"Now, stop that talk of yours, Madge, and don't go on like a mad woman, or else we shall quarrel; and that I don't want, for I've got something to tell you. I want your help, old girl!"
"Aye, and you'll get it, my pretty boy; though you never tell me aught till you are forced."
"Well, I'm going to tell you something now; so keep your ears open. Madge, where is the girl?"
"Where's the man?"
"Outside, in the stable, doing down your horse. Bend over the fire, and whisper in my ear, lad!"
"Madge, old girl," he whispered, as they bent their heads together,—"I've wrote the old man's name where I oughtn't to have done."
"What! again!" she answered. "Three times! For God's sake, mind what you're at, George."
"Why," said he, astonished, "did you know I'd done it before?"
"Twice I know of," she said. "Once last year, and once last month. How do you think he'd have been so long without finding it out if it hadn't been for me? And what a fool you were not to tell me before. Why, you must be mad. I as near let the cat out of the bag coming over that last business in the book without being ready for it, as anything could be. However, it's all right at present. But what's this last?"
"Why, the five hundred. I only did it twice."
"You mustn't do it again, George. You were a fool ever to do it without me. We are hardly safe now, if he should get talking to the bank people. However, he never goes there, and you must take care he don't."
"I say, Madge," said George, "what would he do if he found it out?"
"I couldn't answer for him," said she. "He likes you best of anything next his money; and sometimes I am afraid he wouldn't spare even you if he knew he had been robbed. You might make yourself safe for any storm, if you liked."
"Marry that little doll Thornton, and get her money. Then, if it came to a row, you could square it up."
"Well," said George, "I am pushing that on. The old man won't come round, and I want her to go off with me, but she can't get her courage up yet."
"Well, at all events," said Madge, "you should look sharp. There's a regular tight-laced mob about her, and they all hate you. There's that Mrs. Buckley. Her conversation will be very different from yours, and she'll see the difference, and get too proud for the like of you. That woman's a real lady, and that's very dangerous, for she treats her like an equal. Just let that girl get over her first fancy for you, and she'll care no more about you than nothing. Get hold of her before she's got tired of you."
"And there's another thing," said George. "That Tom Troubridge is staying there again."
"That's very bad," said Madge. "She is very likely to take a fancy to him. He's a fine young fellow. You get her to go off with you. I'll find the money, somehow. Here comes the old man."
Old Hawker came in half-drunk and sulky.
"Why, George," he said; "you at home. I thought you'd have been down, hanging about the parson's. You don't get on very fast with that girl, lad. I thought you'd have had her by now. You're a fool, boy."
He reeled up to bed, and left the other two in the kitchen.
"George," said Madge, "tell us what you did with that last money."
"I ain't going to tell you," he answered.
"Ha, ha!" she said; "you hadn't need to hide anything from me now."
"Well, I like to tell you this least of all," he said. "That last money went to hush up the first matter."
"Did any one know of the first matter, then?" said Madge aghast.
"Yes; the man who put me up to it."
"Who was that?"
"No one you know. William Lee of Belston."
"No one I know," she answered sarcastically. "Not know my old sweetheart, Bill Lee of Belston. And I the only one that knew him when he came back. Well, I've kept that to myself, because no good was to be got by peaching on him, and a secret's always worth money. Why, lad, I could have sent that man abroad again quicker than he come, if I had a-wanted. Why hadn't you trusted me at first? You'd a-saved five hundred pound. You'll have him back as soon as that's gone."
"He'd better mind himself, then," said George vindictively.
"None o' that now," said Madge; "that's what you were after the other night with your gun. But nothing came of it; I saw that in your face when you came home. Now get off to bed; and if Bill Lee gives you any more trouble, send him to me."
He went to bed, but instead of sleeping lay thinking.
"It would be a fine thing," he thought, "to get her and her money. I am very fond of her for her own sake, but then the money would be the making of me. I ought to strike while the iron is hot. Who knows but what Nell might come gandering back in one of her tantrums, and spoil everything. Or some of the other girls might get talking. And this cursed cheque, too; that ought to be provided against. What a fool I was not to tell Madge about it before. I wonder whether she is game to come, though. I think she is; she has been very tender lately. It don't look as if she was getting tired of me, though she might take a fancy into her head about Troubridge. I daresay her father is putting him up to it; though, indeed, that would be sure to set her against him. If he hadn't done that with Stockbridge, she'd have married him, I believe. Well, I'll see her to-morrow night, and carry on like mad. Terribly awkward it will be, though, if she won't. However, we'll see. There's a way to make her;" and so he fell asleep.
As Somebody would have it, the very next day the Vicar and Mary had a serious quarrel. Whether his digestion was out of order; whether the sight of so many love-couples passing his gate the night before had ruffled him and made him bilious; or whether some one was behind hand with his tithe, we shall never know. Only we know, that shortly after dinner they disagreed about some trifle, and Mary remained sulky all the afternoon; and that at tea-time, driven on by pitiless fate, little thinking what was hanging over him, he made some harsh remark, which brought down a flood of tears. Whereat, getting into a passion, he told Mary, somewhat unjustly, that she was always sulking, and was making his life miserable. That it was time that she was married. That Tom Troubridge was an excellent young fellow, and that he considered it was her duty to turn her attention immediately to gaining his affections.
Mary said, with tearful indignation, that it was notorious that he was making love to Miss Burrit of Paiskow. And that if he wasn't, she'd never, never, think of him, for that he was a great, lumbering, stupid, stupid fool. There now.
Then the Vicar got into an unholy frame of mind, and maddened by Mary's tears, and the sight of his sister wiping her frightened face with her handkerchief, said, with something like an asseveration, that she was always at it. That she was moping about, and colloquing with that infamous young scoundrel, Hawker. That he would not have it. That if he found him lurking about his premises, he'd either break his neck himself, or find some one who could; and a great deal more frantic nonsense, such as weak men generally indulge in when they get in a passion; much better left unsaid at any time, but which on this occasion, as the reader knows, was calculated to be ruinous.
Mary left the room, and went to her own. She was in a furious passion against her father, against all the world. She sat on the bed for a time, and cried herself quiet. It grew dark, and she lit a candle, and put it in the right corner of the window, and soon after, wrapping a shawl around her, she slipped down the back-stairs, and went into the croft.
Not long before she heard a low whistle, to which she replied, and in a very few minutes felt George's arm round her waist, and his cheek against hers.
"I knew you would not disappoint me to-night, my love," he began. "I have got something particular to say to you. You seem out of sorts to-night, my dear. It's not my fault, is it?"
"Not yours, George. Oh no," she said. "My father has been very cruel and unjust to me, and I have been in a great passion and very miserable. I am so glad you came to-night, that I might tell you how very unhappy I was."
"Tell me everything, my love. Don't keep back any secrets from me."
"I won't indeed, George. I'll tell you everything. Though some of it will make you very angry. My father broke out about you at tea-time, and said that you were hanging about the place, and that he wouldn't have it. And then he said that I ought to marry Tom Troubridge, and that I said I'd never do. And then he went on worse again. He's quite changed lately, George. I ain't at all happy with him."
"The cure is in your own hands, Mary. Come off with me. I can get a licence, and we could be married in a week or so, or two. Then, what follows? Why, your father is very angry. He is that at present. But he'll of course make believe he is in a terrible way. Well, in a few weeks he'd see it was no use carrying on. That his daughter had married a young man of property, who was very fond of her, and as she was very fond of. And that matters might be a deal worse. That a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. And so he'll write a kind affectionate letter to his only child, and say that he forgives her husband for her sake. That's how the matter will end, depend upon it."
"Oh, George, George! if I could only think so."
"Can you doubt it? Use your reason, my dear, and ask yourself what he would gain by holding out. You say he's so fond of you."
"Oh, I know he is."
"Well, my darling, he wouldn't show it much if he was angry very long. You don't know what a change it will make when the thing's once done. When I am his son-in-law he'll be as anxious to find out that I'm a saint as he is now to make me out a sinner. Say yes, my girl."
"I am afraid, George."
"Of nothing. Come, you are going to say yes, now."
"But when, George? Not yet?"
"Impossible! Sunday evening?"
"The better the day the better the deed. Come, no refusal now, it is too late, my darling. At ten o'clock I shall be here, under your window. One kiss more, my own, and good night."
IN WHICH THE VICAR PREACHES A FAREWELL SERMON.
WHO has not seen the misery and despair often caused in a family by the senseless selfishness of one of its members? Who has not felt enraged at such times, to think that a man or woman should presume on the affection and kindheartedness of their relatives, and yet act as if they were wholly without those affections themselves? And, lastly, who of us all is guiltless of doing this? Let him that is without sin among us cast the first stone.
The Spring sun rose on the Sabbath morning, as if no trouble were in store for any mortal that day. The Vicar rose with the sun, for he had certain arrears of the day's sermons to get through, and he was in the habit of saying that his best and clearest passages were written with his window open, in the brisk morning air.
But although the air was brisk and pleasant this morning, and all nature was in full glory, the inspiration did not come to the Vicar quite so readily as usual. In fact, he could not write at all, and at one time was thinking of pleading ill health, and not preaching, but afterwards changed his mind, and patched the sermons up somehow, making both morning and afternoon five minutes shorter than usual.
He felt queer and dull in the head this morning. And, after breakfast, he walked to church with his sister and daughter, not speaking a word. Miss Thornton was rather alarmed, he looked so dull and stupid. But Mary set it all down to his displeasure at her.
She was so busy with far other thoughts at church that she did not notice the strange halting way in which her father read the service—sometimes lisping, sometimes trying twice before he could pronounce a word at all. But, after church, Miss Thornton noticed it to her; and she also noticed, as they stood waiting for him under the lychgate, that he passed through the crowd of neighbours, who stood as usual round the porch to receive him, without a word, merely raising his hat in salutation. Conduct so strange that Miss Thornton began to cry, and said she was sure her brother was very ill. But Mary said it was because he was still angry with her that he spoke to no one, and that when he had forgotten his cause of offence he would be the same again.
