"Oh, Fan!—dearest Fan!—darling—you have beaten me again!" she exclaimed spasmodically, half-sobbing. "Oh what a strange girl you are! ... To come and—take me by storm like that! ... And I was so determined never to relent—never to go back from what I said.... But you have swept it all away—all my resolutions—everything. Oh, Fan, can you ever, ever forgive me for being such a brute? But I had to act in that way—there was no help for it. I couldn't break my word—I never do. You know, Fan, that I never change.... Is it really you?—oh, I can't believe it—I can't realise it—here in my own house! Let me look at your dear face again."
And drawing back their heads they gazed into each other's faces once more, Fan crying and laughing by turns, while Mary, the strong woman, could do nothing but cry now.
"The same dear grey eyes, but oh, how beautiful you have grown," she went on. "I shall never forgive myself—never cease to hate myself after this. And yet, dearest, what could I do? I had solemnly vowed never to speak to you again if we met. I should have been a poor weak creature if I hadn't—you must know that. And now—oh, how could I resist so long, and be so cruel? I know I'm very illogical, but—I hate it, there!—I mean logic—don't you?"
"I hardly know what it is, Mary, but if you hate it, so do I with all my heart."
"That's a dear sensible girl. How sweet it is to hear that 'Mary' from your lips again! How often I have wished to hear it!—the wish has even made me cry. For I have never ceased to think of you and love you, Fan, even when I was determined never to speak to you again. But let me explain something. Though you disobeyed me, Fan, and spoke so lightly about it, just as if you believed that you could do what you liked with me, I still might have overlooked it if it had not been for my brother Tom's interference. I was very much offended with you, and when we spoke of you I said that I intended giving you up, but I don't think I really meant it in my heart. But he put himself into a passion about it, and abused me, and called me a demon, and dared me to do what I threatened, and said that if I did he would never speak to me again. That settled it at once. To be talked to in that way by anyone—even by Tom—is more than my flesh and blood can stand. And so we parted—it was at Ravenna, an old Italian city—and of course I did what I said, and from that day to this we have not exchanged a line, nor ever shall until he apologises for his words. That's how it happened, and what woman with any self-respect— would not you have acted in the same way, Fan, in such a case?"
"No, Mary, I don't think so. But we are so different, you so strong and I so weak."
"Are you really weak? I am not so sure. You have taken me captive, at all events." And then her eyes suddenly growing misty again, she continued: "Fan, you have a strength which I never had, which, in the old days when you lived with me, used to remind me of Longfellow's little poem about a meek-eyed maid going through life with a lily in her hand, one touch of which even gates of brass could not withstand. You will forgive me, I know, but tell me now from your heart, don't you think it was cruel— wicked of me to receive you as I did just now?"
"You wouldn't have been so hard with me, Mary, if you had known what I felt. All day long I have been thinking of you, and wishing—oh, how I wished to see you again! And before coming here to see Dawson Place once more I went and sat down on that very seat in Kensington Gardens where you found me crying by myself on that day—do you remember?—and where— and where—oh, how I cried again only to think of it! How could I speak to you as I did—in that horrible way—when you had loved me so much!"
"Hush, Fan, for heaven's sake! You make me feel as if you had put your hand down into me and had wound all the strings of my heart round your fingers, and—I can't bear it. I think nothing of what you said in your anger, but only of my cruelty to you then and on other occasions. Oh, do let's speak of something else. Look, there is your card on the floor where I dropped it. Why do you call yourself Miss Eden—how do you come to be so well-dressed, and looking more like some delicately-nurtured patrician's daughter than a poor girl? Do tell me your story now."
And the story was told as they sat together by the open window in the pleasant room; and when they had drank tea at five o'clock, much remaining yet to be told—much in spite of the gaps Fan saw fit to leave in her narrative—Mary said:
"Will you dine with me, Fan? You shall name the hour yourself if you will only stay—seven, eight, nine if you like."
"I shall only be too glad to stay for as long as you care to have me," said Fan.
"Then will you sleep here? I have a guest's room all ready, a lovely little room, only I think if you sleep there I shall sit by your bedside all night."
"Then if I stay I shall sleep with you, Mary, so as not to keep you up," said Fan laughing. "Can I send a telegram to my landlady to say that I shall not be home to-night?"
"Yes; after it gets cool we might walk to the post-office in the Grove to send it."
And thus it was agreed, and so much had they to say to each other that not until the morning light began to steal into their bedroom, to discover them lying on one pillow, raven-black and golden tresses mingled together, did any drowsy feeling come to them. And even then at intervals they spoke.
"Mary," said Fan, after a rather long silence, "have you ever heard of Rosie since?"
"No; but I saw her once. I went to the Alhambra to see a ballet that was admired very much, and I recognised Rosie on the stage in spite of her paint and ballet dress. I couldn't stay another moment after that. I should have left the theatre if—if—well, never mind. Don't speak again, Fan, we must go to sleep now."
But another question was inevitable. "Just one word more, Mary; have you never heard of Captain Horton since?"
"Ah, I thought that was coming! Yes, once. Just about the time when I returned from abroad, I had a letter from my bankers to say that he—that man—had paid a sum of money—about two hundred and thirty pounds—to my account. It was money I had lent him a long time before, and he had the audacity to ask them to send him a receipt in my handwriting! I told them to send the man a receipt themselves, and to inform him from me that I was sorry he had paid the money, as it had reminded me of his hateful existence."
After another interval Fan remarked, "I am glad he paid the money, Mary."
"Why—do you think I couldn't afford to lose that? I would rather have lost it."
"I wasn't thinking of the money. But it showed that he had some right feelings—that he was not altogether bad."
"You should be the last person to say that, Fan. You should hate his memory with all your heart."
"I am so happy to be with you again, Mary; I feel that I cannot hate anyone, however wicked he may be."
"Yes, you are like that Scotch minister who prayed for everything he could think of in earth and heaven, and finally finished up by praying for the devil. But are you really so happy, dear Fan? Is your happiness quite complete—is there nothing wanting?"
"I should like very, very much to know where Constance is."
"Well, judging from what you have told me, I should think she must be very miserable indeed. They are very poor, no doubt, and in ordinary circumstances poverty would perhaps not make her unhappy, for, being intellectual, she would always have the beauty of her own intellect and the stars to think about."
"Do you really think that, Mary—that she is miserable?"
"I do indeed. When she, poor fool! married Merton Chance, she leant on a reed, and it would be strange if it had not broken and pierced her to the quick."
And after that there was silence, broken only by a sad sigh from Fan; which meant that she knew it and always had known it, but had gone on hoping against hope that the fragile reed would not break to pierce that loved one.
Nearly the whole of Fan's remaining time before going to Kingston was passed at Dawson Place. Her happiness was perfect, like the sunshine she had found resting on that dear spot on her return to it, pure, without stain of cloud. For into Mary's vexed heart something new seemed to have come, something strange to her nature, a novel meekness, a sweetness that did not sour, so that their harmony continued unbroken to the end. And, oddly enough, or not oddly perhaps, since she was not "logical," she seemed now greatly to sympathise with Fan's growing anxiety about the lost Constance. Not one trace of the petty jealous feeling which had caused so much trouble in the past remained; she was heartily ashamed of it now, and was filled with remorse when she recalled her former unkind and capricious behaviour.
At length Fan went on her visit, not without a pang of regret at parting so soon again, even for a short time, from the friend she had recovered. She was anxious to hear that "strange story" about her father which the lawyer had promised to relate; apart from that, she did not anticipate much pleasure from her stay at Kingston.
The Travers' house was at a little distance from the town, and stood well back on the road, screened from sight by trees and a high brick wall. It was a large, low, old-fashioned, rambling house, purchased by its owner many years before, when he had a numerous family with him, and required plenty of house-room; but its principal charm to Fan was the garden, covering about four acres of ground, well stocked with a great variety of shrubs and flowers, and containing some trees of noble growth.
Mrs. Travers was not many years younger than her husband; and yet she did not look old, although her health was far from good, her more youthful appearance being due to a false front of glossy chestnut-coloured hair, an occasional visit to the rouge-pot, and other artificial means used by civilised ladies to mitigate the ravages of time. In other things also she offered a striking contrast to her husband, being short and stout, or fat; she was also a dressy dame, and burdened her podgy fingers and broad bosom with too much gold and too many precious stones—yellow, blue, and red; and her silk dresses were also too bright-hued for a lady of her years and figure. Her favourite strong blues and purples would have struck painfully on the refined colour-sense of an aesthete. On the other hand, to balance these pardonable defects, she was kind-hearted; not at all artificial in her manner and conversation, or unduly puffed up with her position, as one might have expected her to be from her appearance; and, to put her chief merit last, she reverenced her husband, and believed that in all things—except, perhaps, in those small matters sacred to femininity, which concerned her personal adornment—"he knew best." She was consequently prepared to extend a warm welcome to her young visitor, and, for her husband's sake, to do as much to make her visit pleasant as if she had been the lawful daughter of her husband's late friend and client, Colonel Eden.
