VC — A CHRONICLE OF CASTLE BARFIELD AND OF THE CRIMEA
By David Christie Murray
CHATTO & WINDUS
The people of Castle Barfield boast that the middle of their High Street is on a level with the cross of St. Paul's Cathedral. The whole country-side is open, and affords a welcome to storm from whatever corner of the compass it may blow. You have to get right away into the Peak district before you can find anything like an eminence of distinction, though the mild slopes of Quarry-moor and Cline, a few miles to the westward, save the prospect from complete monotony. East, and a trifle to the north, rises Beacon Hargate, on the top whereof one of the innumerable bonfires which warned England of the coming of the Armada hung out its flaming banner in the sight of three counties. Topping that high tableland, Beacon Hargate is familiar with wild weather at the proper seasons, and by dint of use takes very little notice of it. But on the evening on which this story has its proper beginning such a storm raged round and over the old Beacon as no man or woman of that region could even remember. It began in the grey of the dawn in wild and fitful gusts, driving thick squalls of rain before them, but long before midday it lost its first waywardness and settled down to business with a steady purpose. It grew in force from hour to hour, and almost from minute to minute, until all living things sought shelter. The disconsolate cattle huddled under the sparse hedgerows, looking down their broad, dripping noses in a meek abandonment to fate. The sheep packed themselves in any hollowed corner they could find, and hugged their soaked fleeces close to each other in uncomplaining patience. The trees fought the blast with impotent arms, and shrieked and groaned their protest against it Flying boughs, like great grotesque birds, went hurtling through the air.
As the brief March day fell towards its close, the storm seemed suddenly to double in fury. Oak and elm went down before it bodily, torn from the stout anchorage of many years, and before the wind had raged itself to rest many scores of patriarchal landmarks were laid low. Roar of tormented woods, howl of wind, crash on crash of breaking boughs or falling trees, blended to one tune, and a plunging rain came down in ropes rather than in lines, driven at a fierce angle.
Night fell, and the pitiless tempest raged on, but with the coming of the darkness one sign of cheer displayed itself. From the windows of the plain old grey-stone mansion on the eastern side of the Beacon Hill lights began to glow, first in this chamber and then in that, until the whole squat edifice seemed charged with warmth and comfort. The tempest poured its full strength against the grey-stone house. It shook the windows with its frantic hand, it shrieked and howled and roared amongst the chimney tops and gables, it strained the hasps of the staunch oaken doors, and the old house faced it with a broadening smile, and shone the brighter by contrast as the night grew blacker.
In the whole roaring region there was but one man to be found abroad, and he was making for the grey-stone house. He was a portly person with a prosperous-looking development about the neighbourhood of the lower waistcoat, and he was sorely tried, though he was as yet on the sheltered side of the hill. His heavy black broadcloth was soaked through and through, and weighed him down. The icy wet had chilled him, and he breathed hard at every laboured step. One stiff slope of some fifty yards had still to be surmounted before he reached the hill-top. Twenty yards further lay the house, with all windows beaming. It was as yet invisible to him, but in his mind's eye he could see it, and the thought of it gave him courage. He turned his back to the plunging rain, and paused to gather breath before he assaulted the last slope of the hill. He had lost his hat, and the water trickled out of his hair in rivulets.
'I've seen worse weather than any they can brew in the neighbourhood of Beacon Hargate,' he panted to himself, 'but it's one thing to have a good tight craft under your feet, and it's another to be bogged in the dark, over half a mile of rotten plough-land. All right, my lads, you haven't got Jack Jervase under yet. Here goes.'
With this he faced the hill and the rain again, and made his difficult and slippery way upward, impeded by his clinging clothes, and snorting like a grampus. Right at the crown of the hill, most fortunately for the wayfarer, there was a thick coppice of stunted trees, which afforded refuge from the gale and shelter from the rain. He was quite blown by the time he reached it, and he clutched at the nearest sapling as a drowning man clutches at a spar. He stood there perforce for a full minute, panting hard. Then he shook his head doggedly, and muttered a second time:
'All right, my lads. You haven't got Jack Jervase yet.'
And then, helping himself along from hand to hand, he skirted the coppice, until he came to the unsheltered brow of the hill. It was well for him then that he had something to hold on by. Even as it was, he was clean lifted from his feet, and it was only by a prodigious effort that he saved himself from being blown away like a leaf. But having once struggled past the actual summit, he had escaped that danger, and a minute later, through howling-wind and scourging rain, the fire-lit windows of the house were beaming 'home!' upon him. Another instant and his feet were on the firm gravel, and he went scudding before the wind until he had gained the corner of the house. Here, feeling his troubles over, he paused once more for breath, and took a dripping way towards the rear of the building.
He stayed for an instant to glance in at an old-fashioned broad mullioned window. He looked into a room where a jolly coal fire was burning in the grate, and blazing up the chimney. About it half-a-dozen people sat comfortably grouped, and there was a big brown steaming jug upon the wooden table in the centre of the room, which was paved with the large square tiles locally called 'quarries.' One of the group about the fire turned to this jug and poured out from it a generous-looking stream of dark brown liquid into a number of mugs of the old Staffordshire ware, which at that time of day was common in rustic households, though it seems now to have vanished from all places but the shelves of the collector. The onlooker shivered and spoke under his breath.
'You're making pretty free with old Jack's old October inside there, ain't you? Pretty fine old crowd to come home to!—guzzling at my expense. I'll sort ye.'
A moment later he was in the room, but short as the interval was between the close of his speech and his appearance before the group about the fire, his temper had apparently changed, for he broke out in a cheery voice:
'Hilloa, my lads! I reckon one or two of you are weatherbound. Well, you've found a snug harbour here, and you're welcome to it. Mary,' he went on, addressing a thick-set woman of middle age, who had risen at his entrance, and stood before him with an embarrassed aspect, 'don't tell the missus that I'm at home, but go upstairs and lay out dry things for me. I'm wet through to the marrow. I'll have a drop of that myself,' he said, laying a hand on one of the mugs and nodding round the little circle, with a beaming face.
One of the men noisily shifted his chair to make room for him, and the master of the house approached the fire, and, turning his back to it, began to steam like a whole washing day.
He sipped comfortably at the creaming contents of the mug, and fairly beamed upon his guests.
'You chaps,' he said, 'will have to wake up by and by. I hope there isn't one of you that hasn't got the spirit to go out and fight for his Queen and country?'
'There ain't a-going to be no fightin', Mr. Jervase,' said one of the men sheepishly.
'Don't you make any mistake about that, my lad,' said Mr. Jervase. 'I've got a bit of news for you as will set old England in a blaze within another four-and-twenty hours. And I suppose I'm the only man within five miles that knows it. You mark my words, now, all of you. You'll remember this night to the last day o' your lives. This is the 27th March, this is. The twenty-seventh of March in the year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and fifty-four. That's a date as will stick in your gizzards, my hearties. It's a date as will stick in old England's gizzard, and in the Czar of Rooshia's gizzard, and in the gizzard of Napoleon Three. And you can lay your oath to that, because Jack Jervase told you.'
'Why, what's happened, Mr. Jervase?' asked the man who had spoken earlier.
'Happened?' cried Mr. Jervase. 'Why, Her Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria has sent a message to her Royal 'Ouses of Parliament to say as she's declared war agen the Czar of all the Rooshias. And before a month is over your heads, my lads, there'll be war amongst the Great Powers of Europe, for the first time in eight-and-thirty years.'
The five men rose to their feet unconsciously in their excitement. They were mere country-side clods, and knew as little of the rights and wrongs of that great Eastern question which had overshadowed the world so long, as the horses they drove about the heavy country lanes or the flocks they herded. But they broke into a cheer.
The bringer of the news lifted a hand, and waved them into silence.
'You'll have the missus in to know what all that hullaballoo's about,' he said, reprovingly: 'and I don't want to be bothered until I've made a change. Now I'll tell you what it is, my lads. The Queen wants men, and there isn't one of you that isn't fit to go a-soldiering. I just tell you this—if any one of you, or the whole lot of you, see fit to take the Queen's shilling I'll put a pound to it for bounty money. Now, you needn't cheer again,' he added hastily.
As a matter of fact, none of his listeners showed any inclination to cheer. War in the abstract was a thing to cheer about, but war in the concrete—war with its possibilities—thus brought home to each individual mind excited no enthusiasm.
'You think about that, my lads,' said the host, distributing a series of smiling nods about him. 'Old Jack Jervase's day is over, or he'd be at it again, and so I tell you. It's many and many a year now since I heard a shot fired in anger, or since I stood on a ship's deck. But I've got the heart for the work still, if I haven't got the figger. Heigh-ho,' he went on, with a regretful moan, 'there's no room for a pottle-bellied, bald-headed old coot like me atween the decks of a man o' war. But if I was five-and-twenty years younger, why, God bless my soul, I shouldn't hesitate a minute!'
The woman he had despatched immediately upon his entrance returned at this instant and coughed behind her hand to indicate her presence.
'All ready, Mary?' said Mr. Jervase in a ringing and cheery voice. 'That's well. Don't forget what I've told you, lads: fine young chaps like you ought not to desert their Queen and country in the hour of need. I'll keep my promise. Any one of you as takes the sergeant's shilling can claim a pound for bounty money from old Jack Jervase.'
So saying, he rolled, with a nautical gait, towards the door by which the domestic had re-entered the room, and having reached the stairfoot, and finding himself alone, he added, with a sudden snarl, 'I'd like to give three of ye a chance of earning a wooden leg anyhow—coming into my house and guzzling my best beer the very minute my back's turned on ye.'
