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A London Story
CHAPTER I. THE WALK TO THE COUNTING-HOUSE.
CHAPTER II. THE INVALID MOTHER.
CHAPTER III. EXPOSTULATION.
CHAPTER IV. GUILD COURT.
CHAPTER V. MORE ABOUT GUILD COURT.
CHAPTER VI. THE MORNING OF CHRISTMAS DAY.
CHAPTER VII. POPPIE.
CHAPTER VIII. MR. SIMON'S ATTEMPT.
CHAPTER IX. BUSINESS.
CHAPTER X. MOTHER AND DAUGHTER.
CHAPTER XI. MATTIE FOR POPPIE.
CHAPTER XII. A COMPARISON.
CHAPTER XIII. MATTIE'S MICROCOSM.
CHAPTER XIV. THE JEWESS AND HER NEIGHBORS.
CHAPTER XV. THE TWO OLD WOMEN.
CHAPTER XVI. ON THE RIVER.
CHAPTER XVII. CAPTAIN BOXALL'S PROPOSAL.
CHAPTER XVIII. THE TEMPTER.
CHAPTER XIX. HOW TOM SPENT THE EVENING.
CHAPTER XX. HOW LUCY SPENT THE NIGHT.
CHAPTER XXI. MORE SHUFFLING.
CHAPTER XXII. A COMING EVENT.
CHAPTER XXIII. MATTIE'S ILLNESS.
CHAPTER XXIV. FISHING FOR A DAUGHTER.
CHAPTER XXV. MR. FULLER.
CHAPTER XXVI. THE NINGPO IS LOST.
CHAPTER XXVII. OF USEFUL ODDS AND ENDS.
CHAPTER XXVIII. MATTIE IN THE COUNTRY.
CHAPTER XXIX. POPPIE IN TOWN.
CHAPTER XXX. MR. FULLER IN HIS CHURCH.
CHAPTER XXXI. A DREARY ONE.
CHAPTER XXXII. AN EXPLOSION.
CHAPTER XXXIII. DOWN AT LAST.
CHAPTER XXXIV. MRS. BOXALL AND MR. STOPPER.
CHAPTER XXXV. MATTIE FALLS AND RISES AGAIN.
CHAPTER XXXVI. BUSINESS.
CHAPTER XXXVII. MR. SARGENT LABORS.
CHAPTER XXXVIII. HOW THOMAS DID AND FARED.
CHAPTER XXXIX. POPPIE CHOOSES A PROFESSION.
CHAPTER XL. THOMAS'S MOTHER.
CHAPTER XLI. LUCY'S NEW TROUBLE.
CHAPTER XLII. MRS. BOXALL FINDS A COMPANION IN MISFORTUNE.
CHAPTER XLIII. WHAT THOMAS WAS ABOUT.
CHAPTER XLIV. THOMAS RETURNS TO LONDON.
CHAPTER XLV. THOMAS IS CAPTURED.
CHAPTER XLVI. THE CONFESSION.
CHAPTER XLVII. THOMAS AND MR. STOPPER.
CHAPTER XLVIII. THOMAS AND HIS FATHER.
CHAPTER XLIX. THOMAS AND HIS MOTHER.
CHAPTER L. THOMAS AND LUCY.
CHAPTER LI. JACK OF THE NINGPO.
CHAPTER LII. LUCY, AND MATTIE, AND POPPIE.
CHAPTER LIII. MOLKEN ON THE SCENT.
CHAPTER LIV. GRANNIE APPEALS TO WIDDLES.
CHAPTER LV. GUILD COURT AGAIN.
CHAPTER LVI. WOUND UP OR RUN DOWN.
"SHE FELL INTO A DREAMY STUDY OF THE FIRE."
In the month of November, not many years ago, a young man was walking from Highbury to the City. It was one of those grand mornings that dawn only twice or thrice in the course of the year, and are so independent of times and seasons that November even comes in for its share. And it seemed as if young Thomas Worboise had at his toilet felt the influences of the weather, for he was dressed a trifle more gayly than was altogether suitable for the old age of the year. Neither, however, did he appear in harmony with the tone of the morning, which was something as much beyond the significance of his costume as the great arches of a cathedral upheaving a weight of prayer from its shadowed heart toward the shadowless heavens are beyond the petty gorgeousness of the needlework that adorns the vain garments of its priesthood. It was a lofty blue sky, with multitudes of great clouds half way between it and the earth, among which, as well as along the streets, a glad west wind was reveling. There was nothing much for it to do in the woods now, and it took to making merry in the clouds and the streets. And so the whole heaven was full of church windows. Every now and then a great bore in the cloudy mass would shoot a sloped cylinder of sun-rays earthward, like an eye that saw in virtue of the light it shed itself upon the object of its regard. Gray billows of vapor with sunny heads tossed about in the air, an ocean for angelic sport, only that the angels could not like sport in which there was positively no danger. Where the sky shone through it looked awfully sweet and profoundly high. But although Thomas enjoyed the wind on his right cheek as he passed the streets that opened into High Street, and although certain half sensations, half sentiments awoke in him at its touch, his look was oftenest down at his light trowsers or his enameled boots, and never rose higher than the shop windows.
As he turned into the church-yard to go eastward, he was joined by an acquaintance a few years older than himself, whose path lay in the same direction.
"Jolly morning, ain't it, Tom?" said he.
"Ye-es," answered Thomas, with something of a fashionable drawl, and in the doubtful tone of one who will be careful how he either praises or condemns anything. "Ye-es. It almost makes one feel young again."
"Ha, ha, ha! How long is it since you enjoyed the pleasing sensation last?"
"None of your chaff, now, Charles."
"Well, upon my word, if you don't like chaff, you put yourself at the wrong end of the winnower."
"I never read the Georgics."
