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It was an interesting scene, beyond doubt," said Mr. Westwood, the senior partner in the Bracken-shire Bank of Westwood, Westwood, Barwell, & Westwood. "Yes, I felt more than once greatly interested in the course of the day."
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Well, After All
Frank Frankfort Moore
It was an interesting scene, beyond doubt," said Mr. Westwood, the senior partner in the Bracken-shire Bank of Westwood, Westwood, Barwell, & Westwood. "Yes, I felt more than once greatly interested in the course of the day."
"Greatly interested? Greatly interested?" said Cyril Mowbray, his second repetition of the words being a note or two higher than the first. "Greatly int——Oh, well, perhaps you had your own reasons for feeling interested in so trivial an incident as a run on your bank that might have made you a beggar in an hour or two. Yes, I shouldn't wonder if I myself would have had my interest aroused—to a certain extent—had I been in your place, Dick." Mr. Westwood laughed with an excellent assumption of indifference, a minute or two after his friend had spoken. Cyril could not understand why he had not laughed at once; but that was probably because he had not been brought up as the senior partner in a banking business, or, for that matter, in any other business.
"The fact is," said Mr. Westwood thoughtfully, when his laugh had dwindled into a smile, as a breeze on the water dwindles into a cat's-paw, "the fact is, Cyril, my lad, I've always been more or less interested in observing men—men"—
"And women—women," said Cyril with a laugh. "You had a chance of observing a woman or two to-day, hadn't you? I noticed that Mrs. Lithgow—the little widow—among the crowd who clamoured for their money—yes, and that Miss Swanston—she was there too. She looked twenty years older than she is, even assuming that the estimate of her age made by the women in our neighbourhood is correct."
"Yes, I was always interested in observing my fellow-men," said Mr. Westwood musingly. "I noticed those women to-day. They were worth it. Women always give themselves away upon such an occasion. Men seldom do."
"By George, Dick, there were some men in the crowd that filled the bank to-day who gave themselves away quite as badly as the women!" said Cyril.
"No doubt; but some of them met me with smiles and made a remark or two regarding the extraordinary weather we have been having for May; they wondered if the good old-fashioned summers were gone forever—some of them went so far as to express a sudden interest in my pheasants, before they came to business. But the women—they made no pretence—they wasted no time in preliminary chatter. 'My money—my money—give me my money!' was what each of them gasped. They showed their teeth like—like"—
"Vampires rather, man. Isn't it wonderful that a woman—a lady—can change her natural expression of calm—the repose that stamps the caste of Vere de Vere—to that of a Harpy in a moment? It makes one thoughtful, doesn't it? Which is the real woman, Cyril—the one who smiles pleasantly on you and insists on your taking another hot buttered muffin as you loll in one of her easy-chairs in front of her drawing-room fire, or the one who rushes trembling into your office and stretches out a lean talon-like gloveless hand, glaring at you all the time, with a cry—some shrill, others hoarse—of 'My money!—give me my money!'—which is the real woman?"
"They are not two but one," said Cyril. "Thunder and lightning are as natural as sunshine and zephyr. Revenge is as much a part of a woman's nature as love; constancy does not exclude jealousy. A woman is a rather complex piece of machinery, Dick."
"What! Has Lothario turned philosopher?" cried Mr. Westwood. "Has Mr. Cyril Mowbray become a student of woman in the abstract and an exponent of her nature?"
"Mr. Cyril Mowbray isn't quite such a fool as to fancy that he knows anything about the nature of woman beyond what any man who keeps his eyes open may know; only, when he hears a cynic such as Dick Westwood suggest that a woman can't be sincere when she asks you to have another piece of toast—or was it cake?—because he has seen her anxious to get into her own hand her own money that is to keep her out of the workhouse, Mr. Cyril Mowbray ventures to make a remark."
"And a wise remark, too," said Westwood. "I've noticed that women believe in the men who believe in them. They believe in you"—
"Worse luck!" muttered Cyril.
"And they don't believe in me—shall I say, better luck?"
"They believed in you sufficiently to place their money in your bank."
"But not sufficiently to be confident that I would refrain from swindling them out of it, should I have the chance. There's the difference between us—the difference in a nutshell. If the bank was yours and the rumour came, unaccountably as all such rumours come, that you were insolvent, the women whose money you held would say, 'Let him keep it and welcome, even if we have to go to the workhouse.' But the moment they hear that there is a chance of my not being able to pay my way, down they swoop upon me as the Harpies swooped down upon Odysseus and his partners. And yet I have been quite as nice to women as you have ever been—in fact, I might almost say I've been rather nicer. After all, they only entrusted their cash to my keeping, whereas to you they entrust"—
"Worse luck—worse luck!" groaned Cyril. "That brings us back to the matter we talked over when we were last together. Poor Lizzie Dangan! You told me that I should confess all to my sister; but, hang it all, I can't do that! I tell you, Dick, I can't bring myself to do it."
