"Confound it! I hoped you knew the worst. Strangwyn is dead."
"He's dead? Well, isn't that what we've been waiting for?"
"Not the old man," groaned Sherwood, "not the old man. It's Ted Strangwyn that's dead. Never was such an extraordinary case of bad luck. And his death—the most astounding you ever heard of. He was down in Yorkshire for the grouse. The dogcart came round in the morning, and as he stood beside it, stowing away a gun or something, the horse made a movement forward, and the wheel went over his toe. He thought nothing of it. The next day he was ill; it turned to tetanus; and in a few hours he died. Did you ever in your life hear anything like that?"
Warburton had listened gravely. Towards the end, his features began to twitch, and, a moment after Godfrey had ceased, a spasm of laughter overcame him.
"I can't help it, Sherwood," he gasped. "It's brutal, I know, but I can't help it."
"My dear boy," exclaimed the other, with a countenance of relief, "I'm delighted you can laugh. Talk about the irony of fate—eh? I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the paragraph in the paper yesterday. But, you know," he added earnestly, "I don't absolutely give up hope. According to the latest news, it almost looks as if old Strangwyn might recover; and, if he does, I shall certainly try to get this money out of him. If he has any sense of honour—"
Will again laughed, but not so spontaneously.
"My boy," he said, "it's all up, and you know it. You'll never see a penny of your ten thousand pounds."
"Oh, but I can't help hoping—"
"Hope as much as you like. How goes the other affair?"
"Why, there, too, odd things have been happening. Milligan has just got engaged, and, to tell you the truth, to a girl I shouldn't have thought he'd ever have looked twice at. It's a Miss Parker, the daughter of a City man. Pretty enough if you like, but as far as I can see, no more brains than a teapot, and I can't for the life of me understand how a man like Milligan—. But of course, it makes no difference; our work goes on. We have an enormous correspondence."
"Does Miss Parker interest herself in it?" asked Will.
"Oh, yes, in a way, you know; as far as she can. She has turned vegetarian, of course. To tell you the truth, Warburton, it vexes me a good deal. I didn't think Milligan could do such a silly thing. I hope he'll get married quickly. Just at present, the fact is, he isn't quite himself."
Again Warburton was subdued by laughter.
"Well, I thought things might have been happening whilst I was away," he said, "and I wasn't mistaken. Luckily, I have come back with a renewed gusto for the shop. By the bye, I'm going to keep that secret no longer. I'm a grocer, and probably shall be a grocer all my life, and the sooner people know it the better. I'm sick of hiding away. Tell Milligan the story; it will amuse Miss Parker, And, talking of Miss Parker, do you know that Norbert Franks is married? His old love—Miss Elvan. Of course it was the sensible thing to do. They're off to Tyrol. As soon as I have their address, I shall write and tell him all about Jollyman's."
"Of course, if you really feel you must," said Godfrey, with reluctance. "But remember that I still hope to recover the money. Old Strangwyn has the reputation of being an honourable man—"
"Like Brutus," broke in Warburton, cheerfully. "Let us hope. Of course we will hope. Hope springs eternal—"
Days went by, and at length the desired letter came back from St. Jean de Luz. Seeing at a glance that it was from his sister, Will reproached himself for having let more than a month elapse without writing to St. Neots. Of his recent "holiday" he had no intention of saying a word. Jane wrote a longer letter than usual, and its tenor was disquieting. Their mother had not been at all well lately; Jane noticed that she was becoming very weak. "You know how she dreads to give trouble, and cannot bear to have any one worry about her. She has seen Dr. Edge twice in the last few days, but not in my presence, and I feel sure that she has forbidden him to tell me the truth about her. I dare not let her guess how anxious I am, and have to go on in my usual way, just doing what I can for her comfort. If you would come over for a day, I should feel very glad. Not having seen mother for some time, you would be better able than I to judge how she looks." After reading this Will's self-reproaches were doubled. At once he set off for St. Neots.
On arriving at The Haws, he found Jane gardening, and spoke with her before he went in to see his mother.
He had been away from home, he said, and her letter had strayed in pursuit of him.
"I wondered," said Jane, her honest eyes searching his countenance. "And it's so long since you sent a word; I should have written again this afternoon."
"I've been abominably neglectful," he replied, "and time goes so quickly."
"There's something strange in your look," said the girl. "What is it, I wonder? You've altered in some way I don't know how."
"Think so? but never mind me; tell me about mother."
They stood among the garden scents, amid the flowers, which told of parting summer, and conversed with voices softened by tender solicitude. Jane was above all anxious that her brother's visit should seem spontaneous, and Will promised not to hint at the news she had sent him. They entered the house together. Mrs. Warburton, after her usual morning occupations, had lain down on the couch in the parlour, and fallen asleep; as soon as he beheld her face, Will understood his sister's fears, White, motionless, beautiful in its absolute calm, the visage might have been that of the dead; after gazing for a moment, both, on the same impulse, put forth a hand to touch the unconscious form. The eyelids rose a look of confused trouble darkened the features then the lips relaxed in a happy smile.
"Will—and you find me asleep?—I appeal to Jane; she will tell you it's only an accident. Did you ever before see me asleep like this, Jane?"
At once she rose, and moved about, and strove to be herself; but the effort it cost her was too obvious; presently she had to sit down, with tremulous limbs, and Will noticed that her forehead was moist.
Not till evening did he find it possible to lead the conversation to the subject of her health. Jane had purposely left them alone. Her son having said that he feared she was not so well as usual, Mrs. Warburton quietly admitted that she had recently consulted her doctor.
"I am not young, Will, you know. Sixty-five next birthday."
"But you don't call that old!" exclaimed her son.
"Yes, it's old for one of my family, dear, None of us, that I know of, lived to be much more than sixty, and most died long before. Don't let us wear melancholy faces," she added, with that winning smile which had ever been the blessing of all about her. "You and I, dear, are too sensible, I hope, to complain or be frightened because life must have an end. When my time comes, I trust to my children not to make me unhappy by forgetting what I have always tried to teach them. I should like to think—and I know—that you would be sorry to lose me; but to see you miserable on my account, or to think you miserable after I have gone—I couldn't bear that."
Will was silent, deeply impressed by the calm voice, the noble thought. He had always felt no less respect than love for his mother, especially during the latter years, when experience of life better enabled him to understand her rare qualities; but a deeper reverence took possession of him whilst she was speaking. Her words not only extended his knowledge of her character; they helped him to an understanding of himself, to a clearer view of life, and its possibilities.
"I want to speak to you of Jane," continued Mrs. Warburton, with a look of pleasant reflection. "You know she went to see her friend, Miss Winter, a few weeks ago. Has she told you anything about it?"
"Nothing at all."
"Well, do you know that Miss Winter has taken up flower-growing as a business, and it looks as if she would be very successful. She is renting more land, to make gardens of, and has two girls with her, as apprentices. I think that's what Jane will turn to some day. Of course she won't be really obliged to work for her living, but, when she is alone, I'm certain she won't be content to live just as she does now—she is far too active; but for me, I daresay she would go and join Miss Winter at once."
"I don't much care for that idea of girls going out to work when they could live quietly at home," said Will.
"I used to have the same feeling," answered his mother, "but Jane and I have often talked about it, and I see there is something to be said for the other view. At all events, I wanted to prevent you from wondering what was to become of her when she was left alone. To be sure," she added, with a bright smile, "Jane may marry. I hope she will. But I know she won't easily be persuaded to give up her independence. Jane is a very independent little person."
"If she has that in mind," said Will, "why shouldn't you both go and live over there, in Suffolk? You could find a house, no doubt—"
Mrs. Warburton gently shook her head.
"I don't think I could leave The Haws. And—for the short time—"
"Short time? but you are not seriously ill, mother."
"If I get stronger," said Mrs. Warburton, without raising her eyes, "we must manage to send Jane into Suffolk. I could get along very well alone. But there—we have talked enough for this evening, Will. Can you stay over tomorrow? Do, if you could manage it. I am glad to have you near me."
When they parted for the night, Will asked his sister to meet him in the garden before breakfast, and Jane nodded assent.
The garden was drenched in dew, and when about seven o'clock, the first sunbeam pierced the grey mantle of the east, every leaf flashed back the yellow light. Will was walking there alone, his eyes turned now and then to the white window of his mother's room.
Jane came forth with her rosy morning face, her expression graver than of wont.
"You are uneasy about mother," were her first words. "So am I, very. I feel convinced Dr. Edge has given her some serious warning; I saw the change in her after his last visit."
"I shall go and see him," said Will.
They talked of their anxiety, then Warburton proposed that they should walk a little way along the road, for the air was cool.
