THE SLAVE OF THE LAMP
HENRY SETON MERRIMAN
Henry Seton Merriman published his first novel, "Young Mistley," in 1888, when he was twenty-six years old. Messrs. Bentley's reader, in his critique on the book, spoke of its "powerful situations" and unconventionality of treatment: and, while dwelling at much greater length on its failings, declared, in effect, its faults to be the right faults, and added that, if "Young Mistley" was not in itself a good novel, its author was one who might hereafter certainly write good novels.
"Young Mistley" was followed in quick succession by "The Phantom Future," "Suspense," and "Prisoners and Captives." Some years later, considering them crude and immature works, the author, at some difficulty and with no little pecuniary loss, withdrew all these four first books from circulation in England. Their republication in America he was powerless to prevent. He therefore revised and abbreviated them, "conscious," as he said himself in a preface, "of a hundred defects which the most careful revision cannot eliminate." He was perhaps then, as he was ever, too severe a critic of his own works. But though these four early books have, added to youthful failings, the youthful merits of freshness, vigour and imagination, their author was undoubtedly right to suppress them. By writing them he learnt, it is true, the technique of his art: but no author wishes—or no author should wish—to give his copy-books to the world. It is as well then—it is certainly as he himself desired—that these four books do not form part of the present edition. It may, however, be noted that both "Young Mistley" and "Prisoners and Captives" dealt, as did "The Sowers" hereafter, with Russian subjects: "Suspense" is the story of a war-correspondent in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877: and "The Phantom Future" is the only novel of Merriman's in which the scene is laid entirely in his own country.
In 1892 he produced "The Slave of the Lamp," which had run serially through the Cornhill Magazine, then under the editorship of Mr. James Payn.
To Mr. Payn, Merriman always felt that he owed a debt of gratitude for much shrewd and kindly advice and encouragement. But one item of that advice he neglected with, as Mr. Payn always generously owned, great advantage. Mr. Payn believed that the insular nature of the ordinary Briton made it, as a general rule, highly undesirable that the scene of any novel should be laid outside the British Isles.
After 1892 all Merriman's books, with the single exception of "Flotsam," which appeared serially in Longman's Magazine, and was, at first, produced in book form by Messrs. Longman, were published by the firm of Messrs. Smith, Elder, & Co.
His long and serene connection with the great and honourable house which had produced the works of such masters of literature as Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, and Robert Browning, was always a source of sincere pleasure to him. He often expressed the opinion that, from the moment when, as an inexperienced and perfectly unknown author, he sent "Young Mistley" to Messrs. Bentley, until the time when, as a very successful one, he was publishing his later novels with Messrs. Smith, Elder, he had invariably received from his publishers an entirely just and upright treatment.
Also in 1892 he produced "From One Generation to Another": and, two years later, the first of his really successful novels, "With Edged Tools." It is the only one of his books of which he never visited the mise-en-scene—West Africa: but he had so completely imbued himself with the scenery and the spirit of the country that few, if any, of his critics detected that he did not write of it from personal experience. Many of his readers were firmly convinced of the reality of the precious plant, Simiacine, on whose discovery the action of the plot turns. More than one correspondent wrote to express a wish to take shares in the Simiacine Company!
"With Edged Tools" was closely followed by "The Grey Lady." Some practical experience of a seafaring life, a strong love of it, and a great fellow-feeling for all those whose business is in great waters, helped the reality of the characters of the sailor brothers and of the sea-scenes generally. The author was for some years, and at the time "The Grey Lady" was written, an underwriter at Lloyd's, so that on the subject of ship insurance—a subject on which it will be remembered part of the plot hinges—he was en pays de connaissance. For the purpose of this story, he travelled in the Balearic Islands, having, earlier, made the first of many visits to Spain.
One of the strongest characteristics in his nature, as it is certainly one of the strongest characteristics in his books, was his sympathy with, and, in consequence, his understanding of, the mind of the foreigner. For him, indeed, there were no alien countries. He learnt the character of the stranger as quickly as he learnt his language. His greatest delight was to merge himself completely in the life and interests of the country he was visiting—to stay at the mean venta, or the auberge where the tourist was never seen—to sit in the local cafes of an evening and listen to local politics and gossip; to read for the time nothing but the native newspapers, and no literature but the literature, past and present, of the land where he was sojourning; to follow the native customs, and to see Spain, Poland or Russia with the eyes and from the point of view of the Spaniard, the Pole or the Russian.
The difficulties—sometimes there were even serious difficulties—of visiting places where there was neither provision nor protection made for the stranger, always acted upon him not as deterrent but incentive: he liked something to overcome, and found the safe, comfortable, convenient resting-places as uncongenial to his nature as they were unproductive for the purposes of his work.
In 1896 "The Sowers" was published. Merriman's travels in Russia had taken place some years before—before, in fact, the publication of "Young Mistley"—but time had not at all weakened the strong and sombre impression which that great country and its unhappy people had left upon him. The most popular of all his books with his English public, Merriman himself did not consider it his best. It early received the compliment of being banned by the Russian censor: very recently, a Russian woman told the present writers that "The Sowers" is still the first book the travelling Russian buys in the Tauchnitz edition, as soon as he is out of his own country—"we like to hear the truth about ourselves."
In the same year as "The Sowers," Merriman produced "Flotsam." It is not, strictly speaking, a romance: some of its main incidents were taken from the life of a young officer of the 44th Regiment in Early Victorian days. The character of Harry Wylam is, as a whole, faithful to its prototype; and the last scene in the book, recording Harry's death in the Orange Free State, as he was being taken in a waggon to the missionary station by the Bishop of the State, is literally accurate. Merriman had visited India as a boy; so here, too, the scenery is from the brush of an eye-witness.
His next novel, "In Kedar's Tents," was his first Spanish novel—pure and simple: the action of "The Grey Lady" taking place chiefly in Majorca.
All the country mentioned in "In Kedar's Tents" Merriman visited personally—riding, as did Frederick Conyngham and Concepcion Vara, from Algeciras to Ronda, then a difficult ride through a wild, beautiful and not too safe district, the accommodation at Algeciras and Ronda being at that time of an entirely primitive description. Spain had for Merriman ever a peculiar attraction: the character of the Spanish gentleman—proud, courteous, dignified—particularly appealed to him.
The next country in which he sought inspiration was Holland. "Roden's Corner," published in 1898, broke new ground: its plot, it will be remembered, turns on a commercial enterprise. The title and the main idea of the story were taken from Merriman's earliest literary venture, the beginning of a novel—there were only a few chapters of it—which he had written before "Young Mistley," and which he had discarded, dissatisfied.
The novel "Dross" was produced in America in 1899, having appeared serially in this country in a well-known newspaper. Written during a period of ill-health, Merriman thought it beneath his best work, and, true to that principle which ruled his life as an author, to give to the public so far as he could of that best, and of that best only, he declined (of course to his own monetary disadvantage) to permit its publication in England in book form.
Its mise-en-scene is France and Suffolk; its period the Second Empire—the period of "The Last Hope." Napoleon III., a character by whom Merriman was always peculiarly attracted, shadows it: in it appears John Turner, the English banker of Paris, of "The Last Hope"; an admirable and amusing sketch of a young Frenchman; and an excellent description of the magnificent scenery about Saint Martin Lantosque, in the Maritime Alps.
For the benefit of "The Isle of Unrest," his next book, Merriman had travelled through Corsica—not the Corsica of fashionable hotels and health-resorts, but the wild and unknown parts of that lawless and magnificent island. For "The Velvet Glove" he visited Pampeluna, Saragossa, and Lerida. The country of "The Vultures"—Warsaw and its neighbourhood—he saw in company with his friend, Mr. Stanley Weyman. The pleasure of another trip, the one he took in western France—Angouleme, Cognac, and the country of the Charente—for the scenery of "The Last Hope," was also doubled by Mr. Weyman's presence. In Dantzig—the Dantzig of "Barlasch of the Guard"—Merriman made a stay in a bitter mid-winter, visiting also Vilna and Koenigsberg; part of the route of the Great Retreat from Moscow he traced himself. He was inclined to consider—and if an author is not quite the worst judge of his own work he is generally quite the best—that in "Barlasch" he reached his high-water mark. The short stories, comprised in the volume entitled "Tomaso's Fortune," were published after his death. In every case, the locale they describe was known to Merriman personally. At the Monastery of Montserrat—whence the monk in "A Small World" saw the accident to the diligencia—the author had made a stay of some days. The Farlingford of "The Last Hope" is Orford in Suffolk: the French scenes, as has been said, Merriman had visited with Mr. Weyman, whose "Abbess of Vlaye" they also suggested. The curious may still find the original of the Hotel Gemosac in Paris—not far from the Palais d'Orsay Hotel—"between the Rue de Lille and the Boulevard St. Germain."
