Chapter 16
 

Warburton stopped, and looked into the speaker's face, as if he hardly recognised him.

"You're going out," added Franks, turning round. "I won't keep you."

And he seemed about to descend the stairs quickly. But Will at length found voice.

"Come in. I was thinking of something, and didn't see you."

They entered, and passed as usual into the sitting-room, but not with the wonted exchange of friendly words. The interval since their last meeting seemed to have alienated them more than the events which preceded it. Warburton was trying to smile, but each glance he took at the other's face made his lips less inclined to relax from a certain severity rarely seen in them; and Franks succeeded but ill in his attempt to lounge familiarly, with careless casting of the eye this way and that. It was he who broke silence.

"I've found a new drink--gin and laudanum. First rate for the nerves."

"Ah!" replied Warburton gravely. "My latest tipple is oil of vitriol with a dash of strychnine. Splendid pick-me-up."

Franks laughed loudly, but unmirthfully.

"No, but I'm quite serious," he continued. "It's the only thing that keeps me going. If I hadn't found the use of laudanum in small doses, I should have tried a very large one before now."

His language had a note of bravado, and his attitude betrayed the self-conscious actor, but there was that in his countenance which could only have come of real misery. The thin cheeks, heavy-lidded and bloodshot eyes, ill-coloured lips, made a picture anything but agreeable to look upon; and quite in keeping with it was the shabbiness of his garb. After an intent and stern gaze at him, Will asked bluntly:

"When did you last have a bath?"

"Bath? Good God--how do I know?"

And again Franks laughed in the key of stage recklessness.

"I should advise a Turkish," said Will, "followed by rhubarb of the same country. You'd feel vastly better next day."

"The remedies," answered Franks, smiling disdainfully, "of one who has never been through moral suffering."

"Yet efficacious, even morally, I can assure you. And, by the bye, I want to know when you're going to finish 'The Slummer.'"

"Finish it? Why, never! I could as soon turn to and build a bridge over the Thames."

"What do you mean? I suppose you have to earn your living?"

"I see no necessity for it. What do I care, whether I live or not?"

"Well, then, I am obliged to ask whether you feel it incumbent upon you--to pay your debts?"

The last words came out with a jerk, after a little pause which proved what it cost Warburton to speak them. To save his countenance, he assumed an unnatural grimness of feature, staring Franks resolutely in the face. And the result was the artist's utter subjugation; he shuffled, dropped his head, made confused efforts to reply.

"Of course I shall do so--somehow," he muttered at length.

"Have you any other way--honest way--except by working?"

"Very well, then, I'll find work. Real work. Not that cursed daubing, which it turns my stomach to think of."

Warburton paused a moment, then said kindly:

"That's the talk of a very sore and dazed man. Before long, you'll be yourself again, and you'll go back to your painting with an appetite And the sooner you try the better. I don't particularly like dunning people for money, as I think you know, but, when you can pay that debt of yours, I shall be glad. I've had a bit of bad luck since last we saw each other."

Franks gazed in heavy-eyed wonder, uncertain whether to take this as a joke or not.

"Bad luck? What sort of bad luck?"

"Why, neither on the turf nor at Monte Carlo. But a speculation has gone wrong, and I'm adrift. I shall have to leave this flat. How I'm going to keep myself alive, I don't know yet. The Bristol affair is of course off. I'm as good as penniless, and a hundred pounds or so will come very conveniently, whenever you can manage it."

"Are you serious, Warburton?"

"Perfectly."

"You've really lost everything? You've got to leave this flat because you can't afford it?"

"That, my boy, is the state of the case."

"By Jove! No wonder you didn't see me as I came upstairs. What the deuce! You in Queer Street! I never dreamt of such a thing as a possibility. I've always thought of you as a flourishing capitalist --sound as the Mansion House. Why didn't you begin by telling me this? I'm about as miserable as a fellow can be, but I should never have bothered you with my miseries.--Warburton in want of money? Why, the idea is grotesque; I can't get hold of it. I came to you as men go to a bank. Of course, I meant to pay it all, some day, but you were so generous and so rich, I never thought there would be any hurry. I'm astounded--I'm floored!"

With infinite satisfaction, Warburton saw the better man rising again in his friend, noted the change of countenance, of bearing, of tone.

"You see," he said, with a nod and a smile, "that you've no choice but to finish 'The Slummer!'"

Franks looked about him uneasily, fretfully.

"Either that--or something else," he muttered.

"No--that! It'll bring you two or three hundred pounds without much delay."

"I daresay it would. But if you knew how I loathe and curse the very sight of the thing--Why I haven't burnt it I don't know."

"Probably," said Will, "because in summer weather you take your gin and laudanum cold."

This time the artist's laugh was more genuine.

"The hideous time I have been going through!" he continued. "It's no use trying to give you an idea of it. Of course you'd say it was all damned foolery. Well, I shan't go through it again, that's one satisfaction. I've done with women. One reason why I loathe the thought of going on with that picture is because I still have the girl's head to put in. But I'll do it. I'll go back and get to work at once. If I can't find a model, I'll fake the head--get it out of some woman's paper where the fashions are illustrated; that'll do very well. I'll go and see how the beastly thing looks. It's turned against the wall, and I wonder I haven't put my boot through it."