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Chapter 66

HELEN asked Arthur Wardlaw why he was so surprised at the prayer-book being brought back. Was it worth twenty pounds. to any one except herself?

Arthur looked keenly at her to see whether she intended more than met the ear, and then said he was surprised at the rapid effect of his advertisement, that was all.

"Now you have got the book," said he, "I do hope you will erase that cruel slander on one whom you mean to honor with your hand."

This proposal made Helen blush and feel very miserable. Of the obnoxious lines some were written by Robert Penfold, and she had so little of his dear handwriting. "I feel you are right, Arthur," said she; "but you must give me time. Then, they shall meet no eye but mine; and on our wedding-day--of course--all memorials of one--" Tears completed the sentence.

Arthur Wardlaw, raging with jealousy at the absent Penfold, as heretofore Penfold had raged at him, heaved a deep sigh and hurried away, while Helen was locking up the prayer-book in her desk. By this means he retained Helen's pity.

He went home directly, mounted to his bedroom, unlocked a safe, and plunged his hand into it. His hand encountered a book; he drew it out with a shiver and gazed at it with terror and amazement.

It was the prayer-book he had picked up in the Square and locked up in that safe. Yet that very prayer-book had been restored to Helen before his eyes, and was now locked up in her desk. He sat down with the book in his hand, and a great dread came over him.

Hitherto Candor and Credulity only had been opposed to him, but now Cunning had entered the field against him; a master hand was co-operating with Helen.

Yet, strange to say, she seemed unconscious of that co-operation. Had Robert Penfold found his way home by some strange means? Was he watching over her in secret?

He had the woman he loved watched night and day, but no Robert Penfold was detected.

He puzzled his brain night and day, and at last he conceived a plan of deceit which is common enough in the East, where lying is one of the fine arts, but was new in this country, we believe, and we hope to Heaven we shall not be the means of importing it.

An old clerk of his father's, now superannuated and pensioned off, had a son upon the stage, in a very mean position. Once a year, however, and of course in the dogdays, he had a kind of benefit at his suburban theater; that is to say, the manager allowed him to sell tickets, and take half the price of them. He persuaded Arthur to take some, and even to go to the theater for an hour. The man played a little part, of a pompous sneak, with some approach to Nature. He seemed at home.

Arthur found this man out; visited him at his own place. He was very poor, and mingled pomposity with obsequiousness, so that Arthur felt convinced he was to be bought, body and soul, what there was of him.

He sounded him accordingly, and the result was that the man agreed to perform a part for him.

Arthur wrote it, and they rehearsed it together. As to the dialogue, that was so constructed that it could be varied considerably according to the cues, which could be foreseen to a certain extent; but not precisely, since they were to be given by Helen Rolleston, who was not in the secret.

But while this plot was fermenting, other events happened, with rather a contrary tendency; and these will be more intelligible if we go back to Nancy Rouse's cottage, where indeed we have kept Joseph Wylie in an uncomfortable position a very long time.

Mrs. James, from next door, was at last admitted into Nancy's kitchen, and her first word was, "I suppose you know what I'm come about, ma'am."

"Which it is to return me the sasspan you borrowed, no doubt," was Nancy's ingenuous reply.

"No, ma'am. But I'll send my girl in with it, as soon as she have cleaned it, you may depend."

"Thank ye, I shall be glad to see it again."

"You're not afeard I shall steal it, I hope?"

'"La, bless the woman! don't fly out at a body like that. I can't afford to give away my sasspan."

"Sasspans is not in my head."

"Nor in your hand neither."

"I'm come about my lodger; a most respectable gentleman, which he have met with an accident. He did but go to put something away in the chimbley, which he is a curious gent, and has traveled a good deal, and learned the foreign customs, when his hand was caught in the brick-work, somehows, and there he is hard and fast."

"Do you know anything about this?" said Nancy to the mite, severely.

"No," said the mite, with a countenance of polished granite.

"La bless me" said Nancy. with a sudden start "Why, is she talking about the thief as you and I catched putting his hand through the wall into my room, and made him fast again the policeman comes round?"

