"It's only au revoir," Jimmy said, as he shook hands at the railway carriage door.
Miss Farlow smiled brightly. "That's all. I am coming down again very soon. Father is going away for a couple of months' holiday; and, as he is taking my younger sister, Florence, Ethel has made me promise to come down here. She is awfully good-hearted, isn't she?"
Jimmy nodded emphatically. "She is indeed. One of the best I know."
As the train steamed out of the station, he stood a full minute deep in thought, staring at it until it disappeared round a slight curve; then he turned to find the doctor watching him with a grim smile.
"Hullo, Grierson," the old man said. "I've hardly seen you lately, only caught glimpses of you whizzing past in a motor, surrounded by millinery." Then he scanned the other's face critically. "You're looking better. Found the cure for it, eh? I always thought that both the reason and the remedy would prove to wear skirts."
Jimmy flushed awkwardly. He did not altogether admire Dr. Gregg's frankness; and yet he was grateful for the implied testimony to his reformation, so he answered with a laugh, and, after a few minutes' conversation, willingly consented to go up to dinner at the doctor's that night. After all, it would be dull alone in the cottage, and he knew that Ethel would not want him, as she, too, was dining out.
The doctor was an old bachelor, or at least the town assumed him to be one. True, when he had first bought the practice, thirty years previously, he had made no definite statement on the matter; and, for a time, people had shaken their heads, and, on that purely negative evidence, had done what they called "drawing their own conclusions." His wife had run away from him, and they would hear of her one day, in connection with some scandal, and she would allege, and probably prove, that he had ill-used her. However, as months went by, and they did not hear—in fact they never heard anything—they admitted they had been wrong, and began to pity him as the husband of an incurable lunatic, who was confined in an asylum near London. But even that story had died a lingering death from sheer want of nourishment, and long before Jimmy had appeared in the neighbourhood, even the mothers' meetings had ceased to discuss the doctor's private affairs. He was just the gruff and well-beloved friend of everyone in the place, a man of whom even the preacher in the Peculiar People's chapel spoke with respect.
"Old friends of yours at Drylands, after all?" the doctor asked abruptly, as they sat smoking in his study after dinner.
Jimmy nodded. "Yes, you got the name wrong, you see, and, naturally, I didn't recognise it. I've known the Grimmers, or at least Mrs. Grimmer, all my life."
"It's a bad thing to get out of touch with people you know," the other went on. "A very bad thing. Never have a family quarrel, if you can avoid it, Grierson, or, rather, never have another."
"How do you know I have had one?" Jimmy demanded.
The old man smiled. "You've as good as told me so, a score of times. Bad things family quarrels. After all, your relations are your own flesh and blood."
Jimmy did not answer; latterly, he had begun to realise the truth of what the other was saying; and he knew more than ever the value of peace.
For a little while they smoked in silence, then, "How did you happen to light on this town in the first instance?" the doctor asked.
"I hardly know myself," Jimmy answered. "I wanted some quiet place, and someone—I have never been able to remember who it was—had once mentioned it to me as the ideal spot. The name had stuck in my memory, so I came down here on chance and liked it from the first. I must say, though, I've found it dull at times."
"No place is dull when you know it well enough," the old man retorted. "Yes, I mean it. You, as a writer, ought to understand that. It's only dull if you make it so for yourself by being out of sympathy with its people.... How's the book getting on?"
"Pretty well, I believe. The publishers say they're quite satisfied with it for a first novel. One doesn't expect to make a big splash at the start."
"Some never make a splash at all, even though they do good work. I knew one." The doctor shook his head sadly. "He lived in this town, only a few doors from here. He used to write scientific books, and was admitted to be the best man in England on his own subject; yet he got more and more hard up all the time. I don't know what he and his daughter really did live on for the last year or two. It ended in something very like a tragedy. Ah, it was a bad business, a terrible business," and he sighed heavily.
Jimmy's lips seemed suddenly to have become dry and hard; but his voice was almost normal as he asked, "What was it, doctor?"
The old man began to fill a pipe with rather exaggerated care. "It was the daughter," he answered, without looking up. "She was a sweet girl, the best, most unselfish girl I ever knew; but curiously young in many ways, dangerously young—you understand? She had been brought up alone with him—no woman to tell her things. That's bad. Confound it all, sir,"—he raised his voice in a sudden explosion of wrath,—"parents have no right to keep their girls in ignorance. It's criminal negligence; at least it was in this case. They were desperately poor, and he was dying; wanted all sorts of things." He paused again and made a show of lighting his pipe, but the match burnt out ineffectually, then he went on. "They hadn't a shilling, and none of the tradesmen would trust them. And a man, a young scoundrel belonging to this very town, offered her ten pounds to go away with him for a couple of days, showed her the gold.... What was that?" he demanded quickly as Jimmy's pipe stem snapped suddenly in his hands.
Jimmy himself had shifted slightly, so that the lamplight did not fall on his face; but the old man was not looking at him as he resumed his story.
"She said she was going to town, to beg his publishers for money, and he, luckily, died believing it. But someone else had seen her; and the women hunted her out. She fled to London, no money, no friends, and you can guess what must have happened. Poor child!"
"What happened to the man?" Jimmy asked in a voice which made the doctor give a grim little nod of approval as he answered:
"I felt that way myself. He abandoned her like a skunk, and his people threw the blame on her for tempting him. Tempting him! He had a motor smash soon after, and I tried my utmost to pull him through, because he would have been a hideously disfigured cripple; but he died, and I never regretted a patient more."
Jimmy got up abruptly. He knew now who it was who had mentioned that town to him, and unconsciously sent him to live there. He had not the slightest doubt in his own mind what the answer would be when he asked:
"What was their name?"
"Penrose," the doctor answered. "She was Lalage Penrose."
Jimmy's mind was in a fever as he walked home that night; in fact, he felt it would be useless to try to sleep, so he went on, past the cottage, past Drylands, where the lights were all out, right to the next village, three miles away. But whilst he stalked along he gradually grew calmer. Things seemed to become simpler, more easy to bear, and to understand. He saw Lalage now in a different light, and he felt that, as her character was partially cleared, so, in some subtle way, his own sin became less, and he need no longer have any compunction about asking Vera Farlow to be his wife.
True, for one wild moment, his old love for Lalage seemed to surge up within him; but he was passing Drylands on his way back at the time, and, as he glanced at the windows, the Grierson strain in him asserted itself triumphantly. He might pity and forgive Lalage; but his wife must be one whom he could take anywhere, introduce anywhere; there must be no horrible fear of the past coming to light again, and, possibly ruining, not only his own career, but that of his children as well. He thought of Lalage tenderly, but almost with condescension; and, when he turned in finally, Vera Farlow—who belonged to the Grierson world—was uppermost in his mind. Consequently, he slept well and awoke, not to brood over what Dr. Gregg had told him, but to speculate on a future in which Vera should play the main part.
