'Aye, if yo do but live long enoof, yo get past t' bad bits o' t' road,' Reuben said one night, with a long breath, to David, and then checked himself, brought up either by a look at his nephew's mourning dress, or by a recollection of what David had told him of Louie the night before.
It troubled Reuben indeed, something in the old fashion, that his wife would show no concern whatever for Louie when he repeated to her the details of that disappearance whereof so far he and she had known only the bare fact.
'Aye, I thowt she'd bin and married soom mak o' rabblement,' remarked Hannah. 'Yo doant suppose ony decent mon ud put up wi her. What Davy wants wi lookin for her I doant know. He'll be hard-set when he's fand her, I should think.'
She was equally impervious and sarcastic with regard to David's social efforts. Her sharp tongue exercised itself on the 'poor way' in which he seemed to live, and when Reuben repeated to her, with some bewilderment, the facts which she had egged him on to get out of David, her scorn knew no bounds.
'Weel, it's like t' Bible after aw, Hannah,' said Reuben, perplexed and remonstrating; 'theer's things, yo'll remember, abeawt gien t' coat off your back, an sellin aw a mon has, an th' loike, 'at fairly beats me soomtimes.'
'Oh—go long wi yo!' said Hannah in high wrath. 'He an his loike'll mak a halliblash of us aw soon, wi their silly faddle, an pamperin o' workin men, wha never wor an never will be noa better nor they should be. But—thank the Lord—I'll not be theer to see.'
And after this communication she found it very difficult to treat David civilly.
But to David's son—to Sandy—Hannah Grieve capitulated, for the first and only time in her life.
On the second and third day after his arrival, Sandy came over with the servant to ask Hannah's help in some small matter of the new household. As they neared the farm door, Tim, the aged Tim, who was slouching behind, was suddenly set upon by a new and ill-tempered collie of Reuben's, who threatened very soon to shake the life out of his poor toothless victim. But Sandy, who had a stick, rushed at him, his cheeks and eyes glowing with passion.
'Get away! you great big dog, you! and leave my middle-sized dog alone!'
And he belaboured and pulled at the collie, without a thought of fear, till the farm-man and Hannah came and separated the combatants,—stalking into the farm kitchen afterwards in a speechless rage at the cowardly injustice which had been done to Tim. As he sat in the big rocking-chair, fiercely cuddling Tim and sucking his thumb, his stormy breath subsiding by degrees, Hannah thought him, as she confessed to the only female friend she possessed in the world, 'the pluckiest and bonniest little grig i' th' coontry side.'
Thenceforward, so far as her queer temper would allow, she became his nurse and slave, and David, with all the memorials of his own hard childhood about him, could not believe his eyes, when he found Sandy established day after day in the Needham Farm kitchen, sucking his thumb in a corner of the settle, and ordering Hannah about with the airs of a three-tailed bashaw. She stuffed him with hot girdle-cakes; she provided for him a store of 'humbugs,' the indigenous sweet of the district, which she made and baked with her own hands, and had not made before for forty years; she took him about with her, 'rootin,' as she expressed it, after the hens and pigs and the calves; till, Sandy's exactions growing with her compliance, the common fate of tyrants overtook him. He one day asked too much and his slave rebelled. David saw him come in one afternoon, and found him a minute or two after viciously biting the blind-cord in the parlour, in a black temper. When his father inquired what was the matter, Sandy broke out in a sudden wail of tears.
'Why can't she be a Kangawoo when I want her to?'
Whereupon David, with the picture of Hannah's grim figure, cap and all, before his mind's eye, went into the first fit of side-shaking laughter that had befallen him for many and many a month.
On a certain gusty afternoon towards the middle of February, David was standing alone beside the old smithy. The frost, after a temporary thaw, had set in again, there had been tolerably heavy snow the night before, and it was evident from the shifting of the wind and the look of the clouds that were coming up from the north-east over the Scout that another fall was impending. But the day had been fine, and the sun, setting over the Cheshire hills, threw a flood of pale rose into the white bosom of the Scout and on the heavy clouds piling themselves above it. It was a moment of exquisite beauty and wildness. The sunlit snow gleamed against the stormy sky; the icicles lining the steep channel of the Downfall shone jagged and rough between the white and smoothly rounded banks of moor, or the snow-wreathed shapes of the grit boulders; to his left was the murmur of the Red Brook creeping between its frozen banks; while close beside him about twenty of the moor sheep were huddling against the southern wall of the smithy in prescience of the coming storm. Almost within reach of his stick was the pan of his childish joy, the water left in it by the December rains frozen hard and white; and in the crevice of the wall he had just discovered the mouldering remains of a toy-boat.
