That evening Sewell went to see an old parishioner of his who lived on the Hill, and who among his eccentricities had the habit of occupying his city house all summer long, while his family flitted with other people of fashion to the seashore. That year they talked of taking a cottage for the first time since they had sold their own cottage at Nahant, in a day of narrow things now past. The ladies urged that he ought to come with them, and not think of staying in Boston now that he had a trouble of the eyes which had befallen him, and Boston would be so dull if he could not get about freely and read as usual.
He answered that he would rather be blind in Boston than telescopic at Beverly, or any other summer resort; and that as for the want of proper care, which they urged, he did not think he should lack in his own house, if they left him where he could reach a bell. His youngest daughter, a lively little blonde, laughed with a cousin of his wife's who was present, and his wife decorously despaired. The discussion of the topic was rather premature, for they were not thinking of going to Beverly before middle of May, if they took the cottage; but an accident had precipitated it, and they were having it out, as people do, each party in the hope that the other would yield if kept at long enough before the time of final decision came.
"Do you think," said the husband and father, who looked a whimsical tyrant at the worst, but was probably no easier to manage for his whimsicality, "that I am going to fly in the face of prosperity, and begin to do as other people wish because I'm pecuniarily able to do as I please?"
The little blonde rose decisively from the low chair where she had been sitting. "If papa has begun to reason about it, we may as well yield the point for the present, mamma. Come, Lily! Let us leave him to Cousin Charles."
"Oh, but I say!" cried Cousin Charles, "if I'm to stay and fight it out with him, I've got to know which side I'm on."
"You're on the right side," said the young lady over her shoulder; "you always are, Cousin Charles."
Cousin Charles, in the attempt to kiss his hand toward his flatterer, pulled his glasses off his nose by their cord. "Bromfield," he said, "I don't see but this commits me against you." And then, the ladies having withdrawn, the two men put on that business air with which our sex tries to atone to itself for having unbent to the lighter minds of the other; heaven knows what women do when the men with whom they have been talking go away.
"If you should happen to stay in town," continued the cousin treacherously, "I shall be very glad, for I don't know but I shall be here the greater part of the summer myself."
"I shall stay," said the other, "but there won't be anything casual about it."
"What do you hear from Tom?" asked the cousin, feeling about on the mantel for a match. He was a full-bodied, handsome, amiable-looking old fellow, whose breath came in quick sighs with this light exertion. He had a blond complexion, and what was left of his hair, a sort of ethereal down on the top of his head, and some cherished fringes at the temples, was turning the yellowish grey that blond hair becomes.
The other gentleman, stretched at ease in a deep chair, with one leg propped on a cricket, had the distinction of long forms, which the years had left in their youthful gracility; his snow-white moustache had been allowed to droop over the handsome mouth, whose teeth were beginning to go. "They're on the other side of the clock," he said, referring to the matches. He added, with another glance at his relative, "Charles, you ought to bant. It's beginning to affect your wind."
"Beginning! Your memory's going, Bromfield. But they say there's a new system that allows you to eat everything. I'm waiting for that. In the meantime, I've gone back to my baccy."
"They've cut mine off," sighed the other. "Doesn't it affect your heart?"
"Not a bit. But what do you do, now you can't smoke and your eyes have given out?"
"I bore myself. I had a letter from Tom yesterday," said the sufferer, returning to the question that his cousin's obesity had diverted him from. "He's coming on in the summer."
"Tom's a lucky fellow," said the cousin. "I wish you had insisted on my taking some of that stock of his when you bought in."
"Yes, you made a great mistake," said the other, with whimsical superiority. "You should have taken my advice. You would now be rolling in riches, as I am, with a much better figure for it."
The cousin smoked a while. "Do you know, I think Tom's about the best fellow I ever knew."
"He's a good boy," said the other, with the accent of a father's pride and tenderness.
"Going to bring his pretty chickens and their dam?" asked the cousin, parting his coat-skirts to the genial influence of the fire.
"No; it's a short visit. They're going into the Virginia mountains for the summer." A manservant came in and said something in a low voice. "Heigh? What? Why, of course! Certainly! By all means! Show him in! Come in, parson; come in!" called the host to his yet unseen visitor, and he held out his hand for Sewell to take when he appeared at the door. "Glad to see you! I can't get up,—a little gouty to-day,—but Bellingham's on foot. His difficulty is sitting down."
