BY E. TEMPLE THURSTON
NEW AND CHEAPER EDITION
LONDON CHAPMAN & HALL, LTD. 1912
BY THE SAME AUTHOR.
THE APPLE OF EDEN. TRAFFIC. THE REALIST. THE EVOLUTION OF KATHERINE. MIRAGE. THE CITY OF BEAUTIFUL NONSENSE. THE GREATEST WISH IN THE WORLD. THE PATCHWORK PAPERS. THE GARDEN OF RESURRECTION. THIRTEEN. THE FLOWER OF GLOSTER. THE ANTAGONISTS.
Copyright in the United States of America by E. Temple Thurston, 1909.
To GERALD DU MAURIER
MY DEAR GERALD,
Amongst the many things which I anticipate in the reception of this book, is the shrug-shoulder smile of critics at my sub-title—a Romance. There are canons and rubrics to be observed, it would seem, in the slightest action that a man attempts in this Great World's Fair of Conventionality, whose every sideshow is hedged around with the red-tape of the Law. Witness even that delusive proverb—there is honour amongst thieves. So is there an unwritten canon in literature and the making of books, that a Romance must end with a phrase to convey another illusion—namely, the happiness that is ever after.
And so, in this respect, I throw canons to the winds—it sounds a herculean feat—wash out the printed red of the rubric, and call, perhaps the saddest story I shall write, a Romance.
Yet I profess to have a reason beyond mere contrariness. The world of Romance must be at all times an elusive star—never capable of being put in the exact same place on any one's calendar. And to me it conveys no fixed beginning, no fixed end, so long as it possesses that quality of dreaming imagination in the mind of the character with whom the circumstances are first concerned. All that we know certainly of life is reality, and of all those myriad things which combine to make up the one great scheme, of which we know nothing, there is the quality of Romance—free to any one who cares to let his mind drift upon the sea of conjecture.
In that this was the case with Sally; in that she made her dream out of Reality itself—I have called it a Romance. The Romance that remains a Romance until the end, is not as yet within the reach of my pen. If it ever should be—then I promise you that book as well.
On all my other anticipations—the attitude of the critical mind towards Chapter IV. in Book I., the sensitiveness of the delicate mind when it closes its eyes on Chapter VI. of Book II.—I will keep silent. As I have said, I anticipate many things, but I only hope for your approval.
Yours always, E. TEMPLE THURSTON.
LONDON, January 31st, 1908.
BOOK I. THE CONSCRIPT
BOOK II. THE DESERTER
BOOK III. DERELICT
BOOK IV. THE EMPTY HORIZON
It was an evening late in November. The fog that during the afternoon had been lying like a crouching beast between the closely built houses had now risen. It was as though it had waited till nightfall for its prey, and then departed, leaving a sense of sulkiness in the atmosphere that weighed persistently on the spirits. A slight drizzling rain was wetting the pavements. It clung in a mist to the glass panes of the street lamps, dimming the glow of the light within.
In the windows of all the houses the electric lights were burning. You could see clerks, male and female, bent up over their desks beneath them. Some worked steadily, never looking up from their occupations; others gazed with expressionless faces out into the street. Occasionally the figure of a man would move out of the apparent darkness of the room beyond. The light would fan in patches on his face. You could see his lips moving as he spoke to the occupant of the desk; you might even trace the faint animation as it crept into the face of the person thus addressed. But it would only last for a few moments. The man would move away and the look of tired apathy settle itself once more upon the clerk's features as soon as he or she were left alone.
As it grew later, there might be seen men with hats on their heads, moving about—in the light one moment, lost in the darkness the next. Some of them were pulling gloves on to their hands, or lighting cigarettes, others would be pinning a bunch of violets into their button-holes, or brushing the shoulders of their coats. These were the ones who had finished for the day. It could always be known when they had taken their departure. The heads of the clerks would twist towards the interior of the room. You could almost imagine the wistful expression on their faces from the bare outlines of their attitudes as they turned in their chairs. Then, a minute later, the main door of the house would open, the figure of a man emerge; for a moment he would turn his face up to the sky, then the umbrella would go up and he would walk away into the darkness of the street, for one brief moment an individual with an identity; the next, a mere unit in the great herd of human beings.
There were many departures such as these before, at last, the clerks rose from their chairs. When finally they did move, it was with a lethargy that almost concealed the relief which the cessation of work had brought them. One might have expected to see the slamming of books and the rushing for hats like children released from school. But there was no such energy of delight as that. Ledgers were closed wearily, as though they were weighted with leaden covers; papers were put in tiny heaps as if they were a pile of death-warrants. Typewriters were covered with such slowness and such care that one might think they were delicate instruments of music with silver strings, instead of treadmills for tired hands.
Some reason must explain why these young men and girls, when their superiors took their departure, showed so plainly the envy that they felt and now are apparently unmoved by the prospect of their own freedom. It is simply this. Vitality is an exhaustible quality. It may last up to a certain moment, then it burns out like the hungry wick of a candle that has no more grease to feed it. You can incarcerate a man for such a length of time that when at last you do give him his liberty he has no love left for it. It is much the same with these creatures who are imprisoned in the barred cells of London offices. By the time their day's work is ended their vitality for enjoyment has been exhausted. They take their liberty much as a man takes the sentence of penal servitude when he had expected to be hanged.
Stand for a moment in this street that runs out from the Covent Garden Market and watch the office windows before the lights are extinguished. Is there one attitude, one movement, one gesture that betrays the joy of freedom now that the day's work is over? Scarcely one. That boy with the long dark hair drooping on his forehead, contrasting so vividly against his sallow skin—you might imagine from the listlessness of his actions that the day's work was just beginning. At lunch time, when the vitality was yet in store, he might have been seen, running out from the building in the gleeful anticipation of an hour's rest. But now, when all the hours of the night are before him, his nervous energy has been sapped away. You get no spirit in a tired horse. It shies at nothing, but drags one foot wearily after another until the stable door is reached.
This is the actual condition of things that the young men and women find when they have burnt their boats, have left the country for the illusory joys of the town. There may be greater possibilities of enjoyment; but this huge, carnivorous plant—this gigantic city of London—has only displayed its attractions in order to gain its prey. They are drawn by the colours of the petals, they come to the honeyed perfume of its scent; but once caught in the prison of its embrace, there is only the slow poison of forced labour that eats its deadly way into the very heart of their vitality.
In one of these offices off Covent Garden, under a green-shaded lamp that cast its metallic rays on to the typewriting machine before her, sat one of the young lady clerks in the establishment of Bonsfield & Co., a firm of book-buyers. They carried on a promiscuous trade with America and the Colonies, and managed, by the straining of ends, to meet their expenses and show a small margin of profit. You undertake the labour of a slave in Egypt, and run the risk of a forlorn hope when you try to make a living wage in London as your own master. The price of freedom in a free country is beyond the reach of most pockets.
The hour of six had rung out from the neighbouring clocks, yet this girl showed no signs of finishing her work. From down in the street you could see her bent over the machine, her fingers pounding the keys—human hammers monotonously striving to beat out a pattern upon metal, a pattern that would never come. The light from the green-shaded lamp above her, fell obliquely on her head. It lit up her pale, golden hair like a sun-ray; it drew out the round, gentle curve of her face and threw it up against the darkness of the room beyond. So well as it could, with its harsh methods, it made a picture. One instinctively paused to look at it. A man coming out of the shadows of the Covent Garden Market stopped as he passed down King Street and gazed up at the window.
For five minutes he stood and watched her, assuming, by looking up and down the street when anybody passed him by, the attitude of a person who is waiting for some one.
It is impossible to say whether it is really the woman herself, or a combination of the woman and the moment, which seizes and drags a man's attention towards her. In this case it may have been the combined result of the two. The girl was pretty. In the ray of that electric light, the soft, childish outline of her face and the pale, sensuous strands of her hair were probably lent a glamour such as that given by the footlights. The man, too, was on his way back to companionless chambers. The lower end of Regent Street may be a far from lonely spot in which to take up one's abode; but there is nothing so empty as an empty room, no matter on to what crowded thoroughfare it may look. Say, then, it was a combination of impulses, the woman and the moment—the girl pretty and the man oppressed by a sense of loneliness. Whatever it was, he stood there, without any apparent intention of moving, and watched her.
She was the last, amongst all those workers who could be seen within the lighted apertures of the windows, to leave her post. One by one they performed their weary play of actions, the shutting up of ledgers, the putting away of papers—out went the lights, and a moment later dim figures stole out of the darkened doorways into the drizzling rain, and hurried away into the shadows of the streets. But she still remained, and the man, with a certain amount of dogged persistence, continued to watch her movements. Once he took out his watch, as his impatience became more insistent. Then, with the continual watching of her, the continual sight of her hands dancing laboriously on those keys, the noise of the typewriter at last reached the ears of his imagination. He could hear, above the sounds of the street, that everlasting metallic tapping.
"God! What a life!" he exclaimed to himself.
If there is anything in telepathy; if thoughts, by reason of their concentration, can be borne from one mind to another utterly unconscious of them, then what followed his exclamation might well have been an example of it. For a moment the girl buried her face in her hands. He could see her pressing her fingers into the sockets of her eyes. Then, sitting upright, she stretched her arms above her head. Every action was expressive of her exhaustion. The glancing at her watch, the critical inspection of the bundle of papers, yet untyped, that lay beside her on the desk; all these various movements were like the gestures of a dumb show. Was she going to give in? From the size of the bundle of papers which she had looked at, there was apparently still a great deal of work left for her to do.
The thought passed across his mind that he would give her until he had counted twenty; if she showed no signs of moving by that time, he decided to wait no longer.
One—two—three—four—she stood up from the desk. He still watched her until he had seen her place the wooden cover over the machine; then he crossed to the other side of the road and began walking up and down the pavement, passing the door of Bonsfield & Co. About every twenty yards or so, he turned and passed it again.
