The Partners - IV.
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CHAPTER XI.

SUNDRY NEGOTIATIONS


WE left Sam Broome labouring in his little office with the confused tangle of his circumstances, and wading deep in a morass of difficulties that threatened every moment to engulf him.  Whichever way he turned his course seemed dangerous, and a sense that he was proposing the impossible to himself grew strong within him.  His great plan of saving the business, the Blandons, and Frank himself looked more and more quixotic as he considered it, and he began to fear that the attempt he was making might only exaggerate the mischief and precipitate the ultimate crisis.  If he could! —if he could!  But the idea, which had become alluring in proportion as it grew difficult, seemed now to fill his mind and lay a grip upon his imagination which was fast becoming an infatuation.  And in that hour of his dire extremity Sam prayed—prayed as his mother had taught him in days that were gone, prayed like a baffled, stranded soul that has been beaten out of every other hope.

    "Are you him?"

    Absorbed in his troubles, he stood at his desk with his chin propped on his hands and his eyes staring through the window, and had neither seen nor heard anything until the question just quoted brought him back to realities, and he turned round with a start to behold a tall, handsome woman about his own age, and dressed in well-made widow's weeds, who was eyeing him with studious, calculating curiosity, as though she were buying some coveted article of dress and begrudged the high price.

    "Yes, it's me!  I'm Smailes's widow, and I've come to have a look at you."

    Sam, with a clumsy imitation of his partner's grand manner, hastened to offer her a seat, and to inquire what he could do for her.

    Her eyes and hair were black, and she had that clean-skinned, highly coloured complexion which denotes the country-bred woman.  Her appearance did not suggest that the decease of the late lamented Smailes had exactly broken her heart or seriously affected her health, whilst her manner was an odd mixture of rustic shyness and good-humoured naïveté.

    "Yes, I may as well; warm, isn't it?"  And she took the chair, and commenced wiping her face with a handkerchief edged with broadest black, whilst her eyes followed Sam's movements with a curious, roguish slyness.  On the whole, she must have seen something encouraging in the young builder's looks and manner, for, peeping over the edge of her handkerchief, she remarked, "Well, you aren't exactly—but, there! what does it matter! the heart's the thing, isn't it?"

    Sam looked ridiculously embarrassed.  Whatever did she want?

    "They said the office was easy to find, so I thought I'd have a look at you."

    Sam bobbed a clumsy acknowledgement, and must have looked curious, for the black eyes twinkled behind the black-edged cambric, and she went on, "Plain an' steady, that's my motty.  I think I shall like you, mister."

    Sam bobbed again, and immediately felt disgusted with himself.  The situation was fast becoming ridiculous.

    "You are Mrs. Smailes, I suppose?"  And then he checked himself—he had heard her say that already.

    "I am, mister.  He was oldish, you know, and queer; but I put up with him, and did my duty by him.  Hay dear!"  And the dancing black eyes were buried again in the black border.

    Sam waited with sympathetic delicacy for a few moments, and then, as he caught the glint from her eyes, once more he ventured:

    "I think, ma'am, there is a mistake."

    "What about?  Aren't you him?  Are you the other one—Blandon?  That old Punch said I wasn't to—"

    "No, no, ma'am!  I'm Broome, Sam Broome, but I'm afraid—"

    "Oh! don't be frightened.  You'll do; you will, certain.  I like you real well, now I've seed you."

    What could he do but bob again, and hate himself immediately?  This must be ended.

    "Yes, ma'am, but I'm afraid—"

    "Of me?  Oh laws!  Why, there's nothin' to be afraid of in me!"  And as she sat up there and held herself stiffly, as though challenging inspection, even the pre-occupied Sam had to admit to himself that she was a bonny woman, whose weeds became her exceedingly.

    Whether it was that his look betrayed his thought, or that some other idea struck her, we cannot pretend to say, but next moment she had left her chair, was standing at his side with her neatly gloved hand laid confidingly on his arm, and all the power of her eyes pouring into his, as she said, in a deeply confidential tone, "Old 'Punch' doesn't know I've come; I just took the notion of it, and came right away.  Why, man"—and here her fingers clasped his arm, and her voice fell again—"it's a lot better nor he thinks.  I know, and you just trust to me."  Then she held herself off for a moment to watch the effect, and added, "I like you—plain and honest, I like you real well."

    But Sam, under his homely exterior, had shyly delicate sensibilities, and these, shocked by her freedom, came to his rescue.

    "Madam, this is Tuesday, and I have until Friday to consider this matter.  When Friday comes I—"

    "Oh! of course."  And she went demurely back to her chair, and commenced to use her handkerchief again.  "You'll excuse me, mister, I'm not myself, you know—all this trouble, and the worry— Oh, mister! if you knew how I am worried!"

    Soft-hearted Sam was now abusing himself for lack of feeling; but before he could find words she went on, "I'm being robbed every day before my very eyes.  I must have somebody, and 'Punch' says you re—"

    "Yes, yes, madam; but—"

    "Oh, you must!—you must!  I'm a poor, lonely widow.  They are all against me, and robbing me fearful."

    This was an appeal to both his pity and his business instincts, and Sam was visibly shaken.

    "You've a mother yourself, they say, and sisters; and if you were to die of a sudden, how—and 'Punch' says you're trusty and good.  Oh, what shall I do?"

    Brice's opinion of him was very sweet to Sam just then, when all the world seemed against him; he was fully alive also to the peril that might overtake his dear ones if any accident occurred to him.

    "Yes, ma'am—yes!  I'm very sorry for you, and will help you if I can; but there are so many things to consider, and other responsibilities, you know."

    But Mrs. Smailes had another idea, and burst out impetuously, "Come and see me, and see the concern.  Come to-morrow.  Oh! if you only knew, you would come.  Don't be hard-hearted!"

    Sam only partially heard her; he was reflecting that this might be a divine interposition, and that this woman had been sent to open the way for him out of his many perplexities.  The idea of helping one in such need was very tempting too; but he knew that there were serious considerations on the other side, and so with a tentative promise to do what he could, he got rid of his visitor, whose last words were a blend of artful coaxing and pathetic lamentation.

    Alone once more, he was ashamed of his early suspicion of the woman who had left him, and so the pity which had been awakened by her later words had full scope, and made a very strong appeal to him.  But as soon as he turned again to his own difficulties and the issues involved he realized that he was sinking deeper into the bog, whose bottom he imagined he had already touched.  All the rest of that day, and most of a sleepless night, he strove with himself and his circumstances until the pressure of time and the absolute necessity of immediate action added their drops to his bitter cup, and threatened to drive him beyond the power of connected thought.

    With a benumbed brain and utterly jaded nerves he went to work on the Wednesday morning to get together the ready money his partner required for his holiday.  On the previous day he had obtained some slight clues to the secret of their embarrassments, and realized that Frank had been, and was, perhaps, still, speculating on the Stock Exchange; but how to discover the extent of those transactions, and the liability to which they were committed, he saw not.

    When he took the money to the villa, Mrs. Blandon treated him to another sample of her gifts of obloquy, and peremptorily refused to allow him to see her son.  Sam was within an ace of throwing everything up, but some odd, lingering thought of loyalty to Hetty Waine held him, and he went back to his desperate endeavour.  An hour later he received a note from the bank, informing him that the firm's cheques would no longer be honoured; and just as he was locking the office door to go to dinner, a dingy, half-clerical-looking person served an execution upon him for an amount which would ordinarily have appeared trifling, but which now seemed the proverbial last straw.

    Meanwhile tame, sleepy old Grindell was buzzing with an extraordinary sensation; the old honoured firm of Blandon & Co. was tottering to its fall, and all through the incompetence and stupidity of the present junior partner.  Frank Blandon was utterly crushed, and his mind had almost given way.  Mrs. Blandon had quarrelled with the old family doctor, and called in a physician who served the local aristocracy, and that great light had diagnosed "extreme nervous exhaustion" with serious possibilities of brain trouble.  He prescribed entire removal from ordinary scenes of life, complete rest, and abstinence even from newspapers and letters.  The barber heard of it quite early, and one of the first things he did was to post off to the cottage of the Broomes.  Mrs. Broome sat peeling potatoes, and at sight of her all the barber's hasty resolutions vanished.

    "Hello!"

    "Hello!"

    The barber glared down at her as though her quiet manner was some monstrous offence, but he did not speak.  Mrs. Broome was used to him, and looking up with a placid half-smile she pointed to a chair.  Her calmness destroyed the little rag of self-control that was left; why didn't she give him the proper opening for the delivery of his staggering news?

    "Well, woman?"

    "Well?"—and she was actually laughing at him.

    "Where's your Sam?"

    "He's at the works"; but the potato-basket fell on the rug, and a woman with a white face continued, "He's not hurt, nor killed?"

    "Killed!  He's worse nor killed—he's disgraced!"

    The drawn face relaxed, a soft smile that would have inspired the crushed and despairing Sam, had he seen it, played about the pensive mouth, and a steady, almost triumphant voice replied:

    "I know our Sam, Jossy."

    "Know? dost know he's a swindler, a stupid block-head that's ruined a grand business?"

    Surprise and resentment flushed into the dim eyes.

    "Who says so?"

    "Who says so?  Bill Spinton says so, the town says so, all Grindell says so.  Woman, it'ull be in t' County Times o' Saturday!"

