ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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Fiction - Short Stories (1)

 

1. A Roman Supper

2. Poor Bonnithorne!

3. The Heir

 

A Roman Supper

The Argosy V (April, 1866 - p.433-441).

 

 

A ROMAN SUPPER.

LUSCUS and Argyrion, rich young bloods of the period, were lounging one summer afternoon in the library belonging to the father of the latter. They had had a wild night of it—dancing, drinking, revelling, down at certain gardens on Tiber bank, where Nero himself had appeared in person, disguised as an old herb-woman of the slums, and accompanied by a horde of shrieking bacchantes. Luscus was hardly yet quite sober; Argyrion, who had a constitution of iron, was fresh as a daisy. They were turning over the quaintly-ornamented leaves of an old parchment on music, written in Greek by Philodemus. That sort of thing looked well; for the library was open to the public, and certain philosophers and grave men who frequented it would give the young rascals credit for studious habits. Not that their mad pranks were altogether a secret, even from their papas; not that they were a bit ashamed to flirt openly with little Lollia and lissome Cynthia, their sweethearts; but they wished, at the same time, to keep up their reputation for polite pursuits. They were critics in music, and painting, and gastronomy: they imitated the Emperor in writing verses; they had travelled, and had shallow and showy things to say on many subjects.
     “Confound the old fellow’s hobby!” whispered Luscus to his friend. “These three saloons and their contents have run away with Jove knows how much good money, and the governor has the mania on him as strong as ever—it clings to him like the shirt of Alcides. Every one of these cedar and ivory boxes is so much out of my pocket; every bit of polypus inside so much more. Then it takes a small fortune yearly to salary the grammarians. It is all very well to like such things in moderation, you know. No one is fonder of a love tale, or a set of verses, than I am; but to accumulate these heaps of ancient stuff, not one leaf of which he ever reads, is abominable and ridiculous. It makes me wild, sometimes, to see those stupid old fools poking their noses here and there, rutting out their feet like wild hogs, and grunting out their satisfaction at Bibliophile’s Folly. There goes old Crotalus, perspiring with a treatise on the Greek Symposia, and smelling of the shambles.”
     “Why does not thy father spend his money sensibly—if he will spend it?” asked Argyrion, with a yawn. “My old fellow is as fond of a lark as I am myself, and Cynthia swears that she spied his sly face under a satyr’s ears, last night among the revellers. Pompo, of all the old fogies, is the man for my money!”
     “Pompo!” cried Luscus, with a laugh. “The charming, irresistible Polyposus, with the milk of Venus shining rubbly in his jolly old nose! the sweetest of puppies! the prince of coxcombs and fantastical verse-makers! the delicate little incarnation of frankincense and balsamum! royallest of liberal fools! Thou art right, my boy. When I am as withered without, may I still keep as much green sap within!”
     “Thou wilt never have a tithe of his riches!” said Argyrion. “The cost 434 of one of his suppers would consume half thy patrimony. He can’t count his wealth, ’tis so abundant. He rears everything he consumes; he brings rams from Tarentum, and bees from Hymettus; he hath lately writ to the Indian East for mustard-seed; and so many are his slaves, that not a tithe of them know their master. Well met, Crotalus,” continued the youth, addressing the philosopher. “Thou art busy, I see!”
     “Wool-gathering, wool-gathering!” mumbled the old gentleman. “I have discovered a treatise—a manuscript—by Athenæus, treating with marvellous cunning of the symposias of Aspasia. But I accosted thee to ask a question. Art thou one of the invited to Pompo’s feast to-night?”
     Argyrion stared. He had not heard, he said, of the feast in question.
     “There will be wondrous sport for thy young blood, nevertheless,” observed Crotalus, smacking his lips. “He hath solicited verses from me to adorn two marvellous new dishes.”
     “Now that I remember,” cried Luscus, gleefully. “I am one of the guests, though, heyday! I had wholly forgotten the affair until this moment. Thou wilt accompany me, Argyrion; I have the privilege to take a friend, and besides, thou art a favourite with the old fellow.”
     “Then we shall meet there anon,” said the philosopher. And he hobbled off again to the armoury, there to bury his face anew in precious parchment, the smell of which was almost as dear to him as the scent of choice viands.
     “The thought of the gourmandizing to come makes the old glutton talk soft like a maiden,” whispered Luscus to his friend. “But come, let us bury ourselves no longer in this dust-hole of dead bones. We will go bath, and prepare ourselves for the fun before us.”
     Arm-in-arm, the friends made their way to another part of the building, where the baths were situated. Once out of the library, they breathed more freely. They presently entered a great court, in the centre of which was a great open basin for cold bathing, covered by an elegantly-wrought roof supported on columns. The walls and partitions were strangely adorned—with paintings of green trees laden with golden fruits, and waters swarming with all sorts of fishes. The pavement was mosaic. In this court, which was quite deserted, they did not tarry, but passed hastily into the  Spoliatorium. Here they undressed and consigned their garments to the care of sleepy-looking slaves. Then passing naked through a portico, they entered a great saloon, containing two large basins of tepid water. Here certain guests of the master of the mansion were already disporting themselves. Some were dipping merrily in the basins. Others stood on the floor, going through various exercises—such as lifting heavy brazen rings, or trying, without bending the knee, to touch their heads with their feet. Down plunged Luscus, followed by Argyrion, and flinging jests at each other, they began to swim hither and thither. After the lapse of a few minutes, out they ran, trotting into the adjoining chamber. “Now for Afric summer!” cried Luscus. And it was Afric summer indeed. The chamber was thick with warm vapour, which jetted out with a hollow sound by a large pipe in the roof. The floor was as fire, the seats seemed red-hot, the atmosphere was heated to 435 suffocation. A very little of this went a long way. The young fellows were soon perspiring at every pore, and drawing great breaths with lungs of liquid fire. When they could endure no more, back they rushed to the Tepidarium, and after another dip in the delicious cool water consigned themselves to slaves, who rubbed their white bodies softly, until every joint seemed as lissome as the coils of snakes, and after drying them delicately with soft linen napkins, covered them with light robes.
     “I am again a Roman!” said Luscus, as they sat close to each other, lazily cutting their nails.
     “Thou wouldst be thrice a Roman,” observed an elderly gentleman, who was busily endeavouring to touch his toes with his nose, “if thou wouldst eschew the hot bath. It is an ill luxury for the young men, and I have forbade my sons to use it.”
     The young scamps only laughed. They knew the speaker as an esteemed friend of old Bibliophilus, the master of the house. The old gentleman continued to talk, inveighing warmly against the dissipation and effeminacy of the period, but he was unheeded. For up came the pueri unguentarii, carrying their little alabaster vases full of perfumed oils. After being deliciously anointed, Luscus and Argyrion reassumed their attire, feeling fresh and hearty as if they had passed the previous night in refreshing sleep. It was now time to direct their steps to the mansion of Polyposus Pompo.
     After they had procured their eating napkins, which it was the custom in those days to take with you to a feast, they set out, making their way to the finest quarter of the city; stopping on the way at a pastrycook’s, to sip a little appetizing bitter drink. Luscus discoursed confidentially, hanging on Argyrion’s arm.
     “I have not only received an invitation from the sweet Polyposus, but have been requested to have an interview to- morrow with his wife, the sour Biberia!”
     “Impossible!” cried Argyrion, staring amazedly.
     “Don’t make a blunder,” said Luscus, quickly. “Biberia is a pattern to her sex, and it is not that she has formed an attachment for me. No, no! It is notorious, on the other hand, that she is confoundedly jealous; and knowing how well I am acquainted with her husband, she has more than once set love on the watch. She suspects the old gentleman of sending presents to a little dancing girl, Tripudia, and I guess ’tis on that business she desires to see me.”
     “She hath a sweetheart, nevertheless!” observed Argyrion. “One who is a great favourite with her husband, though he hath frequently swollen the great nose.”
     “That is not true, I can swear! But who, say you, is the man?”
     “His clothing is brittle, his head is sealed, his lips are perfumed with nard, he was born numberless years ago, and his name is—choice Falernian! But here we are at last, at the temple of the Bromian oracle.”
     In the outer gateway of the palatial residence stood a porter in green livery, cleaning peas in a golden basin; and overhead hung a speckled magpie, which blinked from its golden cage at the sunshine, and croaked “welcome” not harmoniously. Close by was a painting, representing a 436 huge mastiff fastened to a chain, and underneath was written in large letters—

