Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/The prodigal son - Part 7
THE PRODIGAL SON.
BY DUTTON COOK, AUTHOR OF “PAUL FOSTER’S DAUGHTER,” &c.
“A lytel misgoyng in the gynning causeth mykel errour in the end.”—Chaucer’s “Testament of Love.”
CHAPTER XIII. NIGHT.
Quite unconscious of the scene of which they had been the occasion, the two friends walked on.
When men’s conversation touches upon the subjects in which they are most interested, such as their career in life, their professional pursuits, their daily avocations, the world, I believe, which has rather a contempt for things simply natural and of course, designates the proceeding “talking shop,” and recommends us to avoid such discussion, by all means. For the world while it does not approve of idleness is still not indisposed oftentimes to regard us all as gentlemen at large, whose only ostensible objects in life are to visit our clubs daily, dress decently, pick our teeth and read the papers punctually, and then, after a certain number of years, to die and get buried as quietly and respectably as possible, in of course, a Protestant graveyard. We have no right, therefore, by our converse to reveal continually the circumstance or obtrude the fact that in truth we work for our bread, and are considerably interested in getting it. That is assumed at starting—we are English—we are industrious somehow; the particulars are not required; the fact once admitted is not to be further alluded to, or we shall be guilty of the impropriety of “talking shop.” Certainly society’s sentiments in this respect are a little set at defiance. For wherever you perceive a knot of men engaged in particularly pleasant discourse, you may be sure they are “talking shop;” and enjoying their evasion and contravention of duty just as people take pleasure in the flavour of contraband cigars or the scent of smuggled eau de Cologne; and indeed, waiving its impropriety socially considered, “talking shop” is really an amusing if not an edifying occupation.
Wilford and Martin talked shop greatly as they marched Temple-wards. They spoke copiously of this paper of Wilford’s, of that review of Martin’s, of Such-a-one’s last, of So-and-so’s next book, of plans for the future, of suggestions for work, of their positions—the one as a novelist, the other as a critic. Undoubtedly the conversation was very shoppy; yet it interested them amazingly. They were quite busy with it when they arrived at the Temple.
"Don't hurry off," said Martin, seizing Wilford's arm; "it's not late. Come in for half-an-hour. I've a lot more to say. Come in, and smoke a cigar. I shan't go to work immediately; you won't be the least in my way. You can correct some proof for me if you like, while I see if there are any messages or letters. Come along; indeed it's not late."
So they mounted many stairs, and reached at last George Martin's chambers. These were not large, but were comfortable, and well, even handsomely furnished. One or two pictures of very creditable execution adorned walls that were in other respects nearly hidden by bookshelves. Anybody who entered the rooms, expecting to find the litter and untidiness, and discomfort, which are universally attributed to bachelors, would have been disappointed. With the exception of the writing-table in the corner, which was certainly rather in confusion, crowded with open books, and scattered sheets of paper, and which looked rather as though it had been out without an umbrella in a shower of quill pens—the room was in good order. The furniture was good and massive, and the fittings in excellent taste. "My laundress is a treasure," George would sometimes say, "with the bump of order strongly developed, and a decided passion for cleanliness. She is indulged in that particular, always with the proviso that my writing-table is to remain intact, and its papers undisturbed, no matter into what habits of déshabille they may appear to have fallen—untouched by brush or duster. It's a subject of great distress to Mrs. Cobb, I can assure you—quite a grievance—but I am peremptory on the subject. I am a peaceful man on most occasions, but I should make this a casus belli. My table touched, I should unmask my batteries, and favour Mrs. Cobb with a broadside which would, I think, rather startle her. She is aware of the fact, and, I am happy to say, conducts herself accordingly. I know where to find things while my papers are in confusion. Once put them to rights, and I'm a lost man." It was a pleasant room by daylight, looking on to the river and the gardens; and at all times—while not too much like an office on the one hand, or too nearly resembling a drawing-room on the other—asserted itself as the appropriate home of a hard-working gentleman of the Temple.