"Psha! Let us talk of something else; I haven't much inclination to give myself up to the discussion of such trifles after what I have come through to-day. Heavens! How can you expect a man who has passed through such a crisis as only comes into few men's lives, to discuss the love affair of a boy and girl? Do you suppose that the men who had walked over the red-hot ploughshares would have made a sympathetic audience to the bard who had just composed a ballad about Edwin and Angelina? Do you think it likely that the three young men who passed through the seven-times heated furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar, or somebody, were particularly anxious, on coming out, to discuss the aesthetic elements in the Song of Solomon?"
"A few minutes ago you were referring to the run on the bank as if it was the merest trifle; you were making out that you took only an academic interest in the incident."
"So I did, so I did; yes, while it lasted. I'm convinced, my friend Cyril, that a man who is being married, or hanged, or tried for some crime, regards the whole affair from quite an impersonal standpoint. Don't you remember how the Tichborne Claimant, on being asked on the hundredth day of his trial something about what was going on, said, 'My dear sir, I've long ago ceased to have any interest in this particular case'?"
"Yes, but the Tichborne Claimant was the most highly perjured man of the century."
"He drifted into accuracy upon the occasion to which I refer. Psha! Never mind. Here we are at the gates, safe and sound, thank Heaven!—yes, thank Heaven and your sister. Cyril, you should be proud of her. I'm proud of her. What she did went a long way toward saving the bank."
"If those fools who were clamouring at the desks had only paused for a minute they would have known that the lodgment of a cheque could not save the bank."
"But Agnes was clever enough to know that panic-stricken men and women do not pause to consider such things. When they knew that your sister had lodged a cheque for £15,000 they became reassured in a moment. You saw how the men who had drawn out their money at one desk relodged it at another? That's what's meant by a panic: the sheep that rush wildly down one side of a field will, if turned, rush quite as wildly back."
"Anyhow, it's all over now, and the credit of the bank is stronger than ever. I wish mine was. What's that man doing at the side of the gate?"
Cyril's voice had lowered as he asked the question. He touched his friend's arm as he spoke.
"Why, can't you see that that's Ralph Dangan? What's strange about a gamekeeper being at the entrance to the park?" said Westwood. Then, as the dog-cart passed, the man in corduroy, who was standing just inside the entrance gates, touched his hat. Westwood raised his whip-arm replying to his salutation, and cried, "Good evening to you, Ralph."
Cyril also raised his finger, and nodded to the man. But having done so he drew a long breath.
"'The thief doth think each bush an officer,'" he said, shaking his head at his companion.
"I've been an awful scoundrel, Dick," said Cyril.
"I'm a polite man. I'll not contradict you," said Westwood. "You have every reason to be afraid of poor Lizzie's father, especially as his employment makes it necessary for him to have a gun with him at all times. An angry father who is a first-class shot with a gun is a man to be avoided by the impulsive sweethearts of his daughter."
"I can trust Lizzie," said Cyril.
"At any rate, she trusted you. More's the pity!"
Cyril groaned. "What am I to do, Dick—what am I to do?" he asked almost piteously.
"I think the best thing that you can do is to go out to Africa in search of Claude," he replied. "Such chaps as you should be sent to the interior of Africa in their infancy. You're savages by nature. I suppose we are all more or less savages; but you see, some of us become amenable to the influences of civilisation and Christianity, so that we manage to keep moderately straight. But, really, after the example we have had to-day of savagery, I, for one, do not feel inclined to boast of the influences of civilisation, the foremost of which should certainly be the power to reason. Heavens! The way those men and women glared at the clerks—the way they struggled to get to the cashiers. By my soul, Cyril, I believe that if they had not got their money they would have climbed over the counter and torn the clerks limb from limb—the women would have done that—they would, by heavens!"
"I believe they would, all except Patty Graves. She is engaged to young Wilson, and she would have protected him with her life," laughed Cyril.
"The savage instinct again," cried Westwood. "Alas, Cyril, my lad, I'm afraid that our civilisation is nothing more than a very thin veneer after all."
Then the dog-cart pulled up at the entrance to the hall, where a groom went to the horse's head while the two men, whose thoughts had clearly been moving on lines that were far from parallel, got down and entered the old house.
Cyril turned into the cloak-room of the hall whistling, for his troubles did not weigh him quite down to the ground; and Richard Westwood, also whistling, went up the shallow oak staircase, followed by a couple of small spaniels, who had responded with lowered muzzles and frantic tails to his greeting.
But when he had entered his dressing-room his affected nonchalance ceased. He dropped into an easy-chair and wiped his forehead with trembling hands. Then he leant forward and stared into the empty grate, as if he saw something there that demanded his most earnest scrutiny.
He gazed at that emptiness for a long time, the dogs inquiring in turn what he meant, and assuring him that it was impossible that a rabbit could be in any of the dark corners. When he paid no attention to them they retired to the window to discuss his mood between themselves.
