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Chapter 11

ROB IS STRUCK DOWN

Rob turned from Simms's door and went quietly downstairs, looking to the beadle, who gave him a good-evening at the mouth of the inn, like a man going quietly to his work. He could not keep his thoughts. They fell about him in sparks, raised by a wheel whirling so fast that it seemed motionless.

Sleep-walkers seldom come to damage until they awake; and Rob sped on, taking crossings without a halt; deaf to the shouts of cabmen, blind to their gesticulations. When you have done Oxford Circus you can do anything; but he was not even brought to himself there, though it is all savage lands in twenty square yards. For a time he saw nothing but that scene in Simms's chambers, which had been photographed on his brain. The light of his life had suddenly been turned out, leaving him only the last thing he saw to think about.

By and by he was walking more slowly, laughing at himself. Since he met Mary Abinger she had lived so much in his mind that he had not dared to think of losing her. He had only given himself fits of despondency for the pleasure of dispelling them. Now all at once he saw without prejudice the Rob Angus who had made up his mind to carry off this prize, and he cut such a poor figure that he smiled grimly at it. He realised as a humorous conception that this uncouth young man who was himself must have fancied that he was, on the whole, less unworthy of Miss Abinger than were most of the young men she was likely to meet. With the exaggerated humility that comes occasionally to men in his condition, without, however, feeling sufficiently at home to remain long, he felt that there was everything in Simms a girl could find lovable, and nothing in himself. He was so terribly open that any one could understand him, while Simms was such an enigma as a girl would love to read. His own clumsiness contrasted as disastrously with Simms's grace of manner as his blunt talk compared with Simms's wit. Not being able to see himself with the eyes of others, Rob noted only one thing in his favour, his fight forward; which they, knowing, for instance, that he was better to look at than most men, would have considered his chief drawback. Rob in his calmer moments had perhaps as high an opinion of his capacity as the circumstances warranted, but he never knew that a good many ladies felt his presence when he passed them.

Most men are hero and villain several times in a day, but Rob went through the whole gamut of sensations in half an hour, hating himself the one moment for what seemed another's fault the next, fancying now that he was blessing the union of Mary with the man she cared for, and, again, that he had Simms by the throat. He fled from the fleeting form of woman, and ran after it.

Simms had deceived him, had never even mentioned Silchester, had laughed at the awakening that was coming to him. All these months they had been waiting for Mary Abinger together, and Simms had not said that when she came it would be to him. Then Rob saw what a foolish race these thoughts ran in his brain, remembering that he had only seen Simms twice for more than a moment, and that he himself had never talked of Silchester. He scorned his own want of generosity, and recalled his solicitude for Simms's welfare an hour before.

Rob saw his whole future life lying before him. The broken-looking man with the sad face aged before his time, who walked alone up Fleet Street, was Rob Angus, who had come to London to be happy. Simms would ask him sometimes to his house to see her, but it was better that he should not go. She would understand why, if her husband did not. Her husband! Rob could not gulp down the lump in his throat. He rushed on again, with nothing before him but that picture of Simms kissing her.

Simms was not worthy of her. Why had he always seemed an unhappy, disappointed man if the one thing in the world worth striving for was his? Rob stopped abruptly in the street with the sudden thought, Was it possible that she did not care for Simms? Could that scene have had any other meaning? He had once heard Simms himself say that you never knew what a woman meant by anything until she told you, and probably not even then. But he saw again the love in her eyes as she looked up into Simms's face. All through his life he would carry that look with him.

They took no distinct shape, but wild ways of ending his misery coursed through his brain, and he looked on calmly at his own funeral. A terrible stolidity seized him, and he conceived himself a monster from whom the capacity to sympathise had gone. Children saw his face and fled from him.

He had left England far behind, and dwelt now among wild tribes who had not before looked upon a white face. Their sick came to him for miracles, and he either cured them or told them to begone. He was not sure whether he was a fiend or a missionary.

