HE was awakened by a gleam of unexpected sunshine, which had found its way somehow through the murky sky, and across a wilderness of house-tops, to lie for a moment upon the linoleum floor of his ugly bedroom, and stealing onwards to touch his eyelids with insistent force. He was out of bed in a moment, and over by the window. The blind flew up, and he looked out across the waste of smoke-stained, slate-roofed buildings. Yes! beyond, there was sunshine; out in the world where the atmosphere was free from this pall of smoke, sunshine, he was sure, and blue sky. He glanced towards the calendar. Already it was mid-April; out in the country there were violets in the hedges, primroses in the woods, green shoots sprouting from the hedges, the song of birds, the joy of the coming spring. Small wonder that he forgot himself! When he looked back into the room, the seeds of revolt were already sown.
The room was furnished with an eleven-guinea suite. There was a pink muslin splasher behind the wash-stand, and an antimacassar over the stiff-looking easy chair. Everything was very cold, very stiff, very neat, very ugly. In the next room he could hear his wife dressing the children; downstairs the little maid of all work was making a great noise as she prepared the breakfast. The prospect of the unlovely day, every detail of which he knew so well, revolted him. Another gleam of sunshine came, and the man's heart was warmed to rebellion.
He turned back into the room, and threw the neatly folded black clothes laid out for him, into the bottom drawer of the wardrobe. After a good deal of rummaging, he found an old grey suit and a flannel shirt, in which he proceeded to array himself. He had scarcely finished before his wife bustled in.
She stopped in the doorway and looked at him in blank astonishment. Her tone when she spoke, was shrill and voluble.
"Sakes alive, Tom, what are you doing in those old things? You can't go to Chapel a sight like that. Where on earth you found those clothes, I can't imagine! I put out your Sunday coat and pressed the trousers. Whoever's been and moved 'em!"
Now that the moment of conflict had arrived, he found himself cooler and more determined than he had imagined. He was not even apologetic.
"I am not going to chapel this morning, Ellen," he answered firmly. "I have a headache, and I am going for a walk in the country."
"Not going to chapel," she repeated incredulously. "Have you forgotten that my cousin, James Branch—the Reverend James Branch—is going to preach?"
"I had forgotten it," he admitted, hunting in his drawer for a coloured necktie; "but it makes no difference. I am not going to chapel. I am going for a walk."
She argued the question no more. Perhaps she appreciated the unusual note of finality in his tone.
"What about the children?" she demanded. "Who's going to look after them, I should like to know? Perhaps you've forgotten that cousin James and my uncle and aunt are coming to dinner after service."
"I had forgotten it," he admitted calmly. "The children can stay with you, can't they?"
"Stay with me, indeed," she repeated, indignantly. "How can I do with them messing about when I've the dinner to cook and all?" A pretty slave you'd make of me, and no mistake. I've no patience with you, Tom. The more I -"
"The children can come with me, if you like," he interrupted, struggling into his coat, which was a little tight under the arms. "Let's go down and have some breakfast."
She followed him almost meekly. Like most women who have held the upper hand for a long time, she was unprepared for so sudden an attack upon her supremacy. Before breakfast was over, however, she was once more eloquent.
"Any other Sunday," she declared, "I don't know as I should have minded it so much. But why you should choose this special one for your tantrums, I'm sure I can't imagine. Here's my own cousin, come all the way from Tottenham to preach, and not one from this house there to hear him. What shall we say to him at dinner time, I wonder? And Uncle George so strict, too, about Sabbath breaking, and three shops all his own, and neither chick nor child to leave it to."
The head of the household looked up from his plate.
"Ah!" he remarked, "I had forgotten your Uncle George. A strict Sabbatarian, is he?"
"The strictest I ever knew," his wife repeated impressively.
"Then go to chapel yourself," he advised. "Remind him of the parable of Martha and Mary, and let Susan have a try at the beef."
After that she became a little incoherent. He finished his breakfast, stuffed a small volume of Keats into his pocket, and prepared to depart. She called to him shrilly over the banisters.
"Just you wait for the children, Tom," she cried. "See that they don't spoil their clothes, and don't let Cecilia sit on the grass. One o'clock sharp dinner, remember, because there's prayer meeting at 2.15, and children's service."
"I'll wait ten minutes," he answered shortly.
In less than that time she brought them down to him. Amidst a stream of admonitions, warnings, and scoldings, they started off. When at last they had turned the corner of the street he drew a long sigh of relief.
"Children," he said, "would you like a ride in the train?"
"If it will not take too long," Cecilia answered primly.
