"My wife," he said in a low voice. "My wife. Will you be my wife, Lalage?"
The girl turned white, and her hand went to her throat, as though she were choking, then she looked away, staring into the fire, whilst he watched her, waiting for her answer with almost pitiful anxiety.
"Dearest," she began at last, "it's very sweet of you——" Then she paused again, as though searching for the words, which came to her at last. "Jimmy, dearest, do you really mean it? Remember, you've only known me quite a little time, and you can't be sure of me yet. Can you? You see, if you made a mistake it would spoil your whole life. It means so much to you."
"And what does it mean to you?" he asked, thickly.
"Everything," she answered, simply. "But then, I've spoilt my life already, and I mustn't spoil yours too."
"You wouldn't spoil it. You, know that as well as I do. You would give me something to work for, make me keep up to the mark." He was thoroughly in earnest now, carried away by the fear of losing her. He walked up and down the room a couple of times, then stopped in front of her. "Lalage," he asked, very quietly, "do you love me?"
The girl nodded, without looking up.
"Then will you marry me?" He said it deliberately. She clenched her hands, but answered nothing, till he repeated his question, then she faced him, white-lipped and wild-eyed.
"God forgive me for saying it—yes. But not yet, Jimmy, not yet," and without allowing him to kiss her, she jumped up and ran into the other room, shutting the door behind her.
Jimmy walked down to the club that day, not from reasons of economy—there was still some of the Record money left—but because he wanted to think matters over, quietly and deliberately. He was conscious of an unwonted sense of elation—Lalage was to be his, definitely and finally, so that they could face the world openly, with none of this miserable business of subterfuge and bogus address; no one would know of the past. And then, suddenly, he went cold at the thought of the family inquisition, and the falsehoods he would have to tell; whilst, even if the latter were not detected, his people would never forgive him for marrying a stranger, never agree to his marriage until he was in what they would consider a good position, which would mean years of waiting. He tried to picture Lalage, with her almost childish outlook on life, being cross-examined by the cold and immaculate Ida, or sitting down to dinner in the Marlow house, where even the servants would turn up their noses at the mention of the ham and beef shop.
And then if, after they were married, they came across someone belonging to Lalage's old life—that was the worst idea of all, intolerable, wholly abominable. Insensibly, he quickened his pace, as though trying to get away from the thought, then, finding that useless, turned into a saloon bar, where he remained a full hour, drinking whisky practically neat, and endeavouring to interest himself in the other people who came into the place. When, at last, he did reach the club, he was feeling much more certain of the wisdom of his choice and his ability to manage his own affairs. He had determined to tell Douglas Kelly, as practically his only friend, about his engagement; and yet, somehow, he felt a distinct sense of relief when, in reply to his question, the waiter said:
"Mr. Kelly, sir? He has been in, in a great hurry, just for letters and so on. But," and he lowered his voice discreetly, knowing Kelly to be a friend of Jimmy's and two other members being near, "but he's gone to Russia, sir, all in a hurry. Told me to tell you he wouldn't be there very long, at least he thought not."
As Jimmy turned away, he found himself face to face with Romsey of the Evening Post, of whom he had seen a good deal during the last few weeks.
"Hullo, Grierson," the other said. "You don't look too cheerful. I suppose you are wondering how the smash is going to affect you."
Jimmy knit his brow. "What do you mean?" he demanded. "Who has gone to smash?"
The reporter gave him an incredulous look. "Where on earth do you live that you haven't heard? Why the Comet ceased publication last night without warning, which means there are forty of the best men in Fleet Street out of jobs, ready to scramble for the space you and I and the other fellows used to have. Cheerful prospect, isn't it?"
Jimmy did not answer. He was wondering dully whether any of these men had ever felt the same degree of desperate anxiety about the future as he was feeling then.
Things were bad in Fleet Street. Everyone said so, and therefore it followed that the statement was true. Certainly Jimmy found no reason to doubt it. His manuscripts came back with horrible regularity, not so much because they were unsuitable but because there was so little space and so many eager to fill it. Had he been more experienced he would have known that things are always bad to the majority, whilst the successful minority has no time to waste in telling others how it is getting on; but he was raw to the game, and not over-sanguine by nature, so instead of being elated by such little luck as he did get he was terribly discouraged when he counted up the total results of a month's hard work. He had just managed to scrape together the rent of the flat and the instalment on the hire-purchase furniture, but that had been all. There was nothing due to him from any of the papers; he was practically penniless, as well as a little in debt to such of the local tradesmen as would allow any credit. His own boots were growing uncomfortably thin, whilst, as for Lalage, he had not been able to buy her a single thing. Not that she asked him for anything, rather otherwise.
"I can manage," she said with a brave attempt at cheerfulness. "These shoes will do me for some little time yet, as I hardly ever go out, and I know you'll get me lots of nice clothes when we grow rich."
But though she tried to encourage him she was not very successful. It is no easy task to put a new heart into someone else when there is a deadly fear gripping at your own, and as day after day went by and she saw him growing thinner, shabbier, more weary and despondent, her own hopes for the future dwindled down to the vanishing point. Hitherto he had kept away from his own people, none of whom had seen him since his return from Northampton; but they were always there in the background, and she knew that he had only to abandon her and come into line with their ideas to get his immediate needs supplied and some provision made for his future in the shape of a steady, respectable occupation. She believed in his ability as a writer far more than he did himself, but success meant months, even years, of waiting, and she saw that he had not the strength to wait. Already his nerve was going and he was trying to steady himself with whisky. Towards herself he was very loving and gentle, at least most of the time; but he was quickly becoming too worried to work in the flat. The sharp knock at the door which heralded the daily visit of one or other of their small creditors would put him off work for the rest of the day, and before long he took to spending the day at the club, sometimes writing, more often mooning about in the vague hope of meeting someone who could help him into a regular berth on one of the papers.
For Lalage these days passed with unutterable slowness. There was, of necessity, very little to do in the way of cooking, and she had not the heart to go out. It is miserable work looking into the shop windows whilst your own pockets are empty, and, moreover, she had long since divined the terrible jealousy of the past which was always at the back of Jimmy's mind, and she knew that he hated her to be out by herself, although, on the other hand, he seemed afraid to be seen out with her. It was the dread of meeting some of his own people, she understood that perfectly well, and the knowledge increased her fears for the future. In the end she was going to lose everything, not only Jimmy but her little home as well; and all because she had been insane enough to forget that love was not for such as herself, because she had been wilfully blind to the fact that Jimmy came from the Griersons, and must ultimately go back to the Griersons and their kind.
Now and then there was a red-letter day, when Dodgson of the Record wired for a special article, which probably meant two guineas on the morrow. On those occasions Lalage always went down to the office with Jimmy to hand in the copy because, as Jimmy declared, she was lucky to him, and, being elated by the commission, he was able to put on one side the fear of meeting anyone who knew him. But the next returned manuscript brought back his depression and sent him down to the club again to waste his time and drink whisky.
Lalage did not blame him for leaving her the task of meeting the little tradesmen, who grew foul-mouthed and truculent over an account of two or three shillings, as is their wont in that part of London. Rather, she sorrowed over the far smaller share of worry which did fall to him, and tried to take it all on to her own shoulders. He would leave her, she fully believed that, and, had she been as her kind is supposed to be, as perhaps it is, she would have hastened his going in order to be free again; but because she loved him she was ready to sacrifice anything to keep him as long as possible. For Jimmy's own sake, too, she dreaded his going back to his people, knowing, as she did, that he could never forget her, and that he would inevitably seek oblivion and find death in the bottle. She had divined his tendency that way from the very first, and the fear of it had never been out of her mind since.
Jimmy was still keeping up the nominal address at the house just off Baker Street, and so far Mrs. Fagin, the landlady, had treated him with fawning politeness when he paid his weekly rent, but from the very first he had distrusted her, and he always had the feeling that she would sell his secret if she discovered the market. Once Mrs. Marlow had called and had been told by the maid that Mr. Grierson was out for the day and his room was locked, but there was ever the chance that she might call again and disclose her identity to Mrs. Fagin. The whole thing was a nightmare to Jimmy, who sometimes found himself blaming Lalage in his heart for having suggested the arrangement. He was a supremely miserable man, at least when he was alone, fearful of his own people, terribly worried about money matters, jealous almost to the point of madness, and haunted by the dread of losing Lalage in the end. If only they could have faced the world openly half the battle would have been over, and they could, he told himself, have got through the rest somehow together. And yet since that one day of madness when he had made her promise to be his wife he had never referred to the subject again. He wanted her for his own, and yet he shrank from the sacrifice of marriage. He tried to quiet his conscience by telling himself it was wiser to wait, that it really made little difference after all; whilst Lalage said nothing, being already broken-hearted and bankrupt of hope.
When she found time to think about him seriously, which was not very often, Mrs. Marlow was far from being satisfied as to Jimmy's doings or prospects. Someone had reported having seen him walking down Fleet Street late at night, looking ill and down at heel, and the news upset her. It was not pleasant to have these things said about one of the family, even though he, himself, might be entirely to blame for it. She would have asked him down to stay for a week-end, but for the fact that she did not want him to meet Ethel Grimmer again, having the feeling that he might tell that lady things which he would not confide to his own sister. But she took counsel with Ida, and, in the end, they decided that Walter Grierson was the right person to make an investigation.
