A SHEAF OF CORN
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
ROSE AT HONEYPOT THE PATTEN EXPERIMENT OLIVIA'S SUMMER A LOST ESTATE THE PARISH OF HILBY THE PARISH NURSE GRAN'MA'S JANE MRS. PETER HOWARD A WINTER'S TALE ONE ANOTHER'S BURDENS THERE WAS ONCE A PRINCE WHEN ARNOLD COMES HOME MOONLIGHT THE MATING OF A DOVE THE FIELDS OF DULDITCH AMONG THE SYRINGAS SUSANNAH THE EGLAMORE PORTRAITS THE MEMORIES OF RONALD LOVE
A SHEAF OF CORN
MARY E. MANN
"I WENT A PILGRIM THROUGH THE UNIVERSE, AND COMMUNED OFT WITH STRANGERS AS I STRAYED, IN EVERY CORNER SOME ADVANTAGE FOUND, AND FROM EACH SHEAF OF CORN I DREW A BLADE."
METHUEN & CO. 36 ESSEX STREET W.C. LONDON
First Published in 1908
WOMEN O' DULDITCH 1
CLOMAYNE'S CLERK 15
IN A TEA-SHOP 33
A CHALK-MARK ON A GATE—Part I 51
A CHALK-MARK ON A GATE—Part II 63
"AS 'TWAS TOLD TO ME" 77
FREDDY'S SHIP 91
A NERVE CURE 109
THE PRIVATE WARD 135
DORA OF THE RINGOLETS 153
PINK CARNATIONS 167
A LITTLE WHITE DOG 183
IT ANSWERED 195
TO BERTHA IN BOMBAY 209
WILLY AND I 243
A BROKEN BOOT 255
WHEN DEEP SLEEP FALLETH 267
THE EXCELLENT JOYS OF YOUTH 283
CARES OF A CURATE 297
A SHEAF OF CORN
WOMEN O' DULDITCH
Dinah Brome stood in the village shop, watching, with eyes keen to detect the slightest discrepancy in the operation, the weighing of her weekly parcels of grocery.
She was a strong, wholesome-looking woman of three- or four-and-forty, with a clean, red skin, clear eyes, dark hair, crinkling crisply beneath her sober, respectable hat. All her clothes were sober and respectable, and her whole mien. No one would have guessed from it that she had not a shred of character to her back.
The knowledge of this incontrovertible fact did not influence the demeanour of the shop-woman towards her. There was not better pay in the village, nor a more constant customer than Dinah Brome. In such circumstances, Mrs Littleproud was not the woman to throw stones.
"They tell me as how Depper's wife ain't a-goin' to get over this here sickness she've got," she said, tucking in the edges of the whitey-brown paper upon the half-pound of moist sugar taken from the scales. "The doctor, he ha'n't put a name to her illness, but 'tis one as'll carry her off, he say."
"A quarter pound o' butter," Dinah unmovedly said. "The best, please. I don't fancy none o' that that ha' got the taste o' the shop in it."
"Doctor, he put his hid in at the door this afternoon," Mrs Littleproud went on; "he'd got his monkey up, the old doctor had! ''Tis a rank shame,' he say, 'there ain't none o' these here lazy women o' Dulditch with heart enough to go to help that poor critter in her necessity,' he say."
"Ler'm help her hisself," said Mrs Brome, strong in her indifference. "A couple o' boxes o' matches, Mrs Littleproud; and you can gi' me the odd ha'penny in clo' balls for the disgestion."
"You should ha' heered 'm run on! 'Where be that Dinah Brome?' he say, 'that ha' showed herself helpful in other folks' houses. Wha's she a-doin' of, that she can't do a neighbour's part here?'"
"And you telled 'm she was a-mindin' of 'er own business, I hope?" Mrs Brome suggested, in calmest unconcern.
"I'll tell you what I did say, Dinah, bor," the shop-woman said, transferring the sticky clove-balls from their bottle to her own greasy palm. "'Dinah Brome, sir,' I say, 'is the most industrousest woman in Dulditch; arly and late,' I say, 'she's at wark; and as for her floors—you might eat off of 'em.'" She screwed the half-dozen hard red balls in their bit of paper, and stowed them lightly in the customer's basket. "That the lot this week, Dinah?"
Dinah removed her basket from counter to arm. "What'd he got to say for hisself, then?" she asked.
"'A woman like that can allust make time,' the old doctor he say. 'Tell her to make time to help this here pore sufferin' woman.' I'm a-sayin' it as he said it, Dinah. I ain't a-hintin' of it myself, bor."
"Ler'm tell me, hisself, an old interfarin' old fule, and he'll ha' the rough side o' my tongue," the customer said; and nodded an unsmiling good-afternoon, and went on her way.
Her way led her past the cottage of the woman of whom they had spoken. Depper's cottage, indeed, was the first in the row of which Dinah's was the last—a half-dozen two-roomed tenements, living-room below, bedroom above, standing with their backs to the road, from which they were divided by no garden, nor even so much as a narrow path. The lower window of the two allotted to each house was about four or five feet from the ground, and was of course the window of the living-room. Mrs Brome, as she passed that of the first house in the row, suddenly yielded to the impulse to stop and look within.
A small interior, with furniture much too big for it; a huge chest of drawers, of oak with brass fittings; a broken-down couch as big as a bed, covered with a dingy shawl, a man's greatcoat, a red flannel petticoat; a table cumbered with the remains of wretched meals never cleared away, and the poor cooking utensils of impoverished, shifty housekeeping.
The woman of whom they had been speaking stood with her back to the window. A stooping, drooping skeleton of a woman, who, with weak, shaking hands, kneaded some dough in which a few currants were stuck, before laying it on a black-looking baking tin.
"A fine time o' day to bake his fourses cake!" the woman outside commented, reaching on tiptoe, the better to look in at the window.
The tin having its complement of cakes, the sick woman essayed to carry it to the oven. But its weight was too much for her; it hung limply in her weak grasp; before the oven was reached the cakes were on the ragged carpet of the hearth.
"God in heaven!" ejaculated the woman looking in.
She watched while the poor woman within dropped on all-fours, feebly trying to gather up the cakes spreading themselves slowly over the dirty floor.
"If that don't make me sick!" said Dinah Brome to herself as she turned and went on her way.
The cottage of Dinah Brome, distant from that of Depper's wife by a score or so of yards, was, in its domestic economy, as removed from it as the North Pole from the South. Small wonder that Depper—his name was William Kittle, a fact of which the neighbourhood made no practical use, which he himself only recalled with an effort—preferred to the dirt, untidiness and squalor of his own abode the spick-and-span cleanliness of Dinah Brome's. Small wonder that in this atmosphere of wholesomeness and comfort, he chose to spend the hours of the Sabbath during which the public-house was closed; and other hours. Small wonder, looking at the fine, capable figure of the woman, now bustling about with teapot and cups, he should esteem Mrs Brome personally above the slatternly skeleton at his own hearth.
Having made a cup of tea and cut a couple of slices of bread-and-butter, the owner of the fresh-scrubbed bricks, the fresh polished furniture, the dazzlingly white hearth, turned her back on her household gods, and, plate and cup in hands, betook herself, by way of the uneven bricked passage separating the row of houses from their rows of gardens at the back, to the house of the wife of Depper.
"I swore I wouldn't," she said to herself as she went along; "but I'm dinged if the sight o' Depper's old woman a-crawlin' arter them mamucked up bits o' dough ha'n't tarned my stomach!"
She knocked at the door with the toe of her boot, her hands being full, and receiving no answer, opened it and went in.
Depper's old woman had fallen, a miserable heap of bones and dingy clothing, upon the broken-down couch, and had fainted there.
"I'd suner 'twas anyone in the warld than you a-waitin' on me like this," she said, when, consciousness having returned during the ministrations of the other woman, her weary eyes opened upon the healthy face above her.
"And the las' time you telled me to walk out o' your house, I swore I'd never set fut in it again," Mrs Brome made answer. "But I ha' swallered worse things in my time than my own wards, I make no doubt; and you ha' come to a pass, Car'line Kittle, when you ha' got to take what you can git and be thankful."
"Pass? I ha' come to a pass, indeed!" the sick woman moaned. "You're wholly right there, bor; wholly right."
"So now you ha' got to drink this here cup o' hot tea I ha' brought ye; and let me help ye upstairs to yer bed as quick as may be."
"When I ha' baked Depper's fourses cake, and sent it off by 'Meelyer's little gal—she ha' lent her to me to go back and forth to the harvest-field, 'Meelyer have—I kin go," the wife said; "not afore," hiccoughing loudly over the tea she tried to drink; "not afore—not afore! Oh, how I wish I could, bor; how I wish I could!"
"You're a-goin', this instant minute," the masterful Dinah declared.
The other had not the strength to resist. "I'm wholly done," she murmured, helplessly, "wholly done at last."
"My! How ha' you got up these here stairs alone?" Dinah, having half-dragged, half-carried the feeble creature to the top, demanded of her, wiping her own brow.
"Crawled, all-fours." Depper's wife panted out the explanation. "And to git down 'em i' the mornin's—oh, the Lord alone knows how I ha' got down 'em i' th' mornin's. Thankful I'd be to know I'd never ha' to come down 'em agin."
"You never will," said Mrs Brome.
"I don't want to trouble you, no fudder. I can fend for myself now," the poor woman said, when at length she lay at peace between the sheets; her face bathed, and the limp grimy fingers; the scant dry hair smoothed decently down the fallen temples. "I'd rather it'd ha' been another woman that had done me the sarvice, but I ain't above bein' thankful to you, for all that. All I'll ask of ye now, Dinah Brome, is that ye'll have an eye to Depper's fourses cake in th' oven, and see that 'Meelyer's gal take it and his home-brew, comf'table, to th' field for 'm."
