Of the acquaintances Yule had retained from his earlier years several were in the well-defined category of men with unpresentable wives. There was Hinks, for instance, whom, though in anger he spoke of him as a bore, Alfred held in some genuine regard. Hinks made perhaps a hundred a year out of a kind of writing which only certain publishers can get rid of and of this income he spent about a third on books. His wife was the daughter of a laundress, in whose house he had lodged thirty years ago, when new to London but already long-acquainted with hunger; they lived in complete harmony, but Mrs Hinks, who was four years the elder, still spoke the laundress tongue, unmitigated and immitigable. Another pair were Mr and Mrs Gorbutt. In this case there were no narrow circumstances to contend with, for the wife, originally a nursemaid, not long after her marriage inherited house property from a relative. Mr Gorbutt deemed himself a poet; since his accession to an income he had published, at his own expense, a yearly volume of verses; the only result being to keep alive rancour in his wife, who was both parsimonious and vain. Making no secret of it, Mrs Gorbutt rued the day on which she had wedded a man of letters, when by waiting so short a time she would have been enabled to aim at a prosperous tradesman, who kept his gig and had everything handsome about him. Mrs Yule suspected, not without reason, that this lady had an inclination to strong liquors. Thirdly came Mr and Mrs Christopherson, who were poor as church mice. Even in a friend’s house they wrangled incessantly, and made tragi-comical revelations of their home life. The husband worked casually at irresponsible journalism, but his chosen study was metaphysics; for many years he had had a huge and profound book on hand, which he believed would bring him fame, though he was not so unsettled in mind as to hope for anything else. When an article or two had earned enough money for immediate necessities he went off to the British Museum, and then the difficulty was to recall him to profitable exertions. Yet husband and wife had an affection for each other. Mrs Christopherson came from Camberwell, where her father, once upon a time, was the smallest of small butchers. Disagreeable stories were whispered concerning her earlier life, and probably the metaphysician did not care to look back in that direction. They had had three children; all were happily buried.
These men were capable of better things than they had done or would ever do; in each case their failure to fulfil youthful promise was largely explained by the unpresentable wife. They should have waited; they might have married a social equal at something between fifty and sixty.
Another old friend was Mr Quarmby. Unwedded he, and perpetually exultant over men who, as he phrased it, had noosed themselves. He made a fair living, but, like Dr Johnson, had no passion for clean linen.
Yule was not disdainful of these old companions, and the fact that all had a habit of looking up to him increased his pleasure in their occasional society. If, as happened once or twice in half a year, several of them were gathered together at his house, he tasted a sham kind of social and intellectual authority which he could not help relishing. On such occasions he threw off his habitual gloom and talked vigorously, making natural display of his learning and critical ability. The topic, sooner or later, was that which is inevitable in such a circle – the demerits, the pretentiousness, the personal weaknesses of prominent contemporaries in the world of letters. Then did the room ring with scornful laughter, with boisterous satire, with shouted irony, with fierce invective. After an evening of that kind Yule was unwell and miserable for several days.
It was not to be expected that Mr Quarmby, inveterate chatterbox of the Reading-room and other resorts, should keep silence concerning what he had heard of Mr Rackett’s intentions. The rumour soon spread that Alfred Yule was to succeed Fadge in the direction of The Study, with the necessary consequence that Yule found himself an object of affectionate interest to a great many people of whom he knew little or nothing. At the same time the genuine old friends pressed warmly about him, with congratulations, with hints of their sincere readiness to assist in filling the columns of the paper. All this was not disagreeable, but in the meantime Yule had heard nothing whatever from Mr Rackett himself and his doubts did not diminish as week after week went by.
The event justified him. At the end of October appeared an authoritative announcement that Fadge’s successor would be – not Alfred Yule, but a gentleman who till of late had been quietly working as a sub-editor in the provinces, and who had neither friendships nor enmities among the people of the London literary press. A young man, comparatively fresh from the university, and said to be strong in pure scholarship. The choice, as you are aware, proved a good one, and The Study became an organ of more repute than ever.
Yule had been secretly conscious that it was not to men such as he that positions of this kind are nowadays entrusted. He tried to persuade himself that he was not disappointed. But when Mr Quarmby approached him with blank face, he spoke certain wrathful words which long rankled in that worthy’s mind. At home he kept sullen silence.