CAVE CANEM.*

This picture was life-like enough, and not unfrequently sent country clients into fits of fright, when they came into Rome to do business with the great man. Passing in, the young men crossed an open court, in the centre of which was a

romangk

or water-clock, representing an old man pointing to a dial. At that very moment the dial sounded trumpet-like, and the figure, with nine distinct blows of the hammer, struck the ninth hour. The sun was close to its setting.
     They then approached another gate, at which stood a bilious-looking boy, crying, in a shrill voice, “Right foot foremost!” as they crossed the threshold. To have stepped in with the left foot would have been a dreadfully bad omen, —at which even these reckless young bloods would have felt uneasy. Entering an antechamber, they were surrounded by silent slaves, who divested them of their outer apparel and cast over them richly-wrought robes, exquisitely perfumed; and then pointed the way into the Triclinium, or banquet hall, where not a few guests were already waiting. More than one person there looked timid and awkward, oppressed by the greatness of the house, but not so Luscus and Argyrion. They swaggered across the hall, flung a joke at Crotalus, who sat hungry in an obscure corner, and exchanged greetings with other acquaintances. ’Twas a great saloon, twice as long as broad. At the higher end stood the table and beds, but the lower part was left open for spectacles and games. The hangings behind the tables were of costliest tapestry. Painted columns, inimically woven with ivy and leaves of vine, divided the walls into partition, and each partition was a picture —fauns tippling in the woodland, bacchantes adorned with flowers, satyrs crowned with wine and armed with thyrsi, reeling tipsily round the leopard-drawn car of the young and blushing Bacchus. The ceiling was a great frieze, forming two pictures, representing all kinds of eatables ranged under the signs of the zodiac: under Aries, a ram’s head; under Taurus, a huge bit of roast beef; under Leo, an African fig (Afric being famed for its lions); under Sagittarius, a hare; under Capricornus, a lobster (on account of its horns); and under Aquarius, a goose (because your goose is very fond of the water), and so on. The pavement was a marvellous piece of work in mosaic, cleverly painted to seem strewn with débris from the last repast,—with flesh, with fish, with fowl, with broken dishes and wine-cups. The banquet table was of choice wood, with huge lion’s feet of massive ivory, and a covering of pure silver. The beds, or couches, were of bronze, ornamented with silver, gold, and tortoiseshell; the mattresses of purple-tinted Gaulish linen, and the pillows stuffed with feathers and covered with many-coloured silks seamed with gold thread. “Made at Babylon,” whispered Luscus, pointing to the couches; “and cost a fortune as large as my patrimony!” Suspended from the ceiling, or upheld by shining candelabras of precious metal, were lamps of bronze attended by slaves, whose special duty it was to cut the wicks and pour the oil. They filled the hall with a great blaze of brilliance, amid which sat the

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* Beware of the dog.
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437 guests and moved the slaves, like spirits enchanted in the garden of some happy Hesperides.
     Flinging themselves on a couch, the young men resigned themselves to the care of Egyptian slaves who poured over their hands water from silver vessels, and loosening their sandals, laved their feet and pared the nails—singing all the while in a soft voice. Indeed, no attendant moved about silently—all hummed at their work—so that, as Crotalus remarked, “the sound of the slaves was like the noise of innumerable bees on Hybla, amid which rose the conversation of the guests, like the tones of gods.” The guests, when all had assembled, might be about thirty, but the attendants seemed legion.
     While all were looking forward to the entrance of the Great Pompo, a young Athenian ventured to propose a riddle, which he gave in rhyme:

Sisters twain are we,—
     But one, as she dies, bears the other,
Yet in her turn dies she,
     And, in dying, brings forth—her mother?

     “That is not new,” grunted Crotalus, the bookworm. “’Tis a riddle of the tragedian Theodoktes, and the answer is—Day and Night. I like not borrowed wares.”
     “Thou art right, Crotalus,” cried Luscus, with sly malice. “Filched dinner-napkins are not always clean, and seldom bring good to the stealer!”
     This remark caused a general titter; for the philosopher had been more than once suspected of abstracting—in absence of mind, let us hope—the napkins of his acquaintances,—a crime which had long before caused the indignant “tollis lintea negligentiorum” of Catullus, in his hendecasyllabics to Asinius, and which was by no means unknown even among people of position. Crotalus reddened to the ears, and would have retorted very fiercely, had not the general attention just then been drawn in another direction; for young slaves approached, singing in chorus, and sprinkling the floor with dust of precious wood, intermixed with glittering specular powder. Then there was a playing of flutes, in the midst of which Polyposus Pompo the Great, entered smiling.
     Polyposus—so called on account of the great wen on his jolly nose—was a little tun-bellied, bald-headed man, who would have looked admirable in a bacchanalian procession, mounted on the ass of Silenus. There was as much conceit as good-humour in his look and manner. His face wore an effeminate smile, which showed that he was in some respects a fool, and his eyes had a shrewd twinkle, which showed that he was a bit of a knave. He entered perspiring, and wiping his brow with a delicate napkin, taking care as he did so to show the precious jewels on his white hand,—nay, even by baring the right arm, to reveal bracelets of finely-wrought gold and ivory. He smiled elegantly on his friends, embraced one of the most intimate, and saluted our two young men with a patronizing word of recognition. He then gave a great yawn, as if he had just got up from bed (as indeed was the case), and getting up was a bore.
     “I had hoped,” he said, “to find that you had commenced to sup, but indeed I have little to tempt the appetite. It is not for poor men to boast of 438 their boards. I can offer ye but simple fare, to which I, for one, bring the sauce of hunger. Crotalus, thou hast a longing look! Hast thou made the verses I requested of thee?” The philosopher having answered in the affirmative, the rich man proceeded: “I myself was thought to have a gift that way in my youth. I will not praise myself, but ye shall see. This will I say,—I never stooped to imitate the Greeks, as certain of our poets have done; and I dare trust mine own ear for musical numbers; nor do I wish to set up shop as a poet,—I would rather rest honest and cleanly. But there is a time for all things, and discourse is unsavoury before meat. We will begin.”
     A burst of applause greeted this speech. Polyposus, well pleased, sank into the central couch—half-a-dozen slaves running nimbly to prop him up with cushions—and clapped his hands. The doors at the lower end of the hall were thrown open, and a fresh train of servants entered, laden with the first service, or ante-meal.
     At the same moment, crowns of artificial flowers were distributed among the guests, by servants singing:—

Swell me a bowl with lusty wine,
Till I may see the plump Lyaeus swim
         Above the brim, &c.*

These crowns were supposed to have a special virtue, that of preventing drunkenness, by neutralizing the vapours of wine.
     It would be tedious to note in detail all the fine things that were set before guests. The most costly and splendid dishes, prepared by the occultist culinary skill, came and went in rapid succession. Noteworthy in the first service were hares with wings, so adorned as to represent fabulous animals, peacocks shining in all their splendid plumage, ostrich eggs, Spanish capons, and cranes! Luscus tried a slice of crane—a food whose only merit was that of exceeding rarity. Argyrion would have followed his example, had not he been warned by the expression of disgust on his friend’s face. In the second service was an enormous wild boar, with palm-baskets, full of dates, hanging on his fierce tusks, and tiny sweetmeat pigs lying by his side. At a signal from Pompo, up stepped a great cook, brandishing a glittering carving-knife, and ripping up the boar’s stomach, set free a fluttering quire of live thrushes, which flew wildly into the air among the guests. Then there was a huge platter of birds’ tongues, a dish of the enormous fish called muraena, and a plate of barbel—a fish which spoiled unless it died in pickle, and which had been brought at great expense from the far shores of the western ocean. Meanwhile, hither and thither passed Egyptian slaves, carrying round quaintly carved bread, and beautiful young Asians, with snow-water for the hands. At a sign from the host, there was brought a number of bottles closely sealed, with labels round their necks bearing this inscription:—

Falernian, a hundred years old.

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     * It has been thought unnecessary, in any part of the description, to refer to authorities, but it should be stated that these three lines are Ben Jonson’s paraphrase of a bit of Horace. The other verses in the text are original renderings.—R. B.

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439 “Behead!” cried Pompo; and the contents of the bottles were poured into crystal vases, perfumed, and cooled with snow. The guests charged their glasses.
     “Friends,” cried Polyposus, holding up a beaker bright with precious gems, “we dedicate the first goblet as a libation to the new moon.” So saying, he reversed his glass, and all the guests followed his example. “Alas, my friends!” he continued, “that very wine should survive the finer stuff we men are made of. This wine was born when Opimius was consul; deeply hath it sweated in the dark while we have been flaunting in the sunshine. A lyric fancy struck me the other day like a box on the ear; I tingled to the finger nails as I sipped my cup; I could have cried for pleasure. Your patience, friends, to hear this trifle.”
     There was dead silence, while Pompo recited the following doggrel in a sing-song treble:—

“Potent Philosopher, whose breath
Breathes wit, or love, or rage, or death,
Thou quarrel-causer, pain-subduer,
Potent disputer, wondrous wooer,
May Polyposus, like to thee,
     Ere comes the time for his last sleeping,
Each summer richer, ruddier, be,
     Grow purer and improve by keeping
Till at the last, when I, old fellow,
     No more at yonder heav’n can blink up,
May I, like thee, be mellow, mellow,
     And worthy for the gods to drink up!”

