E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE ROAD TO MANDALAY
A Tale of Burma
B. M. Croker
Cassell and Company, Ltd London, New York, Toronto & Melbourne First published October 1917. Reprinted December 1917, March and May 1918 Popular Edition 1919.
LT.-COLONEL A. E. CONGDON
LATE ROYAL MUNSTER FUSILIERS
FROM HIS OLD FRIEND
1. BLINDS DOWN 2. WHAT HANNAH SAID 3. THE CLOSED HOUSE 4. KICKS AND HALFPENCE 5. CLOUDS 6. AN EMPTY OFFER 7. "THE MONSTER" 8. BOUND FOR BURMA 9. THE "BLANKSHIRE" 10. THE LAND OF PROMISE 11. A BURMESE HOSTESS 12. EAST AND WEST 13. "KEEP AN EYE UPON HER" 14. THE MANTLE OF FERNANDA 15. THE CHUMMERY 16. MR. AND MRS. ABELSALTER 17. AT THE PLAY 18. THE CHINESE SHOP 19. CHAFF 20. THE PONGYE 21. THE COCAINE DEN 22. THE APPROACHING DREAD 23. MYSTERY AND SUSPICION 24. SENTENCE OF DEATH 25. THE LATE RICHARD ROSCOE 26. FITZGERALD IMPARTS INFORMATION 27. A ROPE TRICK 28. MA CHIT 29. MUNG BAW 30. ENLIGHTENMENT 31. SEEING IS BELIEVING 32. ON DUTY 33. SOPHY 34. ALL IS OVER 35. MUNG BAW LIES LOW 36. THE BOMBSHELL 37. THE TUG OF WAR 38. SERGEANT-MAJOR RYAN
THE ROAD TO MANDALAY
"What do you think, Mitty? All the blinds are down at 'Littlecote,'" announced Miss Jane Tebbs, bursting open the drawing-room door and disturbing her sister in a surreptitious game of patience. In well-ordered households the mistress is understood to have various domestic tasks claiming her attention in the morning. Cards should never appear until after sunset.
"Blinds down?" echoed Miss Tebbs, hastily moving a newspaper in the hope of concealing her ill-doing. "Why are you in such a taking, Jane? I suppose the family are away."
"Rubbish!" exclaimed her relative, sinking into a chair and dragging off her gloves. "Did you ever know them all away together? Of course, Mrs. Shafto goes gadding, and Douglas is at Sandhurst, but 'he' seldom stirs. It is my opinion that something has happened. The Shaftos have lived at 'Littlecote' for ten years, and I have never seen the blinds down before to-day."
"Oh, you are so fussy and ready to imagine things!" grumbled Mitty, who meanwhile had collected and pocketed the cards with surpassing dexterity. "I don't forget the time when the curate had a smart lady in his lodgings, and you nearly went out of your mind: rampaging up and down the village, and telling everyone that the bishop must be informed; and after all your outcry she turned out to be the young man's mother!"
"That's true. I confess I was misled; but she made herself up to look like a girl of twenty. You can't deny that she powdered her nose and wore white shoes. But this is different. Drawn blinds are a sign of trouble, and there is trouble at 'Littlecote,' as sure as my name is Jane."
"Then, in that case, why don't you go up to the house and inquire?"—The query suggested a challenge.
"Mitty! You know perfectly well that I have never been inside the door since Mrs. Shafto was so rude to me about the book club, when I wrote and protested against the 'loose' novels she put upon her list. Why, you saw her letter yourself!"
Here a pause ensued, during which Miss Jane blew into every separate finger of her gloves and folded them up with the neatest exactitude. Presently she murmured with a meditative air:
"I was thinking of asking Eliza to run over."
"Oh, you may ask!" rejoined her sister, with a sniff of scorn, "but Eliza won't stir. There's a beefsteak pudding for dinner. And that reminds me that this is the egg woman's day, and I must see if she has called. I shall want three dozen."
And without another word the elder Miss Tebbs bustled out of the room and abandoned her relative to solitude and speculation.
Matilda and Jane Tebbs were the elderly orphans of a late vicar, and still considered the parish and community of Tadpool their special charge. Miss Jane was organist and Sunday school superintendent; Miss Tebbs held mothers' meetings and controlled the maternity basket and funds. Subsequent to their retirement from the vicarage the sisters had known straitened circumstances; in fact, had experienced the sharp nip of real poverty; but, no matter how painful their necessities, they contrived to keep up appearances and never withdrew from society, nor suffered their little circle to forget that their grandfather had been an archdeacon. In spite of anxious times and scanty funds, they clung with loyal tenacity to certain family relics, in the shape of old silver, china and prints, many of which were highly marketable.
In those evil days it was whispered that "the Tebbs had only one best dress between them"—a certain rich black silk. As Miss Jane was at least six inches taller than dumpy Miss Mitty, difficulties of length were cunningly surmounted by an adjustable flounce. Needless to add that on festive occasions, such as high teas, little dinners, and card parties, the sisters never appeared together, the one "out of turn" invariably excusing herself with toothache or a heavy cold. Although they argued and bickered in private, and had opposing tastes in the matter of boiling eggs and drawing tea, the Tebbs were a deeply attached pair and presented an unbroken front to the outer world.
After several years of brave struggle, during which the wolf of want prowled hungrily round Highfield Cottage, a substantial and unexpected fortune, fell to the Tebbs, restored them to comfortable independence—and to the notice of such far-sighted parents as happened to be in quest of useful and benevolent godmothers. The sisters made but little change in their style of living; they now owned handsome furs, a separate wardrobe, and not a few rich silks; they still continued to occupy the cottage, and retained in their service a certain tyrannical treasure, widely known and feared as "the Tebbs's Eliza." Although an admirable and trustworthy servant, Eliza ruled the household, permitted no late hours, no breakfasts in bed, no unnecessary fires, no unnecessary, guests. Her mistresses were obliged to do a considerable amount of household work; for instance, they made their beds and Miss Tebbs dusted the china; she also had the charge of the linen and store-room; whilst Miss Jane was responsible for the silver, the lamps, and, on Eliza's day out, "the door."
When the door was answered by Eliza in person, her manner was so fierce and intimidating that nervous callers complained that the Tebbs' maid looked as if she was ready to fly at, and bite them! Ill-natured tongues declared that the tyrant was tolerated merely because she was a channel for the most far-reaching, fresh and sensational gossip. But let us hope that this was a malignant libel!
Highfield Cottage was old, two-storied and solid; elsewhere than Tadpool it might have ventured to pose as a villa residence, but Tadpool, a fine, sixteenth century, self-respecting and historical village, tolerated no villas. If such abodes ventured to arise, they sprouted timidly in the fields beyond its boundaries. Moreover, the age and history of Highfield Cottage were too widely known for any change of name. The cottage was connected with the high road by a prim little garden and a red-tiled footpath; eight long narrow windows commanded a satisfactory outlook—including Littlecote Hall—a square white mansion withdrawn in dignified retirement behind elms and beeches, in age the contemporary of its humbler vis-a-vis.
Here resided Edward Shafto, late Fellow of St. John's, Oxford, his wife Lucilla, and his son Douglas. Ten years previously the family had descended on Tadpool as from the skies—or as a heavy stone cast into some quiet mill pond. No one in the neighbourhood could discover anything about them—although Jane Tebbs's exertions in the matter were admittedly prodigious and unwearied. The house agent proved disappointingly vague, and could only inform her that a gentleman who happened to hear of the place had come down from London, inspected the house, liked its lofty, spacious rooms with their old mahogany doors (it recalled his home), was much taken with the gardens—and promptly signed the lease! Certainly it was an audacious step to invade a strange neighbourhood without a social sponsor or reference. However, the community breathed more freely when they beheld the new tenant of "Littlecote," a middle-aged, distinguished-looking individual; and Miss Jane discovered, or pretended to discover, that he was one of the Shaftos of Shafton Court.
Mrs. Shafto (who looked surprisingly young to be the mother of a tall lad of ten) had a pretty figure, quantities of lightish red hair, an animated manner, and a pair of hard blue eyes. She was fashionably turned out, and her hat of a remarkable shape was discussed in the village for weeks.
The arrival of furniture vans, horses, carriages and a number of servants, afforded unqualified interest to the Misses Tebbs; and moreover advertised the fact that the new-comers were well-to-do; and after allowing a reasonable time for the strangers to settle down, the neighbours called.
By and by these calls were returned by Mrs. Shafto in a smart victoria and a still smarter costume; her husband was merely represented by a neatly printed card, which bore the name of "Mr. Edward Shafto, Athenaeum Club." Mr. Edward Shafto was rarely to be met beyond his grounds and garden, unless driving through the village to Bricklands railway station, en route for London. He did not sit on the Bench, nor was he a churchwarden, the usual grounds of meeting. When encountered he was invariably agreeable and had charming easy manners, but not much to say for himself, and his acquaintance, like the farmers and the claret, got "no forrarder." Gradually the painful truth was accepted that Shafto did not care to know people. He never dined out, he did not shoot or hunt, but it was mysteriously whispered that "he wrote." What, no one precisely knew, but one fact was common property: he was fond of horticulture and the once famous gardens of "Littlecote" had been delightfully restored.
