With a strange foreboding at his heart, Aspel leaped up and opened it.
Four men entered, bearing a stretcher. They placed it gently on the low truckle-bed in the corner, and, removing the cover, revealed the mangled and bloody but still breathing form of Abel Bones.
"He seemed to be a bit unhinged in his mind," said one of the men in reply to Aspel's inquiring look—"was seen goin' recklessly across the road, and got run over. We would 'ave took 'im to the hospital, but he preferred to be brought here."
"All right. George," said Bones in a low voice, "I'll be better in a little. It was an accident. Send 'em away, an' try if you can find my old girl and Tottie.—It is strange," he continued faintly, as Aspel bent over him, "that the lady I wanted to rob set me free, for Tottie's sake; and the boy I cast adrift in London risked his life for Tottie; and the man I tried to ruin saved her; and the man I have often cursed from my door has brought me at last to the Sinner's Friend. Strange! very strange!"
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.
TELLS OF A SHAM FIGHT AND A REAL BATTLE.
There are periods in the busy round of labour at the great heart in St. Martin's-le-Grand when some members of the community cease work for a time and go off to enjoy a holiday.
Such periods do not occur to all simultaneously, else would the great postal work of the kingdom come to a dead-lock. They are distributed so that the action of the heart never flags, even when large drafts are made on the working staff, as when a whole battalion of the employes goes out for a field-day in the garb of Volunteers.
There are between eight and nine hundred men of the Post-Office, who, not content with carrying Her Majesty's mails, voluntarily carry Her Majesty's rifles. These go through the drudgery and drill of military service at odd hours, as they find time, and on high occasions they march out to the martial strains of fife and drum.
On one such occasion the Post-Office battalion (better known as the 49th Middlesex) took part in a sham fight, which Phil Maylands and Peter Pax (who chanced to have holidays at the time) went out to see. They did not take part in it, not being Volunteers, but they took pride in it, as worthy, right-spirited men of the Post could not fail to do.
The 49th Middlesex distinguished themselves on that occasion. Their appearance as they marched on to the battle-ground—some distance out of London—bore creditable comparison with the best corps in the service. So said Pax; and Pax was a good judge, being naturally critical.
When the fight began, and the rattling musketry, to say nothing of booming artillery, created such a smoke that no unmilitary person could make head or tail of anything, the 49th Middlesex took advantage of a hollow, and executed a flank movement that would have done credit to the 42nd Highlanders, and even drew forth an approving nod and smile from the reviewing officer, who with his cocked-hatted staff witnessed the movement from an eminence which was swept by a devastating cross-fire from every part of the field.
When the artillery were ordered to another eminence to check the movement and dislodge them from the hollow, the gallant 49th stood their ground in the face of a fire that would have swept that hollow as with the besom of destruction. They also replied with a continuous discharge that would, in five minutes, have immolated every man and horse on the eminence.
When, afterwards, a body of cavalry was sent to teach the gallant 49th a lesson, and came thundering down on them like a wolf on the fold, or an avalanche on a Swiss hamlet, they formed square with mathematical precision, received them with a withering fire that ought to have emptied every saddle, and, with the bayonet's point, turned them trooping off to the right and left, discomfited.
When, finally, inflated with the pride of victory, they began to re-form line too soon, and were caught in the act by the returning cavalry, they flung themselves into rallying squares, which, bristling with bayonets like porcupines of steel, keeping up such an incessant roar of musketry that the spot on which they stood became, as it were, a heart or core of furious firing, in the midst of a field that was already hotly engaged all round. We do not vouch for the correctness of this account of the battle. We received it from Pax, and give it for what it is worth.
Oh! it was, as Phil Maylands said, "a glorious day entirely for the 49th Middlesex, that same Queen's Birthday," for there was all the pomp and circumstance of war, all the smoke and excitation, all the glitter of bright sunshine on accoutrements, the flash of sword and bayonet, and the smoke and fire of battle, without the bloodshed and the loss of life!
No doubt there were drawbacks. Where is the human family, however well-regulated, that claims exemption from such? There were some of the warriors on that bloodless battle-field who had no more idea of the art of war than the leg of a telescope has of astronomy. There were many who did not know which were friends and which were foes. Many more there were who did not care! Some of the Volunteer officers (though not many), depending too much on their sergeants to keep them right, drove these sergeants nearly mad. Others there were, who, depending too much on their own genius, drove their colonels frantic; but by far the greater number, both of officers and men, knew their work and did it well.
Yes, it was indeed a glorious day entirely, that same Queen's Birthday, for all arms of the service, especially for the 49th Middlesex; and when that gallant body of men marched from the field of glory, with drums beating and fifes shrieking, little Pax could scarcely contain himself for joy, and wished with all his heart that he were drum-major of the corps, that he might find vent for his feelings in the bursting of the big drum.
"Now," said Phil, when they had seen the last of the Volunteers off the field, "what shall you and I do?"
"Ah! true, that is the question," returned Pax; "what are we to do? Our holidays are before us. The day is far spent; the evening is at hand. We can't bivouac here, that is plain. What say you, Phil, to walking over to Miss Stivergill's? I have a general invite from that lady to spend any holidays I have to dispose of at Rosebud Cottage. It is not more than two miles from where we stand."
"D'ye think she'd extend her invite to me," asked Phil dubiously.
"Think!" exclaimed Pax, "I am sure of it. Why, that respectable old lady owns a heart that might have been enshrined in a casket of beauty. She's a trump—a regular brick."
"Come, Pax, be respectful."
"Ain't I respectful, you Irish noodle? My language mayn't be choice, indeed, but you can't find fault with the sentiment. Come along, before it gets darker. Any friend of mine will be welcome; besides, I half expect to find your sister there, and we shall be sure to see Miss Lillycrop and my sweet little cousin Tottie, who has been promoted to the condition of ladies'-maid and companion."
"Ah, poor Tottie!" said Phil, "her father's illness has told heavily on her."
"That's true," returned Pax, as every vestige of fun vanished from his expressive face and was replaced by sympathy, "but I've good news for her to-night. Since her last visit her father has improved, and the doctor says he may yet recover. The fresh air of the new house has done him good."
Pax referred here to a new residence in a more airy neighbourhood, to which Bones had been removed through the kindness and liberality of Miss Stivergill, whose respect for the male sex had, curiously enough, increased from the date of the burglary. With characteristic energy she had removed Bones, with his wife and a few household goods, to a better dwelling near the river, but this turned out to be damp, and Bones became worse in it. She therefore instituted another prompt removal to a more decidedly salubrious quarter. Here Bones improved a little in health. But the poor man's injury was of a serious nature. Ribs had been broken, and the lungs pierced. A constitution debilitated by previous dissipation could not easily withstand the shock. His life trembled in the balance.
The change, however, in the man's spirit was marvellous. It had not been the result of sudden calamity or of prolonged suffering. Before his accident, while in full vigour and in the midst of his sins, the drops which melted him had begun to fall like dew. The night when his eyes were opened to see Jesus was but the culminating of God's work of mercy. From that night he spoke little, but the little he said was to express thankfulness. He cared not to reason. He would not answer questions that were sometimes foolishly put to him, but he listened to the Word of God, read by his poor yet rejoicing wife, with eager, thirsting looks. When told that he was in danger he merely smiled.
"Georgie," he whispered—for he had reverted to the old original name of his wife, which, with his proper name of Blackadder, he had changed on coming to London—"Georgie, I wish I might live for your sake and His, but it'll be better to go. We're on the same road at last, Georgie, and shall meet again."
