The Prodigal Father
J. STORER CLOUSTON
AUTHOR "THE LUNATIC AT LARGE," "A COUNTY FAMILY," ETC.
New York The Century Co. 1909
Copyright, 1909, by J. STORER CLOUSTON
Published, September, 1909
J. F. TAPLEY CO. NEW YORK
WITH GRATEFUL ACKNOWLEDGMENT TO AN UNKNOWN CORRESPONDENT WHO ONCE MADE A CERTAIN SUGGESTION. IF HE READS THIS STORY HE PERHAPS WILL REMEMBER
J. S. C.
THE PRODIGAL FATHER
In one of the cable tramway cars which, at a reverential pace, perambulate the city of Edinburgh, two citizens conversed. The winds without blew gustily and filled the air with sounds like a stream in flood, the traffic clattered noisily over the causeway, the car itself thrummed and rattled; but the voices of the two were hushed. Said the one—
"It's the most extraordinary thing ever I heard of."
"It's all that," said the other; "in fact, it's pairfectly incomprehensible."
"Mr. Walkingshaw of all people!"
"Of Walkingshaw and Gilliflower—that's the thing that fair takes my breath away!" added the other; as though the firm was an even surer guarantee of respectability than the honored name of the senior partner.
They shook their heads ominously. It was clear this was no ordinary portent they were discussing.
"Do you think has he taken to—?"
The first citizen finished his question by a crooking of his upturned little finger, one of those many delicate symbols by which the north Briton indicates a failing not uncommon in his climate.
"It's a curious thing," replied his friend, "that I haven't heard that given as an explanation. Of course he's not a teetotaler—"
"Oh, none ever insinuated that," put in the other, with the air of one who desired to do justice even to the most erring.
"On the other hand, he's ay had the name of being one of the most respectable men in the town, just an example, they've always told me."
"I knew him fine myself, in a business way, and that's just the expression I'd have used—an Example."
"Respected by all."
"An elder, and what not."
"A fine business, he has."
"His daughter married a Ramornie of Pettigrew."
They shook their heads again, if possible more gravely than before.
"He must be going off his head."
"He must be gone, I'd say."
"Yon speech he made was an outrage to common sense and decency!"
"And about his son's marriage!"
"That's Andrew Walkingshaw—his partner?"
"Oh, you've heard the story, then? I wonder is it true?"
"I had it on the best authority."
They pursed their lips solemnly.
"The man's mad!"
"But think of letting him loose to make a public exhibition of himself! It's an awfu' end to a respected career—in fact, it's positively discouraging."
"You're right: you're right. If as respectable a liver as him ends that way—well, well!"
In this strain and with such comments (exceedingly natural under the circumstances) did his fellow-citizens discuss the remarkable thing that befell Mr. Walkingshaw. And yet they could see only the outward symptoms or manifestations of this thing. Now that the full circumstances are made public, it will be generally conceded that few well-authenticated occurrences have ever at first sight seemed less probable. This has actually been advanced as an argument for their suppression; but since enough has already leaked out to whet the public curiosity, and indeed to lead to damaging misconceptions in a city so unused to phenomena other than meteorological, it is considered wisest that the unvarnished facts should be placed in the hands of a scrupulous editor and allowed to speak for themselves.
THE PRODIGAL FATHER
At a certain windy corner in the famous city of Edinburgh, a number of brass plates were affixed to the framework of a door. On the largest and brightest of them appeared the legend "Walkingshaw & Gilliflower, W.S."; and on no other sheet of brass in Scotland were more respectable names inscribed. For the benefit of the Sassenach and other foreigners, it may be explained that "W.S." is a condensation of "Writers to the Signet"—a species of beatified solicitor holding a position so esteemed, so enviable, and so intensely reputable that the only scandal previously whispered in connection with a member of this class proved innocently explicable upon the discovery that he was affianced to the lady's aunt. The building in which the firm had their office formed one end of an austere range of dark stone houses overlooking a street paved with cubes of granite and confronted by a precisely similar line of houses on the farther side. The whole sloped somewhat steeply down a hill, up which and down which a stimulating breeze careered and eddied during three hundred days of the year. Had you thrust your head out of the office windows and looked down the street, you could have seen, generally beneath a gray sky and through a haze of smoke, an inspiring glimpse of distant sea with yet more distant hills beyond. But Mr. Walkingshaw had no time for looking gratis out of his window to see unprofitable views. The gray street had been the background to nearly fifty years of dignified labor on behalf of the most respectable clients.
His full name was James Heriot Walkingshaw, but it had been early recognized that "James" was too brief a designation and "Jimmie" too trivial for one of his parts and presence, and so he was universally known as Heriot Walkingshaw. His antecedents were as respectable as his clients. One of his eight great-great-grandfathers owned a landed estate in the county of Peebles, one of his maternal uncles was a theological professor in the University of Aberdeen, and his father before him had been a W.S. Young Heriot himself was brought up on porridge, the tawse, the Shorter Catechism, and an allowance of five shillings a week. His parents were both prudent and pious. Throughout such portions of the Sabbath as they did not spend with their offspring in their pew, they kept them indoors behind drawn blinds. His mother kissed young Heriot seldom and severely (with a cold smack like a hailstone), and never permitted him to remain ten minutes in the same room with a housemaid unchaperoned. His father never allowed him to sleep under more than two blankets, and locked the front door at nine o'clock in summer and six in winter.
The supreme merit of this system in insuring the survival of the fittest was seen in its results. Heriot's elder brother passed away at the age of two in the course of a severe winter. Clearly he would never have been a credit to oatmeal. His younger brother broke loose at nineteen, pained his relatives exceedingly, and retired to a distant colony where the standard was lower. His name was never mentioned till at his decease it was found that he had left L30,000 to be divided among the survivors of the ordeal. And finally, here was Heriot, a credit to his parents, his porridge, and his Catechism—in a word, an Example.
One damp February morning, Mr. Walkingshaw, accompanied as usual by his eldest son, set forth from his decorous residence. It was one of a circle of stately houses, broken in two or three places to permit the sedatest kind of street to enter. The grave dignity of these mansions was accentuated by the straight, deep-hewn furrows at the junctions of the vast rectangular stones, and by the pediment and fluted pillars which every here and there gave one of them the appearance of a Greek temple dedicated to some chaste goddess. In the midst, a round, railed-in garden was full of lofty trees, very upright and dark, like monuments to the distinguished inhabitants.
Just as Mr. Walkingshaw and his son had got down the steps and reached the pavement, the door opened again behind them and a figure appeared which seemed to light the dull February morning with a ray of something like sunshine. Her dress was a warm golden brown; her face clear-skinned and fresh-colored, with bright eyes, a straight little nose, and, at that moment, eager, parted lips; her hair a coil of curling gold; her age nineteen.
"Father!" she cried, "you've forgotten your muffler!"
"Tut, tuts," muttered Mr. Walkingshaw.
He stopped and let her wind the muffler round his neck, while his son regarded the performance with a curiously captious eye.
"Thanks, Jean," said Mr. Walkingshaw.
He threw the girl a brief nod, and the two resumed their walk. Jean stood for a minute on the steps with a smile half formed upon her lips, as though she were prepared to wave them a farewell; but neither man looked back, and the smile died away, the door closed behind her, and the morning became as raw as ever.
For a few minutes father and son walked together in silence. In Andrew's eye lurked the same suggestion of criticism, and in his parent's some consciousness of this and not a little consequent irritation. They were the same height—just under six feet—and there was a decided resemblance between Mr. Walkingshaw's portly gait and Andrew's dignified carriage, but otherwise they were not much alike. The father had a large and open countenance, very ruddy and fringed with the most respectable white whiskers; and something ample in his voice and eye and manner accorded with it admirably. Andrew's face also was full, but rather in places than comprehensively. The chief places were his cheeks and upper lip. This lip was perhaps his most striking characteristic. It was both full and long, meeting his cheeks at either end in a little dimple, and protruding above the lower lip. Beneath it his chin sloped sharply back and then abruptly shot forward again in the shape of a round aggressive little ball. His eye was cold and gray, his hair dark, his age six-and-thirty, and for the last few years he had been his father's partner. He was the first to break the silence.
"Why you don't see a respectable doctor, I can't imagine," said he.
"I went to Mackenzie. I went to Grant," replied Mr. Walkingshaw shortly. "A lot of good either of them did my gout!"
"Gout!" said Andrew. "And have you exchanged that for anything better? You ought to have stayed in bed to-day. I wonder you ventured out in the state that man's got you into."
The words might conceivably be taken to represent a very natural filial anxiety, but the voice was reminiscent of the consolation of Job. Mr. Walkingshaw had always been able to inspire his children with a respect so profound that it was a little difficult at times to distinguish it from awe. Even Andrew when he became his partner had not lost the attitude. But to-day his father accepted the rebuke without a murmur. In a moment the hard Scotch voice smote again—
"The idea of a man in your position going to an infernal quack like Professor Cyrus! Professor? Humph! The man's killing you."
Mr. Walkingshaw's ruddy face grew redder. The standard of common sense is high in Scotland; the humiliation in being taken in profound; the respect for the professional orthodoxies intense. And he had been the protagonist of everything sensible, orthodox, and prudent! He felt like a constable caught in the pantry.
"Cyrus is a man of remarkable—ah—ideas. He assures me I shall see the beneficial effects soon. Patience—patience; that is what he says. I—ah—have probably only caught a little chill. I believe in Cyrus, Andrew, I believe in him."
Andrew received the explanation with outward respect. His father's eye had become formidable; but in silence his own expressed his opinion of this paltry defense. Presently he inquired—
"Would you like people to know who you're going to?"
Mr. Walkingshaw started.
"I'll trouble other folks to mind their own business," he said sharply; yet he cast an uncomfortable glance at his son.
"Oh, I'm not anxious they should know my family's escapades," said Andrew reassuringly.
But his gray eye had now a triumphant gleam, and his father realized he had no case left to go before the court. If people were to know—well, he would certainly be a less shining example. Mr. Walkingshaw of Walkingshaw and Gilliflower in the hands of a quack doctor! It would sound awful bad—awful bad. Little did he dream what people would be saying of that reputable Writer to the Signet three months later.
