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"And here we are back at Craddock," he said.
"Yes. Oh, by the way, Charles, I saw a flame of yours last night, a very old flame in fact, Lady Crowborough. I daresay you would have thought she was being tender and solicitous about you. I thought that she was merely extremely inquisitive."
"About me?" said Charles.
"Yes. She wanted to know all I could tell her about you. She reminded me of somebody wanting to engage a servant from a previous employer."
Charles looked thoroughly puzzled.
"Lady Crowborough?" he asked again. "About me?"
"Yes, I've already said so. What's the matter?"
Charles had risen, and came across to where Frank sat in the window seat. Into his head there had instantaneously flashed the episode of his proposing himself to go down to the Mill House to look at his Reynolds' copy, and the inexplicable letter of Mr. Wroughton's.
"Nothing's the matter," he said, sitting down close to Frank. "But please tell me just all you can. Did you ask her why she wanted to know?"
"Not I. It was perfectly clear that somebody had been gently hinting things about you. But I told her a good deal."
Frank's face grew quite gentle and affectionate.
"I told her you were the best chap in the world," he said. "That's about what it came to. I think I made her believe it too."
Then hurrying away from anything approaching to sentiment,
"Of course we have to lie on behalf of a friend," he said briskly. "I daresay she wanted to be sure she could trust herself in your studio without a chaperone."
Charles did not smile at this.
"But you think some one has been telling damned lies about me?" he asked.
"Probably. Why not? And what does it matter? Don't be upset, Charles. I wish I hadn't told you. At least I don't think I do. It may convince you that there's somebody in the world not set to a hymn-tune. Now do dress, and you will then come and lunch with me in my flat, and you may be able to hear Craddock walking about overhead. That'll make you happy, and you can get a step-ladder and kiss the ceiling!"
But there was another idea now that had to be put in the shadow of Charles' mind. It was far uglier than the first and had to be poked away in the darkest of recesses.
As soon as money had begun at all to flow his way last autumn, Charles had hounded his mother (as she put it) out of her disgusting rooms (so he put it) in Sidney Street, and had established her modestly indeed but comfortably in Grieve's Crescent not far from his new studio. To-night he was going to dine at home, and he looked forward to the serenity that always seemed as much a part of her as her hands or her hair, as a man after a hot and dusty day may look forward to a cool bath. Pictures that were candidates for the Academy had to be sent in before the end of this week, and he had spent an industrious afternoon working steadily at the background and accessories in his portrait of Frank.Craddock had advised him to send this, and the portraits of his mother and Mrs. Fortescue to the august tribunal, and had promised to speak helpful words, if such were necessary, in authoritative ears. But to-day the joy of painting had wholly deserted him, and as he worked, his conscious mind occupied with light and shadow, his unconscious mind had done a great deal of meditation, and the disagreeable objects he had so loyally stuffed away in the dark, seemed gambolling there like cats, active and alert. Every now and then one or other seemed to leap out of the shadow and confront him, and with Frank's face always before him on the canvas, they seemed in some nightmare sort of fashion to be using their mask of paint to communicate with him. It was as if Frank knew all that Charles had been so careful not to tell him … it was as if he said "Oh, he warned you against me, did he? That was so like him." Worse still Frank seemed to say, "And he's warned other people against you. That's why you weren't welcome at the Mill House. He wanted to cut you off from the Wroughtons. I wonder why: what motive can he have had?.. Look for a bad one. Let me see, wasn't there a girl? Why, yes, I bet she is the girl among the forget-me-nots. What a liar you are, Charles! You always said it was a picture out of your head. Are you a rival, do you think?"
All afternoon this sort of vague unspoken monologue rang in his ears. Again and again he pulled himself up, knowing that these were conversations internal to himself, not to be indulged in, but the moment his conscious and superficial mind was occupied again with his craft they began again.
There were other voices mixed with them … he almost heard Lady Crowborough say "five thousand pounds for a lick of paint." He almost heard Reggie say "drew a cheque for ten thousand and one hundred pounds."… And again he pulled himself up, he felt that he would be suspecting his mother next for overcharging him for board and lodging. It was all Frank's fault, with his cynical false views about the rottenness of mankind.
For once Charles felt glad that the light was beginning to fail, and that he could honestly abandon work. But before he left his studio he turned Joyce's picture round to the light, and stood looking at it for a moment.
"I can't and won't believe it," he said.
