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with her - haven't been there for three weeks, and don't think I shall
go again, unless it's for the pleasure of saying or doing something
that'll irritate her royal highness."

"Did you quarrel?"

"Quarrel? I never quarrel with anyone; it's bad for one's nerves."

"Did you get as far as proposing?"

"Oh, I left _her_ to do that. Women are making such a row about their
rights nowadays, that it's as well to show you grant them perfect
equality. I gave her every chance of saying something definite. I
maintain that she trifled with my affections. She asked me what my
views in life were. Ah, thought I, now it's coming; and I answered
modestly that everything depended on circumstances. I might have said
it depended on the demand for brass bedsteads; but perhaps that would
have verged on indelicacy - you know that I am delicacy personified. 'I
thought,' said Miss Birching, 'that a man of any energy made his own
circumstances?' 'Energy!' I shouted. 'Do you look for energy in _me_?
It's the greatest compliment anyone ever paid me.' At that she seemed
desperately annoyed, and wouldn't pursue the subject. That's how it
always was, just when the conversation grew interesting."

"I'm sorry to see you so cut up about it," remarked Hilliard.

"None of your irony, old fellow. Well, the truth is, I've seen someone
I like better."

"Not surprised."

"It's a queer story; I'll tell it you some day, if it comes to
anything. I'm not at all sure that it will, as there seems to be a sort
of lurking danger that I may make a damned fool of myself."

"Improbable?" commented the listener. "Your blood is too temperate."

"So I thought; but one never knows. Unexpected feelings crop up in a
fellow. We won't talk about it just now. How have things been going in
the architectural line?"

"Not amiss. Steadily, I think."

Narramore lay back at full length, his face turned to the ceiling.

"Since I've been living out yonder, I've got a taste for the country. I
have a notion that, if brass bedsteads keep firm, I shall some day
build a little house of my own; an inexpensive little house, with a
tree or two about it. Just make me a few sketches, will you? When
you've nothing better to do, you know."

He played with the idea, till it took strong hold of him, and he began
to talk with most unwonted animation.

"Five or six thousand pounds - I ought to be able to sink that in a few
years. Not enough, eh? But I don't want a mansion. I'm quite serious
about this, Hilliard. When you re feeling ready to start on your own
account, you shall have the job."

Hilliard laughed grimly at the supposition that he would ever attain
professional independence, but his friend talked on, and overleaped
difficulties with a buoyancy of spirit which ultimately had its effect
upon the listener. When he was alone again, Hilliard felt better, both
in body and mind, and that evening, over the first bottle of
Narramore's port, he amused himself with sketching ideal cottages.

"The fellow's in love, at last. When a man thinks of pleasant little
country houses, 'with a tree or two' about them - - "

He sighed, and ground his teeth, and sketched on.

Before bedtime, a sudden and profound shame possessed him. Was he not
behaving outrageously in neglecting to answer Eve's letter? For all he
knew the cold of which she complained might have caused her more
suffering than he himself had gone through from the like cause, and
that was bad enough. He seized paper and wrote to her as he had never
written before, borne on the very high flood of passionate longing.
Without regard to prudence he left the house at midnight and posted his
letter.

"It never occurred to me to blame you for not writing," Eve quickly
replied; "I'm afraid you are more sensitive than I am, and, to tell the
truth, I believe men generally _are_ more sensitive than women in
things of this kind. It pleased me very much to hear of the visit you
had had from Mr. Narramore, and that he had cheered you. I do so wish I
could have come, but I have really been quite ill, and I must not think
of risking a journey till the weather improves. Don't trouble about it;
I will write often."

"I told you about a letter I had had from poor Patty, and I want to ask
you to do something. Will you write to her? Just a nice, friendly
little letter. She would be so delighted, she would indeed. There's no
harm in copying a line or two from what she sent me. 'Has Mr. Hilliard
forgotten all about me?' she says. 'I would write to him, but I feel
afraid. Not afraid of _you_, dear Eve, but he might feel I was
impertinent. What do you think? We had such delicious times together,
he and you and I, and I really don't want him to forget me altogether?'
Now I have told her that there is no fear whatever of your forgetting
her, and that we often speak of her. I begin to think that I have been
unjust to Patty in calling her silly, and making fun of her. She was
anything but foolish in breaking off with that absurd Mr. Dally, and I
can see now that she will never give a thought to him again. What I
fear is that the poor girl will never find any one good enough for her.
The men she meets are very vulgar, and vulgar Patty is _not_ - as you
once said to me, you remember. So, if you can spare a minute, write her
a few lines, to show that you still think of her. Her address is - - ,
etc."

