THE WOMAN'S WAY
Author of "Just a Girl" "Two Maids and a Man" Etc.
Hodder and Stoughton London New York Toronto Printed in 1914 Copyright in Great Britain and the Colonies and in the United States of America by Charles Garvice, 1913
Celia climbed up the steps to her room slowly; not because she was very tired, but because her room was nearly at the top of Brown's Buildings and she had learnt that, at any rate, it was well to begin slowly. It was only the milk boy and the paper boy who ran up the stairs, and they generally whistled or sang as they ran, heedless of feminine reproofs or masculine curses. There was no lift at Brown's; its steps were as stony and as steep as those of which Dante complained; the rail on which Celia's hand rested occasionally was of iron; and Brown's whitewashed corridors, devoid of ornament, were so severe as to resemble those of a prison; indeed, more than one of the inhabitants of the Buildings spoke of them, with grim facetiousness, as The Jail. Without having to pause to gain her breath, for at twenty-two, when you are well and strong, even sixty steep steps do not matter very much, Celia unlocked a door, bearing the number "105," and entered her room.
It was not large; to descend to detail, it measured exactly ten feet by fifteen feet; but scantily furnished as it was, it contrasted pleasantly with the prison-like corridor on which it opened. Like that of the Baby Bear, everything in the apartment was small; a tiny table, a diminutive armchair, a miniature bookcase; the one exception was a wardrobe, which was not in reality a wardrobe; it served a double purpose; for when the doors were opened, they disclosed a bed, standing on its head, which came down at night and offered Celia repose. The room had a cheerful air; there was a small fire in the tiny grate, and the light of the flickering coal was reflected on one or two cheap, but artistically good, engravings, and on the deep maroon curtains—"Our celebrated art serge, 1s. 6d. a yard, double width"—which draped the windows looking down on Elsham Street, which runs parallel with its great, roaring, bustling brother, Victoria Street.
There were few prettier rooms in Brown's than Celia's; but then, compared with the other inhabitants of The Jail, she was quite well-to-do, not to say rich; for she earned a pound a week; and a pound a week is regarded as representing affluence by those who are earning only fifteen shillings; and that sum, I fancy, represented the top income of most of Celia's neighbours.
You can do a great deal with a pound a week. Let us consider for a moment: rent, which includes all rates and taxes, five shillings a week; gas, purchased on the beautiful and simple penny-in-the-slot system, say, one shilling and threepence, and firing one shilling and sixpence—at Brown's you only have a fire when it is really cold, and it is wonderful how far you can make a halfpenny bundle of wood go when you know the trick of it. Now we come to the not unimportant item of food. It is quite easy; breakfast, consisting of an egg, which the grocer, with pleasing optimism, insists upon calling "fresh," one penny; bread and butter, per week, one shilling and sixpence; tea, milk, and sugar, per week, one and fourpence. Lunch, a really good, substantial meal, of savoury sausage or succulent fish and mashed potato, and a bun. If you are a lady the bun is indispensable; for if there is one faith implanted firmly in the feminine breast, it is that which accepts the penny bun as a form of nutrition not to be equalled. Thrones totter and fall, dynasties stagger and pass away, but the devotion of Woman to the Penny Bun stands firm amidst the cataclysms of nature and nations. This substantial lunch costs sixpence. On Sundays, you dine sumptuously at home on a chop, or eggs and bacon, cooked over your gas-ring, and eaten with the leisure which such luxury deserves. Tea, which if you are in Celia's case, you take at home, consists of the remains of the loaf and the milk left from breakfast, enhanced by a sausage "Made in Germany," or, say, for a change, half a haddock, twopence. Of course, this meal is supper and tea combined.
If you tot all this up, you will find it has now reached the not inconsiderable sum of fifteen shillings and tenpence. This is how the rich person like Celia lives. There still remains a balance of four shillings and twopence to be expended on clothing, bus fares, insurance and amusement. Quite an adequate—indeed, an ample sum. At any rate, it seemed so to Celia, who, at present, was well set up with clothes, and found sufficient amusement in the novelty of her life and her surroundings; for, only a few months back, she had been living in comfort and middle-class luxury, with a larger sum for pocket-money than had now to suffice for the necessaries of existence.
The kettle was boiling, she set the tea; and while she was arranging in a vase—"Given away with every half-pound of our choice Congo!"—the penny bunch of violets which she had been unable to resist, her lips were moving to the strains of the hackneyed but ever beautiful intermezzo in "Cavalleria Rusticana," which floated up from the room immediately underneath hers; but as she drew her chair up to the fire, the music of the violin ceased, and presently she heard footsteps ascending the stairs slowly. There came a knock at the door, and she opened it to an old man with a frame so attenuated that it appeared to be absolutely fleshless. His hair was white and almost touching his shoulders, and his face so colourless and immobile that it looked as if it were composed of wax; but the dark eyes under the white, shaggy brows were full of life, and piercing.
"Oh, good evening, Mr. Clendon!" said Celia, in the tone a woman uses when she is really pleased, and not affecting to be pleased, at the advent of a visitor. "Come in."
"Thank you, Miss Grant," said the old man, in a peculiar voice that was quite low and yet strangely vibrant, like the note of a muted violin. "I have come to ask you if you could oblige me with a couple of pieces of sugar. I have run out, and somehow—one has one's foolish weaknesses—I dislike my tea without sugar."
"Why of course," said Celia, with a touch of eagerness. "But—but won't you come in and have your tea with me?"
The old man shook his head; but his eyes, taking in the comfort of the tiny, fire-lit room, the aspect of home, grew wistful; besides, there was a note of entreaty in the invitation; and "Thank you," he said, simply.
With a nod of satisfaction Celia insisted upon his taking the easy chair, gave him a cup of tea—"Three lumps, please," he said—and seated herself opposite him and smiled on him with the sweetness that is as indefinable as it is irresistible. Mr. Clendon, who played in the orchestra at the Hilarity Theatre of Varieties, just below Brown's Buildings, being a gentleman as well as a broken-down fiddler, was conscious of, and appreciated, the subtle manner. He sat quite silent for a time, then, as his eyes wandered to the violets, he said:
"They smell of the country."
Celia nodded. "Yes; that is why I bought them. It doesn't often run to the luxury of flowers; but I could not resist them."
"You are fond of the country?" he said.
"Oh, yes!" she responded, turning her eyes to the fire. "I have lived there all my life, until—until quite recently—until I came here." She was silent for a moment or so. This old man was the only person she knew in Brown's Buildings; they had made acquaintance on the stairs, and they had now and again borrowed little things—sugar, salt, a candle—from each other. She liked him, and—she was a woman and only twenty-two—she craved for some companionship, someone on whom she could bestow the gentle word and the smile which all good women and true long to give. At this moment she wanted to tell him something of her past life; but she hesitated; for when one is poor and alone in the world, one shrinks keenly from speaking of the happiness that is past. But the longing was too much for her. "I used to live in Berkshire."
She paused, and stifled a sigh.
"My father bought a house there; we had plenty of money—I mean, at that time." She coloured and was silent again for a moment. "My father was a business man and very lucky—for a time. Then luck changed. When he died, nearly six months ago, we found that he was ruined; he left very little, only a few pounds."
The old man nodded again.
"I understand," he said, with neither awkward sympathy nor intrusive curiosity.
"I was an only child, and suddenly found myself alone in the world. Oh, of course, there were relatives and friends, and some of them were kind, oh, very kind"—once more Mr. Clendon nodded, as if he understood—"but—but I felt that I would rather make my own way. I dare say it was foolish; there have been times when I have been tempted to—to accept help—throw up the sponge," she smiled; "but—well, Mr. Clendon, most of us dislike charity, I suppose."
"Some of us," he admitted, dryly. "You found it hard work at first? Sometimes, when I hear stories like yours, Miss Grant, when I pass young girls, thin, white-faced, poorly-clothed, going to their work, with the look of old men on their faces—I mean old men, not women, mind!—I ask myself whether there is not some special place, with a special kind of punishment, appointed for selfish fathers, who have consigned their daughters to life-long toil and misery. I beg your pardon!"
"No, I don't think my father was selfish," said Celia, more to herself than to her listener. "Not consciously so; he was sanguine, too sanguine; he lived in the moment——"
"I know," said Mr. Clendon. "Some men are born like that, and can't help themselves. Well, what did you do?"
"Oh, it was what I tried to do," said Celia, with a laugh. "I tried to do all sorts of things. But no one seemed inclined to give me a chance of doing anything; and, as I say, I was on the point of giving in, when I met in the street, and quite by chance, an old acquaintance of my father. He is a literary man, an antiquarian, and he is writing a big book; he has been writing it, and I think will continue to write it, all his life. He wanted, or said he wanted, a secretary, someone to look up facts and data at the British Museum; and he offered me the work. I—well, I just jumped at it. Fortunately for me, I have had what most persons call a good education. I know French and one or two other foreign languages, and although I have 'little Latin and less Greek,' I manage to do what Mr. Bishop wants. He gives me a pound a week; and that's a very good salary, isn't it? You see, so many persons can do what I am doing."
"Yes, I suppose so," Mr. Clendon assented; he glanced at the slight, girlish figure in its black dress, at the beautiful face, with its clear and sweetly-grave eyes, the soft, dark hair, the mobile lips with a little droop at the ends which told its story so plainly to the world-worn old man who noted it. "And you work in the Reading Room all day?"
"Yes," said Celia, cheerfully, and with something like pride. "It is a splendid place, isn't it? Sometimes I can scarcely work, I'm so interested in the people there. There are so many types; and yet there is a kind of sameness in them all. One seems to lose one's identity the moment one enters, to become merged in the general—general——"
"Stuffiness," he said. "I know; I have been there. Do you manage to keep your health? I have noticed that you are rather pale."
