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After the quiet of Little Primpton, the hurry and the noise of Victoria were a singular relief to James. Waiting for his luggage, he watched the various movements of the scene--the trollies pushed along with warning cries, the porters lifting heavy packages on to the bellied roof of hansoms, the people running to and fro, the crowd of cabs; and driving out, he was exhilarated by the confusion in the station yard, and the intense life, half gay, half sordid, of the Wilton Road. He took a room in Jermyn Street, according to Major Forsyth's recommendation, and walked to his club. James had been out of London so long that he came back with the emotions of a stranger; common scenes, the glitter of shops, the turmoil of the Circus, affected him with pleased surprise, and with a child's amusement he paused to stare at the advertisements on a hoarding. He looked forward to seeing old friends, and on his way down Piccadilly even expected to meet one or two of them sauntering along.
As a matter of form, James asked at his club whether there were any letters for him.
"I don't think so, sir," said the porter, but turned to the pigeon-holes and took out a bundle. He looked them over, and then handed one to James.
"Hulloa, who's this from?"
Suddenly something gripped his heart; he felt the blood rush to his cheeks, and a cold tremor ran through all his limbs. He recognised the handwriting of Mrs. Pritchard-Wallace, and there was a penny stamp on the envelope. She was in England. The letter had been posted in London.
He turned away and walked towards a table that stood near the window of the hall. A thousand recollections surged across his memory tumultuously; the paper was scented (how characteristic that was of her, and in what bad taste!); he saw at once her smile and the look of her eyes. He had a mad desire passionately to kiss the letter; a load of weariness fell from his heart; he felt insanely happy, as though angry storm-clouds had been torn asunder, and the sun in its golden majesty shone calmly upon the earth.... Then, with sudden impulse, he tore the unopened letter into a dozen pieces and threw them away. He straightened himself, and walked into the smoking-room.
James looked round and saw nobody he knew, quietly took a magazine from the table, and sat down; but the blood-vessels in his brain throbbed so violently that he thought something horrible would happen to him. He heard the regular, quick beating, like the implacable hammering of gnomes upon some hidden, distant anvil.
"She's in London," he repeated.
When had the letter been posted? At least, he might have looked at the mark on the envelope. Was it a year ago? Was it lately? The letter did not look as though it had been lying about the club for many months. Had it not still the odour of those dreadful Parma violets? She must have seen in the paper his return from Africa, wounded and ill. And what did she say? Did she merely write a few cold words of congratulation or--more?
It was terrible that after three years the mere sight of her handwriting should have power to throw him into this state of eager, passionate anguish. He was seized with the old panic, the terrified perception of his surrender, of his utter weakness, which made flight the only possible resistance. That was why he had destroyed the letter unread. When Mrs. Wallace was many thousand miles away there had been no danger in confessing that he loved her; but now it was different. What did she say in the letter? Had she in some feminine, mysterious fashion discovered his secret? Did she ask him to go and see her? James remembered one of their conversations.
"Oh, I love going to London!" she had cried, opening her arms with the charming, exotic gesticulation which distinguished her from all other women. "I enjoy myself awfully."
"What do you do?"
"Everything. And I write to poor Dick three times a week, and tell him all I haven't done."
"I can't bear the grass-widow," said James.
"Poor boy, you can't bear anything that's amusing! I never knew anyone with such an ideal of woman as you have--a gloomy mixture of frumpishness and angularity."
James did not answer.
"Don't you wish we were in London now?" she went on. "You and I together? I really believe I should have to take you about. You're as innocent as a babe."
"D'you think so?" said James, rather hurt.
"Now, if we were in town, on our own, what would you do?"
"Oh, I don't know. I suppose make a little party and dine somewhere, and go to the Savoy to see the 'Mikado.'"
Mrs. Wallace laughed.
"I know. A party of four--yourself and me, and two maiden aunts. And we should be very prim, and talk about the weather, and go in a growler for propriety's sake. I know that sort of evening. And after the maiden aunts had seen me safety home, I should simply howl from boredom. My dear boy, I'm respectable enough here. When I'm on my own, I want to go on the loose. Now, I'll tell you what I want to do if ever we are in town together. Will you promise to do it?"
"If I possibly can."
"All right! Well, you shall fetch me in the fastest hansom you can find, and remember to tell the driver to go as quick as ever he dare. We'll dine alone, please, at the most expensive restaurant in London! You'll engage a table in the middle of the room, and you must see that the people all round us are very smart and very shady. It always makes me feel so virtuous to look at disreputable women! Do I shock you?"
