No one in the garden, no one in the little salon, no one upstairs; Madame Pyat was away for the day, nursing a daughter-in-law. In all the house and garden there was not a sound or sign of life but the cat asleep on the stone step of the kitchen, and the bees humming in the acacias.
'Elise!' he called, inside and out, knowing already, poor fellow, in his wild despair that there could be no answer—that all was over.
But there was an answer. Elise was no untaught heroine. She played her part through. There was her letter, propped up against the gilt clock on the sham marble cheminee.
He found it and tore it open.
'You will curse me, but after a time you will forgive. I could not go on. Taranne found me in the forest, just half an hour after you left me. I looked up and saw him coming across the grass. He did not see me at first, he was looking about for a subject. I would have escaped, but there was no way. Then at last he saw me. He did not attack me, he did not persuade me, he only took for granted it was all over,—my Art! I must know best, of course; but he was sorry, for I had a gift. Had I seen the notice of my portrait in the "Temps," or the little mention in the "Figaro"? Oh, yes, Breal had been very successful, and deserved to be. It was a brave soul, devoted to art, and art had rewarded her.
'Then I showed him my sketch, trembling—to stop his talk—every word he said stabbed me. And he shrugged his shoulders quickly; then, as though recollecting himself, he put on a civil face all in a moment, and paid me compliments. To an amateur he is always civil. I was all white and shaking by this time. He turned to go away, and then I broke down. I burst into tears—I said I was coming back to the atelier—what did he mean by taking such a cruel, such an insolent tone with me? He would not be moved from his polite manner. He said he was glad to hear it; mademoiselle would be welcome; but just as though we were complete strangers. He who has befriended me, and taught me, and scolded me since I was fourteen! I could not bear it. I caught him by the arm. I told him he should tell me all he thought. Had I really talent?—a future?
'Then he broke out in a torrent—he made me afraid of him—yet I adored him! He said I had more talent than any other pupil he had ever had; that I had been his hope and interest for six years; that he had taught me for nothing—befriended me—worked for me, behind the scenes, at the Salon; and all because he knew that I must rise, must win myself a name, that when I had got the necessary technique I should make one of the poetical impressionist painters, who are in the movement, who sway the public taste. But I must give all myself—my days and nights—my thoughts, and brain, and nerves. Other people might have adventures and paint the better. Not I,—I was too highly strung—for me it was ruin. "C'est un maitre sevire—l'Art," he said, looking like a god. " Avec celui-la on ne transige pas. Ah! Dieu, je le connais, moi!" I don't know what he meant; but there has been a tragedy in his life; all the world knows that.
'Then suddenly he took another tone, called me pauvre enfant, and apologised. Why should I be disturbed? I had chosen for my own happiness, no doubt. What was fame or the high steeps of art compared even with an amour de jeunesse? He had seen you, he said,—une tote superbe—des epaules de lion! I was a woman; a young handsome lover was worth more to me, naturally, than the drudgeries of art. A few years hence, when the pulse was calmer, it might have been all very well. Well! I must forgive him; he was my old friend. Then he wrung my hand, and left me.
'Oh, David, David, I must go! I must. My life is imprisoned here with you—it beats its bars. Why did I ever let you persuade me—move me? And I should let you do it again. When you are there I am weak. I am no cruel adventuress, I can't look at you and torture you. But what I feel for you is not love—no, no, it is not, poor boy! Who was it said "A love which can be tamed is no love"? But in three days—a week—mine had grown tame—it had no fears left. I am older than you, not in years, mais dans l'ame—there is what parts us.
'Oh! I must go—and you must not try to find me. I shall be quite safe, but with people you know nothing about. I shall write to Madame Pyat for my things. You need have no trouble.
'Very likely I shall pass you on the way, for if I hurry I can catch the diligence. But you will not see me. Oh, David, I put my arms round you! I press my face against you. I ask you to forgive me, to forget me, to work out your own life as I work out mine. It will soon be a dream—this little house—these summer days! I have kissed the chair you sat in last night, the book you read to me. C'est deja fini! Adieu! adieu!'
He sat for long in a sort of stupor. Then that maddening thought seized him, stung him into life, that she had actually passed him, that he had seen her, not knowing. That little indistinct figure in the interieur, that was she.
He sprang up, in a blind anguish. Pursuit! the diligence was slow, the trains doubtful, he might overtake her yet. He dashed into the street, and into the Fontainebleau road. After he had run nearly a mile, he plunged into a path which he believed was a short cut. It led through a young and dense oak wood. He rushed on, seeing nothing, bruising himself and stumbling. At last a projecting branch struck him violently on the temple. He staggered, put up a feeble hand, sank on the grass against a trunk, and fainted.
It was between five and six o'clock in the morning. In the Tuileries Gardens flowers, grass, and trees were drenched in dew, the great shadow of the Palace spread grey and cool over terraces and slopes, while beyond the young sun had already shaken off all cumbering mists, and was pouring from a cloudless sky over the river with its barges and swimming-baths, over the bridges and the quays, and the vast courts and facades of the Louvre. Yet among the trees the air was still exquisitely fresh, the sun still a friend to be welcomed. The light morning wind swept the open, deserted spaces of the Gardens, playing merrily with the dust, the leaves, the fountains. Meanwhile on all sides the stir of the city was beginning, mounting slowly and steadily like a swelling tone.
On a bench under one of the trees in the Champs-Elysees sat a young man asleep. He had thrown himself against the back of the bench, his cheek resting on the iron, one hand on his knee. It was David Grieve; the lad's look showed that his misery was still with him, even in sleep.
He was dreaming, letting fall here and there a troubled and disconnected word. In his dream he was far from Paris—walking after his sheep among the heathery slopes of the Scout, climbing towards the grey smithy among the old mill-stones, watching the Red Brook slide by over its long, shallow steps of orange grit, and the Downfall oozing and trickling among its tumbled blocks. Who was that hanging so high above the ravine on that treacherous stone that rocked with the least touch? Louie—mad girl!—come back. Ah! too late—the stone rocks, falls; he leaps from block to block, only to see the light dress disappear into the stony gulf below. He cries—struggles—wakes.
He sat up, wrestling with himself, trying to clear his torpid brain. Where was he? His dream-self was still roaming the Scout; his outer eye was bewildered by these alleys, these orange-trees, these statues—that distant arch.
Then the hideous, undefined cloud that was on him took shape. Elise had left him. And Louie, too, was gone—he knew not where, save that it was to ruin. When he had arrived the night before at the house in the Rue Chantal, Madame Merichat could tell him nothing of Mademoiselle Delaunay, who had not been heard of. Then he asked, his voice dying in his throat before the woman's hard and cynical stare—the stare of one who found the chief savour of life in the misfortunes of her kind—he asked for his sister and the Cervins. The Cervins were staying at Sevres with relations, and were expected home again in a day or two; Mademoiselle Louie?—well, Mademoiselle Louie was not with them. Had she gone back to England? Mais non! A trunk of hers was still in the Cervins' vestibule. Did Madame Merichat know anything about her? the lad asked, forcing himself to it, his blanched face turned away. Then the woman shrugged her shoulders and spoke out.
If he really must know, she thought there was no doubt at all that where Monsieur Montjoie was, Mademoiselle Louie was too. Monsieur Montjoie had paid the arrears of his rent to the proprietaire, somehow or other, and had then made a midnight flitting of it so as to escape other creditors who were tired of waiting for his statue to be finished. He had got a furniture van there at night, and he and the driver and her husband between them had packed most of the things from the studio, and M. Montjoie had gone off in the van about one o'clock in the morning. But of course she did not know his address! she said so half-a-dozen times a day to the persons who called, and it was as true as gospel. Why, indeed, should M. Montjoie let her or anyone else know, that he could help? He had gone into hiding to keep honest people out of their money—that was what it meant.
Well, and the same evening Mademoiselle Louie also disappeared. Madame Cervin had been in a great way, but she and mademoiselle had already quarrelled violently, and madame declared that she had no fault in the matter and that no one could be held responsible for the doings of such a minx. She believed that madame had written to monsieur. Monsieur had never received it? Ah, well, that was not surprising! No one could ever read madame's writing, though it made her temper very bad to tell her so.
Could he have Madame Cervin's address? Certainly. She wrote it out for him. As to his old room?—no, he could not go back to it.
Monsieur Dubois had lately come back, with some money apparently, for he had paid his loyer just as the landlord was going to turn him out. But he was not at home.
Then she looked her questioner up and down, with a cool, inhuman curiosity working in her small eyes. So M'selle Elise had thrown him over already? That was sharp work! As for the rest of her news, her pessimism was interested in observing his demeanour under it. Certainly he did not seem to take it gaily; but what else did he expect with his sister?—'Je vous demande!'
The young man dropped his head and went out, shrinking together into the darkness. She called her husband to the door, and the two peered after him into the lamp-lit street, dissecting him, his mistress, and his sister with knifelike tongues.
David went away and walked up and down the streets, the quays, the bridges, hour after hour, feeling no fatigue, till suddenly, just as the dawn was coming on, he sank heavily on to the seat in the Champs-Elysees. The slip with Madame Cervin's address on it dropped unheeded from his relaxing hand. His nervous strength was gone, and he had to sit and bear his anguish without the relief of frenzied motion.
