Part the First
Harvey Rolfe was old enough to dine with deliberation, young and healthy enough to sauce with appetite the dishes he thoughtfully selected. You perceived in him the imperfect epicure. His club had no culinary fame; the dinner was merely tolerable; but Rolfe's unfinished palate flattered the second-rate cook. He knew nothing of vintages; it sufficed him to distinguish between Bordeaux and Burgundy; yet one saw him raise his glass and peer at the liquor with eye of connoisseur. All unaffectedly; for he was conscious of his shortcoming in the art of delicate living, and never vaunted his satisfactions. He had known the pasture of poverty, and the table as it is set by London landladies; to look back on these things was to congratulate himself that nowadays he dined.
Beyond the achievement of a vague personal distinction at the Metropolitan Club, he had done nothing to make himself a man of note, and it was doubtful whether more than two or three of the members really liked him or regarded him with genuine interest. His introduction to this circle he owed to an old friend, Hugh Carnaby, whose social position was much more clearly defined: Hugh Carnaby, the rambler, the sportsman, and now for a twelvemonth the son-in-law of Mrs. Ascott Larkfield. Through Carnaby people learnt as much of his friend's history as it concerned anyone to know: that Harvey Rolfe had begun with the study of medicine, had given it up in disgust, subsequently was 'in business', and withdrew from it on inheriting a competency. They were natives of the same county, and learnt their Latin together at the Grammar School of Greystone, the midland town which was missed by the steam highroad, and so preserves much of the beauty and tranquillity of days gone by. Rolfe seldom spoke of his own affairs, but in talking of travel he had been heard to mention that his father had engineered certain lines of foreign railway. It seemed that Harvey had no purpose in life, save that of enjoying himself. Obviously he read a good deal, and Carnaby credited him with profound historical knowledge; but he neither wrote nor threatened to do so. Something of cynicism appeared in his talk of public matters; politics amused him, and his social views lacked consistency, tending, however, to an indolent conservatism. Despite his convivial qualities, he had traits of the reserved, even of the unsociable, man: a slight awkwardness in bearing, a mute shyness with strangers, a hesitancy in ordinary talk, and occasional bluntness of assertion or contradiction, suggesting a contempt which possibly he did not intend. Hugh Carnaby declared that the true Rolfe only showed himself after a bottle of wine; maintained, moreover, that Harvey had vastly improved since he entered upon a substantial income. When Rolfe was five and twenty, Hugh being two years younger, they met after a long separation, and found each other intolerable; a decade later their meeting led to hearty friendship. Rolfe had become independent, and was tasting his freedom in a twelvemonth's travel. The men came face to face one day on the deck of a steamer at Port Said. Physically, Rolfe had changed so much that the other had a difficulty in recognising him; morally, the change was not less marked, as Carnaby very soon became aware. At thirty-seven this process of development was by no means arrested, but its slow and subtle working escaped observation unless it were that of Harvey Rolfe himself.
His guest this evening, in a quiet corner of the dining-room where he generally sat, was a man, ten years his junior, named Morphew: slim, narrow-shouldered, with sandy hair, and pale, delicate features of more sensibility than intelligence; restless, vivacious, talking incessantly in a low, rapid voice, with frequent nervous laughs which threw back his drooping head. A difference of costume—Rolfe wore morning dress, Morphew the suit of ceremony—accentuated the younger man's advantage in natural and acquired graces; otherwise, they presented the contrast of character and insignificance. Rolfe had a shaven chin, a weathered complexion, thick brown hair; the penumbra of middle-age had touched his countenance, softening here and there a line which told of temperament in excess. At this moment his manner inclined to a bluff jocularity, due in some measure to the bottle of wine before him, as also was the tinge of colour upon his cheek; he spoke briefly, but listened with smiling interest to his guest's continuous talk. This ran on the subject of the money-market, with which the young man boasted some practical acquaintance.
'You don't speculate at all?' Morphew asked.
'Shouldn't know how to go about it,' replied the other in his deeper note.
'It seems to me to be the simplest thing in the world if one is content with moderate profits. I'm going in for it seriously—cautiously—as a matter of business. I've studied the thing—got it up as I used to work at something for an exam. And here, you see, I've made five pounds at a stroke—five pounds! Suppose I make that every now and then, it's worth the trouble, you know—it mounts up. And I shall never stand to lose much. You see, it's Tripcony's interest that I should make profits.'
'I'm not quite sure of that.'
'Oh, but it is! Let me explain—'
These two had come to know each other under peculiar circumstances a year ago. Rolfe was at Brussels, staying—his custom when abroad—at a hotel unfrequented by English folk. One evening on his return from the theatre, he learnt that a young man of his own nationality lay seriously ill in a room at the top of the house. Harvey, moved by compassion, visited the unfortunate Englishman, listened to his ravings, and played the part of Good Samaritan. On recovery, the stranger made full disclosure of his position. Being at Brussels on a holiday, he had got into the company of gamblers, and, after winning a large sum (ten thousand francs, he declared), had lost not only that, but all else. that he possessed, including his jewellery. He had gambled deliberately; he wanted money, money, and saw no other way of obtaining it. In the expansive mood of convalescence, Cecil Morphew left no detail of his story unrevealed. He was of gentle birth, and had a private income of three hundred pounds, charged upon the estate of a distant relative; his profession (the bar) could not be remunerative for years, and other prospects he had none. The misery of his situation lay in the fact that he was desperately in love with the daughter of people who looked upon him as little better than a pauper. The girl had pledged herself to him, but would not marry without her parents' consent, of which there was no hope till he had at least trebled his means. His choice of a profession was absurd, dictated merely by social opinion; he should have been working hard in a commercial office, or at some open-air pursuit. Naturally he turned again to the thought of gambling, this time the great legalised game of hazard, wherein he was as little likely to prosper as among the blacklegs of Brussels. Rolfe liked him for his ingenuousness, and for the vein of poetry in his nature. The love affair still went on, but Morphew seldom alluded to it, and his seasoned friend thought of it as a youthful ailment which would pass and be forgotten.
'I'm convinced,' said the young man presently, 'that any one who really gives his mind to it can speculate with moderate success. Look at the big men—the brokers and the company promoters, and so on; I've met some of them, and there's nothing in them—nothing! Now, there's Bennet Frothingham. You know him, I think?'
'Well, what do you think of him? Isn't he a very ordinary fellow? How has he got such a position? I'm told he began just in a small way—by chance. No doubt he found it so easy to make money he was surprised at his success. Tripcony has told me a lot about him. Why, the "Britannia" brings him fifteen thousand a year; and he must be in a score of other things.'
'I know nothing about the figures,' said Rolfe, 'and I shouldn't put much faith in Tripcony; but Frothingham, you may be sure, isn't quite an ordinary man.'
'Ah, well, of course there's a certain knack—and then, experience—'
Morphew emptied his glass, and refilled it. Nearly all the tables in the room were now occupied, and the general hum of talk gave security to intimate dialogue. Flushed and bright-eyed, the young man presently leaned forward.
'If I could count upon five hundred, she would take the step.'
'Yes, that's settled. What do you think? Plenty of people live very well on less.'
'You want my serious opinion?'
'If you can be serious.'
'Then I think that the educated man who marries on less than a thousand is either mad or a criminal.'
'Bosh! We won't talk about it.'
They rose, and walked towards the smoking-room, Rolfe giving a nod here and there as he passed acquaintances. In the hall someone addressed him.
'How does Carnaby take this affair?'
'Don't you know? Their house has been robbed—stripped. It's in the evening papers.'
Rolfe went on into the smoking-room, and read the report of his friend's misfortune. The Carnabys occupied a house in Hamilton Terrace. During their absence from home last night, there had been a clean sweep of all such things of value as could easily be removed. The disappearance of their housekeeper, and the fact that this woman had contrived the absence of the servants from nine o'clock till midnight, left no mystery in the matter. The clubmen talked of it with amusement. Hard lines, to be sure, for Carnaby, and yet harder for his wife, who had lost no end of jewellery; but the thing was so neatly and completely done, one must needs laugh. One or two husbands who enjoyed the luxury of a housekeeper betrayed their uneasiness. A discussion arose on the characteristics of housekeepers in general, and spread over the vast subject of domestic management, not often debated at the Metropolitan Club. In general talk of this kind Rolfe never took part; smoking his pipe, he listened and laughed, and was at moments thoughtful. Cecil Morphew, rapidly consuming cigarettes as he lay back in a soft chair, pointed the moral of the story in favour of humble domesticity.
In half an hour, his guest having taken leave, Rolfe put on his overcoat, and stepped out into the cold, clammy November night. He was overtaken by a fellow Metropolitan—a grizzled, scraggy-throated, hollow-eyed man, who laid a tremulous hand upon his arm.
'Excuse me, Mr. Rolfe, have you seen Frothingham recently?'
'Not for a month.'
'Ah! I thought perhaps—I was wondering what he thought about the Colebrook smash. To tell you the truth, I've heard unpleasant rumours. Do you—should you think the Colebrook affair would affect the "Britannia" in any way?'
It was not the first time that this man had confided his doubts and timidities to Harvey Rolfe; he had a small, but to him important, interest in Bennet Frothingham's wide-reaching affairs, and seemed to spend most of his time in eliciting opinion on the financier's stability.
'Wouldn't you be much more comfortable,' said Rolfe, rather bluntly, 'if you had your money in some other kind of security?'
'Ah, but, my dear sir, twelve and a half per cent—twelve and a half! I hold preference shares of the original issue.'
'Then I'm afraid you must take your chance.'
'But,' piped the other in alarm, 'you don't mean that—'
'I mean nothing, and know nothing. I'm the last man to consult about such things.'
And Rolfe, with an abrupt 'Goodnight,' beckoned to a passing hansom. The address he gave was Hugh Carnaby's, in Hamilton Terrace.