    The quiet old creature was getting excited at last, for she put her hand upon her heart, and seemed to have difficulty in breathing.

    "Don't frighten me, Jossy—but there there! what is it all about?"

    Jossy, a little scared by the signs, resolved inwardly that at all costs he would be calm, so he took the chair he had previously neglected, drew it up close to the old lady's side, and putting on a look of scowling gravity burst out, "Blandons' is busted, your Sam's blamed for it, and t'other chap is gain' off his nut!"

    There was a pause; the silvered head bent forward, the wrinkled chin fell on the hard breast, and the shaking hands pressed heavily on the heart.  But it was only for a moment; instantly the face, firm and set, though ghastly pale, looked up again, a soft, quiet light blushed into the old eyes, and the trembling lips murmured, "I know our Sammy, Joshua."

    Jossy sat gazing at her for a moment, fire and tears struggling together in his blinking eyes, and then he cried, "Dost know as he's a thick-head, a muddler, and bungles everything?"

    "No, I don't."

    "Dost know as he's feathered his own nest out o' th' business ever sin' old Blandon died?"

    "No, I don't."

    Then Joshua arose in the majesty of long-restrained indignation, and standing over her as though she were the embodiment of all her son's badness, he shouted, "No, nor I don't nayther!  Niver! niver! niver!"  And then, breaking off and shaking his fist at her, he went on: "Sithi, woman! if thou'd a-weakened on it, if thou'd a-budged one solitary little inch, I'd a-bashed thy white cap in—that's wot I'd a-done!"

    Mrs. Broome received these terrible announcements with quiet indifference, for her thoughts were on other things, and by-and-by Jossy had to explain and submit to searching cross-examination.  Long before she was satisfied, however, he began to be restive; he was longing for his next great sensation of announcing the news at Jessamine Cottage.  He broke away at last, though she seemed very loth to be left with such scanty details, and her look as they parted was very wistful.  He flung behind him hasty promises to return, and had got half-way down the garden path, when he came skipping back, and stood over her again with all his old fierceness.

    "As soon as I'm gone thou'll start o' cryin'?" he cried, with stern suspicion.

    "I winnat, Jossy!—I winnat!" and she struggled to straighten her face, like a schoolgirl forbidden the luxury of tears.

    "Then thou'll howd thy head down, and stop i' th' house and mopse?"

    "I winnat!—truly, I winnat!"

    "Then thou'll let thi heart down an' give up prayin'?"

    "Nay, niver, niver, Jossy!"

    "G-l-o-r-y!" shouted the excited barber, much more demonstrative than he felt, but with a roughly kind purpose of comforting his old friend.  "Then wee'st win!—if thou pulls, and he pulls, an' we all pulls, wee'st win!"  And the last words were flung upon the quiet air of the garden, for Jossy's coat-tails were already round the house corner, as their wearer flew towards Jessamine Cottage.

    A few minutes later he stood in the Waines' big kitchen, secretly gloating over the sensation he had produced.

    Peter was shaking his head, and inclined to moralize on young men who left their mother's church.  Jossy watched him much as a terrier watches at a rabbit-hole.  Then he spread out one great palm, extended two fingers on the other hand, with which he intended to beat out the points of his argument, and commenced.

    "Now look you here, mister"—Jossy only said "mister" to Peter when he was angry with him—"Has thou known that there lad all his life?"

    Peter, staring broodingly at his friend, gave his head a little side jerk, as though adjusting an unmanageable collar, and waited for the next.

    "Has thou iver known anythin' again him —by, with, or through?"

    Another side jerk of the head, and Peter's eyes began to twinkle with new thoughts.

    "Has that lad been a husban' to his mother and a father to them lasses iver sin' he were a kiddy?"  And as he beat out each word with his two fingers, Peter followed his action, and greeted each stroke with a separate side-twist of the head, each more decisive than the last.  "Did he come to t' Sunday school wi' patched-up clothes an' brussen-out shoes, to let his sisters hev new frocks many a time?"

    Peter's head had now stopped its twistings, and he was staring hard at the barber with glistening eyes.

    "Did he royle and moyle at nights, an' larn hisself to read an' reason as good—as good as me myself?"

    This lofty flight of comparison, which may strike the reader as something in the nature of an anti-climax, seemed to impress Peter more than anything that had hitherto been advanced.  He began to shake his head in slow, solemn wags of intense conviction, eagerly watching the barber's lips as he waited for the climax.  Joshua was so fully enjoying the conquering sweep of his own resistless logic that he went more leisurely to his grand finale.  The open palm was thrust out as far as it could reach, the argumentative fingers were raised above his head, he swung backwards a little, and then, rising on tip-toe, he came down with a series of tremendous whacks on his open hand, and demanded, "Did—that there—lad—promise—t' biggest—subscription nobbut—us, to—t' new—chappil? an'—is he—payin'—it to—this—vary—day?"

    This last demand made such an impression on the susceptible ex-grocer that his eyes were gleaming with ready tears, and his big, plain face beamed with shy delight.

    Hitherto the men had had the argument to themselves, but there was a lady present who did not usually allow herself to be ignored.  In a discussion like this she was no longer a mere domestic, but one of the responsible heads of the Grindell Methodist Church.  She had listened to Jossy with looks of reluctant sufferance which gradually grew to contemptuous disdain, and so, turning to her master as though the barber was no longer present, she remarked: "Let alone bombaciousniss" (Jemima was not averse to the coining of a word upon sufficient provocation), "that there lad is t' quietist, hardworkinest, straightforradist lad in this town."

    As she paused to give her words due effect, and prepare her next statement, Peter gave his head another series of side-twists, watching her narrowly as he did so.

    "While them there Blandons has been blabbin' about and runnin' him down to iverybody, he's been keepin' a roof over their heads."

    Peter was forgetting his neck-jerking, but gave his shoulders a great shrug, and his eyebrows were distended in sheer amazement.

    "He's niver taken nothin' out of t' business sin' he went into it—nobbut his bits o' wages; an' he thinks there's nobody like 'em in this world.'

    The irrepressible barber here broke out in exclamations, and seemed about to intervene; but Jemima turned upon him a disdainful shoulder, and, ignoring him as ignoring really as though he had not been present, she continued, "That there lad hez one ter'ble fault."

    "Wot's that?—wot's that?" snapped the barber, and Peter looked what he was—clearly too astonished to speak.

    "He's that soft about old Blandon—as knew what he was doin' when he picked him out for a pardner--that he'd lie down an' let 'em walk over him."  And then, as she surveyed the effect of her words upon her hearers, she tossed her head contemptuously, with a sly glance at her master, and cried, "That's his Quakerism, I reason.  I'd Quaker him if I had him here!  I'd larn him a bit of good owd original sin!"

    Jossy held the private opinion that Jemima might some day have to be expelled for heterodoxy, the theological views she expressed being often of a scandalous and revolutionary character; and so, to protect her from herself and get her away from such dangerous ground, he gave the discussion a sharp turn.

    "But, woman, t' bums [bailiffs] is in!"

    Jemima blanched, her armour of easy contempt was pierced at last, and young Wess came bounding into the room all white and breathless, and with news that even the restraining presence of his father could not check.  "Why, Jim, Blandons' have the bailiffs in!"

    There they all stood, looking at the panting Wesley, and glancing shyly at each other, as though the lad had blurted out some shameful secret; and then, as old Peter turned to his son, with a soft and belated "Hush!" Jemima's hands went up hurriedly to her face, a smothered burst of tears escaped her, and she broke out, "Oh, Betsy!—poor Betsy Broome!" and rushed into the pantry, banging the door after her.

    But that night, when the rest had all retired, she, the barber, and Peter sat there in long and anxious confabulation; and when at last they separated, Joshua Sweetlove went home to a long and careful examination of his savings bank pass-book.  "Souls is more nor sites," he kept repeating to himself—"Souls is more nor sites."


 
CHAPTER XII.

THE CRISIS


THE last persons to hear important news are usually those most concerned, and so it was Thursday morning before Hetty was informed of what had happened, or was about to happen, to Blandon & Co.  She had noted odd things which, when she did realize the situation, explained themselves, but at the time her preoccupied mind had scarcely taken them in.  Her father had spent most of Wednesday afternoon in long, solemn confabulations with the barber in the summer-house, and whenever she had come across either of them they seemed to be studying her with curious, mournful interest.

    Jemima, most perplexing circumstance of all, had taken to treating her with marked gentleness, as though silently offering sympathy.  But the news, when it did come, reached her from the most improbable of all sources—Frank Blandon himself.  That prostrated victim of extreme nervous debility had somehow found strength to write her a letter; and when, after Thursday's breakfast, she took it away to her room to read, ambiguous and perplexing though it was, it produced a revulsion of feeling in favour of the writer which surprised even the recipient herself.