Now, after his hour's sleep, he was somewhat revived, ready to start again—to search again; but where? whither? Somewhere in this vast, sun-wrapped Paris was Elise, waking, perhaps, at this moment and thinking of him with a smile and a tear. He would find her, come what would; he could not live without her!
Then into his wild passion of loss and desire there slipped again that cold, creeping thought of Louie—ruined, body and soul—ruined in this base and dangerous Paris, while he still carried in his breast that little scrap of scrawled paper! And why? Because he had flung her to the wolves without a thought, that he and Elise might travel to their goal unchecked. 'My God!'
The sense of some one near him made him look up. He saw a girl stopping near the seat whom in his frenzy he for an instant took for Louie. There was the same bold, defiant carriage, the same black hair and eyes. He half rose, with a cry.
The girl gave a quick, coarse laugh. She had been hurrying across the Avenue towards the nearest bridge when she saw him; now she came up to him with a hideous jest. David saw her face full, caught the ghastly suggestions of it—its vice, its look of mortal illness wrecking and blurring the cheap prettiness it had once possessed, and beneath all else the fierceness of the hunted creature. His whole being rose in repulsion; he waved her away, and she went, still laughing. But his guilty mind went with her, making of her infamy the prophecy and foretaste of another's.
He hurried on again, and again had to rest for faintness' sake, while the furies returned upon him. It seemed as though every passer-by were there only to scourge and torture him; or, rather, out of the moving spectacle of human life which began to flow past him with constantly increasing fulness, that strange selective poet-sense of his chose out the figures and incidents which bore upon his own story and worked into his own drama, passing by the rest. A group of persons presently attracted him who had just come apparently from the Rive Gauche, and were making for the Rue Royale. They consisted of a man, a woman, and a child. The child was a tiny creature in a preposterous feathered hat as large as itself. It had just been put down to walk by its father, and was dragging contentedly at its mother's hand, sucking a crust. The man had a bag of tools on his shoulder and was clearly an artisan going to work. His wife's face was turned to him and they were talking fast, lingering a little in the sunshine like people who had a few minutes to spare and were enjoying them. The man had the blanched, unwholesome look of the city workman who lives a sedentary life in foul air, and was, moreover, undersized and noways attractive, save perhaps for the keen amused eyes with which he was listening to his wife's chatter. The great bell of Notre-Dame chimed in the distance. The man straightened himself at once, adjusted his bag of tools, and hurried off, nodding to his wife.
She looked after him a minute, then turned and came slowly along the alley towards the bench where David sat, idly watching her. The heat was growing steadily, the child was heavy on her hand, and she was again clearly on the way to motherhood. The seat invited her, and she came up to it.
She sat down, panting, and eyed her neighbour askance, detecting at once how handsome he was, and how unshorn and haggard. Before he knew where he was, or how it had begun, they were talking. She had no shyness of any sort, and, as it seemed to him, a motherly, half-contemptuous indulgence for his sex, as such, which fitted oddly with her young looks. Very soon she was asking him the most direct questions, which he had to parry as best he could. She made out at once that he was a foreigner and in the book trade, and then she let him know by a passing expression or two that naturally she understood why he was lounging there in that plight at that hour in the morning. He had been keeping gay company, of course, and had but just emerged from some nocturnal orgie or other. And then she shrugged her strong shoulders with a light, pitiful air, as though marvelling once more for the thousandth time over the stupidity of men who would commit these idiocies, would waste their money and health in them, say what women would.
Presently he discovered that she was giving him advice of different kinds, counselling him above all to find a good wife who would work and save his wages for him. A decent marriage was in truth an economy, though young men would never believe it.
David could only stare at her in return for her counsels. The difference between his place at that moment in the human comedy and hers was too great to be explained; it called only for silence or a stammering commonplace or two. Yet for a few moments the neighbourhood of her and her child was pleasant to him. She had a good comely head, which was bare under the sun, a little shawl crossed upon her ample bust, and a market-basket on her arm. The child was playing in the fine gravel at her feet, pausing every now and then to study her mother's eye with a furtive gravity, while the hat fell back and made a still more fantastic combination than before with the pensive little face.
Presently, tired of her play, she came to stand by her mother's knee, laying her head against it.
'Mon petit ange! que tu es gentille!' said the mother in a low, rapid voice, pressing her hand on the child's cheek. Then, turning back to David, she chattered on about the profit and loss of married life. All that she said was steeped in prose—in the prose especially of sous and francs; she talked of rents, of the price of food, of the state of wages in her husband's trade. Yet every here and there came an exquisite word, a flash. It seemed that she had been very ill with her first child. She did not mince matters much even with this young man, and David gathered that she had not only been near dying, but that her illness had made a moral epoch in her life. She was laid by for three months; work was slack for her husband; her own earnings, for she was a skilled embroideress working for a great linen-shop in the Rue Vivienne, were no longer forthcoming. Would her husband put up with it, with the worries of the baby, and the menage, and the sick wife, and that sharp pinch of want into the bargain, from which during two years she had completely protected him?
'I cried one day,' she said simply; 'I said to him, "You're just sick of it, ain't you? Well, I'm going to die. Go and shift for yourself, and take the baby to the Enfants Trouves. Alors—"'
She paused, her homely face gently lit up from within. 'He is not a man of words—Jules. He told me to be quiet, called me petite sotte. "Haven't you slaved for two years?" he said. "Well, then, lie still, can't you?—faut bien que chacun prenne son tour!"'
She broke off, smiling and shaking her head. Then glancing round upon her companion again, she resumed her motherly sermon. That was the good of being married; that there was some one to share the bad times with, as well as the good.
'But perhaps,' she inquired briskly, 'you don't believe in being married? You are for l'union libre?'
She spoke like one touching on a long familiar question—as much a question indeed of daily life and of her class as those other matters of wages and food she had been discussing.
A slow and painful red mounted into the Englishman's cheek.
'I don't know,' he said stupidly. 'And you?'
'No, no!' she said emphatically, twice, nodding her head. 'Oh, I was brought up that way. My father was a Red—an Anarchist—a great man among them; he died last year. He said that liberty was everything. It made him mad when any of his friends accepted l'union legale—for him it was a treason. He never married my mother, though he was faithful to her all his life. But for me—' she paused, shaking her head slowly. 'Well, I had an elder sister—that says everything. Faut pas en parler; it makes melancholy, and one must keep up one's spirits when one is like this. It is three years since she died; she was my father's favourite. When they buried her—she died in the hospital—I sat down and thought a little. It was abominable what she had suffered, and I said to myself, "Why?"'
The child swayed backward against her knee, so absorbed was it in its thumb and the sky, and would have fallen but that she caught it with her housewife's hand, being throughout mindful of its slightest movement.
'"Why?" I said. She was a good creature—a bit foolish perhaps, but she would have worked the shoes off her feet to please anybody. And they had treated her—but like a dog! It bursts one's heart to think of it, and I said to myself,—le mariage c'est la justice! it is nothing but that. It is not what the priests say—oh! not at all. But it strikes me like that—c'est la justice; it is nothing but that!'
And she looked at him with the bright fixed eyes of one whose thoughts are beyond their own expressing. He interrupted her, wondering at the harsh rapidity of his own voice. 'But if it is the woman who will be free?—who will have no bond?'
Her expression changed, became shrewd, inquisitive, personal.
'Well, then!' she said with a shrug, and paused. 'It is because one is ignorant, you see, or one is bad—on peut toujours etre une coquine! And one forgets—one thinks one can be always young, and love is all pleasure—and it is not true! one get old—and there is the child—and one may die of it.'
She spoke with the utmost simplicity, yet with a certain intensity. Evidently she had a natural pride in her philosophy of life, as though in a possession of one's own earning and elaborating. She had probably expressed it often before in much the same terms, and with the same verbal hitches and gaps.
The young fellow beside her rose hastily, and bade her good morning. She looked mildly surprised at such an abrupt departure, but she was not offended.
'Good day, citizen,' she said, nodding to him. 'I disturb you?'
He muttered something and strode away.
How much time had that wasted of his irrevocable day that was to set him on Elise's track once more! The first post had been delivered by this time. Elise must either return to her studio or remove her possessions; anyhow, sooner or later the Merichats must have information. And if they were forbidden to speak, well, then they must be bribed.
That made him think of money, and in a sudden panic he turned aside into a small street and examined his pockets. Nearly four napoleons left, after allowing for his debt to Madame Pyat, which must be payed that day. Even in his sick, stunned state of the evening before, when he was at last staggering on again, after his fall, to the Fontainebleau station, he had remembered to stop a Barbizon man whom he came across and give him a pencilled message for the deserted madame. He had sent her the Tue Chantal address, there would be a letter from her this morning. And he must put her on the watch, too—Elise could not escape him long.
But he must have more money. He looked out for a stationer's shop, went in and wrote a letter to John, which he posted at the next post-office.
It was an incoherent scrawl, telling the lad to change the cheque he enclosed in Bank of England notes and send them to the Rue Chantal, care of Madame Merichat. He was not to expect him back just yet, and was to say to any friend who might inquire that he was still detained.
That letter, with the momentary contact it involved with his Manchester life, brought down upon him again the thought of Louie. But this time he flung it from him with a fierce impatience. His brain, indeed, was incapable of dealing with it. Remorse? rescue? there would be time enough for that by-and-by. Meanwhile—to find Elise!