"Oh, I am quite well and strong," she said, with a laugh. "I always walk there and back, unless it rains very hard; and I take long walks, sometimes in the early morning; sometimes at night, when it is fine. I think London is wonderful in the moonlight. You know the view from Westminster Bridge?"
"Yes," he said. "And you are always alone?"
"Why, yes," she assented. "I know no one in London, excepting yourself; for Mr. Bishop lives in the country, in Sussex, and we work by correspondence. Oh, yes; I am lonely sometimes," she added, as if he had asked a question. "But then, I am very busy. I am very much interested in what I am doing, and besides—well, when one is poor, after 'seeing better days'"—she laughed apologetically—"it is, perhaps, better—one can bear it better—to be alone."
He gave another nod which indicated his complete comprehension.
"And there is so much to interest one in the people one sees and lives amongst. Now here, in Brown's Buildings, in The Jail, one finds quite a large amount of amusement in—well, in noticing one's neighbours and fitting a history to them. There is the young girl who lives on your floor; the girl who, you told me, is in the chorus of the 'Baby Queen'; I am sure she is dreaming of, and looking forward to, the time when she will be—principal lady, don't you call it?—and there is the lady who lives opposite her; the old lady who always wears a black silk dress, a satin cloak, and a crape bonnet. I am sure she has been 'somebody' in her time. I met her one day on the stairs, carrying a milk-can. I should have been cowardly enough to put it under my jacket or behind me; but she held it out in front of her and stared at me with haughty defiance. And there is my opposite neighbour"—she jerked her head, with a pretty, graceful motion, towards the door fronting her own—"that handsome, good-looking young fellow who comes up the steps two at a time and bangs his door after him, as if he were entering a mansion."
"I know the young man you mean," said Mr. Clendon. "Have you fitted a history to him?"
"Well, no; he puzzles me rather. I am sure he is a gentleman, and, of course, he must be poor, or he would not be here. Sometimes I think he is a clerk looking for a situation; but he has not the appearance of a clerk, has he? He looks more like an—an engineer; but then, his hands are always clean. He is well groomed, though his clothes are old."
She paused a moment.
"Do you know, Mr. Clendon, I fancy that he has been in trouble lately; I mean, that something is worrying him. Yesterday, I heard him sigh as he unlocked his door. He used to sing and whistle; but, for the last few days, he has been quite quiet, and as I came in last evening I heard him walking up and down his room, as men do when they have something on their minds. Do you know his name?"
"No," said Mr. Clendon, shaking his head; "he is a comparatively new-comer. I could find out for you, if you like."
"Oh, no, no!" she said, quickly, and with a touch of colour. "I am not at all curious. I mean," she explained, "that knowing his name would not increase my interest in him; quite the reverse. You know what I mean? But I fancy I am interested in him because I think he may be in trouble. You see, when one has suffered oneself——"
"Yes, that is the way with you women," said the old man. "In fact, I suppose that, until you have suffered, you do not become women." He glanced at the sheets of paper which lay on the little writing-desk and added, "I am afraid I am keeping you from your work. It was very kind of you to ask me to stay to tea—and to tell me what you have told me. I wish I could help you——. But, no, I don't; for, if I could be of any assistance to you, you would not let me; you are too proud, Miss Grant. I like you all the better for the fact."
"Oh, but you have helped me, more than you know," Celia said, quickly. "You don't know what a delight it is to me to hear the violin you play so beautifully; but, of course, you are an artist."
"Thank you," he said, his voice almost inaudible, and yet with that peculiar vibrance in it. "I was afraid I worried you."
"No, no," said Celia; "I am always sorry when you leave off. You play me to sleep sometimes and—and keep me from brooding. Not that I have any cause to brood," she added, quickly; "for I count myself lucky."
"Yes," he said; "you are lucky; for you have youth, beauty—I beg your pardon," he apologized with a little bow and a gesture which were strangely courtly. "And best of all, you have hope; without that, one is indeed unfortunate."
He rose, and Celia accompanied him to the door; it was only a few steps distant; but the old man moved towards it as if he had been accustomed to traversing apartments of a larger size. As Celia opened the door, the one opposite hers opened at the same moment, and a lady came out. Judging by her figure, for her face was thickly veiled, she was young; she was plainly but richly dressed, and wore a coat and muff of sable. Her appearance was so strangely different from that of the residents and visitors of the Buildings that Celia could not help staring at her with surprise. As if she were conscious of, and resented, Celia's intent regard, the lady turned her head away, and, keeping as near the wall as possible, descended the stairs quickly.
Celia and Mr. Clendon neither exchanged glances nor made any remark. With a gesture of farewell and thanks, he went down. Half-unconsciously, she stood looking at the door which the lady had closed after her; then Celia shut hers and went back to clearing away the tea.
When Mr. Clendon had asked her if she had fitted a history to the young man who had interested her so much, she had replied in the negative; but now, involuntarily, she began to do so. Of course, he was in trouble; probably in debt; this beautifully-dressed woman was his sister, or, perhaps, his sweetheart; she had come to help him, to comfort him. Something in the idea was pleasant and welcome to Celia; he was such a good-looking young fellow; that voice of his, which used to sing but had become silent lately, had a good, true ring in it; yes, it was nice to think that his sister—or his sweetheart—had come to bring him comfort.
She sat down to her notes; but she could not concentrate herself upon her work. The imaginary history of the young man obtruded upon her; she decided that she would go out for a walk, and take up her work again when she returned. She was getting her coat and hat when Mr. Clendon began to play; she changed her mind about the walk and went to the door to open it an inch or so, that she might hear more distinctly the soft strains of the Beethoven Sonata which came floating up to her. As she opened the door, she heard a strange sound rising above the notes of the music; it was that, perhaps, most terrible of all sounds, the unbidden, irresistible groan, rising from a man's tortured heart; and it came from the young man's room.
Startled, chilled, by the sound, she wondered that she could hear it so plainly; then she saw that the door opposite was slightly ajar; evidently the visitor had failed to close it. Celia waited, with the familiar horror, the tense expectation, for a repetition of the groan. It came. Obeying an impulse, a womanly impulse, to fly to the call of such poignant distress, Celia crossed the corridor softly and opened the door.
By the light of a single candle, she saw the young man seated at a table; his head was resting, face downward, on one arm; his whole attitude was eloquent of despair; but it was not this abandonment of grief which caused her to thrill with quick terror; it was because the hand held clenched in its grasp a revolver.
Most women have a horror of firearms; Celia stood motionless, her eyes fixed on the shining, deadly weapon, as if it were a poisonous snake. She wanted to cry out, to rush at the beastly thing and snatch it from the hand that gripped it; but she felt incapable of speech or movement; she could only stare with distended eyes at the revolver and the head lying on the arm.
So quick, so noiseless had been her entrance, that the man had not heard her; but presently, after a few moments which seemed years to her, he became conscious of her presence. He raised his head slowly and looked at her with vacant eyes, as if he were half-dazed and were asking himself if she were a vision. The movement released Celia from her spell; a pang of pity smote her at the sight of the white, drawn face, the hopeless despair in the young fellow's eyes; her womanly compassion, that maternal instinct which the youngest of girl-children possesses, gave her courage. She leant forward, loosened the stiff, cold fingers and took the revolver from them. He submitted, as if he were still only half-conscious of her presence, and her action; and he glanced at his empty hand, at the revolver in hers, and then at her face. Guided once more by impulse, Celia closed the door, then went back and seated herself in a chair on the other side of the table; and so, face to face, they regarded each other in silence.
The man broke it.
"How—how did you know?" he asked. He spoke almost in a whisper, as a man speaks who is recovering from an anaesthetic.
"I heard you—groan," said Celia, also almost in a whisper.
"You did?" he said, more clearly, and with disgust. "I must have groaned pretty loudly." His self-contempt was evident.
There was a pause, then he said: "You are the girl who lives opposite?" A flicker of irritation and impatience shone in his eyes. "Why do you interfere? It is no business of yours!"
"Yes, it is," she said, and there was something like a note of anger in her voice; for it seemed to her that he was extremely ungrateful. "It is the duty of anyone to prevent a man making—a—a fool of himself. You ought to be ashamed."
Unwittingly, she had used the right tone. He leant back in the chair and stared at her with a mixture of resentment and amusement.
"You have plenty of confidence, anyhow, young lady," he said.
"And you have none," retorted Celia, with a dash of colour. "Fancy a man of your age trying to—to kill himself!"
"My age!" He laughed mirthlessly, ironically. "You talk to me, look at me, as if I were a boy."
"You are not much more," said Celia; "and a foolish one into the bargain."
He pushed impatiently the short lock of hair from his forehead, which was dank with sweat.
"Be that as it may," he said, "you have interfered most unwarrantably in a matter which does not concern you. All the same, I suppose you expect me to say that I am obliged to you. Well, I'm not; I don't like being interfered with, especially—by a woman. You come into my room——" He tried to rise with an air of dignity, but he sank back, as if he were weak, and with his arms extended along those of the chair regarded her with a grim smile of whimsicality. "Well, I suppose I ought to say I am obliged to you. Consider that I have said it and—pray, don't let me keep you."
Celia rose, the revolver still in her hand.
"Good night," she said.
"Here!" he called out to her, wearily; "give me back that thing; put it down."
"Certainly not," said Celia, with decision. "You are not fit to be trusted with it."
"Oh, am I not?" he said, sarcastically.
"You know you are not. What were you doing with it, what were you going to do with it, when I came in?" she demanded.
"What an unnecessary question," he retorted. "I was going to shoot myself, of course."
"Exactly. That is why I am taking it away from you."
"You are very clever," he said, with an attempt at sarcasm. "I can go out and buy another. No, I can't"—he laughed rather quaveringly—"I haven't the coin. Put that revolver down, young lady, and leave me alone."