Bellingham gave the minister a near-sighted man's glare through his glasses, and then came eagerly forward and shook hands. "Oh, Mr. Sewell! I hope you've come to put up some job on Corey. Don't spare him! With Kanawha Paint Co. at the present figures he merits any demand that Christian charity can make upon him. The man's prosperity is disgraceful."
"I'm glad to find you here, Mr. Bellingham," said Sewell, sitting down.
"Oh, is it double-barrelled?" pleaded Bellingham.
"I don't know that it's a deadly weapon of any kind," returned the minister. "But if one of you can't help me, perhaps the other can."
"Well, let us know what the job is," said Corey. "We refuse to commit ourselves beforehand."
"I shall have to begin at the beginning," said Sewell warningly, "and the beginning is a long way off."
"No matter," said Bellingham adventurously. "The further off, the better. I've been dining with Corey—he gives you a very good dinner now, Corey does—and I'm just in the mood for a deserving case."
"The trouble with Sewell is," said Corey, "that he doesn't always take the trouble to have them deserving. I hope this is interesting, at least."
"I suspect you'll find it more interesting than I shall," said the minister, inwardly preparing himself for the amusement which Lemuel's history always created in his hearers. It seemed to him, as he began, that he was always telling this story, and that his part in the affair was always becoming less and less respectable. No point was lost upon his hearers; they laughed till the ladies in the drawing-room above wondered what the joke could be.
"At any rate," said Bellingham, "the fellow behaved magnificently at the fire. I read the accounts of it."
"I think his exploits owe something to the imagination of the reporters," said Sewell. "He tells a different story himself."
"Oh, of course!" said Bellingham.
"Well; and what else?" asked Corey.
"There isn't any more. Simply he's out of work, and wants something to do—anything to do—anything that isn't menial."
"Ah, that's a queer start of his," said Bellingham thoughtfully. "I don't know but I like that."
"And do you come to such effete posterity as we are for help in a case like that?" demanded Corey. "Why, the boy's an Ancestor!"
"So he is! Why, so he is—so he is!" said Bellingham, with delight in the discovery. "Of course he is!"
"All you have to do," pursued Corey, "is to give him time, and he'll found a fortune and a family, and his children's children will be cutting ours in society. Half of our great people have come up in that way. Look at the Blue-book, where our nobility is enrolled; it's the apotheosis of farm-boys, mechanics, insidemen, and I don't know what!"
"But in the meantime this ancestor is now so remote that he has nothing to do," suggested Sewell. "If you give him time you kill him."
"Well, what do you want me to do? Mrs. Corey is thinking of setting up a Buttons. But you say this boy has a soul above buttons. And besides, he's too old."
"Look here, Bromfield," said Bellingham, "why don't you get him to read to you?"
Corey glanced from his cousin to the minister, whose face betrayed that this was precisely what he had had in his own mind.
"Is that the job?" asked Corey.
Sewell nodded boldly.
"He would read through his nose, wouldn't he? I couldn't stand that.
I've stopped talking through mine, you know."
"Why, look here, Bromfield!" said Bellingham for the second time. "Why don't you let me manage this affair for you? I'm not of much use in the world, but from time to time I like to do my poor best; and this is just one of the kind of things I think I'm fitted for. I should like to see this young man. When I read in the newspapers of some fellow who has done a fine thing, I always want to see what manner of man he is; and I'm glad of any chance that throws him in my way."
"Your foible's notorious, Charles. But I don't see why you keep my cigars all to yourself," said Corey.
"My dear fellow," said Bellingham, making a hospitable offer of the cigar-box from the mantel, "you said they'd cut you off."
"Ah, so they have. I forgot. Well, what's your plan?"
"My plan," said Bellingham, "is to have him to breakfast with me, and interview him generally, and get him to read me a few passages, without rousing his suspicions. Heigh?"
"I don't know that I believe much in your plan," said Corey. "I should like to hear what my spiritual adviser has to say."
"I shouldn't know what to advise, exactly," said Sewell. "But I won't reject any plan that gives my client a chance."
"Isn't client rather euphuistic?" asked Corey.
"It is, rather. But I've got into the habit of handling Barker very delicately, even in thought. I'm not sure he'll come," added Sewell, turning to Bellingham.
"Oh yes, he will," said Bellingham. "Tell him it's business. There won't be anybody there. Will nine be too late for him?"
"I imagine he's more accustomed to half-past five at home, and seven here."
"Well, we'll say nine, anyway. I can't imagine the cause that would get me up earlier. Here!" He turned to the mantel and wrote an invitation upon his card, and handed it to Sewell. "Please give him that from me, and beg him to come. I really want to see him, and if he can't read well enough for this fastidious old gentleman, we'll see what else he can do. Corey tells me he expects Tom on this summer," he concluded, in dismissal of Lemuel as a topic.