Rather unwillingly, Walter undertook the task, or said he would undertake it, and, after consultation with his wife, who was not in the least interested, detesting both Ida and May, asked Jimmy down to stay, three or four days.
"I'm sure I haven't any desire to go," Jimmy said, as he read the letter to Lalage. Then he coughed a little and put his handkerchief to his mouth.
Lalage watched him with big, troubled eyes, not for the first time. "I think you had better go, dear," she said. "The change may do you good, and it'll take your mind off these stupid worries. I shall manage all right alone. I'm used to it, you see."
He took her words in the wrong sense, and glanced at her with sudden jealous suspicion, which she saw and strove hard to ignore. "You see, there's nothing urgent due just now," she went on, hurriedly, "and I've enough food in the house to last me out. If I get some condensed milk in, I can pretend we're both away."
Jimmy had the grace to feel ashamed of his own thoughts. "I must see you fixed up, sweetheart, of course, and, anyway, one night will be enough for me at Walter's. As for money, there will be a guinea and a half coming from the Sunday Echo to-morrow. It's their pay day, the second Friday."
But Lalage shook her head. "You must have that for a new pair of boots, Jimmy, and one or two little things. I can't let you go as you are. I only wish there had been more time, so that we could have saved enough for a new suit for you." She looked at his figure critically. "I know a place where they sell misfits very cheap, good ones, and you might get one to fit you. They would take my dinner dress in exchange, I'm sure."
"No, no." Jimmy leaned forward and kissed her hand. "I won't have that. I can manage, and if Mrs. Walter thinks I'm too shabby, she won't ask me again, which will be a relief."
Lalage sighed. "I hate to see you looking thin and ill and poor. It just breaks my heart." She gave a little sob. "But, oh, Jimmy dearest, when you get to your brother's big house, don't despise Lalage and our poor little place here; because we have been so happy in it, in spite of all our troubles."
He drew her to him, very gently. "That will never happen, dear. I won't go at all, if you're afraid of anything like that. I would much rather not go, anyway. You are all I want."
But she had her way in everything, save that he insisted on leaving her five shillings, in addition to laying in a stock of provisions.
"Really, I don't want any money," she said; "or a shilling at the most, in case I want to wire to you. Take the money, Jimmy, do; you will want a drink at the station, and that sort of thing."
He looked at her with shining eyes. "Do you ever think of yourself?" he asked.
"Of course I do," she laughed. "I want to make you happy, and then I'm happy, so really I'm selfish, after all."
In the end, Jimmy stayed three days at Walter's, and, if he did not actually enjoy himself, at least he was well content to be there. It was very refreshing to be away from all worries, to have no one asking you for money, to feel you could go out of the door without the fear of meeting some miserable creditor. There was plenty to eat, plenty to drink; and, even if he was not actually in sympathy with Walter and his ways, there was always the tie of blood between them. Mrs. Walter, too, made herself very pleasant. She had induced her husband to promise not to lend Jimmy any money, so she had nothing to fear from this brother-in-law; whilst, by getting on good terms with him otherwise, she might be able to use him as a pawn in her never-ending game against May and Ida.
Jimmy thought of Lalage frequently, wondering how she was getting on, and trying to persuade himself that he was anxious to get back to her; and yet, all the time, he was comparing his present surroundings with those of the flat, and dreading the return to the dreary struggle for existence, the hateful knockings at the door, the insolent refusal of goods without cash down, the feeling that you were always on thin ice, in the grip of the Council, the blackmailers, and the hire-purchase dealers, who did to you as they pleased, because they knew well that you dare not face the world openly. There was nothing like that at the Walter Griersons'. They lived as people of position ought to live, as he, Jimmy Grierson, might have lived, had he not been a fool. And then, suddenly, he thought of Lalage's unselfishness and courage and tried to tell himself that, after all, it was worth while. But still, he never felt as he had felt at Ida's, that fierce longing to be back at Lalage's side, to fight the world on her behalf. London had broken his nerve rapidly, and was now breaking his health. Somehow, things had changed. He longed for rest and comfort and security, such as his own people enjoyed.
Walter Grierson took his wife's advice and did not attempt to pry into Jimmy's affairs. "He is quite old enough to look after himself," Mrs. Walter said, "and I don't see why you should be private detective for May and Ida. I believe they would try and manage you, too, if I would let them. Oh, but they would, my dear. And yet I'm sure we have a better position than either of them. Joseph is very coarse at times, whilst you say yourself that you do not approve of several of Henry's companies." She scouted the idea that Jimmy looked unwell. "He's got a cold, that's all; and he smokes too much. Otherwise, he is well enough."
Walter sighed. "I wish he would go into something steady. I'm afraid he will never make an income at his present work."
Mrs. Walter shrugged her shoulders. "He wouldn't take your advice when he first came home, so he can't blame you whatever happens. May seems to be afraid he may make some foolish marriage, but I'm sure I see no signs of that. Of course, if he likes to be sensible and come to you for advice again, I should be pleased if you were able to find him work in the City; but, at present, you are not called upon to interfere. I am sure our own children come first."
Her husband sighed again. He was quite fond of this brother of whom he knew so little, but he never ran counter to his wife's wishes in family affairs; and so, when Jimmy's stay came to an end, he allowed Mrs. Walter to send May a vague, though generally satisfactory, report of their visitor and his doings, which had the result of staving off further inquiries for a time, at least.
"You look better, dear," Lalage said when Jimmy got back. "I knew the change would do you good. No, I've not been worried at all. Only, of course, it's been dull without you.... Are you going down to the club for letters? Well, be in to supper, won't you, dear? I've got something very nice for you."
"What is it?" he asked, smiling.
"You'll see," she answered. "If I don't tell you, you'll hurry home to find out. Otherwise, you may stay ever so late at that horrid old club."
The first man Jimmy met in the club was Douglas Kelly, newly returned from the Continent. Kelly listened attentively to his tale of ill-success, and when he had done, "I really don't see why you should be so down in the mouth, Jimmy," the elder man said. "I believe you've done better than most who start freelancing when they're new to Fleet Street. Why don't you try some magazine work? It's a better game than doing articles for the dailies."
Jimmy shook his head. "I have tried, but I don't seem to get the grip of a story. I suppose I've no inventive power."
"Rot," Kelly answered cheerfully. "It's because you're worrying, and you can't do that and write decent stuff. Have you tried for a job anywhere?"
The other nodded. "Half a dozen. But they all want experienced men, and, as things stand, I don't see how I'm ever going to get the experience."
"Would you do sub-editing?" Kelly asked. "It's not pleasant work, going through other people's copy, and so on; but it's good training. You would take anything? All right. I'll see Dodgson to-night. I know he was thinking of sacking one of the subs, and he might take you on. I'll leave a note here for you if I don't see you again. Of course, the pay is rotten, as I suppose you know."
Jimmy was so full of his conversation with Kelly that he had forgotten all about Lalage's promised surprise which was awaiting him at the flat. True, he hurried back, but she saw at once that it was to tell her his news, and not to find out what she had prepared for him; in fact, he sat down at the table, and was about to carve, before it struck him that the dinner was an unusually elaborate one; then, "How on earth did you manage it, sweetheart?" he asked.
She laughed. "How do you think? I schemed it out for a whole day, all on that five shillings you made me keep. I meant you to have it, and you see you've had to, after all."
The man flushed. "You are a brick," he said. "You haven't spent a penny on yourself, and yet I've been living on the fat of the land at Walter's. But this is better than anything they gave me there."
"That's right," she answered. "So long as you enjoy it, I don't mind all the trouble—so long as we enjoy it together, I meant. And now if you get this work perhaps the luck will change."
It was quite time that the Record had a vacancy for a sub-editor, and Dodgson was willing to give the berth to Jimmy; only his ideas of salary were far from being satisfactory.
"You see, you're new to the work, wholly inexperienced," he explained, "and, under the circumstances, I cannot give you more than two pounds a week for a start. Afterwards, if the chief sub-editor is satisfied, I will raise it. If it is worth your while you can start to-morrow."
Jimmy bit his lip. He had expected three pounds at the very least, and this would be poor news to take back to Lalage. Still, his work would only be from about six in the evening until midnight, and he could do some articles or stories during the day, or at any rate he hoped so. After all, a certain two pounds was far better than nothing, even though the rent of the flat would swallow fully half of it. So he accepted, after a nervous and unsuccessful attempt to get Dodgson to increase the offer by ten shillings.
As he walked back westwards, he found himself wondering what the editor would have said had he explained how much that extra ten shillings would have meant to him. The paper was paying a dividend of twenty per cent., and if the wages of all the sub-editors had been doubled the shareholders would never have noticed the difference; but to Lalage and Jimmy the lack of that half-sovereign would involve semi-starvation, unless it were possible to sell some articles.
Lalage put on a brave face when he told her. "It's a beginning, dear," she said. "Of course, it's a shame to pay a clever man like you so little; but now you've got your foot in, you'll soon get on. You mustn't be downhearted about it, Jimmy." She glanced at him keenly. "You're tired out to-night, and I don't believe you've spent anything on yourself in getting a drink and so on; and you've walked all the way from Fleet Street. Now haven't you?"