Nevertheless, after the days she had spent with Mary, Fan did not find Mrs. Travers' society exhilarating. The lady had given up walking, except a very little in the garden, but on most days she went out for carriage exercise in the morning, after Mr. Travers had gone to town. At two o'clock the ladies would lunch, after which Fan would be alone until the five o'clock tea, when her hostess would reappear in a gay dress, and a lovely carmine bloom on her cheeks—the result of her refreshing noonday slumbers. After tea they would spend an hour together in the garden talking and reading. Mrs. Travers, having bad eyesight, accepted Fan's offer to read to her. She read nothing but periodicals—short social sketches, smart paragraphs, jokes, and occasionally a tale, if very short, so that Fan found her task a very light one. She had The World, Truth, The Whitehall Review, The Queen and The Lady's Pictorial every week; and in the last-named paper Fan read out a little sketch—one of a series called "Eastern Idylls"—which she liked better than anything else for its graceful style and delicate pathos. So much did it please her, that she looked up the back numbers of the paper, and read all the sketches in them, each relating some little domestic East End incident or tale, pathetic or humorous, or both, with scenes and characters lightly drawn, yet with such skilful touches, and put so clearly before the mind, that it was impossible not to believe that these pictures were from life.
At half-past six Mr. Travers would return from town, and at seven they dined, sitting long at table; and afterwards, if there were friends, there would be a rubber of whist. It was a quiet almost sleepy existence, and Fan began to look forward with a little impatience to the end of her fortnight, when she would be able to return to her friend. For Mary's last words had been, "I shall not leave London without you." But she first wished to hear the "strange story" Mr. Travers had promised to tell, but about which he had spoken no word since her arrival. Every day she was reminded of it, for in the dining-room was the portrait of her father, painted, life-size, by a Royal Academician, and showing a gentleman aged about thirty-five years, with a handsome oval face, grey eyes, thin straight nose, and hair and well-trimmed moustache and Vandyke beard of a deep golden brown, the moustache not altogether hiding the pleasant, somewhat voluptuous mouth. And it seemed to Fan when she looked at it and the grey eyes gazed back into hers, and the pleasant lips seemed to smile on her, that she had never seen among living men a more beautiful and lovable face.
The sixth day of her visit was Sunday. Mr. Travers breakfasted alone with her, his wife not having risen yet, and after breakfast he asked her if she wished to go to church.
"Not unless you are going or wish me to go," returned Fan.
"Then, Miss Eden, let us stay at home, and have a morning to ourselves in the garden. We have not yet had much time to talk, as I am generally rather tired in the evenings. And besides, what I wish to talk to you about is one of my secrets, and it could not be mentioned before another."
They were out in the garden sitting in the shade, when he surprised her by saying, "Are you at all superstitious, Miss Eden?"
"I am not quite sure that I understand you," replied Fan, with a little hesitation. "Do you mean religious, Mr. Travers?"
"Well, no, not exactly. But superstition is undoubtedly a word of many meanings, and some people give it a very wide one, as your question implies. I used the word in a more restricted sense—in the sense in which we say that believers in dreams, presentiments, and apparitions are superstitious. My belief was—I am not sure whether I can say is— that your father was infected with superstitions of this kind. But I must tell you the whole story, and then you will understand what I mean when I say that it is a strange one. He was one of several children; and, by the way, that reminds me that—but let that pass."
"Do you mean—have I—has my brother many relations—uncles, aunts, and cousins, Mr. Travers?" said Fan, a little eagerly.
"Well," he answered, smiling a little and stroking his chin, "yes. Your half-brother's mother had two married sisters, both with large families; but I do not think that Mr. Arthur Eden is intimate with them. I think I have heard him say as much."
Fan, noting that he cautiously confined himself to her brother's relations on the mother's side, grew red, and secretly resolved never to ask such a question again, even of Arthur.
The other continued: "Being one of several children, and not the eldest, his income was a small one for a young man of rather expensive habits and in the army. He was in difficulties on several occasions, and it was at that period that our acquaintance ripened into a very close friendship— as warm a friendship as can exist between two men living totally different lives, moving in different social worlds, and with a considerable difference in their ages.
"When about thirty-eight years old he married a lady with a considerable fortune, which was not in any way settled on herself, and consequently became his. It was not a happy marriage, and after the birth of their son—their only child—and Mrs. Eden not being in good health, she went to live at Winchester, where she had relations and where her son was educated; and for several years husband and wife lived apart. His wife died about fourteen years after her marriage, and, I am glad to say, he was with her during her last illness, but afterwards he returned to his old life in London, and went very much into society. Finally his health failed; and when he discovered that his malady, although a slow, was an incurable one, his habits and disposition changed, and he grew morbid, I think—possibly from brooding too much on his condition.
"Up to this time he had paid no attention to religion; now it became the sole subject of his thoughts. He attended a ritualistic church in the neighbourhood of Oxford Street, and gave up the house he had occupied before, and took another only a few doors removed from the church, so as to be able to attend all the services, one of which was held daily at a very early hour of the morning. In this church, confession and penances, and other things in which the ritualists imitate the Roman Catholics, are in use, and the vicar, or priest as he is called, gained a great influence over Colonel Eden's mind.
"He had at this time entirely given up going into society, but his intimacy with me, which had lasted so many years, continued to the end. Shortly before he died, and about three years and a half to four years ago, he told me that he had had a strange dream, which he persisted in regarding as of the supernatural order. This dream came to him on three consecutive nights, and after several conversations with his priest and confessor on the subject, and being encouraged by him in the belief that it was something more than a mere wandering of the disordered fancy, he consulted me about it. It was then that for the first time he told me the story of Margaret Affleck, a girl in a humble position in life who had engaged his affections some fourteen years before, and from whom he had parted after a few months' acquaintance. He assured me that he had all but forgotten this affair; that when parting from her he had given her some money as a compensation for the trouble he had brought on her; while, on her side, she had told him that she would not be disgraced, but that she would marry a young man in her own class, who was willing and anxious to take her.
"At all events, during those fourteen years he had never seen nor heard anything of her. Then comes the dream. He dreamt that he was in the church for early matins, and that he heard a voice calling 'Father, father!' to him, and on looking round saw a poor girl in ragged clothes, and with a pale, exceedingly sad face, and that he had no sooner looked on her than he knew that she was his child, and the child of Margaret Affleck. She was crying piteously, and wringing her hands and imploring him to deliver her from her misery; and in his struggling efforts to go to her he woke.
"This dream, as I said, returned to him night after night, and so preyed on his mind that he interpreted it as a command from some Superior Power to seek out this lost child and save her. I tried my best to argue him out of his delusion, for I was convinced that it was nothing more; but seeing him so determined, and so fully persuaded in his own mind that unless he made atonement his sins would not be forgiven, I gave way, and had inquiries made in various directions. I advertised for Margaret Affleck; for I could not, of course, advertise for a child of whose existence there was not any evidence. But though we advertised a great many times both in the London and Norfolk papers—Colonel Eden remembered that the girl belonged to Norfolk—we could not find the right person. Colonel Eden, however, still clung to the belief that the daughter he believed in would eventually be found, and he even contemplated adding a clause to his will, in which everything was left unconditionally to his son, to make provision for her. This intention was not carried out, but shortly before his death he told me that he had left a sealed letter for his son, who was abroad at the time, informing him of the dream, or revelation, and asking him to continue the search, and to provide generously for the child when she should be found. He never for a moment seemed to doubt that she would be found; but his belief was that we would find in her not, my dear girl, one like yourself—fresh and unsullied as the flower in your hand, beautiful in spirit as in person."
"What did he believe you would find? Will you please tell me, Mr. Travers?" said Fan, a tremor in her voice.
"He believed when he had that dream that you were in the lowest depths of poverty—in misery, and exposed to all the dangers and temptations which surround a destitute young girl, motherless perhaps, and friendless, and homeless, in London. Dear child, I cannot tell you all or what he feared," he finished, putting his hand lightly on her shoulder.
There were tears in her eyes, and she averted her face to hide the rush of crimson to her cheeks.
Mr. Travers continued: "The news of Colonel Eden's death reached Arthur in Mexico, and he came home at once. He showed me the letter I have mentioned, and asked me to advise him what to do. But from the first he had taken the same view of the matter which I had taken, and which I suppose that ninety-nine men out of every hundred would take, and I must say that he did not do much to find the girl, nor was there anything to be done after our advertisements had failed. The rest of the story you know, Miss Eden. When I last saw your brother I told him that after making your acquaintance, if I found you what he had painted, I should in all probability tell you this story, and he made no objection. I fear it has given you pain, still it was best that you should know it. And perhaps now you will not think that your brother was wrong in opening his heart to me."
"No, I think he was right, and I am very, very grateful to you for telling me about my father." After a while she continued: "But, Mr. Travers, I hardly know what to say about the dream. I have heard and read of such things, and—I was just what he imagined—just like the girl he saw in his dream. And when my life was so miserable, if I had known where to find him—if mother could have told me—I should have gone to him to ask him to save me. But—how can I say it? Don't you think, Mr. Travers, that if dreams and warnings were sent to us—if good spirits could let us know things in that way and tell us what to do, that it would happen oftener? ... There are always so many in distress and danger, and sometimes so little is needed to save one—a few pence, a few kind words —and yet how many fall, how many die! Even in the Regent's Canal how many poor women throw their lives away—and nothing saves them.... I am not glad to hear that it was a dream that first made my father wish to find mother—and me. I should have preferred to hear that he thought of her— of us, before he fell into such bad health, and when he was strong and happy.... Do you think his dream was sent from heaven, Mr. Travers?"
