Benjamin Farjeon.

Miser Farebrother: A Novel (vol. 1 of 3)



скачать книгу бесплатно

"Can you read, Tom?" she asked.

"Yes, lady," he replied. "Square letters – not round uns. And I can write 'em."

Thereupon Mrs. Lethbridge wrote her name and address in Camden Town on a piece of paper, in square letters; and Tom spelt them aloud.

"Keep this by you," said Mrs. Lethbridge; "and if ever anything happens to Miss Farebrother, and you don't know what to do, come for me at once. Here's a two-shilling piece. You must not spend it; you must put it carefully away, in case you need it for this special purpose. The railway fare to London and back is eighteenpence; an omnibus will bring you very near to my house for threepence. You understand?"

"I understand, lady. But trust me for taking care of Miss Ph?be."

"I do, Tom; but something we don't think of just now might happen, and Miss Ph?be might want you to come for me. Or you might think, 'I wish Miss Ph?be had somebody with her who feels like a mother to her, and who loves her very tenderly.'"

"So do I, lady," said Tom, in an earnest tone. "I'll do as you tell me. You can trust me."

"I know it, Tom, and so does Miss Ph?be. She says she doesn't know what she should do without you."

"I shouldn't know what to do without her," said Tom, feeling very proud. That he was trusted, and that his young mistress valued his services, gave him a feeling of self-respect.

From that day he became more than ever Ph?be's faithful knight, and it was when Ph?be was twelve years of age that the incident occurred, springing out of his championship of the little maid, which increased Mrs. Pamflett's aversion to him. Tom at that time was twenty-four, and had grown into a long lean man, looking two or three inches taller than he really was because of his extreme lankiness. His coats and trousers were now always too short for his arms and legs, and he was remarkable for a lavish protuberance and exhibition of bone. He was very strong, and was noted as a fleet runner; he could start off at a rapid swinging gait, and keep his wind and pace for hours. This accomplishment had brought grist to his mill on several occasions, when he was backed by a sporting publican against men who had an opinion of themselves as fast runners. "Five shillings if you win, Tom," said the sporting publican, "and nothing if you lose." This was a sufficient incentive, and Tom invariably won, to the satisfaction of most of the on-lookers, for he was a favourite with all who knew him. He had weaknesses, but no vices; his taste for brandy-balls rather increased than diminished with his years, and though temptations to drink were frequently thrown out to him, he was never known to touch a glass of liquor. Not at all a bad sort of fellow, this Tom Barley, and a very handy man to look after our little heroine.

One of his weaknesses was a fondness for all kinds of street shows, most especially for "Punch and Judy," at which he would stand and gaze and laugh with the heartiness of a boy.

A capital ladder was he for small children, whom he would hoist to his shoulders in order that they might have a good view of the show, and his kindly nature would always gravitate to the weakest and smallest of the eager throng. It was during a representation of this immortal tragical comedy that a new acquaintance was made by Tom Barley and his young mistress. The meeting became historical, by force of exciting detail and vivid colour, and one small boy was covered with glory. It is opportunity that creates heroes.

To commence at the commencement, it was on this day revealed to Ph?be and Tom that Mrs. Pamflett had a son. She had never spoken of him to them, and when he made his first appearance at Parksides they were absent in the village. His mission at Parksides was the opening of a career.

Miser Farebrother had an office in London, in which he transacted the greater portion of his business. It was his habit to go to London every morning and return every evening. He had a third-class annual ticket, every fresh renewal of which drove daggers into his heart. A clerk who had starved in his employment had suddenly taken courage and left him, impressed by the idea that he could starve more agreeably in another situation; for Miser Farebrother not only paid the smallest of wages, but he was a bully and a tyrant to those who were dependent upon him. On the evening before the day on which the historical events about to be recorded took place a violent altercation had occurred between Miser Farebrother and his slave of a clerk, and the man, suddenly jumping from his stool, flung down his pen, took his hat from the peg, damned Miser Farebrother, and left the office, to which he swore he would never return. Miser Farebrother was very much astonished; the man had been useful and had grown into his ways, and he had so browbeaten and oppressed him that he did not think a particle of spirit was left in the drudge. And all at once, here he was in a state of rebellion!

"You'll die in a ditch!" he called after the man.

There were crumbs of comfort, however, in the act which caused Miser Farebrother to rub his hands with satisfaction. His clerk had left on a Thursday: four days' wages saved.

There were confidences between the miser and Mrs. Pamflett, and when he returned to Parksides he related to her what had occurred.

"You will want a new clerk," she said. "Take Jeremiah."

Miser Farebrother put his right hand up to his chin, and repeated, musingly, "Take Jeremiah."

