He loved her voice, so different from the strident tones that every now and then, as some couple, laughing and talking, passed them, would fall upon him almost like a blow; her quick, graceful movements that always brought back to his memory the vision of hill and stream. In her little brown shoes and gloves and the frock which was also of a shade of brown though darker, she was strangely suggestive to him of a fawn. The gentle look, the swift, soft movements that have taken place before they are seen; the haunting suggestion of fear never quite conquered, as if the little nervous limbs were always ready for sudden flight. He called her that one day. Neither of them had ever thought to ask one another's names; it did not seem to matter.
"My little brown fawn," he had whispered, "I am always expecting you to suddenly dig your little heels into the ground and spring away"; and she had laughed and drawn a little closer to him. And even that was just the movement of a fawn. He had known them, creeping near to them upon the hill-sides when he was a child.
There was much in common between them, so they found. Though he could claim a few distant relatives scattered about the North, they were both, for all practical purposes, alone in the world. To her, also, home meant a bed-sitting room—"over there," as she indicated with a wave of the little fawn glove embracing the north-west district generally; and he did not press her for any more precise address.
It was easy enough for him to picture it: the mean, close-smelling street somewhere in the neighbourhood of Lisson Grove, or farther on towards the Harrow Road. Always he preferred to say good-bye to her at some point in the Outer Circle, with its peaceful vista of fine trees and stately houses, watching her little fawn-like figure fading away into the twilight.
No friend or relative had she ever known, except the pale, girlish-looking mother who had died soon after they had come to London. The elderly landlady had let her stay on, helping in the work of the house; and when even this last refuge had failed her, well-meaning folk had interested themselves and secured her employment. It was light and fairly well paid, but there were objections to it, so he gathered, more from her halting silences than from what she said. She had tried for a time to find something else, but it was so difficult without help or resources. There was nothing really to complain about it, except— And then she paused with a sudden clasp of the gloved hands, and, seeing the troubled look in her eyes, he had changed the conversation.
It did not matter; he would take her away from it. It was very sweet to him, the thought of putting a protective arm about this little fragile creature whose weakness gave him strength. He was not always going to be a clerk in an office. He was going to write poetry, books, plays. Already he had earned a little. He told her of his hopes, and her great faith in him gave him new courage. One evening, finding a seat where few people ever passed, he read to her. And she had understood. All unconsciously she laughed in the right places, and when his own voice trembled, and he found it difficult to continue for the lump in his own throat, glancing at her he saw the tears were in her eyes. It was the first time he had tasted sympathy.
And so spring grew to summer. And then one evening a great thing happened. He could not make out at first what it was about her: some little added fragrance that made itself oddly felt, while she herself seemed to be conscious of increased dignity. It was not until he took her hand to say good-bye that he discovered it. There was something different about the feel of her, and, looking down at the little hand that lay in his, he found the reason. She had on a pair of new gloves. They were still of the same fawn colour, but so smooth and soft and cool. They fitted closely without a wrinkle, displaying the slightness and the gracefulness of the hands beneath. The twilight had almost faded, and, save for the broad back of a disappearing policeman, they had the Outer Circle to themselves; and, the sudden impulse coming to him, he dropped on one knee, as they do in plays and story books and sometimes elsewhere, and pressed the little fawn gloves to his lips in a long, passionate kiss. The sound of approaching footsteps made him rise hurriedly. She did not move, but her whole body was trembling, and in her eyes was a look that was almost of fear. The approaching footsteps came nearer, but a bend of the road still screened them. Swiftly and in silence she put her arms about his neck and kissed him. It was a strange, cold kiss, but almost fierce, and then without a word she turned and walked away; and he watched her to the corner of Hanover Gate, but she did not look back.
It was almost as if it had raised a barrier between them, that kiss. The next evening she came to meet him with a smile as usual, but in her eyes was still that odd suggestion of lurking fear; and when, seated beside her, he put his hand on hers it seemed to him she shrank away from him. It was an unconscious movement. It brought back to him that haunting memory of hill and stream when some soft-eyed fawn, strayed from her fellows, would let him approach quite close to her, and then, when he put out his hand to caress her, would start away with a swift, quivering movement.
"Do you always wear gloves?" he asked her one evening a little later.
"Yes," she answered, speaking low; "when I'm out of doors."
"But this is not out of doors," he had pleaded. "We have come into the garden. Won't you take them off?"
She had looked at him from under bent brows, as if trying to read him. She did not answer him then. But on the way out, on the last seat close to the gate, she had sat down, motioning him to sit beside her. Quietly she unbuttoned the fawn gloves; drew each one off and laid them aside. And then, for the first time, he saw her hands.
Had he looked at her, seen the faint hope die out, the mute agony in the quiet eyes watching him, he would have tried to hide the disgust, the physical repulsion that showed itself so plainly in his face, in the involuntary movement with which he drew away from her. They were small and shapely with rounded curves, but raw and seared as with hot irons, with a growth of red, angry-coloured warts, and the nails all worn away.