     The applause was tremendous. Crotalus averred that there was no neater set of verses in the Greek; Anacreon was an ass to Pompo. “The numbers are as milk and honey,” said Luscus; “Horatius’ ‘ad Amphoram’ cannot be compared with them.” “’Tis a trifle,” murmured Pompo, fidgeting with joy. “I would have ye hear my heroics on the wrath of Achilles, though tis unfortunate that Homer has treated the same subject before me.”
     The heat of the banquet-hall was growing very oppressive, when there entered divers beautiful Spanish girls, carrying fans made with peacocks’ tails, with which they gently agitated the air round the faces of the guests. The Asian slaves then brought snow and ointments for the hands, feet, and face. More than once Pompo, who was breathing like a porpoise baking on a hot ocean, retired to change his robe. Presently Luscus, who had for some time given signs of great internal agony, stole from his friend’s side. As he did not return speedily, Argyrion went in search of him, and found him in a small antechamber, very sick.
     “Why, what ails thee, Luscus?” Argyrion cried. “Art thou ill?”
     “I have been sick to death!” was the reply. “That confounded crane hath spoiled all my pleasure— turned the very wine into wormwood. I am better now, however, and will take care never again to taste strange dishes.”
     They returned to the banquet-hall just in time to witness the feats of a tumbler, who, suspended in the air just above the groaning table, went through the most extraordinary feats, to the great diversion of the guests, 440 who expected every moment to see him tumble down and break his neck. Another service had been brought in—as unique as the others. Then there was a loud cry from without, and in rushed a troop of young men in Grecian costume, brandishing swords and spears and fencing with each other. These were the Homerists, or strolling players, whose profession it was to visit rich men’s houses and recite there the verses of Homer. On this occasion however, they chaunted no honied Greek, but the Latin verses of Polyposus about the wrath of Achilles. The hexameters halted dreadfully, but the players made the best of them, and of course the applause was prodigious. As the sounds died away, servants brought in a number of little images of household gods and placed them on the table, and set in the centre a skeleton made of silver.
     “Behold,” said Polyposus, “our memento mori. Eat and drink, my friends, for to-morrow we die; honour also your lares and penates, that they may be serviceable to ye here and yonder. For myself, I am a philosopher, and neither fear nor desire death—Sic notus Polyposus? The pale fellow beats with his sure foot at the cottages of peasants and the palaces of kings. Invidious age forbids us to entertain long hope. I have built mine own monument, which some of ye have seen, and I have writ mine own epitaph, which ye shall hear:—

“Gentle stranger, pause and see
     Here POLYPOSUS POMPO lies!
A poor and worthy wight was he,
     Not wise, since none that live are wise,
And yet no fool, his deeds aver,
But poet and philosopher!
He cannot hear his friends abuse him,
     And praise his widow’s guineas yellow!
He cannot feel his wife ill-use him
     By marrying a sillier fellow;
But, toes and nose turn’d up, he’ll doze,
     Free from the scenes where mortals flout,
And never will his jolly nose
     Gleam like a gem at drinking bout!
Stranger, disturb not his repose!
     Pour a libation, and get out!”

     This also earned its share of smiling praise and applause—which again put Polyposus in excellent humour. By this time everybody was getting tipsy. Polyposus talked very thick indeed. Luscus saw double. Argyrion threw nutshells with drunken mirth at the heads of his acquaintances. Still quaffing tipsily, they listened to three Spanish girls, who sang to the lyre, and were attired voluptuously in short tunics of white thin silk. Some one then asked, in a thick voice, if there was to be a fight of gladiators?
     “Nay,” cried the host; “my old nerves are growing too weak for such games; I cannot abear the sight of blood, and though I have made one in the field when young, the very flash of a sword will now spoil mine appetite at times. Last time the gladiators played here, there were two slain outright and one wounded sore under the rib. I am for no more of it, and have indeed writ verses in dispraise of the sport.”
     At a sign from Polyposus, the attendants supplied the great lamps with 441 fresh oil, and scattered the floor afresh with glittering powder. Pompo now discoursed, with as much flippancy as good-nature, on sculpture, history, poetry, painting, and astronomy. The others joined, seldom disagreeing with the great man; but there was little or nothing in the conversation worth quoting. In the obscurer parts of the chamber sat certain freedmen in waiting, talking among themselves. What said they to all this show and luxury? They had their fears, and dared whisper them.
     “We are threatened with a famine,” said one. “I avow to thee, Fabius, that all to-day I could not procure myself a mouthful of bread. Provisions grow scarcer and scarcer, and the drought continues. Curse the Aediles! They are in league with the bakers! Poor men starve, and rich men never cease eating. Polyposus thinks more of a new dish than of a thousand Roman lives.”
     “Ay, ay,” returned another. “I ate my clothes yesterday. I must sell up my poor house, if the drought continues. Gods aid us! But why talk of gods? Folks now-a-days don’t believe Olympus is Olympus, and hold Jupiter of no more value than a flea; they shut their eyes, and eat if they can, and count their money if they have any.”
     This talk was overheard by a wealthier freedman, who only laughed, saying:
     “Cheerly, my poor fellow! Are we not going to have a grand gladiatorial combat in a few days? There will be real sharp swords and downright slaughter this time,—a rare sight to feed on for a week. Yet wilt thou go on grumbling?”
     The hours had been speeding by very rapidly, and presently a cock crew. At a fresh sign from Polyposus, the slaves carried in a great vase, and filled it with choice wine, sweetened with honey and perfumed with nard. A huge crown of fresh roses was then handed to the host, who plunged it into the wine.
     “Let us drink roses!” he cried, lifting the vase to his lips, while a flood of music from the flute-playing girls filled the banquet-hall. The vase was then passed round from mouth to mouth. This stirrup-cup, or draught of friendship, having been taken, the guests soon rose. Each in turn approached the host, who was now barely able to articulate.
     “May the gods be propitious unto thee!” cried each in turn; Luscus among others adding in his sleeve, “and all poor wretches who have nothing to eat!” But Crotalus, the philosopher, after staggering across the hall, and making several vain attempts to speak, dropped down at Polypsus’ feet, thoroughly stupified with drink. He was committed to the care of certain slaves, who had orders to dip him over the head in the cold bath ere carrying him home.
     Lastly, the guests passed forth, escorted by linkmen with torches. The day was dawning damply in the east, and Pompo’s little supper was over.

                                                                                                                                 ROBERT BUCHANAN.

Back to Fiction: Short Stories

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Poor Bonnithorne!

The Era Almanack (January, 1889 - pp.93-94)

 

“Poor Bonnithorne!”

BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.

THE world knows least of its greatest sufferers and most patient martyrs, and the saddest tragedies of life are those which take place in secret, “behind the scenes.” The little story I am about to tell, though simple and common enough, affords one instance out of many of the strange vicissitudes and sorrows of the theatrical profession. It is quite true in all particulars save one—the real name of the unfortunate individual whose fate it is my task to chronicle.
     Poor Bonnithorne (as I shall call him) was first introduced to me by a well-known man of letters, at a time when one of my plays was running, under my own management, at a London theatre. He was then about thirty-four years of age, and had been on the stage as an actor for some years; with no particular aptitude for his profession, and, so far as I could perceive, no great enthusiasm for it. He played small parts, generally the kind which used to be known as “second heavies” for a very small salary—just enough, with thrift, to keep the wolf from the door. Interested by his manners and appearance, which were those of a perfect gentleman, I gave him an engagement, and during the rehearsals and subsequent performances was particularly struck by two things—his quiet cheerfulness of disposition and his fondness for reading. It was obvious that he was very poor, and that his physical condition was delicate, for he was narrow-chested, and troubled at times with an irksome cough; but he never complained, never appeared impecunious, and was, perhaps, the brightest and pleasantest member of my little company. I discovered, during occasional conversations, that he had literary tastes, read and wrote “poetry,” and had a cultivated knowledge of general literature. At the wings, or in the green-room, he was generally armed with a book, which he would read in the intervals of his nightly work. He lent books, also, to those among his fellow-performers who had tastes in that direction, and was particularly zealous in finding works of fiction for the ladies; hence he became highly popular among the more serious members of the company, while by the less thoughtful he was given, with contemptuous good-nature, the title of “Gentleman Bonnithorne.” It so happened that in the drama we were representing several children were employed, and with these he was a special favourite, for he not only tried to amuse the little ones and make them happy, but night after night brought them presents of sweetmeats and toys. How he managed out of his very small salary to do all this, and to buy books, was certainly a mystery; but I came to the conclusion that he must have means outside of the gains from his profession, and that, though certainly not a married man, he had either secret resources, or relations who were liberal and well-to-do. This idea was corroborated by his talk and general bearing. He frequently alluded to his “club” (though I never ascertained to what club he belonged), to dinners with wealthy friends, to the movements of fashionable
society; and altogether, his air was that of a man well contented with his portion, and thoroughly secure as to the future.
     Our theatrical campaign was a short one, and on its termination I left London for my house in the country. The London season was then near its termination, the dog-days were beginning, and all people who could afford it were preparing to seek green meadows or the seaside. I left Bonnithorne in the highest spirits. He would remain in town, he said gaily, for a few days, and then, possibly, he “would go to Switzerland.” His “cough was a little troublesome”; he “would have a good long holiday.” A week or two after my departure I received a long letter from him, together with a little book of poetical selections which he had helped to edit. His letter was brightness itself. He gave me the picture of a well-to-do bachelor lingering in town out of mere whim, lounging at the clubs, strolling in the park, reading the new books, and thoroughly enjoying life. He had “changed his mind” about the scene of his holiday; he was “thinking of going on a yacht to Norway.” A little later came other letters, equally buoyant and delightful. After all, he said, “London was the jolliest place in the world”; the clubs, the parks, were “Paradise, even out of the season'”; he almost thought he would keep his money in his pocket, and take no holiday at all. Poor Bonnithorne!
     Conceive my surprise when, very shortly afterwards, one fine morning I received a letter from the clergyman of a large London parish, stating that in the course of his parochial ministrations he had discovered, in a lonely lodging, the dead body of a person unknown, who was supposed to have been an actor, and who had literally been starved to death! In a miserable room, almost without furniture, this unfortunate being had subsisted for many weeks. He went and came quietly, uttering no complaints, and holding no communication with his fellow-lodgers. At last, for one reason or another, he had kept his room, and when he was found there at last, he had been dead for nine days. Searching among some papers in the chamber, the clergyman found letters from myself and another member of my household, and from these he learned the dead man’s name, which was “Arthur Bonnithorne.” My correspondent’s immediate purpose in writing to me was, while informing me of the piteous facts, to ask me to assist in burying the body decently, and not in a pauper’s grave.
     Poor Bonnithorne! At the very time when he was talking about his “holiday in Switzerland,” and of “going on a yacht to Norway,” when he was describing with gay gusto the pleasures of clubland and the parks, he had been perishing for want of food. Day by day, week by week, he had kept up the show of independence and prosperity, and had confided to no one whatever the fact of his humble privations. Further inquiry showed that, even so far back as the time of his theatrical engagement, when he was bringing toys and sweetmeats to the poor children, he had denied himself common necessaries in order to make others happy. When found in that wretched room the body was worn to a skeleton, and covered only with a few miserable rags. Although perfectly well aware that assistance could have been easily procured, poor Bonnithorne was too proud and sensitive to solicit it. He preferred to let his friends believe that the sun was shining upon him; that he was a happy man about town; and that London was the “jolliest place in the world”!

