The Vast Abyss, by George Manville Fenn.
This is one of the very best books by GM Fenn. It has a good steady pace, yet one is constantly wondering how some dreadful situation is to be got out of. The hero is young Tom, whose father had been a doctor who had died in some recent epidemic, which had also carried off his mother. Tom has been taken into the house and law business of an uncle, but he does not seem to be getting on well there. Another uncle visits, and takes Tom back with him, giving him a much pleasanter and more interesting life. Together they convert an old windmill into an astronomical observatory, which means grinding the glass lenses and mirrors, as well as bringing the structure of the building up to the required standard. In this they are encouraged by the daily visits of the vicar, while the housekeeper, Mrs Fidler, and the old gardener, make various remarks on the sidelines. However, there is a boy in the village whose behaviour is not good at all, and many of the episodes in the story are concerned with him, his dog, and their deeds.
Not wishing to spoil the story for you, we will simply say that there is another issue involving the legal uncle, and his rather nasty son. THE VAST ABYSS, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
"I wish I wasn't such a fool!"
Tom Blount said this to himself as he balanced that self upon a high stool at a desk in his uncle's office in Gray's Inn. There was a big book lying open, one which he had to study, but it did not interest him; and though he tried very hard to keep his attention fixed upon its learned words, invaluable to one who would some day bloom into a family solicitor, that book would keep on forming pictures that were not illustrations of legal practice in the courts of law. For there one moment was the big black pond on Elleston Common, where the water lay so still and deep under the huge elms, and the fat tench and eels every now and then sent up bubbles of air, dislodged as they disturbed the bottom.
At another time it would be the cricket-field in summer, or the football on the common in winter, or the ringing ice on the winding river, with the skates flashing as they sent the white powder flying before the wind.
Or again, as he stumbled through the opinions of the judge in "Coopendale versus Drabb's Exors.," the old house and garden would stand out from the page like a miniature seen on the ground-glass of a camera; and Tom Blount sighed and his eyes grew dim as he thought of the old happy days in the pleasant home. For father and mother both had passed away to their rest; the house was occupied by another tenant; and he, Tom Blount, told himself that he ought to be very grateful to Uncle James for taking him into his office, to make a man of him by promising to have him articled if, during his year of probation, he proved himself worthy.
"I wouldn't mind its being so dull," he thought, "or my aunt not liking me, or Sam being so disagreeable, if I could get on—but I can't. Uncle's right, I suppose, in what he says. He ought to know. I'm only a fool; and it doesn't seem to matter how I try, I can't get on."
Just then a door opened, letting in a broad band of sunshine full of dancing motes, and at the same time Samuel Brandon, a lad of about the same age as Tom, but rather slighter of build, but all the same more manly of aspect. He was better dressed too, and wore a white flower in his button-hole, and a very glossy hat. One glove was off, displaying a signet-ring, and he brought with him into the dingy office a strong odour of scent, whose source was probably the white pocket-handkerchief prominently displayed outside his breast-pocket.
"Hullo, bumpkin!" he cried. "How's Tidd getting on?"
"Very slowly," said Tom. "I wish you'd try and explain what this bit means."
"Likely! Think I'm going to find you in brains. Hurry on and peg away. Shovel it in, and think you are going to be Lord Chancellor some day. Guv'nor in his room?"
"No; he has gone on down to the Court. Going out?"
"Yes; up the river—Maidenhead. You heard at the breakfast, didn't you?"
Tom shook his head.
"I didn't hear," he said sadly.
"You never hear anything or see anything. I never met such a dull, chuckle-headed chap as you are. Why don't you wake up?"
"I don't know; I do try," said Tom sadly.
"You don't know!—you don't know anything. I don't wonder at the governor grumbling at you. You'll have to pull up your boots if you expect to be articled here, and so I tell you. There, I'm off. I've got to meet the mater at Paddington at twelve. I say, got any money?"
"No," said Tom sadly.
"Tchah! you never have. There, pitch into Tidd. You've got your work cut out, young fellow. No letters for me?"
"No. Yes, there is—one."
"No!—yes! Well, you are a pretty sort of a fellow. Where is it?"
"I laid it in uncle's room."
"What! Didn't I tell you my letters were not to go into his room? Of all the—"
Tom sighed, though he did not hear the last words, for his cousin hurried into the room on their right, came back with a letter, hurried out, and the door swung to again.
"It's all through being such a fool, I suppose," muttered the boy. "Why am I not as clever and quick as Sam is? He's as sharp as uncle; but uncle doesn't seem a bit like poor mother was."
Just then Tom Blount made an effort to drive away all thoughts of the past by planting his elbows on the desk, doubling his fists, and resting his puckered-up brow upon them, as he plunged once more into the study of the legal work.
But the thoughts would come flitting by, full of sunshiny memories of the father who died a hero's death, fighting as a doctor the fell disease which devastated the country town; and of the mother who soon after followed her husband, after requesting her brother to do what he could to help and protect her son.
Then the thought of his mother's last prayer came to him as it often did—that he should try his best to prove himself worthy of his uncle's kindness by studying hard.
"And I do—I do—I do," he burst out aloud, passionately, "only it is so hard; and, as uncle says, I am such a fool."
"You call me, Blount?" said a voice, and a young old-looking man came in from the next office.
"I!—call? No, Pringle," said Tom, colouring up.
"You said something out loud, sir, and I thought you called."
"Oh, I see, sir; you was speaking a bit out of your book. Not a bad way to get it into your head. You see you think it and hear it too."
"It's rather hard to me, I'm afraid," said Tom, with the puzzled look intensifying in his frank, pleasant face.
"Hard, sir!" said the man, smiling, and wiping the pen he held on the tail of his coat, though it did not require it, and then he kept on holding it up to his eye as if there were a hair or bit of grit between the nibs. "Yes, I should just think it is hard. Nutshells is nothing to it. Just like bits of granite stones as they mend the roads with. They won't fit nowhere till you wear 'em and roll 'em down. The law is a hard road and no mistake."
"And—and I don't think I'm very clever at it, Pringle."
"Clever! You'd be a rum one, sir, if you was. Nobody ever masters it all. They pretend to, but it would take a thousand men boiled down and double distilled to get one as could regularly tackle it. It's an impossibility, sir."
"What!" said Tom, with plenty of animation now. "Why, look at all the great lawyers!"
"So I do, sir, and the judges too, and what do I see? Don't they all think different ways about things, and upset one another? Don't you get thinking you're not clever because you don't get on fast. As I said before, you'd be a rum one if you did."
"But my cousin does," said Tom.
"Him? Ck!" cried the clerk, with a derisive laugh. "Why, it's my belief that you know more law already than Mr Sam does, and what I say to you is—Look out! the guv'nor!"
The warning came too late, for Mr James Brandon entered the outer office suddenly, and stopped short, to look sharply from one to the other—a keen-eyed, well-dressed man of five-and-forty; and as his brows contracted he said sharply—
"Then you've finished the deed, Pringle?" just as the clerk was in the act of passing through the door leading to the room where he should have been at work.
"The deed, sir?—no, not quite, sir. Shan't be long, sir."
"You shall be long—out of work, Mr Pringle, if you indulge in the bad habit of idling and gossiping as soon as my back's turned."
Pringle shot back to his desk, the door swung to, and Mr James Brandon turned to his nephew, with his face looking double of aspect—that is to say, the frown was still upon his brow, while a peculiarly tight-looking smile appeared upon his lips, which seemed to grow thinner and longer, and as if a parenthesis mark appeared at each end to shut off the smile as something illegal.
"I am glad you are mastering your work so well, Tom," he said softly.
"Mastering it, uncle!" said Tom, with an uneasy feeling of doubt raised by his relative's look. "I—I'm afraid I am getting on very slowly."
"But you can find time to idle and hinder my clerk."
"He had only just come in, uncle, and—"
"That will do, sir," said the lawyer, with the smile now gone. "I've told you more than once, sir, that you were a fool, and now I repeat it. You'll never make a lawyer. Your thick, dense brain has only one thought in it, and that is how you can idle and shirk the duty that I for your mother's sake have placed in your way. What do you expect, sir?—that I am going to let you loaf about my office, infecting those about you, and trying to teach your cousin your lazy ways? I don't know what I could have been thinking about to take charge of such a great idle, careless fellow."
"Not careless, uncle," pleaded the lad. "I do try, but it is so hard."
"Silence, sir! Try!—not you. I meant to do my duty by you, and in due time to impoverish myself by paying for your articles—nearly a hundred pounds, sir. But don't expect it. I'm not going to waste my hard-earned savings upon a worthless, idle fellow. Lawyer! Pish! You're about fit for a shoeblack, sir, or a carter. You'll grow into as great an idiot as your father was before you. What my poor sister could have seen in him I don't—"
The loudly-closed door of the private office cut short Mr James Brandon's speech, and he had passed out without looking round, or he would have seen that his nephew looked anything but a fool as he sat there with his fists clenched and his eyes flashing.
