"My dear Richard" (wrote Shelton's uncle the next day), "I shall be glad to see you at three o'clock to-morrow afternoon upon the question of your marriage settlement...." At that hour accordingly Shelton made his way to Lincoln's Inn Fields, where in fat black letters the names "Paramor and Herring (Commissioners for Oaths)" were written on the wall of a stone entrance. He ascended the solid steps with nervousness, and by a small red-haired boy was introduced to a back room on the first floor. Here, seated at a table in the very centre, as if he thereby better controlled his universe, a pug-featured gentleman, without a beard, was writing. He paused. "Ow, Mr. Richard!" he said; "glad to see you, sir. Take a chair. Your uncle will be disengaged in 'arf a minute"; and in the tone of his allusion to his employer was the satirical approval that comes with long and faithful service. "He will do everything himself," he went on, screwing up his sly, greenish, honest eyes, "and he 's not a young man."
Shelton never saw his uncle's clerk without marvelling at the prosperity deepening upon his face. In place of the look of harassment which on most faces begins to grow after the age of fifty, his old friend's countenance, as though in sympathy with the nation, had expanded--a little greasily, a little genially, a little coarsely--every time he met it. A contemptuous tolerance for people who were not getting on was spreading beneath its surface; it left each time a deeper feeling that its owner could never be in the wrong.
"I hope you're well, sir," he resumed: "most important for you to have your health now you're going-to"--and, feeling for the delicate way to put it, he involuntarily winked--"to become a family man. We saw it in the paper. My wife said to me the other morning at breakfast: 'Bob, here's a Mr. Richard Paramor Shelton goin' to be married. Is that any relative of your Mr. Shelton?' 'My dear,' I said to her, 'it's the very man!'"
It disquieted Shelton to perceive that his old friend did not pass the whole of his life at that table writing in the centre of the room, but that somewhere (vistas of little grey houses rose before his eyes) he actually lived another life where someone called him "Bob." Bob! And this, too, was a revelation. Bob! Why, of course, it was the only name for him! A bell rang.
"That's your uncle"; and again the head clerk's voice sounded ironical. "Good-bye, sir."
He seemed to clip off intercourse as one clips off electric light. Shelton left him writing, and preceded the red-haired boy to an enormous room in the front where his uncle waited.
Edmund Paramor was a medium-sized and upright man of seventy, whose brown face was perfectly clean-shaven. His grey, silky hair was brushed in a cock's comb from his fine forehead, bald on the left side. He stood before the hearth facing the room, and his figure had the springy abruptness of men who cannot fatten. There was a certain youthfulness, too, in his eyes, yet they had a look as though he had been through fire; and his mouth curled at the corners in surprising smiles. The room was like the man--morally large, void of red-tape and almost void of furniture; no tin boxes were ranged against the walls, no papers littered up the table; a single bookcase contained a complete edition of the law reports, and resting on the Law Directory was a single red rose in a glass of water. It looked the room of one with a sober magnanimity, who went to the heart of things, despised haggling, and before whose smiles the more immediate kinds of humbug faded.
"Well, Dick," said he, "how's your mother?"
Shelton replied that his mother was all right.
"Tell her that I'm going to sell her Easterns after all, and put into this Brass thing. You can say it's safe, from me."
Shelton made a face.
"Mother," said he, "always believes things are safe."
His uncle looked through him with his keen, half-suffering glance, and up went the corners of his mouth.
"She's splendid," he said.
"Yes," said Shelton, "splendid."
The transaction, however, did not interest him; his uncle's judgment in such matters had a breezy soundness he would never dream of questioning.
"Well, about your settlement"; and, touching a bell three times, Mr. Paramor walked up and down the room. "Bring me the draft of Mr. Richard's marriage settlement."
The stalwart commissionaire reappearing with a document--"Now then, Dick," said Mr. Paramor. "She 's not bringing anything into settlement, I understand; how 's that?"
"I did n't want it," replied Shelton, unaccountably ashamed.
Mr. Paramor's lips quivered; he drew the draft closer, took up a blue pencil, and, squeezing Shelton's arm, began to read. The latter, following his uncle's rapid exposition of the clauses, was relieved when he paused suddenly.
"If you die and she marries again," said Mr. Paramor, "she forfeits her life interest--see?"
"Oh!" said Shelton; "wait a minute, Uncle Ted."
Mr. Paramor waited, biting his pencil; a smile flickered on his mouth, and was decorously subdued. It was Shelton's turn to walk about.
"If she marries again," he repeated to himself.
Mr. Paramor was a keen fisherman; he watched his nephew as he might have watched a fish he had just landed.
"It's very usual," he remarked.
Shelton took another turn.
"She forfeits," thought he; "exactly."
When he was dead, he would have no other way of seeing that she continued to belong to him. Exactly!
Mr. Paramor's haunting eyes were fastened on his nephew's face.
"Well, my dear," they seemed to say, "what 's the matter?"
