Chapter XIII. A Man-Trap

Julian Casti was successful in his application for the post of dispenser at the All Saints' Hospital, and shortly after Easter he left the shop in Oxford Street, taking lodgings in Beaufort Street, Chelsea. His first evening there was spent in Waymark's company, and there was much talk of the progress his writing would make, now that his hours of liberty were so considerably extended. For the first time in his life he was enjoying the sense of independence. Waymark talked of moving from Walcot Square, in order to be nearer to his friend. He, too, was possessed of more freedom than had been the case for a long time, and his head was full of various fancies. They would encourage each other in their work, afford by mutual appreciation that stimulus which is so essential to the young artist.

But in this world, though man may propose, it is woman who disposes. And at this moment, Julian's future was being disposed of in a manner he could not well have foreseen.

Harriet Smales had heard with unconcealed pleasure of his leaving the shop and taking lodgings of his own. She had been anxious to come and see the rooms, and, though the following Sunday was appointed for her visit, she could not wait so long, but, to her cousin's surprise, presented herself at the house one evening, and was announced by the landlady, who looked suspicious. Julian, with some nervousness, hastened to explain that the visitor was a relative, which did not in the least alter his landlady's preconceived ideas. Harriet sat down and looked about her with a sigh of satisfaction. If she could but have such a home! Girls had no chance of getting on as men did. If only her father could have lived, things would have been different. Now she was thrown on the world, and had to depend upon her own hard work. Then she gave way to an hysterical sob, and Julian--who felt sure that the landlady was listening at the door--could only beg her nervously not to be so down-hearted.

"Whatever success I have," he said to her, "you will share it."

"If I thought so!" she sighed, looking down at the floor, and moving the point of her umbrella up and down. Harriet had saturated her mind with the fiction of penny weeklies, and owed to this training all manner of awkward affectations which she took to be the most becoming manifestations of a susceptible heart. At times she would express herself in phrases of the most absurdly high-flown kind, and lately she had got into the habit of heaving profound sighs between her sentences. Julian was not blind to the meaning of all this. His active employments during the past week had kept his thoughts from brooding on the matter, and he had all but dismissed the trouble it had given him. But this visit, and Harriet's demeanour throughout it, revived all his anxieties. He came back from accompanying his cousin part of her way home in a very uneasy frame of mind. What could he do to disabuse the poor girl of the unhappy hopes she entertained? The thought of giving pain to any most humble creature was itself a pain unendurable to Julian. His was one of those natures to which self-sacrifice is infinitely easier than the idea of sacrificing another to his own desires or even necessities, a vice of weakness often more deeply and widely destructive than the vices of strength.

The visit having been paid, it was arranged that on the following Sunday Julian should meet his cousin at the end of Gray's Inn Road as usual. On that day the weather was fine, but Harriet came out in no mood for a walk. She had been ailing for a day or two, she said, and felt incapable of exertion; Mrs. Ogle was away from home for the day, too, and it would be better they should spend the afternoon together in the house. Julian of course assented, as always, and they established themselves in the parlour behind the shop. In the course of talk, the girl made mention of an engraving Julian had given her a week or two before, and said that she had had it framed and hung it in her bed-room.

"Do come up and look at it," she exclaimed; "there's no one in the house. I want to ask you if you can find a better place for it. It doesn't show so well where it is."

Julian hesitated for a moment, but she was already leading the way, and he could not refuse to follow. They went up to the top of the house, and entered a little chamber which might have been more tidy, but was decently furnished. The bed was made in a slovenly way, the mantelpiece was dusty, and the pictures on the walls hung askew. Harriet closed the door behind them, and proceeded to point out the new picture, and discuss the various positions which had occurred to her. Julian would have decided the question as speedily as possible, and once or twice moved to return downstairs, but each time the girl found something new to detain him. Opening a drawer, she took out several paltry little ornaments, which she wished him to admire, and, in showing them, stood very close by his side. All at once the door of the room was pushed open, and a woman ran in. On seeing the stranger present, she darted back with an exclamation of surprise.

"Oh, Miss Smales, I didn't know as you wasn't alone! I heard you moving about, and come just to arst you to lend me--but never mind, I'm so sorry; why didn't you lock the door?"

And she bustled out again, apparently in much confusion.

Harriet had dropped the thing she held in her hand, and stood looking at her cousin as if dismayed.

"I never thought any one was in," she said nervously. "It's Miss Mould, the lodger. She went out before I did, and I never heard her come back. Whatever will she think!"

"But of course," he stammered, "you will explain everything to her. She knows who I am, doesn't she?"

"I don't think so, and, even if she did--"

She stopped, and stood with eyes on the ground, doing her best to display maiden confusion. Then she began to cry.

"But surely, surely there is no need to trouble yourself," exclaimed Julian, almost distracted, beginning to be dimly conscious of all manner of threatening possibilities. "I will speak to the woman myself, and clear you of every--. Oh, but this is all nonsense. Let us go down at once, Harriet. What a pity you asked me to come up here!"

It was the nearest to a reproach that he had ever yet addressed to her. His face showed clearly how distressed he was, and that on his own account more than hers, for he could not conceive any blame save on himself for being so regardless of appearances.

"Go as quietly as ever you can," Harriet whispered. "The stairs creak so. Step very softly."

