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OF A YOUNG MAN THAT WOULD START UPON A DARK ADVENTURE, BUT HAD TWO MINDS UPON IT.
At ten o'clock on this same morning Mr. Samuel Buzza sat by the Club window, alternately skimming his morning paper and sipping his morning draught. He was alone, for the habit of early rising was fast following the other virtues of antique Troy, and the members rarely mustered in force before eleven.
He had read all the murders and sporting intelligence, and was about to glance at the affairs of Europe, when Mrs. Cripps, the caretaker, entered in a hurry and a clean white apron.
"If you please, sir, there's Seth Udy's little boy below with a note for you. I'd have brought it up, but he says he must give it hisself."
Sam, descending with some wonder, encountered Mr. Moggridge in the passage. The rivals drew aside to let each other pass. On the doorstep stood a ragged urchin, and waved a letter.
"For you, sir; an' plaise you'm to tell me 'yes' or 'no,' so quick as possible."
Sam took the letter, glanced at the neat, feminine handwriting of the address, and tore open the envelope.
"Dear Mr. Buzza,
If you care to remember what was spoken the other evening, you will to-night help a most unhappy woman. You will go to the captain's cabin of the Wreck which we visited together, and find there a small portmanteau. It may be carried in the hand, and holds the few necessaries I have hidden for my flight, but please carry it carefully. If you will be waiting with this by the sign-post at the Five-Lanes' corner, at 11.30 to-night, no words of mine will repay you. Should you refuse, I am a wretched woman; but in any case I know I may trust you to say no word of this.
"Look out for the closed carriage and pair. A word to the bearer will tell me that I may hope, or that you care nothing for me.
"P.S.--Be very careful not to shake the portmanteau."
"What be I to say, plaise, sir?"
Sam, who had read the letter for a third time syllable by syllable, looked around helplessly.
"Ef you plaise, what be I to say?"
Sam very heartily wished both boy and letter to the devil. He groaned aloud, and was about to answer, when he paused suddenly.
In the room above Mr. Moggridge was singing a jaunty stave.
The sound goaded Sam to madness; he ground his teeth and made up his mind.
"Say 'yes,'" he answered, shortly.
The word was no sooner spoken than he wished it recalled. But the urchin had taken to his heels. With an angry sigh Sam let circumstance decide for him, and returned to the reading-room.
No doubt the consciousness that pique had just betrayed his judgment made him the more inclined to quarrel with the poet. But assuredly the sight that met his eyes caused his blood to boil; for Mr. Moggridge was calmly in possession of the chair and newspaper which Sam had but a moment since resigned.
"Excuse me, but that is my chair and my paper."
"Eh?" The poet looked up sweetly. "Surely, the Club chair and the Club paper--"
"I have but this moment left them."
"By a singular coincidence, I have but this moment taken possession of them."
"Give them up, sir."
"I shall do nothing of the kind, sir."
At this point Sam was seized with the unlucky inspiration of quoting from Mr. Moggridge's published works:
"Forbid the flood to wet thy feet, Or bind its wrath in chains; But never seek to quench the heat That fires a poet's veins!"
This stanza, delivered with nice attention to its author's drawing-room manner, was too much.
"Sir, you are no gentleman!"
"You seem," retorted Sam, "to be an authority on manners as well as on Customs. I won't repeat your charge; but I'll be dashed if you're a poet!"
My Muse is in a very pretty pass. Gentlest of her sisterhood, she has wandered from the hum of Miss Limpenny's whist-table into the turmoil of Mars. Even as one who, strolling through a smiling champaign, finds suddenly a lion in his path, and to him straightway the topmost bough of the platanus is dearer than the mother that bare him--in short, I really cannot say how this history would have ended, had not Fortune at this juncture descended to the Club-room in form and speech like to Admiral Buzza.
The Admiral did not convey his son away in a hollow cloud, or even break the Club telescope in Mr. Moggridge's hand; he made a speech instead, to this effect:
"My sons, attend and cease from strife implacable; neither be as two ravening whelps that, having chanced on a kid in the dells of the mountain, dispute thereover, dragging this way and that with gnashing jaws. For to youth belong anger and biting words, but to soothe is the gift of old age."
