Chapter XXVI. Idealist and His Friend
 

Egremont alighted one evening at Charing Cross. He came direct from Paris, and was alone. His absence from England had extended over a fortnight.

He did not look better for his travels; one in the crowd waiting for the arrival of the train might have supposed that he had suffered on the sea-passage and was not yet quite recovered. Having bidden a porter look after the bag which was his only luggage, he walked to the book-stall to buy a periodical that he wished to take home with him. And there he came face to face with two people whom he knew. Mr. Dalmaine was just turning from the stall with an evening paper, and by his side was Paula. Egremont had not seen either since their marriage.

The three pairs of eyes focussed on one point. Egremont saluted-- did it nervously, for he was prepared for nothing less than an encounter with acquaintances. He saw a smile come to Paula's face; he saw her on the point of extending her hand; then, to his amazement, he heard a sharp 'Paula!' from Dalmaine, and husband and wife turned from him. It was the cut direct, or would have been, but for that little piece of impulsiveness on Paula's part. The two walked towards one of the platforms, and it was plain that Dalmaine was delivering himself in an undertone of a gentlemanly reproof.

He stood disconcerted. What might this mean? Was it merely an urbane way of reminding him that he had neglected certain civilities demanded by the social code? Dalmaine would doubtless be punctilious; he was a rising politician. Yet the insult was too pronounced: it suggested some grave ground of offence.

As the cab bore him homewards, he felt that this was an ominous event for the moment of his return to London. He had had no heart to come back; from the steamer he had gazed sadly on the sunny shores of France, and on landing at Dover the island air was hard to breathe. Yet harder the air of London streets. The meeting in the station became a symbol of stiff, awkward, pretentious Anglicism. He had unkind sentiments towards his native country, and asked himself how he was going to live in England henceforth.

His room in Great Russell Street seemed to have suffered neglect during his absence; his return was unexpected; everything seemed unhomely and unwelcoming. The great front of the British Museum frowned, as if to express disapproval of such aimless running hither and thither in one who should be spending his days soberly and strenuously: even the pigeons walked or flew with balance of purpose, with English respectability. It seemed to have rained all day; the evening sky was heavy and featureless.

The landlady presented herself. She was grieved exceedingly that she had not known of Mr. Egremont's coming, but everything should be made comfortable in less than no time. He would have a fire? To be sure; it was a little chilly, though really 'summer has come upon us all at a jump, whilst you've been away, sir.'

'I got your telegram, sir, that I wasn't to send any letters on. Gentlemen have called and I--'

'Indeed? Who has called?'

'Why, sir, on the day after you went--I dare say it was nine o'clock in the evening, or a little later--someone came, wishing very much to see you. He wouldn't give a name. I don't think it was a gentleman; it seemed like somebody coming on business. He was very anxious to have your address. Of course I didn't give it. I just said that any note he liked to leave should be forwarded at once.'

'A dark man, with a beard? A working man?'

'No doubt the one you're thinking of, sir. He called again--let me see, four or five days after.'

'Called again? Then it couldn't be the man I mean.'

He entered into a fuller description of Gilbert Grail. The landlady identified the caller as Grail beyond all doubt.

'What day was it?'

'Why, sir, it 'ud be Wednesday; yes, Wednesday.'

'H'm! And you told him I had left Jersey?'

'Yes, sir. He said he knew that, and that--'

'Said he knew it?' repeated Egremont, astonished.

'Yes, sir, and that he wished to see if you had got home again.'

'Has he been since?'

'No, sir, but--I was coming in a night or two after, sir, and I saw him standing on the opposite side of the way, looking at the house. He hadn't called, however, and he didn't again.'

Egremont bent his eyes on the ground, and delayed a moment before asking:

'Who else has been?'

'A gentleman; I don't know who it was. The servant went to the door. He said he only wished to know if you were in town or not. He wouldn't leave a name.'

Egremont's face changed to annoyance. He did not care to pursue the subject.

'Let me have something to eat, please,' he said.

The landlady having withdrawn, he at once sat down to his desk and wrote a note. It was to Grail, and ran in substance:

'I am just back from the Continent. Am I right in thinking that it is you who have called here twice in my absence? If so, your second call was at a time when I hoped you were out of London. Do let me see you as soon as possible. Of course you received my letter from Jersey? Shall I come to you, or will you come here? I will stay in to-night. I send this by a messenger, as I wish you to receive it immediately.'

