The Minder( V)
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CHAPTER IV.

A STAGGERING COMPLICATION.


THE Quarterly 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  Name after name was suggested, but promptly withdrawn by the person concerned, and finally John beheld the edifying spectacle of the ousted steward coming to the rescue of his enemies and appealing to the love and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—

    "How so?"

    "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 in."

    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 for him.

    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 words—


"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 usefulness,
                             We are,
                                      Yours sincerely,
                                                      P. J. BOWDEN,         }Circuit
                                                      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, he cried

    "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 face

    "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, apologetically.

    "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 gastronomical performances.

    "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 eye.

    "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 tones.

    "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 other's tones.

    "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 Mary?

    "Mary?"

    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 reckless defiance—

    "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 dead swoon.

    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.

    "Max!"

    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—

    "Always, Max?"

    And Max, with face awork and choking voice, cried, "Always, dear boy; always!"

    "Whatever comes?"

    "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 renewed.

    "Sit down, old fellow, and let us think," said John at length, and the other, with red, flushed face, turned and asked solemnly—

    "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."

    "Anything!  Anything!"

    "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 assigned him.

    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 almost instantly.

    "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 room.

    "Come, John, come!" cried the mad fellow.  "There's a mob outside Wheeler's house, and they are threatening to break the windows!"


 
CHAPTER V.

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—

    "Go back!"

    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 curses.

    "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 the lock-up.

    "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—

    "Shame!"

    Comparative silence fell at last on the gathering, but dark, threatening faces were everywhere turned on to John on the gate post.

    "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?"

    No answer.

    "He's lived and worked amongst you for fifty odd years, hasn't he?"

    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 weeds.

    "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 heart."

    "God bless thee!" shouted an old man who was standing next to Max.

    "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 declaring—

    "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 cherry-checked "grandmother."

    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."

    "Father!"

    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 at last.

    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 answering—

    "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, shyly—

    "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 gravity.

    "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 CHAMBER!"

    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, bluntly—

    "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 then said—

    "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 deliberateness.

    "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!"

    "Never!"

    "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."



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