Chapter XXII. Under-Currents
 

"Well, how do you like her?" Julian asked, when their visitors had left them.

"Oh, I dare say she's all right," was the reply. "She's got a good deal to say for herself."

Julian turned away, and walked about the room.

"What does she work at?" said Harriet, after glancing at him furtively once or twice.

"I have no idea."

"It's my belief she doesn't work at all."

"Why should Waymark have said so, then?" asked Julian, standing still and looking at her. He spoke very quietly, but his face betrayed some annoyance.

Harriet merely laughed, her most ill-natured and maliciously suggestive laugh, and rose from her seat. Julian came up and faced her.

"Harriet," he said, with perfect gentleness, though his lips trembled, "why do you always prefer to think the worst of people? I always look for the good rather than the evil in people I meet."

"We're different in a good many things, you see," said Harriet, with a sneer. Her countenance had darkened. Julian had learnt the significance of her looks and tones only too well. Under the circumstances it would have been better to keep silence, but something compelled him to speak.

"I am sure of this," he said. "If you will only meet her in her own spirit, you will find her a valuable friend--just such a friend as you need. But of course if you begin with all manner of prejudices and suspicions, it will be very hard for her to make you believe in her sincerity. Certainly her kindness, her sympathy, her whole manner, was perfect to-night."

"You seemed to notice her a good deal."

"Naturally I did, being so anxious that you should find a friend and companion."

"And who is she, I should like to know?" said Harriet, with perfection of subdued acrimony. "How can I tell that she's a proper person to be a friend to me? I know what her mother was, at all events."

"Her mother? What do you know of her mother?"

Julian had never known the whole story of that scar on his wife's forehead.

"Never mind," said Harriet, nodding significantly.

"I have no idea what you mean," Julian returned. "At all events I can trust Waymark, and I know very well he would not have brought her here, if she hadn't been a proper person for you to know. But come," he added quickly, making an effort to dismiss the disagreeable tone between them, "there's surely no need for us to talk like this, Harriet. I am sure you will like her, when you know her better. Promise me that you will try, dear. You are so lonely, and it would rejoice me so to feel that you had a friend to help you and to be a comfort to you. At all events you will judge her on her own merits, won't you, and put aside all kind of prejudice?"

"I haven't said I shouldn't; but I suppose I must get to know her first?"

Ominous as such a commencement would have been under any other circumstances, Julian was so prepared for more decided hostility, that he was even hopeful. When he met Waymark next, the change in his manner was obvious; he was almost cheerful once more. And the improvement held its ground as the next two or three weeks went by. Ida came to Beaufort Street often, and Julian was able to use the freedom he thus obtained to spend more time in Waymark's society. The latter noticed the change in him with surprise.

"Things go well still?" he would ask, when Julian came in of an evening.

"Very well indeed. Harriet hasn't been out one night this week."

"And you think it will last?"

"I have good hope."

They did not speak much of Ida, however. It was only when three weeks had gone by that Julian asked one night, with some hesitation in putting the question, whether Waymark saw her often.

"Pretty often," was the reply. "I am her tutor, in a sort of way. We read together, and that kind of thing."

"At her lodgings?"

"Yes. Does it seem a queer arrangement?"

"She seems very intelligent," said Julian, letting the question pass by, and speaking with some constraint. "Isn't it a pity that she can't find some employment better suited to her?"

"I don't see what is open. Could you suggest anything?"

Julian was silent.

"In any case, it won't last very long, I suppose?" he said, looking up with a smile which was rather a trembling of the lip.

"Why?"

They gazed at each other for a moment.

"No," said Waymark, shaking his head and smiling. "It isn't as you think. It is perfectly understood between us that we are to be agreeable company to each other, and absolutely nothing beyond that. I have no motive for leading you astray in the matter. However things were, I would tell you frankly."

There was another silence.

"Do you think there is anything like confidence between your wife and her?" Waymark asked.

"That I hardly know. When I am present, of course they only talk about ordinary women's interests, household affairs, and so on."

"Then you have no means of--well, of knowing whether she has spoken about me to your wife in any particular way?"

"Nothing of the kind has ever been hinted to me"

"Waymark," Julian continued, after a pause, "you are a strange fellow."

"In what respect."

"Do you mean to tell me honestly that--that you--"

"Well?--you mean to say, that I am not in love with the girl?"

"No, I wasn't going to say that," said Julian, with his usual bashfulness, heightened in this case by some feeling which made him pale. "I meant, do you really believe that she has no kind of regard for you beyond mere friendship?"

"Why? Have you formed any conclusions of your own on the point?"

"How could I help doing so?"