"I've something I want to tell you," he began, when they had set forth. "It's a little startling—rather ludicrous, too. What should you say if some one came and told you he had seen me serving behind a grocer's counter in London?"
"What do you mean, Will?"
"Well, I want to know how it would strike you. Should you be horrified?"
"No; but astonished."
"Very well. The fact of the matter is then," said Warburton, with an uneasy smile, "that for a couple of years I have been doing that. It came about in this way—"
He related Godfrey Sherwood's reckless proceedings, and the circumstances which had decided him to take a shop. No exclamation escaped the listener; she walked with eyes downcast, and, when her brother ceased, looked at him very gently, affectionately.
"It was brave of you, Will," she said.
"Well, I saw no other way of making good the loss; but now I am sick of living a double life—that has really been the worst part of it, all along. What I want to ask you, is—would it be wise or not to tell mother? Would it worry and distress her? As for the money, you see there's nothing to worry about; the shop will yield a sufficient income, though not as much as we hoped from Applegarth's; but of course I shall have to go on behind the counter."
He broke off, laughing, and Jane smiled, though with a line of trouble on her brow.
"That won't do," she said, with quiet decision.
"Oh, I'm getting used to it."
"No, no, Will, it won't do. We must find a better way. I see no harm in shopkeeping, if one has been brought up to it; but you haven't, and it isn't suitable for you. About mother—yes, I think we'd better tell her. She won't worry on account of the money; that isn't her nature, and it's very much better that there should be confidence between us all."
"I haven't enjoyed telling lies," said Will, "I assure you."
"That I'm sure you haven't, poor boy!—but Mr. Sherwood? Hasn't he made any effort to help you. Surely he—"
"Poor old Godfrey!" broke in her brother, laughing. "It's a joke to remember that I used to think him a splendid man of business, far more practical than I. Why, there's no dreamier muddlehead living."
He told the stories of Strangwyn and of Milligan with such exuberance of humour that Jane could not but join in his merriment.
"No, no; it's no good looking in that direction. The money has gone, there's no help for it. But you can depend on Jollyman's. Of course the affair would have been much more difficult without Allchin. Oh, you must see Allchin some day!"
"And absolutely no one has discovered the secret?" asked Jane.
Will hesitated, then.
"Yes, one person. You remember the name of Miss Elvan? A fortnight ago—imagine the scene—she walked into the shop with a friend of hers, a Miss Cross, who has been one of my customers from the first. As soon as she caught sight of me she turned and ran; yes, ran out into the street in indignation and horror. Of course she must have told her friend, and whether Miss Cross will ever come to the shop again, I don't know. I never mentioned that name to you, did I? The Crosses were friends of Norbert Franks. And, by the bye, I hear that Franks was married to Miss Elvan a few days ago—just after her awful discovery. No doubt she told him, and perhaps he'll drop my acquaintance."
"You don't mean that?"
"Well, not quite; but it wouldn't surprise me if his wife told him that really one mustn't be too intimate with grocers. In future, I'm going to tell everybody; there shall be no more hiding and sneaking. That's what debases a man; not the selling of sugar and tea. A short time ago, I had got into a vile state of mind; I felt like poisoning myself. And I'm convinced it was merely the burden of lies weighing upon me. Yes, yes, you're quite right; of course, mother must be told. Shall I leave it to you, Jane? I think you could break it better."
After breakfast, Will walked into St. Neots, to have a private conversation with Dr. Edge, and whilst he was away Jane told her mother the story of the lost money. At the end of an hour's talk, she went out into the garden, where presently she was found by her brother, who had walked back at his utmost pace, and wore a perturbed countenance.
"You haven't told yet?" were his first words, uttered in a breathless undertone.
"Why?" asked Jane startled.
"I'm afraid of the result. Edge says that every sort of agitation must be avoided."
"I have told her," said Jane, with quiet voice, but anxious look. "She was grieved on your account, but it gave her no shock. Again and again she said how glad she was you had let us know the truth."
"So far then, good."
"But Dr. Edge—what did he tell you?"
"He said he had wanted to see me, and thought of writing. Yes, he speaks seriously."
They talked for a little, then Will went into the house alone, and found his mother as she sat in her wonted place, the usual needlework on her lap. As he crossed the room, she kept her eyes upon him in a gaze of the gentlest reproach, mingled with a smile, which told the origin of Will's wholesome humour.
"And you couldn't trust me to take my share of the trouble?"
"I knew only too well," replied her son, "that your own share wouldn't content you."
"Greedy mother!—Perhaps you were right, Will. I suppose I should have interfered, and made everything worse for you; but you needn't have waited quite so long before telling me. The one thing that I can't understand is Mr. Sherwood's behaviour. You had always given me such a different idea of him. Really, I don't think he ought to have been let off so easily."
"Oh, poor old Godfrey! What could he do? He was sorry as man could be, and he gave me all the cash he could scrape together—"
"I'm glad he wasn't a friend of mine," said Mrs. Warburton. "In all my life, I have never quarrelled with a friend, but I'm afraid I must have fallen out with Mr. Sherwood. Think of the women who entrust their all to men of that kind, and have no strong son to save them from the consequences."
After the mid-day meal all sat together for an hour or two in the garden. By an evening train, Will returned to London. Jane had promised to let him have frequent news, and during the ensuing week she wrote twice with very favourable accounts of their mother's condition. A month went by without any disquieting report, then came a letter in Mrs. Warburton's own hand.
"My dear Will," she wrote, "I can't keep secrets as long as you. This is to inform you that a week ago I let The Haws, on annual tenancy, to a friend of Mr. Turnbull's, who was looking for such a house. The day after to-morrow we begin our removal to a home which Jane has taken near to Miss Winter's in Suffolk. That she was able to find just what we wanted at a moment's notice encourages me in thinking that Providence is on our side, or, as your dear father used to say, that the oracle has spoken. In a week's time I hope to send news that we are settled. You are forbidden to come here before our departure, but will be invited to the new home as soon as possible. The address is—" etc.
The same post brought a letter from Jane.
"Don't be alarmed by the news," she wrote. "Mother has been so firm in this resolve since the day of your leaving us, that I could only obey her. Wonderful and delightful to tell, she seems better in health. I dare not make too much of this, after what Dr. Edge said, but for the present she is certainly stronger. As you suppose, I am going to work with Miss Winter. Come and see us when we are settled, and you shall hear all our plans. Everything has been done so quickly, that I live in a sort of a dream. Don't worry, and of course don't on any account come."
These letters arrived in the evening, and, after reading them, Warburton was so moved that he had to go out and walk under the starry sky, in quiet streets. Of course the motive on which his mother had acted was a desire to free him as soon as possible from the slavery of the shop; but that slavery had now grown so supportable, that he grieved over the sacrifice made for his sake. After all, would he not have done better to live on with his secret? And yet—and yet—
With curiosity which had in it a touch of amusement, Will was waiting to hear from Norbert Franks. He waited for nearly a month, and was beginning to feel rather hurt at his friend's neglect, perhaps a little uneasy on another score, when there arrived an Italian postcard, stamped Venice. "We have been tempted as far as this," ran the hurried scrawl. "Must be home in ten days. Shall be delighted to see you again." Warburton puckered his brows and wondered whether a previous letter or card had failed to reach him. But probably not.
At the end of September, Franks wrote from his London address, briefly but cordially, with an invitation to luncheon on the next day, which was Sunday. And Warburton went.
He was nervous as he knocked at the door; he was rather more nervous as he walked into the studio. Norbert advanced to him with a shout of welcome, and from a chair in the background rose Mrs. Franks. Perceptibly changed, both of them. The artist's look was not quite so ingenuous as formerly; his speech, resolute in friendliness, had not quite the familiar note. Rosamund, already more mature of aspect, smiled somewhat too persistently, seemed rather too bent on showing herself unembarrassed. They plunged into talk of Tyrol, of the Dolomites, of Venice, and, so talking, passed into the dining-room.
"Queer little house this, isn't it?" said Mrs. Franks as she sat down to table. "Everything is sacrificed to the studio; there's no room to turn anywhere else. We must look at once for more comfortable quarters."
"It's only meant for a man living alone," said the artist, with a laugh. Franks laughed frequently, whether what he said was amusing or not. "Yes, we must find something roomier.
"A score of sitters waiting for you, I suppose?" said Warburton.
"Oh, several. One of them such an awful phiz that I'm afraid of her. If I make her presentable, it'll be my greatest feat yet. But the labourer is worthy of his hire, you know, and this bit of beauty-making will have its price."
"You know how to interpret that, Mr. Warburton," said Rosamund, with a discreetly confidential smile. "Norbert asks very much less than any other portrait painter of his reputation would."