He found a cheerful fire blazing in his own room, and dry clothing laid out before it. He began to undress, casting his coat into one corner of the room, with a gesture of exasperation, and his waistcoat into another. He tugged at his bootlaces angrily, muttering to himself meanwhile mere scraps of speech in which the words 'beer,' and 'waste,' and 'guzzling beasts,' were audible. When he had stripped completely, he gave himself a lusty towelling from head to foot, and then struggled into the warm, dry raiment prepared for him. As at the completion of his toilet he stood with a pair of stiff military brushes working at his hair and whiskers, before a big cheval glass, he looked eminently British for his day. The style is a little changing now, but the thick-set sturdy figure, the full paunch, the blunt scowling features, the cold grey eyes, the double chin, the firm yet sensual mouth, were all expressive of his type. The suit of pilot cloth into which he had changed gave him something of a seafaring look; but the high white collar, the shining black satin stock, the heavy gold chain which trailed across his waistcoat, and the clean-trimmed hirsute mutton-chop on either side the heavy jowl combined to make him intensely respectable to look at. He thrust his feet into a pair of wool-lined slippers, which he had left toasting till the last moment before the fire, and took his way downstairs, and along the passage which traversed the whole side of the house. His face was drawn into a heavy frown as he thrust open the door he came to, and he entered the room with a cough of magisterial importance. A tall, gaunt man, with stooping shoulders, rose to meet him, and the expression of Mr. Jervase's face changed as if by magic. Something of such a change had taken place between his looking in on the rustics assembled round his kitchen fire and his appearance amongst them. But now it was even swifter, and more pronounced.
'Why, General Boswell!' he cried. 'This is indeed an unexpected honour. I'm proud to see you, sir, beneath my 'umble roof. Jack Jervase wasn't a very distinguished servant of Her Majesty. He never held the Queen's commission, sir; but he fowt beneath his country's flag, and he'll always feel it an honour to welcome a superior officer of the sister arm.'
He said this with a laugh, and a roll of the head, as if to carry off by his own geniality any sense of presumption which might appear to lurk within his speech, and he bent low over the hand which was proffered to him.
The visitor's type was as pronouncedly English as John Jervase's own, and yet it could hardly have differed further from it if the two men had been inhabitants of planets strange to one another. John Jervase was British bourgeois from head to foot, and the General from crown to sole was an aristocrat. His very figure told the observer that, and the manly aquiline features and the mild, yet searching blue eye had never left an instant's doubt about it in the mind of any man. He was some six feet four in stature, and the slight stoop which sat upon his shoulders looked somehow as if it had been brought about by the innate courtesy of a man who could not refrain from bending to people of inferior stature. It scarcely detracted from the military character of his carriage, and, indeed, the General could stand up straight enough when he chose, as divers of the old incorrigibles who had been under his command in many climates knew full well. It was always a bad sign to one of these when he saw the General square his shoulders: and if, in addition to this, both hands were sent at the same time to twist the ends of the great drooping grey moustache, the old offender knew that his plight was serious indeed. Yet, for a grizzled old campaigner, who was now growing nigh to three score years, the General was marvellously mild and sweet in manner. His features, to be sure, were high, and in some of their signs a little harsh; but his mouth was very gentle in expression, and the large yet deepset eyes beamed with a kind simplicity. It was a common saying in his fighting days that Boswell's men would have followed him into hell. But children trusted and loved him at sight; and it was a pretty picture sometimes in his social hours to see him as the centre of a bevy of young girls—over whom he always seemed to exercise a perfectly unconscious fascination.
'You've been to town, Jervase, I understand,' said the General, 'What's the news there?'
'The news, sir,' said Mr. Jervase. 'The news, sir, has come at last, and by this time I suppose Her Majesty's forces have got their marching orders.'
'Do you mean it's war, Jervase?' cried the General.
'I mean it's war, sir,' Jervase answered. 'The latest news, before I came away, was that the Queen had sent a message to Parliament that negotiations with the Czar are broken off. The message goes on to say that Her Majesty relies upon her faithful subjects to protect the Sultan against the encroachments of Russia.'
His manners and his accent were alike more dignified than they had been when he addressed the rustic crowd. It could be seen that he had one manner for the kitchen and another for the parlour.
'At last!' said the General, half under his breath. 'At last! Well, everybody has seen it coming, and there——' he went on, turning upon his heel and speaking in a raised voice, 'there is your chance, Polson. You're a lucky dog, not even to have your commission from your agent's hands, and yet to be on the edge of the biggest campaign since Waterloo.'
A lad of three-and-twenty had risen from a seat in the corner of the room at the moment of John Jervase's entry. He had risen so hastily that he had overturned half a set of chessmen from the board on which he had been playing, into the lap of a pretty girl, his partner in the game; but he had listened so intently, from the General's first question, that he was unconscious of that slight mishap. He walked into the broader light which shone beneath the central lamp, and asked eagerly:
'There's no mistake about that, Dad? There's no mistake about it?'
The speaker was Jervase's son, as a stranger seeing them under the same roof would have been ready to swear at sight. He was taller than his father by a good four inches; and the family resemblance, striking as it was, did not pierce so deep as the expression of the face. The father's blunt features were softened in the boy's, and though the look of energy was there, it was altogether lifted and spiritualised—possibly, perhaps, by the intense feeling of the moment.
'And there'll be no mistake about my commission?' the young man asked. 'There's no fear of any delay, or any official nonsense?'
'I sent my cheque to the agent before I left the town,' his father answered, 'and I expect you'll get your call to boot and saddle within a day or two at the outside.'
The pretty girl who had been playing chess with the young man in the corner laid down the pieces which had fallen in her lap. She placed them on the board, with a meaningless precision, and looked straight before her with wide eyes, and a face which had slowly grown paler and more pale.
'Polson, my boy,' said the General, 'I congratulate you. You are a lucky fellow.' He held out his right hand, and as the young man grasped it, he laid his left upon his shoulder. 'They won't keep you long at the Depot,' he said, 'for a man who can shoot straight, and ride to hounds, is half a soldier already. God bless you, my lad. You'll do your duty well, I know.'
There was silence in the room, and the noise of the storm outside, which nobody had hitherto thought about, fell upon the ears of all four, as if it had not been a familiar tone for hours, but as if it had but awakened at that instant. They all stood listening, for by this time the girl also had risen from her seat, and had made an indeterminate movement forward towards the centre of the room. And out of the boom and thunder of the storm there suddenly came a wild clatter of horses' feet, and a heavy gate was heard to fall back upon its fastening. An instant later there was a mad tugging at the front door bell, and an insaner clatter at the knocker. Jervase himself rushed to answer this sudden and unexpected summons, and opening the door unguardedly, was blown back into the hall, from the walls of which every hanging picture and every garment were swept by the incoming blast, like leaves. It sounded as if the house were coming down.
A drenched, bareheaded figure staggered into the hall, wind-driven, and would have fallen had not Jervase clutched at it. The newcomer and the master of the house held on to each other, and Jervase panted hoarsely:
'You? What's the matter?' 'The matter?' said the new arrival. 'The matter's ruin!'
The clatter of the tumbling objects in the hall brought out the General and Jack Jervase's son. The girl peered with a whiter face than ever from the parlour doorway, and a fourth auditor came upon the scene in the person of an elderly woman in black satin and old lace, who rushed into the hall with frightened eyes and upraised hands, in time to hear the question and the answer.
To make clear what the question and the answer meant to the four people who heard them, I must go back a step.
Jack Jervase ran away from home when the nineteenth century was in its teens. He had left behind him a harum-scarum reputation, and, save for his father and mother, but a solitary relative of his own name. When he came back, with coin in pouch, and the story of a life of strange adventure behind him, the old folks had been dead a dozen years, and the solitary cousin, whom he had always derided as a pious sneak, had so far prospered in the world's affairs that he had left the old-fashioned conventicle in which he had had his spiritual upbringing, and had become a pillar of the Established Church. The cousin had been christened Jacob and Noakes; but he had embroidered himself into James Knock Jervoyce; the Knocks being a family of some distinction in his neighbourhood, and the name Jervoyce having, to his fancy, a Norman-French sort of aspect which seemed to lift its bearer to a superior social height. James had many irons in the fire, and seemed to be prosperously busy at the commercial anvil all day long. Amongst the business enterprises he had in hand, there was but one which at any time had appeared to yield him no return for his labours. He had lent money on the strength of the security afforded by a brine pit in the neighbourhood of Droitwich; and his creditor having failed in the stipulated payments, James had foreclosed upon this property and had undertaken to work it for himself. He found this enterprise a failure, but since he could induce nobody to take it off his hands, he worked the property for what it was worth from time to time. There were seasons in which the pit was almost dry, and when it was impossible to work it at a profit. There were other seasons when the underground sources treated him more favourably. A more decided man than Mr. Knock Jervoyce would probably have decided to abandon the property altogether, and to let one loss stand for everything. There was a considerable cost incurred in the upkeep of machinery which was much oftener idle than engaged; and the occasional employment of the plant was, of course, on the average much more expensive than its constant use would have been. James was on the point, after two or three years of indecision, of relinquishing the working altogether, when Cousin John came home. There was a conference between the two, and following on that conference a very strange thing happened. The worthless mine became a property, and one of the best of its kind in England. Five men knew how this result was brought about, and three of them had been for a good many years in the enjoyment of a pension—one in Australia, one in Canada, and one in the United States. These pensions were paid by Cousins John and James, and paid by no means willingly. Not to boggle at this matter, the two cousins, at John's instigation, had contrived a simple villainy. Very near to the unproductive salt pit was a noble property of the same kind, and John's device had been to tap the wealthy neighbour's store by running a little adit from the worthless shaft into the rich one. It was not an unheard-of thing for the value of such properties to fluctuate. A rich mine would pay out, and a poor one at a distance would become suddenly enriched; and these changes were, no doubt rightly, in the common instance attributed to the capricious operations of Nature. If the owner of the tapped sources of the cousins' wealth suspected anything to begin with nobody ever knew. The only fact with which we need concern ourselves is that the fraud went on without exposure for many years, and that James and John alike grew fat on it.