There was still an hour to spare before he need go home to dinner, and he bustled out for a walk in the Park in the fading day. Spring was languorous in the air, but triumphantly victorious in the spaces of grass, where she marched with daffodils and crocuses for the banner of her advancing vanguard. The squibs of green leaves had burst from their red sheaths on the limes, and planes were putting forth tentative and angled hands, as if groping and feeling their way, still drowsy from the winter's slumber, into the air, under the provocation of the compelling month. All this did Charles good: he liked the sense of the silent plants, all expanding according to their own law, minding their own business which was just to grow and blossom, and not warning each other of the untrustworthiness of their neighbours. Frank ought to be planted out here, with a gag in his clever mouth, and an archangel or two to inject into his acidulated veins the milk of human kindness… Charles smiled at the idea: he would make a cartoon of it on a postcard and send it to him.
And then suddenly his heart hammered and stood still, and out of his brain were driven all the thoughts and suspicions that he had been stifling all day. Frank and his cynicism, Craddock and his clung-to kindnesses, his art, his mother, his dreams and deeds were all blown from him as the awakening of an untamed wind by night blows from a sultry sky the sullen and low-hung clouds, leaving the ray of stars celestial to make the darkness bright and holy again, and down the broad path towards him came Joyce. Until she had got quite close to him she did not see him, but then she stopped suddenly, and suddenly and sweetly he saw the unmanageable colour rise in her face and knew that in his own the secret signal answered hers.
"Oh, Mr. Lathom," she said, "is it you? Grandmamma telegraphed for me to come up this morning: I am here for a night."
"Not ill, I hope?" said Charles.
"No, I am glad to say. She was not in when I got to her house, and I had to come out… Spring, you know."
Their eyes met in a long glance, and Charles drew a long breath.
"I discovered it ten minutes ago," he said. "Spring, just Spring: month of April."
For another long moment they stood there, face to face, spring round them and below and above them, and in them. Then Joyce pointed to the grass.
"Oh, the fullest wood!" she said. "I don't know why Grannie sent for me. I must be getting back. I am late already: is there a taxi, do you think?"
Charles' ill-luck prevailed: there was, and he put her into it, and stood there looking after its retreat. As it turned the corner not fifty yards away out of the Park most distinctly did he see Joyce lean forward and look out… And though not one atom of his ill-defined troubles or suspicions was relieved, he walked on air all the way home instead of wading through some foul resistant stickiness of mud… The great star, the only star that really mattered, had shone on him again, not averting its light.
But though he walked on air, the mud was still there.
"A visitor to tea, Charles. I wish you had been home earlier. Three guesses."
"Mother lies," remarked Reggie. "You do – you enjoyed being asked those things. That would never have happened if Charles had been at home."
This was rather like the uncomfortable though not uncommon phenomenon of feeling that the scene now being enacted had taken place before. Charles experienced this vividly at the moment.
"My first guess and last is Lady Crowborough," he said. "Right, I fancy."
"Near enough," said Reggie. "And her questions?"
Charles felt himself descend into the mud again. It closed stiffly about him, and he thrust something back into the darkness of his mind.
"Perfectly simple," he said. "She wanted to know exactly all about me, as if – as if she was going to engage me as a servant, and was making enquiries into my character."
"Very clever. How was it done?" asked Reggie.
"Never mind. It is done, isn't it, mother?"
"Yes, dear, but how did you know?"
"It had to be so, that is all. Oh, I've had a tiresome day all but about half a minute of it. And my portraits have to go in before the end of the week, and they will all be rejected."
"Dear, there's not much conviction in your voice," observed Mrs. Lathom. "Aren't you being Uriah-ish, as Mr. Armstrong says?"
"Probably. But Frank was sitting to me this morning, and his tirades put me out of joint. The worst of it is …"
He had stuck fast again in the slough, and again things with dreadful faces and evil communications on tongue-tip looked at him from the darkness. The sight of Reggie also had given birth to others: there they stood in a dim and lengthening line, waiting for his nod to come out into the open.
"You may as well let us know the worst," said Reggie encouragingly. "I can't bear the suspense. What is it Akroyd says: 'It – it kills me.' That's over the fourth turning. Much the funniest. What did Frank tirade about, Charles? I wish I had been there. I love hearing his warnings about the whole human race. It makes me wonder, when I can't account for a sixpence, whether you haven't taken it out of my trousers pockets while I was asleep."
"I suppose that's the sort of thing you really enjoy thinking about," said Charles savagely.
"Yes: it's so interesting. Sometimes I think you are rather bad for Frank. He said to me the other day 'You can always trust Charles.' I asked him if he didn't feel well. It wasn't like him."
Mrs. Lathom got up. It was perfectly evident that something worried Charles, and it was possible he might like to talk alone either with Reggie or her. If she took herself upstairs, Charles could join her, and leave his brother, or wait with him here, if he was to be the chosen depository.