No, not to such men as he – poor, and without social recommendations. Besides, he was growing too old. In literature, as in most other pursuits, the press of energetic young men was making it very hard for a veteran even to hold the little grazing-plot he had won by hard fighting. Still, Quarmby’s story had not been without foundation; it was true that the proprietor of The Study had for a moment thought of Alfred Yule, doubtless as the natural contrast to Clement Fadge, whom he would have liked to mortify if the thing were possible. But counsellors had proved to Mr Rackett the disadvantages of such a choice.
Mrs Yule and her daughter foresaw but too well the results of this disappointment, notwithstanding that Alfred announced it to them with dry indifference. The month that followed was a time of misery for all in the house. Day after day Yule sat at his meals in sullen muteness; to his wife he scarcely spoke at all, and his conversation with Marian did not go beyond necessary questions and remarks on topics of business. His face became so strange a colour that one would have thought him suffering from an attack of jaundice; bilious headaches exasperated his savage mood. Mrs Yule knew from long experience how worse than useless it was for her to attempt consolation; in silence was her only safety. Nor did Marian venture to speak directly of what had happened. But one evening, when she had been engaged in the study and was now saying ‘Good-night,’ she laid her cheek against her father’s, an unwonted caress which had a strange effect upon him. The expression of sympathy caused his thoughts to reveal themselves as they never yet had done before his daughter.
‘It might have been very different with me,’ he exclaimed abruptly, as if they had already been conversing on the subject. ‘When you think of my failures – and you must often do so now you are grown up and understand things – don’t forget the obstacles that have been in my way. I don’t like you to look upon your father as a thickhead who couldn’t be expected to succeed. Look at Fadge. He married a woman of good social position; she brought him friends and influence. But for that he would never have been editor of The Study, a place for which he wasn’t in the least fit. But he was able to give dinners; he and his wife went into society; everybody knew him and talked of him. How has it been with me? I live here like an animal in its hole, and go blinking about if by chance I find myself among the people with whom I ought naturally to associate. If I had been able to come in direct contact with Rackett and other men of that kind, to dine with them, and have them to dine with me, to belong to a club, and so on, I shouldn’t be what I am at my age. My one opportunity – when I edited The Balance – wasn’t worth much; there was no money behind the paper; we couldn’t hold out long enough. But even then, if I could have assumed my proper social standing, if I could have opened my house freely to the right kind of people – How was it possible?’
Marian could not raise her head. She recognised the portion of truth in what he said, but it shocked her that he should allow himself to speak thus. Her silence seemed to remind him how painful it must be to her to hear these accusations of her mother, and with a sudden ‘Good-night’ he dismissed her.
She went up to her room, and wept over the wretchedness of all their lives. Her loneliness had seemed harder to bear than ever since that last holiday. For a moment, in the lanes about Finden, there had come to her a vision of joy such as fate owed her youth; but it had faded, and she could no longer hope for its return. She was not a woman, but a mere machine for reading and writing. Did her father never think of this? He was not the only one to suffer from the circumstances in which poverty had involved him.
She had no friends to whom she could utter her thoughts. Dora Milvain had written a second time, and more recently had come a letter from Maud; but in replying to them she could not give a true account of herself. Impossible, to them. From what she wrote they would imagine her contentedly busy, absorbed in the affairs of literature. To no one could she make known the aching sadness of her heart, the dreariness of life as it lay before her.
That beginning of half-confidence between her and her mother had led to nothing. Mrs Yule found no second opportunity of speaking to her husband about Jasper Milvain, and purposely she refrained from any further hint or question to Marian. Everything must go on as hitherto.
The days darkened. Through November rains and fogs Marian went her usual way to the Museum, and toiled there among the other toilers. Perhaps once a week she allowed herself to stray about the alleys of the Reading-room, scanning furtively those who sat at the desks, but the face she might perchance have discovered was not there.
One day at the end of the month she sat with books open before her, but by no effort could fix her attention upon them. It was gloomy, and one could scarcely see to read; a taste of fog grew perceptible in the warm, headachy air. Such profound discouragement possessed her that she could not even maintain the pretence of study; heedless whether anyone observed her, she let her hands fall and her head droop. She kept asking herself what was the use and purpose of such a life as she was condemned to lead. When already there was more good literature in the world than any mortal could cope with in his lifetime, here was she exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be more than a commodity for the day’s market. What unspeakable folly! To write – was not that the joy and the privilege of one who had an urgent message for the world?
Her father, she knew well, had no such message; he had abandoned all thought of original production, and only wrote about writing.
