Chapter 46
 

After he had put the question, the reply to which meant so much to him, Will's eyes, avoiding Bertha, turned to the window. Though there wanted still a couple of hours to sunset, a sky overcast was already dusking the little parlour. Distant bells made summons to evening service, and footfalls sounded in the otherwise silent street.

"It's a question," he resumed, "which has troubled me for a long time. Do you remember--when was it? A year ago?--going one Sunday with Mrs. Cross to Kew?"

"I remember it very well."

"I happened to be at Kew that day," Will continued, still nervously. "You passed me as I stood on the bridge. I saw you go into the Gardens, and I said to myself how pleasant it would be if I could have ventured to join you in your walk. You knew me--as your grocer. For me to have approached and spoken, would have been an outrage. That day I had villainous thoughts."

Bertha raised her eyes; just raised them till they met his, then bent her head again.

"We thought your name was really Jolly man," she said, in a half-apologetic tone.

"Of course you did. A good invention, by the bye, that name, wasn't it?"

"Very good indeed," she answered, smiling. "And you used to come to the shop." pursued Will.

"And I looked forward to it. There was something human in your way of talking to me."

"I hope so."

"Yes, but--it made me ask myself that question. I comforted myself by saying that of course the shop was only a temporary expedient; I should get out of it; I should find another way of making money; but, you see, I'm as far from that as ever; and if I decide to go on shopkeeping--don't I condemn myself to solitude?"

"It is a difficulty," said Bertha, in the tone of one who lightly ponders an abstract question.

"Now and then, some time ago, I half persuaded myself that, even though a difficulty, it needn't be a fatal one." He was speaking now with his eyes steadily fixed upon her; "but that was when you still came to the shop. Suddenly you ceased--"

His voice dropped. In the silence, Bertha uttered a little "Yes."

"I have been wondering what that meant--"

His speech was a mere parched gasp. Bertha looked at him, and her eyebrows contracted, as if in sympathetic trouble. Gently she asked

"No explanation occurred to you?"

With a convulsive movement, Will changed his position, and by so doing seemed to have released his tongue.

"Several," he said, with a strange smile. "The one which most plagued me, I should very likely do better to keep to myself; but I won't; you shall know it. Perhaps you are prepared for it. Do you know that I went abroad last summer?"

"I heard of it."

"From Miss Elvan?"

"From Mrs. Franks."

"Mrs. Franks--yes. She told you, then, that I had been to St. Jean de Luz? She told you that I had seen her sister?"

"Yes," replied Bertha, and added quickly. "You had long wished to see that part of France."

"That wasn't my reason for going. I went in a fit of lunacy. I went because I thought Miss Elvan was there. They told me at her Chelsea lodgings that she had gone to St. Jean de Luz. This was on the day after she came into the shop with you. I had been seeing her. We met here and there, when she was sketching. I went crazy. Don't for a moment think the fault was hers--don't dream of anything of the kind. I, I alone, ass, idiot, was to blame. She must have seen what had happened, and, in leaving her lodgings, she purposely gave a false address, never imagining that I was capable of pursuing her across Europe. At St. Jean de Luz I heard of her marriage--"

He stopped, breathless. The short sentences had been flung out explosively. He was hot and red.

"Did you suspect anything of all that?" followed in a more restrained tone. "If so, of course I understand--"

Bertha seemed to be deep iii meditation. A faint smile was on her lips. She made no answer.

"Are you saying to yourself," Will went on vehemently, "that, instead of being merely a foolish man, I have shown myself to be shameless? It was foolish, no doubt, to dream that an educated girl might marry a grocer; but when he begins his suit by telling such a story as this--! Perhaps I needn't have told it at all. Perhaps you had never had a suspicion of such things? All the same, it's better so. I've had enough of lies to last me for all my life; but now that I've told you, try to believe something else; and that is--that I never loved Rosamund Elvan--never--never!"

Bertha seemed on the point of laughing; but she drew in her breath, composed her features, let her eyes wander to a picture on the wall.

"Can you believe that?" Will asked, his voice quivering with earnestness, as he bent forward to her.

"I should have to think about it," was the answer, calm, friendly.

"The fit of madness from which I suffered is very common in men. Often it has serious results. No end of marriages come about in that way. Happily I was in no danger of that. I simply made a most colossal fool of myself. And all the time--all the time, I tell you, believe it or not, as you will or can--I was in love with you."

Again Bertha drew in her breath, more softly than before.