    The writer commenced with an ominous exhortation to her not to take too seriously the information he was about to disclose, as signs of distress in her would only add to the burden of his misery.  It then informed her of his sudden collapse, the serious view taken of it by Dr. Blenkinsop, and the imperative command that compelled him to betake himself to the seaside.  Reference was then made to rumours she had doubtless heard of the financial embarrassments of his firm, and she was reminded that though it was necessary that his mother, sisters, and friends should be allowed to believe that these were the causes of his collapse—and he had suffered enough, God knew! from other people's folly—she, and she alone, knew the true reason.  Then came a long, vague paragraph in which she was exhorted not to distress herself, as both she and the world would soon be relieved of his presence, and might then be willing to give him now and then a kindly thought.  The letter concluded with a wandering, maudlin farewell which filled a whole page, and was a curious mixture of fulsome flattery and artfully implied reproach.  The first rapid reading produced dazed bewilderment; the second, taken more slowly, resulted in such a rush of contending emotions that she dropped with a gasp into the nearest seat, and sitting bolt upright stared at the epistle with wide-eyed dismay.

    For the first few minutes she could not think at all, but panted and rocked herself in a vain endeavour at self-command.  Then ideas came thick and fast—suspicion, resentment, indignation, and finally one great sweeping wave of pity obliterating every previous emotion, filling every nerve of her body and gushing out at her eyes in showers of compassionate tears.  Frank Blandon had played his last card—and won.  Had he been there at that moment he would have found his hitherto difficult task easy enough; for the next half-hour she was the victim of passionate, shame-stricken self-reproaches, and equally passionate longings to make reparation.  Old maid Methodism was the hatefulest of all things, and the "hard, narrow" creed of her father's Church cynical cruelty; she herself a selfish, prejudiced little wretch; whilst Frank's handsome face and figure, his gay, alluring smile, and his immense popularity, standing out as they now did from a horrid background of undeserved calamity and perilous sickness, made a pathetically fascinating picture that thrilled every nerve of her body.

    She was well aware that this was but one aspect of the situation, and that the colder, safer one would have to have its say; but this was only the greater reason why it should have full fling and riot within her, after its own painfully pleasurable nature.  More than once she rose to her feet with a wild impulse to see him before he left the town; but the spell of her delicious dream was too strong, and she easily lapsed into sensuous self-abandonment again.  Presently she dried her still-flowing tears and took up the letter again.  She hated gossip so much, and knew Grindell so well, that she had not regarded the vague rumours she had heard about Frank's difficulties with his discreditable partner; but now her heart burned hotly against Sam Broome, and she felt that she had been most mistakenly considerate to him.  She realized that the purchase of the land for the chapel site might have been a providential arrangement to help Frank in his perplexities, and that she had thoughtlessly frustrated it.  These were, however, but passing impressions, wiped out again soon enough by the sweet thought that Grindell's handsomest man was seriously sick of love for her.  Oh, the delicious flattery of such a thought!

    She had thrown herself on the couch under the window by this time, but soon discovered that the movement was the commencement of a new phase, a phase of imperious constraint to action.  Her heart was still in her dreams, but her brain would no longer consent to be hypnotized, and twenty startling questions began to clamour for attention.  It never occurred to her to doubt any of the facts as hinted at in Frank's communication, and as she went over it for the fourth time she could not find a single sentence to which she could take exception; and yet—and yet—reluctant though she was to admit it—the tone of some parts of it jarred upon her, and the impression somehow grew unpleasant.  A man in his state of body and mind could not be expected to choose his words very discreetly, and yet—yes, it was unreal, cheap, even cowardly—only she could not decide exactly where.  Then she reproached herself for thinking such mean thoughts, whilst her lover was in peril perhaps of his life—almost beyond himself with mental distress.  Sweet, tender pictures of what she, she could do, and the transformation she could make, not merely for Frank, but for so many others, floated about in her brain, and she awoke suddenly, to find a silly simper on her face and pitiful tears in her eyes.

    But at this moment she was interrupted, for Jemima, duster in hand, came into the room in pursuit of her daily duty, but with a significantly wooden face and alert, wary eyes.

    "You've heard about young Blandon, I reacon," she commenced; and Hetty's disappointment at the intrusion gave way to the desire for further information, and so in a few minutes the two were engaged in earnest conversation, both evidently more intent upon acquiring than giving information.

    The talk took up time; and when Jemima, somewhat disappointed, at length took her departure, Hetty found herself cool and critical, with old maid Methodism in full command.  Left thus to herself, however, she took another glance at the note, and soon found her own frank, warm nature reasserting itself.  These emotions quickly grew again to glowing, proud delight that she was loved, really passionately loved; and by the one man whose preference was most flattering to her.  And thus the old conflict between the two parts of her nature was resumed, and for long hours, in spite of sudden intermittent reminders of the pressing necessity for action, she paced about the room, trembling one moment with pity that was fast growing to some deeper feeling, and gazing the next at the letter with puckered brow and timorous, mistrustful eyes.

    And all this time Sam Broome was fighting his terrible battle in the wood-yard office.  He had found the money for Frank's holiday by emptying his mother's and his sister's money-boxes, pawning at Brixford the gold watch and chain old Mr. Blandon had given him on his death-bed, and appealing to two tradesmen for advances upon work not yet finished, and by these means he had managed to get rid also of the man in possession.  But the mischief was done, and the rumours of the firm's position had spread so rapidly in the town and neighbourhood, that everybody suddenly realized their need of immediate cash; and bill after bill came in to the distracted junior partner, until the very number of them made him heartsick, and black despair settled grimly on his soul.

    All he could do now was to cease searching his brain for the means to pay, and settle down to a blind sort of waiting for the coming crash.  It was hopeless, it was madness to go on trying; very well then, he would try to be found at his post and go down with the rest when the blow fell.  Nothing affected him now: three telegrams, cryptically worded but terribly eloquent to him, came just before closing time, and he left them lying there for any workmen or customer to read, and even a couple of curtly worded notes, informing him that the writers had been compelled to hand their accounts to Brice & Co. for instant collection, evoked no sign of interest, except that they diverted his thoughts for a moment or two to the offer made by "Punch," and Sam smiled bitterly as he reflected how easily he could get clear of every embarrassment by a word, and by leaving the Blandons to fight things out for themselves.

    As he locked the safe and desk before departing for the day, he was awakened from his lethargy by another visit from Clara Blandon.  She closed and seemed almost inclined to lock the door after her, stepped up to him without a word, took his head between her hot little hands, and critically examined the wounded brow; then she pulled forward the arm-chair, set it coolly before him, sat down in it, restlessly swinging one small foot, and commenced a series of cool, keen, evidently carefully premeditated questions, which startled Sam by their point and the knowledge they displayed.

    The interview was a long one, and neither wariness nor sulky obstinacy availed him; bit by bit she drew her facts out of him, and then vanished even more suddenly than she had come.  On her way home, however, she was muttering to herself, and shaking her little head in most evident excitement.  "It'll come to that," she cried; "there's nothing else for it—if it isn't too late!  Yes, one of us will have to marry that fellow: yes, I suppose it will—it always is me, it always is!"  But to do the energetic little lady justice, it has to be recorded that she did not seem wholly inconsolable at the prospect.

    On the whole, her visit seemed to have an awakening effect on the almost stupefied Sam; the discovery that one person at any rate saw things as they were eased his stunned and despairing mind, and the thoughts suggested to him awakened one last desire to overcome the difficulty and save the concern, the Blandon family, and himself from ruin.  He spent a sleepless night, therefore, searching for expedients, and the first thing he remembered next morning was that this was the day upon which he was to give his final answer to Brice.

    What an eternity it seemed since the making of that appointment!  It appeared incredible that only five days had passed!  His mother, always attentive to his wants, was watchfully studying his manner, and buzzed about him with an inward excitement she tried vainly to conceal; and when he was leaving the cottage, she stepped before him in the doorway, caught him by the arm, peered into his face until he was compelled to look at her, and then, as wistful tears started into her anxious eyes, she put her thin arms round his neck, and whispered, "Fear not, Abram; I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward."

    Sam gulped and groaned in sudden relief; but the light that shone through his hot tears was still in his eyes when he entered the office.  His heart sickened, however, when he saw the pile of letters waiting for him, and with a sudden cowardliness he thrust them aside unopened until he came upon one in Frank's handwriting and bearing the Lydmouth postmark.  It announced their arrival at the watering-place, the necessity of more money as soon as Sam could raise it, and his mother's consent for the sale of the land to the Methodists as quickly as possible.  The epistle was well written, but curt and formal, and contained not the slightest reference to the writer's state of health.  It was clear, however, that Mrs. Blandon was the real owner of the land in question, and that the money was required by her, and would not be available for the needs of the firm.  Only now did poor Sam realize what a large place at the bottom of his hopes this little bit of land had recently filled, and all his new courage seemed to ooze away, the black misery of the day before was once more settling down upon him, and he leaned heavily on the desk with a choking sob, mute and motionless in utter discomfiture.

    Presently he remembered his interview with the accountant, and the happy escape it offered from all these crushing cares suddenly shone before him the more bright and alluring from the conviction now growing to certainty that Blandon & Co. were irretrievably doomed, and that anything he could do would but precipitate the inevitable collapse.  The old lethargy was now heavy upon him, and when the violent little timekeeper gave warning of the hour appointed, he buttoned up his jacket and allowed his legs to carry him mechanically to the accountant's office.

    The interview lasted a full hour, and was terribly trying to the overwrought young builder.  "Punch," who assumed that he had come with an eager assent, was first jocular, then elaborately explanatory, then amazed, then furious; and Sam finally left, the stormy, wilful little man flinging curse-studded threats after him, the significance of which he understood only too well.

