"Mr. Titmouse," said he, with a very polite air, "let me introduce you to Mr. Quirk"—(This was the senior partner, a short, stout elderly gentleman, dressed in black, with a shining bald crown fringed with white hair, and sharp black eyes, and who looked very earnestly, nay, with even a kind of dismay, at him)—"and Mr. Snap"—(This was the junior partner, having recently been promoted to be such after ten years' service in the office, as managing clerk: he was about thirty, particularly well dressed, slight, active, and with a face like a terrier—so hard, sharp, and wiry!) Of Mr. Gammon himself, I have already given the reader a slight notion. He appeared altogether a different style of person from both his partners. He was of most gentlemanly person and bearing—and at once acute, cautious, and insinuating—with a certain something about the eye, which had from the first made Titmouse feel uneasy on looking at him.
"A seat, sir," said Mr. Quirk, rising, and placing a chair for him, on which he sat down, they resuming theirs.
"You are punctual, Mr. Titmouse!" exclaimed Mr. Gammon, kindly; "more so than, I fear, you were yesterday, after our long interview, eh? Pray what did that worthy person, Mr. Rag-bag—or whatever his name is—say on your return?"
"Say, gents?"—(he tried to clear his throat, for he spoke somewhat more thickly, and his heart beat more perceptibly than usual)—"Meaning no offence—I'm ruined by it, and no mistake."
"Ruined! I'm sorry to hear it," interposed Mr. Gammon, with a concerned air.
"I am, indeed, sir. Such a towering rage as he has been in ever since; and he's given me warning to go on the 10th of next month." He thought he observed a faint smile flit over the faces of all three. "He has, indeed!"
"Dear me, Mr. Titmouse!—Did he allege any reason for dismissing you?" keenly inquired Mr. Quirk.
"What might it have been?"
"Stopping out longer than I was allowed, and refusing to tell him what this gentleman and I had been talking about."
"Don't think that'll do; sure it won't!" briskly exclaimed Mr. Snap; "no just cause of dismissal that," and he jumped up, whisked down a book from the shelves behind him, and eagerly turned over the leaves.
"Never mind that now, Mr. Snap," said Mr. Quirk, rather petulantly; "surely we have other matters to talk about to-night!"
"Asking pardon, sir, but I think it does matter to me, sir," interposed Titmouse; "for on the 10th of next month I'm a beggar—being next door to it now."
"Not quite, we trust," said Mr. Gammon, with a benignant smile.
"But Mr. Tag-rag said he'd make me as good as one."
"That's evidence to show malice," again eagerly interjected Mr. Snap, who was a second time tartly rebuffed by Mr. Quirk; even Mr. Gammon turning towards him with a surprised—"Really, Mr. Snap!"
"So Mr. Tag-rag said he'd make you a beggar?" inquired Mr. Quirk.
"He vowed he would, sir!—He did, as true as the gospel, sir!"
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed Mr. Quirk and Mr. Gammon—but such a laugh!—not careless or hearty, but subdued, and with a dash of deference in it. "Well—it perhaps may not signify much, by that time;" said Mr. Quirk, and laughed again, followed by the soft laugh of Mr. Gammon, and a kind of sharp quick sound, like a bark, from Mr. Snap.
"But, gents, you'll excuse me if I say I think it does signify to me, and a'n't any laughing matter, by any means!" quoth Titmouse, earnestly, and coloring with anger. "Without being rude, I'd rather come to business, if there's any to be done, without so much laughing at one."
"Laughing at you! my dear sir,—no, no!" exclaimed all three in a breath—"laughing with you," said Mr. Quirk!—"By the time you mention, you may perhaps be able to laugh at Mr. Rag-bag, and everybody else, for"——
[—"No use mincing matters?" he whispered, in a low tone, to Mr. Gammon, who nodded, but in apparently very reluctant acquiescence, and fixed his eyes earnestly on Titmouse.]
"I really think we are warranted, sir, in preparing you to expect by that time—that is, you will understand, sir, if our efforts are successful in your behalf, and if you yield yourself implicitly in all things to our guidance—that is absolutely essential—a prospect—we say at present, you will observe, only a prospect—of a surprising and splendid change in your circumstances!" Titmouse began to tremble violently, his heart beat rapidly, and his hands were bedewed with a cold moisture.
"I hear, gents," said he, thickly; and he also heard a faint ringing in his ears.
"It's not impossible, sir, in plain English," continued Mr. Quirk, himself growing a little excited with the important communication which trembled on the tip of his tongue, "that you may at no distant time (if you really turn out to be the person we are in search of) be put into possession of an estate of somewhere about Ten Thousand a-year"——
The words seemed to have struck Titmouse blind—as he saw nothing for some moments; then everything appeared to be swimming around him, and he felt a sort of faintness or sickness stealing over him. They had hardly been prepared for their communication's affecting their little visitor so powerfully. Mr. Snap hastened out, and in again, with a glass of water; and the earnest attentions of the three soon restored Mr. Titmouse to his senses. It was a good while, however, before he could appreciate the little conversation which they now and then addressed to him, or estimate the full importance of the astounding intelligence which Mr. Quirk had just communicated, "Beg pardon—but may I make free to ask for a little brandy and cold water, gents? I feel all over in a kind of tremble," said he, some little time afterwards.
"Yes—by all means, Mr. Titmouse," replied Mr. Quirk—"Mr. Snap, will you be kind enough to order Betty to bring in a glass of cold brandy and water from the Jolly Thieves, next door?"—Snap shot out, gave the order, and returned in a trice. The old woman in a few minutes' time followed, with a large tumbler of dark brandy and water, quite hot, for which Mr. Gammon apologized, but Mr. Titmouse said he preferred it so—and soon addressed himself to the inspiriting mixture. It quickly manifested its influence, reassuring him wonderfully. As he sat sipping it, Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap being engaged in an earnest conversation, of which he could not comprehend a word, he had leisure to look about him, and observed that there was lying before them a large sheet of paper, at which they all of them often and earnestly looked, filled with marks, so—
with writing at the ends of each of them, and round and square figures. When he saw them all bending over and scrutinizing this mysterious object, it puzzled him (and many a better head than his has a pedigree puzzled before) sorely, and he began to suspect it was a sort of conjuring paper!—
"I hope, gents, that paper's all right—eh?" said he, supported by the brandy, which he had nearly finished. They turned towards him with a smile of momentary surprise, and then—
"We hope so—a vast deal depends on it," said Mr. Quirk, looking over his glasses at Titmouse. Now what he had hinted at, as far as he could venture to do so, was a thought that glanced across his as yet unsettled brain, that there might have been invoked more than mere earthly assistance; but he prudently pressed the matter no farther—that was all Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap's look-out; he had been no party to anything of the sort, nor would he knowingly. He also observed the same sheets of paper written all over, which Mr. Gammon had filled up at his (Titmouse's) room, the night before; and several new, and old-looking, papers and parchments. Sometimes they addressed questions to him, but found it somewhat difficult to keep his attention up to anything that was said to him for the wild visions which were chasing one another through his heated brain; the passage of which said visions was not a little accelerated by the large tumbler of brandy and water which he had just taken.
"Then, in point of fact," said Mr. Quirk, as Messrs. Gammon and Snap simultaneously sat down, after having been for some time standing poring over the paper before Mr. Quirk. "This Tittlebat Titmouse's title must have accrued in 18—. That's the point—eh, Gammon?"
"Precisely so," said Mr. Gammon, calmly.
"To be sure," confidently added Snap; who having devoted himself exclusively all his life to the sharpest practice of the criminal law, knew about as much of real property law as a snipe—but it would not have done to appear ignorant, or taking no part in the matter, in the presence of the heir-at-law, and the future great client of the House.
"Well, Mr. Titmouse," at length said Mr. Quirk, with a sort of grunt, laying aside his glasses—"if you turn out to be the Titmouse we have been speaking of, you are likely, through our immense exertions, to become one of the luckiest men that ever lived! We may be mistaken, but it appears to us that we shall by and by be able to put you into possession of a very fine estate in Yorkshire, worth some L10,000 or L12,000 a-year at the least!"
"You—don't—say—so!" exclaimed Titmouse, elevating his hands and opening his eyes with amazement—"Oh, gents, I do believe we're all dreaming! Is it all true, indeed?"
"It is, Mr. Titmouse—and we are very proud and happy indeed to be the honored instruments of establishing your rights, my dear sir," said Mr. Gammon, in a most impressive manner.
"Then all the money that's been spent this ten or twelve years has been my money, has it?"
"If we are right, it is undoubtedly as you say," answered Mr. Quirk, giving a quick apprehensive glance at Mr. Gammon.
"Then there'll be a jolly reckoning for some one, shortly—eh? My stars!"
"My dear Mr. Titmouse," said Mr. Gammon, gravely, "you have no more than a just regard for your own interests. There will be a reckoning, and a very terrible one ere long, for somebody—but we've a vast deal to go through, and a vast deal of money to be spent, before we come to discuss that matter! Only let us have the unspeakable happiness of seeing you once fairly in possession of your estates, and our office shall know no rest till you have got all you may be entitled to—even to the uttermost farthing!"
"Oh, never fear our letting them rest!" said Mr. Quirk, judiciously accommodating himself to the taste and apprehension of his excited auditor—"Those that must give up the goose, must give up the giblets also—ha, ha, ha!" Messrs. Gammon and Snap echoed the laugh, duly tickled with the joke of the head of the firm.