He stood and looked out over the wide winter world, rejoicing in its austerity, its solemn beauty. Physically he was conscious of recovered health; and in the mind also there was a new energy of life and work. Nature seemed to say to him, "Do but keep thy heart open to me, and I have a myriad aspects and moods wherewith to interest and gladden and teach thee to the end;" while, as his eye wandered to the point where Manchester lay hidden on the horizon, the world of men, of knowledge, of duty, summoned him back to it with much of the old magic and power in the call. His grief, his love, no man should take from him; but he must play his part.
Yes—he and Sandy must go home—and soon. Yet even as he so decided, the love of the familiar scene, its freedom, its loneliness, its unstainedness, rose high within him. He stood lost in a trance of memory. Here he and Louie had listened to 'Lias'; there, far away amid the boulders of the Downfall, they had waited for the witch; among those snow-laden bushes yonder Louie had hidden when she played Jenny Crum for the discomfiture of the prayer-meeting; and it was on the slope at his feet that she had pushed the butter-scotch into his mouth, the one and only sign of affection she had ever given him, that he could remember, in all their forlorn childhood.
As these things rose before him, the moor, the wind, the rising voice of the storm became to him so many channels, whereby the bitter memory of his sister rushed upon him and took possession. Everything spoke of her, suggested her. Then with inexorable force his visualising gift carried him on past her childhood to the scenes of her miserable marriage; and as he thought of her child's death, the desolation and madness of her flight, the mystery of her fate, his soul was flooded once more for the hundredth time with anguish and horror. Here in this place, where their childish lives had been so closely intertwined, he could not resign himself for ever to ignorance, to silence; his whole being went out in protest, in passionate remorseful desire.
The wind was beginning to blow fiercely; the rosy glow was gone; darkness was already falling. Wild gusts swept from time to time round the white amphitheatre of moor and crag; the ghostly sounds of night and storm were on the hills. Suddenly it was to him as though he heard his name called from a great distance—breathed shrilly and lingeringly along the face of the Scout.
It was Louie's voice. The illusion was so strong that, as he raised his hand to his ear, turning towards the Downfall, whence the sound seemed to come, he trembled from head to foot.
Was it the call of some distant boy or shepherd? He could not tell, could not collect himself. He sank down on one of the grit-boulders by the snow-wreathed door of the smithy and sat there long, heedless of the storm and cold, his mind working, a sudden purpose rising and unfolding, with a mysterious rapidity and excitement.
Early on the following morning he made his way down through the deep snow to the station, having first asked Hannah to take charge of Sandy for a day or two; and by the night mail he left London for Paris.
It was not till he walked into Mr. O'Kelly's office, on the ground floor of a house in the Rue d'Assas, at about eleven o'clock on the next day, that he was conscious of any reaction. Then for a bewildered instant he wondered why he had come, and what he was to say.
But to his amazement the lawyer rose at once, throwing up his hands with the gesture of one who notes some singular and unexpected stroke of good fortune.
'This is most extraordinary, Mr. Grieve! I have not yet signed the letter on my desk—there it is!—summoning you to Paris. We have discovered Madame Montjoie! As constantly happens, we have been pursuing inquiries in all sorts of difficult and remote quarters, and she is here—at our doors, living for some weeks past, at any rate, without any disguise, at Barbizon, of all places in the world! Barbizon pres Fontainebleau. You know it?'
David sat down.
'Yes,' he said, after an instant. 'I know it. Is he—is that man Brenart there?'
'Certainly. He has taken a miserable studio, and is making, or pretending to make, some winter studies of the forest. I hear that Madame Montjoie looks ill and worn; the neighbours say the menage is a very uncomfortable one, and not likely to last long. I wish I had better news for you, Mr. Grieve.'
And the lawyer, remembering the handsome hollow-eyed boy of twenty who had first asked his help, studied with irrepressible curiosity the man's noble storm-beaten look and fast grizzling hair, as David sat before him with his head bent and his hat in his hands.
They talked a while longer, and then David said, rising:
'Can I get over there to-night? The snow will be deep in the forest.'
'I imagine they will keep that main road to Barbizon open in some fashion,' said the lawyer. 'You may find a sledge. Let me know how you speed and whether I can assist you. But, I fear, '—he shrugged his shoulders—'in the end this wild life gets into the blood. I have seen it so often.'
He spoke with the freedom and knowledge of one who had observed Louie Montjoie with some closeness for eleven years. David said nothing in answer; but at the door he turned to ask a question.
'You can't tell me anything of the habits of this man—this Brenart?'
