The Blotting Book
By E. F. BENSON
Mrs. Assheton's house in Sussex Square, Brighton, was appointed with that finish of smooth stateliness which robs stateliness of its formality, and conceals the amount of trouble and personal attention which has, originally in any case, been spent on the production of the smoothness. Everything moved with the regularity of the solar system, and, superior to that wild rush of heavy bodies through infinite ether, there was never the slightest fear of comets streaking their unconjectured way across the sky, or meteorites falling on unsuspicious picnicers. In Mrs. Assheton's house, supreme over climatic conditions, nobody ever felt that rooms were either too hot or too cold, a pleasantly fresh yet comfortably warm atmosphere pervaded the place, meals were always punctual and her admirable Scotch cook never served up a dish which, whether plain or ornate, was not, in its way, perfectly prepared. A couple of deft and noiseless parlour-maids attended to and anticipated the wants of her guests, from the moment they entered her hospitable doors till when, on their leaving them, their coats were held for them in the most convenient possible manner for the easy insertion of the human arm, and the tails of their dinner-coats cunningly and unerringly tweaked from behind. In every way in fact the house was an example of perfect comfort; the softest carpets overlaid the floors, or, where the polished wood was left bare, the parquetry shone with a moonlike radiance; the newest and most entertaining books (ready cut) stood on the well-ordered shelves in the sitting-room to beguile the leisure of the studiously minded; the billiard table was always speckless of dust, no tip was ever missing from any cue, and the cigarette boxes and match-stands were always kept replenished. In the dining-room the silver was resplendent, until the moment when before dessert the cloth was withdrawn, and showed a rosewood table that might have served for a mirror to Narcissus.
Mrs. Assheton, until her only surviving son Morris had come to live with her some three months ago on the completion of his four years at Cambridge, had been alone, but even when she was alone this ceremony of drawing the cloth and putting on the dessert and wine had never been omitted, though since she never took either, it might seem to be a wasted piece of routine on the part of the two noiseless parlourmaids. But she did not in the least consider it so, for just as she always dressed for dinner herself with the same care and finish, whether she was going to dine alone or whether, as tonight, a guest or two was dining with her, as an offering, so to speak, on the altar of her own self-respect, so also she required self-respect and the formality that indicated it on the part of those who ministered at her table, and enjoyed such excellent wages. This pretty old-fashioned custom had always been the rule in her own home, and her husband had always had it practised during his life. And since then—his death had occurred some twenty years ago—nothing that she knew of had happened to make it less proper or desirable. Kind of heart and warm of soul though she was, she saw no reason for letting these excellent qualities cover any slackness or breach of observance in the social form of life to which she had been accustomed. There was no cause, because one was kind and wise, to eat with badly cleaned silver, unless the parlour-maid whose office it was to clean it was unwell. In such a case, if the extra work entailed by her illness would throw too much on the shoulders of the other servants, Mrs. Assheton would willingly clean the silver herself, rather than that it should appear dull and tarnished. Her formalism, such as it was, was perfectly simple and sincere. She would, without any very poignant regret or sense of martyrdom, had her very comfortable income been cut down to a tenth of what it was, have gone to live in a four-roomed cottage with one servant. But she would have left that four-roomed cottage at once for even humbler surroundings had she found that her straitened circumstances did not permit her to keep it as speckless and soignee as was her present house in Sussex Square.
This achievement of having lived for nearly sixty years so decorously may perhaps be a somewhat finer performance than it sounds, but Mrs. Assheton brought as her contribution to life in general a far finer offering than that, for though she did not propose to change her ways and manner of life herself, she was notoriously sympathetic with the changed life of the younger generation, and in consequence had the confidence of young folk generally. At this moment she was enjoying the fruits of her liberal attitude in the volubility of her son Morris, who sat at the end of the table opposite to her. His volubility was at present concerned with his motor-car, in which he had arrived that afternoon.
"Darling mother," he was saying, "I really was frightened as to whether you would mind. I couldn't help remembering how you received Mr. Taynton's proposal that you should go for a drive in his car. Don't you remember, Mr. Taynton? Mother's nose did go in the air. It's no use denying it. So I thought, perhaps, that she wouldn't like my having one. But I wanted it so dreadfully, and so I bought it without telling her, and drove down in it to-day, which is my birthday, so that she couldn't be too severe."
Mr. Taynton, while Morris was speaking, had picked up the nutcrackers the boy had been using, and was gravely exploding the shells of the nuts he had helped himself to. So Morris cracked the next one with a loud bang between his white even teeth.
"Dear Morris," said his mother, "how foolish of you. Give Mr. Morris another nutcracker," she added to the parlour-maid.
"What's foolish?" asked he, cracking another.
"Oh Morris, your teeth," she said. "Do wait a moment. Yes, that's right. And how can you say that my nose went in the air? I'm sure Mr. Taynton will agree with me that that is really libellous. And as for your being afraid to tell me you had bought a motor-car yourself, why, that is sillier than cracking nuts with your teeth."
Mr. Taynton laughed a comfortable middle-aged laugh.
"Don't put the responsibility on me, Mrs. Assheton," he said. "As long as Morris's bank doesn't tell us that his account is overdrawn, he can do what he pleases. But if we are told that, then down comes the cartloads of bricks."
"Oh, you are a brick all right, Mr. Taynton," said the boy. "I could stand a cartload of you."
Mr. Taynton, like his laugh, was comfortable and middle-aged. Solicitors are supposed to be sharp-faced and fox-like, but his face was well-furnished and comely, and his rather bald head beamed with benevolence and dinner.
"My dear boy," he said, "and it is your birthday—I cannot honour either you or this wonderful port more properly than by drinking your health in it."
He began and finished his glass to the health he had so neatly proposed, and Morris laughed.
"Thank you very much," he said. "Mother, do send the port round. What an inhospitable woman!"
Mrs. Assheton rose.
"I will leave you to be more hospitable than me, then, dear," she said.
"Shall we go, Madge? Indeed, I am afraid you must, if you are to catch the train to Falmer."
Madge Templeton got up with her hostess, and the two men rose too. She had been sitting next Morris, and the boy looked at her eagerly.
"It's too bad, your having to go," he said. "But do you think I may come over to-morrow, in the afternoon some time, and see you and Lady Templeton?"
Madge paused a moment.
"I am so sorry," she said, "but we shall be away all day. We shan't be back till quite late."
"Oh, what a bore," said he, "and I leave again on Friday. Do let me come and see you off then."
But Mrs. Assheton interposed.
"No, dear," she said, "I am going to have five minutes' talk with Madge before she goes and we don't want you. Look after Mr. Taynton. I know he wants to talk to you and I want to talk to Madge."
Mr. Taynton, when the door had closed behind the ladies, sat down again with a rather obvious air of proposing to enjoy himself. It was quite true that he had a few pleasant things to say to Morris, it is also true that he immensely appreciated the wonderful port which glowed, ruby-like, in the nearly full decanter that lay to his hand. And, above all, he, with his busy life, occupied for the most part in innumerable small affairs, revelled in the sense of leisure and serene smoothness which permeated Mrs. Assheton's house. He was still a year or two short of sixty, and but for his very bald and shining head would have seemed younger, so fresh was he in complexion, so active, despite a certain reassuring corpulency, was he in his movements. But when he dined quietly like this, at Mrs. Assheton's, he would willingly have sacrificed the next five years of his life if he could have been assured on really reliable authority—the authority for instance of the Recording Angel—that in five years time he would be able to sit quiet and not work any more. He wanted very much to be able to take a passive instead of an active interest in life, and this a few hundreds of pounds a year in addition to his savings would enable him to do. He saw, in fact, the goal arrived at which he would be able to sit still and wait with serenity and calmness for the event which would certainly relieve him of all further material anxieties. His very active life, the activities of which were so largely benevolent, had at the expiration of fifty-eight years a little tired him. He coveted the leisure which was so nearly his.
Morris lit a cigarette for himself, having previously passed the wine to Mr. Taynton.
"I hate port," he said, "but my mother tells me this is all right. It was laid down the year I was born by the way. You don't mind my smoking do you?"
This, to tell the truth, seemed almost sacrilegious to Mr. Taynton, for the idea that tobacco, especially the frivolous cigarette, should burn in a room where such port was being drunk was sheer crime against human and divine laws. But he could scarcely indicate to his host that he should not smoke in his own dining-room.
"No, my dear Morris," he said, "but really you almost shock me, when you prefer tobacco to this nectar, I assure you nectar. And the car, now, tell me more about the car."