A certain hulking ruffian, with an Australian digger's beard, had turned up of late to disturb the tranquillity of the partners. He had been asking what they regarded as an exorbitant price for his silence in respect to the construction of that adit which has just been mentioned, and had been fobbed off from time to time with five or ten pounds, as the case might be, and with promises of more. Young Polson Jervase had caught this person slinking about the house on the Beacon Hill in what looked to him like a suspicious fashion, and an interview between the two had resulted in a stand-up fight in which the blackmailer had got very much the worst of it. But as he rose from the last round, and spat out the fragments of one or two broken teeth, he said things which filled the honourable and manly spirit of young Jervase with a terror to which he hardly dared to give a name. The terror would have named itself loudly enough if he had dared but to let it; but next to being an honourable man himself, the young fellow wanted to believe that he came of honest people, and the rascal's threats and innuendoes had left him with a dreadful doubt upon his mind.
The combat had taken place at the very gate of the grey-stone house, and the old lady in the black satin and the costly yellow lace had flown out at the finish of it in time to hear the threats and innuendoes which had brought such trouble to her boy. It was a hundred to one that young Polson Jervase would have been less disturbed if his mother, hearing these things, had not fallen to trembling and weeping and wringing her hands; for he argued, naturally, that she would not have been so dreadfully upset if she had not feared at least that there was some ground for the words which had been spoken in her hearing.
General Boswell had his concern in the matter, also. He was an admirable soldier, but a wretched man of business; and his monetary affairs had never prospered until he had entrusted them to the hands of the cousins Jervase & Jervoyce. Little by little he had been drawn on until the greater part of his investments lay at their control.
And now for the pretty girl who is staring with so alarmed and white a visage on the tumult of the hall. This is General Boswell's daughter, sole child of a late marriage, and the apple of his eye. She has been wandering quite consciously towards an engagement with young Polson; and expects him, with excellent reason, to declare himself at almost any hour. She knows of her father's association with Jervase & Jervoyce, and, indeed, it has been a familiar thing to her ever since she came to be of an age to understand.
Thus the brief and terrible colloquy between the cousins translates itself variously for every listener.
To John Jervase it cries out of guilt detected.
To Polson Jervase it speaks of half-a-dozen things at once; it awakes with a crushing sense of certainty that late suspicion; it tells him of the ruin of the one man whom he most loves and honours in this narrow world—not his father, but the grey old father of his sweetheart; it tells him in an instant of a life of narrow means for the girl he loves; it hurls his own hopes in the mire, and makes the very thought of them a dishonour; it snatches from him the bright prospect of the career on which he has set his heart, the gate to which stood wide open but a moment earlier. And all this in the tick of a watch, in the space of time filled by one agonised beat of the heart.
For the girl, whatever it may mean hereafter, it means for the moment nothing more than a confused leaping of two thoughts in one. Her mind is conscious only of a mingled cry of 'Polson!' and of 'Father!'
So Guilt stares at Guilt, and Terror and Suspicion stare at both of them; and the roaring wind and lashing rain make exclamation dumb.
Jervase was the first to recover himself. He thrust his cousin on one side, and butted towards the open door; but he strove in vain to close it, until his son and the General lent their aid. The hall was sown with broken glass and fragments of picture frames, and here and there an engraving lay wet and crumpled, but not even the housewife regarded these things for the time being.
John Jervase turned from the final struggle with the door, and looked about him. His face had lost its ruddy tint. His eyes stared, his mouth twitched, and his lips were of the colour of lead. The swaggering jocundity of his manner had all gone. The very stature of the man seemed changed, and the square width of his shoulders was shrunk and rounded. He moistened his leaden lips three times with his tongue, and each time tried to speak in vain.
'Come in,' he said at last, in a harsh and rasping voice. And they all moved automatically into the parlour, he leading them.
They grouped there at the end of the centre table, and the instinct of the trembling housewife so far awoke within her that she closed the door, lest the servants and hangers-on about the house should hear what she knew was coming.
James Jervoyce, a mean-statured man, of meaner feature, with his hair plastered about his forehead by the rain, and the water dripping from his cape, stood as the centre of all eyes. His face was of the hue of grey paper, and he gasped for breath, and trembled.
'Pol,' said John Jervase, waving his right hand blindly, 'give me—give me the decanter and a tumbler.'
Both lay near at hand, and Jervase, having primed himself with a great gulp of neat brandy, spoke again.
'Now, James,' he asked, 'what's the matter? What do you mean by coming here to scare a peaceful house in this wild fashion?'
The accent was the accent of his youth, the broadest speech of the Castle Barfield region. James seemed incapable of answer, and his cousin, laying a hand anew upon the decanter, filled the glass almost to the brim, and held it out to him.
'Get a heart into you,' he said gruffly, 'and speak out!'
The timider of the guilty pair drank unwarily, not knowing what was offered to him, and fell into a fit of coughing. The rest awaited him in a tense expectation. At last he controlled himself, and spoke, sipping from time to time to moisten his dry lips.
'You know,' he said, glancing at the floor and at the faces round him alternately, 'you know that when old General Airey died, that young cub De Blacquaire came into the Droitwich property.'
'Well,' said John Jervase, 'we know that. Go on. What about it?'
'You know,' said James, 'that his property and ours neighboured each other. The young skunk has trumped up a charge against us of having tapped his brine, and having lived on the property of his estate for twenty years past.'
'Well,' said—John Jervase, 'that's a pretty cool piece of impudence, to be sure! But what is there to make a howl about?'
'He has got some suborned evidence from somewhere,' James answered, 'some scoundrels who pretend that they were employed by you and me to do the work.'
'Well,' said John once more, 'what is there in that to make a howl about? Is there no law in England—is there no way of making a fool and a knave smart for it, if they see fit to assail the reputation of two honest men like you and me, James? 'His voice began to take something of its old ring. 'I wonder at you—tearin' up like a madman at this time o' night, and in this weather, with a yam like that. Why, man, what's come to you? Missus,' he turned towards his wife, 'tell one of the wenches to get James a change, and when he's done that well sit down in quiet, and talk this matter over.'
'De Blacquaire!' he went on, as his wife left the room to obey his order. 'De Blacquaire, indeed! Who's De Blacquaire?
It'll go pretty hard with you and me, James, if we can't put down a pound between us where he can put down twenty shillings. And libel's libel in this country, James, and them as chooses to talk it can be made to pay for it And any man as assaults the honest fame of Jack Jervase has got Jack Jervase to tackle, my lad. I've fowt the Queen's enemies, and I've fowt my own, and I'll stand fightin' till I die.'
'My dear Jervase,' said the General. 'My dear Mr. James! I need not tell you, I am sure, how entirely certain I am that a very grievous error has been made in this matter. But I can't understand—I really cannot understand—why an absurd charge of that sort should be at all disturbing to you.' He turned upon Mr. James with an air of mild remonstrance, and laid a friendly hand upon his shoulder. 'Really, really, really,' he said, 'I thought you had more courage.'
Mr. James was for the moment entirely deprived of that most useful quality. What with the chill which was coming upon him after a hasty and dangerous ride in that pelting rain and bitter wind through which he had travelled, and what with the perturbation of his spirit, he trembled like a shaken jelly, and his eyes were full of terror. John Jervase, obviously with the intent to make a diversion, turned upon him with a question.
'Didn't you come on horseback? 'he asked. His cousin stared at him with an idiotic want of apprehension of the question's meaning. 'Didn't you come on horseback?' Jervase asked more loudly than before.
'I—I suppose so,' stammered James.
'Suppose so! 'his cousin snarled at him, laying an unfriendly hand upon him and jolting him roughly to and fro. 'You came on a horse, didn't you? And if you didn't, how the devil did you get here?'
'Yes, yes, John,' the trembling rascal answered. 'I came on horseback, to be sure—of course I came on horseback. How else,' he asked feebly, 'could I have got here on a night like this?'
'Then where's the horse? 'Jervase demanded.
'I don't know,' said James. 'He has been here before, he knows his way to the stables. I—I heard him clattering off in that direction, I am almost sure.' He made a pitiable attempt to collect himself, and prattled on. 'Oh, yes, I am quite sure now—he clattered off towards the stables—I remember—he has been here before, and he would know his way. He's in the grounds in any case, for I know that the gate closed behind him.'
'Why didn't you stop for half a minute, anyhow? 'asked Jervase, who was glad of a chance to recover a seeming of composure for himself under the shelter of a pretended anger. 'Why didn't you give somebody the word in place of leaving a valuable beast like that wandering about in a tempest?
'I don't know,' James answered, as feebly as ever. 'I was in a hurry to get in.'
At this his cousin's temper broke altogether, or he was willing to relieve the tension of his own mind by allowing it to seem as if it did so.
'Of all the funking, skunking, silly cowardly devils——'
The General took him by the arm with a commanding grip.
'You forget, my good Jervase, you forget—my daughter is present, and she is not accustomed to have her ears assailed by that sort of language.'
'I beg your pardon,' said Jervase, suddenly cooling down. 'I beg ten thousand pardons—I beg Miss Irene's pardon most of all. I forgot myself, and I apologise.'