If Tadpool was held at arm's length by Edward Shafto, the community had no difficulty in making acquaintance with his consort, a pretty vivacious lady who accepted all invitations, and herself gave tennis parties, bridge parties, luncheons and teas. For some time the neighbourhood was disposed to like her, although perhaps she was not quite "off the top shelf," a little too demonstrative, loud and unreserved; then by degrees Mrs. Shafto fell into disfavour; quiet folk were afraid of her, she enjoyed repeating ill-natured remarks, was capricious in her likes and dislikes, made a good deal of mischief, and separated chief friends.
The lady was not disposed to be reticent respecting her family affairs; there was something satisfactory in this! People learned that her husband was really a Shafto of Shafton, and also that his elder brother, who actually reigned in the family place, was "a brute." She volubly explained that they had deserted the Border and moved south, partly because "the pater" wished to be within easy reach of London, his Club and musty old libraries, and also because it was more convenient for Douglas, who was at Winchester.
Then gradually it came to pass that the village bored the new-comer; bored her to death. She became restless and quarrelsome, had a coolness with the vicarage regarding a pew, with Mrs. Tremenheere at the Park about a housemaid, and actually cut Mrs. General Finch "dead" in the village post office, owing to a mislaid visiting-card. At the end of three years Lucilla Shafto had embroiled herself with almost everyone in her immediate vicinity, and found her true level and most congenial companions in the busy bustling town of Bricklands, a rapidly growing and prosperous mushroom place, situated thirty miles south of London, and within two miles of our ancient and respectable hamlet. Here she belonged to several clubs, bridge, tennis and croquet; enjoyed being a Triton among minnows; entertained a third-rate set at "Littlecote," and joined gay little theatre parties to London to "do a play," and return home by the last train.
Housekeeping sat but lightly on Mrs. Shafto's graceful shoulders, for the Shaftos also possessed a family treasure named Hannah, an elderly woman, who had been in service with "the family" and now managed the house, and looked after the comforts and buttons of her master and his boy.
Mr. and Mrs. Shafto went their separate ways, and were rarely to be seen in one another's company. The lady assured her friends that her husband's health was indifferent, and that he did not care for society; for her part she liked amusement, excitement, life; whilst he preferred to read, write, overlook his garden, and occasionally run up to London. She did not trouble herself much about her son—a handsome active boy, resembling his father in looks. Between these there undoubtedly existed a deep affection. During the holidays they were frequently to be met walking or riding together, and Shafto pere would so far emerge from his retirement as to be a proud spectator at cricket matches in Tremenheere Park and elsewhere. Douglas and two of the Tremenheere boys were schoolmates, and he was in continual request at their home. Unfortunately these visits were displeasing to Mrs. Shafto, as was also his intimacy with the young people at the vicarage; and poor Douglas had an awkward part to play. He could not avoid or drop his friends; yet, on the other hand, there were painful difficulties with his mother, who declared that he was a mean fellow to run after people who had insulted her, and one day, when in a towering passion, she had been overheard to scream "that he was a thorn in her side, and a true Shafto!"
But all this time Miss Jane Tebbs remains stationed at the drawing-room window, watching the road with unwinking vigilance. For a long while she beheld no object of special interest, but at last, after seeing the grocer's cart, a travelling tinker, two cows and a boy go by, her patience was handsomely rewarded. To her delight, she descried Mrs. Billing, the doctor's wife, emerge from "Littlecote" and, hammering on the window to attract notice, she flew down to open the hall door.
Mrs. Billing, a stout, middle-aged lady, looked unusually hot and flustered as she waddled through the little green gate and entered the cottage.
"Why, my dear, you seem quite upset!" cried Jane, as she welcomed the visitor, "come into the dining-room, and have a glass of milk."
But Mrs. Billing dismissing the proffered refreshment with a dramatic wave of her hand, subsided upon the only chair in the narrow hall and gasped out:
"I have just come from 'Littlecote.' Mr. Shafto is gone—he died last night!"
WHAT HANNAH SAID
On hearing this announcement, Jane Tebbs gave a little lurch and leant against the wall in speechless horror; and yet in her heart she had been more than half expecting—we will not say hoping for—some tragedy. Then she made a rush to the store-room, where Miss Mitty, invested in a large blue apron, was methodically marking eggs.
"Sister, sister, come out!" she cried. "Mrs. Billing is here; she says Mr. Shafto is dead; I told you that something had happened!"
"Dead!" repeated Mitty, staring blankly at her relative. Then she cast aside her apron and hurried into the hall. "Let us all go into the dining-room," she continued, leading the way. "What a shocking thing, Mrs. Billing!"—turning to her visitor. "Do tell us the particulars. I can hardly believe it! Why, I saw Mr. Shafto in Bricklands on Tuesday, and he looked as well as he ever did in his life."
"That was the day he heard the news," announced Mrs. Billing, selecting an arm-chair and casting off her feather boa.
"Bad news?" suggested Miss Jane.
"Very bad indeed—could not be worse. He heard he'd lost every penny he possessed in the wide world."
"Great patience!" ejaculated Miss Tebbs; "you don't say so; but how?"
"Well, you know he was always comfortably off; indeed, one might say rich."
"That's true! They keep five maids indoors, and a charwoman three times a week, two men and a boy in the garden, and two men in the stables," glibly enumerated Miss Jane. "All that is not done on small means, and I happen to know that Mr. Shafto himself paid everything monthly—which is more than we can say for his wife; even her bridge losses"; here she halted on the brink of scandal.
After hesitating for a second, Mrs. Billing continued:
"Well, it appears, from what my husband can gather, that Mr. Shafto trusted all his money and investments to a man who had managed his affairs for years, and in whom he had the most absolute confidence; he just drew his income regularly, lived his quiet life, and never troubled his head about business. It seems that for a considerable time this agent had been speculating with his clients' capital, and paying them the interest to the day. He staved off the reckoning by every possible device, and when he could no longer hide his wickedness, when liabilities poured in, and proceedings were instituted, he shot himself! Not much comfort in that for the families he has beggared. I believe he had a splendid establishment at Hampstead; greenhouses, pictures, motor-cars, and entertained like a prince. He squandered the handsome fortune that was left to Mr. Shafto, and all that Mr. Shafto could be sure of, about a hundred and fifty pounds a year, belongs to Douglas."
"Oh, my dear, never mind the money, but do tell us about poor Mr. Shafto," urged Jane. "What was the cause of his death? Suicide? This morning I thought I heard a shot!"
"No, no, no—heart failure," hastily interposed Mrs. Billing. "He was always troubled with a rickety heart, and on several occasions my husband attended him for rather dangerous fainting attacks; no doubt that was partly the reason why he lived so quietly, just taken up with his books, his garden, and, when he was at home, his boy. It appears that when Mr. Shafto heard of the smash, he went straight up to London, interviewed a lawyer, and learnt the worst. He returned in the afternoon, very tired and excited, broke the news to his wife, and had a serious fainting attack. My husband was sent for, but he found Mr. Shafto sinking. He died at midnight. He himself had wired for Douglas, who arrived just in time for the end. Poor boy! He feels it terribly."
"Yes," assented Miss Mitty, "Douglas and his father were such friends. The loss of money will make a sad difference to him. There will be no going into the Army now, no more hunting and cricket; he will have to take a clerkship. Did you see him?"
"Yes. He and my Freddy are great pals, so I know him pretty well. I declare he gave me a shock, he looked utterly heart-broken; and he said: 'It is so sudden, so frightfully sudden—about the pater; the money may come back somehow or other, but he is gone for ever; I'll never see him again. If he had only known me—or spoken to me!' And then he just laid his head upon his arms and sobbed like a girl."
"And Mrs. Shafto, how does she bear this double loss?" inquired Miss Jane magisterially.
"She had one fit of screaming hysterics after another. If you ask me, I believe it's the money that touches her most keenly; my husband begged me to go up this morning, and see if I could do anything. She has no intimate friends here, and I have sent to Mrs. Boomer and Mrs. Jake; they will be over from Bricklands immediately. The doctor has given a certificate, and has undertaken to see about the funeral, and sent the notice to the Times and Morning Post. From what old Hannah told me, it seems that Mr. Shafto and his family were not on terms; I believe the quarrel had something to do"—she paused and glanced from one to the other of her eager listeners—"with Mrs. Shafto, and I am not surprised. They did not approve of the marriage—it was a mistake."
"I'm afraid it was," agreed Miss Mitty briskly; "they never appeared a well-matched couple; he, so reserved and aristocratic, and she such a gabbling, fluffy, restless creature—crazy about bridge and dress. I wonder who she was?"
