Mike had just finished a most racy story concerning his first introduction to a certain countess. Cooper had listened in silence, but when Mike turned at the end of his tale and asked him what he thought of his conduct, Cooper rose from his chair.
"I think you behaved like a blackguard."
In a moment Mike was aware he had put himself in the wrong—the story about the countess could not be told except to his destruction in any language except his own, and he must therefore forbear to strike Cooper and swallow the insult.
"You ass, get out; I can't quarrel with you on such a subject."
The embarrassment was increased by Cooper calling to Silk and asking if he were coming with him. The prudent Silk felt that to stay was to signify his approval of Mike's conduct in the case of the indiscreet countess. To leave with Cooper was to write himself down a prig, expose himself to the sarcasm of several past masters in the art of gibing, and to make in addition several powerful enemies. But the instinct not to compromise himself in any issue did not desert him, and rushing after Cooper he attempted the peace-maker. He knew the attempt would mean no more than some hustling in the doorway, and some ineffectual protestation, and he returned a few minutes after to join in the ridicule heaped upon the unfortunate Cooper, and to vow inwardly that this was his last evening in Bohemia.
By the piano, smoking a clay pipe, there sat a large, rough, strong man. His beard was bristly and flame-coloured, his face was crimson and pimply; lion-like locks hung in profusion about the collar of his shabby jacket. His linen was torn and thin; crumpled was the necktie, and nearly untied, and the trousers were worn and frayed, and the boots heavy. He looked as if he could have carried a trunk excellently well, but as that thought struck you your eyes fell upon his hands, which were the long, feminine-shaped hands generally found in those of naturally artistic temperament, nearly always in those who practise two or more of the arts. Sands affected all the arts. Enumerate: He played snatches of Bach on the violin, on the piano, and on the organ; he composed fragments for all three instruments. He painted little landscapes after (a long way after) the manner of Corot, of whom he could talk until the small hours in the morning if an occasional drink and cigar were forthcoming. He modelled little statuettes in wax, cupids and nymphs, and he designed covers for books. He could do all these things a little, and not stupidly, although inefficiently. He had been a volunteer, and therefore wrote on military subjects, and had on certain occasions been permitted to criticize our naval defences and point out the vices and shortcomings in our military system in the leading evening papers. He was generally seen with a newspaper under his arm going towards Charing Cross or Fleet Street. He never strayed further west than Charing Cross, unless he was going to a "picture show," and there was no reason why he should pass Ludgate Circus, for further east there were neither newspapers nor restaurants. He was quite without vanity, and therefore without ambition, Buddha was never more so, not even after attaining the Nirvana. A picture show in Bond Street, a half-crown dinner at Simpson's, or the Rainbow, coffee and cigars after, was all that he desired; give him that, and he was a pleasant companion who would remain with you until you turned him out, or in charity, for he was often homeless, allowed him to sleep on your sofa.
Sands was not a member of the Temple, but Hall's rooms were ever a refuge to the weary—there they might rest, and there was there ever for them a drink and a mouthful of food. And there Sands had met the decayed barrister who held the rooms opposite; which, although he had long ceased to occupy, and had no use for, he still wished to own, if he could do so without expense, and this might be done by letting two rooms, and reserving one for himself.
The unwary barrister, believing in the solvency of whoever he met at Hall's, intrusted his chambers to Sands, without demanding the rent in advance. A roof to sleep under had been the chief difficulty in Sands' life. He thought not at all of a change of clothes, and clean linen troubled him only slightly. Now almost every want seemed provided for. Coals he could get from Hall, also occasional half-crowns; these sufficed to pay for his breakfast; a dinner he could generally "cadge," and if he failed to do so, he had long ago learnt to go without. It was hard not to admire his gentleness, his patience and forbearance. If you refused to lend him money he showed no faintest trace of anger. Hall's friends were therefore delighted that the chambers opposite were let on conditions so favourable to Sands; they anticipated with roars of laughter the scene that would happen at the close of the year, and looked forward to seeing, at least during the interim, their friend in clean clothes, and reading "his copy" in the best journals. But the luxury of having a fixed place to sleep in, stimulated, not industry, but vicious laziness of the most ineradicable kind. Henceforth Sands abandoned all effort to help himself. Uncombed, unwashed, in dirty clothes, he lay in an arm-chair through all the morning, rising from time to time to mess some paint into the appearance of some incoherent landscape, or to rasp out some bars of Beethoven on his violin.
"Never did I imagine any one so idle; he is fairly putrid with idleness," said Hall after a short visit. "Would you believe it, he has only ninepence for sole shield between him and starvation. The editor of the Moon has just telegraphed for the notice he should have written of the Academy, and the brute is just sending a 'wire'—'nothing possible this week.' Did any one ever hear of such a thing? To-night he won't dine, and he could write the notice in an hour."
Besides having contributed to almost every paper in London, from the Times downwards, Sands had held positions as editor and sub-editor of numerous journals. But he had lost each one in turn, and was beginning to understand that he was fated to die of poverty, and was beginning to grow tired of the useless struggle. No one was better organized to earn his living than Peter Sands, and no one failed more lamentably. Had fortune provided him with a dinner at Simpson's, a cigar and a cup of coffee, he would have lived as successfully as another. But our civilization is hard upon those who are only conversationalists, it does not seem to have taken them into account in its scheme, and, in truth, Peter could not do much more than aestheticize agreeably.
Paul L'Estrange admitted freely that he was not fitted for a lawyer; but even before he explained that he considered himself one of those beings who had slipped into a hole that did not fit them, it was probable that you had already begun to consider the circumstances that had brought him to choose the law as a profession; for his vague intelligence "where nothing was and all things seemed," lay mirrored in his mild eyes like a landscape in a pool. Over such a partial and meditative a mind as L'Estrange's, the Temple may exercise a destructive fascination; and since the first day, when a boy he had walked through the closes gathering round the church, and had heard of the knights, had seen the old dining-hall with its many inscriptions, he had never ceased to dream of the Temple—that relic of the past, saved with all its traditions out of the ruin of time; and the memory of his cousin's chambers, and the association and mutuality of the life of the Temple, the picturesqueness of the wigs and gowns passing, and the uncommonness of it all had taken root and grown, overshadowing other ideals, and when the time came for him to choose a profession, no choice was open to him but the law, for the law resided in the Temple.
Soon after his father died, the family property was sold and the family scattered; some went to Australia, some to Canada; but L'Estrange had inherited a hundred a year from a grand-aunt, and he lived on that, and what he made by writing in the newspapers, for of course no one had thought of intrusting him with a brief; and what he made by journalism varied from a hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty a year. Whenever a new scare arose he was busy among blue-books in the library.
L'Estrange loved to dine at the Cock tavern with a party of men from the inn, and to invite them to his chambers to take coffee afterwards. And when they had retired, and only one remained, he would say, "What a nice fellow so-and-so is; you do meet a nice lot of fellows in the Temple, don't you?" It seemed almost sufficient that a man should belong to the Temple for L'Estrange to find him admirable. The dinners in hall were especially delightful. Between the courses he looked in admiration on the portraits and old oak carvings, and the armorial bearings, and would tell how one bencher had been debarred from election as treasurer because he had, on three occasions, attended dinner without partaking of any food. Such an insult to the kitchen could not be forgiven. L'Estrange was full of such stories, and he relished their historical flavour as a gourmet an unusually successful piece of cooking. He regarded the Temple and its associations with love.
When he had friends to dinner in his rooms the dinner was always brought from the hall; he ordered it himself in the large spacious kitchen, which he duly admired, and prying about amid the various meats, he chose with care, and when told that what he desired could not be obtained that day, he continued his search notwithstanding. He related that on one occasion he discovered a greengage pie, after many assurances that there was no such thing in the kitchen. If he was with a friend he laid his hand on his shoulder, and pointing out an inscription, he said, "Now one thing I notice about the Temple is that never is an occasion missed of putting up an inscription; and note the legal character of the inscriptions, how carefully it is explained, that, for instance, the cloisters, although they are for the use of the Inner as well as the Middle Temple, yet it was the Middle Temple that paid to have them put up, and therefore owns the property." L'Estrange always spoke of the gardens as "our gardens," of the church as "our church." He was an authority on all that related to the Temple, and he delighted in a friend in whom he might confide; and to walk about the courts with Hall or Sands, stopping now and then to note some curious piece of sculpture or date, and forthwith to relate an anecdote that brought back some of the fragrance and colour of old time, and to tell how he intended to work such curious facts into the book he was writing on the Temple, was the essence and the soul of this dreamy man's little life.