What the Admiral actually said was--"Hullo! what the devil are you young cubs quarrelling about?"
And now, satisfied that no blood is to be spilt, the Muse hies gladly to a very different scene.
In the drawing-room of "The Bower" Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys was sitting with a puzzled face and a letter on her lap. She had gone to the front door to learn Sam Buzza's answer, and, having dismissed her messenger, was returning, when the garden-gate creaked, and a blue-jerseyed man, with a gravely humorous face, stood before her. The new comer had regarded her long and earnestly before asking--
"Be you Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys?"
"Answerin' to name o' Geraldine, an' lawful wife o' party answerin' to name o' Honorubble Frederic?"
"Certainly!" she smiled.
"H'm. Then this 'ere's for you." And the blue-jerseyed man handed a letter, and looked at her again, searchingly.
"Is there an answer?"
"No, I reckon."
She was turning, when the man suddenly laid a finger on her arm.
"Axin' pardon, but you'll let 'un down aisy, won't 'ee? He don't bear no malice, tho' he've a-suffered a brave bit. Cure 'un, that's what I say--cure 'un: this bein', o' cou'se, atween you an' me. An' look 'ee here," he continued, with a slow nod; "s'posin' the party lets on as he's a-falled in love wi' another party, I reckon you won't be the party to hinder et. Mind, I bain't sayin' you cou'd, but you won't try, will 'ee? That's atween you an' me, o' cou'se."
The man winked solemnly, and turned down the path. Before she recovered of her astonishment he had paused again at the gate, and was looking back.
"That's understood," he nodded; "atween you an' me an' the gate-post, o' cou'se."
With that he had disappeared.
Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys, if bewildered at this, was yet more astonished at the contents of the letter.
"Fogo?" she repeated, with a glance at the signature--"Fogo? Won't that be the name of the woman-hater up at Kit's House, me dear?"
"Certainly," answered the Honourable Frederic.
"Then I'll trouble yez to listen to this."
She read as follows:--
"My Dear Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys,
When last you left me I prayed that we might never meet again. But time is stronger than I fancied, and here I am writing to you. Fate must have been in her most ironical mood to bring us so near in this corner of the world. I thought you were in another continent; but if you will let me accept the chance which brings us together, and call upon you as an old friend, I shall really be grateful: for there will be much to talk about, even if we avoid, as I promise to do, all that is painful; and I am very lonely. I have seen your husband, and hope you are very happy.
Believe me, very sincerely yours,
"What does it mean?" asked Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys helplessly.
"It means, Nellie, that we have just time enough, and none to spare; in other words, that 'Goodwyn-Sandys' has come near to being a confoundedly fatal--"
"Then he must have known--"
"Known! My treasure, where are your wits? Beautiful namesake-- jilted lover--'hence, perjured woman'--bleeding heart--years pass-- marry another--finger of fate--Good Lord!" wound up the Honourable Frederic. "I met the fellow one day, and couldn't understand why he stared so--gave me the creeps--see it all now."
He lay back in his chair and whistled.
There was a tap at the drawing-room door, and the buttoned youth announced that Mrs. Buzza was without, and earnestly begged an interview with Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys. The Honourable Frederic obligingly retired to smoke, and the visitor was shown in.
Her appearance was extraordinary. Her portly figure shook; her eyes were red; her bonnet, rakishly poised over the left eye, had dragged askew the "front" under it, as though its wearer had parted her hair on one side in a distracted moment. A sob rent her bosom as she entered.
"My poor soul!" murmured Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys, "you are in trouble."
Mrs. Buzza tried to speak, but dropped into a chair and nodded instead.
"What is the matter?"
Mrs. Buzza mopped her eyes and nodded again.
"What has he done now?"
"S-said his bu-bu-breakfast was cold this mo-horning, and p-pitched the bu-bu-breakfast set over the quay-door," she moaned. "Oh! w-what shall I do?"
Mrs. Buzza clasped her hands and stared.
"You could see the m-marks quite plain," she wailed.
"What! Did he strike you?"
"I mean, on the bo-bottom of the c-cups. They were real W-worcester."
"Leave him! Oh! I have no patience," and Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys stamped her little foot, "with you women of Troy. Will you always be dolls-- dolls with a painted smile for all man's insane caprices? Will you never--?"