And for a week he spent the energies of every thought and every moment on this mad pursuit. Of these days of nightmare he could afterwards remember but a few detached incidents here and there. He recollected patrols up and down the Rue Chantal; talks with Madame Merichat; the gleam in her eyes as he slipped his profitless bribes into her hand; visits to Taranne's atelier, where the concierge at last grew suspicious and reported the matter within; and finally an interview with the artist himself, from which the English youth emerged no nearer to his end than before, and crushed under the humiliation of the great man's advice. He could vaguely recall the long pacings of the Louvre; the fixed scrutiny of face after face; vain chases; ignominious retreats; and all the wretched stages of that slow descent into a bottomless despair! At last there was a letter—the long-expected letter to Madame Merichat, directing the removal of Mademoiselle Delaunay's possessions from the Rue Chantal. It was written by a certain M. Pimodan, who did not give his address, but who declared himself authorised by Mademoiselle Delaunay to remove her effects, and named a day when he would himself superintend the process and produce his credentials. David passed the time after the arrival of this letter in a state of excitement which left him hardly master of his actions. He had a room at the top of a wretched little hotel close to the Nord station, but he hardly ate or slept. The noises of Paris were agony to him night and day; he lived in a perpetual nausea of mind and body, hardly able at times to distinguish between the images of the brain and the impressions coming from without.
Before the day came, a note was brought to him from the Rue Chantal. It was from M. Pimodan, and requested an interview.
'I should be glad to see you on Mademoiselle Delaunay's behalf. Will you meet me in the Garden of the Luxembourg in front of the central pavilion, at three o'clock to-morrow?
Before the hour came David was already pacing up and down the blazing gravel in front of the Palace. When M. Pimodan came the Englishman in an instant recognised the cousin—the lanky fellow with the spectacles, who had injured his eyes by reading.
As soon as he had established this identification—and the two men had hardly exchanged half-a-dozen sentences before the flashing inward argument was complete—a feeling of enmity arose in his mind, so intense that he could hardly keep himself still, could hardly bring his attention to bear on what he or his companion was saying. He had been brought so low that, with anyone else, he must have broken into appeals and entreaties. With this man—No!
As for M. Pimodan, the first sight of the young Englishman had apparently wrought in him also some degree of nervous shock; for the hand which held his cane fidgeted as he walked. He had the air of a person, too, who had lately gone through mental struggle; the red rims of the eyes under their large spectacles might be due either to chronic weakness or to recent sleeplessness.
But however these things might be, he took a perfectly mild tone, in which David's sick and irritable sense instantly detected the note of various offensive superiorities—the superiority of class and the superiority of age to begin with. He said in the first place that he was Mademoiselle Delaunay's relative, and that she had commissioned him to act for her in this very delicate matter. She was well aware—had been aware from the first day—that she was watched, and that M. Grieve was moving heaven and earth to discover her whereabouts. She did not, however, intend to be discovered; let him take that for granted. In her view all was over—their relation was irrevocably at an end. She wished now to devote herself wholly and entirely to her art, without disturbance or distraction from any other quarter whatever. Might he, under these circumstances, give M. Grieve the advice of a man of the world, and counsel him to regard the matter in the same light?
David walked blindly on, playing with his watch-chain. In the name of God whom and what was this fellow talking about? At the end of ten minutes' discourse on M. Pimodan's part, and of a few rare monosyllables on his own, he said, straightening his young figure with a nervous tremor:
'What you say is perfectly useless—I shall find her.'
Then a sudden angry light leapt into the cousin's eyes.
'You will not find her!' he said, drawing a sharp breath. 'It shows how little you know her, after all—compared with—those who—No matter! Oh, you can persecute and annoy her! No one doubts that. You can stand between her and all that she now cares to live for—her art. But you can do nothing else; and you will not be allowed to do that long, for she is not alone, as you seem to think. She will be protected. There are resources, and we shall employ them!'
The cousin had gone beyond his commission. David guessed as much. He did not believe that Elise had set this man on to threaten him. What a fool! But he merely said with a sarcastic dryness, endeavouring the while to steady his parched lips and his eyelids swollen with weariness.
'A la bonne heure!—employ them. Well, sir, you know, I believe, where Mademoiselle Delaunay is. I wish to know. You will not inform me. I therefore pursue my own way, and it is useless for me to detain you any longer.'
'Know where she is!' cried the other, a triumphant flash passing across his sallow student's face; 'I have but just parted from her.'
But he stopped. As a physician, he was accustomed to notice the changes of physiognomy. Instinctively he put some feet of distance between himself and his companion. Was it agony or rage he saw?
But David recovered himself by a strong effort.
'Go and tell her, then, that I shall find her,' he said with a shaking voice. 'I have many things to say to her yet.'
'Absurd!' cried the other angrily. 'Very well, sir, we know what to expect. It only remains for us to take measures accordingly.'
And drawing himself up he walked quickly away, looking back every now and then to see whether he were followed or no.
'Supposing I did track him,' thought David vaguely, 'what would he do? Summon one of the various gardiens in sight?'
He had, however, no such intention. What could it have ended in but a street scuffle? Patience! and he would find Elise for himself in spite of that prater.
Meanwhile he descended the terrace, and threw himself, worn out, upon the first seat, to collect his thoughts again.
Oh, this summer beauty:—this festal moment of the great city! Palace and Garden lay under the full June sun. The clipped trees on the terraces, statues, alleys, and groves slept in the luminous dancing air. All the normal stir and movement of the Garden seemed to have passed to-day into the leaping and intermingling curves of the fountains; the few figures passing and repassing hardly disturbed the general impression of heat and solitude.
For hours David sat there, head down, his eyes on the gravel, his hands tightly clasped between his knees. When he rose at last it was to hurry down the Rue de Seine and take the nearest bridge and street northwards to the Quartier Montmartre. He had been dreaming too long! and yet so great by now was his confusion of mind that he was no nearer a fresh plan of operations than when the cousin left him.
When he arrived at Madame Merichat's loge it was to find that no new development had occurred. Elise's possessions were still untouched; neither she nor M. Pimodan had given any further sign. The concierge, however, gave him a letter which had just arrived for him. Seeing that it bore the Manchester postmark, he thrust it into his pocket unread.
When he entered the evil-smelling passage of his hotel, a garcon emerged from the restaurant, dived into the salle de lecture, and came out with an envelope, which he gave to the Englishman. It had been left by a messenger five minutes before monsieur arrived. David took it, a singing in his ears; mounted to the first landing, where the gas burnt at midday, and read it.
'Gustave tells me you would not listen to him. Do you want to make me curse our meeting? Be a man and leave me to myself! While I know that you are on the watch I shall keep away from Paris—voila, tout. I shall eat my heart out,—I shall begin to hate you, —you will have chosen it so. Only understand this: I will never see you again, for both our sakes, if I can help it. Believe what I say—believe that what parts us is a fate stronger than either of us, and go! Oh! you men talk of love—and at bottom you are all selfish and cruel. Do you want to break me more than I am already broken? Set me free!—will you kill both my youth and my art together?'
He carefully refolded the letter and put it into its envelope. Then he turned and went downstairs again towards the street. But the same frowsy waiter who had given him his letter was on the watch for him. In the morning monsieur had commanded some dinner. Would he take it now?
The man's tone was sulky. David understood that he was not considered a profitable customer of the hotel—that, considering his queer ways, late hours, and small spendings, they would probably be glad to be rid of him. With a curious submission and shrinking he followed the man into the stifling restaurant and sat down at one of the tables.
Here some food was brought to him, which he tried to eat. But in the midst of it he was seized with so great a loathing, that he suddenly rose, so violently as to upset a plate of bread beside him, and make a waiter spring forward to save the table itself. He pushed his way to the glass-door into the street, totally unconscious of the stir his behaviour was causing among the stout women in bonnets and the red-faced men with napkins tucked under their chins who were dining near, fumbled at the handle, and tottered out.
'Quel animal!' said the enraged dame du comptoir, who had noticed the incident. 'Marie!'—this to the sickly girl who sat near with the books in front of her, 'enter that plate, and charge it high. To-morrow I shall raise the price of his room. One must really finish with him. C'est un fou!'
Meanwhile David, revived somewhat by the air, was already in the Boulevard, making for Opera and the Rue Royale. It was not yet seven, the Salon would be still open. The distances seemed to him interminable—the length of the Rue Royale, the expanse of the Place de la Concorde, the gay and crowded ways of the Champs-Elysee. But at last he was mounting the stairs and battling through the rooms at the top. He looked first at the larger picture which had gained her mention honorable. It was a study of factory girls at their work, unequal, impatient, but full of a warm inventive talent—full of her. He knew its history—the small difficulties and triumphs of it, the adventures she had gone through on behalf of it—by heart. That fair-haired girl in the corner was studied from herself; the tint of the hair, the curve of the cheek were exact. He strained his eyes to look, searching for this detail and that. His heart said farewell—that was the last, the nearest he should ever come to her on this earth! Next year? Ah, he would give much to see her pictures of next year, with these new perceptions she had created in him.
He stood a minute before the other picture, the portrait—a study from one of her comrades in the atelier—and then he wound his way again through the thronged and suffocating rooms, and out into the evening.
The excessive heat of the last few days was about to end in storm. A wide tempestuous heaven lay beyond the Arc de Triomphe; the red light struck down the great avenue and into the faces of those stepping westwards. The deep shade under the full-leafed trees—how thinly green they were still against the sky that day when she vanished from him beside the arch and their love began!—was full of loungers and of playing children; the carriages passed and repassed in the light. So it had been, the enchanting never-ending drama, before this spectator entered—so it would be when he had departed.