Saturday night is the night of dalliance in the Temple, and not unfrequently on Sunday morning, leaving a lady love, L'Estrange would go to church—top hat, umbrella, and prayer-book—and having a sense of humour, he was amused by the incongruity.
"I have left the accursed thing behind me," he once said to Mr. Collier, and by such facetiousness had seriously annoyed the immense and most staid Mr. Collier.
A gaunt, hollow-eyed man was he, worn to a thread by diabetes; and to keep the disease in check, strictly dieted. His appearance was so suggestive of illness, that whenever he was present the conversation always turned on what he might eat and what he must refrain from touching. A large, gray-skinned man, handsome somewhat like a figure of Melancholy carved out of limestone. Since he had left Oxford, where he had taken a double first, he had failed—at the bar, in literature, and in love. It was said that he had once written an absurd letter asking a lady, who hoped to marry a duke, to go to South America with him. This letter had been his only adventure.
He was like a bookcase, a store of silent learning, with this difference—from the bookcase much may be extracted, from Mr. Edmund Collier nothing. He reminded you of a dry well, a London fog, an abandoned quarry, the desert of Sahara, and the North Pole; of all dull and lugubrious things he seemed the type. Nature had not afflicted him with passions nor any original thought, he therefore lived an exemplary existence, his mind fortified with exemplary opinions, doctrines, and old saws.
"I wonder if he is alive," Mike had once said.
"He, he, tout au plus," Harding had replied, sardonically.
Collier was now learning Sanscrit and writing an article for the Quarterly. L'Estrange used, as he said, "to dig at him," and after many exhausting efforts brought up interesting facts to the effect that he had just finished his treatise on the Greek participle, and was about to launch a volume of verses mainly addressed to children.
Collier had once possessed considerable property, but he had invested some in a newspaper of which he was editor, and he had squandered much in vague speculation. From the account he gave of his losses it was difficult to decide whether he had been moved by mercenary or charitable temptations. Now only the merest competence remained. He lived in a small garret where no solicitor had penetrated, studying uninteresting literatures, dimly interested in all that the world did not care for. He lived in the gloom of present failure, embittered by the memory of past successes, wearied with long illness, and therefore constrained to live like a hermit, never appearing anywhere except in Hall's rooms.
Even Mr. Horace Baird, the recluse of the Temple, was sometimes met in Hall's chambers. When he lifted his hat, the white locks growing amid the black, magnificent masses of hair caught the eye, and set the mind thinking on the brevity of youth, or wondering what ill-fortune had thus done the work of time. A passing glance told you that he was unsuccessful in his profession and unfortunate in his life, and if you spoke to him, an affected gaiety of manner confirmed the truth of the first impression. Near him sat a patriarchal barrister who had travelled in the colonies, had had political appointments, and in vague hopes of further political appointments professed advanced views, which he endeavoured to redeem with flavourless humour. There were also two young men who shared chambers and took in pupils. Fine tales their laundress told of the state of their sitting-room in the morning, the furniture thrown about, the table-cloth drenched in whiskey.
There was a young man whose hobby was dress and chorus girls. There was a young man whose hobby was pet birds; he talked about the beautiful South American bird he had just bought, and he asked you to come and see it taking its bath in the morning. Several persons were writing law-books, which their authors hoped would rival Chitty on Contracts.
The Temple, like a fatherland, never loses its influence over its children. He who has lived in the Temple will return to the Temple. All things are surrendered for the Temple. All distances are traversed to reach the Temple. The Temple is never forgotten. The briefless barrister, who left in despair and became Attorney-General of New South Wales, grows homesick, surrenders his position, and returns. The young squire wearies in his beautiful country house, and his heart is fixed in the dingy chambers, which he cannot relinquish, and for which wealth cannot compensate him. Even the poor clerks do not forget the Temple, and on Saturday afternoons they prowl about their old offices, and often give up lucrative employments. They are drawn by the Temple as by a magnet, and must live again in the shadow of the old inns. The laundresses' daughters pass into wealthy domesticities, but sooner or later they return to drudge again in the Temple.
"How awfully jolly!—I do enjoy an evening like this," said Mike, when the guests had departed.
At that moment a faint footstep was heard on the landing; Hall rushed to see who was there, and returned with two women. They explained that they wanted a drink. Mike pressed them to make themselves at home, and Hall opened another bottle.
"How comfortable you bachelors are here by yourselves," said one.
"I should think we are just; no fear of either of us being such fools as to break up our home by getting married," replied Mike.
Sometimes Mike and Hall returned early from the restaurant, and wrote from eight to eleven; then went out for a cup of coffee and a prowl, beating up the Strand for women. They stayed out smoking and talking at the corners till the streets were empty. Once they sent a couple of harlots to rouse a learned old gentleman who lived in Brick Court, and with bated breath listened from the floor beneath to the dialogue above.
But to continue this life, which he enjoyed so intensely that he had even lost his desire to gamble, Mike was forced to borrow. Knowing how such things are bruited about, Mike chose to go to a woman rather than to any of his men friends. Mrs. Byril lent him twenty pounds, wherefore he thought it necessary to lecture Hall for one whole evening on the immorality of ever accepting money from women; and he remained for weeks in idleness, smoking and drinking in restaurants and bar rooms, deaf to Frank's many pleadings for "copy." At last he roused a little, and feeling he could do nothing in London, proposed to come and stay with Frank in his cottage at Marlow, and there write the letters.
It was a bright October afternoon, Frank had gone to the station, and Lizzie, to appease the baby, had unbuttoned her dress. The little servant-girl who assisted with the house-work was busy in the kitchen; for the fatted calf had been killed—that is to say, a pair of soles, a steak, and a partridge were in course of preparation. Lizzie thought of the partridge. She had omitted soup from the dinner so that she might herself see to the fish; the steak, unless something quite unforeseen occurred, Annie would be able to manage, but the partridge! Lizzie determined she would find an excuse for leaving the room; Frank would not like it, but anything would be better than that the bird should appear in a raw or cindery condition, which would certainly be the case if she did not see to it. The jam-pudding was boiling and would be taken out of the pot at a fixed time. And with baby upon her breast, she watched Sally scrape and clean the fish and beat the steak; then, hearing the front door open, she buttoned her dress, put baby in his cot, and went to meet her visitor. Mike said he had never seen her looking so well; but in truth he thought she had grown fat and coarse; and in half an hour he had realized all the detail of their misfortune. He guessed that she had helped to cook the dinner, that the wine had come from the public-house, that they had given up their room to him, and were sleeping in some small cupboard-like place at the end of the passage.
Of the many various unpleasantnesses of married life which had crowded into his consciousness since he had been in the cottage, this impressed him the most. He went to sleep thinking of it, and when he sat down to write next morning (a little study had been arranged for him), it was the first thought that stirred in him.
"How fearfully unpleasant!—and after having been married for nearly two years! I could not do it. If I were married—even if I were to marry Lily, I should insist on having separate rooms. Even with separate rooms marriage is intolerable. How much better to see her sometimes, sigh for her from afar, and so preserve one's ideal. Married! One day I should be sure to surprise her washing herself; and I know of no more degrading spectacle than that of a woman washing herself over a basin. Degas painted it once. I'd give anything to have that picture."
But he could not identify Lily as forming part of that picture; his imagination did not help him, and he could only see her staid and gracious, outside all the gross materialism of life. He felt that Lily would never lose her dignity and loveliness, which in her were one, and in his mind she ever stood like a fair statue out of reach of the mud and the contumely of the common street; and ashamed, an unsuccessful iconoclast, he could not do otherwise than kneel and adore.
And when at the end of a week he received an invitation to a ball where he thought she would be, he must perforce obey, and go with tremulous heart. She was engaged in a quadrille that passed to and fro beneath blue tapestry curtains, and he noticed the spray of lilies of the valley in her bodice, so emblematic did they seem of her. Beneath the blue curtain she stood talking to her partner after the dance; and he did not go to speak to her, but remained looking. They only danced together twice; and that evening was realized by him in a strangely intense and durable perception of faint scent and fluent rhythm. The sense of her motion, of her frailness, lingered in his soul ever afterwards. And he remembered ever afterwards the moments he spent with her in a distant corner—the palm, the gold of the screen, the movement of her white skirt as she sat down. All was, as it were, bitten upon his soul—exquisite etchings! Even the pauses in the conversation were remembered; pauses full of mute affection; pauses full of thought unexpressed, falling in sharp chasms of silence. In such hours and in such pauses is the essence of our lives, the rest is adjunct and decoration. He watched, fearing each man that looked through the doorway might claim her for the next dance. His thought swept through his soul edgeways. Did he love her? Would he love her always? And he was conscious of the contrast his speech presented, to the tumult that raged and shrieked within him. Yet he couldn't speak the word, and he cursed his little cowardice.
