"I hope you are better now."
"Oh, when I have had some champagne I shall be quite well. Now tell me something; talk to me."
Helen was sitting thrown back on the little black satin sofa; she had crossed her legs, and her foot was set on a tiger's head. The ankle was too thick, the foot slightly fat, but stocking and shoe were perfect, and these drew Frank's eyes too attentively. Helen noticed this and was glad.
"So you like Maggie the best?"
"Oh, yes, I like her the best, Sally is too rough. How those girls do worry their father. He has to go up to town every day; he is in the City, and the girls give tennis parties, and drink his best wine. There was an awful row there the other day about the peaches; he had been going in for forcing, and was counting the days when they would be ripe. The young men ate them all."
Helen laughed. "A sort of comic King Lear."
"Just so, the girls will have large fortunes at their father's death. I have known them all my life. I used to spend my holidays with them when I was a small boy."
"And you haven't seen them for a long time?"
"No, I was in Ireland two years, and then I went to Italy. This was the first time I saw them since they were really grown up."
"And you say they are beautiful girls and will have large fortunes."
"Yes, I suppose Maggie is a good-looking girl; she is more a fascinating girl than a beautiful girl." A sudden remembrance of Lizzie Baker dictated this opinion of Maggie Brookes.
"Dinner is on the table, my lady."
"I think you said in your letter that you were going to have two young girls staying with you."
"Yes, but they could not come; they were to have been here on Monday. I am very sorry; had I known for certain that you were coming, I would have arranged to have some one to meet you."
"I am very glad you didn't." The conversation dropped. "You said you were going to the theatre. What theatre are you thinking of going to?"
"My neuralgia put all thoughts of the theatre out of my head. I have a box for the Gaiety. We will go if you like."
The name of the theatre reminded him of Lizzie Baker, and he compared the pale, refined face of the bar girl with the over-coloured woman— his hostess. He had not seen Lizzie for a long time. Why had he not gone to the bar room the last time he was in London?
"You have not answered me—would you like to go to the Gaiety?"
"I am sure I beg your pardon," and then, in a sudden confusion of memories and desires, he said: "I don't know that I care much about going to the theatre. You are not feeling well."
"My neuralgia is almost all gone. There's nothing like champagne for it. Hardwick, Mr. Escott will take some more champagne."
There were engravings after Burne Jones and Rossetti on the walls, and Frank stopped to look at them as he followed Lady Seveley upstairs. She went straight to the piano.
"Are you fond of music?" she said.
"Yes; there is nothing I like more than fiddling at the piano."
"Then do play something."
"Oh, no, not for worlds. I only strum, I don't know my notes. I strum on the piano as I strum on the violin."
"Do you play the violin?"
"I can't call it playing, I was never taught."
"How did you learn, then? It is a most difficult instrument; I couldn't get on with it at all; I will get mine out if you will play something."
"If you promise not to laugh, I will try, but I assure you I know nothing about it. I borrowed a violin once, and I taught myself to play a tune; then I bought a violin, and I amuse myself when I am alone."
"How very clever of you. There, you will find it under the piano behind that music; do play something, it will be so good of you."
"What shall I play?"
"Anything you like."
Frank had no knowledge of the instrument, but his ear was exquisitely just and appreciative; his artistic desire was febrile and foolish, but you thought less of this in his music than in his painting and poetry. His soul went out in the strain of melody sentimentally; and it leaned him in varying and beautiful attitudes. The sweeping, music- evoking arm was beautiful to behold, and the music seemed to cry for love; all about him was shadow; only the light fell on the long throat, so like a fruit to the eye; the charm was enervating and nervous. Helen looked at him again, and shuddering, she rose from the piano.
"What did you break off like that for? Was I playing so badly?"
"No, no—come and sit down here, come and sit by me. I want you to talk to me." She stretched herself in a low wicker chair by the open window. There was a church opposite, the painted panes were now full of mitre and alb, and the vague tumult of the service came in contrast with the summer murmur of London and the light of the evening skies. The woman's body moved beneath the silk, and the faint odour of her person dilated the nostrils of the young man. "Talk to me."
"I don't know what to talk to you about. You would not care for my conversation any more than you do for my music—one is as bad as the other."
"No, pray—I assure you—I would not have you think that, no." Helen made a movement as if she were going to lay her hand on his arm; checking herself, she said: "I do not think your playing bad; on the contrary, perhaps I think it too good. How shall I explain? There are times when I cannot bear music; the pleasure it brings is too near, too intense, too near to pain; and that 'Chanson d'Eglise' seems to bear away your very brain; you play it with such fervour, on the violin each phrase tears the soul."
"But it is so religious."
"Yes, that is just it; no sen—no; well, there is no other word; no sensuality is so terrible as religious sensuality."
"I don't know what you mean. I can understand any one saying that Offenbach is sensual, but I don't see how the term can be applied to a hymn."
"Perhaps not to a hymn, although—but 'La Chanson d'Eglise' is not a hymn."
Her arm hung along the chair, the flesh showing through the silk as soft as a flower. He might take it in his hands and bear it to his lips and kiss it; he might lean and loll and kiss her. He wondered if he might dare it; but her air of ladyhood was so marked that it seemed impossible that she would not resent. He could not quite realise what her looks and words would be afterwards.
"I do not wish to flatter you, but I think you play beautifully. I do not mean to say that I have never heard any one play the violin better—that would be ridiculous. Your playing is full of emotion. That lovely passage thrilled me; I do not know why, nor can I exactly explain my feeling—nerves perhaps. Now I come to think of it I am ashamed. It was the summer evening, the perfume of those flowers; it was—" Helen fixed her eyes on Frank, as if she would like to say, "It was you." With a sigh she said: "It was the music." Then as if she feared she was showing too plainly what was passing in her mind, she said: "But it is nearly nine o'clock. Perhaps you would like to go to the theatre, the ticket for the box is on the table. I should not be more than a few minutes changing my dress. Would you like to go?"
"I don't much mind, just as you like. I heard that the new burlesque was very amusing."
"Then let us go."
Both regretted their words; and, embarrassed, each waited for the other to say No, let us stay here, it is far sweeter here. But it was difficult to draw back now without avowal. Helen had rung for her maid. She put on a white satin. Her opera cloak was edged with deep soft fur, and she came into the room putting on her long tan gloves.
"Were you ever in love?" Helen asked, and she leaned back behind the curtain of the box out of sight of the audience.
"I suppose I have been in love; but why do you ask?"
"It just occurred to me."
"I have never been in love with a ballet girl, if you mean that."
In blue tights and symmetrical rows the legs of the chorus ladies were arranged about the stage; the low comedians cracked jokes close to the footlights; the stalls laughed, the pit applauded.
"Haven't you? Is that really so? I shouldn't think it would be nice. And yet, if all we hear is true, young men do make love to low women; I'm not speaking now of ballet girls, but of cooks and housemaids. A lady, a friend of mine, cannot keep a housemaid under fifty in her house on account of her son, and she sent him to Eton."
"Yes, I know; I have heard of such things, but I never could understand."
"I am glad. But you say you have been in love. Tell me all about it. I want to know. What was she like? Was she fair or dark?"
"Fair. She used to wear a Gainsborough hat."
"Did you like those great hats?"
"I did on her."
"I suppose she was tall, then."
"No, she was short."
"Then I don't see how she would wear a Gainsborough hat."
"She did, and looked exquisite in it too."
"I suppose you were very much in love with her?"
"Yes; we were engaged, and going to be married."
"Why was it broken off?"
"Her father was a brute."
"Fathers generally are brutes on such occasions, and there are generally excellent reasons for their brutality."
"Husbands, too, are brutes, and if all I have heard is correct, there are excellent reasons for their brutality."
Lady Seveley turned pale. "I did not come to the theatre to be insulted," she said, hesitating whether she should rise from her seat. Frank Escott was constantly guilty of such indelicate and stupid speeches, and it would be easy to cite instances in which his conduct was equally unpractical. Were friends to speak ill of any one he was especially intimate with, he would answer them in the grossest manner, forgetful that he was making formidable enemies for himself without in the least advancing the welfare of him or her whose defence he had undertaken. With some words and looks the storm was allayed, and they felt that the wind that might have capsized had carried their craft nearer the port where they were steering. Their eyes met, and for a moment they looked into each other's souls. Her arm hung by her side, white and pure, could he take it and press it to his lips the worst would be over—he would have admitted his desire. But the box curtain did not hide him, and the faces opposite seemed to watch; and then she spoke, and with her words brought a sense of distance, of conventionality.
"Tell me, did you fall in love with her the first time you saw her?"
"I think so."
"Tell me all about it. When did you see her for the first time?"
"It was on the Metropolitan Railway. We were in the same carriage, she sat opposite to me; for some time we were alone, and I thought of speaking to her, but was afraid of offending her."
"Are you always afraid of offending people?"
"I don't know—I don't think I am." Then it struck him that she was alluding to his rudeness, which she declared she had forgiven, and he said: "I am sure I can't do more, I told you I was sorry—that I did not mean—"
"Oh, never mind, that is forgiven; tell me about her."
A little perplexed, he continued: "She was dressed in white, and her face was like a flower under the great hat."
"It is clear that you can admire no one who doesn't wear a Gainsborough hat. What will you do now that they have gone out of fashion? I am sure I can't gratify you."