"Thief!" cried Mrs. James. "No more a thief than I am. Why, sure you wouldn't ever be so cruel! Oh, dear! Oh, dear! Spite goes a far length. There, take an' kill me, do, and then you'll be easy in your mind. Ah, little my poor father thought as ever I should come down to letting lodgings, and being maltreated this way! I am--"

"Who is a maltreating of ye? Why, you're dreaming. Have a drop o' gin?"

"With them as takes the police to my lodger? It would choke me."

"Well, have a drop, and we'll see about it."

"You're very kind, ma'am, I'm sure. Heaven knows I need it! Here's wishing you a good husband; and toward burying all unkindness."

"Which you means drounding of it."

"Ah, you're never at a loss for a word, ma'am, and always in good spirits. But your troubles is to come. I'm a widdy. You will let me see what is the matter with my lodger, ma'am?"

"Why not? We'll go and have a look at him."

Accordingly, the three women and the mite proceeded to the little room; Nancy turned the gas on, and then they inspected the imprisoned hand. Mrs. James screamed with dismay, and Nancy asked her dryly whether she was to blame for seizing a hand which had committed a manifest trespass.

"You have got the rest of his body," said she, "but this here hand belongs to me."

"Lord, ma'am, what could he take out of your chimbley, without 'twas a handful of soot? Do, pray, let me loose him."

"Not till I have said two words to him."

"But how can you? He isn't here to speak to--only a morsel of him."

"I can go into your house and speak to him."

Mrs. James demurred to that; but Nancy stood firm; Mrs. James yielded. Nancy whispered her myrmidons, and, in a few minutes, was standing by the prisoner, a reverend person in dark spectacles, and a gray beard, that created commiseration, or would have done so, but that this stroke of ill-fortune had apparently fallen upon a great philosopher. He had contrived to get a seat under him, and was smoking a pipe with admirable sang-froid.

At sight of Nancy, however, he made a slight motion, as if he would not object to follow his imprisoned hand through the party-wall. It was only for a moment; the next, he smoked imperturbably.

"Well, sir," said Nancy, "I hopes you are comfortable?"

"Thank ye, miss; yes. I'm at a double sheet-anchor."

"Why do you call me miss?"

"I don't know. Because you are so young and pretty."

"That will do. I only wanted to hear the sound of your voice, Joe Wylie." And with the word she snatched his wig off with one hand, and his beard with the other, and revealed his true features to his astonished landlady.

"There, mum," said she, "I wish you joy of your lodger." She tapped the chimney three times with the poker, and, telling Mr. Wylie she had a few words to say to him in private, retired for the present. Mrs. James sat down and mourned the wickedness of mankind, the loss of her lodger (who would now go bodily next door instead of sending his hand), and the better days she had by iteration brought herself to believe she had seen.

Wylie soon entered Nancy's house, and her first question was, "The 2,000 pounds, how did you get them?"

"No matter how I got them," said Wylie, sulkily. "What have you done with them?"

"Put them away."

"That is all right. I'm blest if I didn't think they were gone forever."

"I wish they had never come. Ill-gotten money is a curse." Then she taxed him with scuttling the Proserpine, and asked him whether that money had not been the bribe. But Joe was obdurate. "I never split on a friend," said he. "And you have nobody to blame but yourself, you wouldn't splice without 2,000 pounds. I loved you, and I got it how I could. D'ye think a poor fellow like me can make 2,000 pounds in a voyage by hauling in ropes, and tying true-lovers' knots in the foretop?"

Nancy had her answer ready, but this remembrance pricked her own conscience and paved the way to a reconciliation. Nancy had no high-flown notions. She loved money, but it must be got without palpable dishonesty; per contra, she was not going to denounce her sweetheart, but then again she would not marry him so long as he differed with her about the meaning of the eighth commandment.

This led to many arguments, some of them warm, some affectionate; and so we leave Mr. Wylie under the slow but salutary influence of love and unpretending probity. He continued to lodge next door. Nancy would only receive him as a visitor.

Charles Reade