In a London fog the street-lamps are up and about, running maliciously at pedestrians. He is in love or writing a book who is struck by one without remonstrating. One night that autumn a fog crept through London a month before it was due, and Rob met a lamp-post the following afternoon on his way home from the Wire office. He passed on without a word, though he was not writing a book. Something had happened that day, and, but for Mary Abinger, Rob would have been wishing that his mother could see him now.
The editor of the Wire had called him into a private room, in which many a young gentleman, who only wanted a chance to put the world to rights, has quaked, hat in hand, before now. It is the dusty sanctum from which Mr. Rowbotham wearily distributes glory or consternation, sometimes with niggardly hand, and occasionally like an African explorer scattering largess among the natives. Mr. Rowbotham might be even a greater editor than he is if he was sure that it is quite the proper thing for so distinguished a man as himself to believe in anything, and some people think that his politics are to explain away to-day the position he took up yesterday. He seldom writes himself, and, while directing the line to be adopted by his staff, he smokes a cigar which he likes to probe with their pens. He is pale and thin, and has roving eyes, got from always being on the alert against aspirants.
All the chairs in the editorial room, except Mr. Rowbotham's own, had been converted, like the mantelpiece, into temporary bookcases. Rob tumbled the books off one (your Inquiry into the State of Ireland was among them, gentle reader) much as a coal-heaver topples his load into a cellar, or like a housewife emptying her apron.
'You suit me very well, Angus,' the editor said. 'You have no lurking desire to write a book, have you?'
'No,' Rob answered; 'since I joined the Press that ambition seems to have gone from me.'
'Quite so,' said Mr. Rowbotham, his tone implying that Rob now left the court without a stain upon his character. The editor's cigar went out, and he made a spill of a page from Sonnets of the Woods, which had just come in for review.
'As you know,' the editor continued, 'I have been looking about me for a leader-writer for the last year. You have a way of keeping your head that I like, and your style is not so villainously bad. Are you prepared to join us?'
'I should think so,' said Rob.
'Very well. You will start with £800 a year. Ricketts, as you may have heard, has half as much again as that, but he has been with us some time.'
'All right,' said Rob calmly, though his chest was swelling. He used to receive an order for a sack of shavings in the same tone.
'You expected this, I dare say?' asked the editor.
'Scarcely,' said Rob. 'I thought you would offer the appointment to Marriott; he is a much cleverer man than I am.'
'Yes,' assented Mr. Rowbotham, more readily than Rob thought necessary. 'I have had Marriott in my eye for some time, but I rather think Marriott is a genius, and so he would not do for us.'
'You never had that suspicion of me?' asked Rob, a little blankly.
'Never,' said the editor frankly. 'I saw from the first that you were a man to be trusted. Moderate Radicalism is our policy, and not even Ricketts can advocate moderation so vehemently as you do. You fight for it with a flail. By the way, you are Scotch, I think?'
'Yes,' said Rob.
'I only asked,' the editor explained, 'because of the shall and the will difficulty. Have you got over that yet?'
'No,' Rob said sadly, 'and never will.'
'I shall warn the proof-readers to be on the alert,' Mr. Rowbotham said, laughing, though Rob did not see what at. 'Dine with me at the Garrick on Wednesday week, will you?'
Rob nodded, and was retiring, when the editor called after him—
'You are not a married man, Angus?'
'No,' said Rob, with a sickly smile.
'Ah, you should marry,' recommended Mr. Rowbotham, who is a bachelor. 'You would be worth another two hundred a year to us then. I wish I could find the time to do it myself.'
Rob left the office a made man, but looking as if it all had happened some time ago. There were men shivering in Fleet Street as he passed down it who had come to London on the same day as himself, every one with a tragic story to tell now, and some already seeking the double death that is called drowning care. Shadows of university graduates passed him in the fog who would have been glad to carry his bag. That night a sandwich-board man, who had once had a thousand a year, crept into the Thames. Yet Rob bored his way home, feeling that it was all in vain.
He stopped at Abinger's door to tell him what had happened, but the chambers were locked. More like a man who had lost £800 a year than one who had just been offered it, he mounted to his own rooms, hardly noticing that the door was now ajar. The blackness of night was in the sitting-room, and a smell of burning leather.