"I don't paint," put in Mrs. Buzza feebly.
"Revolt, I say! Leave him this very night! Oh! if I could--"
"If you please 'm," interrupted the page, throwing open the door, "here's Mrs. Simpson, an' says she must see you partic'lar."
Mrs. Buzza had barely time to dry her eyes and set her bonnet straight, before Mrs. Simpson rushed into the room. The new comer's face was crimson, and her eyes sparkled.
"Oh! Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys, I must--"
At this point she became aware of Mrs. Buzza, stopped abruptly, sank into a chair, and began aimlessly to discuss the weather.
This was awkward; but the situation became still further strained when Mrs. Pellow was announced, and bursting in with the same eagerness, came to a dead halt with the same inconsequence. Mrs. Saunders followed with white face and set teeth, and Mrs. Ellicome-Payne in haste and tears.
"Pray come in," said their hostess blandly; "this is quite like a mothers' meeting."
The reader has no doubt guessed aright. Though nobody present ever afterwards breathed a word as to their reasons for calling thus at "The Bower," and though the weather (which was serene and settled) alone supplied conversation during their visit, the truth is that the domestic relations of all these ladies had coincidently reached a climax. It seems incredible; but by no other hypothesis can I explain the facts. If the reader can supply a better, he is entreated to do so.
At length, finding the constraint past all bearing, Mrs. Buzza rose to go.
"You will do it?" whispered her hostess as they shook hands.
She could not trust herself to answer, but nodded and hastily left the room. At the front door she almost ran against a thin, mild-faced gentleman. He drew aside with a bow, and avoided the collision; but she did not notice him.
"I will do it," she kept repeating to herself, "in spite of the poor girls."
A mist swept before her eyes as she passed down the road. She staggered a little, with a vague feeling that the world was ending somehow; but she repeated--
"I will do it. I have been a good wife to him; but it's all over now--it's all over to-night."
The mild-faced gentleman into whom Mrs. Buzza had so nearly run in her agitation was Mr. Fogo. A certain air of juvenility sat upon him, due to a new pair of gloves and the careful polish which Caleb had coaxed upon his hat and boots. His clothes were brushed, his carriage was more erect; and the page, who opened the door, must, after a scrutiny, have pronounced him presentable, for he was admitted at once.
Undoubtedly the page blundered; but the events of the past hour had completely muddled the poor boy's wits, and perhaps the sight of one of his own sex was grateful, coming as it did after so many agitated females. At any rate, Mr. Fogo and his card entered the Goodwyn-Sandys' drawing-room together.
I leave you to imagine his feelings. In one wild instant the scene exploded on his senses. He staggered back against the door, securely pinning the retreating page between it and the doorpost, and denuding the Goodwyn-Sandys' livery of half a dozen buttons. The four distracted visitors started up as if to escape by the window. Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys advanced.
She was white to the lips. A close observer might have read the hunted look that for one brief moment swept over her face. But when she spoke her words were cold and calm.
"You wish to see my husband, Mr.--?" She hesitated over the name.
"Not in the least," stammered Mr. Fogo.
There was an awful silence, during which he stared blankly around on the ladies.
"Then may I ask--?"
"I desired to see Gerald--I mean, Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys--but--"
"I am Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys. Would you mind stating your business?"
Mr. Fogo started, dropped his hat, and leant back against the door again.
"Certainly." Her mouth worked slightly, but her eyes were steady.
"You are she that--was--once--Geraldine--O'Halloran?"
"Excuse me, madam," said Mr. Fogo, picking up his hat and addressing Mrs. Simpson politely, "but the mole on your chin annoys me."
"Annoys me excessively. May I ask, was it a birth-mark?"
"He is mad!" screamed the ladies, starting up and wringing their hands. "Oh, help! help!"
Mr. Fogo looked from one to another, and passed his hand wearily over his eyes.
"You are right," he murmured; "I fancy--do you know--that I must be-- slightly--mad. Pray excuse me. Would one of you mind seeing me home?" he asked with a plaintive smile.
His eyes wandered to Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys, who stood with one hand resting on the table, while the other pointed to the door.
"Help! help!" screamed the ladies.
