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   Chapter 18 HOME AGAIN.

In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 12278

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

By an odd coincidence, on the same day that Sir Lucius Chesney and Noah Hawker crossed over from Calais, a P. and O. steamship, Calcutta for London, landed Jack Vernon at the Royal Albert Docks. He had expected to be met there by Mr. Hunston, the editor of the Illustrated Universe, or by one of the staff; yet he seemed rather relieved than otherwise when he failed to pick out a single familiar face in the crowd. He was fortunate in having his luggage attended to quickly, and, that formality done with, he walked to the dock station.

The four or five intervening months, commencing with that tragic night in the Ravenscourt Park studio, had wrought a great change in Jack; though it was more internal, perhaps, than external. His old friends would promptly have recognized the returned war-artist, laden with honors that he did not care a jot for. He looked fit, and his step was firm and elastic. His cheeks were deeply bronzed and well filled out. A severe bullet wound and a sharp attack of fever had led to his being peremptorily ordered home as soon as he was convalescent, and the sea voyage had worked wonders and built up his weakened constitution. But he was altered, none the less. There were hard lines about his mouth and forehead, and in his eyes was a listless, weary, cynical look-the look of a man who finds life a care and a burden almost beyond endurance.

The train was waiting, and Jack settled himself in a second-class compartment. He tossed his traveling-bag on the opposite seat, lighted a cigar, and let his thoughts wander at will. At the beginning of his great grief, when nothing could console him for the loss of Madge, the Illustrated Universe, a weekly journal, had asked him to go out to India and represent them pictorially in the Afridi campaign on the Northwest frontier. He accepted readily, with a desperate hope in his heart that he did not confide to his friends. He wasted no time in leaving London, which had become intensely hateful to him. He joined the British forces, and performed his duty faithfully, sending home sketches that immensely increased the circulation of the Universe. And he did more. At every opportunity he was in the thick of the fighting. Time and again, when he found himself with some little detachment that was cut off from the main column and harassed by the enemy, he distinguished himself for valor. He risked his life recklessly, with an unconcern that surprised his soldier comrades. But the Afridis could not kill him. He recovered from a bullet wound in the shoulder and from fever, and now he was back in England again.

It was a dreary home-coming, without pleasure or anticipation. The sense of his loss-the hopeless yearning for Madge-was but little dulled. He felt that he could never take up the threads of his old life again; he wished to avoid all who knew him. He had no plans for the future. His studio was let, and the new tenant had engaged Alphonse-Nevill had arranged this for him. He had received several letters from Jimmie, and had answered them; but neither referred to Madge in the correspondence. She was dead to him forever, he reflected with savage resentment of his cruel fate. As for Diane, she had taken his three hundred pounds-it was arranged through Nevill-and returned to the Continent. She had vowed solemnly that he should never see or hear of her again.

The train rolled into Fenchurch street. Jack took his bag and got out, a little dazed by the unaccustomed hubbub and din, by the jostling throng on the platform. Here, again, there was no one to meet him. He passed out of the station-it was just four o'clock-into the clammy November mist. He shivered, and pulled up his coat collar. He was standing on the pavement, undecided where to go, when a cab drew alongside the curb. A corpulent young gentleman jumped out, and immediately uttered an eager shout.

"Jack!" he cried. "So glad to see you! Welcome home!"

"Dear old Jimmie! This is like you!" Jack exclaimed. As he spoke he gripped his friend's hand, and for a brief instant his face lighted up with something of its old winning expression, then lost all animation. "How did you know I was coming?" he added.

"Heard it at the office of the Universe. Did you miss Hunston?"

"I didn't see him."

"Then he got there too late-he said he was going to drive to the docks. I'm not surprised. It's Lord Mayor's Day, you know, and the streets are still badly blocked. I had a jolly close shave of it myself. How does it feel to be back in dear old London?"

"I think I prefer Calcutta," Jack replied, stolidly. "I'm not used to fogs."

Jimmie regarded him with a critical glance, with a stifled sigh of disappointment. He saw clearly that strange scenes and stirring adventures had failed to work a cure. He expected better things-quite a different result.

"Yes, it's beastly weather," he said; "but you'll stand it all right. You are in uncommonly good condition for a chap who has just pulled through fever and a bullet hole. By Jove! I wish I could have seen you tackling the Afridis-you were mentioned in the papers after that last scrimmage, and they gave you a rousing send-off. You deserve the Victoria Cross, and you would get it if you were a soldier."

"I didn't fight for glory," Jack muttered, bitterly. "I'm the most unlucky beggar alive."

Jimmie looked at him curiously.

"You don't mean to say," he asked, "that you were hankering for an Afridi bullet or spear in your heart?"

"It's the best thing that could have happened. They tell me I bear a charmed life, and I believe it's true. I never expected to come back, if you want to know."

"I'm sorry to hear you say that, old man. You need cheering up. Have you any luggage besides that bag?"

"I sent the rest on to the Universe office."

"Then come to my rooms-you know you left a lot of clothes and other stuff there. You can fix up a bit, and then we'll go out and have a good feed."

"As you like," Jack assented, indifferently. "But I must see Hunston first-he will go from the docks to the office, and expect to find me there."