Aspel marked the change and marvelled. He could not understand it at all. But he came to understand it ere long. He had followed Bones in his changes of abode, because he had formed a strange liking for the man, but he refused to associate in any way with his former friends. They occasionally visited the sick man, but if Aspel chanced to be with him at the time he invariably went out by the back-door as they entered by the front. He refused even to see Phil Maylands, but met Pax, and seemed not to mind him. At all events he took no notice of him. Whether his conduct was owing to pride, shame, or recklessness, none could tell.
The changes of residence we have referred to had the effect of throwing off the scent a certain gentleman who had been tracking out Abel Bones with the perseverance, though not the success, of a bloodhound.
The man in grey, after losing, or rather coming to the end, of his clew at the Post-Office furnace, recovered it by some magical powers known best to himself and his compeers, and tracked his victim to Archangel Court, but here he lost the scent again, and seemed to be finally baffled. It was well for Bones that it so fell out, because in his weak state it would probably have gone hard with him had he believed that the police were still on his tracks. As it was, he progressed slowly but favourably, and with this good news Pax and his friend hurried to Rosebud Cottage.
What an unmitigated blessing a holiday is to those who work hard! Ah! ye lazy ones of earth, if ye gain something by unbounded leisure ye lose much. Stay—we will not preach on that text. It needs not!
To return: Phil and Pax found Tottie and May at The Rosebud as they had anticipated—the latter being free for a time on sick-leave—and the four went in for a holiday, as Pax put it, neck and crop.
It may occur to some that there was somewhat of incongruity in the companionship of Tottie and May, but the difference between the poor man's daughter who had been raised to comparative affluence, and the gentleman's daughter who had been brought down to comparative poverty, was not so great as one might suppose. It must be remembered that Tottie had started life with a God-fearing mother, and that of itself secured her from much contamination in the midst of abounding evil, while it surrounded her with a rich influence for good. Then, latterly, she had been mentally, morally, and physically trained by Miss Lillycrop, who was a perfect pattern of propriety delicacy, good sense, and good taste. She first read to her pupil, and then made the pupil read to her. Miss Lillycrop's range of reading was wide and choice. Thus Tottie, who was naturally refined and intelligent, in time became more so by education. She had grown wonderfully too, and had acquired a certain sedateness of demeanour, which was all the more captivating that it was an utterly false index to her character, for Tottie's spirit was as wildly exuberant as that of the wildest denizen of Archangel Court.
In like manner Pax had been greatly improved by his association with Phil Maylands. The vigorous strength of Phil's mind had unconsciously exercised a softening influence on his little admirer. We have said that they studied and read together. Hence Pax was learned beyond his years and station. The fitness therefore of the four to associate pleasantly has, we think, been clearly made out.
Pax, at all events, had not a shadow of a doubt on that point, especially when the four lay down under the shadow of a spreading oak to examine the butterflies and moths they had captured in the fields.
"What babies we are," said Phil, "to go after butterflies in this fashion!"
"Speak for yourself," retorted Pax; "I consider myself an entomologist gathering specimens. Call 'em specimens, Phil; that makes a world of difference.—Oh, Tot! what a splendid one you have got there! It reminds me so of the time when I used to carry you about the fields on my back, and call you Merry. Don't you remember?"
"No," said Tottie, "I don't."
"And won't you let me call you Merry?" pleaded Pax.
"No, I won't. I don't believe you ever carried me on your back, or that my name was Merry."
"What an unbeliever!" exclaimed Pax.
"You can't deny that you are merry to-day, Tot," said May.
Tot did not deny it, but, so to speak, admitted it by starting up and giving sudden chase to a remarkably bright butterfly that passed at the moment.
"And don't you remember," resumed Pax, when she returned and sat down again by his side, "the day when we caught the enormous spider, which I kept in a glass box, where it spun a net and caught the flies I pushed into the box for it to feed on? No? Nor the black beetle we found fighting with another beetle, which, I tried to impress on you, was its grandmother, and you laughed heartily as if you really understood what I said, though you didn't. You remember that, surely? No? Well, well— these joys were thrown away on you, for you remember nothing."
"O yes, I do remember something," cried Tottie. "I remember when you fell into the horse-pond, and came out dripping, and covered from head to foot with mud and weeds!"
She followed up this remark with a merry laugh, which was suddenly checked by a shrill and terrible cry from the neighbouring field.
In order to account for this cry, we must state that Miss Lillycrop, desirous of acquiring an appetite for dinner by means of a short walk, left Rosebud Cottage and made for the dell, in which she expected to meet May Maylands and her companions. Taking a short cut, she crossed a field. Short cuts are frequently dangerous. It proved so in the present instance. The field she had invaded was the private preserve of an old bull with a sour temper.
Beholding a female, he lowered his horrid head, cocked his tail, and made at her. This it was that drew from poor Miss Lillycrop a yell such as she had not uttered since the days of infancy.
Phil Maylands was swift to act at all times of emergency. He vaulted the fence of the field, and rushed at Miss Lillycrop as if he himself had been a bull of Bashan, and meant to try his hand at tossing her. Not an idea had Phil as to what he meant to do. All he knew was that he had to rush to the rescue! Between Phil and the bull the poor lady seemed to stand a bad chance.
Not a whit less active or prompt was Peter Pax, but Peter had apparently more of method in his madness than Phil, for he wrenched up a stout stake in his passage over the fence.
"Lie down! lie down! O lie down!" shouted Phil in agony, for he saw that the brute was quickly overtaking its victim.
Poor Miss Lillycrop was beyond all power of self-control. She could only fly. Fortunately a hole in the field came to her rescue. She put her foot into it and fell flat down. The bull passed right over her, and came face to face with Phil, as it pulled up, partly in surprise, no doubt, at the sudden disappearance of Miss Lillycrop and at the sudden appearance of a new foe. Before it recovered from its surprise little Pax brought the paling down on its nose with such a whack that it absolutely sneezed—or something like it—then, roaring, rushed at Pax.
As if he had been a trained matador, Pax leaped aside, and brought the paling down again on the bull's head with a smash that knocked it all to splinters.
"Don't dodge it," shouted Phil, "draw it away from her!"
Pax understood at once. Tempting the bull to charge him again, he ran off to the other side of the field like a greyhound, followed by the foaming enemy.
Meanwhile Phil essayed to lift Miss Lillycrop, who had swooned, on his shoulders. Fortunately she was light. Still, it was no easy matter to get her limp form into his arms. With a desperate effort he got her on his knee; with an inelegant hitch he sent her across his shoulder, where she hung like a limp bolster, as he made for the fence. May and Tottie stood there rooted to the earth in horror. To walk on uneven ground with such a burden was bad enough, but Phil had to run. How he did it he never could tell, but he reached the fence at last, and shot Miss Lillycrop over into the arms of her friends, and all three were sent headlong down into a thick bush.
Phil turned at once to run to the aid of Pax, but there was no occasion to do so. That youth had reached and leaped the fence like an acrobat, and was now standing on the other side of it making faces at the bull, calling it names, and insulting it with speeches of the most refined insolence, by way of relieving his feelings and expressing his satisfaction.
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.
THE GREATEST BATTLE OF ALL.
Time advanced apace, and wrought many of those innumerable changes in the fortunes of the human race for which Time is famous.
Among other things it brought Sir James Clubley to the bird-shop of Messrs. Blurt one Christmas eve.