"I am not prepared to express an opinion as to that, Miss Eden," he replied, with a grave smile. "But I have been listening to your words with great interest and a little surprise. Most young ladies, I fancy, would have been deeply impressed with such a narrative, and they would readily and gladly have adopted the view that some supernatural agency had been concerned in the matter. You, strange to say, do not seem to look on yourself as a special favourite of the powers above, and think that others have as much right as yourself to be rescued miraculously from perils and sufferings. Well—you have not a romantic mind, Miss Eden."
"No, I don't think I have—I have had the same thing said to me two or three times before," replied Fan naively. "But I wish you would tell me more about my father when he was healthy and happy. Was he really as handsome as he looks in the portrait? It seems so life-like that when I am looking at it I can hardly realise that he is not somewhere living on the earth, that I shall never hold his hand and hear his voice."
The old lawyer was quite ready to gratify her curiosity on the point, and told her a great deal about her father's life. "There is one thing I omitted to mention before," he said at the end. "Your brother would gladly do anything in his power to make you happy; at the same time he wishes you to understand that in providing for you he is only carrying out his father's intentions, and that you will owe it to your father, and not to him."
"But I shall still feel the same gratitude to my brother, Mr. Travers."
"Well, no harm can come of that, and—we cannot help our feelings. Just now it is your brother's fancy to leave you in ignorance of the amount of your income, which I think you will find sufficient. For a year or so you have as it were carte blanche to do what you like in the way of spending, and if you should exceed your income by fifty or a hundred pounds I don't think anything alarming will happen. And now, Miss Eden, is there nothing I can do for you? Nothing you would like to ask my advice about?"
"Oh yes, thank you, there is one thing," and she told him all about her friend Constance, and her anxiety to find her.
Mr. Travers made a note of the matter. "There will be no difficulty in finding them," he said. "I shall have inquiries made to-morrow. I hope," he added with a smile, "you are not going to become a convert to Mr. Merton Chance's doctrines."
"Oh no," she replied laughing. "My only wish is to find Mrs. Chance. Mrs. Churton once said, when she was a little vexed with me, that it was like pouring water on a duck's back to give me religious instruction. I am sure that if Mr. Chance ever speaks to me about his new beliefs I shall have my feathers well oiled."
Meanwhile Mrs. Travers had been keeping the luncheon back, and watching them engaged in that long conversation from her seat at the window. The good woman had been the wife of her husband for a great many years, but she had not yet outlived that natural belief that a wife has to "know everything" her husband knows; and she had guessed that those two were discussing secret matters which they had no intention of imparting to her. A woman has a faculty about such things which corresponds to scent in the terrier; the little mystery is there—the small rodent lurks behind the wainscot; she is consumed with a desire to get at it—to worry its life out; and if it refuse to leave its hiding-place she cannot rest and be satisfied. It was her nature; and though she asked no questions, knowing that her husband was not to be caught in that way, he did not fail to remark the slight frost which had fallen on her manner and her polite and distant tone towards their guest. Well aware of the cause, and too old to be annoyed, it only gave him a little secret amusement. He had warned the girl, and that was enough. The little chill would pass off in time, and no harm would result.
It did not pass off quickly, however, but lasted three or four days, during which time Mrs. Travers was somewhat distant in her manner, and declined Fan's offer to read to her; and Fan remarked the change, but was at a loss to account for it. But one day, after lunch, when they rose from the table, she said, "Oh, Mrs. Travers, do you know that the Pic. is in the drawing-room? I have been anxiously waiting since Saturday to know what the last 'Eastern Idyll' is about."
"And why have you not read it, Miss Eden?" said the other, a little stiffly.
"I thought that you would perhaps let me read it to you—I did not wish to read it first."
The good woman smiled and consented. Her sight was not good, and the sketches were always printed in a painfully small type; and besides, they seemed different to her when the girl read them; her low musical voice, so clear and penetrating, yet pathetic, had seemed to interpret the writer's feeling so well. And so the frost melted, and she became more kind and friendly than ever.
Mr. Travers, much to his own surprise, failed to discover Fan's lost friends. One thing he had done was to send a clerk to the office of the paper with the singular title to ask for Mr. Chance's address. The answer he received from a not over-polite gentleman he met there was, "We don't know nothing about Mr. Merton Chance in this horfice, and don't want to, nether."
Mr. Travers had to confess that he could not find Merton Chance.
Before Fan's visit came to an end, the Travers gave a dinner to some of their Kingston friends and neighbours. The hour was seven, and all the guests, save one, arrived at the right time, and after fifteen minutes' grace had been allowed, Mrs. Travers discovered to her dismay that they would sit down thirteen at table. She was superstitious, in the restricted sense in which her husband used the word, and was plainly distressed. Two or three of the ladies, including Fan, who were in the secret, were discussing this grave matter with her.
"I shall not dine, Mrs. Travers; do please let me stop out!" said Fan.
"No, my dear Miss Eden, I couldn't think of such a thing," said Mrs. Travers.
Then another lady offered to eat her dinner standing, for so long as they did not sit down thirteen "it would be all right," she said. But it was one of those unfortunate remarks which sound personal, the obliging lady being very tall and slender, while her short and stout hostess did not look much higher when standing than when seated.
"It is really too bad of him!" was her sole remark.
"Is he nice?" asked another lady.
"Not very, I think, if he makes us sit down thirteen, and leaves Miss Eden with no one to take her in. But you can judge for yourself, for here he is—I am so glad!"
The late guest advancing to them was now shaking hands with his hostess, and apologising for being the last to arrive; while Fan, who had suddenly turned very pale, shrank back as if anxious to avoid being seen by him. It was Captain Horton, not much changed in appearance, but thinner and somewhat care-worn and jaded. Mrs. Travers at once proceeded to introduce him to Fan, and asked him to take her in to dinner, and being preoccupied she did not notice the girl's altered and painfully distressed appearance. He bowed and offered his arm, but he started perceptibly when first glancing at her face. Fan, barely resting her fingers on his sleeve, moved on by his side, her eyes cast down, as they followed the other guests, both keeping silence. At the table, their neighbours on either side being deeply engaged in conversation with their respective partners, Captain Horton found himself placed in an exceedingly trying position, but until he had finished his soup, which he ate but did not taste, he made no attempt to speak. The name of Eden mystified him, and more than once his eyes wandered to that portrait hanging on the wall opposite to where he was sitting, to find its grey eyes watching him; yet he had no doubt in his mind that the young lady by his side was the girl he had known at Dawson Place as Fan Affleck. At length, to avoid attracting attention, he felt compelled to say something, and made some commonplace remarks about the weather—its excessive heat and dryness; it had not been so hot for years. "At noon in the City to-day," he said, "the thermometer marked eighty-nine degrees in the shade."
Fan's monosyllabic replies were scarcely audible; she was very pale, and kept her eyes religiously fixed on the table before her. At length she ventured to glance at him, and could not help noticing, in spite of her distress, that he seemed as ill at ease as herself. He crumbled his bread to powder on the cloth, and when he raised his glass to drink, which he did often enough to fill up the time, his hand shook so as almost to spill his wine. Seeing him so nervous, she began to experience a kind of pity for him—some such complex feeling as a very humane person might have for a reptile he has been taught to loathe and fear when seeing it in pain—and at length surprised him by asking if he lived in Kingston. He replied that he usually spent the summer months there for the sake of the boating; and then, as if afraid that they would drop into silence again, he put the same question to her. Fan replied that she was only staying for a few days with her friends the Travers. A few vapid remarks about Kingston and the river was all they could find to say after that, and it was an immense relief when the ladies at length rose and left the room.
Mrs. Travers led the way through the drawing-room to the garden, but when all her guests, except Fan, who came last, had passed out, she came back to speak alone to the girl.
"I am afraid you are not feeling well, my dear," she said. "You look as pale as a ghost, and I noticed that you scarcely ate anything at dinner, and were very silent.
"Please don't think anything of it, Mrs. Travers. I feel quite well now— perhaps it was the heat."
"It was hot, but it never seems like dinner unless we have the gas lighted and draw the curtains."
"I suppose I must have seemed very stupid to—the gentleman who took me in," remarked Fan. "Can you tell me something about him, Mrs. Travers? Is he a friend of yours and Mr. Travers?"
"Are you really interested in him, Miss Eden?" said the other, with a disconcerting smile.
The girl's face flushed painfully. After a little reflection she said:
"I was so silent at table, hardly answering a word when he spoke—perhaps he thought me very strange and shy." She paused, blushing again at her own disingenuousness. "I must have felt nervous, or frightened, at something in him. Do you know him well—is he a bad man, Mrs. Travers?"
"My dear child, what a shocking thing to say—and of a gentleman you have scarcely spoken to! You shall hear his whole biography, since you are so curious about him. We have known him a long time: he is a nephew of an old friend of ours—Mr. George Horton, a stockbroker, very wealthy. Captain Horton had a small fortune left to him, but he ran through with it, and so—had to leave the army. He was a sporting man, and had the misfortune to lose; that, I think, is the worst that can be said of him. About two years ago he went to his uncle and begged to be taken on in the office; he was sick of an idle life, he said. His uncle did not believe that he would do any good in the City, but consented to give him a trial. Since then he has been as much absorbed in the business as if he had been in it all his life. His uncle thinks him wonderfully clever, and I dare say will make him a partner in the firm before very long. And now, my dear Miss Eden, you must get rid of that fancy about him, because it is wrong; and later in the evening when you hear him sing—you are so fond of music!—you will like him as much as we do."