"How dare he call my dear dead father an idiot!" he said in a low fierce voice through his compressed teeth. "Oh, I can't bear it—I won't bear it. If I were not such a miserable coward I should go off and be a soldier, or a sailor, or anything so that I could be free, and not dependent on him. I'll go. I must go. I cannot bear it," he muttered; and then with a feeling of misery and despair rapidly increasing, he bent down over his book again, for a something within him seemed to whisper—"It would be far more cowardly to give up and go."
Then came again the memory of his mother's words, and he drew his breath through his teeth as if he were in bodily as well as mental pain; and forcing himself to read, he went on studying the dreary law-book till, in his efforts to understand the author, his allusions, quotations, footnotes, and references, he grew giddy, and at last the words grew blurred, and he had to read sentences over and over again to make sense of them, which slid out of his mind like so much quicksilver.
Lunch-time came, and Pringle crept through the place where he was seated, glanced at Mr Brandon's door, stepped close up, and whispered—
"I'm going to get my dinner. Don't look downhearted about a wigging, Mr Tom. It's nothing when you're used to it."
"Ahem!" came from the inner office, and Pringle made a grimace like a pantomime clown, suggesting mock horror and fear, as he glided to the outer door, where he turned, looked back, and then disappeared; while, as soon as he was alone, Tom took out a paper of sandwiches, opened it, and began to eat, it being an understood thing that he should not leave the office all day.
But those sandwiches, good enough of their kind, tasted as if they were made of sawdust, and he had hard work to get them down, and then only by the help of a glass of water from the table-filter, standing at the side of the office—kept, Pringle said, to revive unfortunate clients whose affairs were going to the bad. Every now and then a cough was heard from the inner office, and Tom hurried over his meal in dread lest his uncle should appear before he had finished. Then, as soon as the last was eaten, and the paper thrust into the waste-basket, the boy attacked his book once more, and had hardly recommenced when the inner office door opened, and his uncle appeared, looking at him sharply—ready, Tom thought, to find fault with him for being so long over his midday meal.
But there was nothing to complain about.
"I'm going to have my lunch," he said sharply, "and I may not come back, though all the same I may. Mind that man Pringle goes on with his work, and don't let me have any fault to find about your reading. When you go home tell them to give you something to eat, for there will be no regular dinner to-day, as I shall be out. Take home any letters that may come, in case I don't look in."
"All right, uncle."
"And don't speak in that free-and-easy, offhand, unbusiness-like manner. Say 'Yes, sir,' and 'No, sir,' if you are not too stupid to remember."
He put on his hat and went out, leaving the boy feeling as if a fresh sting had been planted in his breast, and his brow wrinkled up more than ever, while his heart grew more heavy in his intense yearning for somebody who seemed to care for him, if ever so little.
Five minutes later Pringle came back, looking shining and refreshed. As he entered he gave Tom an inquiring look, and jerked his head sidewise toward the inner office.
Tom was not too stupid to understand the dumb language of that look and gesture.
"No," he replied. "He went out five minutes ago, and said that very likely he wouldn't be back."
"And that you were to take any letters home after office hours?"
"Yes; how did you know?"
"How did I know!" said the clerk with a chuckle; "because I've been caught before. That means that he'll be sure to look in before very long to see whether we are busy. You'd better read hard, sir, and don't look up when he comes. Pst! 'ware hawk!"
He slipped into the little office, and his stool made a scraping noise, while, almost before Tom had settled down to his work, the handle of the outer door turned and his uncle bustled in.
"Here, did I leave my umbrella?" he said sharply.
"I did not see it, uncle—sir," replied Tom, jumping from his stool.
"Keep your place, sir, and go on with your work. Don't be so fond of seizing any excuse to get away from your books. Humph, yes," he muttered, as he reached into his room and took up the ivory-handled article from where it stood.
The next moment he was at the door of the clerk's office.
"By the way, Pringle, you had better go and have that deed stamped this afternoon if you get it done in time."
"Yes, sir," came back sharply, and the lawyer frowned, turned round, and went out once more.
The outer door had not closed a minute before the inner one opened, and Pringle's head appeared, but with its owner evidently on the alert, and ready to snatch it back again.
"Good-bye! Bless you!" he said aloud. "Pray take care of yourself, sir. You can bob back again if you like, but I shan't be out getting the deed stamped, because, as you jolly well know, it won't be done before this time to-morrow."
Pringle looked at Tom, smiled, and nodded.
"You won't tell him what I said, Mr Tom, I know. But I say, don't you leave your stool. You take my advice. Don't you give him a chance to row you again, because I can see how it hurts you."
Tom's lip quivered as he looked wistfully at the clerk.
"It's all right, sir. You just do what's c'rect, and you needn't mind anything. I ain't much account, but I do know that. I wouldn't stay another month, only there's reasons, you see, and places are easier to lose than find, 'specially when your last guv'nor makes a face with the corners of his lips down when any one asks for your character. Pst! look out. Here he is again."
For there was a step at the door, the handle rattled, and as Pringle disappeared, a quiet, grave-looking, middle-aged man stepped in.
"Do, Tom!" he said, as with an ejaculation of surprise the boy sprang from his stool and eagerly took the extended hand, but dropped it again directly, for there did not seem to be any warmth in the grasp. "Quite well, boy?"
"Yes, Uncle Richard," said Tom, rather sadly.
"That's right. Where's my brother?"
"He has gone out, sir, and said he might not return this afternoon."
"Felt I was coming perhaps," said the visitor. "Here, don't let me hinder you, my lad; he won't like you to waste time. Getting on with your law reading?"
The boy looked at him wistfully, and shook his head.
"Eh? No? But you must, my lad. You're no fool, you know, and you've got to be a clever lawyer before you've done."
Tom felt disposed to quote his other uncle's words as to his folly, but he choked down the inclination.
"There, I won't hinder you, my lad," continued the visitor. "I know what you busy London people are, and how we slow-going country folk get in your way. I only want to look at a Directory,—you have one I know."
"Yes, sir, in the other office. I'll fetch it."
The quiet, grey-haired, grave-looking visitor gave a nod as if of acquiescence, and Tom ran into the inner office, where he found that Pringle must have heard every word, for he was holding out the London Directory all ready.
"He must hear everything too when uncle goes on at me," thought Tom, as he took the Directory and returned Pringle's friendly nod.
"Tell him he ought to give you a tip."
Tom frowned, shook his head, and hurried back with the great red book.
"Hah, that's right, my boy," said the visitor. "There, I don't want to bother about taking off my gloves and putting on my spectacles. Turn to the trades, and see if there are any lens-makers down."
"Yes, sir, several," said Tom, after a short search.
"Read 'em down, boy."
Tom obeyed alphabetically till he came to D, and he had got as far as Dallmeyer when his visitor stopped him.
"That will do," he said. "That's the man I want. Address?"
Tom read this out, and the visitor said—
"Good; but write it down so that I don't forget. It's so easy to have things drop out of your memory."
Tom obeyed, and the visitor took up the slip of paper, glanced at it, and nodded.
"That's right. Nice clear hand, that one can read easily."
"And Uncle James said my writing was execrable," thought Tom.
"Good-bye for the present, boy. Tell your uncle I've been, and that I shall come on in time for dinner. Bye. Be a good boy, and stick to your reading."
He nodded, shook hands rather coldly, and went out, leaving Tom looking wistfully after him with the big Directory in his hands.
"They neither of them like me," he said to himself, feeling sadly depressed, when he started, and turned sharply round.
"On'y me, Mr Tom," said the clerk. "I'll take that. Directories always live in my office. I say, sir."
"I used to wish I'd got a lot of rich old uncles, but I don't now. Wouldn't give tuppence a dozen for 'em. Ketched again!—All right, Mr Tom, sir; I'll put it away."
For the door opened once more, and their late visitor thrust in his head.
"Needn't tell your uncle I shall come to-night."
Pringle disappeared with the Directory, and Uncle Richard gazed after him in a grim way as he continued—
"Do you hear? Don't tell him I shall come; and you needn't mention that I said he wouldn't want me, nor to his wife and boy neither. Bye."
The door closed again, and the inner door opened, and Pringle's head appeared once more.
"Nor we don't neither, nor nobody else don't. I say, Mr Tom, I thought it was the governor. Ever seen him before?"
"Only twice," said Tom. "He has been abroad a great deal. He only came back to England just before dear mother—"
Tom stopped short, and Pringle nodded, looked very grave, and said softly—
"I know what you was going to say, Mr Tom."
"And I saw him again," continued the lad, trying to speak firmly, "when it was being settled that I was to come here to learn to be a lawyer. Uncle James wanted Uncle Richard to bring me up, but he wouldn't, and said I should be better here."
"Well, perhaps you are, Mr Tom, sir," said Pringle thoughtfully. "I don't know as I should care to live with him."
"Nor I, Pringle, for—Here, I say, I don't know why I tell you all this."
"More don't I, sir. P'r'aps it's because we both get into trouble together, and that makes people hang to one another. Steps again. Go it, sir."
