"Then you must let me see you safely in it," he said; and as he insisted that it was time for him to go she could no longer refuse. The door closed behind them after many jocular words of farewell from Merton, and husband and wife were left to finish their evening in privacy.
"Is it far to your home?" asked Eden.
"I live in Marylebone," she replied, giving a rather wide address.
"But is that too far to walk? I fancy I know where Marylebone is—north of Oxford Street. Will it tire you very much to walk?"
"Oh no, I love walking, but at night I couldn't walk that distance by myself, and so must ride."
"Then do let me see you home. You are an intimate friend of the Chances, and I am so anxious, now that I have met Merton, to hear something more about them. Perhaps you would not mind telling me what you know about their life and prospects."
"I will walk if you wish, Mr. Eden," she returned after a moment's hesitation. "Mrs. Chance is my friend, and she was my teacher for a year in the country, before she married. But I couldn't tell you anything about their prospects, I know so little."
"Still, you know a great deal more about them than I do, and my only motive in seeking information is—well, not a bad one. I might be able to give them a little help in their struggles. It strikes me that Merton is not going quite the right way to work to get on in life, and that his wife is not too happy. Do you think I am right?"
And the conversation thus begun continued very nearly to the end of their long walk, Fan, little by little unfolding the story of her friend's life in the country, of the journey to London, the sudden marriage; but concerning Merton, his occupations and prospects, she could tell him next to nothing, and her secret thoughts about him were not disclosed, in spite of many ingenious little attempts on her companion's part to pry into her mind.
"Miss Affleck," he said at length, "I feel the greatest respect for your motives in concealing what you do from me, for I know there is more to tell if you chose to tell it. But I am not blind; I can see a great deal for myself. I fear that your friend has made a terrible mistake in tying herself to Merton. At school he was considered a clever fellow, and afterwards when he got his clerkship, his friends—he had some friends then—would have backed him to win in the race of life. But he has fallen off greatly since then. It is plain to see that he drinks, and he has also become an incorrigible liar—"
"Mr. Eden!" exclaimed Fan.
"Do you imagine, Miss Affleck, that there is one atom of truth in all he says about his interest with editors, and his forthcoming books, and the rest? Do you think it really the truth that he was insane enough to throw up his clerkship at the Foreign Office which would have kept want from him, at all events, and from his wife?"
"I cannot say—I do not know," answered Fan; then added, somewhat illogically, "But it is so very sad for Constance! I don't want to judge him, I only want to hope."
"I wish to hope too—and to help if I can. I have tried to help him to- day, but now I fear that I have made a mistake, and that his wife will not thank me."
"What have you done, Mr. Eden? Is it a secret, or something you can tell me?"
He did not answer at once; the question, although it pleased him, required a little rapid consideration. He had been greatly attracted by Fan, and had observed her keenly all the evening, and had arrived at the conclusion that she was deeply attached to her friend Mrs. Chance, but was by no means a believer in or an admirer of Mr. Chance. All this provided him with an excellent subject of conversation during their long walk; for in some vague way he had formed the purpose of touching the heart-strings of this rare girl with grey pathetic eyes. Accordingly he affected an interest, which he was far from feeling, in his friend's affairs, expressing indignation at his conduct, and sympathy with his wife, and everything he said found a ready echo in the girl's heart. In this way he had gone far towards winning her confidence, and establishing a kind of friendly feeling between them. That little tentative speech about his mistake had produced the right effect and had made her anxious; it would serve his purpose best, he concluded, to satisfy her curiosity.
"Perhaps I had no right to say what I did," he answered at length, "as it is a secret. But I will tell it to you all the same, because I feel sure that I can trust you, and because we are both friends of the Chances and interested in their welfare, and anxious about them. When I met Merton to-day I was a little surprised at his manner and conversation, but in the end I set it down to excitement at meeting with an old friend. I was anxious not to believe that he had been drinking, and I did not know that most of the things he told me were rank falsehoods. He said that he was doing very well as a writer, and that he required fifty pounds to make up a sum to purchase an interest in a weekly paper, and asked me to lend it to him, which I did. I am now convinced that what he told me was not the truth, and that in lending him fifty pounds I have gone the wrong way about helping him, and fear very much—please don't think me cynical for saying it—that he will keep out of my sight as much as he can. I regret it for his wife's sake. He might have known that I could have helped him in other and better ways."
Fan made no remark, and presently he continued:
"But let us talk of something else now. Are you fond of reading novels, Miss Affleck?—if it is not impertinent in me to speak on such a subject just after we have heard Merton's harangue on the subject."
Of novels they accordingly talked for the next half-hour; but Fan, rather to his surprise, had read very few of the books of the day about which he spoke.
They were near the end of their walk now.
"Let me say one thing more about our friends before we separate," he said. "I do not believe that I shall see much of Merton now, as I said before. But I shall be very anxious to know how they get on, and you of course will know. Will you allow me to call at your house and see you sometimes?"
"That would be impossible, Mr. Eden."
"Why?" he asked in surprise.
"I must tell you, Mr. Eden—I wish Mr. Chance had told you to prevent mistakes—that I am only a very poor girl. I am in a shop in Regent Street, and have only one room in the house where I lodge. I have no relations in the world, and no friends except Constance."
"Is that so?" he said, his tone betraying his surprise. And with the surprise he felt was mingled disgust—disgust with himself for having so greatly mistaken her position, and with Destiny for having placed her so low. But the disgust very quickly passed away, and was succeeded by a different feeling—one of satisfaction if not of positive elation.
"This is my door, Mr. Eden," said Fan, pausing before one of the dark, grimy-looking houses in the monotonous street they had entered.
"I am sorry to part with you so soon," he returned. "I do hope that we shall meet again some day, and I should be so glad, Miss Affleck, if in future you could think that Mrs. Chance is not your only friend in the world. Whether we are destined to meet or not again, I should so like you to think that I am also your friend."
"Thank you, Mr. Eden, I shall be glad to think of you as a friend," she replied with simple frankness.
That speech and the glance of shy pleasure which accompanied it almost tempted him to say more, but he hesitated, and finally concluded not to go further just then; and after opening the door for her with her humble latchkey, he shook hands and said good-night.
Before leaving Fan at her own door Mr. Eden did not neglect to make a mental note of the number, although to make it out was not easy owing to the obscure veil that time, weather, and London smoke had thrown over the gilded figures. From Charlotte Street he walked slowly and thoughtfully to his rooms in Albemarle Street. "I feel too tired to go anywhere to- night," he said. "From the remotest wilds of Notting Hill to the eastern boundaries of Marylebone—a long walk even with such a companion. That young person I took for a lady is an all-round fraud. That delicate style of beauty is very deceptive; she would walk a camel off its legs."
A fire was burning brightly in his sitting-room; and throwing himself into a comfortable easy-chair before it, he lit a cigar, and began to think about things in general.
He did not feel quite settled in his London rooms, which he had taken furnished, and in which he had lived off and on for a period of eighteen months. He was always thinking of going abroad again to resume the wanderings which had been prematurely ended by the tidings of his father's death. But he was indolent, a lover of pleasure, with plenty of money, and a year and a half had slipped insensibly by. There was no need to do things in a hurry, he said; his inclination was everything: when he had a mind to travel he would travel, and when it suited his mood he would rest at home. He did not care very much about anything. His teachers had failed to make anything of him.
His father, who had retired from the military profession rather early in life, had wished him to go into the army; but he was not urgent, speaking to him less like a father to a son than a middle-aged gentleman to a young friend in whom he took a considerable interest, but who was his own master. "It's all very well to say 'Go into the army,'" his son would answer; "but I can't do it in the way you did, and I strongly object to the competitive system." And so the matter ended.
It was perhaps in a great measure due to his easygoing, unambitious character that he had not taken actively to evil courses. The poet is no doubt right when he says:
Satan finds some mischief still For idle hands to do.
But it is after all a small amount of mischief and of a somewhat mild description compared with that which he inspires in the busy, pushing, energetic man. But in spite of his moral debility and his small sympathy with enthusiasms of any kind, he was much liked by those who knew him. In a quiet way he was observant, and not without humour, which gave a pleasant flavour to his conversation. Moreover he was good-tempered, even to those who bored him, slow to take offence, easily conciliated, never supercilious, generous.