'Stop!' said the lawyer, after a moment's thought; 'I remember this detail—my agent told me that M. Brenart was engaged in some work for "D—et Cie"'—he named a great picture-dealing firm on the Boulevard St. Germain, famous for their illustrated books and editions de luxe.—'He did not hear what it was, but—ah! I remember,—it has taken him occasionally to Paris, or so he says, and it has been these absences which have led to some of the worst scenes between him and your sister. I suppose she put a jealous woman's interpretation on them. You want to see her alone?—when this man is out of the way? I have an idea: take my card and your own to this person—' he wrote out an address—'he is one of the junior partners in "D—et Cie"; I know him, and I got his firm the sale of a famous picture. He will do me a good turn. Ask him what the work is that M. Brenart is doing, and when he expects him next in Paris. It is possible you may get some useful information.'
David took the card and walked at once to the Boulevard St. Germain, which was close by. He was civilly received by the man to whom O'Kelly had sent him, and learned from him that Brenart was doing for the firm a series of etchings illustrating the forest in winter, and intended to make part of a great book on Fontainebleau and the Barbizon school. They were expecting the last batch from him, were indeed desperately impatient for them. But he was a difficult fellow to deal with—an exceedingly clever artist, but totally untrustworthy. In his last letter to them he had spoken of bringing the final instalment to them, and returning some corrected proofs by February 16—'to-morrow, I see,' said the speaker, glancing at an almanac on his office table. 'Well, we may get them, and we mayn't. If we don't, we shall have to take strong measures. And now, Monsieur, I think I have told you all I can tell you of our relations to M. Brenart.'
David bowed and took his leave. He made his way through the great shop with its picture-covered walls and its floors dotted with stands on which lay exposed the new etchings and engravings of the season. In front of him a lady in black was also making her way to the door and the street. No one was attending her, and instinctively he hurried forward to open the heavy glass door for her. As he did so a sudden sharp presentiment shot through him. The door swung to behind them, and he found himself in the covered entrance of the shop face to face with Elise Delaunay.
The meeting was so startling that neither could disguise the shock of it. He took off his hat mechanically; she grew white and leant against the glass window.
'You!—how can it be you?' she said in a quick whisper, then recovering herself—'Monsieur Grieve, old associations are painful, and I am neither strong—nor—nor stoical. Which way are you walking?'
'Towards the Rue de Seine,' he said, thrown into a bewildering mist of memory by her gesture, the crisp agitated decision of her manner. 'And you?'
'I also. We will walk a hundred yards together. What are you in Paris for?'
'I am here on some business of my sister's,' he said evasively.
She raised her eyes, and looked at him long and sharply. He, on his side, saw, with painful agitation, that her youth was gone, but not her grace, not her singular and wiltful charm. The little face under her black hat was lined and sallow, and she was startlingly thin. The mouth had lost its colour, and gained instead the hard shrewdness of a woman left to battle with the world and poverty alone; but the eyes had their old plaintive trick; the dead gold of the hair, the rings and curls of it against the white temples, were still as beautiful as they had ever been; and the light form moved beside him with the same quick floating gait.
'You have grown much older,' she said abruptly. 'You look as if you had suffered—but what of that?—C'est comme tout le monde.'
She withdrew her look a moment, with a little bitter gesture, then she resumed, drawn on by a curiosity and emotion she could not control.
'Are you married?'
'Yes, but my wife is dead.'
She gave a start; the first part of the answer had not prepared her for the second.
'Ah, mon Dieu I' she said, 'always grief—always! Is it long?'
'Eight months. I have a boy. And you?—I heard sad news of you once—the only time.'
'You might well,' she said, with a half-ironical accent, driving the point of her umbrella restlessly into the crevices of the stones, as they slowly crossed a paved street. 'My husband is only a cripple, confined to his chair,—I am no longer an artist but an artisan,—I have not painted a picture for years,—but what I paint sells for a trifle, and there is soup in the pot—of a sort. For the rest I spend my life in making tisane, in lifting weights too heavy for me, and bargaining for things to eat.'
'But—you are not unhappy!' he said to her boldly, with a change of tone.
She stopped, struck by the indescribable note in his voice. They had turned into a side street, whither she had unconsciously led him. She stood with her eyes on the ground, then she lifted them once more, and there was in them a faint beautiful gleam, which transformed the withered and sharpened face.
'You are quite right,' she said, 'if he will only live. He depends on me for everything. It is like a child, but it consoles. Adieu!'
That night David found himself in the little auberge at Barbizon. He had discovered a sledge to take him across the forest, and he and his driver had pushed their way under a sky of lead and through whirling clouds of fresh sleet past the central beechwood, where the great boles stood straight and bare amid fantastic masses of drift; through the rock and fir region, where all was white, and the trees drooped under their wintry load; and beneath withered and leaning oaks, throwing gaunt limbs here and there from out the softening effacing mantle of the snow. Night fell when the journey was half over, and as the lights of the sledge flashed from side to side into these lonely fastnesses of cold, how was it possible to believe that summer and joy had ever tabernacled here?