To Hilliard all this seemed merely a pleasant proof of Eve's
amiability, of her freedom from that acrid monopolism which
characterises the ignoble female in her love relations. Straightway he
did as he was requested, and penned to Miss Ringrose a chatty epistle,
with which she could not but be satisfied. A day or two brought him an
answer. Patty's handwriting lacked distinction, and in the matter of
orthography she was not beyond reproach, but her letter chirped with a
prettily expressed gratitude. "I am living with my aunt, and am likely
to for a long time. And I get on very well at my new shop, which I have
no wish to leave." This was her only allusion to the shattered
matrimonial project: "I wish there was any chance of you and Eve coming
to live in London, but I suppose that's too good to hope for. We don't
get many things as we wish them in this world. And yet I oughtn't to
say that either, for if it hadn't been for you I should never have seen
Paris, which was so awfully jolly! But you'll be coming for a holiday,
won't you? I should so like just to see you, if ever you do. It isn't
like it was at the old shop. There's a great deal of business done
here, and very little time to talk to anyone in the shop. But many
girls have worse things to put up with than I have, and I won't make
you think I'm a grumbler."

The whole of January went by before Hilliard and Eve again saw each
other. The lover wrote at length that he could bear it no longer, that
he was coming to Dudley, if only for the mere sight of Eve's face; she
must meet him in the waiting-room at the railway station. She answered
by return of post, "I will come over next Sunday, and be with you at
twelve o'clock, but I must leave very early, as I am afraid to be out
after nightfall." And this engagement was kept.

The dress of mourning became her well; it heightened her always
noticeable air of refinement, and would have constrained to a
reverential tenderness even had not Hilliard naturally checked himself
from any bolder demonstration of joy. She spoke in a low, soft voice,
seldom raised her eyes, and manifested a new gentleness very touching
to Hilliard, though at the same time, and he knew not how or why, it
did not answer to his desire. A midday meal was in readiness for her;
she pretended to eat, but in reality scarce touched the food.

"You must taste old Narramore's port wine," said her entertainer. "The
fellow actually sent a couple of dozen."

She was not to be persuaded; her refusal puzzled and annoyed Hilliard,
and there followed a long silence. Indeed, it surprised him to find how
little they could say to each other to-day. An unknown restraint had
come between them.

"Well," he exclaimed at length, "I wrote to Patty, and she answered."

"May I see the letter?"

"Of course. Here it is."

Eve read it, and smiled with pleasure.

"Doesn't she write nicely! Poor girl!"

"Why have you taken so to commiserating her all at once?" Hilliard
asked. "She's no worse off than she ever was. Rather better, I think."

"Life isn't the same for her since she was in Paris," said Eve, with
peculiar softness.

"Well, perhaps it improved her."

"Oh, it certainly did! But it gave her a feeling of discontent for the
old life and the people about her."

"A good many of us have to suffer that. She's nothing like as badly off
as you are, my dear girl."

Eve coloured, and kept silence.

"We shall hear of her getting married before long," resumed the other.
"She told me herself that marriage was the scourge of music-shops - it
carries off their young women at such a rate."

"She told you that? It was in one of your long talks together in
London? Patty and you got on capitally together. It was very natural
she shouldn't care much for men like Mr. Dally afterwards."

Hilliard puzzled over this remark, and was on the point of making some
impatient reply, but discretion restrained him. He turned to Eve's own
affairs, questioned her closely about her life in the tradesman's
house, and so their conversation followed a smoother course. Presently,
half in jest, Hilliard mentioned Narramore's building projects.

"But who knows? It _might_ come to something of importance for me. In
two or three years, if all goes well, such a thing might possibly give
me a start."

A singular solemnity had settled upon Eve's countenance. She spoke not
a word, and seemed unaccountably ill at ease.

"Do you think I am in the clouds?" said Hilliard.

"Oh, no! Why shouldn't you get on - as other men do?"

But she would not dwell upon the hope, and Hilliard, not a little
vexed, again became silent.

