Chapter 20
 

In these summer days, whilst Norbert Franks was achieving popularity, success in humbler guise came to the humorous and much-enduring artist at Walham Green. For a year or two, Bertha Cross had spent what time she could spare upon the illustration of a quaint old story-book, a book which had amused her own childhood, and still held its place in her affection. The work was now finished; she showed it to a publisher of her acquaintance, who at once offered to purchase it on what seemed to Bertha excellent terms. Of her own abilities she thought very modestly in deed, and had always been surprised when any one consented to pay--oftener in shillings than in pounds--for work which had cost her an infinity of conscientious trouble; now, however, she suspected that she had done something not altogether bad, and she spoke of it in a letter to Rosamund Elvan, still in the country of the Basques.

"As you know," Rosamund replied, "I have never doubted that you would make a success one day, for you are wonderfully clever, and only need a little more self-confidence in making yourself known. I wish I could feel anything like so sure of earning money. For I shall have to, that is now certain. Poor father, who gets weaker and weaker, talked to us the other day about what we could expect after his death; and it will be only just a little sum for each of us, nothing like enough to invest and live upon. I am working at my water-colours, and I have been trying pastel--there's no end of good material here. When the end comes--and it can't be long--I must go to London, and see whether my things have any market value. I don't like the prospect of life in a garret on bread and water-- by myself, that is. You know how joyfully, gladly, proudly, I would have accepted it, under other circumstances. If I had real talent myself--but I feel more than doubtful about that. I pray that I may not fall too low. Can I trust you to overwhelm me with scorn, if I seem in danger of doing vulgar work?"

Bertha yielded to the temptations of a later summer rich in warmth and hue, and made little excursions by herself into the country, leaving home before her mother was up in the morning, and coming back after sunset. Her sketching materials and a packet of sandwiches were but a light burden; she was a good walker; and the shilling or two spent on the railway, which formerly she could not have spared, no longer frightened her.

In this way, one morning of September, she went by early train as far as Epsom, walked through the streets, and came into that high-banked lane which leads up to the downs. Blackberries shone thick upon the brambles, and above, even to the very tops of the hedge-row trees, climbed the hoary clematis. Glad in this leafy solitude, Bertha rambled slowly on. She made no unpleasing figure against the rural background, for she was straight and slim, graceful in her movements, and had a face from which no one would have turned indifferently, so bright was it with youthful enjoyment and with older thought.

Whilst thus she lingered, a footstep approached, that of a man who was walking in the same direction. When close to her, this pedestrian stopped, and his voice startled Bertha with unexpected greeting. The speaker was Norbert Franks.

"How glad I am to see you!" he exclaimed, in a tone and with a look which vouched for his sincerity. "I ought to have been to Walham Green long ago. Again and again I meant to come. But this is jolly; I like chance meetings. Are you often down here in Surrey?"

With amusement Bertha remarked the evidence of prosperity in Franks' dress and bearing; he had changed notably since the days when he used to come to their little house to talk of Rosamund, and was glad of an indifferent cup of tea. He seemed to be in very fair health, his countenance giving no hint of sentimental sorrows.

Franks noticed a bunch of tinted leafage which she was carrying, and spoke of its beauty.

"Going to make use of them, no doubt. What are you working at just now?"

Bertha told of her recent success with the illustrated story-book, and Franks declared himself delighted. Clearly, he was in the mood to be delighted with everything. Between his remarks, which were uttered in the sprightliest tone, he hummed phrases of melody.

"Your Academy picture was a great success," said Bertha, discreetly watching him as she spoke.

"Yes, I suppose it was," he answered, with a light-hearted laugh. "Did you see it?--And what did you think of it?--No, seriously; I should like your real opinion. I know you have opinions."

"You meant it to be successful," was Bertha's reply.

"Well, yes, I did. At the same time I think some of the critics-- the high and mighty ones, you know--were altogether wrong about it. Perhaps, on the whole, you take their view?"

