The fire was sunk to cold ashes in the grate, and the grey morning was creeping through the half-opened curtains like a thing ashamed, when Lois awoke. It was painful to move her head: her neck was cramped. The girl awoke in full recollection. She sighed, roused herself and pulled the quilt closer about her. For a little while she sat and mused. A pale, tragic resignation fixed her face like a mask. She remembered her father's irritable answer to her question concerning her lover's safety - "Safe, aye - why not?" She knew that he suspected the factory of having been purposely set on fire. But then, he had never liked Will. And yet - and yet - Lois' heart was heavy as lead. She felt her lover was guilty. And she felt she must hide her secret of his last communication to her. She saw herself being cross-examined - "When did you last see this man?" But she would hide what he had said about watching at the works. How dreary it was - and how dreadful. Her life was ruined now, and nothing mattered any more. She must only behave with dignity, and submit to her own obliteration. For even if Will were never accused, she knew in her heart he was guilty. She knew it was over between them.
It was dawn among the yellow fog outside, and Lois, as she moved mechanically about her toilet, vaguely felt that all her days would arrive slowly struggling through a bleak fog. She felt an intense longing at this uncanny hour to slough the body's trammelled weariness and to issue at once into the new bright warmth of the far Dawn where a lover waited transfigured; it is so easy and pleasant in imagination to step out of the chill grey dampness of another terrestrial daybreak, straight into the sunshine of the eternal morning! And who can escape his hour? So Lois performed the meaningless routine of her toilet, which at last she made meaningful when she took her black dress, and fastened a black jet brooch at her throat.
Then she went downstairs and found her father eating a mutton chop. She quickly approached and kissed him on the forehead. Then she retreated to the other end of the table. Her father looked tired, even haggard.
"You are early," he said, after a while. Lois did not reply. Her father continued to eat for a few moments, then he said:
"Have a chop - here's one! Ring for a hot plate. Eh, what? Why not?"
Lois was insulted, but she gave no sign. She sat down and took a cup of coffee, making no pretence to eat. Her father was absorbed, and had forgotten her.
"Our Jack's not come home yet," he said at last.
Lois stirred faintly. "Hasn't he?" she said.
"No." There was silence for a time. Lois was frightened. Had something happened also to her brother? This fear was closer and more irksome.
"Selby's was cleaned out, gutted. We had a near shave of it - "
"You have no loss, Dadda?"
"Nothing to mention." After another silence, her father said:
"I'd rather be myself than William Selby. Of course it may merely be bad luck - you don't know. But whatever it was, I wouldn't like to add one to the list of fires just now. Selby was at the 'George' when it broke out - I don't know where the lad was - !"
"Father," broke in Lois, "why do you talk like that? Why do you talk as if Will had done it?" She ended suddenly. Her father looked at her pale, mute face.
"I don't talk as if Will had done it," he said. "I don't even think it."
Feeling she was going to cry, Lois rose and left the room. Her father sighed, and leaning his elbows on his knees, whistled faintly into the fire. He was not thinking about her.
Lois went down to the kitchen and asked Lucy, the parlour-maid, to go out with her. She somehow shrank from going alone, lest people should stare at her overmuch: and she felt an overpowering impulse to go to the scene of the tragedy, to judge for herself.
The churches were chiming half-past eight when the young lady and the maid set off down the street. Nearer the fair, swarthy, thin- legged men were pushing barrels of water towards the market-place, and the gipsy women, with hard brows, and dressed in tight velvet bodices, hurried along the pavement with jugs of milk, and great brass water ewers and loaves and breakfast parcels. People were just getting up, and in the poorer streets was a continual splash of tea-leaves, flung out on to the cobble-stones. A teapot came crashing down from an upper story just behind Lois, and she, starting round and looking up, thought that the trembling, drink- bleared man at the upper window, who was stupidly staring after his pot, had had designs on her life; and she went on her way shuddering at the grim tragedy of life.