"Yes, I know I was born in the country—a clod-hopper, no doubt; but I can afford to stand your chaff, for I feel as young as the day I was born. If you were a fast fellow, now, I shouldn't wonder; but for one like you, that teaches in the Sunday-school and all that, I am ashamed of you, talking like that. Confess now, you don't believe a word of what you cram the goslings with."
"Charles, you may make game of me as you like, but I won't let you say a word against religion in my presence. You may despise me if you like, and think it very spoony of me to teach in the Sunday-school, but—well, you know well enough what I mean."
"I can guess at it, old fellow. Come, come, don't think to humbug me. You know as well as I do that you don't believe a word of it. I don't mean you want to cheat me or any one else. I believe you're above that. But you do cheat yourself. What's the good of it all when you don't feel half as merry as I do on a bright morning like this? I never trouble my head about that rubbish. Here am I as happy as I care to be—for to-day, at least, and 'sufficient unto the day,' you know."
Thomas might have replied, had he been capable of so replying, that although the evil is sufficient for the day, the good may not be. But he said something very different, although with a solemnity fit for an archbishop.
"There's a day coming, Charles, when the evil will be more than sufficient. I want to save my soul. You have a soul to save, too."
"Possibly," answered Charles, with more carelessness than he felt; for he could not help being struck with the sententiousness of Thomas's reply, if not with the meaning contained in it. As he was not devoid of reverence, however, and had been spurred on to say what he had said more from the sense of an undefined incongruity between Thomas's habits, talk included, and the impression his general individuality made upon him, than from any wish to cry down the creed in which he took no practical interest, he went no farther in the direction in which the conversation was leading. He doubled.
"If your soul be safe, Tom, why should you be so gloomy?"
"Are there no souls to save but mine? There's yours now."
"Is that why you put on your shiny trot-boxes and your lavender trousers, old fellow? Come, don't be stuck up. I can't stand it."
"As you please, Charles: I love you too much to mind your making game of me."
"Come, now," said Charles Wither, "speak right out as I am doing to you. You seem to know something I don't. If you would only speak right out, who knows if you mightn't convert me, and save my soul, too, that you make such a fuss about. For my part, I haven't found out that I have a soul yet. What am I to do with it before I know I've got it? But that's not the point. It's the trousers. When I feel miserable about myself—"
"Nonsense, Charles! You never do."
"But I do, though. I want something I haven't got often enough; and, for the life of me, I don't know what it is. Sometimes I think it's a wife. Sometimes I think it's freedom to do whatever I please. Sometimes I think it's a bottle of claret and a jolly good laugh. But to return to the trousers."
"Now leave my trousers alone. It's quite disgusting to treat serious things after such a fashion."
"I didn't know trousers were serious things—except to old grandfather Adam. But it's not about your trousers I was talking. It was about my own."
"I see nothing particular about yours."
"That's because I'm neither glad nor sorry."
"What do you mean?"
"Now you come to the point. That's just what I wanted to come to myself, only you wouldn't let me. You kept shying like a half-broke filly."
"Come now, Charles, you know nothing about horses, I am very sure."
Charles Wither smiled, and took no other notice of the asseveration.
"What I mean is this," he said, "that when I am in a serious, dull-gray, foggy mood, you know—not like this sky—"
But when he looked up, the sky was indeed one mass of leaden gray. The glory of the unconditioned had yielded to the bonds of November, and—Ichabod.
"Well," Charles resumed, looking down again, "I mean just like this same sky over St. Luke's Work-house here. Lord! I wonder if St. Luke ever knew what kind of thing he'd give his medical name to! When I feel like that, I never dream of putting on lavender trousers, you know, Tom, my boy. So I can't understand you, you know. I only put on such like—I never had such a stunning pair as those—when I go to Richmond, or—"
"Of a Sunday, I believe," said Worboise, settled.
"Of a Sunday. Just so. The better day, the better deed, you know, as people say; though, I dare say, you don't think it."
"When the deed is good, the day makes it better. When the deed is bad, the day makes it worse," said Tom, with a mixture of reproof and "high sentence," which was just pure nonsense.
How much of Thomas's depression was real, and how much was put on—I do not mean outwardly put on without being inwardly assumed—in order that he might flatter himself with being in close sympathy and harmony with Lord Byron, a volume of whose poems was at the time affecting the symmetry of his handsome blue frock-coat, by pulling down one tail more than the other, and bumping against his leg every step he took—I cannot exactly tell. At all events, the young man was—like most men, young and old—under conflicting influences; and these influences he had not yet begun to harmonize in any definite result.
By the time they reached Bunhill Fields, they were in a gray fog; and before they got to the counting-house, it had grown very thick. Through its reddish mass the gaslights shone with the cold brilliance of pale gold.
The scene of their daily labor was not one of those grand rooms with plate-glass windows which now seem to be considered, if not absolutely necessary to commercial respectability, yet a not altogether despicable means of arriving at such. It was a rather long, rather narrow, rather low, but this morning not so dark room as usual—for the whole force of gas-burners was in active operation. In general it was dark, for it was situated in a narrow street, opening off one of the principal city thoroughfares.
As the young men entered, they were greeted with a low growl from the principal clerk, a black-browed, long-nosed man. This was the sole recognition he gave them. Two other clerks looked up with a good-morning and a queer expression in their eyes. Some remarks had been made about them before they entered. And now a voice came from the penetralia:
"Tom, I want you."
Tom was disposing of his hat and gloves with some care.
"You hear the governor, Mr. Worboise, I suppose?" said Mr. Stopper, the head clerk, in the same growling voice, only articulated now.
"Yes, I hear him," answered Thomas, with some real and some assumed nonchalance. "I do hear him, Mr. Stopper."