"I wondered where she was going. I wished I was going to the same house, I imagined what it would be like, and so the time went till we got to Kensington. She turned to the right, so did I; I hoped she did not think I was following her—"
"You were both going to the same house?"
"Yes. There were some carnations behind her in a vase, and you know how I love the perfume of a carnation—so did she. She told me of the flowers they had in their cottage at Maidenhead. I love the river, so did she, and we spoke of the river all the afternoon. And when the season was over I went up to Maidenhead too. I had my boat there (I must show you my boat one of these days, one of the prettiest boats on the river). We used to go out together, and, tying the boat under an alder, I used to read her Browning. Oh, it was a jolly time." The conversation came to a pause, then Frank said "Were you ever in love?"
"I suppose I was."
"With your husband?"
"No, I was not in love with my husband, he was twenty years older than I. When I was eighteen I was very much in love with a young fellow who used to come to play croquet at our place. But my parents wouldn't hear of it. I was not at all strong when I was a girl; they said I wouldn't live, so I didn't care what became of me. Lord Seveley admired me; it was a very good match, I was anxious to get away from home, so I married him. You are quite wrong in supposing I treated him badly."
"Forgive me, don't say any more about that."
"We had rows, it is true; he said horrible things about my mother, and I wouldn't stand that, of course."
"Oh, I can't tell you—no matter. Once I said that I wouldn't have married him only I thought I was going to die. He never forgave me that. It was, I admit, a foolish thing to say."
At that moment the curtain came down, and the young men moved out of the stalls. "There are two men I know," she said, fixing her glass. "Do you see them? The elder of the two is Harding, the novelist, the other is Mr. Fletcher, an Irishman."
"I know Fletcher—or, rather, I know of him. His father was a shopkeeper in Gort, the nearest town to Mount Rorke Castle."
"He is a journalist, isn't he? I hear he is doing pretty well."
"In London, I know, you associate with that class, but in Ireland we wouldn't think of knowing them."
"I thought you were more liberal-minded than that. If they come up here, what shall I do? I mustn't introduce you?"
"I don't mind being introduced. I should like to know Harding."
"I can't introduce you to Harding and not to his friend."
"I don't mind being introduced to Fletcher; I'll bow and slink off to smoke a cigarette. Is it true what they say about him, that he is irresistible, that no woman can resist him? I don't think he is good- looking—a good figure, that's all."
"He has the most lovely hands and teeth."
"I see; perhaps you are in love with him?"
A knock came at the door; the young men entered. Lady Seveley introduced them to Frank; he bowed coldly, and addressed Harding. But Lady Seveley said: "O Mr. Harding, I want to speak to you about your last novel; I have just finished reading it."
"What do you think of this piece?" Fletcher asked Escott, in a hesitating and conciliatory manner.
"I am afraid he will not be able to tell you; he hasn't ceased talking since we came into the theatre."
"I should have done the same had I been in his place."
Lady Seveley smiled, Frank thought the words presumptuous. "Who the devil would care to hear you talk—and that filthy accent." And at that moment he remembered Lizzie Baker. Fletcher and Harding were now speaking to Lady Seveley, and taking advantage of the circumstance he slipped out, and, lighting a cigarette, entered the bar room. Behind the counter the young ladies stood in single file, and through odours of cigarettes and whisky their voices called "One coffee in order," and the cry was passed on till it reached the still-room. Frank remembered having read a description of the place somewhere, he thought for a moment, and then he remembered that it was in one of Harding's novels. He could detect no difference in the loafers that leaned over the counter talking to the barmaids; they were dingy and dull, whereas the young men from the stalls of the theatre were black and white and clean; but the keenest eye could note nothing further, and a closer inspection showed that even a first division rested on no deeper basis than the chance of evening dress. Civilisation has given us all one face and mind. He walked to where Lizzie was serving; soldiers were ordering drinks of her, so he was obliged to apply to the next girl to her for his brandy and soda. He drank slowly, hoping her admirers would leave her, but one soldier was stationery, and this spot of red grew singularly offensive in Frank's eyes, from the clumsy, characterless boots, to the close-clipped hair set off with the monotonously jaunty cap. The man sprawled over the counter drinking a glass of porter. Frank tried to listen to what he was saying. Lizzie smiled, showing many beautifully shaped teeth, so beautifully shaped that they looked like sculpture. Behind her there were shelves charged with glasses and bottles, gilt elephants, and obelisks, a hideous decoration; she passed up and down with cups of coffee, she filled glasses from various taps, she saluted Frank.
"How are you this evening? Come to see the piece again?"
"Come to see you."
"Get along; I don't believe you," she said, and she passed back to her place, and continued talking to the soldier as steadily as her many occupations would allow her.
A few moments after the bell rang, and Frank went upstairs annoyed.
"Oh, so it is you; you have come back," said Helen, turning; "sit down here. Nellie Farren has just sung such an exquisitely funny song; they have encored it; just listen to it, do," and Helen fixed her opera glass on the actress. The light and shadow played about her neck andarm in beautiful variations, but noticing nothing, Frank leaned forward.
"Isn't it funny; isn't it delightfully funny?"
"Yes, it is funny."
Having heard one song they listened to the rest of the act. "Now give me my cloak. Thank you, and now give me your arm." Frank complied. "You will come home to Green Street with me, and have some supper?"
"I am afraid, I am sorry I can't; I must get home early to-night."
"You have a key, you surely can get in at any hour."
"Yes, but I am afraid—the fact is I am dreadfully tired."
"Oh, just as you like."
Then at the end of an irritating silence, "I am afraid you will have to wait, I do not think I shall be able to get your carriage yet awhile; in a few minutes this crowd will disperse. No use getting crushed to death! What became of Harding and Fletcher? Did they remain long with you?"
"No, not very, they went away just before you came. There is Mr. Harding. How did you like the piece, Mr. Harding?"
"I always enjoy these pieces, they are so conscientiously illiterate; what I can't bear is unconscientious illiterateness. Nellie Farren has caught something of the jangle of modern life; she has something of the freshness of the music-hall about her that appeals to me very sharply."
"Do you like music-halls? I have always heard they were so vulgar."
"Vulgarity is surely preferable to popularity. The theatre is merely popular."
While Harding was thus exerting himself with epigram, Fletcher stood tall and slender, with a grey overcoat hanging over his arm, and his intense eyes fixed on Lady Seveley. His gaze troubled her, and when he withdrew his eyes she looked at him, anticipant and fearing. He spoke to her until Frank, feeling that he was receding out of all interest and attention, said abruptly, "If you will come now, Lady Seveley, I think I shall be able to get you your carriage. May I see you home?" he said, holding the door.
"No thank you, I will not take you out of your way. Go home at once and get rested, and come and see me one of these days; don't forget." Lady Seveley smiled, but Frank felt that she was annoyed.
"I wonder if she wanted me to go home with her. That impertinent brute Fletcher daring to come up to speak to us! I was very nearly telling him to go and fetch the carriage."
He pushed open the swinging doors with violence, nearly upsetting the fat porter. The bar was nearly empty, and he found Lizzie disengaged.
"You look very vexed. Has any one been pinching you?"
"I am not vexed."
"What will you have to put you straight?"
"Well, that is a question. Let me see. I don't care about another brandy and soda, and if I have coffee it may keep me awake."
"Have half milk."
"Very well." He hesitated, but the inclination to speak soon overpowered him. "I call it bad form, when you are with a lady for another fellow to come up and speak to her."
"Three of Irish, miss."
"Why, didn't he know her?"
"Of course he knew her, but that doesn't give him a right to come up and enter into a long conversation when I am with her. I wish I had knocked him down."
"He might have knocked you down."
"A glass of bitter, miss."
"I should have had to take my chance of that. In London people don't seem to me to mind whom they speak to—a low-bred Irishman, who never spoke to a lady until he left his own country."
"Oh! what a rage we are in."
"No, I am not in a rage," said Frank, who at that moment felt the folly of these confidences. "I don't care a hang. It isn't as if it were a woman I cared about. Had it been you—"
"Get along, don't you tell me."
"I assure you I speak only in a general way, and you must admit that if you go out with a fellow it would not be nice of you to begin talking to some one else."
"Oh! I never do that."
"There, then you admit I was right, I was sure you would; I don't care a hang for the lady I was with, but I don't intend to allow any one to insult me. But I wonder how you can speak to soldiers."
"They are no worse than the others. Besides, in our business we have to be polite to every one."
"Polite, yes—but I wanted to speak to you, I came down from my box on purpose to speak to you, and I couldn't, you were so engaged with that soldier."
"He was here before you; you would not like it if you were talking to me, and I were to rush off to speak to some one else."
"One Scotch and three Irish, miss, and out of the bottle please, our friend here's most particular, he would like it in a thin glass, too— wouldn't you, Ted? and if he could have a go at that pretty mouth he would like it better still. A rare one after the ladies is Teddy. Aren't you, old chap?"
Full of scorn Frank watched this noisy group. Lizzie remained talking with them for some little time, and she did not return until he called to her twice for a cigar.
"How very impatient you are," she said, handing him the box.
"You were talking to me, and you go away to talk to those cads."
"I must serve the customers, you naughty man. You can't have me all to yourself. I believe you would like to."
"That I should. I wish you would come out with me. I wish you would come to dinner."
