Will Warburton by George Gissing
There passed a fortnight. Bertha heard nothing more of Miss Elvan, till a letter arrived one morning in an envelope, showing on the back an address at Teddington. Rosamund wrote that she had just returned from Switzerland, and was staying for a few days with friends; would it be possible for Bertha to come to Teddington the same afternoon, for an hour or two's talk? The writer had so much to say that could not be conveyed in a letter, and longed above all things to see Bertha, the only being in whom, at a very grave juncture in her life, she could absolutely confide. "We shall be quite alone--Mr. and Mrs. Capron are going to town immediately after lunch. This is a lovely place, and we shall have it to ourselves all the afternoon. So don't be frightened--I know how you hate strangers--but come, come, come!"
Bertha took train early in the afternoon. By an avenue of elms she passed into a large and beautiful garden, and so came to the imposing front door. Led into the drawing-room, she had time to take breath, and to gaze at splendours such as she had never seen before; then with soundless footfall, entered a slim, prettily-dressed girl who ran towards her, and caught her hands, and kissed her with graceful tenderness.
"My dear, dear old Bertha! What a happiness to see you again! How good of you to come! Isn't it a lovely place? And the nicest people. You've heard me speak of Miss Anderton, of Bath. She is Mrs. Capron --married half a year ago. And they're just going to Egypt for a year, and--what do you think?--I'm going with them."
Rosamund's voice sunk and faltered. She stood holding Bertha's hands, and gazing into her face with eyes which grew large as if in a distressful appeal.
"Yes. It was decided whilst I was in Switzerland. Mrs. Capron wants a friend to be with her; one who can help her in water-colours. She thought, of course, that I couldn't go; wrote to me just wishing it were possible. And I caught at the chance! Oh, caught at it!"
"That's what I don't understand," said Bertha.
"I want to explain it all. Come into this cosy corner. Nobody will disturb us except when they bring tea.--Do you know that picture of Leader's? Isn't it exquisite!--Are you tired, Bertha? You look so, a little. I'm afraid you walked from the station, and it's such a hot day. But oh, the loveliness of the trees about here! Do you remember our first walk together? You were shy, stiff; didn't feel quite sure whether you liked me or not. And I thought you--just a little critical. But before we got back again, I think we had begun to understand each other. And I wonder whether you'll understand me now. It would be dreadful if I felt you disapproved of me. Of course if you do, I'd much rather you said so. You will--won't you?"
She again fixed her eyes upon Bertha with the wide, appealing look.
"Whether I say it or not," replied the other, "you'll see what I think. I never could help that."
"That's what I love in you! And that's what I've been thinking of, all these weeks of misery--your perfect sincerity. I've asked myself whether it would be possible for you to find yourself in such a position as mine; and how you would act, how you would speak. You're my ideal of truth and rightness, Bertha; I've often enough told you that."
Bertha moved uncomfortably, her eyes averted.
"Suppose you just tell me what has happened," she added quietly.
"Yes, I will. I hope you haven't been thinking it was some fault of his?"
"I couldn't help thinking that."
"Oh! Put that out of your mind at once. The fault is altogether mine. He has done nothing whatever--he is good and true, and all that a man should be. It's I who am behaving badly; so badly that I feel hot with shame now that I come to tell you. I have broken it off. I've said I couldn't marry him."
Their eyes met for an instant. Bertha looked rather grave, but with her wonted kindliness of expression; Rosamund's brows were wrinkled in distress, and her lips trembled.
"I've seen it coming since last Christmas," she continued, in a hurried, tremulous undertone. "You know he came down to Bath; that was our last meeting; and I felt that something was wrong. Ah, so hard to know oneself! I wanted to talk to you about it; but then I said to myself--what can Bertha do but tell me to know my own mind? And that's just what I couldn't come to,--to understand my own feelings. I was changing, I knew that. I dreaded to look into my own thoughts, from day to day. Above all, I dreaded to sit down and write to him. Oh, the hateful falsity of those letters--Yet what could I do, what could I do? I had no right to give such a blow, unless I felt that anything else was utterly, utterly impossible."
"And at last you did feel it?"
"In Switzerland--yes. It came like a flash of lightning. I was walking up that splendid valley--you remember my description--up toward the glacier. That morning I had had a letter, naming the very day for our marriage, and speaking of the house--your house at Putney--he meant to take. I had said to myself--'It must be; I can do nothing. I haven't the courage.' Then, as I was walking, a sort of horror fell upon me, and made me tremble; and when it passed I saw that, so far from not having the courage to break, I should never dare to go through with it. And I went back to the hotel, and sat down and wrote, without another moment's thought or hesitation."
"What else could you have done?" said Bertha, with a sigh of relief. "When it comes to horror and tremblings!"
There was a light in her eye which seemed the precursor of a smile; but her voice was not unsympathetic, and Rosamund knew that one of Bertha Cross smiles was worth more in the way of friendship than another's tragic emotion
"Have patience with me," she continued, "whilst I try to explain it all. The worst of my position is, that so many people will know what I have done, and so few of them, hardly any one, will understand why. One can't talk to people about such things. Even Winnie and father--I'm sure they don't really understand--though I'm afraid they're both rather glad. What a wretched thing it is to be misjudged. I feel sure, Bertha, that it's just this kind of thing that makes a woman sit down and write a novel--where she can speak freely in disguise, and do herself justice. Don't you think so?"
"I shouldn't wonder," replied the listener, thoughtfully. "But does it really matter? If you know you're only doing what you must do?"
