Not far from the dark-haloed indeterminate limbo where dwelt that bugbear of Charles Courtier, the great Half-Truth Authority, he himself had a couple of rooms at fifteen shillings a week. Their chief attraction was that the great Half-Truth Liberty had recommended them. They tied him to nothing, and were ever at his disposal when he was in London; for his landlady, though not bound by agreement so to do, let them in such a way, that she could turn anyone else out at a week's notice. She was a gentle soul, married to a socialistic plumber twenty years her senior. The worthy man had given her two little boys, and the three of them kept her in such permanent order that to be in the presence of Courtier was the greatest pleasure she knew. When he disappeared on one of his nomadic missions, explorations, or adventures, she enclosed the whole of his belongings in two tin trunks and placed them in a cupboard which smelled a little of mice. When he reappeared the trunks were reopened, and a powerful scent of dried rose-leaves would escape. For, recognizing the mortality of things human, she procured every summer from her sister, the wife of a market gardener, a consignment of this commodity, which she passionately sewed up in bags, and continued to deposit year by year, in Courtier's trunks.
This, and the way she made his toast—very crisp—and aired his linen—very dry, were practically the only things she could do for a man naturally inclined to independence, and accustomed from his manner of life to fend for himself.
At first signs of his departure she would go into some closet or other, away from the plumber and the two marks of his affection, and cry quietly; but never in Courtier's presence did she dream of manifesting grief—as soon weep in the presence of death or birth, or any other fundamental tragedy or joy. In face of the realities of life she had known from her youth up the value of the simple verb 'sto—stare-to stand fast.'
And to her Courtier was a reality, the chief reality of life, the focus of her aspiration, the morning and the evening star.
The request, then five days after his farewell visit to Mrs. Noel—for the elephant-hide trunk which accompanied his rovings, produced her habitual period of seclusion, followed by her habitual appearance in his sitting-room bearing a note, and some bags of dried rose—leaves on a tray. She found him in his shirt sleeves, packing.
“Well, Mrs. Benton; off again!”
Mrs. Benton, plaiting her hands, for she had not yet lost something of the look and manner of a little girl, answered in her flat, but serene voice:
“Yes, sir; and I hope you're not going anywhere very dangerous this time. I always think you go to such dangerous places.”
“To Persia, Mrs. Benton, where the carpets come from.”
“Oh! yes, sir. Your washing's just come home.”
Her, apparently cast-down, eyes stored up a wealth of little details; the way his hair grew, the set of his back, the colour of his braces. But suddenly she said in a surprising voice:
“You haven't a photograph you could spare, sir, to leave behind? Mr. Benton was only saying to me yesterday, we've nothing to remember him by, in case he shouldn't come back.”
“Here's an old one.”
Mrs. Benton took the photograph.
“Oh!” she said; “you can see who it is.” And holding it perhaps too tightly, for her fingers trembled, she added:
“A note, please, sir; and the messenger boy is waiting for—an answer.”
While he read the note she noticed with concern how packing had brought the blood into his head....
When, in response to that note, Courtier entered the well-known confectioner's called Gustard's, it was still not quite tea-time, and there seemed to him at first no one in the room save three middle-aged women packing sweets; then in the corner he saw Barbara. The blood was no longer in his head; he was pale, walking down that mahogany-coloured room impregnated with the scent of wedding-cake. Barbara, too, was pale.
So close to her that he could count her every eyelash, and inhale the scent of her hair and clothes to listen to her story of Miltoun, so hesitatingly, so wistfully told, seemed very like being kept waiting with the rope already round his neck, to hear about another person's toothache. He felt this to have been unnecessary on the part of Fate! And there came to him perversely the memory of that ride over the sun-warmed heather, when he had paraphrased the old Sicilian song: 'Here will I sit and sing.' He was a long way from singing now; nor was there love in his arms. There was instead a cup of tea; and in his nostrils the scent of cake, with now and then a whiff of orange-flower water.
“I see,” he said, when she had finished telling him: “'Liberty's a glorious feast!' You want me to go to your brother, and quote Bums? You know, of course, that he regards me as dangerous.”
“Yes; but he respects and likes you.”
“And I respect and like him,” answered Courtier.
One of the middle-aged females passed, carrying a large white card-board box; and the creaking of her stays broke the hush.
“You have been very sweet to me,” said Barbara, suddenly.
Courtier's heart stirred, as if it were turning over within him; and gazing into his teacup, he answered—
“All men are decent to the evening star. I will go at once and find your brother. When shall I bring you news?”
“To-morrow at five I'll be at home.”
And repeating, “To-morrow at five,” he rose.
Looking back from the door, he saw her face puzzled, rather reproachful, and went out gloomily. The scent of cake, and orange-flower water, the creaking of the female's stays, the colour of mahogany, still clung to his nose and ears, and eyes; but within him it was all dull baffled rage. Why had he not made the most of this unexpected chance; why had he not made desperate love to her? A conscientious ass! And yet—the whole thing was absurd! She was so young! God knew he would be glad to be out of it. If he stayed he was afraid that he would play the fool. But the memory of her words: “You have been very sweet to me!” would not leave him; nor the memory of her face, so puzzled, and reproachful. Yes, if he stayed he would play the fool! He would be asking her to marry a man double her age, of no position but that which he had carved for himself, and without a rap. And he would be asking her in such a way that she might possibly have some little difficulty in refusing. He would be letting himself go. And she was only twenty—for all her woman-of-the-world air, a child! No! He would be useful to her, if possible, this once, and then clear out!