Will Warburton by George Gissing
Ten o'clock next morning saw him alighting from the train at St. Neots. A conveyance for which he had telegraphed awaited him at the station; its driver, a young man of his own age (they had known each other from boyhood), grinned his broadest as he ran toward Will on the platform, and relieved him of his bag.
"Well, Sam, how goes it? Everybody flourishing?--Drive first to Mr. Turnbull's office."
Mr. Turnbull was a grey-headed man of threescore, much troubled with lumbago, which made him stoop as he walked. He had a visage of extraordinary solemnity, and seemed to regard every one, no matter how prosperous or cheerful, with anxious commiseration. At the sight of Will, he endeavoured to smile, and his handshake, though the flabbiest possible, was meant for a cordial response to the young man's heartiness.
"I'm on my way to The Haws, Mr. Turnbull, and wanted to ask if you could come up and see us this evening?"
"Oh, with pleasure," answered the lawyer, his tone that of one invited to a funeral. "You may count on me."
"We're winding up at Sherwood's. I don't mean in bankruptcy; but that wouldn't be far off if we kept going."
"Ah! I can well understand that," said Mr. Turnbull, with a gleam of satisfaction. Though a thoroughly kind man, it always brightened him to hear of misfortune, especially when he had himself foretold it; and he had always taken the darkest view of Will's prospects in Little Ailie Street.
"I have a project I should like to talk over with you--"
"Ah?" said the lawyer anxiously.
"As it concerns my mother and Jane--"
"Ah?" said Mr. Turnbull, with profound despondency.
"Then we shall expect you.--Will it rain, do you think?"
"I fear so. The glass is very low indeed. It wouldn't surprise me if we had rain through the whole month of August."
"Good Heavens! I hope not," replied Will laughing.
He drove out of the town again, in a different direction, for about a mile. On rising ground, overlooking the green valley of the Ouse, stood a small, plain, solidly-built house, sheltered on the cold side by a row of fine hawthorns, nearly as high as the top of its chimneys. In front, bordered along the road by hollies as impenetrable as a stone wall, lay a bright little flower garden. The Haws, originally built for the bailiff of an estate, long since broken up, was nearly a century old. Here Will's father was born, and here, after many wanderings, he had spent the greater part of his married life.
"Sam," said Will, as they drew up at the gate, "I don't think I shall pay for this drive. You're much richer than I am."
"Very good, sir," was the chuckling reply, for Sam knew he always had to expect a joke of this kind from young Mr. Warburton. "As you please, sir."
"You couldn't lend me half-a-crown, Sam?"
"I daresay I could, sir, if you really wanted it."
Will pocketed the half-crown, jumped off the trap, and took his bag.
"After all, Sam, perhaps I'd better pay. Your wife might grumble. Here you are."
He handed two shillings and sixpence in small change, which Sam took and examined with a grin of puzzlement.
"Well, what's the matter? Don't you say thank you, nowadays?"
"Yes, sir--thank you, sir--it's all right, Mr. Will."
"I should think it is indeed. Be here to-morrow morning, to catch the 6.30 up train, Sam."
As Will entered the garden, there came forward a girl of something and twenty, rather short, square shouldered, firmly planted on her feet, but withal brisk of movement; her face was remarkable for nothing but a grave good-humour. She wore a broad-brimmed straw hat, and her gardening gloves showed how she was occupied. Something of shyness appeared in the mutual greeting of brother and sister.
"Of course, you got my letter this morning?" said Will.
"Mr. Turnbull is coming up to-night."
"I'm glad of that," said Jane thoughtfully, rubbing her gloves together to shake off moist earth.
"Of course he'll prophesy disaster, and plunge you both into the depths of discouragement. But I don't mind that. 1 feel so confident myself that I want some one to speak on the other side. He'll have to make inquiries, of course.--Where's mother?"
The question was answered by Mrs. Warburton herself, who at that moment came forth from the house; a tall, graceful woman, prematurely white-headed, and enfeebled by ill-health. Between her and Jane there was little resemblance of feature; Will, on the other hand, had inherited her oval face, arched brows and sensitive mouth. Emotion had touched her cheek with the faintest glow, but ordinarily it was pale as her hand. Nothing, however, of the invalid declared itself in her tone or language; the voice, soft and musical, might have been that of a young woman, and its vivacity was only less than that which marked the speech of her son.
"Come and look at the orange lilies," were her first words, after the greeting. "They've never been so fine."
"But notice Pompey first," said Jane. "He'll be offended in a minute."
A St. Bernard, who had already made such advances as his dignity permitted, stood close by Will, with eyes fixed upon him in grave and surprised reproach. The dog's name indicated a historical preference of Jane in her childhood; she had always championed Pompey against Caesar, following therein her brother's guidance.
