Warburton sat in meditation, only half smiling.
"Of course, she's ashamed to face me. For fear I should run after her, she wrote that they were just leaving Trient for another place, not mentioned. If I wrote, I was to address to Bath, and the letter would be forwarded. I wrote—of course a fool's letter; I only wish I'd never sent it. Sometimes I think I'll never try to see her again; sometimes I think I'll make her see me, and tell her the truth about herself. The only thing is—I'm half afraid—I've gone through torture enough; I don't want to begin again. Yet if I saw her—"
He took another turn across the room, then checked himself before Warburton.
"Tell me honestly what you think about it. I want advice. What's your opinion of her?"
"I have no opinion at all. I don't pretend to know her well enough."
"Well, but," persisted Franks, "your impression—your feeling. How does the thing strike you?"
"Why, disagreeably enough; that's a matter of course."
"You don't excuse her?" asked Norbert, his eyes fixed on the other.
"I can imagine excuses—"
"What? What excuse can there be for deliberate hypocrisy, treachery?"
"If it was deliberate," replied Warburton, "there's nothing to be said. In your position—since you ask advice—I should try to think that it wasn't, but that the girl had simply changed her mind, and went on and on, struggling with herself till she could stand it no longer. I've no taste for melodrama quiet comedy is much more in my line—comedy ending with mutual tolerance and forgiveness. To be sure, if you feel you can't live without her, if you're determined to fight for her—"
"Fight with whom?" cried Franks.
"With her; then read Browning, and blaze away. It may be the best; who can tell? Only—on this point I am clear—no self-deception! Don't go in for heroics just because they seem fine. Settle with yourself whether she is indispensable to you or not.— Indispensable? why, no woman is that to any man; sooner or later, it's a matter of indifference. And if you feel, talking plainly with yourself, that the worst is over already, that it doesn't after all matter as much as you thought; why, get back to your painting. If you can paint only ugly women, so much the better, I've no doubt."
Franks stood reflecting. Then he nodded.
"All that is sensible enough. But, if I give her up, I shall marry some one else straight away."
Then he abruptly said good-night, leaving Warburton not unhopeful about him, and much consoled by the disappearance of the shadow which had threatened their good understanding.
The Crosses, mother and daughter, lived at Walham Green. The house was less pleasant than another which Mrs. Cross owned at Putney, but it also represented a lower rental, and poverty obliged them to take this into account. When the second house stood tenantless, as had now been the case for half a year, Mrs. Cross' habitually querulous comment on life rose to a note of acrimony very afflictive to her daughter Bertha. The two bore as little resemblance to each other, physical or mental, as mother and child well could. Bertha Cross was a sensible, thoughtful girl, full of kindly feeling, and blest with a humorous turn that enabled her to see the amusing rather than the carking side of her pinched life. These virtues she had from her father. Poor Cross, who supplemented a small income from office routine by occasional comic journalism, and even wrote a farce (which brought money to a theatrical manager), made on his deathbed a characteristic joke. He had just signed his will, and was left alone with his wife. "I'm sure I've, always wished to make your life happy," piped the afflicted woman. "And I yours," he faintly answered; adding, with a sad, kind smile, as he pointed to the testamentary document, "Take the will for the deed."
The two sons had emigrated to British Columbia, and Bertha would not have been sorry to join her brothers there, for domestic labour on a farm, in peace and health, seemed to her considerably better than the quasi-genteel life she painfully supported. She had never dreamt of being an artist, but, showing some facility with the pencil, was sent by her father to South Kensington, where she met and made friends with Rosamund Elvan. Her necessity and her application being greater than Rosamund's, Bertha before long succeeded in earning a little money; without this help, life at home would scarcely have been possible for her. They might, to be sure, have taken a lodger, having spare rooms, but Mrs. Cross could only face that possibility if the person received into the house were "respectable" enough to be called a paying guest, and no such person offered. So they lived, as no end of "respectable" families do, a life of penury and seclusion, sometimes going without a meal that they might have decent clothing to wear abroad, never able to buy a book, to hear a concert, and only by painful sacrifice able to entertain a friend. When, on a certain occasion, Miss Elvan passed a week at their house (Mrs. Cross approved of this friendship, and hoped it might be a means of discovering the paying guest), it meant for them a near approach to starvation during the month that ensued.
Time would have weighed heavily on Mrs. Cross but for her one recreation, which was perennial, ever fresh, constantly full of surprises and excitement. Poor as she was, she contrived to hire a domestic servant; to say that she "kept" one would come near to a verbal impropriety, seeing that no servant ever remained in the house for more than a few months, whilst it occasionally happened that the space of half a year would see a succession of some half dozen "generals." Underpaid and underfed, these persons (they varied in age from fourteen to forty) were of course incompetent, careless, rebellious, and Mrs. Cross found the sole genuine pleasure of her life in the war she waged with them. Having no reasonable way of spending her hours, she was thus supplied with occupation; being of acrid temper, she was thus supplied with a subject upon whom she could fearlessly exercise it; being remarkably mean of disposition, she saw in the paring-down of her servant's rations to a working minimum, at once profit and sport; lastly, being fond of the most trivial gossip, she had a never-failing topic of discussion with such ladies as could endure her society.
Bertha, having been accustomed to this domestic turbulence all her life long, for the most part paid no heed to it. She knew that if the management of the house were in her hands, instead of her mother's, things would go much more smoothly, but the mere suggestion of such a change (ventured once at a moment of acute crisis) had so amazed and exasperated Mrs. Cross, that Bertha never again looked in that direction. Yet from time to time a revolt of common sense forced her to speak, and as the only possible way, if quarrel were to be avoided, she began her remonstrance on the humorous note. Then when her mother had been wearying her for half an hour with complaints and lamentations over the misdoings of one Emma, Bertha as the alternative to throwing up her hands and rushing out of the house, began laughing to herself, whereat Mrs. Cross indignantly begged to be informed what there was so very amusing in a state of affairs which would assuredly bring her to her grave.
"If only you could see the comical side of it, mother," replied Bertha. "It really has one, you know. Emma, if only you would be patient with her, is a well-meaning creature, and she says the funniest things. I asked her this morning if she didn't think she could find some way of remembering to put the salt on the table. And she looked at me very solemnly, and said, 'Indeed, I will, miss. I'll put it into my prayers, just after 'our daily bread.'"
Mrs. Cross saw nothing in this but profanity. She turned the attack on Bertha, who, by her soft way of speaking, simply encouraged the servants, she declared, in negligence and insolence.
"Look at it in this way, mother," replied the girl, as soon as she was suffered to speak. "To be badly served is bad enough, in itself; why make it worse by ceaseless talking about it, so leaving ourselves not a moment of peace and quiet? I'm sure I'd rather put the salt on the table myself at every meal, and think no more about it, than worry, worry, worry over the missing salt-cellars from one meal to the next. Don't you feel, dear mother, that it's shocking waste of life?"
"What nonsense you talk, child! Are we to live in dirt and disorder? Am I never to correct a servant, or teach her her duties? But of course everything I do is wrong. Of course you could do everything so very much better. That's what children are nowadays."
Whilst Mrs. Cross piped on, Bertha regarded her with eyes of humorous sadness. The girl often felt it a dreary thing not to be able to respect—nay, not to be able to feel much love for—her mother. At such times, her thought turned to the other parent, with whom, had he and she been left alone, she could have lived so happily, in so much mutual intelligence and affection. She sighed and moved away.
The unlet house was a very serious matter, and when one day Norbert Franks came to talk about it, saying that he would want a house very soon, and thought this of Mrs. Cross's might suit him, Bertha rejoiced no less than her mother. In consequence of the artist's announcement, she wrote to her friend Rosamund, saying how glad she was to hear that her marriage approached. The reply to this letter surprised her. Rosamund had been remiss in correspondence for the last few months; her few and brief letters, though they were as affectionate as ever, making no mention of what had formerly been an inexhaustible topic—the genius, goodness, and brilliant hopes of Franks. Now she wrote as if in utter despondency, a letter so confused in style and vague in expression, that Bertha could gather from it little or nothing except a grave doubt whether Franks' marriage was as near as he supposed. A week or two passed, and Rosamund again wrote—from Switzerland; again the letter was an unintelligible maze of dreary words, and a mere moaning and sighing, which puzzled Bertha as much as it distressed her. Rosamund's epistolary style, when she wrote to this bosom friend, was always pitched in a key of lyrical emotion, which now and then would have been trying to Bertha's sense of humour but for the sincerity manifest in every word; hitherto, however, she had expressed herself with perfect lucidity, and this sudden change seemed ominous of alarming things. Just when Bertha was anxiously wondering what could have happened,—of course inclined to attribute blame, if blame there were, to the artist rather than to his betrothed—a stranger came to inquire about the house to let. It was necessary to ascertain at once whether Mr. Franks intended to become their tenant or not. Mrs. Cross wrote to him, and received the briefest possible reply, to the effect that his plans were changed.