Five minutes elapsed. At last he heard the door of the premises close—the noise of it rattled in the street; then he turned and faced her as she came towards him.
Her head was down; her feet were moving quickly, tapping on the pavement. He prepared himself to speak to her, his hand getting ready to lift his hat. If she had given him half the encouragement that he imagined he required, he would have found courage; but without lifting her head, as though she were utterly unconscious of his presence, she hurried by in the direction of Bedford Street and the West.
Was that to be the end of it? Had he waited that full quarter of an hour in the drizzling rain for nothing? The man of fixed intent is hardly beaten so easily as that. There was no definite evil purpose in his mind. He was caught in that mood when a man must talk to some one, and a woman for preference. The waiting of fifteen minutes in that sluggish atmosphere had only intensified it. The fact that in the first moment of opportunity his courage had failed had had no power to move him from his purpose, or to change the prompting of his mood.
As soon as she had passed him on the pavement, he turned resolutely and followed her.
All life is an adventure, even the most monotonous moments of it. It is impossible to walk the streets of London without being conscious of that spirit of the possibility of happenings which makes life tolerable. It was not to feast their eyes upon unknown worlds, or drench their hands in a stream of gold, that the old marauders of England set forth upon the high seas. Assuredly it must have been, in the hearts of them, that love of adventure, that desire for the happenings of strange things which spurred them on to face God in the wind, to dare Him in the tempest, to brave Him even into the unknown.
Some of that instinct, but in its various and lesser degrees, is left in us now. For one moment it rose in the mind of Sally Bishop, as she turned into Bedford Street and directed her course towards Piccadilly Circus. It had crossed her mind in suspicion—the uprush of an idea, as a bubble struggles to the surface—that the man whom she had found waiting outside the premises of Bonsfield & Co. had had the intention in his mind to speak to her as she passed. Now, as she looked sideways when she turned the corner, and found that he had altered his direction—was following her—the suspicion became a conviction. She knew.
In the first realization, the thought of adventure thrilled her. A life, quiet and uneventful such as hers, looks of necessity for its happiness to the little thrills, the little emotions that combine to make one day less monotonous than another. But when, having reached Garrick Street and, looking hurriedly over her shoulder, she found that not only was he still following, but that he had perceptibly lessened the distance between them, the spirit of interest sank—died out, like a candle snuffed in a gale. In that moment she became afraid.
It is nameless, that terror in the mind of a woman pursued. Yet without it one of the first of her abstract attractions would be gone. Undoubtedly it is the joy of the pursuer that the quarry should take to flight. Would there be any chase without? But long years of study amongst the more advanced of us have made the fact of rather common knowledge. The woman has learnt that to be caught there must be flight, and, in assuming it, she has acquired for herself the instincts of the pursuer. So an army, resorting to the strategy of retreat, is still the pursuer in the more subtle sense of the word. It is this strategy that is cunningly taught in the modern, genteel education of the sex. The virtue of chastity it is called, but over the length of time it has come to be a forced growth; it has altered intrinsically in its composition. Education has learnt to make use of chastity, rather than to acquire it for itself. And, after all, what is it in itself, when the gilt of its glamour is stripped, like tinsel, from the fairy's pantomimic wand?
There is, when everything has been said, only one value in chastity in its ideal sense, so long as we are tied to these conditions of human instinct, and that is in the value that it brings to women. Without it, a woman may be the essence of fascination; she may be the completeness of attraction, but for the need of the race she is undesirable. Without chastity, a woman may be most things to a man, but she cannot be a mother to his child.
Amongst those girls, then, whose desire in life it is to marry, conforming in all ways to the authority of convention, chastity has been taught from the cradle—taught as a means to an end. It is mostly, if not altogether, in the lower middle classes that you will find chastity to be an end in itself. The destructive philosophy of education has not swept out the gentler virtues from them. As yet they have not come under the keen edge of its influence. For their chastity, then, they are interesting; whereas the manufactured virtue of the upper middle class is like the hothouse strawberry—forced in May—a tempting fruit to lay upon a dish, but tasteless, as is wool, between the teeth.
It is this virtue—this real quality, breeding self-respect—that you will find in the mind of Sally Bishop. Here is no strategy of movement, no well-considered campaign. She quickens her steps, and her heart thumps within her, because that virtue, which is her priceless possession, is in danger of being assailed. In the very soul of her is the desire to escape. There are thousands of women whom education has nursed who set the pace as well, whenever a man starts in pursuit; but the course of their flight leads straight to the altar and they run neither too fast, nor too slow, lest by any chance the hunter should weary of the chase. But here you have none of this. The woman is obeying instincts that Nature gave her with her soul. Sally Bishop is pure—the chaste woman. Where men most look for her, she is hard to find.
This journey from King Street to Piccadilly Circus was performed every evening. In Piccadilly she found the 'bus that took her to Hammersmith. It was a pleasurable little journey; she looked forward to it. It amused her to dally on the way, stopping to look in the shop windows. The bright lights lifted her spirits. After a time she had become acquainted with the prints that hung in the print-seller's windows in Garrick Street; they always stayed there long enough to grow familiar. There was also a jeweller's shop in Coventry Street; it sold second-hand silver—old Sheffield-plated candle-sticks, cream ewers and sugar bowls; George III. silver tea-services, and quaint-shaped wine strainers—they stood there in the window in profusion. In themselves, for the daintiness of their design, or the value of their antiquity, they did not interest her. She liked the look of them glittering there; they conveyed a sense of the embarrassment of riches which touched her ideas of romance. It was the tray of old-fashioned ornaments, brooches in the design of flimsy baskets of flowers, each flower represented by a different coloured stone—old signet rings, old seals, quaint little figures of men and beasts in silver, sometimes in gold; these were the things that caught her fancy; she pored over them, choosing, every time she passed, some fresh trinket that she would like to possess.
But on this evening in November she did not stop. At the print-seller's in Garrick Street, she hesitated, but one glance over her shoulder sped her onwards. The apprehension most prominent in her mind was that if she continually looked behind her, the man might fancy she was encouraging him. Once having consciously decided that, she turned no more until she had reached the protection of the fountain in the middle of the Circus. There she stopped and glanced back. He was gone. In all the hundreds of human beings who mingled and churned like a swarm of ants upon an ant-hill, he was nowhere to be seen. With a genuine sigh of relief, she crossed over to the Piccadilly side and walked beside a Hammersmith 'bus, as if slowed gradually down to the regulated place where the conditions of traffic permit vehicles to collect their passengers.
A little crowd of people, like flies upon fallen fruit, clung about the steps of the 'bus as it moved towards its resting-place. She joined in with them, jostled along the pavement by their efforts to secure an advantageous position by the steps. When finally it did come to a standstill and she had reached the conductor's platform, the announcement, "Outside only," met her attempt to force a passage within.
It was still raining—persistent mist of rain that steals a way through any clothing. Should she wait? She had no umbrella. But she had known what it was to wait on such occasions before. The next 'bus would probably be full up inside, and the next, and the next. Twenty minutes might well be wasted before she could start on her way home, and you have little energy left within you to care about a wetting, when from nine o'clock in the morning until six, when it is dark, you have been beating the keys of a typewriter. Your mind demands but little then, so long as you can secure a peaceful oblivion.
So, in the face of others who turned back, she mounted the stairway on to the roof of the 'bus. There she was alone, and, pulling the tarpaulin covering around her, she seated herself on the little bench farthest from the driver. The little bell tinkled twice, viciously—all drivers and conductors are made vicious by a steady rain—and they moved out into the swim of the traffic, as a steamer puts out from its pier.
On bright evenings it was the most enjoyable part of the journey home, this ride from Piccadilly Circus to Hammersmith. From there onwards in the tram to Kew Bridge, it became uninteresting. The shops were not so bright; the people not so well dressed. It always gave her a certain amount of quaint amusement to envy the ladies in their carriages and motor-cars. The envy was not malicious. You would have found no socialistic tendencies in her. In her mind, utterly untutored in the sense of logic, she found birth to be a full and sufficient reason for possession. But there was always alive in her consciousness the orderly desire to also be a possessor herself. It never led her actually into a definite discontent with her own conditions of life, irksome, wearying, exhausting though she found them to be. But subconsciously within her was the feeling that she was not really meant to be denied the joy of luxuries. That instinct showed itself in many little ways. She was sometimes extravagant—bought a silk petticoat when a cotton one would have done just as well, but, oh heavens! it was cheap! You would scarcely have thought it possible to buy silk petticoats at the price. And no doubt the appearance of the silk was only superficial. But it gave her a great deal of pleasure. When any lady stepped down from her carriage to go into one of those West End shops, Sally always noticed the petticoat that she wore. Women will—men too, perhaps.
But on this dismal evening, when whenever she lifted her head the fine rain sprayed upon her face, there was no pleasure to be found in watching the people in the streets below. Carriages were huddled up in line upon the stands and the coachmen shivered miserably on their seats, the rain dripping in steady drops from the brims of their hats into the laps of their mackintoshes. So she kept her head down, and when she heard footsteps mounting the stairway, approaching her, she held out the three coppers for her fare without looking up. When her mind, anticipating the answering ring of the conductor's ticket-puncher, realized the mistake, she raised her head, then twisted back, electrically, as though some current had been passed through her body. Seated on the bench at the other side of the passage-way, was the man whom she had found in King Street outside the premises of Bonsfield & Co.
Her first thought was to get off the 'bus. She made a preparatory movement, leaning forward with her hand upon the back of the seat in front of her. Possibly the man saw it and had no desire to be foiled a second time. Whatever may have been his purpose, he moved nearer to her and held out the umbrella with which he was sheltering himself.
"You'd better let me lend you an umbrella—hadn't you?" he said.