Without another word he opened the door and tottered out into the passage. At the foot of the stairs he met the Honourable Frederic, who had been attracted by the screams.
"It's all right," said Mr. Fogo; "don't trouble. I shall be better out in the open air. There are women in there"--he pointed towards the drawing-room--"and one with a mole. I daresay it's all right-- but it seemed to me a very big mole."
And leaving the Honourable Frederic to gasp, he staggered from the house.
What happened in the drawing-room of "The Bower" after he left it will never be known, for the ladies of Troy are silent on the point.
It was ten o'clock at night, the hour when men may cull the bloom of sleep. Already the moon rode in a serene heaven, and, looking in at the Club window, saw the Admiral and Lawyer Pellow--"male feriatos Troas"--busy with a mild game of ecarte. There were not enough to make up a loo to-night, for Sam and Mr. Moggridge were absent, and so--more unaccountably--was the Honourable Frederic. The moon was silent, and only she, peering through the blinds of "The Bower," could see Mr. and Mrs. Goodwyn-Sandys hastily packing their boxes; or beneath the ladder, by the Admiral's quay-door, a figure stealthily unmooring the Admiral's boat.
To say that Sam Buzza did not relish his task were but feebly to paint his feelings, as, with the paddles under one arm, and the thole-pins in his pocket, he crept down the ladder and pushed off. Never before had the plash of oars seemed so searching a sound; never had the harbour been so crowded with vessels; and as for buoys, small craft, and floating logs, they bumped against his boat at every stroke. The moon, too, dogged him with persistent malice, or why was it that he rode always in a pool of light? The ships' lamps tracked him as so many eyes. He carried a bull's-eye lantern in the bottom of his boat, and the smell of its oil and heated varnish seemed to smell aloud to Heaven.
With heart in mouth, he crossed the line of the ferry, and picked his way among the vessels lying off the jetties. On one of these vessels somebody was playing a concertina, and as he crept under its counter a voice hailed him in German. He gave no answer, but pulled quickly on. And now he was clear again, and nearing Kit's House under the left bank. There was no light in any window, he noticed, with a glance over his shoulder. Still in the shadow, and only pulling out, here and there, to avoid a jutting rock, he gained the creek's mouth, and rowed softly up until the bulwarks of the old wreck overhung him.
The very silence daunted him now; but it must be gone through. Thinking to deaden fear by hurry, he caught up the lantern, leapt on board with the painter, fastened it, and crept swiftly towards the poop.
He gained the hatch, and paused to turn the slide of his lantern. The shaft of light fell down the companion as into a pitch-dark well. He could feel his heart thumping against his ribs as he began the descent, and jumping with every creak of the rotten boards, while always behind his fright lurked a sickening sense of the guilty foolishness of his errand.
At the ladder's foot he put his hand to his damp brow, and peered into the cabin.
In a moment his blood froze. A hoarse cry broke from him.
For there--straight ahead--a white face with straining eyes stared into his own!
And then he saw it was but his own reflection in a patch of mirror stuck into the panel opposite.
But the shock of that pallid mask confronting him had already unnerved him utterly.
He drew his eyes away, glanced around, and spied a black portmanteau propped beside a packing-case in the angle made by the wall and the flooring. In mad haste to reach the open air, but dimly remembering Geraldine's caution, he grasped the handles, flung a look behind him, and clambered up the ladder again, and out upon deck.
The worst was over; but he could not rest until again in his boat. As he untied the painter, he noticed the ray of his lantern dancing wildly up and down the opposite bank with the shaking of his hand. Cursing his forgetfulness, he turned the slide, slipped the lantern into his pocket, and, lowering himself gently with the portmanteau, dropped, seized the paddles, and rowed away as for dear life.
He had put three boats' lengths between him and the hull, and was drawing a sigh of relief, when a voice hailed him, and then--
A tongue of flame leapt out, and a loud report rang forth upon the night. He heard something whistle by his ear. Catching up the paddles again, he pulled madly out of the creek, and away for the opposite bank of the river; ran his boat in; and, seizing the portmanteau, without attempt to ship the oars or fasten the painter, leapt out; climbed, slipped, and staggered over the slippery stones; and fled up the hill as though a thousand fiends were at his heels.
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