"How vexatious!" exclaimed Mrs. Cross. "I had very much rather have let to people we know I suppose he's seen a house that suits him better."
"I think there's another reason," said Bertha, after gazing for a minute or two at the scribbled, careless note. "The marriage is put off."
"And you knew that," cried her mother, "all the time, and never told me! And I might have missed twenty chances of letting. Really, Bertha, I never did see anything like you. There's that house standing empty month after month, and we hardly know where to turn for money, and you knew that Mr. Franks wouldn't take it, and yet you say not a word! How can you behave in such an extraordinary way? I think you really find pleasure in worrying me. Any one would fancy you wished to see me in my grave. To think that you knew all the time!"
There passed a fortnight. Bertha heard nothing more of Miss Elvan, till a letter arrived one morning in an envelope, showing on the back an address at Teddington. Rosamund wrote that she had just returned from Switzerland, and was staying for a few days with friends; would it be possible for Bertha to come to Teddington the same afternoon, for an hour or two's talk? The writer had so much to say that could not be conveyed in a letter, and longed above all things to see Bertha, the only being in whom, at a very grave juncture in her life, she could absolutely confide. "We shall be quite alone—Mr. and Mrs. Capron are going to town immediately after lunch. This is a lovely place, and we shall have it to ourselves all the afternoon. So don't be frightened—I know how you hate strangers—but come, come, come!"
Bertha took train early in the afternoon. By an avenue of elms she passed into a large and beautiful garden, and so came to the imposing front door. Led into the drawing-room, she had time to take breath, and to gaze at splendours such as she had never seen before; then with soundless footfall, entered a slim, prettily-dressed girl who ran towards her, and caught her hands, and kissed her with graceful tenderness.
"My dear, dear old Bertha! What a happiness to see you again! How good of you to come! Isn't it a lovely place? And the nicest people. You've heard me speak of Miss Anderton, of Bath. She is Mrs. Capron—married half a year ago. And they're just going to Egypt for a year, and—what do you think?—I'm going with them."
Rosamund's voice sunk and faltered. She stood holding Bertha's hands, and gazing into her face with eyes which grew large as if in a distressful appeal.
"Yes. It was decided whilst I was in Switzerland. Mrs. Capron wants a friend to be with her; one who can help her in water-colours. She thought, of course, that I couldn't go; wrote to me just wishing it were possible. And I caught at the chance! Oh, caught at it!"
"That's what I don't understand," said Bertha.
"I want to explain it all. Come into this cosy corner. Nobody will disturb us except when they bring tea.—Do you know that picture of Leader's? Isn't it exquisite!—Are you tired, Bertha? You look so, a little. I'm afraid you walked from the station, and it's such a hot day. But oh, the loveliness of the trees about here! Do you remember our first walk together? You were shy, stiff; didn't feel quite sure whether you liked me or not. And I thought you—just a little critical. But before we got back again, I think we had begun to understand each other. And I wonder whether you'll understand me now. It would be dreadful if I felt you disapproved of me. Of course if you do, I'd much rather you said so. You will—won't you?"
She again fixed her eyes upon Bertha with the wide, appealing look.
"Whether I say it or not," replied the other, "you'll see what I think. I never could help that."
"That's what I love in you! And that's what I've been thinking of, all these weeks of misery—your perfect sincerity. I've asked myself whether it would be possible for you to find yourself in such a position as mine; and how you would act, how you would speak. You're my ideal of truth and rightness, Bertha; I've often enough told you that."
Bertha moved uncomfortably, her eyes averted.
"Suppose you just tell me what has happened," she added quietly.
"Yes, I will. I hope you haven't been thinking it was some fault of his?"
"I couldn't help thinking that."
"Oh! Put that out of your mind at once. The fault is altogether mine. He has done nothing whatever—he is good and true, and all that a man should be. It's I who am behaving badly; so badly that I feel hot with shame now that I come to tell you. I have broken it off. I've said I couldn't marry him."
Their eyes met for an instant. Bertha looked rather grave, but with her wonted kindliness of expression; Rosamund's brows were wrinkled in distress, and her lips trembled.
"I've seen it coming since last Christmas," she continued, in a hurried, tremulous undertone. "You know he came down to Bath; that was our last meeting; and I felt that something was wrong. Ah, so hard to know oneself! I wanted to talk to you about it; but then I said to myself—what can Bertha do but tell me to know my own mind? And that's just what I couldn't come to,—to understand my own feelings. I was changing, I knew that. I dreaded to look into my own thoughts, from day to day. Above all, I dreaded to sit down and write to him. Oh, the hateful falsity of those letters—Yet what could I do, what could I do? I had no right to give such a blow, unless I felt that anything else was utterly, utterly impossible."
"And at last you did feel it?"
"In Switzerland—yes. It came like a flash of lightning. I was walking up that splendid valley—you remember my description—up toward the glacier. That morning I had had a letter, naming the very day for our marriage, and speaking of the house—your house at Putney—he meant to take. I had said to myself—'It must be; I can do nothing. I haven't the courage.' Then, as I was walking, a sort of horror fell upon me, and made me tremble; and when it passed I saw that, so far from not having the courage to break, I should never dare to go through with it. And I went back to the hotel, and sat down and wrote, without another moment's thought or hesitation."
"What else could you have done?" said Bertha, with a sigh of relief. "When it comes to horror and tremblings!"
There was a light in her eye which seemed the precursor of a smile; but her voice was not unsympathetic, and Rosamund knew that one of Bertha Cross smiles was worth more in the way of friendship than another's tragic emotion.
"Have patience with me," she continued, "whilst I try to explain it all. The worst of my position is, that so many people will know what I have done, and so few of them, hardly any one, will understand why. One can't talk to people about such things. Even Winnie and father—I'm sure they don't really understand—though I'm afraid they're both rather glad. What a wretched thing it is to be misjudged. I feel sure, Bertha, that it's just this kind of thing that makes a woman sit down and write a novel—where she can speak freely in disguise, and do herself justice. Don't you think so?"
"I shouldn't wonder," replied the listener, thoughtfully. "But does it really matter? If you know you're only doing what you must do?"
"But that's only how it seems to me. Another, in my place, would very likely see the must on the other side. Of course it's a terribly complicated thing—a situation like this. I haven't the slightest idea how one ought to be guided. One could argue and reason all day long about it—as I have done with myself for weeks past."
"Try just to tell me the reason which seems to you the strongest," said Bertha.
"That's very simple. I thought I loved him, and I find I don't."
"Exactly. But I hardly see how the change came about."
"I will try to tell you," replied Rosamund. "It was that picture, 'Sanctuary,' that began it. When I first saw it, it gave me a shock. You know how I have always thought of him—an artist living for his own idea of art, painting just as he liked, what pleased him, without caring for the public taste. I got enthusiastic; and when I saw that he seemed to care for my opinion and my praise—of course all the rest followed. He told me about his life as an art student—Paris, Rome, all that; and it was my ideal of romance. He was very poor, sometimes so poor that he hardly had enough to eat, and this made me proud of him, for I felt sure he could have got money if he would have condescended to do inferior work. Of course, as I too was poor, we could not think of marrying before his position improved. At last he painted 'Sanctuary.' He told me nothing about it. I came and saw it on the easel, nearly finished. And—this is the shocking thing—I pretended to admire it. I was astonished, pained—yet I had the worldliness to smile and praise. There's the fault of my character. At that moment, truth and courage were wanted, and I had neither. The dreadful thing is to think that he degraded himself on my account. If I had said at once what I thought, he would have confessed—would have told me that impatience had made him untrue to himself. And from that day; oh, this is the worst of all, Bertha—he has adapted himself to what he thinks my lower mind and lower aims; he has consciously debased himself, out of thought for me. Horrible! Of course he believes in his heart that I was a hypocrite before. The astonishing thing is that this didn't cause him to turn cold to me. He must have felt that, but somehow he overcame it. All the worse! The very fact that he still cared for me shows how bad my influence has been. I feel that I have wrecked his life, Bertha—and yet I cannot give him my own, to make some poor sort of amends."
Bertha was listening with a face that changed from puzzled interest to wondering confusion.
"Good gracious!" she exclaimed when the speaker ceased. "Is it possible to get into such entanglements of reasoning about what one thinks and feels? It's beyond me. Oh they're bringing the tea. Perhaps a cup of tea will clear my wits."
Rosamund at once began to speak of the landscape by Leader, which hung near them, and continued to do so even after the servant had withdrawn. Her companion was silent, smiling now and then in an absent way. They sipped tea.
