thing, as if you knew Merton so well, and had weighed him in an infallible balance and found him wanting! I have heard nothing but malicious tittle-tattle, a falsehood beneath contempt, set afloat by some enemy of Merton's. If I could have thought it true for one moment I should never cease to despise myself. Have you forgotten how you blazed out against me for speaking my mind about Miss Starbrow when she cast you off? Yet you did not know her as I know Merton, and how paltry a thing is the feeling you have for her compared with that which I have for my future husband! What does it matter to me what they said?—I know him better. But you have been prejudiced against him from the beginning, for no other reason but because I loved him. Nothing but selfishness was at the bottom of that feeling. You imagined that marriage would put an end to our friendship, and thought nothing about my happiness, but only of your own."
"Do you believe that of me, Constance?" said Fan, greatly distressed. "Ah, I remember when we had that trouble about Mary's letter at Eyethorne, you said that you had not known me until that day. You do not know me now if you think that your happiness is nothing to me—if you think that it is less to me than my own."
Her words, her look, the tone of her voice touched Constance to the heart.
"Oh, Fan, why then do you provoke me to say harsh things?" and then, turning aside, burst into a passion of weeping and sobs which shook her whole frame. But when the sobs were exhausted she recovered her serenity: those violent remedies—anger and tears—had not failed of their beneficent effect on her mind.
On the following day she seemed even cheerful, as if the whole painful matter had been forgotten. Merton, at all events, seemed to detect no change in her when he came to take her to the park in the afternoon. Only to Fan there appeared a shadow in the clear hazel eyes, and a note of trouble in the voice which had not been there before.
In a short time after this incident Fan was taken into the great Regent Street establishment, and had her mind very fully occupied with her new duties. One afternoon at the end of her first week the manager came up and spoke to her.
"Are you living with friends?" he said.
"I am living with Miss Churton—the lady who came here with me," she replied. "But she is going to be married soon, and I must find another place nearer Regent Street."
"Ah, this then will perhaps be a help to you," and he handed her a card. "That is the address of a woman who keeps a very quiet respectable lodging-house. We have known her for years, and if she has a vacancy you could not do better than go to her."
She thanked him, and took the card gladly. That little act of thoughtfulness made her feel very happy, and believe that he had a kind heart in spite of his stern despotic manner. To continue in that belief, however, required faith on her part, which is the evidence of things not seen, for he did not go out of his way again to show her any kindness.
Next day being Sunday, the girls were able to go together to see the lodging-house, which was in Charlotte Street in Marylebone, and found the landlady, Mrs. Grierson, a very fat and good-tempered woman. She took them to the top floor to show the only vacant room she had; it was fairly large for a top room, and plainly and decently furnished, and the rent asked was six-and-sixpence a week. But the good woman was so favourably impressed with Fan's appearance, and so touched at the flattering recommendation given by the manager, that at once, and before they had said a word, she reduced the price to five shillings, and then said that she would be glad to let it to the young lady for four-and-sixpence a week. The room was taken there and then, and a few days later the friends separated, one to settle down in her lonely lodging, the other to be quietly married at a registry office, without relation or friend to witness the ceremony; after which the newly-married couple went away to spend their honeymoon at a distance from London.
For several months after that hasty and somewhat inauspicious marriage— "unsanctified," Mrs. Churton would have said—it seemed as if the course of events had effectually parted the two girls, and that their close friendship was destined to be less a reality than a memory, so seldom were they able to meet. From their honeymoon the Chances came back to London only to settle down at Putney for the remainder of the warm season; and this was far from Marylebone, and Fan was only able to go there occasionally on a Sunday. But in September they moved to Chelsea, and for a few weeks the friends met more often, and Constance frequently called at the Regent Street shop to see and speak with Fan for two or three minutes. This, however, did not last. Suddenly the Chances moved again, this time to a country town over fifty miles from London. Merton had made the discovery that journalism and not literature was his proper vocation, and had been taken on the staff of a country weekly newspaper, of which he hoped one day to be editor. The girls were now further apart than ever, and for months there was no meeting. But during all this time they corresponded, scarcely a week passing without an exchange of letters, and this correspondence was at this period the greatest pleasure in Fan's life. For Constance, next to Mary, who was lost to her, was the being she loved most on earth; nor did she feel love only. She was filled with gratitude because her friend, although married to such a soul- filling person as Merton Chance, was not forgetful of her humble existence, but constantly thought of her and sent her long delightful letters, and was always wishing and hoping to be near her again. And yet, strange contradiction! in her heart of hearts she greatly pitied her friend. Sometimes Constance would write glowing accounts of her husband's triumphs—an article accepted perhaps, a flattering letter from a magazine editor, a favourable notice in a newspaper, or some new scheme which would bring them fame and fortune. But if she had written to say that Merton actually had become famous, that all England was ringing with his praise, that publishers and editors were running after him with blank cheques in their hands, imploring him to give them a book, an article, she would still have pitied her friend. For that was Fan's nature. When a thing once entered into her mind there was no getting it out again. Mary to others might be a fantastical woman, heartless, a fiend incarnate if they liked, but the simple faith in her goodness, the old idolatrous affection still ruled in her heart. The thoughts and feelings which had swayed her in childhood swayed her still; and the gospel of the carpenter Cawood was the only gospel she knew. And as to Merton, the contemptuous judgment Mary had passed on him had become her judgment; the words she had heard of him in the train were absolutely true; he had deceived his wife with lies; he was weak and vain and fickle, one it was a disaster to love and lean upon. Love, gratitude, and pity stirred her heart when she thought of Constance, and while the pity was kept secret the love was freely and frequently expressed, and from week to week she told the story of her life to her sympathetic friend—all its little incidents, trials, and successes.