She herself would throw away her pen with joy but for the need of earning money. And all these people about her, what aim had they save to make new books out of those already existing, that yet newer books might in turn be made out of theirs? This huge library, growing into unwieldiness, threatening to become a trackless desert of print – how intolerably it weighed upon the spirit!
Oh, to go forth and labour with one’s hands, to do any poorest, commonest work of which the world had truly need! It was ignoble to sit here and support the paltry pretence of intellectual dignity. A few days ago her startled eye had caught an advertisement in the newspaper, headed ‘Literary Machine’; had it then been invented at last, some automaton to supply the place of such poor creatures as herself to turn out books and articles? Alas! the machine was only one for holding volumes conveniently, that the work of literary manufacture might be physically lightened. But surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for to-day’s consumption.
The fog grew thicker; she looked up at the windows beneath the dome and saw that they were a dusky yellow. Then her eye discerned an official walking along the upper gallery, and in pursuance of her grotesque humour, her mocking misery, she likened him to a black, lost soul, doomed to wander in an eternity of vain research along endless shelves. Or again, the readers who sat here at these radiating lines of desks, what were they but hapless flies caught in a huge web, its nucleus the great circle of the Catalogue? Darker, darker. From the towering wall of volumes seemed to emanate visible motes, intensifying the obscurity; in a moment the book-lined circumference of the room would be but a featureless prison-limit.
But then flashed forth the sputtering whiteness of the electric light, and its ceaseless hum was henceforth a new source of headache. It reminded her how little work she had done to-day; she must, she must force herself to think of the task in hand. A machine has no business to refuse its duty. But the pages were blue and green and yellow before her eyes; the uncertainty of the light was intolerable. Right or wrong she would go home, and hide herself, and let her heart unburden itself of tears.
On her way to return books she encountered Jasper Milvain. Face to face; no possibility of his avoiding her.
And indeed he seemed to have no such wish. His countenance lighted up with unmistakable pleasure.
‘At last we meet, as they say in the melodramas. Oh, do let me help you with those volumes, which won’t even let you shake hands. How do you do? How do you like this weather? And how do you like this light?’
‘It’s very bad.’
‘That’ll do both for weather and light, but not for yourself. How glad I am to see you! Are you just going?’
‘I have scarcely been here half-a-dozen times since I came back to London.’
‘But you are writing still?’
‘Oh yes! But I draw upon my genius, and my stores of observation, and the living world.’
Marian received her vouchers for the volumes, and turned to face Jasper again. There was a smile on her lips.
‘The fog is terrible,’ Milvain went on. ‘How do you get home?’
‘By omnibus from Tottenham Court Road.’
‘Then do let me go a part of the way with you. I live in Mornington Road – up yonder, you know. I have only just come in to waste half an hour, and after all I think I should be better at home. Your father is all right, I hope?’
‘He is not quite well.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. You are not exactly up to the mark, either. What weather! What a place to live in, this London, in winter! It would be a little better down at Finden.’
‘A good deal better, I should think. If the weather were bad, it would be bad in a natural way; but this is artificial misery.’
‘I don’t let it affect me much,’ said Milvain. ‘Just of late I have been in remarkably good spirits. I’m doing a lot of work. No end of work – more than I’ve ever done.’
‘I am very glad.’
‘Where are your out-of-door things? I think there’s a ladies’ vestry somewhere, isn’t there?’
‘Then will you go and get ready? I’ll wait for you in the hall. But, by-the-bye, I am taking it for granted that you were going alone.’
‘I was, quite alone.’
The ‘quite’ seemed excessive; it made Jasper smile.
‘And also,’ he added, ‘that I shall not annoy you by offering my company?’
‘Why should it annoy me?’
Milvain had only to wait a minute or two. He surveyed Marian from head to foot when she appeared – an impertinence as unintentional as that occasionally noticeable in his speech – and smiled approval. They went out into the fog, which was not one of London’s densest, but made walking disagreeable enough.
‘You have heard from the girls, I think?’ Jasper resumed.
‘Your sisters? Yes; they have been so kind as to write to me.’
‘Told you all about their great work? I hope it’ll be finished by the end of the year. The bits they have sent me will do very well indeed. I knew they had it in them to put sentences together. Now I want them to think of patching up something or other for The English Girl; you know the paper?’
‘I have heard of it.’
