George Gissing.

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"Dear Miss Ringrose," he responded, "I am very glad to know that Eve is
to be comfortably settled for life. By all means answer her letter, and
by all means keep from saying disagreeable things. It is never wise to
quarrel with prosperous friends, and why should you? With every good
wish - - " he remained sincerely hers.




CHAPTER XXVII


When Hilliard and his friend again shook hands it was the autumn of
another year. Not even by chance had they encountered in the interval
and no written message had passed between them. Their meeting was at a
house newly acquired by the younger of the Birching brothers, who,
being about to marry, summoned his bachelor familiars to smoke their
pipes in the suburban abode while yet his rule there was undisputed.
With Narramore he had of late resumed the friendship interrupted by
Miss Birching's displeasure, for that somewhat imperious young lady,
now the wife of an elderly ironmaster, moved in other circles; and
Hilliard's professional value, which was beginning to be recognised by
the Birchings otherwise than in the way of compliment, had overcome the
restraints at first imposed by his dubious social standing.

They met genially, without a hint of estrangement.

"Your wife well?" Hilliard took an opportunity of asking apart.

"Thanks, she's getting all right again. At Llandudno just now. Glad to
see that you're looking so uncommonly fit."

Hilliard had undoubtedly improved in personal appearance. He grew a
beard, which added to his seeming age, but suited with his features;
his carriage was more upright than of old.

A week or two after this, Narramore sent a friendly note -

"Shall I see you at Birching's on Sunday? My wife will be there, to
meet Miss Marks and some other people. Come if you can, old fellow. I
should take it as a great kindness."

And Hilliard went. In the hall he was confronted by Narramore, who
shook hands with him rather effusively, and said a few words in an
undertone.

"She's out in the garden. Will be delighted to see you. Awfully good of
you, old boy! Had to come sooner or later, you know."

Not quite assured of this necessity, and something less than composed,
Hilliard presently passed through the house into the large walled
garden behind it. Here he was confusedly aware of a group of ladies,
not one of whom, on drawing nearer, did he recognise. A succession of
formalities discharged, he heard his friend's voice saying -

"Hilliard, let me introduce you to my wife."

There before him stood Eve. He had only just persuaded himself of her
identity; his eyes searched her countenance with wonder which barely
allowed him to assume a becoming attitude. But Mrs. Narramore was
perfect in society's drill. She smiled very sweetly, gave her hand,
said what the occasion demanded. Among the women present - all well
bred - she suffered no obscurement. Her voice was tuned to the
appropriate harmony; her talk invited to an avoidance of the hackneyed.

Hilliard revived his memories of Gower Place - of the streets of Paris.
Nothing preternatural had come about; nothing that he had not
forecasted in his hours of hope. But there were incidents in the past
which this moment blurred away into the region of dreamland, and which
he shrank from the effort of reinvesting with credibility.

"This is a pleasant garden."

Eve had approached him as he stood musing, after a conversation with
other ladies.

"Rather new, of course; but a year will do wonders. Have you seen the
chrysanthemums?"

She led him apart, as they stood regarding the flowers, Hilliard was
surprised by words that fell from her.

"Your contempt for me is beyond expression, isn't it?"

"It is the last feeling I should associate with you," he answered.

"Oh, but be sincere. We have both learnt to speak another language - you
no less than I. Let me hear a word such as you used to speak. I know
you despise me unutterably."

"You are quite mistaken. I admire you very much."

"What - my skill? Or my dress?"

"Everything. You have become precisely what you were meant to be."

"Oh, the scorn of that!"

"I beg you not to think it for a moment. There was a time when I might
have found a foolish pleasure in speaking to you with sarcasm. But that
has long gone by."

"What am I, then?"

"An English lady - with rather more intellect than most."

Eve flushed with satisfaction.

"It's more than kind of you to say that. But you always had a generous
spirit. I never thanked you. Not one poor word. I was cowardly - afraid
to write. And you didn't care for my thanks."

"I do now."

"Then I thank you. With all my heart, again and again!"

Her voice trembled under fulness of meaning.

"You find life pleasant?"

"You do, I hope?" she answered, as they paced on.

"Not unpleasant, at all events. I am no longer slaving under the iron
gods. I like my work, and it promises to reward me."

Eve made a remark about a flower-bed. Then her voice subdued again.

"How do you look back on your great venture - your attempt to make the
most that could be made of a year in your life?"

"Quite contentedly. It was worth doing, and is worth remembering."

"Remember, if you care to," Eve resumed, "that all I am and have I owe
to you. I was all but lost - all but a miserable captive for the rest of
my life. You came and ransomed me. A less generous man would have
spoilt his work at the last moment. But you were large minded enough to
support my weakness till I was safe."

Hilliard smiled for answer.

"You and Robert are friends again?"

"Perfectly."

She turned, and they rejoined the company.

A week later Hilliard went down into the country, to a quiet spot where
he now and then refreshed his mind after toil in Birmingham. He slept
at a cottage, and on the Sunday morning walked idly about the lanes.

A white frost had suddenly hastened the slow decay of mellow autumn.
Low on the landscape lay a soft mist, dense enough to conceal
everything at twenty yards away, but suffused with golden sunlight;
overhead shone the clear blue sky. Roadside trees and hedges, their
rich tints softened by the medium through which they were discerned,
threw shadows of exquisite faintness. A perfect quiet possessed the
air, but from every branch, as though shaken by some invisible hand,
dead foliage dropped to earth in a continuous shower; softly pattering
from beech to maple, or with the heavier fall of ash-leaves, while at
long intervals sounded the thud of apples tumbling from a crab-tree.
Thick-clustered berries arrayed the hawthorns, the briar was rich in
scarlet fruit; everywhere the frost had left the adornment of its
subtle artistry. Each leaf upon the hedge shone silver-outlined;
spiders' webs, woven from stein to stem, glistened in the morning
radiance; the grasses by the way side stood stark in gleaming mail.

And Maurice Hilliard, a free man in his own conceit, sang to himself a
song of the joy of life.



THE END.











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