There was little to break the monotony of her life out of business hours at this period; and it was perhaps fortunate for her that she usually came home tired in the evening, wishing for rest rather than for distraction. There was nothing in that part of London to make walking attractive. The Regent's Park was close by, it is true, and thither she was accustomed to go for a walk on Sundays, except when one or other of her new acquaintances in the shop, living with her own people, invited her to dinner or tea. But on weekdays, especially in winter, when the streets were sloppy, and the atmosphere grey and damp, there was no inducement to take her out. In such conditions Marylebone is as depressing a district as any in London. The streets have a dull monotonous appearance, and the ancient unvenerable houses are grimy to blackness with the accumulation of soot on them. The inhabitants, especially in that portion of Marylebone where Fan lived, form a strange mixture. Artists, men of letters, sober tradesmen, artisans, day labourers, students, shop-assistants, and foreigners—dynamiters, adventurers, and waiters waiting for places—may all be found living in one short street. Bohemianism, vice, respectability, wealth and poverty, are jumbled together as in no other district in London. The modest wife, coming out of her door at ten in the morning to do her marketing, meets, face to face, her next neighbour standing at her door, a jug in her hand, waiting for some late milkman to pass—a slovenly dame in a dressing-gown with half the buttons off, primrose-coloured hair loose on her back, and a porcelain complexion hastily dabbed on a yellow dissipated face. The Maryleboners (or -bonites) being a Happy Family, in the menagerie sense, do not vex their souls about this condition of things; the well-fed and the hungry, the pure and the impure, are near together, but in soul they are just as far apart as elsewhere.
Nevertheless, to a young girl like Fan, living alone, and beautiful to the eye, the large amount of immorality around her was a serious trouble, and she never ventured out in the evening, even to go a short distance, without trepidation and a fast-beating heart, so strong was that old loathing and horror the leering looks and insolent advances of dissolute men inspired in her. And in no part of London are such men more numerous. When the shadows of evening fall their thoughts "lightly turn" to the tired shop-girl, just released from her long hours of standing and serving, and the surveillance perhaps of a tyrannical shop-walker who makes her life a burden. Her cheap black dress, pale face, and wistful eyes betray her. She is so tired, so hungry for a little recreation, something to give a little brightness and colour to her grey life, so unprotected and weak to resist—how easy to compass her destruction! The long evenings were lonely in her room, but it was safe there, and sitting before her fire writing to Constance, or thinking of her, and reading again one of the small collection of books she had brought from Eyethorne, the hours would pass not too slowly.
At length when the long cold season was drawing to an end, when the mud in the streets dried into fine dust for the mad March winds to whirl about, and violets and daffodils were cheap enough for Fan to buy, and she looked eagerly forward to walks in the grassy park at the end of each day, during those long summer evenings when the sun hangs low and does not set, the glad tidings reached her that the Chances were coming back to London. Journalism, in a country town at all events, had proved a failure, and Merton, with some new scheme in his brain, was once more about to return to the great intellectual centre, which, he now said, he ought never to have left.
"Most men when they want something done," he remarked, "have a vile way of getting the wrong person to do it. Here have I been wasting my flowers on this bovine public—whole clusters every week to those who have no sense of smell and no eye for form and colour. What they want is ensilage—a coarse fare suited to ruminants."
A few days afterwards Constance wrote from Norland Square in Notting Hill asking Fan to visit her as soon as convenient. Fan got the letter on a Saturday morning, and when the shop closed at two she hastened home to change her dress, and then started for Norland Square, where she arrived about half-past three o'clock.
