MR. MEESON'S WILL
BY H. RIDER HAGGARD
CHAPTER I. AUGUSTA AND HER PUBLISHER
CHAPTER II. HOW EUSTACE WAS DISINHERITED
CHAPTER III. AUGUSTA'S LITTLE SISTER
CHAPTER IV. AUGUSTA'S DECISION
CHAPTER V. THE R.M.S. KANGAROO
CHAPTER VI. MR. TOMBEY GOES FORWARD
CHAPTER VII. THE CATASTROPHE
CHAPTER VIII. KERGUELEN LAND
CHAPTER IX. AUGUSTA TO THE RESCUE
CHAPTER X. THE LAST OF MR. MEESON
CHAPTER XI. RESCUED
CHAPTER XII. SOUTHAMPTON QUAY
CHAPTER XIII. EUSTACE BUYS A PAPER
CHAPTER XIV. AT HANOVER SQUARE
CHAPTER XV. EUSTACE CONSULTS A LAWYER
CHAPTER XVI. SHORT ON LEGAL ETIQUETTE
CHAPTER XVII. HOW AUGUSTA WAS FILED
CHAPTER XVIII. AUGUSTA FLIES
CHAPTER XIX. MEESON v. ADDISON AND ANOTHER
CHAPTER XX. JAMES BREAKS DOWN
CHAPTER XXI. GRANT AS PRAYED
CHAPTER XXII. ST. GEORGE'S, HANOVER-SQUARE
CHAPTER XXIII. MEESON'S ONCE AGAIN
AUGUSTA AND HER PUBLISHER.
"Now mark you, my masters: this is comedy."—OLD PLAY.
Everybody who has any connection with Birmingham will be acquainted with the vast publishing establishment still known by the short title of "Meeson's," which is perhaps the most remarkable institution of the sort in Europe. There are—or rather there were, at the date of the beginning of this history—three partners in Meeson's—Meeson himself, the managing partner; Mr. Addison, and Mr. Roscoe—and people in Birmingham used to say that there were others interested in the affair, for Meeson's was a "company" (limited).
However this may be, Meeson and Co. was undoubtedly a commercial marvel. It employed more than two thousand hands; and its works, lit throughout with the electric light, cover two acres and a quarter of land. One hundred commercial travellers, at three pounds a week and a commission, went forth east and west, and north and south, to sell the books of Meeson (which were largely religious in their nature) in all lands; and five-and-twenty tame authors (who were illustrated by thirteen tame artists) sat—at salaries ranging from one to five hundred a year—in vault-like hutches in the basement, and week by week poured out that hat-work for which Meeson's was justly famous. Then there were editors and vice-editors, and heads of the various departments, and sub-heads, and financial secretaries, and readers, and many managers; but what their names were no man knew, because at Meeson's all the employees of the great house were known by numbers; personalities and personal responsibility being the abomination of the firm. Nor was it allowed to anyone having dealings with these items ever to see the same number twice, presumably for fear lest the number should remember that he was a man and a brother, and his heart should melt towards the unfortunate, and the financial interests of Meeson's should suffer. In short, Meeson's was an establishment created for and devoted to money-making, and the fact was kept studiously and even insolently before the eyes of everybody connected with it—which was, of course, as it should be, in this happy land of commerce. After all that has been written, the reader will not be surprised to learn that the partners in Meeson's were rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Their palaces would have been a wonder even in ancient Babylon, and would have excited admiration in the corruptest and most luxurious days of Rome. Where could one see such horses, such carriages, such galleries of sculpture or such collections of costly gems as at the palatial halls of Messrs. Meeson, Addison, and Roscoe?
"And to think," as the Mighty Meeson himself would say, with a lordly wave of his right hand, to some astonished wretch of an author whom he has chosen to overwhelm with the sight of this magnificence, "to think that all this comes out of the brains of chaps like you! Why, young man, I tell you that if all the money that has been paid to you scribblers since the days of Elizabeth were added together it would not come up to my little pile; but, mind you, it ain't so much fiction that has done the trick—it's religion. It's piety as pays, especially when it's printed."
Then the unsophisticated youth would go away, his heart too full for words, but pondering how these things were, and by-and-by he would pass into the Meeson melting-pot and learn something about it.
One day King Meeson sat in his counting house counting out his money, or, at least, looking over the books of the firm. He was in a very bad temper, and his heavy brows were wrinkled up in a way calculated to make the counting-house clerks shake on their stools. Meeson's had a branch establishment at Sydney, in Australia, which establishment had, until lately, been paying—it is true not as well as the English one, but, still, fifteen or twenty per cent. But now a wonder had come to pass. A great American publishing firm had started an opposition house in Melbourne, and their "cuteness" was more than the "cuteness" of Meeson. Did Meeson's publish an edition of the works of any standard author at threepence per volume the opposition company brought out the same work at twopence-halfpenny; did Meeson's subsidise a newspaper to puff their undertakings, the opposition firm subsidised two to cry them down, and so on. And now the results of all this were becoming apparent: for the financial year just ended the Australian branch had barely earned a beggarly net dividend of seven per cent.
No wonder Mr. Meeson was furious, and no wonder that the clerks shook upon their stools.
"This must be seen into, No. 3," said Mr. Meeson, bringing his fist down with a bang on to the balance-sheet.
No. 3 was one of the editors; a mild-eyed little man with blue spectacles. He had once been a writer of promise; but somehow Meeson's had got him for its own, and turned him into a publisher's hack.
"Quite so, Sir," he said humbly. "It is very bad—it is dreadful to think of Meeson's coming down to seven per cent—seven per cent!" and he held up his hands.
"Don't stand there like a stuck pig, No. 3," said Mr. Meeson, fiercely; "but suggest something."
"Well, Sir," said No. 3 more humbly than ever, for he was terribly afraid of his employer; "I think, perhaps, that somebody had better go to Australia, and see what can be done."
"I know one thing that can be done," said Mr. Meeson, with a snarl: "all those fools out there can be sacked, and sacked they shall be; and, what's more, I'll go and sack them myself. That will do No. 3; that will do;" and No. 3 departed, and glad enough he was to go.
As he went a clerk arrived, and gave a card to the great man.
"Miss Augusta Smithers," he read; then with a grunt, "show Miss Augusta Smithers in."
Presently Miss Augusta Smithers arrived. She was a tall, well-formed young lady of about twenty-five, with pretty golden hair, deep grey eyes, a fine forehead, and a delicate mouth; just now, however, she looked very nervous.
"Well, Miss Smithers, what is it?" asked the publisher.
"I came, Mr. Meeson—I came about my book."
"Your book, Miss Smithers?" this was an affectation of forgetfulness; "let me see?—forgive me, but we publish so many books. Oh, yes, I remember; 'Jemima's Vow.' Oh, well, I believe it is going on fairly."
"I saw you advertised the sixteenth thousand the other day," put in Miss Smithers, apologetically.
"Did we—did we? ah, then, you know more about it than I do," and he looked at his visitor in a way that conveyed clearly enough that he considered the interview was ended.
Miss Smithers rose, and then, with a spasmodic effort, sat down again. "The fact is, Mr. Meeson," she said—"The fact is, that, I thought that, perhaps, as 'Jemima's Vow' had been such a great success, you might, perhaps—in short, you might be inclined to give me some small sum in addition to what I have received."
Mr. Meeson looked up. His forehead was wrinkled till the shaggy eyebrows nearly hid the sharp little eyes.
"What!" he said. "What!"
At this moment the door opened, and a young gentleman came slowly in. He was a very nice-looking young man, tall and well shaped, with a fair skin and jolly blue eyes—in short, a typical young Englishman of the better sort, aetate suo twenty-four. I have said that he came slowly in, but that scarcely conveys the gay and degage air of independence which pervaded this young man, and which would certainly have struck any observer as little short of shocking, when contrasted with the worm-like attitude of those who crept round the feet of Meeson. This young man had not, indeed, even taken the trouble to remove his hat, which was stuck upon the back of his head, his hands were in his pockets, a sacrilegious whistle hovered on his lips, and he opened the door of the sanctum sanctorum of the Meeson establishment with a kick!
"How do, uncle?" he said to the Commercial Terror, who was sitting there behind his formidable books, addressing him even as though he were an ordinary man. "Why, what's up?"
Just then, however, he caught sight of the very handsome young lady who was seated in the office, and his whole demeanour underwent a most remarkable change; out came the hands from his pockets, off went the hat, and, turning, he bowed, really rather nicely, considering how impromptu the whole performance was.
"What is it, Eustace?" asked Mr. Meeson, sharply.
"Oh, nothing, uncle; nothing—it can bide," and, without waiting for an invitation, he took a chair, and sat down in such a position that he could see Miss Smithers without being seen of his uncle.
"I was saying, Miss Smithers, or rather, I was going to say," went on the elder Meeson, "that, in short, I do not in the least understand what you can mean. You will remember that you were paid a sum of fifty pounds for the copyright of 'Jemima's Vow.'"
"Great Heavens!" murmured Master Eustace, behind; "what a do!"
"At the time an alternative agreement, offering you seven per cent on the published price of the book, was submitted to you, and, had you accepted it, you would, doubtless, have realized a larger sum," and Mr. Meeson contracted his hairy eyebrows and gazed at the poor girl in a way that was, to say the least, alarming. But Augusta, though she felt sadly inclined to flee, still stood to her guns, for, to tell the truth, her need was very great.