"The Last Hope" was not, in a sense, Merriman's last novel. He left at his death about a dozen completed chapters, and the whole plot carefully mapped out, of yet another Spanish book, which dealt with the Spain of the Peninsular War of 1808-14. These chapters, which were destroyed by the author's desire, were of excellent promise, and written with great vigour and spirit. His last trip was taken, in connection with this book, to the country of Sir Arthur Wellesley's exploits. The plot of the story was concerned with a case of mistaken identity; the sketch of a Guerilla leader, Pedro—bearing some affinity to the Concepcion Vara of "In Kedar's Tents"—was especially happy.
It has been seen that Merriman was not the class of author who "sits in Fleet Street and writes news from the front." He strongly believed in the value of personal impressions, and scarcely less in the value of first impressions. In his own case, the correctness of his first impressions—what he himself called laughingly his "coup d'oeil"—is in a measure proved by a note-book, now lying before the writers, in which he recorded his views of Bastia and the Corsicans after a very brief acquaintance—that view requiring scarcely any modification when first impressions had been exchanged for real knowledge and experience.
As to his methods of writing, in the case of all his novels, except the four early suppressed ones, he invariably followed the plan of drawing out the whole plot and a complete synopsis of every chapter before he began to write the book at all.
Partly as a result of this plan perhaps, but more as a result of great natural facility in writing, his manuscripts were often without a single erasure for many pages; and a typewriter was really a superfluity.
It is certainly true to say that no author ever had more pleasure in his art than Merriman. The fever and the worry which accompany many literary productions he never knew.
Among the professional critics he had neither personal friends nor personal foes; and accepted their criticisms—hostile or favourable—with perfect serenity and open-mindedness. He was, perhaps, if anything, only too ready to alter his work in accordance with their advice: he always said that he owed them much; and admired their perspicuity in detecting a promise in his earliest books, which he denied finding there himself. His invincible modesty made him ready to accept not only professional criticism but—a harder thing—the advice of critics on the hearth. It was out of compliance with such a domestic criticism that the denouement in "The Sowers" was re-written as it now stands, the scene of the attack on the Castle being at first wholly different.
The jealousy and bitterness which are supposed to be inseparable from the literary life certainly never affected Merriman's. He had no trace of such feelings in his nature. Of one who is known to the public exclusively through his writings, it may seem strange—but it is not the less true—to say that his natural bent was not to the life of a literary man, but to a life of action, and that it was fate, rather than inclination, which made him express himself in words instead of deeds. A writer's books are generally his best biography: the "strong, quiet man," whose forte was to do much and say nothing; who, like Marcos Sarrion, loved the free and plain life of the field and the open, was a natural hero for Merriman, "as finding there unconsciously some image of himself."
To any other biography he was strongly opposed. His dislike of the advertisement and the self-advertisement of the interview and the personal paragraph deepened with time. He held strongly and consistently, as he held all his opinions, that a writer should be known to the public by his books, and by his books only. One of his last expressed wishes was that there should be no record of his private life.
It is respect for that wish which here stays the present writers' pen.
E.F.S. S.G.T. July 1909.
I. IN THE RUE ST. GINGOLPHE II. TOOLS III. WITHOUT REST IV. BURDENED V. A REUNION VI. BROKEN THREADS VII. PUPPETS VIII. FALSE METAL IX. A CLUE X. ON THE SCENT XI. BURY BLUFF XII. A WARNING WORD XIII. A NIGHT WATCH XIV. FOILED XV. ROOKS XVI. FOES XVII. A RETREAT XVIII. AN EMPTY NEST XIX. FOUL PLAY XX. WINGED XXI. TRUE TO HIS CLOTH XXII. GREEK AND GREEK XXIII. STRICKEN DOWN XXIV. BACK TO LIFE XXV. BACK TO WORK XXVI. SIGNOR BRUNO XXVII. IN THE RUE ST GINGOLPHE AGAIN XXVIII. THE MAKING OF CHRISTIAN VELLACOTT
IN THE RUE ST. GINGOLPHE
It was, not so many years ago, called the Rue de l'Empire, but republics are proverbially sensitive. Once they are established they become morbidly desirous of obliterating a past wherein no republic flourished. The street is therefore dedicated to St. Gingolphe to-day. To-morrow? Who can tell?
It is presumably safe to take it for granted that you are located in the neighbourhood of the Louvre, on the north side of the river which is so unimportant a factor to Paris. For all good Englishmen have been, or hope in the near future to be, located near this spot. All good Americans, we are told, relegate the sojourn to a more distant future.
The bridge to cross is that of the Holy Fathers. So called to-day. Once upon a time—but no matter. Bridges are peculiarly liable to change in troubled times. The Rue St. Gingolphe is situated between the Boulevard St. Germain and Quai Voltaire. One hears with equal facility the low-toned boom of the steamers' whistle upon the river, and the crack of whips in the boulevard. Once across the bridge, turn to the right, and go along the Quay, between the lime-trees and the bookstalls. You will probably go slowly because of the bookstalls. No one worth talking to could help doing so. Then turn to the left, and after a few paces you will find upon your right hand the Rue St. Gingolphe. It is noted in the Directory "Botot" that this street is one hundred and forty-five metres long; and who would care to contradict "Botot," or even to throw the faintest shadow of a doubt upon his statement? He has probably measured.
If your fair and economical spouse should think of repairing to the Bon-Marche to secure some of those wonderful linen pillow-cases (at one franc forty) with your august initial embroidered on the centre with a view of impressing the sleeper's cheek, she will pass the end of the Rue St. Gingolphe on her way—provided the cabman be honest. There! You cannot help finding it now.
The street itself is a typical Parisian street of one hundred and forty-five metres. There is room for a baker's, a cafe, a bootmaker's, and a tobacconist who sells very few stamps. The Parisians do not write many letters. They say they have not time. But the tobacconist makes up for the meanness of his contribution to the inland revenue of one department by a generous aid to the other. He sells a vast number of cigarettes and cigars of the very worst quality. And it is upon the worst quality that the Government makes the largest profit. It is in every sense of the word a weed which grows as lustily as any of its compeers in and around Oran, Algiers, and Bonah.
The Rue St. Gingolphe is within a stone's-throw of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and in the very centre of a remarkably cheap and yet respectable quarter. Thus there are many young men occupying apartments in close proximity—and young men do not mind much what they smoke, especially provincial young men living in Paris. They feel it incumbent upon them to be constantly smoking something—just to show that they are Parisians, true sons of the pavement, knowing how to live. And their brightest hopes are in all truth realised, because theirs is certainly a reckless life, flavoured as it is with "number one" tobacco, and those "little corporal" cigarettes which are enveloped in the blue paper.
The tobacconist's shop is singularly convenient. It has, namely, an entrance at the back, as well as that giving on to the street of St. Gingolphe. This entrance is through a little courtyard, in which is the stable and coach-house combined, where Madame Perinere, a lady who paints the magic word "Modes" beneath her name on the door-post of number seventeen, keeps the dapper little cart and pony which carry her bonnets to the farthest corner of Paris.
The tobacconist is a large man, much given to perspiration. In fact, one may safely make the statement that he perspires annually from the middle of April to the second or even third week in October. In consequence of this habit he wears no collar, and a man without a collar does not start fairly on the social race. It is always best to make inquiries before condemning a man who wears no collar. There is probably a very good reason, as in the case of Mr. Jacquetot, but it is to be feared that few pause to seek it. One need not seek the reason with much assiduity in this instance, because the tobacconist of the Rue St. Gingolphe is always prepared to explain it at length. French people are thus. They talk of things, and take pleasure in so doing, which we, on this side of the Channel, treat with a larger discretion.
Mr. Jacquetot does not even wear a collar on Sunday, for the simple reason that Sunday is to him as other days. He attends no place of worship, because he acknowledges but one god—the god of most Frenchmen—his inner man. His pleasures are gastronomical, his sorrows stomachic. The little shop is open early and late, Sundays, week-days, and holidays. Moreover, the tobacconist—Mr. Jacquetot himself—is always at his post, on the high chair behind the counter, near the window, where he can see into the street. This constant attention to business is almost phenomenal, because Frenchmen who worship the god of Mr. Jacquetot love to pay tribute on fete-days at one of the little restaurants on the Place at Versailles, at Duval's, or even in the Palais Royal. Mr. Jacquetot would have loved nothing better than a pilgrimage to any one of these shrines, but he was tied to the little tobacco store. Not by the chains of commerce. Oh, no! When rallied by his neighbours for such an unenterprising love of his own hearth, he merely shrugged his heavy shoulders.
"What will you?" he would say; "one has one's affairs."
Now the affairs of Mr. Jacquetot were, in the days with which we have to do, like many things on this earth, inasmuch as they were not what they seemed.
It would be inexpedient, for reasons closely connected with the tobacconist of the Rue St. Gingolphe, as well as with other gentlemen still happily with us in the flesh, to be too exact as to dates. Suffice it, therefore, to say that it was only a few years ago that Mr. Jacquetot sat one evening as usual in his little shop. It happened to be a Tuesday evening, which is fortunate, because it was on Tuesdays and Saturdays that the little barber from round the corner called and shaved the vast cheeks of the tobacconist. Mr. Jacquetot was therefore quite presentable—doubly so, indeed, because it was yet March, and he had not yet entered upon his summer season.