He turned southwards and found himself presently on the Quai de la Conference, hanging over the river in a quiet spot where few people passed.
His frenzy of will was gone, and his last hope with it. Elise had conquered. Her letter had brought him face to face with those realities which, during this week of madness, he had simply refused to see. He could pit himself against her no longer. When it came to the point he had not the nerve to enter upon a degrading and ignoble conflict, in which all that was to be won was her hatred or her fear. That, indeed, would be the last and worst ruin, for it would be the ruin, not of happiness or of hope, but of love itself, and memory.
He took out her letter and re-read it. Then he searched for some of the writing materials he had bought when he had written his last letter to Manchester, and, spreading a sheet on the parapet of the river wall, he wrote:
'Be content. I think now—I am sure—that we shall never meet again. From this moment you will be troubled with me no more. Only I tell you for the last time that you have done ill—irrevocably ill. For what you have slain in yourself and me is not love or happiness, but life itself—the life of life!'
Foolish, incoherent words, as they seemed to him, but he could find no better. Confusedly and darkly they expressed the cry, the inmost conviction of his being. He could come no nearer at any rate to that desolation at the heart of him.
But now what next? Manchester?—the resumption and expansion of his bookseller's life—the renewal of his old friendships—the pursuit of money and of knowledge?
No. That is all done. The paralysis of will is complete. He cannot drive himself home, back to the old paths. The disgust with life has sunk too deep—the physical and moral collapse of which he is conscious has gone too far.
'Wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?'
There, deep in the fibre of memory lie these words, and others like them—the typical words of a religion which is still in some sense the ineradicable warp of his nature, as it had been for generations of his forefathers. His individual resources of speech, as it were, have been overpassed; he falls back upon the inherited, the traditional resources of his race.
He looked up. A last gleam was on the Invalides—on the topmost roof of the Corps Legislatif; otherwise the opposite bank was already grey, the river lay in shade. But the upper air was still aglow with the wide flame and splendour of the sunset; and beneath, on the bridges and the water and the buildings, how clear and gracious was the twilight!
'Who shall deliver me?' 'Deliver thyself!' One instant, and the intolerable pressure on this shrinking point of consciousness can be lightened, this hunger for sleep appeased! Nothing else is possible—no future is even conceivable. His life in flowering has exhausted and undone itself, so spendthrift has been the process.
So he took his resolve. Then, already calmed, he hung over the river, thinking, reviewing the past.
Six weeks—six weeks only!—yet nothing in his life before matters or counts by comparison. For this mood of deadly fatigue the remembrance of all the intellectual joys and conquests of the last few years has no savour whatever. Strange that the development of one relation of life—the relation of passion—should have been able so to absorb and squander the power of living! His fighting, enduring capacity, compared with that of other men, must be small indeed. He thinks of himself as a coward and a weakling. But neither the facts of the present nor the face of the future are altered thereby.
The relation of sex—in its different phases—as he sees the world at this moment, there is no other reality. The vile and hideous phase of it has been present to him from the first moment of his arrival in these Paris streets. He thinks of the pictures and songs at the 'Trois Rats' from which in the first delicacy and flush of passion he had shrunk with so deep a loathing; of the photographs and engravings in the shops and the books on the stalls; of some of those pictures he had passed, a few minutes before, in the Salon; of that girl's face in the Tuileries Gardens. The animal, the beast in human nature, never has it been so present to him before; for he has understood and realised it while loathing it, has been admitted by his own passion to those regions of human feeling where all that is most foul and all that is most beautiful are generated alike from the elemental forces of life. And because he had loved Elise so finely and yet so humanly, with a boy's freshness and a man's energy, this animalism of the great city had been to him a perpetual nightmare and horror. His whole heart had gone into Regnault's cry—into Regnault's protest. For his own enchanted island had seemed to him often in the days of his wooing to be but floating on the surface of a ghastly sea, whence emerged all conceivable shapes of ruin, mockery, terror, and disease. It was because of the tremulous adoration which filled him from the beginning that the vice of Paris had struck him in this tragical way. At another time it might have been indifferent to him, might even have engulfed him.
But he!—he had known the best of passion! He laid his head down on the wall, and lived Barbizon over again—day after day, night after night. Now for the first time there is a pause in the urging madness of his despair. All the pulses of his being slacken; he draws back as it were from his own fate, surveys it as a whole, separates himself from it. The various scenes of it succeed each other in memory, set always—incomparably set—in the spring green of the forest, or under a charmed moonlight, or amid the flowery detail of a closed garden. Her little figure flashes before him—he sees her gesture, her smile; he hears his own voice and hers; recalls the struggle to express, the poverty of words, the thrill of silence, and that perpetual and exquisite recurrence to the interpreting images of poetry and art. But no poet had imagined better, had divined more than they in those earliest hours had lived! So he had told her, so he insisted now with a desperate faith.
But, poor soul! even as he insists, the agony within rises, breaks up, overwhelms the picture. He lives again through the jars and frets of those few burning days, the growing mistrust of them, the sense of jealous terror and insecurity—and then through the anguish of desertion and loss. He writhes again under the wrenching apart of their half-fused lives—under this intolerable ache of his own wound.
This the best of passion! Why his whole soul is still athirst and ahungered. Not a single craving of it has been satisfied. What is killing him is the sense of a thwarted gift, a baffled faculty—the faculty of self-spending, self-surrender. This, the best?
Then the mind fell into a whirlwind of half-articulate debate, from the darkness of which emerged two scenes—fragments—set clear in a passing light of memory.
That workman and his wife standing together before the day's toil—the woman's contented smile as her look clung to the mean departing figure.
And far, far back in his boyish life—Margaret sitting beside 'Lias in the damp autumn dawn, spending on his dying weakness that exquisite, ineffable passion of tenderness, of pity.
Ah! from the very beginning he had been in love with loving. He drew the labouring breath of one who has staked his all for some long-coveted gain, and lost.
Well!—Mr. Ancrum may be right—the English Puritan may be right—'sin' and 'law' may have after all some of those mysterious meanings his young analysis had impetuously denied them—he and Elise may have been only dashing themselves against the hard facts of the world's order, while they seemed to be transcending the common lot and spurning the common ways. What matter now! A certain impatient defiance rises in his stricken soul. He has made shipwreck of this one poor opportunity of life—confessed! now let the God behind it punish, if God there be. 'The rest is silence. ' With Elise in his arms, he had grasped at immortality. Now a stubborn, everlasting 'Nay' possesses him. There is nothing beyond.
He gathered up his letter, folded it, and put it into the breast—pocket of his coat. But in doing so his fingers touched once more the ragged edges of a bit of frayed paper.
Through all these half-sane days and nights he had never once thought of his sister. She had passed out of his life—she had played no part even in the nightmares of his dreams.
But now!—while that intense denial of any reality in the universe beyond and behind this masque of life and things was still vibrating through his deepest being, it was as though a hand gently drew aside a curtain, and there grew clear before him, slowly effacing from his eyes the whole grandiose spectacle of buildings, sky, and river, that scene of the past which had worked so potently both in his childish sense and in Reuben's maturer conscience—the bare room, the iron bed, the dying man, one child within his arm, the other a frightened baby beside him.
It was frightfully clear, clearer than it had ever been in any normal state of brain, and as his mind lingered on it, unconsciously shaping, deepening its own creation, the weird impression grew that the helpless figure amid the bedclothes rose on its elbow, opened its cavernous eyes, and looked at him face to face, at the son whose childish heart had beat against his father's to the last. The boy's tortured soul quailed afresh before the curse his own remorse called into those eyes.
He hung over the water pleading with the phantom—defending himself. Every now and then he found that he was speaking aloud; then he would look round with a quick, piteous terror to see whether he had been heard or no, the parched lips beginning to move again almost before his fear was soothed.
All his past returned upon him, with its obligations, its fetters of conscience and kinship, so slowly forged, so often resisted and forgotten, and yet so strong. The moment marked the first passing away of the philtre, but it brought no recovery with it.
'My God! my God! I tried, father—I tried. But she is lost, lost—as I am!'
Then a thought found entrance and developed. He walked up and down the quay, wrestling it out, returning slowly and with enormous difficulty, because of his physical state, to some of the normal estimates and relations of life.
At last he dragged himself off towards his hotel. He must have some sleep, or how could these hours that yet remained be lived through—his scheme carried out?
On the way he went into a shop still open on the boulevard. When he came out he thrust his purchase into his pocket, buttoned his coat over it, and pursued his way northwards with a brisker step.
Two days afterwards David stood at the door of a house in the outskirts of the Auteuil district of Paris. The street had a half-finished, miscellaneous air; new buildings of the villa type were mixed up with old and dingy houses standing in gardens, which had been evidently overtaken by the advancing stream of Paris, having once enjoyed a considerable amount of country air and space.
It was at the garden gate of one of these older houses that David rang, looking about him the while at the mean irregular street and the ill-kept side-walks with their heaps of cinders and refuse.
