The clerk looked at the young gentleman and saw defiance in one of his eyes and half a crown in the other.
'Well, well!' he grumbled. 'It shows as the young lady takes an interest, and that's more than most. Why, sir, if you'll believe me, there's not one in a hundred that comes to this church that ever 'eard of Pepys. "Pepys!" says they. "'Oo's Pepys?" "The Diarist," says I. "Diarist!" says they, "wot's a Diarist?" I could sit down sometimes an' cry. But maybe, miss, you thought as you were picking that plaster off 'is grave?'
'Yes, I thought so.'
The clerk chuckled.
'Well, it ain't so. I'll tell you where 'e really lies, if you'll promise you won't pick another chunk off that. Well, then, it's there—beside the communion. I saw 'im lyin' there with these very eyes, and 'is wife in the coffin beneath 'im.'
'You saw him?'
'Yes, sir, I saw 'im, an' that's more than any livin' man could say, for there were only four of us, and the other three are as dead as Pepys by now.'
'Oh do tell us about it!' cried Maude.
'Well, it was like this, miss. We 'ad to examine to see 'ow much room there was down there, and so we came upon them.'
'And what did you see?'
'Well, miss, 'is coffin lay above, and 'is wife's below, as might be expected, seeing that she died thirty years or so before 'im. The coffins was very much broken, an' we could see 'im as clear us I can see you. When we first looked in I saw 'im lying quite plain—a short thick figure of a man—with 'is 'ands across 'is chest. And then, just as we looked at 'im, 'e crumbled in, as you might say, across 'is breast bone, an' just quietly settled down into a 'uddle of dust. It's a way they 'as when the fresh air strikes 'em. An' she the same, an' 'is dust just fell through the chinks o' the wood and mixed itself with 'ers.'
'O Frank!' Maude's ready tears sprang to her eyes. She put her hand upon her husband's and was surprised to find how cold it was. Women never realise that the male sex is the more sensitive. He had not said, 'O Maude!' because he could not.
'They used some powder like pepper for embalmin' in those days,' said the clerk. 'And the vicar—it was in old Bellamy's time—'e took a sniff into the grave, an' 'e sneezed an' sneezed till we thought we should 'ave to fetch a doctor. 'Ave you seen Mrs. Pepys' tomb?'
'No, we have only just come.'
'That's it on the left of the common.'
'With the woman leaning forward?'
'Yes, sir. That's Mrs. Pepys herself.'
It was an arch laughing face, the face of a quite young woman; the sculptor had depicted her as leaning forward in an animated and natural attitude. Below was engraved -
Obiit Xo Novembris AEtatis 29 Conjugii 15 Anno Domini 1669.
'Poor dear!' whispered Maude.
'It was hard that she should die just as her husband was becoming famous and successful,' said Frank. 'She who had washed his shirts, and made up the coal fires, when they lived in a garret together. What a pity that she could not have a good time!'
'Ah well, if she loved him, dear, she had a good time in the garret.'
Maude was leaning forward with her face raised to look at the bust of the dead woman, which also leaned forward as if to look down upon her. A pair of marble skulls flanked the lady's grave. A red glow from the evening sun struck through a side-window and bathed the whole group in its ruddy light. As Frank, standing back in the shadow, ran his eyes from the face of the dead young wife to that of his own sweet, girlish bride, with those sinister skulls between, there came over him like a wave, a realisation of the horror which lies in things, the grim close of the passing pageant, the black gloom, which swallows up the never-ending stream of life. Will the spirit wear better than the body; and if not, what infernal practical joke is this to which we are subjected!
'It will. It must,' he said.
'WHY, Frank—Frank dear, what is the matter? You are quite pale.'
'Come out into the air, Maude. I have had enough of this stuffy old church.'
'Stuffy!' said the clerk. 'Well, we've 'ad the Lord Mayor 'ere at least once a year, an' 'e never found it stuffy. A cleaner, fresher church you won't find in the city of London. It's 'ad its day, I'll allow. There was a time—and I can remember it—when folk used to spend their money where they made it, and the plate would be full of paper and gold, where now we find it 'ard enough to get coppers. That was fifty year ago, when I was a young clerk. You might not think it, but I've seen a Lord Mayor, a past Lord Mayor, and a Lord Mayor elect of the city of London, all sitting on one bench in this very church. And YOU call it stuffy!'
Frank soothed the wounded feelings of the old clerk, and explained that by stuffy he meant interesting. He also shook hands with him in a peculiar way as he held his palm upturned in the small of his back. Then Maude and he retraced their steps up the narrow street which is called Seething Lane.
'Poor old boy! What was it, then?' asked Maude, looking up with her sympathetic eyes. It is at such moments that a man realises what the companionship of women means. The clouds melted before the sun.
'What an ass I was! I began to think of all sorts of horrible things. Never mind, Maude! We are out for a holiday. Hang the future! Let us live in the present.'
'I always do,' said Maude, and she spoke for her sex.
'Well, what now? Buttered toast or suede gloves?'
'Business first!' said Maude primly, and so proceeded to save her sixpence on the gloves. As she was tempted, however ('such a civil obliging shopman, Frank!'), to buy four yards of so-called Astrakhan trimming, a frill of torchon lace, six dear little festooned handkerchiefs, and four pairs of open-work stockings—none of which were contemplated when she entered the shop—her sixpenny saving was not as brilliant a piece of finance as she imagined.
And then they finished their excursion in the dark, wainscotted, low- ceilinged coffee-room of an old-fashioned inn, once the mother of many coaches, and now barren and deserted, but with a strange cunning in the matter of buttered toast which had come down from more prosperous days. It was a new waiter who served them, and he imagined them to be lovers and scented an intrigue; but when they called for a second plate of toast and a jug of boiling water, he recognised the healthy appetite of the married. And then, instead of going home like a good little couple, Maude suddenly got it into her head that it would cheer away the last traces of Frank's gloom if they went to see 'Charley's Aunt' at the Globe. So they loitered and shopped for a couple of hours, and then squeezed into the back of the pit; and wedged in among honest, hearty folk who were not ashamed to show their emotions, they laughed until they were tired. And so home, as their friend Pepys would have said, after such a day as comes into the memory, shining golden among the drab, when old folk look back, and think of the dear dead past. May you and I, reader, if ever we also come to sit in our final armchairs in the chimney corners, have many such to which our minds may turn, sweet and innocent and fragrant, to cheer us in those darksome hours to come.
One evening Frank came home with a clouded face. His wife said nothing, but after dinner she sat on a footstool beside his chair and waited. She knew that if it were for the best, he would tell her everything, and she had confidence enough in his judgment to acquiesce in his silence if he thought it best to be silent. As a matter of fact, it was just this telling her which made his trouble hard to bear. And yet he thought it wiser to tell.
'I've had something to worry me, dear.'
'Poor old boy, I know you have. What was it?'
'Why should I bother you with it?'
'A nice wife I should be, if I shared all your joys and none of your sorrows! Anyhow, I had rather share sorrow with you than joy within any one else.' She snuggled her head up against his knee. 'Tell me about it, Frank.'
'You remember my telling you just before our marriage that I was surety for a man?'
'I remember perfectly well.'
'His name was Farintosh. He was an insurance-agent, and I became surety for him in order to save his situation.'
'Yes, dear, it was so noble of you.'
'Well, Maude, he was on the platform this morning, and when he saw me, he turned on his heel and hurried out of the station. I read guilt in his eyes. I am sure that his accounts are wrong again.'
'Oh, what an ungrateful wretch!'
'Poor devil, I dare say he has had a bad time. But I was a fool not to draw out of that. It was all very well when I was a bachelor. But here I am as a married man faced with an indefinite liability and nothing to meet it with. I don't know what is to become of us, Maude.'
'How much is it, dearest?'
'I don't know. That is the worst of it.'
'But surely your own office would not be so hard upon you?'
'It is not my own office. It is another office—the Hotspur.'
'Oh dear! What have you done about it, Frank?'
'I called at their office in my lunch-hour, and I requested them to send down an accountant to examine Farintosh's books. He will be here to-morrow morning, and I have leave of absence for the day.'
And so they were to spend an evening and a night without knowing whether they were merely crippled or absolutely ruined. Frank's nature was really a very proud one, and the thought of failing in his engagements wounded his self-respect most deeply. His nerves winced and quivered before it. But her sweet, strong soul rose high above all fear, and bore him up with her, into the serenity of love and trust and confidence. The really precious things, the things of the spirit, were permanent, and could not be lost. What matter if they lived in an eight-roomed villa, or in a tent out on the heath? What matter if they had two servants, or if she worked for him herself? All this was the merest trifle, the outside of life. But the intimate things, their love, their trust, their pleasures of mind and soul, these could not be taken away from them while they had life to enjoy them. And so she soothed Frank with sweet caresses and gentle words, until this night of gloom had turned to the most beautiful of all his life, and he had learned to bless the misfortune which had taught him to know the serene courage and the wholehearted devotion which can only be felt, like the scent of a fragrant leaf, when Fate gives us a crush between its iron fingers.
