The mistake that Charles Seabohn, Junior partner of the firm of Seabohn & Son, civil engineers of London and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Mivanway Evans, youngest daughter of the Rev. Thomas Evans, Pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Bristol, made originally, was marrying too young. Charles Seabohn could hardly have been twenty years of age, and Mivanway could have been little more than seventeen, when they first met upon the cliffs, two miles beyond the Cromlech Arms. Young Charles Seabohn, coming across the village in the course of a walking tour, had decided to spend a day or two exploring the picturesque coast, and Mivanway's father had hired that year a neighbouring farmhouse wherein to spend his summer vacation.
Early one morning—for at twenty one is virtuous, and takes exercise before breakfast—as young Charles Seabohn lay upon the cliffs, watching the white waters coming and going upon the black rocks below, he became aware of a form rising from the waves. The figure was too far off for him to see it clearly, but judging from the costume, it was a female figure, and promptly the mind of Charles, poetically inclined, turned to thoughts of Venus—or Aphrodite, as he, being a gentleman of delicate taste would have preferred to term her. He saw the figure disappear behind a head-land, but still waited. In about ten minutes or a quarter of an hour it reappeared, clothed in the garments of the eighteen-sixties, and came towards him. Hidden from sight himself behind a group of rocks, he could watch it at his leisure, ascending the steep path from the beach, and an exceedingly sweet and dainty figure it would have appeared, even to eyes less susceptible than those of twenty. Sea- water—I stand open to correction—is not, I believe, considered anything of a substitute for curling tongs, but to the hair of the youngest Miss Evans it had given an additional and most fascinating wave. Nature's red and white had been most cunningly laid on, and the large childish eyes seemed to be searching the world for laughter, with which to feed a pair of delicious, pouting lips. Charles's upturned face, petrified into admiration, was just the sort of thing for which they were on the look- out. A startled "Oh!" came from the slightly parted lips, followed by the merriest of laughs, which in its turn was suddenly stopped by a deep blush. Then the youngest Miss Evans looked offended, as though the whole affair had been Charles's fault, which is the way of women. And Charles, feeling himself guilty under that stern gaze of indignation, rose awkwardly and apologised meekly, whether for being on the cliffs at all or for having got up too early, he would have been unable to explain.
The youngest Miss Evans graciously accepted the apology thus tendered with a bow, and passed on, and Charles stood staring after her till the valley gathered her into its spreading arms and hid her from his view.
That was the beginning of all things. I am speaking of the Universe as viewed from the standpoint of Charles and Mivanway.
Six months later they were man and wife, or perhaps it would be more correct to say boy and wifelet. Seabohn senior counselled delay, but was overruled by the impatience of his junior partner. The Reverend Mr. Evans, in common with most theologians, possessed a goodly supply of unmarried daughters, and a limited income. Personally he saw no necessity for postponement of the marriage.
The month's honeymoon was spent in the New Forest. That was a mistake to begin with. The New Forest in February is depressing, and they had chosen the loneliest spot they could find. A fortnight in Paris or Rome would have been more helpful. As yet they had nothing to talk about except love, and that they had been talking and writing about steadily all through the winter. On the tenth morning Charles yawned, and Mivanway had a quiet half-hour's cry about it in her own room. On the sixteenth evening, Mivanway, feeling irritable, and wondering why (as though fifteen damp, chilly days in the New Forest were not sufficient to make any woman irritable), requested Charles not to disarrange her hair; and Charles, speechless with astonishment, went out into the garden, and swore before all the stars that he would never caress Mivanway's hair again as long as he lived.
One supreme folly they had conspired to commit, even before the commencement of the honeymoon. Charles, after the manner of very young lovers, had earnestly requested Mivanway to impose upon him some task. He desired to do something great and noble to show his devotion. Dragons was the thing he had in mind, though he may not have been aware of it. Dragons also, no doubt, flitted through Mivanway's brain, but unfortunately for lovers the supply of dragons has lapsed. Mivanway, liking the conceit, however, thought over it, and then decided that Charles must give up smoking. She had discussed the matter with her favourite sister, and that was the only thing the girls could think of. Charles's face fell. He suggested some more Herculean labour, some sacrifice more worthy to lay at Mivanway's feet. But Mivanway had spoken. She might think of some other task, but the smoking prohibition would, in any case, remain. She dismissed the subject with a pretty hauteur that would have graced Marie Antoinette.
Thus tobacco, the good angel of all men, no longer came each day to teach Charles patience and amiability, and he fell into the ways of short temper and selfishness.
They took up their residence in a suburb of Newcastle, and this was also unfortunate for them, because there the society was scanty and middle- aged; and, in consequence, they had still to depend much upon their own resources. They knew little of life, less of each other, and nothing at all of themselves. Of course they quarrelled, and each quarrel left the wound a little more raw. No kindly, experienced friend was at hand to laugh at them. Mivanway would write down all her sorrows in a bulky diary, which made her feel worse; so that before she had written for ten minutes her pretty, unwise head would drop upon her dimpled arm, and the book—the proper place for which was behind the fire—would become damp with her tears; and Charles, his day's work done and the clerks gone, would linger in his dingy office and hatch trifles into troubles.
The end came one evening after dinner, when, in the heat of a silly squabble, Charles boxed Mivanway's ears. That was very ungentlemanly conduct, and he was heartily ashamed of himself the moment he had done it, which was right and proper for him to be. The only excuse to be urged on his behalf is that girls sufficiently pretty to have been spoilt from childhood by everyone about them can at times be intensely irritating. Mivanway rushed up to her room, and locked herself in. Charles flew after her to apologise, but only arrived in time to have the door slammed in his face.
It had only been the merest touch. A boy's muscles move quicker than his thoughts. But to Mivanway it was a blow. This was what it had come to! This was the end of a man's love!
She spent half the night writing in the precious diary, with the result that in the morning she came down feeling more bitter than she had gone up. Charles had walked the streets of Newcastle all night, and that had not done him any good. He met her with an apology combined with an excuse, which was bad tactics. Mivanway, of course, fastened upon the excuse, and the quarrel recommenced. She mentioned that she hated him; he hinted that she had never loved him, and she retorted that he had never loved her. Had there been anybody by to knock their heads together and suggest breakfast, the thing might have blown over, but the combined effect of a sleepless night and an empty stomach upon each proved disastrous. Their words came poisoned from their brains, and each believed they meant what they said. That afternoon Charles sailed from Hull, on a ship bound for the Cape, and that evening Mivanway arrived at the paternal home in Bristol with two trunks and the curt information that she and Charles had separated for ever. The next morning both thought of a soft speech to say to the other, but the next morning was just twenty-four hours too late.
Eight days afterwards Charles's ship was run down in a fog, near the coast of Portugal, and every soul on board was supposed to have perished. Mivanway read his name among the list of lost; the child died within her, and she knew herself for a woman who had loved deeply, and will not love again.
Good luck intervening, however, Charles and one other man were rescued by a small trading vessel, and landed in Algiers. There Charles learnt of his supposed death, and the idea occurred to him to leave the report uncontradicted. For one thing, it solved a problem that had been troubling him. He could trust his father to see to it that his own small fortune, with possibly something added, was handed over to Mivanway, and she would be free if she wished to marry again. He was convinced that she did not care for him, and that she had read of his death with a sense of relief. He would make a new life for himself, and forget her.
He continued his journey to the Cape, and once there he soon gained for himself an excellent position. The colony was young, engineers were welcome, and Charles knew his business. He found the life interesting and exciting. The rough, dangerous up-country work suited him, and the time passed swiftly.
But in thinking he would forget Mivanway, he had not taken into consideration his own character, which at bottom was a very gentlemanly character. Out on the lonely veldt he found himself dreaming of her. The memory of her pretty face and merry laugh came back to him at all hours. Occasionally he would curse her roundly, but that only meant that he was sore because of the thought of her; what he was really cursing was himself and his own folly. Softened by the distance, her quick temper, her very petulance became mere added graces; and if we consider women as human beings and not as angels, it was certainly a fact that he had lost a very sweet and lovable woman. Ah! if she only were by his side now—now that he was a man capable of appreciating her, and not a foolish, selfish boy. This thought would come to him as he sat smoking at the door of his tent, and then he would regret that the stars looking down upon him were not the same stars that were watching her, it would have made him feel nearer to her. For, though young people may not credit it, one grows more sentimental as one grows older; at least, some of us do, and they perhaps not the least wise.
One night he had a vivid dream of her. She came to him and held out her hand, and he took it, and they said good-bye to one another. They were standing on the cliff where he had first met her, and one of them was going upon a long journey, though he was not sure which.
In the towns men laugh at dreams, but away from civilisation we listen more readily to the strange tales that Nature whispers to us. Charles Seabohn recollected this dream when he awoke in the morning.
"She is dying," he said, "and she has come to wish me good-bye."
He made up his mind to return to England at once; perhaps if he made haste he would be in time to kiss her. But he could not start that day, for work was to be done; and Charles Seabohn, lover though he still was, had grown to be a man, and knew that work must not be neglected even though the heart may be calling. So for a day or two he stayed, and on the third night he dreamed of Mivanway again, and this time she lay within the little chapel at Bristol where, on Sunday mornings, he had often sat with her. He heard her father's voice reading the burial service over her, and the sister she had loved best was sitting beside him, crying softly. Then Charles knew that there was no need for him to hasten. So he remained to finish his work. That done, he would return to England. He would like again to stand upon the cliffs, above the little Cornish village, where they had first met.
Thus a few months later Charles Seabohn, or Charles Denning, as he called himself, aged and bronzed, not easily recognisable by those who had not known him well, walked into the Cromlech Arms, as six years before he had walked in with his knapsack on his back, and asked for a room, saying he would be stopping in the village for a short while.
In the evening he strolled out and made his way to the cliffs. It was twilight when he reached the place of rocks to which the fancy-loving Cornish folk had given the name of the Witches' Cauldron. It was from this spot that he had first watched Mivanway coming to him from the sea.
