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On calling at Earwaker's chambers one February evening, Malkin became aware, from the very threshold of the outer door, that the domicile was not as he had known it. With the familiar fragrance of Earwaker's special 'mixture' blended a suggestion of new upholstery. The little vestibule had somehow put off its dinginess, and an unwontedly brilliant light from the sitting-room revealed changes of the interior which the visitor remarked with frank astonishment.
'What the deuce! Has it happened at last? Are you going to be married?' he cried, staring about him at unrecognised chairs, tables, and bookcases, at whitened ceiling and pleasantly papered walls, at pictures and ornaments which he knew not.
The journalist shook his head, and smiled contentedly.
'An idea that came to me all at once. My editorship seemed to inspire it.'
After a year of waiting upon Providence, Earwaker had received the offer of a substantial appointment much more to his taste than those he had previously held. He was now literary editor of a weekly review which made no kind of appeal to the untaught multitude.
'I have decided to dwell here for the rest of my life,' he added, looking round the walls. 'One must have a homestead, and this shall be mine; here I have set up my penates. It's a portion of space, you know; and what more can be said of Longleat or Chatsworth? A house I shall never want, because I shall never have a wife. And on the whole I prefer this situation to any other. I am well within reach of everything urban that I care about, and as for the country, that is too good to be put to common use; let it be kept for holiday. There's an atmosphere in the old Inns that pleases me. The new flats are insufferable. How can one live sandwiched between a music-hall singer and a female politician? For lodgings of any kind no sane man had ever a word of approval. Reflecting on all these things, I have established myself in perpetuity.'
'Just what I can't do,' exclaimed Malkin, flinging himself into a broad, deep, leather-covered chair. 'Yet I have leanings that way. Only a few days ago I sat for a whole evening with the map of England open before me, wondering where would be the best place to settle down--a few years hence, I mean, you know; when Bella is old enough.--That reminds me. Next Sunday is her birthday, and do you know what? I wish you'd go down to Wrotham with me.'
'Many thanks, but I think I had better not.'
'Oh, but do! I want you to see how Bella is getting on. She's grown wonderfully since you saw her in Paris--an inch taller, I should think. I don't go down there very often, you know, so I notice these changes. Really, I think no one could be more discreet than I am, under the circumstances. A friend of the family; that's all. Just dropping in for a casual cup of tea now and then. Sunday will be a special occasion, of course. I say, what are your views about early marriage? Do you think seventeen too young?'
'I should think seven-and-twenty much better.'
Malkin broke into fretfulness.
'Let me tell you, Earwaker, I don't like the way you habitually speak of this project of mine. Plainly, I don't like it. It's a very serious matter indeed--eh? What? Why are you smiling?'
'I agree with you as to its seriousness.'
'Yes, yes; but in a very cynical and offensive way. It makes me confoundedly uncomfortable, let me tell you. I don't think that's very friendly on your part. And the fact is, if it goes on I'm very much afraid we shan't see so much of each other as we have done. I like you, Earwaker, and I respect you; I think you know that. But occasionally you seem to have too little regard for one's feelings. No, I don't feel able to pass it over with a joke.--There! The deuce take it! I've bitten off the end of my pipe.'
He spat out a piece of amber, and looked ruefully at the broken stem.
'Take a cigar,' said Earwaker, fetching a box from a cupboard.
'I don't mind.--Well--what was I saying? Oh yes; I was quarrelling with you. Now, look here, what fault have you to find with Bella Jacox?'
'None whatever. She seemed to me a very amiable child.'
'Child! Pooh! pshaw! And fifteen next Sunday, I tell you. She's a young lady, and to tell you the confounded plain truth, I'm in love with her. I am, and there's nothing to be ashamed of. If you smile, we shall quarrel. I warn you, Earwaker, we shall quarrel.'
The journalist, instead of smiling, gave forth his deepest laugh. Malkin turned very red, scowled, and threw his cigar aside.
'You really wish me to go on Sunday?' Earwaker asked, in a pleasant voice.
The other's countenance immediately cleared.
'I shall take it as a great kindness. Mrs. Jacox will be delighted. Meet me at Holborn Viaduct at 1.25. No, to make sure I'll come here at one o'clock.'
In a few minutes he was chatting as unconcernedly as ever.
