HotFreeBooks.com
The Firm of Girdlestone
by Arthur Conan Doyle
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

It chanced that one morning the interview between the lovers had lasted rather longer than usual, and had been concluded by Kate's returning to the house, while Tom remained sitting upon the garden seat lost in such a reverie as affects men in his position. While thus pleasantly employed, his thoughts were suddenly recalled to earth by the appearance of a dark shadow on the gravel in front of him, and looking up he saw the senior partner standing a short distance away and regarding him with anything but an amiable expression upon his face. He had himself been having a morning stroll in the garden, and had overseen the whole of the recent interview without the preoccupied lovers being aware of his presence.

"Are you coming to the office?" he asked sternly. "If so, we can go together."

Tom rose and followed him out of the gardens without a word. He knew from the other's expression that all was known to him, and in his heart he was not sorry. His only fear was that the old man's anger might fall upon his ward and this he determined to prevent. They walked side by side as far as the station in complete silence, but on reaching Fenchurch Street Girdlestone asked his young partner to step into his private sanctum.

"Now, sir," he said, as he closed the door behind him "I think that I have a right to inquire what the meaning may be of the scene of which I was an involuntary witness this morning?"

"It means," Tom answered firmly but gently, "that I am engaged to Miss Harston, and have been for some time."

"Oh, indeed," Girdlestone answered coldly, sitting down at his desk and turning over the pile of letters.

"At my request," said Tom, "our engagement was kept from your knowledge. I had reason to believe that you objected to early engagements, and I feared that ours might be disagreeable to you." I trust that the recording angel will not register a very black mark against our friend for this, the one and only falsehood that ever passed his lips.

During the long silent walk the merchant had been revolving in his mind what course he should pursue, and he had come to the conclusion that it was more easy to guide this impetuous stream of youth than to attempt to stem it. He did not realize the strength of the tie that bound these two young people together, and imagined that with judgment and patience it might yet be snapped. It was, therefore, with as good an imitation of geniality as his angular visage would permit of that he answered his companion's confession.

"You can hardly wonder at my being surprised," he said. "Such a thing never entered my mind for a moment. You would have done better to have confided in me before."

"I must ask your pardon for not having done so."

"As far as you are concerned," said John Girdlestone affably, "I believe you to be hard-working and right-principled. Your conduct since you have joined the firm has been everything which I could desire."

Tom bowed his acknowledgments, much pleased by this preamble.

"With regard to my ward," continued the senior partner, speaking very slowly and evidently weighing his words, "I could not wish her to have a better husband. In considering such a question I have, however, as you may imagine, to consult above everything else the wishes of my dead friend, Mr. John Harston, the father of the young lady to whom you say that you are engaged. A trust has been reposed in me, and that trust must, of course, be fulfilled to the letter."

"Certainly," said Tom, wondering in his own mind how he could ever have brought himself for one moment to think evil of this kindly and righteous old man.

"It was one of Mr. Harston's most clearly expressed wishes that no words or even thoughts of such matters should be allowed to come in his daughter's way until she had attained maturity, by which he meant the age of one-and-twenty."

"But he could not foresee the circumstances," Tom pleaded. "I am sure that a year or so will make no difference in her sentiments in this matter."

"My duty is to carry out his instructions to the letter. I won't say, however," continued Mr. Girdlestone, "that circumstances might not arise which might induce me to shorten this probationary period. If my further acquaintance with you confirms the high impression which I now have of your commercial ability, that, of course, would have weight with me; and, again, if I find Miss Harston's mind is made up upon the point, that also would influence my judgment."

"And what are we to do in the mean time?" asked the junior partner anxiously.

"In the mean time neither you nor your people must write to her, or speak to her, or hold any communication with her whatever. If I find you or them doing so, I shall be compelled in justice to Mr. Harston's last request to send her to some establishment abroad where she shall be entirely out of your way. My mind is irrevocably made up upon that point. It is not a matter of personal inclination, but of conscience."

"And how long is this to last?" cried Tom.

"It will depend upon yourselves. If you prove yourself to be a man of honour in this matter, I may be inclined to sanction your addresses. In the mean time you must give me your word to let it rest, and neither to attempt to speak to Miss Harston, nor to see her, nor to allow your parents to communicate with her. The last condition may seem to you to be hard, but, in my eyes, it is a very important one. Unless you can bring yourself to promise all this, my duty will compel me to remove my ward entirely out of your reach, a course which would be painful to her and inconvenient to myself."

"But I must let her know of this arrangement. I must tell her that you hold out hopes to us on condition that we keep apart for a time."

"It would be cruel not to allow you to do that," Girdlestone answered. "You may send her one letter, but remember there shall be no reply to it."

"Thank you, sir; thank you!" Tom cried fervently. "I have something to live for now. This separation will but make our hearts grow fonder. What change can time make in either of us?"

"Quite so," said John Girdlestone, with a smile. "Remember there must be no more walking through the square. You must remain absolutely apart if you wish to gain my consent."

"It is hard, very, very hard. But I will promise to do it. What would I not promise which would lead to our earlier union?"

"That is settled then. In the mean time, I should be obliged if you would go down to the docks and look after the loading of the transferable corrugated iron houses for New Calabar."

"All right, sir, and thank you for your kindness," said Tom, bowing himself out. He hardly knew whether to be pleased or grieved over the result of his interview; but, on the whole, satisfaction prevailed, since at the worst it was but to wait for a year or so, while there seemed to be some hopes of gaining the guardian's consent before that. On the other hand, he had pledged himself to separate from Kate; but that would, he reflected, only make their re-union the sweeter.

All the morning he was engaged in superintending the stowing of great slabs of iron in the capacious hold of the Maid of Athens. When the hour of luncheon arrived no thought of food was in the lad's head, but, burying himself in the back parlour of a little Blackwall public-house, he called for pen, ink, and paper, and proceeded to indite a letter to his sweetheart. Never was so much love and comfort and advice and hope compressed into the limits of four sheets of paper or contained in the narrow boundary of a single envelope. Tom read it over after he had finished, and felt that it feebly expressed his thoughts; but, then, what lover ever yet did succeed in getting his thoughts satisfactorily represented upon paper. Having posted this effusion, in which he had carefully explained the conditions imposed upon him, Tom felt considerably more light-hearted, and returned with renewed vigour to the loading of the corrugated iron. He would hardly have felt so satisfied had he seen John Girdlestone receiving that same letter from the hands of the footman, and reading it afterwards in the privacy of his bedroom with a sardonic smile upon his face. Still less contented would he have been had he beheld the merchant tearing it into small fragments and making a bonfire of it in his capacious grate. Next morning Kate looked in vain out of the accustomed window, and was sore at heart when no tall figure appeared in sight and no friendly hand waved a morning salutation.



CHAPTER XXV.

A CHANGE OF FRONT.

This episode had occurred about a fortnight before Ezra's return from Africa, and was duly retailed to him by his father.

"You need not be discouraged by that," he said. "I can always keep them apart, and if he is absent and you are present—especially as she has no idea of the cause of his absence—she will end by feeling slighted and preferring you."

"I cannot understand how you ever came to let the matter go so far," his son answered sullenly. "What does the young puppy want to come poaching upon our preserves for? The girl belongs to us. She was given to you to look after, and a nice job you seem to have made of it!"

"Never mind, my boy," replied the merchant. "I'll answer for keeping them apart if you will only push the matter on your own account."

"I've said that I would do so, and I will," Ezra returned; and events soon showed that he was as good as his word.

Before his African excursion the relations between young Girdlestone and his father's ward had never been cordial. Kate's nature, however, was so sweet and forgiving, that it was impossible for her to harbour any animosity, and she greeted Ezra kindly on his return from his travels. Within a few days she became conscious that a remarkable change had come over him—a change, as it seemed to her, very much for the better. In the past, weeks had frequently elapsed without his addressing her, but now he went out of his way to make himself agreeable. Sometimes he would sit for a whole evening describing to her all that he had seen in Africa, and really interesting her by his account of men and things. She, poor lass, hailed this new departure with delight, and did all in her power to encourage his better nature and to show that she appreciated the alteration in his bearing. At the same time, she was rather puzzled in her mind, for an occasional flash of coarseness or ferocity showed her that the real nature of the man was unaltered, and that he was putting an unnatural restraint upon himself.

As the days went on, and no word or sign came from Tom, a great fear and perplexity arose within the girl's mind. She had heard nothing of the interview at Fenchurch Street, nor had she any clue at all which could explain the mystery. Could it be that Tom had informed her guardian of their engagement, and had received such a rebuff that he had abandoned her in despair? That was surely impossible; yet why was it that he had ceased to walk through the square? She knew that he was not ill, because she heard her two companions talking of him in connection with business. What could be the matter, then? Her little heart was torn by a thousand conflicting doubts and fears.

In the mean time Ezra gave fresh manifestations of the improvement which travel had wrought upon him. She had remarked one day that she was fond of moss roses. On coming down to breakfast next morning she found a beautiful moss rose upon her plate, and every morning afterwards a fresh flower appeared in the same place. This pretty little piece of courtesy, which she knew could only come from Ezra, surprised and pleased her, for delicacy was the last quality for which she would have given him credit.