"My dear sir," said Sir James to Mr Enoch in the back shop, through the half-closed door of which the owl could be seen gazing solemnly at the pelican of the wilderness, "I have called to ask whether you happen to have heard anything of young Aspel of late?"
"Nothing whatever," replied Mr Blurt, with a sad shake of his head. "Since Bones died—the man, you know, with whom he lived—he has removed to some new abode, and no one ever hears or sees anything of him, except Mrs Bones. He visits her occasionally (as I believe you are aware), but refuses to give her his address. She says, however, that he has given up drink—that the dying words of her husband had affected him very deeply. God grant it may be so, for I love the youth."
"I join your prayer, Mr Blurt," said Sir James, who was slightly, though perhaps unconsciously, pompous in his manner. "My acquaintance with him has been slight—in fact only two letters have passed between us—but I entertained a strong regard for his father, who in schoolboy days saved my life. In after years he acquired that passion for spirits which his son seems to have inherited, and, giving up all his old friends, went to live on a remote farm in the west of Ireland."
Sir James spoke slowly and low, as if reflectively, with his eyes fixed on the ground.
"In one of the letters to which I have referred," he continued, looking up, "young Aspel admitted that he had fallen, and expressed regret in a few words, which were evidently sincere, but he firmly, though quite politely, declined assistance, and wound up with brief yet hearty thanks for what he called my kind intentions, and especially for my expressions of regard for his late father, who, he said, had been worthy of my highest esteem."
"He's a strange character;—but how did you manage to get a letter conveyed to him?" asked Mr Blurt.
"Through Mrs Bones. You are aware, I think, that a considerable time ago I set a detective to find out his whereabouts—"
"How strange! So did I," said Mr Blurt.
"Indeed!" exclaimed Sir James. "Well, this man happened by a strange coincidence to be engaged in unravelling a mystery about a lost little dog, which after many failures led him to the discovery of Abel Bones as being a burglar who was wanted. Poor Bones happened at the time of his visit to be called before a higher tribunal. He was dying. Aspel was at his bedside, and the detective easily recognised him as the youth of whom he had been so long in search. I sent my letter by the detective to Mrs Bones, who gave it to Aspel. His reply came, of course, through the ordinary channel—the post."
"And what do you now propose doing?" asked Mr Blurt.
"I think of going to see Philip Maylands, who, I am given to understand by Miss Lillycrop, was once an intimate friend of Aspel. Do you happen to know his address?"
"Yes, he lives with his mother now, but it's of no use your going to his home to-night. You are aware that this is Christmas eve, and all the officials of the Post-Office will be unusually busy. They often work night and day at this season."
"Then I will go direct to the General Post-Office. Perhaps I shall be able to exchange a few words with him there," said Sir James, rising.
At that moment there burst upon the ears of the visitor a peculiar squall, which seemed to call forth a bland and beaming smile on the glad countenance of Mr Blurt. Sir James looked at him inquiringly.
"My babe, Sir James," said Mr Blurt, with ill-concealed pride; "since last I had the pleasure of seeing you I have been married. Ah! Sir James, 'it is not good for man to be alone.' That is a truth with which I was but feebly impressed until I came to understand the blessedness of the wedded state. Words cannot—"
He was cut short by a sudden crash of something overhead, and a bump, followed by a squall of unwonted vehemence. The squall was simultaneous with the ringing of a handbell, and was followed by the cry of a soft entreating voice roused to excitation.
"Oh! Nockie dear"—thus the former Miss Gentle named her spouse,—"come here, quick—oh! do be quick! Baby's fallen and Fred's ringing."
The truth of this was corroborated by another furious ring by the invalid, which mingled with the recurring squalls, and was increased by the noisy and pertinacious clatter of the cracked bell that announced the opening of the shop-door.
"Zounds! Mrs Murridge, mind the shop!—Good-bye, Sir James. Excuse—. Coming, dear!"
Mr Blurt, glaring as he clutched his scant side locks, dashed up-stairs with the agility of a schoolboy.
Sir James Clubley, who was a bachelor, left the place with a quiet smile, and proceeded, at what we may style a reflective pace, towards the City.
But Sir James might have saved himself the trouble. It was, as we have said, Christmas eve, and he might as well have demanded audience of a soldier in the heat of battle as of a Post-Office official on that trying night of the year.
In modern times the tendency of the human race (the British part of it at least) to indulge in social intercourse by letter and otherwise at the Christmas season has been on the increase, and, since the introduction of cheap postage, it has created a pressure on the Post-Office which has taxed its powers very considerably. The advent of halfpenny post-cards, and especially the invention of Christmas-card and packet correspondence, with the various facilities which have of late years been afforded to the public by the Department, have created such a mass of inter-communication throughout the kingdom, that Christmas has now to be regularly prepared for as a great field-day, or rather a grand campaign extending over several days. Well-planned arrangements have to be made beforehand. Contingencies and possibilities have to be weighed and considered. All the forces of the Department have to be called out, or rather called in. Provisions—actual food, of exceptional kind and quantity—have to be provided, and every man, boy, nerve, muscle, eye, hand, brain, and spirit, has to be taxed to the very uttermost to prevent defeat.
On the particular year of which we write, symptoms of the coming struggle began to be felt before Christmas eve. On the morning of the 23rd, the enemy—if we may so style the letters—began to come in like a flood, and the whole of that day the duty was most pressing, although the reserve forces had been called into action. On the morning of the 24th the strain was so severe that few men could be allowed to leave the Office, though some of them had been at work for eighteen hours. During the whole of the 24th the flood was at its height. Every available man in the other branches whose services could be utilised was pressed into the service of the Circulation Department at St. Martin's-le-Grand.
The great mouth under the portico was fed with a right royal feast that day—worthy of the Christmas season! The subsidiary mouths elsewhere were fed with similar liberality. Through these, letters, cards, packets, parcels, poured, rushed, leaped, roared into the great sorting-hall. Floods is a feeble word; a Highland spate is but a wishy-washy figure wherewith to represent the deluge. A bee-hive, an ant-hill, were weak comparisons. Nearly two thousand men energised— body, soul, and spirit—in that hall that Christmas-tide, and an aggregate of fifteen thousand eight hundred and seventy-nine hours' work was accomplished by them. They faced, stamped, sorted, carried, bundled, tied, bagged, and sealed without a moment's intermission for two days and two nights continuously. It was a great, a tremendous battle! The easy-going public outside knew and cared little or nothing about the conflict which themselves had caused. Letters were heaped on the tables and strewed on the floors. Letters were carried in baskets, in bags, in sacks, and poured out like water. The men and boys absolutely swam in letters. Eager activity—but no blind haste—was characteristic of the gallant two thousand. They felt that the honour of Her Majesty's mails depended on their devotion, and that was, no doubt, dearer to them than life! So the first day wore on, and the warriors stood their ground and kept the enemy at bay.
As the evening of the 24th drew on apace, and the ordinary pressure of the evening mail began to be added to the extraordinary pressure of the day, the real tug of war began! The demand for extra service throughout the country began to exercise a reflex influence on the great centre. Mails came from the country in some instances with the letters unsorted, thus increasing the difficulties of the situation. The struggle was all the more severe that preparations for the night despatch were begun with a jaded force, some of the men having already been twenty-six and twenty-eight hours at work. Moreover, frost and fog prevailed at the time, and that not only delayed trains and the arrival of mails, but penetrated the building so that the labour was performed in a depressing atmosphere. To meet the emergency, at least in part, the despatch of the usual eight o'clock mail was delayed for that night fifty minutes. As in actual war an hour's delay may be fraught with tremendous issues for good or ill, so this brief postal delay permitted the despatch of an enormous amount of correspondence that would have otherwise been left over to the following day.