"And what would the lady say who you went to the theatre with to- night, and were so mad because some one spoke to her?"
"I assure you she is nothing to me, a mere acquaintance. I was angry because I thought it a piece of impertinence of the fellow to come intruding his conversation when it wasn't wanted; but as for the woman I don't care a snap for her; never did, I assure you: she is nothing to me. I suppose you don't get out much here."
"We are off duty for so many hours every day; but we must be in at a certain time."
"But you have got Sundays."
"We get Sunday in our turn."
"When will your turn come?"
"I am going out next Sunday."
"I wish you would come with me; I would take you up the river. You know the river?"
"No, I don't know even what you mean."
"You mean to say you have never been up the river, not even so far as Twickenham?" "No."
"Well, then, you have a treat. The most beautiful thing in England is the Thames—perhaps in the world. Last year I spent nearly three months at Marlow and Maidenhead—we positively lived in a boat. I have a beautiful boat. I should like to take you out—you would enjoy it. Are you fond of boating?"
"I love it. I haven't been in a boat since I left Wales."
"So you are a Welsh girl. My boat is now at Reading. If you could get away early in the morning we might manage to catch the nine o'clock express that takes us down in a little over the hour. I'd have the hamper packed, and we would have our lunch up in Pangbourne Woods. It would be so jolly. I wish you would come."
"I should like it immensely; I don't know if I could manage it."
"Do you say you will come, do."
Lizzie stood hesitating, her finger on her lip. A girl entered the bar and whispered something to her as she passed.
"I must go away now, I'm off duty."
"Say you will come."
"I can't say yet; I shall see you again."
As Frank turned to go he caught sight of Harding and Fletcher. He did not see that they had been watching him, and when they called him he went over to their table.
"What will you have?" said Harding.
"Nothing, thanks, I could not drink anything more."
"Have a cigarette."
"Thanks, I will; I cannot smoke this beastly cigar. I do not know why I asked for it."
The conversation turned on the play, but at the first pause in the conversation, Harding said: "Pretty girl, that girl you were talking to at the bar."
"Yes; is she not? I think she is one of the prettiest girls I ever saw in my life."
"Far better looking than Lady Seveley."
"I should rather think so; Lady Seveley is over thirty."
"The choice would be a nice test of a young man's moral character."
"Did you write that this morning, or are you going to write it to- morrow morning?"
"You have not told me which, when you do—"
"I see you are not in a hurry to bring your book out."
Harding laughed, and Frank was pleased at the idea of getting the better of Harding; Fletcher sat with his eyes glittering and his lips slightly parted. Who would hesitate between a lady of rank and a barmaid? She might be a pretty girl, but what of that? There are hundreds as pretty. He had never been the lover of a lady, and his heart was aflame. Soon after the men parted in the street, and Frank went from them, fearful of his lonely rooms, and longing for his friends at Southwick.
He lunched every day at the Gaiety, and he at length succeeded in persuading Lizzie to come to Reading with him.
Town was miserably Sunday when he drove up to Paddington at a quarter past eight. "If it should rain, if it should turn out a pouring wet day, what should I do? That would be too terrible!" He felt the boat alive beneath his oars, the river placid and gentle, and all the charm of the rushes, the cedars, the locks, and the blonde beautiful girl in the stern with the parasol he had bought her aslant. Let him have this day, and he didn't care what happened! He wanted to show her the river, he wanted to joy for a day in her presence.
He was more than a half an hour in advance. Would she come? She had promised, but she might disappoint. That would be worse than the rain. He would wait till ten o'clock. There was another train at ten, but if they missed the ten to nine the day would be spoilt, lost. Supposing she did not come, what would he do?—drive back through dingy London and eat a lonely breakfast in that horrible brick Pump Court? He could scarcely do that. Would he go to Reading by himself? The light of the flowing stream, the secrets of the rushes and murmuring woods died; nature became voiceless.
"It will be a pity if she doesn't come. We shall have a fine day, I am sure it is going to be a fine day, but we shall miss that train. I wonder if I can see anything of her. I don't know what side she will come from. I suppose she'll take a cab. Perhaps she won't come at all; will she come?—she promised me. By Jove, twenty minutes to nine. If she isn't here in five minutes we shall miss the train." His passion grew in intensity, and hope was dead, when he heard sounds of running footsteps, and saw the great girl holding her hat with one hand and her dress with the other. The torture of expectation was worth the rapture of relief, and he said, delighted: "So you have come, have you? One minute more and you would have been late."
"Why, were you going?"
"No, but the train is. We have three minutes. I'll run and get the tickets. How is it that you are so late?"
"I just missed the train."
"The Metropolitan? What nonsense! Why didn't you take a cab?"
She had been afraid of spending the money, fearing she might not see him after all; and out of breath she followed him along the platform. "No, not in there; I don't like travelling alone with gentlemen." Frank looked at her in amazement, and they got into a carriage where an old gentleman was sitting.
"So you thought I wouldn't come, you naughty boy?"
"Oh, I should have been so disappointed. I don't know what I should have done."
Lizzie watched the young aristocratic face; his earnestness drew her towards him, and she wondered she did not like him better. "Now tell me what we are going to do. I had such difficulty in getting away. It is against the rules; and the manageress (the fat woman who stands at the end of the bar and goes round and collects the money) hates me. She would have stopped me if she could, but I went to the manager; he is a friend of mine."
"That fellow with the long fair moustache that walks about at the rate of seven miles an hour, with his frock-coat all unbuttoned. Harding the novelist—the fellow I was sitting with the other night, said such a good thing—he said he was a sort of apotheosis of sherry and bitters. I don't know why it is good, but it is; whether it is the colour of his face and moustache—"
"He is very proud of his moustache, and your friend is quite right; he is very fond of sherry and bitters—too fond. I have served him with as many as three in an afternoon, and I am sure he wouldn't have refused another if he could have found any one to stand it. Oh, look at the country! How pretty it is!—the cows, the corn growing, the birds and all the light clouds; we are going to have a lovely day. Shall we see much of the country at Reading? Tell me, where are you going to take me? Shall we go for a walk in the woods? Are there any woods? I hope there are."
"The most beautiful woods in England—Pangbourne Woods. We shall arrive in Reading about a quarter to ten. We'll walk down to the river, or drive if you like; it is only a few minutes to walk to the boat-house. My boat is there—such a beauty! We'll row up to the—and that reminds me, I ordered the luncheon basket at the best place in London, you know; it was to have been at my place last night at eight o'clock, and they never sent it. We shall have to lunch at the hotel. Such a beautiful hotel, high up, overlooking the river; I hope you are not disappointed, it really wasn't my fault. We shall have an excellent lunch, I assure you, at the hotel."
The miles fled away, and in the comfort and speed of the broad gaugeline, an hour and a half seemed to them like a minute.
"What kind of town is Reading?" said Lizzie, springing from the carriage.
"Not much more than a biscuit manufactory. A lot of red brick pill-box looking buildings scattered over a flat piece of ground. We shan't see the town. It is a mile from here. Huntley and Palmer, you know—"
"Oh, yes, we deal with them."
"Catch hold of this rug while I get the tickets out. Shall we walk or drive?"
They stepped along gaily, and they were soon standing on the wharf, Frank criticising the boats and the rowing, Lizzie all white in the sunlight, a little dumbfounded and astonished. Then he turned into the boat-house, and reappeared soon after, his arms bare, the sun on his neck.
"You got my telegram? My boat is ready?"
"Yes, sir, we got her out this morning."
"I suppose a lot of people wanted to have her, they all went for her, I'll bet."
"Yes, sir, a good many gentlemen asked if they could have her."
It seemed to please Frank that he had caused so many to be disappointed. "Well, get her out, we have no time to lose."
The man stepped from one fleet of skiffs to another, he caught at several boats with his boat-hook, but Frank's boat could not be found. He shouted to his man who was sculling towards an island opposite: "What has become of Mr. Escott's boat? I took her out myself this morning."
"I should like to know what is the use of my sending you telegrams if I am delayed in this way?"
"My man will be here in a second, sir."
"Now, then, do be quick, stir yourself, I don't want to stand about here all day."
The assistant scratched his head. Finally it transpired that that party down the river—that party just gone away—must have had the boat. He didn't know anything about it, it wasn't his fault. They said they had engaged that boat over-night.
"My boat let out for hire! How dare you do this? I never heard of such a thing; I shall write to the papers."
"I will give you just as good a boat, sir—"
"As good a boat! You haven't a boat like it. How do I know you don't let my boat out for hire every day?"
"No danger of that, sir; I will give you another boat, one that you will be pleased with."
"My boat knocked about by some cad! He won't be back till nine o'clock to-night, perhaps. I never heard of such a thing. Which is it?"
"That one with the lady in the stern—the red parasol."
"He must be caught up, he must. Have you got an outrigger?" Assuring Lizzie that he would be back in less than half an hour, Frank bent to his work.
"If he rows like that he will run down some one," muttered the boatman. "Confound him and his boat!"
The outrigger shot through the water; the various craft paused, surprised at such furious rowing. Lizzie watched the race, asking the boatman if there was danger.
"Danger? No; but he'd better not say too much to that gent when he does catch him up, or there'll be a row, I expect. He's going round the bend; if he doesn't run into something, he'll catch them," said the boatman. "Would you like to look through my glass, miss? They'll be coming back presently."