For three hours Richard Westwood had been subjected to a severer strain than most men have to submit to in the course of their lives. He was, as has already been stated, the senior partner in the chief banking house of Brackenshire—an old and highly-respected establishment. In fact, there was a time when the stability of the house of Westwood, Westwood, Barwell, & Westwood was regarded as at least equal to that of the county itself. Only an earthquake could, it was thought, produce any impression upon an English wheat-growing county, and a cataclysm of corresponding violence in the financial world would be required to shake the stability of Westwoods' Bank.
But in the course of time the importation of wheat in thousands of tons from America and elsewhere caused the most earnest believers in the stability of an English agricultural county to stand aghast; and then a day came when a bank or two of quite as great respectability as Westwoods' closed their doors and stopped payment all inside a single week. In a country where people talk about things being "as safe as the bank" such an occurrence produces an impression similar to that of a thunderstorm in December or a frozen lake in June: people begin to question the accuracy of their senses. If the bank where they and their fathers and grandfathers have deposited their money for years back beyond any remembrance, closes its doors, what is there on earth that can be trusted?
It was toward the close of this phenomenal week that the rumour arose in brackenhurst that Westwoods' Bank would be the next to fall. No one knew where the rumour originated—no one knew what foundation there was for such a rumour—no one who had money lodged in the bank seemed to inquire.
Even up to noon on the day when the run upon the Brackenhurst offices took place, nothing occurred to suggest that a panic was imminent among the customers of the bank. For two hours the business of the establishment was normal; Mr. Westwood was in his own room, discussing with his solicitor the validity of some documents offered as security for an overdraft by a local firm; the cashier, having received a few small lodgments, was writing a letter to the Secretary of the Styrton Cricket Club regarding the visit of the Brackenhurst Eleven on the Saturday; two of the other members of the staff were considering the very important question as to whether they should have their cups of coffee at once or wait for another halfhour, when, with the suddenness of a quick change of scenery at a well-managed theatre, the swingdoors were flung open and the bank was filled to overflowing with an eager crowd, crushing one another against the mahogany counters in their endeavours to reach the stand of the cashier.
Panic-stricken were the faces at which the cashier looked up from his half-finished letter—faces that communicated their panic to all who saw them. The cashier caught it in a moment: he glanced hastily round as if seeking for a way of escape.
The men and women, perceiving that he had lost his head, became wilder in their attempts to get opposite his desk. Outside, the crowd, striving to reach the doors of the bank, had become clamorous. The High Street of Brackenhurst was in an uproar. The two clerks had ceased to discuss the great coffee question. They were thinking of their revolvers.
As the panic-stricken cashier stood looking vacantly into the pale faces before him, but making no effort to attend to the three men who waved their cheques across the counter, Mr. Westwood came out of his room by the side of his solicitor. He was smiling as he shook hands and said goodbye. There was an instantaneous silence in the place.
"We shall see you at the cricket match on Saturday," were the words that came through the silence from Mr. Westwood, as he shook hands with the other man. "If the weather continues like this it will be a batsman's day."
He waved his hand as the solicitor went out into the crowd. The crowd that had been almost clamorous a minute before were now breathless with astonishment. They stared at the man who, when ruin was in the air, was talking of cricket. A batsman's day! A batsman's day! What did it mean? What manner of man was this who could talk quietly of a batsman's day when over his head the sword of Damocles was hanging?
The silence was unnatural; it became terrifying. Every one watched Mr. Westwood as he walked round to where the cashier was standing. He paid no attention to the clerk, but glancing across the counter, nodded pleasantly to one of the men who had been waving the cheques, like pink flags, in the direction of the desk.
"Good day, Mr. Simons," said he. "What a dry spell we are having. They talk of the good old-fashioned summers—how is it you are not being attended to?" He turned to the cashier. "Come, Mr. Calmour, if you please; I fear I must ask you to stir yourself; it's likely to be a busy day. You want a cheque cashed, Mr. Simons? Certainly. You also have your cheque, Mr. Thorburn, and you, Mrs. Langley?"
"We want our money, sir," said Mrs. Langley. She was a tall, bony lady, who had been the first to enter the bank. She was the principal of the Ladies' Collegiate School.
"So I understand, my dear lady," said Mr. Westwood. "You shall have every penny of your money."
From every part of the crowd hands were thrust, each waving a pink cheque. The people were no longer silent. One or two men of those nearest to Mr. W'estwood nodded to him. One made a sort of apology for asking for his balance at once—a sudden demand from a creditor compelled him to do so, he said, with a very weak smile. Another hoped Mr. Westwood's pheasants promised well. But beyond these actors were men with staring eyes, women with white faces become haggard within a few minutes, small tradesmen bareheaded and still wearing their aprons, artisans who had saved a few pounds and had placed all in the keeping of the bank, clergymen as anxious to draw their balance as their churchwardens, and painfully surprised that their parishioners should decline to give away to them in the common struggle to reach the counters.