The clerk darted away, and Tom started leading once more; but the steps passed, and so did the long, dreary afternoon, with Tom struggling hard to master something before six o'clock came; and before the clock had done striking Pringle was ready to shut up and go.
"You'll take the keys, sir," he said. "Guv'nor won't come back now. I've got well on with that deed, if he asks you when he comes home. Good-evening, sir."
"Good-evening, Pringle," said Tom; and ten minutes later he was on his way to his uncle's house in Mornington Crescent, where he found dinner waiting for him, and though it was only cold, it was made pleasant by the handmaid's smile.
Tom began a long evening all alone over another law-book, and at last, with his head aching, and a dull, weary sense of depression, he went up to the bedroom which he shared with his cousin, jumped into his own bed as soon as he could to rest his aching head, and lay listening to a street band playing airs that sounded depressing and sorrowful in the extreme, and kept him awake till he felt as if he could never drop off, and cease hearing the rumble of omnibuses and carts.
Then all at once Mr Tidd came and sat upon his head, and made it ache ten times worse, or so it seemed—Mr Tidd being the author of one of the books his uncle had placed in his hands to read.
He tried to force him off, but he would not stir, only glared down at him laughing loud, and then mockingly, till the torture seemed too much to be borne; and in an agony of misery and despair he tried to escape from the pressure, and to assure his torturer that he would strive hard to master the book. But not a word could he utter, only lie there panting, till the eyes that glared looked close down into his, and a voice said—
"Now then, wake up, stupid. Don't be snoring like that."
Tom Blount started up in bed confused and staring. He was only half awake, and it was some time before he could realise that it was his cousin, who had come back from his trip boisterous and elated, and who had been playing him some trick as he lay there asleep.
"Well, what are you staring at, old torpid?" cried Sam, as he now began to divest himself slowly of his coat and vest.
"I—that is—have been asleep," stammered Tom.
"Asleep? Yes, and snoring loud enough to bring the plaster off the ceiling. Why, you must have been gorging yourself like a boa-constrictor, and been sleeping it off. Come, wake up, bumpkin, you're half stupid now."
"I'm quite awake, Sam. Had a pleasant day? I say, were you sitting on my head?"
"Was I doing what?" cried Sam. "No, I wasn't; but you want some one to sit upon you to bring you to your senses. Wake up; I want to talk."
Tom tried to rub the last traces of his drowsiness out of his eyes, and now sat up watching his cousin, who, after taking off collar and tie, unfastened his braces, and then, as if moved by a sudden thought, he tied the aforesaid suspenders about his waist. Then, grinning to himself, he stooped down, untied his Oxford shoes, pushed them off, took up one, and shouting "Play!" bowled it sharply at Tom where he sat up in bed on the other side of the room.
It was a bad shot, for the shoe whizzed by the lad's side, and struck the scroll-work of the iron bedstead with a sharp rap, and fell on the pillow.
"Play again!" cried Sam, and he sent the second shoe spinning with a vicious energy at the still confused and sleepy boy.
This time the aim was excellent, and Tom was too helpless to avoid the missile, which struck him heavily, the edge of the heel catching him on the chin, and making him wince.
"Well played—well bowled!" cried Sam, laughing boisterously. "I say, bumpkin, that's the way to wake you up."
Tom's face grew dark, and the hand which he held to his injured face twitched as if the fingers were trying to clench themselves and form a fist for their owner's defence; but the boy did not stir, only sat looking at his cousin, who now struck an attitude, made two or three feints, and then dashed forward hitting out sharply, catching Tom in the chest, and knocking him backward so heavily that it was his crown now that struck the scroll-work of the bed.
"That's your sort, countryman," cried Sam. "How do you like that style?"
"Don't! Be quiet, will you," said the boy in a suffocated voice, as he sat up once more.
"What for?" cried Sam. "Here, get up and have a round with the gloves. I feel as if I can hit to-night. It's the rowing. My arms are as hard as wood."
"No; be quiet," said Tom huskily. "They'll hear you down-stairs."
"Let 'em," said Sam, chuckling to himself as he dragged open a drawer, and brought out a couple of pairs of boxing-gloves, two of which he hurled with all his might like a couple of balls at his cousin's head.
But the boy was wide-awake now, and caught each glove in turn, letting it fall afterwards upon the bed before him.
"Now then, shove 'em on," cried Sam, as he thrust his own hands into the gloves he held. "Look sharp, or I'll knock you off the bed."
"No, no," cried Tom; "don't be so absurd. How can I when I'm undressed?"
"Put on your trousers then. D'yer hear? Be quick now, or you'll have it."
"You'll have uncle hear you directly if you don't be quiet."
"You'll have him hear you go off that bed lump if you don't jump out and get ready. Now then, are you going to begin?"
"No," said Tom sturdily. "I'm going to sleep."
He snuggled down in his place and drew the clothes up to his ear, but they did not stay there, for Sam began his attack, bounding forward and bringing the padded gloves thud, thud, down upon his cousin's head, as if bent upon driving it down into the pillow.
Tom sat up again quickly with his teeth set, and his eyes flashing.
"Will you be quiet?" he cried in a low, half-suffocated voice.
"Will you put on those gloves?" cried Sam.
"No; I'm not going to make such a fool of myself at this time of night," said Tom.
"Lie down then," cried Sam, and hitting out again cleverly he knocked his cousin back on to the pillow, following it up with other blows, each having the same result, for Tom struggled up again and again.
"Now, will you get up?" cried Sam.
"No," said Tom hoarsely; and down he went once more.
"You'd better jump up and do as I tell you, or it will be the worse for you."
"You'd better leave me alone before you get my temper up."
"Temper, bumpkin? Yes, you'd better show your teeth. Take that, and that, and that."
Tom did take them—heavy blows delivered with the soft gloves, but all falling hard enough to inflict a good deal of pain, and make the boy draw his breath hard.
"That's your sort," continued Sam, who danced about by the side of the bed, skilfully delivering his blows upon his defenceless cousin, and revelling in the pleasure he found in inflicting pain. "That'll knock some sense into your thick head, and so will that, and that, and that, and—Oh!"
Sam had gone too far, for after trying all he could to avoid the blows, Tom suddenly gathered himself together and shot out of bed full at his cousin's breast, sending him down heavily in a sitting position first and then backwards, so that his head struck heavily against the iron leg of his own bedstead.
Then, thoroughly up now, Tom flung himself upon his cousin, tore off his gloves, and stuffed them under his bed-clothes, and was looking for the others, when he was sent down in turn by Sam.
"You savage beast!" cried the latter. "I'll teach you to do that;" and flinging himself on Tom's chest, he nipped him with his knees, and began to belabour him with his fists.
Then a fierce struggle began. Sam was jerked off, and for a few moments there was an angry up-and-down wrestle, ending in Sam becoming the undermost, with Tom occupying his position in turn, and holding his cousin down just as the bedroom door was opened, and Mr James Brandon entered in his dressing-gown, and holding up a candle above his head.
"What is the meaning of all this?" he cried angrily, as Tom sprang up and darted into bed.
"Yes, you may well say that, father," cried Sam, rising slowly, and beginning to try and fasten the neck of his shirt, but vainly, for the button-hole was torn and the button off. "If that country wild beast is to stop here I shan't sleep in the same room."
Sam's father turned to Tom, who now lay in bed staring, mentally stunned by the tone his cousin had taken.
"What is the meaning of this?" he cried. "How dare you, sir!"
"Why, he began at me, uncle, while I was asleep, and—"
"Silence, sir! I will not have the calm and repose of my house disturbed by such disgraceful conduct. Past twelve o'clock, you ought to be asleep, and here is a regular riot in the place."
"There, I told you how it would be," said Sam in an ill-used, remonstrative tone.
"Oh!" exclaimed Tom, but no more, for a hot feeling of indignation forced him to be silent, stung as he was by the injustice of the disturbance being laid at his door.
"Oh! indeed!" cried his uncle. "It is scandalous, sir. Out of charity and compassion for your forlorn state, I give you a home and brilliant prospects, and you set yourself to work in every way possible to make me repent my kindness. It is abominable. You make friends with the servants; you are idle and stupid and careless beyond belief; and when you come back at night to my peaceful quiet home, you must introduce your low, blackguardly habits, and begin quarrelling and fighting with your cousin."
"I can't speak—I won't speak," said Tom to himself, as he set his teeth hard. "And as for Sam, I'll—"
He had not time to say to himself what he would do to his cousin, for his uncle had worked himself up now to deliver a sounding tirade upon his base, disgraceful conduct, finding plenty of epithets suitable as he considered for the occasion, and making the poor lad writhe as he lay there, hot and panting beneath the undeserved reproaches till he was quite out of breath; while, to make matters worse, Sam put in a word or two in a murmuring tone—"He knew how it would be," and "It was of no use for him to speak," and the like. And all the time Tom's indignation made him feel more stubbornly determined to hold his peace.
"It's of no use for me to complain," he thought. "Uncle hates me, and he will not believe, and it's too hard to bear."
