Chapter XXIII. The Opportunity
 

One or two days after this, Ida Starr came home from work with a heavy heart. Quite without notice, and without explanation, her employer had paid her a week's wages and dismissed her. Her first astonished questions having been met with silence by the honest but hard-grained woman who kept the laundry, Ida had not condescended to any further appeal. The fact was that the laundress had received a visit from a certain Mrs. Sprowl, who, under pretence of making inquiries for the protection of a young female friend, revealed the damaging points of Ida's story, and gained the end plotted with Harriet Casti.

Several circumstances united to make this event disastrous to Ida. Her wages were very little more than she needed for her week to week existence, yet she had managed to save a shilling or two now and then. The greater part of these small savings she had just laid out in some new clothing, the reason for the expense being not so much necessity, as a desire to be rather better dressed when she accompanied Waymark on those little country excursions which had reestablished themselves of late. By no means the smallest part of Ida's heroism was that involved in this matter of external appearance. A beautiful woman can never be indifferent to the way in which her beauty is arrayed. That Waymark was not indifferent to such things she knew well, and often she suffered from the thought that one strong means of attraction was lost to her. If at one moment Ida was conscious of her claim to inspire a noble enthusiasm, at another she fell into the saddest self-distrust, and, in her hunger for love, would gladly have sought every humblest aid of grace and adornment. So she had yielded to the needs of her heart, and only this morning was gladdened by the charm of some new clothing which became her well, and which Waymark would see in a day or two. It lay there before her now that she returned home, and, in the first onset of trouble, she sat down and cried over it.

She suffered the more, too, that there had been something of a falling off of late in the good health she generally enjoyed. The day's work seemed long and hard; she felt an unwonted need of rest. And these things caused trouble of the mind. With scarcely an hour of depression she had worked on through those months of solitude, supported by the sense that every day brought an accession of the strength of purity, that the dark time was left one more stage behind, and that trust in herself was growing assured.

But it was harder than she had foreseen, to maintain reserve and reticence when her heart was throbbing with passion; the effect upon her of Waymark's comparative coldness was so much harder to bear than she had imagined. Her mind tortured itself incessantly with the fear that some new love had taken possession of him. And now there had befallen her this new misfortune, which, it might be, would once more bring about a crisis in her life.

Of course she must forthwith set about finding new work. It would be difficult, seeing that she had now no reference to give. Reflection had convinced her that it must have been some discovery of her former life which had led to her sudden dismissal, and this increased her despondency. Yet she would not give way to it. On the following morning she began her search for employment, and day after day faced without result the hateful ordeal. Hope failed as she saw her painfully-eked-out coins become fewer and fewer. In a day or two she would have nothing, and what would happen then?

When she returned to London to begin a new life, now nearly a year ago, she had sold some and pawned the rest of such possessions as would in future be useful to her. Part of the money thus obtained had bought the furniture of her rooms; what remained had gone for a few months to supplement her weekly wages, thus making the winter less a time of hardship than it must otherwise have been. One or two articles yet remained capable of being turned into small sums, and these she now disposed of at a neighbouring pawnbroker's--the same she had previously visited on the occasion of pawning one or two of the things, the tickets for which Harriet Casti had so carefully inspected. She spoke to no one of her position. Yet now the time was quickly coming when she must either have help from some quarter or else give up her lodgings. In food she was already stinting herself to the verge of starvation. And through all this she had to meet her friends as hitherto, if possible without allowing any trace of her suffering to become visible. Harriet, strange to say, had been of late a rather frequent visitor, and was more pressing than formerly in her invitations. Ida dreaded her coming, as it involved the unwarrantable expense of obtaining luxuries now unknown in her cupboard, such as tea and butter. And, on the other hand, it was almost impossible to affect cheerfulness in the company of the Castis. At times she caught Julian's eyes fixed upon her, and felt that he noticed some change in her appearance. She had a sense of guilt in their presence, as if she were there on false pretences. For, together with her daily work, much of her confidence had gone; an inexplicable shame constantly troubled her. She longed to hide herself away, and be alone with her wretchedness.

If it came to asking for help, of whom could she ask it but of Waymark? Yet for some time she felt she could not bring herself to that. In the consciousness of her own attitude towards him, it seemed to her that Waymark might well doubt the genuineness of her need, might think it a mere feint to draw him into nearer relations. She could not doubt that he knew her love for him; she did not desire to hide it, even had she been able. But him she could not understand. A struggle often seemed going on within him in her presence; he appeared to repress his impulses; he was afraid of her. At times passion urged her to break through this barrier between them, to bring about a situation which would end in clear mutual understanding, cost her what it might. At other times she was driven to despair by the thought that she had made herself too cheap in his eyes. Could she put off the last vestige of her independence, and, in so many words, ask him to give her money?