"I'm so deeply thankful I haven't overdrawn," he said. "Oh, the car's a clipper. We came down from Haywards Heath the most gorgeous pace. I saw one policeman trying to take my number, but we raised such a dust, I don't think he can have been able to see it. It's such rot only going twenty miles an hour with a clear straight road ahead."
Mr. Taynton sighed, gently and not unhappily.
"Yes, yes, my dear boy, I so sympathise with you," he said. "Speed and violence is the proper attitude of youth, just as strength with a more measured pace is the proper gait for older folk. And that, I fancy is just what Mrs. Assheton felt. She would feel it to be as unnatural in you to care to drive with her in her very comfortable victoria as she would feel it to be unnatural in herself to wish to go in your lightning speed motor. And that reminds me. As your trustee—"
Coffee was brought in at this moment, carried, not by one of the discreet parlour-maids, but by a young man-servant. Mr. Taynton, with the port still by him, refused it, but looked rather curiously at the servant. Morris however mixed himself a cup in which cream, sugar, and coffee were about equally mingled.
"A new servant of your mother's?" he asked, when the man had left the room.
"Oh no. It's my man, Martin. Awfully handy chap. Cleans silver, boots and the motor. Drives it, too, when I'll let him, which isn't very often. Chauffeurs are such rotters, aren't they? Regular chauffeurs I mean. They always make out that something is wrong with the car, just as dentists always find some hole in your teeth, if you go to them."
Mr. Taynton did not reply to these critical generalities but went back to what he had been saying when the entry of coffee interrupted him.
"As your mother said," he remarked, "I wanted to have a few words with you. You are twenty-two, are you not, to-day? Well, when I was young we considered anyone of twenty-two a boy still, but now I think young fellows grow up more quickly, and at twenty-two, you are a man nowadays, and I think it is time for you, since my trusteeship for you may end any day now, to take a rather more active interest in the state of your finances than you have hitherto done. I want you in fact, my dear fellow, to listen to me for five minutes while I state your position to you."
Morris indicated the port again, and Mr. Taynton refilled his glass.
"I have had twenty years of stewardship for you," he went on, "and before my stewardship comes to an end, which it will do anyhow in three years from now, and may come to an end any day—"
"Why, how is that?" asked Morris.
"If you marry, my dear boy. By the terms of your father's will, your marriage, provided it takes place with your mother's consent, and after your twenty-second birthday, puts you in complete control and possession of your fortune. Otherwise, as of course you know, you come of age, legally speaking, on your twenty-fifth birthday."
Morris lit another cigarette rather impatiently.
"Yes, I knew I was a minor till I was twenty-five," he said, "and I suppose I have known that if I married after the age of twenty-two, I became a major, or whatever you call it. But what then? Do let us go and play billiards, I'll give you twenty-five in a hundred, because I've been playing a lot lately, and I'll bet half a crown."
Mr. Taynton's fist gently tapped the table.
"Done," he said, "and we will play in five minutes. But I have something to say to you first. Your mother, as you know, enjoys the income of the bulk of your father's property for her lifetime. Outside that, he left this much smaller capital of which, as also of her money, my partner and I are trustees. The sum he left you was thirty thousand pounds. It is now rather over forty thousand pounds, since we have changed the investments from time to time, and always, I am glad to say, with satisfactory results. The value of her property has gone up also in a corresponding degree. That, however, does not concern you. But since you are now twenty-two, and your marriage would put the whole of this smaller sum into your hands, would it not be well for you to look through our books, to see for yourself the account we render of our stewardship?"
"But for what reason?" he asked. "You tell me that my portion has increased in value by ten thousand pounds. I am delighted to hear it. And I thank you very much. And as for—"
He broke off short, and Mr. Taynton let a perceptible pause follow before he interrupted.
"As for the possibility of your marrying?" he suggested.
Morris gave him a quick, eager, glance.
"Yes, I think there is that possibility," he said. "I hope—I hope it is not far distant."
"My dear boy—" said the lawyer.
"Ah, not a word. I don't know—"
Morris pushed his chair back quickly, and stood up—his tall slim figure outlined against the sober red of the dining-room wall. A plume of black hair had escaped from his well-brushed head and hung over his forehead, and his sun-tanned vivid face looked extraordinarily handsome. His mother's clear-cut energetic features were there, with the glow and buoyancy of youth kindling them. Violent vitality was his also; his was the hot blood that could do any deed when the life-instinct commanded it. He looked like one of those who could give their body to be burned in the pursuit of an idea, or could as easily steal, or kill, provided only the deed was vitally done in the heat of his blood. Violence was clearly his mode of life: the motor had to go sixty miles an hour; he might be one of those who bathed in the Serpentine in mid-winter; he would clearly dance all night, and ride all day, and go on till he dropped in the pursuit of what he cared for. Mr. Taynton, looking at him as he stood smiling there, in his splendid health and vigour felt all this. He felt, too, that if Morris intended to be married to-morrow morning, matrimony would probably take place.
But Morris's pause, after he pushed his chair back and stood up, was only momentary.
"Good God, yes; I'm in love," he said. "And she probably thinks me a stupid barbarian, who likes only to drive golfballs and motorcars. She—oh, it's hopeless. She would have let me come over to see them to-morrow otherwise."
He paused again.
"And now I've given the whole show away," he said.
Mr. Taynton made a comfortable sort of noise. It was compounded of laughter, sympathy, and comprehension.
"You gave it away long ago, my dear Morris," he said.
"You had guessed?" asked Morris, sitting down again with the same quickness and violence of movement, and putting both his elbows on the table.
"No, my dear boy, you had told me, as you have told everybody, without mentioning it. And I most heartily congratulate you. I never saw a more delightful girl. Professionally also, I feel bound to add that it seems to me a most proper alliance—heirs should always marry heiresses. It"—Mr. Taynton drank off the rest of his port—"it keeps properties together."
Hot blood again dictated to Morris: it seemed dreadful to him that any thought of money or of property could be mentioned in the same breath as that which he longed for. He rose again as abruptly and violently as he had sat down.
"Well, let's play billiards," he said. "I—I don't think you understand a bit. You can't, in fact."
Mr. Taynton stroked the tablecloth for a moment with a plump white forefinger.
"Crabbed age and youth," he remarked. "But crabbed age makes an appeal to youth, if youth will kindly call to mind what crabbed age referred to some five minutes ago. In other words, will you, or will you not, Morris, spend a very dry three hours at my office, looking into the account of my stewardship? There was thirty thousand pounds, and there now is—or should we say 'are'—forty. It will take you not less than two hours, and not more than three. But since my stewardship may come to an end, as I said, any day, I should, not for my own sake, but for yours, wish you to see what we have done for you, and—I own this would be a certain private gratification to me—to learn that you thought that the trust your dear father reposed in us was not misplaced."
There was something about these simple words which touched Morris. For the moment he became almost businesslike. Mr. Taynton had been, as he knew, a friend of his father's, and, as he had said, he had been steward of his own affairs for twenty years. But that reflection banished the businesslike view.
"Oh, but two hours is a fearful time," he said. "You have told me the facts, and they entirely satisfy me. And I want to be out all day to-morrow, as I am only here till the day after. But I shall be down again next week. Let us go into it all then. Not that there is the slightest use in going into anything. And when, Mr. Taynton, I become steward of my own affairs, you may be quite certain that I shall beg you to continue looking after them. Why you gained me ten thousand pounds in these twenty years—I wonder what there would have been to my credit now if I had looked after things myself. But since we are on the subject I should like just this once to assure you of my great gratitude to you, for all you have done. And I ask you, if you will, to look after my affairs in the future with the same completeness as you have always done. My father's will does not prevent that, does it?"
Mr. Taynton looked at the young fellow with affection.
"Dear Morris," he said gaily, "we lawyers and solicitors are always supposed to be sharks, but personally I am not such a shark as that. Are you aware that I am paid L200 a year for my stewardship, which you are entitled to assume for yourself on your marriage, though of course its continuance in my hands is not forbidden in your father's will? You are quite competent to look after your affairs yourself; it is ridiculous for you to continue to pay me this sum. But I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your confidence in me."
A very close observer might have seen that behind Mr. Taynton's kind gay eyes there was sitting a personality, so to speak, that, as his mouth framed these words, was watching Morris rather narrowly and anxiously. But the moment Morris spoke this silent secret watcher popped back again out of sight.
