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THE disaster was complete. Not a single dollar of all Markland had cast so blindly into the whirling vortex ever came back to him. Fenwick disappeared from New York, leaving behind conclusive evidence of a dark complicity with the specious Englishman, whose integrity had melted away, like snow in the sunshine, beneath the fire of a strong temptation. Honourably connected at home, shrewd, intelligent, and enterprising, he had been chosen as the executive agent of a company prepared to make large investments in a scheme that promised large results. He was deputed to bring the business before a few capitalists on this side of the Atlantic, and with what success has been seen. His recreancy to the trust reposed in him was the ruin of many.
How shall we describe the scenes that followed, too quickly, the announcement by Mr. Markland that Woodbine Lodge was no longer to remain in his possession? No member of the family could meet the stern necessity without pain. The calmest of all the troubled household was Mrs. Markland. Fanny, whom the event had awakened from a partial stupor, gradually declined into her former state. She moved about more like an automaton than a living figure; entering into all the duties and activities appertaining to the approaching change, yet seeming entirely indifferent to all external things. She was living and suffering in the inner world, more than in the outer. With the crushing out of a wild, absorbing love, had died all interest in life. She was in the external world, but, so far as any interest in passing events was concerned, not of it. Sad, young heart. A most cruel experience was thine!
When the disastrous intelligence was made known to Aunt Grace, that rather peculiar and excitable personage did not fail to say that it was nothing more than she had expected; that she had seen the storm coming, long and long ago, and had long and long ago lifted, without avail, a voice of warning. As for Mr. Lyon, he received a double share of execration--ending with the oft-repeated remark, that she had felt his shadow when he first came among them, and that she knew he must be a bad man. The ebullition subsided, in due time, and then the really good-hearted spinster gave her whole thought and active energy to the new work that was before them.
After the fierce conflict endured by Mr. Markland, ending wellnigh fatally, a calmness of spirit succeeded. With him, the worst was over; and now, he bowed himself, almost humbly, amid the ruins of his shattered fortunes, and, with a heavy heart, began to reconstruct a home, into which his beloved ones might find shelter. Any time within the preceding five or six years, an intimation on his part that he wished to enter business again would have opened the most advantageous connections. It was different now. There had been a season of overtrading. Large balances in England and France were draining the Atlantic cities of specie, and short crops made it impossible for western and southern merchants to meet their heavy payments at the east. Money ruled high, in consequence; weak houses were giving way, and a general uneasiness was beginning to prevail. But, even if these causes had not operated against the prospects of Mr. Markland, his changed circumstances would have been a sufficient bar to an advantageous business connection. He was no longer a capitalist; and the fact that he had recklessly invested his money in what was now pronounced one of the wildest schemes, was looked upon as conclusive evidence against his discretion and sound judgment. The trite saying, that the world judges of men by success or failure, was fully illustrated in his case. Once, he was referred to as the shrewdest of business men; now, he was held up to ambitious young tradesmen as a warning wreck, stranded amid the breakers.
How painfully was Mr. Markland reminded, at almost every turn, of the changed relations he bore to the world! He had not doubted his ability to form a good business connection with some house of standing, or with some young capitalist, ready to place money against his experience and trade. But in this he was doomed to disappointment. His friends spoke discouragingly; and everywhere he met but a cold response to his views. Meantime, one creditor of the Company, in New York, who held a matured piece of paper on which Mr. Markland's name was inscribed, commenced a suit against him. To prevent this creditor getting all that remained of his wasted estate, an assignment for the benefit of all was made, and preparations at once commenced for removing from Woodbine Lodge.
A few days after this arrangement, Mr. Willet, whose family had gathered closer around their neighbours the moment the fact of their misfortune was known, came over to see Mr. Markland and have some talk with him about his future prospects. A brief conversation which had taken place on the day previous opened the way for him to do so without seeming to intrude. The impossibility of getting into business at the present time was admitted, on both sides, fully. Mr. Willet then said--
"If the place of salesman in a large jobbing-house would meet your views, I believe I can manage it for you."
"I am in no situation," replied Mr. Markland, "to make my own terms with the world. Standing at the foot of the ladder, I must accept the first means of ascent that offers."
"You will, then, take the place?"
"Yes, if the offer is made."
"The salary is not as large as I could wish," said Mr. Willet.
"Twelve hundred dollars."
"Get it for me, Mr. Willet, and I will be deeply grateful. That sum will save my children from immediate want."
"I wish it were more, for your sake," replied the kind neighbour. "But I trust it will be the beginning of better things. You will, at least, gain a footing on the first round of the ladder."
"But the advantage is only in prospect," said Mr. Markland. "The place is not yet mine."
"You have the refusal," was the pleased answer. "I had you in my mind when I heard of the vacancy, and mentioned your name. The principal of the firm said, without a word of hesitation, that if you were available, you would just suit him."
"I shall not soon forget your real kindness," responded Markland, grasping the hand of Mr. Willet. "You have proved, indeed, though an acquaintance of recent date, a true friend. Ah, sir! my heart had begun to despond. So many cold looks, changed tones, and discouraging words! I was not prepared for them. When a man is no longer able to stand alone, how few there are to reach out an arm to give him support!"
"It is the way of the world," replied Mr. Willet; "and if we give it credit for more virtue than it possesses, a sad disappointment awaits us. But there are higher and better principles of action than such as govern the world. They bring a higher and better reward."
"May the better reward be yours," said Mr. Markland, fervently. His heart was touched by this real but unobtrusive kindness.
"When do you purpose leaving here?" next inquired Mr. Willet.
"As early as I can make arrangements for removing my family," was answered.
"Where do you think of going?"
"Into the city."
"Would you not prefer remaining in this pleasant neighbourhood? I do not see how my mother and sisters are going to give you all up. Mrs. Markland has already won her way into all their affections, and they have mourned over your misfortunes as deeply, I believe, as if they had been our own. Pardon the freedom of speech which is only a warm heart-utterance, when I say that there is a beauty in the character of Mrs. Markland that has charmed us all; and we cannot think of losing her society. Walker told me to-day that his wife was dissatisfied with a country life, and that he was going to sell his pleasant cottage. I offered him his price, and the title-deeds will be executed to-morrow. Will you do me the favour to become my tenant? The rent is two hundred and fifty dollars."
Mr. Willet spoke very earnestly. It was some moments before there was any reply. Then Mr. Markland raised his eyes from the floor, and said, in a low voice, that slightly trembled--
"I saw a house advertised for rent in the city, to-day, which I thought would suit us. It was small, and the rent three hundred dollars. On learning the owner's name, I found that he was an old business friend, with whom I had been quite intimate, and so called upon him. His reception of me was not over cordial. When I mentioned my errand, he hesitated in his replies, and finally hinted something about security for the rent. I left him without a word. To have replied without an exposure of unmanly weakness would have been impossible. Keenly, since my misfortunes, have I felt the change in my relations to the world; but nothing has wounded me so sharply as this! Mr. Willet, your generous interest in my welfare touches my heart! Let me talk with my family on the subject. I doubt not that we will accept your offer thankfully."
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