He took the pipe from his mouth, and leaning against a rock, whose rugged outline seemed fashioned into the face of an old friend, gazed down the narrow pathway now growing indistinct in the dim light. And as he gazed the figure of Mivanway came slowly up the pathway from the sea, and paused before him.
He felt no fear. He had half expected it. Her coming was the complement of his dreams. She looked older and graver than he remembered her, but for that the face was the sweeter.
He wondered if she would speak to him, but she only looked at him with sad eyes; and he stood there in the shadow of the rocks without moving, and she passed on into the twilight.
Had he on his return cared to discuss the subject with his landlord, had he even shown himself a ready listener—for the old man loved to gossip—he might have learnt that a young widow lady named Mrs. Charles Seabohn, accompanied by an unmarried sister, had lately come to reside in the neighbourhood, having, upon the death of a former tenant, taken the lease of a small farmhouse sheltered in the valley a mile beyond the village, and that her favourite evening's walk was to the sea and back by the steep footway leading past the Witches' Cauldron.
Had he followed the figure of Mivanway into the valley, he would have known that out of sight of the Witches' Cauldron it took to running fast till it reached a welcome door, and fell panting into the arms of another figure that had hastened out to meet it.
"My dear," said the elder woman, "you are trembling like a leaf. What has happened?"
"I have seen him," answered Mivanway.
"Charles!" repeated the other, looking at Mivanway as though she thought her mad.
"His spirit, I mean," explained Mivanway, in an awed voice. "It was standing in the shadow of the rocks, in the exact spot where we first met. It looked older and more careworn; but, oh! Margaret, so sad and reproachful."
"My dear," said her sister, leading her in, "you are overwrought. I wish we had never come back to this house."
"Oh! I was not frightened," answered Mivanway, "I have been expecting it every evening. I am so glad it came. Perhaps it will come again, and I can ask it to forgive me."
So next night Mivanway, though much against her sister's wishes and advice, persisted in her usual walk, and Charles at the same twilight hour started from the inn.
Again Mivanway saw him standing in the shadow of the rocks. Charles had made up his mind that if the thing happened again he would speak, but when the silent figure of Mivanway, clothed in the fading light, stopped and gazed at him, his will failed him.
That it was the spirit of Mivanway standing before him he had not the faintest doubt. One may dismiss other people's ghosts as the phantasies of a weak brain, but one knows one's own to be realities, and Charles for the last five years had mingled with a people whose dead dwell about them. Once, drawing his courage around him, he made to speak, but as he did so the figure of Mivanway shrank from him, and only a sigh escaped his lips, and hearing that the figure of Mivanway turned and again passed down the path into the valley, leaving Charles gazing after it.
But the third night both arrived at the trysting spot with determination screwed up to the sticking point.
Charles was the first to speak. As the figure of Mivanway came towards him, with its eyes fixed sadly on him, he moved from the shadow of the rocks, and stood before it.
"Mivanway!" he said.
"Charles!" replied the figure of Mivanway. Both spoke in an awed whisper suitable to the circumstances, and each stood gazing sorrowfully upon the other.
"Are you happy?" asked Mivanway.
The question strikes one as somewhat farcical, but it must be remembered that Mivanway was the daughter of a Gospeller of the old school, and had been brought up to beliefs that were not then out of date.
"As happy as I deserve to be," was the sad reply, and the answer—the inference was not complimentary to Charles's deserts—struck a chill to Mivanway's heart.
"How could I be happy having lost you?" went on the voice of Charles.
Now this speech fell very pleasantly upon Mivanway's ears. In the first place it relieved her of her despair regarding Charles's future. No doubt his present suffering was keen, but there was hope for him. Secondly, it was a decidedly "pretty" speech for a ghost, and I am not at all sure that Mivanway was the kind of woman to be averse to a little mild flirtation with the spirit of Charles.
"Can you forgive me?" asked Mivanway.
"Forgive you!" replied Charles, in a tone of awed astonishment. "Can you forgive me? I was a brute—a fool—I was not worthy to love you."
A most gentlemanly spirit it seemed to be. Mivanway forgot to be afraid of it.
"We were both to blame," answered Mivanway. But this time there was less submission in her tones. "But I was the most at fault. I was a petulant child. I did not know how deeply I loved you."
"You loved me!" repeated the voice of Charles, and the voice lingered over the words as though it found them sweet.
"Surely you never doubted it," answered the voice of Mivanway. "I never ceased to love you. I shall love you always and ever."
The figure of Charles sprang forward as though it would clasp the ghost of Mivanway in its arms, but halted a step or two off.
"Bless me before you go," he said, and with uncovered head the figure of Charles knelt to the figure of Mivanway.
Really, ghosts could be exceedingly nice when they liked. Mivanway bent graciously towards her shadowy suppliant, and, as she did so, her eye caught sight of something on the grass beside it, and that something was a well-coloured meerschaum pipe. There was no mistaking it for anything else, even in that treacherous light; it lay glistening where Charles, in falling upon his knees had jerked it from his breast-pocket.
Charles, following Mivanway's eyes, saw it also, and the memory of the prohibition against smoking came back to him.
Without stopping to consider the futility of the action—nay, the direct confession implied thereby—he instinctively grabbed at the pipe, and rammed it back into his pocket; and then an avalanche of mingled understanding and bewilderment, fear and joy, swept Mivanway's brain before it. She felt she must do one of two things, laugh or scream and go on screaming, and she laughed. Peal after peal of laughter she sent echoing among the rocks, and Charles springing to his feet was just in time to catch her as she fell forward a dead weight into his arms.
Ten minutes later the eldest Miss Evans, hearing heavy footsteps, went to the door. She saw what she took to be the spirit of Charles Seabohn, staggering under the weight of the lifeless body of Mivanway, and the sight not unnaturally alarmed her. Charles's suggestion of brandy, however, sounded human, and the urgent need of attending to Mivanway kept her mind from dwelling upon problems tending towards insanity.
Charles carried Mivanway to her room, and laid her upon the bed.
"I'll leave her with you," he whispered to the eldest Miss Evans. "It will be better for her not to see me until she is quite recovered. She has had a shock."
Charles waited in the dark parlour for what seemed to him an exceedingly long time. But at last the eldest Miss Evans returned.
"She's all right now," were the welcome words he heard.
"I'll go and see her," he said.
"But she's in bed," exclaimed the scandalised Miss Evans.
And then as Charles only laughed, "Oh, ah—yes, I suppose—of course," she added.
And the eldest Miss Evans, left alone, sat down and wrestled with the conviction that she was dreaming.
PORTRAIT OF A LADY
My work pressed upon me, but the louder it challenged me—such is the heart of the timid fighter—the less stomach I felt for the contest. I wrestled with it in my study, only to be driven to my books. I walked out to meet it in the streets, only to seek shelter from it in music-hall or theatre. Thereupon it waxed importunate and over-bearing, till the shadow of it darkened all my doings. The thought of it sat beside me at the table, and spoilt my appetite. The memory of it followed me abroad, and stood between me and my friends, so that all talk died upon my lips, and I moved among men as one ghost-ridden.
Then the throbbing town, with its thousand distracting voices, grew maddening to me. I felt the need of converse with solitude, that master and teacher of all the arts, and I bethought me of the Yorkshire Wolds, where a man may walk all day, meeting no human creature, hearing no voice but the curlew's cry; where, lying prone upon the sweet grass, he may feel the pulsation of the earth, travelling at its eleven hundred miles a minute through the ether. So one morning I bundled many things, some needful, more needless, into a bag, hurrying lest somebody or something should happen to stay me, and that night I lay in a small northern town that stands upon the borders of smokedom at the gate of the great moors; and at seven the next morning I took my seat beside a one-eyed carrier behind an ancient piebald mare. The one-eyed carrier cracked his whip, the piebald horse jogged forward. The nineteenth century, with its turmoil, fell away behind us; the distant hills, creeping nearer, swallowed us up, and we became but a moving speck upon the face of the quiet earth.
Late in the afternoon we arrived at a village, the memory of which had been growing in my mind. It lies in the triangle formed by the sloping walls of three great fells, and not even the telegraph wire has reached it yet, to murmur to it whispers of the restless world—or had not at the time of which I write. Nought disturbs it save, once a day, the one-eyed carrier—if he and his piebald mare have not yet laid their ancient bones to rest—who, passing through, leaves a few letters and parcels to be called for by the people of the scattered hill-farms round about. It is the meeting-place of two noisy brooks. Through the sleepy days and the hushed nights, one hears them ever chattering to themselves as children playing alone some game of make-believe. Coming from their far-off homes among the hills, they mingle their waters here, and journey on in company, and then their converse is more serious, as becomes those who have joined hands and are moving onward towards life together. Later they reach sad, weary towns, black beneath a never-lifted pall of smoke, where day and night the clang of iron drowns all human voices, where the children play with ashes, where the men and women have dull, patient faces; and so on, muddy and stained, to the deep sea that ceaselessly calls to them. Here, however, their waters are fresh and clear, and their passing makes the only stir that the valley has ever known. Surely, of all peaceful places, this was the one where a tired worker might find strength.
My one-eyed friend had suggested I should seek lodgings at the house of one Mistress Cholmondley, a widow lady, who resided with her only daughter in the white-washed cottage that is the last house in the village, if you take the road that leads over Coll Fell.
"Tha' can see th' house from here, by reason o' its standing so high above t'others," said the carrier, pointing with his whip. "It's theer or nowhere, aw'm thinking, for folks don't often coom seeking lodgings in these parts."
The tiny dwelling, half smothered in June roses, looked idyllic, and after a lunch of bread and cheese at the little inn I made my way to it by the path that passes through the churchyard. I had conjured up the vision of a stout, pleasant, comfort-radiating woman, assisted by some bright, fresh girl, whose rosy cheeks and sunburnt hands would help me banish from my mind all clogging recollections of the town; and hopeful, I pushed back the half-opened door and entered.