Exactly! Why should she have his money if she married again? She would forfeit it. There was comfort in the thought. Shelton came back and carefully reread the clause, to put the thing on a purely business basis, and disguise the real significance of what was passing in his mind.
"If I die and she marries again," he repeated aloud, "she forfeits."
What wiser provision for a man passionately in love could possibly have been devised? His uncle's eye travelled beyond him, humanely turning from the last despairing wriggles of his fish.
"I don't want to tie her," said Shelton suddenly.
The corners of Mr. Paramour's mouth flew up.
"You want the forfeiture out?" he asked.
The blood rushed into Shelton's face; he felt he had been detected in a piece of sentiment.
"Ye-es," he stammered.
"Quite!" The answer was a little sulky.
Her uncle's pencil descended on the clause, and he resumed the reading of the draft, but Shelton could not follow it; he was too much occupied in considering exactly why Mr. Paramor had been amused, and to do this he was obliged to keep his eyes upon him. Those features, just pleasantly rugged; the springy poise of the figure; the hair neither straight nor curly, neither short nor long; the haunting look of his eyes and the humorous look of his mouth; his clothes neither shabby nor dandified; his serviceable, fine hands; above all, the equability of the hovering blue pencil, conveyed the impression of a perfect balance between heart and head, sensibility and reason, theory and its opposite.
"'During coverture,'" quoted Mr. Paramor, pausing again, "you understand, of course, if you don't get on, and separate, she goes on taking?"
If they didn't get on! Shelton smiled. Mr. Paramor did not smile, and again Shelton had the sense of having knocked up against something poised but firm. He remarked irritably:
"If we 're not living together, all the more reason for her having it."
This time his uncle smiled. It was difficult for Shelton to feel angry at that ironic merriment, with its sudden ending; it was too impersonal to irritate: it was too concerned with human nature.
"If--hum--it came to the other thing," said Mr. Paramor, "the settlement's at an end as far as she 's concerned. We 're bound to look at every case, you know, old boy."
The memory of the play and his conversation with Halidome was still strong in Shelton. He was not one of those who could not face the notion of transferred affections--at a safe distance.
"All right, Uncle Ted," said he. For one mad moment he was attacked by the desire to "throw in" the case of divorce. Would it not be common chivalry to make her independent, able to change her affections if she wished, unhampered by monetary troubles? You only needed to take out the words "during coverture."
Almost anxiously he looked into his uncle's face. There was no meanness there, but neither was there encouragement in that comprehensive brow with its wide sweep of hair. "Quixotism," it seemed to say, "has merits, but--" The room, too, with its wide horizon and tall windows, looking as if it dealt habitually in common-sense, discouraged him. Innumerable men of breeding and the soundest principles must have bought their wives in here. It was perfumed with the atmosphere of wisdom and law-calf. The aroma of Precedent was strong; Shelton swerved his lance, and once more settled down to complete the purchase of his wife.
"I can't conceive what you're--in such a hurry for; you 're not going to be married till the autumn," said Mr. Paramor, finishing at last.
Replacing the blue pencil in the rack, he took the red rose from the glass, and sniffed at it. "Will you come with me as far as Pall Mall? I 'm going to take an afternoon off; too cold for Lord's, I suppose?"
They walked into the Strand.
"Have you seen this new play of Borogrove's?" asked Shelton, as they passed the theatre to which he had been with Halidome.
"I never go to modern plays," replied Mr. Paramor; "too d---d gloomy."
Shelton glanced at him; he wore his hat rather far back on his head, his eyes haunted the street in front; he had shouldered his umbrella.
"Psychology 's not in your line, Uncle Ted?"
"Is that what they call putting into words things that can't be put in words?"
"The French succeed in doing it," replied Shelton, "and the Russians; why should n't we?"
Mr. Paramor stopped to look in at a fishmonger's.
"What's right for the French and Russians, Dick," he said "is wrong for us. When we begin to be real, we only really begin to be false. I should like to have had the catching of that fellow; let's send him to your mother." He went in and bought a salmon:
"Now, my dear," he continued, as they went on, "do you tell me that it's decent for men and women on the stage to writhe about like eels? Is n't life bad enough already?"
It suddenly struck Shelton that, for all his smile, his uncle's face had a look of crucifixion. It was, perhaps, only the stronger sunlight in the open spaces of Trafalgar Square.
"I don't know," he said; "I think I prefer the truth."
"Bad endings and the rest," said Mr. Paramor, pausing under one of Nelson's lions and taking Shelton by a button. "Truth 's the very devil!"
He stood there, very straight, his eyes haunting his nephew's face; there seemed to Shelton a touching muddle in his optimism--a muddle of tenderness and of intolerance, of truth and second-handedness. Like the lion above him, he seemed to be defying Life to make him look at her.
"No, my dear," he said, handing sixpence to a sweeper; "feelings are snakes! only fit to be kept in bottles with tight corks. You won't come to my club? Well, good-bye, old boy; my love to your mother when you see her"; and turning up the Square, he left Shelton to go on to his own club, feeling that he had parted, not from his uncle, but from the nation of which they were both members by birth and blood and education.
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