The lunch hour in the office was only partly spent by Denham in the consumption of food. Whether fine or wet, he passed most of it pacing the gravel paths in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The children got to know his figure, and the sparrows expected their daily scattering of bread-crumbs. No doubt, since he often gave a copper and almost always a handful of bread, he was not as blind to his surroundings as he thought himself.
He thought that these winter days were spent in long hours before white papers radiant in electric light; and in short passages through fog-dimmed streets. When he came back to his work after lunch he carried in his head a picture of the Strand, scattered with omnibuses, and of the purple shapes of leaves pressed flat upon the gravel, as if his eyes had always been bent upon the ground. His brain worked incessantly, but his thought was attended with so little joy that he did not willingly recall it; but drove ahead, now in this direction, now in that; and came home laden with dark books borrowed from a library.
Mary Datchet, coming from the Strand at lunch-time, saw him one day taking his turn, closely buttoned in an overcoat, and so lost in thought that he might have been sitting in his own room.
She was overcome by something very like awe by the sight of him; then she felt much inclined to laugh, although her pulse beat faster. She passed him, and he never saw her. She came back and touched him on the shoulder.
“Gracious, Mary!” he exclaimed. “How you startled me!”
“Yes. You looked as if you were walking in your sleep,” she said. “Are you arranging some terrible love affair? Have you got to reconcile a desperate couple?”
“I wasn’t thinking about my work,” Ralph replied, rather hastily. “And, besides, that sort of thing’s not in my line,” he added, rather grimly.
The morning was fine, and they had still some minutes of leisure to spend. They had not met for two or three weeks, and Mary had much to say to Ralph; but she was not certain how far he wished for her company. However, after a turn or two, in which a few facts were communicated, he suggested sitting down, and she took the seat beside him. The sparrows came fluttering about them, and Ralph produced from his pocket the half of a roll saved from his luncheon. He threw a few crumbs among them.
“I’ve never seen sparrows so tame,” Mary observed, by way of saying something.
“No,” said Ralph. “The sparrows in Hyde Park aren’t as tame as this. If we keep perfectly still, I’ll get one to settle on my arm.”
Mary felt that she could have forgone this display of animal good temper, but seeing that Ralph, for some curious reason, took a pride in the sparrows, she bet him sixpence that he would not succeed.
“Done!” he said; and his eye, which had been gloomy, showed a spark of light. His conversation was now addressed entirely to a bald cock-sparrow, who seemed bolder than the rest; and Mary took the opportunity of looking at him. She was not satisfied; his face was worn, and his expression stern. A child came bowling its hoop through the concourse of birds, and Ralph threw his last crumbs of bread into the bushes with a snort of impatience.
“That’s what always happens—just as I’ve almost got him,” he said. “Here’s your sixpence, Mary. But you’ve only got it thanks to that brute of a boy. They oughtn’t to be allowed to bowl hoops here—”
“Oughtn’t to be allowed to bowl hoops! My dear Ralph, what nonsense!”
“You always say that,” he complained; “and it isn’t nonsense. What’s the point of having a garden if one can’t watch birds in it? The street does all right for hoops. And if children can’t be trusted in the streets, their mothers should keep them at home.”
Mary made no answer to this remark, but frowned.
She leant back on the seat and looked about her at the great houses breaking the soft gray-blue sky with their chimneys.
“Ah, well,” she said, “London’s a fine place to live in. I believe I could sit and watch people all day long. I like my fellow-creatures….”
Ralph sighed impatiently.
“Yes, I think so, when you come to know them,” she added, as if his disagreement had been spoken.
“That’s just when I don’t like them,” he replied. “Still, I don’t see why you shouldn’t cherish that illusion, if it pleases you.” He spoke without much vehemence of agreement or disagreement. He seemed chilled.
“Wake up, Ralph! You’re half asleep!” Mary cried, turning and pinching his sleeve. “What have you been doing with yourself? Moping? Working? Despising the world, as usual?”
As he merely shook his head, and filled his pipe, she went on:
“It’s a bit of a pose, isn’t it?”
“Not more than most things,” he said.
“Well,” Mary remarked, “I’ve a great deal to say to you, but I must go on—we have a committee.” She rose, but hesitated, looking down upon him rather gravely. “You don’t look happy, Ralph,” she said. “Is it anything, or is it nothing?”
He did not immediately answer her, but rose, too, and walked with her towards the gate. As usual, he did not speak to her without considering whether what he was about to say was the sort of thing that he could say to her.
“I’ve been bothered,” he said at length. “Partly by work, and partly by family troubles. Charles has been behaving like a fool. He wants to go out to Canada as a farmer—”
“Well, there’s something to be said for that,” said Mary; and they passed the gate, and walked slowly round the Fields again, discussing difficulties which, as a matter of fact, were more or less chronic in the Denham family, and only now brought forward to appease Mary’s sympathy, which, however, soothed Ralph more than he was aware of. She made him at least dwell upon problems which were real in the sense that they were capable of solution; and the true cause of his melancholy, which was not susceptible to such treatment, sank rather more deeply into the shades of his mind.
Mary was attentive; she was helpful. Ralph could not help feeling grateful to her, the more so, perhaps, because he had not told her the truth about his state; and when they reached the gate again he wished to make some affectionate objection to her leaving him. But his affection took the rather uncouth form of expostulating with her about her work.
“What d’you want to sit on a committee for?” he asked. “It’s waste of your time, Mary.”
“I agree with you that a country walk would benefit the world more,” she said. “Look here,” she added suddenly, “why don’t you come to us at Christmas? It’s almost the best time of year.”
“Come to you at Disham?” Ralph repeated.
“Yes. We won’t interfere with you. But you can tell me later,” she said, rather hastily, and then started off in the direction of Russell Square. She had invited him on the impulse of the moment, as a vision of the country came before her; and now she was annoyed with herself for having done so, and then she was annoyed at being annoyed.
“If I can’t face a walk in a field alone with Ralph,” she reasoned, “I’d better buy a cat and live in a lodging at Ealing, like Sally Seal—and he won’t come. Or did he mean that he WOULD come?”
She shook her head. She really did not know what he had meant. She never felt quite certain; but now she was more than usually baffled. Was he concealing something from her? His manner had been odd; his deep absorption had impressed her; there was something in him that she had not fathomed, and the mystery of his nature laid more of a spell upon her than she liked. Moreover, she could not prevent herself from doing now what she had often blamed others of her sex for doing—from endowing her friend with a kind of heavenly fire, and passing her life before it for his sanction.
Under this process, the committee rather dwindled in importance; the Suffrage shrank; she vowed she would work harder at the Italian language; she thought she would take up the study of birds. But this program for a perfect life threatened to become so absurd that she very soon caught herself out in the evil habit, and was rehearsing her speech to the committee by the time the chestnut-colored bricks of Russell Square came in sight. Indeed, she never noticed them. She ran upstairs as usual, and was completely awakened to reality by the sight of Mrs. Seal, on the landing outside the office, inducing a very large dog to drink water out of a tumbler.
“Miss Markham has already arrived,” Mrs. Seal remarked, with due solemnity, “and this is her dog.”
“A very fine dog, too,” said Mary, patting him on the head.
“Yes. A magnificent fellow,” Mrs. Seal agreed. “A kind of St. Bernard, she tells me—so like Kit to have a St. Bernard. And you guard your mistress well, don’t you, Sailor? You see that wicked men don’t break into her larder when she’s out at HER work—helping poor souls who have lost their way…. But we’re late—we must begin!” and scattering the rest of the water indiscriminately over the floor, she hurried Mary into the committee-room.