He was received at the inn, as his driver had brought him—with astonishment. But Barbizon has been long accustomed, beyond most places in France, to the eccentricities of the English and American visitor; and being a home of artists, it understands the hunt for "impressions," and easily puts up with the unexpected. Before a couple of hours were over, David was installed in a freezing room, and was being discussed in the kitchen, where his arrival produced a certain animation, as the usual English madman in quest of a sensation, and no doubt ready to pay for it.
There were, however, three other guests in the inn, as he found, when he descended for dinner. They were all artists—young, noisy, bons camarades, and of a rough and humble social type. To them the winter at Barbizon was as attractive as anywhere else. Life at the inn was cheap, and free; they had the digestion of ostriches, eating anything that was put before them, and drinking oceans of red wine at ten sous a litre; on bad days they smoked, fed, worked at their pictures or played coarse practical jokes on each other and the people of the inn; in fine weather there was always the forest to be exploited, and the chance of some happy and profitable inspiration.
They stared at David a good deal during the biftek, the black pudding which seemed to be a staple dish of the establishment, and the omelette aux fines herbes, which the landlord's wife had added in honour of the stranger. One of them, behind the shelter of his glasses, drew the outline of the Englishman's head and face on the table-cloth, and showed it to his neighbour.
'Poetical, grand style, hein?'
The other nodded carelessly. 'Pourtant—l'hiver lui plait,' he hummed under his breath, having some lines of Hugo's, which he had chosen as a motto for a picture, running in his head.
After dinner everybody gathered round the great fire, which the servant had piled with logs, while the flames, and the wreaths of smoke from the four pipes alternately revealed and concealed the rough sketches of all sorts—landscape, portrait, genre—legacies of bygone visitors, wherewith the walls of the salle a manger were covered. David sat in his corner smoking, ready enough to give an account of his journey across the forest, and to speak when he was spoken to.
As soon as the strangeness of the new-comer had a little worn off, the three young fellows plunged into a flood of amusing gossip about the storm and the blocking of the roads, the scarcity of food in Barbizon, the place in general, and its inhabitants. David fell silent after a while, stiffening under a presentiment which was soon realised. He heard his sister's wretched lot discussed with shouts of laughter—the chances of Brenart's escape from the mistress he had already wearied of and deceived—the perils of 'la Montjoie's' jealousy. 'Il veut bien se debarrasser d'elle—mais on ne plaisante pas avec une tigresse!' said one of the speakers. So long as there was information to be got which might serve him he sat motionless, withdrawn into the dark, forcing himself to listen. When the talk became mere scurrility and noise, he rose and went out.
He passed through the courtyard of the inn, and turned down the village street. The storm had gone down, and there were a few stars amid the breaking clouds. Here and there a light shone from the low houses on either hand; the snow, roughly shovelled from the foot pavements, lay piled in heaps along the roadway, the white roofs shone dimly against the wild sky. He passed Madame Pyat's maisonnette, pausing a moment to look over the wall. Not a sign of life in the dark building, and, between him and it, great drifts of snow choking up and burying the garden. A little further on, as he knew, lay the goal of his quest. He easily made out the house from Mr. O'Kelly's descriptions, and he lingered a minute, on the footway, under an overhanging roof to look at it. It was just a labourer's cottage standing back a little from the street, and to one side rose a high wooden addition which he guessed to be the studio. Through the torn blind came the light of a lamp, and as he stood there, himself invisible in his patch of darkness, he heard voices—an altercation, a woman's high shrill note.
Then he crept back to the inn vibrating through all his being to the shame of those young fellows' talk, the incredible difficulty of the whole enterprise. Could he possibly make any impression upon her whatever? What was done was done; and it would be a crime on his part to jeopardise in the smallest degree the wholesome brightness of Sandy's childhood by any rash proposals which it might be wholly beyond his power to carry out.
He carried up a basket of logs to his room, made them blaze, and crouched over them till far into the night. But in the end the doubt and trouble of his mind subsided; his purpose grew clear again. 'It was my own voice that spoke to me on the moor,' he thought, 'the voice of my own best life.'
About eight o'clock, with the first light of the morning, he was roused by bustle and noise under his window. He got up, and, looking out, saw two sledges standing before the inn, in the cold grey light. Men were busy harnessing a couple of horses to each, and there were a few figures, muffled in great coats and carrying bags and wraps, standing about.
'They are going over to Fontainebleau station,' he thought; 'if that man keeps his appointment in Paris to-day, he will go with them.'
