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- A Duet - 5/46 -
through his father's death, and through all his struggles he had managed to keep them happy and comfortable in a little cottage in Worcestershire. Nor did he ever tell them that he had a struggle-- fearing lest it should make their position painful; and so when their quarterly cheque arrived, they took it as a kindly but not remarkable act of duty upon the part of their wealthy grandson in the City, with no suspicion as to the difference which their allowance was making to him. Nor did he himself look upon his action as a virtuous one, but simply as a thing which must obviously be done. In the meantime, he had stuck closely to his work, had won rapid promotion in the Insurance Office in which he had started as junior clerk, had gained the goodwill of his superiors through his frank, unaffected ways, and had been asked to play for the second Surrey eleven at cricket. So without going the length of saying that he was worthy of Maude Selby, one might perhaps claim--if it could be done without endangering that natural modesty which was one of his charms--that he was as worthy as any other young man who was available.
That unfortunate artistic soul of his, which had been in the tropics of expectation, and was now in the arctic of reaction, had just finally settled down to black despair, with a grim recognition of the fact that Maude had certainly and absolutely given him up, when one boomed from the station clock, and on the very stroke she hurried on to the platform. How could he have strained his eyes after other women, as if a second glance were ever needed when it was really she! The perfectly graceful figure, the trimness and neatness of it, the beautiful womanly poise of the head, the quick elastic step, he could have sworn to her among ten thousand. His heart gave a bound at the sight of her, but he had the English aversion to giving himself away, and so he walked quickly forward to meet her with an impassive face, but with a look in his eyes which was all that she wanted.
'How are you?'
'How do you do?'
He stood for a few moments looking at her in silence. She had on the dress which he loved so much, a silver-grey merino skirt and jacket, with a blouse of white pongee silk showing in front. Some lighter coloured trimming fringed the cloth. She wore a grey toque, with a dash of white at the side, and a white veil which softened without concealing the dark brown curls and fresh girlish face beneath it. Her gloves were of grey suede, and the two little pointed tan shoes peeping from the edge of her skirt were the only touches of a darker tint in her attire. Crosse had the hereditary artist's eye, and he could only stand and stare and enjoy it. He was filled with admiration, with reverence, and with wonder that this perfect thing should really proclaim itself to be all his own. Whatever had he done, or could he do, to deserve it?
She looked up at him in a roguish sidelong way, with the bright mischievous smile which was one of her charms.
'Well, sir, do you approve?'
'By Jove, it is splendid--beautiful!'
'So glad! I hoped you would, since you are so fond of greys. Besides, it is cooler in this weather. I hope you have not been waiting.'
'Oh no, that's all right.'
'You looked so solemn when first I saw you.'
'And then you just jumped.'
'Did I? I'm sorry.'
'I don't know. I like our feelings to be our very very own, and never to show them to any one else at all. I dare say it is absurd, but that is my instinct.'
'Never mind, dear, it wasn't such a big jump as all that. Where are we going?'
'Come here, Maude, into the waiting-room.'
She followed him into the gloomy, smoky, dingy room. Bare yellow benches framed an empty square of brown linoleum. A labouring man with his wife and a child sat waiting with the stolid patience of the poor in one corner. They were starting on some Saturday afternoon excursion, and had mistimed their train. Maude Selby and Frank Crosse took the other corner. He drew a jeweller's box from his pocket and removed the lid. Something sparkled among the wadding.
'O Frank! Is that really it?'
'Do you like it?'
'What a broad one it is! Mother's is quite thin.'
'They wear thin in time.'
'It is beautiful. Shall I try it on?'
'No, don't. There is some superstition about it.'
'But suppose it won't fit?'
'That is quite safe. I measured it with your sapphire ring.'
'I haven't half scolded you enough about that sapphire ring. How could you go and give twenty-two guineas for a ring?--oh yes, sir, that was the price, for I saw a duplicate yesterday in the Goldsmith's Company. You dear extravagant old boy!'
'I had saved the money.'
'But not for that!'
'For nothing half or quarter as important. But I had the other to the same size, so it is sure to fit.'
Maude had pushed up her veil, and sat with the little golden circlet in her hand, looking down at it, while the dim watery London sunlight poured through the window, and tagged all her wandering curls with a coppery gleam. It was a face beautiful in itself, but more beautiful for its expression--sensitive, refined, womanly, full of innocent archness and girlish mischief, but with a depth of expression in the eyes, and a tender delicacy about the mouth, which spoke of a great spirit with all its capacities for suffering and devotion within. The gross admirer of merely physical charms might have passed her over unnoticed. So might the man who is attracted only by outward and obvious signs of character. But to the man who could see, to the man whose own soul had enough of spirituality to respond to hers, and whose eye could appreciate the subtlety of a beauty which is of the mind as well as of the body, there was not in all wide London upon that midsummer day a sweeter girl than Maude Selby, as she sat in her grey merino dress with the London sun tagging her brown curls with that coppery glimmer.
She handed back the ring, and a graver expression passed over her mobile face.
'I feel as you said in your letter, Frank. There IS something tragic in it. It will be with me for ever. All the future will arrange itself round that little ring.'
'Are you afraid of it?'
'Afraid!' her grey glove rested for an instant upon the back of his hand. 'I COULDN'T be afraid of anything if you were with me. It is really extraordinary, for by nature I am so easily frightened. But if I were with you in a railway accident or anywhere, it would be just the same. You see I become for the time part of you, as it were, and you are brave enough for two.'
'I don't profess to be so brave as all that,' said Frank. 'I expect I have as many nerves as my neighbours.'
Maude's grey toque nodded up and down. 'I know all about that,' said she.
'You have such a false idea of me. It makes me happy at the time and miserable afterwards, for I feel such a rank impostor. You imagine me to be a hero, and a genius, and all sorts of things, while I KNOW that I am about as ordinary a young fellow as walks the streets of London, and no more worthy of you than--well, than any one else is.'
She laughed with shining eyes.
'I like to hear you talk like that,' said she. 'That is just what is so beautiful about you.'
It is hopeless to prove that you are not a hero when your disclaimers are themselves taken as a proof of heroism. Frank shrugged his shoulders.
'I only hope you'll find me out gradually and not suddenly,' said he. 'Now, Maude, we have all day and all London before us. What shall we do? I want you to choose.'
'I am quite happy whatever we do. I am content to sit here with you until evening.'
Her idea of a happy holiday set them both laughing.
'Come along,' said he, 'we shall discuss it as we go.'
The workman's family was still waiting, and Maude handed the child a shilling as she went out. She was so happy herself that she wanted every one else to be happy also. The people turned to look at her as she passed. With the slight flush upon her cheeks and the light in her eyes, she seemed the personification of youth, and life, and love. One tall old gentleman started as he looked, and watched her with a rapt face until she disappeared. Some cheek had flushed and some eye had brightened at his words once, and sweet old days had for an instant lived again.
'Shall we have a cab?'
'O Frank, we must learn to be economical. Let us walk.'
'I can't and won't be economical to-day.'
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