The little street was very quiet. There was no through traffic, and folks living in this quarter of Paris usually carry their own parcels. It was thus quite easy to note the approach of any passenger, when such had once turned the corner. Some one was approaching now, and Mr. Jacquetot threw away the stump of a cheap cigar. One would almost have said that he recognised the step at a considerable distance. Young people are in the habit of considering that when one gets old and stout one loses in intelligence; but this is not always the case. One is apt to expect little from a fat man; but that is often a mistake. Mr. Jacquetot weighed seventeen stone, but he was eminently intelligent. He had recognised the footstep while it was yet seventy metres away.
In a few moments a gentleman of middle height paused in front of the shop, noted that it was a tobacconist's, and entered, carrying an unstamped letter with some ostentation. It must, by the way, be remembered that in France postage-stamps are to be bought at all tobacconists'.
The new-comer's actions were characterised by a certain carelessness, as if he were going through a formula—perfunctorily—without admitting its necessity.
He nodded to Mr. Jacquetot, and rather a pleasant smile flickered for a moment across his face. He was a singularly well-made man, of medium height, with straight, square shoulders and small limbs. He wore spectacles, and as he looked at one straight in the face there was a singular contraction of the eyes which hardly amounted to a cast—moreover, it was momentary. It was precisely the look of a hawk when its hood is suddenly removed in full daylight. This resemblance was furthered by the fact that the man's profile was birdlike. He was clean-shaven, and there was in his sleek head and determined little face that smooth, compact self-complacency which is to be noted in the head of a hawk.
The face was small, like that of a Greek bust, but in expression it suggested a yet older people. There was that mystic depth of expression which comes from ancient Egypt. No one feature was obtrusive—all were chiselled with equal delicacy; and yet there was only one point of real beauty in the entire countenance. The mouth was perfect. But the man with a perfect mouth is usually one whom it will be found expedient to avoid. Without a certain allowance of sensuality no man is genial—without a little weakness there is no kind heart. This Frenchman's mouth was not, however, obtrusively faultless. It was perfect in its design, but, somehow, many people failed to take note of the fact. It is so with the "many," one finds. The human world is so blind that at times it would be almost excusable to harbour the suspicion that animals see more. There may be something in that instinct by which dogs, horses, and cats distinguish between friends and foes, detect sympathy, discover antipathy. It is possible that they see things in the human face to which our eyes are blinded—intentionally and mercifully blinded. If some of us were a little more observant, a few of the human combinations which we bring about might perhaps be less egregiously mistaken.
It was probably the form of the lips that lent pleasantness to the smile with which Mr. Jacquetot was greeted, rather than the expression of the velvety eyes, which had in reality no power of smiling at all. They were sad eyes, like those of the women one sees on the banks of the Upper Nile, which never alter in expression—eyes that do not seem to be busy with this life at all, but fully occupied with something else: something beyond to-morrow or behind yesterday.
"Not yet arrived?" inquired the new-comer in a voice of some distinction. It was a full, rich voice, and the French it spoke was not the French of Mr. Jacquetot, nor, indeed, of the Rue St. Gingolphe. It was the language one sometimes hears in an old chateau lost in the depths of the country—the vast unexplored rural districts of France—where the bearers of dangerously historical names live out their lives with a singular suppression and patience. They are either biding their time or else they are content with the past and the part played by their ancestors therein. For there is an old French and a new. In Paris the new is spoken—the very newest. Were it anything but French it would be intolerably vulgar; as it is, it is merely neat and intensely expressive.
"Not yet arrived, sir," said the tobacconist, and then he seemed to recollect himself, for he repeated:
"Not yet arrived," without the respectful addition which had slipped out by accident.
The new arrival took out his watch—a small one of beautiful workmanship, the watch of a lady—and consulted it. His movements were compact and rapid. He would have made a splendid light-weight boxer.
"That," he said shortly, "is the way they fail. They do not understand the necessity of exactitude. The people—see you, Mr. Jacquetot, they fail because they have no exactitude."
"But I am of the people," moving ponderously on his chair.
"Essentially so. I know it, my friend. But I have taught you something."
The tobacconist laughed.
"I suppose so. But is it safe to stand there in the full day? Will you not pass in? The room is ready; the lamp is lighted. There is an agent of the police always at the end of the street now."
"Ah, bah!" and he shrugged his shoulders contemptuously. "I am not afraid of them. There is only one thing to be feared, Citizen Jacquetot—the press. The press and the people, bien entendu."
"If you despise the people why do you use them?" asked Jacquetot abruptly.
"In default of better, my friend. If one has not steam one uses the river to turn the mill-wheel. The river is slow; sometimes it is too weak, sometimes too strong. One never has full control over it, but it turns the wheel—it turns the wheel, brother Jacquetot."
"And eventually sweeps away the miller," suggested the tobacconist lightly. It must be remembered that though stout he was intelligent. Had he not been so it is probable that this conversation would never have taken place. The dark-eyed man did not look like one who would have the patience to deal with stupid people.
Again the pleasant smile flickered like the light of a fire in a dark place.
"That," was the reply, "is the affair of the miller."
"But," conceded Jacquetot, meditatively selecting a new cigar from a box which he had reached without moving from his chair, "but the people—they are fools, hein!"
"Ah!" with a protesting shrug, as if deprecating the enunciation of such a platitude.
Then he passed through into a little room behind the shop—a little room where no daylight penetrated, because there was no window to it. It depended for daylight upon the shop, with which it communicated by a door of which the upper half was glass. But this glass was thickly curtained with the material called Turkey-red, threefold.
And the tobacconist was left alone in his shop, smoking gravely. There are some people like oysters, inasmuch as they leave an after-taste behind them. The man who had just gone into the little room at the rear of the tobacconist's shop of the Rue St. Gingolphe in Paris was one of these. And the taste he left behind him was rather disquieting. One was apt to feel that there was a mistake somewhere in the ordering of human affairs, and that this man was one of its victims.
In a few minutes two men passed hastily through the shop into the little room, with scarcely so much as a nod for Mr. Jacquetot.
The first man to enter the room was clad in a blouse of coarse grey cloth which reached down to his knees. On his head he wore a black silk cap, very much pressed down and exceedingly greasy on the right side. This was to be accounted for by the fact that he used his right shoulder more than the left in that state of life in which he had been placed. It was not what we, who do not kill, would consider a pleasant state. He was, in fact, a slayer of beasts—a foreman at the slaughter-house.
It is, perhaps, fortunate that Antoine Lerac is of no great prominence in this record, and of none in his official capacity at the slaughter-house. But the man is worthy of some small attention, because he was so essentially of the nineteenth century—so distinctly a product of the latter end of what is, for us at least, the most important cycle of years the world has passed through. He was a man wearing the blouse with ostentation, and glorying in the greasy cap: professing his unwillingness to exchange the one for an ermine robe or the other for a crown. As a matter of fact, he invariably purchased the largest and roughest blouse to be found, and his cap was unnecessarily soaked with suet. He was a knight of industry of the very worst description—a braggart, a talker, a windbag. He preached, or rather he shrieked, the doctrine of equality, but the equality he sought was that which would place him on a par with his superiors, while in no way benefiting those beneath him.
At one time, when he had first come into contact with the dark-eyed man who now sat at the table watching him curiously, there had been a struggle for mastery.
"I am," he had said with considerable heat, "as good as you. That is all I wish to demonstrate."
"No," replied the other with that calm and assured air of superiority which the people once tried in vain to stamp out with the guillotine. "No, it is not. You want to demonstrate that you are superior, and you cannot do it. You say that you have as much right to walk on the pavement as I. I admit it. In your heart you want to prove that you have more, and you cannot do it. I could wear your blouse with comfort, but you could not put on my hat or my gloves without making yourself ridiculous. But—that is not the question. Let us get to business."
And in time the butcher succumbed, as he was bound to do, to the man whom he shrewdly suspected of being an aristocrat.
He who entered the room immediately afterwards was of a very different type. His mode of entry was of another description. Whereas the man of blood swaggered in with an air of nervous truculence, as if he were afraid that some one was desirous of disputing his equality, the next comer crept in softly, and closed the door with accuracy. He was the incarnation of benevolence—in the best sense of the word, a sweet old man—looking out upon the world through large tinted spectacles with a beam which could not be otherwise than blind to all motes. In earlier years his face might, perhaps, have been a trifle hard in its contour; but Time, the lubricator, had eased some of the corners, and it was now the seat of kindness and love. He bowed ceremoniously to the first comer, and his manner seemed rather to breathe of fraternity than equality. As he bowed he mentioned the gentleman's name in such loving tones that no greeting could have been heartier.
"Citizen Morot," he said.
The butcher, with more haste than dignity, assumed the chair which stood at the opposite end of the table to that occupied by the Citizen Morot. He had evidently hurried in first in order to secure that seat. From his pocket he produced a somewhat soiled paper, which he threw with exaggerated carelessness across the table. His manner was not entirely free from a suggestion of patronage.