'Talking of settling down, my brother Tom and his wife are on the point of going to New Zealand. Necessity of business; may be out there for the rest of their lives. Do you know that I shall think very seriously of following them some day? With Bella, you know. The fact of the matter is, I don't believe I could ever make a solid home in England. Why, I can't quite say; partly, I suppose, because I have nothing to do. Now there's a good deal to be said for going out to the colonies. A man feels that he is helping the spread of civilisation; and that's something, you know. I should compare myself with the Greek and Roman colonists--something inspiriting in that thought--what? Why shouldn't I found a respectable newspaper, for instance? Yes, I shall think very seriously of this.'
'You wouldn't care to run over with your relatives, just to have a look?'
'It occurred to me,' Malkin replied, thoughtfully. 'But they sail in ten days, and--well, I'm afraid I couldn't get ready in time. And then I've promised to look after some little affairs for Mrs. Jacox --some trifling money matters. But later in the year--who knows?'
Earwaker half repented of his promise to visit the Jacox household, but there was no possibility of excusing himself. So on Sunday he journeyed with his friend down to Wrotham. Mrs. Jacox and her children were very comfortably established in a small new house. When the companions entered they found the mother alone in her sitting-room, and she received them with an effusiveness very distasteful to Earwaker.
'Now you shouldn't!' was her first exclamation to Malkin. 'Indeed you shouldn't! It's really very naughty of you. 0 Mr. Earwaker! Who ever took so much pleasure in doing kindnesses? Do look at this beautiful book that Mr. Malkin has sent as a present to my little Bella. 0 Mr. Earwaker!'
The journalist was at once struck with her tone and manner as she addressed Malkin. He remarked that phrase, 'my little Bella', and it occurred to him that Mrs. Jacox had been growing younger since he made her acquaintance on the towers of Notre Dame. When the girls presented themselves, they also appeared to him more juvenile; Bella, in particular, was dressed with an exaggeration of childishness decidedly not becoming. One had but to look into her face to see that she answered perfectly to Malkin's description; she was a young lady, and no child. A very pretty young lady, moreover; given to colouring, but with no silly simper; intelligent about the eyes and lips; modest, in a natural and sweet way. He conversed with her, and in doing so was disagreeably affected by certain glances she occasionally cast towards her mother. One would have said that she feared censure, though it was hard to see why.
On the return journey Earwaker made known some of his impressions, though not all.
'I like the girls,' he said, 'Bella especially. But I can't say much good of their mother.'
They were opposite each other in the railway carriage. Malkin leaned forward with earnest, anxious face.
'That's my own trouble,' he whispered. 'I'm confoundedly uneasy about it. I don't think she's bringing them up at all in a proper way. Earwaker, I would pay down five thousand pounds for the possibility of taking Bella away altogether.'
The other mused.
'But, mind you,' pursued Malkin, 'she's not a bad woman. By no means! Thoroughly good-hearted I'm convinced; only a little weak here.' He tapped his forehead. 'I respect her, for all she has suffered, and her way of going through it. But she isn't the ideal mother, you know.'
On his way home, Malkin turned into his friend's chambers 'for five minutes'. At two in the morning he was still there, and his talk in the meanwhile had been of nothing but schemes for protecting Bella against her mother's more objectionable influences. On taking leave, he asked:
'Any news of Peak yet?'
'None. I haven't seen Moxey for a long time.'
'Do you think Peak will look you up again, if he's in London?'
'No, I think he'll keep away. And I half hope he will; I shouldn't quite know how to behave. Ten to one he's in London now. I suppose he couldn't stay at Exeter. But he may have left England.'
They parted, and for a week did not see each other. Then, on Monday evening, when Earwaker was very busy with a mass of manuscript, the well-known knock sounded from the passage, and Malkin received admission. The look he wore was appalling, a look such as only some fearful catastrophe could warrant.
'Are you busy?' he asked, in a voice very unlike his own.
Earwaker could not doubt that the trouble was this time serious. He abandoned his work, and gave himself wholly to his friend's service.
'An awful thing has happened,' Malkin began. 'How the deuce shall I tell you? Oh, the ass I have made of myself! But I couldn't help it; there seemed no way out of it.'
'It was last night, but I couldn't come to you till now. By Jove! I veritably thought of sending you a note, and then killing myself. Early this morning I was within an ace of suicide. Believe me, old friend. This is no farce.'
'Yes, yes; but I can't tell you all at once. Sure you're not busy? I know I pester you. I was down at Wrotham yesterday. I hadn't meant to go, but the temptation was too strong. I got there at five o'clock, and found that the girls were gone to have tea with some young friends. Well, I wasn't altogether sorry; it was a good opportunity for a little talk with their mother. And I had the talk. But, oh, ass that I was!'