"I can tell you that!" was Mrs. Billing's unexpected reply. "Mr. Shafto was a Fellow of his College at Oxford, wealthy and distinguished—he had taken no end of honours. He was hooked—there is no other word for it—by the niece of a local book-seller! He was an important customer, and the girl always contrived to be there, when he came in and out, and was so sympathetic, and bright and lively, as well as being uncommonly pretty, that the poor man lost his head and, with very little pressure from the uncle, married her. It was all scrambled up in a hurry, before his friends could turn round, or interfere. Of course he had to resign his fellowship and his beautiful rooms overlooking the garden, and he took his bride abroad. His relations dropped him and he dropped his Oxford friends; then he went and settled in the north. He must have lived there for years; his next move was here."
"And have you always known this?" demanded Miss Mitty, her countenance expressing injury and jealousy. Fancy Mrs. Billing knowing this story all that time and keeping it to herself; how sly!
"Oh, only lately," replied the visitor in an apologetic key; "an old aunt of mine lives in Oxford, and I met her in town last Easter. Somehow the name of Shafto cropped up, and I heard the whole tale. I told my husband and he said I'd better hold my tongue, and so I have, until now, when it's of no consequence who knows—as of course 'Littlecote' must be given up, and the Shaftos will go away."
"Well, we have often wondered who she was? and how Shafto—who looked like a duke—came to marry her," said Miss Tebbs; "such an odd, flighty, uncertain sort of creature, always for strangers, instead of her home. That poor boy never saw much of his mother; I believe he was hustled off to a preparatory school when he was about seven, and when he happened to be here for his holidays it was his father who took him about. I am very sorry for Douglas, a handsome, cheery, nice fellow," she continued, "always with a pleasant word, even for an old woman like me. The rectory lads and the Tremenheeres just love him!"
"Luckily there are no girls at the rectory," remarked Miss Mitty.
"Douglas is but nineteen, and really only a boy," protested Mrs. Billing.
"Well, this affair will make a man of him, or I'm greatly mistaken."
"More likely it will make him a slave," argued Jane; "he is bound to support his mother, and a hundred and fifty pounds a year won't go far with her! And now I dare say she will have her wish and be able to live in London. I suppose there will be an auction at 'Littlecote'?"
"Yes, of course," assented Mrs. Billing, "and that is sure to bring in a handsome sum—unless there are liabilities and debts. I've always admired that Crown Derby tea service—dark blue and gold."
"I know," rejoined Miss Tebbs, "a beautiful long set, and there's a nice little old Sheffield tea urn that we could do with! I expect the kitchen things will go pretty cheap; we want a new preserving pan."
"Talking of the kitchen, reminds me of food," remarked the visitor rising. "My husband will be back clamouring for his lunch and I must run," and in spite of her size, Mrs. Billing was out of the house in less than no time, pursued by a volley of questions to the very gate.
* * * * * *
During that afternoon there was an unusual amount of visiting and talking; the recent event had stirred the village to its depths, but beyond the facts disclosed by Mrs. Billing everything was surmise and regret; the personality of the late Edward Shafto, though slightly known, was much respected. "He was a gentleman"—the statement implied a left-handed compliment to his wife—"and his purse was ever open to the poor; it was said that he was a secret benefactor to various aged people, and to the local charities."
As the Misses Tebbs sat at supper the following night—a frugal meal of cocoa and bread and butter—Eliza tramped in, still wearing her hat; it had been her afternoon out. She seemed to be a little breathless, and was undoubtedly charged with some weighty intelligence.
"Well, Eliza, what is it?" eagerly inquired Miss Tebbs.
"I just thought I'd step over to 'Littlecote' this evening, and see Hannah." Oh, priceless handmaiden!
"Yes—and what did she tell you?"
Eliza placed her hands on her hips—invariable preliminary to an important announcement. "She took me to see the corpse; he looked beautiful, just like a marble statue; and there in front of the dead, what do you think Hannah told me? That Mrs. Shafto had killed him!" She paused to contemplate the effect of this statement. "Yes, his heart was always weak, he couldn't stand no shocks, and when he come back wore out from London, and told her as how he was ruined, the screams of that woman was enough to bring the house down! Hannah ran in and there was he, lying back in a chair, and she standing over him with a face all worked up, and her hands clenched, shouting at him that it was all through his lunacy and laziness they were beggared—and she wished he was dead. I couldn't tell you all the awful things she said, but he fainted right away and never come to again. Now, what do you say to that?" and she surveyed her audience judicially.
The sisters remained dumb; for once, speech had failed them.
"As for caring," continued Eliza, "Mrs. Shafto doesn't feel no more than this table," rapping it with her bony knuckles; "all she minds is about the money—and already they say she has been routing among his papers, searching for his bank book. Oh! she is an awful woman, her heart is just a stone. As for poor Master Douglas, now there's real grief! He hasn't tasted a bite or sup, and he looks crushed. Everyone in the place will be sorry for him and for his father; but as far as Mrs. Shafto is concerned, when she's paid off the money she owes—the sooner the place can get shut of her the better!"
THE CLOSED HOUSE
The break-up of the home at Littlecote Hall was a speedy and complete affair; Miss Jane Tebbs, being practically on the spot, volunteered invaluable assistance. Always energetic and anxious to be "up and doing," and with a sadly restricted field for her activities, here was a grand opportunity absolutely within her reach. The second Miss Tebbs had an immense acquaintance and correspondence, a fairly, good business head and, to her late enemy Mrs. Shafto, she ultimately proved a veritable tower of strength. The recent sad catastrophe had melted Jane's heart, and she promptly appeared in "Littlecote" drawing-room, waving a large olive branch—which her former adversary most thankfully accepted. In such a crisis as the present there was no more helpless, hopeless creature than Lucilla Shafto—a woman who was always ready to transfer her burdens to others. Strange to say, she somewhat distrusted her intimates in Bricklands; it seemed to her that their questions and sympathy were chiefly founded on vulgar curiosity and greedy self-interest. "How was she left? What had become of all the money? What was the boy going to do? Where would she settle? Would she not be glad to get rid of some of her smart summer clothes, now that she would be in weeds for at least two years? What about her sables?"
Jane Tebbs was totally different; an honest and single-hearted woman, she wrote business letters, interviewed the local agent, arranged for the auction and,—O wonderful and miraculous achievement!—was even instrumental in getting rid of the lease.
It was not surprising in all these circumstances that Mrs. Shafto should cling as a limpet to Jane Tebbs, whom she had so often apostrophised as a "meddling, mischievous, malignant old cat," but Lucilla Shafto was suffering from a violent mental shock. The sudden descent, as it were in one day, from comfortable affluence to a very narrow income, had temporarily stunned her, and she had a secret conviction that if she were to leave her affairs in the capable hands of her nearest neighbour, all would be well. She therefore remained secluded in her own spacious bedroom, whilst busy Jane undertook her affairs; helped with the auction list, interviewed the tradespeople, and, accompanied by the boy, went up to London to confer with Mr. Shafto's lawyers.
Douglas was subdued; he seemed a different creature, so silent and pale, but keenly anxious to put his shoulder to the wheel. He had withdrawn from Sandhurst and, in conversations with the Tremenheeres, informed them that his idea of going into the Army was knocked on the head, and that he now intended to look out for some job in the City.
It must not be supposed that Jane Tebbs, the indefatigable, was the only neighbour who had come forward with offers of assistance to the widow; the Tremenheeres, the vicarage, and many other acquaintances had been sincere in their sympathy and goodwill, but somehow or other Mrs. Shafto would have none of them! She refused to see the vicar or his wife, and lay in bed most of the day bewailing her fate, scribbling answers to letters of condolence, and occasionally dipping into a novel. "Read she must," she declared, "as it diverted her mind from the too dreadful present. A good novel was the best of anodynes."
The auction at "Littlecote" proved an important local event, and threw the annual Church bazaar woefully into the shade. It lasted three summer days and enabled a substantial sum to be placed to the credit of Edward Shafto's widow. Unfortunately Edward Shafto's widow had considerable private debts and, when these were settled, five hundred pounds was all that remained for investment.
As is proverbial with respect to auctions, good and even valuable lots went in some cases for the traditional old song; it is on record that Mrs. Shafto's smart victoria was sold to a jobmaster for six pounds, Mrs. Billing secured a wonderful bargain in the Crown Derby tea service, and the Sheffield tea urn fell to Miss Tebbs for ten shillings and sixpence! On the other hand, rubbish was at a premium. The kitchen utensils were dispersed at an alarmingly high figure, and a Turkey carpet, aged twenty years, fetched more than its original cost.
The sale was over. Needless to say, it had afforded enormous interest to the inmates of Highfield Cottage. Miss Jane could almost tell the price and history of each individual lot.
In a short time the great placards of advertisement were torn off the gate piers at "Littlecote," the house was closed, and once more the blinds were down.
KICKS AND HALFPENCE
More than four years had elapsed since Mrs. Shafto and her son had driven away from "Littlecote" behind a pair of smart bay steppers. (The widow was determined to keep up what she was pleased to call "her position" to the last.) Immediately succeeding this dignified exit came a woeful change in their circumstances. Mrs. Shafto was obliged to make the best of boarding-house and 'bus, and Douglas, thanks to the exertions of his friends the Tremenheeres, found a situation in a mercantile house in the City. There was no time for him to pick and choose. It was imperative that he should begin to earn without delay, and not, as his parent frankly remarked, "look to a poor widow for support." This condition of abject poverty was, she declared, "entirely due to his father's criminal carelessness respecting his affairs. She had what would barely keep her alive"—170 pounds per annum—"and that was all." As for Douglas, he must work.