"If mother won't be cross," young Tom declared.
The man laughed softly to himself as they climbed the railway steps, With glad recklessness he bought first-class tickets, and throwing himself into a corner of the carriage, watched the children, stiffly seated and uncomfortable. They were dressed with pitiful ugliness, but irreproachable neatness. The boy wore black velveteen clothes, brown shoes, and a pale blue tie; the girl a costume of black cloth, and a hat of appalling ugliness. They were both subdued, not to say depressed, at starting, but the novelty of their surroundings soon had its effect. Cecilia forgot to sit with her hands in front of her, and Tom, regardless of his ruffled hair, was leaning out of the window all the time. Their father smiled as he watched them. They were human, after all, then!
They alighted at a small country station, which seemed set in the midst of a moor of blossoming gold. Hand in hand, the three climbed up the little lane from the station. Once on that smooth, springy turf the children darted away, the man flung up his hands to Heaven. It was God's own wind which passed through the pine woods, and blew across the downs into their faces; a westerly wind warmed with the sun, soft with the promise of a perfected Spring. He flung himself down amongst the heather.
"Do what you like, children," he ordered "Spoil your clothes if you like; throw stones if you want to, and—Tom!"
He untied the pale blue tie and tore it into shreds. The boy laughed with the joy of destruction. His father patted him on the cheek and gave him a shilling.
"When you are tired of playing," he said, "go to that cottage over there, and ask them to let you have some milk and bread. Run away now."
And so the morning, and more than the morning, passed. The children played, the man read Keats and dreamed. Soon the book slipped from his fingers. The glory of the Springtime had passed into his blood, and the small revolt of the morning had passed into a greater upheaval. It was finished, he told himself, the half lived life, the life of shams, of shame and ugliness. He, like the others, claimed his heritage. He claimed it and he would have it.
THE dinner hour at 17, Rutheven Terrace came and went. The Reverend James Branch left for his prayer meeting and returned for tea. Still there was no news of the wanderers. Then Mr. Branch Senior, a large heavy man, who had been snoring upon the sofa most of the afternoon, found it time to explain several mysterious hints which he had let fall since his arrival.
"Niece Ellen," he said, ponderously, "come and sit by my side. I have a task, an unpleasant task, to perform."
Mrs. Smith, who was almost hysterical, obeyed him at once.
"It is my duty," he said, "to speak to you concerning your husband, whose extraordinary and discourteous absence from his home to-day has so distressed you. I am right, Ellen. It has distressed you."
"And to keep the children out, too," she declared. "Shiftless and unpunctual though he is, I've never known him do a thing like this. Such a trouble as I have to keep them tidy and obedient. The very Sunday, too, that you and cousin James were coming!"
Mr. Branch cleared his throat.
"I am afraid, Ellen," he said, "that my presence here to-day may account for your husband's absence. He may have suspected that I have discovered something which he has been keeping from you."
"Keeping something from me," she repeated, vaguely. "Go on, Uncle."
"Would it be news to you, Ellen to hear that your husband is no longer with Miles and Co?" he asked solemnly.
"Of course it would," she answered sharply. "Do you mean to say that he's lost his berth?"
"He has not been there for three months," Mr. Branch declared.
She drew a sharp breath and looked at him incredulously.
"Where's he been then?" she demanded. "I've had my money every week, and no trouble."
Mr. Branch shook his head.
"I cannot tell you that, Ellen," he said. "All that I know is that he left Messrs. Miles and Co. three months ago without even asking for a character. I felt it my duty to make inquiries, and I cannot hear of his being employed in any similar establishment. I am afraid we must conclude," he added, patting his niece upon the head, "that the money with which he has been supplying you has come from the Savings Bank, or has been obtained in some—less reputable way."
Mrs. Smith fired up.
"Tom may be a fool," she declared, "but he was never a one for horse-racing or such-like."
"Let us hope, my dear," Mr. Branch said, earnestly, "that we have not been deceived."
Then there was a timid ring at the bell, and the children entered—alone. They were very untidy and very frightened, but the touch of the wind and the sun was upon their faces. A little of the joy of the day, too, remained. Cecilia, with her hair blown all over her face, and her pink cheeks, was almost pretty.
"Where in the name of goodness have you two been to all day?" their mother demanded.
"We've been in the country—real country," Cecilia answered triumphantly.
"I should say so," their mother answered. "To think that they should be children of mine, and in the street like this, on a Sunday too, with all the neighbours about. Tommy, what have you done to your knickerbockers?"
"Torn 'em," the boy answered, with every appearance of satisfaction "Got caught in a fuzzy bush! We've seen rabbits running about wild—me and Cecilia, and we've had tea in an hotel."