The landlady had a son at home, a lad of sixteen. Having discovered that the boy's services were available, Egremont gave him directions. He was to take a cab and drive to the library in Brook Street. If he should not find Grail there, he was to proceed to Walnut Tree Walk. If Grail would come back with him, so much the better.

Walter was left to refresh himself after his journey. He changed his clothes, and presently sat down to a meal. But appetite by this time failed him. He had the table cleared ten minutes after it was laid.

He was in the utmost uneasiness. Could it be Grail who had called? He tried to assure himself that it must be a mistake. How could Grail expect him to be in town, after reading that letter from Jersey? If indeed the visitor were Gilbert, some catastrophe had befallen. But he would not entertain such a fear. Then the second caller; that might be any acquaintance. Still, it was strange that he too had refused his name.

You know the state of mind in which, whatever one thinks of, a pain, a fear, draws the thought another way. It was so with Egremont. The two mysterious callers and the annoying scene at the railway station plagued him successively, and for background to them all was a shadow of indefinite apprehension.

He could scarcely endure his impatience. It seemed as though the messenger would never return. The lad presented himself, however, without undue delay. He had found Mr. Grail, he said, at the second address.

'And whom did you see in Brook Street?'

'A woman, sir; she said Mr. Grail didn't live there.'

'He couldn't come with you?'

'No, sir. But he said he'd come very soon.'

'Thank you. That will do.'

So Grail was not at the library. Then of a certainty something had happened. Thyrza was ill; perhaps--

He walked about the room. That dread physical pain which clutches at all the inner parts when one is waiting in agonised impatience for that which will be misery when it comes, racked him so that at moments he had to lean for support. He felt how the suffering of the last fortnight, in vain fled from hither and thither, had reduced his strength. Since he took leave of Thyrza, he had not known one moment of calm. When passion was merciful for a time, fear had taken its turn to torment him. It had not availed to demonstrate to himself that fear must be groundless. Love from of old has had a comrade superstition; if he awoke from a wretched dream, he interpreted it as sympathy with Thyrza in some dreadful trial. And behold! he had been right. His flight had profited nothing; woe had come upon her he loved, and upon the man he most desired to befriend.

Half an hour after the return of the messenger, the servant came to the door and said that 'Mr. Grail' was below.

'Yes. I'll see him.'

He spoke the words with difficulty. He advanced to the middle of the room. Gilbert came in, and the door was closed behind him.

The man looked as if he had risen from his death-bed to obey this summons. The flesh of his face had shrunk, and left the lines of his countenance sharp. His eye-sockets were cavernous; the dark eyes had an unnatural lustre. His hair and beard were abandoned to neglect. His garments hung with strange looseness about him. He stood there, just within the door, his gaze fixed on Egremont, a gaze wherein suspicion and reproach and all unutterable woe were blended.

Walter took a step forward, vainly holding out his hand.

'Grail, what has happened? You are ill. What does it mean?'

'Why have you sent for me, Mr. Egremont?'

The question was uttered with some sternness, but bodily weakness subdued the voice, which shook. And when he had spoken, his eyes fell.

'Because I want to know what is the matter,' Egremont replied, in quick, unnerved tones. 'Have you been here to try and see me?'

'Yes, I have.'

'Why? you knew I was away. What has happened, Grail?'

'I thought you knew, Mr. Egremont.'

'How should I know? I have heard nothing from London for a fortnight. You speak to me in an unfriendly way. Tell me at once what you mean.'

Gilbert looked up for a moment, looked indignantly, bitterly. But his eyes drooped again as he spoke.

'A fortnight ago Miss Trent left her home, and we can hear nothing of her. I tried to find you, because I had reason to think that you knew where she was.'

Walter felt it as a relief. He had waited for something worse. Only after-thought could occupy itself with the charge distinctly made against him. He said, as soon as he could command his voice:

'You were wrong in thinking so. I know nothing of Miss Trent. I have no idea where she can have gone.'

It was only when he found Grail's eyes fixed upon him that he added, after a pause:

'What were the reasons that led you to think so?'

'You know nothing?' Gilbert said, slowly.

'Nothing whatever. How could you think I did? I don't understand you.'

