The Partners - I.
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THE PARTNERS
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CHAPTER I.

TORTUOUS DIPLOMACY


"IT'S tryin', Jossy, vary tryin; but we mun trust in God, and wait."

    "Wait! I'm sick of waitin'!  We'll be waitin' when the Judgement Day comes at this rate!  We mun do summat!"  And little Joshua Sweetlove, the emphatic and explosive Grindell barber, banged himself back into the summer-house corner, and pulled furiously at his long, clay pipe.

    Peter Waine moved uneasily in his chair.  There was little use in arguing when Jossy once got steam up.  They were occupying the old climber-covered summer-house at the far end of Peter Waine's back garden; and, as the dull season was upon them, they had drifted back to the old, intensely interesting, but wearisomely postponed topic of the long-projected new Wesleyan chapel, for which they had great need, substantial funds, but no possible site.  For Grindell was squire-and-parson ridden.

    Jessamine Cottage was the last house in the town, for the villas farther down the road called themselves the suburbs, or, more frequently, 'The Avenue,' that being the fashionable title for the highway still called by many the New Road, and by Jossy and his democratic customers Ginger Lane.  The cottage had a white front door with brass knocker, and stood back some paces from the road.  It had also, as a concession to modernity as represented in the owner's daughter, a French window in the gable end that opened upon a small lawn studded round with rose-trees and old-fashioned flowering plants.  As charming a little spot, hidden there behind the great hedge, and taking you by surprise as you opened the gate, as it would have been possible to find in the county; and old Peter Waine, retired grocer, took great pride in it.

    Peter was a large-made man in everything but height, and had the heavy, lumbering ways and easy complacency of his type.  He had been the first declared Methodist in Grindell, and for years, in his heavy, stolid way, he had quietly endured and defied petty social persecution, until he had gathered around him quite a nice little society, which included Joshua Sweetlove before mentioned, and one or two other Grindell characters.  They had worshipped for many years in the long, low upper room over Pixton's tallow-candle works, and during most of that period they had worked and prayed and saved for their new sanctuary.  But all attempts to secure a site had so far failed, and Jossy had worked himself, with his native impatience, into the conviction that their leader, Peter, who in the old times had done many a quietly heroic thing for his faith, was becoming in the days of his ease and leisure rather too much reconciled to the status quo, and had so long preached faith and patience that he had ceased to make even such efforts as he might for the desired end.  Many and many a fantastic scheme had the fertile brain of the barber elaborated, and many and many a battle royal had these two fought over their pipes in that summer-house; but lately Peter had been suspiciously evasive and conciliatory, and to Jossy that was more alarming than all his slow stubbornness.

    "Faith, man!" he blustered, in reply to one of Peter's textual quotations.  "Faith without works is dead!  The Lord helps them that help themselves."

    Peter ran his fingers through his long red hair, which was as yet only thinly streaked with grey, and shook his head dubiously.  He was the figurehead of the society in Grindell, but often only the cat's-paw of the volatile barber.  More than once he had been made ridiculous about this site question, and had also been the victim of one very elaborate practical joke.  But as he grew older he seemed to become more sensitive to these things, or rather his daughter did, which was even more important.

    "I know about every inch o' land in this parish, and we've done all we can do."

    "All we will do, thou means."

    Peter turned a reproachful eye towards Jossy's corner; but the barber stared back, and puffed out columns of defiant smoke.

    "I said as we're doin' everything as we knows on, and I say it again"; and Peter emphasized his statement with the end of his pipe-stem.

    Jossy, having evidently got what he was fishing for, sprang to his feet, thumped his fist on the hard table until Peter's tobacco-box danced again, and shouted, glaring fiercely at his friend, "An' I say we haven't!"

    Peter half rose in sudden indignation at this blank contradiction but on second thoughts he sank back, shook his head, and murmured sulkily, "It's easy talkin', Jossy!"

    "Aye, it is!  Easy talkin' about faith an' waitin' an' patience.  We've been talkin' for twenty yer, and all the time the Lord has been sayin', 'Stir yoursels!  Why don't they stir thersels!'  'Do summat!  Do sum-mat,' says the Sperit!  An' we have done, haven't we?"

    "I say as we've done everything that mortal man could do"; and Peter rose sternly, and stood looking down at the barber.

    "An' I say we've never done no sitch thing!" and the fierce little barber sprang up to his friend as though responding to a challenge to fight.

    The two eyed each other askance, for all the world like two young cockerels at bay, each too intent on the point in hand to realize how farcical the position was becoming.

    "Joss Sweetlove, has thou come here today to insult me?"

    "Peter Waine, are thou gettin' into a ungodly temper?"

    "Well, of all—"

     "Aye, of all—"

    But these were only the growls of truculent retreat, and as each sank back into his seat a strained and frosty silence fell upon them.

    For three or four minutes there was nothing heard but the monotonous p't p't of their pipes.  Then Peter sighed heavily, shook his head at a little knot of button roses peeping round the trellis-work front of the summer-house, and finally stole a long, shy glance at his companion.  Joshua, who knew his man, pursed his lips more prominently than ever, and stared before him with injured resignation written on every feature of his obstinate face.  Peter shuffled his big feet and cleared his throat with unnecessary energy, but the barber was as hard as stone.

    Another long stare at the rose-buds, more shuffling of uneasy feet, and then several sidelong glances towards the opposite corner; but the barber's turned-worm sort of face relaxed not a muscle, only his toe beat a steady tap on the boarded floor.

    "There'll be a deal of apples this year," ventured Peter, gazing down the garden at certain heavily laden fruit-trees.  There was apology, surrender, and pleading underneath his tones; but the adamantine Joshua neither heard nor saw.

    Peter rubbed the floor again with his slippers, beat impatient ran-tans on his chair arm with the hand that was not occupied with his pipe, reached for his brass tobacco-box, and then, jumping suddenly to his feet, pipe in one hand and tobacco-box in the other and the blood rushing to his indignant face, he strode up to his tormentor and fiercely demanded, "What is there as mortal man could do as I haven't done?"

    Jossy threw back his head, lifted his eyes to recent cob-webs near the summer-house roof, and laughed a hard unbelieving laugh.

    "Bring it out, man!  Don't sit there like a grinnin' gate-post.  What haven't I done?  What wouldn't I do?"

    The barber, secretly hugging himself for the success of his ruse, had a face as flinty as ever.

    "Trot it out, man!—trot it out!"

    The sphinx was still—the sphinx.

    "I'm ready, man!"—and here Peter, goaded to madness, excitedly jerked himself to his full height—"I'm ready!  Mention one thing!—one little thing as could be done to get that land!  Mention it!"

    Suddenly Jossy jumped to his feet, stood sideways up to his man, held out a stiff palm, and punctuating every word with a two-fingered slap upon it with the other hand, cried, "There's land to be gotten, an' thou can get it.  But thou'll no more get it nor I'st get a dukedom!" and he glared fiercely up into Peter's face.

    And there they stood, eye to eye, the barber's blazing with accusing light, and Peter's changing from resentment to wonder, and wonder to surly doubt.  Peter sighed and moved uneasily; but Jossy's eyes were still holding him, and so, with a shake of his big body and a protesting snort, he wrenched himself away and dropped back into his chair, crying sulkily, "Aye, it's easy talkin'."

    The ice having been once more broken, and Peter's curiosity aroused, whilst his word had been pledged, the astute barber once more lapsed into silence as he recharged his pipe.

    Peter, as the other well knew, was on tenter-hooks.  "Well, man, what is it, an' where is it?"

    "Thou won't get it, Peter, I know thou won't, an' it's as easy for thee—or her—"

    "Where is it, then?"

    Jossy's pipe was going by this time; so, looking over the top of its bowl at his friend, he set his face resolutely, and, as though anticipating and defying resistance, he said, "It's t' lower corner of Blandon's wood-yard."