Her next visit was after a lapse of three weeks. She had again been
suffering from a slight illness, and her pallor alarmed Hilliard. Again
she began with talk of Patty Ringrose.

"Do you know, there's really a chance that we may see her before long!
She'll have a holiday at Easter, from the Thursday night to Monday
night, and I have all but got her to promise that she'll come over
here. Wouldn't it be fun to let her see the Black Country? You remember
her talk about it. I could get her a room, and if it's at all bearable
weather, we would all have a day somewhere. Wouldn't you like that?"

"Yes; but I should greatly prefer a day with you alone."

"Oh, of course, the time is coming for that, Would you let us come here
one day?"

With a persistence not to be mistaken Eve avoided all intimate topics;
at the same time her manner grew more cordial. Through February and
March, she decidedly improved in health. Hilliard saw her seldom, but
she wrote frequent letters, and their note was as that of her
conversation, lively, all but sportive. Once again she had become a
mystery to her lover; he pondered over her very much as in the days
when they were newly acquainted. Of one thing he felt but too well
assured. She did not love him as he desired to be loved. Constant she
might be, but it was the constancy of a woman unaffected with ardent
emotion. If she granted him her lips they had no fervour respondent to
his own; she made a sport of it, forgot it as soon as possible. Upon
Hilliard's vehement nature this acted provocatively; at times he was
all but frenzied with the violence of his sensual impulses. Yet Eve's
control of him grew more assured the less she granted of herself; a
look, a motion of her lips, and he drew apart, quivering but subdued.
At one such moment he exclaimed:

"You had better not come here at all. I love you too insanely."

Eve looked at him, and silently began to shed tears. He implored her
pardon, prostrated himself, behaved in a manner that justified his
warning. But Eve stifled the serious drama of the situation, and forced
him to laugh with her.

In these days architectural study made little way.

Patty Ringrose was coming for the Easter holidays. She would arrive on
Good Friday. "As the weather is so very bad still," wrote Eve to
Hilliard, "will you let us come to see you on Saturday? Sunday may be
better for an excursion of some sort."

And thus it was arranged. Hilliard made ready his room to receive the
fair visitors, who would come at about eleven in the morning. As usual
nowadays, he felt discontented, but, after all, Patty's influence might
be a help to him, as it had been in worse straits.




CHAPTER XXI


To-day he had the house to himself. The corn-dealers shop was closed,
as on a Sunday; the optician and his blind wife had locked up their
rooms and were spending Easter-tide, it might be hoped, amid more
cheerful surroundings. Hilliard sat with his door open, that he might
easily hear the knock which announced his guests at the entrance below.

It sounded, at length, but timidly. Had he not been listening, he would
not have perceived it. Eve's handling of the knocker was firmer than
that, and in a different rhythm. Apprehensive of disappointment, he
hurried downstairs and opened the door to Patty Ringrose - Patty alone.

With a shy but pleased laugh, her cheeks warm and her eyes bright, she
jerked out her hand to him as in the old days.

"I know you won't be glad to see me. I'm so sorry. I said I had better
not come."

"Of course I am glad to see you. But where's Eve?"

"It's so unfortunate - she has such a bad headache!" panted the girl.
"She couldn't possibly come, and I wanted to stay with her, I said. I
should only disappoint you."

"It's a pity, of course; but I'm glad you came, for all that." Hilliard
stifled his dissatisfaction and misgivings. "You'll think this a queer
sort of place. I'm quite alone here to-day. But after you have rested a
little we can go somewhere else."

"Yes. Eve told me you would be so kind as to take me to see things. I'm
not tired. I won't come in, if you'd rather - - "

"Oh, you may as well see what sort of a den I've made for myself."

He led the way upstairs. When she reached the top, Patty was again
breathless, the result of excitement more than exertion. She exclaimed
at sight of the sitting-room. How cosy it was! What a scent from the
flowers! Did he always buy flowers for his room? No doubt it was to
please Eve. What a comfortable chair! Of course Eve always sat in this
chair?

Then her babbling ceased, and she looked up at Hilliard, who stood over
against her, with nervous delight. He could perceive no change whatever
in her, except that she was better dressed than formerly. Not a day
seemed to have been added to her age; her voice had precisely the
intonations that he remembered. After all, it was little more than half
a year since they were together in Paris; but to Hilliard the winter
had seemed of interminable length, and he expected to find Miss
Ringrose a much altered person.