After this little discourse the good woman took her station at a table in the garden to pour out the coffee.
But there was a tumult in the girl's heart, a strange feeling she could not analyse. It was not fear—she feared him no longer; nor hate, since, as she had said, her happiness had taken from her the power to hate anyone; yet it was strong as these, importunate, and its object was clear to her soul, but how to give it expression she knew not.
The hum of conversation suddenly grew loud in the dining-room; the gentlemen had finished their wine, if not their discussion; they had risen, and were about to join the ladies in the garden. The impulse in her was so strong that it was an anguish, and she could not resist it. Coming to the side of her hostess, she spoke hesitatingly:
"Mrs. Travers, when they come out, I must talk to him—to Captain Horton, I mean, and—and try to do away with the bad impression I must have made. He must think me so shy and silent. Will it seem strange if I should ask him to go with me round the garden to see the roses?"
"Strange! no, indeed," returned the other with a little laugh. "He will be very glad to look at the roses with you, I should think."
Fan kept her place by the table when the gentlemen came out. Captain Horton's eyes studiously avoided her face.
"Mrs. Travers," he said, taking a cup of coffee from her hand, "I hope you will not think worse of me than you already do if I leave you at once. Unfortunately for me, I have an appointment which must be kept."
"Oh that is really too bad of you," said the lady. "We were anticipating so much pleasure from your singing this evening. And here is Miss Eden just waiting to take you round the garden to show you our roses—perhaps you can spare ten minutes to see them?"
He glanced at the girl's pale, troubled face.
"I shall be very pleased to look at the roses with Miss Eden," he returned, setting down his cup with a somewhat unsteady hand.
His voice, however, expressed no pleasure, but only surprise, and while speaking he anxiously consulted his watch. Fan came round to his side at once, and together they moved towards the lower end of the grounds.
"Do you admire flowers?" She spoke mechanically.
"Yes, I do."
After an interval she spoke again.
"Mr. Travers takes great pride in his roses. They are very lovely."
He made no reply.
Then at last, in a kind of despair, she added:
"But it was not to show you the roses that I asked you to come with me."
He inclined his head slightly, but said nothing.
"You remember me—do you not?" she asked after a while.
He considered the question for a few moments, then answered, "Yes, Miss Eden."
"Perhaps it surprised you to hear me called by that name. It was my father's name, and I have now taken it in obedience to my brother's wish."
At this mention of father and brother he involuntarily glanced at her face—that same pure delicate face to which he had once brought so terrified a look and a pallor as of death.
For some minutes more they paced the walks at the end of the garden in silence, he waiting for her to speak, she unable to say anything.
"Allow me to remind you," he said at length, looking again at his watch, "that I am a little pressed for time. I understood, or imagined, that you had something to say to me—not about roses."
"I am so sorry—I can say nothing," she murmured in reply. Then after an interval, with an effort, "But perhaps it will be the same if you know what I came out for—if you can guess."
"Perhaps I can guess only too well," he returned bitterly. "You were kindly going to warn me that you intend bringing some damning accusation against me to the Travers. You need not have troubled yourself about it; you might have spared yourself, and me, the misery of this interview. It surprised me very much to meet you here, as I had no desire to cross your path. I shall not enter this house again, and Kingston will soon see the last of me. It would have been better, I think—more maidenly, if you will allow me to say so—to have met me as a perfect stranger and made no sign."
"I could not do that," she answered, with a ring of pain in her voice. "You speak angrily, and take it for granted that I am going to do you some injury. Oh, what a mistake you are making! Nothing would ever induce me to breathe one word to the Travers, nor to anyone, of what I know of you."
He looked surprised and relieved. "Then, in heaven's name, why not try and forget all about it? You have friends and relations now, and seem to have made the best of your opportunities. Is there anything to be gained by stirring up the past?"
"I do not know. I thought so, but perhaps I was wrong."
He looked at her again, openly, and with growing interest. He had hated her memory, had cursed her a thousand times, for having come between him and the woman he wanted to marry; but it made a wonderful difference in his feelings towards her just at present to find that she was not his enemy. "Will you sit down here, Miss Eden," he said, speaking now not only without animosity but gently, "and let me hear what you wished to say? I beg your pardon for the injustice I did you a minute ago, but I am still in the dark as to your motive in seeking this interview."
She sat down on a garden seat, under the shade of a wide-branching lime; he a little apart. But she could say nothing, albeit so much was in her heart, and her impulse had been so strong; so far as her power to express that strange emotion went, in the dark he would have to remain. She could not say to him—it was a feeling, not a thought—that her clear soul had taken some turbidness that was foreign to it from his; that when she forgot the past and his existence it settled and left her pure again; she could not say—the thought existed without form in her mind—that it would have been better if he had never been born because he had offended; but that just because the offence had been against herself, something of the guilt seemed to attach itself to her, causing her to know remorse and shrink from herself; that it was somehow in his power—he having performed this miracle—to deliver her.
From time to time her companion glanced at her pale face; he did not press her to speak, he could see that she was powerless; but he was thinking of many things, and it was borne in on him that if he could bring about a change in her feelings towards him, it might be well for him—not in any spiritual sense; he was only thinking of Mary and his passion for her, which had never filled his heart until the moment of that separation which had promised to be eternal. In a vague way he comprehended something of the feeling that was in the girl's heart; for it was plain that to be near him was unspeakably painful to her, and yet —strange contradiction!—she had now put herself in his way. He dropped a few tentative words that seemed to express regret for the past, and when he remarked that she listened eagerly, and waited for more, he knew that he was on safe and profitable ground. Safe, and how easy to walk on! At a moment's notice he had accepted this new, apparently unsuitable part, and its strange passion at once grew familiar to him, and could be expressed easily. Perhaps he even deceived himself, for a few minutes or for half an hour while the process of deceiving another lasted, that he had actually felt as he said—that his changed manner of life had resulted from this feeling. "If I have not known remorse," he said, "I pity the poor fellows who do." And much more he said, speaking not fluently, but brokenly, with intervals of silence, as if something that had long remained hidden had at last been wrung from him.
All this time Fan had said nothing, nor did she speak when he had finished his story. Nor did he wish it; the strange trouble and pallor had passed away, and there was a tender light in her eyes that was better than speech.
They rose and moved slowly towards the house. The drawing-room was lighted, and the guests were now gathering there to listen to a lady at the piano singing. They could hear her plainly enough, for her voice, said to be soprano, was exceedingly shrill, and she was singing, Tell me, my heart—a difficult thing, all flourishes, and she rendered it like an automaton lark with its internal machinery gone wrong.
"Shall we go in?" said Fan.
"Yes, Miss Eden, if you wish; but don't you think we can hear this song best where we are? I find it hard to ask you a question I have had in my mind for some minutes, but I must ask it. Are you still with Miss Starbrow?"
"Oh, no; we separated a long time ago, and for very long—nearly eighteen months—I never heard from her."
"I hope you will not think it an impertinent question; but—there must have been some very serious reason to have kept you apart so long?"
"No, scarcely that. I have always felt the same towards her. She did so much for me. It was only a misunderstanding."
"Now I am so glad to say that it is all over, and that she is my dearest friend."
"And is she still living at Dawson Place—and single?"
"Yes." But after a few moments she said, "You had one question more to ask, Captain Horton, had you not?"
"Yes," he returned. "You must know what it is."
"But it is hard to answer. She mentioned your name once—lately; but her feelings are just as bitter against you."
"I could not expect it to be otherwise," he returned, and they walked on towards the house.
Before they reached it Mrs. Travers appeared to them. "Still looking at the roses?" she said with a laugh. "How fond of flowers you two must be! Can you spare us another ten minutes before keeping your appointment, Captain Horton, and sing us one of your songs?"
"As many as you like, Mrs. Travers," he returned. "You see, after going to see the roses it was too late to keep the appointment. And I am very glad it was, for I have had a very pleasant conversation with Miss Eden, about flowers, and the beauties of Kingston, and of the Stock Exchange, and a dozen things besides."
Fan, sitting a little apart and beside the open window, listened with a strange pleasure to that fine baritone voice which she now heard again after so long a time, and wondered to herself whether it would ever again be joined with Mary's in that rich harmony to which she had so often listened standing on the stairs.
It was nearly eleven o'clock before Captain Horton found an opportunity to speak to her again. "Miss Eden," he said, dropping into a seat next to her, "I am anxious to say one—no, two things, before leaving you. One is that I know that after this evening I shall be a happier man. The other is this: if I should ever be able to serve you in any way—if you could ever bring yourself to ask my assistance in any way, it would give me a great happiness. But perhaps it is a happiness I have no right to expect."
Before he had finished speaking her wish to find Constance, and Mr. Travers' failure, came to her mind, and she eagerly caught at his offer.
"I am so glad you did not leave me before saying this," she replied. "You can help me in something now, I think."
"How glad I am to hear you say that, Miss Eden! I am entirely at your service; tell me what I can do for you."
She told him about the marriage of his former friend, Merton Chance, with Constance, and about their disappearance, and her anxiety to find her friend.
Captain Horton, after hearing all the particulars, promised to write to her on her return to Quebec Street to let her know the result of the inquiries he would begin making on the morrow.