Walter was not used to speak untruthfully. He knew all this time that a man upon whom a charge such as this had come as a sheer surprise would have met it with quite other face and accent. Remembering all that had passed between Thyrza and himself, remembering all that he had undergone, all that he had at one moment proposed, he could not express the astonishment which would have given evidence on his behalf. As yet he had not even tried to affect indignation, for it was against his nature to play the hypocrite. He knew that his manner was all but a tacit admission that appearances were against him. But agitation drove him to the brink of anger, and when Gilbert stood mute, with veiled eyes, he continued impetuously:

'I tell you that you have amazed me by your news. Are you accusing me of something? You must speak more plainly. Do you mean that suspicion has fallen upon me? How? I don't--I can't understand you!'

'I thought you would understand me,' Gilbert replied, gravely, not offensively, with far more dignity than the other had been able to preserve. 'Several things compelled me to believe that you knew of her leaving us. I was told of your meetings with her at the library.'

He paused. Like Egremont, he could not speak his whole thought. Whilst there remained a possibility that Egremont indeed knew nothing of Thyrza's disappearance, he might not strengthen his case by making use of the girl's confession to her sister. He could only make use of outward circumstances.

'The meetings at the library?' Egremont repeated. 'But do you think they had any meaning that I can't at once and freely explain to you? It was the idlest folly on my part. I had a plan that I would get books on to the shelves that week, and at the end of it take you there and surprise you. Didn't I imply that in my letter to you from Jersey? It was childish, of course. On the Monday, Miss Trent surprised me at work. She had happened to see a box being brought in, and naturally came to see what was going on. I was unthinking enough to ask her to keep the secret. By allowing her to help me, I encouraged her to come again the next day. So much was wholly my fault, but surely not a very grave one. Do you imagine, Grail, that anything passed between us on those two mornings which you might not have heard? How is it possible for you, for you, to pass from the fact of that foolish secret to such suspicions as these?

In the pause Gilbert offered no word.

'And who told you about it? Evidently someone bent on mischief.'

Again a pause. Gilbert stood unmoving.

'You still suspect me? You think I am lying to you? Do you know me no better than that?'

It rang false, it rang false. His own voice sounded to him as that of an actor, who does his poor best to be forcible and pathetic. Yet what lie had he told? Could he say all he thought he had read in Thyrza's eyes? There was the parting that night beyond Lambeth Bridge; how could he speak of that? Was he himself not absolutely innocent? Had he not by a desperate struggle avoided as much as a glance of tenderness at the girl for whom he was mad with love?

Gilbert spoke at length.

'I find it very hard to believe that you know nothing more. There are other things. As soon as we knew that she was gone, that Friday night, I came here to ask for you.'

'And why? Why to me?'

'Because she had been seen with you at the library, and people had begun to talk. They told me you were gone, and I asked for your address. They wouldn't give it me.'

'That meant nothing whatever. It was merely my landlady's idea of her responsibility to me.'

'Yes, that may be. On Saturday night a letter came from you, from Jersey.'

'Well? Was that the kind of letter I could have written if I had been such a traitor to you?'

'I don't know what the letter would have seemed to me if I had been able to judge it with my ordinary mind. I couldn't: I was going through too much. I believed it false. On Monday I went to Southampton, and from there at night to Jersey; it was the earliest that I could get there.'

'You went to Jersey?'

'I had no choice. I had to see you. And I found you had gone away on Saturday morning, gone to France. It was only Saturday night that I got your letter. There was no word in it about going to France; instead of that, you said plainly that you would be in Jersey for a week or more.'

'It is true. I see how I have made evidence against myself.'

He said it with impatience, but at once added in a steadier voice:

'I wrote the letter and posted it on Friday night, when I had only been at St. Aubin's half a day. The very next morning I was compelled by restlessness to give up my idea of remaining there. When I wrote to you I had no thought of leaving the island.'

How pleasant it was to be able to speak with unshadowed veracity! Walter all but smiled, and, when the other made no reply, he went on in a voice almost of pleading:

'You believe this? Is your mind so set against me that you will accuse me of any cowardice rather than credit my word?'

A change came over Gilbert's face. It was wrung with pain, and as he looked up it seemed to cost him a horrible effort to speak.

