"Show a fellar fellar's letters morrer." Such or something like it was Faddle's last request to his friend as they bade each other farewell for the night in Pall Mall. But Faddle was never destined to see the Colonel's epistle. On his attempting to let himself in at Badminton Gardens, he was kidnapped by his father in his night-shirt and dressing-gown; and was sent out of London on the following morning by long sea down to Aberdeen, whither he was intrusted to the charge of a stern uncle. Our friend Tom saw nothing more of his faithful friend till years had rolled over both their heads.
By the morning post, while Tom was still lying sick with headache, – for even with Signor Bolivia's wine the pulling of many corks is apt to be dangerous, – there came the letter from the Colonel. Bad as Tom was, he felt himself constrained to read it at once, and learned that neither the Torrid zone or Arctic circle would require his immediate attendance. He was very sick, and perhaps, therefore, less high in courage than on the few previous days. Partly, perhaps, from that cause, but partly, also, from the Colonel's logic, he did find that his wrath was somewhat abated. Not but what it was still present to his mind that if two men loved the same girl as ardently, as desperately, as eternally as he loved Ayala, the best thing for them would be to be put together like the Kilkenny cats, till whatever remnant should be left of one might have its chance with the young lady. He still thought that it would be well that they should fight to the death, but a glimmering of light fell upon his mind as to the Colonel's abnegation of all treason in the matter. "I suppose it wasn't to be expected that he should tell," he said to himself. "Perhaps I shouldn't have told in the same place. But as to forgetting animosity that is out of the question! How is a man to forget his animosity when two men want to marry the same girl?"
About three o'clock on that day he dressed himself, and sat waiting for Faddle to come to him. He knew how anxious his friend would be to see the Colonel's letter. But Faddle by this time had passed the Nore, and had added sea-sickness to his other maladies. Faddle came to him no more, and the tedious hours of the afternoon wore themselves away in his lodgings till he found his solitude to be almost more unbearable than his previous misfortunes. At last came the time when he must go out for his dinner. He did not dare to attempt the Mountaineers. And as for Bolivia, Bolivia with his corks, and his eating-house, and his vintages, was abominable to him. About eight o'clock he slunk into a quiet little house on the north side of Oxford Street, and there had two mutton chops, some buttered toast, and some tea. As he drank his tea he told himself that on the morrow he would go back to his mother at Merle Park, and get from her such consolation as might be possible.
It was now the middle of January, and Gertrude Tringle had received no reply from her lover to the overture which she had made him.
She prepared another letter to her lover, which she addressed to him at his club in London. In this she told him nothing of her former project, except that a letter written by her in November had fallen into the hands of enemies. Then she gave him to understand that there was need of the utmost caution; but that, if adequate caution were used, she did not doubt they might succeed. She said nothing about her great project, but suggested to him that he should run down into Sussex, and meet her at a certain spot indicated, outside the Park-palings, half-an-hour after dusk. It might be, she said, impossible that the meeting should be effected, but she thought that she could so manage as to leave the house unwatched at the appointed hour. With the object of being especially safe she began and concluded her letter without any names, and then managed to deposit it herself in the box of the village post-office.
Houston, when he received this letter, at once made up his mind that he would not be found on the outer side of the Park-palings on the evening named. He told himself that he was too old for the romance of love-making, and that should he be received, when hanging about in the dark, by some custodian with a cudgel, he would have nothing to thank but his own folly. He wrote back therefore to say that he regarded the outside of the Park-palings as indiscreet, but that he would walk up through the lodge-gate to the house at three o'clock in the afternoon of the day named, and he would take it as an additional mark of her favour if she would meet him on the road. Gertrude had sent him a mysterious address; he was to direct the letter to "O. P. Q., Post Office, Hastings," and she was prepared to hire a country boy to act as Love's messenger on the occasion. But of this instruction Frank took no notice, addressing the letter to Merle Park in the usual way.
Gertrude received her letter without notice from any one. On that occasion Argus, with all his eyes, was by chance asleep. She was very angry with her lover, – almost determined to reject him altogether, almost disposed to yield to her angry parents and look out for some other lover who might be accepted in better part; but still, when the day came she put on her hat and walked down the road towards the lodge.
As Fortune had it, – Fortune altogether unfavourable to those perils for which her soul was longing, – no one watched her, no one dogged her steps, no one took any notice of her, till she met Frank Houston when he had passed about a hundred yards on through the gates. "And so you have come," she said.
"Oh, yes; I have come. I was sure to come when I said so. No man is more punctual than I am in these matters. I should have come before, – only I did not get your letter."
"Well, my darling. You are looking uncommonly well, and I am so glad to see you. How are they all?"
"What is it?"
"Oh, Frank, what are we to do?"
"The governor will give way at last, I should say."
"Never; – that is while we are as we are now. If we were married – "
"Ah, – I wish we were! Wouldn't it be nice?"
"Do you really think so?"
"Of course I do. I'm ready to-morrow for the matter of that."
"But could you do something great?"
"Something great! As to earning my bread, you mean? I do not think I could do that. I didn't turn my hand to it early enough."