As the words passed through his mind, a figure came striding up from the lower end of the street, a young fair-haired man, in a heavy coat lined with sheepskin. His delicately made face—naturally merry and bon enfant—was flushed and scowling. He climbed into one of the sledges, complained of the lateness of the start, swore at the ostler, who made him take another seat on the plea that the one he had chosen was engaged, and finally subsided into a moody silence, pulling at his moustache, and staring out over the snow, till at last the signal was given, and the sledges flew off on the Fontainebleau road, under a shower of snowballs which a group of shivering bright-eyed urchins on their way to school threw after them, as soon as the great whips were at a safe distance.
David dressed and descended.
'Who was that fair-haired gentleman in the first sledge?' he casually asked of the landlord who was bringing some smoking hot coffee into the salle a manger.
'That was a M. Brenart, monsieur,' said the landlord, cheerfully, absorbed all the while in the laying of his table. 'C'est un drole de corps, M. Brenart. I don't take to him much myself; and as for madame—qui n'est pas madame!'
He shrugged his shoulders, saw that there were no fresh rolls, and departed with concern to fetch them.
David ate and drank. He would give her an hour yet.
When his watch told him that the time was come, he went out slowly, inquiring on the way if there would be any means of getting to Paris later in the day. Yes, the landlord thought a conveyance of some sort could be managed—if monsieur would pay for it!
A few minutes later David knocked at the door of Brenart's house. He could get no answer at all, and at last he tried the latch. It yielded to his hand, and he went in.
There was no one in the bare kitchen, but there were the remains of a fire, and of a meal. Both the crockery on the table and a few rough chairs and stools the room contained struck him as being in great disorder. There were two doors at the back. One led into a back room which was empty, the other down a few steps into a garden. He descended the steps and saw the long wooden erection of the studio stretching to his left. There was a door in the centre of its principal wall, which was ajar. He went up to it and softly pushed it open. There, at the further end, huddled over an iron stove, her face buried in her hands, her shoulders shaken with fierce sobs, was Louie.
He closed the door behind him, and at the sound she turned, hastily. When she saw who it was she gave a cry, and, sinking back on her low canvas chair, she lay staring at him, and speechless. Her eyes were red with weeping; her beauty was a wreck; and in face of the despair which breathed from her, and from her miserable surroundings, all doubt, all repulsion, all condemnation fled from the brother's heart. The iron in his soul melted. He ran up to her, and, kneeling beside her, he put his arms round her, as he had never done in his life.
'Oh you poor thing—you poor thing!' he cried, scarcely knowing what he said. He took her worn, tear-stained face, and, laying it on his shoulder, he kissed her, breathing incoherent words of pity and consolation.
She submitted a while, helpless with shock and amazement, and still shaken with the tempest of her own passion. But there came a moment when she pushed him away and tried desperately to recover herself.
'I don't know what you want—you're not going to have anything to do with me now—you can't. Let me alone—it will be over soon—one way or the other.'
And she sat upright, one hand clenched on her knees, her frowning brows drawn together, and the tears falling in spite of her intense effort to drive them back.
He found a painter's stool, and sat down by her, pale and determined. He told her the history of his search; he implored her to be guided by him, to let him take her home to England and Manchester, where her story was unknown, save to Dora and John. He would make a home for her near his own; he would try to comfort her for the loss of her child; they would understand each other better, and the past should be buried.
Louie looked at him askance. Every now and then she ceased to listen to him at all; while, under the kindling of her own thoughts, her wild eyes flamed into fresh rage and agony.
'Don't!—leave me alone!' she broke out at last, springing up. 'I don't want your help, I don't want you; I only want him, —and I will have him, or we shall kill each other.'
She paced to and fro, her hands clasped on her breast, her white face setting into a ghastly calm. David gazed at her with horror. This was another note! one which in all their experience of each other he had never heard on her lips before. She loved this man!—this mean wretch, who had lived upon her and betrayed her, and, having got from her all she had to give, was probably just about to cast her off into the abyss which yawns for such women as Louie. He had thought of her flight to him before as the frenzy of a nature which must have distraction at any cost from the unfamiliar and intolerable weight of natural grief.
But this!—one moment it cut the roots from hope, the next it nerved him to more vigorous action.
'You cannot have him,' he said, steadily and sternly. 'I have listened to the talk here for your sake—he is already on the point of deserting you—everyone else in this place knows that he is tired of you—that he is unfaithful to you.'
She dropped into her chair with a groan. Even her energies were spent—she was all but fainting—and her miserable heart knew, with more certainty than David himself did, that all he said was true.
Her unexpected weakness, the collapse of her strained nerves, filled him with fresh hopes. He came close to her again and pleaded, by the memory of her child, of their father—that she would yield, and go away with him at once.
'What should I do'—she broke in passionately, her sense of opposition of absurdity reviving her, 'when I get to your hateful Manchester? Go to church and say my prayers! And you? In a week or two, I tell you, you would be sick of having soiled your hands with such mud as I am.'
