Will Warburton by George Gissing
Rosamund took the Chelsea lodgings proposed to her by Bertha Cross, and in a few days went to live there. The luggage which she brought from Ashtead enabled her to add a personal touch to the characterless rooms: in the place of the landlady's ornaments, which were not things of beauty, she scattered her own bibelots, and about the walls she hung a number of her own drawings, framed for the purpose, as well as several which bore the signature, "Norbert Franks." Something less than a year ago, when her father went abroad, their house at Bath had been given up, and the furniture warehoused; for the present, Rosamund and her sister were content to leave things thus. The inheritance of each amounted only to a few hundred pounds.
"It's enough to save one from worry for a year or two," said Rosamund to her friend Bertha. "I'm not extravagant; I can live here very comfortably. And there's a pleasure in the thought that one's work not only may succeed but must."
"I'm sure I hope so," replied Bertha, "but where's the must?"
"What am I to do if it doesn't?" asked Miss Elvan, with her sweet smile, and in a tone of irresistible argument.
"True," conceded her humorous friend. "There's no other way out of the difficulty."
This was on the day of Rosamund's coming to Chelsea. A week later, Bertha found the sitting-room brightened with the hanging water-colours, with curtains of some delicate fabric at the windows, with a new rug before the fire place.
"These things have cost so little," said Rosamund, half apologetically. "And--yes, I was obliged to buy this little tea service; I really couldn't use Mrs. Darby's; it spoilt the taste of the tea. Trifles, but they really have their importance; they help to keep one in the right mind. Oh, I must show you an amusing letter I've had from Winnie. Winifred is prudence itself. She wouldn't spend a sixpence unnecessarily. 'Suppose one fell ill,' she writes, 'what a blessing it would be to feel that one wasn't helpless and dependent. Oh, do be careful with your money, and consider very, very seriously what is the best course to take in your position.' Poor, dear old Winnie! I know she frets and worries about me, and pictures me throwing gold away by the handful. Yet, as you know, that isn't my character at all. If I lay out a few sovereigns to make myself comfortable here, I know what I'm doing; it'll all come back again in work. As you know, Bertha, I'm not afraid of poverty --not a bit! I had very much rather be shockingly poor, living in a garret and half starved, than just keep myself tidily going in lodgings such as these were before I made the little changes. Winnie has a terror of finding herself destitute. She jumped for joy when she was offered that work, and I'm sure she'd be content to live there in the same way for years. She feels safe as long as she needn't touch her money."
Winifred Elvan, since her father's death, had found an engagement as governess in an English family at St. Jean de Luz. This, in the younger sister's eyes, involved a social decline, more disagreeable to her than she chose to confess.
"The one thing," pursued Rosamund, "that I really dread, is the commonplace. If I were utterly, wretchedly, grindingly poor, there'd be at all events a savour of the uncommon about it. I can't imagine myself marrying a prosperous shopkeeper; but if I cared for a clerk who had nothing but a pound a week, I would marry him to-morrow."
"The result," said Bertha, "might be lamentably commonplace."
"Not if it was the right sort of man.--Tell me what you think of that bit." She pointed to a framed drawing. "It's in the valley of Bidassoa."
They talked art for a little, then Rosamund fell into musing, and presently said:
"Don't you think Norbert has behaved very well."
"I mean, it would have been excusable, perhaps, if he had betrayed a little unkind feeling toward me. But nothing of the kind, absolutely nothing. I'm afraid I didn't give him credit for so much manliness. When he came to Ashtead the second time, of course I understood his motive at once. He wished to show me that his behaviour at the first meeting wasn't mere bravado and to assure me that I needn't be afraid of him. There's a great deal of delicacy in that; it really pleased me."
Bertha Cross was gazing at her friend with a puzzled smile.
"You're a queer girl," she remarked.
"Do you mean that you were really and truly surprised that Mr. Franks behaved like a gentleman?"
"Oh, Bertha!" protested the other. "What a word!"
"Well, like a man, then."