Through a glass partition, which crossed the whole of the room, Mr. Boxall, "the governor," might be seen at a writing-table, with his face toward the exoteric department. All that a spectator from without could see, as he went on writing, was a high forehead, occupying more than its due share of a countenance which, foreshortened, of course, from his position at the table, appeared otherwise commonplace and rather insignificant, and a head which had been as finely tonsured by the scythe of Time as if the highest ecclesiastical dignity had depended upon the breadth and perfection of the vacancy. The corona which resulted was iron-gray.
When Thomas was quite ready he walked into the inner room.
"Tom, my boy, you are late," said Mr. Boxall, lifting a face whose full view considerably modified the impression I have just given. There was great brilliance in the deep-set eyes, and a certain something, almost merriment, about the mouth, hovering lightly over a strong upper lip, which overhung and almost hid a disproportionately small under one. His chin was large, and between it and the forehead there was little space left for any farther development of countenance.
"Not very late, I believe, sir," answered Thomas. "My watch must have misled me."
"Pull out your watch, my boy, and let us see."
"By your own watch, it is a quarter past," said Mr. Boxall.
"I have been here five minutes."
"I will not do you the discredit of granting you have spent that time in taking off your hat and gloves. Your watch is five minutes slower than mine," continued Mr. Boxall, pulling out a saucepan of silver, "and mine is five minutes slower than the Exchange. You are nearly half an hour late. You will never get on if you are not punctual. It's an old-fashioned virtue, I know. But first at the office is first at the winning-post, I can tell you. You'll never make money if you're late."
"I have no particular wish—I don't want to make money," said Thomas.
"But I do," rejoined Mr. Boxall, good-naturedly; "and you are my servant, and must do your part."
Thereat Thomas bridled visibly.
"Ah! I see," resumed the merchant; "you don't like the word. I will change it. There's no masters or servants nowadays; they are all governors and employees. What they gain by the alteration, I am sure I don't know."
I spell the italicized word thus, because Mr. Boxall pronounced employés exactly as if it were an English word ending in ees.
Mr. Worboise's lip curled. He could afford to be contemptuous. He had been to Boulogne, and believed he could make a Frenchman understand him. He certainly did know two of the conjugations out of—I really don't know how many. His master did not see what the curl indicated, but possibly his look made Thomas feel that he had been rude. He sought to cover it by saying—
"Mr. Wither was as late as I was, sir. I think it's very hard I should be always pulled up, and nobody else."
"Mr. Wither is very seldom late, and you are often late, my boy. Besides, your father is a friend of mine, and I want to do my duty by him. I want you to get on."
"My father is very much obliged to you, sir."
"So he tells me," returned Mr. Boxall, with remarkable good humor. "We expect you to dine with us to-morrow, mind."
"Thank you, I have another engagement," answered Thomas, with dignity, as he thought.
Now at length Mr. Boxall's brow fell. But he looked more disappointed than angry.
"I am sorry for that, Tom. I wished you could have dined with us. I won't detain you longer. Mind you don't ink your trousers."
Was Thomas never to hear the last of those trousers? He began to wish he had not put them on. He made his bow, and withdrew in chagrin, considering himself disgraced before his fellows, to whom he would gladly have been a model, if he could have occupied that position without too much trouble. But his heart smote him—gently, it must be confessed—for having refused the kindness of Mr. Boxall, and shown so much resentment in a matter wherein the governor was quite right.
Mr. Boxall was a man who had made his money without losing his money's worth. Nobody could accuse him of having ever done a mean, not to say a dishonest thing. This would not have been remarkable, had he not been so well recognized as a sharp man of business. The more knowing any jobber about the Exchange, the better he knew that it was useless to dream of getting an advantage over Mr. Boxall. But it was indeed remarkable that he should be able to steer so exactly in the middle course that, while he was keen as an eagle on his own side, he should yet be thoroughly just on the other. And, seeing both sides of a question with such marvelous clearness, in order to keep his own hands clean he was not driven from uncertainty to give the other man anything more than his right. Yet Mr Boxall knew how to be generous upon occasion, both in time and money: the ordinary sharp man of business is stingy of both. The chief fault he had was a too great respect for success. He had risen himself by honest diligence, and he thought when a man could not rise it must be either from a want of diligence or of honesty. Hence he was a priori ready to trust the successful man, and in some instances to trust him too much. That he had a family of three daughters only—one of them quite a child—who had never as yet come into collision with any project or favorite opinion of his, might probably be one negative cause of the continuance of his openheartedness and justice of regard.
Thomas Worboise's father had been a friend of his for many years—at least so far as that relation could be called friendship which consisted in playing as much into each other's hands in the way of business as they could, dining together two or three times in the course of the year, and keeping an open door to each other's family. Thomas was an only son, with one sister. His father would gladly have brought him up to his own profession, that of the law, but Thomas showing considerable disinclination to the necessary studies, he had placed him in his friend's counting-house with the hope that that might suit him better. Without a word having been said on the subject, both the fathers would have gladly seen the son of the one engaged to any daughter of the other. They were both men of considerable property, and thought that this would be a pleasant way of determining the future of part of their possessions. At the same time Mr. Boxall was not quite satisfied with what he had as yet seen of Tom's business character. However, there had been no signs of approximation between him and either of the girls, and therefore there was no cause to be particularly anxious about the matter.
To account in some measure for the condition in which we find Tom at the commencement of my story, it will be better to say a word here about his mother. She was a woman of weak health and intellect, but strong character; was very religious, and had a great influence over her son, who was far more attached to her than he was to his father. The daughter, on the other hand, leaned to her father, an arrangement not uncommon in families.