"What has come to Merton?" he said. "Confound the fellow! I used to think him so quiet, but now he would talk a donkey's hind-leg off. He's going to the dogs, I think, and I'm sorry I met him.... No, not sorry, since through meeting him I have made the acquaintance of that exquisite girl.... If I know what it is to be in love—and do I not?—I fancy I am beginning to feel the symptoms of that sweet sickness. I could not think of such a face and feel well. I must try to get her photo and have it enlarged; Mills could do a beautiful water-colour portrait from it.... Figure slim, and a most perfect complexion, with a colour delicate as the blush on the petals of some white flower. Nose straight enough and of the right size. It is possible to love, as I happen to know, women with insignificant noses, but impossible not to feel some contempt for them at the same time. Mouth—well, of a girl or woman, not a suckling—not the facial disfigurement called a rose-bud mouth, which has as little attraction for me as the Connemara or even the Zulu mouth. But how describe it, since the poets have not taught me? The painters manage these things better; but even their prince, Rossetti, has nothing on his canvases to compare with this delicate feature. Hair, golden-brown, very bright; for it does not lie like grass, beaten flat and sodden with rain; it is fluffy, loose, crisp, with little stray tresses on forehead, neck, and temples. About her eyes, those windows of the soul, I can only say— nothing. Something in their grey, mysterious depths haunts me like music. I don't know what it is. I have loved many a girl, from the northern with arsenic complexion, china-blue eyes, and canary-coloured hair, to the divine image cut in ebony, as some one piously and prettily says, but I doubt that I have felt quite in this way before. Yet she is not clever, as she says, and is only a poor shop-girl, her surname Affleck—that quaint, plebeian name with its curious associations! I must not forget to ask Merton to tell me her history. I shall certainly see him to-morrow, although perhaps for the last time. Fifty pounds should be enough to pay for the information I require. And that reminds me to ask myself a question—Is it my intention to follow up this adventure? She is a friend of Mrs. Chance, and since I met her at my friend's house, would it be a right thing to do? A nice question, but why bother my brains about it? One can't trust to appearances; but if she is what she looks no harm will come to her. If she is like other girls of her class, not too pure and good for human nature's daily food, then the result might be—not at all unpleasant.... Women, pretty girls even, are very cheap in England—a drug in the market, as any young man not positively a gorilla of ugliness must know. It rather saddens me to think what I could do, without being a King Solomon. But for this young girl who is not clever, and lodges in Charlotte Street, and goes every day to her shop, I think I could make a fool of myself. And make her happy perhaps. She should have not only a shelter from the storm and the tempest, but everything her heart could desire.... And if the opportunity offers, why should I not make her happy in the way she might like? Is it bad to wish to possess a beautiful girl? I fancy I have that part of my nature by inheritance. My amiable progenitor was, in this respect, something of a rascal, as someone says of the pious AEneas. Only at last he became religious, and repented of all his sins: the devil was sick, the devil a saint would be.... After all, if we are powerless to shape our own destinies, if what is to be will be, how idle to discuss such a question, to array conscience and inclination against one another, like two sets of wooden marionettes made to advance and retire by pulling at the strings! This battle in the brain, which may be fought out till not an opponent is left alive on one side, all in the course of half an hour, is only a mock battle—a mere farce. The real battle will be a bigger affair and last much longer, and a whole galaxy of gods will be looking down assisting now this side and now that— Chance, Time, Circumstance, and others too numerous to mention. This, then, is my conclusion—I am in the hands of destiny: che sara sara."
When Merton, after bidding good-night to his guests at the street-door, returned to the sitting-room where he had left his wife he did not find her there; in the bedroom he discovered her with tear-stains on her face.
The smile faded from his lips, he forgot the things he had come to say, and sitting down by her side he took her hand in his, but without speaking. He knew why she had been crying. He loved his wife as much as it was in his power to love anyone after himself, and to some extent he appreciated her. He recognised in her a very pure and beautiful spirit, a great depth of affection, and a clear, cultivated intellect, yet without any of that offensive pride and insolent scorn which so often accompanies freedom of thought in a woman and makes her contrast so badly with her old-fashioned Christian sister. He did not rate her powers very highly, not high enough in fact, so as to compensate for the excessive esteem in which he held his own; nevertheless she was to him a lovely, even a gifted woman, and, what was more, she loved him and took him at his own valuation, and had linked her life with his when his fortunes were at their lowest. He was always very tender with her, and had never yet, even in his occasional moments of irritation and despondence, spoken an unkind word to her. During the evening he had not failed to notice that she was ill at ease, and he rightly divined that something in himself had been the cause; nor was he at a loss to guess what that something was. Yet he had not allowed the thought to trouble him overmuch; at all events it had made no perceptible difference in his manner, his elation at the thought of the fifty pounds he was going to receive causing this little shadow to seem a very small matter. Now he was troubled by a feeling of compunction, and when he spoke at length it was in a gentle, pleading tone.
"Connie," he said, "I needn't ask you why you have been crying. I have offended you so many times that I know the signs only too well."
"That is a reproach I do not deserve, Merton," she returned.
"I am not reproaching you, dear, but myself for giving you pain."
"Have I shown myself so hard to please, so ready to take offence, that you know the signs of disapproval so well?"
"No, Connie; on the contrary. But my eyes are quick to see disapproval, as yours are quick to see anything wrong in me. And I would not have it different." After a while he continued, a little anxiously, "Do you think our visitor—I mean Eden, for I care nothing about Fan—noticed any signs of—noticed what you did?"
"How can I tell, Merton? He looked a little tired, I thought."
"Did he look tired? And yet I think I talked well." She made no reply, and he continued, "Of course, Connie, you thought I seemed too excited— that I had been taking stimulants. Is it not so?"
"Yes, I thought that," she replied, averting her eyes, and in a tone of deep pain. "Oh, Merton, is this going to continue until it grows into a habit? It will break my heart!"
"My dear girl, you needn't imagine anything so terrible. You can trust me to keep my word. I shall become a total abstainer; not because alcohol has now or ever can have any fatal attraction for me, but solely because you wish it, Connie. I confess that to-day I came home unusually excited, but it was not because I had exceeded. It was because I had met with an unexpected stroke of good luck. When I met Eden to-day, and was telling him about my new career and my struggles as a beginner, he at once very kindly offered to lend me fifty pounds to assist me."
"And are you going to borrow money from your friend?"
"I should not think of asking him for money; but when he offered me this small sum—for to him it is small—I could not think of refusing. It would have been foolish when our funds are so low, and I shall soon be in a position to repay him."
"And you took the money?"
"No, I am to have it to-morrow. I am going to meet him at his club."
"I wish, Merton, that you could do without this fifty pounds," she said after a while. "I see no prospect of repaying it, there is so little coming in. And I seem unable to help you in the least—my last manuscript came back to-day, declined like the others. I am afraid that this borrowing will do us more harm than good. It is the way to lose your friends, I think, and the friendship of a man in Mr. Eden's position should be worth more to you than fifty pounds, even looking at the matter in a purely interested way."
"You need not fear, Connie. Besides, even if you are right in what you say, I should really prefer to have this little help than Eden's friendship. You see he is a mere butterfly, without any interest in things of the mind, and it is not likely that he will be very much to us in our new life, which will be among intellectual and artistic people, I hope."
"With so poor an opinion of him I can't imagine how you can take his money and lay yourself under so great an obligation."
"Pooh, Connie, the obligation will be very light indeed. In three or four months the money will be repaid, and he will think as little about it as he does of inviting me to lunch or giving me a good cigar. I shall always be friendly with him, and invite him sometimes to see us when we are comfortably established; but he is not a man I should ever wish to grapple to my breast with hooks of steel. And so you see, wifie dear, you have been making yourself unhappy without sufficient cause. And now won't you kiss and forgive me, and acknowledge that I am not so black as your imagination painted me?"
She kissed him freely, and accepted as simple truth the explanation he had given of his excited condition during the evening; nevertheless, she was not quite happy in her mind. The return of that last manuscript—a long article which had cost her much pains to write, and about which she had been very hopeful—had made her sore, and he had paid no attention to what she had said about it, and the words of sympathy and encouragement she had looked for had not been spoken. Then it had jarred on her mind to hear her husband talk so disparagingly of the friend from whom he was borrowing money. She had herself formed a better opinion of Mr. Eden's character and capabilities. And about the borrowing, what he had said had not altered her mind; but it was her way whenever she disagreed with her husband to reason and even plead with him, and if she then found, as she generally did, that he still adhered to his own view, to yield the point and say no more about it.
Next day the friends met at Eden's club, and after lunching they had an hour's conversation in the smoking-room. But their characters of the previous evening now seemed to be reversed—Eden talked and the other listened. An inexplicable change had come over the loquacious man of letters; he listened and seemed to be on his guard, drinking little, and saying nothing about his plans and prospects. "Damn the fellow, I can't make him out at all," thought Eden, vexed that the other gave him no opportunity of introducing the subject he had been thinking so much about. He did not wish to introduce it himself, but in the end he was compelled to do so.
"By the way, Merton, before I forget it," he said at length, "tell me about Miss Affleck, whom I met at your house last evening."
Merton glanced at him and did not appear to be pleased at the question. "Oh, I see," thought his friend, "the subject is not one that he finds agreeable. I must know why."
"She is a friend of my wife's, but I have never seen much of her," replied Merton. "She is an orphan, without money or expectations, I believe." After an interval he added—"But I dare say you know as much as I can tell you about her, as you walked home or part of the way home with her last evening."
This of course was a mere guess on Merton's part.
"Yes, I did, but I didn't question her, and I wanted to know where her people came from, the Afflecks—"
"Oh, I can soon satisfy your curiosity on that point. That is really not her name. She was adopted or something by a lady who took an interest in her for some reason, or for no reason, and who thought proper to give her that name because Miss Affleck's real surname didn't please her."
"What was her real name?"
"I can't remember. Barnes, or Thompson, or Wilkins—one of those sort of names."
"And how came the lady to call her Affleck?"
"A mere fancy for an uncommon name, I believe, and because Frances Affleck sounded better than Frances Green or Black or anything she could think of. Of course she didn't really adopt the girl at all, but she brought her up and educated her."
Eden was not yet satisfied with what he had heard, and as Merton seemed inclined to drop the subject, which was not what he wanted, he remarked tentatively:
"How curious then that Miss Affleck should now be compelled to make her own living as a shop-assistant!"