    Peter scowled, stared hard at his friend in an effort of recollection, and then opened his eyes in blank amazement.

    Jossy's foot was tapping the floor again, and as each looked at the other the first flickers of amusement began to curl the corners of his mouth.  From amazement Peter passed to alarm, and the alarm changed to odd confusion, as though some secret had been touched; but as Jossy was watching him narrowly he had to fence.

    "But what!—why!—haven't we tried for that afore?—twice afore?"

    Jossy blinked his eyes in mute assent, but would not release the other's gaze.

    "Young Frank's as big a Churchman as his father was."

    Still the barber only nodded and blinked and if there had not been such volumes of significance in his eyes, Peter might have breathed more freely.  As it was he only wriggled in his seat and rubbed his left ear.

    The pause continued, the barber was actually grinning now, and presently he got up, walked over to his friend, smote him on the back, and cried, "It's Providence, Mr. Waine!—it's a blessed Providence!"

    Peter was struggling vainly to express his protest; it was the old story of the spider and the fly, and the poor fly was already realizing the inevitable.  "But—but—why, man, it's ridic'lous!"

    "When a man's i' love, Peter, when a man's i' love—think o' Queen Esther!" and the merciless spider gloated over his wriggling victim.

    "But!—but thou'rt talkin' Dutch!  I don't know what thou'rt drivin' at!"

    Jossy, glowing with the pride of great discovery and greater diplomacy, stood back and beamingly surveyed his companion.  "She's a beauty, an' she's a red-hot Methodis', an' she'll do it like a good 'un."

    "Do what?  What the plagues o' Babylon is the feller ravin' at?"

    "Egyp', not Babylon, Peter; I'm talking about her."  And he jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the house, "It's a Providence, man!  She's been raised up to do it!"

    Confused and utterly dismayed, Peter gazed at his friend as the mesmerized hare gazes at the serpent, and then with a sudden effort he turned his back on his persecutor, deliberately picked up his tobacco-box, whisked his long pipe under his arm, and started without a word for the house.  Jossy watched it all with demure complacency, and, as he expected, before Peter got many yards away he stopped and came stalking back, "Joshua Sweetlove, I'll give thee one more chance: if thou's got owt to say to me, say it!  I'm not fond of Chinese riddles, if thou art!"

    For answer the barber caught his friend by the coat, pulled him unceremoniously into the summer-house and down into his chair, and then, standing over him, he demanded, "Is young Blandon in love with your Hetty or is he not?"

    "How should I know?  I never— And what if he is?"  And Peter looked his fiercest.

    Jossy, suppressing another triumphant grin at Peter's giving of himself away, braced himself for a second effort, and demanded, "Does young Blandon own that there land, or does he not?"  And before the other could choke back his wrath to answer he went on, "Well, then, there we are!  Two and two makes four, and the ground's as good as got!"

    The scared, exasperated ex-grocer was perspiring profusely and rubbing his big, round face with a red pocket-handkerchief.  The position was excruciating, and its whole difficulty was manifest only to himself—and his tormentor.  He lived in chronic suspicion of his own spiritual loyalty, and was haunted ever with misgivings that his easy-mindedness was at bottom worldliness and degeneracy.  He was the inspirer and sustainer of Grindell Methodism's ambition for a new chapel, and he had another source of trouble known only to the barber and himself.  His dead wife had always been a better Methodist than he, and, whenever he did anything that came short of his full duty to his religion, this departed saint was sure to visit his slumbers, and the one dread of his life was that she would some day take up the chapel-site question.  This secret he had foolishly confided to his friend, and had no doubt whatever that the barber would manage somehow to bring the departed lady into the case some day or other.  But, on the other hand, the suggested plan was unthinkable.  He was the very last person in the world to interfere in the delicate details of a love affair of anybody's; but when it was his own daughter's, and such a daughter, the thing was plainly impossible.  He had more than an ordinary parent's shyness where their children's courtships are concerned, and as he pictured himself suggesting Jossy's fantastic idea to Hetty, he shuddered and groaned again.

    "Joss Sweetlove," he burst out, "thou'st gotten the wickedest, mischeevousest brain in this country—that's what thou hast!"

    The barber smiled in sedate resignation.

    "Now look here, Mr. Slyboots, thee go an' do that job thyself!"

    "Me?  I'm not her father!" and it was now the barber's turn to look alarmed.

    "Thou'rt her leader, an thou's a fine long tongue, and" (Peter was just realizing his advantage) "thou'rt allus sayin' what thou'd do an' what thou'd say an' how thou'd manage children.  Speak to her thyself!"

    Joshua was sitting up in stern resignation.  "Peter Waine, thou never hed no delicacy—me?"

    "Joss Sweetlove, thou never had no consideration—I say thee!"

    There was a pause.  Joshua was feeling that something was slipping from his grasp, and he had need of care; so he collected himself, sank back into his corner, and cried with regretful sadness, "Oh, if I wur her father!"

    "Oh, if I wurn't her father!"

    And there they stuck; the one defiant but uneasy, the other disappointed but resolute, and there was a long silence.

    "I thought I should ha' seen the new sanctuary afore I died," sighed Joshua, with a pathos that went right to Peter's susceptible heart.

    Tears were coming into his eyes, things he could never abide, and he was just about to stammer out some lame encouragement in the old vein when they heard the opening of a door and the flutter of skirts, and as each jumped and sat up guiltily the figure of a radiantly pretty girl framed itself in the doorway.

    Yes, 'radiantly pretty' was Hetty Waine.  After an unnoticeable girlhood and an equivocal early womanhood, she had at twenty-three suddenly blossomed into an undoubted beauty, with a perfect complexion, large, dancing grey eyes, a tempting little mouth, and a wealth of golden-brown hair.  In perfect health, free from serious care, and also from affectation, her high spirits gave animation to her movements and light to her features.  Only recently had Grindell awakened to her existence; but now all the males in the town, staid fathers and middle-aged bachelors included, were at her feet, and she had come all unconsciously into her own as reigning beauty of the old place.

    "Whatever is the matter?" she cried laughingly, arching her eyebrows and glancing from one to the other of the elders.  What a noise you do make; I could hear you all the way from Pottington's back door."

    But the two men were too embarrassed to answer; guilty, scared looks were on their faces, which they felt were giving them away; and whilst Joshua shrank deep into his corner, wondering how much she had overheard, and whether her advent at this moment might not be another 'Providence,' Peter was feeling his fears of discovery doubled by dread of what the barber might say.  He could no more introduce the subject under discussion to his daughter than he could have made a political speech; but Joshua's delicacy, if he had any, went by rules of contrary, and where should he hide his guilty head if his friend broached the terrible subject?

    "We were talking about that there site," said the barber sulkily, and with a defiant glance at the terrified Peter.

    "I might have known it," laughed Hetty, with a gesture of mock wearisomeness.  The site question seemed part of her life; she could not remember a time when she had not heard it debated.  "It appears to me you ought to stop talking and do something;" and, pulling out a little bundle of ' work,' skewered through with a long needle, she stepped into the summer-house and sat down a little distance from her father.

    "Right, woman!—right!  My stars! it is Providence!"  And the delighted Joshua smote his leg with his hand emphatically, and then, springing at his confounded opponent, he stretched out a challenging hand and demanded triumphantly, "Worn't I sayin' it not ten minutes sin'?  Worn't I sayin' them vary words?"

    Peter, who had been momentarily relieved when his daughter sat down near him, thus saving his face, and giving him an opportunity of signalling and scowling at the barber without being seen, had a sudden return of his terrors; and as Hetty, following the barber's gestures, unconsciously turned her eyes toward him, he felt as though the floor were opening under him, and was consumed with nervous anxiety that Joshua should resume his seat.

