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studio-work looming in the distance. It was quite different with Mr.
Lawrence, you know," said Gertrude, whom her own arguments struck as
plausible rather than sound. "One thing may lead to another."

"Yes, it is sure to," cried Lucy, who saw an opportunity for escaping
from the detested propriety topic. "To-day, for instance, with Mr.
Oakley. He is middle-aged, by the bye, Gerty, and married, for I saw his
wife."

They both laughed; they could, indeed, afford to laugh, for, regarded
from a financial point of view, the morning had been an unusually
satisfactory one.

Gertrude's prophetic vision of vistas of studio work proved, for the
next few days at least, to have been no baseless fabric of the fancy.
The two artists at York Place kept them so busy over models, sketches,
and arrangements of drapery, that the girls' hands were full from
morning till night. Of course this did not last, but Frank was so full
of suggestions for them, so genuinely struck with the quality of their
work, so anxious to recommend them to his comrades in art, that their
spirits rose high, and hope, which for a time had almost failed them,
arose, like a giant refreshed, in their breasts.

In all simplicity and respect, the young Cornishman took a deep and
unconcealed interest in the photographic firm, and expected, on his
part, a certain amount of interest to be taken in his own work.

Frank, as Conny had said, worked chiefly in black and white. He was
engaged, at present, in illustrating a serial story for _The Woodcut_,
but he had time on his hands for a great deal more work, time which he
employed in painting pictures which the public refused to buy, although
the committees were often willing to exhibit them.

"If they would only send me out to that wretched little war," he said.
"There is nothing like having been a special artist for getting a man on
with the pictorial editors."

There is nothing like the salt of healthy objective interests for
keeping the moral nature sound. Before the sense of mutual honesty, the
little barriers of prudishness which both sides had thought fit in the
first instance to raise, fell silently between the young people, never
again to be lifted up.

For good or evil, these waifs on the great stream of London life had
drifted together; how long the current should continue thus to bear them
side by side - how long, indeed, they should float on the surface of the
stream at all, was a question with which, for the time being, they did
not very much trouble themselves.

No one quite knew how it came about, but before a month had gone by, it
became the most natural thing in the world for Frank to drop in upon
them at unexpected hours, to share their simple meals, to ask and give
advice about their respective work.

Fanny had accepted the situation with astonishing calmness. Prudish to
the verge of insanity with regard to herself, she had grown to look upon
her strong-minded sisters as creatures emancipated from the ordinary
conventions of their sex, as far removed from the advantages and
disadvantages of gallantry as the withered hag who swept the crossing
near Baker Street Station.

Perhaps, too, she found life at this period a little dull, and welcomed,
on her own account, a new and pleasant social element in the person of
Frank Jermyn; however it may be, Fanny gave no trouble, and Gertrude's
lurking scruples slept in peace.

One bright morning towards the end of January, Gertrude came careering
up the street on the summit of a tall, green omnibus, her hair blowing
gaily in the breeze, her ill-gloved hands clasped about a bulky
note-book. Frank, passing by in painting-coat and sombrero, plucked the
latter from his head and waved it in exaggerated salute, an action which
evoked a responsive smile from the person for whom it was intended, but
acted with quite a different effect on another person who chanced to
witness it, and for whom it was certainly not intended. This was no
other than Aunt Caroline Pratt, who, to Gertrude's dismay, came dashing
past in an open carriage, a look of speechless horror on her handsome,
horselike countenance.

Now it is impossible to be dignified on the top of an omnibus, and
Gertrude received her aunt's frozen stare of non-recognition with a
humiliating consciousness of the disadvantages of her own position.

With a sinking heart she crept down from her elevation, when the omnibus
stopped at the corner, and walked in a crestfallen manner to Number 20B,
before the door of which the carriage, emptied of its freight, was
standing.

Aunt Caroline did not trouble them much in these days, and rather
wondering what had brought her, Gertrude made her way to the
sitting-room, where the visitor was already established.

"How do you do, Aunt Caroline?"

"How do you do, Gertrude? And where have you been this morning?"

"To the British Museum."

Gertrude felt all the old opposition rising within her, in the jarring
presence; an opposition which she assured herself was unreasonable. What
did it matter what Aunt Caroline said, at this time of day? It had been
different when they had been little girls; different, too, in that first
moment of sorrow and anxiety, when she had laid her coarse touch on
their quivering sensibilities.