"You couldn't do better," said Mrs. Pamflett, "and you are almost certain to do worse."

She spoke in a hard tone; there was no pleading in her voice and manner: had there been, the probability is that she would not have succeeded.

"How old is he now?" asked Miser Farebrother.

"Seventeen last birthday."

"Decent looking?"

"Yes."

"A good writer?"

"Here is his last letter to me," said Mrs. Pamflett, handing it to the miser.

He examined it carefully; the writing was excellent. He returned it to his housekeeper.

"How about his figures?"

"He is splendid at them. That is what he was distinguished for at school."

"Was he distinguished for anything else? For instance, for keeping his own counsel?"

"He can do that."

"Is he fond of pleasure?"

"He wants to get along in the world."

"Willing to work hard?"

"Try him."

"I will think of it," said Miser Farebrother, going to his room. It was not his habit to do things in a hurry.

He passed the night as usual writing in his account-books, and making calculations of money and dates, and reckoning up compound interest at different rates of percentage per month. He never lent money at interest per annum, but always at compound interest per month, a system which swelled his profits enormously. A ledger slipped from the table to the ground, and stooping to reach it, he found himself unable to rise. He beat the floor with his hands, and called out for his housekeeper; but it was many minutes before she heard him and came to his help. She assisted him to his feet, and into his chair, where he sat, twisting and groaning.

"Rub my back, rub my back! Lower, lower! A little more to the left! No; that's not the place! Ah, now you're right. Keep rubbing – harder, harder. Oh! oh!"

"I told you the other night," said Mrs. Pamflett, composedly, as she carried out his instructions, "when you walked home from the station in the sopping rain, that you'd catch lumbago; and now you've got it."

"Oh! oh!" cried Miser Farebrother. "You're a witch, you're a witch! You laid a spell upon me. What did you do it for? Do you think I shall put you down in my will, and that my death will make you rich? You're mistaken; I've no money to leave and if I had, you shouldn't have it. No one should have it – no one. 'Walk home in the rain!' – what else could I do? Can I afford carriages to ride in? You know I can't; you know it, you know it! Rub away – harder – harder! Have you got no life in you?"

He lay back in his chair, gasping, his pains somewhat relieved.

"You won't be able to move to-morrow," said Mrs. Pamflett; "and now you've begun to have lumbago, it will never leave you."

"What! You're putting more spells on me, are you? Witches ought to be burnt. It's a good job there's nothing particular to do at the office to-morrow; only it isn't safe to leave it alone day or night."

"No, it isn't," said Mrs. Pamflett. "Somebody ought to sleep there. I always thought that. Jeremiah could. You'd best get to bed now; I'll help you. Then I'll get some turpentine and flannel; it will do you good, perhaps. Yes, some person in whom you have confidence, should sleep in the office."

"There's no such person," he snarled. "Everybody tries to rob me – everybody – everybody!"

"How will it be," said Mrs. Pamflett, not in the slightest way ruffled, "when you're laid up a week at a time, and can't go to London to attend your customers? It will happen; I know what lumbago is. Once get it into your bones, there's no driving it out."

"It isn't in my bones; it's only a slight attack. I can walk now if I please. See; I can stand up straight, and – Oh! oh!"

Down he fell again, and when Mrs. Pamflett attempted to assist him he screamed out, "Let me be! let me be! You're twisting me wrong! You want to kill me!"

Presently, when there was less need for his comical physical contortions, which did not elicit from Mrs. Pamflett either a smile or the slightest expression of sympathy, she returned to the attack.

"Jeremiah is the very person you want. If you don't have him, I shall obtain another situation for him, and then you will lose a treasure."

"A treasure!" he retorted, scornfully. "Of course: every cock crows on its own dunghill. Jeremiah's a precious stone, eh? A very precious stone!"

"He is. He's the brightest, cleverest lad you've ever come across."

"Ah," he said, with a cunning cock of his head; "but we don't want'm too clever; do we?"

"He will do everything you want done in the way you wish," said Mrs. Pamflett, calmly; "and if that doesn't content you, nothing will. He writes well, as you have seen; he knows all about book-keeping; and he's as sharp as a needle."

"Takes after his mother?" observed Miser Farebrother, with a sardonic leer.

"No; I was never very clever, I've missed things. He won't, being a man. I'm glad I didn't have a girl. As a rule, I hate them."

"How about Ph?be?"

"She's well enough, but there's not much love lost between us. She don't take to me, and I don't take to her. It's on her side, mostly, not mine. She has nothing to complain of, any more than you have."

"Oh, I don't complain," he said, his wary eyes on her.

"Perhaps it's as well you don't. You must have somebody here, and you would most likely get some one in my place who'd eat you out of house and home. Female servants are a nice set! Shall I send for Jeremiah? Will you see him here to-morrow?"