"What have we here?" inquired the first comer, who had not hitherto opened his lips, with a deep interest which might possibly have been ironical. He was just the sort of man to indulge in irony for his own satisfaction. He unfolded the paper, raised his eyebrows, and read.
"Ah!" he said, "a receipt for five hundred rifles with bayonets and shoulder-straps complete. 'Received of the Citizen Morot five hundred rifles with bayonets and shoulder-straps complete.—Antoine Lerac.'"
He folded the paper again and carefully tore it into very small pieces.
"Thank you," he said gravely.
Then he turned in his chair and threw the papers into the ash-tray of the little iron stove behind him.
"I judged it best to be strictly business-like," said the butcher, with moderately well-simulated carelessness.
"But yes, Monsieur Lerac," with a shrug. "We of the Republic distrust each other so completely."
The old gentleman looked from one to the other with a soothing smile.
"The brave Lerac," he said, "is a man of business."
Citizen Morot ignored this observation.
"And," he said, turning to Lerac, "you have them stored in a safe place? There is absolutely no doubt of that?"
"They are under my own eye."
"Very good. It is not for a short time only, but for some months. One cannot hurry the people. Besides, we are not ready. The rifles we bought, the ammunition we must steal."
"They are good rifles—they are English," said the butcher.
"Yes; the English Government is full of chivalry. They are always ready to place it within the power of their enemies to be as well armed as themselves."
The old gentleman laughed—a pleasant, cooing laugh. He invariably encouraged humour, this genial philanthropist.
"At last Friday's meeting," Lerac said shortly, "we enrolled forty new members. We now number four hundred and two in our arrondissement alone."
"Good," muttered the Citizen Morot, without enthusiasm.
"And four hundred hardy companions they are."
"So I should imagine" (very gravely).
"Four hundred strong men," broke in the old gentleman rather hastily. "Ah, but that is already a power."
"It is," opined Lerac sententiously, "the strong man who is the power. Riches are nothing; birth is nothing. This is the day of force. Force is everything."
"Everything," acquiesced Morot fervently. He was consulting a small note-book, wherein he jotted down some figures.
"Four hundred and two," he muttered as he wrote, "up to Friday night, in the arrondissement of the citizen—the good citizen—Antoine Lerac."
The butcher looked up with a doubtful expression upon his coarse face. His great brutal lips twitched, and he was on the point of speaking when the Citizen Morot's velvety eyes met his gaze with a quiet smile in which arrogance and innocence were mingled.
"And now," said the last-mentioned, turning affably to the old gentleman, "let us have the report of the reverend Father."
"Ah," laughed Lerac, without attempting to conceal the contempt that was in his soul, "the Church."
The old gentleman spread out his hands in mild deprecation.
"Yes," he admitted, "we are under a shadow. I do not even dare to wear my cassock."
"You are in a valley of shadow, my reverend friend," said the butcher, with visible exultation, "to which the sun will never penetrate now."
The Citizen Morot laughed at this pleasantry, while the old man against whom it was directed bowed his head patiently.
"And yet," said the laugher, with a certain air of patronage, "the Church is of some use still. She paid for those rifles, and she will pay for the ammunition—is it not so, my father?"
"Without doubt—without doubt."
"Not to mention," continued the other, "many contributions towards our general fund. The force that is supplied by the strong right arm of the people is, one finds, a force constantly in need of substantial replenishment."
"But," exclaimed the butcher, emphatically banging his fist down upon the table, "why does she do it? That is what I want to know!"
The old priest glanced furtively towards Morot, and then his face assumed an air of childish bewilderment.
"Ah!" he said guilelessly, "who can tell?"
"Who, indeed!" chimed in Morot.
The butcher was pleased with himself. He sat upright, and, banging the table a second time, he looked round defiantly.
"But," said Morot, in an indifferent way which was frequently characteristic, "I do not see that it matters much. The money is good. It buys rifles, and it places them in the hands of the Citizen Lerac and his hardy companions. And when all is said and done, when the cartridges are burnt and a New Commune is raised, what does it matter whose money bought the rifles, and with what object the money was supplied?"
The old gentleman looked relieved. He was evidently of a timid and conciliatory nature, and would, with slight encouragement, have turned upon that Church of which he was the humble representative, merely for the sake of peace.
The butcher cleared his throat after the manner of the streets—causing Morot to wince visibly—and acquiesced.
"But," he added cunningly, "the Church, see you—Ach! it is deep—it is treacherous. Never trust the Church!"
The Citizen Morot, to whom these remarks were addressed, smiled in a singular way and made no reply. Then he turned gravely to the old man and said—
"Have you nothing to report to us—my father?"
"Nothing of great importance," replied he humbly. "All is going on well. We are in treaty for two hundred rifles with the Montenegrin Government, and shall no doubt carry the contract through. I go to England next week in order to carry out the—the—what shall I say?—the loan of the ammunition."
"Ha, ha!" laughed the butcher.
Morot smiled also, as he made an entry in the little note-book.
"Next week?" he said interrogatively.
The butcher here rose and ostentatiously dragged out a watch from the depths of his blouse.
"I must go," he said. "I have committee at seven o'clock. And I shall dine first."
"Yes," said Morot gravely. "Dine first. Take good care of yourself, citizen."
"I do," was the reply, delivered with a little nod in answer to Lerac's curt farewell bow.
The butcher walked noisily through the shop—heavy with responsibility—weighted with the sense of his own importance to the world in general and to France in particular. Had he walked less noisily he might have overheard the soft laugh of the old priest.
Citizen Morot did not laugh. He was not a laughing man. But a fine, disdainful smile passed over his face, scarce lighting it up at all.
"What an utter fool the man is!" he said impatiently.
"Yes—sir," replied the old man, "but if he were less so it would be difficult to manage him."
"I am not sure. I always prefer to deal with knaves than with fools."
"That is because your Highness knows how to outwit them."
"No titles—my father," said the Citizen Morot quietly. "No titles here, if you please. Tell me, are you quite sure of this scum—this Lerac?"
"As sure as one can be of anything that comes from the streets. He is an excitable, bumptious, quarrelsome man; but he has a certain influence with those beneath him, although it seems hard to realise that there are such."
"Ha! you are right! But a republic is a social manure-heap—that which is on the top is not pleasant, and the stuff below—ugh!"
The manner of the two men had quite changed. He who was called Morot leant back in his seat and stretched his arms out wearily. There is no disguise like animation; when that is laid aside we see the real man or the real woman. In repose this Frenchman was not cheerful to look upon. He was not sanguine, and a French pessimist is the worst thing of the kind that is to be found.
When the door had closed behind the departing Lerac, the old priest seemed to throw off suddenly quite a number of years. His voice, when next he spoke, was less senile, his movements were brisker. He was, in a word, less harmless.
Mr. Jacquetot had finished his dinner, brought in from a neighbouring restaurant all hot, and was slumberously enjoying a very strong-smelling cigar, when the door of the little room opened at length, and the two men went out together into the dimly-lighted street.
Half-way down Fleet Street, on the left-hand side, stands the church of St. Dunstan-in-the-West. Around its grimy foundations there seethes a struggling, toiling race of men—not only from morning till night, but throughout the twenty-four hours. Within sound of this church bell a hundred printing-presses throb out their odorous broadsheets to be despatched to every part of the world. Day and night, week in week out, the human writing-machines, and those other machines which are almost human (and better than human in some points) hurry through their allotted tasks, and ignore the saintly shadow cast upon them by the spire of St. Dunstan. This is indeed the centre of the world: the hub from whence spring the spokes of the vast wheel of life. For to this point all things over the world converge by a vast web of wire, railroad, coach road, and steamer track. Upon wings that boast of greater speed than the wind can compass come to this point the voices of our kin in farthest lands. News—news—news. News from the East of events occurring in the afternoon—scan it over and flash it westward, where it will be read on the morning of the same day! News in every tongue to be translated and brought into shape—while the solemn church clock tells his tale in deep voice, audible above the din and scurry.
From hurried scribbler to pale compositor, and behold, the news is bawled all over London! Such work as this goes on for ever around the church of St. Dunstan. Scribblers come and scribblers go; compositors come to their work young and hopeful, they leave it bent and poisoned, yet the work goes on. Each day the pace grows quicker, each day some new means of rapid propagation is discovered, and each day life becomes harder to live. One morning, perhaps, a scribbler is absent from his post—"Brain-fever, complete rest; a wreck." For years his writings have been read by thousands daily. A new man takes the vacant chair—he has been waiting more or less impatiently for this—and the thousands are none the wiser. One night the head compositor presses his black hand to his sunken chest, and staggers home. "And time too—he's had his turn," mutters the second compositor as he thinks of the extra five shillings a week. No doubt he is right. Every dog his day.
Nearly opposite to the church stands a tall narrow house of dirty red brick, and it is with this house that we have to do.