Twice already the horse had slipped at slimy crossings, when, near the top of Regent Street, it fell full length, and the abrupt stoppage caused a collision of wheels with another hansom which was just passing at full speed in the same direction. Rolfe managed to alight in the ordinary way, and at once heard himself greeted by a familiar voice from the other cab. His acquaintance showed a pallid, drawn, all but cadaverous visage, with eyes which concealed pain or weariness under their friendly smile. Abbott was the man's name. Formerly a lecturer at a provincial college, he had resigned his post on marrying, and taken to journalism.
'I want to speak to you, Rolfe,' he said hurriedly, 'but I haven't a moment to spare. Going to Euston—could you come along for a few minutes?'
The vehicles were not damaged; Abbott's driver got quickly out of the crowd, and the two men continued their conversation.
'Do you know anything of Wager?' inquired the journalist, with a troubled look.
'He came to see me a few evenings ago—late.'
'Ha, he did! To borrow money, wasn't it?'
'I thought so. He came to me for the same. Said he'd got a berth at Southampton. Lie, of course. The fellow has disappeared, and left his children—left them in a lodging-house at Hammersmith. How's that for cool brutality? The landlady found my wife's address, and came to see her. Address left out on purpose, I dare say. There was nothing for it but to take care of the poor little brats.—Oh, damn!'
'What's the matter?'
'Neuralgia—driving me mad. Teeth, I think. I'll have every one wrenched out of my head if this goes on. Never mind. What do you think of Wager?'
'I remember, when we were at Guy's, he used to advocate the nationalisation of offspring. Probably he had some personal interest in the matter, even then.'
'Hound! I don't know whether to set the police after him or not. It wouldn't benefit the children. I suppose it's no use hunting for his family?'
'Not much, I should say.'
'Well, lucky we have no children of our own. Worst of it is, I don't like the poor little wretches, and my wife doesn't either. We must find a home for them.'
'I say, Abbott, you must let me go halves at that.'
'Hang it, no! Why should you support Wager's children? They're relatives of ours, unfortunately. But I wanted to tell you that I'm going down to Waterbury.' He looked at his watch. 'Thirteen minutes—shall I do it? There's a good local paper, the Free Press, and I have the offer of part-ownership. I shall buy, if possible, and live in the country for a year or two, to pick up my health. Can't say I love London. Might get into country journalism for good. Curse this torment!'
In Tottenham Court Road, Rolfe bade his friend goodbye, and the cab rushed on.
It was half past ten when Rolfe knocked at the door in Hamilton Terrace. He learnt from the servant that Mr. Carnaby was at home, and had company. In the room known as the library, four men sat smoking; their voices pealed into the hall as the door opened, and a boisterous welcome greeted the newcomer's appearance.
'Come to condole?' cried Hugh, striding forward with his man-of-the-wide-world air, and holding out his big hand. 'No doubt they're having a high old time at the club. Does it please them? Does it tickle them?'
'Why, naturally. There's the compensation, my boy—you contribute to the gaiety of your friends.'
Carnaby was a fair example of the well-bred, well-fed Englishman—tall, brawny, limber, not uncomely, with a red neck, a powerful jaw, and a keen eye. Something more of repose, of self-possession, and a slightly more intellectual brow, would have made him the best type of conquering, civilising Briton. He came of good family, but had small inheritance; his tongue told of age-long domination; his physique and carriage showed the horseman, the game-stalker, the nomad. Hugh had never bent over books since the day when he declined the university and got leave to join Colonel Bosworth's exploring party in the Caucasus. After a boyhood of straitened circumstances, he profited by a skilful stewardship which allowed him to hope for some seven hundred a year; his elder brother, Miles, a fine fellow, who went into the army, pinching himself to benefit Hugh and their sister Ruth. Miles was now Major Carnaby, active on the North-West Frontier. Ruth was wife of a missionary in some land of swamps; doomed by climate, but of spirit indomitable. It seemed strange that Hugh, at five and thirty, had done nothing particular. Perhaps his income explained it—too small for traditional purposes, just large enough to foster indolence. For Hugh had not even followed up his promise of becoming an explorer; he had merely rambled, mostly in pursuit of fowl or quadruped. When he married, all hope for him was at an end. The beautiful and brilliant daughter of a fashionable widow, her income a trifle more than Carnaby's own; devoted to the life of cities, wherein she shone; an enchantress whose spell would not easily be broken, before whom her husband bowed in delighted subservience—such a woman might flatter Hugh's pride, but could scarce be expected to draw out his latent energies and capabilities. This year, for the first time, he had visited no wild country; his journeying led only to Paris, to Vienna. In due season he shot his fifty brace on somebody's grouse-moor, but the sport did not exhilarate him.
An odd and improbable alliance, that between Hugh Carnaby and Harvey Rolfe. Yet in several ways they suited each other. Old-time memories had a little, not much, to do with it; more of the essence of the matter was their feeling of likeness in difference. Ten years ago Carnaby felt inclined to call his old school-fellow a 'cad'; Harvey saw nothing in Hugh but robust snobbishness. Nowadays they had the pleasant sense of understanding each other on most points, and the result was a good deal of honest mutual admiration. The one's physical vigour and adroitness, the other's active mind, liberal thoughts, studious habits, proved reciprocally attractive. Though in unlike ways, both were impressively modern. Of late it had seemed as if the man of open air, checked in his natural courses, thrown back upon his meditations, turned to the student, with hope of guidance in new paths, of counsel amid unfamiliar obstacles. To the observant Rolfe, his friend's position abounded in speculative interest. With the course of years, each had lost many a harsher characteristic, whilst the inner man matured. That their former relations were gradually being reversed, neither perhaps had consciously noted; but even in the jests which passed between them on Harvey's arrival this evening, it appeared plainly enough that Hugh Carnaby no longer felt the slightest inclination to regard his friend as an inferior.
The room, called library, contained one small case of books, which dealt with travel and sport. Furniture of the ordinary kind, still new, told of easy circumstances and domestic comfort. Round about the walls hung a few paintings and photographs, intermingled with the stuffed heads of animals slain in the chase, notably that of a great ibex with magnificent horns.
'Come, now, tell me all about it,' said Rolfe, as he mixed himself a glass of whisky and water. 'I don't see that anything has gone from this room.'
'Don't you?' cried his host, with a scornful laugh. 'Where are my silver-mounted pistols? Where's the ibex-hoof made into a paperweight? And'—he raised his voice to a shout of comical despair—'where's my cheque-book?'
'I wish I did. It must break the record for a neat house-robbery, don't you think? And they'll never be caught—I'll bet you anything you like they won't. The job was planned weeks ago; that woman came into the house with no other purpose.'
'But didn't your wife know anything about her?'
'What can one know about such people? There were references, I believe—as valuable as references usually are. She must be an old hand. But I'm sick of the subject; let's drop it.—You were interrupted, Hollings. What about that bustard?'
A very tall, spare man, who seemed to rouse himself from a nap, resumed his story of bustard-stalking in Spain last spring. Carnaby, who knew the country well, listened with lively interest, and followed with reminiscences of his own. He told of a certain boar, shot in the Sierras, which weighed something like four hundred pounds. He talked, too, of flamingoes on the 'marismas' of the Guadalquivir; of punting day after day across the tawny expanse of water; of cooking his meals on sandy islets at a fire made of tamarisk and thistle; of lying wakeful in the damp, chilly nights, listening to frogs and bitterns. Then again of his ibex-hunting on the Cordilleras of Castile, when he brought down that fine fellow whose head adorned his room, the horns just thirty-eight inches long. And in the joy of these recollections there seemed to sound a regretful note, as if he spoke of things gone by and irrecoverable, no longer for him.
One of the men present had recently been in Cyprus, and mentioned it with disgust. Rolfe also had visited the island, and remembered it much more agreeably, his impressions seeming to be chiefly gastronomic; he recalled the exquisite flavour of Cyprian hares, the fat francolin, the delicious beccaficoes in commanderia wine; with merry banter from Carnaby, professing to despise a man who knew nothing of game but its taste. The conversation reverted to technicalities of sport, full of terms and phrases unintelligible to Harvey; recounting feats with 'Empress' and 'Paradox', the deadly results of a 'treble A', or of 'treble-nesting slugs', and boasting of a 'right and left with No. 6'. Hugh appeared to forget all about his domestic calamity; only when his guests rose did he recur to it, and with an air of contemptuous impatience. But he made a sign to Rolfe, requesting him to stay, and at midnight the two friends sat alone together.
'Sibyl has gone to her mother's,' began Hugh in a changed voice. 'The poor girl takes it pluckily. It's a damnable thing, you know, for a woman to lose her rings and bracelets and so on—even such a woman as Sibyl. She tried to laugh it off, but I could see—we must buy them again, that's all. And that reminds me—what's your real opinion of Frothingham?'
'When such a lot of people go about asking that question, it would make me rather uneasy if I had anything at stake.'
'They do? So it struck me. The fact is, we have a good deal at stake. The dowager swears by Frothingham. I believe every penny she has is in the "Britannia", one way or another.'
'It's a wide net,' said Rolfe musingly. 'The Britannia Loan, Assurance, Investment, and Banking Company, Limited. Very good name, I've often thought.'
'Yes; but, look here, you don't seriously doubt—'
'My opinion is worthless. I know no more of finance than of the Cabala. Frothingham personally I rather like, and that's all I can say.'
'The fact is, I have been thinking of putting some of my own—yet I don't think I shall. We're going away for the winter. Sibyl wants to give up the house, and I think she's right. For people like us, it's mere foolery to worry with a house and a lot of servants. We're neither of us cut out for that kind of thing. Sibyl hates housekeeping. Well, you can't expect a woman like her to manage a pack of thieving, lying, lazy servants. The housekeeper idea hasn't been a conspicuous success, you see, and there's nothing for it but hotel or boarding-house.'
'If you remember,' said Rolfe, 'I hinted something of the kind a year ago.'
'Yes; but—well, you know, when people marry they generally look for a certain natural consequence. If we have no children, it'll be all right.'
Rolfe meditated for a moment.
'You remember that fellow Wager—the man you met at Abbott's? His wife died a year ago, and now he has bolted, leaving his two children in a lodging-house.'
'What a damned scoundrel!' cried Hugh, with a note of honest indignation.