Angry language was indulged in, but the apologies of the boatmen saved the young men the unpleasantness of blows, and, elated at his success, Frank handed Lizzie into the truant boat and paddled out into the stream. When he had got out of earshot and out of the notice of the boat-house he rested on his oars. "Did you see me overhaul them?"
"No, you passed out of sight round the bend."
"Yes, by George! I had a good pull for it. There are a lot of red parasols up higher, and I had to look out for my boat. What did they say about my rowing?"
"They said you'd catch them if you didn't run into something."
"Did they? I was wild; and—would you believe it?—when I did catch them up the fellow began to object; he didn't want to come back, if you please. He said he had hired the boat, that he did not know the boat was mine—no proof. I said, 'I will give you proof,' and so I would have."
"I was afraid. I began to regret that I had come out with you."
"What nonsense! Done the fellow good if I had punched his head. Well, it has taken it out of me a bit. I had to put on a bit of a spurt to catch them; they had such a start, and they were going along a pretty fair pace, too. It has made me feel a bit peckish, a pull like that on an empty stomach; it must be close on twelve o'clock. What do you say, are you beginning to feel that it is lunch time?"
"I am not very hungry, and you forgot the luncheon basket. I ought to have reminded you to get some sandwiches at the railway station."
"Sandwiches! I don't want sandwiches; I want something more substantial than sandwiches. I'll paddle on; we aren't more than a tenminutes' paddle from the 'Roebuck,' a ripping nice hotel, I can tell you."
"Couldn't we have something to eat without going to an hotel?"
"I don't think so. I want a bottle of fizz, and the fizz there is excellent; one of the best hotels on the river; splendid gardens and tennis grounds, a great room overlooking the river; the best people go there; sometimes one can't get a table."
"I don't think I am well dressed enough."
"You look charming, a cotton dress and a parasol is all one wants for the river."
"You are not ashamed of me, then; you'll take me as I am?"
"Ashamed of you! Steer straight for that post—that's it, bravo!" Frank shipped the oars, and when he felt the girl's arm laid on his as he helped her to land, it seemed to him that all the world was happiness. The spirit of the river, the fields and sky, leaped to his eyes. He assisted her to ascend the steps cut in the hillside. She laughed and laughed again, and stopped to rest. At last they stood on the railway line. It swept round another hill all overshadowed and dark with cedars.
"Here comes a train, let's wait. I must see it go round the curve."
"You should see the Bath express come along the broad gauge at the rate of sixty miles an hour."
"This is not an express?"
The luggage train came with an interminable rumble and jingle, and Lizzie waited till the last truck passed under the branches. Then they went to an hotel full of daylight and stained wood, with glimpses of barmaids far away, and waiters running about; the rooms glistened with table linen; the waiters carved at a sideboard covered with pies, sirloins, hams, tongues. Only one table was occupied, and the waiters were lavishing all attention upon it. Lady Seveley leaned back smoking a cigarette. Fletcher sat next to her, alternately affecting indifference and fixing her with his eyes. Harding was voluble and observant. There was about them an air of thirty and the dissipations of thirty. And, not in the least ashamed of Lizzie, Frank bowed to Lady Seveley; she returned his bow by a slight nod; and Lizzie, very much embarrassed, nodded to the men; they smiled in return.
"Who is that lady you saluted?"
"Lady Seveley; the lady I told you about, who I went to the theatre with the other night."
"Fancy a lady like that smoking a cigarette!"
A waiter approached with the bill of fare. "We had better not have anything hot, we shall lose the whole day. What do you say?"
"Cold sirloin of beef is excellent, sir; pigeon pie is also very good —young birds."
"Shall we try the pigeon pie? Get me the wine list. Take off your hat, Lizzie, do."
"I am afraid my hair will come down."
"Never mind, so much the better."
With some difficulty she extracted her hat from the hairpins, and the bright hair hung loose about her white plump face. Frank drank a glass of champagne; he was proud of her beauty.
"By Jove, how this does pick one up! not half bad tipple, is it?"
They hastened through their lunch, unconsciously avoiding the too critical looks of those at the far corner table; nor did they suspect, as they descended the hill and got into their boat and rowed away, that they were still the subject of conversation.
"She is no doubt a very pretty girl. He seems very fond of her. I hope he won't make a fool of himself."
"I think he is 'mashed.' We saw him the other night in the bar. He was paying her a great deal of attention—the night we saw you at the theatre."
Lady Seveley's face slightly altered. Harding noticed the change of expression, and he said: "She is called the belle of the bar. Hers is the kind of prettiness that appeals to a young man, for somehow, I cannot explain, it is a thing you must feel; she epitomises as it were the beauty of the English girl; she is the typical pretty English girl; all that English girls have of charm, she has; and the co- ordination is an irresistible force against some young men; their natures demand the freshness the spontaneity, the innocence of—"
"Of the Gaiety bar! I have never been there, but from what you tell me of it, it is the last place to find innocence and freshness."
"That may be or not be. We find a rose blooming in very out-of-the-way places; but, as a matter of fact, I made no accusation of virtue; vice does not rob a youth of its spontaneity. You may rouge the cheeks of May and blacken her eyes, but she is May nevertheless. I say that the lover of the young girl cannot love the woman of thirty. Her charms touch him not at all; but there are others who may love only the woman of thirty, and, strange to say, they are only loved by the woman of thirty. The universal Don Juan is a myth, and does not exist out of literature. There is the Don Juan who plays havoc among the women of thirty, there is the Don Juan who plays havoc among young girls, but— "
"And you think our friend Frank Escott belongs to the latter class?"
"No, I don't. He is good-looking; he is to all appearance a young man that any woman would like, but I don't think you'd find this to be so if it were given to you to see into his life. Every man of the world must have noticed that there are times when, speaking generally, every second woman will run after him—ladies of rank, prostitutes, maid- servants—when he may pick and choose his mistresses, and change his mind as often as he pleases; there are other times when he finds himself womanless, when none will look at him, when in fact without an allusion to rings, and sometimes a very direct allusion is required, he will not be able to persuade a chorus girl to come out to supper with him. He thinks he is getting old, he looks in the glass with fear."
"You mean to say there are men who look in the glass with fear?"
"Of course, after five-and-thirty the glass whispers as awful truths to the man as to the woman—worse, for woman's youth is longer than man's. The contrary is the received opinion, but, like all popular opinions, it is wrong; a woman is frequently loved after forty, a man never. I was saying that a man often thinks he is getting old because the chorus girl took an early opportunity of speaking of rings, because the lady of fashion begged of the old gentleman who had taken up his hat to go to stay a little while longer, because the chamber- maid did not look lusciously round the corner when he passed her in the passage. He looks in the glass and imagines all kinds of monstrous changes in his person. His fears have no foundation in fact—or should I say in the flesh? A year after the duchess makes overtures, the chorus girl threatens to throw up her engagement for him, and the chambermaid pesters him with unnecessary questions concerning baths and towels. These facts tend to show, indeed I think they prove, that love is a magnetism, which sometimes we possess in almost irresistible strength, and which sometimes fades away into powerless and apparent extinction."
"Then you think that good looks have nothing to do with the faculty of making oneself beloved?" said Fletcher.
"The phenomenon of love has hitherto eluded our most eager investigation; when we have traced each desire to its source, and classified—"
"We women will have ceased to take any interest in the matter. What a humbug you are, Mr. Harding; one never knows when you are serious. But what has all this to do with that poor boy who has gone off with his barmaid?"
"This: he is unquestionably good-looking, but I don't think he possesses at all the magnetism, the power—call it what you will—that I have been speaking of. He will never influence either men or women, he will never make friends; that is to say, he will never make use of his friends. He will, I should think, always remain a little outside of success. It will never quite come to him; he will be one of those muddled, dissatisfied creatures who rail against luck and bad treatment. I cannot see him really successful in anything; yes I can, though, I believe he would make an excellent husband. I have spoken a great deal to him. He has told me a lot about himself, and I can see that he asks and desires nothing but leave to devote himself to a woman, to pander to her caprices. All that violent exterior will wear off, and he will yield to and love to be led by a woman. He writes a little, and he paints. I don't know if he has any talent; but he never will be able to work until he is obliged to work for a woman."
"Then you think he will marry that barmaid?"
"Most probably. He will struggle against it; but unless chance intervenes—she may die, she may run away with some one to-morrow, for she does not care for him—he will be sucked into the gulf."
"He is Lord Mount Rorke's heir; he will have twenty thousand a year one of these days."
"Mount Rorke will never forgive him a bad match. I know Mount Rorke," said Lady Seveley, "and you do, too, Mr. Fletcher."
"Yes, a little."