On another occasion she had expressed a desire to read Thackeray's works, the books in the library being for the most part of last century. On entering her room that same evening she found, to her astonishment, a handsomely bound edition of the novels in question standing on the centre of her table. For a moment a wild, unreasoning hope awoke in her that perhaps this was Tom's doing—that he had taken this means of showing that she was still dear to him. She soon saw, however, that the books could only have come from the same source as the flowers, and she marvelled more than ever at this fresh proof of the good will of her companion.

One day her guardian took the girl aside. "Your life must be rather dull," he said. "I have taken a box for you to-night at the opera. I do not care about such spectacles myself, but I have made arrangements for your escort. A change will do you good."

Poor Kate was too sad at heart to be inclined for amusement. She endeavoured, however, to look pleased and grateful.

"My good friend, Mrs. Wilkinson, is coming for you," the merchant said, "and Ezra is going too. He has a great liking for music."

Kate could not help smiling at this last remark, as she thought how very successfully the young man had concealed his taste during the years that she had known him.

She was ready, however, at the appointed hour, and Mrs. Wilkinson, a prim old gentlewoman, who had chaperoned Kate on the rare occasions when she went out, having arrived, the three drove off together.

The opera happened to be "Faust," and the magnificent scenery and dresses astonished Kate, who had hardly ever before been within the walls of a theatre. She sat as if entranced, with a bright tinge of colour upon her cheeks, which, with her sparkling eyes, made her look surpassingly beautiful. So thought Ezra Girdlestone as he sat in the recesses of the box and watched the varied expressions which flitted across her mobile features. "She is well worth having, money or no," he muttered to himself, and redoubled his attentions to her during the evening.

An incident occurred between the acts that night which would have pleased the old merchant had he witnessed it. Kate had been looking down from the box, which was upon the third tier, at the sea of heads beneath them. Suddenly she gave a start, and her face grew a trifle paler.

"Isn't that Mr. Dimsdale down there?" she said to her companion.

"Where?" asked Ezra, craning his neck. "Oh yes, there he is, in the second row of the stalls."

"Do you know who the young lady is that he is talking to?" Kate asked.

"I don't know," said Ezra. "I have seen him about with her a good deal lately." The latter was a deliberate falsehood, but Ezra saw his chance of prejudicing his rival, and took prompt advantage of it. "She is very good-looking," he added presently, keeping his eyes upon his companion.

"Oh, indeed," said Kate, and turned with some common-place remark to Mrs. Wilkinson. Her heart was sore nevertheless, and she derived little pleasure from the remainder of the performance. As to Ezra, in spite of his great love for music, he dozed peacefully in a corner of the box during the whole of the last act. None of them were sorry when Faust was duly consigned to the nether regions and Marguerite was apotheosed upon a couple of wooden clouds. Ezra narrated the incident of the recognition in the stalls to his father on his return, and the old gentleman rubbed his hands over it.

"Most fortunate!" he exclaimed gleefully. "By working on that idea we might produce great effects. Who was the girl, do you know?"

"Some poor relation, I believe, whom he trots out at times."

"We will find out her name and all about her. Capital, capital!" cried John Girdlestone; and the two worthies departed to their rooms much pleased at this new card which chance had put into their hands.

During the weary weeks while Tom Dimsdale, in accordance with his promise, avoided Eccleston Square and everything which could remind Kate of his existence, Ezra continued to leave no stone unturned in his endeavours to steal his way into her affections. Poor Tom's sole comfort was the recollection of that last passionate letter which he had written in the Blackwall public-house, and which had, as he imagined, enlightened her as to the reasons of his absence, and had prevented her from feeling any uneasiness or surprise. Had he known the fate that had befallen that epistle, he would hardly have been able to continue his office duties so patiently or to wait with so much resignation for Mr. Girdlestone's sanction to his engagement.

As the days passed and still brought no news, Kate's face grew paler and her heart more weary and desponding. That the young man was well was beyond dispute, since she had seen him with her own eyes at the opera. What explanation could there be, then, for his conduct? Was it possible that he had told Mr. Girdlestone of their engagement, and that her guardian had found some means of dissuading him from continuing his suit—found some appeal to his interest, perhaps, which was too strong for his love. All that she knew of Tom's nature contradicted such a supposition. Again, if Girdlestone had learned anything of their engagement, surely he would have reproached her with it. His manner of late had been kinder rather than harsher. On the other hand, could it have chanced that Tom had met this lady of the opera, and that her charms had proved too much for his constancy? When she thought of the honest grey eyes which had looked down into hers at that last meeting in the garden, she found it hard to imagine the possibility of such things, and yet there was a fact which had to be explained. The more she thought of it the more incomprehensible it grew, but still the pale face grew paler and the sad heart more heavy.

Soon, however, her doubts and fears began to resolve themselves into something more substantial than vague conjecture. The conversation of the Girdlestones used to turn upon their business colleague, and always in the same strain. There were stray remarks about his doings; hints from the father and laughter from the son. "Not much work to be got out of him now," the old man would say. "When a man's in love he's not over fond of a ledger."

"A nice-looking girl, too," said Ezra, in answer to some such remark. "I thought something would come of it. We saw them together at the opera, didn't we, Kate?"

So they would gossip together, and every word a stab to the poor girl. She strove to conceal her feelings, and, indeed, her anger and her pride were stronger even than her grief, for she felt that she had been cruelly used. One day she found Girdlestone alone and unbosomed herself to him.

"Is it really true," she asked, with a quick pant and a catch of her breath, "that Mr. Dimsdale is engaged to be married?"

"I believe so, my dear," her guardian answered. "It is commonly reported so. When a young lady and gentleman correspond it is usually a sign of something of the sort."

"Oh, they correspond?"

"Yes, they certainly correspond. Her letters are sent to him at the office. I don't know that I altogether like that arrangement. It looks as if he were deceiving his parents." All this was an unmitigated lie, but Girdlestone had gone too far now to stick at trifles.

"Who is the lady?" asked Kate, with a calm set face but a quivering lip.

"A cousin of his. Miss Ossary is her name, I believe. I am not sorry, for it may be a sign that he has sown all his wild oats. Do you know at one time, Kate, I feared that he might take a fancy to you. He has a specious way with him, and I felt my responsibility in the matter."

"You need not be afraid on that score," Kate said bitterly. "I think I can gauge Mr. Dimsdale's specious manner at its proper value." With this valiant speech she marched off, head in air, to her room, and there wept as though her very heart would break.

John Girdlestone told his son of this scene as they walked home from Fenchurch Street that same day. "We must look sharp over it," he said, "or that young fool may get impatient and upset our plans."

"It's not such an easy matter," said his son gloomily. "I get along so far, but no further. It's a more uphill job than I expected."

"Why, you had a bad enough name among women," the merchant said, with something approaching to a sneer. "I have been grieved times out of number by your looseness in that respect. I should have thought that you might have made your experience of some use now."

"There are women and women," his son remarked. "A girl like this takes as much managing as a skittish horse."

"Once get her into harness, and I warrant you'll keep her there quiet enough."

"You bet," said Ezra, with a loud laugh. "But at present she has the pull. Her mind is still running on that fellow."

"She spoke bitterly enough of him this morning."

"So she might, but she thinks of him none the less. If I could once make her thoroughly realize that he had thrown her over I might catch her on the hop. She'd marry for spite if she wouldn't for love."

"Just so; just so. Wait a bit. That can be managed, I think, if you will leave it to me."

The old man brooded over the problem all day, for from week to week the necessity for the money was becoming more pressing, and that money could only be hoped for through the success of Ezra's wooing. No wonder that every little detail which might sway the balance one way or the other was anxiously pondered over by the head of the firm, and that even the fluctuations in oil and ivory became secondary to this great object.

Next day, immediately after they had sat down to dinner, some letters were handed in by the footman. "Forwarded on from the office, sir," said the flunkey. "The clerk says that Mr. Gilray was away and that he did not like to open them."

"Just like him!" said Girdlestone, peevishly pushing back his plate of soup. "I hate doing business out of hours." He tore the envelopes off the various letters as he spoke. "What's this? Casks returned as per invoice; that's all right. Note from Rudder & Saxe—that can be answered to-morrow. Memorandum on the Custom duties at Sierra Leone. Hallo! what have we here? 'My darling Tom'—who is this from—Yours ever, Mary Ossary.' Why, it's one of young Dimsdale's love-letters which has got mixed up with my business papers. Ha! ha! I must really apologize to him for having opened it, but he must take his chance of that, if he has his correspondence sent to the office. I take it for granted that everything there is a business communication."

Kate's face grew very white as she listened. She ate little dinner that day, poor child, and took the earliest opportunity of retiring to her room.

"You did that uncommonly well, dad," said Ezra approvingly, after she was gone. "It hit her hard, I could see that."

"I think it touched her pride. People should not have pride. We are warned against it. Now, that same pride of hers will forbid her ever thinking of that young man again."

"And you had the letter written?"

"I wrote it myself. I think, in such a case, any stratagem is justifiable. Such large interests are at stake that we must adopt strong measures. I quite agree with the old Churchmen that the end occasionally justifies the means."

