Reginald Cruden A Tale of City Life
By Talbot Baines Reed I suppose this book is not so much aimed at schoolboys as most of this author's books are, as at the young adult starting out in life. For the story here is one almost of warning about the mistakes a young man of good will might make in trying to find employment in a hard time.
The first job he takes is interesting because it is in a typesetting office, which the author knew a great deal about, having inherited a similar business from his father.
The second job is, quite unknown to the young hero, rather a shady one. It is obvious to us, the readers, because we are allowed certain information that Reginald could not have.
You would enjoy hearing it, or reading it if you must. NH. REGINALD CRUDEN A TALE OF CITY LIFE
BY TALBOT BAINES REED
AN INTERRUPTED BATHE.
It was a desperately hot day. There had been no day like it all the summer. Indeed, Squires, the head gardener at Garden Vale, positively asserted that there had been none like it since he had been employed on the place, which was fourteen years last March. Squires, by the way, never lost an opportunity of reminding himself and the world generally of the length of his services to the family at Garden Vale; and on the strength of those fourteen years he gave himself airs as if the place belonged not to Mr Cruden at all, but to himself. He was the terror of his mistress, who scarcely dared to peep into a greenhouse without his leave, and although he could never exactly obtain from the two young gentlemen the respect to which he considered himself entitled, he still flattered himself in secret "they couldn't do exactly what they liked with his garden!"
To-day, however, it was so hot that even Squires, after having expressed the opinion on the weather above mentioned, withdrew himself into the coolest recess of his snug lodge and slept sweetly, leaving the young gentlemen, had they been so minded, to take any liberty they liked with "his" garden.
The young gentlemen, however, were not so minded.
They had been doing their best to play lawn tennis in the blazing sun with two of their friends, but it was too hot to run, too hot to hit, and far too hot to score, so the attempt had died away, and three of them now reclined on the sloping bank under the laurel hedge, dividing their time between lazily gazing up at the dark-blue sky and watching the proceedings of the fourth of their party, who still remained in the courts.
This last-mentioned youth, who, to judge by his countenance, was brother to one of those who lolled on the bank, presented a curious contrast to the general languor of the afternoon. Deserted by his companions in the sport, he was relieving himself of some of his superfluous energy by the novel diversion of playing tennis with himself. This he accomplished by serving the ball high up in the air and then jumping the net, so as to take it on the other side, following up his return by another leap over the net, and so on till either he or the ball came to grief. On an ordinary day the exertion involved in this pastime would be quite enough for any ordinary individual, but on a day like the present, with the thermometer at ninety in the shade, it was a trifle too much even to watch.
"For goodness' sake shut up, Horrors," said the elder brother. "We might as well be playing ourselves as watch you at that sort of thing."
The young gentleman addressed as Horrors was at that moment in the midst of one of his aerial flights, and had neither leisure nor breath to answer.
"Do you hear?" repeated the other. "If you want to keep warm, go indoors and put on a great-coat, but don't fag us to death with that foolery."
"Eight!" exclaimed the young athlete, scoring the number of times the ball had crossed the net, and starting for another jump. "Shut up, Reg, till I've done."
He soon was done. Even Horace Cruden could not keep it up for ever, and at his tenth bound his foot caught in the net, and he came all fours on to the court.
"There, now you're happy!" said his brother. "Now you may as well come and sit here out of the cold."
Horace picked himself up, laughing.
"All very well," said he. "I'm certain I should have done it twelve times if you hadn't put me off my jump. Never mind, I'll do it yet."
"Oh, Horace," interposed one of the others, beseechingly, "if you love us, lie down now. I'm quite ill watching you, I assure you. We'll all vow we saw you do it twelve times; we'll put it in the Times if you like, and say the net was five feet ten; anything, as long as you don't start at it again."
This appeal had the effect of reducing the volatile Horace to a state of quiescence, and inducing him to come and share the shade with his companions.
"Never saw such a lazy lot," said he, lying flat on his back and balancing his racquet on his finger; "you won't do anything yourselves and you won't let any one else do anything. Regular dogs in the manger."
"My dear fellow," said the fourth of the party in a half drawl, "we've been doing nothing but invite you in to the manger for the last hour, and you wouldn't come. Can't you take a holiday while we've got one?"
"Bad luck to it," said Reginald; "there's only a week more."
"I don't see why you need growl, old man," said the visitor who had spoken first; "you'll get into the sixth and have a study to yourself, and no mathematics unless you like."
"Poor Harker," said Horace, "he's always down on mathematics. Anyhow, I shan't be sorry to show up at Wilderham again, shall you, Bland?"
"Depends on the set we get," drawled Bland (whose full name was Blandford). "I hear there's a crowd of new fellows coming, and I hate new fellows."
"A fellow must be new some time or other," said Horace. "Harker and I were new boys once, weren't we, Harker?"
Harker, who had shared the distinction of being tossed with Horace in the same blanket every night for the first week of his sojourn at Wilderham, had not forgotten the fact, and ejaculated,—
"The mischief is," continued Blandford, "they get such a shady lot of fellows there now. The school's not half as respectable as it was— there are far too many shopkeepers' sons and that sort of—"
"Sort of animal, he'd like to say," laughed Horace. "Bland can't get over being beaten for the French prize by Barber, the tailor's son."
Blandford flushed up, and was going to answer when Reginald interposed.
"Well, and suppose he can't, it's no wonder. I don't see why those fellows shouldn't have a school for themselves. It's not pleasant to have the fellow who cuts your waistcoat crowing over you in class."
Horace began to whistle, as he generally did when the conversation took a turn that did not please him.
"Best way to remedy that," said he, presently, "is not to get beaten by your tailor's son."
"Shut up, Horace," said the elder brother; "what's the use of making yourself disagreeable? Bland's quite right, and you know you think so yourself."
"Oh, all serene," said Horace, cheerfully; "shouldn't have known I thought so unless you had told me. What do you think, Harker?"
"Well," said Harker, laughing, "as I am disreputable enough to be the only son of a widow who has barely enough to live on, and who depends on the charity of a cousin or some one of the sort for my education, I'm afraid Bland and I would have to go to different schools."
Every one laughed at this confession, and Reginald said,—
"Oh, but you're different, Harker—besides, it isn't money makes the difference—"
"The thing is," interposed Horace, "was your father in the wholesale or retail trade?—that's the difference!"
"I wish you'd shut up, Horace," said Reginald tartly; "you always spoil any argument with your foolery."
"Now that's hard lines," said Horace, "when I thought I was putting the case beautifully for you. Never mind. What do you say to a bathe in the river, you fellows?"
"Too much fag to get towels," said Reginald; "but if you like to go for them, and don't ask us to look at our watches and see in how many seconds you run up to the house and back, we'll think about it."
"Thanks," said Horace, and started up to the house whistling cheerily.
"Awfully hot that brother of yours make? a fellow," said Blandford, watching him disappear.
"Yes," said Reginald, yawning, "he is rather flighty, but he'll turn out all right, I hope."
"Turn out!" said Harker; "why he's all right already, from the crown of his head to the sole of his boot."
"Except," said Blandford, "for a slight crack in the crown of his head. It's just as well, perhaps, he's not the eldest son, Reg."
"Well," said Reginald laughing, "I can hardly fancy Horace the head of the family."
"Must be a rum sensation," said Harker, "to be an heir and not have to bother your head about how you'll get your bread and butter some day. How many hundred millions of pounds is it you'll come in for, Reg? I forget."
"What a humbug you are!" said Reginald; "my father's no better off than a lot of other people."
"That's a mild way of putting it, anyhow," said Blandford.
And here the conversation ended.
The boys lay basking in the sun waiting for Horace's return. He was unusually long in coming.
"Seems to me," said Blandford, "he's trying how long he can be instead of how quick—for a variety."
"Just like him," said Reginald.
Five minutes passed away, and ten, and fifteen, and then, just as the boys were thinking of stirring themselves to inquire what had become of him, they heard his steps returning rapidly down the gravel walk.
"Well," cried Reginald, without sitting up, "have you got them at last?"
Horace's voice startled them all as he cried,—
"Reg! Reg! come quick, quick!"
There was no mistaking either the tones or the white face of the boy who uttered them.
Reginald was on his feet in an instant, rushing in the direction of the house, towards which his brother had already started.
"What is it, Horace?" he said as he overtook him.
"Something about father—a telegram," gasped the other.
Not another word was spoken as they ran on and reached the hall door.
The hall door stood open. Just outside on the hot stone steps lay the towels where Horace had dropped them five minutes ago. Carlo, the dog, lay across the mat, and lazily lifted his head as his master approached. Within stood Mrs Cruden, pale and trembling, with a telegram in her hand, and in the back-ground hovered three or four servants, with mingled curiosity and anxiety on their faces.
Despite the heat, Reginald shivered as he stood a moment at the door, and then sprang towards the telegram, which his mother gave into his hand. It was from Mr Cruden's coachman, dated from Saint Nathaniel's Hospital.
"Master was took ill driving from City—brought here, where he is very bad indeed. Doctor says no hope."
One needs to have received such a message oneself to understand the emotions with which the two brothers read and re-read the pitiless words. Nothing but their own hard breathing broke the stillness of those few minutes, and who knows in that brief space what a lifetime seemed crowded?
Horace was the first to recover his self-possession.
"Mother," said he, and his voice sounded strange and startling in the silence, "there's a train to the City in five minutes. I'll go by that."
