A STAGGERING COMPLICATION.
meeting proved long and stormy. Collier, the junior steward,
surprised and angry at the unexpected treatment of his partner in
office, refused point-blank to continue his services; and the
super., nonplussed and agitated, was compelled to amend his plans.
Bowden, Mr. Wheeler's brother-in-law, had to be made senior steward;
but nobody seemed willing to join him. Name after name was
suggested, but promptly withdrawn by the person concerned, and
finally John beheld the edifying spectacle of the ousted steward
coming to the rescue of his enemies and appealing to the love and
loyalty of his brethren not to let so important an office go
a-begging. Finally, and after almost humiliating pressure,
Ramsden, the St. Mary's Society steward, was pushed into the vacant
position, and one of the most unpleasant meetings in the history of
Partidge Methodism broke up a little before eleven. Late as it
was, John felt he must see his ill-used friend home. They
walked in silence until they came to the gate of number seven, and
then, unable to contain himself any longer, John burst out—
"Mr. Wheeler, you're a mystery to me!"
The manufacturer took his cigar out of his mouth, looked at
his companion with mild surprise, and then said—
"Well, sir, if you're not the cleverest of all clever rogues,
you're the highest-minded man I ever knew."
"I'm a rogue, sure enough, but not a clever one. Come
Paul Wheeler, the eldest son, had been at the meeting, and
so, as they entered the dining-room, they saw at once that all
present knew of what had taken place. That they felt it was
also clear, though all outward signs were carefully suppressed.
Mary, whose eyes looked dim, gave her father a quiet lingering kiss,
Paul flashed a look that told of glowing pride in his parent, whilst
the others, without speaking a word, made it abundantly clear to
John that they understood his awkward position in the matter, and
appreciated his quiet sympathy. The conversation over the
supper table was a little constrained, until the uncontrollable
Betty set everybody laughing by declaring that she intended to join
the Christadelphians who had lately come to town; and then she went
off into a mimic representation of "Uncle Bowden's" sanctimonious
mannerisms which convulsed the whole party.
"It is a little unexpected," admitted Mary, as she
stood holding John's overcoat in the hall; "but I don't think it
need make any difference to the cause. It isn't as if we were
leaving the place, is it?"
And John, afraid to trust himself just then, rushed into the
darkness without even a formal "good-night."
And that was the last he ever heard of the nasty business
from the Wheelers, though the circuit seemed as though it would
never let it drop.
Ten hard, harassing weeks passed away, and the young parson
found himself the prey of many anxieties. By their invitation,
Sallie had visited the Wheelers during the Christmas holidays, and
seemed at first highly delighted with her reception. During
the second week, however, she grew petulant and sulky with John, and
more than once snubbed the volatile Betty. Of Mary Wheeler she
seemed to stand in awe, but did her best to get up a little
flirtation with Mark, the second son. The day before her
departure she threw decorum to the winds and invaded her lover's
study. She charged him with neglecting her, tore to pieces a
little bouquet which Betty had brought the day before, and finally
told him, with flaming eyes, that she did not love him and never had
done, but that she would make him marry her or spoil his life.
It was never very difficult for John to hold his tongue, and
he did so now, especially as this open and coarse attack had
revealed to him the awful abyss on the verge of which he stood.
That he did not love Sallie as he ought to do, and once had done, he
knew perfectly well; he knew just as certainly that he intended to
marry her, but whether he or she was to blame for the change was not
so clear, and that it was right to marry under such circumstances
was less clear still. These things made a difficulty
sufficiently serious, but there was something else behind them all,
deeper and darker, something so shocking, in fact, that he dared not
allow it to take definite shape in his mind, but day by day he was
conscious that it was growing and insisting, in spite of him, upon
being recognised. Why had he changed towards Sallie? and would
the change ever have been the decided thing it was if he had never
met—but there he always pulled up.
And to these worries were added a number of smaller ones.
The super. was beginning to repent of having removed Mr. Wheeler
from office, and John was already in fear of a rupture between his
colleague and the chief layman he had been so anxious to get into
office. He was troubled also about Max's proceedings.
That volatile young man came to Partidge once a week now, or
oftener, and John knew by past experiences that he could not be
properly prepared for the approaching probationers' examinations.
He found, also, some difficulty in retaining his respect for a man
who seemed so utterly carried away by an inconsequent young creature
like Betty. Not that that gay young person seemed any the
worse for the experience; she seemed absolutely unspoilable, and
made no secret whatever of her capricious but perfectly honest and
innocent fondness for Ringley. The Wheelers, too, seemed to
John culpably heedless on the point; and he could not for the life
of him understand how it was that, when he had on one occasion
hinted his fears to Mary, she had looked at him so scrutinisingly
and then laughed with most evident amusement. In this case,
however, he had got a step further than mere broodings, and had sent
a long and painfully candid letter to his friend, and when he came
in one morning from his before-breakfast walk, the reply was waiting
He could not help smiling at the scrawly flourishes on the
envelope, so characteristic as they were of the writer, but when he
had slit the packet open the short note within turned his amusement
into helpless perplexity.
He was addressed as "Dear, double-blinded old Dunder-head,"
and then there was Betty's name and a long line of increasingly
elongated notes of exclamation; and then "Betty" again, and a
similar rearguard of expression points. Then there was a
grotesque pen-and-ink sketch of Max doubled up on a sofa, and
opening a huge cavernous mouth in uncontrollable laughter. The
girl's name appeared again with an hyphen between each letter, and
the whole underscored half-an-inch deep, and at last a few plain
"Even the much-beloved examinations must stand aside. Tell the
lovely 'Cilla to lay a plate for me for dinner.
Yours in shrieking convulsions,
THE OLD 'UN."