In the dull October morning the ruined factory was black and ghastly. The window-frames were all jagged, and the walls stood gaunt. Inside was a tangle of twisted débris, the iron, in parts red with bright rust, looking still hot; the charred wood was black and satiny; from dishevelled heaps, sodden with water, a faint smoke rose dimly. Lois stood and looked. If he had done that! He might even be dead there, burned to ash and lost for ever. It was almost soothing to feel so. He would be safe in the eternity which now she must hope in.
At her side the pretty, sympathetic maid chatted plaintively. Suddenly, from one of her lapses into silence, she exclaimed:
"Why if there isn't Mr Jack!"
Lois turned suddenly and saw her brother and her lover approaching her. Both looked soiled, untidy and wan. Will had a black eye, some ten hours old, well coloured. Lois turned very pale as they approached. They were looking gloomily at the factory, and for a moment did not notice the girls.
"I'll be jiggered if there ain't our Lois!" exclaimed Jack, the reprobate, swearing under his breath.
"Oh, God!" exclaimed the other in disgust.
"Jack, where have you been?" said Lois sharply, in keen pain, not looking at her lover. Her sharp tone of suffering drove her lover to defend himself with an affectation of comic recklessness.
"In quod," replied her brother, smiling sickly.
"Jack!" cried his sister very sharply.
Will Selby shuffled on his feet and smiled, trying to turn away his face so that she should not see his black eye. She glanced at him. He felt her boundless anger and contempt, and with great courage he looked straight at her, smiling ironically. Unfortunately his smile would not go over his swollen eye, which remained grave and lurid.
"Do I look pretty?" he inquired with a hateful twist of his lip.
"Very!" she replied.
"I thought I did," he replied. And he turned to look at his father's ruined works, and he felt miserable and stubborn. The girl standing there so clean and out of it all! Oh, God, he felt sick. He turned to go home.
The three went together, Lois silent in anger and resentment. Her brother was tired and overstrung, but not suppressed. He chattered on blindly.
"It was a lark we had! We met Bob Osborne and Freddy Mansell coming down Poultry. There was girl with some geese. She looked a tanger sitting there, all like statues, her and the geese. It was Will who began it. He offered her three-pence and asked her to begin the show. She called him a - she called him something, and then somebody poked an old gander to stir him up, and somebody squirted him in the eye. He upped and squawked and started off with his neck out. Laugh! We nearly killed ourselves, keeping back those old birds with squirts and teasers. Oh, Lum! Those old geese, oh, scrimmy, they didn't know where to turn, they fairly went off their dots, coming at us right an' left, and such a row - it was fun, you never knew! Then the girl she got up and knocked somebody over the jaw, and we were right in for it. Well, in the end, Billy here got hold of her round the waist - "
"Oh, dry it up!" exclaimed Will bitterly.
Jack looked at him, laughed mirthlessly, and continued: "An' we said we'd buy her birds. So we got hold of one goose apiece - an' they took some holding, I can tell you - and off we set round the fair, Billy leading with the girl. The bloomin' geese squawked an' pecked. Laugh - I thought I should a' died. Well, then we wanted the girl to have her birds back - and then she fired up. She got some other chaps on her side, and there was a proper old row. The girl went tooth and nail for Will there - she was dead set against him. She gave him a black eye, by gum, and we went at it, I can tell you. It was a free fight, a beauty, an' we got run in. I don't know what became of the girl."
Lois surveyed the two men. There was no glimmer of a smile on her face, though the maid behind her was sniggering. Will was very bitter. He glanced at his sweetheart and at the ruined factory.
"How's dad taken it?" he asked, in a biting, almost humble tone.
"I don't know," she replied coldly. "Father's in an awful way. I believe everybody thinks you set the place on fire."
Lois drew herself up. She had delivered her blow. She drew herself up in cold condemnation and for a moment enjoyed her complete revenge. He was despicable, abject in his dishevelled, disfigured, unwashed condition.
"Aye, well, they made a mistake for once," he replied, with a curl of the lip.
Curiously enough, they walked side by side as if they belonged to each other. She was his conscience-keeper. She was far from forgiving him, but she was still farther from letting him go. And he walked at her side like a boy who had to be punished before he can be exonerated. He submitted. But there was a genuine bitter contempt in the curl of his lip.