The banker ceased to smile as he glanced across the crowd. He turned to the cashier, who had already got into action, so to speak, and was noting cheques preparatory to paying them.
"We shall have a busy hour or two, Mr. Calmour," the head of the firm was heard to say. "Pay away all your gold without the delay of a moment. I shall bring you another ten thousand from the strong room."
One could almost hear the sigh of relief that passed round the crowd as Mr. Westwood hurried into his own room. Two clerks had come to the cashier's desk bringing their books with them, and now the three members of the staff were hard at work, paying away gold in exchange for cheques. Within the space of a few minutes the bank porter, followed by Mr. Westwood, entered the cashier's cubicle staggering beneath the weight of turn large leathern bags, strapped and sealed. He threw them on the counter with a dull crash—the sweetest music known to the sons of men—and to the daughters of men as well—the crash of minted gold.
Mr. Westwood broke the seals of one, and in view of every one who had managed to crush near enough to see, sent a glittering stream of yellow gold flowing from the mouth of the bag into the cashier's till. He pressed the sovereigns and halfsovereigns flat with his hand and continued pouring until the receptacle could hold no more. Then he laid the bag, still half-full, in a deep drawer, and by its side he placed the second bag with the seal still unbroken.
This second bag was apparently even heavier than the first, for Mr. Westwood had to put forth all his strength to lift it from the counter to the drawer. An hour afterwards one of the clerks was able to lift it between his finger and thumb, and was astonished beyond measure at Mr. Westwood's cleverness in suggesting to the clamorous crowd that the second bag was like the first, full of gold, when it was quite empty.
But when the business of replenishing the cashier's till had been gone through, Mr. Westwood retired to watch the operations incidental to the cashing of the cheques. The technique of the transaction was much more tedious than it usually was; for as every cheque presented was drawn for the balance of an account, the cashier had to verify the figures, which involved the working out of two sums in compound addition, whereas the normal work of cashing a cheque required only a glance at the figures. Rapidly though the cashier now made his calculations, several minutes were still occupied in comparing the figures, and in more than one instance it was found that the drawer of the cheque had made a mistake in his addition through his haste in writing up his pass-book. It became perfectly plain to everyone, especially those applicants who were still very far in the background, that only a small proportion of the cheques could be paid up to the time of the bank closing its doors.
Dissatisfied murmurs filled the office; outside there was a clamour of many voices.
At this point Mr. Westwood came forward.
"It is quite plain, ladies and gentlemen," said he, addressing the crowd, "that at the present rate of cashing your cheques, not a tenth of you can be satisfied to-day. I will therefore instruct my cashier to give you gold for your cheques without going too closely into the exact balance. I will trust to the honour of the customers of the bank to make good to-morrow any error they have made in their figures, and I have also given instructions for the doors of the bank to remain open an hour longer than usual."
There was a distinct brightening of faces in the neighbourhood of the cashier's desk, and a cheer came from the people beyond. It was plain that the production of the bag of gold and the dummy bag had done much to allay the panic, but it was also plain that the confidence shown by Mr. Westwood in the resources of the bank to meet the severest strain, had done much more than his adroit handling of the gold to restore the shaken trust of his customers. Fully a dozen men pushed their cheques into their pockets and left the bank.
Their departure, however, only served to make room for the entrance of an equal number of the crowd who had not been able to crush their way into the bank previously.
Mr. Westwood leant across the counter and chatted with one of the tradesmen who had been in the front rank of those who wished to draw out their balance. He now said to the banker that he had come to make an inquiry about a bill of his drawn upon a trader in a neighbouring town; he was anxious to know if it had been honoured. The bill clerk had given him the information, and now he was doing his best to respond to the friendly chat of Mr. Westwood.
Some clever people who watched these intervals of comedy in the course of the tragedy which they believed was being enacted, said that Mr. Westwood had nerves of steel. Others of the visitors to the bank, not being clever enough to perceive that Mr. Westwood was acting a part with great ability, felt that they were fools in doubting the solvency of a concern the head of which could treat such an incident as a run on his bank as an everyday matter. They did not press forward with their cheques. They pocketed their cheques and looked ashamed.
Mr. Westwood would have been greatly disappointed if they had continued to press forward. He had been a good friend to many of them. He knew that they would not have the courage to draw their balances under his very eyes, as if they believed him to be a rogue.
And then his personal attendant came to tell him that his midday cup of coffee awaited him, and he said a word about Saturday's cricket match to the tradesmen before nodding good-bye. Before returning to his private room, however, he stood beside the cashier for a moment, and his smile changed to a slight frown.
"Oh, Mr. Calmour, can you not contrive to be a little more expeditious?" he said. "We shall never get through all the business in the time if you are not a trifle quicker. Could not Mr. Combes make up rouleaux of ten and twenty sovereigns so as to have them ready for you to distribute? Come, Mr. Combes, stir yourself. Every cheque must be paid within the next hour."
