Will Warburton by George Gissing
Rosamund Elvan was what ladies call a good correspondent. She wrote often, she wrote at length, and was satisfied with few or brief letters in reply. Scarcely had she been a week at Cairo, when some half dozen sheets of thin paper, covered with her small swift writing, were dispatched to Bertha Cross, and, thence onwards, about once a fortnight such a letter arrived at Walham Green. Sitting by a fire kept, for economical reasons, as low as possible, with her mother's voice sounding querulously somewhere in the house, and too often a clammy fog at the window, Bertha read of Egyptian delights and wonders, set glowingly before her in Rosamund's fluent style. She was glad of the letters, for they manifested a true affection, and were in every way more interesting than any others that she received; but at times they made the cheerless little house seem more cheerless still, and the pang of contrast between her life and Rosamund's called at such moments for all Bertha's sense of humour to make it endurable.
Not that Miss Elvan represented herself as happy. In her very first letter she besought Bertha not to suppose that her appreciation of strange and beautiful things meant forgetfulness of what must be a lifelong sorrow. "I am often worse than depressed. I sleep very badly, and in the night I often shed wretched tears. Though I did only what conscience compelled me to do, I suffer all the miseries of remorse. And how can I wish that it should be otherwise? It is better, surely, to be capable of such suffering, than to go one's way in light-hearted egoism. I'm not sure that I don't sometimes encourage despondency. You can understand that? I know you can, dear Bertha, for many a time I have detected the deep feeling which lies beneath your joking way." Passages such as this Bertha was careful to omit when reading from the letters to her mother. Mrs. Cross took very little interest in her daughter's friend, and regarded the broken engagement with no less disapproval than surprise; but it would have gravely offended her if Bertha had kept this correspondence altogether to herself.
"I suppose," she remarked, on one such occasion, "we shall never again see Mr. Franks."
"He would find it rather awkward to call, no doubt," replied Bertha.
"I shall never understand it!" Mrs. Cross exclaimed, in a vexed tone, after thinking awhile. "No doubt there's something you keep from me."
"About Rosamund? Nothing whatever, I assure you, mother."
"Then you yourself don't know all, that's quite certain."
Mrs. Cross had made the remark many times, and always with the same satisfaction. Her daughter was content that the discussion should remain at this point; for the feeling that she had said something at once unpleasant and unanswerable made Mrs. Cross almost good humoured for at least an hour.
Few were the distressful lady's sources of comfort, but one sure way of soothing her mind and temper, was to suggest some method of saving money, no matter how little. One day in the winter, Bertha passing along the further part of Fulham Road, noticed a new-looking grocer's, the window full of price tickets, some of them very attractive to a housekeeper's eye; on returning home she spoke of this, mentioning figures which moved her mother to a sour effervescence of delight. The shop was rather too far away for convenience, but that same evening Mrs. Cross went to inspect it, and came back quite flurried with what she had seen.
"I shall most certainly deal at Jollyman's," she exclaimed. "What a pity we didn't know of him before! Such a gentlemanly man--indeed, quite a gentleman. I never saw a shopkeeper who behaved so nicely. So different from Billings--a man I have always thoroughly disliked, and his coffee has been getting worse and worse. Mr. Jollyman is quite willing to send even the smallest orders. Isn't that nice of him--such a distance! Billings was quite insolent to me the day before yesterday, when I asked him to send; yet it was nearly a two-shilling order. Never go into that shop again, Bertha. It's really quite a pleasure to buy of Mr. Jollyman; he knows how to behave; I really almost felt as if I was talking to some one of our own class. Without his apron, he must be a thorough gentleman."
Bertha could not restrain a laugh.
"How thoughtless of him to wear an apron at all!" she exclaimed merrily. "Couldn't one suggest to him discreetly, that but for the apron--"
"Don't be ridiculous, Bertha!" interrupted her mother. "You always make nonsense of what one says. Mr. Jollyman is a shopkeeper, and it's just because he doesn't forget that, after all, that his behaviour is so good. Do you remember that horrid Stokes, in King's Road? There was a man who thought himself too good for his business, and in reality was nothing but an underbred, impertinent creature. I can hear his 'Yes, Mrs. Cross--no, Mrs. Cross--thank you, Mrs. Cross'--and once, when I protested against an overcharge, he cried out, 'Oh, my dear Mrs. Cross!' The insolence of that man! Now, Mr. Jollyman--"
It was not long before Bertha had an opportunity of seeing this remarkable shopkeeper, and for once she was able to agree with her mother. Mr. Jollyman bore very little resemblance to the typical grocer, and each visit to his shop strengthened Bertha's suspicion that he had not grown up in this way of life. It cost her some constraint to make a very small purchase of him, paying a few coppers, and still more when she asked him if he had nothing cheaper than this or that; all the more so that Mr. Jollyman seemed to share her embarrassment, lowering his voice as if involuntarily, and being careful not to meet her eye. One thing Bertha noticed was that, though the grocer invariable addressed her mother as "madam," in speaking to her he never used the grocerly "miss" and when, by chance, she heard him bestow this objectionable title upon a servant girl who was making purchases at the same time, Bertha not only felt grateful for the distinction, but saw in it a fresh proof of Mr. Jollyman's good breeding.
