Chapter VI
 

Louise did not appear again that evening. Thoroughly tired, she unpacked her trunks, sat awhile by the open window, listening to a piano in a neighbouring house, and then jumped into bed. From ten o'clock to eight next morning she slept soundly.

At breakfast her behaviour was marked with excessive decorum. To the ordinary civilities of her host and hostess she replied softly, modestly, in the manner of a very young and timid girl; save when addressed, she kept silence, and sat with head inclined; a virginal freshness breathed about her; she ate very little, and that without her usual gusto, but rather as if performing a dainty ceremony. Her eyes never moved in Mumford's direction.

The threatened letter from Mrs. Higgins had arrived; Emmeline and her husband read it before their guest came down. If Louise continued to reside with them, they entertained her with a full knowledge that no payment must be expected from Coburg Lodge. Emmeline awaited the disclosure of her guest's project, which had more than once been alluded to yesterday; she could not dream of permitting Louise to stay for more than a day or two, whatever the suggestion offered. This morning she had again heard from her sister, Mrs. Grove, who was strongly of opinion that Miss Derrick should be sent back to her native sphere.

'I shall always feel,' she said to her husband, 'that we have behaved badly. I was guilty of false pretences. Fortunately, we have the excuse of her unbearable temper. But for that, I should feel dreadfully ashamed of myself.'

Very soon after Mumford's departure, Louise begged for a few minutes' private talk.

'Every time I come into this drawing-room, Mrs. Mumford, I think how pretty it is. What pains you must have taken in furnishing it! I never saw such nice curtains anywhere else. And that little screen --I _am_ so fond of that screen!'

'It was a wedding present from an old friend,' Emmeline replied, complacently regarding the object, which shone with embroidery of many colours.

'Will you help me when _I_ furnish _my_ drawing-room?' Louise asked sweetly. And she added, with a direct look, 'I don't think it will be very long.'

'Indeed?'

'I am going to marry Mr. Bowling.'

Emmeline could no longer fed astonishment at anything her guest said or did. The tone, the air, with which Louise made this declaration affected her with a sense of something quite unforeseen; but, at the same time, she asked herself why she had not foreseen it. Was not this the obvious answer to the riddle? All along, Louise had wished to marry Mr. Bowling. She might or might not have consciously helped to bring about the rupture between Mr. Bowling and Miss Higgins; she might, or might not, have felt genuinely reluctant to take advantage of her half-sister's defeat. But a struggle had been going on in the girl's conscience, at all events. Yes, this explained everything. And, on the whole, it seemed to speak in Louise's favour. Her ridicule of Mr. Bowling's person and character became, in this new light, a proof of desire to resist her inclinations. She had only yielded when it was certain that Miss Higgins's former lover had quite thrown off his old allegiance, and when no good could be done by self-sacrifice.

'When did you make up your mind to this, Louise?'

'Yesterday, after our horrid quarrel. No, _you_ didn't quarrel; it was all my abominable temper. This morning I'm going to answer Mr. Bowling's last letter, and I shall tell him--what I've told you. He'll be delighted!'

'Then you have really wished for this from the first?'

Louise plucked at the fringe on the arm of her chair, and replied at length with maidenly frankness.

'I always thought it would be a good marriage for me. But I never--do believe me--I never tried to cut Cissy out. The truth is I thought a good deal of the other--of Mr. Cobb. But I knew that I _couldn't_ marry him. It would be dreadful; we should quarrel frightfully, and he would kill me--I feel sure he would, he's so violent in his temper. But Mr. Bowling is very nice; he couldn't get angry if he tried. And ho has a much better position than Mr. Cobb.'

Emmeline began to waver in her conviction and to feel a natural annoyance.

'And you think,' she said coldly, 'that your marriage will take place soon?'

'That's what I want to speak about, dear Mrs. Mumford. Did you hear from my mother this morning? Then you see what my position is. I am homeless. If I leave you, I don't know where I shall go. When Mr. Higgins knows I'm going to. marry Mr. Bowling he won't have me in the house, even if I wanted to go back. Cissy Will be furious: she'll come back from Margate just to keep up her father's anger against me. If you could let me stay here just a short time, Mrs. Mumford; just a few weeks I should _so_ like to be married from your house.'

The listener trembled with irritation, and before she could command her voice Louise added eagerly:

'Of course, when we're married, Mr. Bowling will pay all my debts.'

''You are quite mistaken,' said Emmeline distantly, 'if you think that the money matter has anything to do with--with my unreadiness to agree--'

'Oh, I didn't think it--not for a moment. I'm a trouble to you; I know I am. But I'll be so quiet, dear Mrs. Mumford. You shall hardly know I'm in the house. If once it's all settled I shall _never_ be out of temper. Do, please, let me stay! I like you so much, and how wretched it would be if I had to be married from a lodging-house.'