And he was off. It was three-quarters of a mile to the station, and there was no time to parley. Even on an errand like this, many would have abandoned the endeavour as an impossibility, especially in such a heat. But Horace was a good runner, and the feat was nothing uncommon for him.
As he flung himself into the train he gave one quick glance round, to see if Reginald had possibly followed him; but no, he was alone; and as the whistle shrieked and the train steamed out of the station, Horace for the first time had a moment to reflect.
Not half an hour ago he had been lying with his brother and companions on the tennis lawn, utterly unconscious of any impending calamity. What ages ago that seemed! For a few minutes all appeared so confused and unreal that his mind was a blank, and he seemed even to forget on what errand he was bound.
But Horace was a practical youth, and before that half-hour's journey to the City was accomplished he was at least collected in mind, and prepared to face the trial that awaited him.
There was something about the telegram that convinced him it meant more than it said. Still, a boy's hopefulness will grasp at a straw, and he battled with his despair. His father was not dead—he would recover—at the hospital he would have the best medical assistance possible. The coachman who sent the telegram would be sure to make things out at the worst. Yes, when he got to Saint Nathaniel's he would find it was a false alarm, that there was nothing much the matter at all, and when his mother and Reginald arrived by the next train, he would be able to meet them with reassuring news. It was not more than a ten-minutes' cab- drive from the terminus—the train was just in now; in twelve minutes this awful suspense would be at an end.
Such was the hurried rush of thoughts through the poor boy's brain during that dismal journey. He had sprung from the carriage to a hansom cab almost before the train had pulled up, and in another moment was clattering over the stones towards the hospital.
The hopes of a few minutes before oozed away as every street corner brought him nearer his destination, and when at last the stately front of Saint Nathaniel's loomed before him, he wished his journey could never end. He gazed with faltering heart up at the ward windows, as if he could read his fate there. The place seemed deserted. A few street boys were playing on the pavement, and at the door of the in-patients' ward a little cluster of visitors were collected round a flower stall buying sweet mementoes of the country to brighten the bedsides of their friends within. No one heeded the pale scared boy as he alighted and went up the steps.
A porter opened the door.
"My father, Mr Cruden, is here; how is he?"
"Is it the gentleman that was brought in in a fit?"
"Yes, in his carriage—is he better?"
"Will you step in and see the doctor?"
The doctor was not in his room when the boy was ushered in, and it seemed an age before he entered.
"You are Mr Cruden's son?" said he gravely.
"Yes—is he better?"
"He was brought here about half-past three, insensible, with apoplexy."
"Is he better now?" asked Horace again, knowing perfectly well what the dreaded answer would be.
"He is not, my boy," said the doctor gravely. "We telegraphed to your mother at once, as you know—but before that telegram could have reached her your poor father—"
It was enough. Poor Horace closed his ears convulsively against the fatal word, and dropped back on his chair with a gasp.
The doctor put his hand kindly on the boy's shoulder.
"Are you here alone?" said he, presently.
"My mother and brother will be here directly."
"Your father lies in a private ward. Will you wait till they come, or will you go up now?"
A struggle passed through the boy's mind. An instinctive horror of a sight hitherto unknown struggled hard with the impulse to rush at once to his father's bedside. At length he said, falteringly,—
"I will go now, please."
When Mrs Cruden and Reginald arrived half an hour later, they found Horace where the doctor had left him, on his knees at his father's bedside.
A COME-DOWN IN THE WORLD.
Mr Cruden had the reputation of being one of the most respectable as well as one of the richest men in his part of the county. And it is fair to say he took far more pride in the former quality than the latter. Indeed, he made no secret of the fact that he had not always been the rich man he was when our story opens. But he was touchy on the subject of his good family and his title to the name of gentleman, which he had taught his sons to value far more than the wealth which accompanied it, and which they might some day expect to inherit.
His choice of a school for them was quite consistent with his views on this point. Wilderham was not exactly an aristocratic school, but it was a school where money was thought less of than "good style," as the boys called it, and where poverty was far less of a disgrace than even a remote connection with a "shop." The Crudens had always been great heroes in the eyes of their schoolfellows, for their family was unimpeachable, and even with others who had greater claims to be considered as aristocratic, their ample pocket-money commended them as most desirable companions.
Mr Cruden, however, with all his virtues and respectability, was not a good man of business. People said he let himself be imposed upon by others who knew the value of money far better than he did. His own beautiful estate at Garden Vale, Rumour said, was managed at double the expense it should be; and of his money transactions and speculations in the City—well, he had need to be the wealthy man he was, said his friends, to be able to stand all the fleecing he came in for there!
Nevertheless, no one ever questioned the wealth of the Crudens, least of all did the Crudens themselves, who took it as much for granted as the atmosphere they breathed in.
On the day on which our story opens Mr Cruden had driven down into the City on business. No one knew exactly what the business was, for he kept such matters to himself. It was an ordinary expedition, which consisted usually of half a dozen calls on half a dozen stockbrokers or secretaries of companies, with perhaps an occasional visit to the family lawyer or the family bank.
To-day, however, it had consisted of but one visit, and that was to the bank. And it was whilst returning thence that Mr Cruden was suddenly seized with the stroke which ended in his death. Had immediate assistance been at hand the calamity might have been averted, but neither the coachman nor footman was aware of what had happened till the carriage was some distance on its homeward journey, and a passer-by caught sight of the senseless figure within. They promptly drove him to the nearest hospital, and telegraphed the news to Garden Vale; but Mr Cruden never recovered consciousness, and, as the doctor told Horace, before even the message could have reached its destination he was dead.
We may draw a veil over the sad scenes of the few days which followed— of the meeting of the widow and her sons at the bedside of the dead, of the removal of the loved remains home, of the dismal preparations for the funeral, and all the dreary details which occupy mourners in the house of death. For some time Mrs Cruden, prostrated by the shock of her bereavement, was unable to leave her room, and the burden of the care fell on the two inexperienced boys, who had to face it almost single-handed.
For the Crudens had no near relatives in England, and those of their friends who might have been of service at such a time feared to intrude, and so stayed away. Blandford and Harker, the boys' two friends who had been visiting at Garden Vale at the time of Mr Cruden's death, had left as quietly and considerately as possible; and so great was the distraction of those few sad days that no one even noticed their absence till letters of condolence arrived from each.
It was a dreary week, and Reginald, on whom, as the elder son and the heir to the property, the chief responsibility rested, was of the two least equal to the emergency.
"I don't know what I should have done without you, old man," said he to Horace on the evening before the funeral, when, all the preparations being ended, the two boys strolled dismally down towards the river. "You ought to have been the eldest son. I should never have thought of half the things there were to be done if you hadn't been here."
"Of course, mother would have known what was to be done," said Horace, "if she hadn't been laid up. She's to get up this evening."
"Well, I shall be glad when to-morrow's over," said Reginald; "it's awful to have it all hanging over one like this. I can't believe father was alive a week ago, you know."
"No more can I," said the other; "and I'm certain we shall not realise how we miss him for long enough yet."
They walked on for some distance in silence, each full of his own reflections.
Then Horace said, "Mother is sure to want to stay on here, she's so fond of the place."
"Yes, it's a comfort she won't have to move. By the way, I wonder if she will want us to leave Wilderham and stay at home now."
"I fancy not. Father wanted you to go to Oxford in a couple of years, and she is sure not to change his plan."
"Well, I must say," said Reginald, "if I am to settle down as a country gentleman some day, I shall be glad to have gone through college and all that sort of thing before. If I go up in two years, I shall have finished before I'm twenty-three. Hullo, here's mother!"
The boys ran forward to greet Mrs Cruden, who, pale but smiling, came quietly down the garden towards them, and after a fond embrace laid her hands on the arm of each and walked slowly on between them.
"You two brave boys," said she, and there was a cheery ring in her voice that sent comfort into the hearts of both her sons, "how sorry I am to think of all you have had to go through, while I, like a silly weak woman, have been lying in bed."
"Oh, mother," said Horace, with a face that reflected already the sunshine of hers, "how absurd to talk like that! I don't believe you ought to be out here now."
"Oh yes, I ought. I've done with that, and I am strong enough now to stand beside the boys who have stood so bravely by their mother."
"We'd be a nice pair of boys if we didn't, eh, Reg?" said Horace.
Reginald's reply was a pressure of his mother's hand, and with a rainbow of smiles over their sorrowful hearts the three walked on lovingly together; the mother with many a brave, cheery word striving to lift her sons above their trouble, not only to hope of earthly comfort, but to trust in that great Father of the fatherless, beside whom all the love of this world is poor and fleeting.
At length they turned to go in, and Mrs Cruden said,—
"There is a letter from Mr Richmond, the lawyer, saying he will call this evening to talk over some business matters. I suppose he will be here by now."
"Couldn't he have waited till after to-morrow?" said Horace.
"He particularly asked to come to-night," said the mother. "At any rate, I would like you both to be with me while he is here. We must not have any secrets from one another now."
"I suppose it's about the will or the estate," said Reginald.
"I suppose so. I don't know," said Mrs Cruden. "Mr Richmond always managed your father's business affairs, you know, so he will be able to tell us how matters stand."
They reached the house, and found Mr Richmond had already arrived and was awaiting them in the library.
Mr Richmond was a solemn, grave personage, whose profession was written on his countenance. His lips were so closely set that it seemed as if speaking must be a positive pain to him, his eyes had the knack of looking past you, as though he was addressing not you but your shadow on the wall, and he ended every sentence, no matter what its import, with a mechanical smile, as though he were at that instant having his photograph taken. Why Mr Cruden should have selected Mr Richmond as his man of business was a matter only known to Mr Cruden himself, for those who knew the lawyer best did not care for him, and, without being able to deny that he was an honest man and a well-meaning man, were at least glad that their affairs were in the hands of some one else.