"The tea is doing me so much good," Bertha said, "I begin to feel equal to the most complicated reflections. And so you really believe that Mr. Franks is on the way to perdition, and that you are the cause of it?"
Rosamund did not reply. She had half averted her look; her brows were knit in an expression of trouble; she bit her lower lip. A moment passed, and—
"Suppose we go into the garden," she said, rising. "Don't you feel it a little close here?"
They strolled about the paths. Her companion, seeming to have dismissed from mind their subject of conversation, began to talk of Egypt, and the delight she promised herself there.
Presently Bertha reverted to the unfinished story.
"Oh, it doesn't interest you."
"Doesn't it indeed! Please go on. You had just explained all about 'Sanctuary'—which isn't really a bad picture at all."
"Oh, Bertha!" cried the other in pained protest. "That's your good nature. You never can speak severely of anybody's work. The picture is shameful, shameful! And its successor, I am too sure, will be worse still, from what I have heard of it. Oh, I can't bear to think of what it all means—Now that it's too late, I see what I ought to have done. In spite of everything and everybody I ought to have married him in the first year, when I had courage and hope enough to face any hardships. We spoke of it, but he was too generous. What a splendid thing to have starved with him—to have worked for him whilst he was working for art and fame, to have gone through and that together, and have come out triumphant! That was a life worth living. But to begin marriage at one's ease on the profits of pictures such as 'Sanctuary'—oh, the shame of it! Do you think I could face the friends who would come to see me?"
"How many friends," asked Bertha, "would be aware of your infamy? I credit myself with a little imagination. But I should never have suspected the black baseness which had poisoned your soul."
Again Rosamund bit her lip, and kept a short silence.
"It only shows," she said with some abruptness, "that I shall do better not to speak of it at all, and let people think what they like of me. If even you can't understand."
Bertha stood still, and spoke in a changed voice.
"I understand very well—or think I do. I'm perfectly sure that you could never have broken your engagement unless for the gravest reason—and for me it is quite enough to know that. Many a girl ought to do this, who never has the courage. Try not to worry about explanations, the thing is done, and there's an end of it. I'm very glad indeed you're going quite away; it's the best thing possible. When do you start?" she added.
"In three days.—Listen, Bertha, I have something very serious to ask of you. It is possible—isn't it?—that he may come to see you some day. If he does, or if by chance you see him alone, and if he speaks of me, I want you to make him think—you easily can—that what has happened is all for his good. Remind him how often artists have been spoilt by marriage, and hint—you surely could—that I am rather too fond of luxury, and that kind of thing."
Bertha wore an odd smile.
"Trust me," she replied, "I will blacken you most effectually."
"You promise? But, at the same time, you will urge him to be true to himself, to endure poverty—"
"I don't know about that. Why shouldn't poor Mr. Franks have enough to eat it he can get it?"
"Well—but you promise to help him in the other way? You needn't say very bad things; just a smile, a hint—"
"I quite understand," said Bertha, nodding.
Warburton had never seen Godfrey Sherwood so restless and excitable as during these weeks when the business in Little Ailie Street was being brought to an end, and the details of the transfer to Bristol were being settled. Had it not been inconsistent with all the hopeful facts of the situation, as well as with the man's temper, one would have thought that Godfrey suffered from extreme nervousness; that he lived under some oppressive anxiety, which it was his constant endeavour to combat with resolute high spirits. It seemed an odd thing that a man who had gone through the very real cares and perils of the last few years without a sign of perturbation, nay, with the cheeriest equanimity, should let himself be thrown into disorder by the mere change to a more promising state of things. Now and then Warburton asked himself whether his partner could be concealing some troublesome fact with regard to Applegarth's concern; but he dismissed the idea as too improbable; Sherwood was far too good a fellow, far too conscientious a man of business, to involve his friend in obvious risk—especially since it had been decided that Mrs. Warburton's and her money should go into the affair. The inquiries made by Mr. Turnbull had results so satisfactory that even the resolute pessimist could not but grudgingly admit his inability to discover storm-signals. Though a sense of responsibility made a new element in his life, which would not let him sleep quite so soundly as hitherto, Will persuaded himself that he had but to get to work, and all would be right.
The impression made upon him by Applegarth himself was very favourable. The fact that the jam manufacturer was a university man, an astronomer, and a musician, had touched Warburton's weak point, and he went down to Bristol the first time with an undeniable prejudice at the back of his mind; but this did not survive a day or two's intercourse. Applegarth recommended himself by an easy and humorous geniality of bearing which Warburton would have been the last man to resist; he talked of his affairs with the utmost frankness.
"The astonishing thing to me is," he said, "that I've made this business pay. I went into it on abstract principle. I knew nothing of business. At school, I rather think, I learnt something about 'single and double entry,' but I had forgotten it all—just as I find myself forgetting how to multiply and divide, now that I am accustomed to the higher mathematics. However, I had to earn a little money, somehow, and I thought I'd try jam. And it went by itself, I really don't understand it, mere good luck, I suppose. I hear of fellows who have tried business, and come shocking croppers. Perhaps they were classical men nothing so hopeless as your classic. I beg your pardon; before saying that, I ought to have found out whether either of you is a classic."
The listeners both shook their heads, and laughed.
"So much the better. An astronomer, it is plain, may manufacture jam; a fellow brought up on Greek and Latin verses couldn't possibly."
They were together at Bristol for a week, then Sherwood received a telegram, and told Warburton that he must return to London immediately.
"Something that bothers you?" said Will, noting a peculiar tremor on his friend's countenance.
"No, no; a private affair; nothing to do with us. You stay on till Saturday? I might be back in twenty-four hours."
"Good. Yes; I want to have some more talk with Applegarth about that advertising proposal. I don't like to start with quite such a heavy outlay."
"Nor I either," replied Godfrey, his eyes wandering. He paused, bit the end of his moustache, and added. "By the bye, the St. Neots money will be paid on Saturday, you said?"
"I believe so. Or early next week."
"That's right. I want to get done. Queer how these details fidget me. Nerves! I ought to have had a holiday this summer. You were wiser."
The next day Warburton went out with Applegarth to his house some ten miles south of Bristol, and dined there, and stayed over night. It had not yet been settled where he and Sherwood should have their permanent abode; there was a suggestion that they should share a house which was to let not far from Applegarth's, but Will felt uneasy at the thought of a joint tenancy, doubting whether he could live in comfort with any man. He was vexed at having to leave his flat in Chelsea, which so thoroughly suited his habits and his tastes.
Warburton and his host talked much of Sherwood.
"When I first met him," said the jam-manufacturer, "he struck me as the queerest man of business—except myself—that I had ever seen. He talked about Norse sagas, witchcraft, and so on, and when he began about business, I felt uneasy. Of course I know him better now."
"There are not many steadier and shrewder men than Sherwood," remarked Will.
"I feel sure of that," replied the other. And he added, as if to fortify himself in the opinion: "Yes, I feel sure of it."
"In spite of all his energy, never rash."
"No, no; I can see that. Yet," added Applegarth, again as if for self-confirmation, "he has energy of an uncommon kind."
"That will soon show itself," replied Warburton, smiling. "He's surveying the field like a general before battle."
"Yes. No end of bright ideas. Some of them—perhaps—not immediately practicable."
"Oh, Sherwood looks far ahead."
Applegarth nodded, and for a minute or two each was occupied with his own reflections.
Godfrey having telegraphed that he must remain in town, Warburton soon joined him. His partner was more cheerful and sanguine than ever; he had cleared off numberless odds and ends of business; there remained little to be done before the day, a week hence, appointed for the signature of the new deed, for which purpose Applegarth would come to London. Mr. Turnbull, acting with his wonted caution, had at length concluded the sale of Mrs. Warburton's property, and on the day after his return, Will received from St. Neots a letter containing a cheque for four thousand pounds! All his own available capital was already in the hands of Sherwood; a sum not much greater in amount than that invested by his mother and sister. Sherwood, for his part, put in sixteen thousand, with regrets that it was all he had at command just now; before long, he might see his way greatly to increase their capital, but they had enough for moderate enterprise in the meanwhile.
Not half an hour after the post which brought him the cheque, Warburton was surprised by a visit from his friend.
"I thought you wouldn't have left home yet," said Godfrey, with a nervous laugh. "I had a letter from Applegarth last night, which I wanted you to see at once."
He handed it, and Will, glancing over the sheet, found only an unimportant discussion of a small detail.
"Well, that's all right," he said, "but I don't see that it need have brought you from Wimbledon to Chelsea before nine o'clock in the morning. Aren't you getting a little overstrung, old man?"
Godfrey looked it. His face was noticeably thinner than a month ago, and his eyes had a troubled fixity such as comes of intense preoccupation.
"Daresay I am," he admitted with a show of careless good-humour. "Can't get much sleep lately."