Two days later Fan returned to her apartments, and shortly after arriving there received a letter from Captain Horton, giving her an account of what he had been doing for her since their memorable meeting at Kingston. He had gone to work in a very systematic way, enlisting the services of a number of clergymen and other philanthropic workers at the East End to make inquiries for him; and it would be strange, he concluded, if the Chances escaped being discovered, unless they had quitted that part of London.
A few days later, about the middle of August, came a second letter, which made Fan's heart leap with joy. Captain Horton had found out that the Chances were living at Mile End, but did not know their address yet. He had come across a gentleman—a curate without a curacy, a kind of Christian free-lance—who lived in that neighbourhood and knew the persons sought for intimately, but declined to give their address or to say anything about them; but he had consented to meet Miss Eden at Captain Horton's office in the City and speak to her; and the meeting had been arranged to take place at two o'clock on the following day. Fan took care to be at the office punctually at two.
"Our friend has not yet arrived," said Captain Horton, after giving her a chair in the office, "but we can look for him soon, I think, as he did not seem like a person who would fail to keep an engagement. He is a very good fellow, I have heard, but seemed rather to resent being questioned about his mysterious friends, and was very reticent. Ah, here he is."
"Mr. Northcott!" exclaimed Fan, starting up with a face full of joy; for it was he, looking older, and with a pale, care-worn face, which, together with his somewhat rusty clerical coat and hat, seemed to show that the world had not gone well with him since he had left Eyethorne.
"Miss Affleck—if I had only imagined that it was you! How glad I am to meet you once more! How glad Mrs. Chance will be to hear from you," he said, taking her hand.
"But I wish to see her, Mr. Northcott—I must see her," said Fan; and the curate at once offered to conduct her to her friend's home at Mile End.
Leaving the office, they took a cab and set out for their destination; but during the drive Fan had little chance of hearing any details concerning her friend's life; for what with the noise of the streets and the rattling of the cab, it was scarcely possible to hear a word; and whenever there came a quieter interval the curate wished to hear how Fan had passed her time, and why she had been addressed as Miss Eden.
At length they got to their journey's end, the cab, for some reason, being dismissed at some distance from the house they had come to visit. It was one in a row of small, mean-looking tenements containing two floors each, and facing other houses of the same description on the opposite side of the narrow macadamised road, which, with the loose stones and other rubbish in it, presented a dirty, ill-kept appearance. At the tenth or eleventh house in the row Mr. Northcott stopped and knocked lightly at the low front door, warped and blistered by the sun which poured its intolerable heat full upon it.
A woman opened the door and greeted the curate with a smile; then casting a surprised look at his companion, stood aside to let them pass into the narrow, dark, stuffy hallway. "He'll be sleeping just now," said the woman, pointing up the stairs. "You can just go quietly up. She'll be there by herself doing of her writing."
"We must go up softly then," he said, turning to Fan. "Poor Chance is very ill, and sleeps principally in the daytime. That's why I got rid of the cab some distance from the house."
He led the way up the narrow creaking stairs to a door on the first landing standing partly open; before it hung a wet chintz curtain, preventing their seeing into the room. Her conductor tapped lightly on the doorframe, and presently the wet curtain was moved aside by Constance, who greeted her visitor with a glad smile while giving him her hand, but the darkness of the small landing, which had no light from above, prevented her from seeing Fan for some moments.
"Harold—at last!" she said, her hand still resting in his. "I have waited two days for you; but I was resolved not to send the manuscript till you had read it." Then she caught sight of Fan, standing a little behind him, and started back, a look of the greatest astonishment coming into her face.
"I have brought you an old friend, Constance," said the curate, stepping aside.
"Fan—my darling Fan!" she exclaimed, but still in a subdued voice, and in a moment the two friends were locked in a long and close embrace.
"Constance—what a change! Let me look at your dear face again. Oh, how unkind of you to keep your address from me all this time!"
The other raised her face, and for some moments they gazed into each other's eyes, wet with tears. She was indeed changed; and that rich brown tint, which had looked so beautiful, and made her so different from others, had quite faded from her pale thin face, so that she no longer looked like the Constance Churton of the old days. Even her hair had been affected by trouble and bad health; it was combed out and hanging loose on her back, and Fan noticed that the fine bronze glint had gone out of the heavy brown tresses like joy or hope from a darkened life. She was wearing a very simple cotton wrapper, and though evidently made of the very cheapest kind of stuff, it had faded almost white with many washings. Altogether it was plain to see that the Chances were very poor; and yet the expression on her friend's altered face was not a desponding one.
"You must forgive me for not writing, dearest Fan," she said at length. "There would have been things to tell which could not be told without pain. It was wrong—cowardly in me to keep silence, I know. And it grieved me to think that you too might be in trouble and want." Then, after surveying Fan's costume for some moments, she added with a smile. "But that was a false fear, I hope."
"Yes, dear. At any rate, for some time past I have had everything I could wish for, and dear friends to care for me. But that is a very long story, Constance, and I am anxious to hear how your husband is."
All this time the curate had been standing patiently by; he now took his departure, after arranging to return to see Fan as far west as the City on her way home at six o'clock in the evening.
Constance raised the wet curtain and led Fan into the sitting-room. It was small and mean enough, with a very low ceiling, dingy, discoloured wall-paper, and a few articles of furniture such as one sees in a working-man's lodging. Near the front window stood a small deal table, on which were pens, ink, and a pile of closely-written sheets of paper, showing how Constance had been employed. The two doors—one by which they had entered, and another leading to the bedroom—also the window, were open, and before them all wet pieces of chintz were hanging. This was done to mitigate the intense heat, Constance explained; the sun shining directly down on the slates made the low-roofed rooms like an oven, and the quickly evaporating moisture created a momentary coolness. Merton was asleep in the second room; his nights, she said, were so bad that he generally fell asleep during the day; he had not risen yet, and her whole study was to keep the rooms cool and quiet while he rested.
Fan took off her hat and settled down to have a long talk with her friend.
"Fan, dear," said the other, after returning from the bedroom to make sure that Merton still slept, "we must talk in as low a tone as possible, I mean without whispering. And we have so much to say to each other."
"Yes, indeed; I am dying to hear all about your life since you vanished from Notting Hill."
"But, Fan, my curiosity about your life is still greater—and no wonder! I have been constantly thinking about you—crying, too, sometimes— imagining all sorts of painful things—that you were destitute and friendless, perhaps, in this cruel London. And now here you are, I don't know how, like a vision of the West End, with that subtle perfume about you, and looking more beautiful than I have ever seen you, except on that one occasion; do you remember?—on that first evening in the orchard at dear old Eyethorne. Look at my dress, Fan, my second best! But how much more did it astound me to hear Harold—I call Mr. Northcott by his Christian name now—addressing you as Miss Eden when he left. What does it all mean? If he had called you Mrs. Eden I might have guessed what wonderful things had happened to you."
Fan was prepared for this. There were some things not to be revealed; she remembered that Mary had looked into her very soul when she had heard the strange story, and her quick apprehension and knowledge of human nature had no doubt supplied the links that were missing in it. Now by anticipation she had prepared a narrative which would run smoothly, and began it without further delay; and for half an hour Constance listened with intense interest, only interrupting to bestow a kiss and whisper a tender consoling word when her friend was at last compelled, with faltering speech, to confess that she was no legitimate child of her father.
"Oh, Fan, I am so glad that this has happened to you. So much more glad than if I had myself experienced some great good fortune. And your brother—oh, how nobly he has acted—how much you must love and admire him! I remember that evening so well when you met him; I thought then that I had never seen anyone with so charming a manner. And there was something so melodious and sympathetic in his voice; how strange that it never struck me as being like yours, and that he was like you in his eyes, and so many things!"
"But tell me about yourself, Constance."
"I could put it all in twenty words, but that would not be fair, and would not satisfy you. Since our marriage we have simply been drifting down the current, getting poorer and poorer, and also moving about from place to place—I mean since you lost sight of us. And at last it was impossible for us to go any lower, for we were destitute, and—it will shock you to hear it—obliged even to pledge our clothes to buy bread."
"And you would not write to me, Constance, nor even to your mother! I know that, because I wrote to her to ask for your address, and she replied that she did not know it, that I knew more about your movements in London than she did."
"I could not write to you, Fan, knowing that you barely had enough to keep yourself, and that it would only have distressed you. Nor could I write to them at home. Those poor fields they have to live on are mortgaged almost up to their value, and after paying interest they have little left for expenses in the house. Besides, Fan, we had already received help from Mr. Eden and other friends, and it had proved worse than useless. It only seemed to have the effect of making us less able to help ourselves."
"And your husband—was he not earning something with his lecturing and the articles he wrote?"
"Not with the lecturing, as you call it. With the articles, yes, but very little. They were political articles, you know, and were printed in socialistic papers, and not many of them were paid for. But after a while all his enthusiasm died out; he could not go on with it, and was not prepared with anything else. He grew to hate the whole thing at last, and was a little too candid with his former friends when he told them that they were a living proof of the judgment Carlyle had passed on his countrymen. It was hardly safe for him to walk about the streets among the people who had begun to expect great things from him. It is a dreadful thing to say, but it is the simple truth, that our next move would have been to the workhouse. And just then his illness began. He was out all night and met with some accident; it was a pouring wet night, and he was brought home in the morning bruised and injured, soaking wet, and the result was a fever and cough, which turned to something like consumption. He has suffered terribly, and I have sometimes despaired of his life; but he is better now, I think—I hope. Only this dreadful heat we are having keeps him so weak. You can't imagine how anxiously we are looking forward to a change in the weather; the cool days will so refresh him when they come."