Vera had money of her own, Jimmy knew that, and, unquestionably, the fact weighed with him, not from a sordid point of view, but because it made the risks of marriage so much smaller. There would be no fear of his wife being left penniless, dependent on the charity of relatives. As for his own prospects, he was inclined to take a rosy view of them. He had made a good start, and that, as he was well aware, was more than half the battle. Another year, and he ought to be earning enough to justify him in marrying.
It would be very pleasant to have his own house, a permanent home. Vera had plenty of friends, and he knew that there were many others who would be glad enough to meet the rising author. They would soon have a position, especially if, as seemed probable, Canon Farlow did get the first vacant bishopric.
Jimmy had not much fear as to what Vera's answer would be. They had got to know one another very well in that fortnight at Drylands, and much of her almost prim reserve had already disappeared. She was twenty-five, or thereabouts, quite old enough to know her own mind, and it was not likely that her father, having three other unmarried daughters on his hands, would offer any serious objection. May, too, would probably be pleased when she came to look at the matter in the right light, because, as he told himself with a cynical little smile, it would prove that the Lalage episode was definitely at an end. And then, for a moment, he thought of Lalage again, the Lalage of whom the doctor had told him, young, almost childish in her inexperience, sacrificing her innocence for the sake of her dying father. Suddenly he got up, feeling half choked. If only that man had not died after the motor smash, if only he had lived to suffer.
He walked up and down the little room several times, trying to regain his self-control, trying to put Lalage out of his mind, and to think only of Vera. But it was impossible. Phrases the doctor had used seemed to be engraved on his memory. Almost against his will, he found himself repeating them, and with them came a mental picture of Lalage's pitiful shame and grief when the real meaning of what she had done came home to her. And then the horror of it, the crowning tragedy of it all—her father had died in the end, and she had been driven to the streets of London.
He had thought he had forgotten, and now he found he remembered everything. He could see her with the mud squelching through her shoes, friendless, penniless, homeless, without either references or experience, tramping hour after hour in the rain, standing outside the shop window where the big kitchen stoves were on exhibition, trying to imagine that some of the heat from the fires was reaching her numbed body; and then someone spoke to her—oh, it was all too hideous.
He had intended putting in a hard day's work, starting a new novel, but there could be no question of that now. He picked up the morning paper and tried to read that, but, somehow, the pages seemed to be one huge blurr, and, when the letters did come into line, they always formed the word "Lalage." At last, in sheer desperation, he took his hat, shut up the cottage, and went into the town. In the smoking-room of the principal hotel, he met several men he knew slightly. As a rule, he would merely have nodded to them, but now the old craving for companionship was on him again, and he greeted them cordially, whilst, instead of the one drink he had intended to take, he had so many that he lost count. When, at last, he did come out, he was still sober so far as external appearance went; and yet perhaps because the sunlight was bright whilst the smoking-room had been dark, he failed to notice a carriage containing a couple of ladies whom he had met at Drylands. They bowed to him, and then, when he did not raise his hat, exchanged meaning glances.
The elder, Mrs. Richards, wife of a local magnate, put their thoughts into words. "We caught sight of him going in there two hours ago, and now he cannot see us. I had heard a rumour that there was that especial failing, but I had hoped it wasn't true. Now, however——" She was a kindly-natured woman, and she broke off with a sigh.
Her companion nodded. "I wonder if that nice Miss Farlow knows. Mrs. Grimmer hinted that an engagement was quite possible, and I think someone ought to warn the girl. It would be a dreadful thing if she found out too late."
Jimmy's outbreak was, however, of very short duration. Even as he walked back to the cottage Vera's influence, or rather, the thought of all that marriage with Vera would mean, reasserted itself, and the memory of Lalage began to grow dim again. After all, what was the good of making himself miserable about the dead past? It could not be changed, and so the best thing to do was to try and forget it, as far as possible. It was but a very poor compliment to Vera if, only the day after her departure, his mind was full of another woman.
He might pity Lalage, but he was not going to let the remembrance of her ruin his future. He had a prospect now of regaining what he had lost when he first met her, and he would be a fool to imperil that prospect by mere foolish sentiment. Moreover, he would leave that wretched whisky alone; it was a weak and idiotic habit to drink as he had been drinking, and the knowledge of it would shock Vera terribly. Men in her world, which was, after all, his own world too, did not do those things. He saw it now. Before the Grimmers came down it had been different. For a time, he had lost all ambition, all sense of self-respect; but contact with Ethel and Vera had changed all that, had brought out the dormant Grierson instincts, the passion for order and respectability, and the comforts of life, and he had grown to detest the old mode of existence.
One thing was certain; before he proposed to Vera he must break off all correspondence with Lalage. He told himself so, several times, and tried to think out the letter he would write. He would send her a cheque for a fair amount, so that she would have a reserve fund, and then—he would never hear of her again, never know if she were alive or dead, if she had enough food, or even if she were married. Suddenly, that same queer, choking sensation came back, and he got up quickly as if wanting air. He seemed to hear Lalage's cry on that most ghastly day of his life: "I did it all for you, Jimmy. I did it all for you."
And so, in the end, he compromised with his conscience, and wrote her a briefer letter than usual. Possibly, he might have been surprised had he known that Lalage cried herself to sleep over that same letter, though next day, and for many days after, until she heard again, she carried it in her dress through the long hours of drudgery in the little shop, and slept with it under her pillow at night. Jimmy's hand had touched that precious slip of paper.
Jimmy's engagement to Vera Farlow was an accomplished fact.
"You have got to thank me for it all, Jimmy," Ethel said, when he came to her for congratulations. "You would certainly never have done it alone. In fact, once or twice lately I have been afraid that my suggestions and advice were going to be wasted after all. Yet, I don't quite know what to think of you, even now." She put her head on one side and surveyed him critically.
"What do you mean?" he asked, smiling.
Ethel laughed. "I've known you to make love more ardently. Oh, yes. I have a very good memory. Still, I won't tell Vera. And now I'm going to write to your sister May and gloat over her. Of course I shall gloat, because I suggested getting you married off when we first heard you were coming home, and May got furious with me. Will you write too?"
Jimmy shook his head. "No, yours will do, at least for a start. I've got to write to Canon Farlow. Vera says he won't be home from Switzerland for another week. Otherwise, I would have gone to see him."
"He's rather an old stick, if I may say that of your beloved's father," Ethel went on. "You will find that out, and his sermons are very long, so don't live in his parish if you can help it. You'll have plenty of church in any case, you poor Jimmy."
"Why 'poor Jimmy,' when you've just been congratulating me?"
Ethel gave an impatient little sigh. "I don't know, I'm sure. Now I've done it I'm wondering if I was right. It's a big responsibility, and you may both end by hating me ever after. Promise me you won't, Jimmy, do promise that." Her voice had grown unusually earnest, and her eyes were suspiciously bright.
"Of course I promise, Ethel," he said gravely. "But I don't think there is much fear of my feeling anything except gratitude."
But Mrs. Grimmer was not satisfied. "I wish I had left it alone. I don't know how it is, but you're not the old Jimmy any longer, and I can't understand you. You're not half as happy as you ought to be under the circumstances. Now, are you?"
He protested vigorously against the idea, and yet he left her so entirely unconvinced that, instead of going to Vera, she sought out her husband and had a good cry on his shoulder.