At seven o'clock, one evening some years ago—when heads now grey were brown, when eyes now dim were bright—the Strand was in its usual state of turmoil. Carriage followed carriage. Seedy clerks hustled past portly merchants—not their own masters, bien entendu, but those of other seedy clerks. Carriages and foot-passengers were alike going westward. All were leaving behind them the day and the busy city—some after a few hours devoted to the perusal of Times and Gazette; others fagged and weary from a long day of dusty books.
Ah! those were prosperous days in the City. Days when men of but a few years' standing rolled out to Clapham or Highgate behind a pair of horses. Days when books were often represented by a bank-book and a roughly-kept day-book. What need to keep mighty ledgers when profits are great and returns quick in their returning?
As the pedestrians made their way along the narrow pavement some of them glanced at the door of the tall red-brick house and read the inscription on a brass plate screwed thereon. This consisted of two mystic words: The Beacon. There was, however, in reality, no mystery about it. The Beacon was a newspaper, published weekly, and the clock of St. Dunstan's striking seven told the end of another week. The publishing day was past; another week with its work and pleasure was to be faced.
From early morning until six o'clock in the evening this narrow doorway and passage had been crowded by a heaving, swearing, laughing mass of more or less dilapidated humanity interested in the retail sale of newspapers. At six o'clock Ephraim Bander, a retired constable, now on the staff of the Beacon, had taken his station at the door, in order to greet would-be purchasers with the laconic and discouraging words: "Sold hout!"
During the last two years ex-constable Bander had announced the selling "hout" of the Beacon every Tuesday evening.
At seven o'clock Mrs. Bander emerged from her den on the fourth floor, like a portly good-natured spider, and with a broom proceeded to attack the dust shaken from the boots of the journalistic fraternity, with noisy energy. After that she polished the door-plate; and peace reigned within the narrow house.
On the second floor there was a small room with windows looking out into a narrow lane behind the house. It was a singularly quiet room; the door opened and shut without sound or vibration; double windows insured immunity from the harrowing cries of such enterprising merchants as exercised their lungs and callings in the narrow lane beneath. A certain sense of ease and comfort imperceptibly crept over the senses of persons entering this tiny apartment. It must have been in the atmosphere; for some rooms more luxuriously furnished are without it. It certainly does not lie in the furniture—this imperceptible sense of companionship; it does not lurk in the curtains. Some mansions know it, and many cottages. It is even to be met with in the tiny cabin of a coasting vessel.
This diminutive room, despite its lack of sunlight, was such as one might wish to sit in. A broad low table stood in the middle of the floor, and on it lay the mellow light of a shaded lamp. At this table two men were seated opposite to each other. One was writing, slowly and easily, the other was idling with the calm restfulness of a man who has never worked very hard. He was rolling his pencil up to the top of his blotting-pad, and allowing it to come down again in accordance with the rules of gravity.
This was Mr. Bodery's habit when thoughtful; and after all, there was no great harm in it. Mr. Bodery was editor and proprietor of the Beacon. The amusing and somewhat satirical article which appeared weekly under the heading of "Light" was penned by the chubby hand at that moment engaged with the pencil.
Mr. Morgan, sub-editor, was even stouter than his chief. Laughter was his most prominent characteristic. He laughed over "Light" when in its embryo state, he laughed when the Beacon sold out at six o'clock on Tuesday evenings. He laughed when the printing-machine went wrong on Monday afternoon, and—most wonderful of all—he laughed at his own jokes, in which exercise he was usually alone. His jokes were not of the first force. Mr. Morgan was the author of the slightly laboured and weighty Parliamentary articles on the first page. He never joked on paper, which is a gift apart.
These two gentlemen were in no way of brilliant intellect. They had their share of sound, practical common-sense, which is in itself a splendid substitute. Fortune had come to them (as it comes to most men when it comes at all) without any apparent reason. Mr. Bodery had supplied the capital, and Mr. Morgan's share of the undertaking was added in the form of a bustling, hollow energy. The Beacon was lighted, so to speak. It burnt in a dull and somewhat flickering manner for some years; then a new hand fed the flame, and its light spread afar.
It was from pure good nature that Mr. Bodery held out a helping hand to the son of his old friend, Walter Vellacott, when that youth appeared one day at the office of the Beacon, and in an off-hand manner announced that he was seeking employment. Like many actions performed from a similar motive, Mr. Bodery's kindness of heart met with its reward. Young Christian Vellacott developed a remarkable talent for journalistic literature—in fact, he was fortunate enough to have found, at the age of twenty-two, his avocation in life.
Gradually, as the years wore on, the influence of the young fellow's superior intellect made itself felt. Prom the position of a mere supernumerary, he worked his way upwards, taking on to his shoulders one duty after another—bearing the weight, quietly and confidently, of one responsibility after another. This exactly suited Mr. Bodery and his sub-editor. There was very little of the slave in the composition of either. They delighted in an easy, luxurious life, with just enough work to impart a pleasant feeling of self-satisfaction. It suited Christian Vellacott also. In a few weeks he found his level—in a few months he began rising to higher levels.
He was an only son; the only child of a brilliant father whose name was known in every court in Europe as that of a harum-scarum diplomatist, who could have done great things in his short life if he had wished to. It is from only sons that Fortune selects her favourites. Men who have no brothers to share their amusements turn to serious matters early in life. Christian Vellacott soon discovered that a head was required at the office of the Beacon to develop the elements of success undoubtedly lying within the journal, and that the owner of such a head could in time dictate his own terms to the easy-going proprietor.
Unsparingly he devoted the whole of his exceptional energies to the work before him. He lived in and for it. Each night he went home fagged and weary; but each morning saw him return to it with undaunted spirit.
Human nature, however, is exhaustible. The influence of a strong mind over a strong body is great, but it is nevertheless limited. The Beacon had reached a large circulation, but its slave was worn out. Two years without a holiday—two years of hurried, hard brain-work had left their mark. It is often so when a man finds his avocation too early. He is too hurried, works too hard, and collapses; or he becomes self-satisfied, over-confident, and unbearable. Fortunately for Christian Vellacott he was devoid of conceit, which is like the scaffolding round a church-spire, reaching higher and falling first.
There was also a "home" influence at work. When Christian passed out of the narrow doorway, and turned his face westward, his day's work was by no means over, as will be shown hereafter.
As Mr. Bodery rolled his pencil up and down his blotting-pad, he was slowly realising the fact that something must be done. Presently he looked up, and his pleasant eyes rested on the bent head of his sub-editor.
"Morgan," he said, "I have been thinking—Seems to me Vellacott wants a rest! He's played out!"
Mr. Morgan wiped his pen vigorously upon his coat, just beneath the shoulder, and sat back in his chair.
"Yes," he replied; "he has not been up to the mark for some time. But you will find difficulty in making him take a holiday. He is a devil for working—ha, ha!"
This "ha, ha!" did not mean very much. There was no mirth in it. It was a species of punctuation, and implied that Mr. Morgan had finished his remark.
"I will ring for him now and see what he says about it."
Mr. Bodery extended his chubby white hand and touched a small gong. Almost instantaneously the silent door opened and a voice from without said, "Yess'r." A small boy with a mobile, wicked mouth stood at attention in the doorway.
"Has Mr. Vellacott gone?"
"No—sir!" In a tone which seemed to ask: "Now is it likely?"
"Where is he?"
"In the shop, sir."
"Ask him to come here, please."
The small boy closed the door. Once outside he placed his hand upon his heart and made a low bow to the handle, retreating backwards to the head of the stairs. Then he proceeded to slide down the banister, to the trifling detriment of his waistcoat. As he reached the end of his perilous journey a door opened at the foot of the stairs, and a man's form became discernible in the dim light.
"Is that the way you generally come downstairs, Wilson?" asked a voice.
"It is the quickest way, sir!"
"Not quite; there is one quicker, which you will discover some day if you overbalance at the top!"
"Mr. Bodery wishes to see you, please sir!" The small boy's manner was very different from what it had been outside the door upstairs.
"All right," replied Vellacott, putting on the coat he had been carrying over his arm. A peculiar smooth rapidity characterised all his movements. At school he had been considered a very "clean" fielder. The cleanness was there still.
The preternaturally sharp boy—sharp as only London boys are—watched the lithe form vanish up the stairs; then he wagged his head very wisely and said to himself in a patronising way:
"He's the right sort, he is—no chalk there!"
Subsequently he balanced his diminutive person full length upon the balustrade, and proceeded to haul himself laboriously, hand over hand, to the top.
In the meantime Christian Vellacott had passed into the editor's room. The light of the lamp was driven downwards upon the table, but the reflection of it rose and illuminated his face. It was a fairly handsome face, with eyes just large enough to be keen and quick without being dreamy. The slight fair moustache was not enough to hide the mouth, which was refined, and singularly immobile. He glanced at Mr. Bodery, as he entered, quickly and comprehensively, and then turned his eyes towards Mr. Morgan. His face was very still and unemotional, but it was pale, and his eyes were deeply sunken. A keen observer would have noticed, in comparing the three men, that there was something about the youngest which was lacking in his elders. It lay in the direct gaze of his eyes, in the carriage of his head, in the small, motionless mouth. It was what is vaguely called "power."