"What were we talking about?" asked Martin, reverting to some conversation that had preceded their arrival at his chambers. "O, I remember, about myself and critics generally. Well, you know the old notion isn't quite exploded. The public have a liking for well-worn ideas; they cling to them as to old clothes that fit beautifully, and it's hard to part with, though they are in tatters. The popular notion of a critic—and I am bound to say that some authors still back the opinion heavily—the popular notion has it, that the critic is still a sort of Blunderbore creature, always crying 'Fee! fo! fum!! and smelling the blood of an author. They prefer that picture to the thought of a gentleman of respectable intelligence sitting down calmly to read the book through, and then writing deliberately his opinion upon it, impartially arrived at. I allow that there's less colour and force about that view, but I submit there's more truth: or do you prefer to hold that the reviewer cuts the leaves, smells the paper-knife as Hood suggested, sells the book to buy a pint of brandy, and then proceeds to abuse the author with all the savageness possible—and not the author only, but his father and his mother, and his sister and his brother? No; those tomahawking times are over, and I don't think critics now-a-days are any fonder of brandy than churchwardens. By the way, let us have a little while we're on the subject. Hot or cold? It won't hurt you—only half a glass? Not any? Pick out a good cigar from that bundle—smoke at least. No, a critic isn't always what people think him. They must give up the idea that he is a literary Malay intoxicated with intellectual bang, running a-muck among the books, and cutting and slashing at every author in his path."
"All this is to prepare my mind for your 'letting down' my book when it comes to you for review," said Wilford, laughing.
"No, indeed," answered Martin, "there was no such stuff in my thoughts. Besides, your book won't be let down. I look upon it as quite safe—safe. I mean, for a certain measure of success. Beyond that, accident must determine—the state of the public mind—the other new books in the market—the temper of the time. It's not very difficult to beat the ruck; getting a good place in the race is another thing. But don't be depressed. I believe in the book. I'm sure it will do. I know it's honestly done; and about the ability there's no question. What does this note say? An invitation to dine with the Magazine people. I must go, I suppose—though dinners interfere with the morrow's work. Dear me! here's a load of proof. But I must begin with a cigar."
He lighted one.
"Stop," cried Wilford, "don't throw away the light." But he had not spoken in time; Martin had flung the lighted spill into the grate.
"I beg your pardon," said Martin, "but we'll soon find a scrap of paper. Not that though—that's MS., and this? By Jove, no, that will not do! A cheque."
"Thank you. I have a light now." He had drawn some papers from his pocket.
"The envelope of this letter will do." He twisted it up, and set fire to it.
"By the by, what is this letter?" he said. He opened it. It was the letter he had put into his pocket on leaving Freer Street. He gave a glance at the rather unsteady writing—the pale ink—a few brief lines only. He had hardly had time to complete his perusal, when a violent trembling seized him, and his cigar fell from his lips.
Martin was turned away, searching among his papers.
"I wanted to show you a note I had from the publisher of the ——. O, here it is! But, good heavens! what's the matter? You're as white as a sheet, man! What is it? Are you ill? What's the matter?"
"Nothing. Nothing," Wilford answered, with evident effort. His shaking hands crumpled up the letter, and thrust it into his breast-pocket.
"But there is something," Martin persisted. "A man doesn't look like that for nothing."
"No. No. A sudden faintness—that's all."
"Was there bad news in that letter?"
"No, it is not the letter. Indeed it is not—anything but that. The letter is only—only a bill. Nothing more than a bill—quite a trifle. I'm not well—not very well, as I told you."
"I fear not. Are you in pain? What shall I give you—some brandy? Try some brandy."
"A little—a very little. Thank you, I feel better already. I'm sorry, Martin, to have to trouble you like this."
"Trouble, my dear fellow! You mustn't think of that."
"Where did I put my hat? I'll go now, while I am well."
"No. You must not go yet. Wait till you recover more. Shall I send for a doctor?"
"Not on my account. I do assure you I am better now."
"I never saw you like this before. Indeed, Wil, you must take care of yourself, or you may be in for another serious illness, such as you had some years back. I really think you had better not go—not yet, at any rate. The best thing you can do, would be to go to bed here at once. I could easily send word to Mrs. Wilford, to let her know what had happened."
"No; not on any account; it would alarm her too much."
"Perhaps you are right; but rest a little longer, at any rate; I'll see you safely home."
"No, Martin, it will not be necessary. You see I am quite well again now, and the fresh air will be the best thing for me. I can't think of taking you out. Indeed I cannot."
"You'll get a cab. Promise me that."
"Yes, I will. I promise."