‘I happen to know Mrs Boston Wright, who edits it. Met her at a house the other day, and told her frankly that she would have to give my sisters something to do. It’s the only way to get on; one has to take it for granted that people are willing to help you. I have made a host of new acquaintances just lately.’
‘I’m glad to hear it,’ said Marian.
‘Do you know – but how should you? I am going to write for the new magazine, The Current.’
‘Edited by that man Fadge.’
‘Your father has no affection for him, I know.’
‘He has no reason to have, Mr Milvain.’
‘No, no. Fadge is an offensive fellow, when he likes; and I fancy he very often does like. Well, I must make what use of him I can.
You won’t think worse of me because I write for him?’
‘I know that one can’t exercise choice in such things.’
‘True. I shouldn’t like to think that you regard me as a Fadge-like individual, a natural Fadgeite.’
‘There’s no danger of my thinking that.’
But the fog was making their eyes water and getting into their throats. By when they reached Tottenham Court Road they were both thoroughly uncomfortable. The ‘bus had to be waited for, and in the meantime they talked scrappily, coughily. In the vehicle things were a little better, but here one could not converse with freedom.
‘What pestilent conditions of life!’ exclaimed Jasper, putting his face rather near to Marian’s. ‘I wish to goodness we were back in those quiet fields – you remember? – with the September sun warm about us. Shall you go to Finden again before long?’
‘I really don’t know.’
‘I’m sorry to say my mother is far from well. In any case I must go at Christmas, but I’m afraid it won’t be a cheerful visit.’
Arrived in Hampstead Road he offered his hand for good-bye.
‘I wanted to talk about all sorts of things. But perhaps I shall find you again some day.’
He jumped out, and waved his hat in the lurid fog.
Shortly before the end of December appeared the first number of The Current. Yule had once or twice referred to the forthcoming magazine with acrid contempt, and of course he did not purchase a copy.
‘So young Milvain has joined Fadge’s hopeful standard,’ he remarked, a day or two later, at breakfast. ‘They say his paper is remarkably clever; I could wish it had appeared anywhere else.
Evil communications, &c.’
‘But I shouldn’t think there’s any personal connection,’ said Marian.
‘Very likely not. But Milvain has been invited to contribute, you see.
‘Do you think he ought to have refused?’
‘Oh no. It’s nothing to me; nothing whatever.’
Mrs Yule glanced at her daughter, but Marian seemed unconcerned. The subject was dismissed. In introducing it Yule had had his purpose; there had always been an unnatural avoidance of Milvain’s name in conversation, and he wished to have an end of this. Hitherto he had felt a troublesome uncertainty regarding his position in the matter. From what his wife had told him it seemed pretty certain that Marian was disappointed by the abrupt closing of her brief acquaintance with the young man, and Yule’s affection for his daughter caused him to feel uneasy in the thought that perhaps he had deprived her of a chance of happiness. His conscience readily took hold of an excuse for justifying the course he had followed. Milvain had gone over to the enemy. Whether or not the young man understood how relentless the hostility was between Yule and Fadge mattered little; the probability was that he knew all about it. In any case intimate relations with him could not have survived this alliance with Fadge, so that, after all, there had been wisdom in letting the acquaintance lapse. To be sure, nothing could have come of it. Milvain was the kind of man who weighed opportunities; every step he took would be regulated by considerations of advantage; at all events that was the impression his character had made upon Yule. Any hopes that Marian might have been induced to form would assuredly have ended in disappointment. It was kindness to interpose before things had gone so far.
Henceforth, if Milvain’s name was unavoidable, it should be mentioned just like that of any other literary man. It seemed very unlikely indeed that Marian would continue to think of him with any special and personal interest. The fact of her having got into correspondence with his sisters was unfortunate, but this kind of thing rarely went on for very long.
Yule spoke of the matter with his wife that evening.
‘By-the-bye, has Marian heard from those girls at Finden lately?’
‘She had a letter one afternoon last week.’
‘Do you see these letters?’
‘No; she told me what was in them at first, but now she doesn’t.’
‘She hasn’t spoken to you again of Milvain?’
‘Not a word.’
‘Well, I understood what I was about,’ Yule remarked, with the confident air of one who doesn’t wish to remember that he had ever felt doubtful. ‘There was no good in having the fellow here.
He has got in with a set that I don’t at all care for. If she ever says anything – you understand – you can just let me know.’