Dinah, having folded the woman's clothes, spread them for additional warmth upon the poor bed-covering. "Don't you worrit no more about Depper," she said, "Strike me, you're the one that want seem' to now, Car'line."
The slow tears oozed beneath Car'line's closed lids. "I kin fend for myself if Depper ain't put about," she said.
When Depper returned, with the shades of night, from the harvest-field, he might hardly have known his own living-room. The dirty rags of carpet had disappeared, the bricks were scrubbed, the dangerous-looking heap of clothing had been removed from the sofa, and a support added to its broken leg; the fireside chairs, the big chest of drawers, redolent of the turpentine with which they had been rubbed, shone in the candlelight; the kettle sang on the bars by the side of a saucepan of potatoes boiling for the meal. It was the sight of Dinah Brome at the head of affairs, however, which drew his attention from these details.
"Well, I'm jiggered!" Depper said, and paused, door in hand, on his own freshly-washed step.
"You wipe your feet, afore you come in," said Mrs Brome, masterful as ever. "Here's yer supper ready. I ain't a-goin' to ate it along of you, Depper; but I ha' got a ward or two to say to you afore I go."
Depper entered, closed the door behind him, sat down, hat on head, in the freshly-polished chair by the hearth; he fixed his eyes, his mouth fallen open, on the fine form of Dinah standing before him, with hands on hips, arms akimbo, and the masterful gleam in her eyes.
"Depper, yer old woman's a-dyin'" Dinah said.
"Marcy on us! Ye don't tell me that! Kind o' piney, like, fer the las' six months, my missus ha' bin', but——"
"Now she's a-dyin'. D'ye think I ha'n't got the right use o' my senses, arter all these years? Wheer ha' yer own eyes been? Look at 'er! No better'n a skeercrow of a woman, under yer very nose! She's a-dyin', I tell ye. And, Depper, what du I come here to find? I find a bare cupboard and a bare board. Not a mite o' nouragement i' th' house, sech as a pore suff'rin' woman like Car'line's in need of."
"Car'line's a pore manager, as right well you know, Dinah. Ha'n't I telled ye——?"
"You ha' telled me—yes. But have you played th' husban's part? You ha' telled me—and I ha' put the fault o' yer poverty home on ter yer pore missus's shoulders. But since I been here, I ha' seen 'er crawlin' on 'er han's and knees to wait on you, wi' yer fourses i' th' harvest-field. I ha' heered her manderin' on, 'let things be comf'table for Depper,' and let her fend for herself. And I can see with half an eye the bute is on t'other fut, Depper. And this here is what I'm a-goin' ter say to you, and don't you make no mistake about it: I'm yer wife's woman while she want me, and none o' yours."
Depper was a small, well-made man, with a curling, grizzled head, and a well-featured face. It is possible that in his youth the word 'dapper' may have applied to him; a forgotten fact which perhaps accounted for his nickname. He gazed with an open mouth and puzzled, blear eyes at the woman before him.
"You and me," he said slowly, with an utterance suspiciously slow and thick—"you and me ha' kep' comp'ny, so to speak, fer a sight o' years, Dinah. We never had no fallin's out, this mander, afore, as I can call ter mind. I don't rightly onderstan' what you ha' got agin me—come ter put it into wards."
"I ha' got this agin ye," the valiant Dinah said: "that you ha' nouraged yer own inside and let your missus's go empty. You ha' got too much drink aboard ye, now, an' her fit ter die for the want of a drop o' sperrits. And I ha' got this ter say: that we ha' come to a pass when I ha' got to make ch'ice twixt you and yer old woman. Arter wha's come and gone, we t'ree can't hob an' nob, as ye may say, together. My ch'ice is made, then, and this is how I ha' fixed it up. When yer day's wark is done, and you come home, I go out o' your house. Sune as yer up an' away i' th' mornin', I come in and ridd up yer missus and wait on 'er, while the woman's in need of me."
Whether this plan met with Depper's approval or not, Dinah Brome did not wait to see. "For Car'line's peace o' mind, arter wha's come and gone, 'tis th' only way," she said to herself and to him; and by it he had to abide.
It was not for many weeks. The poor unlovely wife, lying in the dismantled four-poster in the only bedroom, was too far gone to benefit by the 'nouragement' Mrs Brome contrived to administer. The sixpenn'orths of brandy Depper, too late relenting, spared from the sum he had hitherto expended on his own beer—public-house brandy, poisonous stuff, but accredited by the labouring population of Dulditch with all but magical restorative powers—for once failed in its effect. Daily more of a skeleton, hourly feebler and feebler, grew Depper's old woman; clinging, for all that, desperately to life and the hope of recovery for the sake of Depper himself.
"Let go the things of this life, lay hold on those of Eternity," the clergyman said, solemnly reproving her for her worldly state of mind. "Remember that there is no one in this world whose life is indispensable to the scheme of it. Try to think more humbly of yourself, my poor friend, less regretfully of the world you are hurrying from. Fix your eyes on the heavenly prospect. Try to join with me more heartily in the prayers for the dying."
She listened to them, making no response, with slow tears falling from shut lids to the pillow. "'Tain't for myself I'm a-pinin', 'tis for Depper," she said, the parson being gone.
"All the same, Car'line," Mrs Brome said, sharply admonishing, "I'd marmar a ward now and agin for myself, as the reverend ha' been advisin' of ye, if I was you. Depper he can look arter hisself; his time for prayin' ain't, so ter say, come yet. Yours is. I should like to hear a 'Lord help me,' now and agin from yer lips, when I tarn ye in the bed. I don't think but what yu'd be the better for it, pore critter. Your time's a-gettin' short, and 'tis best ter go resigned."
"I cud go resigned if 'tweren't for Depper," the dying woman made her moan.
"I can't think what he'll du all alone in th' house and me gone!" she often whimpered. "A man can't fend for 'isself, like a woman can. They ha'n't the know ter du it. Depper, he ain't no better'n a child about makin' the kettle bile, and sechlike. It'll go hard, me bein' put out o' th' way, wi' Depper."
"Sarve 'm right," Mrs Brome always stoically said. "He ha' been a bad man to you, Car'line. I don' know whu should speak to that if you and me don't, bor."
"He ha'n't so much as laid a finger on me since I was ill," Car'line said, making what defence for the absent man she could.
"All the same, when you're a-feelin' wholly low agin, jes' you say to yourself, 'Th' Lord help me!' 'Tis only dacent, you a dyin' woman, to do it. When ye ha'n't got the strength ter say it, I'll go on my knees and say it for ye, come to that, Car'line," the notorious wrongdoer promised.
* * * * *
They sent for Depper to the White Hart to come home and see his wife die.
"I ain't, so ter say, narvish, bein' alone with 'er, and would as lief see the pore sufferin' critter draw her las' breath as not, but I hold 'tis dacent for man and wife to be together, come to th' finish; an' so I ha' sent for ye," Mrs Brome told him.
Depper shed as many tears over his old woman as would have been expected from the best husband in the world; and Car'line let her dying gaze rest on him with as much affection, perhaps, as if he had indeed been that ideal person.
"There'll be money a-comin' in fro' th' club," were almost her last words to him. She was speaking of the burial-club, into which she had always contrived to pay the necessary weekly pence; she knew it to be the surest consolation she could offer him.
Depper had made arrangements already for the payment of the eleven pounds from the burial-club; he had drunk a pint or two extra, daily, for the last week, the innkeeper being willing to trust him, in consideration of the expected windfall. The excitement of this handling of sudden wealth, and the dying of his wife, and the extra drink combined, completely upset his mental equilibrium. In the first moments of his widower-hood he was prostrate with emotion.
Dragged downstairs by the strong arm of Dinah Brome, he subsided into the chair on the hearth, opposite that for ever empty one of his old woman's; and with elbows on knees and head on hand he hiccoughed and moaned and wept aloud.
Above, Dinah Brome and that old woman who had a reputation in Dulditch for the laying-out of corpses, decked the poor cold body in such warmth of white flannelette, and such garniture of snipped-out frilling as, alive, Car'line Kittle could never have hoped to attain to.
These last duties achieved, Dinah descended, her arms full of blankets and pillows, no longer necessary above. These, with much banging and shaking, she spread upon the downstairs couch, indicating to the still weeping Depper it was there he was expected to pass the night.
"Bor, you may well blubber!" she said to him, with a kind of comfortable scorn of him and his sorrow. "You 'ont ketch me a-dryin' yer tears for ye, and so I tell ye flat. A crule husban' yu ha' been as any woman ever had. If ever there was a wife who was kep' short, and used hard, that was yer wife, Depper, my man! Bad you ha' been to her that's gone to 'er account, in all ways; who should know that better'n me, I'll ask ye? An' if at las' 'tis come home to ye, sarve ye wholly right. Tha's all the comfort ye'll get from me, bor."
"Stop along of me!" Depper cried, as, her work being finished, she moved to the door. "'Taint right as I should be left here alone; and me feelin' that low, and a'most dazed with affliction."
"Tha's how you've a right to feel," the stern woman said, unmoved by his tears.
"I keep a-thinkin' of wha's layin' up above theer, Dinah."
"Pity you di'n't think on 'er more in 'er lifetime."
"'Taint nat'ral as I should be left wholly alone with a dead woman. 'Taint a nat'ral thing, I'm a-sayin', for me to du, Dinah, ter pass the night alone along o' my old missus's corp."
"Bor, 'taint the fust onnat'ral thing you ha' done i' your life," Mrs Brome said; and went out and shut the door.
An hour or so later Depper opened it, and going hurriedly past the intervening cottages, knocked stealthily upon the door of Dinah Brome.
She looked out upon him presently from her bedroom window, her dark, crinkled hair rough from the pillow, a shawl pulled over her nightgown.
"Whu's that a-distarbin' o' me, as ha'n't had a night's rest for a week, at this time o' night?" she demanded sharply.
