By way of thanks for the book, he scribbled a friendly letter, in which there was no endearment, definite or indefinite, to object to. It implied that her choice had been a wise one, and he congratulated her very cordially. The letter was sincere; he felt that it would give her pleasure. And when it reached her and she read between the lines, the woman's heart sank, and tears crept down her face.
He wondered mildly why he didn't hear from her any more.
The novel that the papers praised so warmly had enriched her by the sum of ten pounds; and when she was five years older than she had been on the day she said good-bye to him, she was writing in a boarding-house much like the one where he had met her. She remembered wistfully that within five years she had foreseen herself rejoicing in Upper Bohemia.
She wrote well. She did not think as well as she wrote, of course—her horizon was clouded by myths, like those that have it that Scots are all skinflints, and Jews are all rogues—but her work had beauty; and critics saw it, and she made a reputation. But the general public did not see it, or, seeing the beauty, were a Channel's width from perceiving that it was beautiful, so she did not make money. And without money she found a literary reputation was less ecstatic than she had presumed. It did not mean congenial society, because she could not afford to join the clubs where congenial society might be supposed to exist. It did not mean concerts, or picture-galleries, or less physical discomfort, or a breath of sea air when she was sick for it; it did not mean a single amelioration of her life's asperities, because Press notices were not to be tendered in lieu of cash. Even those who lauded her fiction remained strangers to her. Only for a few weeks after each book was issued, she read, in her boarding-house attic, that she was a " distinguished novelist," and then she was again ignored.
And meanwhile her youth was fading, and her eyes were dimming, and she looked in the glass and mourned. In the emptiness of her " distinction " she longed for laughter and a home. Desperate at last, she did join a club of professional women; but nominal as the fees were, considering the splendour of the place, it was an annual effort for her to pay the subscription. And she did not go there often enough to make any intimate friends, because she was generally too tired.
And every year she grew more tired still.
When she had been growing tired for sixteen years she was in a dreary lodging, in a dingy street, toiling at a novel, between the fashion articles by which she earned her daily bread. Mr. Humphreys, in easy circumstances by this time, was in London too, though when memories awoke in her she pictured him in Manitoba. He was indulging in a trip, and had been in England three weeks. One afternoon, in the hall of the new and expensive hotel, he picked up a book and came upon her name among the publisher's advertisements. It was an advertisement of one of her shattered hopes, but Mr. Humphreys didn't know that—he merely saw her referred to as a " distinguished novelist." She was, at the moment, trudging from a modiste's to a milliner's, to gather something to say in her inevitable article. It was raining, and she had a headache, and she would have to hammer out a sprightly column about Paris models before she could lie down. His holiday was proving rather dull, and he wondered idly whether it would be a foolish impulse to recall himself to such a prominent woman.
His formal note, re-directed by the publisher's clerk, and re-directed again, reached her some days later. " If you have not quite forgotten our old friendship, I should be glad of an opportunity to call and congratulate you on your triumphs." She read that line many times. Her face was white, and her eyes were wide. She looked again at the name of the expensive hotel, and stared at the sordid parlour in which she sat—the pitiable parlour with its atrocious oleographs on drab walls, and two mottled vases, from the tea-grocer's, on the dirty mantelpiece. He would be " glad to congratulate her " !
She remembered the unaffected cheeriness of the previous congratulations, the letter that had shown her his love was dead. She had fancied that nothing could hurt more deeply than that letter, but she had been wrong—to expose her mistake to him would be bitterer still. The humiliation of it, the punishment! All the arrogance of her rejection, all the boasts of her girlhood thronged back upon her tauntingly. God ! if she could have seen ahead—if only she could have her life again.
She debated her reply. To say that she was leaving town would sound ungracious. The alternative was to receive him at the club. Almost for the first time she was devoutly thankful to be a member—the club would spare her the ignominy of revealing her parlour; the stationery would avert the need for betraying her address.
On the imposing stationery she wrote that she would be " pleased to see him here on either Wednesday or Thursday next." Her clothes, she supposed, wouldn't give her away, as he was a man.
Was he married? There was no hint of a wife in his letter. How much changed would she find him? Would the change in herself shock him greatly? There were women as old as she who were still spoken of as " young," but their lives had run on smoother lines than hers—and when he saw her last she had been twenty-two and sanguine. It seemed to her that he would meet a stranger. She trembled in the club on Wednesday afternoon, and began to hope that his choice would fall on " Thursday".
She was told that he had come. She rose with an effort. A big man, with greying hair, approached her uncertainly. She smiled with stiff lips. " Mr. Humphreys," she faltered. And a voice that she didn't remember, a new deep voice that wasn't like Jack's at all, was saying, " Why, Miss Barton! This is very kind of you".
" How d'ye do ? So glad to see you again," she murmured. " Let—let us go and sit down." Her heart was thumping, and she felt a little deaf.