Before boarding-houses in London were all called Hotels and while snobbery had advanced no further than to call them Establishments, there was one in a London square where two of the " visitors "—which is boarding-house English for " boarders"—were a girl and a young man. Irene Barton was a humble journalist, who wrote stories when she would have been wiser to go to bed, and yearned to be an admired author. Jack Humphreys was an athletic clerk, who was renouncing clerkships for Canada and foresaw himself prospering in a world of wheat. The young man and the girl used to confide their plans to each other—when they weren't saying how detestable all the other boarders were—and before the time came for him to sail they had complicated matters by falling in love.
When he had begged her to wait for him and she had explained that matrimony did not enter into her scheme of things, Miss Barton was miserable. But she did not let him guess that she was miserable, and she didn't change her mind. She had dreamed of being a celebrated novelist from the days when she wrote stories, in penny exercise books, at the nursery table, and his appeal amounted to asking her to sacrifice her aspirations and remain a nobody. She had scoffed too often at women who " ruined their careers for sickly sentiment " to be guilty of the same blunder. Still, she had had no suspicion that sentiment could lure so hard, and she viewed the women more leniently now.
She reflected that the experience of sickly sentiment at first hand should be of benefit to her fiction, but the thought failed to encourage her so much as she would have expected of it. " They learn in suffering what they teach in song," she reminded herself—and an old-fashioned instinct, which she rebuked, whispered, " But isn't it better to be happy than to teach? "
Because Jack Humphreys persisted they discussed the subject more than once. Sauntering round the garden of the square in the twilight, she expounded her philosophy to him.
" I am not," she insisted, " the least bit the kind of girl you ought to care for. It'll be five years at the very least before you can marry, and in five years' time I shall have written books, and—well, I hope I shall have done something worth while. Do you suppose I could be satisfied to give it all up? I know myself, I couldn't do it. Or, if I did do it, I should be wretched—and make you wretched too".
" But why should you give it all up? " he said miserably. " Don't you think I should be interested in it? Haven't I been interested here— have you found me so wooden? I don't know much about it, but- Oh, my dear, I'm so fond of you ! Whatever interested you would be bound to interest me. You could write novels as my wife —I'd never put any difficulties in your way, heaven knows I wouldn't! " She shook her head.
" You think all that now, but you'd know better then. You won't want a wife to write novels— you'll want one to bake the bread and feed the chickens and make herself useful. You'll want the domesticated article—and I'm an artist. I should be an encumbrance, not a wife. Besides, I should hate it all. Oh, I know I'm hurting you, but it's true ! I should bore myself to death. To write, I need to live among men and women, to live in London, Paris, among other writers. I want to see pictures, and hear music—real music, not Verdi and that kind of treacle—and be in the movement. Perhaps by the time you wanted me to come to you I should be in the movement—five years is a long while, and I'm going to work hard. And you fancy I could turn my back on it all! Oh, Mr. Humphreys, don't let us talk about it any more ! "
Trying to steady his voice, the young man asked :
" May I write to you sometimes, as a friend ? "
" I think you had better not," she said, though her heart had jumped at the suggestion.
" I haven't any people who'd care much about hearing from me," he pleaded; "I shall be pretty humped over there at the start. I'd promise faithfully not to—er—I'd write to you just as I might write to any other chum, if I had one".
" Very well," she assented. " Write to me like that and I'll answer".
He did not write quite like that, but he suppressed two-thirds of what he wanted to say, and signed himself " Yours sincerely." Nobody could have found any definite endearment to object to in the pages. Though she checked the impulse to reply by the next mail, she replied at considerable length. She told him the latest details of the boarding-house—that Mrs. Usher was looking seriously ill because she couldn't find out why Mrs. Dunphy received so many telegrams; and that because Mrs. Kenyon's husband wasn't able to come to England yet, Mrs. Wykes was suggesting that she hadn't a husband at all. She told him that she had " had enough of these awful people " and that he was to direct his next letter elsewhere. And always his next letter was awaited more eagerly than was consistent of a young woman who was quite sure that she preferred celebrity to love.
So, although they did not write to each other more than twice or thrice a year, they were still corresponding after both had made some progress. The homestead was the man's own property at last, and the woman had had a novel published. She sent a copy of it to him, with two or three of the best reviews. It had been reviewed very highly, and if the ex-clerk had sometimes questioned whether she mightn't be exaggerating her prospects, his doubt was banished when he read the compliments that the critics paid her.
He grinned a little wryly in the solitude of the homestead. Yes, it would have been a queer kind of life here for a woman of her talent ! "I should bore myself to death." Like a knife through him when she said it. Of course, he had not grasped then what the life would be. If he had thoroughly divined- Looking back, he wondered whether he would have found the pluck to tackle it himself. That first awful year, when he had ploughed a bit of wilderness, craving in every hour for the sight of a girl in England ! . . . Well, time worked wonders, and his labours interested him now. He pulled, and viewed proudly, a few heads of the wheat he had sown with his own hands. Jolly colour they were ! Better than a clerkship ; no more London for him. Irene Barton was finding it a Tom Tiddler's ground, he supposed. Good luck to her ! Oh, of course, she had done the sensible thing in refusing him—and, heaven be praised, he wasn't broken up about it any longer. One could get over any blow.