At lunch, the Vicar drank several glasses of wine, which seemed to do him good; and by the time he had, to Miss Thornton's great astonishment, drunk half a bottle, he was quite himself again. Mary was all this time in her room, and the Vicar asked for her. But Miss Thornton said she was not very well.
"Oh, I remember," said the Vicar, "I quarrelled with her last night. I was quite in the wrong, but, my dear sister, all yesterday and to-day I have been so nervous, I have not known what I said or did. I shall keep myself up to the afternoon service with wine, and to-morrow we will see the Doctor. Don't tell Mary I am ill. She will think she is the cause, poor girl."
Afternoon service went off well enough. When Mary heard his old familiar voice strong, clear, and harmonious, filling the aisles and chapels of the beautiful old church, she was quite re-assured. He seemed stronger than usual even, and never did the congregation listen to a nobler or better sermon from his lips, than the one they heard that spring afternoon; the last, alas, they ever had from their kind old Vicar.
Mary could not listen to it. The old innocent interest she used to have in her father's success in preaching was gone. As of old, sitting beneath the carved oak screen, she heard the sweet simple harmony of the evening hymn roll up, and die in pleasant echoes among the lofty arches overhead. As of old, she could see through the rich traceried windows the moor sloping far away, calm and peaceful, bathed in a misty halo of afternoon sunshine. All these familiar sights and sounds were the same, but she herself was different. She was about to break rudely through from the old world of simple routine and homely pleasure, and to cast herself unthinking into a new world of passion and chance, and take the consequences of such a step, let them be what they might. She felt as if she was the possessor of some guilty secret, and felt sometimes as if some one would rise in church and denounce her. How would all these quiet folks talk of her to-morrow morning? That was not to be thought of. She must harden her heart and think of nothing. Only that tomorrow she would be far away with her lover.
Poor Mary! many a woman, and many a man, who sat so quiet and calm in the old church that afternoon, had far guiltier secrets than any you ever had, to trouble them, and yet they all drank, slept, and died, as quietly as many honest and good men. Poor girl! let us judge as kindly of her as we can, for she paid a fearful penalty for her self-will. She did but break through the prejudices of her education, we may say; and if she was undutiful, what girls are not, under the influence of passion? If such poor excuses as these will cause us to think more kindly of her, let us make them, and leave the rest to God. Perhaps, brother, you and I may stand in a position to have excuses made for us, one day; therefore, we will be charitable.
My Lord was at church that afternoon, a very rare circumstance, for he was mostly at his great property in the north, and had lately been much abroad for his health. So when Miss Thornton and Mary joined the Vicar in the main aisle, and the three went forth into the churchyard, they found the villagers drawn respectfully back upon the graves, and his lordship waiting in close confabulation with farmer Wreford, to receive the Vicar as he came out.
A tall, courtly, grizzled-looking man he was, with clear grey eyes, and a modulated harmonious voice. Well did their lordships of the upper-house know that voice, when after a long sleepy debate it aroused them from ambrosial slumbers, with biting sarcasm, and most disagreeably told truths. And most heartily did a certain proportion of their lordships curse the owner of that voice, for a talented, eloquent, meddlesome innovator. But on all his great estates he was adored by the labourers and town's-folk, though hated by the farmers and country 'squires; for he was the earliest and fiercest of the reform and free-trade warriors.
He came up to the Vicar with a pleasant smile. "I have to thank you, Mr. Thornton, for a most charming sermon, though having the fault common to all good things, of being too short. Miss Thornton, I hope you are quite well; I saw Lady D—— the other day, and she begged that when I came down here, I would convey her kindest love to you. I think she mentioned that she was about to write to you."
"I received a letter from her ladyship last week," said Miss Thornton; "informing me that dear Lady Fanny had got a son and heir."
"Happy boy," said my Lord; "fifty thousand a-year, and nothing to do for it, unless he likes. Besides a minority of at least ten years for L—— is getting very shaky, Miss Thornton, and is still devotedly given to stewed mushrooms. Nay, my dear lady, don't look distressed, she will make a noble young dowager. This must be your daughter, Mr. Thornton—pray introduce me."
Mary was introduced, and his Lordship addressed a few kindly commonplaces to her, to which she replied with graceful modesty. Then he demanded of the Vicar, "where is Dr. Mulhaus, has he been at church this afternoon?"
At that moment the Doctor, attended by the old clerk, was head and shoulders into the old oak chest that contained the parish registers, looking for the book of burials for sixteen hundred and something. Not being able to get to the bottom, he got bodily in, as into a bath, and after several dives succeeded in fishing it up from the bottom, and standing there absorbed for a few minutes, up to his middle in dusty parchments and angry moths, he got his finger on a particular date, and dashed out of church, book in hand, and hatless, crying, "Vicar, Vicar!" just as the villagers had cleared off, and my lord was moving away with the Vicar to the parsonage, to take tea.
When his Lordship saw the wild dusty figure come running out of the church porch with the parish register in his hand, and no hat on his head, he understood the position immediately. He sat down on a tombstone, and laughed till he could laugh no longer.
"No need to tell me," he said through his laughter, "that he is unchanged; just as mad and energetic as ever, at whatever he takes in hand, whether getting together impossible ministries, or searching the parishregister of an English village. How do you do, my dear old friend?"
"And how do you do, old democrat?" answered the Doctor. "Politics seem to agree with you; I believe you would die without vexation—just excuse me a moment. Look you here, you infidel," to the Vicar, showing him the register; "there's his name plain—'Burrows, Curate of this parish, 1698.'—Now what do you say?"
The Vicar acquiesced with a sleepy laugh, and proposed moving homewards. Miss Thornton hoped that the Doctor would join them at dinner as usual. The Doctor said of course, and went back to fetch his hat, my Lord following him into the church. When the others had gone down the hill, and were waiting for the nobleman and the Doctor at the gate, Miss Thornton watched the two coming down the hill. My Lord stopped the Doctor, and eagerly demonstrated something to him with his forefinger on the palm of his hand; but the Doctor only shook his head, and then the pair moved on.
My Lord made himself thoroughly agreeable at dinner, as did also the Doctor. Mary was surprised too at the calm highbred bearing of her aunt, the way she understood and spoke of every subject of conversation, and the deference with which they listened to her. It was a side of her aunt's character she had never seen before, and she felt it hard to believe that that intellectual dignified lady, referred to on all subjects, was the old maid she had been used to laugh at, and began to feel that she was in an atmosphere far above what she was accustomed to.
"All this is above me," she said to herself; "let them live in this sphere who are accustomed to it, I have chosen wiser, out of the rank in which I have been brought up. I would sooner be George Hawker's wife than sit there, crushed and bored by their highflown talk."
Soon after dinner she retired with her aunt; they did not talk much when they were alone, so Mary soon retired to her room, and having made a few very slight preparations, sat down at the window. The time was soon to come, but it was very cold; the maids were out, as they always were on Sunday evening, and there was a fire in the kitchen,—she would go and sit there—so down she went.
She wished to be alone, so when she saw a candle burning in the kitchen she was disappointed, but went in nevertheless. My Lord's groom, who had been sitting before the fire, rose up and saluted her. A handsome young man, rather square and prominent about the jaws, but nevertheless foolish and amiable looking. The sort of man one would suppose, who, if his lord were to tell him to jump into the pit Tophet, would pursue one of two courses, either jump in himself, without further to do, or throw his own brother in with profuse apologies. From the top of his sleek round head to the sole of his perfect top-boot, the model and living exponent of what a servant should be—fit to be put into a case and ticketed as such.
He saluted her as she came in, and drawing a letter from his hat, put it into her astonished hands. "My orders were, Miss, that I was not to give it to you unless I saw you personally."
She thanked him and withdrew to read it. It was a scrawl from George Hawker, the first letter she had ever received from him, and ran as follows:—
"MY HEART'S DARLING,
"I SHALL be in the croft to-night, according to promise, ready to make you the happiest woman in England, so I know you won't fail. My Lord is coming to church this afternoon, and will be sure to dine with you. So I send this present by his groom, Sam; a good young chap, which I have known since he was so high, and like well, only that he is soft, which is not to his disadvantage.
She was standing under the lamp reading this when she heard the dining-room door open, and the men coming out from their wine. She slipped into the room opposite, and stood listening in the dark. She could see them as they came out. There was my Lord and the Doctor first, and behind came Major Buckley, who had dropped in, as his custom was, on Sunday evening, and who must have arrived while she was up-stairs. As they passed the door, inside which she stood, his Lordship turned round and said:—
"I tell you what, my dear Major, if that old Hawker was a tenant of mine, I'd take away his lease, and, if I could, force him to leave the parish. One man of that kind does incalculable harm in a village, by lowering the tone of the morality of the place. That's the use of a great landlord if he does his duty. He can punish evildoers whom the law does not reach."
"Don't say anything more about him," said the Doctor in a low voice. "It's a tender subject in this house."
"It is, eh!" said my Lord; "thanks for the hint, good—bah!—Mulhaus. Let us go up and have half an hour with Miss Thornton before I go!"
They went up, and then her father followed. He seemed flushed, and she thought he must have been drinking too much wine. After they were in the drawing-room, she crept up-stairs and listened. They were all talking except her father. It was half-past nine, and she wished they would go. So she went into her bedroom and waited. The maids had come home, and she heard them talking to the groom in the kitchen. At ten o'clock the bell was rung, and my Lord's horse ordered. Soon he went, and not long afterwards the Major and the Doctor followed. Then she saw Miss Thornton go to her room, and her father walk slowly to his; and all was still throughout the house.