He bowed to the girl and fell to pacing up and down the room, casting glances of wrath at the messenger of ill news.
The General, fearing a new outburst, turned to the old lady with his courtliest air.
'We are all a little agitated for the moment by the strange tidings Mr. Jervoyce has brought us, and they involve some matters of business about which it will be better for us to hold a consultation between ourselves. Will you be so very kind as to take Irene elsewhere for a little while? 'His voice and manner were perfectly composed, and his face lit up with one of his rare sweet smiles as he added: 'I do not believe, my dear Mrs. Jervase, that I have ever, in the whole course of my three-score years, so far transgressed as to drive a lady from her own parlour, until now.'
'We will go,' said Mrs. Jervase, and the General stepping to the door threw it open, and stood for his hostess and his daughter to go by. Irene looked first at young Polson Jervase with a glance of fear and inquiry, and the young fellow responded to it only by a curt nod of the head, as much as to say 'Go! 'She looked into her father's face as she passed through the doorway, and the old man smiled down on her reassuringly.
'This will all be over in a few minutes, dear,' he said, 'and then I will send for you.' He closed the door gently, and tinned to face the trio in the room.
'I have apologised to the ladies,' said Jervase, 'already; but I owe an apology to you, General. I'm very sorry that my temper carried me back to my old seafaring manners; but,' with a savage look at his cousin, 'a coward's my loathing. I hate the sight of a coward worse than I hate the smell of a rotten egg.'
'Let us try to understand things,' said the General. 'Mr. James has brought his tidings in such a manner that they are evidently very serious to his mind. Had he brought them coolly I should have smiled at them. As it is, I think we must come to an explanation.'
'Certainly, General,' Jervase answered. 'Let us come to an explanation. Get on, James. Who's this suborned rascal you have been telling us about?'
James began to pull off his dripping overcoat, which by this time had left a little pond of water on the carpet round about him, and to fumble in the inner breast pocket of it. 'There are three of them,' he answered, and for a while he said no more. The General looked from him to John Jervase, and back again, and if his face were at all an index to his mind, he saw something which did not please him. His stooping shoulders straightened, and one hand went up to stroke the grey moustache. His brows straightened, his mild grey-blue eye grew stern, and his mouth was ruled into a straight line. The fact was that the General had had an almost lifelong experience in the great art of reading men, and though he had preserved a child-like simplicity in his dealings with the world, the fact was due a thousand times more to the charity of his heart than to any want of penetration. He was one of those who suspect nothing until suspicion is actually shaken awake, and who then see with a piercing clearness signs which would escape many who pride themselves upon their shrewdness. And when James Jervoyce faltered out the words, 'There are three of them! 'John Jervase gave a start and a look which indicated an instant understanding.
'He knows those three,' said General Boswell to himself.
'De Blacquaire's lawyer gave me their names to-day,' said Jervoyce, who had by this time found what he had been fumbling for in the pocket of his overcoat. 'Here they are.'
He reached out a crumpled piece of paper to his cousin, who took it from him, and, after a single glance at it, started again, and, pale as he was already, grew still paler.
'He knows those three,' said the General, voicelessly, and without a spoken word reached forward and took the crumpled page from Jervase's unresisting hand.
There was what seemed like a long silence, though in reality it endured only for a few seconds, whilst General Boswell searched for his gold-rimmed reading glasses, and balanced them on the bridge of that high Quixote nose. By and by, he began to read with great slowness and deliberation, pausing at every other instant to direct a look of calm inspection from John to James, and back again. 'William Ford,' he read, Ninth Avenue, Freemans Town, Ontario.' He paused after the name of the man—he paused after the name of the street—he paused after the name of the town, and he paused again when he had completed the reading of the address. The last pause was longer than the others had been, and he resumed his reading like a man of ice. 'William Buckle, Lafayetteville, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. George Lightfoot, late of Melbourne, now in England.'
He laid the paper down upon the table with a firm hand, and with a slight shake of the head threw the glasses from their place. 'Do you know these men?' he asked, directing his inquiry to Jervoyce.
'No,' he said, 'I never heard of any one of 'em.' His shifty eye tried in vain to meet his questioner's, and he began to fumble nervously with other papers which he had drawn from his pocket in his search for the first.
'It needs no penetration to discover that this man is lying,' said the General to himself. He addressed his question to John Jervase, who made shift somehow to meet his look. 'Do you know these men?' he asked.
'No,' John answered, 'I never heard of one of them. It's a conspiracy,' he cried, suddenly, 'that's what it is! It's a conspiracy! Quit shaking, you wretched coward! Stand up and fight this infernal libel like a man. Ain't there two of us? If this wicked charge is brought against James Knock Jervoyce, ain't it brought as well against Jack Jervase, his cousin and his partner? Look at me! You don't see me shivering and shaking like a frightened rabbit with a weasel after him.'
'Ah! 'cried James, in a weak exasperation, 'it all very well for you. It might mean loss of money to you at the worst; but I'm the man they're going for.'
'Oh,' said John, 'you are, are you? And why's that?'
'Stubbs told me this afternoon,' said James, c that he could smash me dead, but so far he has no particle of evidence against you.'
A light sprang into the burly scoundrel's eyes. He veiled it in an instant, but not before two of the quartette there present had read it. The boy turned away, groaning, and the General looked after him with a face from which all sternness disappeared for a moment.
'Poor lad! 'he said, within doors. 'Poor lad!'
'Now, look here,' said John Jervase, 'they haven't got any evidence agen you any more than they have agen me. The whole thing's a put-up job. If it was De Blacquaire's doing, he'd have gone for me rather than for you, because he always hated me, and I've put him down more than once or twice at Petty Sessions, and taught him to know his place. But De Blacquaire's an officer and a gentleman'—he made a burly bow towards the General—' and I don't suppose for a minute that he'd be guilty even of dreaming of such a piece of rascality as this. It's much more likely to be some pettifogging lawyer's game—some sneaking rogue that's got these fellow-rascals round him, with an idea of doing a little bit of blackmail. Stubbs is a decent fellow—for a lawyer. I don't think Stubbs would have a finger in that sort of pie, any more than his master. But Stubbs has been got at; that's how it'll turn out, you bet. Keep your pecker up, James,' he added, in a tone which the patron and the bully spoke at once. 'Well take care of you. Just you trust to old Jack Jervase—that's your game, my lad. He'll fight the battle for the pair of us.'
Between his pretence of having thought the matter out impartially, and his other pretence of encouraging his timid relative, he had talked himself back into something like his common aspect, and his common manner; and there was a little of the nautical swagger in the few steps he took towards the table, where he applied himself again to the decanter.
Just then a knock sounded at the door, and the voice of the domestic from the kitchen was heard saying that Mr. James's change of clothes was ready for him in the master's bedroom.
'You know your way, James,' said Jervase. 'You'd better get into dry toggery at once. The missus will have a bedroom ready for you in half an hour. Meanwhile, you go and change; and when you come back we'll forget this nonsense over a bowl of punch. We've both had a drenching this wild night, and we shall neither of us be the worse for a good Captain's nip.'
James stole furtively away, making himself as small as possible, and the General's eye followed him to the door.
'Jervase,' said the General, with a suspicion of satire in his voice, 'your cousin seems to take this ridiculous matter rather seriously.'
'I don't know why he should, sir,' Jervase answered. 'He's had an honest reputation all his life. Now what is there in this,' he went on, taking up the scrap of writing the General had laid upon the table, 'what is there in this to frighten anybody? Who's William Ford, of Ontario, for instance? William Buckle, U.S.A.—who's he? And what's this other fellow's name—George Lightfoot, late of Melbourne, now in England——'
'Why!' cried Polson, suddenly, 'that's the very blackguard I——'
He paused suddenly, and turned with a gesture of dismay. He had given himself no time to calculate the significance of the words he had used, and they were no sooner spoken than he knew intuitively that he had at least in part betrayed his father. A lad of a more honest impulse and conduct could not have been found in all England; but even if his father were a rogue—and the belief that he was nothing short of that had already shocked him to the heart—it was not a son's business to betray him. It was the son's concern to suffer his own share of shame, if shame should come, and to preserve a front of unshaken confidence. Polson was frozen at his own indiscretion.
'That is the blackguard,' said the General, with a certain silky quiet which had in his time grown to be very terrible to people who had come to understand its meaning, 'that is the blackguard, Polson? Be good enough to enlighten us a little further. You have some acquaintance with Lightfoot, late of Melbourne, now in England, though your father has no knowledge of him.'
'What do you know about any fellow of that name?' Jervase asked wrathfully. 'What bee have you got in your bonnet?'
'Let us see the bee, Polson, let us see the bee.'
'Why, sir,' said Polson, turning with outspread hands of appeal, 'it comes to nothing. It happened a week or two ago that I found a hulking fellow with a digger's beard and a red shirt—one of those chaps we've seen lately back from Ballarat and Geelong—skulking about outside the gate. I asked him what he wanted, and he was drunk and abusive, and—well, I had to give him a hiding.'
'Yes,' said the General, 'you had to give him a hiding. Why?'
'I've told you, sir,' Polson stammered. 'The fellow was drunk, and—when I ordered him away, he got so beastly cheeky that I had to go for him.'
