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The Flower of the FlockVolume I (of III)ByPierce Egan
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The Flower of the Flock
Volume I (of III)
CHAPTER I.—THE SHADOW IN THE SUNSHINE.
CHAPTER II.—THE WORM UPON THE LEAF.
CHAPTER III.—POSSESSION DISTURBED.
CHAPTER IV.—THE FORGERY.
CHAPTER V.—THE CONFLAGRATION.
CHAPTER VI.—THE NOBLE GUESTS.
CHAPTER VII.—LOVE AWAKENING.
CHAPTER VIII.—THE PRISON.
CHAPTER IX.—THE MYSTERY.
CHAPTER X.—THE INEXPLICABLE LIBERATION.
CHAPTER XII.—A LIFE STRUGGLE.
CHAPTER XIII.—THE FORGED DEED.
CHAPTER XIV.—LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT.
CHAPTER XV.—THE PROPOSITION.
CHAPTER XVI.—SELFISHNESS AND SORROW.
And the sunlight clasps the earth.
—Shelley. From her chamber window he would catch Her beauty faster than the falcon spies; And constant as her vespers would he watch, Because her face was turned to the same skies.
Abright sunny morning, at the end of June, in busy, restless London. The overarching vault of heaven was filled with an atmosphere of golden hue. Sunshine was glowing upon cathedral turrets and upon the church spires, upon the pinnacles of lofty buildings, and the crowns of tall factory shafts. The bronzed and tarnished ball and cross of St. Paul’s, and the shaggy-crested Monument, which “like a tall bully lifts its head,” shone as if they had been newly gilded. There was sunshine upon chimney-pots and housetops, golden beams permeating the confined air in close garrets, through their narrow, half-closed windows; flooding wide streets, and illuminating pestiferous courts, where riotous hilarity sometimes, but joy never came.
Sunshine blazed upon the broad and winding Thames, over whose flowing surface lazy barges dawdled, and panting river steamers raced, leaving in their sinuous paths myriads of scintillations—and rather an unpleasant odour as well. Sunshine was on the footways, and in the roadways, and in the gutters, making mirrors of small muddy pools.
Sunshine there was for the ragged and the richly dressed; for the beggar and the prince alike; for the robust and, happily, for the sickly invalid.
Sunshine everywhere, making brilliant the parks and open places, and interpenetrating all the foulest recesses of this huge city. Giving light where it was rarely seen, and rousing to a glad activity the teeming life already in its first throes of daily labour.
Beautiful in this, the bright sunshine! but oh, yet more enchanting in the glory with which it invested the fair face of a young girl, peering out of the upper window of a house situated in one of the City’s closest streets.
She stood there, gazing heavenward, her mild blue eyes bending beneath the influence of the golden glare of sunny-waves of light, yet seeming to revel in their luxuriance as though they spoke to her in fairy language of other and happier times and places now far away.
Upon the opposite side of the street, in the shop of a working goldsmith, one John Harper, there stood a youth, an apprentice to the noble art of working in gold. The beauty and the clearness of the fair morning had elevated and refreshed his youthful spirits, but ah! how much greater their exhilaration when his upturned eyes were gladdened by the sight of that beautiful young girl, whose radiant face, and delicately modelled form, were brought out in brilliant relief by the dazzling sunbeams.
It seemed to him that his brightest conceptions of the beautiful, his dreamy fashionings of a faultless ideal, combined with all his native and his acquired skill, had never yet enabled him to realise “a thing of beauty” to rival the perfect excellence and marvellous charms of that young face upon which his eager eyes were now fastened.
Raphael, in his rarest art-performance had not in his belief attained the sentiment of angelic purity beaming in her features, nor had Carlo Dolci, in the loveliest Madonna he ever painted, anticipated it.
Motionless he stood, and with suspended breath gazed upon her as though she were one lone bright star, shining unaccompanied in the vast field of the deep blue heavens, in the silent night, his mind the while lost in a maze of rapture and of wonder.
Yet he had seen it often for years!
And now he had a consciousness that a saddening gloom overspread the earth far and near. What made the surrounding space in a moment so sombre? Had a huge cloud suddenly sprung up from its sullen rest, and spreading itself enviously over the broad sky, absorbed the sunlight? Was the sunshine which had converted smoky London into a city of golden palaces abruptly withdrawn? No! Sunbeams yet glanced upon the buildings, and danced upon the rippling waters, but the young maiden had disappeared from her window. She had suddenly fled from it, as a startled fawn would spring into a covert at the sound of the approaching footsteps of a hunter bent upon its destruction.
So, though the sunshine was as brilliant as before—the whole universe, in the eyes of Harry Vivian, the young goldsmith, seemed plunged into a profound and solemn gloom—for she was no longer where he yet gazed.