They entered a cab and drove

westward, through the decorated streets and surging crowds of the city, down Ludgate Hill and up the slope of Fleet street. Jack left his friend in the Strand, before the Illustrated Universe building, with its windows placarded with the paper's original sketches and sheets from the current issue, and it was more than an hour later when he turned up at Jimmie's luxurious chambers in the Albany. He was in slightly better spirits, and he exhaled an odor of brandy. He had a check for five hundred pounds in his pocket, and there was more money due him.

"Where's my war-paint?" he demanded.

That meant, in plain English, Jack's dress clothes, and they were soon produced from a trunk he had left in Jimmie's care. He made a careful toilet, and then the two sallied forth into the blazing streets and pleasure-seeking throngs.

They went to the Continental, above Waterloo Place, and Jack ordered the dinner lavishly-he insisted on playing the host. He chatted in his old light-hearted manner during the courses, occasionally laughing boisterously, but with an artificial ring that was perceptible to his companion. His eyes sparkled, and his brown cheeks flushed under the glow of the red-shaded lamps.

"This is a rotten world, Jimmie," he said. "You know that, don't you? But I've come home to have a good time, and I'm going to have it-I don't care how."

"I wouldn't drink any more," Jimmie urged.

"Another bottle, old chap," Jack cried, thickly, as he lighted a fresh cigar; "and then we'll wind up at the Empire."

"None for me, thank you."

"Then I'll drink it myself," vowed Jack. "Do you hear, garcon-'nother bottle!'"

Jimmie looked at him gravely. He had serious misgivings about the future.

* * *

Many of London's spacious suburbs have the advantage of lying beyond the scope of the fog-breeding smoke which hangs over the great city, and at Strand-on-the-Green, on that 9th of November, the weather was less disagreeable.

A man and a woman came slowly from the direction of Kew Bridge, sauntering along the wet flagstones of the winding old quay, which was almost as lonely as a rustic lane. Victor Nevill looked very aristocratic and handsome in his long Chesterfield coat and top hat; in one gray-gloved hand he swung a silver-headed stick. Madge Foster walked quietly by his side, a dainty picture in furs. She was as lovely as ever, if not more so, but it was a pale, fragile sort of beauty. She had spent the summer in Scotland and the month of September in Devonshire, and had returned to town at the beginning of October. Change of air and scenery had worked a partial cure, but had not brought back her merry, light-hearted disposition. She secretly nursed her grief-the sorrow that had fallen on her happy young life-and tried hard not to show it. There was a wistful, far-away expression in her eyes, and she seemed unconscious of the presence of her companion.

"It's a beastly day," remarked Nevill. "I shouldn't like to live by the river in winter. You need cheering up. What do you say to a box at the Savoy to-night? There is plenty of time to arrange-"

"I don't care to go, thank you," was the indifferent reply.

The girl drew her furs closer about her throat, and watched a grimy barge that was creeping up stream. She had become resigned to seeing a good deal of Victor Nevill lately, but her treatment of him was little altered. She knew his real name now, and that he was the heir of Sir Lucius Chesney. She had accepted his excuses-listened to him with resentment and indignation when he explained that he had assumed the name of Royle because he wanted to win her for himself alone, and not for the sake of his prospects. She realized whither she was trending, but she felt powerless to resist her fate.

They paused a short distance beyond the Black Bull, where the quay jutted out a little like a pier. It was guarded by a railing, and Madge leaned on this and looked down at the black, incoming tide lapping below her. No other person was in sight, and the white mist seemed suddenly to close around the couple. The paddles of a receding steamer churned and splashed monotonously. From Kew Bridge floated a faint murmur of rumbling traffic. It was four o'clock, and the sun was hidden.

"You are shivering," said Nevill.

"It is very cold. Will you take me home, please?"

As she spoke, the girl turned toward him, and he moved impulsively nearer.

"I will take you home," he said; "but first I want to ask you a question-you must hear me. Madge, are you utterly heartless? Twice, when I told you of my love, you rejected it. But I persevered-I did not lose hope. And now I ask you again, for the third time, will you be my wife? Do I not deserve my reward?"

The girl did not answer. Her eyes were downcast, and one little foot tapped the flagstone nervously.

"I love you with all my heart, Madge," he went on, with deep and sincere passion in his voice. "You cannot doubt that, whatever you may think of me. You are the best and sweetest of women-the only one in the world for me. I will make your life happy. You shall want for nothing."

"Mr. Nevill, you know that I do not love you."

"But you will learn to in time."

"I fear not. No, I am sure of it."

"I will take the risk. I will hope that love will come."

"And you would marry me, knowing that I do not care for you in that way?"

"Yes, gladly. I cannot live without you. Say yes, Madge, and make me the happiest of men."

"I suppose I must," she replied. She did not look him in the face. "My father wishes it, and has urged me to consent. It will please him."

"Then you will be my wife, Madge?"

"Some day, if you still desire it."

"I will never change," he said, fervently.

It was a strange, ill-omened promise of marriage, and a bitter realization of how little it meant was suddenly borne home to Nevill. He touched the girl's hand-more he dared not do, though he longed to take her in his arms and kiss her red lips. The coldness of her manner repelled him. They turned and walked slowly along the river, while the shadows deepened around them.

* * *

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