"I could not afford to wait for the seven per cent, Mr. Meeson," she said humbly.
"Oh, ye gods! seven per cent, when he makes about forty-five!" murmured Eustace, in the background.
"Possibly, Miss Smithers; possibly;" went on the great man. "You must really forgive me if I am not acquainted with the exact condition of your private affairs. I am, however, aware from experience that the money matters of most writing people are a little embarrassed."
Augusta winced, and Mr. Meeson, rising heavily from his chair, went to a large safe which stood near, and extracted from it a bundle of agreements. These he glanced at one by one till he found what he was looking for.
"Here is the agreement," he said; "let me see? ah, I thought so—copyright fifty pounds, half proceeds of rights of translation, and a clause binding you to offer any future work you may produce during the next five years to our house on the seven per cent agreement, or a sum not exceeding one hundred pounds for the copyright. Now, Miss Smithers, what have you to say? You signed this paper of your own free will. It so happens that we have made a large profit on your book: indeed, I don't mind telling you that we have got as much as we gave you back from America for the sale of the American rights; but that is no ground for your coming to ask for more money than you agreed to accept. I never heard of such a thing in the whole course of my professional experience; never!" and he paused, and once more eyed her sternly.
"At any rate, there ought to be something to come to me from the rights of translation—I saw in the paper that the book was to be translated into French and German," said Augusta, faintly.
"Oh! yes, no doubt—Eustace, oblige me by touching the bell."
The young gentleman did so, and a tall, melancholy-looking clerk appeared.
"No. 18," snarled Mr. Meeson, in the tone of peculiar amiability that he reserved for his employee's, "make out the translation account of 'Jemima's Vow,' and fill up a cheque of balance due to the author."
No. 18 vanished like a thin, unhappy ghost, and Mr. Meeson once more addressed the girl before him. "If you want money, Miss Smithers," he said, "you had better write us another book. I am not going to deny that your work is good work—a little too deep, and not quite orthodox enough, perhaps; but still good. I tested it myself, when it came to hand—which is a thing I don't often do—and saw it was good selling quality, and you see I didn't make a mistake. I believe 'Jemima's Vow' will sell twenty thousand without stopping—here's the account."
As he spoke the spectre-like clerk put down a neatly-ruled bit of paper and an unsigned cheque on the desk before his employer, and then smiled a shadowy smile and vanished.
Mr. Meeson glanced through the account, signed the cheque, and handed it, together with the account to Augusta, who proceeded to read it. It ran thus:—
AUGUSTA SMITHERS in account with MEESON & Co.
L s d To Sale of Right of Translation of 7 0 0 "Jemima's Vow" into French...... Do. do. do. into German 7 0 0 ———— L14 0 0 ======== L s d Less amount due to Messrs. Meeson, being 7 0 0 one-half of net proceeds Less Commission, &c 3 19 0 ————— L10 19 0 ========== Balance due to Author, as per cheque L3 1 0 herewith. ————
Augusta looked, and then slowly crumpled up the cheque in her hand.
"If I understand, Mr. Meeson," she said, "you have sold the two rights of translation of my book, which you persuaded me to leave in your hands, for L14; out of which I am to receive L3 1s.?"
"Yes, Miss Smithers. Will you be so kind as to sign the receipt; the fact is that I have a good deal of business to attend to."
"No, Mr. Meeson," suddenly said Augusta, rising to her feet and looking exceedingly handsome and imposing in her anger. "No; I will not sign the receipt, and I will not take this cheque. And, what is more, I will not write you any more books. You have entrapped me. You have taken advantage of my ignorance and inexperience, and entrapped me so that for five years I shall be nothing but a slave to you, and, although I am now one of the most popular writers in the country, shall be obliged to accept a sum for my books upon which I cannot live. Do you know that yesterday I was offered a thousand pounds for the copyright of a book like 'Jemima's Vow'?—it's a large sum; but I have the letter. Yes, and I have the book in manuscript now; and if I could publish it I should be lifted out of poverty, together with my poor little sister!" and she gave a sob. "But," she went on, "I cannot publish it, and I will not let you have it and be treated like this; I had rather starve. I will publish nothing for five years, and I will write to the papers and say why—because I have been cheated, Mr. Meeson!"
"Cheated!" thundered the great man. "Be careful, young lady; mind what you are saying. I have a witness; Eustace, you hear, 'cheated'! Eustace, 'cheated'!"
"I hear," said Eustace, grimly.
"Yes, Mr. Meeson, I said 'cheated'; and I will repeat it, whether I am locked up for it or not. Good morning, Mr. Meeson," and she curtseyed to him, and then suddenly burst into a flood of tears.
In a minute Eustace was by her side.
"Don't cry, Miss Smithers; for Heaven's sake don't I can't bear to see it," he said.
She looked up, her beautiful grey eyes full of tears, and tried to smile.
"Thank you," she said; "I am very silly, but I am so disappointed. If you only knew—. There I will go. Thank you," and in another instant she had drawn herself up and left the room.
"Well," said Mr. Meeson, senior, who had been sitting at his desk with his great mouth open, apparently too much astonished to speak. "Well, there is a vixen for you. But she'll come round. I've known them to do that sort of thing before—there are one or two down there," and he jerked his thumb in the direction where the twenty and five tame authors sat each like a rabbit in his little hutch and did hat-work by the yard, "who carried on like that. But they are quiet enough now—they don't show much spirit now. I know how to deal with that sort of thing—half-pay and a double tale of copy—that's the ticket. Why, that girl will be worth fifteen hundred a year to the house. What do you think of it, young man, eh?"
"I think," answered his nephew, on whose good-tempered face a curious look of contempt and anger had gathered, "I think that you ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
HOW EUSTACE WAS DISINHERITED.
There was a pause—a dreadful pause. The flash had left the cloud, but the answering thunder had not burst upon the ear. Mr. Meeson gasped. Then he took up the cheque which Augusta had thrown upon the table and slowly crumpled it.
"What did you say, young man?" he said at last, in a cold, hard voice.
"I said that you ought to be ashamed of yourself," answered his nephew, standing his ground bravely; "and, what is more, I meant it!"
"Oh! Now will you be so kind as to explain exactly why you said that, and why you meant it?"
"I meant it," answered his nephew, speaking in a full, strong voice, "because that girl was right when she said that you had cheated her, and you know that she was right. I have seen the accounts of 'Jemima's Vow'—I saw them this morning—and you have already made more than a thousand pounds clear profit on the book. And then, when she comes to ask you for something over the beggarly fifty pounds which you doled out to her, you refuse, and offer her three pounds as her share of the translation rights—three pounds as against your eleven!"
"Go on," interrupted his uncle; "pray go on."
"All right; I am going. That is not all: you actually avail yourself of a disgraceful trick to entrap this unfortunate girl into an agreement, whereby she becomes a literary bondslave for five years! As soon as you see that she has genius, you tell her that the expense of bringing out her book, and of advertising up her name, &c., &c., &c., will be very great—so great, indeed, that you cannot undertake it, unless, indeed, she agrees to let you have the first offer of everything she writes for five years to come, at somewhere about a fourth of the usual rate of a successful author's pay—though, of course, you don't tell her that. You take advantage of her inexperience to bind her by this iniquitous contract, knowing that the end of it will be that you will advance her a little money and get her into your power, and then will send her down there to the Hutches, where all the spirit and originality and genius will be crushed out of her work, and she will become a hat-writer like the rest of them—for Meeson's is a strictly commercial undertaking, you know, and Meeson's public don't like genius, they like their literature dull and holy!—and it's an infernal shame! that's what it is, uncle!" and the young man, whose blue eyes were by this time flashing fire, for he had worked himself up as he went along, brought his fist down with a bang upon the writing table by way of emphasising his words.
"Have you done?" said his uncle.
"Yes, I've done; and I hope that I have put it plain."
"Very well; and now might I ask you, supposing that you should ever come to manage this business, if your sentiments accurately represent the system upon which you would proceed?"
"Of course they do. I am not going to turn cheat for anybody."
"Thank you. They seem to have taught you the art of plain speaking up at Oxford—though, it appears," with a sneer, "they taught you very little else. Well, then, now it is my turn to speak; and I tell you what it is, young man, you will either instantly beg my pardon for what you have said, or you will leave Meeson's for good and all."
"I won't beg your pardon for speaking the truth," said Eustace, hotly: "the fact is that here you never hear the truth; all these poor devils creep and crawl about you, and daren't call their souls their own. I shall be devilish glad to get out of this place, I can tell you. All this chickery and pokery makes me sick. The place stinks and reeks of sharp practice and money-making—money-making by fair means or foul."
The elder man had, up till now, at all events to outward appearance, kept his temper; but this last flower of vigorous English was altogether too much for one whom the possession of so much money had for many years shielded from hearing unpleasant truths put roughly. The man's face grew like a devil's, his thick eyebrows contracted themselves, and his pale lips quivered with fury. For a few seconds he could not speak, so great was his emotion. When, at length, he did, his voice was as thick and laden with rage as a dense mist is with rain.