He felt oppressed in this glittering sunshine, which had no light for him, and he drew towards the outer door, that in the free fresh air he might breathe more freely. As he gained the threshold, he started, and an exclamation of surprise escaped his lips.
Opposite, at the door of the house in which dwelt the young girl upon whom his eyes had gazed so fondly, stood a man who in costume and manner was the reverse of prepossessing. Who was he, and what could he want there? Were questions which Harry at once put to himself. He had come on business—most disagreeable business—that was beyond a doubt, for there was nothing either in his garb or in his manner which betrayed the idle visitor. Harry, therefore, conceived it to be his especial duty—with rather questionable propriety, however—to observe his movements.
He saw the man examine the house from the scraper at the door, to the parapet below the roof, and then make a peculiar sign to some person or persons, who lying perdu, prevented Harry from catching a glimpse of them. Then he gave a treble knock at the door, facing which he was standing. Young Vivian did not like that knock. It was not a peal of three distinct knocks for a third-floor lodger, nor was it the easy rat-tat-tat of a genteel visitor. No; it was a bad imitation of a postman’s knock, followed by a faltering, sneaking tap.
Had any embarrassed individual, accustomed to visits from rent-distrainers or process-servers, heard that knock and caught sight of that man at his door, he would have instantly implored some other inmate of the house to tell the visitor that he had sailed to the furthest extremity of the Hudson Bay territory, and would never be home again.
The fact was, it was not alone that the knock was a tell-tale, but the man’s dress also loudly proclaimed the purport of the visits he paid. Upon his head, slinking down to his eyebrows, was a hat which had long endured severe stress of weather, to its disadvantage. Upon his body—and that was his mark—he wore a loose brown great coat, styled by advertising tailors, “the sack,” It was dirty, discoloured, much worn at the pockets, and strongly impregnated with the odour of the cheapest and rankest tobacco.
That coat, worn at the hottest end of June, betrayed him. It was his sign-board. A child brought up in that neighbourhood would have told you, by that coat, worn in the height of summer heats, the nature of his profession.
The young goldsmith, on seeing him, held his breath; he had a conviction that the man’s errand would of necessity prove an unpleasant one; and, after a moment’s reflection, he stepped over the threshold of the shop-door, apparently engaged in looking up and down the street, but he never took his eye for an instant off the man in the dingy brown coat.
That individual had just raised his extremely dirty fingers to repeat the offensive knock, when the street-door slowly opened, and an elderly, wan-faced man presented himself.
“It is her father,” muttered the young goldsmith, retiring within his shop, yet only a few paces, for—though uninfluenced by any meanly inquisitive motives—he felt constrained to watch the proceedings of the shabby, brown-coated personage.
He observed the wan old man and his visitor engaged in rather a vigorous colloquy, conducted with brutal coarseness on the part of the man in the brown coat, and on the other side with the air of one upon whom some heavy and startling demand is made, which he is wholly unprepared or unable to meet.
After some extravagant gestures had been exhibited by both persons, the individual in the dingy brown sack abruptly terminated it, by thrusting rudely back the pale-faced old man, springing past him, and ascending the stairs. Wringing his hands, with a distracted aspect, the old man staggered after him.
The quick eye of Harry Vivian had detected the agonised bearing of the old man during the whole time he was in conversation with his unwelcome visitor. He had with pain perceived the emotion of horror which seemed to paralyse his limbs as he tottered up the stairs after the dusky fellow, and, with nervous apprehension, he wondered what scene was then being enacted in the apartments above.
Was that fair young creature present? In all human probability she was. Possibly subjected to the coarse insults of the unprepossessing individual who had forced his way into her presence. The teeth of the youth set firmly together as the thought intruded itself, and he felt that it would prove an infinite comfort to him, if he detected the vulgar rascal in any act of insolence addressed to her, to grip him by the nape of the neck, and fling him out of the window into the street.
At this moment, old Harper, the goldsmith, his master, and his uncle too, made his appearance from an inner workshop. Young Vivian, who was racking his brain for a scheme which should enable him to make one of the party opposite, turned quickly to him and said—
“Oh, sir, I am glad you have come in! There is the silver race cup from Rixon’s, which ought to have been sent to the chaser’s; it has been overlooked. It is wanted home quickly. Don’t you think I had better run over with it at once to old Wilton?”
“Wilton! No, Hal!”
“No, sir. Why not?”
“He was so slow over the last things we gave him to chase. You ought to remember that, Hal, for you used to run over there constantly to urge him on, you know.”
Hal turned suddenly scarlet.
“That won’t do,” continued the goldsmith; “so in future, I think we had better send all these jobs to old Verity, at the back of the Sessions House.”
The perspiration stood in small globes on the forehead of young Vivian.
“You forget, sir,” he said, with a pleading tone, “that Wilton has been long in failing health, that it is not so long since he lost his wife. Oh! sir, this is not a time to take his work away.”
Mr. Harper gently stroked his chin.
