Will Warburton by George Gissing
Amid struggle and gloom the scene changed. He was in Kew Gardens, rushing hither and thither, in search of some one. The sun still beat upon him, and he streamed at every pore. Not only did he seek in vain, but he could not remember who it was that he sought. This way and that, along the broad and narrow walks, he hurried in torment, until of a sudden, at a great distance, he descried a figure seated on a bench. He bounded forward. In a moment he would see the face, and would know--
When he awoke a sense of strangeness hung about him, and, as he sat up in bed, he remembered. This was the hotel at St. Jean de Luz. What could be the time? He had no matches at hand, and did not know where the bell was. Looking around, he perceived at length a thread of light, of daylight undoubtedly, which must come from the window. He got out of bed, cautiously crossed the floor, found the window, and the means of opening it, then unlatched the shutters which had kept the room in darkness. At once a flood of sunshine poured in. Looking forth, he saw a quiet little street of houses and gardens, and beyond, some miles away, a mountain peak rising against the cloudless blue.
His watch had run down. He rang the bell, and learnt that the hour was nearly eleven.
"I have slept well," he said in his Anglo-French. "I am hungry. Bring me hot water. And find out, if you can, where lives Mrs. Coppinger. I couldn't remember the name last night--Mrs. Coppinger."
In half an hour he was downstairs. The English lady for whom he inquired lived, they told him, outside St. Jean de Luz, but not much more than a mile away. Good, he would go there after lunch. And until that meal was ready, he strolled out to have a look at the sea. Five minutes' walk brought him on to the shore of a rounded bay, sheltered by breakwaters against Atlantic storms above a sandy beach lay the little town, with grassy slopes falling softly to the tide on either hand.
At noon, he ate and drank heroically, then, having had his way pointed out to him, set forth on the quest. He passed through the length of the town, crossed the little river Nivelle, where he paused for a moment on the bridge, to gaze at the panorama of mountains, all but to the summit clad in soft verdure, and presently turned into an inland road, which led him between pastures and fields of maize, gently upwards. On a height before him stood a house, which he believed to be that he sought; he had written down its unrememberable Basque name, and inquiry of a peasant assured him that he was not mistaken. Having his goal in view, he stood to reflect. Could he march up to the front door, and ask boldly for Miss Elvan? But--the doubt suddenly struck him--what if Rosamund were not living here? At Mrs. Coppinger's her sister was governess; she had bidden him address letters there, but that might be merely for convenience; perhaps she was not Mrs. Coppinger's guest at all, but had an abode somewhere in the town. In that case, he must see her sister--who perhaps, nay, all but certainly, had never heard his name.
He walked on. The road became a hollow lane, with fern and heather and gorse intermingled below the thickets on the bank. Another five minutes would bring him to the top of the hill, to the avenue of trees by which the house was approached. And the nearer he came, the more awkward seemed his enterprise. It might have been better to write a note to Rosamund, announcing his arrival, and asking for an interview. On the other hand that was a timid proceeding; boldly to present himself before her would be much more effective. If he could only be sure of seeing her, and seeing her alone
For a couple of hours did he loiter irresolutely, ever hoping that chance might help him. Perhaps, as the afternoon grew cooler, people might come forth from the house. His patience at length worn out, he again entered the avenue, half resolved to go up to the door.
All at once he heard voices--the voices of children, and toward him came two little girls, followed by a young lady. They drew near. Standing his ground, with muscles tense, Warburton glanced at the young lady's face, and could not doubt that this was Rosamund's sister; the features were much less notable than Rosamund's, but their gentle prettiness made claim of kindred with her. Forthwith he doffed his hat, and advanced respectfully.
"I think I am speaking to Miss Elvan?"
A nervous smile, a timidly surprised affirmative, put him a little more at his ease.
"My name is Warburton," he pursued, with the half humorous air of one who takes a liberty which he feels sure will be pardoned. "I have the pleasure of knowing your relatives, the Pomfrets, and--"
"Oh, yes, my sister has often spoken of you," said Winifred quickly. Then, as if afraid that she had committed an indiscretion, she cast down her eyes and looked embarrassed.