This evening she expected Waymark, but the usual time of his coming went by. She sat in the twilight, listening with painful intentness to every step on the stairs; again and again her heart leaped at some footfall far below, only to be deceived. She had not even now made up her mind how to speak to him, or whether to speak to him at all; but she longed passionately to see him. The alternations of hope and disappointment made her feverish. Illusions began to possess her. Once she heard distinctly the familiar knock. It seemed to rouse her from slumber: she sprang to the door and opened it, but no one was there. She ran half way down the stairs, but saw no one. It was now nearly midnight. The movement had dispelled for a little the lethargy which was growing upon her, and she suddenly came to a resolution. Taking a sheet of note-paper, she wrote this:--

"I have been without work for a fortnight. All my money is done, and I am in want. Can you send me some, for present help, till I get more work? Do not bring it yourself, and do not speak a word of this when you see me, I beg you earnestly. If I shall fail to get work, I will speak to you of my own accord.

I. S."

She went out and posted this, though she had no stamp to put on the envelope; then, returning, she threw herself as she was on to the bed, and before long passed into unconsciousness.

Waymark's absence that evening had been voluntary. His work had come to a standstill; his waking hours were passed in a restless misery which threatened to make him ill. And to-night he had not dared to go to Ida; in his present state the visit could have but one result, and even yet he hoped that such a result might not come about. He left home and wandered about the streets till early morning. All manner of projects occupied him. He all but made up his mind to write a long letter to Ida and explain his position without reserve. But he feared lest the result of that might be to make Ida hide away from him once more, and to this loss he could not reconcile himself. Yet he was further than ever from the thought of giving himself wholly to her, for the intenser his feeling grew, the more clearly he recognised its character. This was not love he suffered from, but mere desire. To let it have its way would be to degrade Ida. Love might or might not follow, and how could he place her at the mercy of such a chance as that? Her faith and trust in him were absolute; could he take advantage of it for his own ends? And, for all these fine arguments, Waymark saw with perfect clearness how the matter would end. Self would triumph, and Ida, if the fates so willed it, would be sacrificed. It was detestable, but a fact; as good already as an accomplished fact.

And on the following morning Ida's note reached him. It was final. Her entreaty that he would merely send money had no weight with him for a moment; he felt that there was a contradiction between her words and her wishes. This note explained the strangeness he had noticed in her on their last evening together. He pitied her, and, as is so often the case, pity was but fuel to passion. He swept from his mind all obstinate debatings. Passion should be a law unto itself. Let the future bring things about as it would.

He had risen late, and by the time he had finished a hasty breakfast it was eleven o'clock. Half an hour after he went up the stairs of the lodging-house and knocked at the familiar door.

But his knock met with no answer. Ida herself had left home an hour before. Upon waking, and recalling what she had done, she foresaw that Waymark would himself come, in spite of her request. She could not face him. For all that her exhaustion was so great that walking was slow and weary, she went out and strayed at first with no aim; but presently she took the direction of Chelsea, and so came to Beaufort Street. She would go in and see Harriet, who would give her something to eat. She cared little now for letting it be known that she had left her employment; with the step which she had at last taken, her position was quite changed; she had only kept silence lest Waymark should come to know. Harriet was at first surprised to see her then seemed glad.

"I've only a minute ago sent a note, asking you to be sure to come round to-night. I wanted you to help me with this new hat; you have such good taste in trimming."

Ida would have been astonished at another time; for Harriet to be paying compliments was indeed something novel. There was a flush on the latter's usually sallow face; she did not sit down, and kept moving aimlessly about.

"Give me your hat and jacket," she said, "and let me take them into the other room."

She took them away, and returned. Ida was not looking at her; otherwise she must surely have noticed that weird pallor which had all at once succeeded to the unhealthy flush, and the unwonted gleaming of her eyes. Of what passed during those next two hours Ida had afterwards no recollection. They ate together, and they talked, Ida as if in a dream, Harriet preoccupied in a way quite out of her habit. Ida explained that she was out of employment, news which could scarcely be news to the listener, who would in that case have heard it with far less composure. There were long silences, generally brought to an end by some outburst of forced merriment from Harriet. Ida was without consciousness of time, but her restless imagination at length compelled her to go forth again. Harriet did not urge her to stay, but rose and watched her as she went into the other room to put her things on. In a few moments they had parted.

