On the morning after her journey down from London, Mrs. Warricombe awoke wit_he conviction that she had caught a cold. Her health was in genera_xcellent, and she had no disposition to nurse imaginary ailments, but whe_ome slight disorder broke the routine of her life she made the most of it, enjoying—much as children do—the importance with which for the time i_nvested her. At such seasons she was wont to regard herself with a mildl_espondent compassion, to feel that her family and her friends held her o_light account; she spoke in a tone of conscious resignation, often with _orgiving smile. When the girls redoubled their attentions, and soothed he_ith gentle words, she would close her eyes and sigh, seeming to remind the_hat they would know her value when she was no more.
'You are hoarse, mother,' Sidwell said to her, when they met at breakfast.
'Am I, dear? You know I felt rather afraid of the journey. I hope I shan't b_aid up.'
Sidwell advised her not to leave the house to-day. Having seen the invali_omfortably established in an upper room, she went into the city on busines_hich could not be delayed. On her way occurred the meeting with Peak, but o_his, on her return, she made no mention. Mother and daughter had luncheo_pstairs, and Sidwell was full of affectionate solicitude.
'This afternoon you had better lie down for an hour or two,' she said.
'Do you think so? Just drop a line to father, and warn him that we may kep_ere for some time.'
'Shall I send for Dr Endacott?'
'Just as you like, dear.'
But Mrs. Warricombe had eaten such an excellent lunch, that Sidwell could no_eel uneasy.
'We'll see how you are this evening. At all events, it will be safer for yo_ot to go downstairs. If you lie quiet for an hour or two, I can look fo_hose pamphlets that father wants.'
'Just as you like, dear.'
By three o'clock the invalid was calmly slumbering. Having entered the bedroo_n tiptoe and heard regular breathing, Sidwell went down and for a few minute_ingered about the hall. A servant came to her for instructions on som_omestic matter; when this was dismissed she mentioned that, if anyone called, she would be found in the library.
The pamphlets of which her father had spoken were soon discovered. She lai_hem aside, and seated herself by the fire, but without leaning back. At an_ound within or outside the house she moved her head to listen. Her look wa_nxious, but the gleam of her eyes expressed pleasurable agitation.
At half-past three she went into the drawing-room, where all the furniture wa_raped, and the floor bare. Standing where she could look from a distanc_hrough one of the windows, at which the blind had been raised, she waited fo_ quarter of an hour. Then the chill atmosphere drove her back to th_ireside. In the study, evidences of temporary desertion were less oppressive, but the windows looked only upon a sequestered part of the garden. Sidwel_esired to watch the approach from the high-road, and in a few minutes she wa_gain in the drawing-room. But scarcely had she closed the door behind he_hen a ringing of the visitors' bell sounded with unfamiliar distinctness. Sh_tarted, hastened from the room, fled into the library, and had time to sea_erself before she heard the footsteps of a servant moving in answer to th_ummons.
The door opened, and Peak was announced.
Sidwell had never known what it was to be thus overcome with emotion. Shame a_er inability to command the calm features with which she would naturall_eceive a caller flushed her cheeks and neck; she stepped forward wit_owncast eyes, and only in offering her hand could at length look at him wh_tood before her. She saw at once that Peak was unlike himself; he too ha_nusual warmth in his countenance, and his eyes seemed strangely large, luminous. On his forehead were drops of moisture.
This sight restored her self-control, or such measure of it as permitted he_o speak in the conventional way.
'I am sorry that mother can't leave her room. She had a slight cold thi_orning, but I didn't think it would give her any trouble.'
Peak was delighted, and betrayed the feeling even whilst he constrained hi_ace into a look of exaggerated anxiety.
'It won't be anything serious, I hope? The railway journey, I'm afraid.'
'Yes, the journey. She has a slight hoarseness, but I think we shall preven_t from'——
Their eyes kept meeting, and with more steadfastness. They were conscious o_utual scrutiny, and, on both sides, of changes since they last met. When tw_eople have devoted intense study to each other's features, a three months'
absence not only revives the old impressions but subjects them to sudde_odification which engrosses thought and feeling. Sidwell continued to utte_ommonplaces, simply as a means of disguising the thoughts that occupied her; she was saying to herself that Peak's face had a purer outline than she ha_elieved, and that his eyes had gained in expressiveness. In the same wa_odwin said and replied he knew not what, just to give himself time to observ_nd enjoy the something new—the increased animation or subtler facia_ovements—which struck him as often as he looked at his companion. Eac_ondered what the other had been doing, whether the time had seemed long o_hort.
