Chapter 45
 

When Bertha, at her mother's request, undertook the control of the house, she knew very well what was before her.

During a whole fortnight, Mrs. Cross faithfully adhered to the compact. For the first time in her life, she declared, she was enjoying peace. Feeling much shaken in her nervous system, she rose late, retired early, and, when downstairs, reclined a good deal on the sofa. She professed herself unable to remember the new servant's name, and assumed an air of profound abstraction whenever "what do you call her" came into the room. Not a question did she permit herself as to the details of household management. Bertha happening (incautiously) to complain of a certain joint supplied by the butcher, Mrs. Cross turned a dreamy eye upon it, and said, in the tone of one who speaks of long ago, "In my time he could always be depended upon for a small shoulder"; then dismissed the matter as in no way concerning her.

But repose had a restorative effect, and, in the third week, Mrs. Cross felt the revival of her energies. She was but fifty-three years old, and in spite of languishing habits, in reality had very fair health. Caring little for books, and not much for society, how was she to pass her time if denied the resource of household affairs? Bertha observed the signs of coming trouble. One morning, her mother came downstairs earlier than usual, and after fidgeting about the room, where her daughter was busy at her drawing-board, suddenly exclaimed:

"I wish you would tell that girl to make my bed properly. I haven't closed my eyes for three nights, and I ache from head to foot. The way she neglects my room is really shameful--"

There followed intimate details, to which Bertha listened gravely.

"That shall be seen to at once, mother," she replied, and left the room.

The complaint, as she suspected, had very little foundation. It was only the beginning; day after day did Mrs. Cross grumble about this, that and the other thing, until Bertha saw that the anticipated moment was at hand. The great struggle arose out of that old point of debate, the servant's meals. Mrs. Cross, stealing into the kitchen, had caught a glimpse of Sarah's dinner, and so amazed was she, so stirred with indignation to the depth of her soul, that she cast off all show of respect for the new order, and overwhelmed Bertha with rebukes. Her daughter listened quietly until the torrent had spent its force, then said with a smile:

"Is this how you keep your promise, mother?"

"Promise? Did I promise to look on at wicked waste? Do you want to bring us to the workhouse, child?"

"Don't let us waste time in talking about what we settled a month ago," replied Bertha decisively. "Sarah is doing very well, and there must be no change. I am quite content to pay her wages myself. Keep your promise, mother, and let us live quietly and decently."

"If you call it living decently to pamper a servant until she bursts with insolence--"

"When was Sarah insolent to you? She has never been disrespectful to me. Quite the contrary, I think her a very good servant indeed. You know that I have a good deal of work to do just now, and--to speak quite plainly--I can't let you upset the orderly life of the house. Be quiet, there's a dear. I insist upon it."

Speaking thus, Bertha laid her hands on her mother's shoulders, and looked into the foolish, angry face so steadily, so imperturbably, with such a light of true kindness in her gentle eyes, yet at the same time such resolution about the well-drawn lips that Mrs. Cross had no choice but to submit. Grumbling she turned; sullenly she held her tongue for the rest of the day; but Bertha, at all events for a time, had conquered.

The Crosses knew little and saw less of their kith and kin. With her husband's family, Mrs. Cross had naturally been on cold terms from an early period of her married life; she held no communication with any of the name, and always gave Bertha to understand that, in one way or another, the paternal uncles and aunts had "behaved very badly." Of her own blood, she had only a brother ten years younger than herself, who was an estate agent at Worcester. Some seven years had elapsed since their last meeting, on which occasion Mrs. Cross had a little difference of opinion with her sister-in-law. James Rawlings was now a widower, with three children, and during the past year or two not unfriendly letters had been exchanged between Worcester and Walham Green. Utterly at a loss for a, means of passing her time, Mrs. Cross, in these days of domestic suppression, renewed the correspondence, and was surprised by an invitation to pass a few days at her brother's house. This she made known to Bertha about a week after the decisive struggle.

"Of course, you are invited, too, but--I'm afraid you are too busy?"

Amused by her mother's obvious wish to go to Worcester unaccompanied, Bertha answered that she really didn't see how she was to spare the time just now.

"But I don't like to leave you alone here--"

Her daughter laughed at this scruple. She was just as glad of the prospect of a week's solitude as her mother in the thought of temporary escape from the proximity of pampered Sarah. The matter was soon arranged, and Mrs. Cross left home.

This was a Friday. The next day, sunshine and freedom putting her in holiday mood, Bertha escaped into the country, and had a long ramble like that, a year ago, on which she had encountered Norbert Franks. Sunday morning she spent quietly at home. For the afternoon she had invited a girl friend. About five o'clock, as they were having tea, Bertha heard a knock at the front door. She heard the servant go to open, and, a moment after, Sarah announced, "Mr. Warburton."