"You impudent young rascal!" he began, "you ungrateful foundling! Do you suppose that when my brother left you to starve—which was all that you were fit for—I picked you out of the gutter for this: that you should have the insolence to come and tell me how to conduct my business? Now, young man, I'll just tell you what it is. You can be off and conduct a business of your own on whatever principles you choose. Get out of Meeson's, Sir; and never dare to show your nose here again, or I'll give the porters orders to hustle you off the premises! And, now, that isn't all. I've done with you, never you look to me for another sixpence! I'm not going to support you any longer, I can tell you. And, what's more, do you know what I'm going to do just, now? I'm going off to old Todd—that's my lawyer—and I'm going to tell him to make another will and to leave every farthing I have—and that isn't much short of two millions, one way and another—to Addison and Roscoe. They don't want it, but that don't matter. You shan't have it—no, not a farthing of it; and I won't have a pile like that frittered away in charities and mismanagement. There now, my fine young gentleman, just be off and see if your new business principles will get you a living."
"All right, uncle; I'm going," said the young man, quietly. "I quite understand what our quarrel means for me, and, to tell you the truth, I am not sorry. I have never wished to be dependent on you, or to have anything to do with a business carried on as Meeson's is. I have a hundred a year my mother left me, and with the help of that and my education, I hope to make a living. Still, I don't want to part from you in anger, because you have been very kind to me at times, and, as you remind me, you picked me out of the gutter when I was orphaned or not far from it. So I hope you will shake hands before I go."
"Ah!" snarled his uncle; "you want to pipe down now, do you? But that won't do. Off you go! and mind you don't set foot in Pompadour Hall," Mr. Meeson's seat, "unless it is to get your clothes. Come, cut!"
"You misunderstand me," said Eustace, with a touch of native dignity which became him very well. "Probably we shall not meet again, and I did not wish to part in anger, that was all. Good morning." And he bowed and left the office.
"Confound him!" muttered his uncle as the door closed, "he's a good plucked one—showed spirit. But I'll show spirit, too. Meeson is a man of his word. Cut him off with a shilling? not I; cut him off with nothing at all. And yet, curse it, I like the lad. Well, I've done with him, thanks to that minx of a Smithers girl. Perhaps he's sweet on her? then they can go and starve together, and be hanged to them! She had better keep out of my way, for she shall smart for this, so sure as my name is Jonathan Meeson. I'll keep her up to the letter of that agreement, and, if she tries to publish a book inside of this country or out of it, I'll crush her—yes, I'll crush her, if it cost me five thousand to do it!" and, with a snarl, he dropped his fist heavily upon the table before him.
Then he rose, put poor Augusta's agreement carefully back into the safe, which he shut with a savage snap, and proceeded to visit the various departments of his vast establishment, and to make such hay therein as had never before been dreamt of in the classic halls of Meeson's.
To this hour the clerks of the great house talk of that dreadful day with bated breath—for as bloody Hector raged through the Greeks, so did the great Meeson rage through his hundred departments. In the very first office he caught a wretched clerk eating sardine sandwiches. Without a moment's hesitation he took the sandwiches and threw them through the window.
"Do you suppose I pay you to come and eat your filthy sandwiches here?" he asked savagely. "There, now you can go and look for them; and see you here: you needn't trouble to come back, you idle, worthless fellow. Off you go! and remember you need not send to me for a character. Now then—double quick!"
The unfortunate departed, feebly remonstrating, and Meeson, having glared around at the other clerks and warned them that unless they were careful—very careful—they would soon follow in his tracks, continued his course of devastation.
Presently he met an editor, No. 7 it was, who was bringing him an agreement to sign. He snatched it from him and glanced through it.
"What do you mean by bringing me a thing like this?" he said: "It's all wrong."
"It is exactly as you dictated to me yesterday, Sir," said the editor indignantly.
"What, do you mean to contradict me?" roared Meeson. "Look here No. 7, you and I had better part. Now, no words: your salary will be paid to you till the end of the month, and if you would like to bring an action for wrongful dismissal, why, I'm your man. Good morning, No. 7; good morning."
Next he crossed a courtyard where, by slipping stealthily around the corner, he came upon a jolly little errand boy, who was enjoying a solitary game of marbles.
Whack came his cane across the seat of that errand boy's trousers, and in another minute he had followed the editor and the sandwich-devouring clerk.
And so the merry game went on for half an hour or more, till at last Mr. Meeson was fain to cease his troubling, being too exhausted to continue his destroying course. But next morning there was promotion going on in the great publishing house; eleven vacancies had to be filled.
A couple of glasses of brown sherry and a few sandwiches, which he hastily swallowed at a neighboring restaurant, quickly restored him, however; and, jumping into a cab, he drove post haste to his lawyers', Messrs. Todd and James.
"Is Mr. Todd in?" he said to the managing clerk, who came forward bowing obsequiously to the richest man in Birmingham.
"Mr. Todd will be disengaged in a few minutes, Sir," he said. "May I offer you the Times?"
"Damn the Times!" was the polite answer; "I don't come here to read newspapers. Tell Mr. Todd I must see him at once, or else I shall go elsewhere."
"I am much afraid Sir"—began the managing clerk.
Mr. Meeson jumped up and grabbed his hat. "Now then, which is it to be?" he said.
"Oh, certainly, Sir; pray be seated," answered the manager in great alarm—Meeson's business was not a thing to be lightly lost. "I will see Mr. Todd instantly," and he vanished.
Almost simultaneously with his departure an old lady was unceremoniously bundled out of an inner room, clutching feebly at a reticule full of papers and proclaiming loudly that her head was going round and round. The poor old soul was just altering her will for the eighteenth time in favor of a brand new charity, highly recommended by Royalty; and to be suddenly shot from the revered presence of her lawyer out into the outer darkness of the clerk's office, was really too much for her.
In another minute, Mr. Meeson was being warmly, even enthusiastically, greeted by Mr. Todd himself. Mr. Todd was a nervous-looking, jumpy little man, who spoke in jerks and gushes in such a way as to remind one of a fire-hose through which water was being pumped intermittently.
"How do you do, my dear Sir? Delighted to have this pleasure," he began with a sudden gush, and then suddenly dried up, as he noticed the ominous expression on the great man's brow. "I am sure I am very sorry that you were kept waiting, my dear Sir: but I was at the moment engaged with an excellent and most Christian testator."—
Here he suddenly jumped and dried up again, for Mr. Meeson, without the slightest warning, ejaculated: "Curse your Christian testator! And look here, Todd, just you see that it does not happen again. I'm a Christian testator too; and Christians of my cut aren't accustomed to be kept standing about just like office-boys or authors. See that it don't happen again, Todd."
"I am sure I am exceedingly grieved. Circumstances"—
"Oh, never mind all that—I want my will."
"Will—will—Forgive me—a little confused, that's all. Your manner is so full of hearty old middle-age's kind of vigour"—
Here he stopped, more suddenly even than usual, for Mr. Meeson fixed him with his savage eye, and then jerked himself out of the room to look for the document in question.
"Little idiot!" muttered Meeson; "I'll give him the sack, too, if he isn't more careful. By Jove! why should I not have my own resident solicitor? I could get a sharp hand with a damaged character for about L300 a year, and I pay that old Todd quite L2000. There is a vacant place in the Hutches that I could turn into an office. Hang me, if I don't do it. I will make that little chirping grasshopper jump to some purpose, I'll warrant," and he chuckled at the idea.
Just then Mr. Todd returned with the will, and before he could begin to make any explanations his employer, cut him short with a sharp order to read the gist of it.
This the lawyer proceeded to do. It was very short, and, with the exception of a few legacies, amounting in all to about twenty thousand pounds, bequeathed all the testator's vast fortune and estates, including his (by far the largest) interest in the great publishing house, and his palace with the paintings and other valuable contents, known as Pompadour Hall, to his nephew, Eustace H. Meeson.
"Very well," he said, when the reading was finished; "now give it to me."
Mr. Todd obeyed, and handed the document to his patron, who deliberately rent it into fragments with his strong fingers, and then completed its destruction by tearing it with his big white teeth. This done, he mixed the little pieces up, threw them on the floor, and stamped upon them with an air of malignity that almost frightened jerky little Mr. Todd.
"Now then," he grimly said, "there's an end of the old love; so let's on with the new. Take your pen and receive my instructions for my will."
Mr. Todd did as he was bid.
"I leave all my property, real and personal, to be divided in equal shares between my two partners, Alfred Tom Addison and Cecil Spooner Roscoe. There, that's short and sweet, and, one way and another, means a couple of millions."
"Good heavens! Sir," jerked out Mr. Todd. "Why, do you mean to quite cut out your nephew—and the other legatees?" he added by way of an afterthought.
"Of course I do; that is, as regards my nephew. The legatees may stand as before."
"Well all I have to say," went on the little man, astonished into honesty, "Is that it is the most shameful thing I ever heard of!"
"Indeed, Mr. Todd, is it? Well now, may I ask you: am I leaving this property, or are you? Don't trouble yourself to answer that, however, but just attend. Either you draw up that will at once, while I wait, or you say good-bye to about L2000 a year, for that's what Meeson's business is worth, I reckon. Now you take your choice."
Mr. Todd did take his choice. In under an hour, the will, which was very short, was drawn and engrossed.