"Well then I ask you as a personal favour," said he, "to continue being my steward. Why, it's good business for me, isn't it? In twenty years you make me ten thousand pounds, and I only pay you L200 a year for it. Please be kind, Mr. Taynton, and continue making me rich. Oh, I'm a jolly hard-headed chap really; I know that it is to my advantage."
Mr. Taynton considered this a moment, playing with his wine glass. Then he looked up quickly.
"Yes, Morris, I will with pleasure do as you ask me," he said.
"Right oh. Thanks awfully. Do come and play billiards."
Morris was in amazing luck that night, and if, as he said, he had been playing a lot lately, the advantage of his practice was seen chiefly in the hideous certainty of his flukes, and the game (though he received twenty-five) left Mr. Taynton half a crown the poorer. Then the winner whirled his guest upstairs again to talk to his mother while he himself went round to the stables to assure himself of the well-being of the beloved motor. Martin had already valeted it, after its run, and was just locking up when Morris arrived.
Morris gave his orders for next day after a quite unnecessary examination into the internal economy of the beloved, and was just going back to the house, when he paused, remembering something.
"Oh Martin," he said, "while I am here, I want you to help in the house, you know at dinner and so on, just as you did to-night. And when there are guests of mine here I want you to look after them. For instance, when Mr. Taynton goes tonight you will be there to give him his hat and coat. You'll have rather a lot to do, I'm afraid."
Morris finished his cigarette and went back to the drawing-room where Mr. Taynton was already engaged in the staid excitements of backgammon with his mother. That game over, Morris took his place, and before long the lawyer rose to go.
"Now I absolutely refuse to let you interrupt your game," he said. "I have found my way out of this house often enough, I should think. Good night, Mrs. Assheton. Good night Morris; don't break your neck my dear boy, in trying to break records."
Morris hardly attended to this, for the game was critical. He just rang the bell, said good night, and had thrown again before the door had closed behind Mr. Taynton. Below, in answer to the bell, was standing his servant.
Mr. Taynton looked at him again with some attention, and then glanced round to see if the discreet parlour-maids were about.
"So you are called Martin now," he observed gently.
"I recognised you at once."
There was a short pause.
"Are you going to tell Mr. Morris, sir?" he asked.
"That I had to dismiss you two years ago for theft?" said Mr. Taynton quietly. "No, not if you behave yourself."
Mr. Taynton looked at him again kindly and sighed.
"No, let bygones be bygones," he said. "You will find your secret is safe enough. And, Martin, I hope you have really turned over a new leaf, and are living honestly now. That is so, my lad? Thank God; thank God. My umbrella? Thanks. Good night. No cab: I will walk."
Mr. Taynton lived in a square, comfortable house in Montpellier Road, and thus, when he left Mrs. Assheton's there was some two miles of pavement and sea front between him and home. But the night was of wonderful beauty, a night of mid June, warm enough to make the most cautious secure of chill, and at the same time just made crisp with a little breeze that blew or rather whispered landward from over the full-tide of the sleeping sea. High up in the heavens swung a glorious moon, which cast its path of white enchanted light over the ripples, and seemed to draw the heart even as it drew the eyes heavenward. Mr. Taynton certainly, as he stepped out beneath the stars, with the sea lying below him, felt, in his delicate and sensitive nature, the charm of the hour, and being a good if not a brisk walker, he determined to go home on foot. And he stepped westward very contentedly.
The evening, it would appear, had much pleased him—for it was long before his smile of retrospective pleasure faded from his pleasant mobile face. Morris's trust and confidence in him had been extraordinarily pleasant to him: and modest and unassuming as he was, he could not help a secret gratification at the thought. What a handsome fellow Morris was too, how gay, how attractive! He had his father's dark colouring, and tall figure, but much of his mother's grace and charm had gone to the modelling of that thin sensitive mouth and the long oval of his face. Yet there was more of the father there, the father's intense, almost violent, vitality was somehow more characteristic of the essential Morris than face or feature.
What a happy thing it was too—here the smile of pleasure illuminated Mr. Taynton's face again—that the boy whom he had dismissed two years before for some petty pilfering in his own house, should have turned out such a promising lad and should have found his way to so pleasant a berth as that of factotum to Morris. Kindly and charitable all through and ever eager to draw out the good in everybody and forgive the bad, Mr. Taynton had often occasion to deplore the hardness and uncharity of a world which remembers youthful errors and hangs them, like a mill-stone, round the neck of the offender, and it warmed his heart and kindled his smile to think of one case at any rate where a youthful misdemeanour was lived down and forgotten. At the time he remembered being in doubt whether he should not give the offender up to justice, for the pilfering, petty though it had been, had been somewhat persistent, but he had taken the more merciful course, and merely dismissed the boy. He had been in two minds about it before, wondering whether it would not be better to let Martin have a sharp lesson, but to-night he was thankful that he had not done so. The mercy he had shown had come back to bless him also; he felt a glow of thankfulness that the subject of his clemency had turned out so well. Punishment often hardens the criminal, was one of his settled convictions. But Morris—again his thoughts went back to Morris, who was already standing on the verge of manhood, on the verge, too, he made no doubt of married life and its joys and responsibilities. Mr. Taynton was himself a bachelor, and the thought gave him not a moment of jealousy, but a moment of void that ached a little at the thought of the common human bliss which he had himself missed. How charming, too, was the girl Madge Templeton, whom he had met, not for the first time, that evening. He himself had guessed how things stood between the two before Morris had confided in him, and it pleased him that his intuition was confirmed. What a pity, however, that the two were not going to meet next day, that she was out with her mother and would not get back till late. It would have been a cooling thought in the hot office hours of to-morrow to picture them sitting together in the garden at Falmer, or under one of the cool deep-foliaged oaks in the park.
Then suddenly his face changed, the smile faded, but came back next instant and broadened with a laugh. And the man who laughs when he is by himself may certainly be supposed to have strong cause for amusement.
Mr. Taynton had come by this time to the West Pier, and a hundred yards farther would bring him to Montpellier Road. But it was yet early, as he saw (so bright was the moonlight) when he consulted his watch, and he retraced his steps some fifty yards, and eventually rang at the door of a big house of flats facing the sea, where his partner, who for the most part, looked after the London branch of their business, had his pied-a-terre. For the firm of Taynton and Mills was one of those respectable and solid businesses that, beginning in the country, had eventually been extended to town, and so far from its having its headquarters in town and its branch in Brighton, had its headquarters here and its branch in the metropolis. Mr. Godfrey Mills, so he learned at the door had dined alone, and was in, and without further delay Mr. Taynton was carried aloft in the gaudy bird-cage of the lift, feeling sure that his partner would see him.
The flat into which he was ushered with a smile of welcome from the man who opened the door was furnished with a sort of gross opulence that never failed to jar on Mr. Taynton's exquisite taste and cultivated mind. Pictures, chairs, sofas, the patterns of the carpet, and the heavy gilding of the cornices were all sensuous, a sort of frangipanni to the eye. The apparent contrast, however, between these things and their owner, was as great as that between Mr. Taynton and his partner, for Mr. Godfrey Mills was a thin, spare, dark little man, brisk in movement, with a look in his eye that betokened a watchfulness and vigilance of the most alert order. But useful as such a gift undoubtedly is, it was given to Mr. Godfrey Mills perhaps a shade too obviously. It would be unlikely that the stupidest or shallowest person would give himself away when talking to him, for it was so clear that he was always on the watch for admission or information that might be useful to him. He had, however, the charm that a very active and vivid mind always possesses, and though small and slight, he was a figure that would be noticed anywhere, so keen and wide-awake was his face. Beside him Mr. Taynton looked like a benevolent country clergyman, more distinguished for amiable qualities of the heart, than intellectual qualities of the head. Yet those—there were not many of them—who in dealings with the latter had tried to conduct their business on these assumptions, had invariably found it necessary to reconsider their first impression of him. His partner, however, was always conscious of a little impatience in talking to him; Taynton, he would have allowed, did not lack fine business qualities, but he was a little wanting in quickness.
Mills's welcome of him was abrupt.
"Pleased to see you," he said. "Cigar, drink? Sit down, won't you? What is it?"
"I dropped in for a chat on my way home," said Mr. Taynton. "I have been dining with Mrs. Assheton. A most pleasant evening. What a fine delicate face she has."
Mills bit off the end of a cigar.
"I take it that you did not come in merely to discuss the delicacy of Mrs. Assheton's face," he said.
"No, no, dear fellow; you are right to recall me. I too take it—I take it that you have found time to go over to Falmer yesterday. How did you find Sir Richard?"