"Oh no, I don't," answered his companion, cheerfully. "I thought the picture very clever, and very true."

"I'm delighted! I've always maintained that it was perfectly true. A friend of mine--why, you remember me speaking of Warburton-- Warburton wanted me to make the Slummer ugly. But why? It's just the prettiest girls--of that kind--who go slumming nowadays. Still, you are quite right. I did mean it to be 'successful.' I had to make a success, that's the fact of the matter. You know what bad times I was having. I got sick of it, that's the truth. Then, I owed money, and money that had to be paid back, one way or another. Now I'm out of debt, and see my way to live and work in decent comfort. And I maintain that I've done nothing to be ashamed of."

Bertha smiled approvingly.

"I've just finished a portrait--a millionaire's wife, Lady Rockett," went on Franks. "Of course it was my Slummer that got me the job. Women have been raving about that girl's head; and it isn't bad, though I say it. I had to take a studio at a couple of days' notice--couldn't ask Lady Rockett to come and sit at that place of mine in Battersea; a shabby hole. She isn't really anything out of the way, as a pretty woman; but I've made her--well, you'll see it at some exhibition this winter, if you care to. Pleased? Isn't she pleased! And her husband, the podgy old millionaire baronet, used to come every day and stare in delight. To tell you the truth, I think it's rather a remarkable bit of painting. I didn't quite know I could turn out anything so chic. I shouldn't be surprised if I make a specialty of women's portraits. How many men can flatter, and still keep a good likeness? That's what I've done. But wait till you see the thing."

Bertha was bubbling over with amusement; for, whilst the artist talked, she thought of Rosamund's farewell entreaty, that she would do her best, if occasion offered, to strengthen Norbert Franks under his affliction, even by depreciatory comment on the faithless girl; there came into her mind, too, those many passages of Rosamund's letters where Franks was spoken of in terms of profoundest compassion mingled with dark remorse. Perhaps her smile, which quivered on the verge of laughter, betrayed the nature of her thought. Of a sudden, Franks ceased to talk; his countenance changed, overcast with melancholy; and when, after some moments' silence, Bertha again spoke of the landscape, he gave only a dull assent to her words.

"And it all comes too late," fell from him, presently. "Too late."

"Your success?"

"What's the good of it to me?" He smote his leg with the rattan he was swinging. "A couple of years ago, money would have meant everything. Now--what do I care about it!"

Bertha's surprise obliged her to keep an unnaturally solemn visage.

"Don't you think it'll grow upon you," she said, "if you give it time?"

"Grow upon me? Why, I'm only afraid it may. That's just the danger. To pursue success--vulgar success--when all the better part has gone out of life--"

He ended on a sigh and again whacked his leg with the stick.

"But" urged his companion, as though gravely, "isn't it easy not to pursue success? I mean if it really makes you uncomfortable. There are so many kinds of work in art which would protect you against the perils of riches."

Franks was watching her as she spoke.

"Miss Cross" he said, "I suspect you are satirical. I remember you used to have a turn that way. Well, well, never mind; I don't expect you to understand me."

They had passed out of Ashtead Park and were now ascending by the lane which leads up to Epsom Common.

"I suppose we are both going the same way," said Franks, who had recovered all his cheerfulness. "There's a train at something after five, if we can catch it. Splendid idea of yours to have a whole day's walking. I don't walk enough. Are you likely to be going again before long?"

Bertha replied that she never made plans beforehand. Her mood and the weather decided an excursion

"Of course. That's the only way. Well, if you'll let me, I must come to Walham Green, one of these days. How's Mrs. Cross? I ought to have asked before, but I never do the right thing.--Have you any particular day for being at home?--All right. If you had had, I should have asked you to let me come on some other. I don't care much, you know, for general society; and ten to one, when I do come I shall be rather gloomy. Old memories, you know.--Really very jolly, this meeting with you. I should have done the walk to Epsom just as a constitutional, without enjoying it a bit. As it is--"