The ball came and went—a little year with its four seasons; and when in the hall he stood by her, helping her with her cloak (silk and gray fur, folding the delicate line of the neck), and became aware that even those last moments did not hold the word his soul was whispering, he cursed his cowardice, and, weary of himself, he turned down the dark street, feeling that he had lost his life.
"Now all is ended," he thought, "I'm like a convict who attempted escape and has been brought back and yoked again in the sweaty and manacled gang; and I must continue in and bear with this life of gross sensuality and dirty journalism, 'which I have borne and yet must bear'—a wearisome repetition of what has been done and re-done a thousand times, 'till death-like sleep shall steal on me,' and I may hear some horrible lodging-house keeper 'breathe o'er my dying brain a last monotony.' And in various degradations my intellect will suffer, will decay; but with her refining and elevating influence, I might be a great writer. It is certain that the kernel of Art is aspiration for higher things; at all events, I should lead a cleanly life. If I were married to her I should not write this book. It certainly is a disgraceful book; and yet it amuses me."
His thoughts paused, then an idea came, and with his pen he pursued it and the quickly rising flight which followed for a couple of hours.
"Why should I not write and ask her to marry me?" He smiled at the thought, but the thought was stronger than he, and he went to bed thinking of her, and he rose thinking of her; and the desire to write and tell her that he loved her and wanted her for wife persisted; he shook it off a dozen times, but it grew more and more poignant, until it settled on his heart, a lancinating pain which neither work nor pleasure could remove. Daily he grew feebler, losing at each effort some power of resistance. One day he took up the pen to write the irrevocable. But the reality of the ink and paper frightened him. "Will you be my wife?" seemed to him silly. Even in this crisis self-esteem lay uppermost in his mind; and he wrote many letters before he felt certain he had guarded himself against ridicule. At last he folded up a sheet upon which he had written—"Dearest Lily, you are the only woman I may love; will you allow me to love you for ever?" He put this into an envelope and directed it; nothing remained but to post it. The clock told him he could catch the post if he started away at once, but he drew back, frightened at the reality of the post-office, and decided to sleep over his letter.
The night was full of Lily—fair, chaste dreams, whence he rose as from a bath clothed in the samite of pure delight. While dressing he felt sure that marriage—marriage with Lily must be the realization of such dreams, and that it would be folly not to post his letter. Still, it might be as well to hear the opinion of one who had taken the important step, and after breakfast he drew Frank into conversation about Lizzie.
"I am quite happy," he said. "Lizzie is a good wife, and I love her better to-day than the day I married her; but the price I paid for her was too high. Mount Rorke has behaved shamefully, and so has everybody but you. I never see any of the old lot now. Snowdown came once to dine about a year ago, but I never go anywhere where Lizzie is not asked. Mount Rorke has only written once since my marriage, and then it was to say he never wished to see me again. The next I heard was the announcement of his marriage."
"So he has married again," said Mike, looking at Frank, and then he thought—"So you who came from the top shall go to the bottom! Shall he who came from the bottom go to the top?"
"I have not heard yet of a child. I have tried to find out if one is expected; but what does it matter?—Mount Rorke wouldn't give me a penny-piece to save me from starvation, and I should have time to starve a good many times before he goes off the hooks. I don't mind telling you I'm about as hard up as a man possibly can be. I owe three quarters' rent for my rooms in Temple Gardens, nearly two hundred pounds. The Inn is pressing me, and I can't get three hundred for my furniture, and I'm sure I paid more than fifteen hundred for what there is there."
"Why don't you sell a share in the paper?"
"I have sold a small part of it, a very small part of it, a fifth, and there is a fellow called Thigh—you know the fellow, he has edited every stupid weekly that has appeared and disappeared for the last ten years—well, he has got hold of a mug, and by all accounts a real mug, one of the right sort, a Mr. Beacham Brown. Mr. Brown wants a paper, and has commissioned Thigh to buy him one. Thigh wants me to sell a half share in the Pilgrim for a thousand, but I shall have to give Thigh back four hundred; and I shall—that is to say, I shall if I agree to Thigh's terms—become assistant editor at a salary of six pounds a week; two pounds a week of which I shall have to hand over to Thigh, who comes in as editor at a salary of ten pounds a week. All the staff will be engaged on similar conditions. Thigh is 'working' Beacham Brown beautifully—he won't have a sixpence to bless himself with when Thigh has done with him."
"And are you going to accept Thigh's terms?"
"Not if I can possibly help it. If your articles send up the circulation and my new advertising agent can do the West End tradesmen for a few more advertisements, I shall stand off and wait for better terms. My new advertising agent is a wonder, the finest in Christendom. The other day a Bond Street jeweller who advertises with us came into my office. He said, 'Sir, I have come to ask you if you circulate thirty thousand copies a week.' 'Well,' I said, 'perhaps not quite.' 'Then, sir,' he replied, 'you will please return me my money; I gave your agent my advertisement upon his implicit assurance that you circulated thirty thousand a week.' I said there must be some mistake; Mr. Tomlinson happens to be in the office, if you'll allow me I'll ask him to step down-stairs. I touched the bell, and told the boy to ask Mr. Tomlinson to step into the office. 'Mr. Tomlinson,' I said, 'Mr. Page says that he gave you his advertisement on our implicit assurance that we circulated thirty thousand copies weekly. Did you tell him that?' Quite unabashed, Tomlinson answered, 'I told Mr. Page that we had more than thirty thousand readers a week. We send to ten line regiments and five cavalry regiments—each regiment consists of, let us say, eight hundred. We send to every club in London, and each club has on an average a thousand members. Why, sir,' exclaimed Tomlinson, turning angrily on the jeweller, 'I might have said that we had a hundred thousand readers and I should have still been under the mark!' The jeweller paid for his advertisement and went away crestfallen. Such a man as Tomlinson is the very bone and muscle of a society journal."
"And the nerves too," said Mike.
"Better than the contributors who want to write about the relation between art and morals."
The young men laughed mightily.
"And what will you do," said Mike, "if you don't settle with Thigh?"
"Perhaps my man will be able to pick up another advertisement or two; perhaps your articles may send up the circulation. One thing is certain, things can't go on as they are; at this rate I shall not be able to carry the paper on another six months."
The conversation fell, and Mike remembered the letter in his side pocket; it lay just over his heart. Frank's monetary difficulties had affected his matrimonial aspirations. "For if the paper 'bursts up' how shall I live, much less support a wife? Live! I shall always be able to live, but to support a wife is quite another matter. Perhaps Lily has some money. If she had five hundred a year I would marry her; but I don't know if she has a penny. She must have some, a few thousands—enough to pay the first expenses. To get a house and get into the house would cost a thousand." A cloud passed over his face. The householder, the payer of rates and taxes which the thought evoked, jarred and caricatured the ideal, the ideal Mike Fletcher, which in more or less consistent form was always present in his mind. He who had always received, would have to make presents. The engagement ring would cost five-and-twenty pounds, and where was he to get the money? The ring he would have to buy at once; and his entire fortune did not for the moment amount to ten pounds. Her money, if she had any, would pay for the honeymoon; and it was only right that a woman should pay for her honeymoon. They would go to Italy. She was Italy! At least she was his idea of Italy. Italy! he had never been there; he had always intended to keep Italy for his wedding tour. He was virgin of Italy. So much virginity he had at all events kept for his wife. She was the emblem and symbol of Italy.
Venice rose into his eyes. He is in a gondola with her; the water is dark with architrave and pillar; and a half moon floats in a boundless sky But remembering that this is the Venice of a hundred "chromos," his imagination filled the well-known water-way with sunlight and maskers, creating the carnival upon the Grand Canal. Laughing and mocking Loves; young nobles in blue hose, sword on thigh, as in Shakespeare's plays; young brides in tumultuous satin, with collars of translucent pearls; garlands reflected in the water; scarves thrown about the ample bosoms of patrician matrons. Then the brides, the nobles, the pearls, the loves, and the matrons disappear in a shower of confetti. Wearying of Venice he strove to see Florence, "the city of lilies"; but the phrase only suggested flower-sellers. He intoxicated upon his love, she who to him was now Italy. He imagined confidences, sudden sights of her face more exquisite than the Botticelli women in the echoing picture galleries, more enigmatic than the eyes of a Leonardo; and in these days of desire, he lived through the torment of impersonal love, drawn for the first time out of himself. All beautiful scenes of love from books, pictures, and life floated in his mind. He especially remembered a sight of lovers which he had once caught on an hotel staircase. A young couple, evidently just returned from the theatre, had entered their room; the woman was young, tall, and aristocratic; she was dressed in some soft material, probably a dress of cream-coloured lace in numberless flounces; he remembered that her hair was abundant and shadowed her face. The effect of firelight played over the hangings of the bed; she stood by the bed and raised her fur cloak from her shoulders. The man was tall and thin, and the light caught the points of the short sharp beard. The scene had bitten itself into Mike's mind, and it reappeared at intervals perfect as a print, for he sometimes envied the calm and healthfulness of honourable love.