She took her hat and shawl and slipped down stairs shoeless into her father's study. She laid a note on his chimney-piece, which she had written in the morning, and opening the back-door fled swiftly forth, not daring to look behind her. Quickly, under the blinking stars, under the blooming apple-trees, out to the croft-gate, and there was George waiting impatiently for her, according to promise.
"I began to fear you were not coming, my dear. Quick, jump!"
She scrambled over the gate, and jumped into his arms; he hurried her down the lane about a hundred yards, and then became aware of a dark object in the middle of the road.
"That's my gig, my dear. Once in that, and we are soon in Exeter. All right, Bob?"
"All right!" replied a strange voice in the dark, and she was lifted into the gig quickly; in another moment George was beside her, and they were flying through the dark steep lanes at a dangerous speed.
The horse was a noble beast—the finest in the country side—and, like his driver, knew every stock and stone on the road; so that ere poor Mary had recovered her first flurry, they had crossed the red ford, and were four miles on the road towards the capital, and began to feel a little more cheerful, for she had been crying bitterly.
"Don't give way, Polly," said George.
"No fear of my giving way now, George. If I had been going to do that, I'd have done it before. Now tell us what you are going to do? I have left everything to you."
"I think we had better go straight on to London, my dear," he replied, "and get married by licence. We could never stop in Exeter; and if you feel up to it, I should like to get off by early coach to-morrow morning. What do you say?"
"By all means! Shall we be there in time?"
"Yes; two hours before the coach starts."
"Have you money enough, George?" she asked.
"Plenty!" he replied.
"If you go short, you must come to me, you know," she said.
They rattled through the broad streets of a small country town just as the moon rose. The noble minster, which had for many years been used as the parish church, slept quietly among the yews and gravestones; all the town was still; only they two were awake, flying, she thought, from the fellowship of all quiet men. Was her father asleep now? she wondered. What would Miss Thornton say in the morning? and many other things she was asking herself, when she was interrupted by George saying, "Only eight miles to Exeter; we shall be in by daybreak."
So they left Crediton Minster behind them, and rolled away along the broad road by the river, beneath the whispering poplars.
* * * * *
As Miss Thornton was dressing herself next morning she heard the Vicar go down into his study as usual. She congratulated herself that he was better, from being up thus early, but determined, nevertheless, that he should see a doctor that day, who might meet and consult with Dr. Mulhaus.
Then she wondered why Mary had not been in. She generally came into her aunt's room to hook-and-eye her, as she called it; but not having come this morning, Miss Thornton determined to go to her, and accordingly went and rapped at her door.
No answer. "Could the girl have been fool enough?" thought Miss Thornton. "Nonsense! no! She must be asleep!"
She opened the door and went in. Everything tidy. The bed had not been slept in. Miss Thornton had been in at an elopement, and a famous one, before; so she knew the symptoms in a moment. Well she remembered the dreadful morning when Lady Kate went off with Captain Brentwood, of the Artillery. Well she remembered the Countess going into hysterics. But this was worse than that; this touched her nearer home.
"Oh you naughty girl! Oh you wicked, ungrateful girl; to go and do such a thing at a time like this, when I've been watching the paralysis creeping over him day by day! How shall I tell him? How shall I ever tell him? He will have a stroke as sure as fate. He was going to have one without this. I dare not tell him till breakfast, and yet I ought to tell him at once. I was brought into the world to be driven mad by girls. Oh dear, I wish they were all boys, and we might send them to Eton and wash our hands of them. Well, I must leave crying, and prepare for telling him."
She went into his study, and at first could not see him; but he was there—a heap of black clothes lay on the hearthrug, and Miss Thornton running up, saw that it was her brother, speechless, senseless, clasping a letter in his hand.
She saw that the worst was come, and nerved herself for work, like a valiant soul as she was. She got him carried to his bed by the two sturdy maids, and sent an express for Dr. Mulhaus, and another for the professional surgeon. Then she took from her pocket the letter which she had found in the poor Vicar's hand, and, going to the window, read as follows:
"When you get this, father, I shall be many miles away. I have started to London with George Hawker, and God only knows whether you will see me again. Try to forgive me, father, and if not, forget that you ever had a daughter who was only born to give you trouble.—Your erring but affectionate Mary."
It will be seen by the reader that this unlucky letter, written in agitation and hurry, contained no allusion whatever to marriage, but rather left one to infer that she was gone with Hawker as his mistress. So the Vicar read it again and again, each time more mistily, till sense and feeling departed, and he lay before his hearth a hopeless paralytic.
At that moment Mary, beside George, was rolling through the fresh morning air, up the beautiful Exe valley. Her fears were gone with daylight and sunshine, and as he put his arm about her waist, she said,
"I am glad we came outside."
"Are you quite happy now?" he asked.
IN WHICH A VERY MUSCULAR CHRISTIAN INDEED, COMES ON THE STAGE.
For the first four weeks that the Vicar lay paralyzed, the neighbouring clergymen had done his duty; but now arose a new difficulty at Drumston. Who was to do the duty while the poor Vicar lay there on his back speechless?
"How," asked Miss Thornton of Tom Troubridge, "are we to make head against the dissenters now? Let the duty lapse but one single week, my dear friend, and you will see the chapels overflowing once more. My brother has always had a hard fight to keep them to church, for they have a natural tendency to dissent here. And a great number don't care what the denominations are, so long as there is noise enough."
"If that is the case," answered Tom, "old Mark Hook's place of worship should pay best. I'd back them against Bedlam any day."
"They certainly make the loudest noise at a Revival," said Miss Thornton. "But what are we to do?"
"That I am sure I don't know, my dearest auntie," said Troubridge, "but I am here, and my horse too, ready to go any amount of errands."
"I see no way," said Miss Thornton, "but to write to the Bishop."
"And I see no way else," said Tom, "unless you like to dress me up as a parson, and see if I would do."
Miss Thornton wrote to the Bishop, with whom she had some acquaintance, and told him how her brother had been struck down with paralysis, and that the parish was unprovided for; that if he would send any gentleman he approved of, she would gladly receive him at Drumston.
Armed with this letter, Tom found himself, for the first time in his life, in an episcopal palace. A sleek servant in black opened the door with cat-like tread, and admitted him into a dark, warm hall; and on Tom's saying, in a hoarse whisper, as if he was in church, that he had brought a note of importance, and would wait for an answer, the man glided away, and disappeared through a spring-door, which swung to behind him. Tom thought it would have banged, but it didn't. Bishops' doors never bang.
Tom had a great awe for your peers spiritual. He could get on well enough with a peer temporal, particularly if that proud aristocrat happened to be in want of a horse; but a bishop was quite another matter.
So he sat rather uncomfortable in the dark, warm hall, listening to such dull sounds as could be heard in the gloomy mansion. A broad oak staircase led up from the hall into lighter regions, and there stood, on a landing above, a lean, wheezy old clock, all over brass knobs, which, as he looked on it, choked, and sneezed four.
But now there was a new sound in the house. An indecent, secular sound. A door near the top of the house was burst violently open, and there was a scuffle. A loud voice shouted twice unmistakeably and distinctly, "So—o, good bitch!" And then the astounded Tom heard the worrying of a terrier, and the squeak of a dying rat. There was no mistake about it; he heard the bones crack. Then he made out that a dog was induced to go into a room on false pretences, and deftly shut up there, and then he heard a heavy step descending the stairs towards him.
But, before there was time for the perpetrator of these sacrileges to come in sight, a side door opened, and the Bishop himself came forth with a letter in his hand (a mild, clever, gentlemanly-looking man he was too, Tom remarked) and said,—
"Pray is there not a messenger from Drumston here?"
Tom replied that he had brought a letter from his cousin the Vicar. He had rather expected to hear it demanded, "Where is the audacious man who has dared to penetrate these sacred shades?" and was agreeably relieved to find that the Bishop wasn't angry with him.
"Dear me," said the Bishop; "I beg a thousand pardons for keeping you in the hall; pray walk into my study."
So in he went and sat down. The Bishop resumed,—
"You are Mr. Thornton's cousin, sir?"
Tom bowed. "I am about the nearest relation he has besides his sister, my lord."
"Indeed," said the Bishop. "I have written to Miss Thornton to say that there is a gentleman, a relation of my own, now living in the house with me, who will undertake Mr. Thornton's duties, and I dare say, also, without remuneration. He has nothing to do at present.—Oh, here is the gentleman I spoke of!"
Here was the gentleman he spoke of, holding a dead rat by the tail, and crying out,—
"Look here, uncle; what did I tell you? I might have been devoured alive, had it not been for my faithful Fly, your enemy."
He was about six feet or nearly so in height, with a highly intellectual though not a handsome face. His brown hair, carelessly brushed, fell over a forehead both broad and lofty, beneath which shone a pair of bold, clear grey eyes. The moment Troubridge saw him he set him down in his own mind as a "goer," by which he meant a man who had go, or energy, in him. A man, he thought, who is thrown away as a parson.
The Bishop, ringing the bell, began again, "This is my nephew, Mr. Frank Maberly."
The sleek servant entered.
"My dear Frank, pray give that rat to Sanders, and let him take it away. I don't like such things in the study."
"I only brought it to convince you, uncle," said the other. "Here you are, Sanders!"
But Sanders would have as soon shaken hands with the Pope. He rather thought the rat was alive; and, taking the tongs, he received the beast at a safe distance, while Tom saw a smile of contempt pass over the young curate's features.
"You'd make a good missionary, Sanders," said he; and, turning to Troubridge, continued, "Pray excuse this interlude, sir. You don't look as if you would refuse to shake me by my ratty hand."
Tom thought he would sooner shake hands with him than fight him, and was so won by Maberly's manner, that he was just going to say so, when he recollected the presence he was in, and blushed scarlet.