"Oh, you got that out of her!" exclaimed Merton, in a tone of undisguised annoyance.
"Don't say I got it out of her," returned the other a little sharply. "I did not question her about her affairs, of course. She gave me that information quite spontaneously. I can't remember what it was that brought the subject up." Here he paused to reflect, remarking mentally, "This fellow is teaching me to be as great a liar as he is himself." Then he continued—"Ah, yes, I remember now; we were talking about books, and I asked her why she had not read all the popular novels I mentioned, and then she explained her position."
"Then," said Merton, transferring his resentment to Fan, "I think it would have shown better taste if she had been a little more reticent with a stranger about her private affairs; more especially with one she has met in my house. For she knows that she took to this life against our wishes and advice, and that by so doing she has placed a great distance between herself and Mrs. Chance."
"Perhaps you are right. It is certainly a rare thing in England to see a young lady in Miss Affleck's position so well suited in appearance and manner to mix with those who are better placed."
"Quite so. She was never intended for her present station in life. And since you know what you do know about her through her own want of discretion, you must let me explain how she comes to be a visitor in my house, and received as a friend by my wife. My wife's father, a retired barrister living on a small and not very productive estate of his own in Wiltshire, consented to receive Miss Affleck to reside for a year in his house, and during that time my wife gave her instruction. Unhappily the lady who had made Miss Affleck her protegee, and who happens to be an extremely crotchety and violent-tempered woman, so full of fads and fancies that she is more suited to be in a lunatic asylum than at large—"
"Old, I suppose?" remarked Eden, amused at this sudden flow of talk.
"Old? Well, yes; getting on, I should say. One of those bewigged and painted wretches that hate to be thought over forty. Well, for some unexplained reason,—probably because Miss Affleck was young and pretty and attracted too much admiration—she quarrelled with the poor girl and cast her off. It was a barbarous thing to do, and we would gladly have given her a home, and my wife's mother also offered to help her. But as she wished not to be dependent, Mrs. Chance was anxious to get her a place as governess or school-teacher. The girl, however, who is strangely obstinate, would not be persuaded, and eventually got this situation for herself. This explains what you have heard, and what must have surprised you very much. Out of pity for the girl, who had been hardly treated, and because of my wife's affection for her, I have allowed this thing to continue, and have not given her to understand that by taking her own course in opposition to our wishes, she has cut herself off from her friends."
Eden, as we know, had become possessed of the idea that Merton would not tell the truth if a lie could serve his purpose equally well, and he did not therefore attach much importance to what he had heard. Nevertheless, it pleased him. Merton was evidently ashamed at having a shop-girl received as an equal by his wife, and would be glad, like the bewigged and evil-tempered old woman he had spoken of, to cast her off. "His house!" thought Eden contemptuously; "a couple of wretched rooms in the shabby neighbourhood of Norland Square."
"Well," he said, rising and looking at his watch, "it is greatly to be regretted that she did not follow your wife's advice, as there is no question that she is too good for her present station in life."
Merton also rose; the fifty pounds were in his pocket (and his I O U in his friend's pocket), and there was nothing more to detain him.
"You seem to have been very much attracted by her," he said with a smile. "Perhaps you intend to cultivate her acquaintance."
Eden smiled also, for his friend's eyes were on his face. "She is a charming girl, Chance, and—I met her at your house. Unless I meet her there on some future occasion, I do not suppose that I shall ever see her again. She has chosen her own path in life, and I only hope that she may not find it unpleasant."
Then they shook hands and separated; Merton to attend to a little business matter, then to go home to his wife, with some new things to tell her. Eden's mental remark was, "I may see—I hope to see Miss Affleck again, not once, but scores and hundreds of times; but I shall not grieve much, my veracious and noble-minded friend, if I should never again run against you in Piccadilly or any other thoroughfare."
From his visit to Eden, which, in different ways, had proved satisfactory to both gentlemen, Merton returned at six o'clock to dine with his wife, their usual midday meal having been put off until that hour to suit his convenience. He had brought a bottle of good wine with him; for with fifty pounds in his pocket he could afford to be free for once, and at table he made himself very entertaining.
"This has been a red-letter day," he said, "and I shall finish it by being as lazy as I like to be. I shouldn't care to sit down now to work after such a good dinner. Rest and be thankful is my motto for the moment, and perhaps by-and-by you will treat me to some of your music. Eden has rather a taste for music, and admires your playing greatly."
He was very lively, and chattered on in this strain until the wine was finished, and then Constance played and sung a few of his favourite pieces. But after the singing was over, and when she was doing a little needlework, she noticed that he had grown strangely silent, and sat staring into the fire with clouded face; and thinking that there was perhaps something on his mind which he might like to speak about, she put down her work and went to him.
"What is it, Merton, dear?" she said; "are there any dead flies in that little pot of apothecary's ointment you brought home to-day?"
"No, not one—not even the proboscis of a fly has been left sticking in it. By the way, here it is, all but five pounds which I had to change to- day. Take it, Connie, and stick to it like old boots. No, dear, it was not that; I was thinking of something different—something that has vexed me a little. When is your friend Fan coming again?"
"Fan! I don't know. We made no arrangement. I am to write to let her know when to come. Has Fan anything to do with the vexation you speak of?"
"Yes, to some extent she has; but I really had no intention of speaking of it just now, as I know how sensitive you are on that point, and biased in her favour."
"Biased in her favour, Merton? What is there wrong in her?—how can she have vexed you?"
"She has done nothing intentionally to vex me. But, Connie, she is a very ignorant girl, and I cannot help regretting very much that she was here last evening when Eden came."
"You are not very complimentary to me when you call her ignorant, Merton."
"My dear girl, I don't mean ignorant in that sense. I dare say you taught her as much as most young ladies are supposed to know; perhaps more. But she is naturally ignorant of social matters, with an ignorance that is born in her and quite invincible."
"I am more puzzled than ever. I have taught her something—not very much, I confess, as I only had her for one year. But for the rest, it has always been my opinion that she possesses a natural refinement, such as one would expect from her appearance, and that there is a singular charm in her manner. Perhaps you do not think me capable of forming a right judgment about such things."
"Don't say that, Connie; but you shall judge yourself whether I am right or wrong in what I have said when you hear the facts. It appears that Eden did not see her to the omnibus, but walked home with her last evening. He spoke of her this morning, and though he assumed an indifferent tone, it was plain to see that he was very much surprised to find a shop-girl from Regent Street visiting and on terms of equality with my wife."
"How came your friend to know that she was a shopgirl in Regent Street?"
"That's just where the cause of vexation lies," said Merton. "She told him that herself, not in answer to any question from him, but simply because she thought proper to explain who and what she was. She did not think it was wrong, no doubt, but what can you do with such a person? Surely she must be ignorant to talk about her squalid affairs to a gentleman of Mr. Eden's standing after meeting him in our house! To tell you the truth, I think it was kind of Eden to mention the matter to me. It was as if he had said in so many words, 'If your visitors and dearest friends are chosen from the shop-girl class, you will find it a rather difficult matter to better your position in the world.'"
"I am very sorry you have been annoyed, Merton. But I could not very well speak to Fan about it. She would imagine, and it would be very natural, that we were getting a little too fastidious."
"You are right, she would, and I advise you to say nothing about it. A far better plan would be to break off this unequal friendship, which will only distress and be a hindrance to us in various ways, and would have to come to an end some day."
"Oh, Merton, that would be cruel to her and to me as well! Not only is she my dearest friend, but she is really the only friend I have got."
"Yes, I know; I have thought about that, but it will not be for long, Connie. You must not imagine that our life is to be spent in this or any other sordid suburb. The articles I am now engaged on cannot fail to bring me into notice and give us a fair start in life; and you may be sure, Connie, that society will very soon find out that you are one of the gifted ones, both physically and mentally. It will not be suitable for you to know one in Fan's position, and it will only be a kindness to the girl if you quietly drop her now."
Constance was not in the least affected by this glittering vision of the future; she made no reply, but with eyes cast down and a face expressing only pain she moved from his side, and sat down to her work once more. To be deprived of her beloved friend, whose friendship was so much to her in her solitary life, and whose place in her heart no other could take, and for so slight a cause, seemed very hard and very strange. Why did her husband consider her so little in this matter? This she asked herself, and a suspicion which had floated vaguely in her mind before began to take form. Was this slight cause the real cause of so harsh a determination? Since he loved her, and was invariably kind and tender, it seemed more like a pretext. She remembered that from the first he had depreciated Fan, and had sometimes shown irritation at her visiting them; did he fear that some disagreeable secret of his past life, known to Fan, might be betrayed by her? It was a painful suspicion and made her silent.
Merton was also silent; to himself he said, "I knew that it would grieve her a little at first, but she is not unreasonable, and in a short time she will come round to my opinion. The girl is well enough, but not a fit associate for my wife, and it is better to get rid of-her now before making new friends."
At half-past ten o'clock Constance, still silent, took her candle and went to her bedroom, still with that secret trouble gnawing at her heart.
Merton found a book and read until past twelve, and then came to the conclusion that the author was an ass. It happened that he knew something about the author; he knew, for instance, that he was a married man, and lived in a pretty house at Richmond, and gave garden-parties, to which a great many well-known people went. Well, if this scribbler could make enough by his twaddling books to live in that style, what might not he, Merton, make?