'Before this happened,' said the General, somewhat drawling on the words, 'you exchanged cards and confidences?' Polson stretched out his hands again in appeal, and the General, looking at him with a countenance impassive as the Sphinx, felt a pang of pity in his heart, for the lad was a good lad, and the old warrior knew it, and he had been near to loving him, this past half-dozen years. And the boy was not merely pale with the suffering of his mind, but his very eyes had lost their colour, as a man's eyes do when he has received a shot in battle. The General knew that look, and had seen it in the eyes of dying comrades. It touched him nearly, but he gave no sign. 'Why did the man tell you his name, and that he came from Melbourne?'
'He said,' Polson returned, desperately, 'that he wanted to see Mr. Jervase, and that he meant to see him. He said my father would wish anybody in hell who tried to hide him. That's all, sir.'
'And you, Jervase,' said the General, 'never heard of this man?'
'Never in my life,' Jervase answered bluntly. 'The world's gone mad, I fancy. Everybody's making a fuss about a thing that'll be forgotten in a week's time. Why didn't you,' he continued, turning sternly upon Polson, 'why didn't you tell me about this?'
'A man can't make a shindy about it every time he has a turn-up with a tramp,' Polson answered. 'I didn't think it worth while to talk about it.'
'Polson,' said the General, 'I've known you since you were no higher than my knee, and I've never had a shadow of a reason to doubt your word. I don't want you to turn informer and I shan't ask you another question. You had better leave your father and myself to talk this out together.'
'No, sir,' said Polson, 'there's trouble in the house, and I'm going to stay here, unless I get my father's orders to go away.'
Now John Jervase was undoubtedly a good deal of a rogue, but no man is all of a piece, and he had one or two good characteristics. Amongst them was a true and deep affection for his only son, and if at the beginning of his career he had had any such hope of honour and credit as his son had bidden fair to bring him as he neared the close of it, he would have made a better man. Polson's quietly expressed resolve pinched him a little inwardly, and he gave the boy a glance of gratitude.
'I don't say go, lad—I say stay. I've honoured and respected General Boswell since we first came to be neighbours, twenty years ago; and now I should have a very poor eye indeed if I couldn't see that he's on the way to lose his respect for me, if events don't change his mind. But if there's anything to be browt against Jack Jervase, let Jack Jervase's lad stand by and hear it, and see how his father takes the ackisation.'
'Very well, Jervase,' said the General. 'We will have it so. I have an interest in this affair, and I must tell you plainly that your manner is so very strange that I feel scarcely comfortable under it. You are a business man, and you must not object to my using business terms. Very nearly the whole of my fortune is invested in your hands. If your credit is seriously shaken, and, above all, if it is shaken by such a charge as is now being brought against the firm, my daughter and I are on the verge of ruin. It wouldn't greatly matter about an old campaigner like myself, for I am not yet so far broken that I can't still run in harness. But I have my little girl to think of, and for her sake I am going to do my duty, as a business man, however unpleasant it may be to me to do it.'
'The scandal can't touch you, sir.' The General smiled sternly.
'It can't touch me in one way, but it may break my fortune. Now answer me this one question. What is the worth of the brine which has been pumped up from our workings since the firm of Jervase & Jervoyce began to prosper in that enterprise?'
'I can tell you that, sir, roughly, in the turn of a hand. First and last, two hundred thousand pounds. That may be a thousand wrong on one side or the other—it may even be five thousand wrong on the one side or the other—but I'll guarantee that it's not more than that.'
'So that if this claim, whether by fair means or by foul, could be established, the firm could be made responsible in a Civil Court for that sum.'
'Exactly, sir. The case being established, the firm would be responsible for every penny.'
'And for how large a share,' the General asked, 'am I personally responsible?'
'Each member of the firm,' Jervase answered, 'is responsible in his own person for the whole amount. There's no limitation of liability.'
The conversation was marked by less excitement than it had been on the one side, and by a more business-like manner on the other.
'You needn't fear, sir,' said Jervase. 'James and I are good to meet the whole of the obligations, and, apart from that, these fellows who are being brought up against us are the very scum of the earth. I don't suppose that any Court of Law would listen to them.'
'No?' asked the General, with sudden keenness. 'And why are they the very scum of the earth? You don't know the men?'
Jervase was visibly disconcerted. He stammered as he answered:
'Why, what else but the scum of the earth can they be, to have trumped up a lying case like this?'
''Mph!' said the General. 'Be that as it may, as a partner in this concern, I may conceivably be made liable for two hundred thousand pounds?'
'That's the law, sir.'
'That being so, I must take this business into my own hands. Until I am legally advised to a contrary action I shall take no step without informing you of it. But the thing is too serious to be neglected, and I have little liking for your way of meeting it, Jervase, though I like your cousin's less.'
After this declaration, there was silence for the space of a full minute, and then James came back, his slight figure absurdly costumed in his cousin's clothes, which were too long for him in the arm, too short in the leg, and too full everywhere.
'Your cousin and I, Mr. Jervoyce,' said the General, 'have arrived at a partial understanding, and I must make the position clear as between you and myself. When did you first hear of this accusation?'
'To-day,' said James. 'Never a word until to-day.'
'When did you hear of this man Light-foot, late of Melbourne, and now in England?' James cast a piteously beseeching eye towards Jervase, and the General held out a hand towards the latter as if to interdict the speaking of a word. He repeated his question. 'When did you first hear of the man Lightfoot, late of Melbourne? Now, come, sir,' the General cried, in a voice of command, 'you are here to answer that question on your own responsibility. You don't choose to answer? Now, the story is that these men have been blackmailing you. Assuming that story to be true, they have been paid, and it is evident that there must be some means of discovering the channel through which payments have been made. Are you prepared to submit to an examination of your books?'
'I am,' said John Jervase, 'willingly, at any moment.'
'You!' cried James.
'And not you?' said the General. 'Well, that simplifies matters.'
The wretched James had all but surrendered himself to fate a quarter of an hour before, and now, seeing that he had betrayed himself, he cast the case up altogether, and, throwing both arms upon the table, fell on his knees beside it, dropped his face upon his hands, and began to whimper.
'Wait a bit, sir,' cried John Jervase. 'Now just wait one minute and I'll put the case before you. Here are the facts. I should be obliged if you would take a seat, sir, and allow me to do the same.' He moved a chair towards the table with great deliberation, sat down leisurely, reached out for the decanter, filled his glass, emptied it and set it down—all with a certain look of weighty purpose. 'I'm going to make a clean breast of it, sir. I should leave James to do it if he was capable of doing anything but whimper like a kicked charity boy. It's a bit to my discredit to speak the plain truth, because I've got to admit that I have certainly made an effort to deceive you. That isn't creditable, and it goes again the grain to admit it. I said I didn't know this fellow Lightfoot. That was a lie. I know him well. I told the lie to shelter James.'
James lifted a beslobbered face, stared at the speaker for a single instant, and then allowed his head to fall upon his hands again.
'I did it to shelter James,' Jervase repeated, and as he spoke he dealt his cousin a sharp kick beneath the table, as if to bespeak that worthy gentleman's particular attention. 'James, to tell the truth about him, since it must be told, has always had two sides to him. He was a solid chapel-goer till he was thirty, and he was a deacon or an elder, or something of that sort; but he always had some little game on on the sly, and he always succeeded in keeping his Piccadillies pretty quiet. When he began to make money, he went over to the Church and took the plate round at collecting time, and got to be a sidesman, and a trustee, and I don't know what all. He never married, but he's never been without a quiet little home of his own, with a lady at the head of the table—have ye, James?'
James groaned, but made no verbal answer.
'Now this loafer of a Lightfoot had a sister, and in respect of her, there's no doubt about it that something discreditable might have been laid to James. For once in his life, he acted like a fool, and he wrote the girl a pile of letters. This fellow Lightfoot got hold of 'em, and he's made James pay through the nose ever since. Now the girl's dead, and the thing's so old, James has refused to keep this lazy beggar in his idleness and his dissipations any longer. The fellow's tried to frighten him with the letters, and, failing in that, he's worked up this lie against the firm, has got two more blackguards to swear to it, seemingly, and there's the whole truth about the matter. I suppose they've got up some sort of a case, or Stubbs wouldn't be looking at it. But we shall blow it all to smithereens when we get them in the witness box. Now, that's the whole of the matter. Speak for yourself, James—make a clean breast of it. Isn't that the truth? I haven't exaggerated your iniquities, and you may just as well own up to 'em.'
He kicked his cousin a second time again by way of warning, and James looked up for a second time, and being fortified by the expression of his cousin's face, he spoke.
'It's horribly humiliating to have those things said,' he gasped. 'But that is the truth about the whole transaction, General. God forgive me—it's many years ago. But that's the miserable truth.'
'I think,' said the General, rising from the seat he had taken at his host's invitation, 'that it is time for me to go home.'
'You can't do that, sir,' cried Polson. 'It's impossible. The weather is worse than ever. Think of Irene going out in such a storm as this! You were weatherbound here hours ago, and listen to it now. No carriage could live on the hillside to-night.'
'That is probably true,' said the General with great dryness. 'And since I am forced to intrude myself upon your hospitalities, I will ask you, Polson, to be good enough to show me to my room.'
He walked from the apartment without further speech, Polson following him; and when the sound of footsteps in the passage had died, John Jervase rose and closed the door.
'Well, James,' he said with a grating laugh, 'that cock didn't fight anyhow.'
The oil-lamp which hung in the hall was flickering uncertainly as Polson and the General walked towards the foot of the staircase, leaving the passage in darkness for a second or two at a time, and then flaring up with an unwonted brilliance. The young man took a bedroom candle from a table at the stairfoot, lit it, and motioned the General to precede him. He, altogether military in gait, with his shoulders squared to the utmost, marched upstairs as if he were heading an assault by escalade. Polson followed, drooping.