"Once for all, sir," cried his uncle, "remember this—if you stay here there must be a marked improvement in your conduct, both as to your work at the office and your behaviour in my house. I won't have it—do you hear? I won't have it. That sulky way too won't go down with me. Here you, Sam, undress and get to bed, and if he interferes with you again, call me at once; but if I do come up, unwilling as I should be, I shall feel called upon, out of my duty to his mother, to read him a very severe lesson, such as his schoolmaster should have read him years ago. Now silence, both of you; and as for you, sir, bear in mind what I have said, for, as you ought to know by this time, I am a man of my word."
The door was shut loudly, and the resounding steps were heard, followed by the banging of the bedroom door on the next floor.
"There, now you know, bumpkin," said Sam, with a sneering laugh.
Tom sat up in bed as if a spring had been touched.
"You sneak!" he cried.
"I say you sneak—you miserable, cowardly sneak!"
"Look here," cried Sam, "you say another word and I'll call the guv'nor, and you know what he meant; he'll give you a good licking, and serve you right."
"Oh!" muttered Tom between his teeth, while his cousin went on quietly undressing.
"That would soon bring you to your senses. I wanted to be friendly with you, and have just a bit of a game, but you must turn nasty, and it just serves you right."
"Oh!" muttered Tom again.
"I thought that would quiet you, my lad. He'd bring up his old rattan, and loosen that stiff hide of yours. There, go to sleep, bumpkin, and think yourself lucky you got off so well."
A minute later the candle was extinguished, and Sam jumped into bed, to fall asleep directly, but Tom lay with his head throbbing till the pale dawn began to creep into the room; and then only did he fall into a troubled doze, full of unpleasant dreams one after the other, till it was time to rise, get his breakfast alone, and hurry off to the office. For breakfast was late, and aunt, uncle, and cousin did not put in an appearance till long after Tom had climbed upon his stool in Gray's Inn.
That day and many following Tom sat over his books or copying, musing upon the injustice of the treatment he was receiving, and feeling more and more the misery of his new life. He looked with envy at nearly every boy he met, and thought of the happy, independent life they seemed to lead. But he worked hard all the same.
"I won't give up," he would say through his set teeth. "Uncle shall see that if I'm not clever I can persevere, and master what I have to learn."
But in spite of his determination he did not progress very fast, for the simple reason that he expected to learn in a few months the work of many years.
The weeks did not pass without plenty of unpleasant encounters with his cousin, while pretty well every day there was a snubbing or downright bullying from his uncle.
"But never you mind, Mr Tom," Pringle would say; "things always come right in the end."
One of Tom's greatest troubles was his home life, and the evident aversion shown to him by his aunt. She had received him coldly and distantly at the first, and her manner did not become warmer as the months wore on. Possibly she had once been a sweet, amiable woman, but troubles with her husband and son had produced an acidity of temper and habit of complaining which were not pleasant for those with whom she lived. Her husband escaped, from the fact that she held him in fear, while Sam was too much idolised to receive anything but the fondest attentions.
Tom's perceptions were keen enough, and he soon saw for himself that his uncle repented his generosity in taking him into his home; while his aunt's feeling for him was evidently one of jealousy, as if his presence was likely to interfere with her darling's prospects.
She resented his being there more and more; and though Tom tried hard to win her love and esteem, he found at the end of six months that he was as far from his object as ever.
"I'm only in the way there," he often said to himself; "I wish I could live always here at the office."
But as he thought this he looked round with a slight shiver, and thought of how dreary it would be shut up there with the law-books, tin boxes, and dusty papers, and he gave up the idea.
Often of a night it was like a temptation to him—that intense longing to be free; and he would sit with a book before him, but his mind wandering far away, following the adventures of boys of his own age who had gone away to seek their fortunes, and if they had not found all they sought, had at least achieved some kind of success.
And how grand it would be, he thought, with his cheeks flushing, to be independent, and work his own way without encountering day by day his uncle's sour sneers and reproaches, his aunt's cold looks, and his cousin's tyranny.
"I could make my way, I know I could," he thought, and the outlook grew day by day more rosy. Those were pleasant paths, he told himself, that he wanted to tread, and it never occurred to him that if he went among strangers they might be harder than his uncle.
But the outcome of these musings was always the same: there was the stern figure of Duty rising before him to remind him of his promise to his mother, and with his brow knitting, his hands would clench beneath table or desk as he softly muttered to himself—
"I'm going to be a lawyer, and I will succeed."
But it has been written by a wise man, "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will," and Tom Blount was soon to find out its truth.
Matters had been going very badly at Mornington Crescent, and the boy's life was harder than ever to bear, for, presuming upon his patience, Sam Brandon was more tyrannical than ever. Words failing to sting sufficiently, he had often had recourse to blows, and these Tom had borne patiently, till, to his cousin's way of thinking, he was about as contemptible a coward as ever existed.
One morning at the office Sam was seated opposite to his cousin writing, Pringle was busily employed in the other room, and Tom was putting stamps on some letters, when his eye lit upon one standing edgewise against a gum-bottle between him and his cousin.
Just then Mr Brandon bustled in looking very stern and angry, and he gave a sharp look round the office. Then his eyes lit upon Tom and his task.
"What letters are those?" he said.
"The tithe notices, sir, you told me to fill up and direct from the book," replied Tom.
"Humph! yes, quite right. Oh, by the way, Samuel, did you post that letter to Mr Wilcox yesterday afternoon?"
"Yes, father," said Sam promptly; and as he raised his eyes he saw his cousin's gazing at the letter standing on edge between them.
Sam turned pale as he now met Tom's keen look.
It was all momentary, in the interval of Mr Brandon's first words and his next question. "Then how is it that Mr Wilcox has not received it, and been on to me at home full of anxiety about not having my answer to an important question?"
"I don't know, father," said Sam sharply.
"Are you sure you posted the letter?"
"Oh yes, father. No; I recollect now: some one came in on business, to ask for you, and I told Tom Blount here to take it directly. Oh!" he cried, "I say, it is too bad. Why, you didn't take it, Tom. Here's the letter, father, all the time."
He took up and held out the unfortunate missive, shaking his head at Tom the while.
"You never told me to take any letter yesterday," said Tom quietly.
"Oh—my! What a lie, to be sure!" cried Sam, as if perfectly astounded. "Pringle must have heard me at the time."
"Of course," said his father, speaking with his lips tightly compressed, so that his voice sounded muttering and indistinct. Then aloud—"Here, Pringle."
Scroop went Pringle's stool, and he hurried in. "You call, sir?"
"Yes. What time was it when you heard Mr Samuel tell his cousin to go out and post a letter?"
"Never heard anything of the kind, sir, at any time."
"That will do," said his employer.
"Row on," thought Pringle. "I hope he isn't going to catch it again."
Then as the door closed Mr Brandon, whose countenance was flushed and his eyes angry-looking, turned upon his son.
"Do you think I am blind, sir?" he said sharply.
"No, father: I don't know what you mean."
"Then I'll tell you, sir. I mean that you have told me a miserable falsehood—a disgraceful falsehood."
"I haven't, father. I told Tom here to take the letter;" and he gave his cousin a fierce look which evidently said, "Say I told you, or it will be the worse for you," and he accompanied the look with a sharp kick under the desk, which took effect on Tom's shin, rousing him to a pitch of fury and obstinate determination.
"Oh, you haven't, eh?" said Mr Brandon. "Tom, did your cousin tell you to post that letter?"
"Yes, you know I did," cried Sam.
"I did. You've forgotten it, or else you're saying that out of spite," cried Sam desperately.
"I haven't forgotten it, and I'm not saying what I did out of spite," said Tom firmly. "Indeed I spoke the truth, uncle."
"Yes; I believe you," said Mr Brandon.
"Shall I go and post the letter now, sir?"
"No; it is too late. Here, Samuel, come into my room."
Mr Brandon walked into his room, while Sam got down slowly from his stool, leaning over toward his cousin the while.
"I'll serve you out for this," he whispered, and then crossed to his father's room.
There was a low murmur of voices from within as soon as the door was closed; but that door fitted too closely for any of the conversation to be heard. Not that Tom was listening, for he was feeling a kind of pity for his cousin's position, and more warmly towards his uncle for his simple act of justice than he had felt for months.
Just then there was a faint creaking sound, and looking behind him, it was to see that the inner office door was open, and Pringle standing there framed as it were, and going through a pantomimic performance expressive of his intense delight, grimacing, rubbing his hands, and laughing silently. Then he gesticulated and pointed toward the private office, and rubbed his hands again, till there was a sound in the private room, and he darted back and closed the door.
All this was meant for Tom's amusement, and as congratulation; but the boy did not feel in the least elated, but sat waiting for his cousin's return, fully intending to offer him his hand and whisper, "I am sorry— but you should have told the truth."