“Well, no, Hal, it is not,” he said, after a short pause; “but, at the same time, his unfortunate position is not an excuse we can offer to the firms who employ us for delay in the work with which we are entrusted; and it would be unfair to ourselves to allow the shortcomings of others to prove the occasion of loss of custom to us.”
“But I will answer for Wilton’s punctuality this time,” urged Hal, eagerly; “and you know he is our best chaser. Shall I run over with it, and impress upon him that it is wanted as soon as it can be done?”
“Well you may, Hal,” said the goldsmith; “but remember to point out to him the necessity for punctuality. Assure him that if there be any delay over the completion of this job, he may reckon it as the last he will have from us.”
The apprentice, with a pleased smile, nodded his head, caught up the cup, which bore upon it a rare example of his own skill, and ran out of the shop.
A moment more, and a sharp ringing knock was heard at the door of the house in which dwelt old Wilton the gold chaser.
Another moment, and the apprentice stood within the chamber he had so longed to enter, and he became at once a spectator and a participator in a painful scene.
The sounds of angry altercation caught his ear as he reached the room door, the gruff tone of voice of the unwelcome guest preponderating. Acting upon and animated by an impulse which he perhaps would not have cared to acknowledge even to himself, he did not pause to crave admission, but entered the room without displaying the courtesy of a preliminary knock.
He saw before him old Wilton, and facing him the terror-dealing man in brown. They were at high words. On the appearance of Hal, both men became silent, and fixed their eyes intently and inquiringly upon him. They waited for him to speak.
The apprentice cast his eyes quickly round the room, but the maiden he hoped to see was not there, and he drew breath. He perceived that he was expected to commence the conversation, and, clearing his voice, he said, hurriedly—
“Mr. Wilton, I have some work here for you.” He put the silver cup upon the table. It will require your nicest skill, and the instructions are therefore rather elaborate, so, if you please, I will wait until you are disengaged before I”——
“No! no! no!” exclaimed old Wilton, interrupting him, Snatching up the cup, he thrust it back into the arms of young Vivian—“take it away—take it away!” he added, almost frantically, “it must not remain here now. No! no! no!”
“Why not?” asked the individual in the loose great coat, sharply.
“Silence! Speak not,” cried Wilton, hoarsely, glaring at him; and then turning to the apprentice, he ejaculated, with great excitement, “Go—go; I beg—I entreat you to go away. Pray, young sir, go!”
“But I interposes a objection,” intervened the former speaker, and, turning to Vivian, he said, with an assumption of authority—“You’ll be so kind as to put that ’ere piece o’ plate down where you put it jes’ now.”
“Suppose I do not?” rejoined Vivian, sharply, turning his bright eye full upon the speaker, with an expression that savoured very strongly of a disposition to resist. The dirty man did not like the language it spake, but he affected not to be influenced by the threat it conveyed. He answered, temperately yet impressively—
“That is jes’ what I don’t suppose. Look here, young genl’man, you don’t know me—my name’s Jukes!”
It might have been Snooks, or Wiggins, or any other name not down in the category of the young man’s acquaintances or friends. The indifference he displayed on hearing it could not be greater if it had. He so expressed himself, for which Mr. Jukes rewarded him with a stare of astonishment, and whistled. Then he chuckled—
“You’re in luck, you are,” he continued; “but then you are young, you’ll werry likely know me better some day. I’m a sheriff’s officer.”
Certainly the youth recognised the office if he did not the man’s name. A thrill ran through his frame as the fellow hissed the words between his teeth, and a sound like a low wail burst from the lips of old Wilton.
The youth turned towards him, his bosom swelling with the generous impulses natural to his age, and, in tones of earnest sincerity, he exclaimed, “Can I, in any way, aid you, Mr. Wilton?”
The tone, the look, the gesture of the warm-hearted youth needed nothing to commend them to the keen appreciation of the old gold-worker, and his eyes filled with tears as the generous proffer fell upon his ears, but he shook his head sorrowfully.
“I thank you, Master Vivian,” he said; “but you cannot help me. No, you cannot aid me.”
“You do not know, Mr. Wilton, what I might be able to accomplish, if you would give me the opportunity,” he urged.
“No, no,” replied the old man, “leave me to battle it out with this man as best I may.”
“And jes’ leave that cup afore you go,” exclaimed Mr. Jukes, addressing Vivian. “It’ll help the hassets.”
“I do not intend to go yet,” said Hal Vivian; “but when I do, believe me I shall take no instructions from you about the destination of this cup.”
Mr. Jukes whistled shrilly by the united aid of his first and third fingers, and instantly the room door opened. A couple of yet shabbier and much dirtier personages than Mr. Jukes made their appearance. That individual waved his hand towards them, and performed the ceremony of introduction.