There is a quality of voice that commands. It neither considers nor admits of refusal. He had it. Women of strong personality it irritates; women with no personality it affrights; but the women who are women obey—with reluctance probably, struggling against it, but in the end they obey. There is, again, a quality of voice that hall-marks the man of birth. Long years of careful preservation of the breed have refined it down. It may cloak a mind that is vicious to a thought; but there is a ring in it—a ring of true metal, well tried in the furnace. He had that also. From him, dressed none too carefully, it sounded almost misplaced and therefore was the more noticeable. The effect of it upon her was obvious. Instead of taking his suggestion as an insult, which undoubtedly she would have done had the offer been made in any other type of voice, Sally checked the offended toss of the head, restrained the contemptuous flash of eye, and merely said, "No, thank you." She said it coldly. There was no warmth of encouragement, either in her tone of voice or the unrecognizing eye which she turned upon him without trace of sympathy.
"Isn't that rather foolish?" he suggested. "You'll get wet through. How far are you going?"
He had asked the question with such apparent inconsequence that the thought of denying him the information had not occurred to her. Undoubtedly it was foolish to refuse his offer. She would get wet through before she reached Hammersmith. The tarpaulin only covered her skirt, and in the lap that it made was already a pool of water swilling backwards and forwards with the rocking of the 'bus. Through her mind raced a swift calculation, estimating the benefits she would gain by keeping dry. They were not many in number, but they entered the balance, dragged down the scales of her decision. The hat she was wearing—it was not a best hat—but some few evenings before, she had retrimmed it; there was matter for consideration in that. The frame was a good one. It could be trimmed again and again, so long as it met with those requirements which in Sally's mind were governed by a vogue of fashion that she followed reverently, though always, perhaps, some few paces in the rear. A severe wetting might so alter the shape of that frame as to make it for ever unwearable. Her coat was serge—short, ending at the waist; the feather boa that clung round her neck, they would inevitably suffer without protection. For the moment she felt angry with herself. She hoped almost, since he was there, that he would make his offer again. It is these little things—the saving of a feather boa, the destruction of a flimsy hat frame—that are the seed of big issues. Every book, as is this, is in its way a study in the evolution of a crisis, the germ of tiny incident which through a thousand stages grows in strength and magnitude until it takes upon itself the stature of some giant event.
The thought of her clothes that had entered Sally's mind brought her one step further, prepared her for the silent permission she gave him, when he took the vacant seat beside her and shared the umbrella between them.
"By the time you reached Hammersmith," he said, "you know you'd be soaked."
"It wouldn't be the first time," she replied.
"Probably not—but it might be the last."
"Influenza—pneumonia—congestion of the lungs—of such are the kingdom of heaven."
She looked at him quickly—that sudden look of one who for a moment sees into another and a new mind, as passing some strange house, you look with curious surprise through the unexpectedly opened door into another's life. The glance was as quick, as little comprehensive. Just as within that strange house you see schemes of colour that you would never have thought of, furniture and pictures that are not of your taste at all, so Sally saw for one brief moment the glimpse of a mind that could casually make a jest of death and holy-written things. A great deal of that servile obedience to the religion in which she had been brought up had been driven out of her by hard work. You might not get the priesthood to admit it, but religion is a luxury which few of the hard-workers in this world can afford. But she still maintained that sense of conventional awe which strict religious training drives deep into a receptive mind.
"Do you think it amusing to speak like that?" she asked.
"What you said—the sentence that you quoted?"
"Of such are the kingdom of heaven?"
"Well—I don't think it's the best joke I've ever made—but it was meant to be amusing."
At this, she laughed—laughed in spite of herself. His absolute inconsequence was in itself humorous. She snatched a swift glance at him under cover of a pretence to look behind her. As her eyes returned, she was conscious that she was interested.
He was clean shaven. The lines were hard about his mouth, cutting character—the chin was strong, the jaw well-moulded. It was not a type of face that belonged to the class in which she moved. These men were of the unreliable type—some definite weakness somewhere in every face. So far as she could see in that one sudden glance, this man had none. His face dominated, his voice too. The hardness of his features carried with it a sense of cruelty; but a woman is seldom thwarted by that.
Then returned again the spirit of adventure. By the peculiar inconsequence of his conversation, he had succeeded in driving timidity from her. No man whom she knew would, in the first moments of acquaintance, have spoken as he did. The fact of that alone was an interest in itself. This was an adventure. Again she thrilled to it. The unexpectedness of the whole affair, this riding homewards on the top of a 'bus with a man who had come out of nowhere into her life—even if it were only for a few moments. Would not many another girl in her position be delighted with the experience? That thought warmed her to a greater appreciation of the situation.
But why had he been waiting outside the door of the office? Why had he followed her? How had he known that she was employed in the exacting services of Bonsfield & Co.? All these questions gyrated wildly in her mind, swept about, confused at finding no plausible answers to their importunate demands.
Then, lastly, who was he? There are men who suggest to you that they must be somebody; there is an air of distinction about them that glosses the cheapest coat and creases the poorest pair of trousers. If they are poorly dressed, then it must be that they are masquerading; if their clothes are well-fitting, then it is only what you would have expected. It makes for no definite confirmation of your opinion.
Sally was made conscious of this impression, and, in its way, that thrilled her too. You have little chance with a woman in this world if you are a nonentity. Personality inevitably wins its way, and, in that she was susceptible to the personality of the man beside her, Sally forgot the circumstances of their acquaintance, forgot to review them with that same impartial judgment which she would have exercised had the man conveyed to her mind a more commonplace impression.
Stung then with curiosity to know how he had heard of her, how he had come to be waiting in King Street until she should leave off her work, or whether, as she suspected, it were only that he had been attracted to her as she passed by, she gave herself away with unconscious ingenuousness.
"Why were you waiting in King Street?" she asked suddenly.
The words hurried, tumbling in a confusion of self-consciousness from her lips.
"Oh—you saw me there?" said he.
"You saw me when you passed?"
"Did you know I was walking behind you all the way to Piccadilly Circus?"
"N—no—how should I?"
"You looked back once or twice."
"Why do you want to know why I was waiting in King Street?"
"I don't want to know particularly."
"Shall I tell you?"
"I had seen you through the window—working at that ghastly typewriter—stood there for more than a quarter of an hour—down the street—waiting till you got sick of it. Then I was going to ask you to come and have tea with me—dinner if you'd liked. I wanted some one to talk to; I was going back to my rooms. When they're empty, a man's rooms can be the most godless—"
She stood up abruptly, striking her hat against the roof of the umbrella.
"Will you let me out, please?"
"But you told me you were going to Hammersmith. This is only Knightsbridge."
"I'm getting down here."
He stood up. "I've offended you," he said quietly.
"Did you imagine you would not?"
"No—I suppose I didn't—but I wasn't going to let that stop me from making your acquaintance. There's nothing to be sorry about. You were sick of things—I could see that through the window—so was I. Mayn't two human beings, who are sick of things, find something in common? You're really going?"
She curled her lip with contempt; but it had a smile behind it which he could not see.
"Shan't we see each other again?"
She stood at the top of the steps waiting for the 'bus to stop. He looked up into her face and held her eyes.
"Then I apologize," he said willingly. "And don't be offended at what I'm going to say now."
She put her foot down on to the first step. "What is it?"
"I'll bet you ten pounds we don't. That is to say you win ten pounds if we do."
She laughed contemptuously in a breath and hurried down the steps.
It is all very well to say that there have been movements towards the enfranchisement of women since before the Roman era; it is all very well to point out that these movements are periodical, almost as inevitable as the volcanic eruptions that belch out their volumes of running fire and die down again into peaceful submission: but when the whole vital cause is altered, when the intrinsic motive in the entrails of that vast crater is changed, it is no wise policy to say, "It will pass over—another two or three years and women will find, as they have always found before, that it is better to sit still and let others do the work."
It is the problem of population that is being worked out now, not the mere spontaneous and ephemeral struggle of a few dominating personalities.
It is well-nigh ludicrous to think that Sally Bishop—quiet, virtuous, chaste Sally Bishop, the very opposite of a revolutionary—is one in the ranks of a great army who are marching, they scarcely know whither, to a command they have scarcely heard, strained to a mighty endurance in a cause they scarcely understand. She seems too young to be of service, too frail to bear the hardships of the way. How can she stand out against the forced marches, the weary, sleepless camping at night?
There are going to be many in this great campaign who will drop exhausted from the ranks—many who, under cover of night, when the sentinel is drowsy at his post, will slip out into the darkness, weary of the fatigue, regardless of the consequences—a deserter from the cause that is so ill-understood. There are going to be many who, through a passing village where all is peace and contentment, will hear the tempting whisper of mutiny. What is the good of it all—to what does it lead, this endless forced march towards a vague encounter with the enemy who are never to be seen? If only they might pitch tents there and then—there and then dig trenches, make positions, occupy heights—put the rifle to the shoulder and fire—into hell if need be. But no—this endless, toilsome marching, marching—always onward, yet never at the journey's end.
Who blames them if they fall by the way? Even the sergeant of the division, passing their crumpled bodies by the roadside, becomes a hypocrite if he kicks them into an obedience of their orders. In his heart he might well wish to drop out as they have done. Who blames them, too, if they slink off, hiding behind any cover that will conceal their trembling bodies until the whole army has gone by?—who blames them if they sham illness, lameness, anything that may be put forward as an excuse to set them free?—who blames them if a wayside cottage offers them shelter and, taking it, they leave the other poor wretches to go on? Who blames them then? No one—no one with a heart could do so. The great tragedy lies in the fact that they are left to blame themselves.