"Yes," said Miser Farebrother; he was now in bed, and Mrs. Pamflett was tucking him in; "you may send for him. I will see him to-morrow."

CHAPTER VI
A VERY SMALL BOY COVERS HIMSELF WITH GLORY

Jeremiah Pamflett presented himself at Parksides at noon. His mother was waiting for him at the gates. A pale, self-possessed woman, upon whose face, to the ordinary observer, was never seen a sign of joy or sorrow, in whose eyes never shone that light of sympathy which draws heart to heart, she became transformed the moment her son appeared. She ran toward him; she pressed him in her arms; she kissed him again and again.

"My boy! my boy!" she murmured.

"Mother," said Jeremiah, "you're rumpling my collar, and you wrote to me to make myself nice."

"And you do look nice, my pet," said Mrs. Pamflett, taking off his shiny belltopper, and blowing away a speck of dust. "How much did you give for this new hat?"

"Six-and-six, in Drury Lane. Don't press your hand over it like that; you're rubbing the dust into it. I gave fifteenpence for the necktie and tenpence for this white handkerchief, and two-and-nine for the shirt. Then there's the boots and socks and a new walking-stick. And I had to get shaved."

"Did you, Jeremiah, did you!" exclaimed the proud mother, passing her hand over his remarkably smooth chin, guiltless as yet of the remotest indication of hair. "My boy's growing quite a man!"

"Altogether, with my fare down here, I've spent one pound six, and you only sent me a sovereign. I had to borrow the six shillings, and I shall have to pay it back the moment I get to London."

With a nod and a smile Mrs. Pamflett produced her purse, and handed six shillings to her son, upon receiving which Jeremiah hugged her, and winked, as it were inwardly to himself, over her shoulder.

"Another shilling, mother, for luck; now don't be mean. You haven't got any more sons; don't begrudge your only one!"

The appeal was irresistible, and Jeremiah received another shilling, which he greeted with a repetition of the hug and the wink.

"And now, mother, what is it all about? What's the little game? I'm going to make my fortune, am I? Well, I'm willing."

Mrs. Pamflett took him into the kitchen and explained. He was to enter Miser Farebrother's service, she said, if the miser approved of him. The miser was in bed upstairs, laid up with lumbago, and Jeremiah was to be very polite and civil, and not to mind if the miser flew out at him.

This caused Jeremiah to exclaim: "Oh, come, mother, I'm not going to be bullied. I wouldn't stand it from a man twice my size!"

Mrs. Pamflett expressed her admiration of his courage, but said he must keep himself in. Miser Farebrother was "touchy," because he was in such pain. If Jeremiah was engaged, he was to sleep in the office in London, and if he was steady and attentive he might become the sole manager of Miser Farebrother's business in the course of a few years, and – who knows? – perhaps a partner. She said a great deal more than this to her young hopeful, and she made him thoroughly understand how the land lay.

"And now come up with me," she said. "I will show you into his room."

"But, I say," expostulated Jeremiah, looking greedily at the saucepans on the fire, from one of which an appetizing flavour was escaping, "ain't you going to give me anything to eat?"

"When you come down, Jeremiah," she replied, "I'll have a nice dinner for you. Can't you smell it?"

The conformation of Jeremiah Pamflett's pug-nose became accentuated by reason of its owner giving half a dozen vigorous sniffs, and having thus tasted the pleasures of hope he followed his mother upstairs to Miser Farebrother's bedroom. The miser was in bed, groaning in his night-cap, and pouring out imprecations upon fate. Mrs. Pamflett assisted him into the easiest posture, and he cocked his eye at Jeremiah, who had suddenly become very humble and subservient. He was the personification of meekness as he stood in the presence of the queer-looking night-capped figure in bed, gazing at him with eyes which seemed to pierce him through and through.

"So this is Jeremiah, is it?" he said.

Mrs. Pamflett smiled a beaming assent.

"Draw that table closer to the bed; now those sheets of paper; now the pen and ink; now the blotting-paper; now a chair for the lad. Go; leave us alone."

The interview lasted an hour, at the end of which Jeremiah presented himself before his anxious mother with a sly look of self-satisfaction. His first words were:

"Oh! but ain't he a scorcher? Cayenne pepper ain't in it with him. Talk of sharpness! Well, I thought I wasn't bad, but he licks Blue Peter. He put me through, I can tell you."

"Are you engaged, Jeremiah?" asked Mrs. Pamflett, her fond hands about his clothes, setting them right. "What questions did he ask you, and how did you answer them? Why don't you speak?"

"Shan't say a blessed word," was the affectionate reply, "till I've had something to eat. Serve up, mother; I'm as empty as a drum."