“Mr. Nutty and Mr. Sudds, genl’men,” he said. “One on ’em, Mr. Nutty, I shall leave here in possession on a fi. fa., and Mr. Sudds will assist me in arresting Eustace Wilton on a ca. sa.and in taking on him a country walk to a spunging house.”
Old Wilton turned as pale as death, and groaned in bitter anguish. Young Vivian felt a flush of heat pass over his frame.
“Can nothing be done?” he asked of Jukes, earnestly.
Mr. Jukes raised his dirty hand to his mouth, and recklessly bit his foul thumb-nail. He plunged into a fit of reflection. Suddenly he raised his head, and said to his companions—
“Go outside a moment.”
They obeyed him, and quitted the room. Then he said to the youth—
“I hold warrants on two judgments against Wilton for one thousand pounds each. On the one I takes his traps, on the other I takes his body. So you see as he can’t satisfy ’em, young mister, he’ll be cleaned out, and become a reg’lar pauper, on the poor side, in quod; and he must rot in quod, for he can’t take the benefit of the hact, that I knows. That’s bad enuff, ain’t it?”
“It is horrible!” ejaculated Hal, with a glance of commiseration at the old man, who, with downcast eyes and set teeth, was listening to every word that fell from the man’s lips.
“Of course it is,” repeated Mr. Jukes, with an air of triumph. “Now he may save himself from all this, and like the princesses and queen’s children in fairy tales, live happy ever arterwards, if he chooses not to be hobstinate.” Mr. Jukes spoke with emphasis. “I wants him jes’ to sign a little bit o’ paper. He has only to make a flourish with a pen, and there he is a free man agin with all his traps about him.”
Mr. Jukes paused. Young Vivian approached old Wilton.
“Your position is a grave one, Mr. Wilton,” he said: “let me respectfully suggest that if a simple signature will free you from two heavy claims”——
“Two thousand pounds, two thousand pounds!” interposed Jukes, elevating his voice as he repeated the amount of the sum.
“Simple signature!—simple signature!” almost screamed the old man. “You do not know what you ask, young sir. Sign it. Never! I will starve, rot, die, first.”
“Then you must starve, die, and rot,” roared Mr. Jukes, entirely losing his previous equanimity. “We’ll have no more o’ your nonsense. Hallo there! Sudds and Nutty, come in here, and let’s go to business; ketch ’old of Eustace Wilton there, Sudds; and you, Nutty, begin to take a hinventory of these ’ere chattels.”
Had the men thus summoned to appear, indulged themselves while outside the door with the pastime of listening at the keyhole, they could hardly have made a quicker response, than they did to the call of Jukes.
But as they entered the room by one door, a young girl ran into it by another, and cast her arms about the old gold-worker’s neck, saying, in an affrighted tone—
“Dear, dear father, who and why are these men here? Why are you, in such grief?”
The old man sank upon a seat; bowing his face upon the table and burying his hands in his gray hair, he sobbed with agony.
The girl only tightened her loving embrace, and turned her face towards the ruffians who were about to jest at the situation.
It was the young Madonna-faced maiden Vivian had seen at the window, seeming like a golden seraph in the sunshine.
When Jukes perceived the exquisite countenance of Wilton’s daughter turned with an aspect of distressed inquiry towards him, he instinctively removed the hat of many showers from his dusty head, and made her a slight bow. His satellites also approached as near as they could to an imitation of his action, and stood still, instead of displaying, as they had intended, a vast amount of unnecessary activity.
This respect was an instinctive tribute to her innocent loveliness. Purity commands reverence even as beauty does admiration.
Vivian felt, with a rising in the throat, a sudden desire to produce from his pocket—which contained but a very few shillings—several thousand pounds, with which to pay off the debt, and then an almost irresistible inclination to trundle down the stairs, and out of the house, the three fellows whose presence created so much misery.
He could do nothing, however, but clear his voice, and, addressing the young lady, say—
“This is a most unhappy affair, Miss Wilton; and I regret very sincerely that it is in my power to do little either in the way of assistance or advice; but, with your permission, I will fetch over my uncle, Mr. Harper; he possesses vast experience, and no doubt he will show us a way out of this maze of difficulty and affliction.”
He did not wait for her permission, but running across the road, returned the silver cup to its former place; and, in a few hurried, passionate words, explained to his uncle what had occurred. He succeeded in prevailing on him to return with him to Wilton’s apartments, in some vague hope that he would be able to suggest a mode by which the old man might be saved from destruction.