"Great Scott! twelve o'clock!" Smiling, conscious of the incongruity, he set to work, and in about three hours had finished a long letter, in which he usefully advised "light o' loves" on the advantages of foreign travel.
"I wonder," he thought, "how I can write in such a strain while I'm in love with her. What beastliness! I hate the whole thing. I desire a new life; I have tried vice long enough and am weary of it; I'm not happy, and if I were to gain the whole world it would be dust and ashes without her. Then why not take that step which would bring her to me?" He faced his cowardice angrily, and resolved to post the letter. But he stopped before he had walked fifty yards, for his doubts followed him, buzzing and stinging like bees. Striving to rid himself of them, and weary of considering his own embarrassed condition, he listened gladly to Lizzie, who deplored Mount Rorke's cruelty and her husband's continuous ill luck.
"I told him his family would never receive me; I didn't want to marry him; for days I couldn't make up my mind; he can't say I persuaded him into it."
"But you are happy now; don't you like being married?"
"Oh, yes, I should be happy enough if things only went better with us. He is so terribly unlucky. No one works harder than Frank; he often sits up till three o'clock in the morning writing. He tries everything, but nothing seems to succeed with him. There's this paper. I don't believe he has ever had a penny out of it. Tell me, Mr. Fletcher, do you think it will ever succeed?"
"Newspapers generally fail for want of a concerted plan of appeal to a certain section of society kept steadily in view; they are nearly always vague and undetermined; but I believe when four clever pens are brought together, and write continuously, and with set purpose and idea, that they can, that they must and invariably do create a property worth at least twenty thousand pounds."
"Frank has gone to the station to meet Thigh. I distrust that man dreadfully; I hope he won't rob my poor husband. Frank told me to get a couple of pheasants for dinner. Which way are you going? To the post-office? Do you want a stamp?"
"No, thank you, my letter is stamped." He held the letter in the box unable to loose his fingers, embarrassed in the consideration whether marriage would permit him to develop his artistic nature as he intended. Lizzie was looking at him, and it was with difficulty that he concealed from her the fact that he had not dropped his letter in the box.
When they returned to the cottage they found Thigh and Frank were turning over the pages of the last number of the Pilgrim.
"Just let's go through the paper," said Frank. "One, two, three—twelve columns of paragraphs! and I'll bet that in every one of those columns there is a piece of news artistic, political, or social, which no other paper has got. Here are three articles, one written by our friend here, one by me, and one by a man whose name I am not at liberty to mention; but I may tell you he has written some well-known books, and is a constant contributor to the Fortnightly; here is a column of gossip from Paris excellently well done; here is a short story ... What do you think the paper wants?"
Thigh was a very small and very neatly-dressed man. His manner was quiet and reserved, and he caressed a large fair moustache with his left hand, on which a diamond ring sparkled.
"I think it wants smartening up all round," he said. "You want to make it smarter; people will have things bright nowadays."
"Bright!" said Frank; "I don't know where you are going for brightness nowadays. Just look at the other papers—here is the Club—did you ever see such a rag? Here is the Spy—I don't think you could tell if you were reading a number of last year or this week if you didn't look at the date! I've given them up for news. I look to see if they have got a new advertisement; if they have, I send Tomlinson and see if I can get one too."
Thigh made some judicious observations, and the conversation was continued during dinner. Frank and Mike vying with each other to show their deference to Thigh's literary opinions—Lizzie eager to know what he thought of her dinner.
Thigh said the turbot was excellent, that the cutlets were very nice, that the birds were splendid; the jam pudding was voted delicious. And they leaned back in their chairs, their eyes filled with the torpor of digestion. Frank brought out a bottle of old port, the last of a large supply which he had had from Mount Rorke's wine merchant. The pleasure of the wine was in their stomachs, and under its influence they talked of Tennyson, Leonardo da Vinci, Corot, and the Ingoldsby Legends. The servant had brought in the lamp, cigars were lighted, the clock struck nine. As yet not a word had been spoken of the business, and seeing that Mike was deep in conversation with Lizzie, Frank moved his chair towards Thigh, and said—
"Well, what about buying half of the paper?"
"I'm quite ready to buy half the paper on the conditions I've already offered you."
"But they won't do. If I have to go smash, I may as well go smash for a large sum as a small one. To clear myself of debts I must have five hundred pounds."
"Well, you'll get six hundred; you'll receive a thousand and you'll give me back four hundred."
"Yes, but I did not tell you that I have sold a small share in the paper to an old schoolfellow of mine. When I have paid him I shall have only two hundred, and that won't be of the slightest use to me."
"Oh, you have sold part of the paper already, have you? How do you know your friend will consent to be bought out? That complicates matters."
"My friend only did it to oblige me; he is only too anxious to be bought out. He is in a fearful funk lest he should be compromised in a libel action."
"Oh, then I think it can be managed. Were I in your place I should try and get rid of him for nothing. I can't offer you better terms; it wouldn't pay me to do so; I might as well start a new paper."
"Yes, but tell me, how can I get rid of him for nothing?"
Thigh looked at Frank inquiringly, and apparently satisfied he drew his chair nearer, stroked his moustache, and said, speaking under his breath—
"Have you collected what money is owing to the paper lately? Have you many outstanding debts?"
"We have got some."
"Well, don't collect any money that is owing, but make out a long statement of the paper's liabilities; don't say a word about the outstanding debts, and tell your friend that he is responsible as part owner of the paper for this money. When you have sufficiently frightened him, suggest that he should sign over his share to you, you being a man of straw whom it would be useless to proceed against. Or you might get your printer to press you for money—"
"That won't be difficult."
"Offer him a bill, and then mix the two accounts up together."
At this moment Mike was speaking to Lizzie of love. She told him there was no real happiness except in married life, assured him that though they might be beggars to-day, she would not give up her husband for all the wealth of the three kingdoms.
Very anxious to ascertain the truth about married life, Mike pressed Lizzie upon several points; the old ache awoke about his heart, and again he resolved to regenerate his life, and love Lily and none but her. He looked round the room, considering how he could get away. Frank was talking business. He would not disturb him. No doubt Thigh was concocting some swindle, but he (Mike) knew nothing of business; he had a knack of turning the king at ecarte, but was nowhere once bills and the cooking of accounts were introduced. Should he post the letter? That was the question, and it played in his ears like an electric bell. Here was the letter; he could feel it through his coat, lying over his heart, and there it had lain since he had written it.
Frank and Thigh continued talking; Lizzie went to the baby, and Mike walked into the night, looking at the stars. He walked along the white high-road—to him a road of dreams—towards the white town—to him a town of chimeras—and leaning over the moon-lit river, shaking himself free from the hallucination within and without him, he said—
"On one hand I shall belong to one woman. Her house shall be my house, her friends shall be my friends; the others, the beautiful, fascinating others, will cease to dream of me, I shall no longer be their ideal. On the other hand I shall gain the nicest woman, and surely it must be right to take, though it be for life, the nicest woman in the world. She will supply what is wanting in my character; together we shall attain a goal; alone I shall attain none. In twenty years I shall be a foolish old bachelor whom no one cares for. I have stated both cases—on which side does the balance turn?"
The balance still stood at equipoise. A formless moon soared through a white cloud wrack, and broken gold lay in the rising tide. The sonorous steps of the policeman on the bridge startled him, and obeying the impulse of the moment, he gave the officer the letter, asking him to post it. He waited for some minutes, as if stupefied, pursuing the consequences of his act even into distant years. No, he would not send the letter just yet. But the officer had disappeared in some by-streets, and followed by the spirits of future loves, Mike ran till he reached the post-office, where he waited in nervous apprehension. Presently steps were heard in the stillness, and getting between him and the terrible slot, Mike determined to fight for his letter if it were refused him.