The winter passed, and with the spring came events in which Bertha was interested. Mr. Elvan, who for his health's sake spent the winter in the south-west of France, fell so ill early in the year that Rosamund was summoned from Egypt. With all speed she travelled to St. Jean de Luz. When she arrived, her father was no longer in danger; but there seemed no hope of his being able to return to England for some months, so Rosamund remained with him and her sister, and was soon writing to her friend at Walham Green in a strain of revived enthusiasm for the country of the Basques. A postscript to one of these letters, written in the middle of May, ran as follows: "I hear that N. F. has a picture in the Academy called 'A Ministering Angel,' and that it promises to be one of the most popular of the year. Have you seen it?" To this, Rosamund's correspondent was able to reply that she had seen "N.F's" picture, and that it certainly was a good deal talked about; she added no opinion as to the merits of the painting, and, in her next letter, Miss Elvan left the subject untouched. Bertha was glad of this. "A Ministering Angel" seemed to her by no means a very remarkable production, and she liked much better to say nothing about it than to depreciate the painter; for to do this would have been like seeking to confirm Rosamund in her attitude towards Norbert Franks, which was not at all Bertha's wish.
A few weeks later, Rosamund returned to the topic. "N. F's picture," she wrote, "is evidently a great success--and you can imagine how I feel about it. I saw it, you remember, at an early stage, when he called it 'The Slummer,' and you remember too, the effect it had upon me. Oh, Bertha, this is nothing less than a soul's tragedy! When I think what he used to be, what I hoped of him, what he hoped for himself! Is it not dreadful that he should have fallen so low, and in so short a time! A popular success! Oh, the shame of it, the bitter shame!"
At this point, the reader's smile threatened laughter. But, feeling sure that her friend, if guilty of affectation, was quite unconscious of it, she composed her face to read gravely on.
"A soul's tragedy, Bertha, and I the cause of it One can see now, but too well, what is before him. All his hardships are over, and all his struggles. He will become a popular painter--one of those whose name is familiar to the crowd, like--" instances were cited. "I can say, with all earnestness, that I had rather have seen him starved to death. Poor, poor N. F.! Something whispers to me that perhaps I was always under an illusion about him. Could he so rapidly sink to this, if he were indeed the man I thought him? Would he not rather have--oh, have done anything?--Yet this may be only a temptation of my lower self, a way of giving ease to my conscience. Despair may account for his degradation. And when I remember that a word, one word, from me, the right moment, would have checked him on the dangerous path! When I saw 'Sanctuary,' why had I not the courage to tell him what I thought? No, I became the accomplice of his suicide, and I, alone, am the cause of this wretched disaster.--Before long he will be rich. Can you imagine N. F. rich? I shudder at the thought."
The paper rustled in Bertha's hand; her shoulders shook; she could no longer restrain the merry laugh. When she sat down to answer Rosamund, a roguish smile played about her lips.
"I grieve with you"--thus she began--"over the shocking prospect of N. F.'s becoming rich. Alas! I fear the thing is past praying for; I can all but see the poor young man in a shiny silk hat and an overcoat trimmed with the most expensive fur. His Academy picture is everywhere produced; a large photogravure will soon be published; all day long a crowd stands before it at Burlington House, and his name--shall we ever again dare to speak it?--is on the lips of casual people in train and 'bus and tram. How shall I write on such a painful subject? You see that my hand is unsteady. Don't blame yourself too much. The man capable of becoming rich will become so, whatever the noble influences which endeavour to restrain him. I suspect--I feel all but convinced--that N. F. could not help himself; the misfortune is that his fatal turn for moneymaking did not show itself earlier, and so warn you away. I don't know whether I dare send you a paragraph I have cut from yesterday's Echo. Yet I will--it will serve to show you that--as you used to write from Egypt--all this is Kismet."
The newspaper cutting showed an item of news interesting alike to the fashionable and the artistic world. Mr. Norbert Franks, the young painter whose Academy picture had been so much discussed, was about to paint the portrait of Lady Rockett, recently espoused wife of Sir Samuel Rockett, the Australian millionaire. As every one knew, Lady Rockett had made a brilliant figure in the now closing Season, and her image had been in all the society journals. Mr. Franks might be congratulated on this excellent opportunity for the display of his admirable talent as an exponent of female beauty.-- "Exponent" was the word.