Back to Fiction: Short Stories

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The Heir

The Graphic (25 December, 1894 - pp. 16,17,20,24,28).

 

The Heir:

A DRAMATIC SKETCH IN FOUR CHAPTERS

BY ROBERT BUCHANAN,

Author of “God and the Man,” “The Martyrdom of Madeleine,” “The Shadow of the Sword,” &c.
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CHAPTER I.

AN EXTREMELY PRETTY GIRL, clad in deep mourning, was sitting in an antique-looking but cosy apartment on the ground-floor of a house on the outskirts of the little town of Berkhampstead. She held a book in her lap, but it was disregarded, and her dreamy gaze was directed at a portrait on the wall, the frame of which was decorated with trailing wreaths of daffodils. The portrait was that of a man in the early sixties, and the face, though the features were somewhat roughly hewn, was full of kindliness, Martin Sherwood had been mourned more widely and deeply than most of us deserve to be, for his death, which had occurred a month or so before the opening of this story, had robbed the poor of Berkhampstead of their most generous friend, but none among all who had benefited by his generosity loved his memory with so tender and grateful an affection as the girl now gazing with moist eyes upon his picture. Fifteen years before he had found her on the roadside, barely a mile away from the house in which she now sat, a nameless waif, crying with cold and hunger on the breast of her dead mother. He was childless, and but recently had become a widower, and the child’s pretty face and unprotectedness so worked upon him that he adopted her and gave her his name—the only name she could claim being that her mother had called her by—Marion. He had come in natural process of time and the daily interchange of affection to look on her as his daughter, and to love her as if she had been veritably his own flesh and blood, and his death had left a terrible gap in the girl’s life.
     Marion’s musings were interrupted by an approaching step in the garden. The French window stood open, and a fatherly looking, little, elderly gentleman, with a kind, shrewd face, appeared at it.
     “Ah, there you are, my dear,” he said. “May I come in?”
     Marion rose with a bright welcome in her face, and the old gentleman entered. He looked worried and perplexed.
     “What is the matter, Mr. Somerson?” she asked. “Has anything happened to vex you?”
     “Nothing new,” answered the old gentleman, “except that I got a copy of the Melbourne Argus this morning, containing my advertisement.” He took a paper from his pocket, and read: “ ‘If this should reach the eye of Jasper Sherwood, only surviving brother of Martin Sherwood, merchant, deceased, of Berkhampstead, Shropshire, England, and he will communicate with Messrs. Somerson and Ludlow, solicitors, of that town, he will hear of something to his advantage.’ That has been appearing every day for over six weeks, you see, and as we have heard nothing, I am beginning to be afraid. Though, even if the scamp is alive, I fear matters would be little better. He can claim every penny poor Martin left, and as I remember him, he’s just the man to do it, and to turn you into the street. It’s a most unfortunate thing we can’t find that will! I’m sure it exists. He told me positively that it was made out, and that the bulk of his fortune went to you.”
     “And if you don’t find it?” asked Marion.
     Mr. Somerson shrugged his shoulders. “Either the whole estate will lapse to the Crown, or that scamp will turn up and take it, or some hungry relative we never heard of. In any case you will be left absolutely destitute.”
     “What a hateful thing money is!” cried the girl. “I wish there were no such thing in the world. Cannot I even think of him”—she turned her eyes on the portrait on the wall—“without having my memory of him poisoned with the thought of money?”
     “My dear child,” began Mr. Somerson.
     “Please don’t talk of it,” said Marion. “I shall be glad, of course, if the will is found. I know he would have liked me to stay in the old house; but if it must be otherwise, and I must go, it can’t be helped. I shall have to earn my own living. Well, there’s no great hardship in that. Thousands of women do it, and I am better fitted for the struggle than most of them, thanks to him. No, I won’t hear a word more about it. If the will is found let me know. If I have to go——” her voice faltered, but she continued bravely—“let me know when, but till the affair is settled I want to hear no more about it. I loved him for his goodness, his generosity, not for his money. And now,” she continued in a lighter tone as she took up her hat from a side table, “it’s time I looked in at the school. If you are good, and won’t talk about money, you shall come with me.”
     Mr. Somerson shrugged his shoulders again, with an air of hopeless resignation, and they went out together.
     A hundred yards down the lane they passed a tall, powerfully built man, dressed in shabby tweed literally powdered with dust. He had obviously been drinking, and swayed in his walk.
     “That’s an ugly looking customer,” said Mr. Somerson. “He’s not a Berkhampstead man. I wonder who he is.”
     He would have wondered still more if he had turned his head to watch the stranger, who walked through the garden the old lawyer and Marion had just left, and straight into the house. An elderly serving woman turned at his entrance, and seeing him screamed loudly.
     “Are you alone in the house?” he asked.
     “Alone!” she answered. “God forbid!” She made a movement towards the bell-handle, but he stopped her with a quick gesture.
     “None of that, old lady. Go and tell your master a gentleman wants to see him.” He threw his hat on to the table and sat astride a chair, puffing at the stump of a rank cigar. “Tell him it’s a gentleman from abroad,” he added, with a laugh.
     The woman started as with a sudden thought and, slowly approaching him, peered hard into his face.
     “I know your face,” she said. “Good Lord!” she added, with a sudden cry. “It’s Mr. Jasper.”
     “Hullo!” cried the man. “You know me?”
     “Know you!” she repeated. “Ah, Mr. Jasper, as if I could ever forget you. You used to be very kind to me when I was a girl.”
     “So I was to a good many,” said Jasper, with a leer and a chuckle. “I suppose you’re Sarah—the housekeeper’s daughter? Ah, I thought so. You’re changed, Sarah. You used to be rather a good-looking wench. Well, here I am, after twenty years of bad luck, come back again to have it out with that curmudgeon of a brother of mine. Tell him I’m here, and I’ll stay here till I see him.”