"I found him well. I had a long talk with him."
"And you managed to convey something of those very painful facts which you felt it was your duty to bring to his notice?" asked Mr. Taynton.
Godfrey Mills laughed.
"I say, Taynton, is it really worth while keeping it up like this?" he asked. "It really saves so much trouble to talk straight, as I propose to do. I saw him, as I said, and I really managed remarkably well. I had these admissions wrung from me, I assure you it is no less than that, under promise of the most absolute secrecy. I told him young Assheton was leading an idle, extravagant, and dissipated life. I said I had seen him three nights ago in Piccadilly, not quite sober, in company with the class of person to whom one does not refer in polite society. Will that do?"
"Ah, I can easily imagine how painful you must have found—" began Taynton.
But his partner interrupted.
"It was rather painful; you have spoken a true word in jest. I felt a brute, I tell you. But, as I pointed out to you, something of the sort was necessary."
Mr. Taynton suddenly dropped his slightly clerical manner.
"You have done excellently, my dear friend," he said. "And as you pointed out to me, it was indeed necessary to do something of the sort. I think by now, your revelations have already begun to take effect. Yes, I think I will take a little brandy and soda. Thank you very much."
He got up with greater briskness than he had hitherto shown.
"And you are none too soon," he said. "Morris, poor Morris, such a handsome fellow, confided to me this evening that he was in love with Miss Templeton. He is very much in earnest."
"And why do you think my interview has met with some success?" asked Mills.
"Well, it is only a conjecture, but when Morris asked if he might call any time to-morrow, Miss Templeton (who was also dining with Mrs. Assheton) said that she and her mother would be out all day and not get home till late. It does not strike me as being too fanciful to see in that some little trace perhaps of your handiwork."
"Yes, that looks like me," said Mills shortly.
Mr. Taynton took a meditative sip at his brandy and soda.
"My evening also has not been altogether wasted," he said. "I played what for me was a bold stroke, for as you know, my dear fellow, I prefer to leave to your nimble and penetrating mind things that want dash and boldness. But to-night, yes, I was warmed with that wonderful port and was bold."
"What did you do?" asked Mills.
"Well, I asked, I almost implored dear Morris to give me two or three hours to-morrow and go through all the books, and satisfy himself everything is in order, and his investments well looked after. I told him also that the original L30,000 of his had, owing to judicious management, become L40,000. You see, that is unfortunately a thing past praying for. It is so indubitably clear from the earlier ledgers—"
"But the port must indeed have warmed you," said Mills quickly. "Why, it was madness! What if he had consented?"
Mr. Taynton smiled.
"Ah, well, I in my slow synthetic manner had made up my mind that it was really quite impossible that he should consent to go into the books and vouchers. To begin with, he has a new motor car, and every hour spent away from that car just now is to his mind an hour wasted. Also, I know him well. I knew that he would never consent to spend several hours over ledgers. Finally, even if he had, though I knew from what I know of him not that he would not but that he could not, I could have—I could have managed something. You see, he knows nothing whatever about business or investments."
Mills shook his head.
"But it was dangerous, anyhow," he said, "and I don't understand what object could be served by it. It was running a risk with no profit in view."
Then for the first time the inherent strength of the quietness of the one man as opposed to the obvious quickness and comprehension of the other came into play.
"I think that I disagree with you there, my dear fellow," said Mr. Taynton slowly, "though when I have told you all, I shall be of course, as always, delighted to recognise the superiority of your judgment, should you disagree with me, and convince me of the correctness of your view. It has happened, I know, a hundred times before that you with your quick intuitive perceptions have been right."
But his partner interrupted him. He quite agreed with the sentiment, but he wanted to learn without even the delay caused by these complimentary remarks, the upshot of Taynton's rash proposal to Morris.
"What did young Assheton say?" he asked.
"Well, my dear fellow," said Taynton, "though I have really no doubt that in principle I did a rash thing, in actual practice my step was justified, because Morris absolutely refused to look at the books. Of course I know the young fellow well: it argues no perspicuity on my part to have foreseen that. And, I am glad to say, something in my way of putting it, some sincerity of manner I suppose, gave rise to a fresh mark of confidence in us on his part."
Mr. Taynton cleared his throat; his quietness and complete absence of hurry was so to speak, rapidly overhauling the quick, nimble mind of the other.
"He asked me in fact to continue being steward of his affairs in any event. Should he marry to-morrow I feel no doubt that he would not spend a couple of minutes over his financial affairs, unless, unless, as you foresaw might happen, he had need of a large lump sum. In that case, my dear Mills, you and I would—would find it impossible to live elsewhere than in the Argentine Republic, were we so fortunate as to get there. But, as far as this goes I only say that the step of mine which you felt to be dangerous has turned out most auspiciously. He begged me, in fact, to continue even after he came of age, acting for him at my present rate of remuneration."
Mr. Mills was listening to this with some attention. Here he laughed dryly.
"That is capital, then," he said. "You were right and I was wrong. God, Taynton, it's your manner you know, there's something of the country parson about you that is wonderfully convincing. You seem sincere without being sanctimonious. Why, if I was to ask young Assheton to look into his affairs for himself, he would instantly think there was something wrong, and that I was trying bluff. But when you do the same thing, that simple and perfectly correct explanation never occurs to him."
"No, dear Morris trusts me very completely," said Taynton. "But, then, if I may continue my little review of the situation, as it now stands, you and your talk with Sir Richard have vastly decreased the danger of his marrying. For, to be frank, I should not feel at all secure if that happened. Miss Templeton is an heiress herself, and Morris might easily take it into his head to spend ten or fifteen thousand pounds in building a house or buying an estate, and though I think I have guarded against his requiring an account of our stewardship, I can't prevent his wishing to draw a large sum of money. But your brilliant manoeuvre may, we hope, effectually put a stop to the danger of his marrying Miss Templeton, and since I am convinced he is in love with her, why"—Mr. Taynton put his plump finger-tips together and raised his kind eyes to the ceiling—"why, the chance of his wanting to marry anybody else is postponed anyhow, till, till he has got over this unfortunate attachment. In fact, my dear fellow, there is no longer anything immediate to fear, and I feel sure that before many weeks are up, the misfortunes and ill luck which for the last two years have dogged us with such incredible persistency will be repaired."
Mills said nothing for the moment but splashed himself out a liberal allowance of brandy into his glass, and mixed it with a somewhat more carefully measured ration of soda. He was essentially a sober man, but that was partly due to the fact that his head was as impervious to alcohol as teak is to water, and it was his habit to indulge in two, and those rather stiff, brandies and sodas of an evening. He found that they assisted and clarified thought.
"I wish to heaven you hadn't found it necessary to let young Assheton know that his L30,000 had increased to L40,000," he said. "That's L10,000 more to get back."
"Ah, it was just that which gave him, so he thought, such good cause for reposing complete confidence in me," remarked Mr. Taynton. "But as you say, it is L10,000 more to get back, and I should not have told him, were not certain ledgers of earlier years so extremely, extremely unmistakable on the subject."
"But if he is not going to look at ledgers at all—" began Mills.
"Ah, the concealment of that sort of thing is one of the risks which it is not worth while to take," said the other, dropping for a moment the deferential attitude.
Mills was silent again. Then:
"Have you bought that option in Boston Coppers," he asked.
"Yes; I bought to-day."
Mills glanced at the clock as Mr. Taynton rose to go.
"Still only a quarter to twelve," he said. "If you have time, you might give me a detailed statement. I hardly know what you have done. It won't take a couple of minutes."
Mr. Taynton glanced at the clock likewise, and then put down his hat again.
"I can just spare the time," he said, "but I must get home by twelve; I have unfortunately come out without my latchkey, and I do not like keeping the servants up."
He pressed his fingers over his eyes a moment and then spoke.
* * * * *
Ten minutes later he was in the bird-cage of the lift again, and by twelve he had been admitted into his own house, apologising most amiably to his servant for having kept him up. There were a few letters for him and he opened and read those, then lit his bed-candle and went upstairs, but instead of undressing, sat for a full quarter of an hour in his armchair thinking. Then he spoke softly to himself.
"I think dear Mills means mischief in some way," he said. "But really for the moment it puzzles me to know what. However, I shall see tomorrow. Ah, I wonder if I guess!"
Then he went to bed, but contrary to custom did not get to sleep for a long time. But when he did there was a smile on his lips; a patient contented smile.