"I shall do nothing of the kind," said Celia, her eyes bright, her lips drawn straight. "I mean, that I am going to take the revolver. And I am not sure that I ought to leave you alone. If I do, will you promise me——"
"That I won't try to kill myself in some other way? I will promise you nothing of the sort; you don't know what you are asking. But, as I said before, I don't want to detain you. In fact, if you knew—what I am——" his voice faltered for a moment—"you would clear out without any urging on my part."
There was a pause, then: "What are you?" asked Celia, in a low voice.
"I am a forger," he replied, after another pause.
The colour left Celia's face, her lips quivered for a moment, but her eyes did not turn from him; and his eyes, after an attempt on his part to keep them steady, drooped before her intent gaze.
There was a silence which could be felt; then Celia said, very slowly, very quietly:
"I don't believe you."
The colour rose to the young man's pallid face; he leant back and, with narrowed eyes, regarded her, for the first time, with curiosity and interest. It may be said that, up to that moment, he had not realized her personality; she was just a something, a nuisance in the shape of a girl, which had come between him and a shameful death. Of course, he had seen Celia in the corridor now and again, had noticed vaguely that his opposite neighbour was young and graceful and pretty—no man, especially one of his age, could fail to notice such palpable facts—but he had been too absorbed in his own affairs to take any interest in her. Now, surprised by her courage, he regarded her curiously, and he saw that she was not only pretty, but quite beautiful. He took in the clear oval of her face, the soft waves of dark hair which garlanded the low forehead, puckered now by lines of decision, the blue-grey eyes almost violet in the intensity of her gaze, the lips which, he felt, could smile with infinite tenderness, though now set tightly.
Yes; this young woman who had come at the sound of his groan of despair, who now sat opposite him, gripping the revolver which she had forced from his hand, was very beautiful, and, obviously, very brave; he saw, too, that she was a lady, that she was different from most of the girls who lived in the Buildings. In that flash of scrutiny, he took in even the details of her dress, and knew that, plain as it was, it had come from a good house, probably from Paris itself; there were no cheap rings on the well-formed, but not too small, hands; he realized that he was confronting the embodiment of the three qualities most desirable—youth, beauty, strength; and he was conscious of a reluctant thrill of admiration. His eyes sank, and, involuntarily, he sighed. For he was thinking of another woman.
"Did you hear what I said?" asked Celia, in a low voice, one a trifle more gentle, though it was still firm. "I said that I don't believe you."
"Yes; I heard," he responded, with a listless smile of irony; "but I am afraid twelve good men in a box—the jury, you know—would not be so incredulous. May I ask why you refuse to accept my plea of guilty? Not that it matters!"
Celia's brows drew together, and she looked as if she were somewhat embarrassed and puzzled by the question; at last, after a pause, she replied, woman-like,
"You don't look like one."
"Quite so," he said, with deeper irony. "That is essentially a feminine reason. Of course, your idea of a forger is the theatrical one; the gentleman with a Mephistophelian face, a sardonic sneer, evening dress, with a big cloak, and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth; the villain who looks every inch the part and says 'Curse you!' whenever it is possible to do so. My dear young lady, your ignorance of the world spoils your compliment. The worst man, the biggest criminal I ever saw in the dock, looked as innocent as a baby."
"All the same, I don't believe you," Celia declared, doggedly.
"I am sorry to say the court is not with you," he said, with a smile that did not hide his bitterness. "The cheque was cashed by the prisoner—myself, my lord.—You see, I accept you as judge.—When he was asked to give an account of it, he refused to do so; I am speaking in the past tense, but I am merely forecasting the course of the trial. A man who cashes a forged cheque and declines to say where he got it, how it came into his possession, is quickly disposed of by a British jury, than which there is no body of men more acute and intelligent."
"Why do you refuse to tell the truth and clear yourself?" asked Celia, in a low voice, her lips parted now, with a perplexity, a vivid interest.
He rose, strode up and down the room for a moment or two, then came back to the table, and, with his hands pressing hard on it, looked down at her upturned, anxious face.
"Your belief, your persistent, unreasoning belief in me, upsets me," he said, with a smile, and evidently still making an effort to retain his assumption of cynical indifference and levity. "I am strongly tempted by it to tell you 'my story,' as the bores on the stage say; but I can't. However, I will admit that you are right. I did not forge the accursed thing—I beg your pardon! No, I didn't sign the cheque; but the case, so far as I am concerned, is just as black as if I were guilty. Hold on a minute! I know what you are going to say; that I am sacrificing myself——"
"You have no right to do so," Celia broke in, in a voice that trembled, not only with pity, but with indignation. "Oh, don't you see! I am only a girl, and I know so little of the world; but I know, I am as sure as I am that—that I am standing here, you have no right, no one has any right, to make such a sacrifice, and certainly no one would be justified in accepting it." She pushed the hair from her forehead with a gesture of impatience. "Oh, you must be mad! You—you look so clever, you take it all so calmly; you are not excited, bewildered—don't you see yourself that, in consenting to ruin yourself, to go to—to prison, an innocent man——? Oh, you have not realized——"
"Have I not?" he broke in, grimly, and with a significant glance at the revolver. "Oh, yes; I realize it clearly enough; it was because I did that I decided to—slip out of it. I am sorry that you prevented me. It was good of you; it was brave of you; you meant well. And you have succeeded. It is a case of the interposing angel; but you have placed me in a terrible fix. I don't know what I am going to do."
His hands fell to his side with a gesture of helplessness and despair, and he turned his head away from the searching gaze of the clear eyes regarding him so intently.
"Tell the truth," said Celia, in an urgent whisper. "Why should you screen the guilty? Why should you suffer in his place? Oh, I don't want to hear the story, it does not concern me. But if you told it to me, it would make no difference, it would not alter my opinion that you intend to do a very wicked things—and a very foolish one."
"Foolish! That hits me rather hard," he commented, with a wry smile.
"Well, it is foolish," said Celia, emphatically. "Why, look how young you are!"
"Why, how young do you think I am?" he interrupted, looking down at her with a grave smile. "As I said just now, you seem to regard me as if I were a boy. I think I am as old as you—older. How old are you—you look like a girl?"
"I am twenty-two—but what has that to do with it? How can you turn aside, trifle——"
"And I am twenty-five," he said, with an involuntary sigh. "So you see I am your senior. But they say a woman is always ten years older than a man of the same age. I suppose that is why you always have us under your thumbs. No, I'm not trifling. Don't you see that I am fighting for time, that I am trying not to think, that I am putting the thing from me as far as I can, even for a few minutes. Immediately you go, I shall have to face it all again, and—alone. You have been very good to me; you don't think I am ungrateful, because I—I play the fool?"
"Don't play it any longer, then," said Celia, earnestly. "Make up your mind to do the right thing. Why should you ruin yourself? But I have said that before. You know I am right; you say you are grateful because I have stopped you from——" She shuddered, and her hand closed still more tightly on the revolver. "Promise me——"
He looked at her wistfully; but he shook his head.
"I can't do that," he said, in a low voice. "Here, I see I shall have to put the case to you." He sank into the chair and leant his head on his hand, and, still with his eyes covered, he continued, in little more than a whisper: "Supposing there was someone you cared for more than anything else in the world, more than life, more than honour. Is there someone?"
Celia did not blush, and without a sign of embarrassment, shook her head.
"I beg your pardon for asking. I am sorry there is not; because, you see, you would understand more readily. Well, there is someone I care for like that, and I am doing this to save her—I mean him," he corrected quickly, "from all that I should suffer if I stood up and faced the music, as you want me to do."
"Whoever she is, she is not worth it," said Celia, her voice thrilling with indignation and scorn.
"I said 'him,'" he corrected, almost inaudibly.
"You said 'her,' first," retorted Celia. "Of course, it's a woman—and a wicked, a selfish one. No woman who had a spark of goodness in her would accept such a sacrifice."
"You wrong her," he said. "There are always exceptions, circumstances, to govern every case. In this case, she does not know. I tell you that, if I take your advice, I should blast the life of the woman I—I love."
"Then you are screening a man for her sake?" said Celia.
"That's it," he admitted; "and you would do the same, if you stood in my place. Oh, you would say you would not; perhaps you think at this moment you would not; but you would. You're just the sort of girl to do it." He laughed again, bitterly. "Why, one has only to look at you——"
For the first time, Celia coloured, and her eyes dropped. As if ashamed of having caused her embarrassment, he bit his lip, and muttered, "I have been offensive, I am afraid. But you see how it is? And now you know the truth, have guessed something of it, you will see that I have either to face the music, plead guilty to the charge and go to prison, or get out of it by the only way."
It was she who hid her face now. He saw that she was trembling; he knew that she was struggling with her tears; he went round to her and laid his hand on her shoulder, very gently, almost reverently. "Don't cry," he said. "I'm not worth it. I am sorry you should be so distressed. I wish—for your sake, now—that you had not come in. Hadn't you better go now?"
Celia rose; her cheeks were wet, her lips were quivering.
"What—what will you do?" she asked, fighting with a sob.
He met her eyes moodily. Celia held her breath; then, with a sudden tightening of the lips, a flash of the eyes, he said, grimly, as if every word cost him an effort,
"I will face it."
With a gasp of relief, and yet with infinite pity and sorrow in her eyes, she flung out both hands to him.
He took them in his, which were burning now, and gripped them tightly.
"My God! what a woman you are," he said, with a sudden uplifting of the brows. "Someone else will find that out some day."
Celia drew her hands away and moved to the door. As he opened it for her, his glance fell on the revolver she had laid on the table.
"You have forgotten," he said, with a mirthless smile. "Hadn't you better take it with you?"
She looked straight into his eyes, not in doubt, but with infinite trust and confidence.