"My dear Frank," resumed his uncle, "Mr. Thornton of Drumston is taken suddenly ill, and I want you to go over and do his duties for him till he is better."
"Most certainly, my dear lord; and when shall I go?"
"Say to-morrow; will that suit your household, sir?" said the Bishop.
Tom replied, "Yes, certainly," and took his leave. Then the Bishop, turning to Frank, said,—
"The living of Drumston, nephew, is in my gift; and if Mr. Thornton does not recover, as is very possible, I shall give it to you. I wish you, therefore, to go to Drumston, and become acquainted with your future parishioners. You will find Miss Thornton a most charming old lady."
Frank Maberly was the second son of a country gentleman of good property, and was a very remarkable character. His uncle had always said of him, that whatever he chose to take up he would be first in; and his uncle was right. At Eton he was not only the best cricketer and runner, but decidedly the best scholar of his time. At Cambridge, for the first year, he was probably the noisiest man in his college, though he never lived what is called "hard;" but in the second year he took up his books once more, and came forth third wrangler and first class, and the second day after the class-list came out, made a very long score in the match with Oxford. Few men were more popular, though the fast men used to call him crotchety; and on some subjects, indeed, he was very impatient of contradiction. And most of his friends were a little disappointed when they heard of his intention of going into the Church. His father went so far as to say,—
"My dear Frank, I always thought you would have been a lawyer."
"I'd sooner be a—well, never mind what."
"But you might have gone into the army, Frank," said his father.
"I am going into the army, sir," he said; "into the army of Christ."
Old Mr. Maberly was at first shocked by this last expression from a son who rarely or never talked on religious matters, and told his wife so that night.
"But," he added, "since I've been thinking of it, I'm sure Frank meant neither BLAGUE nor irreverence. He is in earnest. I never knew him tell a lie; and since he was six years old he has known how to call a spade a spade."
"He'll make a good parson," said the mother.
"He'll be first in that, as he is in everything else," said the father.
"But he'll never be a bishop," said Mrs. Maberly.
"Why not?" said the husband, indignantly.
"Because, as you say yourself, husband, he will call a spade a spade."
"Bah! you are a radical," said the father. "Go to sleep."
At the time of John Thornton's illness, he had been ordained about a year and a-half. He had got a title for orders, as a curate, in a remote part of Devon, but had left it in consequence of a violent disagreement with his rector, in which he had been most fully borne out by his uncle, who, by the bye, was not the sort of man who would have supported his own brother, had he been in the wrong. Since then Frank Maberly had been staying with his uncle, and, as he expressed it, "working the slums" at Exeter.
Miss Thornton sat in the drawing-room at Drumston the day after Tom's visit to the Bishop, waiting dinner for the new Curate. Tom and she had been wondering how he would come. Miss Thornton said, probably in the Bishop's carriage; but Tom was inclined to think he would ride over. The dinner time was past some ten minutes, when they saw a man in black put his hand on the garden-gate, vault over, and run breathless up to the hall-door. Tom had recognised him and dashed out to receive him, but ere he had time to say "good day" even, the new comer pulled out his watch, and, having looked at it, said in a tone of vexation:—
"Twenty-one minutes, as near as possible; nay, a little over. By Jove! how pursy a fellow gets mewed up in town! How far do you call it, now, from the Buller Arms?"
"It is close upon four miles," said Tom, highly amused.
"So they told me," replied Frank Maberly. "I left my portmanteau there, and the landlord-fellow had the audacity to say in conversation that I couldn't run the four miles in twenty minutes. It's lucky a parson can't bet, or I should have lost my money. But the last mile is very much up-hill, as you must allow."
"I'll tell you what, sir," said Tom; "there isn't a man in this parish would go that four mile under twenty minutes. If any man could, I ought to know of it."
Miss Thornton had listened to this conversation with wonder not unmixed with amusement. At first she had concluded that the Bishop's carriage was upset, and that Frank was the breathless messenger sent forward to chronicle the mishap. But her tact soon showed the sort of person she had to deal with, for she was not unacquainted with the performances of public schoolboys. She laughed when she called to mind the BOULEVERSEMENT that used to take place when Lord Charles and Lord Frederick came home from Harrow, and invaded her quiet school-room. So she advanced into the passage to meet the new-comer with one of her pleasantest smiles.
"I must claim an old woman's privilege of introducing myself, Mr. Maberly," she said. "Your uncle was tutor to the B——s, when I was governess to the D——s; so we are old acquaintances."
"Can you forgive me, Miss Thornton?" he said, "for running up to the house in this lunatic sort of way? I am still half a school-boy, you know. What an old jewel she is!" he added to himself.
Tom said: "May I show you your room, Mr. Maberly?"
"If you please, do," said Frank; and added, "Get out, Fly; what are you doing here?"
But Miss Thornton interceded for the dog, a beautiful little black and tan terrier, whose points Tom was examining with profound admiration.
"That's a brave little thing, Mr. Maberly," said he, as he showed him to his room. "I should like to put in my name for a pup."
They stood face to face in the bed-room as he said this, and Frank, not answering him, said abruptly:—
"By Jove! what a splendid man you are! What do you weigh, now?"
"Close upon eighteen stone, just now, I should think;" said Tom.
"Ah, but you are carrying a little flesh," said Frank.
"Why, yes;" said Tom. "I've been to London for a fortnight."
"That accounts for it," said Frank. "Many dissenters in this parish?"
"A sight of all sorts," said Tom. "They want attracting to church here; they don't go naturally, as they do in some parts."
"I see," said Frank; "I suppose they'll come next Sunday though, to see the new parson; my best plan will be to give them a stinger, so that they'll come again."
"Why, you see," said Tom, "it's got about that there'll be no service next Sunday, so they'll make an excuse for going to Meeting. Our best plan will be, for you and I to go about and let them know that there's a new minister. Then you'll get them together, and after that I leave it to you to keep them. Shall we go down to dinner?"
They came together going out of the door, and Frank turned and said:—
"Will you shake hands with me? I think we shall suit one another."
"Aye! that we shall," said Tom heartily; "you're a man's parson; that's about what you are. But," he added, seriously; "you wouldn't do among the old women, you know."
At dinner, Miss Thornton said, "I hope, Mr. Maberly, you are none the worse after your run? Are you not afraid of such violent exercise bringing on palpitation of the heart?"
"Not I, my dear madam," he said. "Let me make my defence for what, otherwise, you might consider mere boyish folly. I am passionately fond of athletic sports of all kinds, and indulge in them as a pleasure. No real man is without some sort of pleasure, more or less harmless. Nay, even your fanatic is a man who makes a pleasure and an excitement of religion. My pleasures are very harmless; what can be more harmless than keeping this shell of ours in the highest state of capacity for noble deeds? I know," he said, turning to Tom, "what the great temptation is that such men as you or I have to contend against. It is 'the pride of life;' but if we know that and fight against it, how can it prevail against us? It is easier conquered than the lust of the flesh, or the lust of the eye, though some will tell you that I can't construe my Greek Testament, and that the 'pride of life' means something very different. I hold my opinion however, in spite of them. Then, again, although I have taken a good degree (not so good as I might, though), I consider that I have only just begun to study. Consequently, I read hard still, and shall continue to do so the next twenty years, please God. I find my head the clearer, and my intellect more powerful in consequence of the good digestion produced by exercise; so I mean to use it till I get too fat, which will be a long while first."
"Ain't you afraid," said Tom, laughing, "of offending some of your weaker brothers' consciences, by running four miles, because a publican said you couldn't?"
"Disputing with a publican might be an error of judgment," said Frank. "Bah! MIGHT be—it WAS; but with regard to running four miles—no. It is natural and right that a man at five-and-twenty should be both able and willing to run four miles, a parson above all others, as a protest against effeminacy. With regard to consciences, those very tender conscienced men oughtn't to want a parson at all."
Miss Thornton had barely left the room, to go up to the Vicar, leaving Tom and Frank Maberly over their wine, when the hall-door was thrown open, and the well-known voice of the Doctor was heard exclaiming in angry tones:—
"If! sir, if! always at if's. If Blucher had destroyed the bridge, say you, as if he ever meant to be such a Vandal. And if he had meant to do it, do you think that fifty Wellesleys in one would have stayed him? No, sir; and if he had destroyed every bridge on the Seine, sir, he would have done better than to be overruled by the counsels of Wellington (glory go with him, however! He was a good man). And why, forsooth?—because the English bore the brunt at Waterloo, in consequence of the Prussians being delayed by muddy roads."
"And Ligny," said the laughing voice of Major Buckley. "Oh, Doctor, dear! I like to make you angry, because then your logic is so very outrageous. You are like the man who pleaded not guilty of murder: first, because he hadn't done it; secondly, that he was drunk when he did it; and thirdly, that it was a case of mistaken identity."
"Ha, ha!" laughed the Doctor, merrily, recovering his good humour in a moment. "That's an Irish story for a thousand pounds. There's nothing English about that. Ha! ha!"
They were presented to Frank as the new curate. The Doctor, after a courteous salutation, put on his spectacles, and examined him carefully. Frank looked at him all the time with a quiet smile, and in the end the Doctor said—
"Allow me the privilege of shaking hands with you, sir." "Shall I be considered rude if I say that I seldom or never saw a finer head than yours on a man's shoulders? And, judging by the face, it is well lined."
"Like a buck-basket," said Frank, "full of dirty linen. Plenty of it, and of some quality, but not in a state fit for use yet. I will have it washed up, and wear such of it as is worth soon."
The Doctor saw he had found a man after his own heart, and it was not long before Frank and he were in the seventh heaven of discussion. Meanwhile, the Major had drawn up alongside of Tom, and said—
"Any news of the poor little dove that has left the nest, old friend?"
"Yes," said Tom, eagerly; "we have got a letter. Good news, too."
"Thank God for that," said the Major. "And where are they?"
"They are now at Brighton."