'I'm afraid, Louise--I'm really afraid--'

'Of my temper?' the girl interrupted. 'If ever I say an angry word you shall turn me out that very moment. Dear Mrs. Mumford! Oh! _what_ shall I do if you won't be kind to me? What will become of me? I have no home, and everybody hates me.'

'Tears streamed down her face; she lay back, overcome with misery. Emmeline was distracted. She felt herself powerless to act as common-sense dictated, yet desired more than ever to rid herself of every shadow of responsibility for the girl's proceedings. The idea of this marriage taking place at "Runnymede" made her blood run cold. No, no; _that_ was absolutely out of the question. But equally impossible did it seem to speak with brutal decision. Once more she must temporise, and hope for courage on another day.

'I can't--I really can't give you a definite answer till I have spoken with Mr. Mumford.'

'Oh! I am sure he will do me this kindness,' sobbed Louise.

A slight emphasis on the "he" touched Mrs. Mumford unpleasantly. She rose, and began to pick out some overblown flowers from a vase on the table near her. Presently Louise became silent. Before either of them spoke again a postman's knock sounded at the house-door, and Emmeline went to see what letter had been delivered. It was for Miss Derrick; the handwriting, as Emmeline knew, that of Mr. Cobb.

'Oh, bother!' Louise murmured, as she took the letter from Mrs. Mumford's hand. 'Well, I'm a trouble to everybody, and I don't know how it'll all end. I daresay I shan't live very long.'

'Don't talk nonsense, Louise.'

'Should you like me to go at once, Mrs. Mumford?' the girl asked, with a submissive sigh.

'No, no. Let us think over it for a day or two. Perhaps you haven't quite made up your mind, after all.'

To this, oddly enough, Louise gave no reply. She lingered by the window, nervously bending and rolling her letter, which she did not seem to think of opening. After a glance or two of discreet curiosity, Mrs. Mumford left the room. Daily duties called for attention, and she was not at all inclined to talk further with Louise. The girl, as soon as she found herself alone, broke Mr. Cobb's envelope, which contained four sides of bold handwriting--not a long letter, but, as usual, vigorously worded. 'Dear Miss Derrick,' he wrote, 'I haven't been in a hurry to reply to your last, as it seemed to me that you were in one of your touchy moods when you sent it. It wasn't my fault that I called at the house when you were away. I happened to have business at Croydon unexpectedly, and ran over to Sutton just on the chance of seeing you. And I have no objection to tell you all I said to your friend there. I am not in the habit of saying things behind people's backs that I don't wish them to hear. All I did was to ask out plainly whether Mrs. M. was trying to persuade you to have nothing to do with me. She said she wasn't, and that she didn't wish to interfere one way or another. I told her that I could ask no more than that. She seemed to me a sensible sort of woman, and I don't suppose you'll get much harm from her, though I daresay she thinks more about dress and amusements, and so on, than is good for her or anyone else. You say at the end of your letter that I'm to let you know when I think of coming again, and if you mean by that that you would be glad to see me, I can only say, thank you. I don't mean to give you up yet, and I don't believe you want me to say what you will. I don't spy after you; you're mistaken in that. But I'm pretty much always thinking about you, and I wish you were nearer to me. I may have to go to Bristol in a week or two, and perhaps I shall be there for a month or more, so I must see you before then. Will you tell me what day would suit you, after seven? If you don't want me to come to the house, then meet me where you like. And there's only one more thing I have to say--you must deal honestly with me. I can wait, but I won't be deceived.'

Louise pondered for a long time, turning now to this part of the letter, now to that. And the lines of her face, though they made no approach to smiling, indicated agreeable thoughts. Tears had left just sufficient trace to give her meditations a semblance of unwonted seriousness.