Mr. Taynton's statement to his partner, which had taken him so few minutes to give, was of course concerned only with the latest financial operation which he had just embarked in, but for the sake of the reader it will be necessary to go a little further back, and give quite shortly the main features of the situation in which he and his partner found themselves placed.
Briefly then, just two years ago, at the time peace was declared in South Africa, the two partners of Taynton and Mills had sold out L30,000 of Morris Assheton's securities, which owing to their excellent management was then worth L40,000, and seeing a quite unrivalled opportunity of making their fortunes, had become heavy purchasers of South African mines, for they reasoned that with peace once declared it was absolutely certain that prices would go up. But, as is sometimes the way with absolute certainties, the opposite had happened and they had gone down. They cut their loss, however, and proceeded to buy American rails. In six months they had entirely repaired the damage, and seeing further unrivalled opportunities from time to time, in buying motorcar shares, in running a theatre and other schemes, had managed a month ago to lose all that was left of the L30,000. Being, therefore, already so deeply committed, it was mere prudence, the mere instinct of self-preservation that had led them to sell out the remaining L10,000, and to-day Mr. Taynton had bought an option in Boston Copper with it. The manner of an option is as follows:
Boston Copper to-day was quoted at L5 10S 6d, and by paying a premium of twelve shillings and sixpence per share, they were entitled to buy Boston Copper shares any time within the next three months at a price of L6 3s. Supposing therefore (as Mr. Taynton on very good authority had supposed) that Boston Copper, a rapidly improving company, rose a couple of points within the next three months, and so stood at L7 10S 6d; he had the right of exercising his option and buying them at L6 3S thus making L1 7S 6d per share. But a higher rise than this was confidently expected, and Taynton, though not really of an over sanguine disposition, certainly hoped to make good the greater part if not all of their somewhat large defalcations. He had bought an option of 20,000 shares, the option of which cost (or would cost at the end of those months) rather over L10,000. In other words, the moment that the shares rose to a price higher than L6 3s, all further appreciation was pure gain. If they did not rise so high, he would of course not exercise the option, and sacrifice the money.
That was certainly a very unpleasant thing to contemplate, but it had been more unpleasant when, so far as he knew, Morris was on the verge of matrimony, and would then step into the management of his own affairs. But bad though it all was, the situation had certainly been immensely ameliorated this evening, since on the one hand his partner had, it was not unreasonable to hope, said to Madge's father things about Morris that made his marriage with Madge exceedingly unlikely, while on the other hand, even if it happened, his affairs, according to his own wish, would remain in Mr. Taynton's hands with the same completeness as heretofore. It would, of course, be necessary to pay him his income, and though this would be a great strain on the finances of the two partners, it was manageable. Besides (Mr. Taynton sincerely hoped that this would not be necessary) the money which was Mrs. Assheton's for her lifetime was in his hands also, so if the worst came to the worst—
Now the composition and nature of the extraordinary animal called man is so unexpected and unlikely that any analysis of Mr. Taynton's character may seem almost grotesque. It is a fact nevertheless that his was a nature capable of great things, it is also a fact that he had long ago been deeply and bitterly contrite for the original dishonesty of using the money of his client. But by aid of those strange perversities of nature, he had by this time honestly and sincerely got to regard all their subsequent employments of it merely as efforts on his part to make right an original wrong. He wanted to repair his fault, and it seemed to him that to commit it again was the only means at his disposal for doing so. A strain, too, of Puritan piety was bound up in the constitution of his soul, and in private life he exercised high morality, and was also kind and charitable. He belonged to guilds and societies that had as their object the improvement and moral advancement of young men. He was a liberal patron of educational schemes, he sang a fervent and fruity tenor in the choir of St. Agnes, he was a regular communicant, his nature looked toward good, and turned its eyes away from evil. To do him justice he was not a hypocrite, though, if all about him were known, and a plebiscite taken, it is probable that he would be unanimously condemned. Yet the universal opinion would be wrong: he was no hypocrite, but only had the bump of self-preservation enormously developed. He had cheated and swindled, but he was genuinely opposed to cheating and swindling. He was cheating and swindling now, in buying the option of Boston Copper. But he did not know that: he wanted to repair the original wrong, to hand back to Morris his fortune unimpaired, and also to save himself. But of these two wants, the second, it must be confessed, was infinitely the stronger. To save himself there was perhaps nothing that he would stick at. However, it was his constant wish and prayer that he might not be led into temptation. He knew well what his particular temptation was, namely this instinct of self-preservation, and constantly thought and meditated about it. He knew that he was hardly himself when the stress of it came on him; it was like a possession.
Mills, though an excellent partner and a man of most industrious habits, had, so Mr. Taynton would have admitted, one little weak spot. He never was at the office till rather late in the morning. True, when he came, he soon made up for lost time, for he was possessed, as we have seen, of a notable quickness and agility of mind, but sometimes Taynton found that he was himself forced to be idle till Mills turned up, if his signature or what not was required for papers before work could be further proceeded with. This, in fact, was the case next morning, and from half past eleven Mr. Taynton had to sit idly in his office, as far as the work of the firm was concerned until his partner arrived. It was a little tiresome that this should happen to-day, because there was nothing else that need detain him, except those deeds for the execution of which his partner's signature was necessary, and he could, if only Mills had been punctual, have gone out to Rottingdean before lunch, and inspected the Church school there in the erection of which he had taken so energetic an interest. Timmins, however, the gray-haired old head clerk, was in the office with him, and Mr. Taynton always liked a chat with Timmins.
"And the grandson just come home, has he Mr. Timmins?" he was saying. "I must come and see him. Why he'll be six years old, won't he, by now?"
"Yes, sir, turned six."
"Dear me, how time goes on! The morning is going on, too, and still Mr. Mills isn't here."
He took a quill pen and drew a half sheet of paper toward him, poised his pen a moment and then wrote quickly.
"What a pity I can't sign for him," he said, passing his paper over to the clerk. "Look at that; now even you, Timmins, though you have seen Mr. Mills's handwriting ten thousand times, would be ready to swear that the signature was his, would you not?"
Timmins looked scrutinisingly at it.
"Well, I'm sure, sir! What a forger you would have made!" he said admiringly. "I would have sworn that was Mr. Mills's own hand of write. It's wonderful, sir."
Mr. Taynton sighed, and took the paper again.
"Yes, it is like, isn't it?" he said, "and it's so easy to do. Luckily forgers don't know the way to forge properly."
"And what might that be, sir?" asked Timmins.
"Why, to throw yourself mentally into the nature of the man whose handwriting you wish to forge. Of course one has to know the handwriting thoroughly well, but if one does that one just has to visualise it, and then, as I said, project oneself into the other, not laboriously copy the handwriting. Let's try another. Ah, who is that letter from? Mrs. Assheton isn't it. Let me look at the signature just once again."
Mr. Taynton closed his eyes a moment after looking at it. Then he took his quill, and wrote quickly.
"You would swear to that, too, would you not, Timmins?" he asked.
"Why, God bless me yes, sir," said he. "Swear to it on the book."
The door opened and as Godfrey Mills came in, Mr. Taynton tweaked the paper out of Timmins's hand, and tore it up. It might perhaps seem strange to dear Mills that his partner had been forging his signature, though only in jest.
"'Fraid I'm rather late," said Mills.
"Not at all, my dear fellow," said Taynton without the slightest touch of ill-humour. "How are you? There's very little to do; I want your signature to this and this, and your careful perusal of that. Mrs. Assheton's letter? No, that only concerns me; I have dealt with it."
A quarter of an hour was sufficient, and at the end Timmins carried the papers away leaving the two partners together. Then, as soon as the door closed, Mills spoke.
"I've been thinking over our conversation of last night," he said, "and there are some points I don't think you have quite appreciated, which I should like to put before you."
Something inside Mr. Taynton's brain, the same watcher perhaps who looked at Morris so closely the evening before, said to him. "He is going to try it on." But it was not the watcher but his normal self that answered. He beamed gently on his partner.
"My dear fellow, I might have been sure that your quick mind would have seen new aspects, new combinations," he said.
Mills leaned forward over the table.
"Yes, I have seen new aspects, to adopt your words," he said, "and I will put them before you. These financial operations, shall we call them, have been going on for two years now, have they not? You began by losing a large sum in South Africans—"
"We began," corrected Mr. Taynton, gently. He was looking at the other quite calmly; his face expressed no surprise at all; if there was anything in his expression beyond that of quiet kindness, it was perhaps pity.