"It's me; Depper," the man's voice answered, whisperingly. "Le' me in, Dinah. I daren't be alone along of 'er no longer. I ha' only got you, Dinah, now my old woman's gone! Le' me in!"
"You're a rum un ter call yerself a man and a husban'—you are!" Dinah Brome ejaculated; but she came downstairs and opened her door.
Into the stinging sleet and rain-laden winds of the March morning there emerged from the door of a physician in Harley Street a boy of seventeen. He was slightly built, with stooping shoulders, and, meagre of proportions as he was, was protected from the cruel weather by an overcoat much too small. As he faced the biting wind, and "all the vapoury turbulence of heaven," the dusky pallor of his skin took on a bluey tinge, he shivered and trembled in the grim grasp of the storm.
A few yards from the door a child, dressed in a long, cheap mackintosh, and carrying within a strap slung over her shoulder a collection of school books and papers, awaited him.
Into the lustrous dark eyes of the youth she looked, asking with her anxious blue ones a question she did not put in words; for a minute he did not answer.
"Come under my umbrella," she said, as they walked on together. "And turn up the collar of your coat, Peter. Didn't he have a fire for you?" she asked, with a distrustful glance in the direction of that great physician whose portals the youth had just quitted.
"There was a roaring fire," Peter said. "It isn't the cold so much—it's the inside of me that's shivering. Cicely, it's going to be no use. He doesn't mean to pass me."
Cicely, a fairly well-grown girl of fourteen, with straight thin legs, straight, thick-hanging, dark hair, a straight, serious face, came to a stop on the wet pavement. Answering to a tug upon his coat-sleeve, the youth stopped too.
"He must!" she said. "You shouldn't have left him. You should have made him, Peter." The tears came into her eyes and her lip shook. "Oh, Peter, he will—he will!"
"He spotted that place on my throat," Peter said, with dejection.
"I told you to tie a handkerchief over it!"
"Handkerchief? I should think I did! He told me three times before I took it off. He wouldn't have so much as a rag on me. 'What's this?' says he. 'A little trouble I had a year or so ago, with a gland that swelled,' says I. 'It had to be cut, and has been as right as rain ever since.' Just in that offhand way, Cicely. Quite brisk and cheerful. 'Tubercular, eh?' says he, very soft and thoughtful-like. And I knew it was all up with me."
"You should have told him it wasn't!" Cicely said, tearfully impatient of him. "Oh, if I'd been there——!"
"Don't you be afraid! I told him fast enough, or tried to, but he stopped me. 'That'll do, thank you,' says he. 'I form my own opinion.' He wouldn't listen."
"Did you stand like that?" Cicely demanded, with a condemning glance at the stooping, shivering figure beneath the umbrella; "or did you hold your head up and throw your shoulders back, and push out your chest as I told you?"
"I stood up as brave as a lion," the young man assured her, his teeth chattering. "I yarned to him about how fond I was of athletics and swimming, how many miles I could walk at a stretch. Oh, I wasn't going to lose the berth for the want of a little gas. Only—" he stopped and sadly shook his head; "he'd made up his mind," he went on in a drooping tone. "He'd made it up as soon as he looked at me. 'Keep on with your walking; live in the open air,' he said. 'You're not fitted for the office-stool. Stooping all day over a desk would be about the worst thing you could do. Thank you. That's all. Good-morning.'"
"And you came away? You shouldn't have come away! You should have told him what it is to you. What you will have to put up with if you can't get the berth. You should have said, 'You're taking the bread out of my mouth, you're stealing the coat off my back. It's life and death to me.' You should have said that, and made him hear. And you came away!"
Peter looked back upon that action, sorrowfully considering it. "I thought it very affable of him to shake hands," he said, "but he had a very final way of doing it. And, besides, I didn't care to make a tale of my private affairs, and seem to cringe. I didn't want him to think——"
"What does it matter about him?" Cicely demanded, with scorn. "Do we care what he thinks? Oh, Peter, go back to him, dear; do—do go back. Tell him he must pass you. Tell him it's your chance, your only—only one. And how you've tried and tried—and this is the only one; and how cruel everyone is at home—just as if it was your fault that no one—no one will give you work to do. And tell him you'd rather be dead than go home and say you'd lost it. Oh, Peter, say that; it is true—it is true——!"
She was crying. The rain blown on her cheek by the angry wind mingled with the tears there. She held his wrist—that bony, flat wrist, which had had its own tale to tell to the examining physician—protruding from the shabby coat-sleeve, and led him, he nearly unresisting, back to the door. On the door-step he hesitated, looking at the child with beseeching dark eyes.
"He's awfully busy—his room's full—he isn't the sort to take liberties with—I don't want to bother him again."
But she kept a relentless hold upon the wrist, and herself rang the bell, and when the door opened, pushed him within with remorseless urgency. "Never mind cringing," she whispered. "Tell him everything. Tell him how they treat you at home. Don't mind what he thinks."
So, in Peter went, and Cicely, her school-books tucked away under her arm for the protection afforded by her mackintosh, the rain coming on faster and faster, walked the pavement, or waited on the doorstep, and now and again crossed the road in the baseless hope that she might not find the other side so wet, for a miserable two hours.
"Why, I thought I had finished with you, sir, more than an hour ago," the physician said, looking up, not too well pleased, when Peter, nervously smiling, his dark-curled head with its pale Jewish features pushed well forward, appeared in the consulting-room again.
The doctor, a fine-looking, red-faced man with keen blue eyes, looked a giant of health and strength and well-being beside the slight and meagre form. He was physician to the great firm of Clomayne, Company, Limited, who never appointed a clerk to their offices without a favourable report from him. Peter had already passed the educational test by which they weeded out the applicants to fill their vacancies. As a typist he had proved himself expert; in shorthand he had attained the highest speed. Nothing but the medical examination stood between him and the office-stool, which to him was as much an object of desire as is a throne to a prince.
"I think, sir," he said, his eyes, very dark and softly luminous, on the doctor's face,—"I'm afraid you didn't form a very high opinion of my physique. I wanted to ask you—I wanted to beg you, sir, to pass me. It would be the making of me, sir, to get to Clomayne's. I've been trying for more than a year to get a clerkship. The market is so very full, and I've been unfortunate. This is a great chance for me. I hope very much, sir, you won't let me lose it."
The doctor looked down from his goodly height upon the stooping shoulders of the suppliant. "I've got my duty to Clomayne's to perform, you know," he said. "They send their clerks abroad into all sorts of climates—very unhealthy, some of them. Climates where you, my poor fellow, could not live a month."
"I could take my chance," Peter said quickly. "I'm not afraid, sir. I shouldn't ask any favour. If I died, it would make no difference to Clomayne's. I mean the inconvenience would be mine."
"My dear fellow, you're a phthisical subject—not to mince matters. You told me your family history——"
"You asked me, sir," Peter interrupted, with a note of reproach in his softly thick voice.
"It was my duty to ask. Your father died a year ago of pneumonia, your mother ten years ago in a decline. Do you ask me to conceal these facts from Clomayne's?—to say that I consider you in strong health? Then, you ask what is absolutely impossible. I am sorry, but it is impossible. I think that is all I have to say on the subject, and—my time is very short."
"I am going almost at once, sir," Peter said, speaking with an effort of cheerfulness, but with a load of sorrow and disappointment lying, a physical weight, upon his heart. "I came because Cicely thought if I told you 'twas a matter of life and death, sir—. It is that to me, almost—it is. I'm very good at shorthand—hundred and twenty a minute; my arithmetic and book-keeping, too, are more than fair. My hand-writing's good, I might say. My hands don't always shake like this——"
"My dear boy," the doctor said, with an impatience at once angry and pitiful, "all that has less than nothing to do with me!"
"But if you'd give me a chance, sir!" His eyes were extraordinarily bright and pleading, his slight frame shook with eagerness; he made as though he swallowed something with difficulty. "After all, I shall have to cringe," he said to himself. "Since my father died, I have had to depend on my uncle, sir," he went on. "I owe everything to him. He's very good—but there are a lot of his own children; and there's my aunt—and she thinks—. My uncle doesn't grudge me anything, he often says so, but he naturally wants me to be getting my own living—and so does my aunt; and she doesn't quite understand how difficult it is, nowadays, to get in to anything—and my cousins don't understand it either, except Cicely, she's different. Of course, I can't at present contribute anything for my board and lodging and my clothes." He stopped, a minute, and looked down at his shabby overcoat, then lifted his eyes, alight with their soft, irresistible appeal, to the physician's face; his voice dropped in a kind of awe. "This berth carries a pound a week, sir. It would be all the world to me to get it."
"You want me to perjure myself?"
Peter did not shrink from the stern tone, nor blush at the imputation. "I want you not to take away my chance," he said.
He did not leave for some fifteen minutes longer, and when he did leave, it was with eyes lit almost to rapture, a glow of happiness on his pale face, and words of thanks bubbling forth from trembling lips. The doctor had consented not to conceal the state of the young man's predisposition to tubercular mischief, but to make the best of his chance of escaping the family taint. He had promised, too, to explain matters to one of the managers with whom he was on very friendly terms. Peter's position at Clomayne's was assured.
"I will never forget it, sir, never!" the boy said, stopping again at the door of the consulting-room to reiterate the fact. "It will be the making of me. I shall get on—you'll see I will. There's men that don't make the most of their chances—but I will. I've got a splendid one—thanks to your goodness—and I will. I feel it in me. You'll never regret it."
"Oh, that'll do—that'll do," the doctor said. He was a little ashamed of his weakness in the matter, knew it was a bad precedent, didn't wish to hear any more about it. "Haven't you got something warmer to put on?" he asked. "You're not going out into this pouring rain in that thin coat?"
"This is my great-coat, sir," Peter explained, with a glance at the sleeve that exposed the flat red wrist. "And Cicely is waiting outside for me with an umbrella."