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed Mr. Titmouse, immensely excited by the conjoint influence of the brandy, and the news of the night; "capital! capital! hurrah! Such goings on there will be! You're all of the right sort, gents, I see! 'Pon my life, law for ever! There's nothing like it! Let's all shake hands, gents! Come, if you please, all together! all friends to-night!" And the little fellow grasped each of the three readily-proffered right hands of Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap, with an energy that was likely to make all the high contracting parties to that quadruple alliance, remember its ratification.
"And is it all a ready-money affair, gents?—or rent, and all that kind of thing?" he inquired, after many eloquent expressions of delight.
"Why, almost entirely the latter," answered Mr. Quirk, "except the accumulations."
"Then, 'pon my soul—I'm a great landlord, am I?"
"Indeed, my dear Mr. Titmouse, you are—(that is, unless we have made a blunder such as—I will say—our house is not often in the habit of making)—and have two very fine houses, one in town and the other in the country."
"Capital! delightful! I'll live in both of them—we'll have such goings on!—And is it quite up to the mark of L10,000 a-year?"
"We really entertain no doubt at present that it is"——
"And such as that I can spend all of it, every year?"
"Certainly—no doubt of it—not the least. The rents are paid with most exemplary punctuality—at least," added Mr. Gammon, with a captivating, an irresistible smile, and taking him affectionately by the hand—"at least they will be, as soon as we have them fairly in our management."
"Oh, you're to get it all in for me, are you?" he inquired briskly. The three partners bowed, with the most deprecatingly-disinterested air in the world; intimating that, for his sake, they were ready to take upon themselves even that troublesome responsibility.
"Capital! couldn't be better! couldn't be better! Ah, ha, ha—you've catched the goose, and must bring me its eggs. Ah, ha, ha! a touch in your line, old gent!" said he, slapping Mr. Quirk's knee.
"Ha, ha, ha! excellent! ah, ha, ha!" laughed the three partners at the wit of their new client. Mr. Titmouse joined them, and snapped his fingers in the air. Then he added suddenly—
"Lord—by the way—I've just thought of Tag-rag and Company's—I seem as if I hadn't seen or heard of those gents for Lord knows how long! Only fancy old Tag-rag making me a beggar on the 10th of next month—ha, ha, ha!—I sha'n't see that infernal hole any more, anyhow!"
["There!" whispered Mr. Gammon, suddenly and apprehensively, in the ear of Mr. Quirk, "you hear that? A little wretch! We have been perfectly insane in going so far already with him! Is not this what I predicted?"—"I don't care," said Mr. Quirk, stubbornly. "Who first found it out, Mr. Gammon? and who's to be at the expense and responsibility? Pshaw! I know what I'm about—I'll make him knuckle down—never fear me! Caleb Quirk a'n't a man to be trifled with!"]
"That," continued Titmouse, snapping his fingers with an air of defiance—"for Mr. Tag-rag! That for Mother Squallop—Ah, ha, gents! It won't do to go back to that—eugh!—eh? will it?—you know what I mean! Fancy Mr. Tittlebat Titmouse—or Mr. Tittlebat Titmouse, Esquire—standing behind"——
The partners looked rather blank at this unexpected sally.
"We would venture to suggest, Mr. Titmouse," said Mr. Gammon, seriously, "the absolute necessity there is for everything on your part, and our parts, to go on as quietly as before, for a little time to come: to be safe and successful, my dear sir, we must be very—very secret."
"Oh, I see, gents! I see; mum—mum's the word, for the present! But, I must say, if there is any one whom I want to hear of it, sooner than another, it's"——
"Rag-bag and Co., I suppose! ha, ha, ha!" interrupted Mr. Gammon, his partners echoing his gentle laugh.
"Ha, ha, ha! Cuss the cats—that's it—ha, ha, ha!" echoed Mr. Titmouse; who, getting up out of his chair, could not resist capering to and fro, sticking his hands on his hips, in something of the attitude of a hornpipe dancer, whistling and humming by turns, and indulging in various other wild antics.
"And now, gents—excuse me, but, to do a bit of business—when am I to begin scattering the shiners, eh?" he inquired, interrupting a low-toned, but somewhat vehement conversation, between the two senior partners; while Snap sat silently eying him like a terrier a rat coming within his reach!
"Oh, of course, sir!" replied Mr. Gammon, rather coldly, "very—considerable—delay is unavoidable. All we have done, as yet, is to discover that, as far as we are advised, and can judge, you will turn out to be the right owner; but—as we've already intimated—very extensive and expensive operations must be immediately commenced, before you can be put into possession. There are some who won't be persuaded to part with L10,000 a-year, Mr. Titmouse, for the mere asking!" added Mr. Gammon, with an anxious and bitter smile.
"The devil there are! Who are they that want to keep me any longer out of what's my own?—what's justly mine? Eh? I want to know! Haven't they kept me out long enough?—hang 'em! Put 'em in prison directly—don't spare 'em—the villains!"
"They'll probably, ere long, find their way in that direction—for how," replied Mr. Quirk, "he's ever to make up, poor devil, the mesne profits"——
"Mean profits?—is that all you call them, gents? 'Pon my life, it's rogue's money—villain's profits! So don't spare him—d—n him!—he's robbed the fatherless, which I am, and an orphan. Keep me out of what's mine, indeed! Curse me if he shall, though!"
"My dear Mr. Titmouse," said Gammon, very gravely, "we are getting on too fast—dreadfully too fast. It will never do, matters of such immense importance as these cannot be hurried on, or talked of, in this way"——
"I like that, sir!—I do, by Jove!"—exclaimed Titmouse, scornfully.
"You will really, if you go on in this wild way, Mr. Titmouse, make us regret the trouble we have taken in the affair, and especially the promptness with which we have communicated to you the extent of your possible good fortune."
"Beg pardon, I'm sure, gents, but mean no offence: am monstrous obliged to you for what you've done for me—but, by Jove, it's taken me rather a-back, I own, to hear that I'm to be kept so long out of it all! Why can't you offer him, whoever he is that has my property, a slapping sum to go out at once? Gents, I'll own to you I'm most uncommon low—never so low in my life—devilish low! Done up, and yet it seems a'n't to get what's justly mine! What am I to do in the meanwhile? Consider that, gents!"
"You are rather excited just now, Mr. Titmouse," said Mr. Quirk, seriously; "suppose we now break up, and resume our conversation to-morrow, when we are all in better and calmer trim?"
"No, sir, thanking you all the same; but I think we'd better go on with it now," replied Titmouse, impetuously. "Do you think I can stoop to go back to that nasty, beastly shop, and stand behind that odious counter?—I'd almost as lieve go to the gallows!"
"Our decided opinion, Mr. Titmouse," said Mr. Quirk, emphatically—his other partners getting graver and graver in their looks—"that is, if our opinion is worth offering"——
"That, by Jove! remains to be seen," said Titmouse, with a pettish shake of the head.
"Well, such as it is, we offer it you; and it is, that for many reasons you must continue, for a little while longer, in your present situation"——
"What! own Tag-rag for my master—and I worth L10,000 a-year?" interrupted Titmouse, furiously.
"My dear sir, you've not got it yet," said Mr. Quirk, with a very bitter smile.
"Do you think you'd have told me what you have, if you weren't sure that I should, though? No, no! you've gone too far, by Jove!—but I shall burst, I shall! Me to go on as before!—they use me worse and worse every day. Gents, you'll excuse me—I hope you will; but business is business, gents—it is; and if you won't do mine, I must look out for them that will—'pon my soul, I must, and"—If Mr. Titmouse could have seen, or having seen, appreciated, the looks which the three partners interchanged, on hearing this absurd, ungrateful, and insolent speech of his—the expression that flitted across their shrewd faces; that was, of intense contempt for him, hardly overmastered and concealed by a vivid perception of their own interest, which was, of course, to manage, to soothe, to conciliate him!
How the reptile propensities of his mean nature had thriven beneath the sudden sunshine of unexpected prosperity!—See already his selfishness, truculence, rapacity, in full play!
"So, gents," said he, after a long and keen expostulation with them on the same subject, "I'm really to go to-morrow morning to Tag-rag and Co.'s, and go on with the cursed life I led there to-day, all as if nothing had happened—ha, ha, ha!—I do so like that!"
"In your present humor, Mr. Titmouse, it would be in vain to discuss the matter," said Mr. Quirk, sternly. "Again I tell you that the course we have recommended is, in our opinion, the proper one; excuse me if I add, that you are entirely in our hands—and if I ask you—what can you do but adopt our advice?"
"Why, hang me if I won't employ somebody else—that's flat! S' elp me, Heaven, I will! So, good-night, gents; you'll find that Tittlebat Titmouse isn't to be trifled with!" So saying, Mr. Titmouse clapped his hat on his head, bounced out of the room, and, no attempt being made to stop him, he was in the street in a twinkling.
Mr. Gammon gazed at Mr. Quirk with a look, the significance of which the astounded old gentleman thoroughly understood—'twas compounded of triumph, reproach, and apprehension.
"Did you ever see such a little beast!" exclaimed Mr. Quirk, with an air of disgust, turning to Mr. Snap.
"Beggar on horseback!" exclaimed Snap, with a bitter sneer.