He rose and solemnly greeted the widow and her two sons as they entered.
"I am sorry to intrude at such a time," said he, "but as your late husband's adviser, I considered it right to call and make you acquainted with his affairs."
Here Mr Richmond smiled, greatly to Reginald's indignation.
"Thank you," said Mrs Cruden; "sit down, please, Mr Richmond."
Mr Richmond obeyed, dubiously eyeing the two boys as he did so.
"These are your sons, I presume?" said he to Mrs Cruden.
"They are," said she.
Mr Richmond rose and solemnly shook hands with each of the lads, informing each with a smile as he did so that he was pleased to make his acquaintance.
"You wish the young gentlemen to remain, perhaps?" he inquired, as he resumed his seat.
"To be sure," said Mrs Cruden, somewhat nettled at the question; "go on, please, Mr Richmond."
"Certainly, madam," said the lawyer. "May I ask if you are acquainted with the late Mr Cruden's state of affairs?"
"I wish to hear that from you," said the widow, "and with as little delay as possible, Mr Richmond."
"Certainly, madam. Mr Cruden honoured me with his confidence on these matters, and I believe, next to himself, I knew more about them than any one else."
Here Mr Richmond paused and smiled.
"In fact," continued he, "I may almost say I knew more about them than he did himself, for your excellent husband, Mrs Cruden, was not a good man of business."
Reginald could not stand the smile which accompanied this observation, and said, somewhat hotly,—
"Look here, Mr Richmond, if you will say what you've got to say without laughing and speaking disrespectfully of my father, we shall be glad."
"Certainly, Master Cruden," said the lawyer, a trifle disconcerted by this unexpected interruption. Then turning to the widow he continued,—
"The fact is, madam, the late Mr Cruden was, I fear, under the impression that he was considerably better off than he was."
Mr Richmond paused as if for a reply, but as no one spoke he continued,—
"I am sorry to say this appears to have been the case to a much larger extent than even I imagined. Your late husband, Mrs Cruden, I believe spent largely on his estate here, and unfortunately kept no accounts. I have frequently entreated him to reckon over his expenditure, but he always replied that it was considerably under his income, and that there was no need, as long as that was the case, to trouble himself about it."
A nervous movement among his listeners was the only reply the lawyer received to this last announcement, or to the smile which accompanied it.
"Mr Cruden may have been correct in his conjecture, madam, although I fear the contrary."
"If my father said a thing," blurted out Reginald at this point, "I see no reason for doubting his word."
"None in the least, my dear Master Cruden; but unfortunately your father did not know either what his income was or what his expenditure was."
"Do you know what they were?" said Reginald, not heeding the deprecating touch of his mother's hand on his.
"As far as I understand the state of your father's affairs," said Mr Richmond, undisturbed by the rude tone of his inquisitor, "his income was entirely derived from interest in the stock of two American railways, in which he placed implicit confidence, and in one or the other of which he insisted on investing all capital which came to his hand. The total income from these two sources would in my opinion just about cover Mr Cruden's various expenses of all kinds."
There was something like a sigh of relief from the listeners as Mr Richmond reached this point. But it died away as he proceeded.
"In his choice of an investment for his capital Mr Cruden consulted no one, I believe, beyond himself. For some time it seemed a fortunate investment, and the shares rose in value, but latterly they took a turn for the worse, and early this year I am sorry to say one of the railways suspended payment altogether, and Mr Cruden lost a considerable portion of his fortune thereby."
"I heard my husband say some months ago that he had made some slight loss in the City," said Mrs Cruden, "but I imagined from the light manner in which he treated it that it was quite trifling, and would be quickly repaired."
"He did hope that would be the case. Although all his friends urged him to sell out at once, he insisted on holding on, in the hope of the railway recovering itself."
"And has it recovered?" asked Mrs Cruden, with a tremble in her voice.
"I regret to say it has not, Mrs Cruden. On the contrary, it was declared bankrupt a few days ago, and what is still more deplorable, it has involved in its own ruin the other railway in which the remainder of your husband's property was invested, so that all the shares which stand in his name in both concerns are now worth no more than the paper they are printed on."
Mr Richmond came to the point at last with startling abruptness, so much so that for a moment or two his listeners sat almost petrified by the bad news, and unable to say a word. The lawyer finished what he had to say without waiting.
"Your husband heard this lamentable news, Mrs Cruden, on the occasion of his last visit to the City. The only call he made that day was at his banker's, where he was told all, and there is no reason to doubt that the shock produced the stroke from which he died."
"Mr Richmond," said Mrs Cruden, after a while, like one in a dream, "can this be true? What does it all mean?"
"Alas! madam," said the lawyer, "it would be no kindness on my part to deny the truth of what I have told you. It means that unless you or your late husband are possessed of some means of income of which I know nothing, your circumstances are reduced to a very low point."
"But there must be some mistake," said Horace. "Both railways can't have gone wrong; we shall surely save something?"
"I wish I could hold out any hope. I have all the documents at my office, and shall be only too glad, Mrs Cruden, to accompany you to the bank for your own satisfaction."
Mrs Cruden shuddered and struggled bravely to keep down the rising tears. A long pause ensued, every moment of which made the terrible truth clearer to all three of the hearers, and closed every loophole of hope.
"What can be done?" said Horace at last.
"Happily there is Garden Vale," said Reginald, and there was a choking in the throat of the heir as he spoke; "we shall have to sell it."
"The contents of it, you will, Master Cruden," said the lawyer; "the estate itself is held on lease."
"Well, the contents of it," said Reginald, bitterly; "you are not going to make out they don't belong to us?"
"Certainly not," said Mr Richmond, on whom the taunt was quite lost; "unless, as I trust is not the case, your father died in debt."
"Do you mean to say," said Horace, slowly, like one waking from a dream, "do you mean to say we are ruined, Mr Richmond?"
"I fear it is so," said the lawyer, "unless Mr Cruden was possessed of some means of income with which I was not acquainted. I regret very much, Mrs Cruden, having to be the bearer of such bad news, and I can only say the respect I had for your late husband will make any assistance I can offer you, by way of advice or otherwise, a pleasure." And Mr Richmond bowed himself out of the room with a smile.
It was a relief to be left alone, and Mrs Cruden, despite her weakness and misery, struggled hard for the sake of her boys to put a brave face on their trouble.
"Reg, dear," said she to her eldest son, who had fairly broken down, and with his head on his hand was giving vent to his misery, "try to bear it. After all, we are left to one another, and—"
The poor mother could not finish her sentence, but bent down and kissed the wet cheek of the boy.
"Of course it means," said Horace, after a pause, "we shall have to give up Garden Vale, and leave Wilderham too. And Reg was sure of a scholarship next term. I say, mother, what are we to do?"
"We are all strong enough to do something, dear boy," said Mrs Cruden.
"I'll take care you don't have to do anything, mother," said Reginald, looking up. "I'll work my fingers to the bones before you have to come down to that." He spoke with clenched teeth, half savagely.
"Even if we can sell all the furniture," continued Horace, taking a practical view of the situation, "it wouldn't give us much to live on."
"Shut up, Horace!" said Reginald. "What's the use of making the worst of everything? Hasn't mother had quite enough to bear already?"
Horace subsided, and the three sat there in silence until the daylight faded and the footman brought in the lights and announced that coffee was ready in the drawing-room.
There was something like a shock about this interruption. What had they to do with men-servants and coffee in the drawing-room, they who an hour or two ago had supposed themselves wealthy, but now knew that they were little better than beggars?
"We shall not want coffee," said Mrs Cruden, answering for all three. Then when the footman had withdrawn, she said,—
"Boys, I must go to bed. God bless you, and give us all brave hearts, for we shall need them!"
The funeral took place next day. Happily it was of a simple character, and only a few friends were invited, so that it was not thought necessary to alter the arrangements in consequence of Mr Richmond's announcement of the evening before. But even the slight expense involved in this melancholy ceremony grated painfully on the minds of the boys, who forgot even their dead father in the sense that they were riding in carriages for which they could not pay, and offering their guests refreshments which were not theirs to give. The little cemetery was crowded with friends and acquaintances of the dead—country gentry most of them, who sought to show their respect for their late neighbour by falling into the long funeral procession and joining the throng at the graveside.
It was a severe ordeal for the two boys to find themselves the centres of observation, and to feel that more than half the interest exhibited in them was on account of their supposed inheritance.
One bluff squire came up after the funeral and patted Reginald on the back.
"Never mind, my boy," said he; "I was left without a father at your age. You'll soon get over it, and your mother will have plenty of friends. Glad to see you up at the Hall any day, and your brother too. You must join our hunt next winter, and keep up the family name. God bless you!"
Reginald shrank from this greeting like a guilty being, and the two desolate boys were glad to escape further encounters by retreating to their carriage and ordering the coachman to drive home at once.
A few days disclosed all that was wanting to make their position quite clear. Mr Cruden's will confirmed Mr Richmond's statement as to the source of his income. All his money was invested in shares of the two ruined railways, and all he had to leave besides these was the furniture and contents of Garden Vale. Even this, when realised, would do little more than cover the debts which the next week or two brought to light. It was pitiful the way in which that unrelenting tide of bills flowed in, swamping gradually the last hope of a competency, or even means of bare existence, for the survivors.