'If,' he said, 'in a moment of temptation you did her the greatest wrong that a man can do to a woman, you would perhaps say and do anything rather than confess it.'

Walter tried to meet those eyes steadily, but failed. He broke forth into passionate self-defence.

'That means you think the worst of me that one man can think of another. You are wrong You are basely wrong! You speak of a moment of temptation. Suppose me to have suffered that; what sort of temptation do you suppose would have assailed me? A man is tempted according to his fibre. Do you class me with those who can only be tempted by base suggestions? What reason have I ever given you to think of me so? Suppose me to have been tempted. You conclude that I must have aimed at stealing the girl from you solely to gratify myself, heedless of her, heedless of you. Such a motive as that is to outweigh every higher instinct I possess, to blind me to past and future, to make me all at once a heartless, unimaginative brute. That is your view of my character, Grail!'

Gilbert had not the appearance of a man who listens. Since entering the room, he had not moved from the spot where he stood, and now, with his head again drooping, he seemed sunk in a reverie of the profoundest sadness. But he heard, and he strove to believe. A fortnight ago he would not have thought it possible for Walter Egremont to speak a word of which the sincerity would seem doubtful. Since then he had spent days and nights such as sap the foundations of a man's moral being and shake convictions which appeared impregnable. The catastrophe which had come upon him was proportionate in its effects to the immeasurable happiness which preceded it. Remember that it was not only the imaginary wrong from which his mind suffered; the fact that Thyrza loved Egremont was in itself an agony almost enough to threaten his reason. His love was not demonstrative; perhaps he did not himself know all its force until jealousy taught him. How, think you, did he spend that night on the Channel, voyaging from Southampton to Jersey? What sort of companions were the winds and waves as he paced the deck in the dim light before dawn, straining his eyes for the first sight of land? To the end of all things that night would remain with him, a ghastly memory. And since then he had not known one full hour of forgetfulness. The days and the nights had succeeded each other as in a torture-chamber. His body had wasted; his mind ever renewed its capability of anguish. With all appearances against Egremont, could he preserve the nice balance of his judgment through an experience such as this?

Had he seen Egremont at once, after Thyrza's disappearance, it would not have been so hard for him to credit the denial. The blow was not felt to its full until the night had passed. Thyrza's exculpation of Egremont would then have been strong upon the latter's side. But the fruitless journey frenzied him. It was impossible for him to avoid the belief that the letter had been contrived to deceive him. All the suspicions he had entertained grew darker as his suffering increased. His meeting with Egremont at the end of Newport Street on the Wednesday night seemed to him beyond doubt condemnatory. He remembered the young man's haste and obvious agitation. Then Thyrza's words ceased to have weight; he thought them due to her desire to avert suspicion from her lover. And now that he was at length face to face with the man whom in his lonely woe he had cursed as the falsest friend, his ear was keen to detect every note of treachery, his eyes read Egremont's countenance with preternatural keenness. Walter could not sustain such proof; his agitation spoke against him. Only when he at length passed from uncertain argument and pleading to scornful repudiation of the charge, did his utterances awake in the hearer the old associations of sincerity and nobleness. How many a night Gilbert had hung on every word that fell from him! Could he speak thus and be no more than a contemptible hypocrite?

Walter paused for a few moments. When no reply came he continued with the same warmth:

'I have told you that, on those two mornings, when she was with me in the library, no word passed between us that you might not have heard. It is true. But one thing I did say to her which doubtless would not have been said in your presence. She was speaking to me as if to a superior; I begged her to let there be an end of that, and to allow me to call myself her friend. I meant it in the purest sense, and in that sense she understood it. If I was wrong in taking that freedom with her, at least there was no thought of wrong in my mind.'

'You met her on Wednesday night in that week,' Gilbert said, speaking with uncertain voice. 'The night that you saw me and said you had been to Bunce.'

'Do you know of that from some spy, her enemy and mine--or how?'

'I know it. I can't tell you how.'

'Yes, I met her that night. Not by appointment, as you suppose. It was by mere chance, as I came away from Bunce's house. I told her I was leaving town next day, and I said good-bye to her. Again, not a syllable was uttered that any one might not have heard.'

'Were you coming away from her, then, when I saw you?' Gilbert asked, in a hard voice.

'No, not straight from her.'