"Capital, dad; very good!" cried Ezra, chewing his toothpick. "I like to hear you argue. It's quite refreshing."

"I act according to the lights which are vouchsafed me," said John Girdlestone gravely; on which Ezra leaned back in his chair and laughed heartily.

The very next morning the merchant spoke to Dimsdale on the matter, for he had observed signs of impatience in the young man, and feared that some sudden impulse might lead him to break his promise and so upset everything.

"Take a seat. I should like to have a word with you," he said graciously, when his junior partner appeared before him to consult with him as to the duties of the day. Tom sat down with hope in his heart.

"It is only fair to you, Mr. Dimsdale," Girdlestone said, in a kindly voice, "that I should express to you my appreciation of your honourable conduct. You have kept your promise in regard to Miss Harston in the fullest manner."

"Of course I kept my promise," said Tom bluntly. "I trust, however, that you will soon see your way to withdrawing your prohibition. It has been a hard trial to me."

"I have insisted upon it because it seemed to me to be my duty. Every one takes his own view upon such points, and it has always been my custom throughout life to take what some might think a stringent one. It appears to me that I owe it to my deceased friend to prevent his daughter, whom he has confided to me, from making any mistake. As I said before, if you continue to show that you are worthy of her, I may think more favourably of it. Exemplary as your conduct has been since you joined us, I believe that I am not wrong in stating that you were a little wild when you were at Edinburgh."

"I never did anything that I am ashamed of," said Tom.

"Very likely not," Girdlestone answered, with an irrepressible sneer. "The question is, did you do anything that your father was ashamed of?"

"Certainly not," cried Tom hotly. "I was no milksop or psalm singer, but there is nothing that I ever did there of which I should be ashamed of my father knowing."

"Don't speak lightly of psalm singing. It is a good practice in its way, and you would have been none the worse had you indulged in it perhaps. However, that is neither here nor there. What I want you clearly to understand is that my ultimate consent to your union depends entirely upon your own conduct. Above all, I insist that you refrain from unsettling the girl's mind at present."

"I have already promised. Hard as the struggle may be, I shall not break my word. I have the consolation of knowing that if we were separated for twenty years we should still be true to one another."

"That's very satisfactory," said the merchant grimly.

"Nevertheless it is a weary, weary time. If I could only write a line—"

"Not a word," Girdlestone interrupted. "It is only because I trust you that I keep her in London at all. If I thought there was a possibility of your doing such a thing I should remove her at once."

"I shall do nothing without your permission," Tom said, taking up his hat to go. He paused with his hand upon the door. "If ever it seems good to me," he said, "I consider that by giving you due notice I absolve myself from my promise."

"You would not do anything so foolish."

"Still I reserve myself the right of doing so," said Tom, and went off with a heavy heart to his day's work.

"Everything is clear for you now," the old man said to his son triumphantly. "There's no chance of interference, and the girl is in the very humour to be won. I flatter myself that it has been managed with tact. Remember that all is at stake, and go in and win."

"I shall go in," said Ezra "and I think the chances are that I shall win too."

At which reassuring speech the old man laughed, and slapped his son approvingly upon the shoulder.



CHAPTER XXVI.

BREAKING GROUND.

In spite of John Girdlestone's temporary satisfaction and the stoical face which he presented to the world, it is probable that in the whole of London there was no more unhappy and heart-weary man. The long fight against impending misfortune had shattered his iron constitution and weakened him both in body and in mind. It was remarked upon 'Change how much he had aged of late, and moralists commented upon the vanity and inefficacy of the wealth which could not smooth the wrinkles from the great trader's haggard visage. He was surprised himself when he looked in the glass at the change which had come over him. "Never mind," he would say in his dogged heart a hundred times a day, "they can't beat me. Do what they will, they can't beat me." This was the one thought which sustained and consoled him. The preservation of his commercial credit had become the aim and object of his life, to which there was nothing that he was not prepared to sacrifice.

His cunningly devised speculation in diamonds had failed, but this failure had been due to an accident which could neither have been foreseen nor remedied. To carry out this scheme he had, as we have seen, been obliged to borrow money, which had now to be repaid. This he had managed to do, more or less completely, by the sale of the stones which Ezra had brought home, supplemented by the recent profits of the firm. There was still the original deficit to be faced, and John Girdlestone knew that though a settlement might be postponed from month to month, still the day must come, and come soon, when his debts must be met, or his inability to meet them become apparent to the whole world. Should Ezra be successful in his wooing and his ward's forty thousand pounds be thrown into the scale, the firm would shake itself clear from the load which oppressed it. Supposing, however, that Kate were to refuse his son. What was to occur then? The will was so worded that there appeared to be no other way of obtaining the money. A very vulpine look would come over the old man's face as he brooded over that problem.

The strangest of all the phenomena, however, presented by John Girdlestone at this period of his life was his own entire conviction of the righteousness of his actions. When every night and morning he sank upon his knees with his household and prayed for the success of the firm's undertakings, no qualms of conscience ever troubled him as to their intrinsic morality. On Sundays the grey head of the merchant in the first pew was as constant an object as was the pew itself, yet in that head no thought ever rose of the inconsistency of his religion and of his practice. For fifty years he had been persuading himself that he was a righteous man, and the conviction was now so firmly impressed upon his very soul that nothing could ever shake it. Ezra was wrong when he set this down as deliberate hypocrisy. Blind strength of will and self-conceit were at the bottom of his actions, but he would have been astonished and indignant had he been accused of simulating piety or of using it as a tool. To him the firm of Girdlestone was the very representation of religion in the commercial world, and as such must be upheld by every conceivable means.

To his son this state of mind was unintelligible, and he simply gave his father credit for being a consummate and accomplished hypocrite, who found a mantle of piety a very convenient one under which to conceal his real character. He had himself inherited the old man's dogged pertinacity and commercial instincts, and was by nature unscrupulous and impatient of any obstacle placed in his way. He was now keenly alive to the fact that the existence of the firm depended upon the success of his suit, and he knew also how lucrative a concern the African business would prove were it set upon its legs again. He had determined in case he succeeded to put his father aside as a sleeping partner and to take the reins of management entirely into his own hands. His practical mind had already devised countless ways in which the profits might be increased. The first step of all, then, was the gaining possession of the forty thousand pounds, and to that he devoted himself heart and soul. When two such men work together for one end, it is seldom that they fail to achieve it.

It would be a mistake to suppose that Ezra felt himself in any degree in love at this time. He recognized his companion's sweetness and gentleness, but these were not qualities which appealed to his admiration. Kate's amiable, quiet ways seemed insipid to a man who was used to female society of a very different order.

"She has no go or snap about her," he would complain to his father. "She's not like Polly Lucas at the Pavilion, or Minnie Walker."

"God forbid!" ejaculated the merchant. "That sort of thing is bad enough out of doors, but worst of all in your own house."

"It makes courting a good deal easier," Ezra answered.

"If a girl will answer up and give you an opening now and then, it makes all the difference."

"You can't write poetry, can you?"

"Not much," Ezra said with a grin.

"That's a pity. I believe it goes a long way with women. You might get some one to write some, and let her think it is yours. Or you could learn a little off and repeat it."

"Yes, I might do that. I'm going to buy a collar for that beast of a dog of hers. All the time that I was talking to her yesterday she was so taken up with it that I don't believe she heard half that I said. My fingers itched to catch it up and chuck it through the window."

"Don't forget yourself, my boy, don't forget yourself!" cried the merchant. "A single false step might ruin every thing."

"Never fear," Ezra said confidently, and went off upon the dog-collar mission. While he was in the shop he bought a dog-whip as well, which he locked up in his drawers to use as the occasion served.

During all this time Kate had been entirely unconscious of her companion's intentions and designs. She had been associated with Ezra for so many years, and had met such undeviated want of courtesy from him, that the idea of his presenting himself as a suitor never came into her head. She hailed his charge of demeanour, therefore, as being the result of his larger experience of the world, and often wondered how it was that he had profited so much by his short stay at the Cape. In the cheerless house it was pleasant to have at least one companion who seemed to have kindly feelings towards her. She was only too glad, therefore, to encourage his advances, and to thank him with sweet smiles and eloquent eyes for what appeared to her to be his disinterested kindness.

After a while, however, Ezra's attentions became so marked that it was impossible for her to misunderstand them any longer. Not only did he neglect his usual work in order to hang round her from morning to night, but he paid her many clumsy compliments and gave other similar indications of the state of his affections. As soon as this astounding fact had been fairly realized by the girl, she at once changed her manner and became formal and distant. Ezra, nothing daunted, redoubled his tender words and glances, and once would have kissed her hand had she not rapidly withdrawn it. On this Kate shut herself up in her room, and rarely came out save when the other was away in the City. She was determined that there should be no possibility of any misunderstanding as to her feelings in the matter.

John Girdlestone had been watching these little skirmishes closely and with keen interest. When Kate took to immuring herself in her room he felt that it was time for him to interfere.

"You must go about a little more, and have more fresh air," he said to her one day, when they were alone after breakfast. "You will lose your roses if you don't."

"I am sure I don't care whether I lose them or not," answered his ward listlessly.

"You may not, but there are others who do," remarked the merchant. "I believe it would break Ezra's heart."

