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Chapter 15

LOVE IN THE STREETS.


Lewisham was not quite clear what course he meant to take in the high
enterprise of foiling Lagune, and indeed he was anything but clear
about the entire situation. His logical processes, his emotions and
his imagination seemed playing some sort of snatching game with his
will. Enormous things hung imminent, but it worked out to this,
that he walked home with Ethel night after night for--to be
exact--seven-and-sixty nights. Every week night through November and
December, save once, when he had to go into the far East to buy
himself an overcoat, he was waiting to walk with her home. A curious,
inconclusive affair, that walk, to which he came nightly full of vague
longings, and which ended invariably under an odd shadow of
disappointment. It began outside Lagune's most punctually at five, and
ended--mysteriously--at the corner of a side road in Clapham, a road
of little yellow houses with sunk basements and tawdry decorations of
stone. Up that road she vanished night after night, into a grey mist
and the shadow beyond a feeble yellow gas-lamp, and he would watch her
vanish, and then sigh and turn back towards his lodgings.

They talked of this and that, their little superficial ideas about
themselves, and of their circumstances and tastes, and always there
was something, something that was with them unspoken, unacknowledged,
which made all these things unreal and insincere.

Yet out of their talk he began to form vague ideas of the home from
which she came. There was, of course, no servant, and the mother was
something meandering, furtive, tearful in the face of troubles.
Sometimes of an afternoon or evening she grew garrulous. "Mother does
talk so--sometimes." She rarely went out of doors. Chaffery always
rose late, and would sometimes go away for days together. He was mean;
he allowed only a weekly twenty-five shillings for housekeeping, and
sometimes things grew unsatisfactory at the week-end. There seemed to
be little sympathy between mother and daughter; the widow had been
flighty in a dingy fashion, and her marriage with her chief lodger
Chaffery had led to unforgettable sayings. It was to facilitate this
marriage that Ethel had been sent to Whortley, so that was counted a
mitigated evil. But these were far-off things, remote and unreal down
the long, ill-lit vista of the suburban street which swallowed up
Ethel nightly. The walk, her warmth and light and motion close to him,
her clear little voice, and the touch of her hand; that was reality.

The shadow of Chaffery and his deceptions lay indeed across all these
things, sometimes faint, sometimes dark and present. Then Lewisham
became insistent, his sentimental memories ceased, and he asked
questions that verged on gulfs of doubt. Had she ever "helped"? She
had not, she declared. Then she added that twice at home she had "sat
down" to complete the circle. She would never help again. That she
promised--if it needed promising. There had already been dreadful
trouble at home about the exposure at Lagune's. Her mother had sided
with her stepfather and joined in blaming her. But was she to blame?

"Of _course_ you were not to blame," said Lewisham. Lagune, he
learnt, had been unhappy and restless for the three days after the
_sťance_--indulging in wearisome monologue--with Ethel as sole auditor
(at twenty-one shillings a week). Then he had decided to give Chaffery
a sound lecture on his disastrous dishonesty. But it was Chaffery
gave the lecture. Smithers, had he only known it, had been overthrown
by a better brain than Lagune's, albeit it spoke through Lagune's
treble.

Ethel did not like talking of Chaffery and these other things. "If you
knew how sweet it was to forget it all," she would say; "to be just us
two together for a little while." And, "What good _does_ it do to keep
on?" when Lewisham was pressing. Lewisham wanted very much to keep on
at times, but the good of it was a little hard to demonstrate. So his
knowledge of the situation remained imperfect and the weeks drifted
by.

Wonderfully varied were those seven-and-sixty nights, as he came to
remember in after life. There were nights of damp and drizzle, and
then thick fogs, beautiful, isolating, grey-white veils, turning every
yard of pavement into a private room. Grand indeed were these fogs,
things to rejoice at mightily, since then it was no longer a thing for
public scorn when two young people hurried along arm in arm, and one
could do a thousand impudent, significant things with varying pressure
and the fondling of a little hand (a hand in a greatly mended glove of
cheap kid). Then indeed one seemed to be nearer that elusive something
that threaded it all together. And the dangers of the street corners,
the horses looming up suddenly out of the dark, the carters with
lanterns at their horses' heads, the street lamps, blurred, smoky
orange at one's nearest, and vanishing at twenty yards into dim haze,
seemed to accentuate the infinite need of protection on the part of a
delicate young lady who had already traversed three winters of fogs,
thornily alone. Moreover, one could come right down the quiet street
where she lived, halfway to the steps of her house, with a delightful
sense of enterprise.

The fogs passed all too soon into a hard frost, into nights of
starlight and presently moonlight, when the lamps looked hard,
flashing like rows of yellow gems, and their reflections and the glare
of the shop windows were sharp and frosty, and even the stars hard and
bright, snapping noiselessly (if one may say so) instead of
twinkling. A jacket trimmed with imitation Astrachan replaced Ethel's
lighter coat, and a round cap of Astrachan her hat, and her eyes shone
hard and bright, and her forehead was broad and white beneath it. It
was exhilarating, but one got home too soon, and so the way from
Chelsea to Clapham was lengthened, first into a loop of side streets,
and then when the first pulverulent snows told that Christmas was at
hand, into a new loop down King's Road, and once even through the
Brompton Road and Sloane Street, where the shops were full of
decorations and entertaining things.

And, under circumstances of infinite gravity, Mr. Lewisham secretly
spent three-and-twenty shillings out of the vestiges of that hundred
pounds, and bought Ethel a little gold ring set with pearls. With that
there must needs be a ceremonial, and on the verge of the snowy, foggy
Common she took off her glove and the ring was placed on her
finger. Whereupon he was moved to kiss her--on the frost-pink knuckle
next to an inky nail.

