In the topmost chamber of the last of a row of somber gray stone houses in Adam Street a girl with a thin but beautiful face and large, expectant eyes sat close to the bare, uncurtained window, from which it was possible to command a view of the street below. A book which she had apparently been reading had fallen neglected onto the floor. Steadfastly she watched the passers-by. Her delicate, expressive features were more than once illuminated with joy, only to be clouded, a moment later, with disappointment. The color came and went in her cheeks, as though, indeed, she were more sensitive than her years. Occasionally she glanced around at the clock. Time dragged so slowly in that great bare room with its obvious touch of poverty!
At last a tall figure came striding along the pavement below. This time no mistake was possible. There was a fluttering handkerchief from above, an answering wave of the hand. The girl drew a sigh of inexpressible content, moved away from the window and faced the door, with lifted head waiting for the sound of footsteps upon the stairs. They arrived at last. The door was thrown open. Arnold Chetwode came hastily across the room and gripped the two hands which were held out to him. Then he bent down and kissed her forehead.
"Dear little Ruth!" he exclaimed. "I hope you were careful crossing the landing?"
The girl leaned back in her chair. Her eyes were fixed anxiously upon his face. She completely ignored his question.
"The news at once!" she insisted. "Tell me, Arnold!"
He was a little taken aback.
"How did you know that I had any?"
She smiled delightfully.
"Know, indeed! I knew it directly I saw you, I knew it every time your foot touched the stairs. What is it, Arnold? The cheeses didn't smell so bad to-day? Or you've had a rise? Quick! I must hear all about it."
"You shall," Arnold replied. "It is a wonderful story. Listen. Have you ever heard the fable of Dick Whittington?"
"Married his employer's daughter, of course. What's she like, Arnold? Have you seen her? Did you save her life? When are you going to see her again?"
Chetwode was already on his knees, dragging out an old trunk from underneath the faded cupboard. Suddenly he paused with a gesture of despair.
"Alas!" he exclaimed. "My dream fades away. Old Weatherley was married only last year. Consequently, his daughter--"
"He can't have one," she interrupted, ruthlessly. "Tell me the news at once?"
"I am going to dine with old Weatherley," he announced.
The girl smiled, a little wistfully.
"How funny! But you will get a good dinner, won't you, Arnold? Eat ever so much, dear. Yesterday I fancied that you were getting thin. I do wish I could see what you have in the middle of the day."
"Little mother!" he laughed. "To-day I gorged myself on poached eggs. What did Isaac give you?"
"Mutton stew and heaps of it," the girl replied, quickly. "To-night I shall have a bowl of milk as soon as you are gone. Have you everything you ought to have to wear, Arnold?"
"Everything," he declared, rising to his feet with a sigh of relief. "It's so long since I looked at my clothes that to tell you the truth I was a little bit anxious. They may be old-fashioned, but they came from a good man to start with."
"What made Mr. Weatherley ask you?" she demanded.
"Wanted one of his clerks to fill up and found that I played bridge," Arnold answered. "It's rather a bore, isn't it? But, after all, he is my employer."
"Of course you must go and behave your very nicest. Tell me, when have you to start?"
"I ought to be changing in a quarter of an hour. What shall we do till then?"
"Whatever you like," she murmured.
"I am coming to sit at the window with you," he said. "We'll look down at the river and you shall tell me stories about the ships."
She laughed and took his hand as he dragged a chair over to her side. He put his arm around her and her head fell naturally back upon his shoulder. Her eyes sought his. He was leaning forward, gazing down between the curving line of lamp-posts, across the belt of black river with its flecks of yellow light. But Ruth watched him only.
"Arnie," she whispered in his ear, "there are no fairy ships upon the river to-night."
"Why not, little one? You have only to close your eyes."
Slowly she shook her head.
"Don't think that I am foolish, dear," she begged. "To-night I cannot look upon the river at all. I feel that there is something new here--here in this room. The great things are here, Arnold. I can feel life hammering and throbbing in the air. We aren't in a garret any longer, dear. It's a fairy palace. Listen. Can't you hear the people shout, and the music, and the fountains playing? Can't you see the dusky walls fall back, the marble pillars, the lights in the ceiling?"
He turned his head. He found himself, indeed, listening, found himself almost disappointed to hear nothing but the far-off, eternal roar of the city, and the melancholy grinding of a hurdy-gurdy below. Always she carried him away by her intense earnestness, the bewitching softness of her voice, even when it was galleons full of treasure that she saw, with blood-red sails, coming up the river, full of treasure for them. To-night her voice had more than its share of inspiration, her fancies clung to her feverishly.
"Be careful, Arnold," she murmured. "To-night means a change. There is something new coming. I can feel it coming in my heart."
Her face was drawn and pale. He laughed down into her eyes.
"Little lady," he reminded her, mockingly, "I am going to dine with my cheesemonger employer."
She shook her head dreamily. She refused to be dragged down.
"There's something beating in the air," she continued. "It came into the room with you. Don't you feel it? Can't you feel that you are going to a tragedy? Life is going to be different, Arnold, to be different always."
He drew himself up. A flicker of passion flamed in his own deep gray eyes.
"Different, child? Of course it's going to be different. If there weren't something else in front, do you think one could live? Do you think one could be content to struggle through this miserable quagmire if one didn't believe that there was something else on the other side of the hill?"
She sighed, and her fingers touched his.
"I forgot," she said simply. "You see, there was a time when I hadn't you. You lifted me out of my quagmire."
"Not high enough, dear," he answered, caressingly. "Some day I'll take you over to Berlin or Vienna, or one of those wonderful places. We'll leave Isaac to grub along and sow red fire in Hyde Park. We'll find the doctors. We shall teach you to walk again without that stick. No more gloominess, please."