'Well, yes; but there's something to be said for him. It's a natural revolt against domestic bondage. Of course, as things are, someone else has to bear the bother and expense; but that's only our state of barbarism. A widower with two young children and no income—imagine the position. Of course, he ought to be able to get rid of them in some legitimate way—state institution—anything you like that answers to reason.'
'I don't know whether it would work.'
'Some day it will. People talk such sentimental rubbish about children. I would have the parents know nothing about them till they're ten or twelve years old. They're a burden, a hindrance, a perpetual source of worry and misery. Most wives are sacrificed to the next generation—an outrageous absurdity. People snivel over the deaths of babies; I see nothing to grieve about. If a child dies, why, the probabilities are it ought to die; if it lives, it lives, and you get survival of the fittest. We don't want to choke the world with people, most of them rickety and wheezing; let us be healthy, and have breathing space.'
'I believe in that,' said Carnaby.
'You're going away, then. Where to?'
'That's the point,' replied Hugh, moving uneasily. 'You see, with Sibyl—. I have suggested Davos. Some people she knows are there—girls who go in for tobogganing, and have a good time. But Sibyl's afraid of the cold. I can't convince her that it's nothing to what we endure here in the beastliness of a London winter. She hates the thought of ice and snow and mountains. A great pity; it would do her no end of good. I suppose we must go to the Riviera.'
He shrugged his shoulders, and for a moment there was silence.
'By-the-bye,' he resumed, 'I have a letter from Miles, and you'd like to see it.'
From a pile of letters on the table he selected one written on two sheets of thin paper, and handed it to Rolfe. The writing was bold, the style vigorous, the matter fresh and interesting. Major Carnaby had no graces of expression; but all the more engrossing was his brief narrative of mountain warfare, declaring its truthfulness in every stroke of the pen.
'Fine fellow!' exclaimed Rolfe, when he had read to the end. 'Splendid fellow!'
'Isn't he! And he's seeing life.'
'That's where you ought to be, my boy,' remarked Rolfe, between puffs of tobacco.
'I dare say. No use thinking about it. Too late.'
'If I had a son,' pursued Harvey, smiling at the hypothesis, 'I think I'd make a fighting man of him, or try to. At all events, he should go out somewhere, and beat the big British drum, one way or another. I believe it's our only hope. We're rotting at home—some of us sunk in barbarism, some coddling themselves in over-refinement. What's the use of preaching peace and civilisation, when we know that England's just beginning her big fight—the fight that will put all history into the shade! We have to lead the world; it's our destiny; and we must do it by breaking heads. That's the nature of the human animal, and will be for ages to come.'
Carnaby nodded assent.
'If we were all like your brother,' Rolfe went on. 'I'm glad he's fighting in India, and not in Africa. I can't love the buccaneering shopkeeper, the whisky-distiller with a rifle—ugh!'
'I hate that kind of thing. The gold grubbers and diamond bagmen! But it's part of the march onward. We must have money, you know.'
The speaker's forehead wrinkled, and again he moved uneasily. Rolfe regarded him with a reflective air.
'That man you saw here tonight,' Carnaby went on, 'the short, thick fellow—his name is Dando—he's just come back from Queensland. I don't quite know what he's been doing, but he evidently knows a good deal about mines. He says he has invented a new process for getting gold out of ore—I don't know anything about it. In the early days of mining, he says, no end of valuable stuff was abandoned, because they couldn't smelt it. Something about pyrites—I have a vague recollection of old chemistry lessons. Dando wants to start smelting works for his new process, somewhere in North Queensland.'
'And wants money, I dare say,' remarked the listener, with a twinkle of the eye.
'I suppose so. It was Carton that brought him here for the first time, a week ago. Might be worth thinking about, you know.'
'I have no opinion. My profound ignorance of everything keeps me in a state of perpetual scepticism. It has its advantages, I dare say.'
'You're very conservative, Rolfe, in your finance.'
'Quite right, no doubt. Could you join us at Nice or some such place?'
'Why, I rather thought of sticking to my books. But if the fogs are very bad—'
'And you would seriously advise us to give up the house?'
'My dear fellow, how can you hesitate? Your wife is quite right; there's not one good word to be said for the ordinary life of an English household. Flee from it! Live anywhere and anyhow, but don't keep house in England. Wherever I go, it's the same cry: domestic life is played out. There isn't a servant to be had—unless you're a Duke and breed them on your own estate. All ordinary housekeepers are at the mercy of the filth and insolence of a draggle-tailed, novelette-reading feminine democracy. Before very long we shall train an army of menservants, and send the women to the devil.'
'Queer thing, Rolfe,' put in his friend, with a laugh; 'I've noticed it of late, you're getting to be a regular woman-hater.'
'Not a bit of it. I hate a dirty, lying, incapable creature, that's all, whether man or woman. No doubt they're more common in petticoats.'
'Been to the Frothinghams' lately?'
'I used to think you were there rather often.'
Rolfe gave a sort of grunt, and kept silence.
'To my mind,' pursued the other, 'the best thing about Alma is that she appreciates my wife. She has really a great admiration for Sibyl; no sham about it, I'm sure. I don't pretend to know much about women, but I fancy that kind of thing isn't common—real friendship and admiration between them. People always say so, at all events.'
'I take refuge once more,' said Rolfe, 'in my fathomless ignorance.'
He rose from his chair, and sat down again on a corner of the table. Carnaby stood up, threw his arms above his head, and yawned with animal vehemence, the expression of an intolerable ennui.
'There's something damnably wrong with us all—that's the one thing certain.'
'Idleness, for one thing,' said Rolfe.
'Yes. And I'm too old to do anything. Why didn't I follow Miles into the army? I think I was more cut out for that than for anything else. I often feel I should like to go to South Africa and get up a little war of my own.'
Rolfe shouted with laughter.
'Not half a bad idea, and the easiest thing in the world, no doubt.'
'Nigger-hunting; a superior big game.'
'There's more than that to do in South Africa,' said Harvey. 'I was looking at a map in Stanford's window the other day, and it amused me. Who believes for a moment that England will remain satisfied with bits here and there? We have to swallow the whole, of course. We shall go on fighting and annexing, until—until the decline and fall of the British Empire. That hasn't begun yet. Some of us are so over-civilised that it makes a reaction of wholesome barbarism in the rest. We shall fight like blazes in the twentieth century. It's the only thing that keeps Englishmen sound; commercialism is their curse. Happily, no sooner do they get fat than they kick, and somebody's shin suffers; then they fight off the excessive flesh. War is England's Banting.'
'You'd better not talk like that to Sibyl.'
'Why, frankly, old man, I think that's your mistake. But you'll tell me, and rightly enough, to mind my own business.'
'Nonsense. What do you mean exactly? You think I ought to—'
Hugh hesitated, with an air of uneasiness.
'Well,' pursued his friend cautiously, 'do you think it's right to suppress your natural instincts? Mightn't it give her a new interest in life if she came round a little to your point of view?'
'Queer thing, how unlike we are, isn't it?' said Carnaby, with a sudden drop of his tone to amiable ingenuousness. 'But, you know; we get along together very well.'
'To be sure. Yet you are going to rust in the Riviera when you want to be on the Himalayas. Wouldn't it do your wife good to give up her books and her music for a while and taste fresh air?'
'I doubt if she's strong enough for it.'
'It would make her stronger. And here's a good opportunity. If you give up housekeeping (and housekeepers), why not reform your life altogether? Go and have a look at Australia.'
'Sibyl hates the sea.'
'She'd soon get over that. Seriously, you ought to think of it.'
Carnaby set his lips and for a moment hung his head.
'You're quite right. But—'
'A little pluck, old fellow.'
'I'll see what can be done. Have another whisky?'
They went out into the hall, where a dim light through coloured glass illumined a statue in terracotta, some huge engravings, the massive antlers of an elk, and furniture in carved oak.
'Queer feeling of emptiness,' said Carnaby, subduing his voice. 'I feel as if they'd carried off everything, and left bare walls. Sibyl couldn't stay in the place. Shall I whistle for a cab? By Jove! that reminds me, the whistle has gone; it happened to be silver. A wedding present from that fool Benson, who broke his neck in a steeplechase three weeks after.' Harvey laughed, and stepped out into the watery fog.
A cab crawling at the upper end of the terrace took him quickly home. He entered with his latch-key as a church clock tolled one.
It was a large house, within a few minutes' walk of Royal Oak Station. Having struck a match, and lit a candle which stood upon the hall table (indicating that he was the last who would enter tonight), Harvey put up the door-chain and turned the great key, then went quietly upstairs. His rooms were on the first floor. A tenancy of five years, with long absences, enabled him to regard this niche in a characterless suburb as in some sort his home; a familiar smell of books and tobacco welcomed him as he opened the door; remnants of a good fire kept the air warm, and dispersed a pleasant glow. On shelves which almost concealed the walls, stood a respectable collection of volumes, the lowest tier consisting largely of what secondhand booksellers, when invited to purchase, are wont to call 'tomb-stones' that is to say, old folios, of no great market value, though good brains and infinite labour went to the making of them. A great table, at one end of which was a tray with glasses and a water-bottle, occupied the middle of the floor; nearer the fireplace was a small writing-desk. For pictures little space could be found; but over the mantelpiece hung a fine water-colour, the flood of Tigris and the roofs of Bagdad burning in golden sunset. Harvey had bought it at the gallery in Pall Mall not long ago; the work of a man of whom he knew nothing; it represented the farthest point of his own travels, and touched profoundly his vague historico-poetic sensibilities.
Three letters lay on the desk. As soon as he had lit his lamp, and exchanged his boots for slippers, he looked at the envelopes, and chose one addressed in a woman's hand. The writer was Mrs. Bennet Frothingham.
'We have only just heard, from Mrs. Carnaby, that you are back in town. Could you spare us tomorrow evening? It would be so nice of you. The quartet will give Beethoven's F minor, and Alma says it will be well done—the conceit of the child! We hope to have some interesting people What a shocking affair of poor Mrs. Carnaby's! I never knew anything quite so bad.—Our united kind regards.'
