Chapter 39
 

The garden was drenched in dew, and when about seven o'clock, the first sunbeam pierced the grey mantle of the east, every leaf flashed back the yellow light. Will was walking there alone, his eyes turned now and then to the white window of his mother's room.

Jane came forth with her rosy morning face, her expression graver than of wont.

"You are uneasy about mother," were her first words. "So am I, very. I feel convinced Dr. Edge has given her some serious warning; I saw the change in her after his last visit."

"I shall go and see him," said Will.

They talked of their anxiety, then Warburton proposed that they should walk a little way along the road, for the air was cool.

"I've something I want to tell you," he began, when they had set forth. "It's a little startling--rather ludicrous, too. What should you say if some one came and told you he had seen me serving behind a grocer's counter in London?"

"What do you mean, Will?"

"Well, I want to know how it would strike you. Should you be horrified?"

"No; but astonished."

"Very well. The fact of the matter is then," said Warburton, with an uneasy smile, "that for a couple of years I have been doing that. It came about in this way--"

He related Godfrey Sherwood's reckless proceedings, and the circumstances which had decided him to take a shop. No exclamation escaped the listener; she walked with eyes downcast, and, when her brother ceased, looked at him very gently, affectionately.

"It was brave of you, Will," she said.

"Well, I saw no other way of making good the loss; but now I am sick of living a double life--that has really been the worst part of it, all along. What I want to ask you, is--would it be wise or not to tell mother? Would it worry and distress her? As for the money, you see there's nothing to worry about; the shop will yield a sufficient income, though not as much as we hoped from Applegarth's; but of course I shall have to go on behind the counter."

He broke off, laughing, and Jane smiled, though with a line of trouble on her brow.

"That won't do," she said, with quiet decision.

"Oh, I'm getting used to it."

"No, no, Will, it won't do. We must find a better way. I see no harm in shopkeeping, if one has been brought up to it; but you haven't, and it isn't suitable for you. About mother--yes, I think we'd better tell her. She won't worry on account of the money; that isn't her nature, and it's very much better that there should be confidence between us all."

"I haven't enjoyed telling lies," said Will, "I assure you."

"That I'm sure you haven't, poor boy!--but Mr. Sherwood? Hasn't he made any effort to help you. Surely he--"

"Poor old Godfrey!" broke in her brother, laughing. "It's a joke to remember that I used to think him a splendid man of business, far more practical than I. Why, there's no dreamier muddlehead living."

He told the stories of Strangwyn and of Milligan with such exuberance of humour that Jane could not but join in his merriment.

"No, no; it's no good looking in that direction. The money has gone, there's no help for it. But you can depend on Jollyman's. Of course the affair would have been much more difficult without Allchin. Oh, you must see Allchin some day!"

"And absolutely no one has discovered the secret?" asked Jane.

Will hesitated, then.

"Yes, one person. You remember the name of Miss Elvan? A fortnight ago--imagine the scene--she walked into the shop with a friend of hers, a Miss Cross, who has been one of my customers from the first. As soon as she caught sight of me she turned and ran; yes, ran out into the street in indignation and horror. Of course she must have told her friend, and whether Miss Cross will ever come to the shop again, I don't know. I never mentioned that name to you, did I? The Crosses were friends of Norbert Franks. And, by the bye, I hear that Franks was married to Miss Elvan a few days ago--just after her awful discovery. No doubt she told him, and perhaps he'll drop my acquaintance."

"You don't mean that?"

"Well, not quite; but it wouldn't surprise me if his wife told him that really one mustn't be too intimate with grocers. In future, I'm going to tell everybody; there shall be no more hiding and sneaking. That's what debases a man; not the selling of sugar and tea. A short time ago, I had got into a vile state of mind; I felt like poisoning myself. And I'm convinced it was merely the burden of lies weighing upon me. Yes, yes, you're quite right; of course, mother must be told. Shall I leave it to you, Jane? I think you could break it better."

After breakfast, Will walked into St. Neots, to have a private conversation with Dr. Edge, and whilst he was away Jane told her mother the story of the lost money. At the end of an hour's talk, she went out into the garden, where presently she was found by her brother, who had walked back at his utmost pace, and wore a perturbed countenance.

"You haven't told yet?" were his first words, uttered in a breathless undertone.

"Why?" asked Jane startled.

"I'm afraid of the result. Edge says that every sort of agitation must be avoided."

"I have told her," said Jane, with quiet voice, but anxious look. "She was grieved on your account, but it gave her no shock. Again and again she said how glad she was you had let us know the truth."

"So far then, good."

"But Dr. Edge--what did he tell you?"

"He said he had wanted to see me, and thought of writing. Yes, he speaks seriously."

They talked for a little, then Will went into the house alone, and found his mother as she sat in her wonted place, the usual needlework on her lap. As he crossed the room, she kept her eyes upon him in a gaze of the gentlest reproach, mingled with a smile, which told the origin of Will's wholesome humour.

"And you couldn't trust me to take my share of the trouble?"

"I knew only too well," replied her son, "that your own share wouldn't content you."

"Greedy mother!--Perhaps you were right, Will. I suppose I should have interfered, and made everything worse for you; but you needn't have waited quite so long before telling me. The one thing that I can't understand is Mr. Sherwood's behaviour. You had always given me such a different idea of him. Really, I don't think he ought to have been let off so easily."

"Oh, poor old Godfrey! What could he do? He was sorry as man could be, and he gave me all the cash he could scrape together--"

"I'm glad he wasn't a friend of mine," said Mrs. Warburton. "In all my life, I have never quarrelled with a friend, but I'm afraid I must have fallen out with Mr. Sherwood. Think of the women who entrust their all to men of that kind, and have no strong son to save them from the consequences."

After the mid-day meal all sat together for an hour or two in the garden. By an evening train, Will returned to London. Jane had promised to let him have frequent news, and during the ensuing week she wrote twice with very favourable accounts of their mother's condition. A month went by without any disquieting report, then came a letter in Mrs. Warburton's own hand.

"My dear Will," she wrote, "I can't keep secrets as long as you. This is to inform you that a week ago I let The Haws, on annual tenancy, to a friend of Mr. Turnbull's, who was looking for such a house. The day after to-morrow we begin our removal to a home which Jane has taken near to Miss Winter's in Suffolk. That she was able to find just what we wanted at a moment's notice encourages me in thinking that Providence is on our side, or, as your dear father used to say, that the oracle has spoken. In a week's time I hope to send news that we are settled. You are forbidden to come here before our departure, but will be invited to the new home as soon as possible. The address is--" etc.

The same post brought a letter from Jane.

"Don't be alarmed by the news," she wrote. "Mother has been so firm in this resolve since the day of your leaving us, that I could only obey her. Wonderful and delightful to tell, she seems better in health. I dare not make too much of this, after what Dr. Edge said, but for the present she is certainly stronger. As you suppose, I am going to work with Miss Winter. Come and see us when we are settled, and you shall hear all our plans. Everything has been done so quickly, that I live in a sort of a dream. Don't worry, and of course don't on any account come."

These letters arrived in the evening, and, after reading them, Warburton was so moved that he had to go out and walk under the starry sky, in quiet streets. Of course the motive on which his mother had acted was a desire to free him as soon as possible from the slavery of the shop; but that slavery had now grown so supportable, that he grieved over the sacrifice made for his sake. After all, would he not have done better to live on with his secret? And yet--and yet--