"He'll grow out of that bad habit," Will replied. His note was one of joviality, almost of bluffness.
"I'm not sure that I wish him to," said the painter's wife, her eyes straying as if in a sudden dreaminess. "It's a distinction nowadays not to care for money. Norbert jokes about making an ugly woman beautiful," she went on earnestly, "but what he will really do is to discover the very best aspect of the face, and so make something much more than an ordinary likeness."
Franks fidgeted, his head bent over his plate.
"That's the work of the great artist," exclaimed Warburton, boldly flattering.
"Humbug!" growled Franks, but at once he laughed and glanced nervously at his wife.
Though this was Rosamund's only direct utterance on the subject, Warburton discovered from the course of the conversation, that she wished to be known as her husband's fervent admirer, that she took him with the utmost seriousness, and was resolved that everybody else should do so. The "great artist" phrase gave her genuine pleasure; she rewarded Will with the kindest look of her beautiful eyes, and from that moment appeared to experience a relief, so that her talk flowed more naturally. Luncheon over, they returned to the studio, where the men lit their pipes, while Rosamund, at her husband's entreaty, exhibited the sketches she had brought home.
"Why didn't you let me hear from you?" asked Warburton. "I got nothing but that flimsy postcard from Venice."
"Why, I was always meaning to write," answered the artist. "I know it was too bad. But time goes so quickly—"
"With you, no doubt. But if you stood behind a counter all day—"
Will saw the listeners exchange a startled glance, followed by an artificial smile. There was an instant's dead silence.
"Behind a counter—?" fell from Norbert, as if he failed to understand.
"The counter; my counter!" shouted Will blusterously. "You know very well what I mean. Your wife has told you all about it."
Rosamund flushed, and could not raise her eyes.
"We didn't know," said Franks, with his nervous little laugh, "whether you cared—to talk about it—"
"I'll talk about it with any one you like. So you do know? That's all right. I still owe my apology to Mrs. Franks for having given her such a shock. The disclosure was really too sudden."
"It is I who should beg you to forgive me, Mr. Warburton," replied Rosamund, in her sweetest accents. "I behaved in a very silly way. But my friend Bertha Cross treated me as I deserved. She declared that she was ashamed of me. But do not, pray do not, think me worse than I was. I ran away really because I felt I had surprised a secret. I was embarrassed,—I lost my head. I'm sure you don't think me capable of really mean feelings?"
"But, old man," put in the artist, in a half pained voice, "what the deuce does it all mean? Tell us the whole story, do."
Will told it, jestingly, effectively.
"I was quite sure," sounded, at the close, in Rosamund's voice of tender sympathy, "that you had some noble motive. I said so at once to Bertha."
"I suppose," said Will, "Miss Cross will never dare to enter the shop again?"
"She doesn't come!"
"Never since," he answered laughingly. "Her mother has been once or twice, and seems to regard me with a very suspicious eye. Mrs. Cross was told no doubt?"
"That I really can't say," replied Rosamund, averting her eyes. "But doesn't it do one good to hear such a story, Norbert?" she added impulsively.
"Yes, that's pluck," replied her husband, with the old spontaneity, in his eyes the old honest look which hitherto had somehow been a little obscured. "I know very well that I couldn't have done it." Warburton had not looked at Rosamund since her explanation and apology. He was afraid of meeting her eyes; afraid as a generous man who shrinks from inflicting humiliation. For was it conceivable that Rosamund could support his gaze without feeling humiliated? Remembering what had preceded that discovery at the shop; bearing in mind what had followed upon it; he reflected with astonishment on the terms of her self-reproach. It sounded so genuine; to the ears of her husband it must have been purest, womanliest sincerity. As though she could read his thoughts, Rosamund addressed him again in the most naturally playful tone.
"And you have been in the Basque country since we saw you. I'm so glad you really took your holiday there at last; you often used to speak of doing so. And you met my sister—Winifred wrote to me all about it. The Coppingers were delighted to see you. Don't you think them nice people? Did poor Mrs. Coppinger seem any better?"
In spite of himself, Will encountered her look, met the beautiful eyes, felt their smile envelop him. Never till now had he known the passive strength of woman, that characteristic which at times makes her a force of Nature rather than an individual being. Amazed, abashed, he let his head fall—and mumbled something about Mrs. Coppinger's state of health.
He did not stay much longer. When he took his leave, it would have seemed natural if Franks had come out to walk a little way with him, but his friend bore him company only to the door.
"Let us see you as often as possible, old man. I hope you'll often come and lunch on Sunday; nothing could please us better."
Franks' handgrip was very cordial, the look and tone were affectionate, but Will said to himself that the old intimacy was at an end; it must now give place to mere acquaintanceship. He suspected that Franks was afraid to come out and walk with him, afraid that it might not please his wife. That Rosamund was to rule—very sweetly of course, but unmistakably—no one could doubt who saw the two together for five minutes. It would be, in all likelihood, a happy subjugation, for Norbert was of anything but a rebellious temper; his bonds would be of silk; the rewards of his docility would be such as many a self-assertive man might envy. But when Warburton tried to imagine himself in such a position, a choked laugh of humourous disdain heaved his chest.
He wandered homewards in a dream. He relived those moments on the Embankment at Chelsea, when his common sense, his reason, his true emotions, were defeated by an impulse now scarcely intelligible; he saw himself shot across Europe, like a parcel despatched by express; and all that fury and rush meaningless as buffoonery at a pantomime! Yet this was how the vast majority of men "fell in love"—if ever they did so at all. This was the prelude to marriages innumerable, marriages destined to be dull as ditchwater or sour as verjuice. In love, forsooth! Rosamund at all events knew the value of that, and had saved him from his own infatuation. He owed her a lifelong gratitude.
That evening he re-read a long letter from Jane which had reached him yesterday. His sister gave him a full description of the new home in Suffolk, and told of the arrangement she had made with Miss Winter, whereby, in a twelvemonth, she would be able to begin earning a little money, and, if all went well, before long would become self-supporting. Could he not run down to see them? Their mother had borne the removal remarkably well, and seemed, indeed, to have a new vigour; possibly the air might suit her better than at The Haws. Will mused over this, but had no mind to make the journey just yet. It would be a pain to him to see his mother in that new place; it would shame him to see his sister at work, and to think that all this change was on his account. So he wrote to mother and sister, with more of expressed tenderness than usual, begging them to let him put off his visit yet a few weeks. Presently they would be more settled. But of one thing let them be sure; his daily work was no burden whatever to him, and he hardly knew whether he would care to change it for what was called the greater respectability of labour in an office. His health was good; his spirits could only be disturbed by ill news from those he loved. He promised that at all events he would spend Christmas with them.
September went by. One of the Sundays was made memorable by a visit to Ashtead. Will had requested Franks to relate in that quarter the story of Mr. Jollyman, and immediately after hearing it, Ralph Pomfret wrote a warm-hearted letter which made the recipient in Fulham chuckle with contentment. At Ashtead he enjoyed himself in the old way, gladdened by the pleasure with which his friends talked of Rosamund's marriage. Mrs. Pomfret took an opportunity of speaking to him apart, a bright smile on her good face.
"Of course we know who did much, if not everything, to bring it about. Rosamund came and told me how beautifully you had pleaded Norbert's cause, and Norbert confided to my husband that, but for you, he would most likely have married a girl he really didn't care about at all. I doubt whether a mere man ever did such a thing so discreetly and successfully before!"
In October, Will began to waver in his resolve not to go down into Suffolk before Christmas. There came a letter from his mother which deeply moved him; she spoke of old things as well as new, and declared that in her husband and in her children no woman had ever known truer happiness. This was at the middle of the week; Will all but made up his mind to take an early train on the following Sunday. On Friday he wrote to Jane, telling her to expect him, and, as he walked home from the shop that evening he felt glad that he had overcome the feelings which threatened to make this first visit something of a trial to his self-respect.
"There's a telegram a-waiting for you, sir," said Mrs. Wick, as he entered.
The telegram contained four words:
"Mother ill. Please come."
Happen what might in the world beyond her doors, Mrs. Cross led the wonted life of domestic discomfort and querulousness. An interval there had been this summer, a brief, uncertain interval, when something like good-temper seemed to struggle with her familiar mood; it was the month or two during which Norbert Franks resumed his friendly visitings. Fallen out of Mrs. Cross's good graces since his failure to become her tenant a couple of years ago, the artist had but to present himself again to be forgiven, and when it grew evident that he came to the house on Bertha's account, he rose into higher favour than ever. But this promising state of things abruptly ended. One morning, Bertha, with a twinkle in her eyes, announced the fact of Franks' marriage. Her mother was stricken with indignant amaze.