He smote the side of his head savagely.
'Can you guess, Earwaker? Can you give a shot at what happened?'
'Perhaps I might,' replied the other, gravely.
'That woman asked you to marry her.'
Malkin leapt from his chair, and sank back again.
'It came to that. Yes, upon my word, it came to that. She said she had fallen in love with me--that was the long and short of it. And I had never said a word that could suggest--Oh, confound it! What a frightful scene it was!'
'You took a final leave of her?'
Malkin stared with eyes of anguish into his friend's face, and at length whispered thickly:
'I said I would!'
'What? Take leave?'
Earwaker had much ado to check an impatiently remonstrant laugh. He paused awhile, then began his expostulation, at first treating the affair as too absurd for grave argument.
'My boy,' he concluded, 'you have got into a preposterous scrape, and I see only one way out of it. You must flee. When does your brother start for the Antipodes?'
'Then you go with him; there's an end of it.'
Malkin listened with the blank, despairing look of a man condemned to death.
'Do you hear me?' urged the other. 'Go home and pack. On Thursday I'll see you off.'
'I can't bring myself to that,' came in a groan from Malkin. 'I've never yet done anything to be seriously ashamed of, and I can't run away after promising marriage. It would weigh upon me for the rest of my life.'
'Humbug! Would it weigh upon you less to marry the mother, and all the time be in love with the daughter? To my mind, there's something peculiarly loathsome in the suggestion.'
'But, look here; Bella is very young, really very young indeed. It's possible that I have deluded myself. Perhaps I don't really care for her in the way I imagined. It's more than likely that I might be content to regard her with fatherly affection.'
'Even supposing that, with what sort of affection do you regard Mrs Jacox?'
Malkin writhed on his chair before replying.
'You mustn't misjudge her!' he exclaimed. 'She is no heartless schemer. The poor thing almost cried her eyes out. It was a frightful scene. She reproached herself bitterly. What could I do? I have a tenderness for her, there's no denying that. She has been so vilely used, and has borne it all so patiently. How abominable it would be if I dealt her another blow!'
The journalist raised his eyebrows, and uttered inarticulate sounds.
'Was anything said about Bella?' he asked, abruptly.
'Not a word. I'm convinced she doesn't suspect that I thought of Bella like that. The fact is, I have misled her. She thought all along that my chief interest was in her.'
'Indeed? Then what was the ground of her self-reproach that you speak of?'
'How defective you are in the appreciation of delicate feeling!' cried Malkin frantically, starting up and rushing about the room. 'She reproached herself for having permitted me to get entangled with a widow older than myself, and the mother of two children. What could be simpler?'
Earwaker began to appreciate the dangers of the situation. If he insisted upon his view of Mrs. Jacox's behaviour (though it was not the harshest that the circumstances suggested, for he was disposed to believe that the widow had really lost her heart to her kind, eccentric champion), the result would probably be to confirm Malkin in his resolution of self-sacrifice. The man must be saved, if possible, from such calamity, and this would not be effected by merely demonstrating that he was on the highroad to ruin. It was necessary to try another tack.
'It seems to me, Malkin,' he resumed, gravely, 'that it is you who are deficient in right feeling. In offering to marry this poor woman, you did her the gravest wrong.'
'You know that it is impossible for you to love her. You know that you will repent, and that she will be aware of it. You are not the kind of man to conceal your emotions. Bella will grow up, and-- well, the state of things won't tend to domestic felicity. For Mrs Jacox's own sake, it is your duty to put an end to this folly before it has gone too far.'
The other gave earnest ear, but with no sign of shaken conviction.
'Yes,' he said. 'I know this is one way of looking at it. But it assumes that a man can't control himself, that his sense of honour isn't t strong enough to keep him in the right way. I don't think you quite understand me. I am not a passionate man; the proof is that I have never fallen in love since I was sixteen. I think a great deal of domestic peace, a good deal more than of romantic enthusiasm. If I marry Mrs. Jacox, I shall make her a good and faithful husband,--so much I can safely say of myself.'
He waited, but Earwaker was not ready with a rejoinder.