Yet, when all was said, Mrs. Pratt's was not a presence to be in any way
passed over.

"It is half-past one," said Aunt Caroline, consulting her watch; "are
you not going to have your luncheon?"

"It is laid in the kitchen," explained Lucy; "but if you will stay we
can have it in here."

"In the kitchen! Is it necessary to give up the habits of ladies because
you are poor?"

"A kitchen without a cook," put in Phyllis, "is the most ladylike place
in the world."

Mrs. Pratt vouchsafed no answer to this exclamation, but turned to Lucy.

"No luncheon, thank you. I may as well say at once that I have come here
with a purpose; solely, in fact, from motives of duty. Gertrude, perhaps
your conscience can tell you what brings me."

"Indeed, Aunt Caroline, I am at a loss - - "

"I have come," continued Mrs. Pratt, "prepared to put up with anything
you may say. Gertrude, it is to you I address myself, although, from
Fanny's age, she is the one to have prevented this scandal."

"I do not in the least understand you," said Gertrude, with
self-restraint.

Mrs. Pratt elevated her gloved forefinger, with the air of a
well-seasoned counsel.

"Is it, or is it not true, that you have scraped acquaintance with a
young man who lodges opposite you; that he is in and out of your rooms
at all hours; that you follow him about to his studio?"

"Yes," said Gertrude, slowly, flushing deeply, "if you choose to put it
that way; it is true."

"That you go about to public places with him," continued Aunt Caroline;
"that you have been seen, two of you and this person, in the upper boxes
of a theatre?"

"Yes, it is true," answered Gertrude; and Lucy, mindful of a coming
storm, would have taken up the word, but Gertrude interrupted her.

"Let me speak, Lucy; perhaps, after all, we do owe Aunt Caroline some
explanation. Aunt, how shall I say it for you to understand? We have
taken life up from a different standpoint, begun it on different bases.
We are poor people, and we are learning to find out the pleasures of
the poor, to approach happiness from another side. We have none of the
conventional social opportunities for instance, but are we therefore to
sacrifice all social enjoyment? You say we 'follow Mr. Jermyn to his
studio;' we have our living to earn, no less than our lives to live, and
in neither case can we afford to be the slaves of custom. Our friends
must trust us or leave us; must rely on our self-respect and our
judgment. Convention apart, are not judgment and self-respect what we
most of us do rely on in our relations with people, under any
circumstances whatever?"

It was only the fact that Aunt Caroline was speechless with rage that
prevented her from breaking in at an earlier stage on poor Gertrude's
heroics; but at this point she found her voice. Sitting very still, and
looking hard at her niece with a remarkably unpleasant expression in her
cold eye, she said in tones of concentrated fury:

"Fanny is a fool, and the others are children; but don't _you_,
Gertrude, know what is meant by a lost reputation?"

This was too much for Gertrude; she sprang to her feet.

"Aunt Caroline," she cried, "you are right; Lucy and Phyllis are very
young. It is not fit that they should hear such conversation. If you
wish to continue it, I will ask them to go away."

A pause; the two combatants standing pale and breathless, facing one
another. Then Lucy went over to her sister and took her hand; Fanny
sobbed; Phyllis glanced from one to the other with her bright eyes.

Now, Gertrude's conduct had been distinctly injudicious; open defiance,
no less than servile acquiescence, was understood and appreciated by
Mrs. Pratt; but Gertrude, as Lucy, who secretly admired her sister's
eloquence, at once perceived, had spoken a tongue not understanded of
Aunt Caroline.

As soon, in these non-miraculous days, strike the rock for water, as
appeal to Aunt Caroline's finer feelings or imaginative perceptions.

"If you will not listen to me," she said, suddenly assuming an air of
weariness and physical delicacy, "it must be seen whether your uncle can
influence you. I am not equal to prolonging the discussion."

Pointedly ignoring Gertrude, she shook hands with the other girls;
angry as she was, their shabby clothes and shabby furniture smote her
for the moment with compassion. Poverty seemed to her the greatest of
human calamities; she pitied even more than she despised it.

To Lucy, indeed, who escorted her downstairs, she assumed quite a gay
and benevolent manner; only pausing to ask on the threshold, with a good
deal of fine, healthy curiosity underlying the elaborate archness of her
tones:

"Now, how much money have you naughty girls been making lately?"

