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She turned to him with that mischievous little laugh again, and quoted once more,
“« Time's current strong Leaves us fixed to nothing long.'
Have you ever had that said to you, Mr. Kennan ?” said she.
The words and the look reminded him how she had left him, laughing, at their first meeting, fitting to him that very objectionable name of "The Undecided Man." It seemed to him that a very long time had passed since then ; but it was really only a few hours. He felt his budding sentiment nipped off coldly.
“I give up the game," said he, a little sulkily. “You have chosen unusual reading for a-a
“A barge girl, you want to say,” said she, with dancing eyes. “Don't I come up-or down-to your idea ?”
“I wish you wouldn't laugh at me in this way ; I don't know what to make of you."
“Quite possibly,” she said, laughing outright. 'Good-night. Perhaps we shall see you again ? ”
“I don't know, I'm so Undecided, you see,” said he, with an attempt at dignified sarcasm that he felt to be utterly abortive. He briefly said good-bye to the heavyhanded captain and his mate, who were coiling ropes in the bows, apparently caring nothing for any flirtation “Miss Nora ” carried on with any number of strange gentlemen ; and then, stepping on to the black beams of the wharf, took a last look at the barge and the slight figure standing by the tiller, and walked off to rouse up the landlord of the “ Swan."
“Miss SANDS would be in very soon,” said the servant; and Mr. Kennan, walking into the drawing-room with the privileged familiarity of an old friend, seated himself to wait by the window in a comfortable basket chair.
Freda Sands lived in one of a row of charming little red-brick houses that form part of the cathedral Precincts, and share to the full that air of dignified seclusion such places seem to have for their peculiar property. They are of staid and ripe appearance, and each has in front of it a little garden enclosed with old brick walls, running down to a row of stately limes that cast their shade impartially over the ends of the little gardens on one side, and the roadway on the other; and beyond the roadway rises up the ancient pile of the cathedral itself. Up the road, to the right, are the canon's houses-comfortable, substantial centres of ecclesiastical dignity, whose appearance is still suggestive of the well-paid leisure of earlier days, though now that appearance has become rather removed from the truth ; the other way, to the left, the road goes past the great western front of the cathedral and through a quaint old archway into the outer and secular world of noise and hurry. Down there runs the full rattling tide of Carchester High Street-very full, very narrow, very dirty, and very quaint ; up here the noise comes only indistinctly, and one may dream out quiet days in the little brick-walled gardens, under the protection of those two great twin brethren of many memories, the castle and the cathedral.
Freda's drawing-room was a pleasant and a pretty little place, suggesting at once half a dozen good qualities in its owner—love of comfort, love of beautiful things, literary tastes, and a refined artistic sense. Though Mr. Kennan knew it well, he
VOL. VIII.-No. 33.
looked approvingly round, and noted little things here and there : a new picture, a fresh photograph on one of the spindly tables, the last-read book lying open on chair-mark of a bad habit for which he was for ever unsuccessfully reproving herand some music thrown down beside the piano. On another spindly table near the fireplace was set tea ; there were three cups, and Mr. Kennan wondered if any one else might be coming. “That will be a great nuisance," said he to the tea-table ; he had come for a private interview with Freda, and felt no interest in Freda's friends.
The door at the bottom of the garden clicked and opened, and Mr. Kennan looked anxiously out. It was only a tradesman's boy, who came whistling very softly, as boys do in the Precincts, up the stone-flagged path to deliver a parcel. The shadow of the cathedral oppressed him, and he was in a hurry to pass out into more secular quarters, where the other boys were whistling as loudly as it pleased them.
Mr. Kennan sat down with a distinct feeling of relief. My nerves are in great disorder,” said he to himself. “I hope Freda will be in a good mood and help me out, or I shall find it remarkably difficult to express what I wish to say. Dear me ! I actually believe my pulse is fluttering ! Such a thing has not happened since my first story was accepted. I wish the tea were made.”
The cathedral clock slowly and solemnly chimed the hour of five. The prevailing silence seemed to grow deeper, and Mr. Kennan felt it overwhelming. He drew his chair back from the window and took up a book to read; but his thoughts recurred always to one subject, and he soon lost himself in meditation on things both past and future.
The intimacy between Mr. Kennan and Freda Sands was much discussed in social circles—at least, the feminine segment of them. Freda herself, from a certain brusqueness of manner, and the constant suspicion felt by every one who talked with her that she was wilfully misleading and mocking them, had few friends among many acquaintances; there was an indefinite something in her tone and general bearing that offended the ladies of Carchester, and they accordingly salved their wounded feelings by taking away her character. She was but twenty-six, and undeniably delightful; and though her aunt, known to the city as Old Miss Sands, was nominally supposed to live with her, she spent a good part of the year quite alone in the little red house behind the lime trees. And as Mr. Kennan, a bachelor of forty-two, was observed nearly every day passing through the garden door, at any hour, and emerging only after lengthy intervals, there was large material for solemn shakings of the head.