A powerfully built woman appeared, scowling, in answer to the bell. At first she flatly refused the new-comer admission. But David was prepared. He set to work to convince her that he was not a Paris creditor, and, further, that he was well aware M. Montjoie was not at home, since he had passed him on the other side of the road, apparently hurrying to the railway station, only a few minutes before. He desired simply to see madame. At this the woman's expression changed somewhat. She showed, however, no immediate signs of letting him in, being clearly chosen and paid to be a watch-dog. Then David brusquely put his hand in his pocket. Somehow he must get this harridan out of the way at once! The same terror was upon him that had been upon him now for many days and nights—of losing command of himself, of being no more able to do what he had to do.
The creature studied him, put out a greedy palm, developed a smile still more repellent than her brutality, and let him in.
He found himself in a small, neglected garden; in front of him, to the right, a wretched, weather-stained house, bearing every mark of poverty and dilapidation, while to the left there stretched out from the house a long glass structure, also in miserable condition—a sculptor's studio, as he guessed.
His guide led him to the studio-door. Madame was there a few minutes ago. As they approached, David stopped.
'I will knock. You may go back to the house. I am madame's brother.'
She looked at him once more, reluctant. Then, in the clearer light of the garden, the likeness of the face to one she already knew struck her with amazement; she turned and went off, muttering.
David knocked at the door; there was a movement within, and it was cautiously opened.
'Monsieur est sorti.—You!'
The brother and sister were face to face.
David closed the door behind him, and Louie retreated slowly, her hands behind her, her tall figure drawing itself up, her face setting into a frowning scorn.
'You!—what are you here for? We have done with each other!'
For answer David went up to a stove which was feebly burning in the damp, cheerless place, put down his hat and stick, and bent over it, stretching out his hands to the warmth. A chair was beside it, and on the chair some scattered bits of silk and velvet, out of which Louie was apparently fashioning a hat.
She stood still, observing him. She was in a loose dress of some silky Oriental material, and on her black hair she wore a red close-fitting cap with a fringe of golden coins dropping lightly and richly round her superb head and face.
'What is the matter with you?' she asked him grimly, after a minute's silence.' She has left you—that's plain!'
The young man involuntarily threw back his head as though he had been struck, and a vivid colour rushed into his cheek. But he answered quickly:
'We need not discuss my affairs. I did not come here to speak of them. They are beyond mending. I came to see—before I go—whether there is anything I can do to help you.'
'Much obliged to you!' she cried, flinging herself down on the edge of a rough board platform, whereon stood a fresh and vigorous clay-study, for which she had just been posing, to judge from her dress. Beyond was the Maenad. And in the distance loomed a great block of marble, upon which masons had been working that afternoon.
'I am greatly obliged to you!' she repeated mockingly, taking the crouching attitude of an animal ready to attack. 'You are a pattern brother.'
Her glowing looks expressed the enmity and contempt she was at the moment too excited to put into words.
David drew his hand across his eyes with a long breath. How was he to get through it, this task of his, with this swollen, aching brain and these trembling limbs? Louie must let him speak; he bitterly felt his physical impotence to wrestle with her.
He went up to her slowly and sat down beside her. She drew away from him with a violent movement. But he laid his hand upon her knee—a shaking hand which his impatient will tried in vain to steady.
'Louie, look at me!' he commanded.
She did so unwillingly, but the proud repulsion of her lip did not relax.
'Well, I dare say you look pretty bad. Whose fault is it? everybody else but you knew what the creature was worth. Ask anybody!'
The lad's frame straightened and steadied. He took his hand from her knee.
'Say that kind of thing again,' he said calmly, 'and I walk straight out of that door, and you set eyes on me for the last time. That would be what you want, I dare say. All I wish to point out is, that you would be a great fool. I have not come here today to waste words, but to propose something to your advantage—your money-advantage,' he repeated deliberately, looking round the dismal building with its ill-mended gaps and rents, and its complete lack of the properties and appliances to which the humblest modern artist pretends. 'To judge from what I heard in Paris, and what I see, money is scarce here.'
His piteous sudden wish to soften her, to win a kind word from her, from anyone, had passed away. He was beginning to take command of her as in the old days.
'Well, maybe we are hard up,' she admitted slowly. 'People are such brutes and won't wait, and a sculptor has to pay out for a lot of things before he can make anything at all. But that statue will put it all right,' and she pointed behind her to the Maenad. 'It's me—it's the one you tried to put a stopper on.'
She looked at him darkly defiant. She was leaning back on one arm, her foot beating with the trick familiar to her. For reckless and evil splendour the figure was unsurpassable.
'When he sells that,' she went on, seeing that he did not answer, 'and he will sell it in a jiffy—it is the best he's ever done—there'll be heaps of money.'
'For a week perhaps. Then, if I understand this business aright—I have been doing my best, you perceive, to get information, and M. Montjoie seems to be better known than one supposed to half Paris—the game will begin again.'
'Never you mind,' she broke in, breathing quickly. 'Give me my money—the money that belongs to me—and let me alone.'
'On one condition,' he said quietly. 'That money, as you remember, is in my hands and at my disposal.'
'Ah! I supposed you would try to grab it!' she cried.
Even he was astonished at her violence—her insolence. The demon in her had never been so plain, the woman never so effaced. His heart dropped within him like lead, and his whole being shrank from her.
'Listen to me!' he said, seizing her strongly by the hand, while a light of wrath leapt into his changed and bloodshot eyes. 'This man will desert you; in a year's time he will have tired of you; what'll you do then?'
'Manage for myself, thank you! without any canting interference from you. I have had enough of that.'
'And fall again,' he said, releasing her, and speaking with a deliberate intensity; 'fall again—from infamy to infamy!'
She sprang up.
'Mind yourself!' she cried.
Miserable moment! As he looked at her he felt that that weapon of his old influence with her which, poor as it was, he had relied on in the last resort all his life, had broken in his hand. His own act had robbed it of all virtue. That pang of 'irreparableness' which had smitten Elise smote him now. All was undone—all was done!
He buried his face in his hands an instant. When he lifted it again, she was standing with her arms folded across her chest, leaning against an iron shaft which supported part of the roof.
'You had better go!' she said, still in a white heat. 'Why you ever came I don't know. If you won't give me that money, I shall get it somehow.'
Suddenly, as she spoke, everything—the situation, the subject of their talk, the past—seemed to be wiped out of David's brain. He stared round him helplessly. Why were they there—what had happened?
This blankness lasted a certain number of seconds. Then it passed away, and he painfully recovered his identity. But the experience was not new to him—it would recur—let him be quick.
This time a happier instinct served him. He, too, rose and went up to her.
'We are a pair of fools,' he said to her, half bitterly, half gently; 'we reproach and revile each other, and all the time I am come to give you not only what is yours, but all—all I have—that it may stand between you and—and worse ruin.'
'Ruin!' she said, throwing back her head and catching at the word; 'speak for yourself! If I am Montjoie's mistress, Elise Delaunay was yours. Don't preach. It won't go down.'
'I have no intention of preaching—don't alarm yourself,' he replied quietly, this time controlling himself without difficulty.'
'I have only this to say. On the day when you become Montjoie's wife, all our father's money—all the six hundred pounds Mr. Gurney paid over to me in January, shall be paid to you.'
She started, caught her breath, tried to brazen it out.
'What is this idiocy for?' she asked coldly. 'What does marrying matter to you?'
He sank down again on the chair by the stove, being, indeed, unable to stand.
'Perhaps I can't tell you,' he said, after a pause, shading his face from her with his hand; 'perhaps I could not make plain to myself what I feel. But this I know—that this man with whom you are living here is a man for whom nobody has a good word. I want to give you a hold over him. But first—stop a moment, '—he dropped his hand and looked up eagerly, 'will you leave him—leave him at once? I could arrange that.'
'Make your mind easy,' she said shortly; 'he suits me—I stay. I went with him, well, because I was dull—and because I wanted to make you smart for it, if you're keen to know!—but if you think I am anxious to go home, to be cried over by Dora and lectured by you, you're vastly mistaken. I can manage him! I have my hold on him—he knows very well what I am worth to him.'
She threw her head back superbly against the iron shaft, putting one arm round it and resting her hot cheek against it as though for coolness.
'Why should we argue?' he said sharply—after a wretched silence. 'I didn't come for that. If you won't leave him I have only this to say. On the day he marries you, if the evidence of the marriage is satisfactory to an English lawyer I have discovered in Paris and whose address I will give you, six hundred pounds will be paid over to you. It is there now, in the lawyer's hands. If not, I go home, and the law does not compel me to hand you over one farthing.'
She was silent, and began to pace up and down.
'Montjoie despises marriage,' she said presently.
'Try whether he despises money too,' said David, and could not for the life of him keep the sarcastic note out of his voice.
She bit her lip.
'And when, if it is done, must this precious thing be settled?'
'If your marriage does not take place within a month, Mr. O'Kelly—I will leave you his address,' he put his hand into his pocket—'has orders to return the money—'
'To whom?' she inquired, struck by his sudden break.
'To me, of course,' he said slowly. 'Is it perfectly plain? do you understand? Now, then, listen. I have inquired what the law is—you will have to be married both at the mairie and by the chaplain at the British embassy.'
She stopped suddenly in her walk and confronted him.
'If I am married at all,' she said abruptly, 'I shall be married as a Catholic.'
'A Catholic!' David stared at her. She enjoyed his astonishment.