Kate flushed up at this sudden turn of the conversation. "I don't see what reason your son has to care about it," she said.

"Care about it! Are you so blind that you don't see that he loves the very ground you walk on. He has grown quite pale and ill these last few days because he has not seen you, and he imagines that he may have offended you."

"For goodness' sake!" cried Kate earnestly, "persuade him to think of some one else. It will only be painful both to him and to me if he keeps on this way. It cannot possibly lead to anything."

"And why not? Why should—"

"Oh, don't let us argue about it," she cried passionately. "The very idea is horrible. It won't bear talking about."

"But why, my dear, why? You are really too impulsive. Ezra has his faults, but what man has not? He has been a little wild in his youth, but he is settling down now into an excellent man of business. I assure you that, young as he is, there are few names more respected on 'Change. The way in which he managed the business of the firm in Africa was wonderful. He is already a rich man, and will be richer before he dies. I cannot see any cause for this deep-rooted objection of yours. As to looks he is, you must confess, as fine a young fellow as there is in London."

"I wish you not to speak of it or think of it again," said Kate. "My mind is entirely made up when I say that I shall never marry any one—him least of all."

"You will think better of it, I am sure," her guardian said, patting her chestnut hair kindly as he stood over her. "Since your poor father handed you over to me I have guarded you and cared for you to the best of my ability. Many a sleepless night I have spent thinking of your future and endeavouring to plan it out so as to secure your happiness. I should not be likely to give you bad advice now, or urge you to take a step which would make you unhappy. Have you anything to complain of in my treatment of you?"

"You have been always very just," Kate said with a sob.

"And this is how you repay me! You are going to break my son's heart, and through his mine. He is my only boy, and if anything went wrong with him I tell you that it would bring my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave. You have it in your power to do this, or, on the other hand, you may make my old age a happy one by the knowledge that the lad is mated with a good woman, and has attained the object on which his whole mind and heart are set."

"Oh, I can't, I can't. Do let the matter drop."

"Think it over," the old man said. "Look at it from every point of view. Remember that the love of an honest man is not to be lightly spurned. I am naturally anxious about it, for my future happiness, as well as his, depends upon your decision."

John Girdlestone was fairly satisfied with this interview. It seemed to him that his ward was rather less decided in her refusal at the end of it, and that his words had had some effect upon her, which might possibly increase with reflection.

"Give her a little time now," was his advice to his son. "I think she will come round, but she needs managing."

"If I could get the money without taking her it would be better for me," Ezra said with an oath.

"And better for her too," remarked John Girdlestone grimly.



CHAPTER XXVII.

MRS. SCULLY OF MORRISON'S.

One day Major Tobias Clutterbuck was sitting at the window of his little room smoking his cigarette and sipping his glass of wine, as was his custom if times were reasonably good. While thus agreeably employed he chanced to look across the road and perceived a little fringe of dark hair, and a still darker eye, which surveyed him round the border of one of the curtains which flanked a window opposite. The gallant major was much interested in this apparition, and rose to make a closer inspection of it, but, alas! before he could focus it with his eye-glass it was gone! He bent his gaze resolutely in that direction for a long time, and smoked at least half a dozen cigarettes, besides finishing the bottle of wine; but although he thought he saw certain flittings and whiskings of garments in the dark background of the opposite room, he could not make out anything more definite.

Next day the soldier was on the look-out at the same hour, and was rewarded by the appearance of two eyes, very mischievous and dangerous ones too, which were set in a buxom and by no means unprepossessing face. The lady who owned these charms looked very deliberately up the street, and very deliberately down the street, after which she bethought herself to look across the street, and started to perceive a stout, middle-aged gentleman, with a fiery face, who was looking at her with an expression of intense admiration. So much alarmed was she that she vanished behind the curtains and the major feared that he would see her no more. Fortunately, however, it became evident that the lady's alarm was not very overpowering, for within five minutes she was back at the window, where her eyes again fell upon the beaming face and jaunty figure of the major, who had posed himself in a striking attitude, which was somewhat marred by the fact that he was still enveloped in his purple dressing-gown. This time her eyes lingered a little longer than before and the suspicion of a smile appeared upon her features. On this the major smiled and bowed, and she smiled also, showing a pretty little line of white teeth as she did so. What the veteran's next move might have been no one can tell, for the lady solved the problem by disappearing, and this time permanently. He was very well satisfied, however, and chuckled much to himself while arraying himself in his long frock coat and immaculate collar before setting out for the club. He had been a sly old dog in his day, and had followed Venus almost as much as he had Mars during his chequered career.

All day the recollection of this little episode haunted him. So much pre-occupied was he at the club that he actually played out the thirteenth trump upon his partner's long suit and so sacrificed the game—being the first and only time that he was ever known to throw away a point. He told Von Baumser all about it when he came back.

"She's a demned foine-looking woman, whoever she may be," he remarked, at they sat together before turning in. "Be George! she's the foinest woman I've seen for a long time."

"She's a window," said the German.

"A what?"

"A window—the window of an engineer."

"Is it a widow you mane? What d'ye know about her? What's her name, and where does she come from?"

"I have heard from the slavey that a win—a widow lives over dere in those rooms. She boards mit Madame Morrison, and that window belongs to her privacy zimmer—dat is, chamber. As to her name, I have not heard it, or else I disremember it."

"Ged!" said the major, "she'd eyes that looked right through ye, and a figure like Juno."

"She's vierzig if she's a day—dat is, forty," Von Baumser remarked.

"Well, if she is, me boy, a woman of forty is just in the proime o' loife. If you'd seen her at the window, she would have taken ye by storm. She stands like this, and she looks up like this, and then down in this way." The major pursed up his warlike features into what he imagined to be an innocent and captivating expression. Then she looks across and sees me, and down go the lids of her eyes, like the shutting off of a bull's-eye lantern. Then she blushed and stole just one more glance at me round the corner of the curtain. She had two peeps, the divil a doubt of it."

"Dat is very good," the German said encouragingly.

"Ah, me boy, twinty years ago, when I was forty inches round the chest and thirty-three round the waist, I was worth looking at twice. Bedad, when a man gets ould and lonely he sees what a fool he was not to make better use of his time when he'd the chance."

"Mein Gott!" cried Von Baumser. "You don't mean to say that you would marry suppose you had the chance?"

"I don't know," the major answered reflectively.

"The vomens is not to be trusted," the German said sadly. "I knew a voman in my own country which was the daughter of a man dat kept a hotel—and she and I was promised to be married to each others. Karl Hagelstein, he was to be vat you call my best man. A very handsome man was Karl, and I sent him often mit little presents of one thing or another to my girl, for there were reasons why I could not go myself. He was nicer than me because my hair was red, and pretty soon she began to like him, and he liked her too. So the day before the vedding she went down the Rhine to Frankfort by the boat, and he went down by train, and there they met and was married the one to the other."

"And what did you do?" the major asked with interest.

"Ah, dat was the most worst thing of all, for I followed them mit a friend of mine, and when we caught them I did not let her know, but I called him out of his hotel, and I told him that he must fight me. Dat vos a mistake. I should have done him an insult, and then he vould have had to ask me to fight, and I could have chosen my own veapon. As it was he chose swords, for he knew veil that I knew nothing of them, and he had been the best fencer in the whole of his University. Then we met in the morning, and before I had time to do anything he ran me through the left lung. I have shown you the mark of it. After dat I vas in bed for two month and more, and it still hurts me ven de veather is cold. That is vat they call satisfaction," Baumser added, pulling his long red beard reflectively. "To me it has ever seemed the most dissatisfactory thing that could be imagined."

"I don't wonder you're afraid of the women after that," said the major, laughing. "There are plenty of good women in the world, though, if you have the luck to come across them. D'ye know a young fellow called Dimsdale—? Ah, you wouldn't, but I've met him lately at the club. He's got a girl who's the adopted daughter of that same ould Girdlestone that we talk about. I saw the two of them togither one day as happy as a pair of young love birds. Sure, you've only got to look at her face to see that she's as good as gold. I'll bet that that woman over the strate there is another of the right sort."

"Dat voman is alvays in your head," the German said, with a smile. "You shall certainly dream about her to-night. I remember a voman in Germany—" And so these two Bohemians rambled on into the small hours, discoursing upon their past experiences and regaling each other with many reminiscences, some of which, perhaps, are just as well omitted and allowed to sink into oblivion. When the major finally retired for the night, his last thought was of the lady at the window and of the means by which he might contrive to learn something of her.

These proved to be more easy than he anticipated, for next morning, on cross-examining the little servant girl from whom Von Baumser had derived his information, the major found out all that he desired to know. According to this authority, the lady was a widow of the name of Scully, the relict of a deceased engineer, and had been staying some little time at Morrison's, which was the rival establishment to that in which the major and Von Baumser resided.

Armed with this information, the major pondered for some time before deciding upon his course of action. He saw no possible means by which he could gain an introduction to his charming neighbour unless he had recourse to some daring strategem. "Audace et toujours audace" had always been the soldier's motto. He rose from his chair, discarded his purple gown, and arrayed himself in his best attire. Never had he paid such attention to his toilet. His face was clean shaven and shining, his sparse hairs were laid out to the best advantage, his collar spotless, his frock coat oppressively respectable, and his tout ensemble irreproachable. "Be George!" he said to himself, as he surveyed himself in the small lodging-house glass, "I'd look as young as Baumser if I had some more hair on me head. Bad cess to the helmets and shakoes that wore it all off."