"Ah," said Sewell, putting the card in his pocket, "I'm very glad to hear that."
He had something, but not so much, of the difficulty in overcoming Lemuel's reluctance that he had feared, and on the morning named Lemuel presented himself at the address on Bellingham's card exactly at nine. He had the card in his hand, and he gave it to the man who opened the street door of the bachelors' apartment house where Bellingham lived. The man read it carefully over, and then said, "Oh yes; second floor," and, handing it back, left Lemuel to wander upstairs alone. He was going to offer the card again at Bellingham's door, but he had a dawning misgiving. Bellingham had opened the door himself, and, feigning to regard the card as offered by way of introduction, he gave his hand cordially, and led him into the cozy room, where the table was already laid for breakfast.
"Glad to see you, glad to see you, Mr. Barker. Give me your coat. Ah, I see you scorn the effeminacy of half-season things. Put your hat anywhere. The advantage of bachelors' quarters is that you can put anything anywhere. We haven't a woman on the premises, and you can fancy how unmolested we are."
Lemuel had caught sight of one over the mantel, who had nothing but her water-colours on, and was called an "Etude;" but he no longer trembled, for evil or for good, in such presences. "That's one of those Romano-Spanish things," said Bellingham, catching the direction of his eye. "I forget the fellow's name; but it isn't bad. We're pretty snug here," he added, throwing open two doors in succession, to show the extent of his apartment.
"Here you have the dining-room and drawing-room and library in one; and here's my bedroom, and here's my bath."
He pulled an easy-chair up toward the low fire for Lemuel. "But perhaps you're hot from walking? Sit wherever you like."
Lemuel chose to sit by the window. "It's very mild out," he said, and Bellingham did not exact anything more of him. He talked at him, and left Lemuel to make his mental inventory of the dense Turkey rugs on the slippery hardwood floor, the pictures on the Avails, the deep, leather-lined seats, the bric-a-brac on the mantel, the tall, coloured chests of drawers in two corners, the delicate china and quaint silver on the table.
Presently steps were heard outside, and Bellingham threw open the door as he had to Lemuel, and gave a hand to each of the two guests whom he met on his threshold.
"Ah, Meredith! Good morning, venerable father!" He drew them in.
"Let me introduce you to Mr. Barker, Mr. Meredith. Mr. Barker, the
Rev. Mr. Seyton. You fellows are pretty prompt."
"We're pretty hungry," said Mr. Meredith. "I don't know that we should have got here if we hadn't leaned up against each other as we came along. Several policemen regarded us suspiciously, but Seyton's cloth protected us."
"It was terrible, coming up Beacon Street with an old offender like
Meredith, at what he considered the dead hour of the night," said
Mr. Seyton. "I don't know what I should have done if any one had
been awake to see us."
"You shall have breakfast instantly," said Bellingham, touching an annunciator, and awakening a distant electric titter somewhere.
Mr. Seyton came toward Lemuel, who took the young Ritualist for a Catholic priest, but was not proof against the sweet friendliness which charmed every one with him, and was soon talking at more ease than he had felt from all Bellingham's cordial intention. He was put at his host's right hand when they sat down, and Mr. Seyton was given the foot, so that they continued their talk.
"Mr. Bellingham tells me you know my friend Sewell," said the clergyman.
Lemuel's face kindled. "Oh yes! Do you know him too?"
"Yes, I've known him a long time. He's a capital fellow, Sewell is."
"I think he's a great preacher," ventured Lemuel.
"Ah—well—yes? Is he? I've never heard him lecture," said Mr.
Seyton, looking down at his bread.
"I swear, Seyton," said Meredith across the table, "when you put on that ecclesiastical superciliousness of yours, I want to cuff you."
"I've no doubt he'd receive it in a proper spirit," said Bellingham, who was eating himself hot and red from the planked shad before him. "But you mustn't do it here."
"Of course," said Mr. Seyton, "Sewell is a very able man, and no end of a good fellow, but you can't expect me to admit he's a priest."
He smiled in sweet enjoyment of his friend's wrath. Lemuel observed that he spoke with an accent different from the others, which he thought very pleasant, but he did not know it for that neat utterance which the Anglican Church bestows upon its servants.
"He's no Jesuit," growled Meredith.
"I'm bound to say he's not a pagan, either," laughed the clergyman.