Lucy stoutly and laughingly evaded the question, and Aunt Caroline drove
off smiling, refusing, like the stalwart warrior that she was, to
acknowledge herself defeated. But it was many a long day before she
attempted again to interfere in the affairs of the Lorimers.

Perhaps she would have been more ready to renew the attack, had she
known how really distressed and disturbed Gertrude had been by her
words.


[Illustration: Decoration]




CHAPTER VIII.

A DISTINGUISHED PERSON.

"... _I can give no reason, nor I will not;
More than have a lodged hate and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio._"
MERCHANT OF VENICE.


One morning, towards the middle of March, the sisters were much excited
at receiving a letter containing an order to photograph a picture in a
studio at St. John's Wood.

It was written in a small legible handwriting, was dated from The
Sycamores, and signed, Sidney Darrell.

"I wonder how he came to hear of us?" said Lucy, who cherished a
particular admiration for the works of this artist.

"Perhaps Mr. Jermyn knows him," answered Gertrude.

"He would probably have spoken of him to us, if he did."

"Here," said Gertrude, "is Mr. Jermyn to answer for himself."

Frank, who had been admitted by Matilda, came into the waiting-room,
where the sisters stood, a look as of the dawning spring-time in his
vivid face and shining eyes.

"I have brought the proofs from _The Woodcut_," he said, drawing a damp
bundle from his painting-coat. The Lorimers always read the slips of the
story he was illustrating, and then a general council was held to decide
on the best incident for illustration.

Lucy took the bundle and handed him the letter.

"Aren't you tremendously pleased?" he said.

"Do you know anything about this?" asked Lucy.

"How?"

"I mean, did you recommend us to him?"

"Not I. This letter is simply the reward of well-earned fame."

"Thank you, Mr. Jermyn; I really think you must be right. Do you know
Sidney Darrell?"

"I have met him. But he is a great swell, you know, Miss Lucy, and he is
almost always abroad."

"Yes," put in Gertrude; "his exquisite Venetian pictures!"

"Oh, Darrell is a clever fellow. Too fond of the French school, perhaps,
for my taste. And the curious thing is, that, though his work is every
bit as solid as it is brilliant, there is something rather sensational
about his reputation."

"All this," cried Gertrude, "sounds exciting."

"I think that must be owing to the man himself," went on Frank. "Oakley
knows him fairly well; says you may meet him one night at dinner, and he
will ask you up to his studio. The first thing next morning you get a
note putting you off; he is very sorry, but he is starting that day for
India."

"Does he paint Indian pictures?"

"No, but is bitten at times with the 'big game' craze; shoots tigers and
sticks pigs, and so on. I believe his studio is quite a museum of
trophies of the chase."

"By the by, Lucy, which of us is to go to The Sycamores to-morrow
morning?"

"You must go, Gerty; I can't trust any one else to finish off those
prints of little Jack Oakley, and they have been promised so long."

Gertrude consulted the letter.

"I shall have to take the big camera, which involves a cab."

"I wish I could have walked up with you," said Frank; "but, strange to
say, I am very busy this week."

"I wish we were busy," answered Gertrude; "things are a little better,
but it is slow work."

"I consider this letter of Darrell's a distinct move forward," cried
hopeful Frank; "_he_ will be able to recommend you to artists who are
not a lot of out-at-elbow fellows," he added, holding out his hand in
farewell, with a bright smile that belied the rueful words. "Now, please
don't forget you are all coming to tea with Oakley and me on Sunday
afternoon. And Miss Devonshire - you gave her my invitation?"

"Yes," said Lucy, promptly; then added after a pause: "May her brother
come too; he says he would like to?"

Frank scanned her quickly with his bright eyes.

"Certainly, if you like; he is not a bad sort of cub."

And then he departed abruptly.

"That was quite rude, for Mr. Jermyn," said Gertrude.

Lucy turned away with a slight flush on her fair face.

"It would be quite rude for anybody," she said, and went over to the
studio.

Phyllis was spending the day at the Devonshires, but came back for the
evening meal, by which time her sisters' excitement on the subject of
Darrell's letter had subsided; and no mention was made of it while they
were at table.

After the meal, Phyllis went over to the window, drew up the blind, and
amused herself, as was her frequent custom, by looking into the street.

"I wish you wouldn't do that," said Lucy; "any one can see right into
the room."