Jimmy tried to protest he was all right, but his heavy eyes betrayed him, and she insisted that he should go out and get a quartern of brandy.
"But that will take pretty well all we've got," he answered. "And what will you do to-morrow?"
"Oh, something will happen," she retorted. "And the worst thing for me would be to have you ill. What would poor Lalage do then? Now go, like a dear good boy."
As the door closed behind him, all the brightness left her face. "I suppose his people would say I was making him drink," she sighed. "Oh, Jimmy, Jimmy, I'm so afraid. If only I dare agree to give up this flat, and we could go into quite cheap lodgings. But how can I risk losing everything?"
Jimmy's work proved more tiring than he had expected. He was thoroughly conscientious, savagely anxious to satisfy the chief sub-editor and get a raise; moreover, he was in anything but good health. Consequently, he always got back to the flat in the early mornings tired out, and, though he tried hard to write during the daytime, even he, himself, could see that the work he produced was below his usual level. Anyway, it did not sell, coming back every time with sickening regularity.
Despite his protests, Lalage always insisted on sitting up for him. "You must have something hot when you come in," she declared, "even if we can only run to a cup of cocoa and a little bit of plaice from the fried fish shop. You can't do brain work on nothing."
Jimmy gladly left all the finances to her. Sometimes he wondered how she contrived to feed him as well as she did, besides paying the rent, and letting him have at least a shilling a night when he went down to the office. She even managed to get some bottled stout for him, and yet, at any rate whilst he was at home, no one came to the door to dun her for money. Had he been stronger, he would probably have been suspicious and have made inquiries; but he was thoroughly run down and weary, and only too ready to be free from household worries. He had never kept house himself, knew but little of the cost of things, and had infinite faith in Lalage's capacity for management.
Once or twice, during the first three months of Jimmy's engagement at the Record, Dodgson asked him to write a special article with reference to something which had happened abroad, and, when he went to draw his money for the first of these, Jimmy found that his rate had been raised to three guineas a column; but his weekly wage remained the same, and, somehow, he could not summon up courage to ask boldly for a raise. He was, as Lalage could see plainly, growing a little thinner, a little more weary and nervous, every week.
At the end of the second month, Lalage sprang a surprise on him. They were at breakfast when, with a rather heightened colour, she brought five sovereigns out of her purse and gave them to him. "Jimmy," she said, hurriedly, "you must get a new suit, and some collars and ties and things, really you must."
He looked at the money, then at her. "Where did you get this, Lalage?" he asked, very quietly.
She faced him so bravely that his suspicions vanished at once. "I saved it up, from those articles of yours."
"And how about you? You want things far more than I do, sweetheart. I don't think you have had any new clothes since I met you."
Lalage shook her head vehemently. "That's for you. You have to go to work, and it worries me terribly when I see you shabby. You will feel ever so much better when you've got a new suit, and they'll think more of you at the office. Clothes give one confidence. Now, you shall come out this morning and order a nice dark tweed, or a grey. I'm not sure I shan't like you best in grey. Anyway, we'll see."
The new clothes certainly made Jimmy look better, and, for a little while, Lalage deluded herself into the belief that he really was growing stronger; then one night he came home shivering, with a severe chill, and his old enemy, the malaria, gripped him again. True, he was only absent from the office two nights; but the trouble seemed to remain, and Lalage had to redouble her efforts to feed him up. Often, during those days, she tried to steel herself into sending him away, into forcing him to go back to his own people to be nursed as they could afford to nurse him; but when it came to the point of speaking, her resolution always failed her. She could not bear to part from him—yet. And, if she did send him away, there was always the fear, amounting almost to a certainty, that he would drink to drown remembrance of her.
No, she told herself, she must keep him as long as she could, for his own sake, as well as for hers. What would happen to herself if the parting did come, she never tried to consider. The thought of it was too awful. Jimmy had been so sweet and kind and thoughtful that it was absolutely impossible for her to imagine anyone replacing him. The fact that the question of marriage between them had been tacitly dropped did not weigh with her now. She had never dared to hope that he would redeem his promise eventually; and, latterly, she had tried to make herself forget that the matter had ever been mentioned between them.
Jimmy had seen none of his own people since his visit to the Walter Griersons'. His work gave him a good and sufficient excuse for not leaving town, and it never occurred to him to call on either Henry or Walter in the City. Still, he wrote frequently; and, as time went on, he began to lose some of his fear of their discovering the existence of Lalage. Neither Ida nor May seemed to have any suspicions, so far as he could judge from their letters. Consequently, it gave him a terrible shock when, one morning, about the beginning of his fourth month on the Record, he received a wire from May commanding him to meet her as soon as possible at Walter's office.
Lalage, who had gone deadly pale, picked up the detestable brown envelope.
"It's addressed here. So they know," she whispered.
"Yes, they know," he repeated dully.
They sat for a long time in silence, then he got up, evidently intending to go out.
Lalage stood up, too. "Jimmy, you will leave me," she said.
He turned round quickly and took her in his arms. "Never, never, sweetheart. After all you've done for me! You ought to know me better."
For answer, she gave him a long, passionate kiss, as though saying farewell.
Mrs. Marlow was a good woman. The rector himself had told her so only the week before when she had given him a cheque for twenty guineas in aid of his favourite charity, the Mission to the Moabites. Consequently, the discovery of Jimmy's double life had filled her with both sorrow and loathing; sorrow at the thought that a Grierson should have been so weak and foolish, loathing at the conduct of the woman who led him astray. She was sitting very grim and upright in the client's chair when Jimmy came in; whilst Walter was at the other side of the table, nervously playing with his eyeglasses and wishing inwardly he had telegraphed for his wife, a proposal which May had vetoed.
"Excuse me, Walter, but this is a matter for our father's children only," she had said, and Walter had, as usual, bowed to her ruling. Ever since their mother's death May had been the high priestess of the family fetish, the position of the Griersons.
The two brothers shook hands in silence, but Mrs. Marlow made no move beyond the very slightest nod, which seemed to be merely a recognition of the fact that the culprit had arrived.
Jimmy laid his hat on the table, then went and leaned against the fireplace with an assumption of indifference. "Well, May," he said at last, "what is it?"
His sister turned on him suddenly. "Please don't be a hypocrite any more, Jimmy, if you can help it." Her voice was hard and scornful. "You must know from my wire that we have found out all about your disgraceful conduct. As a matter of fact we knew of it a week ago, and might have sent for you then, but we have had detectives making inquiries into that," she hesitated, "that person's character and antecedents in the hope of being able to open your eyes. Isn't that so, Walter?"
The elder man nodded and gave a little grunt of acquiescence, though it was obvious he did not relish being dragged into the matter at all.
Jimmy, white with sudden passion, took a step forward. "Confound it, May——" he began.
His sister put her hands to her ears. "Please don't make it worse by swearing at me. I am not the Penrose woman. We have the right to speak to you as one of the family, if only to save you from further disgrace, and perhaps prosecution,"—she emphasised the last words, and then repeated them, "yes, from prosecution. Not only has this person been bleeding you, working you to death, and taking your last penny——"
Jimmy, remembering all that Lalage had done for him during the past three months, cut her short savagely. "That's a lie. She's been everything a woman should be to me."
His sister laughed in bitter scorn. "And to half a dozen other men as well. Oh, Jimmy, Jimmy, what a fool you are, how you've been fooled. Do you think she's been true to you? Do you think a vile creature like that could be true to anyone? No, I will speak for all your swearing at me. Do you think that whilst you have been slaving at that office at nights she has been at home thinking of you? Oh, you have been a blind fool! She has told you lies about everything, over the rent, over the amount she had to pay to the hire-purchase people, over what she was spending. Do you think your paltry two pounds a week was sufficient to dress her and keep her in luxury?"
Jimmy turned away, gripping the mantelpiece for support. He remembered many little things which had given him a momentary pang of suspicion at the time; now, suddenly those suspicions became certainties; and when he looked round again his face was five years older, for he had loved Lalage, and he knew that May was telling him the truth. He had been a blind fool; but still the remembrance of the past was strong in him, and he made a last fight against believing.
"It's a lie, it's a lie," he repeated hoarsely. There was something in his eyes which nearly broke down May's hardness, a look she had never seen on any man's face before, which she never got out of her memory again.
"I know it hurts, Jimmy, dear," she said far more gently. "It must hurt because you've been infatuated by a very clever and bad woman; but for all that it is true. Do you know anything of her past? What has she told you? We know now that she was the daughter of a scientific writer, and that, even when he lay on his dying bed, she went away with someone, then came back with a lie in her mouth, about having been to town, selling one of his unpublished books. Her own aunt told us of it, her aunt by marriage."
"I don't believe it. I won't believe it," Jimmy muttered.
May shrugged her shoulders. "We have proofs, the best of proofs. Is it not so, Walter?"
The elder brother nodded without looking up. In his case, too, it was the first time tragedy, real tragedy, had come into his life, and it was making him think. He realised dimly that the light had gone out for Jimmy, and as he scratched lines on his blotting-pad with the rim of his eyeglasses, he fell to wondering, in a dull, far-off sort of way, whether his brother would shoot himself as their father had done, and what the coroner's verdict would be, and what the world, by which he meant the City, would say. Then the spring of his glasses snapped suddenly, and the annoyance brought him back sharply to the immediate present.
