Will Warburton by George Gissing
Warburton often returned from Whitechapel to Chelsea on foot, enjoying the long walk after his day in the office. This evening, a heavily clouded sky and sobbing wind told that rain was not far off; nevertheless, wishing to think hard, which he could never do so well as when walking at a brisk pace, he set off in the familiar direction--a straight cut across South London.
In Lower Kennington Lane he stopped, as his habit was, at a little stationer's shop, over which was the name Potts. During his last year in the West Indies, he had befriended an English lad whose health was suffering from the climate, and eventually had paid his passage to the United States, whither the young adventurer wished to go in pursuit of his fortune. Not long after he received a letter of thanks from the lad's father, and, on coming to London, he sought out Mr. Potts, whose gratitude and its quaint expression had pleased him. The acquaintance continued; whenever Warburton passed the shop he stepped in and made purchases--generally of things he did not in the least want. Potts had all the characteristics which were wont to interest Will, and touch his sympathies; he was poor, weak of body, humble-spirited, and of an honest, simple mind. Nothing more natural and cordial than Will's bearing as he entered and held out his hand to the shopkeeper. How was business? Any news lately from Jack? Jack, it seemed, was doing pretty well at Pittsburgh; would Mr. Warburton care to read a long letter that had arrived from him a week ago? To his satisfaction, Will found that the letter had enclosed a small sum of money, for a present on the father's birthday. Having, as usual, laden himself with newspapers, periodicals and notepaper, he went his way.
At grimy Vauxhall he crossed the river, and pursued his course along Grosvenor Road. Rain had begun to fall, and the driving of the wind obliged him to walk with the umbrella before his face. Happening to glance ahead, when not far from home, he saw, at a distance of twenty yards, a man whom he took for Norbert Franks. The artist was coming toward him, but suddenly he turned round about, and walked rapidly away, disappearing in a moment down a side street. Franks it certainly was; impossible to mistake his figure, his gait; and Warburton felt sure that the abrupt change of direction was caused by his friend's desire to avoid him. At the end of the byway he looked, and there was the familiar figure, marching with quick step into the rainy distance. Odd! but perhaps it simply meant that Franks had not seen him.
He reached home, wrote some letters, made preparations for leaving town by an early train next morning, and dined with his customary appetite. Whilst smoking his after-dinner pipe, he thought again of that queer little incident in Grosvenor Road, and resolved of a sudden to go and see Franks. It still rained, so he took advantage of a passing hansom, and drove in a few minutes to the artist's lodging on the south side of Battersea Park. The door was opened to him by the landlady, who smiled recognition.
"No, sir, Mr. Franks isn't at home, and hasn't been since after breakfast this morning. And I don't understand it; because he told me last night that he'd be working all day, and I was to get meals for him as usual. And at ten o'clock the model came--that rough man he's putting into the new picture, you know, sir; and I had to send him away, when he'd waited more than an hour."
Warburton was puzzled.
"I'll take my turn at waiting," he said. "Will you please light the gas for me in the studio?"
The studio was merely, in lodging-house language, the first floor front; a two-windowed room, with the advantage of north light. On the walls hung a few framed paintings, several unframed and unfinished, water-colour sketches, studies in crayon, photographs, and so on. In the midst stood the easel, supporting a large canvas, the artist's work on which showed already in a state of hopeful advancement. "The Slummer" was his provisional name for this picture; he had not yet hit upon that more decorous title which might suit the Academy catalogue. A glance discovered the subject. In a typical London slum, between small and vile houses, which lowered upon the narrow way, stood a tall, graceful, prettily-clad young woman, obviously a visitant from other spheres; her one hand carried a book, and the other was held by a ragged, cripple child, who gazed up at her with a look of innocent adoration. Hard by stood a miserable creature with an infant at her breast, she too adoring the representative of health, wealth, and charity. Behind, a costermonger, out of work, sprawled on the curbstone, viewing the invader; he, with resentful eye, his lip suggestive of words unreportable. Where the face of the central figure should have shone, the canvas still remained blank.