'Oh, I have had that in my mind for a long time,' she said scornfully. 'There is a priest at that church with the steps, you know, near that cemetery place on the hill, who is very much interested in me indeed. He speaks English. I used to go to confession. Madame Cervin told me all about it, and how to do it; I did it exact! Oh, if I am to be married, that will make it plain sailing enough. It was awkward—while—'
She broke off and sat down again beside him, pondering and smiling as he had seen her do in Manchester, when she had the prospect of a new dress or some amusement that excited her.
'How have you been able to think about such things?' he asked her, marvelling.
'Think about them! What was the good of that? It's the churches I like, and the priests. Now there is something to see in the Paris churches, like the Madeleine—worth a dozen St. Damian's, —you may tell Dora that. The flowers and the dresses and the music—they are something like. And the priests—'
She smiled again, little meditative smiles, as though she were recalling her experiences.
'Well, I don't know that there's much about them,' she said at last; 'they're queer, and they're awfully clever, and they want to manage you, of course.'
She stopped, quite unable to express herself any more fully. But it was evident that the traditional relation of the Catholic priest to his penitent had been to her a subject of curiosity and excitement—that she would gladly know more of it.
David could hardly believe his ears. He sat lost at first in the pure surprise of it, in the sense of Louie's unlikeness to any other human creature he had ever seen. Then a gleam of satisfaction arose. He had heard of the hold on women possessed by the Catholic Church, and maintained by her marvellous, and on the whole admirable, system of direction. For himself, he would have no priests of whatever Church. But his mind harboured none of the common Protestant rules and shibboleths. In God's name, let the priests get hold of this sister of his:—if they could—when he—
'Marry this man, then!' he said to her at last, breaking the silence abruptly,' and square it with the Church, if you want to.'
'Oh, indeed!' she said mockingly. 'So you have nothing to say against my turning Catholic? I should like to see Uncle Reuben's face.'
Her voice had the exultant mischief of a child. It was evident that her spirits were rising, that her mood towards her brother was becoming more amiable.
'Nothing,' he said dryly, replying to her question.
Then he got up and looked for his hat. She watched him askance. 'What are you going for? I could get you some tea. He won't be in for hours.'
'I have said what I had to say. These'—taking a paper from his pocket and laying it down, 'are all the directions, legal and other, that concern you, as to the marriage. I drew them up this morning, with Mr. O'Kelly. I have given you his address. You can communicate with him at any time.'
'I can write to you, I suppose?'
'Better write to him,' he said quietly, 'he has instructions. He seemed to me a good sort.'
'Where are you going?'
'Back to Paris, and then—home.'
She placed herself in his way, so that the sunny light of the late afternoon, coming mostly from behind her, left her face in shadow.
'What'll you do without that money?' she asked abruptly.
He paused, getting together his answer with difficulty.
'I have the stock, and there is something left of the sixty pounds Uncle Reuben brought. I shall do.'
'He'll muddle it all,' she said roughly. 'What's the good?'
And she folded her arms across her with the recklessness of one quite ready and eager, if need be, to fight her own battle, with her own weapons, in her own way.
'Get Mr. O'Kelly to keep it, if you can persuade him, and draw it by degrees. I'd have made a trust of it, if it had been enough; but it isn't. Twenty-four pounds a year: that's all you'd get, if we tied up the capital.'
She laughed. Evidently her acquaintance with Montjoie had enlarged her notions of money, which were precise and acute enough before.
'He spends that in a supper when he's in cash. I'll be curious to see whether, all in a lump, it'll be enough to make him marry me. Still, he is precious hard up: he don't stir out till dark, he's so afraid of meeting people.'
'That's my hope,' said David heavily, hardly knowing what he said. 'Good-bye.'
'Hope!' she re-echoed bitterly. 'What d'you want to tie me to him for, for good and all?'
And, turning away from him, she stared, frowning, through the dingy glass door in to the darkening garden. In her mind there was once more that strange uprising swell of reaction—of hatred of herself and life.
Why, indeed? David could not have answered her question. He only knew that there was a blind instinct in him driving him to this, as the best that remained open—the only ainde possible for what had been so vilely done by himself, by her, and by the man who had worked out her fall for a mere vicious whim. There was no word in any mouth, it seemed to him, of his being in love with her.
There were all sorts of whirling thoughts in his mind—fragments cast up by the waves of desolate experience he had been passing through—inarticulate cries of warning, judgment, pain. But he could put nothing into words.
She turned and stood looking at him.
'What made you get ill?' she inquired, eyeing him.
His thirsty heart drank in the change of tone.
'I don't sleep,' he said hurriedly. 'It's the noise. The Nord station is never quiet. Well, mind you've got to bring that off. Keep the papers safe. Good-bye, for a long time'.
'I can come over when I want?' she said half sullenly.
'Yes,' he assented, 'but you won't want.'
He drew her by the hand with a solemn tremulous feeling, and kissed her on the cheek. He would have liked to give her their father's dying letter. It was there, in his coat-pocket. But he shrank from the emotion of it. No, he must go. He had done all he could.
She opened the door for him, and took him to the garden-gate in silence.
'When I'm married,' she said shortly, 'if ever I am—Lord knows! —you can tell Uncle Reuben and Dora?'
The gate closed behind him. He went away, hurrying towards the Auteuil station.
When he landed again in the Paris streets, he stood irresolute.
'One more look,' he said to himself, 'one more.'
And he turned down the Rue Chantal. There was the familiar archway, and the light shining behind the porter's door. Was her room already stripped and bare, or was the broken glass—poor dumb prophet!—still there, against the wall?
He wandered on through the lamp-lit city and the crowded pavements. Elise—the wraith of her—went with him, hand in hand, ghost with ghost, amid this multitude of men. Sometimes, breaking from this dream-companionship, he would wake with terror to the perception of his true, his utter loneliness. He was not made to be alone, and the thought that nowhere in this great Paris was there a single human being to whose friendly eye or hand he might turn him in his need, swept across him from time to time, contracting the heart. Dora—Mr. Ancrum—if they knew, they would be sorry.
Then again indifference and blankness came upon him, and he could only move feebly on, seeing everything in a blur and mist. After these long days and nights of sleeplessness, semi-starvation, and terrible excitement, every nerve was sick, every organ out of gear. The lights of the Tuileries, the stately pile of the Louvre, under a gray driving sky.—There would be rain soon—ah, there it came! the great drops hissing along the pavement. He pushed on to the river, careless of the storm, soothed, indeed, by the cool dashes of rain in his face and eyes.
The Place de la Concorde seemed to him as day, so brilliant was the glare of its lamps. To the right, the fairyland of the Champs-Elysees, the trees tossing under the sudden blast; in front, the black trench of the river. On, on—let him see it all—gather it all into his accusing heart and brain, and then at a stroke blot out the inward and the outward vision, and 'cease upon the midnight with no pain'!
He walked till he could walk no more; then he sank on a dark seat on the Quai Saint-Michel, cursing himself. Had he no nerve left for the last act—was that what this delay, this fooling meant? Coward!
But not here! not in these streets—this publicity! Back—to this little noisome room. There lock the door, and make an end!
On the way northward, at the command of a sudden caprice, he sat outside a blazing cafe on the Boulevard and ordered absinthe, which he had never tasted. While he waited he looked round on the painted women, on the men escorting them, on the loungers with their newspapers and cigars, the shouting, supercilious waiters. But all the little odious details of the scene escaped him; he felt only the touchingness of his human comradeship, the yearning of a common life, bruised and wounded but still alive within him.
Then he drank the stuff they gave him, loathed it, paid and staggered on. When he reached his hotel he crept upstairs, dreading to meet any of the harsh-faced people who frowned as he passed them. He had done abject things these last three days to conciliate them—tipped the waiter, ordered food, not that he might eat it but that he might pay for it, bowed to the landlady—all to save the shrinking of his sore and quivering nerves. In vain! It seemed to him that since that last look from Elise as she nestled into the fern, there had been no kindness for him in human eyes—save, perhaps, from that woman with the child.
As he dragged himself up to his fourth floor, the stimulant he had taken began to work upon his starved senses. The key was in his door, he turned it and fell into his room, while the door, with the key still in it, swung to behind him. Guiding himself by the furniture, he reached the only chair the room possessed—an arm-chair of the commonest and cheapest hotel sort, which, because of the uncertainty of its legs, the femme de chambre had propped up against the bed. He sat down in it and his head fell back on the counterpane. There was much to do. He had to write to John about the sale of his stock and the payment of his debts. He had to put his father's letter into an envelope for Louie, to send all the papers and letters he had on him and a last message to Mr. Ancrum, and then to post these letters, so that nothing private might fall into the hands of the French police, who would, of course, open his bag.
While these thoughts were rising in him, a cloud came over the brain, bringing with it, as it seemed, the first moment of ease which had been his during this awful fortnight. Before he yielded himself to it he thrust his hand into his coat-pocket with a sudden vague anxiety to feel what was there. But even as he withdrew his fingers they relaxed; a black object came with them, and fell unheeded, first on his knee, then on to a coat lying on the floor between him and the window.
A quarter of an hour afterwards there was a stir and voices on the landing outside. Some one knocked at the door of No. 139. No answer. 'The key is in the door. Ouvrez donc!' cried the waiter, as he ran downstairs again to the restaurant, which was still crowded. The visitor opened the door and peeped in. Some quick words broke from him. He rushed in and up to the bed. But directly the heavy feverish breathing of the figure in the chair caught his ear his look of sudden horror relaxed, and he fell back, looking at the sleeping youth.