A most painful scene followed the appearance of Mr. Harper. By pertinent questions, he elicited that, under circumstances which could not then be explained, Wilton had given bonds to the amount of two thousand pounds; that those bonds were over-due; that he had been sued for the recovery of the amount; that judgment had been obtained against him, and that execution had issued; but, withal, the man Jukes was empowered to withdraw arrest and execution, on the condition that Wilton signed a certain document which Jukes then had in his possession. This signature Wilton sternly and inflexibly refused to give; and when it was urged upon him to do so, for the sake of her who was wholly dependent upon him, he grew frenzied, and vowed that he would submit to death rather than comply. Mr. Harper, the goldsmith, finding that reasoning, expostulations, suggestions, and pleadings, were alike in vain, said there was no way to save him, and matters must take their course. Like a vulture pouncing upon its prey, Jukes seized upon the almost lifeless old man, and proceeded to drag him away. His daughter clung in horrified agony to him—in truth, it was a sad and painful sight. It was scarcely more than a year since death had ruthlessly torn her mother from this fair young child, and now it seemed as though the grim tyrant, in the person of Jukes, was robbing her of her father also.
The old man’s knees trembled, and his under-jaw quivered, as though he had been smitten with the palsy. He embraced his daughter with frenzied emotion, and in tones of passionate grief, cried—
“Flo’! Flo’! my own, my beautiful darling, I leave you but for a brief time. Bear up against this dreadful visitation as bravely as you can, my girl. It is for the sake of your brother and for you, darling, that I endure this misery; but have trust, my child, in an all-righteous Creator—happiness will come to us again some day, my child—some day.”
“I will do my best, dear father, if you will take me with you,” murmured Flora, through her blinding tears: “I will strive to be brave, and to endure patiently and calmly; but oh! Indeed, indeed it will terrible to be left here alone.”
She flung herself upon his neck, and sobbed bitterly.
Mr. Harper coughed, a watery mist shrouded everything from the sight of young Vivian, but Mr. Jukes, declaring that he had no warrant of arrest against any “gals,” turned spitefully on old Wilton, tore him from the agonised embrace of his weeping child, and bore him away. Mr. Harper followed them down the stairs, to see that no unnecessary harshness was employed in conveying the trembling prisoner into the street.
When they were gone, Flora Wilton sank, half-fainting, into a chair, Hal approached her, and, in a gentle voice, he said to her—
“Your brother Mark and I were intimate friends, Miss Wilton, before he went abroad—will you not also look upon me as a friend? It is not in my power to do much, yet all that I can do to serve you shall be done with my whole heart. Pray believe me. I will not obtrude upon the very natural grief which now so heavily weighs you down, but I entreat you, when you may need aid not to forget me.”
Flora rose up. She turned her large, beautiful eyes—yet more lustrous from the tears which filled them—upon him, and with a quivering lip, murmured—
“Oh, Mr. Vivian, kindness at a moment like this is doubly valuable. It has a language which of late has been very, very strange in our ears; and now that—that he—he is gone, I—I”—
Her voice gradually became inaudible, as her features were overspread with a death-like paleness. She stretched out her small white hand, as though to feel for some place to lean upon for support. She appeared at a moment to have been stricken with blindness; she tottered, swayed, to and fro, and would have fallen heavily upon the ground but that Hal, with a sudden cry, caught her in his strong arms and saved her.
The exclamation uttered by Vivian attracted the attention of Mr. Nutty. He was making out an inventory of the furniture in the room, and had just written down in a penny memorandum book, “4 ’orsaire cheers, 1 tabbel,” when he heard the same voice cry—“Run for some water! Quick! Run!”
He responded instantly:
“Water be blowed; I can’t go for no water; I’m the man in possession.”
I’ll tell thee what, my friend, He is a very serpent in my way; And wheresoe’er this foot of mine doth tread He lies before me. Dost thou understand me?
Sunbeams making a golden palace of a Gothic mansion in the Regent’s Park, gilding its fretted roof, its traceries, and its triple arched and ornamented windows, tinting the graceful trees which gently waved in the gardens before and behind it, scattering golden stars upon the lake, and investing the flowers and shrubs with a beauty which rendered the place around little less than an earthly paradise.
Sunshine and sunbeams in all places without the walls of the mansion—shadows within.
In a room, magnificently furnished, containing every appliance a morbid attention to personal comfort could need, or the invention of luxurious imagination could devise, were seated an elderly gentleman, his wife and three daughters.
One of these girls was a beauty—all had pretensions to good looks, but she was strikingly handsome.
The name of the owner of this mansion was Grahame. He was a pale, stern-looking man. A dress suit of black, and a white cravat, which seemed to have the effect of being unpleasantly and rather dangerously tight about his neck, added to the austerity of his aspect.
His wife, an intensely proud woman, whose pride was apparent in her air, her dress, her features, sat like an imperious creature whose foible had no other quality than the worst species of haughtiness.
Like the very frankest person in the world, she wore—
Her heart upon her sleeve,
and displayed its entire sentiment in the material of which her attire was made, in its fashion, and in the style in which it was worn. The jewellery upon her wrists, her arms, her fingers, about her neck, and at her waist, betrayed the only feeling of which she was capable. She lived, moved, breathed in an atmosphere of inordinate, unreasoning pride—no other; and the “people” who came in contact with her felt it before she uttered a word to or glanced at them. In her eyes they were pottery of the commonest earthen material, whilst the clay of which she was herself formed, produced a porcelain of the rarest kind. So she sat; to be looked at, not touched.