'I hope you have kept well?' Sidwell asked.
Godwin hastened to respond with civil inquiries.
'I was very glad to hear from Mr. Warricombe a few days ago, he continued.
Sidwell was not aware that her father had written, but her pleased smil_eemed to signify the contrary.
'She looks younger,' Peak said in his mind. 'Perhaps that London dress and th_ew way of arranging her hair have something to do with it. But no, she look_ounger in herself. She must have been enjoying the pleasures of town.'
'You have been constantly occupied, no doubt,' he added aloud, feeling at th_ame time that this was a clumsy expression of what he meant. Though he ha_nbuttoned his overcoat, and seated himself as easily as he could, the absur_all hat which he held embarrassed him; to deposit it on the floor demanded a_ffort of which he was yet incapable.
'I have seen many things and heard much talk,' Sidwell was replying, in a ga_one. It irritated him; he would have preferred her to speak with more of th_ld pensiveness. Yet perhaps she was glad simply because she found hersel_gain talking with him?
'And you?' she went on. 'It has not been all work, I hope?'
'Oh no! I have had many pleasant intervals.'
This was in imitation of her vivacity. He felt the words and the manner to b_idiculous, but could not restrain himself. Every moment increased hi_neasiness; the hat weighed in his hands like a lump of lead, and he wa_onvinced that he had never looked so clownish. Did her smile signif_riticism of his attitude?
With a decision which came he knew not how, he let his hat drop to the floo_nd pushed it aside. There, that was better; he felt less of a bumpkin.
Sidwell glanced at the glossy grotesque, but instantly averted her eyes, an_sked rather more gravely:
'Have you been in Exeter all the time?'
'But you didn't spend your Christmas alone, I hope?'
'Oh, I had my books.'
Was there not a touch of natural pathos in this? He hoped so; then mocked a_imself for calculating such effects.
'I think you don't care much for ordinary social pleasures, Mr Peak?'
He smiled bitterly.
'I have never known much of them,—and you remember that I look forward to _ife in which they will have little part. Such a life,' he continued, after _ause, 'seems to you unendurably dull? I noticed that, when I spoke of i_efore.'
'You misunderstood me.' She said it so undecidedly that he gazed at her wit_uzzled look. Her eyes fell.
'But you like society?'
'If you use the word in its narrowest meaning,' she answered, 'then I not onl_islike society, but despise it.'
She had raised her eyebrows, and was looking coldly at him. Did she mean t_ebuke him for the tone he had adopted? Indeed, he seemed to himsel_resumptuous. But if they were still on terms such as these, was it not bette_o know it, even at the cost of humiliation? One moment he believed that h_ould read Sidwell's thoughts, and that they were wholly favourable to him; a_nother he felt absolutely ignorant of all that was passing in her, an_isposed to interpret her face as that of a conventional woman who had neve_egarded him as on her own social plane. These uncertainties, these frequen_eversions to a state of mind which at other times he seemed to have lon_utgrown, were a singular feature of his relations with Sidwell. Could suc_xperiences consist with genuine love? Never had he felt more willing t_nswer the question with a negative. He felt that he was come here to act _art, and that the end of the interview, be it what it might, would onl_ffect him superficially.
'No,' he replied, with deliberation; 'I never supposed that you had an_nterest in the most foolish class of wealthy people. I meant that yo_ecognise your place in a certain social rank, and regard intercourse wit_our equals as an essential of happiness.'
'If I understood why you ask'—she began abruptly, but ceased as she met hi_lance. Again he thought she was asserting a distant dignity.
'The question arose naturally out of a train of thought which always occupie_e when I talk with you. I myself belong to no class whatever, and I can'_elp wondering how—if the subject ever occurred to you—you would place me.'
He saw his way now, and, having said thus much, could talk on defiantly. Thi_our must decide his fortune with Sidwell, yet his tongue utterly refused an_f the modes of speech which the situation would have suggested to an ordinar_ind. He could not 'make love'. Instead of humility, he was prompted t_isplay a rough arrogance; instead of tender phrases, he uttered what sounde_ike deliberate rudeness. His voice was less gently tuned than Sidwell ha_een wont to hear it. It all meant that he despaired of wooing successfully, and more than half wished to force some word from Sidwell which would spar_im the necessity of a plain avowal.
But before he had finished speaking, her face changed. A light of sudde_nderstanding shone in her eyes; her lips softened to a smile of exquisit_entleness.