'This is your room, sir,' the young man said when they came to the end of the corridor on which they had entered. He threw open the door, and revealed a cheerful scene. Tall wax candles flamed here and there, a great fire burned with a steady glow on the hearth, and the rich dark maroon curtains and hangings of the room gave it a secluded, sheltered, and homely look which under other circumstances would have been wholly comfortable by contrast with the elemental war outside. The General walked into the apartment bolt upright, and Polson stood with the door handle in his grasp, waiting to catch his eye for a single instant that he might say good-night. The elder man wheeled suddenly.
'Come in!' he said. 'Come in and close the door.' Polson obeyed, wondering what was about to happen. 'I suspect,' Boswell began, 'that I shall have cause to be sorry for myself and for somebody much dearer to me than myself before this business is over. But I am sorry for you, in the meantime, my lad, and I want to tell you that you will have to revise your ideas a little.'
'As to what, sir?' asked Polson.
'Unless I am very much mistaken,' the elder went on, 'the business which has been sprung upon us to-night will take some time to settle, and will make more noise in the world than either you or I will care to hear. You can't go into the army with this hanging over you.'
'I had made up my mind about that already,' said the youngster.
'Well,' the General returned, 'it's a bitter pill for you to swallow, and, as I have said, I am sorry for you. It will not be easy for you to be on terms of intimate friendship with a man who is compelled to fight your father tooth and nail, and there is nothing else for it at this moment but for you and me to say good-bye. Things may right themselves, but I see no use in mincing matters, and I tell you the honest truth when I say that I don't believe it, and that for the moment I don't even hope for it. There are some men,' he added, 'who can't afford to treat themselves to violent emotions, and Mr. James Knock Jervoyce is one of them. I hope your father may be able to clear himself of all complicity; but that man's a rascal whatever happens.'
'Good-bye, sir,' said Polson.
'Good-bye,' the General answered. He held out his hand, but Polson did not see that friendly gesture, and he walked from the room quite broken, his chin fallen upon his breast, and his broad shoulders rounded with despondency. He went straight to his own room, and there also, after the generous fashion of the countryside, a cheerful fire was burning. It had fallen to a settled ruby glow, and though it filled the room with warmth, it afforded but little light. Polson sat down in the shadow, and stared at the heart of the fire. Outside, the wind howled and wailed, as if in alternate wild triumph and wild mourning; and the rain beat upon the window panes in driving sheets. But he heard no sound and was unconscious of his immediate surroundings. Only two hours ago he had been sitting in sweet nearness to the girl he loved; and he had been transcendently and tumultuously happy. How happy he had not known until the blow came which had dashed the structure of his life to pieces. He had always longed for a career in the army, and the rumours of war which had flown so thickly for the past year and a half had served naturally to set a keener edge to his desire. A commission had not seemed a very likely thing to hope for at one time, for in the years before the Crimean War the sons of the British bourgeoisie were not very welcome in the British army. But as his father had climbed hand-over-hand to wealth, and as one local honour after another had fallen upon him, the prospect grew clearer. Now, John Jervase for three years had held the Commission of the Peace, and had taken a part in politics which had made him something of a figure in the district. He was above all the poor man's friend, and had become a great authority on working-man economics. He had been foremost in the local movement for the establishment of the Penny Bank, and had printed a pamphlet which somebody else had written to his order, which had brought him into a favourable prominence. The commission for which Polson yearned grew nearer and nearer in prospect, and at last he had almost placed his hand upon it. Now it was gone—gone, in all probability, beyond retrieval, and that alone would have been enough for an average grief. Yet it was barely a tithe of the sudden burden he had to bear. He had lost Irene, and any man who has ever been seriously in love knows what that may mean to the heart of three-and-twenty. And even this was not all, for he had lost his father—lost irrevocably the bluff, outspoken, honourable man of whom, in spite of the occasionally disturbing vulgarities of his manner, he had all his life been proud. Confusedly and slowly the sense of all these losses surged upon him. Now one was uppermost in his mind, and now another; but they were always linked together in one leaden feeling of heavy misery. He sat motionless for a full half-hour, staring at the fire. At last a single dry sob, which shook him from head to foot, escaped him. He rose with a bulldog shake of the head, threw back his shoulders, and walked resolutely but slowly down the staircase. He would have it out then and there, he declared to himself, and would come to an understanding with his father. He would actually know the truth without disguise, and, having learned it, would decide upon the conduct of his future life. There was no thought of desertion in his mind, but there was a great longing to be at action, to be striving with something for a settled purpose; and no settled purpose was possible for him until he and his father could stand heart to heart and face to face, with all pretence between them broken down.
The hall lamp had flickered out, as it had threatened to do, and he groped his way in darkness, though at another moment he would have walked with the sure foot of custom blindfold about the house. Somehow, the whole tide of his purpose seemed suddenly to ebb. He became conscious of the night, and stood in the dark to listen to its wild voices. There were other voices in the air, for he could hear his father speaking in a deep, loud hum, and Jervoyce answering from time to time in a treble like that of an hysteric woman. He felt his way to a hall chair which had its place close to the parlour door, and sat down there to wait until he should find his father alone. He could hear no words from where he sat, but through all the plangent noises of the storm he could discern anger and command in his father's voice, and a querulous appeal which had a note of rage in it in the voice of his father's companion. He paid but little heed, for his heart was growing numbed, and no distinct thought any longer found a place in his mind. Sitting there in the dark and the cold, he grew barely conscious of his own pain. This is Nature's mercy. When the wound is beyond bearing she draws away the sufferer's consciousness, and an extremity of agony brings its own relief, if only for a little while. A dull ache of respite follows the keener agonies alike of bodily and of mental pain. So he sat there, dulled and numb and empty, and for the moment he cared for nothing.
A gleam of light and the sound of a coming footstep awoke him to a knowledge of his surroundings. He did not wish to be found there sitting miserably in the dark, and he arose, and stood uncertain in what direction to move. The light grew clearer and nearer, and as it turned the corner he saw that it was carried by Irene. He forgot his impulse towards flight, and stood rooted, staring as if he beheld a vision. The little figure came forward with uncertain footsteps, one hand holding the candlestick overhead and the other groping for the wall. The feet trod with a. harsh sound on one or two fragments of broken glass which had escaped the housemaid's broom. A yearning ache filled him as the girl came nearer, for he saw that her eyes were blind with tears. There was no distortion of the features, save that the small mouth quivered; and the shining drops brimmed over heavily and silently. Not a sigh escaped her, and she came on like a figure in a dream. He moved forward involuntarily, and her name sprang to his lips.
She paused and pressed her disengaged hand upon her eyes to clear them of that bitter rain. Then she looked up at him in silence, and the big tears began to well over, shining like diamonds as they fell to the bosom of her dress. It was to be his last sight of her in his own home. He knew it, and his own heart was like cold iron in his breast. She made a picture never to be forgotten; a picture to be recalled on stormy nights at sea; in many a lonely hour of contemplation on alien shores; in many hours of sickness and delirium, in summer heats among the vineyards on the banks of Alma, in winter frosts in the trenches of Sevastopol; in convalescent wanderings amid the dumb reminders of English dead at Scutari; and later, too, in happy hours when the storms of youth were over, and manhood's heart had found safe anchorage, and the dear head was touched with silver.
She stood there weeping, and he had no power to comfort her—no right to comfort her.
'Good-bye, Irene.' He had the right at least to say that to the sweetheart of his boyhood, and the chosen idol of his young manhood's heart. 'I have seen your father, dear, and whatever there might have been, it's all over. Good-bye, and—God bless you, always. Always. Always.'
'I have seen him, too,' she answered, and though the tears rained down as fast as ever, there was no break in the sweet quiet voice. 'Good-bye. God bless you.'
This was all their farewell, save that when she turned away with that uncertain groping of the hand he took it in his own and guided it to the rail of the staircase. He watched her as she slowly mounted the stairs, with the light of the candle falling on her hair, and turning its brown masses to dark gold. All her figure was in shadow, and the dim gold head seemed to float upward until it vanished at the turning of a corner, and the feint light on the wall grew fainter. Then he heard the soft opening of a door, and before it closed again, one sob reached his ears, and stabbed the heart that had laid within him like cold iron; and he knew that all her self-control had broken down. The door closed swiftly, shutting out the last ray of light reflected from the wall, and he found his way back to his chair, and sat there doggedly fighting with himself, and praying for Heaven's mercy on her, until his eyes tingled as if they had been pricked by a needle. Whether he would have it so or no, the tears came, and as he hid his face in his hands, they dripped between his fingers to the floor. He was but three-and-twenty, and the first passion of the pain of life was upon him.
The door at his side was opened stealthily, and his father spoke almost at his ear, in a harsh whisper.
'Hillo! The hall's dark. They've all gone to bed, I suppose. Now don't let's have any more chatter. Spain's the land for you, my lad. You'll start first thing tomorrow. You lie low, and leave me to work things for the pair of us if I can. If I see that the game's going against us I shall follow. Good God, what's that?'
'I am here, father,' said Polson, rising. 'I have been waiting to speak to you.' Jervase started violently at his unexpected voice, and half recoiled into the room behind him.
'You're here?' he said, advancing with clenched hands. 'What are you doing here? Eavesdropping?'
'No, sir,' said Polson more sternly than he had ever spoken in his life till then. 'That isn't my line of country, and you know it. I want to speak to you.'
'Go to your room,' said his father, hissing from between clenched teeth. 'Go to your room, sir, and be damned to you.'
'I have meant to speak to you,' Polson answered, 'since I had time to think this night's work over, and after what I heard just now, I mean it more than ever.'