Although they were not congenial companions Douglas faithfully accompanied his mother in her varied wanderings, supported her in action with enraged landladies, helped her out of a libel case, covered her reverses and retreats, and lived by command under the same roof.
For the last eighteen months the pair had been established at a well-managed private hotel in Lincoln Square, Bayswater, W. "Malahide" was a flourishing concern; two substantial houses had been thrown into one; the rooms were spacious, clean, and adequately furnished; the food was plain but abundant. The double drawing-room contained a fine piano, one or two sofas, and card tables; also a sufficiency of sound and reliable chairs; but not an ornament, save two clocks—not one paper fan, nor bunch of coloured grasses, nor a single antimacassar, not even a shell! Such amazing restraint gave the apartments an empty but dignified appearance.
Among its various advantages, "Malahide" was within a few minutes' walk of "the Grove," and "Underground," a situation which appealed to men in business and to women whose chief occupation was shopping.
Mrs. Shafto appreciated her present quarters for several excellent reasons. Here she had no giggling young rivals and was, even at forty-five, the best-looking and best-dressed of all the lady boarders. Moreover, she had found a friend and admirer in her neighbour at meals—a certain Mr. Manasseh Levison, a widower, with a stout figure, a somewhat fleshy nose, and a pair of fine piercing black eyes. He was the proprietor of a fashionable and flourishing antiquities and furniture business in a well-known thoroughfare, and was considered one of the best judges of old silver and china in the trade.
It exasperated Shafto to listen to his mother's "table talk," and he made a point of sitting as far as possible from her vicinity. She liked to impress Levison and other with highly-coloured reminiscences of her grand acquaintances; even the Tremenheeres—with whom she had quarrelled so bitterly—were dragged in and shown off as intimates. More than once Shafto had felt his face burn, as exaggerations and glorifications were unfolded in his parent's far-carrying and assertive treble.
Besides Mr. Manasseh Levison, were the two Misses Smith—twins—genteel, middle-aged spinsters, who, until the arrival of the sprightly and attractive widow, had alternately cherished high hopes of the wealthy Jew. Their chief energies were devoted to the task of blowing one another's trumpets, thereby drawing attention to particular virtues and modestly hidden accomplishments. For example, the elder would say:
"Darling Ella is so clever at cooking, as good as any French chef, her sauces and savouries are too wonderful."
And Ella, in repayment, assured her listeners that Jessie had a perfect genius for gardening and housekeeping; and yet it was whispered that this effusively fond couple, when alone, quarrelled and wrangled as cruelly as the notorious Kilkenny cats.
Among other patrons at "Malahide" were two quiet, polite little Japanese gentlemen, Mr. Den and Mr. Yabe; Madame Galli, a shrivelled old woman in a cheap wig, with sharp rat's eyes that nothing escaped, the soul of good nature, rich, miserly and incredibly mischievous. There were several boarders who were in business in the City, and Mr. Hutton, a careworn man of fifty, who spent his days working in the British Museum. Next to him at table sat Douglas Shafto, now a well set-up, self-possessed young fellow, who still retained something of the cheery voice and manner of the Public School boy. Thanks to his steadiness and fair knowledge of French and German, he was drawing a salary of a hundred and fifty per annum.
His neighbour on the left happened to be his own cousin, Sandy Larcher, older by three years, and in the same office, but receiving a lower "screw," Sandy was of the "knut" tribe, a confident authority on dress, noisy, slangy, and familiar; much given to cigarettes and music-halls, a slacker at work, but remarkably active at play and, on the whole, rather a good sort.
Sandy's mother, Mrs. Larcher, the widow of a cab proprietor, was Mrs. Shafto's only sister, and in the days of that sister's glory had never obtruded herself; but now that poor Lucilla had come down in the world, she had advanced with open arms, and at "Monte Carlo," the abode of the Larcher family, Mrs. Shafto occasionally spent a week end. The "go-as-you-please" atmosphere, late hours, breakfast in bed, and casual meals, recalled old, and not unhappy times. Mrs. Larcher, who had never been a beauty, was now a fat woman past fifty, lazy, good-natured, and absolutely governed by her children. Besides Sandy, the dandy, she had two daughters, Delia and Cossie.
Delia was on the stage (musical comedy), petite, piquant, and very lively; a true grasshopper, living only for the summer; a loud, reckless but respectable young woman, who, having but thirty shillings a week salary and to find her own "tights," was ever ready to accept motor drives, dinners, or a smart hat, or frock, from any of her "boys." Cossie, the stay-at-home, was round-faced and plump; a tireless talker and tennis player. She managed the house, held the slender purse, accepted her sister's cast-offs, and always had a "case" on with somebody. Cossie was exceedingly anxious (being the eldest of the family) to secure a home of her own, and made this alarmingly obvious.
To "Monte Carlo" Douglas, the highly presentable cousin, was frequently commanded by both mother and aunt. At first he had hated this duty, but nevertheless went, in order to please and silence his parent, whose hand plied the goad and who otherwise "nagged" at him in public and in private. In private she pointed out that the Larcher family were his own blood relations, "so different from his father's side of the house, which, since his death, had ignored both her and him, and never even sent a wreath to the funeral!" By slow and painful degrees Douglas became accustomed to "Monte Carlo"; at first the manners and customs of his cousins had a rasping effect, and it was more than a year before he really fell into line, and visited his kindred without pressure. The girls were not bad-looking—in a flamboyant style—and effusively good-natured; they took his chaff and criticism without offence, and accepted with giggles his hints with respect to manners and appearance. When Douglas happened to be expected, they did not stroll about slip-shod in dressing-gowns, with their hair hanging loose, or bombard one another with corks and crusts.
For his part, he brought them books and chocolates, watered the garden, mowed the tennis ground, mended the bells, and made himself generally useful. At first this flashy, muddling, free-and-easy household had disgusted him; and his cool assured manner and critical air irritated his relatives; whilst his attitude of superior comment had proved a vexatious restraint. But week by week Douglas came to see that it was to this particular class he now belonged. These were his nearest relatives, and he told himself that he must endeavour to accommodate himself to circumstances—and them; otherwise he was a snob, a beastly snob!
His first Christmas holidays had been spent at "Tremenheere," where he had received a heart-warming welcome. Other school friends had also claimed him, but his time was now mortgaged to the office, and by degrees correspondence and intimacy languished—or, rather, changed. His contemporaries had gone forth into the wide world; the Army, the Diplomatic Service, and India, had summoned them, their paths in life lay far apart from that of a mere correspondence clerk, and only the old birds remained in the nests. Those who were in England wrote and made arrangements for meetings in town, but Shafto found ready and real excuses and generally withdrew from his former circle. He liked his friends—nothing could offer him so much pleasure as their company—but he realised that in time they would arrive at the parting of the ways, and it was for him to make the first step in that direction; in such homes as "Monte Carlo" he must in future find society and entertainment.
* * * * * *
"Monte Carlo" (sixpence return, third class, from town, and eight minutes' walk from the station) was a grotesque, little red-faced abode, situated among a tangle of villas and roads. It stood detached in a garden, with—O! theme of pride—a full-sized tennis court. There were also several flower beds, and six unhappy gooseberry bushes, but the feature was the lawn; here also were seats and a small striped awning. The grounds of "Monte Carlo" were only divided from its immediate neighbours by a thin wooden partition—there was no such thing as privacy or seclusion. Conversation was audible, and the boisterous jokes of "Chatsworth" and "Travancore" were thoroughly enjoyed at "Monte Carlo." In the same way "Monte Carlo" overheard various interesting items of news, some sharp quarrels and, once or twice, unpleasant personal truths! On the last occasion, the remark was so unfriendly (it dealt with Cossie's methods) that when "Chatsworth," ignorant of offence, sent the same evening an emissary to borrow three pints of stout, the reply was a harsh refusal!
Within doors space was naturally more contracted, but the click of the opposite gate, the sound of the next door dinner-bell and gramophone remained, as it were, common property! The tiny hall was choked with umbrellas, wraps, tennis shoes, and tattered sixpenny books; the drawing-room, with its pink casement curtains, gaudy cretonne covers, huge signed photographs, jars of dusty artificial bowers, packs of dingy cards, and scraps of millinery, looked "lived in"—but tawdry and untidy. The big Chesterfield sofa—a wonderful bargain—had broken springs (perhaps it was not such a wonderful bargain?) and many hills and hollows. In the roomiest of these last the mistress of the house was more or less a fixture, and the whole apartment, like a passee beauty, was to be seen at its best by candle-light.
The dining-room was chiefly notable for the heavy atmosphere of tobacco, and multitudes of empty black bottles under the sideboard. The kitchen, both in sound and smell, absolutely refused to be ignored. Such was "Monte Carlo!"