"I ought not to have done it, Billy," she sobbed. "If anything goes wrong when it's too late, Jimmy will take it to heart so terribly. I wish I wasn't responsible, but I am, and I can't deny it."
Billy tried to comfort her. "My dear, they seem happy enough over it. I know Vera is very grateful to you."
Ethel shrugged her shoulders. "Vera! Oh, she would be happy, because she doesn't feel very deeply. She never did about anything. It was always the same with her when she was a child. But Jimmy is different. He's not in love."
"Then why did he propose?" Billy retorted. "Was it her money?"
"No, no," Ethel repudiated the idea emphatically. "Jimmy is not that sort. I think he proposed because he's been very miserable over something, and Vera took his thoughts off his other troubles. But he won't be happy."
There was no mistaking the conviction in her voice, and, for a moment, even her husband was moved out of his usual good-humoured complacency; but he soon recovered and tried to laugh away her fears, without, however, achieving much success. She was not in a mood to be reassured, although she contrived to put on a smiling face when she met the newly engaged pair at dinner.
Vera was a little inclined to blush, but obviously happy. Jimmy, on the other hand, was by turns silent, almost moody, and then feverishly talkative. Vera seemed to notice nothing amiss—possibly she put it down to natural excitement—but Ethel watched him with anxiety, which she tried hard to conceal. As she said, the whole thing was her doing. She had engineered it carefully, and she was, at least in matters like these, a clever woman. True, once or twice, she felt a slight misgiving, but she had made up her mind to succeed, and had brushed her fears aside. Only when Jimmy came with the news that her scheme had become an accomplished fact did she realise that match-making is a dangerous occupation. He neither looked nor spoke like a lover who had just been accepted, but rather like a man who sees the crisis of his life a little way ahead of him, and is fearful of his own capacity to pass through it.
Vera was quite satisfied with Jimmy's farewell kiss. Had there been passion in it she might have been frightened; but, as it was, the caress he gave her seemed very sweet. She was very proud of this lover of hers, of his undoubted cleverness, his good looks, and his powers of conversation. It would be very pleasant to see his name on all the bookstalls, to know that almost every other girl of her acquaintance would envy her the possession of her author. So far, she had hardly thought of marriage and its responsibilities; all that part seemed a long way off, in the distant future, and, for the moment, she thought only of the engagement. But as Jimmy walked home in the moonlight, Vera Farlow was hardly in his mind at all; he was thinking of other kisses he had given and received, and, try as he would, he could not drive out a horrible feeling that, every time his lips touched Vera's, he was being unfaithful to Lalage. It was absurd, wholly ridiculous, he told himself so savagely; but still a sense of shame and ingratitude remained. Lalage, who had suffered so much, and, as he realised now, had suffered, too, for him, was in that shop, the sort of place where one could spend one's whole life, and he was going to marry Vera Farlow, and cut the last slender link between himself and the girl he had once loved, was going to make her a last present, of money, and ask her not to write again.
Jimmy let himself into the cottage, fully determined to go through with the task there and then, to write the letter almost before he had time to think, and to post it immediately. Yet dawn found him still sitting at his desk with a pile of cigarette ends and an empty decanter on the tray, and a blank sheet of paper in front of him. At last, he got up with a sigh, extinguished the lamp, and stumbled wearily to bed. It was not that the spirit had affected him—he felt he would have given anything to have it do so—but he was utterly exhausted mentally, and, the moment he lay down, he went into a heavy, dreamless sleep, which lasted until ten o'clock.
When Jimmy awakened in the morning the first thing he remembered was that he had promised to meet Vera at eleven. He would have no time for breakfast, but that did not trouble him, as he would have eaten nothing in any case. His meal, however, was not the only matter which would have to be left over. He would only have just sufficient time to shave and dress and walk up to Drylands; consequently, as he told himself with an undeniable sense of relief, his letter to Lalage must be put off until the evening, if not until the following day.
Vera did not seem to notice anything unusual in his appearance, or, if she did, she made no remark on it; but when they met Ethel a little later, that lady scanned his face anxiously, and took the first opportunity of calling him aside.
"You didn't sleep, Jimmy. You're worrying about something," she said, bluntly.
Jimmy made a rather unsuccessful attempt to laugh. "I'm taking on responsibilities," he said. "I realise it now, and the letter to Canon Farlow is still unwritten, although I must do it before the afternoon post goes out. Vera had better help me, I think. Did you write to May?"
"Last night, after you had gone," Ethel answered. "It went by the nine-thirty this morning, so May will know before she goes to bed to-night." Then she went back to the subject of himself. "What is it you are worrying about, Jimmy? Is it anything that I can help you with?"
He shook his head. "There's no trouble, really there isn't. What can there be? Vera and I both know our own minds, and in another year's time I ought to be making a decent income. You will be able to point us out proudly as a couple whose happiness you secured."
He tried to speak lightly, but he did not convince her in the least; though she put on a smile when Vera came out again.
"Jimmy hasn't written to your father yet, Vera," she said. "You had better take him into the library now, and make him do it at once, or else he'll keep on putting it off. I know his ways of old. He lacks all his family's instinct for business-like promptitude. Now, his brother Walter probably had all such letters ready, or at least drafted out, before he proposed. Jimmy has none of the Grierson ways, as May will doubtless tell you."
Vera frowned slightly. Sometimes Ethel's flippant speech jarred on her a little. Family matters are treated as serious things in the household of a canon who has relatives possessing influence; moreover, it was by no means pleasant to be told that Jimmy was different from the Griersons. It was almost an implied slur on his respectability. However, before she had time to make any protest, Ethel had moved off, and Jimmy changed the current of her thoughts by suggesting that the letter to Canon Farlow had better be written at once, and she led the way into the library, well pleased at the idea.
Possibly because the letter to Lalage would be so terribly difficult to compose, Jimmy found that to his future father-in-law comparatively easy. There was not much feeling in it perhaps—even Vera, who read it with partial eyes, could not help noting the fact—but, after all, it was in a sense a matter of business; and so she was able to find consolation in its clear, incisive phrasing. She was glad when it was finished, more glad still when they had strolled down to the pillar box outside the gates, and dropped the envelope in it. Their relations were on a definite footing now, and she had little doubt that her father would be well pleased. Of course, Jimmy was still a poor man; he had been perfectly frank on that point; but still he was making a name, and, as he said, he would now have a still stronger incentive to work. Altogether, she was quite satisfied with her prospects, and convinced that she had done a wise thing in saying "Yes." Perhaps, somewhere at the back of her mind, there was sense of disappointment, a feeling that both she and her lover were wanting in enthusiasm; but, if she did experience anything of the sort, she crushed it down resolutely, knowing well that passion is closely allied to wickedness, if it is not even a form of wickedness. She had been taught from childhood that sentiment is of necessity either sinful or ridiculous, and that the basis of a successful marriage—which was her people's phrase for a happy marriage—is equality of position, combined with business instincts on the part of the man. People in her world lived to get on; it was a sacred duty with them; failure to do so was discreditable, almost criminal, as she had often heard her mother say when engaged in district visiting amongst the homes of the improvident poor. Jimmy would get on, she fully believed that, especially when he had a sensible wife to help him; moreover, he was both good looking and sweet natured; consequently, she told herself that he was all she could have wished for. It had never occurred to her that he might have a past, because neither the Griersons, nor the Farlows, nor anyone in their world, ever had such things. They seemed to live in a monotonous present of negative virtue, wholly safe and solid. So she had asked him no questions, and he had volunteered no confessions.