"It won't do, however," said Mr. Quirk, with a most chagrined and apprehensive air, "for him to go at large in his present frame of mind—he may ruin the thing altogether"——
"As good as L500 a-year out of the way of the office," quoth Snap.
"It cannot be helped now," said Mr. Gammon, with a sigh of vexation, turning to Mr. Quirk, and seizing his hat—"he must be managed—so I'll go after him instantly, and bring him back at all hazards; and we must really try and do something for him in the meanwhile, to keep him quiet till the thing's brought a little into train." So out went after Titmouse, Mr. Gammon, from whose lips dropped persuasion sweeter than honey; and I should not be surprised if he were to succeed in bringing back that little stubborn piece of conceited stupidity.
As soon as Mr. Titmouse heard the street door shut after him with a kind of bang, he snapped his fingers once or twice, by way of letting off a little of the inflammable air that was in him, and muttered, "Pretty chaps those, upon my soul!" said he, disdainfully. "I'll expose them all! I'll apply to the lord-mayor—they're a pack of swindlers, they are! This is the way they treat me, who've got a title to L10,000 a-year! To be sure"—He stood still for a moment—and another moment—and another—and then dismay came quickly over him; for the thought suddenly occurred to his partially obfuscated intellect—what hold had he got on Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap?—what could he do?—or rather, what HAD he done?
Ah—the golden vision of the last few hours was fading away momentarily, like a dream! Each second of his deep and rapid reflection, rendered more impetuous his desire and determination to return and make his peace with Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap. By submission for the present, he could get the whip-hand of them hereafter! He was in the act of turning round towards the office, when Mr. Gammon gently laid his hand upon the shoulder of his repentant client.
"Mr. Titmouse! my dear sir," said Mr. Gammon, softly, "what is the matter with you? How could we so misunderstand each other?"
Titmouse's small cunning was on the qui vive, and he saw and followed up his advantage. "I am going," said he, in a resolute tone, "to speak to some one else in the morning."
"Ah, to be sure!" replied Mr. Gammon, with a smile of utter unconcern—"I supposed as much—'tis a matter which of course, however, signifies nothing to any one—but yourself. You will take any steps, my dear sir, that occur to you, and act as you may be advised!"
"Monstrous kind of you, 'pon my life! to come and give me such good advice!" exclaimed Titmouse, with a sneer—but consciously baffled.
"Oh, don't mention it!" said Gammon, coolly; "I came out of pure good-nature, to assure you that our office, notwithstanding what has passed, entertains not the slightest personal ill feeling towards you, in thus throwing off our hands a fearfully expensive, and most harassing enterprise—which we have feared from the first had been too rashly undertaken"——
"Hem!" exclaimed Titmouse, involuntarily, once or twice.
"So good-night, Mr. Titmouse—good-night! God bless you! and think hereafter of all this as a mere idle dream—as far as we are concerned!" Mr. Gammon, in the act of returning to the door, extended his hand to Mr. Titmouse, whom he instantly perceived to be melting rapidly.
"Why, sir," quoth Titmouse, with a mixture of embarrassment and alarm, "if I thought you all meant the correct thing—hem! I say, the correct thing by me—I shouldn't so much mind a little disappointment for the time; but you must own, Mr. Gammon, it is very hard being kept out of one's own so long—honor, now! isn't it?"
"True, very true, Mr. Titmouse. Very hard it is, indeed, to bear, and we all felt deeply for you, and would have set everything in train"——
"Would have! oh my stars!"——
"Yes, my dear Mr. Titmouse, we would have done it, and believed we could have brought you through every difficulty—over every obstacle, prodigious though they are, and almost innumerable."
"Why—you—don't—hardly—quite—mean to say you've given it all up?—What, already! 'Pon my life! Oh Lord!" exclaimed Titmouse, in evident trepidation.
Mr. Gammon had triumphed over Mr. Titmouse! whom, nothing loath, he brought back, in two minutes' time, into the room which Titmouse had just before so insolently quitted. Mr. Quirk and Mr. Snap had now their parts to perform in the little scene which they had determined on enacting. They were in the act of locking up desks and drawers, evidently on the move, and received Mr. Titmouse with an air of cold surprise.
"Mr. Titmouse again!" exclaimed Mr. Quirk, taking his gloves out of his hat. "Back again!—This, sir, is quite an unexpected honor!"
"Leave anything behind?" inquired Mr. Snap, affecting to look about him—"don't see anything"——
"Oh no, sir! No, sir!" exclaimed Titmouse, with eager anxiety. "This gent, Mr. Gammon, and I, have made it all up, gents! I'm not angry any more—not the least, 'pon my soul I'm not—and quite forgive you—and no mistake!"
"Angry!—Forgive!! Mr. Titmouse!" echoed Mr. Quirk, with an air sternly ironical. "We are under great obligations to you for your forbearance!"
"Oh, come, gents!" said Titmouse, more and more disturbed, "I was too warm, I dare say, and—and—I ask your pardon, all of you, gents! I won't say another word if you'll but buckle to business again—quite exactly in your own way—because you see"——
"It's growing very late," said Mr. Quirk, coldly, and looking at his watch; "however, after what you have said, probably at some future time, when we've leisure to look into the thing"——
Poor Titmouse was near dropping on his knees, in mingled agony and fright.
"May I be allowed to say," interposed the bland voice of Mr. Gammon, anxiously addressing himself to Mr. Quirk, "that Mr. Titmouse a few minutes ago assured me, outside there, that if you, as the head of the firm, could only be persuaded to permit our house to take up his case again"——
"I did—I did indeed, gents! so help me——!" interrupted Mr. Titmouse, eagerly backing with an oath the ready lie of Mr. Gammon.
Mr. Quirk, with a stern countenance, drew his hand across his chin musingly, and stood silently for a few moments, apparently irresolute.
"Well," said he at length, but very coldly, "since that is so, probably we may be induced to resume our heavy labors in your behalf; and if you will favor us with a call to-morrow night, at the same hour, we may have, by that time, made up our minds as to the course we shall think fit to adopt."
"Lord, sir, I'll be here as the clock strikes, and as meek as a mouse; and pray, have it all your own way for the future, gents—do!"—cried Titmouse, clasping his hands together on his breast.
"Good-night, sir—good-night!" exclaimed the partners, stiffly—motioning him towards the door.
"Good-night, gents!" said Titmouse, bowing very low, and feeling himself at the same time being—bowed out! As he passed out of the room, he cast a lingering look at their three frigid faces, as if they were angels sternly shutting him out from Paradise. What misery was his, as he walked slowly homeward, with much the same feelings (now that the fumes of the brandy had somewhat evaporated, and the reaction of excitement was coming on, aggravated by a recollection of the desperate check he had received) as those of a sick and troubled man, who, suddenly roused out of a delicious dream, drops into wretched reality, as it were out of a fairyland, which, with all its dear innumerable delights, is melting overhead into thin air—disappearing, forever!
Closet Court had never looked so odious to him as it did on his return from this memorable interview. Dreadfully distressed and harassed, he flung himself on his bed for a moment, directly he had shut his door, intending presently to rise and undress; but Sleep, having got him prostrate, secured her victory. She waved her black wand over him, and—he awoke not completely till about eight o'clock in the morning. A second long-drawn sigh was preparing to follow its predecessor, when he heard the clock strike eight, and sprang off the bed in a fright; for he ought to have been at the shop an hour before. Dashing a little water into his face, and scarce staying to wipe it off, he ran down-stairs, through the court, and along the street, never stopping till he had found his way into—almost the very arms of the dreaded Mr. Tag-rag; who, rarely making his appearance till about half-past nine, had, as the deuce would have it, happened to come down an hour and a half earlier than usual on that particular morning, the only one out of several hundreds on which Titmouse had been more than ten minutes beyond his time.
"Yours ve-ry respectfully, Mr. Titmouse—Thomas Tag-rag!" exclaimed that personage, with mock solemnity, bowing formally to his astounded and breathless shopman.
"I—I—beg your pardon, sir; but I wasn't very well, and overslept myself," stammered Titmouse.
"Ne-ver mind, Mr. Titmouse! ne-ver mind!—it don't much signify, as it happens," interrupted Mr. Tag-rag, bitterly; "you've just got an hour and a half to take this piece of silk, with my compliments, to Messrs. Shuttle and Weaver, in Dirt Street, Spitalfields, and ask them if they aren't ashamed to send it to a West-end house like mine; and bring back a better piece instead of it! D' ye hear, sir?"
"Yes, sir—but—am I to go before my breakfast, sir?"
"Did I say a word about breakfast, sir? You heard my orders, sir; you can attend to them or not, Mr. Titmouse, as you please!"