The doctor was sufficiently interested to walk to that window in his consulting-room which looked upon the street in order to watch the youth who had taken what was in his experience the very unusual course of questioning his fiat. He saw the stooping figure of the lad join the upright one of the child, hurrying to meet him. He almost saw the glad words of the reversal of his doom upon the young man's lips; he saw the change on the straight-featured serious face of the child from an expression of unchildlike anxiety to one of almost womanly joy. The pair stood for three minutes in the drenching rain before the window, and even at that crisis Cicely did not forget to hoist her dripping umbrella over the head so eagerly thrust forward. Then Peter put a thin wrist through a mackintoshed arm, and looking in each other's faces, and eagerly talking, unconscious of the eyes that watched them, the wet impatient people pushing past, the boy and girl walked slowly away.
The doctor touched the bell that would bring his next patient for inspection, then took one more look through the window. The pair had taken hands and were running now, running over the clean-washed, shiny pavement. Cicely turned her face so that he saw it once again, and it was a laughing face.
"It's something to be young," the doctor said to himself as he turned away. "Young—and to have the thing you wish for! Yes, even if you're never to know a day's health while you live, and have got to die a lingering, painful death in a year or so."
He only saw Peter once after he obtained his heart's desire and the proud position of a post as a junior clerk in Clomayne's office. It was on a platform of Liverpool Street Suburban line. He was going down to Enfield in his professional capacity, and while he waited for his train, walking up and down, his attention was caught by a figure which appeared in some way familiar to him standing at the book-stall. A minute, and he had recognised it as that of the youth who had been so bent on becoming Clomayne's clerk.
He was better dressed now, and wore a warmer over-coat (for the summer was over, by now, and winter coming on again), and a more fashionably shaped bowler. Cicely, in her waterproof still, although there was no rain, and with her straight, heavy hair upon her shoulders, was by his side.
The physician, having established in his own mind the identity of the pair, resumed his pacing to and fro of the platform, and forgot them. In a minute, a voice at his elbow spoke his name, and glancing down, he saw, taking off his hat to him, and accosting him with a very eager look on the duskily pale face, the youth whose name, even, he had forgotten. A light of triumphant gladness was in the mild darkness of the eyes.
"Excuse my speaking to you, sir," Peter said, "Cicely would have me come. She thought you'd be pleased to hear our very good news."
"I'm always glad to hear anyone's good news," the big doctor said. "Let's see—it's Mr——?"
"I'm the young man at Clomayne's," Peter explained. "You were so good——"
"I remember perfectly. And how are you getting on?"
"First class, sir. That's what I wanted to tell you. Cicely wanted it too."
"You like your work?"
"I enjoy my work, sir. I don't have a dull moment. And—" here his voice sank with the immensity of the tidings with which it was charged—"you'll be very glad to hear, sir, I'm promoted."
"I am indeed glad. Doubled your pay, have they?"
Peter smiled. "It doesn't affect my pay, sir. But pay isn't everything, I take it."
"Certainly not," the physician hastened to say. "To be chosen for an honourable position, for instance——"
"It's like this," Peter said, anxious to proclaim the good fortune which had befallen him. "Clomayne & Co. are starting another branch—you may have heard—and there's heavy work entailed. Clomayne's have had to put on several of their clerks to stop at the office over-hours. I'm one of those selected."
"I see," the doctor said, meeting with his penetrating blue eyes the mildly exultant gaze of the black ones.
"I've been at it now for a month," Peter went on. "Instead of getting home at seven, I'm at the office till nine, and sometimes ten o'clock. I enjoy it very much. The firm allows us something for our teas. My fellow-clerks and I have a rattling good time. If it hadn't been for your kindness, sir, I should never have got to Clomayne's; and I thought you'd be glad to hear how splendidly I'm doing there."
"And how's the health? Extra hours spent in bending over your desk aren't very good for you. You haven't yet lost your cough?"
Peter looked away, evidently not caring to be questioned on that theme. "I've been very fit, thank you, sir," he said. "The mist—it's been a bit misty in the evenings lately—has got on my chest rather. This, being Saturday," he further explained, "is a holiday. Cicely and I always have the Saturday afternoons."
Ah! And how did they spend them, he was asked. In the air, it was hoped.
Not always, it seemed. For Cicely was fond of pictures, and sometimes they went to the National Gallery. Cicely was fond of reading too; and once or twice they had been to Westminster Abbey because she had a fancy for Poets' Corner. But this afternoon they were going to their home at Edmonton, and if they could get away again, and if it didn't rain, they were going to the Chingford hills, for Cicely, of all things, loved a glorious walk.
"Cicely's a dear kiddie. She's my friend. I'm awfully fond of her," Peter said. He made the avowal without the slightest embarrassment—from his infancy, probably, he had not known what it was to feel shy. "Before I got that berth at Clomayne's, I should have had a rough time at home if it hadn't been for Cicely. My aunt and my cousins didn't believe in me, you see, sir. Cicely always did."
The physician looked across to the bookstall where the child still stood, watchful of him and Peter beneath the shadowing brim of her hat. Obeying a good-natured impulse, he crossed to her and laid a hand on her shoulder, and called her "Cicely," and said he had been hearing she was fond of reading.
"We both are," Cicely said, with a calm, middle-aged self-possession. "It is the thing Peter and I like best in the world."
"And what sort of reading?" the doctor asked; and learnt that Peter liked books of adventure and happy stories, but that Cicely loved poetry, and liked best stories that were sad.
"They make her cry, sir," Peter explained. "She cries, and cries—don't you, Cicely?—but she likes them too."
So a kind doctor, looking over the wares displayed, bought a volume of Longfellow's poems, which he gave the girl—he knew nothing of poetry, but was sure Longfellow must be safe, as his mother had liked him—and he got for the boy, Wells's Sea Lady.
"I don't read such things, myself," he said, "but I've gathered from the newspapers the man has a quite creditable acquaintance with science, and does not write sentimental rubbish."
Cicely, regarding the donor with an unsmiling face, said—"Thank you very much," in her staid, middle-aged way; but Peter, using his tongue volubly, overwhelmed him with thanks.
"It is kind of you!" he said fervently. "I shall always treasure the book, and so will Cicely hers. We go to the Library—we've got a splendid one, you know, in Edmonton, Passmore Edwards gave us. Before I got to Clomayne's—they didn't want me at home, and I had nowhere else to go—I spent most of my days in the Library. Of course I've read H. G. Wells, and I learnt a lot of him by heart to tell Cicely, but I love to have him for my own. I have very much to be grateful to you for, sir, and I shall be grateful while I live."
"For how long will that be, poor fellow, I wonder!" the doctor said to himself as he walked away. He had done the poor boy a kindness, and he let his mind dwell on him with a pitying pleasure. It was hard that Fate should grudge to this unfortunate that humble place in the world of men which he held with such a boyish pride, those poor pleasures in which he took such innocent delight! He thought of his own son, as the train bore him away to his consultation, good and fairly satisfactory, but guarded on every side, petted, pampered. How much would it cost to bring into his own boy's handsome face the glow of surprised delight which had overspread the pale features of this poor lad at the gift of the four-and-sixpenny book.
But even as the thought passed through his mind, his lips curved with a smile of proud tenderness. The absurdity of the comparison! His own handsome, well-grown lad, with his fair, frank face and proudly carried head, and the poor little city clerk—the pallor of ill-health and confinement on the dusky face; the meagre figure; the head, over-heavy with its brown curls, thrust forwards, as if in eagerness to reach the goal before his feet could carry him there.
"Ah, happiness is found in unexpected places, and is a matter of temperament only, and not of circumstance at all," the doctor told himself, when Clomayne's clerk and the girl he called Cicely, passed the door of his first-class carriage, their destination reached. Peter was holding the girl's sleeve and hurrying her along, his head pushed forward, and on his face that look of eager joyousness which to the eyes that watched and that knew was so full of pathos. The voluble tongue was wagging as the pair trotted past. He heard his own name mentioned. And so Clomayne's clerk passed from the eyes that watched, for ever.
"I'll keep an eye on that poor fellow. I'll speak about him to Ladell; and when he begins to go down-hill, I'll lend a helping hand," the doctor said, making one of those resolutions that testify surely to the spiritual part of us, and do honour to the hearts that record them, even when, as now, they are not kept.
The doctor fully meant to keep his when he made it, but he forgot.
He forgot it, until one sunshiny morning in the spring of the next year, when, as he sat at his solitary lunch, there was brought to him a letter. It was in a careful and childish hand, and he read it almost at a glance as he ate the biscuit and drank the glass of Burgundy which he allowed himself for his midday meal.
"DEAR SIR," the letter ran—"Peter was coming to tell you he had been promoted again. A junior was wanted to help with some work through the Easter holidays. Peter offered and was accepted. He was coming to tell you, but he was drowned last night in the River Lea. So I thought I would let you know.—Yours affectly., CICELY.
"P.S. He was not to have had more pay, but it was the honour."
The physician, who had never time for anything but his profession, made time to go to the funeral of Clomayne's clerk, paying his poor remains a compliment he had refused to those of many a man of distinguished name and high estate whose fees he had taken. On a Saturday afternoon in the sweetest month of the spring-time, he travelled down to Finchley with Ladell, that manager of Clomayne's who was his friend.
"We asked his people to hurry the funeral by a couple of days, so that the clerks could come," the official said.
Peter had looked up to this man as to a king among men. A "good-morning" from him, and a nod in the street in response to an eagerly snatched-off bowler, left the junior clerk elated in spirits for the day.
"Mr Ladell asked me if I wouldn't like to change places with Jones who sits nearer the fire," he said once to Cicely, his eyes humid with gratification. "He'd noticed how cold my hands were when I passed him a pen. They shake, you know; I can't stop them. It's something to be noticed like this by him, Cicely! I shall do now!"