"Now then," said Meeson, addressing himself to Mr. Todd and the managing clerk, as he took the quill between his fingers to sign, "do you two bear in mind that at the moment I execute this will I am of sound mind, memory, and understanding. There you are; now do you two witness."
* * * * *
It was night, and King capital, in the shape of Mr. Meeson, sat alone at dinner in his palatial dining-room at Pompadour. Dinner was over, the powdered footman had departed with stately tread, and the head butler was just placing the decanters of richly coloured wine before the solitary lord of all. The dinner had been a melancholy failure. Dish after dish, the cost of any one of which would have fed a poor child for a month, had been brought up and handed to the master only to be found fault with and sent away. On that night Mr. Meeson had no appetite.
"Johnson," he said to the butler, when he was sure the footman could not hear him, "has Mr. Eustace been here?"
"Has he gone?"
"Yes, Sir. He came to fetch his things, and then went away in a cab."
"I don't know, Sir. He told the man to drive to Birmingham."
"Did he leave any message?"
"Yes, Sir, he bade me say that you should not be troubled with him again; but that he was sorry that you had parted from him in anger."
"Why did you not give me that message before?"
"Because Mr. Eustace said I was not to give it unless you asked after him."
"Very good. Johnson!"
"You will give orders that Mr. Eustace's name is not to be mentioned in this house again. Any servant mentioning Mr. Eustace's name will be dismissed."
"Very good, Sir"; and Johnson went.
Mr. Meeson gazed round him. He looked at the long array of glass and silver, at the spotless napery and costly flowers. He looked at the walls hung with works of art, which, whatever else they might be, were at least expensive; at the mirrors and the soft wax-lights; at the marble mantelpieces and the bright warm fires (for it was November); at the rich wall paper and the soft, deep-hued carpet; and reflected that they were all his. And then he sighed, and his coarse, heavy face sank in and grew sad. Of what use was this last extremity of luxury to him? He had nobody to leave it to, and to speak the truth, it gave him but little pleasure. Such pleasure as he had in life was derived from making money, not from spending it. The only times when he was really happy were when he was in his counting house directing the enterprises of his vast establishment, and adding sovereign by sovereign to his enormous accumulations. That had been his one joy for forty years, and it was still his joy.
And then he fell to thinking of his nephew, the only son of his brother, whom he had once loved, before he lost himself in publishing books and making money, and sighed. He had been attached to the lad in his own coarse way, and it was a blow to him to cut himself loose from him. But Eustace had defied him, and—what was worse—he had told him the truth, which he, of all men, could not bear. He had said that his system of trade was dishonest, that he took more than his due, and it was so. He knew it; but he could not tolerate that it should be told him, and that his whole life should thereby be discredited, and even his accumulated gold tarnished—stamped as ill-gotten; least of all could he bear it from his dependent. He was not altogether a bad man; nobody is; he was only a coarse, vulgar tradesman, hardened and defiled by a long career of sharp dealing. At the bottom, he had his feelings like other men, but he could not tolerate exposure or even contradiction; therefore he had revenged himself. And yet, as he sat there, in solitary glory, he realized that to revenge does not bring happiness, and could even find it in his heart to envy the steadfast honesty that had defied him at the cost of his own ruin.
Not that he meant to relent or alter his determination. Mr. Meeson never relented, and never changed his mind. Had he done so he would not at that moment have been the master of two millions of money.
AUGUSTA'S LITTLE SISTER.
When Augusta left Meeson's she was in a very sad condition of mind, to explain which it will be necessary to say a word or two about that young lady's previous history. Her father had been a clergyman, and, like most clergymen, not overburdened with the good things of this world. When Mr. Smithers—or, rather, the Rev. James Smithers—had died, he left behind him a widow and two children—Augusta, aged fourteen, and Jeannie, aged two. There had been two others, both boys, who had come into the world between Augusta and Jeannie, but they had both preceded their father to the land of shadows. Mrs. Smithers, had, fortunately for herself, a life interest in a sum of L7000, which, being well invested, brought her in L350 a year: and, in order to turn this little income to the best possible account and give her two girls the best educational opportunities possible under the circumstances, she, on her husband's death, moved from the village where he had for many years been curate, into the city of Birmingham. Here she lived in absolute retirement for some seven years and then suddenly died, leaving the two girls, then respectively nineteen and eight years of age, to mourn her loss, and, friendless as they were, to fight their way in the hard world.
Mrs. Smithers had been a saving woman, and, on her death, it was found that, after paying all debts, there remained a sum of L600 for the two girls to live on, and nothing else; for their mother's fortune died with her. Now, it will be obvious that the interest arising from six hundred pounds is not sufficient to support two young people, and therefore Augusta was forced to live upon the principal. From an early age, however, she (Augusta) had shown a strong literary tendency, and shortly after her mother's death she published her first book at her own expense. It was a dead failure and cost her fifty-two pounds, the balance between the profit and loss account. After awhile, however, she recovered from this blow, and wrote "Jemima's Vow," which was taken up by Meeson's; and, strange as it may seem, proved the success of the year. Of the nature of the agreement into which she entered with Meeson's, the reader is already acquainted, and he will not therefore be surprised to learn that under its cruel provisions Augusta, notwithstanding her name and fame, was absolutely prohibited from reaping the fruits of her success. She could only publish with Meesons's, and at the fixed pay of seven per cent on the advertised price of her work. Now, something over three years had elapsed since the death of Mrs. Smithers, and it will therefore be obvious that there was not much remaining of the six hundred pounds which she had left behind her. The two girls had, indeed, lived economically enough in a couple of small rooms in a back street; but their expenses had been enormously increased by the serious illness, from a pulmonary complaint, of the little girl Jeannie, now a child between twelve and thirteen years of age. On that morning, Augusta had seen the doctor and been crushed into the dust by the expression of his conviction, that, unless her little sister was moved to a warmer climate, for a period of at least a year, she would not live through the winter, and might die at any moment.
Take Jeannie to a warmer climate! He might as well have told Augusta to take her to the moon. Alas, she had not the money and did not know where to turn to get it! Oh! reader, pray to Heaven that it may never be your lot to see your best beloved die for the want of a few hundred pounds wherewith to save her life!
It was in this terrible emergency that she had—driven thereto by her agony of mind—tried to get something beyond her strict and legal due out of Meeson's—Meeson's that had made hundreds and hundreds out of her book and paid her fifty pounds. We know how she fared in that attempt. On leaving their office, Augusta bethought her of her banker. Perhaps he might be willing to advance something. It was a horrible task, but she determined to undertake it; so she walked to the bank and asked to see the manager. He was out, but would be in at three o'clock. She went to a shop near and got a bun and glass of milk, and waited till she was ashamed to wait any longer, and then she walked about the streets till three o'clock. At the stroke of the hour she returned, and was shown into the manager's private room, where a dry, unsympathetic looking little man was sitting before a big book. It was not the same man whom Augusta had met before, and her heart sank proportionately.
What followed need not be repeated here. The manager listened to her faltering tale with a few stereotyped expressions of sympathy, and, when she had done, "regretted" that speculative loans were contrary to the custom of the bank, and politely bowed her out.
It was nearly four o'clock upon a damp, drizzling afternoon—a November afternoon—that hung like a living misery over the black slush of the Birmingham streets, and would in itself have sufficed to bring the lightest hearted, happiest mortal to the very gates of despair, when Augusta, wet, wearied, and almost crying, at last entered the door of their little sitting-room. She entered very quietly, for the maid-of-all-work had met her in the passage and told her that Miss Jeannie was asleep. She had been coughing very much about dinner-time, but now she was asleep.
There was a fire in the grate, a small one, for the coal was economised by means of two large fire-bricks, and on a table (Augusta's writing table), placed at the further side of the room, was a paraffin-lamp turned low. Drawn up in front, but a little to one side of the fire, was a sofa, covered with red rep, and on the sofa lay a fair-haired little form, so thin and fragile that it looked like the ghost or outline of a girl, rather than a girl herself. It was Jeannie, her sick sister, and she was asleep. Augusta stole softly up to look at her. It was a sweet little face that her eyes fell on, although it was so shockingly thin, with long, curved lashes, delicate nostrils, and a mouth shaped like a bow. All the lines and grooves which the chisel of Pain knows so well how to carve were smoothed out of it now, and in their place lay the shadow of a smile.
Augusta looked at her and clenched her fists, while a lump rose in her throat, and her grey eyes filled with tears. How could she get the money to save her? The year before a rich man, a man who was detestable to her, had wanted to marry her, and she would have nothing to say to him. He had gone abroad, else she would have gone back to him and married him—at a price. Marry him? yes she would marry him: she would do anything for money to take her sister away! What did she care for herself when her darling was dying—dying for the want of two hundred pounds!
Just then Jeannie woke up, and stretched her arms out to her.
"So you are back at last, dear," she said in her sweet childish voice. "It has been so lonely without you. Why, how wet you are! Take off your jacket at once, Gussie, or you will soon be as ill as"—and here she broke out into a terrible fit of coughing, that seemed to shake her tender frame as the wind shakes a reed.
Her sister turned and obeyed, and then came and sat by the sofa and took the thin little hand in hers.
"Well, Gussie, and how did you get on with the Printer-devil" (this was her impolite name for the great Meeson); "will he give you any more money?"