The cottage was furnished with a taste that surprised me, but in themselves my hosts disappointed me. My bustling, comely housewife turned out a wizened, blear-eyed dame. All day long she dozed in her big chair, or crouched with shrivelled hands spread out before the fire. My dream of winsome maidenhood vanished before the reality of a weary-looking, sharp-featured woman of between forty and fifty. Perhaps there had been a time when the listless eyes had sparkled with roguish merriment, when the shrivelled, tight-drawn lips had pouted temptingly; but spinsterhood does not sweeten the juices of a woman, and strong country air, though, like old ale, it is good when taken occasionally, dulls the brain if lived upon. A narrow, uninteresting woman I found her, troubled with a shyness that sat ludicrously upon her age, and that yet failed to save her from the landlady's customary failing of loquacity concerning "better days," together with an irritating, if harmless, affectation of youthfulness.
All other details were, however, most satisfactory; and at the window commanding the road that leads through the valley towards the distant world I settled down to face my work.
But the spirit of industry, once driven forth, returns with coy steps. I wrote for perhaps an hour, and then throwing down my halting pen I looked about the room, seeking distraction. A Chippendale book-case stood against the wall and I strolled over to it. The key was in the lock, and opening its glass doors, I examined the well-filled shelves. They held a curious collection: miscellanies with quaint, glazed bindings; novels and poems; whose authors I had never heard of; old magazines long dead, their very names forgotten; "keepsakes" and annuals, redolent of an age of vastly pretty sentiments and lavender-coloured silks. On the top shelf, however, was a volume of Keats wedged between a number of the Evangelical Rambler and Young's Night Thoughts, and standing on tip- toe, I sought to draw it from its place.
The book was jambed so tightly that my efforts brought two or three others tumbling about me, covering me with a cloud of fine dust, and to my feet there fell, with a rattle of glass and metal, a small miniature painting, framed in black wood.
I picked it up, and, taking it to the window, examined it. It was the picture of a young girl, dressed in the fashion of thirty years ago—I mean thirty years ago then. I fear it must be nearer fifty, speaking as from now—when our grandmothers wore corkscrew curls, and low-cut bodices that one wonders how they kept from slipping down. The face was beautiful, not merely with the conventional beauty of tiresome regularity and impossible colouring such as one finds in all miniatures, but with soul behind the soft deep eyes. As I gazed, the sweet lips seemed to laugh at me, and yet there lurked a sadness in the smile, as though the artist, in some rare moment, had seen the coming shadow of life across the sunshine of the face. Even my small knowledge of Art told me that the work was clever, and I wondered why it should have lain so long neglected, when as a mere ornament it was valuable. It must have been placed in the book-case years ago by someone, and forgotten.
I replaced it among its dusty companions, and sat down once more to my work. But between me and the fading light came the face of the miniature, and would not be banished. Wherever I turned it looked out at me from the shadows. I am not naturally fanciful, and the work I was engaged upon—the writing of a farcical comedy—was not of the kind to excite the dreamy side of a man's nature. I grew angry with myself, and made a further effort to fix my mind upon the paper in front of me. But my thoughts refused to return from their wanderings. Once, glancing back over my shoulder, I could have sworn I saw the original of the picture sitting in the big chintz-covered chair in the far corner. It was dressed in a faded lilac frock, trimmed with some old lace, and I could not help noticing the beauty of the folded hands, though in the portrait only the head and shoulders had been drawn.
Next morning I had forgotten the incident, but with the lighting of the lamp the memory of it awoke within me, and my interest grew so strong that again I took the miniature from its hiding-place and looked at it.
And then the knowledge suddenly came to me that I knew the face. Where had I seen her, and when? I had met her and spoken to her. The picture smiled at me, as if rallying me on my forgetfulness. I put it back upon its shelf, and sat racking my brains trying to recollect. We had met somewhere—in the country—a long time ago, and had talked of common-place things. To the vision of her clung the scent of roses and the murmuring voices of haymakers. Why had I never seen her again? Why had she passed so completely out of my mind?
My landlady entered to lay my supper, and I questioned her assuming a careless tone. Reason with or laugh at myself as I would, this shadowy memory was becoming a romance to me. It was as though I were talking of some loved, dead friend, even to speak of whom to commonplace people was a sacrilege. I did not want the woman to question me in return.
"Oh, yes," answered my landlady. Ladies had often lodged with her. Sometimes people stayed the whole summer, wandering about the woods and fells, but to her thinking the great hills were lonesome. Some of her lodgers had been young ladies, but she could not remember any of them having impressed her with their beauty. But then it was said women were never a judge of other women. They had come and gone. Few had ever returned, and fresh faces drove out the old.
"You have been letting lodgings for a long time?" I asked. "I suppose it could be fifteen—twenty years ago that strangers to you lived in this room?"
"Longer than that," she said quietly, dropping for the moment all affectation. "We came here from the farm when my father died. He had had losses, and there was but little left. That is twenty-seven years ago now."
I hastened to close the conversation, fearing long-winded recollections of "better days." I have heard such so often from one landlady and another. I had not learnt much. Who was the original of the miniature, how it came to be lying forgotten in the dusty book-case were still mysteries; and with a strange perversity I could not have explained to myself I shrank from putting a direct question.
So two days more passed by. My work took gradually a firmer grip upon my mind, and the face of the miniature visited me less often. But in the evening of the third day, which was a Sunday, a curious thing happened.
I was returning from a stroll, and dusk was falling as I reached the cottage. I had been thinking of my farce, and I was laughing to myself at a situation that seemed to me comical, when, passing the window of my room, I saw looking out the sweet fair face that had become so familiar to me. It stood close to the latticed panes, a slim, girlish figure, clad in the old-fashioned lilac-coloured frock in which I had imagined it on the first night of my arrival, the beautiful hands clasped across the breast, as then they had been folded on the lap. Her eyes were gazing down the road that passes through the village and goes south, but they seemed to be dreaming, not seeing, and the sadness in them struck upon one almost as a cry. I was close to the window, but the hedge screened me, and I remained watching, until, after a minute I suppose, though it appeared longer, the figure drew back into the darkness of the room and disappeared.
I entered, but the room was empty. I called, but no one answered. The uncomfortable suggestion took hold of me that I must be growing a little crazy. All that had gone before I could explain to myself as a mere train of thought, but this time it had come to me suddenly, uninvited, while my thoughts had been busy elsewhere. This thing had appeared not to my brain but to my senses. I am not a believer in ghosts, but I am in the hallucinations of a weak mind, and my own explanation was in consequence not very satisfactory to myself.
I tried to dismiss the incident, but it would not leave me, and later that same evening something else occurred that fixed it still clearer in my thoughts. I had taken out two or three books at random with which to amuse myself, and turning over the leaves of one of them, a volume of verses by some obscure poet, I found its sentimental passages much scored and commented upon in pencil as was common fifty years ago—as may be common now, for your Fleet Street cynic has not altered the world and its ways to quite the extent that he imagines.
One poem in particular had evidently appealed greatly to the reader's sympathies. It was the old, old story of the gallant who woos and rides away, leaving the maiden to weep. The poetry was poor, and at another time its conventionality would have excited only my ridicule. But, reading it in conjunction with the quaint, naive notes scattered about its margins, I felt no inclination to jeer. These hackneyed stories that we laugh at are deep profundities to the many who find in them some shadow of their own sorrows, and she—for it was a woman's handwriting—to whom this book belonged had loved its trite verses, because in them she had read her own heart. This, I told myself, was her story also. A common enough story in life as in literature, but novel to those who live it.
There was no reason for my connecting her with the original of the miniature, except perhaps a subtle relationship between the thin nervous handwriting and the mobile features; yet I felt instinctively they were one and the same, and that I was tracing, link by link, the history of my forgotten friend.
I felt urged to probe further, and next morning while my landlady was clearing away my breakfast things, I fenced round the subject once again.
"By the way," I said, "while I think of it, if I leave any books or papers here behind me, send them on at once. I have a knack of doing that sort of thing. I suppose," I added, "your lodgers often do leave some of their belongings behind them."
It sounded to myself a clumsy ruse. I wondered if she would suspect what was behind it.
"Not often," she answered. "Never that I can remember, except in the case of one poor lady who died here."
I glanced up quickly.
"In this room?" I asked.
My landlady seemed troubled at my tone.
"Well, not exactly in this very room. We carried her upstairs, but she died immediately. She was dying when she came here. I should not have taken her in had I known. So many people are prejudiced against a house where death has occurred, as if there were anywhere it had not. It was not quite fair to us."
I did not speak for a while, and the rattle of the plates and knives continued undisturbed.
"What did she leave here?" I asked at length.
"Oh, just a few books and photographs, and such-like small things that people bring with them to lodgings," was the reply. "Her people promised to send for them, but they never did, and I suppose I forgot them. They were not of any value."
The woman turned as she was leaving the room.
"It won't drive you away, sir, I hope, what I have told you," she said. "It all happened a long while ago.
"Of course not," I answered. "It interested me, that was all." And the woman went out, closing the door behind her.
So here was the explanation, if I chose to accept it. I sat long that morning, wondering to myself whether things I had learnt to laugh at could be after all realities. And a day or two afterwards I made a discovery that confirmed all my vague surmises.
Rummaging through this same dusty book-case, I found in one of the ill- fitting drawers, beneath a heap of torn and tumbled books, a diary belonging to the fifties, stuffed with many letters and shapeless flowers, pressed between stained pages; and there—for the writer of stories, tempted by human documents, is weak—in faded ink, brown and withered like the flowers, I read the story I already knew.
Such a very old story it was, and so conventional. He was an artist—was ever story of this type written where the hero was not an artist? They had been children together, loving each other without knowing it till one day it was revealed to them. Here is the entry:—
"May 18th.—I do not know what to say, or how to begin. Chris loves me. I have been praying to God to make me worthy of him, and dancing round the room in my bare feet for fear of waking them below. He kissed my hands and clasped them round his neck, saying they were beautiful as the hands of a goddess, and he knelt and kissed them again. I am holding them before me and kissing them myself. I am glad they are so beautiful. O God, why are you so good to me? Help me to be a true wife to him. Help me that I may never give him an instant's pain! Oh, that I had more power of loving, that I might love him better,"—and thus foolish thoughts for many pages, but foolish thoughts of the kind that has kept this worn old world, hanging for so many ages in space, from turning sour.