"And you look on me," said Waymark, after thinking for a moment, "as an insensible dog, with a treasure thrown at his feet which he is quite incapable of appreciating or making use of?"

"No. I only feel that your position must be a very difficult one. But perhaps you had rather not speak of these things?"

"On the contrary. You are perfectly right, and the position is as difficult as it well could be."

"You had made your choice, I suppose, before you knew Ida at all?"

"So far from that, I haven't even made it yet. I am not at all sure that my chance of ever marrying Maud Enderby is not so utterly remote, that t ought to put aside all thought of it. In that case--"

"But this is a strange state of mind," said Julian, with a forced laugh. "Is it possible to balance feelings in this way?"

"You, in my position, would have no doubt?"

"I don't know Miss Enderby," said Julian, reddening.

Waymark walked up and down the room, with his hands behind his back, his brows bent. He had never told his friend anything of Ida's earlier history; but now he felt half-tempted to let him know everything. To do so, might possibly give him that additional motive to a clear and speedy decision in the difficulties which grew ever more pressing. Yet was it just to Ida to speak of these things even to one who would certainly not repeat a word? Once or twice he all but began, yet in the end a variety of motives kept him silent.

"Well," he exclaimed shortly, "we'll talk about this another time. Perhaps I shall have more to tell you. Don't be gloomy. Look, here I am just upon the end of my novel. If all goes smoothly I shall finish it in a fortnight, and then I will read it to you."

"I hope you may have better luck with it than I had," said Julian.

"Oh, your time is yet to come. And it's very likely I shall be no better off. There are things in the book which will scarcely recommend it to the British parent. But it shall be published, if it is at my own expense. If it comes to the worst, I shall sell my mining shares to Woodstock."

"After all," said Julian, smiling, "you are a capitalist."

"Yes, and much good it does me."

Since that first evening Julian had refrained from speaking to his wife about Ida, beyond casual remarks and questions which could carry no significance. Harriet likewise had been silent. As far as could be observed, however, she seemed to take a pleasure in Ida's society, and, as Julian said, with apparently good result to herself. She was more at home than formerly, and her health even seemed to profit by the change. Still, there was something not altogether natural in all this, and Julian could scarcely bring himself to believe in the happy turn things seemed to be taking. In Harriet herself there was no corresponding growth of cheerfulness or good-nature. She was quiet, but with a quietness not altogether pleasant; it was as though her thoughts were constantly occupied, as never hitherto; and her own moral condition was hardly likely to be the subject of these meditations. Julian, when he sat reading, sometimes became desperately aware of her eyes being fixed on him for many minutes at a time. Once, on this happening, he looked up with a smile.

"What is it, dear?" he asked, turning round to her. "You are very quiet. Shall I put away the book and talk?"

"No; I'm all right."

"You've been much better lately, haven't you?" he said, taking her hand playfully. "Let me feel your pulse; you know I'm half a doctor."

She drew it away peevishly. But Julian, whom a peaceful hour had made full of kindness, went on in the same gentle way.

"You don't know how happy it makes me to see you and Ida such good friends. I was sure it would be so. Don't you feel there is something soothing in her society? She speaks so gently, and always brings a sort of sunshine with her."

Harriet's lips curled, very slightly, but she said nothing.

"When are you going to see her again? It's hardly fair to let the visiting be always on her side, is it?"

"I shall go when I feel able. Perhaps to-morrow."

Julian presently went back to his book again. If he could have seen the look Harriet turned upon him when his face was averted, he would not have read so calmly.

That same evening Harriet herself was the subject of a short conversation between Ida and Waymark, as they sat together in the usual way.

"I fear there will never be anything like confidence between us," Ida was saying. "Do you know that I am sometimes almost afraid of her; sometimes she looks and speaks as if she hated me."

"She is a poor, ill-conditioned creature," Waymark re plied, rather contemptuously.

"Can you explain," asked Ida, "how it was that Mr. Casti married her?"

"For my life, I can't! I half believe it was out of mere pity; I shouldn't wonder if the proposal came from her side. Casti might once have done something; but I'm afraid he never will now."

"And he is so very good to her. I pity him from my heart whenever I see them together. Often I have been so discouraged by her cold suspicious ways, that I half-thought I should have to give it up, but I felt it would be cruel to desert him so. I met him in the street the other night just as I was going to her, and he thanked me for what I was doing in a way that almost made me cry."

"By-the-by," said Waymark, "you know her too well to venture upon anything like direct criticism of her behaviour, when you talk together!"

"Indeed, I scarcely venture to speak of herself at all. It would be hard to say what we talk about."