Unfearing prophecy and oracle launched from the windows of the hotel, the young people rowed, lost to all but each other, amazed at the loveliness of the river. They floated amid the bulrushes. Cries and regret when Frank's oar crushed the desired blossom. Never before were lilies as desirable as those that were gathered that day—that bud, it must be possessed, that blown flower must not be left behind. Lizzie dipped her arm to the elbow, and rejoiced in the soft flowing water. The river rose up into what beautiful views and prospects. The locks, the sensation of the boat sinking among the slimy piles with Frank erect holding her off with the boat-hook, or the slow rising till the banks were overflowed, and the wonderful wooden gates opened, disclosing a placid stream with overhanging boughs and a barge. And the charming discoveries they made in this water world, the moorhen's indolence, and the watchful rat swimming for its hole; each bend was a new picture. How beautifully expressive of the work of the field were the comfortable barns. If life is never very fair, a vision of life may be fair indeed, and once the tears came to the bar girl's eyes, for she, too, suddenly remembered her life of tobacco and whisky; long weary hours of standing, politeness, washing glasses, and listening to filthy jokes. Would there be no change? If she might live her life here! She thought of the morning light, and the home occupations of the morning, and then the languid and lazy afternoons in this boat, amid the enchantment of these river lands.
Frank laid by his oars, and as regardless as a shopboy of observers, he took her hand and begged of her to confide in him. He thought, too, of seeing her daily, hourly, of her presence in his daily life; he saw her amid his painting and poetry, and this pleasant scenery. Then the vision vanished like the shine upon the stream, she withdrew her hands, a shadow had fallen.
They passed a summer-house where three girls were sitting; one sat on the edge of a table and sang the ballad of "Biddy Malone." There was a house so red, and so full of gables and narrow windows, that Frank said it was a perfect specimen of Elizabethan architecture; and he treated Lizzie to all he could pretend to know on the subject, and he condemned the owner for the glaringly modern garden benches with which the swards were interspersed. The sun was setting, there was lassitude in every passing boat, the girls leaned upon the arms of the young men, and the woods stood up tall and contemplative, as beautiful in the deep blue river as upon the pale sky.
They landed at Pangbourne Woods by the wide grassy path between the reedy river and the spreading beeches. There a man was boiling a kettle. He spoke to them; he instructed them in the life of camping out, and he invited them to tea. Lizzie went into the tent and got out the tea-things. Two men came up, jolly fellows enough; and such little adventures endeared and memorised the day.
They climbed, oh! what a climb it was, Lizzie's ankles and courage giving way alternately; but at last they reached a pathway, and they walked at ease into the green solitudes of the wood. It seemed endless, so soft and so still. He spoke to Lizzie, whom he now called Liz, of her past, of the reasons that had led her to leave home and "go to business." Her brother, she said, was a painter, a celebrated bird-painter.
"Then we should know each other, I am a painter." He told her of his ideas and projects, of how he had been to France; he might go there again, unless something happened to keep him in England. He wrote a little too, in the papers, and he might do something to help her brother—a paragraph in Fashion, he could get one in. For fear of wounding her he did not ask if her brother was a decorative painter, employed by a firm, or an artist who exhibited pictures. Her father had married again. She did not like her stepmother, and that had determined her to go into business.
Had she ever been in love? Yes, she supposed she had; but it was all over now. The last words sounded, and died away in a great abyss of soul.
Parts of the path were marked "Dangerous." The earth had given way, creating fearful chasms, over which trees leaned dangerously or hung out fantastically by a few roots. In the dell below there stood a small green painted table, and the young people leaning on the protecting railing wondered at this mysterious piece of furniture. There was in them and about them an illusive sense of death and the beauty of life. One slight push would hurl them headlong hundreds of feet down to the painted table.
The silver of the river sparkled through silence and the foliage of June, and the songs of the boatmen came and went like voices in a dream.
The days of youth are long, and in tender idleness the hours lingered, their charm unbroken in the rattle of London; and happy with love and tired with the great air of the river and its leafy scenery, Frank fell asleep that night.
One of the French artists he had met in Rome wrote to him from Paris. Why should he not go there? There was nothing for him to do in London; Lizzie Baker had disappeared, and in the year and a half that he spent in Paris learning to draw he forgot her and his friends in Southwick. Nor did he remember them when he returned to London; not until one evening, strolling down Regent Street, he came upon Willy Brookes suddenly.
"How do you do, my dear Willy? I haven't seen you for—for—how long?"
"I should think it must be now, let me see, I have got it down somewhere; when I get home I'll look it up."
"Hang the looking up; better come and look me up."
The young men laughed.
"It must be nearly a year and a half."
"I should think it must. Where are you staying? I am staying at Morley's Hotel, Trafalgar Square. Come and dine with me to-night."
Willy reflected. He stroked his moustache reflectively.
"No," he said, "I am afraid I can't. I have something to do."
"Nonsense! I don't believe you. What have you to do?"
"I have some cheques to write."
"That won't take you a moment. You can do that at my place."
"I couldn't, I assure you. I must have my books and my own pen. I wouldn't write a cheque in that way for worlds."
"Why not? We'll go to a music-hall afterwards."
"I am very sorry, but I really couldn't—not to-night."
"You never go in for amusing yourself."
"Yes, I do; but what amuses you doesn't amuse me. I assure you I would sooner stay at home, write my cheques, and enter them carefully, than go to a music-hall."
Frank looked at Willy for a moment in mute amazement. Then he said: "But what's that you have under your arm in that brown paper parcel?"
Willy laughed. "A leg of mutton; I have just been to the stores."
"You mean to say you buy legs of mutton at the stores, and carry them home? Supposing you met some one, if we were to—"
"Not very likely, a foggy night like this. I have a small house in Notting Hill. I take the 'bus at the Circus. I shall be very glad if you will come with me; so will the missus."
"I forgot to ask about her, how is she?"
"Very well. Come and see for yourself. Come and dine with us to- morrow. I can't give you one of your restaurant dinners, but if leg of mutton will suit, all I can say is that I shall be very happy."
"I'll come whenever you like."
"Can you come to-morrow?"
"Yes. We might go to the theatre afterwards."
"We might. Be at my place at half-past six, that will give us plenty of time."
"What a queer fish he is," thought Frank, as he walked down Regent Street, looking at the women. "Can't come and dine with me because he has two or three cheques to write, must have all his books out to make entries—what a clerk for the Government—an ideal clerk! What a genius for red tape!"
Willy was standing on the steps of the little house, and he commented on his friend's extravagances as he welcomed him.
"You might have come here for ninepence, third class. You paid that cabman three shillings, and you took, I don't mind betting, half an hour longer. Now, don't make a mess, do wipe your feet; we don't keep a servant, and it gives the missus a lot of trouble cleaning up."
Not a book nor a picture nor a single flower, and every worn carpet suggested the bare necessaries of life. There was the drawing-room, kept for show, never entered, barren and blank; there was the room—a little more alive—where Willy smoked his pipe and kept his accounts, but there the crumbs, three or four, seemed to speak of the dry, bread-like days that wore themselves away; life there was too obviously dry and bare, joyless and mean.
Had Frank's mind been philosophic and deep-seeing, he would have mused on the admirable patience of the woman who lived here, seeing no one, making entire sacrifice of her life; he would have contrasted the humbleness, nay, the meanness, of this unknown house with the reception rooms of the Manor House; one life wasting in darkness and poverty, another burning out in light and riches; timeworn truths float on the surface of this little pool of life, and so modernised are they that they appear for a moment "new and original." But further than a regret that there were no flowers in the window, and a sense of the horrible when his eyes fell on a piece of Swiss scenery, his thoughts did not wander; they soon were fixed and absorbed in the consideration of the happiness that Willy had attained by "doing the right thing by the woman." He was hers, she was his. Dreams of things marital, the endearments of husband and wife, are the essence of the being of some men and women, and are to them a perennial delight. Frank was such a one.
He had brought Cissy a doll, and the child came and sat on his knees, and put her arms round his neck. He kissed the long face, hollow-eyed, and stroked the beautiful gold ringlets that cloaked the shoulders.
They went to the theatre in a 'bus. Frank carried Cissy, and he called indignantly to the crowd not to press him. "Did they not see that he was carrying a child?" He did not think that his friends might recognise him, nor would he have felt any shame had he caught sight of some face in the stalls he knew. He would not have put Cissy aside; nor would he have pretended that he was not with the pale, worn, shabbily-dressed woman by his side. He was wholly filled with his friends, their interests and concerns; so complete was the investment of himself that Lizzie Baker did not snatch a fugitive thought from them; and it was not until he sat smoking with Willy in the back parlour that he said:
"I wonder what has become of her? She was a nice girl."
"You mean Lizzie Baker? You lost sight of her all of a sudden, didn't you? Do you think she went off to live with some one?"
"No, I don't think she was a girl who would do that. By Jove, she was a pretty girl! Once I took her up the river, up to Reading. We had such a jolly day in the woods and on the water—amid the water-lilies and bulrushes, or the shade of the cedars. I wonder you never go up the river."
"I have no time. Besides, I hate the water. I never go on the water if I can help it—I am too nervous."
"How odd! Oh, we had a jolly day!"
"But I never understood how it was you lost sight of her. You said in your letter that she had left the bar; but she must have gone somewhere. I am sure you didn't make sufficient enquiries. You are too impatient."