Shortly after breakfast Mr. Wingfield, the accountant from London, arrived—a tall, gentlemanly man, with a formal manner.
'I'm sorry about this business, Mr. Crosse,' said he.
Frank made a grimace. 'It can't be helped.'
'We will hope that the amount is not very serious. We have warned Mr. Farintosh that his books will be inspected to-day. When you are ready we shall go round.'
The agent lived in a side-street not far off. A brass plate, outside a small brick house, marked it out from the line of other small brick houses. A sad-faced woman opened the door, and Farintosh himself, haggard and white, was seated among his ledgers in the little front room. A glance at the man's helpless face turned all Frank's resentment to pity.
They sat down at the table, the accountant in the centre, Farintosh on the right, and Frank on the left. There was no talk save an occasional abrupt question and answer. For two hours the swish and rustle of the great blue pages of the ledgers were the chief sound, with the scratching of Mr. Wingfield's pen as he totalled up long columns of figures. Frank's heart turned to water as he saw the huge sums which had passed through this man's hands. How much had remained there? His whole future depended upon the answer to that question. How prosaic and undramatic are the moments in which a modern career is made or marred! In this obscure battlefield, the squire no longer receives his accolade in public for his work well done, nor do we see the butcher's cleaver as it hacks off the knightly spurs, but failure and success come strangely and stealthily, determined by trifles, and devoid of dignity. Here was the crisis of Frank's young life, in this mean front room, amongst the almanacs and the account-books.
'Can I rely upon these figures?' asked Wingfield at last.
'You can, sir.'
'In that case I congratulate you, Mr. Crosse. I can only find a deficiency of fifty pounds.'
Only enough to swallow the whole of their little savings, which they had carefully invested! However, it was good news, and Frank shook the proffered hand of the accountant.
'I will stay for another hour to check these figures,' said Wingfield. 'But there is no need to detain you.'
'You will come round and lunch with us?'
'Au revoir, then.' Frank ran all the way home, and burst in upon his wife. 'It is not so very bad, dear—only fifty pounds.' They danced about in their joy like two children.
But Wingfield came to his lunch within a solemn face.
'I am very sorry to disappoint you,' he said, 'but the matter is more serious than I thought. We have entered some sums as unpaid which he has really received, but the receipts for which he has held back. They amount to another hundred pounds.'
Maude felt inclined to cry as she glanced at Frank, and saw his resolute effort to look unconcerned.
'Then it's a hundred and fifty.'
'Certainly not less. I have marked the items down upon this paper for your inspection.'
Frank glanced his practised eyes over the results of the accountant's morning's work.
'You have credited him within a hundred and twenty pounds in the bank, I see.'
'Yes, his bank-book shows a balance of that amount.'
'When was it made out?'
'He may have drawn it since them.'
'It is certainly possible.'
'We might go round after lunch and make sure.'
'And in any case, as it is the Company's money, don't you think we had better take it out of his hands?'
'Yes, I think you are right.'
It was a miserable meal, and they were all glad when it was finished. Maude drew Frank into the other room before he started.
'I could not let you go without THAT, dearest. Keep a brave heart, my own laddie, for I know so well that we shall come through it all right.'
So Frank set out with a higher courage, and they both returned to the agent's house. His white face turned a shade whiter when he understood their errand.
'Is this necessary, Mr. Wingfield?' he pleaded. 'Won't you take my word for this money?'
'I am sorry to have to say it, sir, but we have trusted in your word too often.'
'But the money is there, I swear it.'
'It is the Company's money, and we must have it.'
'It will ruin my credit locally if I draw out my whole account under compulsion.'
'Then let him keep ten pounds in,' said Frank. Farintosh agreed with an ill grace to the compromise, and they all started off for the bank. When they reached the door the agent turned upon them with an appealing face.
'Don't come in with me, gentlemen. I could never hold up my head again.'
'It is for Mr. Crosse to decide.'
'I don't want to be unreasonable, Farintosh. Go in alone and draw the money.'
They could never understand why he begged for that extra five minutes. Perhaps it was that he had some mad hope of persuading the bank manager to allow him to overdraw to that amount. If so, the refusal was a curt one, for he reappeared with a ghastly face and walked up to Frank.
'I may as well confess to you, Mr. Crosse, I have nothing in the bank.'
Frank whistled and turned upon his heel. He could not by reproaches add to the wretched man's humiliation. After all, he had himself to blame. He had incurred a risk with his eyes open, and he was not the man to whine now that the thing had gone against him. Wingfield walked home with him and murmured some words of sympathy. At the gate the accountant left him and went on to the station.
So their liability had risen from fifty to two hundred and seventy pounds. Even Maude was for an instant daunted by the sum. The sale of their furniture would hardly meet it. It was the blackest hour of their lives, and yet, always a strange sweet undercurrent of joy was running through it, for it is only sorrow, fairly shared and bravely borne, which can weld two human souls together.
Dinner was over when there came a ring at the bell.
'If you please, sir, Mr. Farintosh would like to see you,' said the maid Jemima.
'Show him in here.'
'Don't you think, Frank, that I had better go?'
'No, I don't. I never asked him to come. If he comes, let him face us both. I have not made much of my dealings with him alone.'
He was shown in, downcast, shifty-eyed, and ill at ease. He laid his hat upon the floor, and crept humbly towards the chair which Frank pushed towards him.
'Well, Mr. Crosse, I have come round to tell you, and you too, missus, the sorrow I feel that I have brought this trouble upon you. I hoped all would have gone right after that last time, but I've had to pay up back debts, and that's what has put me wrong. I've never had what one may call a fair chance. But I'm really sorry, sir, that you who have, as one might say, befriended me, should have to suffer for it in this way.'
'Words won't mend it, Farintosh. I only blame you for not coming to me when first things began to go wrong.'
'Well, sir, I was always hoping that I could turn them right again, so as you wouldn't need to be troubled at all. And so it went from bad to worse until we find ourselves here. But what I wanted to ask you, Mr. Crosse, was what you meant to do about it?'
Frank writhed before this home question.
'Well, I suppose I am responsible,' said he.
'You mean to pay the money, sir?'
'Well, somebody must pay it.'
'Do you remember the wording of the bond, Mr. Crosse?'
'Not the exact wording.'
'Well, sir, I should advise you to get your lawyer to read it. In my opinion, sir, you are not liable at all.'
'Not liable!' Frank felt as if his heart had turned suddenly from a round-shot to an air-balloon. 'Why not liable?'
'You were a little slapdashy, if one might say so, in matters of business, sir, and perhaps you read that bond less carefully than I did. There was a clause in it by which the Company agreed frequently and periodically to audit my accounts, so as to prevent your liability being at any time a very high one.'
'So there was!' cried Frank. 'Well, didn't they?'
'No, sir, they didn't.'
'By Jove—Maude, do you hear that?—if that is right, they brought their own misfortunes upon themselves. Do you mean to say they never audited you?'
'Yes, sir, they did so four times.'
'In how long?'
'In fourteen months.'
The air-balloon was gone and the cannon-ball back in its place once more.
'That will be held to exonerate them.'
'No, sir, I think not. "Frequently and periodically" does not mean four times in fourteen months.'
'A jury might take it so.'
'Consider, sir, that the object was that your liability should be limited. Thousands of pounds were passing through my hands in that time, and therefore these four audits were, as one might say, insufficient for the object of the bond.'
'So I think,' cried Maude, with conviction. 'Frank, we'll have the best advice upon the subject to-morrow.'
'And meanwhile, Mr. Crosse,' said Farintosh, rising from his chair, 'I am your witness, whether the Company prosecutes me or not. And I hope that this will be some humble atonement for the trouble that I have brought you.'
And so a first rift of light began to shine in the dark place. But it was not broadened by the letter which he found waiting upon his breakfast-table -
Re Farintosh's Accounts.
HOTSPUR INSURANCE OFFICE.
Dear Sir,—On arriving in London I came here at once, and checked Farintosh's accounts from the books of the head office. I am sorry to say that I find a further discrepancy of seventy pounds. I am able, however, to assure you that we have now touched bottom. The total amount is three hundred and forty pounds, and a cheque for that sum at your early convenience would oblige us, as we are anxious to bring so unpleasant a business to a conclusion.—Yours truly,
To which Frank and Maude in collaboration -
Dear Sir,—I note your claim for 340 pounds on account of the affairs of your agent Farintosh. I am advised, however, that there have been certain irregularities in the matter, about which I must make some investigation before paying the claim.—Yours truly,
To which the Hotspur Insurance Office -
Sir,—Had your letter been a plea for more time to fulfil your engagement, we should have been content to wait; but since you appear disposed to dispute your liability, we have no alternative but to take immediate steps to enforce payment. -
Yours truly, JOHN WATERS, Secretary.