"I ought to have shown them to you before," she said simply as she drew the gloves on again. "It was silly of me. I ought to have known."
He tried to comfort her, but his phrases came meaningless and halting.
It was the work, she explained as they walked on. It made your hands like that after a time. If only she could have got out of it earlier! But now! It was no good worrying about it now.
They parted near to the Hanover Gate, but to-night he did not stand watching her as he had always done till she waved a last good-bye to him just before disappearing; so whether she turned or not he never knew.
He did not go to meet her the next evening. A dozen times his footsteps led him unconsciously almost to the gate. Then he would hurry away again, pace the mean streets, jostling stupidly against the passers-by. The pale, sweet face, the little nymph-like figure, the little brown shoes kept calling to him. If only there would pass away the horror of those hands! All the artist in him shuddered at the memory of them. Always he had imagined them under the neat, smooth gloves as fitting in with all the rest of her, dreaming of the time when he would hold them in his own, caressing them, kissing them. Would it be possible to forget them, to reconcile oneself to them? He must think—must get away from these crowded streets where faces seemed to grin at him. He remembered that Parliament had just risen, that work was slack in the office. He would ask that he might take his holiday now—the next day. And they had agreed.
He packed a few things into a knapsack. From the voices of the hills and streams he would find counsel.
He took no count of his wanderings. One evening at a lonely inn he met a young doctor. The innkeeper's wife was expecting to be taken with child that night, and the doctor was waiting downstairs till summoned. While they were talking, the idea came to him. Why had he not thought of it? Overcoming his shyness, he put his questions. What work would it be that would cause such injuries? He described them, seeing them before him in the shadows of the dimly lighted room, those poor, pitiful little hands.
Oh! a dozen things might account for it—the doctor's voice sounded callous—the handling of flax, even of linen under certain conditions. Chemicals entered so much nowadays into all sorts of processes and preparations. All this new photography, cheap colour printing, dyeing and cleaning, metal work. Might all be avoided by providing rubber gloves. It ought to be made compulsory. The doctor seemed inclined to hold forth. He interrupted him.
But could it be cured? Was there any hope?
Cured? Hope? Of course it could be cured. It was only local—the effect being confined to the hands proved that. A poisoned condition of the skin aggravated by general poverty of blood. Take her away from it; let her have plenty of fresh air and careful diet, using some such simple ointment or another as any local man, seeing them, would prescribe; and in three or four months they would recover.
He could hardly stay to thank the young doctor. He wanted to get away by himself, to shout, to wave his arms, to leap. Had it been possible he would have returned that very night. He cursed himself for the fancifulness that had prevented his inquiring her address. He could have sent a telegram. Rising at dawn, for he had not attempted to sleep, he walked the ten miles to the nearest railway station, and waited for the train. All day long it seemed to creep with him through the endless country. But London came at last.
It was still the afternoon, but he did not care to go to his room. Leaving his knapsack at the station, he made his way to Westminster. He wanted all things to be unchanged, so that between this evening and their parting it might seem as if there had merely passed an ugly dream; and timing himself, he reached the park just at their usual hour.
He waited till the gates were closed, but she did not come. All day long at the back of his mind had been that fear, but he had driven it away. She was ill, just a headache, or merely tired.
And the next evening he told himself the same. He dared not whisper to himself anything else. And each succeeding evening again. He never remembered how many. For a time he would sit watching the path by which she had always come; and when the hour was long past he would rise and walk towards the gate, look east and west, and then return. One evening he stopped one of the park-keepers and questioned him. Yes, the man remembered her quite well: the young lady with the fawn gloves. She had come once or twice—maybe oftener, the park-keeper could not be sure—and had waited. No, there had been nothing to show that she was in any way upset. She had just sat there for a time, now and then walking a little way and then coming back again, until the closing hour, and then she had gone. He left his address with the park-keeper. The man promised to let him know if he ever saw her there again.
Sometimes, instead of the park, he would haunt the mean streets about Lisson Grove and far beyond the other side of the Edgware Road, pacing them till night fell. But he never found her.
He wondered, beating against the bars of his poverty, if money would have helped him. But the grim, endless city, hiding its million secrets, seemed to mock the thought. A few pounds he had scraped together he spent in advertisements; but he expected no response, and none came. It was not likely she would see them.
And so after a time the park, and even the streets round about it, became hateful to him; and he moved away to another part of London, hoping to forget. But he never quite succeeded. Always it would come back to him when he was not thinking: the broad, quiet walk with its prim trees and gay beds of flowers. And always he would see her seated there, framed by the fading light. At least, that much of her: the little spiritual face, and the brown shoes pointing downwards, and between them the little fawn gloves folded upon her lap.