Off trotted Titmouse instanter, without his breakfast; and so Tag-rag gained one object he had had in view. Titmouse found this rather trying: a four-mile walk before him, with no inconsiderable load under his arm; having, moreover, had nothing to eat since the preceding evening, when he had partaken of a delicate repast of thick slices of bread, smeared slightly over with somewhat high-flavored salt butter, and moistened with a most astringent decoction of quasi tea-leaves sweetened with brown sugar, and discolored with sky-blue milk. He had not even a farthing about him wherewith to buy a penny roll! As he went disconsolately along, so many doubts and fears buzzed impetuously about him, that they completely darkened his little soul, and bewildered his petty understanding. Ten Thousand a-Year!—it could never be meant for the like of him! He soon worked himself into a conviction that the whole thing was infinitely too good to be true; the affair was desperate; it had been all moonshine; for some cunning purpose or another, Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap, had been—ah, here he was within a few yards of their residence, the scene of last night's tragic transactions! As he passed Saffron Hill, he paused, looked up towards the blessed abode,
"Where centred all his hopes and fears,"—
uttered a profound sigh, and passed slowly on towards Smithfield. The words "Quirk, Gammon, and Snap," seemed to be written over every shop-window which he passed—their images filled his mind's eye. What could they be at? They had been all very polite and friendly at first—and of their own seeking: but he had affronted them. How coldly and proudly they had parted with him over-night, although they had professed themselves reconciled to him! It was evident that they would stand no nonsense—they were great lawyers; so he must (if they really would allow him to see them again) eat humble pie cheerfully till he had got all that they had to give him. How he dreaded the coming night! Perhaps they intended civilly to tell him that, since seeing him, they would have nothing more to do with him; they would get the estate for themselves, or some one else who would be more manageable! They had taken care to tell him nothing at all about the nature of his pretensions to this grand fortune. Oh, how crafty they were—they had it all their own way!—But what, after all, had he really done? The estates were his, if they were really in earnest—his and no one's else; and why should he be kept out of them at their will and pleasure? Suppose he were to say he would give them all he was entitled to for L20,000 down, in cash? Oh no; on second thoughts, that would be only two years' income! But on the other hand—he dared hardly even propose it to his thoughts—still, suppose it should really all turn out true! Goodness gracious!—that day two months he might be riding about in his carriage in the Parks, and poor devils looking on at him, as he now looked on all those who now rode there. There he would be, holding up his head with the best of them, instead of slaving as he was that moment, carrying about that cursed bundle—ough! how he shrunk with disgust as he changed its position, to relieve his aching right arm! Why was his mouth to be stopped—why might he not tell his shopmates? What would he not give for the luxury of telling it to the odious Tag-rag? If he were to do so, Mr. Tag-rag, he was sure, would ask him to dinner the very next Sunday, at his country house at Clapham!—Ah, ha!—Thoughts such as these so occupied his mind, that he did not for a long while observe that he was walking at a rapid rate towards the Mile-end road, having left Whitechapel church nearly half a mile behind him! The possible master of L10,000 a-year was nearly dropping with fatigue, and sudden apprehension of the storm he should have to encounter when he first saw Mr. Tag-rag after so unduly prolonged an absence on his errand. He was detained for a cruel length of time at Messrs. Shuttle and Weaver's; who, not having the exact kind of silk required by their imperious customer at that moment on their premises, had some difficulty in obtaining it, after having sent for it to one or two neighboring manufactories; by which means it came to pass that it was two o'clock before Titmouse, completely exhausted, had returned to Tag-rag and Company's. The gentlemen of the shop had finished their dinners.
"Go up-stairs and get your dinner, sir!" exclaimed Tag-rag, sternly, after having received Messrs. Shuttle and Weaver's obsequious message of apologies and hopes.
Titmouse having laid down his heavy bundle on the counter, went up-stairs hungry enough, and found himself the sole occupant of the long close-smelling room in which his companions had been recently dining. His dinner was presently brought to him by a slatternly slipshod servant-girl. It was in an uncovered basin, which appeared to contain nothing but the leavings of his companions—a savory intermixture of cold potatoes, broken meat, (chiefly bits of fat and gristle,) a little hot water having been thrown over it to make it appear warm and fresh—(faugh!) His plate (with a small pinch of salt upon it) had not been cleaned after its recent use, but evidently only hastily smeared over with a greasy towel, as also seemed his knife and fork, which, in their disgusting state, he was fain to put up with—the table-cloth on which he might have wiped them, having been removed. A hunch of bread that seemed to have been tossing about in the pan for days, and half a pint of turbid table-beer, completed the fare set before him; opposite which he sat for some minutes, too much occupied with his reflections to commence his repast. He was in the act of scooping out of the basin some of its inviting contents, when—"Titmouse!" exclaimed the voice of one of his shopmates, peering in at him through the half-opened door, "Mr. Tag-rag wants you! He says you've had plenty of time to finish your dinner!"
"Oh, tell him, then, I'm only just beginning my dinner—eugh! such as it is," replied Titmouse, sulkily.
In a few minutes' time Mr. Tag-rag himself entered the room, stuttering with fury—"How much longer, sir, may it be your pleasure to spend over your dinner, eh?"
"Not another moment, sir," answered Titmouse, looking with unaffected loathing and disgust at the savory victuals before him; "if you'll only allow me a few minutes to go home and buy a penny roll instead of all this"——
"Ve—ry good, sir! Ve—ry parti—cu—larly good, Mr. Titmouse," replied Tag-rag, with ill-subdued rage; "anything else that I can make a leetle memorandum of—against the day of—your leaving us?"
This hint of twofold terror, i. e. of withholding on the ground of misconduct the wretched balance of salary which might be then due to him, and of also giving him a damning character—dispelled the small remains of Titmouse's appetite, and he rose to return to the shop, involuntarily clutching his fist as he brushed close past the tyrant Tag-rag on the stairs, whom he would have been delighted to pitch down head-foremost. If he had done so, none of his fellow-slaves below, in spite of their present sycophancy towards Tag-rag, would have shown any particular alacrity in picking up their common oppressor. Poor Tittlebat resumed his old situation behind the counter; but how different his present, from his former air and manner! With his pen occasionally peeping pertly out of his bushy hair over his right ear, and his yard-measure in his hand, no one, till the previous Monday morning, had been more cheerful, smirking, and nimble than Tittlebat Titmouse: alas, how chopfallen now! None of his companions could make him out, or guess what was in the wind; so they very justly concluded that he had been doing something dreadfully disgraceful, the extent of which was known to Tag-rag and himself alone. Their jeers and banter were giving place to cold distrustful looks, which were far more trying to bear. How he longed to be able to burst upon their astounded minds with the pent-up intelligence that was silently racking and splitting his little bosom! But if he did—the terrible firm of Quirk, Gammon, and Snap—Oh! the very thought of them glued his lips together. There was one, however, of whom he might surely make a confidant—the excellent Huckaback, with whom he had had no opportunity of communicating since Sunday night. That gentleman was as close a prisoner at the establishment of DIAPER and SARSENET, in Tottenham-court Road, as Titmouse at Messrs. Tag-rag's, of which said establishment he was, by the way, quite as great an ornament as Titmouse of Messrs. Tag-rag's. They were of about the same height, and equals in vulgar puppyism of manners, dress, and appearance; but Titmouse was certainly the better-looking. With equal conceit apparent in their faces, that of Huckaback, square, flat, and sallow, had an expression of ineffable impudence, made a lady shudder, and a gentleman feel a tingling sensation in his right toe. About his small black eyes there was a glimmer of low cunning;—but he is not of sufficient importance to be painted any further. When Titmouse left the shop that night, a little after nine, he hurried to his lodgings, to make himself as imposing in his appearance before Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap, as his time and means would admit of. Behold, on a table lay a letter from Huckaback. It was written in a flourishing mercantile hand; and here is a verbatim copy of it:
"Hope you are well, which is what I can only middling say in respect of me. Such a row with my governors as I have had to-day! I thought that as I had been in the House near upon Eighteen Months at L25 per annum, I might nat'rally ask for L30 a-year (which is what my Predecessor had) when, would you believe it, Mr. Sharpeye (who is going to be taken in as a Partner,) to whom I named the thing, ris up in rage against me, and I were had up into the counting-house, where both the governors was, and they gave it me in such a way that you never saw nor heard of; but it wasn't all on their own side, as you know me too well to think of. You would have thought I had been a-going to rob the house. They said I was most oudacious, and all that, and ungrateful, and what would I have next? Mr. Diaper said times was come to such a pitch!! since when he was first in the business, for salaries, says he, is ris to double, and not half the work done that was, and no gratitude—(cursed old curmudgeon!) He said if I left them just now, I might whistle for a character, except one that I should not like; but if he don't mind I'll give him a touch of law about that—which brings me to what happened to-day with our lawyers, Titty, the people at Saffron Hill, whom I thought I would call in on to-day, being near the neighborhood with some light goods, to see how affairs was getting on, and stir them up a bit"—
This almost took Titmouse's breath away——
—"feeling most interested on your account, as you know, dear Tit, I do. I said I wanted to speak to one of the gentlemen on business of wital importance; whereat I was quickly shown into a room where two gents was sitting. Having put down my parcel for a minute on the table, I said I was a very partic'lar friend of yours, and had called in to see how things went on about the advertisement; whereat you never saw in your life how struck they looked, and stared at one another in speechless silence, till they said to me, what concerned me about the business? or something of that nature, but in such a way that ris a rage in me directly, all for your sake, (for I did not like the looks of things;) and says I, I said, we would let them know we were not to be gammoned; whereat up rose the youngest of the two, and ringing the bell, he says to a tight-laced young gentleman with a pen behind his ear, 'Show this fellow to the door,' which I was at once; but, in doing so, let out a little of my mind to them. They're no better than they should be, you see if they are; but when we touch the property, we'll show them who is their masters, which consoles me. Good-by, keep your sperrits up, and I will call and tell you more about it on Sunday. So farewell (I write this at Mr. Sharpeye's desk, who is coming down from dinner directly, the beast!)—Your true friend, "R. HUCKABACK.