John laughed; it was a characteristic epistle certainly, but
what on earth did it mean? He propped it up wide open against
the toast rack, and poured out the coffee. Then he glanced
round for the cream, but his eyes got no farther than the
hieroglyphic epistle, and he sat staring at it in bewilderment that
was almost ridiculous. Then he commenced again with his food,
but not a ray of illumination could he get out of the cryptic
document; and he was just turning his eyes away, when he observed
another letter lying where he had found the first, and which he must
have overlooked. This, on opening, proved to be written in a
neat but unmasculine hand, which he thought he knew, and after
glancing at the flowery headline and then at the signatures, for
there were two, he read—
"DEAR MR. LEDGER,
"It is our duty to inform you that, for reasons you will probably
guess, we do not think it advisable that you should continue in the
circuit after Conference. As Circuit Stewards we shall not,
therefore, offer you the usual invitation at the approaching
Quarterly Meeting. We deeply regret having to take this
course, but we trust and pray that the painful discipline may bring
forth its fruit in your future career.
"With earnest prayer and devout good wishes for your future
P. J. BOWDEN,
TUBAL RAMSDEN, }Stewards."
There was no more breakfast for Ledger. It only needed
this to fill up the cup of his bitterness, and so he pushed back his
chair and laughed a hard, angry laugh. No man ever had higher
ideals of ministerial life and duty than he: no man was ever more
thoroughly satisfied of his call; and yet he had got entangled in
difficulties which in another man he would have regarded as
evidences of weakness or something worse; and his first circuit
rejected him on the earliest possible opportunity. He was not
merely disappointed, neither was it simply a return of his old habit
of unhealthy self-suspicion. He was angry—hotly,
uncontrollably angry. Fate was not simply antagonistic, she
was malicious; cunning malignity could not possibly have invented
any concatenation of circumstances more exasperating and shameful.
He was not only released from obligation to keep terms with a fate
so spiteful: he was rebellious, defiant, desperate.
He soon forgot the stewards' letter, however, and, deep in
the darker perplexities that were filling his life, a sadder mood
came upon him, and he began pacing the room and fighting the surly
demons which had invaded his innermost life, and made his hot brain
a veritable pandemonium. He had done everything, in this love
affair of his, which he most condemned and hated; and was actually
in the position he had always contended no straightforward and
honourable man ought or need to be in.
There was something in the situation that was almost
devilish, and he bit his lips and ground his teeth in a perfect
frenzy of self-torture. Time, duties, friends, were all
forgotten, and he was lying face downwards on the little horse-hair
sofa, when he became conscious that some one was in the room, and
sitting up, he stared at the friendly face of Max as though he were
the very last person in the world he expected to see.
Max had uttered his usual wild whoop as he ascended the
stairs, and had given the closed door a vigorous ran-tan, but John
had apparently heard neither, and now regarded his friend as though
he were some dreadful apparition. Max's merry face had become
long with sudden alarm, a sympathy almost womanly shone in his fine
eyes, and in low tones that betrayed the sincerity of his concern,
"Johnny, Johnny, dear old boy! Whatever is the matter?"
John looked up into the anxious face with a dazed look; then
comprehension came back to him, a sense of sudden and sweet relief
seemed to pass over him, and lifting his eyes, full of grateful joy,
he sank back again upon the couch, and burst into grateful, precious
tears. Embarrassed and uncomfortable at the sight of unmanly
weeping, Max turned away, took off his coat and hat, and returned to
John's side. As he did so, his eyes fell on the stewards'
letter lying on the table. There were no secrets between these
two, and in a moment more the document was flying across the room,
and Max was standing on the hearthrug with a considerably relieved
"Is that all? Come out, sir, come out!" and
seizing John, he dragged him up, and compelled him to show his face.
"And are you ninny enough to be squelched by that flea-bite?
The skunks! The measly, little, blown-out jacks-in-office!
I'm ashamed of you, Ledger! Why, man, it's a compliment—the
greatest compliment they could pay you! Good Lord!" he went
on, more to himself than anyone else, "and Methodism is governed by
fourth-rate little whipper-snappers like these! Come here,"
and seizing the tongs, he pounced upon the offending letter, held
it, with screwed-up nose, as far off as he could, crammed it into
the fire, and pulled the burning embers over it.
Meanwhile John was recovering his self-possession. For
the moment he had felt prompted to unburden himself to his friend,
but his painful cautiousness checked the impulse, and though
thankful and comforted by his presence, he allowed him to suppose
that the letter was the immediate cause of his distress.
"Cheer up, old buckstick!" cried Max, with a resounding slap
on the back. "This isn't like thee! Let the stewards go
to the dogs, and the measly circuit too." And then suddenly
stopping, and eyeing John over suspiciously, he went on, "There
isn't anything else, is there?"
"I think I must be a bit run down," said John,
"That's it! It's those exams., confound 'em.
Well, thank goodness, I shall never have that sin laid at my door."
This was so like the man, and so ridiculously true, that John
laughed, and Max, with a great leap, bawled out—
"Richard is himself again!" and then, drawing up a chair, he
fell to work upon the remains of John's breakfast.
"You scapegrace! what's brought you here again so soon?"
asked John, as he watched with comforting interest his friend's
"What? Ah, that's good! Ha! ha!" and the crazy
fellow went off into another fit of laughter,
"Johannes," he said gaily, helping himself to butter, "do you
know that you have in you the makings of a great philosopher?"
John, still sitting with his legs on the sofa, ducked his
body in ironical acknowledgment.
"One of the most indubitable marks of the philosopher is
wall-eyed, mole-like blindness to the most palpable,
plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face facts of ordinary life."
John bowed again, but there was a glint of curiosity in his
"You wrote me a solemn, philosopher-like letter about
Betty"—and as he mentioned the name he rattled off into another
long, noisy laugh.