"I met you just now on the bridge and asked you to post a letter; give it back to me, if you please. I've changed my mind."
The officer looked at him narrowly, but he took the proffered shilling, and returned the letter.
"That was the narrowest squeak I've had yet," thought Mike.
When he returned to the cottage he found Frank and Thigh still together.
"Mr. Beacham Brown," said Thigh, "is now half-proprietor of the Pilgrim. The papers are signed. I came down quite prepared. I believe in settling things right off. When Mrs. Escott comes in, we will drink to the new Pilgrim, or, if you like it better, to the old Pilgrim, who starts afresh with a new staff and scrip, and a well-filled scrip too," he added, laughing vacuously.
"I hope," said Mike, "that Holloway is not the shrine he is journeying towards."
"I hope your book won't bring us there."
"Why, I didn't know you were going to continue—"
"Oh, yes," said Thigh; "that is to say, if we can come to an arrangement about the purchase," and Thigh lapsed into a stony silence, as was his practice when conducting a bargain.
"By God!" Mike thought, "I wish we were playing at ecarte or poker. I'm no good at business."
"Well," he said at last, "what terms do you propose to offer me?"
Thigh woke up.
"I never bargain," he said. "I'll give you Beacham Brown's cheque for a hundred and fifty if you will give me a receipt for three hundred," and he looked inquiry out of his small, pale blue eyes, and Mike noticed the diamond ring on the hand that caressed his moustache.
"No," said Mike, "that isn't fair. You don't write a line of the book. There is not even the excuse of commission, for the book is now appearing."
"Escott would not have paid you anything like that amount. I think I'm treating you very liberally. Indeed I don't mind telling you that I should not offer you anything like such terms if Beacham Brown were not anxious to have the book; he read your last article in the train, and came back raving about it."
Bright pleasure passed across Mike's face; he thought Thigh had slipped in the avowal, and he girt himself for resolute resistance and cautious attack. But Thigh was the superior strategist. Mike was led from the subject, and imperceptibly encouraged to speak of other things, and without interruption he span paradoxes and scattered jokes for ten minutes. Then the conversation dropped, and annoyed, Mike fixed his eyes on Thigh, who sat in unmovable silence.
"Well," said Mike, "what do you intend to do?"
"About what?" said Thigh, with a half-waking stare.
"About this book of mine. You know very well that if I take it to another shop you'll find it difficult to get anything like as good a serial. I know pretty well what talent is walking about Fleet Street."
Thigh said nothing, only raised his eyes as if Mike's words were full of suggestion, and again beguiled, Mike rambled into various criticisms of contemporary journalism. Friends were laughed at, and the papers they edited were stigmatized as rags that lived upon the ingenuity of the lies of advertising agents. When the conversation again dropped, Thigh showed no inclination of returning to the book, but, as before, sat in stony silence, and out of temper with himself, Mike had to ask him again what the terms were.
"I cannot offer you better terms than I have already done."
"Very well; I'll take one hundred and fifty for the serial rights."
"No, for the entire rights."
"No, I'll be damned, I don't care what happens!"
Then Frank joined in the discussion. Every one withdrew the offer he had made, and all possibility of agreement seemed at an end. Somehow it was suggested that Thigh should toss Mike whether he should pay him two hundred or a hundred and fifty. The men exchanged questioning looks, and at that moment Lizzie entered with a pack of cards, and Thigh said—
"I'll play you at ecarte—the best out of seven games."
Mike realized at once the situation, and he hoped Frank would not betray him. He saw that Thigh had been drinking. "God has given him into my hands," he thought; and it was agreed that they should play the best out of seven games for twenty-five pounds, and that the loser should have the right to call for a return match. Mike knew nothing of his opponent's play, but he did not for a moment suspect him of superior skill. Such a thing could hardly be, and he decided he would allow him to win the first games, watching carefully the while, so that he might study his combinations and plans, and learn in what measure he might pack and "bridge" the cards. There is much in a shuffle, and already Mike believed him to be no more than an ordinary club player, capable of winning a few sovereigns from a young man fresh from the university; and although the cards Mike held did not warrant such a course, he played without proposing, and when he lost the trick he scanned his opponent's face, and seeing it brighten, he knew the ruse had succeeded. But luck seemed to run inexplicably against him, and he was defeated. In the return match he met with similar luck, and rose from the table, having lost fifty pounds. Mike wrote a second I O U for twenty-five pounds, to be paid out of the hundred and fifty pounds which he had agreed in writing to accept for the book before sitting down to play. Then he protested vehemently against his luck, and so well did he act his part, that even if Thigh had not drunk another glass of whiskey-and-water he would not have perceived that Mike was simulating an excitement which he did not feel.
"I'll play you for a hundred pounds—the best out of seven games; damn the cards! I can beat you no matter how they run!"
"Very well, I don't mind, anything to oblige a friend."
Lizzie besought Mike not to play again, and she nearly upset the apple-cart by angrily telling Thigh she did not wish her house to be turned into a gambling hell. Thigh rose from the table, but Frank apologized for his wife, and begged of him to sit down. The incident was not without a good effect, for it removed Thigh's suspicions, if he had any, and convinced him that he was "in for a real good thing." He laid on the table a cheque, signed Beacham Brown, for a hundred pounds; Mike produced his nearly completed manuscript. Thigh looked over the MS., judging its length.
"It is all here?"
"No, there's one chapter to come; that's good enough for you."
"Oh yes, it will do. You'll have to finish it, for you'll want to write for the paper."
This time the cards were perfectly packed, and Mike turned the king.
Frank and Lizzie leaned breathless over the table, their faces white in the light of the unshaded lamp. Mike won the whole five tricks. But luck was dead against him, and in a few minutes the score stood at three games all. Then outrageously, for there was no help for it, as he never would have dared if his opponent had been quite sober, he packed and bridged the cards. He turned the king.
Mike won the fourth game, and put Mr. Beacham Brown's cheque in his pocket.
"I'll play you again," said Thigh.
Mike accepted, and before eleven o'clock Thigh had paid three hundred pounds for the manuscript and lost all his available spare cash. He glanced narrowly at Mike, paused as he put on his hat and coat, and Frank wished Lizzie would leave the room, feeling sure that violent words were inevitable. But at that moment Mike's shoulders and knuckles seemed more than usually prominent, and Mr. Beacham Brown's agent slunk away into the darkness.
"You did turn the king pretty often," said Frank, when the door closed. "I'm glad there was no row."
"Row! I'd have broken his dirty neck. Not content with swindling poor Beacham Brown, he tries it on with the contributors. I wish I had been able to get him to go on. I would willingly have fleeced him of every penny he has in the world."
Lizzie bade them good-night, and the servant brought in a letter for Mike, a letter which she explained had been incorrectly addressed, and had just come from the hotel. Frank took up a newspaper which Thigh had left on the table. He turned it over, glancing hastily through it. Then something caught his eye, and the expression of his face changed. And what caused him pain could be no more than a few words, for the paper fell instantly from his hands and he sat quite still, staring into space. But neither the sound of the paper falling, nor yet the frozen rigidity of his attitude drew Mike's thoughts from the letter he was reading. He glanced hastily through it, then he read it attentively, lingering over every word. He seemed to suck sweetness out of every one; it was the deep, sensual absorption of a fly in a pot of treacle. His eyes were dim with pleasure long drawn out; they saw nothing, and it was some moments before the pallor and pain of Frank's face dispelled the melliferous Edens in which Mike's soul moved.
"What is the matter, old chap? Are you ill?"
Frank did not answer.
"Are you ill? Shall I get you a drink?"
"No, no," he said. "I assure you it is nothing; no, it is nothing." He struggled for a moment for shame's sake to keep his secret, but it was more than he could bear. "Ah!" he said, "it is all over; I'm done for—read."
He stooped to pick up the paper. Mike took the paper from him and read—
"Thursday—Lady Mount Rorke, of a son."
Whilst one man hears his doom pronounced, another sees a golden fortune fallen in his hand, and the letter Mike had just read was from a firm of solicitors, informing him that Lady Seeley had left him her entire fortune, three thousand a year in various securities, and a property in Berkshire; house, pictures, plate—in a word, everything she possessed. The bitterness of his friend's ill fortune contrasting with the sweetness of his own good fortune, struck his heart, and he said, with genuine sorrow in his voice—
"I'm awfully sorry, old chap."
"There's no use being sorry for me, I'm done for; I shall never be Lord Mount Rorke now. That child, that wife, are paupers; that castle, that park, that river, all—everything that I was led to believe would be mine one day, has passed from me irrevocably. It is terribly cruel—it seems too cruel to be true; all those old places—you know them—all has passed from me. I never believed Mount Rorke would have an heir, he is nearly seventy; it is too cruel."