"But that's only how it seems to me. Another, in my place, would very likely see the must on the other side. Of course it's a terribly complicated thing--a situation like this. I haven't the slightest idea how one ought to be guided. One could argue and reason all day long about it--as I have done with myself for weeks past."
"Try just to tell me the reason which seems to you the strongest," said Bertha.
"That's very simple. I thought I loved him, and I find I don't."
"Exactly. But I hardly see how the change came about."
"I will try to tell you," replied Rosamund. "It was that picture, 'Sanctuary,' that began it. When I first saw it, it gave me a shock. You know how I have always thought of him--an artist living for his own idea of art, painting just as he liked, what pleased him, without caring for the public taste. I got enthusiastic; and when I saw that he seemed to care for my opinion and my praise--of course all the rest followed. He told me about his life as an art student --Paris, Rome, all that; and it was my ideal of romance. He was very poor, sometimes so poor that he hardly had enough to eat, and this made me proud of him, for I felt sure he could have got money if he would have condescended to do inferior work. Of course, as I too was poor, we could not think of marrying before his position improved. At last he painted 'Sanctuary.' He told me nothing about it. I came and saw it on the easel, nearly finished. And--this is the shocking thing--I pretended to admire it. I was astonished, pained--yet I had the worldliness to smile and praise. There's the fault of my character. At that moment, truth and courage were wanted, and I had neither. The dreadful thing is to think that he degraded himself on my account. If I had said at once what I thought, he would have confessed--would have told me that impatience had made him untrue to himself. And from that day; oh, this is the worst of all, Bertha--he has adapted himself to what he thinks my lower mind and lower aims; he has consciously debased himself, out of thought for me. Horrible! Of course he believes in his heart that I was a hypocrite before. The astonishing thing is that this didn't cause him to turn cold to me. He must have felt that, but somehow he overcame it. All the worse! The very fact that he still cared for me shows how bad my influence has been. I feel that I have wrecked his life, Bertha--and yet I cannot give him my own, to make some poor sort of amends."
Bertha was listening with a face that changed from puzzled interest to wondering confusion.
"Good gracious!" she exclaimed when the speaker ceased. "Is it possible to get into such entanglements of reasoning about what one thinks and feels? It's beyond me. Oh they're bringing the tea. Perhaps a cup of tea will clear my wits."
Rosamund at once began to speak of the landscape by Leader, which hung near them, and continued to do so even after the servant had withdrawn. Her companion was silent, smiling now and then in an absent way. They sipped tea.
"The tea is doing me so much good," Bertha said, "I begin to feel equal to the most complicated reflections. And so you really believe that Mr. Franks is on the way to perdition, and that you are the cause of it?"
Rosamund did not reply. She had half averted her look; her brows were knit in an expression of trouble; she bit her lower lip. A moment passed, and--
"Suppose we go into the garden," she said, rising. "Don't you feel it a little close here?"
They strolled about the paths. Her companion, seeming to have dismissed from mind their subject of conversation, began to talk of Egypt, and the delight she promised herself there.
Presently Bertha reverted to the unfinished story.
"Oh, it doesn't interest you."
"Doesn't it indeed! Please go on. You had just explained all about 'Sanctuary'--which isn't really a bad picture at all."
"Oh, Bertha!" cried the other in pained protest. "That's your good nature. You never can speak severely of anybody's work. The picture is shameful, shameful! And its successor, I am too sure, will be worse still, from what I have heard of it. Oh, I can't bear to think of what it all means--Now that it's too late, I see what I ought to have done. In spite of everything and everybody I ought to have married him in the first year, when I had courage and hope enough to face any hardships. We spoke of it, but he was too generous. What a splendid thing to have starved with him--to have worked for him whilst he was working for art and fame, to have gone through and that together, and have come out triumphant! That was a life worth living. But to begin marriage at one's ease on the profits of pictures such as 'Sanctuary'--oh, the shame of it! Do you think I could face the friends who would come to see me?"
"How many friends," asked Bertha, "would be aware of your infamy? I credit myself with a little imagination. But I should never have suspected the black baseness which had poisoned your soul."
Again Rosamund bit her lip, and kept a short silence.
"It only shows," she said with some abruptness, "that I shall do better not to speak of it at all, and let people think what they like of me. If even you can't understand."
Bertha stood still, and spoke in a changed voice.
"I understand very well--or think I do. I'm perfectly sure that you could never have broken your engagement unless for the gravest reason--and for me it is quite enough to know that. Many a girl ought to do this, who never has the courage. Try not to worry about explanations, the thing is done, and there's an end of it. I'm very glad indeed you're going quite away; it's the best thing possible. When do you start?" she added.
"In three days.--Listen, Bertha, I have something very serious to ask of you. It is possible--isn't it?--that he may come to see you some day. If he does, or if by chance you see him alone, and if he speaks of me, I want you to make him think--you easily can-- that what has happened is all for his good. Remind him how often artists have been spoilt by marriage, and hint--you surely could --that I am rather too fond of luxury, and that kind of thing."
Bertha wore an odd smile.
"Trust me," she replied, "I will blacken you most effectually."
"You promise? But, at the same time, you will urge him to be true to himself, to endure poverty--"
"I don't know about that. Why shouldn't poor Mr. Franks have enough to eat it he can get it?"
"Well--but you promise to help him in the other way? You needn't say very bad things; just a smile, a hint--"
"I quite understand," said Bertha, nodding.