* * * * *
Business happened to be slack that afternoon, and at the early hour of four o'clock Mr. Walkingshaw resumed his overcoat and muffler. As Mr. Thomieson, his confidential clerk, decorously tucked the scarf beneath the velvet collar, he offered a word or two of respectful sympathy.
"Far the wisest thing to go home, sir. But will you not take a cab? It's an awful like day to be out with a chill on ye."
Mr. Walkingshaw perceived his junior partner gazing on him in severe silence, and defiantly decided to walk. Yet as he paced homewards he could not but admit, in the unquiet recesses of his own mind, that it certainly was an odd sort of chill. He felt—well, he found it hard to tell exactly how he felt—rather as though he had swallowed some ounces of quicksilver which kept flashing and running about inside him with every step he took. Suppose Cyrus's wonderful new system were actually to prove dangerous to the constitution, possibly even to the life, of his august, confiding patron? You could not always know your luck, however deserving you might be. The tower of Siloam fell both upon the righteous and the unrighteous. What would people say if Professor Cyrus metaphorically fell on him? Heriot Walkingshaw had more at stake than mere existence. He had a character to lose.
The sight of his house, so dignified and so permanent, soothed him a little. As he hung his coat upon the substantial rack in the dark and spacious hall, he was soothed still further. Ascending to his drawing-room, the thick carpet underfoot completed his tranquillity. Surely nothing disconcerting could happen to a man who owned such a house as this. But alas! regrettable episodes have a habit, like migrant birds, of arriving in companies.
Mrs. Walkingshaw had been dead for many years, and in her stead Heriot's maiden sister, a thin, elderly lady of exemplary views and conduct, ruled her household. As her brother ruled her, he found the arrangement worked admirably.
"Are you not coming out with me in the carriage?" said she to her niece that afternoon.
Jean excused herself. She had letters she positively must write; and so the two tall horses pranced off, bearing in the very large and very shiny carriage only the exemplary lady. As she heard them clatter off over the resounding granite, Jean gave a little skip. Her eyes danced too and her lips smiled mysteriously. She ran upstairs like a whirlwind and had the drawing-room door shut behind her before she paused. Only then did she seem to feel safely alone and not in the carriage shopping. The room was very long, and very wide, and immensely high, with three tall windows down one side and substantial furniture purchased in the heyday of the Victorian epoch. The slim, fair-haired figure was quite lost in the space considered suitable by an early nineteenth-century architect for the accommodation of a Scottish lady; and the fire made much more of a display, glowing in the gloom of that raw February afternoon.
Jean sat by a little writing-table and took up a pen. Then she waited, evidently for ideas to come. Ten minutes later they arrived. The door was softly opened, a voice respectably subdued announced the name of "Mr. Vernon," and the duties of the pen were over.
The gentleman who entered made a remarkable contrast to the sedate upholstery. He had a mop of brown hair upon a large and well-shaped head, a broad face with rugged, striking features, very bright blue eyes, a dashing cavalier mustache, and a most engaging smile. His clothes were light of hue and very loose, his figure was of medium height and strongly built, his collar wide open at the neck, and his tie a large silk butterfly of an artistic shade of brown. Altogether he was a most improbable person to find calling upon a daughter of Mr. Heriot Walkingshaw.
He gave Jean's hand the grasp of a friend, but his eyes looked on her with a more than friendly light in them. When he spoke, his voice was as pleasant as his smile, and his accents were those of that portion of Britain not yet entirely occupied by the victors of Bannockburn.
"It's very good of you to stay in," he said.
"Oh, I wasn't going out in any case," said Jean demurely.
She seated herself in one corner of the sofa, and the young man, after hesitating for an instant between a seat by her side and a chair close by, and failing to catch her eye to guide him, chose the chair, and for the moment looked unhappy.
"I've come to say good-by," he began.
She looked up quickly.
"Are you going away?"
He nodded his brown mop.
"Yes, I'm off to London again."
"I hope so; anyhow, it can't be for much worse than I've done here."
"Haven't your pictures been—been appreciated here?" she asked.
"They haven't been sold," he said, with a short laugh.
"What a shame! Oh, Mr. Vernon, I do think people might have had better taste."
"So do I," he smiled, "but they haven't had. I've made nothing here but friends."
He had a musical voice, rather deep, and very readily expressive of what he strongly felt. His last sentence rang in Jean's ears like a declaration of love. Her eyes fell and her color rose.
"We have all been very glad to see you."
He shook his head; his eyes fastened on her all the time.
"No, you haven't."
She looked up, but meeting that devouring gaze, looked down again.
"Not all of you," he added. "Your father disapproves of me, your eldest brother detests me, and your aunt distrusts me. It's only you and Frank who have been my friends."
Frank was her soldier brother, and Jean adored him. She thought she could never care for any one but a soldier, till she encountered art and Lucas Vernon.
"Yes, Frank certainly does like you very much indeed," she said warmly.
"Yes," she answered firmly.
He smiled and bent towards her.
"Your hand on it!"
She held out her hand, and he took it and kept it.
(At that moment Mr. Walkingshaw was opening his front door.)
For a minute they sat in silence, and then she tried gently to draw the hand away.
"Let me keep it for a little!" he pleaded. "I'm going away. I shan't hold it again for Heaven knows how long."
His voice was so caressing that she ceased to grudge him five small fingers.
(Mr. Walkingshaw had removed his muffler and was hanging up his coat.)
"Are you at all sorry I'm going?"
"Yes," murmured Jean, "Frank and I—we'll both miss you."
The artist murmured too, but very indistinctly. The idea he expressed thus inadequately was, "Hang Frank!" But she heard the next word too plainly for her self-possession.
(Mr. Walkingshaw was now ascending his well-carpeted staircase.)
She gave him one glance which she meant for reproof; but when he saw her eyes, so loving and a little moist, he covered the short space between them with one movement, and was on his knees before her.
"Do you love me?" he whispered.
Her head bent over his, and she answered very faintly something like "Yes."
Mr. Walkingshaw entered his drawing-room.
For a moment there was a painful pause. Jean's face had turned a becoming shade of crimson, and the artist was on his feet. Naturally the woman spoke first.
"I—I didn't expect you back so soon, father."
"So I perceive," said Mr. Walkingshaw.
The young man turned to him with creditable composure.
"One can hardly judge of the effect in this light," said he.
Mr. Walkingshaw had heard of people becoming insane under the stress of a sudden shock, and he wondered uneasily whether this misfortune had befallen Lucas Vernon or himself. The artist perceived his success, and hope began to rise afresh. He cocked his head professionally on one side and examined the confounded girl.
"We must try the pose in my studio."
Jean also saw the dawn of hope.
"May I inquire what you are talking about?" demanded her father.
"Miss Walkingshaw has promised to sit to me for her portrait," explained the artist. "We were trying one or two positions."
Mr. Walkingshaw breathed somewhat heavily, but said nothing. Jean's color began to subside.
"Mr. Vernon was arranging my hands," she contributed towards his enlightenment.
Mr. Vernon was now gazing on her in the attitude which he had learnt from plays and poems conveyed to the laity the best conception of artistic fervor.
"The head a little more to the right!" he exclaimed. "The hands crossed! A smile, please! Now, sir, how do you like that?"
Mr. Walkingshaw ignored the question altogether and addressed his daughter.
"If Mr. Vernon can give any reasons why he should paint your portrait, I think he had better give them to me before the matter goes further."
His formidable eye supplied the addendum, "And you leave the room!"
She obeyed, and the painter was left with this singularly favorable opportunity of obtaining a commission at last.
"Well, sir?" said Mr. Walkingshaw.
Lucas was unused to the subtleties of diplomacy, but it seemed to him an evident case for tact.
"What do you think about it yourself?" he began cautiously.
"I think," replied the W.S., "that you'd be better back in England."
His eye again spoke for him, and this time it said, "There is no further use in attempting to deceive me."
The artist took the hint. His strong, pleasant face became a mirror reflecting the very truth; his blue eyes were filled with a light brighter even than the inspiration of art; his mellow voice burst out abruptly—
"I love Jean!"
The effect was rather like discharging a cannon and bringing down a scrap of plaster.
"Oh, indeed," said Mr. Walkingshaw. "You mean my daughter?"
"I should think I do!"
"I merely asked for information, Mr. Vernon."
"Then I can guarantee your information!" Lucas smiled frankly, but he might as well have smiled at the hat-rack in the hall. "I'm quite aware you don't think me good enough for her—and I agree with you. But if it comes to that, who is? You may say my name's neither Turner nor Rubens; you may think it's like my dashed impudence asking you to let me make a short cut to heaven across your hearth—"
It was at this point that Mr. Walkingshaw discharged his ordnance.
"What is your income?" he inquired coldly.
His aim was more accurate. The artist descended to earth with a thud.
"My income?" he gasped.
"Your income," repeated the bombardier.
The artist ran his fingers convulsively through his hair.
"Now, what the deuce should I put it at?"
"An approximately correct figure," suggested Mr. Walkingshaw.
"To tell you the truth, I haven't the least idea."
"Oh, good God, no!"
"Oh, more than that."
"Can't you suggest a figure yourself?"
"Well, let's say that in a good year I make anything up to three or four hundred pounds, and in a bad year anything down to fifty or sixty."
"We'll say that if you like. Do you expect any legacies to fall in to you—anything of that kind?"
"Unfortunately I don't."
Mr. Walkingshaw regarded him with contemptuous severity.
"Then you propose to marry my daughter on maybe fifty or sixty pounds a year?"
"I told you that was in a bad year," protested the artist.
"Thank you, but I don't want any of your fluctuating incomes for my girl. I don't care if you earned ten thousand pounds this year. So long as you can't guarantee that to last, you're no better than a speculator—a hand-to-mouth, don't-know-where-you-are-to-morrow sort of person. Now, that sort of thing won't do, Mr. Vernon. Before you next think of marrying a girl in my daughter's position, let me give you this bit of advice: learn to paint your pictures on some kind of proper business principles. If you do them, say, once a month and sell them at a standard price—just as other folks have to manufacture and sell their goods—you'll not find yourself in the same ridiculous position you're in at this moment."
Mr. Walkingshaw rose to indicate that the interview was at an end; but the artist's endurance ended first.