"I shall come round to-morrow morning, to see how you are—"
"Not unless I don't appear here before twelve o'clock, as I fully intend to. Good night."
"Good night. Take care of yourself. Do take care of yourself. Have some more brandy? No? Well, good night, my dear Wilford. Good night."
"Good-bye until to-morrow morning."
He had in a great measure recovered himself. Still he breathed very quickly, was much excited, and as he passed down the stairs he placed his hand on his forehead to find his hair quite wet. He went out through the wicket at the top of Temple Lane, and hurried towards the Strand. He did not take a cab as he had promised he would, but he set off walking at a pace which at times nearly quickened into a run.
"That man's in a queer state of health," said Martin, alone in his chambers: he'll have to take care what he's about. He's nervous, excitable, anxious: he's been poring over his papers until, turning his eyes from them, he finds himself quite giddy, and purblind, and confused. I know what it is to suffer like that, and I know too many men who, suffering like that, have succumbed and for ever. It's very dreadful, that oppression on the brain—on the heart—that struggle with the mind, as it were,—that inability to direct our thoughts upon other than the work in hand; the waning of memory, and the terrible consciousness that it is waning; the loss of the names of men and things of the commonest nature; the awful tangle of ideas that seems to be seething in one's head; the broken sleep—the ghastly dreams at night; the painful exhaustion by day; the extreme sensitiveness of the nerves, when the slightest shock seems to result in agony the most acute. I have felt all that once—I fervently trust I never may again. It is the student's malady. Poor friend Wilford! Who would have thought of his suffering so! What changes time brings! He is a different creature to what he was years ago when we were boys—schoolfellows—together. How long ago! A long, long time it seems now. Well, well, let's hope for the best. He'll go home and take a holiday, and return quite well. His wife will nurse him. Surely she will cure him. A wife like that—"
George Martin stopped suddenly with a strange expression on his face. It was as though he did not wish to be unexpectedly launched into meditation upon such a subject. Then he seemed to smile, faintly at his own hesitation. After a slight pause, he continued.
"Violet!" he said gently, with an air that was almost devotional. "Is there another woman in the world so wholly good, and pure, and true as she is? How beautiful, how tender, how loveable! If it had ever been my fate to have met such a one, how differently would my life have been ordered. What other hopes, views, ambitions, I should have formed. But that's all past thinking about. And if I had met her, would she have heard my prayer—would she have even looked down upon me, giving glances as good as alms to a beggar, or healing to the sick? Would she not have passed on, never heeding, never dreaming of the love of one so every way unworthy of her. But this is miserable folly. I am fixed in my pose in life. I can no more move than a beetle in a museum pinned to his cork. I am stranded on the rocks, out of the reach of the water, it may be, yet past all chance of any ship coming to pick me off. I must live in the best way I can, tilling the profitless flinty soil, hardworking for every mouthful, a Crusoe in the midst of civilisation, wrecked in a Temple garret. Well, well, why should I repine? And I never have repined until I met her, and I felt my heart yearning towards her as I never felt it before. Is love the absurdity, the nonsense, the idiocy that men declare it to be? Can that be despicable which arouses all the self-sacrificing and generosity of which nature is capable? It seems to me that love takes men back to all the poetry and chivalry of the grand past. I would give my life to that woman. And I love her with all my soul. Yet, heaven knows," he went on, the colour glowing in his face, "that there is no shame in my love! No wrong for her, for Wilford, for myself. I love; but it is my heart's secret—it will never be known to living soul. It may be madness, but it is not sin. I would not harm my friend even in thought, much less in deed. I love hopelessly—it is my own affair. I am resigned to that hopelessness. I am strong enough, I believe, to bear even that burden. And now—to work. My cigar is smoked out. Enough of this sentimentalism of a baldheaded, middle-aged man up three pair of stairs. For poor Wilford, he will recover, thanks to her care. Even if he sinks, she will be at his side to the last" (his voice softened and trembled) "to close his eyes, to pray for him, to weep for him, as only a loving wife can. Good Heaven! what has he ever done to deserve such happiness!"
He trimmed his lamp and turned to his work. And at the time he did so Wilford, with a look of agony in his face, was moaning forth the plaint—
"O God, what have I done that I should be so wretched!"
He was on Waterloo Bridge, leaning on the balustrade. A feeling of faintness had again come over him. He had torn open his neckerchief and shirt collar, it seemed to him that they hindered his breathing.