"Yes, we have complete proof, legal proof," he said. "Your sister is quite right." Words seemed to be failing him, then he got up abruptly and laid a kindly hand on Jimmy's shoulder, as he had often done many years before when they had both been boys. "It's better for you to know, old man. She's a bad lot, and you're well clear of it all. You'll soon forget her and find someone very different."
His words had the effect of rousing May's anger anew. "Don't talk like that, Walter, please," she said sharply. "It's hardly decent under the present circumstances. I presume, Jimmy, that after what we have told you, you will neither see nor write to that creature again."
Jimmy's eyes flashed. "I shall see her and ask her side of it. Am I to condemn her unheard on the strength of the gossip some vile hangers-on have concocted in return for your money? I shall go down there at once."
Mrs. Marlow's laugh was very scornful. "I said you were a fool. Of course, she'll lie to you again, and wheedle round you. As for the hangers-on, to use your own elegant term, I heard first from Mrs. Fagin, who is a most respectable woman, I find, with a husband in a very good position in the Council office. She had no idea she was lending herself to such a deception, and sent me to the mayor, who very kindly had inquiries made. Then we actually caught this woman, as you can see by these."
She held out a little bundle of papers which Jimmy took mechanically, fingered for a moment, then with a sudden resolution he tossed it into the fire, and as it did not catch immediately drove it down into the glowing coals with the heel of his boot.
May watched him in silence, but when the blaze had died down again, "That stupid action won't alter the facts," she said; "and I may as well tell you that the mayor has asked the police to make her leave that flat. I am only sorry there is no charge we can bring against her. Anyway, she will be watched," she added vindictively. "Ida has gone to warn her now in case she tries to blackmail you."
Jimmy took up his hat quickly. "Good-bye, Walter," he said quietly, and, ignoring his sister, fumbled a little uncertainly for the handle of the door.
May sprang up and seized his arm. "Jimmy, oh, Jimmy, dear, don't go like that, don't go back to her. We are your own people, you must remember that, and because we love you, we want to overlook all this and see you get on. Don't spoil your life in this way and make us all miserable. If you see her again she has enough wicked cleverness to get you back into her power."
There was genuine feeling in her voice, and for a moment Jimmy was inclined to change his mind, then he released her clutch very gently, and without another word went out of the office.
"He will go back to her, Walter, I am sure he will. He is weak enough for anything where a woman is concerned," May sobbed.
Walter shook his head. "I think not. No, I'm sure he won't," he said with a degree of assurance he was far from feeling; then he looked at his watch. "Well, I've got an appointment with a client in a few minutes, May; I don't want to hurry you off, but——"
May wiped her eyes and drew down her veil. "I do hope Ida manages to frighten her away before Jimmy gets there," she said.
Ida Fenton did not shrink from the task of interviewing Lalage. Rather otherwise, in fact, for her own conduct had always been so correct, both her nature and her circumstances combining to keep her out of temptation, that she felt a repulsion, verging almost on hatred, towards those who had erred; consequently, she took a kind of grim pleasure in chastening the sinner. Unconsciously, too, Joseph Fenton had made things worse for Lalage by attempting a remonstrance.
"I think you and May are going too far, putting the police on her and so on," he had said. "Why can't you be content to give Jimmy a warning, and leave the girl alone. It looks bad, being so vindictive."
Whereupon Ida had turned on him in one of those cold outbursts of fury which his rare attempts at independence always provoked. She had given up her life to this man, whose natural, easy-going weakness of character she knew so well; and now he actually dared to put in a good word for an abandoned woman. As a rule, Joseph bowed to the storm, but on this occasion he, too, had lost his temper, and then, suddenly Ida had understood, or had thought she understood. Joseph knew Lalage's address. Jealousy redoubled Ida's bitterness, and she went to the flat more than ever determined to hunt its occupant out into the streets. A woman as good as herself had a perfect right to be merciless.
When Lalage opened the door she realised instantly who her visitor must be. That hard, beautiful face was as like Jimmy's in features as it was unlike his in expression. Looking at it, Lalage understood that her own cause was lost; it would be quite useless pleading to Ida Fenton.
The visitor swept in scornfully. Lalage closed the door and then stood, waiting, white-faced and desperate.
"I have come for Mr. Grierson's things. Kindly pack them up and have them taken down to my cab." Ida's quiet voice belied the savage anger which the sight of this girl had aroused.
Lalage started. She had never thought of this. Could it be that Jimmy was not coming back at all, even to say "Good-bye," that she would never see him again?
"Did he send you?" she asked breathlessly.
In a good cause, Ida did not hesitate to strain the truth. "Of course," she answered impatiently, then she went a little too far, and added something which she thought would hurt. "He is waiting down below now."
Lalage made a rapid mental calculation. Jimmy had only set out for the City twenty minutes before, and could not have returned, so she laughed bitterly. "I will give them to Mr. Grierson when he comes for them himself," she answered.
Ida's steely eyes glittered. "He will not be such a fool as to come back, weak and wicked though he has been."
The younger woman took a step forward so suddenly that Mrs. Fenton recoiled. "He is not weak and wicked. It is abominable for you, his sister, to say so. He is far too good for any of you, and whatever he has done wrong, you are to blame for it. You never tried to understand him or help him. You just left him drift away because he didn't fall in with your narrow-minded ideas. I may have done wrong, I have done wrong; but he has always been all that is good and true and honourable. He may leave me, but he'll never go back to you, never, never, never." She paused, breathless.
Ida Fenton had recovered her composure. "Perhaps it will alter your point of view when I tell you that if my brother continues to know you, he will never get anything from his family. We shall cut him off entirely. I believe that is the kind of argument which appeals to persons of your sort." She emphasised the last two words. "He may have misled you with the idea that he could get money out of us; but that was quite wrong; whilst, as for his own prospects, he is no good and never will be."
"You shan't say that about him," Lalage broke in passionately. "It's only your ignorance and your jealousy of his cleverness."
Ida shrugged her shoulders scornfully. "No doubt you are a judge of what is correct and right. You should know my brother by now. But I think he, too, will have learnt all about you this morning. That telegram which trapped you a few nights back, calling you out to meet a man in the West End, was sent by one of my brother-in-law's clerks. You were watched then, and recognised by the police. You will get notice to leave here to-day, and I do not think you will find another place in London. If you can explain all that to my brother to his satisfaction, he must be such a fool that you will be welcome to him."
Then she swept out, feeling she had vindicated the Grierson tradition.
It was an hour later, when Lalage heard Jimmy's key in the lock. She was sitting huddled up in a big armchair, his favourite chair; but she did not move when he came in, and stood in front of her, though she had noticed that he was dragging his feet a little, and breathing heavily, as though the stairs had exhausted him.
"Well?" he said at last.
She turned her head away. "Your sister came soon after you left," she said, in a curious, dull voice.
Jimmy started. "Ida? Ida has been here already?" He passed his hand over his forehead in a dazed sort of way, then tried to pull himself together, as though to meet a blow. "Is it true, Lalage?" he asked.
She answered him with a nod.
On the second time that day, Jimmy steadied himself by the mantelpiece, only now his head went down on to his arms, and Lalage heard him give a sob.
In an instant she was on her feet, trying to turn his face towards hers. "Oh, I did it all for you, Jimmy, I did it all for you. Do you believe that, oh, you must believe that. You were ill and half-starving, and I had to get you nourishment and clothes. It was the quickest way, the only way I could think of; and it seemed so lovely to get you good food, and make you stronger. It was awful, but it would have been more awful to see you dying. Jimmy, believe me, you must believe me, every penny went for you. I didn't want it for myself, only for you; and I thought when the worry and the knocking at the door by the tradesmen were over, you would soon get on, and then I would have stopped, oh, so gladly. Jimmy, dear, Jimmy, sweetheart, say you understand, even if you don't forgive."
The man looked up, and, for the first time, Lalage saw how he had changed. He was livid and ghastly, and, when he tried to speak, he caught his breath and coughed heavily. Lalage waited with pitiful anxiety for his answer.
"I understand," he said, "but you ought not to have done it, after your promising to marry me."
She turned away hopelessly, and sank into the chair again, knowing she had lost him. "I did it for the best," she wailed. "I only thought of you, Jimmy, only of you."
"You were wrong," he answered dully. "We were both wrong. It has all been a mistake from the first. There is nothing but misery in this sort of life, there can only be misery." He was talking in a detached kind of way, as though the pain of the blow had been succeeded by a mental numbness.
Lalage was sobbing very quietly in the chair; it was the end of everything for her.
After a while, "What will you do now?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I don't know. I don't think I care, now I've lost you." She waited a moment in a last, desperate hope he would correct her, then went on, "Your people have been to the police, and they're hunting me out. Already, the agent has been round to give me notice to go immediately, and the hire-purchase people are sending for the furniture back. Everything has gone. Still I shall manage."
In a flash, he was jealous again. "Do you mean to say——" he began; but she cut him short.
"No, Jimmy, not that. You need never fear the old life again."
Her words gave him a new fear. "Will you promise you won't kill yourself?" He had come nearer to her, and she thought he was going to touch her.
