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THE CAVE IN THE FIRE.
The day after, well wrapt from the cold, he took his place in a slow train, and at the station was heartily welcomed by his grandfather, who had come with his pony-cart to take him home. Settled in the room once occupied by Alice, he felt like a usurper, a robber of the helpless: he had left her in misery and wretchedness, and was in the heart of the comfort that had once been hers. He had to tell himself that it was foolish; that he was there for her sake.
He took his grandfather at once into his confidence, begging him not to let his mother know: and Simon, who had in former days experienced something of the hardness of his true-hearted daughter, entered into the thing with a brooding kind of smile. He saw no reason why Richard should not make the attempt, but shook his head at the prospect of success. Doubtless the baronet thought he had done all that could be required of him! He would have Richard rest a day before encountering him but when he heard in what condition he had left Alice and her brother, he said no more, but the next morning had his trap ready to drive him to Mortgrange.
Richard's heart beat fast as he entered the lodge-gate, and walked up to the front door. After a moment's bewilderment the servant who answered his ring recognized him, and expressed concern that he looked so ill. When he asked to see sir Wilton, the man, thinking he came to resume the work so suddenly abandoned, said he was in the library, having his morning cigar.
"Then I'll just step in!" said Richard; and the footman gave way as to a member of the household.
Sir Wilton, now an elderly and broken man, sat in the same chair, and in the same attitude, as when Richard, a new-born and ugly child, had, in the arms of his aunt, his first interview with him, nearly one and twenty years before. The relation between them had not developed a hair's-breadth since that moment, and Richard, partly from the state of his health, could not, with all the courage he could gather, help quailing a little before the expected encounter; but he remained outwardly quiet and seemingly cool. The sun was not shining into the room, and it was rather dark. Sir Wilton sat with his back to the one large bay-window, and Richard received its light on his face as he entered. He stood an instant, hesitating. His father did not speak, but sat looking straight at him, staring indeed as at something portentous--much as when first he saw the ugly apparition of his infant heir. Richard's illness had brought out, in the pallor and emaciation of his countenance, what likeness there was in him to his mother; and, strange to say, at the moment when the door opened to admit him, sir Wilton was thinking of the monstrous baby his wife had left him, and wondering if the creature were still alive, and as hideous as twenty years before.
It was not very strange, however. Sir Wilton had been annoyed with his wife that morning, and it was yet a bitterer thing not to be able to hurt her in return, which, because of her cold imperturbability, was impossible, say what he might. As often, therefore, as he sat in silent irritation with her, the thought of his lost child never failed to present itself. What a power over her ladyship would he not possess, what a plough and harrow for her frozen equanimity, if only he knew where the heir to Mortgrange was! He was damned ugly, but the uglier the better! If he but had him, he swore he would have a merry time, with his lady's pride on its marrow-bones! After so many years the poor lad might, ugly as he was, turn out presentable, and if so, then, by heaven, that smooth-faced gentleman, Arthur, should shift for himself!
Suddenly appeared Richard, with his mother in his face; and before his father had time to settle what the deuce it could mean, the apparition spoke.
"I am very sorry to intrude upon you, sir Wilton," he said, "but--"
Here he paused.
"--But you've got something to tell me--eh?" suggested sir Wilton. He was on the point of adding, "If it be where you got those eyes, I may have to ask you to sit down!" but he checked himself, and said only, "You'd better make haste, then; for the devil is at the door in the shape of my damned gout!"
"I came to tell you, sir Wilton," replied Richard, plunging at once into the middle of things, which was indeed the best way with sir Wilton, "about a son of yours--"
"What!" cried sir Wilton, putting his hands on the arms of his chair and leaning forward as if on the point of rising to his feet. "Where the devil is he? What do you know about him?"
"He is lying at the point of death--dying of hunger, I may say."
"Rubbish!" cried the baronet contemptuously. "You want to get money out of me! But you shan't!--not a damned penny!"
"I do want to get money from you, sir," said Richard. "I kept the poor fellow alive--kept him in dinners at least, him and his sister, till I fell ill and couldn't work."
At the word sister the baronet grew calmer. It was nothing about the lost heir! The other sort did not matter: they were no use against the enemy!
Richard paused. The baronet stared.
"I haven't a penny to call my own, or I should not have come to you," resumed Richard.
"I thought so! That's your orthodox style! But you've come to the wrong man!" returned sir Wilton. "I never give anything to beggars."
He did not in the least doubt what he heard, but he scarcely knew what he answered--wondering where he had seen the fellow, and how he came to be so like his wife. The remembered ugliness of her infant prevented all suggestion that this handsome fellow might be the same.
"You are the last man, sir Wilton, from whom I would ask anything for myself," said Richard.
Richard hesitated. To let him suspect the same claim in himself, would be fatal.
"I swear to you, sir Wilton," he said, "by all that men count sacred, I come only to tell you that Arthur and Alice Manson, your son and daughter, are in dire want. Your son may be dead; he looked like it three days ago, and had no one to attend to him; his sister had to leave him to earn their next day's food. Their mother lay a corpse in the other of their two rooms."
"Oh! she's gone, is she! That alters the case. But what became of all the money I gave her? It was more than her body was worth; soul she never had any!"
"She lost it somehow, and her son and daughter starved themselves to keep her in plenty, so that by the time she died, they were all but dead themselves."
"A pair of fools."