"No," she said; and with the word, she passed out.
Celia went back to her room and sank into a chair. She had been upheld during the scene by the excitement and the strain; she had been strong and purposeful a few minutes ago; but now the reaction had set in and she felt weak and exhausted. It was difficult to realize that the thing was real; it was the first time in her life that anything dramatic, tragical, had touched her. She had read of such incidents in novels, and even then, presented in the guise of fiction, with all its licence, such a self-sacrifice, so absolutely illogical and immoral, had seemed incredible to her; and yet here was a case, under her very eyes.
When she was able to think clearly, one or two points in the affair stood out from the rest. If the forgery was detected, and the young man under suspicion, how was it that he was still free, still unarrested? Perhaps they had not yet been able to trace him; but, no doubt, they were on his track, they might discover him and capture him any moment. She shuddered, and crouched over the fire as if she had been struck by a sudden chill. The pity of it, oh, the pity of it! He was so young—he still seemed to her little more than a boy—and he was so good to look upon, so frank, so honest; and what a noble, generous nature he must have to sacrifice his future, his career, for the woman he loved; why, he had been going to face death itself!
Not a word had been said by either Celia or he of the graceful, richly-dressed woman she had seen leaving his room. Of course, she was the woman who had wrecked his life. Celia began to piece the story together; they had loved each other—at any rate, he had loved her—probably for years; he had loved her with all his heart, and she with, perhaps, a small half; she had thrown him over to marry a wealthy man—and yet, that theory seemed scarcely consistent; for a wealthy man would not need to commit forgery. It was a mystery and a puzzle; but the grim fact remained that the young man was going to take upon himself the terrible stigma of a convict for the sake of a woman—perhaps utterly unworthy of him.
She stared at the fire, and it gave her back a picture of the young man dressed in the hideous prison garb, with the wavy hair cut close; with the prison look, that indescribable look of degradation and despair, stamped on his young, handsome face.
She sprang to her feet and moved about the room restlessly. He was sitting there, alone, waiting for the touch of the detective's hand on his shoulder, waiting for his doom. It was her fault; she had held him back from the release of death, had made him promise to live, to drag through a life of shame and humiliation, an outcast, a pariah, a creature from whom such women as herself would shrink as from something loathsome.
The thought was intolerable. Surely he could escape; they had not got upon his track yet. Oh, why had he not gone, while there was time?
Then she remembered that he had said that he had not enough money even to buy another revolver; of course, he could not hope to get away without money. A blush rose to her face; she sprang to her desk; with a trembling hand she unlocked it and took out a five-pound note—it was the only one she possessed, and she had been keeping it for the day, that might so easily come, when she should lose her work and have to fall back upon her resources. Often enough she had regarded this five-pound note as a barrier against the dread wolf that prowled about so many of the doors of The Jail, against absolute destitution. But, without a moment's hesitation, she folded it and put it in an envelope; but now she did hesitate; she stood, biting her lip softly, her brows knit. At last she wrote on a sheet of notepaper:
"I was wrong; you ought not to wait here. There is time for escape. I would send you more than this; but it is all I have. Don't refuse it, or I shall feel as if I were to blame for anything that may happen to you. Oh, please go at once. Good-bye."
She was about to sign her name, but did not do so; it was better that they should remain strangers to each other.
She went out softly, crossed the corridor on tip-toe, pushed the envelope under his door, then knocked very gently and darted back to her own room. Listening, with a heart that beat like a sledge-hammer falling on an anvil, she heard him open the door, heard it close again; she waited almost; breathlessly, and presently his step crossed the corridor, and a piece of paper slid to her feet. She picked it up and read:
"To refuse your generous gift, to disobey your command—for to me it is an absolute command—would be ungrateful; would be worse. I feel as if you had taken my life into your hands and had the right to dispose of it. I am going. If I escape——Oh, I can't write any more; but I know you will understand. You are the most wonderful girl, the bravest, the most generous, in the whole world Good-bye."
Celia sank into the chair and, with the scrawl tightly clenched in her hand, burst into tears. She sat and waited and listened; a quarter of an hour dragged by; footsteps, some dragging and stealthy, some light and free, passed up and down the stairs, and every step made her heart leap with apprehension. Had he gone? Oh, why had he not gone? There was danger in every moment. Presently she heard a faint, almost inaudible knock at her door; she rose quickly and opened it a little way; no one was standing outside, the corridor was empty; but she heard someone descending the stairs below her. She took a few steps out and looked down.
It was he. At the bend of the stairs, he paused and looked up; the light of the murky, wire-globed gas-jet fell on him and she saw the pallor of his face; saw something else, something that remained with her while life lasted—a look, that expression in his eyes, for which many a woman has been willing to give body and soul. He gazed up at her in silence for a moment; then, with a gesture of the hand which conveyed farewell and gratitude, he moved on and disappeared.
Celia stood there until his footsteps had ceased to sound, and she heard the outer door close softly, then she went back to her room and covered her face with her hands; perhaps she was praying; if so, it was unconsciously; but she still listened for the detectives, the police-officers who might be coming. The strain was almost unendurable, and it was with a strange, inexplicable relief that her suspense was brought to an end by the sound of someone approaching the opposite door and knocking. She rose, trembling, and listened, as she had listened so many times that eventful night. The knock was repeated three times; she heard the visitor—a detective, she didn't doubt—try the handle of the opposite door. Then, to her horror, she heard him move across the corridor and knock at her door. The horror was so great that she felt as if every limb were benumbed and paralyzed; her mouth felt so dry as to be incapable of speech. The knock came again, and, with a great effort, she managed to say:
"Who is there?"
"Pardon me. I wish to speak to you," came the response in a man's voice.
What should she do? The detective would be made suspicious by her agitation, would question her, in all probability would drag from her some information which would enable him to track and arrest the fugitive. And yet she could not refuse to speak to him. Clenching her hands and setting her teeth hard, she forced herself to an appearance of self-composure and opened the door; an elderly man, scrupulously dressed, after the fashion of a solicitor or well-to-do City man, confronted her. He raised his hat and, in a grave and apologetic manner, said:
"I beg your pardon. I am sorry to intrude upon you, trouble you. Can you tell me, madam——? Do you know your opposite neighbour; a young man who lives at No. 106 there?"
Every woman is an actress; every woman will show fight for the thing she is protecting, whether it be a man or a dog. Celia's nerves were highly wrought; she was herself again, for that moment, at any rate; for she was on the defensive, and when a good woman is on the defensive, she is full of innocent guile.
"No," she replied. "I have seen him, of course; seen him going in and out of his room——"
"Thank you," he said. "I am much obliged to you, and I apologize again for my intrusion."
He was turning away; but suddenly he paused and, with a most deferential air, said:
"May I ask you one question? The gentleman I wish to see, particularly wish to see, is not at home. I have knocked several times and have got no answer. May I ask if you happen to know whether he is likely to return; I mean, do you think he has gone away?"
Celia did not hesitate for a moment; it seemed to her as if she were inspired by an abnormal acuteness; instantly, she said:
"I believe he has gone away. The room is to let."
She had spoken the truth, and it was evident, by the old gentleman's face, that he accepted her statement, for he regarded her with an expression of profound disappointment, combined with one of anxiety.
"Oh!" he said, thoughtfully. "Indeed. Thank you very much." He turned away, but again he paused. "You would be doing me a very great favour, madam," he said, "if Mr. ——" He checked himself and looked at her with sudden keenness. "Do you happen to know his name?"
"No," replied Celia. "It is not unusual," she explained. "I mean, that very few of us in the Buildings know each other's names. It is a large place, and the tenants come and go——"
"Quite so," he said, blandly. "I lived in the Temple for several years, and did not know the name of the man on the floor below me, because the name was not painted on the doorpost. London is a city of strangers. Yes, yes. But may I trespass upon your kindness to the extent of asking you to give a simple message to my young friend, if he should return?"
"Yes, I will do so," said Celia.
"Thank you, thank you. If you will, please, say just the four words, 'It is all right.'"
Celia inclined her head; she could not speak; the blood surged to her face, then left it white; her eyes closed, she felt as if she were going to faint; the revulsion from terror to relief had been almost too great for her.
The old gentleman saw the effect his words had upon her; he looked at her curiously, his eyes piercing in their keenness.
"Tut! tut! What is the matter? Are you ill?" he asked, compassionately.
"No," Celia managed to enunciate. "I am tired. It is very hot—I was resting when—when you came, I am not very well."
"Oh, I am sorry, very sorry that I should have disturbed you," he said. "Pray forgive me. Is there anything I can do? Are you alone—I mean, is there anyone to take care of you?"
Celia was touched by the kindly, paternal note in his voice; the tears—they were those of joy and relief—rose to her eyes.
"No, I am alone," she said. "But I am all right; it was only a momentary faintness. I will deliver your message."
He bowed, murmured his thanks and, with another glance of pity and concern for her loneliness and weakness, he turned away—this time for good.
Celia leant against the table, her hands closed tightly. "It is all right," rang in her ears, thrilled in her heart.
"Oh, thank God, thank God!"
But the cry of thanksgiving changed to one of dismay.
The words evidently meant that the young man's innocence had been proved or the charge had been withdrawn; but, whichever it meant, the message had come too late. Oh, what had she done! She had saved his life, but she had made him a fugitive, had condemned him to the cruellest of fates, that of a doomed man flying from justice. Instinctively, mechanically, she flew for her hat and jacket; then she realized, with bitterness, the hopelessness of any such quest as that which, for an instant, she had thought of undertaking. If she had known his name, anything about him, the search would have been difficult; with her complete ignorance it was an impossible one. She flung aside her outdoor things with a gesture of despair.
