Chapter XVII. At Last
 

"We had better let the people clear off," said Thorndyke, when the first greetings were over and we stood around Reuben in the fast-emptying court. "We don't want a demonstration as we go out."

"No; anything but that, just now," replied Reuben. He still held Mrs. Hornby's hand, and one arm was passed through that of his uncle, who wiped his eyes at intervals, though his face glowed with delight.

"I should like you to come and have a little quiet luncheon with me at my chambers--all of us friends together," continued Thorndyke.

"I should be delighted," said Reuben, "if the programme would include a satisfactory wash."

"You will come, Anstey?" asked Thorndyke.

"What have you got for lunch?" demanded Anstey, who was now disrobed and in his right mind--that is to say, in his usual whimsical, pseudo-frivolous character.

"That question savours of gluttony," answered Thorndyke. "Come and see."

"I will come and eat, which is better," answered Anstey, "and I must run off now, as I have to look in at my chambers."

"How shall we go?" asked Thorndyke, as his colleague vanished through the doorway. "Polton has gone for a four-wheeler, but it won't hold us all."

"It will hold four of us," said Reuben, "and Dr. Jervis will bring Juliet; won't you, Jervis?"

The request rather took me aback, considering the circumstances, but I was conscious, nevertheless, of an unreasonable thrill of pleasure and answered with alacrity: "If Miss Gibson will allow me, I shall be very delighted." My delight was, apparently, not shared by Juliet, to judge by the uncomfortable blush that spread over her face. She made no objection, however, but merely replied rather coldly: "Well, as we can't sit on the roof of the cab, we had better go by ourselves."

The crowd having by this time presumably cleared off, we all took our way downstairs. The cab was waiting at the kerb, surrounded by a group of spectators, who cheered Reuben as he appeared at the doorway, and we saw our friends enter and drive away. Then we turned and walked quickly down the Old Bailey towards Ludgate Hill. "Shall we take a hansom?" I asked.

"No; let us walk," replied Juliet; "a little fresh air will do us good after that musty, horrible court. It all seems like a dream, and yet what a relief--oh! what a relief it is."

"It is rather like the awakening from a nightmare to find the morning sun shining," I rejoined.

"Yes; that is just what it is like," she agreed; "but I still feel dazed and shaken."

We turned presently down New Bridge Street, towards the Embankment, walking side by side without speaking, and I could not help comparing, with some bitterness, our present stiff and distant relations with the intimacy and comradeship that had existed before the miserable incident of our last meeting.

"You don't look so jubilant over your success as I should have expected," she said at length, with a critical glance at me; "but I expect you are really very proud and delighted, aren't you?"

"Delighted, yes; not proud. Why should I be proud? I have only played jackal, and even that I have done very badly."

"That is hardly a fair statement of the facts," she rejoined, with another quick, inquisitive look at me; "but you are in low spirits to-day--which is not at all like you. Is it not so?"

"I am afraid I am a selfish, egotistical brute," was my gloomy reply. "I ought to be as gay and joyful as everyone else to-day, whereas the fact is that I am chafing over my own petty troubles. You see, now that this case is finished, my engagement with Dr. Thorndyke terminates automatically, and I relapse into my old life--a dreary repetition of journeying amongst strangers--and the prospect is not inspiriting. This has been a time of bitter trial to you, but to me it has been a green oasis in the desert of a colourless, monotonous life. I have enjoyed the companionship of a most lovable man, whom I admire and respect above all other men, and with him have moved in scenes full of colour and interest. And I have made one other friend whom I am loth to see fade out of my life, as she seems likely to do."

"If you mean me," said Juliet, "I may say that it will be your own fault if I fade out of your life. I can never forget all that you have done for us, your loyalty to Reuben, your enthusiasm in his cause, to say nothing of your many kindnesses to me. And, as to your having done your work badly, you wrong yourself grievously. I recognised in the evidence by which Reuben was cleared to-day how much you had done, in filling in the details, towards making the case complete and convincing. I shall always feel that we owe you a debt of the deepest gratitude, and so will Reuben, and so, perhaps, more than either of us, will someone else."

"And who is that?" I asked, though with no great interest. The gratitude of the family was a matter of little consequence to me.

"Well, it is no secret now," replied Juliet. "I mean the girl whom Reuben is going to marry. What is the matter, Dr. Jervis?" she added, in a tone of surprise.

We were passing through the gate that leads from the Embankment to Middle Temple Lane, and I had stopped dead under the archway, laying a detaining hand upon her arm and gazing at her in utter amazement.

"The girl that Reuben is going to marry!" I repeated. "Why, I had always taken it for granted that he was going to marry you."

"But I told you, most explicitly, that was not so!" she exclaimed with some impatience.

"I know you did," I admitted ruefully; "but I thought--well, I imagined that things had, perhaps, not gone quite smoothly and--"

"Did you suppose that if I had cared for a man, and that man had been under a cloud, I should have denied the relation or pretended that we were merely friends?" she demanded indignantly.