About midday she went up to her room and wrote letters. The first was to Miss Cissy Higgins:--'Dear Ciss,--I dare say you would like to know that Mr. B. has proposed to me. If you have any objection, please let me know it by return.--Affectionately yours, L. E. DERRICK.' This she addressed to Margate, and stamped with a little thump of the fist. Her next sheet of paper was devoted to Mr. Bowling, and the letter, though brief, cost her some thought. 'Dear Mr. Bowling,--Your last is so very nice and kind that I feel I ought to answer it without delay, but I cannot answer in the way you wish. I must have a long, long time to think over such a very important question. I don't blame you in the least for your behaviour to someone we know of; and I think, after all that happened, you were quite free. It is quite true that she did not behave straightforwardly, and I am very sorry to have to say it. I shall not be going home again: I have quite made up my mind about that. I am afraid I must not let you come here to call upon me. I have a particular reason for it. To tell you the truth, my friend Mrs. Mumford is _very_ particular, and rather fussy, and has a rather trying temper. So please do not come just yet. I am quite well, and enjoying myself in a _very_ quiet way.--I remain, sincerely yours, LOUISE E. DERRICK.' Finally she penned a reply to Mr. Cobb, and this, after a glance at a railway time-table, gave her no trouble at all. 'Dear Mr. Cobb,' she scribbled, 'if you really _must_ see me before you go away to Bristol, or wherever it is, you had better meet me on Saturday at Streatham Station, which is about halfway between me and you. I shall come by the train from Sutton, which reaches Streatham at 8.6.--Yours truly, L. E. D.'

To-day was Thursday. When Saturday came the state of things at "Runnymede" had undergone no change whatever; Emmeline still waited for a moment of courage, and Mumford, though he did not relish the prospect, began to think it more than probable that Miss Derrick would hold her ground until her actual marriage with Mr. Bowling. Whether that unknown person would discharge the debt his betrothed was incurring seemed an altogether uncertain matter. Louise, in the meantime, kept quiet as a mouse--so strangely quiet, indeed, that Emmeline's prophetic soul dreaded some impending disturbance, worse than any they had yet suffered.

At luncheon, Louise made known that she would have to leave in the middle of dinner to catch a train. No explanation was offered or asked, but Emmeline, it being Saturday, said she would put the dinner-hour earlier, to suit her friend's convenience. Louise smiled pleasantly, and said how very kind it was of Mrs. Mumford.

She had no difficulty in reaching Streatham by the time appointed. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy evening, and a spattering of rain fell from time to time.

'I suppose you'll be afraid to walk to the Common,' said Mr. Cobb, who stood waiting at the exit from the station, and showed more satisfaction in his countenance when Louise appeared than he evinced in words.

'Oh, I don't care,' she answered. 'It won't rain much, and I've brought my umbrella, and I've nothing on that will take any harm.'

She had, indeed, dressed herself in her least demonstrative costume. Cobb wore the usual garb of his leisure hours, which was better than that in which he had called the other day at "Runnymede." For some minutes they walked towards Streatham Common without interchange of a word, and with no glance at each other. Then the man coughed, and said bluntly that he was glad Louise had come.

'Well, I wanted to see you,' was her answer.

'What about?'

'I don't think I shall be able to stay with the Mumfords. They're very nice people, but they're not exactly my sort, and we don't get on very well. Where had I better go?'

'Go? Why home, of course. The best place for you.'

Cobb was prepared for a hot retort, but it did not come. After a moment's reflection, Louise said quietly:

'I can't go home. I've quarrelled with them too badly. You haven't seen mother lately? Then I must tell you how things are.'

She did so, with no concealment save of the correspondence with Mr. Bowling, and the not unimportant statements concerning him which she had made to Mrs. Mumford. In talking with Cobb, Louise seemed to drop a degree or so in social status; her language was much less careful than when she conversed with the Mumfords, and even her voice struck a note of less refinement. Decidedly she was more herself, if that could be said of one who very rarely made conscious disguise of her characteristics.

'Better stay where you are, then, for the present,' said Cobb, when he had listened attentively. 'I dare say you can get along well enough with the people, if you try.'

'That's all very well; but what about paying them? I shall owe three guineas for every week I stop.'

'It's a great deal, and they ought to feed you very well for it,' replied the other, smiling rather sourly.

'Don't be vulgar. I suppose you think I ought to live on a few shillings a week.'

'Lots of people have to. But there's no reason why _you_ should. But look here: why should you be quarrelling with your people now about that fellow Bowling? You don't see him anywhere, do you?'

He flashed a glance at her, and Louise answered with a defiant motion of the head.

'No, I don't. But they put the blame on me, all the same. I shouldn't wonder if they think I'm trying to get him.'

She opened her umbrella, for heavy drops had begun to fall; they pattered on Cobb's hard felt hat, and Louise tried to shelter him as well as herself.

'Never mind me,' he said. 'And here, let me hold that thing over you. If you just put your arm in mine, it'll be easier. That's the way. Take two steps to my one; that's it.'

Again they were silent for a few moments. They had reached the Common, and Cobb struck along a path most likely to be unfrequented. No wind was blowing; the rain fell in steady spots that could all but be counted, and the air grew dark.

'Well, I can only propose one thing,' sounded the masculine voice. 'You can get out of it by marrying me.'