"I said 'you,'" said Mills in a hectoring tone, "and I will soon explain why. You lost a large sum in South Africans, but won it back again in Americans. You then again, and again contrary to my advice, embarked in perfect wild-cat affairs, which ended in our—I say 'our' here—getting severely scratched and mauled. Altogether you have frittered away L30,000, and have placed the remaining ten in a venture which to my mind is as wild as all the rest of your unfortunate ventures. These speculations have, almost without exception, been choices of your own, not mine. That was one of the reasons why I said 'you,' not 'we.'"
He paused a moment.
"Another reason is," he said, "because without any exception the transactions have taken place on your advice and in your name, not in mine."
That was a sufficiently meaning statement, but Mills did not wish his partner to be under any misapprehension as to what he implied.
"In other words," he said, "I can deny absolutely all knowledge of the whole of those operations."
Mr. Taynton gave a sudden start, as if the significance of this had only this moment dawned on him, as if he had not understood the first statement. Then he seemed to collect himself.
"You can hardly do that," he said, "as I hold letters of yours which imply such knowledge."
Mills smiled rather evilly.
"Ah, it is not worth while bluffing," he said. "I have never written such a letter to you. You know it. Is it likely I should?"
Mr. Taynton apparently had no reply to this. But he had a question to ask.
"Why are you taking up this hostile and threatening attitude?"
"I have not meant to be hostile, and I have certainly not threatened," replied Mills. "I have put before you, quite dispassionately I hope, certain facts. Indeed I should say it was you who had threatened in the matter of those letters, which, unhappily, have never existed at all. I will proceed.
"Now what has been my part in this affair? I have observed you lost money in speculations of which I disapproved, but you always knew best. I have advanced money to you before now to tide over embarrassments that would otherwise have been disastrous. By the exercise of diplomacy—or lying—yesterday, I averted a very grave danger. I point out to you also that there is nothing to implicate me in these—these fraudulent employments of a client's money. So I ask, where I come in? What do I get by it?"
Mr. Taynton's hands were trembling as he fumbled at some papers on his desk.
"You know quite well that we are to share all profits?" he said.
"Yes, but at present there have not been any. I have been, to put it plainly, pulling you out of holes. And I think—I think my trouble ought to be remunerated. I sincerely hope you will take that view also. Or shall I remind you again that there is nothing in the world to connect me with these, well, frauds?"
Mr. Taynton got up from his chair, strolled across to the window where he drew down the blind a little, so as to shut out the splash of sunlight that fell on his table.
"You have been betting again, I suppose," he asked quietly.
"Yes, and have been unfortunate. Pray do not trouble to tell me again how foolish it is to gamble like that. You may be right. I have no doubt you are right. But I think one has as much right to gamble with one's own money as to do so with the money of other people."
This apparently seemed unanswerable; anyhow Mr. Taynton made no reply. Then, having excluded the splash of sunlight he sat down again.
"You have not threatened, you tell me," he said, "but you have pointed out to me that there is no evidence that you have had a hand in certain transactions. You say that I know you have helped me in these transactions; you say you require remuneration for your services. Does not that, I ask, imply a threat? Does it not mean that you are blackmailing me? Else why should you bring these facts—I do not dispute them—to my notice? Supposing I refuse you remuneration?"
Mills had noted the signs of agitation and anxiety. He felt that he was on safe ground. The blackmailer lives entirely on the want of courage in his victims.
"You will not, I hope, refuse me remuneration," he said. "I have not threatened you yet, because I feel sure you will be wise. I might, of course, subsequently threaten you."
Again there was silence. Mr. Taynton had picked up a quill pen, the same with which he had been writing before, for the nib was not yet dry.
"The law is rather severe on blackmailers," he remarked.
"It is. Are you going to bring an action against me for blackmail? Will not that imply the re-opening of—of certain ledgers, which we agreed last night had better remain shut?"
Again there was silence. There was a completeness in this reasoning which rendered comment superfluous.
"How much do you want?" asked Mr. Taynton.
Mills was not so foolish as to "breathe a sigh of relief." But he noted with satisfaction that there was no sign of fight in his adversary and partner.
"I want two thousand pounds," he said, "at once."
"That is a large sum."
"It is. If it were a small sum I should not trouble you."
Mr. Taynton again got up and strayed aimlessly about the room.
"I can't give it you to-day," he said. "I shall have to sell out some stock."
"I am not unreasonable about a reasonable delay," said Mills.
"You are going to town this afternoon?"
"Yes, I must. There is a good deal of work to be done. It will take me all to-morrow."
"And you will be back the day after to-morrow?"
"Yes, I shall be back here that night, that is to say, I shall not get away from town till the afternoon. I should like your definite answer then, if it is not inconvenient. I could come and see you that night, the day after to-morrow—if you wished."
Mr. Taynton thought over this with his habitual deliberation.
"You will readily understand that all friendly relations between us are quite over," he said. "You have done a cruel and wicked thing, but I don't see how I can resist it. I should like, however, to have a little further talk about it, for which I have not time now."
"By all means," he said. "I do not suppose I shall be back here till nine in the evening. I have had no exercise lately, and I think very likely I shall get out of the train at Falmer, and walk over the downs."
Mr. Taynton's habitual courtesy came to his aid. He would have been polite to a thief or a murderer, if he met him socially.
"Those cool airs of the downs are very invigorating." he said. "I will not expect you therefore till half past nine that night. I shall dine at home, and be alone."
"Thanks. I must be going. I shall only just catch my train to town."
Mills nodded a curt gesture of farewell, and left the room, and when he had gone Mr. Taynton sat down again in the chair by the table, and remained there some half hour. He knew well the soundness of his partner's reasoning; all he had said was fatally and abominably true. There was no way out of it. Yet to pay money to a blackmailer was, to the legal mind, a confession of guilt. Innocent people, unless they were abject fools, did not pay blackmail. They prosecuted the blackmailer. Yet here, too, Mills's simple reasoning held good. He could not prosecute the blackmailer, since he was not in the fortunate position of being innocent. But if you paid a blackmailer once, you were for ever in his power. Having once yielded, it was necessary to yield again. He must get some assurance that no further levy would take place. He must satisfy himself that he would be quit of all future danger from this quarter. Yet from whence was such assurance to come? He might have it a hundred times over in Godfrey Mills's handwriting, but he could never produce that as evidence, since again the charge of fraudulent employment of clients' money would be in the air. No doubt, of course, the blackmailer would be sentenced, but the cause of blackmail would necessarily be public. No, there was no way out.
Two thousand pounds, though! Frugally and simply as he lived, that was to him a dreadful sum, and represented the savings of at least eighteen months. This meant that there was for him another eighteen months of work, just when he hoped to see his retirement coming close to him. Mills demanded that he should work an extra year and a half, and out of those few years that in all human probability still remained to him in this pleasant world. Yet there was no way out!
Half an hour's meditation convinced him of this, and, as was his sensible plan, when a thing was inevitable, he never either fought against it nor wasted energy in regretting it. And he went slowly out of the office into which he had come so briskly an hour or two before. But his face expressed no sign of disquieting emotion; he nodded kindly to Timmins, and endorsed his desire to be allowed to come and see the grandson. If anything was on his mind, or if he was revolving some policy for the future, it did not seem to touch or sour that kindly, pleasant face.
Mr. Taynton did not let these very unpleasant occurrences interfere with the usual and beneficent course of his life, but faced the crisis with that true bravery that not only meets a thing without flinching, but meets it with the higher courage of cheerfulness, serenity and ordinary behaviour. He spent the rest of the day in fact in his usual manner, enjoying his bathe before lunch, his hour of the paper and the quiet cigar afterward, his stroll over the springy turf of the downs, and he enjoyed also the couple of hours of work that brought him to dinner time. Then afterward he spent his evening, as was his weekly custom, at the club for young men which he had founded, where instead of being exposed to the evening lures of the sea-front and the public house, they could spend (on payment of a really nominal subscription) a quieter and more innocent hour over chess, bagatelle and the illustrated papers, or if more energetically disposed, in the airy gymnasium adjoining the reading-room, where they could indulge in friendly rivalry with boxing gloves or single-stick, or feed the appetites of their growing muscles with dumb-bells and elastic contrivances. Mr. Taynton had spent a couple of hours there, losing a game of chess to one youthful adversary, but getting back his laurels over bagatelle, and before he left, had arranged for a geological expedition to visit, on the Whitsuntide bank holiday next week, the curious raised beach which protruded so remarkably from the range of chalk downs some ten miles away.
