The Thursleys lived only a little way off, at the other end of Harley Street, in another large, spacious, old-fashioned, luxurious house, where a great deal of money was spent without very much show for it, and the best dinners, wines, beds, and conveniences of all sorts, that could be had for money, were to be found. The difference between the two houses was not very great—not nearly so great as might be found between two houses in Mayfair or Belgravia (though, thanks to Liberty, and Burnet, and a few other æsthetic tradespeople, the difference between even the most artistic houses is much less than formerly). But the merchant style has a kind of distinction of its own. Both the Burtons and the Thursleys had large furniture, big side-boards, chiffoniers, sofas on which a family could have been put to bed, tables of a substantial size, easy-chairs which would comfortably engulf the largest mercantile gentleman. The houses had a certain masculine air altogether, as if the head of the establishment had ordered everything without consideration of any such ephemeral matter as a woman’s tastes—which indeed was what had been done. They had given the order to their upholsterers largely, strongly, with no sparing of expense. The new improvements that had crept in since, had been in the way of spring-mattresses instead of the old economy of feather-beds, which was an improvement that did not show; but otherwise the old Turkey carpets, the heavy curtains, the big pieces of furniture, had not been changed, at least in fashion, for thirty years. There was one difference, however, between the Burton house and that of the Thursleys. The former centred in the library, which was a sign that there were no ladies in the house—the latter in the drawing-room; and it was there that Gervase, entering about an hour later, found his Madeline, who had opened one of the big windows, though it was a cold evening, in order that she might hear his step. He had already seen her since his return this morning; but it had been agreed between them, that though it was his duty to dine with his father, he might afterwards come in for an hour’s talk and consultation with the lady of his love.
The drawing-room had three large windows, all draped in curtains of dark-coloured satin, behind the centre set of which Madeline, in her white dress, had been hidden while she watched for his coming. There was a resplendent fire shining from the midst of brilliant steel and brass, which reflected and heightened the effect of its great and glowing blaze. Comfort reigned everywhere: your foot was inaudible on the mossy carpets, you sank into the luxurious arms of the chairs. A number of pictures solidly framed were on the walls; great and costly china vases, reflected in a huge mirror, completed the effect of the dazzling circle of the fire. The mistress of all this was a young lady, very pleasant to behold if not beautiful, with a trim figure, pretty hair, pretty eyes, a not too perfect mouth. The pretty eyes were full of expression, good sense, and good feeling. She was dressed quite simply in a white cashmere gown, it being winter and cold, with few ornaments and no finery of any description—a nice girl dressed for house and comfort, and looking the very symbol of both. But in this great room, and amid all these many appliances, she was alone. Her mother had died some three or four years before. She had neither brother nor sister. Mr Thursley had remained, as he generally did after dinner, down-stairs. Madeline and Gervase were alike in being the only children of their fathers.
They resumed with eagerness the interrupted conversation of the afternoon, when he had not told her, nor she elicited, by a hundred questions, half there was to say after a three months’ absence, especially as all his impressions of America, what he thought of that wonderful New World, what friends he had met and made, were among the things he had to tell. It must be said, however, that it was she who resumed that talk, saying quickly, “Come now and tell me all about it. You left off just when you were leaving New York.”
“Yes,” he said, not at all eagerly on his part. “How long was that ago?”
“How long? Why, Gervase, have you taken to absence of mind? I suppose it must have been about eight or nine weeks ago.”
“I told you everything in my letters, Madeline.”
“Yes, yes, I know. Letters are very nice when you are away; but when you are here it is so different. I want it all by word of mouth.”
“Maddie, when I say how long was it, I mean how long since I came back, since I was last here.”
“I have not gone mad, dear. I have only had a long talk with my father, and had the earth cut from under my feet. I don’t know where I am—floundering somewhere in mid-air.”
She grasped his hand, which was holding hers in a loose and languid clasp, tightly, suddenly, and said in a quick, almost imperative tone, “You are here, Gervase, by my side—tell me what you mean.”
“So I am,” he said, looking at her with a startled air; “a very definite place, which nobody but myself has any right to. Thank you, my dearest, for recalling me. I will tell you—not what I, but what my father means.”
He repeated to her the conversation which had terminated only half an hour before—or at least the gist of it—with tolerable faithfulness. He scarcely, perhaps, conveyed to her mind the sensation of astonishment with which it had burst upon his own, that to his father he was not all in all, or the possibility which had arisen that he might not get everything he wanted. He perhaps a little slurred over these revelations, but he said enough to reveal to her that his father had not been “kind,” that the conversation had not been a pleasant one, and that Gervase for the moment was not at all certain what might be going to happen—that he had, in short, received a check, which was a thing to which her existence as well as his recorded no parallel. Madeline was more surprised than alarmed.
“Of course,” she said, “he has always calculated on having you in the business. I don’t wonder that he was disappointed; even I,” she added with much gravity, “did not know that you were so set against it, Gervase—I wonder why?”
“You need not wonder, Madeline. I have told you often I loathe it from beginning to end. Buying in the cheapest market and selling in the dearest is not an axiom for me. And I think, perhaps, I hate trade more since I have seen it on the other side. They don’t care there for our decent veils. Profit is the visible god. The means by which they pursue him and his rites, are more candid than among us. It was uncongenial before—it is antipathetic now.”
“And yet we have always been business people since we were—anybody,” she said. “Do you think we’ve been doing wrong all the time? All this comes of trade—every penny we have. If it is so bad that you will not follow it, shouldn’t we give up all that we have? for it has all been purchased in the same way.”
This speech startled Gervase not a little. “I have always heard,” he said, with a sort of admiring dismay, “that women carried a conclusion further than men, being less artificial, less complicated——”
“That is the kind of praise that means contempt.”