The day passed all too quickly for Jimmy, too quickly, not because he was revelling in the society of his fiancee, but because each hour brought him nearer the moment when he must write that final letter to Lalage. He stayed later than usual, so late that Ethel had a hard task to hide her yawns; but when, at last, he did go back to the cottage, he made no attempt to carry out what had now become the most hateful task of his life.
"It will do in the morning," he muttered as he turned out the lamp.
May looked up from Ethel's letter with a little cry of indignation. "Jimmy is engaged to Vera Farlow, Henry! Did you ever hear of such a thing! It seems the Grimmers have been staying quite close to Jimmy's cottage, and Ethel had Vera down on purpose—at least I'm sure she did. I had no idea they had met Jimmy. He never mentioned it in his last letter, nor did Ethel when I met her in town."
Henry Marlow had put down the evening paper and was staring at his wife solemnly. He scented trouble, possibly unpleasantness, and he was by no means sure what course he would be expected to take. Had they been alone it would have been different; but Ida was staying with them, and though Marlow admired his sister-in-law greatly in the abstract, or at any rate in a photograph, he was unaffectedly afraid of her, even in his own house. So he said nothing when May read out Mrs. Grimmer's letter, only shook his head twice, very gravely, and waited for Mrs. Fenton to speak.
Ida held out her hand in silence for the letter, which she read through carefully, then, "It has been a deliberate plot on Ethel Grimmer's part," she said. "She has gone out of her way to do it. I know she has got fast and vulgar lately, smoking cigarettes and talking slang; but I did not think she would do an immoral thing like this."
Henry, who really had a sneaking admiration for Mrs. Grimmer, went rather red. "Oh, I say, Ida, that's going a little too far, isn't it?" he began, but his sister-in-law exchanged a meaning glance with May, and then cut him short.
"I beg your pardon, Henry. Have you forgotten Jimmy's conduct in town? He is hardly the fit husband for an innocent young girl like Vera Farlow; and, moreover, is he in a position to marry? He has no settled income, and his only capital was the thousand pounds which Joseph was foolish enough to leave him. I expect, too, that he has squandered that already."
Henry got up abruptly. He had heard that legacy discussed until he loathed the very mention of it; and now he had no intention of listening whilst the whole matter was threshed out anew.
"Well, I'll leave you to talk it over whilst I go and have a smoke," he said.
But his wife caught his sleeve. "Dear, you've had a cigar already this evening, and you might stay and advise us now. We must make up our minds what we are going to do."
Rather sulkily, Henry turned back, and went over to the fireplace, where he leaned against the mantelpiece, and began to fidget with his watch chain.
"I don't see what there is for you to do," he said. "It's an affair for Miss Farlow and Jimmy to settle between them. Your brother has sown his wild oats now, and he'll be steady enough."
May shook her head sadly. "I know you're very kind to him, dear, kinder than he deserves; but we must not let our feelings stand in the way of our duty. What do you say, Ida?"
Mrs. Fenton nodded. "We know that besides the affair of that creature in town, Jimmy used to drink too much. Probably, he does still. We don't want to have a scandal, and perhaps to have his wife and children penniless on our hands."
Somehow, that night Henry Marlow's temper was not quite under control, and his voice was distinctly sharp as he retorted, "Miss Farlow has money of her own, at least two hundred a year, settled on her, so they wouldn't starve. What is it you propose to do?"
"Tell Canon Farlow the truth, of course," Ida answered with asperity; "then he can judge for himself. It will relieve us of responsibility in the matter. It is the only thing we can do."
Marlow frowned. "It's not my idea of what is right. You know Jimmy left this girl long ago. Why can't you forget it, and give him a chance to start again?" He addressed himself almost pointedly to his wife; but May shook her head.
"One can't forget in that way, Henry," she replied, gently; "at least not in this case. It wouldn't be fair to Vera, knowing what we do about Jimmy's instincts. No; Ida is right. We must certainly tell Canon Farlow."
"But he's left the girl," Henry persisted; he had always liked Jimmy, even if he had never understood him or been greatly interested in him; moreover, the whole idea of writing to the prospective father-in-law was repugnant to his ideas of fairness.
"How do you know he has really left her?" Ida asked coldly. "He has deceived us before and may be deceiving us again. The only address he has given us is his club, and this letter from Ethel is the first intimation we have had as to where he was living. She may be there, too."
Mr. Marlow laughed scornfully. "And under Ethel Grimmer's eyes? Hardly, Ida. And, according to the character you give her, she is not likely to allow him to get engaged to someone else. When did you hear of her last?"
"Never, after she fled that night." It was May who answered. "I wish we had been able to follow her up."
"Why?" Henry demanded. "I think you got pretty well revenged as it was."
Ida picked up her needlework again, rather ostentatiously. She had never seen her brother-in-law in this combative mood before, and it made her a little uneasy; but she was not going to let him see that fact, so she answered even more coldly than before:
"There was no question of revenge, Henry. Really, the suggestion is a little coarse, if May will forgive my saying so. Why we wished to find her was for this reason. Gilbert"—she coloured rather becomingly as she pronounced the name—Gilbert was Mr. Fugnell, Ethel's "Additional Curate," to whom she had recently become engaged—"Gilbert is greatly interested in a home for these people, where they do laundry work, and so on, and he was very anxious to save her. He said they had several vacancies, and they had been forced to refuse work for want of hands. That, if you want to know, is why we were anxious to discover where she had gone. It was entirely for her own good."
Marlow did not answer. He was a keen business man himself, and he liked clear balance sheets, even from a charitable institution, but Mr. Fugnell's charities issued no accounts at all. Moreover, of late a certain weekly paper had been displaying a great deal of interest in this very Home of which Ida was speaking, and only that day, coming down in the train, Henry had been wondering whether he ought not to mention the matter to Ida; but now he realised that his very advocacy of Jimmy's claim to be left alone had practically rendered it impossible for him to warn his sister-in-law. He would be doing the same thing he had condemned in her. So he held his peace, and, by a kind of tacit consent, the whole matter was dropped for the time being.
When Ida had gone up to bed, however, Marlow broached the question again to his wife. "Don't you really think you had better leave Jimmy to settle his own affairs, dear?" he said. "Just think how we should have felt if anyone had come between us when we were engaged. I know it would have sent me wrong altogether."
For a moment, May wavered; then she laid her hand on his arm very tenderly. "You mustn't say that, Henry. I know you would never have done anything you shouldn't do; and then, you see, you had no past to be afraid of, which makes all the difference. No, I think Canon Farlow must be told, so that he can investigate matters and judge for himself. Think if there were a scandal after they were married, this other woman making a fuss at the house, and perhaps causing them to separate. It would ruin our position, too, and we must think of the children, even though we were ready to take the risks ourselves. Really, sweetheart, I'm right. Jimmy has only himself to blame."