Usually the despatch of the evening mail leaves the vast sorting-hall in serene repose, with clean and empty tables; but on the night of this great battle—which has to be re-fought every Christmas—the embarrassment did not cease with the despatch of the evening mail. Correspondence continued to flow on in as great a volume as before.
Squads of the warriors, however, withdrew at intervals from the fight, to refresh themselves in the various kitchens of the basement.
As we have said elsewhere, the members of the Post-Office provide their own food, and there are caterers on the premises who enable them to do so without leaving the Office while on duty. But on this occasion extra and substantial food—meat, bread, tea, coffee, and cocoa—were provided by the Department at its own cost, besides which the men were liberally and deservedly remunerated for the whole severe and extra duty.
It chanced that Phil Maylands and Peter Pax retired from the battle about the same time; and met in the sorters' kitchen.
"Well, old fellow," said Phil, who was calm and steady but looking fagged, to Pax, who was dishevelled about the head and dress and somewhat roused by the exciting as well as fatiguing nature of the work,—"Well, old fellow; tough work, isn't it?"
"Tough? It's glorious!" said Pax, seating himself enthusiastically at the table; "I'm proud of my country—proud of the GPO—proud... I say, is that beef that I see before me? Hand me a dagger—no, a knife will do. You cut it, Phil, and help me first, 'cause I'm little."
While Phil was cutting the meat Pax rested his head on the table, and was asleep almost instantly.
"Hallo, Pax! rouse yourself!" cried Phil, giving his comrade a hearty slap on the shoulder; "up, lad, and eat—the battle still rages; no rest allowed till victory is ours."
His little friend set to work at once, and the food and coffee soon banished drowsiness. A number of men were similarly engaged around him. But they did not feast long. Like giants refreshed, they returned to the scene of combat, while others took their places.
And what a scene it was! Despite all that had been done, the hall might be described as waist-deep in letters! The fever had not yet abated. It seemed as if the whole world had concentrated its literary produce into one mighty avalanche on St. Martin's-le-Grand!
The midnight mails worked off some of this, but a large portion of it still remained to be disposed of on Christmas-day, together with what the mails brought in on that morning, but the officers worked so well that between nine and ten on Christmas morning all were allowed to go home, with the exception of twenty-six, who volunteered to remain.
Thus the battle was fought and won; the tables were cleared; the fever was subdued; and the pulse of the Post-Office was reduced to its normal condition.
Think on these things, reader, when next you read the little card that wishes you "a merry Christmas!"
Some of the facts and results connected with this great battle are worth recording. The number of extra bags and sacks received at the chief office altogether on that occasion was 1401. The number of extra bags despatched was 2269; all of them were crammed full to their mouths, and the aggregate weight of these extra mails was 197 tons.
To convey these from the chief office 176 extra vans were used, and 75 extra carts. As nearly as could be estimated, the number of extra letters and packets was not less than four millions. There was a vast increase, also, in the registered correspondence—to the extent of thirty-one thousand in excess of the ordinary numbers.
During these three days some of the men did nearly thirty hours' extra duty, besides performing their ordinary work. The continuous attendance at the office of some of them varied from forty to forty-eight hours, and the total increase to the revenue on that auspicious but trying occasion was estimated to be about twenty thousand pounds sterling!
Phil Maylands and Peter Pax were among those who had volunteered to remain after the press of work was over; and it was not till the afternoon of Christmas-day that they finally, and simultaneously, plunged into their beds and oblivion.
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT.
THE STORMING OF ROCKY COTTAGE AND OTHER MATTERS.
Years flew by. The daily routine at St. Martin's-le-Grand went on; the mails departed and came in with unvarying regularity; in the working of the vast machine good men and boys rose to the surface, and bad ones went down. Among the former were Phil Maylands and Peter Pax.
The latter, in course of time, rose to the rank of Inspector, in which condition he gradually developed a pretty pair of brown whiskers and a wonderful capacity for the performance of duty. He also rose to the altitude of five feet six inches, at which point he stuck fast, and continued the process of increase laterally. Pax, however, could not become reconciled to city life. He did his work cheerfully and with all his might, because it was his nature so to do, but he buoyed up his spirits—so he was wont to say—by fixing his eye on the Postmaster-Generalship and a suburban villa on the Thames.
His friend Phil, on the contrary, was quite pleased with city life, and devoted himself with such untiring energy to his work, and to his own education, that he came ere long to be noted as the youth who knew everything. Faults he had, undoubtedly, and his firm, severe way of expressing his opinions raised him a few enemies in the Post-Office, but he attained at last to the condition of being so useful and so trustworthy as to make men feel that he was almost indispensable. They felt as if they could not get on without him.
When man or boy comes to this point, success is inevitable. Phil soon became a favourite with the heads of departments. The Chief of the Post-Office himself at last came to hear of him, and, finding that he was more than capable of passing the requisite examinations, he raised him from the ranks and made him a clerk in the Savings-Bank Department.
Having attained to this position, with a good salary for a single man, and a prospect of a steady rise, Phil set about the accomplishment of the darling wish of his heart. He obtained leave of absence, went over to the west of Ireland, and took Rocky Cottage by storm.
"Mother dear," he said, almost before he had sat down, "I'm promoted. I'm rich—comparatively. I've taken a house—a small house—at Nottinghill, and your room in it is ready for you; so pack up at once, for we leave this to-morrow afternoon."
"You jest, Phil."
"I'm in earnest, mother."
"But it is impossible," said the good lady, looking anxiously round; "I cannot pack up on so short notice. And the furniture—"
"It's all arranged, mother," said Phil, stroking the curls of a strapping boy who no longer went by the name of Baby, but was familiarly known as Jim. "Being aware of your desire to get rid of the furniture, I have arranged with a man in Howlin' Cove to take it at a valuation. He comes out to value it this evening, so you've nothing to do but pack up your trunks. With the aid of Madge and Jim we'll manage that in no time."
"Sure we'll do it in less than no time!" cried Jim, who was a true son of Erin.
"You see, mother," continued Phil, "my leave extends only to four days. I have therefore ordered a coach—a sort of Noah's Ark—the biggest thing I could hire at the Cove—to take you and all your belongings to the railway tomorrow evening. We'll travel all night, and so get to London on Thursday. May expects you. May and I have settled it all, so you needn't look thunderstruck. If I hadn't known for certain that you'd be glad to come and live with us I would not have arranged it at all. If I had not known equally well that your fluttering bird of a heart would have been totally upset at the prospect, I would have consulted you beforehand. As it is, the die is cast. Your fate is fixed. Nothing can reverse the decrees that have gone forth, so it's as well to make your mind easy and go to work."
Mrs Maylands wisely submitted. Three days afterwards she found herself in London, in a very small but charming cottage in an out-of-the-way corner of Nottinghill.
It was a perfect bijou of a cottage; very small—only two stories— with ceilings that a tall man could touch, and a trellis-work porch at the front door, and a little garden all to itself, and an ivy wall that shut out the curious public, but did not interfere with the sky, a patch of which gleamed through between two great palatial residences hard by, like a benignant eye.