"I did all I could. One girl told me that a lot of them—Lizzie among the number—had suddenly been transferred to Liverpool Street. That was true, for I saw at Liverpool Street several girls I had known previously at the 'Gaiety.' Those poor bar girls, how pitiful they look! all over London they stand behind their bars! Breathing for hours tobacco smoke, fumes of whisky and beer, listening to abominable jokes, the subjects of hideous flirtations; and then the little comedy, the effort to appear as virtuous young ladies—'young ladies of the bar.' It is very pitiful. In such circumstances how do you expect a girl to keep straight? I do not think it is the men who do the harm. There are, of course, a few blackguards who crack filthy jokes over the counter, but if a girl likes she needn't listen—a girl can always keep a man in his place. Then if a man flirts with a girl he always loves her, likes her, if you think 'like' a better word; but you must admit that in the most beery flirtation there must be a certain amount of liking. There is, therefore, something to save a girl. I feel sure that it is girls, not men, who lead innocent girls astray. Those poor bar girls are quite unprotected; they have a sitting-room into which they may not bring a friend—a man, I mean. In the bedrooms there is always a lot of illicit talking and drinking going an. A girl who has gone wrong herself is never content until she has persuaded another girl to go wrong; a girl is so mean! I feel very much on this subject. I am thinking of writing a book on the subject. Did I ever tell you about the novel I intended to write?"
"You told me once in Brighton about a novel you intended to write. I forget what it was about, but you said you were going to call it 'Her Saviour.'"
"Oh, that is another book. I was thinking of writing the story of a woman who is led into vice. They get her to throw over the man who loves her; he follows her, never loses sight of her until at last, determined to save her, and although he knows that he is wrecking his own life, he marries her. What do you think?"
Being pressed for an answer, Willy stroked his moustache with great gravity. "I really can't say, my dear fellow; you know I never like giving opinions on questions I do not understand."
The conversation came to a pause, and Willy began to whistle.
"Just a little flat—quarter of a note wrong there and there!"
"Do you whistle it? Oh, yes, that's it! I can hear the difference! I wish you had your violin. I should like to hear you play it."
"What, with the missus overhead?"
"She doesn't know anything about it. How prettily she used to sing it; a pretty tune, isn't it? Good old days they were! Do you remember when you used to come to the Princess's with me? Didn't she look pretty?"
"You never told me why you didn't marry her; I never heard the end of that story."
"There is nothing to tell. It's all over now. Do you remember how I used to dress myself up to go to the theatre? We used to go to supper at Scott's afterwards. I did not mind what I ate in those days."
"You hardly ever go to the theatre now, do you?"
"Hardly ever. I shouldn't have gone to-night if it had not been for you. I don't know how it is, but I don't seem to enjoy myself as I used to."
The men ceased talking. Presently Frank broke the silence.
"I hope you are getting on all right on the Stock Exchange. You haven't mentioned the subject."
"I don't know that there is much to say. Times are very bad just now. I don't think any one is doing much good."
"But you are with a very good firm. Nothing is going wrong, I hope."
"I don't think any one is making money. We have all been hard hit lately—war scares. But I daresay it will all come right."
"I never understood what you ever wanted to go into the business for. What do you, with your handsome place at Southwick, and your father with his thousands and thousands, want to turn yourself into a city clerk for?"
"You see, you don't care about making money; I do—it was bred in me. Besides, I am an unselfish fellow. I never think of myself; I like to think of others. If I were to make a good thing out of this, I should be able to leave the missus independent." Then, after a slight pause, Willy said: "But, by the way, I was forgetting. I got a letter this morning saying that if I met you in London I was to tell you that you were to come to Southwick for a ball."
"A subscription ball at Henfield—a county ball. Will you come?"
"Yes, I don't mind. It should be rather fun. Are you going?"
"Yes, I must go, worse luck, to chaperon my sisters."
"How do you go? Will the governor let you have the horses?"
"Not he! We generally have a large 'bus. I am going down to-morrow by the twelve o'clock train. Will that be too early for you?"
"Not if I go home now and pack up."
"You won't like that. You had better sleep here and get up early in the morning; your room is all ready."
"I couldn't manage it. I never could get back to the Temple, pack up, and meet you at twelve at London Bridge."
"It will be rather a cold walk for you; you are too late for the train, and the last 'bus, I am afraid, has gone."
"I shall have a hansom. The only thing that worries me is not being able to say good-bye to the missus."
"She's fast asleep. She won't mind—I'll make that all right."
"Then, at twelve o'clock at London Bridge!"
Sally rushed down to meet him, and she took him off for a walk in the garden.
"What a time it is since we have seen you. What have you been doing— amusing yourself a great deal, I suppose?"
"I have been the whole time in Paris. I have been studying very hard. I only returned home about two months ago."
"I don't believe about the studying."
"I have been working at my painting. I worked morning and afternoon in the studio from the nude. Last summer I had a delightful time. I took a little place on the Seine—a little house near Bas Meudon. I had a garden; I used to breakfast every morning in the garden—fresh eggs, new bread, an omelette, such as only a Frenchwoman can make, a cutlet, or a piece of chicken. The wine, too, so fresh and generous. I don't know how it is, but Burgundy here is not the same as Burgundy on the banks of the Seine. I worked all day in my garden, or down by the river. I was painting a large picture. I haven't finished it yet. I must go back there in the summer to finish it."
"Why can't you finish it here? Haven't you got it here?"
"Yes, but the Seine is not here."
"Wouldn't the Adour do? The river at Shoreham?"
"No; but the Thames might. My picture is really more English than French. There were a lot of willow trees there, and my picture represents a girl lying in a hammock, foot hanging over, showing such a pretty piece of black stocking. There are two men there, they are both swinging the hammock, but while one is looking at her ankle the other only sees her face."
Sally laughed coarsely and evasively.
"What are you laughing at?" he asked, feeling a little nettled.
"Don't you think people will think it rather improper?"
"Not at all. Why should they? The idea I wish to convey is that one man loves her truly for herself alone, the other only loves her because she is a pretty girl. I have composed some triolets for the picture, which will be printed in the catalogue—
"In a hammock I swing, My feet hanging over; 'Neath Love's bright wing, In a hammock I swing, Loves come and they bring A truth to discover, In a hammock I swing, My feet hanging over.
"That is the first stanza. There are six, and they tell the story of the picture. I will copy them into your album, if you like."
"Will you? That will be so nice, if you will. The only thing is, I haven't an album."
"Haven't you? I'll get you one. I'll send you one from London."
Sally asked him to explain the triolets, and very loyally she strove to understand.
"Ah, I see a thing when I am told, but I never can understand poetry or pictures until they are explained to me."
Mollified, Frank thought of going upstairs to fetch the copy book in which he wrote such things, but speaking out of an unperceived association of ideas, he said: "What a clever girl your sister is. I had once a long talk with her about pictures and poetry, and I was surprised to find how well she talked. She understands everything."
"Maggie is a clever girl; I know she is far cleverer than I am; but if you knew her as well as I do, you would find she did not understand all you think she understands."
"How do you mean?"
"Maggie's cleverness lies in being able to pretend she understands what she knows nothing about; I have often caught her out."
"Really; but how do you get on together now?"
"Pretty well! I don't think there is much love lost on either side. I don't know why—I never could understand Maggie. You have no idea of the reports she spreads about me all over the place—the stories she tells the Grahams, the Prestons, the Wells. She told Mrs. Wells that I fell in love with every young man that came to Southwick. She said awful things about me. As for that story about telling cook to put father's dinner back, I don't think I ever shall hear the last of it. What made father so angry was because he thought it was to talk to Jimmy in the slonk."
"You told me the last time I was here that you wanted to finish a conversation with him in the slonk."
"I may have told you that it was to speak to him about his sister Fanny," Sally replied evasively. "I would not care if I never saw him again; but I couldn't get on if I weren't allowed to see Fanny. Father wanted me to promise never to enter the house again!"
"But you have flirted with him?"
"I don't know that I have; certainly not more than Maggie. Last summer she was hanging round his neck every evening under the sycamores. I caught them twice."
"I don't see any harm in going under the sycamores. I daresay Maggie has allowed him to kiss her; so have you!"
"That I assure you I haven't."
"You mean to say a man never kissed you?"
"I didn't say that. I haven't kissed any one for years."
"Who did kiss you?"
"You don't know him. I was only eighteen. He was a married man; it was very wrong of me."
"I wish I had been he."
"Do you? I hate him; he was a beast for doing it."
Sally often indulged in these half confessions; one of her aunts used to call them her "side lights." By their aid she succeeded in interesting Frank. "How candid she is to tell me—to confide in me!" Sally was handsome now; the evening suited her dark skin and coal black eyes, and her strong figure was rich and not ungraceful in a dress of ruby velvet. Should he kiss her? What would she say? He threwhis arm about her.
"I am surprised. Certainly not!"
"I don't see any harm." Then, with a sensation of saying something foolish, he said: "You told me you kissed a married man."
"That was ages ago—I was very silly. I shouldn't think of doing sonow."
In the silence which followed Frank wondered why he had tried to kiss her. Decidedly he liked the other better.
Now every evening Maggie went to the writing-table, and all knew what it meant. Mr. Brookes occasionally lamented in a minor key, but without having recourse to his handkerchief. Willy said nothing; his losses on the Stock Exchange had been heavy; and owing to a conversation Frank had drawn him into during dinner the other day, his digestion, he feared, was not quite up to the mark. So on the night of the ball he only answered with an occasional monosyllable the splendid young man of the embroidered waistcoats who related his pleasures in a deep bass; nor did he pretend to take any interest in the crude militia officer who sometimes broke the silence by a declaration that he did not care for politics or poetry, that he liked history better. The young ladies listened devoutly to all that the young men said; Mr. Brookes carved valiantly at the head of the table and appeared resigned. Bouquets were fixed in button-holes in the billiard-room and the 'bus was announced. A greasy oil-lamp hung from the roof. Sometimes Sally rubbed the windows and said she could tell by the bushes where they were, and the embroidered waistcoat continued to drone out the measure of his amusements. He would have to run up to London, then he must have a shy at trente et quarante at Monte Carlo, then he must get back for the spring meeting at Newmarket. Frank asked him if he didn't think he could manage to amuse himself without talking it all out beforehand. But undaunted and unchecked he wandered from Homburg to Paris, and from Paris to Ross-shire, until the 'bus drew up among a small crowd of people.