He entered the room and his father gave way before him. He had forgotten the evident traces of his recent tears, and stood with his eyelashes still glistening and his cheeks wet and scalded. But his brows were drawn level and his jaw was thrust out beneath the tightened lips in a way which brought out the family likeness with amazing force.
'Well,' said his father. 'Say your say, and go.'
'I shall say my say,' the younger man responded. 'Spain is not the place. Castle Barfield is the place. The Beacon Hill is the place. This house is the place.'
'So you have been eavesdropping?'
'You know I haven't,' Polson answered in cold disdain. 'But I'm not going to follow that red herring. I say Spain's not the place—unless——'
He choked and stammered and could go no further.
'Unless—oh, my God! how can I say it? Unless my father and his cousin are a brace of rascals.'
'That's pretty language from an only son.'
'Yes. It's pretty language. Give me a chance to take it back, and change it.'
'Sit down,' said Jervase, pointing to a chair. His son obeyed him, and he took a seat at the opposite side of the table, leaning both his arms forward ponderously. 'Now, you and me have got to have this out, I see.'
'Yes,' the young man answered, repressing a sick shudder. 'We must have it out, father.'
'Very well; I suppose you believe the yarn these chaps have pitched to Stubbs?'
'What am I to believe?'
'Suppose it's true, what do you think is going to happen?'
'Shame and ruin to us all,' said Polson.
'As for shame—maybe yes—most likely no. As for ruin—that's as I please.'
'That's as I please, I tell you. If this here idiot hadn't come bursting in and yelping out his story as he did, we could have managed some sort of a compromise quite easy. As it is, we've got our own partner again us. You can guess what sort of a chance that'd give us in a court of justice. Now you remember, Polson. This ain't a civil perceeding. The minute they get them chaps over from Canada and the States it's a criminal prosecution. D'ye want to see your own father in the dock? I don't, and so I tell you. He isn't going to stand there—you may bet your life to that, and say I told you. If I can get this braying jackass, this leaking sieve, this trembling, yowking lady's lapdog out o' the way I can face things.'
'You can say what you like about me, John,' said Mr. Jervoyce.
'Thank you for nothing,' John answered. 'That's my privilege without your leave or with it.'
'It's all true, is it?' asked Polson, drearily.
'Yes. It's all true. But look here, Polson, when this fool's out o' the way we can make a fight for credit. It's him as deserves to suffer, and it's him as has got to suffer to begin with.'
'Me!' cried James. 'Me that deserves to suffer? Who was it put the thing into my mind? Who was it that came time and time and time again to whisper into my ear, and tell me where I could find the men—and—and—and everything? Why curse you——!'
'Look here,' said John Jervase. 'You're a sidesman and a trustee, and the Lord alone knows what all. Be decent in your language.'
'You made me your catspaw. You've left nothing to be traced to you if you could help it. You've thrust me into the mire so that you could walk over dry-shod.'
'You've had your share of the spoil, haven't you, you lean hypocrite?' asked Jervase. 'If you'll only do as I bid you now I'll pull you through.'
He had turned to address his cousin, and now he showed him a disdainful back, and came face to face with his son again.
'What on earth are you doing there?' he asked, after a minute's watching.
For Polson was divesting himself of his heavy gold watch and chain, and rolling out gold and silver from his pockets, and pulling one or two handsome rings from his fingers, and laying them all upon the tablecloth before him with an extraordinary stolidity of manner.
'What are you doing?' his father asked again.
'I've said good-bye to one or two things to-night,' said Polson. 'I've got no right to a farthing's worth of all that. I've got no right to anything. It seems I've lived on stolen money all my life and gone flaunting about in stolen feathers. Well, I didn't know it. Perhaps I ought to feel kinder towards you than I do, but I can't help it.'
'Why—why——' Jervase almost babbled. 'What's it mean?'
'It's one more good-bye. That's all.'
'You're not—you're not a-going to leave me, Polly? You're not a-going to throw your father over?'
'I thought my father was an honest man. I thought I had a right to go into the world amongst gentlemen and hold up my head amongst them, and make a career amongst them. That was a mistake, you see. I've been mistaken all along, and now I've found it out. Good-bye, father. Goodbye, James.'
'No, no, Polly. You mustn't go. I can't let you go.'
'Father,' the young man answered, sternly and sorrowfully, 'I am going. If I tried to swallow another mouthful in this house it would choke me. If I tried to sleep here another night I might as well lie down on fire. If I can't eat meat I have a right to, I'll go without. If I can't lie down under an honest roof, I can find the lee-side of a hedge.'
'I've been a kind father to you, Polly, my lad; I've let you want for nothing.'
'You've let me want for an honest name. That's all. Good-bye.'
'But, Polly—Polly—my own lad, my only lad—you're all I've got to live for. What are you going to do?'
'I shall take the Queen's shilling, and try my luck in the Crimea.'
And before his father could answer him he was gone.
Polson was gone, so far, only to his own room, but so swiftly that it was impossible to intercept him, and the snick of the bolt in the lock arrested his father before he had set a single foot upon the stair.
Grim and pale, Polson lit his candles and began to range about the apartment, drawing out from one recess a pair of heavy walking boots, and from another a well-worn suit of velveteens which had seen him through a year or two of sport in the spinny and at the river side. He cast off the clothes he wore, hastily assumed these stouter garments, and having encased his legs in a pair of strong leather leggings, he opened his bedroom door, blew out his candle, and went swiftly down the stairs into the hall. There the wreckage-of an hour or two ago was all piled together in one corner, but groping amongst it in the darkness with both hands, he found a long waterproof overcoat, and after more search a sealskin shooting cap; appropriating both of these he strode to the rear of the house, opened the door by which his father had entered on that night of evil omen, and walked out into the roaring darkness.
He was on the sheltered side of the building and did not as yet feel the force of the wind. For half a minute he stood with his heart in his throat, and his hand upon the hasp of the door, straining his ears to listen. He heard nothing but the insane noises of the night. Suddenly, he drew the door towards him violently, and it closed with a slam and a snap. He was outside, and the thing he had purposed was accomplished. He had said good-bye to the house in which he had learned to walk and talk—the house which had been his home for the whole of his life, except for a year or two of earliest infancy, and the sound of the closing door seemed as if it cut his life in two.
He walked rapidly until he reached the ridge before he encountered the full violence of the storm, for the wind had shifted within the last hour or two. Then, stalwart as he was, it caught and whirled him and sent him running willy-nilly for a hundred yards or more. But there was not a nail in his boots which was not familiar with every acre of that country-side for a mile or two, and he found the path with ease and certainty, and ploughed along it as surely as if it had been broad daylight, though the night was black as a wolf's mouth. The bitter wind and driving rain were welcome to his hot eyes and scalded face, and he walked with a swift resolution until he had reached the spot from which in daylight the last view of the house would have been possible. There he turned, the waterproof coat whipping about his ankles like a torn sail, and the rain pattering its own music on his broad shoulders. Dimly, very dimly, he could see—or perhaps he only thought he saw—the chimneys of the old home rising against a little clearing in the distant lift of the sky.
So very brief a while ago he had been happy there. Only an hour or two since he was meditating, between the moves of the game, on the very words he meant to use in telling Irene that he loved her. Only an hour or two since every thought was full of hope and ambition, since the path of honour stood wide open with a vague bright figure beckoning in its far distance.
A frost in harvest time will ripen grain, and a great grief will give a sudden maturity to character. It was a boy who dreamed the happy dreams of that evening; it was a man who turned his back upon the old homestead, and set out upon his journey through the world.
He had a seven miles' walk before him, and a black unsheltered night at the end of it; but he walked as swiftly and as resolutely as if a goal of comfort had awaited him. When once the hillside was cleared and he had reached level ground, progress was less difficult, and after the tremendous tempest of the day the wind gave signs of having blown itself out. There were pausings and relentings in it, and there were clear spaces in the sky out of which the stars began to shine keen and clear. The storm was over by the time when, after two hours of brisk walking, he had reached his journey's end, and found himself before the long bleak wall of the cavalry barracks of the great Midland town. He had a long spell of waiting before him, and seating himself on a hewn stone at the side of the barrack gate he filled and lit his pipe, and prepared himself for a game of patience. Once or twice in the course of the long night a policeman passed him, turned his bull's-eye lantern upon his face, and went by without questioning, and these events made the only break in the long monotony of the hours. He had at last fallen either into a stupor or a doze, when suddenly the notes of a bugle sounding the reveille startled him to his feet, with its urgent call of
Wake! Wake! Wake! And wake in a hurry—a hurry—a hurry—a hurry, And Wake! Wake! Wake!
There began to be a faint stir about the place, like the humming in a hive the inmates of which have been disturbed, and a little while later the bugle rang out again, in notes that were destined to become familiar to his ears.
All you that are able Come down to the stable, And water your horses and give 'em some corn. And if you don't do it The Colonel shall know it, And you shall be punished the very next morn.
Soon afterwards the gates were opened, and a man in uniform appeared with a carbine tucked beneath his arm and began to pace up and down, just within the great bare barrack square. Polson marched up to him.
'Are you recruiting here?' he asked.
'We are so,' the man answered. 'Do you want to join?'
'Better see the Sergeant in the guardroom,' the sentry told him. 'Go through that door and you will find him there.'