Mr. Combes stirred himself—so did Mr. Calmour—yes, for a short time; then it seemed that he shovelled out the sovereigns with more deliberation than ever; for he had felt Mr. Westwood's toe pressing upon one of his own as he had given him that admonition to be more expeditious. The cashier had long ago recovered his wits. He was well aware of the fact that, although Mr. Westwood's style was calculated to allay distrust, yet every minute's delay might mean hundreds of pounds saved to the bank. He understood his business, and that was why he thought it prudent to count one of the piles of sovereigns passed to him by his assistant, young Mr. Combes, and to declare with some heat that it was a sovereign short, a proceeding that necessitated a second count, and the passing of the rouleaux back to the clerk.
And this waste of time—this precious waste of time that went to save an old-established house from ruin—was watched by Richard Westwood from a clear corner half an inch in diameter in the stainedglass window of his private room door. He was not drinking his coffee. The cup, with a liqueur of cognac, stood on his desk untouched. He had fallen on his knees below the glass of his door, not to pray—though a prayer was in his heart—but in order to get his eye opposite that little clear space, which enabled him to observe, without being observed, all that went on outside.
He made up his mind that if his cashier only wasted enough time to save the bank he would give him an increase in salary from that very day.
He returned to the public office munching a biscuit, in less than half an hour; and he saw that once more his affectation of unconcern was producing a good impression. While he was absent there had been a good deal of noise in the public office. Men who had just entered were shouldering women aside in their anxiety to reach the cashier, and the women—some of them ladies—had not hesitated to call them blackguards and rowdies—so shockingly demoralised had they become in the race for their gold. Half a dozen police constables entered the public office, but not in time to prevent a serious altercation.
The nonchalance of Richard Westwood when he once more appeared caused the newcomers to stare. How could he continue munching a biscuit if his business was at the point of falling to pieces? "Men do not munch biscuits when they know themselves to be on the brink of a precipice," the people were saying.
And then there came a sadden shriek from a lady who was fainting; and when she was carried out, there came a shrill cry from another who, with a wild face and staring eyes, declared that her pocket had been picked. She stood shrieking as if she had lost her reason with her purse, and then she clutched the man nearest to her by his collar, accusing him of having robbed her. A couple of constables struggled through the crowd until they got beside her, and Mr. Westwood leaped over the counter and pushed his way toward her.
He hoped that a few more exciting incidents would occur within the hour; every incident meant a certain amount of confusion and, consequently, delay in the cashing of cheques. Delay meant the saving of the bank from utter ruin.
He was disappointed in this one promising case: before he had reached the woman a constable had found in her own hand the money which she accused the man of stealing. She had never loosed her hold upon it, though with the other hand she still clutched the unfortunate man's collar, and could with difficulty be persuaded to relax her grasp, protesting that the constables were in a conspiracy to rob her. She was forced into the street in a condition bordering upon insanity.
The atmosphere had become charged with excitement as a cloud becomes charged with electricity, and in a few minutes some other women were crying out that they had been robbed. Richard Westwood was becoming more hopeful, though he saw with regret that, in front of the cashier, there were a dozen stolid tradesmen, every one of whom had a balance of at least a thousand pounds. They were waiting their turn at the desk with complete indifference to the scenes that were being enacted behind them. Within half an hour twelve thousand pounds would be paid away, Richard Westwood perceived. His only hope was that the panic would be diverted into another channel—that the fools who had lost their heads over their money might go on accusing one another—accusing the constables—accusing any one. In such circumstances the police might insist on the doors of the bank being closed at the usual hour—nay, even before the usual hour.
But while he was pretending to be exerting himself with a view to reassure a frantic lady, who declared that she had been robbed of a hundred pounds, though she had never been half-a-dozen yards from the entrance, and had consequently not received a penny from the cashier, the swing doors were flung wide, and a lady with a young man by her side stepped out of the porch and looked about her. Richard Westwood saw her, and his face, for the first time, became grave.
Then the lady—she was a handsome woman, tall and dignified—gave a laugh, and in a moment there was silence in the place where all had been noise and confusion. All eyes were turned toward the newcomers.
"Great Scott!" cried the young man—he was perhaps a few years over twenty, and he bore a strong likeness to the lady, who was certainly several years older. "Great Scott! Whats the matter here? Hallo, Westwood, I hope we don't intrude upon a Court of Sessions. My sister has come on business, but if you've let the bank"—
"If you have a cheque to be cashed," began Mr. Westwood gravely, "I shall do my best to"—
"But I haven't a cheque to be cashed," said the lady. "On the contrary, I have some money to lodge with you; fifteen thousand pounds—it's too much to have at home; it wouldn't be safe there, but I know it's perfectly safe here."
Your money will be perfectly safe here, Miss Mowbray," said the banker quietly. "But I'm afraid my clerks are too busily occupied to have a moment to spare to receive it to-day, unless you wait until my customers get their cheques cashed. You're getting well through your business, Mr. Calmour?" he added, turning to the cashier.
