Chapter 48
 

Norbert Franks was putting the last touches to a portrait of his wife; a serious portrait, full length, likely to be regarded as one of his most important works. Now and then he glanced at the original, who sat reading; his eye was dull, his hand moved mechanically, he hummed a monotonous air.

Rosamund having come to the end of her book, closed it, and looked up.

"Will that do?" she asked, after suppressing a little yawn.

The painter merely nodded. She came to his side, and contemplated the picture, inclining her head this way and that with an air of satisfaction.

"Better than the old canvas I put my foot through, don't you think?" asked Franks.

"Of course there's no comparison. You've developed wonderfully. In those days--"

Franks waited for the rest of the remark, but his wife lost herself in contemplation of the portrait. Assuredly he had done nothing more remarkable in the way of bold flattery. Any one who had seen Mrs. Franks only once or twice, and at her best, might accept the painting as a fair "interpretation" of her undeniable beauty; those who knew her well would stand bewildered before such a counterfeit presentment.

"Old Warburton must come and see it," said the artist presently.

Rosamund uttered a careless assent. Long since she had ceased to wonder whether Norbert harboured any suspicions concerning his friend's brief holiday in the south of France. Obviously he knew nothing of the dramatic moment which had preceded, and brought about, his marriage, nor would he ever know.

"I really ought to go and look him up." Franks added. "I keep on saying I'll go to-morrow and to-morrow. Any one else would think me an ungrateful snob; but old Warburton is too good a fellow. To tell the truth, I feel a little ashamed when I think of how he's living. He ought to have a percentage on my income. What would have become of me if he hadn't put his hand into his pocket when he was well off and I was a beggar?"

"But don't you think his business must be profitable?" asked Rosamund, her thoughts only half attentive to the subject.

"The old chap isn't much of a business man, I fancy," Franks answered with a smile. "And he has his mother and sister to support. And no doubt he's always giving away money. His lodgings are miserable. It makes me uncomfortable to go there. Suppose we ask him to lunch on Sunday?"

Rosamund reflected for a moment.

"If you like--I had thought of asking the Fitzjames girls."

"You don't think we might have him at the same time?"

Rosamund pursed her lips a little, averting her eyes as she answered:

"Would he care for it? And he said--didn't he?--that he meant to tell everybody, everywhere, how he earned his living. Wouldn't it be just a little--?"

Franks laughed uneasily.

"Yes, it might be just a little--. Well, he must come and see the picture quietly. And I'll go and look up the poor old fellow to-night, I really will."

This time, the purpose was carried out. Franks returned a little after midnight, and was surprised to find Rosamund sitting in the studio. A friend had looked in late in the evening, she said, and had stayed talking.

"All about her husband's pictures, so tiresome? She thinks them monuments of genius!"

"His last thing isn't half bad," said Franks, good-naturedly.

"Perhaps not. Of course I pretended to think him the greatest painter of modern times. Nothing else will satisfy the silly little woman. You found Mr. Warburton?"

Franks nodded, smiling mysteriously.

"I have news for you."

Knitting her brows a little his wife looked interrogation.

"He's going to be married. Guess to whom."

"Not to--?"

"Well--?"

"Bertha Cross--?"

Again Franks nodded and laughed. An odd smile rose to his wife's lips; she mused for a moment, then asked:

"And what position has he got?"

"Position? His position behind the counter, that's all. Say's he shan't budge. By the bye, his mother died last autumn; he's in easier circumstances; the shop does well, it seems. He thought of trying for something else, but talked it over with Bertha Cross, and they decided to stick to groceries. They'll live in the house at Walham Green. Mrs. Cross is going away--to keep house for a brother of hers."

Rosamund heaved a sigh, murmuring:

"Poor Bertha!"

"A grocer's wife," said Franks, his eyes wandering. "Oh, confound it! Really you know--" He took an impatient turn across the floor. Again his wife sighed and murmured:

"Poor Bertha!"

"Of course," said Franks, coming to a pause, "there's a good deal to be said for sticking to a business which yields a decent income, and promises much more."

"Money!" exclaimed Rosamund scornfully. "What is money?"

"We find it useful," quietly remarked the other.

"Certainly we do; but you are an artist, Norbert, and money is only an accident of your career. Do we ever talk about it, or think about it? Poor Bertha! With her talent!"

The artist paced about, his hands in his jacket pockets. He was smiling uneasily.

"Did you know anything of this kind was going on?" he asked, without looking at his wife.

"I had heard nothing whatever. It's ages since Bertha was here."

"Yet you don't seem very much surprised."

"And you?" asked Rosamund, meeting his eyes. "Were you profoundly astonished?"

"Why, yes. It came very unexpectedly. I had no idea they saw each other--except in the shop."

"And it vexes you?" said Rosamund, her eyes upon his face.

"Vexes? Oh, I can't say that." He fidgeted, turned about, laughed. "Why should it vex me? After all, Warburton is such a thoroughly good fellow, and if he makes money--"

"Money!"

"We do find it useful, you know," insisted Franks, with a certain obstinacy.

Rosamund was standing before the picture, and gazing at it.

"That she should have no higher ambition! Poor Bertha!"

"We can't all achieve ambitions," cried Franks from the other end of the room. "Not every girl can marry a popular portrait-painter."

"A great artist!" exclaimed his wife, with emphasis.

As she moved slowly away, she kept her look still turned upon the face which smiled from the easel. Watching her tremulous eyebrows, her uncertain lips, one might have fancied that Rosamund sought the solution of some troublesome doubt, and hoped, only hoped, to find it in that image of herself so daringly glorified.