There is no greater happiness on earth, and we can imagine no greater in heaven, than that which is experienced by two loving friends on meeting again after a long separation; that is, when the reunion has not been too long delayed. If new interests and feelings have not obscured the old, if Time has written no "strange defeatures" on the soul, and the image treasured by memory corresponds with the reality, then the communion of heart with heart seems sweeter than it ever seemed before its interruption. And this happiness, this rapture of the soul which makes life seem angelic for a season, the two friends now experienced in full measure. For an hour they sat together, holding each other's hands, feeling a strange inexpressible pleasure in merely listening to the sound of each other's voices, noting the familiar tones, the old expressions, the rippling laughter so long unheard, and in gazing into each other's eyes, bright with the lustre of joy, and tender with love almost to tears.
"Fan," said her friend, holding her a little away in order to see her better, "I have been distressing myself about you in vain. I could not help thinking that there would be one change after all this time, that your skin would lose that delicacy which makes you look so unfitted for work of any kind. There would be, I thought, a little of that unwholesome pallor and the tired look one so often sees in girls who are confined in shops and have to stand all day on their feet. But you have the same fresh look and pure delicate skin; nothing alters you. I do believe that you will never change at all, however long you may live, and never grow old."
"Or clever and wise like you," laughed the other.
The result of Fan's inspection of her friend's face was not equally satisfactory; for although Constance had not lost her rich colour nor grown thin, there was a look of trouble in the clear hazel eyes—the shadow which had first come there when the girls had overheard a conversation about Merton in the train, only the shadow was more persistent now.
"I expect Merton home at five," she said, "and then we'll have tea." Fan noticed that when she spoke of her husband that shadow of trouble did not grow less. And by-and-by, putting her arm round the other's neck, she spoke.
"Dearest Constance, shall I tell you one change I see in you? You are unhappy about something. Why will you not let me share your trouble? We were such dear friends always, ever since that day in the woods when you asked me why I disliked you. Must it be different now because you are married?"
"It must be a little different in some things," she replied gravely, and averting her eyes. "I love you as much as I ever did, and shall never have another friend like you in the world. But, Fan, a husband must have the first place in a wife's heart, and no friend, however dear, can be fully taken into their confidence. We are none of us quite happy, or have everything we desire in our lives; and the only difference now is that I can't tell you quite all my little secret troubles, as I hope you will always tell me yours until you marry. Do you not see that it must be so?"
"If it must be, Constance. But it seems hard, and—I am not sure that you are right."
"I have, like everyone else, only my own feelings of what is right to guide me. And now let us talk of something else—of dear old Eyethorne again."
It was curious to note the change that had come over her mind with regard to Eyethorne; and how persistently she returned to the subject of her life there, appearing to find a melancholy pleasure in dwelling on it. How she had despised its narrowness then—its stolid ignorances and prejudices, the dull, mean virtues on which it prided itself, the malicious gossip in which it took delight—and had chafed at the thought of her wasted years! Now all those things that had vexed her seemed trivial and even unreal. She thought less of men and women and more of nature, the wide earth, so tender and variable in its tints, yet so stable, the far-off dim horizon and infinite heaven, the procession of the seasons, the everlasting freshness and glory. It was all so sweet and peaceful, and the years had not been wasted which had been spent in dreaming. What beautiful dreams had kept her company there—dreams of the future, of all she would accomplish in life, of all life's possibilities! Oh no, not possibilities; for there was nothing in actual life to correspond with those imaginings. Not more unlike were those Turner canvases, daubed over with dull earthy paint, to the mysterious shadowy depths, the crystal purity, the evanescent splendours of nature at morn and noon and eventide, than was this married London life to the life she had figured in her dreams. That was the reality, the true life, and this that was called reality only a crude and base imitation. They were still talking of Eyethorne when Merton returned; but not alone, for he brought a friend with him, a young gentleman whom he introduced as Arthur Eden. He had not expected to find Fan with his wife, and a shade of annoyance passed over his face when he saw her. But in a moment it was gone, and seizing her hand he greeted her with exaggerated cordiality.
Constance welcomed her unexpected guest pleasantly, yet his coming disturbed her a good deal; for they were poor, living in a poor way, their only sitting-room where they took their meals being small and musty and mean-looking, with its rickety chairs and sofa covered with cheap washed-out cretonne, its faded carpet and vulgar little gimcrack ornaments on the mantelpiece. And this friend gave one the idea that her husband had fallen from a somewhat better position in life than he was now in. There was an intangible something about him which showed him to be one of those favoured children of destiny who are placed above the need of a "career," who dress well and live delicately, and have nothing to do in life but to extract all the sweetness there is in it. Very good- looking was this Mr. Eden, with an almost feminine beauty. Crisp brown hair, with a touch of chestnut in it, worn short and parted in the middle; low forehead, straight, rather thin nose, refined mouth and fine grey eyes. The face did not lack intelligence, but the predominant expression was indolent good-nature; it was colourless, and looked jaded and blase for one so young, his age being about twenty-four. The most agreeable thing in him was his voice, which, although subdued, had that quality of tenderness and resonance more common in Italy than in our moist, thick-throated island; and it was pleasant to hear his light ready laugh, musical as a woman's. In his voice and easy quiet manner he certainly contrasted very favourably with his friend. Merton was loud and incessant in his talk, and walked about and gesticulated, and spoke with an unnecessary emphasis, a sham earnestness, which more than once called an anxious look to his wife's expressive face.