It was a piteous sight he saw! Exhaustion, helplessness, sorrow, physical injury, and moral defeat, were written in every line of the poor drawn face and shrunken form. The brow was furrowed, the breathing hard, the mouth dry and bloodless. Upon the mind of the new-comer, possessed as it was with the image of what David Grieve had been two short months before, the effect of the spectacle was presently overwhelming.
He fell on his knees beside the sleeper. But as he did so, he noticed the black thing on the floor, stooped to it, and took it up. That it should be a loaded revolver seemed to him at that moment the most natural thing in the world, little used as he personally was to such possessions. He looked at it carefully, took out the two cartridges it contained, put them into one pocket and the revolver into the other.
Then he laid his arm round the lad's neck.
The young man woke directly and sat up, shaking with terror and excitement. He pushed his visitor from him, looking at him with defiance. Then he slipped his hand inside his coat and sprang up with a cry.
'David!—dear boy—dear fellow!'
The voice penetrated the lad's ear. He caught his visitor and dragged him forward to the light. It fell on the twisted face and wet eyes of Mr. Ancrum. So startling was the vision, so poignant were the associations which it set vibrating, that David stood staring and trembling, struck dumb.
'Oh, my poor lad! my poor lad! John wanted me to come yesterday, and I delayed. I was a selfish wretch. Now I will take you home.'
David fell again upon his chair, too feeble to speak, too feeble even to weep, the little remaining colour ebbing from his cheeks. The minister used all his strength, and laid him on the bed. Then he rang and made even the callous and haughty madame, who was presently summoned, listen to and obey him while he sent for brandy and a doctor, and let the air of the night into the stifling room.
In two or three days the English doctor who was attending David strongly advised Mr. Ancrum to get his charge home. The fierce strain his youth had sustained acting through the nervous system had disordered almost every bodily function, and the collapse which followed Mr. Ancrum's appearance was severe. He would lie in his bed motionless and speechless, volunteered no confidence, and showed hardly any rallying power.
'Get him out of this furnace and that doghole of a room,' said the doctor. 'He has come to grief here somehow—that's plain. You won't make anything of him till you move him.'
When the lad was at last stretched on the deck of a Channel steamer speeding to the English coast, and the sea breeze had brought a faint touch of returning colour to his cheek, he asked the question he had never yet had the physical energy to ask.
'Why did you come, and how did you find me?'
Then it appeared that the old cashier at Heywood's bank, who had taken a friendly interest in the young bookseller since the opening of his account, had dropped a private word to John in the course of conversation, which had alarmed that youth not a little. His own last scrawl from David had puzzled and disquieted him, and he straightway marched off to Mr. Ancrum to consult. Whereupon the minister wrote cautiously and affectionately to David asking for some prompt and full explanation of things for his friends' sake. The letter was, as we know, never opened, and therefore never answered. Whereupon John's jealous misery on Louie's account and Mr. Ancrum's love for David had so worked that the minister had broken in upon his scanty savings and started for Paris at a few hours' notice. Once in the Rue Chantal he had come easily on David's track.
Naturally he had inquired after Louie as soon as David was in a condition to be questioned at all. The young man hesitated a moment, then he said resolutely, 'She is married,' and would say no more. Mr. Ancrum pressed the matter a little, but his patient merely shook his head, and the sight of him as he lay there on the pillow was soon enough to silence the minister.
On the evening before they left Paris he called for a telegraph form, wrote a message and paid the reply, but Mr. Ancrum saw nothing of either. When the reply arrived David crushed it in his hand with a strange look, half bitterness, half relief, and flung it behind a piece of furniture standing near.
Now, on the cool, wind-swept deck, he seemed more inclined to talk than he had been yet. He asked questions about John and the Lomaxes—he even inquired after Lucy, as to whom the minister who had lately improved an acquaintance with Dora and her father, begun through David, could only answer vaguely that he believed she was still in the south. But he volunteered nothing about his own affairs or the cause of the state in which Mr. Ancrum had found him.
Every now and then, indeed, as they stood together at the side of the vessel, David leaning heavily against it, his words would fail him altogether, and he would be left staring stupidly, the great black eyes widening, the lower lip falling—over the shifting brilliance of the sea.
Ancrum was almost sure too that in the darkness of their last night in Paris there had been, hour after hour, a sound of hard and stifled weeping, mingled with the noises from the street and from the station; and to-day the youth in the face was more quenched than ever, in spite of the signs of reviving health. There had been a woman in the case, of course: Louie might have misbehaved herself; but after all the world is so made that no sister can make a brother suffer as David had evidently suffered—and then there was the revolver! About this last, after one or two restless movements of search, which Mr. Ancrum interpreted, David had never asked, and the minister, timid man of peace that he was, had resold it before leaving.
Well, it was a problem, and it must be left to time. Meanwhile Mr. Ancrum was certainly astonished that any love affair should have had such a destructive volcanic power with the lad. For it was no mere raw and sensuous nature, no idle and morbid brain. One would have thought that so many different aptitudes and capacities would have kept each other in check.
As they neared Manchester, David grew plainly restless and ill at ease. He looked out sharply for the name of each succeeding town, half turning afterwards, as though to speak to his companion; but it was not till they were within ten minutes of the Central Station that he said—
'John will want to know about Louie. She is married,—as I told you,—to a French sculptor. I have handed over to her all my father's money—that is why I drew it out.'
Mr. Ancrum edged up closer to him—all ears—waiting for more. But there was nothing more.
'And you are satisfied?' he said at last.
David nodded and looked out of window intently.
'What is the man's name?'
David either did not or would not hear, and Mr. Ancrum let him alone. But the news was startling. So the boy had stripped himself, and must begin the world again as before! What had that minx been after?
Manchester again. David looked out eagerly from the cab, his hand trembling on his knee, beads of perspiration on his face.
They turned up the narrow street, and there in the distance to the right was the stall and the shop, and a figure on the steps. Mr. Ancrum had sent a card before them, and John was on the watch.
The instant the cab stopped, and before the driver could dismount, John had opened the door. Putting his head in he peered at the pair inside, and at the opposite seat, with his small short-sighted eyes.
'Where is she?' he said hoarsely, barring the way.
Mr. Ancrum looked at his companion. David had shrunk back into the corner, with a white hangdog look, and said nothing. The minister interposed.
'David will tell you all,' he said gently. 'First help me in with him, and the bags. He is a sick man.'
With a huge effort John controlled himself, and they got inside. Then he shut the shop door and put his back against it.
'Tell me where she is,' he repeated shortly.
'She is married,' David said in a low voice, but looking up from the chair on which he had sunk.' By now—she is married. I heard by telegram last night that all was arranged for to-day.'
The lad opposite made a sharp, inarticulate sound which startled the minister's ear. Then clutching the handle of the door, he resumed sharply—
'Who has she married?'
The assumption of the right to question was arrogance itself—strange in the dumb, retiring creature whom the minister had hitherto known only as David's slave and shadow!
'A French sculptor,' said David steadily, but propping his head and hand against the counter, so as to avoid John's stare—'a man called Montjoie. I was a brute—I neglected her. She got into his hands. Then I sent for all my money to bribe him to marry her. And he has.'
'You—you blackguard!' cried John.
David straightened instinctively under the blow, and his eyes met John's for one fierce moment. Then Mr. Ancrum thought he would have fainted. The minister took rough hold of John by the shoulders.
'If you can't stay and hold your tongue,' he said, 'you must go. He is worn out with the journey, and I shall get him to bed. Here's some money: suppose you run to the house round the corner, in Prince's Street; ask if they've got some strong soup, and, if they have, hurry back with it. Come—look sharp. And—one moment—you've been sleeping here, I suppose? Well, I shall take your room for a bit, if that'll suit you. This fellow'll have to be looked after.'
The little lame creature spoke like one who meant to have his way. John took the coin, hesitated, and stumbled out.
For days afterwards there was silence between him and David, except for business directions. He avoided being in the shop with his employer, and would stand for hours on the step, ostensibly watching the stall, but in reality doing no business that he could help. Whenever Mr. Ancrum caught sight of him he was leaning against the wall, his hat slouched over his eyes, his hands in his pockets, utterly inert and listless, more like a log than a human being. Still he was no less stout, lumpish, and pink-faced than before. His fate might have all the tragic quality; nature had none the less inexorably endowed him with the externals of farce.
Meanwhile David dragged himself from his bed to the shop and set to work to pick up dropped threads. The customers, who had been formerly interested in him, discovered his return, and came in to inquire why he had been so long away, or, in the case of one or two, whether he had executed certain commissions in Paris. The explanation of illness, however, circulated from the first moment by Mr. Ancrum, and perforce adopted—though with an inward rage and rebellion—by David himself, was amply sufficient to cover his omissions and inattentions, and to ease his resumption of his old place. His appearance indeed was still ghastly. The skin of the face had the tightened, transparent look of weakness; the eyes, reddened and sunk, showed but little of their old splendour between the blue circles beneath and the heavy brows above; even the hair seemed to have lost its boyish curl, and fell in harsh, troublesome waves over the forehead, whence its owner was perpetually and impatiently thrusting it back. All the bony structure of the face had been emphasised at the expense of its young grace and bloom, and the new indications of moustache and beard did but add to its striking and painful black and white. And the whole impression of change was completed by the melancholy aloofness, the shrinking distrust with which eyes once overflowing with the frankness and eagerness of one of the most accessible of human souls now looked out upon the world.