    "Sit down, man!—sit down!" he cried, inmost evident anxiety; "we can't make sites, can we?"  And as the barber protestingly obeyed, Peter followed up his exhortation with a series of terrific grimaces, one eye on his daughter and the other on the man in the corner.  But the fates were against the poor father, for Hetty, more amused than interested, presently broke the silence that had fallen upon them by saying smilingly, "Well, have you heard of another site, Jossy?"

    "Yes, we have; t' best site in t' town!  Made for t' job!"

    Hetty had raised her eyes from her work to the barber's face, and Peter, squeezing himself hard into his corner, was holding a clenched fist close to the side of his head and shaking it with intense fierceness at the man in the other corner.  And before Hetty could ask the question which Joshua's remark so plainly invited, he burst in, "Oh! shut—Oh! O—h!"

    Hetty turned quickly, with a little cry of sympathy; whilst Peter kept on rubbing briskly at his outside leg, and to explain the savage expression she had surprised on his face, he cried, "It's that rheumatism!  My opinion it's going to rain."

    Father's rheumatism was as old a topic to Hetty as the site question, so her sympathetic glance was blended with curiosity, for this troublesome complaint had a mysterious connexion with bad collections at the mission-room, slack tenants of his property, and other unpleasant experiences.

    Meanwhile the barber, waiting like a terrier on the pounce, was trying to avoid Peter's eye and catch that of his daughter's.  The ex-grocer, however, had a sudden inspiration, and continued to rub his leg with brisk energy, scowling and groaning the while, and so, as he intended, she hastened away to fetch a rug.

    The moment her back was turned the two men sprang up and stood glaring at each other in fiercest defiance.

    "If thou breathes a word to that poor girl—"

    "If thou flies in t' face o' Providence like this—"

    But there was a flutter of skirts again, and Hetty found the barber sitting in his corner as though an earthquake would not move him, and her father rubbing his leg as for dear life; both men, however, were very red in the face.  Father took a long time to get his lower limbs satisfactorily enwrapped, and made, during the process, many suggestions which would have broken up the party if they had been acted upon.  But as Hetty knew how much her father enjoyed the summerhouse, and how conversation, even fractious conversation, with the barber relieved the tedium of his retired life, she ignored the hints, and affectionately fussed about him, until he was fain to acknowledge that his pain was 'easing off a bit.'

    The barber, grim with sternest resolve, was biding his time.  "As we was a-sayin'—" he resumed, as soon as Hetty had settled into her old seat.

    "Oh! I say," broke in Peter with a nervous trepidation oddly out of keeping with his sudden information, and with drops of perspiration standing on his brow, "Withersedge has sent word he cannot preach on Sunday, and he's sending young Stebbing."

    The barber, a local preacher himself and a martinet in discipline, would ordinarily have been effectually diverted by information like this; but now he simply waited until Peter had finished, eyed him over with pitiful disdain of his transparent subterfuge, and then turning towards Hetty again he resumed, "As we wur sayin'

    A shuffle, a groan, and a sudden burst of confused sound, sufficiently curious to have interrupted anything, caused the barber to pause; and as Hetty also lifted her eyes, poor Peter was fain to look as easy as he could.

    "As we wur sayin'," repeated the inexorable Jossy with slow doggedness, "we've found a site, and a grand 'un"; and he turned and fixed Peter with his eye as though defying him to contradict.

    "You have!  Where?"  Hetty was less hopeful than her father, but she liked to promote talk between the two.

    The barber was watching the writhing man in the corner and feeling a momentary pang, and so he merely shook his head, and said solemnly, "A reg'ler grand 'un."

    "But where is it, and are you sure about it?"

    Jossy had burned his boats, or he must surely have relented as he watched the excruciated, pleading face in the corner.  But he knew he dare not think, and so, staring fixedly at Hetty's left ear, he replied huskily, "It nobbut wants a bit o' pluck and manewvering, an' it's ours."

    Hetty, genuinely interested at last in this stalest of stale topics, asked eagerly, "Then, why don't we get it?"

    The maddened father in the corner had tried to rise in protest; but he fell back, sick with fear.

    "There's nobbut one person i' this world as can get that land for us."

    "Who's that, pray?"

    A perfect burst of smothered groans from the corner; but even the tortured sufferer there was fast coming under the spell of the conversation, and covered his cries with another vigorous rub of his leg.

    "Who is that, pray?  Any friend?"

    "One as ought to be a friend, as says she is a friend."

    "Oh! a woman, is it?—Mrs. Tudge?"

    Mrs. Tudge was the magistrate's wife, who had been brought up a Nonconformist.

    "No, You!"

    "I?—I?"  And Hetty's eyes widened with amazement.

    "Yes, you!  You could get it with a word, with a twiddle of your little finger."

    Peter was sitting like one mesmerized, great beads of perspiration all over his red face.

    "Oh, Joshua!—I?  Whose is the land, and where is it?"

    "It's t' bottom plot in Blandon's Woodyard, and—"

    But Hetty had suddenly sat bolt upright, her eyes distending, and the blood leaving her face until her very lips were white.  Then there was a choking gasp, a long, frightened cry, and she fled from the summer-house with her face hidden in her hands.


 
CHAPTER II.

SELLING A SWEETHEART


FRANK BLANDON was a handsome fellow; he was also by general consent the cleverest and most taking young man in Grindell.  That he knew it and presumed upon it was accepted as one of life's inevitables; and considering that he had a doting mother and three equally doting sisters, who lost no opportunity of sounding his praises, nobody greatly wondered at his vanity, especially as he was so pleasant and friendly with it.  But somehow he never looked quite himself in his dingy, sawdusty office; and on the afternoon when he first becomes known to us, he looked particularly out of place and uncomfortable.  He was tall, lithe, well built, and his clothes fitted him perfectly. Fair-complexioned, with brown hair, eyes, and moustache, he had that engagingly frank and open expression which is at once the charm and disappointment of his type, and which wrought so much both for good and evil in the history of his and our Norman ancestors.

    But this afternoon his face is dark, with a gloom that is almost savage; his eyes are furtive with apprehension, and his usually lightsome mind is racked with thoughts which make him that he can neither sit nor stand.  He is alone; and whilst the whir of the saws drowns all other sounds, he paces his narrow office in a vain endeavour to keep down excitement.  Another turn across the floor, an eager peep over the whitened lower half of the window, an impatient survey of the yard and the entrance gate at the end of it, one more glance at his watch, and with a smothered anathema he flings himself into the only chair in the room with a tortured, "Fool!—fool!"

    There was a twin rose-bud in his buttonhole which Hetty Waine had given him that very morning; but neither flower nor giver interested him just then, and he rose hastily and resumed his sixteen-feet pacings across the floor.

    "Never again!" he fumed; and then, as in approaching the window he raised his head—, "never a ―― Ah!"

    A telegraph-boy was coming up the yard, and Frank snatched up a pen and put it behind his ear, hastily selected a pencil, and was suddenly absorbed in oiled-paper building-plans.  But the very intensity of his expectation caused him to start violently at the familiar knock, and he was so excited he forgot even to say, "Come in!"

    The second knock brought him with a bound to the door; and, snatching at the salmon-coloured envelope, he banged the door in the astonished messenger's face, and had reached the desk again when he remembered to call "No answer!"  A moment later he had been on the high stool, and the chair, and at the window; but the telegram was still unopened.  Then he took it up, walking wildly about and labouring to recover self-control.

    "Hit or miss!" he cried thickly, holding the envelope at arm's length as he staggered about.  "Neck or nothing!  Life or death!"

    There was the usual exaggeration in these tragic exclamations.  But when at last he tore open the missive and glanced at the contents, his real fears were serious enough; and, whilst his mouth half opened and his breath came quickly, a sickly pallor took the places of his flushes, and a sudden, deadly calm settled on him.