"Let me get out of the street—let me go where there is a chance of air." And he had quitted the Strand, and passed on to Waterloo Bridge.
He was panting for breath, his hand pressing on his heart, his white face turned towards the star-crowded heavens. For some moments he remained so.
"I thought the past dead," he murmured, in very troubled tones, "stone dead. I never dreamt it could rise up against me like this. And the future? What am I to do? God knows. I cannot—I dare not think! And Violet!"
He hid his face in his hands.
Some one approached—a tall man humming an operatic air. He passed Wilford, apparently not noticing him. He went on for some yards and then stopped—as people will do on bridges—to look down at the water or up at the sky or round at the prospect. He was smoking a cigarette; he was evidently a man of varied accomplishments; he smoked and hummed contemporaneously; he was well-dressed, in a black loose overcoat, a shiny hat, and a delicately white neckerchief. Black eyebrows formed almost parallel curves to his gold-rimmed spectacles, which glazed a pair of very sharp grey eyes. On his large white hand glistened a massive ring—a serpent with diamond eyes winding round and gnawing a blood-red carbuncle. He communed with himself.
"A fine night. It is pleasant here. One gets out of the frightful noise of those streets there. I like my evening promenade on the bridge. It is exclusive. What a difference a sou makes! It is well worth that to be alone and quiet. The Bridge Waterloo! But I am above little prejudices. Why should I not aid its funds with my sou each evening? The bridge which those drolls of English built to celebrate the victory of Herr Blucher! Well, well, what is it to me? It was before my time, perhaps. What does the past ever signify?—nothing."
And he sang in a pleasant barytone voice a fragment of a French chanson, while he rolled up adroitly and rapidly another cigarette.
"It is pleasant looking from this bridge. It is pretty—all those little rows of lights of the other bridges. It was here that poor M. Nourrit walked up and down thinking to kill himself, but he could not make up his mind. There are many would kill themselves if they could only make up their minds. Suicide would spread but for that little difficulty, and the want of a steady hand. Yes, that also,—it needs that. Poor dear M. Nourrit! How well he used to sing, 'Des chevaliers de ma patrie!' Ah!" (and he turned his eyes upon Wilford) "we have company! Who is that person there? What! a suicide—or what you call, a swell? Is not that it? Bah! what is it to me, suicide or swell? What care I! I am not of the police English. Let him be suicide if he will. Why should the police obstruct the suicides? What harm do they do? Ah, I forget. They have no Morgue in London! That is why! What savages—no Morgue! The sight the most amusing of Paris—always new—always full of charm, and crowded, above all, with those drolls of English who have no Morgue in their dog of a country! Where, then, here do they make exposition of bodies? La! la! oup la! oup la! O la!" (And the gentleman resumed his singing.) "No, he will not suicide to-night. Bravo! my friend, you have reason." (Wilford had turned from the parapet, and was now walking slowly towards the Middlesex end of the bridge.) "You are tall; you are strong. Why should you jump to the water? He has black beard. Ah! I am not of the English police. But, let me see, then, the face of the suicide—of the swell. Which is it? Behold! this is interesting. I will follow him."
"I will write to her!" Wilford exclaimed. He quickened his pace—he left the bridge. Not far from it he perceived that a coffee-shop was still open. It was on the other side of the road. He crossed to it and entered. It was almost deserted.
"A cup of coffee," he said; "and bring me a sheet of paper, pen and ink."
"It grows late, sir," remarked the woman in the shop; "we were about to close."
"I will detain you only a very few minutes."
Another guest had entered the room. The woman bestirred herself to bring what was required. Wilford did not drink his coffee, but he commenced writing.
"My dearest Violet," he wrote. Then he paused. Subsequently he made two or three attempts to proceed with the letter. But he could not satisfy himself. He leant his head upon his hands, lost in doubt for some moments. Then suddenly he roused himself.
"No," he muttered, "I cannot write to her—I cannot leave her like that. I must see her—speak to her, even though it should be for the last time." He tore the paper into strips.
He paid the small sum due for the coffee he had not tasted, and the paper he had torn, and quitted the shop.
The other guest changed his seat. He collected the scraps of paper Wilford had left,—some on the table, some scattered on the floor.