When his toilet was fully completed and rounded off by the addition of a pair of light gloves and an ebony stick with a silver head, the veteran strode forth with a bold front, but with considerable trepidation at his heart; for when is a man so seasoned as to have no misgivings when he makes the first advances to a woman who really attracts him? Whatever the major's inward feelings may have been, however, he successfully concealed them as he rang the bell of the rival lodging-house and inquired of the servant whether Mrs. Scully was at home.

"Yes, sir, she is," said the slavey, with a frightened bob, which was a tribute to the major's martial mien and gorgeous attire.

"Would you tell her that I should like to see her," said the major boldly. "I shan't detain her a moment. Here is my card—Major Tobias Clutterbuck, late of the 119th Light Infantry."

The servant disappeared with the card, and presently returned with a request that he would step up. The old soldier stumped his way upstairs with the firm footfall of one who has taken a thing in hand and means to carry it through at all hazard. As he ascended, it seemed to him that he heard the sound of feminine laughter in the distance. If so, it could hardly have come from the lady whom he was in quest of, for he was shown into a large and well-furnished room, where she sat looking demure and grave enough, as did another young lady who was crocheting on the ottoman beside her.

The major made his most courtly bow, though he felt very much as the Spaniards may be supposed to have done when they saw their ships blazing behind them. "I trust you will excuse this intrusion on my part," he began. "I happened to hear that a lady of the name of Scully was stopping here."

"My name is Scully, sir," said the lady, whose dark eyes had allured the major to this feat of daring.

"Then perhaps, madam," the veteran said with another bow, "you will allow me to ask you whether you are any relation to Major-gineral Scully, of the Indian Sappers?"

"Pray take a seat, Major—Major Clutterbuck," said Mrs. Scully, referring to his card, which she still held in her very well-formed little hand. "Major-general Scully, did you say? Dear me! I know that one of my husband's relations went into the army, but we never heard what became of him. A major-general, is he? Whoever would have thought it!"

"As dashing a souldier, madam," said the major, warming into eloquence, "as ever hewed a way through the ranks of the enemy, or stormed the snow-clad passes of the Himalayas."

"Fancy!" ejaculated the young lady with the crochet needle.

"Many a time," continued the soldier, "he and I after some hard-fought battle have slept togither upon the blood-stained ground wrapped in the same martial cloak."

"Fancy!" cried both ladies in chorus; and they could not have selected a more appropriate interjection.

"And when at last he died," the major went on with emotion, "cut in two with a tulwar in a skirmish with hill tribes, he turned to me—"

"After being cut in two?" interrupted the younger lady.

"He turned to me," said the major inflexibly, "and putting his hand in mine, he said, with his last breath, 'Toby'—that was what he always called me—'Toby,' he said, 'I have a—' Your husband was his brother, I think you said, ma'am?"

"No, it was Mr. Scully's uncle who went into the army."

"Ah, quite so. 'I have a nephew in England,' he said, 'who is very dear to me. He is married to a charming woman. Search out the young couple, Toby. Guard over them. Protict them!' Those were his last words, madam. Next moment his sowl had fled. When I heard your name casually mintioned I could not feel satisfied in me mind until I had come across and ascertained if you were the lady in question."

Now, this narrative not only surprised the widow, which was not unnatural, seeing that it was entirely an invention of the old soldier's, but it appealed to her weakest point. The father of the deceased Scully had been of plebeian origin, so that the discovery in the family of a real major-general—albeit he was dead—was a famous windfall, for the widow had social ambitions which hitherto she had never been able to gratify. Hence she smiled sweetly at the veteran in a way which stimulated him to further flights of mendacity.

"Sure he and I were like brothers," he said. "He was a man that any one might well be proud to know. Commander-in-chief said to me once, 'Clutterbuck,' says he, 'I don't know what we'd do if we had a European war. I've no one I can rely on,' says he. 'There's Scully,' says I. 'Right,' says he, 'Scully would be our man.' He was terribly cut up when this occurred. 'Here's a blow to the British army!' he remarked, as he looked down at him where he lay with a bullet through his head—he did, madam, be Jove!"

"But, major, I understood you to say that he was cut in two?"

"So he was. Cut in two, and shot and mortally wounded in a dozen places besides. Ah, if he could have foreseen that I should have met you he would have died happy."

"It's strange he never let us know of his existence when he was alive," the widow remarked.

"Pride, madam, pride! 'Until I reach the top of the tree, Toby,' he used to say, 'I shall niver reveal myself to me brother.'"

"Nephew," interpolated the widow.

"Quite so—' I shall niver reveal myself to me nephew.' He said those very words to me only a few minutes before the fatal shell struck him."

"A shell, major? You mean a bullet."

"A shell, madam, a shell," said the major with decision.

"Dear me!" exclaimed Mrs. Scully, with a somewhat bewildered expression. "How very sad it all is. We must thank you very much, Major Bottletop—"

"Clutterbuck," said the Major.

"I beg pardon, Major Clutterbuck. It was very kind of you to call upon us in this friendly way and to give us these details. Of course, when a relative dies, even though you don't know much about him, still it is interesting to have a clear account of how it all happened. Just fancy, Clara," continued the widow, drawing her handkerchief from her reticule and mopping one of her eyes with it. "Just fancy the poor fellow being cut in two with a bullet far away in India and him just speaking about Jack and me a few minutes before. I am sure we must thank Major Bottlenose—"

"Clutterbuck, madam," cried the major with some indignation.

"I really beg pardon. We must thank him, Clara, for having told us about it and for having called."

"Do not thank me, me dear Mrs. Scully," said the major, clearing his throat and waving his stubby hand deprecatingly. "I have already had me reward in having the pleasure and honour of making your acquaintance and of coming nearer to those charums which I had alriddy admired from a distance."

"Oh, auntie, listen to that!" cried Clara, and both ladies giggled.

"Not forgetting yours, Miss-Miss—"

"Miss Timms," said Mrs. Scully. "My brother's daughter."

"Not forgetting your charums, Miss Timms," continued the major, with a bow and a flourish. "To a lonely man like meself, the very sight of a lady is like dew to a plant. I feel stringthened, madam, vitalized, invigorated." The major puffed out his chest and looked apoplectically tender over his high white collar.

"The chief object of me visit," the old soldier said after a pause, "was to learn whether I could be of any assistance to you in any way. Afther your sad bereavement, of which I have heard, it may be that even a comparative stranger may be of service in business matters."

"I'm sure it's very kind of you, major," the widow answered. "Since poor Jack died everything has been in disorder. If it wouldn't trouble you, I should very much like your advice on some future occasion. I'll ask your opinion when I have cleared up things a little myself. As to these lawyers, they think of their own interests, not of yours."

"Quite so," said the major sympathetically.

"There's the fifteen hundred of poor Jack's insurance. That's not laid out yet."

"Fifteen hundred!" said the major. "That's seventy-five pounds a year at five per cint."

"I can get better interest than that," said the widow gaily. "I've got two thousand laid out at seven per cent.—haven't I, Clara?"

"Safe, too," said the girl.

"The deuce you have!" thought the major.

"So, when we are making arrangements, I'll ask your assistance and advice, Major Tanglebobs. I know that we poor women are very bad at business."

"I shall look forward to the day," said the major gallantly, rising and taking up his hat. He was very well satisfied with his little ruse and his success in breaking the ice.

"Be George!" he remarked to Von Baumser that evening, "she's got money as well as her looks. It's a lucky man that gits her."

"I vill bet dat you ask her for to marry you," Von Baumser said with a smile.

"I'll bet that she refuses me if I do," answered the major despondently, in spite of which he retired that night feeling considerably more elated than on the preceding evening.



CHAPTER XXVIII.

BACK IN BOHEMIA.

Fortune had been smiling upon the Bohemians of late. Ever since the major's successful visit to Fenchurch Street he had been able to live in a state of luxury to which he had long been unaccustomed. His uncle, the earl, too, had condescended to think of his humble relative, and had made a small provision for him, which, with his other resources, removed all anxiety as to the future. Von Baumser had his fair share in this sudden accession of prosperity. The German had resumed his situation as commercial clerk and foreign correspondent to Eckermann & Co., so that his circumstances had also improved. The pair had even had some conversation as to the expediency of migrating into larger and more expensive lodgings, but the major's increasing intimacy with his fair neighbour opposite stood in the way of a change. In any case, they were loth to leave their fourth floor, and to have the trouble of moving their effects.

