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Chapter 26

THE BIRD 'OF PASSAGE


That night, after the ride, when Shelton was about to go to bed, his eyes fell on Ferrand's letter, and with a sleepy sense of duty he began to read it through a second time. In the dark, oak-panelled bedroom, his four-post bed, with back of crimson damask and its dainty sheets, was lighted by the candle glow; the copper pitcher of hot water in the basin, the silver of his brushes, and the line of his well-polished boots all shone, and Shelton's face alone was gloomy, staring at the yellowish paper in his hand.

"The poor chap wants money, of course," he thought. But why go on for ever helping one who had no claim on him, a hopeless case, incurable--one whom it was his duty to let sink for the good of the community at large? Ferrand's vagabond refinement had beguiled him into charity that should have been bestowed on hospitals, or any charitable work but foreign missions. To give a helping hand, a bit of himself, a nod of fellowship to any fellow-being irrespective of a claim, merely because he happened to be down, was sentimental nonsense! The line must be drawn! But in the muttering of this conclusion he experienced a twinge of honesty. "Humbug! You don't want to part with your money, that's all!"

So, sitting down in shirt-sleeves at his writing table, he penned the following on paper stamped with the Holm Oaks address and crest:


MY DEAR FERRAND,

I am sorry you are having such a bad spell. You seem to be dead out of luck. I hope by the time you get this things will have changed for the better. I should very much like to see you again and have a talk, but shall be away for some time longer, and doubt even when I get back whether I should be able to run down and look you up. Keep me 'au courant' as to your movements. I enclose a cheque.

Yours sincerely,

RICHARD SHELTON.


Before he had written out the cheque, a moth fluttering round the candle distracted his attention, and by the time he had caught and put it out he had forgotten that the cheque was not enclosed. The letter, removed with his clothes before he was awake, was posted in an empty state.

One morning a week later he was sitting in the smoking-room in the company of the gentleman called Mabbey, who was telling him how many grouse he had deprived of life on August 12 last year, and how many he intended to deprive of life on August 12 this year, when the door was opened, and the butler entered, carrying his head as though it held some fatal secret.

"A young man is asking for you, sir," he said to Shelton, bending down discreetly; "I don't know if you would wish to see him, sir."

"A young man!" repeated Shelton; "what sort of a young man?"

"I should say a sort of foreigner, sir," apologetically replied the butler. "He's wearing a frock-coat, but he looks as if he had been walking a good deal."

Shelton rose with haste; the description sounded to him ominous.

"Where is he?"

"I put him in the young ladies' little room, sir."

"All right," said Shelton; "I 'll come and see him. Now, what the deuce!" he thought, running down the stairs.

It was with a queer commingling of pleasure and vexation that he entered the little chamber sacred to the birds, beasts, racquets, golf-clubs, and general young ladies' litter. Ferrand was standing underneath the cage of a canary, his hands folded on his pinched-up hat, a nervous smile upon his lips. He was dressed in Shelton's old frock-coat, tightly buttoned, and would have cut a stylish figure but far his look of travel. He wore a pair of pince-nez, too, which somewhat veiled his cynical blue eyes, and clashed a little with the pagan look of him. In the midst of the strange surroundings he still preserved that air of knowing, and being master of, his fate, which was his chief attraction.

"I 'm glad to see you," said Shelton, holding out his hand.

"Forgive this liberty," began Ferrand, "but I thought it due to you after all you've done for me not to throw up my efforts to get employment in England without letting you know first. I'm entirely at the end of my resources."

The phrase struck Shelton as one that he had heard before.

"But I wrote to you," he said; "did n't you get my letter?"

A flicker passed across the vagrant's face; he drew the letter from his pocket and held it out.

"Here it is, monsieur."

Shelton stared at it.

"Surely," said he, "I sent a cheque?"

Ferrand did not smile; there was a look about him as though Shelton by forgetting to enclose that cheque had done him a real injury.

Shelton could not quite hide a glance of doubt.

"Of course," he said, "I--I--meant to enclose a cheque."