"But why? What the deuce is there to fuss about? Sit down and smoke a cigar. I suppose you've had breakfast?"
"No—yes, I mean, yes, of course, long ago."
Will did not believe the corrected statement. He gazed at his friend curiously and with some anxiety.
"It's an unaccountable thing that you should fret your gizzard out about this new affair, which seems all so smooth, when you took the Ailie Street worries without turning a hair."
"Stupid—nerves out of order," muttered Godfrey, as he crossed, uncrossed, recrossed his legs, and bit at a cigar, as if he meant to breakfast on it. "I must get away for a week or two as soon as we've signed."
"Yes, but look here." Warburton stood before him, hands on hips, regarding him gravely, and speaking with decision. "I don't quite understand you. You're not like yourself. Is there anything you're keeping from me?"
"Nothing—nothing whatever, I assure you, Warburton."
But Will was only half satisfied.
"You have no doubts of Applegarth?"
"Doubts!" cried the other. "Not a shadow of doubt of any sort, I declare and protest. No, no; it's entirely my own idiotic excitability. I can't account for it. Just don't notice it, there's a good fellow."
"There was a pause. Will glanced again at Applegarth's note, whilst Sherwood went, as usual, to stand before the bookcase, and run his eye along the shelves.
"Anything new in my way?" he asked. "I want a good long quiet read. —Palgrave's Arabia! Where did you pick up that? One of the most glorious books I know. That and Layard's Early Travels sent me to heaven for a month, once upon a time. You don't know Layard? I must give it to you. The essence of romance! As good in its way as the Arabian Nights."
Thus he talked on for a quarter of an hour, and it seemed to relieve him. Returning to matters of the day, he asked, half abruptly:
"Have you the St. Neots cheque yet?"
"Came this morning."
"Payable to Sherwood Brothers, I suppose?" said Godfrey. "Right. It's most convenient so."
Will handed him the cheque, and he gazed at it as if with peculiar satisfaction. He sat smiling, cheque in one hand, cigar in the other, until Warburton asked what he was thinking over.
"Nothing—nothing. Well, I suppose I'd better take it with me; I'm on my way to the bank."
As Will watched the little slip of paper disappear into his friend's pocket-book, he had an unaccountable feeling of disquiet. Nothing could be more unworthy than distrust of Godfrey Sherwood; nothing less consonant with all his experience of the man; and, had the money been his, he would have handed it over as confidently as when, in fact, dealing with his own capital the other day. But the sense of responsibility to others was a new thing to which he could not yet accustom himself. It occurred to him for the first time that there was no necessity for accumulating these funds in the hands of Sherwood; he might just as well have retained his own money and this cheque until the day of the signing of the new deed. To be sure, he had only to reflect a moment to see the foolishness of his misgiving; yet, had he thought of it before—
He, too, was perhaps a little overstrung in the nerves. Not for the first time, he mentally threw a malediction at business, and all its sordid appurtenances.
A change came over Sherwood. His smile grew more natural; his eye lost its fixity; he puffed at his cigar with enjoyment.
"What news of Franks?" were his next words.
"Nothing very good," answered Will, frowning. "He seems to be still playing the fool. I've seen him only once in the last fortnight, and then it was evident he'd been drinking. I couldn't help saying a plain word or two, and he turned sullen. I called at his place last night, but he wasn't there; his landlady tells me he's been out of town several times lately, and he's done no work."
"Has the girl gone?"
"A week ago. I have a letter from Ralph Pomfret. The good old chap worries about this affair; so does Mrs. Pomfret. He doesn't say it plainly, but I suspect Franks has been behaving theatrically down at Ashstead; it's possible he went there in the same state in which I saw him last. Pomfret would have done well to punch his head, but I've no doubt they've stroked and patted and poor-fellow'd him—the very worst thing for Franks."
"Or for any man," remarked Sherwood.
"Worse for him than for most. I wish I had more of the gift of brutality; I see a way in which I might do him good; but it goes against the grain with me."
"That I can believe," said Godfrey, with his pleasantest look and nod.
"I was afraid he might somehow scrape together money enough to pursue her to Egypt. Perhaps he's trying for that. The Pomfrets want me to go down to Ashstead and have a talk with them about him. Whether he managed to see the girl before she left England, I don't know."
"After all, he has been badly treated," said Sherwood sympathetically.
"Well, yes, he has. But a fellow must have common sense, most of all with regard to women. I'm rather afraid Franks might think it a fine thing to go to the devil because he's been jilted. It isn't fashionable nowadays; there might seem to be a sort of originality about it."
They talked for a few minutes of business matters, and Sherwood briskly went his way.
Four days passed. Warburton paid a visit to the Pomfrets, and had from them a confirmation of all he suspected regarding Norbert Franks. The artist's behaviour at Ashstead had been very theatrical indeed; he talked much of suicide, preferably by the way of drink, and, when dissuaded from this, with a burst of tears—veritable tears—begged Ralph Pomfret to lend him money enough to go to Cairo; on which point, also, he met with kindliest opposition. Thereupon, he had raged for half an hour against some treacherous friend, unnamed. Who this could be, the Pomfrets had no idea. Warburton, though he affected equal ignorance, could not doubt but that it was himself, and he grew inwardly angry. Franks had been to Bath, and had obtained a private interview with Winifred Elvan, in which (Winifred wrote to her aunt) he had demeaned himself very humbly and pathetically, first of all imploring the sister's help with Rosamund, and, when she declared she could do nothing, entreating to be told whether or not he was ousted by a rival. Rather impatient with the artist's follies than troubled about his sufferings, Will came home again. He wrote a brief, not unfriendly letter to Franks, urging him to return to his better mind—the half-disdainful, half-philosophical resignation which he seemed to have attained a month ago. The answer to this was a couple of lines; "Thanks. Your advice, no doubt, is well meant, but I had rather not have it just now. Don't let us meet for the present." Will shrugged his shoulders, and tried to forget all about the affair.
He did not see Sherwood, but had a note from him written in high spirits. Applegarth would be in town two days hence, and all three were to dine at his hotel. Having no occupation, Warburton spent most of his time in walking about London; but these rambles did not give him the wonted pleasure, and though at night he was very tired, he did not sleep well. An inexplicable nervousness interfered with all his habits of mind and body He was on the point of running down to St. Neots, to get through the last day of intolerable idleness, when the morning post again brought a letter from Sherwood.
"Confound the fellow!" he muttered, as he tore open the envelope. "What else can he have to say? No infernal postponement, I hope—"
He read the first line and drew himself up like a man pierced with pain.
"My dear Warburton"—thus wrote his partner, in a hand less legible than of wont—"I have such bad news for you that I hardly know how to tell it. If I dared, I would come to you at once, but I simply have not the courage to face you until you know the worst, and have had time to get accustomed to it. It is seven o'clock; an hour ago I learnt that all our money is lost—all yours, all that from St. Neots, all mine—every penny I have. I have been guilty of unpardonable folly—how explain my behaviour? The truth is, after the settlement in Little Ailie Street; I found myself much worse off than I had expected. I went into the money market, and made a successful deal. Counting on being able to repeat this, I guaranteed the sixteen thousand for Bristol; but the second time I lost. So it has gone on; all these last weeks I have been speculating, winning and losing. Last Tuesday, when I came to see you, I had about twelve thousand, and hoped somehow to make up the deficiency. As the devil would have it, that same morning I met a City acquaintance, who spoke of a great coup to be made by any one who had some fifteen thousand at command. It meant an immediate profit of 25 per cent. Like a fool, I was persuaded—as you will see when I go into details, the thing looked horribly tempting. I put it all—every penny that lay at our bank in the name of Sherwood Bros. And now I learn that the house I trusted has smashed. It's in the papers this evening—Biggles, Thorpe and Biggles—you'll see it. I dare not ask you to forgive me. Of course I shall at once take steps to raise the money owing to you, and hope to be able to do that soon, but it's all over with the Bristol affair. I shall come to see you at twelve to-morrow.
"G. F. SHERWOOD."
"After all, there's something in presentiment."
This was the first thought that took shape in Will's whirling mind. The second was, that he might rationally have foreseen disaster. All the points of strangeness which had struck him in Sherwood's behaviour came back now with such glaring significance that he accused himself of inconceivable limpness in having allowed things to go their way—above all in trusting Godfrey with the St. Neots cheque. On this moment of painful lucidity followed blind rage. Why, what a grovelling imbecile was this fellow! To plunge into wild speculation, on the word of some City shark, with money not his own! But could one credit the story? Was it not more likely that Sherwood had got involved in some cunning thievery which he durst not avow? Perhaps he was a mere liar and hypocrite. That story of the ten thousand pounds he had lent to somebody—how improbable it sounded; why might he not have invented it, to strengthen confidence at a critical moment? The incredible baseness of the man! He, who knew well all that depended upon the safe investment of the St. Neots money—to risk it in this furiously reckless way. In all the records of City scoundrelism, was there a blacker case?