"When did this headache begin?" he inquired, trying to speak without
over-much concern.

"She had a little yesterday, when she met me at the station. I didn't
think she was looking at all well."

"I'm surprised to hear that. She looked particularly well when I saw
her last. Had you any trouble in making your way here?"

"Oh, not a bit. I found the tram, just as Eve told me. But I'm so
sorry! And a fine day too! You don't often have fine days here, do you,
Mr. Hilliard?"

"Now and then. So you've seen Dudley at last. What do you think of it?"

"Oh, I like it! I shouldn't mind living there a bit. But of course I
like Birmingham better."

"Almost as fine as Paris, isn't it?"

"You don't mean that, of course. But I've only seen a few of the
streets, and most of the shops are shut up to-day. Isn't it a pity Eve
has to live so far off? Though, of course, it isn't really very
far - and I suppose you see each other often?"

Hilliard took a seat, crossed his legs, and grasped his knee. The girl
appeared to wait for an answer to her last words, but he said nothing,
and stared at the floor.

"If it's fine to-morrow," Patty continued, after observing him
furtively, "are you coming to Dudley?"

"Yes, I shall come over. Did she send any message?"

"No - nothing particular - - "

Patty looked confused, stroked her dress, and gave a little cough.

"But if it rains - as it very likely will - there's no use in my coming."

"No, she said not."

"Or if her headache is still troubling her - - "

"Let's hope it will be better. But - in any case, she'll be able to come
with me to Birmingham on Monday, when I go back I must be home again on
Monday night."

"Don't you think," said Hilliard carelessly, "that Eve would rather
have you to herself, just for the short time you are here?"

Patty made vigorous objection.

"I don't think that at all. It's quite settled that you are to come
over to-morrow, if it's fine. Oh, and I _do_ hope it will be! It would
be so dreadful to be shut up in the house all day at Dudley. How very
awkward that there's no place where she can have you there! If it
rains, hadn't we better come here? I'm sure it would be better for Eve.
She seems to get into such low spirits - just like she was sometimes in
London."

"That's quite news to me," said the listener gravely.

"Doesn't she let you know? Then I'm so sorry I mentioned it. You won't
tell her I said anything?"

"Wait a moment. Does she say that she is often in low spirits?"

Patty faltered, stroking her dress with the movement of increasing
nervousness.

"It's better I should know," Hilliard added, "I'm afraid she keeps all
this from me. For several weeks I have thought her in particularly good
health."

"But she tells me just the opposite. She says - - "

"Says what?"

"Perhaps it's only the place that doesn't agree with her. I don't think
Dudley is _very_ healthy, do you?"

"I never heard of doctors sending convalescents there. But Eve must be
suffering from some other cause, I think. Does it strike you that she
is at all like what she used to be when - when you felt so anxious about
her?"

He met the girl's eyes, and saw them expand in alarm.

"I didn't think - I didn't mean - - " she stammered.

"No, but I have a reason for asking. Is it so or not?"

"Don't frighten me, Mr. Hilliard! I do so wish I hadn't said anything.
She isn't in good health, that's all. How can you think - - ? That was
all over long ago. And she would never - I'm _sure_ she wouldn't, after
all you've done for her."

Hilliard ground the carpet with his foot, and all but uttered a violent
ejaculation.

"I know she is all gratitude," were the words that became audible.

"She is indeed!" urged Patty. "She says that - even if she wished - she
could never break off with you; as I am _sure_ she would never wish!"

"Ah! that's what she says," murmured the other. And abruptly he rose.
"There's no use in talking about this. You are here for a holiday, and
not to be bored with other people's troubles. The sun is trying to
shine. Let us go and see the town, and then - yes, I'll go back with you
to Dudley, just to hear whether Eve is feeling any better. You could
see her, and then come out and tell me."

"Mr. Hilliard, I'm quite sure you are worrying without any cause - you
are, indeed!"

"I know I am. It's all nonsense. Come along, and let us enjoy the
sunshine."

They spent three or four hours together, Hilliard resolute in his
discharge of hospitable duties, and Miss Ringrose, after a brief spell
of unnatural gravity, allowing no reflection to interfere with her
holiday mood. Hilliard had never felt quite sure as to the limits of
Patty's intelligence; he could not take her seriously, and yet felt
unable to treat her altogether as a child or an imbecile. To-day,
because of his preoccupied thoughts, and the effort it cost him to be
jocose, he talked for the most part in a vein of irony which impressed,
but did not much enlighten, his hearer.