Tears swam in his eyes, and covering his face in his hands he burst into a storm of heavy sobbing.
Mike was sincere, but "there is something not wholly disagreeable to us in hearing of the misfortunes even of our best friends," and Mike felt the old thought forced into his mind that he who had come from the top had gone to the bottom, and that he who came from the bottom was going—had gone to the top. Taking care, however, that none of the triumph ebullient within him should rise into his voice, he said—
"I am really sorry for you, Frank. You mustn't despair; perhaps the child won't live, and perhaps the paper will succeed. It must succeed. It shall succeed."
"Succeed! nothing succeeds with me. I and my wife and child are beggars on the face of the earth. It matters little to me whether the paper succeeds or fails. Thigh has got pretty nearly all of it. When my debts are paid I shall not have enough to set myself up in rooms."
At the end of a painful silence, Mike said—
"We've had our quarrels, but you've been a damned good friend to me; it is my turn now to stand to you. To begin with, here is the three hundred that I won from Thigh. I don't want it. I assure you I don't. Then there are your rooms in Temple Gardens; I'll take them off your hands. I'll pay all the arrears of rent, and give you the price you paid for your furniture."
"What damned nonsense! how can you do that? Take three hundred pounds from you—the price of your book. You have nothing else in the world!"
"Yes, I have; it is all right, old chap; you can have the money. The fact is," he said, "Lady Seeley has left me her whole fortune; the letter I just received is from the solicitors. They say three thousand a year in various securities, and a property in Berkshire. So you see I can afford to be generous. I shall feel much hurt if you don't accept. Indeed, it is the least I can do; I owe it to you."
The men looked at each other, their eyes luminous with intense and quickening emotions. Fortune had been so derisive that Mike feared Frank would break into foolish anger, and that only a quarrel and worse hatred might result from his offer of assistance.
"It was in my box you met her; I remember the night quite well. You were with Harding." [Footnote: See Spring Days.] The men exchanged an inquiring look. "She wanted me to go home and have supper with her; she was in love with me then; I might have been her lover. But I refused, and I went into the bar and spoke to Lizzie; when she went off on duty I went and sat with you and Harding. Not long after I saw you at Reading, in the hotel overlooking the river. I was with Lizzie." [Footnote: See Spring Days.]
"You can't accuse me of having cut you out. You could have got her, and—"
"I didn't want her; I was in love with Lizzie, and I am still. And strange as it may appear to you, I regret nothing, at least nothing that concerns Lizzie."
Mike wondered if this were true. His fingers fidgeted with the cheques. "Won't you take them?"
Frank took them. It was impossible to continue the conversation. Frank made a remark, and the young men bade each other good-night.
As Mike went up the staircase to his room, his exultation swelled, and in one of those hallucinations of the brain consequent upon nerve excitement, and in which we are conscious of our insanity, he wondered the trivial fabric of the cottage did not fall, and his soul seemed to pierce the depth and mystery imprisoned in the stars. He undressed slowly, looking at himself in the glass, pausing when he drew off his waistcoat, unbuttoning his braces with deliberation.
"I can make nothing of it; there never was any one like me.... I could do anything, I might have been Napoleon or Caesar."
As he folded his coat he put his hand into the breast pocket and produced the unposted letter.
"That letter will drive me mad! Shall I burn it? What do I want with a wife? I've plenty of money now."
He held the letter to the flame of the candle. But he could not burn it.
"This is too damned idiotic!" he thought, as he laid it on the table and prepared to get into bed; "I'm not going to carry that letter about all my life. I must either post it or destroy it."
Then the darkness became as if charged with a personality sweet and intense; it seemed to emanate from the letter which lay on the table, and to materialize strangely and inexplicably. It was the fragrance of brown hair, and the light of youthful eyes; and in this perfume, and this light, he realized her entire person; every delicate defect of thinness. She hung over him in all her girlishness, and he clasped her waist with his hands.
"How sweet she is! There is none like her."
Then wearying of the strained delight he remembered Belthorpe Park, now his. Trees and gardens waved in his mind; downs and river lands floated, and he half imagined Lily there smiling upon them; and when he turned to the wall, resolute in his search for sleep, the perfume he knew her by, the savour of the skin, where the first faint curls begin, haunted in his hallucinations, and intruded beneath the bed-clothes. One dream was so exquisite in its tenderness, so illusive was the enchanted image that lay upon his brain, that fearing to lose it, he strove to fix his dream with words, but no word pictured her eyes, or the ineffable love they expressed, and yet the sensation of both was for the moment quite real in his mind. They were sitting in a little shady room; she was his wife, and she hung over him, sitting on his knee. Her eyes were especially distinct and beautiful, and her arms—those thin arms which he knew so well—and that waist were clothed in a puritanic frock of some blue material. His happiness thrilled him, and he lay staring into the darkness till the darkness withered, and the lines of the room appeared—the wardrobe, the wash-hand-stand, and then the letter. He rose from his bed. In all-pervading grayness the world lay as if dead; not a whiff of smoke ascended, not a bird had yet begun, and the river, like a sheet of zinc, swirled between its low banks.
"God! it is worse than the moonlight!" thought Mike, and went back to bed. But he could not rest, and when he went again to the window there was a faint flush in the sky's cheek; and then a bar of rose pierced the heavy ridge of clouds that hung above the woodland.
"An omen! I will post her letter in the sunrise." And conscious of the folly, but unable to subdue that desire of romance so inveterate in him, he considered how he might leave the house. He remembered, and with pleasure, that he could not pass down the staircase without disturbing the dog, and he thought of the prolonged barking that would begin the moment he touched the chain on the front door. He would have to get out of the window; but the window was twenty feet from the ground. "A rope! I have no rope! How absurd!" he thought, and, rejoicing in the absurdity, he drew a sheet from the bed and made it fast. Going to Lily through a window seemed to relieve marriage of some of its shame.
"Life wouldn't be complete without her. Yes, that's just it; that sums it up completely; curious I did not think of that before. It would have saved such a lot. Yes, life would not be complete without her. The problem is solved," and he dropped the letter as easily as if it had been a note asking for seats in the theatre. "I'm married," he said. "Good heavens! how strange it seems. I shall have to give her a ring, and buy furniture. I had forgotten! ... No difficulty about that now. We shall go to my place in Berkshire."
But he could not go back to bed, and he walked down to the river, his fine figure swinging beautifully distinct in his light clothing. The dawn wind thrilled in his chest, for he had only a light coat over the tasselled silk night-shirt; and the dew drenched his feet as he swung along the pathway to the river. The old willow was full of small birds; they sat ruffling their feathers, and when Mike sprang into the boat they flew through the gray light, taking refuge in some osier-beds. And as he looked down stream he saw the night clouds dispersing in the wind. He pulled, making the boat shoot through the water for about a mile, then touched by the beauty of the landscape, paused to view it. Cattle lay in the long, moist meadows, harmonizing in their semi-unconsciousness with the large gray earth; mist hung in the sedges, floated evanescent upon the surface of the water, within reach of his oars, floated and went out in the sunshine. But on the verge of an oak wood, amid tangled and tawny masses of fern and grass, a hound stopped and looked up. Then the huntsman appeared galloping along the upland, and turning in his saddle, he blew a joyful blast.
Mike sat still, his heart close shut, the beauty of the scene in its quick and core. Then yielding utterly he drove the boat ashore, and calling to the nearest, to one who had stopped and was tightening his horse's girths, he offered to buy his horse. A hundred pounds was asked. "It is not worth it," he thought; "but I must spend my four thousand a year." The desire to do what others think of doing but don't do was always active in Mike. He gave his name and address; and, fearing to miss dealing on such advantageous terms, the owner consented to allow Mike to try the horse then and there. But the hounds had got on the scent of a fox. The horn was heard ringing in the seared wood in the crimson morning, and the hounds streamed across the meadows.
"I must try him over some fences. Take my boat and row up to Ash Cottage; I'll meet you there."
"I'll do nothing of the sort!" roared the man in top-boots.
"Then walk across the fields," cried Mike; and he rode at the hedge and rail, coming down heavily, but before the owner could reach him he had mounted and was away.
Some hours later, as he approached the cottage, he saw Frank and a man in top-boots engaged in deep converse.
"Get off my horse instantly!" exclaimed the latter.
"The horse is mine," said Mike, who unfortunately could not control his laughter.