His wife's entrance just then interrupted his pleasant thoughts. She had risen from her bed after lying awake two or three hours, and came in with a light wrapper over her nightdress, and her hair unbound on her shoulders. "Is it not getting very late, Merton?" she asked.
"Connie, come here," he said, regarding her with some surprise, and then drawing her on to his knee. "My dear girl, you have been crying."
"Yes, ever since I went to bed. But I didn't think you would notice, I did not mean you to know it."
"Why not, darling? I am very sorry that what I said about Fan distresses you so much. But why should you hide any grief, little or great, from me, dearest?" he added, caressing her hair.
"I have never hidden anything from you, Merton, only to-night I felt strongly inclined to conceal what was in my mind. Let me tell you what it is; and will you, Merton, on your part, be as open with me and show the same confidence in my love that I have in yours?"
"Assuredly I will, Connie. We shall never be happy if we hide anything from each other."
"Then, Merton, I must tell you that your readiness in resenting that little fault of Fan's, and making it a cause for separating us, makes me suspect that there is something behind it which you have kept from me. Tell me, Merton, and do not be afraid to tell me if my suspicion is correct, is there anything in your past life you wished to keep from me and which is known to Fan, and might come to my knowledge through her?"
"No, Connie, there is absolutely nothing in my past that I would hesitate to tell you. If I had had any painful secret I should have told it to you when I asked you to be my wife, and I am surprised that such a suspicion should have entered your mind. But I am very glad that you have told me of it. You shall send for Fan and question her yourself, for I presume you have never done so before, and after that you will perhaps cease to doubt me."
"I do not doubt your word, Merton, and trust and believe that I never shall doubt the truth of what you say. To question Fan about you—that I could not do, even if the suspicion still lived, but it is over now, and you must forgive me for having entertained it."
"Perhaps it was not altogether strange, Connie, since you attach so little importance to these distinctions. But they are very important nevertheless, and in this keen struggle for life, and for something more than a bare subsistence, we cannot afford to hamper ourselves in any way. I am quite sure that, even if I had spoken no word, you would have discovered after a while that this is an inconvenient friendship. I have known it all along, but have not hitherto spoken about it for fear of paining you. But do not distress yourself any more to-night, Connie; let things remain as they are at present, if it is your wish."
"My wish, Merton! My chief wish is never to do anything of which you would disapprove. Do I need to remind you that I have never opposed a wish of mine to yours? I could not let things remain as they are at present while you think as you do. It will be a great grief to me to lose Fan, but while you are in this mind I would not ask her to come and see me again, even if you were a thousand miles from home."
"Then, dear wife, let us think it over for two or three days, and when I have got over this little vexation, if I see any reason to change my mind I shall let you know in good time."
And so for the moment the matter ended; but two or three days passed, and then two or three more, and Merton still kept silence on the subject.
A fortnight went by. Fan, occupied in her shop and happy enough, except once when she encountered the grisly manager's terrible eyes on her: then she trembled and glanced down at her dress, fearing that it had looked rusty or out of shape to him; for in that establishment a heavy fine or else dismissal would be the lot of any girl who failed to look well- dressed. Constance, for the most part sitting solitary at home, trying in vain to write something that would meet the views of some editor. Merton, busy running about, full to overflowing of all the things he intended doing. Eden, doing nothing: only thinking, which, in his case at all events, was "but an idle waste of thought." So inactive was he at this period, and so much tobacco did he consume to assist his mental processes, that he grew languid and pale. His friends remarked that he was looking seedy. This made him angry—very angry for so slight a cause; and he thought that of all the intolerable things that have to be put up with this was the worst—that people should remark to a man that he is looking seedy, when the seediness is in the soul, and the cause of it a secret of which he is ashamed.
At the end of the fortnight he became convinced that his feeling for the delicate girl with the pathetic grey eyes was no passing fancy, but a passion that stirred him as he had never been stirred before, and he resolved to possess her in spite of the fact that he had met her in his friend's house.
"Let the great river bear me to the main," he said; although bad, he was too honest to quote the other line, feeling that he had not striven against the stream.
Having got so far, he began to consider what the first step was to be in this enterprise of great pith and moment. For although the insanity of passionate desire possessed him, he was not going to spoil his chances by acting in a hurry, or doing anything without the most careful consideration. The desire to see her again was very insistent, and by strolling up the street in which she lived in the evening he might easily have met her, by chance as it were, returning from her shop, but he would not do that. An enterprise of this kind seemed to him like one of those puzzle-games in which if a right move is made at first the game may be won, however many blundering moves may follow; but if the first move is wrong, then by no possible skill and care can the desired end be reached.
He recalled their conversation about novels, and remembered the titles of five popular works he had mentioned which Miss Affleck had not read. These works he ordered in the six-shilling form, and then spent the best part of a day cutting the leaves and knocking the books about to give them the appearance of having been used. He also wrote his name in them, in each case with some old date; and finally, to make the deception complete, spilt a little ink over the cover of one volume, dropped some cigar-ash between the leaves of a second, and concealed a couple of old foreign letters on thin paper in a third. Then he tied them up together and sent them to her by a messenger with the following letter:
DEAR MISS AFFLECK,
I have just been looking through my bookshelves, and was pleased to find that I had some of the novels we spoke about the other evening, which, if I remember rightly, you said that you had not read. It was lucky I had so many, as my friends have a habit of carrying off my books and forgetting to return them. If you will accept the loan of them, do not be in a hurry to return them; they will be safer in your keeping than in mine, and one or two, I think, are almost worth a second perusal.
I must not let slip this opportunity, as another might not occur for a long time, of saying something about our friends at Norland Square. I saw Merton the day after meeting you, but not since; nor have I heard from him. I know now that he lost his appointment at the Foreign Office through his own folly, and that most of his friends have dropped him. I do honestly think that Mrs. Chance has made a terrible mistake; I pity her very much. But things may not after all turn out altogether badly, and if Merton has any good in him he ought to show it now, when he has such a woman as your friend for a wife and companion. At all events, I have made up my mind—and this is another secret, Miss Affleck—to forget all about the past and do what I can to assist him. Not only for auld lang syne, for we were great friends at school, but also for his wife's sake. My only fear is that he will keep out of my sight, but perhaps I am doing him an injustice in thinking so. But as you will continue to see your friend, may I ask you to let me know should they at any time be in very straitened circumstances, or in any trouble, or should they go away from Norland Square? I do hope you will be able to promise me this.
Believe me, dear Miss Affleck,
To this letter, the writing of which, it is only right to say, actually caused Mr. Eden to blush once or twice, Fan at once replied, thanking him for the parcel of books. "I must also thank you," the letter said, "for telling me to keep them so long, as there is so much to read in them, and my reading time is only when I am at leisure in the evening. I shall take great care of them, as I think from their look that you like to keep your books very clean." In answer to the second part of his letter she wrote: "I scarcely know what to reply to what you say about the Chances. Constance and I are such great friends that I am almost ashamed to discuss her affairs with anyone else, as I am sure that she would be very much hurt if she knew it. And yet I must promise to do what you ask. I do not think it would be right to refuse after what you have said, and I am very glad that Mr. Chance has one kind friend left in you."
Eden was well satisfied at the result of his first move. There would have to be a great many more moves before the pretty game ended, but he now had good reason to hope for a happy ending.
She had accepted his offer of his friendship, the loan of his books, and had written him a letter which he liked so much that he read it several times. It was a sunshiny April morning, and after breakfasting he went out for a stroll, feeling a strange lightness of heart—a sensation like that which a good man experiences after an exercise of benevolence. And the feeling actually did take the form of benevolence, and no single pair of hungry wistful eyes met his in vain during that morning's walk until he had expended the whole of his small change. "Poor wretches!" he thought, "I couldn't have imagined there was so much misery and starvation about." His heart was overflowing with happiness and love for the entire human race. "After all," he continued, "I don't think I'm half as bad as that impudent conscience of mine sometimes tries to make out. I know lots of fellows who sink any amount of money in betting and other things and never think to give sixpence to a beggar. Of course no one can be perfect, everyone must have some vice. But I don't quite look on mine as a vice. Some wise man has called it an amiable weakness— that's about as good a description as we can have."
Passing along a quiet street where the houses were separated from the pavement by gardens and stone balustrades, he noticed a black cat seated on the top of a pillar, its head thrown far back, and its wide-open eyes, looking like balls of yellow fire, fixed on a sparrow perched high above on the topmost twig of a tall slender tree. "Puss, puss," said Eden, speaking to the animal almost unconsciously, and without pausing in his walk. Down instantly leapt the cat, inside the wall, and dashing through the shrubbery, shot ahead of him, and springing on to the balustrade thrust its head forward to catch a passing caress. He touched the soft black head with his fingers, and passed on with a little laugh. "An instance of the magical effect of kindness," he soliloquised. "That cat sees more enemies than friends among the passers-by—the boy whose soul delights in persecuting a strange cat, and the young man with that most insolent and aggressive little beast a fox-terrier at his heels. And yet quick as lightning it understood the tone I spoke to it in, although the voice was strange, and shot past me and came out just for a pat on the head. A very sagacious cat; and yet I really felt no particular kindness towards it; the tone was only assumed. Its statuesque figure attracted me, as it sat there like a cat carved out of ebony, with two fiery splendid gems for eyes. I admired the beauty of the thing, that was all. And as with cats so it is with women. Let them once think that you are kind, and you have a great advantage. You may do almost anything after that; your kindness covers it all.... What an impudent juggler, and what an outrageous fibber, this confounded conscience is! I may not have felt any great kindness for black pussy when I spoke to her, but between that and carrying her home under my coat to vivisect her at leisure there is a vast difference. If I am ever unkind in act or word or deed to that sweet girl—no, the idea is too absurd! I can feel nothing but kindness for her, and if I felt convinced that I could not make her happy, then I would resign her at once, hard as that would be."