And this—this is the way that Nature wages war—a civil war, that is the worst, the most harrowing of all. She fights her own kith and kin; she gives battle to the very conditions which she herself has made. There is very seldom a hand-to-hand encounter. Only your French Revolutions and your Russian Massacres mark the spots where the two armies have met, where blood has flowed like wine from the broken goblets of some thousands of lives. But usually it is the forced marches, with the enemy ever retreating over its own ground. And in this position of women, it is the army of Nature that has begun to move. Not the mere rising of a rebellious faction, but the entire unconquerable force of humanity whose whole existence is threatened by the invading power of population.
And Sally Bishop—frail, tender-hearted, sensitive Sally Bishop—has donned the bandolier and the haversack and is off with the rest, just one unit in the rank and file, one slender individual in Nature's army that is out on a campaign to effect the inevitable change in the social conditions of the sex. It makes no matter that she will never reap the benefit; it counts not at all that she will never touch the spoil. The lines must be filled up. When she falls, there must be others to take her place. The bugle has sounded in the hearts of thousands of women of her type, and they have had to obey its shrilling call.
Stand for half an hour in the morning at any of the main termini of London's traffic-ways, and you will see them in their thousands. They little know the law they are obeying; they little realize the cause for which they are working, or the effect it will produce. In another book from this pen it has been declared that the words of Maeterlinck—"the spirit of the hive"—are an inspired phrase. Here, in these conditions, with no need to don the protecting gauze, you may see its vivid illustration, as only the great draughtsmanship of life can illustrate the wondrous schemes of Nature.
For two years Sally Bishop had been one amongst them. For two years she had caught her tram at Kew Bridge in the morning and her tram again at Hammersmith at night. Only her Sundays and her Saturday afternoons were free, except for those two wonderful weeks in the summer and the yawning gaps in the side of the year which are known as National holidays.
When—where did the bugle sound that called Sally to her conscription? What press-gang of circumstances waylaid her, in what peaceful wandering of life, and bore her off to the service of her sex?
There is a little story attached to it—one of those slight, slender threads of incident that go to form a shadow here or a light there in the broad tapestry of the whole.
The Rev. Samuel Bishop was rector of the parish church in the little town of Cailsham, in Kent. This was Sally's father. There never was a meeker man; there never was a man more truly fitted with those characteristics of piety which are essentially and only Christian. With charity he was filled, though he had but little to bestow—his whole intellect was subordinated to his faith—and with the light of hope his little eyes glittered so long as one straw lay floating on the tide.
This is the man whom Christianity demands, and this the very man whom Christianity crushes like a slug under the heel. He is bound to be a failure—bound to hope too much, be blind with faith, and give, out of charity, with the witless hand that knows not where to bestow.
For ten years he had held the parish of Cailsham, fulfilling all his duties by that rule of thumb which is the refuge to all those lacking in initiative. Not one of the parishioners could find any fault with him, yet none bore him respect. They blinked through his services. During his deliberate intoning of the lessons, they thought of all their worldly affairs, and while he preached, they slept.
Hundreds of parishes are served with men like the Rev. Samuel Bishop. It is half the decay of Christianity that the prospect of a fat living will induce men to adopt the profession of the Church. This is the irony of life in all religions, that to be kept going, to increase and multiply, they must be financially sound; yet as soon as that financial security is reached, you have men pouring into their offices who seek no more than a comfortable living.
There is only one true religion, the ministry of the head to the devotion of the heart. You need no priesthood here, but the priesthood of conscience; you need no costly erection of churches, but the open world of God's house of worship. There is no necessity for the training of voices, when the choir of Nature can sing in harmony as no voice ever sang. There is no call now for the two or three to gather together. The group system has had its day, has done its work. The two or three who gather together now, do so, not in a communion of mind, but in criticism and fear. Each knows quite well what the other is thinking of. Where is the necessity for one common prayer to bring their souls together? Their souls are already tearing at each other's throats.
You would not have found the Rev. Samuel Bishop agreeing to this. How could any man consent to give up his livelihood, even for the truth? This gentleman would have stayed on in his parish, happy in his hopeless incompetence, until his parishioners might have sent in a third request for his retirement, had not the irony of circumstance broken him upon its unyielding anvil.
For ten years, as has been said, he had held the rectorship of the parish of Cailsham. Sally was then fourteen years of age. Her mother, one of those hard yet well-featured women upon whom the struggle of life wears with but little ill-effect, had endeavoured to bring her up in the first belief of social importance consistent, to an illogical mind, with the teachings of her husband's calling. But she had failed. It was grained in the nature of Sally to let the morrow take thought for the things of itself. The other three children, the boy up at Oxford, the two girls, one older, the other younger than Sally, were different. With them she succeeded. Into their minds she instilled the knowledge that, of all professions, the Church takes the highest rank in the social scale, and though in the world itself they might have found that hard to believe, yet in the little town of Cailsham Mrs. Bishop had discovered her capacity for draining from her husband's parishioners a certain social deference and respect.
By persuading the Rev. Samuel to utilize his priestly influence upon the declining years of an old lady of title in the neighbourhood, Mrs. Bishop had stolen her way into the very best society which Cailsham had to offer. And Sally was the only one of her children who did not thoroughly appreciate it.
With what deftness she had induced her husband to make his spiritual ministrations indispensable to the tottering vitality of Lady Bray; with what cunning she herself had persuaded the old woman to be present at her garden parties over the last five years, though the poor creature was nothing but the head of death and the bones of decay, barely kept together by the common support of her clothes, it would be almost impossible to imagine. But to entertain Lady Bray; to be even a friend of her ladyship was, in Cailsham in those days, a key to the secret chamber of social success. And Mrs. Bishop held it.
The Rev. Samuel himself gave her ladyship a copy of the Holy Bible, bound in the best Russian leather, with various texts marked, which had never failed to bring her comfort when intoned in the meek monotony of his gentle voice. On the fly-leaf he had inscribed her name—Lady Bray, from her devoted friend and rector, Samuel Bishop.
On Sundays it was quite a feature of the Communion Service to see the state and ceremony with which the Holy Eucharist was carried down the aisle to the Bray's family pew, where the old lady sat, huddled and alone in one of the corners, like a dead body covered clumsily with a black pall. One of the parishioners, who had not that good fortune of being personally acquainted with Lady Bray declared that she really almost objected to this invariable interruption of the service.
"I assure you," she said, "it—it practically amounts to a procession like they have in the Roman Catholic Church."
It was this lady who—whenever the occasion demanded, which was not often—bracketed in a breath Roman Catholics and unfortunate women of the street, and alluded to them jointly as—poor creatures.
To be able to say this, and feel that one is daring convention by one's breadth of mind, is no uncommon standard of Christian intelligence.
But all this dutiful attention to Lady Bray availed the Rev. Samuel nothing. On the anvil of circumstances he was broken, as in the smithy the red-hot metal is bent and severed as though it were but clay.
After ten years' faithful, if somewhat incompetent service, in the parish of Cailsham, the Rev. Samuel Bishop was requested to accept the chaplaincy at some distant Union. It was in this manner that his downfall came about.
It was Easter Sunday. The vicar of the little parish of Steynton, just outside Maidstone, was away for his holidays, and the Rev. Samuel Bishop had taken his place as locum tenens.
In the small church where the parishioners met every Sunday, it had been the custom for some time past for an earnest and well-known member of the congregation, who had an appreciation for the sound of his own voice, to read the lessons at Matins and at Evensong. This duty, combined with that of warden, was fulfilled by Mr. Windle, an ardent church-goer, a staunch, if somewhat narrow-visioned Christian, and a man rigid in his adherence to the cause of total abstinence.
Before morning service on this Easter Sunday, he met the Rev. Samuel Bishop in the vestry. The organist had already gone to his seat behind the chancel. The first preliminary notes of the voluntary—weak and uncertain, because the organ-blower had come late and as yet there was not sufficient wind in the bellows—were beginning to sound through the building. The two men were alone.
"I should like to know," Sally's father was saying, in his quiet, apologetic voice, "how many people you generally expect to communicate on Easter Sunday. The wine, you know. I want to know how much wine to pour out."
His face twitched as he waited for the answer. It seemed as if some unseen fingers were alternately pinching the flabby flesh of his cheeks, then as swiftly letting it go.
Mr. Windle made a mental calculation, delivering his estimation of the number with a voice confident of his accuracy.
"Sixty," he said. "Not less—possibly more."
"That will take a lot of wine."
"There's plenty in that cupboard," said Mr. Windle.
The gentle rector reverently opened the cupboard and examined it.
"Oh yes; there is enough," he said. He held up a black bottle to the light, and blinked at it short-sightedly. "I—I only wanted to make sure," he added; "it is apt to make one somewhat apprehensive, when one is officiating in a strange church—apprehensive, if you understand what I mean, of any hitch in the service."
"Quite so," said Mr. Windle, sympathetically. He extracted a small, white, potash throat lozenge from the pocket of his waistcoat, and placed it on his tongue. In another twenty-five minutes from that moment he would be reading the lessons. The lozenge would be dissolved and swallowed by that time, and the beneficial effect upon his throat complete when he was ready to begin.
"The bishop is holding early Communion in Maidstone this morning," he said, when the lozenge had settled into its customary place in his mouth.
"So I heard," said Mr. Bishop. "What a charming man his lordship is."
"You know him?" asked Mr. Windle in surprise.
"He is doing us the honour of dining with us to-day after morning service. We always dine in the middle of the day on Sundays—only Sundays, of course."
"Indeed?" said the Rev. Samuel, in reference to the first part of Mr. Windle's sentence.
"My wife and I will be pleased if you will come."
Mr. Bishop's face twitched with pleasure. He saw the opportunity of becoming better acquainted with his lordship; of mentioning one or two little alterations in his own parish which he had conceived and approved of, entirely on his own initiative.
"I shall be delighted," he replied—"delighted. Sixty I think you said?" he added, as he commenced to pour the wine into the silver altar jug.
"If not more," replied the other, departing to take his place in the Windle family pew.