"Well?" and there was the sharpness of impatience in John's
"You warned me about 'Betty,' and you pleaded like a
philosopher about Betty, 'B-e-t-t-y'"—and away he went again in most
evident enjoyment of some hidden but delicious joke.
"Well, why not Betty?" and had Max been less entertained by
his own humour, he might have noted an ominous constraint in the
"Why not?—oh, purblind philosopher! Oh, star-gazing
stumbler over mole-hills, thy name is Ledger!"
"But it is Betty you've been fooling with," and John's very
lips were white, if Max had but noticed.
"Betty," cried he, still revelling in the humour of the
situation, "little, innocent Betty! Why, is it possible that
thy gerund-grinding brain has never seen that Betty was but a
handle, a stepping-stone—the pretty gooseberry and stepping-stone to
John had sprung to his feet, and gripping hard at the back of
his chair, was glaring at his friend with haggard, ashen-grey face.
"Don't, Max, don't! Not Mary!"
"Yes, Mary, of course. The peerless, the
incomparable--Good heavens, Ledger! What's up?"
John stared at the now thoroughly frightened Max for a
moment, and then dropping back helplessly upon the couch, he gasped
in choking, terrified tones—
"Oh, Max, Max! I love her myself!"
Horror, shame, and intense alarm expressed themselves on the
almost ghastly face at which Max now gaped dumbfounded. A
moment earlier John would have denied the fact he had just blurted
out, but the utterly unexpected announcement had revealed it to him,
and surprised the confession out of him. For a long time these
two stood with dropped heads, and then John, lifting shame-stricken
eyes to the scared, incredulous face of his friend, burst out with
"I love her! God, honour, friends — I care not—I love
her! I love her!"' and then, with a sudden,
overwhelming recoil, and a short, stifled gasp, he fell forward in a
Those who had an ordinary acquaintance with Max Ringley would
have been surprised to see him at this moment, but his was one of
those natures which, ruffled easily on the surface, have large
reserves of calm strength which astonishes onlookers in times of
great and sudden pressure; and so, with the coolness of a doctor, he
laid his friend on the sofa, took off with rapid deftness the
clerical collar, and opened his shirt at the neck; and then,
springing downstairs, he suddenly assumed his old easy manner, and
in the smoothest possible voice, asked the landlady if she had a
little brandy in the house.
"Don't be alarmed, I'm not going to break the pledge, Mrs.
Pride," he laughed, and then, with the little bottle in his hand, he
actually stopped to admire the good woman's canary, and inquire
about its breed.
The spirit was soon administered, John's clammy hands
vigorously rubbed, his face fanned, and in a few moments he was
opening his eyes and looking into the pitifully anxious face bending
over him. His were vacant enough at first, and then
comprehension came back into them. He shrank like a shamed
child from his friend's eyes, and turned his head away with a low
moan. Max watched him with strangest thoughts. As his
passion for Mary Wheeler was his very latest affection of the kind,
he regarded it as his greatest, and, in fact, his only genuine one.
But the fact that his inseparable friend was now his rival,
disconcerting though it was, was not the trouble that most filled
his mind at this moment. Max, governed more by his intuitions
than by anything else, had been strongly drawn to his constitutional
opposite, as he found it in the quiet John Ledger, almost as soon as
they became acquainted. John was his ideal man—quiet,
sensitive, high-souled, and almost painfully conscientious, and had
become his second and higher conscience, and acquired a powerful
influence in his character of father confessor, not only to him, but
to others of the students. He knew John's high-minded, almost
overstrained scrupulosity in all matters affecting the relationship
with the opposite sex, and the remorseless logic with which he
applied the law of duty. And here was this immaculate, this
almost revered friend of his involved in complications of the most
humiliating kind. He knew but too well that John would exact
the utmost penalty of the law from himself, and yet the wild,
reckless, almost blasphemous language he had used revealed but too
clearly the intense reality of the fatal passion that possessed him.
Max was sore amazed: he stood gazing down on the passive, almost
green-grey face, and pity, sympathy, and strong manly love clamoured
within him to help. Just then the idea that John was his rival
did not seem to appeal to him; he was his dear friend, in deadly
spiritual peril, and must be helped at all costs.
But how? He pictured to himself with what scorn John
would reject such suggestions of escape as ordinary worldly prudence
would dictate; he knew that he would reject all help as further
compromising him, and insist on fighting his battle himself; but as
his warm heart longed to do something, he flung himself into the low
American chair, and began to cudgel his brains for some scheme
whereby he might help his friend without consulting him. But
though, with elbow on knee and chin in hand, he stared at the
flickering coals on the fire until his eyes felt like starting out
of his head, no light came; the darkness grew denser and more
hideous about him, and he was in despair.
The poor, abstracted fellow started as though a bolt had
struck him, and then, turning hastily, he beheld the woe-worn eyes
of his friend fixed hungrily upon him.
"Max!" and John turned away his head shyly, and appealingly
put out a shaking hand.
With a sudden gush of affection, Max sprang at the pathetic
palm, and gripped it with the grip of a vice. For the space of
a minute, a minute full of emotion too deep for utterance, they
remained thus; and then John lifted a pleading, humbled look to his
friend's face, and still holding his hand, stammered—
And Max, with face awork and choking voice, cried, "Always,
dear boy; always!"
"Whatever comes!" and then breaking utterly down, the
agitated fellow dropped upon his knees, and burying his face on his
friend's breast, he cried, through set teeth, "John! God do so
to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me."
"Amen! Amen!" sobbed John in reply, and there they
remained, whilst the pretty carriage clock on the mantelpiece, Max's
gift to his friend, ticked eloquent endorsement of the bond just
"Sit down, old fellow, and let us think," said John at
length, and the other, with red, flushed face, turned and asked
"Hadn't we better pray?"