"Of course," Waymark said, after a short silence, "there are limits to self-devotion. So long as it seems to you that there is any chance of doing some good, well, persevere. But you mustn't be sacrificed to such a situation. The time you give her is so much absolute loss to yourself."

"Oh, but I work hard to make up for it. You are not dissatisfied with me?"

"And what if I were? Would it matter much?"

This was one of the things that Waymark was ever and again saying, in spite of himself. He could not resist the temptation of proving his power in this way; it is so sweet to be assured of love, even though every voice within cries out against the temptation to enjoy it, and condemns every word or act that could encourage it to hope. Ida generally met such remarks with silence; but in this instance she looked up steadily, and said--

"Yes, it would matter much." Waymark drew in his breath, half turned away--and spoke of some quite different matter.

Harriet carried out her intention of visiting Ida on the following day. In these three weeks she had only been to Ida's lodgings once. The present visit was unexpected. She waited about the pavement for Ida's return from work, and shortly saw her approaching.

"This is kind of you," Ida said. "We'll have some tea, and then, if you're not too tired, we might go into the park. It will be cool then."

She dreaded the thought of sitting alone with Harriet. But the latter said she must get home early, and would only have time to sit for half an hour. When Ida had lit her fire, and put the kettle on, she found that the milk which she had kept since the morning for Grim and herself had gone sour; so she had to run out to a dairy to fetch some.

"You won't mind being left alone for a minute?" she said.

"Oh, no; I'll amuse myself with Grim."

As soon as she was alone, Harriet went into the bed-room, and began to examine everything. Grim had followed her, and came up to rub affectionately against her feet, but she kicked him, muttering, "Get off; you black beast!" Having scrutinised the articles which lay about, she quickly searched the pockets of a dress which hung on the door, but found nothing except a handkerchief. All the time she listened for any footfall on the stone steps without. Next she went to the chest of drawers, and was pleased to find that they were unlocked. In the first she drew out there were some books and papers. These she rummaged through very quickly, and at length, underneath them, came upon a little bundle of pawn-tickets. On finding these, she laughed to herself, and carefully inspected every one of them. "Gold chain," she muttered; "bracelet; seal-skin;-- what was she doing with all those things, I wonder? Ho, ho, Miss Starr?"

She started; there was a step on the stairs. In a second everything was replaced, and she was back in the sitting-room, stooping over Grim, who took her endearments with passive indignation.

"Have I been long?" panted Ida, as she came in. "The kettle won't be a minute. You'll take your things off?"

Harriet removed her hat only. As Ida went about, preparing the tea, Harriet watched her with eyes in which there was a new light. She spoke, too, in almost a cheerful way, and even showed a better appetite than usual when they sat down together.

"You are better to-day?" Ida said to her.

"Perhaps so; but it doesn't last long."

"Oh, you must be more hopeful. Try not to look so much on the dark side of things. How would you be," she added, with a good-humoured laugh, "if you had to work all day, like me? I'm sure you've a great deal to make you feel happy and thankful."

"I don't know what," returned Harriet coldly.

"But your husband, your home, your long, free days?"

The other laughed peevishly. Ida turned her head away for a moment; she was irritated by this wretched humour, and, as had often been the case of late, found it difficult to restrain some rather trenchant remark.

"It may sound strange," she said, with a smile, "but I think I should be very willing to endure bad health for a position something like yours."

Harriet laughed again, and still more unpleasantly.

Later in the evening Harriet went to call upon her friend Mrs. Sprowl. Something of an amusing kind seemed to be going forward in front of the house. On drawing near and pressing into the crowd of loitering people, she beheld a spectacle familiar to her, and one which brought a smile to her face. A man of wretched appearance, in vile semblance of clothing which barely clung together about him, was standing on his head upon the pavement, and, in that attitude, drawling out what was meant for a song, while those around made merry and indulged in practical jokes at his expense. One such put a sudden end to the exhibition. A young ragamuffin drew near with a handful of rich mud, and carefully cast it right into the singer's inverted mouth. The man was on his feet in an instant, and pursuing the assailant, who, however, succeeded in escaping down an alley hard by. Returning, the man went from one to another in the crowd, holding out his hand. Harriet passed on into the bar.

"Slimy's up to his larks to-night," exclaimed Mrs. Sprowl, with a laugh, as she welcomed her visitor in the bar-parlour. "He'll be losin' his sweet temper just now, see if he don't, an' then one o' them chaps 'll get a bash i' the eye."

"I always like to see him singing on his head," said Harriet, who seemed at once thoroughly at her ease in the atmosphere of beer and pipes.

"It's funny, ain't it? And 'ow's the world been a-usin' you, Harriet? Seen anything more o' that affectionate friend o' yourn?"