A good half-hour passed before Sam came out, looking very red in the face; but when he took his place on his stool, Tom did not reach across to offer his hand, for his cousin's face repelled him, and he felt that something would come of all this—what he could not tell. Still there was one gratifying thing left: his uncle had taken his word before that of his cousin, and this little thing comforted him during the remainder of that unpleasant day.
Before the afternoon was half over Mr Brandon came to his door and called Sam, who went in, and then took his hat and went away, to Tom's great relief, for it was far from pleasant to be sitting at a double desk facing one who kept on darting scowling looks full of threatenings.
An hour later Mr Brandon left, after sending Pringle upon some errand, and for the rest of the afternoon the boy had the office to himself.
In due time Tom locked up the safe and strong-room, saw that no important papers were left about, and started for Mornington Crescent in anything but the best of spirits, for he did not look forward with any feeling of pleasure to his next meeting with his cousin. Upon reaching home he found from divers signs that company was expected to dinner; for the cloth was laid for five, the best glass was on the table, there were flowers and fruit, and sundry fumes from the kitchen ascended into the hall, suggesting extra preparations there as well.
Tom had hardly reached this point when his cousin came out of the library scowling.
"Here, bumpkin," he cried, "you're to look sharp and put on your best things. It's not my doing, I can tell you, but the pater says you're to come in to dinner."
"Who's coming?" said Tom.
"What's that to you? Pretty cheeky that. I suppose you ought to have been asked whether we might have company."
"Oh, no," said Tom, good-temperedly; "I only wanted to know."
"Did you? Well, you won't know till dinnertime. Now then, don't stand staring there, but go and wash that dirty face, and see if you can't come down with your hands and nails fit to be seen."
"Clean as ever yours are," was on Tom's lips; but he remembered his cousin's trouble of that morning, pitied him, and felt that he had some excuse for feeling irritable and strange.
"Well, go on; look sharp," said Sam, manoeuvring so as to get behind his cousin.
"All right; I'm going," replied Tom, who was suspicious of something coming after his cousin's promise of revenge; and he wanted to remain facing any danger that might be threatening. But he felt that he could not back away, it would look so cowardly, and, daring all, he went slowly to the pegs to hang up his overcoat.
"Get on, will you," cried Sam; "don't be all night. We don't want to wait for you."
"Oh, I shan't be long," said Tom quietly; "I'll soon be down."
He was on the mat at the foot of the stairs as he said this, conscious the while that Sam was close behind; and he was in the act of stepping up, when he received so savage a kick that he fell forwards on to the stairs, striking his nose violently, and creating a sensation as if that member had suddenly been struck off.
"You got it that time, did you?" said Sam, with a satisfied chuckle. "You generally play the wriggling eel, but I was too quick for you, my lad."
Sam said no more, for his triumph was only short-lived. He was looking triumphantly at his cousin as the lad got up heavily, feeling his nose to find out whether it was there. The next instant Sam was feeling his own, for he had at last gone too far. Tom had borne till he could bear no more; and in the anguish of that kick he had forgotten company, dressing for dinner, everything but the fact that Sam was there, and quick as lightning he struck him full in the face.
This satisfied him—acting like a discharging rod for his electric rage?
Nothing of the kind: there was a supreme feeling of pleasure in striking that blow. It, was the outlet of any amount of dammed-up suffering; and seeing nothing now but his cousin's malignant face, Tom followed up that first blow with a second, till, throwing his remaining strength into a blow intended for the last, it took effect, and Sam went over backwards, flung out his right hand to save himself, and caught and brought down a great blue china jar, which shivered to pieces on the floor, covering Sam with fragments, and giving him the aspect of having been terribly cut, for his nose was bleeding freely.
So was Tom's, as he caught a glimpse of himself in the glass of the hall table, while his lip had received a nasty cut, and in the struggle the stains had been pretty well distributed over his face.
But he had no time to think of that, for the crash had alarmed those up-stairs as well as down, and hurrying steps were heard.
The first to arrive was the cook, who, on reaching the head of the kitchen stairs, uttered a kind of choking gasp as she saw Sam lying apparently insensible among the ruins of the china jar.
"Oh, Master Tom, what have you been and done?" she cried.
"Been and done?" came like an angry echo from the landing above, where Mr Brandon had arrived. But before he could say more there was a piercing shriek, he was pushed aside, and Mrs Brandon rushed down the remaining stairs crying wildly—
"Oh, my darling boy! my darling boy! He has killed him—he has killed him!"
She dropped upon her knees by where Sam lay, apparently insensible; but uttered a cry of pain and sprang up again, for the broken china was full of awkward corners.
"Oh, James! James! look what that wicked wretch has done!"
"Look, woman! Do you think I'm blind? That vase was worth fifty pounds, if it was worth a penny."
"I—I wasn't thinking about the ch-ch-ch-china," sobbed Mrs Brandon, "but about my darling Sam. Oh, my boy! my boy! don't say you're dead!"
"Don't you make an exhibition of yourself before the servants," cried her husband angrily. "Here you, sir: I always knew that you'd make me repent. How came you to break that vase?"
"I didn't, sir," said Tom quietly; "Sam caught hold of it as he was falling."
Sam was lying insensible the moment before, but this was reviving.
"I didn't, father; he knocked me down, and then seized the vase and dashed it at me."
"Yes, yes," cried Mrs Brandon, as Sam lapsed into insensibility once more. "The wretch has had a spite against his cousin ever since he has been here. Oh, my darling, darling boy!"
Sam uttered a low groan which made his mother shriek and fling herself down by him again.
"Oh, Mary! cook!" she cried, "help—help!"
"Yes, mum," said the former; "shall I bring a dustpan and brush, and take up the bits?"
"No, no! Water—sponge—help!"
"Indeed, indeed, I did not break the vase," pleaded Tom, as his uncle suddenly caught him by the collar and drew a gold-headed malacca cane from the umbrella-stand.
"I'll soon see about that," said Mr Brandon, with a fierce drawing-in of the breath.
"Yes; beat him, beat him well, James, the wretch, the cruel wretch, and then turn him out of the house."
"Don't you interfere," cried Mr Brandon, with a snap. Then to Tom—"I suppose you'll say you were not fighting?"
"Yes, sir, I was fighting; but Sam began at me, and all because I wouldn't screen him to-day."
"Hah! never mind that," said Mr Brandon.
"Don't beat me, sir," pleaded Tom, excitedly. "I can't bear it."
"You'll have to bear it, my fine fellow. Here, come into the library."
"Yes, James, beat the wretch well," cried Mrs Brandon. "Oh, my darling, does it hurt you very much?"
"Oh!" groaned Sam, and his mother shrieked; while a struggle was going on between Tom and his uncle, the boy resisting with all his might.
"He has killed him! he has killed him!" sobbed Mrs Brandon; "and you stand there, cook, doing nothing."
"Well, mum, what can I do? I'm wanted down-stairs. Them soles is a-burning in the frying-pan. You can smell 'em up here."
"Yes; nice preparations for company," said Mr Brandon, stopping to pant, for Tom had seized the plinth at the foot of the balustrade and held on with all his might. "Go down in the kitchen, cook, and see to the dinner."
The cook turned to go, but stopped short and turned back.
"Oh, my darling! my darling!" cried Mrs Brandon.
"Oh-h-h-h!" groaned Sam.
"I beg your pardon, sir," said cook, speaking very loudly, "but please you ain't going to whip Mr Tom, are you?"
"Silence, woman! Go down to your kitchen!" roared her master.
"Yes, sir—directly, sir; but Mr Sam's allus at him, and he begun it to-night, for I heared him."
"Will you go down and mind your own business, woman?"
"Yes, sir; but I can't bear to see you lay your hand on that poor boy, as ain't done nothing to deserve it, and I will speak out, so there."
"No, sir, nor I won't silence neither; and don't you please call me woman, because I won't take it from nobody, not for no wages. I behaves respectful to you and missus, and expect the same, so there."
"Cook, you leave at a month's end," cried Mrs Brandon. "Oh, Sam, Sam, speak to your broken-hearted mother."
"Cert'ny, mum, and very glad to go," said cook, who was working herself up into a passion. "To-night if you like. No, I won't; I'll go now, as soon as I've packed my boxes; and if Mary's the girl I take her for, she'll go too, and not stand here sweeping up your nasty old china."
"Am I to take you by the shoulders, woman, and bundle you down-stairs?" roared Mr Brandon.
"No, sir, you ain't. Just you dare to touch me, that's all; and what's more, you ain't a-going to beat Master Tom, so there now. I wouldn't stand here and see him punished for what he don't deserve. It's all that Mr Sam, who's ma's spoilt him, and indulged him, till he's grown into a nasty, overbearing, cigarette-smoking wretch, as treats servants as if they was the dirt under his feet."
"Fanny," cried the lawyer, who felt that he was losing dignity in an unequal struggle, "send this woman down-stairs. Now, sir, you let go of that balustrade and come here."
"No," cried Tom, between his teeth; "you shan't beat me for nothing. It was all Sam."
"Come here!" roared his uncle, making a savage drag at the boy, which was intercepted by cook forcing herself between, and trying to shelter him.