"This is our new home, mother, and we have got it at such a low rent from Sir James Clubley, our landlord, that your income, coupled with May's salary and mine, will enable us easily to make the two ends meet, if we manage economically."
As he spoke, Phil seized the poker, and, with an utter disregard of the high price of coal, caused the fire to roar joyously up the chimney.
It was a brilliant winter day. White gems sparkled on the branches of the trees, and Jim was already commencing that course of romping which had, up to that date, strewn his path through life with wreck and ruin. Madge was investigating the capabilities of cupboards and larders, under the care of a small maid-of-all-work.
"May won't be home till after dark," said Phil. "She could not get away from duty to meet us. I shall telegraph to her that we have arrived, and that I shall meet her under the portico of the Post-Office and fetch her home this evening."
"It is an amazing thing that telegraph! To think that one can send messages and make appointments so quickly!" remarked Mrs Maylands.
"Why, mother," said Phil, with a laugh, "that is nothing to what can be—and is—done with it every day. I have a friend in the City who does a great part of his business with India by telegraph. The charge is four shillings and sixpence a word, and if a word has more than ten letters it is charged as two words. A registered address also costs a guinea, so, you see, telegraphic correspondence with India is expensive. Business men have therefore fallen on the plan of writing out lists of words, each of which means a longish sentence. This plan is so thoroughly carried out that books like thick dictionaries are now printed and regularly used.—What would you think, now, of 'Obstinate Kangaroo' for a message?"
"I would think it nonsense, Phil."
"Nevertheless, mother, it covers sense. A Quebec timber-merchant telegraphed these identical words the other day to a friend of mine, and when the friend turned up the words 'obstinate kangaroo' in his corresponding code, he found the translation to be, 'Demand is improving for Ohio or Michigan white oak (planks), 16 inches and upwards.'"
"You don't say so!" exclaimed Mrs Maylands, raising both hands and eyebrows.
"Yes I do, mother, and in my City friend's code the word 'Blazing' means 'Quality is approved,' while 'Blissful' signifies 'What is the smallest quantity you require?'"
"Do you mean, Phil," asked the widow, with a perplexed look, "that if I were a man of business, and wanted to ask a customer in India what was the smallest quantity of a thing he required, I should have to telegraph only the word 'Blissful'?"
"Only that, mother. A blissful state of brevity to have come to, isn't it? And some of the telegraph clerks fall into queer mistakes, too, owing to their ignorance. One of the rules is that the words sent must be bona fide words—not a mere unmeaning arrangement of letters. My City friend told me that on three different occasions telegrams of his were refused, because the words were not known, yet each of them was taken from the Bible! One of the telegrams was, 'Blastus unholy.'"
"Oh, Phil, how can you!" exclaimed Mrs Maylands, with a shocked look.
"Well, mother, what's wrong in that?"
"You know very well, Phil, that 'Blast us' is not in the Bible at all, and that it is a very awful species of slang swearing."
"So the telegraph clerk thought," returned Phil, "but when my City friend pointed out that Blastus was 'the king's chamberlain' they were obliged to let the telegram go. 'Blastus' stands for 'superior quality,' and 'unholy' for 'Offer is open for three days from time of despatch of telegram.' Using the same code, if a merchant wants to ask a Calcutta friend the question—'How is the coming crop as regards extent and appearance?' he merely telegraphs the word 'Hamlet.' If he wishes to say 'Bills of lading go forward by this mail, Invoices will follow,' he has only to telegraph 'Heretic.' For the most part, the compilers of these codes seem to have used the words arbitrarily, for the word 'Ellwood' has no visible connection with the words 'Blue Velvet,' which it represents; neither is there connection between 'Doves' and 'French Brandy,' nor between 'Collapse' and 'Scotch Coals,' though there does seem to have been a gleam of significance when they fixed on 'Downward' to represent 'Irish Whisky.'"
"That's true, Phil, there was a touch of sense there, if not sarcasm," said the widow heartily, for she was an abhorrer of strong drink!
"Then, mother, think of the saving of time accomplished by the telegraph. In days not long past, if a merchant in India wished to transact business with another in New York he had to write a letter which took months to make the voyage out, and his correspondent had to write a reply which took about the same time to return. Now, not long ago the head of an Indian house wanted a ship-load of something (I forget what) from New York. He telegraphed a few unconnected words to my City friend in London. If there had been no obstruction of any kind the message could have been flashed from Bombay to London in a few seconds; as it was, it made the journey in three hours. My friend, who received it in the forenoon, telegraphed to New York, transacted the business, received a reply from New York, and telegraphed back to Bombay that the order was given and in process of execution before five p.m. on the same day. Thus a commercial transaction between India and America, via England, involving, perhaps, thousands of pounds, was completed at the cost of a few pounds between breakfast and dinner. In other words, Bombay aroused New York to action by means of a flash of electricity within twenty-four hours."
"Phil," remarked Mrs Maylands, with a sigh, "don't you think that man has now made almost all the discoveries that it is possible to make?"
"Why, no, mother, I think he is only on the threshold of discovery yet. The thought has sometimes come into my mind with tremendous power, that as God is infinite, and His knowledge infinite, there is, as it were, a necessity that we shall go on learning something new for ever!—But that is too deep a subject to enter on just now," said Phil, rising, "for I must go and send off my telegram to May—she will be anxious to hear about you, poor girl. You must not be troubled when you see how the roses have faded from her cheeks. She is in good enough health, but I fear the telegraph service is too heavy for her, and the City air is not so bracing as that of the west of Ireland."
Mrs Maylands was quite prepared for the change referred to, for she knew, what Phil did not know, that it was neither the telegraph nor the City that had robbed May of the bloom of youth and health.
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE.
DESCRIBES AN INTERVIEW AND A RENCONTRE.
One frosty winter afternoon Sir James Clubley sat in his chambers, having finished dinner, and toasted his toes while he sipped his wine and glanced languidly over the Times.
Sir James was a lazy, good-natured man, in what is sometimes styled easy circumstances. Being lazy, and having nothing to do, he did nothing— nothing, that is, in the way of work. He found the world enjoyable, and enjoyed it. He never ran to excess—in truth he never ran at all, either literally or figuratively, but always ate, drank, slept, read, and amused himself in moderation. In politics, being nothing in particular, he was wont to say he was a Liberal-Conservative, if anything, as that happy medium, in which truth is said, though not proved, to lie, enabled him to agree with anybody. Everybody liked him, except perhaps a few fiery zealots who seemed uncertain whether to regard him with indignation, pity, or contempt. It mattered not to which feeling the zealots leaned, Sir James smiled on them all alike.
"That foolish fellow is going to be late," he muttered, glancing over his paper at the clock on the chimney-piece.
The foolish fellow referred to was George Aspel. Sir James had at last discovered and had an interview with him. He had offered to aid him in any way that lay in his power, but Aspel had firmly though gratefully declined aid in any form.
Sir James liked the youth, and had begged him, by letter, to call on him, for the purpose of chatting over a particular piece of business, had appointed an hour, and now awaited his arrival.
The muttered remark had just passed Sir James's lips when there came a tap at the door, and Aspel stood before him.
But how changed from what he was when we last saw him, reader! His aspect might have forcibly recalled the words, "was lost and is found."
His tall, broad frame stood erect again as of old, but the proud bearing of the head was gone. There was the same fearless look in his bright blue eye, but the slightly self-satisfied curl of the lip was not there. He looked as strong and well as when, on the Irish cliffs, he had longed for the free, wild life of the sea-kings, but he did not look so youthful; yet the touch of sadness that now rested at times on his countenance gave him a far more regal air,—though he knew it not,—than he ever possessed before. He was dressed in a simple suit of dark grey.