"No, dear; we quarrelled, that was all, and I came away."
"Then I suppose that we can't go abroad?"
Augusta was too moved to answer; she only shook her head. The child buried her face in the pillow and gave a sob or two. Presently she was quiet, and lifted it again. "Gussie, love," she said, "don't be angry, but I want to speak to you. Listen, my sweet Gussie, my angel. Oh, Gussie, you don't know how I love you! It is all no good, it is useless struggling against it, I must die sooner or later; though I am only twelve, and you think me such a child, I am old enough to understand that. I think," she added, after pausing to cough, "that pain makes one old: I feel as though I were fifty. Well, so you see I may as well give up fighting against it and die at once. I am only a burden and anxiety to you—I may as well die at once and go to sleep."
"Don't, Jeannie! don't!" said her sister, in a sort of cry; "you are killing me!"
Jeannie laid her hot hand upon Augusta's arm, "Try and listen to me, dear," she said, "even if it hurts, because I do so want to say something. Why should you be so frightened about me? Can any place that I can go be worse than this place? Can I suffer more pain anywhere, or be more hurt when I see you crying? Think how wretched it has all been. There has only been one beautiful thing in our lives for years and years, and that was your book. Even when I am feeling worst—when my chest aches, you know—I grow quite happy when I think of what the papers wrote about you: the Times and the Saturday Review, and the Spectator, and the rest of them. They said that you had genius—true genius, you remember, and that they expected one day to see you at the head of the literature of the time, or near it. The Printer-devil can't take away that, Gussie. He can take the money; but he can't say that he wrote the book; though," she added, with a touch of childish spite and vivacity, "I have no doubt that he would if he could. And then there were those letters from the great authors up in London; yes, I often think of them too. Well, dearest old girl, the best of it is that I know it is all true. I know, I can't tell you how, that you will be a great woman in spite of all the Meesons in creation; for somehow you will get out of his power, and, if you don't, five years is not all one's life—at least, not if people have a life. At the worst, he can only take all the money. And then, when you are great and rich and famous, and more beautiful than ever, and when the people turn their heads as you come into the room, like we used to at school when the missionary came to lecture, I know that you will think of me (because you won't forget me as some sisters do), and of how, years and years before, so long ago that the time looks quite small when you think of it, I told you that it would be so just before I died."
Here the girl, who had been speaking with a curious air of certainty and with a gravity and deliberation extraordinary for one so young, suddenly broke off to cough. Her sister threw herself on her knees beside her, and, clasping her in her arms, implored her in broken accents not to talk of dying. Jeannie drew Augusta's golden head down on her breast and stroked it.
"Very well, Gussie, I won't say any more about it," she said; "but it is no good hiding the truth, dear. I am tired of fighting against it; it is no good—none at all. Anyhow we have loved each other very much, dear; and perhaps—somewhere else—we may again."—And the brave little heart again broke down, and, overcome by the prescience of approaching separation, they both sobbed bitterly there upon the sofa. Presently came a knock at the door, and Augusta sprang up and turned to hide her tears. It was the maid-of-all-work bringing the tea; and, as she came blundering in, a sense of the irony of things forced itself into Augusta's soul. Here they were plunged into the most terrible sorrow, weeping at the inevitable approach of that chill end, and still appearances must be kept up, even before a maid-of-all-work. Society, even when represented by a maid-of-all-work, cannot do away with the intrusion of domestic griefs, or any other griefs, and in our hearts we know it and act up to it. Far gone, indeed, must we be in mental or physical agony before we abandon the attempt to keep up appearances.
Augusta drank a little tea and ate a very small bit of bread-and-butter. As in the case of Mr. Meeson, the events of the day had not tended to increase her appetite. Jeannie drank a little milk but ate nothing. When this form had been gone through, and the maid-of-all-work had once more made her appearance and cleared the table, Jeannie spoke again.
"Gus," she said, "I want you to put me to bed and then come and read to me out of 'Jemima's Vow'—where poor Jemima dies, you know. It is the most beautiful thing in the book, and I want to hear it again."
Her sister did as she wished, and, taking down "Jemima's Vow," Jeannie's own copy as it was called, being the very first that had come into the house, she opened it at the part Jeannie had asked for and read aloud, keeping her voice as steady as she could. As a matter of fact, however, the scene itself was as powerful as it was pathetic, and quite sufficient to account for any unseemly exhibitions of feeling on the part of the reader. However, she struggled through it till the last sentence was reached. It ran thus:—"And so Jemima stretched out her hand to him and said 'Good-bye.' And presently, knowing that she had now kept her promise, and being happy because she had done so, she went to sleep."
"Ah!" murmured the blue-eyed child who listened. "I wish that I was as good as Jemima. But though I have no vow to keep I can say 'Good-bye,' and I can go to sleep."
Augusta made no answer, and presently Jeannie dozed off. Her sister looked at her with eager affection. "She is giving up," she said to herself, "and, if she gives up, she will die. I know it, it is because we are not going away. How can I get the money, now that that horrible man is gone? how can I get it?" and she buried her head in her hand and thought. Presently an idea struck her: she might go back to Meeson and eat her words, and sell him the copyright of her new book for L100, as the agreement provided. That would not be enough, however; for travelling with an invalid is expensive; but she might offer to bind herself over to him for a term of years as a tame author, like those who worked in the Hutches. She was sure that he would be glad to get her, if only he could do so at his own price. It would be slavery worse than any penal servitude, and even now she shudders at the prospect of prostituting her great abilities to the necessities of such work as Meeson's made their thousands out of—work out of which every spark of originality was stamped into nothingness, as though it were the mark of the Beast. Yes, it would be dreadful—it would break her heart; but she was prepared to have her heart broken and her genius wrung out of her by inches, if only she could get two hundred pounds wherewith to take Jeannie away to the South of France. Mr. Meeson would, no doubt, make a hard bargain—the hardest he could; but still, if she would consent to bind herself for a sufficient number of years at a sufficiently low salary, he would probably advance her a hundred pounds, besides the hundred for the copyright of the new book.
And so having made up her mind to the sacrifice, she went to bed, and, wearied out with misery, to sleep. And even as she slept, a Presence that she could not see was standing near her bed, and a Voice that she could not hear was calling through the gloom. Another mortal had bent low at the feet of that Unknown God whom men name Death, and been borne away on his rushing pinions into the spaces of the Hid. One more human item lay still and stiff, one more account was closed for good or evil, the echo of one more tread had passed from the earth for ever. The old million-numbered tragedy in which all must take a part had repeated itself once more down to its last and most awful scene. Yes; the grim farce was played out, and the little actor Jeannie was white in death!
Just at the dawn, Augusta dreamed that somebody with cold breath was breathing on her face, and woke up with a start and listened. Jeannie's bed was on the other side of the room, and she could generally hear her movements plainly enough, for the sick child was a restless sleeper. But now she could hear nothing, not even the faint vibration of her sister's breath. The silence was absolute and appalling; it struck tangibly upon her sense, as the darkness struck upon her eye-balls and filled her with a numb, unreasoning terror. She slipped out of bed and struck a match. In another few seconds she was standing by Jeannie's white little bed, waiting for the wick of the candle to burn up. Presently the light grew. Jeannie was lying on her side, her white face resting on her white arm. Her eyes were wide open; but when Augusta held the candle near her she did not shut them or flinch. Her hand, too—oh, Heavens! the fingers were nearly cold.
Then Augusta understood, and lifting up her arms in agony, she shrieked till the whole house rang.
On the second day following the death of poor little Jeannie Smithers, Mr. Eustace Meeson was strolling about Birmingham with his hands in his pockets, and an air of indecision on his decidedly agreeable and gentlemanlike countenance. Eustace Meeson was not particularly cast down by the extraordinary reverse of fortune which he had recently experienced. He was a young gentleman of a cheerful nature; and, besides, it did not so very much matter to him. He was in a blessed condition of celibacy, and had no wife and children dependant upon him, and he knew that, somehow or other, it would go hard if, with the help of the one hundred a year that he had of his own, he did not manage, with his education, to get a living by hook or by crook. So it was not the loss of the society of his respected uncle, or the prospective enjoyment of two millions of money, which was troubling him. Indeed, after he had once cleared his goods and chattels out of Pompadour Hall and settled them in a room in an Hotel, he had not given the matter much thought. But he had given a good many thoughts to Augusta Smithers' grey eyes and, by way of getting an insight into her character, he had at once invested in a copy of "Jemima's Vow," thereby, somewhat against his will, swelling the gains of Meeson's to the extent of several shillings. Now, "Jemima's Vow," though simple and homely, was a most striking and powerful book, which fully deserved the reputation that it had gained, and it affected Eustace—who was in so much different from most young men of his age that he really did know the difference between good work and bad—more strongly than he would have liked to own. Indeed, at the termination of the story, what between the beauty of Augusta's pages, the memory of Augusta's eyes, and the knowledge of Augusta's wrongs, Mr. Eustace Meeson began to feel very much as though he had fallen in love. Accordingly, he went out walking, and meeting a clerk whom he had known in the Meeson establishment—one of those who had been discharged on the same day as himself—he obtained from him Miss Smithers' address, and began to reflect as to whether or no he should call upon her. Unable to make up his mind, he continued to walk till he reached the quiet street where Augusta lived, and, suddenly perceiving the house of which the clerk had told him, yielded to temptation and rang.