"P. S.—Met a young Jew last night with a lot of prime cigars, and (knowing he must have stole them—betwixt you, and I, and the Post—they looked so good at the price,) I bought one shilling's worth for me, and two shillings' worth for you, your salary being higher, and to say nothing of your chances."
All that part of the foregoing letter which related to its gifted writer's interview with Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap, Titmouse read in a kind of spasm—he could not draw a breath, and felt a choking sensation coming over him. After a while, "I may spare myself," thought he, "the trouble of rigging out—Huckaback has done my business for me with Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap!—Mine will only be a walk in vain!" And this cursed call of Huckaback's, too, to have happened after what had occurred last night between Titmouse and them!! and so urgently as he had been enjoined to keep the matter to himself! Of course, Huckaback would seem to have been sent by him; seeing he appeared to have assumed the hectoring tone which Titmouse had tried so vainly over-night, and now so bitterly repented of; and he had no doubt grossly insulted the arbiters of Titmouse's destiny, (for he knew Huckaback's impudence)—he had even said that he (Titmouse) would not be GAMMONED by them! But time was pressing—the experiment must be made; and with a beating heart he scrambled into a change of clothes—bottling up his wrath against the unconscious Huckaback till he should see that worthy. In a miserable state of mind he set off soon after for Saffron Hill at a quick pace, which soon became a trot, and often sharpened into a downright run. He saw, heard, and thought of nothing, as he hurried along Oxford Street and Holborn, but Quirk, Gammon, Snap, and Huckaback, and the reception which the last-mentioned gentleman might have secured for him—if, indeed, he was to be received at all. The magical words, Ten Thousand a-year, had not disappeared from the field of his troubled vision; but how faintly and dimly they shone!—like the Pleiades coldly glistening through intervening mists far off—oh! at what a stupendous, immeasurable, and hopeless distance! Imagine those stars gazed at by the anguished and despairing eyes of the bereaved lover, madly believing one of them to contain HER who has just departed from his arms, and from this world, and you may form a notion of the agonizing feelings—the absorbed contemplation of one dear, dazzling, but distant object, experienced on this occasion by Mr. Titmouse. No, no; I don't mean seriously to pretend that so grand a thought as this could be entertained by his little optics intellectual; you might as well suppose the tiny eye of a black beetle to be scanning the vague, fanciful, and mysterious figure and proportions of Orion, or a kangaroo to be perusing and pondering over the immortal Principia. I repeat, that I have no desire of the sort, and am determined not again foolishly to attempt fine writing, which I now perceive to be entirely out of my line. In language more befitting me and my subject, I may be allowed to say that there is no getting the contents of a quart into a pint pot; that Titmouse's mind was a half-pint—and it was brim-full. All the while that I have been going on thus, however, Titmouse was hurrying down Holborn at a rattling rate. When at length he had reached Saffron Hill, he was in a bath of perspiration. His face was quite red; he breathed hard; his heart beat violently; he had got a stitch in his side; and he could not get his gloves on his hot and swollen hands. He stood for a moment with his hat off, wiping his reeking forehead, and endeavoring to recover himself a little, before entering the dreaded presence to which he had been hastening. He even fancied for a moment that his eyes gave out sparks of light. While thus pausing, St. Andrew's Church struck ten, half electrifying Titmouse, who bolted up Saffron Hill, and was soon standing opposite the door. How the sight of it smote him, as it reminded him of the way in which, on the preceding night, he had bounced out of it! But that could not now be helped; so ring went the bell; as softly, however, as he could; for he recollected that it was a very loud bell, and he did not wish to offend. He stood for some time, and nobody answered. He waited for nearly two minutes, and trembled, assailed by a thousand vague fears. He might not, however, have rung loudly enough—so—again, a little louder, did he venture to ring. Again he waited. There seemed something threatening in the great brass plate on the door, out of which "QUIRK, GAMMON, AND SNAP" appeared to look at him ominously. While he thought of it, by the way, there was something very serious and stern in all their faces—he wondered that he had not noticed it before. What a drunken beast he had been to go on in their presence as he had! thought he; then Huckaback's image flitted across his disturbed fancy. "Ah!" thought he, "that's the thing!—that's it, depend upon it: this door will never be opened to me again—he's done for me!" He breathed faster, clinched his fist, and involuntarily raised it in a menacing way, when he heard himself addressed—"Oh! dear me, sir, I hope I haven't kept you waiting," said the old woman whom he had before seen, fumbling in her pocket for the door-key. She had been evidently out shopping, having a plate in her left hand, over which her apron was partially thrown. "Hope you've not been ringing long, sir!"
"Oh dear! no ma'am," replied Titmouse, with anxious civility, and a truly miserable smile—"Afraid I may have kept them waiting," he added, almost dreading to hear the answer.
"Oh no, sir, not at all—they've all been gone since a little after nine; but there's a letter I was to give you!" She opened the door; Titmouse nearly dropping with fright. "I'll get it for you, sir—let me see, where did I put it?—Oh, in the clerk's room, I think." Titmouse followed her in. "Dear me—where can it be?" she continued, peering about, and then snuffing the long wick of the candle, which she had left burning for the last quarter of an hour, during her absence. "I hope none of the clerks has put it away in mistake! Well, it isn't here, anyhow."
"Perhaps, ma'am, it's in their own room," suggested Titmouse, in a faint tone.
"Oh, p'r'aps it is!" she replied. "We'll go and see"—and she led the way, followed closely by Titmouse, who caught his breath spasmodically as he passed the green-baize door. Yes, there was the room—the scene of last night was transacted there, and came crowding over his recollection—there was the green-shaded candlestick—the table covered with papers—an arm-chair near it, in which, probably, Mr. Quirk had been sitting only an hour before to write the letter they were now in quest of, and which might be to forbid him their presence forever! How dreary and deserted the room looked, thought he as he peered about it in search of the dreaded letter!
"Oh, here it is!—well, I never!—who could have put it here, now? I'm sure I didn't. Let me see—it was, no doubt"—said the old woman, holding the letter in one hand and putting the other to her head.
"Never mind, ma'am," said Titmouse, stretching his hand towards her—"now we've got it, it don't much signify." She gave it to him. "Seem particularly anxious for me to get it—did they, ma'am?" he inquired, with a strong effort to appear unconcerned—the dreaded letter quite quivering, the while, in his fingers.
"No, sir—Mr. Quirk only said I was to give it you when you called. B'lieve they sent it to you, but the clerk said he couldn't find your place out; by the way, (excuse me, sir,) but yours is a funny name! How I heard 'em laughing at it, to be sure! What makes people give such queer names? Would you like to read it here, sir?—you're welcome."
"No, thank you, ma'am—it's of not the least consequence," he replied, with a desperate air; and tossing it with attempted carelessness into his hat, which he put on his head, he very civilly wished her good-night, and departed—very nearly inclined to sickness, or faintness, or something of the sort, which the fresh air might perhaps dispel. He quickly espied a lamp at a corner, which promised to afford him an uninterrupted opportunity of inspecting his letter. He took it out of his hat. It was addressed—simply, "Mr. Titmouse, Cocking Court, Oxford Street," (which accounted, perhaps, for the clerk's having been unable to find it;) and having been opened with trembling eagerness, thus it read:—
"Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap, present their compliments to Mr. Titmouse, and are anxious to save him the trouble of his intended visit this evening.
"They exceedingly regret that obstacles (which it is to be hoped, however, may not prove ultimately insurmountable) exist in the way of their prosecuting their intended inquiries on behalf of Mr. Titmouse.
"Since their last night's interview with him, circumstances, which they could not have foreseen, and over which they have no control, have occurred, which render it unnecessary for Mr. T. to give himself any more anxiety in the affair—at least, not until he shall have heard from Messrs. Q. G. and S.
"If anything of importance should hereafter transpire, it is not improbable that Mr. T. may hear from them.
"They were favored, this afternoon, with a visit from Mr. T.'s friend—a Mr. Hucklebottom."
"Saffron Hill, Wednesday Evening, 12th July 18—."
When poor Titmouse had finished reading over this vague, frigid, and disheartening note a second time, a convulsive sob or two pierced his bosom, indicative of its being indeed swollen with sorrow; and at length, overcome by his feelings, he cried bitterly—not checked even by the occasional exclamations of one or two passers-by. He could not at all control himself. He felt as if he could have almost relieved himself, by banging his head against the wall! A tumultuous feeling of mingled grief and despair prevented his thoughts, for a long while, from settling on any one idea or object. At length, when the violence of the storm had somewhat abated, on concluding a third perusal of the death-warrant to all his hopes, which he held in his hand, his eye lit upon the strange word which was intended to designate his friend Huckaback; and it instantly changed both the kind of his feelings, and the current in which they had been rushing. Grief became rage; and the stream foamed in quite a new direction—namely, towards Huckaback. That accursed fellow he considered to be the sole cause of the direful disaster which had befallen him. He utterly lost sight of one circumstance, which one might have imagined likely to have occurred to his thoughts at such a time—viz. his own offensive and insolent behavior over-night to Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap. Yet so it was:—yes, upon the devoted (but unconscious) head of Huckaback, was the lightning rage of Tittlebat Titmouse doomed to descend. The fire that was thus quickly kindled within, soon dried up the source of his tears. He crammed the letter into his pocket, and started off at once in the direction of Leicester Square, breathing rage at every step—viresque acquirens eundo. His hands kept convulsively clinching together as he pelted along. Hotter and hotter became his rage as he neared the residence of Huckaback. When he had reached it, he sprang up-stairs; knocked at his quondam friend's door; and on the instant of its being—doubtless somewhat surprisedly—opened by Huckaback, who was undressing, Titmouse sprang towards him, let fly a goodly number of violent blows upon his face and breast—and down fell Huckaback upon the bed behind him, insensible, and bleeding profusely from his nose.