Then something remarkable happened, which showed that Rob had not mistaken his profession. He saw himself in the editorial chair that he had so often coveted, and Mary Abinger, too, was in the room. Always previously when she had come between him and the paper he had been forced to lay down his pen, but now he wrote on and on, and she seemed to help him. He was describing the scene that he had witnessed in Simms's chambers, describing it so vividly that he heard the great public discussing his article as if it were an Academy picture. His passion had subsided, and the best words formed slowly in his brain. He was hesitating about the most fitting title, when some one struck against him, and as he drew his arm over his eyes he knew with horror that he had been turning Mary Abinger into copy.

For the last time that night Rob dreamt again, and now it was such a fine picture he drew that he looked upon it with sad complacency. Many years had passed. He was now rich and famous. He passed through the wynds of Thrums, and the Auld Lichts turned out to gaze at him. He saw himself signing cheques for all kinds of charitable objects, and appearing in the subscription lists, with a grand disregard for glory that is not common to philanthropists, as X. Y. Z. or 'A Wellwisher.' His walls were lined with books written by himself, and Mary Abinger (who had not changed in the least with the years) read them proudly, knowing that they were all written for her. (Simms somehow had not fulfilled his promise.) The papers were full of his speech in the House of Commons the night before, and he had declined a seat in the Cabinet from conscientious motives. His imagination might soon have landed him master in the Mansion House, had it not deserted him when he had most need of it. He fell from his balloon like a stone. Before him he saw the blank years that had to be traversed without any Mary Abinger, and despair filled his soul. All the horrible meaning of the scene he had fled from came to him like a rush of blood to the head, and he stood with it, glaring at it, in the middle of a roaring street. Three hansoms shaved him by an inch, and the fourth knocked him senseless.

An hour later Simms was lolling in his chambers smoking, his chair tilted back until another inch would have sent him over it. His gas had been blazing all day because he had no blotting-paper, and the blinds were nicely pulled down because Mary Abinger and Nell were there to do it. They were sitting on each side of him, and Nell had on a round cap, about which Simms subsequently wrote an article. Mary's hat was larger and turned up at one side; the fashion which arose through a carriage wheel's happening to pass over the hat of a leader of fashion and make it perfectly lovely. Beyond the hats one does not care to venture, but out of fairness to Mary and Nell it should be said that there were no shiny little beads on their dresses.

They had put on their hats to go, and then they had sat down again to tell their host a great many things that they had told him already. Even Mary, who was perfect in a general sort of way, took a considerable time to tell a story, and expected it to have more point when it ended than was sometimes the case. Simms, with his eyes half closed, let the laughter ripple over his head, and drowsily heard the details of their journey from Silchester afresh. Mary had come up with the Merediths on the previous day, and they were now staying at the Langham Hotel. They would only be in town for a few weeks; 'just to oblige the season,' Nell said, for she had inveigled her father into taking a house-boat on the Thames, and was certain it would prove delightful. Mary was to accompany them there too, having first done her duty to society, and Colonel Abinger was setting off shortly for the Continent. In the middle of her prattle, Nell distinctly saw Simms's head nod, as if it was loose in its socket. She made a mournful grimace.

Simms sat up.

'Your voices did it,' he explained, unabashed. 'They are as soothing to the jaded journalist as the streams that murmur through the fields in June.'

'Cigars are making you stupid, Dick,' said Mary; 'I do wonder why men smoke.'

'I have often asked myself that question,' thoughtfully answered Simms, whom it is time to call by his real name of Dick Abinger. 'I know some men who smoke because they might get sick otherwise when in the company of smokers. Others smoke because they began to do so at school, and are now afraid to leave off. A great many men smoke for philanthropic motives, smoking enabling them to work harder, and so being for their family's good. At picnics men smoke because it is the only way to keep the midges off the ladies. Smoking keeps you cool in summer and warm in winter, and is an excellent disinfectant. There are even said to be men who admit that they smoke because they like it, but for my own part I fancy I smoke because I forget not to do so.'