Later, in February, there is another entry that carries on the story:—
"Chris left this morning. He put a little packet into my hands at the last moment, saying it was the most precious thing he possessed, and that when I looked at it I was to think of him who loved it. Of course I guessed what it was, but I did not open it till I was alone in my room. It is the picture of myself that he has been so secret about, but oh, so beautiful. I wonder if I am really as beautiful as this. But I wish he had not made me look so sad. I am kissing the little lips. I love them, because he loved to kiss them. Oh, sweetheart! it will be long before you kiss them again. Of course it was right for him to go, and I am glad he has been able to manage it. He could not study properly in this quiet country place, and now he will be able to go to Paris and Rome and he will be great. Even the stupid people here see how clever he is. But, oh, it will be so long before I see him again, my love! my king!"
With each letter that comes from him, similar foolish rhapsodies are written down, but these letters of his, I gather, as I turn the pages, grow after a while colder and fewer, and a chill fear that dare not be penned creeps in among the words.
"March 12th. Six weeks and no letter from Chris, and, oh dear! I am so hungry for one, for the last I have almost kissed to pieces. I suppose he will write more often when he gets to London. He is working hard, I know, and it is selfish of me to expect him to write more often, but I would sit up all night for a week rather than miss writing to him. I suppose men are not like that. O God, help me, help me, whatever happens! How foolish I am to-night! He was always careless. I will punish him for it when he comes back, but not very much."
Truly enough a conventional story.
Letters do come from him after that, but apparently they are less and less satisfactory, for the diary grows angry and bitter, and the faded writing is blotted at times with tears. Then towards the end of another year there comes this entry, written in a hand of strange neatness and precision:—
"It is all over now. I am glad it is finished. I have written to him, giving him up. I have told him I have ceased to care for him, and that it is better we should both be free. It is best that way. He would have had to ask me to release him, and that would have given him pain. He was always gentle. Now he will be able to marry her with an easy conscience, and he need never know what I have suffered. She is more fitted for him than I am. I hope he will be happy. I think I have done the right thing."
A few lines follow, left blank, and then the writing is resumed, but in a stronger, more vehement hand.
"Why do I lie to myself? I hate her! I would kill her if I could. I hope she will make him wretched, and that he will come to hate her as I do, and that she will die! Why did I let them persuade me to send that lying letter? He will show it to her, and she will see through it and laugh at me. I could have held him to his promise; he could not have got out of it.
"What do I care about dignity, and womanliness, and right, and all the rest of the canting words! I want him. I want his kisses and his arms about me. He is mine! He loved me once! I have only given him up because I thought it a fine thing to play the saint. It is only an acted lie. I would rather be evil, and he loved me. Why do I deceive myself? I want him. I care for nothing else at the bottom of my heart—his love, his kisses!"
And towards the end. "My God, what am I saying? Have I no shame, no strength? O God, help me!"
* * * * *
And there the diary closes.
I looked among the letters lying between the pages of the book. Most of them were signed simply "Chris." or "Christopher." But one gave his name in full, and it was a name I know well as that of a famous man, whose hand I have often shaken. I thought of his hard-featured, handsome wife, and of his great chill place, half house, half exhibition, in Kensington, filled constantly with its smart, chattering set, among whom he seemed always to be the uninvited guest; of his weary face and bitter tongue. And thinking thus there rose up before me the sweet, sad face of the woman of the miniature, and, meeting her eyes as she smiled at me from out of the shadows, I looked at her my wonder.
I took the miniature from its shelf. There would be no harm now in learning her name. So I stood with it in my hand till a little later my landlady entered to lay the cloth.
"I tumbled this out of your book-case," I said, "in reaching down some books. It is someone I know, someone I have met, but I cannot think where. Do you know who it is?"
The woman took it from my hand, and a faint flush crossed her withered face. "I had lost it," she answered. "I never thought of looking there. It's a portrait of myself, painted years ago, by a friend."
I looked from her to the miniature, as she stood among the shadows, with the lamplight falling on her face, and saw her perhaps for the first time.
"How stupid of me," I answered. "Yes, I see the likeness now."
THE MAN WHO WOULD MANAGE
It has been told me by those in a position to know—and I can believe it—that at nineteen months of age he wept because his grandmother would not allow him to feed her with a spoon, and that at three and a half he was fished, in an exhausted condition, out of the water-butt, whither he had climbed for the purpose of teaching a frog to swim.
Two years later he permanently injured his left eye, showing the cat how to carry kittens without hurting them, and about the same period was dangerously stung by a bee while conveying it from a flower where, as it seemed to him, it was only wasting its time, to one more rich in honey- making properties.
His desire was always to help others. He would spend whole mornings explaining to elderly hens how to hatch eggs, and would give up an afternoon's black-berrying to sit at home and crack nuts for his pet squirrel. Before he was seven he would argue with his mother upon the management of children, and reprove his father for the way he was bringing him up.
As a child nothing could afford him greater delight than "minding" other children, or them less. He would take upon himself this harassing duty entirely of his own accord, without hope of reward or gratitude. It was immaterial to him whether the other children were older than himself or younger, stronger or weaker, whenever and wherever he found them he set to work to "mind" them. Once, during a school treat, piteous cries were heard coming from a distant part of the wood, and upon search being made, he was discovered prone upon the ground, with a cousin of his, a boy twice his own weight, sitting upon him and steadily whacking him. Having rescued him, the teacher said:
"Why don't you keep with the little boys? What are you doing along with him?"
"Please, sir," was the answer, "I was minding him."
He would have "minded" Noah if he had got hold of him.
He was a good-natured lad, and at school he was always willing for the whole class to copy from his slate—indeed he would urge them to do so. He meant it kindly, but inasmuch as his answers were invariably quite wrong—with a distinctive and inimitable wrongness peculiar to himself—the result to his followers was eminently unsatisfactory; and with the shallowness of youth that, ignoring motives, judges solely from results, they would wait for him outside and punch him.
All his energies went to the instruction of others, leaving none for his own purposes. He would take callow youths to his chambers and teach them to box.
"Now, try and hit me on the nose," he would say, standing before them in an attitude of defence. "Don't be afraid. Hit as hard as ever you can."
And they would do it. And so soon as he had recovered from his surprise, and a little lessened the bleeding, he would explain to them how they had done it all wrong, and how easily he could have stopped the blow if they had only hit him properly.
Twice at golf he lamed himself for over a week, showing a novice how to "drive"; and at cricket on one occasion I remember seeing his middle stump go down like a ninepin just as he was explaining to the bowler how to get the balls in straight. After which he had a long argument with the umpire as to whether he was in or out.
He has been known, during a stormy Channel passage, to rush excitedly upon the bridge in order to inform the captain that he had "just seen a light about two miles away to the left"; and if he is on the top of an omnibus he generally sits beside the driver, and points out to him the various obstacles likely to impede their progress.
It was upon an omnibus that my own personal acquaintanceship with him began. I was sitting behind two ladies when the conductor came up to collect fares. One of them handed him a sixpence telling him to take to Piccadilly Circus, which was twopence.
"No," said the other lady to her friend, handing the man a shilling, "I owe you sixpence, you give me fourpence and I'll pay for the two."
The conductor took the shilling, punched two twopenny tickets, and then stood trying to think it out.
"That's right," said the lady who had spoken last, "give my friend fourpence."
The conductor did so.
"Now you give that fourpence to me."
The friend handed it to her.
"And you," she concluded to the conductor, "give me eightpence, then we shall be all right."
The conductor doled out to her the eightpence—the sixpence he had taken from the first lady, with a penny and two halfpennies out of his own bag—distrustfully, and retired, muttering something about his duties not including those of a lightning calculator.
"Now," said the elder lady to the younger, "I owe you a shilling."
I deemed the incident closed, when suddenly a florid gentleman on the opposite seat called out in stentorian tones:—
"Hi, conductor! you've cheated these ladies out of fourpence."
"'Oo's cheated 'oo out 'o fourpence?" replied the indignant conductor from the top of the steps, "it was a twopenny fare."
"Two twopences don't make eightpence," retorted the florid gentleman hotly. "How much did you give the fellow, my dear?" he asked, addressing the first of the young ladies.
"I gave him sixpence," replied the lady, examining her purse. "And then I gave you fourpence, you know," she added, addressing her companion.
"That's a dear two pen'oth," chimed in a common-looking man on the seat behind.
"Oh, that's impossible, dear," returned the other, "because I owed you sixpence to begin with."
"But I did," persisted the first lady.
"You gave me a shilling," said the conductor, who had returned, pointing an accusing forefinger at the elder of the ladies.
The elder lady nodded.
"And I gave you sixpence and two pennies, didn't I?"
The lady admitted it.
"An' I give 'er"—he pointed towards the younger lady—"fourpence, didn't I?"
"Which I gave you, you know, dear," remarked the younger lady.
"Blow me if it ain't me as 'as been cheated out of the fourpence," cried the conductor.
"But," said the florid gentleman, "the other lady gave you sixpence."
"Which I give to 'er," replied the conductor, again pointing the finger of accusation at the elder lady. "You can search my bag if yer like. I ain't got a bloomin' sixpence on me."
By this time everybody had forgotten what they had done, and contradicted themselves and one another. The florid man took it upon himself to put everybody right, with the result that before Piccadilly Circus was reached three passengers had threatened to report the conductor for unbecoming language. The conductor had called a policeman and had taken the names and addresses of the two ladies, intending to sue them for the fourpence (which they wanted to pay, but which the florid man would not allow them to do); the younger lady had become convinced that the elder lady had meant to cheat her, and the elder lady was in tears.
The florid gentleman and myself continued to Charing Cross Station. At the booking office window it transpired that we were bound for the same suburb, and we journeyed down together. He talked about the fourpence all the way.
At my gate we shook hands, and he was good enough to express delight at the discovery that we were near neighbours. What attracted him to myself I failed to understand, for he had bored me considerably, and I had, to the best of my ability, snubbed him. Subsequently I learned that it was a peculiarity of his to be charmed with anyone who did not openly insult him.