The door was answered by the maid-of-all-work, who looked at him a little curiously, but said that Miss Smithers was in, and then conducted him to a door which was half open, and left him in that kindly and agreeable fashion that maids-of-all-work have. Eustace was perplexed, and, looking through the door to see if anyone was in the room, discovered Augusta herself dressed in some dark material, seated in a chair, her hands folded on her lap, her pale face set like a stone, and her eyes gleaming into vacancy. He paused, wondering what could be the matter, and as he did so his umbrella slipped from his hand, making a noise that rendered it necessary for him to declare himself.
Augusta rose as he advanced, and looked at him with a puzzled air, as though she was striving to recall his name or where she had met him.
"I beg your pardon," he stammered, "I must introduce myself, as the girl has deserted me—I am Eustace Meeson."
Augusta's face hardened at the name. "If you have come to me from Messrs. Meeson and Co."—she said quickly, and then broke off, as though struck by some new idea.
"Indeed no," said Eustace. "I have nothing in common with Messrs. Meeson now, except my name, and I have only come to tell you how sorry I was to see you treated as you were by my uncle. You remember I was in the office?"
"Yes," she said, with a suspicion of a blush, "I remember you were very kind."
"Well, you see," he went on, "I had a great row with my uncle after that, and it ended in his turning me out of the place, bag and baggage, and informing me that he was going to cut me off with a shilling, which," he added reflectively, "he has probably done by now."
"Do I understand you, Mr. Meeson, to mean that you quarrelled with your uncle about me and my books?"
"Yes; that is so," he said.
"It was very chivalrous of you," she answered, looking at him with a new-born curiosity. Augusta was not accustomed to find knights-errant thus prepared, at such cost to themselves, to break a lance in her cause. Least of all was she prepared to find that knight bearing the hateful crest of Meeson—if, indeed, Meeson had a crest.
"I ought to apologise," she went on presently, after an awkward pause, "for making such a scene in the office, but I wanted money so dreadfully, and it was so hard to be refused. But it does not matter now. It is all done with."
There was a dull, hopeless ring about her voice that awoke his curiosity. For what could she have wanted the money, and why did she no longer want it?
"I am sorry," he said. "Will you tell me what you wanted it so much for?"
She looked at him, and then, acting upon impulse rather then reflection, said in a low voice,
"If you like, I will show you."
He bowed, wondering what was coming next. Rising from her chair, Augusta led the way to a door which opened out of the sitting-room, and gently turned the handle and entered. Eustace followed her. The room was a small bed-room, of which the faded calico blind had been pulled down; as it happened, however, the sunlight, such as it was, beat full upon the blind, and came through it in yellow bars. They fell upon the furniture of the bare little room, they fell upon the iron bedstead, and upon something lying on it, which he did not at first notice, because it was covered with a sheet.
Augusta walked up to the bed and gently lifted the sheet, revealing the sweet face, fringed round about with golden hair, of little Jeannie, in her coffin.
Eustace gave an exclamation, and started back violently. He had not been prepared for such a sight; indeed it was the first such sight that he had ever seen, and it shocked him beyond words. Augusta, familiarised as she was herself with the companionship of this beauteous clay cold Terror, had forgotten that, suddenly and without warning to bring the living into the presence of the dead, is not the wisest or the kindest thing to do. For, to the living, more especially to the young, the sight of death is horrible. It is such a fearsome comment on their health and strength. Youth and strength are merry; but who can be merry with yon dead thing in the upper chamber? Take it away! thrust it underground! it is an insult to us; it reminds us that we, too, die like others. What business has its pallor to show itself against our ruddy cheeks?
"I beg your pardon," whispered Augusta, realising something of all this in a flash, "I forgot, you do not know—you must be shocked—Forgive me!"
"Who is it?" he said, gasping to get back his breath.
"My sister," she answered. "It was to try and save her life that I wanted the money. When I told her that I could not get it, she gave up and died. Your uncle killed her. Come."
Greatly shocked, he followed her back into the sitting-room, and then—as soon as he got his composure—apologised for having intruded himself upon her in such an hour of desolation.
"I am glad to see you," she said simply, "I have seen nobody except the doctor once, and the undertaker twice. It is dreadful to sit alone hour after hour face to face with the irretrievable. If I had not been so foolish as to enter into that agreement with Messrs. Meeson, I could have got the money by selling my new book easily enough; and I should have been able to take Jeannie abroad, and I believe that she would have lived—at least I hoped so. But now it is finished, and cannot be helped."
"I wish I had known," blundered Eustace, "I could have lent you the money. I have a hundred and fifty pounds."
"You are very good," she answered gently, "but it is no use talking about it now, it is finished."
Then Eustace rose and went away; and it was not till he found himself in the street that he remembered that he had never asked Augusta what her plans were. Indeed, the sight of poor Jeannie had put everything else out of his head. However, he consoled himself with the reflection that he could call again a week or ten days after the funeral.
Two days later, Augusta followed the remains of her dearly beloved sister to their last resting place, and then came home on foot (for she was the only mourner), and sat in her black gown before the little fire, and reflected upon her position. What was she to do? She could not stay in these rooms. It made her heart ache every time her eyes fell upon the empty sofa opposite, dinted as it was with the accustomed weight of poor Jeannie's frame. Where was she to go, and what was she to do. She might get literary employment, but then her agreement with Messrs. Meeson stared her in the face. That agreement was very widely drawn. It bound her to offer all literary work of any sort, that might come from her pen during the next five years, to Messrs. Meeson at the fixed rate of seven per cent, on the published price. Obviously, as it seemed to her, though perhaps erroneously, this clause might be stretched to include even a newspaper article, and she knew the malignant nature of Mr. Meeson well enough to be quite certain that, if possible, that would be done. It was true she might manage to make a bare living out of her work, even at the beggarly pay of seven per cent, but Augusta was a person of spirit, and determined that she would rather starve than that Meeson should again make huge profits out of her labour. This avenue being closed to her, she turned her mind elsewhere; but, look where she might, the prospect was equally dark.
Augusta's remarkable literary success had not been of much practical advantage to her, for in this country literary success does not mean so much as it does in some others. As a matter of fact, indeed, the average Briton has, at heart, a considerable contempt, if not for literature, at least for those who produce it. Literature, in his mind, is connected with the idea of garrets and extreme poverty; and, therefore, having the national respect for money, he in secret, if not in public, despises it. A tree is known by its fruit, says he. Let a man succeed at the Bar, and he makes thousands upon thousands a year, and is promoted to the highest offices in the State. Let a man succeed in art, and he will be paid one or two thousand pounds apiece for his most "pot-boilery" portraits. But your literary men—why, with a few fortunate exceptions, the best of them barely make a living. What can literature be worth, if a man can't make a fortune out of it? So argues the Briton—no doubt with some of his sound common sense. Not that he has no respect for genius. All men bow to true genius, even when they fear and envy it. But he thinks a good deal more of genius dead than genius living. However this may be, there is no doubt but that if through any cause—such, for instance, as the sudden discovery by the great and highly civilized American people that the seventh commandment was probably intended to apply to authors, amongst the rest of the world—the pecuniary rewards of literary labor should be put more upon an equality with those of other trades, literature—as a profession—will go up many steps in popular esteem. At present, if a member of a family has betaken himself to the high and honourable calling (for surely, it is both) of letters, his friends and relations are apt to talk about him in a shy and diffident, not to say apologetic, way; much as they would had he adopted another sort of book-making as a means of livelihood.
Thus it was that, notwithstanding her success, Augusta had nowhere to turn in her difficulty. She had absolutely no literary connection. Nobody had called upon her, and sought her out in consequence of her book. One or two authors in London, and a few unknown people from different parts of the country and abroad, had written to her—that was all. Had she lived in town it might have been different; but, unfortunately for her, she did not.
The more she thought, the less clear did her path become; until, at last, she got an inspiration. Why not leave England altogether? She had nothing to keep her here. She had a cousin—a clergyman—in New Zealand, whom she had never seen, but who had read "Jemima's Vow," and written her a kind letter about it. That was the one delightful thing about writing books; one made friends all over the world. Surely he would take her in for a while, and put her in the way of earning a living where Meeson would not be to molest her? Why should she not go? She had twenty pounds left, and the furniture (which included an expensive invalid chair), and books would fetch another thirty or so—enough to pay for a second-class passage and leave a few pounds in her pocket. At the worst it would be a change, and she could not go through more there than she did here, so that very night she sat down and wrote to her clergyman cousin.
THE R.M.S. KANGAROO.
It was on a Tuesday evening that a mighty vessel was steaming majestically out of the mouth of the Thames, and shaping her imposing course straight at the ball of the setting sun. Most people will remember reading descriptions of the steamship Kangaroo, and being astonished at the power of her engines, the beauty of her fittings, and the extraordinary speed—about eighteen knots—which she developed in her trials, with an unusually low expenditure of coal. For the benefit of those who have not, however, it may be stated that the Kangaroo, "the Little Kangaroo," as she was ironically named among sailor men, was the very latest development of the science of modern ship-building. Everything about her, from the electric light and boiler tubes up, was on a new and patent system.