On returning home, it is true he had deviated a little from his usual habits, for instead of devoting the half-hour before bed-time to the leisurely perusal of the evening paper, he had merely given it one glance, observing that copper was strong and that Boston Copper in particular had risen half a point, and had then sat till bed-time doing nothing whatever, a habit to which he was not generally addicted.
He was seated in his office next morning and was in fact on the point of leaving for his bathe, for this hot genial June was marching on its sunny way uninterrupted by winds or rain, when Mr. Timmins, after discreetly tapping, entered, and closed the door behind him.
"Mr. Morris Assheton, sir, to see you," he said. "I said I would find out if you were disengaged, and could hardly restrain him from coming in with me. The young gentleman seems very excited and agitated. Hardly himself, sir."
"Indeed, show him in," said Mr. Taynton.
A moment afterward the door burst open and banged to again behind Morris. High colour flamed in his face, his black eyes sparkled with vivid dangerous light, and he had no salutation for his old friend.
"I've come on a very unpleasant business," he said, his voice not in control.
Mr. Taynton got up. He had only had one moment of preparation and he thought, at any rate, that he knew for certain what this unpleasant business must be. Evidently Mills had given him away. For what reason he had done so he could not guess; after his experience of yesterday it might have been from pure devilry, or again he might have feared that in desperation, Taynton would take that extreme step of prosecuting him for blackmail. But, for that moment Taynton believed that Morris's agitation must be caused by this, and it says much for the iron of his nerve that he did not betray himself by a tremor.
"My dear Morris," he said, "I must ask you to pull yourself together. You are out of your own control. Sit down, please, and be silent for a minute. Then tell me calmly what is the matter."
Morris sat down as he was told, but the calmness was not conspicuous.
"Calm?" he said. "Would you be calm in my circumstances, do you think?"
"You have not yet told me what they are," said Mr. Taynton.
"I've just seen Madge Templeton," he said. "I met her privately by appointment. And she told me—she told me—"
Master of himself though he was, Mr. Taynton had one moment of physical giddiness, so complete and sudden was the revulsion and reaction that took place in his brain. A moment before he had known, he thought, for certain that his own utter ruin was imminent. Now he knew that it was not that, and though he had made one wrong conjecture as to what the unpleasant business was, he did not think that his second guess was far astray.
"Take your time, Morris," he said. "And, my dear boy, try to calm yourself. You say I should not be calm in your circumstances. Perhaps I should not, but I should make an effort. Tell me everything slowly, omitting nothing."
This speech, combined with the authoritative personality of Mr. Taynton, had an extraordinary effect on Morris. He sat quiet a moment or two, then spoke.
"Yes, you are quite right," he said, "and after all I have only conjecture to go on yet, and I have been behaving as if it was proved truth. God! if it is proved to be true, though, I'll expose him, I'll—I'll horsewhip him, I'll murder him!"
Mr. Taynton slapped the table with his open hand.
"Now, Morris, none of these wild words," he said. "I will not listen to you for a moment, if you do not control yourself."
Once again, and this time more permanently the man's authority asserted itself. Morris again sat silent for a time, then spoke evenly and quietly.
"Two nights ago you were dining with us," he said, "and Madge was there. Do you remember my asking her if I might come to see them, and she said she and her mother would be out all day?"
"Yes; I remember perfectly," said Mr. Taynton.
"Well, yesterday afternoon I was motoring by the park, and I saw Madge sitting on the lawn. I stopped the motor and watched. She sat there for nearly an hour, and then Sir Richard came out of the house and they walked up and down the lawn together."
"Ah, you must have been mistaken," said Mr. Taynton. "I know the spot you mean on the road, where you can see the lawn, but it's half a mile off. It must have been some friend of hers perhaps staying in the house."
Morris shook his head.
"I was not mistaken," he said. "For yesterday evening I got a note from her, saying she had posted it secretly, but that she must see me, though she was forbidden to do so, or to hold any communication with me."
"Forbidden?" ejaculated Mr. Taynton.
"Yes, forbidden. Well, this morning I went to the place she named, outside on the downs beyond the park gate and saw her. Somebody has been telling vile lies about me to her father. I think I know who it is."
Mr. Taynton held up his hand.
"Stop," he said, "let us have your conjecture afterward. Tell me first not what you guess, but what happened. Arrange it all in your mind, tell it me as connectedly as you can."
Morris paused a moment.
"Well, I met Madge as I told you, and this was her story. Three days ago she and her father and mother were at lunch, and they had been talking in the most friendly way about me, and it was arranged to ask me to spend all yesterday with them. Madge, as you know, the next night was dining with us, and it was agreed that she should ask me verbally. After lunch she and her father went out riding, and when they returned they found that your partner Mills, had come to call. He stayed for tea, and after tea had a talk alone with Sir Richard, while she and her mother sat out on the lawn. Soon after he had gone, Sir Richard sent for Lady Templeton, and it was nearly dressing-time when she left him again. She noticed at dinner that both her father and mother seemed very grave, and when Madge went up to bed, her mother said that perhaps they had better not ask me over, as there was some thought of their being away all day. Also if I suggested coming over, when Madge dined with us, she was to give that excuse. That was all she was told for the time being."
Morris paused again.
"You are telling this very clearly and well, my dear boy," said the lawyer, very gravely and kindly.
"It is so simple," said he with a biting emphasis. "Then next morning after breakfast her father sent for her. He told her that they had learned certain things about me which made them think it better not to see any more of me. What they were, she was not told, but, I was not, it appeared, the sort of person with whom they chose to associate. Now, before God, those things that they were told, whatever they were, were lies. I lead a straight and sober life."
Mr. Taynton was attending very closely.
"Thank God, Madge did not believe a word of it," said Morris, his face suddenly flushing, "and like a brick, and a true friend she wrote at once to me, as I said, in order to tell me all this. We talked over, too, who it could have been who had said these vile things to her father. There was only one person who could. She had ridden with her father till tea-time. Then came your partner. Sir Richard saw nobody else; nobody else called that afternoon; no post came in."
Mr. Taynton had sprung up and was walking up and down the room in great agitation.
"I can't believe that," he said. "There must be some other explanation. Godfrey Mills say those things about you! It is incredible. My dear boy, until it is proved, you really must not let yourself believe that to be possible. You can't believe such wickedness against a man, one, too, whom I have known and trusted for years, on no evidence. There is no direct evidence yet. Let us leave that alone for the moment. What are you going to do now?"
"I came here to see him," said Morris. "But I am told he is away. So I thought it better to tell you."
"Yes, quite right. And what else?"
"I have written to Sir Richard, demanding, in common justice, that he should see me, should tell me what he has heard against me, and who told him. I don't think he will refuse. I don't see how he can refuse. I have asked him to see me to-morrow afternoon."
Mr. Taynton mentally examined this in all its bearings. Apparently it satisfied him.
"You have acted wisely and providently," he said. "But I want to beg you, until you have definite information, to forbear from thinking that my dear Mills could conceivably have been the originator of these scandalous tales, tales which I know from my knowledge of you are impossible to be true. From what I know of him, however, it is impossible he could have said such things. I cannot believe him capable of a mean or deceitful action, and that he should be guilty of such unfathomable iniquity is simply out of the question. You must assume him innocent till his guilt is proved."
"But who else could it have been?" cried Morris, his voice rising again.
"It could not have been he," said Taynton firmly.
There was a long silence; then Morris rose.
"There is one thing more," he said, "which is the most important of all. This foul scandal about me, of course, I know will be cleared up, and I shall be competent to deal with the offender. But—but Madge and I said other things to each other. I told her what I told you, that I loved her. And she loves me."
The sternness, the trouble, the anxiety all melted from Mr. Taynton's face.
"Ah, my dear fellow, my dear fellow," he said with outstretched hands. "Thank you for telling me. I am delighted, overjoyed, and indeed, as you say, that is far more important than anything else. My dear Morris, and is not your mother charmed?"
Morris shook his head.
"I have not told her yet, and I shall not till this is cleared up. It is her birthday the day after to-morrow; perhaps I shall be able to tell her then."
"I must go," he said. "And I will do all I can to keep my mind off accusing him, until I know. But when I think of it, I see red."
Mr. Taynton patted his shoulder affectionately.
"I should have thought that you had got something to think about, which would make it easy for you to prevent your thoughts straying elsewhere," he said.
"I shall need all the distractions I can get," said Morris rather grimly.