Louise gave a little laugh, rather timid than scornful.

'Yes, I suppose I can. But it's an awkward way. It would be rather like using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut.'

'It'll come sooner or later,' asserted Cobb, with genial confidence.

'That's what I don't like about you.' Louise withdrew her arm petulantly. 'You always speak as if I couldn't help myself. Don't you suppose I have any choice?'

'Plenty, no doubt,' was the grim answer.

'Whenever we begin to quarrel it's your fault,' pursued Miss Derrick, with unaccustomed moderation of tone. 'I never knew a man who behaved like you do. You seem to think the way to make anyone like you is to bully them. We should have got on very much better if you had tried to be pleasant.'

'I don't think we've got along badly, all things considered,' Cobb replied, as if after weighing a doubt. 'We'd a good deal rather be together than apart, it seems to me; or else, why do we keep meeting? And I don't want to bully anybody--least of all, you. It's a way I have of talking, I suppose. You must judge a man by his actions and his meaning, not by the tone of his voice. You know very well what a great deal I think of you. Of course I don't like it when you begin to speak as if you were only playing with me; nobody would.'

'I'm serious enough,' said Louise, trying to hold the umbrella over her companion, and only succeeding in directing moisture down the back of his neck. 'And it's partly through you that I've got into such difficulties.'

'How do you make that out?'

'If it wasn't for you, I should very likely marry Mr. Bowling.'

'Oh, he's asked you, has he?' cried Cobb, staring at her. 'Why didn't you tell me that before?--Don't let me stand in your way. I dare say he's just the kind of man for you. At all events, he's like you in not knowing his own mind.'

'Go on! Go on!' Louise exclaimed carelessly. 'There's plenty of time. Say all you've got to say.'

From the gloom of the eastward sky came a rattling of thunder, like quick pistol-shots. Cobb checked his steps.

'We mustn't go any further. You're getting wet, and the rain isn't likely to stop.'

'I shall not go back,' Louise answered, 'until something has been settled.' And she stood before him, her eyes cast down, whilst Cobb looked at the darkening sky. 'I want to know what's going to become of me. The Mumfords won't keep me much longer, and I don't wish to stay where I'm not wanted.'

'Let us walk down the hill.'

A flash of lightning made Louise start, and the thunder rattled again. But only light drops were falling. The girl stood her ground.

'I want to know what I am to do. If you can't help me, say so, and let me go my own way.'

'Of course I can help you. That is, if you'll be honest with me. I want to know, first of all, whether you've been encouraging that man Bowling.'

'No, I haven't.'

'Very well, I believe you. And now I'll make you a fair offer. Marry me as soon as I can make the arrangements, and I'll pay all you owe, and see that you are in comfortable lodgings until I've time to get a house. It could be done before I go to Bristol, and then, of course, you could go with me.'

'You speak,' said Louise, after a short silence, 'just as if you were making an agreement with a servant.'

'That's all nonsense, and you know it. I've told you how I think, often enough, in letters, and I'm not good at saying it. Look here, I don't think it's very wise to stand out in the middle of the Common in a thunderstorm. Let us walk on, and I think I would put down your umbrella.'

'It wouldn't trouble you much if I were struck with lightning.'

'All right, take it so. I shan't trouble to contradict.'

Louise followed his advice, and they began to walk quickly down the slope towards Streatham. Neither spoke until they were in the high road again. A strong wind was driving the rain-clouds to other regions and the thunder had ceased; there came a grey twilight; rows of lamps made a shimmering upon the wet ways.

'What sort of a house would you take?' Louise asked suddenly.

'Oh, a decent enough house. What kind do you want?'

'Something like the Mumfords'. It needn't be quite so large,' she added quickly; 'but a house with a garden, in a nice road, and in a respectable part.'

'That would suit me well enough,' answered Cobb cheerfully. 'You seem to think I want to drag you down, but you're very much mistaken. I'm doing pretty well, and likely, as far as I can see, to do better. I don't grudge you money; far from it. All I want to know is, that you'll marry me for my own sake.'

He dropped his voice, not to express tenderness, but because other people were near. Upon Louise, however, it had a pleasing effect, and she smiled.

'Very well,' she made answer, in the same subdued tone. 'Then let us settle it in that way.'

They talked amicably for the rest of the time that they spent together. It was nearly an hour, and never before had they succeeded in conversing so long without a quarrel. Louise became light-hearted and mirthful; her companion, though less abandoned to the mood of the moment, wore a hopeful countenance. Through all his roughness, Cobb was distinguished by a personal delicacy which no doubt had impressed Louise, say what she might of pretended fears. At parting, he merely shook hands with her, as always.