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With a glance at Miss Ringrose, he raised his hat and passed on. Hilliard, confused by the rapid rencontre, half annoyed at having been seen with Patty, and half wishing he had not granted the appointment for tomorrow, as it might interfere with a visit from the girls, walked forward in silence.
"So we really sha'n't see you if it's wet tomorrow," said Patty.
"Better not. Eve would be afraid to come, she catches cold so easily."
"It may be fine, like to-day. I do hope----"
She broke off and added:
"Why, isn't that Eve in front?"
Eve it certainly was, walking slowly away from the station, a few yards in advance of them. They quickened their pace, and Patty caught her friend by the arm. Eve, startled out of abstraction, stared at her with eyes of dismay and bloodless cheeks.
"Did I frighten you? Mr. Hilliard has come back with me to ask how you are. Is your head better?"
"I've just been down to the station--for something to do," said Eve, her look fixed on Hilliard with what seemed to him a very strange intensity. "The afternoon was so fine."
"We've had a splendid time," cried Patty. "Mr. Hilliard has shown me everything."
"I'm so glad. I should only have spoilt it if I had been with you. It's wretched going about with a headache, and I can't make believe to enjoy Birmingham."
Eve spoke hurriedly, still regarding Hilliard, who looked upon the ground.
"Have you been alone all day?" he asked, taking the outer place at her side, as they walked on.
"Of course--except for the people in the house," was her offhand reply.
"I met Narramore down at the station; he must have passed you. What has brought him here to-day, I wonder?"
Appearing not to heed the remark, Eve glanced across at Patty, and said with a laugh:
"It's like Paris again, isn't it--we three? You ought to come and live here, Patty. Don't you think you could get a place in Birmingham? Mr. Hilliard would get a piano for his room, and you could let him have some music. I'm too old to learn."
"I'm sure he wouldn't want me jingling there."
"Wouldn't he? He's very fond of music indeed."
"Well, I don't think I'll go any further," he said mechanically. "You're quite well again, Eve, and that's all I wanted to know."
"What about to-morrow?" Eve asked.
The sun had set, and in the westward sky rose a mountain of menacing cloud. Hilliard gave a glance in that direction before replying.
"Don't count upon me. Patty and you will enjoy the day together, in any case. Yes, I had rather have it so. Narramore said just now he might look in to see me in the after' noon. But come over on Monday. When does Patty's train go from New Street?"
Eve was mute, gazing at the speaker as if she did not catch what he had said. Patty answered for herself.
"Then you can either come to my place," he continued, "or I'll meet you at the station."
Patty's desire was evident in her face; she looked at Eve.
"We'll come to you early in the afternoon," said the latter, speaking like one aroused from reverie. "Yes, we'll come whatever the weather is."
The young man shook hands with them, raised his hat, and walked away without further speech. It occurred to him that he might overtake Narramore at the station, and in that hope he hastened; but Narramore must have left by a London and North-Western train which had just started; he was nowhere discoverable. Hilliard travelled back by the Great Western, after waiting about an hour; he had for companions half-a-dozen beer-muddled lads, who roared hymns and costers' catches impartially.
His mind was haunted with deadly suspicions: he felt sick at heart.
Eve's headache, undoubtedly, was a mere pretence for not accompanying Patty to-day. She had desired to be alone, and--this he discovered no less clearly--she wished the friendship between him and Patty to be fostered. With what foolish hope? Was she so shallow-natured as to imagine that he might transfer his affections to Patty Ringrose? it proved how strong her desire had grown to be free from him.