Harvey thrust out his lips, in an ambiguous expression, as he threw the sheet aside. He mused before opening the next letter. This proved to be of startling contents: a few lines scribbled informally, undated, without signature. A glance at the postmark discovered 'Liverpool'.
'The children are at my last address,—you know it. I can do no more for them. If the shabby Abbotts refuse—as I dare say they will—it wouldn't hurt you to keep them from the workhouse. But it's a devilish hard world, and they must take their chance.'
After a stare and a frown, Harvey woke the echoes with boisterous laughter. It was long since any passage in writing had so irresistibly tickled his sense of humour. Well, he must let Abbott know of this. It might be as well, perhaps, if he called on Mrs. Abbott tomorrow, to remove any doubt that might remain in her mind. The fellow Wager being an old acquaintance of his, he could not get rid of a sense of far-off responsibility in this matter; though, happily, Wager's meeting with Mrs. Abbott's cousin, which led to marriage and misery, came about quite independently of him.
The last letter he opened without curiosity, but with quiet interest and pleasure. It was dated from Greystone; the writer, Basil Morton, had a place in his earliest memories, for, as neighbours' children, they had played together long before the grammar-school days which allied him with Hugh Carnaby.
'For aught I know,' began Morton, 'you may at this moment be drifting on the Euphrates, or pondering on the site of Alexandreia Eschate. It is you who owe me an account of yourself; nevertheless, I am prompted to write, if only to tell you that I have just got the complete set of the Byzantine Historians. A catalogue tempted me, and I did buy.'
And so on in the same strain, until, in speaking of nearer matters, his style grew simpler.
'Our elder boy begins to put me in a difficulty. As I told you, he has been brought up on the most orthodox lines of Anglicanism; his mother—best of mothers and best of wives, but in this respect atavistic—has had a free hand, and I don't see how it could have been otherwise. But now the lad begins to ask awkward questions, and to put me in a corner; the young rascal is a vigorous dialectician and rationalist—odd result of such training. It becomes a serious question how I am to behave. I cannot bear to distress his mother, yet how can I tell him that I literally believe those quaint old fables? Solvetur vivendo, of course, like everything else, but just now it worries me a little. Generally I can see a pretty clear line of duty; here the duty is divided, with a vengeance. Have you any counsel?'
Harvey Rolfe mumbled impatiently; all domestic matters were a trial to his nerves. It seemed to him an act of unaccountable folly to marry a woman from whom one differed diametrically on subjects that lay at the root of life; and of children he could hardly bring himself to think at all, so exasperating the complication they introduced into social problems which defied common-sense. He disliked children; fled the sight and the sound of them in most cases, and, when this was not possible, regarded them with apprehension, anxiety, weariness, anything but interest. In the perplexity that had come upon him, Basil Morton seemed to have nothing more than his deserts. 'Best of mothers and of wives', forsooth! An excellent housekeeper, no doubt, but what shadow of qualification for wifehood and motherhood in this year 1886? The whole question was disgusting to a rational man—especially to that vigorous example of the class, by name Harvey Rolfe.
Late as it was, he did not care to go to bed. This morning he had brought home a batch of books from the London Library, and he began to turn them over, with the pleasure of anticipation. Not seldom of late had Harvey flattered himself on the growth of intellectual gusto which proceeded in him together with a perceptible decline of baser appetites, so long his torment and his hindrance. His age was now seven and thirty; at forty he might hope to have utterly trodden under foot the instincts at war with mental calm. He saw before him long years of congenial fellowship, of bracing travel, of well-directed studiousness. Let problems of sex and society go hang! He had found a better way.
On looking back over his life, how improbable it seemed, this happy issue out of crudity, turbulence, lack of purpose, weakness, insincerity, ignorance. First and foremost he had to thank good old Dr Harvey, of Greystone; then, his sister, sleeping in her grave under the old chimes she loved; then, surely himself, that seed of good within him which had survived all adverse influences—watched, surely, by his unconscious self, guarded long, and now deliberately nurtured. Might he not think well of himself.
His library, though for the most part the purchase of late years, contained books which reminded him of every period of his life. Up yonder, on the top shelf, were two score volumes which had belonged to his father, the share that fell to him when he and his sister made the ordained division: scientific treatises out of date, an old magazine, old books of travel. Strange that, in his times of folly, he had not sold these as burdensome rubbish; he was very glad now, when love and reverence for things gone by began to take hold upon him. There, at the same height, stood a rank of school-books preserved for him by his sister till she died; beside them, medical works, relics of his abortive study when he was neither boy nor man. Descending, the eye fell upon yellow and green covers, dozens of French novels, acquired at any time from the year of his majority up to the other day; in the mass, they reminded him of a frothy season, when he boasted a cheap Gallicism, and sneered at all things English. A sprinkling of miscellaneous literature accounted for ten years or more when he cared little to collect books, when the senses raged in him, and only by miracle failed to hurl him down many a steep place. Last came the serious acquisitions, the bulk of his library: solid and expensive works—historians, archaeologists, travellers, with noble volumes of engravings, and unwieldy tomes of antique lore. Little enough of all this had Rolfe digested, but more and more he loved to have erudition within his reach. He began to lack room for comely storage; already a large bookcase had intruded into his bedroom. If he continued to purchase, he must needs house himself more amply; yet he dreaded the thought of a removal.
He knew enough and to spare of life in lodgings. His experience began when he came up as a lad to Guy's Hospital, when all lodgings in London shone with the glorious light of liberty. It took a wider scope when, having grasped his little patrimony, he threw physic to the dogs, and lived as a gentleman at large. In those days he grew familiar with many kinds of 'apartments' and their nomadic denizens. Having wasted his substance, he found refuge in the office of an emigration agent, where, by slow degrees, he proved himself worth a couple of hundred pounds per annum. This was the 'business' to which Hugh Carnaby vaguely referred when people questioned him concerning his friend's history.
Had he possessed the commercial spirit, Harvey might have made his position in this office much more lucrative. Entering nominally as a clerk, he undertook from the first a variety of duties which could only be discharged by a man of special abilities; for instance, the literary revision of seductive pamphlets and broadsheets issued by his employer to the public contemplating emigration. These advertisements he presently composed, and, from the point of view of effectiveness, did it remarkably well. How far such work might be worthy of an honest man, was another question, which for several years scarcely troubled his conscience. Before long a use was found for his slender medical attainments; it became one of his functions to answer persons who visited the office for information as to the climatic features of this or that new country, and their physical fitness for going out as colonists. Of course, there was demanded of him a radical unscrupulousness, and often enough he proved equal to the occasion; but as time went on, bringing slow development of brain and character, he found these personal interviews anything but agreeable. He had constantly before him the spectacle of human misery and defeat, now and then in such dread forms that his heart sank and his tongue refused to lie. When disgust made him contemplate the possibility of finding more honourable employment, the manifest difficulties deterred him.
He held the place for nearly ten years, living in the end so soberly and frugally that his two hundred pounds seemed a considerable income; it enabled him to spend his annual month of holiday in continental travel, which now had a significance very different from that of his truancies in France or Belgium before he began to earn a livelihood. Two deaths, a year's interval between them, released him from his office. Upon these events and their issue he had not counted; independence came to him as a great surprise, and on the path of self-knowledge he had far to travel before the significance of that and many another turning-point grew clear to his backward gaze.
Seeking for a comfortable abode, he discovered these rooms in Bayswater. They were to let furnished, the house being occupied by a widow not quite of the ordinary type of landlady, who entertained only bachelors, and was fairly conscientious in the discharge of her obligations. Six months later, during Harvey's absence abroad, this woman died, and on his return the house had already been stripped of furniture. For a moment he inclined to take a house of his own, but from this perilous experiment he was saved by an intimation that, if he were willing to supply himself with furniture and service, an incoming tenant would let him occupy his old quarters. Harvey grasped at the offer. His landlord was a man named Buncombe, a truss manufacturer, who had two children, and seemingly no wife. The topmost storey Buncombe assigned to relatives of his own—a middle-aged woman, Mrs. Handover, with a sickly grownup son, who took some part in the truss business. For a few weeks Rolfe was waited upon by a charwoman, whom he paid extravagantly for a maximum of dirt and discomfort; then the unsatisfactory person fell ill, and, whilst cursing his difficulties, Harvey was surprised by a visit from Mrs. Handover, who made an unexpected suggestion—would Mr. Rolfe accept her services in lieu of the charwoman's, paying her whatever he had been accustomed to give? The proposal startled him. Mrs. Handover seemed to belong pretty much to his own rank of life; he was appalled at the thought of bidding her scrub floors and wash plates; and indeed it had begun to dawn upon him that, for a man with more than nine hundred a year, he was living in a needlessly uncomfortable way. On his reply that he thought of removing, Mrs. Handover fell into profound depression, and began to disclose her history. Very early in life she had married a man much beneath her in station, with the natural result. After some years of quarrelling, which culminated in personal violence on her husband's part, she obtained a judicial separation. For a long time the man had ceased to send her money, and indeed he was become a vagabond pauper, from whom nothing could be obtained; she depended upon her son, and on the kindness of Buncombe, who asked no rent. If she could earn a little money by work, she would be much happier, and with tremulous hope she had taken this step of appealing to her neighbour in the house.
Harvey could not resist these representations. When the new arrangement had been in operation for a week or so, Harvey began to reflect upon Mrs. Handover's personal narrative, and in some respects to modify his first impulsive judgment thereon. It seemed to him not impossible that Mr. Handover's present condition of vagabond pauper might be traceable to his marriage with a woman who had never learnt the elements of domestic duty. Thoroughly well-meaning, Mrs. Handover was the most incompetent of housewives. Yet such was Harvey Rolfe's delicacy, and so intense his moral cowardice, that year after year he bore with Mrs. Handover's defects, and paid her with a smile the wages of two first-rate servants. Dust lay thick about him; he had grown accustomed to it, as to many another form of sluttishness. After all, he possessed a quiet retreat for studious hours, and a tolerable sleeping-place, with the advantage of having his correspondence forwarded to him when he chose to wander. To be sure, it was not final; one would not wish to grow old and die amid such surroundings; sooner or later, circumstance would prompt the desirable change. Circumstance, at this stage of his career, was Harvey's god; he waited upon its direction with an air of wisdom, of mature philosophy.