"A good rule," he said, "never to lose a clue. And I am interested in spite of myself. So then; I recognise him; this is the Monsieur whom le petit Pichot was following. And why? He is not a pick-pocket" (he divided the words scrupulously) "this young Alexis? Who knows? And what share has la Mère Pichot in this matter? We shall see." He went out into the street.
Not far from the shop a gentleman was getting into a cab.
"Freer Street, Soho," he said to the cabman.
"Is it worth while to follow? or have I made myself to know enough for the present?" Monsieur Chose asked himself, smiling blandly the while.
CHAPTER XIV. A PARTING.
Wilford Hadfield re-entered the house in Freer Street. He had with him the key of the street door, so that he was able to return without noise. But he saw by the light in the first-floor windows that Violet had not yet retired for the night; she was probably sitting up, expecting his coming back; and in the hall he encountered Sally the Rembrandt.
"Lawks! it's you, is it!" she cried out. She was never ceremonious in her greetings, nor indeed in her speech generally. "How you frighten one coming in so quiet, for all the world like a thief."
"I thought you'd have been in bed by this time, Sally!" said Wilford, apologetically.
"Lawks, no!" Sally retorted, "it's little I care about going to bed. It seems to me it's hardly worth while going to bed at all; life ain't long enough for such waste of time; and all the trouble of putting one's things off and on, and washing and that; I think one could get on just as well without it all."
Certainly the Rembrandt seemed to be inclined to carry out her own views in this respect as fully as possible. She was always very late retiring for the night, and was fond of entering upon lengthy occupations at most unseasonable hours. She had been known more than once to be busy washing the door-steps or cleaning the windows at midnight; while the sounds of boot and knife polishing had frequently been heard at one o'clock in the morning; she was certainly the earliest riser in the house, and to be found groping about on pitch-dark winter mornings, wakeful and active, when the other residents at Mr. Phillimore's were probably in the enjoyment of their first sleep. A strange, ugly, not clean-looking, rude-mannered, hard-working, kindly old woman, very valuable to Mr. Phillimore's household, and that quite apart from her pictorial qualifications. Was she conscious of these? Anyhow, she was always putting herself into advantageous positions—considering her as a work in the Rembrandt manner—"fetching out her chiar' oscuro" effects, Mr. Phillimore termed it. A most picturesque bundle, eminently Flemish in style, she was fond, it seemed, of crouching over her kitchen fire—the red light gleaming on her shrivelled, corrugated face in a wonderful way; and she was prone to hold a swaling, flaring candle high above her head as she moved about the house, her eyes thrown by such means into dense warm brown fog, while her knotted projecting nose cast down a deep shadow that nearly hid her lips. Contemplating her gnarled visage under these aspects, the picture-dealer grew quite warm with satisfaction at his possession of such a treasure, and could only, by the exercise of the most extraordinary self-restraint, be stayed from doubling her wages on the spot, or insuring her life instantly, for an enormous amount.
"Lawks, how pale the man is!" cried Sally, her eye falling on Wilford's white face. "Are you cold? Ain't you well? Lawks me! I never saw nothing like it. What's the matter?"
"Hush, Sally; there's nothing the matter. Stay. Who left that letter you gave me as I went out a little while ago?" The question was rather nervously asked.
"That letter? Why, I told you—a boy."
"What sort of boy?"
"What sort of boy? Ain't they all alike? Imperent warmints!—throwing stones, and calling names, and dirting the door-steps, and flinging muck down the airies. I'd pay 'em out well, I would, if I was their mothers, which thank God I ain't, and never will be."
"Was he English?"
"Well, now you mention it, I don't know as he was. But, bless you! he was off afore you could wink a'most—shoves the letter into my hand bold as brass, and off goes my lord. No, I don't think he were English, from what I could see of him, which wasn't much. Leastways, there was a queer look about him, and he had a funny-shaped cap on. I shouldn't wonder now but what he was one of them furriners!"
Wilford mounted the stairs quickly, and entered the drawing-room.
He was much excited, but it was evident that he was doing all that he possibly could to command himself. It seemed as though he had determined upon a certain line of conduct, and that with the determination strength had come to him to carry it out thoroughly. He had concentrated all his energies to play out the part he had prescribed to himself. Thus he managed to place a restraint upon his feelings, and to suppress a nervous agitation which, however natural, would have interfered with his plans.
"My dearest Violet," he said, advancing to his wife. Some strangeness in his voice must have struck her: she started up.
