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"You foresee the course of the narrative?"
"Better tell it in detail," muttered Hilliard.
"Why this severe tone? Do you anticipate something that will shock your moral sense? I didn't think you were so straitlaced."
"Do you mean to say----"
Hilliard was sitting upright; his voice began on a harsh tremor, and suddenly failed. The other gazed at him in humorous astonishment.
"What the devil do you mean? Even suppose--who made you a judge and a ruler? This is the most comical start I've known for a long time. I was going to tell you that I have made up my mind to marry the girl."
"I see--it's all right----"
"But do you really mean," said Narramore, "that anything else would have aroused your moral indignation?"
Hilliard burst into a violent fit of laughter. His pipe fell to the floor, and broke; whereupon he interrupted his strange merriment with a savage oath.
"It was a joke, then?" remarked his friend.
"Your monstrous dulness shows the state of your mind. This is what comes of getting entangled with women. You need to have a sense of humour."
"I'm afraid there's some truth in what you say, old boy. I've been conscious of queer symptoms lately--a disposition to take things with absurd seriousness, and an unwholesome bodily activity now and then."
"Go on with your tragic story. The girl asked you to find her a place----"
"I promised to think about it, but I couldn't hear of anything suitable. She had left her address with me, so at length I wrote her a line just saying I hadn't forgotten her. I got an answer on black-edged paper. Miss Madeley wrote to tell me that her father had recently died, and that she had found employment at Dudley; with thanks for my kindness--and so on. It was rather a nicely written letter, and after a day or two I wrote again. I heard nothing-- hardly expected to; so in a fortnight's time I wrote once more. Significant, wasn't it? I'm not fond of writing letters, as you know. But I've written a good many since then. At last it came to another meeting. I went over to Dudley on purpose, and saw Miss Madeley on the Castle Hill. I had liked the look of her from the first, and I liked it still better now. By dint of persuasion, I made her tell me all about herself."
"Did she tell you the truth?"
"Why should you suppose she didn't?" replied Narramore with some emphasis. "You must look at this affair in a different light, Hilliard. A joke is a joke, but I've told you that the joking time has gone by. I can make allowance for you: you think I have been making a fool of myself, after all."
"The beginning was ominous."
"The beginning of our acquaintance? Yes, I know how it strikes you. But she came in that way because she had been trying for months ----"
"Who was it that told her of you?"
"Oh, one of our girls, no doubt. I haven't asked her--never thought again about it."
"And what's her record?"
"Nothing dramatic in it, I'm glad to say. At one time she had an engagement in London for a year or two. Her people, 'poor but honest'--as the stories put it. Father was a timekeeper at Dudley; brother, a mechanic there. I was over to see her yesterday; we had only just said good-bye when I met you. She's remarkably well educated, all things considered: very fond of reading; knows as much of books as I do--more, I daresay. First-rate intelligence; I guessed that from the first. I can see the drawbacks, of course. As I said, she isn't what you would call a lady; but there's nothing much to find fault with even in her manners. And the long and the short of it is, I'm in love with her."
"And she has promised to marry you?"
"Well, not in so many words. She seems to have scruples-- difference of position, and that kind of thing."
"Very reasonable scruples, no doubt."
"Quite right that she should think of it in that way, at all events. But I believe it was practically settled yesterday. She isn't in very brilliant health, poor girl! I want to get her away from that beastly place as soon as possible. I shall give myself a longish holiday, and take her on to the Continent. A thorough change of that kind would set her up wonderfully.
"She has never been on to the Continent?"
"What a preposterous question! You're going to sleep, sitting here in the dark. Oh, don't trouble to light up for me; I can't stay much longer."
Hilliard had risen, but instead of lighting the lamp he turned to the window and stood there drumming with his fingers on a pane.
"Are you seriously concerned for me?" said his friend. "Does it seem a piece of madness?"
"You must judge for yourself, Narramore."