Of his landlord, Buncombe, he gradually learnt all that he cared to know. The moment came when Buncombe grew confidential, and he, too, had a matrimonial history to disclose. Poverty played no part in it; his business flourished, and Mrs. Buncombe, throughout a cohabitation of five years, made no complaint of her lot. All at once—so asserted Buncombe—the lady began to talk of dullness; for a few months she moped, then of a sudden left home, and in a day or two announced by letter that she had taken a place as barmaid at a music-hall. There followed an interview between husband and wife, with the result, said Buncombe, that they parted the best of friends, but with an understanding that Mrs. Buncombe should be free to follow her own walk in life, with a moderate allowance to supplement what she could earn. That was five years ago. Mrs. Buncombe now sang at second-rate halls, and enjoyed a certain popularity, which seemed to her an ample justification of the independence she had claimed. She was just thirty, tolerably good-looking, and full of the enjoyment of life. Her children, originally left in the care of her mother, whom Buncombe supported, were now looked after by the two servants of the house, and Buncombe seemed to have no conscientious troubles on that score; to Harvey Rolfe's eye it was plain that the brother and sister were growing up as vicious little savages, but he permitted himself no remark on the subject.
After a few conversations, he gained an inkling of Buncombe's motive in taking a house so much larger than he needed. This magnificence was meant as an attraction to the roaming wife, whom, it was clear, Buncombe both wished and hoped to welcome back before very long. She did occasionally visit the house, though only for an hour or two; just to show, said Buncombe, that there was no ill-feeling. On his part, evidently, there was none whatever. An easy-going, simple-minded fellow, aged about forty, with a boyish good temper and no will to speak of, he seemed never to entertain a doubt of his wife's honesty, and in any case would probably have agreed, on the least persuasion, to let bygones be bygones. He spoke rather proudly than otherwise of Mrs. Buncombe's artistic success.
'It isn't every woman could have done it, you know, Mr. Rolfe.'
'It is not,' Harvey assented.
Only those rooms were furnished which the little family used, five or six in all; two or three stood vacant, and served as playgrounds for the children in bad weather. Of his relatives at the top, Buncombe never spoke; he either did not know, or viewed with indifference, the fact that Mrs. Handover served his lodger in a menial capacity. About once a month he invited three or four male friends to a set dinner, and hilarity could be heard until long after midnight. Altogether it was a strange household, and, as he walked about the streets of the neighbourhood, Harvey often wondered what abnormalities even more striking might be concealed behind the meaningless uniformity of these heavily respectable housefronts. As a lodger he was content to dwell here; but sometimes by a freak of imagination he pictured himself a married man, imprisoned with wife and children amid these leagues of dreary, inhospitable brickwork, and a great horror fell upon him.
No. In his time he had run through follies innumerable, but from the supreme folly of hampering himself by marriage, a merciful fate had guarded him. It was probably the most remarkable fact of his life; it heightened his self-esteem, and appeared to warrant him in the assurance that a destiny so protective would round the close of his days with tranquillity and content.
Upon this thought he lay down to rest. For half an hour Basil Morton's letter had occupied his mind: he had tried to think out the problem it set forth, not to leave his friend quite unanswered; but weariness prevailed, and with it the old mood of self-congratulation.
Next morning the weather was fine; that is to say, one could read without artificial light, and no rain fell, and far above the house-tops appeared a bluish glimmer, shot now and then with pale yellowness. Harvey decided to carry out his intention of calling upon Mrs. Abbott. She lived at Kilburn, and thither he drove shortly before twelve o'clock. He was admitted to a very cosy room, where, amid books and pictures, and by a large fire, the lady of the house sat reading. Whatever the cause, it seemed to him that his welcome fell short of cordiality, and he hastened to excuse himself for intruding at so early an hour.
'I received a letter last night which I thought you had better know of without delay.'
'From that man—Mr. Wager?' said Mrs. Abbott quickly and hopefully, her face brightening.
'Yes. But there's nothing satisfactory in it. He writes from Liverpool, and merely says that the children are at his lodgings, and he can do no more for them.'
Mrs. Abbott set her lips in an expression almost of sullenness. Rolfe had never seen her look thus, but it confirmed a suspicion which he had harboured concerning her. Why, he hardly knew—for she always presented a face of amiability, and talked in gentle, womanly tones—doubt as to Abbott's domestic felicity haunted his mind. Perhaps he now saw her, for the first time, as she commonly appeared to her husband—slightly peevish, unwilling to be disturbed, impatient when things did not run smoothly.
'You saw my husband yesterday?' was her next remark, not very graciously uttered.
'We met in the street last night—before I got Wager's letter. He was suffering horribly from neuralgia.'
Harvey could not forbear to add this detail, but he softened his voice and smiled.
'I don't wonder at it,' returned the lady; 'he takes no care of himself.'
Harvey glanced about the room. Its furnishing might be called luxurious, and the same standard of comfort prevailed through the house. Considering that Edgar Abbott, as Rolfe knew, married on small means, and that he had toiled unremittingly to support a home in which he could seldom enjoy an hour's leisure, there seemed no difficulty in explaining this neglect of his own health. It struck the visitor that Mrs. Abbott might have taken such considerations into account, and have spoken of the good fellow more sympathetically. In truth, Harvey did not quite like Mrs. Abbott. Her age was about seven and twenty. She came of poor folk, and had been a high-school teacher; very clever and successful, it was said, and Harvey could believe it. Her features were regular, and did not lack sweetness; yet, unless an observer were mistaken, the last year or two had emphasised a certain air of conscious superiority, perchance originating in the schoolroom. She had had one child; it struggled through a few months of sickly life, and died of convulsions during its mother's absence at a garden-party. To all appearances, her grief at the loss betokened tenderest feeling. When, in half a year's time, she again came forth into the world, a change was noted; her character seemed to have developed a new energy, she exhibited wider interests, and stepped from the background to become a leader in the little circle of her acquaintances.
'Have you read this?' asked his hostess abruptly, holding up to him a French volume, Ribot's L'Heredite Psychologique.
'No. That kind of thing doesn't interest me much.'
'Indeed! I find it intensely interesting.'
Harvey rose; he was in no mood for this kind of small-talk. But no sooner had he quitted his chair, than Mrs. Abbott threw her book aside, and spoke in another tone, seriously, though still with a perceptible accent of annoyance.
'Of course that man's children are here, and I suppose it is our duty to provide for them till some other arrangement is made. But I think we ought to put the matter in the hands of the police. Don't you, Mr Rolfe?'
'I'm afraid there's small chance of making their father support them. He is certainly out of England by now, and won't easily be caught.'
'The worst of it is, they are anything but nice children. What could one expect with such a father? Since their poor mother died, they have been in the hands of horrible people—low-class landladies, no doubt; their talk shocks me. The last amusement they had, was to be taken by somebody to Tussaud's, and now they can talk of nothing but "the hunted murderer"—one sees it on the walls, you know; and they play at being murderer and policeman, one trying to escape the other. Pretty play for children of five and seven, isn't it?'
Rolfe made a gesture of disgust.
'I know the poor things can't help it,' pursued Mrs. Abbott, with softer feeling, 'but it turns me against them. From seeing so little of their father, they have even come to talk with a vulgar pronunciation, like children out of the streets almost. It's dreadful! When I think of my cousin—such a sweet, good girl, and these her children—oh, it's horrible!'
'They are very young,' said Harvey, in a low voice, perturbed in spite of himself. 'With good training——'
'Yes, of course we must put them in good hands somewhere.'
Plainly it had never occurred to Mrs. Abbott that such a task as this might, even temporarily, be undertaken by herself; her one desire was to get rid of the luckless brats, that their vulgarity might not pain her, and the care of them encumber her polite leisure.
After again excusing himself for this call, and hearing his apology this time more graciously received, Harvey withdrew from the cosy study, and left Mrs. Abbott to her Heredite Psychologique. On his way to lunch in town, he thought of the overworn journalist groaning with neuralgia, and wondered how Mrs. Abbott would relish a removal to the town of Waterbury.
Uncertain to the last moment, Harvey did at length hurry into his dress clothes, and start for Fitzjohn Avenue. He had little mind for the semi-fashionable crowd and the amateur music, but he could not answer Mrs. Bennet Frothingham with any valid excuse, and, after all, she meant kindly towards him. Why he enjoyed so much of this lady's favour it was not easy to understand; intellectual sympathy there could be none between them, and as for personal liking, on his side it did not go beyond that naturally excited by a good-natured, feather-brained, rather pretty woman, whose sprightliness never passed the limits of decorum, and who seemed to have better qualities than found scope in her butterfly existence. Perhaps he amused her, being so unlike the kind of man she was accustomed to see. His acquaintance with the family dated from their social palingenesis, when, after obscure prosperity in a southern suburb, they fluttered to the northern heights, and were observed of the paragraphists. Long before that, Bennet Frothingham had been known in the money-market; it was the 'Britannia'—Loan, Assurance, Investment, and Banking Company, Limited—that made him nationally prominent, and gave an opportunity to his wife (in second marriage) and his daughter (by the first). Three years ago, when Carnaby (already lured by the charms of Sibyl Larkfield) presented his friend Rolfe as 'the man who had been to Bagdad', Alma Frothingham, not quite twenty-one, was studying at the Royal Academy of Music, and, according to her friends, promised to excel alike on the piano and the violin, having at the same time a 'really remarkable' contralto voice. Of late the young lady had abandoned singing, rarely used the pianoforte, and seemed satisfied to achieve distinction as a violinist. She had founded an Amateur Quartet Society, whose performances were frequently to be heard at the house in Fitzjohn Avenue.