    It was only a brief sentence in a mongrel code, but it told him that the Grand Scienna shares, in which he had been making a deal, had gone the wrong way, and he was some hundreds of pounds the poorer.

    He stood for a long, strained moment in the middle of the office, and then absently took out his watch.  Another knock, and this time he turned to the desk, set his face at the window, struggling fiercely to obtain command of his features, whilst one hand groped again for a pen.

    The bank-clerk who was now entering found a man so immersed in a building-plan that he had not heard.

    "Beg pardon, sir!  Borwood & Lyngate's bill—due to-day, sir.  We waited until nearly three—"

    "Ah!  Dixon, that you?  Eh—what?  A bill, did you say?" and it was the easy, popular Frank Blandon who spoke, and in his most comfortable manner.

    "We expected you'd forgotten it, sir, but—"

    "You're quite right, my friend! and"—with a glance at his watch—"Oh, bless us, it's seven minutes to three!  I was under the impression—been so frightfully busy lately —that it was next Friday."  And he took down a patent file to reassure himself.  "Ah, bless us, it is, by Jove!  Well, Dixon, this is a pickle; what's to be done?"

    Dixon would like to have said it didn't matter; but he knew a little too much to make that true, so he changed from one foot to the other with an equivocal smile.

    "Ah! well, old fellow, it's awkward, but it cannot be helped; you'll have to tell Wignall I'll call in the morning."

    "We—that is, Mr. Wignall—will be in the bank an hour or two yet," ventured Dixon.

    "Oh, that's lucky!  All right; the fact is, I—er—I—my partner generally—yes, yes, I'll attend to it myself, Dixon."

    Dixon's relief plainly showed how little he, thought of the partner; the "myself" set him quite at his ease, and after a few words more he departed.

    "Oh, curse these shares!  They were dead certs.  What shall I do?"  And, flinging his pen upon the desk, Frank resumed his painful pacings across the floor.

    Two years before he had succeeded to his father's business, though the founder of the concern in his last days introduced a perfectly unnecessary partner.  Whilst the firm had been simply George Blandon, it was deemed "as safe as houses"; but Blandon & Co. dealt in bills and other shifty financial expedients, and Grindell pitied the popular Frank for the clog his father's folly had fastened to his heels.  Since his father's death he had been urged again and again to get rid of his low partner, and more than one substantial man had offered to join him.  But to Frank's great public credit it was noticed that he scrupulously regarded his father's wishes, and even affected to respect the man to whom he was thus so unfortunately tied.  Sam Broome, the "Co.," came of peasant stock, and the detrimental changes in the habits of the firm were just such as might have been expected from such a source, and synchronized with the date of the change.  Frank had been so constantly pitied that he had come to pity himself, and the man who gets there has his feet on a dangerous slope.

    Broome had been successively errand-boy, apprentice, workman, and foreman before he was made a partner, and still confined his attentions to inside management; whilst Frank, who had spent his youth with a firm of architects in the county town, looked after the outside affairs and the finances, or, as all feminine Grindell sympathetically put it, "had all the harassing and worry of the firm," and, in spite of his high spirits and wonderful constitution, it was telling upon him.  Of late he had looked haggard, and was at times peevish at home, and Mrs. and the Misses Blandon would very much like to have given "that Broome" a piece of their mind.  He took his share of the profits, and his sister had become dressy and aggressive.  Why didn't he take his share of the pains?  But that was the way of things in this unsatisfactory world; the amiable and generous were always taken advantage of, and the coarse and ungrateful always had the plums.

    Frank Blandon listened to these domestic moralizings with a beautiful resignation.  Anything that might reflect on his partner always had to be wrung out of him; and if there were so many things which circumstances compelled him to allude to, how many more must there have been which he kept locked up within his own faithful breast!  Of late, however, he had not spoken much of these matters in the family circle, and it was noticed also that he did not encourage any hope of a change in the partnership.  Things were not going very well just then in the business, and you "mustn't swop horses whilst you're crossing the stream."

    This unfortunate partnership was not the only injury under which the handsome fellow was suffering.  The firm of architects with which his father had articled him had found that he was so remarkably clever that they had kept him doing their own work instead of giving him the requisite time to prepare for his examinations; and so, of course, though others infinitely his inferiors had 'passed,' he had continued unqualified until his father, in a fit of indignation (at the firm, of course), had fetched him home and put him into his own business, not many months before he died, thus spoiling his career.  It was a great shame for a young fellow of his gifts to be confined to a mere trade, and a greater shame still to be hampered and humiliated with such a partner.

    As young Blandon paced the dusty office that trying Friday afternoon, scowling and imprecating under his breath, and looking anything but a martyr, the door opened again, and that objectionable partner walked in.

    The contrast between the two was extreme.  Broome was five or six years older than his colleague, and looked even more.  The pinching poverty of his boyhood had left its mark upon him, and he was sallow and plain-faced, with premature lines across his forehead, and crow's-feet in the corner of his eyes.  "British working man" was written all over him, and the word that best describes him is "common."  He had common, dark hair, scanty, uncertain sort of whiskers, and a half-sulky, half-diffident manner which made a distinctly unfavourable impression.  He looked as though under better conditions he might have been stout, was taller than he appeared, and was altogether devoid of anything that could distinguish him.  He came into the office much as he used to do formerly in his character of errand-boy, and his manner was quietly apologetic.

    On hearing the hand on the door-latch, Frank had turned hastily to the desk, and Sam, taking up a plan from the little pay-counter as he passed, went and spread it on the other end of the desk by the window, thus placing himself alongside his partner, but some feet away.  Neither spoke; and as the silence lengthened, Sam, with his head still on his drawing, stole a long, anxious look at Frank and stifled a sigh.  Again he looked, but Frank was utterly absorbed, the fact being that each was waiting for the other to speak.

    Sam took another glance at his companion, another dree look at the drawings, and then, with a dry little cough, turned towards the door.

    Frank, poring over his oiled paper, went a shade paler; and when Sam had reached the narrow lobby outside, he mustered courage to call "Sam!"

    The junior partner came back, and stood with the door-handle in his hands, but never spoke.

    "Come here, man! here's something wrong."

    Sam silently closed the door, and going over to the empty fireplace turned his back to it, put his hands behind him, and waited.

    "Don't you know that Borwood & Lyngate's have a bill due to-day—a three months' bill for two hundred odd?"

    Sam glanced at the clock, which now stood at eight minutes past three, and realized that bank hours were over; but he only dropped his eyes to the floor, and waited.  If he would only speak, it might help Frank to blurt out all he had to say; but the delicate instinct that talks in order to encourage difficult admissions was apparently not in Sam Broome.

    "We've only about thirty pounds in cash, and the bank can't—well, they've stopped the over-draft."

    It didn't appear that Sam had grasped the situation at all; his eyes, which had been lifted to Frank's whilst he spoke, were now wandering heedlessly about from clock to safe, and safe to ironmongery shelf, and he lifted a long sigh that seemed suddenly to become a stopper for his lips.  As a matter of fact, he knew little of the business part of their affairs, nobody esteemed him as of any account, and until recently he had been quite content that it should be so.  He had so worshipped old George Blandon, and was so proud of his position in the firm, that he never dreamed of asserting himself.  Latterly, however, Mr. Frank had seemed quite anxious to consult him, and Sam was not to be outdone in generosity; the more his partner honoured him, the more resolved was he not to meddle.

    "Well, man, can't you speak?'

    Sam's eyes rolled to the dirty ceiling, a flattered smile indenting one corner of his mouth.  "I'll leave it to you, Mr. Frank."

    "But you can't; we are in a hole, man!  I don't know where to get a blessed bob!"

    The smile, so idiotic and aggravating to his overwrought partner, still lingered on his face.  It was nice to be thus consulted, and trust must repay trust.