" And ham!" Cecilia interjected.
"And eggs!" Tommy declared.
Their mother looked towards the door.
"Where's your father?" she asked ominously.
Cecilia shook her head.
Gone!" she answered.
There was a moment's silence. Mr. Branch rose to his feet. Her mother took hold of Cecilia by the shoulders and shook her.
"Now, you irritating young monkey," she said, "will you tell me what you mean? Gone where?"
Cecila began to cry.
"I don't know," she answered. "He left us at the corner of the street."
Tommy reluctantly opened the palm of his hand. He felt that his mother's eye could see through those tightly clenched fingers.
"He gave us a shilling each, me and Cecilia," he said. "Gave it us to spend."
Mr. Branch approached solemnly.
"Send the children upstairs, Ellen," he said. "I can see through this. Your husband has been warned. He is keeping away."
Cecilia suddenly burst out crying.
"I don't believe," she sobbed, "that—that he's coming back any more."
Their mother was suddenly white. For a moment her thoughts had flashed back to her wedding day; she saw herself—as she was then, caught up for too brief a time into the other world. She saw, with lightning-like apprehension, the black gulf which had widened between them. She suddenly realisd it! They had drifted apart! Something was tugging at her heartstring—something that she had not felt for many a year. She sank back into a chair, and covered her face with her hands. Cecilia began to howl.
"Send the children away," Mr. Branch directed.
"Brute!" Mrs. Branch declared.
THE little room was almost a bower of roses. Notwithstanding the open window, he found their perfume almost oppressive. Great clusters of pink and white blossoms with long stalks, masses of tea roses, an almost exotic bunch of "Marechal Neils," and a bowl full of deep red cottage blossoms were all scattered about the room in various places. He who had bought her nothing was almost embarrassed by these evidences of the forethought of others.
"My friends," she muttered, "are almost too kind."
"It is I alone," he said, "who bring you nothing."
"You have brought me yourself," she answered softly.
He turned abruptly from the window, and looked at her. She was of the tall and willowy order of women, with pale face, a coronet of dark hair, soft eyes, brown and deep set, a mouth sensitive, almost tremulous.
"Do you know you are making me nervous?" she declared. "Sit down, please."
He threw himself into a chair, but he was up again almost immediately.
"I, too have brought you a birthday present—of a sort," he declared. "Something we story writers always grudge one another too—a plot!"
She shook her head.
"I can't believe it," she murmured. "You're much too grasping to part with it, if it were any good."
"You shall judge for yourself," he answered. "I will tell you a story. It is simple, but there is tragedy in it."
She nodded, and curled herself up on the sofa.
"There was a man," he began, "an ordinary man, married to an ordinary woman of his own class. They were both the children of tradespeople. He was in an auctioneer's office and earned just enough to keep his wife and two chldren in a six-roomed cottage in Streatham. I believe that his exact income was two hundred and fifty a year."
"There were children," she said in a low voice, pulling to pieces a rose from her bosom.
"There were children," he repeated, "two. They lived the usual humdrum life for a year or so, when a thing happened which you will doubtless find improbable, but which was nevertheless true. The man had always been fond of reading in a way, and he found the desire for it growing upon him more and more. He began to spend his spare time in picture galleries; he went to lectures; he began to move slowly but surely forward in the ranks of those who understand. Something of the artist must have been born in the man and lain dormant for years, for when the inevitable moment came that he tried his hand at construction, he was immediately successful. Under an assumed name he began to publish some stories, which brought him in money.
"The woman?" she asked.
"Stood still," he answered promptly. "Worse than that, she resisted almost passionately his attemps to alter the current of their lives Perhaps she saw further than he did. Perhaps she realised that the more he succeeded in his efforts, the further apart they must grow. For to her, the beautiful side of life did not exist. She knew nothing about it. She desired to know nothing about it. Her ambitions were fixed and definite—to keep her house cleaner than her neighbours' houses, to attend chapel with her husband and children every Sunday, and to put by money every week. For these things she slaved. For these things, and the lack of the others, the man left her. There seemed to be nothing else that he could do."
"Tell me the manner of his leaving," she asked.
"He did it brutally—out of kindness," he declared.
"He went for a walk one day and never returned. The woman received a letter from a firm of lawyers a few days after, and a cheque book. No more. She does not know whether he is alive or dead. If ever she tried to find him she failed. He changed his name, shaved off his beard, went to a proper tailor, and started life over again."
"Successfully?" she asked.