"Hallo, old Magnus!" cried the visitor, cordially repairing his omission. "Come along with us and see the lilies."
It was only when all the sights of the little garden had been visited, Mrs. Warburton forgetting her weakness as she drew Will hither and thither, that the business for which they had met came under discussion. Discussion, indeed, it could hardly be called, for the mother and sister were quite content to listen whilst Will talked, and accept his view of things. Small as their income was, they never thought of themselves as poor; with one maid-servant and the occasional help of a gardener, they had all the comfort they wished for, and were able to bestow of their superfluity in vegetables and flowers upon less fortunate acquaintances. Until a year or two ago, Mrs. Warburton had led a life of ceaseless activity, indoors and out; such was the habit of her daughter, who enjoyed vigorous health, and cared little for sedentary pursuits and amusements. Their property, land and cottages hard by, had of late given them a good deal of trouble, and the proposal to sell had more than once been considered, but Mr. Turnbull, most cautious of counsellors, urged delay. Now, at length, the hoped-for opportunity of a good investment seemed to have presented itself; Will's sanguine report of what he had learnt from Sherwood was gladly accepted.
"It'll be a good thing for you as well," said Jane. "Yes, it comes just in time. Sherwood knew what he was doing; now and then I've thought he was risking too much, but he's a clear-headed fellow. The way he has kept things going so long in Ailie Street is really remarkable."
"I daresay you had your share in that, Will," said Mrs. Warburton.
"A very small one; my work has never been more than routine. I don't pretend to be a man of business. If it had depended upon me, the concern would have fallen to pieces years ago, like so many others. House after house has gone down; our turn must have come very soon. As it is, we shall clear out with credit, and start afresh gloriously. By the bye, don't get any but Applegarth's jams in future."
"That depends," said Jane laughing, "if we like them."
In their simple and wholesome way of living, the Warburtons of course dined at midday, and Will, who rarely ate without appetite, surpassed himself as trencherman; nowhere had food such a savour for him as under this roof. The homemade bread and home-grown vegetables he was never tired of praising; such fragrant and toothsome loaves, he loudly protested, were to be eaten nowhere else in England. He began to talk of his holiday abroad, when all at once his countenance fell, his lips closed; in the pleasure of being "at home," he had forgotten all about Norbert Franks, and very unwelcome were the thoughts which attached themselves to this recollection of his days at Trient.
"What's the matter?" asked Jane, noticing his change of look.
"Oh, nothing--a stupid affair. I wrote to you about the Pomfrets and their niece. I'm afraid that girl is an idiot. She used the opportunity of her absence, I find, to break with Franks. No excuse whatever; simply sent him about his business."
"Oh!" exclaimed both the ladies, who had been interested in the artist's love story, as narrated to them, rather badly, by Will on former occasions.
"Of course, I don't know much about it. But it looks bad. Perhaps it's the best thing that could have happened to Franks, for it may mean that he hasn't made money fast enough to please her."
"But you gave us quite another idea of Miss Elvan," said his mother.
"Yes, I daresay I did. Who knows? I don't pretend to understand such things."
A little before sunset came Mr. Turnbull, who took supper at The Haws, and was fetched away by his coachman at ten o'clock. With this old friend, who in Will's eyes looked no older now than when he first knew him in early childhood, they talked freely of the Applegarth business, and Mr. Turnbull promised to make inquiries at once. Of course, he took a despondent view of jam. Jam, he inclined to think, was being overdone; after all, the country could consume only a certain quantity of even the most wholesome preserves, and a glut of jam already threatened the market. Applegarth? By the bye, did he not remember proceedings in bankruptcy connected with that unusual name? He must look into the matter. And, talking about bankruptcy--oh! how bad his lumbago was to-night!--poor Thomas Hart, of Three Ash Farm, was going to be sold up. Dear, dear! On every side, look where one would, nothing but decline and calamity. What was England coming to? Day by day he had expected to see the failure of Sherwood Brothers; how had they escaped the common doom of sugar refiners? Free trade, free trade; all very fine in theory, but look at its results on corn and sugar. For his own part he favoured a policy of moderate protection.
All this was not more than Will had foreseen. It would be annoying if Mr. Turnbull ultimately took an adverse view of his proposal; in that case, though his mother was quite free to manage her property as she chose, Will felt that he should hot venture to urge his scheme against the lawyer's advice, and money must be sought elsewhere. A few days would decide the matter. As he went upstairs to bed, he dismissed worries from his mind.
The old quiet, the old comfort of home. Not a sound but that of pattering rain in the still night. As always, the room smelt of lavender, blended with that indescribable fragrance which comes of extreme cleanliness in an old country house. But for changed wall paper and carpet, everything was as Will remembered it ever since he could remember anything at all; the same simple furniture, the same white curtains, the same pictures, the same little hanging shelf, with books given to him in childhood. He thought of the elder brother who had died at school, and lay in the little churchyard far away. His only dark memory, that of the poor boy's death after a very short illness, before that other blow which made him fatherless.