On the evening of the day on which my story commences, office hours were long over before Tom appeared at home. He went into his mother's room, and found her, as usual, reclining on a couch, supported by pillows. She was a woman who never complained of her sufferings, and her face, perhaps in consequence of her never desiring sympathy, was hard and unnaturally still. Nor were her features merely still—they looked immobile, and her constant pain was indicated only by the absence of all curve in her upper lip. When her son entered, a gentle shimmer of love shone out of her eyes of troubled blue, but the words in which she addressed him did not correspond to this shine. She was one of those who think the Deity jealous of the amount of love bestowed upon other human beings, even by their own parents, and therefore struggle to keep down their deepest and holiest emotions, regarding them not merely as weakness but as positive sin, and likely to be most hurtful to the object on which they are permitted to expend themselves.
"Well, Thomas," said his mother, "what has kept you so late?"
"Oh! I don't know, mother," answered Tom, in whose attempted carelessness there yet appeared a touch of anxiety, which caught her eye.
"You do know, Tom; and I want to know."
"I waited and walked home with Charles Wither."
He did not say, "I waited to walk home."
"How was he so late? You must have left the office hours ago."
"He had some extra business to finish."
It was business of his own, not office business; and Tom finding out that he would be walking home a couple of hours later, had arranged to join him that he might have this account to give of himself.
"You know I do not like you to be too much with that young man. He is not religious. In fact, I believe him to be quite worldly. Does he ever go to church?"
"I don't know, mother. He's not a bad sort of fellow."
"He is a bad sort of fellow, and the less you are with him the better."
"I can't help being with him in the office, you know, mother."
"You need not be with him after office hours."
"Well, no; perhaps not. But it would look strange to avoid him."
"I thought you had more strength of character, Thomas."
"I—I—I spoke very seriously to him this morning, mother."
"Ah! That alters the case, if you have courage to speak the truth to him."
At that moment the door opened, and the curate of St. Solomon's was announced. Mrs. Worboise was always at home to him, and he called frequently, both because she was too great an invalid to go to church, and because they supposed, on the ground of their employing the same religious phrases in their conversation, that they understood each other. He was a gentle, abstracted youth, with a face that looked as if its informing idea had been for a considerable period sat upon by something ungenial. With him the profession had become everything, and humanity never had been anything, if not something bad. He walked through the crowded streets in the neighborhood with hurried step and eyes fixed on the ground, his pale face rarely brightening with recognition, for he seldom saw any passing acquaintance. When he did, he greeted him with a voice that seemed to come from far-off shores, but came really from a bloodless, nerveless chest, that had nothing to do with life, save to yield up the ghost in eternal security, and send it safe out of it. He seemed to recognize none of those human relations which make the blood mount to the face at meeting, and give strength to the grasp of the hand. He would not have hurt a fly; he would have died to save a malefactor from the gallows, that he might give him another chance of repentance. But mere human aid he had none to bestow; no warmth, no heartening, no hope.
Mr. Simon bowed solemnly, and shook hands with Mrs. Worboise.
"How are you to-night, Mrs. Worboise?" he said, glancing round the room, however. For the only sign of humanity about him was a certain weak admiration of Amy Worboise, who, if tried by his own tests, was dreadfully unworthy even of that. For she was a merry girl, who made great sport of the little church-mouse, as she called him.
Mrs. Worboise did not reply to this question, which she always treated as irrelevant. Mr. Simon then shook hands with Thomas, who looked on him with a respect inherited from his mother.
"Any signs of good in your class, Mr. Thomas?" he asked.
The question half irritated Tom. Why, he could not have explained even to himself. The fact was that he had begun to enter upon another phase of experience since he saw the curate last, and the Sunday-school was just a little distasteful to him at the moment.
"No," he answered, with a certain slightest motion of the head that might have been interpreted either as of weariness or of indifference.
The clergyman interpreted it as of the latter, and proceeded to justify his question, addressing his words to the mother.
"Your son thinks me too anxious about the fruits of his labor, Mrs. Worboise. But when we think of the briefness of life, and how soon the night comes when no man can work, I do not think we can be too earnest to win souls for our crown of rejoicing when He comes with the holy angels. First our own souls, Mr. Thomas, and then the souls of others."
Thomas, believing every word that the curate said, made notwithstanding no reply, and the curate went on.
"There are so many souls that might be saved, if one were only in earnest, and so few years to do it in. We do not strive with God in prayer, Mrs. Worboise. We faint and cease from our prayers and our endeavors together."
"That is too true," responded the lady.
"I try to do my best," said Thomas, in a tone of apology, and with a lingering doubt in his mind whether he was really speaking the absolute truth. But he comforted himself with saying to himself, "I only said 'I try to do my best;' I did not say, 'I try my best to do my best.'"
"I have no reason to doubt it, my young friend," returned the curate, who was not ten years older than his young friend. "I only fancied—no doubt it was but the foolish fancy of my own anxiety—that you did not respond quite so heartily as usual to my remark."
The mother's eyes were anxiously fixed on her son during the conversation, for her instincts told her that he was not quite at his ease. She had never given him any scope, never trusted him, or trained him to freedom; but, herself a prisoner to her drawing-room and bed-room, sought with all her energy and contrivance, for which she had plenty of leisure, to keep, strengthen, and repair the invisible cable by which she seemed to herself to hold, and in fact did hold, him, even when he was out of her sight, and himself least aware of the fact.
As yet again Thomas made no reply, Mr. Simon changed the subject.
"Have you much pain to-night, Mrs. Worboise?" he asked.
"I can bear it," she answered. "It will not last forever."
"You find comfort in looking to the rest that remaineth," responded Mr. Simon. "It is the truest comfort. Still, your friends would gladly see you enjoy a little more of the present—" world, Mr. Simon was going to say, but the word was unsuitable; so he changed it—"of the present—ah! dispensation," he said.
"The love of this world bringeth a snare," suggested Mrs. Worboise, believing that she quoted Scripture.
Thomas rose and left the room. He did not return till the curate had taken his leave. It was then almost time for his mother to retire. As soon as he entered he felt her anxious pale-blue eyes fixed upon him.