"Not more than usual."
"How absurd you are! Then we'll go to the Empire. And after that we'll go somewhere else, and have supper where the people are still smarter and still shadier; and then we'll go to Covent Garden Ball. Oh, you don't know how I long to go on the rampage sometimes! I get so tired of propriety."
"And what will P. W. say to all this?"
"Oh, I'll write and tell him that I spent the evening with some of his poor relations, and give eight pages of corroborative evidence."
James thought of Pritchard-Wallace, gentlest and best-humoured of men. He was a great big fellow, with a heavy moustache and kind eyes; always ready to stand by anyone in difficulties, always ready with comfort or with cheery advice; whoever wanted help went to him as though it were the most natural thing in the world. And it was touching to see the dog-like devotion to his wife; he had such confidence in her that he never noticed her numerous flirtations. Pritchard-Wallace thought himself rather a dull stick, and he wanted her to amuse herself. So brilliant a creature could not be expected to find sufficient entertainment in a quiet man of easy-going habits.
"Go your own way, my girl," he said; "I know you're all right. And so long as you keep a place for me in the bottom of your heart, you can do whatever you like."
"Of course, I don't care two straws for anyone but you, silly old thing!"
And she pulled his moustache and kissed his lips; and he went off on his business, his heart swelling with gratitude, because Providence had given him the enduring love of so beautiful and enchanting a little woman.
"P. W. is worth ten of you," James told her indignantly one day, when he had been witness to some audacious deception.
"Well, he doesn't think so. And that's the chief thing."
* * * * * * *
James dared not see her. It was obviously best to have destroyed the letter. After all, it was probably nothing more than a curt, formal congratulation, and its coldness would nearly have broken his heart. He feared also lest in his never-ceasing thought he had crystallised his beloved into something quite different from reality. His imagination was very active, and its constant play upon those few recollections might easily have added many a false delight. To meet Mrs. Wallace would only bring perhaps a painful disillusion; and of that James was terrified, for without this passion which occupied his whole soul he would be now singularly alone in the world. It was a fantastic, charming figure that he had made for himself, and he could worship it without danger and without reproach. Was it not better to preserve his dream from the sullen irruption of fact? But why would that perfume come perpetually entangling itself with his memory? It gave the image new substance; and when he closed his eyes, the woman seemed so near that he could feel against his face the fragrance of her breath.
He dined alone, and spent the hours that followed in reading. By some chance he was able to find no one he knew, and he felt rather bored. He went to bed with a headache, feeling already the dreariness of London without friends.
Next morning James wandered in the Park, fresh and delightful with the rhododendrons; but the people he saw hurt him by their almost aggressive happiness--vivacious, cheerful, and careless, they were all evidently of opinion that no reasonable creature could complain with the best of all possible worlds. The girls that hurried past on ponies, or on bicycles up and down the well-kept road, gave him an impression of light-heartedness which was fascinating, yet made his own solitude more intolerable. Their cheeks glowed with healthiness in the summer air, and their gestures, their laughter, were charmingly animated. He noticed the smile which a slender Amazon gave to a man who raised his hat, and read suddenly in their eyes a happy, successful tenderness. Once, galloping towards him, he saw a woman who resembled Mrs. Wallace, and his heart stood still. He had an intense longing to behold her just once more, unseen of her; but he was mistaken. The rider approached and passed, and it was no one he knew.
Then, tired and sore at heart, James went back to his club. The day passed monotonously, and the day after he was seized by the peculiar discomfort of the lonely sojourner in great cities. The thronging, busy crowd added to his solitariness. When he saw acquaintances address one another in the club, or walk along the streets in conversation, he could hardly bear his own friendlessness; the interests of all these people seemed so fixed and circumscribed, their lives were already so full, that they could only look upon a new-comer with hostility. He would have felt less lonely on a desert island than in the multitudinous city, surrounded by hurrying strangers. He scarcely knew how he managed to drag through the day, tired of the eternal smoking-room, tired of wandering about. The lodgings which Major Forsyth had recommended were like barracks; a tall, narrow house, in which James had a room at the top, looking on to a blank wall. They were dreadfully cheerless. And as James climbed the endless stairs he felt an irritation at the joyous laughter that came from other rooms. Behind those closed, forbidding doors people were happy and light of heart; only he was alone, and must remain perpetually imprisoned within himself. He went to the theatre, but here again, half insanely, he felt a barrier between himself and the rest of the audience. For him the piece offered no illusions; he could only see painted actors strutting affectedly in unnatural costumes; the scenery was mere painted cloth, and the dialogue senseless inanity. With all his might James wished that he were again in Africa, with work to do and danger to encounter. There the solitude was never lonely, and the nights were blue and silent, rich with the countless stars.