For a moment she hesitated, confirming his suspicions.
"Promise," he said, almost sternly.
Then she looked up, and asked him a question in turn: "What will you do, Jimmy?"
He had no reply ready, or, at any rate, he did not reply, and she went on. "I will promise that, Jimmy, if you will promise me something. Promise, on your word of honour, not to let this ruin your life, not to go wrong and drink."
Jimmy did as she had done; he hesitated a moment. "I will promise, if you will do as I want—go down into the country, away from this horrible town, and live quietly. I will manage the money, somehow."
"And not see you again? Jimmy, you don't mean not see you again, just as a friend, only as a friend?"
His silence answered her, and she fell to sobbing once more, very quietly this time, whilst he stood at the window, staring out at nothing. At last, she grew calm and stood up, drying her eyes.
"Very well," she said. "I will leave it all to you, because I can't help myself. After a time, when I feel better, I shall get something to do, perhaps, in a shop, or dressmaking. Only, the quieter the place the better; and, Jimmy, whatever you do, you must not let your people know where I am."
"It is hardly likely I shall see much of them," he answered grimly. "I think you had better go to some quiet hotel to-night," he added. "Get your things together, and I will see you to-morrow and arrange matters then. You say they are seizing all this furniture and so on."
They had both got back to a kind of forced calmness now, and she answered him quietly. "Yes, my poor little home is going. It's no good protesting; your sisters have made that impossible; and these people can do just as they like. I suppose the landlord telephoned to the furniture people, and they are going shares. Yet I have already paid more than the goods are worth."
Half an hour later, she came out of the bedroom with her hat on.
"I have packed your things as well, Jimmy. What are you going to do with them? Will you take them away now, and then I can leave the keys at the agent's office as we go past."
Jimmy started. He had forgotten they were both homeless now. "Yes, I suppose so. I hadn't thought. I will go to the hotel I stayed at before, and then take you down to another. I will go and get a cab."
Whilst he was out, Lalage hastily tidied up her little kitchen; then, taking a dustpan and brush, she swept up a few scraps of mud which had come off Jimmy's boots. In a drawer of the table she found his pen and a scrap of blotting paper he had used, and thrust them hurriedly into her dress. Then, during a final look round, she kissed in turn each article of furniture he had been wont to use, heedless of the tears that were dropping on them, coming last of all to his own chair, where she knelt down and buried her face in the seat. She was still there when she heard his step on the stairs; but she jumped up hastily and met him in the little hall, whither she had dragged the luggage.
"It is all ready now," she said, and went out without looking back.
When Jimmy got down to the club a couple of hours later, he found a telegram waiting for him in the rack, signed "Joseph Fenton."
It read: "Meet me any time to-night at the Grand Central Hotel. Shall be alone."
Jimmy heaved a sigh of relief as he read the telegram. In after years, he looked back on it as the one ray of brightness in the most ghastly day of his life. It did not alter the essential fact that everything had gone to pieces—nothing could alter that—but it made matters less complicated so far as Lalage's immediate future was concerned. He had intended asking his brother-in-law for a loan, and it was a load off his mind to find that Joseph was actually in town. A letter might, probably would, have fallen into Ida's hands, and this was one of those cases where an interview was better than many pages of explanations.
In reply to the telegram, Jimmy wired that he would be at the hotel at nine o'clock. He had given up all idea of going to the office that night, or, rather, of ever going there again. He must get away, at once, from everything which might remind him of the old life. He must cut himself adrift from it, immediately, altogether, if he wished to preserve his sanity. For himself, he cared nothing, at least at the moment; but, though he might never see her again once she had left London, he had to provide for Lalage. The Grierson strain in him had asserted itself in so far as it had made him determine to leave Lalage. He was able now to see her sin and his own, especially hers; but still he could not abandon her to her fate, as a true Grierson would have done, because he had been passionately in love, whilst the love of the true Grierson is always decorous, and truly tempered by financial considerations. The dowerless bride is regarded with coldness; the bride with a past is anathema; there is no road back, at least in the opinion of those who have sub-edited their religion in the interests of propriety.
Jimmy had no difficulty in finding a substitute to take on his work at the Record office, especially when he made it known that there was going to be a vacancy on the staff immediately.
"I'm a bit knocked out," he explained. "The malaria has got hold of me again, and the doctor says I must go out at once."
The other man nodded sympathetically, and suggested a drink. He, himself, had been out of work for nearly six months, and the chance of securing Jimmy's berth had altered the whole outlook for him.
"Yes, you do look off colour," he said. "I've noticed it several times lately. Night work doesn't suit you, I suppose. Now, I'm used to it, been at it for years. Well, I'll give Dodgson this note of yours. It'll be all right. He knows me well enough. So long. Thanks very much for thinking of me."
Jimmy turned wearily, and went down the corridor to the dining-room. He had eaten nothing all day, and it struck him Lalage would be worried if she knew.
"Bring me anything you like," he said to the waiter, but when the plates came he merely took one mouthful, and then sat, staring with unseeing eyes at a paper he had picked up, whilst the gravy grew cold and greasy. He was wondering what Lalage was doing, alone in that little hotel near the General Post Office.
"As long as it's quiet, Jimmy, that's all I care about; and the further from the West End the better. Noise would drive me quite mad, I think," she had said.
So far, he had not tried to analyse his own feelings toward Lalage. All he knew was that he was sounding the lowest depths of misery, and he speculated, more or less vaguely, whether she could understand what he was suffering. He wanted to blame her, in fact he knew that he ought to blame her, that she had betrayed him and had sinned beyond all hope of forgiveness; and yet in his ears there was still ringing her heart-broken wail, "I did it all for you Jimmy, I did it all for you."
At last the voice of the waiter broke in on his thoughts. "You don't seem to like that, sir. Anything I can get for you instead?"
Jimmy started. "No, no. It's quite all right. I don't feel hungry now, that's the only trouble, thanks."
The waiter was a kindly man, and he had seen a good deal of life during nearly thirty years of service in clubs; consequently, he shook his head mournfully as Jimmy went out. "Mr. Grierson's in trouble," he remarked to the carver. "He looks fair broken up, as though he didn't care what came next."
The carver, who had no imagination, grunted. "Got the sack, I suppose," he said, and began to dissect a chicken.
The waiter shook his head again. "That doesn't make a man pay for food he's not going to eat. It's a woman has played the fool with him. I shouldn't be surprised if we don't see him here again. And he's a nice gentleman, too, always polite to you and so on."
Jimmy had an hour and a half to kill before going to Joseph Fenton's hotel, and, ordinarily, he would have spent the time reading or writing in the club; but already the place had become unbearable to him; everything in it seemed to speak to him of Lalage, to remind him of her and of that past which had suddenly become such a horrible memory. Why, it was Lalage herself who had saved up the two guineas to pay his subscription, only a couple of months ago. He went hot at the thought of it, for it brought back the remembrance of so many other things she had done for him. For a moment he hesitated. She was calling him back to her side. "It was all for you, Jimmy, all for you." That part of it was true, whatever else had been false; and she was alone in that gloomy little hotel, eating her heart out, conscious that she had lost him. She had betrayed his trust because she loved him so well, because she could not bear to part with him—for a few seconds he understood that, and felt he could forgive everything; but an instant later he was a Grierson again. She had lied to him; she had been false to him in the greatest of all things; and there could be no forgiveness. His people had found her out, had proved to him what she really was, and he could not give them up for her, knowing that she understood nothing of honour or truth. So, instead of going to the hotel in the City, Jimmy went westwards, slowly, listlessly, with no aim but to kill time. The Strand was thronged with its night population, just as it had been on the first evening of his return; but now he looked on everyone with suspicion, almost with hatred. Any of these men might know his secret, might have heard of him from Lalage and have laughed at him. There was madness in the thought, and his eyes gleamed so suddenly that a policeman in plain clothes, having noticed him, thought it well to follow him for a while; but the fit passed almost as quickly as it had come on, and he became listless again, shuffling his feet a little on the pavement, as though utterly weary and disillusioned.
The women caught his eye now, hard-faced, painted, weirdly-dressed, and he began to wonder how they could possibly attract anyone, and to compare them with Lalage. She had never looked like that, there had been no sort of kinship between her and these creatures, and yet—she had confessed that May's charges were true.
His way to the hotel led him in the direction of the flat. At first, he was inclined to avoid the little back street, for fear that he might be recognised and pointed at; then the longing to have one more look overcame the fear, and he turned up the road where the barrows were, past the ham and beef shop, and came opposite the grimy mansion. It seemed but natural to glance upwards at what had been Lalage's windows; though it gave him a shock to see that, whilst the curtains had been torn down, leaving a broken tape hanging forlornly, there was a light in the rooms; then he noticed, for the first time, that there was a van outside the front entrance. They were just finishing the task of clearing out the flat.
From the shelter of a big gateway opposite, Jimmy watched them bring down Lalage's own chair and a wash hand stand which he himself had made for her out of an old packing case in those early days before London had taken the life out of him. Then, suddenly, the light upstairs was extinguished, and a few minutes later a short, stout man in a seedy frock coat and decrepit silk hat came down the steps, and ordered the van to drive away.