'And there's another point. I have always admitted the defect of my character--an inability to settle down. Now, if I run away to New Zealand, with the sense of having dishonoured myself, I shall be a mere Wandering Jew for the rest of my life. All hope of redemption will be over. Of the two courses now open to me, that of marriage with Mrs. Jacox is decidedly the less disadvantageous. Granting that I have made a fool of myself, I must abide by the result, and make the best of it. And the plain fact is, I can't treat her so disgracefully; I can't burden my conscience in this way. I believe it would end in suicide; I do, indeed.'
'This sounds all very well, but it is weakness and selfishness.'
'How can you say so?'
'There's no proving to so short-sighted a man the result of his mistaken course. I've a good mind to let you have your way just for the satisfaction of saying afterwards, "Didn't I tell you so?" You propose to behave with abominable injustice to two people, putting yourself aside. Doesn't it occur to you that Bella may already look upon you as her future husband? Haven't you done your best to plant that idea in her mind?'
Malkin started, but quickly recovered himself.
'No, I haven't! I have behaved with the utmost discretion. Bella thinks of me only as of a friend much older than herself.'
'I don't believe it!'
'Nonsense, Earwaker! A child of fifteen!'
'The other day you had quite a different view, and after seeing her again I agreed with you. She is a young girl, and if not already in love with you, is on the way to be so.'
'That will come to nothing when she hears that I am going to be her step-father.'
'Far more likely to develop into a grief that will waste the best part of her lifetime. She will be shocked and made miserable. But do as you like. I am tired of arguing.'
Earwaker affected to abandon the matter in disgust. For several minutes there was silence, then a low voice sounded from the corner where Malkin stood leaning.
'So it is your honest belief that Bella has begun to think of me in that way?'
'I am convinced of it.'
'But if I run away, I shall never see her again.'
'Why not? She won't run away. Come back when things have squared themselves. Write to Mrs. Jacox from the ends of the earth, and let her understand that there is no possibility of your marrying her.'
'Tell her about Bella, you mean?'
'No, that's just what I don't mean. Avoid any mention of the girl. Come back when she is seventeen, and, if she is willing, carry her off to be happy ever after.'
'But she may have fallen in love with someone else.'
'I think not. You must risk it, at all events.'
'Look here!' Malkin came forward eagerly. 'I'll write to Mrs. Jacox to-night, and make a full confession. I'll tell her exactly how the case stands. She's a good woman; she'll gladly sacrifice herself for the sake of her daughter.'
Earwaker was firm in resistance. He had no faith whatever in the widow's capacity for self-immolation, and foresaw that his friend would be drawn into another 'frightful scene', resulting probably in a marriage as soon as the licence could be obtained.
'When are you to see her again?' he inquired.
'Will you undertake to do nothing whatever till Wednesday morning, and then to have another talk with me? I'll come and see you about ten o'clock.'
In the end Malkin was constrained into making this engagement, and not long after midnight the journalist managed to get rid of him.
On Tuesday afternoon arrived a distracted note. 'I shall keep my promise, and I won't try to see you till you come here tomorrow. But I am sore beset. I have received three letters from Mrs. Jacox, all long and horribly pathetic. She seems to have a presentiment that I shall forsake her. What a beast I shall be if I do! Tom comes here to-night, and I think I shall tell him all.'
The last sentence was a relief to the reader; he knew nothing of Mr Thomas Malkin, but there was a fair presumption that this gentleman would not see his brother bent on making such a notable fool of himself without vigorous protest.
At the appointed hour next morning, Earwaker reached his friend's lodgings, which were now at Kilburn. On entering the room he saw, not the familiar figure, but a solid, dark-faced, black-whiskered man, whom a faint resemblance enabled him to identify as Malkin the younger.
'I was expecting you,' said Thomas, as they shook hands. 'My brother is completely floored. When I got here an hour ago, I insisted on his lying down, and now I think he's asleep. If you don't mind, we'll let him rest for a little. I believe he has hardly closed his eyes since this unfortunate affair happened.'
'It rejoiced me to hear that he was going to ask your advice. How do matters stand?'
'You know Mrs. Jacox?'
Thomas was obviously a man of discretion, but less intellectual than his brother; he spoke like one who is accustomed to the management of affairs. At first he was inclined to a polite reserve, but Earwaker's conversation speedily put him more at ease.
'I have quite made up my mind,' he said presently, 'that we must take him away with us to-morrow. The voyage will bring him to his senses.'
'Of course he resists?'