     “But,” said Sarah, wonderingly, “haven’t you heard?”
     “Heard what? I’ve heard nothing. I’ve only just come off shipboard at Liverpool.”
     “Your brother’s dead and buried!” cried Sarah.
     Jasper staggered in his seat and almost fell from it.
     “What?” he asked, hoarsely. “Martin dead!”
     He whistled a long, shrill note, and was silent for a moment.
     “They’ve been advertising for you everywhere.”
     “Have they, by God! That means he’s left me something, eh? How much, Sally? How much, eh?”
     “Everything,” said Sarah. “You’re his only living relative, and he left no will.”
     Jasper rose unsteadily, and seized her by the hand.
     “How much?” he asked. His whiskyfied breath scorched her face like a flame, his eyes glared from under his unkempt hair like a wild animal’s.
     “Thousands upon thousands,” said Sarah, “as well as this house and the business.”
     Jasper stared at her still for some seconds, breathing heavily, and then, releasing her hand, began a mad, capering dance, whistling and snapping his fingers.
     “Sarah, you messenger of luck, embrace me,” he cried. “So the wicked Duke is dead, and the banished Duke returns to his own again! Is there anything to drink in the house, Sarah?”
     “Anything you like to order,” said Sarah.
     “Anything!” echoed Jasper. “Champagne, perhaps!”
     “Yes!” said Sarah; “there’s six dozen down the cellar.”
     “Bring up a couple of bottles. And look here,” he called after her as she moved to obey his order, “bring something to eat, too!”
     A few minutes saw him seated before a plentiful repast of cold beef, which he attacked with ravenous appetite, washing down great mouthfuls with heavy bumpers of champagne.
     “Ah, Mr. Jasper,” said Sarah, sentimentally; “it’s like old times to have you back again. When your brother died, I said to Miss Marion——“
     “Said to who?” asked Jasper, with his mouth full.
     “Oh, of course,” cried Sarah, “you never heard. Why, your brother adopted a little girl he found in the street, and brought her up like his own daughter.”
     “Dev’lish generous—with my money!” said Jasper. “Where is she?”
     “Here,” said Sarah. “Everybody thought he’d leave her all his money, and it’s my belief he would have done it, too, if he hadn’t died so sudden.”
     “A judgment on him for unnatural conduct,” said Jasper. “Open that other bottle, will you. Is she pretty?”
     “H’m!” said Sarah. “So, so. You’ll see her for yourself presently. She’s only gone out for a walk with Mr.  Somerson.”
     “And who may he be?” asked Jasper. “Oh, ah, I remember. The lawyer.”
     “Yes. She’s a great pet of his, so your return won’t be as welcome to him as some other people,” said Sarah, with a giggle. “Lawks! Here they are, coming back, I do believe! No, it’s only Mr. Somerson.”
     The old gentleman appeared as she spoke. He came in absent-mindedly by the open window, and stared at Jasper with a mild surprise in his short-sighted eyes.
     “Bless me!” he said, glancing at the bottles on the table and back to Jasper. “Is it possible? Mr. Jasper Sherwood?”
     “Yes, old boy,” said Jasper. “Here I am. Sit down, and have a glass of fizz.”
     “Thank you,” said the lawyer. “I never drink before dinner. This is very strange, very unexpected. Might I—ah!—ask a private word with you, sir?”
     “Any number of ’em,” answered Jasper, draining another glass. “Sarah! Slope.” Thus quietly adjured, Sarah quitted the room. “Well, go ahead, Mr. Somersault!”
     “Somerson, if you please.”
     “Somerson, then. My brother has died intestate, I hear. What has he left?”
     “The annual profits of the business average between four and five thousand pounds. There are also accumulations to the extent of thirty thousand invested in securities. Let me explain to you——”
     “Oh, cut the explanations!” said Jasper. “I’ll see about details later on. Who’s this young hussey my brother has adopted?”
     “If you allude to Miss Sherwood, sir——”
     “Who has no right to the name,” interrupted Jasper.
     “She is committed to you as a sacred trust!”
     Jasper laughed, with a drunken flourish of the hand.
     “It was your brother’s wish——”
     “To leave her all he had, and let me rot in the street,” interrupted Jasper. “So I’ve heard. Keep your hair on, as we say out West,” he added as Mr. Somerson was about to speak. “I’ll have a look at the girl, and if she’s pretty and amiable, why——” he winked with a knowing, drunken laugh—“I daresay we shall get on together. Hullo!” he  continued, “who’s this? The girl herself, eh?”
     It was indeed Marion, who had entered unobserved a moment before, and stood looking wonderingly from Jasper to Mr. Somerson. After the first second of surprise she read the situation.
     “Mr. Jasper Sherwood?” Jasper nodded. “I am glad you have returned.”
     “That’s a fib, I’m afraid,” said Jasper, “but I like you none the worse for being game. Egad, the old hunks hadn’t bad taste. You’re devilish pretty. All right old six-and-eightpence,” he continued to the lawyer. “I’ll take on the girl with the rest of the property. Come along, my dear.”
     He approached her unsteadily, with extended arms. Marion shrank from him to Mr. Somerson.
     “Take me away,” she cried.
     “Gammon!” said Jasper, with drunken geniality. “One brother’s as good as another, isn’t he?”
     Marion made a swift movement to the bell. Jane answered the call before its sound had died out. She had been listening at the door.
     “Take down that picture,” said Marion. “I am going away.”
     “Leave my property alone,” said Jasper. “That picture’s mine!”
     “It is mine,” said Marion. “It was your brother’s gift to me.” “I’ve only your word for that,” said Jasper.
     Marion quivered as if he had struck her, and Mr. Somerson made an angry exclamation.
     “Keep the portrait,” said the girl, “and let its face haunt you. I believe now what everybody says of you. I had hoped it was not true, for you are his brother. Remain here alone with your shame, with his eyes upon you. Come, Mr. Somerson. Take me away!”
     “Look here,” said Jasper. “Don’t be in such a devil of a hurry! She’s gone, by gad!” He staggered back into his chair. “That’s a game little girl! I like ’em when they’re plucky. She’s got a tongue of her own.” His eyes rested on the portrait. He scowled, and a little shiver ran through his frame. “Confound the thing. It looks as if it was alive!” He tacked across the room and turned the picture to the wall. “That’s better,” he said, going back to his seat. “I shan’t stay in this house. It’ll be too filthily dull. I shall sell it. I like that girl. She let me have it straight. And she’s right, too. I’m a bad lot.”