"These gentlemen exchange these little knocks," Bellingham explained to Lemuel's somewhat puzzled look, "because they were boys together at school and college, and can't realise that they've grown up to be lights of the bar and the pulpit." He looked round at the different plates. "Have some more shad?" No one wanted more, it seemed, and Bellingham sent it away by the man, who replaced it with broiled chicken before Bellingham, and lamb chops in front of Mr. Seyton. "This is all there is," the host said.
"It's enough for me," said Meredith, "if no one else takes anything."
But in fact there was also an omelet, and bread and butter delicious beyond anything that Lemuel had tasted; and there was a bouquet of pink radishes with fragments of ice dropped among olives, and other facts of a polite breakfast. At the close came a dish of what Bellingham called premature strawberries.
"Why! they're actually sweet!" said Meredith, "and they're as natural as emery-bags."
"Yes, they're all you say," said Bellingham. "You can have strawberries any time nowadays after New Year's, if you send far enough for them; but to get them ripe and sound, or distinguishable from small turnips in taste, is another thing."
Lemuel had never imagined a breakfast like that; he wondered at himself for having respected the cuisine of the St. Albans. It seemed to him that he and the person he had been—the farm-boy, the captive of the police, the guest of the Wayfarer's Lodge, the servant of Miss Vane, and the head-waiter at the hotel—could not be the same person. He fell into a strange reverie, while the talk, in which he had shared so little, took a range far beyond him. Then he looked up and found all the others' eyes upon him, and heard Bellingham saying, "I fancy Mr. Barker can tell us something about that," and at Lemuel's mystified stare he added, "About the amount of smoke at a fire that a man could fight through. Mr. Seyton was speaking of the train that was caught in the forest fires down in Maine the other day. How was it with you at the St. Albans?"
Lemuel blushed. It was clear that Mr. Bellingham had been reading that ridiculous newspaper version of his exploit. "There was hardly any smoke at all where I was. It didn't seem to have got into the upper entries much."
"That's just what I was saying!" triumphed Bellingham. "If a man has anything to do, he can get on. That's the way with the firemen. It's the rat-in-a-trap idea that paralyses. Do you remember your sensations at all, when you were coming through the fire? Those things are very curious sometimes," Bellingham suggested.
"There was no fire where I was," said Lemuel stoutly, but helpless to make a more comprehensive disclaimer.
"I imagine you wouldn't notice that, any more than the smoke," said Bellingham, with a look of satisfaction in his hero for his other guests. "It's a sort of ecstasy. Do you remember that fellow of Bret Harte's, in How Christmas came to Simpson's Bar, who gets a shot in his leg, or something, when he's riding to get the sick boy a Christmas present, and doesn't know it till he drops off his horse in a faint when he gets back?" He jumped actively up from the table, and found the book on his shelf. "There!" He fumbled for his glasses without finding them. "Will you be kind enough to read the passage, Mr. Barker? I think I've found the page. It's marked." He sat down again, and the others waited.
Lemuel read, as he needs must, and he did his best.
"Ah, that's very nice. Glad you didn't dramatise it; the drama ought to be in the words, not the reader. I like your quiet way."
"Harte seems to have been about the last of the story-tellers to give us the great, simple heroes," said Seyton.
When the others were gone, and Lemuel, who had been afraid to go first, rose to take himself away, Bellingham shook his hand cordially and said, "I hope you weren't bored? The fact is, I rather promised myself a tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte with you, and I told Mr. Sewell so; but I fell in with Seyton and Meredith yesterday—you can't help falling in with one when you fall in with the other; they're inseparable when Seyton's in town and I couldn't resist the temptation to ask them."
"Oh no, I wasn't bored at all," said Lemuel.
"I'm very glad. But—sit down a moment. I want to speak to you about a little matter of business. Mr. Sewell was telling us something of you the other night, at my cousin Bromfield Corey's, and it occurred to me that you might be willing to come and read to him. His eyes seem to be on the wane, some way, and he's rather sleepless. He'd give you a bed, and sometimes you'd have to read to him in the night; you'd take your meals where you like. How does it strike you, supposing the 'harnsome pittance' can be arranged?"
"Why, if you think I can do it," began Lemuel.
"Of course I do. You don't happen to read French?"
Lemuel shook his head hopelessly. "I studied Latin some at school—"
"Ah! Well! I don't think he'd care for Latin. I think we'd better stick to English for the present."
Bellingham arranged for Lemuel to go with him that afternoon to his cousin's and make, as he phrased it, a stagger at the job.
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