'Silly reasons,' said Nell. If there was one possible improvement she could conceive in Dick it was that he might make his jests a little easier.

'It is revealing no secret,' murmured Abinger in reply, 'to say that drowning men clutch at straws.'

Mary rose to go once more, and sat down again, for she had remembered something else.

'Do you know, Dick,' she said, 'that your two names are a great nuisance. On our way to London yesterday there was an acquaintance of Mr. Meredith's in the carriage, and he told us he knew Noble Simms well.'

'Yes,' said Nell, 'and that this Noble Simms was an old gentleman who had been married for thirty years. We said we knew Mr. Noble Simms and that he was a barrister, and he laughed at us. So you see some one is trading on your name.'

'Much good may it do him,' said Abinger generously.

'But it is horrid,' said Nell, 'that we should have to listen to people praising Noble Simms's writings, and not be allowed to say that he is Dick Abinger in disguise.'

'It must be very hard on you, Nell, to have to keep a secret,' admitted Dick, 'but you see I must lead two lives or be undone. In the Temple you will see the name of Richard Abinger, barrister-at-law, but in Frobisher's Inn he is J. Noble Simms.'

'I don't see the good of it,' said Nell.

'My ambition, you must remember,' explained Dick, 'is to be Lord Chancellor or Lord Chief Justice, I forget which, but while I wait for that post I must live, and I live by writings (which are all dead the morning after they appear). Now such is the suspicion with which literature is regarded by the legal mind, that were it known I wrote for the Press my chance of the Lord Chancellorship would cease to be a moral certainty. The editor of the Scalping Knife has not the least notion that Noble Simms is the rising barrister who has been known to make as much by the law as a guinea in a single month. Indeed, only my most intimate friends, some of whom practise the same deception themselves, are aware that the singular gifts of Simms and Abinger are united in the same person.'

'The housekeeper here must know?' asked Mary.

'No, it would hopelessly puzzle her,' said Dick; 'she would think there was something uncanny about it, and so she is happy in the belief that the letters which occasionally come addressed to Abinger are forwarded by me to that gentleman's abode in the Temple.'

'It is such an ugly name, Noble Simms,' said Nell; 'I wonder why you selected it.'

'It is ugly, is it not?' said Dick. 'It struck me at the time as the most ridiculous name I was likely to think of, and so I chose it. Such a remarkable name sticks to the public mind, and that is fame.'

As he spoke he rose to get the two girls the cab that would take them back to the hotel.

'There is some one knocking at the door,' said Mary.

'Come in,' murmured Abinger.

The housekeeper opened the door, but half shut it again when she saw that Dick was not alone. Then she thought of a compromise between telling her business and retiring.

'If you please, Mr. Simms,' she said apologetically, 'would you speak to me a moment in the passage?'

Abinger disappeared with her, and when he returned the indifferent look had gone from his face.

'Wait for me a few minutes,' he said; 'a man upstairs, one of the best fellows breathing, has met with an accident, and I question if he has a friend in London. I am going up to see him.'

'Poor fellow!' said Mary to Nell, after Dick had gone; 'fancy his lying here for weeks without any one going near him but Dick.'

'But how much worse it would be without Dick!' said Nell.

'I wonder if he is a barrister,' said Mary.

'I think he will be a journalist rather,' Nell said thoughtfully, 'a tall, dark, melancholy-looking man, and I should not wonder though he had a broken heart.'

'I'm afraid it is more serious than that,' said Mary.

Nell set off on a trip round the room, remarking with a profound sigh that it must be awful to live alone and have no one to speak to for whole hours at a time. 'I should go mad,' she said, in such a tone of conviction that Mary did not think of questioning it.

Then Nell, who had opened a drawer rather guiltily, exclaimed, 'Oh, Mary!'