Her husband sighed, then bent down and kissed her. "Well, I leave it to you, May. He is your brother, not mine. But if this sends him wrong again, you mustn't blame him too much. He will be very bitter with you and Ida."
May's face grew hard again. "We cannot help it if he is. None of us would agree to have the Grierson name dragged in the mud again."
The news of Jimmy's engagement spread rapidly. Dr. Gregg heard it within twenty-four hours, and mentioned it the same evening to Mrs. Richards, the lady whose bow Jimmy had failed to acknowledge when he was coming out of the hotel.
Mrs. Richards shook her head over the tidings. "I cannot say I am pleased to hear it, Doctor. Mr. Grierson can be very nice, and I am told he is very clever; but still I am sorry for Miss Farlow. He has an unfortunate failing."
"Do you mean he drinks?" the doctor asked bluntly.
The lady nodded. "I, myself, have seen him under the influence of liquor, before mid-day; and my maid tells me it's a common subject of conversation amongst the lower classes in the town. I understand a great many writers have the same weakness," she added, grimly.
Dr. Gregg snorted. "Nonsense, madam. When Grierson is married he will be as steady as your own sons. I know him very well, and have a great respect for him. The girl ought to be proud. He is going to make a big name for himself; whilst as for the lower classes in this town, and the upper classes as well, for that matter, their chief object in life seems to be to make up and spread lying tales."
"Dr. Gregg, was more brusque than ever to-day," Mrs. Richards remarked to her husband an hour later. "Really, he is such a bear that if one could trust Dr. Hart I would have him instead. It's not nice to be stormed at and practically called a scandalmonger, especially when I know that what I was saying is true."
Her husband took her complaints lightly, remembering that only a year before that same bear of a doctor had snatched their youngest child out of the grip of death, and knowing well that, so long as the old man remained in practice, his wife would take his word before that of the most famous specialist in London. "What was the trouble with Gregg this time, Kate?" he asked, smiling.
"It was over Miss Farlow's engagement," she answered. "I was saying that I'm sorry for the girl, because I'm sure young Grierson drinks; and the doctor got rude about it at once."
"Perhaps you were not very wise, because Grierson is a friend of his, as well as a patient; but still, I am afraid what you said was true. I don't know the man personally; but Bateman and Knowles and one or two men who do know him say the same. I hear he's been better lately, though, since the Grimmers took Drylands. Perhaps he was lonely, or something like that. He knew very few people then, and it must have been horribly dull for him."
"I don't see that there is any excuse in that." Mrs. Richards' voice was unusually severe. "He could have known people if he liked. Mr. Button, the vicar, called on him; but he's never been to church once in over a year, at least he never went until Miss Farlow came on the scene."
Her husband smiled. "Perhaps she's converted him," he suggested.
But Mrs. Richards was in earnest. "Conversions of that sort never last," she went on. "He will be just as bad again after marriage, when the novelty has worn off. I am sure I would never allow a man of that sort to marry one of our daughters."
Mr. Richards smiled again. "You might mislead a stranger by that statement, Kate, seeing that they are both married already."
Then the dinner gong sounded, and he straightway forgot all about the matter; but his wife could not get it out of her mind. Her dearest girl friend had married a man who had turned out to be an incurable drunkard, and the tragedy of those two ruined lives came back to her vividly, so vividly in fact that she determined to call at Drylands on the following day, nominally to offer her congratulations to Vera Farlow, really to see if she could not whisper a word of warning into Mrs. Grimmer's ear.
"Mrs. Grimmer is not at home," the servant said, in answer to her inquiry.
Mrs. Richards began to open her card case, then, acting on a sudden resolution, she looked up again and asked, "Is Miss Farlow in?"
"Yes, madam," the maid answered.
Mrs. Richards closed her card case with a snap, and followed the maid into the drawing-room.
Vera looked so happy that for a moment the visitor hesitated, then the very innocence and gentleness of the girl strengthened her resolution, clinched it, and she saw her path of duty more clearly than ever. Deliberately, she sought for an opening.
"Have you known Mr. Grierson long?" she asked.
"Not very long, really," Vera answered. "I met him first nearly two years ago, at dinner. But after that, I did not see him again until I came down here with the Grimmers. Still, he's a very old friend of Ethel's—Mrs. Grimmer, I mean—and his people are parishioners of my father's."
"Does he often go down to see his people?" Mrs. Richards asked, a new suspicion breaking on her mind.
Vera shook her head. "He's been so busy, you see; and it's a long way; in fact, I don't think he has been there for over a year."
Mrs. Richards' last doubt had disappeared now. So Jimmy's people knew of his failing and would not receive him in their homes. Evidently, it was time that someone interfered to save this girl.
"It is sometimes a great risk marrying a very clever man. They are not always too steady."
Vera, who was rather bored with her visitor, was staring out of the window, wondering where Jimmy was, but now she looked round sharply, a glint of anger in her eyes.
"I am not afraid of that in Mr. Grierson's case," she answered coldly. "Perhaps he is one of the exceptions, that is, if the rule itself is not one of those silly ideas people get hold of and insist on believing in for no reason at all, except perhaps because they're jealous."
Mrs. Richards coloured slightly, but she did not take offence. Rather, her heart went out in sympathy to this girl whose loyalty was likely to be so ill repaid.
"My dear," she said very gently, "I came intending to warn you, because I was afraid no one else would have the courage to tell you. No, don't jump up. Let me finish. I am afraid, in fact, I am sure, that Mr. Grierson has that very failing we referred to. It is a matter of common knowledge here; and, though he may keep steady whilst you are about, I am sorry to say that the very first day after you went away last time, I myself saw him the worse for liquor."
Vera's first impulse was to do something theatrical, to ring for the servants to turn this abominable woman out, to rush out herself and find Jimmy and implore him to avenge the insult; but something in Mrs. Richards' manner checked her, and in the end she listened in silence, sitting very still with her hand in her lap.
When the other had done, she made one attempt at disbelief. "It's not true, it's not true," she murmured, then she went on, "Oh, say it isn't true. Do say so. Why did you come and tell me when I was so happy?"
There were tears in Mrs. Richards' eyes as she answered. "My dear, it's better to know now than when it's too late, when your life is ruined. If you want confirmation you had better make other inquiries. Ask Mr. Grierson himself. He cannot deny it."
To Vera's own astonishment, she let the visitor kiss her before they parted; in fact, she returned the kiss; and yet, when looking back on it afterwards, it seemed quite natural, for no one could have doubted the honesty of Mrs. Richards' purpose, even if they had doubted her statements. But Vera doubted neither. She knew the accusation was true; and when on Jimmy coming in a few moments later and finding her red-eyed and white-faced, she taxed him with it, he recognised the futility of denial, though he pleaded extenuating circumstances.