This was terrible to the poor fellow. To steal down in this guilty way was as bad as a confession of evil intentions, and he so entirely innocent of a shadow of evil even in his thought. Yet he could not but do as she bade him. Even on the stairs she urged him in a very loud whisper to be yet more cautious. He was out of himself with mortification; and felt angry with her for bringing him into such ignominy. In the back parlour once more, he took up his hat at once.

"You mustn't go yet," whispered Harriet. "I'm sure that woman's listening on the stairs. You must talk a little. Let's talk so she can hear us. Suppose she should tell Mrs. Ogle."

"I can't see that it matters," said Julian, with annoyance. "I will myself see Mrs. Ogle."

"No, no! The idea! I should have to leave at once. Whatever shall I do if she turns me away, and won't give me a reference or anything!"

Even in a calmer mood, Julian's excessive delicacy would have presented an affair of this kind in a grave light to him; at present he was wholly incapable of distinguishing between true and false, or of gauging these fears at their true value. The mere fact of the girl making so great a matter out of what should have been so easy to explain and have done with, caused an exaggeration of the difficulty in his own mind. He felt that he ought of course to justify himself before Mrs. Ogle, and would have been capable of doing so had only Harriet taken the same sensible view; but her apparent distress seemed--even to him--so much more like conscious guilt than troubled innocence, that such a task would cost him the acutest suffering. For nearly an hour he argued with her, trying to convince her how impossible it was that the woman who had surprised them should harbour any injurious suspicions.

"But she knows--" began Harriet, and then stopped, her eyes falling.

"What does she know?" demanded her cousin in surprise; but could get no reply to his question. However, his arguments seemed at length to have a calming effect, and, as he took leave, he even affected to laugh at the whole affair. For all that, he had never suffered such mental trouble in his life as during this visit and throughout the evening which followed. The mere thought of having been obliged to discuss such things with his cousin filled him with inexpressible shame and misery. Waymark came to spend the evening with him, but found poor entertainment. Several times Julian was on the point of relating what had happened, and asking for advice, but he found it impossible to broach the subject. There was an ever-recurring anger against Harriet in his mind, too, for which at the same time he reproached himself. He dreaded the next meeting between them.

Harriet, though herself quite innocent of fine feeling and nice complexities of conscience, was well aware of the existence of such properties in her cousin. She neither admired nor despised him for possessing them; they were of unknown value, indifferent to her, indeed, until she became aware of the practical use that might be made of them. Like most narrow-minded girls, she became a shrewd reader of character, when her affections and interests were concerned, and could calculate Julian's motives, and the course wherein they would lead him, with much precision. She knew too well that he did not care for her in the way she desired, but at the same time she knew that he was capable of making almost any sacrifice to spare her humiliation and trouble, especially if he felt that her unhappiness was in any way caused by himself.

Thus it came about that, on the Tuesday evening of the ensuing week, Julian was startled by his landlady's announcing another visit from Miss Smales. Harriet came into the room with a veil over her face, and sank on a chair, sobbing. What she had feared had come to pass. The lodger had told Mrs. Ogle of what had taken place in her absence on the Sunday afternoon, and Harriet had received notice that she must find another place at once. Mrs. Ogle was a woman of severe virtue, and would not endure the suspicion of wrong-doing under her roof. To whom could she come for advice and help, but to Julian?

Julian was overwhelmed. His perfectly sincere nature was incapable of suspecting a far more palpable fraud. He started up with the intention of going forthwith to Gray's Inn Road, but Harriet clung to him and held him back. The idea was vain. The lodger, Miss Mould, had long entertained a spite against her, Harriet said, and had so exaggerated this story in relating it to Mrs. Ogle, that the latter, and her husband, had declared that Casti should not as much as put foot in their shop again.

"If you only knew what they've been told!" sobbed the girl, still clinging to Julian. "They wouldn't listen to a word you said. As if I could have thought of such a thing happening, and that woman to say all the bad things of us she can turn her tongue to! I sha'n't never get another place; I'm thrown out on the wide world!"

It was a phrase she had got out of her penny fiction; and very remarkable indeed was the mixture of acting and real sentiment which marked her utterances throughout.

Julian's shame and anger began to turn to compassion. A woman in tears was a sight which always caused him the keenest distress.

"But," he cried, with tears in his own eyes, "it is impossible that you should suffer all this through me, and I not even make an attempt to clear you of such vile charges!"

"It was my own fault. I was thoughtless. I ought to have known that people's always ready to think harm. But I think of nothing when I'm with you, Julian!"

He had disengaged himself from her hands, and was holding one of them in his own. But, as she made this last confession, she threw her arms about his neck and drooped her head against his bosom.

"Oh, if you only felt to me like I do to you!" she sobbed.

No man can hear without some return of emotion a confession from a woman's lips that she loves him. Harriet was the only girl whom Julian had ever approached in familiar intercourse; she had no rival to fear amongst living women; the one rival to be dreaded was altogether out of the sphere of her conceptions,--the ideal love of a poet's heart and brain. But the ideal is often least present to us when most needed. Here was love; offer but love to a poet, and does he pause to gauge its quality? The sudden whirl of conflicting emotions left Julian at the mercy of the instant's impulse. She was weak; she was suffering through him; she loved him.

"Be my wife, then," he whispered, returning her embrace, "and let me guard you from all who would do you harm."

She uttered a cry of delight, and the cry was a true one.