"Don't be too long, boys," she said, going out.
Charles did not at once show any sign of the desire to consult, and Reggie, who had left Thistleton's Gallery in the winter, and obtained a clerkship in a broker's office in the city, politely recounted a witticism or two from the Stock Exchange, with a view to reconciling his brother to the human race. They fell completely flat, and Charles sat frowning and silent, blowing ragged rings of smoke.
At length he got up.
"Reggie, I've been worried all day," he said, "and seeing you has put another worry into my mind."
Reggie linked his arm in his brother's.
"I'm so sorry, Charles," he said, "and I've been babbling goatishly on. Why didn't you stop me? Nothing I've done to worry you, I hope?"
Reggie went anxiously over in his mind a variety of small adventurous affairs … but there was nothing that should cause the eclipse of his brother's spirits.
"No, it doesn't concern you in any way, except as regards your memory. If you aren't perfectly certain about a couple of points I want to ask you, say so."
"The first is this. Do you remember last June an American called Ward drawing a cheque at your desk at Thistleton's? I want you to tell me all that you remember about it."
Reggie leaned his arm on the chimneypiece.
"Ward and Craddock came out together," he said after a pause. "Ward asked for my pen and drew a cheque for five thousand pounds, post-dating it by a day or two. I'm not sure how long – "
"It doesn't matter," said Charles. "The cheque – "
"The cheque was for some Dutch picture he had bought. There was a Van der Weyde, I think – "
"But Dutch pictures? You never told me that. Are you sure?"
"Quite. Is that all? And what's wrong?"
Charles was silent a moment. One of the figures in the shadow leapt out of it, and seemed to nod recognition at him.
"No, there's one thing more. Didn't the same sort of affair happen again?" he asked.
"Oh, yes, much later: I should say in October. Ward did exactly the same thing, drew another cheque out at my desk, I mean, for rather an odd sum. What was it? Ten thousand, ten thousand and something – ten thousand one hundred I think. He drew it to Craddock as before. Yes, I'm sure it was for that. But how does it all concern you? Or why does it worry you? May I know, Charles?"
Charles wondered whether his horrible inference was somehow quite unsound, whether to another his interpretation would seem ingenious indeed, but laughably fantastic. He felt he knew what Frank would make of it, but to Reggie the whole affair might seem of purely imaginary texture.
"Yes, I'll tell you," he said. "And I can't say how I long to find that you think I am suspicious and devilishly-minded. The facts are these. Craddock paid Mr. Wroughton five thousand pounds for his Reynolds, giving him a cheque of Ward's who purchased it. But you tell me this cheque was for Dutch pictures. The picture did not go to him till much later, I don't know when. And Craddock gave me fifty pounds for copying it. Do you see? What if – if Ward gave Craddock a cheque for ten thousand pounds for the picture with a hundred for me for the copy? Now, am I worse than Frank, more suspicious, more – more awful?"
Reggie was staring at him with wide-open eyes and shook his head.
"No," he said. "It sounds, it sounds – but surely it's impossible."
"Oh, I'm tired of saying that to myself. By the way, don't say a word to anyone. There are other things too. Oh, Reggie, can't you think of any explanation that is at all reasonable?"
Again Reggie shook his head.
"No," he said. "The first cheque was for some Dutch pictures."
"Well, let's go upstairs," said the other.
Later in the evening when Mrs. Lathom went to bed, Charles followed her up to her room, and sat down in front of her fire while she brushed her hair. It was not rarely that he did this and these minutes were to him a sort of confessional. Generally, the confession was a mere babble of happy talk, concerning his pictures, and his projects, but to-night he sat silent until the hair-brushing was nearly over. Then he spoke.
"Mother, darling," he said, "I saw Miss Joyce this evening, and – and she was jolly and friendly and natural. It lifted me up out of – what is it – out of the mire and clay. But I've gone back again, oh, much deeper. I want your advice."
She instantly got up, and came across to him. He put her in his chair, and sat down on the rug by her, leaning against her knees.
"Ah, I'm so glad, my darling," she said, "that you want to tell me what's wrong. These are my jewels."
"I can't tell you explicitly what is wrong. But I suspect someone whom I have always trusted immensely. Who has been very good to me, of – of swindling, and perhaps worse. What am I to do?"
She stroked his hair.
"Oh, my dear, if it is only suspicion dismiss it all from your mind or make a certainty of it one way or the other."
"I can't be sure without knowing the facts. But if your suspicion is reasonable, if, I mean, you can see no other explanation except the bad one, go as soon as you can to anyone who can give you certain information. But if there's a loophole for doubt – "
"I don't see that there is," said Charles quickly.
