Chapter 47
 

When Mrs. Cross came home she brought with her a changed countenance. The lines graven by habitual fretfulness and sourness of temper, by long-indulged vices of the feminine will, could not of course be obliterated, but her complexion had a healthier tone, her eyes were brighter, and the smile with which she answered Bertha's welcome expressed a more spontaneous kindliness than had appeared on her face for many a year. She had recovered, indeed, during her visit to the home of her childhood, something of the grace and virtue in which she was not lacking before her marriage to a man who spoilt her by excess of good nature. Subject to a husband firm of will and occasionally rough of tongue, she might have led a fairly happy and useful life. It was the perception of this truth which had strengthened Bertha in her ultimate revolt. Perhaps, too, it had not been without influence on her own feeling and behaviour during the past week.

Mrs. Cross had much to relate. At the tea-table she told all about her brother's household, described the children, lauded the cook and housemaid--"Ah, Bertha, if one could get such servants here! But London ruins them."

James Rawlings was well-to-do; he lived in a nice, comfortable way, in a pretty house just outside the town. "Oh, and the air, Bertha. I hadn't been there a day before I felt a different creature." James had been kindness itself. Not a word about old differences. He regretted that his niece had not come, but she must come very soon. And the children--Alice, Tom, and little Hilda, so well-behaved, so intelligent. She had brought photographs of them all. She had brought presents--all sorts of things.

After tea, gossip continued. Speaking of the ages of the children, the eldest eight, the youngest four, Mrs. Cross regretted their motherless state. A lady-nurse had care of them, but with this person their father was not quite satisfied. He spoke of making a change. And here Mrs. Cross paused, with a little laugh.

"Perhaps uncle thinks of marrying again?" said Bertha.

"Not a bit of it, my dear," replied her mother eagerly. "He expressly told me that he should never do that. I shouldn't wonder if--but let bygones be bygones. No, he spoke of something quite different. Last night we were talking, when the children had gone to bed, and all at once he startled me by saying--'If only you could come and keep house for me.' The idea!"

"A wonderfully good idea it seems to me," said Bertha, reflectively.

"But how is it possible, Bertha? Are you serious?"

"Quite. I think it might be the very best thing for you. You need something to do, mother. If Uncle James really wishes it, you ought certainly to accept."

Fluttered, not knowing whether to look pleased or offended, surprised at her daughter's decisiveness, Mrs. Cross began urging objections. She doubted whether James was quite in earnest; he had admitted that Bertha could not be left alone, yet she could hardly go and live in his house as well.

"Oh, don't trouble about me, mother," said the listener. "Nothing is simpler."

"But what would you do?"

"Oh, there are all sorts of possibilities. At the worst"--Bertha paused a moment, face averted, and lips roguish--"I could get married."

And so the disclosure came about. Mrs. Cross seemed so startled as to be almost pained; one would have thought that no remotest possibility of such a thing had ever occurred to her.

"Then Mr. Warburton has found a position?" she asked at length.

"No, he keeps to the shop."

"But--my dear--you don't mean to tell me--?"

The question ended in a mere gasp. Mrs. Cross' eyes were darkened with incredulous horror.

"Yes," said Bertha, calmly, pleasantly, "we have decided that there's no choice. The business is a very good one; it improves from day to day; now that there are two assistants, Mr. Warburton need not work so hard as he used to."

"But, my dearest Bertha, you mean to say that you are going to be the wife of a grocer?"

"Yes, mother, I really have made up my mind to it. After all, is it so very disgraceful?"

"What will your friends say? What will--"

"Mrs. Grundy?" interposed Bertha.

"I was going to say Mrs. Franks--"

Bertha nodded, and answered laughingly:

"That's very much the same thing, I'm afraid."