Last winter Harvey had chanced to meet Alma and her stepmother at Leipzig, at a Gewandhaus concert. He was invited to go with them to hear the boys' motet at the Thomaskirche; and with this intercourse began the change in their relations from mere acquaintance to something like friendship. Through the following spring Rolfe was a familiar figure at the Frothinghams'; but this form of pleasure soon wearied him, and he was glad to escape from London in June. He knew the shadowy and intermittent temptation which beckoned him to that house; music had power over him, and he grew conscious of watching Alma Frothingham, her white little chin on the brown fiddle, with too exclusive an interest. When 'that fellow' Cyrus Redgrave, a millionaire, or something of the sort, began to attend these gatherings with a like assiduity, and to win more than his share of Miss Frothingham's conversation, Harvey felt a disquietude which happily took the form of disgust, and it was easy enough to pack his portmanteau.
Through the babble of many voices in many keys, talk mingling with laughter more or less melodiously subdued, he made his way up the great staircase. As he neared the landing, there sounded the shrill squeak of a violin and a 'cello's deep harmonic growl. His hostess, small, slender, fair, and not yet forty, a jewel-flash upon her throat and in the tiara above her smooth low forehead, took a step forward to greet him.
'Really? How delightful! I shot at a venture, and it was a hit after all!'
'They are just beginning?'
'The quartet—yes. Herr Wilenski has promised to play afterwards.'
He moved on, crossed a small drawing-room, entered the larger room sacred to music, and reached a seat in the nick of time. Miss Frothingham, the violin against her shoulder, was casting a final glance at the assembly, the glance which could convey a noble severity when it did not forthwith impose silence. A moment's perfect stillness, and the quartet began. There were two ladies, two men. Miss Frothingham played the first violin, Mr. AEneas Piper the second; the 'cello was in the hands of Herr Gassner, and the viola yielded its tones to Miss Dora Leach. Harvey knew them all, but had eyes only for one; in truth, only one rewarded observation. Miss Leach was a meagre blonde, whose form, face, and attitude enhanced by contrast the graces of the First Violin. Alma's countenance shone—possibly with the joy of the artist, perhaps only with gratified vanity. As she grew warm, the rosy blood mantled in her cheeks and flushed her neck. Every muscle and nerve tense as the strings from which she struck music, she presently swayed forward on the points of her feet, and seemed to gain in stature, to become a more commanding type. Her features suggested neither force of intellect or originality of character: but they had beauty, and something more. She stood a fascination, an allurement, to the masculine sense. Harvey Rolfe had never so responded to this quality in the girl; the smile died from his face as he regarded her. Of her skill as a musician, he could form no judgment; but it seemed to him that she played very well, and he had heard her praised by people who understood the matter; for instance, Herr Wilenski, the virtuoso, from whom—in itself a great compliment—Alma was having lessons.
He averted his eyes, and began to seek for known faces among the audience. His host he could not discover; Mr. Frothingham must be away from home this evening; it was seldom he failed to attend Alma's concerts. But near the front sat Mrs. Ascott Larkfield, a dazzling figure, and, at some distance, her daughter Mrs. Carnaby, no shadow of gloom upon her handsome features. Hugh was not in sight; probably he felt in no mood for parties. Next to Mrs. Carnaby sat 'that fellow', Cyrus Redgrave, smiling as always, and surveying the people near him from under drooping brows, his head slightly bent. Mr. Redgrave had thin hair, but a robust moustache and a short peaked beard; his complexion was a rifle sallow; he lolled upon the chair, so that, at moments, his head all but brushed Mrs. Carnaby's shoulder.
Long before the close of the piece, Rolfe had ceased to listen, his thoughts drifting hither and hither on a turbid flood of emotion. During the last passage—Allegro molto leggieramente—he felt a movement round about him as a general relief, and when, on the last note, there broke forth (familiar ambiguity) sounds of pleasure and of applause, he at once stood up. But he had no intention of pressing into the throng that rapidly surrounded the musicians. Seeing that Mr. Redgrave had vacated his place, whilst Mrs. Carnaby remained seated, he stepped forward to speak with his friend's wife. She smiled up at him, and lifted a gloved finger.
'No! Please don't!'
'Not sit down by you?'
'Oh, certainly. But I saw condolence in your face, and I'm tired of it. Besides, it would be mere hypocrisy in you.'
Harvey gave a silent laugh. He had tried to understand Sibyl Carnaby, and at different times had come to very different conclusions regarding her. All women puzzled, and often disconcerted, him; with Sibyl he could never talk freely, knowing not whether to dislike or to admire her. He was not made on the pattern of Cyrus Redgrave, who probably viewed womankind with instinctive contempt, yet pleased all with the flattery of his homage.
'Well, then, we won't talk of it,' he said, noticing, in the same moment, that her person did not lack the adornment of jewels. Perhaps she had happened to be wearing these things on the evening of the robbery; but Rolfe felt a conviction that, under any circumstances, Sibyl would not be without rings and bracelets.
'They certainly improve,' she remarked, indicating the quartet with the tip of her fan.
Her opinions were uttered with calm assurance, whatever the subject. An infinite self-esteem, so placid that it never suggested the vulgarity of conceit, shone in her large eyes and dwelt upon the beautiful curve of her lips. No face could be of purer outline, of less sensual suggestiveness; it wore at times an air of cold abstraction which was all but austerity. Rolfe imagined her the most selfish of women, thought her incapable of sentiment; yet how was her marriage to be accounted for, save by supposing that she fell in love with Hugh Carnaby? Such a woman might surely have sold herself to great advantage; and yet—odd incongruity—she did not impress one as socially ambitious. Her mother, the ever-youthful widow, sped from assembly to assembly, unable to live save in the whirl of fashion; not so Sibyl. Was she too proud, too self-centred? And what ambition did she nourish?
Or was it all an illusion of the senses? Suppose her a mere graven image, hollow, void. Call her merely a handsome woman, with the face of some remarkable ancestress, with just enough of warmth to be subdued by the vigorous passion of such a fine fellow as Carnaby. On the whole, Rolfe preferred this hypothesis. He had never heard her say anything really bright, or witty, or significant. But Hugh spoke of her fine qualities of head and heart; Alma Frothingham made her an exemplar, and would not one woman see through the vacuous pretentiousness of another?
Involuntarily, he was gazing at her, trying to read her face.
'So you think we ought to go to Australia,' said Sibyl quietly, returning his look.
Hugh had repeated the conversation of last night; indiscreet, but natural. One could not suppose that Hugh kept many secrets from his wife.
'I?' He was confused. 'Oh, we were talking about the miseries of housekeeping——'
'I hate the name of those new countries.'
It was said smilingly, but with what expression in the word 'hate'!
'Vigorous cuttings from the old tree,' said Rolfe. 'There is England's future.'
'Perhaps so. At present they are barbarous, and I have a decided preference for civilisation. So have you, I am quite sure.'
Rolfe murmured his assent; whereupon Sibyl rose, just bent her head to him, and moved with graceful indolence away.
'Now she hates me,' Harvey said in his mind; 'and much I care!'
As a matter of courtesy, he thought it well to move in Miss Frothingham's direction. The crowd was thinning; without difficulty he approached to within a few yards of her, and there exchanged a word or two with the player of the viola, Miss Leach—a good, ingenuous creature, he had always thought; dangerous to no man's peace, but rather sentimental, and on that account to be avoided. Whilst talking, he heard a man's voice behind him, pretentious, coarse, laying down the law in a musical discussion.
'No, no; Beethoven is not Klaviermaszig. His thoughts ate symphonic—they need the orchestra.... A string quartet is to a symphony what a delicate water-colour is to an oil-painting.... Oh, I don't care for his playing at all! he has not—what shall I call it?—Sehnsucht.'
Rolfe turned at length to look. A glance showed him a tall, bony young man, with a great deal of disorderly hair, and shaven face; harsh-featured, sensual, utterly lacking refinement. He inquired of Miss Leach who this might be, and learnt that the man's name was Felix Dymes.
'Isn't he a humbug?'
The young lady was pained and shocked.
'Oh, he is very clever,' she whispered. 'He has composed a most beautiful song—don't you know it?—"Margot". It's very likely that Topham may sing it at one of the Ballad Concerts.'
'Now I've offended her,' said Rolfe to himself. 'No matter.'
Seeing his opportunity, he took a few steps, and stood before Alma Frothingham. She received him very graciously, looking him straight in the face, with that amused smile which he could never interpret. Did it mean that she thought him 'good fun'? Had she discussed him with Sibyl Carnaby, and heard things of him that moved her mirth? Or was it pure good nature, the overflowing spirits of a vivacious girl?
'So good of you to come, Mr. Rolfe. And what did you think of us?'
This was characteristic. Alma delighted in praise, and never hesitated to ask for it. She hung eagerly upon his unready words.
'I only show my ignorance when I talk of music. Of course, I liked it.'
'Ah! then you didn't think it very good. I see——'
'But I did! Only my opinion is worthless.'
Alma looked at him, seemed to hesitate, laughed; and Harvey felt the conviction that, by absurd sincerity, he had damaged himself in the girl's eyes. What did it matter?
'I've been practising five hours a day,' said Alma, in rapid, ardent tones. Her voice was as pleasant to the ear as her face to look upon; richly feminine, a call to the emotions. 'That isn't bad, is it?'
'Oh, music is my religion, you know. I often feel sorry I haven't to get my living by it; it's rather wretched to be only an amateur, don't you think?'
'Religion shouldn't be marketable,' joked Harvey.
'Oh, but you know what I mean. You are so critical, Mr. Rolfe. I've a good mind to ask Father to turn me out of house and home, with just half-a-crown. Then I might really do something. It would be splendid!— Oh, what do you think of that shameful affair in Hamilton Terrace? Mrs Carnaby takes it like an angel. They're going to give up housekeeping. Very sensible, I say. Everybody will do it before long. Why should we be plagued with private houses?'
'There are difficulties——'
'Of course there are, and men seem to enjoy pointing them out. They think it a crime if women hate the bother and misery of housekeeping.'
'I am not so conservative.'