    "You know, Mr. Frank; do just as you like—you know."

    "Do!  I'm stuck!—fast as a thief!  For goodness' sake, man, shut that door and be reasonable."

    Sam, doing as he was bidden, let go the door handle, and, rolling toward the desk, put himself into an attentive attitude; but his smile of half-incredulous unconcern was as distinct as ever.

    "I've kept these things to myself as long as I could; I've struggled with them until I'm ill.  We're up a tree, man! on the edge of a precipice!  If that bill isn't met, we've got to shut up shop!  Now do you understand?"

    Sam plainly didn't.  Mr. Frank was rather given to exaggerated language, and the idea he suggested was simply unthinkable.  But Frank looked annoyed; and so he took another shy glance round the office as though appealing to the fixtures for a hint, scratched his head, and emitted a wavering, half-protesting sigh.

    "Well, man!"

    Another smile, a wriggle, and another look round, but not a word of speech.

    "Hang it, man! say something!  Don't you see I'm ill?  I've struggled and striven and worried myself to death; I've tried to spare you all I could; and now, when the pinch comes, you haven't a word to throw at a dog."

    Sam's head dropped in self-condemnation, his sallow, common face flushed with shame, and he cried penitently, "Don't be vexed, sir!  It's awful kind of you to tell me things; but I'm such a duffer.  Go on, sir!"

    It was a long, rambling statement, with awkward omissions and contradictions which even the confiding partner could not help noticing; but when it was over, and the "Co." had realized that there was something to do, he became another man.

    "But we aren't goin' to stick fast for a couple of hundred, sir."

    "I tell you we haven't got as many shillings, man!"

    Sam stared hard at his partner, his soft eyes blinking rapidly; and then he lapsed again into his usual silence, under the evident presence of a new thought.  The little American clock ticked loudly, the drone of the saws filled the room, whilst Frank watched his partner with fierce impatience, and changed from one leg to the other as he waited; but no word came, for Sam was clearly off to dreamland.

    "I have seen it coming for months, but did not want to trouble you."

    No answer; and Frank, on a rack of impatience, scowled and bit his lips, whilst his partner, moving away from the desk, stared vacantly at the back wall.

    Frank's manner changed, his face took on a sudden meekness, and, with a desperate attempt to swallow something, he said apologetically, "You haven't—you couldn't—you don't know where you could borrow it?"

    Sam turned sharply round, glanced quickly at his companion, his eyes blinking rapidly, and his breath coming short and fast; but he only turned away again, and resumed his study of the back wall.  Frank watched and waited, eyeing the fellow beside him as though he would like to have kicked him; but Sam neither saw nor heard.

    "Curse the thing!  The whole concern may go to Jericho for me!"  And Frank, exasperated beyond endurance, flung pen and pencil madly at the dingy window and cracked a pane.

    Sam's eyes came slowly back from dreamland, and he turned and surveyed his angry partner with dull surprise.  Frank had dropped his elbows on the desk and buried his flushed face in his hands.  Comprehension came slowly back to Sam's wooden face; he surveyed his companion from head to foot, opened his mouth to speak, but checked himself, and then, turning away, resumed his stare at the wall.

    There was another long silence, and a sense of the ridiculousness of the situation was creeping into Frank's mind, when Sam's eyes came slowly back from the wall, and he began to sidle away towards the corner made by his end of the desk and the chimney.  Frank had turned to watch him, and their eyes met, and at last the taciturn "Co." condescended to speak.

    "Mr. Frank, do you really think owt of Hetty Waine?"

    And as he spoke Sam crowded deeper into his corner in his effort to get out of his partner's reach.

    "Hetty Waine?  What on earth!—stick to the point, man!" and Frank was glaring at him in stupefied amazement.

    Sam measured his partner over with envious admiration and then, with a long, long sigh, he said, "You can just have any woman you like, you can!"

    Frank, still struggling with his astonishment, gasped out, "Yes; but I'm not going to marry to save the business, if that's what you mean."

    Sam was still watching him intently, his low brow puckered with scowls of craftiness.

    "Then you don't think nowt on her, Mr. Frank?"

    Frank was uneasy; his relations to Hetty Waine were common property, it appeared, and to admit or deny just now was equally inconvenient.

    "Oh! well, she's—But what has that to do with these dirty money matters, man?  Confound it!  Talk sense!"

    Sam stared and stared with the same crafty scowl and the same inane backward shrinking.

    "I'd give more nor two hundred pound to be in your place."

    Frank gasped, and then smothered his cry.  At another time the idea of Sam Broome "putting up" to ravishing Hetty Waine would have seemed a screaming joke; but he could not afford to offend him just now, and so, to flatter him into complaisance, he said, "Well, why not, man?  The field's open yet, and you've the same chance as—as the rest of the world."

    Sam shook his head sadly, and then in melancholy tones he groaned, "There's no chance for nobody whilst you're about, sir."

    Frank smiled the smile of easy superiority.  He had the reputation of being a master-hand with the fair sex; but as he smiled, his quick brain, still intent on escape from present embarrassments, had an inspiration.  He always had to put words into the slow Sam's mouth for him, and so he asked half earnestly, "You don't mean you'll buy me out, Sam?"

    He blushed as he made the suggestion, and the now trembling "Co." was blushing too.  Sam was shrinking away again, and as Frank, in spite of himself, burst into a great laugh, the partner hung his head in shame and groaned, "God help me!  I believe I'd do anything to get her!"

    Frank was thinking rapidly; relief from a difficulty much more serious than it had been made to appear to Sam was the all-absorbing idea in his mind.  Money, instant money, was the paramount need of the moment, and he suspected that his coarse partner had it.  He was not formally committed to Hetty Waine; but the pressure of circumstances had been stimulating his fancies of late, and Hetty's modest fortune might become absolutely necessary to him, and even the prospect of it would make creditors easier to deal with.  But he had recently made another conquest; and if this financial crisis could be tided over—well, at any rate he would have time to look about him.

    "Well, I'm riot engaged to Hetty as yet, but—"

    "Oh! Mr. Frank," and the stolid Sam became quite excited, "I wouldn't interfere wi' true love, you know."  And to Frank it sounded like the spoony protest of a novelette-reading servant-girl, and he could scarcely keep contempt out of his tones.

    "Well, I'm—Hetty's the finest of fine girls, you know, Sam; but—well I'm not sure--er—that I'm quite—

     "In love, sir?  That's what I was meanin'; if you aren't, sir, and it's only like—flirting, as it were—"

    "If I'd stand out of the way and give you a clear board—"

    "No, no, sir! not a clear board, there's lots after her; but you're the one, sir, and nobody's no chance whilst you're in it."

    There was that in Frank Blandon which was rising in indignant protest against the wild-goose idea he was playing with.  It was debasing to himself, taking a mean advantage over a simple but trusting man, and it was treason to her with whose name he was trifling.  But he was in desperate straits; trouble to him was not a thing to be fought, but fled from; and so in that office that Friday afternoon this ridiculous compact was made—that upon Sam finding the money for present emergencies Frank was to leave Hetty Waine to herself, and thus give his partner at least an opening.  For Sam seemed to have got a fixed idea that if she could not get Frank, the next best thing in her eyes would be Frank's partner.  Poor Sam had much to learn of the hearts of women.

    But when Frank discovered that his companion had money, he suddenly remembered certain personal needs of his own, and suggested to the working-man partner the loan of another hundred pounds.

    Sam, who was standing again at the desk, looked round with alarm, and began to retreat into the corner.  "A hunderd pound more, Mr. Frank!"

    "Yes, I really need it for affairs of my own.  A personal loan, you know—nothing to do with the firm."

    Sam looked appealingly at his friend, and then stammered out, "It'll take all I have, Mr. Frank!"

    "Yes, but it's only a loan—a brief loan; I'll pay it back soon, and—er—well, I might be able to give you a lift with Hetty."