Raging thus, Warburton became aware that Mrs. Hopper spoke to him. She had just laid breakfast, and, as usual when she wished to begin a conversation, had drawn back to the door, where she paused.
"That Boxon, the grocer, has had a bad accident, sir."
"In the Fulham Road, sir; him as Allchin was with."
Heedless of her master's gloomy abstraction, Mrs. Hopper continued. She related that Boxon had been at certain races where he had lost money and got drunk; driving away in a trap, he had run into something, and been thrown out, with serious injuries, which might prove fatal.
"So much the worse for him," muttered Warburton. "I've no pity to spare for fools and blackguards."
"I should think not, indeed sir. I just mentioned it, sir, because Allchin was telling us about it last night. He and his wife looked in to see my sister, Liza, and they both said they never see such a change in anybody. And they said how grateful we ought to be to you, sir, and that I'm sure we are, for Liza'd never have been able to go away without your kindness."
Listening as if this talk sounded from a vague distance, Warburton was suddenly reminded of what had befallen himself; for as yet he had thought only of his mother and sister. He was ruined. Some two or three hundred pounds, his private bank account, represented all he had in the world, and all prospect of making money had been taken away from him. Henceforth, small must be his charities. If he gained his own living, he must count himself lucky; nothing more difficult than for a man of his age and position, unexpectedly cut adrift, to find work and payment. By good fortune, his lease of this flat came to an end at Michaelmas, and already he had given notice that he did not mean to renew. Mrs. Hopper knew that he was on the point of leaving London, and mot a little lamented it, for to her the loss would be serious indeed. Warburton's habitual generosity led her to hope for some signal benefaction ere his departure; perhaps on that account she was specially emphatic in gratitude for her sister's restoration to health.
"We was wondering, sir," she added, now having wedged herself between door and jamb, "whether you'd be so kind as to let my sister Liza see you just for a minute or two, to thank you herself as I'm sure she ought? She could come any time as wouldn't be ill-convenient to you."
"I'm extremely busy, Mrs. Hopper," Will replied. "Please tell your sister I'm delighted to hear she's done so well at Southend, and I hope to see her some day; but not just now. By the bye, I'm not going out this morning, so don't wait, when you've finished."
By force of habit he ate and drank. Sherwood's letter lay open before him; he read it through again and again. But he could not fix his thoughts upon it. He found himself occupied with the story of Boxon, wondering whether Boxon would live or die. Boxon, the grocer—why, what an ass a man must be, a man with a good grocery business, to come to grief over drink and betting! Shopkeeping—what a sound and safe life it was; independent, as far as any money-earning life can be so. There must be a pleasure in counting the contents of one's till every night. Boxon! Of course, a mere brute. There came into Will's memory the picture of Boxon landed on the pavement one night, by Allchin's fist or toe—and of a sudden he laughed. When he had half-smoked his pipe, comparative calmness fell upon him. Sherwood spoke of at once raising the money he owed, and, if he succeeded in doing so, much of the mischief would be undone. The four thousand pounds might be safely invested somewhere, and life at The Haws would go on as usual. But was it certain that Sherwood could "raise" such sums, being himself, as he declared, penniless? This disclosure showed him in an unpleasantly new light, as anything but the cautious man of business, the loyal friend, he had seemed to be. Who could put faith in a money-market gambler? Why, there was no difference to speak of between him and Boxon. And if his promise proved futile—what was to be done?
For a couple of hours, Will stared at this question. When the clock on his mantelpiece struck eleven, he happened to notice it, and was surprised to find how quickly time had passed. By the bye, he had never thought of looking at his newspaper, though Sherwood referred him to that source of information on the subject of Biggles, Thorpe and Biggles. Yes, here it was. A firm of brokers; unfortunate speculations; failure of another house—all the old story. As likely as not, the financial trick of a cluster of thieves. Will threw the paper aside. He had always scorned that cunning of the Stock Exchange, now he thought of it with fiery hatred.
Another hour passed in feverish waiting; then, just at mid-day, a knock sounded at the outer door. Anything but a loud knock; anything but the confident summons of a friend. Will went to open. There stood Godfrey Sherwood, shrunk together like a man suffering from cold; he scarcely raised his eyes.
Will's purpose, on finding Sherwood at his door, was to admit him without a word, or any form of greeting; but the sight of that changed face and pitiful attitude overcame him; he offered a hand, and felt it warmly pressed.
They were together in the room; neither had spoken. Will pointed to a chair, but did not himself sit down.
"I suppose it's all true, Warburton," began the other in a low voice, "but I can't believe it yet. I seem to be walking in a nightmare; and when you gave me your hand at the door, I thought for a second that I'd just woke up."
"Sit down," said Will, "and let's have it out. Give me the details."
"That's exactly what I wish to do. Of course I haven't been to bed, and I've spent the night in writing out a statement of all my dealings for the past fifteen months. Here it is—and here are my pass-books."
Will took the paper, a half-sheet of foolscap, one side almost covered with figures. At a glance he saw that the statement was perfectly intelligible. The perusal of a few lines caused him to look up in astonishment.
"You mean to say that between last September and the end of the year you lost twenty-five thousand pounds?"
"And you mean to say that you still went on with your gambling?"
"Things were getting bad in Ailie Street, you know."
"And you did your best to make them desperate." Sherwood's head seemed trying to bury itself between his shoulders; his feet hid themselves under the chair, he held his hat in a way suggestive of the man who comes to beg.
"The devil of the City got hold of me," he replied, with a miserable attempt to look Warburton in the face.
"Yes," said Will, "that's clear. Then, a month ago, you really possessed only nine thousand pounds?"
"That was all I had left, out of nearly forty thousand."
"What astonishes me is, that you won from time to time."
"I did!" exclaimed Godfrey, with sudden animation. "Look at the fifth of February—that was a great day! It's that kind of thing that tempts a man on. Afterwards I lost steadily but I might have won any day. And I had to make a good deal, if we were to come to terms with Applegarth. I nearly did it. I was as cautious as a man could be—content with small things. If only I hadn't been pressed for time! It was only the want of time that made me use your money. Of course, it was criminal. Don't think I wish to excuse myself for one moment. Absolutely criminal. I knew what was at stake. But I thought the thing was sure. It promised at the least twenty-five per cent. We should have started brilliantly at Bristol—several thousands for advertisement, beyond our estimate. I don't think the Biggles people were dishonest—"
"You don't think so!" interrupted Will, contemptuously. "If there's any doubt we know on which side it weighs. Just tell me the facts. What was the security?"
Sherwood replied with a brief, clear, and obviously honest account of the speculation into which he had been drawn. To the listener it seemed astounding that any responsible man should be lured by such gambler's chance; he could hardly find patience to point out the manifest risks so desperately incurred. And Sherwood admitted the full extent of his folly; he could only repeat that he had acted on an irresistible impulse, to be explained, though not defended, by the embarrassment in which he found himself.
"Thank Heaven, this is over!" he exclaimed at last, passing his handkerchief over a moist forehead. "I don't know how I got through last night. More than once, I thought it would be easier to kill myself than to come and face you. But there was the certainty that I could make good your loss. I may be able to do so very soon. I've written to—"
He checked himself on the point of uttering a name; then with eyes down, reflected for a moment.
"No; I haven't the right to tell you, though I should like to, to give you confidence. It's the story of the ten thousand pounds, you remember? When I lent that money, I promised never to let any one know. Even if I can't realise your capital at once, I can pay you good interest until the money's forthcoming. That would be the same thing to you?"
Warburton gave him a keen look, and said gravely—
"Let's understand each other, Sherwood. Have you any income at all?"
"None whatever now, except the interest on the ten thousand; and that—well, I'm sorry to say it hasn't been paid very regularly. But in future it must be—it shall be. Between two and three thousand are owing to me for arrears."
"It's a queer story."
"I know it is," admitted Godfrey. "But I hope you don't doubt my word?"
"No, I don't—What's to be done about Applegarth?"
"I must see him," replied Sherwood with a groan. "Of course you have no part in the miserable business. I must write at once, and then go and face him."
"Of course I shall go with you."
"You will? That's kind of you. Luckily he's a civilised man, not one of the City brutes one might have had to deal with."
"We must hope he'll live up to his reputation," said Warburton, with the first smile, and that no cheery one, which had risen to his lips during this interview.