"Has anything happened?"
"What should happen?" and he looked at her for a moment suspiciously.
"Your hand quite trembles, Wil," she said. "Are you well? Is anything wrong with you?"
He released his hand from her grasp, with an effort at a laugh that was not very successful.
"Listen, wife mine," he said, still with a feeble attempt at mirth. "Sit down quietly, and I'll tell you all."
She obeyed him at once, with assumed calmness, for there was something in his manner that alarmed her—she knew not why.
"How curiously things fall out sometimes," he said. "Do you remember what you were saying at dinner-time, when Martin was here, that you wished me to desist from work for a little—to leave London—to take a holiday?"
"Yes, I remember that," she said faintly, a sense of fear coming over her.
"Well, the opportunity has arrived, strangely enough, this very night." He turned away his eyes, and spoke very quickly. "I went back with Martin to his chambers. He found there a letter from—a man whose name you would not know if I were to mention it to you, but who is of some fame in the literary world, and is indeed commonly regarded as the representative of an important daily newspaper. Well, it seems a confidential person is required in the interests of the newspaper to proceed forthwith to Paris, as correspondent there. The gentleman who has hitherto filled that office has been taken suddenly and alarmingly ill—the news has only just come to-night by the telegraph. Somebody must go at once, or they will be without their usual Paris letter—an extraordinary loss in these times—must start at once to act on behalf of the paper for a few days, until their present correspondent recovers, or until some one is permanently appointed in his stead. Martin has been offered the post, but he has refused it; in fact, he is at present so tied to London by his engagements, that he could hardly be expected to accept it, but he has strongly urged me to go in his stead."
"And you will?"
"Yes; after some hesitation I accepted the offer. The work will not be severe. The change will be of service to me, and the chance of establishing a connection with an influential newspaper like that is one I ought not to slight. Has not all this happened fortunately?"
"And you are going—when, Wilford?"
"At once, dearest."
"I may go with you? Why do you shake your head? Why may I not?"
She was rather scared by the thought of this unexpected journey, and there were evidences almost of terror in her voice.
"No, Vi, it is not possible."
"But why not?"
"Dearest!" he said, rather troubled, "I should wish for nothing better than to be able to take you with me; but consider the haste of the thing, the discomfort, the uncertainty! I may not be gone more than three or four days. Why should you be subjected to all this inconvenience?"
"Wilford, you know I should not heed that—only let me be by your side. I am frightened by this hurry and suddenness. I cannot bear that we should be parted thus. You are not well now. You are not strong enough for all this turmoil. Oh, why did you consent to go? How could you think of leaving me? Write, and say that upon reflection you cannot: tell them—anything! Only do not leave me, Wilford. You may fall ill on the road. You may die, Wilford, and I shall never see you more."
The tears started to her eyes at the thought, and she circled him with her soft arms, and kissed him.
"Dearest Vi, is this reasonable?" he said, gently. "I have accepted the offer made to me. Am I not bound in honour—"
"Enough, Wilford. You must go, I see. But may I not go with you?"
"You forget, Vi, the baby. You cannot leave baby; and we cannot expose the little one to all the fatigues of this journey."
"True," she said, rather sorrowfully. "I was not thinking of what I said. Forgive me, husband dear; but at the mention of our first separation—" Her voice failed her.
Fondly he drew her to his heart, and she hid her face and her tears on his breast.
"A few days only, Vi, and I shall come back again, well and strong,—think of that!"
"It will not be more than that?"
"Oh, no. I only accept it on those conditions. I wouldn't have the permanent appointment on any terms. But the opportunity of the change—of obliging Martin—of making friends with an influential organ—"
"Yes, I see; you must go. What time to-morrow shall you start?"
"To-morrow?—I go to-night—at once. I have come home simply for a carpet-bag, and, what is more important, for a kiss from my wife and child before I start."
"But there is no train to-night?"
"No, but there is an early one in the morning. The intervening hours I spend with the editor in the city—closely closeted—receiving my instructions."
"Oh, Wil, this is dreadful—I cannot let you go."
"Come, Vi, dearest, take courage—the thing is not really dreadful. Pack a few things for me, there's my darling wife. I shall be back with you again before you've had time to miss me."
She shook her head with a sad smile as she quitted the room to fulfil his request.