"Slowly, sir. I haven't touched the second bag of twenty thousand," replied the cashier.
"I'm sure Cyril will be able to reach the desk," said the lady, "and it will only occupy a clerk half a minute entering the lodgment. Good heavens! Mr. Westwood, it takes a clerk no longer to receive and enter up a cheque for fifteen thousand pounds than it does for a single note."
Mr. Westwood gave a laugh and a shrug of his shoulders.
"Give me the cheque," said Cyril. "I'll lodge it or perish in the attempt."
The good humour with which he set about the task of forcing his way through the crowd, spread around. The people who a few minutes before had been struggling with eager faces and clenched hands to get near the desks, actually laughed as the young man, holding the cheque for fifteen thousand pounds high above their heads, made an amusingly exaggerated attempt to shoulder his way forward. He had no need to use his shoulders; the people divided before him quite good-naturedly. He reached the cubicle next to that of the cashier's in a few seconds, and handed the cheque and the pass-book across the counter to a clerk who had stepped up to a desk to receive the lodgment.
The silence was so extraordinary that the scratching of the clerk's pen making the entry was heard all over the place.
And then—then there came a curious reaction from the excitement of the previous two hours: the tremendous tension upon the nerves of the people who fancied they were on the verge of ruin, was suddenly relaxed. There came a clapping of hands, then a cheer arose; everyone was cheering and laughing. The cashier found himself idle. He availed himself of the opportunity to wipe his forehead with his handkerchief; until now he had been compelled to shake the drops away to prevent them from falling on the cheques or the leaves of his ledger.
He stood idle, looking across the maghogany counter in amazement at the people who were laughing and cheering the tradesmen, poking their thumbs at each other's ribs, others pressing forward to shake hands with Mr. Westwood. The cashier, being happily unaccustomed to panics, looked round in amazement. How was it possible that the people could be so ignorant as to imagine that the stability of a bank which has only a small gold reserve to meet the demands of a run upon it, is increased by the fact of a cheque being lodged?
This was what he felt inclined to ask, Mr. Westwood could see without difficulty, when he glanced in the direction of Mr. Calmour, but he knew something of men, and had studied the phenomena of panics. He would not have minded if his cashier had protested against so erroneous a view of the situation being taken by the people who a short time before had been clamouring for gold—gold—gold in exchange for their cheques. Mr. Westwood knew that his cashier's demonstration, however well founded it might be—however consistent with the science of finance, would count for nothing in the estimation of these people. He knew that as they had originally been moved to adopt the very foolish course which had so very nearly brought ruin to him, by an impulse as senseless as that which compels a flock of sheep to leap over a precipice simply because one very silly animal has led the way, they had, on equally illogical grounds, but in keeping with the habits of the sheep, allowed themselves to be moved in exactly the opposite direction to that in which they had rushed previously. A cheque! If the crowd had been sufficiently self-possessed to perceive that the mere lodging of a cheque in the bank did not increase the ability of the bank to pay them the balance of their accounts in gold, they would certainly have been able to perceive that, to join in a run upon the bank, simply because some other bank a hundred miles away had closed its doors, was senseless.
Richard Westwood knew that the action of Agnes Mowbray had arrested the run and the ruin. He saw that already some of the men who had cashed their cheques, but who had not had time to reach the doors, were relodging the cash which they had received. The panic that now threatened to take hold upon the crowd was in regard to the security of the money which they had in their pockets. They seemed to be apprehensive of their pockets being picked, of their houses being robbed. Had not several ladies been clamouring to the effect that their pockets had been picked? Had not Miss Mowbray declared that she could not consider her money secure so long as it remained unlodged in the bank?
While he chatted to Miss Mowbray and her brother Cyril, Richard Westwood could see that his cashier was closing and locking the drawers of his desk; the busy clerk was the one who was receiving the lodgments.
He laughed, but in no more audible tone of exultation than had been his an hour before, when he had emptied the bag of sovereigns into the till and had lifted, with a great show of fatigue, the dummy bag from the counter to the drawer. He felt that he could not afford to give himself away in the presence of the mob. He knew that the clutch for gold makes a mob of the most cultivated people.
"How good of you! How wise of you!" he said to Agnes in a low tone when the crowd had drifted away from them and the office was rapidly emptying. "But the cheque—how did you get the cheque?"
"You did not see whose signature was attached to it?" said Agnes.
"I only saw that it was a London & County cheque."
"It was signed by Sir Percival Hope."
"I do not quite understand how you could have a cheque signed by Sir Percival Hope."
"He gave it to me; he trusted me as I have trusted you. He would have done so without security if I had accepted it on such terms. I declined to do so, however. I placed in his hands security that would satisfy any bank—even so scrupulous a bank as Westwoods'. I handed over to him all my shares in the Water Company."
"They are worth twenty-five thousand pounds at least. Great heavens! Agnes, you never sold them for fifteen thousand pounds?"