"I'm afraid he's worried about her," said the landlady, when she had lit the gas, and stood with Warburton surveying the picture. "He can't find a model good-looking enough. I say to Mr. Franks why not make it the portrait of his own young lady? I'm sure she's good-looking enough for anything and--"
Whilst speaking, the woman had turned to look at a picture on the wall. Words died upon her lips; consternation appeared in her face; she stood with finger extended. Warburton, glancing where he was accustomed to see the portrait of Rosamund Elvan, also felt a shock. For, instead of the face which should have smiled upon him, he saw an ugly hole in the picture, the canvas having been violently cut, or rent with a blow.
"Hallo! What the deuce has he been doing?"
"Well, I never!" exclaimed the landlady. "It must be himself that's done it! What does that mean now, I wonder?"
Warburton was very uneasy. He no longer doubted that Franks had purposely avoided him this afternoon.
"I daresay," he added, with a pretence of carelessness, "the portrait had begun to vex him. He's often spoken of it discontentedly, and talked of painting another. It wasn't very good."
Accepting, or seeming to accept this explanation, the landlady withdrew, and Will paced thoughtfully about the floor. He was back in Switzerland, in the valley which rises to the glacier of Trient. Before him rambled Ralph Pomfret and his wife; at his side was Rosamund Elvan, who listened with a flattering air of interest to all he said, but herself spoke seldom, and seemed, for the most part, preoccupied with some anxiety. He spoke of Norbert Franks; Miss Elvan replied mechanically, and at once made a remark about the landscape. At the time, he had thought little of this; now it revived in his memory, and disturbed him.
An hour passed. His patience was nearly at an end. He waited another ten minutes, then left the room, called to the landlady that he was going, and let himself out.
Scarcely had he walked half a dozen yards, when he stood face to face with Franks.
"Ah! Here you are! I waited as long as I could--"
"I'll walk with you," said the artist, turning on his heels.
He had shaken hands but limply. His look avoided Warburton's. His speech was flat, wearied.
"What's wrong, Franks?"
"As you've been in the studio, I daresay you know."
"I saw something that surprised me."
"Did it surprise you?" asked Norbert, in a half-sullen undertone.
"What do you mean by that?" said Will with subdued resentment.
The rain had ceased; a high wind buffeted them as they went along the almost deserted street. The necessity of clutching at his hat might have explained Norbert's silence for a moment; but he strode on without speaking.
"Of course, if you don't care to talk about it," said Will, stopping short.
"I've been walking about all day," Franks replied; "and I've got hell inside me; I'd rather not have met you to-night, that's the truth. But I can't let you go without asking a plain question. Did it surprise you to see that portrait smashed?"
"Very much. What do you hint at?"
"I had a letter this morning from Rosamund, saying she couldn't marry me, and that all must be over between us. Does that surprise you?"
"Yes, it does. Such a possibility had never entered my mind."
Franks checked his step, just where the wind roared at an unprotected corner.
"I've no choice but to believe you," he said, irritably. "And no doubt I'm making a fool of myself. That's why I shot out of your way this afternoon--I wanted to wait till I got calmer. Let's say good-night."
"You're tired out," said Warburton. "Don't go any farther this way, but let me walk back with you--I won't go in. I can't leave you in this state of mind. Of course I begin to see what you mean, and a wilder idea never got into any man's head. Whatever the explanation of what has happened, I have nothing to do with it."
"You say so, and I believe you."
"Which means, that you don't. I shan't cut up rough; you're not yourself, and I can make all allowances. Think over what I've said, and come and have another talk. Not to-morrow; I have to go down to St. Neots. But the day after, in the evening."
"Very well. Good-night."
This time they did not shake hands. Franks turned abruptly, with a wave of the arm, and walked off unsteadily, like a man in liquor. Observing this, Warburton said to himself that not improbably the artist had been trying to drown his misery, which might account for his strange delusion. Yet this explanation did not put Will's mind at ease. Gloomily he made his way homeward through the roaring night.