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   Chapter 3 AN OLD FRIEND

In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 13725

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


There was gladness as well as surprise in Jack's hearty exclamation, for the man who stood before him in the parlor of the Black Bull was his old friend Victor Nevill, little altered in five years, except for a heavier mustache that improved his dark and handsome face. To judge from appearances, he had not run through with all his money. He was daintily booted and gloved, and wore morning tweeds of perfect cut; a sprig of violets was thrust in his button-hole. The two had not met since they parted in Paris on that memorable night, nor had they known of each other's whereabouts.

"Nevill, old chap!" cried Jack, holding out a hand.

Nevill clasped it warmly; his momentary confusion had vanished.

"My dear Clare-" he began.

"Not that name," Jack interrupted, laughingly. "I'm called Vernon on this side of the Channel."

"What, John Vernon, the rising artist?"

"The same."

"It's news to me. I congratulate you, old man. If I had known I would have looked you up long ago, but I lost all trace of you."

"That's my case," said Jack. "I supposed you were still abroad. Been back long?"

"Yes, a couple of years."

"By Jove, it's queer we didn't meet before. Fancy you turning up here!"

"I stopped last night with a friend in Grove Park," Nevill answered, after a brief hesitation, "and feeling a bit seedy this morning, I came for a stroll along the river. I hear of a gallant rescue from the water, and, of course, you are the hero, Jack. Is the young lady all right?"

"I believe so."

"Do you know who she is?"

"Miss Madge Poster, sir," spoke up the landlord, "and I can assure you she was very nearly drowned-"

"Not so bad as that," modestly protested Jack.

Victor Nevill's face had changed color again, and for a second there was a troubled look in his eyes. He spoke the girl's name carelessly, then added in hurried tones:

"You must get into dry clothes at once, Jack, or you will be ill-"

"Just what I told him, sir," interrupted the landlord. "Young men will be reckless."

"I am going back to town to keep an engagement," Nevill resumed. "Can I do anything for you?"

"If you will, old chap," Jack said gratefully. "Stop at my studio," giving him the address, "and send my man Alphonse here with a dry rig."

"I'll go right away," replied Neville. "I can get a cab at Kew Bridge. Come and see me, Jack. Here is my card. I put up in Jermyn street."

"And you know where to find me," said Jack. "I am seldom at home in the evenings, though."

A few more words, and Neville departed. Jack was prevailed upon by the landlord to go to an upper room, where he stripped off his drenched garments and rubbed himself dry, then putting on a suit of clothes belonging to his host. The latter brought the cheering news that Miss Foster had taken a hot draught and was sleeping peacefully, and that it would be quite unnecessary to send for a doctor.

A little later Alphonse and a cab arrived at the rear of the Black Bull, where there was a lane for vehicular traffic, and Jack once more changed his attire. He left his card and a polite message for the girl, pressed a substantial tip on the reluctant landlord, and was soon rattling homeward up Chiswick high-road, feeling none the worse for his wetting, but, on the contrary, gifted with a keen appetite. He had sent his boat back to Maynard's.

"What a pretty girl that was!" he reflected. "It's the first time in five years I've given a serious thought to a woman. But I shall forget her as quickly-I am wedded to my art. It's rather a fetching name, Madge Foster. Come to think of it, it was hardly the proper thing to leave my card. I suppose I will get a fervid letter of gratitude from the girl's father, or the two of them may even invade my studio. How could I have been so stupid?"

He ate a hearty lunch, and set to work diligently. But he could not keep his mind from the adventure of the morning, and he saw more frequently the face of the lovely young English girl, than that of the swarthy Moorish dancer he was doing in oils.