Her husband, outwardly was of the same stamp.
Within, he was begrimed with cowardly meanness, granite selfishness, a cringing obsequiousness to the wealthy and the powerful, and an icy haughtiness to all whom he understood to be his inferiors in position. By his standard, pride was measured as honour and nobility of soul, gold as the essence of all virtue.
His daughters, brought up under such guidance, could hardly fail to be impregnated with the principles—or, rather, lack of principle—by which their parents were governed. Yet exercised upon the youngest, their influence failed to win a proselyte. Her organisation had not been adapted by nature to receive the impressions the authors of her being laboured to create, and, therefore, when she hazarded an opinion favourable to the purest sympathies of a kindly nature, or displayed an emotion which betrayed that she had a heart, she was called a fool, and treated as a pariah by the whole family. She had been christened Evangeline, but her imperial mamma frequently informed her it was a misnomer—that, in truth, her name should have been Gosling, which she had somewhere heard, meant a young goose, truly a young silly goose.
The second daughter resembled her mother in all things—was, in fact, her counterpart; she even bore her dualistic name, Margaret Claverhouse, and like her maternal parent, was supremely proud and hateful in all her characteristics.
The eldest girl, the beauty of the family, was composed of somewhat discordant elements. In person she was eminently attractive, her figure was tall and commanding, and its outline was as graceful as its air was majestic. Her face, as we have said, was extremely beautiful, but he must have a bold heart, who, falling in love with it, would woo her in the expectation that he could win her with ease and retain her by indifference. Her features were regular, her eyes large, glittering, and of that deep brown which is often mistaken for black; her eyelids were full, and her eyelashes so long as really to form a fringe to the lid. Her eyebrows were arched, her hair was darker than her eyes, and not less brilliant. Her mouth was small, yet it had a sensual fulness, no less apparent then the scornful curl which ever seemed to keep it in a state of unrest. As the hand of her maid was skilled, and incessantly in requisition, the arrangement of her tresses—that wondrous ornament to woman—may be said to have been faultless. Her attire was admirably chosen to assist her beauty, and its fit was a triumph of the modiste’s art. Her mother had instilled into her a belief that she was a queen of beauty, and she looked, thought, moved, as though she were an empress.
As yet it was supposed that her affections had not been touched; from infancy she had been tutored to believe that to be human in feeling was to descend to the level of the common herd—that the world and what it contained were made for her, not she for the world. She was gifted with all the elements of which energy and passion are composed, and she was capable of loving with a force not often allotted even to woman; but her passions, her energies, her tenderness, had been rendered dormant by the counsels of worldly pride, as the warm, gushing, health-giving stream is converted by a slow frost into a silent, motionless block of ice.
Should there come before her eyes the man whose physical beauty and whose mental intelligence woke up her heart from its icy dream into passionate life, and that love should prove to be unrequited—woe! woe! to her! and possibly to him! She had been named Helen after a maternal relative, from whom the most exaggerated expectations were entertained, and she bore it as though she, in virtue of it, already possessed the vast inheritance it was understood to foreshadow.
This family were engaged—while the broad sunshine was gladdening the poor and the respectable, promenading in the park, into which the windows of the mansion looked—in discussing the conduct of the only son of the house of Grahame, who, instead of having obtained at college a “double first” for the honour of the family, had forwarded home a packet of tradesmen’s accounts, the gross total of which considerably exceeded the handsome allowance placed to his credit by his father. Mr. Grahame spoke with considerable dissatisfaction of the course his son must have pursued to have plunged thus largely into debt; and, though it was in accordance with his wish that his son had for his college companions and intimate acquaintances, the Duke of St. Allborne, the young Earl of Carlton, and the experienced Lord Suedmuch, yet he thought that even their intimacy, at the price his son had paid for it, or rather that which he was called upon to pay, much too dear, and he expressed himself on the subject with an emphasis which his pride rendered unusual.
Mrs. Grahame turned upon him a sidelong glance with her half-closed eyes, and, said coldly and contemptuously—
“He is a Grahame! The members of that race are not used to measure their wants, their pleasures, or even their caprices, by miserable considerations of economy. I said to Malcolm, when we parted—‘Remember, always, that you are a Grahame. If those with whom you associate act as though their wealth ran a stream whose source is inexhaustible, let your expenditure be no less illimitable than theirs, even to represent, in wealth, a river whose’”——
“Confluence is a sea of dissipation and of debt,” sharply exclaimed Mr. Grahame, taking a pinch of snuff out of a gold, diamond-studded snuff-box.
“Mr. Grahame, your sense of the dignity of your position is becoming impaired,” responded the stately lady, wholly closing her eyes.