Marian had already procured a copy of The Current, and read it privately. Of the cleverness of Milvain’s contribution there could be no two opinions; it drew the attention of the public, and all notices of the new magazine made special reference to this article. With keen interest Marian sought after comments of the press; when it was possible she cut them out and put them carefully away.
January passed, and February. She saw nothing of Jasper. A letter from Dora in the first week of March made announcement that the ‘Child’s History of the English Parliament’ would be published very shortly; it told her, too, that Mrs Milvain had been very ill indeed, but that she seemed to recover a little strength as the weather improved. Of Jasper there was no mention.
A week later came the news that Mrs Milvain had suddenly died.
This letter was received at breakfast-time. The envelope was an ordinary one, and so little did Marian anticipate the nature of its contents that at the first sight of the words she uttered an exclamation of pain. Her father, who had turned from the table to the fireside with his newspaper, looked round and asked what was the matter.
‘Mrs Milvain died the day before yesterday.’
He averted his face again and seemed disposed to say no more. But in a few moments he inquired:
‘What are her daughters likely to do?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘Do you know anything of their circumstances?’
‘I believe they will have to depend upon themselves.’
Nothing more was said. Afterwards Mrs Yule made a few sympathetic inquiries, but Marian was very brief in her replies.
Ten days after that, on a Sunday afternoon when Marian and her mother were alone in the sitting-room, they heard the knock of a visitor at the front door. Yule was out, and there was no likelihood of the visitor’s wishing to see anyone but him. They listened; the servant went to the door, and, after a murmur of voices, came to speak to her mistress.
‘It’s a gentleman called Mr Milvain,’ the girl reported, in a way that proved how seldom callers presented themselves. ‘He asked for Mr Yule, and when I said he was out, then he asked for Miss Yule.’ Mother and daughter looked anxiously at each other. Mrs Yule was nervous and helpless.
‘Show Mr Milvain into the study,’ said Marian, with sudden decision.
‘Are you going to see him there?’ asked her mother in a hurried whisper.
‘I thought you would prefer that to his coming in here.’
‘Yes – yes. But suppose father comes back before he’s gone?’
‘What will it matter? You forget that he asked for father first.’
‘Oh yes! Then don’t wait.’
Marian, scarcely less agitated than her mother, was just leaving the room, when she turned back again.
‘If father comes in, you will tell him before he goes into the study?’
‘Yes, I will.’
The fire in the study was on the point of extinction; this was the first thing Marian’s eye perceived on entering, and it gave her assurance that her father would not be back for some hours. Evidently he had intended it to go out; small economies of this kind, unintelligible to people who have always lived at ease, had been the life-long rule with him. With a sensation of gladness at having free time before her, Marian turned to where Milvain was standing, in front of one of the bookcases. He wore no symbol of mourning, but his countenance was far graver than usual, and rather paler. They shook hands in silence.
‘I am so grieved – ’ Marian began with broken voice.
‘Thank you. I know the girls have told you all about it. We knew for the last month that it must come before long, though there was a deceptive improvement just before the end.’
‘Please to sit down, Mr Milvain. Father went out not long ago, and I don’t think he will be back very soon.’
‘It was not really Mr Yule I wished to see,’ said Jasper, frankly. ‘If he had been at home I should have spoken with him about what I have in mind, but if you will kindly give me a few minutes it will be much better.’
Marian glanced at the expiring fire. Her curiosity as to what Milvain had to say was mingled with an anxious doubt whether it was not too late to put on fresh coals; already the room was growing very chill, and this appearance of inhospitality troubled her.
‘Do you wish to save it?’ Jasper asked, understanding her look and movement.
‘I’m afraid it has got too low.’
‘I think not. Life in lodgings has made me skilful at this kind of thing; let me try my hand.’
He took the tongs and carefully disposed small pieces of coal upon the glow that remained. Marian stood apart with a feeling of shame and annoyance. But it is so seldom that situations in life arrange themselves with dramatic propriety; and, after all, this vulgar necessity made the beginning of the conversation easier.
‘That will be all right now,’ said Jasper at length, as little tongues of flame began to shoot here and there.
Marian said nothing, but seated herself and waited.
‘I came up to town yesterday,’ Jasper began. ‘Of course we have had a great deal to do and think about. Miss Harrow has been very kind indeed to the girls; so have several of our old friends in Wattleborough. It was necessary to decide at once what Maud and Dora are going to do, and it is on their account that I have come to see you.
The listener kept silence, with a face of sympathetic attention.