He tried to meet her eyes, which were gleaming fixedly upon him; but his look fell, and turned as quickly from the wonderful white shoulders, the throbbing throat, the neck that showed its colour against swan's-down. To his profound annoyance, someone intervened—a lady bringing someone else to be introduced. Rolfe turned on his heel, and was face to face with Cyrus Redgrave. Nothing could be suaver or more civil than Mr. Redgrave's accost; he spoke like a polished gentleman, and, for aught Harvey knew, did not misrepresent himself. But Rolfe had a prejudice; he said as little as possible, and moved on.
In the smaller drawing-room he presently conversed with his hostess. Mrs. Frothingham's sanguine and buoyant temper seemed proof against fatigue; at home or as a guest she wore the same look of enjoyment; vexations, rivalries, responsibilities, left no trace upon her beaming countenance. Her affections were numberless; her ignorance, as an observer easily discovered, was vast and profound; but the desire to please, the tact of a 'gentlewoman, and thorough goodness of heart, appeared in all her sayings and doings; she was never offensive, never wholly ridiculous. Small-talk flowed from her with astonishing volubility, tone and subject dictated by the characteristics of the person with whom she gossiped; yet her preference was for talk on homely topics, reminiscences of a time when she knew not luxury. 'You may not believe it,' she said to him in a moment of confidence, 'but I assure you I am a very good cook.' Rolfe did not quite credit the assurance, but he felt it not improbable that Mrs. Frothingham would accept a reverse of fortune with much practical philosophy; he could imagine her brightening a small house with the sweetness of her disposition, and falling to humble duties with sprightly goodwill. In this point she was a noteworthy exception among the prosperous women of his acquaintance.
'And what have you been doing?' she asked, not as a mere phrase of civility, but in a voice and which a look of genuine interest.
'Wasting my time, for the most part.'
'So you always say; but it can't be true. I know the kind of man who wastes his time, and you're not a bit like him. Nothing would gratify my curiosity more than to be able to watch you through a whole day. What did you think of the quartet?'
'I'm sure they would make wonderful progress, and Alma does work so hard! I'm only afraid she may injure her health.'
'I see no sign of it yet.'
'She's certainly looking very well,' said Mrs. Frothingham, with manifest pride and affection. Of Alma she always spoke thus; nothing of the step-mother was ever observable.
'Mr. Frothingham is not here this evening!'
'I really don't know why,' replied the hostess, casting her eyes round the room. 'I quite expected him. But he has been dreadfully busy the last few weeks. And people do worry him so. Somebody called whilst we were at dinner, and refused to believe that Mr. Frothingham was not at home, and made quite a disturbance at the door—so they told me afterwards. I'm really quite nervous sometimes; crazy people are always wanting to see him—people who really ought not to be at large. No doubt they have had their troubles, poor things; and everybody thinks my husband can make them rich if only he chooses.'
A stout, important-looking man paused before Mrs. Frothingham, and spoke familiarly.
'I'm looking for B. F. Hasn't he put in an appearance yet?'
'I really hope he's enjoying himself somewhere else,' replied the hostess, rising, with a laugh. 'You leave him no peace.'
The stout man did not smile, but looked gravely for a moment at Rolfe, a stranger to him, and turned away.
Herr Wilenski, the virtuoso, was about to play something; the guests moved to seat themselves. Rolfe, however, preferred to remain in this room, where he could hear the music sufficiently well. He had not quite recovered from his chagrin at the interruption of his talk with Alma—a foolishness which made him impatient with himself. At the same time, he kept thinking of the 'crazy people' of whom Mrs. Frothingham spoke so lightly. A man such as Bennet Frothingham must become familiar with many forms of 'craziness', must himself be responsible for a good deal of folly such as leads to downright aberration. Recalling Mrs. Frothingham's innocent curiosity concerning his own life, Harvey wished, in turn, that it were possible for him to watch and comprehend the business of a great finance-gambler through one whole day. What monstrous cruelties and mendacities might underlie the surface of this gay and melodious existence! Why was the stout man looking for 'B. F.'? Why did he turn away with such a set countenance? Why was that old bore at the club in such a fidget about the 'Britannia'?
Ha! There indeed sounded the violin! It needed no technical intelligence to distinguish between the playing of Wilenski and that of Alma Frothingham. Her religion, forsooth! Herr Wilenski, one might be sure, talked little enough about his 'religion'. What did Alma think as she listened? Was she overcome by the despair of the artist-soul struggling in its immaturity? Or did she smile, as ever, and congratulate herself on the five hours a day, and tell herself how soon she would reach perfection if there were real necessity for it? Hopeless to comprehend a woman. The senses warred upon the wit; seized by calenture, one saw through radiant mists.
He did not like the name 'Alma'. It had a theatrical sound, a suggestion of unreality.
The maestro knew his audience; he played but for a quarter of an hour, and the babble of tongues began again. Rolfe, sauntering before the admirable pictures which hung here as a mere symbol of wealth, heard a voice at his shoulder.
'I'm very thirsty. Will you take me down?'
His heart leapt with pleasure; Alma must have seen it in his eyes as he turned.
'What did Wilenski play?' he asked confusedly, as they moved towards the staircase.
'Something of Grieg's Mr. Wilbraham is going to sing "Wie bist du, meine Koniginn"—Brahms, you know. But you don't really care for music.'
'What an astounding accusation!'
'You don't really care for it. I've known that since we were at Leipzig.'
'I have never pretended to appreciate music as you do. That needs education, and something more. Some music wearies me, there's no denying it.'
'You like the Melody in F?'
'Yes, I do.'
Alma laughed, with superiority, but not ill-naturedly.
'And I think it detestable—but of course that doesn't matter. When I talk about books you think me a nincompoop.—That word used to amuse me so when I was a child. I remember laughing wildly whenever I saw or heard it. It is a funny word, isn't it?'
'The last I should apply to you,' said Rolfe in an absent undertone, as he caught a glimpse of the white teeth between her laughing lips.
They entered the supper-room, where as yet only a few people were refreshing themselves. Provisions for a regiment spread before the gaze; delicacies innumerable invited the palate: this house was famed for its hospitable abundance. Alma, having asked her companion to get her some lemonade, talked awhile with two ladies who had begun to eat and drink in a serious spirit; waiting for her, Rolfe swallowed two glasses of wine to counteract a certain dullness and literalness which were wont to possess him in such company.
'I won't sit down,' she said. 'No, thanks, nothing to eat. I wonder where Papa is? Now, he enjoys music, though he is no musician. I think Papa a wonderful man. For years he has never had more than six hours sleep; and the work he does! He can't take a holiday; idleness makes him ill. We were down in Hampshire in July with some relatives of Mamma's—the quietest, sleepiest village—and Papa tried to spend a few days with us, but he had to take to flight; he would have perished of ennui.'
'Life at high pressure,' remarked Rolfe, as the least offensive comment he could make.
'Yes; and isn't it better than life at low?' exclaimed the girl, with animation. 'Most people go through existence without once exerting all the powers that are in them. I should hate to die with the thought that I hadn't really lived myself out. A year ago Papa took me into the City to see the offices of Stock and Share, just after the paper started. It didn't interest me very much; but I pretended it did, because Papa always takes an interest in my affairs. But I found there was something else. After we had seen the printing machinery, and so on, he took me up to the top of the building into a small room, where there was just a table and a chair and a bookshelf; and he told me it was his first office, the room in which he had begun business thirty years ago. He has always kept it for his own, and just as it was—a fancy of his. There's no harm in my telling you; he's very proud of it, and so am I. That's energy!'
'Very interesting indeed.'
'I must go up again,' she added quickly. 'Oh, there's miss Beaufoy; do let me introduce you to Miss Beaufoy.'
She did so, unaware of Rolfe's groaning reluctance, and at once disappeared.
The supper-room began to fill. As soon as he could escape from Miss Beaufoy, who had a cavalier of her own, Harvey ascended the stairs again, and found a quiet corner, where he sat for a quarter of an hour undisturbed. Couples and groups paused to talk near him, and whenever he caught a sentence it was the merest chatter, meaningless repetition of commonplaces which, but for habit, must have been an unutterable weariness to the least intelligent of mortals. He was resolved never to come here again; never again to upset his peace of mind and sully his self-respect by grimacing amid such a crowd. He enjoyed human fellowship, timely merry-making; but to throng one's house with people for whom, with one or two exceptions, one cared not a snap of the fingers, what was this but sheer vulgarism? As for Alma Frothingham, long ago he had made up his mind about her. Naturally, inevitably, she absorbed the vulgarity of her atmosphere. All she did was for effect: it was her cue to pose as the artist; she would keep it up through life, and breathe her last, amid perfumes, declaring that she had 'lived herself out'.
In his peevishness he noticed that women came up from supper with flushed cheeks and eyes unnaturally lustrous. What a grossly sensual life was masked by their airs and graces! He had half a mind to start tomorrow for the Syrian deserts.
'Do let us see you again soon,' said his hostess, as he took leave of her. 'Come in at five o'clock on Wednesday, that's our quiet day; only a few of our real friends. We shall be in town till Christmas, for certain.'
On the stairs he passed Mr. Felix Dymes, the composer of 'Margot'.
'Oh, it's the easiest thing in the world,' Mr. Dymes was saying, 'to compose a song that will be popular. I'll give you the recipe, and charge nothing You must have a sudden change to the minor, and a waltz refrain—that's all. Oh yes, there's money in it. I know a man who——'
Rolfe had never left the house in such a bad temper.
When he awoke next morning, the weather was so gloomy that he seriously resumed his thought of getting away from London. Why, indeed, did he make London his home, when it would be easy to live in places vastly more interesting, and under a pure sky? He was a citizen of no city at all, and had less desire than ever to bind himself to a permanent habitation. All very well so long as he kept among his male friends, at the club and elsewhere; but this 'society' played the deuce with him, and he had not the common-sense, the force of resolve, to keep out of it altogether.
Well, he must go to his bank this morning, to draw cash.
It was about twelve o'clock when he stood at the counter, waiting with his cheque. The man before him talked with the teller.
'Do you know that the "Britannia" has shut up?'
'The bank? No!'
'But it has. I passed just now, and there were a lot of people standing about. Closed at half-past eleven, they say.