"And you laugh about it?"
"It's so amusing," answered Bertha.
Mrs. Cross examined her daughter.
"I don't understand you," she exclaimed, in a tone of irritation. "I do not understand you, Bertha! All I can say is, behaviour more disgraceful I never—"
The poor lady's feelings were too much for her. She retreated to her bedroom, and there passed the greater part of the day. But in the evening curiosity overcame her sullenness. Having obtained as much information about the artist's marriage as Bertha could give her, she relieved herself in an acrimonious criticism of him and Miss Elvan.
"I never liked to say what I really thought of that girl," were her concluding words. "Now your eyes are opened. Of course you'll never see her again?"
"Why, mother?" asked Bertha. "I'm very glad she has married Mr. Franks. I always hoped she would, and felt pretty sure of it."
"And you mean to be friends with them both?"
"Why not?—But don't let us talk about that," Bertha added good-humouredly. "I should only vex you. There's something else I want to tell you, something you'll really be amused to hear."
"Your ideas of amusement, Bertha—"
"Yes, yes, but listen. It's about Mr. Jollyman. Who do you think Mr. Jollyman really is?"
Mrs. Cross heard the story with bent brows and lips severely set.
"And why didn't you tell me this before, pray?"
"I hardly know," answered the girl, thoughtfully, smiling. "Perhaps because I waited to hear more to make the revelation more complete. But—"
"And this," exclaimed Mrs. Cross, "is why you wouldn't go to the shop yesterday?"
"Yes," was the frank reply. "I don't think I shall go again."
"And, pray, why not?"
Bertha was silent.
"There's one very disagreeable thing in your character, Bertha," remarked her mother severely, "and that is your habit of hiding and concealing. To think that you found this out more than a week ago! You're very, very unlike your father. He never kept a thing from me, never for an hour. But you are always full of secrets. It isn't nice—it isn't at all nice."
Since her husband's death Mrs. Cross had never ceased discovering his virtues. When he lived, one of the reproaches with which she constantly soured his existence was that of secretiveness. And Bertha, who knew something and suspected more of the truth in this matter, never felt it so hard to bear with her mother as when Mrs. Cross bestowed such retrospective praise.
"I have thought it over," she said quietly, disregarding the reproof, "and on the whole I had rather not go again to the shop."
Thereupon Mrs. Cross grew angry, and for half an hour clamoured as to the disadvantage of leaving Jollyman's for another grocer's. In the end she did not leave him, but either went to the shop herself or sent the servant. Great was her curiosity regarding the disguised Mr. Warburton, with whom, after a significant coldness, she gradually resumed her old chatty relations. At length, one day in autumn, Bertha announced to her that she could throw more light on the Jollyman mystery; she had learnt the full explanation of Mr. Warburton's singular proceedings.
"From those people, I suppose?" said Mrs. Cross, who by this phrase signified Mr. and Mrs. Franks. "Then I don't wish to hear one word of it."
But as though she had not heard this remark, Bertha began her narrative. She seemed to repeat what had been told her with a quiet pleasure.
"Well, then," was her mother's comment, "after all, there's nothing disgraceful."
"I never thought there was."
"Then why have you refused to enter his shop?"
"It was awkward," replied Bertha.
"No more awkward for you than for me," said Mrs. Cross. "But I've noticed, Bertha, that you are getting rather selfish in some things—I don't of course say in everything—and I think it isn't difficult to guess where that comes from."
Soon after Christmas they were left, by a familiar accident, without a servant; the girl who had been with them for the last six months somehow contrived to get her box secretly out of the house and disappeared (having just been paid her wages) without warning. Long and loudly did Mrs. Cross rail against this infamous behaviour.
The next morning, a young woman came to the house and inquired for Mrs. Cross; Bertha, who had opened the door, led her into the dining room, and retired. Half an hour later, Mrs. Cross came into the parlour, beaming.
"There now! If that wasn't a good idea! Who do you think sent that girl, Bertha?—Mr. Jollyman."
Bertha kept silence.
"I had to go into the shop yesterday, and I happened to speak to Mr. Jollyman of the trouble I had in finding a good servant. It occurred to me that he might just possibly know of some one. He promised to make inquiries, and here at once comes the nicest girl I've seen for a long time. She had to leave her last place because it was too hard; just fancy, a shop where she had to cook for sixteen people, and see to five bedrooms; no wonder she broke down, poor thing. She's been resting for a month or two: and she lives in the same house as a person named Mrs. Hopper, who is the sister of the wife of Mr. Jollyman's assistant. And she's quite content with fifteen pounds—quite."
As she listened, Bertha wrinkled her forehead, and grew rather absent. She made no remark, until, after a long account of the virtues she had already descried in Martha—this was the girl's name—Mrs. Cross added that of course she must go at once and thank Mr. Jollyman.
"I suppose you still address him by that name?" fell from Bertha.
"That name? Why, I'd really almost forgotten that it wasn't his real name. In any case, I couldn't use the other in the shop, could I?"
"Of course not; no."
"Now you speak of it, Bertha," pursued Mrs. Cross, "I wonder whether he knows that I know who he is?"
"Certainly he does."
"When one thinks of it, wouldn't it be better, Bertha, for you to go to the shop again now and then? I'm afraid the poor man may feel hurt. He must have noticed that you never went again after that discovery, and one really wouldn't like him to think that you were offended."
"Offended?" echoed the girl with a laugh. "Offended at what?"
"Oh, some people, you know, might think his behaviour strange—using a name that's not his own, and—and so on."
"Some people might, no doubt. But the poor man, as you call him, is probably quite indifferent as to what we think of him."
"Don't you think it would be well if you went in and just thanked him for sending the servant?"
"Perhaps," replied Bertha, carelessly.
But she did not go to Mr. Jollyman's, and Mrs. Cross soon forgot the suggestion.
Martha entered upon her duties, and discharged them with such zeal, such docility, that her mistress never tired of lauding her. She was a young woman of rather odd appearance; slim and meagre and red-headed, with a never failing simper on her loose lips, and blue eyes that frequently watered; she had somehow an air of lurking gentility in faded youth. Undeniable as were the good qualities she put forth on this scene of innumerable domestic failures, Bertha could not altogether like her. Submissive to the point of slavishness, she had at times a look which did not harmonize at all with this demeanour, a something in her eyes disagreeably suggestive of mocking insolence. Bertha particularly noticed this on the day after Martha had received her first wages. Leave having been given her to go out in the afternoon to make some purchases, she was rather late in returning, and Bertha, meeting her as she entered, asked her to be as quick as possible in getting tea; whereupon the domestic threw up her head and regarded the speaker from under her eyelids with an extraordinary smile; then with a "Yes, miss, this minute, miss" scampered upstairs to take her things off. All that evening her behaviour was strange. As she waited at the supper table she seemed to be subduing laughter, and in clearing away she for the first time broke a plate; whereupon she burst into tears, and begged forgiveness so long and so wearisomely that she had at last to be ordered out of the room.
On the morrow all was well again; but Bertha could not help watching that singular countenance, and the more she observed, the less she liked it.
The more "willing" a servant the more toil did Mrs. Cross exact from her. When occasions of rebuke or of dispute were lacking, the day would have been long and wearisome for her had she not ceaselessly plied the domestic drudge with tasks, and narrowly watched their execution. The spectacle of this slave-driving was a constant trial to Bertha's nerves; now and then she ventured a mild protest, but only with the result of exciting her mother's indignation. In her mood of growing moral discontent, Bertha began to ask herself whether acquiescence in this sordid tyranny was not a culpable weakness, and one day early in the year—a wretched day of east-wind—when she saw Martha perched on an outer window-sill cleaning panes, she found the courage to utter resolute disapproval.
"I don't understand you, Bertha," replied Mrs. Cross, the muscles of her face quivering as they did when she felt her dignity outraged. "What do we engage a servant for? Are the windows to get so dirty we can't see through them?"
"They were cleaned not many days ago," said her daughter, "and I think we could manage to see till the weather's less terrible."
"My dear, if we managed so as to give the servant no trouble at all, the house would soon be in a pretty state. Be so good as not to interfere. It's really an extraordinary thing that as soon as I find a girl who almost suits me, you begin to try to spoil her. One would think you took a pleasure in making my life miserable—"
Overwhelmed with floods of reproach, Bertha had either to combat or to retreat. Again her nerves failed her, and she left the room.
At dinner that day there was a roast leg of mutton, and, as her habit was, Mrs. Cross carved the portion which Martha was to take away for herself. One very small and very thin slice, together with one unwholesome little potato, represented the servant's meal. As soon as the door had closed, Bertha spoke in an ominously quiet voice.