That same evening Eden received a second letter from Fan, but very short, enclosing the two foreign letters, which she had just found in one of his books. This was only what he had expected. He replied, also briefly, thanking her for sending the letters, and for the promise she had given, and there for the moment he allowed the affair to rest.
Meanwhile Fan was every day expecting an invitation to Norland Square, and she was deeply disappointed and surprised when a whole week passed with no letter from Constance. Then a long letter came, which troubled her a good deal, for she was not asked to go to Norland Square, and no meeting was arranged, but, on the contrary, she was left to infer that there would be no meeting for some time to come. A photograph and a postal order for five shillings were enclosed in the letter, and about these Constance wrote: "I send you the photo you have so often expressed a wish to have, and I think you ought to feel flattered, for I have not been taken before since I was fifteen years old; I don't like the operation. I think it flatters me, and Merton says that it does not do me justice, so that it cannot be quite like me, but it will serve well enough to refresh your memory of me when we are separated for any length of time. But it is so painful to me to think of losing sight of you altogether that I have no heart to say more about that just now. Only I must have your photo: I cannot wait long for it, and you must forgive me, dearest Fan, for sending the money to have it taken at once. I know, dear, that you cannot very well afford to spend money on pictures, even of yourself, and so please don't be vexed with me, but do as I wish; for since I cannot have you always near me I wish at least to have your counterfeit presentment. I should like it cabinet size if you can get it for the money, if not I must have a small vignette, and I hope you will go to a good man and have it well done, and above all that you will send it soon."
There was much more in the letter; a sweeter Fan had never received from her friend, so much affection did it express; but it also expressed sadness, and the vague hints of probable changes to come, and a long separation in it, mystified and troubled her.
Before many days the photograph, which cost half-a-guinea, was finished and sent to Constance, with a letter in which Fan begged her friend to appoint a day for them to meet.
In the meantime at Norland Square Merton was preparing for a fresh change in his life, and as usual with a light heart; but in this instance his wife for the first time had taken the lead. After breakfast one morning he was getting ready to go to Fleet Street to the office of a journal there, when Constance asked if she might go with him.
"Yes, dear, certainly, if you wish to see a little of the life and bustle of London."
"I haven't seen much of London yet, and I should so like to have a little peep at the East End we hear and read so much about just now. Can't you manage, after your business is finished at the office, to go with me there on a little exploring expedition?"
"That's not a bad idea," he returned. "But I shall be lost in that wilderness, and not know which way to go and what to look for."
"Then I shall be your guide," she said with a smile. "I've been studying the map, and reading a book about that part of London, and have marked out a route for us to follow."
"All right, Connie, get ready as soon as you like, and we'll have a day of adventures in the East."
And as Constance had dressed herself with a view to the journey, she had only to put on her hat and gloves, and they started at once, taking an omnibus in the Uxbridge Road to Chancery Lane. From Fleet Street they went on to Whitechapel, where their travels in a strange region were to begin. Constance wished in the first place to get some idea of the extent of that vast district so strangely called East End, as if it formed but a small part of the great city. The population and number of tenements, and of miles of streets, were mere rows of figures on a page, and no help to the mind. Only by seeing it all would she be able to form any conception of it: she saw a great deal of it in the course of the day from the tops of omnibuses, and travelled for hours in those long thoroughfares that seemed to stretch away into infinitude, so that one finds it hard to believe that nature lies beyond, and fields where flowers bloom, and last night's dew lies on the untrodden grass. Nor was she satisfied with only seeing it, or a part of it, in this hasty superficial way; at various points they left the thoroughfare to stroll about the streets, and in some of the streets they visited, which were better than those inhabited by the very poor, Constance entered several of the houses on the old pretext of seeking lodgings, and made many minute inquiries about the cost of living from the women she talked with.
It was seven o'clock in the evening when they got home; and after dining Merton lit a cigar and stretched himself out on the sofa of their sitting-room to recover from his fatigue. His wife was also too tired to do anything, and settled herself near him in the easy-chair.
"Well, Connie," he said with a smile, "what is to be the outcome of the day's adventures? Of course you had an object in dragging one through that desert desolate."
"Yes, I had," she answered with a glance at his face. "Can you guess it?"
"Perhaps I can. But let me hear it. I shall be so sorry if I have to nip your scheme in the bud."
"I think, Merton, it would be a good plan for us to go and live there for a time. It is better to move about a little and see some of the things that are going on in this world of London. I am getting a little tired of the monotony here; besides, just now when we are so poor it would be a great advantage. I found out to-day that we can get better rooms than these for about half the sum we are paying. Provisions and everything we require are also much cheaper there."
"Yes, dear, that may be, but you forget that the man who aspires to rise in London must have an address he is not ashamed of. Norland Square is a poor enough place, but there is at any rate a W. after it. I fancy it would be very bad economy in the end, just to save a few shillings a week, to go where there would be an E."
"I don't quite agree with you, Merton. When we have friends to correspond with and to visit us, then we can think more about where we live; I have no desire to settle permanently or for any long time in the east district. But I have not yet told you the principal reason I have for wishing to go and live in that part of London for a few months—weeks if you like."
"Well, what is it?"
"I think it will be a great advantage to you, Merton. You will be able to see and hear for yourself. You speak about East End socialism in the papers you are writing, but you speak of it, as others do, in a vague way, as a thing contemptible and yet dangerous to civilisation, or which might develop into something dangerous. It strikes me that something is to be gained by studying it more closely, but just now you are dependent on others for your facts."
"And you think I could see things better than others?" he said, not ill pleased.
"You can at all events see them with your own eyes, and that will be better than looking at them through other people's spectacles. Besides, it is a period of rapid transitions, and the picture painted yesterday, however faithful to nature the artist may have been, no longer represents things as they exist to-day."
"You are right there."
"And if you go to the East End with the avowed object of studying certain phenomena and ascertaining certain facts for yourself, to use in your articles, I don't think that your residence there would prejudice you in any way."
"No, of course not. Why, the thing is done every day by well-known men— brilliant writers some of them—men who are run after by Mr. Knowles. It is a good idea, Connie, and I am glad you suggested it. The spread of socialism in London is a grand subject. Of course I know all about the arguments of the wretched crew of demagogues engaged in this propaganda. I could easily, to quote De Quincey's words, 'bray their fungous heads to powder with a lady's fan, and throttle them between heaven and earth with my finger and thumb.' But we want to know just how far their doctrines, or whatever they call their crack-brained fantasies, have taken root in the minds of the people, and what the minds are like, and what the outcome of it all is to be. If we go to the East End, and I don't see why we shouldn't, as soon as we find ourselves settled there I shall begin to go about a great deal among the people, and attend the meetings of the social democrats, and listen to the wild words of their orators, and note the effect of what they say on their hearers What do you say, Connie?"
"I shall be ready to pack up and follow you any day, Merton. And I think that I might assist you a little; at all events I shall try, and go about among the women and listen to what they say while you are listening to the men."
Merton was delighted. "You have a prophetic soul, Connie," he said, "and I shall be as much astonished as yourself if something grand doesn't come of this. A great thing in my favour is that I can generally manage to get at the pith of a thing, while most people can do nothing but sniff in a hopeless sort of way at the rind. Of course you have noticed that in me, Connie. I sometimes regret that I am not a barrister, for I possess the qualities that lead to success in that profession. At the same time it is a profession that has a very narrowing effect on the mind—the issues are really in most cases so paltry. Your barrister never can be a statesman; he has looked at things so closely, to study the little details, that his eagle vision has changed into the short sight of the owl. And, by the way, now I think of it, I must have a little brandy in to-night to drink success to our new scheme."
"Do you really need brandy, Merton? I thought—"
"Yes, I really do—to-night. I feel so thoroughly knocked up, Connie; and now my brain is in such a state of activity that a little brandy will have no more effect than so much water. Do you know, it is an ascertained fact in science that alcohol taken when you are active—either physically or mentally active—does not go off nor remain in the tissues, but is oxygenised and becomes food. Besides this, I fancy, will be about the last bottle I shall allow myself, I know that you are a Sir Wilfred Lawsonite, and I am determined to respect all your little prepossessions. Not that you have much to thank me for in this case, for I really care very little about strong waters."
He rang the bell, and gave the servant-girl six shillings to get a bottle of Hennessy's brandy. With that bottle of brandy looking very conspicuous on the table, and her husband more talkative and in need of her companionship than ever, Constance could not go away to her room, as she would have liked to do, to be alone with that dull pain at her heart—the sorrow and sense of shame—or perhaps to forget it in sleep. She sat on with him into the small hours, while that oxygenising process was going on, listening, smiling at the right time, entering into all his plans, and even assisting him to find a startling title for the series of brilliant articles on the true condition of the East End, about which all London would no doubt soon be talking.