    "Punch" Brice was as wilful as he was generous, and would crush what he could not control.

    "Fear not, Abram; I am thy shield."  And as the words beat themselves out in his brain, Sam burst into a terrible, hysterical laugh as he went along the street, and had to put his hand to his mouth to keep back curses more bitter than Brice's own.

    He was too deep in internal anguish to notice that the office-door stood open as he approached, and he had already passed heedlessly two timber merchants' travellers who stood in the yard; but entering the place which had now become a sort of torture-chamber, he discovered Clara Blandon dressed more daintily even than usual, and seated in the arm-chair evidently waiting for him.  That active-minded young person had been thinking to some purpose during the night; self-preservation is the first law of nature, and what she had wrung out of Sam the night before, and what she knew herself, revealed a terrible state of things which she was the wrong person to accept without resistance.

    "Sam!  Sam!"—and she resumed the previous night's conversation, as though it had never been interrupted, almost before he could close the door—"you haven't told me everything—it is not so bad as that—surely, surely something can be done!"

    "I'm trying, miss—I'm trying."  But the tone took all promise out of the assurance.

    "But—but"—and she was on her feet and gazing at him with furrowed brow and wide-stretched eyes, in which alarm and protest fought fiercely together—"you must do something!  We cannot fail! we cannot be disgraced!—we cannot!  Oh! I'll do anything.  I'll work, I'll slave; but we cannot be disgraced!"

    Sam's chin was on his breast, and he was fighting with weak sobs and could not risk speech.

    "You're brave, Sam!"—and the little hand was on his arm, and the deep dark eyes were turned beseechingly up to him.

    Sam was a man, and such an appeal from such a source would ordinarily have moved him deeply; but her words could now add nothing to the stupor that was upon him, and he could only look down at her in dazed and hopeless grief.

    "It's not you, Sam—I always stood up for you at home.  Ah, what a life I've had of late!  Oh, Frank!  Frank! how could you!"  The deadness began to fade from his eyes, he licked his lips restlessly, soft, pitiful, compassionate light rose into his face, he was a man, and she was a dainty woman to him once more; and as he moved a step back in shy self-consciousness, and the little hand on his arm dropped away, he gasped, "God help us, miss, it's a sore case!"

    "But you will, Sam?"—and the little fingers were on his sleeve again—"you will help us?  Oh! Sam, you're good—you're good.  I'll do anything, bear anything if you will try!"

    There was silence.  The little clock, suddenly inflamed with a mad ambition to obliterate the drone of the sawmills and the distant bleat of the market sheep, tore out its staccato notes in a passion of haste and in ignorance of the fact that Clara could not hear it for the loud thump! thump! of her own heart.

    Presently Sam turned and bent over towards her.  "Miss Clara, there's a good God above us."

    Clara, intent on the man rather than his Maker, responded with an eager double nod.

    "And right always comes right—if we trust in Him."

    Two more nods, and Clara was wishing he would not stare at her so, but come to the point.

    "He can turn enemies into friends, and hindrances into helps."

    "Yes, and you'll try, Sam, you'll—"

    "I've been trying, miss; but, God helping me, I'll, I'll—"  But the words were choking him, and turning abruptly away and flinging them out with vehemence, he cried, "I'll try again! try again! try-again!"

    They talked a little longer, Sam making as clear as he could the complicated peril of the moment; and as she walked home down the back lanes to avoid the market people she was soberer and sadder than she had been before, and wondered now and then, when that aspect of the case occurred to her, whether it would not be better to ask herself whether Sam would marry her.

    Left to himself the stranded junior partner tried vainly to collect his thoughts and brace himself for some action.  He spent a full ten minutes leaning with his head buried in his hands and his elbows on the desk; then he stood up, thrust his hands into his pockets, and stared with frowning, hopeless face through the window.  Twice he started to the shop to stop the men and close the concern, and twice he came back to glower again through the dusty panes.  Then, still standing at the desk, he tried to pray; but the few sentences he got out were disjointed and incoherent, and he found himself staring open-mouthed at some new phase of the situation that had suddenly thrust itself into the midst of his petitions.

    He began to pace up and down the little office, casting about for some one to whom he could open his mind and unburden his unbearable anxieties.  His mother knew much, and her sympathy was precious, but she could have nothing to suggest in the way of practical expedient.  The bank-manager was shrewd, and as kind as shrewd, but he would be fettered by his official instructions.  More than once he thought of his new acquaintances the Quakers, but remembrance of their strict commercial probity, and the damaging disclosures he would be compelled to make, forbade the hope of help from that quarter; and at last the absolute hopelessness of the situation compelled him to turn to his old friends and associates the humble Methodists.  The idea was more distasteful than it ought to have been, for his pride reminded him of the warning Sweetlove had given him when he first severed his connexion with his mother's fellow-religionists.  Why, the barber's words, vague though they had been, had more than come true—he could not go there.

    Besides, what could they do?  With the exception of the Waines, they were all poor working people, and Sweetlove was very conceited, and could be exceedingly aggravating if he chose.  No, no!—and yet—they were his mother's friends; through all the poverty and struggling of his early years they had helped her, and yes, had put within him those very principles which now made his position so painful.  It seemed shameless to appeal to those who had so often helped before, and whose kindness he had repaid by desertion; but every other hope had gone, every door was closed, desperate circumstances demand desperate remedies, and if he gained nothing he was at least sure of genuine sympathy.  It was the hardest of the many hard things he had to do in that most terrible crisis; but in the quiet part of that afternoon he dragged reluctant limbs to the barber's, and was soon pouring out his tale to eager ears.

    Leaving him thus to get what consolation the experiment might provide, we must return to Hetty Waine, who was busy composing her first letter to Frank Blandon.  Much and often she hesitated, two fair epistles had been finished and torn up because they were too sympathetic, and one because it was too hard and formal; and when the final one was ready, it seemed to have all the faults of the others.  But ashamed of her mistrust, and acutely anxious to comfort, she at length sealed and posted it, thereby reducing herself to a condition of restlessness that spoilt her night's repose, and produced an effect at Lydmouth which greatly astonished and, of course, delighted the anxious Mrs. Blandon.

    Next morning Jemima visited her young mistress's room, and her manner, usually so inscrutable, prepared the younger woman for news. "Hev you heeard about Edie Plewman, miss?"

    Hetty looked up hastily from her needlework with a new shadow on her face.  Edie Plewman had already been too much in her thoughts of late.  Jemima went on rubbing away at the furniture; when she did condescend to supply information, she intended that it should be received with due respect, and properly appreciated.

    "She's greatly upset over young Blandon."

    The tenderest woman has one hard spot in her, and as this had now been touched in Hetty, she replied coldly, "She always was rather forward, you know."

    Jemima, now engaged on some books on the table, dusted them very carefully, and took excessive pains to arrange them exactly as she had found them.  Then she answered with stern, inflexible face, "Nobody can marry Blandon, she says, whilst she's single."

    Hetty lifted her head with a startled look, blushed deeply, then went suddenly white, and gasped out, "Oh, Jemima, what are you saying!"

    Jemima, cold and imperturbable, went stolidly on with her work.

    "They found her at the station waiting for the Lydmouth train.  She's glad about his business goin' wrong; she says he'll be glad to have her now."

    "But—but"—and then Hetty recollected herself, and in keenest pain snatched a hat from its hook and escaped breathlessly to the garden.  Then it was true, the firm was in difficulties, and Frank had therefore a double claim upon her.  Oh what a cold, empty, heartless letter she had written him!  Poor fellow!—poor fellow!  And if Frank Blandon had carried out his first impulse when he received that much regretted little note that morning, and returned to Grindell, he would have found, Edie Plewman or no Edie Plewman, the one great chance of his life.


 
CHAPTER XIII.

PETER WAINE TAKES HIS INNINGS


IF roses could think and snapdragons and asters talk, there would have been much whispered wondering in Jessamine Cottage garden that fateful Saturday morning.  The goddess of the garden walked about amongst the flowers without noticing her favourites, and even when she looked at them, and bent down her head to examine them, the least self-conscious flower there was dissatisfied; for though she looked, she saw nothing, whilst her darkened brow and far-away eyes told but too plainly that her thoughts were otherwhere.

    "Pity is next to love," old maid Methodism was whispering; but she heeded not, for all her heart was going out to her suffering, absent lover, whose circumstances had been made more bitter by her own prudish coldness.  All her nature was up in arms against the "narrow Methodist" prejudices of Jemima and Jossy Sweetlove.  How could good people be so hard and pitiless?  They were allowing their desire for the chapel site to colour all their judgements, and were thinking evil of others out of pure chagrin.

    She did not care for Frank Blandon—all that was dead and done with—but she would like to see him happy again.  What a hateful thing money was, and what misery it brought one way or other to people!  Oh that she were one-tenth as rich as many of the so-called friends of the Blandons!—and just then she saw her father coming down the path with his long clay pipe, but she was too absorbed to note his Sunday apparel.  He was a dear old man, but worldly, she feared, and prejudiced like the rest.  He was not rich, but surely he might have helped in an extremity like this.  She supposed it never occurred to him.  Oh, how hard the world made people, and how much misery might be averted in this world with a little self-sacrifice and sympathy!  She waited for him to overtake her, slid her arm into his, just brushed the edge of his shoulder with her cheek, and fell into his step.