"Mother, this won't do. I am very sorry to annoy you, but if you call that a dinner for a girl who works hard ten or twelve hours a day, I don't. How she supports life, I can't understand. You have only to look into her face to see she's starving. I can bear the sight of it no longer."
This time she held firm. The conflict lasted for half an hour, during which Mrs. Cross twice threatened to faint. Neither of them ate anything, and in the end Bertha saw herself, if not defeated, at all events no better off than at the beginning, for her mother clung fiercely to authority, and would obviously live in perpetual strife rather than yield an inch. For the next two days domestic life was very unpleasant indeed; mother and daughter exchanged few words; meanwhile Martha was tasked, if possible, more vigorously than ever, and fed mysteriously, meals no longer doled out to her under Bertha's eyes. The third morning brought another crisis.
"I have a letter from Emily," said Bertha at breakfast, naming a friend of hers who lived in the far north of London. "I'm going to see her to-day."
"Very well," answered Mrs. Cross, between rigid lips.
"She says that in the house where she lives, there's a bed-sitting-room to let. I think, mother, it might be better for me to take it."
"You will do just as you please, Bertha."
"I shall have dinner to-day with Emily, and be back about tea-time."
"I have no doubt," replied Mrs. Cross, "that Martha will be so obliging as to have tea ready for you. If she doesn't feel strong enough, of course I will see to it myself."
On the evening before, Martha had received her month's wages, and had been promised the usual afternoon of liberty to-day; but, as soon as Bertha had left the house, Mrs. Cross summoned the domestic, and informed her bluntly that the holiday must be postponed.
"I'm very sorry, mum," replied Martha, with an odd, half-frightened look in her watery eyes. "I'd promised to go and see my brother as has just lost his wife; but of course, if it isn't convenient, mum—"
"It really is not, Martha. Miss Bertha will be out all day, and I don't like being left alone You shall go to-morrow instead."
Half an hour later, Mrs. Cross went out shopping, and was away till noon. On returning, she found the house full of the odour of something burnt.
"What's this smell, Martha?" she asked at the kitchen door, "what is burning?"
"Oh, it's only a dishcloth as was drying and caught fire, mum," answered the servant.
"Only! What do you mean?" cried the mistress, angrily. "Do you wish to burn the house down?"
Martha stood with her arms akimbo, on her thin, dough-pale face the most insolent of grins, her teeth gleaming, and her eyes wide.
"What do you mean?" cried Mrs. Cross. "Show me the burnt cloth at once."
"There you are, mum!"
And Martha, with a kick, pointed to something on the floor. Amazed and wrathful, Mrs. Cross saw a long roller-towel, half a yard of it burnt to tinder; nor could any satisfactory explanation of the accident be drawn from Martha, who laughed, sobbed, and sniggered by turns as if she were demented.
"Of course you will pay for it," exclaimed Mrs. Cross for the twentieth time. "Go on with your work at once, and don't let me have any more of this extraordinary behaviour. I can't think what has come to you."
But Martha seemed incapable of resuming her ordinary calm. Whilst serving the one o'clock dinner—which was very badly cooked—she wept and sighed, and when her mistress had risen from the table, she stood for a long time staring vacantly before she could bestir herself to clear away. About three o'clock, having several times vainly rung the sitting-room bell, Mrs. Cross went to the kitchen. The door was shut, and, on trying to open it, she found it locked. She called "Martha," again and again, and had no reply, until, all of a sudden, a shrill voice cried from within—"Go away! Go away!" Beside herself with wrath and amazement, the mistress demanded admission answer, there came a violent thumping on the door at the other side, and again the voice screamed—"Go away! Go away!"
"What's the matter with you, Martha?" asked Mrs. Cross, beginning to feel alarmed.
"Go away!" replied the voice fiercely.
"Either you open the door this moment, or I call a policeman."
This threat had an immediate effect, though not quite of the kind that Mrs. Cross hoped. The key turned with a snap, the door was flung open, and there stood Martha, in a Corybantic attitude, brandishing a dinner-plate in one hand, a poker in the other; her hair was dishevelled, her face red, and fury blazed in her eyes.
"You won't go away?" she screamed "There, then—there goes one of your plates!"
She dashed it to the floor.
"You won't go away?—There goes one of you dishes!—and there goes a basin!—And there goes a tea-cup!"
One after another, the things she named perished upon the floor. Mrs. Cross stood paralysed, horror-stricken.
"You think you'll make me pay for them?" cried Martha frantically. "Not me—not me! It's you as owes me money—money for all the work I've done as wasn't in my wages, and for the food as I haven't had, when I'd ought to. What do you call that?" She pointed to a plate of something on the kitchen table. "Is that a dinner for a human being, or is it a dinner for a beetle? D'you think I'd eat it, and me with money in my pocket to buy better? You want to make a walkin' skeleton of me, do you?—but I'll have it out of you, I will—There goes another dish! And here goes a sugar-basin! And here goes your teapot!"
With a shriek of dismay, Mrs. Cross sprang forward. She was too late to save the cherished object, and her aggressive movement excited Martha to yet more alarming behaviour.
"You'd hit me, would you? Two can play at that game—you old skinflint, you! Come another step nearer, and I'll bring this poker on your head! You thought you'd get somebody you could do as you liked with, didn't you? You thought because I was willing, and tried to do my best, as I could be put upon to any extent, did you? It's about time you learnt your mistake, you old cheese-parer! You and me has an account to settle. Let me get at you—let me get at you—"
She brandished the poker so menacingly that Mrs. Cross turned and fled. Martha pursued, yelling abuse and threats. The mistress vainly tried to shut the sitting-room door against her; in broke the furious maid, and for a moment so handled her weapon that Mrs. Cross with difficulty escaped a dangerous blow. Round and round the table they went, until, the cloth having been dragged off, Martha's feet caught in it, and she fell heavily to the floor. To escape from the room, the terrified lady must have stepped over her. For a moment there was silence. Then Martha made an attempt to rise, fell again, again struggled to her knees, and finally collapsed, lying quite still and mute.
Trembling, panting, Mrs. Cross moved cautiously nearer, until she could see the girl's face. Martha was asleep, unmistakably asleep; she had even begun to snore. Avoiding her contact with as much disgust as fear, Mrs. Cross got out of the room, and opened the front door of the house. This way and that she looked along the streets, searching for a policeman, but none was in sight. At this moment, approached a familiar figure, Mr. Jollyman's errand boy, basket on arm; he had parcels to deliver here.
"Are you going back to the shop at once?" asked Mrs. Cross, after hurriedly setting down her groceries in the passage.
"Straight back, mum."
"Then run as quickly as ever you can, and tell Mr. Jollyman that I wish to see him immediately—immediately. Run! Don't lose a moment!"
Afraid to shut herself in with the sleeping fury, Mrs. Cross remained standing near the front door, which every now and then she opened to look for a policeman. The day was cold; she shivered, she felt weak, wretched, ready to sob in her squalid distress. Some twenty minutes passed, then, just as she opened the door to look about again, a rapid step sounded on the pavement, and there appeared her grocer.
"Oh, Mr. Jollyman!" she exclaimed. "What I have just gone through! That girl has gone raving mad—she has broken almost everything in the house, and tried to kill me with the poker. Oh, I am so glad you've come! Of course there's never a policeman when they're wanted. Do please come in."
Warburton did not at once understand who was meant by "that girl," but when Mrs. Cross threw open the sitting-room door, and exhibited her domestic prostrate in disgraceful slumber, the facts of the situation broke upon him. This was the girl so strongly recommended by Mrs. Hopper.
"But I thought she had been doing very well—"
"So she had, so she had, Mr. Jollyman—except for a few little things—though there was always something rather strange about her. It's only today that she broke out. She is mad, I assure you, raving mad!"
Another explanation suggested itself to Warburton.
"Don't you notice a suspicious odour?" he asked significantly.
"You think it's that!" said Mrs. Cross, in a horrified whisper. "Oh, I daresay you're right. I'm too agitated to notice anything. Oh, Mr. Jollyman! Do, do help me to get the creature out of the house. How shameful that people gave her a good character. But everybody deceives me—everybody treats me cruelly, heartlessly. Don't leave me alone with that creature, Mr. Jollyman. Oh, if you knew what I have been through with servants! But never anything so bad as this—never! Oh, I feel quite ill—I must sit down—"
Fearful that his situation might become more embarrassing than it was, Warburton supported Mrs. Cross into the dining-room, and by dint of loudly cheerful talk in part composed her. She consented to sit with the door locked, whilst her rescuer hurried in search of a policeman. Before long, a constable's tread sounded in the hall; Mrs. Cross told her story, exhibited the ruins of her crockery on the kitchen floor, and demanded instant expulsion of the dangerous rebel. Between them, Warburton and the man in authority shook Martha into consciousness, made her pack her box, put her into a cab, and sent her off to the house where she had lived when out of service; she all the time weeping copiously, and protesting that there was no one in the world so dear to her as her outraged mistress. About an hour was thus consumed. When at length the policeman had withdrawn, and sudden quiet reigned in the house, Mrs. Cross seemed again on the point of fainting.
