Benjamin Farjeon.

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



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Her voice reached Tom's ears, and he instantly turned back, followed by Toby. Arrived at his starting-point, he dropped Jeremiah to the ground, who slowly rose, in a woeful plight. His nice new clothes were disarranged; buttons were off; there was a rent here and there; he picked up his nice new hat, crushed and out of shape.

"Why don't you hit one of your own size?" he cried, with his right elbow raised to protect his face.

"I haven't hit you yet," said Tom. Ph?be was clinging to his arm. "And now I look at you, I am a little too big for you. But you've got to be hit by some one."

"I'll have the law of you!" gasped Jeremiah, gazing ruefully at his hat. "You shall pay for it, or my name ain't Jeremiah Pamflett."

"Oh! Jeremiah Pamflett, is it?" said Tom, in no wise diverted from his intention by the intelligence.

"Come away, Tom," said Ph?be, imploringly. "Let us go home."

If anything could have contributed to Jeremiah's escape, it was this; but Tom Barley's spirit was roused, also his sense of justice, and under such influences he could be firm.

"In a minute or two," he said to her. "There's nothing to be frightened at. Look here," and he addressed the crowd, "this young London spark has insulted my mistress."

"And he pinched me!" exclaimed a girl, light dawning upon her, and through her upon other of Jeremiah's victims.

"He pinched me!" "He pinched me!" came in a chorus from half a dozen indignant girls.

"That settles it," said Tom. "Is there any one here of his own size, or less, that'll tackle him for twopence and a brandy-ball?"

"Couldn't speak fairer," said one of the show-men.

Now among the crowd was a very small boy, several inches below Jeremiah Pamflett in height, but so renowned for his pluck that he had earned the cognomen of "The Bantam."

Forth stepped the Bantam. "I will!" said he.

"Hooray!" cried the other boys and girls. "Hooray for the Bantam!"

"Bray-vo, little un!" said the show-man.

"Here's your twopence," said Tom Barley, "and your brandy-ball. Fight him."

"Make a ring," said the show-man, delightedly arranging the children in a circle. "I'll see that it's fair play."

Jeremiah and the Bantam were already in the centre, the Bantam with his coat off and his shirt sleeves tucked up. Jeremiah, looking down upon him, inwardly congratulated himself.

"Come on," he said, "and be made a jelly of!"

Nothing daunted, the Bantam squared up, and the battle commenced. It looked "any odds on the long un," the show-man declared, as he inwardly determined to protect the little fellow from too severe a punishment. But a wonder was in store. Despite his size, Jeremiah found it impossible to reach the Bantam, who skipped about in the liveliest fashion, springing up and planting one on Jeremiah's nose, and another on his right eye, and another on his mouth, which puffed up his lips and set all his teeth chattering.

In a short time he did not know exactly where he was, and he hit out more wildly. The audience cheered the little champion, and encouraged him by crying, "Go it, Bantam! Go it! Give him another on the nose!" and every now and then "Time!" was called by the show-man, who declared that the Bantam was "a chap after his own heart." At length, Jeremiah Pamflett, completely bewildered, stepping back, tripped and fell flat.

"Any more?" cried the Bantam.

Jeremiah remained on the ground, and did not attempt to rise. The show-man threw up his hat.

"We gives in," he said. "Three cheers for the Bantam!"

They were given with a will; and then a collection was made, and the champion was presented with fourpence half-penny, and, wiping his glory-covered brows, stalked off to the sweet-stuff shop, accompanied by his admirers. Tom and Ph?be took their departure, and the show-men shouldered their Punch and Judy, and walked away with Toby. Jeremiah picked himself up, and crawled to the railway station, shorn of his pride.