Those five years had made a different man of Jack Clare-had brought him financial prosperity, success in his art, and contentment with life. He was now twenty-seven, clean-shaven, and with the build of an athlete; and his attractive, well-cut features had fulfilled the promise of youth. But for six wretched months, after that bitter night when Diane fled from him, he had suffered acutely. In vain his friends, none of whom could give him any clew to his betrayer, sought to comfort him; in vain he searched for trace of tidings of his wife, for her faithlessness had not utterly crushed his love, and the recollections of the first months of his marriage were very sweet to him. The chains with which the dancer of the Folies Bergere bound him had been strong; his hot youth had fallen victim to the charms of a face and figure that would have enslaved more experienced men.

But the healing power of time works wonders, and in the spring of the succeeding year, when Paris burst into leaf and blossom, Jack began to take a fresh interest in life, and to realize with a feeling little short of satisfaction that Diane's desertion was all for the best, and that he was well rid of a woman who must ultimately have dragged him down to her own level. The sale of his mother's London residence, a narrow little house in Bayswater, put him in possession of a fairly large sum of money. He left Paris with his friend Jimmie Drexell, and the two spent a year in Italy, Holland and Algeria, doing pretty hard work in the way of sketching. Jack returned to Paris quite cured, and with a determination to win success in his calling. He saw Drexell off for his home in New York, and then he packed up his belongings-they had been under lock and key in a room of the house on the Boulevard St. Germain-and emigrated to London. His great sorrow was only an unpleasant memory to him now. He had friends in England, but no relations there or anywhere, so far as he knew. His father, an artist of unappreciated talent, had died twenty years before. It was after his death that Jack's mother had come into some property from a distant relative.

Taking his middle name of Vernon, Jack settled in Fitzroy Square. A couple of hundred pounds constituted his worldly wealth. His ambition was to be a great painter, but he had other tastes as well, and his talent lay in more than one channel. Within a year, by dint of hard work, he obtained more than a foothold. He had sold a couple of pictures to dealers; his black-and-white drawings were in demand with a couple of good magazines, and a clever poster, bearing his name, and advertising a popular whisky was displayed all over London. Then, picking up a French paper in the Monico one morning, he experienced a shock. The body of a woman had been found in the

Seine and taken to the Morgue, where several persons unhesitatingly identified her as Diane Merode, the one-time fascinating dancer of the Folies Bergere.

Jack turned pale, and crushed the paper in his hand. Evening found him wandering on the heights of Hampstead, but the next morning he was at his easel. He was a free man now in every sense, and the world looked brighter to him. He worked as hard as ever, and with increasing success, but he spent most of his evenings with his comrades of the brush, with whom he was immensely popular. He was indifferent to women, however, and they did not enter into his life.

But a few months before the opening of this story Jack had taken his new studio at Ravenscourt Park, in the west of London. It was a big place, with a splendid north light, and with an admirable train service to all parts of town; in that respect he was better off than artists living in Hampstead or St. John's Wood. He had a couple of small furnished rooms at one end of the studio, in one of which he slept. He usually dined in town, Paris fashion, but his breakfast and lunch were served by his French servant, Alphonse, an admirable fellow, who had lodgings close by the studio; he could turn his hand to anything, and was devoted to his master.

Jack had achieved success, and he deserved it. His name was well known, and better things were predicted of him. The leading magazines displayed his black-and-white drawings monthly, and publishers begged him to illustrate books. He was making a large income, and saving the half of it. Nor did he lose sight of his loftier goal. His picture of last year had been accepted by the Academy, hung well, and sold, and he had just been notified that he was in again this spring. Fortune smiled on him, and the folly of his youth was a fading memory that could never cloud or dim his future.

* * *

It was two days after the adventure on the river, late in the afternoon. Jack was reading over the manuscript of a book, and penciling possible points for illustration, when Alphonse handed him a letter. It was directed in a feminine hand, but a man had clearly penned the inclosure. The writer signed himself Stephen Foster, and in a few brief sentences, coldly and curtly expressed, he thanked Mr. Vernon for the great and timely service he had rendered his daughter. That was all. There was no invitation to the house at Strand-on-the-Green-no hope or desire for a personal acquaintance.