Mr. Bishop was left in the vestry, apportioning out sixty separate quantities of wine—quantities, which he deemed would be sufficient to seem appreciable to the palates, spiritual and physical, of those for whom they were intended. You can see him, tilting up the neck of the black bottle sixty consecutive times, with no sense of the ludicrous. Sixty—when meted out, it did not seem quite so much as he had expected. The silver wine-ewer was only a little more than half full. Supposing there were not enough. He would have to go over the consecration part of the service again. That would make them very late. The bishop might be annoyed if he were kept waiting for his dinner. His lordship was a rigid Churchman, inclined to be somewhat High Church in his ideas. It was certain that food would not have passed his lips since the previous night. It would be a pity to find the Bishop annoyed, just when he had the opportunity of speaking to him about those little alterations of his own invention, which he felt sure would raise him in his lordship's estimation.
Perhaps it would be wiser to add a little more wine. It was Easter Sunday. Many members of the congregation were farmers and farm labourers. He had vivid remembrances in his mind of having forcibly to take the cup from the lips of such as these. They meant no irreverence by it, of course. He imagined it to be habit in great part with them, and a smile flickered over his face as the thought crossed his mind.
Yes—certainly, he had better add a little more wine—just a little. If there were some over, why, naturally it would have to be consumed. Wine once consecrated must not be kept. There is that fear that it might become an object of worship, than which no other thought can seem more fearsome to the Anglican mind. He might have to drink it; but there would only be a little in any case; yet, not being accustomed, with the poor stipend which he received, to the taste of such luxuries, it might perhaps—it might—well, so little as there would be, could scarcely lift his spirits. And if it did, could that really be considered a harmful result? On mature consideration, he thought it better to add a little more wine. It would save them from the contingency of a longer service than was already necessary. He poured in the little more, and the silver jug was now a little more than three parts full.
Mr. Windle's lozenge was well dissolved and swallowed before the anthem was finished, and the service went through without a break. The Rev. Samuel preached one of the sermons which he had written in his younger days for the season of Easter. He bade his congregation raise their heads and begin life again with new vigour, new hope in their hearts, for this was the third day, the day their Lord had risen for their salvation. It was, he said, both the day of promise and the day of fulfilment. The anticipation of meeting the bishop flashed across his mind as he said it. He felt sure that his lordship would approve of his little alterations.
When the last voluntary had been played, the reverend gentleman sat in his chair by the altar and watched the congregation filing out of the church. A great many seemed to be departing, but it was impossible to tell as yet the number that remained. Mr. Windle had been so very definite, so confident in his assertion of the number of communicants. He looked at his watch. The service had taken longer than usual. He stood up before they had all gone and poured out the wine into the chalices. From where he had been sitting it was impossible to see those sides of the church that formed the cross upon which the foundations had been laid, and so, though only a few people remained in the centre aisle, he felt no cause for uneasiness. Mr. Windle had been well assured, and he ought to know.
It was when he stood waiting for the communicants to approach the altar and saw all the church empty itself into the chancel like a stream which has been dammed and is set free, that he realized his mistake.
There were not more than twenty people, and with his own willing and ready hands he had consecrated all the wine which he had poured out into the vessel in the vestry. What was the meaning of it? Why had Mr. Windle told him sixty, or more, when scarcely twenty attended?
He stood waiting in the vestry afterwards with the well-filled chalice in his hand, tremulously anticipating Mr. Windle's arrival. His face was twitching spasmodically. The unseen fingers were busy. They never left him alone.
"It shall not be carried out of the church, but the priest and such others of the communicants as he shall call unto him shall, immediately after the blessing, reverently eat and drink the same."
So it alluded in the rubric of the Book of Common Prayer to the leaving over of consecrated wine. In the mind of the Rev. Samuel, Mr. Windle was that other communicant.
"What shall I do?" he began, directly the devout warden entered.
Mr. Windle was beaming with good nature. He had just been talking to a lady—the last to leave the church—who had told him that he had read the lessons with great feeling; and, while he despised all emotion as sacrilegious in the precincts of God's house of worship, he liked to be thought capable of it.
Seeing the cup in Mr. Bishop's hand and the dismayed expression on that gentleman's countenance, he smiled.
"This has to be—be finished," said the distraught clergyman.
"Ah, I'm sorry about that," replied Mr. Windle, easily. "Under ordinary circumstances, there would have been as many as I said; but I understand that a lot of people attended early Communion at the bishop's service in Maidstone. You see, it is not often that he comes, and they like to have his lordship."
"But this is consecrated wine."
"Ah—well—there's not much, I suppose. Is there?"
Mr. Windle looked casually into the chalice. "Oh, there is a good deal. What are you going to do?"
"I shall have to call upon you for your assistance."
"Yes; I couldn't drink all this myself. I'm not accustomed to taking wine. As much as this would—I am afraid—go to my head." His face was now twitching convulsively. "Especially on a—a somewhat—empty stomach."
"But it's no good asking me," said Mr. Windle.
"Why not? You have just been a communicant? Under extraordinary circumstances like this, I am expected to call upon some one who has communicated, reverently, to assist me."
"Ah, yes; that is all very well—so long as you do not enforce any one whom you may choose to break their own most rigid principles. I'm a total abstainer, you see. Even—er—at the altar—I—I—only permit the wine to touch my tongue, as I hold every communicant should do. But you want me actually to drink this. As much liquid as, I assure you, I should take with a meal. Again, I have taken the pledge—"
"But, my dear Mr. Windle, in such an exceptional circumstance as this—"
"I have openly taken the pledge," Mr. Windle repeated conclusively—"I'm very sorry. I'm afraid, too, that the sacristan has gone. But I think the organ blower was there when I came in; I fancy I heard him."
"Ah, yes; but he was not at Communion."
"Of course not—then I'm sorry. I shall be sure to see some one who was, and I'll send them along. We shall see you up at the house soon. Don't be long—you'll forgive my going on ahead, but I'm afraid his lordship may have arrived already. I'll send you any one if I see them. And I'm bound to meet somebody. They haven't been gone very long."
He had gone. The Rev. Samuel was left alone with the half-filled goblet of noxious wine in his hand. For some moments he continued to stand in the same position, looking down into the crimson depth of liquid that lay, scintillating lazily, in the silver bowl.
At last he raised it to his lips and sipped it—once, twice, three times. Then he waited. "Wine to make glad the heart of man." The words came to his mind. Wine was a terrible power, a fascinating evil. He thanked God that he had never fallen a prey to its fascinations. This wine was very sweet. He liked sweet things. Once he had tasted champagne when dining at the house of Lady Bray. He had thought that disagreeable, though at the moment he had murmured that it was excellent wine; but he had been unable to understand how any man could take of that more than was good for him. This wine, of course, that they used in the church was infinitely more palatable. But how could he possibly drink all this? It was out of the question. He prayed devoutly that Mr. Windle would soon find him relief and send some one.
He took another sip and waited, noticing that already there were slight signs of diminution in the contents of the chalice. Then he thought of the bishop. It was possible that his lordship might notice the scent of it in his breath if he took it all. They would be sure to be talking together about his little alterations; and if the bishop were to notice it, it would be disastrous. He looked at his watch. It was already almost the time that they were supposed to sit down to dinner. Oh! why did not Mr. Windle find some one and bring him release from this torture of mind?
He walked to the cupboard where the bottle of wine was kept. Perhaps it would be better to pour it back—really better in the end. They would be waiting dinner for him. He knew that the bishop would be annoyed. It might be better to pour it back.
Then all the force of dogma rose before him like a phoenix from the ashes of his lower nature. This was consecrated wine! He had consecrated it with his own hands at the altar of God, for one purpose and one purpose only—to be consumed by those who believed in the body and blood of Christ. To pour it back again into the bottle of unconsecrated wine—that would be sacrilege! Why had Mr. Windle been so narrow-minded about his foolish pledge of total abstinence? How foolish some good people were! How bigoted! He felt assured that Mr. Windle was a good man; but again, there was no doubt about his being narrow-minded. Ah, why did he not send some one!
Mr. Bishop walked to the door of the vestry that opened on to the little country lane. He looked out. There was no trace of the devout warden. Only a man, carefully dressed, with black leather leggings encasing his legs from knees to the boot-tops—seemingly the type of clerk in a country town—was coming up the lane. A thought flew into the clergyman's head. He beckoned to him. The man quickened his steps and came up to the door.
In the space of two minutes, with nervous, hurried voice, the Rev. Samuel had told him of his predicament. The man looked on amazed, but said nothing.
"Now, have you just come from Communion?" he asked at the conclusion of his explanation.
"Me?" said the man. "No."
"Then I must entreat you to let me read that part of the service to you—I assure you it won't take long—that is necessitated by the taking of the wine. You see I must institute you as a communicant. You are of course a—a Protestant?" he added in sudden afterthought.
"Me?" said the man. "No."
Mr. Bishop stood up dismayed.
"Not a Protestant?" he exclaimed in wonder.
"No, why should I be? Nor anything else. Don't believe in it, 'specially if it can put gentlemen in such a position as you're in now. I'll drink the wine for you if you like. I see no harm in that. I'll drink it reverently too—I don't want to hurt your feelings. But you can't expect me to take it for granted that it ain't nothin' else but what it is—just the juice out of the grape, don't yer know. You see, I know what I'm talking about. I'm a chauffeur now, but I used to be in a brewery—see?"
"Thank you," said Mr. Bishop bitterly, sarcastically; "but you can be of no service to me." He retired, closing the door and saying "Thank you" again, in the same tone of voice.
When he found himself alone once more in the vestry he took another sip of wine. The sentiments which that man had expressed were half rankling in his mind. They made him feel careless, reckless. He did not really think of what he was doing. He took another sip—it was most palatable—and another—it was certainly very good to the taste. With the little food that he had taken that day, he felt it warm within him. It was considerably more than half-finished now. He waited again, and really he felt no bad effects.