The young man whose life Celia had saved crossed the courtyard of the building, and walked quickly into Victoria Street. Though he was a fugitive, there was nothing furtive in his gait, and he looked straight before him with a preoccupied air. As a matter of fact, he was not thinking at that moment of his own escape, but of the face which had looked down on him over the rail of the corridor. If Celia had been moved by the expression in his eyes, as he looked up at her, he was still more impressed by the tender, womanly pity in hers; and he was so lost in the thought of all that she had done for him, of her courage and compassion, that there was no room in his mind for any anxiety on his own account.
But presently the sight of a policeman recalled Derrick Dene to the peril of the situation. He fingered the five-pound note in his pocket and stood at the corner of a street hesitating; then, with a little gesture of determination, he walked on again quickly in the direction of Sloane Square, reached it, and turning into one of the streets leading from it he entered one of the tall buildings of expensive flats. Declining the porter's offer of the lift, he went quickly up the stairs, which, unlike those of Brown's Buildings, were carpeted and well-lit, and rang the bell of a flat on the second floor.
"Lord Heyton in?" he inquired of the servant. "Yes, I know he is," he added quickly, as he caught the scent of a cigarette. "Is he alone? All right, don't trouble to announce me." He walked quickly across the passage, entered a room and, closing the door behind him, turned the key in the lock.
A young man was sprawling in a low chair before the fire. He was a good-looking young man, very fair, with rather thin hair, parted in the middle; his eyes were blue and somewhat prominent, his mouth weak and sensual; he was in evening-dress, and presented a definite type of the young man about town.
As he turned his head at the click of the lock and saw his visitor, his face flushed hotly, his under-lip drooped, his eyes opened widely, and he clutched at the arms of the chair. Fear was written all over him in large letters. There was silence for a moment or two; then, with a catch of his breath, he rose and involuntarily muttered the other man's name. He also held out his hand; but Dene, ignoring it, seated himself on the table and, pointing to the chair, said, curtly, but without anger:
"Sit down, Heyton. Sit down. Yes; I've come. You didn't expect to see me. You thought you had got rid of me? Well, I'm going right enough; but I wanted a word or two with you first."
Lord Heyton dropped back into the chair and, covertly wiping the sweat from his face, which was white now, glanced from Dene to the fire, then back again; but his eyes could get no higher than Dene's waistcoat.
"I—I suppose you've come to kick up a row, to bully me?" he said, sullenly.
"Not at all," retorted Dene, coolly. "If I had wanted to kick up a row, to bully you—in other words, to round on you and show you up, I should have come before, the moment I knew how you had—sold me. Yes, that's the word; sold me."
"I—I was hard driven," said Heyton, almost inaudibly. "I tell you that, if I hadn't been able to put my hand on the money, I should have been ruined. A man in my position can't stand being declared a defaulter. I—I thought it would be all right; that my father would have stumped up; but he left England for some beastly place abroad; where, I don't know even know, and there was no getting at him. And there wasn't a penny to be got out of those cursed lawyers——"
"Oh, you needn't trouble to explain," said Dene, grimly. "I understand it all—Miriam has been to see me."
The young man in the chair started, his face flushed, and he looked savagely, yet fearfully, at Dene.
"Miriam been to see you!" he repeated, huskily. "Why—what——!"
"When you told her that I was a forger, that I'd passed a false cheque, you didn't think that she would go to me. You thought she would accept your statement, as she has accepted your other lies about me, and just drop me. Oh, yes; I know how you managed to get her away from me. Poor girl! Unawares she let out a great deal in the few minutes she was with me to-day. You blackened my character pretty considerably; and, by George! you must have done it very well, or you would not have got her to believe you. I've met some bad 'uns in my time, Heyton; but, upon my word, I think you're the very worst of the lot. You're black rotten, through and through. And yet you've got a decent girl not only to believe in you, but to marry you—a liar, a coward, and a scoundrel."
The other man rose, his hands clenched. Dene jerked his head towards the chair.
"Sit down," he said, as he sought in his pockets for a cigarette, found it, and began to smoke. "I'm glad to see that I've touched you on the raw. I didn't think there was a tender spot on you. Oh, sit down, man, and put your fists in your pockets; you haven't the pluck to strike me. I wish you had"—his eyes flashed ominously—"for I might be tempted to give you the thrashing you deserve and I'm longing to give you. And yet—no, I shouldn't; for I wouldn't defile my hands by touching you."
There was a pause, then, with a gesture, as if he had mastered himself, Dene went on:
"Well, I have bullied you, after all, haven't I? And, upon my soul, I didn't mean to; for I knew it would be only waste of breath. Nothing can really touch you; and you'll forget every nasty thing I've said as soon as you've got rid of me safely. No; what I came to say was this: I'm not going to show you up. I'm going to take this thing upon me; you know why well enough."
Heyton shot a glance at him, a glance full of hate and jealousy.
"Yes, it's for Miriam's sake," said Dene, quietly, without any sign of emotion. "She and I were pals; nothing had ever come between us until you turned up. She would have married me but for you. Oh, I'm not blaming her; poor girl, there's a weak streak in her; she comes of a bad lot. Of course, the Earl of Heyton, the son of a marquess, was a better match than Derrick Dene, a nobody, with his fortune to make, his bare living to get; but, on my soul, I think she would have stood by me, and would have resisted the temptation, if you had not told lies about me and persuaded her that I was an utter blackguard. And, by the way, you did it rather well. I was quite astonished how she let things out just now when she came to me. You did it very well. And I thought you were an utter fool!"
The other man glanced wickedly under his brows and set his teeth, but he said nothing; he was afraid to utter a word lest he should rouse his victim from his state of calm and quiet.
"It was clever of you to saddle poor little Susie Morton's trouble on me, while you were really the man—the scoundrel, I should say; it was clever of you to rake up all my little sky-larkings and turn them into something worse. Well, they say that 'all is fair in love and war.' You won, you took her away from me—and it's about Miriam that I've come to talk to you."
Heyton moistened his lips and, with his eyes fixed on his patent leather boots, he said, thickly:
"Did you tell her that—the truth?"
Dene laughed shortly. "No; I didn't. Nine men out of ten would think I was a fool for not doing so; certainly you would. But most men wouldn't understand, and most assuredly you wouldn't, why I didn't. No; I didn't tell her that I was innocent and that you were guilty; that you had forged a cheque and got me, like a fool, to present it. I didn't even tell her that it was you, you blackguard, who had ruined poor little Susie. You look surprised."
Heyton swiftly withdrew his eyes, in which astonishment, amazement, and something nearly approaching contempt, had shown, and Dene laughed with bitter scorn.
"You can't understand that a man who has once loved a woman loves her for always——"
He paused; for, at that moment, it was not the face of his old love, the woman who had jilted him for a better match, that rose before him, but that of the girl at Brown's Buildings who had stepped in between him and death, talked him back to reason, given him her last five-pound note.
"—And that even if he has ceased to love her, he'll stand a lot to save her from trouble; that he'll make any kind of sacrifice to keep disgrace and shame from her. That's how I feel towards Miriam. I thought of you being dragged off by a couple of bobbies to quod, and of how she would suffer; and I remembered—which was a precious lucky thing for you—that there was no one to suffer on my account. I thanked God—for the first time—I'd no one belonging to me. That thought made it easier for me to do what I am doing."
He tossed the end of the cigarette into the fire.
"I am going to make a bolt for it; and I looked in just to say a few words to you, Heyton. I'm standing between you and a complete bust-up. I'm doing it for Miriam's sake, not yours; and I want you to bear this in mind: that if ever I hear of your treating her badly—oh, you needn't look so virtuously indignant; I know your sort; you'd treat her badly enough presently, if you hadn't a check on you. And I'm going to be that check. Let me hear even a whisper of your acting on the cross with her, and I'll come back, if it's from the other end of the world, to denounce you. I've proofs enough. Oh, I'm not such a fool as you think; and, if you don't treat Miriam fairly, I'll show you up, and probably give you, into the bargain, the thrashing that's owing to you."
"You needn't talk about Miriam like that," said her husband, sullenly, and with an affectation of righteous resentment. "I'm fond of her; I shouldn't have done—well, what I have done, if I hadn't been. You needn't insult me."
"My good man, I couldn't," said Dene. "One word more and, you'll be relieved to hear, I'm off. For some reason or other the police, the detectives, have been slow, or have failed to track me."
As he spoke, Heyton turned his head and looked at him curiously, with a furtive, cunning expression; but he said nothing; indeed, his lips closed tightly, as if in repression of speech.
"I shall leave England to-night," continued Dene; "and I may succeed in giving them the slip. I know one or two out-of-the-way places—but I needn't trouble you with my plans. All I want to say is that if I'm caught I shall continue to hold my tongue. And you hold yours, as much as you can; for, though you think you're pretty clever, you'd make a silly kind of ass in a witness-box."
He got off the table, buttoned his coat, and took up his cap. The other man rose and stood, fidgeting with a silver cigarette-box on the table and looking from Dene's pale, haggard face to the floor.
"You're—you're behaving like a brick—you're doing me a good turn, Dene——" he muttered, hoarsely.
"Oh, for God's sake, don't do that!" broke in Dene, with contemptuous impatience. "Clear your mind of that idea. I'm playing the giddy-goat not for your sake, my man; but—but for your wife's, for Miriam's."
"You're crossing to-night?" asked Heyton, hesitatingly, fearfully. "If there's anything I can do to—to prove my gratitude——"
"You couldn't prove what doesn't exist," said Dene, with a laugh. "You're incapable of gratitude. You hate me like poison, and, if it wasn't for the risk to yourself, you'd like to throw up that window, call for the police, and give me away." He paused a moment, and looked the bent, cowardly figure up and down, from toe to crown. "You don't mean to say that you were going to offer me money? Not really?" He laughed, and at the laugh Heyton's face crimsoned with shame and rage. "That would be too funny. I'm off. Remember what I've said. Treat Miriam well, and you've seen and heard the last of me; let me hear a word—But I've told you that already; and you're not likely to forget it. A coward like you will think of his skin before anything else."
