Chapter 26
 

This conversation brought Warburton a short relief. Laughter, even though it come from the throat rather than the midriff, tends to dispel morbid humours, and when he woke next morning, after unusually sound sleep, Will had a pleasure in the sunlight such as he had not known for a long time. He thought of Norbert Franks, and chuckled; of Bertha Cross, and smiled. For a day or two the toil of the shop was less irksome. Then came sordid troubles which again overcast the sky. Acting against his trusty henchman's advice, Will had made a considerable purchase of goods from a bankrupt stock; and what seemed to be a great bargain was beginning to prove a serious loss. Customers grumbled about the quality of articles supplied to them out of this unlucky venture, and among the dissatisfied was Mrs. Cross, who came and talked for twenty minutes about some tapioca that had been sent to her, obliging Mr. Jollyman to make repeated apologies and promises that such a thing should never occur again. When the querulous-voiced lady at length withdrew, Will was boiling over with rage.

"Idiot!" he exclaimed, regardless of the fact that Allchin overheard him.

"You see, sir," remarked the assistant. "It's just as I said; but I couldn't persuade you."

Will held his lips tight and stared before him.

"There'll be a net loss of ten pounds on that transaction," pursued Allchin. "It's a principle of honest business, never buy a bankrupt stock. But you wouldn't listen to me, sir--"

"That'll do, Allchin, that'll do!" broke in the master, quivering with the restraint he imposed upon himself. "Can't you see I'm not in a mood for that sort of thing?"

This same day, there was a leakage of gas on the premises, due to bad workmanship in some new fittings which had cost Will more than he liked. Then the shop awning gave way, and fell upon the head of a passer-by, who came into the shop swearing at large and demanding compensation for his damaged hat. Sundry other things went wrong in the course of the week, and by closing-time on Saturday night Warburton's nerves were in a state of tension which threatened catastrophe. He went to bed at one o'clock; at six in the morning, not having closed his eves for a moment, he tumbled out again, dressed with fury, and rushed out of the house.

It was a morning of sunny showers; one moment the stones were covered with shining moisture, and the next were steaming themselves dry under unclouded rays. Heedless whither he went, so he did but move quickly enough, Will crossed the river, and struck southward, till he found himself by Clapham Junction. The sun had now triumphed; the day would be brilliant. Feeling already better for his exercise, he stood awhile reflecting, and decided at length to go by rail into the country. He might perhaps call on the Pomfrets at Ashtead; that would depend upon his mood. At all events he would journey in that direction.

It was some three months since he had seen the Pomfrets. He had a standing invitation to the pleasant little house, where he was always received with simple, cordial hospitality. About eleven o'clock, after a ramble about Ashtead Common, he pushed open the garden wicket, and knocked at the door under the leafy porch. So quiet was the house, that he half feared he would find nobody at home; but the servant at once led him in, and announced him at the door of her master's sanctum.

"Warburton?" cried a high, hearty voice, before he had entered. "Good fellow. Every day this week I've been wanting to ask you to come; but I was afraid; it's so long since we saw you, I fancied you must have been bored the last time you were here."

A small, thin, dry-featured man, with bald occiput and grizzled beard, Ralph Pomfret sat deep in an easy chair, his legs resting on another. Humour and kindliness twinkled in his grey eye. The room, which was full of books, had a fair view of meadows, and hill. Garden perfumes floated in at the open window.

"Kind fellow, to come like this," he went on. "You see that the old enemy has a grip on me. He pinches, he pinches. He'll get at my vitals one of these days, no doubt. And I've not even the satisfaction of having got my gout in an honourable way. If it had come to me from a fine old three-bottle ancestor! But I, who never had a grandfather, and hardly tasted wine till I was thirty years old--why, I feel ashamed to call myself gouty. Sit down, my wife's at church. Strange thing that people still go to church--but they do, you know. Force of habit, force of habit. Rosamund's with her."

"Miss Elvan?" asked Warburton, with surprise.