"That's the lot," he said. "Now get back to the shop quick. These things may have to go out again to-morrow. Tell Mr. Gluck to have them polished up first thing in the morning." Then he mopped his forehead with an uncleanly bandana handkerchief, and made his way to a public-house lower down the street. Jimmy followed him thither with no definite object, save perhaps a kind of morbid curiosity.
The publican greeted the furniture dealer with a friendly nod. "Clearing another out, Mr. Ludwig?"
The other grunted assent. "One of the soft sort. She ran away. It just comes in right, as I have another customer for the goods, and there was a lot paid on them. Pretty girl she was, too," and he gave a leer which made Jimmy go red first and then very white, and leave hurriedly without touching the whisky he had ordered.
Joseph Fenton was waiting for his brother-in-law in the hall of his hotel. Jimmy, scarcely knowing what sort of reception to expect, had come in white-faced and hard-eyed, but the elder man's handshake eased his mind at once.
Fenton led the way into the smoking-room, selected a couple of chairs in the further corner, then held out his cigar case. "Have a smoke?" he said.
Jimmy helped himself, and, for a minute or two, they smoked in silence; then:
"This is a bit of an upset, Jimmy," Joseph remarked; getting no reply beyond a curt nod, he went on, "I'm not going to talk to you about the moral side of it—I expect your sisters have done that, too much perhaps—but what is this girl going to do now? You can't let her starve."
"Ida and May say she ought to," Jimmy answered grimly. The elder man made a gesture of annoyance. "I know. Ida told me, and we disagreed." He paused and stared at the smoke curling upwards from his cigar, as though trying to find inspiration in it. He was always a little slow and awkward in his speech, and now he seemed worse than ever; but at last he went on: "Look here, Jimmy, I went through much the same sort of thing myself, before I was engaged to your sister, so I understand. You see? My people found out and sent me abroad; and I didn't hear of the girl again until it was too late." He sighed heavily, and stared once more at the cigar smoke.
Jimmy looked up. "What had happened?" he asked.
Joseph started. "She had drowned herself." He spoke very quietly, but none the less Jimmy realised what the memory meant to this man whom he had always thought a little dull and prosaic. "When I let them ship me away—I was only a youngster at the time—I thought they would help her to get a fresh start, but they didn't. It's spoilt my life, and that's why I don't want yours spoilt. At least give her the chance to go right." He drew a packet of bank-notes from his pocket. "Here's fifty to go on with. Come to me when you want some more. Only, send her right away, where you won't be tempted to go and see her. You must drop it now. There can be no question of your marrying her; and there's only misery in this free love, as you, yourself, have seen."
Jimmy held out his hand gratefully. "It's awfully good of you, Joseph. I was coming to you for a loan when I got your wire. She,"—somehow he could not bring himself to mention Lalage's name,—"she is only too anxious to get away from town, and this money will make it possible. I suppose in time she'll get something to do; but there's been no time to make plans yet."
"Well, let me know when you want some more money. Write to the office, not to the house. I only wish you had asked me before this happened. I've been pretty successful, at least in business; but that's not everything." He paused and then went on, in short, jerky sentences. "Don't marry a saint, Jimmy. They're better to watch than to live with. Your sister never forgives anything, and that's a big mistake. It makes life hard sometimes. I suppose I'm getting a bit old, and I feel things. The doctor says I must be careful."
Jimmy glanced at him keenly; although his mind was full of his own troubles, it had struck him that Joseph looked far from well. "Is there anything special the matter?" he asked.
Joseph nodded. "Heart," he answered briefly. "Well, I'm glad I've seen you. Don't say anything about it to Ida. I think I'll go up now, I'm feeling a little tired. Good night, Jimmy. Give her a chance to go straight, and then try to forget her."
It was the following afternoon, when Jimmy got back to the club after having seen Lalage off at the station, that he found a note from May awaiting him.
"You will be shocked to hear," May wrote, "that Joseph was discovered dead in bed this morning. The doctor says it was heart disease. I need hardly say that Ida is terribly upset."
Two or three days later, Jimmy learnt that his brother-in-law had left him a thousand pounds.
Dr. Gregg pulled up his trap and hailed the man who was stalking along on the other side of the road.
"Are you going my way, Grierson? Can I give you a lift? Right. Whoa, mare, stand still. It's some time since I saw you, Grierson. Been away?"
Jimmy, who was already climbing into the dog-cart, did not answer until the question was repeated, then, "Yes," he said rather unwillingly. "I've been over to Paris for two or three days."
The doctor drew his ragged-looking grey eyebrows down until they formed almost a straight line. "The old game," he growled.
The young man was staring away over the hedge at the sweep of country beyond, and replied without looking round. "Yes, as you say, the old game—the inevitable game, if you like that better. The only difference being that it was liqueur brandy this time instead of whisky."
"Silly fool." The doctor was not noted for his gentle speech. "Silly fool, you know what I told you, that it means death in your case, with perhaps a spell of lunacy first—that is, if you're not really a lunatic already. You had better get some other medical man to attend you next time." He slashed at an overhanging bough with his frayed old whip, and apparently the action relieved him, for he went on in a very different voice, "How's the book getting on? Is it published yet?"
"It's coming out next week," Jimmy answered. "I got an advance copy to-day. They've bound it and made it up rather nicely."
The doctor nodded. "So they ought to. It's good stuff, but you would never have written it at all if it hadn't been for me." The thought seemed to bring back his grievances, for he went on querulously, "Why do you always go to Paris or Brussels or some place like that? Can't you find enough bad liquor and bad company in London, at far less cost?"
Jimmy flushed. "Look here, Gregg," he began angrily, then broke off with a bitter laugh. "I suppose I've no right to take offence at you, after all. I never go to London, haven't been there for a year, I loathe the place."
"Bad memories, eh?" The doctor jerked the words out as he guided his horse past a big dray.
"Bad memories," Jimmy assented wearily. "The worst of bad memories."
"That's the advantage of being a medical man." They had just passed the dray and were coming to the outskirts of the little country town. "We understand what it means, you see, and when a woman lets us down, we don't make it worse, as you are doing. Oh, I know you didn't say anything about a woman, but I know, too, that you meant one. It's a poor compliment to her if she's any good, and if she isn't, why worry?"
Jimmy did not answer, and the doctor changed the subject abruptly, as was his way. "Did they tell you that Drylands, the big house close to your cottage, was let at last? You'll have some society now. I hear they're people who entertain a lot."
"What is their name?" Jimmy demanded.
"Something not unlike your own—Grimston, I think."
Jimmy shrugged his shoulders. "Never heard of them, and, anyway, it probably wouldn't affect me. The neighbourhood as a whole hasn't exactly tumbled over itself in its anxiety to make my acquaintance."
"That's your own fault," the doctor retorted. "You haven't given the neighbourhood much encouragement to know you, although you would be welcome enough. You're a surly brute in many ways, Grierson."
"Thanks," Jimmy answered with a hard laugh. "At least you're outspoken. And now this is my destination, the news agent's shop. I'll try to follow your professional advice—for as long as I can."
The doctor grunted something unintelligible and drove on. It was market day, and there were several farmers he wanted to interview before the excitement, or the local ale, or a combination of both, rendered their ideas a little more vague than at ordinary times.
* * * * *
It was a year since Jimmy had taken the cottage a mile outside the sleepy little town. He had gone there in the first place because it was far removed from everyone and everything he knew, and in some ways the experiment had proved a success. The deaf old woman who came in to do his cooking and housework worried him little, and apparently did not gossip about his actions or his habits; whilst the three rooms he had furnished were more than sufficient for his needs.
At first, on hearing of Joseph Fenton's legacy, he had thought of going abroad again, of seeking oblivion of the past few months in travel and excitement; but a chance remark of May's spoken at Joseph Fenton's funeral, the only occasion on which he had met any of the Griersons since the interview at Walter's office, had shown him that the family would welcome his departure, that it even regarded voluntary exile as the proper course for him to take under the circumstances, and, if only for that reason, he determined to stay. Probably he would have stayed in any case, for, though he had cut himself adrift from Lalage, had never seen her since she left London, and heard from her but seldom—brief, gentle little notes which invariably made him break his promise to her—all the old wild jealousy remained. It was torture whilst he was in England, but he felt it would mean madness if there were the ocean between them. His love for her was dead, or at least he told himself so, that part of love which comes from the joy of possession, which brings with it peace and courage, and a good comrade in the never-ending struggle against fate; but the other part, the fear and the hopelessness and the fever, remained with him always.
Once, and once only, he had had Lalage watched. He had lain awake night after night until his jealousy had culminated in his sending down a private detective. He had read the report—which was wholly in her favour, even the church working party of the village in which she was living being unable to rake up any charge against her—with an unutterable sense of shame and self-contempt, and then had thrust it hurriedly into the fire; but instead of bringing him peace it gave him another memory to brood over, and at times to try and drown.
Lalage's fears had only been too well founded. The locality was healthy enough, the doctor had said with almost brutal frankness the first time Jimmy had occasion to consult him; and then he had gone on to diagnose his patient's case without mincing his words.
"You don't show it outwardly, at least not to a layman, but any medical man would see what was the matter with you. What makes you drink?"
Jimmy had shrugged his shoulders, half-ashamed, half-irritated. "Habit, I suppose," he had answered, whereupon the other had growled.