"Mr. Walkingshaw! Did you ever make anything in your life?"
The W.S. stared at him.
"I have made most of what I possess, sir."
"Pooh! You're talking of money. Does your mind never run on anything but money? I mean, have you ever made a hat or a shoe, or a book or a picture, or even a cheese? Have you ever actually turned out anything that was the least use or pleasure to anybody?"
Vernon's blue eyes were bent upon him in such an extraordinarily intense and flashing manner that Mr. Walkingshaw found himself compelled to answer.
"That kind of thing is—ah—not in my line."
"Then," burst forth the artist, "you can no more judge of my work than a toasting-fork can judge of a steam engine. The woman who cooks your dinner understands more than you do. She knows better than to think it costs no more time and trouble to cook an omelette than boil an egg. A picture a month, and the same price for each! Confound it, Mr. Walkingshaw, you make me ashamed of you!"
"Do you imagine, sir, that that affects me?"
"If I were you, I'd prefer my son-in-law to respect me."
Mr. Walkingshaw positively jumped.
"You mean to—er—"
"Marry her, whether you like it or not! I'm in love—and she loves me! There's not the least use trying to explain to you what love means. It would be like trying to explain a cigar to a chicken. You're too respectable. You can't understand."
The tirade ceased abruptly, and the young man smiled again upon the petrified Writer to the Signet.
"I am going back to London to-night. Just give me a year or two, Mr. Walkingshaw. I'll make an income for her."
Mr. Walkingshaw regained his senses.
"You will never be admitted inside this house in your life again, sir. You will never marry my daughter; and mind you, you needn't flatter yourself she will correspond with you or anything of that kind. My children have been decently brought up. What I say is done; and what I say shan't be done, is not done!"
He had recovered his formidableness now, and the artist's face fell. For a moment he looked gloomily at his father-in-law elect, and then he turned for the door.
"We shall see," he said.
"You shall not see her again," retorted Mr. Walkingshaw.
The door slammed behind art and love and impracticability, and he stood in his vast drawing-room alone.
It is a pleasant and an edifying thing to contrast the difference between the fates of the reputable and the Bohemian even in the lists of love. Clearly these matters are managed by some scrupulously equitable power. One hesitates to dub it Providence for fear of seeming sentimental, but one may safely describe it as something almost as wise and decidedly more respectable. Here was Lucas Vernon, without a settled income or any very coherent notion of how to make one, dismissed the house of the girl he was foolish enough to love. There, on the other hand, was Andrew Walkingshaw, who had first devoted himself to amassing and investing a handsome competence, and then, without any further difficulty to speak of, had selected and secured one of the most charming girls imaginable. In every respect but one he had chosen obviously well. She was fair to see, and hence very gratifying to be seen with; she was quite young, and therefore amenable and not too sophisticated; and she came of so excellent and ancient a family that it was a pleasure merely to mention the name of his prospective father-in-law to his envious acquaintances. Archibald Berstoun, Esq., of that ilk, was the style in which that gentleman preferred to have correspondence addressed to him, accepting Berstoun of Berstoun as a less satisfactory alternative, and answering very briefly letters to plain Archibald Berstoun, Esq.
The only drawback to Ellen Berstoun was her father's unfortunate financial position. Andrew had to take her without a penny; but then, on the other hand, he might not have got her at all had her parents the wherewithal to display her charms in London ballrooms. Also, Archibald of that ilk might have looked for a showier mate for her under more prosperous circumstances. As it was, her parents spent a strenuous fortnight in persuading her to accept so excellent an opportunity of reducing their supply of marriageable daughters to the more reasonable number of five, and the approval of their creditors was practically unanimous.
They had been engaged for a month, when, upon that same afternoon, she arrived on a short visit to the Walkingshaw's house. Andrew would have met her at the station had her train arrived only twenty minutes later, but it was one of the most admirable features in his character that he made a point of never on any pretext leaving the office before the hour had struck. Frank, however, showed remarkable alacrity in offering himself as substitute. So zealous and obliging a brother was he that he started for the station with half an hour to spare, and whiled away a portion of that time in purchasing a bouquet of flowers and a very ornamental box of chocolates.
Holding the chocolate-box and his umbrella under one arm and the bouquet in his other hand, this best of brothers paced that eligible promenade, the platform of the Haymarket station. People, especially women, glanced at him with approval as the erect, military young figure passed and repassed on his vigil, marching as though on parade. He was twenty-five, bronzed of skin, well-featured, trimly mustached, modest and yet gallant of mien, attired in an overcoat drawn in at the waist and a hat becomingly cocked a little towards his left ear—in a word, a credit to that distinguished corps, the Cromarty Highlanders. At present they were in India, and he was home on furlough.
Sometimes his clear young eyes looked disconsolately into space, as though the saddest thoughts afflicted him; and then they would brighten with a sudden excitement. As these brightenings almost invariably coincided with the first rumbling of a train far down the line that glimmered beneath red lamps and green, leading from the north out of the gathered dusk, it seemed as though the cheering prospect came from thence. This probability would appear to be increased by the disappearance of the excitement when the train proved to come from some locality of no interest whatsoever. An observant female in glasses and a golf cape, who entertained herself by furtively studying this agreeable-looking stranger, smiled knowingly at each of these manifestations: she knew whom he was waiting for, even without the palpable evidence of the bouquet and chocolate-box, and the only thing that puzzled her was why he should have these very mournful lapses. A secret grief seemed inappropriate both to the gentleman and the obvious situation. But how could she guess that she was merely witnessing an accentuated variety of the pleasure with which any good brother looks forward to meeting his future sister-in-law at the end of a cold journey?
"Yon's her noo," said a porter to whom the young officer addressed a question for the fourteenth time.
The north line runs for a long way very straight just there, and Frank could see the two round glows far off in the darkness grow larger and larger, brighter and brighter, with the furnace-lit smoke streaming ever more brilliantly above, till the shape of a great engine started out, thundering close upon him. And then the observant female was gratified by a glimpse of a slender girl, rather tall, smiling very kindly as the interesting unknown handed her down from her carriage and placed the flowers in her small gray glove. Her hair was dark; she wore handsome furs; she left the entire charge of her luggage to her escort, like a lady accustomed to be waited on; she moved down the platform with a graceful air of distinction, and as she passed close by, the observant female's heart was won by the sweet and innocent expression on her face. She thought them one of the nicest-looking couples she had ever seen.
Meanwhile, the man whose virtues had earned this charming girl, and whose high position could command the services of a Highland subaltern to do his station work for him, was dictating a letter to his typewriter.
But when Andrew sat down to dinner beside the lady of his choice, and felt that at last he could conscientiously lay aside the serious business of life for a little dalliance with the fruits of his industry, it was pleasant to see with what happy mingling of pride and calm he accepted his good fortune. He conveyed that suggestion of having put the lady in his pocket from the moment she whispered "Yes," and kept her there among his keys as a valued, yet not foolishly over-valued, possession, which is so virile a characteristic of the thoroughly successful man. Now he was taking her out to have a look at her, and incidentally—as it were, unconsciously—exhibit his trophy to the company. As for Ellen Berstoun, she looked so kind, so delicately radiant, so gently bred, and so anxious to give pleasure, that she made just the contrast to her dominating betrothed that sensible people believe in. Here, they would tell you, was a match made in a more practicable place than heaven.
The rest of the company at dinner consisted of Mr. Walkingshaw, evidently proud of his future daughter-in-law, yet singularly silent and abstracted; Miss Walkingshaw, very erect at the end of the table; Jean, very downcast, poor girl (yet did she not deserve to be?); Frank, looking for some reason considerably less happy than when he handed Miss Berstoun out of her carriage; and Mrs. Dunbar. Madge Dunbar was a second cousin, and the widow of Captain Dunbar of Hammersmith's Horse, who was killed at Paardeberg. She was left with no children, a very small income, and a number of relatives occupying excellent stations in life. With one or other of these she generally stayed, but latterly had shown a decided preference for the hospitality of Mr. Walkingshaw. In fact, she had already been with them for three months, and as Mr. Walkingshaw was always very emphatic in his refusals to let her think of leaving, and remarkably gracious on every occasion on which they were seen in company, while his sister declared her to be one of the best women she knew, acquaintances had begun to exchange whispers. She was forty-five, full-figured, though not yet precisely stout, dark-eyed, and irreproachably dressed. She was also irreproachably diplomatic.
Champagne was drunk in honor of Miss Berstoun, and as being the beverage most suitable to her pedigree (though, as a matter of fact, she had only tasted it twice before, since Archibald of that ilk confined himself to whisky, and his wife to dandelion porter). As the butler passed behind Mr. Walkingshaw's chair, his master arrested him by pointing to his glass. The vigilant Andrew bent forward in his seat.
"Are you giving the system up?" he inquired, with his cross-examining smile.
"I feel that a glass of wine would do me good to-night," his father replied with dignity.
"Oh, I'm so glad to see you enjoying yourself again, Heriot!" smiled Mrs. Dunbar.
"Thank you. Thank you, Madge," said he, and made a little courteously old-fashioned indication that he drank to her health.
The lady in a sprightly fashion returned his toast, and the junior partner frowned. He disapproved of Mrs. Dunbar, he strongly suspected her of ulterior designs, and he regarded the adoption of Christian names by second cousins as superfluous, and in the circumstances a little indecorous. His long upper lip grew longer as he addressed his relative.
"I was under the impression it was you who encouraged him to go in for this so-called system."
"Oh, but it's possible to overdo everything, you know," said the lady, with a smile whose sweetness he inwardly decided to be compounded of some base imitation of sugar. "Don't you agree with me, Heriot?"
"Absolutely," pronounced her host, with emphasis.
So passionate a lover naturally regretted parting even for a moment from his betrothed, yet under the circumstances Andrew felt decidedly relieved when the ladies left the room, and the three Walkingshaw men drew together at the end of the table. His father passed the port to his sons and then helped himself. Andrew frowned again: he believed in never neglecting an opportunity for salutary criticism.
"Oh, you're going to take port too?"
"I am," said Mr. Walkingshaw, and drinking his glass straight off, filled it afresh.
Andrew drew down the corners of his lips, raised his eyebrows, and glanced across at his brother; but Frank was staring abstractedly at the tablecloth.