'Yes, but if you will give me your help, I think we can manage him. He is not very strong-willed. In a spasmodic way he can defy everyone, but the steady pressure of common sense will prevail with him, I think.'
They had talked for half-an-hour, when the door opened and the object of their benevolent cares stood before them. He was clad in a dressing-gown, and his disordered hair heightened the look of illness which his features presented.
'Why didn't you call me?' he asked his brother, irritably. 'Earwaker, I beg a thousand pardons! I'm not very well; I've overslept myself.'
'Yes, yes; come and sit down.'
Thomas made an offer to leave them.
'Don't go,' said Malkin. 'No need whatever. You know why Earwaker has been so kind as to come here. We may as well talk it over together.'
He sat on the table, swinging a tassel of his dressing-gown round and round.
'Now, what do you really think of doing?' asked the journalist, in a kind voice.
'I don't know. I absolutely do not know. I'm unutterably wretched.'
'In that case, will you let your brother and me decide for you? We have no desire but for your good, and we are perfectly at one in our judgment.'
'Of course I know what you will propose!' cried the other, excitedly. 'From the prudential point of view, you are right, I have no doubt. But how can you protect me against remorse? If you had received letters such as these three,' he pulled them out of a pocket, 'you would be as miserable as I am. If I don't keep my promise, I shall never know another moment of peace.'
'You certainly won't if you do keep it,' remarked Thomas.
'No,' added Earwaker, 'and one if not two other persons will be put into the same case. Whereas by boldly facing these reproaches of conscience, you do a great kindness to the others.'
'If only you could assure me of that!'
'I can assure you. That is to say, I can give it as my unassailable conviction.'
And Earwaker once more enlarged upon the theme, stating it from every point of view that served his purpose.
'You're making a mountain out of a mole-heap,' was the lady will get over her sorrows quickly enough, and some day she'll confirmatory remark that came from Thomas. 'This respectable be only too glad to have you for a son-in-law, if Miss Bella still pleases you.'
'It's only right,' urged Earwaker, in pursuance of his subtler intention, 'that you should bear the worst of the suffering, for the trouble has come out of your own thoughtlessness. You are fond of saying that you have behaved with the utmost discretion; so far from that you have been outrageously indiscreet. I foresaw that something of this kind might come to pass'----
'Then why the devil didn't you warn me?' shouted Malkin, in an agony of nervous strain.
'It would have been useless. In fact, I foresaw it too late.'
The discussion continued for an hour. By careful insistence on the idea of self-sacrifice, Earwaker by degrees demolished the arguments his friend kept putting forward. Thomas, who had gone impatiently to the window, turned round with words that. were meant to be final.
'It's quite decided. You begin your preparations at once, and to-morrow morning you go on board with us.'
'But if I don't go to Wrotham this afternoon, she'll be here either to-night or the first thing to-morrow. I'm sure of it!'
'By four or five o'clock,' said Earwaker, 'you can have broken up the camp. You've often done it at shorter notice. Go to an hotel for the night.'
'I must write to the poor woman.'
'Do as you like about that.'
'Who is to help her, if she gets into difficulties--as she's always doing? Who is to advise her about Bella's education? Who is to pay--I mean, who will see to----? Oh, confound it!'
The listeners glanced at each other.
'Are her affairs in order?' asked Earwaker. 'Has she a sufficient income?'
'For ordinary needs, quite sufficient. But'----
'Then you needn't be in the least uneasy. Let her know where you are, when the equator is between you. Watch over her interests from a distance, if you like. I can as good as promise you that Bella will wait hopefully to see her friend again.'
Malkin succumbed to argument and exhaustion. Facing Earwaker with a look of pathetic appeal, he asked hoarsely:
'Will you stand by me till it's over? Have you time?'
'I can give you till five o'clock.'
'Then I'll go and dress. Ring the bell, Tom, and ask them to bring up some beer.'
Before three had struck, the arrangements for flight were completed. A heavily-laden cab bore away Malkin's personal property; within sat the unhappy man and his faithful friend.
The next morning Earwaker went down to Tilbury, and said farewell t6 the travellers on board the steamship Orient. Mrs. Thomas had already taken her brother-in-law under her special care.
'It's only three children to look after, instead of two,' she remarked, in a laughing aside to the journalist. 'How grateful he will be to you in a few days! And I'm sure we are already.'
Malkin's eyes were no longer quite lustreless. At the last moment he talked with animation of 'two years hence', and there was vigour in the waving of his hand as the vessel started seaward.
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