    Sam stood suddenly bolt upright, and then came close to his partner.  "You'll speak a word for me?  Help me with her—you mean that?"

    "Yes, yes; why not?"

    "Why, Mr. Frank, if you'd do that, if you'd only—do that—"

    "Certainly!  If I don't have her, I'd sooner you than—"

    "It's done!—it's done, sir!" and the simple fellow's eagerness was pathetic.  "No loan, sir; just help me, say a good word for me.  I'm not you, but I'm your partner; say one good word for me, and the money's yours."

    Presently they went together to see the bank-manager; but as soon as they had parted, it came to Sam's slow-moving mind that Mr. Frank could not speak to Hetty without seeking her society; and though he had probably never heard of Miles Standish, he was tortured with the fear that the dearly purchased help might turn out the gravest hindrance, for just for the moment something had gone wrong with his confidence in his partner.


 
CHAPTER III.

JOB'S COMFORTERS


NO observant person could possibly have mistaken the room into which Hetty Waine entered when she fled from her father and his friend.  It was low and cornery, with two odd windows where you least expected them; the furniture, four-post bed, big squat wardrobe, low settee, and spindle-backed chairs were all of dark old oak, but so smothered in covers, fringes, embroidery, antimacassars, and woman's needlework of every conceivable kind that the sex of the occupant was proclaimed in every corner and by every arrangement.  It was not necessary either to glance at the toilet-table with its array of simple but mysterious knick-knacks; for every part of the room proclaimed that here dwelt a woman, and a pretty, dainty woman too.

    Hetty had thrown herself on the settee under the window which looked over Godsham fields, and which was wide open.  The scent-laden breezes with their drone of soft nature-sounds filled the room, the windowsill was occupied with a long box of mignonette, whilst climbing roses festooned the sides and hung over the top.  But for once Hetty was oblivious to it all, and as she lay there, with her hands folded behind her head and her lithe figure stretched at full length on the couch, her eyes were closed, and the constant changes that swept over her lovely face indicated unusual mental disturbance.  Only the heat kept her still, for her nimble brain was hopping and skipping from point to point, and her thoughts bounded from extreme interest to extreme alarm, whilst great unheeded blushes swept over her face, dyeing even her eyelids with deeper colour.  The door was locked, there was no one to see, no prying world to draw harsh conclusions; and her thoughts rushed madly over each other in fierce efforts at self-assertion.  The idle gossip of two old men had upset the placid little lake of her life, and she was suddenly struggling in roughest, coldest waters.

    Her intimacy with Frank Blandon was so recent, so casual, and so transparently unsignificant that if even anybody had seen them ――  But here the blunt uncompromising Methodist in her, often her most unpleasant companion, compelled her to admit that though her outward behaviour to the young man had been the properest and his to her the most respectful, she had insisted to herself that it was more than common politeness, and the way he had begged the rose from her that morning ――   But she was off again; the middle-aged Methodist had vanished, and once more a beautiful woman was dallying in an old tree-bowered lane with a handsome young Adonis after love's eternal way.  Six months ago Frank Blandon, the Grindell lady-killer, would not have given her a second glance; but now she was beautiful!—beautiful!  He was such a king among them that he treated all women a little patronizingly, even flippantly, and they were proud to be noticed even on those terms; but his manner to her—she might have been the Hon. Mary Grace herself!  He was only a tradesman, but he dressed in brown leather gaiters, fancy waistcoat, and fine shooting-coat, and was on easy terms with the Squire's nephew, and might have had any of the dozen eligible 'quality' young ladies in the neighbourhood.

    But, oh, she was now beautiful! he, the one man of taste amongst them, had shown he thought so; but the sour-faced Miss Methodism came back all at once, and she felt suddenly chilled.  He was a known trifler, his name had been linked with those of half of the eligible girls she knew—more than one had gone suddenly old and untidy—and Frank Blandon did not pretend even to the decent morality of the average Churchman.  The scene in Bracken Lane was back with her—it had been with her most of the day—and in a few moments she was in the Elysian fields of incipient flirtation again, a smile played about her tempting little mouth, and lustrous light was rising into her eyes, when, with a little start, she came back to realities again.  Her name would be linked with his—itself almost a disgrace in her strict circle—and she was being regarded as a providential instrument for the realization of a long-delayed achievement.  She was in the old lane again asking for the sale of the land, she saw herself shyly announcing her success to her father and his friend, saw the foundation-stone ceremony—Heigh presto! she was watching Frank's face as he heard his and her names associated, hearing his scornful laugh and his half-sneering lament about "those petticoats."  He would cut her in the street, she would be spoken of pityingly as another of his victims, she would lose her good looks and become a Grindell dowdy—  And then she began again, and went over it all a second time; and the more she thought the more she shrank from the consequences of what she had done, but the more, also, she felt sure that at the long last the stern old Methodist in her would conquer, and she would do her dreary duty.  It always had been so, she had fought many a little battle, had broken out many a time in rebellion; but that sober, middle-aged Methodist double of hers was remorseless, and had always had her way.

    Meanwhile, what was she to do with her father and Jossy Sweetlove?  Her very manner of leaving them—silly that she was—was suspicious, and confirmatory of the barber's contention.  There was nothing, nothing whatever in this very slightest intimacy.  Oh! it was absurd; but the middle-aged lady, now deep down and very sulky, was contradicting, and it was ridiculous to discover that for once that hard voice gave her pleasure and brought back her brighter visions.  But she could not even deny so intangible a thing without confirming the very impression she wished to remove.  It was an absurd and most provoking position, and all she could do was to laugh it down and disarm suspicion by gentle raillery.  But, unfortunately, the march of events gave her no time, for the very next morning her problem became complicated by a most unexpected and amazing circumstance.

    The household of Jessamine Cottage consisted of four persons: Hetty and her father; Wess (John Charles Wesley), her fourteen-year-old brother; and Jim (Jemima) Grubb, their middle-aged servant housekeeper.  Hetty was titular mistress, and managed her father, who required no particular regulation; but Jim was the real ruler, and, though outwardly austere and uncompromising, she was the devoted slave of the son and heir, so that the tail of the family wagged the head, a condition of things which secretly amused the father but awakened the occasional indignation of the daughter.  Jim was almost a gipsy in complexion, but was round-faced and warmly coloured, whilst her high cheek-bones and decided chin admonished discretion in all who had dealings with her.

    The earlier meals of the day were taken in the large, brick-floored kitchen, which was the acknowledged domain of Jim and her idol, and Hetty was never allowed to forget for long that she was there on sufferance.  On the morning after the events described in the last chapter—Saturday morning—the breakfast was half over when Hetty appeared.  She was too healthy to have lost much sleep through her perturbations; but she arrived downstairs in a—for her—severe mood, the ultimate feeling in her mind about the occurrences of the day before having been that of annoyance.  Her fresh young beauty was too familiar a thing to attract any notice from the rest of her family, and as she drew up in her light morning gown to the table her father was busy with the morning paper, whilst Jim surveyed her curiously from the pantry door, and Wess had thrown back his curly black head in a vain attempt to balance a fork on the end of his nose, and under cover of this gymnastic freak was screwing his eyes round towards his sister's plate to a degree that threatened a permanent glide.

    "Wess dear, don't do that; you'll—"

    But she stopped short; her hand had touched a letter lying under the edge of her plate, and the first careless glance brought a startled look in her eyes, whilst the second made her duck her head over the missive as though scrutinizing the postmark, but in reality to hide her face.  She felt those 'horrid' hot blushes coming, and instinctively looked up, partly to keep the tell-tale colour back, and partly to discover if she was being observed.