"You shan't beat him, not while I'm here," she cried.
"He is not going to beat him," said a quiet, firm, grave voice; and all started to see that "the company," who had been standing quite unobserved on the upper landing, a silent spectator of the scene, was now coming down.
"Oh, Richard!" cried Mrs Brandon; "look here! The wretch—the wretch!"
"Yes, he does look a pretty object certainly," said the visitor. "Here you, sir, get up and go to your room, and wash yourself. Don't lie groaning there."
"Oh—oh—oh!" cried Mrs Brandon, hysterically, "I didn't mean Sam."
"If you'd go and stop in the drawing-room, Richard, and not interfere, I should feel obliged."
"Nothing would have pleased me better, James," said his brother coldly; "but the riot was getting too loud—I was obliged to come."
"Then, now go and wait. The dinner will be ready soon."
"That it just won't," cried cook viciously; "and if you're a gentleman, though you are master's own brother, you'll come and help me."
"There is no need," said Uncle Richard, in his quiet way. "Mr Brandon is not going to beat his nephew. He was very angry, no doubt, but that's all over now; and as to the dinner, my dear madam, while I act the peacemaker, I hope you will bear in mind that I am very hungry, and should be very glad of some of the good things you were preparing, when in your genuine, womanly way you felt yourself called upon to defend this boy."
"Look here, Richard," began Mr Brandon.
"Tut—tut—tut, man, be quiet. Tom, my lad, go up-stairs to your room and make yourself decent. Fanny, my good girl, you are spoiling an expensive dress put on in my honour. Mary, my child, there are two or three sharp pieces of the broken vase here. Would you mind? Thank you. These things are very sharp. Now you, Sam, jump up, and go and wash yourself. Do you hear?"
"Confound it all, Richard!" began Mr Brandon.
"Tut—tut, quiet, man!" said Uncle Richard; "there's nothing the matter with the fellow."
"He's half killed—dangerously hurt," protested Mrs Brandon.
"Not he, my dear Fanny. I saw him watching the proceedings with one eye open. Come, Sam, no nonsense. Get up, and go to your room; and don't you dare to interfere with Tom, because if you do I shall come up myself. Let me see; I think I have a bit of a hold on you, have I not?"
Sam's eyes both opened widely, and he rose to his feet, then directed an imploring look at his uncle, who drew back, pointed up the stairs, and the lad shivered slightly as he went slowly by him, and began to ascend.
"Hang it all, Richard, is this house mine or is it yours?" said James Brandon.
"Mine," said his brother—"while I am your guest, of course. Thank you, Jem, I'll take my cane, if you please. It is a favourite old malacca—a presentation."
He took the cane quietly from his brother's hand and replaced it in the stand, with the result that cook uttered a titter and hurried down-stairs, followed by Mary, bearing a dustpan full of broken sherds.
"Come, that's better," said Uncle Richard, disregarding his brother's angry gesture. "Now, my dear Fanny, let me take you to the drawing-room. The storm's over, and the sun is coming out. Don't let's spoil my visit because the boys fell out and broke a vase."
"No, no, Richard," said Mrs Brandon, half hysterically, as she yielded at once and took her brother-in-law's arm. "But you don't know. That boy has the temper of a demon."
"No, no, No! That boy Thomas. We haven't had a day's peace since he came into the house. And now a fifty-pound vase broken. Oh! the wicked boy."
"I didn't do it, aunt. It was Sam," came from the head of the staircase.
"Ah! Silence there, sir!" shouted Uncle Richard. "How dare you stand there listening! Be off, and make yourself decent for dinner."
"Richard!" cried Mrs Brandon, in a tone of remonstrance, "you surely would not have that boy down to dinner now!"
"Why not, my dear sister?" he said, as they reached the drawing-room floor.
"After breaking that vase?"
"Never mind the vase, Fanny."
"And nearly killing his cousin?"
"Nonsense, my dear, partial, motherly judge. Lookers-on see most of the game," said Uncle Richard good-humouredly. "I was looking on from the landing for some time, and from what I saw, I have no hesitation in saying that Master Tom got as good as he gave."
"But oh, Richard!"
"Tut—tut! Listen to me, my dear. Boys will quarrel and fight sometimes. I can remember a good many sets-to with Jem when we were young. These two have fought, and it's all over."
"But you really don't know," began Mrs Brandon.
"Oh yes, I do. Master Tom is not perfect. There, there, forget it all now; and let me send you a vase to replace the one broken. By the way, I hope they will not be long with that dinner."
"Oh no, it will not be long now—that is, if that insolent woman will condescend to send us up some."
"But she will," said Uncle Richard good-humouredly. "If she does not, and the worst comes to the worst, we'll storm her kitchen and finish the cooking ourselves. I'm a good cook in my way. Bachelors have their whims."
"Ah, you don't know what London servants are."
"No," said Uncle Richard, smiling pleasantly at the flurried lady, who was still troubled by the domestic storm through which she had just passed. "Mrs Fidler is a very good old soul in her way, and the maid has been with me some time now, and has evidently made up her mind to stop. I don't give them much trouble, except with my fads."
"And do you still go on with—with those—those—"
"Crazes?" said Uncle Richard smilingly. "To be sure I do. Ah, here's James. Well, old fellow, is it all right again?"
"Right again?" said Mr Brandon, who had just entered the room; "no, it is not. But there, I'm sorry there should be all this disturbance when you are here. It all comes of being charitable in the course of duty. But there, I'll say no more."
"That's right," said Uncle Richard, just as Mary entered the room with—
"If you please, ma'am, dinner is served."
"Hah!" cried Uncle Richard, rising to offer his arm to his sister-in-law. "But the boys are not down."
"No; and they are not coming," said Mr Brandon angrily.
"Oh, James dear!" protested Mrs Brandon.
"My dear Jem!" said Uncle Richard, smiling, "I put in my petition. The fight is over, so now let's have peace and—dinner."
"Oh, very well," said Mr Brandon. "Mary, go and tell Mr Samuel that we are waiting dinner for him."
"And, Mary, you will convey the same message to Mr Thomas," said Uncle Richard.
"Yes, sir," said the girl, with a smile; and before her master could protest she was gone.
Five minutes elapsed, during which Uncle Richard seemed to have forgotten his dinner in eager explanation of some piece of mechanism that he was making, and about which he had come up to town. At the end of that time Tom entered nervously, looking as if he had had his share of cuts and bruises; but to his great satisfaction no one said a word; and then Sam came in, looking very puffy about the eyes, and with one side of his mouth drawn down into a peculiar swollen smile.
"Oh!" exclaimed his mother, and she rose to fly to his side; but Uncle Richard was prepared for her, and took her hand to draw through his arm.
"That's right," he cried. "I am awfully hungry;" and he led her out of the room, followed by Mr Brandon, while Tom and Sam followed in silence down the stairs, each intent upon the plans he had in his breast, and fully determined to carry them out.
It was a capital dinner, but Sam felt that he could not eat a bit for mental troubles, while his cousin felt the same from bodily reasons connected with a terrible stiffness at one angle of his lower jaw.
Consequently Sam made a very poor dinner, to his mother's grief; but Tom ate heartily and enjoyed everything, forgetting his cares for the time being, as he listened in astonishment to the way in which his cold, grave uncle could brighten up, and keep the whole table interested by his conversation relating to discoveries in the world of science, especially in connection with light, and researches in what he spoke of as "The Vast Abyss."
Then came tea in the drawing-room, and on the part of the two boys an early movement in the direction of bed.
Tom was on his guard as soon as they were alone, fully expecting that his cousin would in some way renew hostilities, the more especially as neither Mr nor Mrs Brandon had had an opportunity of speaking to them with warning or appeal.
But Sam did not even look at him, undressing himself in sulky silence, throwing his clothes here and there, and plunging into bed and turning his face to the wall as he began to make his plans respecting a campaign he intended to carry out for the destruction of his cousin's peace, without running risks of getting himself injured as he had been that night.
"For," said Sam to himself, "everything seems to be against me. I only forgot that letter, and instead of helping a fellow out of a hole that beastly young sneak betrayed me. Then when I meant to pay him out, all the luck was on his side; and lastly, old moony Uncle Dick must turn upon me about that money affair. But wait a bit, I'll pay him back, and then he may tell the guv'nor if he likes. What did he say when I went and told him what a hole I was in over that account, and was afraid the guv'nor would know;—that it was embezzlement, and a criminal offence, and that if I had done such a thing for a regular employer, I might have found myself in the felon's dock? Rubbish! I only borrowed the money for a few weeks, and meant to pay it back. He shall have it again; and let him tell the old man if he dares. A coward, to throw that in my teeth! Wonder if they'll ask him what he meant. But all right, Master Tom Blount, you shall pay for this."
Meantime the object of his threatenings had undressed in silence too, extinguished the light, remembered by his bedside the old mother-taught lesson, and added a prayer for pardon in regard for that which he had made up his mind to do. Then, as his head pressed the pillow, he lay thinking of all that had taken place since he had been at his uncle's, and came finally to the conclusion that he could bear no more.