Three days afterwards he burst into my study unannounced—he appeared to regard himself as my bosom friend—and asked me to forgive him for not having called sooner, which I did.
"I met the postman as I was coming along," he said, handing me a blue envelope, "and he gave me this, for you."
I saw it was an application for the water-rate.
"We must make a stand against this," he continued. "That's for water to the 29th September. You've no right to pay it in June."
I replied to the effect that water-rates had to be paid, and that it seemed to me immaterial whether they were paid in June or September.
"That's not it," he answered, "it's the principle of the thing. Why should you pay for water you have never had? What right have they to bully you into paying what you don't owe?"
He was a fluent talker, and I was ass enough to listen to him. By the end of half an hour he had persuaded me that the question was bound up with the inalienable rights of man, and that if I paid that fourteen and tenpence in June instead of in September, I should be unworthy of the privileges my forefathers had fought and died to bestow upon me.
He told me the company had not a leg to stand upon, and at his instigation I sat down and wrote an insulting letter to the chairman.
The secretary replied that, having regard to the attitude I had taken up, it would be incumbent upon themselves to treat it as a test case, and presumed that my solicitors would accept service on my behalf.
When I showed him this letter he was delighted.
"You leave it to me," he said, pocketing the correspondence, "and we'll teach them a lesson."
I left it to him. My only excuse is that at the time I was immersed in the writing of what in those days was termed a comedy-drama. The little sense I possessed must, I suppose, have been absorbed by the play.
The magistrate's decision somewhat damped my ardour, but only inflamed his zeal. Magistrates, he said, were muddle-headed old fogies. This was a matter for a judge.
The judge was a kindly old gentleman, and said that bearing in mind the unsatisfactory wording of the sub-clause, he did not think he could allow the company their costs, so that, all told, I got off for something under fifty pounds, inclusive of the original fourteen and tenpence.
Afterwards our friendship waned, but living as we did in the same outlying suburb, I was bound to see a good deal of him; and to hear more.
At parties of all kinds he was particularly prominent, and on such occasions, being in his most good-natured mood, was most to be dreaded. No human being worked harder for the enjoyment of others, or produced more universal wretchedness.
One Christmas afternoon, calling upon a friend, I found some fourteen or fifteen elderly ladies and gentlemen trotting solemnly round a row of chairs in the centre of the drawing-room while Poppleton played the piano. Every now and then Poppleton would suddenly cease, and everyone would drop wearily into the nearest chair, evidently glad of a rest; all but one, who would thereupon creep quietly away, followed by the envying looks of those left behind. I stood by the door watching the weird scene. Presently an escaped player came towards me, and I enquired of him what the ceremony was supposed to signify.
"Don't ask me," he answered grumpily. "Some of Poppleton's damned tomfoolery." Then he added savagely, "We've got to play forfeits after this."
The servant was still waiting a favourable opportunity to announce me. I gave her a shilling not to, and got away unperceived.
After a satisfactory dinner, he would suggest an impromptu dance, and want you to roll up mats, or help him move the piano to the other end of the room.
He knew enough round games to have started a small purgatory of his own. Just as you were in the middle of an interesting discussion, or a delightful tete-a-tete with a pretty woman, he would swoop down upon you with: "Come along, we're going to play literary consequences," and dragging you to the table, and putting a piece of paper and a pencil before you, would tell you to write a description of your favourite heroine in fiction, and would see that you did it.
He never spared himself. It was always he who would volunteer to escort the old ladies to the station, and who would never leave them until he had seen them safely into the wrong train. He it was who would play "wild beasts" with the children, and frighten them into fits that would last all night.
So far as intention went, he was the kindest man alive. He never visited poor sick persons without taking with him in his pocket some little delicacy calculated to disagree with them and make them worse. He arranged yachting excursions for bad sailors, entirely at his own expense, and seemed to regard their subsequent agonies as ingratitude.
He loved to manage a wedding. Once he planned matters so that the bride arrived at the altar three-quarters of an hour before the groom, which led to unpleasantness upon a day that should have been filled only with joy, and once he forgot the clergyman. But he was always ready to admit when he made a mistake.
At funerals, also, he was to the fore, pointing out to the grief-stricken relatives how much better it was for all concerned that the corpse was dead, and expressing a pious hope that they would soon join it.
The chiefest delight of his life, however, was to be mixed up in other people's domestic quarrels. No domestic quarrel for miles round was complete without him. He generally came in as mediator, and finished as leading witness for the appellant.
As a journalist or politician his wonderful grasp of other people's business would have won for him esteem. The error he made was working it out in practice.
THE MAN WHO LIVED FOR OTHERS
The first time we met, to speak, he was sitting with his back against a pollard willow, smoking a clay pipe. He smoked it very slowly, but very conscientiously. After each whiff he removed the pipe from his mouth and fanned away the smoke with his cap.
"Feeling bad?" I asked from behind a tree, at the same time making ready for a run, big boys' answers to small boys' impertinences being usually of the nature of things best avoided.
To my surprise and relief—for at second glance I perceived I had under- estimated the length of his legs—he appeared to regard the question as a natural and proper one, replying with unaffected candour, "Not yet."
My desire became to comfort him—a sentiment I think he understood and was grateful for. Advancing into the open, I sat down over against him, and watched him for a while in silence. Presently he said:—
"Have you ever tried drinking beer?"
I admitted I had not.
"Oh, it is beastly stuff," he rejoined with an involuntary shudder.
Rendered forgetful of present trouble by bitter recollection of the past, he puffed away at his pipe carelessly and without judgment.
"Do you often drink it?" I inquired.
"Yes," he replied gloomily; "all we fellows in the fifth form drink beer and smoke pipes."
A deeper tinge of green spread itself over his face.
He rose suddenly and made towards the hedge. Before he reached it, however, he stopped and addressed me, but without turning round.
"If you follow me, young 'un, or look, I'll punch your head," he said swiftly, and disappeared with a gurgle.
He left at the end of the terms and I did not see him again until we were both young men. Then one day I ran against him in Oxford Street, and he asked me to come and spend a few days with his people in Surrey.
I found him wan-looking and depressed, and every now and then he sighed. During a walk across the common he cheered up considerably, but the moment we got back to the house door he seemed to recollect himself, and began to sigh again. He ate no dinner whatever, merely sipping a glass of wine and crumbling a piece of bread. I was troubled at noticing this, but his relatives—a maiden aunt, who kept house, two elder sisters, and a weak-eyed female cousin who had left her husband behind her in India—were evidently charmed. They glanced at each other, and nodded and smiled. Once in a fit of abstraction he swallowed a bit of crust, and immediately they all looked pained and surprised.
In the drawing-room, under cover of a sentimental song, sung by the female cousin, I questioned his aunt on the subject.
"What's the matter with him?" I said. "Is he ill?"
The old lady chuckled.
"You'll be like that one day," she whispered gleefully.
"When," I asked, not unnaturally alarmed.
"When you're in love," she answered.
"Is he in love?" I inquired after a pause.
"Can't you see he is?" she replied somewhat scornfully.
I was a young man, and interested in the question.
"Won't he ever eat any dinner till he's got over it?" I asked.
She looked round sharply at me, but apparently decided that I was only foolish.
"You wait till your time comes," she answered, shaking her curls at me. "You won't care much about your dinner—not if you are really in love."
In the night, about half-past eleven, I heard, as I thought, footsteps in the passage, and creeping to the door and opening it I saw the figure of my friend in dressing-gown and slippers, vanishing down the stairs. My idea was that, his brain weakened by trouble, he had developed sleep-walking tendencies. Partly out of curiosity, partly to watch over him, I slipped on a pair of trousers and followed him.
He placed his candle on the kitchen table and made a bee-line for the pantry door, from where he subsequently emerged with two pounds of cold beef on a plate and about a quart of beer in a jug; and I came away, leaving him fumbling for pickles.
I assisted at his wedding, where it seemed to me he endeavoured to display more ecstasy than it was possible for any human being to feel; and fifteen months later, happening to catch sight of an advertisement in the births column of The Times, I called on my way home from the City to congratulate him. He was pacing up and down the passage with his hat on, pausing at intervals to partake of an uninviting-looking meal, consisting of a cold mutton chop and a glass of lemonade, spread out upon a chair. Seeing that the cook and the housemaid were wandering about the house evidently bored for want of something to do, and that the dining- room, where he would have been much more out of the way, was empty and quite in order, I failed at first to understand the reason for his deliberate choice of discomfort. I, however, kept my reflections to myself, and inquired after the mother and child.
"Couldn't be better," he replied with a groan. "The doctor said he'd never had a more satisfactory case in all his experience."
"Oh, I'm glad to hear that," I answered; "I was afraid you'd been worrying yourself."
"Worried!" he exclaimed. "My dear boy, I don't know whether I'm standing on my head or my heels" (he gave one that idea). "This is the first morsel of food that's passed my lips for twenty-four hours."
At this moment the nurse appeared at the top of the stairs. He flew towards her, upsetting the lemonade in his excitement.
"What is it?" he asked hoarsely. "Is it all right?"
The old lady glanced from him to his cold chop, and smiled approvingly.
"They're doing splendidly," she answered, patting him on the shoulder in a motherly fashion. "Don't you worry."
"I can't help it, Mrs. Jobson," he replied, sitting down upon the bottom stair, and leaning his head against the banisters.
"Of course you can't," said Mrs. Jobson admiringly; "and you wouldn't be much of a man if you could." Then it was borne in upon me why he wore his hat, and dined off cold chops in the passage.
The following summer they rented a picturesque old house in Berkshire, and invited me down from a Saturday to Monday. Their place was near the river, so I slipped a suit of flannels in my bag, and on the Sunday morning I came down in them. He met me in the garden. He was dressed in a frock coat and a white waistcoat; and I noticed that he kept looking at me out of the corner of his eye, and that he seemed to have a trouble on his mind. The first breakfast bell rang, and then he said, "You haven't got any proper clothes with you, have you?"
"Proper clothes!" I exclaimed, stopping in some alarm. "Why, has anything given way?"