The inmates of "Malahide" have received honourable mention, but nothing has been said of Mrs. Malone, the proprietress, who kept the establishment running, as it were, on well-oiled wheels. Joyce Malone was an Irishwoman who had met with cruel reverses. Well born, well educated, and an almost penniless widow, she thankfully accepted the post of housekeeper in a nobleman's family, and there remained until her savings, and a timely legacy, enabled her to set up for herself. From the first she had met with success. Her terms were moderate; butter, eggs and poultry came from her native land; there was no skimping of coals, or hot water; and clients—who became permanent—flocked to "Malahide." In appearance Mrs. Malone was a tall old woman, with a stoop, who shuffled a little as she walked, and always wore a black gown, a gold Indian chain, and a white lace cap with ribbon bows. She kept severely aloof from her guests and had her own little lair on the second landing. It was, she said, "her business to see to domestic matters, and not to gossip or play bridge." Nevertheless, she had her favourites: Mr. Hutton and young Shafto. (Envy and malice declared that Mrs. Malone had no favourites among her own sex.) She was drawn to the boy by his air of good breeding and admirable manners; also she noticed with secret indignation how shamefully his mother neglected and snubbed him. She took far more notice of Jimmy Black, or Sandy Larcher, than of her own son. No doubt she disliked to be so unmistakably dated by his tall, well-grown youth, and her hostess mentally agreed with a gossip who declared that "Mrs. Shafto didn't care a pin for her boy—rather the other way, and if she had kept her figure, she could never keep her word, or a secret—and was a hard, selfish, grasping woman."
Although Shafto and his mother lived under the same roof, she, figuratively, sat with folded hands as far as he was concerned; it was kindly Mrs. Malone who looked after his little comforts, saw that his socks were mended, and made him a hot drink when he had a heavy cold. Also, as a special honour, she invited him to her "den," gave him a cup of coffee, or a glass of port, and talked to him of her Irish home and her young days. Once upon a time she had been a capital horsewoman, and it was strange to hear this old lady and the bright-eyed youth comparing notable runs.
One day in the Strand at luncheon hour, Shafto came face to face with his old friend Geoffrey Tremenheere, looking bronzed, splendidly fit, and independent as a prince.
"Hallo, Douglas!" he exclaimed. "Well, if this isn't a piece of luck! How are you, old man?"
"AH right—and you?"
"I arrived from India yesterday and go up to Scotland to-night—the family are all on the moors. I've just been looking for a pair of guns. Come and give your opinion, and then we will lunch. I'm stopping at the Grand."
"I'd like to awfully, I need not tell you, Geoff, but I've got to be back at 1.15 sharp—it's mail day."
"Oh, hang mail day! Come along and lunch—and let us have a good old bukh!"
"I don't know what that means—but I'll be glad of lunch, and more glad of a bit of a jaw!"
"Now, tell me all about yourself, Douglas," said his schoolfellow, as they sat vis-a-vis in the marble hall. "You don't look particularly chirpy. Still in the office?"
"Yes—I expect to live and die there."
"Poor old boy—and doing work you hate!"
"Oh, I'm getting used to it now. I shall manage to hang on."
"And Mrs. Shafto—how is she?"
"As usual—going strong. We live in the same boarding-house."
"'Umph! Well, let me tell you this—you are in the black books at home. I hear you refuse all invitations and make monstrous excuses."
"You know I'd love to go down to 'Tremenheere,' but how can I? My time is not my own, and I only got a week's holiday in August and three days at Christmas. There's nothing to tell about my career—let's hear yours?"
Thus invited, Geoffrey, a gay young officer in a crack regiment, broke into short and vivid descriptions of Indian quarters, polo matches, and capital black-buck shooting in the Central Provinces, and gave a full and detailed history of his one tiger.
Shafto, an eager and enthusiastic listener, exclaimed:
"I say, how splendid! Do you know, Geoff, I'd give ten years of this life to have a good chance of seeing the world—especially the East?"
"Who knows—you might yet!"
"Pigs might fly! Still I must not grumble. I'm delighted you have had such a glorious time; when one's friends are enjoying themselves, it's next best to doing the same oneself. What leave have you got?"
"Only three months and every hour is priceless. This time to-morrow I shall be blazing away at a grouse drive."
From grouse they fell to talking of shooting, of old scenes, of rabbiting and ferreting, of cricket matches, schoolfellows and scrapes.
Suddenly Douglas sprang to his feet and pointed to the clock.
"Half-past one, I must run! Good-bye and good luck, old boy," wringing his friend's hand, "I shan't forget this lunch in a hurry," and he was gone. This little break and talk of old times and warm friends gave Shafto something pleasant to think of for many days; it was like a gleam of sunshine in his grey and joyless life.
Richard Hutton, hack writer and "ghost," sat next to him at table twice a day, and proved a sympathetic neighbour. Hutton was a clever, cultured, and—when he pleased—a wholly delightful companion. Occasionally on Sundays the pair made little excursions together, visited the City churches and quaint bits of Old London, or ventured a dash into the country, or up the river.
"You say Friday is a holiday in your office, Shafto," he remarked one evening; "how would you like to come for a prowl, and see what we can find in the Caledonian Market? It's an out-of-the-way place, where once a week all manner of rubbish is shot, and now and then you pick up a really staggering bargain."
"What's that?" inquired Shafto.
"Well, I'm told that lately a woman bought a rusty steel fender for two shillings and, when she went to clean it, it turned out to be solid silver—a bit of loot from some old French chateau. I must confess that I've never found any spoil, but I only root among the books. Once, I thought I'd got hold of a Coverdale Bible, but it proved to be a fake."
"All right," agreed Shafto, "I'd like to try my luck; I'll go with you and look for a set of gold fire-irons. I've nothing special on—only tennis in the afternoon."
"And the market is at its best in the morning—we'll start at ten."
Friday morning found the couple roaming aimlessly round that great bare enclosure at the end of the Camden Road, known as the Caledonian Market. It was just eleven by the clock tower, and wares were still pouring in; arriving in all manner of shabby carts and vans—mostly drawn by aged and decrepit horses. Every variety of goods had its own particular pitch. In one quarter were piles of books, brown, musty volumes of all shapes and sizes, also tattered magazines, and of theological works a great host. Farther on the explorers came to a vast collection of old iron. It was as if numbers of travelling tinkers had here discharged their stock; fenders, gasoliers, stair-rods, tin-cans, officers' swords—yes, at least a dozen—frying pans and saucepans. Old clothes were needless to say, a prominent feature. Here you might suit yourself with a bald-looking sealskin, a red flannel petticoat, a soiled evening gown on graceful lines, or a widow's bonnet. Here also were black costumes (dripping beads), broken feathers, and hopeless hats. Old furniture had several stands and was an important department. Grandfather clocks, sideboards, chairs (Chippendale or otherwise), chairs in horsehair or upholstered in wool-work, and framed family portraits solicited notice. Should anyone marvel as to what becomes of the rubbish and relics belonging to houses whose contents have been scattered, after several generations—trifles that survived wrecked fortunes, odds and ends which, for sacred reasons, people had clung to till the last, let them repair to the "Market"—the relics are there, lying on unresponsive cobble stones, a pitiful spectacle, handled, despised, and cast aside—the precious hoarded treasures of a bygone age.
Delicately worked samplers, faded water-colours, portraits, old seals, snuff-boxes, and lockets, attract the curio-hunter. Here is a Prayer Book with massive silver clasps, inscribed, "Dearest Mary, on our wedding day, June 4th, 1847, from Gilbert." There, in a red morocco case, is a miniature of a handsome naval officer. At the back, under glass, are two locks of hair, joined by a true lover's knot in seed pearls. Some ruthless hand will pick out those pearls and throw the hair away.
For a considerable time Shafto strolled about with his hands in his pockets, so far seeing nothing to tempt him. Meanwhile his companion eagerly examined books and bargained over a tattered old volume. Shafto noted with surprise the number of well-dressed visitors poking among the stalls, in search of treasure trove. There were a parson with a greedy-looking leather bag, an officer in uniform, and various smart ladies, hunting in couples. Among a quantity of jugs and basins, soup tureens and coarse crockery, Shafto's idle glance fell upon a frightful Chinese figure, the squat presentation of a man, about eight inches in height.
"I say, did you ever see such a horror?" he asked, pointing it out to his companion; "a curio for ugliness, and just the sort of monster Mrs. Malone would love. I'll try if I can get hold of it. What's the price of the China demon?" he inquired of a wizened old woman, who wore a bashed black bonnet and a pair of blue sand shoes.
"Five shillin'," she replied promptly.
"Five shillings!" he exclaimed. "You're joking."
"No time for jokes here," she retorted, "it's a good piece" (picking up the figure), "and come out of a grand house. If it were in Bond Street, they'd ask you five pounds. I showed it to a man, who said it was good, although there was no mark, and it might be worth a lot; but I've no time to be raking up things—my trade is a quick sale—and cash."
"I'll give you half a crown," said the customer.
"Two half-crowns, and it's yours, and a bargain; you won't know the old fellow when he's had a wash!"