Constance did not reply immediately to Fan's letter, which came to her with the photograph, but first completed her preparations for leaving Notting Hill. A visit from her friend was what she most feared, and the thought of the overwhelming confusion she would feel in the presence of the guileless girl, and of further and still more painful duplicity on her part, had the effect of hastening her movements. Before Merton's enthusiasm had had time to burn itself out—that great blaze which had nothing but a bundle of wood-shavings to sustain it—they were ready to depart. But the letter must be written—that sad farewell letter which for ever or for a long period of time would put an end to their sweet intercourse; and it was with a heavy heart that Constance set herself to the task. She herself had gone into the shop to seek an engagement for her friend, and had been pleased at the result—it had not made a shadow of difference between them; now, when she thought that she was about to cast the girl off, although in obedience to her husband's wishes, for this very thing, her cheeks were on fire with shame, her heart filled with grief. Brave and honest though she was, she could not in this instance bear to tell the plain truth. They were hurriedly leaving Norland Square, she said; they were going away—she did not say how far, but left the other to infer that it was to a great distance. In their new home they would be engaged in work which would occupy all their time, all their thoughts, so that even their correspondence would have to be suspended.
Their separation would be for a long time—she could not say how long, but the thought of it filled her with grief, and she had not the courage to meet Fan to say good-bye. Such partings between dear friends were so unspeakably sad! There was much more in the letter, and the writer said all she could to soften the unkind blow she was constrained to inflict. But when Fan read it, after recovering from her first astonishment, her heart sank within her. For now it seemed that her second friend, not less dearly loved than the first, was also lost. A keen sense of loneliness and desolation came over her, which sadly recalled to her mind the days when she had wandered homeless and hungry through the streets of Paddington, and again, long afterwards, when she had been treacherously enticed away from Dawson Place.
Not until two days after receiving this letter, which she had read a hundred times and sadly pondered over during the interval, did she write to Arthur Eden; she could delay writing no longer, since she had promised to let him know if anything happened at Norland Square. She wrote briefly, and the reply came very soon.
MY DEAR MISS AFFLECK,
I am much concerned at what you tell me, and fear that Merton has got into serious trouble. He is not deserving of much pity, I am afraid, but I do feel sorry for his wife. That she should not have given you her new address is a curious circumstance, as you say, and a rather disagreeable one. I can understand their hiding themselves from a creditor, or any other obnoxious person, but to hide themselves from you seems a senseless proceeding. However, don't let us judge them too hastily. I shall send off a note at once to Merton, addressed to Norland Square, asking him to lunch with me at my club on Saturday next. No doubt he has left an address with his landlady where letters are to be forwarded, and if he is out of town, as you imagine, there will be time to get a reply before Saturday; but I am sure he has not left London, and that I shall see him. He knows that he has nothing to fear from me, and when he learns that I am willing to assist him he will perhaps tell me what the trouble is. Of course I shall not tell him that I have been in communication with you. Will you be so good as to meet me in the Regent's Park—near the Portland Road Station entrance—at eleven o'clock next Sunday? and I shall then let you hear the result.
Yours very sincerely,
It was with a little shock of pleasure that Fan read this letter, so ready had the writer been to show his sympathy, and so perfectly in accord were their thoughts; and if these new benevolent designs of Mr. Eden were to succeed, then how great a satisfaction it would always be to her to think that she had been instrumental, in a secret humble way, in her friend's deliverance from trouble! She thought it a little strange that Mr. Eden should wish to tell her the news he would have by word of mouth instead of by letter; but the prospect of a meeting was not unpleasant. On the contrary, it consoled her to know that the disappearance of Constance had not cast her wholly off from that freer, sweeter, larger life she had known at Dawson Place and at Eyethorne, which had made her so happy. A link with it still existed in this new friendship; and although Arthur Eden could not take the place of Constance in her heart, from among his own sex fate could not have selected a more perfect friend for her. The link was a slender one, and in the future there would probably be no meetings and few letters, but in spite of that he was and always would be very much to her. With these thoughts occupying her mind she wrote thanking him for his ready response to her letter, and promising to meet him on the ensuing Sunday.
When the day at length arrived she set out at half-past ten to keep the appointment, with many misgivings, not however because she, a pretty unprotected shop-girl, was going to meet a young gentleman, but solely on account of the weather. All night and at intervals during the morning there had been torrents of rain, and though the rain had ceased now the sky still looked dark and threatening. Unfortunately her one umbrella was getting shabby, and matched badly with hat, gloves, shoes and dress, all of which were satisfactory. Mr. Eden, she imagined, judging from his appearance, was a little fastidious about such things, and in the end she determined to risk going without the umbrella. When she passed Portland Road Station, and the sky widened to her sight in the open space, there were signs of coming fair weather to cheer her; the fresh breeze felt dry to the skin, the clouds flew swiftly by, and at intervals the sun appeared, not fiery and dazzling, but like a silver shield suspended above, rayless and white as the moon, and after throwing its chastened light over the wet world for a few moments the flying vapours would again obscure it. She was early, but had scarcely entered the park before Mr. Eden joined her. The pleasure which shone in his eyes when he advanced to greet her made her think that he was the bearer of welcome news; he divined as much, and hastened to undeceive her.
"I know that you are anxious to hear the result of my inquiries," he said, "but you must prepare for a disappointment, Miss Affleck."
"You have something bad to tell me?"
"No, I have nothing to tell. My letter to Merton was returned to me on Friday through the dead letter post. They've gone and left no address. To make quite sure, I went to Norland Square yesterday to see the landlady, and she says that they left ten days ago, and that Mr. Chance told her that he had written to all his correspondents to give them his new address, and that if any letter came for him or his wife she was to return it to the postman. Of course she does not know where they have gone."
Fan was deeply disappointed, and still conversing on this one subject, they continued walking for an hour about the park, keeping to the paths.
"You must not distress yourself, Miss Affleck," said her companion. "The thing is no greater a mystery now than it was a week ago, and you must have arrived at the conclusion as long ago as that, that the Chances wished to sever their connection with you."
"Do you think that, Mr. Eden—do you think that Constance really wishes to break off with me? It would be so unlike her." There were tears in her voice if not in her eyes as she spoke.
He did not answer her question at once. They were now close to the southern entrance to the Zoological Gardens.
"Let's go in through this gate," he said. "In there we shall be able to find shelter if it rains." He had tickets of admission in his pocket, and passing the stile Fan found herself in that incongruous wild animal world set in the midst of a world of humanity. A profusion of flowers met her gaze on every side, but she looked beyond the variegated beds, blossoming shrubs, and grass-plats sprinkled with patches of gay colour, to the huge unfamiliar animal forms of which she caught occasional glimpses in the distance. For she had never entered the Gardens before, this being the one great sight in London which Mary and her brother Tom had forgotten to show her. And since her return to town she had not ventured to go there alone, although living so near to the Regent's Park. Walking there on Sundays, when there was no admission to the public, she had often paused to listen with a feeling of wonder to the strange sounds that issued from the enchanted enclosure—piercing screams of eagles and of cranes; the muffled thunder of lions, mingled with sharp yells from other felines; and wolf-howls so dismal and long that they might have been wafted to her all the way from Oonalaska's shore.
Mr. Eden appeared not to notice the curious glances as he paced thoughtfully by her side, and presently he recalled her to the subject they had been discussing.
"Miss Affleck," he said, "has there been any disagreement, or have you heard any word from Merton or Mrs. Chance which might have led you to think that they contemplated breaking off their acquaintance with you?"
In answer she told him about the letter from Constance asking for her photograph.
"Where did you have your picture taken?" he asked somewhat irrelevantly.
Fan told him, and as he said nothing she added, "But why do you ask that, Mr. Eden?"
He could not tell her that he intended going to the photographer, whose name he had just heard, to secure a copy of her picture for his own pleasure, and so he answered:
"It merely occurred to me to ask just to know whether you had gone by chance to one of the good men I could have recommended. It is evident that when Mrs. Chance wrote to you in that way she had already planned this separation. Whatever her motives may have been, it is certainly hard on you; and I scarcely need assure you, Miss Affleck, that you have my heartfelt sympathy."
"You are very kind, Mr. Eden," she returned, scarcely able to repress the tears that rose to her eyes.
After an interval of silence he said:
"If you still wish to find out their address, the quickest way would be to write to your friend's home. Merton told me that you lived for a year with his wife's people in Hampshire or Dorset."
"Yes, in Wiltshire. But I know that Constance has not corresponded with her mother since her marriage. Perhaps you are right in what you said, Mr. Eden, that they wish—not to know me any longer."
He turned away from the wistful, questioning look in her eyes, and only remarked, "I shall find it hard to forgive them this."
"But I can't believe that Constance would do anything unkind," she replied, somewhat illogically.
"No. But Constance is not herself—her real self now, she is Merton's wife."
"Then you think that Constance—yes, perhaps you are right"; and then in a pathetic tone she added, "I have no friend now."
"Do not say that, Miss Affleck! Do you not remember that on the occasion of our first meeting you promised to regard me as a friend?"