Heyton's teeth closed on his under-lip and he glanced at the window; Dene saw the glance and understood it; with a gesture of infinite scorn he sauntered slowly to the door, Heyton following him with clenched hands, the veins swelling in his forehead, his face livid.
As the door closed behind Dene, Heyton sprang towards the bell; his finger touched it, but he did not press it, and, with an oath, he sank into his chair and mopped his face.
Five minutes later, the woman whom Celia had seen in the corridor entered the room. She was a pretty, graceful woman, little more than a girl; but the beauty of the face was marred by a weak mouth and chin. She was exquisitely dressed, her fingers were covered with rings, and diamonds glittered on her snowy neck. Her face was pale, and her eyes were swollen with weeping; and it was with something like a sob that she said, as she stood at the table and looked down at the sullen, ghastly face of her husband:—
"Someone has been here—just gone; I heard a footstep; I know it. Derrick has been here."
He would have lied to her if he had thought she would have believed the lie.
"Yes," he said. "He has just gone. He—he came to say good-bye."
"Good-bye!" she repeated, her brows knitting with perplexity and trouble. "Is he going? Where? Why? Didn't you tell him that Mr. Brand, the lawyer, had—had paid the money and settled everything? Oh, if I had only known it when I went to Derrick; if the letter had only come before, so that I could have told him there was no need for him to fear any—any trouble! But you told him, Percy?"
"Yes, of course I told him," he said, staring at his boots; "but he had made up his mind to go abroad; and—and, 'pon my soul, I think it's the best thing he could do."
She looked down on him with a face still showing trouble and doubt.
"But—but, Percy, he hadn't any money; he admitted as much to me. And I couldn't give him any."
"That's all right," he said, clearing his throat. "I—I saw to that. I couldn't give him much, unfortunately; but I scraped together all I'd got. It will leave us pretty short of coin for a bit, Miriam."
She went to him quickly, put her arm round his shoulder, and, bending, kissed him. "You did! That was good of you; it was like you, Percy—after all that he has done, and the trouble he might have got you into. I'm glad you gave him all you'd got; and I don't mind running short."
Her cheeks were wet and wetted his; he drew his hand across his face with barely-concealed impatience and annoyance.
"That's all right," he said. "Of course, I had to do the best I could for him, poor devil! for the sake of—of old times. I didn't forget that you were once fond of him—well, rather taken with him; that you were old friends. Look here, Miriam, we don't want to harp upon this affair; it's a beastly bad business, and the sooner we forget it the better. For Heaven's sake, let's drop it here and now. I shan't refer to it, shan't mention Derrick Dene's name again; and don't you. Just push that tray over, will you? I've had a deuced unpleasant scene with him, I can tell you; and it's upset me deucedly. But there!" he added, with a jerk of the head, as he mixed a stiff soda and whisky, "there's an end of him, so far as we're concerned. What?"
Celia lay awake half the night, and was up and dressed early in the morning, waiting for the cry of "Pipers! Daily Pipers!" and when the newsboy came bounding up the steps she almost sprang out on him in her eagerness and anxiety.
"Give me—which of the papers has the best police news?" she asked, trying to speak casually.
"Oh, the Wire, o' course," replied the boy, promptly; "they don't let nothing escape them, you bet, miss!"
She bought the halfpenny paper and eagerly scanned its columns, forgetting that there could be no report of the case until the appearance before the magistrate; but the absence of any mention of an arrest, following the message which the old gentleman had given her, confirmed her relief and encouraged her. Notwithstanding, she found it almost impossible to eat; but she drank a cup of tea, gathered her papers together, and went down to the Museum. For the first time she found her work difficult; for she could not dismiss the young man and his tragic fate from her mind. Staring at the blank paper, she went over all the details of the strange scene, and, standing out from them all, was the expression in his face, in his eyes, as he had paused at the bend of the stairs and looked at her.
Something in that expression haunted her as she had never been haunted by anything in her life before, and she was weighed down by the sense of a burden, the burden of a man's life, destiny; she could not forget that she had sent him away, that if she had waited and he had remained, he would have learned that he had no longer reason to fear, that "it was all right."
She was disturbed in her reverie by the arrival of a young man, who seated himself in the next chair at her desk; she turned to her book and papers and began to work; but now a fresh difficulty arose in the conduct of the young man beside her; the attendant had brought him a pile of books, and the young fellow was turning them over, in a restless way, thrusting his hands through his hair, fidgeting with his feet and muttering impatiently and despairingly.
Celia glanced at him involuntarily. She saw that he was young and boyish-looking; there was a look of perplexity and worry in his blue eyes, and muttering a word of apology he rose and went quickly to the inner circle, the rotunda, where the patient and long-suffering superintendent stands to be badgered by questions from the readers needing the assistance of his wonderfully-stored brain. In a minute or two the young man came back, accompanied by an attendant bearing another pile of books.
"I don't know whether you'll find what you want," he said; "but it's all I know of it." He looked at Celia as he spoke, and added, "Oh, perhaps this young lady can help you; she does antiquarian work."
The young man coloured and raised his eyes appealingly to Celia.
"Oh, I couldn't trouble you," he said, humbly.
"What is it?" she asked. "I shall be glad to help you, if I can."
He took up some slips of paper on which were "pulled" impressions of blocks, and Celia saw that they were pictures of ruined castles, abbeys, and similar buildings.
"This is the trouble," said the young man. "The man I work for—he's the proprietor of the Youth's Only Companion—is a rum sort of chap, and fancies he has ideas. One of them was to buy up a lot of old blocks in Germany; these are they, and he's given me the job of writing them up, fitting them with descriptive letterpress—history, anecdote, that kind of thing, you know."
"That should not be very difficult," Celia remarked.
"Oh, no!" he assented; "but"—he grinned, and his whole face lit up with boyish humour—"the beastly things have no names to them! See? I've tried to hunt them up in all the old county histories, and books of that kind; but I've succeeded in getting only two or three, and there's a couple of dozen of the wretched things. I've driven the superintendent pretty nearly mad, and—But look here, I don't want to drive you mad, too. You mustn't let me bother you about it; you've got your own work to do."
"That's all right," said Celia, bending over the slips with the literary frown on her young face. "Oh, I can recognize some of them; that's Pevensey Castle; and that's Knowle House, before it was rebuilt; and, surely, this one is meant for Battle Abbey."
"I say, how clever you are!" he exclaimed, gazing at her with admiration.
"Oh, no, I'm not," said Celia, with a smile; "I just happen to remember them because I've come across them in the course of my own work. Let us go over the others."
She turned to his pile of books and, still with knit brows, tried to find the counterpart of the other pulls; and the young fellow watched her, his eyes growing thoughtful and something more, as they dwelt upon her face.
"You mustn't worry any more," he begged her, presently. "You're losing all your own time; I feel ashamed; I'm most awfully grateful to you."
"Not at all," said Celia. "I'm afraid I've been of very little help to you; and I don't see that I can do any more——"
"No, no," he said, quickly; "don't take any more trouble. It wouldn't matter so much if I had plenty of time; but I haven't. You see"—he coloured—"one doesn't get too well paid for this kind of work, and can't afford——"
He coloured still more deeply, and his voice dropped below the regulation whisper in which one is permitted to speak in the Reading Room. Celia glanced at him, and saw that he was poorly dressed, that his shirt-cuffs were frayed, and that he had the peculiar look which is stamped on the countenances of so many of the frequenters of the Reading Room.
"Just tell me what you would do if you were in my fix," he said.
Celia hesitated for a moment, then a smile broke over her face which transfigured it and made it seem to the young fellow absolutely lovely.
"I should invent histories for them," she said. "It would be so much easier—and, perhaps, ever so much more interesting."
"Oh, that's stunning!" he exclaimed, in a whisper. "Of course, that's the way. I say, what a brick you are! Would you mind telling me your name?"
"Grant—Celia Grant," she told him, without hesitation.
"Mine's Rex—Reggie Rex," he said. "I've often noticed you and wondered what kind of work you did—But I beg your pardon; I mustn't disturb you any longer."
They both fell to work, and Celia heard his fountain-pen racing over the paper; once or twice he chuckled, as if he were enjoying a joke; but very soon Celia forgot him; and when, at last, she looked up from her work, she found his place empty; but on going out for her lunch she saw him standing by one of the pillars of the portico. He blushed at sight of her, moved forward, hesitated, then approached her.
"You're going to an A.B.C. for your lunch?" he said, with a mixture of a man's timidity and a boy's audacity. "May I—will you let me come with you? I feel as if I hadn't thanked you enough; I couldn't do it in that stuffy old hole, where you can't speak above your breath."
He took Celia's silence for consent, and they went together to the big shop in Oxford Street, and seated themselves at a table. They both ordered a cup of tea and a roll and butter; Celia would have liked to have added the omnipotent bun, but refrained; for, somehow, she knew that he could not afford one.
"Do you like the life, in there?" he asked, jerking his head in the direction of the Museum. "Dreadful grind, isn't it? But, somehow, it gets hold of you; there's a kind of fascination in literature." He spoke the magic word with the air of quite an old, old man of letters. "I ought to have been a grocer. My father's got a shop in Middleswick; he calls it The Emporium. I think that's why I couldn't stick it. Pity, isn't it? for it's a rattling good business. Another thing; I couldn't stand the apron. Guv'nor insisted on the apron; 'begin from the beginning' sort of thing, you know. And then I felt the call of literature. Fond of reading, and all that. You know?"
Celia nodded. That tender heart of hers was quite ready with its comprehension and sympathy.