To which Frank and Maude -
Sir,—My solicitor, A. C. R. Owen, of 14 Shirley Lane, E.C., will be happy to accept service.
Which is the correct legal English for 'You may go to the devil!'
But this is an anticipation. In the meantime, having received the original letter and answered it, Frank went up to town as usual, while Maude played the more difficult part of waiting quietly at home. In his lunch-hour Frank went to see his friend and solicitor, who in turn obtained leave to see the bond, and came back with a grave face.
'You have a case,' said he, 'but by no means a certainty. It all depends upon how the judge might read the document. I think that it would strengthen our case very materially if we had counsel's opinion. I'll copy the bond and show it to Manners, and have his opinion before you go back to-night.'
So Frank went round again after office-hours, and found Owen waiting in very low spirits, for their relations were closer than those of mere solicitor and client.
'Very sorry,' said he.
'Opinion against us.'
'Dead against us.'
Frank tried to look as if he didn't mind.
'Let me see it.'
It was a long blue document with the heading, 'The Hotspur Insurance Company, Limited, v. Frank Crosse.'
'I have perused the case submitted to me, and the papers accompanying the same,' said the learned counsel, 'and in my opinion the Hotspur Insurance Company, Limited, are entitled to recover from Mr. Crosse under his guarantee, the sum of 340 pounds, being monies received by Mr. Farintosh, and not paid over by him to the said Company.' There was a great deal more, but it was anticlimax.
'Well, what shall we do?' asked Frank helplessly. The British law makes one feel so.
'Well, I should stand out, if I were you. There is certainly a chance.'
'Look here, old chap,' said Frank, 'I may as well be honest with you. If this thing goes against me, I am stony broke. I don't know where your costs are coming from.'
'Don't bother about that,' said Owen kindly. 'After all, Manners is not infallible. Let us have Holland, and see what he can make of it.'
So twenty-four hours later Frank found Owen radiant with another opinion in his hand.
'Dead for us this time. Look here!'
And he read out, 'I have carefully considered the case submitted to me for my opinion, and the documents sent therewith. In my opinion the Hotspur Insurance Company, Limited, are not entitled to recover against Mr. Crosse the sum claimed by them or any part thereof, as there has been a breach on their part of an essential condition of the guarantee.' 'He reads "frequently and periodically" as we do,' continued Owen, glancing over the long document, 'and he is very clear as to our case.'
'Suppose we have another, and try the best of three,' said Frank.
'It's too expensive a game. No, Holland is a sound man, and his opinion would weigh with any judge. I think we have enough to go on with.'
'And you think it is safe?'
'No, no, nothing is ever safe in the law. But we can make a fight of it now.'
And now Frank was to learn what it meant to be entangled in an intricate clumsy old machine, incredibly cumbrous and at the same time incredibly powerful, jolting along with its absurd forms and abominable English towards an end which might or might not be just, but was most certainly ruinously expensive. The game began by a direct letter from the Queen, of all people, an honour which Frank had never aspired to before, and certainly never did again.
Victoria, by the grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith, remarked abruptly to Frank Crosse of Woking, in the county of Surrey, 'We command you that within eight days of the service of this writ on you, inclusive of the day of such service, you cause an appearance to be entered for you in an action at the suit of the Hotspur Insurance Company, Limited.' If he didn't do so, Her Majesty remarked that several very unpleasant things might occur, and Hardinge Stanley, Earl of Halsbury, corroborated Her Majesty. Maude was frightened to death when she saw the document, and felt as if unawares they must have butted up against the British Constitution, but Owen explained that it was only a little legal firework, which meant that there might be some trouble later.
'Well, at any rate,' said Frank, 'it means that in eight days it will all be over.'
Owen laughed heartily at the remark.
'It means,' said he, 'that in eight days we must promise that at some future date we will begin to make preparations for something to happen in the future. That is about the meaning of it. All you can do now is to be perfectly philosophic, and leave the rest to me.'
But how is a man with a capital of fifty pounds going to be philosophic when he is fighting an opponent whose assets, as a certain hoarding near Clapham Junction told him every morning, exceeded three millions of pounds. He treated it lightly to Maude, and she to him, but each suffered horribly, and each was well aware of the other's real feelings. Sometimes there was a lull, and they could almost believe that the whole thing was over. And then the old machine gave a creak, and the rusty cog-wheels took one more turn, and they both felt the horrid thing which held them.
First of all, they had to enter appearances, which meant that they would dispute the action. Then the other side had to make an affidavit verifying their claim. Then a Master had to pronounce whether the action should be treated offhand, or whether he would listen to what they had to say about it. He decided to listen to what was to be said. Then each side claimed to see the other's documents, 'discovery' they called it, as if the documents were concealed, and they had to hunt for them stealthily with lanterns. Then each made remarks about the other's documents, and claimed to see the remarks so made. Then the lawyers of the Company made a statement of their claim, and when she read it Maude burst into tears, and said that it was all over, and they must make the best of it, and she should never forgive herself for that new dress in the spring. And then Frank's lawyer drew up a defence, and when Frank heard it, he said, 'Why, what a silly business it seems! They have not got a leg to stand upon.' And so, after all these flourishes and prancings, the two parties did actually begin to show signs of coming to a hearing after all, and a day was fixed for the trial. By a coincidence it was Frank's birthday. 'There's a good omen!' cried Maude.
The first herald of the approaching conflict was a seedy person, who thrust a paper into Frank's hand as he emerged from The Lindens in the morning. It was another letter from Her Majesty, in which sub poena (Her Majesty has not a gracious way of putting things in these documents), Mr. Frank Crosse had 'to attend at the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, at the sittings of the Queen's Bench Division of our High Court of Justice, to give evidence on behalf of the Hotspur Company.'
This seemed to Frank to be a most unexpected and fearsome stroke, but Owen simply laughed.
'That is mere bluff,' said he. 'It makes me think that they are weakening. They want to frighten you.'
'They did,' said Frank.
'Two can play at that game. We must keep a bold front.'
'What do you mean to do?'
'To subpoena all their crowd.'
'Capital!' cried Frank. So a clerk was sent across to the Hotspur office with a whole bundle of subpoenas, and served them liberally out. And in two days' time was the day of battle.
CHAPTER XV—A RESCUE
As the day fixed for the hearing drew near, Ruin lived with them by day and slept with them by night. Its dark shadow covered their lives, and they moved in the gloom of its presence. If the trial went against them, and Owen in his most hopeful moods did not disguise from them that it might, they would have to pay the double costs as well as the original claim. All that they possessed would not cover it. On the other hand, if they won, this rich Company might carry the matter to a higher Appeal Court, and so involve them in a fresh succession of anxieties and expenses. Do what they would, there was always danger. Frank said little, and he slept little also.
One night, just before the trial, Wingfield, the accountant of the Society, came down to Woking. He had managed the case all through for the directors. His visit was a sort of ultimatum.
'We are still ready to pay our own law-costs,' said he, 'if you will allow the original claim.'
'I can't do that,' said Frank doggedly.
'The costs are piling up at a furious rate, and some one will have to pay them.'
'I hope that it will be you.'
'Well, don't say afterwards that I did not warn you. My dear Crosse, I assure you that you are being misled, and that you have not really got a leg to stand upon.'
'That's what the trial is about,' said Frank.
He kept a bold face to the enemy, but after Wingfield's departure, Maude saw that his confidence was greatly shaken.
'He seemed very sure of their case,' said he. 'He would not speak like that if he did not know.'
But Maude took quite another view.
'If they know that they can recover their money in court, why should they send Mr. Wingfield down in this way.'
'He is such a good chap—he wants to save us expense.'
Maude was less trusting.
'He is doing the best for his own side,' said she. 'It is his duty, and we can't blame him. But if he thought it best to get behind his own lawyers and come down here, then he must have some doubts about going into court. Perhaps he would be willing to consider some compromise.'
But Frank only shook his head.
'We have drawn the cork, and we must drink the wine,' said he. 'We have gone too far to stop. Any compromise which they would accept would be as much out of our power to pay as the whole sum would be, and so we may just as well see it through.' But for once Maude did not take his opinion as final, but lay awake all night and thought it over. She had determined to begin acting upon her own account, and she was so eager to try what she could do that she lay longing for the morning to break. When she came down to breakfast, her plan of campaign was formed.
'I am coming up to town with you, Frank.'
'Delighted to hear it, dear.' When she had shopping to do, she frequently went up with him, so it did not surprise him. What would have surprised him was to know that she had despatched three telegrams, by means of Jemima, before he was up.
'To John Selby, 53 Fenchurch Street, E.C. Will call eleven o'clock. Important business. - MAUDE.'
'To Lieutenant Selby, the Depot, Canterbury. Please come up next train, meet me Fenchurch Street, eleven thirty. Important. - MAUDE.'
'To Owen, 14 Shirley Lane, E.C. Will call twelve o'clock. Important.—MRS. CROSSE.'
So she had opened her campaign.
'By the way, Frank,' said she, as they travelled up together, 'to- morrow is your birthday.'