"How can I ever thank you, Mr. Jollyman!" she exclaimed, half hysterically, as she let herself sink into the armchair. "Without you, what would have become of me! Oh, I feel so weak, if I had strength to get myself a cup of tea—"
"Let me get it for you," cried Warburton. "Nothing easier. I noticed the kettle by the kitchen fire."
"Oh, I cannot allow, you, Mr. Jollyman—you are too kind—I feel so ashamed—"
But Will was already in the kitchen, where he bestirred himself so effectually that in a few minutes the kettle had begun to sing. Just as he went back to the parlour, to ask where tea could be found, the front door opened, and in walked Bertha.
"Your daughter is here, Mrs. Cross," said Will, in an undertone, stepping toward the limp and pallid lady.
"Bertha," she cried. "Bertha, are you there? Oh, come and thank Mr. Jollyman! If you knew what has happened whilst you were away!"
At the room door appeared the girl's astonished face. Warburton's eyes fell upon her.
"It's a wonder you find me alive, dear," pursued the mother. "If one of those blows had fallen on my head—!"
"Let me explain," interposed Warburton quietly. And in a few words he related the events of the afternoon.
"And Mr. Jollyman was just getting me a clip of tea, Bertha," added Mrs. Cross. "I do feel ashamed that he should have had such trouble."
"Mr. Jollyman has been very kind indeed," said Bertha, with look and tone of grave sincerity. "I'm sure we cannot thank him enough."
Warburton smiled as he met her glance.
"I feel rather guilty in the matter," he said, "for it was I who suggested the servant. If you will let me, I will do my best to atone by trying to find another and a better."
"Run and make the tea, my dear," said Mrs. Cross. "Perhaps Mr. Jollyman will have a cup with us—"
This invitation was declined. Warburton sought for his hat, and took leave of the ladies, Mrs. Cross overwhelming him with gratitude, and Bertha murmuring a few embarrassed words. As soon as he was gone, mother and daughter took hands affectionately, then embraced with more tenderness than for a long, long time.
"I shall never dare to live alone with a servant," sobbed Mrs. Cross. "If you leave me, I must go into lodgings, dear."
"Hush, hush, mother," replied the girl, in her gentlest voice. "Of course I shall not leave you.
"Oh, the dreadful things I have been through! It was drink, Bertha; that creature was a drunkard of the most dangerous kind. She did her best to murder me. I wonder I am not at this moment lying dead.— Oh, but the kindness of Mr. Jollyman! What a good thing I sent for him! And he speaks of finding us another servant; but, Bertha, I shall never try to manage a servant again—never. I shall always be afraid of them; I shall dread to give the simplest order. You, my dear, must be the mistress of the house; indeed you must. I give over everything into your hands. I will never interfere; I won't say a word, whatever fault I may have to find; not a word. Oh, that creature; that horrible woman will haunt my dreams. Bertha, you don't think she'll hang about the house, and lie in wait for me, to be revenged? We must tell the policeman to look out for her. I'm sure I shall never venture to go out alone, and if you leave me in the house with a new servant, even for an hour, I must be in a room with the door locked. My nerves will never recover from this shock. Oh, if you knew how ill I feel! I'll have a cup of tea, and then go straight to bed."
Whilst she was refreshing herself, she spoke again of Mr. Jollyman.
"Do you think I ought to have pressed him to stay, dear? I didn't feel sure."
"No, no, you were quite right not to do so," replied Bertha. "He of course understood that it was better for us to be alone."
"I thought he would. Really, for a grocer, he is so very gentlemanly."
"That's not surprising, mother."
"No, no; I'm always forgetting that he isn't a grocer by birth. I think, Bertha, it will only be right to ask him to come to tea some day before long."
Bertha reflected, a half-smile about her lips.
"Certainly," she said, "if you would like to."
"I really should. He was so very kind to me. And perhaps—what do you think?—ought we to invite him in his proper name?"
"No, I think not," answered Bertha, after a moment's reflection. "We are not supposed to know anything about that."
"To be sure not.—Oh, that dreadful creature. I see her eyes, glaring at me, like a tiger's. Fifty times at least did she chase me round this table. I thought I should have dropped with exhaustion; and if I had, one blow of that poker would have finished me. Never speak to me of servants, Bertha. Engage any one you like, but do, do be careful to make inquiries about her. I shall never wish even to know her name; I shall never look at her face; I shall never speak a word to her. I leave all the responsibility to you, dear. And now, help me upstairs. I'm sure 'I could never get up alone. I tremble in every limb—"
Warburton's mother was dead. The first effect upon him of the certainty that she could not recover from the unconsciousness in which he found her when summoned by Jane's telegram, was that of an acute remorse; it pierced him to the heart that she should have abandoned the home of her life-time, for the strangeness and discomfort of the new abode, and here have fallen, stricken by death—the cause of it, he himself, he so unworthy of the least sacrifice. He had loved her; but what assurance had he been wont to give her of his love? Through many and many a year it was much if he wrote at long intervals a hurried letter. How seldom had he cared to go down to St. Neots, and, when there, how soon had he felt impatient of the little restraints imposed upon him by his mother's ways and prejudices. Yet not a moment had she hesitated, ill and aged, when, at so great a cost to herself, it seemed possible to make life a little easier for him. This reproach was the keenest pain with which nature had yet visited him.
Something of the same was felt by his sister, partly on her own, partly on his account, but as soon as Jane became aware of his self torment, her affection and her good sense soon brought succour to them both. She spoke of the life their mother had led since coming into Suffolk, related a hundred instances to prove how full of interest and contentment it had been, bore witness to the seeming improvement of health, and the even cheerfulness of spirits which had accompanied it. Moreover, there was the medical assurance that life could not in any case have been prolonged; that change of place and habits counted for nothing in the sudden end which some months ago had been foretold. Jane confessed herself surprised at the ease with which so great and sudden a change was borne; the best proof that could have been given of their mother's nobleness of mind. Once only had Mrs. Warburton seemed to think regretfully of the old home; it was on coming out of church one morning, when, having stood for a moment to look at the graveyard, she murmured to her daughter that she would wish to be buried at St. Neots. This, of course, was done; it would have been done even had she not spoken. And when, on the day after the funeral, brother and sister parted to go their several ways, the sadness they bore with them had no embitterment of brooding regret. A little graver than usual, Will took his place behind the counter, with no word to Allchin concerning the cause of his absence. He wrote frequently to Jane, and from her received long letters, which did him good, so redolent were they of the garden life, even in mid-winter, and so expressive of a frank, sweet, strong womanhood, like that of her who was no more.
Meanwhile his business flourished. Not that he much exerted himself, or greatly rejoiced to see his till more heavily laden night after night, by natural accretion custom flowed to the shop in fuller stream; Jollyman's had established a reputation for quality and cheapness, and began seriously to affect the trade of small rivals in the district. As Allchin had foretold, the hapless grocer with the drunken wife sank defeated before the end of the year; one morning his shop did not open, and in a few days the furniture of the house was carried off by some brisk creditor. It made Warburton miserable to think of the man's doom; when Allchin, frank barbarian as he was, loudly exulted. Will turned away in shame and anger. Had the thing been practicable he would have given money out of his own pocket to the ruined struggler. He saw himself as a merciless victor; he seemed to have his heel on the other man's head, and to crush, crush—
At Christmas he was obliged to engage a second assistant. Allchin did not conceal his dislike of this step, but he ended by admitting it to be necessary. At first, the new state of things did not work quite smoothly; Allchin was inclined to an imperious manner, which the newcomer, by name Goff, now and then plainly resented. But in a day or two they were on fair terms, and ere long they became cordial.
Then befell the incident of Mrs. Cross' Martha.
Not without uneasiness had Warburton suggested a servant on the recommendation of Mrs. Hopper, but credentials seemed to be fairly good, and when, after a week or two, Mrs. Cross declared herself more than satisfied, he blessed his good luck. Long ago he had ceased to look for the reappearance at the shop of Bertha Cross; he thought of the girl now and then, generally reverting in memory to that day when he had followed her and her mother into Kew Gardens—a recollection which had lost all painfulness, and shone idyllically in summer sunlight, but it mattered nothing to him that Bertha showed herself no more. Of course she knew his story from Rosamund, and in all likelihood she felt her self-respect concerned in holding aloof from an acquaintance of his ambiguous standing. It mattered not a jot.