The innocent Patty (was she so innocent?) seemed not to suspect the meaning of her friend's talk. Yet Eve must have all but told her in so many words that she was weary of her lover. That hateful harping on "gratitude"! Well, one cannot purchase a woman's love. He had missed the right, the generous, line of conduct. That would have been to rescue Eve from manifest peril, and then to ask nothing of her. Could he but have held his passions in leash, something like friendship--rarest of all relations between man and woman--might have come about between him and Eve. She, too, certainly had never got beyond the stage of liking him as a companion; her senses had never answered to his appeal He looked back upon the evening when they had dined together at the restaurant in Holborn. Could he but have stopped at that point! There would have been no harm in such avowals as then escaped him, for he recognised without bitterness that the warmth of feeling was all on one side, and Eve, in the manner of her sex, could like him better for his love without a dream of returning it. His error was to have taken advantage-- perhaps a mean advantage--of the strange events that followed. If he restrained himself before, how much more he should have done so when the girl had put herself at his mercy, when to demand her love was the obvious, commonplace, vulgar outcome of the situation? Of course she harped on "gratitude." What but a sense of obligation had constrained her?
Something had taken place to-day; he felt it as a miserable certainty. The man from London had been with her. She expected him, and had elaborately planned for a day of freedom. Perhaps her invitation of Patty had no other motive.
That Patty was a conspirator against him he could not believe. No! She was merely an instrument of Eve's subtlety. And his suspicion had not gone beyond the truth. Eve entertained the hope that Patty might take her place. Perchance the silly, good-natured girl would feel no objection; though it was not very likely that she foresaw or schemed for such an issue.
At Snow Hill station it cost him an effort to rise and leave the carriage. His mood was sluggish; he wished to sit still and think idly over the course of events.
He went byway of St. Philip's Church, which stands amid a wide graveyard, enclosed with iron railings, and crossed by paved walks. The locality was all but forsaken; the church rose black against the grey sky, and the lofty places of business round about were darkly silent. A man's footstep sounded in front of him, and a figure approached along the narrow path between the high bars. Hilliard would have passed without attention, but the man stopped his way.
"Hollo! Here we are again!"
He stared at the speaker, and recognised Mr. Dengate.
"So you've come back?"
"Where from?" said Hilliard. "What do you know of me?"
"As much as I care to," replied the other with a laugh. "So you haven't quite gone to the devil yet? I gave you six months. I've been watching the police news in the London papers."
In a maddening access of rage, Hilliard clenched his fist and struck fiercely at the man. But he did no harm, for his aim was wild, and Dengate easily warded off the blows.
"Hold on! You're drunk, of course. Stop it, my lad, or I'll have you locked up till Monday morning. Very obliging of you to offer me the pleasure I was expecting, but you will have it, eh?"
A second blow was repaid in kind, and Hilliard staggered back against the railings. Before he could recover himself, Dengate, whose high hat rolled between their feet, pinned his arms.
"There's someone coming along. It's a pity. I should enjoy thrashing you and then running you in. But a man of my position doesn't care to get mixed up in a street row. It wouldn't sound well at Liverpool. Stand quiet, will you!"
A man and a woman drew near, and lingered for a moment in curiosity. Hilliard already amazed at what he had done, became passive, and stood with bent head.
"I must have a word or two With you," said Dengate, when he had picked up his hat. "Can you walk straight? I didn't notice you were drunk before I spoke to you. Come along this way."
To escape the lookers-on, Hilliard moved forward.
"I've always regretted," resumed his companion, "that I didn't give you a sound thrashing that night in the train. It would have done you good. It might have been the making of you. I didn't hurt you, eh?"
"You've bruised my lips--that's all. And I deserved it for being such a damned fool as to lose my temper."
"You look rather more decent than I should have expected. What have you been doing in London?"
"How do you know I have been in London?"
"I took that for granted when I knew you'd left your work at Dudley."
"Who told you I had left it?"
"What does it matter?"
"I should like to know," said Hilliard, whose excitement had passed and left him cold. "And I should like to know who told you before that I was in the habit of getting drunk?"
"Are you drunk now, or not?"
"Not in the way you mean. Do you happen to know a man called Narramore?"
"Never heard the name."
Hilliard felt ashamed of his ignoble suspicion. He became silent.
"There's no reason why you shouldn't be told," added Dengate; "it was a friend of yours at Dudley that I came across when I was making inquiries about you: Mullen his name was."