"He was only one of the youngsters, of course, and not of much account, but he'd made a lot of friends. They've got a wreath as big as a haystack for the poor little man. They've made him into a hero; and they're all here—good fellows!" Thus the manager to the physician, as the train bore them along.
"It was simply silly, chucking away a life like that, of course," he went on. "A little fellow that could barely swim, to fling himself in, after a casual suicide! A hulking, great beggar who had good reason, no doubt, for wanting to be rid of his life. He probably wouldn't have thanked the boy, even if he had saved him—which he didn't."
He had a goodly following, poor Peter! How his eyes would have glistened, could he have known! Quite a regiment of clerks from Clomayne's were there, walking two and two; to say nothing of the uncle who had grudgingly fed him, and the goodly array of cousins who "had not believed in him." He had been put in a burial-club by his not too-loving relations; so, although he had gone so long in shabby clothing, and had known the sorrow of broken boots and wrist-bands that must be hidden away, he rode in state to his resting-place, drawn by four horses, in a silver hearse, his coffin covered with flowers.
But his grave was a humble one—the money from the burial-club not being sufficient to secure him a decent privacy in decay—and very, very deep. The clerks, crowding forward when the service was over, could hardly read his name and the account of his few years, on the silver plate of his coffin, so deep in the bowels of the earth they laid him—poor Peter! "the joys of all whose life were said and sung!" His was the first coffin in the grave destined to hold seven more.
The physician, waiting until the rest had turned away, stood for a few minutes alone, gazing into that profundity.
"Such a chucking away of life!" the admired gentleman who had been Peter's chief had said. But the physician had his own thought on that matter.
The poor boy—the foolish, enthusiastic, perhaps hysterical boy—enjoying the poor blessings that were his with the prophetic eagerness those doomed to an early death so often exhibit, had taken his seat upon his office-stool as upon a throne; had blessed God for his career of junior clerk as for a high imperial lot; then had flung away, his short race hardly begun, the life he prized. True; but in a blind belief in his own strength; and for the high purpose, suggested by the poetry and the books he and Cicely loved and talked over, of giving himself for another! The physician knew that in giving all he had but exchanged a year or two of failing power, of the pain and weakness of daily dying, the grief of finding himself a burden again upon unwilling shoulders for—what? For the moment of exultation when into the dark waters of greedy Lea he had flung his poor little body, clothed as it was in the new coat and trousers of which Cicely and he had been so proud; the moment of absolute belief in himself and his strength; the moment more, perhaps, of recognition that he had failed, but in a great cause. Peter had exhibited an effusive gratitude for the few favours Life had bestowed upon him; for this last favour of Death's according the physician knew he might well have been thankful.
That beautiful "floral tribute" for which Clomayne's clerks had contributed their shillings, had been lowered upon the coffin, together with one or two humbler, and obviously home-made, wreaths. As the physician turned away he noticed, lying almost at his feet, a little bunch of violets, dropped as the flowers had been removed from the coffin. Attached by a bit of white ribbon to their stalks was a tiny square of notepaper, and on this was written in the careful but unformed hand the doctor recognised, "From Cicely."
Holding them thoughtfully for a minute, the physician slowly opened his fingers; and through all that dismal space, soon to be filled with other coffins, Cicely's violets fell upon that which bore Peter's name. Upon the coffin of Clomayne's fortunate junior clerk; in luck's way still; promoted to the blessed company of those who die in what they believe to be a good cause.
IN A TEA-SHOP
The duties of the tea-shop were not particularly hard, but to Lucilla, whose head was filled with memories of a perfect holiday just over, a little irksome. The church clock, in the market-place upon which the windows looked, chimed the half-hour past five. The tea-room closed at six-thirty.
"At last it ringeth to evensong," Lucilla said.
At least, these were the words which repeated themselves in her brain; what she really said was—"Hot toast for two—sixpence; a pot of tea—sixpence; how many pieces of cake, sir? Thank you; cake—fourpence. One shilling and fourpence, if you please."
It had been a busy afternoon, but the couple who paid the one-and-fourpence, pushing some coppers towards the waitress, who, with a dignified motion and an aloof-voiced "We do not receive gratuities," pushed them back, would in all probability be the last customers. Lucilla having discovered the man's hat for him, restored to the woman the wrist-bag and pocket-handkerchief and parcel she would have left behind her, and watched the pair from the room, yawned aloud as she piled the soiled teacups, plates, and saucers on the little brown Japanese tray, and carried them to that screened-off angle of the room where china was washed and bread and butter cut all the day long.
She returned, yawning still, to dust the crumbs from the little bamboo table. Half-past five! What, in those delightful fourteen days which had composed her yearly holiday, had she been doing at that hour? So precious the memory of that fortnight, so treasured every incident, almost she could have accounted for each minute of the time.
As she set the chairs straight before the dozen bamboo tables, put each illustrated paper in its allotted place, her inward gaze was turned upon scenes she had left behind with the delightful luxuriousness of a life which, for that small, allotted space, she had been permitted to live.
She had driven, she had motored, she had paid visits, had danced. Yes—danced! She paused on that word, and her lips trembled to a smile.
She had read of such an existence, dreamed of it, perhaps; at last, she had lived it. Would it make her days in the tea-shop—and out of it—easier?
For one thing, she had returned a little ashamed of her work. "Don't mention about the tea-shop, even before your cousins, dear," her aunt had admonished her. Her aunt, being an old-fashioned person who did not realise that a lady can get her living by any honourable means, in the present day, and remain a lady still. Lucilla had, of course, obeyed her aunt's injunction, but had felt, for her own part, not the slightest repugnance to mention the means by which she gained her livelihood, until a couple of evenings before she had returned. That evening of the dance, whose memory brought the quiver of a smile to Lucilla's lips.
"Suppose I had told him!" she said to herself as she moved from table to table, mechanically putting all in order. "He asked me how I passed my time. What would have happened? Would he have gone on dancing with me, and gone on sitting out with me when I couldn't dance? I'm glad I didn't tell, even if it did deceive him—even if I am a snob. I'm glad I had my hour."
She looked out of one of the windows into the market square, around which the lamps were lighted now, and a pleasing vision rose before her eyes of herself in her cousin Alice's last year's ball-dress, looking so supremely happy, and as pretty—he had said that—as a dream. Yes; she was thankful he would never have to know. What would he think of her if he could see her now in her full-skirted brown merino frock, her brown muslin apron, the big white chrysanthemum, which was the emblem of the tea-shop, embroidered in its corner and on its bib, her high muslin cap with the stiff strings tied beneath her chin?
"He would never recognise me; but I'm glad he will never see me," Lucilla said.
Then she turned from the window at the sound of a step upon the stairs, and saw him coming into the room.
He was accompanied by a lady, young and pretty.
"Such a crush, and so badly managed, and so under-waited!" she was volubly declaring as she came in. "Half a cup of cold tea, and a quarter of an inch of fishy sandwich was all I got hold of. It was a splendid thought of yours to turn in here for a feed, Captain Finch. I couldn't possibly get along on that till dinner-time. Bread and butter, please, for two, and a good lot of it. Two hungry people. And—oh, where is the young lady who usually waits?"
It was the attendant from behind the screen who was taking the order, a girl with a fine figure, a sharp-featured, high-coloured, alert face, and wearing the brown uniform of the establishment. The other young lady was engaged elsewhere, she said.
"Oh!" said the customer on a falling note, and repeated in a flatter tone her order. "I wanted you to see this other girl," she said to Captain Finch as the waitress moved away. "She is called a beauty. One or two men rave about her. Women can't judge of these things. I wanted to hear what you thought of her."
"My word—on such a subject—would be final," the man said.
Lucilla, cutting bread and butter behind the screen, quivered at the voice, the rather hesitating utterance which was characteristic, the little laugh at the finish. Ah, what a mercy she had had that minute in which to dash into the corner and to drive Miss Dawson forth to take her place! She remembered how beautifully, intoxicatingly deferential he had been to her in her charming ball-dress, niece to the lady who was wife of the most influential man in Workingham. Words could not express how he must despise her if he saw her now.
"They make you judge at all the beauty shows in India, I suppose?" the lively lady was saying.
"They'd like to. I couldn't stand the fag."
"Poor dear! You appear to be very much exhausted."
"That beastly wedding! I never was so bored in my life."
"That doesn't excuse your yawning in my face."
"Oh, I say! Did I do that, now? I beg your pardon."
"If only this pretty girl I was telling you about had been here!"
"Oh, come! Good-looking women aren't so rare, I know a dozen I can see any day, Mrs Eaton. But as we're here, can't she be produced?"
The lady tinkled the little bell with which her table was supplied. "Some walnut cake, please." As it was set on the table, "I hope the other young lady has not left?" she inquired.
"Oh no, madam."
"A little more hot water."
"An officer, I'll bet my eyes! And a fine-looking fellow! Did you say he was a pal of yours, miss?" Miss Dawson whispered to Lucilla as she replenished the jug.
"If they mention me again, say Miss Browne—you can call me that—is gone home, and isn't coming back any more for a month."
The bell tinkled again.
"I thought perhaps you had forgotten the hot water," the lady said sweetly.
"No, madam," replied Miss Dawson as she placed the jug on the tray; "Miss Browne, our other young lady, being gone home, we're a little short-handed, like. The young person who is taking her place is rather awkward at the work, and puts us backward," she raised her voice here that Lucilla might enjoy the joke.
"Ah. I thought things were not quite so nice," the customer said.
"No, madam," acquiesced Miss Dawson, and giggled, and pinched Lucilla as she retired behind the screen.
The lady at the tea-table was a vivacious creature; she rattled on with hardly a break in her stream of chatter through the half-hour, during which she ate all the bread and butter and drank nearly all the tea. Lucilla, behind her screen, listening for the pleasant tones of the man's halting speech, grew weary of the high-pitched, untiring voice.
"It is getting late," Captain Finch said at last. "I had better put you in a cab."
"You aren't going to take me back?"