"What's that?" said the Doctor, turning round. "Any news?"
They told him, and then it became necessary to tell Frank Maberly what he had not known before, that the Vicar had a daughter who had "gone off."
"One of the prettiest, sweetest creatures, Mr. Maberly," said the Major, "that you ever saw in your life. None of us, I believe, knew how well we loved her till she was gone."
"And a very remarkable character, besides," said the Doctor. "Such a force of will as you see in few women of her age. Obscured by passion and girlish folly, it seemed more like obstinacy to us. But she has a noble heart, and, when she has outlived her youthful fancies, I should not be surprised if she turned out a very remarkable woman."
THE DISCOVERY OF THE FORGERIES.
One morning the man who went once a-week from old Hawker's, at the Woodlands, down to the post, brought back a letter, which he delivered to Madge at the door. She turned it over and examined it more carefully than she generally did the old man's letters, for it was directed in a clerk-like hand, and was sealed with a big and important-looking seal, and when she came to examine this seal, she saw that it bore the words "B. and F. Bank." "So, they are at it again, are they?" she said. "The deuce take 'em, I say: though for that matter I can't exactly blame the folks for looking after their own. Well, there's no mistake about one thing, he must see this letter, else some of 'em will be coming over and blowing the whole thing. He will ask me to read it for him, and I'll do so, right an end. Lord, what a breeze there'll be! I hope I shall be able to pull my lad through, though it very much depends on the old 'uns temper. However, I shall soon know."
Old Hawker was nearly blind, and, although an avaricious, suspicious old man, as a general rule, trusted implicitly on ordinary occasions to George and Madge in the management of his accounts, reflecting, with some reason, that it could not be their interest to cheat him. Of late, however, he had been uneasy in his mind. Madge, there was no denying, had got through a great deal more money than usual, and he was not satisfied with her account of where it had gone. She, we know, was in the habit of supplying George's extravagances in a way which tried all her ingenuity to hide from him, and he, mistrusting her statements, had determined as far as he could to watch her.
On this occasion she laid the letter on the breakfast table, and waited his coming down, hoping that he might be in a good humour, so that there might be some chance of averting the storm from George. Madge was much terrified for the consequences, but was quite calm and firm.
Not long before she heard his heavy step coming down the stairs, and soon he came into the room, evidently in no favourable state of mind.
"If you don't kill or poison that black tom-cat," was his first speech, "by the Lord I will. I suppose you keep him for some of your witchwork. But, if he's the devil himself, as I believe he is, I'll shoot him. I won't be kept out of my natural sleep by such a devil's brat as that. He's been keeping up such a growling and a scrowling on the hen-house roof all night, that I thought it was Old Scratch come for you, and getting impatient. If you must keep an imp of Satan in the house, get a mole, or a rat, or some quiet beast of that sort, and not such a vicious toad as him."
"Shoot him after breakfast if you like," she said. "He's no friend of mine. Get your breakfast, and don't be a fool. There's a letter for you; take and read it."
"Yah! Read it, she says, and knows I'm blind," said Hawker. "You artful minx, you want to read it yourself."
He took the letter up, and turned it over and over. He knew the seal, and shot a suspicious glance at her. Then, looking at her fixedly, he put it in his breastpocket, and buttoned up his coat.
"There!" he said. "I'll read it. Oh yes, believe me, I'll read it. You Jezebel!"
"You'd better eat your meat like a Christian man," she answered, "and not make such faces as them."
"Where's the man?" he asked.
"Outside, I suppose."
"Tell him I want the gig. I'm going out for a drive. A pleasure drive, you know. All down the lane, and back again. Cut along and tell him before I do you a mischief."
She saw he was in one of his evil humours, when nothing was to be done with him, and felt very uneasy. She went and ordered the gig, and when he had finished breakfast, he came out to the door.
"You'd best take your big coat," she said, "else you'll be getting cold, and be in a worse temper than you are,—and that's bad enough, Lord knows, for a poor woman to put up with."
"How careful she is!" said Hawker. "What care she takes of the old man! I've left you ten thousand pounds in my will, ducky. Good-bye."
He drove off, and left her standing in the porch. What a wild, tall figure she was, standing so stern and steadfast there in the morning sun!—a woman one would rather have for a friend than an enemy.
Hawker was full of other thoughts than these. Coupling his other suspicions of Madge with the receipt of this letter from the bank, he was growing very apprehensive of something being wrong. He wanted this letter read to him, but whom could he trust? Who better than his old companion Burrows, who lived in the valley below the Vicarage? So, whipping up his horse, he drove there, but found he was out. He turned back again, puzzled, going slowly, and as he came to the bottom of the hill, below the Vicarage, he saw a tall man leaning against the gate, and smoking.
"He'll do for want of a better," he said to himself. "He's an honest-going fellow, and we've always been good friends, and done good business together, though he is one of that cursed Vicarage lot."
So he drew up when he came to the gate. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Troubridge," he said, with a very different tone and manner to what we have been accustomed to hear him use, "but could you do a kindness for a blind old man? I have no one about me that I can trust since my son is gone away. I have reason to believe that this letter is of importance; could you be so good as to read it to me?"
"I shall be happy to oblige you, Mr. Hawker," said Tom. "I am sorry to hear that your sight is so bad."
"Yes; I'm breaking fast," said Hawker. "However, I shan't be much missed. I don't inquire how the Vicar is, because I know already, and because I don't think he would care much for my inquiries, after the injury my son has done him. I will break the seal. Now, may I trouble you?"
Tom Troubridge read aloud:—
"B. and F. Bank. [Such a date.]
"SIR,—May I request that you will favour me personally with a call, at the earliest possible opportunity, at my private office, 166, Broad Street? I have reason to fear that two forged cheques, bearing your signature, have been inadvertently cashed by us. The amount, I am sorry to inform you, is considerable. I need not further urge your immediate attention. This is the third communication we have made to you on the subject, and are much surprised at receiving no answer. I hope that you will be so good as to call at once.
Yours, sir, &c., P. ROLLOX, Manager."
"I thank you, Mr. Troubridge," said the old man, quietly and politely. "You see I was not wrong when I thought that this letter was of importance. May I beg as a favour that you would not mention this to any one?"
"Certainly, Mr. Hawker. I will respect your wish. I hope your loss may not be heavy."
"The loss will not be mine though, will it?" said old Hawker. "I anticipate that it will fall on the bank. It is surely at their risk to cash cheques. Why, a man might sign for all the money I have in their hands, and surely they would be answerable for it?"
"I am not aware how the law stands, Mr. Hawker," said Troubridge. "Fortunately, no one has ever thought it worth while to forge my name."
"Well, I wish you a good day, sir, with many thanks," said Hawker. "Can I do anything for you in Exeter?"
Old Hawker drove away rapidly in the direction of Exeter; his horse, a fine black, clearing the ground in splendid style. Although a cunning man, he was not quick in following a train of reasoning, and he was half-way to Exeter before he had thoroughly comprehended his situation. And then, all he saw was that somebody had forged his name, and he believed that Madge knew something about it.
"I wish my boy George was at home," he said. "He'd save me getting a lawyer now. I am altogether in the hands of those Bank folks if they like to cheat me, though it's not likely they'd do that. At all events I will take Dickson with me."
Dickson was an attorney of good enough repute. A very clever, quiet man, and a good deal employed by old Hawker, when his business was not too disreputable. Some years before, Hawker had brought some such excessively dirty work to his office, that the lawyer politely declined having anything to do with it, but recommended him to an attorney who he thought would undertake it. And from that time the old fellow treated him with marked respect, and spoke everywhere of him as a man to be trusted: such an effect had the fact of a lawyer refusing business made on him!
He reached Exeter by two o'clock, so rapidly had he driven. He went at once to Dickson's, and found him at home, busy swinging the poker, in deep thought, before the fireplace in his inner office. He was a small man, with an impenetrable, expressionless face, who never was known to unbend himself to a human being. Only two facts were known about him. One was that he was the best swimmer in Exeter, and had saved several lives from drowning, and the other was, that he gave away (for him) large sums in private charity.
Such was the man who now received old Hawker, with quiet politeness; and having sent his horse round to the inn stable by a clerk, sat down once more by the fire, and began swinging the poker, and waiting for the other to begin the conversation.
"If you are not engaged, Mr. Dickson," said Hawker, "I would be much obliged to you if you could step round to the B. and F. Bank with me. I want you to witness what passes, and to read any letters or papers for me that I shall require."
The attorney put down the poker, got his hat, and stood waiting, all without a word.
"You won't find it necessary to remark on anything that occurs, Mr. Dickson, unless I ask your opinion."
The attorney nodded, and whistled a tune. And then they started together through the crowded street.
The bank was not far, and Hawker pushed his way in among the crowd of customers. It was some time before he could get hold of a clerk, there was so much business going on. When, at last, he did so, he said—"I want to see Mr. Rollox; he told me to call on him at once."
"He is engaged at present," said the clerk. "It is quite impossible you can see him."
"You don't know what you are talking about, man," said Hawker. "Send in and tell him Mr. Hawker, of Drumston, is here."
"Oh, I beg your pardon, Mr. Hawker. I have only just come here, and did not know you. Porter, show Mr. Hawker in."
They went into the formal bank parlour. There was the leather writing table, the sheet almanac, the iron safe, and all the weapons by which bankers war against mankind, as in all other sanctuaries of the kind. Moreover, there was the commander-in-chief himself, sitting at the table. A bald, clever, gentlemanly-looking man, who bowed when they came in. "Good day, Mr. Hawker. I am obliged to you for calling at last. We thought something was wrong. Mr. Dickson, I hope you are well. Are you attending with Mr. Hawker, or are you come on private business?"
The attorney said—"I'm come at his request," and relapsed into silence.