"When you have seen her I think you'll take my views. Of course it's the very last thing I ever imagined myself doing; but I begin to see that the talk about fate isn't altogether humbug. I want this girl for my wife, and I never met any one else whom I really did want. She suits me exactly. It isn't as if I thought of marrying an ordinary, ignorant, low-class girl. Eve--that's her name--is very much out of the common, look at her how you may. She's rather melancholy, but that's a natural result of her life."
"No doubt, as you say, she wants a thorough change," remarked Hilliard, smiling in the gloom.
"That's it. Her nerves are out of order. Well, I thought I should like to tell you this, old chap. You'll get over the shock in time. I more than half believe, still, that your moral indignation was genuine. And why not? I ought to respect you for it."
"Are you going?"
"I must be in Bristol Road by five--promised to drink a cup of Mrs. Stocker's tea this afternoon. I'm glad now that I have kept up a few homely acquaintances; they may be useful, Of course I shall throw over the Birchings and that lot. You see now why my thoughts have been running on a country house!"
He went off laughing, and his friend sat down again by the fireside.
Half an hour passed. The fire had burnt low, and the room was quite dark. At length, Hilliard bestirred himself. He lit the lamp, drew down the blind, and seated himself at the table to write. With great rapidity he covered four sides of note-paper, and addressed an envelope. But he had no postage-stamp. It could be obtained at a tobacconist's.
So he went out, and turned towards a little shop hard by. But when he had stamped the letter he felt undecided about posting it. Eve had promised to come to-morrow with Patty. If she again failed him it would be time enough to write. If she kept her promise the presence of a third person would be an intolerable restraint upon him. Yet why? Patty might as well know all, and act as judge between them. There needed little sagacity to arbitrate in a matter such as this.
To sit at home was impossible. He walked for the sake of walking, straight on, without object. Down the long gas-lit perspective of Bradford Street, with its closed, silent workshops, across the miserable little river Rea--canal rather than river, sewer rather than canal--up the steep ascent to St. Martin's and the Bull Ring, and the bronze Nelson, dripping with dirty moisture; between the big buildings of New Street, and so to the centre of the town. At the corner by the Post Office he stood in idle contemplation. Rain was still falling, but lightly. The great open space gleamed with shafts of yellow radiance reflected on wet asphalt from the numerous lamps. There was little traffic. An omnibus clattered by, and a tottery cab, both looking rain-soaked. Near the statue of Peel stood a hansom, the forlorn horse crooking his knees and hanging his hopeless head. The Town Hall colonnade sheltered a crowd of people, who were waiting for the rain to stop, that they might spend their Sunday evening, as usual, in rambling about the streets. Within the building, which showed light through all its long windows, a religious meeting was in progress, and hundreds of voices peeled forth a rousing hymn, fortified with deeper organ-note.
Hilliard noticed that as rain-drops fell on the heated globes of the street-lamps they were thrown off again in little jets and puffs of steam. This phenomenon amused him for several minutes. He wondered that he had never observed it before.
Easter Sunday. The day had its importance for a Christian mind. Did Eve think about that? Perhaps her association with him, careless as he was in all such matters, had helped to blunt her religious feeling. Yet what hope was there, in such a world as this, that she would retain the pieties of her girlhood?
Easter Sunday. As he walked on, he pondered the Christian story, and tried to make something out of it. Had it any significance for him? Perhaps, for he had never consciously discarded the old faith; he had simply let it fall out of his mind. But a woman ought to have religious convictions. Yes; he saw the necessity of that. Better for him if Eve were in the Town Hall yonder, joining her voice with those that sang.
Better for him. A selfish point of view. But the advantage would be hers also. Did he not desire her happiness? He tried to think so, but after all was ashamed to play the sophist with himself. The letter he carried in his pocket told the truth. He had but to think of her as married to Robert Narramore and the jealous fury of natural man drove him headlong.
Monday was again a holiday. When would the cursed people get back to their toil, and let the world resume its wonted grind and clang? They seemed to have been making holiday for a month past.
He walked up and down on the pavement near his door, until at the street corner there appeared a figure he knew. It was Patty Ringrose, again unaccompanied.
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