Too subtle to say anything, Ferrand curled his lip. "I am capable of much, but not of that," he seemed to say; and at once Shelton felt the meanness of his doubt.

"Stupid of me," he said.

"I had no intention of intruding here," said Ferrand; "I hoped to see you in the neighbourhood, but I arrive exhausted with fatigue. I've eaten nothing since yesterday at noon, and walked thirty miles." He shrugged his shoulders. "You see, I had no time to lose before assuring myself whether you were here or not."

"Of course--" began Shelton, but again he stopped.

"I should very much like," the young foreigner went on, "for one of your good legislators to find himself in these country villages with a penny in his pocket. In other countries bakers are obliged to sell you an equivalent of bread for a penny; here they won't sell you as much as a crust under twopence. You don't encourage poverty."

"What is your idea now?" asked Shelton, trying to gain time.

"As I told you," replied Ferrand, "there 's nothing to be done at Folkestone, though I should have stayed there if I had had the money to defray certain expenses"; and again he seemed to reproach his patron with the omission of that cheque. "They say things will certainly be better at the end of the month. Now that I know English well, I thought perhaps I could procure a situation for teaching languages."

"I see," said Shelton.

As a fact, however, he was far from seeing; he literally did not know what to do. It seemed so brutal to give Ferrand money and ask him to clear out; besides, he chanced to have none in his pocket.

"It needs philosophy to support what I 've gone through this week," said Ferrand, shrugging his shoulders. "On Wednesday last, when I received your letter, I had just eighteen-pence, and at once I made a resolution to come and see you; on that sum I 've done the journey. My strength is nearly at an end."

Shelton stroked his chin.

"Well," he had just begun, "we must think it over," when by Ferrand's face he saw that some one had come in. He turned, and saw Antonia in the doorway. "Excuse me," he stammered, and, going to Antonia, drew her from the room.

With a smile she said at once: "It's the young foreigner; I'm certain. Oh, what fun!"

"Yes," answered Shelton slowly; "he's come to see me about getting some sort of tutorship or other. Do you think your mother would mind if I took him up to have a wash? He's had a longish walk. And might he have some breakfast? He must be hungry."

"Of course! I'll tell Dobson. Shall I speak to mother? He looks nice, Dick."

He gave her a grateful, furtive look, and went back to his guest; an impulse had made him hide from her the true condition of affairs.

Ferrand was standing where he had been left his face still clothed in mordant impassivity.

"Come up to my room!" said Shelton; and while his guest was washing, brushing, and otherwise embellishing his person, he stood reflecting that Ferrand was by no means unpresentable, and he felt quite grateful to him.

He took an opportunity, when the young man's back was turned, of examining his counterfoils. There was no record, naturally, of a cheque drawn in Ferrand's favour. Shelton felt more mean than ever.

A message came from Mrs. Dennant; so he took the traveller to the dining-room and left him there, while he himself went to the lady of the house. He met Antonia coming down.

"How many days did you say he went without food that time--you know?" she asked in passing.

"Four."

"He does n't look a bit common, Dick."

Shelton gazed at her dubiously.

"They're surely not going to make a show of him!" he thought.

Mrs. Dennant was writing, in a dark-blue dress starred over with white spots, whose fine lawn collar was threaded with black velvet.

"Have you seen the new hybrid Algy's brought me back from Kidstone? Is n't it charmin'?" and she bent her face towards this perfect rose. "They say unique; I'm awfully interested to find out if that's true. I've told Algy I really must have some."

Shelton thought of the unique hybrid breakfasting downstairs; he wished that Mrs. Dennant would show in him the interest she had manifested in the rose. But this was absurd of him, he knew, for the potent law of hobbies controlled the upper classes, forcing them to take more interest in birds, and roses, missionaries, or limited and highly-bound editions of old books (things, in a word, in treating which you knew exactly where you were) than in the manifestations of mere life that came before their eyes.

"Oh, Dick, about that young Frenchman. Antonia says he wants a tutorship; now, can you really recommend him? There's Mrs. Robinson at the Gateways wants someone to teach her boys languages; and, if he were quite satisfactory, it's really time Toddles had a few lessons in French; he goes to Eton next half."