From that point the talk became easier. All the aspects of their position were considered, without stress of feeling, for Will had recovered his self-control; and Sherwood, soothed by the sense of having discharged an appalling task, tended once more to sanguine thoughts. To be sure, neither of them could see any immediate way out of the gulf in which they found themselves; all hope of resuming business was at an end; the only practical question was, how to earn a living; but both were young men, and neither had ever known privation; it was difficult for them to believe all at once that they were really face to face with that grim necessity which they had thought of as conquering others, but never them. Certain unpleasant steps, however, had at once to be taken. Sherwood must give up his house at Wimbledon; Warburton must look about for a cheap lodging into which to remove at Michaelmas. Worse still, and more urgent, was the duty of making known to Mrs. Warburton what had happened.
"I suppose I must go down at once," said Will gloomily.
"I see no hurry," urged the other. "As a matter of fact, your mother and sister will lose nothing. You undertook to pay them a minimum of three per cent. on their money, and that you can do; I guarantee you that, in any case."
Will mused. If indeed it were possible to avoid the disclosure—? But that would involve much lying, a thing, even in a good cause, little to his taste. Still, when he thought of his mother's weak health, and how she might be affected by the news of this catastrophe, he began seriously to ponder the practicability of well-meaning deception. That, of course, must depend upon their difficulties with Applegarth remaining strictly private; and even so, could Mr. Turnbull's scent for disaster be successfully reckoned with?
"Don't do anything hastily, Warburton, I beg of you," continued the other. "Things are never so bad as they look at first sight. Wait till I have seen—you know who. I might even be able to—but it's better not to promise. Wait a day or two, at all events."
And this Warburton resolved to do; for, if the worst came to the worst, he had some three hundred pounds of his own still in the bank, and so could assure, for two years at all events, the income of which his mother and Jane had absolute need. For himself, he should find some way of earning bread and cheese; he could no longer stand on his dignity, and talk of independence, that was plain.
When at length his calamitous partner had gone, he made an indifferent lunch on the cold meat he found in Mrs. Hopper's precincts, and then decided that he had better take a walk; to sit still and brood was the worst possible way of facing such a crisis. There was no friend with whom he could discuss the situation; none whose companionship would just now do him any particular good. Better to walk twenty miles, and tire himself out, and see how things looked after a good night's sleep, So he put on his soft hat, and took his walking-stick, and slammed the door behind him. Some one was coming up the stairs; sunk in his own thoughts he paid no heed, even when the other man stood in front of him. Then a familiar voice claimed his attention.
"Do you want to cut me, Warburton?"
Warburton stopped, and looked into the speaker's face, as if he hardly recognised him.
"You're going out," added Franks, turning round. "I won't keep you."
And he seemed about to descend the stairs quickly. But Will at length found voice.
"Come in. I was thinking of something, and didn't see you."
They entered, and passed as usual into the sitting-room, but not with the wonted exchange of friendly words. The interval since their last meeting seemed to have alienated them more than the events which preceded it. Warburton was trying to smile, but each glance he took at the other's face made his lips less inclined to relax from a certain severity rarely seen in them; and Franks succeeded but ill in his attempt to lounge familiarly, with careless casting of the eye this way and that. It was he who broke silence.
"I've found a new drink—gin and laudanum. First rate for the nerves."
"Ah!" replied Warburton gravely. "My latest tipple is oil of vitriol with a dash of strychnine. Splendid pick-me-up."
Franks laughed loudly, but unmirthfully.
"No, but I'm quite serious," he continued. "It's the only thing that keeps me going. If I hadn't found the use of laudanum in small doses, I should have tried a very large one before now."
His language had a note of bravado, and his attitude betrayed the self-conscious actor, but there was that in his countenance which could only have come of real misery. The thin cheeks, heavy-lidded and bloodshot eyes, ill-coloured lips, made a picture anything but agreeable to look upon; and quite in keeping with it was the shabbiness of his garb. After an intent and stern gaze at him, Will asked bluntly:
"When did you last have a bath?"
"Bath? Good God—how do I know?"
And again Franks laughed in the key of stage recklessness.
"I should advise a Turkish," said Will, "followed by rhubarb of the same country. You'd feel vastly better next day."
"The remedies," answered Franks, smiling disdainfully, "of one who has never been through moral suffering."
"Yet efficacious, even morally, I can assure you. And, by the bye, I want to know when you're going to finish 'The Slummer.'"
"Finish it? Why, never! I could as soon turn to and build a bridge over the Thames."
"What do you mean? I suppose you have to earn your living?"
"I see no necessity for it. What do I care, whether I live or not?"
"Well, then, I am obliged to ask whether you feel it incumbent upon you—to pay your debts?"
The last words came out with a jerk, after a little pause which proved what it cost Warburton to speak them. To save his countenance, he assumed an unnatural grimness of feature, staring Franks resolutely in the face. And the result was the artist's utter subjugation; he shuffled, dropped his head, made confused efforts to reply.
"Of course I shall do so—somehow," he muttered at length.
"Have you any other way—honest way—except by working?"
"Very well, then, I'll find work. Real work. Not that cursed daubing, which it turns my stomach to think of."
Warburton paused a moment, then said kindly:
"That's the talk of a very sore and dazed man. Before long, you'll be yourself again, and you'll go back to your painting with an appetite And the sooner you try the better. I don't particularly like dunning people for money, as I think you know, but, when you can pay that debt of yours, I shall be glad. I've had a bit of bad luck since last we saw each other."
Franks gazed in heavy-eyed wonder, uncertain whether to take this as a joke or not.
"Bad luck? What sort of bad luck?"
"Why, neither on the turf nor at Monte Carlo. But a speculation has gone wrong, and I'm adrift. I shall have to leave this flat. How I'm going to keep myself alive, I don't know yet. The Bristol affair is of course off. I'm as good as penniless, and a hundred pounds or so will come very conveniently, whenever you can manage it."
"Are you serious, Warburton?"
"You've really lost everything? You've got to leave this flat because you can't afford it?"
"That, my boy, is the state of the case."
"By Jove! No wonder you didn't see me as I came upstairs. What the deuce! You in Queer Street! I never dreamt of such a thing as a possibility. I've always thought of you as a flourishing capitalist—sound as the Mansion House. Why didn't you begin by telling me this? I'm about as miserable as a fellow can be, but I should never have bothered you with my miseries.—Warburton in want of money? Why, the idea is grotesque; I can't get hold of it. I came to you as men go to a bank. Of course, I meant to pay it all, some day, but you were so generous and so rich, I never thought there would be any hurry. I'm astounded—I'm floored!"
With infinite satisfaction, Warburton saw the better man rising again in his friend, noted the change of countenance, of bearing, of tone.
"You see," he said, with a nod and a smile, "that you've no choice but to finish 'The Slummer!'"
Franks looked about him uneasily, fretfully.
"Either that—or something else," he muttered.
"No—that! It'll bring you two or three hundred pounds without much delay."
"I daresay it would. But if you knew how I loathe and curse the very sight of the thing—Why I haven't burnt it I don't know."
"Probably," said Will, "because in summer weather you take your gin and laudanum cold."
This time the artist's laugh was more genuine.
"The hideous time I have been going through!" he continued. "It's no use trying to give you an idea of it. Of course you'd say it was all damned foolery. Well, I shan't go through it again, that's one satisfaction. I've done with women. One reason why I loathe the thought of going on with that picture is because I still have the girl's head to put in. But I'll do it. I'll go back and get to work at once. If I can't find a model, I'll fake the head—get it out of some woman's paper where the fashions are illustrated; that'll do very well. I'll go and see how the beastly thing looks. It's turned against the wall, and I wonder I haven't put my boot through it."
Warburton waited for a quarter of an hour after the artist had gone, then set out for his walk. The result of this unexpected conversation with Franks was excellent; the foolish fellow seemed to have recovered his common sense. But Will felt ashamed of himself. Of course he had acted solely with a view to the other's good, seeing no hope but this of rescuing Franks from the slough in which he wallowed; nevertheless, he was stung with shame. For the first time in his life he had asked repayment of money lent to a friend. And he had done the thing blunderingly, without tact. For the purpose in view, it would have been enough to speak of his own calamity; just the same effect would have been produced on Franks. He saw this now, and writhed under the sense of his grossness. The only excuse he could urge for himself was that Franks' behaviour provoked and merited rough handling. Still, he might have had perspicacity enough to understand that the artist was not so sunk in squalor as he pretended.
"Just like me," he growled to himself, with a nervous twitching of the face. "I've no presence of mind. I see the right thing when it's too late, and when I've made myself appear a bounder. How many thousand times have I blundered in this way! A man like me ought to live alone—as I've a very fair chance of doing in future."