She threw herself back in her chair with a superb gesture, and folded her arms, looking him defiance.
'Try me,' he said quietly, while his lip trembled. 'I am not as I was, Louie. There are things one can only learn by going down—down—into the depths of sorrow. The night before Lucy died—she could hardly speak—she sent you a message: "I wish I had been kinder—ask her to come to Manchester when I am gone." I have not seen her die—not seen her whole life turn to love—through such unspeakable suffering—for nothing. Oh Louie—when we submit ourselves to God—when we ask for His life—and give up our own—then, and then only, there is peace—and strength. We ourselves are nothing—creatures of passion—miserable—weak—but in Him and through Him—'
His voice broke. He took her cold hand and pressed it tenderly. She trembled in spite of herself, and closed her eyes.
'Don't—I know all about that—why did the child die? There is no God—nothing. It's just talk. I told Him what I'd do—I vowed I'd go to the bad, for good and all—and I have. There—let me alone!'
But he only held her hand tighter.
'No I—never! Your trouble was awful—it might well drive you mad. But others have suffered, Louie—no less—and yet have believed—have hoped. It is not beyond our power—for it has been done again and again!—by the most weak, the most miserable. Oh! think of that—tear yourself first from the evil life—and you, too, will know what it is to be consoled—to be strengthened. The mere effort to come with me—I promise it you!—will bring you healing and comfort. We make for ourselves the promise of eternal life, by turning to the good. Then the hope of recovering our dear ones—which was nothing to us before—rises and roots itself in our heart. Come with me,—conquer yourself,—let us begin to love each other truly, give me comfort and yourself—and you will bear to think again of Cecile and of God—there will be calm and peace beyond this pain.'
His eyes shone upon her through a mist. She said no more for a while. She lay exhausted and silent, the tears streaming once more down her haggard cheeks.
Then, thinking she had consented, he began to speak of arrangements for the journey—of the possibility of getting across the forest.
Instantly her passion returned. She sprang up and put him away from her.
'It is ridiculous, I tell you—ridiculous! How can I decide in such an instant? You must go away and leave me to think.'
'No,' he said firmly, 'my only chance is to stay with you.'
She walked up and down, saying wild incoherent things to herself under her breath. She wore the red dress she had worn at Manchester—now a torn and shabby rag—and over it, because of the cold, a long black cloak, a relic of better days. Her splendid hair, uncombed and dishevelled, hung almost loose round her head and neck; and the emaciation of face and figure made her height and slenderness more abnormal than ever as she swept tempestuously to and fro.
At last she paused in front of him.
'Well, I dare say I'll go with you,' she said, with the old reckless note. 'That fiend thinks he has me in his power for good, he amuses himself with threats of leaving me—perhaps I'll turn the tables.... But you must go—go for an hour. You can find out about a carriage. There will be an old woman here presently for the house-work. I'll get her to help me pack. You'll only be in the way.'
'You'll be ready for me in an hour?' he said, rising reluctantly.
'Well, it don't look, does it, as if there was much to pack in this hole!' she said with one of her wild laughs.
He looked round for the first time and saw a long bare studio, containing a table covered with etcher's apparatus and some blocks for wood engraving. There was besides an easel, and a picture upon it, with a pretentious historical subject just blocked in, a tall oak chair and stool of antique pattern, and in one corner a stand of miscellaneous arms such as many artists affect—an old flintlock gun or two, some Moorish or Spanish rapiers and daggers. The north window was half blocked by snow, and the atmosphere of the place, in spite of the stove, was freezing.
He moved to the door, loth, most loth, to go, yet well aware, by long experience, of the danger of crossing her temper or her whims. After all, it would take him some time to make his arrangements with the landlord, and he would be back to the moment.
She watched him intently with her poor red eyes. She herself opened the door for him, and to his amazement put a sudden hand on his arm, and kissed him—roughly, vehemently, with lips that burnt.
'Oh, you fool!' she said, 'you fool!'
'What do you mean?' he said, stopping. 'I believe I am a fool, Louie, to leave you for a moment.'
'Nonsense! You are a fool to want to take me to Manchester, and I am a fool to think of going. There:—if I had never been born!—oh! go, for God's sake, go! and come back in an hour. I must have some time, I tell you—' and she gave a passionate stamp—'to think a bit, and put my things together.'
She pushed him out, and shut the door. With a great effort he mastered himself and went.
He made all arrangements for the two-horse sledge that was to take them to Fontainebleau. He called for his bill, and paid it. Then he hung about the entrance to the forest, looking with an unseeing eye at the tricks which the snow had been playing with the trees, at the gleams which a pale and struggling sun was shedding over the white world—till his watch told him it was time.