John blushed again with fresh shame, and then, after
reflecting a moment, he pointed silently across the room towards the
open door of his bedroom, and Max, with a bowed head, got up, and
went and shut himself in.
An hour passed away, and 'Cilla came in to set the table for
dinner. The rattle of pots brought Max from his retirement,
but he shyly avoided his friend's eye, and moved nervously about
from window to picture, and from picture to window again, until the
meal was ready. Very little was eaten, and that reluctantly
and in silence, but just as they were turning away from the table,
John, who was now quite calm, raised his head and said—
"You'll help me, Max?"
"Anything on earth, dear boy. Do give me the chance!"
"Anything, Max? Think what it means."
"Then if you want to help and save me, you must go and
propose to Mary Wheeler to-day."
With amazement and almost resentment, Max began to protest.
John waited until he had done, and then said—
"It must be done to-day, if—if you really love her."
John knew well enough how violent, and yet how transitory his
friend's fits of love had been hitherto; but it seemed to him to be
the most natural of all things that this should be a serious case,
considering the woman involved, and he so treated it.
Max refused, and stormed and argued; and when abuse seemed
unavailing, he insisted that at least John should tell him more of
his mind before he did anything.
But John was quietly obdurate, and he had so much more
confidence in his quieter friend's judgment than his own, that Max
presently subsided, and began to think with rueful face of the task
It was not the first time he had proposed, and every day of
the last week he had painted to himself the scene which he had begun
to feel could not long be deferred; but things seemed all so
different now, and he had an uneasy sense that he was about to do
something the end of which he could not quite see.
And then John began to talk. Quietly and gently he
extolled the fair woman now so much to them both. Then he
remarked, with a sad cadence, on the equality of the match from the
worldly standpoint, Max's father being a comparatively wealthy
Midland squire. From that he passed on to the mutual
suitability of their temperaments—Mary's queenly self-possession
being the natural foil to Max's impetuosity; and he finished all by
paying a glowing tribute to the character of the Wheeler family.
Several times Max interrupted with questions as to what John
was going to do; but these were all quietly ignored, and at last, as
his friend expected, Max's imagination caught fire, and he finally,
after many protestations and frequent suspicious glances at John,
consented to obey his behest, but contended for a short postponement
of the actual attempt. John, however, was inexorable, and he
was at last compelled to yield that point also. It took a
considerable time to get him ready. Nearly every clean collar
John had was tried and rejected; a quarter of an hour was spent in
discussing whether he ought not to pay a visit to a barber before
embarking on so important an errand. His soiled cuffs had to
be judiciously turned, for John's were of altogether too shy a
character to suit his taste; and when everything else seemed in
order, he suddenly remembered that he had come in worsted gloves,
and as his friend's were too small, he had, cold though the weather
was, to fall back on an old trick, and carry John's best kids in his
hand. He started at last, however, and John was just breathing
a relieved sigh, when he came bounding back, plumped himself
doggedly down on a chair, and utterly refused to go a step until
John had explained himself. And so the whole weary argument
had to be gone over again, and it was perilously late in the
afternoon when he got once more started. He was back again
"Would it not be better, under all the circumstances, to
write to her?"
John got over this by appealing to his pride. Surely
such a girl deserved something more honourable than a mere note.
Away he went once more with a sudden rush, and this time he
did not return.
Left to himself, Ledger began to pace about the room in
uneasy thought. Slowly and with frequent halting at first,
then rapidly, until, all unconsciously, he was tramping about the
floor in a way that greatly exercised the nerves of the landlady
downstairs. Readers of this story will think that he was well
accustomed to acute mental conflict, but John felt that he had never
been in real trouble before. Hitherto his difficulties had
been of a religious nature mostly, but now the deep elemental
passions of the natural man were awakened, and he "fought with
beasts at Ephesus." Max? They had an hour or so ago
pledged themselves to eternal amity, but just now there raged within
him all the fires of unregenerate jealousy, as he realised that at
that moment he was perhaps in the company of the girl he now so
madly loved. Mary Wheeler? She was not something to
secretly and hopelessly love; she was something to steal, to ravish
away, to fight for the possession of against all comers and at all
costs. Sallie? Right? duty? conscience? These were
but dry autumn leaves swept helplessly along in the mighty rush of
unreasoning passion. Think? He could not think; he would
not! He would have! Mad? Let him be mad; he
liked it, he revelled in it! Madness and Mary were heaven.
Have? Yes, he would have, if the universe came clashing about
his ears as he plucked the fatal fruit.
He did not conquer this mood; he did not even resist it; but
it passed away of itself, and he was just beginning to shudder with
horror at the awful thoughts that had passed through his mind, when
there was a bang downstairs, a clatter on the staircase, and Max,
with a battered hat and a bruised forehead, came staggering into the
"Come, John, come!" cried the mad fellow. "There's a
mob outside Wheeler's house, and they are threatening to break the
A BANK SMASH AND A PROPOSAL.
IT was not easy
for John to come out of his painful abstraction all at once, and the
stunning nature of the intelligence Max brought did not assist him.
But Ringley was impatient and imperious.
"Look alive, man! On with those togs! It's
something about a bank. 'Cilla, bring Mr. Ledger's boots.
Seems to have smashed or something. Wheeler's a
director—chairman in fact. Blow the bruise! Come on!
Poor girls!" and dragging his companion after him down the stairs,
he hurried out into the damp streets, talking excitedly as he went.
What they were going to do neither of them thought, but they
were eagerly agreed that now was the time to stand by their friends.
