MY LITTLE GIRL

The suggestion was a good one, and the dinner to which the two sat down
had a steadying effect on the nerves of the younger man. He became
calmer, and when they returned to his rooms he was able to bear his
part in a long, earnest, quiet talk over events past and to come.

The talk lasted far into the night, and before they parted it was
settled that Litvinoff should leave for Servia in two days, taking
with him certain important papers from Petrovitch to another of the
Nihilist leaders. That he should there wait instructions, and should
enter Russia by the southern frontier, and rejoin the circle at St
Petersburg, leaving his assumed name at Belgrade. That the following
imaginative announcement should be inserted in as many English papers
as possible for the special edification of the Russian Embassy.

‘Count Michael Litvinoff left London for Dover this morning, _en route_
for Belgrade. He was accompanied by Countess Litvinoff, an English
lady to whom he was secretly married some time ago. Count Litvinoff,
so well known to many of our readers through his “Social Enigma,” his
“Hopes and Fears for Liberty,” and his many revolutionary _brochures_,
has never been a familiar figure in London society, his literary
labours having compelled him to live in strict retirement. It will
be remembered that he was the hero of an adventure on the Russian
frontier some years ago, was wounded, captured, and sent to a Russian
prison, from which he escaped to England.’

It was also settled that the money for the journey should be taken from
the remainder of the Litvinoff capital.

When Litvinoff began to speak of the money he had spent and the debts
he had incurred, Petrovitch stopped him with,–

‘I’ll see to your debts–and what is gone is gone. Don’t let us waste
words over that.’

It was arranged that Petrovitch should seek out John Hatfield and his
wife, and should let them know that their daughter was happily married.
They judged it best not to subject Alice to an interview which could
not but involve most painful explanations, and they agreed that it
would be cruel both to her and to her parents to let them meet, merely
to part again at once. Of Clare Stanley neither of them spoke one word.

A new day was some way into its small hours when they said good-bye.

‘We meet in St Petersburg, then, as soon as may be,’ Petrovitch said.
‘I shall not see you again till then.’

‘I hope by that time I shall have done something to prove to you
that you have indeed brought me back to the ranks of duty and the
Revolution.’

‘I don’t need proof,’ said the other with one last hand-pressure. And
so they parted.

Next morning early, Litvinoff went down into the City, where he paid a
disproportionate sum of money for a paper which empowered him to marry
his wife at once, instead of waiting three weeks for that privilege.
Then he went down to Chislehurst. The sky was clear and pale and blue,
and the sun shone divinely. The trees that had been brown seemed at a
little distance to be wrapped in a grey gauze veil, as they always do
when the green buds first break out to new life.

As Litvinoff walked up the hill to Chislehurst Common, he tried to
think what he should say to Alice, how she would look, how she would
speak to him. With a touch of ingrained cynicism, he laughed at himself
to find that his heart was beating tumultuously, and that his hands
were trembling.

‘And this is the man,’ he said contemptuously to himself, ‘who walked
behind her for half-an-hour last autumn, and never spoke to her! No,
not the same man,’ he added, after a pause, ‘I am purged of a crime
since then.’

The house where he was to seek Alice was a little yellow-brick building
near the church.

He looked at the pretty old-fashioned churchyard as he passed, and then
at the building itself.

‘I suppose,’ he said to it, ‘you will be the balm the child will choose
to ease her sorrow–and you will bring comfort to her, as you have to
thousands of others. I don’t grudge them their comfort, but I do grudge
you your influence. However, you won’t keep it much longer. _Tant
mieux._’

His hand was on the garden gate–he unlatched it, and walked up to the
smallest detached house he had ever beheld. He raised the diminutive
knocker, and assaulted therewith the tiny brown door. Would she open
it? She did not. It opened–and Litvinoff at first really thought it
opened of its own accord. At anyrate it opened by some agency invisible
to him. He stood and looked; but when the door slowly began to close
again, he thought it was time for action. He came a step forward, and
addressing nothing, said,–

‘Is Mrs Litvinoff in?’

Then a very small girl in a yellow pinafore and a lilac frock showed
herself from behind the door; but shyness and an incomplete knowledge
of her native tongue combined to render her speechless. Litvinoff, with
an impatient but perfectly gentle movement, lifted her bodily from her
position as guard, and placed her outside the door.

‘The air will brighten your wits, _mon petit chou_,’ he said.

Then he walked straight into the house, and looked round the two rooms
on the ground floor. Empty. He passed through the kitchen, whose
proportions would have served for those of the corresponding apartment
in a good-sized doll’s house, and found himself in a brick-paved
back yard, where there were a water-butt, a basket of wet linen,
some clothes-lines, and the lady of the house. Regardless of her
astonishment, he addressed himself to her.

‘Oh, Mrs Litvinoff?’ she answered curiously, ‘she is out; she has gone
to Orpington for some butter for me, sir, and she won’t be long.’

‘How long?’

‘Perhaps an hour.’