He walked briskly back to the cottage, opened the outer door, was astonished to hear neither voice nor movement, to see nothing of the charwoman Louie had spoken of—rushed to the studio and entered.
She sat in the tall chair, her hands dropping over the arms, her head hanging forward. The cold snow-light shone on her open and glazing eyes—on the red and black of her dress, on the life-stream dripping among the folds, on the sharp curved Algerian dagger at her feet. She was quite dead. Even in the midst of his words of hope, the thought of self-destruction—of her mother—had come upon her and absorbed her. That capacity for sudden intolerable despair which she had inherited, rose to its full height when she had driven David from her—guided her mad steps, her unshrinking hand.
He knelt by her—called for help, laid his ear to her heart, her lips. Then the awfulness of the shock, and of his self-reproach, the crumbling of all his hopes, became too much to bear. Consciousness left him, and when the woman of whom Louie had spoken did actually come in, a few minutes later, she found the brother lying against the sister's knee, his arms outstretched across her, while the dead Louie, with fixed and frowning brows, sat staring beyond him into eternity—a figure of wild fate—freed at last and for ever from that fierce burden of herself.
—But to part from David Grieve under the impression of this scene of wreck and moral defeat would be to misread and misjudge a life, destined, notwithstanding the stress of exceptional suffering it was called upon at one time to pass through, to singularly rich and fruitful issues. Time, kind inevitable Time, dulled the paralysing horror of his sister's death, and softened the memory of all that long torture of publicity, legal investigation, and the like, which had followed it. The natural healing 'in widest commonalty spread,' which flows from affection, nature, and the direction of the mind to high and liberating aims, came to him also as the months and years passed. His wife's death, his sister's tragedy, left indeed indelible marks; but, though scarred and changed, he was in the end neither crippled nor unhappy. The moral experience of life had built up in him a faith which endured, and the pangs of his own pity did but bring him at last to rest the more surely on a pity beyond man's. During the nights of semi-delirium which followed the scene at Barbizon, John, who watched him, heard him repeat again and again words which seemed to have a talismanic power over his restlessness. 'Neither do I condemn thee. Come, and sin no more.' They were fragments dropped from what was clearly a nightmare of anguish and struggle; but they testified to a set of character, they threw light on the hopes and convictions which ultimately repossessed themselves of the sound man.
Two years passed. It was Christmas Eve. The firm of Grieve & Co. in Prince's Street was shut for the holiday, and David Grieve, a mile or two away, was sitting over his study fire with a book. He closed it presently, and sat thinking.
There was a knock at his door. When he opened it he found Dora outside. It was Dora, in the quasi-sister's garb she had assumed of late—serge skirt, long black cloak, and bonnet tied with white muslin strings under the throat. In her parish visiting among the worst slums of Ancoats, she had found such a dress useful.
'I brought Sandy's present,' she said, looking round her cautiously. 'Is his stocking hung up?'
'No! or the rascal would never go to sleep to-night. He is nearly wild about his presents as it is. Give it to me. It shall go into my drawer, and I will arrange everything when I go to bed to-night.'
He looked at the puzzle-map she had brought with a childish pleasure, and between them they locked it away carefully in a drawer of the writing-table.
'Do sit down and get warm,' he said to her, pushing forward a chair.
'Oh no! I must go back to the church. We shall be decorating till late to-night. But I had to be in Broughton, so I brought this on my way home.'
Then Sandy and I will escort you, if you will have us. He made me promise to take him to see the shops. I suppose Market Street is a sight.'
He went outside to shout to Sandy, who was having his tea, to get ready, and then came back to Dora. She was standing by the fire looking at an engagement tablet filled with entries, on the mantelpiece.
'Father Russell says they have been asking you again to stand for Parliament,' she said timidly, as he came in.
'Yes, there is a sudden vacancy. Old Jacob Cherritt is dead.'
'And you won't?'
He shook his head.
'No,' he said, after a pause. 'I am not their man; they would be altogether disappointed in me.'
She understood the sad reverie of the face, and said no more.
No. For new friends, new surroundings, efforts of another type, his power was now irrevocably gone; he shrank more than ever from the egotisms of competition. But within the old lines he had recovered an abundant energy. Among his workmen; amid the details now fortunate, now untoward of his labours for the solution of certain problems of industrial ethics; in the working of the remarkable pamphlet scheme dealing with social and religious fact, which was fast making his name famous in the ears of the England which thinks and labours; and in the self-devoted help of the unhappy,—he was developing more and more the idealist's qualities, and here and there—inevitably—the idealist's mistakes. His face, as middle life was beginning to shape it—with its subtle and sensitive beauty—was at once the index of his strength and his limitations.