"Why did you go, Thomas?" she asked, moving on her couch, and revealing by her face a twinge of sharper pain than ordinary. "You used to listen with interest to the conversation of Mr. Simon. He is a man whose conversation is in Heaven."
"I thought you would like to have a little private talk with him, mamma. You generally do have a talk with him alone."
"Don't call it talk, Thomas. That is not the proper word to use."
"Communion then, mother," answered Thomas, with the feeling of aversion a little stronger and more recognizable than before, but at the same time annoyed with himself that he thus felt. And, afraid that he had shown the feeling which he did recognize, he hastened to change the subject and speak of one which he had at heart.
"But, mother, dear, I wanted to speak to you about something. You mustn't mind my being late once or twice a week now, for I am going in for German. There is a very good master lives a few doors from the counting-house; and if you take lessons in the evening at his own lodgings, he charges so much less for it. And, you know, it is such an advantage nowadays for any one who wants to get on in business to know German!"
"Does Mr. Wither join you, Thomas?" asked his mother, in a tone of knowing reproof.
"No, indeed, mother," answered Thomas; and a gleam of satisfaction shot through his brain as his mother seemed satisfied. Either, however, he managed to keep it off his face, or his mother did not perceive or understand it, for the satisfaction remained on her countenance.
"I will speak to your father about it," she answered.
This was quite as much as Thomas could have hoped for: he had no fear of his father making any objection. He kissed his mother on the cheek—it was a part of her system of mortifying the flesh with its affections and lusts that she never kissed him with any fervor, and rarely allowed those straight lips to meet his—and they parted for the night.
Thomas descended to breakfast, feeling fresh and hopeful. The weather had changed during the night, and it was a clear, frosty morning, cold blue cloudless sky and cold gray leafless earth reflecting each other's winter attributes. The sun was there, watching from afar how they could get on without him; but, as if they knew he had not forsaken them, they were both merry. Thomas stood up with his back to the blazing fire, and through the window saw his father walking bareheaded in the garden. He had not returned home till late the night before, and Thomas had gone to bed without seeing him. Still he had been up the first in the house, and had been at work for a couple of hours upon the papers he had brought home in his blue bag. Thomas walked to the window to show himself, as a hint to his father that breakfast was ready. Mr. Worboise saw him, and came in. Father and son did not shake hands or wish each other good-morning, but they nodded and smiled, and took their seats at the table. As Mr. Worboise sat down, he smoothed, first with one hand, then with the other, two long side-tresses of thin hair, trained like creepers over the top of his head, which was perfectly bald. Their arrangement added to the resemblance his forehead naturally possessed to the bottom of a flat-iron, set up on the base of its triangle. His eyebrows were very dark, straight, and bushy, his eyes a keen hazel; his nose straight on the ridge, but forming an obtuse angle at the point; his mouth curved upward, and drawn upward by the corners when he smiled, which gave him the appearance of laughing down at everything; his chin now is remarkable. And there, reader, I hope you have him. I ought to have mentioned that no one ever saw his teeth, though to judge from his performances at the table, they were in serviceable condition. He was considerably above the middle hight, shapeless rather than stout, and wore black clothes.
"You're going to dine at the Boxall's to-night, I believe, Tom? Mr. Boxall asked me, but I can't go. I am so busy with that case of Spender & Spoon."
"No, father. I don't mean to go," said Tom.
"Why not?" asked Mr. Worboise, with some surprise, and more than a hint of dissatisfaction. "Your mother hasn't been objecting, has she?"
"I am not aware that my mother knows of the invitation," answered Tom, trying to hide his discomfort in formality of speech.
"Well, I said nothing about it, I believe. But I accepted for you at the same time that I declined for myself. You saw the letter—I left it for you."
"Yes, sir, I did."
"Well, in the name of Heaven, what do you mean? You answer as if you were in the witness-box. I am not going to take any advantage of you. Speak out, man. Why won't you go to Boxall's?"
"Well, sir, to tell the truth, I didn't think he behaved quite well to me yesterday. I happened to be a few minutes late, and—"
"And Boxall blew you up; and that's the way you take to show your dignified resentment! Bah!"
"He ought to behave to me like a gentleman."
"But how is he, if he isn't a gentleman? He hasn't had the bringing up you've had. But he's a good, honest fellow, and says what he means."
"That is just what I did, sir. And you have always told me that honesty is the best policy."
"Yes, I confess. But that is not exactly the kind of honesty I mean," returned Mr. Worboise with a fishy smile, for his mouth was exactly of the fish type. "The law scarcely refers to the conduct of a gentleman as a gentleman."
This was obscure to his son, as it may be to the reader.
"Then you don't want me to behave like a gentleman?" said Tom.
"Keep your diploma in your pocket till it's asked for," answered his father. "If you are constantly obtruding it on other people, they will say you bought it and paid for it. A gentleman can afford to put an affront in beside it, when he knows it's there. But the idea of good old Boxall insulting a son of mine is too absurd, Tom. You must remember you are his servant."
"So he told me," said Tom, with reviving indignation.
"And that, I suppose, is what you call an insult, eh?"
"Well, to say the least, it is not a pleasant word to use."
"Especially as it expresses a disagreeable fact. Come, come, my boy. Better men then you will ever be have had to sweep their master's office before now. But no reference is made to the fact after they call the office their own. You go and tell Mr. Boxall that you will be happy to dine with him to-night if he will allow you to change your mind."
"But I told him I was engaged."
"Tell him the engagement is put off, and you are at his service."
"But—" began Tom, and stopped. He was going to say the engagement was not put off.
"But what?" said his father.
"I don't like to do it," answered Tom. "He will take it for giving in and wanting to make up."