    "Isn't this dreadful about poor Blandons, father?"

    "H'm, h'm, h'um," and Peter rolled his eyes about and lifted a long sigh.

    "So respectable, so well thought of—it's terrible!"

    "H-a-a-um!" and Peter wagged his head in sorrowful agreement.

    There was silence for a moment, broken only by Peter's sighs, and then she ventured a question disguised in sympathetic assertion.

    "I don't think he's to blame: he's tried hard, hasn't he?"

    Her attempt to keep her feelings out of her voice frustrated itself, and her "He's" had a peculiar emphasis.  Peter stopped in the path, looked at her searchingly, and then, as she dropped her eyes and blushed, he said, with earnest conviction, "My dear, he's a hero!  He's fought like a giant!"

    They had reached the garden-hedge; and, turning round, Hetty tucked her other arm into his, though her heart was fluttering so that she could not trust herself to speak.

    "Nobody will ever know what that lad's done and suffered; he's a blessèd martyr," and Peter nodded his head, and waved his pipe in weighty emphasis.

    Hetty had decided on a great venture, but her lips refused to part.

    "There isn't one son in a thousand 'ud a done what he's done for his women-folk, bless him!"  And there were tears in the old man's tones.  The word she wanted to say was on her lips, but she blushed and panted, and then said something else.

    "It isn't his fault; it's his partner's, isn't it?"

    "Partner!"—and old Peter flushed with sudden indignation—"the partner's done it!  He's a rogue, my dear!—a villain, Hetty!  That young man'll get hisself transported."

    Never had Sam Broome appeared so utterly despicable to Hetty as at that moment.  And to think that he had once proposed to her, and appeared to be so humble.

    But her anger loosened her tongue, and she now found power to say what she had been hesitating with, and so she blurted out, "It's the poor women I'm thinking about.  Can nothing be done, father?"

    Peter seemed suddenly to shrink into a smaller man; he pressed her hand close into his side with his elbow, filled her hair and the space about her with a huge volume of smoke, but jogged doggedly on without speaking.  Hetty, struggling with her emotions, hugged his arm closer to hers, and then said, almost under her breath, "Couldn't somebody—is it very bad—can't they be saved?"

    The smoke was pouring forth in short, thick jets, and she could feel the quickened beat of his heart.  "Hetty, woman, we must!—we must!  Me and Jossy 'ull do it"; and then he looked at her studiously, and went on, "But nothing for t'other!—not a penny! not a penny!"

    Hetty was perplexed; for, of course, they were thinking of different people.  Her father was greatly attached to Mrs. Broome, and they were not to blame for Sam's misdoing; but if she suggested them at this point, it might recall difficulties, and so she said lamely, "I'm sorry for the poor women."

    "Women!" and the tears came at last, hot and indignant.  "Hetty, woman, nobody knows but themselves what them poor things has had to put up with.  He's a brute!—a selfish brute!  Confound him!"

    Her father's unwonted heat was not quite clear to her; but as they turned once more in the path, she asked, "Is it very bad?  Will it take a great deal to save them?"

    "Can't tell, girl; generally does in them cases.  We mayn't be able to do anything, but we'll see—we'll see."

    Just then the barber, dressed in his Sabbath clothes, appeared at the front gate, looking very dignified and important, and as her father left her to join his friend, it struck her as being odder still that the barber should be neglecting his shop on a Saturday for the sake of the Blandons.  But she suddenly remembered the site question, and smiled at the easy explanation.

    Meanwhile, Sam was sitting in his dingy office, apathetically waiting for the impending crash.  He had wondered, in a dull way, why there had been no dunning letters that morning, and was still vaguely astonished that so far not a single applicant for money had appeared; but, remembering "Punch" Brice's threats, and that gentleman's intimate connexion with all Grindell's commercial affairs, he guessed what was happening, and waited in sullen despair for the coming of the accountant's representative.  But in that desolate moment a great temptation came to him, and he was soon sitting up and facing it with what of mental intentness was left to him.

    Why not accept "Punch's" offer, and use it as a means of gradually righting things?  "Punch" had been unjust in insisting on his entire separation from the falling concern, but why should he know?  And if he did his duty by the Smailes's estate.  It was stronger than he expected, it held possession of him; for a long dreary time he had-difficulty in insisting to himself that it was a breach of confidence; and he had not finished with the beguiling idea when there was a shuffle of feet outside, and in walked Peter Waine and the old barber.

    Peter looked flurried, but very red and stern, and Joshua had an injured, protesting look, and held his head at a highly haughty angle.  Sam could not speak, never thought of it in fact, but stared glumly at his visitors, and could have laughed in their faces.  Was this a time to talk of sites?  Peter had taken his hat off, and was rubbing his perspiring face; whilst Joshua, meeting Sam's eye, was starting forward to open the conversation, when the ex-grocer, observing him, shook his fist warningly, and then turned his back to him as though to hide him from the other's view.

    "Good mornin', Sam, mornin'—very warm, isn't it?"  And the old man shouldered his companion behind him, as though determined to have all the conversation to himself.

    Sam, with his elbow still on the desk, turned to stare through the window to hide his eyes from his visitors.

    Peter, his elbows extended as a barricade against the impetuous barber, and his glistening eyes fixed on the young builder, drew a hard breath or two, and proceeded, "Nobody saw us come, nobody knows we are here"; and then, whisking round, he glanced at his companion and commanded him to close the door, and lock it, and pull down the window-blind.

    Sam attended to the window; Jossy, muttering smothered rebellion, turned the key in the lock, and, returning, drew up alongside the grocer; but the old man elbowed him back, and, again setting his eyes on Sam, earnestly asked, "Sam Broome, has thou allus done thy duty by this here firm?"

    A look, half dull wonder, half protesting indignation, sprang into Sam's averted face then he wheeled round, and betrayed something of what he was enduring by bursting out fiercely, as he smote the desk with his clenched hand, "Before God, Mr. Waine, I have!"

    Peter, gloating eagerly over him, turned for a moment with shining eyes to his muttering colleague, and then, recollecting himself, twisted round, so as to get the barber fairly behind him, and continued, "An' did thou know 'ut this nasty mess was a-coming?"

    Sam's hand was lifted for another savage denial; but in sudden remembrance he dropped it to his side, and cried with a woeful shake of the head, "Partners are partners, Mr. Waine."

    Peter wheeled round, and beamed on Sweetlove with tear-gemmed eyes, as though Sam had stated the most amazingly delightful of truths, and the barber had the look of a man who protested against even the welcomest intelligence, because of the gross irregularity of the methods by which it was elicited.

    Peter turned again to his quarry, took a step nearer, devouring him the while with greedy, glowing eyes. "An' has thou parted wi' all thou has, an' done everything thou could to come out honest and straight?"

    Sam followed each word with a dull nod, paused a moment, stared hard at the drawn window-blind, and then, dropping his head into his hands again, groaned out, "I've tried!  I have!—I have!" and ended with a sob that shook the desk.

    There was a pause that was broken only by the young builder's hard breathing, and certain mysterious snufflings from Peter; then the heart-broken Sam heard a step, a heavy arm was placed on his shoulder and half round his neck, and a trembling voice bawled into his ear, "Sam!  Sam!  Once have I heard this; yea, twice hath it been told, that power belongeth to the Lord."

    Sam was now shaking with great unburdening sobs, and the old man began to stroke his arm in soft, soothing touches.  But the third party to this strange interview now stepped in.  The outrageous irregularity of the whole proceedings could no longer be endured, and so, thrusting his friend aside, he seized Sam's arm, compelled him to turn his heavy, sorrowful face towards him, and demanded in sternest tones, "Did thou think that when thou left the Methodisses the Methodisses left thee?  Look here, now!" and, releasing the builder's arm, he stretched out one hand, and smiting upon it with the inevitable two fingers of the other, he continued, "Will thou chuck that swindling pardner o' thine, or will thou not?"

    Peter was stepping forward again with plaintive protests, but the now masterful barber elbowed him back, and repeated the question with the same emphatic gestures.

    "Mr. Sweetlove"—and Sam lifted a haggard face and cried desperately—"he's a mother and sisters, like me, and he's the old master's son!"

    "That's it!—that's it!" and Peter, almost beside himself with contending emotions, began to pace about the office, crying as he did so, "True blue!—he's true blue!  We'll do it!—we will! we will! we will!"

    But the scandalized barber sprang round at him, and demanded, "What! will you throw good money after bad?  Will you aid an' abet a swindler?"

    "We'll do it!—we'll do it!" was all the answer he got, and his old friend was once more tramping the floor.

    Joshua looked from one to the other, and then, evidently giving the older man up as utterly hopeless, he turned on the younger, and demanded for the third time, "Will thou give that there chap up once an' for all an' for ever?"

    Sam seemed to have no answer, and before he could recover himself old Peter was by his side again, and, undertaking his part, turned upon the obstreperous barber, and cried, "Did thou ever know a lad 'at stood by his mother and sisters like he's done?"

    The barber commenced another scornful protest against the ridiculous irrelevancy of the question; but before he could get his words out, the grocer went on, "An' did thou ever know a steadier, more hard-working, more carefuller lad?"