“No, madam,” he returned, “pardon me, I simply, object to unnecessary and preposterous extravagance.”
An expression of ineffable disdain passed over the lady’s features.
“Claver’se Grahame,” she remarked, in a frigid tone, “have you, at a moment, become poor?”
The face of Mr. Grahame instantly changed to a brilliant scarlet hue, then to a purple, finally it became livid. Globules of cold perspiration gathered thickly upon his brow. He thrust his chair back a few paces, and there was something of an affrighted expression in his eyes as he gazed upon hen. Her eyelids were yet close down over her pale gray eyes as he wiped the deathly damp from his brow.
Helen Grahame turned her bright dark eyes upon him with a scornful look. In her estimation, the concentration of meanness of soul was to place a limit upon lavish expenditure. She did not utter a word, but she tried to balance in her own mind which of the two occasioned her father the most terror—her mother’s cold displeasure or Malcolm’s extravagance.
Margaret thought with her sister that economy was but another word for a despicable narrowness of soul. Not but that she was economical enough when called upon for an exercise of charity; but for any selfish purpose, a compulsory contraction of expenditure would have been regarded by her as an example of the lowest and most vulgar niggardliness. She listened with disdain to her parent, and thought that it was incumbent upon her father to give like a Grahame, in order that her brother Malcolm should lavish it like a Grahame.
Evangeline, to whom the conversation had been distressing observing that her father had become suddenly silent; raised her soft eyes and marked the expression that passed over his features. In alarm she hastily left her seat, and in a low, affectionate tone, said, as she took his hand and leaned over him—
“Dear sir, you are not well, you are agitated, can I”——
“Keep your seat, Evangeline;” he exclaimed hoarsely; as he drew his hand from her petulantly. “I am not agitated—I am well—you are obtrusive and impertinent.”
Evangeline retreated to her place at the window; she took up the embroidery on which she had been engaged, and went on with it in silence, but a tear dropped upon her work; no one heeding the “young silly goose,” it passed unnoticed.
Mrs. Grahame spoke again.
“Malcolm is coming home,” she said, “and he has invited two of his college companions—the young Duke of St. Allborne, and the Honourable Lester Vane to accompany him here on a visit. No doubt Mr. Grahame, you will not lose so valuable an opportunity to impress upon your son, in the presence of his spendthrift associates, that your narrow income forbids your meeting claims which”——
“Madam,” interrupted Mr. Grahame, tartly, “it is you who are losing a sense of your position now. Let us change the subject. I will speak with Malcolm upon his return. A proper maintenance of his position, and the honour of his House is one thing: a disreputable squandering of his income quite another. In that spirit I speak now—in that spirit will I address myself to him.”
“Who is the Honourable Lester Vane?” inquired Margaret Grahame of her mother.
“A young man of an ancient and high family,” replied Mrs. Grahame—“immensely rich.”
“And very handsome,” exclaimed Helen; adding, “so at least Malcolm writes me. He praises him highly, declares that he possesses great personal attractions, and is sure—I—we shall all like him much.”
“He did not name him in the few lines he wrote to me,” said Margaret.
“But he did to you, Eva, did he not?” remarked Helen, turning her brilliant eyes with a mocking glance upon her youngest sister.
A gush of tears came again into the eyes of Evangeline. She did not raise them from her employment, that her emotion might be seen by her sisters. She answered with a quivering lip, and in a low, faltering tone.
“I suppose Malcolm had not time to write to me. I have had no letter from him since he has been gone.”
Margaret smiled. She was not accustomed to laugh.
“You! Absurd! Do you think he would write to you? What conceit!” she observed, with a gesture of contempt.
What other feeling should she entertain for a sister who possessed merely the cardinal virtues, and was utterly deficient in an appreciation of worldly pomps and vanities?
At this part of the conversation, there was a tap at the door of the apartment; it opened at the same moment, and an individual, attired in a suit of black of the most approved court dress cut, advanced into the room. The eyes of the family were turned upon him, but he scarcely appeared to be disposed to collapse under that honour. His neck was garnished with an unexceptionable cravat, which was arranged with such precision that it seemed to be wrought in alabaster and carved elaborately. His wig—for as he confessed to admiring confreres, he had dispensed with his “own ’air”—looked as though it had been subjected to a severe storm of whitewash and had been violently brushed. He approached his master, and, bending over him, said, in a confidential manner, yet with a gesture of grave but humble deference.
“Thet pesson is come, sir!”
“Who?—what person?” inquired Mr. Grahame with the air of one who denied the right of any “person” to seek an audience with him.
“The pesson concerning which you gave me hin-structions, sir—I asked ’im into the libree, sir.”
“Into my library, man?” cried Mr. Grahame, rising up, angrily. “Pray what does the fellow mean? How dare you ask any ‘person’ into my library without my instructions to that effect?”