"Ah!" said the manager. "I am, on the whole, glad that Mr. Hawker has brought a professional adviser with him. Though," he added, laughing, "it is putting me rather at a disadvantage, you know. Two to one,—eh?"
"Now, gentlemen, if you will be so good as to close the door carefully, and be seated, I will proceed to business, hoping that you will give me your best attention. About six or eight months ago,—let me be particular, though," said he, referring to some papers,—"that is rather a loose way of beginning. Here it is. The fourth of September, last year—yes. On that day, Mr. Hawker, a cheque was presented at this bank, drawn 'in favour of bearer,' and signed in your name, for two hundred pounds, and cashed, the person who presented it being well known here."
"Who?" interrupted Hawker.
"Excuse me, sir," said the manager; "allow me to come to that hereafter. You were about to say, I anticipate, that you never drew a cheque 'on bearer' in your life? Quite true. That ought to have excited attention, but it did not till, a very few weeks ago, our head-clerk, casting his eye down your account, remarked on the peculiarity, and, on examining the cheque, was inclined to believe that it was not in your usual handwriting. He intended communicating with me, but was prevented for some days by my absence; and, in the meantime, another cheque, similar, but better imitated, was presented by the same person, and cashed, without the knowledge of the head-clerk. On the cheque coming into his hands, he reprimanded the cashier, and he and I, having more closely examined them, came to the conclusion that they were both forgeries. We immediately communicated with you, and, to our great surprise, received no answer either to our first or second application. We, however, were not idle. We ascertained that we could lay our hands on the utterer of the cheques at any moment, and tried a third letter to you, which has been successful."
"The two letters you speak of have never reached me, Mr. Rollox," said Hawker. "I started off on the receipt of yours this morning—the first I saw. I am sorry, sir, that the bank should lose money through me; but, by your own showing, sir, the fault lay with your own clerks."
"I have never attempted to deny it, Mr. Hawker," said the manager. "But there are other matters to be considered. Before I go on, I wish to give you an opportunity of sending away your professional adviser, and continuing this conversation with me alone."
They both turned and looked at the lawyer. He was sitting with his hands in his pockets, and one would have thought he was whistling, only no sound came. His face showed no signs of intelligence in any feature save his eyes, and they were expressive of the wildest and most unbounded astonishment.
"I have nothing to do in this matter, sir," said Hawker, "that I should not wish Mr. Dickson to hear. He is an honourable man, and I confide in him thoroughly."
"So be it, then, Mr. Hawker," said the manager. "I have as high an opinion of my friend Mr. Dickson as you have; but I warn you, that some part of what will follow will touch you very unpleasantly."
"I don't see how," said Hawker; "go on, if you please."
"Will you be good enough to examine these two cheques, and say whether they are genuine or not?"
"I have only to look at the amount of this large one, to pronounce it an impudent forgery," said Hawker. "I have not signed so large a cheque for many years. There was one last January twelvemonth of 400 pounds, for the land at Highcot, and that is the largest, I believe, I ever gave in my life."
"There can be no doubt they are forgeries. Your sight, I believe, is too bad to swear easily to your own signature; but that is quite enough. Now, I have laid this case before our governor, Lord C——, and he went so far as to say that, under the painful circumstances of the case, if you were to refund the money, the bank might let the matter drop; but that, otherwise, it would be their most painful duty to prosecute."
"I refund the money!" laughed Hawker; "you are playing with me, sir. Prosecute the dog; I will come and see him hung! Ha! ha!"
"It will be a terrible thing if we prosecute the utterer of these cheques," said the manager.
"Why?" said Hawker. "By-the-bye, you know who he is, don't you? Tell me who it is?"
"Your own son, Mr. Hawker," said the manager, almost in a whisper.
Hawker rose and glared at them with such a look of deadly rage that they shrank from him appalled. Then, he tottered to the mantelpiece and leant against it, trying to untie his neckcloth with feeble, trembling fingers.
"Open your confounded window there, Rollox," cried the lawyer, starting up. "Where's the wine? Look sharp, man!"
Hawker waved to him impatiently to sit down, and then said, at first gasping for breath, but afterwards more quietly:
"Are you sure it was he that brought those cheques?"
"Certainly, sir," said the manager. "You may be sure it was he. Had it been any one else, they would not have been cashed without more examination; and on the last occasion he accounted rather elaborately for your drawing such a large sum."
Hawker recovered himself and sat down.
"Don't be frightened, gentlemen," he said. "Not this time. I've something to do before that comes. It won't be long, the doctor says, but I must transact some business first. O Lord! I see it all now. That cursed, cursed woman and her boy have been hoodwinking me and playing with me all this time, have they? Oh, but I'll have my vengeance on 'em one to the stocks, and another to the gallows. I, unfortunately, can't give you any information where that man is that has the audacity to bear my name, sir," said he to the manager. "His mother at one time persuaded me that he was a child of mine; but such infernal gipsy drabs as that can't be depended on, you know. I have the honour to wish you a very good afternoon, sir, thanking you for your information, and hoping your counsel will secure a speedy conviction. I shall probably trouble you to meet me at a magistrate's tomorrow morning, where I will take my oath in his presence that those cheques are forgeries. You will find alterations in my banker's book, too, I expect. We'll look into it all to-morrow. Come along, Dickson, my sly little weasel; I've a gay night's work for you; I'm going to leave all my property to my cousin Nick, my bitterest enemy, and a lawsuit with it that'll break his heart. There's fun for the lawyers,—eh, my boy!"
So talking, the old man strode firmly forth, with a bitter, malignant scowl on his flushed face. The lawyer followed him, and, when they were in the street, Hawker again asked him to come to the inn and make his will for him.
"I'll stay by you, Hawker, and see that you don't make a fool of yourself. I wish you would not be so vindictive. It's indecent; you'll be ashamed of it tomorrow; but, in the meantime, it's indecent."
"Ha, ha!" laughed Hawker; "how quietly he talks! One can see that he hasn't had a bastard child fathered on him by a gipsy hag. Come along, old fellow; there's fifty pounds' worth of work for you this week, if I only live through it!"
He took the lawyer to the inn, and they got dinner. Hawker ate but little, for him, but drank a good deal. Dickson thought he was getting drunk; but when dinner was over, and Hawker had ordered in spirits-and-water, he seemed sober enough again.
"Now, Mr. Dickson," said he, "I am going to make a fresh will to-morrow morning, and I shall want you to draw it up for me. After that I want you to come home with me and transact business. You will do a good day's work, I promise you. You seem to me now to be the only man in the world I can trust. I pray you don't desert me."
"As I said before," replied the lawyer, "I won't desert you; but listen to me. I don't half like the sudden way you have turned against your own son. Why don't you pay this money, and save the disgrace of that unhappy young man? I don't say anything about your disinheriting him—that's no business of mine—but don't be witness against him. The bank, or rather my Lord C——, has been very kind about it. Take advantage of their kindness and hush the matter up."
"I know you ain't in the pay of the bank," said Hawker, "so I won't charge you with it. I know you better than to think you'd lend yourself to anything so mean; but your conduct looks suspicious. If you hadn't done me a few disinterested kindnesses lately, I should say that they'd paid you to persuade me to stop this, so as they might get their money back, and save the cost of a prosecution. But I ain't so far gone as to believe that; and so I tell you, as one man to another, that if you'd come suddenly on such a mine of treason and conspiracy as I have this afternoon, and found a lad that you have treated as, and tried to believe was, your own son, you'd be as bad as me. Every moment I think of it, it comes out clearer. That woman that lives with me has palmed that brat of hers on me as my child; and he and she have been plundering me these years past. The money that woman has made away with would build a ship, sir. What she's done with it, her master, the devil, only knows; and I've said nought about it, because she's a witch, and I was afraid of her. But now I've found her out. She has stopped the letters that they wrote to me about this boy's forgery, and that shows she was in it. She shall pack. I won't prosecute her; no. I've reasons against that; but I'll turn her out in the world without a sixpence. You see I'm quiet enough now!"
"You're quiet enough," said the lawyer, "and you've stated your case very well. But are you sure this lad is not your son?"
"If I was sure that he was," said Hawker, "it wouldn't make any difference, as I know on. Ah, man, you don't know what a rage I'm in. If I chose, I could put myself into such an infernal passion at this moment as would bring on a 'plectic fit, and lay me dead on the floor. But I won't do it, not yet. I'll have another drop of brandy, and sing you a song. Shall I give 'ee 'Roger a-Maying,' or what'll ye have?"
"I'll have you go to bed, and not take any more brandy," said the lawyer. "If you sing, get in one of the waiters, and sing to him; he'd enjoy it. I'm going home, but I shall come to breakfast to-morrow morning, and find you in a different humour."
"Good night, old mole," said Hawker; "good night, old bat, old parchment skin, old sixty per cent. Ha, ha! If a wench brings a brat to thee, old lad, chuck it out o' window, and her after it. Thou can only get hung for it, man. They can only hang thee once, and that is better than to keep it and foster it, and have it turn against thee when it grows up. Good night."
Dickson came to him in the morning, and found him in the same mind. They settled down to business, and Hawker made a new will. He left all his property to his cousin (a man he had had a bitter quarrel with for years), except 100 pounds to his groom, and 200 pounds to Tom Troubridge, "for an act of civility" (so the words ran), "in reading a letter for a man who ought to have been his enemy." And when the will (a very short one) was finished, and the lawyer proposed getting two of his clerks as witnesses, Hawker told him to fold it up and keep it; that he would get it witnessed by-and-by.
"You're coming home with me," he said, "and we'll get it witnessed there. You'll see why, when it's done."
Then they went to the manager of the bank, and got him to go before a magistrate with him, whilst he deposed on oath that the two cheques, before mentioned, were forgeries, alleging that his life was so uncertain that the criminal might escape justice by his sudden death. Then he and Dickson went back to the inn, and after dinner started together to drive to Drumston.