    Again the barber was protesting, but Peter, now on his very highest horse, broke in, "Did thou hear what 'Punch' Brice said about him this very morning?"

    "'Punch' Brice!' began the disgusted barber; but Peter rushed in again, "An' hasn't all this come by him sticking true blue to his partner?  Well, then, wee'st do it!—wee'st do it!"  And the excited old fellow lugged a cheque-book out of his pocket, and banged it triumphantly on the desk, as though by that mere act he had dissipated all Sam's embarrassments for ever.

    Broome was staring at his old friend in dull bewilderment, and the barber, with folded arms, stalked across to the one armchair, and, dropping into it, sat up stiff and grim, as though demonstrating that he washed his hands for ever of proceedings so disgracefully irregular and mad.

    But at this point they were interrupted by the advent of Brice's head clerk, accompanied by two bailiffs, who brought writs for sums amounting in all to over four hundred pounds.  Peter, after labouring with many a sigh over the cheque he was writing, dismissed them, and then handed Sam ready money for the payment of the men's wages.

    "Oh, Mr. Waine!" began the bewildered young builder as soon as they were alone again.  But the old grocer stopped him, "Young man, let alone!  It's a bigger job than I reasoned on"—loud groan from the armchair—"but we shall go through with it!  We'll pay what we must, get the other to wait a bit, and we'll soon be in smooth waters."

    "But, Mr. Waine, you don't know, you've no idea—"

    "Yes, I have!  I had my own reasons for getting to know, and I've found out everything.  We shall win!—we shall win!"

    Sam continued to protest, and to want to explain; but the old man, glowing all over with blessed self-complacency, would have his way, though the barber did not deign to offer a single word, and went away with his companion, still evidently outraged at the way things had been done.

    But Jossy had a splendid time that day, and before it was over he was found chuckling to himself in Little Gungate, and crying, "This is a day!—this is a day!  Oh! ha!  Methodisses is scum, are they?  Methodisses is nothin' an' nobody, are they?  Ha! ha!  We can't do nothin'?  Oh no!  We've beaten peacock Blandon, we've beaten 'Punch' Brice, we've beaten everybody.  Ha! ha! ha!"

    His greatest triumph, however, was at Jessamine Cottage.  Peter Waine was in his own way almost as much afraid of Jemima as the barber himself; she played Cerberus between him and the impecunious of Grindell, who, on the strength of old customership or nominal attachment to Methodism, found him more amiable than judicious, and, but for her, would have imposed upon him more than they did.  This, however, was far away his most serious plunge, and his only hope lay in her devotion to the Broomes, and in the fact that the barber shared, in part, the heavy responsibility.  Jemima held the view that Sweetlove was "scraping," and would rather relish the fact that he had been drawn into the affair.  Peter, therefore, contrived to saddle the barber with a very considerable share of the burden; but, being divided in mind between a desire to see the barber's long-delayed amatory projects consummated, and a fear of losing Jemima's services as housekeeper, he told his tale somewhat lamely.  But Mr. Waine might very well have spared himself, for Jemima surprised him exceedingly.  As soon as he introduced his subject, the half-contemptuous disdain with which she invariably listened to masculine talk, especially where Sweetlove was concerned, dropped away from her, and as soon as the Broomes' name was mentioned she came and stood on the hearthrug, and followed every word with encouraging nods, and even smiled appreciatively at his clumsy circumlocution.  Whether she understood the situation rightly or not Peter will never be quite sure, but all doubts about his own success were set at rest by her first actions.

    The barber, happening to arrive at that moment, was placed ceremoniously in Jemima's own particular chair, a cushion even was brought for him, and without the slightest hint from either man, two foaming jugs of dandelion and burdock beer were placed before them.  Peter pulled at the beverage with a sense that all his labours of the day were now amply compensated, and the barber looked grim in a stern endeavour to keep down a mighty impulse towards triumphant laughter.  But the exact proportions of their tremendous victory were only realized later on, for when, after a long and animated talk on the details of their grand coup, Peter invited the barber to have tea in the parlour, and Jemima, lapsing at once into her old manner, peremptorily vetoed the suggestion, and Peter had waddled off into the cooler front room, and was waiting the coming meal, young Wess, hand on mouth to suppress uncontrollable laughter, and eyebrows raised in wondering amazement, came into the room with the paralysing intelligence that "Old Joss is having tea with Jemima."

    And all this time Hetty, too relieved by the unusual preoccupation of her friends to be curious as to the cause, was spending her afternoon in the summer-house with elegant needlework in her fingers, and the troubles of Frank Blandon in entire possession of her thoughts.  Never had his good points appeared so interesting, nor his questionable ones so trivial; the things she had resented in him now wore other colours, and the woman in her actually tried to commend them as marks of the impetuosity of love.

    Suspicious of Jemima, and hating tittle-tattle at all times, the tale about Edie Plewman awoke a sort of loyalty within her, and strengthened the feeling of resentment towards Frank's enemies which she now no longer tried to conceal.  Pity for Sam Broome became something to be ashamed of, and she burned with helpless indignation that mere matters of finance should have the power to spoil people's lives and prospects.  Everything and everybody were against him.  Oh, how she would love to stand by his side and defy the whole world!  Every hour that passed but deepened the feeling.  Her father, Jemima, and even young Wess seemed strangely elated about something, but she was not curious; they were presumably rejoicing over her lover's downfall, in mean revenge about that ridiculous site question, and in unholy pride at the justification of their own prognostications.  She could not just then endure their society, and the serious concern which she saw in her father's eyes, when she had caught him studying her at the tea-table, made her wary and taciturn.  And then it all came out.

    Her father, pipe in hand, followed her presently to her refuge, drew her into reluctant conversation, and then, bit by bit, with roundabout deviousness and a tender anxiety that heightened the ultimate effect, told her the whole story.  Not knowing how deeply her affections were engaged, but all the more concerned because of the uncertainty, the guileless old man, with his most difficult task and little worldly skill to help him, unconsciously employed the cunning of a great affection, and little by little got the hard facts into her mind and all the honest logic of a transparent nature on his side.

    She objected, she questioned, she argued but the very shrinking reluctance with which he advanced his facts gave them sharper point; and when, at last, unable longer to endure his wistful eyes, she swept her work into her arms and fled to her own room, she could not have told whether shame of her interest in Frank or shame of her misjudgement of Sam was the stronger emotion within her.  Not that the conflict was over; again and again her whole nature rose in rebellion against the facts, and passionate championship of her lover; but again and again the evidence indicated by her father, and confirmatory facts known only to herself, bore down all resistance; and though in that bitter hour she almost hated Jemima, Sweetlove, the Broomes, and even her beloved father, yet the image of Frank Blandon slipped somehow from its throne in her heart, never to be reinstated.  The next day was the dreariest Sabbath she ever spent, and the day following, wet and depressing, gave her opportunity of keeping her own room without exciting particular notice.

    Her father, however, was watching her on every opportunity, with an anxiety that annoyed and yet touched her; and on Tuesday evening the news came that Mrs. Blandon, a broken, shamed woman, had returned home, and that Frank and Edie Plewman had been missing since Monday, and had presumably gone off to be married.  Her father brought her the sad tidings himself, for fear that ruder lips should break it to her, and for a whole hour he sat with his hand in hers, mutely succouring her with a sympathy that words would have marred; and when he left her there were soft tears on her face, but strength to face the world again in her heart.

    A fortnight passed away; Grindell was growing a little weary of its sudden glorification of honest merit, as exemplified in the case of Sam Broome, and Hetty was beginning to admit to herself that she had been unjust to him.  She wanted to be fair to him, but could not endure the thought of him as the head of the once honoured firm of Blandon, and resented hotly the malicious gossip of the town against the fallen family.  One day she heard that Sam, after a double refusal to manage Widow Smailes's business, had been induced to accept it on his own terms, and realized, as only an inhabitant of their little town could have done, how fine a certificate of character that was for the young fellow, coming as it did from "Punch" Brice of all persons.

    Then came the climax.  It was known that the Blandon business was still a matter of grave anxiety to the partner in charge, who went about as though ashamed of the sudden popularity he had achieved, and still wearing his old worried look.  It was freely asserted by those supposed to know that old Waine and those who had acted with him were not yet out of the wood, and might find themselves seriously involved.  One evening it was reported that Sam Broome and "Punch" Brice had quarrelled—at any rate, "Punch" had been heard raving about in the wood-yard, and storming until his raspy voice reached the street; and a day later Grindell business was suspended, whilst people discussed the mysterious disappearance of Sam Broome.  He had been seen boarding the early train for Gittering Junction a few hours after his quarrel with "Punch," and since then all trace of him had been lost.  The usual quidnuncs were "not surprised"; the usual number of "Told-you-so's" lifted their heads; confident surmises and predictions of what people would ultimately "see" were expressed; and it was freely promised that Sam Broome would turn out to be the greater rogue of the two.