"Ah, yes I forgot you didn't know she was here. Came back with those friends of hers from Egypt a week ago. She has no home in England now; don't know where she will decide to live."

"Have you seen Norbert lately?" continued Mr. Pomfret, all in one breath. "He's too busy to come out to Ashtead, perhaps too prosperous. But no, I won't say that; I won't really think it. A good lad, Norbert--better, I suspect, than his work. There's a strange thing now; a painter without enthusiasm for art. He used to have a little; more than a little; but it's all gone. Or so it seems to me."

"He's very honest about it," said Warburton. "Makes no pretences-- calls his painting a trick, and really feels surprised, I'm sure, that he's so successful."

"Poor Norbert! A good lad, a good lad. I wonder--do you think if I wrote a line, mentioning, by the way, that Rosamund's here, do you think he'd come?"

The speaker accompanied his words with an intimate glance. Will averted his eyes, and gazed for a moment at the sunny landscape.

"How long will Miss Elvan stay?" he asked.

"Oh, as long as she likes. We are very glad to have her."

Their looks met for an instant.

"A pity, a pity!" said Ralph, shaking his head and smiling. "Don't you think so?"

"Why, yes. I've always thought so."

Will knew that this was not strictly the truth. But in this moment he refused to see anything but the dimly suggested possibility that Franks might meet again with Rosamund Elvan, and again succumb to her charm.

"Heaven forbid!" resumed Ralph, "that one should interfere where lives are at stake! Nothing of that, nothing of that. You are as little disposed for it as I am. But simply to acquaint him with the fact--?"

"I see no harm. If I met him--?"

"Ah! To be sure. It would be natural to say--"

"I owe him a visit," remarked Will.

They talked of other things. All at once Warburton had become aware that he was hungry; he had not broken his fast to-day. Happily, the clock on the mantelpiece pointed towards noon. And at this moment there sounded voices within the house, followed by a tap at the study door which opened, admitting Mrs. Pomfret. The lady advanced with hospitable greeting; homely of look and speech, she had caught her husband's smile, and something of his manner--testimony to the happiness of a long wedded life. Behind her came the figure of youth and grace which Warburton's eyes expected; very little changed since he last saw it, in the Valley of Trient, Warburton was conscious of an impression that the young lady saw him again with pleasure. In a minute or two, Mrs. Pomfret and her niece had left the room, but Warburton still saw those pure, pale features, the emotional eyes and lips, the slight droop of the head to one side. Far indeed--so he said within himself--from his ideal; but, he easily understood, strong in seductiveness for such a man as Franks, whom the old passion had evidently left lukewarm in his thought of other women.

The bell gave a welcome summons to lunch--or dinner, as it was called in this household of simple traditions. Helped by his friend's arm, Ralph managed to hobble to table; he ate little, and talked throughout the meal in his wonted vein of cheerful reflection. Will enjoyed everything that was set before him; the good, wholesome food, which did credit to Mrs. Pomfret's housekeeping, had a rare savour after months of dining in the little parlour behind his shop, varied only by Mrs. Wick's cooking on Sundays. One thing, however, interfered with his ease; seated opposite to Rosamund Elvan, he called to mind the fact that his toilet this morning had been of the most summary description; he was unshaven, and his clothing was precisely what he had worn all yesterday at the counter. The girl's eyes passed observantly over him now and then; she was critical of appearances, no doubt. That his aspect and demeanour might be in keeping, he bore himself somewhat bluffly, threw out brief, blunt phrases, and met Miss Elvan's glance with a confident smile. No resentment of this behaviour appeared in her look or speech; as the meal went on, she talked more freely, and something of frank curiosity began to reveal itself in her countenance as she listened to him.

Ralph Pomfret having hobbled back to his study chair, to doze, if might be, for an hour or two, the others presently strolled out into the garden, where rustic chairs awaited them on the shadowy side.

"You have your pipe, I hope?" said the hostess, as Warburton stretched himself out with a sigh of content.

"I have."

"And matches?"

"Yes--No! The box is empty."

"I'll send you some. I have one or two things to see to indoors."