Neither Mrs Cruden nor her sons had been able to endure a day's delay at Garden Vale after the funeral, but had hurried for shelter to quiet lodgings at the seaside, kept by an old servant, where in an agony of suspense they awaited the final result of Mr Richmond's investigations.
It came at last, and, bad as it was, it was a comfort to know the worst. The furniture, carriages, and other contents of Garden Vale had sufficed to pay all debts of every description, with a balance of about L350 remaining over and above, to represent the entire worldly possessions of the Cruden family, which only a month ago had ranked with the wealthiest in the county.
"So," said Mrs Cruden, with a shadow of her old smile, as she folded up the lawyer's letter and put it back in her pocket, "we know the worst at last, boys."
"Which is," said Reginald, bitterly, "we are worth among us the magnificent sum of sixteen pounds per annum. Quite princely!"
"Reg, dear," said his mother, "let us be thankful that we have anything, and still more that we may start life owing nothing to any one."
"Start life!" exclaimed Reginald; "I wish we could end it with—"
"Oh, hush, hush, my precious boy!" exclaimed the widow; "you will break my heart if you talk like that! Think how many there are to whom this little sum would seem a fortune. Why, it may keep a roof over our heads, at any rate, or help you into situations."
"Or bury us!" groaned Reginald.
The mother looked at her eldest son, half in pity, half in reproach, and then burst into tears.
Reginald sprang to her side in an instant.
"What a beast I am!" he exclaimed. "Oh, mother, do forgive me! I really didn't think what I was saying."
"No, dear Reggie, I know you didn't," said Mrs Cruden, recovering herself with a desperate effort. "You mustn't mind me, I—I scarcely— know—I—"
It was no use trying. The poor mother broke down completely, and on that evening it was impossible to talk more about the future.
Next morning, however, all three were in a calmer mood, and Horace said at breakfast, "We can't do any good here, mother. Hadn't we better go to London?"
"I think so; and Parker here knows of a small furnished lodging in Dull Street, which she says is cheap. We might try there to begin with. Eh, Reg?"
Reginald winced, and then replied, "Oh, certainly; the sooner we get down to our right level the better."
That evening the three Crudens arrived in London.
NUMBER SIX, DULL STREET.
Probably no London street ever rejoiced in a more expressive name than Dull Street. It was not a specially dirty street, or a specially disreputable street, or a specially dark street. The neighbourhood might a hundred years ago have been considered "genteel," and the houses even fashionable, and some audacious antiquarians went so far as to assert that the street took its name not from its general appearance at all, but from a worthy London alderman, who in the reign of George the First had owned most of the neighbouring property.
Be that as it may, Dull Street was—and for all I know may still be—one of the dullest streets in London. A universal seediness pervaded its houses from roof to cellar; nothing was as it should be anywhere. The window sashes had to be made air-tight by wedges of wood or paper stuck into the frames; a bell in Dull Street rarely sounded after less than six pulls; there was scarcely a sitting-room but had a crack in its grimy ceiling, or a handle off its ill-hung door, or a strip of wall- paper peeling off its walls. There were more chairs in the furnished apartments of Dull Street with three legs than there were with four, and there was scarcely horsehair enough in the twenty-four sofas of its twenty-four parlours to suffice for an equal quantity of bolsters.
In short, Dull Street was the shabbiest genteel street in the metropolis, and nothing could make it otherwise.
A well-built, tastefully-furnished house in the middle of it would have been as incongruous as a new patch in an old garment, and no one dreamt of disturbing the traditional aspect of the place by any attempt to repair or beautify it.
Indeed, the people who lived in Dull Street were as much a part of its dulness as the houses they inhabited. They were for the most part retired tradesmen, or decayed milliners, or broken-down Government clerks, most of whom tried to eke out their little pensions by letting part of their lodgings to others as decayed and broken-down as themselves.
These interesting colonists, whose one bond of sympathy was a mutual seediness, amused themselves, for the most part, by doing nothing all day long, except perhaps staring out of the window, in the remote hope of catching sight of a distant cab passing the street corner, or watching to see how much milk their opposite neighbour took in, or reading the news of the week before last in a borrowed newspaper, or talking scandal of one neighbour to another.
"Jemima, my dear," said a middle-aged lady, who, with her son and daughter, was the proud occupant of Number 4, Dull Street—"Jemima, my dear, I see to-day the bill is hout of the winder of number six."
"Never!" replied Jemima, a sharp-looking young woman of twenty, who had once in her life spent a month at a ladies' boarding-school, and was therefore decidedly genteel. "I wonder who's coming."
"A party of three, so I hear from Miss Moulden's maid, which is niece to Mrs Grimley: a widow,"—here the speaker snuffled slightly—"and two childer—like me."
"Go on!" said Jemima. "Any more about them, ma?"
"Well, my dear, I do hear as they 'ave come down a bit."
"Oh, ah! lag!" put in the speaker's son, a lawyer's clerk in the receipt of two pounds a week, to whom this intelligence appeared particularly amusing; "we know all about that—never heard that sort of tale before, have we, ma? Oh no!" and the speaker emphasised the question by giving his widowed mother a smart dig in the ribs.
"For shame, Sam! don't be vulgar!" cried the worthy lady; "how many times have I told you?"
"All right, ma," replied the legal young gentleman; "but it is rather a wonner, you know. What were they before they came down?"
"Gentlefolk, so I'm told," replied the lady, drawing herself up at the very mention of the name; "and I hintend, and I 'ope my children will do the same, to treat them as fellow-creatures with hevery consideration."
"And how old is the babies, ma?" inquired Miss Jemima, whose gentility sometimes had the advantage of her grammar.
"The babies!" said the mother; "why, they're young gentlemen, both of 'em—old enough to be your sweethearts!"
Sam laughed profusely.
"Then what did you say they was babies for?" demanded Jemima, pettishly.
"You did, ma, I heard you! Didn't she, Sam?"
"So you did, ma. Come now, no crackers!" said Sam.
"I never; I said 'childer,'" pleaded the mother.
"And ain't babies childer?" thundered Miss Jemima.
"'Ad 'er there, Jim!" chuckled the dutiful Samuel, this time favouring his sister with a sympathetic nudge. "Better give in, and own you told a cracker, ma!"
"Shan't!" said the lady, beginning to whimper. "Oh, I wish my poor 'Oward was here to protect me! He was a gentleman, and I'm glad he didn't live to see what a pair of vulgar brats he'd left behind him, that I am!"
"There you go!" said Sam; "taking on at nothing, as per usual! No one was saying anything to hurt you, old girl. Simmer down, and you'll be all the better for it. There now, dry your eyes; it's all that Jim, she's got such a tongue! Next time I catch you using language to ma, Jim, I'll turn you out of the house! Come, cheer up, ma."
"Yes, cheer up, ma," chimed in Jemima; "no one supposes you meant to tell fibs; you couldn't help it."
Amid consolations such as these the poor flurried lady subsided, and regained her former tranquillity of spirit.
The Shucklefords—such was the name of this amiable family—were comparatively recent sojourners in Dull Street. They had come there six years previously, on the death of Mr Shuckleford, a respectable wharfinger, who had saved up money enough to leave his wife a small annuity. Shortly before his death he had been promoted to the command of one of the Thames steamboats plying between Chelsea and London Bridge, in virtue of which office he had taken to himself—or rather his wife had claimed for him—the title of "captain," and with this patent of gentility had held up her head ever since. Her children, following her good example, were not slow to hold up their heads too, and were fully convinced of their own gentility. Samuel Shuckleford had, as his mother termed it, been "entered for the law" shortly after his father's death, and Miss Jemima Shuckleford, after the month's sojourn at a ladies' boarding-school already referred to, had settled down to assist her mother in the housework and maintain the dignity of the family by living on her income.
Such were the new next-door neighbours of the Crudens when at last they arrived, sadly, and with the new world before them, at Number 6, Dull Street.
Mr Richmond, who, with all his unfortunate manner, had acted a friend's part all along, had undertaken the task of clearing up affairs at Garden Vale, superintending the payment of Mr Cruden's debts, the sale of his furniture, and the removal to Dull Street of what little remained to the family to remind them of their former comforts.
It might have been better if in this last respect the boys and their mother had acted for themselves, for Mr Richmond appeared to have hazy notions as to what the family would most value. The first sight which met the boys' eyes as they arrived was their tennis-racquets in a corner of the room. A very small case of trinkets was on Mrs Cruden's dressing-table, and not one of the twenty or thirty books arranged on the top of the sideboard was one which any member of the small household cared anything about.
But Mr Richmond had done his best, and being left entirely to his own devices, was not to be blamed for the few mistakes he had made. He was there to receive Mrs Cruden when she arrived, and after conducting the little party hurriedly through the three rooms destined for their accommodation, considerately retired.
Until the moment when they were left to themselves in the shabby little Dull Street parlour, not one of the Crudens had understood the change which had come over their lot. All had been so sudden, so exciting, so unlooked-for during the last few weeks, that all three of them had seemed to go through it as through a dream. But the awakening came now, and a rude and cruel one it was.
The little room, dignified by the name of a parlour, was a dingy, stuffy apartment of the true Dull Street type. The paper was faded and torn, the ceiling was discoloured, the furniture was decrepit, the carpet was threadbare, and the cheap engraving on the wall, with its title, "As Happy as a King," seemed to brood over the scene like some mocking spirit.
They passed into Mrs Cruden's bedroom, and the thought of the delightful snug little boudoir at Garden Vale sent a shiver through them as they glanced at the bare walls, the dilapidated half-tester, the chipped and oddly assorted crockery.
