Chapter 39




MISCALCULATING WRATH.


Mr. Langton sat in his private apartment by Boston Quay trying the balance of a malacca cane.

Sir Oliver had sailed a week ago. Mr. Langton had walked down to the ship with him and taken his farewell instructions.

"By the way," said Sir Oliver, "I want you to make occasion to visit Eagles now and again, and pay your respects. I shall write to you as well as to her; and the pair of you can exchange news from your letters. She likes you."

"I hope so," answered Langton, "because 'tis an open secret that I adore her."

Sir Oliver smiled, a trifle ruefully. "Then you'll understand how it hits a man to leave her. Maybe--for I had meant to make you paymaster in my absence--you'll also forgive me for having changed my mind?"

"I'd have called you a damned fool if you hadn't," said Langton equably. "She's your wife, hang it all: and I'll lay you five pounds you'll return to find her with hair dishevelled over your monstrous careless bookkeeping. My dear Noll, a woman--a good woman--is never completely happy till convinced that she, and only she, has saved the man she loves from ruin; and, what's more, she's a fool if she can't prove it."

"Nevertheless she's a beginner; and I'll be glad of your promise to run over from time to time. A question or two will soon discover if things are running on an even keel."

"I shall attempt no method so coarse," Langton assured him. "I don't want to be ordered out of the house--must I repeat that I adore her? It may be news to you that she repays my attachment with a certain respect. . . . Should she find herself in any difficulty--and she will not--I shall be sent for and consulted. In any event, fond man, you may count on my calling."

As they shook hands Sir Oliver asked, "Don't you envy me, Batty?"

"Constantly and in everything," answered Langton; "though--ass that I am--I have rather prided myself on concealing it."

"I mean, don't you wish that you, and not I, were sailing for England? For that matter, though, there's nothing prevents you."

"Oh yes--there is."

"What, then?"

"Use and wont, if you will; indolence, if you choose; affection for you, Noll, if you prefer it."

"That had been an excellent reason for coming with me."

"It may be a better one for staying. . . . Well, as you walk up St. James's, give it my regards."

"For so fine an intelligence Noll can be infernally crass at times," muttered Mr. Langton to himself as he walked back to his lodgings.

He kept his promise and rode over to Eagles ten days later, to pay Ruth a visit. He found her astonishingly cheerful. The sum left by Sir Oliver for her stewardship had scared her at first. It scared her worse to discover how the heap began to drain away as through a sieve. But slowly she saw her way to stop some of the holes in that sieve. He had calculated her expenses, taking for basis the accounts of the past few months; and in the matter of entertaining, for example, she would save vast sums. . . . She foresaw herself a miser almost, to earn his praise.

"--Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband shall safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. She will do him good and not evil all the days of his life."

"She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. She is like the merchants's ships; she bringeth her food from afar. She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household. . . . She considereth a field and buyeth it. . . . She looketh well into the ways of her household."

"Her children rise up, and call her blessed. . . ." Her children? But she had let him go, after all, without telling her secret.

Mr. Langton sat and balanced a malacca cane in his hand. When his man announced the Reverend Mr. Silk, he laid it down carefully on the floor beside him.

"Show Mr. Silk up, if you please."

Mr. Silk entered with an affable smile. "Ah, good-morning, Mr. Langton!" said he, depositing his hat on the table and pulling off a pair of thick woollen gloves. "I am prompt on your call, eh? But this cold weather invites a man to walk briskly. Not to mention," he added, with an effort at facetiousness, "that when Mr. Langton sends for a clergyman his need is presumably urgent."

"It is," said Mr. Langton, seemingly blind to the hand he proferred. "Would you, before taking a seat, oblige me by throwing a log on the fire? . . . Thank you--the weather is raw, as you say."

"Urgent? But not serious, I hope?"

"Both. Sit down, please. . . . I am, as you know, a particular friend of Sir Oliver Vyell's."

"Say, rather, his best." Mr. Silk bowed and smiled.

"Possibly. At all events so close a friend that, being absent, he gives me the right to resent any dishonouring suspicion that touches him--or touches his lady. It comes to the same thing."

Mr. Silk cocked his head sideways, like a bird considering a worm. "Does it?" he queried, after a slight pause.

"Certainly. A rumour is current through Boston, touching Lady Vyell's virtue; or, at least, her conduct before marriage."

"'Tis a censorious world, Mr. Langton."

"Maybe; but let us avoid generalities, Mr. Silk. What grounds have you for imputing this misconduct to Lady Vyell?"

"Me, sir?" cried Mr. Silk, startled out of his grammar.

"You, sir." Mr. Langton arose lazily, and stepping to the door, turned the key; then returning to the hearth, in leisurely manner turned back his cuff's. "I have traced the slander to you, and hold the proofs. Perhaps you had best stand up and recant it before you take your hiding. But, whether or no, I am going to hide you," he promised, with his engaging smile. Stooping swiftly he caught up the malacca. Mr. Silk sprang to his feet and snatched at the chair, dodging sideways.

"Strike as you please," he snarled; "Ruth Josselin is a--" But before the word could out Batty Langton's first blow beat down his guard. The second fell across his exposed shoulders, the third stunningly on the nape of his neck. The fourth--a back-hander-- welted him full in the face, and the wretched man sank screaming for pity.

Batty Langton had no pity. "Stand up, you hound!" he commanded. The command was absurd, and he laughed savagely, tickled by its absurdity even in his fury, while he smote again and again. He showered blows until, between blow and blow, he caught his breath and panted. Mr. Silk's screams had sunk to blubbings and whimpers. Between the strokes he heard them.

His valet was knocking timorously on the door. "All right!" called Langton, lifting his cane and lowering it slowly--for his victim lay still. He stooped to drag aside the arm covering the huddled face. As he did so, Mr. Silk snarled again, raised his head and bit blindly, fastening his teeth in the flesh of the left hand. Langton wrenched free and, as the man scrambled to his feet, dealt him with the same hand a smashing blow on the mouth--a blow that sent him reeling, to overbalance and pitch backward to the floor again across an overturned chair.

Somehow the pleasure of getting in that blow restored--literally at a stroke--Langton's good temper. He laughed and tossed the cane into a corner.

"You may stand up now," said he sweetly. "You are not going to be beaten any more."

Mr. Silk stood up. His mouth trickled blood, and he nursed his right wrist, where the cane had smitten across the bone. Langton stepped to the door and, unlocking it, admitted his trembling valet.

"My good fool," he said, "didn't I call to you not to be alarmed? Mr. Silk, here, has been seized with a--a kind of epileptic fit. Help him downstairs and call a chair for him. Don't stare; he will not bite again for a very long time."

But in this Mr. Langton was mistaken.

He took the precaution of cauterising his bitten hand; and before retiring to rest that night contemplated it grimly, holding it out to the warmth of his bachelor fire. It was bandaged; but above the edge of the bandage his knuckles bore evidence how they had retaliated upon Mr. Silk's teeth.

He eyed these abrasions for a while and ended with a soft complacent laugh. "Queer, how little removed we are, after all, from the natural savage!" he murmured. "Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce to your notice Batty Langton, Esquire, a child of nature-- not perhaps of the best period--still using his naked fists and for a woman--primitive cause of quarrel. And didn't he enjoy it, by George!"

He laughed again softly. But, could he have foreseen, he had been willing rather to cut the hand off for its day's work.




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