'Another pair of slippers gone,' said a voice from the fireplace. It was Dick, and if he had not jumped out of one of the slippers he would have been on fire himself. Long experience had told him the exact moment to jump.
'I tried your door,' Rob said. 'I have news for you.'
'Well,' said Dick, 'I forced my way in here because I have something to tell you, and resolved not to miss you. Who speaks first? My news is bad—at least for me.'
'Mine is good,' said Rob; 'we had better finish up with it.'
'Ah,' Dick replied, 'but when you hear mine you may not care to tell me yours.'
Dick spoke first, however, and ever afterwards was glad that he had done so.
'Look here, Angus,' he said bluntly, 'I don't know that Mary is engaged to Dowton.'
Rob stood up and sat down again.
'Nothing is to be gained by talking in that way,' he said shortly. 'She was engaged to him six weeks ago.'
'No,' said Dick, 'she was not, though for all I know she may be now.'
Then Dick told his tale under the fire of Rob's eyes. When it was ended Rob rose from his chair, and stared silently for several minutes at a vase on the mantelpiece. Dick continued talking, but Rob did not hear a word.
'I can't sit here, Abinger,' he said; 'there is not room to think. I shall be back presently.'
He was gone into the fog the next moment. 'At it again,' muttered the porter, as Rob swung past and was lost ten paces off. He was back in an hour, walking more slowly.
'When the colonel writes to you,' he said, as he walked into his room, 'does he make any mention of Dowton?'
'He never writes,' Dick answered; 'he only telegraphs me now and again, when a messenger from the Lodge happens to be in Thrums.'
'Miss Abinger writes?'
'Yes. I know from her that Dowton is still there, but that is all.'
'He would not have remained so long,' said Rob, 'unless—unless——'
'I don't know,' Dick answered. 'You see it would all depend on Mary. She had a soft heart for Dowton the day she refused him, but I am not sure how she would take his reappearance on the scene again. If she resented it, I don't think the boldest baronet that breathes would venture to propose to Mary in her shell.'
'The colonel might press her?'
'Hardly, I think, to marry a man she does not care for. No, you do him an injustice. What my father would like to have is the power to compel her to care for Dowton. No doubt he would exercise that if it was his.'
'Miss Abinger says nothing—sends no messages—I mean, does she ever mention me when she writes?'
'Never a word,' said Dick. 'Don't look pale, man; it is a good sign. Women go by contraries, they say. Besides, Mary is not like Mahomet. If the mountain won't go to her, she will never come to the mountain.'
Rob started, and looked at his hat.
'You can't walk to Glen Quharity Lodge to-night,' said Dick, following Rob's eyes.
'Do you mean that I should go at all?'
'Why, well, you see, it is this awkward want of an income that spoils everything. Now, if you could persuade Rowbotham to give you a thousand a year, that might have its influence on my father.'
'I told you,' exclaimed Rob; 'no, of course I did not. I joined the staff of the Wire to-day at £800.'
'Your hand, young man,' said Dick, very nearly becoming excited. 'Then that is all right. On the Press every one with a good income can add two hundred a year to it. It is only those who need the two hundred that cannot get it.'
'You think I should go north?' said Rob, with the whistle of the train already in his ears.
'Ah, it is not my affair,' answered Dick; 'I have done my duty. I promised to give Dowton a fair chance, and he has had it. I don't know what use he has made of it, remember. You have overlooked my share in this business, and I retire now.'
'You are against me still, Abinger.'
'No, Angus, on my word I am not. You are as good a man as Dowton, and if Mary thinks you better——'
Dick shrugged his shoulders to signify that he had freed them of a load of prejudice.
'But does she?' said Rob.
'You will have to ask herself,' replied Dick.
'Yes; but when?'
'She will probably be up in town next season.'
'Next season,' exclaimed Rob; 'as well say next century.'
'Well, if that is too long to wait, suppose you come to Dome Castle with me at Christmas?'
Rob pushed the invitation from him contemptuously.
'There is no reason,' he said, looking at Dick defiantly, 'why I should not go north to-night.'
'It would be a little hurried, would it not?' Dick said to his pipe.