The instant Harriet, from the head of the stairs, heard the front-door close, she ran back into her bed-room, put on her hat, and darted down. Opening the door, she saw Ida moving away at a short distance. Turning her eyes in the opposite direction, she perceived a policeman coming slowly down the street. She ran towards him.

"I've caught her at last," she exclaimed, as she met him, pointing eagerly after Ida. "She's taken a brooch of mine. I put it in a particular place in my bed-room, and it's gone."

"Was she alone in the room?" inquired the constable, looking keenly at Harriet, then down the street.

"Yes, she went in alone to put her things on. Be quick, or she'll be off!"

"I understand you give her in charge?"

"Of course I do."

A brisk walk of two or three minutes, and they had caught up Ida, who turned at the sound of the quick footsteps, and stood in surprise.

"This lady charges you with stealing some articles of hers," said the constable, looking from face to face. "You must come with me to the station."

Ida blanched. When the policeman had spoken, she turned to Harriet, and gazed at her fixedly. She could neither speak nor move. The constable touched her arm impatiently. Her eyes turned to him, and she began to walk along by his side.

Harriet followed in silence. There were not many people on the way to the police-station in King's Road, and they reached it speedily. They came before the inspector, and the constable made his report.

"Have you got this brooch?" asked the inspector, looking at Ida.

Ida put her hand into one of her jacket-pockets, then into the other, and from the second brought out the object in question. It was of gold, and had been given by Julian to his wife just after their marriage. As she laid it before her on the desk, she seemed about to speak, but her breath failed, and she clutched with her hands at the nearest support.

"Look out," exclaimed the inspector. "Don't let her fall."

Five or six times, throughout the day and evening, Waymark had knocked at Ida's door. About seven o'clock he had called at the Castis', but found neither of them at home. Returning thence to Fulham, he had walked for hours up and down, in vain expectation of Ida's coming. There was no light at her window.

Just before midnight he reached home, having on his way posted a letter with money in it. As he reached his door, Julian stood there, about to knock.

"Anything amiss?" Waymark asked, examining his friend by the light of the street-lamp.

Julian only made a sign to him to open the door. They went upstairs together, and Waymark speedily obtained a light. Julian had seated himself on the couch. His face was ghastly.

"What's the matter?" Waymark asked anxiously. "Do you know anything about Ida?"

"She's locked up in the police cells," was the reply. "My wife has accused her of stealing things from our rooms."

Waymark stared at him.

"Cacti, what's the matter with you?" he exclaimed, overcome with fear, in spite of his strong self-command. "Are you ill? Do you know what you're saying?"

Julian rose and made an effort to control himself.

"I know what I'm saying, Waymark I've only just heard it. She has come back home from somewhere--only just now--she seems to have been drinking. It happened in the middle of the day, whilst I was at the hospital. She gave her in charge to a policeman in the street, and a brooch was found on her."

"A brooch found on her? Your wife's?"

"Yes. When she came in, she railed at me like a fury, and charged me with the most monstrous things. I can't and won't go back there to-night! I shall go mad if I hear her voice. I will walk about the streets till morning."

"And you tell me that Ida Starr is in custody?"

"She is. My wife accuses her of stealing several things."

"And you believe this?" asked Waymark, under his voice, whilst his thoughts pictured Ida's poverty, of which he had known nothing, and led him through a long train of miserable sequences.

"I don't know. I can't say. She says that Ida confessed, and, gave the brooch up at once. But her devilish malice is equal to anything. I see into her character as I never did before. Good God, if you could have seen her face as she told me! And Ida, Ida! I am afraid of myself, Waymark. If I had stayed to listen another moment, I should have struck her. It seemed as if every vein was bursting. How am I ever to live with her again? I dare not! I should kill her in some moment of madness! What will happen to Ida?"

He flung himself upon the couch, and burst into tears. Sobs convulsed him; he writhed in an anguish of conflicting passions. Waymark seemed scarcely to observe him, standing absorbed in speculation and the devising of a course to be pursued.

"I must go to the police-station," he said at length, when the violence of the paroxysm had passed and left Julian in the still exhaustion of despair. "You, I think, had better stay here. Is there any danger of her coming to seek you?"

Julian made a motion with his hand, otherwise lay still, his pale face turned upwards.

"I shall be back very quickly," Waymark added, taking his hat. Then, turning back for a moment, "You mustn't give way like this, old fellow; this is horrible weakness. Dare I leave you alone?"

Julian stretched out his hand, and Waymark pressed it.