The boys' room was equally cheerless. One narrow bed, a chair, and a small washstand, was all the furniture it boasted of, and a few old cuttings of an antiquated illustrated paper pinned on to the wall afforded its sole decoration.
A low, dreary whistle escaped from Horace's lips as he surveyed his new quarters, followed almost immediately by an equally dreary laugh.
"Why," gasped he, "there's no looking-glass! However is Reg to shave?"
It was an heroic effort, and it succeeded. Mrs Cruden's face lit up at the sound of her son's voice with its old sunshine, and even Reginald smiled grimly.
"I must let my beard grow," said he. "But, mother, I say," and his voice quavered as he spoke, "what a miserable room yours is! I can't bear to think of your being cooped up there."
"Oh, it's not so bad," said Mrs Cruden, cheerily. "The pink in the chintz doesn't go well with the scarlet in the wall-paper, certainly, but I dare say I shall sleep soundly in the bed all the same."
"But such a wretched look-out from the window, mother, and such a vile jug and basin!"
Mrs Cruden laughed.
"Never mind about the jug and basin," said she, "as long as they hold water; and as for the look-out—well, as long as I can see my two boys' faces happy, that's the best view I covet."
"You never think about yourself," said Reginald, sadly.
"I say, mother," said Horace, "suppose we call up the spirits from the vasty deep and ask them to get tea ready."
This practical suggestion met with general approbation, and the little party returned more cheerily to the parlour, where Horace performed marvellous exploits with the bell-handle, and succeeded, in the incredible time of seven minutes, in bringing up a small slipshod girl, who, after a good deal of staring about her, and a critical survey of the pattern of Mrs Cruden's dress, contrived to gather a general idea of what was required of her.
It was a queer meal, half ludicrous, half despairing, that first little tea-party in Dull Street. They tried to be gay. Reginald declared that the tea his mother poured out was far better than any the footman at Garden Vale used to dispense. Horace tried to make fun of the heterogeneous cups and saucers. Mrs Cruden tried hard to appear as though she was taking a hearty meal, while she tasted nothing. But it was a relief when the girl reappeared and cleared the table.
Then they unpacked their few belongings, and tried to enliven their dreary lodgings with a few precious mementoes of happier days. Finally, worn out in mind and body, they took shelter in bed, and for a blessed season forgot all their misery and forebodings in sleep.
There is no magic equal to that which a night's sleep will sometimes work. The little party assembled cheerfully at the breakfast-table next morning, prepared to face the day bravely.
A large letter, in Mr Richmond's handwriting, lay on Mrs Cruden's plate. It contained three letters—one from the lawyer himself, and one for each of the boys from Wilderham. Mr Richmond's letter was brief and business-like.
"Dear Madam,—Enclosed please find two letters, which I found lying at Garden Vale yesterday. With regard to balance of your late husband's assets in your favour, I have an opportunity of investing same at an unusually good rate of interest in sound security. Shall be pleased to wait on you with particulars. Am also in a position to introduce the young gentlemen to a business opening, which, if not at first important, may seem to you a favourable opportunity. On these points I shall have the honour of waiting on you during to-morrow afternoon, and meanwhile beg to remain,—
"Your obedient servant,—
"We ought to make sure what the investment is," said Reginald, after hearing the letter read, "before we hand over all our money to him."
"To be sure, dear," said Mrs Cruden, who hated the sound of the word investment.
"I wonder what he proposes for us?" said Horace. "Some clerkship, I suppose."
"Perhaps in his own office," said Reginald. "What an opening that would be!"
"Never you mind. The law's very respectable; but I know I'd be no good for that. I might manage to serve tea and raisins behind a grocer's counter, or run errands, or—"
"Or black boots," suggested Reginald.
"Black boots! I bet you neither you nor I could black a pair of boots properly to save our lives."
"It seems to me we shall have to try it this very morning," said Reginald, "for no one has touched mine since last night."
"But who are your letters from?" said Mrs Cruden. "Are they very private?"
"Not mine," said Horace. "It's from old Harker. You may read it if you like, mother."
Mrs Cruden took the letter and read aloud,—
("That's what he calls me, you know," explained Horace, in a parenthesis.)
"I am so awfully sorry to hear of your new trouble about money matters, and that you will have to leave Garden Vale. I wish I could come over to see you and help you. All the fellows here are awfully cut up about it, and lots of them want me to send you messages. I don't know what I shall do without you this term, old man, you were always a brick to me. Be sure and write to me and tell me everything. As soon as I can get away for a day I'll come and see you, and I'll write as often as I can.
"P.S.—Wilkins, I expect, will be the new monitor in our house. He is sure now to get the scholarship Reg was certain of. I wish to goodness you were both back here."
"He might just as well have left out that about the scholarship," said Reginald; "it's not very cheering news to hear of another fellow stepping into your place like that."
"I suppose he thought we'd be curious to know," said Horace.
"Precious curious!" growled Reginald.
"But who's your letter from, Reg?" asked Mrs Cruden.
"Oh, just a line from Bland," replied he, hastily putting it into his pocket; "he gives no news."
If truth must be told, Blandford's letter was not a very nice one, and Reginald felt it. He did not care to hear it read aloud in contrast with Harker's warm-hearted letter. Blandford had written,—
"Dear Cruden,—I hope it's not true about your father's money going all wrong. It is a great sell, and fellows here, I know, will be very sorry. Never mind, I suppose there's enough left to make a decent show; and between you and me it would go down awfully well with the fellows here if you could send your usual subscription to the football club. Harker says you'll have to leave Garden Vale. I'm awfully sorry, as I always enjoyed my visits there so much. What are you going to do? Why don't you try for the army? The exams are not very hard, my brother told me, and of course it's awfully respectable, if one must work for one's living. I must stop now, or I shall miss tennis. Excuse more.
Reginald knew the letter was a cold and selfish one, but it left two things sticking in his mind which rankled there for a long time. One was that, come what would, he would send a guinea to the school football club. The other was—was it quite out of the question that he should go into the army?
"Awfully rough on Reg," said Horace, "being so near that scholarship. It'll be no use to Wilkins, not a bit, and fifty pounds a year would be something to—"
Horace was going to say "us," but he pulled up in time and said "Reg."
"Well," said Reg, "as things have turned out it might have come in useful. I wonder if it wouldn't have been wiser, mother, for me to have stayed up this term and made sure of it?"
"I wish you could, Reg; but we have no right to think of it. Besides, you could only have held it if you had gone to college."
"Oh, of course," said Reg; "but then it would have paid a good bit of my expenses there; and I might have gone on from there to the army, you know, and got my commission."
Mrs Cruden sighed. What an awakening the boy had still to pass through!
"We must think of something less grand than that, my poor Reg," said she; "and something we can share all together. I hope Mr Richmond will be able to hear of some business opening for me, as well as you, for we shall need to put our resources together to get on."
"Mother," exclaimed Reginald, overwhelmed with sudden contrition, "what a selfish brute you must think me! You don't think I'd let you work while I had a nerve left. I'll do anything—so will Horace, but you shall not, mother, you shall not."
Mrs Cruden did not argue the point just then, and in due time Mr Richmond arrived to give a new direction to their thoughts.
The investment he proposed seemed a good one. But, in fact, the little family knew so little about business generally, and money matters in particular, that had it been the worst security possible they would have hardly been the wiser.
This point settled, Mr Richmond turned to his proposals for the boys.
"As I said in my letter, Mrs Cruden," said he, "the opening is only a modest one. A company has lately been formed to print and publish an evening paper in the city, and as solicitor to the company I had an opportunity of mentioning your sons to the manager. He is willing to take them, provided they are willing to work. The pay will begin at eighteen shillings a week, but I hope they will soon make their value felt, and command a better position. They are young yet."
"What shall we have to do?" asked Horace.
"That I cannot exactly say," said the lawyer; "but I believe the manager would expect you to learn the printer's business from the beginning."
"What would the hours be?" asked Mrs Cruden.
"Well, as it is an evening paper, there will fortunately be no late night work. I believe seven in the morning to eight at night were the hours the manager mentioned."
"And—and," faltered the poor mother, who was beginning to realise the boys' lot better than they did themselves—"and what sort of companions are they likely to have, Mr Richmond?"
"I believe the manager is succeeding in getting respectable men as workmen. I hope so."
"Workmen!" exclaimed Reginald, suddenly. "Do you mean we are to be workmen, Mr Richmond? Just like any fellows in the street. Couldn't you find anything better than that for us?"
"My dear Master Cruden, I am very sorry for you, and would gladly see you in a better position. But it is not a case where we can choose. This opening has offered itself. Of course, you are not bound to accept it, but my advice is, take what you can get in these hard times."
"Oh, of course, we're paupers, I—forgot," said Reg, bitterly, "and beggars mayn't be choosers. Anything you like, mother," added he, meeting Mrs Cruden's sorrowful look with forced gaiety. "I'll sweep a crossing if you like, Mr Richmond, or black your office-boy's boots,— anything to get a living."
Poor boy! He broke down before he could finish the sentence, and his flourish ended in something very like a sob.
Horace was hardly less miserable, but he said less. Evidently, as Reg himself had said, beggars could not be choosers, and when presently Mr Richmond left, and the little family talked the matter over late into the afternoon, it was finally decided that the offer of the manager of the Rocket Newspaper Company, Limited, should be accepted, and that the boys should make their new start in life on the Monday morning following.
THE "ROCKET" NEWSPAPER COMPANY, LIMITED.