"Your horse! Certainly not! Get off my horse, or I'll pull you off."
Mike jumped off.
"Since you will have it so, I'll not dispute with you. There is your horse; not a bad sort of animal—capital sport."
"Now pay me my hundred pounds!" said the owner, between his clenched teeth.
"You said just now that you hadn't sold me the horse. There is your horse, and here is the name of my solicitors, if you want to go to law with me."
"Law with you! I'll give you law!" and letting go the horse, that immediately began to browse, he rushed at Mike, his whip in the air.
Mike fought, his long legs wide apart, his long arms going like lightning, straight from the shoulder, scattering blood over necktie and collar; and presently the man withdrew, cursing Mike for an Irish horse-stealer.
"I never heard of such a thing!" said Frank. "You got on his horse and rode away, leaving him standing on the outside of the cover."
"Yes," shouted Mike, delighted with his exploit; "I felt I must go after the hounds."
"Yes, but to go away with the man's horse!"
"My dear fellow, why not? Those are the things that other fellows think of doing but don't do. An excitement like that is worth anything."
While waiting for Lily's answer, Mike finished the last chapter of his book, and handed the manuscript to Frank. Between the sentences he had speculated on the state of soul his letter would produce in her, and had imagined various answers. "Darling, how good of you! I did not know you loved me so well." She would write, "Your letter surprised me, but then you always surprise me. I can promise you nothing; but you may come and see me next Thursday." She would write at once, of that there could be no doubt; such letters were always answered at once. He watched the postman and the clock; every double knock made tumult in his heart; and in his stimulated perceptions he saw the well-remembered writing as if it lay under his eyes. And the many communications he received during those days whetted the edge of his thirst, and aggravated the fever that floated in his brain.
And towards the end of the week, at the end of a long night of suffering, he went to London. And for the first time, forgetful of himself, without a thought of the light he would appear in, he told the cabman where to drive. His heart failed him when he heard that Miss Young had been ordered abroad by the doctor. And as he walked away a morbid sense instilled in him that Lily would never be his bride. Fear for her life persisted, and corrupted all his joy. He could not listen to Lady Seeley's solicitors, and he could not meditate upon the new life which Helen had given him. He had inherited sixty thousand pounds in various securities, yielding three thousand a year; the estate in Berkshire brought in fifteen hundred a year; and a sum of twelve hundred pounds lay in the bank for immediate uses.
"Dear, sweet Helen—she was the best of the lot—none were as sweet as she. Well, after all, it isn't so strange when one thinks of it—she hadn't a relation in the world. I must see her grave. I'll put a beautiful marble tomb over her; and when I'm in Berkshire I'll go there every day with flowers."
Then a shocking thought appeared in his mind. Accustomed to analyse all sentiments, he asked his soul if he would give up all she had given him to have her back in life; and he took courage and joy when the answer came that he would. And delighted at finding himself capable of such goodness, he walked in a happier mood. His mind hung all day between these two women—while he paid the rent that was owing there in Temple Gardens; while he valued the furniture and fixtures. He valued them casually, and in a liberal spirit, and wrote to Frank offering him seven hundred pounds for the place as it stood. "It is not worth it," he thought, "but I'd like to put the poor fellow on his legs."
Where should he dine? He wanted distraction, and unable to think of any better relief, he turned into Lubi's for a merry dinner. The little gilt gallery was in disorder, Sally Slater having spent the afternoon there. Her marquis was with her; her many admirers clustered about the cigarette-strewn table, anxious to lose no word of her strange conversation. One drunkard insisted on telling anecdotes about the duke, and asking the marquis to drink with him.
"I tell you I remember the circumstances perfectly—the duke wore a gray overcoat," said drunkard No. 1.
"Get out! I tell you to get out!" cried drunkard No. 2. "Brave Battlemoor, I say; long live Battlemoor! Have a drink?—I want Battlemoor to drink with me."
"For God's sake have a drink with him," said Sally, "and then perhaps he'll take another box for my benefit."
"Only a guinea one this time; there's the ticket—fork out. And now I must be off."
The street echoed with the porter's whistle, half a dozen cabs came racing for these excellent customers, and to the Trocadero they went. The acting manager passed them in. Mike, Sally, Marquis, and the drunkards lingered in the bar behind the auditorium, and brandies-and-sodas were supplied to them over a sloppy mahogany counter. A woman screamed on the stage in green silk, and between the heads of those standing in the entrance to the stalls, her open mouth and an arm in black swede were seen occasionally.
Tired of drunkenness and slang Mike went into the stalls. The boxes were bright with courtesans; the young men whispered invitations to drink, and the chairman, puffing at a huge cigar, used his little hammer and announced "Miss Sally Slater will appear next." Battlemoor roared approval, and then in a short skirt and black stockings Sally rushed to the footlights and took her audience, as it were, by the throat.
"Oh, you men, what would you do without us? You kiss us, you cuddle and play, You win our hearts away. Oh, you men, there's something so nice about us."
The "Oh, you men," was given with a shake of the fist and the waggle of the bustle, in which there was genius, and Mike could not but applaud. Suddenly he became aware that a pair of opera-glasses were bracketed upon him, and looking up he saw Kitty Carew sitting with a young nobleman, and he saw the white line of her teeth, for she was laughing. She waved him to come to her.
"You dear old sweet," she said, "where have you been all this time?—Come, kiss me at once." And she bent her head towards him.
"And now Newtimber, good-bye; I want to be with Mike. But you'll not forget me, you'll come and see me one of these days?" And she spoke so winningly that the boy hardly perceived that he was dismissed. Mike and Kitty exchanged an inquiring look.
"Ah! do you remember," she said, "when I was at the Avenue, and you used to come behind? ... You remember the dear old marquis. When I was ill he used to come and read to me. He used to say I was the only friend he had. The dear marquis—and he is gone now. I went to his grave yesterday, and I strewed the tomb with chrysanthemums, and every spring he has the first lilac of my garden."
"And who is your lover?"
"I assure you I haven't got one. Harding was the last, but he is becoming a bore; he philosophizes. I dare say he's very clever, but people don't kiss each other because they are clever. I don't think I ever was in love.... But tell me, how do you think I am looking? Does this dress suit me? Do I look any older?"
Mike vowed he had never seen her so charming.
"Very well, if you think so, I'll tell you what we'll do. As soon as Coburn has sung his song, we'll go; my brougham is waiting ... You'll come home and have supper with me."
A remembrance of Lily came over him, but in quick battle he crushed it out of mind and murmured, "That will be very nice; you know I always loved you better than any one."
At that moment they were interrupted by cheers and yells. Muchross had just entered at the head of his gang; his lieutenants, Snowdown and Dicky the driver, stood beside him. They stood under the gallery bowing to the courtesans in the boxes, and singing—
"Two lovely black eyes Oh! what a surprise, Two lovely black eyes."
"I wish we could avoid those fellows," said Kitty; "they'll only bother me with questions. Come, let's be off, they'll be up here in a moment." But they were intercepted by Muchross and his friends in a saloon where Sally and Battlemoor were drinking with various singers, waiting their turns.
"Where are you going? You aren't going off like that?" cried Muchross, catching her by her sleeve.
"Yes, I am; I am going home."
"Let me see you home," whispered Dicky.
"Thanks, Mike is seeing me home."
"You are in love," cried Muchross; "I shan't leave you."
"You are in drink; I'll leave you in charge if you don't loose my sleeve."
"This joker," cried Sally, "will take a ticket if something wins a Lincoln, and he doesn't know which." She stood in the doorway, her arms akimbo. "People are very busy here," she snarled, when a woman tried to pass.
"I beg your pardon," said the ex-chorus girl.
"And a good thing too," said Sally. "You are one of the busy ones, just got your salary for shoving, I suppose." There was no competing with Sally's tongue, and the girl passed without replying.
This queen of song was attired in a flowery gown of pale green, and she wore a large hat lavishly trimmed with wild flowers; she moved slowly, conscious of her importance and fame.
But at that moment a man in a check suit said, doffing his cap, "Very pleased to see you here, Miss Slater."
Sally looked him over. "Well, I can't help that."
"I was at your benefit. Mr. Jackson was there, and he introduced me to you after the performance."
"No, I'm sure he didn't."
"I beg your pardon, Miss Slater. Don't you remember when Peggy Praed got on the table and made a speech?"
"No, I don't; you saw me on the stage and you paid your money for that. What more do you want?"
"I assure you—"
"Well, that's all right, now's your chance to lend me a fiver."
"I'll lend you a fiver or a tenner, if you like, Miss Slater."