They had been so engaged with business that they had taken no notice of the weather. But when they were clear of the northern suburbs of the town, and were flying rapidly along the noble turnpike-road that turning eastward skirts the broad Exe for a couple of miles before turning north again, they remarked that a dense black cloud hung before them, and that everything foreboded a violent thunder-storm.
"We shall get a drowning before we reach your place, Hawker," said the lawyer. "I'm glad I brought my coat."
"Lawyers never get drowned," said Hawker, "though I believe you have tried it often enough."
When they crossed the bridge, and turned to the north, along the pretty banks of the Creedy, they began to hope that they would leave it on the right; but ere they reached Newton St. Cyres they saw that it was creeping up overhead, and, stopping a few minutes in that village, perceived that the folks were all out at their doors talking to one another, as people do for company's sake when a storm is coming on.
Before they got to Crediton they could distinguish, above the sound of the wheels, the thunder groaning and muttering perpetually, and as they rattled quickly past the grand old minster a few drops of rain began to fall.
The boys were coming out of the Grammar School in shoals, laughing, running, whooping, as the manner of boys is. Hawker drove slowly as he passed through the crowd, and the lawyer took that opportunity to put on his great-coat.
"We've been lucky so far," he said, "and now we are going to pay for our good luck. Before it is too late, Hawker, pull up and stay here. If we have to stop all night, I'll pay expenses; I will indeed. It will be dark before we are home. Do stop."
"Not for a thousand pound," said Hawker. "I wouldn't baulk myself now for a thousand pound. Hey! fancy turning her out such a night as this without sixpence in her pocket. Why, a man like you, that all the county knows, a man who has got two gold medals for bravery, ain't surely afraid of a thunderstorm?"
"I ain't afraid of the thunderstorm, but I am of the rheumatism," said the other. "As for a thunderstorm, you're as safe out of doors as in; some say safer. But you're mistaken if you suppose I don't fear death, Hawker. I fear it as much as any man."
"It didn't look like it that time you soused in over the weir after the groom lad," said Hawker.
"Bah! man," said the lawyer; "I'm the best swimmer in Devon. That was proved by my living at that weir in flood time. So I have less to fear than any one else. Why, if that boy hadn't been as quiet and plucky as he was, I knew I could kick him off any minute, and get ashore. Hallo! that's nearer."
The storm burst on them in full fury, and soon after it grew dark. The good horse, however, stepped out gallantly, though they made but little way; for, having left the high road and taken to the narrow lanes, their course was always either up hill or down, and every bottom they passed grew more angry with the flooding waters as they proceeded. Still, through darkness, rain, and storm, they held their way till they saw the lights of Drumston below them.
"How far is it to your house, Hawker?" said the lawyer. "This storm seems to hang about still. It is as bad as ever. You must be very wet."
"It's three miles to my place, but a level road, at least all up-hill, gently rising. Cheer up! We won't be long."
They passed through the village rapidly, lighted by the lightning. The last three miles were done as quickly as any part of the journey, and the lawyer rejoiced to find himself before the white gate that led up to Hawker's house.
It was not long before they drew up to the door. The storm seemed worse than ever. There was a light in the kitchen, and when Hawker had halloed once or twice, a young man ran out to take the horse.
"Is that you, my boy?" said Hawker. "Rub the horse down, and come in to get something. This ain't a night fit for a dog to be out in; is it?"
"No, indeed, sir," said the man. "I hope none's out in it but what likes to be."
They went in. Madge looked up from arranging the table for supper, and stared at Hawker keenly. He laughed aloud, and said,—
"So you didn't expect me to-night, deary, eh?"
"You've chose a bad night to come home in, old man," she answered.
"A terrible night, ain't it? Wouldn't she have been anxious if she'd a' known I'd been out?"
"Don't know as I should," she said. "That gentleman had better get dried, and have his supper."
"I've got a bit of business first, deary. Where's the girl?"
"In the other kitchen."
"Call her.—Lord! listen to that."
A crash of thunder shook the house, heard loud above the rain, which beat furiously against the windows. Madge immediately returned with the servant girl, a modest, quiet-looking creature, evidently in terror at the storm.
"Get out that paper, Dickson, and we'll get it signed."
The lawyer produced the will, and Madge and the servant girl were made to witness it. Dickson, having dried the signatures, took charge of it again; and then Hawker turned round fiercely to Madge.
"That's my new will," he said; "my new will, old woman. Oh, you cat! I've found you out."
Madge saw a storm was coming, worse than the one which raged and rattled outside, and she braced her nerves to meet it.
"What have you found out, old man?" she said quietly.
"I've found out that you and that young scoundrel have been robbing and cheating me in a way that would bring me to the workhouse in another year. I have found out that he has forged my name for nearly a thousand pounds, and that you've helped him. I find that you yourself have robbed me of hundreds of pounds, and that I have been blinded, and cozened, and hoodwinked by two that I kept from the workhouse, and treated as well as I treated myself. That's what I have found out, gipsy."
"Well?" was all Madge said, standing before him with her arms folded.
"So I say," said Hawker; "it is very well. The mother to the streets, and the boy to the gallows."
"You wouldn't prosecute him, William; your own son?"
"No, I shan't," he replied;—"but the Bank will."
"And couldn't you stop it?"
"I could. But if holding up my little finger would save him, I wouldn't do it."
"Oh, William," she cried, throwing herself on her knees; "don't look like that. I confess everything; visit it on me, but spare that boy."
"You confess, do you?" he said. "Get up. Get out of my house; you shan't stay here."
But she would not go, but, hanging round him, kept saying, "Spare the boy, William, spare the boy!" over and again, till he struck her in his fury, and pulled her towards the door.
"Get out and herd with the gipsies you belong to," he said. "You witch, you can't cry now."
"But," she moaned, "oh, not such a night as this, William; not to-night. I am frightened of the storm. Let me stay to-night. I am frightened of the lightning. Oh, I wouldn't turn out your dog such a night as this."
"Out, out, you devil!"
"Oh, William, only one—"
"Out, you Jezebel, before I do you a mischief."
He had got the heavy door open, and she passed out, moaning low to herself. Out into the fierce rain and the black darkness; and the old man held open the door for a minute, to see if she were gone.
No. A broad, flickering riband of light ineffable wavered for an instant of time before his eyes, lighting up the country far and wide; but plainly visible between him and the blaze was a tall, dark, bare-headed woman, wildly raising her hands above her head, as if imploring vengeance upon him, and, ere the terrible explosion which followed had ceased to shake the old house to its foundations, he shut the door, and went muttering alone up to his solitary chamber.
The next morning the groom came into the lawyer's room, and informed him that when he went to call his master in the morning, he had found the bed untouched, and Hawker sitting half undressed in his arm-chair, dead and cold.
THE MAJOR'S VISIT TO THE "NAG'S-HEAD."
Major Buckley and his wife stood together in the verandah of their cottage, watching the storm. All the afternoon they had seen it creeping higher and higher, blacker and more threatening up the eastern heavens, until it grew painful to wait any longer for its approach. But now that it had burst on them, and night had come on dark as pitch, they felt the pleasant change in the atmosphere, and, in spite of the continuous gleam of the lightning, and the eternal roll and crackle of the thunder, they had come out to see the beauty and majesty of the tempest.
They stood with their arms entwined for some time, in silence; but after a crash louder than any of those which had preceded it, Major Buckley said:—
"My dearest Agnes, you are very courageous in a thunderstorm."
"Why not, James?" she said; "you cannot avoid the lightning, and the thunder won't harm you. Most women fear the sound of the thunder more than anything, but I suspect that Ciudad Rodrigo made more noise than this, husband?"
"It did indeed, my dear. More noise than I ever heard in any storm yet. It is coming nearer."
"I am afraid it will shake the poor Vicar very much," said Mrs. Buckley. "Ah, there is Sam, crying."
They both went into the sitting-room; little Sam had petitioned to go to bed on the sofa till the storm was over, and now, awakened by the thunder, was sitting up in his bed, crying out for his mother.
The Major went in and lay down by the child on the sofa, to quiet him. "What!" said he, "Sammy, you're not afraid of thunder, are you?"
"Yes! I am," said the child; "very much indeed. I am glad you are come, father."
"Lightning never strikes good boys, Sam," said the Major.
"Are you sure of that, father?" said the little one.
That was a poser; so the Major thought it best to counterfeit sleep; but he overdid it, and snored so loud, that the boy began to laugh, and his father had to practise his deception with less noise. And by degrees, the little hand that held his moustache dropped feebly on the bedclothes, and the Major, ascertaining by the child's regular breathing that his son was asleep, gently raised his vast length, and proposed to his wife to come into the verandah again.
"The storm is breaking, my love," said he; "and the air is deliciously cool out there. Put your shawl on and come out."
They went out again; the lightning was still vivid, but the thunder less loud. Straight down the garden from them stretched a broad gravel walk, which now, cut up by the rain into a hundred water channels, showed at each flash like rivers of glittering silver. Looking down this path toward the black wood during one of the longest continued illuminations of the lightning, they saw for an instant a dark, tall figure, apparently advancing towards them. Then all the prospect was wrapped again in tenfold gloom.
Mrs. Buckley uttered an exclamation, and held tighter to her husband's arm. Every time the garden was lit up, they saw the figure, nearer and nearer, till they knew that it was standing before them in the darkness; the Major was about to speak, when a hoarse voice, heard indistinctly above the rushing of the rain, demanded:
"Is that Major Buckley?"
At the same minute the storm-light blazed up once more, and fell upon an object so fearful and startling that they both fell back amazed. A woman was standing before them, tall, upright, and bareheaded; her long black hair falling over a face as white and ghastly as a three days' corpse; her wild countenance rendered more terrible by the blue glare of the lightning shining on the rain that streamed from every lock of her hair and every shred of her garments. She looked like some wild daughter of the storm, who had lost her way, and came wandering to them for shelter.