"Then make certain somehow and quickly," she said. "Not in a hurry, of course, for you must not act foolishly, but as soon as you can with wisdom. Oh, Charles, we can none of us risk keeping suspicion in our minds! There is nothing so poisoning to oneself. It – it shuts the wisdom of your soul: it turns everything sour; it spreads like some dreadful contagion, and infects all within us, so that there is no health left, or sense of beauty, or serenity. It is like walking in a cloud of flies. But, my dear, unless your suspicion is – is terribly well founded, don't give it another thought, if you can possibly avoid it. Be very certain that you can't explain things away otherwise."
Charles turned a shining face to her, shining for her through all his trouble.
"Thanks, mother darling," he said. "It really is a beastly position. And I'm such a coward."
"So are we all, dear," she said. "But most of us don't turn back really. Perhaps we aren't such cowards as we think. It is so easy to make the worst of oneself."
Charles got up.
"Yes, but I'm pretty bad," he said.
"I know, dear. You are a continual sorrow and trouble to me. Ah, bless you! And you saw Joyce. That's something, isn't it?"
"Well, a good deal," said he. "Good-night. I must get back home."
Charles had labelled himself coward, and indeed, as in the manner of youth, whose function so clearly in this life is to enjoy, he shrank from pain instinctively, not seeing beyond the present discomfort, but living in the moment. Yet it was not his bravery that was here attacked: it was at his trust that the blow at which he cowered was aimed, at the confidence in his fellows which was so natural to him. As he lay tossing and turning that night, he could not imagine himself taking the only step that seemed to be able to decide his suspicions, which was to go to Craddock himself with the whole history of them. There was just one other chance, namely, that Lady Crowborough's purpose in making these inexplicable enquiries about him might declare itself. That in a manner ruthlessly convincing would settle everything, if her purpose was that which he could not but surmise. And at the thought he felt his face burn with a flame of anger, at the possibility of so monstrous an explanation. Yet all this agitating thought was just the secret nurture and suckling of suspicion against which his mother had warned him. How right she was: how the poison encroached and spread!
Frank turned up early next morning for his final sitting, with an evil eye and a brisk demeanour.
"A plan at last," he announced, "a real plan, and a good plot for a play. It's all quite serious, and I'm going to do it. It's taken me five months to puzzle it out, and last night it all burst upon me. New play of mine, which I shall begin working at immediately. I'm stale over the other, and this will be a change. I daresay Craddock will like it so much that he will ask me to put the other aside a bit. You see it's about Craddock. He's an egotist, you see: he will like that."
Charles was touched on the raw.
"Oh, do leave him alone, Frank," he said with a sudden appeal, as it were, to his own vanished confidence. "We disagree about him, you know, as we settled yesterday. It isn't really very nice of you to abuse a man who's a friend of mine."
"Nor is it nice of you to stick up for an enemy of mine," remarked Frank. "You should respect my dislike just as much as I should respect your affection. As you never do, I shall proceed."
Charles packed himself on his painting-stool. He could at least try to absorb himself in his work, for the sake of stifling his own thoughts even more than for distracting them from what Frank said.
"Rumple your hair," he said, "and stop still."
"I'm going to submit the scenario to Craddock this evening if I can see him," he said, obligingly rubbing up his hair. "Golly, it's a good plot. I've really only thought out the first two acts, but that will be enough for him to judge by. It's called 'The Middleman.' There's a lot in a title."
"You needn't groan," he said. "I can tell it you. He's a great big fat chap, popular and wealthy and hearty, engaged to a delightful girl. Then it comes out that he sweats young men of genius, you and me, of course, takes them up when they are unknown, and gets options on their future works. Isn't that it?"
"'Where's the plot then?' You don't see the hang of it. One of those young men of genius, that's me, goes to him in the play with a play of which what you have just said is the sketch – Hamlet's not in it any more – and says, 'Now let me out of these options of yours, or I shall write a play like that.' And then it will faintly dawn on Craddock that the play is really happening to him and that in real life, that I shall do exactly what the young man of genius says he will do. Do you see? Simultaneously another of the young men of genius, that's you – you can be in love with 'The Middleman's' girl, says 'I'm going to paint a portrait called the Middleman, a great big fat chap, with gold dust on his coat collar. There's a play called the Middleman coming out at the same time: you may have heard of it. Now will you let me out of your options?' The Middleman in a burst of righteous indignation exclaims 'This is a conspiracy.' And they both say 'It is a conspiracy. What then?' He's in rather a hole, isn't he?"
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