"I was miserable and lonely, and until I met you everything seemed to have gone to pieces. It will never happen again, darling, really it won't. You know that, don't you? surely you know it." He was fighting, not only for her love, but for his whole future, his position in society, the respect of his own class. If he lost her, he felt he would lose everything else which a Grierson holds dear. He would never have the heart to make another try.
"I don't know," she sighed at last. "I had such faith in you, and this has been such an awful shock. Oh, Jimmy, Jimmy, I could never have believed it."
Even in his misery, it struck him that she had believed it, very readily, and a hint of anger came into his bearing. After all, his promise of reformation, or rather the fact that he had already reformed, should have some weight with her. But she was judging him by the past, in which she had had no part. Still, he spoke gently, pleadingly.
"Vera, dear, you must forgive me. It will never happen again now that I have you to look after me. You will keep me straight."
But he struck the wrong chord, and she looked up almost indignantly. "You ought to be manly enough to keep straight by yourself, you ought never to have sunk as you have done. There can be no excuse for it, none whatever."
"And no forgiveness?" he asked very quietly. She covered her face with her hands again. "Oh, I don't know, I don't know. Everything seems so dreadful, and I shall be afraid to trust you. Go away now, and let me think it over quietly."
"Very well. I will come back after dinner. Meet me down by the summer-house." There was something masterful in his tone, and for a moment she felt inclined to obey; then her sense of injury came to her aid, and she shook her head.
"No, to-morrow morning at the earliest. I cannot decide so quickly."
Jimmy took his hat off the table. "Good-bye, then. I will come to-morrow morning." And he left the room without another word. As the door closed behind him, Vera stood up, straightened her hair in front of the glass on the mantelpiece, dabbed the tears out of her eyes with her handkerchief, and then went upstairs, holding her head rather erect, but otherwise showing no sign of emotion.
Jimmy filled his pipe whilst he went down the front steps, and as he rammed the tobacco into the bowl he noticed, with a cynical little smile, that his hand was perfectly steady. In his heart he did not believe that the quarrel would prove final, that she would break off the engagement on the grounds of his past failings. It was just a passing cloud, he told himself. Both of them would have been more upset had their love affair come to a sudden and abrupt close. He remembered how he had felt when he had parted from Lalage, the fever and the agony of it, the sense of utter desolation and hopelessness. And from that he came to think of Lalage herself. She had never turned on him because he drank. Far otherwise. The knowledge had made her more tender, more watchful over his comfort, more anxious to shield him from worries which might drive him into the power of his enemy. She had never blamed him, even by implication. And why? He knew the answer only too well. Because she had loved him. Now the fever, which the parting from Vera had failed to arouse, came on him again. His pipe went out, and, unconsciously, he quickened his steps, as was his way when deeply stirred.
Lalage loved him. Lalage loved him too well to turn on him. The words drummed through his brain with maddening persistency; and then, as a corollary to them, came the questions, "Did Vera love him well enough to take the risk, to give him a chance to run straight? Was he always to be the Black Sheep, and herd with others of his kind?"
It was only a couple of hours after Jimmy had left Vera that the chauffeur from Drylands brought him a note in Mrs. Grimmer's sprawling handwriting.
"It will be all right," Ethel wrote. "Vera has agreed to take the sensible view, and let you show outward and visible signs of reformation during your engagement. So you must be very good, and, if you can, even pious. Come up to lunch to-morrow with a jaunty air as though nothing had happened."
Jimmy heaved a sigh of relief as he folded up the note and thrust it into his pocket. So the crisis was safely over, after all. Straightway he began to make excuses for Vera, her youth, her inexperience, the atmosphere in which she had been reared; yet he could not help remembering that Lalage was younger, by a year at least, and that her chances of gaining experience at home had been far smaller, and still Lalage had understood him and tried to help him, whilst Vera was only taking him as an offender on probation.
The latter was not pleasant thought, especially as the final letter to Lalage remained unwritten. He had intended to do it that night, had really made up his mind to do it; but now this scene with Vera seemed to have shaken his nerves, and he felt he could stand no more strain until he had had a good sleep. There was really no immediate hurry for a day or two. Both his letters to Lalage and her letters to him were so brief and so few in number that no one could object to the correspondence. So, in the end, he went to bed, moderately satisfied with his own prospects, having written nothing at all.
Jimmy got up in the morning with a certain sense of relief in his mind. He was rather glad now that Vera did know something of his past failings; it was better for her to understand, and to forgive, than for him to live with the fear of exposure ever in his thoughts. Their little quarrel, if quarrel it could be called, would serve a useful purpose in clearing the air; and now there would be no more trouble. He would soon reassure her by giving positive proofs of reformation. Moreover, he could write to Lalage that night, after making, his peace with Vera.
The morning postman brought nothing more interesting than a receipted laundry bill, which Jimmy tossed angrily on to the desk. He had been expecting a letter of congratulation from May, in fact, he had looked to receive it twenty-four hours previously, and its non-arrival worried him a little. He had been hoping that the news of his engagement would have led to a treaty of peace with his family, being, as it was, significant of his surrender to the Grierson ideals. Surely May would see that he had sown his wild oats, and was ready, eager even, to marry into a respectable family and live respectably.
His breakfast finished, Jimmy glanced through his newspapers, at the same time keeping a look-out for the second postman; but when the latter did come down the road he hurried by without even glancing at the cottage. Obviously, he had nothing to deliver. Jimmy got up abruptly, a frown on his face. They might have written to him, and have offered their congratulations. He had given in to their ideas completely now; his engagement was in itself tacit recognition of the code of the Griersons, and he could not understand why the family should still harbour bitterness against him. Surely he had suffered enough for his revolt. But May and Ida and Walter had always been the same, obstinate, self-satisfied, regarding everything he did as necessarily wrong. In the world of men who thought, Jimmy knew that he, himself, was quickly gaining a position, and that his wife would also have a position, through him; but his family gauged position by the standard of the pass-book, the only book it considered of any permanent importance. The successful business man was respectable by virtue of his success; it made little difference whether he had grown rich as a banker, a merchant, or a member of a County Council committee; but the man who lived by his brains it regarded with suspicion, as one who made an income without possessing capital.
Jimmy was in a bitter mood. The little matter of the delayed letter had brought out that alien streak in him again, and once more he saw the Griersons as he had seen them in the early days of his return, unsympathetic, prejudiced, almost smug. He had been striving hard to win their approval. He had given up Lalage; he had written only things of which they could approve; he had become engaged to a girl essentially of their world, and now——
A sharp knock on the door brought him to his feet, and he opened the latch to find the ragged little girl, who generally acted as telegraph boy, holding out a yellow envelope. "Any answer, sir?" she chanted.
Jimmy read the message through. It was from Canon Farlow, and had been despatched at the London terminus. "Meet me on the station at twelve-thirty. Most important," it said.
Jimmy crushed the paper up, and thrust it into his pocket. "No answer, thanks," he said, then he glanced at the clock. He had an hour and a half still to wait. For a moment he thought of going up to Drylands first, to see if Vera too had heard, but he put the idea aside immediately after. Already, he had scented trouble. There must be something very serious to have brought the Canon back from Switzerland in such a hurry, and he preferred to see it through alone, to keep Vera out of it, if possible.