"Your sister is here, I think," fell from Warburton, as he threw a glance at the two little girls, who had drawn apart.
"Here? Oh, no. Not long ago she thought of coming, but--"
Will stood confounded. All manner of conjectures flashed through his mind. Rosamund must have broken her journey somewhere. That she had not left England at all seemed impossible.
"I was mistaken," he forced himself to remark carelessly. Then, with a friendly smile, "Forgive me for intruding myself. I came up here for the view--"
"Yes, isn't it beautiful!" exclaimed Winifred, evidently glad of this diversion from personal topics. And they talked of the landscape, until Warburton felt that he must take his leave. He mentioned where he was staying, said that he hoped to spend a week or so at St. Jean de Luz--and so got away, with an uneasy feeling that his behaviour had not exactly been such as to recommend him to the timid young lady.
Rosamund had broken her journey somewhere, that was evident; perhaps in Paris, where he knew she had friends. If she did not arrive this evening, or to-morrow, her sister would at all events hear that she was coming. But how was he to be informed of her arrival? How could he keep an espial on the house? His situation was wretchedly unlike that he had pictured to himself; instead of the romantic lover, carrying all before him by the energy of passion, he had to play a plotting, almost sneaking part, in constant fear of being taken for a presumptuous interloper. Lucky that Rosamund had spoken of him to her sister. Well, he must wait; though waiting was the worst torture for a man in his mood.
He idled through the day on the seashore. Next morning he bathed, and had a long walk, coming back by way of the Coppingers' house, but passing quickly, and seeing no one. When he returned to the hotel, he was told that a gentleman had called to see him, and had left his card "Mr. Alfred Coppinger." Ho, ho! Winifred Elvan had mentioned their meeting, and the people wished to be friendly. Excellent! This afternoon he would present himself. Splendid. Ml his difficulties were at an end. He saw himself once more in a gallant attitude.
The weather was very hot--unusually hot, said people at the hotel. As he climbed the hill between three and four o'clock, the sun's ardour reminded him of old times in the tropics. He passed along the shady avenue, and the house door was opened to him by a Basque maid-servant, who led him to the drawing-room. Here, in a dim light which filtered through the interstices of shutters, sat the lady of the house alone.
"Is it Mr. Warburton?" she asked, rising feebly, and speaking in a thin, fatigued, but kindly voice. "So kind of you to come. My husband will be delighted to see you. How did you get up here on such a day? Oh, the terrible heat!"
In a minute or two the door opened to admit Mr. Coppinger, and the visitor, his eyes now accustomed to the gloom, saw a ruddy, vigorous, middle-aged man, dressed in flannels, and wearing the white shoes called espadrilles.
"Hoped you would come," he cried, shaking hands cordially. "Why didn't you look in yesterday? Miss Elvan ought to have told you that it does me good to see an Englishman. Here for a holiday? Blazing hot, but it won't last long. South wind. My wife can't stand it. She's here because of the doctors, but it's all humbug; there are lots of places in England would suit her just as well, and perhaps better. Let's have some tea, Alice, there's a good girl. Mr. Warburton looks thirsty, and I can manage a dozen cups or so. Where's Winifred? Let her bring in the kits. They're getting shy; it'll do them good to see a stranger."
Will stayed for a couple of hours, amused with Mr. Coppinger's talk, and pleased with the gentle society of the ladies. The invitation to breakfast being seriously repeated, he rejoiced to accept it. See how Providence favours the daring. When Rosamund arrived, she would find him established as a friend of the Coppingers. He went his way exultingly.
But neither on the morrow, nor the day after, did Winifred receive any news from her sister. Will of course kept to himself the events of his last two days in London; he did not venture to hint at any knowledge of Rosamund's movements. A suspicion was growing in his mind that she might not have left England; in which case, was ever man's plight more ridiculous than his? It would mean that Rosamund had deliberately misled him; but could he think her capable of that? If it were so, and if her feelings toward him had undergone so abruptly violent a change simply because of the discovery she had made--why, then Rosamund was not Rosamund at all, and he might write himself down a most egregious ass.
