Chapter 32
 

August came, and Strangwyn, the great whisky distiller, was yet alive. For very shame, Will kept his thoughts from that direction. The gloomy mood had again crept upon him, in spite of all his reasons for hope; his sleep became mere nightmare, and his day behind the counter a bilious misery.

Since the occasion last recorded, Bertha Cross had not been to the shop. One day, the order was brought by a servant; a week later, Mrs. Cross herself appeared. The querulous lady wore a countenance so nearly cheerful that Warburton regarded her uneasily. She had come to purchase tea, and remarked that it was for use during a seaside holiday; you could never depend on the tea at seaside places. Perhaps, thought Will, the prospect of change sufficed to explain her equanimity. But for the rest of the day he was so glum and curt, that Allchin frequently looked at him with pained remonstrance.

At home, he found a telegram on his table. He clutched at it, rent the envelope. But no; it was not what he expected. Norbert Franks asked him to look in that evening. So, weary and heartsick as he was, he took the train to Notting Hill Gate.

"What is it?" he asked bluntly, on entering the studio.

"Wanted a talk, that was all," replied his friend. "Hope I haven't disturbed you. You told me, you remember, that you preferred coming here."

"All right. I thought you might have news for me."

"Well," said Franks, smiling at the smoke of his cigarette, "there's perhaps something of the sort."

The other regarded him keenly.

"You've done it."

"No--o--o; not exactly. Sit down; you're not in a hurry? I went to Walham Green a few days ago, but Bertha wasn't at home. I saw her mother. They're going away for a fortnight, to Southwold, and I have a sort of idea that I may run down there. I half promised."

Will nodded, and said nothing.

"You disapprove? Speak plainly, old man. What's your real objection? Of course I've noticed before now that you have an objection. Out with it!"

"Have you seen Miss Elvan again?"

"No. Have you?"

"Two or three times."

Franks was surprised.

"Where?"

"Oh, we've had some walks together."

"The deuce you have!" cried Franks, with a laugh.

"Don't you want to know what we talked about," pursued Warburton, looking at him with half-closed eyelids. "Principally about you."

"That's very flattering--but perhaps you abused me?"

"On the whole, no. Discussed you, yes, and in considerable detail, coming to the conclusion that you were a very decent fellow, and we both of us liked you very much."

Franks laughed gaily, joyously.

"Que vous etes aimables, tous-les-deux! You make me imagine I'm back in Paris. Must I round a compliment in reply?"

"That's as you like. But first I'll tell you the upshot of it all, as it shapes itself to me. Hasn't it even dimly occurred to you that, under the circumstances, it would be--well, say a graceful thing--to give that girl a chance of changing her mind again?"

"What--Rosamund?"

"It never struck you?"

"But, hang it all, Warburton!" exclaimed the artist. "How should I have thought of it? You know very well--and then, it's perfectly certain she would laugh at me."

"It isn't certain at all. And, do you know, it almost seems to me a point of honour."

"You're not serious? This is one of your solemn jokes--such as you haven't indulged in lately."

"No, no. Listen," said Will, with a rigid earnestness on his face as he bent forward in the chair. "She is poor, and doesn't know how she's going to live. You are flourishing, and have all sorts of brilliant things before you; wouldn't it be a generous thing--the kind of thing one might expect of a fellow with his heart in the right place--? You understand me?"

Franks rounded his eyes in amazement.

"But--am I to understand that she expects it?"

"Not at all. She hasn't in the remotest way betrayed such a thought --be assured of that. She isn't the sort of girl to do such a thing. It's entirely my own thought."

The artist changed his seat, and for a moment wore a look of perturbed reflection.

"How the deuce," he exclaimed, "can you come and talk to me like this when you know I've as good as committed myself--?"

"Yes, and in a wobbling, half-hearted way which means you had no right even to think of committing yourself. You care nothing about that other girl--"

"You're mistaken. I care a good deal. In fact--"

"In fact" echoed Warburton with good-natured scorn so much that you've all but made up your mind to go down to Southwold whilst she is there! Bosh! You cared for one girl in a way you'll never care for another."

"Well--perhaps--yes that may be true--"

"Of course it's true. If you don't marry her, go in for a prize beauty or for an heiress or anything else that's brilliant. Think of the scope before a man like you."

Franks smiled complacently once more.

"Why, that's true," he replied." I was going to tell you about my social adventures. Who do you think I've been chumming with? Sir Luke Griffin--the great Sir Luke. He's asked me down to his place in Leicestershire, and I think I shall go. He's really a very nice fellow. I always imagined him loud, vulgar, the typical parvenu. Nothing of the kind--no one would guess that he began life in a grocer's shop. Why, he can talk quite decently about pictures, and really likes them."

Warburton listened with a chuckle.

"Has he daughters?"

"Three, and no son. The youngest, about seventeen, an uncommonly pretty girl. Well, as you say, why shouldn't I marry her and a quarter of a million? By Jove! I believe I could. She was here with her father yesterday. I'm going to paint the three girls together. --Do you know, Warburton, speaking without any foolish vanity, what astonishes me is to think of the enormous choice of wives there is for a man of decent appearance and breeding who succeeds in getting himself talked about. Without a joke, I am convinced I know twenty girls, and more or less nice girls, who would have me at once, if I asked them. I'm not a conceited fellow--am I now? I shouldn't say this to any one else. I'm simply convinced of its being a fact."

Warburton declared his emphatic agreement.

"Seeing that," he added, "why are you in such a hurry? Your millionaire grocer is but a steppingstone; who knows but you may soon chum with dukes? If any man living ought to be cautious about his marriage, it's you."

The artist examined his friend with a puzzled smile.

"I should like to know, Warburton, how much of this is satire, and how much serious advice. Perhaps it's all satire--and rather savage?"

"No, no, I'm speaking quite frankly."

"But, look here, there's the awkward fact that I really have gone rather far with the Crosses."

Will made a movement of all but angry impatience.

"Do you mean," he asked quickly, "that she has committed herself in any way?"

"No, that she certainly hasn't," was Franks, deliberate reply, in a voice as honest as the smile which accompanied it.

"My advice then is--break decently off, and either do what I suggested, or go and amuse yourself with millionaire Sir Luke, and extend your opportunities."

Franks mused.

"You are serious about Rosamund?" he asked, after a glance at Warburton's set face.

"Think it over," Will replied, in a rather hard voice. "I saw the thing like that. Of course, it's no business of mine; I don't know why I interfere; every man should settle these matters in his own way. But it was a thought I had, and I've told it you. There's no harm done."