"There! there!"—gasped Titmouse, breathless and exhausted, discharging a volley of oaths and opprobrious epithets at the victim of his fury. "Do it again! You will, won't you? You'll go—and meddle again in other people's—you—— cu-cu-cursed officious"—but his rage was spent—the paroxysm was over; the silent and bleeding figure of Huckaback was before his eyes; and he gazed at him, terror-stricken. What had he done! He sank down on the bed beside Huckaback—then started up, wringing his hands, and staring at him in an ecstasy of remorse and fright. It was rather singular that the noise of such an assault should have roused no one to inquire into it; but so it was. Frightened almost out of his bewildered senses, he closed and bolted the door; and addressed himself, as well as he was able, to the recovering of Huckaback. After propping him up, and splashing cold water into his face, Titmouse at length discovered symptoms of restoration to consciousness, which he anxiously endeavored to accelerate, by putting to the lips of the slowly-reviving victim of his violence some cold water, in a tea-cup. He swallowed a little; and soon afterwards, opening his eyes, stared on Titmouse with a dull eye and bewildered air.
"What's been the matter?" at length he faintly inquired.
"Oh, Hucky! so glad to hear you speak again. It's I—I—Titty! I did it! Strike me, Hucky, as soon as you're well enough! Do—kick me—anything you choose! I won't hinder you!" cried Titmouse, sinking on his knees, and clasping his hands together, as he perceived Huckaback rapidly reviving.
"Why, what is the matter?" repeated that gentleman, with a wondering air, raising his hand to his nose, from which the blood was still trickling. The fact is, that he had lost his senses, probably from the suddenness, rather than the violence of the injuries which he had received.
"I did it all—yes, I did!" continued Titmouse, gazing on him with a look of agony and remorse.
"Why, I can't be awake—I can't!" said Huckaback, rubbing his eyes, and then staring at his wet and blood-stained shirt-front and hands.
"Oh yes, you are—you are!" groaned Titmouse; "and I'm going mad as fast as I can! Do what you like to me! Kick me if you please! Call in a constable! Send me to jail! Say I came to rob you—anything—blow me if I care what becomes of me!"
"Why, what does all this jabber mean, Titmouse?" inquired Huckaback, sternly, and apparently meditating reprisals.
"Oh, yes, I see! Now you are going to give it me! but I won't stir. So hit away, Hucky."
"Why—are you mad?" inquired Huckaback, grasping him by the collar rather roughly.
"Yes, quite! Mad!—ruined!—gone to the devil all at once!"
"And what if you are? What did it matter to me? What brought you here?" continued Huckaback, in a tone of increasing vehemence. "What have I done to offend you? How dare you come here? And at this time of night, too? Eh?"
"What, indeed! Oh lud, oh lud, oh lud! Kick me, I say—strike me! You'll do me good, and bring me to my senses. Me to do all this to you! And we've been such precious good friends always. I'm a brute, Hucky—I've been mad, stark mad, Hucky—and that's all I can say!"
Huckaback stared at him more and more; and began at length to suspect how matters stood—namely, that the Sunday's incident had turned Titmouse's head—he having also, no doubt, heard some desperate bad news during the day, smashing all his hopes. A mixture of emotions kept Huckaback silent. Astonishment—apprehension—doubt—pride—pique—resentment. He had been struck—his blood had been drawn—by the man there before him on his knees, formerly his friend; now, he supposed, a madman.
"Why, curse me, Titmouse, if I can make up my mind what to do to you!" he exclaimed, "I—I suppose you are going mad, or gone mad, and I must forgive you. But get away with you—out with you, or—or—I'll call in"——
"Forgive me—forgive me, dear Hucky! Don't send me away—I shall go and drown myself if you do."
"What the d—l do I care if you do? You'd much better have gone and done it before you came here. Nay, be off and do it now, instead of blubbering here in this way."
"Go on! go on!—it's doing me good—the worse the better!" sobbed Titmouse.
"Come, come," said Huckaback, roughly, "none of this noise here. I'm tired of it!"
"But, pray, don't send me away from you. I shall go straight to the devil if you do! I've no friend but you, Hucky. Yet I've been such a villain to you!—But it quite put the devil into me, when all of a sudden I found it was you."
"Me!—Why, what are you after?" interrupted Huckaback, with an air of angry wonder.
"Oh dear, dear!" groaned Titmouse; "if I've been a brute to you, which is quite true, you've been the ruin of me, clean! I'm clean done for, Huck. Cleaned out! You've done my business for me; knocked it all on the head!—I sha'n't never hear any more of it—they've said as much in their letter—they say you called to-day"——
Huckaback now began to have a glimmering notion of his having been, in some considerable degree, connected with the mischief of the day—an unconscious agent in it. He audibly drew in his breath, as it were, as he more and more distinctly recollected his visit to Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap; and adverted more particularly to his threats, uttered, too, in Titmouse's name, and as if by his authority. Whew! here was a kettle of fish.
Now, strange and unaccountable as, at first thought, it may appear, the very circumstance which one should have thought calculated to assuage his resentment against Titmouse—namely, that he had really injured Titmouse most seriously, (if not indeed irreparably,) and so provoked the drubbing which had just been administered to him—had quite the contrary effect. Paradoxical as it may seem, matter of clear mitigation was at once converted into matter of aggravation. Were the feelings which Huckaback then experienced, akin to that which often produces hatred of a person whom one has injured? May it be thus accounted for? That there is a secret satisfaction in the mere consciousness of being a sufferer—a martyr—and that, too, in the presence of a person whom one perceives to be aware that he has wantonly injured one; that one's bruised spirit is soothed by the sight of his remorse—by the consciousness that he is punishing himself infinitely more severely than we could punish him; and of the claim one has obtained to the sympathy of everybody who sees, or may hear of one's sufferings, (that rich and grateful balm to injured feeling.) But when, as in the case of Huckaback, feelings of this description (in a coarse and small way, to be sure, according to his kind) were suddenly encountered by a consciousness of his having deserved his sufferings; when the martyr felt himself quickly sinking into the culprit and offender; when, I say, Huckaback felt an involuntary consciousness that the gross indignities which Titmouse had just inflicted on him, had been justified by the provocation—nay, had been far less than his mischievous and impudent interference had deserved;—and when feelings of this sort, moreover, were sharpened by a certain tingling sense of physical pain from the blows which he had received—the result was, that the sleeping lion of Huckaback's courage was very nearly awakening.
"I've half a mind, Titmouse"—said Huckaback, knitting his brows, fixing his eyes, and appearing inclined to raise his arm. There was an ominous pause for a moment or two, during which Titmouse's feelings also underwent a slight alteration. His allusion to Huckaback's ruinous insult to Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap, unconsciously converted his remorse into rage, which it rather, perhaps, resuscitated. Titmouse rose from his knees. "Ah!" said he, in quite an altered tone, "you may look fierce! you may!—you'd better strike me, Huckaback—do! Finish the mischief you've begun this day! Hit away—you're quite safe"—and he secretly prepared himself for the mischief which—did not come. "You have ruined me! you have, Huckaback!" he continued with increasing vehemence; "and I shall be cutting my throat—nay," striking his fist on the table, "I will!"
"You don't say so!" exclaimed Huckaback, apprehensively. "No, Titmouse, don't—don't think of it; it will all come right yet, depend on't; you see if it don't!"
"Oh, no, it's all done for—it's all up with me!"
"But what's been done?—let us hear," said Huckaback, as he passed a wet towel to and fro over his ensanguined features. It was by this time clear that the storm which had for some time given out only a few faint fitful flashes or flickerings in the distance, had passed away. Titmouse, with many grievous sighs, took out the letter which had produced the paroxysms I have been describing, and read it aloud. "And only see how they've spelled your name, Huckaback—look!" he added, handing his friend the letter.
"How partic'lar vulgar!" exclaimed Huckaback, with a contemptuous air, which, overspreading his features, half-closed as was his left eye, and swollen as were his cheek and nose, would have made him a queer object to one who had leisure to observe such matters. "And so this is all they say of me," he continued. "How do you come to know that I've been doing you mischief? All I did was just to look in, as respectful as possible, to ask how you was, and they very civilly told me you was very well, and we parted"——
"Nay, now, that's a lie, Huckaback, and you know it!" interrupted Titmouse.
"It's true, so help me——!" vehemently asseverated Huckaback.
"Why, perhaps you'll deny that you wrote and told me all you said," interrupted Titmouse, indignantly, feeling in his pocket for Huckaback's letter, which that worthy had at the moment quite forgotten having sent, and on being reminded of it, he certainly seemed rather nonplussed. "Oh—ay, if you mean that—hem!"—he stammered.
"Come, you know you're a liar, Huck—but it's no good now: liar or no liar, it's all over."