"Some booby called Wheeler a swindler, and I went for him,
and an old party interfered with an umbrella, and gave me this,"
explained Max carelessly, pointing to the mark on his brow.
"Come on; don't you hear them shouting?"
Just as they turned into Nickey Lane, to avoid Broad Street,
and thus get a clearer way to Shuttle Hill, John heard himself
called, and pulling up, he beheld the super. making his way towards
him with solemn face.
"Didn't I tell you? Didn't I tell you?" he gasped as he
came up. "Isn't it a mercy we got him out?"
And to the small-minded minister's astonishment, the quiet,
restrained John sprang at him like an enraged terrier.
"No, sir! No! It is not a mercy; it's a
dishonour!—a dastardly shame! Don't you know he saved your
daughter's life?"—and before the cleric could recover his amazement,
Max was shaking his fist in his face.
"There's more grace in Wheeler's whiskers than there is in
all the little souls in your measly, one-horse circuit!"
But just then a crashing sound was heard, and a falling of
glass, and with fierce cries the two young men broke off, and dashed
away in the direction of number seven. They took another
bye-street, and running the length of it, turned once more, and came
suddenly out opposite the house; and, as they did so, each uttered a
cry, for there before them was a large upstairs window of plate
glass all splintered, as by some heavy missile, and behind the
window, white-faced, but calm and resolute, stood Mary Wheeler.
As they rushed up, she came nearer, until her face was framed in the
broken glass, and seemed to wish to speak to the crowd; but Max,
dashing headlong through the throng, sprang at the gilded railings,
and shouted hoarsely—
Mary caught sight of them, and a soft blush mantled her
cheek, but John, with a quicker intuition than his friend, had
guessed what she wished to do; and springing at the railings, he had
climbed lightly up the gate post before the policemen at the
entrance could stop him. A moment later he was standing
upright on the crown of the post, and was waving his hands and
calling for silence. The crowd did not, all at once, realise
the situation; but when it did, there was an outbreak of jeers and
"That's him 'at's courting t' doter," shouted some one.
"He'll give her t' sack naa (now)," jeered another.
"He'll ha' to stick his legs under somebody else's mahogany
naa," cried a third, and John, heedless of everything, and only
anxious for the safety of those inside the house, still waved his
hands and called for attention.
Just at this moment Max uttered a sharp cry, and sprang at a
man who was moving back to get swinging room for his arm, and who
held half a brick in his hand. Two policemen coming up at the
moment, rushed forward to stop the struggle, whilst the inspector
plucked at John's coat-tail to induce him to come down.
"I'm going to speak to them and try to get them to go home."
"Then for God's sake go on, or there will be a riot."
"Friends! friends!" shouted John, as Max came back panting to
the railings, and the policemen dragged the stone-thrower away to
"Louder! louder!" shouted the inspector in a hoarse whisper,
and then, turning to the excited crowd, he cried—
"Order! Hear him! Order!"
Just at this moment a stone whizzed past John's head, and
crashed into the end of the Wheeler's conservatory.
"Shame!" shouted one or two, and the policemen, glad of any
help, chimed in—
Comparative silence fell at last on the gathering, but dark,
threatening faces were everywhere turned on to John on the gate
"Friends!" he resumed, "I don't know much about—"
"We want our brass," broke in two or three.
John drew himself up, fixed one or two of the more attentive
with his eye, and recommenced—
"How long have you known James Wheeler?"
"What by that?" cried some one.
"A—sight too long," bawled a grocer on the edge of the crowd.
"He was born in Partidge, and you have known him all your
lives, haven't you?"
"He's lived and worked amongst you for fifty odd years,
The silence was now complete.
"Did any of you ever know him do a dirty trick?" Faces were
clearing here and there.
"Has he ever robbed any of you of a penny?"
There were half-reluctant nods, and somebody turned round and
threatened the still muttering grocer.
"Has he done anything to shake your confidence in him?"
"Wheer is he now, then?" shouted a woman in dingy widow's
"Where is he! Looking after your interests."
John knew nothing, but his confidence in his friend was
complete, and he made this statement in the plenitude of a strong
faith; and as he saw doubt and fear struggling with new hope in the
countenances of those before him, and realised how much this must
mean to some of them, he cried, with sudden emotion—
"Oh, friends! I'm sorry for you to-day, with all my
"God bless thee!" shouted an old man who was standing next to
"But, friends," John went on, "there's one thing I'm prepared
to stake my life on, and that is that James Wheeler will part with
every stick he has in the world before any of you shall be injured
through him—he will!"
"Yes, that he will, young man," cried a strange voice, and,
with a sudden cry, the crowd turned round and beheld James Wheeler
himself standing on the edge of the throng. He had evidently
got out of a cab which had a moment before pulled up in the
bye-street down which John and Max had rushed upon the scene.
With easy self-possession he walked down the gap made for him by the
suddenly abashed crowd, and nodding to Max, he put one foot upon the
coping, and gripping the railings, raised himself above the rest and
looked steadily into the faces turned up to him.
"The bank will open to-morrow morning at the usual time, and
you will all receive your own," he said; and then as though the
occasion was one of no particular interest, he turned, straddled
over the railings, put out his hand to John, and helped him down
from his elevated position, murmuring as he did so a word in John's
ear that brought the tingling blood into his pallid face.
The crowd wavered, men and women cast dazed, questioning
looks at each other, and then the police becoming suddenly
exceedingly valiant and energetic, they began to disperse.
Max, with shining eyes, came swarming over the railings and
across the flower beds, and seizing Mr. Wheeler by the hand, began
to assure him that he was a trump! a giant! a hero! and finished by
"My old dad will give you a lift at this, sir! He'll be
proud to know such a man."