"I am sure you wouldn't," I replied hastily. "I was a fool, an idiot--by Jove, what an idiot I have been!"

"It was certainly very silly of you," she admitted; but there was a gentleness in her tone that took away all bitterness from the reproach.

"The reason of the secrecy was this," she continued; "they became engaged the very night before Reuben was arrested, and, when he heard of the charge against him, he insisted that no one should be told unless, and until, he was fully acquitted. I was the only person who was in their confidence, and as I was sworn to secrecy, of course I couldn't tell you; nor did I suppose that the matter would interest you. Why should it?"

"Imbecile that I am," I murmured. "If I had only known!"

"Well, if you had known," said she; "what difference could it have made to you?"

This question she asked without looking at me, but I noted that her cheek had grown a shade paler.

"Only this," I answered. "That I should have been spared many a day and night of needless self-reproach and misery."

"But why?" she asked, still keeping her face averted. "What had you to reproach yourself with?"

"A great deal," I answered, "if you consider my supposed position. If you think of me as the trusted agent of a man, helpless and deeply wronged--a man whose undeserved misfortunes made every demand upon chivalry and generosity; if you think of me as being called upon to protect and carry comfort to the woman whom I regarded as, virtually, that man's betrothed wife; and then if you think of me as proceeding straightway, before I had known her twenty-four hours, to fall hopelessly in love with her myself, you will admit that I had something to reproach myself with."

She was still silent, rather pale and very thoughtful, and she seemed to breathe more quickly than usual.

"Of course," I continued, "you may say that it was my own look-out, that I had only to keep my own counsel, and no one would be any the worse. But there's the mischief of it. How can a man who is thinking of a woman morning, noon and night; whose heart leaps at the sound of her coming, whose existence is a blank when she is away from him--a blank which he tries to fill by recalling, again and again, all that she has said and the tones of her voice, and the look that was in her eyes when she spoke--how can he help letting her see, sooner or later, that he cares for her? And if he does, when he has no right to, there is an end of duty and chivalry and even common honesty."

"Yes, I understand now," said Juliet softly. "Is this the way?" She tripped up the steps leading to Fountain Court and I followed cheerfully. Of course it was not the way, and we both knew it, but the place was silent and peaceful, and the plane-trees cast a pleasant shade on the gravelled court. I glanced at her as we walked slowly towards the fountain. The roses were mantling in her cheeks now and her eyes were cast down, but when she lifted them to me for an instant, I saw that they were shining and moist.

"Did you never guess?" I asked.

"Yes," she replied in a low voice, "I guessed; but--but then," she added shyly, "I thought I had guessed wrong."

We walked on for some little time without speaking again until we came to the further side of the fountain, where we stood listening to the quiet trickle of the water, and watching the sparrows as they took their bath on the rim of the basin. A little way off another group of sparrows had gathered with greedy joy around some fragments of bread that had been scattered abroad by the benevolent Templars, and hard by a more sentimentally-minded pigeon, unmindful of the crumbs and the marauding sparrows, puffed out his breast and strutted and curtsied before his mate with endearing gurgles.

Juliet had rested her hand on one of the little posts that support the chain by which the fountain is enclosed and I had laid my hand on hers. Presently she turned her hand over so that mine lay in its palm; and so we were standing hand-in-hand when an elderly gentleman, of dry and legal aspect, came up the steps and passed by the fountain. He looked at the pigeons and then he looked at us, and went his way smiling and shaking his head.

"Juliet," said I.

She looked up quickly with sparkling eyes and a frank smile that was yet a little shy, too.

"Yes."

"Why did he smile--that old gentleman--when he looked at us?"

"I can't imagine," she replied mendaciously.

"It was an approving smile," I said. "I think he was remembering his own spring-time and giving us his blessing."

"Perhaps he was," she agreed. "He looked a nice old thing." She gazed fondly at the retreating figure and then turned again to me. Her cheeks had grown pink enough by now, and in one of them a dimple displayed itself to great advantage in its rosy setting.

"Can you forgive me, dear, for my unutterable folly?" I asked presently, as she glanced up at me again.

"I am not sure," she answered. "It was dreadfully silly of you."

"But remember, Juliet, that I loved you with my whole heart--as I love you now and shall love you always."

"I can forgive you anything when you say that," she answered softly.

Here the voice of the distant Temple clock was heard uttering a polite protest. With infinite reluctance we turned away from the fountain, which sprinkled us with a parting benediction, and slowly retraced our steps to Middle Temple Lane and thence into Pump Court.

"You haven't said it, Juliet," I whispered, as we came through the archway into the silent, deserted court.

"Haven't I, dear?" she answered; "but you know it, don't you? You know I do."

"Yes, I know," I said; "and that knowledge is all my heart's desire."

She laid her hand in mine for a moment with a gentle pressure and then drew it away; and so we passed through into the cloisters.

THE END