‘We have made up our minds that they may as well come to London. It’s a bold step; I’m by no means sure that the result will justify it. But I think they are perhaps right in wishing to try it.’
‘They will go on with literary work?’
‘Well, it’s our hope that they may be able to. Of course there’s no chance of their earning enough to live upon for some time. But the matter stands like this. They have a trifling sum of money, on which, at a pinch, they could live in London for perhaps a year and a half. In that time they may find their way to a sort of income; at all events, the chances are that a year and a half hence I shall be able to help them to keep body and soul together.’
The money of which he spoke was the debt owed to their father by William Milvain. In consequence of Mrs Milvain’s pressing application, half of this sum had at length been paid and the remainder was promised in a year’s time, greatly to Jasper’s astonishment. In addition, there would be the trifle realised by the sale of furniture, though most of this might have to go in payment of rent unless the house could be relet immediately.
‘They have made a good beginning,’ said Marian.
She spoke mechanically, for it was impossible to keep her thoughts under control. If Maud and Dora came to live in London it might bring about a most important change in her life; she could scarcely imagine the happiness of having two such friends always near. On the other hand, how would it be regarded by her father? She was at a loss amid conflicting emotions.
‘It’s better than if they had done nothing at all,’ Jasper replied to her remark. ‘And the way they knocked that trifle together promises well. They did it very quickly, and in a far more workmanlike way than I should have thought possible.’
‘No doubt they share your own talent.’
‘Perhaps so. Of course I know that I have talent of a kind, though I don’t rate it very high. We shall have to see whether they can do anything more than mere booksellers’ work; they are both very young, you know. I think they may be able to write something that’ll do for The English Girl, and no doubt I can hit upon a second idea that will appeal to Jolly and Monk. At all events, they’ll have books within reach, and better opportunities every way than at Finden.’
‘How do their friends in the country think of it?’
‘Very dubiously; but then what else was to be expected? Of course, the respectable and intelligible path marked out for both of them points to a lifetime of governessing. But the girls have no relish for that; they’d rather do almost anything. We talked over all the aspects of the situation seriously enough – it is desperately serious, no doubt of that. I told them fairly all the hardships they would have to face – described the typical London lodgings, and so on. Still, there’s an adventurous vein in them, and they decided for the risk. If it came to the worst I suppose they could still find governess work.’
‘Let us hope better things.’
‘Yes. But now, I should have felt far more reluctant to let them come here in this way hadn’t it been that they regard you as a friend. To-morrow morning you will probably hear from one or both of them. Perhaps it would have been better if I had left them to tell you all this, but I felt I should like to see you and – put it in my own way. I think you’ll understand this feeling, Miss Yule. I wanted, in fact, to hear from yourself that you would be a friend to the poor girls.’
‘Oh, you already know that! I shall be so very glad to see them often.’
Marian’s voice lent itself very naturally and sweetly to the expression of warm feeling. Emphasis was not her habit; it only needed that she should put off her ordinary reserve, utter quietly the emotional thought which so seldom might declare itself, and her tones had an exquisite womanliness.
Jasper looked full into her face.
‘In that case they won’t miss the comfort of home so much. Of course they will have to go into very modest lodgings indeed. I have already been looking about. I should like to find rooms for them somewhere near my own place; it’s a decent neighbourhood, and the park is at hand, and then they wouldn’t be very far from you. They thought it might be possible to make a joint establishment with me, but I’m afraid that’s out of the question.
The lodgings we should want in that case, everything considered, would cost more than the sum of our expenses if we live apart. Besides, there’s no harm in saying that I don’t think we should get along very well together. We’re all of us rather quarrelsome, to tell the truth, and we try each other’s tempers.’
Marian smiled and looked puzzled.
‘Shouldn’t you have thought that?’
‘I have seen no signs of quarrelsomeness.’
‘I’m not sure that the worst fault is on my side. Why should one condemn oneself against conscience? Maud is perhaps the hardest to get along with. She has a sort of arrogance, an exaggeration of something I am quite aware of in myself. You have noticed that trait in me?’
‘Arrogance – I think not. You have self-confidence.’
‘Which goes into extremes now and then. But, putting myself aside, I feel pretty sure that the girls won’t seem quarrelsome to you; they would have to be very fractious indeed before that were possible.’
‘We shall continue to be friends, I am sure.’
Jasper let his eyes wander about the room.
‘This is your father’s study?’