So Will and Rosamund sat alone, gazing idly at the summer sky, hearing the twitter of a bird, the hum of insects, whilst the scents of flower and leaf lulled them to a restful intimacy. Without a word of ceremony, Will used the matches that were brought him, and puffed a cloud into the warm air. They were talking of the beauties of this neighbourhood, of the delightful position of the house.

"You often come out to see my uncle, I suppose," said Rosamund.

"Not often, I'm seldom free, and not always in the humour."

"Not in the humour for this?"

"It sounds strange, doesn't it?" said Will, meeting her eyes. "When I'm here, I want to be here always; winter or summer, there's nothing more enjoyable--in the way of enjoyment that does only good. Do you regret Egypt?"

"No, indeed. I shall never care to go there again."

"Or the Pyrenees?"

"Have you seen them yet?" asked Rosamund.

Will shook his head.

"I remember your saying," she remarked, "you would go for your next holiday to the Basque country."

"Did I? Yes--when you had been talking much about it. But since then I've had no holiday."

"No holiday--all this time?"

Rosamund's brows betrayed her sympathy.

"How long is it since we were together in Switzerland?" asked Will, dreamily, between puffs. "This is the second summer, isn't it? One loses count of time, there in London. I was saying to Franks the other day--"

He stopped, but not abruptly; the words seemed to murmur away as his thoughts wandered. Rosamund's eyes were for a moment cast down. But for a moment only; then she fixed them upon him in a steady, untroubled gaze.

"You were saying to Mr. Franks--?"

The quiet sincerity of her voice drew Warburton's look. She was sitting straight in the cane chair, her hands upon her lap, with an air of pleasant interest.

"I was saying--oh, I forget--it's gone."

"Do you often see him?" Rosamund inquired in the same calmly interested tone.

"Now and then. He's a busy man, with a great many friends--like most men who succeed."

"But you don't mean, I hope, that he cares less for his friends of the old time, before he succeeded?"

"Not at all," exclaimed Will, rolling upon his chair, and gazing at the distance. "He's the same as ever. It's my fault that we don't meet oftener. I was always a good deal of a solitary, you know, and my temper hasn't been improved by ill-luck."

"Ill-luck?"

Again there was sympathy in Rosamund's knitted brow; her voice touched a note of melodious surprise and pain.

"That's neither here nor there. We were talking of Franks. If anything, he's improved, I should say. I can't imagine any one bearing success better--just the same bright, good-natured, sincere fellow. Of course, he enjoys his good fortune--he's been through hard times."

"Which would have been harder still, but for a friend of his," said Rosamund, with eyes thoughtfully drooped.

Warburton watched her as she spoke. Her look and her voice carried him back to the Valley of Trient; he heard the foaming torrent; saw the dark fir-woods, felt a cool breath from the glacier. Thus had Rosamund been wont to talk; then, as now, touching his elementary emotions, but moving his reflective self to a smile.

"Have you seen Miss Cross since you came back?" he asked, as if casually.

"Oh, yes. If I stay in England, I hope to live somewhere near her. Perhaps I shall take rooms in London, and work at water-colours and black-and-white. Unless I go to the Basque country, where my sister is. Don't you think, Mr. Warburton, one might make a lot of drawings in the Pyrenees, and then have an exhibition of them in London? I have to earn my living, and I must do something of that kind."

Whilst Will was shaping his answer Mrs. Pomfret came toward them from the house, and the current of the conversation was turned. Presently Ralph summoned his guest to the book-room, where they talked till the kindly hour of tea. But before setting out for his homeward journey, Warburton had another opportunity of exchanging words with Miss Elvan in the garden.

"Well, I shall hear what you decide to do," he said, bluffly. "If you go to the Pyrenees--but I don't think you will."

"No, perhaps not. London rather tempts me," was the girl's dreamy reply.

"I'm glad to hear it."

"I must get Bertha's advice--Miss Cross'."

Will nodded. He was about to say something, but altered his mind; and so the colloquy ended.