"But, Constance, you haven't told me yet how you escaped what you were fearing when he first fell ill."
The other looked up, tears starting in her eyes, and a glow of warm colour coming into her pale cheeks. "Oh, Fan," she said, her voice trembling with emotion, "have you not yet guessed who came to us in our darkest hour and saved us from worse things than we had already known? Yes; Mr. Northcott, a poor unemployed clergyman, without any private income, struggling for his own subsistence, and frequently in bad health; but no rich and powerful man could have given us such help and comfort. How can I tell it all to you? He found us out after we left Norland Square. He had left Eyethorne shortly after we did, but not before he had heard from mother about my marriage, and my husband's name. He introduced himself to Merton one evening at a socialistic meeting, and after that he occasionally came to see us, and he and Merton had endless arguments, for he was not a socialist. But they became great friends, and he was always trying to persuade my husband to turn his talents to other things. He wished Merton to try his hand at little descriptive and character sketches, interspersed with incidents partly true and partly fictitious. He said that I would be able to help; and one day he related a little incident, minutely describing the actors in it, and begged us to write it out in the way he suggested, but unfortunately the idea never took with Merton. He thought it too trivial; or else he could not work. So I tried my hand alone at it; and Harold saw what I had done, and asked me to rewrite it, and make some alterations which he suggested. Then he sent me a rough sketch he had written and asked me to work it up in the same way as the first; and when I had finished it I sent him the two papers together. Shortly afterwards, when Merton was ill and I was at my wits' end, Harold came to say that he had sold the sketches to the editor of the Lady's Pictorial, who liked them so much that he wished to have more from the same hand. Imagine how glad I was to get the cheque Harold had brought me! But about the other sketches asked for, I told him that I could not write them because I had no materials. He had supplied me with incidents, characters, and descriptions of localities for the first time, and I could not go about to find fresh matter for myself. He said that he had thought of that, and that he was prepared to supply me with as much material as I required. He would give me facts, and my fancy would do the rest. He only laughed at the idea that I would be sucking his brains and depriving him of his own means of subsistence. He was always about among the poor, he said, and talking to people of all descriptions, and hearing and seeing things well worth being told in print, but he was without the special kind of talent and style of writing necessary to give literary form to such matter. His tastes lay in other directions, and the only writing he could do was of a very different kind. Then I gladly consented, and Merton was pleased also, and promised to help; but—poor fellow—he has not had the strength to do anything yet."
"Oh, Constance, how glad I am to hear this. But is it not terribly trying for you to do so much work in this close hot room, and attend to your husband at the same time? And you get no proper rest at night, I suppose. Is it not making you ill?"
"No, dear; it comes easier every week, and has made me better, I think. The heat is very trying, I must say; and I can only write when Merton is asleep, generally in the early part of the day. But do you know, Fan, that in spite of our poverty and my great and constant anxiety about Merton's health, I feel some happiness in my heart now. If I possessed a morbid mind or conscience I should probably call myself heartless for being able to feel happiness at such a time—happiness and pride at my success. But I am not morbid, thank goodness, or at war with my own nature—with the better part of my nature, I might say. And it is so sweet—oh, Fan, how unutterably sweet it is, to feel that I am doing something for him and for myself, that my life is not being wasted, that my brains are beginning to bear fruit at last!"
"I wonder whether I have ever seen any of your sketches, Constance? I have read some things, and cried and laughed over them, in the Pictorial, called 'Eastern Idylls.'"
"Yes, Fan, that is the title of my sketches. How strange that you should have seen them! How glad I am!"
Fan related the circumstances; then Constance paid another visit to the bedroom to listen to the invalid's breathing. Returning, she presently resumed, "Fan, is it not wonderful that we should experience such goodness from one who after all was no more than an acquaintance, and who has so little of life's good things? He has never offered to help us even with one shilling in money, and that only shows his delicacy. Had he been ever so rich and given us help in money there would have been a sting in it. And yet look how much more than money he gives us—how much time he spends, and what trouble he takes to keep me supplied with fresh matter for my writings. I'm sure he goes about with eyes and ears open to all he sees and hears more for our sakes than for his own. Is it not wonderful, Fan?"
"Yes; it is very sweet, but not strange, I think," said Fan, smiling; and after reflecting a few moments she was just about to add: "He has always loved you, since he knew you at Eyethorne, and he would do anything for you."
But at that moment Constance half turned her head to listen, and so the perilous words were not spoken. "Consideration like an angel came," and before the other turned to her to resume the conversation, Fan looked back on what she had just escaped with a feeling like that of the mariner who sees the half-hidden rock only after he has safely passed it.
They talked on for half an hour longer, when a low moan, followed by a fit of coughing in the adjoining room, made Constance start up and go to her husband. She returned in a few minutes, but only to say that she would be absent some time assisting Merton to dress; then giving Fan the proof of the last "Idyll" she had sent to the paper to read, she again left the room.
Fan read the sketch, but her mind was too much occupied with all she had just heard, in addition to the joy she felt at having recovered her friend, to pay much attention to it. Moreover the increasing heat began to oppress her; she marvelled that Constance, accustomed all her life to the freedom and cool expanse of the country, should find it possible to work in such an atmosphere and amidst such surroundings.
At length, Merton, who had been coughing a great deal while dressing, came in assisted by his wife, but quite exhausted with the exertion of walking from one room to the other; and after shaking hands with their visitor he sunk into his easy-chair, not yet able to talk. She was greatly shocked at the change in him; the once fine, marble-like face was horribly wasted, so that the sharp unsightly bones looked as if they would cut their way through the deadly dry parchment-yellow skin that covered them; and the deep blue eyes now looked preternaturally large and bright—all the brighter for the dark purple stains beneath them. He was low indeed, nigh unto death perhaps; yet he did not appear cast down in the least, but even while he sat breathing laboriously, still unable to speak, the eyes had a pleased hopeful look as they rested on their visitor's face. A smile, too, hovered about the corners of his mouth as his glance wandered over her costume. For, in spite of feeling the heat a great deal, she looked cool in her light-hued summer dress, with its dim blue pattern on a cream-coloured ground. The loose fashion in which it was made, the tints, and light frosting of fine lace on neck and sleeves, harmonised well with the grey tender eyes, the pure delicate skin, and golden hair.
"You could not have chosen a fitter costume to visit us in," said Merton at length. "I can hardly believe that you come to us from some other part of this same foul, hot, dusty London. To my fever-parched fancy you seem rather to have come from some distant unpolluted place, where green leaves flutter in the wind and cast shadows on the ground; where crystal showers fall, and the vision of the rainbow is sometimes seen."
Constance came to his side and bent over him.
"You must not be tyrannical, Connie," he said. "I really must talk. Even a bird in prison sings its song after a fashion, and why not I?"
And seeing him so anxious to begin she made no further objection, contenting herself with giving him a draught from his medicine bottle. She had already told him Fan's story, and he had heard it with some interest. He congratulated the girl on having found a brother in his old school-fellow, Arthur Eden, and took some merit to himself for having brought them together. But he did not make the remark that truth was stranger than fiction. It was evident that he was impatient to get to other more important matters.
"You have doubtless heard from my wife," he said, "that I have parted company with those misguided people that call themselves socialists. Well, Miss Affleck, the fact is—"
"Eden," corrected Constance with a smile. She was quietly moving about the room in her list slippers, engaged in remoistening the hangings, which had now grown dry and hot.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Eden. Yes, thanks—Fan; that will be better still among such old friends as we are. What I wish to say is, that my mind was never really carried away with their fantastical theories—their dreams of a social condition where all men will be equally far removed from want and excessive wealth. I could have told them at once that they were overlooking the first and greatest law of organic nature, that the stone which the builders despised would fall on them and grind them to powder. At the same time my feelings were engaged on their side, I am bound to confess; I did think it possible to educe some good out of this general ferment and dissatisfaction with the conditions of life. For, after all, this ferment—this great clamour and shouting and hurrying to and fro—represents force—blind brute force, no doubt, like that of waves dashing themselves to pieces on the rocks, or of the tempest let loose on the world. A tempest unhappily without an angel to guide it; for I look upon the would-be angels—the Burnses—Morrises—Champions— Hyndmans—merely as so many crows, rooks, and jackdaws, who have incontinently rushed in to swell the noise with their outrageous cawing, and to be tossed and blown about, hither and thither, among the dust, sticks, old newspapers, and pieces of rotten wood stirred up by the wind. Good would have come of it if it had been possible to introduce a gleam of sense and reason into the foggy brains of these wretched men. But that was impossible. I am ashamed to have to confess that I ever believed it possible—that I assumed, when planning their welfare, that they were not absolutely irrational. I have not only thrown the whole thing up, but the disgust, the revulsion of feeling I have experienced, has had the effect of making me perfectly indifferent as to the ultimate fate of these people. If some person were to come to me to-morrow to say that all the East-enders, from Bishopsgate Street to Bow, had been seized with a kind of frenzy, like that which from time to time takes possession of the Norway marmots, or bandicoots, or whatever they are called—"
"Lemmings," said Constance.
