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Tired and sullen after the journey home from the seaside, Mrs. Cross kept her room. In the little bay-windowed parlour, Bertha Cross and Rosamund Elvan sat talking confidentially.
"Now, do confess," urged she of the liquid eyes and sentimental accent. "This is a little plot of yours--all in kindness, of course. You thought it best--you somehow brought him to it?"
Half laughing, Bertha shook her head.
"I haven't seen him for quite a long time. And do you really think this kind of plotting is in my way? It would as soon have occurred to me to try and persuade Mr. Franks to join the fire-brigade."
"Bertha! You don't mean anything by that? You don't think I am a danger to him?"
"No, no, no! To tell you the truth, I have tried to think just as little about it as possible, one way or the other. Third persons never do any good in such cases, and more often than not get into horrid scrapes."
"Fortunately," said Rosamund, after musing a moment with her chin on her hand, "I'm sure he isn't serious. It's his good-nature, his sense of honour. I think all the better of him for it. When he understands that I'm in earnest, we shall just be friends again, real friends."
"Then you are in earnest?" asked Bertha, her eyelids winking mirthfully.
Rosamund's reply was a very grave nod, after which she gazed awhile at vacancy.
"But," resumed Bertha, after reading her friend's face, "you have not succeeded in making him understand yet?"
"Perhaps not quite. Yesterday morning I had a letter from him, asking me to meet him in Kensington Gardens. I went, and we had a long talk. Then in the evening, by chance, I saw Mr. Warburton."
"Has that anything to do with the matter?"
"Oh, no!" replied Miss Elvan hastily. "I mention it, because, as I told you once before, Mr. Warburton always likes to talk of Norbert."
"I see. And you talked of him?"
"We only saw each other for a few minutes. The thunder-storm came on.--Bertha, I never knew any one so mysterious as Mr. Warburton. Isn't it extraordinary that Norbert, his intimate friend, doesn't know what he does? I can't help thinking he must write. One can't associate him with anything common, mean."
"Perhaps his glory will burst upon us one of these days," said Bertha.
"It really wouldn't surprise me. He has a remarkable face--the kind of face that suggests depth and force. I am sure he is very proud. He could bear any extreme of poverty rather than condescend to ignoble ways of earning money."
"Is the poor man very threadbare?" asked Bertha. "Has his coat that greenish colour which comes with old age in cheap material?"
"You incorrigible! As far as I have noticed, he is quite properly dressed."
"Oh, oh!" protested Bertha, in a shocked tone. "Properly dressed! What a blow to my romantic imagination! I thought at least his coat-cuffs would be worn out. And his boots? Oh, surely he is down at heel? Do say that he's down at heel, Rosamund!"
"What a happy girl you are, Bertha," said the other after a laugh. "I sometimes think I would give anything to be like you."
"Ah, but you don't know--you can t see into the gloomy depths, hidden from every eye but my own. For instance, while here we sit, talking as if I hadn't a care in the world I am all the time thinking that I must go to Mr. Jollyman's--the grocer's, that is --as we haven't a lump of sugar in the house."
"Then let me walk with you," said Rosamund. "I oughtn't to have come worrying you to-day, before you had time to settle down. Just let me walk with you to the grocer's, and then I'll leave you at peace."
They presently went forth, and walked for some distance westward along Fulham Road.
"Here's Mr. Jollyman's," said Bertha. "Will you wait for me, or come in?"
Rosamund followed her friend into the shop. Absorbed in thought, she scarcely raised her eyes, until a voice from behind the counter replied to Bertha's "Good-morning"; then, suddenly looking up, she saw that which held her motionless. For a moment she gazed like a startled deer; the next her eyes fell, her face turned away; she fled out into the street.
And there Bertha found her, a few yards from the shop.
"Why did you run away?"
Rosamund had a dazed look.
"Who was that behind the counter?" she asked, under her breath.
"Mr. Jollyman. Why?"
The other walked on. Bertha kept at her side.
"What's the matter?"
"Bertha--Mr. Jollyman is Mr. Warburton."
"But he is! Here's the explanation--here's the mystery. A grocer --in an apron!"
Bertha was standing still. She, too, looked astonished, perplexed.
"Isn't it a case of extraordinary likeness?" she asked, with a grave smile.
"Oh, dear, no! I met his eye--he showed that he knew me--and then his voice. A grocer--in an apron?"