"A confoundedly bad and stupid habit. The sooner you get some new ones the better. You write, don't you? How do you expect to make a success of it when you're sapping your brain power in this fool's way?"
He had added a few more things, pointed and true, but none the less they had parted good friends, and for a time Jimmy tried to fight his enemy, remembering his promise to Lalage; but it was always the same in the end. His black hour would come on him, and he would recall his great treason, and tell himself bitterly that she had been the first to set the example in the matter of broken faith.
Whatever fears May might have had on the point—and the matter certainly had worried her a good deal during the last twelve months—there had never been any question of Jimmy going back to Lalage. True, he had broken away from the Grierson tradition when he went to live at the flat, had thrown that tradition to the winds, but still he had never repudiated it openly, and in the end if he had not actually gone back to his own people, at least he had recognised that the standards of his own people were right. He was ashamed of himself, even more ashamed of Lalage. He saw his conduct—and hers—in its true light, its stupidity, and its immorality, and in the days following Joseph Fenton's death he had reached the nadir of contrition and misery, and would have made confession, and sought for absolution, had the family given him the chance. He was in the mood for it, being run-down and broken-hearted. But Joseph's death had altered the focus of things for the moment, making Jimmy's affairs a secondary consideration, and after the reading of the will, Joseph's legacy had effectually destroyed any hope of peace, at least as far as Ida was concerned. Fenton had left, it is true, nearly a hundred thousand to his wife, but the odd thousand to Jimmy almost neutralised the generosity of his other bequests, at least in Ida's sight, and Ida's personality dominated the whole family for the time being.
Curiously enough, no one knew of Jimmy's last meeting with Joseph. At first Jimmy had held his peace about it, not wishing in any way to add to Ida's troubles; then, when he found that his own misdeeds were supposed to have preyed on his brother-in-law's mind and hastened his death, he continued to keep silence, in a kind of savage contempt. He, at least, knew what Joseph's feelings had been, and all his sympathy and all his regrets were for the dead man, and not for the saint, who, after the manner of her kind, had understood nothing and forgiven nothing.
Yet, none the less, he would gladly have made peace with the family, just as May and Walter would have made peace with him, had Ida's bitterness not rendered that so hard as to be almost impossible. She was too good a woman to overlook his sin, or to allow anyone else to overlook it. She believed in the punishment of the sinner, not in his pardon, and she did not think that Jimmy had suffered enough; possibly she believed that he had not suffered at all, for had he not in the end received a thousand pounds which should, by rights, have gone to her own children? So, though he had repudiated Lalage to pacify his people, and—it must be admitted also—to satisfy his own conscience, his only reward had been a ghastly sense of isolation, both from his own world, where the Grierson tradition rules, and from that other world into which he had strayed for a few short never-to-be-forgotten months.
Jimmy had turned a little grey during the last year, and the boyish charm had gone out of his face. Alas! he had grown careless as regarded his appearance, and he had ceased to trouble about a number of little things on the observance of which Lalage had once insisted. He never worried as to whether his boots were cleaned or no, and he only shaved when he was going into the little town. After all, what did it matter? He had no friends, and he wanted none; society, or at any rate women's society, had ceased to be a factor in his life.
On the other hand, success had come to him professionally, though it meant very little to him, or very little compared with what it would have meant in the London days, when half the income he was making now would have seemed wealth. Joseph's legacy had allowed him breathing space. He had quitted Fleet Street finally, abandoned all thought of journalism, and gone in for the writing of short stories. Some quality in the latter, possibly the cynical outlook on life which coloured them all, caught the fancy of editors accustomed to the milk-and-water optimism of the average writer, and in a few months his work was not only selling, but was actually in demand. Moreover, he had written a novel, and, his luck still holding good, had placed it with the second publisher to whom he offered it; but even that success had given him no sense of elation; and, when he had come to read the proofs, he had found himself wishing that he had put the manuscript into the fire. It was not the book he had dreamed of doing, the book he had so often discussed with Lalage. The doctor, who had also seen the proofs, thought highly of it; the publisher was urging him to get on with another; but he, himself, knew well that the book lacked something. He had been afraid to give it life by drawing on his own experience. He had been so anxious not to widen the breach with his family that he had ended by writing a novel for Griersons. As Jimmy walked homewards after his meeting with the doctor, he found himself wondering what Lalage would think of his novel, whether she would feel pride, or grief, or contempt. Somehow, although she had no part in his life now, he was more afraid of her judgment than of that of anyone else. "Lalage's author," she had called him in the old days, and she had always believed in him. "I know you will write nice books for Lalage, by and by; because you're very, very clever"—she had said so more than once, when he had seemed to be losing heart over his work in the Record office. And now he had written the book—in which Lalage had had no part. Unconsciously, he quickened his pace, as if to get away from the thought, and, perhaps for that reason, he did not notice a motor-car which was coming up behind him. When the horn was sounded, he merely drew into the hedge and did not look round. The car passed him, slowly on account of a flock of sheep which was coming out of a gate a little way ahead, and he noted, without the slightest sense of interest, that there were a couple of well-dressed women in the tonneau; consequently, he was greatly surprised when one of the women called to the driver to stop, then looked back, and beckoned excitedly to himself.
"Mr. Grierson, Mr. Grierson—Jimmy!" she cried.
As he came up, she raised the heavy veil she was wearing, and he found himself looking into the laughing eyes of Ethel Grimmer.
Mrs. Grimmer shook hands very cordially. "This is an unexpected pleasure," she said. "Who would have dreamt of seeing you down here!" then, without waiting for his explanation, she turned to her companion. "Vera, you remember Mr. Grierson, don't you? May Marlow's brother. Jimmy, I hope you haven't been so rude as to forget Miss Farlow. You met her at our house, on that one visit you paid us, before you suddenly went away and lost yourself."
Jimmy flushed, and raised his hat again. He remembered the pretty, rather prim-looking girl as the daughter of May's favourite rector, and he remembered, too, Ethel's outspoken advice about his possible matrimonial plans.
Vera Farlow bowed, a little severely, but Ethel Grimmer gave neither of the others the chance to speak. "I've often asked May how you were getting on, but she always seemed vague as to where you were. She said you were living in the country in cottages, so as to be able to work quietly; but I never, never thought of finding you down here. Do you live in a cottage now; or have you made so much money out of those nice, wicked stories of yours that you've bought a big house?"
Jimmy laughed. "No, I've still got a cottage, the only cottage I ever had. It's about half a mile from here."
"How jolly! Do jump in now and come along with us. Then you shall tell us all about the place and its people. We've just taken a furnished house—Drylands, I suppose you know it?—to see if we like the neighbourhood. If we do, Billy wants to build a nice place for ourselves. He's going to retire from business at the end of the year. I tell him it's better, for he can afford to, and if he stays in the City, he'll only get stodgy, and perhaps lose his money. And now do come up and have some tea with us, unless you're very busy, which I can't understand you being. Billy won't be down till Saturday, and I persuaded Vera to come with me, so that I shouldn't be too dull."
Jimmy went with them willingly, and, even if he had wished to raise an objection, Ethel Grimmer would have given him no hearing. She was obviously delighted at the meeting; and, in the end, Jimmy stayed, not only to tea, but to dinner as well.
"Never mind about dressing," Ethel said. "Vera and I won't change anyway—you see we only got down this morning—and it's so nice to meet someone one knows."
It was the first time since he had left town that Jimmy had mixed socially with his own world, and he watched anxiously for anything which would show whether Ethel knew about Lalage; but before dinner was over he realised, with a sense of relief, amounting almost to gratitude, that May and Ida had kept the knowledge of the scandal to the circle of the family. Ethel was not even curious as to his reasons for avoiding the Marlow house; detesting May cordially, she found it quite natural that Jimmy should prefer to go his own way.
Vera Farlow thawed considerably before the evening was over. She was a well-read girl, and at home it was but seldom that she met any men who had interests outside their business or their sports. Jimmy was an entirely new type to her, and yet, as she was well aware, he belonged to a family whose standing was above question. Had a man of whom she knew nothing talked as Jimmy talked, she would probably have regarded him with a certain degree of suspicion; but there was no question of that in the case of Mrs. Marlow's brother. Jimmy, on his part, was distinctly attracted—Ethel saw that long before he got up to take a reluctant farewell; and being entirely loyal to her own husband, she felt not the slightest jealousy of Vera Farlow; in fact, as she went upstairs that evening she was wondering whether it might not be possible to turn the scheme, which she had once propounded more or less in a spirit of banter, into an accomplished fact. It would be a good thing for Jimmy, a good thing for Vera, and, perhaps most important of all, it would annoy May Marlow and Mrs. Fenton intensely. Ethel went to bed to dream of a gorgeous wedding, in which she played the part of fairy godmother; and she awoke next morning more than ever determined to arrange the match. Vera had money, Jimmy had brains, and they both belonged to families of position. She felt she almost owed it to Jimmy to find him a wife, whilst Vera was her dearest girl friend. Billy would help, she knew that. Billy always did what she told him, and though he sometimes spoiled things by laughing at the wrong time, for which she scolded him duly and without mercy, she knew he meant to do his best. His impending retirement had been one of her greatest triumphs. She was sick to death of the circle of City people, of what she flippantly called "Square milers," and that had been the main reason she had given to her husband in urging him to give up business and go into the country.