As is wont to be the case with us when we have recourse to equivocation, Egremont thought that he read in his rival's countenance a scornful surmise of the truth. As is also wont to happen, this sense of detection heated his blood, and for a moment he could have found pleasure in flinging out an angry defiance. But as he looked Grail in the face, the latter's eyes fell, and something, some slight movement of feature, touching once more Walter's sense of compassion, shamed him from unworthy utterance. He said, in a lower voice:

'If I had yielded to temptation, if I had so far lost control of myself as to speak a word to her which at once and for ever altered our relations, do you think I should have tried to keep secret what had happened? Do you think I could have conceived a desire which had her suffering for its end? Are you so embittered that you can imagine of me nothing better than that? You think I could have made her my victim?'

Grail read his face. The emphasis of this speech was deliberate, could not be misunderstood. For the first time Gilbert turned and moved a little apart.

Walter had not the exclusive privilege of being an idealist. When at length he spoke out of his deepest feeling, when he revealed, though but indirectly, the meaning of his agitation, of his evasions, and doubtful behaviour, he had found the way of convincing his hearer. It was a new blow to Gilbert, but it put an end to his darkest fears and to the misery of his misjudgment. In the silence that followed all the details of the story passed before him with a new significance. The greatness of his own love--a love which drew into its service every noblest element of his nature, enabled him, once the obscuring mists dispelled, to interpret his rival's mind with justice. Regarding Egremont again, he could read aright the signs of suffering that were on his face. It was with a strange bitter joy that he recovered his faith in the man who had been so much to him. Yet his first words seemed to express more of passionate resentment than any he had yet spoken.

'Then you acted wrongly!' he exclaimed, in a firm, clear voice. 'You were wrong in allowing her to stay and help you in the library. You were wrong in speaking to her as you did, in asking her to address you as an equal, and to let you be her friend. You must have known then what your real meaning was. It is only half a truth that you said and did nothing to disturb her mind. You were not honest with yourself, and you had no just regard for me. You did yield to temptation, and all you have said in defence of yourself has only been true in sound.'

'No! You go too far, Grail. You accused me of baseness, and I have never had a base thought.'

Then came a long silence. Gilbert stood motionless, Egremont walked slowly from place to place. The point at issue between the two men was changed; anger and suspicion were at an end, but so was all hope of restoring the old union.

Then Egremont said:

'You must tell me one thing plainly. Do you still doubt my word when I say that I knew nothing of her flight from you, and know nothing of where she now is?'

'I believe you,' was answered, simply.

'And more than that. Do you think me capable of wronging her and you in the way you suspected?'

'I was wrong. I was unjust to you.'

Grail could suffer jealousy, but was incapable of malice. The stab of the revelation that had been made might go through and through his heart, but the wound would breed no evil humours. He made his admission with the relief which comes of recovered self-respect.

'Thank you for that, Grail,' Walter replied, moved as a gentle nature always is by magnanimity.

After another pause, he said:

'May I ask you anything more about her? Had she money? Could she have gone far?'

'At most she had a few pence.'

'Did she leave no written word?'

'Yes. She wrote something for her sister.'

Walter hesitated. Grail, after a struggle with himself, repeated the substance of Thyrza's note.

A few more words were interchanged, then Gilbert said:

'I will leave you now, Mr. Egremont.'

Walter dreaded this parting. Could he let Grail go from him and say no word about the library? Yet what was to be said? Everything was hopelessly at an end; the hint of favour from him to the other was henceforth insult. Gilbert was moving towards him, but he could not look up. Forcing himself to speak:

'If you find her--if you hear anything--will you tell me? I mean only, will you let me know the fact that you have news?'

'Yes, I will.'

At length their eyes met. Then Grail held out his hand, and Egremont clasped it firmly.

'This is not the end between us,' he said, huskily. 'You must wish that you had never seen me, but I can never lose the hope that we may some day be friends again.'

The haggard man went his way in silence. Egremont, throwing himself upon a seat in utter weariness, felt more alone than ever yet in his life. . . .

Who or what was left to him now? A little while ago, when he had felt that his connection with the world of wealth and refinement was practically at an end, it seemed more than a substitute to look forward to intimacy with that one household in Lambeth, and to associations that would arise thence. He believed that it would henceforth content him to have friends in the sphere to which he belonged by birth, and, for the needs of his mind, to find companionship among his books. He saw before him a career of practical usefulness such as only a man in his peculiar position could pursue with unwavering zeal. What now was to become of his future? Where were his friends?