His walk did him no good, and on his return he passed a black evening. With Mrs. Hopper, who came as usual to get dinner for him, he held little conversation; in a few days he would have to tell her what had befallen him, or invent some lie to account for the change in his arrangements, and this again tortured Will's nerves. In one sense of the word, no man was less pretentious; but his liberality of thought and behaviour consisted with a personal pride which was very much at the mercy of circumstance. Even as he could not endure subjection, so did he shrink from the thought of losing dignity in the eyes of his social inferiors. Mere poverty and lack of ease did not frighten him at all; he had hardly given a thought as yet to that aspect of misfortune. What most of all distressed his imagination (putting aside thought of his mother and sister) was the sudden fall from a position of genial authority, of beneficent command, with all the respect and gratitude and consideration attaching thereto. He could do without personal comforts, if need were, but it pained him horribly to think of being no longer a patron and a master. With a good deal more philosophy than the average man, and vastly more benevolence, he could not attain to the humility which would have seen in this change of fortune a mere surrender of privileges perhaps quite unjustifiable. Social grades were an inseparable part of his view of life; he recognised the existence of his superiors—though resolved to have as little to do with them as possible, and took it as a matter of course that multitudes of men should stand below his level. To imagine himself an object of pity for Mrs. Hopper and Allchin and the rest of them wrought upon his bile, disordered his digestion.
He who had regarded so impatiently the trials of Norbert Franks now had to go through an evil time, with worse results upon his temper, his health, and whole being, than he would have thought conceivable. For a whole fortnight he lived in a state of suspense and forced idleness, which helped him to understand the artist's recourse to gin and laudanum. The weather was magnificent, but for him no sun rose in the sky. If he walked about London, he saw only ugliness and wretchedness, his eyes seeming to have lost the power of perceiving other things. Every two or three days he heard from Sherwood, who wrote that he was doing his utmost, and continued to hold out hope that he would soon have money: but these letters were not reassuring. The disagreeable interview with Applegarth had passed off better than might have been expected. Though greatly astonished, and obviously in some doubt as to the facts of the matter, Applegarth behaved as a gentleman, resigned all claims upon the defaulters, and brought the affair to a decent close as quickly as possible. But Warburton came away with a face so yellow that he seemed on the point of an attack of jaundice. For him to be the object of another man's generous forbearance was something new and intolerable. Before parting with Sherwood, he spoke to him bitterly, all but savagely. A few hours later, of course, repentance came upon him, and he wrote to ask pardon. An evil time.
At length Sherwood came to Chelsea, having written to ask for a meeting. Will's forebodings were but too well justified. The disastrous man came only to say that all his efforts had failed. His debtor for ten thousand pounds was himself in such straits that he could only live by desperate expedients, and probably would not be able to pay a penny of interest this year.
"Happily," said Sherwood, "his father's health is breaking. One is obliged to talk in this brutal way, you know. At the father's death it will be all right; I shall then have my legal remedy, if there's need of it. To take any step of that sort now would be ruinous; my friend would be cut off with a shilling, if the affair came to his father's ears."
"So this is how we stand," said Warburton, grimly. "It's all over."
Sherwood laid on the table a number of bank-notes, saying simply:
"There's two hundred and sixty pounds—the result of the sale of my furniture and things. Will you use that and trust me a little longer?"
Warburton writhed in his chair.
"What have you to live upon?" he asked with eyes downcast.
"Oh, I shall get on all right. I've one or two ideas."
"But this is all the money you have?"
"I've kept about fifty pounds," answered the other, "out of which I can pay my debts—they're small—and the rent of my house for this quarter."
Warburton pushed back the notes.
"I can't take it—you know I can't."
"How the devil are you going to live?" cried Will, in exasperation.
"I shall find a way," replied Sherwood with an echo of his old confident tone. "I need a little time to look about me, that's all, There's a relative of mine, an old fellow who lives comfortably in North Wales, and who invites me down every two or three years. The best thing will be for me to go and spend a short time with him, and get my nerves into order—I'm shaky, there's no disguising it. I haven't exhausted all the possibilities of raising money; there's hope still in one or two directions; if I get a little quietness and rest I shall be able to think things out more clearly Don't you think this justifiable?"
As to the money he remained inflexible. Very reluctantly Warburton consented to keep this sum, giving a receipt in form.
"You haven't said anything to Mrs. Warburton yet?" asked Sherwood nervously.
"Not yet," muttered Will.
"I wish you could postpone it a little longer. Could you—do you think—without too much strain of conscience? Doesn't it seem a pity—when any day may enable me to put things right?"
Will muttered again that he would think of it; that assuredly he preferred not to disclose the matter if it could decently be kept secret. And on this Sherwood took his leave, going away with a brighter face than he had brought to the interview; whilst Will remained brooding gloomily, his eyes fixed on the bank-notes, in an unconscious stare.
Little of a man of business as he was, Warburton knew very well that things at the office were passing in a flagrantly irregular way: he knew that any one else in his position would have put this serious affair into legal hands, if only out of justice to Sherwood himself. More than once he had thought of communicating with Mr. Turnbull, but shame withheld him. It seemed improbable, too, that the solicitor would connive at keeping his friends at The Haws ignorant of what had befallen them, and with every day that passed Will felt more disposed to hide that catastrophe, if by any means that were possible. Already he had half committed himself to this deception, having written to his mother (without mention of any other detail) that he might, after all, continue to live in London, where Applegarth's were about to establish a warehouse. The question was how; if he put aside all the money he had for payment of pretended dividend to his mother and sister, how, in that case, was he himself to live? At the thought of going about applying for clerk's work, or anything of that kind, cold water flowed down his back; rather than that, he would follow Allchin's example, and turn porter—an independent position compared with bent-backed slavery on an office-stool. Some means of earning money he must find without delay. To live on what he had, one day longer than could be helped, would be sheer dishonesty. Sherwood might succeed in bringing him a few hundreds—of the ten thousand Will thought not at all, so fantastic did the whole story sound—but that would be merely another small instalment of the sum due to the unsuspecting victims at St. Neots. Strictly speaking, he owned not a penny; his very meals to-day were at the expense of his mother and Jane. This thought goaded him. His sleep became a mere nightmare; his waking, a dry-throated misery.
In spite of loathing and dread, he began to read the thick-serried columns of newspaper advertisement, Wanted! Wanted! Wanted! Wants by the thousand; but many more those of the would-be employed than those of the would-be employers, and under the second heading not one in a hundred that offered him the slightest hint or hope. Wanted! Wanted. To glance over these columns is like listening to the clamour of a hunger-driven multitude; the ears sing, the head turns giddy. After a quarter of an hour of such search, Will flung the paper aside, and stamped like a madman about his room. A horror of life seized him; he understood, with fearful sympathy, the impulse of those who, rather than be any longer hustled in this howling mob dash themselves to destruction.
He thought over the list of his friends. Friends—what man has more than two or three? At this moment he knew of no one who wished him well who could be of the slightest service. His acquaintances were of course more numerous. There lay on his table two invitations just received—the kind of invitation received by every man who does not live the life of a hermit. But what human significance had they? Not a name rose in his mind which symbolised helpfulness. True, that might be to some extent his own fault; the people of whom he saw most were such as needed, not such as could offer, aid. He thought of Ralph Pomfret. There, certainly, a kindly will would not be lacking, but how could he worry with his foolish affairs a man on whom he had no shadow of claim? No: he stood alone. It was a lesson in social science such as reading could never have afforded him. His insight into the order of a man's world had all at once been marvellously quickened, the scope of his reflections incredibly extended. Some vague consciousness of this now and then arrested him in his long purposeless walks; he began to be aware of seeing common things with new eyes. But the perception was akin to fear; he started and looked nervously about, as if suddenly aware of some peril.
One afternoon he was on his way home from a westward trudge, plodding along the remoter part of Fulham Road, when words spoken by a woman whom he passed caught his ears.
"See 'ere! The shutters is up. Boxon must be dead."
Boxon? How did he come to know that name? He slackened his pace, reflecting. Why, Boxon was the name of the betting and drinking grocer, with whom Allchin used to be. He stopped, and saw a group of three or four women staring at the closed shop. Didn't Mrs. Hopper say that Boxon had been nearly killed in a carriage accident? Doubtless he was dead.
He walked on, but before he had gone a dozen yards, stopped abruptly, turned, crossed to the other side of the road, and went back till he stood opposite the closed shop. The name of the tradesman in great gilt letters proved that there was no mistake. He examined the building; there were two storys above the shop; the first seemed to be used for storage; white blinds at the windows of the second showed it to be inhabited. For some five minutes Will stood gazing and reflecting; then, with head bent as before, he pursued his way.
When he reached home, Mrs. Hopper regarded him compassionately; the good woman was much disturbed by the strangeness of his demeanour lately, and feared he was going to be ill.
"You look dre'ful tired, sir," she said. "I'll make you a cup of tea at once. It'll do you good."
"Yes, get me some tea," answered Warburton, absently. Then, as she was leaving the room, he asked, "Is it true that the grocer Boxon is dead?"