‘Perhaps it would have seemed odd to Mr Yule if I had come in and begun to talk to him about these purely private affairs. He knows me so very slightly. But, in calling here for the first time – ’
An unusual embarrassment checked him.
‘I will explain to father your very natural wish to speak of these things,’ said Marian, with tact.
She thought uneasily of her mother in the next room. To her there appeared no reason whatever why Jasper should not be introduced to Mrs Yule, yet she could not venture to propose it. Remembering her father’s last remarks about Milvain in connection with Fadge’s magazine, she must wait for distinct permission before offering the young man encouragement to repeat his visit. Perhaps there was complicated trouble in store for her; impossible to say how her father’s deep-rooted and rankling antipathies might affect her intercourse even with the two girls. But she was of independent years; she must be allowed the choice of her own friends. The pleasure she had in seeing Jasper under this roof, in hearing him talk with such intimate friendliness, strengthened her to resist timid thoughts.
‘When will your sisters arrive?’ she asked.
‘I think in a very few days. When I have fixed upon lodgings for them I must go back to Finden; then they will return with me as soon as we can get the house emptied. It’s rather miserable selling things one has lived among from childhood. A friend in Wattleborough will house for us what we really can’t bear to part with.’
‘It must be very sad,’ Marian murmured.
‘You know,’ said the other suddenly, ‘that it’s my fault the girls are left in such a hard position?’
Marian looked at him with startled eyes. His tone was quite unfamiliar to her.
‘Mother had an annuity,’ he continued. ‘It ended with her life, but if it hadn’t been for me she could have saved a good deal out of it. Until the last year or two I have earned nothing, and I have spent more than was strictly necessary. Well, I didn’t live like that in mere recklessness; I knew I was preparing myself for remunerative work. But it seems too bad now. I’m sorry for it. I wish I had found some way of supporting myself. The end of mother’s life was made far more unhappy than it need have been. I should like you to understand all this.’
The listener kept her eyes on the ground.
‘Perhaps the girls have hinted it to you?’ Jasper added.
‘Selfishness – that’s one of my faults. It isn’t a brutal kind of selfishness; the thought of it often enough troubles me. If I were rich, I should be a generous and good man; I know I should. So would many another poor fellow whose worst features come out under hardship. This isn’t a heroic type; of course not. I am a civilised man, that’s all.’
Marian could say nothing.
‘You wonder why I am so impertinent as to talk about myself like this. I have gone through a good deal of mental pain these last few weeks, and somehow I can’t help showing you something of my real thoughts. Just because you are one of the few people I regard with sincere respect. I don’t know you very well, but quite well enough to respect you. My sisters think of you in the same way. I shall do many a base thing in life, just to get money and reputation; I tell you this that you mayn’t be surprised if anything of that kind comes to your ears. I can’t afford to live as I should like to.’
She looked up at him with a smile.
‘People who are going to live unworthily don’t declare it in this way.’
‘I oughtn’t to; a few minutes ago I had no intention of saying such things. It means I am rather overstrung, I suppose; but it’s all true, unfortunately.’
He rose, and began to run his eye along the shelves nearest to him.
‘Well, now I will go, Miss Yule.’
Marian stood up as he approached.
‘It’s all very well,’ he said, smiling, ‘for me to encourage my sisters in the hope that they may earn a living; but suppose I can’t even do it myself? It’s by no means certain that I shall make ends meet this year.’
‘You have every reason to hope, I think.’
‘I like to hear people say that, but it’ll mean savage work. When we were all at Finden last year, I told the girls that it would be another twelve months before I could support myself. Now I am forced to do it. And I don’t like work; my nature is lazy. I shall never write for writing’s sake, only to make money. All my plans and efforts will have money in view – all. I shan’t allow anything to come in the way of my material advancement.’
‘I wish you every success,’ said Marian, without looking at him, and without a smile.
‘Thank you. But that sounds too much like good-bye. I trust we are to be friends, for all that?’
‘Indeed, I hope we may be.’
They shook hands, and he went towards the door. But before opening it, he asked:
‘Did you read that thing of mine in The Current?’
‘Yes, I did.’
‘It wasn’t bad, I think?’
‘It seemed to me very clever.’
‘Clever – yes, that’s the word. It had a success, too. I have as good a thing half done for the April number, but I’ve felt too heavy-hearted to go on with it. The girls shall let you know when they are in town.’
Marian followed him into the passage, and watched him as he opened the front door. When it had closed, she went back into the study for a few minutes before rejoining her mother.