Yet when the tragi-comedy of Martha's outbreak unexpectedly introduced him to the house at Walham Green, he experienced a sudden revival of the emotions of a year ago. After his brief meeting with Bertha, he did not go straight back to the shop, but wandered a little in quiet by-ways, thinking hard and smiling. Nothing more grotesque than the picture of Mrs. Cross amid her shattered crockery, Mrs. Cross pointing to the prostrate Martha, Mrs. Cross panting forth the chronicle of her woes; but Mrs. Cross' daughter was not involved in this scene of pantomime; she walked across the stage, but independently, with a simple dignity, proof against paltry or ludicrous circumstance. If any one could see the laughable side of such domestic squalor, assuredly it was Bertha herself of that Will felt assured. Did he not remember her smile when she had to discuss prices and qualities in the shop? Not many girls smile with so much implication of humorous comment.
He had promised to look out for another servant, but hardly knew how to go to work. First of all, Mrs. Hopper was summoned to an interview in the parlour behind the shop, and Martha's case was fully discussed. With much protesting and circumlocution, Mrs. Hopper brought herself at length to own that Martha had been known to "take too much," but that was so long ago, and the girl had solemnly declared, etc., etc. However, as luck would have it, she did know of another girl, a really good general servant, who had only just been thrown out of a place by the death of her mistress, and who was living at home in Kentish Town. Thither sped Warburton; he saw the girl and her mother, and, on returning, sent a note to Mrs. Cross, in which he detailed all he had learnt concerning the new applicant. At the close he wrote: "You are aware, I think, that the name under which I do business is not my own. Permit me, in writing to you on a private matter, to use my own signature"—which accordingly followed. Moreover, he dated the letter from his lodgings, not from the shop.
The next day brought him a reply; he found it on his breakfast table, and broke the envelope with amused curiosity. Mrs. Cross wrote that "Sarah Walker" had been to see her, and if inquiries proved satisfactory, would be engaged. "We are very greatly obliged for the trouble you have taken. Many thanks for your kind inquiries as to my health. I am glad to say that the worst of the shock has passed away, though I fear that I shall long continue to feel its effects." A few remarks followed on the terrible difficulties of the servant question; then "Should you be disengaged on Sunday next, we shall be glad if you will take a cup of tea with us."
Over his coffee and egg, Will pondered this invitation. It pleased him, undeniably, but caused him no undue excitement. He would have liked to know in what degree Mrs. Cross' daughter was a consenting party to the step. Perhaps she felt that, after the services he had rendered, the least one could do was to invite him to tea. Why should he refuse? Before going to business, he wrote a brief acceptance. During the day, a doubt now and then troubled him as to whether he had behaved discreetly, but on the whole he looked forward to Sunday with pleasant expectation.
How should he equip himself? Should he go dressed as he would have gone to the Pomfrets', in his easy walking attire, jacket and soft-felt? Or did the circumstances dictate chimney-pot and frock-coat? He scoffed at himself for fidgeting over the point; yet perhaps it had a certain importance. After deciding for the informal costume, at the last moment he altered his mind, and went arrayed as society demands; with the result that, on entering the little parlour—that name suited it much better than drawing-room—he felt overdressed, pompous, generally absurd. His cylinder seemed to be about three feet high; his gloves stared their newness; the tails of his coat felt as though they wrapped several times round his legs, and still left enough to trail upon the floor as he sat on a chair too low for him. Never since the most awkward stage of boyhood had he felt so little at ease "in company." And he had a conviction that Bertha Cross was laughing at him. Her smile was too persistent; it could only be explained as a compromise with threatening merriment.
A gap in the conversation prompted Warburton to speak of a little matter which was just now interesting him. It related to Mr. Potts, the shopkeeper in Kennington Lane, whom he used to meet, but of whom for a couple of years and more, he had quite lost sight. Stirred by reproach of conscience, he had at length gone to make inquiries; but the name of Potts was no longer over the shop.
"I went in and asked whether the old man was dead; no, he had retired from business and was lodging not far away. I found the house—a rather grimy place, and the door was opened by a decidedly grimy woman. I saw at once that she didn't care to let me in. What was my business? and so on; but I held firm, and got at last into a room on the second floor, an uncomfortable sitting-room, where poor old Potts welcomed me. If only he had known my address, he said, he should have written to tell me the news. His son in America, the one I knew, was doing well, and sent money every month, enough for him to live upon. 'But was he comfortable in those lodgings? I asked. Of course I saw that he wasn't, and I saw too that my question made him nervous. He looked at the door, and spoke in a whisper. The upshot of it was that he had fallen into the hands of a landlady who victimised him; just because she was an old acquaintance, he didn't feel able to leave her. 'Shall I help you to get away?' I asked him, and his face shone with hope. Of course the woman was listening at the keyhole; we both knew that. When I went away she had run half down the stairs, and I caught her angry look before she hid it with a grin. I must find decent lodgings for the old fellow, as soon as possible. He is being bled mercilessly."
"How very disgraceful!" exclaimed Mrs. Cross. "Really, the meanness of some women of that class!"
Her daughter had her eyes cast down, on her lips the faintest suggestion of a smile.
"I wonder whether we could hear of anything suitable," pursued her mother, "by inquiring of people we know out at Holloway. I'm thinking of the Boltons, Bertha."
Mr. Potts' requirements were discussed, Bertha interesting herself in the matter, and making various suggestions. The talk grew more animated. Warburton was led to tell of his own experience in lodgings. Catching Bertha's eye, he gave his humour full scope on the subject of Mrs. Wick, and there was merriment in which even Mrs. Cross made a show of joining.
"Why," she exclaimed, "do you stay in such very uncomfortable rooms?"
"It doesn't matter," Will replied, "it's only for a time."
"Ah, you have other views?"
"Yes," he answered, smiling cheerfully, "I have other views."
Toward the end of the following week, Mrs. Cross came to the shop. She had a busy air, and spoke to Warburton in a confidential undertone.
"We have been making inquiries, and at last I think we have heard of something that might suit your poor friend. This is the address. My daughter went there this morning, and had a long talk with the woman, and she thinks it really might do; but perhaps you have already found something?"
"Nothing at all," answered Will. "I am much obliged to you. I will go as soon as possible."
"We shall be so glad to hear if it suits," said Mrs. Cross. "Do look in on Sunday, will you? We are always at home at five o'clock.— Oh, I have written out a little list of things," she added, laying her grocery order on the counter. "Please tell me what they come to."
Warburton gravely took the cash, and Mrs. Cross, with her thinly gracious smile, bade him good-day.
He did not fail to "look in" on Sunday, and this time he wore his ordinary comfortable clothing. The rooms recommended for Mr. Potts had seemed to him just what were needed, and on his own responsibility he had taken them. Moreover, he had been to Kennington, and had made known to the nervous old man the arrangements that were proposed for him.
"But will he be allowed to leave?" asked Bertha in her eyes the twinkle for which Will watched.
"He won't dare, he tells me, to give notice but he'll only have to pay a week's rent in lieu of it. I have promised to be with him at ten to morrow morning, to help him to get away. I shall take my heaviest walking-stick; one must be prepared for every emergency. Glance over the police news on Tuesday, Mrs. Cross, just to see whether I have come to harm."
"We shall be very anxious indeed," replied the literal lady, with pained brow. "Couldn't you let us hear to-morrow evening? I know only too well what dreadful creatures the women of that class can be. I very strongly advise you, Mr. Warburton, to be accompanied by a policeman. I beg you will."
Late on the Monday afternoon, Jollyman's errand boy left a note for Mrs. Cross. It informed her that all had gone well, though "not without uproar. The woman shrieked insults from her doorstep after our departing cab. Poor Mr. Potts was all but paralytic with alarm, but came round famously at sight of the new lodgings. He wants to thank you both."
It was on this same evening that Warburton had a visit from Godfrey Sherwood. A fortnight ago, just after Easter, had taken place the marriage of Mr. Milligan and Miss Parker; and Sherwood, whilst his chief was absent on the honeymoon, had run down to the seaside for a change of air. Tonight, he presented himself unexpectedly, and his face was the prologue to a moving tale.
"Read that, Warburton—" he held out a letter. "Read that, and tell me what you think of human nature."