"No, not that," he explained. "I mean clothes to go to church in."
"Church," I said. "You're surely not going to church a fine day like this? I made sure you'd be playing tennis, or going on the river. You always used to."
"Yes," he replied, nervously flicking a rose-bush with a twig he had picked up. "You see, it isn't ourselves exactly. Maud and I would rather like to, but our cook, she's Scotch, and a little strict in her notions."
"And does she insist on your going to church every Sunday morning?" I inquired.
"Well," he answered, "she thinks it strange if we don't, and so we generally do, just in the morning—and evening. And then in the afternoon a few of the village girls drop in, and we have a little singing and that sort of thing. I never like hurting anyone's feelings if I can help it."
I did not say what I thought. Instead I said, "I've got that tweed suit I wore yesterday. I can put that on if you like."
He ceased flicking the rose-bush, and knitted his brows. He seemed to be recalling it to his imagination.
"No," he said, shaking his head, "I'm afraid it would shock her. It's my fault, I know," he added, remorsefully. "I ought to have told you."
Then an idea came to him.
"I suppose," he said, "you wouldn't care to pretend you were ill, and stop in bed just for the day?"
I explained that my conscience would not permit my being a party to such deception
"No, I thought you wouldn't," he replied. "I must explain it to her. I think I'll say you've lost your bag. I shouldn't like her to think bad of us."
Later on a fourteenth cousin died, leaving him a large fortune. He purchased an estate in Yorkshire, and became a "county family," and then his real troubles began.
From May to the middle of August, save for a little fly fishing, which generally resulted in his getting his feet wet and catching a cold, life was fairly peaceful; but from early autumn to late spring he found the work decidedly trying. He was a stout man, constitutionally nervous of fire-arms, and a six-hours' tramp with a heavy gun across ploughed fields, in company with a crowd of careless persons who kept blazing away within an inch of other people's noses, harassed and exhausted him. He had to get out of bed at four on chilly October mornings to go cub-hunting, and twice a week throughout the winter—except when a blessed frost brought him a brief respite—he had to ride to hounds. That he usually got off with nothing more serious than mere bruises and slight concussions of the spine, he probably owed to the fortunate circumstances of his being little and fat. At stiff timber he shut his eyes and rode hard; and ten yards from a river he would begin to think about bridges.
Yet he never complained.
"If you are a country gentleman," he would say, "you must behave as a country gentleman, and take the rough with the smooth."
As ill fate would have it a chance speculation doubled his fortune, and it became necessary that he should go into Parliament and start a yacht. Parliament made his head ache, and the yacht made him sick. Notwithstanding, every summer he would fill it with a lot of expensive people who bored him, and sail away for a month's misery in the Mediterranean.
During one cruise his guests built up a highly-interesting gambling scandal. He himself was confined to his cabin at the time, and knew nothing about it; but the Opposition papers, getting hold of the story, referred casually to the yacht as a "floating hell," and The Police News awarded his portrait the place of honour as the chief criminal of the week.
Later on he got into a cultured set, ruled by a thick-lipped undergraduate. His favourite literature had hitherto been of the Corelli and Tit-Bits order, but now he read Meredith and the yellow book, and tried to understand them; and instead of the Gaiety, he subscribed to the Independent Theatre, and fed "his soul," on Dutch Shakespeares. What he liked in art was a pretty girl by a cottage-door with an eligible young man in the background, or a child and a dog doing something funny. They told him these things were wrong and made him buy "Impressions" that stirred his liver to its deepest depths every time he looked at them—green cows on red hills by pink moonlight, or scarlet-haired corpses with three feet of neck.
He said meekly that such seemed to him unnatural, but they answered that nature had nothing to do with the question; that the artist saw things like that, and that whatever an artist saw—no matter in what condition he may have been when he saw it—that was art.
They took him to Wagner festivals and Burne-Jones's private views. They read him all the minor poets. They booked seats for him at all Ibsen's plays. They introduced him into all the most soulful circles of artistic society. His days were one long feast of other people's enjoyments.
One morning I met him coming down the steps of the Arts Club. He looked weary. He was just off to a private view at the New Gallery. In the afternoon he had to attend an amateur performance of "The Cenci," given by the Shelley Society. Then followed three literary and artistic At Homes, a dinner with an Indian nabob who couldn't speak a word of English, "Tristam and Isolde" at Covent Garden Theatre, and a ball at Lord Salisbury's to wind up the day.
I laid my hand upon his shoulder.
"Come with me to Epping Forest," I said. "There's a four-horse brake starts from Charing Cross at eleven. It's Saturday, and there's bound to be a crowd down there. I'll play you a game of skittles, and we will have a shy at the cocoa-nuts. You used to be rather smart at cocoa-nuts. We can have lunch there and be back at seven, dine at the Troc., spend the evening at the Empire, and sup at the Savoy. What do you say?"
He stood hesitating on the steps, a wistful look in his eyes.
His brougham drew up against the curb, and he started as if from a dream.
"My dear fellow," he replied, "what would people say?" And shaking me by the hand, he took his seat, and the footman slammed the door upon him.
A MAN OF HABIT
There were three of us in the smoke-room of the Alexandra—a very good friend of mine, myself, and, in the opposite corner, a shy-looking, unobtrusive man, the editor, as we subsequently learned, of a New York Sunday paper.
My friend and I were discussing habits, good and bad.
"After the first few months," said my friend, "it is no more effort for a man to be a saint than to be a sinner; it becomes a mere matter of habit."
"I know," I interrupted, "it is every whit as easy to spring out of bed the instant you are called as to say 'All Right,' and turn over for just another five minutes' snooze, when you have got into the way of it. It is no more trouble not to swear than to swear, if you make a custom of it. Toast and water is as delicious as champagne, when you have acquired the taste for it. Things are also just as easy the other way about. It is a mere question of making your choice and sticking to it."
He agreed with me.
"Now take these cigars of mine," he said, pushing his open case towards me.
"Thank you," I replied hurriedly, "I'm not smoking this passage."
"Don't be alarmed," he answered, "I meant merely as an argument. Now one of these would make you wretched for a week."
I admitted his premise.
"Very well," he continued. "Now I, as you know, smoke them all day long, and enjoy them. Why? Because I have got into the habit. Years ago, when I was a young man, I smoked expensive Havanas. I found that I was ruining myself. It was absolutely necessary that I should take a cheaper weed. I was living in Belgium at the time, and a friend showed me these. I don't know what they are—probably cabbage leaves soaked in guano; they tasted to me like that at first—but they were cheap. Buying them by the five hundred, they cost me three a penny. I determined to like them, and started with one a day. It was terrible work, I admit, but as I said to myself, nothing could be worse than the Havanas themselves had been in the beginning. Smoking is an acquired taste, and it must be as easy to learn to like one flavour as another. I persevered and I conquered. Before the year was over I could think of them without loathing, at the end of two I could smoke them without positive discomfort. Now I prefer them to any other brand on the market. Indeed, a good cigar disagrees with me."
I suggested it might have been less painful to have given up smoking altogether.
"I did think of it," he replied, "but a man who doesn't smoke always seems to me bad company. There is something very sociable about smoke."
He leant back and puffed great clouds into the air, filling the small den with an odour suggestive of bilge water and cemeteries.
"Then again," he resumed after a pause, "take my claret. No, you don't like it." (I had not spoken, but my face had evidently betrayed me.) "Nobody does, at least no one I have ever met. Three years ago, when I was living in Hammersmith, we caught two burglars with it. They broke open the sideboard, and swallowed five bottlefuls between them. A policeman found them afterwards, sitting on a doorstep a hundred yards off, the 'swag' beside them in a carpet bag. They were too ill to offer any resistance, and went to the station like lambs, he promising to send the doctor to them the moment they were safe in the cells. Ever since then I have left out a decanterful upon the table every night.
"Well, I like that claret, and it does me good. I come in sometimes dead beat. I drink a couple of glasses, and I'm a new man. I took to it in the first instance for the same reason that I took to the cigars—it was cheap. I have it sent over direct from Geneva, and it costs me six shillings a dozen. How they do it I don't know. I don't want to know. As you may remember, it's fairly heady and there's body in it.
"I knew one man," he continued, "who had a regular Mrs. Caudle of a wife. All day long she talked to him, or at him, or of him, and at night he fell asleep to the rising and falling rhythm of what she thought about him. At last she died, and his friends congratulated him, telling him that now he would enjoy peace. But it was the peace of the desert, and the man did not enjoy it. For two-and-twenty years her voice had filled the house, penetrated through the conservatory, and floated in faint shrilly waves of sound round the garden, and out into the road beyond. The silence now pervading everywhere frightened and disturbed him. The place was no longer home to him. He missed the breezy morning insult, the long winter evening's reproaches beside the flickering fire. At night he could not sleep. For hours he would lie tossing restlessly, his ears aching for the accustomed soothing flow of invective.
"'Ah!' he would cry bitterly to himself, 'it is the old story, we never know the value of a thing until we have lost it.'
"He grew ill. The doctors dosed him with sleeping draughts in vain. At last they told him bluntly that his life depended upon his finding another wife, able and willing to nag him to sleep.
"There were plenty of wives of the type he wanted in the neighbourhood, but the unmarried women were, of necessity, inexperienced, and his health was such that he could not afford the time to train them.
"Fortunately, just as despair was about to take possession of him, a man died in the next parish, literally talked to death, the gossip said, by his wife. He obtained an introduction, and called upon her the day after the funeral. She was a cantankerous old woman, and the wooing was a harassing affair, but his heart was in his work, and before six months were gone he had won her for his own.
"She proved, however, but a poor substitute. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. She had neither that command of language nor of wind that had distinguished her rival. From his favourite seat at the bottom of the garden he could not hear her at all, so he had his chair brought up into the conservatory. It was all right for him there so long as she continued to abuse him; but every now and again, just as he was getting comfortably settled down with his pipe and his newspaper, she would suddenly stop.
"He would drop his paper and sit listening, with a troubled, anxious expression.
"'Are you there, dear?' he would call out after a while.