These same effects were the pride of Major Clutterbuck's heart. Small as their sanctum was, it was a very museum of curious objects brought from every part of the world, most of them of little intrinsic value, but all possessing a charm of association to their owner. They were his trophies of travel, battle, and the chase. From the bison rug and tiger skin upon the floor to the great Sumatran bat which hung head downwards, as in the days of its earthly existence, from the ceiling, there was not an object but had its own special history. In one corner was an Afghan matchlock, and a bundle of spears from the southern seas; in another a carved Indian paddle, a Kaffir assegai, and an American blowpipe, with its little sheaf of poisoned arrows. Here was a hookah, richly mounted, and with all due accessories, just as it was presented to the major twenty years before by a Mahommedan chieftain, and there was a high Mexican saddle on which he had ridden through the land of the Aztecs. There was not a square foot of the walls which was not adorned by knives, javelins, Malay kreeses, Chinese opium pipes, and such other trifles as old travellers gather round them. By the side of the fire rested the campaigner's straight regulation sword in its dim sheath—all the dimmer because the companions occasionally used it as a poker when that instrument happened to be missing.

"It's not the value of thim," the major remarked, glancing round the apartment, "but, bedad, there's not one of the lot that has not got a story tacked on to it. Look at that bear's head now, that's grinning at ye from over the door. That's a Thibet bear, not much bigger than a Newfoundland dog, but as fierce as a grizzly. That's the very one that clawed Charley Travers, of the 49th. Ged, he'd have been done for if I hadn't got me Westley Richards to bear on him. 'Duck man I duck!' I cried, for they were so mixed that I couldn't tell one from the other. He put his head down, and I caught the brute right between the eyes. Ye can see the track of the bullet on the bone."

The major paused, and the pair smoked meditatively, for Baumser had returned from the City, and the twilight was falling and everything conduced to tobacco and reverie.

"See that necklace of cowrie shells hanging beside it," continued the veteran, waving his cigarette in that direction; "that came from the neck of a Hottentot woman—a black Vanus, be Jove! We were trekking up country before the second Kaffir war. Made an appintment—could not go—orderly duty—so sent a trusty man to tell her. He was found next day with twenty assegais in his body. She was a decoy duck, bedad, and the whole thing a plant."

"Mein Gott!" Von Baumser ejaculated. "What a life you have led! I have lived with you now many months and heard you tell many tales, but ever there are fresh ones."

"Yes, a strange life," answered the major, stretching out his gaitered legs and gazing up at the ceiling. I niver thought to be stranded in me ould age. If I hadn't commuted I'd have had a fair pinsion, but I drew me money in a lump sum, and went to Monte Carlo to break the bank. Instead o' that the bank broke me, and yet I believe me system was correct enough, and I must have won if I had had more capital."

"There is many says dat," grunted Von Baumser doubtfully.

"I believe it for all that," the major continued. "Why, man, I was always the luckiest chap at cards. I depinded on me skill principally, but still I had luck as well. I remimber once being becalmed for a fortnight in the Bay of Biscay in a small transport. Skipper and I tried to kill time by playing nap, and we had the stakes low enough at first, but they soon grew higher, for he kept trying to cover his losses. Before the ind of the two weeks I cleared out of him nearly all he had in the world. 'Look here, Clutterbuck,' he said at last, looking mighty white about the gills, 'this ship that we are in is more than half mine. I am chief owner. I'll stake me share of the ship on the next game against all that I have lost.' 'Done!' said I, and shuffled, cut, and dealt. He went four on three highest trumps, and an ace, and I held four small trumps. 'It's a bad job for my creditors,' he said, as he threw his hand down. Ged! I started on that vyage a poor captain, and I came into port very fairly well off, and sailing in me own ship, too! What d'ye think of that?"

"Wunderbar!" ejaculated the German. "And the captain?"

"Brandy, and delirium tremens," the major said, between the puffs of his cigarette. "Jumped overboard off Finisterre, on the homeward vyage. Shocking thing, gamblin'—when you lose."

"Ach Gott! And those two knives upon the wall, the straight one and the one with the crook; is there a history about them?"

"An incident," the major answered languidly. "Curious, but true. Saw it meself. In the Afghan war I was convoying supplies through the passes, when we were set upon by Afreedees, hillmen, and robbers. I had fifty men of the 27th Native Infantry under me, with a sergeant. Among the Afreedees was a thumping big chief, who stood among the rocks with that very knife in his hand, the long one, shouting insults at our fellows. Our sergeant was a smart little nigger, and this cheek set his blood up. Be jabers! he chucked his gun down, pulled out that curved dagger—a Ghoorkha knife it is—and made for the big hillman. Both sides stopped firing to see the two chaps fight. As our fellow came scrambling up over the rocks, the chief ran at him and thrust with all his stringth. Be jabers! I thought I saw the pint of the blade come out through the sergeant's back. He managed to twist round though, so as to dodge it. At the same time he hit up from below, and the hillman sprang into the air, looking for all the world like one o' those open sheep you see outside a butcher's shop. He was ripped up from stomach to throat. The sight knocked all the fight out of the other spalpeens, and they took to their heels as hard as they could run. I took the dead man's knife away, and the sergeant sold me his for a few rupees, so there they are. Not much to make a story of, but it was intheresting to see. I'd have bet five to three on the chief."

"Bad discipline, very bad," Baumser remarked. "To break the ranks and run mit knives would make my old Unter-offizier Kritzer very mad indeed." The German had served his time in the Prussian Army, and was still mindful of his training.

"Your stiff-backed Pickelhaubes would have had a poor chance in the passes," answered the major. "It was ivery man for himself there. You might lie, or stand, or do what you liked as long as you didn't run. Discipline goes to pieces in a war of that sort."

"Dat is what you call gorilla warfare," said Von Baumser, with a proud consciousness of having mastered an English idiom. "For all dat, discipline is a very fine thing—very good indeed. I vell remember in the great krieg—the war with Austria—we had made a mine and were about to fire it. A sentry had been placed just over this, and after the match was lit it was forgotten to withdraw the man. He knew well that the powder beneath him would presently him into the air lift, but since he had not been dismissed in right form he remained until the ausbruch had exploded. He was never seen no more, and, indeed, dat he had ever been dere might well have been forgotten, had it not been dat his nadelgewehr was dere found. Dat was a proper soldier, I think, to be placed in command had he lived."

"To be placed in a lunatic asylum if he lived," said the Irishman testily. "Hullo, what's this?"

The "this" was the appearance of the boarding-house slavey with a very neat pink envelope upon a tray, addressed, in the most elegant of female hands, to "Major Tobias Clutterbuck, late of Her Majesty's Hundred and Nineteenth."

"Ah!" cried Von Baumser, laughing in his red beard, "it is from a woman. You are what the English call a sly hog, a very sly hog—or, I should say, dog, though it is much the same."

"It's for you as well as for me. See here. 'Mrs. Lavinia Scully presints her compliments to Major Tobias Clutterbuck and to his friend, Mr. Sigismund von Baumser, and trusts that they may be able to favour her with their company on Tuesday evening at eight, to meet a few frinds.' It's a dance," said the major. "That accounts for the harp and the tables and binches and wine cases I saw going in this morning."

"Will you go?"

"Yes, of course I will, and so shall you. We'd better answer it."

So in due course an acceptance was sent across to Mrs. Scully's hospitable invitation.

Never was there such a brushing and scrubbing in the bedroom of a couple of quiet bachelors as occurred some two evenings afterwards in the top story of Mrs. Robins' establishment. The major's suit had been pursued unremittingly since his first daring advance upon the widow, but under many difficulties and discouragements. In the occasional chance interviews which he had with his attractive neighbour he became more and more enamoured, but he had no opportunity of ascertaining whether the feeling was mutual. This invitation appeared to promise him the very chance which he desired, and many were the stern resolutions which he formed as he stood in front of his toilet-table and arranged his tie and his shirt front to his satisfaction. Von Baumser, who was arrayed in a dress coat of antiquated shape, and very shiny about the joints, sat on the side of the bed, eyeing his companion's irreproachable get-up with envy and admiration.

"It fits you beautiful," he said, alluding to the coat.

"It came from Poole's," answered the major carelessly.

"As for me," said Von Baumser, "I have never used mine in England at all. Truly, as you know, I hate all dances and dinners. I come with you, however, very willingly, for I would not for nothing in the world give offence to the liebchen of my comrade. Since I go, I shall go as a gentleman should." He looked down as he spoke with much satisfaction at his withered suit of black.

"But, me good fellow," cried the major, who had now completed his toilet, "you've got your tie under your lift ear. It looks very quaint and ornamintal there, but still it's not quite the place for it. You look as if you were ticketed for sale."

"They von't see it unless I puts it out sidevays from under my beard," the German said apologetically. "However, if you think it should be hidden, it shall be so. How are my stud-buttons? You have them of gold, I see, but mine are of mother-of-oysters."

"Mother-of-pearl," said the major, laughing. "They will do very well. There's the divil of a lot of cabs at their door," he continued, peering round the corner of the blind. "The rooms are all lighted up, and I can hear them tuning the instruments. Maybe we'd better go across."

"Vorvarts, then!" said Von Baumser resolutely; and the two set off, the major with a fixed determination that he should know his fate before the evening was over.



CHAPTER XXIX.

THE GREAT DANCE AT MORRISON'S.