"You could not do it if you tried, and now the roast pork's off."
The witticism was received with a roar from her admirers, and satisfied with her victory, she said—"And now, you girls, you come and have drinks with me. What will you have, Kitty, what will you have? give it a name."
Kitty protested but was forced to sit down. The courtesans joined the comic vocalists, waiting to do their "turns." Lord Muchross and Lord Snowdown ordered magnums, and soon the hall was almost deserted. A girl was, however, dancing prettily on the stage, and Mike stood to watch her. Her hose were black, and in limp pink silk skirts she kicked her slim legs surprisingly to and fro. After each dance she ran into the wings, reappearing in a fresh costume, returning at length in wide sailor's trousers of blue silk, her bosom partially covered in white cambric. As the band played the first notes of the hornpipe, she withdrew a few hair-pins, and forthwith an abundant darkness fell to her dancing knees, almost to her tiny dancing feet, heavy as a wave, shadowy as sleeping water. As some rich weed that the warm sea holds and swings, as some fair cloud lingers in radiant atmosphere, her hair floated, every parted tress an impalpable film of gold in the crude sunlight of the ray turned upon her; and when she danced towards the footlights, the bright softness of the threads clung almost amorously about her white wrists—faint cobwebs hanging from white flowers were not more faint, fair, and soft; wonderful was the hair of this dancing girl, suggesting all fabled enchantments, all visions of delicate perfume and all the poetry of evanescent colour.
She was followed by the joyous Peggy Praed (sweet minx), the soul and voice of the small back streets. Screwing up her winsome, comical face, drawling a word here, accentuating a word there, she evoked, in an illusive moment, the washing day, the quarrel with the mother-in-law (who wanted to sleep in the house), tea-time, and the trip to the sea-side with all its concomitant adventures amid bugs and landladies. With an accent, with a gesture, she recalled in a moment a phase of life, creating pictures vivid as they were transitory, but endowing each with the charm of the best and most highly finished works of the Dutch masters. Lords, courtesans, and fellow-artists crowded to listen, and profiting by the opportunity, Kitty touched Mike on the shoulder with her fan.
"Now we had better go."
"I'm driving to-morrow. Come down to Brighton with us," said Dicky the driver. "Shall I keep places for you?"
Rising, Kitty laid her hand upon his mouth to silence him, and whispered, "Yes; we'll come, and good-night."
In the soft darkness of the brougham, gently swung together, the passing gaslights revealing the blueness of the cushions, a diamond stud flashing intermittently, they lay, their souls sunk deep in the intimacy of a companionship akin to that of a nest—they, the inheritors of the pleasure of the night and the gladness of the morrow.
Dressing was delirium, and Kitty had to adjure Mike to say no more; if he did she should go mad. Breakfast had to be skipped, and it was only by bribing a cabman to gallop to Westminster that they caught the coach. Even so they would have missed it had not Mike sprung at risk of limb from the hansom and sped on the toes of his patent leather shoes down the street, his gray cover coat flying.
"What a toff he is," thought Kitty, full of the pride of her love. Bessie, whom dear Laura had successfully chaperoned into well-kept estate, sat with Dicky on the box; Laura sat with Harding in the back seat; Muchross and Snowdown sat opposite them. The middle of the coach was taken up by what Muchross said were a couple of bar-girls and their mashers.
On rolled the coach over Westminster Bridge, through Lambeth, in picturesqueness and power, a sympathetic survival of aristocratic days. The aristocracy and power so vital in the coach was soon communicated to those upon it. And now when Jem Gregory, the celebrated whip, with one leg swinging over the side, tootled, the passers-by seemed littler than ever, the hansoms at the corner seemed smaller, and the folk standing at their poor doors seemed meaner. As they passed through those hungry streets, ragged urchins came alongside, throwing themselves over and over, beseeching coppers from Muchross, and he threw a few, urging them to further prostrations. Tootle, Jim, tootle; whether they starve or whether they feed, we have no thought. The clatter of the hooves of the bays resounds through those poor back-rooms, full of human misery; the notes of our horn are perhaps sounding now in dying ears. Tootle, Jim, tootle; what care we for that pale mother and her babe, or that toiling coster whose barrow is too heavy for him! If there is to be revolution, it will not be in our time; we are the end of the world. Laura is with us to-day, Bessie sits on the box, Kitty is with our Don Juan; we know there is gold in our pockets, we see our courtesans by us, our gallant bays are bearing us away to pleasure. Tootle, Jim, my boy, tootle; the great Muchross is shouting derision at the poor perspiring coster. "Pull up, you devil, pull up," he cries, and shouts to the ragged urchins and scatters halfpence that they may tumble once more in the dirt. See the great Muchross, the clean-shaven face of the libertine priest, the small sardonic eyes. Hurrah for the great Muchross! Long may he live, the singer of "What cheer, Ria?" the type and epitome of the life whose outward signs are drags, brandies-and-soda, and pale neckties.
Gaily trotted the four bays, and as Clapham was approached brick tenements disappeared in Portland stone and iron railings. A girl was seen swinging; the white flannels of tennis players passed to and fro, and a lady stood by a tall vase watering red geraniums. Harding told Mike that the shaven lawns and the greenhouses explained the lives of the inhabitants, and represented their ideas; and Laura's account of the money she had betted was followed by an anecdote concerning a long ramble in a wood, with a man who had walked her about all day without even so much as once asking her if she had a mouth on her.
"Talking of mouths," said Mike, as they pulled up to change horses, "we had to start without breakfast. I wonder if one could get a biscuit and a glass of milk."
"Glass of milk!" screamed Muchross, "no milk allowed on this coach."
"Well, I don't think I could drink a brandy-and-soda at this time in the morning."
"At what time could you drink one then? Why, it is nearly eleven o'clock! What will you have, Kitty? A brandy?"
"No, I think I'll take a glass of beer."
The beauty of the landscape passed unperceived. But the road was full of pleasing reminiscences. As they passed through Croydon dear old Laura pointed out an hotel where she used to go every Sunday with the dear Earl, and in the afternoons they played cribbage in the sitting-room overlooking the street. And some miles further on the sweetness of the past burst unanimously from all when Dicky pointed out with his whip the house where Bessie had gone for her honeymoon, and where they all used to spend from Saturday till Monday. The incident of Bill Longside's death was pathetically alluded to. He had died of D. T. "Impossible," said Laura, "to keep him from it. Milly, poor little woman, had stuck to him almost to the last. He had had his last drink there. Muchross and Dicky had carried him out."
The day was filled with fair remembrances of summer, and the earth was golden and red; and the sky was folded in lawny clouds, which the breeze was lifting, revealing beautiful spaces of blue. All the abundant hedgerows were red with the leaf of the wild cherry, and the oak woods wore masses of sere and russet leafage. Spreading beeches swept right down to the road, shining in beautiful death; once a pheasant rose and flew through the polished trunks towards the yellow underwood. Sprays trembled on naked rods, ferns and grasses fell about the gurgling watercourses, a motley undergrowth; and in the fields long teams were ploughing, the man labouring at the plough, the boy with the horses; and their smock-frocks and galligaskins recalled an ancient England which time has not touched, and which lives in them. And the farm-houses of gables and weary brick, sometimes well-dismantled and showing the heavy beam, accentuated these visions of past days. Yes, indeed, the brick villages, the old gray farm-houses, and the windmill were very beautiful in the endless yellow draperies which this autumn country wore so romantically. One spot lingered in Mike's memory, so representative did it seem of that country. The road swept round a beech wood that clothed a knoll, descending into the open country by a tall redding hedge to a sudden river, and cows were seen drinking and wading in the shallows, and this last impression of the earth's loveliness smote the poet's heart to joy which was near to grief.
At Three Bridges they had lunch, in an old-fashioned hotel called the George. Muchross cut the sirloin, filling the plates so full of juicy meat that the ladies protested. Snowdown paid for champagne, and in conjunction with the wine, the indelicate stories which he narrated made some small invasion upon the reserve of the bar-girls; for their admirers did not dare forbid them the wine, and could not prevent them from smiling. After lunch the gang was photographed in the garden, and Muchross gave the village flautist half a "quid," making him promise to drink their healths till he was "blind."
"I never like to leave a place without having done some good," he shouted, as he scrambled into his seat.
This sentiment was applauded until the sensual torpor of digestion intervened. The clamour of the coach lapsed into a hush of voices. The women leaned back, drawing their rugs about their knees, for it was turning chilly, arms were passed round yielding waists, hands lay in digestive poses, and eyes were bathed in deep animal indolences.