"It's silly of us," she said. "What can we do?--ever?"

"You wait." he said, and his tone was full of vague promises.

Afterwards he thought over those promises, and another evening went
into the matter more fully, telling her of all the brilliant things
that he held it was possible for a South Kensington student to do and
be--of headmasterships, northern science schools, inspectorships,
demonstratorships, yea, even professorships. And then, and then--To
all of which she lent a willing and incredulous ear, finding in that
dreaming a quality of fear as well as delight.

The putting on of the pearl-set ring was mere ceremonial, of course;
she could not wear it either at Lagune's or at home, so instead she
threaded it on a little white satin ribbon and wore it round her
neck--"next her heart." He thought of it there warm "next her heart."

When he had bought the ring he had meant to save it for Christmas
before he gave it to her. But the desire to see her pleasure had been
too strong for him.

Christmas Eve, I know not by what deceit on her part, these young
people spent together all day. Lagune was down with a touch of
bronchitis and had given his typewriter a holiday. Perhaps she forgot
to mention it at home. The Royal College was in vacation and Lewisham
was free. He declined the plumber's invitation; "work" kept him in
London, he said, though it meant a pound or more of added
expenditure. These absurd young people walked sixteen miles that
Christmas Eve, and parted warm and glowing. There had been a hard
frost and a little snow, the sky was a colourless grey, icicles hung
from the arms of the street lamps, and the pavements were patterned
out with frond-like forms that were trodden into slides as the day
grew older. The Thames they knew was a wonderful sight, but that they
kept until last. They went first along the Brompton Road....

And it is well that you should have the picture of them right:
Lewisham in the ready-made overcoat, blue cloth and velvet collar,
dirty tan gloves, red tie, and bowler hat; and Ethel in a two-year-old
jacket and hat of curly Astrachan; both pink-cheeked from the keen
air, shyly arm in arm occasionally, and very alert to miss no possible
spectacle. The shops were varied and interesting along the Brompton
Road, but nothing to compare with Piccadilly. There were windows in
Piccadilly so full of costly little things, it took fifteen minutes to
get them done, card shops, drapers' shops full of foolish,
entertaining attractions. Lewisham, in spite of his old animosities,
forgot to be severe on the Shopping Class, Ethel was so vastly
entertained by all these pretty follies.

Then up Regent Street by the place where the sham diamonds are, and
the place where the girls display their long hair, and the place where
the little chickens run about in the window, and so into Oxford
Street, Holborn, Ludgate Hill, St. Paul's Churchyard, to Leadenhall,
and the markets where turkeys, geese, ducklings, and chickens--turkeys
predominant, however--hang in rows of a thousand at a time.

"I _must_ buy you something," said Lewisham, resuming a topic.

"No, no," said Ethel, with her eye down a vista of innumerable birds.

"But I _must_," said Lewisham. "You had better choose it, or I shall
get something wrong." His mind ran on brooches and clasps.

"You mustn't waste your money, and besides, I have that ring."

But Lewisham insisted.

"Then--if you must--I am starving. Buy me something to eat."

An immense and memorable joke. Lewisham plunged
recklessly--orientally--into an awe-inspiring place with mitred
napkins. They lunched on cutlets--stripped the cutlets to the
bone--and little crisp brown potatoes, and they drank between them a
whole half bottle of--some white wine or other, Lewisham selected in
an off-hand way from the list. Neither of them had ever taken wine at
a meal before. One-and-ninepence it cost him, Sir, and the name of it
was Capri! It was really very passable Capri--a manufactured product,
no doubt, but warming and aromatic. Ethel was aghast at his
magnificence and drank a glass and a half.

Then, very warm and comfortable, they went down by the Tower, and the
Tower Bridge with its crest of snow, huge pendant icicles, and the ice
blocks choked in its side arches, was seasonable seeing. And as they
had had enough of shops and crowds they set off resolutely along the
desolate Embankment homeward.

But indeed the Thames was a wonderful sight that year! ice-fringed
along either shore, and with drift-ice in the middle reflecting a
luminous scarlet from the broad red setting sun, and moving steadily,
incessantly seaward. A swarm of mewing gulls went to and fro, and with
them mingled pigeons and crows. The buildings on the Surrey side were
dim and grey and very mysterious, the moored, ice-blocked barges
silent and deserted, and here and there a lit window shone warm. The
sun sank right out of sight into a bank of blue, and the Surrey side
dissolved in mist save for a few insoluble, spots of yellow light,
that presently became many. And after our lovers had come under
Charing Cross Bridge the Houses of Parliament rose before them at the
end of a great crescent of golden lamps, blue and faint, halfway
between the earth and sky. And the clock on the Tower was like a
November sun.

It was a day without a flaw, or at most but the slightest speck. And
that only came at the very end.

"Good-bye, dear," she said. "I have been very happy to-day."

His face came very close to hers. "Good-bye," he said, pressing her
hand and looking into her eyes.

She glanced round, she drew nearer to him. "_Dearest_ one," she
whispered very softly, and then, "Good-bye."

Suddenly he became unaccountably petulant, he dropped her hand. "It's
always like this. We are happy. _I_ am happy. And then--then you are
taken away...."

There was a silence of mute interrogations.

"Dear," she whispered, "we must wait."

A moment's pause. "_Wait_!" he said, and broke off. He
hesitated. "Good-bye," he said as though he was snapping a thread that
held them together.

H.G. Wells