"Sorry. I've got to buy some things."
When they had left the room and were going downstairs, the woman's tongue still volubly running, Lucilla came with a soft rush from behind the screen and looked from the window. The shops round the market place were brilliantly lighted now; the elegant backs of the couple emerging from the confectioner's beneath the tea-room were easily visible. The man raised his stick and hailed a hansom.
"How wonderfully things happen!" mused Lucilla. "He said, I remember, that he was going to the wedding of a friend; to think that it should have been here!"
"If you and him are friends, I can't think why you didn't show yourself," Miss Dawson called from behind her screen.
"I daresay you can't," said Lucilla to herself.
"Where'd you see him first?" Miss Dawson asked. "Did he come up and speak to you?"
The withering glance which Lucilla cast in the direction of the screen. "Come up and speak to me!" she repeated.
"And why not, pray? Rubbish!" laughed Miss Dawson, rattling the teacups she was washing. "What does it matter in the end? Comes to the same thing when you do know them."
"You and I look at such things from a different point of view."
"Heap of nonsense!" Miss Dawson shrilled. "Your father was a lawyer that failed and couldn't pay his debts; mine was a bankrupt greengrocer. Both of 'em's dead now, and one as good as another; and us, too."
It was not the first time Lucilla had heard the argument; she listened to it now with compressed lips, in silence. Then she went to the mantelpiece, made an entry in a memorandum book lying there, tore out the page, counted the money in the bag which hung at her side, piled it upon the loose leaf, which she folded around it, preparatory to carrying it to the desk in the shop below.
"If you don't want to know the man, say you've never met him before, and bounce it," Miss Dawson called after her in contemptuous tones as she disappeared.
Two short flights of stairs led from shop to tearoom, and these were divided by a small landing, where spare cups and saucers and teapots were stacked. From the upper flight the lower was invisible. Lucilla, descending, was unaware therefore of the gentleman coming up until she met him on the square of landing beneath the unshaded gaslight. He held a great, loose bunch of long-stalked violets in his hand; and he was, of course, Lucilla's partner at the heavenly dance, Captain Finch.
Lucilla's heart beat tumultuously, her face turned white. "Bounce it," said the practical Miss Dawson's voice in her ears. She kept her head up, therefore did not notice the proffered hand, would have passed the gentleman by.
"Miss Mavis, I have brought you some violets," he said.
"You are mistaken. My name is Miss Browne," said Lucilla. "I do not accept flowers from men I do not know."
He stared at her, his lips fallen apart beneath his moustache. "I—was under the impression we had met at the dance at Workingham Town Hall," he said.
She took courage from his hesitating manner, and smiled with great self-possession. "You are unfortunately mistaken. Will you allow me to pass?" she said.
Lifting his hat, he moved aside; then turned to watch her make her deliberate descent. The soft folds of her full brown skirt dropped from stair to stair; the light from the flaring gas-jet fell on the knot of brown hair massed between the high, stiff cap and the high, stiff collar.
"Is that you, miss?"
It was a voice from above which called the superfluous question; he turned from the contemplation of the young lady in brown, who had now reached the bottom stair, to that of the young lady in brown who stood at the top. Towards the latter he mounted with a lingering step, as if not quite aware that he did so, and followed her into the tea-room.
"That young lady who has just gone down——?" he said.
"Miss Browne, sir."
"Er—is that so—really?" He lost himself, apparently; for the moment had nothing more to say; until, with a happy inspiration, "and—your name?" he asked.
"I'm Miss Dawson, sir. Miss Nellie Dawson."
"Really? Pleased to have made your acquaintance. Er—I've—er—brought you some violets, Miss Nellie Dawson," he said.
He appeared again the next morning, and had lunch at the tea-shop; the only man among a bevy of women lunching off scones and tea. He was shy of his isolated position, perhaps, for he held the illustrated paper he took up rather persistently before his face. At that hour a servant stood behind the screen and washed the china; both the girls waited. Above the top of his paper and round its edges he watched the more elegant of the two moving with noiseless tread among the tables, standing with bent head in the attitude of dignified attentiveness to receive orders, carrying her light burden of brown tea tray and Satsuma china. It was Lucilla he watched, but it was Miss Dawson who waited on him.
He ordered two poached eggs—the most substantial item on the menu card. He had to wait a long while for them, and when they were eaten, and he had given himself time to read his Punch two or three times through, he apparently discovered himself to be still hungry, for he ordered two more. By the time these were consumed, and he had conscientiously looked through The Ladies' Field, with which Miss Dawson had thoughtfully supplied him, the room began to empty.
A couple of ladies, evidently from the country, strayed in. One, in a low and secret voice demanded stout, which could not be supplied. Lucilla, with her head at a charming incline, suggested as a substitute tea, coffee, or chocolate; finally took the order for chocolate, supplied it; then, there being no one else to wait on, sat down by the fire, drew a strip of knitting from her apron pocket, began to work on it.
Captain Finch, rising from his table, pulled down his waistcoat, picked up his hat and stick, crossed the room, and placed himself before her. In the hand held in the fall of his back he carried a book.
"I—er—will you allow me—to—pay?" he asked. "Four eggs—er—coffee—er."
Lucilla, without raising her eyes from the brown silk she was knitting into a narrow strip, slightly waved a hand in the direction of Miss Dawson. "The other young lady," she said.
But Miss Dawson, at that moment, was in spirited controversy with an elderly, handsomely-dressed customer, whose carriage and pair of horses awaited her at the pastry-cook's door, who could only remember to have eaten one slice of walnut cake, while Miss Dawson was of opinion that she had eaten two.
"Am I not permitted to pay Miss—er—Browne—if I prefer to do so?"
"It is the rule for each customer to pay the young lady who waits on him."
"Thank you. Miss—er—Browne, when I had the happiness to meet you at the Workingham Town Hall—at that delightful dance——"
"Pardon me. You did not meet me there. I do not dance."
"You spoke of a wish to read one of—er—Bernard Shaw's plays. I've got this for you." He produced the hand from the small of his back and tendered her the book.
She laid down her knitting and rose; a belated customer had appeared. "I am sorry," she said, without looking at man or book. "The lady you speak of would doubtless think it very kind of you. I have no wish to read the plays, and could not possibly take the book."
With the slightest inclination of the head she passed him, and, the menu card in hand, leant over the newcomer.
Left with the book, Captain Finch poised it in his hand, looking rather stupidly at it for a few minutes; then tossed it to the mantelpiece, and went from the room.
The clock had struck six when he came in for tea, that evening, and all the little tables were empty. Miss Dawson, who was second in command, was, as usual at that hour, behind the screen; he had come in so quietly that Lucilla had no chance to rush and take her place. Her face paled as she saw him. The man was persistent, her strength at the moment small; there was only her pride to carry her through.
The day had been a busy one, she was fagged, and read in his face that he saw her to be so. His face, although not a clever one, was so heavenly kind!
"I won't trouble you to fetch any tea," he said. "If I might be allowed to—er—stay here and talk to you for a few minutes——"
"Tea or coffee, sir?"
"Oh, well, tea, then—confound the stuff!"
He threw down his hat and stick, and stood while she placed the brown tray, the tiny teapot, the minute muffin-dish before him. "If you know how I hate to have you—er—wait on me——" he said; but she gave him no chance to enlarge on the theme.
He sat for a few minutes over the tea-tray, not touching its contents, and with his eyes on Lucilla's back as she stood at the mantelpiece making her entries, counting the money in her bag. When she moved to the door he got up and intercepted her.
"You are Miss Browne while you are in the—er—shop, I understand?" he said. "I don't care for her—for Miss—er—Browne. It is the girl I met at the dance I care for, and want to see again. I can't find her here. Can I—er—find her outside? If I wait at the door for an hour, say, will you—will she be there?"
Lucilla drew back, with hurt eyes and a reddening face. As if she were any Miss Dawson, with the pavement for a rendezvous!
"I can't possibly say where you may meet your friends," she told him. "I, for my part, do not make appointments to meet men who are strangers to me—in the streets."
She passed him then, and went downstairs, her head held high, although her heart was sore. She watched, hidden in the shop, for his departure. It seemed to her impatience a long time before he left.
Miss Dawson was warbling to herself, with rather shrill-throated gaiety, whisking her full skirt among the bamboo tables, when Lucilla returned to the tea-room.
"I like your friend, miss," she said. "He hung about for a good time, waiting for you; but as you didn't choose to come back he's gone."
Lucilla had come in with her arms full of great, bronze-coloured chrysanthemums, which had been sent in from the flower shop to deck the tables for the morrow. In silence she went about the work of replenishing the vases. Miss Dawson quavered some high notes of her song.
"Did he say that he wanted to see me again?" Lucilla, in spite of herself, was obliged to ask.
"Dear me, no, miss. He said he stayed to thank me for wearing his flowers."
Lucilla viciously snapped off the stalk of a giant chrysanthemum. The Princess violets in the other girl's bosom had been as thorns in her own, all the day. She glanced at the mantelpiece where she had seen him toss the book of plays.
"You've got his book as well, I suppose?" she asked.
Miss Dawson gave her high laugh. "Oh yes!" she acknowledged. "I know it's your leavings; I'm not proud."
She sang in her florid style for a minute or two, then descended to speech again.
"You wouldn't let your friend wait for you outside, miss," she said. "You're so mighty particular. I ain't. I told him I had no one to walk home with me to-night; so he's waiting for me."
Captain Finch brought his erect, handsome form, his kind, foolish face no more to the tea-room. Lucilla, longing as much as she dreaded to see him, felt her heart throb at the sound of each manly footstep on the stair, paled at the sight of coat and trousers of a certain shade, trembled at the sound of a voice that recalled his hesitating tones. But he came never again. The "bounce" which Miss Dawson had counselled had had its effect. Either he now disbelieved the evidence of his own eyes, or, more probably, he bowed, as a gentleman would, to her desire to disavow the acquaintanceship.