"What is success?" he answered. "He travelled, he made of himself what God or nature meant him to be. He has done work which has been approved, he is certainly of more account in the world than an auctioneer's clerk!"
"What more does he want?"
She sighed softly.
"There are so many of us," she murmured, "who are wanting that!"
"And, after all," he said, firmly, "it is a simple thing."
Again her fingers played with the petals of the rose at her bosom.
"No!" she said, "it is not a simple thing. How old are those children now!"
He frowned at her apparent irrelevance.
"About ten and twelve," he answered. "It is four years ago."
"And the man has not seen them, or the woman?"
"No!" he answered.
"That," she declared, "was a mistake. They may have changed."
"Impossible," he declared shortly.
"The woman—may have wanted him!"
"The auctioneer's clerk," he answered bitterly, "not the man he has become."
"Is your story finished?" she asked.
"Not quite! The man made friends, one in especial, a woman!"
"Wasn't that a little thoughtless of him, considering?" she asked softly.
"Why?" he demanded. "The other woman belonged to his other life. If he had been true to her, he would have been false to himself. Which would have been the greater sin?"
The bell of her flat rung. The man swore under his breath.
"I will think over your story," she said. "Some day I will answer your question."
SOMEHOW he saw little of her for the next few days. Then she went abroad, and wrote to him to wait for her return. He threw the letter on one side with an angry exclamation, and plunged into his work. It was mid-winter before a few lines summoned him to her. He found her dressed in her furs for driving, with the carriage at the door. They shook hands and looked at one another steadily.
"What is it?" he asked; "late hours and gaiety?"
She laughed, although the old softness was no longer there.
"Nice was full of people that I knew, she answered. "But you? Surely you have been ill?"
"The old complaint," he answered bitterly. "I am a'weary!
She took his arm down the stairs.
"Come and drive with me," she said. "I am not going far."
"And my question?"
"When we return," she answered.
She sat with her veil back. Her cheek-bones seemed to have become more prominent. She was very thin and very colourless. He realised, with a sudden wave of pity, that she was growing old, old before her time. She did not encourage him to talk. Scarcely a word passed between them until the carriage drew up before a block of flats in Battersea.
"I am going to call on a friend who has been abroad with me," she said. "Her children have just come home from their holidays, and I want to see them."
"I will wait for you," he said.
"No! come up," she answered. "I want to introduce you."
He obeyed, although without enthusiasm. A neat serving maid admitted them into a prettily furnished flat. They were shown into a dining room, separated from a further apartment by hanging curtains.
"Wait here for me," she whispered. "I'll announce myself, Mary," she added to the maid, who smiled and withdrew.
She drew the curtain aside a little as she entered, and he scarcely repressed a start. There was something wonderfully familiar about the woman whom he saw first lean forward in her chair, and then rise to greet her visitor. He heard her speak, and his heart gave a thump. Then he realised what a fool he was. This woman was quietly but fashionably dressed, her voice was pleasant, and the voice of a lady. Yet something had sent his thoughts wandering back down the avenues of time, back to the days before he had become a great man, when the auctioneer's desk was a sanctum, and his newly-married wife a shy girl in his arms. He had thought of those days more than once lately. It seemed strange that the memory should come to him there.
He drew a little closer to the curtain. He could see into the room now. A tall boy, in Eton coat and trousers, was standing upon the hearthrug—a girl in a white frock was leaning back in a chair reading. The boy was shaking hands with their visitor.
"I say, Miss Isleworth," he said, "I'm awfully glad you came. Don't you think I'm old enough to take the mater and Cissy to the Pantomime one night next week? All the other fellows are going. Cheston's governor's taking him Boxing night."
The woman in the chair looked for a moment into the fire. Her eyes were very soft and very sad. The man behind the curtain came staggering into the room.
"I say, you know! Who are you?" his son exclaimed, taking his hands out of his pocket in sheer surprise. "Mater, is it all right?"
Sobbing and laughing, she assured him that it was and someone flitted unseen from the room. The man was full of wonder. He held her from him for a moment, and looked into her face, crimson with blushes.
"Ellen!" he exclaimed, incredulously. "What are you—what have you been doing?"
"Learning things," she wispered. "My teacher has just gone out. I'm so glad to see you, Tom. I thought you'd come one day."
She drew him once more shyly to her. Then he understood.
He dined at the Savoy that night, but with his wife, and Tom junior sat in the midst of a small family party at the pantomime, on Boxing night. But the other woman was obliged to spend her Christmas locked in her room. Her maid explained that her mistress had caught a bad cold driving. As a matter of fact, she was justifying an eternal truth.