Once more he looked at his watch. They were actually sitting down to dinner now. He walked down the floor of the vestry and back again, and his steps were quite steady; so he took another sip. Then he breathed into his open hand held up against his face—as he had once seen an undergraduate do at Oxford—but he could detect no perfume of the wine in his breath. Possibly it would be all right. And he was looking forward so intensely to meeting the bishop. He felt that he would be able to convince him of the need for his little alterations.
Once again he looked into the cup. Then he finished the wine at a draught—elbow tilted at an angle on a level with his head—and hurriedly put the chalice away.
It was done now. And he felt quite all right. He began to take off his surplice, and when he trod on the end of it and stumbled a little, it seemed quite a natural accident. He smiled—laughed even, but very gently—at the fears he had entertained. Evidently he must have a very good head to be able to take so much wine. His hat dropped from his hand as he was raising it to his head; but that was nothing. It was quite a simple thing to stoop and pick it up again. If a man were intoxicated he could not do that. He would probably fall. Mr. Bishop only knocked his elbow against the vestry table as he stood upright.
He looked round the room. Was everything put away? What a delightful service that was at morning prayer on Easter day. It was quite true what he had said in his sermon—this was a day of promise, of good hope. He felt that within himself.
Ah! the cupboard that contained the bottle of wine had not been locked. He walked across to it, quite steadily, perhaps a little slowly. The bottle was there all right. How much had they used of it? He remembered that it had been full to the base of the neck. Now? He took it out and looked at it. It was more than half empty! He had practically consumed half a bottle of strongly intoxicating wine! How could he be sober? He laughed. He heard the laugh within himself, as though he were standing by, a spectator to his own actions. Then he knew he was drunk. He said so—to himself—aloud.
At that instant the door of the vestry opened, and in walked Mr. Windle, followed by the bishop. They saw him there, standing with gently swaying movements by the cupboard, with the black bottle of wine in his hands.
"Mr. Bishop," said the warden, "I have brought his lordship to your assistance. I could find no one on my way home."
The Rev. Samuel put down the bottle and bowed uncertainly.
"I'm afraid it's too late," he said humbly.
The two men looked at him with growing suspicion, then his lordship said in austere tones, "So I should imagine, Mr. Bishop." He turned to his companion. "Shall we get back to dinner, Mr. Windle?"
They moved to the vestry door.
"Mr. Bishop," he said, turning round as they departed, "I would advise you to go back quietly to the vicarage."
Then the door closed and the little man sat down upon the nearest form. The bishop would never hear of his little alterations now; he would never think well of them, even if he did.
He burst into tears, and for some moments sat there with his head buried in his hands. Then he looked up, saw the bread which also had been kept over from the service, and, reaching forward, began pathetically to put the little squares one by one into his mouth.
That incident in itself is sufficient. There is no need to lead a way down the steps that brought the Rev. Samuel Bishop to his final degradation and ultimate death. The generous offer of the chaplaincy of a small union, the withdrawal of his son from Oxford, the dismissal of the tutelary services of the lady who had charge of his daughter's education, the replacing of a better man in the rectory at Cailsham—all these stages of the little tragedy have no intimate importance in themselves, except that they formed the first evolutionary periods of the development of Sally's life. These were the press-gang of circumstances that forced her into the service of her sex; these, the shrilling calls of the bugle that bid her strap the haversack to her slender shoulders and march out to war against the sea of trouble.
In a living and moving institution such as the Christian Church, you cannot afford to be lenient to incompetency. And the Rev. Samuel was incompetent. There is no doubt about that.
In such circumstances as these, assuming them up to the point where the obliging chauffeur had found the door closed in his face, a competent man would have lifted reason above his faith. Calmly, he would have told himself, as did the chauffeur, "This is the juice of the grape; it is in nowise altered in composition because these hands of mine—which have done many things—have been laid upon it. It is better to mix it again with unconsecrated wine, than pour it down the sacrilegious throat of an unbelieving chauffeur; I will put it back in the bottle."
So a competent man would have acted, presuming that he had ever allowed himself to be so far caught in such a predicament. But the Rev. Samuel was too fully possessed of that first characteristic of faith, which the Christian Church demands. It only argues that you must take no man absolutely at his word, even when he presumes to speak, inspired with the voice of God. Nothing has yet been written, nothing has yet been said, which can be made to apply without deviation to the law of change, and also indiscriminately of persons.
And so, for this unswerving faith of the Rev. Samuel, Sally Bishop is made to suffer. Very shortly after the removal from Cailsham, she made her declaration of independence.
"Mother," she said, one morning at breakfast, "I'm going to earn my own living." The baby lines of her mouth set tight, and her chin puckered.
Mrs. Bishop laid down her piece of toast. "I wish you wouldn't talk nonsense, Sally," she said.
The young man down from Oxford ejaculated—
"It's not rot—it's not nonsense!"
Her voice was petulant; there were tears in it. It was not a decision of strength. Here the press-gang was at work driving the unwilling conscript. She was going; there was no doubt about her going; but it was a hard struggle to feel resigned.
"But it is nonsense," said Mrs. Bishop.
"How do you think you could earn your living?" said the young man. He knew something about the matter; he was trying to find employment himself—he, a 'Varsity man—and as yet nothing had offered itself. "If I can't get anything to do," he added sententiously, "how on earth do you think you're going to?"
"She doesn't mean it," said Sally's eldest sister. "She only thinks it sounds self-sacrificing."
"Is that the kindest thing you can think of?" asked Sally. "I do mean it. I've written to London and I've got the prospectus here of one of the schools for teaching shorthand and typewriting. For eight pounds they guarantee to make any one proficient in both—suitable to take a secretaryship. Doesn't matter how long you'll stay; they agree for that sum to make you proficient, and they also half promise to get you a situation."
"And where are you going to get the eight pounds from?" said her little sister.
"And where are you going to get the cost of your living up in Town?" asked the wise young man, who knew how London could dissolve the money in one's pocket.
"Oh, she's all right there," said the eldest sister bitterly. "I know what she's thinking about. She's going to draw that money that grandmama left her—that fifty pounds. I guessed she'd spend that on herself one of these days."
"And who else was it left to?" asked Sally.
"Yes, my dear child," said her mother; "we know it was left to you, of course; but since we came away from Cailsham"—her mouth pursed; she admirably conveyed the effort of controlling her emotions—the lump in the throat, the hasty swallowing and the blinking eyes—"since we left Cailsham, I'd sometimes hoped—"
"Of course you had, mater," said the young man sympathetically.
"But I'm going to relieve you of all responsibility," said Sally. "I'm no longer going to be an expense to you, and I'm going to do it with my own money—the money I was given and the money I make. I can't see what right you have to think me selfish—all of you—as I know you do. I'm no more selfish than you who expect me to spend the money on you; in fact, I'm less selfish. It's my money."
This, in a word, is the spirit, the attitude of mind that is entering into the mental composition of women. They are becoming conscious of their personality. That phrase may be cryptic; without consideration it may convey but little; yet it sums up the whole movement, is the very moon itself to the turning tide. The woman who once becomes conscious of her own personality is in a fair way towards her own enfranchisement. Away go the fettering conventions of home life, the chains of social hypocrisy are flung aside. She rides out into the open air like the bird from the shattered cage, and if man, the marksman, does not bring her to earth before her fluttering wings are fully spread, then she is off—up into the deep, blue zenith of liberty!
"I'm no more selfish than you who expect me to spend the money on you; in fact, I'm less selfish. It's my money."
In that definite assertion, Sally first expressed the realization of her own personality. The girl of twenty years ago would have sacrificed her little dowry upon the family altar without a word; she would, without complaint, have allowed it to be spent upon her brother's education. But now we are dealing with modernity, and out of the quiet country lanes, from the sacred hearth of the peaceful home-circles, this army of women are rising. Who has taught them? No one knows. Who has inspired them with the vitality of action? No one can say. The spirit of the hive is at work within them; already they are swarming in obedience to the silent command. Pick out a hundred girls as they go to work in the city, and ask them why they are toiling from one day to another. They will all—or ninety-nine of them—give you the same answer—
"I didn't want to stay at home. I prefer to be independent."
There lies the heart of it, the realization of the ego in the personality.
Sally had her own way. In the face of abuse, in the face of reproach, she packed her leather trunk. All those little idols of sentiment, the clock that ticked on her mantelshelf, the pictures that hung on the walls; the books she had collected, even the copy of Browning that she did not understand—they all were stowed away into the leather trunk. She went out of the house, she went out of the home as a moth flies out of a darkened room, and you know that unless you kindle a light to lure it back, it will never return. They knew they could never kindle the light. They knew she would never come back. What love had they to offer as an inducement? And no love of her relations is an inducement to the woman who is seeking her own.
Only the Rev. Samuel shed tears over her. She came into his study one morning after breakfast to say good-bye. He was writing a new sermon for the season of Easter, and his mind was raking up the past as a man unearths some buried thing that the mould has rotted.
The sunlight was pouring in through the window as he bent over his desk nursing thoughts that were vermin in his brain.
"You're going, Sally?" he said.
He stood up from his chair and looked at her—looked her up and down as though he wished the sight of her to last in his memory for the rest of his life.
"What time do you get to London?"
"And you've arranged about where you're going to stay?"
"Yes, I'm going to share rooms with Miss Hallard—"
"The girl who's going to be an artist?"
"Yes; she has lodgings near Kew."
"Ah, Kew. Yes, Kew. I remember walking from Kew to Richmond, along by the gardens, when I was quite a young man. So you're going there, Sally?" His eyes still roamed over her.
"Yes, father. What are you doing? Are you writing a sermon?"