'The subject never did occur to me,' she answered. 'How should it? A friend i_ friend.'
It was not strictly true, but in the strength of her emotion she could forge_ll that contradicted it.
Godwin began with the same note of bluntness. But of a sudden he felt th_nfluence of Sidwell's smile. His voice sank into a murmur, his heart leapt, _hrill went through his veins.
'I wish to be something more than a friend.'
He felt that it was bald, inadequate. Yet the words had come of their ow_ccord, on an impulse of unimpaired sincerity. Sidwell's head was bent.
'That is why I can't take simple things for granted,' he continued, his gaz_ixed upon her. 'If I thought of nothing but friendship, it would see_ational enough that you should accept me for what I am —a man of education, talking your own language. Because I have dared to hope something more, _uffer from the thought that I was not born into your world, and that you mus_e always remembering this difference.'
'Do you think me so far behind the age?' asked Sidwell, trying to laugh.
'Classes are getting mixed, confused. Yes, but we are so conscious of th_rocess that we talk of class distinctions more than of anything else,—tal_nd think of them incessantly. You have never heard me make a profession o_adicalism; I am decidedly behind the age. Be what I may—and I have spiritua_ride more than enough—the fact that I have relatives in the lower, even th_owest, social class must necessarily affect the whole course of my life. _ertain kind of man declares himself proud of such an origin —and most ofte_ies. Or one may be driven by it into rebellion against social privilege. T_e, my origin is simply a grave misfortune, to be accepted and, if possible, overcome. Does that sound mean-spirited? I can't help it; I want you to kno_e.'
'I believe I know you very well,' Sidwell replied.
The consciousness that she was deceived checked the words which were rising t_is lips. Again he saw himself in a pitiful light, and this self-contemp_eflected upon Sidwell. He could not doubt that she was yielding to him; he_ttitude and her voice declared it; but what was the value of love won b_mposture? Why had she not intelligence enough to see through his hypocrisy, which at times was so thin a veil? How defective must her sympathy be!
'Yet you have seen very little of me,' he said, smiling.
There was a short silence; then he exclaimed in a voice of emotion:
'How I wish we had known each other ever since that day when your brothe_rought me to your house near Kingsmill! If we had met and talked through al_hose years! But that was impossible for the very reason which makes m_narticulate now that I wish to say so much. When you first saw me I was _awky schoolboy, learning to use my brains, and knowing already that life ha_othing to offer me but a false position. Whether I remained with my kith an_in, or turned my back upon them in the hope of finding my equals, I wa_ondemned to a life of miserable incompleteness. I was born in exile. It too_ long time before I had taught myself how to move and speak like one of th_lass to which I belonged by right of intellect. I was living alone in London, in mean lodging-houses. But the day came when I felt more confidence i_yself. I had saved money, and foresaw that in a year or two I should be abl_o carry out a plan, make one serious attempt to win a position among educate_eople.'
He stopped. Had he intended a full confession, it was thus he might have begu_t. Sidwell was regarding him, but with a gentle look, utterly unsuspecting.
She was unable to realise his character and his temptations.
'And have you not succeeded?' she asked, in a low voice.
'Have I? Let me put it to the test. I will set aside every thought o_resumption; forget that lam a penniless student looking forward to a countr_uracy; and say what I wished to when we had our last conversation. Never min_ow it sounds. I have dared to hope that some day I shall ask you to be m_ife, and that you won't refuse.'
The word 'wife' reverberated on his ears. A whirl of emotion broke the defian_alm he had supported for the last few minutes. The silence seemed to b_ndless; when he looked at Sidwell, her head was bent, the eyes concealed b_heir drooping lids. Her expression was very grave.
'Such a piece of recklessness,' he said at length, 'deserves no answer.'
Sidwell raised her eyes and spoke gently, with voice a little shaken.
'Why should you call it recklessness? I have never thought of the things tha_eem to trouble you so much. You were a friend of ours. Wasn't that enough?'
It seemed to him an evasive reply. Doubtless it was much that she showe_either annoyance nor prudish reserve. He had won the right of addressing he_n equal terms, but she was not inclined to anticipate that future day t_hich he pointed.
'You have never thought of such things, because you have never thought of m_s I of you. Every day of your absence in London has caused me torments whic_ere due most often to the difference between your social position and mine.
You have been among people of leisure and refinement and culture. Each evenin_ou have talked with men whom it cost no effort to make themselves liked an_espected. I think of that with bitterness.'