'Yes, dear, it is,' he answered lugubriously.
'Dear me! What shall I give my boy for a birthday present? Nothing you particularly want?'
'I have all I want,' said he, looking at her.
'Oh, but I think I could find something. I must look round when I am in town.'
She began her looking round by a visit to her father in Fenchurch Street. It was something new for him to get telegrams from Maude upon business, and he was very much surprised.
'Looking remarkably well, my dear. Your appearance is a certificate of character to your husband. Well, and how is all at Woking? I hope the second cook proved to be a success.'
But Maude was not there for small talk. 'Dear dad,' said she, 'I want you to stand by me, for I am in trouble. Now, my dear good dad, please see things from my point of view, and don't make objections, and do exactly what I ask you.' She threw her arms round his neck and gave him a hearty squeeze.
'Now I call that exerting undue pressure,' said he, extricating his white head. 'If this sort of thing is allowed in the city of London, there is an end of all business.' However, his eyes twinkled and looked as if he liked it. 'Now madame, what can I do for you?'
'I'm going to be perfectly business-like,' said she, and gave him another squeeze before sitting down. 'Look here, dad. You give me an income of fifty pounds a year, don't you?'
'My dear girl, I can't raise it. Jack's expenses in the Hussars—'
'I don't want you to raise it.'
'What do you want?'
'I seem to remember, dad, that you told me that this fifty pounds was the interest on a thousand pounds which was invested for me.'
'So it is—five per cent. debentures.'
'Well, dad, if I were content with an income of twenty-five pounds a year instead of fifty pounds, then I could take five hundred pounds out of my money, and nobody would be the worse.'
Maude laughed at that.
'I want the use of the money just for one day. I certainly won't need it all. I just want to feel that I have as much as that in case I need it. Now, my dear old daddy, do please not ask any questions, but be very nice and good, and tell me how I can get these five hundred pounds.'
'And you won't tell me why you want them?'
'I had rather not—but I will if you insist.'
Old Selby looked into the brave, clear eyes of his daughter, and he did not insist.
'Look here! You've got your own little banking account, have you not?'
'That's right. Never mix it up with your husband's.' He scribbled a cheque. 'Pay that in! It is for five hundred pounds. I will sell half your debentures and charge you with brokerage. I believe in strict business between relatives. When you pay back the five hundred pounds, your allowance will be fifty a year once more.'
Maude then and there endorsed the cheque and posted it to her bank. Then with a final embrace to her father, she hastened out to further victories. Jack Selby was smoking a cigarette upon the doorstep.
'Hullo, Maude! Calling up the reserves? What's the matter? Jolly lucky it wasn't my day on duty. You girls think a soldier has nothing to do. It was so once, but we are all scientific blokes now. No, thank you, I won't see the dad! He'd think I had come for money, and it would upset him for the day.'
Maude took her brother in the cab with her, and told him the whole story of Frank's misfortune, with some account of her own intentions. Jack was vastly interested.
'What did dad say about it?'
'I didn't tell him. I thought Frank would rather not.'
'Quite right. He won't mind me. He knows I'm a bit of a business man myself. Only signed a paper once in my life, and quite a small paper too, and I haven't heard the last of it yet. The thing wasn't much bigger than a postcard, but the fuss those people made afterwards! I suppose they've been worrying Frank.'
'We have had no peace for months.'
'Worry is bad for the young. But he should not mind. He should go on fizzing like I did. Now we'll put this thing through together, Maude. I see your line, and I'll ride it with you.'
They found Mr. Owen at home, and Maude did the talking.
'I am convinced, Mr. Owen, that they don't want to go into court. Mr. Wingfield coming down like that proves it. My husband is too proud to bargain with them, but I have no scruples. Don't you think that I might go to Mr. Wingfield myself, and pay the three hundred and forty pounds, and so have done with the worry for ever?'
'Speaking as a lawyer,' said Owen, 'I think that it is very irregular. Speaking as a man, I think no harm could come of it. But I should not like you to offer the whole sum. Simply say that you are prepared for a reasonable compromise, and ask them to suggest what is the lowest sum which the office would accept to close the business.'
'You leave it with me,' said Jack, winking at the lawyer. 'I am seeing her through. I'll keep her on the rails. I am Number 1, Class A, at business. We'll take 'em up one link in the curb if they try any games with us! Come on, Maude, and get it over.'
He was an excellent companion for her, for his buoyancy turned the whole thing into fun. She could not take it too seriously in his company. They called at the Hotspur office and asked to see Mr. Wingfield. He was engaged, but Mr. Waters, the secretary, a very fat, pompous man, came in to them.
'I am very sorry,' said he, 'very sorry, indeed, Mrs. Crosse, but it is too late for any compromise of the sort. We have our costs to consider, and there is no alternative but for the case to go into court.'
Poor Maude nearly burst into tears.
'But suppose that we were to offer—'
'To give you an hour to think it over,' cried Jack.
Mr. Waters shook, his head despondently.
'I do not think that we should alter our decision. However, Mr. Wingfield will be here presently, and he will, of course, listen to any representations which you may have to make. In the meantime you must excuse me, as I have matters of importance to attend to.'
'Why, Maude, you little Juggins,' cried Jack, when the door was shut, 'you were just going to offer to pay their costs. I only just headed you off in time.'
'Well, I was going to inquire about it.'
'Great Scot, it's lucky you've got a business man at your elbow. I couldn't stand that chap at any price. A bit too hairy in the fetlocks for my taste. Couldn't you see that he was only bluffing?'
'How do you know, Jack?'
'It was shining all over him. Do you suppose a man has bought as many hairies as I have, and can't tell when a dealer is bluffing? He was piling it on so that when the next Christmas-tree comes along, he may find a soft job waiting for him. I tell you you want a friendly native, like me, when you get into this kind of country. Now ride this one on the curb, and don't let him have his head for a moment.'
Mr. Wingfield had entered, and his manner was very different to that of the secretary. He had great sympathy with the Crosses, and no desire to wash the Company's dirty linen in public. He was, therefore, more anxious than he dared to show to come to some arrangement.
'It is rather irregular for me to see you. I should refer you to our solicitors,' said he.
'Well, we saw you when you came to Woking,' said Maude. 'I believe that we are much more likely to come to an arrangement if we talk it over ourselves.'
'I am sure I earnestly hope so,' Wingfield answered. 'I shall be delighted to listen to anything which you may suggest. Do you, in the first place, admit your liability?'
'To some extent,' said Maude, 'if the Company will admit that they are in the wrong also.'
'Well, we may go so far as to say that we wish the books had been inspected more often, and that we regret our misplaced confidence in our agent. That should satisfy you, Mrs. Crosse. And now that you admit SOME liability, that is a great step in advance. We have no desire to be unreasonable, but as long as no liability was admitted, we had no course open to us but litigation. We now come to the crucial point, which is, how much liability should fall upon you. My own idea is, that each should pay their own costs, and that you should, in addition, pay over to the Company—'
'Forty pounds,' said Jack firmly.
Maude expected Mr. Wingfield to rise up and leave the room. As he did not do so, nor show any signs of violence, she said, 'Yes, forty pounds.'
He shook his head.
'Dear me, Mrs. Crosse, this is a very small sum.'
'Forty pounds is our offer,' said Jack.
'But on what is this offer based?'
'We have worked it out,' said Jack, 'and we find that forty pounds is right.'
Mr. Wingfield rose from his chair.
'Well,' said he, 'of course any offer is better than no offer. I cannot say what view the directors may take of this proposal, but they will hold a board meeting this afternoon, and I will lay it before them.'
'And when shall we know?'
'I could send you round a line by hand to your solicitor.'
'No hurry about it! Quite at your own convenience!' said Jack. When he got outside, in the privacy of their hansom, he was convulsed with the sense of his own achievements.
'Class A, Number 1, and mentioned at the Agricultural Hall,' he cried, hugging himself in his delight. His sister hugged him also, so he was a much-embraced young man. 'Am I not a man of business, Maude? You can't buy 'em—you must breed 'em. One shilling with the basket. I shook him in the first round, and he never rallied after.'
'You are a dear good boy. You did splendidly.'
'That's the way to handle 'em. He saw that I was a real fizzer and full of blood. One business man can tell another at a glance.'
Maude laughed, for Jack, with his cavalry swagger and a white weal all round his sunburned face to show where his chin-strap hung, looked the most unbusiness-like of mortals.
'Why did you offer forty pounds?' she asked.
'Well, you have to begin somewhere.'
'But why forty?'
'Because it is what we offer when we are buying the hairies— trooper's chargers, you know. It's a great thing to have a fixed rule in business. I never go higher than forty—rule one, section one, and no exceptions in the margin.'
They lunched together at the Holborn, and Jack took Maude afterwards to what he called 'a real instructive show,' which proved to be a horse-sale at Tattersall's. They then drove back to the lawyer's, and there they found a letter waiting addressed to Mrs. Crosse. Maude tore it open.