"A good son and daughter, sir!"
"Attached to the young woman, eh?" asked the baronet, looking hard at him.
"Very much; but hardly more than to her brother," answered Richard. "God knows if I had but my strength," he cried, almost in despair, and suddenly shooting out his long thin arms, with his two hands, wasted white, at the ends of them, "I would work myself to the bone for them, and not ask you for a penny!"
"I provided for their mother!--why didn't they look after the money? I'm not accountable for them!"
"Ain't you accountable for giving the poor things a mother like that, sir?"
"By Jove, you have me there! She was a bad lot--a damned liar!--Young fellow, I don't know who you are, but I like your pluck! There ain't many I'd let stand talking at me like that! I'll give you something for the poor creatures--that is, mind you, if you've told me the truth about their mother! You're sure she's dead? Not a penny shall they have if she's alive!"
"I saw her dead, sir, with my own eyes."
"You're sure she wasn't shamming?"
"She couldn't have shammed anything so peaceful."
The baronet laughed.
"Believe me, sir," said Richard, "she's dead--and by this time buried by the parish."
"God bless my soul! Well, it's none of my fault!"
"She ate and drank her own children!" said Richard with a groan, for his strength was failing him. He sank into a chair.
"I will give you a cheque," said sir Wilton, rising, and going to a writing-table in the window. "I will give you twenty pounds for them in the meantime--and then we'll see--we'll see!--that is," he added, turning to Richard, "if you swear by God that you have told me nothing but the truth!"
"I swear," said Richard solemnly, "by all my hopes in God the saviour of men, that I have not wittingly uttered a word that is untrue or incorrect."
"That's enough. I'll give you the cheque."
He turned again to the table, sat down, searched for his keys, unlocked and drew out a drawer, took from it a cheque-book, and settled himself to write with deliberation, thinking all the time. When he had done--"Have the goodness to come and fetch your money," he said tartly.
"With pleasure!" answered Richard, and went up to the table.
Sir Wilton turned on his seat, and looked him in the face, full in the eyes. Richard steadily encountered his gaze.
"What is your name?" said sir Wilton at length. "I must make the cheque payable to you!"
"Richard Tuke, sir," answered Richard.
"What are you?"
"A bookbinder. I was here all the summer, sir, repairing your library."
"Oh! bless my soul!--Yes! that's what it was! I thought I had seen you somewhere! Why didn't you tell me so at first?"
"It had nothing to do with my coming now, and I did not imagine it of any interest to you, sir."
"It would have saved me the trouble of trying to remember where I had seen you!"
Then suddenly a light flashed across his face.
"By heaven," he muttered, "I understand it now!--They saw it--that look on his face!--By Jove!--But no; she never saw her!--She must have heard something about him then!--They didn't treat you well, I believe!" he said: "--turned you away at a moment's notice!--I hope they took that into consideration when they paid you?"
"I made no complaint, sir. I never asked why I was dismissed!"
"But they made it up to you--didn't they?"
"I don't submit to ill usage, sir." "That's right! I'm glad you made them pay for it!"
"To take money for ill usage is to submit to it, it seems to me!" said Richard.
"By Jove, there are not many would call money ill usage!--Well, it wasn't right, and I'll have nothing to do with it!--Here," he went on, wheeling round to the table, and drawing his cheque-book toward him, "I will give you another cheque for yourself."
"I beg your pardon, sir," said Richard, "but I can take nothing for myself! Don't you see, sir?--As soon as I was gone, you would think I had after all come for my own sake!"
"I won't, I promise you. I think you a very honest fellow!"
"Then, sir, please continue to think me so, and don't offer me money!"
"Lest you should be tempted to take it?"
"No; lest I should annoy you by the use I made of it!"
"Tut, tut! I don't care what you do with it! You can't annoy me!"
He wrote a second cheque, blotted it, then finished the other, and held out both to Richard.
"I can't give you so much as the other poor beggars; you haven't the same claim upon me!" he said.
Richard took the cheques, looked at them, put the larger in his pocket, walked to the fire, and placed the other in the hottest cavern of it.
"By Jove!" cried the baronet, and again stared at him: he had seen his mother do precisely the same thing--with the same action, to the very turn of her hand, and with the same choice of the central gulf of fire!
Richard turned to sir Wilton, and would have thanked him again on behalf of Alice and Arthur, but something got up in his throat, and, with a grateful look and a bend of the head, he made for the door speechless.
"I say, I say, my lad!" cried sir Wilton, and Richard stopped.
"There's something in this," the baronet went on, "more than I understand! I would give a big cheque to know what is in your mind! What does it all mean?"
Richard looked at him, but said nothing: he was in some sort fascinated by the old man's gaze.
"Suppose now," said sir Wilton, "I were to tell you I would do whatever you asked me so far as it was in my power--what would you say?"
"That I would ask you for nothing," answered Richard.
"I make the promise; I say solemnly that I will give you whatever you ask of me--provided I can do it honestly," said the baronet.
"What a damned fool I am!" he thought with himself. "The devil is in me to let the fellow walk over me like this! But I must know what it all means! I shall find some way out of it!"
For one moment the books around him seemed to Richard to rush upon his brain like troops to the assault of a citadel; but the next he said--
"I can ask you for nothing whatever, sir; but I thank you from my heart for my poor friends, your children. Believe me I am grateful."
With a lingering look at his father, he left the room.
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