The second glass seemed to revive their father. He smacked his lips over it with something of his old gusto, threw out his chest, frowned formidably, yet with a certain complacency, and said—
"I've had to perform an unpleasant duty this afternoon, Andrew."
Andrew pricked up his ears and looked sternly expectant. Yet on neither of them did the idea of an unpleasant duty seem to have a saddening effect.
"That fellow Vernon has been making love to Jean. I ordered him out of the house. He's off to London again, I'm thankful to say."
"Upon my word!" said Andrew.
He looked as though he had been told of the attempted assassination of the President of the Court of Session. But on Frank the news produced quite a different effect. He started out of his reverie and exclaimed—
"You ordered him out? Poor Jean!"
The two older and wiser men turned upon him together.
"Yes, sir," said his father, "I did order him out. It would have been 'poor Jean' if I hadn't."
"I'd have kicked him downstairs!" said Andrew.
"You'd have had a devilish thin time if you'd tried," retorted his brother. "Vernon could take you across his knee. He's a good fellow—a deuced good fellow; he'd have made Jean a deuced good husband. Kick him downstairs? By Gad, you'd have squealed when the kicking began!"
He addressed himself entirely to his brother, though he had done no more than approve of the exiling of Lucas, and he spoke with a curious bitterness. Mr. Walkingshaw struck the table with his fist, not passionately, in any disorder of mind, but sternly and effectively.
"Hold your tongue," he said, and kept his eyes on him to see that he held it.
"I beg your pardon," he said to his father, and, not looking again at his brother, walked out of the room.
The two wiser heads, being then left undisturbed by the follies of youth, discussed at length and in complete accord the outrageous episode of the afternoon.
Frank strode hurriedly across the hall, flung into the library, and there relieved his feelings by a few crisp expletives. Gloom succeeded anger, but after a few minutes youth began to prevail even over these high emotions. He turned up the light, adjusted his tie and smoothed his hair before the mirror over the mantelpiece, and ran upstairs to the drawing-room. Outside the door he paused, looking now like the expectant watcher on the platform. Faintly he heard Ellen Berstoun's voice, and the same look came into his eyes as when he caught the distant roaring of the train. He straightened his neck, banished all expression from his face as a soldier should, and entered the room.
It is generally conceded by such as have enjoyed the privilege of sitting in a drawing-room waiting for the gentlemen to lay down their cigars that no period of the day is more immune from the bustle and turmoil of modern life. But the peace of an ordinary drawing-room was a bank holiday compared with the Walkingshaws'. Not too much gas was burned, or too much coal, since money is not made and well-born wives secured by waste of fuel. That leads to mere cheerfulness. The monastic atmosphere was completed by the Victorian upholstery and the hushed voices of the four ladies, so that even the young soldier instinctively trod more like a burglar than a Cromarty Highlander as he advanced towards one of the groups of two.
Near the fireplace sat Miss Walkingshaw and Mrs. Dunbar engaged on fancy-work, and occasionally murmuring references to "my last cook"—"that tall girl Jane." But it was not they that Frank approached. On two chairs very close together and far removed from the others, Jean and Ellen talked. Their voices, too, were hushed, but the subject of their conversation was evidently more agitating than cooks. In fact, there was something very like a sob more than once in Jean's voice, and Ellen held her hand and gently pressed it. But when poor Jean saw her favorite brother coming towards her with a warm sympathy in his eyes that told her he knew her trouble, she could control herself no longer. Up she jumped, and throwing him one wry, tearful smile as she passed, ran out of the room.
The two elder ladies looked up and then down again at their work. They had not yet heard of the painful episode. Frank came forward and took his sister's chair, which had been drawn so very close to Ellen's. He was thus able, by exercising caution, to take up the confidential conversation.
"I suppose she has told you?" he muttered, with a wary glance towards his aunt.
"Yes," murmured Ellen. "I'm so sorry!"
She looked nearly as distressed as Jean, and her gentle voice made her words sound like a sweet lament for all unhappy loves.
"I call it the deuce of a shame!" said the soldier.
"Can't we do anything to persuade your father?"
He was conscious of a little glow at being adopted so instinctively as an ally.
"I've told him what I think about it."
"Have you?"—there was a sparkle in her eyes.—"How good of you! What did he say?"
"Told me to hold my tongue."
Her face fell.
"I must talk to Andrew about it."
Frank smiled sardonically.
"I'm afraid you won't find him very sympathetic either."
She looked down at her little pointed shoe and said nothing.
"Who isn't very sympathetic, Frank?" asked Miss Walkingshaw, suddenly looking up.
He started guiltily.
"Oh—er—a lot of fellows one can think of," he explained.
Mrs. Dunbar looked at the two young people curiously. She knew whom she herself did not consider sympathetic, and jumped to a conclusion. There was nothing the junior partner would dislike more than being critically discussed by that dear girl who was so much too nice for him, and that engaging boy who was so infinitely better-looking. It seemed a pity they could not enjoy their conversation without interruption.
"Would you like me to play you something, dear?" she asked.
"Oh yes, dear," said Miss Walkingshaw. "Do, please!"
They were the most affectionate of friends. Indeed, it was touching to see how devoted Madge was to Heriot's wintry sister. Nobody else had ever seen so much in her to love.
The music began, and, once started, showed no sign of stopping. Over the top of her music Mrs. Dunbar's black eyes smiled a discreet approval of the confidential pair. She only wished that Andrew, gagged and bound beneath his brother's chair, was here to listen to them. She was sure they must be discussing something it would do him good to hear.
"Is Mr. Vernon a very nice man?" asked Ellen.
"One of the best. These artist fellows are apt to be a bit swollen-headed for my taste, but Lucas Vernon's a sportsman."
She appreciated the distinction succinctly indicated.
"He does sound nice," she said. "Oh, I wish everybody had enough money!"
Frank drew another distinction.
"Everybody who deserved it, anyhow."
"Well," said Ellen softly, "if I had the arrangement of things, I would risk it and give everybody enough. It makes me so unhappy to see people longing for things they can never possibly get—whether they deserve them or not."
The young soldier looked at her oddly from the corner of his eye. Could it be possible that two people could sit so close together and speak in such hushed confidence, and yet that one of them could be so strangely oblivious as not to know when she had laid her slender little finger on the other's open wound? He had the strictest notions of duty and of honor: it was absolutely essential she never should realize: but, alas! the sympathetic widow was playing the most divinely romantic waltz. To complete the horrible temptation, Ellen looked suddenly at him with her tender eyes shining and her delicate skin gently flushed and murmured—
"It makes me wretched—I pity them so!"
The waltz grew more romantic with every note, the temptation to feel this pity soothe his own wound more irresistible.
"I'm one of 'em," he said.
He endeavored to compromise with duty by throwing the most unfeeling ferocity into his confession; but even the best drilled soldier cannot simultaneously advance and stand where he was.
Ellen's eyes were riveted on him now.
"I'm sorry. Have I said anything I shouldn't?"
She looked distressed, and he realized he had overdone the ferocity.
"No, no, I assure you. I only meant I—I—well, one can't have everything."
He wished that delirious waltz would stop. It made it so hard to collect one's thoughts, and especially to recover the blank countenance he had managed to assume before he took this chair and heard that music and looked into those eyes. She smiled with playful kindness.
"Are you so frightfully hard up?"
"It isn't money! Oh, can't you—"
He didn't finish his sentence; nor did he need to. A sudden light dawned in Ellen's eyes; her lips instinctively parted; and then she turned her face away. And thus they sat for what seemed an hour, while the sympathetic widow poured out voluptuous harmonies without cessation.
In reality it was only two minutes later that Mr. Walkingshaw and Andrew entered: the senior partner looking, for a habitual diner-out, curiously flushed after his mild indulgence in port; the junior partner's full cheeks bulging with the backwash of a lover's smile. Frank sprang up, and his brother, smiling even more affectionately, took his chair. At the same moment the widow stopped playing, and the scales seemed suddenly to fall from the young soldier's eyes. He saw himself as the most despicable villain in Europe, and Ellen as lost for ever, whether as sister or friend. So distraught was he that he had nearly tried to open a mid-Victorian cabinet before he discovered it was not the door. Downstairs he hurried wildly, threw on an ulster and cap, and the front door banged behind him.
The unhappy young man looked up at the circle of solemn mansions which towered above him, black against the dark gray heavens, and it seemed to him that each one as he passed it silently rebuked him; while the trees across the street, even though they were decidedly less solid, gave vent to their displeasure audibly. He had been brought up in the severest Scotch traditions, and though life in the army had vastly changed his outlook, it had in certain particulars but substituted "form" for "duty." To-night both standards rose spectrally and shook their awful fingers at him. He had let his heart get the better of his head! No member of his family (save luckless Jean) whom he ever knew or heard of had done such a thing before. Or if they had, the indiscretion had been judiciously hushed up, and the family escutcheon kept stainless. As for the divinity he had scandalized, she would never forgive him; she would always think of him as a traitor to his respectable brother!
At this point a little star peeped out of the hurrying clouds and vanished again instantly. It was as though some power above had winked.
On he strode through the steep, empty streets, lines of black freestone houses, built by regular church-goers and unbreathed upon by scandal ever since, frowning upon him perpetually; and the wind, which had risen greatly, wailing and booming all sorts of morals. And now a fresh trouble agitated him. He was growing less contrite! He kept seeing his brother's bulging cheeks, and Ellen's innocent, kind smile, and all sorts of backslidings suggested themselves. He had been criminal enough to fall in love, and now was added another crime—he could not fall out again. Never had he dreamt of such depths of depravity in him, Frank Walkingshaw.
Again a little star twinkled for an instant.
It was a full two hours later that he returned home, footsore (for he had been walking in his pumps) and with a mind as far from calm as ever. He assumed that everybody would be in bed, but no sooner had he shut the door than Jean appeared, flying downstairs to meet him.
"Oh," she cried, with a note of disappointment, "I hoped it was the doctor!"
"The doctor!" he exclaimed.
"Hush!" she whispered, and came close up to him. "Father has suddenly been taken very ill."
At that moment Andrew also appeared, to see who had entered. He looked portentously grave.
"Well," he said, "what have I been saying? It's happened just exactly as anybody but a fool might have known it would—just precisely. He's no one to blame but himself for it—and his precious Mrs. Dunbar."