"What do you say, Hutton?" inquired Douglas, turning to his friend.
"Well, I think you might risk five shillings; you don't see such ugliness every day, and I should not wonder if it was a good piece. I've never come across one like it."
"All right then, I'll take the horror."
And in another moment the bargain was effected. Douglas tendered two half-crowns, which the old woman carefully examined and pocketed, then she wrapped up the figure in a piece of crumpled newspaper, and presently he and his friend departed, each bearing his booty.
"There is little to find now," said Hutton, as they passed through the gates; "the Market has become one of the weekly fashionable gatherings of the town, and is dredged by dealers from all over England, who look on it as a sort of lucky-bag—but the bag is nearly empty."
Mrs. Malone was enchanted with the monster—she had a secret weakness for cheap little gifts—that is to say, from her own particular friends. More than once Douglas had brought her some trifling tribute, but his mother had felt deeply affronted by such uncalled for generosity to a stranger; and when he ventured to exhibit the Chinese atrocity, she exclaimed with great bitterness:
"Oh, for Mrs. Malone, Of course! It's rather strange that you never think of bringing me a present."
"But, mother, you wouldn't care for this sort of thing," he protested, "and it was awfully cheap."
"Cheap and nasty!" she retorted. "If you had offered me such hideous rubbish, I'd have sent it straight to the dustbin!"
It was an abnormally hot summer; all London lay at the mercy of a fierce and fiery sun; grass in the parks was brown, plants drooped in window boxes, and there was not even a little breeze to stir the soft dust under foot, nor one hopeful cloud in the blue vault overhead. But in the sky of Douglas Shafto's existence dark and threatening clouds were gathering; the largest of these was a haunting fear that his mother intended to marry her admirer, Manasseh Levison—the prosperous dealer in furniture and antiquities, a wealthy man, who owned, besides his business, a fine mansion at Tooting; this he had closed after the death of Mrs. Levison, when he had repaired to "Malahide" for society and distraction—bidden there by his lively old friend, Mrs. Moses Galli. The shrivelled little miserly widow was his confidante, and, for the illumination of Mrs. Shafto, she had drawn glowing pictures of Khartoum House, and outlined an imposing sketch of the luxuries awaiting its future mistress. It was noticed as a significant fact that when Mrs. Shafto and Madame Galli went to Eastbourne for a week (at Mrs. Shafto's expense), they had been joined at the Grand Hotel by Manasseh Levison, who treated them to a special banquet, enlivened by the finest brands of champagne—and had subsequently motored them back to town.
The idea that Levison should usurp his father's place overwhelmed Douglas with horror and shame; the prospect was intolerable; so were other matters; for instance, his monotonous office life, the want of variety and fresh air. For exercise, he belonged to a neighbouring gymnasium, but this was not sufficient for a country-bred, energetic young man, in his twenty-fourth year. As for the variety of amusements that satisfied and delighted his brother clerks, they left him cold. He was sensible of a tormenting thirst for a far-away different life—and its chances, sick of this existence, of continually going round and round, like a squirrel in a cage. A change of surroundings and scene, or a spice of adventure, was what he longed for—as eagerly and as hopelessly as some fallen wayfarer in a desert land. His mother's flinty attitude and hostile nagging had frozen a naturally affectionate disposition, and Shafto passed several years of his youth without one single ray of woman's love, until generous Mrs. Malone had come forward and installed him in her heart. His usual routine was breakfast at eight, office at nine, lunch twelve-thirty, freedom at six, dinner at seven-thirty. On Saturday afternoons he was expected at "Monte Carlo"—to join the family at tennis and high tea—and here, over the little red villa, brooded yet another cloud! Cossie, the gushing and good-natured, had been given what her brother brutally termed "the chuck" by her young man; he had taken on another girl, and his repentance and return were hopeless.
Shafto listened to Cossie's hysterical lamentations and outpourings with what patience he could assume; until by degrees the dreadful truth began to dawn on him, that he was selected to replace the faithless Lothario! Of late Cossie's manner had become jealously possessive, She seemed to hold him by a nipping tenacious clutch, and pattered out to meet him at the gate, sat next to him at table, and was invariably his partner at tennis. Once, arriving unseen, he had overheard her declaiming to another girl:
"No, no, no, I won't have it; Douglas is my boy—and my joy! Douglas belongs to me!"
"There will be two opinions about that," he muttered to himself, as he flung down his hat and entered the tawdry little drawing-room; but, in spite of his stern resolutions, he found himself borne along by a strong and irresistible current of family goodwill. Sandy gave him cigars, Delia declared over and over again that he was a "darling," his aunt became extra-motherly, and Cossie endowed him with button-holes, pairs of ill-knit shapeless socks, and sent him many notes. She seemed to appropriate him as a matter of course, and once when they parted at the gate, had held up her face to be kissed—but this undesired favour he affected not to see. He noted, too, that when Cossie accompanied him to the same little gate, Delia and Sandy lingered behind with alarming significance. He began to hate Cossie and to revolt against the slap-dash untidy menage, Delia and her train of rowdy boys, the shouting, the practical jokes, and the slang. Then suddenly the Levison cloud burst! One night, when he was flying upstairs to his sky parlour, his mother waylaid him on the landing and, with an imperative gesture, beckoned him into her room.
"Shut the door, Douglas!" she commanded in her usual frigid manner, "I have something to tell you. Come over here and sit down."
"Yes, mother, all right," but nevertheless he remained standing; "what is it?"
She cleared her throat and replied in her sharp metallic voice, "Mr. Levison and I have at last made up our minds to be married; you see, we have no one to consider but ourselves." This announcement was followed by a blank and paralysed silence.
"He is absolutely devoted to me," resumed Mrs. Shafto, "and is a wealthy man and, as you know, I was never accustomed to poverty. The wedding will take place in six weeks. Well, why do you stand glowering there?" she demanded impatiently. "What have you got to say?"
"I have got to say," replied Douglas, then his voice broke a little, "that I don't see how you can do it, or put that fat Jew tradesman into my father's place!"
"Your father!" she screamed passionately, and a scar on her chin showed white against a suffused complexion; "don't talk to me of your father. Before we were married, he often came to my uncle's shop, and talked to me about books—I got up Haydn's Dictionary of Dates, bits of Browning, and Lamb's Essays, and Omar Khayyam. I had to study them in my own room at night, so as to make him think I was well educated and shared his tastes; but I did not; no," she cried, with a stamp of her foot, "I hated his tastes! Aristotle and Plato, yes, and Shakespeare—dull to the last degree, but I liked him: he was so handsome, so thoughtful, such a gentleman. And I believed that as he was madly in love I could easily twist him round to my way of thinking—but I was mistaken!" She paused, momentarily out of breath, then resumed: "He soon found me out and was sick of me in three weeks. He disliked dances, theatres, and smart society, and buried me alive in the country. We had nothing in common; he was just a bookworm, with a sarcastic tongue, who left me a beggar! Now I am free, I am going to be a rich woman, marry a man who understands me—and lead a new life."
"I see you are easily satisfied," remarked her son.
"I am; and although Mr. Levison is a Jew tradesman, as you have remarked in your nasty sneering way, he has been generous enough to offer you an opening as his assistant. He will take you into the shop and pay you two hundred a year."
"No, thank you," replied Douglas stiffly; "I know nothing about old furniture."
"Only old family, I suppose! Well, you might do worse; and when you marry Cossie, as is probable, I will make you a small allowance."
(Shafto had relinquished his income of a hundred and fifty a year, and made it over to his mother legally, immediately he had come of age.)
"I haven't the smallest idea of marrying Cossie, or anyone else," he answered, with white-faced decision.
"Well, she, and indeed they all, expect it."
"I've never given them any reason to do so."
"Yes, you have," she contradicted sharply; "you go there, sit by her, and take her into the garden."
"There is nothing in that," he rejoined, too chivalrous to add that it was his cousin who sat by, escorted him, and clung to him like the traditional limpet.
"She is five years older than you, I know, but very sweet-tempered, and not a bad manager—she runs 'Monte Carlo'!"
"Cossie is absolutely nothing to me beyond a cousin; nor have I ever given her reason to think otherwise—or ever shall."
"Oh, you are wonderfully bold and courageous here with me; I should like to hear you telling them this at 'Monte Carlo'! I know my sister has set her heart on the match; she has been talking to me about the trousseau, and intends to give you table linen, and a silver tea-pot—she has two."
"Even the silver tea-pot would not bribe me!" declared Douglas with an angry laugh.
"Well, I can assure you that it's an understood thing," persisted his parent, with spiteful emphasis.
"How can it be understood, when I have never asked the girl to marry me and never shall? Cossie is straight enough and can tell you that herself."
"Oh, she has told me lots of things!" said her aunt mysteriously. "Well, to turn to another subject, am I to inform Mr. Levison that you refuse his offer of two hundred a year? You may come to us for week-ends if you like; he is doing up the house at Tooting and giving me a fine car."
"No, thank you, I prefer to remain where I am; and now if you've told me everything you wished to say, I think I'll go to bed," and with a brief "Good night" he departed.
