Chapter 25
 

Again came springtime, and, as he stood behind the counter, Warburton thought of all that was going on in the world he had forsaken. Amusements for which he had never much cared haunted his fancy; feeling himself shut out from the life of grace and intellect, he suffered a sense of dishonour, as though his position resulted from some personal baseness, some crime. He numbered the acquaintances he had dropped, and pictured them as mentioning his name--if ever they did so--with cold disapproval. Godfrey Sherwood had ceased to write; it was six months since his last letter, in which he hinted a fear that the Irish enterprise would have to be abandoned for lack of capital. Even Franks, good fellow as he was, seemed to grow lukewarm in friendship. The painter had an appointment for a Sunday in May at Will's lodgings, to smoke and talk, but on the evening before he sent a telegram excusing himself. Vexed, humiliated, Warburton wasted the Sunday morning, and only after his midday meal yielded to the temptation of a brilliant sky, which called him forth. Walking westward, with little heed to distance or direction, he presently found himself at Kew; on the bridge he lingered awhile, idly gazing at boats, and; as he thus leaned over the parapet, the sound of a voice behind him fell startlingly upon his ear. He turned, just in time to catch a glimpse of the features which that voice had brought before his mind's eye, Bertha Cross was passing, with her mother. Probably they had not seen him. And even if they had, if they had recognised him--did he flatter himself that the Crosses would give any sign in public of knowing their grocer?

With his eyes on the graceful figure of Bertha, he slowly followed. The ladies were crossing Kew Green; doubtless they would enter the Gardens to spend the afternoon there. Would it not be pleasant to join them, to walk by Bertha's side, to talk freely with her, forgetting the counter, which always restrained their conversation? Bertha was nicely dressed, though one saw that her clothes cost nothing. In the old days, if he had noticed her at all she would have seemed to him rather a pretty girl of the lower middle class, perhaps a little less insignificant than her like; now she shone for him against a background of "customers," the one in whom he saw a human being of his own kind, and who, within the imposed limits, had given proof of admitting his humanity. He saw her turn to look at her mother, and smile; a smile of infinite kindness and good-humour. Involuntarily his own lips responded; he walked on smiling-- smiling.

They passed through the gates; he, at a distance of a dozen yards, still followed. There was no risk of detection; indeed he was doing no harm; even a grocer might observe, from afar off, a girl walking with her mother. But, after strolling for a quarter of an hour, they paused beside a bench, and there seated themselves. Mrs. Cross seemed to be complaining of something; Bertha seemed to soothe her. When he was near enough to be aware of this Will saw that he was too near. He turned abruptly on his heels, and--stood face to face with Norbert Franks.

"Hallo!" exclaimed the painter, with an air of embarrassment. "I thought that was your back!"

"Your engagement was here?" asked Will bluntly, referring to the other's telegram of excuse.

"Yes. I was obliged to--"

He broke off, his eyes fixed on the figures of Bertha and her mother.

"You were obliged--?"

"You see the ladies there," said Franks in a lower voice, "there, on the seat? It's Mrs. Cross and her daughter--you remember the Crosses? I called to see them yesterday, and only Mrs. Cross was at home, and--the fact is, I as good as promised to meet them here, if it was fine."

"Very well," replied Warburton carelessly, "I won't keep you."

"Go, but--"

Franks was in great confusion. He looked this way and that, as if seeking for an escape. As Will began to move away, he kept at his side.

"Look here, Warburton, let me introduce you to them. They're very nice people; I'm sure you'd like them; do let me--"

"Thank you, no. I don't want any new acquaintances."

"Why? Come along old man," urged the other. "You're getting too grumpy; you live too much alone. Just to please me--"

"No!" answered Will, resolutely, walking on.

"Very well--just as you like. But, I say, should I find you at home this evening? Say, nine o'clock. I particularly want to have a talk."

"Good. I'll be there," replied Will, and so, with knitted brows strode away.

Very punctually did the visitor arrive that evening. He entered the room with that same look of embarrassment which he had worn during the brief colloquy at Kew; he shook hands awkwardly, and, as he seated himself, talked about the fall of temperature since sunset, which made a fire agreeable. Warburton, ashamed of the sullenness he could not overcome, rolled this way and that in his chair, holding the poker and making lunges with it at a piece of coal which would not break.

"That was a lucky chance," began Franks at length, "our meeting this afternoon."

"Lucky? Why?"

"Because it has given me the courage to speak to you about something. Queerest chance I ever knew that you should be there close by the Crosses."

"Did they ask who I was?" inquired Warburton after a violent lunge with the poker, which sent pieces of coal flying into the room.