"Glad to see you, Aspel; thought you were going to fail me. Sit down. Now, come, I hope you have considered my proposal favourably.—The piece of business I asked you to come about is nothing more than to offer you again that situation, and to press it on you. It would just suit a man of your powers.—What! No?"
The Baronet frowned, for George Aspel had smiled slightly and shaken his head as he sat down.
"Forgive me, Sir James, if I seem to regard your kind proposals with indifference. Indeed, I am sincerely grateful, especially for the motive that actuates you—I mean regard for my dear father's memory—"
"How do you know, sir," interrupted Sir James testily, "that this is my only motive?"
"I did not say it was your only motive, Sir James. I cannot doubt, from your many expressions of kindness, that personal regard for myself influences you; but I may not accept the situation you offer me—bright with future prospects though it be—because I feel strongly that God has called me to another sphere of action. I have now been for a considerable time, and hope to be as long as I live, a missionary to the poor."
"What! A city missionary? One of those fellows who go about in seedy black garments with long lugubrious faces?" exclaimed Sir James in amazement.
"Some of them do indeed wear seedy black garments," replied Aspel, "under some strange hallucination, I suppose, that it is their duty to appear like clergymen, and I admit that they would look infinitely more respectable in sober and economical grey tweeds; but you must have seen bad specimens of the class of men if you think their faces long and lugubrious. I know many of them whose faces are round and jovial, and whose spirits correspond to their faces. No doubt they are sometimes sad. Your own face would lengthen a little, Sir James, if you went where they go, and saw what they sometimes see."
"I dare say you are right. Well, but have you seriously joined this body of men?"
"Not officially. I—I—hesitate to offer myself, because—that is to say, I am a sort of free-lance just now."
"But, my young friend," returned Sir James slowly, "I understand that city missionaries preach, and usually have a considerable training in theology; now, it is not very long ago since you were a—excuse me—I—I shrink from hurting your feelings, but—"
"A drunkard, Sir James," said Aspel, looking down and blushing crimson. "State the naked truth. I admit it, with humiliation and sorrow; but, to the everlasting praise of God, I can say that Jesus Christ has saved me from drink. Surely, that being the case, I am in some degree fitted to speak of the Great Remedy—the Good Physician—to the thousands who are perishing in this city from the effects of drink, even though I be not deeply versed in theology. To save men and women from what I have suffered, by exhorting and inducing them to come to the Saviour is all my aim—it is now my chief ambition."
Sir James looked inquiringly at the fire and shook his head. He was evidently not convinced.
"There is truth in what you say, Aspel, but by taking this course you sacrifice your prospects entirely—at least in this life."
"On the contrary, Sir James, I expect, by taking this course, to gain all that in this life is worth living for."
"Ah! I see, you have become religiously mad," said Sir James, with a perplexed look; "well, Aspel, you must take your own way, for I am aware that it is useless to reason with madmen; yet I cannot help expressing my regret that a young fellow of your powers should settle down into a moping, melancholy, would-be reformer of drunkards."
To this Aspel replied with a laugh.
"Why, Sir James," he said, "do I look very moping or melancholy? If so, my looks must belie my spirit, for I feel very much the reverse, and from past experience—which is now considerable—I expect to have a great deal of rejoicing in my work, for it does not all consist in painful strivings with unrepentant men and women. Occasionally men in our position know something of that inexpressible joy which results from a grateful glance of the eye or a strong squeeze of the hand from some one whom we have helped to pluck from the very edge of hell. It is true, I do not expect to make much money in my profession, but my Master promises me sufficient, and a man needs no more. But even if much money were essential, there is no doubt that I should get it, for the silver and gold of this world are in the hands of my Father."
"Where do you work?" asked Sir James abruptly.
"Chiefly in the neighbourhood of Archangel Court. It was there I fell and sinned; it was there my Saviour rescued me: it is there I feel bound to labour."
"Very well, I won't press this matter further," said the Baronet, rising; "but remember, if you ever get into a better frame of mind, I shall be happy to see you."
Profound and various were the thoughts of the reformed drunkard that afternoon as he left his friend's abode and walked slowly towards the City. There was a strange feeling of sadness in his heart which he could not account for. It was not caused by the sacrifice of worldly good he had just made, for that had cost him no effort. The desire to rescue the perishing had been infused so strongly into his soul that he had become quite regardless of mere temporal advancement. Neither had he been unfaithful, as far as he could remember, in the recent conversation—at least not in words. The hopes and joys which he had truly referred to ought to have been as strong as ever within him, nevertheless his spirit was much depressed. He began to think of the position from which he had fallen, and of the great amount of good he might have done for Christ in a higher sphere of society—but this thought he repelled as a recurrence of pride.
As he came to St. Martin's-le-Grand he stopped, and, forgetting the bustling crowd of people, buses, cabs, and carts by which he was surrounded, allowed his mind to wander into the past. It was on the broad steps of the Post-Office that he had been first led astray by the man who wished to compass his ruin, but who was eventually made the willing instrument in bringing about his salvation. He thought of the scowling look and clenched fist of poor Bones as he had stood there, long ago, under the grand portico. He thought of the same man on his sick-bed, with clasped hands and glittering eyes, thanking God that he had been brought to the gates of death by an accident, that his eyes and heart had been opened to see and accept Jesus, and that he had still power left to urge his friend (George Aspel) to come to Jesus, the sinner's Refuge. He thought also of the burglar's death, and of the fading away of his poor wife, who followed him to the grave within the year. He thought of the orphan Tottie, who had been adopted and educated by Miss Stivergill, and was by that time as pretty a specimen of budding womanhood as any one could desire to see, with the strong will and courage of her father, and the self-sacrificing, trusting, gentleness of her mother. But above and beyond and underlying all these thoughts, his mind kept playing incessantly round a fair form which he knew was somewhere engaged at that moment in the building at his side, manipulating a three-keyed instrument with delicate fingers which he longed to grasp.
Ah! it is all very well for a man to resolve to tear an idol from his heart; it is quite another thing to do it. George Aspel had long ago given up all hope of winning May Maylands. He not only felt that one who had fallen so low as he, and shown such a character for instability, had no right to expect any girl to trust her happiness to him; but he also felt convinced that May had no real love for him, and that it would be unmanly to push his suit, even although he was now delivered from the power of his great enemy. He determined, therefore, to banish her as much as possible from his mind, and, in furtherance of his purpose, had conscientiously kept out of her way and out of the way of all his former friends.
Heaving a little sigh as he dismissed her, for the ten-thousandth time, from his mind, he was turning his back on the Post-Office—that precious casket which contained so rich but unattainable a jewel—when he remembered that he had a letter in his pocket to post.
Turning back, he sprang up the steps. The great mouth was not yet wide open. The evening feeding-hour had not arrived, and the lips were only in their normal condition—slightly parted. Having contributed his morsel to the insatiable giant, Aspel turned away, and found himself face to face with Phil Maylands.
It was not by any means their first meeting since the recovery of Aspel, but, as we have said, the latter had kept out of the way of old friends, and Phil was only partially excepted from the rule.
"The very man I wanted to see!" cried Phil, with gleaming eyes, as he seized his friend's hand. "I've got mother over to London at last. She's longing to see you. Come out with me this evening—do. But I'm in sudden perplexity: I've just been sent for to do some extra duty. It won't take me half an hour.—You're not engaged, are you?"