"I wasn't thinking of – your bread."
"You said, – could I do something great?"
"Frank, I wrote you a letter and described it all. How I got the courage to do it I do not know. I feel as though I could not bring myself to say it now. I wonder whether you would have the courage."
"I should say so. I don't know quite what sort of thing it is; but I generally have pluck enough for anything in a common way."
"This is something in an uncommon way."
"I couldn't break open Travers and Treason, and get at the safe, or anything in that way."
"It is another sort of safe of which you must break the lock, Frank; another treasure you must steal. Do you not understand me?"
"Not in the least."
"There is Tom," said Gertrude. "He is always wandering about the place now like a ghost. Let us go back to the gate." Then Frank turned. "You heard, I suppose, of that dreadful affair about the policeman."
"There was a row, I was told."
"Did you feel that the family were disgraced?"
"Not in the least. He had to pay five shillings, – hadn't he, – for telling a policeman to go about his business?"
"He was – locked up," said Gertrude, solemnly.
"It's just the same. Nobody thinks anything about that kind of thing. Now, what is it I have got to do? We had better turn back again as soon as we can, because I must go up to the house before I go."
"Certainly. I will not leave it to your father to say that I came skulking about the place, and was ashamed to show my face. That would not be the way to make him give you your money."
"I am sure he'd give it, – if we were once married."
"If we were married without having it assured before hand we should look very blue if things went wrong afterwards."
"I asked you whether you had courage."
"Courage enough, I think, when my body is concerned; but I am an awful coward in regard to money. I wouldn't mind hashed mutton and baked potatoes for myself, but I shouldn't like to see you eating them, dearest, after all the luxuries to which you have been accustomed."
"I should think nothing of it."
"Did you ever try? I never came absolutely to hashed mutton, but I've known how very uncomfortable it is not to be able to pay for the hot joints. I'm willing to own honestly that married life without an income would not have attractions for me."
"But if it was sure to come?"
"Ah, then indeed, – with you! I have just said how nice it would be."
"Have you ever been at Ostend?" she asked, suddenly.
"Ostend. Oh, yes. There was a man there who used to cheat horribly at ?cart?. He did me out of nearly a hundred pounds one night."
"But there's a clergyman there, I'm told."
"I don't think this man was in orders. But he might have been. Parsons come out in so many shapes! This man called himself a count. It was seven years ago."
"I am speaking of to-day."
"I've not been there since."
"Would you like to go there, – with me?"
"It isn't a nice sort of place, I should say, for a honeymoon. But you shall choose. When we are married you shall go where you like."
"To be married!" she exclaimed.
"Married at Ostend! Would your mother like that?"
"Mother! Oh, dear!"
"I'll be shot if I know what you're after, Gertrude. If you've got anything to say you'd better speak out. I want to go up to the house now."
They had now taken one or two turns between the lodge and a point in the road from which the house could be observed, and at which Tom could still be seen wandering about, thinking no doubt of Ayala. Here Frank stopped as though determined not to turn to the lodge again. It was wonderful to Gertrude that he should not have understood what she had already said. When he talked of her mother going with them to the Ostend marriage she was almost beside herself. This lover of hers was a man of the world and must have heard of elopements. But now had come a time in which she must be plain, unless she made up her mind to abandon her plan altogether. "Frank," she said, "if you were to run away with me, then we could be married at Ostend."
"Run away with you!"
"It wouldn't be the first time that such a thing has been done."
"The commonest thing in the world, my dear, when a girl has got her money in her own hands. Nothing I should like so much."
"Money! It's always money. It's nothing but the money, I believe."
"That's unkind, Gertrude."
"Ain't you unkind? You won't do anything I ask."
"My darling, that hashed mutton and those baked potatoes are too clear before my eyes."
"You think of nothing, I believe, but your dinner."
"I think, unfortunately, of a great many other things. Hashed mutton is simply symbolical. Under the head of hashed mutton I include poor lodgings, growlers when we get ourselves asked to eat a dinner at somebody's table, limited washing-bills, table-napkins rolled up in their dirt every day for a week, antimacassars to save the backs of the chairs, a picture of you darning my socks while I am reading a newspaper hired at a halfpenny from the public-house round the corner, a pint of beer in the pewter between us, – and perhaps two babies in one cradle because we can't afford to buy a second."
"In such an emergency I am bound to give you the advantage both of my experience and imagination."
"Not about the cradles! That is imagination. My darling, it won't do. You and I have not been brought up to make ourselves happy on a very limited income."
"Papa would be sure to give us the money," she said, eagerly.
"In such a matter as this, where your happiness is concerned, my dear, I will trust no one."
"Yes, my dear, your happiness! I am quite willing to own the truth. I am not fitted to make you happy, if I were put upon the hashed mutton regime as I have described to you. I will not run the risk, – for your sake."
"For your own, you mean," she said.
"Nor for my own, if you wish me to add that also."
Then they walked up towards the house for some little way in silence. "What is it you intend, then?" she asked.
"I will ask your father once again."