'No,' Rob answered, with a happy inspiration. 'I meant to go to Thrums just now, for a few days at any rate. Rowbotham does not need me until Friday.'
Rob looked up and saw Dick's mouth twitching. He tried to stare Mary's brother out of countenance, but could not do it.
Night probably came on that Tuesday as usual, for Nature is as much as man a slave to habit, but it was not required to darken London. If all the clocks and watches had broken their mainsprings no one could have told whether it was at noon or midnight that Rob left for Scotland. It would have been equally impossible to say from his face whether he was off to a marriage or a funeral. He did not know himself.
'This human nature is a curious thing,' thought Dick, as he returned to his rooms. 'Here are two of us in misery, the one because he fears he is not going to be married, and the other because he knows he is.'
He stretched himself out on two chairs.
'Neither of us, of course, is really miserable. Angus is not, for he is in love; and I am not, for——' He paused, and looked at his pipe.
'No, I am not miserable; how could a man be miserable who has two chairs to lie upon, and a tobacco jar at his elbow? I fancy, though, that I am just saved from misery by lack of sentiment.
'Curious to remember that I was once sentimental with the best of them. This is the Richard who sat up all night writing poems to Nell's eyebrows. Ah, poor Nell!
'I wonder, is it my fault that my passion burned itself out in one little crackle? With most men, if the books tell true, the first fire only goes out after the second is kindled, but I seem to have no more sticks to light.
'I am going to be married, though I would much rather remain single. My wife will be the only girl I ever loved, and I like her still more than any other girl I know. Though I shuddered just now when I thought of matrimony, there can be little doubt that we shall get on very well together.
'I should have preferred her to prove as fickle as myself, but how true she has remained to me! Not to me, for it is not the real Dick Abinger she cares for, and so I don't know that Nell's love is of the kind to make a man conceited. Is marriage a rash experiment when the woman loves the man for qualities he does not possess, and has not discovered in years of constant intercourse the little that is really lovable in him? Whatever I say to Nell is taken to mean the exact reverse of what I do mean; she reads my writings upside down, as one might say; she cries if I speak to her of anything more serious than flowers and waltzes, but she thinks me divine when I treat her like an infant.
'Is it weakness or strength that has kept me what the world would call true to Nell? Is a man necessarily a villain because love dies out of his heart, or has his reason some right to think the affair over and show him where he stands?
'Yes, Nell after all gets the worse of the bargain. She will have for a husband a man who is evidently incapable of a lasting affection for anybody. That, I suppose, means that I find myself the only really interesting person I know. Yet, I think, Richard, you would at times rather be somebody else—anybody almost would do.
'It is a little humiliating to remember that I have been lying to Angus for the last month or two—I, who always thought I had such a noble admiration for the truth. I did it very easily too, so I suppose there can be no doubt that I really am a very poor sort of creature. I wonder if it was for Mary's sake I lied, or merely because it would have been too troublesome to speak the truth? Except by fits and starts I have ceased apparently to be interested in anything. The only thing nowadays that rouses my indignation is the attempt on any one's part to draw me into an argument on any subject under the sun. Here is this Irish question; I can pump up an article in three paragraphs on it, but I don't really seem to care whether it is ever settled or not. Should we have a republic? I don't mind; it is all the same to me: but don't give me the casting vote. Is Gladstone a god? is Gladstone the devil? They say he is one or other, and I am content to let them fight it out. How long is it since I gave a thought to religion? What am I? There are men who come into this room and announce that they are agnostics, as if that were a new profession. Am I an agnostic? I think not; and if I was I would keep it to myself. My soul does not trouble me at all, except for five minutes or so now and again. On the whole I seem to be indifferent as to whether I have one, or what is to become of it.'
Dick rose and paced the room, until his face gave the lie to everything he had told himself. His lips quivered and his whole body shook. He stood in an agony against the mantelpiece with his head in his hands, and emotions had possession of him compared with which the emotions of any other person described in this book were but children's fancies. By and by he became calm, and began to undress. Suddenly he remembered something. He rummaged for his keys in the pocket of the coat he had cast off, and, opening his desk, wrote on a slip of paper that he took from it, 'Scalping Knife, Man Frightened to Get Married (humorous)!'
'My God!' he groaned, 'I would write an article, I think, on my mother's coffin.'