"Leave it to me, then, my boy," returned his father, kindly. "I will manage it. My business is not so very pressing but that I can go if I choose. I will write and say that a change in my plans has put it in my power to be his guest, after all, and that I have persuaded you to put off your engagement and come with me."
"But that would be—would not be true," hesitated Tom.
"Pooh! pooh! I'll take the responsibility of that. Besides, it is true. Your mother will make a perfect spoon of you—with the help of good little Master Simon. Can't I change my plans if I like? We must not offend Boxall. He is a man of mark—and warm. I say nothing about figures—I never tell secrets. I don't even say how many figures. But I know all about it, and venture to say, between father and son, that he is warm, decidedly warm—possibly hot," concluded Mr. Worboise, laughing.
"I don't exactly understand you, sir," said Tom, meditatively.
"You would understand me well enough if you had a mind to business," answered his father.
But what he really meant in his heart was that Mr. Boxall had two daughters, to one of whom it was possible that his son might take a fancy, or rather—to express it in the result, which was all that he looked to—a marriage might be brought about between Tom and Jane or Mary Boxall; in desiring which he thought he knew what he was about, for he was Mr. Boxall's man of business.
"I won't have you offend Mr. Boxall, anyhow," he concluded. "He is your governor."
The father had tact enough to substitute the clerk's pseudonym for the obnoxious term.
"Very well, sir; I suppose I must leave it to you," answered Tom; and they finished their breakfast without returning to the subject.
When he reached the counting-house, Tom went at once to Mr. Boxall's room, and made his apologies for being late again, on the ground that his father had detained him while he wrote the letter he now handed to him. Mr. Boxall glanced at the note.
"I am very glad, Tom, that both your father and you have thought better of it. Be punctual at seven."
"Wife must put another leaf yet in the table," he said to himself, as Thomas retired to his desk. "Thirteen's not lucky, though; but one is sure to be absent."
No one was absent, however, and number thirteen was the standing subject of the jokes of the evening, especially as the thirteenth was late, in the person of Mr. Wither, whom Mr. Boxall had invited out of mere good nature; for he did not care much about introducing him to his family, although his conduct in the counting-house was irreproachable. Miss Worboise had been invited with her father and brother, but whether she stayed at home to nurse her mother or to tease the curate, is of no great importance to my history.
The dinner was a good, well-contrived, rather antiquated dinner, within the compass of the house itself; for Mrs. Boxall only pleased her husband as often as she said that they were and would remain old-fashioned people, and would have their own maids to prepare and serve a dinner—"none of those men-cooks and undertakers to turn up their noses at everything in the house!" But Tom abused the whole affair within himself as nothing but a shop-dinner; for there was Mr. Stopper, the head-clerk, looking as sour as a summons; and there was Mr. Wither, a good enough fellow and gentleman-like, but still of the shop; besides young Weston, of whom nobody could predicate any thing in particular, save that he stood in such awe of Mr. Stopper, that he missed the way to his mouth in taking stolen stares at him across the table. Mr. Worboise sat at the hostess's left hand, and Mr. Stopper at her right; Tom a little way from his father, with Mary Boxall, whom he had taken down, beside him; and many were the underbrowed glances which the head-clerk shot across the dishes at the couple.
Mary was a very pretty, brown-haired, white-skinned, blue-eyed damsel, whose charms lay in harmony of color, general roundness, the smallness of her extremities, and her simple kind-heartedness. She was dressed in white muslin, with ribbons precisely the color of her eyes. Tom could not help being pleased at having her beside him. She was not difficult to entertain, for she was willing to be interested in anything; and while Tom was telling her a story about a young lad in his class at the Sunday-school, whom he had gone to see at his wretched home, those sweet eyes filled with tears, and Mr. Stopper saw it, and choked in his glass of sherry. Tom saw it too, and would have been more overcome thereby, had it not been for reasons.
Charles Wither, on the opposite side of the table, was neglecting his own lady for the one at his other elbow, who was Jane Boxall—a fine, regular-featured, dark-skinned young woman. They were watched with stolen glances of some anxiety from both ends of the table, for neither father nor mother cared much about Charles Wither, although the former was too kind to omit inviting him to his house occasionally.
After the ladies retired, the talk was about politics, the money-market, and other subjects quite uninteresting to Tom, who, as I have already said, was at this period of his history a reader of Byron, and had therefore little sympathy with human pursuits except they took some abnormal form—such as piracy, atheism, or the like—in the person of one endowed with splendid faculties and gifts in general. So he stole away from the table, and joined the ladies some time before the others rose from their wine; not, however, before he had himself drunk more than his gravity of demeanor was quite sufficient to ballast. He found Mary turning over some music, and as he drew near he saw her laying aside, in its turn, Byron's song, "She walks in beauty."
"Oh! Do you sing that song, Miss Mary?" he asked with empressement.
"I have sung it several times," she answered; "but I am afraid I cannot sing it well enough to please you. Are you fond of the song?"
"I only know the words of it, and should so much like to hear you sing it. I never heard it sung. Do, Miss Mary."
"You will be indulgent, then?"
"I shall have no chance of exercising that virtue, I know. There."
He put the music on the piano as he spoke, and Mary, adjusting her white skirts and her white shoulders, began to sing the song with taste, and, what was more, with simplicity. Her voice was very pleasant to the ears of Thomas, warbling one of the songs of the man whom, against his conscience, he could not help regarding as the greatest he knew. So much moved was he, that the signs of his emotion would have been plainly seen had not the rest of the company, while listening more or less to the song, been employing their eyes at the same time with Jane's portfolio of drawings. All the time he had his eyes upon her white shoulder: stooping to turn the last leaf from behind her, he kissed it lightly. At the same moment the door opened, and Mr. Stopper entered. Mary stopped singing, and rose with a face of crimson and the timidest, slightest glance at Tom, whose face flushed up in response.