"Oh no; I did not sell them. I only deposited them as security with Sir Percival. You see I had not long to make up my mind what to do. Only an hour and a half ago I heard of this idiotic run upon the bank. Oh no; neither Sir Percival nor I had much margin for deliberation. He told me that unless I lodged gold with you it would be no use. He laughed at the idea of my fancying that a cheque would be as useful to you as gold. But you see"—
"Yes, I see; I see. And I believed that it required a man to understand men, and that only a clever man understood what was meant by a panic among men and women. I was a fool. For the past two hours I have been trying to stem the flood of that panic—the avalanche of that panic; I have been smiling in the faces of those fools; they were fools, but not great enough fools to fail to see through my acting. I have been pretending that dummy money bags were almost too heavy for me to lift. That trick only got rid of half-a-dozen men, and not one woman. I came out from my room munching a biscuit, to make them believe that I regarded the situation as an everyday one, not worth a second thought. I bluffed—abusing the cashier for the time he took to count out the money, promising to pay the full amount of all the cheques without taking time to calculate if they were correct to the penny. It was all a game of bluff to make the people believe that the bank had enough gold to pay them all in full. But I failed to deceive more than a few, though I played my part well. I know that I played it well; I like boasting of it. But I failed. And then you enter. Ah, my dear, I am proud of you; you are the truest woman that lives. You deserve a better fate than that which has been yours."
"I am content to wait, my dear Dick. I have come to think of waiting as part of my life. Will it be all my life, I wonder?"
"No, no; that would be impossible. That would be too cruel even for Fate."
Agnes Mowbray looked at him for a few moments. He saw that the tears came into her eyes. Then she gave an exclamation of impatience, saying:
"Psha! my friend. What does it matter in the general scheme of things if one woman dies waiting to marry the one man on whom she has set her heart? My dear Dick, what is life more than waiting—a constant waiting that is never repaid? Is any man, any woman, ever satisfied? No matter what it is that we get, do we not resume our waiting for something else—something that we think worth waiting for? Psha! I am beginning to preach; and whatever women do they should not preach. Good-bye, Dick. Why, we are almost left alone."
"My poor Agnes—my poor Agnes!" said he, looking at her with tenderness in his eyes. "Never think for a moment that he will not return. Eight years is a long time for him to be lost, but he will return. Oh, never doubt that he will return."
"I have never yet doubted the goodness of God," said she. "I will wait. I will accept without a murmur my life of waiting. He will not mind my grey hairs."
She gave a laugh—after a little pause. In her laugh there was a curious note that sounded like a defiance of Fate. The man laughed also, but she saw that he knew very well that as a matter of fact there were several grey threads among the beautiful brown of her hair.
That was all the conversation they had at that time. She went away with her brother Cyril, who had been trying to get Mr. Calmour to listen to his views regarding the bowling policy to be pursued at Saturday's match. Cyril had his own views regarding the slow bowling of young Sharp, the rector's son. It was supposed to be very baffling, and so it was on a bad wicket. But if the wicket was good—and there was every likelihood that the fine weather would last over Saturday—the batsmen would simply send every ball across the boundary, Cyril declared with great emphasis.
He was in some measure put out when Mr. Calmour turned to him suddenly, saying:
"I beg your pardon. What is it you've been talking about?"
"What should I be talking about if not the bowling for Saturday?" cried Cyril.
"Oh, the bowling. What bowling? Saturday—what is to happen on Saturday?" said the cashier.
"You idiot! Haven't we been discussing"—
"Oh, go away—go away," said Mr. Calmour wearily. "Heaven only knows what may happen between to-day and Saturday. If you could have any idea of what I've gone through to-day already—bless my soul! It all seems like a queer dream. Where are all the people gone? Why have they gone, can you tell me? I haven't paid away all my gold yet. I've still over two thousand pounds left. Have they closed the doors of the bank? They were fools—oh, such fools! But I could have held out. I had three or four tricks left. And now what's to become of me? I support my mother—she's an old woman; and I have a sister in another town—she is an epileptic. We are all ruined with the bank."
The cashier put his hands up to his face and burst into tears. The strain of the previous hour had been too much for him. It was in vain that Cyril Mowbray slapped him on the back and assured him that the bank was safe and that his mother and sister might reasonably look forward to a brilliant future. It was in vain that Mr. Westwood shook him by the hand, promising never to forget the way in which he had worked through the crisis. Mr. Calmour refused to be comforted. He continued weeping, and had to be conveyed to his home in a fly.
Richard Westwood had begged Cyril to drive to Westwood Court and dine with him; and now the banker was sitting in his bedroom, staring into the empty grate as he recalled the incidents of the terrible day through which he had passed.
The boom of the gong which came half an hour later aroused him from his reverie. He started up with a great sigh, and was surprised to find himself as weary as if he had had a twenty-mile ride. He went to a looking-glass and examined his face narrowly. It looked haggard. He remembered having heard of men's hair becoming grey in a single night. He quite believed such stories. He thought it strange that his hair should remain black. He was thirty-six years of age—four years older than Agnes, and he had noticed that she had many grey hairs—she had talked of them when they had stood face to face in the bank.