"A man in his position could not meet on equal ground a girl in mine; and—and I won't meet him on any other level," she said to herself. Aloud, she would not speak of him again. Neither did Miss Dawson any more allude to the gentleman who had presented the violets and the volume of plays, and with whom she had gone for a walk on the first evening of their acquaintanceship. Relations between the young women, never very friendly, had become strained since that evening.
"A girl who could do such a thing!" said Lucilla to herself; and held her head disdainfully, and curled her lip at the other girl.
But Miss Dawson, if she noticed that scornful attitude, was not at all impressed by it. She switched her brown skirt with more than her usual air of jaunty alertness around the chairs and tables, looked in the little glass behind the screen at which the pair adjusted their caps and aprons with a smirk of self-satisfaction, and always wore a bunch of Princess violets in the bosom of her dress. Soon, the string of amber beads at her throat was discarded in favour of a gold chain and pearl and turquoise pendant, which Lucilla despised as imitation, of course, but which, nevertheless, looked real.
Then, one day, at an hour when the tea-room was empty, arrived a letter, from her influential aunt at Workingham, for Lucilla.
A certain portion of this letter she read again and again; then, the need to a bursting heart of the outlet of speech being imperative, spake with her tongue.
"Your advice to me to—bounce it—wasn't very happy advice, Miss Dawson," she said, with bitterness. "Captain Finch knew all the time. He knew when he came to this place. He came to see me. He knew I served in a tea-shop. It made no difference. He went to my uncle the day after the dance, and spoke—spoke about me——" Her voice was not under control; she turned away.
Miss Dawson, energetically rubbing a bamboo table on which some coffee had been spilt, made no answer.
"I wish—I wish—" said Lucilla, with her back turned, a world of regret in her eyes, "I wish I had not been so silly."
Miss Dawson looked up momentarily from her occupation. "You can put it all right with him, you know," she said; "Captain Finch is still hanging round."
"Here?" Lucilla cried. "He went three weeks ago!"
"Not he. Every night of the three weeks he's waited outside to walk home with me. For the first week he went to talk about you. For a fortnight he hasn't mentioned your name."
She ceased to rub the table, shook the cloth, folded it with nicety, the other girl speechlessly regarding her.
"He gives me these every day," Miss Dawson went on, and dashed a hand towards the violets in her breast. "He gave me this," she lightly fingered the turquoise and pearl pendant. "I don't wear his ring yet, our rules not allowing it."
She whisked off with her cloth to the screen, deposited it, reappeared. "His leave's up in six weeks," she said. "Him and me are to be married in a month; have a fortnight's fling, and off to India. I chuck this, at the end of the week. They know, downstairs. I hope you'll like your new pal when she turns up, miss."
* * * * *
Only once, during the few days that remained, did Lucilla and Miss Dawson speak of matters not strictly concerned with teas, scones, and girdle-cakes. It was on the last day of her service in the tea-shop that the latter brought with her, and flung upon the mantelpiece, the book of plays which Captain Finch, on his second visit, had deposited there for Lucilla.
"This was meant for you," she said, "and you may as well have it. Such stuff isn't in my line, thank goodness! and I can't make head or tail of it. But there's a word in it I happened upon, first time I opened the book; and it's stuck in my memory, for it happens to be holy sense, and not tommy-rot. This is it—or something like it—
"'If you want a thing very badly, go straight for it, and—GRAB it!'"
She put her common face close to Lucilla's disdainful one as, with an insolent emphasis, she made the quotation, then laughed as she turned away.
"That is what you should have done—you idiot!" she said.
A CHALK-MARK ON A GATE
She was junior music-mistress at the high school for girls, and he mathematical master at the boys' college hard by. On most afternoons of the week it happened that, their day's work being done, they encountered as they left the scene of their respective duties, and, their homes lying within a few doors of each other, walked there together.
He was a tall man, loosely put together, with iron-grey hair, stooping shoulders, and a look on his long-featured face at once dreary and gentle. She was small and dark, alert and pretty, and, from the crown of her neatly-dressed head, in its plain straw hat, to the soles of her sensibly shod feet, wholesome-looking.
The day that was soon to melt into evening had been sultry, the class-rooms airless, their tasks fatiguing. The pavement beneath their feet was hot; both were glad to breathe what tiny breeze was astir; both were tired. They walked side by side in that best of all companionships which demands no effort at sprightliness, nor the utterance of one word not spontaneously spoken.
"Shall we see you down by the river to-night?" she asked him, at length.
If he could get away he would go there, he said.
"Do come!" she gently urged him. "It does you good to get away."
Then the man's house was reached. It was one in a street of L30-a-year houses, with large bow-windows, small gardens, red-and-white striped curtains to protect green-painted front doors. He made a motion of his hand, half-heartedly inviting her to enter.
She shook her head.
"I've been in once to-day," she said. "Mrs Kilbourne asked me to get her something in the town, and I took it in."
"So long as you remember the caution I gave you——"
"You may be quite sure I remember."
As she would have passed on he stopped her.
"One minute," he said. "The rose I told you of is out, to-day."
The tiny garden was fashioned into a square of grass-plot, a bed full of rose-trees in its midst. The Frau Karl Druschki, recently acquired, had only one half-unfolded bloom. He gathered it and gave to her as she stood beyond the iron rails.
"Only one! How could you pull it for me!" she reproached him.
"Absolutely pure white—quite flawless, you see," he said.
His touch lingered on the flower, for he loved roses; then he put it into her hand, and she went on her way.
In the bow-windowed front room of Horace Kilbourne's house his wife was lying on the sofa—semi-paralysed, a drunkard.
"That you, Horry dear?" she said, as, with a gloomy, hopeless face he looked in upon the unlovely sight.
She raised a frowsy head from its pillow, put a dirty hand to her eyes to shade them from the sun entering the darkened room by the open door, smiled fatuously upon her husband.
"Come and haul wifey up, and make me comfy, and give me a cup of tea," she invited him.
One side of her was helpless. She was a tall and broadly-made woman, enormously fat. It required the exertion of all his strength to get her into the desired position. One leg was like a log, and was lifted as if it did not belong to her. All the cushions had to be shaken up and replaced, the coverlet respread on her ice-cold feet.
But Kilbourne was used to such services; if his face was lowering as he performed them, his fingers were deft.
Tea was set forth with no daintiness upon the untidy, coloured cloth of the centre-table. He poured out a cup and took it to her. She received it with a coaxing leer in her eyes, looking up at him.
"Just a drop!" she whispered, in a thickened whine. "Just a teeny drop, Horry!"
He turned his back on her, without a word in reply, and went to his own tea. Two of the three rounds set forth of unappetising bread-and-butter he ate, swallowed a great cup of lukewarm tea. His eyes were fixed drearily upon the dish of biscuits which also graced the meal. He counted them idly, wondering for how many afternoons the same six had done duty for the like occasion.
"One leetle, teeny drop!" his wife said again. "You know tea gives me indigestion without, Horry. One teeny, weeny one!"
She was allowed by the doctor a certain modicum of whisky in the day, and the dose, for safety's sake, Kilbourne always administered himself.
"You can have it half now and half when you go to bed at night, if you like," he said at length, and got up and poured the portion from a bottle, which he locked away again in the sideboard.
She sighed heavily with anticipation as he held it to her, and he felt her breath upon his face.
"You've been having brandy?" he said.
"No, Horry, no!"
She shook her head, which was already heavily tremulous, and, seeing fear lest the precious beverage with which she was now supplied should be filched from her, buried her face in the cup and gulped it down.
"Where'd you get the brandy?" he persisted; and she began feebly to cry.
"Naughty Horry, to speak to wifey so! Didn't I promise you and the doctor I wouldn't touch it? And me left without a penny to buy it with! And only water the whole day long has passed my lips. I'll take an oath! I wish I may die to-night, Horry, if I've had a drop!"
He turned from her and rang the bell.
"Where did your mistress get the brandy she has had to-day?" he asked of the pert, untidy-looking maid-of-all-work who appeared.
"Where'd she get it? Out of the bottle, of course. I fetched it for her away from the grocer's, right enough," the servant said, with an impudent face and a tossed-up head.
"I thought I had given you orders never to fetch your mistress anything of the sort?"
"An' the missus she give me orders to fetch it," the girl said. "'Ow do I know which I'm to mind, between ye? An' me shut up with 'er all the day, an' 'er a-badgerin'——"
"Take the tea-things. That will do for the present. Go!" he said.
He walked to the foot of the sofa, and looked long at the huge, unlovely bulk, once the admired form of his handsome wife, that lay there.
"You disgrace!" he said.
She whimpered afresh, her mouth shaking, the tears running down her cheeks unrestrained, like those of a child.
"There's a way to speak to a poor, suffering wife!" she whined. "And my head like splitting open! You might feel for me a little, Horry. Look at my poor arm!" With her able hand she moved the disabled one towards him. "It's quite numb. Rub it, Horry," she pleaded, looking weepingly up at him. "It's numb, yet it aches right up into my throat. And my poor tongue—poor wifey's tongue—is like fire! Look at it, hubby."
She opened the tremulous mouth, the great, parched tongue lolled out.
He looked at her, not stirring, with hard eyes.
"You disgrace!" he said again.
"Aren't you a disgrace to say so, then?" she whimpered. "Who'd believe you were my husband, calling me disgraces, and things? No one would think there was any affection between us, going on like that. And me with one side of me useless, and a fatty heart, as the doctor told me plainly, and said I was to take the greatest care. And who should take care of me if my own husband doesn't? And you stand there glaring at me, and not a kind word to throw at me! And haven't I always been a true and loving wife to you?"
He looked at her deliberately, with loathing in his eyes.
"You have been the curse of my life!" he said.
Then he left her.