The reader may imagine that the walk our two heroes took Citywards that Monday morning was not a very cheerful one. It seemed like walking out of one life into another. Behind, like a dream, were the joyous, merry days spent at Garden Vale and Wilderham, with no care for the future, and no want for the present. Before them, still more like a dream, lay the prospect of their new work, with all its anxiety, and drudgery, and weariness, and the miserable eighteen shillings a week it promised them; and, equally wretched at the present moment, there was the vision of their desolate mother, alone in the Dull Street lodgings, where they had just left her, unable at the last to hide the misery with which she saw her two boys start out into the pitiless world.
The boys walked for some time in silence; then Horace said,—
"Old man, I hope, whatever they do, they'll let us be together at this place."
"We needn't expect any such luck," said Reginald. "It wouldn't be half so bad if they would."
"You know," said Horace, "I can't help hoping they'll take us as clerks, at least. They must know we're educated, and more fit for that sort of work than—"
"Than doing common labourer's work," said Reg. "Rather! If they'd put us to some of the literary work, you know, Horace—editing, or correcting, or reporting, or that sort of thing, I could stand that. There are plenty of swells who began like that. I'm pretty well up in classics, you know, and—well, they might be rather glad to have some one who was."
"Richmond spoke as if we were to be taken on as ordinary workmen."
"Oh, Richmond's an ass," said Reg, full of his new idea; "he knows nothing about it. I tell you, Horace, they wouldn't be such idiots as to waste our education when they could make use of it. Richmond only knows the manager, but the editor is the chief man, after all."
By this time they had reached Fleet Street, and their attention was absorbed in finding the by-street in which was situated the scene of their coming labours. They found it at last, and with beating hearts saw before them a building surmounted by a board, bearing in characters of gold the legend, Rocket Newspaper Company, Limited.
The boys stood a moment outside, and the courage which had been slowly rising during the walk evaporated in an instant. Ugly and grimy as the building was, it seemed to them like some fairy castle before which they shrank into insignificance. A board inscribed, "Work-people's Entrance," with a hand on it pointing to a narrow side court, confronted them, and mechanically they turned that way. Reginald did for a moment hesitate as he passed the editor's door, but it was no use. The two boys turned slowly into the court, where, amid the din of machinery, and a stifling smell of ink and rollers, they found the narrow passage which conducted them to their destination.
A man at a desk half way down the passage intercepted their progress.
"Now, then, young fellows, what is it?"
"We want to see the manager, please," said Horace.
"No use to-day, my lad. No boys wanted; we're full up."
"We want to see the manager," said Reginald, offended at the man's tone, and not disposed to humour it.
"Tell you we want no boys; can't you see the notice up outside?"
"Look here!" said Reginald, firing up, and heedless of his brother's deprecating look; "we don't want any of your cheek. Tell the manager we're here, will you, and look sharp?"
The timekeeper stared at the boy in amazement for a moment, and then broke out with,—
"Take your hook, do you hear, you—or I'll warm you."
"It's a mistake," put in Horace, hurriedly. "Mr Richmond said we were to come here to see the manager at nine o'clock."
"And couldn't you have said so at first?" growled the man, with his hand still on his ruler, and glaring at Reginald, "without giving yourselves airs as if you were gentry? Go on in, and don't stand gaping there."
"For goodness' sake, Reg," whispered Horace, as they knocked at the manager's door, "don't flare up like that, you'll spoil all our chance."
Reg said nothing, but he breathed hard, and his face was angry still.
"Come in!" cried a sharp voice, in answer to their knock.
They obeyed, and found a man standing with a pen in his mouth at a desk, searching through a file of papers. He went on with his work till he found what he wanted, apparently quite unconscious of the boys' presence. Then he rang a bell for an overseer, whistled down a tube for a clerk, and shouted out of the door for a messenger, and gave orders to each. Then he sent for some one else, and gave him a scolding that made the unlucky recipient's hair stand on end; then he received a visit from a friend, with whom he chatted and joked for a pleasant quarter of an hour; then he took up the morning paper and skimmed through it, whistling to himself as he did so; then he rang another bell and told the errand-boy who answered it to bring him in at one o'clock sharp a large boiled beef underdone, with carrots and turnips, and a pint of "s. and b." (whatever that might mean). Then he suddenly became aware of the fact that he had visitors, and turned inquiringly to the two boys.
"Mr Richmond—" began Horace, in answer to his look.
But the manager cut him short.
"Oh, ah! yes," he said. "Nuisance! Go to the composing-room and ask for Mr Durfy."
Saying which he sat down again at his desk, and became absorbed in his papers.
It was hardly a flattering reception, and gave our heroes very little chance of showing off their classical proficiency. They had at least expected, as Mr Richmond's nominees, rather more than a half glance from the manager; and to be thus summarily turned over to a Mr Durfy before they had as much as opened their mouths was decidedly unpromising.
Reginald did make one feeble effort to prolong the interview, and to impress the manager at the same time.
"Excuse me," said he, in his politest tones, "would you mind directing us to the composing-room? My brother and I don't know the geography of the place yet."
"Eh? Composing-room? Get a boy to show you. Plenty outside."
It was no go, evidently; and they turned dismally from the room.
The errand-boy was coming up the passage as they emerged—the same errand-boy they had seen half an hour ago in the manager's room; but, as their classical friends would say—
"Quantum mutatus ab illo Hectore!"
His two arms were strung with the handles of frothing tin cans from the elbow to the wrist. He carried two tin cans in his mouth. His apron was loaded to bursting with bread, fish, cheese, potatoes, and other edibles; the necks of bottles protruded from all his pocket's,—from the bosom of his jacket and from the fob of his breeches,—and round his neck hung a ponderous chain of onions. In short, the errand-boy was busy; and our heroes, even with their short experience of business life, saw that there was little hope of extracting information from him under present circumstances.
So they let him pass, and waited for another. They had not to wait long, for the passage appeared to be a regular highway for the junior members of the staff of the Rocket Newspaper Company, Limited. But though several boys came, it was some time before one appeared whose convenience it suited to conduct our heroes to the presence of Mr Durfy. Just, however, as their patience was getting exhausted, and Reginald was making up his mind to shake the dust of the place from his feet, a boy appeared and offered to escort them to the composing-room.
They followed him up several flights of a rickety staircase, and down some labyrinthine passages to a large room where some forty or fifty men were busy setting up type. At the far end of this room, at a small table, crowded with "proofs," sat a red-faced individual whom the boy pointed out as "Duffy."
"Well, now, what do you want?" asked he, as the brothers approached.
"The manager said we were to ask for Mr Durfy," said Reginald.
"I wish to goodness he'd keep you down there; he knows I'm crowded out with boys. He always serves me that way, and I'll tell him so one of these days."
This last speech, though apparently addressed to the boys, was really a soliloquy on Mr Durfy's part; but for all that it failed to enchant his audience. They had not, in their most sanguine moments, expected much, but this was even rather less than they had counted on.
Mr Durfy mused for some time, then, turning to Reginald, he said,—
"Do you know your letters?"
Here was a question to put to the captain of the fifth at Wilderham!
"I believe I do," said Reginald, with a touch of scorn in his voice which was quite lost on the practical Mr Durfy.
"What do you mean by believe? Do you, or do you not?"
"Of course I do."
"Then why couldn't you say so at once? Take this bit of copy and set it up at that case there. And you, young fellow, take these proofs to the sub-editor's room, and say I've not had the last sheet of the copy of the railway accident yet, and I'm standing for it. Cut away."
Horace went off.
"After all," thought he to himself, "what's the use of being particular? I suppose I'm what they call a 'printer's devil'; nothing like starting modestly! Here goes for my lords the sub-editors, and the last page of the railway accident."
And he spent a festive ten-minutes hunting out the sub-editor's domains, and possessing himself of the missing copy.
With Reginald, however, it fared otherwise. A fellow may be head of the fifth at a public school, and yet not know his letters in a printing- office, and after five or ten-minutes' hopeless endeavour to comprehend the geography of a typecase, he was obliged to acknowledge himself beaten and apprise Mr Durfy of the fact.
"I'm sorry I misunderstood you," said he, putting the copy down on the table. "I'm not used to printing."
"No," said Mr Durfy, scornfully, "I guessed not. You're too stuck-up for us, I can tell you. Here, Barber."
An unhealthy-looking young man answered to the name.
"Take this chap here to the back case-room, and see he sweeps it out and dusts the cases. See if that'll suit your abilities, my dandy"; and without waiting to hear Reginald's explanations or remonstrances, Mr Durfy walked off, leaving the unlucky boy in the hands of Mr Barber.
"Now, then, stir your stumps, Mr Dandy," said the latter. "It'll take you all your time to get that shop straight, I can tell you, so you'd better pull up your boots. Got a broom?"
"No," muttered Reg, through his teeth, "I've not got a broom."
"Go and get that one, then, out of the corner there."
Reginald flushed crimson, and hesitated a moment.
"Do you 'ear? Are you deaf? Get that one there."
Reginald got it, and trailing it behind him dismally, followed his guide to the back case-room. It was a small room, which apparently had known neither broom nor water for years. The floor was thick with dirt, and the cases ranged in the racks against the walls were coated with dust.
"There you are," said Mr Barber. "Open the window, do you 'ear? and don't let none of the dust get out into the composing-room, or there'll be a row. Come and tell me when you've done the floor, and I'll show you 'ow to do them cases. Rattle along, do you 'ear? or you won't get it done to-day;" and Mr Barber, who had had his day of sweeping out the shops, departed, slamming the door behind him.