    Jim was rattling pots in the pantry with unnecessary violence; and Wess was screwing his eyes round at a frightful angle the other way, whilst the muscles of his face and the veins of his neck betrayed that he was struggling fiercely to keep back a wicked grin.  Apparently his whole soul was absorbed in balancing the fork.

    Hetty's heart sank; she feared no one as she feared those two, and she comprehended but too clearly that they had already examined externally what the post had brought her.  She put the letter aside with a pretence of indifference; but even whilst pouring out her coffee she let it over-run as she stole a second glance at the missive.  It was in a blue business envelope, with Blandon & Co., Builders, Grindell, printed on the top edge of the front.  She sat up and tried to compose herself, abruptly terminating her brother's performance by asking him to pass the butter.

    The preparation of the toast gave her opportunity for glancing again at her note.  It thrilled her to think that it was from Frank; but no man would send a billet doux in a business envelope—at any rate, Frank Blandon would not.  The writing, too, was poor and rather laboured—not a clerk's, certainly; and yet surely it could not be his writing.  Then she sat abruptly up again, suddenly aware that two pairs of black eyes were boring into her like searchlights.  The optical torturing instruments turned quickly away, and Wess was scowling ferociously at an advertisement on the back of his father's paper.  But she was not deceived; they were dying of curiosity, and she would let them.  The note was probably one of those unnecessary little messages which amorous young gentlemen usually find excuse for sending to the girls they fancy in order to initiate correspondence; but trifling though it was, she could not read it with those boring eyes upon her.  And yet to leave it and carry it away to her room would only justify their silly suppositions.

    But just then—oh, merciful interposition!—her father laid aside his paper and called for the "Book," and Hetty was never more thankful to drop on her knees in her life.  A sober restraint was upon them when they rose from family worship, and it just lasted long enough to effect her deliverance, for with a sudden intuition she turned, fixed her eyes on her persecutor, whilst her left hand felt for the letter, and a moment later, with a meekly triumphant little mock curtsey, she left Jim looking "dished" and Wess uttering a subdued whistle of discomfiture, and scampered away to her own retreat.  But quick though she was, her old maid double entered the room with her, and a pretty to-do there was before she could get her letter opened.

    "It is a letter—a real long letter," said Hetty the beautiful, with a shy blush.

    "It's tickets for the flower-show, and highly improper," retorted old maid Methodist.

    "It's a request for an interview; it's long enough for a propo—" began the happy maid.

    "It's sent from the office on business paper, and disrespectful," interrupted old maid Prudery.

    "It is nothing!—nothing!" protested hopeful youth, somewhat hypocritically.

    "It's the thin end of the wedge, and wicked," insisted sage old woman.

    A little paper-knife settled the question, and a moment later the happy maid was reading a veritable proposal, though the printed heading did stare so at her whilst old maid Methodist made running comments that were soon lost in astonished exclamations.  It was a long letter, and prolix and various, passionate enough for the beauteous maid, but respectful and serious enough for solemn Miss Methodism.  The writing was common, the spelling not immaculate; there were adoration and business, humble pleading and harsh commercial boasting, as of one whose chief earthly glory was his connexion with Blandon & Co.; and when the astounding production had been got through and the signature reached, it would have been hard to say whether Hetty the maid or Hetty the Methodist was the more amazed.  It was a proposal clear enough, and sufficiently hot and eager for any woman; but it was not from handsome Frank Blandon at all, but from his insignificant, commonplace partner, Sam Broome.

    The first feeling that took definite shape in the welter of emotions was that of disappointment, and the second was a sharp sense of the impropriety of the first.  She had a little thrill at the discovery of another worshipper at the shrine of her beauty, and several little stabs of inconsistent resentment as she realized how much could be said from the commonsense point of view for this latest aspirant.  Ashamed of her first feeling of disappointment, she now felt that she ought to be ashamed of her lack of interest in the offer now made to her.

    She turned the letter over absently, and studied its closely written lines; but awoke presently to the discovery that she was chiefly wondering whether Frank knew of the letter, and whether he could have had anything to do with its composition.  She tried to realize herself as Mrs. Sam Broome, but found presently that she was analysing Frank's manner when he asked for the little rose she had given him.  She compelled herself to recall all she knew about Sam, and awoke to the fact that she was debating Frank's seriousness and his reputation for flirting.

    She read the epistle again, and yet again, for only certain parts of it adhered to her memory, and the thing she knew most definitely at the close was that Sam seemed inordinately proud of his connexion with Blandon's, and evidently regarded that as his chief recommendation.  She even caught herself feeling very serious as she wondered whether Frank would be pleased or otherwise if she accepted Sam, and she was alarmed to discover that the suggestion that Frank had been paving the way for his partner annoyed her.

    Then it was the turn of the ludicrous site question, and she found that the project might help to reconcile her father to parting with her; but the momentary gratification thus created had to be sternly resisted, for it was grounded on the immodest supposition that Frank would be her husband.  How would the site question be affected by her acceptance of Sam Broome?  Did the much-coveted land belong to the firm or to the Blandon family?  But the question was, What did she think herself of Sam Broome?  Alas! in a moment she was deep in recollections of what Mrs. and the Misses Broome had always said of that person.

    Reflection was growing more painful, and so she turned once more to the passionate parts of the letter just to recover herself.  And so that long, bright summer morning wore on, and two hours after breakfast she was no nearer a decision than the moment she fled from the kitchen.  But domestic duties called her; presently she would have the whole afternoon to herself, and meanwhile there was work to be done.  She stepped to her glass, brushed back her hair, glanced absently at the condition of her dress, and descended into the kitchen again, forgetting momentarily the danger that lurked in that castle of her tormentors.

    "Bang!"

    She had entered Jim's throne-room with her thoughts in the clouds, but the bang brought her back to harsh realities again, and there stood young Wess, his back to the door he had so promptly closed, and a look of elfish triumph on his face; whilst Jim had risen from her employment of floor-washing, and was standing arms akimbo near the other door.

    Wess gave a wild Indian whoop, and leered at her victoriously; she had forgotten that it was Saturday morning, and the young rascal would not be at school.  Fairly at bay, Hetty called up all her dignity; and, discreetly preferring her female antagonist, she turned upon her coldly, and was about to demand explanation, when Jim anticipated her by crying sternly:

    "Miss Hetty, don't you think no better of yourself nor that?"

    "Jemima!"

    Jim's name never got its due length in that household except under very serious circumstances.

    "Are you a silly froth-top simpleton like t'rest on 'em that's a disgrace to their sexes?"

    "Jemima Grubb!"

    Now, Hetty had hoped to find Jemima alone and obtain information about Sam Broome, who until now had never particularly interested her.  The attentions of Frank Blandon were secrets of her own, which she had imagined she could play with in perfect security, and here they were presented to her as commonest property—for there could be no doubt as to whom she meant.  But the things she was hearing were perfectly scandalous.  Frank did not belong to their circle; his name was scarcely ever mentioned in the family; and she had assumed that the opinions held by her lady friends about the young builder were the opinions of the whole town.  Her amazement at this attack, therefore, threw her off her guard for a moment, and she turned in sheer stupefaction from Jim to Wess, and almost gave herself away as she gasped, "Why, Wess, what do you know about him?"

    It was all that was required, and in a moment she was being bombarded from first one and then the other.

    "He's a bad 'un!—through an' through bad!"

    "He's a low down 'un!  Why, Het, he bets!"

    "He's no more religion nor these here pattens!"

    "He drinks! he's i' debt!  He sitteth in the seat of the scornful, and standeth in the way of sinners."

    The excited denunciators were not more breathless than Hetty herself.  She had never heard more than the barest hints of such things, and was simply astounded.  These two were old allies against her—the only two persons who ever crossed her; but at this moment the family fighting instinct came to her rescue, she drew herself up to her fullest height, stepped back a little, took them both in with a glance of triumph, and, sweeping them a grand curtsey, laughed in their faces, and said:

    "Peeping and prying oft leads to crying (one of Jemima's pet nursery proverbs).  All this because you thought my letter was from Mr. Blandon.  Well, it was from somebody else."