She pressed his hand tightly.
"Dear Arnold!" she whispered softly.
"Turn around and watch the river with me, little one," he begged. "See the lights on the barges, how slowly they move. What is there behind that one, I wonder?"
Her eyes followed his finger without enthusiasm.
"I can't look out of the room to-night, Arnold," she said. "The fancies won't come. Promise me one thing."
"I promise," he agreed.
"Tell me everything--don't keep anything back."
"On my honor," he declared, smiling. "I will bring the menu of the dinner, if there is one, and a photograph of Mrs. Cheesemonger if I can steal it. Now I am going to help you back into your room."
"Don't bother," she begged. "Open the door and I can get there quite easily."
He set the door open and, crossing the bare stone landing, opened the door of another room, similar to his. They were somber apartments at the top of the deserted house, which had once been a nobleman's residence. The doors were still heavy, though blistered with time and lack of varnish. There were the remains of paneling upon the wall and frescoes upon the ceiling.
"Come and see me before you go," she pleaded. "I am all alone. Isaac has gone to a meeting somewhere."
He promised and returned to his own apartment. With the help of a candle which he stuck upon the mantelpiece, and a cracked mirror, he first of all shaved, then disappeared for a few minutes behind a piece of faded curtain and washed vigorously. Afterwards he changed his clothes, putting on a dress suit produced from the trunk. When he had finished, he stepped back and laughed softly to himself. His clothes were well cut. His studs, which had very many times been on the point of visiting the pawnbroker's, were correct and good. He was indeed an incongruous figure as he stood there and, with a candle carefully held away from him in his hand, looked at his own reflection. For some reason or other, he was feeling elated. Ruth's words had lingered in his brain. One could never tell which way fortune might come!
He found her waiting in the darkness. Her long arms were wound for a moment around his neck, a sudden passion shook her.
"Arnold--dear Arnold," she sobbed, "you are going into the storm--and I want to go! I want to go, too! My hands are cold, and my heart. Take me with you, dear!"
He was a little startled. It was not often that she was hysterical. He looked down into her convulsed face. She choked for a moment, and then, although it was not altogether a successful effort, she laughed.
"Don't mind me," she begged. "I am a little mad to-night. I think that the twilight here has got upon my nerves. Light the lamp, please. Light the lamp and leave me alone for a moment while you do it."
He obeyed, fetching some matches from his own room and setting the lamp, when it was lit, on the table by her side. There were no tears left in her eyes now. Her lips were tremulous, but an unusual spot of color was burning in her cheeks. While he had been dressing, he saw that she had tied a piece of deep blue ribbon, the color he liked best, around her hair.
"See, I am myself now. Good night and good luck to you, Arnold! Eat a good dinner, mind, and remember your promise."
"There is nothing more that I can do for you?" he asked.
"Nothing," she replied. "Besides, I can hear Uncle Isaac coming."
The door was suddenly opened. A thin, undersized man in worn black clothes, and with a somber hat of soft black felt still upon his head, came into the room. His dark hair was tinged with gray, he walked with a pronounced stoop. In his shabby clothes, fitting loosely upon his diminutive body, he should have been an insignificant figure, but somehow or other he was nothing of the sort. His thin lips curved into a discontented droop. His cheeks were hollow and his eyes shone with the brightness of the fanatic. Arnold greeted him familiarly.
"Hullo, Isaac!" he exclaimed. "You are just in time to save Ruth from being left all alone."
The newcomer came to a standstill. He looked the speaker over from head to foot with an expression of growing disgust, and he spat upon the floor.
"What livery's that?" he demanded.
Arnold laughed good-naturedly.
"Come, Isaac," he protested, "I don't often inflict it upon you, do I? It's something that belongs to the world on the other side, you know. We all of us have to look over the fence now and then. I have to cross the borderland to-night for an hour or so."
Isaac threw open the door by which he had entered.
"Get out of here," he ordered. "If you were one of us, I'd call you a traitor for wearing the rags. As it is, I say that no one is welcomed under my roof who looks as you look now. Why, d--n it, I believe you're a gentleman!"
Arnold laughed softly.
"My dear Isaac," he retorted, "I am as I was born and made. You can't blame me for that, can you? Besides,--"
He broke off suddenly. A little murmur from the girl behind reminded him of her presence. He passed on to the door.
"Good night, Isaac," he said. "Look after Ruth. She's lonely to-night."
"I'll look after her," was the grim reply. "As for you, get you gone. There was one of your sort came to the meeting of Jameson's moulders this afternoon. He had a question to ask and I answered him. He wanted to know wherein wealth was a sin, and I told him."
Arnold Chetwode was young and his sense of humor triumphant. He turned on the threshold and looked into the shadowy room, dimly lit with its cheap lamp. He kissed his hands to Ruth.
"My dear Isaac," he declared, lightly, "you are talking like an ass. I have two shillings and a penny ha'penny in my pocket, which has to last me till Saturday, and I earn my twenty-eight shillings a week in old Weatherley's counting-house as honestly as you earn your wage by thundering from Labor platforms and articles in the Clarion. My clothes are part of the livery of civilization. The journalist who reports a Lord Mayor's dinner has to wear them. Some day, when you've got your seat in Parliament, you'll wear them yourself. Good night!"
He paused before closing the door. Ruth's kiss came wafted to him from the shadows where her great eyes were burning like stars. Her uncle had turned his back upon him. The word he muttered sounded like a malediction, but Arnold Chetwode went down the stone steps blithely. It was an untrodden land, this, into which he was to pass.
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