"Let's go amongst people who don't have to catch trains, Billy," she had urged. "I'm sure you don't get half enough enjoyment out of life now, going up to town every day," and Billy had finally given way, on those grounds, never suspecting that at the back of her mind was always the fear of his being drawn into speculation and coming to grief. He was not very brilliant. Ethel knew that well, and she knew, too, what measure of sympathy the City has for those who fail.
The night he dined at Drylands, Jimmy barely thought of Lalage. He was excited, and yet, at the same time, conscious of a feeling of restfulness, somewhat akin to that he had experienced when he first saw the shores of England on his return from South America. Once again, it seemed as if he had been a long time in the wilderness, and was getting back to his own people at last. Vera Farlow was of those who stand above suspicion. It was impossible to picture her knowing anything about life in a flat; and, whilst the memory of the past gave him a momentary sense of shame, this was quickly put aside. It was all dead, done with; and, if any women had a part in his future, they would be those like Vera Farlow, women whom the Grierson family would accept and respect.
When he turned in, Jimmy helped himself to one whisky, and one only, instead of the usual three or four, or even more, which he took when a fit of sleeplessness was on him. After all, old Dr. Gregg had been right. He was playing a fool's game. He awoke in the morning feeling much fresher than usual, and fully determined to call at Drylands on some excuse or other. As a rule, he was not down till after the postman had called; but on this occasion he met that worthy at the front door.
"Fine morning, sir. Three for you to-day," the official said.
Jimmy took the letters and glanced at the addresses. One he crumpled up and tossed unopened into the waste paper basket, recognising the envelope of a press-cutting bureau, which circularised him regularly once a fortnight; but he looked at the others with a frown, for though the first was from Kelly, whose letters were always welcome, the remaining one had been addressed to his club in Lalage's unmistakable handwriting.
For a moment, Jimmy handled the letters with an air of hesitation; then, as though he feared some shock, and wanted to brace himself up to meet it, he went to the decanter and poured out some whisky, which he swallowed neat; yet, even then, he opened Kelly's letter first. There proved to be nothing special in it—congratulations on his book, some caustic comments on Fleet Street and its ways, and the always-repeated invitation to come to town, and stay with Kelly and his wife.
"My wife says she feels sure you must be in love with someone down there, otherwise you could never stand the dulness of the country after town; but I always say that your fate is to marry into a solid City family, now that you have missed going to the other extreme."
Jimmy frowned as he read the last sentence. He had never given Kelly a hint, and no one else could have told him. Possibly, it was the thought of that which worried him, and made him turn to the decanter again; at any rate, he had another whisky before he opened Lalage's letter. It had been very different in the early days of their acquaintance; then, he had torn the envelopes open eagerly, and almost learnt the contents by heart before he thought of his other correspondence.
Jimmy had never given Lalage his address. All her letters went to the club, whilst those he wrote to her he sent on under cover to one of the waiters, who posted them in town. He, himself, never understood his own reasons for this caution. It was not because he feared her blackmailing him—even in his most bitter moments he had never thought of that; and he knew her too well to be afraid she might pay him a visit unasked in the hope of recapturing his affection; but probably it was due to some vague feeling that it kept them further apart in spirit, helped to preserve the barrier between them. Not that she had ever attempted to break that barrier down. On the other hand, she seemed to have accepted his decision as right, or at any rate as unalterable, and at times that was the most horrible part of all to him, for it suggested the possibility of someone succeeding him in her love, and, as she had long since declined to take any more money from him, he had no right to control her.
Lalage wrote from a little Yorkshire town, nearly two hundred miles distant from Jimmy. "You know I told you I had a post as nurse-companion to an old invalid lady. I am very grieved to say she died about three weeks ago. She was the sweetest, best woman I ever met; she took me without references, because she said she liked my face; and I really believe her greatest sorrow at dying was due to the thought that she could leave me nothing. All she had was a small annuity. Yet, in another way, I was fortunate; for almost at once I got a situation in a draper's shop, the only drapers here. It is not very much to boast of, I know; but still I am making my own living honestly, and it is the sort of place where one can stay all one's life. I am looking at the papers every day to see if your book is out. I do wish you the best of success with it, Jimmy," and then, without any conventional phrase before it, came the simple signature, "Lalage."
Jimmy did not touch his breakfast that morning. Instead, he sat very still, staring out of the window, trying to picture Lalage—who had once been his Lalage—serving behind the counter in a stuffy little draper's shop. "The sort of place where you can stay all your life." Would she, could she, stand the idea of such a future? Would she go on alone always, whilst he would be getting on in the world, climbing the ladder to such fame as novelists get in these days of many novels, getting back into his own world, and possibly——?
There was a knock at the front door, and as if in confirmation of his thought, he found the Grimmer chauffeur standing on the step.
"Note for you, sir," he said.
Jimmy tore it open. "Vera and I are going for a run round the country," Ethel wrote. "Will you come with us?"
Jimmy turned round to the hat rack and took down his cap and overcoat.
"Have you brought the car down for me?" he asked.
Mr. Grimmer looked up with a grin. "I don't know what the old joker will say if you bring your scheme to a head," he remarked.
Ethel, who was standing in front of the fireplace, smoking daintily, tried hard to look shocked.
"My dear Billy," she drawled. "That is hardly the way to speak of an Honorary Canon who expects to become a bishop, if his father-in-law lives long enough to get into another Cabinet. Then, for one thing, Jimmy won't propose for some time yet, not until Vera has been away and come back again; and when they are engaged what can the old joker, as you call him, do to me?"
"He might preach about you," her husband suggested.
Ethel shrugged her shoulders. "I shouldn't be there to hear him; it would make May Marlow blush and send that hateful Ida Fenton white with passion. By the way, did I tell you that Ida had taken a house in town? They think she's going to be married again, to that horrid, clean-shaven man with the damp hands, who's always collecting for some mission or other. You must know him, Billy. Surely you do; we used to call him the Additional Curate. Well, to go back to Jimmy. He wouldn't give Vera up, and her money is under her own control."
"He had to give you up," Grimmer said.
His wife laughed. "He never had me to give up, really. Besides, I hardly knew you then, Billy, so it didn't count, did it?... Billy, you must not behave in that ridiculous way; you have crushed my flowers, and the gong will go in a moment."
It was a fortnight since Jimmy had met Ethel Grimmer again, and during that time he had not written a line. Every day, and often twice a day, he had been up at Drylands, at first, because Ethel had insisted on his attendance; and latterly, because it seemed the natural thing to do. His original feeling had been one of sincere relief at the break in the monotony of his exile, and he had been equally glad to see both Vera and Ethel; but after a while Ethel seemed to become almost uninteresting by comparison with the younger woman. He was not passionately in love, as he had been with Lalage. The thought of Vera gave him no sleepless nights. In fact, now he slept far better than he had done for many months past. He had a sense of restfulness to which he had long been a stranger, as though he had taken some mental opiate to soothe the pain of remembrance. London, and the flat, and the grinding drudgery of Fleet Street, the miserable little creditors worrying at the door—all these seemed now to belong to some former existence, to be part of the life of a different Jimmy Grierson. Vera knew nothing of such things; and, in her society, he himself managed to forget them.
Lalage's letter was still unanswered. Day after day he meant to write; but, somehow, there was never time. He wanted to think it over carefully, he kept on telling himself, and then deliberately turned his mind to something else.
He had smartened himself up considerably so far as appearance went. True, once or twice, it gave him a twinge of remorse when he found that he was doing again the very things on which Lalage had insisted with gentle patience in those now-distant days, observing little conventions which he had dropped during his sojourn abroad, and had lately dropped anew. Then, too, he was drinking far less. He did not need the spirit now to bring him oblivion, and he did want to keep his hand steady and his eye clear. Vera had once spoken very strongly on the subject of intemperance, which she knew only in theory; and Jimmy had listened to her words with respectful contrition. She would never forgive a man who drank, she said, and he had gone a little cold at the thought. Yet, forgetting that Lalage had known of his failing, and had tried to help him fight his demon, he told himself that Vera's was the right view for a girl of her position. She was too good and pure to come into contact with the ugly things of life.
Already, he had made up his mind to ask her to marry him, later on, when she came back from a promised visit of indefinite duration. There was no hurry, Ethel had told him so frankly, no other suitor being in the running. At first, the thought of the past troubled him a little, in the abstract, as a kind of treason to Vera; but, after a while, he put that thought aside. She need never know, and Lalage had gone out of his life now.
His book had been published a week, and the one or two reviews which had appeared had been satisfactory, almost flattering, though one reviewer apparently voiced the general opinion when he said, "Mr. Grierson seems anxious to uphold the conventions of modern society, and yet he writes of them without conviction, as though he would like to believe in them, and could not manage to do so."
Vera had frowned over the notice. "What rubbish, Mr. Grierson. It is as much as to say that you would write one of the nasty kind of book, if you dared. I think yours is very, very good and perfectly sincere." Whereupon Jimmy had gone home well pleased, feeling that, at last, he was receiving absolution, if not from his own family, at least from his own people.
When Vera went back to town, Ethel deputed Jimmy to see her off at the station, alleging that she herself had a headache.