People who read their Dickens, as all men who are privileged to speak the English language ought to do, will remember a striking little passage in 'Oliver Twist,' in which the author moralises upon the first dressing of a new-born pauper baby. Until the faded yellow garments which have done service for many predecessors are wrapped about it, the baby might be anybody's child—a Duke's, or a ploughman's. But the livery of its unfortunate estate marks and stamps it at once and gives it the social caste and cachet it is doomed to wear. But it is not so when time has developed character, and a change of garb does not work an actual transformation in the grown man. Polson had purposely chosen the shabbiest outfit he could find in his whole kit; but he was recognisably a gentleman at a glance, and as he strode into the guard-room the Sergeant in charge, who was sitting on the edge of a sloping wooden bedstead, stood up and saluted him, a fact for which the recruit had to pay later on.
'You want recruits here?' said Polson, and the Sergeant, finding that he had been betrayed into a sign of respect for one who was willing to become his own inferior, answered him with a scowling ill-temper.
'Yes!' he snapped. 'Wait there till the orderly room is opened.'
The young man was too full of his own concerns to take offence at a tone. He sat down quietly and waited. Uniformed men came and went, and nobody took heed of him until some two hours had gone by, when the Sergeant awoke him from his reverie.
'Come this way.'
He followed the Sergeant across the square, and through an open doorway on the far side of it. The Sergeant turned on him. 'Take your cap off, and walk into that room.' Polson obeyed again, and found himself in the presence of a young officer who was bending over a sheaf of papers on a rough table, pen in hand.
'Man wishes to join, sir,' said the Sergeant.
The officer looked up and rose to his feet with an exclamation.
'Good God, Jervase! What are you doing here?'
'I've come to take the Queen's shilling, Volnay,' Polson answered.
'Why, what's become of the commission?' the other asked. 'Go outside, Sergeant. I want to have some talk in private with this gentleman.'
Now, chance had played a queer trick here, for it had led the intending recruit straight to his oldest and closest chum, his old schoolfellow, and old Oxford comrade. It had not occurred to him to think what regiment was quartered in Birmingham at that time, and he had walked straight towards his purpose without a thought of the possibility of such an encounter as this.
'You ain't serious, old fellow, are you?' asked Captain Volnay.
'Yes,' said Polson, 'I'm quite serious.'
'Sit down,' said Volnay. 'Of course you'll tell me just as much and just as little as you want to. But before you take a step that you can't retreat from, you'd better think things over.'
'No,' said Polson, 'I've done all the thinking I have need for, and I've made up my mind. You'll take me, of course?'
'Look here,' said Volnay, 'you won't like it, and I take the liberty to tell you so. It's an infernally disagreeable life—it's a beast of a life for a gentleman to live. It's all very well, of course, if you're amongst your own set; but a gentleman ranker is certain to have a hell of a time. He has all the non-coms on to him out of jealousy; and he's bullied and browbeaten beyond endurance. As for the mere rough side of the living, nobody minds that. But if you do what you intend, you'll find before the week's over that you've stepped into a whole tubful of scalding hot water, and you'll wish yourself well out of it again.'
'That's all right, old chap,' said Polson. 'I shan't be the first to try it, and I dare say I shall pull through as well as another.'
'Now, here's a sample,' said Volnay with a laugh to take the edge from his words. 'Here's a sample of the sort of thing you're walking into. It'll be a piece of rank impertinence on your part to call me "old chap" in half an hour's time, and you mustn't do it. When you catch sight of me, it'll be your business to stand up as stiff as a ramrod and salute me; and you'll have to say "sir" when you talk to me. And you won't like that. And I shan't like it. And look here, old chap, you think twice about it.'
'I've told you already,' Polson answered, 'I've done all my thinking.'
'Well,' said Volnay, 'wilful must if wilful will. You haven't been getting into any sort of mischief, have you?'
'No,' said Polson. 'I've done nothing that I have a right to be ashamed of.'
'Had a row with the old man?'
'Go home and make it up again, Jervase. A private soldier's life is a dog's life for a man of your breeding, and you'll find it so.'
'That's as may be,' Polson answered. 'But I've quite made up my mind, and all the talking in the world will make no difference.'
Within reach of his hand there lay upon the table a loose bunch of ribbons, red, white, and blue, such as recruiting sergeants were wont to pin in the hats of their recruits. And Polson, toying with this, found that the bunch was held together at one end by a pin. He affixed it to his own cap.
'Now,' he said, putting on the cap and rising to his feet, 'the trick's done.'
'Oh, dear no!' said Volnay. 'The trick isn't done yet, old fellow. You've got to be formally enlisted, and to answer a rigmarole of questions, and be examined by the regimental doctor, and to take the oath. The trick isn't done yet, by a long chalk.'
'Well,' said Polson, 'I shall take it as a favour if you'll put me through with as little waste of time as possible, for, to tell you the truth, I want that shilling, and the sooner I get it the nearer I shall be to bread and cheese.'
'Oh!' said Volnay, 'I ain't curious, old chap. I'm not a bit curious; but if you can do it, I should like you to take me into your confidence, because I might be of some use. I'm stinking rich, you know—disgracefully rich. And if that fact's any good to you, why you've only to say so, and I'm your man.'
'Oh, no, it isn't money, Volnay. If it had been, I shouldn't have made any scruple about saying so. I can't talk about it. It's likely enough that you may hear everything in time.'
'There's no changing you?' Volnay asked. 'There's no getting you to wait for a week?'
'There's no changing me,' Polson answered, 'and no getting me to wait.'
'Oh, very well,' said Volnay. 'Just take that and cut across to the canteen and get some breakfast. Come back here in a quarter of an hour's time, and I'll put you through. You needn't scruple about taking it: you can pay me back, for there's a five-pound bounty, ready money, declared yesterday, and you'll have it handed over to you on enlisting.'
Polson took up the proffered sovereign, with something of a lump in his throat, and turned to go. He had scarce made a step towards the door when it opened suddenly. This was destined to be a day of strange encounters, for who should walk almost into his arms but that Major de Blacquaire who was the present owner of the Droitwich salt mine from which his father and his uncle had drawn an illicit fortune. There are men who are born to hate each other at sight; and this Major de Blacquaire and Polson, though they had but a slight knowledge of each other, had found time to develop a savage dislike on either side. De Blacquaire was a man with an exasperatingly cold and supercilious fashion of speech. He was a band-box dandy, and went scented like a lady. Polson had once threatened him with a horse-whip, and the Major had withdrawn from the conflict not because he had any want of physical courage, but solely because he was too much of a fine gentleman to brawl. He had never forgotten or forgiven the insult, and Polson had learned to hate him all the more because he mistook him for a coward. The two recoiled from each other just in time to avoid collision, for De Blacquaire had entered hastily. They regarded each other for an instant, and De Blacquaire's cynical and contemptuous gaze took in the other from head to foot, obviously taking note of the mean attire and the signs of the night march Polson had made. His glance fastened on the bunch of ribbons floating from the cap, and at that he smiled.
'Oh!' he said, with a finicking drawl. 'You've made a bolt of it, have you?'
'Say that again,' said Polson, 'and I'll ram it down your throat, and send a tooth or two along with it.'
'Indeed,' said De Blacquaire. 'I think you'll find that it won't pay you to use such language in your present position, Private Jervase.' He turned away and, with the whip he carried in his hand, struck a resounding blow upon the open door. 'Sergeant!' he called, 'bring up a file of men, and take this man to the guardroom.'
'On what authority, if you please?' asked Polson.
'On the authority of those ribbons, my man,' De Blacquaire answered.
'You mistake your authority, friend Popinjay,' said Polson. 'I am not in your service yet.'
'Has this man enlisted, Volnay?' asked the Major.
'No,' said Volnay, 'he hasn't. He means to. And now I see what terms you're on, I shall advise him very strongly, as an old friend of mine, to choose another regiment.'
'Yes,' said Polson. 'I think I'll choose another regiment. I'm not hungry for the cat-o'-nine tails, and I should earn it if I were under this brute's command five minutes. You'd be a handsome chap in your own way, Major, if it were not for that silly sneer you're pleased to carry about with you. But I warn you that, under any circumstances whatsoever, if you should presume upon any difference in our rank to insult me by a word, a gesture, or a look I'll spoil your beauty for you.'
'This man's a friend of yours, is he, Volnay?' said De Blacquaire, ignoring his antagonist.
'Yes,' said Volnay. 'A very old friend of mine.'
'Well, you can keep him with you. I've just got my appointment on the Staff. I'm off for Varna to-morrow, and I don't suppose that I shall meet the gentleman again. I want a private word with you. If Mr. Jervase will be so kind as to relieve us of his presence.'
'I'll be back in a quarter of an hour,' said Polson.
'All right, old chap,' Volnay answered, and made haste to add, before his old chum had left the room, 'I'm devilish glad you're going, De Blacquaire, and the whole regiment will share my sentiments. The mess will be a devilish sight happier without you.'
At this, the Major's pale face flushed for an instant, and Polson grinned sardonically as he strode away. He found his way into the canteen, made a rough breakfast there, and then returning found Volnay ready to put him through all the necessary formalities. An old Sergeant put the regulation questions as to name, age, and employment. Was he married? No. Was he an apprentice? No. Had he ever at any time offered himself for Her Majesty's service, and been refused? No. Had he ever been tried for any criminal offence? No. Then here was the Queen's shilling, and he was enlisted to serve Her Majesty for the term of twenty years, and was now to report himself to the doctor, and after passing his examination, would be required to present himself at noon to be sworn in before the Colonel, and failing so to present himself, he would be liable to arrest and imprisonment as a rogue and vagabond.
'So now the trick is done,' said Volnay, 'and you can't undo it. At another time you could have bought out for thirty pounds; but we shall be off to Varna in a week or two, and the Queen won't spare a man she has once laid hands on for love or money until we have got through the little brush that's coming with old Nick and his merry men.'