Shelton stared at the rose; he had suddenly realised why it was that people take more interest in roses than in human beings--one could do it with a quiet heart.

"He's not a Frenchman, you know," he said to gain a little time.

"He's not a German, I hope," Mrs. Dennant answered, passing her forgers round a petal, to impress its fashion on her brain; "I don't like Germans. Is n't he the one you wrote about--come down in the world? Such a pity with so young a fellow! His father was a merchant, I think you told us. Antonia says he 's quite refined to look at."

"Oh, yes," said Shelton, feeling on safe ground; "he's refined enough to look at."

Mrs. Dennant took the rose and put it to her nose.

"Delicious perfume! That was a very touchin' story about his goin' without food in Paris. Old Mrs. Hopkins has a room to let; I should like to do her a good turn. I'm afraid there's a hole in the ceilin', though. Or there's the room here in the left wing on the ground-floor where John the footman used to sleep. It's quite nice; perhaps he could have that."

"You 're awfully kind," said Shelton, "but--"

"I should like to do something to restore his self-respect,", went on Mrs. Dennant, "if, as you say, he 's clever and all that. Seein' a little refined life again might make a world of difference to him. It's so sad when a young man loses self-respect."

Shelton was much struck by the practical way in which she looked at things. Restore his self-respect! It seemed quite a splendid notion! He smiled, and said,

"You're too kind. I think--"

"I don't believe in doin' things by halves," said Mrs. Dennant; "he does n't drink, I suppose?"

"Oh, no," said Shelton. "He's rather a tobacco maniac, of course."

"Well, that's a mercy! You would n't believe the trouble I 've had with drink, especially over cooks and coachmen. And now Bunyan's taken to it."

"Oh, you'd have no trouble with Ferrand," returned Shelton; "you couldn't tell him from a gentleman as far as manners go."

Mrs. Dennant smiled one of her rather sweet and kindly smiles.

"My dear Dick," she said, "there's not much comfort in that. Look at poor Bobby Surcingle, look at Oliver Semples and Victor Medallion; you could n't have better families. But if you 're sure he does n't drink! Algy 'll laugh, of course; that does n't matter--he laughs at everything."

Shelton felt guilty; being quite unprepared for so rapid an adoption of his client.

"I really believe there's a lot of good in him," he stammered; "but, of course, I know very little, and from what he tells me he's had a very curious life. I shouldn't like--"

"Where was he educated?" inquired Mrs. Dennant. "They have no public schools in France, so I 've been told; but, of course, he can't help that, poor young fellow! Oh, and, Dick, there 's one thing--has he relations? One has always to be so careful about that. It 's one thing to help a young fellow, but quite another to help his family too. One sees so many cases of that where men marry girls without money, don't you know."

"He has told me," answered Shelton, "his only relations are some cousins, and they are rich."

Mrs. Dennant took out her handkerchief, and, bending above the rose, removed a tiny insect.

"These green-fly get in everywhere," she said.

"Very sad story; can't they do anything for him?" and she made researches in the rose's heart.

"He's quarrelled with them, I believe," said Shelton; "I have n't liked to press him, about that."

"No, of course not," assented Mrs. Dennant absently--she had found another green-fly "I always think it's painful when a young man seems so friendless."

Shelton was silent; he was thinking deeply. He had never before felt so distrustful of the youthful foreigner.

"I think," he said at last, "the best thing would be for you to see him for yourself."

"Very well," said Mrs. Dennant. "I should be so glad if you would tell him to come up. I must say I do think that was a most touchin' story about Paris. I wonder whether this light's strong enough now for me to photograph this rose."

Shelton withdrew and went down-stairs. Ferrand was still at breakfast. Antonia stood at the sideboard carving beef for him, and in the window sat Thea with her Persian kitten.

Both girls were following the traveller's movements with inscrutable blue eyes. A shiver ran down Shelton's spine. To speak truth, he cursed the young man's coming, as though it affected his relations with Antonia.


John Galsworthy

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