    But just before midnight on Thursday the through express was unexpectedly pulled up at Grindell station, and Frank Blandon, his new wife, and the junior partner of the firm alighted.  Then Grindell talked, if you like!  It was next morning before the news was generally known; but the barber held a constant levee in his shop, and expatiated without let or hindrance of the stuff that Methodists were made of.  Peter Waine had shaken hands with Sam three distinct times before ten o'clock that morning, and spent the next hour or so wandering about and basking in a blaze of strangely unfamiliar Methodist popularity.  He broke into fits of tender tears as he discussed with sympathetic friends the quiet nobility of Sam's character and the crowning splendour of his last act.  How he had come to do it nobody seemed to be able to guess, but the simple truth was that he had, after all that had passed, and all he had suffered for and through his partner, fetched him back, and given him once more his place in the business.  Wise men shook their heads, prominent judges of character confessed confusion, shrewd business men frowned portentously; but Peter Waine was in the seventh heaven, and the barber bragged about the town until he became almost insufferable.

    Two days later Jemima Grubb had the best room turned out in the early hours of the day, and for no reason in the world but that Sam Broome and his ex-charwoman mother were coming to tea.  To tea they came; the barber was also of the company, the only silent person being the young lady who did the honours of the table.  But she made up for her silence in good time.  When the tea was over, and they all adjourned to the garden, Hetty, without the least shyness or hesitation, sent the elders down the path to the grass plot at the end of the cottage, and then boldly beckoned Sam to follow her into the summerhouse.  Then she talked enough; with glowing eyes and flaming cheeks, she tumbled out her thoughts into the young builder's ears until he scarce knew where to look or what to say.  "It was good, sir, to bear with him, good to remember your obligation to his father, good to bear disgrace and dishonour for his sake; but, oh, Sam Broome, to fetch him back, after all that had taken place, that was the splendid thing, that was the best of all!"

    Sam listened, frightened and confounded, and when at last, all breathless and tearful, she stopped and dropped into the corner seat, he sat and looked at her, and positively trembled.  She was very demure with him for the rest of the evening; but Sam went home that night scarcely touching the earth upon which he trod, whilst a dead hope was rapidly booming into beautiful life.

    Once more, months after that memorable interview, they were in the summer-house again, though autumn was now stripping the old shed of its glory.  And again she did all the talking, at least up to a certain point.  But as the soft twilight fell upon them, and the stillness of sweet eventide hushed all nature about them, she sealed a joy, that in him was too deep for words, with a first shy, shrinking kiss.


 
CHAPTER XIV.

JEMIMA GRUBB'S DISMISSAL


THE person who seemed least able to profit by his partner's handsome loyalty was Frank Blandon himself.  He was moody and taciturn, very restive and suspicious under all inquiries after his health, and simply would not face Grindell at all.  He came each day to the office, but confined himself to bookkeeping, and referred customers to the now happy but exceedingly busy Sam.  From the extreme of dressiness he slipped rapidly to that of slovenliness, and spent his evenings in his old room at his mother's house, smoking and, alas! quietly drinking.

    About Christmas, when business affairs were getting straightened out somewhat, Sam offered to retire and leave his partner in sole possession; but to his great astonishment, Mrs. Blandon and—most amazing of all—"Punch" Brice, who still represented certain creditors, peremptorily vetoed the suggestion, in spite of the fact that Sam was being most obviously overworked.  But at this juncture another person began to assert herself, and Sam was so disgracefully delighted to be "hectored" by the aforesaid intruder, that Grindell saw some wonderful things.  Hetty interfered in her lover's most private and personal affairs, condemned his beard to instant removal, and his moustache, of which she said some charmingly flattering things, to the also daily attention of the barber.  Sam protestingly declared she was trying to turn him into a second Frank Blandon, for his clothing was condemned wholesale, nothing his wardrobe contained, not even his wonderful Sunday best, was spared; and he soon found himself going about in shamefully extravagant attire, including even a signet ring, which his wilful ladylove gave him and insisted on his wearing every day.  But the most terrible struggle of all came when her vain and capricious ladyship, who affected extreme jealousy of the widow Smailes, insisted that her lover should set up a pony and trap to assist him in the constant travelling made necessary in the management of the two businesses.  Sam was seriously scandalized, and did his very utmost in the way of evasion, procrastination, and the like; but all the same the New Year found him driving about on his numerous errands behind a smart little mare, and two months' experience wrung from him the reluctant and almost guilty confession that the turn-out was more than paying for itself.

    The wood-yard end, meanwhile, had been duly made over to the Methodists, and presently, as soon as the weather made outdoor ceremonies possible, the foundation-stones were laid amid such demonstrations as the poor "Candle-lofters" never dreamed of seeing.

    It was arranged presently that Sam and Hetty were to be the first couple married in the new sanctuary, the barber handsomely waiving his claim to that honour with a generosity for which he was doomed to pay a terrible price.  The marriage took place in due course, Frank Blandon and, marvel of marvels, "Punch" Brice himself being amongst the spectators.  But when the ceremony was over, and the honeymoon ended, the barber was plunged into a condition of mind which alternated between long fits of mysterious silence and outbursts of cynical raillery against this wicked world and the deceitful wiles of women; for Jemima pointed out to him, in her most exasperatingly matter-of-fact manner, that, as Hetty had now left Jessamine Cottage, Mr. Waine and Wess must have somebody to look after them.

    Joshua's long-tried patience now utterly gave out; for a whole fortnight the proverbial horses and chains could not drag him to the cottage, and when he did at length go he seemed to be holding long, noisy wrangles with Jemima every night, to the entire neglect of his old friend Peter, at the time when that worthy gentleman was most needing company.  These lengthy interviews in the back premises always ended the same way, Joshua invariably departing red, excited, and profoundly disgusted, leaving Jemima cool, doggedly logical, and grimly amused.  Then dark hints began to reach the cottage from one mysterious source or another.  Joshua was accepting one of the many offers for his shop, retiring from business, and leaving Grindell for ever!  Before confirmation could be obtained, it was told with circumstantial exactitude that the barber was courting a widow with a snug little competency at Gittering; and this was followed by the most terrible tidings of all—Joshua was sending in his preachers' plan, resigning all his local offices, and going over to the Quakers!

    The barber made himself very scarce in these days, and when he was encountered and cornered he was so evasive, so crafty-looking, and so solemnly mysterious, that the conviction of something seriously wrong settled firmly down on the minds of old Peter and his son Wess.  Left thus to themselves, Wess, to the old man's great delight, took to cultivating his father's company, and the extraordinary conduct of the barber, and Jemima's contemptuous indifference to the signs of the times, came in for frequent discussion between them.

    Wess was to leave school at the end of the term and go as a gentleman apprentice to Blandon & Co., and whenever conversation on this absorbing topic flagged between them, Jossy and his cryptic antics was the easiest alternative.  These conversations naturally had their effect upon the boy's habits of observation, and he soon convinced himself that the barber was looking ill, and had a wild glare in his eyessuggestive of incipient insanity.  And so, lingering one wet afternoon over his dinner, he suddenly surprised Jemima by demanding, as he propped his chin on his hands, "I say, Jim!  What's the matter with old Joss?  He looks bad."

    "Hur-ur-u-m-ph!—worse if he ailed owt!"  But there was a relishful smirk on the housekeeper's face which excited her questioner's curiosity.

    "He does though!  Has he anything on his mind, think you?"

    Jemima laughed; a wicked triumphant sort of laugh, that stimulated the boy's thoughts still further.  "You know, I can see, and you won't tell me."

    "Nowt ails him but awkerdness."

    "That's it!  You won't tell me!" and the experienced Wess rose out of his chair to leave, shrewdly calculating upon the result.

    "He—he—er—well, he wants to get married," and Jemima giggled like a school-girl, and then looked very disgusted.

    "Well, why shouldn't he—er— Oh, I say, Jim, does he want to marry you?"

    "Yes, does he; and what'll become of your father and you if I go?"

    This was an entirely new idea.  Wess's face went slowly longer and his eyes widened out protestingly, but all he could do was to emit a long, amazed whistle.

    Seeing her advantage, and lusting for a tender word from her idol, Jemima continued, "Would you like me to go now?  Would you, Master Wess?"

    Wess, still staring at her and wrestling with the problem she had suggested, gasped out, "Oh! I say, Jim, I never— Oh, well, you know, that's up another street, isn't it?"

    "Of course it is.  It can't be thought on, now, can it?"

    Wess was reflecting, and his eyes blinked rapidly.

    "But—er, you know, Jim, you'll have to go some day; I might get married myself, you know, and then—"

    Jim's face dropped; many and many a time lately had she thought of this fearful possibility now that marriage was so much in the air amongst them.  "Well, well! we'll wait till then, Master Wess—and there's your father, you know."

    Wess had a real serious problem before him, and gloated over it with all a boy's profound inward delight.

    "But—but— Why Jim, you'll never get married at all at that rate!" and his tone carried all youth's sense of the awfulness of such a possibility.

    "So much the better!"

    Wess was getting out of his depth; he knew that Jemima was a very remarkable woman, but the state of mind suggested by her words was utterly unthinkable to him—for a female.  What could any woman on earth wish but to be married?

    "Do you mean to tell me, Jim, that you don't want to be married?" and his voice was tremulous with unbelieving amazement.

    But Jemima's love-hunger was still the uppermost feeling in her mind, and so she made another daring bid.

    "I don't want to leave you, at any rate."

    But she was disappointed, she had been a mother in all but name, and he took her affection as a matter of course in youth's eternal way, and gave his mind wholly to the problem in hand.  Suddenly he had an inspiration.  "Why, Jim, let him come and live here!"  This was the very last suggestion she was expecting, and all she could do for the moment was to shake her head.

    "I'll have no flusterous, hulking men in this 'ere kitchen whilst I'm in it."

    Wess was puzzled.  He had been angling for a hint of Jemima's real state of mind, and had caught a fish of a very different kind.  He sat staring before him with a perplexed frown, sighed a little, leaned his head on his arms to think more quietly and fairly thrash the point out, and when Jemima returned from the scullery a few moments later she found him fast asleep.

    When he awoke some twenty minutes later he seemed to have forgotten all about their conversation, and as he strolled to the door, yawning and stretching himself, even a palpable hint from Jemima did not arrest his progress or bring him back to the great topic.  Out in the back lane, however, his thoughts returned to Jossy and his courtship, and as he reflected his hand went up to his hair, and finally, a whole week earlier than he usually did so, he decided to visit the hairdresser.

    Wess, as Jemima's idol, was one of the favoured few whom the barber always waited upon himself; but on this occasion the boy had a surly reception, and his tonsorial requirements were attended to in cold silence.  Business over, however, Wess took a look round on the pictures, then sauntered to a chair, drew it a little nearer the smouldering fire, stuck his feet on the bars, and, looking across at the barber, demanded, "I say, Joshua, you're a bit queer, aren't you—ill or something?"

    There was a genuine chord of sympathy in the inquiry, pert though it sounded, and the barber, a little disarmed, grunted out that he was "all right," and began to search for his pipe.

    Wess put on a look as near like a medical man's at a consultation as he could command, and still searching the uneasy barber's face, remarked, "Jim and I were talking about you just now—she says nothing ails you."

    The barber had been arrested by the sudden introduction of his ladylove's name, but the finish of the sentence brought back all the old bitterness, and so, peeping here and there behind the ornaments on the mantelpiece for his lost consoler, he cried, apparently unconscious of his companion's presence, "Oh, woman!—woman!  Thy name is crewilty!"

    Wess, wide awake and absorbingly interested, watched the other's face as on discovering his pipe he fell back into his chair and began to charge, watched him as he took the first long draws, watched him still as he settled himself in his seat, and then asked, "Is that what you're fretting about?  Why, anybody could persuade old Jim!"

    The barber laughed, a hollow bitter laugh of intense irony.

    "It's right! but look here, Joshua, you know, what's father and me to do if you take her?"

    This question, which Wess evidently expected would induce the barber to think reasonably, had been so often flung at him in Jessamine Cottage kitchen that it was like rubbing an old wound, and he sprang to his feet to say terrible things.  But a second thought struck him, just in time, and so, glancing at the boy's sympathetic face, he merely remarked, "Well, but Mr. Wess, if she had to die, or—or go off it, you'd have to do without her then."

    Wess was impressed, but more by the appeal to his logical faculty than by the strength of the argument, and so he answered, "Yes, but who could we get, you know?  We couldn't stand an ordinary servant-girl, you know."

    The barber's brain was working; he was not much interested in the lad's logic, but he was remembering that in Wess he might have a very powerful ally, and so, changing his tone, and making a strong appeal to the boy's generous sympathies, he replied, "Ah! Mr. Wess, what's the use o' talkin'?  She's again it, she's only dodgin'—she's just breikin' my pore 'eart."

    The look and tone he put into the last words brought his young companion over to his side irretrievably, and he leaned forward and began to stare into the dying fire in vain endeavour to think of some feasible plan.

    "I could square Jim, you know, Jossy," he said musingly, and with a wag of the head expressive of seasoned sagacity; "but then there's father and me, and she wouldn't do it—she wouldn't, I know!"

    The barber, still thinking rapidly, puffed away at his pipe and stared like his young friend into the fire, cogitating the while on how he could best employ the other's services in the all-important cause.  Then he rose to his feet, held out his hand, and cried in pathetic tones, "Bless you, Master Wess! bless you!  I've one true friend in the world, bless you!"

    Wess, though astonished and very uncomfortable under the tragic flattery, was still highly complimented; and so, after assuring the barber once more of his sympathy and co-operation, he left him, and Joshua Sweetlove, though with momentary lapses into deep despair, entered once more into the enjoyment of hope's sweet seductions.

    Two days later Wess, now inspired with the dignity of a great project, called again upon the hairdresser, and sketched the first outlines of a plot.  The barber was earnestly exhorted to "Keep on looking bad," and to "manage to get worse if he could, but to look worse anyway."  A week later Wess laid the project before his father, accompanying his statements with most harrowing descriptions of the barber's secret sufferings.  But still the problem of problems was, who was to take Jemima's place? and both realized that nothing could be done until that point was disposed of.  Then they decided to consult Hetty; and that versatile young lady, though she entered fully into all their desires, was nonplussed by just the same obstacle as had given pause to the rest.  She took two days to consider matters, and then came smiling and triumphant.  There was one family Jemima really loved—the Broomes; there was one member of that family of whose steadiness and thorough domestication Miss Grubb was never tired of boasting—Sam's elder sister Patty.  With a young domestic to assist, Patty was the ideal substitute—at least, from Jemima's standpoint.  But just when that difficulty seemed disposed of, another presented itself.  Who was to tell Jemima? and what if she refused to go?

    Wess undertook to sound the housekeeper as to her possible attitude towards Patty Broome, Hetty was to see the Broomes and get their mind on the subject, and they were to consult together as soon as the results were known.  Hetty came in perfect triumph; Wess, though he thought he had been perfectly successful, gave such details as suggested quite other results to the older members of the conspiracy.  Still, there was nothing to do but to go on and bring the venture to an issue.  But who was to tackle Jemima? and what if, as was almost certain, she flatly refused?  This was a poser; neither Hetty nor the barber—admitted by this time to the great secret—could suggest any way out, and at last Peter Waine, always at his best as we have seen in great emergencies, came out with the staggering suggestion that Jemima should be "sacked," discharged from her situation—in precise terms, "given a month's notice."

    Wess rolled on the floor in an ecstasy of anticipatory fun at the idea.  "Father" smiled very sheepishly, and the barber nearly choked with violent inward chuckling.

    But the next point was worse.  Who would give her the notice?  Peter wouldn't, Hetty daren't for the world, the barber groaned, but had nothing to suggest; but all agreed in rejecting Wess's suggestion that it should be sent to her through the post.

    Then Hetty undertook the task—and repented the moment she had done so.  It took her days to screw up her courage; but finally the grand assault was made, and the notice formally given.  But Hetty came away half an hour later, declaring that no power on earth should ever induce her to undertake such a task again.  Jemima simply defied them all; she would go when she liked, and not a moment sooner.  That night the barber, after a timorous visit to the kitchen, went home with the decided conviction that single blessèdness was not the worst possible condition of man.

    And then the change came.  Wess, disappointed, and a little resentful towards Jemima, kept away from the kitchen for one whole week; but one damp evening he wandered back to his old resort for sheer lack of some place to go to.  For the moment he had no thought of the recent conspiracy, and quite innocently commenced a conversation on his apprenticeship.  Jemima startled and a little disgusted him by bursting into tears, and dolefully demanded to be informed who would awake him in a morning, prepare his breakfast, and wash his over-alls, and Wess, amazed but now alert, protested that of course she would—who else?

    This seemed to give the tearful creature the idea that her cherished favourite had had no part in the conspiracy against her, and in a few moments she was telling him all her tale.  She spoke so movingly that Wess was touched and shaken, and protested that he wanted her and her only.  And that momentary surrender on the part of one of the chief conspirators saved the situation.  Wess, discovering that Jemima, in spite of all that had passed, still regarded her position as insecure and temporary, began to comfort himself by suggesting all the possible advantages of the expected new arrangement.  It would be dreadfully dull in the house with a stranger reigning in the kitchen, but how nice to be able to slip out at nights and have a good time with his old mother-sweet-heart!  Jemima drank in the words as thirsty men drink precious water.

    The barber's was about half-way between Jessamine Cottage and Hetty's.  How convenient to have such a handy calling-place!

    The barber had promised to teach him to play the 'cello, and he meant to go in for it "hot and strong," and practise nearly every night.  Jemima was licking her lips and blinking her eyes, whilst her hard face positively glowed.

    If the new housekeeper failed or was sick, why he, Wess, would simply go and stay with Jemima until things were right again.

    Jemima was leaning over his chair, her eyes dewy and her lips trembling.

    "If you were going to marry a stranger and live away, I couldn't stand it, Jim, I really could—"  But here he was smothered in a big embrace, and lips that had not kissed him for years were pressed to his burning cheeks.  "Ah—um, don't, Jim; hold hard, woman.  Why, Jim, I shall be more at your house than our own—a fine sight more!  Wherever dear old Jim goes, I shall go—to the world's end!"  This was not exactly consistent with one of the arguments he had just been using, but Jemima, choking at the seldom-uttered confession of affection, drank it all in with pure delight.  Wess stayed the whole evening with his old nurse, dropping every now and again tender little hints, always on the assumption that Jemima was going to leave them; and when, on Wess's report to his fellow conspirators, the barber waited upon the queen of the kitchen, he—well, after much circumlocution and many a perilous quiver on the edge of failure—had his way, and went back to his shop a happy man.





Printed by Hazell, Watson & Viney, Ld., London and Aylesbury.

 


 

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