A woman can put more meaning into a note of exclamation than a man can pack in a sentence. It costs Mr. Jones, for instance, a long message simply to telegraph to his wife that he is bringing a friend home to dinner, but in a sixpenny reply Mrs. Jones can warn him that he had better do no such thing, that he ought to be ashamed of himself for thinking of it, that he must make some excuse to his friend, and that he will hear more of this when he gets home. Nell's 'Oh, Mary!' signified that chaos was come.

Mary hastened round the table, and found her friend with a letter in her hand.

'Well,' said Mary, 'that is one of your letters to Dick, is it not?'

'Yes,' answered Nell tragically; 'but fancy his keeping my letters lying about carelessly in a drawer—and—and, yes, using them as scribbling paper!'

Scrawled across the envelopes in a barely decipherable handwriting were such notes as these: 'Schoolboys smoking master's cane-chair, work up'; 'Return of the swallows (poetic or humorous?)'; 'My First Murder (magazine?)'; 'Better do something pathetic for a change.'

There were tears in Nell's eyes.

'This comes of prying,' said Mary.

'Oh, I wasn't prying,' said Nell; 'I only opened it by accident. That is the worst of it. I can't say anything about them to him, because he might think I had opened his drawer to—to see what was in it—which is the last thing in the world I would think of doing. Oh, Mary,' she added woefully, 'what do you think?'

'I think you are a goose,' said Mary promptly.

'Ah, you are so indifferent,' Nell said, surrendering her position all at once. 'Now when I see a drawer I am quite unhappy until I know what is in it, especially if it is locked. When we lived opposite the Burtons I was miserable because they always kept the blind of one of their windows down. If I had been a boy I would have climbed up to see why they did it. Ah! that is Dick; I know his step.'

She was hastening to the door, when she remembered the letters, and subsided primly into a chair.

'Well?' asked Mary, as her brother re-entered with something in his hand.

'The poor fellow has had a nasty accident,' said Dick; 'run over in the street, it seems. He ought to have been taken to the infirmary, but they got a letter with his address on it in his pocket, and brought him here.'

'Has a doctor seen him?'

'Yes, but I hardly make out from the housekeeper what he said. He was gone before I went up. There are some signs, however, of what he did. The poor fellow seems to have been struck on the head.'

Mary shuddered, understanding that some operation had been found necessary.

'Did he speak to you?' asked Nell.

'He was asleep,' said Dick, 'but talking more than he does when he is awake.'

'He must have been delirious,' said Mary.

'One thing I can't make out,' Dick said, more to himself than to his companions. 'He mumbled my name to himself half a dozen times while I was upstairs.'

'But is there anything remarkable in that,' asked Mary, 'if he has so few friends in London?'

'What I don't understand,' explained Dick, 'is that the word I caught was Abinger. Now, I am quite certain that he only knew me as Noble Simms.'

'Some one must have told him your real name,' said Mary. 'Is he asleep now?'

'That reminds me of another thing,' said Dick, looking at the torn card in his hand. 'Just as I was coming away he staggered off the couch where he is lying to his desk, opened it, and took out this card. He glared at it, and tore it in two before I got him back to the couch.'

There were tears in Nell's eyes now, for she felt that she understood it all.

'It is horrible to think of him alone up there,' she cried. 'Let us go up to him, Mary.'

Mary hesitated.

'I don't think it would be the thing,' she said, taking the card from Nell's hand. She started slightly as she looked at it, and then became white.

'What is his name, Dick?' she faltered, in a voice that made Nell look at her.

'Angus,' said Dick. 'He has been on the Press here for some months.'

The name suggested nothing at the moment to Nell, but Mary let the card fall. It was a shabby little Christmas card.

'I think we should go up and see if we can do anything,' Dick's sister said.

'But would it be the thing?' Nell asked.

'Of course it would,' said Mary, a little surprised at Nell.

James M. Barrie

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