Never in the whole history of Morrison's boarding establishment had such festive preparations been known. The landlady herself had entered heart and soul into the business, and as all the boarders had received invitations for themselves and their friends, they co-operated in every possible manner to make the evening a success. The large drawing-room had been cleared and the floor waxed. This process left it in a very glassy and orthodox condition, as the cook discovered when, on bustling in, the back of her cranium came in violent contact with the boards, while her body described a half-circle with a velocity which completely eclipsed any subsequent feats of agility shown by the dancers in the evening. The saloon had been very tastefully laid out as a supper-room, and numerous other little chambers were thrown open and brightened up to serve as lounging places for those who were fatigued. In the parlour there were two card-tables, and every other convenience for any who preferred sedentary amusements. Altogether both Mrs. Morrison and the boarders, in solemn conclave assembled, agreed that the thing looked very promising, and that it would be a credit to the establishment.

The guests were as varied as the wines, though hardly as select. Mrs. Scully's exuberant hospitality included, as already intimated, not only her own friends, but those of her fellow-boarders, so that from an early hour the rooms began to fill, and by nine o'clock there was hardly space for the dancers. Hansoms and growlers rattled up in a continuous stream and discharged their burdens. There was a carpet down from the kerb to the head of the lodging-house steps, "like r'yalty," as the cook expressed it, and the greengrocer's man in the hall looked so pompous and inflated in his gorgeous attire that his own cabbages would hardly have recognized him. His main defect as a footman was that he was somewhat hard of hearing, and had a marvellous faculty of misinterpreting whatever was said to him, which occasionally led to remarkable results. Thus, when he announced the sporting Captain Livingstone Tuck under the title of Captain Lives-on-his luck, it was felt that he was rather too near the truth to be pleasant. Indeed, the company had hardly recovered from the confusion produced by this small incident when the two Bohemians made their appearance.

Mrs. Scully, who was tastefully arrayed in black satin and lace, stood near the door of the drawing-room, and looked very charming and captivating as she fulfilled her duties as hostess. So thought the major as he approached her and shook her hand, with some well turned compliment upon his lips.

"Let me inthroduce me friend, Herr von Baumser," he added.

Mrs. Scully smiled upon the German in a way that won his Teutonic heart. "You will find programmes over there," she explained. "I think the first is a round dance. No, thank you, major; I shall stand out, or there will be no one to receive the people." She hurried away to greet a party of new arrivals, while the major and Baumser wandered off in search of partners.

There was no want of spirit or of variety in the dancing at Morrison's. From Mr. Snodder, the exciseman, who danced the original old-fashioned trois-temps, to young Bucklebury, of the Bank, who stationed himself immediately underneath the central chandelier, and spun rapidly round with his partner upon his own axis, like a couple of beetles impaled upon a single pin, every possible variation of the art of waltzing was to be observed. There was Mr. Smith, of the Medical College, rotating round with Miss Clara Timms, their faces wearing that pained and anxious expression which the British countenance naturally assumes when dancing, giving the impression that the legs have suddenly burst forth in a festive mood, and have dragged the rest of the body into it very much against its will. There was the major too, who had succeeded in obtaining Mrs. Scully as a partner, and was dancing as old soldiers can dance, threading his way through the crowded room with the ease begotten by the experience of a lifetime. Meanwhile Von Baumser, at the other end, was floundering about with a broad smile upon his face and an elderly lady tucked under his right arm, while he held her disengaged hand straight out at right angles, as if she had been a banjo. In short, the fun was fast and furious, and waltz followed polka and mazurka followed waltz with a rapidity which weeded out the weaker vessels among the dancers and tested the stamina of the musicians.

Then there was the card-room, whither the Widow Scully and the major and many others of the elders repaired when they found the pace too fast for them. Very snug and comfortable it was, with its square tables, each with a fringe of chairs, and the clean shining cards spread out over their green baize surfaces. The major and his hostess played against Captain Livingstone Tuck and an old gentleman who came from Lambeth, with the result that the gallant captain and his partner rose up poorer and sadder men, which was rather a blow to the former, who reckoned upon clearing a little on such occasions, and had not expected to find himself opposed by such a past master of the art as the major. Then the veteran and another played the hostess and another lady, and the cunning old dog managed to lose in such a natural manner, and to pay up with such a good grace, and with so many pretty speeches and compliments, that the widow's partner was visibly impressed, a fact which, curiously enough, seemed to be anything but agreeable to the widow. After that they all filed off to supper, where they found the dancers already in possession, and there was much crushing and crowding, which tended to do away with ceremony and to promote the harmony of the evening.

If the major had contrived to win favour from Mrs. Lavinia Scully in the early part of the evening, he managed now to increase any advantage he had gained. In the first place he inquired in a very loud voice of Captain Tuck, at the other end of the table, whether that gentleman had ever met the deceased Major-General Scully, and being answered in the negative, he descanted fluently upon the merits of that imaginary warrior. After this unscrupulous manoeuvre the major proceeded to do justice to the wine and to indulge in sporting reminiscences, and military reminiscences, and travelling reminiscences, and social reminiscences, all of which he treated in a manner which called forth the admiration of his audience. Then, when supper had at last been finished, and the last cork drawn and the last glass filled, the dancers went back to their dance and the card-players to their cards, and the major addressed himself more assiduously than ever to the pursuit of the widow.

"I am afraid that you find the rooms very hot, major," she remarked.

"They are rather hot," he answered candidly.

"There is a room here," she said, "where you might be cooler. You might have a cigarette, too. I meant these rooms as smoking-rooms."

"Then you must come, too."

"No, no, major. You must remember that I am the hostess."

"But there is no one to entertain. They are all entertaining each other. You are too unselfish."

"But really, major—"

"Sure you are tired out and need a little rest."

He held the door open so persuasively that she yielded. It was a snug little room, somewhat retired from the bustle, with two or three chintz-covered chairs scattered round it, and a sofa of the same material at one side. The widow sat down at one end of this sofa, and the major perched himself at the other, looking even redder than usual, and puffing out his chest and frowning, as was his custom upon critical occasions.

"Do light a cigarette?" said Mrs. Scully.

"But the smell?"

"I like it."

The major extracted one from his flat silver case. His companion rolled a spill and lit it at the gas.

"To one who is as lonely as I am," she remarked, "it Is a pleasure to feel that one has friends near one, and to serve them even in trifles."

"Lonely!" said the major, shuffling along the sofa, "I might talk with authority on that point. If I were to turn me toes up to-morrow there's not a human being would care a thraneen about the mather, unless it were old Von Baumser."

"Oh, don't talk so," cried Mrs. Scully, with emotion.

"It is a fact. I've kicked against me fate at times, though. I've had fancies of late of something happier and cheerier. They have come on me as I sat over yonder at the window, and, do what I will, I have not been able to git them from me heart. Yit I know how rash I have been to treasure them, for if they fail me I shall feel me loneliness as I niver did before."

The major paused and cleared his throat huskily, while the widow remained silent, with her head bent and her eyes intent upon the pattern of the carpet.

"These hopes are," said the major, in a low voice, leaning forward and taking his companion's little ring-covered hand in his thick, pudgy fingers, "that you will have pity upon me; that you will—"

"Ach, my very goot vriend!" cried Von Baumser heartily, suddenly protruding his hairy head into the room and smiling benignantly.

"Go to the divil!" roared the major, springing furiously to his feet, while the German's head disappeared like a Jack-in-the-box. "Forgive the warmth of me language," the veteran continued, apologetically, "but me feelings overcame me. Will you be mine, Lavinia? I am a plain ould soldier, and have little to offer you save a faithful heart, and that is yours, and always will be. Will you make the remainder of me life happy by becoming me wife?" He endeavoured to pass his arm round her waist, but she sprang up from the sofa and stood upon the rug, facing him with an amused and somewhat triumphant smile upon her buxom features.

"Look here, major," she said, "I am a plain-spoken woman, as my poor Tom that's dead was a plain-spoken man. Out with it straight, now—have you come after me, or have you come after my money?"

The major was so astonished at this point-blank question, that for a moment he sat speechless upon the sofa. Being a man of ready resource, however, and one who was accustomed to sudden emergencies, he soon recovered himself.

"Yoursilf, of course" cried he. "If you hadn't a stiver I would do the same."

"Take care! take care!" said the lady, with a warning finger uplifted. "You heard of the breaking of the Agra Bank?"

"What of that?"

"Every penny that I had in the world was in it."

This was facer number two for the campaigner. He recovered himself more quickly from this one, however, and inflated his chest with even more than his usual pomposity.

"Lavinia," said he, "you have been straight with me, and, bedad, I'll be so with you? When I first thought of you I was down in the world, and, much as I admired you, I own that your money was an inducement as well as yoursilf. I was so placed that it was impossible for me to think of any woman who had not enough to keep up her own end of the game. Since that time I've done bether. How I got it is neither here nor there, but I have a little nist-egg in the bank and see me way to increasing it. You tell me your money's gone, and I tell you I've enough for two; so say the word, acushla, and it's done."

"What! without the money?"

"Damn the money?" exclaimed Major Tobias Clutterbuck, and put his arm for the second time around his companion. This time it remained there. What happened after that is neither my business nor the reader's. Couples who have left their youth behind them have their own little romance quite as much as their juniors, and it is occasionally the more heartfelt of the two.

"What a naughty boy to swear!" exclaimed the widow at last. "Now I must give you a lecture since I have the chance."