It was the first time that Warburton had found a stranger in the room, and Bertha had no difficulty in reading the unwonted look with which he advanced to shake hands.

"No bad news, I hope?" she asked gravely, after presenting him to the other visitor.

"Bad news?--"

"I thought you looked rather troubled--"

Her carefully composed features resisted Will's scrutiny.

"Do I? I didn't know it--but, yes," he added, abruptly, "you are right. Something has vexed me--a trifle."

"Look at these drawings of Miss Medwin's. They will make you forget all vexatious trifles."

Miss Medwin was, like Bertha, a book illustrator, and had brought work to show her friend. Warburton glanced at the drawings with a decent show of interest. Presently he inquired after Mrs. Cross, and learnt that she was out of town for a week or so; at once his countenance brightened, and so shamelessly that Bertha had to look aside, lest her disposition to laugh should be observed. Conversation of a rather artificial kind went on for half an hour, then Miss Medwin jumped up and said she must go. Bertha protested, but her friend alleged the necessity of making another call, and took leave.

Warburton stood with a hand upon his chair. Bertha, turning back from the door, passed by him, and resumed her seat.

"A very clever girl," she said, with a glance at the window.

"Very, no doubt," said Will, glancing the same way.

"Won't you sit down?"

"Gladly, if you don't think I am staying too long. I had something I wanted to talk about. That was why I felt glum when I came in and found a stranger here. It's such a long time since I had any part in ordinary society, that I'm forgetting how to behave myself."

"I must apologise for you to Miss Medwin, when I see her next," said Bertha, with drollery in her eyes.

"She will understand if you tell her I'm only a grocer," remarked Will, looking at a point above her head.

"That might complicate things."

"Do you know," resumed Warburton. "I feel sure that the Franks will never again invite me to lunch or dine there. Franks is very careful when he asks me to go and see them; he always adds that they'll be alone--quite alone."

"But that's a privilege."

"So it may be taken; but would it surprise you if they really preferred to see as little of me as possible?"

Bertha hesitated, smiling, and said at length with a certain good-humoured irony:

"I think I should understand."

"So do I, quite," exclaimed Will, laughing. "I wanted to tell you that I've been looking about me, trying to find some way of getting out of the shop. It isn't so easy. I might get a clerkship at a couple of pounds a week, but that doesn't strike me as preferable to my present position. I've been corresponding with Applegarth, the jam manufacturer, and he very strongly advises me to stick to trade. I'm not sure that he isn't right."

There was silence. Each sat with drooping eyes.

"Do you know," Warburton then asked, "why I turned grocer?"

"Yes."

"It was a fortunate idea. I don't see how else I should have made enough money, these three years, to pay the income I owed to my mother and sister, and to support myself. Since my mother's death--"

Her look arrested him.

"I am forgetting that you could not have known of that. She died last autumn; by my father's will, our old house, at St. Neots then became mine; it's let; the rent goes to my sister, and out of the shop profits I easily make up what her own part of the lost capital used to yield. Jane is going in for horticulture, making a business of what was always her chief pleasure, and before long she may be independent; but it would be shabby to get rid of my responsibilities at her expense--don't you think so?"

"Worse than shabby."

"Good. I like to hear you speak so decidedly. Now, if you please"-- his own voice was not quite steady--"tell me in the same tone whether you agree with Applegarth--whether you think I should do better to stick to the shop and not worry with looking for a more respectable employment."

Bertha seemed to reflect for a moment, smiling soberly.

"It depends entirely on how you feel about it."

"Not entirely," said Warburton, his features nervously rigid; "but first let me tell you how I do feel about it. You know I began shopkeeping as if I were ashamed of myself. I kept it a dead secret; hid away from everybody; told elaborate lies to my people; and the result was what might have been expected--before long I sank into a vile hypochrondria, saw everything black or dirty grey, thought life intolerable. When common sense found out what was the matter with me, I resolved to have done with snobbery and lying; but a sanguine friend of mine, the only one in my confidence, made me believe that something was going to happen--in fact, the recovery of the lost thousands; and I foolishly held on for a time. Since the awful truth has been divulged, I have felt a different man. I can't say that I glory in grocerdom? but the plain fact is that I see nothing degrading in it, and I do my day's work as a matter of course. Is it any worse to stand behind a counter than to sit in a counting-house? Why should retail trade be vulgar, and wholesale quite repeatable? This is what I've come to, as far as my own thought and feeling go."

"Then," said Bertha, after a moment's pause, "why trouble yourself any more?"

"Because--"

His throat turned so dry that he had to stop with a gasp. His fingers were doing their best to destroy the tassels on the arm of his easy chair. With, an effort, he jerked out the next words.

"One may be content to be a grocer; but what about one's wife?"

With head bent, so that her smile was half concealed, Bertha answered softly--

"Ah, that's a question."