But he did not go to bed when he found himself in his bare fourth-floor room, but sat on the side of his lumpy mattress, and smoked cigarettes for a couple of hours. He must squash this Cossie question at all costs; even if it led to a disagreeable interview with his relations and made a complete breach between them. In one sense this breach would mean freedom and relief, and yet he was rather fond of his dowdy old Aunt Emma, and he also liked that slangy slacker Sandy; he could not bear to give anyone pain, or to appear shabby or ungrateful. Of course he ought to have taken a firm stand weeks ago, and repelled advances that had stolen upon him so insidiously. He saw this now; yet how can you refuse to accept a flower from a girl, or be such a brute as to leave her notes and telephones unanswered, or rise and desert her when she nestles down beside you on the sofa? He felt as if he was on the edge of a precipice; and must make a desperate, a life or death struggle; be firm and show no weakness. To be weak would establish him with a wife, house-linen, and the tea-pot, in some dingy little flat near his office, where, plodding monotonous round like a horse in a mill, he would probably end his days. Always too anxious to please and to be liked, he had enjoyed lounging about at "Monte Carlo" and chaffing his cousin, but the price now demanded was exorbitant. He recalled Cossie, stout and smiling, with rather pretty eyes and a ceaseless flow of chatter. She had ugly hands and thick red lips, her hair was coarse, but abundant, and she frequently borrowed her sister's rouge. Cossie was immensely good-natured and affectionate, and he would be sorry to hurt her feelings, poor little thing.
Then as to his mother and her marriage to Levison, he hated to think of it. He could not endure his future stepfather; between them there existed a bottomless chasm of dislike and distrust. Levison considered Shafto a conceited young cub, "but a clever cub"; and Shafto looked on Levison as a purse-proud tradesman, ever bragging of his "finds," his sales, and his titled customers.
Douglas had never felt so abjectly miserable since the time of his father's death; his depression was such that he wished he was dead too; but fate was in a kindly mood and, although he was unconscious of the fact, the clouds were lifting.
AN EMPTY OFFER
The night that Shafto subsequently spent was wakeful and seemed endless; he tossed about on his hard bed and thumped the irresponsive pillow, paced his room from end to end, drank all the water in the carafe—and even encroached on the ewer; he felt as if his vitality had been sapped, that he had no energy with which to face his new position, nothing to which he could look forward, no gleam of hope and, as it turned out, no appetite for breakfast. Seated at table, he proved infectiously depressing and gloomily silent. On the way to the Underground, Sandy Larcher, who happened to be in exuberant spirits, noticed his cousin's grave face and chaffed him about Cossie. (Sandy, a coarse-grained creature, knew no reserves, did not profess to be a gentleman, and had never heard of the word "tact.")
"And so you couldn't sleep for thinking of her, eh? Ate no breakfast, only a bit of toast, and half a kipper; quite in a bad way, poor old chap."
"Come now, Sandy, none of that!" angrily protested the victim. "You are a sensible fellow, though you do play the ass; and must know as well as I do myself that you are talking through your hat. I swear on my word of honour, I have never made love to Cossie, I'd as soon think of making love to the parrot next door, and I have not the remotest idea of marrying her. Imagine marrying on a hundred and fifty pounds a year!"
"Oh well, I couldn't face it myself, old man," generously conceded his companion, "but the mater and the girls are dead nuts on the idea; they are awfully fond of you, and say you are so mortal clever, so well-bred and such top-hole style, that you are bound to rise in the world; and Cossie is getting rather long in the tooth. Of course, I know as well as if you told me, how she rushes a chap, and writes silly notes, manicures his nails, and gives him flowers and cigarettes. She overdid it with Freddy Soames and got the knock; and now he is formally engaged, I expect she is mad keen to show that two can play at that game!"
"I'm not for it, and that's certain," declared the other, with an emphasis that was almost violent. "I like Cossie right enough as a cousin, but I'm not a scrap in love. Why, we've not one single taste in common—bar tennis and walnut pickles! I hate saying all this to you, old man—it seems monstrously caddish, and really——"
"Oh, don't apologise," interrupted Sandy; "I know Cossie and her little ways—you are not the first by a long way that she's tried it on with."
"Couldn't you drop her some sort of gentle hint? Do, like a good chap and say a word to my aunt? I'd stay away from 'Monte Carlo,' only that I'm drawn to play in this confounded tournament."
"No good! They wouldn't listen to me; you must do the business yourself, Douglas, old man. Come on, hurry up, or we'll miss our train!" and Sandy began to run.
Shafto had not long been perched on his office stool and invested in his office coat and paper cuffs, when he received a message that Mr. Martin—the head of the firm—wished to see him in his private room.
"This is the limit!" he said to himself, as he followed the messenger into a cool, luxurious apartment. "Now I'm going to get a slating—over that French correspondence—and it was Fraser's job. Well, if that's the case, I'll enlist; I'm sick of this life!"
He found Mr. Martin temporarily idle, seated in front of his large writing-table, scanning the Financial News. He raised his eyes as Douglas entered, and said:
"Hullo, that you, Shafto? I have something to say to you. How would you like a little promotion?"
"Very much indeed, sir," he replied after a moment's hesitation due to amazement.
"You've been over four years with us as correspondence clerk?"
"I believe you know Mr. Tremenheere?"
"So do I. He has called here to see me about you. What would you think of going abroad for a change—say, to Burma?"
"Burma—yes, sir, all right," assented Shafto, with a glowing face. Something within him had always craved for the East.
"It's like this," continued the other, leaning back and placing his fingers together, tent fashion. "Our house in Rangoon wants a smart, healthy, young fellow, quick at figures, and able to manage bills of lading. You would soon pick up that; it will be chiefly an out-of-door job on the wharves."
"I'd like that."
"The pay offered is four hundred rupees a month, and house rent; not much, I admit, considering the fall of the rupee and Rangoon prices; but we have been compelled to modify expenses, our profits are run so fine, thanks to an active German mercantile element. Well, what do you think, Shafto?"
Shafto thought Mr. Martin a species of genie, who was offering him a magic carpet that would transport him into the great, hurrying, active world; into the land of sunshine he had longed to see; he would have jumped at the proposal if the salary had been half, and he replied:
"I shall be glad to accept."
"Then that's all right! I was afraid you might have some ties in this country. Of course, in time you are bound to get a rise, and I believe there are boarding-houses in Rangoon where they make you fairly comfortable."
"When do you wish me to start?"
"As soon as you can get under way," was the unexpected reply. "One of the Bibby Line sails on Saturday week, and that brings me to another matter. You have to pay for your own passage and outfit. The passage money is six hundred rupees; the outfit, good English boots, cool clothes, a solar topee, and a revolver—and a medicine-chest might come in handy. No doubt some of your relations will help, or give you a loan. You see, you are getting a big rise and a capital opening in a new line."
"That is true, sir," replied Douglas, whose face had considerably lengthened, "but I'm afraid I cannot manage the ready money—near a hundred pounds. Is my salary paid in advance?"
"No, that is out of the question in a province where cholera carries a man off in a couple of hours. I am sorry about the passage; at one time we did pay, but now we have to pinch and consider our expenses. No doubt you would like to talk over the matter with your people?"
"Well, yes, I should, thank you," he answered, staring fixedly at the floor.
"Then let me have your decision before mail day. I may tell you, Shafto, that, irrespective of Mr. Tremenheere's interest, you have given us entire satisfaction, and for this chance, and it is a chance, you have only yourself to thank. You can take a couple of days' leave and let me hear from you definitely on Friday morning."
It was only eleven o'clock, an oppressively warm July day, and Douglas walked up to Lincoln's Inn Fields, took a seat in the cool shade of the finest trees in the largest square in London, and there endeavoured to think out some plan.
"I say, what a chance!" he muttered to himself. "What a stroke of luck! A new start in life, offering change and freedom." Yet he must lose it—and all for a paltry hundred pounds. Paltry—no; to him it represented a huge and unattainable fortune; there wasn't a soul from whom he could borrow; not from the Tebbs, nor the Tremenheeres, and his associates at "Malahide" were, with one detestable exception, as poor as himself. After long meditation, entirely barren of inspiration, he went down to the Strand and lunched at Slater's, and then took the Tube to Bayswater Public Library, where he got hold of some books on Burma—Burma, the land of the Pagoda and Golden Umbrella. Somehow the very name fired his imagination and thrilled his blood.
After sitting in the library, greedily devouring information, he strolled back to Lincoln Square, in time for dinner, and all that evening he kept his great news to himself. It would have seemed natural for an only son to carry such important tidings to his mother; but Mrs. Shafto was the last woman to welcome his confidences. She was entirely without the maternal instinct and, armed with a certain fierce reserve, held her son inflexibly at arm's length. A stranger would scarcely have discovered the relationship—unless they happened to note that the pair walked to church together on Sunday, and that she pecked his cheek of a night before retiring. As a matter of course, she made use of Douglas and, insisting on maternal claims, thrust on him disagreeable interviews, sent him messages, borrowed his money—when short of change—and allowed him to pay her taxis. Honestly, she did not care for the boy. He was too detached and self-contained; he had such odd ideas and resembled his father in many respects—especially in appearance—though Douglas's expression was keener and more animated, he had the same well-cut features, fine head, and expressive dark grey eyes.