The ball was a failure. When they entered the rooms there were scarcely twenty people present. It was very cold, and the men said; "How can the women bear it with their naked shoulders?"
"We shall never get near this fire," said Sally, looking in dismay on the circle of damsels who stood warming themselves, their dresses relieved upon the masses of laurel with which the room was decorated; "there is a beautiful fire in one of those little rooms at the end."
"Very well, let us come and sit there; or shall we dance this waltz first?"
"Let's dance it."
They danced, and Frank shuddered in his evening clothes as he danced.
"Did you notice," said Sally, as they hurried to the retiring room, "how upset father seemed at dinner? I thought he was going to cry, but he bore up to the end better than I expected."
"So he did, but I don't see what there was particularly to upset him this time. Meason is away at sea, and you have promised not to see him any more."
"Oh, I wasn't thinking about the Measons—but haven't you heard? I only heard it through a friend, but I know for a fact that Willy has lost nearly all his money on the Stock Exchange."
"You don't say so; I am so sorry."
"Father hasn't heard it all yet; if he had he wouldn't have come down to dinner. I don't fancy he knows more than that things have not been going well, and that Willy has been a loser."
"But how can he have lost? I thought he was junior partner in an old established business."
"So he is. I can't tell you how the mischief was done, but I know he has lost all his money."
"What do you mean by all his money?"
"All the money—three thousand—that father let him draw out of the distillery."
"This is very sad."
"Yes, isn't it? And particularly for a fellow who has so few amusements, and only cares about making money. Just look at him now; he wanders about speaking to no one. Come, let's dance this dance—are you engaged?"
This news about Willy fixed the Harfield ball in Frank's thoughts, and he remembered the pretty girl in white of whom he could make nothing, of the raw just-brought-out girl who had bored him, of the communicative girl who had amused him by her accounts of her dogs and horses; he remembered, too, how he had seen Maggie disappearing down the ends of certain passages with a young man whose name he did not catch, and whose face he had not noticed. He had danced twice with her, only twice; she was distracted, she did not look at him, her eyes wandered all over the room, she answered his questions indifferently. Sally, on the contrary, had devoted herself to him, and on several occasions he thought that her blunt straightforward manner was better than the other's slyness. The 'bus came with its draughts, its sickly lamp and its doleful jolting. Sally was too tired to rub the windows and declare how far they were from home, and the dancers endured their discomforts almost in silence; even the embroidered waistcoat occasionally ceased to talk about Homburg; and in all the extreme bitterness and greyness of a March morning they pulled up before the door of the Manor House.
"I beg of you not to make a noise. If you wake up father he will never let us go to a ball again. Is there a fire in the billiard-room, Gardner?"
"Yes, miss, there's a lovely fire; the decanters are on the table and the kettle is on the hob."
"I think you would all like a glass of something hot," said Maggie.
"But don't make a noise, please."
They stole along the passages to the billiard-room shivering, their feet aching, feeling very uncomfortable indeed. The waistcoat was now considering if it would be good form to come forward in the Conservative interest at the next election; but every one was too tired, they could not laugh, and amid a few general remarks the young ladies drank their gin and water, casting sheep's eyes at the young men, and then, glad and yet loth to part, all retired limping to their rooms.
Breakfast was a pleasant meal—full of laughter and anecdotes of the ball, and, laden with Gladstone bags, the young men departed in ones and twos. Frank was going with Willy to London, and when they disappeared among the laurels Sally and Maggie turned indoors, conscious of reaction, and wondering what they should do with the long day that stretched before them. Maggie walked upstairs; she lingered, undecided, and then went down the passage to Frank's room. He had forgotten a shirt stud; on the chest of drawers there was a crumpled white tie and a soiled pair of white gloves. "How careless he is!" she thought, "I must send him this," and she put the stud in her pocket. She straightened out the gloves and determined to send the necktie to the wash. Next time he came down she would have it to give him, nice, clean, and white—she must see that it was beautifully made up. Then she found his ball programme. He had danced four times with Sally— only twice with her—what a fool she had been; she had wasted her whole evening with that other fellow. It did make her feel so angry. Then the housemaid entered and turned the bed down.
"What a lot of washing there will be this week, Gardner."
"There will indeed, miss. Three pairs of sheets, and only slept in once."
"Yes, isn't it a pity? It seems absurd to send these sheets to the wash, doesn't it?"
"It do, indeed, miss."
"Absurd!" said Sally, who had just come in. "I want a pair of fresh sheets for my bed. I'll have these."
"No you won't—I was going to take them."
"I should like to know what right you have to them more than I."
"You promised not to interfere with me, and you have done nothing else. You did nothing at the ball but ask him for dances."
"That's a lie! I didn't ask him for a dance. You went off to hide; no one saw anything of you all the evening."
"You mean to say you didn't promise?"
"I never promised anything; if I did I should keep my promise. I am not like you. I want a pair of sheets, and I mean to have these."
"They are too big for your bed."
Sally seized the sheet and strove to drag it from Maggie, who, although the weaker, held her own bravely for some time. Finding her strength failing her, she loosed her hold, letting her sister fall against the wall, and taking up the pillow she launched it with her full force. "If you want what he slept in, you can have it all."
"I'll give it to you, my lady," cried the bully, making a rush round the bed, but Maggie fled through the dressing-room, shutting the door behind her, and locked herself into her room.
As Willy would not pay the extra fare, Frank had to travel second class. He was telling his friend of the Stock Exchange, and his losses—nearly four thousand pounds. He had suspected that the firm of which he was junior partner had not played fair with him. Anyhow, he was going to get out of the business, having something better in view —a shop in Brighton. Yes, a shop in Brighton, a greengrocer's shop. No one had any idea, until they went into the calculation, of the amount of profit that was made on vegetables. Lord This and Lord That, every one who had a handsome place with large gardens, counted on being able to pay his gardener's wages by the sale of the surplus carrots, artichokes, potatoes, parsley, onions, tomatoes, especially tomatoes— every one nowadays ate tomatoes. He had it all down in figures, and was perfectly astonished at the sums of money that could be made. Grapes had been overdone, that was true; but a profit could be made out of everything else. Flowers, especially gardenias, were sold in the London market at two shillings apiece. Now, there was he within five miles of a large town like Brighton; the rent of a shop in the Western Road would not come to more than seventy or eighty pounds a year; the missus he would put in as shopwoman, and, there was no doubt of it, she would make as good a shopwoman as you could find, after a little practice; the child could run on errands, so it should be all profit. "I shall have none of the expenses that other people have to contend with. In the garden at the Manor House about three times as much stuff is grown as required. I shall buy all the fruit, vegetables, and flowers from my father at cost price, or a little over, and shall sell in my shop at retail price, that is, twenty or thirty per cent more. There is, therefore, no reason why the shop should not bring in from three to four hundred a year. And—would you believe it?—my father, who will be benefited by my scheme, if not more, quite as much as I shall be, is opposed to it; he will get a fair price for a lot of things for which he now gets nothing. But no. He cannot, or will not, see it. I never saw any one like my father. He will not help himself and you can do nothing to help him. The distillery business is going very badly. He had a bad year last year. I know for a fact that he did not make five per cent on his capital. Putting these things together, I should have thought that he would have been glad to make a little money to retrench; but no! he prefers to go on in the old way. He made money in the old way, and he doesn't see why he shouldn't make money again in the old way. Odd man my father is, isn't he?"
It appeared to Frank that Mr. Brookes had managed to help himself very liberally indeed to all the good things in life; but with his false, facile, Celtic nature, he had no difficulty in re-adjusting his ideas and adopting a view of Mr. Brookes more in harmony with Willy's. He was, as usual, enthusiastic about his friends, and was effervescing with love and goodwill. He saw nothing of their faults—they were the best and truest people he had ever known, and he could not love them too much. Indeed he was angry, and regretted the limitations that nature has set on the human heart, and would if he could have lost himself in one immense and eternal love of the Brookeses.