That little interest in his own affairs awakened him. Animation crept into his eyes. It was the slight, subtle touch that a woman knows how to bestow.
"Yes, I'm writing a sermon, Sally, for next Sunday—Easter Sunday—listen to this—" In the pride of composition, having none but her who would appreciate his efforts, he took up one of the papers with almost trembling hands.
"There can be no hope without promise, and in the rising of our Lord from the dead, we have the promise of everlasting life. For just as He, on that Sabbath morning, defied the prison walls of the sepulchre, and was lifted beyond earthly things to those things that are spiritual, so shall we, if we defy the things of this world—its pomps and its vanities and all the sinful lusts of the flesh—so shall we win to the things that are eternal rather than those which are temporal and void."
He looked up at her, waiting eagerly for the words of her approval to convince him of what he was scarcely convinced himself. Before she could utter them, Mrs. Bishop entered the room.
"Samuel," she said, "I've written my letter to Lady Bray. I've asked her to come on the seventeenth. You'd better write yours and enclose it with mine. You know what to say. I mean you know what sort of thing she likes from you. I've also written and asked the Colles's to come to dinner on the eighteenth to meet her. They're sure to accept if they know they're going to meet her, and I think they ought to be useful. Write your letter now, will you?"
The Rev. Samuel nodded assent. "I will," he added.
Then he turned to his daughter. "Good-bye, Sally."
She put her hands on his shoulders—knowing all his frailty—and kissed him. Then she walked out of the room.
When she had closed the door, the clergyman sat down again to his desk and read again through the sentences he had read to Sally.
"I suppose she didn't think it very true," he said to himself, "but it is—it is true—its pomps and its vanities, ah—"
Then he took out a sheet of note-paper, and picking up his pen, he began—
"My dear Lady Bray—"
When Sally stepped off the 'bus at Knightsbridge on that November evening, her mind was seething with indignation.
To lay a wager! It was an insult! Did he think her acquaintance was to be bought for a sum of money? It would not be long before he found out his mistake. And what a sum! Ten pounds! It was ridiculous! What man would spend all that money simply upon the mere making of an acquaintance? Of course she knew that if ever she did speak to him again, he would never pay it. It was quite safe to boast like that—it was a boast. Ten pounds! Why with ten pounds she could buy a real silk petticoat, a new frock, a new hat, another feather boa—all of the most expensive too, and still have money in her pocket.
All the amiable and interested impressions that she had obtained of him went when he made that bet. It was so easy to boast—so cheap. But if he thought that the sound of that sum of money had impressed her, he would learn his mistake.
She caught another 'bus on to Hammersmith and tried vainly to forget all about it.
Miss Hallard was home from the School of Art before her. In the bedroom which they shared in a house on Strand-on-Green, she was combing out her short hair, her blouse discarded, her thin arms bent at acute angles, and between her lips a Virginian cigarette.
"Wet?" she said laconically, without turning round.
"Dripping." Sally threw her hat on the bed.
"If you bought umbrellas instead of cheap silk petticoats—"
"I knew you'd say that," said Sally.
"Was it raining when you walked from the tram?"
"No. It's stopped now. But it was up in town, and all the 'buses were full up inside."
"Cheerful," said Miss Hallard.
She twisted her hair into some sort of shape and secured it indiscriminately with pins.
This girl is the revolutionary. Hers is the type that has been the revolutionary through all ages. It will be revolutionary to the end, no matter what force may be in power. She has little or nothing to do with the class to which Sally Bishop belongs. Her temperament is the corrective which Nature always uses for the natural functions of her own handiwork—Sally Bishop is Nature herself, enlisted into this civil warfare because she must. In her revolutionary ideas, Miss Hallard follows the temperament of her inclinations. Whatever position women might hold, she would have disagreed with it. She is one of those of whom—like some strange animal that one sees, following instincts which seem the very reverse to Nature's needs—one wonders what her place in the scheme of things can be.
Of this type are those whom the straining of a vocabulary has called—Suffragette. They are merely Nature's correctives. Of definite change in the position of women they will effect nothing. They are not regulars in the great army; only the wandering adventurers who take up arms for any cause, that they may be in the noise of the battle. It is the paid army—the regular troops—who finally place the standard upon the enemy's heights; for it is only the forces of Life itself that, in this life, are unconquerable.
This, then, is Miss Hallard—adventuress in a great philosophy. Her thin lips, her shifting, disconcerting eyes, set deep beneath the brows; the long and narrow face, the high forehead on which the hair hangs heavily; that thin, reedy body, that ill-formed, unnatural breast which never was meant to suckle a child or nurse the drooping of a man's head—all these are the signs of her calling. A woman—by the irony of a fate that has thwarted the original design of Nature.
Sally Bishop is a woman before everything. Miss Hallard is a woman last of all. How these two, in their blatant contrasts, were brought together, is an example of one of those mysterious forces in the great machinery of life which we are unable to comprehend. It is like the harnessing of electricity to the needs of civilization. We can make it do what we will; but of what it is, we know nothing. So we are just as ignorant of that law which governs the contact of personalities. It cannot be luck; it cannot be chance. There is too much method in the mad tumble of it all, too much plot and counter-plot, too much cunning intent—which even we can appreciate—for us to think that it has no meaning. Why, the very wind that blows has its assured direction and carries the pollen of this flower to the heart of that.
But there is no need to understand it. The thing happens—that is all. Miss Janet Hallard and Sally are intimates; that is really sufficient.
Yet they were not really intimate enough as yet for Sally to sit down on the bed directly she came into the room and break into an excited description of her adventure. She knew the cold look of inquiry in Janet's eyes. She could foresee the disconcerting questions that would be asked. Janet's questions, coming dryly—all on one note—from those thin lips of hers, drove sometimes to a point that was almost too deep for Sally's comprehension. And Sally is a woman of sex, not of intellect.
"You can have the glass now if you want it," said Janet, moving away to her bed.
Sally rose wearily and began to take off her things.
"I am fagged!" she exclaimed.
Janet said nothing. The blue lines under Sally's eyes, that indescribable drawing of the flesh of those round cheeks, had told her that long ago.
Sally gazed at herself in the glass. "Look at my eyes!" she exclaimed.
"Awful, aren't they?"
"Pretty bad. Can't think why you don't stick out for more money when they work you overtime."
"It's no good—they'd get somebody else."
"Well then, what should I do?"
"Go on the stage."
Sally looked critically at herself again in the little mahogany-framed glass that stood on the dressing-table. With an effort she tried to forget the lines under the eyes, tried to efface the look of weariness. The thought of being an actress did not enter her thoughts. It was her appearance she considered.
"Do you think I look well enough?" she asked.
"Fifty per cent. of them are a good deal worse in those musical comedies."
"How much should I get?"
"Two pounds a week."
"That's as much as you."
"Yes; but you'd have to work for it. I don't."
"Oh yes; but what sort of work? Nothing to typewriting."
"Perhaps not. But they'd probably expect more than work out of you."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, when a stage manager gives an unknown girl a walk on in the chorus of a musical comedy, he looks upon it in the light of a favour. I suppose it is too. He puts her in the way of knowing a lot of well-to-do young men, and he pays her two pounds a week for doing nothing but look pretty under the most advantageous circumstances. There are women who would pay to get a job like that."
Sally's face puckered with disgust. "I think life's beastly," she said.
Janet smiled. "That's not life," she said; "that's musical comedy."
Then she lit another cigarette and sat there, watching Sally take off her wet clothes; smiled at her, catching the garments with the tips of her fingers, and shuddering when they touched her skin.
"You're too sensitive for this business, Sally," she said at last. "You're too romantic. Why don't you get married?"
"I wish I could," said Sally.
"Well, you don't take your chances."
They both laughed. Mr. Arthur Montagu was a bank clerk, lodging in the same house on Strand-on-Green. He had had the same room for over three years and had, through various stages of acquaintanceship, come to be addressed by the landlady as Mr. Arthur.
For the first few weeks after the arrival of Sally and Janet, he had chosen to take his meals in the kitchen—where all meals were served—after they had finished. His, was a bed-sitting-room, the only one the house contained, and, in social status, the possession of it lifted him in rank above any of the other lodgers who shared the general sitting-room with the landlady, Mrs. Hewson, and her husband.
But one evening, Sally and he had returned together from Hammersmith on the tram. They had walked together from the bridge along that river way, with its tall houses and its little houses, its narrow alleys and its low-roofed inns, which is perhaps the most picturesque part of the river that the shattering march of time has left. He had made intellectual remarks about the effects of the sunlight in the water. He had drawn her attention to the beauty of the broad stretch of stream as it bent away towards Chiswick out of sight. He felt that he had made an impression of mentality upon the little typewriting girl. And, after that, he had suggested to Mrs. Hewson that it might seem churlish on his part not to have his meals with the rest.
Janet Hallard he did not like. When he talked about art her eyes hung upon him and, waiting until he had finished, she then talked about the Stock Exchange.
"Oh! I hate talking shop," he said one day.
"But you do it so well," she replied quietly. "It seems so much more interesting than art when you talk about it. After all, art is only some one person's idea about something they generally don't understand."
There is no wonder that the man hated her. But for Sally, he formed a deep attachment that was only kept in check and controlled by the remembrance of the superiority of his position. Class bias is universal, and is based almost entirely upon possession. The school-boy who has more pocket-money, the lodger who has the only bed-sitting-room in the house, and the man who has the largest rent-roll, are always socially above those in their immediate surroundings. Possession being nine points of the law is also nine points of class superiority. That Mr. Arthur should have stepped down from his high estate and condescended to have his meals with them, was proof enough that the man was in earnest. But his interest in her was not reciprocated.
"I couldn't marry Mr. Arthur," she said; "not even if he was the manager of his old bank."
"But why not?"
"Because I could never love him; not even respect him."
"That's what fetters women."