He had been in London a week. One day, towards evening, while he walked down Piccadilly, looking aimlessly at the people and asking himself what their inmost thoughts could be, he felt a hand on his shoulder, and a cheery voice called out his name.
"I knew it was you, Parsons! Where the devil have you sprung from?"
He turned round and saw a man he had known in India. Jamie's solitude and boredom had made him almost effusive.
"By Jove, I am glad to see you!" he said, wringing the fellow's hand. "Come and have a drink. I've seen no one for days, and I'm dying to have some one to talk to."
"I think I can manage it. I've got a train to catch at eight; I'm just off to Scotland."
Jamie's face fell.
"I was going to ask you to dine with me."
"I'm awfully sorry! I'm afraid I can't."
They talked of one thing and another, till Jamie's friend said he must go immediately; they shook hands.
"Oh, by the way," said the man, suddenly remembering, "I saw a pal of yours the other day, who's clamouring for you."
James reddened, knowing at once, instinctively, that it could only be one person.
"D'you remember Mrs. Pritchard-Wallace? She's in London. I saw her at a party, and she asked me if I knew anything about you. She's staying in Half Moon Street, at 201. You'd better go and see her. Good-bye! I must simply bolt."
He left James hurriedly, and did not notice the effect of his few words.... She still thought of him, she asked for him, she wished him to go to her. The gods in their mercy had sent him the address; with beating heart and joyful step, James immediately set out. The throng in his way vanished, and he felt himself walking along some roadway of ethereal fire, straight to his passionate love--a roadway miraculously fashioned for his feet, leading only to her. Every thought left him but that the woman he adored was waiting, waiting, ready to welcome him with that exquisite smile, with the hands which were like the caresses of Aphrodite, turned to visible flesh. But he stopped short.
"What's the good?" he cried, bitterly.
Before him the sun was setting like a vision of love, colouring with softness and with quiet the manifold life of the city. James looked at it, his heart swelling with sadness; for with it seemed to die his short joy, and the shadows lengthening were like the sad facts of reality which crept into his soul one by one silently.
"I won't go," he cried; "I daren't! Oh, God help me, and give me strength!"
He turned into the Green Park, where lovers sat entwined upon the benches, and in the pleasant warmth the idlers and the weary slept upon the grass. James sank heavily upon a seat, and gave himself over to his wretchedness.
The night fell, and the lamps upon Piccadilly were lit, and in the increasing silence the roar of London sounded more intensely. From the darkness, as if it were the scene of a play, James watched the cabs and 'buses pass rapidly in the light, the endless procession of people like disembodied souls drifting aimlessly before the wind. It was a comfort and a relief to sit there unseen, under cover of the night. He observed the turmoil with a new, disinterested curiosity, feeling strangely as if he were no longer among the living. He found himself surprised that they thought it worth while to hurry and to trouble. The couples on the benches remained in silent ecstasy; and sometimes a dark figure slouched past, sorrowful and mysterious.
At last James went out, surprised to find it was so late. The theatres had disgorged their crowds, and Piccadilly was thronged, gay, vivacious, and insouciant. For a moment there was a certain luxury about its vice; the harlot gained the pompousness of a Roman courtesan, and the vulgar debauchee had for a little while the rich, corrupt decadence of art and splendour.
James turned into Half Moon Street, which now was all deserted and silent, and walked slowly, with anguish tearing at his heart, towards the house in which lodged Mrs. Wallace. One window was still lit, and he wondered whether it was hers; it would have been an exquisite pleasure if he could but have seen her form pass the drawn blind. Ah, he could not have mistaken it! Presently the light was put out, and the whole house was in darkness. He waited on, for no reason--pleased to be near her. He waited half the night, till he was so tired he could scarcely drag himself home.
In the morning James was ill and tired, and disillusioned; his head ached so that he could hardly bear the pain, and in all his limbs he felt a strange and heavy lassitude. He wondered why he had troubled himself about the woman who cared nothing--nothing whatever for him. He repeated about her the bitter, scornful things he had said so often. He fancied he had suddenly grown indifferent.
"I shall go back to Primpton," he said; "London is too horrible."
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