"I hope you will succeed; but if you don't—Ah, well; you can go back," she said, half-enviously.
"No; one doesn't go back," he said, with a gravity that sat curiously on his boyish face. "Once you've got the fever, you've got it for life. Tiger tasting blood, you know. I'd rather be a literary man than—than the German Emperor. Of course, I'm hoping to do better things; but even the stuff I do makes me—oh, well, kind of happy. Every time I get a proof something runs through me, something grateful and comforting—like the cocoa. I mean to get on to fiction presently." He blushed like a girl, and looked at her timidly, with the appealing look of a dog in his eyes. "I've tried my hand already at a short story or two." He paused. "I say"—hesitatingly, his eyes still more dog-like—"you are so awfully kind, I wonder whether you'd mind looking at one of my things. Oh, of course, it's too much to ask! You're busy—you work hard, I know; I've watched you."
"Why, I shall be very pleased to read something you have written," said Celia, smiling encouragement.
"You will! Oh, that's stunning of you! I'll send you a short story to-night, if you'll give me your address. But perhaps you'd rather not," he added, quickly.
"Why not?" said Celia. She gave it to him.
"I'll send it," he whispered; but as he spoke, his hand went towards his breast-pocket.
Celia tried not to smile; for she saw what was coming.
"To tell you the truth," he said, with a burst of candour, "I've got one with me. I'll give it to you now. But for Heaven's sake don't look at it here! I should see by your face what you thought of it, and you're likely to think precious little of it; you'll think it tommy-rot; though, of course, you won't say so. Look here!" he went on, as he drew out the precious manuscript slowly, "don't tell me that it 'shows promise'; I can bear anything but that. That's fatal; it's what all the beastly editors say when they don't mean to have anything to do with you."
"Very well," said Celia. "I will tell you exactly what I think of it."
"Honest Injun?" he queried, his blue eyes twinkling.
"Honest Injun," repeated Celia. "And I think I shall be able to say something very nice; for I am sure you are clever."
He blushed, and his eyes danced.
"You've said something very nice already," he said, gratefully; "and when you say it like that—well, upon my word, it makes me feel that I am clever. And that's half the battle, Miss Grant. A man is just what he feels himself to be; that's why nothing succeeds like success; to feel that other people know you can do your job. Oh, well!"
Celia nodded. "I must go back," she said. "I was not able to begin my work so early as usual this morning."
"Not feeling well?" he said, anxiously, and with a glance at her face which, he had noticed, was paler than usual. "I suppose you've got the Reading-Room headache. Everybody gets it; it's the general stuffiness of the place. They can't help it—the officials, I mean; they've tried all sorts of dodges for ventilation; it's better than it used to be; but it's still crammed full of headache."
"No; I've been worried this morning," said Celia, more to herself than to him.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" he said, in a voice full of a boy's ready sympathy. "Look here! Is it anything I can help you with? I mean——" He grew red, and stammered. "Oh, of course, you'll laugh; and it's like my cheek, but—you helped me, you know—and we're brothers and sisters in misfortune, working on the same treadmill—I'd do anything for you—it would be a pleasure——"
Celia sighed as she smiled, and wondered idly how he would respond if she said, "Well, find a man for me, a man whose name I don't know, to whose whereabouts I have not the slightest clue." She shook her head.
"It is very good of you," she said; "but you could not help me; no one could."
"I am sorry," he murmured. "I should have loved to have done something for you; perhaps I may some day—lion and the mouse, you know. It's a rum world. You'll find my address on the manuscript," he added, shyly, as she rose.
He did not follow her; but later in the afternoon Celia caught sight of him seated at the farther end of the Reading Room. He was looking in her direction, but, as his eyes met hers, he dropped them and bent over his work. It was evident that he had changed his place lest she should think he was intruding on her.
As she entered the courtyard of Brown's Buildings, Celia bought an evening paper. If she had mistaken the significance of the old gentleman's message and the man who haunted her thoughts had been arrested, the case might be reported. She scanned the police news anxiously; but there was no report, and she was laying the paper down when her eye caught a familiar name in a paragraph. She read the few lines in a kind of stupor, with a sense of unreality; and when she had finished reading she stood with the paper gripped in her hand, and staring stupidly before her.
The paragraph ran thus:—
"We regret to announce the death of Mr. William Bishop, the well-known antiquarian, which occurred suddenly at his country residence early this morning."
Slowly through her stupor broke the realization that she had been thrust back into the ranks of the unemployed, that only a few shillings stood between her and utter destitution.
Strangely enough, Dene's spirits seemed lightened by the scene with Heyton; perhaps he had found that peculiar satisfaction which comes to all of us when we have relieved our minds by telling a man who has behaved badly and injured us what we think of him. But this hypothesis does not altogether account for the uplifting of Dene's mind. He had been going to commit suicide, because he was assured that everybody would regard him as one of the meanest of creatures, a forger and passer of a "stumer" cheque; but suddenly, at the tragical moment, an angel, in the guise of a young girl, had appeared, snatched the revolver from his hand, and saved him by just telling him that she believed him innocent.
It seemed to him that this guardian angel of his was hovering about him still; that it was incumbent upon him to carry out his pact with her, and to escape the fate that had threatened him, and, indeed, threatened him still. So centred were his thoughts on this girl, whose very name he did not know, so buoyed up was he by her wonderful goodness to him, that he had to remind himself he was still in danger. Perhaps, after all, that fact was not without its compensations; for Youth, when it goes with strength, and a clear brain, loves adventure, and enjoys pitting itself against any kind of foe. Here was he, an innocent man, flying from Injustice; he was to find out, perhaps for the first time in his life, what his wits were worth.
As he walked quickly, but not too hurriedly, through the shady streets towards the river, he considered the situation. If they were keen on the pursuit, the police would no doubt already have set a watch at the various ports; and it would be useless for him to attempt to reach the Continent; besides, he had not sufficient money to carry him far enough from England; for, in addition to the five-pound note, which had assumed already the character of a talisman, there were only a few shillings in his pocket.
It occurred to him that he would go down to the docks and see if he could obtain a berth on one of the small trading vessels; he had the quickness of hand and foot which comes of football and cricket, and he had done some sailing in a friend's yacht; enough, at any rate, to make him useful on board a ship. He took the train to Mark Lane Station, and suddenly reminded by the inward monitor that he had eaten nothing for some hours, turned into one of the numerous old-fashioned coffee-shops near the quay.
The place was crowded with ship hands and dock labourers, and reeked with that indescribable odour which is peculiar to the locality. Without receiving an order, a one-eyed waiter slammed a cup of thick coffee and two hunks of bread and butter before Dene; and Dene, eating and drinking the rough fare with an enjoyment which amused him, looked round him with the keenness of a man who is watching for an opportunity to seize upon the extended hand of Chance.
At the same table were seated two men whom he found it rather difficult to place; they did not look like dock labourers or sailors; and there was a mixture of the artist, the actor, the cheap-jack about them which stirred his curiosity; he found himself listening to them involuntarily.
"About time we were moving, isn't it?" said one. "The whole caboose will be down there by now; and it will be a devil of a job getting it on board in the dark. Why the old man didn't go by the regular line I can't think."
"'Thrift, Horatio, thrift,'" responded his companion; "he'll save a lot of money by hiring this old tramp; and he won't care how we have to pig it, so long as the blessed animals are all right. I had a look at her just now, and if ever there was a jumping, rolling, sea-sick old tub, she's one."
"A nice prospect," grunted the first man; "and we're short-handed, too; catch the old man taking a single man more than he wants."
Dene pricked up his ears. Was the hand of Chance being extended already? He waited for more, but the men ceased talking, and presently rose and walked out, with a gait which was as curious as everything else about them. Obeying an impulse, Dene rose and followed them. They joined the crowd going down towards the docks, and, keeping them in sight, he merged into a group of excited persons who were moving about in a scene which struck Dene with amazement.
On the quay, beside which a steamer was moored, towered a couple of huge elephants, surrounded by camels, horses, and mules, while on trollies stood cages of wild beasts, lions, tigers, jackals; one of the elephants was trumpeting, the camels were groaning, the carnivora roaring; mixed with their din were the voices of a motley crew, men and women, having the same appearance in dress and manner as that of the two men he had followed. Dene saw that it was a travelling menagerie and circus, and he looked on it with an amusement which predominated over his self-interest. Presently there darted into the conglomerate mass an extraordinary object—it might have been one of the monkeys escaped from its cage and miraculously raised into imitation of a man's stature. The diminutive figure was enveloped in a fur coat, much too large for it, and crowned by a ridiculous sombrero hat. An extinct cigar was held in the clenched teeth, and as the thing waved its hand Dene caught the glitter of innumerable rings.
At the appearance of this strange creature a momentary silence fell on the crowd. Without a word, he darted to and fro, always waving the beringed hand and biting harder on his cigar. But though he did not speak, and there seemed to be no meaning in the waving of his hands, the movements of the crowd began to take to themselves something of purpose and order, and the animals fell into line and began to pass along the broad gangway as if they were under the command of Noah and going into the Ark. The little man in the fur coat was evidently the controlling spirit; he seemed to be everywhere at once, and the gesticulating paws were like those of a conductor conducting a band; wherever a difficulty cropped up, the fur coat and the sombrero hat were beside it, and the glittering paws smoothing it away.
The more docile of the beasts were on board. The cages had been hoisted by the crane, and the horses were following; one of them grew restive, and slipped from the grasp of the man in charge of it. It would have made a bolt for it, but Dene, who happened to be standing quite close, caught hold of the bridle. As he did so, the hands waved before his face; somehow or other, Dene understood that the gesture meant "Go on!" and he led the horse over the gangway on to the ship.