* * * * *
In half an hour the pert maid-of-all-work came in. She was in walking costume, a string of pearls about her bare throat, a hat-box in her hand.
"This 'ere's my luggige," she explained. "You can go through it, if you like, to make sure I 'aven't took none of your rubbige away with me! I'm a-going, I am! The master he come and give me notice to leave at the end o' the month, but I don't choose to stay in no sech a place so long. I've 'ad enough of a tipsy missus, and an' ouse without an atim o' comfit! I'm a-goin!"
The woman on the sofa, with the inflamed, red face, the bloodshot, painful-looking eyes, the loose mouth, looked helplessly upon the maid-of-all-work.
"A little drop of something to quench my thirst before you go!" she implored. "I can't get up to fetch it for myself, as you know, Maria; and my throat's swelled up with being so parched."
"And if you die of it, so much the better!" Maria said frankly. But she went and pumped some water, all the same, and brought it to her, the glass dimmed in her red, bare hand. "For all I've had to demean myself to wait on sich as you, I'm a Christian!" she said.
"A leetle drop of the brandy left, Maria?" the woman asked.
"Trust you for that! Not a drop!"
"Drain the bottle and see, Maria."
"You are a one, you are!" the emancipated servant said. "I ha' seen a sight o' bad 'uns, but never one like you. And if I was th' master, I'd up and chuck you inter th' street, see if I wouldn't, and git a little peace in 'is 'ome with a diff'runt woman than you! 'E wouldn't have to go far, neither, before 'e found one to 'is mind, master wouldn't, an' so I tell you! An' as for me, I'm done with you, so there!"
The woman looked after her as she bounced to the door, hiccoughing, holding the now empty glass in her shaking hand. Her brows were knit; she seemed in her muddled brain to be considering something.
"The girl Grantley promised she'd come to-day," she said. "She promised she'd bring me something."
"And did so, right enough. But you 'aven't got no memory nor nothin'!"
"Where is it, then, Maria dear? For my poor head's splitting——"
"Why, in th' basket as stan' agin your sofy, where you put it yourself, for I see ye do it."
Left to herself, the woman put the glass to her lips, sucked from it the few drops that hung upon its sides, lay with it in her hand, alternately looking into it and looking into space, lifting it to her lips again and again.
The machinery of her mind was too far destroyed for it to work in any suggested groove. It strayed off the line continually into all sorts of hazy, dim byways.
She had broken her word to him, often enough, but he had never before called her that. It was very cruel of him, and not like a husband to use such a word to his wife, that had ever a loving word for him when he came home, and was always waiting for him, so obliging and kind. Her mother would vouch for that—she had often said she had a loving nature.
Once she had walked unexpectedly into the little sitting-room at home, and she had heard her mother saying to Horace—"Julia has a very loving nature." Why didn't her mother come and say kind things to her now? She was all alone. If her mother came and sat by her side—
She would like, if she could walk there, to get off the sofa and go to look for her in that little sitting-room, at home. It was so cool in there always, with the window open to the garden. There was a basket of violets on the table. She wondered if they were there now. She would like to put her lips, that were so hot and uncomfortable, down upon them—
With difficulty she half turned on the sofa with the idea of reaching them; but remembered as she did so that her mother had been dead for years and years, and that there were no violets now.
She cried afresh, and held the empty glass to her lips in the hope a forgotten drop might trickle down upon them.
Her mother had once scolded her—once when Horace had told tales—and had said that she had broken her heart. But, for all that, she would not have liked to hear her called a disgrace.
She wished her husband would come in and put her to bed. He would have to do it alone to-night, as Maria was gone. Or perhaps old Susan would come and help. Old Susan had carried her up to bed quite easily, last night—when she was a child. No sticks, nor bother of people pushing and dragging—had carried her up as light as a feather, and popped her into her cool, soft bed, and tucked her up—
"Susan!" she called. "Susan!" And opened her aching eyes to look for her; and cried again when she remembered why the old servant could not come, and that she was not a child again any more.
It wasn't a nice thing to say to such a good wife, and she so afflicted! He had another name for her when she used to walk about like other people—like the girl Grantley, for instance, that her husband always came home from school with. She used to go to meet Horry, herself, in those days, and go down to the river in the evening with him, and sit on one of the chairs beneath the trees to watch the boats. To watch the boats! How they glided along—gently, gently! It made you sleepy to look at them. She was in one herself now, rocking, rocking; and the sun was going down behind the trees; and a lot more boats, more and more, all rocking; and the sound of the oars, and the water lapping at the sides. She would like to put her hand in the river. It looked so cool—so cool!
The hand dropped heavily at her side, the glass broke; and she was on her sofa still, not in a boat at all; and it was the girl Grantley who sat by the river with Horry.
The girl Grantley! Where was that she had brought? The basket into which she had dropped it was easily within her reach. Here was the parcel, fastened as chemists' parcels are fastened. She shook it, and a gleam came into her eyes. Liquid! Something to drink, to moisten her burning tongue and swollen throat. No matter what—
* * * * *
Down by the river, on the broad path beneath the trees, where half the population of the place repaired in the summer evenings, the girl Grantley walked with her brother, and by their side walked Horace Kilbourne.
Presently the brother stopped to speak to a friend, and the girl and the other man walked on—walked through the crowds of people to where the crowds grew less, and on still, till there was comparative solitude.
Only the girl talked, telling him of her day's work—of what it had brought her of pleasure, of what had gone amiss. She had the habit of talking out her heart to him, bringing him all her difficulties and distresses.
"It rests me as nothing else does," she told him, when he had listened to the end, and said what had to be said. "And you? Have you nothing to tell me?" she asked him.
"Nothing," he said.
She glanced sideways and upwards at him as he towered above her, walking with drooping head.
"Something has happened," she said softly. "Can't you tell me? It helps, to tell a friend."
"It is nothing to which I am not well used," he said. "The same old wretched story. I have never told it in so many words. I am too ashamed to tell. You know it, well enough. Who is there that does not know?"
She turned on him a face that startled him, who knew it well, and had learnt by heart, he thought, its many changes.
"Why do you not kill her?" she said.
"Sh-sh-sh!" he whispered, surprised and reproving.
Her vivid face was aflame with passion; almost, it seemed, with hate.
"It would be no crime," she said. "Do you think God wants His world so cumbered? Why should your life, other people's lives, be destroyed? Are you to bear a burden like that for ever?"
"Sh-sh-sh!" he whispered again.
He put a hand upon her arm, and gently turned her with him. They began to retrace their steps.
"I was right never to speak to you about it before," he said presently. "Mutual confidences are for happy people, Kate. Men burthened with great sorrows know them to be incommunicable. Forgive me that I for a moment forgot."
Her passion had died away as quickly as it had blazed forth. She heard him in silence, a sob in her throat.
Soon they were back in the perambulating crowd, chattering, laughing, listening to the band upon the river. The broad stream was filled with boats, in which charmingly-dressed women indolently reclined on bright-hued cushions. The occupants propelled themselves by means of lazy hands laid upon the sides of neighbouring boats. Be-flannelled men, and boys in their slim canoes, slipped here and there among them. The music mingled harmoniously with the light dip of the paddles, the soft lapping of the water, the murmuring voices. The sweet scent of hay, freshly cut in the meadows across the river, was in the air, the peace of the midsummer evening over all.
Such a happy, prosperous throng; such a concord of sweet sounds and scents and sights! One man and woman, at least, looked on, sorrowful-eyed, bitterness within their hearts.
"I am sorry if I shocked you," Kate Grantley said at length. "I thought if we two spoke together—even of that—face to face——"
"It is impossible," he said. "There are troubles in which no friend can help, Kate. The friend that is dearest to me in life cannot help me in mine."
He looked at her steadily, holding her eyes with his own, for a space; then left her and went on his way.
He went into his house, the door of which stood open to the night.
In the airless, bow-windowed room, upon the untidy sofa where he had left her, his wife was lying dead.
No inquest was held on Horace Kilbourne's wife. The doctor had attended her almost daily. For years her husband had been warned her heart was in such a condition that she might die suddenly, at any moment. She had so died. Except that it was a happy release for herself, and for her husband—that over-tired, good, and patient man—one of Heaven's mercies, there was nothing to be said. Unless Kilbourne himself, in remembrance of other days, and in the tenderness of his heart, shed a tear for her, there was not a soul to weep for drunken Julia Kilbourne.
Although, to the best of his ability, he had lived retired from all society, and in his sensitiveness to his wife's shame had kept, as well as he could, her history to himself, it was well known in the town. There was none who knew who did not respect and pity him. Kind hands were eagerly put out to him. At last he, who had shrunk from going to other men's houses because he could not ask them to his own, was free to do so.
It was a little disappointing that he repulsed all such advances.
The only adverse criticism which had been passed on him had been that, a heavily burthened man, he had not known how to conceal his misfortune, but had carried about with him a face as miserable as his history. That his face would now bear witness to his new-found delight of liberty was confidently expected.
It was strange that, instead of the looked-for lightening of gloom, there was, if possible, in his bearing, his wife being safely dead and buried, an increase of melancholy.
Kate Grantley, who thought she knew him better than the rest, was not surprised that the little letter she wrote him on the first news of Mrs Kilbourne's death remained unanswered. The words her pen had written had come warm from a heart realising the shock, the bewilderment, from which it was inevitable that he must suffer. But it was a letter which it would have been painful to him to answer, perhaps. He had known that she would understand.
She would not be hurt that he ceased to linger for her at the hour they both came out of school. Often she walked to the street which held her home and his, with his tall figure a dozen yards in front of her. She would not hurry a step to overtake him. All in good time. She no more doubted him—she no more doubted that in due time he would ask her to be his wife—than she doubted what her answer would be when he did so. Between them there had been no vulgar philandering; no word of what might have been, what yet might be, had passed their lips. Yet, deep in their hearts was guarded an unspoken compact which—she would have staked her life on it—neither would betray.