* * * * *
Morris walked quickly back along the sea front toward Sussex Square, and remembered as he went that he had not yet bought any gift for his mother on her birthday. There was something, too, which she had casually said a day or two ago that she wanted, what was it? Ah, yes, a new blotting-book for her writing-table in the drawing-room. The shop she habitually dealt at for such things, a branch of Asprey's, was only a few yards farther on, and he turned in to make inquiries as to whether she had ordered it. It appeared that she had been in that very morning, but the parcel had not been sent yet. So Morris, taking the responsibility on himself, counterordered the plain red morocco book she had chosen, and chose another, with fine silver scrollwork at the corners. He ordered, too, that a silver lettered inscription should be put on it. "H.A. from M.A." with the date, two days ahead, "June 24th, l905." This he gave instructions should be sent to the house on the morning of June 24th, the day after to-morrow. He wished it to be sent so as to arrive with the early post on that morning.
* * * * *
The promise which Morris had made his old friend not to let his thoughts dwell on suspicion and conjecture as yet uncertain of foundation was one of those promises which are made in absolute good faith, but which in their very nature cannot be kept. The thought of the hideous treachery, the gratuitous falsehood, of which, in his mind, he felt convinced Godfrey Mills had been guilty was like blood soaking through a bandage. All that he could do was to continue putting on fresh bandages—that was all of his promise that he was able to fulfill, and in spite of the bandages the blood stained and soaked its way through. In the afternoon he took out the motor, but his joy in it for the time was dead, and it was only because in the sense of pace and swift movement he hoped to find a narcotic to thought, that he went out at all. But there was no narcotic there, nor even in the thought of this huge joy of love that had dawned on him was there forgetfulness for all else, joy and sorrow and love, were for the present separated from him by these hideous and libellous things that had been said about him. Until they were removed, until they passed into non-existence again, nothing had any significance for him. Everything was coloured with them; bitterness as of blood tinged everything. Hours, too, must pass before they could be removed; this long midsummer day had to draw to its end, night had to pass; the hour of early dawn, the long morning had to be numbered with the past before he could even learn who was responsible for this poisoned tale.
And when he learned, or rather when his conjecture was confirmed as to who it was (for his supposition was conjecture in the sense that it only wanted the actual seal of reality on it) what should he do next? Or rather what must he do next? He felt that when he knew absolutely for certain who had said this about him, a force of indignation and hatred, which at present he kept chained up, must infallibly break its chain, and become merely a wild beast let loose. He felt he would be no longer responsible for what he did, something had to happen; something more than mere apology or retraction of words. To lie and slander like that was a crime, an insult against human and divine justice. It would be nothing for the criminal to say he was sorry; he had to be punished. A man who did that was not fit to live; he was a man no longer, he was a biting, poisonous reptile, who for the sake of the community must be expunged. Yet human justice which hanged people for violent crimes committed under great provocation, dealt more lightly with this far more devilish thing, a crime committed coldly and calculatingly, that had planned not the mere death of his body, but the disgrace and death of his character. Godfrey Mills—he checked the word and added to himself "if it was he"—had morally tried to kill him.
Morris, after his interview that morning with Mr. Taynton, had lunched alone in Sussex Square, his mother having gone that day up to London for two nights. His plan had been to go up with her, but he had excused himself on the plea of business with his trustees, and she had gone alone. Directly after lunch he had taken the motor out, and had whirled along the coast road, past Rottingdean through Newhaven and Seaford, and ten miles farther until the suburbs of Eastbourne had begun. There he turned, his thoughts still running a mill-race in his head, and retracing his road had by now come back to within a mile of Brighton again. The sun gilded the smooth channel, the winds were still, the hot midsummer afternoon lay heavy on the land. Then he stopped the motor and got out, telling Martin to wait there.
He walked over the strip of velvety down grass to the edge of the white cliffs, and there sat down. The sea below him whispered and crawled, above the sun was the sole tenant of the sky, and east and west the down was empty of passengers. He, like his soul, was alone, and alone he had to think these things out.
Yes, this liar and slanderer, whoever he was, had tried to kill him. The attempt had been well-planned too, for the chances had been a thousand to one in favour of the murderer. But the one chance had turned up, Madge had loved him, and she had been brave, setting at defiance the order of her father, and had seen him secretly, and told him all the circumstances of this attack on him. But supposing she had been just a shade less brave, supposing her filial obedience had weighed an ounce heavier? Then he would never have known anything about it. The result would simply have been, as it was meant to be, that the Templetons were out when he called. There would have been a change of subject in their rooms when his name was mentioned, other people would have vaguely gathered that Mr. Morris Assheton's name was not productive of animated conversation; their gatherings would have spread further, while he himself, ignorant of all cause, would have encountered cold shoulders.
Morris's hands clutched at the short down grass, tearing it up and scattering it. He was helpless, too, unless he took the law into his own hands. It would do no good, young as he was, he knew that, to bring any action for defamation of character, since the world only says, if a man justifies himself by the only legal means in his power, "There must have been something in it, since it was said!" No legal remedy, no fines or even imprisonment, far less apology and retraction satisfied justice. There were only two courses open: one to regard the slander as a splash of mud thrown by some vile thing that sat in the gutter, and simply ignore it; the other to do something himself, to strike, to hit, with his bodily hands, whatever the result of his violence was.
He felt his shoulder-muscles rise and brace themselves at the thought, all the strength and violence of his young manhood, with its firm sinews and supple joints, told him that it was his willing and active servant and would do his pleasure. He wanted to smash the jaw bone that had formed these lies, and he wanted the world to know he had done so. Yet that was not enough, he wanted to throttle the throat from which the words had come; the man ought to be killed; it was right to kill him just as it was right to kill a poisonous snake that somehow disguised itself as a man, and was received into the houses of men.
Indeed, should Morris be told, as he felt sure he would be, who his slanderer and defamer was, that gentleman would be wise to keep out of his way with him in such a mood. There was danger and death abroad on this calm hot summer afternoon.
It was about four o'clock on the afternoon of the following day, and Mr. Taynton was prolonging his hour of quietude after lunch, and encroaching thereby into the time he daily dedicated to exercise. It was but seldom that he broke into the routine of habits so long formed, and indeed the most violent rain or snow of winter, the most cutting easterly blasts of March, never, unless he had some definite bodily ailment, kept him indoors or deprived him of his brisk health-giving trudge over the downs or along the sea front. But occasionally when the weather was unusually hot, he granted himself the indulgence of sitting still instead of walking, and certainly to-day the least lenient judge might say that there were strong extenuating circumstances in his favour. For the heat of the past week had been piling itself up, like the heaped waters of flood and this afternoon was intense in its heat, its stillness and sultriness. It had been sunless all day, and all day the blanket of clouds that beset the sky had been gathering themselves into blacker and more ill-omened density. There would certainly be a thunderstorm before morning, and the approach of it made Mr. Taynton feel that he really had not the energy to walk. By and by perhaps he might be tempted to go in quest of coolness along the sea front, or perhaps later in the evening he might, as he sometimes did, take a carriage up on to the downs, and come gently home to a late supper. He would have time for that to-day, for according to arrangement his partner was to drop in about half past nine that evening. If he got back at nine, supposing he went at all, he would have time to have some food before receiving him.
He sat in a pleasant parquetted room looking out into the small square garden at the back of his house in Montpellier Road. Big awnings stretched from the window over the broad gravel path outside, and in spite of the excessive heat the room was full of dim coolness. There was but little furniture in it, and it presented the strongest possible contrast to the appointments of his partner's flat with its heavy decorations, its somewhat gross luxury. A few water-colours hung on the white walls, a few Persian rugs strewed the floor, a big bookcase with china on the top filled one end of the room, his writing-table, a half dozen of Chippendale chairs, and the chintz-covered sofa where he now lay practically completed the inventory of the room. Three or four bronzes, a Narcissus, a fifteenth-century Italian St. Francis, and a couple of Greek reproductions stood on the chimney-piece, but the whole room breathed an atmosphere of aesthetic asceticism.
Since lunch Mr. Taynton had glanced at the paper, and also looked up the trains from Lewes in order to assure himself that he need not expect his partner till half past nine, and since then, though his hands and his eyes had been idle, his mind had been very busy. Yet for all its business, he had not arrived at much. Morris, Godfrey Mills, and himself; he had placed these three figures in all sorts of positions in his mind, and yet every combination of them was somehow terrible and menacing. Try as he would he could not construct a peaceful or secure arrangement of them. In whatever way he grouped them there was danger.