A clerk at the ironworks, with whom Hilliard had been on terms of slight intimacy.
"Oh, that fellow," he uttered carelessly. "I'm glad to know it was no one else. Why did you go inquiring about me?"
"I told you. If I'd heard a better account I should have done a good deal more for you than pay that money. I gave you a chance, too. If you'd shown any kind of decent behaviour when I spoke to you in the train--but it's no good talking about that now. This is the second time you've let me see what a natural blackguard you are. It's queer, too, you didn't get that from your father. I could have put you in the way of something good at Liverpool. Now, I'd see you damned first, Well, have you run through the money?"
"Every penny of it gone in drink."
"And what are you doing?"
"Walking with a man I should be glad to be rid of."
"All right. Here's my card. When you get into the gutter, and nobody'll give you a hand out, let me know."
With a nod, Dengate walked off. Hilliard saw him smooth his silk hat as he went; then, without glancing at the card, he threw it away.
The next morning was cold and wet. He lay in bed till eleven o'clock, when the charwoman came to put his rooms in order. At mid-day he left home, had dinner at the nearest place he knew where a meal could be obtained on Sunday, and afterwards walked the streets for an hour under his umbrella. The exercise did him good; on returning he felt able to sit down by the fire, and turn over the plates of his great book on French Cathedrals. This, at all events, remained to him out of the wreck, and was a joy that could be counted upon in days to come.
He hoped Narramore would keep his promise, and was not disappointed. On the verge of dusk his friend knocked and entered.
"The blind woman was at the door below," he explained, "looking for somebody."
"It isn't as absurd as it sounds. She does look for people--with her ears. She knows a footstep that no one else can hear. What were you doing at Dudley yesterday?"
Narramore took his pipe out of its case and smiled over it.
"Colours well, doesn't it?" he remarked. "You don't care about the colouring of a pipe? I get a lot of satisfaction out of such little things! Lazy fellows always do; and they have the best of life in the end. By-the-bye, what were you doing at Dudley?"
"Had to go over with a girl."
"Rather a pretty girl, too. Old acquaintance?"
"Someone I got to know in London. No, no, not at all what you suppose."
"Well, I know you wouldn't talk about it. It isn't my way, either, to say much about such things. But I half-promised, not long ago, to let you know of something that was going on--if it came to anything. And it rather looks as if it might. What do you think! Birching has been at me, wanting to know why I don't call. I wonder whether the girl put him up to it?"
"You went rather far, didn't you?"
"Oh, I drew back in time. Besides, those ideas are old-fashioned. It'll have to be understood that marriageable girls have nothing specially sacred about them. They must associate with men on equal terms. The day has gone by for a hulking brother to come asking a man about his 'intentions.' As a rule, it's the girl that has intentions. The man is just looking round, anxious to be amiable without making a fool of himself. We're at a great disadvantage. A girl who isn't an idiot can very soon know all about the men who interest her; but it's devilish difficult to get much insight into them--until you've hopelessly committed yourself--won't you smoke? I've something to tell you, and I can't talk to a man who isn't smoking, when my own pipe's lit."
Hilliard obeyed, and for a few moments they puffed in silence, twilight thickening about them.
"Three or four months ago," resumed Narramore, "I was told one day --at business--that a lady wished to see me. I happened to have the room to myself, and told them to show the lady in. I didn't in the least know who it could be, and I was surprised to see rather a good-looking girl--not exactly a lady--tallish, and with fine dark eyes--what did you say?"
"A twinge of gout?"
Narramore scrutinised his friend, who spoke in an unusual tone.
"She sat down, and began to tell me that she was out of work-- wanted a place as a bookkeeper, or something of the kind. Could I help her? I asked her why she came to me. She said she had heard of me from someone who used to be employed at our place. That was flattering. I showed my sense of it. Then I asked her name, and she said it was Miss Madeley."
A gust threw rain against the windows. Narramore paused, looking into the fire, and smiling thoughtfully.
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