"This," said he, when they had reached the centre of things, "is the
Acropolis of Birmingham. Here are our great buildings, of which we
boast to the world. They signify the triumph of Democracy - and of
money. In front of you stands the Town Hall. Here, to the left, is the
Midland Institute, where a great deal of lecturing goes on, and the big
free library, where you can either read or go to sleep. I have done
both in my time. Behind yonder you catch a glimpse of the fountain that
plays to the glory of Joseph Chamberlain - did you ever hear of him? And
further back still is Mason College, where young men are taught a
variety of things, including discontent with a small income. To the
right there, that's the Council Hall - splendid, isn't it! We bring our
little boys to look at it, and tell them if they make money enough they
may some day go in and out as if it were their own house. Behind it you
see the Art Gallery. We don't really care for pictures; a great big
machine is our genuine delight; but it wouldn't be nice to tell
everybody that."

"What a lot I have learnt from you!" exclaimed the girl ingenuously,
when at length they turned their steps towards the railway station. "I
shall always remember Birmingham. You like it much better than London,
don't you?"

"I glory in the place!"

Hilliard was tired out. He repented of his proposal to make the journey
to Dudley and back, but his companion did not suspect this.

"I'm sure Eve will come out and have a little walk with us," she said
comfortingly. "And she'll think it so kind of you."

At Dudley station there were crowds of people; Patty asked leave to
hold by her companion's arm as they made their way to the exit. Just
outside Hilliard heard himself hailed in a familiar voice; he turned
and saw Narramore.

"I beg your pardon," said his friend, coming near. "I didn't notice - I
thought you were alone, or, of course I shouldn't have shouted. Shall
you be at home to-morrow afternoon?"

"If it rains."

"It's sure to rain. I shall look in about four."




CHAPTER XXII


With a glance at Miss Ringrose, he raised his hat and passed on.
Hilliard, confused by the rapid rencontre, half annoyed at having been
seen with Patty, and half wishing he had not granted the appointment
for tomorrow, as it might interfere with a visit from the girls, walked
forward in silence.

"So we really sha'n't see you if it's wet tomorrow," said Patty.

"Better not. Eve would be afraid to come, she catches cold so easily."

"It may be fine, like to-day. I do hope - - "

She broke off and added:

"Why, isn't that Eve in front?"

Eve it certainly was, walking slowly away from the station, a few yards
in advance of them. They quickened their pace, and Patty caught her
friend by the arm. Eve, startled out of abstraction, stared at her with
eyes of dismay and bloodless cheeks.

"Did I frighten you? Mr. Hilliard has come back with me to ask how you
are. Is your head better?"

"I've just been down to the station - for something to do," said Eve,
her look fixed on Hilliard with what seemed to him a very strange
intensity. "The afternoon was so fine."

"We've had a splendid time," cried Patty. "Mr. Hilliard has shown me
everything."

"I'm so glad. I should only have spoilt it if I had been with you. It's
wretched going about with a headache, and I can't make believe to enjoy
Birmingham."

Eve spoke hurriedly, still regarding Hilliard, who looked upon the
ground.

"Have you been alone all day?" he asked, taking the outer place at her
side, as they walked on.

"Of course - except for the people in the house," was her offhand reply.

"I met Narramore down at the station; he must have passed you. What has
brought him here to-day, I wonder?"

Appearing not to heed the remark, Eve glanced across at Patty, and said
with a laugh:

"It's like Paris again, isn't it - we three? You ought to come and live
here, Patty. Don't you think you could get a place in Birmingham? Mr.
Hilliard would get a piano for his room, and you could let him have
some music. I'm too old to learn."

"I'm sure he wouldn't want _me_ jingling there."

"Wouldn't he? He's very fond of music indeed."

Hilliard stopped.

"Well, I don't think I'll go any further," he said mechanically.
"You're quite well again, Eve, and that's all I wanted to know."

"What about to-morrow?" Eve asked.

The sun had set, and in the westward sky rose a mountain of menacing
cloud. Hilliard gave a glance in that direction before replying.

"Don't count upon me. Patty and you will enjoy the day together, in any


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