The grotesque figure had followed him, and, with another gesture, ordered Dene to lead the horse to the rough stables which had been set up on deck. He did so, and was at once seized upon by one of the men, who badly needed assistance; and for half an hour Dene was kept hard at work. There was a fearful din; but presently he heard the warning whistle, and was making his way for the gangway when he was stopped by the fur coat and waved back again.
"No time to go ashore, my man," said the dwarf, speaking for the first time in Dene's hearing.
Dene paused for just one moment, then, with a shrug of the shoulders, he turned and went back to the horses. He heard the snorting and panting of the tug, felt the vessel move, heard some cheers from the deck, and knew the tug was towing the vessel from the quay.
For the next hour Dene was convinced that he was the most-needed man on earth; for everybody wanted him. He helped to get the horses into their stables; he bore a hand in putting the cages into position; he carried hay to the elephants and shins of beef to the lions; and while he was doing these and innumerable other tasks, someone was perpetually shouting in his ear, "'Ere, matey, lend a hand, will you?" But at last the confusion simmered down, and, wiping his face, Dene went with the other men below, where a meal had been hastily prepared for them.
The insufficient light of a waving lamp fell upon a group of men and women he had seen on the quay. They were of the usual types which go to make up a circus company, and they all seemed merry and bright, and utterly indifferent to the noise and the discomfort. There were some nice-looking girls amongst them, and they were laughing and talking excitedly, their eyes flashing merrily as they crowded round the trestles which bore the steaming coffee, the chunks of bread, and the slabs of meat.
With a not-unnatural shyness, Dene stood aside for a moment or two; but feeling that, at any rate, he had earned his supper, he drew near the board. As he did so, one of the men he had seen in the coffee-house caught sight of him, scanned him curiously, and said:—
"New hand, eh? What's your line?"
This was a somewhat awkward question, and Dene temporized.
"Well, I don't quite know," he said. "I've been lending a hand generally."
The man looked at him with an increased interest, as if struck by the tone of Dene's voice.
"Oh!" he said, thoughtfully. "Engaged at the last moment? Well, you'd better go and see the guv'nor."
"Gentleman in the fur coat?" asked Dene.
"The same," said the man, with a grin. "You haven't met him yet? Engaged through an agent, I suppose? Well, you've got a novel experience awaiting you. Better look him up at once; he's in his cabin at the present moment."
"Thanks. I will," said Dene.
"My name's Sidcup," said the man, in a friendly way. "What's yours?"
This was another staggerer.
"Oh, mine's—Sydney Green," said Dene.
Mr. Sidcup smiled and winked. "Good name," he said. "Short; descriptive; good professional name."
Dene coloured, but passed off his embarrassment with a laugh.
"You'll find you've not joined a bad lot, Mr. Green," said Sidcup, with a jerk of his head towards the collected company. "It's a good show, and some of us"—he passed his hand over his smooth chin, and pulled down his waistcoat complacently—"are not without talent."
"I'm sure of that," said Dene, with an air of conviction. "I'll go and see—what is the proprietor's name?"
"Bloxford. Bloxford's Mammoth Circus; the largest on Earth; see Press notices. But, of course, you know," replied Mr. Sidcup, with some surprise. "The old man's all right, as you'll find. Curious customer; but knows his business. He's not much to look at; but he's a devil to work, and he's a born manager. What I mean is, that he sees what a man's worth, in the—er—twinkling of an eye. And here's a tip for you: never argue with him; don't contradict him; just let him have his say and keep your mouth shut. If he says the moon's made of green cheese—ask him for a biscuit to eat with it. I've been with him for five years, and I understand him."
"Thank you very much," said Dene. "I'll take your tip. I'm not fond of arguing myself."
When he had disposed of his supper, he made his way to Mr. Bloxford's cabin and knocked at the door. He was bidden to enter in a sharp, falsetto voice, like that of a phonograph when it is on the high note. The manager was still enveloped in his fur coat, but his hat had been thrown aside, revealing a head apparently completely hairless. A lighted cigar was now between his teeth, and a bottle of champagne stood on the table. Mr. Bloxford looked up from a paper that he was reading, and eyed Dene with that suppressed impatience which is peculiar to all managers of theatres and circuses.
"Well, what do you want?" he demanded. "Tub isn't sinking already, is she?"
"I've come to ask you to take me on, to let me join your company, Mr. Bloxford," said Dene, going straight to the point.
The manager stared at him. "Take you on! Why, aren't you one of the hands? Then what the blank are you doing here?"
"No, I'm not engaged at present," replied Dene; and he explained how he had been caught up in the turmoil and had remained on board. While he was speaking, Mr. Bloxford had been eyeing the tall, well-made figure, the pleasant, handsome face, and, being a man of the world—and a circus manager to boot—he had no difficulty in seeing that the young man, standing so modestly, and yet so easily, before him, was a gentleman.
"I suppose you know that you're a stowaway, that I could have you chucked overboard, or put into irons or something," he said, furiously, his eyes snapping.
Dene smiled merely.
"Well, now you're here, I'll have to take you on, I guess," said Mr. Bloxford. "You seem to be handy with horses."
"I'm fond of them," said Dene.
"That's all right," rejoined Mr. Bloxford. "I suppose there's nothing you can do in the professional way? You'd make a good acrobat, or—well, you'd shape into several things." He looked the figure up and down again, just as he would have examined an animal offered for his inspection. "But we'll see about that later on. Thirty bob a week. How will that suit you?"
"It will suit me very well; and I'll try to earn it," said Derrick.
Mr. Bloxford stared at him. "Here, don't startle me; I've got a weak heart," he observed, with a grin. "You say it as if you meant it. Here, what's your name?"
"Sydney Green," replied Dene, with a promptitude acquired by his recent experience.
"Right!" said the manager. "Have a drink?"
He poured out a liberal quantity of champagne for Dene, and, filling his own glass, raised it, eyeing Dene keenly over the edge of it.
"Here's to us! I rather like the look of you; but just listen to me, young fellow. I don't care who and what a man is when he joins my company, he's under my orders. See? And look here, I don't ask any questions; I take a man for what he says he is. You say your name's Green. Dark Green, I expect, eh? Well, it's no business of mine. You know where we're bound for, I suppose? Well, we're bound for South America. We're going to do it thoroughly; if ever we get there, which seems doubtful, for this infernal old tramp is more rotten than I thought. But she's cheap, anyhow; and economy is my motto. Thirty shillings a week." He wrote down Dene's new name and the amount of his wages. Then, suddenly, his manner changed; with an impatient gesture he waved his beringed hand, and Dene felt himself swept outside.
He stood in the gangway and looked straight before him for a minute or two. His brain was whirling somewhat, but he realized that he had escaped. His hand went to his breast pocket, where reposed the five-pound note his guardian angel had given him. It was still intact. He felt that it was proving itself a talisman. God bless her!
A week later Celia was crouching over her fireless grate. The Wolf was no longer outside the door, but beside her, his red eyes watching her balefully, his cruel teeth showing between his mowing jaws. The hunger, for which the overfed rich man longs in vain, was gnawing at her; she was penniless and well-nigh starving; no longer did she regard the little chorus girl in the floor below her with tender pity and sympathy, but with envy; she knew now how rich she had been with her pound a week.
For days she had tramped the streets, in the intervals of reading the advertisements in the free library, in search of some employment, any employment, which a woman could take up; and her last few pence had been spent in one of those advertisements which tell their own tale of despair. She was willing to do anything; she would have taken a situation as a housemaid; would have gone out charing; for life is precious to all of us, and scruples of refinement disappear when there is no bread in the cupboard. But her applications, for even the lowliest place, were turned down; she had no experience, no character; the persons she interviewed saw, at a glance, that she was a lady, and that was fatal: a lady willing to sink to the position of a housemaid—well, there is something suspicious in it.
As she sat, with her hands tightly clasped, the cold of the early, so-called, summer day chilling her to the marrow, she was cheerfully employed in picturing her death; the discovery of the body, the coroner's inquest, the leader which would be written in the Wire, the properly indignant, stereotyped leader, dwelling with righteous indignation on the "terrible poverty in our midst." She raised her head and looked round the room. No, there was nothing left to sell or pawn—for her dire necessity had driven her to the pawnshop, that last refuge of the destitute, that dire rubicon which, having passed it, a girl like Celia feels is the last barrier between her and self-respect.
A letter lay on the table; it was one from the Museum lad, Reggie Rex, thanking her, with all the fervency of youth, for the words she had written in praise of his story; the hope, the encouragement she had implanted in his breast. She envied him, as she envied everyone who had enough to purchase a loaf, a glass of milk. Then the incident in which he had figured passed from her mind. The strains of Mr. Clendon's violin stole up to her; but that brought no peace, no joy; to enjoy good music when one is starving is an impossibility; the sounds irritated her, and she was glad when they ceased.
Presently she heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs, and a knock came at her door. She rose, painfully, wearily, and moved with difficulty; for the floor seemed to rock under her, the room to swing round. It was Mr. Clendon.
"I'm sorry to trouble you——" he began; then he saw her face, and, closing the door behind him, took her hand in his. "You are ill," he said.
To attempt concealment she felt would be impossible; worse, ridiculous.
"Not ill; but very hungry," she said, forcing a smile.
He led her to the chair, and she sank into it, turning her face away from him. He glanced round the room quickly, took in its emptiness, the black, cheerless grate, her attitude of utter dejection; then, without a word, he went downstairs. To Celia, hours seemed to elapse after his departure, but it was only a few minutes before he came up again, with bread and other things; but it was the bread only that Celia saw. With all her might and main, she strove to eat slowly, indifferently, the food he pressed upon her; and as she ate, the tears of shame and of relief coursed down her wan cheeks. He had brought fuel also; and, while she was eating, he seemed to devote all his attention to the making of the fire; when it was burning brightly, and she was leaning back, with her hands covering her face, he said, gently, reproachfully: