The Partners - III.
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CHAPTER VII.

A LITTLE HITCH


WHEN Sam Broome left Jessamine Cottage by the back way after his interview with Hetty, he looked older and sallower than usual, and held his head stiffly up like a newly enlisted soldier at his first drill.   He was staring hard before him without seeing anything, and his lips moved as though in silent prayer.  When he emerged into the road just where Ginger Lane becomes "The Avenue," he paused, and looked around; and as the evening was soft and quiet, and his feelings were too turbulent for the society of his fellow creatures, he crossed the white high-road and struck down Bracken Lane.  His pace slackened, and his stiffly-held neck gradually dropped into its more natural position—a little on one side.  For a couple of hundred yards he stalked along, increasing his pace at every step to keep up with his rushing thoughts.  Suddenly he stopped, and appealing to the thick hedges, the gorse, and the high bracken, from which the old lane took its name, he cried in a sort of melancholy ecstasy, "My gracious, isn't she a good 'un?"  As no answer came to his amazed inquiry, he started forward again, but almost instantly checked himself.  "Beautiful! that's nothing! she's—she's good, she's kind!  Why, I might have been a lord!" and a smile of incredulous delight played over a face that was set in deepest dejection.  He put his head straight again, and started for another burst of walking.  Ten yards, however, brought him to a stand once more.

    "Lady?  Why, man, thou never met a real lady before!"  And then, after a moment's reflection, he challenged the gorse-bushes again, "Gracious goodness! was there ever such a fool as me?"

    He dropped his head now, and sauntered absently along, until another turn of thought pulled him up with a protest almost fierce, "I'm a fool, I tell thee; a great, swelled-headed fool!  Why, man, she's a saint; a saint and a queen!"

    He was standing now, and glaring at a bramble-bush as though he saw some fearsome reptile under its trailing branches.  "It was an insult! a downright—Partner?  Aye, but putting a mongrel into a new kennel doesn't make him a prize-dog, does it?"  And then he added, with a smile that had the sorrow of utter despair in it, "And she took it like a heavenly saint!"

    Still as the very trees he stood now, and his eyes were searching the dust under his feet.  "God bless her!" he groaned; and then, shaking his fist into the heavens in a frenzy of anguish, he repeated, "God in heaven bless her!"

    Unconscious of anything but the struggle within him, he began to stumble forward, and as he did so his thoughts evidently took another turn.  He was quiet now, and his face had a puzzled look.  "Of course that's it!  He's done as he promised.  He's a fine sight—why, goodness, that's it!  He's the man for her!" And appealing to the bushes and old hedge-trees with a dropped jaw and a look blended of amazement and horror, he stared about him, aghast at the horrible suggestiveness of his own belated suspicion.

    However distressing his thoughts up to this moment, they were as nothing to the hurricane of inward desperation that now burst upon his soul.  Fear, shame, amazement, and hellish jealousy were all struggling for the mastery within him; he clenched his hands, sent his elbows into his side, shook like a leaf, and burst into a cold sweat.  "That's why he grinned! that's why he blushed! that's why he said so little!" he groaned.  "Sam!  Sam! you've been a fool, a perfect, wooden-headed fool!"  And then, after squeezing his flattened hands between his knees, he added, "Oh! why did he ever make me a partner?"

    Absorbed in his own torturing thoughts, Sam had not noticed that he no longer had that part of the lane to himself.  A boyish figure, however, had been leisurely approaching him for some little time.  The new-comer's short black curls were crowned with a grammar-school cap turned peak backwards, and he carried a couple of long sticks under his arm, whittling away at the ends of them as he strolled along.  He had already noticed that the person approaching him was indulging in "queer antics"; but it was only on nearer approach that he settled the question of identity.  He was still some paces away, and though excited somewhat by the signs of extraordinary distress, and a little embarrassed with a boyish fear of intruding, he was too much and often afflicted with boredom to have many scruples in the presence of a diversion, and so he cried out, "Hello, Sam! got the toothache?"

    The sudden grotesque rigidity Sam instantly assumed gave him away more effectually than his gesticulations had done.  "Hello, Master Wesley! is that you?"  And he relaxed into an overdone assumption of ease.

    But Wess had all a boy's directness and contempt for evasion, and so he persisted, "What were you mouthing and gaping like that for?"

    "Oh! nothing—nothing, Master Wess!  Grand evenin', isn't it?"

    Wesley always regarded references to the weather as the last refuge of cowardly evasiveness; here was evidently something to conceal, and therefore something that must be found out.  He glanced at the sky, then at Sam, drew up the stick that had been threatening to slip from under his arm, and, resuming his whittling, demanded, "Your young woman been quilting you?"

    "Young woman?  Haven't got one, my boy; never had.  That's a poor sort of knife you've got, Wesley."

    There was an implied invitation to come to the wood yard and get the blade ground in Sam's last sentence; but Wess, whilst duly noting the offer for future use, felt that his suspicions were being amply justified, and so he asked relentlessly, "Leave all the courting to Blandon, I suppose?"

    "Ha! ha!—yes."  Sam's laughter was apparently more painful even than his groans.  He's the one for the girls, isn't he?"

    "Some of them."  And there was intentional significance in the emphasis of the first word.  But Wess was still busy with his stick, and after making the chips fly in silence for a minute or more, he raised his head, and cried suddenly, "Why, Sam, he looked worse than you!"  And before the puzzled Sam, who was scowlingly belabouring his sluggish brain to follow the erratic leaps in the boy's logic, Wess shook his stick at a blackberry-bush, and cried triumphantly, "Well done, Het, old girl!—well done, Het!"

    Sam sprang round with a startled ejaculation, clearly expecting to encounter the girl whom he had just left; then he looked the other way up the road, and then back at his companion, and finally fell back, with raised brows and half-opened mouth, dumb with astonishment.

    Boylike, Wess was silently revelling in the sensation he was producing, although he entirely misunderstood its bearings; but following his own line of thought, he resumed his operations with the knife, and, to start conversation again, said, "I'm sorry for you, Sam, I am—honest."

    Then he did know, and Frank had been doing his part.

    "Me!  I'm a fool, that's what I am!"

    Wess was a boy, and addicted therefore to didactic moralizing—to other people; and so, to comfort his evidently distressed friend, he said in the manner of a man of fifty, "Better be a fool than a cad, Sam."

    "Cad?  Him!  Mind what you're saying, boy!"

    The imperturbable Wesley solemnly shook his head, and with even greater gravity replied, "It's a fact, Sam! he's a bummer.  If I'd a-been her, I'd have smacked his face for him!"

    Sam was getting angry—the boy was simply insufferable; but he must not show his feelings until he knew all he desired.

    "Why, Wess, it was nothing!  He was doing his best for me!"

    "For you?"

    "Yes, for me!  I asked him to do it!"

    Wesley's sticks had dropped to the ground, and he was looking about for a big enough stone; his lips were drawn together, and there was the light of battle in his eyes.

    "You asked him to kiss my sister in the lane?"

    "Kiss?  What on earth are you talking about?"

    "He did!  I saw him myself!"

    "What, young fibber! you saw him kiss――"

    "No! no!—kiss?  He didn't know Hetty; but he tried—the beast!"

    With distended eyes and panting breast Sam glared at the indignant boy as though he would have struck him down.  "You're mad, Wess!"

    "I tell you he did! this very afternoon, in this very lane!"

    Sam was plainly losing his grip of things wave after wave of pure bewilderment was breaking over his brain, and he stood there gaping at his companion in dumb stupefaction, Wess, hugging himself on the dramatic sensation he was creating, picked up coolly the sticks he had dropped, and commenced carving his initials on the thin green bark.

    "Honour bright now, Mr. Wess; you're kidding me! you know you are!"

    "All right, if you don't believe me."  And then, as another curious idea struck him, he broke off, and demanded, "I say, what made you say he was doing it for you?"

    "I didn't!  Oh, did I?  Oh, that's nothing!"

    But Sam's confusion was telling another tale, and so Wess lifted his precocious head and eyed his friend from head to foot, demanding as he did so, "I say, Sam, you aren't sweet on her too, are you?"

    "Me?  Oh! get out, Wesley; I'm――"

    "You are, then!  Well, that's a corker!"

    Sam, now as much alarmed as puzzled, began a series of protests which his stammering belied as soon as uttered, and finished with a final lamentation: "She's miles above me, Mr. Wesley."

    Wesley's changing face was a picture, amused suspicion giving way to the handsome generosity which he felt the situation demanded.

    "Oh! that's all right," he cried, with a large and patronizing gesture; "why shouldn't you go in as well as he?"

    "Me?  Master Wess—I never――"

    "Yes, you!  Jim's for you, I know, and so am I—or might be."

    This hasty reservation had delicately distant reference to the perquisites which the younger relatives of pretty girls regard as their natural heritage, and Wess had difficulty in preserving due gravity.

    Sam's restless hands were groping their way into the side-pockets of his serge jacket, whilst his eyes and mouth were changing every moment as he gaped at the nonchalant youth.  The dominant instinct of devotion to the house of Blandon pulled one way, and black jealousy, all the more fierce because of its helplessness, was pulling the other; the situation so suddenly opened before him paralysed him, and he lifted a long, deep sigh, and still glowered heavily at his companion.

    "Two to one on you, Sam; money down!" cried Wess encouragingly; and then he went on with the whittling of his stick.

    "Me?  Me again the master?  I couldn't, Wess!—I couldn't do it!"

    "All right! don't sweat yourself; but she won't have him, anyway—I'll see to that."

    The easy grandeur of the boy's manner tickled poor Sam in spite of the misery within him, and a sickly smile played for a moment about his mouth-corners.

    "Why, Wess, you don't know!  No woman can resist him, if he likes; look how handsome he is!"

    "Red-nob!" was the contemptuous comment of the boy.

    Sam laughed, and immediately frowned in angry shame at his own frivolity; then as it came over him that he was making himself ridiculous by thus arguing on so delicate a subject with a mere lad, he said, "That's all boys know about such things.  Well, I must be moving on, Wess."

    Wess was criticizing his work on the stick, and did not appear to heed; but as the other moved off he cried, without raising his head, "Better try yourself, old chap; two to one, mind, on the junior partner!"

    Sam burst into a great hollow laugh as he turned away, and as he went down the road he called back with hard face and set teeth, "No chance for me!—no chance for me!"

    With head bent and hands deep in his pockets, Sam strode off along the lane, struggling vainly to get some clearness into his confused and confounded brain.  The son of a widowed charwoman, he had had to fight all his days with poverty and misfortune, and in the long discipline he had grown so accustomed to disappointment and so familiar with the homely angel of resignation, that he held all his hopes in a loose hand, and it seemed a perfectly natural thing when he was making the most daring flight of ambition in his life that he should meet with discouragement; and so he had, or thought he had, relinquished his pursuit of Hetty with comparative ease, every gentle word and kindly glance of hers having helped him to his conclusion.

    He knew the fight within himself was not over, for he was naturally doggèd and persistent; perseverance against odds had been his one reliable quality and the secret of such successes as he had achieved.  But he had expressed himself so definitely to her in order to cut off his own retreat and make the struggle with himself the easier.  He had scarcely spoken to her before, and the gentle dignity of her manner had revealed a character so utterly out of his reach that he must make haste to quench his own desires.  And surely the discoveries just made would help him: he, the rival of his partner!—the thing was scandalous, positively disgraceful!  To stand in the way of the son of the man who had given him his one great chance in life was a piece of monstrous ingratitude, and must not be thought of for an instant.  Frank Blandon was the very man for Hetty Waine, and it was just like his own stupidity never to have seriously thought of it.

    Why, then, was he so excited, so rebellious, so desperately eager for her?  He was jealous!—madly, unscrupulously jealous! and the gratitude and obligation of service which he usually felt had vanished, burnt-up like tow before the white heat of his unruly passion.  Self-suppression had become almost second nature with him; but as he strode along that old lane, the cords that bound the beast in him snapped as did the withs on the awakening Samson, and hate of his partner, fierce and deadly, and reckless defiance of God and men, alike raged madly within him.   All he had ever suffered from society during his long, hard struggle came back to him, old dead grievances sprang into savage life; the sense of his inferiority to Frank and Hetty, and the realization that he had been tricked by his own partner, added fuel to the fire, and he was out of the lane and half-way across Hapsby Moor before he came to himself.

    The heather had just burst into bloom, game started up here and there, and rushed away with angry screams and thudding wings, and the sun was going down in a bath of glory; but Sam Broome walked amid raging fires, and the beauties about him only heightened and mocked his misery.  Farther and farther he went from the road, and deeper and deeper he plunged into the gorse and heather; and at length with a cry, half prayer, half curse, he threw himself upon his face amongst the bushes, drove his finger-nails into the mossy turf, and snarled and whined like a baffled beast of prey.  It was a terrible struggle; fierce elemental passions, so long and steadily repressed that he had almost forgotten their existence within him, had now escaped control, and raged and rioted until he shook like a man in a palsy, whilst every higher motive was cold and dead, and the very desire to resist had gone.

    Sacrifice, resignation, patience, the good angels which so long had shaped his life, seemed now so many unmasked and drivelling spirits of cant and hypocrisy; the only realities were self, hatred, and revenge.  He rolled about on the turf, tore spitefully at the tufts of wild thyme and rock-rose, savagely drove his toes through the thin soil to the hard limestone, sat abruptly up and stared defiantly at the sinking orb of day, and then threw himself back with his hands under his head staring at the earliest stars.  And the mood held: he did not resist it, he did not want to resist it; for once he would think and feel himself, the proper natural man of him should have its fling.

    Suddenly he sat up again, listened for a moment, caught the thud of heavy feet, and sprang hastily up.  A horseman was approaching, and coming across the heather to shorten the winding moor road.  His first impulse was to plunge deeper into the moor, but a glance told him that he was not only seen, but recognized; so he stood still and waited, struggling to straighten his distorted features.

    "Hel!—Hello!  Whoa, Snider!  Well, now, this is rum!  How do, Sam Broome?"

    The speaker was a little man on a very big horse.  He was dressed like a country gentleman of the smarter sort, with white hat, drab gaiters, and rakish red-waistcoat.  His face was as red as his coat, and his features were pronounced enough to amply justify the universal nickname of "Punch."

    Mr. "Punch" Brice was the only active member of a century-old firm of accountants, who were also valuers, stock-jobbers, auctioneers, and property brokers, whose head quarters were in the county town, but who time out of count had had an office in Grindell.  He was far away the best-known man in the district; and, though a winebibbing, hunting, swearing old sinner, had a reputation for business shrewdness, sterling integrity, and knowledge of men and things, which placed him in a class by himself.  He was executor for more people than any three lawyers in the neighbourhood, was reputed to know more farmers' law than the county attorney himself, and held property and business secrets enough to have qualified him for county arbitrator had there been any such official.

    As he knew everybody, he of course knew Sam, and looked down upon him from his high saddle with a quizzical glance of surprise and delight.  "Why, Sam, I was thinking about you—be still, Snider!—this very minute!  I've been thinking about you all day, bloomed if I haven't!"

    "Yes, sir!  I know, sir!  We shall have the men on the job by ten o'clock on Monday morning."

    "Eh?  What?  Oh, hang that!"—Mr. Brice used a coarser word—"we've got other fish to fry; I've a spanking good thing on for you—a stunner!"

    "Thank you, sir! we're not over busy—"

    "Oh, stow it, man!—we!  It's for you, man!—you yourself!  Confound you, Snider!"

    Sam's head was down.  What was coming now?  Surely he'd trouble enough.  But "Punch" was speaking again.

    "You're the man for the job!  I've picked you out myself, and you're a made man any minute."

    "What is it you want me to—you're very kind, sir —"

    "Huh!  Stow that!  It's five hundred a year, if it's a shilling.  You'd be your own gaffer, and could double it if—and oh, ha! ha! ha! yes, by Jingo!—and the girl thrown in"; and Mr. "Punch" slapped his corduroy thigh with wicked glee.

    "Excuse me, sir; but I don't—I don't seem to—"

    "Of course!—whoa, lad!—how the name of patience can you!  Well, listen to me!  Oh, blow the beast! hold his head whilst we jaw."

    Obeying this jerky command, Sam laid a hand on the bridle, and waited.

    "It's like this, man.  You know old Donkey Smailes—him with the cock-eye—he died a week last Thursday."

    Sam nodded, but his eyes wandered to the flooding purple in the west, and "Punch," with an irritable twist in his saddle, raised the stick of his whip, and using it to attract the amazingly absent listener and emphasize his words, went on, "Well, like all the other idiots about here, he must go and make me his executor."

    Sam stared hard at the mounted speaker; but only in a vain effort at attention.

    "Well, the old muddlehead turns out to be worth about twice as much as he thought he was, only everything's so messed up nobody on earth can straighten it out."

    "Yes, sir!"

    "Well, you're the man for it Managing partner—pull things together, a bit for me, a bit for her, and a clear five hundred a year, if it's a penny, for you!"

    "Punch" was scowling fiercely as he finished, to conceal the professional pride with which he made this magnificent offer; but Sam was still staring into the setting sun.

    "The concern's thirty years old, the old squint-eye built it up himself—far too much timber stocked for one thing; but you can rectify that."

    Sam's eyes were wide with a dull, far-away wonder; but even "Punch" Brice could see that it was not with what he was hearing.

    "Pull the thing round, and you can pay us out any time—cosy thousand a year, my lad; at least, if you bag the widow."

    "Mr. Brice!"

    "Well, why not?  Don't be so sanctimonious, man!  She's younger than you, been an old man's darling, as they call it, about six years; but that needn't spoil her for you."

    Sam was coming to himself at last, and turning amazed and utterly incredulous eyes on the horseman, he cried, "You don't mean to say, Mr.――"

    "Oh, wake up, pudding-head!  Haven't I been saying so this last ten minutes!  What's up with you, staring there like a stuffed pike?"

    "You want me to manage Mr. Smailes's—"

    "Manage your grandmother—own it, man!  Partner with her and me, and buy us both out!"

    Sam felt as though his head was bursting, and queer shivers were creeping about the roots of his hair.  "Me?  Mr. Brice—me?"

    "Aye, you! there it is, man!  I'm making a man of you for nothing, lucky duffer that you are!"  And the little man's face went red with flattered self-importance, and he glowed upon Sam in proud delight.

    "But!—but!—Why, it's twice as big as our business!"

    "And more than that; it 'ull be a business when yours— Oh, hang it! say Aye, and be done with it."

    "But it's — I — I couldn't manage 'em both!"

    "Both?—both?  Oh, and her!  Why, man, she'd drop into your hands like a plum into a lad's mouth!"

    "Oh, not that!—the business.  It's five miles away, and I couldn't manage them both!"

    "Both!  Not much!  Why, man, you must chuck yours; your petty concern's nothing to this!"

    Sam's head was going in slow dissent.

    "What?  Eh!  Oh, no! he couldn't pay you out!  But that's nothing; let the wretched thing go—it is going, anyway."

    Apparently not observing these last mysterious observations, Sam, still staring amazedly, began, "If you really mean it, Mr. Brice—"

    "Mean it!  Listen to me!  Haven't I left my dinner to come seeking you!  Saturday night, too!"  And it was clear that Mr. Punch could think of no stronger evidence of his earnestness.

    "You're awfully kind, Mr. Brice, but—"

    "Kind! bosh! fiddle!  It's a matter o' business, man; are you on, that's the point?"

    "But do you really want me to manage that great concern?  Why, sir—"

    "I want thee"—Mr. Punch often dropped into loose language when he got angry—"to come and gaffer old Smailes's timber-yard partnership to start with, and chance of the whole concern when thou can find the cash.  Is that clear enough?"

    Sam lifted a long, wondering sigh, and stared hard at the accountant without speaking.

    "Confound the fellow!  I might be asking him to shoot himself!"

    Still Sam stared, and found nothing to say.

    "Oh! well, here."  And with sudden impatient scorn the red-faced little man jerked his horse's head from Sam's grasp, and prepared to ride off.  "Look here!  I can find twenty men, an' wi' money, too, that will jump at it; so—"

    "Mr. Brice, forgive me!  I'm so bewildered and staggered, I cannot think."

    "Then hurry up, man!—hurry up!  What is it to be?"  And, gratified by the stunning effect of his offer upon his companion, the irascible "Punch" fumbled with his bridle and waited.

    "I don't know what to say to you, sir, for your goodness; but it's so very sudden, I cannot—"

    "Who said you could?  Do you think I want you to buy a pig in a poke?  Take time—take a week; will that do?"

    "I'm afraid, sir—"

    "Oh, bother afraid!  Come to the 'Red Bull' coffee-room next Friday, at eleven sharp, and bring your wandering wits with you next time."

    "Yes, but I fear—"

    "Fear nothing, keep your mouth shut, turn it over, and come with a 'Yes, if you please, sir.'"  And then, as he was galloping away, he turned in his saddle and added, "Never mind the brass—I'll find the brass."

    Sam watched the departing agent until he vanished round the shoulder of the hill, and still stood there like a man in a dream.  This astounding offer, so flattering to one who had known so much of the world's hardness, so tempting to one who had won small advantages by hard endeavour and many sacrifices, and so disturbing an intrusion into his already harassed and burdened mind, seemed to have brought intellectual deadlock, and sheer stupefied helplessness was creeping over him.  The older troubles were still there; but this new suggestion, introducing as it did so many complications, utterly dazed him, and all feeling seemed to have passed away.  He turned round and took a last look at the setting sun—why, he knew not; and then, kicking moodily at the clumps of gorse he never seemed to see, he moved slowly back towards Grindell and home.


 
CHAPTER VIII.

A QUIXOTIC PROPOSAL


THE Broomes lived in Moxon Street, and occupied a house of which Sam was heartily ashamed.  As his sisters boasted with a pride that utterly scandalized him, it was "almost a villa."  Sam's early years had been spent in Candle-house Square, near the Methodist mission, and the family would have been there still but for the interference of old Mr. Blandon, who had insisted that the junior partner's residence should at any rate not dishonour the firm.  But the removal to such a pretentious dwelling had been a great trial to the only male member of the family, and even now he could not be induced on any consideration to use the front entrance.  His sister, who was a schoolteacher-apprentice, had collected quite a long list of pretty titles for the new abode: but Sam would have none of them, and had grimly nailed No. 47 on the only place upon the gate-post where a name might have been painted.  It was only a better-class six-roomed cottage, standing by itself in a small garden; but Sam hung his head when he approached it, and looked very solemn indeed when his vain-glorious women-folk aspired to lace curtains.

    To this modest abode the pallid, heart-weary fellow returned after his distracting experiences in Bracken Lane and on the moor.  His mother was a Methodist, and he and his sisters had been brought up at the mission; but in old Mr. Blandon's last days Sam had gone to church, and since then had shown a strange and distressing partiality for the Quakers, who had a very modest little meeting-house at Hapsby.  This was the only trouble his mother now had, and as in every other respect he was a model son, she had to content herself with the hope and prayer that he would eventually find his way back to the "true fold."  She was a very plain old woman, with traces of her life-long struggle with poverty on her face; but her dress was always scrupulously neat, and the kitchen Sam entered was spotless.  He assumed a careless air, and began to hum a tune as he entered; but he might have spared himself the trouble, for his mother's first glance brought the corners of her mouth down.  They spoke of the heat and the approaching day of rest, but Sam sat down like a stranger not sure of a welcome, and studied his parent carefully whenever opportunity served.  He got up presently and changed his coat, sat down again, and at once remembered some other cause for a journey upstairs—he was evidently very restless.

    Usually he was the first to retire for the night, but now he sauntered to the door, and thence into the garden, but was back again in a moment or two, and began poking about on the mantel-piece as though in search of something he never found.  Another journey into the garden, a long loiter at the door, and then a remark about the hour which set the watchful mother upon hurrying the girls off to bed, in spite of his half-hearted protest.  It was now dark, and, when the lively Dora at last finished her demurrings on early retirement at the top of the stairs, mother lighted a small lamp, carefully closed the door at the stairfoot, and quietly sat down by the cold fireplace to darn stockings.  This was an unusual thing for her to do at this hour, but she had read the signs, and was waiting to hear.  Sam was gnawing the nails of his little finger, and did not know that he was beating a tell tale rat-tat on the floor with his toe.  There was a thud and a suppressed scream of laughter overhead, and mother gauged the seriousness of what was coming by the fact that the smile she looked for on his face did not appear, and that he did not seem to have noticed anything.

    She bent her head a little lower over her work and sighed; these signs only appeared when there was something wrong at the saw-mill.

    "Would you like to be rich, mother?"

    This was an old question, and brought back to her a boy perched on a stool and staring into the fire in the little home of Candle-house Square.  They were sweetly pensive reminiscences therefore, and as her face lighted softly, she replied, "I am rich! very rich!"

    He had fallen to nibbling at his nail again; what he had to say evidently took much arrangement.  "Yes, but really rich—three times as rich as you are?"

    "I should like to be rich enough to build our new chapel—I've cause enough, thank God!" and the soft glow on her face was meant to be a caress.  He was slyly watching her over his offending finger, and so she smiled to herself and took another stocking.

    "Would you like to leave Grindell—and the mill?"

    "Mercy, lad, don't frighten me!" and she was looking hard at him now, and her tones were almost angry.

    "If we could get double the money—and more?"

    "Don't, Sammy!  Don't never talk like that, my lad!" and she held out her hand as though towards some evil thing she saw, whilst with the other she covered her heart.

    "Mr. Frank may want to get rid of me some day."

    "Oh, lad, what's come over thee—you're hurtin' me!"

    "But he may, mayn't he?"

    "Sammy, the Lord put you there, and the Lord must remove you.  Oh, don't frighten me like that, lad!"

    "The same Lord that put me there may remove me, mayn't He?"

    "Till He does, Sammy—till He does, we must wait and be thankful."

    "But what if He's called me somewhere else?—called me to-day?"

    "Sammy, it's the devil a-tempting thee!  Oh! we're so happy, and—oh! lad, what is it?" and she had him by the arm and was hugging it as though it had been his neck.  And then it was all told; and with a heart that eased as he spoke, Sam detailed his interview with "Punch" Brice, and supplied such facts as were necessary to make the situation clear to her.  She was hanging upon him, and searching his face, as though suspicious lest something should be held back; and when he had finished he put her gently into her chair, and fell upon his finger-nails again whilst a long, painful pause prevailed.  "He's given me till next Friday," said the son at last, repeating information he had already supplied in order to start her talking; but the perplexed woman had nothing to say.

    "He's serious enough, and—and I believe I could manage it."

    She started up as though to speak, but lapsed into painful silence again.

    "It came to me; I didn't seek it."

    Still there was no response, she appeared to be trembling; had she not inspired the very ambitions that were now frightening her?  At last she rose to her feet, her face set and solemn like that of a prophet, but her body swaying about with the conflicting emotions of motherhood, yearning, and struggle for duty.

    "Sammy, weren't we saved from the workhouse and starvation by Blandons?"

    "Yes"—almost eagerly.

    "Haven't we got all we have and all our blessed comfort through Blandons?"

    "Yes."

    "And haven't you been made a master-tradesman and set on the way to great success by Blandons?"

    "Yes."

    "Then"—and her eyes were shining now—"then, laddy mine, we'll let well alone.  Duty is worth more than money, and there is that maketh himself poor, yet hash great riches."

    It seemed to Sam that her pleading tones entered one ear as sweetest music, and the other as clashing discord.  If he could have told her all, if he had dared to confess at once his great love and his new great hate, she might have spoken differently.  But the next moment he was sure she would not; he knew also that he could not have borne to hear her say other than she had said, and so, though hell and chaos were still raging within him, he choked back every rising desire, and hoarsely muttered, "Thank God for a good mother!"



    As Frank Blandon left Jessamine Cottage on that fateful night when Hetty had dismissed him, he was the subject of new and utterly strange emotions.  The apparent ease with which she had overcome him, and the spiritless way he had accepted his rebuff, are not to be attributed to the weak cowardice which "lets I dare not wait upon I would."  The fact was, he was at sea—the unexpected, the impossible, had happened; and the very bases of his philosophy as to women had crumbled to pieces there in that old summer-house.  There were women, or at least there was one woman—and a woman of inferior position to himself, too—who did not want to marry him; who had refused him, disdained, literally, and in cold blood rejected him—him!

    His experience of the sex had made him wary, astute, and slippery, driven him to measures of meanness by the very boldness and pertinacity of their pursuit of him; but here was one who would not have him when she could.  Ethel Mellor, a born aristocrat, was languishing for him at that very moment; but this common little shop-keeper's daughter flouted him.  He was not angry; yet he was staggered, dumfounded, and entirely out of his bearings.  There was some sort of conveyance coming down the road after him as he strode along with head sunk in shoulders and eyes on the ground, and so he turned into Bracken Lane to avoid being overtaken.  The devil was rising within him.  That he should not be able to have his will with Hetty Waine as with other women was monstrous, and that he should have to wait and resort to diplomacy even was irritating, considering what sacrifices he was making for the little jade.  Oh! she should smart for this; the more pains he had to take to catch her, the more would he humble her when he had caught her.  It was her Methodism, he supposed; the prudish scrupulosity of the "unco guid."  All the better; to bring one of these sanctimonious ones to heel would be something worth doing.

    What precisely was her game?  What did she expect to gain by her crafty holding off?  She wanted a formal proposal, wanted it in black and white.  Ah! he had always understood that these "pious" folk were uncommonly "downy" where the main chance was concerned.  She wanted to be sure, did she?—to have him hard and fast?  Well, she should see—and here he stopped to glare at the trees in the lane with a fierce vindictive grin.  She had bested him, queened it over him; not only out-generalled him in tactics, but had overpowered him by sheer force of superior personality.  Amazed, intensely humiliated, and raging with revenge, he strode along the quiet old lane, the prey of goading, exasperating emotions.  Consciously or otherwise she had taken the surest way of enslaving him; for in spite of his rage he was now so much more in love with her that he could no longer help himself, and the thought of abandoning the quest never even occurred to him.  How to reach her, subjugate her, bring her to his feet, was now the question of questions.

    The information which greeted him almost before he opened the door at home, that the vicar of Hapsby had sent to inquire about "Mother," though proffered by his sisters with eager excitement, scarcely reached him—it was like a message from another world with which he had remotest connexions and without a thought of his sick parent he retreated to his own room, locked the door, lighted the gas, and gave himself up to tobacco and his all-absorbing perplexities.

    It was ten o'clock next morning when he appeared, in his most self-pitiful mood, at his mother's breakfast-table.  Mrs. Blandon had quite recovered—the vicar's flattering message had done marvels; but her son made no inquiry after her condition, and the chattering raillery of his sisters about the unusual smartness of his dress evoked no response.  He was sacrificing himself for their ambitions, and they had nothing to offer him but thoughtless chaff.  He called at the wood yard a little later to see the letters—he had been specially careful about these of late—he gave an order or two to the workmen, and then strolled off with painful reluctance to Hapsby Vicarage, where he knew he was expected.  Fortune, ill-natured jade, always his enemy, was now doing her very worst; and he was being driven to that which his soul hated.  Yes, he was the victim of his family's social ambitions; he could have courted Hetty Waine, and won her, but for his mother and sisters and their set.  He was being sacrificed to a woman older than himself, and with irksome, aristocratic notions, just to keep the world's conventions and gratify women's ambitions.  They had driven him to the blunder which had estranged Hetty, made him a hateful traitor to his trustful partner, and even—so completely can the selfish soul deceive itself—driven him to devious gambling courses which threatened his ruin, and which he would never have drifted into but for the dull decorum of his mother's house.  And then Hetty Waine suddenly returned to him, radiant, innocent, and—most seductive temptation of all—unattainable.  The thought awakened all the old desires in him, passion, stronger, wilder, and more wilful for its recent repression, surged up within him; and he might even then have turned aside from his fatal errand, only his thoughts had caused him to walk faster than he was aware, and he was already at the vicarage gates.  Miss Mellor had gone for a long drive, but had left a note for him; would he step into the study, as the vicar wanted to see him.

    Frank's heart began to thump and his head to buzz.  What did the lady's odd absence and her letter mean?  A chill crept over him; something else was wrong.  Everything was "queer" this morning.  The vicar usually came out with a jolly shout to greet him; but now the study door was shut, and he had to knock.  There was no cheery "come in," no fussy dash at a pile of cigar-boxes for a "decent brand"; he was coolly invited to a chair, whilst coward conscience began to raise "pandemonium" within him.  The vicar was writing at his desk, and Frank dropped into a chair with the usual references to the weather.

    "Er—a—yes—I say, Blandon, what's this I hear about the Methodists?"

    The tone was cold and hard, and Frank in his injured, self-pitiful mood turned surly.

    "What do you mean?"

    "Why, you are selling them a site, aren't you?"

    "Who says so?"

    "Never mind who says so; is it so, or is it not?"

    The vicar had risen, and was leaning against the mantelpiece, looking at him with stern displeasure.  Qualms of sudden fear struck the coward soul, and with many motives struggling together and making distraction in his brain, he fell back on the dominant impulse for immediate relief, and answered:

    "I'm as much likely to sell a site to the Methodists as you are."

    "But but they think so; old Sweetlove is bragging about it, and—and you're spooning with old Waine's daughter."

    Frank went a sudden sickly white, then flushed red, and wanted to fly at the barber's throat or knock the haughty vicar down, and consigned all women to bottomless perdition.  Connected thought just when it was most needed became impossible; he could not even remember the course of the conversation.  All he was conscious of was a blind impulse of violence; and so, goaded and utterly reckless, he sprang to his feet, and glaring at the cleric, he shouted, "And what if I am?  What's all this to you?"

    The vicar stood there looking at him, looking him through and through, apparently reading in the tense silence his very soul.  Excuses, apologies, falsehoods, sprang to Frank's lips; but the cold eye of the aristocrat quelled them all, and at last Frank heard, like a voice from another world, "Thank you!—and thank God!" and as he moved to reach the bell-rope he added icily, "Now I know you, sir—and you may go."

    How he got out of the room and away from the house Frank never knew, but when he came to himself he was striding along the road towards home at the top of his walking-speed, scarce knowing whither he went.  Back in his own room, however, he grew, outwardly at least, more collected; but a few moments later he was weltering in a deep, dark morass of vain regrets.  Now that his prospects with the vicar's niece were wrecked, he suddenly recollected all they were worth, and how all his future hung upon them.


                           For it so falls out,
That what we have we prize not at the worth
Whiles we enjoy it; but being lacked and lost,
Why, then we rack the value.


    The sophistication of cowardice fought hard within him, and it took half an hour to beat it out of refuge after refuge, and bring him to the facing of the cold and fatal facts.  But there was no escape, and, once convinced of the real situation, he became the prey of remorses and self-recriminations of the cruellest kind.  The personal attractions of Ethel Mellor, the secure financial position, the social distinction, and all the other advantages that went with her, now put on hues of splendour that were tantalizing to his selfish, ease-loving nature; whilst the shame and ruin that now faced him without these advantages seemed sterner and more cruel than ever.  Two hours earlier he had looked on these things with fastidious reluctance; now he realized that life would be difficult, well-nigh impossible, without them.

    Suddenly he remembered Ethel's letter, and took it from his pocket reluctantly, guessing already something of its purport.  As he read, his heart sank within him, and his very fingers shook.


"SIR,—I cannot pretend to misunderstand your intentions of yesterday; but as I happened to be driving through the Avenue when you were leaving your grocer-girl, you will understand why I cannot see you again.  I am deeply grateful to the Providence which interfered to save me from so terrible a fate.  Do not trouble to reply or to see me again.
                                                    Yours indignantly,
                                                                           "E
THEL D. MELLOR."


    For a full minute that letter was stared at, and then Frank Blandon dropped back in his seat and bellowed—wildly, pitifully, despairingly cried; and a few minutes later he was rushing frantically from room to room in his mother's house, followed by three tearful, shrieking women, and theatrically brandishing an empty revolver.  He had remembered, however, to pick up and conceal his ladylove's letter; and when after two hours of distressful struggling he had been reduced to calmness, he allowed a terrified mother to drag out of him, bit by bit, the confession that business worries, brought about chiefly by the miserable stupidity and bungling of the man to whom his father had tied him, had brought upon him the frenzy which had well-nigh proved so tragical(!).  Reluctantly he promised never to think of self-destruction again, more reluctantly still to accept ill-spared financial sacrifice on the part of his doting parent; but reluctance became immovable obstinacy, which quite allayed any possible suspicion on the part of his womenfolk, and filled them with secret pride in his dutiful loyalty, when they insisted that he should get rid at all costs of the obnoxious and dangerous Broome.

    "It is hard, it means pinching poverty to us," sighed Mrs. Blandon to her daughters.  "But his love for his dead father's wishes is beautiful; and if he can put up with the wretch, we must."

    "Yes; but it grows worse, mother," objected Clara, the second daughter, who was supposed to be devoid of insight into character, and was always a little critical of her brother.

    "Yes, love, it does; but it is a lovely thing in the dear boy, and that Broome will have his reward."


 
CHAPTER IX.

A FIERCE QUARREL


MEANWHILE the much abused "Co." was passing through experiences wholly different from, though not less painful than, those of his partner.  He had gone to bed after his soothing interview with his mother, in comparative composure; but as soon as he grew quiet, the sultry air, the solitude, and the soft silence made him very wakeful, and soon all the bewildering medley of his thoughts was back upon him, and he lay struggling with point after point of his complicated anxieties.

    Accustomed to self-renunciation by the experiences of a life prematurely seasoned to disappointment, he had surrendered Hetty Waine with surprising ease; but away from the glamour of her presence, and face to face with the fact that he had a rival, the old longing had come back with redoubled force, and he already realized that he had undertaken a sacrifice greater than he could make.  Suspicion of his partner, too, was taking definite shape within him, and fact after fact came back to him to confirm convictions against which he found it useless to contend.

    "Punch" Brice's offer seemed to have dwindled, and but for a new suggestion which arose in his mind that it might help him at Jessamine Cottage, would have been dismissed as a dangerous and inadmissible temptation.   Gradually the least pressing and important of his many interests obtained ascendency, and after long, close thought and much restless tossing about, he settled down to a consideration of the other causes of his perplexity in their relation to the chief concern of life—his relations to his partner.

    Only those who have bit by bit won their way in life from pinching poverty to comfortable respectability can appreciate the value he set on the position he had attained.  A peasant through and through, and breathing every day a social atmosphere only possible now in remote country towns; trained by a mother who had been originally a domestic servant, and whose old Methodist creed of sternest self-repression had been supported by the unanswerable arguments of extreme poverty—the position to which his old master's kindness had raised him seemed to impose upon him the heaviest obligations and bind him by bands of steel to the Blandon interest.  It had been a point of honour with him not to "pry" too much into the affairs of the concern, but to labour with every faculty he possessed and every moment of his time for its prosperity.  He could never repay the debt he owed, but at any rate he could do his utmost to acknowledge in some measure his obligation.  He had been willing, almost proud, to sacrifice his savings to the temporary necessities of the firm, for it eased a little the weight of obligation, and gave him a comforting consciousness of usefulness; but the events of the day just closed had seriously staggered him.  Jealousy apart, the suspicion of Frank's double-dealing was irresistible, and with this as a starting-point, numerous little straws of evidence from recent happenings came together in his mind, until the result fairly startled him.  Again and again his better nature rose in protest; but each time it was borne down by the sheer weight of evidence, until when the first streaks of dawn broke in upon him he had reached the utterly repugnant but irresistible conclusion that there was a screw loose somewhere in the firm's finances.

    He half-rose from his bed with the intention of going to the office and examining the books; but a sudden recollection that it was the Sabbath checked him, and he fell back upon his pillow with a protesting moan.  He did not regard himself as a Christian; deep dark gulfs of natural depravity, he told himself, separated him from that happy state.  But as he lay there, with his face buried in his pillow, there seemed to rise on the far-off edge of the black waters of his sorrows a bright little disk like a young moon, in which were dimly defined the features of Hetty Waine.  He lay a moment, holding his breath with thrilled intensity, and gazing at the lovely vision like one hypnotized; but the black waters rose again, the momentary gleam was blotted out, the thing suggested was not for such as he, and he rolled over with a choking sob.  But it came again, held him again, it was fainter, farther off, but it was still there; and though he nipped his eyes together to get rid of the mocking impossibility, it returned.  Sometimes he lay still to stare it out of countenance, sometimes when his mind had gone back to sadder things it returned upon him with startling vividness; but all through those hours of gentle dawn it came and went, a mocking delusion, a fantastic dream, utopian for any one, but for bad Sam Broome, born in sin and shapen in iniquity, Sam Broome, who had never so much as been at a penitent-form, and never seen the inside of a class-meeting since his mother took him as a child, an utter impossibility.

    This tantalizing, undismissible idea was with him all that day, with him in the house, with him amid the solemn quiet of the little Quaker meeting-house, with him in his wanderings over Hapsby moor; and though his jaded brain sank into dreamless slumber almost as soon as he laid his head on the pillow that Sabbath night, it was the first clear thought that reached him when his mother awoke him on Monday morning.

    What this haunting vision really was will appear in the sequel.  Suffice it is to say, that Hetty Waine was the soul and centre of it, and the memory of that interview in the little Jessamine Cottage drawing-room was acting like a charm upon him, and had already become a master-force in his life.  He was far from really believing in it; he had little faith in his ability to do his part in it; but it had a marvellous attraction for him, seemed to take hold of some unguessed power in his own heart, and with little hope of being able to realize it, was already making tentative preparations for a commencement.  The ultimate end he could not believe in, but the first steps were plain and clear, and must be taken at once.

    During all the earlier parts of that Monday he was going about his ordinary duties with more than usual haste, his thoughts meanwhile making him unusually absentminded and quiet.  He instructed his mother to send supper to the office, and was soon absorbed in his first real scrutiny of the books of the firm.  For some time he went about his work deliberately, but the end of the first hour found him perturbed and petulant; little irritable exclamations broke from him, clouds gathered on his plain face.  He flung the books about as though angry with them, and commenced to search in every accessible drawer, cupboard, or shelf for that which he could not find.

    It was dusk by this time, and he lighted the gas.  His supper arrived, but he received it sullenly, answered Dora's questions with laconic brevity, but called her back to carry a message to the rest that they must go to bed and not wait for him.  The supper remained untouched, the desk became littered all over with piles of account-books, invoice files, and letter-cases; and presently he began to pace about the floor of the little office in serious agitation.  Every now and again he made a fresh plunge at the books, but returned again with increased excitement and distress.  For fully half an hour he sat and dully surveyed the crowded, tumbled desks, and at length set to work to put all things in their places and commence afresh.  His face was sickly grey by this time, and the roots of his hair grew dank.  Slowly now, and with a composure that was costing him much, he recommenced his investigations, and by laborious, roundabout methods, forced upon him by the confusion apparent everywhere, he doggedly struggled his way to the final fatal facts.  The day dawned, and he was still there, growing more wretched every moment as the truth became clear to him.  Every now and then he broke off to pace the office and mutter maledictions upon himself; and just as the workmen began to arrive he finished his labours, stuffed some closely written memoranda into his pocket, and made off home for an early breakfast.

    It had been a terrible night; the situation he now, for the first time, dimly realized was serious in the extreme, and the Sam Broome who returned to the office about ten o'clock looked older by years than he who had entered it the night before.

    He was joined a few minutes later by his partner, whose handsome face had a wary, apprehensive look on it, and whose fine eyes glanced hither and thither in furtive restlessness.

    "Morning, Sam!"

    Sam's head dropped over the plan he was studying; but he could not speak.  Frank took a peep at the correspondence, and was relieved that there was apparently nothing alarming in it.

    "Well, Sam, how's the courting going?"

    Sam winced, kept his eyes self-protectingly upon his work, and then with a mighty effort replied, "Ah, sir, that lady is not for me."

    "Oh!  Well, I did my part; I saw her twice, and did what I could."

    Some strange convulsion seemed to be shaking Sam, and Frank pitied him.

    "I—I—Mr. Frank, that lady is an angel of God."

    "Ha! ha!  Yes, they're all angels, my boy, till you get them."

    Sam's manner became so suddenly icy, that Frank realized he had somehow blundered.

    "Try her again, Sam! 'Faint heart,' you know."

    Sam was deep in his drawings again, though the other could not help noting that his lips were nipped together and his hands clenched.  Suddenly, however, he stood up, fixed his partner with a piercing look, and asked calmly, "Why don't you go in for her yourself, sir?"

    "I?—Ha! ha! what's put that into your head?"  And the latter part of the sentence was spoken with sharp suspicion.

    "There's no lady like her in all the world, Mr. Frank."

    "Tut, man!  You don't know women as I do."

    "Mr. Frank, she's as good as she is beautiful; she'd sav— She'd make a man of you, sir."

    Frank blushed to the roots of his hair; and then, with a new thought, he said, "Why should she take me when she won't take you?"

    "We're different; you've style about you, and good looks and position."

    Blandon was puzzled.  Why was his partner taking this odd course?  Was he merely pumping him?  If so, what did he know, and what was he after?  The least word might give him away, and Sam was evidently excited, and taking pains to conceal it.

    "But you're not giving her up like that, man?  Why, you're inviting me to cut you out."

    "Mr. Frank, I am out; I never ought to have thought of such a lady.  Go on and prosper."

    Several questions rose to Frank's lips, but were checked in time.  The sallow-faced fellow seemed to assume that he wanted Hetty.  How had he got that notion? and what was he up to?  Was Sam speaking with any particular knowledge of the girl's mind?

    "She's not exactly my sort, you know, Sam; I don't know that I—"

    But the other broke in upon him a little fiercely, "Yes, you do, sir; nobody could help falling in love with her."

    Mr. Frank's misgivings deepened.  He began to be afraid of this simple fellow; it was clear that he knew more than he was saying.

    "I do?  How do you know?  Did she—"

    "Mr. Frank"—and Sam, white to the lips, laid down his pencil, and began to shuffle back towards the corner which was his usual retreat when embarrassed—"Mr. Frank, I want to speak seriously to you if you will listen."

    "Well?"  And Frank laughed harshly to hide his qualms.

    "I spent all yesterday going through the books."

    Frank checked a hasty cry; but his partner's eye was fixed upon him, and he suppressed himself with a curious swallowing struggle in the throat.

    "You mustn't be angry, it's too serious; but we're in difficulties.  And there's your character, and your dear father's, and your mother's, and—and—excuse me speaking so plain, but we are in great danger, and you must settle down, sir.  You marry her, sir; she's a saint and an angel, and she'll put you right, and we shall pull through."

    Sam spoke with deep emotion, thrusting himself farther back into his corner as he did so; but there was no flinching in his eyes.

    "What on earth is the fellow―― How dare you examine the books without me!  You're forgetting yourself, sir!"

    Sam closed his eyes, but did not seem to hear.

    "Yes, sir; she's wonderful!  She'd steady you; she'd stir up all your best nature; she'd make you good and true, and—why, then we should pull through."

    "But!—but!  Why, man, she's got nothing, an odd thousand or so; but what is—"

    "No, no, sir! but she's got goodness and love—why, Mr. Frank, that lady would make a fallen angel holy."

    Frank was dumfounded.  The heroic self-sacrifice, the doglike devotion, the sublime faith in the best things that echoed in his partner's halting words, were lost upon him; he was simply wondering what crafty dodge was now on foot.  That his partner, so deeply in love with Hetty four days ago, should now be so solemnly urging her upon him was an astounding thing!  What could be the inner meaning of it?  But the fright he had got about the books was the uppermost thought, and so, returning to that, he cried, "We are not talking about her, we're talking about you prying into my concerns; I won't have it, sir!"

    "I must, sir!—I must!"  And Sam, though very humble, was clearly very determined.  "From this day forward I must know all that's going on."

    Frank's recent experiences had not left him even normal self-control, and so, though he had come to business that morning with an urgent necessity upon him for conciliating his partner, he flushed hotly and cried, "Will you, indeed?  Touch those books again, and I'll chuck you out of the concern!"

    Sam seemed to quail, his head dropped, and his body went suddenly limp; and so the bully in Frank rushed in to improve the advantage.  "You forget yourself, sir!  But for the old dad, I wouldn't have you here a day!  Don't try me, or out you go!"

    Sam was struggling with the memory of "Punch" Brice's wonderful offer, and could not for the moment reply.  What of self-consideration Frank had was now coming back to him, and he turned away to re-examine the letters and cool himself.

    An icy five minutes' silence fell upon them, during which Sam with a long sigh stole back to his desk; and the other, watching him slyly out of the corner of his eye, had time to collect his thoughts.  He was hoping that Sam would speak; but the moments went by, the noisy little American clock tore away at its work until its tick, tick, became maddening, and at last he swung round, crying:

    "Look here, man!  If you value your place in this concern, you must do something.  We are in a nasty mess; we must have money, and a lot."

    Sam shook his head mournfully.  "I've no more money, Mr. Frank."

    "But you must.  What are you here for?  Why shouldn't you stand the racket as well as I!"

    "I don't know where to get another five pounds!" and Sam's face was grey with a sickly emotion Frank took for fear.

    "Then the whole concern may go to smash!  Confound you, you'll have to do it!  Do you hear? you'll have to do it!"  And Frank, ruler in hand, was standing towering over his partner white with rage.

    Sam winced and cowered, but would not speak.  Slowly a sickly smile broke over his face, and he was turning towards his companion, when the other, misinterpreting the look, and utterly beyond himself with exasperation at his own mismanagement, management, brought the uplifted ruler crash on Sam's brow, and he fell to the floor like a log.  Next moment the infuriated man flung the ruler from him with a woeful cry, sprang out of the office, and dashed down the yard at the top of his speed.

    Before he had gone far, however, a thought more terrible than that which was speeding his feet stopped him.  Where should he go?  What should he do?  He dare not go back, he dare not face his fellows, he longed to know what his mad blow had done; but face once more the stricken and perhaps lifeless partner he could not.  He darted down a back lane towards the moor; but stopped by the memory of the fallen man, he again glanced round with a terrified look, and saw cruel spies in the silent trees and a mocking frustration of concealment in the bright summer sunlight!  He groaned and wailed, and then looked round like a hunted thing for possible onlookers; this way, that way, backwards, forwards, he stared with white, haunted face and shaking limbs, and then with a gulp of despair turned homewards, to fling his terrors on those who loved him, and leave them once more to extricate him from the difficulties he had made.


 
CHAPTER X.

A SKULK'S RETREAT


IT was a miserable-looking man that scrambled to his feet by the help of the office-stool legs; there was a great red and purple weal on his forehead, his sickly face was grey-green, his lips swollen and his eyes caverns of despair.  His head reeled about so that he had to hold up by the desk to steady himself.  Thus supported he struggled to the door, closed and locked it, and then, picking up a marble paper-weight, he leaned heavily upon the desk and pressed the cold surface of the stone to his brow.  For a few moments he struggled with qualmish sickliness, and glanced vainly round for a glass of water.  The office began to spin round him, and he had to clutch at the desk again to keep himself upright.  Then he staggered to a chair, still holding the cold marble to his forehead, but becoming each moment more conscious of the flac! flac! of his wound and the hell of passion surging in his soul.  Then, sick and reeling, he groped his way to the cupboard, took down a small bottle containing brandy which was kept on the premises for accidents, put it to his lips, tasted it with a nauseous squirm, went back to his seat, and speedily forgot his pain in his raging anger.  Then the storm broke, and for five frantic minutes he raved about the little compartment like an infuriated beast.  The stolid slowness of his ordinary manner was the result of sternest self-repression; he had deep strong passions, and knew it, and these raged for the moment with such intensity as to frighten him. Remembering even in his paroxysm how easily he might be overheard, his cries, though thick and hoarse, were smothered, "He's taken my wife, he'd take my position and my good name, he'd take my very bread, and he's felled me like a dog!  O—h!'—and dancing into the middle of the room he clutched his open hands together as though they were tightening on an enemy's throat, and hissed and snarled more like a baited beast than a human creature; but it was only for a moment.

    When the first spasm had spent itself, carefully cultivated habit began to reassert its power, he stood there in the middle of the floor, and looked round like one awaking from a nightmare, and then fell forward on the desk and buried his still rocking head in his hands.  He must have remained in that position unconscious of the flight of time and everything about him for some twelve minutes at least, and when he did move it was only to turn his head sideways and stare absently at the dingy advertisements on the wall.  He heard neither the racketty clock nor the droning saws; a softened manner had come over him, and his thoughts were evidently of tender things.

    "You did, Mr. Blandon!" he muttered, as though talking confidentially with one invisible.  "You took me from the very gutter!  You gave me my first chance.  You saved my mother's life and my sisters' and you made us what we are!"

    He paused a little, and then went on, "You did, sir!  You loved him dearly, and you meant me to help him.  Mrs. Blandon was your dear wife, and the young ladies are your daughters, and the name of the firm is your own noble name; but, O sir—"  His mutterings here became inaudible for a time; then he raised himself a little, felt at his wound, shook suddenly with returning passion, and then, drawing himself stiffly up, he went on, "What is it?  What is a bit of a knock to what you've done for me?  I must!—I must!  O God, help me!"

    Other thoughts came crowding upon him, his mutterings ceased, his head dropped again upon his open palm, and a long silence prevailed.  He winced now and then, turned first one cheek and then the other upon his spread hands, and gradually went so still that he scarcely seemed to breathe.  Thus he remained for some time, only the rapid blinking of his eyes giving any sign of consciousness; and then he whispered, "It must be!" then louder, "It must be!" then standing up suddenly he almost shouted, "It's the only way!  She can save him, and only she; his character, his future, his mother and sisters, me and mine, all depend on that.  It must be!—it must!—it must!"

    Still standing and still staring before him with rapidly blinking eyes and raised brows, labouring evidently to bring a misgiving heart to the necessary steadfastness, he was suddenly aware of footsteps in the passage, and a rattle of the lid of the letter-box.  Absently he picked up the note that came through, and though it was addressed to the firm, he had now no scruple about opening it.


"DEER SIR,
"This is to inferm you by these presents, That we Do not want Your Land in the wood Yard for Our new chappil.
                                                                  Yours in Christ,
                                                                                  "J
OSHUA SWEETLOVE."


    Sam scowlingly tried to collect his thoughts.  Having, of course, never heard of the subject before, he was at first very much mystified, and the pain in his head made connected reflection difficult.  Gradually, however, by putting this and that together, he was able to guess something of what was forward, and the fact that money thus obtained would help them in what he now realized were serious financial straits quickened his powers and brought up a little sigh of relief.  But why were the Methodists, whose position and aspirations he understood exactly, declining the best plot they could have had?  Clearly he must see the barber at once, for the money might be of some service, and—but here there were footsteps in the passage, and the sweep of skirts, and the next moment Clara Blandon burst breathlessly in upon him.

    "Sam Broome, what have you—Gracious, your head!  Why—why, you two have been fighting!"

    She was quite a tiny person, with dark hair and eyes and a keen witty-looking face.  She was the only one of the family who bore her father's features, and had always that air of neatness about her which had distinguished the late head of the firm.  She had also always shared her father's partiality for Sam, and in her girlhood had got herself into trouble by manifesting quite a kindness for the shy apprentice who came to the villa to do odd jobs.  But Mrs. Blandon had very promptly nipped the "highly improper" intimacy in the bud, and Clara had had to content herself with occasional opposition to the family sentiment when the junior partner was under discussion.  She was a very independent, self-reliant little person, and had a reputation for unconventionality which was a constant humiliation to her more sedate mother and sisters.  She and her brother had never got on very well together, her uncompromising scepticism about him being a constant cause of domestic discord.

    "No! no! Miss Clara—it's nothing.  I just—"

    "Don't fib, sir!  Come here now!" and she was round the little counter corner, and had his head between her cool hands before Sam could finish his evasion.

    "It's a blow!—be still, now!—don't tell me!  This is Frank's work.  Get me some water and white rag.  Surely you keep sticking-plaster about somewhere."

    In a moment she had the office hand-basin filled with water and the patient's head in chancery, whilst with her own little edged pocket-handkerchief she was sopping the wound and rattling on in her own most energetic fashion.

    "Two great men fighting like silly schoolboys—be still, sir!—and what about, I wonder!—did that hurt?—there now! where's the plaster?  A nice object you'll look, Sam Broome: I'm ashamed of both of you."

    "It was my fault, miss; I ought—"

    "Stuff and nonsense!  I know better!  No! no stand still!  If I don't give that wretched boy— Will you be quiet there!"

    And as she laid her hand across the wound to fix the plaster down it almost looked as though she would have kissed the ugly patch.

    "That will do!  Your head's like a drum, I know!  Now tell me all about it!"  And a little fainter than she would have admitted with her amateur surgery, she took refuge in the one arm-chair the office possessed.

    "It's nothing, miss.  You're very kind; it was my fau—"

    "Fibbing again I know you, Sam Broome, and I know our Frank; and I want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

    But Sam had no notion of talking business with his partner's sister, especially this one, and so with a wriggle and a rub at the sound side of his face, he said "Miss Clara, it's nothing! it really is—"

    "You won't tell me?  Then I'll tell you!  He's busy spooning, and neglecting the business, and things are going wrong—I know."

    The mention of Frank's love-affairs touched the great wound in Sam's heart, and thrown off his guard, he cried, "No! no! miss, that will help.  It is the best thing he could do."

    Clara laughed.  "Yes, I suppose it is.  I don't know what she sees in him, and it hasn't come off yet, you know."

    Still bemused, Sam became quite eager.  "Ah, yes! she'd put him right—she's grand!  She's a saint, she is!"

    "Is she!  She's grand enough, but as for the saint— But what do you know about her?"

    Sam's quivering heart had a fresh stab.  "Oh! I've known her a little all my life; my mother is a Methodist, you know."  But Clara was on her feet in amazement.  "A Methodist! who are you talking about?"

    Sam recovered himself, realized that he had blundered somehow, and so assuming a sudden waggishness that was pathetic under the circumstances, he shook his head and cried, "No! no! miss, I mustn't tell, you know; love-secrets, you know!"

    "But—but, why, you great goose, Ethel Mellor isn't a Methodist!"

    "Ethel Mellor?"

    "Yes! isn't that— Why—why—The fellow hasn't two girls again, has he?"

    But Sam had closed like the proverbial oyster, whilst the office began to spin round again.  Now that he recollected, he had heard his partner's name linked with that of the Hapsby vicar's niece before.  Why, that would be better from the business point of view than the other; and if it were so, the way was open to him again with Hetty Waine.  But what duplicity!  What heartless trickery it suggested on the part of Frank!

    "Go on, man!  Has he two?  Who's the other?"  And the excited little woman was at his side, her small hand on his arm, and her eyes on his in a way that made equivocation difficult.  Sam was in the deeps, and scarcely knew what to do; a word might spoil everything, and so, to avoid those bright embarrassing eyes, he turned away and shook his head.

    "Sam Broome, tell me, who's the other?" and she shook his arm imperiously.

    Another weary absent-minded shake of the head, and so the lively little lady turned from him with a pout.  "All right, I'll get to know; he's at home yonder, and thinks he's killed you.  He's carrying on like one demented.  You're not killed yet; but I'll get to know, Sam Broome!" and, finishing her disjointed tirade with a pettish flirt of her skirts, she vanished as abruptly as she had come.

    Sam's head was ringing like a beaten anvil, he could not hold his thoughts together long enough to make connexions, and twenty disjointed notions were coming and going in his brain in as many seconds.  But there was another rush of little feet and fluttering skirts.

    "Methodist!  Why, you mean Hetty Waine?"

    Sam fought hard for an empty face, but it was no use.

    "It is!  It's Hetty Waine!  Why, he wouldn't look at her—none of us would!"

    "Miss Clara, she's a—"

    "Stuff and nonsense!  Our Frank marry a Methodist!  He never thought of her!  Never! never! never!"

    Sam was having difficulty with his temper, but there came to him just in time the consciousness that Hetty was being dishonoured by such discussion, and so he answered, somewhat sullenly, "Well, Miss Mellor then; is he going to marry her?"

    Clara in her turn grew cautious, and feared she might be jeopardizing a family secret, and so she said more soberly, "No! no! only a notion of my own.  Don't breathe it to a soul, will you, Sam?'

    Sam gave the required assurance, and then said, "Miss Clara, I should like to talk to you if you have—"

    "Oh! but I haven't.  They sent me to see, and I'm wasting time; but I—I'll come again, and then—when he isn't about—but not one word of Miss Mellor!"

    "And not a word of Miss Waine!" Sam had to catch her at the door to add this; but she gave him a sagacious series of nods, and was gone.