"I was going to speak of it this morning, sir," replied Mrs. Hopper, "but you seemed so busy. Yes, sir, he's died—died the day before yesterday, they say, and it'd be surprising to hear as anybody's sorry."
"Who'll take his business?" asked Warburton.
"We was talking about that last night, sir, me and my sister Liza, and the Allchins. It's fallen off a great deal lately, what else could you expect? since Boxon got into his bad ways. But anybody as had a little money might do well there. Allchin was saying he wished he had a few 'undreds."
"A few hundred would be enough?" interrupted the listener, without noticing the look of peculiar eagerness on Mrs. Hopper's face.
"Allchin thinks the goodwill can be had for about a 'undred, sir; and the rent, it's only eighty pounds—"
"Shop and house?"
"Yes, sir; so Allchin says. It isn't much of a 'ouse, of course."
"What profits could be made, do you suppose, by an energetic man?"
"When Boxon began, sir," replied Mrs. Hopper, with growing animation, "he used to make—so Allchin says—a good five or six 'undred a year. There's a good deal of profit in the grocery business, and Boxon's situation is good; there's no other grocer near him. But of course—as Allchin says—you want to lay out a good deal at starting—"
"Yes, yes, of course, you must have stock." said Will carelessly. "Bring me some tea at once, Mrs. Hopper."
It had suddenly occurred to him that Allchin might think of trying to borrow the capital wherewith to start this business, and that Mrs. Hopper might advise her brother-in-law to apply to him for the loan.
But this was not at all the idea which had prompted Will's inquiries.
Another week went by. Warburton was still living in the same restless way, but did not wear quite so gloomy a countenance; now and then he looked almost cheerful. That was the case when one morning he received a letter from Sherwood. Godfrey wrote that, no sooner had he arrived at his relative's in North Wales than he was seized with a violent liver-attack, which for some days prostrated him; he was now recovering, and better news still, had succeeded in borrowing a couple of hundred pounds. Half of this sum he sent to Warburton; the other half he begged to be allowed to retain, as he had what might prove a very fruitful idea for the use of the money—details presently. To this letter Will immediately replied at some length. The cheque he paid into his account, which thus reached a total of more than six hundred pounds.
A few days later, after breakfast as usual, he let his servant clear the table, then said with a peculiar smile.
"I want to have a little talk with you, Mrs. Hopper. Please sit down."
To seat herself in her master's presence went against all Mrs. Hopper's ideas of propriety. Seeing her hesitate, Will pointed steadily to a chair, and the good woman, much flurried, placed herself on the edge of it.
"You have noticed," Warburton resumed, "that I haven't been quite myself lately. There was a good reason for it. I've had a misfortune in business; all my plans are changed; I shall have to begin quite a new life—a different life altogether from that I have led till now."
Mrs. Hopper seemed to have a sudden pain in the side. She groaned under her breath, staring at the speaker pitifully.
"There's no need to talk about it, you know," Will went on with a friendly nod. "I tell you, because I'm thinking of going into a business in which your brother-in-law could help me, if he cares to."
He paused. Mrs. Hopper kept her wide eyes on him.
"Allchin'll be very glad to hear of that, sir. What am I saying? Of course I don't mean he'll be glad you've had misfortune, sir, and I'm that sorry to hear it, I can't tell you. But it does just happen as he's out of work, through that nasty temper of his. Not," she corrected herself hastily, "as I ought to call him nasty-tempered. With a good employer, I'm sure he'd never get into no trouble at all."
"Does he still wish to get back into the grocery business?"
"He'd be only too glad, sir, But, of course, any place as you offered him—"
"Well, it happens," said Warburton, "that it is the grocery business I'm thinking about."
"You, sir?" gasped Mrs. Hopper.
"I think I shall take Boxon's shop."
"You, sir? Take a grocer's shop?—You mean, you'd put Allchin in to manage it?"
"No, I don't, Mrs. Hopper," replied Will, smiling mechanically. "I have more than my own living to earn; other people are dependent upon me, so I must make as much money as possible. I can t afford to pay a manager. I shall go behind the counter myself, and Allchin, if he cares for the place, shall be my assistant."
The good woman could find no words to express her astonishment.
"Suppose you have a word with Allchin, and send him to see me this evening? I say again, there's no need to talk about the thing to anybody else. We'll just keep it quiet between us."
"You can depend upon me, sir," declared Mrs. Hopper. "But did you hever! It's come upon me so sudden like. And what'll Allchin say! Why, he'll think I'm having a game with him."
To this point had Will Warburton brought himself, urged by conscience and fear. Little by little, since the afternoon when he gazed at Boxon's closed shop, had this purpose grown in his mind, until he saw it as a possibility—a desirability—a fact. By shopkeeping, he might hope to earn sufficient for supply of the guaranteed income to his mother and sister, and at the same time be no man's servant. His acquaintance with Allchin enabled him to disregard his lack of grocery experience; with Allchin for an assistant, he would soon overcome initial difficulties. Only to Godfrey Sherwood had he communicated his project. "What difference is there," he wrote, "between selling sugar from an office in Whitechapel, and selling it from behind a counter in Fulham Road?" And Sherwood—who was still reposing in North Wales—wrote a long, affectionate, admiring reply. "You are splendid! What energy! What courage! I could almost say that I don't regret my criminal recklessness, seeing that it has given the occasion for such a magnificent display of character." He added, "Of course it will be only for a short time. Even if the plans I am now working out—details shortly—come to nothing (a very unlikely thing), I am sure to recover my ten thousand pounds in a year or so."—"Of course," he wrote in a postscript, "I breathe no word of it to any mortal."
This letter—so are we made—did Warburton good. It strengthened him in carrying through the deception of his relatives and of Mr. Turnbull, for he saw himself as splendide mendax. In Sherwood's plans and assurances he had no shadow of faith, but Sherwood's admiration was worth having, and it threw a gilding upon the name of grocer. Should he impart the secret to Norbert Franks? That question he could not decide just yet. In any case, he should tell no one else; all other acquaintances must be content—if they cared to inquire—with vague references to an "agency," or something of the sort. Neither his mother nor Jane ever came to London for them, his change of address to a poorer district would have no significance. In short, London, being London, it seemed perfectly feasible to pass his life in a grocer's shop without the fact becoming known to any one from whom he wished to conceal it.
The rent of the shop and house was eighty-five pounds—an increase upon that paid by Boxon. "Plant" was estimated at a hundred and twenty-five; the stock at one hundred and fifty, and the goodwill at a round hundred. This made a total of four hundred and sixty pounds, leaving Warburton some couple of hundred for all the expenses of his start. The landlord had consented to do certain repairs, including a repainting of the shop, and this work had already begun. Not a day must be lost. Will knew that the first half-year would decide his fate as a tradesman. Did he come out at the end of six months with sufficient profit to pay a bare three per cent. on the St. Neots money, all would be safe and well. If the balance went against him, why then the whole battle of life was lost, and he might go hide his head in some corner even more obscure.
Of course he counted largely on the help of Allchin. Allchin, though pig-headed and pugnacious, had a fair knowledge of the business, to which he had been bred, and of business matters in general always talked shrewdly. Unable, whatever his own straits, to deal penuriously with my one, Will had thought out a liberal arrangement, whereby all the dwelling part of the house should be given over, rent free, to Allchin and his wife, with permission to take one lodger; the assistant to be paid a small salary, and a percentage on shop takings when they reached a certain sum per month. This proposal, then, he set before the muscular man on his presenting himself this afternoon. Allchin's astonishment at the story he had heard from Mrs. Hopper was not less than that of the woman herself. With difficulty persuaded to sit down, he showed a countenance in which the gloom he thought decorous struggled against jubilation on his own account: and Warburton had not talked long before his listener's features irresistibly expanded in a happy grin.
"How would something of this kind suit you?" asked Will.
"Me, sir?" Allchin slapped his leg. "You ask how it suits me?"
His feelings were too much for him. He grew very red, and could say no more.
"Then suppose we settle it so. I've written out the terms of your engagement. Read and sign."
Allchin pretended to read the paper, but obviously paid no attention to it. He seemed to be struggling with some mental obstacle.
"Something you want to alter?" asked Warburton.
"Why, sir, you've altogether forgot as I'm in your debt. It stands to reason as you must take that money out before you begin to pay me anything."
"Oh, we won't say anything more about that trifle. We're making a new beginning. But look here, Allchin, I don't want you to quarrel with me, as you do with every one else—"
"With you, sir? Ho, ho!"
Allchin guffawed, and at once looked ashamed of himself.
"I quarrel," he added, "with people as are insulting, or as try to best me. It goes against my nature, sir, to be insulted and to be bested."
They talked about the details of the business, and presently Allchin asked what name was to be put up over the shop.