He wondered if waiting for an absent lover was more trying than being the senior partner in a bank during a severe financial crisis.
He went downstairs to dinner without coming to any satisfactory conclusion on this rather difficult question.
Westwood Court had been in the possession of the family of bankers since the days of George II. It had been built by that Stephen Westwood whose portrait was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. In the picture the man's right hand carries a scroll bearing a tracing of the plans of the house. Before it had been completed, however, Sir Thomas Chambers had something to say in regard to the design, the result being sundry additions which were meant to impart to the plain English mansion the appearance of the villa of a Roman patrician.
It was a spacious house situated in the midst of one of the loveliest parks in Brackenshire—a park containing some glorious timber, some brilliant spaces of greensward, and a trout stream that was never known to disappoint an angler, however exacting he might be. It was scarcely surprising that love for this home was the most prominent of the characteristics of the Westwood family. Every member of the family, with but one exception, seemed to have inherited this trait. The one exception was Claude Westwood, the younger brother of Richard.
During his father's lifetime he had been in a cavalry regiment, and while serving in India, had taken part in a rather perilous frontier campaign against a strange set of tribesmen in the northwest. He had become greatly interested in the opening up of the conquered territory, and as soon as his father died he had left the regiment and had done some remarkable exploration work on his own account, both in the northwest of India and in the borderland of Persia.
He returned to England to recover from the effects of a snake-bite, and to stay for a month or two with his brother, to whom he was deeply attached. But when in Brackenshire he had formed another attachment which threatened to interfere with the Future he had mapped out for himself as an explorer. He did not notice any change in his brother's demeanour the day he had gone to him confiding in him that he had fallen in love with Agnes Mowbray, the beautiful daughter of Admiral Mowbray, who had bought a small property known as The Knoll, a mile from the gates of the Court. Richard Westwood had found it necessary for the successful carrying on of the banking business, which he had inherited, to keep himself always well in hand. If his feelings were not invariably under control, his expression of those feelings certainly was so; and this was how it came that, after a pause of only a few seconds, he was able to offer his brother his hand and to say in a voice that was neither husky nor tremulous:
"Dear old chap, you have all my good wishes."
"I knew that you would be pleased," Claude had said. "She is the sort of girl one only meets once in a lifetime. I have lived for a good many years in the world now, and yet I never met any girl worthy of a thought alongside Agnes. How on earth you have remained in her neighbourhood for a year without falling in love with her yourself is a mystery to me."
A sudden flash came to Dick's eyes, and he was at the point of crying out, "Have I so remained?" But his usual habits of self-control prevented his showing to his brother what was in his heart He had merely given a laugh as he said:
"I suppose it must always seem mysterious to a man in love that everyone else in the world does not display symptoms of the same malady."
"I daresay you are right," Claude had answered, after a pause. "Yes, I daresay—only—ah!—Agnes is very different from all the other girls in the world."
"You recollect Calverley's lines:
"'I did not love as others do—
None ever did that I've heard tell of?
Ah! You lovers are all cast in the same mould. But how about your projected exploration—you can scarcely expect her to rough it with you at the upper reaches of the Zambesi?"
Claude Westwood looked grave. For some weeks he had talked about nothing else except the splendid possibilities of the Upper Zambesi to explorers; and his brother had offered to share the expenses of an expedition thoroughly well-equipped to do all that Livingstone and Baines left undone in that fascinating quarter of Africa.
"Perhaps she will refuse me," said Claude.
"Ah! Perhaps; but if she does not refuse you?"
There was a long pause. Claude rose from his chair and walked to the window. He looked out over the sloping lawns and the terraced Italian garden; the blue swallows were skimming the surface of the huge marble basin where the water-lilies floated. He seemed greatly interested in the movements of the birds.
At last he turned suddenly round to his brother, and laid his hand on his shoulder, saying:
"Dick, I should like to win her. I should like to offer her a name—the name of a man who has done something in the world. Whatever happens I am bound to make the expedition to the Zambesi."
Dick Westwood had, while sitting before the empty grate, recalled all the incidents of eight years before—he recollected how a level ray of the red sunlight had flickered through the leaves of the copper beech and made rosy his brother's face—he could still feel the strong clasp of his hand as they had separated to dress for the dinner which Admiral Mowbray was giving that evening. He remembered how Agnes had looked at the head of the table—oh, he had felt even then that she was not for him, but for his brother—how could he have fancied for a moment that he would have a chance of her love when Claude was near?
The expression on Claude's face when they met to go home together told him all; but he did not need to be told anything. He knew that it was inevitable. Agnes had accepted Claude: she had accepted him and told him to go out to Africa; she would wait for him to return, even though he might not return for ten years, she had said, laughingly.
Alas! Alas! The
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