Mr. Wheeler, with a shy smile, took John by the arm, and
began to move towards the house. As he opened the front door
he stepped back and pushed his young friend before him, and before
John could realise what was happening, he was being squeezed almost
to choking, by a pair of long white arms; a hot, wet cheek, and a
bewildering cloud of fluffy hair were being pressed against his
cheek, and a shower of kisses rained upon him. Then there was
a sharp cry, and John, suddenly released, beheld Mr. Wheeler
enduring the same delightful sort of assault, until at length the
impetuous Betty, crying and laughing together, let her father go,
turned and looked at the embarrassed and evidently envious Max, and
then dashed off into the house with sudden shame.
There were voices in the hall just then, and the "kids,"
indignant and threatening, came in to hear the details; for the mill
was nearly two miles out of the town, and they had only heard the
terrible news a few minutes before "stopping time."
The conversation was rapid and noisy, and of a bewildering
cross-fire nature: so many things having to be told and commented
upon that John was relieved when, just as Betty was opening a highly
coloured description of his doings, Mary came into the room and at
once attracted attention by her looks. She had been "a little
frightened," she admitted, laughingly, and nobody knew then that for
nearly half-an-hour she had been lying on her own bed in a dead
faint. Tea was brought in presently, but nobody wanted any,
and the excited young folk only drew up to the table to gratify the
John and Max tried to excuse themselves and get away, but
nobody would hear of it.
"Friends like these must be stuck to, eh, boys?" said Mr.
Wheeler, and so they were constrained to remain for a time, but
later on, with many assurances of gratitude, they took their leave.
Late that same night the three young Wheelers sat pulling
moodily at expired cigarettes in the smoke room, and talking in low
fitful tones. Presently the little office door that opened
into the smoke room creaked on its hinges, and the elder Wheeler,
without, for once, his cigar, came into the room and sat down.
Complete silence ensued, but presently he turned his head and looked
round as if in search of some one. Mark got up and went out,
returning almost immediately with Mary, who now wore a long
dressing-gown, and her wonderful hair fell in thick heavy folds down
her back. As she took her seat near her father he looked round
nervously at her, and then turned his head away and began to blink
his eyes rapidly. Mary glanced at him, and then rising,
stepped into the little office and returned with a cigar box which
she held out to him. He shook his head decidedly, but without
daring to look at her, and so she picked two cigars from the box,
laid them on his knee, and then, taking a taper, she lighted it, and
still waited in silence. With more rapid b1linkings of the
eyes, and a treacherous twitching about the mouth, he took the weed
and taper and was soon pouring out volumes of smoke; at the same
time he put out his hand and touched hers timidly, as it lay on the
arm of his chair, with a touch that meant more to these
deep-hearted, reticent people than a passion of emotion would have
done to others.
Mr. Wheeler was clearly struggling with some well-nigh
uncontrollable feeling, and the "kids" in similar plight singed
their moustaches and burnt their noses' ends in vain attempts to
cover their emotions behind very demonstrative lightings of
cigarettes. Silence, more painful than ever, fell on them, and
then in hollow, broken tones, Mr. Wheeler faltered out—
"It's my own fault."
Four suddenly stern voices rapped out this reproof, and the
father, who seemed to be sinking deeper into the chair, and looking
smaller and smaller every moment, continued brokenly—
"You don't know how bad it is, children."
"No, and we don't care."
The younger men were all like their father, slow of speech,
but three pairs of moist, glistening eyes were turned admiringly
upon Mary, who, as usual, had found the very words they wanted.
"You lads will have to strike out for yourselves now," went
on the elder man.
"We shan't," answered all three at once.
"But, my bairns, it's gone, it's all gone. We hav'n't
anything left at all."
And as the big fellows looked helplessly at each other and
their sister in search of a sufficient thing to say, Mary brought
sudden tears into their eyes by saying, very quietly—
"Yes, we have! we've you."
Wheeler could not speak for several moments, and his eldest
son watching him furtively, saw him driving his teeth into his cigar
as though in maddening pain.
"The mill will have to go; is practically gone now," he said
Shadows came upon those young faces for a moment, for that
was worse than they had expected, but as they glanced suspiciously
at each other, shame smote them, they called up airs of stolid
indifference and almost contempt, but finally burst into nervous
little laughs as their sister came once more to their rescue by
"Then we'll all work together and build one twice as big."
Wheeler sprang to his feet as though he had been stung.
"We will! forgive me, children. I was a coward after
all. We will! God helping us, we will!"
"Dad!" shouted Mark, as excited now as his father, "there's
many a man in Partidge has begun at the bottom and won his way up
once, but I know a jolly old fellow who is going to show 'em how
to do it twice. We're on for it, daddy lad, we're all on!"
A silence fell on them for a while. Wheeler sank back
into his chair and sucked eagerly at his now unlighted cigar.
"I don't quite see what we shall do—yet," he said, in slow
musing tones, "but God—"
And before he could get the dilatory words out, Mary said,
"There's my little patent."
"M-a-r-y!" and Wheeler's suddenly excited shout seemed to
ring through the quiet house as he leaped to his feet and stood
gazing at her. Then he turned away, and looking with wet-eyed
appeal from one of his stalwart sons to the other, he said: "Didn't
I say she was God's angel in the house, and the best member of the
firm to boot!" and then, before she could prevent him, he had picked
her up in his long arms and was hugging her to his heart and
showering hot joyful kisses on her face. When he at length
released her, as her brothers all looked very like making similar
attacks, she retreated towards the door.
"An unprotected female must protect herself," she said, with
something of Betty in her momentary manner, and with a long sweeping
curtsey she vanished.
Something very like cheerfulness seemed to have entered the
hearts of those she left behind her, and very soon they were deep in
conversation on the details of the bank crisis and the arrangements
and sacrifices necessary to clear the good name of Wheeler.