He and Dora stood talking a while about certain public schemes that were in progress for the bettering of Ancoats. Then he said with sudden emphasis:
'Ah! if one could but jump a hundred years and see what England will be like! But these northern towns, and this northern life, on the whole fill one with hope. There is a strong social spirit and strong individualities to work on.'
Dora was silent. From her Churchwoman's point of view the prospect was not so bright.
'Well, people seem to think that co-operation is going to do everything,' she said vaguely.
'We all cry our own nostrums,' he said, laughing; 'what co-operation has done up here in the north is wonderful! It has been the making of thousands. But the world is not going to give itself over wholly to committees. There will be room enough for the one-man-power at any rate for generations to come. What we want is leaders; but leaders who will feel themselves "members of one body," instruments of one social order.'
They stood together a minute in silence; then he went out to the stairs and called: 'Sandy, you monkey, come along!'
Sandy came shouting and leaping downstairs, as lithe and handsome as ever, and as much of a compound of the elf and the philosopher.
'I know Auntie Dora's brought me a present,' he said, looking up into her face,—'but father's locked it up!'
David chased him out of doors with contumely, and they all took the tram to Victoria Street.
Once there, Sandy was in the seventh heaven. The shops were ablaze with lights, and gay with every Christmas joy; the pavements were crowded with a buying and gaping throng. He pulled at his father's hand, exclaiming here and pointing there, till David, dragged hither and thither, had caught some of the boy's mirth and pleasure.
But Dora walked apart. Her heart was a little heavy and dull, her face weary. In reality, though David's deep and tender gratitude and friendship towards her could not express themselves too richly, she felt, as the years went on, more and more divided from him and Sandy. She was horrified at the things which David published, or said in public; she had long dropped any talk with the child on all those subjects which she cared for most. Young as he was, the boy showed a marvellous understanding in some ways of his father's mind, and there were moments when she felt a strange and dumb irritation towards them both.
Christmas too, in spite of her Christian fervour, had always its sadness for her. It reminded her of her father, and of the loneliness of her personal life.
'How father would have liked all this crowd!' she said once to David as they passed into Market Street.
David assented with instant sympathy, and they talked a little of the vanished wanderer as they walked along, she with a yearning passion which touched him profoundly.
He and Sandy escorted her up the Ancoats High Street, and at last they turned into her own road. Instantly Dora perceived a little crowd round her door, and, as soon as she was seen, a waving of hands, and a Babel of voices.
'What is it?' she cried, paling, and began to run.
David and Sandy followed. She had already flown upstairs; but the shawled mill-girls, round the door, flushed with excitement, shouted their news into his ear.
'It's her feyther, sir, as ha coom back after aw these years—an he's sittin by the fire quite nat'ral like, Mary Styles says—and they put him in a mad-house in furrin parts, they did—an his hair's quite white—an oh! sir, yo mun just goo up an look.'
Pushed by eager hands, and still holding Sandy, David, though half unwilling, climbed the narrow stairs.
The door was half open. And there, in his old chair, sat Daddy, his snow-white hair falling on his shoulders, a childish excitement and delight on his blanched face. Dora was kneeling at his feet, her head on his knees, sobbing.
David took Sandy up in his arms.
'Be quiet, Sandy; don't say a word.'
And he carried him downstairs again, and into the midst of the eager crowd.
'I think,' he said, addressing them, 'I would go home if I were you—if you love her.'
They looked at his shining eyes and twitching lips, and understood.
'Aye, sir, aye, sir, yo're abeawt reet—we'st not trouble her, sir.'
He carried his boy home, Sandy raining questions in a tumult of excitement. Then when the child was put to bed he sat on in his lonely study, stirred to his sensitive depths by the thought of Dora's long waiting and sad sudden joy—by the realisation of the Christmas crowds and merriment—by the sharp memory of his own dead. Towards midnight, when all was still, he opened the locked drawer which held for him the few things which symbolised and summed up his past—a portrait of Lucy, by the river under the trees, taken by a travelling photographer, not more than six weeks before her death—a little collection of pictures of Sandy from babyhood onwards—Louie's breviary—his father's dying letter—a book which had belonged to Ancrum, his vanished friend. But though he took thence his wife's picture, communing awhile, in a passion of yearning, with its weary plaintive eyes, he did not allow himself to sink for long into the languor of memory and grief. He knew the perils of his own nature, and there was in him a stern sense of the difficulty of living aright, and the awfulness of the claim made by God and man on the strength and will of the individual. It seemed to him that he had been 'taught of God' through natural affection, through repentance, through sorrow, through the constant energies of the intellect. Never had the Divine voice been clearer to him, or the Divine Fatherhood more real. Freely he had received—but only that he might freely give. On this Christmas night he renewed every past vow of the soul, and in so doing rose once more into that state and temper which is man's pledge and earnest of immortality—since already, here and now, it is the eternal life begun.