Four hundred feet and more she measured from stem to stern, and in that space were crowded and packed all the luxuries of a palace, and all the conveniences of an American hotel. She was a beautiful and a wonderful thing to look on; as, with her holds full of costly merchandise and her decks crowded with her living freight of about a thousand human beings, she steamed slowly out to sea, as though loth to leave the land where she was born. But presently she seemed to gather up her energies and to grow conscious of the thousands and thousands of miles of wide tossing water, which stretched between her and the far-off harbour where her mighty heart should cease from beating and be for a while at rest. Quicker and quicker she sped along, and spurned the churning water from her swift sides. She was running under a full head of steam now, and the coast-line of England grew faint and low in the faint, low light, till at last it almost vanished from the gaze of a tall, slim girl, who stood forward, clinging to the starboard bulwark netting and looking with deep grey eyes across the waste of waters. Presently Augusta, for it was she, could see the shore no more, and turned to watch the other passengers and think. She was sad at heart, poor girl, and felt what she was—a very waif upon the sea of life. Not that she had much to regret upon the vanished coast-line. A little grave with a white cross over it—that was all. She had left no friends to weep for her, none. But even as she thought it, a recollection rose up in her mind of Eustace Meeson's pleasant, handsome face, and of his kind words, and with it came a pang as she reflected that, in all probability, she should never see the one or hear the other again. Why, she wondered, had he not come to see her again? She should have liked to bid him "Good-bye," and had half a mind to send him a note and tell him of her going. This, on second thoughts, however, she had decided not to do; for one thing, she did not know his address, and—well, there was an end of it.
Could she by the means of clairvoyance have seen Eustace's face and heard his words, she would have regretted her decision. For even as that great vessel plunged on her fierce way right into the heart of the gathering darkness, he was standing at the door of the lodging-house in the little street in Birmingham.
"Gone!" he was saying. "Miss Smithers gone to New Zealand! What is her address?"
"She didn't leave no address, sir," replies the dirty maid-of-all-work with a grin. "She went from here two days ago, and was going on to the ship in London."
"What was the name of the ship?" he asked, in despair. "Kan—Kon—Conger-eel," replies the girl in triumph, and shuts the door in his face.
Poor Eustace! He had gone to London to try and get some employment, and having, after some difficulty, succeeded in obtaining a billet as reader in Latin, French and English to a publishing house of good repute, at a salary of L180 a year, he had hurried back to Birmingham for the sole purpose of seeing Miss Augusta Smithers, with whom, if the whole truth must be told, he had, to his credit be it said, fallen deeply, truly, and violently in love. Indeed, so far was he in this way gone, that he had determined to make all the progress that he could, and if he thought that there was any prospect of success, to declare his passion. This was, perhaps, a little premature; but then in these matters people are apt to be more premature than is generally supposed. Human nature is very swift in coming to conclusions in matters in which that strange mixture we call the affections are involved; perhaps because, although the conclusion is not altogether a pleasing one, the affections, at any rate in the beginning, are largely dependent on the senses.
Pity a poor young man! To come from London to Birmingham to woo one's grey-eyed mistress, in a third-class carriage too, and find her gone to New Zealand, whither circumstances prevented him from following her, without leaving a word or a line, or even an address behind her! It was too bad. Well, there was no remedy in the matter; so he walked to the railway station, and groaned and swore all the way back to London.
Augusta, on board the Kangaroo, was, however, in utter ignorance of this act of devotion on the part of her admirer; indeed, she did not even know that he was her admirer. Feeling a curious sinking sensation within her, she was about to go below to her cabin, which she shared with a lady's-maid, not knowing whether to attribute it to sentimental qualms incidental to her lonely departure from the land of her birth, or to other qualms connected with the first experience of life upon the ocean wave. About that moment, however, a burly quarter-master addressed her in gruff tones, and informed her that if she wanted to see the last of "hold Halbion," she had better go aft a bit, and look over the port side, and she would see the something or other light. Accordingly, more to prove to herself that she was not sea-sick than for any other reason, she did so, and, standing as far aft as the second-class passengers were allowed to go, stared at the quick flashes of the light-house, as second by second, they sent their message across the great waste of sea.
As she stood there, holding on to a stanchion to steady herself, for the vessel, large as she was, had begun to get a bit of a roll on, she was suddenly aware of a bulky figure of a man which came running or rather reeling against the bulwarks alongside of her, where it—or rather he—was instantly and violently ill. Augusta was, not unnaturally, almost horrified into following the figure's example, when, suddenly growing faint or from some other cause, it loosed its hold and rolled into the scuppers, where it lay feebly swearing. Augusta, obeying a tender impulse of humanity, hurried forward and stretched out the hand of succour, and presently, between her help and that of the bulwark netting, the man struggled to his feet. As he did so his face came close to hers, and in the dim light she recognised the fat, coarse features, now blanched with misery, of Mr. Meeson, the publisher. There was no doubt about it, it was her enemy; the man whose behavior had indirectly, as she believed, caused the death of her little sister. She dropped his hand with an exclamation of disgust and dismay, and as she did so he recognised who she was.
"Hullo!" he said, with a faint and rather feeble attempt to assume his fine old crusted publishing-company manners. "Hullo! Miss Jemima—Smithers, I mean; what on earth are you doing here?"
"I am going to New Zealand, Mr. Meeson," she answered sharply; "and I certainly did not expect to have the pleasure of your company on the voyage."
"Going to New Zealand," he said, "are you? Why, so am I; at least, I am going there first, then to Australia. What do you mean to do there—try and run round our little agreement, eh? It won't be any good, I tell you plainly. We have our agents in New Zealand, and a house in Australia, and if you try to get the better of Meeson's there, Meeson's will be even with you, Miss Smithers—Oh, Heavens! I feel as though I were coming to pieces."
"Don't alarm yourself, Mr. Meeson," she answered, "I am not going to publish any more books at present."
"That is a pity," he said, "because your stuff is good selling stuff. Any publisher would find money in it. I suppose you are second-class, Miss Smithers, so we shan't see much of each other; and, perhaps, if we should meet, it might be as well if we didn't seem to have any acquaintance. It don't look well for a man in my position to know second-class passengers, especially young lady passengers who write novels."
"You need not be afraid, Mr. Meeson: I have no wish to claim your acquaintance," said Augusta.
At this point, her enemy was taken violently worse again, and, being unable to stand the sight and sound of his writhing and groaning, she fled forward; and, reflecting on this strange and awkward meeting, went down to her own berth, where, with lucid intervals, she remained helpless and half stupid for the next three days. On the fourth day, however, she reappeared on deck quite recovered, and with an excellent appetite. She had her breakfast, and then went and sat forward in as quiet a place as she could find. She did not want to see Mr. Meeson any more, and she did want to escape from the stories of her cabin-mate, the lady's-maid. This good person would, after the manner of her kind, insist upon repeating to her a succession of histories connected with members of the families with whom she had lived, many of which were sufficient to make the hair of a respectable young lady like Augusta stand positively on end. No doubt they were interesting to her in her capacity of a novelist; but, as they were all of the same colour, and as their tendency was absolutely to destroy any belief she might have in virtue as an inherent quality in highly developed woman or honour in man, Augusta soon wearied of these chroniques scandaleuses. So she went forward, and was sitting looking at the "white horses" chasing each other across the watery plain, and reflecting upon what the condition of mind of those ladies whose histories she had recently heard would be if they knew that their most secret, and in some cases disgraceful and tragic, love affairs were the common talk of a dozen servants' halls, when suddenly she was astonished by the appearance of a splendid official bearing a book. At first, from the quantity of gold lace with which his uniform was adorned, Augusta took him to be the captain; but it presently transpired that he was only the chief steward.
"Please, Miss," he said, touching his hat and holding out the book in his hand towards her, "the captain sends his compliments and wants to know if you are the young lady who wrote this."
Augusta glanced at the work. It was a copy of "Jemima's Vow." Then she replied that she was the writer of it, and the steward vanished.
Later on in the morning came another surprise. The gorgeous official again appeared, touched his cap, and said that the captain desired him to say that orders had been given to have her things moved to a cabin further aft. At first Augusta demurred to this, not from any love of the lady's-maid, but because she had a truly British objection to being ordered about.
"Captain's orders, Miss," said the man, touching his cap again; and she yielded.
Nor had she any cause to regret doing so; for, to her huge delight, she found herself moved into a charming deck-cabin on the starboard side of the vessel, some little way abaft the engine-room. It was evidently an officer's cabin, for there, over the head of the bed, was the picture of a young lady he adored, and also some neatly fitted shelves of books, a rack of telescopes, and other seaman-like contrivances.
"Am I to have this cabin to myself?" asked Augusta of the steward.
"Yes, Miss; those are the captain's orders. It is Mr. Jones's cabin. Mr. Jones is the second officer; but he has turned in with Mr. Thomas, the first officer, and given up the cabin to you."
"I am sure it's very kind of Mr. Jones," murmured Augusta, not knowing what to make of this turn of fortune. But surprises were not to end there. A few minutes afterwards, just as she was leaving the cabin, a gentleman in uniform came up, in whom she recognized the captain. He was accompanied by a pretty fair-haired woman very becomingly dressed.