'Was it fever?' said a young Owens College professor who had taken a lively interest from the beginning in the clever lad's venture. 'Upon my word! you do look pulled down. Paris may be the first city in the world—it is an insanitary hole all the same. So you never found time to inquire after those Moliere editions for me?'
David racked his brains. What was it he had been asked to do? He remembered half an hour's talk on one of those early days with a bookseller on the Quai Voltaire—was it about this commission? He could not recall.
'No, sir,' he said, stammering and flushing. 'I believe I did ask somewhere, but I can't remember.'
'It's very natural, very natural,' said the professor kindly. 'Never mind. I'll send you the particulars again, and you can keep your eyes open for me. And, look here, take your business easy for a while. You'll get on—you're sure to get on—if you only recover your health.'
David opened the door for him in silence.
The reawakening of his old life in him was strange and slow. When he first found himself back among his books and catalogues, his ledgers and business memoranda, he was bewildered and impatient. What did these elaborate notes, with their cabalistic signs and abbreviations—whether as to the needs of customers, or the whereabouts of books, or the history of prices—mean or matter? He was like a man who has lost a sense. Then the pressure of certain debts which should have been met out of the money in the bank first put some life into him. He looked into his financial situation and found it grave, though not desperate. All hope of a large and easy expansion of business was, of course, gone. The loss of his capital had reduced him to the daily shifts and small laborious accumulations with which he had begun. But this factor in his state was morally of more profit to him at the moment than any other. With such homely medicines nature and life can often do most for us.
Such was Ancrum's belief, and in consequence he showed a very remarkable wisdom during these early days of David's return.
'As far as I can judge, there has been a bad shake to the heart in more senses than one,' had been the dry remark of the Paris doctor; 'and as for nervous system, it's a mercy he's got any left. Take care of him, but for Heaven's sake don't make an invalid of him—that would be the finish.'
So that Ancrum offered no fussy opposition to the resumption of the young man's daily work, though at first it produced a constant battle with exhaustion and depression. But never day or night did the minister forget his charge. He saw that he ate and drank; he enforced a few common sense remedies for the nervous ills which the moral convulsion had left behind it, ills which the lad in his irritable humiliation would fain have hidden even from him; above all he knew how to say a word which kept Dora and Daddy and other friends away for a time, and how to stand between David and that choked and miserable John.
He had the strength of mind also to press for no confidence and to expect no thanks. He had little fear of any further attempts at suicide, though he would have found it difficult perhaps to explain why. But instinctively he felt that for all practical purposes David had been mad when he found him, and that he was mad no longer. He was wretched, and only a fraction of his mind was in Manchester and in his business—that was plain. But, in however imperfect a way, he was again master of himself; and the minister bided his time, putting his ultimate trust in one of the finest mental and physical constitutions he had ever known.
In about ten days David took up his hat one afternoon and, for the first time, ventured into the streets. On his return he was walking down Potter Street in a storm of wind and rain, when he ran against some one who was holding an umbrella right in front of her and battling with the weather. In his recoil he saw that it was Dora.
Dora too looked up, a sudden radiant pleasure in her face overflowing her soft eyes and lips.
'Oh, Mr. Grieve! And are you really better?'
'Yes,' he said briefly. 'May I walk with you a bit?'
'Oh no!—I don't believe you ought to be out in such weather. I'll just come the length of the street with you.'
And she turned and walked with him, chattering fast, and of course, from the point of view of an omniscience which could not have been hers, foolishly. Had he liked Paris?—what he saw of it at least before he had been ill?—and how long had he been ill? Why had he not let Mr. Ancrum or some one know sooner? And would he tell her more about Louie? She heard that she was married, but there was so much she, Dora, wanted to hear.
To his first scanty answers she paid in truth but small heed, for the joy of seeing him again was soon effaced by the painful impression of his altered aspect. The more she looked at him, the more her heart went out to him; her whole being became an effusion of pity and tenderness, and her simplest words, maidenly and self-restrained as she was, were in fact charged with something electric, ineffable. His suffering, his neighbourhood, her own sympathy—she was taken up, overwhelmed by these general impressions. Inferences, details escaped her.
But as she touched on the matter of Louie, and they were now at his own steps, he said to her hurriedly—
'Walk a little further, and I'll tell you. John's in there.'
She opened her eyes, not understanding, and then demurred a little on the ground of his health and the rain.
'Oh, I'm all right,' he said impatiently. 'Look here, will you walk to Chetham's Library? There'll be a quiet place there, in the reading room—sure to be—where we can talk.'
She assented, and very soon they were mounting the black oak stairs leading to this old corner of Manchester. At the top of the stairs they saw in the distance, at the end of the passage on to which open the readers' studies, each with its lining of folios and its oaken lattice, a librarian, who nodded to David, and took a look at Dora. Further on they stumbled over a small boy from the charity school who wished to lionise them over the whole building. But when he had been routed, they found the beautiful panelled and painted reading-room quite empty, and took possession of it in peace. David led the way to an oriel window he had become familiar with in the off-times of his first years at Manchester, and they seated themselves there with a low sloping desk between them, looking out on the wide rain-swept yard outside, the buildings of the grammar-school, and the black mass of the cathedral.
Manchester had never been more truly Manchester than on this dark July afternoon, with its low shapeless clouds, its darkness, wind, and pelting rain. David, staring out through the lozenge panes at the familiar gloom beyond, was suddenly carried by repulsion into the midst of a vision which was an agony—of a spring forest cut by threadlike paths; of a shadeless sun; of a white city steeped in charm, in gaiety.
Dora watched him timidly, new perceptions and alarms dawning in her.
'You were going to tell me about Louie,' she said.
He returned to himself, and abruptly turned with his back to the window, so that he saw the outer world no more.
'You heard that she was married?'
'She has married a brute. It was partly my fault. I wanted to be rid of her; she got in my way. This man was in the same house; I left her to herself, and partly, I believe, to spite me, she went off with him. Then at the last when she wouldn't leave him I made her marry him. I bribed him to marry her. And he did. I had just enough money to make it worth his while. But he will ill-treat her; and she won't stay with him. She will go from bad to worse.'
Dora drew back, with her hand on the desk, staring at him with incredulous horror.
'But you were ill?' she stammered.
He shook his head.
'Never mind my being ill. I wanted you to know, because you were good to her, and I'm not going to be a hypocrite to you. Nobody else need know anything but that she's married, which is true. If I'd looked after her it mightn't have happened—perhaps. But I didn't look after her—I couldn't.'
His face, propped in his hands, was hidden from her. She was in a whirl of excitement and tragic impression—understanding something, divining more.
'Louie was always so self-willed,' she said trembling.
'Aye. That don't make it any better. You remember all I told you about her before? You know we didn't get on; she wasn't nice to me, and I didn't suit her, I suppose. But all this year, I don't know why, she's been on my mind from morning till night; I've always felt sure, somehow, that she would come to harm; and the worrying oneself about her—well! it has seemed to grow into one's very bones. '—He threw out the last words after a pause, in which he had seemed to search for some phrase wherewith to fit the energy of his feeling. 'I took her to Paris to keep her out of mischief. I had much rather have gone alone; but she would not ask you to take her in, and I couldn't leave her with John. Well, then, she got in my way—I told you—and I let her go to the dogs. There—it's done—done!'
He turned on his seat, one hand drumming the desk, while his eyes fixed themselves apparently on the portrait of Sir Humphry Chetham over the carved mantelpiece. His manner was hard and rapid; neither voice nor expression had any of the simplicity or directness of remorse.
Dora remained silent looking at him; her slender hands were pressed tight against either cheek; the tears rose slowly till they filled her grey eyes.
'It is very sad,' she said in a low voice.
There was a pause.
'Yes—it's sad. So are most things in this world, perhaps. All natural wants seem just to lead us to misery sooner or later. And who gave them to us—who put us here—with no choice but just to go on blundering from one muddle into another?'
Their eyes met. It was as though he had remembered her religion, and could not, in his bitterness, refrain from an indirect fling at it.
As for her, what he said was strange and repellent to her. But her forlorn passion, so long trampled on, cried within her; her pure heart was one prayer, one exquisite throb of pain and pity.
'Did some one deceive you?' she asked, so low that the words seemed just breathed into the air.
'No,—I deceived myself.'
Then as he looked at her an impulse of confession crossed his mind. Sympathy, sincerity, womanly sweetness, these things he had always associated with Dora Lomax. Instinctively he had chosen her for a friend long ago as soon as their first foolish spars were over.
But the impulse passed away. He thought of her severity, her religion, her middle-class canons and judgments, which perhaps were all the stricter because of Daddy's laxities. What common ground between her and his passion, between her and Elise? No! if he must speak—if, in the end, he proved too weak to forbear wholly from speech—let it be to ears more practised, and more human!
So he choked back his words, and Dora felt instinctively that he would tell her no more. Her consciousness of this was a mingled humiliation and relief; it wounded her to feel that she had so little command of him; yet she dreaded what he might say. Paris was a wicked place—so the world reported. Her imagination, sensitive, Christianised, ascetic, shrank from what he might have done. Perhaps the woman shrank too. Instead, she threw herself upon the thought, the bliss, that he was there again beside her, restored, rescued from the gulf, if gulf there had been.