"That idea that they've got to marry the man they love. They've grown to think—unconsciously almost—that to give him love, blinded, is a fair exchange for his provision of a home. They'll never win their independence that way."
"I don't want my independence," said Sally.
"Then why do you work for it?" asked Janet.
"Because I didn't want to be a clog on my own people—because I wanted to be free to answer to myself."
"Then why don't you carry that idea further? Why make yourself free, simply to tie yourself up again at the first chance you get?"
"I don't call it tying myself up to marry a man I'm in love with and who loves me. That's happiness. I know I shall be perfectly happy."
Janet lifted her head and in a thoroughly professional manner blew a long, thin stream of smoke from between her lips.
"How long do you think that happiness is going to last?" she asked.
"I don't know."
"You chance it?"
"And then when the end comes you have not even got yourself to fall back upon. You're done for—sucked dry. You fall to pieces because you've sold your independence."
Sally left the dressing-table and crossed to Janet's bed. Sitting there, she put her bare arms on Janet's shoulders.
"It's no good your talking like that," she said gently. "You think that way, and right or wrong I think the other. If I loved a man and he loved me, I'd willingly sell my independence, willingly do anything for him."
"Supposing he wasn't going to marry you?" said Janet, imperturbably.
"Then he wouldn't love me."
"Oh yes; he might."
"Then I don't know what you mean."
Janet stood up from the bed. "I can smell bloaters for supper," she said; "if you don't hurry up, Mr. Hewson 'll get the best one. I can see Mrs. Hewson picking it out for him. Come on. Put a blouse on. There's a woman who's sold her independence. She doesn't get much for it, as far as I can see. Come on. I'm going to talk to Mr. Arthur about art to-night."
It is one thing to say you could never marry a man, and it is another thing to refuse him when he asks you.
That very afternoon Mr. Arthur had received the intimation at his bank that he was shortly to be made a cashier. He glowed with the prospect. His conversation that evening was of the brightest. The poisoned shafts of Miss Hallard's satire met the armoured resistance of his high spirits. They fell—pointless and unavailing—from his unbounded faith in himself. A man who, after a comparatively few years' service in a bank, is deemed fitted for the responsible duties of a cashier, is qualified to express an opinion, even on art. Mr. Arthur expressed many.
"Don't see how you can say a thing's artistic if you don't like it," he declared.
"I think you're quite right, Mr. Arthur," said Mrs. Hewson. "If I like a thing—like that picture in one of the Christmas Annuals—I always say, 'Now I call that artistic,' don't I, Ern?"
Her husband nodded with his mouth full of the best bloater.
"Well, you couldn't call that thing artistic, Mrs. Hewson, if you mean the thing that's over the piano in the sitting-room?"
"Why not?" asked Janet; "don't you like it?"
"No," said Mr. Arthur emphatically, "nor any one else either, I should think. I bet you a shilling they wouldn't."
"But Mrs. Hewson does," Janet replied quietly. "Doesn't that satisfy you that it must be artistic, since some one likes it?"
Mrs. Hewson, finding herself suddenly the object of the conversation, picked her teeth in hurried confusion. Her husband surveyed the company over the rim of his cup and then returned to his reading of the evening paper.
During the weighted silence that followed Janet's last remark, he laid down his paper.
"I see," he said, "as 'ow there are some people up in the north of England 'aving what they call Pentecostal visitations."
Mrs. Hewson laughed tentatively, the uncertain giggle that scarcely dares to come between the teeth. She knew her husband's leaning towards the arid humour of an obscure joke.
"What's that, Ern?"
"Well, 'cording to the paper, they get taken with it sudden. They can't stand up. They fall down in the middle of the service and roll about, just as if they'd 'ad too much to drink."
Mrs. Hewson's laugh became genuine and unafraid, a hysterical clattering of sounds that tumbled from her mouth.
"Silly fools," she said; "the way people go on. Read it—what is it? Read it."
Mr. Hewson picked some bones out of the bloater with a dirty hand, placed the filleted morsel in his mouth, washed it down with a mouthful of tea, and then cleared his throat and began to read.
Mr. Arthur seized this opportunity. "It's quite fine again now," he said in an undertone to Sally.
She expressed mild surprise—the lifting of her eyebrows, the casual "Really." Then it seemed to her that he did not exactly deserve to be treated like that and she told him how she had got wet through, coming home.
"Changed your clothes, I hope," he whispered.
"You might get pneumonia, you know," he said.
She smiled at that. "And of such are the Kingdom of Heaven."
He gazed at her in surprise. "Why should you say that?" he asked.
"Don't know—why shouldn't I?"
He looked down at his empty plate. There was something he wanted to say to her. He kept looking round the table for inspiration. At last, with Mrs. Hewson's burst of laughter at the paper's description of the Pentecostal visitations, he took the plunge—head down—the words spluttering in whispers out of his lips.
"Would you care to come for a little walk down the Strand-on-Green?" he asked. "It's a lovely night now."
In the half breath of a second, Sally's eyes sought Janet's face across the table. Janet had heard and, with her eyes, she urged Sally to accept. This all passed unknown to Mr. Arthur. He thought Sally was hesitating—the moments thumped in his heart.
"I don't mind for a little while," she said.
He rose from the table, conscious of victory. "I'll just go and get on my boots," he said, and he slipped away.
Sally mounted to her room followed by Janet.
"He's going to propose," said Miss Hallard.
"He's not," retorted Sally.
"I'm perfectly certain he is. He's been excited about something all the evening. He's come into some money or something. He talked to-night as if he could buy up all the art treasures in the kingdom."
"You think he's going to buy me up?"
"He's going to make his offer. What'll you do?"
"Well—what can I do? Would you marry him?"
"That's not the question. There's no chance of him asking me. You can't speculate on whether you'll marry a man until he asks you—your mind is biassed before then."
"I don't believe you'd marry any one," said Sally.
"It's quite probable," she replied laconically.
Sally began to take off her hat again. "I'm not going out with him," she said. "I shall hate it."
"Don't be foolish—put on that hat, and see what it's like to be proposed to by an earnest young gentleman on the banks of a river, at nine o'clock in the evening. Go on—don't be foolish, Sally. It does a woman good to be proposed to—teaches her manners—go on. You may like him—you don't know."
Sally obeyed reluctantly. In the heart of her was a dread of it; in her mind, the tardy admission that she was doing her duty, sacrificing at the altar upon which every woman at some time or other is compelled to make her offering.
In the little linoleum'd passage, known as the hall, Mr. Arthur was waiting for her. He had exchanged his felt slippers for a pair of boots; round his neck he had wrapped an ugly muffler and a cap was perched jauntily on his head. The impression that he gave Sally, of being confident of his success, stung her for a moment to resentment. She determined to refuse him. But that mood was only momentary. When the door had closed behind them and they had begun to walk along the paved river path, the impression and its accompanying decision vanished.
Sally was a romantic—that cannot be denied. She could talk reverently about love in the abstract. In her mind, it was not a condition into which one fell, as the unwary traveller falls into the ditch by the roadside, picking himself out as quickly as may be, or, in his weariness, choosing at least to sleep the night there and go on with his journey next morning. In the heart of Sally, whether it were a pitfall or not, love was an end in itself. She directed all her steps towards that destination, and any light of romance allured her.
That evening, walking up towards Kew Bridge, the lights of the barges lying in the stream, looking themselves like huddled reptiles seeking the warmth of each other's bodies, the lights of the little buildings on the eyot, and the lamps of the bridge itself, all dancing quaint measures in the black water, brought to the susceptibility of Sally's mind a sense of romance. For the moment, until he spoke, she forgot the actual presence of Mr. Arthur. The vague knowledge that some one was with her, stood for the indefinite, the unknown quantity whose existence was essential to the completion of the whole.
As they passed by the City Barge—that little old-fashioned inn which faces the water on the river path—she looked in through the windows. There were bargemen, working men who lived near by, and others whose faces she had often seen as she had walked to her tram in the morning, all talking, laughing good-naturedly, some with the pewter pots pressed to their lips, head throwing slightly back, others enforcing a point with an empty mug on the bar counter. And outside, ahead of them, the lean, gaunt willows, around whose very trunks the hard paving had been laid, shot up into the black sky like witches' brooms that the wind was combing out.
Bright, cheerful lights glowed in every cottage window. In some it was only the light of a fire that leaped a ruddy dance on the whitewashed walls, and caught reflections in the lintels of the windows. In others it was a candle, in others a small oil lamp; but in all, looking through the windows as she passed, Sally saw some old man or woman seated over a fire. There is romance, even in content. Sally was half conscious of it, until Mr. Arthur spoke; then it whipped out, vanished—a wisp of smoke that the air scatters.
"Let's lean over that railing and watch the boats," he suggested.
There were scarcely any boats moving, to be seen. He spoke at random, as if the river swarmed with them; but only a little tug now and then scurried like a water-rat out of the shadows of the bridge, and sped down along towards Chiswick. In its wake, spreading out in ever-broadening lines, it left a row of curling waves that came lapping to the steps below them. These sounds and the occasional noise of voices across on the Kew side, were the only interruptions to the silence. For some moments they stood there, leaning on the railing, saying nothing, watching some dull, dark figures of men who were moving about on the little island that belongs to the Thames Conservancy.
"I—I've got something I want to tell you, Miss Bishop," Mr. Arthur said at length with sudden resolve.
Sally caught her breath. If it were only somebody she could love! What a moment it would be then—what a moment! Her lips felt suddenly dry. She sucked them into her mouth and moistened them.
"What is it?" she asked.
Mr. Arthur coughed, pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose loudly. The sound, intensified there in that still place, jarred through Sally's senses. She roughly told herself that she was a fool.
"You know I'm in a bank?" he began.
"Yes; of course."
"It's a private bank."
"Yes; what I mean is, they pay better than most banks usually do."