He was on the station platform a little early, in fact, he had time for several drinks in the refreshment-room before the train came in; then, rather to his surprise, he found the Drylands' chauffeur also waiting at the barrier.
The Canon, a portly man, clean shaven, and obviously prosperous, emerged from a first-class carriage with a bag in one hand and a rug on the other arm. Perhaps for that reason, he did not offer to shake hands with Jimmy; but even when the chauffeur had hurried forward for his things, he had made no attempt to remedy the omission.
"Good morning, Mr. Grierson," he said. "I am glad to see you received my telegram. Yes, Jones," to the chauffeur, "put those in the motor-car, and kindly wait for me. I shall be going up shortly. And please put the hood up, if possible.
"Now, Mr. Grierson, is there anywhere we can talk. I have a few questions of a rather serious nature, of a distinctly serious nature, I might say, to ask you."
Jimmy, now fully convinced that his theory of trouble ahead was right, pulled himself together to meet it. The Canon's manner had already aroused his antagonism, and he was in no mood to submit tamely.
"We can talk in there, if you like," he answered, nodding towards the refreshment-room. "I see the waiting-rooms are occupied."
The Canon frowned, thinking he detected a hint of flippancy in the younger man's manner. "I said it was a serious matter," he replied, severely, "and a public bar is hardly the place for discussion, hardly the place I should be likely to visit in any case." He glanced along the platform, which was already deserted. "I think we will walk up that direction, if you please."
Jimmy, now thoroughly nettled, took out his case and lighted a cigarette with rather ostentatious coolness, waiting for the other to begin.
At last when they got to the open end of the platform, Canon Farlow cleared his voice with a little cough which he had often found most effective on solemn occasions. "I understand from your letter that you have proposed marriage to my daughter, Vera."
Jimmy corrected him quietly. "I am engaged to Miss Farlow. I am sorry if I didn't make that quite clear to you."
If men in his position did such things, the Canon would have snorted; as it was, however, he remembered his dignity in time. "Pardon me, Mr. Grierson, my daughter knows better than to accept a proposal of marriage from any man without my permission. Anything she may have said was provisional, simply provisional, until I, myself, had made inquiries. I regret to say now that what I have learnt about you is greatly to your discredit, terribly so. I have had a letter from your sister, Mrs. Fenton."
Jimmy was pale already, and he went, if possible, a shade paler, with anger; but he spoke very calmly. "Yes, and what does Ida say about me? Something pleasant, surely."
Hitherto the Canon had spoken more in sorrow than in wrath, but now he began to lose his temper; he was not accustomed to being treated lightly. "Something most unpleasant on the other hand," he snapped. "Something which, if true, as I believe it to be, renders you totally unfit to associate with an innocent young girl like my daughter. Mrs. Fenton informs me that a little while ago you were living a most scandalous life in London."
Jimmy knew that his case was hopeless. He had been betrayed, and had already been judged, unheard. Still, he made one last attempt at defence. "It was over a year ago, and I have never seen her since. I have run straight enough since the time I left London; and I know I should be true to your daughter."
"You admit it is correct, then?" The canon gave the sigh he reserved for the convicted sinner. "And where is this woman now?"
The colour came back to Jimmy's face, suddenly. "That I shall not tell you, or anybody else," he answered curtly.
"Do you still keep up a correspondence with her?"
Jimmy realised that the question was the fatal one. For a moment he thought of explaining, of going into details as to how he was going to break the last slender tie, of pleading all the extenuating circumstances, of appealing for a chance to prove his reformation; then he glanced at his companion, and knew there was no mercy in his face. "Yes, I still correspond with her," he replied quietly.
The Canon's wrath blazed out. "And yet you dare propose marriage to my daughter. You are a debased profligate, sir, absolutely unfit for any respectable people to know. You, you——" he spluttered a little, "you are a positive danger to society. The idea of keeping up communication with a vile creature like that, and expecting to marry my daughter." He was snorting in earnest now.
Jimmy's eyes had grown dangerously bright. "I allow no one to call my friends vile creatures, not even a man who is supposed to be a preacher of charity and good will. Whatever Miss Penrose has been in the past, she has led a perfectly good life since we parted, and I respect her as much as I respect any other woman living." He spoke proudly, defiantly, looking the cleric full in the face.
For a moment Canon Farlow was speechless, then he attempted to take refuge in scorn. "If you are really so foolish as to believe that those creatures ever reform——" he began.
But Jimmy cut him short sternly. "You have said more than enough already. Good morning." He turned on his heel and went a couple of steps, then something struck him and he faced round again. "May I venture one suggestion? Next time you preach you might take as your text, 'He amongst you who is without sin, let him throw the first stone,'" and he stalked down the platform, leaving the canon bereft of even a trace of his well-known pulpit manner.
Jimmy did not attempt to go back to the cottage. Instead, he walked very slowly up the street towards the hotel, the door of which he was just entering when the Grimmer motor-car dashed past with the Canon sitting very erect in the tonneau. As a matter of fact, that grave personage had eventually entered the refreshment-room, feeling he needed something to steady his nerves after such a trying interview. True, the brandy did restore him a little, but the memory of Jimmy's words remained. He never forgot them, and, as his wrath subsided, they began to affect him in another way, making him ask himself whether, after all, he had read some of his Master's words aright. As time went by, the matter troubled him more and more—it is always a serious thing when a man past middle age, and a dignitary of the Church at that, begins to think—and when, a year later, Vera became engaged to the son of one of his own church-wardens, a young City man of exemplary life and undoubted wealth, he was conscious of a distinct sense of disappointment. He would have liked a son-in-law who would have understood his new point of view. He married them himself, in the blatantly new church with the sprawling texts round the chancel arch; and the world, his world, congratulated him. But on the following Sunday he preached a sermon which shocked his congregation beyond measure, and really cost him that bishopric; for he took Jimmy's suggested text, and argued, with an eloquent fire, quite alien to his nature, that if the Master was ready to forgive, His followers must do the same.
Ida voiced the opinion of a good part of the congregation, when she said, on the way home after the service, "Poor Canon Farlow! It is too terrible. The excitement of the wedding must have unhinged his mind."
But her new husband, Mr. Tugnell, himself a candidate for orders, the owner of the living having promised that he should succeed the canon, expressed the more general view, when he said sharply, "Nonsense, my dear, the man had been drinking. Anyone could see that."
And Ida agreed, as she did to everything Mr. Tugnell said. Even when he had suggested that she should settle half of Joseph Fenton's hard-earned money on himself she had consented, knowing that he was a philanthropist, and therefore would use it well.
May Farlow, on the other hand, grieved honestly for the canon, and still retained sittings in the parish church, though she usually took the children to the chapel-of-ease, "where is an old friend of ours," she said, "and I'm not going to turn my back on him. There are always two sides to a question after all, and I want to hear both. Perhaps we've been wrong in some things, Ida. At any rate, now that my children are growing up, I want more than ever to be right, so that I can guide them, and prevent them from making mistakes. Sometimes I think we were too severe in the past."