"Well, no—not particularly."
"Then you'll do me a favour, I'm sure you will. You'll mount guard here for half an hour, won't you? I had appointed to meet May here this evening to take her home, and when she comes she'll not know why I have failed her unless you—"
"My dear Phil, I would stay with all my heart," said Aspel hastily, "but—but—the fact is—I've not seen May for a long time, and—"
"Why, what on earth has that to do with it?" asked Phil, in some surprise.
"You are right," returned Aspel, with a deprecating smile, "that has nothing to do with it. My wits are wool-gathering, Phil. Go: I will mount guard."
Phil was gone in a moment, and Aspel leaned his head on his arm against one of the pillars of the portico. He had scarcely breathed a prayer for guidance when May approached. She stopped abruptly, flushed slightly, and hesitated a moment, then, advancing with the hearty air of an old playmate, she frankly held out her hand.
This was enough for Aspel. He had been depressed before; he was in the depths of despair now. If May had only shown confusion, or shyness, or anything but free-and-easy goodwill, hope might have revived, but he was evidently nothing more to her than the old playmate. Hope therefore died, and with its death there came over Aspel the calm subdued air of a crushed but resigned man. He observed her somewhat worn face and his heart melted. He resolved to act a brother's part to her.
"I'm so glad to meet you at last, May!" he said, returning the kindly grasp of the hand with interest, but quite in a brotherly way.
"You might have seen me long ago. Why did you not come? We would all have been so glad to see you."
May blushed decidedly as she made this reply, but the shades of evening were falling. Moreover, the pillar near to which they stood threw a deep shadow over them, and Aspel did not observe it. He therefore continued—in a quiet, brotherly way—
"Ah! May, it is cruel of you to ask that. You know that I have been unfit—"
"Nay, I did not mean that," interrupted May, with eager anxiety; "I meant that since—since—lately, you know—why did you not come?"
"True, May, I might have come lately—praise be to God!—but, but—why should I not speak out? It's all over now. You know the love I once bore you, May, which you told me I must not speak of, and which I have tried to cure with all the energy of my heart, for I do not want to lose you as a sister—an old playmate at least—though I may not have you as—But, as I said, it's all over now. I promise never again to intrude this subject on you. Let me rather tell you of the glorious work in which I am at present engaged."
He stopped, for, in spite of his efforts to be brotherly, there was a sense of sinking at his heart which slightly embittered his tone.
"Is true love, then, so easily cured?"
May looked up in his face as she asked the question. There was something in the look and in the tone which caused George Aspel's heart to beat like a sledge-hammer. He stooped down, and, looking into her eyes,—still in a brotherly way, said—
"Is it possible, May, that you could trifle with my feelings?"
"No, it is not possible," she answered promptly.
"Oh! May," continued Aspel, in a low, earnest tone; "if I could only dare to think,—to believe,—to hope, that—"
"Forgive me, May, I'm so sorry," cried her brother Phil, as he sprang up the steps; "I did my best to hurry through with it. I'm afraid I've kept you and George waiting very long."
"Not at all," replied May, with unquestionable truth.
"If you could have only kept us waiting five minutes longer!" thought Aspel, but he only said—"Come along, Phil, I'll go home with you to-night."
The evening was fine—frosty and clear.
"Shall we walk to Nottinghill?" asked Phil. "It's a longish tramp for you, May, but that's the very thing you want."
May agreed that it was a desirable thing in every point of view, and George Aspel did not object.
As they walked along, the latter began to wonder whether a new experiment had been made lately in the way of paving the streets with india-rubber. As for May, she returned such ridiculous answers to the simplest questions, that Phil became almost anxious about her, and finally settled it in his own mind that her labours in the telegraph department of the General Post-Office must be brought to a close as soon as possible.
"You see, mother," he said that night, after Aspel had left the cottage and May had gone to her room, "it will never do to let her kill herself over the telegraph instrument. She's too delicately formed for such work. We must find something better suited to her."
"Yes, Phil, we must find something better suited to her.—Good-night," replied Mrs Maylands.
There was a twinkle in the widow's eye as she said this that sorely puzzled Phil, and kept him in confused meditation that night, until the confusion became worse confounded and he fell into an untroubled slumber.
Sitting alone in the breakfast parlour of The Rosebud, one morning in June, Miss Stivergill read the following paragraph in her newspaper:—"GALLANT RESCUE.—Yesterday forenoon a lady and her daughter, accompanied by a gentleman, went to the landing-wharf at Blackfriars with the intention of going on board a steamer. There were some disorderly men on the wharf, and a good deal of crowding at the time. As the steamer approached, one of the half-drunk men staggered violently against the daughter above referred to, and thrust her into the river, which was running rapidly at the time, the tide being three-quarters ebb. The gentleman, who happened to have turned towards the mother at the moment, heard a scream and plunge. He looked quickly back and missed the young lady. Being a tall powerful man, he dashed the crowd aside, hurled the drunk man—no doubt inadvertently—into the river, sprang over his head, as he was falling, with a magnificent bound, and reached the water so near to the young lady that a few powerful strokes enabled him to grasp and support her. Observing that the unfortunate cause of the whole affair was lulling helplessly past him with the tide, he made a vigorous stroke or two with his disengaged arm, and succeeded in grasping him by the nape of the neck, and holding him at arm's-length, despite his struggles, until a boat rescued them all. We believe that the gentleman who effected this double rescue is named Aspel, and that he is a city missionary. We have also been informed that the young lady is engaged to her gallant deliverer, and that the wedding has been fixed to come off this week."
Laying down the paper, Miss Stivergill lifted up her eyes and hands, pursed her mouth, and gave vent to a most unladylike whistle! She had barely terminated this musical performance, and recovered the serenity of her aspect, when Miss Lillycrop burst in upon her with unwonted haste and excitement.
"My darling Maria!" she exclaimed, breathlessly, flinging her bonnet on a chair and seizing both the hands of her friend, "I am so glad you're at home. It's such an age since I saw you! I came out by the early train on purpose to tell you. I hardly know where to begin. Oh! I'm so glad!"
"You're not going to be married?" interrupted Miss Stivergill, whose stern calmness deepened as her friend's excitement increased.
"Married? oh no! Ridiculous! but I think I'm going deranged."
"That is impossible," returned Miss Stivergill, "You have been deranged ever since I knew you. If there is any change in your condition it can only be an access of the malady. Besides, there is no particular cause for joy in that. Have you no more interesting news to give me?"
"More interesting news!" echoed Miss Lillycrop, sitting down on her bonnet, "of course I have. Now, just listen: Peter Pax—of the firm of Blurt, Pax, Jiggs, and Company, Antiquarians, Bird-Stuffers, Mechanists, Stamp-Collectors, and I don't know what else besides, to the Queen—is going to be married to—whom do you think?"
"The Queen of Sheba," replied Miss Stivergill, folding her hands on her lap with a placid smile.
"To—Tottie Bones!" said Miss Lillycrop, with an excited movement that ground some of her bonnet to straw-powder.
Miss Stivergill did not raise her eyes or whistle at this. She merely put her head a little on one side and smiled.
"I knew it, my dear—at least I felt sure it would come to this, though it is sooner than I expected. It is not written anywhere, I believe, that a boy may not marry a baby, nevertheless—"
"But she's not a baby," broke in Miss Lillycrop.