Grail had said that in Lambeth people were gossiping evil of him. Such gossip, he understood too well, would have its lasting effect. No contradiction could avail against it. Even if Thyrza returned, it would be impossible for her to resume her life in the old places; the truth could never be so spread as to counteract the harm already done. Lambeth had lost its free library. How long would it wait before another man was found able and willing to do so much on its behalf?

Looking in the other direction, he could now explain that scene at Charing Cross. Dalmaine, through his connection with Lambeth, had already heard the story. He took this way of showing that he was informed of everything, and of manifesting his august disapproval. It needed only a word of admonition to Paula, and she at once recognised how improper it would be to hold further relations with so unprincipled a man. So they turned away, and, in the vulgar phrase, 'cut' him

The Dalmaines knowing, of course their relatives and their friends knew. The Tyrrells would by this time have discussed the whole shocking affair, doubtless with the decision that they could no longer be 'at home' to Mr. Egremont.

And if the Tyrrells--then Annabel Newthorpe.

Would Annabel give faith to such a charge against him? Perhaps such evidence would be adduced to her that she could have no choice but to judge and condemn him. Gilbert Grail had thought him infamous; perhaps Annabel would hesitate as little. She would have remarked a strangeness in his manner to her, explicable now. Believing, how she must scorn him! How those beautiful eyes of hers would speak in one glance of cold contempt, if ever he passed beneath them! She might take the nobler part; she might hold it incredible till she had a confession from his very lips. But were women magnanimous? And Annabel, very clear in thought, very pure in soul--was she after all so far above her sisters as to face all hazard of human weakness in defence of an ideal?

Annabel, now in London, would write the news to Mrs. Ormonde. Would it receive credence from her--his dearest friend? Assuredly not, if she had known nothing to give the calumny startling support. But there was that letter he wrote to her about Thyrza; there was her recollection of the interview in Great Russell Street, when it might be that he had betrayed himself. She had found him in a state of perturbation which he could not conceal; it was on the eve of his own departure from London--of Thyrza's disappearance. Well, she too must form her own judgment. If she wrote to him and asked plainly for information, he would know how to reply. Till she wrote, he must keep silence.

So there was the head-roll of his friends. No, he had omitted Annabel's father. Mr. Newthorpe was a student, and apt to be humorously cynical in his judgment of men. To him the story would not appear incredible. Youth, human nature, a passionate temperament; these explain so much to the unprejudiced mind. Mr. Newthorpe must go with the rest.

For other acquaintances he cared nothing.

So his fate at last had declared itself. Even though the all but impossible should befall, and Grail should still marry Thyrza, how could the schemes for common activity survive this shock? Say what he might, he had no longer even the desire to work personally for the old aims. How hard to believe that he was the same man who had lectured to that little band of hearers on English Literature, who had uttered with such vehemence the 'Thoughts for the Present!' That period of his life was gone by like smoke; the heart in which such enthusiasms were nourished had been swept by an all-consuming fire. Henceforth he must live for himself, the vainest of all lives. To such a one the world was a sorry place. He had no mind to taste such pleasures as it offered to a rich man with no ideal save physical enjoyment; he no longer cared to search out its beautiful things, to probe its mysteries. To what end, since all pleasure and all knowledge must end in himself? . . .

Where at this moment was Thyrza? The thought had mingled with all those others. Did she then love him so much that marriage with Grail had become impossible--that she would rather face every hardship and peril of a hidden life in some dark corner of London? For she lived; proof of it seemed to be in the refusal of his mind to contemplate a fatal issue of her trial. She lived, and held him in her heart--the strong, passionate heart, source of music and of love. And he--could he foresee the day when he should no longer love her?

But of that she knew nothing, and must never know of it. The one outlook for his life lay yonder, where love was beckoning; grant him leave to follow, and what limitless prospect opened in place of the barren hills which now enclosed him! But follow he must not. In that respect nothing was altered. When he thought of Thyrza, it must still be with the hope that she would return and fulfil her promise to Gilbert Grail.

At a late hour he went to his bedroom. He lay down with a weary brain, and, in trying to ask himself what he should do on the morrow, fell asleep.