"Yes, lemmings. Thanks, Connie, you are a perfect walking encyclopaedia. And—like these Norway lemmings—had rushed into the Thames at Tilbury, men, women, and children, and been drowned, I should say, 'I am very pleased to hear it.' For to my mind these people are no more worthy of being saved than a migrating horde of Norway rats, or than the Gadarene swine that ran down the steep and were drowned in the sea."
Fan listened with astonishment, and turned to Constance, wondering what would be the effect of such dreadful sentiments on her, and not without recalling some of those "Idylls," inspired by a spirit so loving and gentle and Christian. But she seemed to be paying little attention to the matter of her husband's discourse, to be concerned only at the state of his health.
"Merton, dear," she said, "if you talk so much at a stretch you will bring on another fit of coughing."
"Ah, yes, thanks for reminding me. Let me have another sip of that mixture. Then I shall speak of other more hopeful things. And the sweetness of hope shall be like that rosy honey, rose-scented, to soften my throat, made dry and harsh with barren themes. After all, Connie, these troubles which have tried us so severely have only proved blessings in disguise. Yes, Fan, we have been driven hither and thither about the sea, encountering terrible storms, and sometimes fearing that our bark was about to founder; but they have at last driven us into a haven more sweet and restful than storm-tossed mariners ever entered before. And looking back we can even feel grateful to the furious wind, and the hateful dark blue wave that brought us to such a goal."
All this figurative language, which was like the prelude to a solemn piece of music, gave Fan the idea that something of very great importance was about to follow. But, alas! the mixture, and the rose-honey sweetness of hope, failed to prevent the attack which Constance had feared, and he coughed so long and so violently that Fan, after being a distressed spectator for some time, grew positively alarmed. By-and-by, glancing at her friend's face as she stood bending over the sufferer, holding his bowed head between her palms, she concluded that it was no more than an everyday attack, and that no fatal results need be feared. Relieved of her apprehension, she began to think less of the husband and more of the wife; for what resignation, what courage and strength she had shown since her unhappy marriage, and what self-sacrificing devotion to her weak unworthy life-partner! Or was it a mistake, she now asked herself, to regard him as weak and unworthy? Had not Constance, with a finer insight —her superior in this as in most things—seen the unapparent strength, the secret hidden virtue, that was in him, and which would show itself when the right time came? No, Fan could not believe that. Tom Starbrow and the poor pale-faced curate in his rusty coat were true strong men, and the woman that married either of them would not lean on a reed that would break and pierce her to the quick; and Captain Horton was also a strong man, although he had certainly been a very bad one. But this man, in spite of his nimble brains and eloquent tongue, was weak and unstable, hopelessly—fatally. The suffering and the poverty which had come to these two, which in the wife's case only made the innate virtue of her spirit to shine forth with starlike lustre, would make and could make no difference to him. Words were nothing to Fan; not because of his words had she forgiven Captain Horton his crime; and if Merton had spoken with the eloquence of a Ruskin, or an angel, it would have had no effect on her. She considered his life only, and it failed to satisfy her.
Recovered from his attack, Merton sat resting languidly in his chair, his half-closed eyes looking straight before him.
"Ah, to lead men," he said, speaking in a low voice, with frequent pauses, as if soliloquising. "Not higher in their sense—what they with minds darkened with a miserable delusion call higher.... Up and still up, and higher still, through ways that grow stonier, where vegetation shrivels in the bleak winds, and animal life dies for lack of nourishment. Will they find the Promised Land there, when their toil is finished, when they have reached their journey's end? A vast plateau of sand and rock; a Central Asian desert; a cavern blown in by icy winds for only inn; a 'gaunt and taciturn host' to receive them; and at last, to perform the last offices, the high-soaring vulture, and the wild wind scattering dust and sleet on their bones.... Ah, to make them see—to make them know!... Poor dumb brutish cattle, consumed with fever of thirst, bellowing with rage, trampling each other down in a pen too small to hold them! Ah, to show them the gate—the wide-open gate—to make them lie down in green pastures, to lead them beside the still waters!... Better for me, if I cannot lead, to leave them; to go away and dwell alone! to seek in solitary places, as others have done, some wild bitter root to heal their distemper; to come back with something in my hands;... to consider by what symbols to address them; to send them from time to time a message, to be scoffed at by most and heard with kindling hope by those whose souls are not wholly darkened."
After a long silence he spoke again to ask his wife to get him a book from his bedroom, which he had been reading that morning, to find in it many sweet comforting things. She had been seated at some distance from him, apparently paying no attention to his enigmatical words, but now quickly put down her work and got the book for him from the next room.
"Thanks," he said, taking it. "Yes, here it is. I wish to read you this passage, Connie: 'Now they began to go down the hill into the Valley of Humiliation. It was a steep hill, and their way was slippery, but they were very careful, so they got down pretty well. Then said Mr. Great- heart, We need not be afraid in this Valley, for here is nothing to hurt us, unless we procure it for ourselves. It is true that Christian did here meet with Apollyon, with whom he also had a sore combat; but that fray was the fruit of those slips that he got in his going down the hill; for they that get slips there must look for combats here.' Do you see what I mean, Connie?"
"Yes, dear," she replied, very quietly.
Then he continued, "'For the common people, when they hear that some frightful thing has befallen such a one in such a place, are of an opinion that that place is haunted with some foul fiend or evil spirit, when, alas! it is for the fruit of their own doing that such things do befall them there!' Listen, Connie: 'No disparagement to Christian, more than to many others, whose hap and lot was his; for it is easier going up than down this hill, and that can be said but of few hills in all these parts of the world. But we will leave the good man, he is at rest, he also had a brave victory over his enemy; let Him grant that dwelleth above that we fare no worse, when we come to be tried, than he. But we will come again to this Valley of Humiliation. It is fat ground, and, as you see, consisteth much in meadows, and if a man was to come here in the summer-time, as we do now, and if he also delighted himself in the sight of his eyes, he might see that that would be delightful to him. Behold how green this Valley is, also how beautiful with lilies. Some have also wished that the next way to their Father's house were here, that they might be no more troubled with hills and mountains to go over, but the way is the way, and there is an end.
"'Now, as they were going along and talking, they espied a boy feeding his father's sheep. The boy was in very mean clothes, but of a very fresh and well-favoured countenance; and as he sat by himself he sang. Then said the guide, Do you hear him? I will dare to say, that this boy lives a merrier life, and wears more of that herb called heart's-ease in his bosom, than he that is clad in silk and velvet. Here a man shall be free from noise and the hurryings of this life. All states are full of noise and confusion, only the Valley of Humiliation is that empty and solitary place. Here a man shall not be so hindered in his contemplation, as in other places he is apt to be. This is a valley that nobody walks in but those that love a pilgrim's life; and I must tell you that in former times men have met with angels here, have found pearls here, and here in this place found the words of life.'"
He closed the book and swallowed some more of the mixture, which Constance, standing at his side, had been holding in readiness for him.
Fan by this time had come to the conclusion that Merton had become religious, although the scornful way in which he had spoken of the inhabitants of East London scarcely seemed to favour such an idea. But she knew that he had been reading from The Pilgrim's Progress, a book which Mrs. Churton had put in her hands, and helped her to understand. She did not know that he was putting an interpretation of his own on the allegory which might have made the glorious Bedford tinker clench his skeleton fist and hammer a loud "No—no!" on his mouldy coffin-lid.
"Fan, my dear girl," he said, after a while, "I cannot expect you to understand what I am talking about. You must be satisfied to wait many days longer before it is all made plain. I have a thousand things to say which will be said in good time. A thousand thousand things. Books to write—volume following volume; so much to do for poor humanity that the very thought of it would make my heart fail were it not for the great faith that is in me. But the paper is still white, and the pen lies idle waiting for this unnerved hand to gain strength to hold it. For you must know that in my descent into this valley I have met with many a slip and fall, and have suffered the consequences: Apollyon has come forth to bar my way, and I have not done with him yet, nor he with me. I have answered all his sophistical arguments, have resisted all his temptations, and it has come to a life-and-death struggle between us. With what deadly fury his thrusts and cuts are made, my poor wife will tell you. My days are comparatively peaceful; I feel that I am near the green meadows, beautiful with lilies, and can almost hear the singing of the light- hearted shepherd-boy. But at night the shadows come again; the shouts and vauntings of my adversary are heard; I can see his crimson eyeballs, full of malignant rage, glaring at me. To drop metaphor, my dear girl, my nights are simply hellish. But I shall conquer yet; my time will come. Only, to me, a sufferer turning on his bed and wishing for the dawn, how long the time delays its coming! If I could only feel the fresh breeze in my lungs once more; if instead of this loathsome desert of squalid streets and slums I could look on the cool green leafy earth again, and listen to nature's sounds, bidding me be of good courage, then these dark days would be shortened and the new and better life begin."
This was something easy to understand, even to Fan's poor intellect, and she had begun to listen to his words attentively. Here was matter for her practical mind to work upon, and her reply followed quick on his speech. "It must be dreadful for you to remain here all through the hot weather, Mr. Chance. I wish—I wish——" But at this moment the face of Constance, who had drawn near and was bending over her husband's chair, caught her eye, and she became silent, for the face had suddenly clouded at her words.
"What were you going to say, Fan—what is it that you wish?" said Merton, with a keener interest than he usually manifested in other people's words.