"Sit down, Vellacott," said Mr. Brodery. "We want to have a consultation." After a short pause he continued: "You know, of course, that it is a dull season just now. People do not seem to read the papers in August. Now, we want you to take a holiday. Morgan has been away; I shall go when you come back. Say three weeks or a month. You've been over-working yourself a bit—burning the candle at both ends, eh?"
"Hardly at both ends," corrected Vellacott, with a ready smile which entirely transformed his face. "Hardly at both ends—at one end in a draught, perhaps."
"Ha, ha! Very good," chimed in Mr. Morgan the irrepressible. "At one end in a draught—that is like me, only the draught has got inside my cheeks and blown them out instead of in like yours, eh? Ha, ha!" And he patted his cheeks affectionately.
"I don't think I care for a holiday just now, thanks," he said slowly, without remembering to call up a smile for Mr. Morgan's benefit. Unconsciously he put his hand to his forehead, which was damp with the heat of the printing-office which he had just left.
"My dear fellow," said Mr. Bodery gravely, emphasising his remarks with the pencil, "you have one thing in life to learn yet—no doubt you have many, but this one in particular you must learn. Work is not the only thing we are created for—not the only thing worth living for. It is a necessary evil, that is all. When you have reached my age you will come to look upon it as such. A little enjoyment is good for every one. There are many things to form a brighter side to life. Nature—travelling— riding—rowing——"
"And love," suggested the sub-editor, placing his hand dramatically on the right side of his broad waistcoat instead of the left. He could afford to joke on the subject now that the grass grew high in the little country churchyard where he had laid his young wife fifteen years before. In those days he was a grave, self-contained man, but that sorrow had entirely changed his nature. The true William Morgan only came out on paper now.
Mr. Bodery was right. Christian had yet to learn a great lesson, and unconsciously he was even now beginning to grasp its meaning. His whole mind was full of his work, and out of those earnest grey eyes his soul was looking at the man who was perhaps saving his life.
"We can easily manage it," said the editor, continuing his advantage. "I will take over the foreign policy article. The reviewing you can do yourself, as we can always send you the books, and there is no pressing hurry about them. The general work we will manage somehow—won't we, Morgan?"
"Of course we will; as well as and perhaps better than he could do it himself, eh? Ha, ha!"
"But seriously, Vellacott," continued Mr. Bodery, "things will go on just as well for a time. When I was young I used to make that mistake too. I thought that no one could manage things like myself, but in time I realised (as you will do some day) that things went on as smoothly when I was away. Depend upon it, my boy, when a man is put on the shelf, worn out and useless, another soon fills his place. You are too young to go on the shelf yet. To please me, Vellacott, go away for three weeks."
"You are very kind, sir—" began the young fellow, but Mr. Bodery interrupted him.
"Well, then, that is settled. Shall we say this day week? That will give you time to make your plans."
With a few words of thanks Christian left the room. Vaguely and mechanically he wandered upstairs to his own particular den. It was a disappointing little chamber. The chaos one expects to find on the desk of a literary man was lacking here. No papers lay on the table in artistic disorder. The presiding genius of the room was method—clear-headed, practical method. The walls were hidden by shelves of books, from the last half-hysterical production of some vain woman to the single-volume work of a man's lifetime. Many of the former were uncut, the latter bore signs of having been read and studied. The companionship of these silent friends brought peace and contentment to the young man's spirit. He sat wearily down, and, leaning his chin upon his folded arms, he thought. Gradually there came into his mind pictures of the fair open country, of rolling hills and quiet valleys, of quiet lanes and running waters. A sudden yearning to breathe God's pure air took possession of his faculties. Mr. Bodery had gained the day. In the room below Mr. Morgan wrote on in his easy, comfortable manner. The editor was still thoughtfully playing with his pencil. The sharp little boy was standing on his head in the passage. At last Mr. Bodery rose from his chair and began his preparations for leaving. As he brushed his hat he looked towards his companion and said:
"That young fellow is worth you and me rolled into one."
"I recognised that fact some years ago," replied the sub-editor, wiping his pen on his coat. "It is humiliating, but true. Ha, ha!"
Christian Vellacott soon descended the dingy stairs and joined the westward-wending throng in the Strand. In the midst of the crowd he was alone, as townsmen soon learn to be. The passing faces, the roar of traffic, and the thousand human possibilities of interest around him in no way disturbed his thoughts. In his busy brain the traffic of thought, passing and repassing, crossing and recrossing, went on unaffected by outward things. A modern poet has confessed that his muse loves the pavement—a bold confession, but most certainly true. Why does talent gravitate to cities? Because there it works its best—because friction necessarily produces brilliancy. Nature is a great deceiver; she draws us on to admire her insinuating charms, and in the contemplation of them we lose our energy.
Christian had been born and bred in cities. The din and roar of life was to him what the voice of the sea is to the sailor. In the midst of crowded humanity he was in his element, and as he walked rapidly along he made his way dexterously through the narrow places without thinking of it. While meditating deeply he was by no means absorbed. In his active life there had been no time for thoughts beyond the present, no leisure for dreaming. He could not afford to be absent-minded. Numbers of men are so situated. Their minds are required at all moments, in full working order, clear and rapid—ready, shoes on feet and staff in hand, to go whithersoever they may be called.
Although he was going to the saddest home that ever hung like a mill-stone round a young neck, Christian wasted no time. The glory of the western sky lay ruddily over the river as he emerged from the small streets behind Chelsea and faced the broad placid stream. Presently he stopped opposite the door of a small red-brick house, which formed the corner of a little terrace facing the river and a quiet street running inland from it.
With a latch-key he admitted himself noiselessly—almost surreptitiously. Once inside he closed the door without unnecessary sound and stood for some moments in the dark little entrance-hall, apparently listening.
Presently a voice broke the silence of the house. A querulous, high-pitched voice, quavering with the palsy of extreme age. The sound of it was no new thing for Christian Vellacott. To-night his lips gave a little twist of pain as he heard it. The door of the room on the ground floor was open, and he could hear the words distinctly enough.
"You know, Mrs. Strawd, we have a nephew, but he is always gadding about, I am sure; he has been a terrible affliction to us. A frothy, good-for-nothing boy—that is what he is. We have not set eyes on him for a month or more. Why, I almost forget his name!"
"Christian, that is his name—a most inappropriate one, I am sure," chimed in another voice, almost identical in tone. "Why Walter should have given him such a name I cannot tell. Ah! sister Judith, things are different from what they used to be when we were younger!"
The frothy one outside the door seemed in no great degree impressed by these impartial views upon himself, though the pained look was still upon his lips as he turned to hang up his hat.
"He's coming home to-night, though, Miss Judith," said another voice, in a coaxing, wheedling tone, such as one uses towards petulant children. "He's coming home to-night, sure enough!" It was a pleasant voice, with a strong, capable ring about it. One instinctively felt that the possessor of it was a woman to be relied upon at a crisis.
"Is he now—is he now?" said the first speaker reflectively. "Well, I am sure it is time he did. We will just give him a lesson, eh, sister Hester?—we will give him a lesson, shall we not?"
At this moment the door opened, and a little woman, quiet though somewhat anxious looking, came out. She evinced no surprise at the sight of the good-for-nothing nephew in the dimly-lighted passage, greeting him in a low voice.
"How have they been to-day, nurse?" he asked.
"Oh, they have been well enough, Master Christian," was the reply, in a cheerful undertone.
"Aunt Judith has 'most got rid of her cold. But they've been very trying, sir—just like children, as wilful as could be—the same question over and over again till I was fit to cry. They are quieter now, but—but it's you they're abusing now, Master Chris!"
The young fellow looked down into the little woman's face. His eyes were sympathetic enough, but he said nothing. With a little nod and a suppressed sigh he turned away from her. He laid his hand upon the door and then stopped.
"As soon as you have brought up tea," he said, looking back, "I will take them for the evening, and you can have your rest as usual."
From the room came, at intervals, the ring of silver, as if some one were moving the spoons and forks from the table. Christian waited until these sounds had ceased before he entered.
"Good evening, Aunt Judith. Good evening, Aunt Hester," he said cheerily.
They were exactly alike, these two old ladies; the same marvellously wrinkled features and silver hair; voluminous caps and white woollen shawls identical. With exaggerated marks of respect he kissed each by turn on her withered cheek.
"May I sit down, Aunt Judith?" he asked, and without waiting for an answer drew a chair towards the fireplace, where a small fire burnt though it was the month of August.
"Yes, Nephew Vellacott, you may take a seat," replied Aunt Judith with chill severity, "and you may also tell us where you have been during the last four weeks."
Poor old human wreck! Only ten hours earlier her nephew had bid her farewell for the day. Christian began an explanation in a weary, mechanical way, like an actor tired of the part assigned to him, but the old ladies would not listen. Aunt Hester interrupted him promptly.