"I can't help being a fool," he said to himself, dolefully. "I have tried, but all these law things slip out of my head as fast as I read them. Of course it makes uncle bitter and angry, when he has tried to help me, and would go on trying if it was not for Sam."
Then the long, weary time of his stay came up, and in succession the series of injuries and petty annoyances to which he had been subjected by his cousin passed before him, strengthening his determination.
But in spite of all these, he would have fought down the desire so strong upon him if it had not been for the past evening's scene. Even as he lay in bed his face flushed, and he quivered with shame and indignation. For here it all was vividly before his mind's eye. What had he done to deserve it? Nothing. He had spoken the truth, and declined to take his cousin's lapse upon his own shoulders about that letter; and then on getting home Sam had turned upon him, and any boy, Tom argued, would have done as he did, and struck back. He'd have been a mean-spirited coward if he had not.
"No, I can't stand it," he muttered, with his head beneath the clothes. "He was going to beat me in spite of all I said, and it was too horrible. I wouldn't have minded so much if I had been in the wrong, but even then it was too cruel before aunt—before the servants, and with Sam lying there shamming to be so bad, and watching all the time in his delight. No, I won't alter my mind in the morning. Poor father used to say, 'Sleep on it, my lad;' but I can't sleep on this. I must go now before things get worse."
He threw the clothes from his face and lay listening, to try and make out whether his cousin was awake. He was not, for a heavy stuffy breathing could be heard, consequent upon Sam's mouth being open, a peculiar puffy swelling about the nose preventing him from breathing in the usual way.
This brought a gleam of mental sunshine into Tom's sad and blackened horizon. Naturally a bright, merry lad, for months past he had not had a hearty laugh; but now, as he recalled his cousin's appearance, the smile broadened, and for a few moments he shook with suppressed laughter.
But the mirth passed away directly, for the matter was too serious, and he now lay with knitted brows, listening to his cousin's breathing, and continuing his plans.
He would wait another hour, and then begin.
He waited for some time listening till the last sound had died out in the house, thinking that he must move about very silently, for his uncle's room was beneath, and the servants were only separated from them by a not too thick wall.
"Poor cook! poor Mary!" he thought. "I should like to kiss them and say good-bye. How brave cook was; and she is sure to lose her place for taking my part. Aunt and uncle will never forgive her. How I wish I had a home of my own and her for housekeeper. But perhaps I shall never have one now, for what am I going to do when I go?"
That was the great puzzle as he lay there gazing at the window-blind, faintly illumined by the gas-lamps in the Crescent. What was he to do? Soldier?—No; he was too young, and wanting in manly aspect. Sailor?— No. He would like to go to sea, and have adventures; but no, if his father and mother had lived it would have given them pain to know that he had run away to enlist, or get on board some coasting vessel.
No; he could not do that. It might be brave and daring, but at the same time he had a kind of feeling that it would be degrading, and he would somehow do better than either of those things, and try and show his uncles, both of them, and Sam too, that if he was a fool, he was a fool with some good qualities.
But it was quite an hour since it had struck twelve, and it was time to act. The first thing was to test Sam's sleep—whether he was sound enough to enable him to make his preparations unheard.
What would be the best thing to do? came again. How could he get work without a character? What answer could he give people who asked him who he was, and whence he came?
No answer came, think hard as he would. All was one black, impenetrable cloud before him, into which he had made up his mind to plunge, and what his future was to be he could not tell. But let it be what it would, he mentally vowed that it should be something honest, and he would not let the blackness of that cloud stay him. No; his mind was fully made up now. This was his last night at his uncle's house, and he would take his chance as to where he would next lay his head.
"I shall be free," he muttered half aloud; "now I am like a slave."
It was time to act. Not that he meant to leave the house that night. No; his mind was made up. He would pack a few things in the little black bag in which he took his law-books to and fro, place it ready in the hall as usual, and go in to his breakfast; and when he started for the office, just call in and say good-bye to Pringle, who would not hinder him. On the contrary, he would be sure to give him advice, and perhaps help him as to his future.
"Poor old Pringle won't say stay," he muttered; and reaching out of bed, he felt in his trousers pocket on the chair for a halfpenny. He could not spare it, but it was the only missile he could think of then, and he held it poised ready to throw as he listened to his cousin's heavy breathing.
He threw the coin forcibly, so that it struck the wall just above Sam's head, and fell upon his face.
There was no movement, and the heavy, guttural breathing went on.
Tom waited a few minutes, and then slipped out of bed, crossed to his cousin's side, and gave the iron bedstead a slight shake, then a hard one. Next he touched his shoulder, and finished by laying a cold hand upon his hot brow.
But the result was always the same—the heavy, hoarse breathing.
Satisfied that he might do anything without arousing his cousin, he returned to his own bed, slipped on his trousers, and sat down to think.
There was the bag of books on the top of his little chest of drawers, and he had only to take them out, lay them down, and after carefully pulling out the drawer, pack the bag full of linen, and add an extra suit. It would be a tight cram, but he would want the things, and they would prove very useful.
But there was a hitch here. All these things were new, his old were worn-out, and his uncle had paid for all these in spite of his aunt's suggestion, that there were a good many of Sam's old things that might be altered to fit.
He stumbled over this. They were not his; and at last, in a spirit of proud independence, he ignored his own services to his uncle, and stubbornly determined that he would take nothing but the clothes in which he stood.
"And some day I'll send the money to pay for them," he said proudly, half aloud.
"Gug—gug—gug—ghur-r-r-r," came from his cousin's bed as if in derision.
But Tom's mind was made up, and undressing once more he lay down to think, but did not, for, quite satisfied now as to his plans, no sooner had his head touched the pillow than, utterly wearied out, he dropped asleep.
It seemed to him that he had only just closed his eyes, when, in a dreamy way, he heard the customary tapping at his door, followed by a growl from Sam, bidding Mary not make "that row."
Then Tom was wide-awake, thinking of his over-night plans.
Not in the least. He lay there thinking fiercely, only troubled by the idea of what he would do as soon as he had made his plunge penniless into that dense black cloud—the future.
But there was no lifting of the black curtain. He could see his way to the office to bid Pringle good-bye. After that all was hidden.
At the end of a quarter of an hour he jumped up and began to dress, while Sam lay with his back to him fast asleep, or pretending.
It did not matter, for he did not want to speak to him; and after dressing, and duly noting that there was only a scratch or two, no swelling about his face, he went down with his bag of books to the breakfast-room, to read as usual for an hour before his uncle and aunt came down.
In the hall he encountered the cook, who had to "do" that part of the housework, and she rose from her knees to wish him so hearty a good-morning, that a lump rose in Tom's throat, there was a dimness in his eyes, and his hand went out involuntarily for a silent good-bye.
To his surprise a pair of plump arms were flung round him, and he received two hearty kisses, and then there was a warm whisper in his ear—
"Don't you mind a bit, my dear. You didn't deserve it; and as for Mr Sam, he's a beast."
"Thank you, cook," said Tom huskily, "thank you. Good-bye."
"What! Oh no, it ain't good-bye neither, my dear. They'd like me to go, and so I won't. I'll stop just to spite them, so there!"
Cook went off to seize a door-mat, carry it out on the front steps, and then and there she banged it down, and began to thump it with the head of the long broom, as if in imagination she had Sam beneath her feet.
"She didn't understand me," said Tom to himself, as he hurried into the breakfast-room, feeling that after all it would be very painful to go, but not shaken in his determination.
"Morning, Mr Tom," said Mary, who looked bright and cheerful in her clean print dress, as she made pleasant morning music by rattling the silver spoons into the china saucers. "Ain't it a nice morning? The sun's quite hot."
"Yes, a beautiful morning," said Tom sadly, as he gave the girl a wistful look, before going into a corner, sitting down and opening Tidd's Practice for what his cousin called a grind.
Then with a sigh he went on reading, giving quite a start when Mary had finished her preparations for breakfast, and came to whisper—
"Cook ain't going, sir; she says she wouldn't go and leave you here alone for nothing, and I won't neither."
Tom felt as if he could not speak, and he had no need to, for the maid slipped out of the room, and the next minute Uncle Richard entered to nod to him gravely.
"Morning, my lad," he said rather sternly. "That's right—never waste time."
How cold and repellent he seemed: so different to his manner upon the previous night, when the boy had felt drawn towards him. The effect was to make Tom feel more disposed than ever to carry out his plan, and he was longing for the breakfast to be over, so that he could make his start for the office.
But it wanted half-an-hour yet, and the boy had just plunged more deeply into his book, when Uncle Richard said—
"And so you don't like the law, Tom?"
The boy started, for there was a different ring in the voice now. It sounded as if it were inviting his confidence, and he was about to speak, when his elder went on—
"To be sure, yes; you told me so last time I saw you."
"I have tried, sir, very hard," said Tom apologetically; "but it seems as if my brains are not of the right shape to understand it."