It was a foolish action, possibly repented almost as soon as done. Certainly, for the rest of the evening, Thomas sought no opportunity of again approaching Mary. I do not doubt it was with some feeling of relief that he heard his father say it was time for them to be going home.
None of the parents would have been displeased had they seen the little passage between the young people. Neither was Mary offended at what had occurred. While she sat singing, she knew that the face bending over her was one of the handsomest—a face rather long and pale, of almost pure Greek outline, with a high forehead, and dark eyes with a yet darker fringe. Nor, although the reader must see that Tom had nothing yet that could be called character, was his face therefore devoid of expression; for he had plenty of feeling, and that will sometimes shine out the more from the very absence of a characteristic meaning in the countenance. Hence, when Mary felt the kiss, and glanced at the face whence it had fallen, she read more in the face than there was in it to read, and the touch of his lips went deeper than her white shoulder. They were both young, and as yet mere electric jars charged with emotions. Had they both continued such as they were now, there could have been no story to tell about them; none such, at least, as I should care to tell. They belonged to the common class of mortals who, although they are weaving a history, are not aware of it, and in whom the process goes on so slowly that the eye of the artist can find in them no substance sufficient to be woven into a human creation in tale or poem. How dull that life looks to him, with its ambitions, its love-making, its dinners, its sermons, its tailors' bills, its weariness over all—without end or goal save that toward which it is driven purposeless! Not till a hope is born such that its fullfilment depends upon the will of him who cherishes it, does a man begin to develop the stuff out of which a tale can be wrought. For then he begins to have a story of his own—it may be for good, it may be for evil—but a story. Thomas's religion was no sign of this yet; for a man can no more be saved by the mere reflex of parental influences than he will be condemned by his inheritance of parental sins. I do not say that there is no interest in the emotions of such young people; but I say there is not reality enough in them to do anything with. They are neither consistent nor persistent enough to be wrought into form. Such are in the condition over which, in the miracle-play, Adam laments to Eve after their expulsion from Paradise—
"Oure hap was hard, oure wytt was nesche (soft, tender) To paradys whan we were brought."
Mr. Boxall lived in an old-fashioned house in Hackney, with great rooms and a large garden. Through the latter he went with Mr. Worboise and Tom to let them out at a door in the wall, which would save them a few hundred yards in going to the North London Railway. There were some old trees in the garden, and much shrubbery. As he returned he heard a rustle among the lilacs that crowded about a side-walk, and thought he saw the shimmer of a white dress. When he entered the drawing-room, his daughter Jane entered from the opposite door. He glanced round the room: Mr. Wither was gone. This made Mr. Boxall suspicious and restless; for, as I have said, he had not confidence in Mr. Wither. Though punctual and attentive to business, he was convinced that he was inclined to be a fast man; and he strongly suspected him of being concerned in betting transactions of different sorts, which are an abomination to the man of true business associations and habits.
Mr. Worboise left the house in comfortable spirits, for Providence had been propitious to him for some months past, and it mattered nothing to him whether or how the wind blew. But it blew from the damp west cold and grateful upon Thomas's brow. The immediate influence of the wine he had drunk had gone off, and its effects remained in discomfort and doubt. Had he got himself into a scrape with Mary Boxall? He had said nothing to her. He had not committed himself to anything. And the wind blew cooler and more refreshing upon his forehead. And then came a glow of pleasure as he recalled her blush and the glance she had so timidly lifted toward his lordly face. That was something to be proud of! Certainly he was one whom women—I suppose he said girls to himself—were ready to—yes—to fall in love with. Proud position! Enviable destiny! Before he reached home the wind had blown away every atom of remorse with the sickly fumes of the wine; and although he resolved to be careful how he behaved to Mary Boxall in future, he hugged his own handsome idea in the thought that she felt his presence, and was—just a little—not dangerously—but really a little in love with him.
The office was closed, the shutters were up in the old-fashioned way on the outside, the lights extinguished, and Mr. Stopper, who was always the last to leave, was gone. The narrow street looked very dreary, for most of its windows were similarly covered. The shutters, the pavements, the kennels, everything shone and darkened by fits. For it was a blowing night, with intermittent showers, and everything was wet, and reflected the gaslights in turn, which the wind teased into all angles of relation with neighboring objects, tossing them about like flowers ready at any moment to be blown from their stems. Great masses of gray went sweeping over the narrow section of the sky that could be seen from the pavement.
Now and then the moon gleamed out for one moment and no more, swallowed the next by a mile of floating rain, dusky and shapeless. Fighting now with a fierce gust, and now limping along in comparative quiet, with a cotton umbrella for a staff, an old woman passed the office, glanced up at the shuttered windows, and, after walking a short distance, turned into a paved archway, and then going along a narrow passage, reached a small paved square, called Guild Court. Here she took from her pocket a latch-key, and opening a door much in want of paint, but otherwise in good condition, entered, and ascended a broad, dusky stair-case, with great landings, whence each ascent rose at right angles to the preceding. The dim light of the tallow candle, which she had left in a corner of the stair-case as she descended, and now took upwith her again, was sufficient to show that the balusters were turned and carved, and the hand-rail on the top of them broad and channeled. When she reached the first floor, she went along a passage, and at the end of it opened a door. A cheerful fire burned at the other end of a large room, and by the side of the fire sat a girl, gazing so intently into the glowing coals, that she seemed unaware of the old woman's entrance. When she spoke to her, she started and rose.
"So you're come home, Lucy, and searching the fire for a wishing-cap, as usual!" said the old lady, cheerily.
The girl did not reply, and she resumed, with a little change of tone—
"I do declare, child, I'll never let him cross the door again, if it drives you into the dumps that way. Take heart of grace, my girl; you're good enough for him any day, though he be a fine gentleman. He's no better gentleman than my son, anyhow, though he's more of a buck."