"We shall do it, lads," cried the older man, as they rose to
separate; "they can rob us and impoverish us, but they never shall
disgrace us." And as the sons uttered each a fervent "Never,"
he led the way upstairs, crying heartily: "And now for Mary's
patent. Bless her!"
Next morning, Mr. Wheeler was early at the bank. It was
an old black and white structure which had originally been in the
centre of the town, but which with the growth of the neighbourhood
had been left very much to itself, and now stood back behind high
railings in the narrow old Market Street. The institution
itself was a very old-fashioned one, doing a slow, safe business
amongst the aborigines of the district. It had been held in
the greatest regard, and was always considered particularly safe.
A new manager, however, who had been appointed some three years
before the crisis, early announced his intention of clearing out the
cobwebs and rousing the concern out of its musty ways, and he had
carried out his threat only too well, and the unexpected collapse of
a firm very deep in its books had brought about the immediate
difficulty. Mr. Wheeler, as an old townsman, had always had a
quiet ambition to hold shares in the bank, and having unexpectedly
come into possession of a parcel of scrip some months before the new
management took hold, he was soon put upon the directorate, because
of his position and influence more than for the value of his
holding. He had, however, caused a flutter in the dovecote by
tartly critiquing the "new ways." And suddenly the crash came,
and he discovered that his fellow-directors were either men of
straw, or had ingeniously covered themselves by overdrafts, and he
had, perhaps, unwisely expressed himself about the matter at the
first sign of danger; thus producing uneasiness and a nasty "run,"
with such consequences as we have already seen. Practically he
was left either to shuffle and edge as he might have done and thus
save his possessions, or face the matter out, which, as he well
knew, meant the loss of all he had.
He was greeted with mingled groans and cheers as he
approached the excited crowd of depositors, but he only winced when
somebody flung the word "Methody" at him. Punctually at ten
o'clock the doors were opened, and payments made. At first
there was a violent scramble and much cursing, but as depositor
after depositor came away satisfied, the stream slackened, and in a
hour had become quite manageable; and by the time the dinner-hour
was reached the demand had almost ceased, and a few customers had
even brought their money back. Meanwhile, Mr. Wheeler was busy
enough in the back office receiving visits from friends, and reports
from the chief constable about the search for the manager, who had
disappeared the day before. Fellow-shareholders also visited
him and abused him for having brought the thing upon himself and
them, and for his quixotic conduct now that the worst had come.
Old friends, business men from other towns, wired offering
assistance, or called upon him and suggested "perfectly safe" and
"honourable methods" whereby he might save himself and evade, or at
least postpone, his liability. Having failed in this argument,
some of them began to abuse him as the enemy of his family, the
robber of his children, and the spoiler of his sons' prospects.
To each and all he replied with the same smiling firmness, and went
on paying out through the clerks the demands made. Then it was
reported to him that the run had stopped, and going into the
counting-house to peep at the crowd still standing about, he was
accosted by a rough-looking old fellow, in shabby fustian and a
greasy silk hat of antique fashion.
"I've towd thee monny a time as thou were a foo'," he cried,
glaring savagely at the temporary banker, "but now thou knows it, I
reacon," and then with a curious spasmodic movement on his face, he
drew out a parcel of notes amounting to about £40, and pitching them
on the high counter, said, snappishly, "Here, tak' care o' them."
It was old Crake the leader, and Mr. Wheeler's eyes glistened
as he handed back the money, and begged the old man to go home.
"Oh! it's sperritual pride now, is it! The lunger I
live the more I sees that needle's eye as t' Master talks about.
Here, lad! thee tak' it," and with a sternly indignant glance at
Wheeler, he stepped up to a grinning clerk and handed him the notes.
The only responsible director then shrugged his shoulders and
retreated into the inner office, and the old fellow flung after him
the most applicable Scripture text he could think of—"Pride goeth
before a fall, and a haughty spirit before destruction."
Wherever James Wheeler appeared during the next few days he
was greeted with something like an ovation, and even on the busy
Manchester Exchange men stood by as he passed, took off their hats,
and made attempts at cheering. Many condemned the action as
unjust to himself and his family, for his responsibility was after
all a joint one. More than one little committee was formed to
try to compel him to stay his hand, but they produced no effect.
The mill, a fine modern concern, the envy of many, was held over for
a little time, to see if anything could be done to save it to the
family, but Wheeler proved so fastidiously scrupulous, and his sons
so stubbornly infatuated about their father, that nothing was
accomplished, and when in growing admiration his fellow shareholders
in the bank insisted upon purchasing and presenting him with the
house in which he lived, he peremptorily stopped the movement, and
insisted that it would require all they could find in the way of
cash to help the bank upon its feet again.
The super., as the result of John's hasty words, had an
affecting interview with his ex-steward, the details of which have
never leaked out, but from that day the minister went about
declaring that "he was not fit to black Mr. Wheeler's boots."
When the Quarterly meeting came, there was a special vote of
congratulation sent to the ex-steward, and an invitation to the now
all-popular second minister to remain in the circuit. The
stewards, the authors of that stinging letter to John, were most
fulsome, and when John quietly but firmly declined, a large party
headed by old Crake absolutely refused to accept the refusal, and
insisted that he must be made to stop, even if Conference had to be
invoked. During these exciting times, and in spite of imminent
examinations, Max came to Partidge every third or fourth day, though
his own circuit was forty miles away. But though John and he
talked much and often about the Wheelers, each noted it as an odd
thing that the other never alluded to the dread subject that was so
constantly in their thoughts. Max, glowing with intense
admiration of the conduct of his friends, was now absolutely certain
there was only one woman in the world for him, and he revelled in
the delicious thought that in their misfortune his projected
proposal would be a delicate compliment, and show the family that he
had a soul above mere worldly considerations.