He rubbed his hands almost pleasantly.
"That quack's done for him—and his wine to-night finished the job. Well, I warned him against both. People that will not take advice must bide the consequences. Are you going to stay up for Dr. Mackenzie, Jean?"
"Of course," she said.
"Well then, I might as well get off to my bed. If there's any immediate danger,"—his face grew very solemn,—"if the end's expected in the night, or anything like that, just knock on my door."
The junior partner bade them a grave good-night and retired; and such imaginative persons as are not satisfied with this bald record of facts, may picture him either as offering up a brief prayer for his father's happy recovery, or meditating upon the image of his betrothed—or both.
Fortunately, it proved unnecessary to disturb the junior partner during the night, but next morning, when he had heard the doctor's report and personally visited the sick-bed, he took the most serious view of the situation. He summoned his two married sisters, urging them to lose no time; he spent only half an hour at the office; and then he sat down with his Scotsman in the library (his Bible accessible in case of emergencies) to await the developments that he grieved to think were now practically inevitable. The doctor had paid a second visit and given the gloomiest report. Put in a nutshell, it came to this: that he could make neither head nor tail of his patient's symptoms, but that, as they were clearly the result of a course of treatment at the hands of an unqualified practitioner, it was improbable that Mr. Walkingshaw would recover from the consequences of his error.
In the afternoon he was told that his father would like to see him. He had finished the Scotsman and begun a conversation with his betrothed in a gently facetious vein, but it took him not a moment to adjust his features to the rigidity of an urn, and save for the faint squeaking of his boots, he ascended the stairs with noiseless solemnity. He found Mr. Walkingshaw propped up on pillows and breathing heavily. The demeanor of both was exactly becoming to the situation.
"Are you suffering much pain?" inquired the son in a hushed voice.
"It comes and goes," sighed the father. "It was just diabolical a few minutes ago; now it's a wee thing better, thanks."
"A kind of temporary relief," suggested the son.
"Possibly, possibly. I'd like to think it was going to last, though."
"I wish I could hold out hopes," said Andrew sympathetically.
Mr. Walkingshaw stirred suddenly.
"The doctor's not given me up yet, surely?" he exclaimed in a louder voice.
"Hush, hush! It'll only hurry things if you let yourself get excited."
"But, Andrew, my dear boy, tell me what he said to you."
The junior partner shook his head, kindly but resolutely.
"No, no; not yet awhile. So long as your mind remains clear, just keep composed; and then, when you feel any decided change, I'll hold nothing back from you, and we can get the rest of the family round the bedside. You'll agree that's the best thing."
The orthodoxy of this programme ought, one would think, to have soothed the W.S. But it is strange what fancies sick men take.
"I don't agree at all," said Mr. Walkingshaw warmly. "In fact, I may tell you Cyrus warned me there might be kind of temporary complications."
He looked at his son for a moment and then added, with sudden decision—
"Andrew, I'd like to see Cyrus."
A grim smile dilated Andrew's cheeks.
"You'll have to catch him first. He's off."
"Bolted this morning as soon as he heard he'd done for you. I hear he owes a couple of hundred pounds in the town, one way and another. That's your Professor for you!"
Mr. Walkingshaw groaned. His son thought it well to improve the occasion, since he did not expect to have many more.
"Him and his radio-electricity! What was it he was going to do—renew the cells of the body?"
"Well, why shouldn't cells be renewed?" protested the invalid weakly.
"There will be," said his son facetiously. "He'll find himself in one again or I'm mistaken."
Mr. Walkingshaw lay silent for a few minutes. Then suddenly he groaned.
"Another of them coming on!" he muttered, and twisted his face away.
It was a few minutes more before he spoke again.
"I trust they'll catch the rascal! Andrew, my boy, can you not do anything to assist the police?"
It was impressive to see how adequately the junior partner handled each fresh development of the situation. At these last words he looked exceedingly grave.
"Had your thoughts not better be turning to other things?" he suggested.
The invalid's head started forward from the pillow.
"Will you have the kindness to mind your own—" he began; and then, in judgment, another spasm assailed him.
Andrew closed his eyes, drew down the corners of his mouth, and his lips moved silently but evidently piously. It was impossible to remain callous to such an elevating influence.
"You are right, Andrew; you are right," said his father. "And now, just supposing I was taken, you'll see that affair of Guthrie and Co. through the way we decided on?"
Andrew opened his eyes immediately and exhibited a fresh instance of his adaptability to each changing circumstance.
"I've just been thinking of a better method still," he answered promptly. "Why should the creditors get any more than they're legally entitled to? You mind yon five thousand pounds invested in the Grand Trunk Railway?"
"Well, when one goes into the thing, they've really no more than a moral right to that; and if one once begins on moral rights, there's no end to them."
"That sounds a bit worldly-wise, Andrew; but as you like—as you like."
His junior partner regarded him severely.
"I may remind you that I'm only following your own precepts."
"One says things in health that one repents of on a bed of sickness. Manage Guthrie and Co. as you like, but don't quote me if you mean to neglect moral obligations. I had the decency never to quote my own father, and it's the least you can do for yours, Andrew."
Andrew still looked displeased. It seemed to his fastidious ears that there was an unpleasant smack of something remotely resembling cynicism in this speech. It sounded almost as though he were expected to acquiesce in the outrageous proposition that members of his family occasionally allowed moral to be overridden by practical considerations. He could not conceive of himself admitting the possibility of such a thing even in the secret recesses of his soul. It was most uncomfortable to listen to his own father going on like this. He must be very ill indeed—evidently at death's door.
He walked to the window and looked out gloomily upon the gray clouds driving over the black chimney-cans. The wind had risen to a moderate gale, and the air was filled with sounds. It struck him as a very uproarious day for a Writer to the Signet to be going to his long home. He had given his father credit for soberer tastes. In fact, he was reminded unpleasantly of the riotous people he had heard of who passed away in company with a pint of champagne and a cigar. This sort of thing would really not do.
"About my will, Andrew," said his father's voice.
He turned with remarkable alacrity and a forgiving eye. At once he was the deferential offspring.
"You'll find you're left very well off," continued Mr. Walkingshaw.
His son's cheeks bulged in a melancholy smile; precisely the right smile under the circumstances.
"Not at the expense of the others, I hope," he answered modestly.
"Oh, I was meaning you'd be well off as a family."
The smile subsided.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," said Andrew.
"But of course you'll get the bulk."
The smile mournfully returned.
"You have the position to keep up, and I thought it only fair to you," said Mr. Walkingshaw.
Andrew bent his head in solemn acknowledgment of the truth of this observation and the justice of the arrangement.
"There's just one little addendum I want to make. This unpleasant affair of Jean's has set me thinking, and supposing I'm taken, Andrew—just supposing—"
"Assuming it's as we fear—I understand, I understand."
"Well, then, you see, I'll not be here myself to keep Frank and Jean from doing foolish-like things if they happen to have a mind to; and they're not like you and their sisters. You've all chosen sensibly, but they're in a kind of way different. I ought to have had them educated at home."
"What I've always said," his son agreed.
"Anyhow, it's too late now, and what I'll just have to do is this—introduce a clause making them forfeit their shares if they marry without your consent in the next five years."
"Would ten not be safer?" suggested Andrew.
"We'll say seven, then. And of course you'll not withhold your consent unreasonably? I'll trust you for that."
Andrew's attitude expressed to such perfection the confidence that might be reposed in him that his father shed him a satisfied smile.
"And now," said he, "I wonder had you not better get me my will?—or we might wait till to-morrow, and see how I'm feeling then."
If the junior partner had looked grave before, he looked funereal now.
"Your mind's clear now," he said. "I wouldn't put it off."
"Well, well," said Mr. Walkingshaw, "there are my keys on the dressing-table: you know where to find the will."
Andrew went downstairs as solemnly as he had come up, and with the same faint squeak.
It never occurred to Frank and Jean to blame their father in any way for electing so boisterous a day for his probable decease. Clearly they had not so fine an instinct for respectability as their brother. Their orthodoxy, compared with his, was built upon a sandy foundation: warm hearts can never hope to sustain, in its impressive equipoise, the head of an Andrew Walkingshaw. One might as well expect to find sap running up the legs of his office stool.
That afternoon they instinctively drifted away from the others and sat unhappily together. The gusty booming of the wind and the clash of branches in the garden across the gale-scourged street tormented them with fancies. It seemed as though a thousand riotous misfortunes were buffeting their hearts.
"Rain!" cried Jean, with a little start and then a shiver.
"Isn't it beastly?" muttered Frank, his eyes on the carpet.
It came on with the sudden violence of a thunder-clap. In a moment the tossing trees became gesticulating ghosts seen dimly through a veil of glistening rods of water sharply diagonal—nearly horizontal; and even through the musketry rattle on the window-panes they could hear the pavement hiss beneath their deluge.
"Oh, Frank dear!" murmured Jean.
Giving way to illogical tenderness, the young soldier took her hand and held it.
Of course, the least turn for hard argument would have reassured them. The storm would blow over; they could find new lovers; their father, even suppose he died, would receive suitable interment. Besides, they would be the richer by his decease. But they remained foolishly moved.
"If anything does happen to father," said Jean sorrowfully, "I shall never forgive myself."
Frank looked surprised.
"Forgive yourself—for what?"
"For not loving him more. I almost hated him yesterday."
Her voice sank very low and she looked apprehensively at her brother. But he did not rebuke her as he ought.
"It's jolly difficult to love him sometimes," he admitted sadly.
She seemed to gain courage.
"Frank," she said, "have you ever actually felt as affectionate about him as one ought?"
He shook his head.
"He never struck me as wanting that kind of thing. I've respected him, of course."
"Oh, so have I—enormously."
"Well," said Frank, "that's all he wanted out of us, I fancy."
"Still," she murmured, "we might have given him something more."
"'Pon my word, I don't know what he'd have done with it."