Things had come to a crisis with Reginald Cruden early in his business career.
He had come into the City that morning prepared to face a good deal. He had not counted on much sympathy or consideration from his new employers; he had even vaguely made up his mind he would have to rough it at first; but to be shut up in a dirty room with a broom in his hand by a cad who could not even talk grammar was a humiliation on which he had never once calculated.
Tossing the broom unceremoniously into a corner, he opened the door and walked out of the room. Barber was already out of sight, chuckling inwardly over the delicious task he had been privileged to set to his dandy subordinate, and none of the men working near knew or cared what this pale, handsome new boy did either in or out of the back case-room.
Reginald walked through them to the passage outside, not much caring where he went or whom he met. If he were to meet Mr Barber, or Mr Durfy, or the manager himself, so much the better. As it happened, he met Horace, looking comparatively cheerful, with some papers in his hand.
"Hullo, Reg," said he; "have they promoted you to a 'printer's devil' too? Fancy what Bland would say if he saw us! Never mind, there's four hours gone, and in about another six we shall be home with mother again."
"I shall be home before then," said Reg. "I'm going now. I can't stand it, Horace."
Horace stared at his brother in consternation.
"Oh, Reg, old man, you mustn't; really you mustn't. Do let's stick together, however miserable it is. It's sure to seem worse at first."
"It's all very well for you, Horace, doing messenger work. You haven't been set to sweep out a room."
"Whew! that is a drop too much! But," he added, taking his brother's arm, "don't cut it yet, old man, for mother's sake, don't. I'll come and help you do it if I can. Why couldn't they have given it me to do, and let you go the messages!"
Reginald said nothing, but let his brother lead him back slowly to the big room presided over by Mr Durfy.
"Where is it?" Horace inquired of him at the door.
"That little room in the corner."
"All right. I'll come if I possibly can. Do try it, old man, won't you?"
"I'll try it," said Reginald, with something very like a groan as he opened the door and walked grimly back to the back case-room.
Horace, full of fear and trembling on his brother's account, hurried with his copy to Mr Durfy, and waited impatiently till that grandee condescended to relieve him of it.
"Is there anything else?" he inquired, as he gave it up.
"Anything else? Yes, plenty; but don't come bothering me now."
Horace waited for no more elaborate statement of Mr Durfy's wishes, but thankfully withdrew, and made straight for Reginald.
He found him half hidden, half choked by the dust of his own raising, as he drew his broom in a spiritless way across the black dry floor.
He paused in his occupation as Horace entered, and for a moment, as the two stood face to face coughing and sneezing, a sense of the ludicrous overcame them, and they finished up their duet with a laugh.
"I say," said Horace, as soon as he could get words, "I fancy a little water would be an improvement here."
"Where are we to get it from?" said Reg.
"I suppose there must be some about. Shall I go and see?"
"We might tip one of those fellows outside a sixpence to go and get us some."
"Hold hard, old man!" said Horace, laughing again. "We're not so flush of sixpences as all that. I guess if we want any water we shall have to get it ourselves. I'll be back directly."
Poor Reg, spirited up for a while by his brother's courage, proceeded more gingerly with his sweeping, much amazed in the midst of his misery to discover how many walks in life there are beyond the capacity even of the captain of the fifth of a public school.
He was not, however, destined on the present occasion to perfect himself in the one that was then engaging his attention. Horace had scarcely disappeared in quest of water when the door opened, and no less a personage than the manager himself entered the room.
He was evidently prepared neither for the dust nor the duster, and started back for a moment, as though he were under the impression that the clouds filling the apartment were clouds of smoke, and Reginald was another Guy Fawkes caught in the act. He recovered himself shortly, however, and demanded sharply,—
"What are you doing here, making all this mess?"
"I'm trying to carry out Mr Durfy's instructions," replied Reginald, leaning on his broom, and not at all displeased at the interruption.
"Durfy's instructions? What do you mean, sir?"
"That will do. Here you," said the manager, opening the door, and speaking to the nearest workman, "tell Mr Durfy to step here."
Mr Durfy appeared in a very brief space.
"Durfy," said the manager, wrathfully, "what do you mean by having this room in such a filthy mess? Aren't your instructions to have it swept out once a week? When was it swept last?"
"Some little time ago. We've been so busy in our department, sir, that—"
"Yes, I know; you always say that. I'm sick of hearing it. Don't let me find this sort of thing again. Send some one at once to sweep it out; this lad doesn't know how to hold a broom. Take care it's done by four o'clock, and ready for use. Pheugh! it's enough to choke one."
And the manager went off in a rage, coughing.
Satisfactory as this was, in a certain sense, for Reginald, it was not a flattering way of ending his difficulties, nor did the spirit in which Mr Durfy accepted his chief's reprimand at all tend to restore him to cheerfulness.
"Bah, you miserable idiot, you! Give up that broom, and get out of this, or I'll chuck you out."
"I don't think you will," said Reginald, coolly dropping the broom and facing his enemy.
He was happier at that moment than he had been for a long time. He could imagine himself back at Wilderham, with the school bully shouting at him, and his spirits rose within him accordingly.
"What do you say? you hugger-mugger puppy you—you—"
Mr Durfy's adjectives frequently had the merit of being more forcible than appropriate, and on the present occasion, what with the dust and his own rage, the one he wanted stuck in his throat altogether.
"I said I don't think you will," repeated Reginald.
Mr Durfy looked at his man and hesitated. Reginald stood five foot nine, and his shoulders were square and broad, besides, he was as cool as a cucumber, and didn't even trouble to take his hands out of his pockets. All this Mr Durfy took in, and did not relish; but he must not cave in too precipitately, so he replied, with a sneer,—
"Think! A lot you know about thinking! Can't even hold a broom. Clear out of here, I tell you, double quick; do you hear?"
Reginald's spirits fell. It was clear from Mr Durfy's tone he was not going to attempt to "chuck him out," and nothing therefore could be gained by remaining.
He turned scornfully on his heel, knowing that he had made one enemy, at any rate, during his short connection with his new business.
And if he had known all, he could have counted two; for Mr Durfy, finding himself in a mood to wreak his wrath on some one, summoned the ill-favoured Barber to sweep out the back case-room, and gave his orders so viciously that Barber felt distinctly aggrieved, and jumping to the conclusion that Reginald had somehow contrived to turn the tables on him, he registered a secret vow, there and then, that he would on the first opportunity, and on all subsequent opportunities, be square with that luckless youth.
Caring very little about who hated him or who liked him, Reginald wandered forth, to intercept the faithful Horace with the now unnecessary water; and the two boys, finding very little to occupy them during the rest of the day, remained in comparative seclusion until the seven o'clock bell rang, when they walked home, possibly wiser, and certainly sadder, for their first day with the Rocket Newspaper Company, Limited.
THE CRUDENS AT HOME.
If anything could have made up to the two boys for the hardships and miseries of the day, it was the sight of their mother's bright face as she awaited them that evening at the door of Number 6, Dull Street. If the day had been a sad and lonely one for Mrs Cruden, she was not the woman to betray the secret to her sons; and, indeed, the happiness of seeing them back was enough to drive away all other care for the time being.
Shabby as the lodgings were, and lacking in all the comforts and luxuries of former days, the little family felt that evening, as they gathered round the tea-table and unburdened their hearts to one another, more of the true meaning of the word "home" than they had ever done before.
"Now, dear boys," said Mrs Cruden, when the meal was over, and they drew their chairs to the open window, "I'm longing to hear your day's adventures. How did you get on? Was it as bad as you expected?"
"It wasn't particularly jolly," said Reginald, shrugging his shoulders—"nothing like Wilderham, was it, Horrors?"
"Well, it was a different sort of fun, certainly," said Horace. "You see, mother, our education has been rather neglected in some things, so we didn't get on as well as we might have done."
"Do you mean in the literary work?" said Mrs Cruden. "I'm quite sure you'll get into it with a little practice."
"But it's not the literary work, unluckily," said Reginald.
"Ah! you mean clerk's work. You aren't as quick at figures, perhaps, as you might be?"
"That's not exactly it," said Horace. "The fact is, mother, we're neither in the literary not the clerical department. I'm a 'printer's devil'!"
"Oh, Horace! what do you mean?" said the horrified mother.
"Oh, I'm most innocently employed. I run messages; I fetch and carry for a gentleman called Durfy. He gives me some parliamentary news to carry to one place, and some police news to carry to another place—and, by-the-way, they read very much alike—and when I'm not running backwards or forwards I have to sit on a stool and watch him, and be ready to jump up and wag my tail the moment he whistles. It's a fact, mother! Think of getting eighteen shillings a week for that! It's a fraud!"
Mrs Cruden could hardly tell whether to laugh or cry.
"My poor boy!" she murmured; then, turning to Reginald, she said, "And what do you do, Reg?"
"Oh, I sweep rooms," said Reg, solemnly; "but they've got such a shocking bad broom there that I can't make it act. If you could give me a new broom-head, mother, and put me up to a dodge or two about working out corners, I might rise in my profession!"
There was a tell-tale quaver in the speaker's voice which made this jaunty speech a very sad one to the mother's ears. It was all she could do to conceal her misery, and when Horace came to the rescue with a racy account of the day's proceedings, told in his liveliest manner, she was glad to turn her head and hide from her boys the trouble in her face.
However, she soon recovered herself, and by the time Horace's story was done she was ready to join her smiles with those which the history had drawn even from Reginald's serious countenance.