Every time he came to Partidge he had within him the fixed
purpose of proposing to Mary before he returned, but on each
occasion John's strange and significant silence, and the increasing
pallor and pensiveness of his face, touched the impressionable
fellow's heart, and he decided to wait until his friend should
speak. Then came the examinations; times of torturing
humiliation to Max, but when they were over, and he had thrown the
last erratic sheet of Hebrew aside, he startled John and the
examining minister, by shouting—
"And now for Rose Cottage and Paradise! Paradise lost
to Paradise regained."
It was known to both of them that the Wheelers were removing
to their new home that very week, and Max waited impatiently until
the more painstaking John had finished in order that he might, as he
expected, be asked to call at Partidge en route, spend the night,
and, of course, see the Wheelers.
Rose Cottage was a little old-fashioned house on the other
side of the railway, and was the place to which James Wheeler had
taken his bride when he was only a cashier. They found their
arrival anticipated, and Betty met them with a long bamboo curtain
rod as a sort of wand of office and showed them over the new
residence. Everything looked very cramped and small after the
beautiful home they had so often visited, and there was a smell of
paint and whitewash, but Betty was in high spirits, and did the
honours with lavish descriptive embellishments and serio-comic
"Step forward, gentlemen, mind that two-and-eleven-penny
umbrella stand! Walk this way—the reception room; don't knock
the gaseliers with your head, Mr. Ringley!"—and she showed them a
small front room which was to be used for state occasions, and thus
went from room to room. "This, dearly beloved brethering," she
cried, standing before a closed door, "is the refectory, or, as the
Revised Version has it—the kitchen! Our chef is at this
moment preparing dyspeptic instruments of torture, and is not on
view, so we will ascend." On the second storey she vaguely
indicated with a majestic sweep of the hand the various rooms, and
uttered the single word "dormitories," and then pointed to the door
of a room over the drawing-room on which was a sheet of paper
covered with letters in different stages of intoxication, and which
made up the significant announcement: "THE PROPHET'S
Thus introduced, they spent a delightful evening, and Max
kept the thoroughly weary and pensive John up into the small hours
as he enlarged on the "splendid humility" of the Wheelers and the
incomparable charms of Mary.
Next morning, he was strangely restless and absentminded.
Several times John caught him studying him with scowling brow, as if
he longed to introduce the fateful topic, but was uncertain as to
its reception. They both knew that he ought to be back in his
circuit, for to-morrow was Sunday; but he fidgeted about, looked up
the time-table, started several conversations which he somehow could
not maintain, and at last turning shyly to his companion, he asked,
"What about this girl?"
John paled a little, drew himself together, went over and
dropped some old post-cards and used envelopes into the fire, and
"Go and ask her to-day."
Max started, and looked a little taken aback, John was always
so downright and blunt; then a smile came into the corners of his
mouth, and it was clear that the suggestion was very much to his
mind. But his face shadowed suddenly, he looked hard out of
the window a little while, and then stepped up to John, and taking
him by the shoulder and looking with earnest, scrutinising gaze into
his eyes, he asked, softly—
"And what about you, old man?"
There was a pause, he could feel John's frame shaking under
his hands, and at last the answer came—
"Max, dear old fellow, it's of God's mercy that you are the
man. My guilty love is so strong that my religion even is too
weak for it sometimes, but I am helped and hope to be saved
by—by—b—y—by my love to thee. Go, ask her, and the Lord help
and prosper thee!"
Max's head had dropped upon his breast, his face went pale
and red and pale and red again, his eyes were shining with a
strange, struggling light, and at last he set his teeth together,
clenched his fist, and shouted, with drawn, agonised face—
"I will never see her again!"
But John knew him better than he knew himself, and so, after
waiting for the height of his passion to subside, he began to talk
as of old. Max held out most obstinately, and repeated his
last declaration half-a-dozen times, but at length, and as usual, he
yielded to his friend's greater firmness, and about eleven o'clock,
morning though it was, he sallied forth on his mission.
Two hours passed; long, terrible hours for John Ledger, and
at last, on the stroke of one, he heard the steps of his chum on the
stairs and began to shake like a leaf.
"Well?" he cried with painful eagerness, almost before Max
had got into the room. But the Romeo, with sphinx-like face,
began to put away his hat and overcoat with most painful
"Well?" cried John again, with emotion that made his voice
shake. But Max walked coolly to the window, thrust his hands
deep into his pockets, and stood gazing moodily out of the window,
and actually humming a medley of fag-ends of tunes.
"Speak! Speak, man! You are killing me!"
And then Max turned round, surveyed John critically from head
to foot, and then going close up to him and seizing him by the
button of his coat, he said, in tones of unalterable conviction-
"Ledger! the woman that will ever get a proposal from me
again isn't made."
"She refused you?" cried John, with a sudden swelling of the
heart that frightened him.
"Refused me! Why, man, she laughed at me!"
"She laughed at me, and looked like a seraph all the time.
She licked me all over with sweet words like a mother tabby with an
obstreperous kitten. Sweet! she was sugar itself; she was
butter and honey! Why, man alive, I thought once she was going
to kiss me!"
"But she didn't refuse—"
"Didn't she? Not in so many words, she's too
confoundedly clever for that. She didn't even offer to be a
sister. She stroked me down and smiled and smothered me in
compliments, and smiled and said: 'How kind of me!' and smiled; and
then, when I was feeling like a silly fool, if she didn't raise her
big eyes and cock her dimpled chin, and ask as demurely as an old
maid, if I didn't think there was something the matter with the
health of Mr. Ledger. No, no, Mister Ledger, once bitten twice
shy! No more proposing for yours truly."