"Why do you waste your breath, Lucy? You know it is never any good
telling me not to do things, when I want to."

Gertrude, who had herself a secret, childish love for the gas-lit
street, for the sight of the hurrying people, the lamps, the hansom
cabs, flickering in and out the yellow haze, like so many fire-flies,
took no part in the dispute, but set to work at repairing an old skirt
of Phyllis's, which was sadly torn.

Meanwhile the spoilt child at the window continued her observations,
which seemed to afford her considerable amusement.

"There is a light in Frank Jermyn's window - the top one," she cried; "I
suppose he is dressing. He told me he had an early dance in Harley
Street. I wish _I_ were going to a dance."

There was a look of mischief in Phyllis's eyes as she looked round at
Lucy, who was buried in the proof-sheets from _The Woodcut_.

"Phyllis, you are coughing terribly. Do come away from that draughty
place," cried Gertrude, with real anxiety.

"Oh, I'm all right, Gerty. Ah, there goes Master Frank. It is wet
underfoot, and he has turned up his trousers, and his pumps are bulging
from his coat-pocket. I wonder how many miles a week he walks on his way
to dances?"

"It is quite delightful to see a person with such an enjoyment of every
phase of existence," said Gertrude, half to herself.

"You poor, dear _blasée_ thing. It _is_ a pretty sight to see the young
people enjoying themselves, as the little boy said in _Punch_, is it
not? I wonder if Mr. Jermyn is going to walk all the way? Perhaps he
will take the omnibus at the corner. He never 'soars higher than a
'bus,' as he expresses it."

Wearying suddenly of the sport, Phyllis dropped the blind, and, coming
over to Gertrude, knelt on the floor at her feet.

"It is a little dull, ain't it, Gerty, to look at life from a top-floor
window?"

A curious pang went through Gertrude, as she tenderly stroked the
nut-brown head.

"You haven't heard our news," she said, irrelevantly. "There, read
that." And taking Mr. Darrell's note from her pocket, she handed it to
Phyllis.

The latter read it through rather languidly.

"Yes, I suppose it is a good thing to be employed by such a person," she
remarked. "Sidney Darrell? - Didn't I tell you I met him last week at
the Oakleys, the day I went to tea?"

* * * * *

The Sycamores was divided from the road by a high grey wall, beyond
which stretched a neglected-looking garden of some size, and, on the
March morning of which I write, this latter presented a singularly
melancholy appearance.

The house itself looked melancholy also, as houses will which are very
little lived in, and appeared to consist almost entirely of a large
studio, built out like a disproportionate wing from the main structure.

Gertrude was led at once to the studio by a serious-looking manservant,
who announced that his master would join her in a few minutes.

The apartment in which Gertrude found herself was of vast size, and bore
none of the signs of neglect and disuse which marked the house and
garden.

It was fitted up with all the chaotic splendour which distinguishes the
studio of the modern fashionable artist; the spoils of many climes,
fruits of many wanderings, being heaped, with more regard to
picturesqueness than fitness, in every available nook.

Going up to the carved fire-place, Gertrude proceeded to warm her hands
at the comfortable wood-fire, a position badly adapted for taking stock
of the great man's possessions, of which, as she afterwards confessed,
she only carried away a prevailing impression of tiger-skins and
Venetian lanterns.

The fire-light played about her slim figure and about the faded richness
of a big screen of old Spanish leather, which fenced in the little bit
of territory in the immediate neighbourhood of the fire-place; a spot in
which had been gathered the most luxurious lounges and the choicest
ornaments of the whole collection; and where, at the present moment, the
air was heavy with the scent of tuberose, several sprays of which stood
on a small table in a costly jar of Venetian glass.

In a few minutes the sound of footsteps outside, and of the rich, deep
notes of a man's voice were audible.


"Et non, non, non,
Vous n'êtes plus Lisette,
Ne portez plus ce nom."


As the footsteps drew nearer the words of the song could be clearly
distinguished.

Gertrude turned towards the door, which fronted the fire-place, and as
she did so the song ceased, the curtain was pushed aside, and a person,
presumably the singer, came into the room.

He was a man of middle height, and middle age, with light brown hair,
parted in the centre, and a moustache and Vandyke beard of the same
colour. He was not, strictly speaking, handsome, but he wore that air of
distinction which power and the assurance of power alone can confer. His
whole appearance was a masterly combination of the correct and the
picturesque.