"Your shallow excuses are wasted on us, Nephew Vellacott. You have doubtless been away, enjoying yourself and leaving us—us who support you and deprive ourselves in order to keep a decent coat upon your back—leaving us to the mercy of all the thieves in London. And tell us, pray—what are we to do for spoons and forks to-night?"
"What?" exclaimed Christian with perfunctory interest, "have the spoons gone—?" he almost said "again," but checked himself in time. He turned to look at the table, which had been carefully denuded of every piece of silver.
"There, you see!" quavered Aunt Judith triumphantly; and the two old ladies rubbed their hands, nodded their palsied old heads at each other, and chuckled in utter delight at their nephew's discomfiture, until Aunt Judith was attacked by a violent fit of coughing, which seemed to be tearing her to pieces. Christian watched her with the ready keenness of a sick-nurse.
"How did it occur?" he asked, when the old lady had recovered.
"There, you see," remarked Aunt Hester, with the precise intonation of her accomplice.
"I am sure!" panted Aunt Judith triumphantly.
"I am sure!" echoed Aunt Hester.
They allowed their nephew's remorse full scope, and then proceeded laboriously to extract the missing articles from the side of Aunt Judith's arm-chair. This farce was rehearsed every night, nearly word for word. A pleasant recreation for an intellectual man, assuredly. The only relief to the monotony was the occasional loss of a spoon in the crevice between the arm and the seat of Aunt Judith's chair. Then followed such a fumbling and a "dear me-ing" until the worthless nephew was perforce called to the rescue, to fish and probe with a paper-knife till the lost treasure was recovered.
"We only wished, Nephew Vellacott, to show you what might have happened during your unconscionable absence. Servants are only too ready to talk to the first comer of their mistresses' wealth and position. They have no discrimination." said Aunt Judith in a reproving tone. The old ladies were very fond of boasting of their wealth and position, whereas, in reality, their nephew was the only barrier between them and the workhouse.
"Well, Aunt Judith," replied Christian patiently, "I will try and stay at home more in future. But you know it is time I was doing something to earn my own livelihood now. I cannot exist on your kindness all my life!"
He had learnt to humour these two silly old women. During the two years which had just passed he had gradually recognised the utter futility of endeavouring to make them realise the true state of their affairs. They spoke grandiloquently of the family solicitor: a man who had been in his grave for nearly a quarter of a century. It was simply impossible to instil into their minds any fact whatever, and such facts as had established themselves there were permanent. They belonged to another generation, and their mode of thought was a remnant of a forgotten and unsatisfactory period. To them Napoleon the First was a living man, Queen Victoria unheard of. The decay of their minds had been slow, and it had been Christian Vellacott's painful task to watch its steady progress. Day by day he had followed the gradual failing of each sense and power.
There is something pathetic about the decay of a mind which has been driven to death by constant work, but there is a compensating thought to alleviate the sadness. It may rattle and grow loose, like some worn-out engine, where the friction presses; but it will work till it collapses totally, and some of the work achieved is good and permanent. It is bound to be so. Infinitely sadder is the sight of a mind which is falling to pieces by reason of the rust that has eaten into its very core. For rust must needs mean idleness—and no human intellect need be idle. So it had been with these two old ladies. Born in a wofully unintellectual age, they had never left a certain groove in life. When their brother married Christian Vellacott's grandmother, they had left his house in Honiton to go and live in Bodmin upon a limited but sufficient income. These "sufficient incomes" are a curse; they do not allow of charity and make no call for labour.
When Christian Vellacott arrived in England, an orphan with no great wealth, he made it his first duty to visit the only living relations he possessed. He was just in time to save them, literally, from starvation. It was obvious that he could not make a literary livelihood in Bodmin, so he made a home for the two old wrecks of humanity in London. Their means, like their minds, were simply exhausted. Aunt Judith was ninety-three; Aunt Hester ninety-one. During that vast blank (for blank it was, so far as their lives were concerned) stretching away back into a perspective of time which few around them could gauge—they had never been separated for one day. Like two apples they had grown side by side, until their very contact had engendered disease—a slow, deadly, creeping rot, finding its source at the point of contact, reaching its goal at the heart of each. They had existed thus with terrible longevity—lived a mere animal life of sleeping and eating, such as hundreds of women are living around us now.
"Of course, you must learn to make your daily bread, Nephew Vellacott!" answered Aunt Hester. "The desire does you credit; but you should be careful into what society you go without us. Girls are very designing, and many a one would like to marry a nephew of mine—eh, Judith?"
"Yes, that they would," replied the old lady. "The minxes know that they might do worse than catch the nephew of Judith and Hester Vellacott!"
"Look at us," continued Aunt Hester, drawing up her shrunken old form with a touch of pride. "Look at us? We have always avoided marriage, and we are very nice and happy, I am sure!"
She waited for a confirmation of this bold statement, but Christian was not listening. He was leaning forward with his hands clasped between his knees, gazing into the fire. He was recalling the conversation which had passed in the little room in the Strand. Could he leave these two helpless old creatures. Could he get away from it all for a little time—away from the maddening prattle of unguided tongues, from the dread monotony of hopeless watching? He knew that he was wasting his manhood, neglecting his intellectual opportunities, and endangering his career; but his course of duty was marked out with terrible distinctness. He never saw the pathos of it, as a woman would have seen it, gathering perhaps some slight alleviation from the sight. It never entered his thoughts to complain, and he never conceived the idea of drawing comparisons between his position and that of other young men who, instead of being slaves to their relatives, made very good use of them. He merely went on doing his obvious duty and striving not to look forward too eagerly to a release at some future period.
Fortunately, Mrs. Strawd was not long in bringing in the simple evening meal; and the attention of the old ladies was at once turned to the mystery hidden beneath the dish-cover. What was it, and would there be enough for Nephew Vellacott?
Deftly, Christian poured out the tea. Two cups very weak and one stronger. Then two thin slices of crustless bread had to be buttered. This operation required great judgment and impartiality.
"Excuse me, Nephew Vellacott!" said Aunt Judith, with dangerous severity. "Is that first slice intended for Aunt Hester? It appears to me that the butter is very thick—much thicker than on the second, which is doubtless intended for me!"
"Do you think so, Aunt Judith?" asked Christian in a voice purposely loud in order to drown Aunt Hester's remonstrance. "Then I will take a little off!" He passed the knife harmlessly over the faulty slice, and laid the two side by side upon a plate. Then the old ladies promptly held a survey on them—that declared to be more heavily buttered being awarded to Aunt Judith in recognition of her seniority.
With similar fruitful topics of conversation the meal was pleasantly despatched. The turn of Dick and Mick followed thereon. Dick, the property of Aunt Judith, was a canary of thoughtful temperament. The part he played in the domestic economy of the small household was a contemplative rather than an active one. Mick, Aunt Hester's bird, was of a more lively nature. He had, as a rule, something to say upon all subjects—and said it.
Now Aunt Hester, in her inmost heart, loved a silent bird, and secretly coveted Dick, but as Mick was her property, and Dick the silent was owned by Aunt Judith, she never lost an opportunity of enlarging upon the stupidity and uselessness of silent birds. Aunt Judith, on the other hand, admired a lively and talkative canary; consequently she was weighed down with the conviction that her sister's bird was the superior article. Altogether, birds as a topic of conversation were best avoided. Dick and Mick were housed in cages of similar build—indeed, most things were strictly in duplicate in the whole household. Every evening Christian brought the cages, and Aunt Judith and Aunt Hester carefully placed within the wires a small piece of bread-and-butter, which Nurse Strawd as carefully removed, untouched, the next morning.
When the birds' wants had been attended to, it was Christian's duty to settle the old ladies comfortably in their respective arm-chairs. This he did tenderly and cleverly as a woman, but it was not a pleasant sight to look upon. The man, with his lean, strong face, long jaw, and prominent chin, was so obviously out of place. These peaceful duties were never meant for such as he. His somewhat closely-set eyes were not such as wax tender over drowning flies, for even in repose they were somewhat direct and stern in their gaze. In fact, Christian Vellacott was so visibly created for strife and the forefront of life's battle, that it was almost painful to see him fulfilling a more peaceful avocation.
As a rule he devoted himself to the amusement of his aged relatives for an hour or so; but this evening he sat down to the piano at once, with the deliberate intention of playing them off to sleep. Ten o'clock was their hour for retiring, and before that they would not move, although they dozed in their chairs.
He was no mean musician, this big West-countryman, with a true ear and a touch peculiarly light and tender for a man. He played gently and drowsily for some time, half forgetting that he was not alone in the room. Presently he turned round, letting his fingers rest on the keys. Aunt Judith was asleep, and Aunt Hester made a sign for him to go on playing. Five minutes more, gradually toned down till the very sounds seemed to fall asleep, and Aunt Hester was peacefully slumbering. Silently the player rose, and crossing the room, he resumed his seat at the table from which the white cloth had not yet been removed. Pen, ink, and paper were within reach, and in a few minutes he had written the following note:—
"DEAR SIDNEY,—May I retract the letter I wrote yesterday and accept your invitation? I have been requested to take a holiday, and, rather than offend the powers that be, have given in. I can think of no happier way of spending it than in seeing you all again and recalling the jolly old Prague days. With kind regards, yours ever,
He folded the note and slipped it into an envelope, which he addressed to "Sidney Carew, Esq., St. Mary Western, Dorset." Then he slipped noiselessly out of the room and upstairs to where Mrs. Strawd had a small sitting-room of her own. The little woman heard his footstep on the old creaking stairs, and opened the door of her room before he reached it.