'Dear Mrs. Crosse,' said this delightful note, 'I am happy to be able to inform you that the directors have decided to stop the legal proceedings, and to accept your offer of forty pounds in full satisfaction of all claims due against your husband.'
Maude, Jack, and the good Owen performed a triumphant pas de trois.
'You have done splendidly, Mrs. Crosse, splendidly!' cried Owen. 'I never heard a better day's work in my life. Now, if you will give me your cheque and wait here, I will go over and settle everything.'
'And please bring the bond back with you,' said Maude.
So it was that Frank, coming down upon the morning of his birthday, perceived a pretty silver cigarette-box laid in front of his plate.
'Is this for me, my darling?'
'Yes, Frank, a wee present from your wife.'
'How sweet of you! I never saw such a lovely case. Why, there's something inside it.'
'Cigarettes, I suppose.
'No, it is a paper of some kind. "Hotspur Insurance Company." Good Lord, I never seem for one instant to be able to shake that infernal thing off! How on earth did it get in there? What's this?—"I hereby guarantee to you—" What's this? Maude, Maude, what have you been doing?'
'Dear old boy,' she cried, as she put her arms round him. 'Dear old boy! Oh, I DO feel so happy!'
CHAPTER XVI—THE BROWNING SOCIETY
It all began by Mrs. Hunt Mortimer, the smart little up-to-date wife of the solicitor, saying to Mrs. Beecher, the young bride of the banker, that in a place like Woking it was very hard to get any mental friction, or to escape from the same eternal grooves of thought and conversation. The same idea, it seemed, had occurred to Mrs. Beecher, fortified by a remark from the Lady's Journal that an internal intellectual life was the surest method by which a woman could preserve her youth. She turned up the article—for the conversation occurred in her drawing-room—and she read extracts from it. 'Shakespeare as a Cosmetic' was the title. Maude was very much struck, and before they separated they had formed themselves into a Literary Society which should meet and discuss classical authors every Wednesday afternoon at each other's houses. That one hour of concentrated thought and lofty impulse should give a dignity and a tone to the whole dull provincial week.
What should they read? It was well that they should decide it before they separated, so as to start fair upon the next Wednesday. Maude suggested Shakespeare, but Mrs. Hunt Mortimer thought that a good deal of it was improper.
'Does it matter?' said Mrs. Beecher. 'We are all married.'
'Still I don't think it would be quite nice,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. She belonged to the extreme right on matters of propriety.
'But surely Mr. Bowdler made Shakespeare quite respectable,' Mrs. Beecher argued.
'He did his work very carelessly. He left in much that might be dispensed with, and he omitted a good deal which was quite innocent.'
'How do you know?'
'Because I once got two copies and read all the omissions.'
'Why did you do that?' asked Maude mischievously.
'Because I wanted to make sure that they HAD been omitted,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer severely.
Mrs. Beecher stooped and picked an invisible hairpin out of the rug. Mrs. Hunt Mortimer continued.
'There is Byron, of course. But he is so very suggestive. There are passages in his works—'
'I could never see any harm in them,' said Mrs. Beecher.
'That is because you did not know where to look,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'If you have a copy in the house, Mrs. Beecher, I will undertake to make it abundantly clear to you that he is to be eschewed by those who wish to keep their thoughts unsullied. Not? I fancy that even quoting from memory I could convince you that it is better to avoid him.'
'Pass Byron,' said Mrs. Beecher, who was a very pretty little kittenish person, with no apparent need of any cosmetics, literary or otherwise. 'How about Shelley?'
'Frank raves about Shelley,' observed Maude.
Mrs. Hunt Mortimer shook her head.
'His work has some dreadful tendencies. He was, I am informed, either a theist or an atheist, I cannot for the moment recall which— I think that we should make our little course as improving as possible.'
'Tennyson,' Maude suggested.
'I have been told that his meaning is too clear to entitle him to rank among the great thinkers of our race. The lofty thought is necessarily obscure. There is no merit in following a poem which is perfectly intelligible. Which leads us to—'
'Browning!' cried the other ladies.
'Exactly. We might form a little Browning Society of our own.'
And so it was agreed.
There was only one other point to be settled at this their inaugural meeting, which was, to choose the other ladies who should be admitted into their literary circle. There were to be no men.
'They do distract one so,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer.
The great thing was to admit no one save those earnest spirits who would aspire to get the full benefit from their studies. Mrs. Fortescue could not be thought of, she was much too talkative. And Mrs. Jones had such a frivolous mind. Mrs. Charles could think and talk of nothing but her servants. And Mrs. Patt-Beatson always wanted to lay down the law. Perhaps on the whole it would be better to start the society quietly among themselves, and then gradually to increase it. The first meeting should be next Wednesday, at Mrs. Crosse's house, and Mrs. Hunt Mortimer would bring her complete two- volume edition with her. Mrs. Beecher thought that one volume would be enough just at first, but Mrs. Hunt Mortimer said that it was better to have a wide choice. Maude went home and told Frank in the evening. He was pleased, but rather sceptical.
'You must begin with the simpler things first,' said he. 'I should recommend Herve Riel and Gold Hair.'
But Maude put on the charming air of displeasure which became her so well.
'We are serious students, sir,' said she. 'We want the very hardest poem in the book. I assure you, Frank, that one of your little faults is that you always underrate a woman's intelligence. Mrs. Hunt Mortimer says that though we may be less original than men, we are more assim—more assmun—'
'That's what I say—assimulative. Now, you always talk as if—oh yes, you do! No, you mustn't! How absurd you are, Frank! Whenever I try to speak seriously to you, you always do that and spoil everything. How would you like to discuss Browning if at the end of every sentence somebody came and kissed you? You wouldn't mind! No, I dare say not. But you would feel that you were not being taken seriously. Wait till the next time YOU are in earnest about anything—you'll see!'
The meeting was to be at three o'clock, and at ten minutes to the hour Mrs. Hunt Mortimer arrived with two large brown volumes under her arm. She had come early, she said, because there was to be a rehearsal of the amateur theatricals at the Dixons' at a quarter-past four. Mrs. Beecher did not appear until five minutes after the hour. Her cook had quarrelled with the housemaid, and given instantaneous notice, with five people coming to dinner on Saturday. It had upset the lady very much, and she explained that she would not have come if she had not promised. It was so difficult to follow poetry when you were thinking about the entree all the time.
'Why the entree?' asked Mrs. Hunt Mortimer, looking up from the book which she held open in front of her.
'My dear,' said Mrs. Beecher, who had the art of saying the most simple things as if they were profoundly confidential secrets,—'My dear, my parlourmaid is really an excellent cook, and I shall rely upon her if Martha really goes. But she is limited, very limited, and entrees and savouries are the two things in which I cannot entirely trust her. I must, therefore, find some dish which is well within her capacity.'
Mrs. Hunt Mortimer prided herself upon her housekeeping, so the problem interested her. Maude also began to feel the meeting less dull than she had expected.
'Of course there are many things to be considered,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer, with the air of a Q.C. giving an opinion. 'Oyster patties or oyster vol-au-vents—'
'Oysters are out of season,' said Maude.
'I was about to say,' Mrs. Hunt Mortimer continued, with admirable presence of mind, 'that these entrees of oysters are inadmissible because they are out of season. Now curried prawns—'
'My husband loathes them.'
'Well, well! What do you say to sweetbreads en caisse? All you want are chopped mushrooms, shalots, parsley, nutmeg, pepper, salt, breadcrumb, bacon fat—'
'No, no,' cried Mrs. Beecher despairingly. 'Anne would never remember all that.'
'Cutlets a la Constance,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'I am sure that they are simple enough. Cutlets, butter, fowls' livers, cocks' combs, mushrooms—'
'My dear, my dear, remember that she is only a parlourmaid. It is unreasonable.'
'Ragout of fowl, chicken patties, croquettes of veal with a little browning—'
'We've got back to Browning after all,' cried Maude.
'Dear me,' said Mrs. Beecher, 'it is all my fault, and I am so sorry. Now, Mrs. Hunt Mortimer, do please read us a little of that delightful poetry.'
'You can always get small entrees sent down from the Stores,' cried Maude, as a happy thought.
'You dear, good girl, how sweet of you to think of it. Of course one can. That is really an admirable idea. There now, we may consider the entree as being removed, so we proceed to—'
'The piece de resistance,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer solemnly, glancing down the index of the first volume. 'I confess that my acquaintance with the poet has up to now been rather superficial. Our ambition must be to so master him that he becomes from this time forward part and parcel of ourselves. I fancy that the difficulties in understanding him have been very much exaggerated, and that with goodwill and perseverance we shall manage to overcome them.'
It was a relief to Mrs. Beecher and to Maude to realise that Mrs. Hunt Mortimer knew no more about the matter than themselves. They both ventured upon a less diffident air now that it was clear that it might be done in safety. Maude frowned thoughtfully, and Mrs. Beecher cast up her pretty brown eyes at the curtain-rod, as if she were running over in her memory the whole long catalogue of the poet's works.
