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