Mrs. Pamflett obeyed, and set before him a dish of haricot sufficient for a young family. It was a special favourite with him, and he bestowed upon his mother the commendation that she was "a tip-topper, and no flies about it," which afforded her as much pleasure as an exhibition medal would have done. He washed down his copious meal with two glasses of ale, and throwing himself back in his chair, gave her an account of the interview. He had written no end of things at the miser's dictation – letters, threats of what would be done if certain sums of money were not forthcoming at stated times, and statements of conversations which he was supposed to be listening to without the clients being aware of it. Then he was set to calculate sums of great intricacy – to add up, to multiply, not only pounds, shillings and pence, but farthings and fractions of farthings. He performed these tasks to Miser Farebrother's satisfaction. "I'm a regular dab at figures, you know," said Jeremiah to his mother; and the end of it was that he was engaged, and that the miser had promised to make his fortune.

"I mean to make it, mother," said Jeremiah.

"I shall live to see you ride in your carriage," said she.

"I'll be able to afford it one day; but" – with a touch of shrewdness of which Miser Farebrother himself might have been proud – "it will be cheaper, don't you think, to ride in other people's?"

This made Mrs. Pamflett laugh, and she kissed him, and praised him for his cleverness. She wished him to remain with her the whole of the day; but he said he must get back to London, and after screwing two or three more shillings out of her, he bade her good-bye. She stood at the gates watching him till he was out of sight, sucking the knob of his new walking-stick, and flourishing it with an air. He was in the mood for enjoyment, and he was not at all in the hurry he expressed to get back to the metropolis. Meeting a small urchin in a lane, he bailed him up.

"What's your name, you scoundrel?" he said, setting the boy before him.

"Roger," said the trembling lad, whose age might have been six, and was certainly not more.

Jeremiah gave him a violent shaking. "Say 'sir'; say 'Roger, sir.'"

"Roger, sir."

"Say it louder. If you cry, I'll chop you into little bits."

"Roger, sir."

"What are you doing here?"

"Nothing, sir."

"How dare you do nothing? Bow to me."

The frightened little chap bowed, whipping off his cap at Jeremiah's command.

"Bow three times. Lower – lower – lower!" The little chap obeyed, bowing almost to the stones.

"Now say, 'I beg your pardon, sir; and I'll never do so again.'"

"I beg your pardon, sir; and I'll never do so agin."

Jeremiah slapped his face, and walked away, whistling. It was a good commencement. He was really enjoying himself. When he reached the village another excitement greeted him. There was a "Punch and Judy" being shown, and a large crowd, chiefly composed of children, were gathered around the entertainment. Among the on-lookers were Ph?be and Tom Barley. Jeremiah elbowed his way into the centre of the crowd, and presently a girl cried "Oh!" and looked round, rubbing her arm. She was a plain-looking girl, and somebody had given her a sharp pinch. Jeremiah Pamflett looked away, with a successful effort at unconsciousness. Edging a little further on he stationed himself behind another plain girl, who also the next minute cried "Oh!" and looked round, without discovering her tormentor. This was one of Jeremiah's favourite pastimes, mixing in a crowd of children and pinching the ugly girls. Both Ph?be and Tom Barley were too deeply absorbed in the show to notice these mean diversions, and Jeremiah moved about, enjoying himself to his heart's content, till he found himself standing just behind Ph?be, having pushed between her and Tom. Eyeing her over, to select a nice place for his fingers, he was on the point of operating, when a slight turn on Ph?be's part gave him a view of her face.

"She's too pretty to pinch," thought he; "I'll kiss her."

Judging his opportunity and the favourable moment, he slyly planted a kiss upon her neck. The young girl started, and blushed all over.

"Tom!" she screamed.

At that precise moment a remarkable incident occurred. Jeremiah Pamflett felt a strong hand on his collar and another strong hand at his waist, and, presto! he was twisted off his legs and raised in the air. His next bewildering sensation was being run away with. It was Tom Barley now who was the principal actor. He had observed Jeremiah Pamflett's proceeding, and he had acted on the excitement of the moment, with a vague idea of running away with the delinquent, and administering sound punishment to him by throwing him into a pond if he could find one, or into a prickly hedge, or something of the sort.

There was instant confusion in the crowd. All the children looked after the flying figure of Tom Barley, holding the astonished Jeremiah aloft. The show-men were not entirely dissatisfied, the entertainment being very near its end, and a fair amount of coppers having been already gathered. Toby, an impulsive dog, and somewhat new to the business, could not resist his proclivities, and darted after Tom and Jeremiah. Ph?be, in terror, screamed, "Come back, Tom! come back!"



скачать книгу бесплатно

страницы: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13