"I am Major Buckley," was the answer. "What do you want? But in God's name come in out of the rain."
"Come in and get your things dried, my good woman," said Mrs. Buckley. "What do you want with my husband such a night as this?"
"Before I dry my things, or come in, I will state my business," said the woman, coming under the verandah. "After that I will accept your hospitality. This is a night when polecats and rabbits would shelter together in peace; and yet such a night as this, a man turns out of his house the woman who has lain beside him twenty years."
"Who are you, my good soul?" said the Major.
"They call me Madge the Witch," she said; "I lived with old Hawker, at the Woodlands, till to-night, and he has turned me out. I want to put you in possession of some intelligence that may save much misery to some that you love."
"I can readily believe that you can do it," said the Major, "but pray don't stand there; come in with my wife, and get your things dried."
"Wait till you hear what I have to say: George Hawker, my son—"
"Your son—good God!"
"I thought you would have known that. The Vicar does. Well, this son of mine has run off with the Vicar's daughter."
"Well, he has committed forgery. It'll be known all over the country to-morrow, and even now I fear the runners are after him. If he is taken before he marries that girl, things will be only worse than they are. But never mind whether he does or not, perhaps you differ with me; perhaps you think that, if you could find the girl now, you could stop her and bring her home; but you don't know where she is. I do, and if you will give me your solemn word of honour as a gentleman to give him warning that his forgery for five hundred pounds is discovered, I will give you his direction."
The Major hesitated for a moment, thinking.
"If you reflect a moment, you must see how straightforward my story is. What possible cause can I have to mislead you? I know which way you will decide, so I wait patiently."
"I think I ought to say yes, my love," said the Major to his wife; "if it turned out afterwards that I neglected any opportunity of saving this poor girl (particularly if this tale of the forgery be true), I should never forgive myself."
"I agree with you, my dear," said Mrs. Buckley. "Give your promise, and go to seek her."
"Well, then," said the Major; "I give you my word of honour that I will give Hawker due warning of his forgery being discovered, if you will give me his direction. I anticipate that they are in London, and I shall start to-night, to be in time for the morning coach. Now, will you give me the address?"
"Yes!" said Madge. "They are at the Nag's Head, Buckingham Street, Strand, London; can you remember that?"
"I know where the street is," said the Major; "now will you go into the kitchen, and make yourself comfortable? My dear, you will see my valise packed? Ellen, get this person's clothes dried, and get her some hot wine. By-the-bye," said he, following her into the kitchen, "you must have had a terrible quarrel with Hawker, for him to send you out such a night as this?"
"It was about this matter," she said: "the boy forged on his father, and I knew it, and tried to screen him. My own son, you know."
"It was natural enough," said the Major. "You are not deceiving me, are you? I don't see why you should, though."
"Before God, I am not. I only want the boy to get warning."
"You must sleep here to-night," said the Major; "and to-morrow you can go on your way, though, if you cannot conveniently get away in the morning, don't hurry, you know. My house is never shut against unfortunate people. I have heard a great deal of you, but I never saw you before; you must be aware, however, that the character you have held in the place is not such as warrants me in asking you to stay here for any time."
The Major left the kitchen, and crossed the yard. In a bedroom above the stable slept his groom, a man who had been through his campaigns with him from first to last. It was to waken him that the Major took his way up the narrow stairs towards the loft.
"Jim," he said, "I want my horse in an hour."
The man was out of bed in a moment, and while he was dressing, the Major continued:—
"You know Buckingham Street, Strand, Jim, don't you? When you were recruiting you used to hang out at a public-house there, unless I am mistaken."
"Exactly so, sir! We did; and a many good chaps we picked up there, gents and all sorts. Why, it was in that werry place, Major, as we 'listed Lundon; him as was afterwards made sergeant for being the first man into Sebastian, and arterwards married Skettles; her as fell out of eighteen stories at Brussels looking after the Duke, and she swore at them as came to pick her up, she did; and walked in at the front door as bold as brass."
"There, my good lad," said the Major; "what's the good of telling such stories as that? Nobody believes them, you know. Do you know the Nag's Head there? It's a terribly low place, is it not?"
"It's a much changed if it ain't, sir," said Jim, putting on his breeches. "I was in there not eighteen months since. It's a fighting-house; and there used to be a dog show there, and a reunion of vocal talent, and all sorts of villanies."
"Well, see to the horse, Jim, and I'll sing out when I'm ready," said the Major, and went back into the house.
He came back through the kitchen, and saw that Madge was being treated by the maids with that respect that a reputed witch never fails to command; then, having sat for some time talking to his wife, and finding that the storm was cleared off, he kissed his sleeping child and its mother, and, mounting his horse in the stable-yard, rode off towards Exeter.
In the morning, when Mrs. Buckley came down stairs, she inquired for Madge. They told her she had been up some time, and, having got some breakfast, was walking up and down in front of the house. Going there, Mrs. Buckley found her. Her dress was rearranged with picturesque neatness, and a red handkerchief pinned over her rich dark hair, that last night had streamed wild and wet in the tempest. Altogether, she looked an utterly different being from the strange, storm-beaten creature who had craved their hospitality the night before. Mrs. Buckley admired the bold, upright, handsome figure before her, and gave her a cheery "good morning."
"I only stayed," said Madge, "to wish you goodbye, and thank you for your kindness. When they who should have had some pity on me turned me out, you took me in!"
"You are heartily welcome," said Mrs. Buckley. "Cannot I do more for you? Do you want money? I fear you must!"
"None, I thank you kindly," she replied; "that would break the spell. Good-bye!"
"Good-bye!" said Mrs. Buckley.
Madge stood in front of the door and raised her hand.
"The blessing of God," she said, "shall be upon the house of the Buckleys, and more especially upon you and your husband, and the boy that is sleeping inside. He shall be a brave and a good man, and his wife shall be the fairest and best in the country side. Your kine shall cover the plains until no man can number them, and your sheep shall be like the sands of the sea. When misfortune and death and murder fall upon your neighbours, you shall stand between the dead and the living, and the troubles that pass over your heads shall be like the shadow of the light clouds that fly across the moor on a sunny day. And when in your ripe and honoured old age you shall sit with your husband, in a garden of your own planting, in the lands far away, and see your grandchildren playing around you, you shall think of the words of the wild, lost gipsy woman, who gave you her best blessing before she went away and was seen no more."
Mrs. Buckley tried to say "Amen," but found herself crying. Something there was in that poor creature, homeless, penniless, friendless, that made her heart like wax. She watched her as she strode down the path, and afterwards looked for her re-appearing on a high exposed part of the road, a quarter of a mile off, thinking she would take that way. But she waited long, and never again saw that stern, tall figure, save in her dreams.
She turned at last, and one of the maids stood beside her.
"Oh, missis," she said, "you're a lucky woman today. There's some in this parish would have paid a hundred pounds for such a fortune as that from her. It'll come true,—you will see!"
"I hope it may, you silly girl," said Mrs. Buckley; and then she went in and knelt beside her sleeping boy, and prayed that the blessing of the gipsy woman might be fulfilled.
* * * * *
It was quite late on the evening of his second day's journey that the Major, occupying the box-seat of the "Exterminator," dashed with comet-like speed through so much of the pomps and vanities of this wicked world as showed itself in Piccadilly at half-past seven on a spring afternoon.
"Hah!" he soliloquized, passing Hyde-park Corner, "these should be the folks going out to dinner. They dine later and later every year. At this rate they'll dine at half-past one in twenty years' time. That's the Duke's new house; eh, coachman? By George, there's his Grace himself, on his brown cob; God bless him! There are a pair of good-stepping horses, and old Lady E—— behind 'em, by Jove!—in her war-paint and feathers—pinker than ever. She hasn't got tired of it yet. She'd dance at her own funeral if she could. And there's Charley Bridgenorth in the club balcony—I wonder what he finds to do in peace time?—and old B—— talking to him. What does Charley mean by letting himself be seen in the same balcony with that disreputable old fellow? I hope he won't get his morals corrupted! Ah! So here we are! eh?"
He dismounted at the White Horse Cellar, and took a hasty dinner. His great object was speed; and so he hardly allowed himself ten minutes to finish his pint of port before he started into the street, to pursue the errand on which he had come.
It was nearly nine o'clock, and he thought he would be able to reach his destination in ten minutes. But it was otherwise ordered. His evil genius took him down St. James Street. He tried to persuade himself that it was the shortest way, though he knew all the time that it wasn't. And so he was punished in this way: he had got no further than Crockford's, when, in the glare of light opposite the door of that establishment, he saw three men standing, one of whom was talking and laughing in a tone perhaps a little louder than it is customary to use in the streets nowadays. Buckley knew that voice well (better, perhaps, among the crackle of musketry than in the streets of London), and, as the broad-shouldered owner of it turned his jolly, handsome face towards him, he could not suppress a low laugh of satisfaction. At the same moment the before-mentioned man recognised him, and shouted out his name.
"Busaco Buckley, by the Lord," he said, "revisiting once more the glimpses of the gas-lamps! My dear old fellow, how are you, and where do you come from?"
The Major found himself quickly placed under a lamp for inspection, and surrounded by three old and well-beloved fellow-campaigners. What could a man do under the circumstances? Nothing, if human and fallible, I should say, but what the Major did—stay there, laughing and joking, and talking of old times, and freshen up his honest heart, and shake his honest sides with many an old half-forgotten tale of fun and mischief.
"Now," he said at last, "you must let me go. You Barton (to the first man he had recognised), you are a married man; what are you doing at Crockford's?"
"The same as you are," said the other,—"standing outside the door. The pavement's free, I suppose. I haven't been in such a place these five years. Where are you staying, old boy?"