But all this grievous calumniation was confined to the feminine portion of the community; and at one time or another the fascinating Miss Sands had had most of the unattached males in Carchester literally or metaphorically at her feet. But they had all taken that position in vain. She had never maddened themi by offering to be a sister to them, nor given any regretful excuses-those delicate hypocrisies invented only for unwilling ladies and distraught publishers ; but she had simply and sweetly declined them. And it was held a great mystery, and something of an error in the ordering of the universe, that Freda Sands should have lived to the age of twenty-six and kept all her charms unreservedly to herself. Nor had a reason yet been discovered that gave any satisfactory solution of the problem. Yet there was
a reason, which may appear presently; and no one knew it but Freda herself.
Mr. Kennan sat by the window for some time, his regard fixed vacantly on the carpet, and his thoughts on the events that had been lighting up his usually grey
existence during the past week. The longer he sat the more his nervousness increased; every chance footfall along the pavement in front of the cathedral fetched him up out of his meditations like a frightened fish out of water, --he gave a momentary gasp and plunged back into them again. More than once he felt a wild desire to evacuate shamefully; but again at that desire there rose up somewhere among his memories a laughing, mocking face, and the cry of an epithet that stung him, and his pride held him there to prove the name false. Mr. Kennan was in all the throes of a Decision.
At last a well-known step came up the garden path – moved about in the little hall—and entered the room. Mr. Kennan rose as Freda came in, and shook hands with her, a performance he usually detested; but the cool, firm pressure of her fingers seemed to give him calmness and steady his nerves.
“ I'm delighted to see you again,” said Freda; "it's some time since I have had the honour of your company.
What have you been doing ? Have you really begun on that great work you have been going to give us so long? Anyhow, will you have some tea? You look rather shaky.”
Considering that I have called here four times in the last week to see you, and never found you, I think I am owed an explanation. What have you been doing ? Please! no sugar!”
" I'm sorry," said Freda; “I've never done that before. I was thinking of something else. I--oh, I have been having a holiday. I have been making a most interesting study of human nature. Have some tea-cake? or some toast ?”
Mr. Kennan was doing his best to talk trifles naturally, while all the time the dark agitation of his soul was thundering up behind. Under these circumstances the most insignificant things assume the most tremendous importance, and the wretched victim gives them the profoundest attention, if by so doing he may gain a little respite from the inevitable. Mr. Kennan examined both toast and tea-cake --one plate held in each of Freda's hands—with minutest care, pondering over both as over a matter of life and death. Then he looked up at Freda—with a hopeless sense of having no control whatever over his actions--and gravely inquired, “Which do you recommend ?”
Freda laughed outright. Something in her laugh struck a chord of memory in him and set it vibrating ; but he could not trace it to the other end. “ Not changed since I saw you last, I see,” said she: “Undecided Man still. think I shall ever bring you to the pitch of Decision ?”
“Tea-cake, I think," said Mr. Kennan absently. He was still groping about in the darks of his recollection for something that perpetually eluded him, and after consuining the piece of tea-cake he gave up the hunt. “Why does every one call me The Undecided Man, by the way ?” he asked. “I don't like it.”
“ Who else does beside me?” said Freda quickly.
Who? · Oh-ah, well—it has been said to me, you know. But even you won't use that objectionable name any longer. I'm bursting with a Decision-toppling on the edge of it, in fact."
“How very interesting! Give me some more hot water, please—thank you, and do have some cake. Since when have you taken this alarming step ? "
Mr. Kennan sipped his tea deliberately. “What should you call the exact moment of a decision ?” said he: “the moment of determination or the moment wlien the determination becomes action ? "
"That depends on the individual. There's so remarkably little connection between your determinations and your actions that
Mr. Kennan got up and walked to the window, holding his teacup in one hand.
“ I've really
“You've always been sarcastic," said he, “but I don't see any necessity for being insulting. Nevertheless, to look at the question judicially and impartially —"
“Which is generally another name for complete indecision- go on.”
“If you will interrupt I can't continue the discussion," observed Mr. Kennan, looking out of the window. ' It's no good putting it off,” he added to himself“I may as well go straight to it;” and turning to the table again he sat down-a trifle nearer Freda.
“Now I want to have a little serious conversation,” he began. made a decision—at least, a half-decision—and I've come to see you.”
“To help you to decide—as usual ? ” Freda's face, too, had become unwontedly serious, but he did not notice it. He went on quickly and nervously. Any one looking in at the window would have thought that the riddle of Freda Sand's spinsterhood was being solved at last, and that Mr. Kennan had risen to a sense of his duty and was persuading her to become his wife.
“You asked me,” he said, “where I have been this week. Well, I too have been taking a holiday. I have seen some new life. I have had my mind opened to many things I did not know before. In fact, I have spent several days on board a barge."
“Ah!” said Freda, with the air of a person who feels that she is expected to say something
“Yes, it was very interesting. I got some valuable experience. I made some valuable notes, which I hope to use on a future occasion.”
“Yes?” said Freda, as he paused again.