"After all," said she, presently, "we must be thankful for what we have. Some one was saying the other day there never was a time when so many young fellows were out of work and thankful to get anything to do. And it's very likely too, Reg, that just now, when they seem rather in confusion at the office, they really haven't time to see about what your regular work is to be. Wait a little, and they're sure to find out your value."
"They seem to have done that already as far as sweeping is concerned. The manager said I didn't know how to hold a broom. I was quite offended," said Reginald.
"You are a dear brave pair of boys!" said the mother, warmly; "and I am prouder of you in your humble work than if you were kings!"
"Hullo," said Horace, "there's some one coming up our stairs!"
Sure enough there was, and more than one person, as it happened. There was a knock at the door, followed straightway by the entrance of an elderly lady, accompanied by a young lady and a young gentleman, who sailed into the room, much to the amazement and consternation of its occupants.
"Mrs Cruden, I believe?" said the elderly lady, in her politest tones.
"Yes," replied the owner of that name.
"Let me hintroduce myself—Mrs Captain Shuckleford, my son and daughter—neighbours of yours, Mrs Cruden, and wishing to be friendly. We're sorry to hear of your trouble; very trying it is. My 'usband, Mrs Cruden, has gone too."
"Pray take a seat," said Mrs Cruden. "Reg, will you put chairs?"
Reg obeyed, with a groan.
"These are your boys, are they?" said the visitor, eyeing the youths. "Will you come and shake 'ands with me, Reggie? What a dear, good- looking boy he is, Mrs Cruden! And 'ow do you do, too, my man?" said she, addressing Horace. "Pretty well? And what do they call you?"
"My name is Horace," said "my man," blushing very decidedly, and retreating precipitately to a far corner of the room.
"Ah, dear me! And my 'usband's name, Mrs Cruden, was 'Oward. I never 'ear the name without affliction."
This was very awkward, for as the unfortunate widow could not fail to hear her own voice, it was necessary for consistency's sake that she should show some emotion, which she proceeded to do, when her daughter hurriedly interposed in an audible whisper, "Ma, don't make a goose of yourself! Behave yourself, do!"
"So I am be'aving myself, Jemima," replied the outraged parent, "and I don't need lessons from you."
"It's very kind of you to call in," said Mrs Cruden, feeling it time to say something; "do you live near here?"
"We live next door, at number four," said Miss Jemima; "put that handkerchief away, ma."
"What next, I wonder! if my 'andkerchief's not my hown, I'd like to know what is? Yes, Mrs Cruden. We heard you were coming, and we wish to treat you with consideration, knowing your circumstances. It's all one gentlefolk can do to another. Yes, and I 'ope the boys will be good friends. Sam, talk to the boys."
Sam needed no such maternal encouragement, as it happened, and had already swaggered up to Horace with a familiar air.
"Jolly weather, ain't it?"
"Yes," said Horace, looking round wildly for any avenue of escape, but finding none.
"Pretty hot in your shop, ain't it?" said the lawyer's clerk.
"Yes," again said Horace, with a peculiar tingling sensation in his toes which his visitor little dreamed of.
Horace was not naturally a short-tempered youth, but there was something in the tone of this self-satisfied lawyer's clerk which raised his dander.
"Not much of a berth, is it?" pursued the catechist.
"No," said Horace.
"Not a very chirrupy screw, so I'm told—eh?"
This was rather too much. Either Horace must escape by flight, which would be ignominious, or he must knock his visitor down, which would be rude, or he must grin and bear it. The middle course was what he most inclined to, but failing that, he decided on the latter.
So he shook his head and waited patiently for the next question.
"What do you do, eh? dirty work, ain't it?"
"Yes, isn't yours?" said Horace, in a tone that rather surprised the limb of the law.
"Mine? No. What makes you ask that?" he inquired.
"Only because I thought I'd like to know," said Horace artlessly.
Mr Shuckleford looked perplexed. He didn't understand exactly what Horace meant, and yet, whatever it was, it put him off the thread of his discourse for a time. So he changed the subject.
"I once thought of going into business myself," he said; "but they seemed to think I'd do better at the law. Same time, don't think I'm a nailer on business chaps. I know one or two very respectable chaps in business."
"Do you?" replied Horace, with a touch of satire in his voice which was quite lost on the complacent Sam.
"Yes. Why, in our club—do you know our club?"
"No," said Horace.
"Oh—I must take you one evening—yes, in our club we've a good many business chaps—well-behaved chaps, too."
Horace hardly looked as overwhelmed by this announcement as his visitor expected.
"Would you like to join?"
"No, thank you."
"Eh? you're afraid of being black-balled, I suppose? No fear, I can work it with them. I can walk round any of them, I let you know; they wouldn't do it, especially when they knew I'd a fancy for you, my boy."
If Horace was grateful for this expression of favour, he managed to conceal his feelings wonderfully well. At the same time he had sense enough to see that, vulgar and conceited as Samuel Shuckleford was, he meant to be friendly, and inwardly gave him credit accordingly.
He did his best to be civil, and to listen to all the bumptious talk of his visitor patiently, and Sam rattled away greatly to his own satisfaction, fully believing he was impressing his hearer with a sense of his importance, and cheering his heart by the promise of his favours and protection.
With the unlucky Reginald, meanwhile, it fared far less comfortably.
"Jemima, my dear," said Mrs Shuckleford, who in all her domestic confidences to Mrs Cruden kept a sharp eye on her family—"Jemima, my dear, I think Reggie would like to show you his album!"
An electric shock could not have startled and confused our hero more. It was bad enough to hear himself called "Reggie," but that was nothing to the assumption that he was pining to make himself agreeable to Miss Jemima—he to whom any lady except his mother was a cause of trepidation, and to whom a female like Miss Jemima was nothing short of an ogress!
"I've not got an album," he gasped, with an appealing look towards his mother.
But before Mrs Cruden could interpose to rescue him, the ladylike Miss Jemima, who had already regarded the good-looking shy youth with approval, entered the lists on her own account, and moving her chair a trifle in his direction, said, in a confidential whisper,—
"Ma thinks we're not a very sociable couple, that's what it is."
A couple! He and Jemima a couple! Reginald was ready to faint, and looked towards the open window as if he meditated a headlong escape that way. As to any other way of escape, that was impossible, for he was fairly cornered between the enemy and the wall, and unless he were to cut his way through the one or the other, he must sit where he was.
"I hope you don't mind talking to me, Mr Reggie," continued the young lady, when Reginald gave no symptom of having heard the last observation. "We shall have to be friends, you know, now we are neighbours. So you haven't got an album?"
This abrupt question drove poor Reginald still further into the corner. What business was it of hers whether he had got an album or not? What right had she to pester him with questions like that in his own house? In fact, what right had she and her mother and her brother to come there at all? Those were the thoughts that passed through his mind, and as they did so indignation got the better of good manners and everything else.
"Find out," he said.
He could have bitten his tongue off the moment he had spoken. For Reginald was a gentleman, and the sound of these rude words in his own voice startled him into a sense of shame and confusion tenfold worse than any Miss Shuckleford had succeeded in producing.
"I beg your pardon," he gasped hurriedly. "I—I didn't mean to be rude."
Now was the hour of Miss Jemima's triumph. She had the unhappy youth at her mercy, and she took full advantage of her power. She forgave him, and made him sit and listen to her and answer her questions for as long as she chose; and if ever he showed signs of mutiny, the slightest hint, such as "You'll be telling me to mind my own business again," was enough to reduce him to instant subjection.
It was a bad quarter of an hour for Reginald, and the climax arrived when presently Mrs Shuckleford looked towards them and said across the room,—
"Now I wonder what you two young people are talking about in that snug corner. Oh, never mind, if it's secrets! Nice it is, Mrs Cruden, to see young people such good friends so soon. We must be going now, children," she added. "We shall soon see our friends in our own 'ouse, I 'ope."
A tender leave-taking ensued. For a while, as the retreating footsteps of the visitors gradually died away on the stairs, the little family stood motionless, as though the slightest sound might recall them. But when at last the street-door slammed below, Reginald flung himself into a chair and groaned.
"Mother, we can't stay here. We must leave to-morrow!"
Horace could not help laughing.
"Why, Reg," he said, "you seemed to be enjoying yourself no end."
"Shut up, Horace, it's nothing to laugh about."
"My dear boy," said Mrs Cruden, "you think far more about it than you need. After all, they seem kindly disposed persons, and I don't think we should be unfriendly."
"That's all very well," said Reg, "if there was no Jemima in the question."
"I should say it's all very well," said Horace, "if there was no Sam in the question; though I dare say he means to be friendly. But didn't you and Jemima hit it, then, Reg? I quite thought you did."
"Didn't I tell you to shut up?" repeated Reg, this time half angrily. "I don't see, mother," he added, "however poor we are, we are called on to associate with a lot like that."
"They have not polished manners, certainly," said Mrs Cruden; "but I do think they are good-natured, and that's a great thing."
"I should think so," said Horace. "What do you think? Samuel wants to propose me for his club, which seems to be a very select affair."
"All I know is," said Reginald, "nothing will induce me to go into their house. It may be rude, but I'm certain I'd be still more rude if I did go."
"Well," said Horace, "I vote we take a walk, as it's a fine evening. I feel a trifle warm after it all. What do you say?"
They said Yes, and in the empty streets that evening the mother and her two sons walked happy in one another's company, and trying each in his or her own way to gain courage for the days of trial that were to follow.
The brothers had a short consultation that night as they went to bed, not on the subject of their next door neighbours.