"Yes, I do, and I feel very grateful for your kindness to me. When I said that I meant a lady friend.... That is such a different kind of friendship. And—and you could never be like one of the two friends I have lost."
"Two, Miss Affleck! I did not know that you had had the misfortune to lose more than one."
"The first was the lady I lived with in London before I went to the Churtons'."
"Oh, yes, I see what you mean. It was a great loss to you in one sense, but of course you couldn't have the same feeling about her as in the case of Mrs. Chance. She was, I understand, a toothless old hag, more than half-crazy—"
"Half-crazy! Toothless! Old! What do you mean, Mr. Eden? She is young and beautiful, and though I am nothing to her now I love her still with all my heart."
He looked at her with the utmost surprise, and then burst into a laugh.
"Forgive me for laughing, Miss Affleck," he said. "But I remember now it was Merton who described her to me as a made-up old lady who ought to be in an asylum. How stupid of me to believe anything that fellow ever says, even when he has no motive for being untruthful!"
Fan also laughed, she could not help laughing in spite of the intense indignation she felt against Mary's rejected suitor for libelling her in such an infamous manner.
"Do you know that it is beginning to rain?" he said, holding his umbrella over her head. "We must go in there and wait until it pauses."
It was one o'clock, and the refreshment rooms had just opened. Fan was conducted into the glittering dining-saloon, and was persuaded to join her companion in a rather sumptuous luncheon, and to drink a glass of champagne.
Occasional showers prevented them leaving for some time, and it was nearly four o'clock when they finally left the Gardens, Fan again staring curiously round her.
"Mr. Eden," she asked, pointing to a large, blue, cow-like creature, with goat's horns and a hump, "will you tell me what that animal is?"
"I am not sure quite that I can," he replied with a slight laugh. "Its name is as outlandish as itself—gnu, or yak, or perhaps Jamrach."
The reply was not very satisfactory, and she felt a little disappointed that he did not turn aside to let her look at it, or at any of the other strange beasts and birds near them; but just after leaving he remarked in a casual way:
"I suppose you are quite familiar with the Gardens, Miss Affleck?"
"Oh, no, I have never been in them before to-day."
"Really! Then how sorry I am that I did not know sooner! We might have gone in and seen the lions, and monkeys, while it was raining. However, we could not have seen very much to-day, and if you can manage to come next Sunday I shall be so glad to show you everything." Seeing that she hesitated, he added, "I shall make some inquiries during the week, and may have something to tell you next Sunday if you will come."
That won her consent, and after seeing her to her own door, Eden went on his way rejoicing, for so far the gods he had once spoken of had shown themselves favourable.
During the week that followed Fan thought often enough of her friend's mysterious conduct towards her; but the remembrance of Mr. Eden's sympathy lightened the pain considerably, and as the time of that second meeting, which was to be more pleasant even than the first, drew near, she began to think less of Constance and more of Arthur Eden. She smiled to herself when she remembered certain things she had heard about the danger to young girls in her position in life resulting from the plausible attentions of idle pleasure-seekers like Mr. Eden; for in his case there could be no danger. His soul was without guile. She had made his acquaintance in his own friend's house, and it was not in her nature to suspect evil designs which did not appear in a person's manner and conversation. If he had been her brother—that ideal brother whose kindness is un-mixed with contempt for so poor a creature as a sister— his manner could not have been more free from any suggestion of a feeling too warm in character. Walking home with her from the park he had spoken with some melancholy of the changes which the end of the London season— happily not yet near—must always bring. He still had thoughts of going abroad, but it saddened him to think that when returning after a long absence he would be sure to miss some friendly faces—hers perhaps among others. And all the words he had spoken on this subject, in his tender musical voice, were treasured in her memory. He was more to her, far more, she thought, than she could ever be to him. Only for a time would he remember her face, his life was so full, his friends so many, but she would not forget, and the pleasant hours she now spent in his company would shine bright in memory in future years.
When the eagerly-wished Sunday at last arrived, the spring weather was perfect. Even London on that morning had the softest of blue skies above it, with far-up ethereal clouds, white as angels' wings, a brilliant sunshine, and a breeze elastic yet warm, laden with the perfume of lilac and may. Fan smiled at her own image in the glass, pleased to think that she looked well in her new spring hat and dress; and at ten o'clock, when Mr. Eden met her at the appointed place, and regarded her with keen critical eyes as she advanced to him under her light sunshade, his satisfaction was not unmingled with a secret pang, a sudden "conscience fit," which, however, did not last long. The fashionable tide did not just then set very strongly towards the Gardens on Sundays, but he felt with some pride that he could safely appear anywhere in London with Miss Affleck at his side, and although his friends would not know her, they would never suspect that in her he had picked up one of the "lower orders."
While walking across the park they conversed once more about their vanished friends. Eden had no news to tell, but still cherished hopes of being able to discover their retreat. When they were once inside the Gardens, Fan soon forgot everything except the pleasure of the moment. She could not have had a better guide than her companion, for beside a fair knowledge of wild animal life, he had the pleasant faculty of seeing things in a humorous light. And above everything, he knew his way about, and could show her many little mysterious things, hidden away behind jealously-guarded doors, of which he had the keys, and pretty bird performances and amusing mammalian comedies, all of which are missed by the casual visitor. The laughing jackasses laughed their loudest, almost frightening her with their weird cachinnatory chorus; and the laughing hyaena screamed his sepulchral ha-ha-ha's so that he was heard all the way to Primrose Hill. Pelicans, penguins, darters and seals captured and swallowed scores of swift slippery fishes for her pleasure. She was taken to visit the "baby" in its private apartment, and saw him at close quarters, not without fear and shrinking, for the baby was as big as a house—the leviathan of the ancients, as some think. Into its vast open mouth she dropped a bun, which was like giving a grain of rice to a hungry human giant. Then she was made to take a large armful of green clover and thrust it into the same yawning red cavern; and having done so she started quickly back for fear of being swallowed alive along with the grass. Mr. Eden spent a small fortune on buns, nuts, and bon-bons for the animals, and she fed everything, from the biggest elephant and the most tree-like giraffe to the smallest harvest mouse. But it was most curious with an eagle they looked at.
"Give it a bun," said Eden.
"You shall not laugh at my ignorance this time," said Fan. "I know that eagles eat nothing but flesh."
"Quite right," said he, "but if you will offer it a bun he will gladly eat it." And as he persisted, she, still incredulous, offered the bun, which the eagle seized in his crooked claws, and devoured with immense zest. Fan was amazed, and Eden said triumphantly, "There, I told you so."
Long afterwards she was alone one day in the Gardens, and going to the eagle's cage, and feeling satisfied that no one was looking, offered a bun to an eagle. The bird only stared into her face with its fierce eyes, as much as to say, "Do you take me for a monkey, or what? You are making a great mistake, young woman." It happened that someone did see her—a rude man, who burst into a loud laugh; and Fan walked away with crimson cheeks, and the mystery remained unexplained. Perhaps someone has compassionately enlightened her since.
In the snake-house a brilliant green tree-snake of extraordinary length was taken from its box by the keeper, and Eden wound it twice round her waist; and looking down on that living, coiling, grass-green sash, knowing that it was a serpent, and yet would do her no harm, she experienced a sensation of creepy delight which was very novel, and curious, and mixed. The kangaroos were a curious people, resembling small donkeys with crocodile tails, sitting erect on their haunches, and moving about with a waltzing hop, which was both graceful and comical. One of them, oddly enough, had a window in the middle of its stomach out of which a baby kangaroo put its long-eared head and stared at them, then popped it in again and shut the window. The secretary-bird proved himself a grand actor; he marched round his cage, bowed two or three times to Fan, then performed the maddest dance imaginable, leaping and pounding the floor with his iron feet, just to show how he broke a serpent's back in South Africa.
From the monkey-house and its perpetual infinitely varied pantomime they were conducted into a secret silent chamber, where an interesting event had recently occurred, and Mrs. Monkey, who was very aristocratic and exclusive, received only a few privileged guests. They found her sitting up in bed and nursing an infant that looked exceedingly ancient, although the keeper solemnly assured Fan that it was only three days old. Mrs. Monkey gravely shook hands with her visitors, and condescendingly accepted a bon-bon, which she ate with great dignity, and an assumption of not caring much about it.
"Don't you think, Miss Affleck," said Eden, sinking his voice, "that you ought to say something complimentary—that the little darling looks like its mamma, for instance, even if you can't call it pretty?"
Fan laughed merrily, whereat Mrs. Monkey flew into a rage, and seemed so inclined to commit an assault on her visitors, that they were glad to make a hasty retreat.
In the blithe open air Fan observed, when she had recovered her gravity:
"How good the keepers are to take so much trouble to show us things!"
"Thanks to you," he replied, hypocritically. "If I had come alone they wouldn't have troubled to show me things."
Then they roused the nocturnal animals from their slumbers in the straw— the wingless apteryx, like a little armless man with a very long nose; the huge misshapen earthy-looking ant-bear, and those four-footed Rip Van Winkles, the quaint, rusty, blear-eyed armadillos. But the giant ant- eater was the most wonderful, for he walked on his knuckles, and strode majestically about, for all the world like a mammalian peacock, exhibiting his great tail. They also saw his tongue, like a yard of pink ribbon drawn out by an invisible hand from the tip of his long cucumber- shaped head. In the parrot-house the shrieking of a thousand parrots and cockatoos, all trying to shriek each other down, drove them quickly out.