This was said with a grin, and a significant wink.

"Have you found out anything about her?" asked Harriet eagerly.

"Why yes, I have; somethin' as 'll amuse you. It's just as I thought."

"How do you mean?"

"Why, Bella, was in 'ere th' other night, so I says to her, 'Bella,' I says, 'didn't you never hear of a girl called Ida Starr?' I says. 'Course I did,' she says. 'One o' the 'igh an' 'aughty lot, an' she lived by herself somewhere in the Strand.' So it's just as I told you."

"But what is she doing now?"

"You say she's turned modest."

"I can't make her out quite," said Harriet, reflecting, with her head on one side. "I've been at her lodgings tonight, and, whilst she was out of the room, I happened to get sight of a lot of pawn-tickets, for gold chains and sealskins, and I don't know what."

"Spouted 'em all when she threw up the job, I s'pose," suggested Mrs. Sprowl. "You're sure she does go to work?"

"Yes, I've had somebody to follow her and watch her. There's Waymark goes to see her often, and I shouldn't wonder if she half keeps him; he's just that kind of fellow."

"You haven't caught no one else going there?" asked Mrs. Sprowl, with another of her intense winks.

"No, I haven't, not yet," replied Harriet, with sudden vehemence, "but I believe he does go there, or else sees her somewhere else."

"Well," said the landlady, with an air of generous wisdom, "I told you from the first as I 'adn't much opinion of men as is so anxious to have their wives friendly with other women. There's always something at the bottom of it, you may bet. It's my belief he's one too many for you, Harriet; you're too simple-minded to catch him."

"I'll have a good try, though," cried the girl, deadly pale with passion. "Perhaps I'm not so simple as you think. I'm pretty quick in tumbling to things--no fear. If they think I don't notice what goes on, they must take me for a damned silly fool, that's all! Why, I've seen them wink at each other, when they thought I wasn't looking."

"You're not such a fool as to leave them alone together?" said the woman, who seemed to have a pleasure in working upon Harriet's jealousy.

"No fear! But they understand each other; I can see that well enough. And he writes to her; I'm dead sure he writes to her. Let me get hold of a letter just once, that's all!"

"And he's orful good-natured to her, ain't he? Looks after her when she has tea with you, and so on?"

"I should think he did. It's all--'Won't Miss Starr have this?' and 'Won't Miss Starr have that?' He scarcely takes his eyes off of her, all the time."

"I know, I know; it's allus the same! You keep your eyes open, Harriet, and you'll 'ave your reward, as the Scriptures says."

When she reached home, Julian was in the uneasy condition always brought about by these late absences. To a remark he made about the time, she vouchsafed no answer.

"Have you been with Ida all the evening?" he asked.

"No, I haven't," was her reply.

She went into the bed-room, and was absent for a few minutes, then reappeared.

"Do you know where my silver spoon is?" she asked, looking closely at him.

"Your silver spoon?" he returned, in surprise. "Have you lost it?"

The article in question, together with a fork, hod been a wedding-present from Mrs. Sprowl, whose character had in it a sort of vulgar generosity, displayed at times in gifts to Harriet.

"I can't find it," Harriet said. "I was showing it to Ida Starr when she was here on Sunday, and now I come to look for it, it's gone."

"Oh, it can't be very far off," said Julian. "You'll find it if you look."

"But I tell you I've looked everywhere. It's gone, that's all I know."

"Well, but--what do you mean? How can it have gone?"

"I don't know. I only know I was showing it her on Sunday."

"And what connection is there between the two things?" asked Julian, almost sternly. "You don't wish me to understand that Ida Starr knows anything about the spoon?"

"How can I tell? It's gone."

"Come," exclaimed Julian, with a laugh, "this is too absurd, Harriet! You must have taken leave of your senses. If it's gone, then some one in the house has taken it."

"And why not Ida Starr?"

Julian stared at her with mingled anger and alarm.

"Why not? Simply because she is incapable of such a thing."

"Perhaps you think so, no doubt. You think a good deal of her, it seems to me. Perhaps you don't know quite as much about her as I do."

"I fancy I know much more," exclaimed Julian indignantly.

"Oh, do you?"

"If you think her capable of stealing your spoon, you show complete ignorance of her character. What do you know of her that you should have such suspicions?"

"Never mind," said Harriet, nodding her head obstinately.

There was again a long silence. Julian reflected.

"We will talk about this again to-morrow," he said, "when you have had time to think. You are under some strange delusion. After all, I expect you will find the spoon, and then you'll be sorry for having been so hasty."

Harriet became obstinately silent. She cut a piece of bread and butter, and took it into the other room. Julian paced up and down.