Had not an inkling of some such thing whispered softly to him before now? Had there not been moments, during the last fortnight, when he stood, as it were, face to face with himself, and felt oddly abashed by a look in his own eyes?
Before leaving his lodgings he had written on a piece of paper "Poste Restante, St. Jean de Luz, France," and had given it to Mrs. Wick, with the charge to forward immediately any letter or telegram that might arrive for him. But his inquiries at the post-office were vain. To be sure, weeks had often gone by without bringing him a letter; there was nothing strange in this silence yet it vexed and disquieted him. On the fourth day of his waiting, the weather suddenly broke, rain fell in torrents, and continued for forty-eight hours. Had not the Coppingers' house been open to him he must have spent a wretched time. Returning to the hotel on the second evening of deluge, he looked in at the post-office, and this time a letter was put into his hand. He opened and read it at once.
"Dear old boy, why the deuce have you gone away to the end of the earth without letting me know? I called at your place this evening, and was amazed at the sight of the address which your evil-eyed woman showed me--looking as if she feared I should steal it. I wanted particularly to see you. How long are you going to stay down yonder? Rosamund and I start for our honeymoon on Thursday next, and we shall probably be away for a couple of months, in Tyrol. Does this astonish you? It oughtn't to, seeing that you've done your best to bring it about. Yes, Rosamund and I are going to be married, with the least possible delay. I'll tell you all the details some day-- though there's very little to tell that you don't know. Congratulate me on having come to my senses. How precious near I was to making a tremendous fool of myself. It's you I have to thank, old man. Of course, as you saw, I should never have cared for any one but Rosamund, and it's pretty sure that she would never have been happy with any one but me. I wanted you to be a witness at our wedding, and now you've bolted, confound you! Write to my London address, and it will be forwarded."
Will thrust the letter into his pocket, went out into the street, and walked to the hotel through heavy rain, without thinking to open his umbrella.
Next morning, the sky was clear again, the sunny air fresh as that of spring. Will rose earlier than usual, and set out on an excursion. He took train to Hendaye, the little frontier town, at the mouth of the Bidassoa, crossed the river in a boat, stepped on to Spanish soil, and climbed the hill on which stands Fuenterabbia.
Later he passed again to the French shore, and lunched at the hotel. Then he took a carriage, and drove up the gorge of Bidassoa, enjoying the wild mountain scenery as much as he had enjoyed anything in his life. The road bridged the river; it brought him into Spain once more, and on as far as to the Spanish village of Vera, where he lingered in the mellowing afternoon. All round him were green slopes of the Pyrenees, green with pasture and with turf, with bracken, with woods of oak. There came by a yoke of white oxen, their heads covered with the wonted sheepskin, and on their foreheads the fringe of red wool tassels; he touched a warm flank with his palm, and looked into the mild, lustrous eyes of the beast that passed near him.
"Vera, Vera," he repeated to himself, with pleasure in the name. He should remember Vera when he was back again behind the counter in Fulham Road. He had never thought to see the Pyrenees, never dreamt of looking at Spain. It was a good holiday.
"Vera, Vera," he again murmured. How came the place to be so called? The word seemed to mean true. He mused upon it.
He dined at the village inn, then drove at dusk back to Hendaye, down the great gorge; crags and precipices, wooded ravines and barren heights glooming magnificently under a sky warm with afterglow; beside him the torrent leapt and roared, and foamed into whiteness.
And from Hendaye the train brought him back to St. Jean de Luz. Before going to bed, he penned a note to Mr. Coppinger, saying that he was Unexpectedly obliged to leave for England, at an early hour next day, and regretted that he could not come to say good-bye. He added a postscript. "Miss Elvan will, of course, know of her sister's marriage to Norbert Franks. I hear it takes place to-morrow. Very good news."
This written, he smoked a meditative pipe, and went upstairs humming a tune.