She could not but admit that that, in fact, was just the difficulty. The cultivation of sentiment had not been included in Mr. Walkingshaw's youthful curriculum. His father before him had enjoyed but two forms of relaxation from his daily burden of obligations to clients and Calvin—a glass of good claret, and a primitive form of golf played with a missile of feathers in the interstices of a tract of whins. His mother had not even these amusements. Small wonder Heriot Walkingshaw found it a little difficult to sympathize with soft creatures who demanded hot-water bottles at night and affection by day. Jean had a weakness for both, and had only managed to obtain the hot bottle—and even that was a secret.
The deluge continued and the wind bellowed. Lower and lower sank their spirits.
"I sometimes wish I were more like Andrew," sighed Jean.
The young soldier started.
"Oh, Heaven forbid!" he exclaimed, and then in a moment added in a low voice, "I wish I had his luck, though."
Jean softly pressed his hand. She understood.
"I wish you had, Frank," she whispered.
As if in rebuking answer to these impious desires, the portly form of Andrew filled the doorway. He looked like the reincarnation of all the mourners who had ever followed a hearse.
"He is worse," he said in a sepulchral voice. "The end's not far off. You had better come up and see him."
In the sick chamber they found already assembled Miss Walkingshaw, Mrs. Dunbar, Ellen (who kept in the background and never caught Frank's eye once), and their two elder sisters. Of this pair, Maggie, the eldest of them all, had long been coupled with Andrew as the two greatest credits to the family. She was the wife (and incidentally, it was said, the making) of Ramornie of Pettigrew, a laird of good estate in the kingdom of Fife. Her business capacity was almost equal to her brother's. She had extracted Pettigrew from the hands of the friends who had been "doing him no good," paid off the bonds on his property, presented him with three creditable children, including the necessary heir male, and would undoubtedly have put him into Parliament could she have ensured her own presence always at his side. But as he would have to deliver his speeches himself, even if she composed them, she was content with making him a deputy-lieutenant. In person this lady suggested the junior partner as well as in mind. She, however, was blonde, and though her cheeks took after his, her upper lip was not quite so substantial.
Gertrude, the second sister, was now Mrs. Donaldson, wife of Hector Donaldson, advocate. At the time, it was considered a middling sort of marriage; since his cross-examination of the co-respondent in Macpherson v. Macpherson and Tattenham-Welby, it had been considered a creditable marriage; and if his practice continued its present rate of increase, it would soon become a good marriage. In any case, she had justified the Walkingshaw reputation for investing money or person soundly and shrewdly. She resembled her father, and he had always been considered a fine-looking man. Both Andrew and Maggie thought she got too many of her clothes in London. They made her a little conspicuous, and they hoped she could afford it. Still, one heard very encouraging things said of Hector nowadays.
Mr. Walkingshaw was evidently weakening. He lay back with his eyes closed till they were all assembled, and then Andrew, who seemed to have the entire management of the melancholy ceremony, stepped up to the bedside and, with lowered eyelids, murmured—
"They are all here now."
Mr. Walkingshaw opened his eyes.
"I'm likely to be taken," he said in a weak voice. "Andrew'll have told you."
He paused: and one little stifled sob was heard, too gentle to catch his ear. It came from Jean.
"I'd just like to say a word to you all before I go. I've tried my best to do my duty by my children and my sister and my kinsfolk."
At this specific inclusion of herself the sympathetic widow could keep silence no longer.
"Indeed you have, Heriot!" she murmured.
"Hush!" said Andrew sternly.
"Let them say what they feel, Andrew," said his father, with a glance of melancholy kindness at the widow. "It's natural enough."
Mrs. Ramornie at once took that hint, and her brief words of eulogy were corroborated by a general murmur.
"Thank you, thank you," said Mr. Walkingshaw. "I may possibly have made mistakes now and then—I am but human. At the same time, I think there's none will gainsay I've shown a kind of respectable example. It's a great thing to be thankful for if one can die without making an exhibition of oneself—a great thing to be thankful for."
The master of ceremonies by a grave glance indicated to the company that another approving murmur would be appropriate, and his own voice led the hum.
"I've another thing to be thankful for," resumed the invalid, "and that's my eldest son. Andrew'll take good care of you all—of you and the business both. Oh, Frank, my lad, he's a fine example to you; just as your sister Maggie is to you, Jean. Mind you both follow them. You'll never give folks reason to talk about you then. Don't get yourselves talked about! That's the main thing. Of course, you'll take every opportunity of bettering yourselves, both of you; but do it in a kind of sober, decent way. Do it like Andrew: I can say no more than that."
All eyes were sadly fixed on the two distressed young people, but they made no answer, and the affecting scene now terminated with these last few words—
"If by any kind of chance it happens I'm given a year or two more after all, I'll take no more part in worldly matters. I'll leave things to you, Andrew, just the same as if I was gone. If I linger on, a chastened man, taking for a wee while an interest in your welfare, that's all that will be left to me—that's the whole I look forward to."
Andrew's sorrowful eyes replied, "And that's more than we do," as he silently shook his father's hand. Then the company tiptoed sadly out of the sick-room.
Of all the anticipatory mourners, the most demonstrative was the sympathetic widow. She could barely control her emotion till she reached the drawing-room. There she broke down quite.
"Oh, Mary, Mary!" she sobbed.
They were alone together—Mary, commonly styled Miss Walkingshaw, and she. The exemplary spinster was likewise distressed, but in a calmer manner, as became a lady who had shared Heriot's Spartan upbringing.
"Whisht, whisht," said she. "He'll maybe get over it yet."
"No—no, he won't! That horrible beast will see that he doesn't!"
Miss Walkingshaw started nervously.
"You're not meaning the nurse?"
"I mean that—ugh!—that Andrew!"
A bright pink spot appeared in each of Miss Walkingshaw's cheeks. But the widow was too agitated to observe either them or the horrified stare with which she greeted this outburst.
"I believe he would kill him to spite me!"
"Madge!" said the exemplary spinster in a voice which for the first time reminded her of Heriot's.
Mrs. Dunbar collected herself. Doubtless she realized the injustice she was doing that excellent man.
"I am sorry, Mary," she said gently. "I don't know what I'm saying. I admire Andrew as much as any one. I didn't mean it. It was only that I felt I had to blame some one for this terrible sorrow."
Her friend continued to look at her with decidedly diminished warmth.
"Our religion forbids us—" she began austerely; but the sympathetic widow hurriedly anticipated her.
"I know, I know, dear—so it does. How true, Mary; oh, how true! How sweet of you to remind me."
She turned her large black eyes, glistening pathetically, full upon her friend; but for some reason Mary continued to regard her with a new and curious expression. A trace of suspicion seemed to be among its ingredients.
Meanwhile her slandered nephew was in the library with his two elder sisters. The gas was now lit and the storm curtained out. Mrs. Ramornie and Andrew talked in decorously lowered voices; Mrs. Donaldson more loudly, and almost more airily, as became her dashing appearance and smart reputation. Yet she too had a nice sense of the solemnity of the occasion, and they forgave her elevated voice, since they knew several people of rank who talked like that.
"An irretrievable loss," Andrew was saying; "an irretrievable loss."
They agreed with him as heartily as people could who were feeling so depressed.
"A public loss," he added; and again they concurred.
"That will have to be taken into consideration in making the arrangements," he went on.
They looked graver than ever.
"Something like Sir James Maitland's?" suggested Mrs. Donaldson.
"Something of the sort," said he.
"I only hope it will not be a wet day," said Mrs. Ramornie. "George caught lumbago at his last funeral—Lord Pitcullo's, you know."
George was the laird of Pettigrew. Nowadays his wife saw that he mixed with none but the most desirable company, whether it were alive or dead.
"Oh, my dear, he must come over for it!" said her sister.
"He will," replied Mrs. Ramornie; and they knew that point was settled.
"To tell the honest truth, I'm devoutly thankful for one thing," observed Andrew, with the first smile he had permitted himself, and even it was appropriately grim: "this will put Madge Dunbar's nose out of joint."
"Thank Heaven for that!" replied Mrs. Ramornie devoutly.
"She meant to get him," said Mrs. Donaldson. "I never saw a woman try harder."
"If you'd been living in the house, you'd have seen still more of her trying," replied her brother.
Another fierce shower beat upon the window, with it the gale rose higher and the branches clashed more noisily. Even behind curtains one felt in the presence of something elemental. Silence fell on the three, and when they spoke again it was more solemnly than ever.
"It will make a considerable difference to us all, of course," said Mrs. Donaldson.
Her brother seemed to take this as a question, for he nodded gravely and answered—
"Oh, decidedly it will make that."
She mused for a moment and then turned to her sister.
"What was the name of the shoot the Hendersons had last season?"
"They paid two hundred, didn't they?"
"Two hundred and twenty," said Andrew.
He was a mine of information on the affairs of his acquaintances, especially on what they paid for things.
"Can you not get enough invitations in the meantime?" asked Mrs. Ramornie.
"Oh, dozens. But we want a little shoot of our own—when we can afford it."
"I only mean to build that new conservatory we've always been talking about," said Mrs. Ramornie; and Andrew pursed his lips and nodded his approval. The pursing was meant as a hint of criticism on their too dashing sister.
It was at that moment that there came the first gentle tap upon the door.
"Come in," said Andrew, and the invalid's nurse entered.
"Mr. Walkingshaw would like a pint bottle of champagne," said she.
The junior partner stared first at her and then at his sisters. They in turn opened their eyes.
"Is it the—er—usual thing?" he inquired.
"The doctor said nothing about it. Who would ever imagine he was going to want champagne again?"
"Is it ever given?" asked Andrew cautiously.
"Oh, I know it's given," interposed Mrs. Ramornie decisively. "George's uncle drank it up to five minutes before he died."
George's uncle had been a very bad example. At the same time he had been a baronet, and Andrew swithered between the dissoluteness of the request and a certain stylishness it undoubtedly possessed.
"Mr. Walkingshaw is very determined for it," said the nurse.
"Very well," he answered. "I'll get it for you."
He went out with her and then returned to his sisters.
"Does it mean the end is near?" asked Mrs. Donaldson in a very hushed voice.
"It means it's nearer," he answered grimly.
Undoubtedly this was a wild end for one of the most respectable lives ever lived in Edinburgh. Outside, the gale was now positively shrieking; and inside, he presumed the cork was already popping.
"What a pity!" said Gertrude.
"Oh, I don't know about that," replied her sister. "It keeps them happy. George's uncle tried to sing after they thought all was over."