"'Yes, I'm here. Where do you think I am you old fool?' she would gasp back in an exhausted voice.
"His face would brighten at the sound of her words. 'Go on, dear,' he would answer. 'I'm listening. I like to hear you talk.'
"But the poor woman was utterly pumped out, and had not so much as a snort left.
"Then he would shake his head sadly. 'No, she hasn't poor dear Susan's flow,' he would say. 'Ah! what a woman that was!'
"At night she would do her best, but it was a lame and halting performance by comparison. After rating him for little over three-quarters of an hour, she would sink back on the pillow, and want to go to sleep. But he would shake her gently by the shoulder.
"'Yes, dear,' he would say, 'you were speaking about Jane, and the way I kept looking at her during lunch.'
"It's extraordinary," concluded my friend, lighting a fresh cigar, "what creatures of habit we are."
"Very," I replied. "I knew a man who told tall stories till when he told a true one nobody believed it."
"Ah, that was a very sad case," said my friend.
"Speaking of habit," said the unobtrusive man in the corner, "I can tell you a true story that I'll bet my bottom dollar you won't believe."
"Haven't got a bottom dollar, but I'll bet you half a sovereign I do," replied my friend, who was of a sporting turn. "Who shall be judge?"
"I'll take your word for it," said the unobtrusive man, and started straight away.
* * * * *
"He was a Jefferson man, this man I'm going to tell you of," he begun. "He was born in the town, and for forty-seven years he never slept a night outside it. He was a most respectable man—a drysalter from nine to four, and a Presbyterian in his leisure moments. He said that a good life merely meant good habits. He rose at seven, had family prayer at seven-thirty, breakfasted at eight, got to his business at nine, had his horse brought round to the office at four, and rode for an hour, reached home at five, had a bath and a cup of tea, played with and read to the children (he was a domesticated man) till half-past six, dressed and dined at seven, went round to the club and played whist till quarter after ten, home again to evening prayer at ten-thirty, and bed at eleven. For five-and-twenty years he lived that life with never a variation. It worked into his system and became mechanical. The church clocks were set by him. He was used by the local astronomers to check the sun.
"One day a distant connection of his in London, an East Indian Merchant and an ex-Lord Mayor died, leaving him sole legatee and executor. The business was a complicated one and needed management. He determined to leave his son by his first wife, now a young man of twenty-four, in charge at Jefferson, and to establish himself with his second family in England, and look after the East Indian business.
"He set out from Jefferson City on October the fourth, and arrived in London on the seventeenth. He had been ill during the whole of the voyage, and he reached the furnished house he had hired in Bayswater somewhat of a wreck. A couple of days in bed, however, pulled him round, and on the Wednesday evening he announced his intention of going into the City the next day to see to his affairs.
"On the Thursday morning he awoke at one o'clock. His wife told him she had not disturbed him, thinking the sleep would do him good. He admitted that perhaps it had. Anyhow, he felt very well, and he got up and dressed himself. He said he did not like the idea of beginning his first day by neglecting a religious duty, and his wife agreeing with him, they assembled the servants and the children in the dining-room, and had family prayer at half-past one. After which he breakfasted and set off, reaching the City about three.
"His reputation for punctuality had preceded him, and surprise was everywhere expressed at his late arrival. He explained the circumstances, however, and made his appointments for the following day to commence from nine-thirty.
"He remained at the office until late, and then went home. For dinner, usually the chief meal of the day, he could manage to eat only a biscuit and some fruit. He attributed his loss of appetite to want of his customary ride. He was strangely unsettled all the evening. He said he supposed he missed his game of whist, and determined to look about him without loss of time for some quiet, respectable club. At eleven he retired with his wife to bed, but could not sleep. He tossed and turned, and turned and tossed, but grew only more and more wakeful and energetic. A little after midnight an overpowering desire seized him to go and wish the children good-night. He slipped on a dressing-gown and stole into the nursery. He did not intend it, but the opening of the door awoke them, and he was glad. He wrapped them up in the quilt, and, sitting on the edge of the bed, told them moral stories till one o'clock.
"Then he kissed them, bidding them be good and go to sleep; and finding himself painfully hungry, crept downstairs, where in the back kitchen he made a hearty meal off cold game pie and cucumber.
"He retired to bed feeling more peaceful, yet still could not sleep, so lay thinking about his business affairs till five, when he dropped off.
"At one o'clock to the minute he awoke. His wife told him she had made every endeavour to rouse him, but in vain. The man was vexed and irritated. If he had not been a very good man indeed, I believe he would have sworn. The same programme was repeated as on the Thursday, and again he reached the City at three.
"This state of things went on for a month. The man fought against himself, but was unable to alter himself. Every morning, or rather every afternoon at one he awoke. Every night at one he crept down into the kitchen and foraged for food. Every morning at five he fell asleep.
"He could not understand it, nobody could understand it. The doctor treated him for water on the brain, hypnotic irresponsibility and hereditary lunacy. Meanwhile his business suffered, and his health grew worse. He seemed to be living upside down. His days seemed to have neither beginning nor end, but to be all middle. There was no time for exercise or recreation. When he began to feel cheerful and sociable everybody else was asleep.
"One day by chance the explanation came. His eldest daughter was preparing her home studies after dinner.
"'What time is it now in New York?' she asked, looking up from her geography book.
"'New York,' said her father, glancing at his watch, 'let me see. It's just ten now, and there's a little over four and a half hours' difference. Oh, about half-past five in the afternoon.'
"'Then in Jefferson,' said the mother, 'it would be still earlier, wouldn't it?'
"'Yes,' replied the girl, examining the map, 'Jefferson is nearly two degrees further west.'
"'Two degrees,' mused the father, 'and there's forty minutes to a degree. That would make it now, at the present moment in Jefferson—'
"He leaped to his feet with a cry:
"'I've got it!' he shouted, 'I see it.'
"'See what?' asked his wife, alarmed.
"'Why, it's four o'clock in Jefferson, and just time for my ride. That's what I'm wanting.'
"There could be no doubt about it. For five-and-twenty years he had lived by clockwork. But it was by Jefferson clockwork, not London clockwork. He had changed his longitude, but not himself. The habits of a quarter of a century were not to be shifted at the bidding of the sun.
"He examined the problem in all its bearings, and decided that the only solution was for him to return to the order of his old life. He saw the difficulties in his way, but they were less than those he was at present encountering. He was too formed by habit to adapt himself to circumstances. Circumstances must adapt themselves to him.
"He fixed his office hours from three till ten, leaving himself at half- past nine. At ten he mounted his horse and went for a canter in the Row, and on very dark nights he carried a lantern. News of it got abroad, and crowds would assemble to see him ride past.
"He dined at one o'clock in the morning, and afterwards strolled down to his club. He had tried to discover a quiet, respectable club where the members were willing to play whist till four in the morning, but failing, had been compelled to join a small Soho gambling-hell, where they taught him poker. The place was occasionally raided by the police, but thanks to his respectable appearance, he generally managed to escape.
"At half-past four he returned home, and woke up the family for evening prayers. At five he went to bed and slept like a top.
"The City chaffed him, and Bayswater shook its head over him, but that he did not mind. The only thing that really troubled him was loss of spiritual communion. At five o'clock on Sunday afternoons he felt he wanted chapel, but had to do without it. At seven he ate his simple mid- day meal. At eleven he had tea and muffins, and at midnight he began to crave again for hymns and sermons. At three he had a bread-and-cheese supper, and retired early at four a.m., feeling sad and unsatisfied.
"He was essentially a man of habit."
* * * * *
The unobtrusive stranger ceased, and we sat gazing in silence at the ceiling.
At length my friend rose, and taking half-a-sovereign from his pocket, laid it upon the table, and linking his arm in mine went out with me upon the deck.
THE ABSENT-MINDED MAN
You ask him to dine with you on Thursday to meet a few people who are anxious to know him.
"Now don't make a muddle of it," you say, recollectful of former mishaps, "and come on the Wednesday."
He laughs good-naturedly as he hunts through the room for his diary.
"Shan't be able to come Wednesday," he says, "shall be at the Mansion House, sketching dresses, and on Friday I start for Scotland, so as to be at the opening of the Exhibition on Saturday. It's bound to be all right this time. Where the deuce is that diary! Never mind, I'll make a note of it on this—you can see me do it."
You stand over him while he writes the appointment down on a sheet of foolscap, and watch him pin it up over his desk. Then you come away contented.
"I do hope he'll turn up," you say to your wife on the Thursday evening, while dressing.
"Are you sure you made it clear to him?" she replies, suspiciously, and you instinctively feel that whatever happens she is going to blame you for it.
Eight o'clock arrives, and with it the other guests. At half-past eight your wife is beckoned mysteriously out of the room, where the parlour- maid informs her that the cook has expressed a determination, in case of further delay, to wash her hands, figuratively speaking, of the whole affair.
Your wife, returning, suggests that if the dinner is to be eaten at all it had better be begun. She evidently considers that in pretending to expect him you have been merely playing a part, and that it would have been manlier and more straightforward for you to have admitted at the beginning that you had forgotten to invite him.
During the soup and the fish you recount anecdotes of his unpunctuality. By the time the entree arrives the empty chair has begun to cast a gloom over the dinner, and with the joint the conversation drifts into talk about dead relatives.
On Friday, at a quarter past eight, he dashes to the door and rings violently. Hearing his voice in the hall, you go to meet him.
"Sorry I'm late," he sings out cheerily. "Fool of a cabman took me to Alfred Place instead of—"
"Well, what do you want now you are come?" you interrupt, feeling anything but genially inclined towards him. He is an old friend, so you can be rude to him.
He laughs, and slaps you on the shoulder.
"Why, my dinner, my dear boy, I'm starving."
"Oh," you grunt in reply. "Well, you go and get it somewhere else, then. You're not going to have it here."
"What the devil do you mean?" he says. "You asked me to dinner."
"I did nothing of the kind," you tell him. "I asked you to dinner on Thursday, not on Friday."
He stares at you incredulously.
"How did I get Friday fixed in my mind?" inquiringly.