'But why? I have made many acquaintances; have met very interesting people. _m glad of it; it enables me to understand you better than I could before.'
'You are glad on that account?'
'Yes; indeed I am.'
'Dare I think you mean more than a civil phrase?'
'I mean quite simply all that my words imply. I have thought of you, thoug_ertainly without bitterness. No one's conversation in London interested me s_uch as yours.'
Soothed with an exquisite joy, Godwin felt his eyes moisten. For a moment h_as reconciled to all the world, and forgot the hostilities of a lifetime.
'And will it still be so, now, when you go back?' he asked, in a soft tone.
'I am sure it will.'
'Then it will be strange if I ever feel bitterly again.'
'You could have said nothing that could please me more. Why should your lif_e troubled by these dark moods? I could understand it if you were stil_truggling with—with doubts, with all manner of uncertainties about you_ourse'——
She hesitated, watching his face.
'You think I have chosen well?' said Godwin, meeting her look.
Sidwell's eyes were at once averted.
'I hope,' she said, 'we may talk of that again very soon. You have told m_uch of yourself, but I have said little or nothing of my own—difficulties. I_on't be long before we come back from London, and then'——
Once more their eyes met steadily.
'You think,' Godwin asked, 'that I am right in aiming at a life o_etirement?'
'It is one of my doubts. Your influence would be useful anywhere; but mos_seful, surely, among people of active mind.'
'Perhaps I shan't be able to choose. Remember that lam seeking for _ivelihood as well as for a sphere of usefulness.'
His eyes fell as he spoke. Hitherto he had had no means of learning whethe_idwell would bring her husband a dowry substantial enough to be considered.
Though he could not feel that she had betrothed herself to him, their talk wa_o nearly that of avowed lovers that perchance she would disclose whateve_ight help to put his mind at rest. The thought revived his painful self- consciousness; it was that of a schemer, yet would not the curse of povert_ave suggested it to any man?
'Perhaps you won't be able to choose—at first,' Sidwell assented, thereb_eeming to answer his unspoken question. 'But I am sure my father will us_hatever influence he has.'
Had he been seated near enough, he would have been tempted to the boldness o_aking her hand. What more encouragement did he await? But the distanc_etween them was enough to check his embarrassed impulses. He could not eve_all her 'Sidwell'; it would have been easier a few minutes ago, before sh_ad begun to speak with such calm friendliness. Now, in spite of everything, he felt that to dare such a familiarity must needs call upon him the reproo_f astonished eyes.
'You return to-morrow?' he asked, suddenly.
'I think so. You have promised me to be cheerful until we are home again.'
'A promise to be cheerful wouldn't mean much. But it does mean much that I ca_hink of what you have said to-day'
Sidwell did not speak, and her silence seemed to compel him to rise. It wa_trange how remote he still felt from her pure, grave face, and the flowin_utlines of her figure. Why could he not say to her, 'I love you; give me you_ands; give me your lips'? Such words seemed impossible. Yet passion thrille_n him as he watched the grace of her movements, the light and shadow upon he_eatures. She had risen and come a step or two forward.
'I think you look taller—in that dress.'
The words rather escaped him than were spoken. His need was to talk of commo_hings, of trifles, that so he might come to feel humanly.
Sidwell smiled with unmistakable pleasure.
'Do I? Do you like the dress?'
'Yes. It becomes you.'
'Are you critical in such things?'
'Not with understanding. But I should like to see you every day in a new an_eautiful dress.'
'Oh, I couldn't afford it!' was the laughing reply.
He offered his hand; the touch of her warm, soft fingers fired his blood.
It was spoken at last, involuntarily, and he stood with his eyes on hers, he_and crushed in his.
'Some day!' she whispered.
If their lips met, the contact was so slight as to seem accidental; it was th_ere timorous promise of a future kiss. And both were glad of the somethin_hat had imposed restraint.
When Sidwell went up to her mother's sitting-room, a servant had just brough_ea.
'I hear that Mr. Peak has been,' said Mrs. Warricombe, who looked puffy an_ncomfortable after her sleep. 'Emma was going to take tea to the study, but _hought it unnecessary. How could he know that we were here?'
'I met him this morning on my way into the town.'
'Surely it was rather inconsiderate of him to call.'
'He asked if he might.'
Mrs. Warricombe turned her head and examined Sidwell.
'Oh! And did he stay long?'
'Not very long,' replied Sidwell, who was in quiet good-humour.
'I think it would have been better if you had told him by the servant that _as not well enough to see callers. You didn't mention that he might b_oming.'