It was a letter from Milligan, who, with many explanations and apologies, wrote to inform his secretary that the Great Work could not be pursued, that the vegetarian colony in Ireland, which was to civilise the world, must—so far as he was concerned—remain a glorious dream. The fact of the matter was, Mrs. Milligan did not like it. She had tried vegetarianism; it did not suit her health; moreover, she objected to living in Ireland, on account of the dampness of the climate. Sadly, reluctantly, Mrs. Milligan's husband had to forgo his noble project. In consequence, he would have no need henceforth of a secretary, and Sherwood must consider their business relations at an end.
"He encloses a very liberal cheque," said Godfrey. "But what a downfall! I foresaw it. I hinted my fears to you as soon as Miss Parker appeared on the scene. Poor old Milligan! A lost man—sunk in the commonplace—hopelessly whelmed in vulgar matrimony. Poor old fellow!"
"But that isn't all," went on the other, "Old Strangwyn is dead, really dead at last. I wrote several times to him; no acknowledgment of my letters. Now it's all over. The ten thousand pounds—"
He made a despairing gesture. Then:
"Take that cheque, Warburton. It's all I have; take it, old fellow, and try to forgive me. You won't? Well, well, if I live, I'll pay you yet; but I'm a good deal run down, and these disappointments have almost floored me. To tell you the truth, the vegetarian diet won't do. I feel as weak as a cat. If you knew the heroism it has cost me, down at the seaside, to refrain from chops and steaks. Now I give it up. Another month of cabbage and lentils and I should be sunk beyond recovery. I give it up. This very night I shall go and have a supper, a real supper, in town. Will you come with me, old man? What's before me, I don't know. I have half a mind to go to Canada as farm labourer; it would be just the thing for my health; but let us go and have one more supper together, as in the old days. Where shall it be?"
So they went into town, and supped royally, with the result that Warburton had to see his friend home. Over the second bottle, Godfrey decided for an agricultural life in the Far West, and Will promised to speak for him to a friend of his, a lady who had brothers farming in British Columbia; but, before he went, he must be assured that Warburton really forgave him the loss of that money. Will protested that he had forgotten all about it; if any pardon were needed, he granted it with all his heart. And so with affectionate cordiality they bade each other good-night.
To his surprise, he received a letter from Sherwood, a day or two after, seriously returning to the British Columbia project, and reminding him of his promise. So, on Sunday, Will called for the first time without invitation at Mrs. Cross', and, being received with no less friendliness than hitherto, began asking news of Bertha's brothers; whereupon followed talk upon Canadian farming life, and the mention of Godfrey Sherwood. Bertha undertook to write on the subject by the next mail; she thought it likely enough that her brothers might be able to put Mr. Sherwood into the way of earning a living.
"What do you think we did yesterday?" said Mrs. Cross. "We took the liberty of calling upon Mr. Potts. We had to go and see Mrs. Bolton, at Holloway, and, as it was so near, we thought we might venture—using your name as our introduction. And the poor old gentleman was delighted to see us—wasn't he, Bertha? Oh, and he is so grateful for our suggestion of the lodgings."
Bertha's smile betrayed a little disquiet. Perceiving this, Warburton spoke with emphasis.
"It was kind of you. The old man feels a little lonely in that foreign region; he's hardly been out of Kennington for forty years. A very kind thought, indeed."
"I am relieved," said Bertha; "it seemed to me just possible that we had been guilty of a serious indiscretion. Good intentions are very dangerous things."
When next Warburton found time to go to Holloway, he heard all about the ladies' visit. He learnt, moreover, that Mr. Potts had told them the story of his kindness to the sick lad at St. Kitts, and of his first visit to Kennington Lane.
When Bertha, at her mother's request, undertook the control of the house, she knew very well what was before her.
During a whole fortnight, Mrs. Cross faithfully adhered to the compact. For the first time in her life, she declared, she was enjoying peace. Feeling much shaken in her nervous system, she rose late, retired early, and, when downstairs, reclined a good deal on the sofa. She professed herself unable to remember the new servant's name, and assumed an air of profound abstraction whenever "what do you call her" came into the room. Not a question did she permit herself as to the details of household management. Bertha happening (incautiously) to complain of a certain joint supplied by the butcher, Mrs. Cross turned a dreamy eye upon it, and said, in the tone of one who speaks of long ago, "In my time he could always be depended upon for a small shoulder"; then dismissed the matter as in no way concerning her.
But repose had a restorative effect, and, in the third week, Mrs. Cross felt the revival of her energies. She was but fifty-three years old, and in spite of languishing habits, in reality had very fair health. Caring little for books, and not much for society, how was she to pass her time if denied the resource of household affairs? Bertha observed the signs of coming trouble. One morning, her mother came downstairs earlier than usual, and after fidgeting about the room, where her daughter was busy at her drawing-board, suddenly exclaimed:
"I wish you would tell that girl to make my bed properly. I haven't closed my eyes for three nights, and I ache from head to foot. The way she neglects my room is really shameful—"
There followed intimate details, to which Bertha listened gravely.
"That shall be seen to at once, mother," she replied, and left the room.
The complaint, as she suspected, had very little foundation. It was only the beginning; day after day did Mrs. Cross grumble about this, that and the other thing, until Bertha saw that the anticipated moment was at hand. The great struggle arose out of that old point of debate, the servant's meals. Mrs. Cross, stealing into the kitchen, had caught a glimpse of Sarah's dinner, and so amazed was she, so stirred with indignation to the depth of her soul, that she cast off all show of respect for the new order, and overwhelmed Bertha with rebukes. Her daughter listened quietly until the torrent had spent its force, then said with a smile:
"Is this how you keep your promise, mother?"
"Promise? Did I promise to look on at wicked waste? Do you want to bring us to the workhouse, child?"
"Don't let us waste time in talking about what we settled a month ago," replied Bertha decisively. "Sarah is doing very well, and there must be no change. I am quite content to pay her wages myself. Keep your promise, mother, and let us live quietly and decently."
"If you call it living decently to pamper a servant until she bursts with insolence—"
"When was Sarah insolent to you? She has never been disrespectful to me. Quite the contrary, I think her a very good servant indeed. You know that I have a good deal of work to do just now, and—to speak quite plainly—I can't let you upset the orderly life of the house. Be quiet, there's a dear. I insist upon it."
Speaking thus, Bertha laid her hands on her mother's shoulders, and looked into the foolish, angry face so steadily, so imperturbably, with such a light of true kindness in her gentle eyes, yet at the same time such resolution about the well-drawn lips that Mrs. Cross had no choice but to submit. Grumbling she turned; sullenly she held her tongue for the rest of the day; but Bertha, at all events for a time, had conquered.
The Crosses knew little and saw less of their kith and kin. With her husband's family, Mrs. Cross had naturally been on cold terms from an early period of her married life; she held no communication with any of the name, and always gave Bertha to understand that, in one way or another, the paternal uncles and aunts had "behaved very badly." Of her own blood, she had only a brother ten years younger than herself, who was an estate agent at Worcester. Some seven years had elapsed since their last meeting, on which occasion Mrs. Cross had a little difference of opinion with her sister-in-law. James Rawlings was now a widower, with three children, and during the past year or two not unfriendly letters had been exchanged between Worcester and Walham Green. Utterly at a loss for a means of passing her time, Mrs. Cross, in these days of domestic suppression, renewed the correspondence, and was surprised by an invitation to pass a few days at her brother's house. This she made known to Bertha about a week after the decisive struggle.
"Of course, you are invited, too, but—I'm afraid you are too busy?"
Amused by her mother's obvious wish to go to Worcester unaccompanied, Bertha answered that she really didn't see how she was to spare the time just now.
"But I don't like to leave you alone here—"
Her daughter laughed at this scruple. She was just as glad of the prospect of a week's solitude as her mother in the thought of temporary escape from the proximity of pampered Sarah. The matter was soon arranged, and Mrs. Cross left home.
This was a Friday. The next day, sunshine and freedom putting her in holiday mood, Bertha escaped into the country, and had a long ramble like that, a year ago, on which she had encountered Norbert Franks. Sunday morning she spent quietly at home. For the afternoon she had invited a girl friend. About five o'clock, as they were having tea, Bertha heard a knock at the front door. She heard the servant go to open, and, a moment after, Sarah announced, "Mr. Warburton."
It was the first time that Warburton had found a stranger in the room, and Bertha had no difficulty in reading the unwonted look with which he advanced to shake hands.
"No bad news, I hope?" she asked gravely, after presenting him to the other visitor.
"I thought you looked rather troubled—"
Her carefully composed features resisted Will's scrutiny.
"Do I? I didn't know it—but, yes," he added, abruptly, "you are right. Something has vexed me—a trifle."