    Wess was clearly nonplussed; but Jemima, possessing knowledge she was too discreet to impart even to her idol, looked grim and unconvinced.

    Encouraged by his ally's look, Wess plucked up again, and after a moment's hesitation he left his post, and, standing where he could watch his sister's face, he cried:

    "Well, you daren't show it to us, anyway!"

    "Show it to you! how dare you, sir!"

    "She daren't, Jim; see, she daren't!  It was a love-letter."

    And then Hetty, generally quite a match for the allied powers, and not averse on occasion to battle, made a slip.  With another taunting little curtsey, she avoided her brother's eyes, and cried, "People don't usually send love-letters in business envelopes."

    But as she spoke the little evasion collided somehow with her sturdy honesty, and sent a colour-signal to her cheeks, which the watchful Wesley recognized instantly.

    "It is, Jim! it's a love-letter!  Look!—look!" and pointing to his sister's now flaming cheeks, he turned to his fellow conspirator and crowed in wicked triumph.

    Hetty moved back a little with her head down to get time for self-recovery, for Jemima's black eyes were boring holes in her hot face.  She remembered that in the three other prematurely frustrated little "affairs of the heart" she had had, Wess had on each occasion known all about matters almost before she had realized them herself.  She knew also that he had substantial reasons for encouraging her suitors, and had been able to replenish chronically depleted capital thereby.  But the others were quite ordinary persons, more after Sam Broome's style, whereas Frank Blandon was known to be lavish of money.  Why, then, was the always mercenary Wess so fiercely prejudiced against the young builder? and why was Jim, who always talked worldly prudence to her on matrimonial matters, also so strong in her opposition?  There was evidently much to reflect upon and get to know in this tangled affair, and she must have time to think.  And so, intent only on getting away, and too old now to fight her way out as of yore, she said, with a show of jaunty defiance:

    "And what if it is a love-letter?  And what if it is from Frank Blandon?  What is that to either of you?"

    They stood looking at her in evident doubt; and whilst Jemima, understanding, of course, many things not apparent to Wess, drew down her black brows and scowled in baffled perplexity, Wess, full only of one abhorrent thought, drew himself up to his full height, opened wide his eyes in amazed protest, and was just commencing a reply that betrayed, even in its first sentences, much more than juvenile prejudice, when the back door opened and in walked "Father."

    A great fear leapt into Hetty's heart.  Wess, who usually thought that the less a parent knows about matters the better, was now excited enough, she could see, to table the whole thing then and there.  She could manage them all separately; but if the question were broached now, what Wess knew and Jemima knew and her father knew put together, would make a terrible tale indeed.  And so in her desperation she plucked the hapless cause of all this hubbub from her bodice, thrust it at the astonished Wess, and cried:

    "There, sir! there's the letter! read it for yourself, if you doubt me!"

    It was a happy shot, springing from an unerring instinct; for whilst Jemima made a sudden exclamation of protest, Wess drew back with a haughty toss of the head and a scornful lip, and she, confident at any rate of present safety, escaped from the kitchen.

    That was the most restless day of Hetty Waine's life.  The flattered maiden and the suspicious woman struggled incessantly within her, and the various issues of the complicated situation chased each other through her brain the whole day long.  She had relied on being able to get from Jemima some particulars about the man who had written to her, but that sententious lady now knew too much to make inquiry safe.  The opinions of her brother about Frank were, she supposed, intensified editions of Miss Grubb's own; but, on further reflection, she was not quite sure of that, and if her surmise was not correct, then the case against the young builder was so much the stronger.  She persuaded herself that Jemima's standard of conduct was so narrowly Methodistic, that Frank would not in any case be able to satisfy her; but the language used by her critics, though they were both addicted to exaggeration, scarcely justified that conclusion.

    Of Sam Broome she knew little; but she could easily understand that he was credited with those homely virtues of honesty, industry, and devotion to duty, which went for so much and more than excused the absence of polish with such persons as Jemima, Jossy Sweetlove, and even her father.

    It really was a fine proposal—in parts, if she had cared at all for Sam, it would have seemed a lovely letter; but here, instead of passing to the serious question whether she cared for Sam or not, she was suddenly falling in love with Joss Sweetlove's ridiculous proposal of the day before, and revelling in the delicious idea that what neither money nor influence nor prayer had been able to accomplish for Grindell Methodism, a mere word of hers had done.

    As the day wore on her restlessness increased; her father obviously avoided her, and had an embarrassed, apologetic look when they met; twice at least she surprised Wess and Jemima in solemn, muttering converse, which she feared boded ill for her; her old maid double seemed to have taken possession of the bedroom, and gave her not a moment's rest; and there was that tantalizing letter, that demanded some sort of answer at once.  Oh, that she could escape from it all into the woods and fields and solitude!  The little house felt like a prison.

    And at last she succeeded.  It was warm, and the air was soft and fragrant.  Her desire had been to get away and sit in some cool shade or by some murmuring stream and think.  But Hetty was young and strong, and her thoughts were many, and took tyrannical possession of her; and so she simply walked and walked, and still walked, until, just as the sun was dipping behind Hapsby Knob, she turned in at the top end of Bracken Lane with a sudden sense of weariness.

    "Good evening!"

    The voice was low and respectful, though a trace too familiar, and Hetty with a start and a blush turned round to greet Frank Blandon.

    He wore a faultlessly-fitting light suit, and the rose she had given him yesterday was in his buttonhole, surrounded with fresh maidenhair.  He was as smiling and handsome as ever, and would have held the little shy hand she gave him had she permitted.  All the maiden was rising in her, she could scarcely speak for choking, and her only hope was in walking on.  He dropped quietly into her step, and talked of the weather and the beauties around them, and when twice at least his hand touched the little one swinging at her side she drew it away.  He still talked, hinting compliments and playing with words as though on the verge of open admiration, and she was praying that he might not see her trembling.

    He talked and talked, and once almost touched her arm as though he would have taken it; but she seemed to have eyes in her elbows, and moved away.  He still murmured on, and the very lowness to which he had dropped his voice contained a subtle flattery.  All woman, only woman she seemed, and lovely enough for summer's own goddess; but she was fighting her own battle, and secretly despairing of the result.  He stopped, but her feet carried her on in spite of herself, and he caught her up with a laugh and another compliment.

    Fifty yards farther, the tumult within her became almost unbearable, and then she pulled up and put out her hand to dismiss him.  They were not more than half-way through the lane, and he looked disappointed.

    "Good evening, Mr. Blandon!  Yes, the air is delic―― Ah!"

    He had clung to the hand she offered, and was drawing her towards him.  Then he let the hand go, and was throwing out an arm to catch and kiss her.  She had been fearing some such thing for two minutes, that seemed two eternities; but it was quite a new Hetty Waine who stood there in the lane, cold and proud as any queen, and looking straight into his quailing eyes, until he felt a perfect scoundrel before her, and could have sunk in shame at her feet.  It was a long moment, and when at last she spoke it was the very last word he ever expected to hear from her—or from any woman:

    "I did not know you were so vulgar, Mr. Blandon!"

    It was he who moved first.  With flushed cheek and dropped head he muttered some sort of apologetic protest, but came no nearer, and a moment later he was going back up the lane; and she, who had stood it out like an outraged empress, burst into a half-hysterical little sob, and fled on swiftest foot towards home.

    And when they both had gone and the lane was quiet, a slim figure crawled out from behind the bole of an old tree in the hedge, and a boy, nipping his hands together between his knees in ecstatic triumph, cried, between rapturous chuckles:

    "Good lad, Het!  Old Het for ever!  And bad luck to Bummer Blandon!"



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