"He will simply turn you out of the house," she said. Upon this he shrugged his shoulders, and they walked on to the hall-door in silence.
Sir Thomas was not at Merle Park, nor was he expected home that evening. Frank Houston could only therefore ask for Lady Tringle, and her he saw together with Mr. and Mrs. Traffick. In presence of them all nothing could be said of love affairs; and, after sitting for half-an-hour, during which he was not entertained with much cordiality, he took his leave, saying that he would do himself the honour of calling on Sir Thomas in the City. While he was in the drawing-room Gertrude did not appear. She had retired to her room, and was there resolving that Frank Houston was not such a lover as would justify a girl in breaking her heart for him.
And Frank as he went to town brought his mind to the same way of thinking. The girl wanted something romantic to be done, and he was not disposed to do anything romantic for her. He was not in the least angry with her, acknowledging to himself that she had quite as much a right to her way of looking at things as he had to his. But he felt almost sure that the Tringle alliance must be regarded as impossible. If so, should he look out for another heiress, or endeavour to enjoy life, stretching out his little income as far as might be possible; – or should he assume altogether a new character, make a hero of himself, and ask Imogene Docimer to share with him a little cottage, in whatever might be the cheapest spot to be found in the civilised parts of Europe? If it was to be hashed mutton and a united cradle, he would prefer Imogene Docimer to Gertrude Tringle for his companion.
But there was still open to him the one further chance with Sir Thomas; and this chance he could try with the comfortable feeling that he might be almost indifferent as to what Sir Thomas might say. To be prepared for either lot is very self-assuring when any matter of difficulty has to be taken in hand. On arriving at the house in Lombard Street he soon found himself ushered once more into Sir Thomas's presence. "Well, Mr. Houston, what can I do for you to-day?" asked the man of business, with a pleasant smile.
"It is the old story, Sir Thomas."
"Don't you think, Mr. Houston, that there is something, – a little, – unmanly shall I call it, in coming so often about the same thing?"
"No, Sir Thomas, I do not. I think my conduct has been manly throughout."
"Weak, perhaps, would have been a better word. I do not wish to be uncourteous, and I will therefore withdraw unmanly. Is it not weak to encounter so many refusals on the same subject?"
"I should feel myself to have been very strong if after so many refusals I were to be successful at last."
"There is not the least chance of it."
"Why should there be no chance if your daughter's happiness depends upon it?"
"There is no chance, because I do not believe that my daughter's happiness does depend upon it. She is foolish, and has made a foolish proposition to you."
"What proposition?" asked Houston, in surprise, having heard nothing of that intercepted letter.
"That journey to Ostend, with the prospect of finding a good-natured clergyman in the town! I hardly think you would be fool enough for that."
"No, Sir Thomas, I should not do that. I should think it wrong." This he said quite gravely, asking no questions; but was very much at a loss to know where Sir Thomas had got his information.
"I am sure you would think it foolish: and it would be foolish. I pledge you my word, that were you to do such a thing I should not give you a shilling. I should not let my girl starve; but I should save her from suffering in such a manner as to let you have no share of the sustenance I provided for her."
"There is no question of that kind," said Frank, angrily.
"I hope not; – only as I know that the suggestion has been made I have thought it well to tell you what would be my conduct if it were carried out."
"It will not be carried out by me," said Frank.
"Very well; I am glad to hear it. To tell the truth, I never thought that you would run the risk. A gentleman of your sort, when he is looking for a wife with money, likes to have the money quite certain."
"No doubt," said Frank, determined not to be browbeaten.
"And now, Mr. Houston, let me say one word more to you and then we may part, as I hope, good friends. I do not mean my daughter Gertrude to marry any man such as you are; – by that I mean an idle gentleman without means. Should she do so in my teeth she would have to bear the punishment of sharing that poor gentleman's idleness and poverty. While I lived she would not be allowed absolutely to want, and when I died there would be some trifle for her, sufficient to keep the wolf from the door. But I give you my solemn word and honour that she shall never be the means of supplying wealth and luxury to such a husband as you would be. I have better purposes for my hard-earned money. Now, good-day." With that he rose from his chair and put out his hand. Frank rose also from his chair, took the hand that was offered him, and stepped out of Travers and Treason into Lombard Street, with no special desire to shake the dust off his feet as he did so. He felt that Sir Thomas had been reasonable, – and he felt also that Gertrude Tringle would perhaps have been dear at the money.
Two or three days afterwards he despatched the following little note to poor Gertrude at Merle Park; —
I have seen your father again, and found him to be absolutely obdurate. I am sure he is quite in earnest when he tells me that he will not give his daughter to an impoverished idle fellow such as I am. Who shall say that he is wrong? I did not dare to tell him so, anxious as I was that he should change his purpose.
I feel myself bound in honour, believing, as I do, that he is quite resolved in his purpose, to release you from your promise. I should feel that I was only doing you an injury were I to ask you to be bound by an engagement which could not, at any rate for many years, be brought to a happy termination.
As we may part as sincere friends I hope you will consent to keep the little token of my regard which I gave you.Frank Houston.