He seemed to breathe more freely in her absence. But he was very restless: he strode about ceaselessly with shaking hands.
"God forgive me!" he said at length, deeply pained, "it is the first time I have lied to her. My own dear Violet!"
She came back presently. She had made all necessary preparations for his departure, but the tears were still in her eyes.
"I did not think myself so weak," she said. "Forgive me, Wilford! I ought to have more sense, ought I not, than to be crying because you are leaving me for only a day or so? I don't know how it is—of course it's very foolish—but I have a sort of dread about this journey. Perhaps because the news of it came to me so suddenly. I have all sorts of foolish thoughts and doubts about it. I do wish you were not going. Still it's all simple and natural enough, is it not? Say that it is. And you'll write immediately on your arrival, and you'll come back very, very soon to me and baby, won't you, Wilford? I do wish it were all over, and you safe again home. Good-bye, dearest Wilford!"
"Good-bye, my own wife!" and he strained her to his heart. He was greatly troubled, and trembled very much; he was nearly giving way under the pain of that parting. "For you are mine, are you not, Violet? And you will love me always, whatever happens? We are husband and wife, for better and for worse, and our love shall last through weal and woe, through good report and evil report. You will love me always, promise me that!"
"What are you saying?" she asked, softly, smiling through her tears.
"Nay, I hardly know. I have caught something of your doubts and forebodings, I think. It is our first parting, Violet, as you say. Perhaps that is the cause. Again, good-bye! Keep your heart up, there's my brave Violet! Love me and trust in me always. Good-bye!"
One last hurried kiss, and he was gone. She heard the noise of the cab bearing him away; she listened until the sound quite died off. Then a sense of loneliness came dreadfully upon her, and the tears streamed down her face. Had Mr. Phillimore seen her then, he would have cried aloud in his admiration at the exquisite semblance of Raffaelle's Mater Dolorosa that she presented.
"I have never doubted him," she said. "Let me not doubt him now. And yet there was something new and strange in his voice as he spoke of that newspaper business. And then this sudden departure. No! no!" and she interrupted herself passionately, "he is my own good true husband! I wrong him by one moment's doubt of him."
And Violet dried her eyes and passed up-stairs, to kneel before the cradle in the front room, to kiss tenderly the rosy little child curled up closely and fast asleep: to weep anew, and pray for her husband and the father of her child.
"If I were never to see her more!" murmured Wilford, as the cab bore him rapidly away. The thought seemed to be to him agony the most acute.
The cab did not go into the city—drew up at no newspaper office. It stopped at the door of an hotel near Covent Garden Market. The night-porter was roused, and the cab dismissed. Wilford was shown into a bedroom. He flung down his carpet-bag.
"At least I have now time to think; I have gained that much," and he drew his hand nervously across his forehead. "Let me read this infernal letter again." And he took it, a crumpled ball of paper, from his pocket, and smoothed it on the dressing-table in the room. As he did this he caught sight of himself in the glass. "Heaven!" he exclaimed, involuntarily, "how white I am!"
He rested his head upon his hands, and remained so for a long time, bent over the letter. It contained but a few short lines, yet he sat brooding over these, reading them again and again, as though he were learning them by heart. At last he seemed to be staring in a dazed, vacant way, as though his eyes really took no cognizance of the writing before him, and his thoughts were miles and miles away. With an effort he brought himself back to consciousness of surrounding circumstances. Once more he read the letter.
"I shall remember the name," he said at last in a hollow voice, "and the address: 'Boisfleury—second floor—67, Stowe Street, Strand,'—I shall not forget that. For this—" He stood for a long time irresolutely, folding it up, winding it round his fingers, twisting it into all sorts of shapes. "Yes, it had better be burnt!"
He lighted it at the candle, thrust the flaming paper into the empty grate, and watched it slowly consume. He waited until the last spark had flown from it. A few flakes of tinder only remained of the letter which had disturbed him so strangely.
"So far so well," he said; "what next?"
And he shuddered.
He looked round nervously at the gaunt-looking bedroom. It could hardly be comfortable; it struck him as so new and unaccustomed, and the heavy furniture of the room quite absorbed and oppressed the light. The place seemed very dim and dreary, and full of dense shadows huddling closely in the corners. He had never felt so sad and desolate before.
Slowly he undressed and went to bed—hardly to sleep, however.