    Left alone, Sam had to betake himself to the arm-chair and wait some moments before he could realize the new situation.  Frank was flirting with two girls, but the feelings aroused on those lines were so fierce that he had to cram them back and turn to safer aspects of the case.  Miss Mellor was rather out of his reach, and the thought that his partner aspired to her took his breath away.  He set as high a value, however, on Frank's looks and style as the Blandon ladies did, and the thing did not seem impossible.  Now he began to see things differently.  This was why Frank had been so careless about the business, and why he had let them run behind in their payments.  His mind was upon other things, and of course if he did marry the heiress the business would be a minor matter to him.  The weight on his heart seemed to lift as he reflected.  Why, perhaps as usual he had been too anxious, perhaps his stupid way of taking everything seriously had misled him, and he had been too hard and obstinate with his partner.  But the heaviness came back as he thought of Hetty; he had only her young brother's word, and—yes, there was Frank's own half-admission.  Frank had notoriously light ideas with regard to women; like enough he had gone to fulfil his bargain with him, and been carried away by Hetty's beauty.  He could very well understand a thing like that.

    Besides, he had felt all along as though he were betraying Hetty in wishing her such a husband, and this danger would now be avoided.  He always had been guilty of meeting trouble unnecessarily, and this was doubtless a case in point.  Perhaps if Frank married the heiress he would sooner or later want to retire from the business, or else wind it up; and if that could be brought about at once, it might open the way to his acceptance of "Punch" Brice's tempting offer.  Perhaps if he became sole proprietor of the business, or went to the larger concern, Hetty might—But here he pulled himself up with a withered smile and a doggèd shake of the head.  Hetty Waine—fool that he was to think of her at all—was miles and miles above him, whatever he might become.  But at this point two workmen came in for instructions, and both stared curiously at his plastered brow and went away again, whispering earnestly to each other.  Then the second, or noon, post arrived, bringing only a solitary letter.  This, when opened, contained a long statement of overdue accounts, and a curt demand for payment that brought back all his trouble.  He would go to dinner before the regular time, and thus escape the eyes of his employees.  An ugly bruise would be more easily explained to a mother, who had bound up many a one for him, than to workmen, who knew that he had never been out of the office.

    He pulled his hat over his eyes as far as he could, and was just closing the office door when Clara Blandon returned with a breathless message that he must go to the villa at once to see his partner, who was raving like a lunatic.  "Don't walk so fast, I'm out of breath!" commanded Clara, as they turned out of the woodyard.

    "Is the young master very bad?" asked Sam anxiously, as he dropped into an easier step.

    "Don't know!  Bad or mad—or both," was the testy reply.

    "Things are rather worrying just now," ventured Sam, in contrite apology, both for himself and his partner.

    "And so you worry other people!  That's just like men—boobies!"

    "I'm sorry if I've upset—"

    "Oh! hush, it's my belief you're screening him, Sam Broome.  He doesn't spare you, I can tell you," and the little lady looked very indignant.  "Look here!" she continued, almost stopping in the road as a new thought struck her.  "You tell them I patched that wound, and I'll never speak to you again, Sam Broome."

    It was clear by this time that the little creature was very perturbed about something, and Sam, with a little pang of sympathy, hastened to say, "Never mind, miss, we shall pull through."

    "He will!  Oh! yes, his sort always do but how about you—and us?"

    But they had arrived at the villa, and Clara, as he opened the gate to her, puckered her whole face in a series of cautionary frowns, evidently intended to put him on his guard.  Somehow Sam began to feel that in spite of her manner she was not entirely unfriendly to him.  The maid who opened the door was taking him straight to Mr. Frank's room; but Mrs. Blandon's gaunt figure appeared in the lobby, and, pointing to the drawing-room, followed him, carefully closing the door after her as she did so.

    "Broome," she said, in her haughtiest manner, "this is a scandalous affair, and may be very serious for you."

    "Oh! ma'am, I'm so sorry."

    "Yes; but you should have been sorry sooner.  We've borne with you much and long, but a thing like this we cannot pass.  How did it happen?"

    She had glanced sharply at his patched forehead upon entering, but was not now inquiring about that, and Sam was in great straits how to speak. "Oh! ma'am, it was my fault, I—"

    "You forgot yourself; you let your low blood get the mastery of you, as I always said it would to my late husband.  Well, sir, you have the pleasure of having thrown your young master into a serious illness.  Does that satisfy you?"

    "Oh! ma'am, I'm sure I—I—"

    "You have also the pleasure of sending yourself back to the bench again, that I will see to.  A worm will turn, and we've put up with you much too long."

    Sam stood like a guilty convict, with puzzled indignation fighting fiercely with his ingrained reverence for his old master's lady.

    "Now, look you here, sir!  My son insists on seeing you."

    "Yes, ma'am."

    "The noble-hearted boy"—here her voice broke—"has much more forbearance than I should have; but, mind you! not a word of business! not a syllable to excite or worry him.  Make your peace with him if you can, but remember, I have a place in the business yet, and shall have something to say about this."

    Mrs. Blandon had really waylaid Sam for the purpose of ascertaining the real cause of the quarrel, for Frank's wild ravings had awakened all sorts of terrible fears; but the sight of the transgressor had so stirred her resentment that she had forgotten her original intention.  When Sam, conducted with a series of mysterious nods, hushing frowns, and uplifted hands, entered the sick-room, he found the patient lying full length on the sofa with wet cloths on his brow, a decanter of brandy and bottles of sal volatile and eau-de-Cologne on the table at his elbow.  At the other end of the sofa sat Miss Catherine, who glared at the newcomer with blighting coldness; whilst the other sister hovered round the sufferer's head, and was half-hysterically fumbling with the wet cloths.  The patient looked ill enough, glanced for an instant at his own work on Sam's forehead, and then closed his eyes as though so small an effort was too much for his exhausted condition.  Utter misery fell on poor Sam as he glanced round on the scene, and he felt the guiltiest mortal on earth, and stammered out a sentence or two, half sympathy, half penitence.

    Frank languidly waved his hand for the dismissal of his women-folk.  There was hasty re-adjustment of his head-cloths, whispered exhortations to this and that precaution, a loving kiss or two, and the three women trooped out, the elder lady shaking her head at Sam to bid him remember his instructions.

    "Oh! Mister Frank, I'm dreadfully—I'm cut to the heart that—"

    "Oh! never mind that."  This was spoken in a sort of querulous snarl.  "Sam, I'm floored!  I've overdone it.  I'm to go away, they say, and have rest."

    "Yes, Sir!" cried Sam eagerly, and smitten with fresh shame that he should have goaded a sick man like this. "I didn't know, sir; I was that bothered—"

    "Yes, yes, I excuse you, Sam, but—but I shall want some ready money, you know.'

    "Y-e-es—yes, sir! of course, sir!" and the junior partner was ashamed at his stupid hesitation in answering.

    "And, Sam, do you really want me to go in for Waine's girl?"

    "Y-e-e-s."  If ever yes meant no in this world, Sam's did.

    Frank was too ill to notice the sign, and went on with his own ideas.  "Well, look here!"—and he sat up with amazing sprightliness for so sad an invalid—"those Methodists want a bit of land in our yard.  Well, go and see old Waine and Sweetlove, pretend that there's a chance for them, get thick with them, and pile it on about—about me."

    "Y-e-s."  A very glum expressionless sort of assent this.

    "I've helped you, and you must help me you know, especially if she's about."

    "Yes."

    "You've been a Methodist, haven't you?  You'll know where to touch the old jokers."  And the sick man was almost jocular.

    There was not even the monosyllabic "yes" this time, but Frank was too absorbed in his plots to notice.

    "How much would you ask for it, sir?"

    "Ask?  Oh! couple of hundred.  But you're not to sell it, man; it's really not our—it's mo—"  But here he checked himself, and then resumed, "Egg them on; crack me up; and meanwhile I'll be helping myself."

    Sam had been gradually filling with feelings of utter loathing of the man he was looking at, and who was supposed to be so ill, but with a mighty effort he choked back his anger and forced out another meaningless "Y-e-e-s."

    "Well, that will do; pile it on thick with the old Hoskins, and—er—Sam, mother's fearfully rampagious about this—er—you know; but you square the old buffers, and I'll square her."

    There was a knock at the door.  Mrs. Blandon came in to insist that the interview had already lasted too long, and Frank, the exhausted invalid, once more fell back on his couch, whilst Sam was conducted to the door.  The gauntlet he would have to run at home about his bruised head kept his thoughts occupied for some time; but, that over, he made a hasty meal, and hastened back to the office to face the new situation and decide upon his course.  That proved an eventful afternoon.  There were the day's letters to be attended to, and two small accounts to deal with; there was the money to find for Frank's holiday, and several worrying matters in the shop; and, when he did get time to himself, "Punch" Brice's offer came back, appealing to him in his utter sickness of heart as it had never done before.  The Blandons would never understand, never believe anything but that they had been foolishly indulgent to him; his recent insight into his partner's real character made him despair of any attempt to make things better under the present arrangement, and the sense, sudden and sharp, that it would be criminal to facilitate in any way the scheme for securing Hetty for Frank, drove deep into his soul and brought him to a complete standstill.



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