'I will tell you what we should do,' said she. 'We must make a vow that we shall never pass a line until we understand it. We will go over it again and again until we grasp its meaning.'
'What an excellent idea!' cried Maude, with one of her little bursts of enthusiasm. 'Now that is really splendid, Mrs. Beecher.'
'My friends always call me Nellie,' said the little brunette.
'How nice of you to say so! I should love to call you so, if you don't mind. It is such a pretty name too. Only you must call me Maude.'
'You look like a Maude,' said Mrs. Beecher. 'I always picture a Maude as bright and pretty and blonde. Isn't it strange how names associate themselves with characters. Mary is always domestic, and Rose is a flirt, and Elizabeth is dutiful, and Evelyn is dashing, and Alice is colourless, and Helen is masterful—'
'And Matilda is impatient,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer, laughing. 'Matilda has reason to be, seated here with an index in front of her while you two are exchanging compliments.'
'Why, we were waiting for you to begin,' said Mrs. Beecher reproachfully. 'Do let us have something, for really the time is slipping away.'
'It would be a pity to begin at the beginning, because that represents his immature genius,' remarked Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'I think that on this the opening day of the Society, we should have the poet at his best.'
'How are we to know which IS his best?' Maude asked.
'I should be inclined to choose something with a title which suggests profundity—"A Pretty Woman," "Love in a Life," "Any Wife to any Husband"—'
'Oh, what DID she say to him?' cried Maude.
'Well, I was about to say that all these subjects rather suggested frivolity.'
'Besides, it really is a very absurd title,' remarked Mrs. Beecher, who was fond of generalising from her six months' experience of matrimony. 'A husband to A wife' would be intelligible, but how can you know what ANY husband would say to ANY wife? No one can really foretell what a man will do. They really are such extraordinary creatures.'
But Mrs. Hunt Mortimer had been married for five years, and felt as competent to lay down the law about husbands as about entrees.
'When you have had a larger experience of them, dear, you will find that there is usually a reason, or at least a primitive instinct of some sort, at the root of their actions. But, seriously, we must really concentrate our attention upon the poet, for my other engagement will call me away at four, which only leaves me ten minutes to reach Maybury.'
Mrs. Beecher and Maude settled down with anxious attention upon their faces.
'Do please go on!' they cried.
'Here is "The Pied Piper of Hamelin."'
'Now that interests me more than I can tell,' cried Maude, with her eyes shining with pleasure. 'Do please read us everything there is about that dear piper.'
'Why so?' asked her two companions.
'Well, the fact is,' said Maude, 'Frank—my husband, you know—came to a fancy-dress at St. Albans as the Pied Piper. I had no idea that it came from Browning.'
'How did he dress for it?' asked Mrs. Beecher. 'We are invited to the Aston's dress ball, and I want something suitable for George.'
'It was a most charming dress. Red and black all over, something like Mephistopheles, you know, and a peaked hat with a bell at the top. Then he had a flute, of course, and a thin wire from his waist with a stuffed rat at the end of it.'
'A rat! How horrid!'
'Well, that was the story, you know. The rats all followed the Pied Piper, and so this rat followed Frank. He put it in his pocket when he danced, but once he forgot, and so it got stood upon, and the sawdust came out all over the floor.'
Mrs. Hunt Mortimer was also invited to the dress ball, and her thoughts flew away from the book in front of her.
'How did you go, Mrs. Crosse?' she asked.
'I went as "Night."'
'What! you with your brown hair!'
'Well, father said that I was not a very dark night. I was in black, you know, just my ordinary black silk dinner-dress. Then I had a silver half-moon over my head, and black veils round my hair, and stars all over my bodice and skirt, with a long comet right across the front. Father upset a cup of milk over me at supper, and said afterwards that it was the milky way.'
'It is simply maddening how men WILL make jokes about the most important subjects,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'But I have no doubt, dear, that your dress was an exceedingly effective one. Now, for my own part, I had some idea of going as the "Duchess of Devonshire."'
'Charming!' cried Mrs. Beecher and Maude.
'It is not a very difficult costume, you know. I have some old Point d'Alencon lace which has been in the family for a century. I make it the starting-point of my costume. The gown need not be very elaborate—'
'Silk?' asked Mrs. Beecher.
'Well, I thought that perhaps a white-flowered brocade—'
'Oh yes, with pearl trimming.'
'No, no, dear, with my lace for trimming.'
'Of course. You said so.'
'And then a muslin fichu coming over here.'
'How perfectly sweet!' cried Maude.
'And the waist cut high, and ruffles at the sleeves. And, of course, a picture hat—you know what I mean—with a curling ostrich feather.'
'Powdered hair, of course?' said Mrs. Beecher.
'Powdered in ringlets.'
'It will suit you admirably—beautifully. You are tall enough to carry it off, and you have the figure also. How I wish I was equally certain about my own!'
'What had you thought of, dear?'
'Well, I had some idea about "Ophelia." Do you think that it would do?'
'Certainly. Had you worked it out at all?'
'Well, my dear,' said Mrs. Beecher, relapsing into her pleasant confidential manner. 'I had some views, but, of course, I should be so glad to have your opinion about it. I only saw Hamlet once, and the lady was dressed in white, with a gauzy light nun's-veiling over it. I thought that with white pongee silk as an under-dress, and then some sort of delicate—'
'Crepe de Chine,' Maude suggested.
'But in Ophelia's day such a thing had never been heard of,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'A net of silver thread—'
'Exactly,' cried Mrs. Beecher, 'with some sort of jewelling upon it. That was just what I had imagined. Of course it should be cut classically and draped—my dressmaker is such a treasure—and I should have a gold embroidery upon the white silk.'
'Crewel work,' said Maude.
'Or a plain cross-stitch pattern. Then a tiara of pearls on the head. Shakespeare—'
At the name of the poet their three consciences pricked simultaneously. They looked at each other and then at the clock with dismay.
'We must—we really MUST go on with our reading,' cried Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'How did we get talking about these dresses?'
'It was my fault,' said Mrs. Beecher, looking contrite.
'No, dear, it was mine,' said Maude. 'You remember it all came from my saying that Frank had gone to the ball as the Pied Piper.'
'I am going to read the very first poem that I open,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer remorselessly. 'I am afraid that it is almost time that I started, but we may still be able to skim over a few pages. Now then! There! Setebos! What a funny name!'
'What DOES it mean?' asked Maude.
'We shall find out, no doubt, as we proceed,' said Mrs. Hunt Mortimer. 'We shall take it line by line and draw the full meaning from it. The first line is -
'Will sprawl now that the heat of day is best—'
'Who will?' asked Mrs. Beecher.
'I don't know. That's what it says.'
'The next line will explain, no doubt.'
'Flat on his—'
'Dear me, I had no idea that Browning was like this!'
'Do read it, dear.'
'I couldn't possibly think of doing so. With your permission we will pass on to the next paragraph.'
'But we vowed not to skip.'
'But why read what cannot instruct or elevate us. Let us begin this next stanza, and hope for something better. The first line is—I wonder if it really can be as it is written.'
'Do please read it!'
'Setebos and Setebos and Setebos.'
The three students looked sadly at each other. 'This is worse than anything I could have imagined,' said the reader.
'We mast skip that line.'
'But we are skipping everything.'
'It's a person's name,' said Mrs. Beecher.
'Or three persons.'
'No, only one, I think.'
'But why should he repeat it three times?'
'Perhaps,' said Mrs. Beecher, 'it was Mr. Setebos, and Mrs. Setebos, and a little Setebos.'
'Now, if you are going to make fun, I won't read. But I think we were wrong to say that we would take it line by line. It would be easier sentence by sentence.'
'Then we will include the next line, which finishes the sentence. It is, "thinketh he dwelleth in the cold of the moon."'
'Then it WAS only one Setebos!' cried Maude.
'So it appears. It is easy to understand if one will only put it into ordinary language. This person Setebos was under the impression that his life was spent in the moonlight.'
'But what nonsense it is!' cried Mrs. Beecher. Mrs. Hunt Mortimer looked at her reproachfully. 'It is very easy to call everything which we do not understand "nonsense,"' said she. 'I have no doubt that Browning had a profound meaning in this.'
'What was it, then?'
Mrs. Hunt Mortimer looked at the clock.
'I am very sorry to have to go,' said she, 'but really I have no choice in the matter. Just as we were getting on so nicely—it is really most vexatious. You'll come to my house next Wednesday, Mrs. Crosse, won't you? And you also, Mrs. Beecher. Good-bye, and thanks for SUCH a pleasant afternoon!'
But her skirts had hardly ceased to rustle in the passage before the Browning Society had been dissolved by a two-thirds' vote of the total membership.
'What is the use?' cried Mrs. Beecher. 'Two lines have positively made my head ache, and there are two volumes.'
'We must change our poet.'