Her brother frowned. The possibility that the head of Walkingshaw & Gilliflower might exit singing exceeded his gloomiest forebodings. He wished women did not have that habit of talking about unpleasant things. Could they not keep the like of that to themselves?
Even as he frowned the second tap disturbed them.
"What is it now?" he snapped.
"Could you tell me," asked the nurse, "where Mr. Walkingshaw keeps his cigars?"
"Cigars!" he cried.
"He is very set upon one."
Andrew silently opened a cupboard and handed her a box of cigars. Then, still in silence, he seated himself before the fire and frowned at the dancing flames. Behind his back his sisters talked in low voices, but he seemed to have no taste for further conversation.
A few minutes later came the third tap, and this time there was so curious a look in the nurse's face that the junior partner was on his feet in an instant.
"Is it—shall we come up?" he exclaimed.
"Mr. Walkingshaw would like to know what there's to be for dinner," said the nurse.
He looked at his sisters and they at him, and then he rang the bell. Nobody spoke till the butler came up.
"Will you ask the cook what's for dinner? Mr. Walkingshaw wants to know."
Andrew threw into this speech all the concentrated bitterness of his soul. Here was the quintessence of unorthodoxy in the very home of Walkingshaw & Gilliflower! The head of the firm proposed to die not merely drinking and smoking, but, if possible, feasting. They might be in some wretched Bohemian den.
In a few minutes the butler returned with a menu. Andrew read it with a sardonic smile.
"Tell him," he said, "that he can have cocky-leeky soup, boiled cod and oyster sauce, loin of mutton, apple charlotte, and cheese straws—any or all of them he likes."
"Thank you," said the nurse.
Andrew planted himself before the fire.
"A fine story this is to get about!" he exclaimed darkly.
"But surely father must be light-headed," said Mrs. Ramornie.
"Umph," he replied.
He clearly did not consider this a very creditable excuse.
"Or perhaps he is really feeling better," suggested Gertrude.
"Better! A man at death's door one minute—given up by the doctors—and wanting to eat his dinner the next!"
"I wonder's that nurse fooling us! I didn't like the look of the woman from the moment she came into the house. I don't believe in your good-looking nurses."
On this point his sisters cordially agreed with him. Still they didn't believe it was the nurse.
"Then what is it?" he demanded. "If he's light-headed, why does she pay any attention to him?"
The door opened, this time without a tap, and in petrified silence they beheld the portly form of Heriot Walkingshaw, arrayed in a yellow dressing-gown, holding between his fingers a cigar, and smiling upon them with a curious blend of satisfaction and meekness.
"I have recovered," said he.
As he made this simple announcement he blew luxuriously through his nose two thin streams of smoke, while the meekness of his aspect seemed to make some conscious effort to keep on terms with the satisfaction.
A duet of questions and exclamations arose from the two ladies, and again some conscious restraint appeared to underlie the paternal calm with which he answered them.
"Yes," said he, "it is probably one of the most extraordinary recoveries on record. It began all of a sudden. The spasms passed completely away, my temperature fell to normal, and I felt a curious sensation almost of exhilaration. It grew stronger and stronger till at last I could keep in bed no longer. I felt livelier than I have for years."
He passed the cigar under his nose, drew in his breath, and smiled at it with a kind of partially chastened affection.
"Do you think could we not have dinner put on a little earlier, eh?"
A cry from the open door startled them. The sympathetic widow, her black eyes dilated, was gazing at the patient.
"Heriot!" she exclaimed, and there was a note in her voice that came very near to damping the junior partner's enthusiasm at finding the head of his firm restored to him.
"Yes, Madge," said Mr. Walkingshaw, his beatific smile still blander, "I have indeed been spared."
He drew another deep whiff from his cigar, and added gently—
"For maybe a few more years of quiet usefulness."
Down the steep street where stands the office of Walkingshaw & Gilliflower, careers a hat. It is a silk hat and of a large size, the hat of a professional man of the most dignified standing and evident brain capacity. Nothing could show better the innate depravity of March winds than their choice of such a hat to play with. They had thousands to choose from—bowlers, caps, wideawakes, all kinds of commonplace head-gear—and here they have selected for their sport this cylinder of silk, symbolical of all most worthy of the city's respect. It leaps and bumps and slides, propelled by the breeze and the law of gravitation, down the decorously paved hill, in company with a little cloud of dust and some scraps of dirty paper. And behind it, now at a canter, now at a panting trot, ambles the portly form of Mr. Heriot Walkingshaw. The very devil must be in the wind to-day.
At the corner of Queen Street the hat met the full force of the easterly blast, and bidding good-by to gravitation, turned at right angles and skimmed for forty yards through space as though the brothers Wright had mounted it. Then it resumed the action of a Rugby football, pitching now on its end and now on its middle, and behaving accordingly each time. Mr. Walkingshaw, perceiving that it was now bouncing in the direction he desired to go, fell for a moment to a walk and looked around for some assistant. But the only spectators within hail happened to be two errand boys who had not seen a circus for some time and evinced no desire to interrupt the entertainment. So off he started again, his white spats twinkling beneath his flapping overcoat, and covered the first fifty yards in such promising fashion that he was able to strike the revolving rim a series of smart raps with his umbrella before the wind had recovered its breath. Then suddenly up leapt the hat, cannoned from a lamp-post on to the railings of the Queen Street Gardens, from them across the pavement into the gutter, and there, getting nicely on edge, careered like a hoop, with the thud of Heriot's footsteps growing fainter behind.
Down the next cross street came two acquaintances of the Writer to the Signet, and they stopped at the corner in amazement.
"Good God, that's Heriot Walkingshaw!" cried one.
"A man of his age!" replied the other; "he's running like a wing three-quarter—look at his stride!"
A benevolent lady half stopped the hat with her umbrella. The W.S. was up to it. He stooped to reach it—a quick grab and he had it by the rim.
"Well picked up, sir!" cried one of the acquaintances.
Mr. Walkingshaw did not hear. He was on the other side of the street and engrossed in brushing his quarry with his coat sleeve.
"It's a wonderful performance," remarked the other acquaintance; "but it ought just about to finish him."
"Will it? Look at him—he hasn't turned a hair!"
"It's amazing—positively amazing!" they murmured together as they watched their elderly friend not only replace his trophy on his head, but cock it at an angle that breathed reckless defiance to the March winds.
"Did you ever see Heriot Walkingshaw with his hat at that angle before?"
"As often as I've seen him do even time chasing it!"
Off he strode, breathing faster than usual, and his hat still a little ruffled, but otherwise as jaunty a figure as ever left an office; while his two acquaintances went away to narrate to the wondering city what their astonished eyes had seen.
* * * * *
Meanwhile the junior partner was unburdening his soul to the confidential clerk.
"That's the end of Guthrie and Co.!" he exclaimed wrathfully. "The whole thing settled in a fortnight—we might be a marriage registry! It's just been 'we agree to this,' 'we agree to that,' 'we agree to anything you suggest.' We haven't fought a single point. I'd have made those creditors whistle a bit before they saw yon five thousand pounds! But what's my father say? You heard him yourself—'moral obligation'—'might be fought!'—'get it settled.' He's botched the whole business."
Mr. Thomieson shook his grizzled head.
"It's certainly not been our usual way of doing business."
Andrew glowered at his desk.
"He said he was going to leave the business to me, and in forty-eight hours he was taking more responsibilities on his shoulders than he had for years! He barely has the decency to ask me for my opinion now; and when I give it, he tells me it's timid. Timid!" The junior partner's voice rose to a shout. "He just goes at things like a bull, and before I've time to get in two words edgeways, the thing is settled and he's out of the office whistling!"
"That whistling's a queer thing he's taken to," observed the clerk.
"He was doing it coming home from church last Sunday."
"Verra strange, verra strange," commented Mr. Thomieson.
He seemed more struck with the peculiarity of the senior partner's conduct; Andrew with its offensiveness.
"He shows a fine grasp of things all the same," added the clerk. "In that way it fairly does me good sir, to see him so speerited. It minds me of old times."
"A proper like business we'd have had to-day if he'd gone on like this in old times!" grumbled Andrew. "He gets through things quick enough, I admit; but I tell you he does not take the same interest in them. He talks of 'dry details'!"
"Is that so?" said Mr. Thomieson, his eyes opening.
"It's a fact. And he's started cracking jokes with the clerks."
"Aye, I heard him yesterday myself. It sounded awful bad in this office."
"I tell you what it'll end in," said Andrew. "It'll end in our losing our business—that'll be the end of it. And this is what he calls 'a few years of quiet usefulness'!"
The junior partner's upper lip seemed to hang like a curtain half covering his face. Behind it he swore so distinctly that the confidential clerk discreetly withdrew.
"It's quite remarkable how well I'm keeping—quite astonishing," said Mr. Walkingshaw to himself, as he continued his walk with his recovered hat perched at the angle that had so surprised his acquaintances.
A month had passed since the stormy afternoon when he had said farewell to his family, and he now looked back upon that adieu as the rashest and most premature act of his life. Andrew must have frightened him; that was the only conceivable excuse for his conduct, seen in the white light of his present rude health; and he secretly decided that the junior partner had been getting a little too much rope. If you once let these lads kick up their heels, the deuce was in it. He would do nothing unjust, but he would see that he didn't encourage Andrew to alarm him again. Thus does the virtue even of the most exemplary occasionally over-exert itself.
Meanwhile, it was uncommonly pleasant to be able to chase one's hat for a quarter of a mile and feel not a twinge of gout or rheumatism after the merry pursuit. Mr. Walkingshaw felt half inclined to give his hat a start again. What a joke it would be to kick it over the railings next time! At this very undignified thought, he recollected himself and for a few minutes looked as decorously pompous as the head of the firm should. But somehow or other that run seemed to have stirred his blood. The fun of kicking his hat over the railings returned so forcibly that there spread over his ruddy face a smile which greatly surprised the wife of one of his most respected clients passing at that moment in her carriage. She too returned home to talk of Mr. Walkingshaw's curious demeanor in the public streets of his native city.