Harvey had a singular sensation, a tremor at his heart, a flutter of the pulses, a turning cold and hot; then he was quite calm again, and said to himself, 'Of course.' For a minute or two the quiet routine of the bank was suspended; the news passed from mouth to mouth; newcomers swelled a gossiping group in front of the counter, and Harvey listened. The general tone was cynical; there sounded scarcely a note of indignation; no one present seemed to be personally affected by the disaster. The name of Bennet Frothingham was frequently pronounced, with unflattering comments.
'Somebody'll get it hot,' remarked one of the speakers; and the others laughed.
Rolfe, having transacted his business, walked away. It struck him that he would go and look at the closed bank, but he did not remember the address; a policeman directed him, and he walked on, the distance not being very great. At the end of the street in which the building stood, signs of the unusual became observable—the outskirts of a crowd, hanging loose in animated talk, as after some exciting occurrence; and before the bank itself was gathered a throng of men, respectability's silk hats mingling with the felts and caps of lower strata. Here and there a voice could be heard raised in anger, but the prevailing emotion seemed to be mere curiosity. The people who would suffer most from the collapse of this high-sounding enterprise could not reach the scene of calamity at half an hour's notice; they were dwellers in many parts of the British Isles, strangers most of them to London city, with but a vague mental picture of the local habitation of the Britannia Loan, Assurance, Investment, and Banking Company, Limited.
His arm was seized, and a voice said hoarsely in his ear—
'By God! too late.'
Hugh Carnaby had tumbled out of a cab, and saw his friend in the same moment that he got near enough to perceive that the doors of the bank were shut.
'The thieves have lost no time,' he added, pale with fury.
'You had warning of it?'
Hugh pulled him a few yards away, and whispered——
'Bennet Frothingham shot himself last night.'
Again Harvey experienced that disagreeable heart-shock, with the alternation of hot and cold.
'Where? At home?'
'At the office of Stock and Share. Come farther away. It'll be in the evening papers directly, but I don't want those blackguards to hear me. I got up late this morning, and as I was having breakfast, Sibyl rushed in. She brought the news; had it from some friend of her mother's, a man connected somehow with Stock and Share. I thought they would shut up shop, and came to try and save Sibyl's balance—a couple of hundred, that's all—but they've swallowed it with the rest.'
'With the rest?'
Hugh laughed mockingly.
'Of hers. Devilish bad luck Sibyl has. It was just a toss-up that a good deal of my own wasn't in, one way or another.'
'Do you know any more about Frothingham?'
'No. Only the fact. Don't know when it was, or when it got known. We shall have it from the papers presently. I think every penny Mrs Larkfield had was in.'
'But it may not mean absolute ruin,' urged Harvey.
'I know what to think when B. F. commits suicide. We shall hear that some of the others have bolted. It'll be as clean a sweep as our housekeeper's little job.'
'I've had queer presentiments,' Harvey murmured.
'Why, damn it, so have I! So had lots of people. But nobody ever does anything till it's too late. I must get home again with my agreeable news. You'll be going to the club, I dare say? They'll have plenty to talk about for the next month or two.'
'Try to come round tonight to my place.'
'Perhaps. It depends on fifty chances. There's only one thing I know for certain—that I shall get out of this cursed country as soon as possible.'
They parted, and Harvey walked westward. He had no reason for hurry; as usual, the tumult of the world's business passed him by; he was merely a looker-on. It occurred to him that it might be a refreshing and a salutary change if for once he found himself involved in the anxieties to which other men were subject; this long exemption and security fostered a too exclusive regard of self, an inaptitude for sympathetic emotion, which he recognised as the defect of his character. This morning's events had startled him, and given a shock to his imagination; but already he viewed them and their consequences with a self-possession which differed little from unconcern. Bennet Frothingham, no doubt, had played a rascally game, foreseeing all along the issues of defeat. As to his wife and daughter, it would be strange if they were not provided for; suffer who might, they would probably live on in material comfort, and nowadays that was the first consideration. He was surprised that their calamity left him so unmoved; it showed conclusively how artificial were his relations with these persons; in no sense did he belong to their world; for all his foolish flutterings, Alma Frothingham remained a stranger to him, alien from every point of view, personal, intellectual, social. And how many of the people who crowded to her concert last night would hear the news this morning with genuine distress on her account? Gratified envy would be the prevailing mood, with rancorous hostility in the minds of those who were losers by Bennet Frothingham's knavery or ill-fortune. Hugh Carnaby's position called for no lament; he had a sufficient income of his own, and would now easily overcome his wife's pernicious influence; with or without her, he would break away from a life of corrupting indolence, and somewhere beyond seas 'beat the British drum'—use his superabundant vitality as nature prompted.
After all, it promised to clear the air. These explosions were periodic, inevitable, wholesome. The Britannia Loan, &c, &c, &c, had run its pestilent course; exciting avarice, perturbing quiet industry with the passion of the gamester, inflating vulgar ambition, now at length scattering wreck and ruin. This is how mankind progresses. Harvey Rolfe felt glad that no theological or scientific dogma constrained him to a justification of the laws of life.
At lunchtime, newspaper boys began to yell. The earliest placards roared in immense typography. In the Metropolitan Club, sheets moist from the press suddenly descended like a fall of snow. Rolfe stood by a window and read quietly. This first report told him little that he had not already learnt, but there were a few details of the suicide. Frothingham, it appeared, always visited the office of Stock and Share on the day before publication. Yesterday, as usual, he had looked in for half an hour at three o'clock; but unexpectedly he came again at seven in the evening, and for a third time at about eleven, when the printing of the paper was in full swing. 'It was supposed by the persons whom he then saw that Mr. Frothingham finally quitted the office; whether he actually left the building or not seems to remain uncertain. If so, he re-entered without being observed, which does not seem likely. Between two and three o'clock this morning, when Stock and Share was practically ready for distribution, a man employed on the premises is said, for some unexplained reason, to have ascended to the top floor of the building, and to have entered a room ordinarily unused. A gas-jet was burning, and the man was horrified to discover the dead body of Mr. Frothingham, at full length on the floor, in his hand a pistol. On the alarm being given, medical aid was at once summoned, and it became evident that death had taken place more than an hour previously. That no one heard the report of a pistol can be easily explained by the noise of the machinery below. The dead man's face was placid. Very little blood had issued from the wound, and the shot must have been fired with a remarkably steady hand.'
'A room on the top floor of the building, ordinarily unused——' What story was it that Alma Frothingham told last night, of her visit to the office of Stock and Share? Rolfe had not paid much attention to it at the time; now he recalled the anecdote, and was more impressed by its significance. That room, his first place of business, the scene of poor beginnings, Bennet Frothingham had chosen for his place of death. Perhaps he had long foreseen this possibility, had mused upon the dramatic fitness of such an end; for there was a strain of melancholy in the man, legible on his countenance, perceptible in his private conversation. Just about the time when Alma laughingly told the story, her father must have been sitting in that upper room, thinking his last thoughts; or it might be that he lay already dead.
Later issues contained much fuller reports. The man who found the body had explained his behaviour in going up to the unused room, and it relieved the dark affair with a touch of comedy. Before coming to work, he had quarrelled with his wife, and, rather than go home in the early hours of the morning, he hit upon the idea of finding a sleeping-place here on the premises, to which he could slink unnoticed. 'It's little enough sleep I get in my own house,' was his remark to the reporter who won his confidence. Clubmen were hilarious over this incident, speculating as to the result of its publication on the indiscreet man's domestic troubles.
It was not unremarked that a long time elapsed between the discovery of the suicide and its being heard of by anyone who had an interest in making it generally known. With the exception of two persons, all who were engaged upon the production of the newspaper went home in complete ignorance of what had happened, so cautiously and successfully was the situation dealt with by the sub-editor and his informant. When, after an examination by the doctor, who had been summoned in all secrecy, it became necessary to communicate with the police, the employees had all gone away, and the printed sheets had been conveyed to the distributing agents. Naturally, the subeditor of Stock and Share' preserved a certain reticence in the matter; but one could hardly be mistaken in assuming that the directors of the Britannia Company—two or three of them, at all events—had an opportunity of surveying their position long before the hour when this momentous news got abroad.
With regard to the company's affairs, only conjecture could be as yet indulged in. In view of the immediate stoppage of business, it was pretty safe to surmise that alarming disclosures awaited the public. No one, of course, would be justified in prejudging the case against the unhappy man who, amid seemingly brilliant circumstances, had been driven to so desperate an act.
And so on, and so on, in one journal after another, in edition upon edition. Harvey Rolfe read them till he was weary, listened to the gossip of the club till he was nauseated. He went home at length with a headache, and, having carefully avoided contact with Buncombe or Mrs Handover, made an effort to absorb himself in a volume of Gregorovius, which was at present his study. The attempt was futile. Talk still seemed to buzz about him; his temples throbbed; his thoughts wandered far and wide. Driven to bed long before his accustomed hour, he heard raucous voices rending the night, bellowing in hideous antiphony from this side of the street and the other, as the vendors of a halfpenny paper made the most of what Providence had sent them.
The first thing after breakfast next morning, he posted a line to Hugh Carnaby. 'Is there any way in which I can be of use to you? If you think not, I shall be off tomorrow to Greystone for a few days. I feel as if we were all being swept into a ghastly whirlpool which roars over the bottomless pit. Of course, I will stay if I can do anything, no matter what. Otherwise, address for a week to Basil Morton's.'
This he dropped into the nearest pillar-box, and, as the sun was endeavouring to shine, he walked the length of the street, a pretence of exercise. On his way back he was preceded by a telegraph boy, who stopped at Buncombe's front door, and awoke the echoes with a twofold double knock. Before the servant could open, Harvey was on the steps.
'For me, then.'
He tore open the envelope.
'Could you come at once? Something has happened.—Abbott.'
The boy wished to know if there would be a reply. Harvey shook his head, and stepped into the hall, where he stood reflecting. What could have happened that Edgar Abbott should summon him? Had his wife run away?— Ah, to be sure, it must have something to do with Wager's children—an accident, a death. But why send for him?