'His verbosity!' cried Mrs. Beecher.
'His Setebosity!' cried Maude.
'And dear Mrs. Hunt Mortimer pretending to like him! Shall we propose Tennyson next week?'
'It would be far better.'
'But Tennyson is quite simple, is he not?'
'Then why should we meet to discuss him if there is nothing to discuss?'
'You mean that we might as well each read him for herself.'
'I think it would be easier.'
'Why, of course it would.'
And so after one hour of precarious life, Mrs. Hunt Mortimer's Mutual Improvement Society for the elucidation of Browning came to an untimely end.
CHAPTER XVII—AN INVESTMENT
'I want your advice, Maude.'
She was looking very sweet and fresh in the morning sunlight. She wore a flowered, French print blouse—little sprigs of roses on a white background—and a lace frill round her pretty, white, smooth throat. The buckle of her brown leather belt just gleamed over the edge of the table-cloth. In front of her were a litter of correspondence, a white cup of coffee, and two empty eggshells—for she was a perfectly healthy young animal with an excellent appetite.
'Well, dear, what is it?'
'I shall take the later train. Then I need not hurry, and can walk down at my ease.'
'How nice of you!'
'I am not sure that Dinton will think so.'
'Only one little hour of difference—what can it matter?'
'They don't run offices on those lines. An hour means a good deal in the City of London.'
'Oh, I do hate the City of London! It is the only thing which ever comes between us.'
'I suppose that it separates a good many loving couples every morning.'
He had come across and an egg-cup had been upset. Then he had been scolded, and they sat together laughing upon the sofa. When he had finished admiring her little, shining, patent-leather, Louis shoes and the two charming curves of open-work black stocking, she reminded him that he had asked for her advice.
'Yes, dear, what was it?' She knitted her brows and tried to look as her father did when he considered a matter of business. But then her father was not hampered by having a young man's arm round his neck. It is so hard to be business-like when any one is curling one's hair round his finger.
'I have some money to invest.'
'O Frank, how clever of you!'
'It is only fifty pounds.'
'Never mind, dear, it is a beginning.'
'That is what I feel. It is the foundation-stone of our fortunes. And so I want Her Majesty to lay it—mustn't wrinkle your brow though—that is not allowed.'
'But it is a great responsibility, Frank.'
'Yes, we must not lose it.'
'No, dear, we must not lose it. Suppose we invest it in one of those modern fifty-guinea pianos. Our dear old Broadwood was an excellent piano when I was a girl, but it is getting so squeaky in the upper notes. Perhaps they would allow us something for it.'
He shook his head.
'I know that we want one very badly, dear. And such a musician as you are should have the best instrument that money can buy. I promise you that when we have a little to turn round on, you shall have a beauty. But in the meantime we must not buy anything with this money—I mean nothing for ourselves—we must invest it. We cannot tell what might happen. I might fall ill. I might die.'
'O Frank, how horrid you are this morning!'
'Well, we have to be ready for anything. So I want to put this where we can get it on an emergency, and where in the meantime it will bring us some interest. Now what shall we buy?'
'Papa always bought a house.'
'But we have not enough.'
'Not a little house?'
'No, not the smallest.'
'A mortgage, then?'
'The sum is too small.'
'Government stock, Frank—if you think it is safe.'
'Oh, it is safe enough. But the interest is so low.'
'How much should we get?'
'Well, I suppose the fifty pounds would bring us in about thirty shillings a year.'
'Thirty shillings! O Frank!'
'Rather less than more.'
'Fancy a great rich nation like ours taking our fifty pounds and treating us like that. How MEAN of them! Don't let them have it, Frank.'
'No, I won't.'
'If they want it, they can make us a fair offer for it.'
'I think we'll try something else.'
'Well, they have only themselves to thank. But you have some plan in your head, Frank. What is it?'
He brought the morning paper over from the table. Then he folded it so as to bring the financial columns to the top.
'I saw a fellow in the City yesterday who knows a great deal about gold-mining. I only had a few minutes' talk, but he strongly advised me to have some shares in the El Dorado Proprietary Gold Mine.'
'What a nice name! I wonder if they would let us have any?'
'Oh yes, they are to be bought in the open market. It is like this, Maude. The mine was a very good one, and paid handsome dividends. Then it had some misfortunes. First, there was no water, and then there was too much water, and the workings were flooded. So, of course, the price of the shares fell. Now they are getting the mine all right again, but the shares are still low. It certainly seems a very good chance to pick a few of them up.'
'Are they very dear, Frank?'
'I looked them up in the Mining Register before I came home yesterday. The original price of each share was ten shillings, but as they have had these misfortunes, one would expect to find them rather lower.'
'Ten shillings! It does not seem much to pay for a share in a thing with a name like that.'
'Here it is,' said he, pointing with a pencil to one name in a long printed list. 'This one, between the Royal Bonanza and the Alabaster Consols. You see—El Dorado Proprietary! Then after it you have printed, 4.75—4.875. I don't profess to know much about these things, but that of course means the price.'
'Yes, dear, it is printed at the top of the column—"Yesterday's prices."'
'Quito so. Well, we know that the original price of each share was ten shillings, and of course they must have dropped with a flood in the mine, so that these figures must mean that the price yesterday was four shillings and nine-pence, or thereabouts.'
'What a clear head for business you have, dear!'
'I think we can't do wrong in buying at that price. You see, with our fifty pounds we could buy two hundred of them, and then if they went up again we could sell, and take our profit.'
'How delightful! But suppose they don't go up.'
'Well, they can't go down. I should not think that a share at four shillings and ninepence COULD go down very much. There is no room. But it may go up to any extent.'
'Besides, your friend said that they would go up.'
'Yes, he seemed quite confident about it. Well, what do you think, Maude? Is it good enough or not?'
'O Frank, I hardly dare advise you. Just imagine if we were to lose it all. Do you think it would be wiser to get a hundred shares, and then we could buy twenty-five pounds' worth of Royal Bonanza as well. It would be impossible for them both to go wrong.'
'The Royal Bonanza shares are dear, and then we have had no information about it. I think we had better back our own opinion.'
'All right, Frank.'
'Then that is settled. I have a telegraph-form here.'
'Could you not buy them yourself when you are in town?'
'No, you can't buy things yourself. You have to do it through a broker.'
'I always thought a broker was a horrid man, who came and took your furniture away.'
'Ah, that's another kind of broker. He comes afterwards. I promised Harrison that he should have any business which I could put in his way, so here goes. How is that?' -
'Harrison, 13a Throgmorton Street, E.C.—Buy two hundred El Dorado Proprietaries.
'Doesn't it sound rather peremptory, Frank?'
'No, no, that is mere business.'
'I hope he won't be offended.'
'I think I can answer for that.'
'You have not said the price.'
'One cannot say the price because one does not know it. You see, it is always going up and down. By this time it may be a little higher or a little lower than yesterday. There cannot be much change, that is certain. Great Scot, Maude, it is ten-fifteen. Three and a half minutes for a quarter of a mile. Good-bye, darling! I just love you in that bodice. O Lord—good-bye!'
'Well, has anything happened?'
'Yes, you have come back. Oh I am so glad to see you, you dear old boy!'
'Take care of that window, darling!'
'Oh, my goodness, I hope he didn't see. No, it's all right. He was looking the other way. We have the gold shares all right.'
'Harrison has telegraphed?'
'Yes, here it is.' -
'Crosse, The Lindens, Woking.—Bought two hundred El Dorados at 4.75.
'That is capital. I rather expected to see Harrison in the train. I shouldn't be surprised if he calls on his way from the station. He has to pass our door, you know, on his way to Maybury.'
'He is sure to call.'
'What are you holding there?'
'It's a paper.'
'Who is it who talks about woman's curiosity?'
'Let me see it.'
'Well, sir, if you must know, it is the Financial Whisper.'
'Where in the world did you get it?'
'I knew that the Montresors took a financial paper. I remember Mrs. Montresor saying once how dreadfully dry it was. So when you were gone I sent Jemima round and borrowed it, and I have read it right through to see if there was anything about our mine in it—OUR mine, Frank; does it not sound splendid?'
'Well, is there anything?'
She clapped her hands with delight.
'Yes, there is. "This prosperous mine—" that is what it says. Look here, it is under the heading of Australian Notes,' she held out the paper and pointed, but his face fell as he looked.
'O Maude, it's preposterous.'
'What is preposterous?'
'The word is preposterous and not prosperous—"this preposterous mine."'
'Frank!' She turned her face away.
'Never mind, dear! What's the odds?'
'O Frank, our first investment—our fifty pounds! And to think that I should have kept the paper as a surprise for you!'
'Well, the print is a little slurred, and it was a very natural mistake. After all, the paper may be wrong. Oh don't, Maude, please don't! It's not worth it—all the gold on the earth is not worth it. There's a sweet girlie! Now, are you better? Oh, damn those open curtains!'
A tall and brisk young man with a glossy hat was coming through the garden. An instant later Jemima had ushered him in.