 

CHAPTER II.

     MR. SOMERSON and his sister, a placid, white-haired, elderly woman, who acted as the old solicitor’s housekeeper, found Marion a temporary home. They would have acted just as generously if Jasper Sherwood’s right to the position he arrogated in his brother’s house had been proved beyond any chance of dispute, for they were both extremely fond of her, and were both very tender-hearted and unworldly people. But Mr. Somerson stuck unfalteringly to his belief in the existence of the will which his old friend had assured him had been made in Marion’s favour, and would not relinquish his hopes of finding it, and of reinstating her in possession of Martin Sherwood’s house and fortune. He wrote a calm and businesslike letter to Jasper Sherwood, asking, as his deceased brother’s solicitor, for free access to all the dead man’s documents and books of business, and, considerably to his surprise, received a curt answer, scrawled in pencil on a crumpled piece of paper, to the effect that he was free to go to the house at what hour he would, and that all such material as he needed for the adjustment of the estate were at his disposal. He availed himself of the permission, and passed a good many hours in the late Martin Sherwood’s business room, methodically searching through piles of dusty documents in search of the missing will.
     Jasper left him severely alone, but he got occasional glimpses of him, and they were not such as tended to improve his opinion of the returned prodigal. Careless in dress, loud and violent in manner, Jasper spent day and night in company with two or three congenial spirits from the town, and for a fortnight after his return did not draw a sober breath. His orgies became the talk of the place, and one or two of the more courageous or more curious among the respectable part of the community who had ventured to call upon him and tender their congratulations on his access to fortune brought such reports of their reception as effectually gave pause to other intending visitors—which was just what Jasper wanted.
     On two occasions only had Marion seen him since their first interview. They came face to face in a narrow lane on the outskirts of the town. He was in his customary condition, and Marion was terribly frightened by the encounter. Flight, had she even thought of it, would have been useless, so she walked straight on. He made way for her, and raised his hat in silence. When she turned, a hundred yards further on, he was still there, looking after her. On the second occasion she was sitting with a book in Mr. Somerson’s garden, when a sudden sense of nearness to something unseen made her raise her head and glance about her. Jasper was leaning on the gate. He was less gone in intoxication than she had yet seen him, and his dress was neater.
     “Nice night,” he said, nodding to her.
     She assented quietly.
     “The picture’s all right,” he added, and, after lingering for a moment, as if to speak again, abruptly walked away.
     The actual day of Marion’s birthday being unknown, the anniversary of the day on which Martin Sherwood had found and adopted her had been accepted as its substitute. It came round in due course, and Jasper, who had somehow heard of the occasion, astonished Marion by another appearance. His name was brought to her by the servant, and she decided to see him, greatly to the terror of Miss Somerson, in whose conception Jasper was a sort of ogre. He came into the little sitting-room, and the second surprise of the day was the recognition of the fact that he was perfectly sober. His iron-grey elf-locks and bristling beard had been trimmed, his dress was neat, and but for the too-obvious marks of recent heavy drinking he would have been perfectly presentable anywhere.
     “I heard it was your birthday,” he said, “and I’ve brought you a present. Perhaps you can guess what it is? Ah!” he went on, as a glad light came into Marion’s eyes, “I see you do. Yes, it’s my brother’s picture. What the devil was there in old Matt Sherwood to make a girl like you love him so? Yes, I know,” he added, impatiently, as the girl opened her lips to speak. “He was the best man that ever lived, of course. I’ve heard all that.”
     Between the joy at the recovery of her dead friend’s picture and her confusion at the sullen fashion in which it was offered, Marion remained silent.
     “I say, little woman,” said Jasper, “excuse my familiarity. I’m rough, but I don’t mean any harm—you can hit out from the shoulder when you like. Well, I was drunk, and I acted like a brute, and I deserved what I got. You’re a game little girl, and I respect you.”
     “I respect you, said Marion, “when you own your fault.”
     “Right, schoolmistress. Look here! There’s no malice? You’ve forgiven me?”
     “Freely,” said Marion.
     “You’ll give me your hand to prove it?” Marion held out her hand, and he took it in both his own. “It’s a pretty little hand!” She drew it back quickly. “No offence. There’s a fellow outside in the hall with the picture. Shall I call him in?” Marion assenting, the man was summoned. “There’s an empty space on the wall there,” continued Jasper. “I’ll hang it up for you if you like.”
     He mounted on a chair, and was in the act of adjusting the picture when Marion was startled by the sudden entrance of Mr. Somerson in a most unusual condition of wild excitement. At the sight of Marion he waved a fragment of paper in the air, and broke into a cheer.
     “Hurrah!” he cried. “I’ve found it, my dear! I’ve found it!”
     “Found what?” asked Marion, wondering at his excitement.
     “The will!” cried the old gentleman—“Martin Sherwood’s will!”
     Jasper turned with a start, and, missing his footing, came heavily to the floor, recovering himself with a stagger.
     “What?” he cried—“what’s that?”
     Mr. Somerson started at this sudden apparition of the enemy in his own house, but Jasper, loudly repeating his question, answered him.
     “Your brother’s will is found, sir.”
     “Oh,” said Jasper, with a dangerous calm. “And what are its conditions? Not very favourable to me, I imagine, since they please you so well!”
     “Its provisions, sir, are easily stated.” He stuck his glasses on his nose, and read from the paper in his hand: “I give and bequeath all my property whatsoever, real or personal, to the child of my adoption, known as Marion Sherwood, leaving it to her sole discretion to make, if she so chooses, a small provision for my only brother, Jasper Sherwood, should he be still living, and return to England. And for the carrying out of this, my solemn will and injunction, I appoint my old friend, Arthur Somerson, of Somerson and Ludlow, solicitor, Berkhampstead, my sole trustee.”
     “This is some trick!” cried Jasper. “Let me look at that paper!”
     Mr. Somerson smiled quietly, and placed the document in his pocket.
     “I understand,” said Jasper between his set teeth, “a trick between this girl and you to rob me of my inheritance. But, by God——”
     “It is no trick, sir,” said Mr, Somerson. It is Providence. Your cruelty and debauchery will now meet with their just punishment. You will leave this place as you returned to it, without a penny and without a friend.”
     Jasper made a furious movement, checked by a touch of Marion’s hand.
     “You too!” cried Jasper. “You whom I thought different to all the rest! You have planned and plotted for this, you have smiled and lied. You knew that this was coming. You waited to see me shamed and beggared. But don’t be too sure of your triumph yet, my lady. You work by the law, and to the law I’ll appeal. I’ll stand to my own to the last drop of my blood. Keep back!” he cried, as Marion advanced a step. “The devil take you all!”
     He went raging from the house and left them together.
     “The wild beast!” ejaculated Mr. Somerson. “He is justly punished. Marion, my dear, I congratulate you with all my heart.”
     Marion did not speak. She had gone very pale, and was standing gazing into vacancy with a strange, thoughtful look upon her face.
     “Are you sure, quite sure, that it is as you say?” she asked, after a long pause.
     “Sure!” echoed Mr. Somerson, with genial triumph. “I’ll stake my legal reputation on it. The will is as valid as a will can be. You are perfectly secure. Of course, if you want to help that fellow—and I suppose you will, and I don’t think any the worse of you on that account—you can do it. The will gives you that discretion.”
     “Yes,” said Marion, quietly still. “And do you think I ought to help him?”
     “Why, my dear, as to that—I—well, yes. Yes, decidedly. Give him a small pension, the smaller the better, he’ll only spend it in riot and debauchery. Oh, better still, give him a few hundreds in a lump sum on condition of his leaving the country for good and all. It is only justice to recognise that he has some claim on you.”
     “And justice is before everything, is it not?” asked Marion, still with the strange, far away look in her eyes.
     “Of course, of course!” said Mr. Somerson. “This is a case in which you should even be a little generous, I think. I’ll see the fellow and arrange with him. Say a thousand, cash down, on condition of his going away for good.”
     “I should like,” said Marion, “to read the will through, by myself. Will you give it me, please?” Mr. Somerson hesitated. “I want to understand—to make certain of my good fortune,”
     “Well, there it is,” the old lawyer said, handing her the document a little unwillingly. “But for Heaven’s sake be careful of it. I have had no time to get an attested copy made, and that scrap of paper constitutes your sole title to the property.” 
     “I understand,” said Marion. “I will be careful of it.”
     “I must run away now, my dear,” said the old gentleman, kissing her cheek with fatherly affection. “I have an appointment. God bless you, my child. You deserve all the good fortune that can possibly fall to you.”
     He bustled out, leaving Marion gazing at the document in her hand. She read and re-read it till its words lost their significance to her mind. She sank into a seat opposite the portrait of her adopted father, and gazed long and ardently at the pictured face, as if it had been alive, and she were waiting some sign or word to direct her conduct.
     How long she sat she could never afterwards remember, but she was roused from her absorption by a sudden sound of angry voices in the corridor outside.
     “I don’t desire your presence here, sir. I object to these continued intrusions on my privacy. If you have any business with me, or with Miss Sherwood, you know my business address, and you must call there.”
     The voice was Mr. Somerson’s, and the tone was harsh and peremptory. Jasper’s voice, strangely quiet and restrained, answered it.
     “I desire nothing, sir, except a word with Miss Sherwood. It will be a very brief word, and—it will be the last that I shall ask.”
     “Miss Sherwood will not see you!” retorted the old gentleman, angrily. “You may take your answer from me. You can have nothing to say to her which you can’t say just as well to me.”
     Marion stepped into the corridor.
     “I will see Mr. Sherwood,” she said, quietly. “You may be present, Mr. Somerson, if you will.”
     Jasper passed the old gentleman with a grave and courteous bend of the head. His bearing had undergone a complete change in the last hour.
     “I have to apologise to you, Miss Sherwood,” he said, “for my intemperate language a little time ago. I was a fool. I ought to have known that my brother would never let me inherit. Well, it’s no fault of yours, little woman. As for me——”
     “What will you do?” asked Marion, looking at him intently, surprised by his gentleness, but feeling the strong current of desperation which lay beneath it.
     Jasper shrugged his shoulders with a bitter smile.
     “What I have done all along. Fight for my own hand. Drink, gamble, and at last—die! What does it matter? All life is a gamble at best, and it’s all a hazard whether we win or lose.”
     “Will you go away?”
     “Yes, and the further the better. I was a brute when I came here—perhaps I’m a brute still—but you’re the only bit of sunshine I’ve ever seen in all my life. I want to part friends—real friends. I wish you to know that I don’t envy you your luck, for you deserve it. And I’ll say this too. My brother did the right thing when he left everything to you.”
     “You mean that?” asked Marion, still with the same intense gaze upon his face.
     “Yes,” said Jasper, simply, “I mean it.”
     “At least,” she said, “I may help you.”
     “With money,” he cried, fiercely. “Keep it all. I only came,” he continued, falling back into his quieter manner, “to say good-bye.”
     He held out his hand. Marion met it with her own, and held it firmly.
     “Do you think,” she asked, “that your brother, if he had lived, would have driven you away as I am doing?”
     “I am sure of it,” said Jasper.
     “And I am sure that you are wrong. I’ve been there before his picture—the picture you gave me—looking up into his face. I seemed to hear him saying, ‘You have no right to the inheritance, my child. It belongs to another.’”
     “Infernal nonsense!” cried the old solicitor. “It belongs to you, by the terms of Martin Sherwood’s will.”
     “There is no will,” said Marion. Her fingers closed strongly on the paper, and it fluttered in fragments to her feet. “Keep what is justly yours. It comes to you with your brother’s blessing.” She turned with a sudden cry to the picture. “Father, if I have done wrong, forgive me!”

 

CHAPTER III.