"If I went away for three weeks," he said, "could you do without me?"
"Of course I could," replied the little woman readily. "Just you go away and take a holiday, Master Christian. You need it sorely, that I know. You do indeed. We shall get on splendidly without you. I'll just have my sister to come and stay, same as I did when you had to go to the Paris House of Parliament."
"I have not had much of a holiday, you see, for two years now!"
"Of course you haven't, and you want it. It's only human nature—and you a young man that ought to be in the open air all day. For an old woman like me it's different. We're made differently by the good God on purpose, I think;"
"Well, then, if your sister comes it must be understood, nurse, that I make the same arrangement with her as exists with you. She must simply be a duplicate of you—you understand?"
The little woman laughed, lightly enough.
"Oh, yes, Master Christian, that is all right. But you need not have troubled about that. She never would have thought of such a thing as wages, I'm sure!"
"No," replied he gravely, "I know she would not, but it will be better, I think, to have it understood beforehand. Gratitude is a very nice thing to work for, but some work is worth more than gratitude. If you are going out for your walk, perhaps you will post this letter."
Before Christian went to bed that night he held a candle close to the mirror and looked long and hard at his own reflection. There were dark streaks under his eyes, his small mouth was drawn and dry, his lips colourless. At each temple the bone stood out rather prominently, and the skin was brilliant in its whiteness and reflected the light of the candle. He felt his own pulse. It was beating, at one moment fast and irregular, at the next it was hardly perceptible.
"Yes!" he muttered, with a professional nod—in his training as a journalist he had learnt a little of many sciences—"yes, old Bodery was right."
The gentle August night had cooled and soothed the dusty atmosphere. All things looked fair, even in London. The placid Thames glided stealthily down to the sea, as if wishing to speed on unseen, to cast at last his reeking waters into the cool ocean. The bright brown sails, low hulls, and gaily painted spars of the barges dropping down with the stream added to the beauty of the scene.
Such was the morning that greeted Christian Vellacott, as he opened the door of his little Chelsea home and stepped forth a free man. When once he had made up his mind to go, every obstacle was thrown aside, and his determination was now as great as had been his previous reluctance. He had no presentiment that he was taking an important step in life—one of those steps which we hardly notice at the time, but upon which we look back in after years and note how clear and definite it was, losing ourselves in vague conjecture as to what might have been had we held back.
Christian being practical in all things, knew how to travel comfortably, dispensing with rugs and bags and such small packages as are understood to be dear to the elderly single female heart.
The smoky suburbs were soon left behind, and the smiling land gave forth such gentle, pastoral odours as only long confinement in cities can teach us to detect. Christian lowered the window, and the warm air played round him as it had not done for two long years. The whizz of the wind past his face brought back the memory of the long, idle, happy days spent with his father in the Mediterranean, when they had been half sailors and wholly Bohemians, gliding from port to port, village to city, in their yacht, as free and careless as the wind. The warm breeze almost seemed to be coming to him from some parched Italian plain instead of pastoral Buckinghamshire.
Then his thoughts travelled still further back to his school-days in Prague, when his father and Mr. Carew were colleagues in a brilliant but unfortunate embassy. Five years had passed since then. The two fathers were now dead, and the children had dropped apart as men and women do when their own personal interests begin to engross them. Now again, in this late summer time, they were to meet. All, that is, who were left. The debris, as it were. Three voices there were whose tones would never more be heard in the round of merry jest. Mr. Carew, Walter Vellacott (Uncle Walter, the young ones called him), and little Charlie Carew, the bright-eyed sailor of the family, had all three travelled on. The two former, whose age and work achieved had softened their departure, were often spoken of with gently lowered voice, but little Charlie's name was never mentioned. It was a fatal mistake—this silence—if you will; but it was one of those mistakes which are often made in wisdom. In splendid, solitary grandeur he lay awaiting the end of all things—the call of his Creator—in the grey ice-fields of the North. The darling of his ship, he had died with a smile in his blue eyes and a sad little jest upon his lips to cheer the rough fur-clad giants kneeling at his side. Time, the merciful, had healed, as best he could (which is by no means perfectly), the wound in the younger hearts. It is only the old that are quite beyond his powers; he cannot touch them. Mrs. Carew, a woman with a patient face and a ready smile, was the only representative of the vanishing generation. Her daughters—ay! and perhaps her sons as well (though boys are not credited with so much tender divination)—knew the meaning of the little droop at the side of their mother's smiling lips. They detected the insincerity of her kindly laugh.
Shortly after leaving Exeter, Christian's station was reached. This was an old-fashioned seaport town, whose good fortune it was to lie too far west for a London watering-place, and too far east for Plymouth or Bristol. Sidney Carew was on the platform—a sturdy, typical Englishman, with a certain sure slowness of movement handed down to him by seafaring ancestors. The two friends had not met for many years, but with men absence has little effect upon affection. During the space of many years they may never meet and seldom write, but at the end that gulf of time is bridged over by a simple "Halloa, old fellow!" and a warm grip. Slowly, piece by piece, the history of the past years comes out. Both are probably changed in thought and nature, but the old individuality remains, the old bond of friendship survives.
"How are you?"
Simultaneously—and that was all. The changes were there in both, and noted by both, but not commented upon.
"Molly is outside with the dog-cart," said Sidney; "is your luggage forward?"
"Yes, that is it being pitched out now."
It was with womanly foresight that Miss Molly Carew had elected to wait outside with the dog-cart while her brother met Christian on the platform. She feared a little natural embarrassment at meeting the old playfellow of the family, and concluded that the first moments would be more easily tided over here than at the train. Her fears were, as it turned out, unnecessary, but she did not know what Christian might be like after the lapse of years. Of herself she was sure enough, being one of those happy people who have no self-consciousness whatever.
On seeing her, Christian came forward at once, raising his hat and shaking hands as if they had parted the day before.
She saw at once that it was all right. This was Christian Vellacott as she had remembered him. She looked down at him as he stood with one hand resting on the splashboard, and he, looking up to her, smiled in return.
"Christian," she said, "do you know I should scarcely have recognised you. You are so big, and—and you look positively ghastly!" She finished her remark with a little laugh which took away from the spoken meaning of it.
"Ghastly?" he replied. "Thanks: I do not feel like it—only hungry. Hungry, and desperately glad to see a face that does not look overworked."
She gave a little sarcastic nod, and pursed up a pair of very red lips.
"Nevertheless I am the only person in the house who does any work at all. Hilda, for instance—"
At this moment Sidney came up and interrupted them.
"Jump up in front, Chris," he said; "Molly will drive, while I sit behind. Your luggage will follow in the cart."
The drive of six miles passed away very pleasantly. Molly's strong little hands were quite accustomed to the reins, and the men were free to talk, which, however, she found time to do as well. The two young people on the front seat stole occasional sidelong glances at each other. The clever, mischievous little girl of Christian's recollection was transformed by the kindly hand of time into a fascinating and capable young lady. The uncertain profile had grown clear and regular. The truant hair was somewhat more under control, which, however, was all that could be said upon that subject. Only her eyes were unchanged, the laughing, fearless eyes of old. Fearless they had been in the times of childish mischief and adventure; fearless they remained in the face of life's graver mischances now.
Christian had been a shy and commonplace-enough boy as she recollected him. Now she found a self-possessed man of the world. Tall and strong of body she saw he was, and she felt that he possessed another strength—a strength of mind and will which, reaching out, can grasp and hold anything or everything.
With practised skill, Molly turned into the narrow gateway at a swinging trot, and then only was the house visible—a low, rambling building of brick and stone uncouthly mixed. Its chief outward characteristic was a promise of inward comfort. The sturdy manner in which its windows faced the scantily-wooded tableland that stretched away unbroken by wall or hedgerow to the sea, implied a certain thickness of wall and woodwork. The doorway which looked inland was singularly broad, and bore signs about its stonework of having once been even broader. The house had originally been a hollow square, with a roofless courtyard in the centre, into which the sheep and cattle were in olden times driven for safety at night against French marauders. This had later on been roofed in, and transformed into a roomy and comfortable hall, such as might be used as a sitting-room. All around the house, except, indeed, upon the sea-ward side, stood gnarled and twisted trees; Scotch firs in abundance, here and there a Weymouth pine, and occasionally a knotted dwarf oak with a tendency to run inland. The garden was, however, rich enough in shrubs and undergrowth, and to the landward side was a gleam of still water, being all that remained of a broad, deep moat.