"The pot and kettle, anyhow, Tit, as far as that goes—hem!—but let's spell over this letter; we haven't studied it yet; I'm a hand, rather, at getting at what's said in a letter!—Come"—and they drew their chairs together, Huckaback reading over the letter slowly, alone; Titmouse's eyes travelling incessantly from his friend's countenance to the letter, and so back again, to gather what might be the effect of its perusal.
"There's a glimpse of daylight yet, Titty!" said Huckaback, as he concluded reading it.
"No! But is there really? Do tell me, Hucky"——
"Why, first and foremost, how uncommon polite they are, (except that they haven't manners enough to spell my name right)"——
"Really—and so they are!" exclaimed Titmouse, rather elatedly.
"And then, you see, there's another thing—if they'd meant to give the thing the go-by altogether, what could have been easier than to say so?—but they haven't said anything of the sort, so they don't mean to give it all up!"
"Lord, Huck! what would I give for such a head as yours! What you say is quite true," said Titmouse, still more cheerfully.
"To be sure, they do say there's an obstacle—an obstacle, you see—nay, it's obstacles, which is several, and that"—— Titmouse's face fell.
"But they say again, that it's—it's—curse their big words—they say it's—to be got over in time."
"Well—that's something, isn't it?"
"To be sure it is; and a'n't anything better than nothing? But then, again, here's a stone in the other pocket—they say there's a circumstance!—don't you hate circumstances, Titty?—I do."
"So do I!—What does it mean? I've often heard—isn't it a thing? And that may be—anything."
"Oh, there's a great dif—hem! And they go on to say it's happened since you was there"——
"Curse me, then, if that don't mean you, Huckaback!" interrupted Titmouse, with returning anger.
"No, that can't be it; they said they'd no control over the circumstance;—now they had over me; for they ordered me to the door, and I went; a'n't that so, Titty?—Lord, how my eye does smart, to be sure!"
"And don't I smart all over, inside and out, if it comes to that?" inquired Titmouse, dolefully.
"There's nothing particular in the rest of the letter—only uncommon civil, and saying if anything turns up you shall hear."
"I could make that out myself—so there's nothing in that"—said Titmouse, quickly.
"Well—if it is all over—what a pity! Such things as we could have done, Titty, if we'd got the thing—eh?"
Titmouse groaned at this glimpse of the heaven he seemed shut out of forever.
"Can't you find anything—nothing at all comfortable-like, in the letter?" he inquired with a deep sigh.
Huckaback again took up the letter and spelled it over.
"Well," said he, striving to give himself an appearance of thinking, "there's something in it that, after all, I don't seem quite to get to the bottom of—they've seemingly taken a deal of pains with it!"
[And undoubtedly it was a document which had been pretty well considered by its framers before being sent out; though, probably, they had hardly anticipated its being so soon afterwards subjected to the scrutiny of such acute intellects as were now engaged upon it.]
"And then, again, you know they're lawyers; and do they ever write anything that hasn't got more in it than anybody can find out? These gents that wrote this, they're a trick too keen for the thieves even—and how can we—hem!—but I wonder if that fat, old, bald-headed gent, with sharp eyes, was Mr. Quirk"——
"To be sure it was," interrupted Titmouse, with a half shudder.
"Was it? Well, then, I'd advise Old Nick to look sharp before he tackles that old gent, that's all!"
"Give me Mr. Gammon for my money," said Titmouse, sighing, "such an uncommon gentlemanlike gent—he's quite taken to me"——
"Ah, that, I suppose, was him with the black velvet waistcoat, and pretty white hands! But he can look stern, too, Tit! You should have seen him ring, when—hem!—But what was I saying about the letter? Don't you see they say they'll be sure to write if anything turns up?"
"So they do, to be sure! Well—I'd forgot that!" interrupted Titmouse, brightening up.
"Then, isn't there their advertisement in the Flash? They hadn't their eye on anything when they put it there, I dare say!—They can't get out of that, anyhow!"
"I begin to feel all of a sweat, Hucky; I'm sure there's something in the wind yet!" said Titmouse, drawing nearer still to his comforter. "And more than that—would they have said half they did to me last night"——
"Eh! hollo, by the way! I've not heard of what went on last night! So you went to 'em? Well—tell us all that happened—and nothing but the truth, be sure you don't; come, Titty!" said Huckaback, snuffing the candle, and then turning eagerly to his companion.
"Well—they'd such a number of queer-looking papers before them, some with old German-text writing, and others with zigzag marks—and they were so uncommon polite—they all three got up as I went in, and made me bows, one after the other, and said, 'Yours most obediently, Mr. Titmouse,' and a great many more such things."
"Why, Hucky, so help me——! and 'pon my soul, that old gent, Mr. Quirk, told me"—Titmouse's voice trembled at the recollection—"he says, 'Sir, you're the real owner of Ten Thousand a-year, and no mistake!'"
"Lawks!" ejaculated Huckaback, opening wider and wider his eyes and ears as his friend went on.
"'And a title—a lord, or something of that sort—and you've a great many country seats; and there's been L10,000 a-year saving up for you ever since you was born—and heaps of interest besides!'—'pon my soul he did!"
"Lord, Tit! you take my breath away," gasped Huckaback, his eyes fixed intently on his friend's face.
"Yes; and they said I might marry the most beautifulest woman that ever my eyes saw, for the asking."
"You'll forget poor Bob Huckaback, Tit!" murmured his friend, despondingly.
"Not I, Huckaback—if I get my rights, and you know how to behave yourself!"
"Have you been to Tag-rag's to-day, after hearing all this?"
[The thermometer seemed to have been here plunged out of hot water into cold—Titmouse was down at zero in a trice.]
"Oh!—that's it! 'Tis all gone again! What a fool I am! We've clean forgot this cursed letter—and that leads me to the end of what took place last night. That cursed shop was what we split on!"
"Split on the shop! eh? What's the meaning of that?" inquired Huckaback, with eager anxiety.
"Why, that's the thing," continued Titmouse, in a faltering tone, and with a depressed look—"That was what I wanted to know myself; for they said I'd better go back!! So I said, 'Gents,' said I, 'I'll be—— if I'll go back to the shop any more;' and I snapped my fingers at them—so! (for you know what a chap I am when my blood's up.) And they all turned gashly pale—they did, upon my life—you never saw anything like it! And one of them said then, in a humble way, 'Wouldn't I please to go back to the shop, just for a day or two, till things is got to rights a bit.' 'Not a day nor a minute!' says I, in an immense rage. 'We think you'd better, really,' said they. 'Then,' says I, 'if that's your plan, curse me if I won't cut with you all, and I'll employ some one else!' and—would you believe me?—out I went, bang! into the street!!"
"You did, Tit!!" echoed Huckaback, aghast.
"They shouldn't have given me so much brandy and water as they did; I didn't well know what I was about, what with the news and the spirits!"
"And you went into the street?" inquired Huckaback, with a kind of horror.
"I did, by Jove, Hucky!"
"They'd given you the sperrits to see what kind of chap you'd be if you got the property—only to try you, depend on it!"
"Lord! I—I dare say they did!" exclaimed Titmouse, elevating his head with sudden amazement, totally forgetting that same brandy and water he had asked for—"and me never to think of it at the time."
"Now are you quite sure you wasn't in a dream last night, all the while?"
"Oh, dear, I wish I had been—I do, indeed, Hucky!"
"Well—you went into the street—what then?" inquired Huckaback, with a sigh of exhausted attention.
"Why, when I'd got there, I could have bitten my tongue off, as one may suppose; but, just as I was a-turning to go in again, who should come up to me but Mr. Gammon, saying, he humbly hoped there was no offence."
"Oh, glorious! So it was all set right again, then—eh?"
"Why—I—I can't quite exactly say that much, either—but—when I went back, (being obligated by Mr. Gammon being so pressing,) the other two was sitting as pale as death; and though Mr. Gammon and me went on our knees to the old gent, it wasn't any use for a long time; and all that he could be got to say was, that perhaps I might look in again to-night—(but they first made me swear a solemn oath on the Bible never to tell any one anything about the fortune)—and then—you went, Huckaback, and you did the business; they of course concluding I'd sent you!"
"Oh, bother! that can't be. Don't you see how civilly they speak of me in their letter? They're afraid of me, you may depend on it. By the way, Tit, how much did you promise to come down, if you got the thing?"
"Come down!—I—really—by Jove, I didn't think of such a thing! No—I'm sure I didn't"—answered Titmouse, as if new light had burst in upon him.
"Why, Tit, I never see'd such a goose! That's it, depend upon it—it's the whole thing! That's what they're driving at, in the note!—Why, Tit, where was your wits? D' ye think such gents as them—great lawyers, too—will work for nothing?—You must write at once and tell them you will come down handsome—say a couple of hundreds, besides expenses—Gad! 'twill set you on your pins again, Titty!—Rot me! now I think of it, if I didn't dream last night that you was a Member of Parliament or something of that sort."
"A member of Parliament! And so I shall, if all this turns up well—I shall be that at least!" replied Titmouse, exultingly.
"You see if my dream don't come true! You see, Titty, I'm always a-thinking of you, day and night. Never was two fellows that was such close friends as we was from the very beginning of knowing each other!"
[They had been acquainted with each other about half a year.]
"Hucky, what a cruel scamp I was to behave to you in the way I did—curse me, if I couldn't cry to see your eye bunged up in that way!"
"Pho! dear Titty, I knew you loved me all the while"—whined Huckaback, "and meant no harm; you wasn't yourself when you did it—and besides, I deserved ten times more! If you had killed me I should have liked you as much as ever!"