'How do you do, Crosse? How are you, Mrs. Crosse?'
'How do you do? I'll just order tea if you will excuse me.'
Ordering tea seemed to involve a good deal of splashing water. Maude came back with a merrier face.
'Is this a good paper, Mr. Harrison?'
'What is it? Financial Whisper! No, the most venal rag in the city.'
'Oh, I am so glad!'
'Well, you know, we bought some shares to-day, and it calls our mine a preposterous one.'
'Oh, is that all. Who cares what the Financial Whisper says! It would call the Bank of England a preposterous institution if it thought it could bear Consols by doing so. Its opinion is not worth a halfpenny. By the way, Crosse, it was about those shares that I called.'
'I thought you might. I have only just got back myself, and I saw by your wire that you had bought them all right.'
'Yes, I thought I had better let you have your contract at once. Settling day is on Monday, you know.'
'All right. Thank you. I will let you have a cheque. What—what's this?'
The contract had been laid face upwards upon the table. Frank Crosse's face grew whiter and his eyes larger as he stared at it. It ran in this way -
13a THROGMORTON STREET.
Bought for Francis Crosse, Esq.
(Subject to the Specific Rules and Regulations of the Stock Exchange.) Pounds 200 El Dorado Proprietaries at 4.75 950 0 0 Stamps and Fees 4 17 6 Commission 7 10 0 962 7 6
For the 7th inst.
'I fancy there is some mistake here, Harrison,' said he, speaking with a very dry pair of lips.
'Yes, this is not at all what I expected.'
'O Frank! Nearly a thousand pounds!' gasped Maude.
Harrison glanced from one of them to the other. He saw that the matter was serious.
'I am very sorry if there has been any mistake. I tried to obey your instructions. You wanted two hundred El Dorados, did you not?'
'Yes, at four and ninepence.'
'Four and ninepence! They are four pound fifteen each.'
'But I read that they were only ten shillings originally, and that they had been falling.'
'Yes, they have been falling for months. But they were as high as ten pounds once. They are down at four pound fifteen now.'
'Why on earth could the paper not say so?'
'When a fraction is used, it always means a fraction of a pound.'
'Good heavens! And I have to find this sum before Monday.'
'Monday is settling day.'
'I can't do it, Harrison. It is impossible.'
'Then there is the obvious alternative.'
'No, I had rather die. I will never go bankrupt—never!'
Harrison began to laugh, and then turned stonily solemn as he met a pair of reproachful grey eyes.
'It strikes me that you have not done much at this game, Crosse.'
'Never before—and by Heaven, never again!'
'You take it much too hard. When I spoke of an alternative, I never dreamed of bankruptcy. All you have to do is to sell your stock to- morrow morning, and pay the difference.'
'Can I do that?'
'Rather. Why not?'
'What would the difference be?'
Harrison took an evening paper from his pocket. 'We deal in rails chiefly, and I don't profess to keep in touch with the mining market. We'll find the quotation here. By Jove!' He whistled between his teeth.
'Well!' said Frank, and felt his wife's little warm palm fall upon his hand under the table.
'The difference is in your favour.'
'In my favour?'
'Yes, listen to this. "The mining markets, both the South African and the Australian, opened dull, but grew more animated as the day proceeded, prices closing at the best. Out crops upon the Rand mark a general advance of one-sixteenth to one-eighth. The chief feature in the Australian section was a sharp advance of five-eighths in El Dorados, upon a telegram that the workings had been pumped dry." Crosse, I congratulate you.'
'I can really sell them for more than I gave?'
'I should think so. You have two hundred of them, and a profit of ten shillings on each.'
'Maude, we'll have the whisky and the soda. Harrison, you must have a drink. Why, that's a hundred pounds.'
'More than a hundred.'
'Without my paying anything?'
'Not a penny.'
'When does the Exchange open to-morrow?'
'The rattle goes at eleven.'
'Well, be there at eleven, Harrison. Sell them at once.'
'You won't hold on and watch the market?'
'No, no—I won't have an easy moment until they are sold.'
'All right, my boy. You can rely upon me. You will get a cheque for your balance on Tuesday or Wednesday. Good evening! I am so glad that it has all ended well.'
'And the joke of it is, Maude,' said her husband, after they had talked over the whole adventure from the beginning. 'The joke of it is that we have still to find an investment for our original fifty pounds. I am inclined to put it into Consols after all.'
'Well,' said Maude, 'perhaps it would be the patriotic thing to do.'
Two days later the poor old Broadwood with the squeaky treble and the wheezy bass was banished for ever from The Lindens, and there arrived in its place a ninety-five-guinea cottage grand, all dark walnut and gilding, with notes in it so deep and rich and resonant that Maude could sit before it by the hour and find music enough in simply touching one here and one there, and listening to the soft, sweet, reverberant tones which came swelling from its depths. Her El Dorado piano, she called it, and tried to explain to lady visitors how her husband had been so clever at business that he had earned it in a single day. As she was never very clear in her own mind how the thing had occurred, she never succeeded in explaining it to any one else, but a vague and solemn impression became gradually diffused abroad that young Mr. Frank Crosse was a very remarkable man, and that he had done something exceedingly clever in the matter of an Australian mine.
CHAPTER XVIII—A THUNDERCLOUD
Blue skies and shining sun, but far down on the horizon one dark cloud gathers and drifts slowly upwards unobserved. Frank Crosse was aware of its shadow when coming down to breakfast he saw an envelope with a well-remembered handwriting beside his plate. How he had loved that writing once, how his heart had warmed and quickened at the sight of it, how eagerly he had read it—and now a viper coiled upon the white table-cloth would hardly have given him a greater shock. Contradictory, incalculable, whimsical life! A year ago how scornfully he would have laughed, what contemptuous unbelief would have filled his soul, if he had been told that any letter of hers could have struck him cold with the vague apprehension of coming misfortune. He tore off the envelope and threw it into the fire. But before he could glance at the letter there was the quick patter of his wife's feet upon the stair, and she burst, full of girlish health and high spirits, into the little room. She wore a pink crepon dressing-gown, with cream guipure lace at the neck and wrists. Pink ribbon outlined her trim waist. The morning sun shone upon her, and she seemed to him to be the daintiest, sweetest tiling upon earth. He had thrust his letter into his pocket as she entered.
'You will excuse the dressing-gown, Frank.'
'I just love you in it. No, you mustn't pass. Now you can go.'
'I was so afraid that you would breakfast without me that I had no time to dress. I shall have the whole day to finish in when you are gone. There now—Jemima has forgotten to warm the plates again! And your coffee is cold. I wish you had not waited.'
'Better cold coffee with Maude's society.'
'I always thought men gave up complimenting their wives after they married them. I am so glad you don't. I think on the whole that women's ideas of men are unfair and severe. The reason is that the women who have met unpleasant men run about and make a noise, but the women who are happy just keep quiet and enjoy themselves. For example, I have not time to write a book explaining to every one how nice Frank Crosse is; but if he were nasty my life would be empty, and so of course I should write my book.'
'I feel such a fraud when you talk like that.'
'That is part of your niceness.'
'Oh don't, Maude! It really hurts me.'
'Why, Frank, what is the matter with you to-day?'
'Oh yes, there is. I can tell easily.'
'Perhaps I am not quite myself.'
'No, I am sure that you are not. I believe that you have a cold coming on. O Frank, do take some ammoniated quinine.'
'Good heavens, no!'
'My dear girlie, there is nothing the matter with me.'
'But it is such splendid stuff.'
'Yes, I know. But really I don't want it.'
'Have you had any letters, Frank?'
'I have hardly glanced at it yet.'
'Glance at it now.'
'Oh, I will keep it for the train. Good-bye, dearest. It is time that I was off.'
'If you would only take the ammoniated quinine. You men are so proud and obstinate. Good-bye, darling. Eight hours, and then I shall begin to live again.'
He had a quiet corner of a carriage to himself, so he unfolded his letter and read it. Then he read it again with frowning brows and compressed lips. It ran in this way -
My Dearest Frankie,—I suppose that I should not address you like this now that you are a good little married man, but the force of custom is strong, and, after all, I knew you long before she did. I don't suppose you were aware of it, but there was a time when I could very easily have made you marry me, in spite of all you may know about my trivial life and adventures, but I thought it all over very carefully, and I came to the conclusion that it was not good enough. You were always a dear good chap yourself, but your prospects were not quite dashing enough for your festive Violet. I believe in a merry time even if it is a short one. But if I had really wanted to settle down in a humdrum sort of way, you are the man whom I should have chosen out of the whole batch of them. I hope what I say won't make you conceited, for one of your best points used to be your modesty.
But for all that, my dear Frankie, I by no means give you up altogether, and don't you make any mistake about that. It was only yesterday that I saw Charlie Scott, and he told me all about you, and gave me your address. Don't you bless him? And yet I don't know. Perhaps you have still a kindly thought of your old friend, and would like to see her.