“He said he were Mr. Chewkle, sir, and if you please to remember”——
The face of Mr. Grahame turned as pale as death, and then changed to an intense crimson.
“Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes!” he cried hurriedly, altering his tone; “return to him—say I will come to him immediately.”
The man bowed, and quitted the room.
Mr. Grahame walked to the window and looked out into the sunlight. It lay upon the grassy lawn, upon the sloping meads, upon the waving trees, like gleaming gold dust. The soft breeze made the leaves flutter merrily, birds darted to and fro in the clear air, singing gaily, and brilliantly attired ladies and children moved over the open places in the broad park, animated by the beauty of the scene, and the glory of the sunshine. Mr. Grahame looked distastefully upon it, it ill-assorted with the feelings at war within his breast, and he turned from it with an impatient exclamation. He set his teeth together, drew a long breath, and, with his features more pallid than usual, strode out of the room.
Mrs. Grahame—too much occupied with visions of her own dignity, when she thought at all, which was not often—took no notice of the disturbed manner of her husband. If she had seen it, she would not have credited the evidence of her own eyes. A Grahame disturbed or agitated, the thing was impossible.
Neither did Helen, who was sketching fancy portraits of the Honourable Lester Vane; nor Margaret, who was not even troubled by an effort of imagination, observe him; but Evangeline perceived his inward perturbation, and not daring to offer a word, or breathe a hope that she might aid in alleviating it, sat sadly at her needlework, filled with a foreboding that something foreshadowed trial and affliction to the House.
Mr. Grahame descended to his library. In one corner of it, upon the edge of a chair, under which his hat was placed, sat, with his knees close together, and his toes poised on the floor, a strange looking personage, a sort of hybrid between a fast banker’s clerk, and an undertaker.
It was Mr. Chewkle.
Mr. Chewkle was an agent; a commission agent. He undertook any description of business, no matter what. He sold coals and coffee, he introduced distracted tradesmen to usurious bill-discounters. He offered two shillings and sixpence in the pound to indignant creditors for unhappy insolvents. He would supply you with a good article in tea, at two and eight. He raised money on mortgage and post obit, having a friend who did that sort of thing for spendthrifts who needed it.
He laid out money on fancy horses for fast individuals, with imaginary betting-men, though the horses he backed for them were rarely landed winners at the post. He knew all the good investments in mines, and would obtain shares for anybody, at a comparatively low price, though some day they “might” be at fabulous premiums. He—but he would undertake anything whatever, clean or dirty, if paid his commission, and “ask no questions,” when the remunerator was liberal.
He rose up as Mr. Grahame entered, and made him a bow.
“Good morning, Chewkle,” said Mr. Grahame, loftily; “well, what success?”
“We’ve got our man, safe, sir,” he replied, with a feeble grin.
“And the family?”
“At the apartments, sir, but we shall move the goods to-morrow, for sale by the sheriff, and then they must go out you know, sir.”
“Into the streets.”
“Into the streets, sir, or the work’us. They’ve no resources, as I sees.”
“Well, then, of course he has signed the undertaking?”
“A—a—not yet, sir.”
“But he will?”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
Mr. Grahame had seated himself with the air of a Mogul emperor giving audience to a Hindoo slave. He rose to his feet as if a pistol-shot had been discharged at him.
“Not! Nonsense!” he cried with fierce astonishment; “under such pressure, the man cannot possibly refuse.”
“But he does, sir, and swears he will not sign if he has to starve and rot in prison.”
Mr. Grahame passed his hand over his mouth, and gulped as if he would choke.
“What is to be done?” he asked.
“Do without it, sir,” suggested Chewkle, mildly.
“Ridiculous! His signature must be to the deed.”
“Well, sir,” said Mr. Chewkle, slowly, and looking carefully round the room to see that no other person was present, “so it may be there on the deed.”
Mr. Grahame looked at him steadfastly.
“How?” he asked.
Mr. Chewkle reduced his voice to a whisper.
“You have got his name on a letter, I s’pose?”
“Not very difficult to write like it, I fancy.”
“Chewkle!” exclaimed Mr. Grahame, with dilated eyes, “what do you counsel?”
“Nothing, sir. I merely suggests that if the signature must be there on the deed, no obstinate old fool should prevent its being placed there and, where money is not a hobject, it can easily be managed.”
Mr. Grahame’s teeth chattered, as if he had been suddenly transported into a frosty atmosphere.
“Chewkle,” he said, grimly, “do you know what the law declares such an act to be?”
Mr. Chewkle nodded with perfect self-possession.
“It must be done, sir,” he rejoined emphatically. “Your position depends on it. You must balance beggary, destitution, ruin, against rank, fortune, dignity”——
“Forgery!” groaned Mr. Grahame, sinking into his chair, and pressing his hands over his eyes.
Duke. You are welcome: take your place.
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