"They didn't happen to see me whilst I was talking with you. But, in any case," added Franks, "they wouldn't have asked. They're well-bred people, you know--really ladies. I suspect you've had a different idea of them. Wasn't that why you wouldn't let me introduce you?"

"Not at all," answered Will, with a forced laugh. "I've no doubt of their ladyhood."

"The fact of the matter is," continued the other, crossing and uncrossing, and re-crossing his legs in nervous restlessness, "that I've been seeing them now and then since I told you I was going to call there. You guess why? It isn't Mrs. Cross, depend upon it."

"Mrs. Cross's tea, perhaps?" said Will, with a hard grin.

"Not exactly. It's the worst tea I ever tasted. I must advise her to change her grocer."

Warburton exploded in a roar of laughter, and cried, as Franks stared wonderingly at him:

"You'll never make a better joke in your life than that."

"Shows what I can do when I try," answered the artist. "However, the tea is shockingly bad."

"What can you expect for one and sevenpence halfpenny per pound?" cried Will.

"How do you know what she pays?"

Warburton's answer was another peal of merriment.

"Well, I shouldn't wonder," Franks went on. "The fact is, you know, they're very poor. It's a miserable sort of a life for a girl like Bertha Cross. She's clever, in her way; did you ever see any of her work? Children's book-illustrating? It's more than passable, I assure you. But of course she's wretchedly paid. Apart from that, a really nice girl."

"So this is what you had to tell me?" said Warburton, in a subdued voice, when the speaker hesitated.

"I wanted to talk about it, old man, that's the truth."

Franks accompanied these words with a shy smiling look of such friendly appeal that Will felt his hard and surly humour begin to soften, and something of the old geniality stirring under the dull weight that had so long oppressed him.

"I suppose it's settled," he asked, staring at the fire.

"Settled? How?"

"When it comes to meetings at Kew Gardens--"

"Oh don't misunderstand," exclaimed Franks nervously, "I told you that it was with the mother I made the appointment--not with Bertha herself. I'm quite sure Bertha never heard a word of it."

"Well, it comes to the same thing."

"Not at all! I half wish it did."

"Half?" asked Warburton, with a quick glance.

"Can't you see that I haven't really made up my mind," said Franks, fidgeting in his chair. "I'm not sure of myself--and I'm still less sure of her. It's all in the air. I've been there perhaps half a dozen times--but only like any other acquaintance. And, you know, she isn't the kind of girl to meet one half way. I'm sorry you don't know her. You'd be able to understand better.--Then, you see, there's something a little awkward in her position and mine. She's the intimate friend of--of the other one, you know; at least, I suppose she still is; of course we haven't said anything about that. It makes misunderstandings very possible. Suppose she thought I made friends with her in the hope of getting round to the other again? You see how difficult it is to judge her behaviour-- to come to any conclusion."

"Yes, I see," Warburton let fall, musingly.

"And, even if I were sure of understanding her--there's myself. Look at the position, now. I suppose I may call myself a successful man; well on the way to success, at all events. Unless fortune plays me a dirty trick, I ought soon to be making my three or four thousand a year; and there's the possibility of double that. Think what that means, in the way of opportunity. Once or twice. when I was going to see the Crosses, I've pulled myself up and asked what the deuce I was doing--but I went all the same. The truth is, there's something about Bertha--I wish you knew her, Warburton; I really wish you did. She's the kind of girl any man might marry. Nothing brilliant about her--but--well, I can't describe it. As different as could be from--the other. In fact, it isn't easy to see how they became such close friends. Of course, she knows all about me--what I'm doing, and so on. In the case of an ordinary girl in her position, it would be irresistible; but I'm not at all sure that she looks at it in that way. She behaves to one--well, in the most natural way possible. Now and then I rather think she makes fun of me."

Warburton allowed a low chuckle to escape him.

"Why do you laugh?--I don't mean that she does it disagreeably. It's her way to look at things on the humorous side--and I rather like that. Don't you think it a good sign in a girl?"

"That depends," muttered Will.

"Well, that's how things are. I wanted to tell you. There's nobody else I should think of talking to about it."

Silence hung between them for a minute or two.

"You'll have to make up your mind pretty soon, I suppose," said Warburton at length, in a not unpleasant voice.

"That's the worst of it. I don't want to be in a hurry--it's just what I don't want."

"Doesn't it occur to you," asked Will, as if a sudden idea had struck him, "that perhaps she's no more in a hurry than you are?"

"It's possible. I shouldn't wonder. But if I seem to be playing the fool--?"

"That depends on yourself.--But," Will added, with a twinkle in his eye, "there's just one piece of advice I should like to offer you."

"Let me have it," replied the other eagerly. "Very good of you, old man, not to be bored."

"Don't," said Warburton, in an impressive undertone, "don't persuade Mrs. Cross to change her grocer."