"Give us your hand, Hucky! Let's forgive one another!" cried Titmouse, excitedly; and their hands were quickly locked together.
"If we don't mismanage the thing, we shall be all right yet, Titty; but you won't do anything without speaking to me first—will you, Titty?"
"The thoughts of it all going right again is enough to set me wild, Hucky—But what shall we do to set the thing going again?"
"Quarter past one!" quivered the voice of the paralytic watchman beneath, startling the friends out of their exciting colloquy; his warning being at the same time silently seconded by the long-wicked candle, burning within half an inch of its socket. They hastily agreed that Titmouse should immediately write to Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap, a proper [i. e. a most abject] letter, solemnly pledging himself to obey their injunctions in everything for the future, and offering them a handsome reward for their exertions, if successful.
"Well—good-night, Huck! good-night," said Titmouse, rising. "I'm not the least sleepy—I sha'n't sleep a wink all night long! I shall sit up to write my letter—you haven't got a sheet of paper here, by the way?—I've used all mine." [That was, he had, some months before, bought a sheet to write a letter, and had so used it.]
Huckaback produced a sheet, somewhat crumpled, from a drawer. "I'd give a hundred if I had them!" said he; "I sha'n't care a straw for the hiding I've got to-night—though I'm a leetle sore after it, too—and what the deuce am I to say to-morrow to Messrs. Diaper"——
"Oh, you can't hardly be at a loss for a lie that'll suit them, surely!—So good-night, Hucky—good-night!"
Huckaback wrung his friend's hand, and was in a moment or two alone. "Haven't my fingers been itching all the while to be at the fellow!" exclaimed he, as he shut the door. "But, somehow, I've got too soft a sperrit, and can't bear to hurt any one;—and then—if the chap gets his L10,000 a-year—why—hem! Titty a'n't such a bad fellow, in the main, after all."
If Titmouse had been many degrees higher in the grade of society, he would still have met with his Huckaback;—a trifle more polished, perhaps, but hardly more quick-sighted or effective than, in his way, had been the vulgar being he had just quitted.
Titmouse hastened homeward. How it was he knew not; but the feelings of elation with which he had quitted Huckaback did not last long; they rapidly sank, in the cold night-air, lower and lower, the farther he got from Leicester Square. He tried to recollect what it was that had made him take so very different a view of his affairs from that with which he had entered Huckaback's room. He had still a vague impression that they were not desperate; that Huckaback had told him so, and somehow proved it; but how he now knew not—he could not recollect. As Huckaback had gone on from time to time, Titmouse's little mind seemed to himself to comprehend and appreciate what was being said, and to gather encouragement from it; but now—consume it!—he stopped—rubbed his forehead—what the deuce WAS it? By the time that he had reached his own door, he felt in as deplorable and despairing a humor as ever. He sat down to write his letter at once; but, after many vain efforts to express his meaning—his feelings being not in the least degree relieved by the many oaths he uttered—he at length furiously dashed his pen, point-wise, upon the table, and thereby destroyed the only implement of the sort which he possessed. Then he tore, rather than pulled off, his clothes; blew out his candle with a furious puff; and threw himself on his bed—but in so doing banged the back of his head against the back of the bed—and which of the two suffered more, for some time after, probably Mr. Titmouse was best able to tell.
Hath, then—oh, Titmouse! fated to undergo much!—the blind jade Fortune, in her mad vagaries—she, the goddess whom thou hast so long foolishly worshipped—at length cast her sportful eye upon thee, and singled thee out to become the envy of millions of admiring fools, by reason of the pranks she will presently make thee exhibit for her amusement? If this be indeed, as at present it promises, her intent, she truly, to me calmly watching her movements, appears resolved first to wreak her spite upon thee to the uttermost, and make thee pass through intense sufferings! Oh me! Oh me! Alas!
The means by which Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap, became possessed of the important information which had put them into motion, as we have seen, to find out by advertisement one yet unknown to them, it will not be necessary for some time to explain. Theirs was a keen house, truly, and dealing principally in the criminal line of business; and they would not, one may be sure, have lightly committed themselves to their present extent, namely, in inserting such an advertisement in the newspapers, and, above all, going so far in their disclosures to Titmouse. Their prudence in the latter step, however, was very questionable to themselves even; and they immediately afterwards deplored together the precipitation with which Mr. Quirk had communicated to Titmouse the nature and extent of his possible good fortune. It was Mr. Quirk's own doing, however, and done after as much expostulation as the cautious Gammon could venture to use. I say they had not lightly taken up the affair; they had not "acted unadvisedly." They were fortified, first, by the opinion of Mr. MORTMAIN, an able and experienced conveyancer, who thus wound up an abstrusely learned opinion on the voluminous "case" which had been submitted to him:—
"...Under all these circumstances, and assuming as above, I am decidedly of opinion that the title to the estates in question is at this moment not in their present possessor, (who represents the younger branch of the Dreddlington family,) but in the descendants of Stephen Dreddlington, through the female line; which brings us to Gabriel Tittlebat Titmouse. This person, however, seems not to have been at all aware of the existence of his rights, or he could hardly have been concerned in the pecuniary arrangements mentioned at fol. 33 of the case. Probably something may be heard of his heir by making careful inquiry in the neighborhood where he was last heard of, and issuing advertisements for his heir-at-law; care, of course, being taken not to be so specific in the terms of such advertisements as to attract the notice of A. B., (the party now in possession.) If such person should, by the means above suggested, be discovered, I advise proceedings to be commenced forthwith, under the advice of some gentleman of experience at the common-law bar. "MOULDY MORTMAIN. "Lincoln's Inn, January 19, 18—."
This was sufficiently gratifying to the "house;" but, to make assurance doubly sure, before embarking in so harassing and expensive an enterprise—one which lay a good deal, too, without the sphere of their practice, which as already mentioned, was chiefly in criminal law—the same case (without Mr. Mortmain's opinion) was laid before a young conveyancer, who, having much less business than Mr. Mortmain, would, it was thought, "look into the case fully," though receiving only one-third of the fee which had been paid to Mr. Mortmain. And Mr. FUSSY FRANKPLEDGE—that was his name—did "look into the case fully;" and in doing so, turned over two-thirds of his little library;—and also gleaned—by note and verbally—the opinions upon the subject of some half-dozen of his "learned friends;" to say nothing of the magnificent air with which he indoctrinated his eager and confiding pupils upon the subject. At length his imp of a clerk bore the precious result of his master's labors to Saffron Hill, in the shape of an "opinion," three times as long as, and indescribably more difficult to understand than, the opinion of Mr. Mortmain; and which if it demonstrated anything beyond the prodigious cram which had been undergone by its writer for the purpose of producing it, demonstrated this—namely, that neither the party indicated by Mr. Mortmain, nor the one then actually in possession, had any more right to the estate than the aforesaid Mr. Frankpledge; but that the happy individual so entitled was some third person. Messrs. Quirk and Gammon, a good deal flustered hereat, hummed and hawed on perusing these contradictory opinions of counsel learned in the law; and the usual and proper result followed—i. e. a "CONSULTATION," which was to solder up all the differences between Mr. Mortmain and Mr. Frankpledge, or, at all events, strike out some light which might guide their clients on their adventurous way.
Now, Mr. Mortmain had been Mr. Quirk's conveyancer (whenever such a functionary's services had been required) for about twenty years; and Quirk was ready to suffer death in defence of any opinion of Mr. Mortmain. Mr. Gammon swore by Frankpledge, who had been at school with him, and was a "rising man." Mortmain belonged to the old school—Frankpledge steered by the new lights. The former could point to some forty cases in the Law Reports, which had been ruled in conformity with his previously given opinion, and some twenty which had been overruled thereby; the latter gentleman, although he had been only five years in practice, had written an opinion which had led to a suit—which had ended in a difference of opinion between the Court of King's Bench and the Common Pleas; the credit of having done which was, however, some time afterward, a little bit tarnished by the decision of a Court of Error, without hearing the other side, against the opinion of Mr. Frankpledge. But——
Mr. Frankpledge quoted so many cases, and went to the bottom of everything, and gave so much for his money—and was so civil!—
Well, the consultation came off, at length, at Mr. Mortmain's chambers, at eight o'clock in the evening. A few minutes before that hour, Messrs. Quirk and Gammon were to be seen in the clerk's room, in civil conversation with that prim functionary, who explained to them that he did all Mr. Mortmain's drafting—pupils were so idle; that Mr. Mortmain did not score out much of what he (the aforesaid clerk) had drawn; that he noted up Mr. Mortmain's new cases for him in the reports, Mr. M. having so little time; and that the other day the Vice-Chancellor called on Mr. Mortmain—with several other matters of that sort, calculated to enhance the importance of Mr. Mortmain; who, as the clerk was asking Mr. Gammon, in a good-natured way, how long Mr. Frankpledge had been in practice, and where his chambers were—made his appearance, with a cheerful look and a bustling gait, having just walked down from his house in Queen's Square, with a comfortable bottle of old port on board. Shortly afterwards Mr. Frankpledge arrived, followed by his little clerk, bending beneath two bags of books, (unconscious bearer of as much law as had well-nigh split thousands of learned heads, and broken tens of thousands of hearts, in the making of, being destined to have a similar but far greater effect in the applying of,) and the consultation began.