Lucy moved about a little uneasily; turned to the high mantel-piece, took up some trifle and played with it nervously, set it down with a light sigh, the lightness of which was probably affected; went across the room to a chest of drawers, in doing which she turned her back on the old woman; and then only replied, in a low pleasant voice, which wavered a little, as if a good cry were not far off—
"I'm sure, grannie, you're always kind to him when he comes."
"I'm civil to him, child. Who could help it? Such a fine, handsome fellow! And has got very winning ways with him, too! That's the mischief of it! I always had a soft heart to a frank face. A body would think I wasn't a bit wiser than the day I was born."
And she laughed a toothless old laugh which must once have been very pleasant to her husband to hear, and indeed was pleasant to hear now. By this time she had got her black bonnet off, revealing a widow's cap, with gray hair neatly arranged down the sides of a very wrinkled old face. Indeed the wrinkles were innumerable, so that her cheeks and forehead looked as if they had been crimped with a penknife, like a piece of fine cambric frill. But there was not one deep rut in her forehead or cheek. Care seemed to have had nothing at all to do with this condition of them.
"Well, grannie, why should you be so cross with me for liking him, when you like him just as much yourself?" said Lucy, archly.
"Cross with you, child! I'm not cross with you, and you know that quite well. You know I never could be cross with you even if I ought to be. And I didn't ought now, I'm sure. But I am cross with him; for he can't be behaving right to you when your sweet face looks like that."
"Now don't, grannie, else I shall have to be cross with you. Don't say a word against him. Don't now, dear grannie, or you and I shall quarrel, and that would break my heart."
"Bless the child! I'm not saying a word for or against him. I'm afraid you're a great deal too fond of him, Lucy. What hold have you on him now?"
"What hold, granny!" exclaimed Lucy, indignantly. "Do you think if I were going to be married to him to-morrow, and he never came to the church—do you think I would lift that bonnet to hold him to it? Indeed, then, I wouldn't."
And Lucy did not cry, but she turned her back on her grandmother as if she would rather her face should not be seen.
"What makes you out of sorts, to-night, then, lovey?"
Lucy made no reply, but moved hastily to the window, made the smallest possible chink between the blind and the window-frame, and peeped out into the court. She had heard a footstep which she knew; and now she glided, quiet and swift as a ghost, out of the room, closing the door behind her.
"I wonder when it will come to an end. Always the same thing over again, I suppose, to the last of the world. It's no use telling them what we know. It won't make one of them young things the wiser. The first man that looks at them turns the head of them. And I must confess, if I was young again myself, and hearkening for my John's foot in the court, I might hobble—no, not hobble then, but run down the stairs like Lucy there, to open the door for him. But then John was a good one; and there's few o' them like him now, I doubt."
Something like this, I venture to imagine, was passing through the old woman's mind when the room door opened again, and Lucy entered with Thomas Worboise. Her face was shining like a summer now, and a conscious pride sat on the forehead of the young man which made him look far nobler than he has yet shown himself to my reader. The last of a sentence came into the room with him.
"So you see, Lucy, I could not help it. My father—How do you do you do, Mrs. Boxall? What a blowing night it is! But you have a kind of swallow's nest here, for hardly a breath gets into the court when our windows down below in the counting-house are shaking themselves to bits."
It was hardly a room to compare to a swallow's nest. It was a very large room indeed. The floor, which was dark with age, was uncarpeted, save just before the fire, which blazed brilliantly in a small kitchen-range, curiously contrasting with the tall, carved chimney-piece above it. The ceiling corresponded in style, for it was covered with ornaments—
All made out of the carver's brain.
And the room was strangely furnished. The high oak settle of a farm-house stood back against the wall not far from the fire, and a few feet from it a tall, old-fashioned piano, which bore the name of Broadwood under the cover. At the side of the room farthest from the fire stood one of those chests of drawers, on which the sloping lid at the top left just room for a glass-doored book-case to stand, rivaling the piano in hight. Then there was a sofa, covered with chintz plentifully besprinkled with rose-buds; and in the middle of the room a square mahogany table, called by upholsterers a pembroke, I think, the color of which was all but black with age and manipulation, only it could not be seen now because it was covered with a check of red and blue. A few mahogany chairs, seated with horse hair, a fire-screen in faded red silk, a wooden footstool and a tall backed easy-chair, covered with striped stuff, almost completed the furniture of the nondescript apartment.
Thomas Worboise carried a chair to the fire, and put his feet on the broad-barred bright kitchen fender in front of it.
"Are your feet wet, Thomas?" asked Lucy with some gentle anxiety, and a tremor upon his name, as if she had not yet got quite used to saying it without a Mr. before it.
"Oh no, thank you. I don't mind a little wet. Hark how the wind blows in the old chimney up there! It'll be an awkward night on the west coast, this. I wonder what it feels like to be driving right on the rocks at the Land's End, or some such place."
"Don't talk of such things in that cool way, Mr. Thomas. You make my blood run cold," said Mrs. Boxall.
"He doesn't mean it, you know, grannie," said Lucy meditating.
"But I do mean it. I should like to know how it feels," persisted Thomas—"with the very shrouds, as taut as steel bars, blowing out in the hiss of the nor'wester."
"Yes, I dare say!" returned the old lady, with some indignation. "You would like to know how it felt so long as your muddy boots was on my clean fender!"
Thomas did not know that the old lady had lost one son at sea, and had another the captain of a sailing-vessel, or he would not have spoken as he did. But he was always wanting to know how things felt. Had not his education rendered it impossible for him to see into the state of his own mind, he might, questioned as to what he considered the ideal of life, have replied, "A continuous succession of delicate and poetic sensations." Hence he had made many a frantic effort after religious sensations. But the necessity of these was now somewhat superseded by his growing attachment to Lucy, and the sensations consequent upon that.