"Bless her mischievous eyes!" cried the major, with delight in every feature of his face. "You shall give me as many lectures as you plase."

"You must be good, then, Toby, if you are to be my husband. You must not play billiards for money any more."

"No billiards! Why, pool is worth three or four pound a wake to me."

"It doesn't matter. No billiards and no cards, and no racing and no betting. Toby must be very good and behave as a distinguished soldier should do."

"What are you afther at all?" the major cried. "Sure if I am to give up me pool and whist, how is a distinguished soldier, and, above all, a distinguished soldier's wife, going to live?"

"We'll manage, dear," she said, looking roguishly up into his face. "I told you that my money was all in the Agra Bank that broke."

"You did, worse luck!"

"But I didn't tell you that I had drawn it all out before it broke, Toby dear. It was too bad to put you to such a trial, wasn't it? but really I couldn't resist the temptation. Toby shall have money enough without betting, and he shall settle down and tell his stories, and do what he likes without anything to bother him."

"Bless her heart!" cried the major fervently; and the battered old Bohemian, as he stooped over and kissed her, felt a tear spring to his eyes as he knew that he had come into harbour after life's stormy tossings.

"No billiards or cards for three months, then," said the little woman firmly, with her hands round his arm. "None at all mind! I am going into Hampshire on a visit to my cousins in the country, and you shall not see me for that time, though you may write. If you can give me your word of honour when I come back that you've given up your naughty ways, why then—"

"What then?"

"Wait till then and you'll see," she said, with a merry laugh. "No, really, I won't stay another moment. Whatever will the guests say? I must, Toby; I really must—" Away she tripped, while the major remained standing where she had left him, feeling a better man than he had done since he was a young ensign and kissed his mother for the last time at the Portsmouth jetty before the great transport carried him off to India.

Everything in the world must have an end, and Mrs. Scully's dance was no exception to the rule. The day was breaking, however, before the last guests had muffled themselves up and the last hansom dashed away from the door. The major lingered behind to bid farewell, and then rejoined his German friend, who had been compelled to wait at the door for the latchkey.

"Look here, major," the latter said, when they came into their room, "is it well to tell a Brussian gentleman to go to the devil? You have much offended me. Truly I was surprised that you should have so spoken!"

"Me dear friend," the old soldier answered, shaking his hand, "I would not hurt your feelings for the world. Bedad, if I come into the room while you are proposing to a lady, you are welcome to use the strongest German verb to me that you can lay your tongue to."

"You have probosed, then?" cried the good-natured German, forgetting all about his grievance in an instant.

"Yes."

"And been took—received by her?"

"Yes."

"Dat Is gloriful!" Von Baumser cried, clapping his hands. "Three hochs for Frau Scully, and another one for Frau Clutterbuck. We must drink a drink on it; we truly must."

"So we shall, me boy, but it's time we turned in now. She's a good woman, and she plays a good hand at whist. Ged! she cleared the trumps and made her long suit to-night as well as ever I saw it done in me life!" With which characteristic piece of eulogy the major bade his comrade good night and retired to his room.



CHAPTER XXX.

AT THE "COCK AND COWSLIP."

Tom Dimsdale's duties were far from light. Not only was he expected to supervise the clerks' accounts and to treat with the wholesale dealers, but he was also supposed to spend a great part of his time in the docks, overlooking the loading of the outgoing ships and checking the cargo of the incoming ones. This latter portion of his work was welcome as taking him some hours a day from the close counting-house, and allowing him to get a sniff of the sea air—if, indeed, a sniff is to be had on the inland side of Woolwich. There was a pleasing life and bustle, too, in the broad, brown river, with its never-ending panorama of vessels of every size and shape which ebb and flow in the great artery of national life.

So interesting was this liquid highway to Tom's practical mind, that he would often stand at the head of the wharf when his work was done and smoke a meditative pipe. It was a quiet spot, which had once been busy enough, but was now superseded by new quays and more convenient landing-places. All over it were scattered great rusty anchors, colossal iron chains, deserted melancholy boilers, and other debris which are found in such places, and which might seem to the fanciful to be the shells and skeletons of strange monsters washed up there by the tide. To whom do these things belong? Who has an interest in them? Of what use are they? It appeared to Tom sometimes as if the original owners and their heirs must have all died away, and left these grim relics behind them to any one who might have the charity to remove them.

From this coign of vantage a long reach of the river was visible, and Tom sitting there would watch the fleets of passing vessels, and let his imagination wander away to the broad oceans which they had traversed, and the fair lands under bluer skies and warmer suns from which they had sailed. Here is a tiny steam-tug panting and toiling in front of a majestic three-master with her great black hulk towering out of the water and her masts shooting up until the topmast rigging looks like the delicate web of some Titanic spider. She is from Canton, with tea, and coffee, and spices, and all good things from the land of small feet and almond eyes. Here, too, is a Messagerie boat, the French ensign drooping daintily over her stern, and her steam whistle screeching a warning to some obstinate lighters, crawling with their burden of coal to a grimy collier whose steam-winch is whizzing away like a corncrake of the deep. That floating palace is an Orient boat from Australia. See how, as the darkness falls, a long row of yellow eyes glimmer out from her sides as the light streams through her countless portholes. And there is the Rotterdam packet-boat coming slowly up, very glad to get back into safe waters again, for she has had a wildish time in the North Sea. A coasting brig has evidently had a wilder time still, for her main-topmast is cracked across, and her rigging is full of the little human mites who crawl about, and reef, and splice, and mend.

An old acquaintance of ours was out in that same gale, and is even now making his way into the shelter of the Albert docks. This was none other than the redoubtable Captain Hamilton Miggs, whose ship will persistently keep afloat, to the astonishment of the gallant captain himself, and of every one else who knows anything of her sea-going qualities. Again and again she had been on the point of foundering; and again and again some change in the weather or the steady pumping of the crew had prevented her from fulfilling her destiny. So surprised was the skipper at these repeated interpositions of Providence that he had quite made up his superstitious mind that the ship never would go down, and now devoted himself with a whole heart to his old occupation of drinking himself into delirium tremens and physicking himself out of it again.

The Black Eagle had a fair cargo aboard, and Miggs was proportionately jubilant. The drunken old sea-dog had taken a fancy to Tom's frank face and honest eyes, and greeted him with effusion when he came aboard next morning.

"Knock me asunder, but you look rosy, man!" he cried. "It's easy to see that you have not been lying off Fernando Po, or getting the land mist into your lungs in the Gaboon."

"You look well yourself, captain," said Tom.

"Tolerable, tolerable. Just a touch of the jumps at times."

"We can begin getting our cargo out, I suppose? I have a list here to check it. Will you have the hatches off at once?"

"No work for me," said Captain Hamilton Miggs with decision. "Here, Sandy—Sandy McPherson, start the cargo, will ye, and stir your great Scotch bones. I've done enough in bringing this sieve of a ship all the way from Africa, without working when I am in dock."

McPherson was the first mate, a tall, yellow-bearded Aberdonian. "I'll see t'it," he said shortly. "You can gang ashore or where you wull."

"The Cock and Cowslip," said the captain, "I say, you—Master Dimsdale—when you're done come up an' have a glass o' wine with me. I'm only a plain sailor man, but I'm damned if my heart ain't in the right place. You too, McPherson—you'll come up and show Mr. Dimsdale the way. Cock and Cowslip, corner o' Sextant Court." The two having accepted his invitation, the captain shuffled off across the gangway and on to terra firma.

All day Tom stood at the hatchway of the Black Eagle, checking the cargo as it was hoisted out of her, while McPherson and his motley assistants, dock labourers, seamen, and black Kroomen from the coast, worked and toiled in the depths below. The engine rattled and snorted, and the great chain clanked as it was lowered into the hold.

"Make fast there!" cries the mate.

"Aye, aye, sir!"

"All right?"

"All right, sir."

"Hoist away!"

And clank, clank went the chain again, and whir-r-r the engine, and up would come a pair of oil casks, as though the crane were some giant forceps which was plucking out the great wooden teeth of the vessel. It seemed to Tom, as he stood looking down, note-book in hand, that some of the actual malarious air of the coast had been carried home in the hold, so foul and close were the smells evolved from it. Great cockchafers crawled about over the packages, and occasionally a rat would scamper over the barrels, such a rat as is only to be found in ships which hail from the tropics. On one occasion too, as a tusk of ivory was being hoisted out, there was a sudden cry of alarm among the workers, and a long, yellow snake crawled out of the cavity of the trunk and writhed away into the darkness. It is no uncommon thing to find the deadly creatures hibernating in the hollow of the tusks until the cold English air arouses them from their torpor, to the cost occasionally of some unhappy stevedore or labourer.

All day Tom stood amid grease and steam, bustle and blasphemy, checking off the cargo, and looking to its conveyance to the warehouses. At one o'clock there was a break of an hour for dinner, and then the work went on until six, when all hands struck and went off to their homes or to the public-house according to inclination. Tom and the mate, both fairly tired by their day's work, prepared to accept the captain's invitation, and to meet him up in his quarters. The mate dived down into his cabin, and soon reappeared with his face shining and his long hair combed into some sort of order.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9     Next Part
Home - Random Browse