"Tottie is seventeen now, and Pax is twenty-four. But this is not the half of what I have to tell you. Ever since Pax was taken into partnership by Mr Enoch Blurt the business has prospered, as you are aware, and our active little friend has added all kinds of branches to it—such as the preparation and sale of entomological, and ichthyological, and other -ological specimens, and the mechanical parts of toy-engines; and that lad Jiggs has turned out such a splendid expounder of all these things, that the shop has become a sort of terrestrial heaven for boys. And dear old Fred Blurt has begun to recover under the influence of success, so that he is now able to get out frequently in a wheel-chair. But the strangest news of all is that Mister Enoch Blurt got a new baby—a girl—and recovered his diamonds on the self-same day!"
"Indeed!" said Miss Stivergill, beginning to be influenced by these surprising revelations.
"Yes, and it's a curious evidence of the energetic and successful way in which things are managed by our admirable Post-Office—"
"What! the union of a new baby with recovered diamonds?"
"No, no, Maria, how stupid you are! I refer, of course, to the diamonds. Have you not seen reference made to them in the papers?"
"No. I've seen or heard nothing about it."
"Indeed! I'm surprised. Well, that hearty old letter-carrier, Solomon Flint, sent that ridiculously stout creature whom he calls Dollops to me with the last Report of the Postmaster-General, with the corner of page eleven turned down, for he knew I was interested in anything that might affect the Blurts. But here it is. I brought it to read to you. Listen: 'On the occasion of the wreck of the Trident in Howlin' Cove, on the west of Ireland, many years ago, strenuous efforts were made by divers to recover the Cape of Good Hope mails, and, it will be recollected, they were partially successful, but a portion which contained diamonds could not be found. Diving operations were, however, resumed quite recently, and with most satisfactory results. One of the registered-letter-bags was found. It had been so completely imbedded in sand, and covered by a heavy portion of the wreck, that the contents were not altogether destroyed, notwithstanding the long period of their immersion. On being opened in the Chief Office in London, the bag was found to contain several large packets of diamonds, the addresses on which had been partially obliterated, besides about seven pounds weight of loose diamonds, which, having escaped from their covers, were mixed with the pulp in the bottom of the bag. Every possible endeavour was used by the officers of the Department to discover the rightful owners of those packets which were nearly intact, and with such success that they were all, with very little delay, duly delivered. The remaining diamonds were valued by an experienced broker, and sold—the amount realised being about 19,000 pounds. After very great trouble, and much correspondence, the whole of the persons for whom the loose diamonds were intended were, it is believed, ascertained, and this sum proved sufficient to satisfy the several claimants to such an extent that not a single complaint was heard.'"
"How strange! Why did you not tell me of this before, Lilly?"
"Because Mr Blurt resolved to keep it secret until he was quite sure there was no mistake about the matter. Now that he has received the value of his diamonds he has told all his friends. Moreover, he has resolved to take a house in the suburbs, so that Fred may have fresh country air, fresh milk, and fresh eggs. Peter Pax, too, talks of doing the same thing, being bent, so he says, on devoting himself to the entomological department of his business, in order that he may renew his youth by hunting butterflies and beetles with Tottie."
"It never rains but it pours," said Miss Stivergill. "Surprises don't come singly, it appears.—Have you read that?" She handed her friend the newspaper which recounted the "gallant rescue."
Miss Lillycrop's countenance was a study which cannot be described. The same may be said of her bonnet. When she came to the name of Aspel her eyeballs became circular, and her eyebrows apparently attempted to reach the roots of her hair.
"Maria dear!" she cried, with a little shriek, "this only reminds me that I have still more news to tell. You remember Sir James Clubley? Well, he is dead, and he has left the whole of his property to George Aspel! It seems that Sir James went one night, secretly, as it were, to some low locality where Aspel was preaching to poor people, and was so affected by what he heard and saw that he came forward at the close, signed the pledge along with a number of rough and dirty men, and then and there became a total abstainer. This, I am told, occurred a considerable time ago, and he has been a helper of the Temperance cause ever since. Sir James had no near relatives. To the few distant ones he possessed he left legacies, and in his will stated that he left the rest of his fortune—which, although not large, is considerable—to George Aspel, in the firm belief that by so doing he was leaving it to further the cause of Christianity and Temperance."
"Come, now, don't stop there," observed Miss Stivergill calmly, "go on to tell me that Phil Maylands has also had a fortune left him, or become Postmaster-General and got married, or is going to be."
"Well, I can't exactly tell you that," returned Miss Lillycrop, "but I can tell you that he has had a rise in the Post-Office Savings Bank, with an increase of salary, and that May declines to marry Aspel unless he agrees to live with her mother in the cottage at Nottinghill. Of course Aspel has consented—all the more that it is conveniently situated near to a station whence he can easily reach the field of his missionary labours."
"Does he intend to continue these now that he is rich?" asked Miss Stivergill.
"How can you ask such a question?" replied her friend, with a slightly offended look. "Aspel is not a man to be easily moved from his purpose. He says he will labour in the good cause, and devote health and means to it as long as God permits."
"Good!" exclaimed Miss Stivergill with a satisfied nod.—"Now, Lilly," she added, with the decision of tone and manner peculiar to her, "I mean to make some arrangements. The farmer next to me has a very pretty villa, as you are aware, on the brow of the hill that overlooks the whole country in the direction of London. It is at present to let. Mr Blurt must take it. Beside it stands a cottage just large enough for a new-married couple. I had already rented that cottage for a poor friend. He, however, knows nothing about the matter. I will therefore have him put somewhere else, and sub-let the cottage to Mr and Mrs Pax. Lastly, you shall give up your insane notion of living alone, come here, with all your belongings, and take up your abode with me for ever."
"That's a long time, dear Maria," said Miss Lillycrop, with a little smile.
"Not too long, by any means, Lilly. Now, clear that rubbish off the chair—it's well got rid of, I never liked the shape—go, put yourself to rights, use one of my bonnets, and come out for a walk. To-morrow you shall go into town and arrange with Pax and Blurt about the villa and the cottage to the best of your ability. It's of no use attempting to resist me, Lilly—tell them that—for in this affair I have made up my mind that my will shall be law."
Reader, what more need we add—except that Miss Stivergill's will did eventually become law, because it happened to correspond with the wishes of all concerned. It is due, also, to Solomon Flint to record that after his long life of faithful service in the Post-Office he retired on a small but comfortable pension, and joined the "Rosebud Colony," as Pax styled it, taking his grandmother along with him. That remarkable piece of antiquity, when last seen by a credible witness, was basking in the sunshine under a rustic porch covered with honeysuckle, more wrinkled, more dried-up, more tough, more amiable—especially to her cat—and more stooped in the previous century than ever. Mr Bright, the energetic sorter, who visits Solomon whenever his postal duties will allow, expresses his belief that the old lady will live to see them all out, and Mr Bright's opinion carries weight with it; besides which, Phil Maylands and May Aspel with her husband are more than half inclined to agree with him. Time will show.
Pegaway Hall still exists, but its glory has departed, for although Mrs Square still keeps her one watchful eye upon its closed door, its walls and rafters no longer resound with the eloquence, wit, and wisdom of Boy Telegraph Messengers, although these important servants of the Queen still continue—with their friends the letter-carriers—to tramp the kingdom "post haste," in ceaseless, benignant activity, distributing right and left with impartial justice the varied contents of Her Majesty's Mails.