He advanced deliberately towards Gertrude.

"Allow me, Miss Lorimer, to introduce myself."

He spoke carelessly, yet with a note of disappointment in his voice, and
a shade of moodiness in his heavy-lidded eyes.

Gertrude, looking up and meeting the cold, grey glance, became suddenly
conscious that her hat was shabby, that her boots were patched and
clumsy, that the wind had blown the wisps of hair about her face. What
was there in this man's gaze that made her, all at once, feel old and
awkward, ridiculous and dowdy; that made her long to snatch up her heavy
camera and flee from his presence, never to return?

What, indeed? Gertrude, we know, had a vivid imagination, and that
perhaps was responsible for the sense of oppression, defiance, and
self-distrust with which she followed Mr. Darrell across the room to one
of the easels, on which was displayed a remarkable study in oils of a
winter aspect of the Grand Canal at Venice.

There was certainly, superficially speaking, no ground for her feeling
in the artist's conduct. With his own hands he set up and fixed the
heavy camera on the tripod stand, questioned her, in his low, listless
tones, as to her convenience, and observed, by way of polite
conversation, that he had had the pleasure of meeting her sister the
week before at the Oakleys.

To her own unutterable vexation, Gertrude found herself rather cowed by
the man and his indifferent politeness, through which she seemed to
detect the lurking contempt; and as his glance of cold irony fell upon
her from time to time, from beneath the heavy lids, she found herself
beginning to take part not only against herself but also against the
type of woman to which she belonged.

Having made the necessary adjustments, and given the necessary
directions, Darrell went over to the fire-place, and cast himself into a
lounge, where the leather screen shut out his well-appointed person from
Gertrude's sight. She, on her part, set about her task without
enjoyment, and was glad when it was over and she could pack up the
dark-slides. As she was unscrewing the camera from the stand, the
curtain before the doorway was pushed aside for the second time, and a
man entered unannounced. At the same moment Darrell advanced from behind
his screen, and the two men met in the middle of the room.

"Delighted to see you back, my dear fellow."

It seemed to Gertrude that a shade of deference had infused itself into
the artist's manner, as he cordially clasped hands with the new comer.

This person was a tall, sinewy man of from thirty-five to forty years of
age, with stooping shoulders and a brown beard. From her corner by the
easel Miss Lorimer could see his face, and her casual glance falling
upon it was arrested by a sudden sense of recognition.

Where had she seen them before; the ample forehead, the clear, grey
eyes, the rough yet generous lines of the features?

This man's face was sunburnt, cheery, smiling; the face which it
recalled had been pale, haggard, worn with watching and sorrow. Then, as
by a flash, she saw it all again before her eyes; the dainty room
flooded with October sunlight; the dead woman lying there with her
golden hair spread on the pillow; the bearded, averted face, and
stooping form of the figure that crouched by the window.

"I only hope," she reflected, "that he will not recognise me. The
recollections that the sight of me would summon up could scarcely be
pleasant. I have no wish to enact the part of skeleton at the feast."

With a desponding sense that she had no right to her existence, Gertrude
gathered up her possessions and made her way across the room.

Darrell came forward slowly, "Oh, put down those heavy things," he said.

Lord Watergate, for it was he, went over to the fire-place and stood
there warming his hands.

"May I trouble you to have a cab called?"

Gertrude spoke in her most dignified manner.

"Certainly. But won't you come to the fire?"

Darrell rang a bell which stood on the mantelshelf, and indicated to
Gertrude a chair by the screen.

Gertrude, however, preferred to stand, and for some moments the three
people on the tiger-skin hearthrug stared into the fire in silence.

Then Darrell said in an offhand manner: "Miss Lorimer has been kind
enough to photograph my 'Grand Canal' for me."

Lord Watergate, looking up suddenly, met Gertrude's glance. For a moment
a puzzled expression came into his eyes, then changed to one of
recognition and recollection. After some hesitation, he said:

"It must be difficult to do justice in a photograph to such a picture."

She threw him back his commonplace:

"Oh, the gradations of tone often come out surprisingly well."

Inwardly she was saying, "How he must hate the sight of me."

Darrell looked from one to the other, dimly suspicious of their mutual
consciousness, then rejected the suspicion as an absurd one.


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