Yes, he recalled too forcibly a dead man whom she had neglected, detested and deceived. And as for Douglas, for years he had been sensible of the smart of a baffled instinct, a hunger for a mother's love and affection, which had never been his—and never would be his.
In the drawing-room, after dinner, the boarders were amusing themselves as usual and making a good deal of noise, yet somehow the circle presented an air of rather spurious gaiety. Mrs. Shafto, in a smart black-and-gold evening frock, was smoking a cigarette and playing auction-bridge with Mr. Levison and the two Japanese; the Misses Smith and various casual boarders were engrossed at coon-can. Another group was assembled about the piano. Douglas Shafto sat aloof in the window seat absorbed in the book on Burma and acquiring information; for even if he were never to see the country, it was as well to learn something about it. Rangoon, the capital (that fact he already knew), once a mere collection of monasteries around the Great Pagoda, was now assumed to be the Liverpool of the East, the resting-place of Buddha's relics, and an important industrial centre. As his reading was disturbed by the boisterous chorus at the piano, and the shrieks of laughter from the coon-can set, he tucked the volume under his arm and slipped out of the room as noiselessly as possible. He could rest at peace up in his "cock loft" and endeavour to puzzle out some means of reaching the land of the Golden Umbrella—even if he worked his passage as a cabin steward. In passing the door of Mrs. Malone's den, some strange, unaccountable impulse constrained him to knock. Yes; he suddenly made up his mind that he would confide in her—and why not? She was always so understanding, sympathetic and wise.
In reply to a shrill "Come in," he entered and found the old lady sitting by the open window with a black cat on her lap. The room was small and homelike; there were some shabby rugs, a few fine prints, a case of miniatures, and, in a cabinet, a variety of odd "bits" which Mrs. Malone had picked up from time to time.
"So it's you, Douglas," she exclaimed; "come over and sit down. I'm always glad to see you; you know you have the private entree!" and she laughed. "What have you been doing with yourself to-day?"
As he muttered something indefinite, she added, "What's your book?" holding out her hand. "Burma, I declare! One does not hear much of that part of the world; it's always connected in my mind with rice and rain. Douglas," suddenly raising her eyes, "I believe you have something on your mind. What is it? Come now—speak out—is it a love affair, or money? You know I'm safe."
Thus invited, in a few halting sentences, he told her of his friend's good offices, the offer, his supreme delight—and subsequent despair.
"A hundred pounds—yes, well, it's a tidy sum," she admitted, "and you will want all that. I think Gregory and Co. might pay your passage, as the salary is not large."
"No," agreed Shafto, "but I'll be only too glad to earn it. It's this blessed ready money that stumps me."
He began to pace about the room with his hands in his pockets, then suddenly broke out:
"Mrs. Malone, I'd give one of my eyes to go; to be up and doing, and get out into the world—especially to the East. Isn't it hard lines—one moment to be offered a splendid chance, and the next to have it snatched away."
"I suppose you couldn't borrow?" she suggested, looking at him over her spectacles.
"No, who would lend me money? I have no security and no wealthy friends."
"Well, I am not a wealthy friend, Douglas, but I will lend you a hundred pounds—I've saved a good bit—and I can."
"No, no, Mrs. Malone," he interrupted. "I couldn't accept it. I know how hardly your money has been earned; I know all your hateful worries; your bothers with servants and coal; your trampings into 'the Grove,' and up and down these confounded stairs."
"But, Douglas, you can pay me back by degrees."
"No; you'd run a poor chance of seeing your hundred pounds again. Mr. Martin informed me the firm never paid in advance, as cholera carried off people in a few hours—cheerful, wasn't it? And if I were carried off, where would you be?"
"Here, my boy, and in the deepest grief."
"Well, thanking you all the same, I will not touch a penny of your money; but I know you are long-headed and may think of some scheme for me. I've got nothing to sell of any value; I parted with my father's watch—and it's still at the pawnbroker's; worse luck!" (His pitilessly selfish mother had borrowed ten pounds and forgotten the debt, and he had been compelled to apply to his "Uncle.") Shafto found his salary a very tight fight; eleven pounds a month seemed to melt away in board, clothes, washing and those innumerable little expenses that crop up in London.
"Anyhow, you have till Friday, you proud, obstinate boy, and before that, I may be able to thrash out something. I have noticed that you don't look yourself the last few weeks, not my dear lively Douglas, tearing up and down stairs, whistling like a blackbird. Tell me the reason," and she laid a well-shaped wrinkled hand upon his arm.
Then, walking up and down the room, he frankly unfolded his troubles—the approaching marriage of his mother (this was no news), and, in an agitated and incoherent manner, his desperate predicament with regard to Cossie Larcher.
"The poor boy," said his listener to herself. "That man-hunting, determined little cat has got her claws into him. I have seen the vulgar, made-up minx, without education, fortune, or modesty, trying to carry off her gentleman cousin! But she shan't have him. No! by hook or by crook, he must be got out of the country, as sure as my name is Joyce Malone!"
For a considerable time Mrs. Malone sat, stroking her long nose with her long forefinger and thinking profoundly; there fell, in consequence, an unusual silence. At last this was broken by the old lady, who exclaimed with an air of triumph:
"Douglas, my boy, I do believe I have got hold of a bright idea!"
"That's nothing new," he rejoined with a smile.
"Come now, none of your blarney! You know the queer little monster you brought me some time ago. You see him there grinning at us out of the cabinet? Well, a friend of mine noticed him yesterday—she is a bit of a connoisseur, and she said that, if genuine, that diabolical object had considerable value! To-morrow, I will take it round to a shop in 'the Grove,' and get an opinion; let us hear what the expert says, and if the object is good and marketable, I'll sell him—and you shall have the money. Now," raising a hand authoritatively, "I warn you not to say 'No' to me again, for if you do, I'll just take the poker and smash the deformity into a thousand atoms!"
"Oh, well, I suppose that puts the lid on," said Douglas, "but I ask you, if anything in the whole world can be meaner than to give a present and to take it back? However, I'll consent to commit that outrage to save the monster. I don't believe he is worth a sovereign!"
"Stop! I hear them moving in the drawing-room, so, my dear boy, fly up to your roost at once. You know how it vexes your mother to see you spending your time with me. Good night, my dear child," and rising, she laid her hands on his shoulders and kissed him on the cheek.
The very next evening, shortly before dinner, Mrs. Malone sent for her favourite boarder.
"I've grand news for you!" she announced. "I've had the ugly figure valued and a man has offered me a hundred and ten pounds."
"A hundred and ten pounds!" repeated Shafto. "Come, this is one of your good old Irish jokes!"
Alas! it must be here recorded that warm-hearted Mrs. Malone was not joking—but lying. She had never been to any expert. The hundred and ten pounds were to come out of her own lean pocket; this had been her "bright idea," when she contemplated the monster in the cabinet. She was sincerely fond of Shafto; during the time he had been under her roof she had never known him to do a mean or ungentlemanly action; he was considerate, unselfish, and generous—poor as he was; also he opened doors, handed chairs, treated age with deference, and in short conducted himself like the people among whom she had lived most of her life.
Richard Hutton was of the same type, so were the two Japanese; but Levison, her most valuable guest, Larcher, and other young boarders had, in her opinion, no manners at all. They smoked where and how they pleased (barring the drawing-room), left cigarette stumps all over the house, kicked off their boots in the hall, were late for meals, loud in talk, arguments and complaints, and supremely indifferent to the comfort of their companions.
* * * * * *
In some extraordinary and inexplicable manner the story of the monster had leaked out—at any rate, it was in the air. Perhaps the monster himself had blazoned forth the fact of his own value, or Michael, the handy man, had caught a whisper from Maggie (Mrs. Malone's right hand)? However it was, Mrs. Malone was not a little startled when Mr. Levison, in his loud resonant voice, shouted at her down the dinner table:
"So I hear you've come in for a wonderful find, ma'am—a Chinese figure valued at a handsome sum! Do you know I'm something of a judge of such stuff—old porcelain is rather in my line—and I'd like to have a look at the prize after dinner, if you don't object, and if the bargain is not clinched perhaps I might go one better."
Mrs. Malone coloured like a young girl—or was it the blush of guilt? Would her sin find her out? No; no matter what the dealer said, she determined to stick to her story; she would not allow him to see the figure. She knew Manasseh Levison to be a persistent, over-bearing sort of man; nevertheless, she was resolved to defeat him. If the worst came to the worst, she would go to bed, and either take the figure with her, or hide it up the chimney. But alas for her plans! Manasseh, scenting a good thing, immediately after his cigar was finished, boldly followed the old lady into forbidden ground—her sitting-room—and did not even knock, but just turned the handle of the door and walked in. He discovered his hostess and young Shafto, evidently holding a weighty conference—with the figure on the table between them.