"I wish that—that you and Constance would accompany me to some place a little way out of town—not too far—where you would be out of this dreadful heat and smoke, and stand——" She was about to add, stand a better chance of recovery, but at this stage she broke off again and cast down her eyes, fearing that she had offended her friend.
"Most willingly we will go with you, my dear girl, if you will only ask us," said Merton, finding that she was unable to finish her speech.
"Oh, I should be so glad—so very glad!" returned Fan, in her excitement and relief rising from her seat. "Dear Constance, what do you say?"
But the other did not answer at once. This sudden proposal had come on her as a painful surprise. For the last few weeks she had, even in the midst of anxiety and suffering, rejoiced that she was self-dependent at last, and had proudly imagined that her strength and talents would now be sufficient to keep them in health and in sickness. And now, alas! her husband had eagerly clutched at this offer of outside help; and, most galling of all, from the very girl who, a short time before when she was poor and friendless, he had found not good enough to be his wife's associate.
At length she raised her head and spoke, but there was a red flush on her cheek, and a tone of pain, if not of displeasure, in her voice. "Fan," she said, "I am so sorry you have made us this offer. It is very, very kind of you; but, dearest, we cannot, cannot accept it."
"And for what reason, Connie?" said her husband.
She looked down on his upturned face, and for a moment was sorely tempted to stoop and whisper the true reason in his ear, to reply that it would be dishonourable—a thing to be remembered after with a burning sense of shame—to accept any good gift at the hands of this girl, who had been thrown over and left by them without explanation or excuse a short time before, only because circumstances had made her for a time their inferior—their inferior, that is, according to a social code, which they might very well have ignored in this case, since it related to a society they had never been privileged to enter since their marriage, which knew and cared nothing for them. But as she looked down, the yellow skin and sunken cheek and the hollow glittering eyes that met her own made her heart relent, and she could not say the cruel words. She kept silence for a few moments, and then only said, "How can we go, Merton? We cannot move without money, and besides, we have nothing fit to wear."
"Pshaw, Connie, do you put such trifles in the scale? Have you so little faith in our future as to shrink from this small addition to our debt? Fan, of course, knows our circumstances and just what we would require. Why, a paltry two or three pounds would take us out of London; and as for clothes—well, you know how much we raised on them—a few miserable shillings. You are proud, I know, but you mustn't forget that Fan is Arthur Eden's sister—my old school-fellow and familiar friend; and also that she is your old pupil, and—as I have heard you say times without number—the dearest friend you have on earth."
He did not see the effect of these words, and that her face had reddened again with anger and shame, and a feeling that was almost like scorn. Fan, seeing her distress, half-guessing its cause, went to her side and put her arm round her.
"Constance dear," she said, "you only need a little help at first, and I shall be very careful and economical, and some day, when things improve, you shall repay me every shilling I spend now. Oh, you don't know how hard it is for me to say this to you! For I know, Constance, that if our places were changed you would wish to act as a sister to me, and—and you will not let me be a sister to you."
The other kissed her and turned aside to hide her tears. Merton smiled, and taking Fan's hand in his, stroked and caressed it.
"My dear girl," he said, "I cannot express to you all I feel now; but away out of this stifling atmosphere, this nightmare of hot bricks and slates and smoking chimney-pots, in some quiet little green retreat where you will take us, I shall be able to speak of it. What a blessing this visit you have made us will prove! It refreshed my soul only to see you; with that clear loveliness on which the evil atmosphere and life of this great city has left no mark or stain, and in this dress with its tender tints and its perfume, you appeared like a messenger of returning peace and hope from the great Mother we worship, and who is always calling to us when we go astray and forget her. How appropriate, how natural, how almost expected, this kind deed of yours then seems to me!"
Constance, seeing him so elated at the prospect of the change, made no further objection, but waited Mr. Northcott's return before discussing details. The curate when he at last appeared suggested that it would be well to consult a young practitioner in the neighbourhood who had been attending Merton; and in the end he went off to look for him. While he was gone the two girls talked about the proposed removal in a quiet practical way, and Merton, quite willing to leave the subject of ways and means to his wife and her friend, took no part in the conversation. Then the curate returned with the doctor's opinion, which was that the change of air would be beneficial, if Merton could stand being removed; but that the journey must be short and made easy: he suggested a well-covered van, with a bed to lie on, and protected from draughts, as better than the railroad.
Fan at once promised to find a van as well as a house near East London to go to, and after she had prevailed on Constance to accept a loan of a few pounds for necessary expenses, she set out with Mr. Northcott on her return to the West End.
Fan resolved to employ Captain Horton again, and as it was too late in the day to see him at his office on her way home, she wrote that evening, asking him to find her a suitable house near East London, removed from other houses, with garden and trees about it, and with two cool rooms for her friends on the ground floor, and a room for herself. She knew, she wrote, that she was putting him to great inconvenience, but felt sure that he would be glad to serve her.
When the next day came she began to be sorely troubled in her mind; or rather the trouble which had been in it ever since her return from Kingston, and which she had tried not to think about, had to be faced, and it looked somewhat formidable. For she had not yet seen Mary, in spite of her promise made at their last parting to go to her immediately on her return from Kingston. But much had happened since their parting: she had met and had become friendly with the man that Mary hated with a great hatred; and she feared that when she came to relate these things, which would have to be related, there would be a storm. But she could no longer delay to encounter it, and Fan knew, better than most perhaps, how to bow her head and escape harm; and so, putting a bold face on it— though it was not a very bold face—she got into a cab about noon and had herself driven to Dawson Place.
Her friend received her in a strangely quiet way, with just a kiss which was not warm, a few commonplace words of welcome, and a smile which did not linger long on her lips.
"Why are you so cold, Mary?"
"Why are you shamefaced, Fan?"
"Am I shamefaced? I did not know."
"Yes, and I can guess the reason. You did not keep your word to me, though you knew how anxious I was to see you at the end of your fortnight at Kingston; and the reason is that you have something on your mind which you fear to tell me—which you are ashamed to tell."
"No, Mary, that is not so. I am not ashamed, but——"
"Oh yes, of course, I quite understand—but!"
"Dear Mary, if you will be a little patient with me you shall know everything I have to tell, and then you will know exactly why I didn't come to you the moment I got back to town. For the last two or three days I have been in pursuit of the Chances, and have at last found them."
"How did you find them?"
"It is a very long story, Mary, and someone you know and that you are not friendly with is mixed up with it. I met him accidentally at Kingston, where there was a dinner-party and he was among the guests. Mrs. Travers introduced him to me, and he took me in to dinner; and it was very painful to me—to both of us; but after a time a thought came into my head—Mary, listen to me, I can't tell you how it all came about—how I found Constance—without speaking of him. Don't you think it would be better to tell you everything, from my first chance meeting with him, and all that was said as well as I can remember it now?"
Miss Starbrow had listened quietly, with averted face, which Fan imagined must have grown very black; she was silent for some time, and at last replied:
"Fan, I can hardly credit my own senses when you talk in that calm way about a person who—of course I know who you mean. What are you made of, I wonder—are you merely a wax figure and not a human being at all? Once I imagined that you loved me, but now I see what a delusion it was; only those who can hate are able to love, and you are as incapable of the one as of the other."
After delivering herself of this protest she half turned her back on her friend, and for a time there was silence between them, and then Fan spoke.
"Mary, you have not yet answered me; am I to tell you about it or not?"
"You can tell me what you like; I have no power to prevent you from speaking. But I give you a fair warning. I know, and it would be useless to try to hide it, that you have great power over me, and that I could make any sacrifice, and do anything within reason for you, and be glad to do it. But if you go too far—if you attempt to work on my feelings about this—this person, or try to make me think that he is not—what I think him, I shall simply get up and walk out of the room."
"You need not have said all that, Mary—I am not trying to work on your feelings. I simply wanted to tell you what happened, and—how he came to be mixed up with it."
As the other did not reply, she began her story, and related what had happened at the Travers' dinner-party faithfully; although she was as unable now to give a reason for her own strange behaviour as she had been to answer Captain Horton when he had asked her what she had to say to him.
At length she paused.
"Have you finished?" said Mary sharply, but the sharpness this time did not have the true ring.
"No. If your name was mentioned, Mary, must I omit that part?—because I wish to tell you everything just as it happened."
"You can tell me what you like so long as you observe my conditions."
But when the story was all finished she only remarked, although speaking now without any real or affected asperity:
"I am really sorry for your friend Mrs. Chance. I could not wish an enemy a greater misfortune than to be tied for life to such a one as Merton. Poor country girl, ignorant of the world—what a terrible mistake she made!"
She was in a much better temper now, willing to discuss the details of the expedition, to give her friend advice, and help with money if it should be needed. Fan was surprised and delighted at the change in her, and at last they parted very pleasantly.
"If you can find time before leaving town, Fan, come and say good-bye. I shall be at home in the afternoon to-morrow and next day, and then you can tell me all your arrangements."
By the first post on the following morning she received a letter from the Captain, who had taken a day from the office to look for a place, and had succeeded in finding a pleasant farm-house, within easy distance of Mile End and about a mile from Edmonton, as rural a spot in appearance as one could wish to be in. He had also exceeded his instructions by engaging a covered van, with easy springs, to convey the invalid to his new home. The letter contained full particulars, and concluded with an expression of the sincere pleasure the writer felt at having received this additional proof of Miss Eden's friendly feelings towards him, and with the hope that the change of air would benefit his poor old friend Merton Chance.