The earlier retrospect was one of happiness unbroken; for all childish sorrows lost themselves in the very present sense of peace and love enveloping those far-away years. His parents' life, as he saw it then, as in reflection he saw it now, remained an ideal; he did not care to hope for himself, or to imagine, any other form of domestic contentment. As a child, he would have held nothing less conceivable than a moment's discord between father and mother, and manhood's meditation did but confirm him in the same view.
The mutual loyalty of kindred hearts and minds--that was the best life had to give. And Will's thoughts turned once more to Norbert Franks; he, poor fellow, doubtless now raging against the faithlessness which had blackened all his sky. In this moment of softened feeling, of lucid calm, Warburton saw Rosamund's behaviour in a new light. Perhaps she was not blameworthy at all, but rather deserving of all praise; for, if she had come to know, beyond doubt, that she did not love Norbert Franks as she had thought, then to break the engagement was her simple duty, and the courage with which she had taken this step must be set to her credit. Naturally, it would be some time before Franks himself took that view. A third person, whose vanity was not concerned, might moralise thus--
Will checked himself on an unpleasant thought. Was his vanity, in truth, unconcerned in this story? Why, then, had he been conscious of a sub-emotion, quite unavowable, which contradicted his indignant sympathy during that talk last night in the street? If the lover's jealousy were as ridiculous as he pretended, why did he feel what now he could confess to himself was an unworthy titillation, when Franks seemed to accuse him of some part in the girl's disloyalty? Vanity, that, sure enough; vanity of a very weak and futile kind. He would stamp the last traces of it out of his being. Happily it was but vanity, and no deeper feeling. Of this he was assured by the reposeful sigh with which he turned his head upon the pillow, drowsing to oblivion.
One unbroken sleep brought him to sunrise; a golden glimmer upon the blind in his return to consciousness told him that the rain was over, and tempted him to look forth. What he saw was decisive; with such a sky as that gleaming over the summer world, who could lie in bed? Will always dressed as if in a fury; seconds sufficed him for details of the toilet, which, had he spent minutes over them, would have fretted his nerves intolerably. His bath was one wild welter-- not even the ceiling being safe from splashes; he clad himself in a brief series of plunges; his shaving might have earned the applause of an assembly gathered to behold feats of swift dexterity. Quietly he descended the stairs, and found the house-door already open; this might only mean that the servant was already up, but he suspected that the early riser was Jane. So it proved; he walked toward the kitchen garden, and there stood his sister, the sun making her face rosy.
"Come and help to pick scarlet runners," was her greeting, as he approached. "Aren't they magnificent?"
Her eyes sparkled with pleasure as she pointed to the heavy clusters of dark-green pods, hanging amid leaves and scarlet bloom.
"Splendid crop!" exclaimed Will, with answering enthusiasm.
"Doesn't the scent do one good?" went on his sister. "When I come into the garden on a morning like this, I have a feeling--oh, I can't describe it to you--perhaps you wouldn't understand--"
"I know," said Will, nodding.
"It's as if nature were calling out to me, like a friend, to come and admire and enjoy what she has done. I feel grateful for the things that earth offers me."
Not often did Jane speak like this; as a rule she was anything but effusive or poetical. But a peculiar animation shone in her looks this morning, and sounded in her voice. Very soon the reason was manifest; she began to speak of the Applegarth business, and declared her great satisfaction with it.
"There'll be an end of mother's worry," she said, "and I can't tell you how glad I shall be. It seems to me that women oughtn't to have to think about money, and mother hates the name of it; she always has done. Oh, what a blessing when it's all off our hands! We shouldn't care, even if the new arrangement brought us less."
"And it is certain to bring you more," remarked Will, "perhaps considerably more."
" Well, I shan't object to that; there are lots of uses for money; but it doesn't matter."
Jane's sincerity was evident. She dismissed the matter, and her basket being full of beans, seized a fork to dig potatoes.
"Here, let me do that," cried Will, interposing.
"You? Well then, as a very great favour."
"Of course I mean that. It's grand to turn up potatoes. What sort are these?"
"Pink-eyed flukes," replied Jane, watching him with keen interest. "We haven't touched them yet."
"Balls of flour!"
Their voices joined in a cry of exultation, as the fork threw out even a finer root than they had expected. When enough had been dug, they strolled about, looking at other vegetables. Jane pointed to some Savoy seedlings, which she was going to plant out to-day. Then there sounded a joyous bark, and Pompey came bounding toward them.
"That means the milk-boy is here," said Jane. "Pompey always goes to meet him in the morning. Come and drink a glass--warm."