‘Is she alone?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘If you’ll be kind enough to tell me the way, I think I’ll go and meet
her.’

‘And who shall I say called if you should miss her, and she comes back
first?’

‘Say her husband,’ answered Litvinoff.

The woman gave him profuse directions, for which he thanked her with
his usual _empressement_, and turned at the gate to raise his hat in
farewell.

‘My stars!’ said Mrs Bowen, as she watched him out of sight, ‘he’s a
real gentleman, and no mistake. Poor little Mrs Litvinoff,’ she added,
with a woman’s instinctive interest in a romance, ‘I hope they’ll make
it up and live happy ever after, that I do!’

Litvinoff walked along. His heart was lighter than it had been for many
a long day. On these delicious fresh spring mornings–

When March makes sweet the weather
With daffodil, and starling,
And hours of fruitful breath,

just to be alive is a rapture. Of course it may be cancelled by care
like any other joy. But Litvinoff felt as if he had no cares. He was
going to meet _the_ woman he loved, and the nearer he got to her the
more he loved her. In love, as in friendship, nearness was everything
to him.

Every figure in the distance he thought was her figure. If you have
ever gone to meet a person whom you very intensely wished to meet,
you will remember how constantly recurring is that illusion. You will
remember the spasm of vindictive hate which seizes on you when the
figure in the distance is neared, and dispels your illusion by being
itself and not the one you wanted it to be.

Paul’s Cray Common seemed a paradise to him. It does make a fairly
good one under favourable circumstances, with its heather, and gorse,
and larch, and oak saplings, and, fairest of all, its graceful swaying
silver birches. The birds were singing madly, and as he felt the
springy turf under his feet, and the warm spring sun on his shoulders,
he began to sing, too, a tender little French song, all about green
woodland paths, and youth, and love, and happiness.

Alice Hatfield’s heart was very sad, but it was a quiet sadness, that
did not shut out the charm of the spring. Under the influence of the
young life blood of the year that seemed to be throbbing through that
perfect day, she had felt strong, and had walked with more swiftness
than usual, and now, as she was returning with a basket, in which her
butter lay, under cool green leaves, she began to walk more slowly
and to consider two pounds of butter heavier than she had thought it
before. She had been revelling among the primroses and dog violets, and
had filled up her basket with the pale, yellow primrose stars and the
delicate pink and white wind-flowers. She was tired, certainly, and she
turned aside and sat down on a felled tree, in a certain little pine
copse that runs along by the road-side. The pine needles lay brown,
and soft, and thick under her feet. A little bright-eyed, red-brown
squirrel came half-way down one of the trees to look at her, but seemed
to find her not quite as nice as he had expected, for he whisked his
tail with undisguised contempt, and went back to his home with a
lightning-like spiral scramble. He must have been a squirrel hard to
please, for it is a fact that, in spite of illness and trouble, Alice
was far prettier now than when her sweet face had first caught Count
Litvinoff’s eyes on the Birkenhead Ferry.

She sat quietly gazing through the pine trees, with her head turned
from the road. Presently she stooped to attempt the capture of a
very young and very yellow frog which had hopped close to her feet,
regardless of the pine needles. As she did so her heart stood still,
for her ears caught the tramp, tramp of a man’s footstep, and the
ringing sound of a man’s voice, a voice she knew,–

‘Viens, suivons les sentiers ombreux,
Ou s’égarent les amoureux
Le printemps nous appelle,
Viens! Soyons heureux!’

She rose to her feet, and involuntarily uttered a low cry. She dared
not turn her head. The singing stopped abruptly, there was a crash
through the brambles, and in a moment a pair of strong arms were round
her, and lips close to her ear murmured,–

‘My little girl!’

She rested on his arm for one moment Then she said, in a choked sort of
voice, as she tried to release herself,–

‘It’s no use, I cannot come back. You have not come here to ask me
back. Do, do leave me alone!’

He held her fast.

‘My darling,’ he whispered, ‘do you think I could leave you now I have
found you? I _have_ come to ask you to come back to me. I have come to
ask you to marry me. You will not send me away. I cannot do without my
little one any longer. You love me still?’ he added, a sudden doubt
striking him at her continued silence, and he raised her chin with his
hand till he could look in her face. She shrank from his hand, and hid
her face against his neck.

‘You know,’ she answered, ‘you know.’

* * * * *

So it came about that Alice married her love who had not been true,
and forgave him with all her heart; when she was leaving the church,
leaning on her husband’s arm, with a new world of love and joy opening
before her, and Litvinoff was looking down at her with eyes in which
love deepened every moment, her father lay dead at the bottom of the
tank in Thornsett Mill. The Litvinoffs left England at once, and to
this day Alice does not know of her father’s death, and her husband
does not know of the dire disaster that followed on his double dealing.
I doubt if they will ever learn it now. There is a good deal more that
Alice does not know. It is perhaps as well. Wives are none the happier
for knowing too much of their husbands’ past. As it is, Alice will
follow him to the world’s end, believing in him unquestioningly.