"Excuse me; Miss Smithers, I believe?" he said, with a bow.
"I am Captain Alton. I hope you like your new cabin. Let me introduce you to Lady Holmhurst, wife of Lord Holmhurst, the New Zealand Governor, you know. Lady Holmhurst, this is Miss Smithers, whose book you were talking so much about."
"Oh! I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Smithers," said the great lady in a manner that evidently was not assumed. "Captain Alton has promised that I shall sit next to you at dinner, and then we can have a good talk. I don't know when I have been so much delighted with anything as I was with your book. I have read it three times, what do you think of that for a busy woman?"
"I think there is some mistake," said Augusta, hurriedly and with a slight blush. "I am a second-class passenger on board this ship, and therefore cannot have the pleasure of sitting next to Lady Holmhurst."
"Oh, that is all right, Miss Smithers," said the captain, with a jolly laugh. "You are my guest, and I shall take no denial."
"When we find genius for once in our lives, we are not going to lose the opportunity of sitting at its feet," added Lady Holmhurst, with a little movement towards her which was neither curtsey nor bow, but rather a happy combination of both. The compliment was, Augusta felt, sincere, however much it exaggerated the measure of her poor capacities, and, putting other things aside, was, coming as it did from one woman to another, peculiarly graceful and surprising. She blushed and bowed, scarcely knowing what to say, when suddenly, Mr. Meeson's harsh tones, pitched just now in a respectful key, broke upon her ear. Mr. Meeson was addressing no less a person than Lord Holmhurst, G.C.M.G. Lord Holmhurst was a stout, short, dark little man, with a somewhat pompous manner, and a kindly face. He was a Colonial Governor of the first water, and was perfectly aware of the fact.
Now, a Colonial Governor, even though he be a G.C.M.G. when he is at home, is not a name to conjure with, and does not fill an exclusive place in the eye of the English world. There are many Colonial Governors in the present and past tense to be found in the purlieus of South Kensington, where their presence creates no unusual excitement. But when one of this honourable corps sets foot upon the vessel destined to bear him to the shores that he shall rule, all this changes. He puts off the body of the ordinary betitled individual and puts on the body of the celestial brotherhood. In short, from being nobody out of the common he becomes, and very properly so, a great man. Nobody knew this better than Lord Holmhurst, and to a person fond of observing such things nothing could have been more curious to notice than the small, but gradual increase of the pomposity of his manner, as the great ship day by day steamed further from England and nearer to the country where he was King. It went up, degree by degree, like a thermometer which is taken down into the bowels of the earth or gradually removed into the sunlight. At present, however, the thermometer was only rising.
"I was repeating, my Lord," said the harsh voice of Mr. Meeson, "that the principle of an hereditary peerage is the grandest principle our country has yet developed. It gives us something to look forward to. In one generation we make the money; in the next we take the title which the money buys. Look at your Lordship. Your Lordship is now in a proud position; but, as I have understood, your Lordship's father was a trader like me."
"Hum!—well, not exactly, Mr. Meeson," broke in Lord Holmhurst. "Dear me, I wonder who that exceedingly nice-looking girl Lady Holmhurst is talking to can be!"
"Now, your Lordship, to put a case," went on the remorseless Meeson, who, like most people of his stamp, had an almost superstitious veneration for the aristocracy, "I have made a great deal of money, as I do not mind telling your Lordship; what is there to prevent my successor—supposing I have a successor—from taking advantage of that money, and rising on it to a similar position to that so worthily occupied by your Lordship?"
"Exactly, Mr. Meeson. A most excellent idea for your successor. Excuse me, but I see Lady Holmhurst beckoning to me." And he fled precipitately, still followed by Mr. Meeson.
"John, my dear!" said Lady Holmhurst, "I want to introduce you to Miss Smithers—the Miss Smithers whom we have all been talking about, and whose book you have been reading. Miss Smithers, my husband!"
Lord Holmhurst, who, when he was not deep in the affairs of State, had a considerable eye for a pretty girl—and what man worthy of the name has not?—bowed most politely, and was proceeding to tell Augusta, in very charming language, how delighted he was to make her acquaintance, when Mr. Meeson arrived on the scene and perceived Augusta for the first time. Quite taken aback at finding her, apparently, upon the very best of terms with people of such quality, he hesitated to consider what course to adopt; whereon Lady Holmhurst in a somewhat formal way, for she was not very fond of Mr. Meeson, mistaking his hesitation, went on to introduce him. Thereupon, all in a moment, as we do sometimes take such resolutions, Augusta came to a determination. She would have nothing more to do with Mr. Meeson—she would repudiate him then and there, come what would of it.
So, as he advanced upon her with outstretched hand, she drew herself up, and in a cold and determined voice said, "I already know Mr. Meeson, Lady Holmhurst; and I do not wish to have anything more to do with him. Mr. Meeson has not behaved well to me."
"'Pon my word," murmured Lord Holmhurst to himself, "I don't wonder she has had enough of him. Sensible young woman, that!"
Lady Holmhurst looked a little astonished and a little amused. Suddenly, however, a light broke upon her.
"Oh! I see," she said. "I suppose that Mr. Meeson published 'Jemima's Vow.' Of course that accounts for it. Why, I declare there is the dinner bell! Come along, Miss Smithers, or we shall lose the place the captain has promised us." And, accordingly, they went, leaving Mr. Meeson, who had not yet realized the unprecedented nature of the position, positively gasping on the deck. And on board the Kangaroo there were no clerks and editors on whom he could wreck his wrath!
"And now, my dear Miss Smithers," said Lady Holmhurst when, dinner being over, they were sitting together in the moonlight, near the wheel, "perhaps you will tell me why you don't like Mr. Meeson, whom, by-the-way, I personally detest. But don't, if you don't wish to, you know."
But Augusta did wish to, and then and there she unfolded her whole sad story into her new-found friend's sympathetic ear; and glad enough the poor girl was to find a confidant to whom she could unbosom her sorrows.
"Well, upon my word!" said Lady Holmhurst, when she had listened with tears in her eyes to the history of poor little Jeannie's death, "upon my word, of all the brutes I ever heard of, I think that this publisher of yours is the worst! I will cut him, and get my husband to cut him too. But no, I have a better plan than that. He shall tear up that agreement, so sure as my name is Bessie Holmhurst; he shall tear it up, or—or"—and she nodded her little head with an air of infinite wisdom.
MR. TOMBEY GOES FORWARD.
From that day forward, the voyage on the Kangaroo was, until the last dread catastrophe, a very happy one for Augusta. Lord and Lady Holmhurst made much of her, and all the rest of the first-class passengers followed suit, and soon she found herself the most popular character on board. The two copies of her book that there were on the ship were passed on from hand to hand till they would hardly hang together, and, really, at last she got quite tired of hearing of her own creations. But this was not all; Augusta was, it will be remembered, an exceedingly pretty woman, and melancholy as the fact may seem, it still remains a fact that a pretty woman is in the eyes of most people a more interesting object than a man, or than a lady, who is not "built that way." Thus it came to pass that what between her youth, her beauty, her talent, and her misfortunes—for Lady Holmhurst had not exactly kept that history to herself—Augusta was all of a sudden elevated into the position of a perfect heroine. It really almost frightened the poor girl, who had been accustomed to nothing but sorrow, ill-treatment and grinding poverty, to suddenly find herself in this strange position, with every man on board that great vessel at her beck and call. But she was human, and therefore, of course she enjoyed it. It is something when one has been wandering for hour after hour in the wet and melancholy night, suddenly to see the fair dawn breaking and burning overhead, and to know that the worst is over, for now there will be light whereby to set our feet. It is something, too, to the most Christian soul, to utterly and completely triumph over one who had done all in his power to crush and destroy you; whose grasping greed has indirectly been the cause of the death of the person you loved best in the whole world round. And she did triumph. As Mr. Meeson's conduct to her got about, the little society of the ship—which was, after all a very fair example of all society in miniature—fell away from this publishing Prince, and not even the jingling of his money-bags could lure it back. He the great, the practically omnipotent, the owner of two millions, and the hard master of hundreds upon whose toil he battened, was practically cut. Even the clerk, who was going out on a chance of getting a place in a New Zealand bank, would have nothing to say to him. And what is more, he felt it more even than an ordinary individual would have done. He, the "Printer-devil," as poor little Jeannie used to call him, he to be slighted and flouted by a pack of people whom he could buy up three times over, and all on account of a wretched authoress—an authoress, if you please! It made Mr. Meeson very wild—a state of affairs which was brought to a climax when one morning Lord Holmhurst, who had for several days been showing a growing dislike to his society, actually almost cut him dead; that is, he did not notice his outstretched hand, and passed him with a slight bow.
"Never mind, my Lord—never mind!" muttered Mr. Meeson after that somewhat pompous but amiable nobleman's retreating form. "We'll see if I can't come square with you. I'm a dog who can pull a string or two in the English press, I am! Those who have the money and have got a hold of people, so that they must write what they tell them, ain't people to be cut by any Colonial Governor, my Lord!" And in his anger he fairly shook his fist at the unconscious Peer.
"Seem to be a little out of temper, Mr. Meeson," said a voice at his elbow, the owner of which was a big young man with hard but kindly features and a large moustache. "What has the Governor been doing to you?"