“Oh no, far from contempt; but I don’t go so far. I think the methods of trade were very likely better when our money was made. Our grandfathers did things in a better way. They did not make such haste to be rich—they were honourable, straightforward——”
“What have I said wrong?”
“You spoke as if papa, my father——”
“No, no, no,” he said. “I was thinking of my own, who is as honourable a man as any one. But only—they don’t think it necessary to carry that into trade, Madeline. I don’t mean to say anything I oughtn’t to say. I suppose they don’t go into every detail. They leave a great deal to—clerks and people. Every transaction is not carried on as it would be between two men—of the same social grade—under the eyes of all the world. I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t blame my father; but I—couldn’t do it. I could not—I could not. You know you and I have been brought up in another sort of a way. If that is what they meant, they shouldn’t have done it.”
“Done what?” she asked.
“Well, given themselves the final luxury of children brought up like—like a king’s sons. My father taunted me with having everything that a prince could have had—so I have—and the feelings too——”
“Are princes so much superior to other people?” she said, with a faint smile almost of anger. She was more faithful to her caste than he had ever been, priding herself upon being a merchant’s daughter; although, to be sure, she knew nothing about trade—no more than a princess, no more than her lover had done.
“Perhaps not,” he said; “but people in trade do strange things—things that you and I wouldn’t do, any more than princes. They don’t think of it. It is not dishonesty, oh no, no—it is only—I can’t condemn my father, much less yours; but I can’t do as they do—I can’t. You must not think I have been hasty. It’s impossible.”
There was a little pause. She sat with her head averted, staring into the fire, as people are so apt to do when they want enlightenment. He was seated on a lower seat close to hers, holding her hand, which she did not withdraw from him. His mind was so full of what he was saying, and of the contrariety and new discovery he had made in his own circumstances, that he did not remark that she was taking his revelation with what was at the least some uncertainty—not throwing herself into it as she usually did into his views.
“Then I suppose,” she said slowly at last, “that this changes many things—and makes the future perhaps—different.”
“Would you have anticipated that?” he said quickly. “I suppose then I must be a fool, for I never expected him to mind.”
“Gervase! how could he help minding—after looking forward, ever since you were born, to having you to succeed him, to leaving you—at the head of a great business?”
“You seem to sympathise with my father, Madeline, more than with me.”
“I do—a little,” said Madeline. “I am sorry for everybody who is disappointed. I don’t wonder if he was vexed. And what then are you going—to do?”
Gervase laughed aloud, but with a little discomfiture in his voice. “Just what my father said; and you will be as much disgusted perhaps as he was, when I say, Nothing. Why should I do anything. Listen to me, Madeline, before you condemn me. This doing something is a modern fad, just like all the others. There are hundreds of men who must work to live. Why should I get in their way, and take some one’s bread out of his mouth?”
“Gervase! not one of them could take your place. Not one of them could do what you were wanted to do.”
“That is just what my father said.” He gave vent to a short laugh, embarrassed and uneasy. “You ought to back me up, or what is to become of me? This makes it all the harder to tell you—of the future, as you said.”
“Yes, Gervase.” She gave the hand that held hers a little pressure, a touch that meant much.
“Well,” he cried, with a burst of wounded feeling, anxiety, doubt, disappointment, all in one, “that is just what gives it its sting. ‘You cannot marry’ he tells me, ‘on your boy’s allowance:’ which means that I am to have nothing more: that I have to offer you—nothing! not the kind of life that you have been living—nor luxury nor beauty, nor—anything we have thought of. But only a poor man’s pittance—a sort of starvation—a—nothing! nothing! and after all our dreams.”
She gave his hand a little pressure again. “Don’t be extravagant,” she said. “Do you think I would hesitate—if——”
“If there was any need for it?” she said.
And then again there was a pause. This time it was he who averted his head, gazing straight before him into the vacant air, while she looked at him anxiously. After a while he replied in a cold constrained tone,—“The need—exists in my own mind. I am very unfortunate not to be able to make you understand it. That takes all support from me. But it does not change me. There is need—in my eyes.” He paused again. “I have made a very bitter discovery already to-night, that my father is guided by other sentiments than love and generosity to his only child. That he wants a recompense—his pound of flesh.”
“Oh, Gervase, don’t talk of it so!—is it not reasonable—his only child?”
“Yes, his only child—that is what I thought. I believed he would respect the scruples he has himself had me trained to. I never thought it was an affair of bargaining between us. And now he has made it so, and, Madeline, you——”
“Gervase!” she cried, in great trouble, “do you think I will forsake you because your father will not give you what you expected? Oh no, no! I would rather have you with nothing than anybody else with the whole world in his hand. Surely you know that well enough. What do I care for the luxury and all that? Why, you know I have often said there would be far more fun in being poorer, in doing things for ourselves, contriving and patching up like the people in books—— But one may have one’s opinion all the same.”
“And that’s all against me,” he said.
“I don’t know that it’s all against you. Perhaps there is something in what you say. I always thought a British merchant—— But perhaps the times have changed since that. And I never looked on business with that sort of eye before. I am glad,” she said a little feebly, with an effort, “that you can make—such a sacrifice—for your conscience, Gervase.”
“You must have had a poor opinion of my conscience, Madeline.”
She made no reply to this, but with a sudden exclamation, cried, “I foresee we shall have dreadful trouble! I suppose you have never thought of my father, Gervase?”
Their eyes met, and the dismay in each was so ludicrous to the other, that the immediate result was one of those fits of laughter in which many a moment of youthful despair has culminated. “You look such a picture of despair!” she cried. And he was fain to laugh too, though with a deeply burdened mind.