     THE passage of the next forty-eight hours brought no event bearing upon the present history. There was a good deal of talk and conjecture in the little town regarding the condition of affairs, for old Mr. Somerson had not been silent regarding his finding of the will. Jasper’s continued residence in his brother’s house, and Marion continuing her stay with the old lawyer, gave copious matter for the tongue of gossip, and the principal actors in the little romance were the theme of a good deal of talk at Berkhampstead tea-tables.
     It was obvious, for one thing, that a great change had come over Jasper. He had ceased to drink, and had discarded the boon companions who had broken the long record of quiet respectability which the house had held under his brother’s rule. Taciturn and thoughtful, he remained for hours alone, sometimes with a book in his hands, staring at the same page for hours together, or pacing the garden walks with knitted brows and down-bent head.
     Towards the close of the second day he despatched a message with a short note to Mr. Somerson. “Please come at once.—Yours faithfully, Jasper Sherwood.”
     The old gentleman set out immediately, promising a speedy return, but when his usual hour for retiring to rest had long gone past, and he was still missing, his sister and Marion went to bed, and passed a restless night wondering on the cause of his delay. They learned it on the following morning at the breakfast-table. As Mr. Somerson entered the room his face was as a book in which the women read strange matter.
     “Marion, my child,” he said, after kissing her, “that act of Quixotic folly of yours has had strange results. The whole world must be going mad together, I think. What”—he appealed to his sister here—“what do you think Jasper Sherwood wanted to see me about last night? Guess if you can!”
     “I should say,” said Miss Somerson, “that if he had any remnant of decency left in his nature, he has offered to share his brother’s fortune with Marion. That is the least he could do.”
     “To share the fortune!” repeated Mr. Somerson. “Yes; that is what he proposes. But that is not all. How do you suppose he proposes to do it? By making her his wife.”
     “His wife!” gasped Marion.
     “It’s a grand idea, isn’t it?” said Mr. Somerson. “Jasper Sherwood, old enough to be your father, and as great a scamp as ever walked, wants to marry a young and innocent girl like you. And, to crown the absurdity, I’m sent here as his ambassador.”
     “The man’s mad!” said Miss Somerson.
     “Mad or sane,” said Mr. Somerson, “that is his idea, and he is coming here to receive your answer from your own lips, Marion. Of course, I know perfectly well what the answer will be. I told him quite plainly at least a dozen times what it must be, and begged him to take it from me, but he would not, and insisted on pleading his own cause. To do him justice—you know my opinion of him, but one ought to give even blacker people than Jasper Sherwood their due—he seemed greatly touched by your magnanimity, and he spoke of you with, for him, remarkable delicacy.”
     “I can’t see him,” said Marion, profoundly agitated. “I really can’t, Mr. Somerson.”
     “If you take my advice, my dear,” said the old gentleman, “you will see him. It is the best course to pursue. He swears that nothing will prevent him from seeing you, and he will keep his word. But he promised me faithfully—‘on his honour as a gentleman’ was his expression, and somehow I managed not to laugh—that he would accept your answer, whatever it might be—his expression again—and trouble you no further. See him by all means. It will be something of an ordeal, I’m afraid; but it will be over in a minute, and Jane and I will be by to protect you if protection is needed.”
     This sudden turn of affairs naturally disquieted Marion terribly. This strange, wild man, careless, uncouth, desperate, with his vividly contrasting moods of savagery and gentleness, selfishness and generosity, was a creature of whose existence she could not possibly have even dreamed only a few days ago. He had traversed the tranquil sky of her simple experience like some red-maned, threatening comet. He frightened her, and yet, as she sat thinking of him, she began to be conscious that fear was not the only emotion he had power to rouse in her bosom. That she should ever consent to marry him was impossible altogether; it was unthinkable. Marriage, to her pure and simple mind, meant love, nothing less than the deepest love woman was capable of could make the act less than a sacrilege of all that was highest in her. But the rude and spontaneous force of Jasper’s nature was beginning to dominate her. Like all true women, she worshipped strength, and here at least was a strong man, terribly, titanically strong, he seemed to her; strong in his weaknesses and vices, in the simple and deliberate fashion in which he approached any object he coveted. And he might have been a good man, for he was Martin Sherwood’s brother, and she began to see points of resemblance between him and Martin, likeness in unlikeness. How had any creature so weak and frail as she come to dominate such a man as this? She found herself speculating on his early life, of which Martin Sherwood had never told her anything, and wondering what woeful accident had turned to base uses a nature so strong, so generous. Pity for his wasted life coloured her thoughts of him to a warmer tinge, she felt certain that he had been hardly used, that some unknown heart tragedy, some bitter buffet of cruel fate, had changed him from the man he might have been to the reckless desperado that he was.
     She gazed long and ardently at the pictured face of her dead benefactor, seeing in it, as she had never seen before, the resemblance it bore to Jasper. Yes, they were wonderfully alike, the difference was one wholly of expression, and what were the expressions, different as they were, but the records of the lives the two men had led, the one life so calm and peaceful, given up to offices of kindliness and peace, the other—what had that been? The girl knew that her narrow and placid experience could not help her to answer the riddle. She saw Jasper during the long past years, vaguely, as she had seen him in the flesh, rough, brutal, drunken, yet, somehow, with a redeeming touch of nobility lighting up his degradation, not wholly lost at his worst and most callous moment. And, as she mused thus, Sarah opened the door of the little sitting-room and announced:—
     “Mr. Jasper Sherwood, to see you, Miss.”
     Jasper entered the room, followed by Mr. Somerson. He was deadly pale, with an intense light gleaming under the shaggy brows he bent on Marion as she rose shrinkingly at his entrance; but he bowed to her with a gesture of simple and profound respect which touched her.
     “Mr. Somerson gave you my message?” he asked.
     She falteringly answered “Yes.”
     “I knew quite as well as he could tell me,” Jasper continued, “what your answer would be, but I wanted to hear it from your own lips. He can remain now if you would rather that he did, but I should like our few last words to be spoken alone. It’s good-bye between us two, I know, but I want—I want to tell you——”
     His voice faltered and died away.
     “Leave us, Mr. Somerson,” said Marion, gently. “I would rather be alone with Mr. Sherwood.”
     “Very well, my dear,” said the old gentleman, with a scarcely perceptible shrug of his shoulders. “I shall be within call if you want me.”
     He withdrew, and Marion timidly signed Jasper to a seat, but he remained standing, looking at her with a gaze which fascinated her. He held out his arms with a sudden gesture of tenderness.
     “Marion!”
     “Ah, don’t!” cried Marion, shrinking away.
     Jasper’s arms fell again to his sides.
     “God knows,” he said quietly, “that I’m not the sort of man to take the fancy of a pure young girl like you. But after yesterday, when you gave me back everything of your own free will, I was stunned and dazed till I thought I saw the way out of it—the only way.”
     “You might have known that it was impossible—you might have guessed.”
     “I am a bad hand at guessing,” said Jasper. “I play cards on the table and keep none up my sleeve! I’m gambling now for the biggest stake in the world, but I play fair.” He made a step towards her, but, as she shrank away, paused again. “Don’t be afraid of me, little woman. I wouldn’t touch the hem of your dress if you said ‘No.’ But I want to tell you—I want to tell you what you’ve been to me this last day or two. Just when I was deepest down, just when my last chance seemed gone, you came down into my life to snatch me out of hell. No mistake—hell, and double black at that. What was I? What have I been any time this five-and-twenty years? One of the scum of the earth—a drunken brute without a conscience, believing in nothing, hoping for nothing but drink and dice, dirt and shame. Not that it was all my fault, Marion. I’ve had hard luck. I’d never met a right down solid angel, spick and span from God’s own hand, till I saw   you.
     The flood of his emotion had conquered the floodgates of his habitual cynical reticence. He seemed a man transformed, and Marion, listening to his throbbing voice and watching the changes of his face, stood spellbound.
     “The first time we met, and I acted like the drunken brute I was, and insulted you, you stood up to me. I was too dazed with drink to know it at the moment, but I know now that I loved you from that moment. I laughed at you, and let you go—let you go! I drove you out of the house! What decent girl, let alone you, would have stayed under the same roof with such a beast as I? But I admired your pluck, and your prettiness as well. Then, bit by bit, I went over your words. I couldn’t sleep for thinking of them, and of you as well. Day and night I heard your voice and saw your face. When I looked at the picture I had stolen from you—yes, stolen, for all the time I denied your right to it I knew that it was yours, and that you couldn’t tell a lie if you tried—I hated myself. And the picture haunted me, just as you said it would. It was no use turning it to the wall, the face seemed to burn through the canvas, and whenever I looked at poor Matt’s face, it faded away, and seemed to change to yours.”
     Marion looked instinctively towards the picture, and Jasper’s eyes followed hers.
     “Yes,” he said, “there he is, and I only wish he were here and I was where he is. I don’t know what spell you’ve cast over me, but everything is changed. For the first time for years past, I’ve been thinking of poor Matt—thinking of him willingly, I mean, taking pleasure in thinking of him. I’ve been thinking how we were boys together—how we parted— how all the blame was mine, though ever since we quarrelled I’ve hardened my heart and thrown it all on him. I thought I’d hated him, but you taught me that it wasn’t hate of him, but shame of myself. And I said in my heart, ‘Matt Sherwood, I’m sorry you died before I could shake hands and own my fault, for since that angel believes in you so  much, you must have been the right sort after all.’”
     “You felt that?” cried Marion, joyfully. “You forgave your brother!”
     “No,” said Jasper, “but I wish he had lived to forgive me. But all the time, Marion, I was a brute still. You don’t know, little woman, what pluck it takes to own to being beaten, or to acknowledge being soft-hearted! So I ran to the drink again, and laughed at myself for a fool; but you’d beaten me in the first round, though I was ashamed to own it. I was drawn nearer and nearer to you with every hour that passed, till yesterday, when you rose up like the angel you are, and gave up everything for my sake, I knew I loved you better than my own life, better than anything a man can hope for in this world or the world to come.”
     “It was not for your sake,” said Marion. “It was for his. I knew what he would wish me, in his heart, to do if you returned. I knew that through all the years your estrangement had lasted he had never ceased to love you!”
     “I’ll believe that!” said Jasper. “I’ll believe anything you tell me, Marion. When I came here to-day it was only to say good-bye, not to weary you with my protestations. But I must speak, I must make one last appeal. You hold my soul in your hands; it is in your power to save or damn me. Without you I shall be what I was—a lost soul, sinking down— down—down. With you I shall be like a soul born again. Ah, Marion, put your hand in mine. Share what he left with me, or take it all, but only say you’ll be my wife, only say you’ll save me from myself!”
     “I can’t, I can’t,” cried Marion, frightened anew by the solemn vehemence of his offer. “Be your own salvation. Pray for strength, and become what you want to be—a good man, as good as he was.”
     “I’ll try, with you to help me.”
     “I can’t help you in that way!” said Marion; “what you ask is impossible.”
     “That is your final answer?” asked Jasper, with sudden quiet.
     “Yes, it must be. I don’t love you. I can’t marry you.”
     “So!” he said, with bitter lightness following on a short silence, “so goes your last dream, Jasper Sherwood, the last you’ll ever dream! Well, I asked for my answer and I’ve got it! Good-bye, little woman. I shan’t trouble you again. Keep what my brother gave to you, and—give me a thought sometimes, Marion.”
     “You are going?” said Marion.
     “Yes.”
     “Going away? But where?”
     “Where I came from,” said Jasper, with the same bitter lightness, back to the old life, to drink and the devil. I’d have had a try to become a decent fellow again if you’d have helped me; but—bah! I’m making an ass of myself. God bless you, dear; whatever happens you’ve made a man of a brute for a day or two at least, and it took an angel like you to do that.”
     He carried her hand to his lips, and would have let it fall again, but her slight fingers closed on his with a sudden nervous grip.
     “If I asked you to stay?” she panted.
     “What?” he cried. “Marion! You love me!”
     “No,” she said, “not yet. But I will try to. I cannot let you go back to the life you speak of. His brother!” she murmured to her own heart, with her eyes upon the picture, and Jasper caught her to his breast.