Mrs. Warricombe's mind worked slowly at all times, and at present she wa_uffering from a cold.
'Why didn't you speak of it, Sidwell?'
'Really—I forgot,' replied the daughter, lightly.
'And what had he to say?'
'Nothing new, mother. Is your head better, dear?'
There was no answer. Mrs. Warricombe had conceived a vague suspicion which wa_o alarming that she would not press inquiries alluding to it. Th_ncouragement given by her husband to Godwin Peak in the latter's socia_rogress had always annoyed her, though she could not frame solid objections.
To be sure, to say of a man that he is about to be ordained meets ever_ossible question that society can put; but Mrs. Warricombe's uneasiness wa_n part due to personal dislike. Oftener than not, she still thought of Pea_s he appeared some eleven years ago—an evident the story of his relative wh_ad opened a shop in Kingsmill; plebeian, without manners, without a redeemin_race. She knew thinking of that now, she shuddered.
Sidwell began to talk of indifferent matters, and Peak was not agai_entioned.
Her throat being still troublesome, Mrs. Warricombe retired very soon afte_inner. About nine o'clock Sidwell went to the library, and sat down at he_ather's writing-table, purposing a letter to Sylvia. She penned a line o_wo, but soon lapsed into reverie, her head on her hands. Of a sudden the doo_as thrown open, and there stood Buckland, fresh from travel.
'What has brought you?' exclaimed his sister, starting up anxiously, fo_omething in the young man's look seemed ominous.
'Oh, nothing to trouble about. I had to come down—on business. Mother gone t_ed?'
'All right; doesn't matter. I suppose I can sleep here? Let them get me _outhful of something; cold meat, anything will do.'
His needs were quickly supplied, and before long he was smoking by the librar_ire.
'I was writing to Sylvia,' said his sister, glancing at her fragmentar_etter.
'You know she is at Salisbury?'
'Salisbury? No, I didn't.'
His carelessness proved to Sidwell that she was wrong in conjecturing that hi_ourney had something to do with Miss Moorhouse. Buckland was in no mood fo_onversation; he smoked for a quarter of an hour whilst Sidwell resumed he_riting.
'Of course you haven't seen Peak?' fell from him at length.
His sister looked at him before replying.
'Yes. He called this afternoon.'
'But who told him you were here?'
His brows were knitted, and he spoke very abruptly. Sidwell gave the sam_xplanation as to her mother, and had further to reply that she alone receive_he caller.
'I see,' was Buckland's comment.
Its tone troubled Sidwell.
'Has your coming anything to do with Mr. Peak?'
'Yes, it has. I want to see him the first thing to-morrow.
'Can you tell me what about?'
He searched her face, frowning.
'Not now. I'll tell you in the morning.'
Sidwell saw herself doomed to a night of suspense. She could not confess ho_early the mystery concerned her. Had Buckland made some discovery tha_rritated him against Peak? She knew he was disposed to catch at anything tha_eemed to tell against Godwin's claims to respectful treatment, and it surel_ust be a grave affair to hurry him on so long a journey. Though she coul_magine no ground of fear, the situation was seriously disturbing.
She tried to go on with her letter, but failed. As Buckland smoked in silence, she at length rose and said she would go upstairs.
'All right! Shall see you at breakfast. Good-night!'
At nine next morning Mrs. Warricombe sent a message to Buckland that sh_ished to see him in her bedroom. He entered hurriedly.
'Cold better, mother? I have only just time to drink a cup of coffee. I wan_o catch Peak before he can have left home.'
'Mr. Peak? Why? I was going to speak about him.'
'What were you going to say?' Buckland asked, anxiously.
His mother began in a roundabout way which threatened long detention. In _inute or two Buckland had gathered enough to interrupt her with the direc_nquiry:
'You don't mean that there's anything between him and Sidwell?'
'I do hope not; but I can't imagine why she should—really, almost make _rivate appointment. I am very uneasy, Buckland. I have hardly slept. Sidwel_s rather—you know'——
'The deuce! I can't stop now. Wait an hour or two, and I shall have seen th_ellow. You needn't alarm yourself. He will probably have disappeared in a fe_ays.'
'What do you mean?' Mrs. Warricombe asked, with nervous eagerness.
'I'll explain afterwards.'
He hurried away. Sidwell was at the breakfast-table. Her eyes seemed t_eclare that she had not slept well. With an insignificant word or two, th_oung man swallowed his cup of coffee, and had soon left the house.