"What do you think, Connie!" he cried. "In Piccadilly I ran against old Eden after not having seen him for over five years! I was never so overjoyed at meeting anyone in my life! We were at school together at Winchester, you know, and then he went to Cambridge—lucky dog! And I —but what does it matter where I went?—to some wretched crammer, I suppose. Since I lost sight of him he has been all over the world—India, Japan, America—no end of places, enjoying life and enlarging his mind, while I was wasting the best years of my life at that confounded Foreign Office."
"I shouldn't mind wasting the rest of my life in it," said his friend with a slight laugh.
"Now just listen to me," said Merton, squaring himself before the other, and prepared to launch out concerning the futility of life in the Foreign Office; but Constance at that moment interposed to say that tea was waiting. She had herself taken the tea-things from the general servant, who had brought them to the door, and was a slatternly girl, not presentable.
"I must tell you, Connie," began Merton, as soon as they were seated, for he had forgotten all about the other subject by this time, "that when I met Eden this afternoon he at once agreed to accompany me home to make your acquaintance, and take pot-luck with us. Of course I have told him all about our present circumstances, that we are not settled yet, and living in a kind of Bohemian fashion."
Eden on his side made several attempts to converse with the ladies, but they were not very successful, for Merton, although engaged in consuming cold mutton and pickles with great zest, would not allow them to wander off from his own affairs.
"I have something grand to tell you, Arthur" he went on, not noticing his wife's uncomfortable state of mind, and frequent glances in his direction. "You know all about what I am doing just now. Not bad stuff, I believe. The editors who know me will take as much of it as I care to give them. But I am not going to settle down into a mere magazine writer, although just at present it serves my purpose to scatter a few papers about among the periodicals. But in a short time I intend to make a new departure. I dare say it will rather astonish you to hear about it."
His grand idea, he proceeded to say, was to write a story—the first of a series—that would be no story at all in the ordinary sense, since it would have no plot or plan or purpose of any kind. Nor would there be analysis and description—nothing to skip, in fact. The people of his brain would do nothing and say nothing—at all events there would be no dialogue. The characters would be mere faint pencil-marks—something less than shadows.
Tea was over by the time this subject was exhausted; Eden's curiosity about his friend's projected novel, described so far by negatives only, had apparently subsided, for he managed to turn the conversation to some other subject; and presently Constance was persuaded to sit down to the piano. She played under difficulties on the dismal old lodging-house instrument, but declined to sing, alleging a cold, of which there was no evidence. Merton turned the music for her, and for the first time his friend found an opportunity of exchanging a few words with Fan. When first introduced to her their eyes had met for a moment, and his had brightened with an expression of agreeable surprise; afterwards during tea, when the flow of Merton's inconsequent chatter had made conversation impossible, his eyes had wandered frequently to her face as if they found it pleasant to rest there.
"Mrs. Chance plays skilfully," he said. "Merton is fortunate in such a wife."
"Yes; but I like her singing best. I am sorry she can't sing this evening, as it is always such a treat to me to listen to her."
"But you will sing presently, Miss Affleck, will you not? I have been waiting to ask you."
"I neither sing nor play, Mr. Eden. In music, as in everything else that requires study and taste, I am a perfect contrast to my friend."
"I fancy you are depreciating yourself too much. But it surprises me to hear that you don't sing. I always fancy that I can distinguish a musical person in a crowd, and you, in the expression of your face, in your movements, and most of all in your voice, seemed to reveal the musical soul."
"Did you really imagine all that?" returned Fan, reddening a little. "I am so sorry you were mistaken, for I do love music so much." And then as he said nothing, but continued regarding her with some curiosity, she added naively, "I'm afraid, Mr. Eden, that I have very little intellect."
He laughed and answered, "You must let me judge for myself about that."
Mr. Eden was musical himself, although his constitutional indolence had prevented him from becoming a proficient in the art. Still, he could sing a limited number of songs correctly, accompanying himself, and he was heard at his best in a room in which the four walls were not too far apart, as his voice lacked strength, while good in quality.
About nine o'clock Fan came in from the next room with her hat and jacket on to say good-bye. Mr. Eden started up with alacrity and begged her to let him see her home.
"Oh, thank you, Mr. Eden, but you need not trouble," she returned. "I am going to take an omnibus close by in the Uxbridge Road."