* * * * *
Jimmy hardly noticed the canon passing him. His mind was too full of other things. Vera was lost to him, he knew that, and, somehow, the fact troubled him little. With her, also, he had lost all present chance of going back to the Grierson world, of becoming a true and complete Grierson again, and curiously enough, that troubled him equally little. He had ceased to have the slightest desire for such a thing. A black sheep himself, he preferred to herd with his kind.
His first feeling had been one of bitter wrath against his sisters. They had betrayed him; they had thrust him back again when he was trying to pull himself up; they were keeping him down, keeping him at a distance for fear he should damage their position. And then his anger seemed to pass away, and he laughed, first at them, then at himself. What did he care about position, what did he care about Vera Farlow, what did he care about anything—except Lalage?
He knew it now. He knew why his engagement had made him so utterly miserable, knew why he had been unable to write that final letter to Lalage. There was only one place in the world he wanted to be—where Lalage was; only one object in life for him—to make Lalage happy, and by so doing wipe out all memory of his intended unfaithfulness to her.
But would she have him back now, would she forgive his coldness and his neglect, above all his repudiation of her in the London days? Did she still love him, as he knew she had done once, love him enough to forgive and forget, love him as he loved her? The thought drove everything else out of his mind. Vera, her father, his sisters, all seemed to belong to some distant past with which he now had no connection. His bitterness against Ida and May, his anger against the canon, his first feeling of grief, or rather of wounded pride, when he learnt that Vera was lost to him—these were as nothing compared to the fear that Lalage would refuse him. He was like a man who had awakened from a long sleep full of dreams to find that, whilst he had slumbered, a deadly peril had come down on him, a peril which could be averted only by immediate action.
Jimmy had ordered a drink, more or less mechanically, as a tribute levied by the house; but he pushed it away untasted.
"I'm going to be absolutely sober when I do this," he muttered, then went back into the hall, where he spent five minutes poring over a timetable, following the trains down the lines of figures with a finger which trembled slightly. Every hour seemed of supreme importance now. Had he not been in dreamland for over a year? At last he found his trains. He had three hours to wait in the town, two hours in London; but he would finally arrive in the little Yorkshire town about half-past seven in the morning, before Lalage had started work in that hateful little shop.
There was no need for him to write the trains down. Their times of departure were already graven on his memory; all he had to do now was cross the road to the post-office and wire to Lalage. He was cool again, a perfectly normal man. All his anger and his excitement had gone; but, none the less, he did not hesitate a moment over taking what might be, what he hoped would be, an irrevocable step.
An hour later, the kindly, grey-bearded old draper beckoned Lalage into his private office. "There's a wire for you, Miss Penrose," he said.
Lalage opened the envelope with trembling fingers—only one person in the world would wire to her—then she swayed a little and gripped the table for support, as she read, "Meet me at the station half-past seven to-morrow morning. Jimmy."
The draper was watching her anxiously. "No bad news, I hope," he said.
She looked at him with a smile which reassured him instantly. "No, it's good news, the best of good news," she answered.
When she had gone out the old man shook his head sadly. His own wife had died thirty years before, and he had passed nearly half of his life in waiting for the meeting on the other side; so he knew what that smile meant. Only a man, and the right man, can bring it to a woman's lips.
When Jimmy left the post-office he went straight back to the cottage. The fear of meeting any of the Drylands people did not worry him in the least. They all belonged to the dream, even Ethel, and now he had got back to the reality. Yet, when he opened the door and found a note from Mrs. Grimmer lying on the floor, he did not feel a twinge of uneasiness, dreading reproaches from her, as his hostess.
But Ethel wrote kindly. "Don't take it to heart too much, dear old boy. It was a nasty trick for Ida to play you, although just what I should have expected from her or May. As for the canon, I am afraid I have offended him mortally by sticking up for you. Vera is hopelessly weak. I was never more disappointed in anyone in my life. Still, after all, it was a mistake, and you would have never been happy. Take comfort from that, and don't do anything rash."
Jimmy read it through a second time, then tore it up. Ethel was a good sort, but if he did what he hoped to do, she would probably say he had disregarded her advice and acted rashly. So she, too, had better become part of the dream and be forgotten, which is the proper fate of dreams and dream-people.
It did not take him long to pack his bag and shut up the cottage; consequently, he had plenty of time to catch his train; but on this occasion he did not go into the refreshment-room. He needed no stimulant to keep him going now. If she refused to hear him it might be different; but until he saw her he was going to touch nothing. He would speak deliberately, in cold blood.
For a moment, when he came out of the terminus, London affected him as it had done on the night of his home-coming; but the feeling passed immediately, and the town became simply one stage on his journey to Lalage. Moreover, as he drove across to the other terminus, he felt none of that sickness at heart which he had dreaded so greatly, which had made him avoid the place as a plague spot. All the old memories seemed to have lost their bitterness. The women in the streets had not the slightest kinship with Lalage. His jealousy of the past had vanished, the hateful thoughts which had once gone nigh to driving him mad had lost all their power, and now the only thing in his mind was the fear that the new Lalage, which was the real Lalage, would not risk joining her life to his again.
As the train came into the station he saw her standing there, tall, very pale, and, as he thought, looking even more beautiful than ever in her plain black dress. She was the only person on the platform, just as he was the only passenger to alight; but, seeing the look in her eyes, it would have been the same had there been a crowd.
"Lalage," he said, and took her in his arms.
When she disengaged herself, blushing, for the ticket collector had just come out, she scanned his face eagerly, and then the colour left her cheek again.
"Jimmy, oh, Jimmy, dear, you look so ill. Hasn't anyone taken care of you all these months?"
He laughed happily, knowing now that everything was well. "I will tell you all about it by and by." Then he stopped, regardless of the indignant glances of the ticket collector, who was thinking of his cooling breakfast. "Shall I send my bag to the hotel, or shall I leave it here?"
She understood his meaning. "Send it to the hotel," she answered in a low voice.
Nothing more was said until they were clear of the station yard, then, "Where can we go and have a quiet talk?" he asked.
For answer she led him into a little public park near by. It was deserted at that hour, and he got the chance to speak at once.
"Lalage," he said in a tone she hardly recognised, "I've broken my promise to you. I've been ruining my health with liquor, trying to forget you; and I've been engaged to another woman. I know you're infinitely too good for me in every way; but I've come to ask you to marry me, not in the distant future, but now, at once, as soon as I can get a licence."
She stood very still, and, for a few seconds, he feared he had come too late, then she spoke haltingly. "Jimmy, I'm afraid ... after the past ... that you wouldn't trust me. And that would be even worse than this."
He took her hand. "Lalage, dearest, there's no question of that now, there can be no question of it when we're married. You say no one has taken care of me. Won't you do it, sweetheart, and save me from myself?"
She looked at him with shining eyes. "You haven't said yet why you want to marry me, Jimmy."
Once more he took her in his arms unresisting. "Because I love you, dearest, because you're everything in this wide world to me, because I honour you and trust you above all women, and because life would not be worth living unless I had you as my wife."