"I went one day from St. Jean de Luz over the border into Spain, and came to a village among the mountains, called Vera. And there my madness left me. And I thought of you--thought of you all the way back to St. Jean de Luz, thought of you as I had been accustomed to do in England, as if nothing had happened. Do you think it pained me then that Rosamund was Mrs. Franks? No more than if I had never seen her; by that time, fresh air and exercise were doing their work, and at Vera I stood a sane man once more. I find it hard to believe now that I really behaved in that frantic way. Do you remember coming once to the shop to ask for a box to send to America? As you talked to me that morning, I knew what I know better still now, that there was no girl that I liked as I liked you, no girl whose face had so much meaning for me, whose voice and way of speaking so satisfied me. But you don't understand--I can't express it--it sounds stupid--"

"I understand very well," said Bertha, once more on the impartial note.

"But the other thing, my insanity?"

"I should have to think about that," she answered, with a twinkle in her eyes.

Will paused a moment, then asked in a shamefaced way:

"Did you suspect anything of the sort?"

Bertha moved her head as if to reply, but after all, kept silence. Thereupon Warburton stood up and clutched his hat.

"Will you let me see you again--soon? May I come some afternoon in this week, and take my chance of finding you at home?--Don't answer. I shall come, and you have only to refuse me at the door. It's only--an importunate tradesman."

Without shaking hands, he turned and left the room.

Dreamily he walked homewards; dreamily, often with a smile upon his face, he sat through the evening, now and then he pretended to read, but always in a few minutes forgetting the page before him. He slept well; he arose in a cheerful but still dreamy, mood; and without a thought of reluctance he went to his day's work.

Allchin met him with a long-drawn face, saying: "She's dead, sir." He spoke of his consumptive sister-in-law, whom Warburton had befriended, but whom nothing had availed to save.

"Poor girl," said Will kindly. "It's the end of much suffering."

"That's what I say, sir," assented Allchin. "And poor Mrs. Hopper, she's fair worn out with nursing her. Nobody can feel sorry."

Warburton turned to his correspondence.

The next day, at about four o'clock, he again called at the Crosses. Without hesitation the servant admitted him, and he found Bertha seated at her drawing. A little gravely perhaps, but not at all inhospitably, she rose and offered her hand.

"Forgive me," he began, "for coming again so soon."

"Tell me what you think of this idea of a book-cover," said Bertha, before he had ceased speaking.

He inspected the drawing, found it pretty, yet ventured one or two objections; and Bertha, after smiling to herself for a little, declared that he had found the weak points.

"You are really fond of this work?" asked Will. "You would be sorry to give it up?"

"Think of the world's loss," Bertha answered with raised eyebrows.

He sat down and kept a short silence, whilst the girl resumed her pencil.

"There were things I ought to have told you on Sunday." Will's voice threatened huskiness. "Things I forgot. That's why I have come again so soon. I ought to have told you much more about myself. How can you know my character--my peculiarities--faults? I've been going over all that. I don't think I'm ill-tempered, or unjust or violent, but there are things that irritate me. Unpunctuality for instance. Dinner ten minutes late makes me fume; failure to keep an appointment makes me hate a person, I'm rather a grumbler about food; can't stand a potato ill-boiled or an under-done chop. Then-- ah yes! restraint is intolerable to me. I must come and go at my own will. I must do and refrain just as I think fit. One enormous advantage of my shopkeeping is that I'm my own master. I can't subordinate myself, won't be ruled. Fault-finding would exasperate me; dictation would madden me. Then yes, the money matter. I'm not extravagant, but I hate parsimony. If it pleases me to give away a sovereign I must be free to do it. Then--yes, I'm not very tidy in my habits; I have no respect for furniture; I like, when it's comfortable, to sit with my boots on the fender; and--I loathe antimacassars."

In the room were two or three of these articles, dear to Mrs. Cross. Bertha glanced at them, then bent her head and bit the end of her pencil.

"You can't think of anything else?" she asked. when Will had been silent for a few seconds.

"Those are my most serious points." He rose. "I only came to tell you of them, that you might add them to the objection of the shop."

Bertha also rose. He moved toward her to take leave.

"You will think?"

Turning half way, Bertha covered her face with her hands, like a child who is bidden "not to look." So she stood for a moment; then, facing Will again, said:

"I have thought."

"And--?"

"There is only one thing I am sorry for--that you are nothing worse than a grocer. A grocer's is such a clean, dainty, aromatic trade. Now if you kept an oil shop--there would be some credit in overlooking it. And you are so little even of a grocer, that I should constantly forget it. I should think of you simply as a very honest man--the most honest man I ever knew."

Warburton's face glowed.

"Should--should?" he murmured. "Can't it be shall?"

And Bertha, smiling now without a touch of roguishness, smiling in the mere joy of her heart, laid a hand in his.