"This is very shocking," said Bertha, with a recovery of her natural humour. "Let us walk. Let us shake off the nightmare."
The word applied very well to Rosamund's condition; her fixed eyes were like those of a somnambulist.
"But, Bertha!" she suddenly exclaimed, in a voice of almost petulant protest. "He knew you all the time--oh, but perhaps he did not know your name?"
"Indeed he did. He's constantly sending things to the house."
"How extraordinary! Did you ever hear such an astonishing thing in your life?"
"You said more than once," remarked Bertha, "that Mr. Warburton was a man of mystery."
"Oh, but how could I have imagined--! grocer!"
"In an apron!" added the other, with awed voice.
"But, Bertha, does Norbert know? He declared he had never found out what Mr. Warburton did. Was that true, or not?"
"Ah, that's the question. If poor Mr. Franks has had this secret upon his soul! I can hardly believe it. And yet--they are such intimate friends."
"He must have known it," declared Rosamund.
Thereupon she became mute, and only a syllable of dismay escaped her now and then during the rest of the walk to the Crosses' house. Her companion, too, was absorbed in thought. At the door Rosamund offered her hand. No, she would not come in; she had work which must positively be finished this afternoon whilst daylight lasted.
Out of the by-street, Rosamund turned into Fulham Road, and there found a cab to convey her home. On entering the house, she gave instructions that she was at home to nobody this afternoon; then she sat down at the table, as though to work on a drawing, but at the end of an hour her brush had not yet been dipped in colour. She rose, stood in the attitude of one who knows not what to do, and at length moved to the window. Instantly she drew back. On the opposite side of the little square stood a man, looking toward her house; and that man was Warburton.
From safe retirement, she watched him. He walked this way; he walked that; again he stood still, his eyes upon the house. Would he cross over? Would he venture to knock at the door? No, he withdrew; he disappeared.
Presently it was the hour of dusk. Every few minutes Rosamund reconnoitred at the window, and at length, just perceptible to her straining eyes, there again stood Warburton. He came forward. Standing with hand pressed against her side, she waited in nervous anguish for a knock at the front door; but it did not sound. She stood motionless for a long, long time, then drew a deep, deep breath, and trembled as she let herself sink into a chair.
Earlier than usual, she went up to her bedroom. In a corner of the room stood her trunk; this she opened, and from the chest of drawers she took forth articles of apparel, which she began to pack, as though for a journey. When the trunk was half full, she ceased in weariness, rested for a little, and then went to bed.
And in the darkness there came a sound of subdued sobbing. It lasted for some minutes--ceased--for some minutes was again audible. Then silence fell upon the chamber.
Lying awake between seven and eight next morning, Rosamund heard the postman's knock. At once she sprang out of bed, slipped on her dressing-gown, and rang the bell. Two letters were brought up to her; she received them with tremulous hand. Both were addressed in writing, unmistakably masculine; the one was thick, the other was thin and this she opened first.
"Dear Miss Elvan"--it was Warburton who wrote--"I hoped to see you this evening, as we had appointed. Indeed, I must see you, for, as you may imagine, I have much to say. May I come to your house? In any case, let me know place and hour, and let it be as soon as possible. Reply at once, I entreat you. Ever sincerely yours--"
She laid it aside, and broke the other envelope.
"Dear, dearest Rosamund"--thus began Norbert Franks--"our talk this morning has left me in a state of mind which threatens frenzy. You know I haven't too much patience. It is out of the question for me to wait a week for your answer, though I promised. I can't wait even a couple of days. I must see you again to-morrow--must, must, must. Come to the same place, there's a good, dear, sweet, beautiful girl! If you don't, I shall be in Oakley Crescent, breaking doors open, behaving insanely. Come early--"
And so on, over two sheets of the very best notepaper, with Norbert's respectable address handsomely stamped in red at the top. (The other missive was on paper less fashionable, with the address, sadly plebeian, in mere handwriting.) Having read to the end, Rosamund finished her dressing and went down to the sitting-room. Breakfast was ready, but, before giving her attention to it, she penned a note. It was to Warburton. Briefly she informed him that she had decided to join her sister in the south of France, and that she was starting on the journey this morning. Her address, she added, would be "c/o Mrs. Alfred Coppinger, St. Jean de Luz, Basses Pyrenees." And therewith she remained Mr. Warburton's sincerely.
"Please let this be posted at once," said Rosamund when the landlady came to clear away.
And posted it was.
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