"Perhaps I oughtn't to have felt that," admitted Rosamund thoughtfully. "But I did, and it meant a good deal. It shows how very right I was when I freed myself."
"Are you quite sure of that?" asked Bertha, raising her eyebrows and speaking more seriously than usual.
"I never was more sure of anything."
"Do you know, I can't help thinking it an argument on the other side."
Rosamund looked her friend in the eyes.
"Suppose it means that you were altogether mistaken about Mr. Franks?" went on Bertha, in the same pleasant tone between jest and earnest.
"I wasn't mistaken in my own feeling," said Rosamund in her melodious undertone.
"No; but your feeling, you have always said, was due to a judgment you formed of Mr. Franks' character and motives. And now you confess that it looks very much as if you had judged him wrongly."
Rosamund smiled and shook her head.
"Do you know," asked Bertha, after a pause, "that he has been coming to our house lately?"
"You never mentioned it. But why shouldn't he go to your house?"
"Rather, why should he?" asked Bertha, with a laugh. "Don't trouble to guess. The reason was plain enough. He came to talk about you."
"Oh!" exclaimed the listener with amused deprecation.
"There's no doubt of it; no--shadow--of--doubt. In fact, we've had very pleasant little chats about you. Of course I said all the disagreeable things I could; I knew that was what you would wish."
"Certainly," fell from Rosamund.
"I didn't positively calumniate you, but just the unpleasant little hints that a friend is so well able to throw out; the sort of thing likely to chill any one. I hope you quite approve?"
"Well, the odd thing was that they didn't quite have the effect I aimed at. He talked of you more and more, instead of less and less. Wasn't it provoking, Rosamund?"
Again their eyes encountered.
"I wish," continued Miss Elvan, "I knew how much of this is truth, and how much Bertha's peculiar humour."
"It's substantial truth. That there may be humour in it, I don't deny, but it isn't of my importing."
"When did he last come to see you?" Rosamund inquired.
"Let me see. Just before he went to see you."
"It doesn't occur to you," said Rosamund, slowly meditative, "that he had some other reason--not the apparent one--for coming to your house?"
"It doesn't occur to me, and never will occur to me," was Bertha's amused answer.
When it was time for Bertha to walk home wards, Rosamund put her hat on, and they went out together. Turning to the west, they passed along Cheyne Walk, and paused awhile by old Chelsea Church. The associations of the neighbourhood moved Miss Elvan to a characteristic display of enthusiasm. Delightful to live here! A joy to work amid such memories, of ancient and of latter time!
"I must get Mr. Warburton to come and walk about Chelsea with me," she added.
"He's a great authority on London antiquities. Bertha, if you happen to see Norbert these days, do ask him for Mr. Warburton's address."
"Why not ask your people at Ashtead?" said Bertha.
"I shan't be going there for two or three weeks. Promise to ask Norbert--will you? For me, of course."
Bertha had turned to look at the river. Her face wore a puzzled gravity.
"I'll try to think of it," she replied, walking slowly on.
"He's a great mystery," were Rosamund's next words. "My uncle has no idea what he does, and Norbert, they tell me, is just as ignorant, or at all events, professes to be. Isn't it a queer thing? He came to grief in business two years ago, and since then he has lived out of sight. Uncle Ralph supposes he had to take a clerk's place somewhere, and that he doesn't care to talk about it."
"Is he such a snob?" asked Bertha, disinterestedly.
"No one would think so who knows him. I'm convinced there's some other explanation."
"Perhaps the truth is yet more awful," said Bertha solemnly. "He may have got a place in a shop."
"Hush! hush!" exclaimed the other, with a pained look. "Don't say such things! A poor clerk is suggestive--it's possible to see him in a romantic light--but a shopman! If you knew him,' you would laugh at the idea. Mystery suits him very well indeed; to tell the truth, he's much more interesting now than when one knew him as a partner in a manufactory of some kind. You see he's unhappy--there are lines in his face--"
"Perhaps," suggested Bertha, "he has married a rich widow and daren't confess it."