"Humph, perhaps not," said his uncle, gazing at him searchingly; and Tom coloured visibly, for it seemed to him that those penetrating eyes must be reading the secret he was keeping. "And you don't like your cousin Sam either?"
Tom was silent for a few moments.
"Why don't you answer my question, sir?"
"I was thinking, uncle, that it is Cousin Sam who does not like me."
"How can he when you knock him down, and then dash china vases at him, sir?"
"I suppose I did knock him down, uncle, but not until he had kicked and struck me. Throw vases at him!" cried the boy indignantly; "I wouldn't be such a coward."
"Humph!" grunted his uncle, taking up the morning paper that Mary had just brought in; and without another word he sat back in his chair and began to read, while Tom, with his face still burning, turned once more to his book, with a strange elation beginning to take the place of the indignation he felt against his uncle, for it had suddenly occurred to him that this was the last time he would have to make his head ache over the hard, brain-wearying work. Then the elation died out again, for what was to be his future fate?
He was musing over this, and wondering whether after all he dare trust Pringle, when the door suddenly opened, Uncle Richard rustled and lowered the paper, and Mrs Brandon entered the room, looking wonderfully bright and cheerful.
"Good-morning, Richard," she cried; "I am so sorry I am late. James will be down directly. Good-morning, Tom."
Tom jumped in his chair at this pleasantly cordial greeting, and stared dumbfounded at his aunt.
"Not a bit late," said Uncle Richard, after a glance at his watch. "You are very punctual. Hah, here is James."
For at that moment Mr Brandon, looking clean-shaven and pleasant, entered the room.
"Morning, Dick," he cried; "what a lovely air. Ah, Tom, my boy, got over the skirmish?"
Tom babbled out something, and felt giddy. What did it mean? Could they have divined that he was about to run away, and were going to alter their treatment; or had Uncle Richard, who seemed again so grave and cold, been taking his part after he had gone to bed?
But he had very little time for dwelling upon that; the question which troubled him was, How could he go away now?
The thoughts sent him into a cold perspiration, and he glanced anxiously at the clock, to see that it was a quarter past eight, and that in fifteen minutes, according to custom, he must start for the office—for the office, and then—where?
Just then Mary entered with the breakfast-tray, and, chatting pleasantly, all took their seats. Mary whisked off two covers, to display fried ham and eggs on one, hot grilled kidneys on the other.
Tom grew hotter and colder, and asked himself whether he was going out of his mind, for there was no thin tea and bread-and-butter that morning.
"Tea or coffee, Tom?" said his aunt; and Tom's voice sounded hoarse as he chose the latter.
He was just recovering from this shock when his uncle said—
"Ham and eggs or kidneys, Tom? There, try both—they go well together."
"Thank you, uncle," faltered the boy; and he involuntarily looked up at Uncle Richard, who sat opposite to him, and saw that, though his face was perfectly stern and calm, his eyes were fixed upon him with a peculiar twinkling glitter.
"Bread, my boy?" he said quietly, and he took up a knife and the loaf.
"Try a French roll, Tom," said his aunt, handing the dish.
"How can I run away?" thought Tom, as he bent over his breakfast to try and hide his agitation, for his breast was torn by conflicting emotions, and it was all he could do to continue his meal. "It's of no use," he said to himself, as the conversation went on at the table; and though he heard but little, he knew that it was about the guest departing that morning for his home in Surrey.
"Yes," said Uncle Richard, "I must get back, for I'm very busy."
"And not stay another night?" said Aunt Fanny sweetly.
"No, not this visit, thanks. I'll get back in good time, and astonish Mrs Fidler. Hallo, squire, you're late; Tom has half finished the kidneys."
"Morning, uncle," said Sam sourly; "I didn't know it was so late. I've got a bad headache this morning, ma."
"Have you, dear?—I am so sorry. But never mind, I've a nice strong cup of tea here, and I'll ring for some dry toast."
"No, don't, ma," said Sam, scowling at Tom, and looking wonderingly at his cousin's plate. "I'll have coffee and a hot roll."
"But they will be bad for your head, love."
Sam made no reply, but felt his plate, which was nearly cold, and then held it out to his father for some kidneys.
"Oh, Sam, my darling, don't have kidneys, dear. I'm sure they'll be bad for you."
"No, they won't, ma," he said pettishly; and his father helped him liberally.
Uncle Richard went on with his breakfast, making believe to see nothing, but Tom noticed that his keen eyes glittered, and that nothing escaped him. Those eyes were wonderful, and fascinated the boy.
Suddenly, just as he had made a very poor breakfast, the clock on the chimney-piece gave a loud ting. It was the half-hour, and Tom rose quickly after a hasty glance at his uncle and aunt. He had had breakfast for the last time, and feeling that this change of treatment was only due to his Uncle Richard's presence, he was more determined than ever to go.
"Good-bye, Uncle Richard," he said firmly, but there was a husky sound in his voice.
"No, no, sit down, Tom," was the reply. "We won't say good-bye yet."
Sam stopped eating, with a bit of kidney half-way to his mouth, and stared.
"Yes, sit down, Tom," said Mr Brandon, giving a premonitory cough, after a glance at his wife. "The fact is, my lad, your uncle and I had a little conversation about you after you were gone to bed last night."
Tom, who had subsided into his chair, took hold of the table-cloth, and began to twist it up in his agitation, as a peculiar singing noise came in his ears; and as he listened he kept on saying to himself—"Too late—too late; I must keep to it now."
"Yes, a very long talk," said Uncle Richard.
"Very," acquiesced his brother; "and as we—as he—"
"As we, James," said Uncle Richard.
"Exactly—could not help seeing that you do not seem cut out for the law—er—hum—do not take to it—he has been kind enough to say that he will give you a trial with him down in the country."
Tom's head, which had been hanging down, was suddenly raised, and the words were on his lips to say No, he could not go, when he met the keen, bright, piercing eyes fixed upon his, and those words died away.
"He has not definitely decided as to what he will put you to, but means to test you, as it were, for a few months."
The singing in Tom's ears grew louder.
Go with that cold stern man, who had never seemed to take to him? It would be like jumping out of the frying-pan into the fire. Impossible! He could not—he would not go.
"There," said Mr Brandon in conclusion, after a good deal more, of which Tom heard not a word; "it is all settled, and you will go down with your uncle this morning, so you had better pack up your box as soon as we leave the table. Now what have you to say to your uncle for his kindness?"
"No: I will not go," thought Tom firmly; and once more he raised his eyes defiantly to that searching pair, which seemed to be reading his; but he did not say those words, for others quite different came halting from his lips—"Thank you, Uncle Richard—and—and I will try so hard."
"Of course you will, my boy," said the gentleman addressed, sharply. "But mind this, the country's very dull, my place is very lonely, all among the pine-trees, and you will not have your cousin Sam to play with."
This was a hoarse laugh uttered by the gentleman in question.
"I beg your pardon, Sam?" said Uncle Richard, raising his eyebrows.
"I didn't speak, uncle," said Sam, "but I will, and I say a jolly good job too, and good riddance of bad rubbish."
"Sam, dear, you shouldn't," said his mother, in a gentle tone of reproof.
"Yes, I should; it's quite true."
"Hold your tongue, sir."
"All right, father; but we shall have some peace now."
"And I am to have all the disturbance, eh?" said Uncle Richard; "and the china vases thrown at me and smashed, eh?"
Tom darted a quick look at his uncle, and saw that he was ready to give him a nod and smile, which sent a thrill through him.
"You'll have to lick him half-a-dozen times a week," continued Sam.
"Indeed," said Uncle Richard good-humouredly; "anything else?"
"Yes, lots of things," cried Sam excitedly; "I could tell you—"
"Don't, please, my dear nephew," said Uncle Richard, interrupting him; "I could not bear so much responsibility all at once. You might make me repent of my determination."
"And you jolly soon will," cried Sam maliciously; "for of all the—"
"Hush, Sam, my darling!" cried his mother.
"You hold your tongue now, sir," said Mr Brandon; "and I should feel obliged by your making haste down to the office. You can tell Pringle that your cousin is not coming any more."
Tom started, and looked sharply from one to the other.
"Mayn't I go and say good-bye to Pringle, uncle?" he cried.
"No, sir," said his Uncle James coldly; "you will only have time to get your box packed. Your uncle is going to catch the ten fifty-five from Charing Cross."
"Yes," said Uncle Richard; "and you can write to your friend."
"Or better not," said Mr Brandon. "Tom has been rather too fond of making friends of people beneath him. There, my lad, you had better go and be getting ready; and I sincerely hope that you will make good use of your new opportunity."
Tom hardly knew how he got out of the room, for he felt giddy with excitement. Then he was not going to run away, but to be taken down into Surrey by his Uncle Richard—and for what?
Would he behave well to him? He looked cold and stern, but he was not on the previous night. Young as he was, Tom could read that there was another side to his character. Yes, he must go, he thought; and then he came face to face with Mary, who came bustling out of a bedroom.