When he bade Willy good-bye at London Bridge, and wished him well with his shop, these sentiments ceased to be active forces in him, and they lay latent in his life of restaurants and bar rooms until the summer returned, and he received an invitation from the Manor House to come down for a garden party at Mrs. Berkins's. When he opened the letter he basked in thoughts of them—of Maggie and her fascinating subtleties, of Sally's blunt speech and sturdy good looks, of Willy, and all the quiet talks they would have together. He counted the tunnels, and, striving to recall the landscape, guessed extravagantly the number of miles that separated him from them. He walked up the drive with a beating heart, looking for the girls between the laurel bushes. He found them, and their habits which endeared them to him, unchanged; and to slip back into the old ways without experiencing the slightest difficulty or jar was like waking from a dream and entering again on a pleasant reality. There was the excellent dinner and the usual complaints about the Southdown Road, the cigars in the billiard- room, conversation about pictures and investments, gin and water, and then a long yarn with Willy in his bedroom. Life moved at the Manor House without any spring creaking, without jolt or jar, and it was this beautiful regularity that made Frank feel so healthily and so unexpectedly happy. He loved the desolation of Ireland. This was the stronger sense, but there was another sense, a half stifled sense, that found an echo in these southern downs interwoven with suburban life—in other words, a faint resurrection of the original English mind in him. He enjoyed and he grew akin to this Saxon prosperity; he learned to recognise it as manifested in the various prospects of the weald and the wold, and he loved this medley of contradictory aspects —the spires of the village churches, the porches of the villas, the rich farmhouses and their elm trees, the orchards jammed between masses of chalk, the shepherds seen against the sky of the Downs. It is true that he felt that this country was alien to him, but he was not individually conscious that his love of suburban Sussex was a morbid affection, opposed to the normal and indissoluble bonds of inherited aspirations and prejudices, and the forms and colours that had filled his eyes in childhood. Consciousness in Frank Escott was always slow, and always so governed and coloured by the sentiment of the moment that his comprehension of things were always deformed or incomplete. In his mind the phenomenon of life was ever in nebulae, and though very often one thought would define itself, no group of thoughts, or part of a group, ever became clear, so there was no abiding principle, nothing that he might know and steer by. He was, of course, aware that the Brookes were not equal to him in rank, but he did not know, or, rather, he would not know, that they were vulgar; nor did he think that Mount Rorke might marry again, if he were to marry Maggie or Sally. All that was really alive and distinct in him was love of them; and this love thrived in a sensation of class which he would not acknowledge, even to himself, had any existence. The glass-houses, and swards, and laurels had a meaning and fascination for him that he could not account for or describe, and he found these feelings, which were mainly class feelings of an unusual kind, not only in the aspect of the country but in the accent and speech of his friends, in the expression of their eyes and very hands. The English servants pleased him, and he strove to detect qualities in the carriage and horses, and he compared them to their advantage with Mount Rorke's. He loved to wrap the rug about the young ladies' knees, and they seemed to him quite perfect and delightful as they lay back in their carriage, driving beneath a sky full of blue, and through the changing views of the Downs, all distinct with light and shade. Sally and Maggie made much of him, covered him up, and addressed to him pleasant speeches. His eyes and ears were open and eager for new impressions, and his heart panted with readiness to admire and praise all he saw. He was ready to think that he had never seen anything so lovely as the laurels and the numerous glass-houses; and he wondered why he had ever thought so little of Berkins, and he listened with interest to that gentleman's explanation of the superiority of his possessions over everybody else's possessions. He even allowed himself to be persuaded that there was no pheasant shooting in the kingdom— for its size—equal to that in the little wood. Sally, who did not attempt to conceal her dislike of her brother-in-law, whispered: "That's the way to bring them down," and Frank was obliged to laugh. Then she and Maggie disappeared as if the earth had swallowed them for several hours. The Grenadier Guards played on the lawn, and Frank was introduced to ladies of all ages and sizes; and as these bored him, he began to see that the place was vulgar and the people shoddy, and he wondered what Mount Rorke would say if he were to come suddenly across him. Grace was the subject of much concern, and obviously enceinte, she passed through the different groups. She had introduced Frank as Lord Mount Rorke's son, then as his nephew, then as his heir, and, fearing she might succumb to the temptation of introducing him as Mount Rorke himself, Frank escaped from her, and joined a party that Berkins was personally conducting through the grounds.
The stables had been built by So-and-so on the most approved principles. There were no stables like them in Sussex—the fittings of the harness-room alone had cost him three hundred. The horses he had bought at the Duke's sale, the Duke would not have thought of parting with them had he known how they would turn out. He had driven them along the Brighton road at the rate of fifteen miles an hour; he would back them to do fifteen miles in the hour. There was not a pair of horses in England equal to them. That was Mrs. Berkins's riding horse —was it possible to imagine a more perfect cob? He could get a hundred for him any day, he did not know of anything like him. "Did any of you gentleman ever see anything like him?" They went to the kennels. A brace of Irish setters were declared to be the finest dogs that Ireland had ever produced, they had taken two prizes, one in Dublin and another in Brighton—and the little fox terrier was the gamest dog in Sussex. She would go into any hole after a fox, and never leave him till she brought him out. You couldn't find her equal. Then the glass- houses were perfect. They contained all the latest improvements, and all these were fully explained. "Berkins is excelling himself to-day," thought Frank.
Presently they came upon a basket of peaches.
"These peaches were, of course, grown under glass, but I think I am right in saying, Jackson, that they were produced without artificial heat."
"Yes, sir, quite right, sir. It couldn't be done nowhere else, sir, but all the sun in Sussex seems to come down here—a regular little sun trap, I think that's what you called it the other day, sir, when you were speaking to me about them there peaches."
"Yes, I did. If you move nearer the sea you get fogs and cold winds, further inland you lose the sun, but just here the climate is equal to the south of Europe! I ask you to look at these peaches, it seems impossible—does it not?—to have peaches like these at the end of May, and without any heat, merely glass."
"It seems to me quite impossible," declared a little fat man with flaxen hair. "I am devoted to peach-growing, and I confess I am quite at a loss. Gardener, did you say that those peaches were grown entirely without artificial heat?"
The gardener pretended not to hear, and tried to slip away, but the little man, who had been taken on his hobby, was not to be baulked, and he pursued the wretched horticulturist.
"You mean to say that these peaches ripened without any artificial heat, any?"
"You have no idea what a sun we get here, sir. I have never seen anything like it. In my last situation, when I was living with Lord —-, we couldn't get our fruit forward, use whatever heat he might, and Houghton is not more than fifty miles from here—the difference of climate is positively wonderful."
Jackson had reckoned that Mr. Berkins would move on, and that the inquisitive little man would find himself obliged to follow, but chance was against him, for Berkins, with his guests around him, stood listening to the discussion.
"You mean to say that these peaches were grown without heat. I wouldn't mind giving you five-and-twenty pounds for the recipe for doing it."
"You must take a small place down here, sir, and then you will be able to do it."
This raised a laugh, but the little man was not to be beaten, and he said: "I should like to see some of those peaches of yours on the trees. You haven't plucked them all; let me see them."
"Yes, Jackson, show us the trees. Some will not believe without seeing; let us see the peaches on the trees."
Jackson appeared to be a little disconcerted; he murmured excuses, and strove to escape. Driven to bay he brought them into a glass-house where there were hot water-pipes, and when his tormentor pointed triumphantly to the pipes he attempted a faint explanation—he had meant to say that heat had only been used within the last three weeks.
"So you see, Berkins," exclaimed little flaxen-haired fatty, "your south of Europe is no better than my south of Europe, or anybody else's south of Europe."
"Jackson, you have told me many deliberate falsehoods about these peaches. I keep no one in my employment whose word cannot be depended upon. You take your warning."
"Falsehoods! What do you want a man to do, if you will have everything better than anybody else's?"
Berkins turned suddenly on his heel, he drew himself up to his full height, and stood speechless with indignation. Never, not even on the most important Board meetings, did his friends wait to hear him speak with more anxiety; but at that moment a crash of flower pots was heard, and Sally and a young man were discovered hiding in the potting shed; and to make matters worse, in the very next house they visited, they suddenly came upon Maggie sitting with another young man in strangely compromising circumstances. Explanations were attempted, and some stupid remarks were made. Berkins was seriously annoyed, and he took the first opportunity of taking Mr. Brookes's arm and leading him away to a quiet path. Frank saw the men pass through the laurels, and ten minutes after he saw them return. Evidently Berkins had read Mr. Brookes an exhaustive lecture on the conduct of his daughters.
"Now, Mr. Brookes, now Mr. Brookes, I must beg of you—calm yourself. What would my guests think if they found you in tears? What would they think I had been saying to reduce you to such a condition? It is veryunfortunate that Sally and Maggie should act as they do, particularly at my place; but really you must not give way."
"Since the death of their poor mother I am all alone. My position is a very trying one." Then, with a sudden burst of laughter, "However, I suppose it will be all the same a hundred years hence!"
The girls walked to the station with Escott. A fleecy evening, with the clouds growing pale towards the sea, the sun like fire in the elms, and the woods showing upon a purple tinge.
"How delightful!" exclaimed Frank. "How charming this is—this old English green, the horse pond at one end, the various houses, the inn, the grocery business, the linen drying in that yard, the smith, and the wheelwright. I don't like that modern Queen Anne school-house, and I wish I could remove the dead level of the embankment and see the sea. The green is better from this side with the view of the Downs— those lines waving against the sky, where the gorse grows and the sheep feed, and inclining to the road all the fields pale green and deep green. But what game are those men playing—what game do you call that?"
"Bat and trap."
"I have passed the green twenty times before, and I never really saw it till now. It is charming—so thoroughly English. I should like to live here for a month—for two months. How nice it would be to breakfast in the morning looking out on the green, to see the cocks and hens and all the children and all this English life! How different from Pump Court! I am sick of Pump Court—dirt and smoke, a horrid servant, stale eggs. I suppose you can always get fresh eggs and new bread here? I would give anything to spend a month on the green."