Jack resented the bald, stereotyped communication. He felt piqued-slightly hurt. He had been trying to forget the girl, but now, thinking of her as something out of his reach, he wanted to see her again.

"A conceited, crusty old chap-this Stephen Foster," he said to himself. "No doubt he is a money-grubber in the city, and regards artists with contempt. If I had a daughter like that, and a man saved her life, I should be properly grateful. Poor girl, she can't lead a very happy life."

He lighted a pipe, read a little further, and then tossed the sheaf of manuscript aside. He rose and put on a hat and a black coat-he wore evening dress as little as possible.

"Will you dine in town to-night, sir?" asked Alphonse, who was cleaning a stack of brushes.

"Yes, oh, yes," Jack answered. "You can go when you have finished."

Whatever may have been his intention when he left the studio, Jack did not cross the park toward the District Railway station. He walked slowly to the high-road, and then westward with brisker step. He struck down through Gunnersbury, by way of Sutton Court, and came out at the river close to the lower end of Strand-on-the-Green.

A girl was sitting on a bench near the shore, pensively watching the sun drooping over the misty ramparts of Kew Bridge; she held a closed book in one hand, and by her side lay a sketching-block and a box of colors. She heard the young artist's footsteps, and glanced up. A lovely blush suffused her countenance, and for an instant she was speechless. Then, with less confusion, with the candor of an innocent and unconventional nature, she said:

"I am so glad to see you, Mr. Vernon."

"That is kind of you," Jack replied, with a smile.

"Yes, I wanted to thank you-"

"Your father has written to me."

"But that is different. I wanted to thank you for myself."

"I wish I were deserving of such gratitude," said Jack, thinking that the girl looked far more charming than when he had first seen her.

"Ah, don't say that. You know that you saved my life. I am a good swimmer, but that morning my clothes seemed to drag me down."

"I am glad that I happened to be near at the time," Jack replied, as he seated himself without invitation on the bench. "But it is not a pleasant topic-let us not talk about it."

"I shall never forget it," the girl answered softly. She was silent for a moment, and then added gravely: "It is so strange to know you. I admire artists so much, and I saw your picture in last year's Academy. How surprised I was when I read your card!"

"You paint, yourself, Miss Foster?"

"No, I only try to. I wish I could."

She reluctantly yielded her block of Whatman's paper to Jack, and in the portfolio attached to it he found several sketches that showed real promise. He frankly said as much, to his companion's delight, and then the conversation turned on the quaintness of Strand-on-the-Green, and the constant and varied beauty of the river at this point-a subject that was full of genuine interest to both. When the sun passed below the bridge the girl suddenly rose and gathered her things.

"I must go," she said. "My father is coming home early to-day. Good-by, Mr. Vernon."

"Not really good-by. I hope?"

An expression of sorrow and pain, almost pitiful, clouded her lovely face. Jack understood the meaning of it, and hated Stephen Foster in his heart.

"I shall see you here sometimes?" he added.

"Perhaps."

"Then you do not forbid me to come again?"

"How can I do that? This river walk is quite free, Mr. Vernon. Oh, please don't think me ungrateful, but-but-"

She turned her head quickly away, and did not finish the sentence. She called a word of farewell over her shoulder, and Jack moodily watched her slim and graceful figure vanish between the great elm trees that guard the lower entrance to Strand-on-the-Green.

"John Vernon, you are a fool," he said to himself. "The best thing for you is to pack up your traps and be off to-morrow morning for a couple of months' sketching in Devonshire. You've been bitten once-look out!"

He took a shilling from his pocket, and muttered, as he flipped it in the air: "Tail, Richmond-head, town."

The coin fell tail upward, and Jack went off to dine at the Roebuck on the hill, beloved of artists, where he met some boon companions and argued about Whistler until a late hour.

* * *

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