 

CHAPTER IV.

I hold it true, with him who sings
     To one clear harp in divers tones,
     That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.

     JASPER SHERWOOD let the book he had taken up a moment earlier fall to his knees, and sat murmuring the words he had read. It was a calm evening of early midsummer. Outside the birds were singing their good-night to the slowly dying light in the western sky, and a pleasant murmur of wheels and voices came from the neighbouring town, mingled with the faint rustle of the trees surrounding the house. Jasper had taken up the volume in an idle moment, and it had fallen open at the title-page, on which he had found the inscription, “To my dear daughter Marion, May 18.—Martin Sherwood.”
     A change wider and deeper than any one who had known him a few weeks earlier would have thought possible, than even he himself was yet aware, had come over Jasper Sherwood since first we made his acquaintance. The people about him who saw only the outer evidences could not know how completely it had transformed his inner man. They saw that the old coarseness and brutality of bearing had gone, giving place to a uniform gentleness and grave cordiality. They saw that the old habits were abandoned, that the outer walls of the tenement were whitewashed, but only one among them, the woman whose gentle image had worked this wondrous change, knew what a tender and solemn light filled the inner spaces of Jasper’s being.
     In him the change was nothing less than marvellous. He seemed a soul new born, with new senses and new capacities of emotion. The savage cynicism which had strangled every worthy feeling was gone, mind and sense were opened to innumerable and infinite suggestions of beauty and significance which till now had passed unregarded. The whole world seemed bathed in a new and tranquil light, a flower, a gleam of sunshine, a passing face, every little accident of daily life seemed fraught with tender meaning. He remembered his past follies with loathing and bitter regret, he looked forward to his future with humble self-questionings and lofty hope.
     He had learned from Marion and Mr. Somerson what had been his favoured philanthropic schemes, and had continued them with a generosity which had rather frightened the cautious solicitor.
     “I’m like Scrooge, Mr. Somerson!“ he replied, with a laugh to the old gentleman’s remonstrance. “I’m paying off arrears, and it’s a very sorry generosity, for I’m only spending Marion’s money!”
     These benefactions had brought to Jasper a disquieting amount of popularity among the respectable inhabitants of the little town, who, as we have seen, had hitherto avoided him. A prodigal who is not only wealthy but repentant is certain of a warm welcome when he returns to the fold. The Vicar of Berkhampstead called to thank Mr. Sherwood personally for his liberal subscription to the Boot and Blanket Fund, and expressed a hope that he might see him in his lamented brother’s pew in church on the approaching Sunday.
     “No, sir!” said Jasper, gravely; “I shan’t come to church yet. I shall go there to be married, and afterwards I may come with my wife. I don’t feel fit to go there yet!”
     “You are, I hope, a Christian, Mr. Sherwood?” said the Vicar.
     “I’m what she is,” said Jasper. “What is good enough for her to believe in is good enough for me. If I ever get to Heaven it will be in her company, and it will be her doing, not mine.”
     “Miss Sherwood is an excellent young lady,” said the cleric, a little dubiously.
     “She’s an angel,” said Jasper.
     “We are warned,” said the Vicar, “not to make to ourselves idols in the flesh.”
     “I don’t,” said Jasper; “Miss Sherwood has been God’s messenger to me, sir. She plucked me out of the mud, and converted a beast into a man. She’s my religion. She’s taught me that there must be a God, and that He must be good— how else could such a soul exist on this earth?”
     The Vicar was a good man, a little narrow and conventional, but a good heart is equal to intelligence in some matters.
     “He prayeth best who loveth best!” he said, gently. “Love of any one of God’s creatures—especially a good woman—is the nearest way to Him.”

Jasper sat in the declining twilight, with the book of verse upon his knee, and his grizzled beard crushed against his breast.

“Men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things,”

he repeated, in a deep inward murmur. “Yes, when they find the guiding hand to lead them upwards. But what if they don’t? What should I have been without Marion? What I was, what I have been all my life!”
     A knock at the door roused him from his musings, and Sarah entered announcing Mr. Somerson.
     “Light the lamps, Sarah, and leave us,” said Jasper, after shaking hands with the old gentleman, who returned his salute with cordial friendship.
     “Well, Mr, Somerson, is the settlement prepared?”
     “Yes,” said Mr. Somerson, producing a document from his pocket. “I have it here with me. I have adhered strictly to your instructions. In case of your decease everything goes to your wife, unconditionally.”
     “Good,” said Jasper, “that was what I wanted; but it isn’t all. Can’t you make a will, or a codicil, or whatever you call it, to the effect that—that if anything shall happen to me before marriage, Miss Sherwood is my heiress?”
     “Certainly, if you wish it.”
     “I do wish it,” said Jasper. “I don’t want to leave any loophole for chance to creep through.”
     “Very right and proper,” said Mr. Somerson. “It shall be done to-morrow.”
     “Thank you,” said Jasper, and remained silent for a moment.
     “Mr. Somerson,” he said, presently, breaking silence again. “I want to ask you a very important question, and I want you to answer it quite candidly. Don’t say anything because you think it will be pleasant or will spare my feelings. Miss Sherwood is living in your house. You see her every hour of the day, you have opportunities I have not of sounding her feelings. Tell me what are her real feelings regarding our marriage?”
     The lawyer coughed and blinked.
     “What does she think of me?” continued Jasper. “Is she marrying me because she loves me, or merely out of pity? That’s what I want to know.”
     “Really,” said Mr. Somerson, “this is a little embarrassing.”
     “It needn’t be,” said Jasper. “Say what you think.”
     “My dear sir,” said Mr. Somerson, “so far as a dry old solicitor like myself has had any opportunity of observing young ladies in Miss Sherwood’s position, they are rather inclined to be—ah—reticent about their feelings. Your desire for information on such a point is, I admit—ahem!—very natural, but without direct communication with Miss Sherwood on the subject I—hem!—I really can’t inform you. The generosity of your conduct, and——”
     “Yes, yes,” said Jasper, “I know all that.” He sat silent for a little time, and then, rising abruptly, held out his hand. “Good-night, Mr. Somerson. Say nothing to Marion; I’ll see her in the morning.”
     He sat late into the night, musing deeply, and went to bed to toss and tumble till long after dawn. At noon he left the house, and betook himself to Mr. Somerson’s, where he found Marion in her accustomed place before his brother’s picture, knitting some ornamental trifle with a book upon her lap. She rose with a bright smile at his entrance, and laid her hands upon his shoulders as he took her face between his hands.
     “How grave you look!” she said. “Has anything happened?”
     “Nothing,” he answered, kissing her forehead. “And you, are you happy, dear?”
     “Yes,“ she answered, “I am very happy!” There was a touch of wonder in the look with which she answered the long, grave regard he bent upon her. She was paler than she had used to be, and her whole look and bearing were more womanly.
     Jasper placed a hassock beside the chair in which she had been sitting, and sat down, drawing her to the lower seat beside him.
     “I have been thinking,” he said.
     “Yes?” said Marion. “About what?”
     “About our marriage.”
     A faint flush came to the girl’s cheek, and her glance fluttered to the carpet at her feet.
     “Give me your hand, Marion.” She gave it, still looking downward. “Do you give it freely, dear? Does your heart go with it? My child,” he said, gently and tenderly, “let us understand each other. You know how I love you.” She stole a look at him, and lowered her eyes to the ground again. “I love you more and more every day I live, every hour I pass with you. At first my love was selfish; I thought only of myself; I have learned to love you differently now, and I have come here to-day to ask a very important question. Do you love me?
     Marion sat with her head bent, tracing the pattern of the carpet with the point of her slipper. Jasper could feel her trembling as he sat his arm about her.
     “Don’t be afraid to answer truthfully. A week or two ago I would have taken you on any terms, not caring much whether you loved me or not, trusting to make you love me as time went on, I think still that I could do that!” he continued. “Simply I don’t think that such a love as mine could fail to win love in return. But that is only what I think, and it is your life and happiness that are at stake!”
     Still Marion did not speak, and Jasper could not see that the eyes she kept bent upon the ground were filled with tears.
     “I’ve come to see,” he went on, “that what I thought was love, was only selfishness, that I have no right to take your young life and tie it to mine. All the world is bright before you. I have lived my life, I am no longer a young man. Marion, I’m no fit companion for you. The thought has been with me lately, that you might have formed some other attachment that you were breaking for my sake, that there might be some other.”
     “There is no other,” said Marion, raising her swimming eyes to his.
     “Still!” said Jasper, “we remain as we are. You are young, full of youth and life. I am getting old, fitter to be your father than your husband. It rests with you, my dear,” he said, smoothing the curls from her eyes. “Shall I give you back your liberty?”
     “I have not asked it,” said Marion. “I don’t ask it. I love you!”
     It was the first time she had spoken the words, and Jasper’s doubts vanished at the sound like mountain mists before the morning sun.

_____

 

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