"I am sorry my nerves are not stronger, but really I can't stand it, Mr. Eden," said Fan, apologetically.
He laughed. "It's a great row, but not a very sublime one," he answered. "By-and-by we shall hear something better." And by-and-by they were in the great lion-house, where the prisoner kings and nobles are, barred and tawny and striped and spotted, and with flaming yellow eyes. They were all striding up and down, raging with hunger, for it was near the feeding-time; and suddenly a lion roared, and then others roared; and royal tigers, and jaguars, and pumas, and cheetahs, and leopards joined in with shrieks and with yells, and the awful chorus of the feline giants grew louder, like the continuous roar of near thunder, until the whole vast building shook and the solid earth seemed to tremble beneath them. And Fan also trembled and grew white with fear, and implored her companion to take her out. If she had shouted her loudest he could not have heard a sound, but he saw her lips moving, and her pallor, and led her out; yet no sooner was she out than she wished to return, so wonderful and so glorious did it seem to stand amidst that awful tempest of sound!
Thus passed Fan's day, seeing much of animal life, and with welcome intervals of rest, when they had a nice little dinner in the refreshment rooms, or sat for an hour on the shady lawn, where Mr. Eden smoked his cigar, and related some of his adventures in distant lands.
"You have given me so much pleasure, Mr. Eden—I have spent a very happy day," said Fan, on their walk back to her humble lodgings.
"And I, Miss Affleck?"
"You know it all so well; it could not be so much to you," she returned.
"Have I not been happy then?"
"Yes, I think you have," she answered. "But you were happy principally because you were giving pleasure to someone else."
"I think," he said, without directly answering her words, "that when I am far from England again, and see things that are as unfamiliar to me as this has been to you, which people come from the ends of the earth to look at, it will all seem very dull and insipid to me when I remember the pleasure I have had to-day."
For many days past he had in imagination been saying a thousand pretty and passionate things to Fan—rehearsing little speeches suitable for every occasion.
And now this little laborious round-about speech, about going abroad, the pleasures of memory, and the rest of it, which might mean anything or nothing, was the only speech he could make. And she did not reply to it.
"Perhaps," thought Eden, as he walked away after leaving her at her door, "she understood the feeling, but waited to hear it expressed a little more clearly." Time would show, but it struck him on this evening that he had made little progress since the first meeting at Norland Square, and he thought with little satisfaction of his neglected opportunities, or, as he called them, his sins of omission.
To Fan's mind there was no note of warning in that little vague complimentary speech, and she thought nothing at all about it. It is quite impossible for a man to talk all day without saying meaningless if not foolish things, unless he happens to be a very solemn prig who carefully considers his words and lays them down like dominoes; and Eden was not that. His naturalness was his great charm, and she judged his feelings from her own; his simple transparent kindliness was enough to account for all his attentions to her. After that day at the Zoological Gardens she met him on other Sundays and Saturday afternoons, and also received some letters from him, and more books, all like the first in a wonderfully clean and well-kept condition.
One summer day Eden went to the City, a very unusual thing for him to do, and while making his way towards Cheapside through the hurrying crowd of pedestrians filling the narrow thoroughfare of St. Paul's Churchyard, he all at once came face to face with the long-lost Merton Chance. Involuntarily both started and stopped short on coming together. It was impossible to avoid speaking, which would have happened if they had recognised each other at a suitable distance. "Eden, is it possible!" "Chance, how glad I am to see you!" were the words they exclaimed at the same moment, as they clasped hands with fictitious warmth; and then, to avoid the crowd, Merton drew his friend aside through one of the open gates into the cathedral garden.
"Just back again from a trip to the Hindoo Koosh or the Mountains of the Moon, I suppose?" cried Merton with overflowing gaiety.
"I have not been out of London as it happens," said Eden. "As you might have known if you had sent me your address. I wrote to you at Norland Square several weeks ago, asking you to lunch with me one day at the club, and the letter was returned through the Dead Letter Office, marked 'Gone away—no address.'"
"Ah, yes, I forgot to send you my new address at the time, and ever since moving I have been so overwhelmed with work and a hundred other things that I have really had no time to write. I have been anxiously looking forward to a few hours of leisure to make up all arrears of the kind."
"Well, then, as it is nearly two o'clock perhaps you will lunch with me to-day. Is there any place close by where we can get something to eat and drink? I am all at sea when I get as far east as this."
"Thanks," said Merton, with a laugh. "That just reminds me that I have had nothing except a cup of tea since seven o'clock this morning. Too busy even to remember such a thing as food. Yes, there's the Cathedral Hotel, where you can get anything to eat from locusts and wild honey to a stalled ox. By the way, since you know so little about East London, let me take you a little further east; then you will be able to boast some day that you stood on the volcano and looked down into its seething crater just before the great eruption. Of course I mean that you will be able to make that boast if you happen to survive the eruption."
If Eden had little taste for ordinary enthusiasm, he had still less for downright madness, and he hastily begged his friend to defer the volcanic question until after luncheon. Merton's language surprised him, it seemed so wildly irrational, and uttered with so much seriousness. In his appearance also there were signs of degeneracy: he was thin and pale and rather shabbily dressed, and wore a broad-brimmed rusty black felt hat, which he frequently pulled off only to twist it into some new disreputable shape and thrust it on again. Over a black half-unbuttoned waistcoat he wore only a light covert coat, which had long seen its best days; his boots were innocent of polish. Eden noticed all that, and remembering that his friend had once been quite as fastidious about his dress as himself, he was a little shocked at his appearance.
In a few minutes they were seated at a table where they were served with an excellent luncheon, with plenty of variety in it, although it did not include locusts and wild honey. Rather oddly, Merton appeared to have leisure enough to make the most of it; he studied the menu with the interest of a professed gourmet, freely advised Eden what to eat, and partook of at least half a dozen different dishes himself. Nor was he sparing of the wine; and after adjourning to the smoking-room, and lighting the fragrant Havannah his friend had given him, he declined coffee but ordered a second bottle of six-shilling claret.
"It rather surprises me to see a travelled fellow like you, Eden, drinking English-made coffee," he said. "For my part, until the French can send it to us as they make it, bottled, I intend to stick to their light wines."
All this amused Eden; he liked it better than the wild talk about impending eruptions, and began to feel rather pleased that he had met Merton after all. Still, he could not help experiencing some curiosity about his mysterious friend's way of life; and in spite of prudence he led the way to this dangerous topic.
"Just look at this, Eden; this will show you what I am doing. You Pall Mall gentlemen are living in a fool's paradise—excuse me for putting it so bluntly—but personally you are my friend, although in our ways of thought we are as far as the poles asunder." He had taken a newspaper from his pocket, a small sheet of coarse paper printed with bad type, and turning and refolding it he handed it to his friend. The article to which Eden's attention was drawn was headed "A Last Word," and occupied three columns, and at the foot appeared the name of Merton Chance.
"I see; but surely you don't expect me to read this now?" said Eden. "Your last word is a very long one."
"No, you can put the paper in your pocket to read at your leisure. I think it will have the effect of opening your eyes, Eden. That you may escape the wrath to come is my devout wish."
"Thanks. So you have gone in for the Salvation Army business?" And he glanced at the title of the paper, but it was not the War Cry. The Time Has Come was the name of the sheet he held in his hand, to which Merton Chance had the honour to be a contributor.
"No, Eden," said the other, with a look on his face of such deep and serious meaning as to be almost tragic. "This is not the war cry you imagine, but it is a war cry nevertheless. You can shut your ears to it, if you feel so minded, and persuade yourself that there is no war in preparation. The streets of London are full of soldiers, but then they wear no red jackets, and carry no banners, and you needn't know that they are soldiers at all. You can safely let them march on, since they march without blare of trumpets and beat of drums."
"All right, Chance, I'll have a shot at it before going to bed to-night"; and he was again about to thrust the paper into his pocket, feeling that he was getting tired of this kind of talk.
"Wait a moment, Eden," said the other. "I'm afraid you do not quite know yet what the matter is all about. Allow me to look at the paper again." Taking it, he found and asked his friend to read a rather long editorial paragraph.
This was all about the trumpet-tongued Merton Chance, congratulating the League on the accession to its ranks of so able a fighter with the pen— one who was only too ready to handle other weapons in their cause. It spoke of all he had nobly abandoned—social position, Government appointment, etc.—to cast in his lot with theirs; his brilliant and impassioned oratory, pitiless logic, with more in the same strain.
"I presume this is a socialistic print," said Eden, after reading the paragraph. "Well, I can't say I congratulate you on your new—departure. Still, it is something to be thought well of by those you are working with, and you can't complain that your editor has not laid it on thick enough in this passage."
Merton's brows contracted; he did not like this speech, and before replying swallowed a glass of claret.
"Eden," he returned, "this is too serious a matter for a jest. But I do not think that anything is to be gained by discussing it. I should certainly gain nothing by informing you that everyone has a right to live, since a certain number of human beings must give up living, or, in other words, live like dogs, in order that you may have something beyond the mere necessaries of life—something to make your existence pleasant. This only I will say. If you are one of those who persistently shut their eyes to the fact that a change has come, that it will no longer be as it has been, then all I have to say is, My friend, I have warned you, and here we part company."