"Because yours is the sort of mind that would get Friday firmly fixed into it, when Thursday was the day," you explain. "I thought you had to be off to Edinburgh to-night," you add.
"Great Scott!" he cries, "so I have."
And without another word he dashes out, and you hear him rushing down the road, shouting for the cab he has just dismissed.
As you return to your study you reflect that he will have to travel all the way to Scotland in evening dress, and will have to send out the hotel porter in the morning to buy him a suit of ready-made clothes, and are glad.
Matters work out still more awkwardly when it is he who is the host. I remember being with him on his house-boat one day. It was a little after twelve, and we were sitting on the edge of the boat, dangling our feet in the river—the spot was a lonely one, half-way between Wallingford and Day's Lock. Suddenly round the bend appeared two skiffs, each one containing six elaborately-dressed persons. As soon as they caught sight of us they began waving handkerchiefs and parasols.
"Hullo!" I said, "here's some people hailing you."
"Oh, they all do that about here," he answered, without looking up. "Some beanfeast from Abingdon, I expect."
The boats draw nearer. When about two hundred yards off an elderly gentleman raised himself up in the prow of the leading one and shouted to us.
McQuae heard his voice, and gave a start that all but pitched him into the water.
"Good God!" he cried, "I'd forgotten all about it."
"About what?" I asked.
"Why, it's the Palmers and the Grahams and the Hendersons. I've asked them all over to lunch, and there's not a blessed thing on board but two mutton chops and a pound of potatoes, and I've given the boy a holiday."
Another day I was lunching with him at the Junior Hogarth, when a man named Hallyard, a mutual friend, strolled across to us.
"What are you fellows going to do this afternoon?" he asked, seating himself the opposite side of the table.
"I'm going to stop here and write letters," I answered.
"Come with me if you want something to do," said McQuae. "I'm going to drive Leena down to Richmond." ("Leena" was the young lady he recollected being engaged to. It transpired afterwards that he was engaged to three girls at the time. The other two he had forgotten all about.) "It's a roomy seat at the back."
"Oh, all right," said Hallyard, and they went away together in a hansom.
An hour and a half later Hallyard walked into the smoking-room looking depressed and worn, and flung himself into a chair.
"I thought you were going to Richmond with McQuae," I said.
"So did I," he answered.
"Had an accident?" I asked.
He was decidedly curt in his replies.
"Cart upset?" I continued.
"No, only me."
His grammar and his nerves seemed thoroughly shaken.
I waited for an explanation, and after a while he gave it.
"We got to Putney," he said, "with just an occasional run into a tram- car, and were going up the hill, when suddenly he turned a corner. You know his style at a corner—over the curb, across the road, and into the opposite lamp-post. Of course, as a rule one is prepared for it, but I never reckoned on his turning up there, and the first thing I recollect is finding myself sitting in the middle of the street with a dozen fools grinning at me.
"It takes a man a few minutes in such a case to think where he is and what has happened, and when I got up they were some distance away. I ran after them for a quarter of a mile, shouting at the top of my voice, and accompanied by a mob of boys, all yelling like hell on a Bank Holiday. But one might as well have tried to hail the dead, so I took the 'bus back.
"They might have guessed what had happened," he added, "by the shifting of the cart, if they'd had any sense. I'm not a light-weight."
He complained of soreness, and said he would go home. I suggested a cab, but he replied that he would rather walk.
I met McQuae in the evening at the St. James's Theatre. It was a first night, and he was taking sketches for The Graphic. The moment he saw me he made his way across to me.
"The very man I wanted to see," he said. "Did I take Hallyard with me in the cart to Richmond this afternoon?"
"You did," I replied.
"So Leena says," he answered, greatly bewildered, "but I'll swear he wasn't there when we got to the Queen's Hotel."
"It's all right," I said, "you dropped him at Putney."
"Dropped him at Putney!" he repeated. "I've no recollection of doing so."
"He has," I answered. "You ask him about it. He's full of it."
Everybody said he never would get married; that it was absurd to suppose he ever would remember the day, the church, and the girl, all in one morning; that if he did get as far as the altar he would forget what he had come for, and would give the bride away to his own best man. Hallyard had an idea that he was already married, but that the fact had slipped his memory. I myself felt sure that if he did marry he would forget all about it the next day.
But everybody was wrong. By some miraculous means the ceremony got itself accomplished, so that if Hallyard's idea be correct (as to which there is every possibility), there will be trouble. As for my own fears, I dismissed them the moment I saw the lady. She was a charming, cheerful little woman, but did not look the type that would let him forget all about it.
I had not seen him since his marriage, which had happened in the spring. Working my way back from Scotland by easy stages, I stopped for a few days at Scarboro'. After table d'hote I put on my mackintosh, and went out for a walk. It was raining hard, but after a month in Scotland one does not notice English weather, and I wanted some air. Struggling along the dark beach with my head against the wind, I stumbled over a crouching figure, seeking to shelter itself a little from the storm under the lee of the Spa wall.
I expected it to swear at me, but it seemed too broken-spirited to mind anything.
"I beg your pardon," I said. "I did not see you."
At the sound of my voice it started to its feet.
"Is that you, old man?" it cried.
"McQuae!" I exclaimed.
"By Jove!" he said, "I was never so glad to see a man in all my life before."
And he nearly shook my hand off.
"But what in thunder!" I said, "are you doing here? Why, you're drenched to the skin."
He was dressed in flannels and a tennis-coat.
"Yes," he answered. "I never thought it would rain. It was a lovely morning."
I began to fear he had overworked himself into a brain fever.
"Why don't you go home?" I asked.
"I can't," he replied. "I don't know where I live. I've forgotten the address."
"For heaven's sake," he said, "take me somewhere, and give me something to eat. I'm literally starving."
"Haven't you any money?" I asked him, as we turned towards the hotel.
"Not a sou," he answered. "We got in here from York, the wife and I, about eleven. We left our things at the station, and started to hunt for apartments. As soon as we were fixed, I changed my clothes and came out for a walk, telling Maud I should be back at one to lunch. Like a fool, I never took the address, and never noticed the way I was going.
"It's an awful business," he continued. "I don't see how I'm ever going to find her. I hoped she might stroll down to the Spa in the evening, and I've been hanging about the gates ever since six. I hadn't the threepence to go in."
"But have you no notion of the sort of street or the kind of house it was?" I enquired.
"Not a ghost," he replied. "I left it all to Maud, and didn't trouble."
"Have you tried any of the lodging-houses?" I asked.
"Tried!" he exclaimed bitterly. "I've been knocking at doors, and asking if Mrs. McQuae lives there steadily all the afternoon, and they slam the door in my face, mostly without answering. I told a policeman—I thought perhaps he might suggest something—but the idiot only burst out laughing, and that made me so mad that I gave him a black eye, and had to cut. I expect they're on the lookout for me now."
"I went into a restaurant," he continued gloomily, "and tried to get them to trust me for a steak. But the proprietress said she'd heard that tale before, and ordered me out before all the other customers. I think I'd have drowned myself if you hadn't turned up."
After a change of clothes and some supper, he discussed the case more calmly, but it was really a serious affair. They had shut up their flat, and his wife's relatives were travelling abroad. There was no one to whom he could send a letter to be forwarded; there was no one with whom she would be likely to communicate. Their chance of meeting again in this world appeared remote.
Nor did it seem to me—fond as he was of his wife, and anxious as he undoubtedly was to recover her—that he looked forward to the actual meeting, should it ever arrive, with any too pleasurable anticipation.
"She will think it strange," he murmured reflectively, sitting on the edge of the bed, and thoughtfully pulling off his socks. "She is sure to think it strange."
The following day, which was Wednesday, we went to a solicitor, and laid the case before him, and he instituted inquiries among all the lodging- house keepers in Scarborough, with the result that on Thursday afternoon McQuae was restored (after the manner of an Adelphi hero in the last act) to his home and wife.
I asked him next time I met him what she had said.
"Oh, much what I expected," he replied.
But he never told me what he had expected.
A CHARMING WOMAN
"Not the Mr. —-, really?"
In her deep brown eyes there lurked pleased surprise, struggling with wonder. She looked from myself to the friend who introduced us with a bewitching smile of incredulity, tempered by hope.
He assured her, adding laughingly, "The only genuine and original," and left us.
"I've always thought of you as a staid, middle-aged man," she said, with a delicious little laugh, then added in low soft tones, "I'm so very pleased to meet you, really."
The words were conventional, but her voice crept round one like a warm caress.
"Come and talk to me," she said, seating herself upon a small settee, and making room for me.
I sat down awkwardly beside her, my head buzzing just a little, as with one glass too many of champagne. I was in my literary childhood. One small book and a few essays and criticisms, scattered through various obscure periodicals had been as yet my only contributions to current literature. The sudden discovery that I was the Mr. Anybody, and that charming women thought of me, and were delighted to meet me, was a brain- disturbing thought.
"And it was really you who wrote that clever book?" she continued, "and all those brilliant things, in the magazines and journals. Oh, it must be delightful to be clever."
She gave breath to a little sigh of vain regret that went to my heart. To console her I commenced a laboured compliment, but she stopped me with her fan. On after reflection I was glad she had—it would have been one of those things better expressed otherwise.
"I know what you are going to say," she laughed, "but don't. Besides, from you I should not know quite how to take it. You can be so satirical."
I tried to look as though I could be, but in her case would not.
She let her ungloved hand rest for an instant upon mine. Had she left it there for two, I should have gone down on my knees before her, or have stood on my head at her feet—have made a fool of myself in some way or another before the whole room full. She timed it to a nicety.
"I don't want you to pay me compliments," she said, "I want us to be friends. Of course, in years, I'm old enough to be your mother." (By the register I should say she might have been thirty-two, but looked twenty-six. I was twenty-three, and I fear foolish for my age.) "But you know the world, and you're so different to the other people one meets. Society is so hollow and artificial; don't you find it so? You don't know how I long sometimes to get away from it, to know someone to whom I could show my real self, who would understand me. You'll come and see me sometimes—I'm always at home on Wednesdays—and let me talk to you, won't you, and you must tell me all your clever thoughts."