The kicking fancy, by a natural chain of thought, reminded him that the England and Scotland International was being played next Saturday. He must be there, of course; and wouldn't he shout himself hoarse for Scotland! He had a moment's dismay when he remembered that old Berstoun had made an appointment to come in on Saturday and see him about his confounded money affairs. Then he cheered up again. Let the old chap be hanged! He would wire and put him off. In fact, he must be put off. For had not Madge Dunbar promised to come to the match with him? By this time he had reached the door of his house, and it occurred to him forcibly that afternoon tea was always a much pleasanter function if Madge were present. He hoped she wouldn't be out calling.
The dignified twilight of his hall sobered him considerably. He had been following a strangely frivolous line of thought, he told himself. Certainly he must never allow his hat to escape again. That run had quite upset his equanimity: he found himself going upstairs two steps at a time, and had to pause and shorten his stride.
In the drawing-room he found his sister and the widow.
"Hullo!" said the W.S. before he could recollect himself.
"Hullo!" smiled the widow archly.
He had felt ashamed of the exclamation the moment it escaped him, but finding it received so prettily, he secretly resolved to say it again some day—after a week or two had elapsed, perhaps; confining himself to more dignified remarks in the interval.
"You look as though you had heard good news," said Mrs. Dunbar.
"I've been chasing my hat," he chuckled.
He had meant to make no allusion to the undignified episode, and here he was blurting it out first thing! He began to feel puzzled by this odd persistence of high spirits.
"Not in the street, surely?" said Miss Walkingshaw, with her longest face.
"Oh, I hope it was in the street!" cried the widow. "I'd have loved to see you!"
Her dear friend regarded this speech with the strongest disapproval; in fact, she had never quite approved of Madge since those unlucky words of hers. But Mrs. Dunbar had ceased for some reason to show the same marked regard for her opinion. It was Heriot who had again refused to hear of her leaving, and she seemed content to win his approval.
"It was in the street," smiled Mr. Walkingshaw. "I chased it for quite half a mile, and ran it down single-handed. I wish you had been there, Madge. You'd have seen there was life in the old dog still!"
He had doubled the distance and forgotten the lady with the umbrella; but then, as Andrew had remarked, a distaste for dry detail had suddenly become characteristic of his recovered health.
"Too much life sometimes, I think!" she exclaimed coquettishly; and Mr. Walkingshaw winked in reply.
He was inwardly as surprised at the wink as he had been at the "hullo." These aberrations seemed to come quite spontaneously. He wished he could understand what caused them.
"Have you had a tiring day at the office?" asked the dry Scotch voice of his sister.
Her familiar accents instinctively banished the aberrations.
"Tolerably, tolerably," he said, with his old air. "We had the affairs of Guthrie and Co. to settle up. I settled them, though."
"Andrew would be a great help," she replied, with an apprehensive glance at him. She was much in her nephew's confidence at present.
"Andrew, pooh!" said his father. "He'd talk the hind leg off an elephant. When things need settling, I just settle them myself and leave him to grumble away to Thomieson."
Miss Walkingshaw gasped, and the widow gave the sweetest little laugh.
"Poor Andrew!" said she.
"Poor Andrew indeed," retorted her friend, with more indignation than she had almost ever permitted herself in the presence of her formidable brother.
He looked at her in genuine surprise. So subtly had his point of view altered that he quite failed to grasp her cause of complaint.
"What's the matter, Mary?" he asked.
"Oh, if you don't see, what's the good in my trying to explain?"
He merely stared at her, and the widow tactfully interposed.
"Of course you are going to the match on Saturday?" said she.
"Of course, Madge."
"Have you forgotten Mr. Berstoun is coming to see you?" asked Miss Walkingshaw.
He waved aside this objection with a dignified sweep of his hand. A piece of cake happened to be in it, and the icing flew across the floor. On the instant he was on his hands and knees collecting it.
"Berstoun's a mere nuisance," he answered from the carpet. "He'll never get out of debt if he lives to a thousand. What's the good in his coming to see me? Let him tell his creditors to go to the devil; that's the only sensible thing to do."
He rose chuckling—
"He'll go himself some day; so they'll meet again."
His sister's face was too much for the widow's gravity. She began to laugh hysterically, her black eyes dancing all the time in the merriest fashion at her host. It was so infectious that in a moment he had joined her.
"Won't they?" he kept asking through his chuckles. "Won't they, Madge?"
She kept nodding, choked with laughter, and another strange sensation began to puzzle Mr. Walkingshaw. It was not so much something new as something forgotten which was beginning to return, and it concerned this very sympathetic widow. She was an uncommonly nice woman—really uncommonly: and what an odd pleasure he began to feel in her society! He felt even more satisfaction than when he had run down his hat.
It was upon a fine April morning that Mr. Walkingshaw made his momentous discovery. His sister had left her room on her way to breakfast when she heard his voice calling her. It had so curious a note of excitement that she got a little flustered. Whatever could be the matter? She hurried to his dressing-room door and tapped with a trembling hand. She was not easily agitated as a rule, but her brother had been very disconcerting for the past few weeks, and now his voice was odd. She remembered reading of gentlemen lying on their dressing-room floors with razors in their hands—
"Come in!" he cried impatiently.
She found him dressed all but his coat, and he was standing by the window looking out over the street and the circular garden.
"Come here, Mary," he said, and pointed at the houses seen through the leafless trees. "Have they been doing anything to the Hendersons' house?"
"What doing to it?" she exclaimed.
"Painting it, or brightening it, or—or anything of that kind?"
"Who ever heard of painting a house!"
From which it may be gathered that the good lady was not in the habit of visiting other cities.
"Well then, washing it?"
"Mr. Henderson washing his house! Whatever would he do that for?"
"Tuts, tuts," said her brother, "I'm only asking you. It looks so uncommonly distinct. Can you not count the chimney-cans?"
"Me? You must get younger eyes than mine, Heriot."
"I can count them," he answered.
"You can! But I thought you'd been complaining you couldn't always recognize people across the street nowadays."
"I can count those chimneys," he repeated. "I've counted them five times, and they come to fourteen each time. I'd like to get some one younger to count them too. Where's Madge Dunbar?"
He started impetuously for the door.
"She's dressing!" cried the horrified lady. "You can't get her in here—you with your coat off, too!"
Mr. Walkingshaw turned back.
"Well, anyhow," said he, "I'll lay you half a crown there are fourteen chimneys on Henderson's house. Will you take it up?"
"When did you hear I'd taken to betting?" she gasped.
He waved aside the reproach airily, much as he waved aside everything she said nowadays, the poor lady reflected. His next words merely deepened her distress.
"Look at my face carefully," he commanded. "Study it—touch it if you like—examine it with a lens—give it your undivided attention while I count twenty."
He counted slowly, while she stared conscientiously, afraid even to wink. "Now, what have you observed?"
"You're looking very well, Heriot," she answered timidly.
"Did you ever see a man of my age look better?"
"N—no," she stammered.
"Well, don't be afraid to say so, for it's perfectly true. Do you mind a kind of deep wrinkle under my eyes? Where's that gone now?"
"I can't imagine, Heriot."
"Well, don't look distressed; it's bonnier away."
"Yes," she said in a flustered voice, "you do have a kind of smoother look."
"Smoother and harder," he replied, prodding his ribs with his fingers.
She gave a little cry of distress.
"You're growing thin! Your waistcoat's hanging quite loose. Oh, Heriot, it's terrible to see you that way!"
Her heart might be a little withered by all those northern winters, with never another heart to keep it warm, but it could still beat faster at a breath of suspicion cast upon her hospitality. She had not been feeding her only brother properly!
"Tell me yourself what you'd like for your dinner!" she entreated him.
He laughed at her genially.
"Pooh! Tuts! Did you ever in your life see me eat a better dinner than I've been taking lately? You might give one a suet pudding oftener, but that's all I have to complain of."
Heriot had always been addicted to suet pudding, but for a number of years past his doctor's opinion had been adverse to this form of diet for a gentleman of gouty habit.
"But what about your gout, Heriot?" she asked.
"Gout? Fiddle-de-dee! Who's got gout? Not I, for one."
He had been glancing complacently at his improved reflection in the mirror. Abruptly he stepped up close to the glass and examined his visage with unconcealed excitement.
"Good God!" he murmured.
Then, with much the expression Crusoe must have worn when he spied the footprint, he turned to his sister, and, grasping a lock of hair upon his brow, bent his head towards her, and demanded—
"What color's that?"
"Dear me," she said, "it looks quite brown. I didn't know you had any brown hair left."
He raised his head and looked at her in solemn silence till she began to feel dreadfully confused. Then he bent again.
"Do you notice anything else?"
"N—no; unless your hair's got thicker. But that's not likely at your time of life."
"It is not likely," said he. "It is most improbable—in fact, it is practically impossible; but it is thicker."
He rubbed his chin and gazed at her with the queerest look. Mary had known him since he trundled a hoop, but she never remembered him go on like this before. As for Heriot, he seemed to be debating whether he should spring something still more surprising on her or not. But she looked so uncomfortable already, so totally without the least clue to his mysterious words, so unconscious of anything stranger about him than his shirt-sleeves and loss of weight, that he only uttered something between a gasp and a sigh, and, turning away from her, took up his brushes to smooth his augmented hairs.
"I'll be down to breakfast in a jiffy," he said.
Miss Walkingshaw thought that an odd kind of phrase for Heriot to be using.
Andrew no longer walked to the office with his father in the mornings. Not that he had anything to do with the altered custom: in fact, he was always most careful to assure his friends that he had more than once waited as long as five minutes to give his father the opportunity of having his company—if he was wishing it. But Mr. Walkingshaw was never less than ten minutes late nowadays.
On this particular morning he set forth a full half-hour after his son. He had been very absent-minded after his talk with his sister,—not even Mrs. Dunbar could keep his attention for more than a moment,—and he had sat for the best part of twenty minutes thoughtfully putting on his boots. One or two acquaintances who saw him on the way from his house to his office often recalled his demeanor that morning. Now he would loiter along with bent shoulders, his hands behind his back, trailing his umbrella and brooding as though he contemplated bankruptcy. Then suddenly his pace would quicken, the umbrella whirled round and round like a Catherine wheel, and with his head held jauntily and the merriest smile he would swagger along like a young blood of twenty-six who had just been accepted by an heiress. And then abruptly he would lapse into his mournful gait.