CHAPTER VII
MISER FAREBROTHER ENVIES FAUST

By the time that Ph?be was eighteen years of age, Jeremiah Pamflett was firmly established in Miser Farebrother's office in London. In the miser's shrewd eyes he had justified the praise his mother had bestowed upon him. A slyer, smarter manager, Miser Farebrother could scarcely hope to have. Even the miser himself could not be more exacting with tardy borrowers or more grinding in the collecting of rents; for Miser Farebrother had now a great many houses in the poor localities of the metropolis, which, at the rents for which he let them, paid him a high rate of interest for his outlay. He had not, in the first instance, purchased these houses, nor had he ever drifted into the folly of building one. It was property he had advanced money upon, which had not been repaid, and as he had calculated all the chances beforehand, lending at exorbitant interest, and draining, so to speak, the hearts' blood of his customers, he made rare bargains in this line. Had he followed his own inclination he would have trusted no man to manage his business; but rheumatism and neuralgic pains were firmly settled in his bones, and frequently for days together he was unable to move out of Parksides. Then Jeremiah Pamflett would come down to him with papers and books, and they would remain closeted together for hours going over the accounts. He had his own private sets of books in Parksides, and he turned Ph?be to account in making them up and in writing for him. This was not a regular, but a fitful employment with the young girl, and her father was satisfied to spare her to go to London, to the house of Aunt Leth in Camden Town, to whom she paid long visits. In that house it may be truly said that Ph?be enjoyed the sunshine of life. Aunt Leth, who taught her own children at home – not caring to send them to school, and not being rich enough to afford a private governess or a tutor for them – taught Ph?be also, and the firmest bonds of love were cemented between them. When Mrs. Lethbridge had married, her house was not at all badly furnished; friends and relatives of her husband had made them many useful household presents, and Mr. Lethbridge had received from his father a special sum to be expended on house furniture. Although but little of a worldly man, Mr. Lethbridge had purchased furniture of a substantial description, and the care taken of it by his good wife made it quite respectable-looking, even after long years of wear and tear. Perhaps the most acceptable of all the wedding presents was a famous piano from a generous uncle, which she cherished and preserved. It was, indeed, to her almost as a living member of her family, and she grew to have a strong affection for it. This will be understood by those who love music as Mrs. Lethbridge did. More and more endeared to them did this treasure become with age, and numberless were the pleasant evenings it afforded them, especially in the spring-time of life, when the hearts of the young people were filled with sweet dreams. By its means they learnt to sing and dance, and poor and struggling as the home of the Lethbridges actually was – evidences of which, mind you, were never seen by others than themselves – there were hours spent in it which richer people might have envied.

Miser Farebrother was content. Ph?be was obtaining an education which did not cost him a shilling, and the meals she ate in her aunt's house were a saving to him. Aunt Leth also was quite a skilful dress-maker, and she made all Ph?be's dresses. A cunning milliner too. Ph?be's hats and bonnets, albeit inexpensive, were marvels of prettiness. All this was worth a deal to Miser Farebrother, who grudged every shilling it cost him to live. He gave nothing to the Lethbridges in return, nor was he asked to give anything. Since Ph?be was fourteen years of age Aunt Leth had not set foot inside the gates of Parksides.

"Let it be well understood," said Miser Farebrother to his daughter, "I am nothing to them, and they are nothing to me. If they expect me to do anything for them, they will be disappointed, and they will have only themselves to blame for it."

"They don't expect you to do anything for them," said Ph?be, with a flush of shame on her face. "They never so much as give it a thought."

"How should they? How should they?" retorted Miser Farebrother. "It would be so unnatural, wouldn't it? so very unnatural; they being poor, as they say they are, and I being rich as they think I am! They do say they're poor, now, don't they?"

"No," said Ph?be, considering; "I never remember their saying so. But they have as much as ever they can do to get along nicely. I know that without being told."

"So have we all, more than ever we can do. I can't get along nicely. Everything goes wrong with me – everything; and everybody tries to cheat me. If I wasn't as sharp as a weasel we shouldn't have a roof over our heads. It's the cunning of your aunt and uncle that they don't complain. They say to themselves, 'That old miser, Farebrother' – they do call me an 'old miser,' don't they, eh?" – he asked, suddenly, breaking off.

"I never heard them, father."

"But they think it," said Miser Farebrother, looking at Ph?be slyly; "and that's worse – ever so much worse. With people who speak out, you know where you are; it's the quiet cunning ones you have to beware of. They say to themselves, 'That old miser Farebrother will see through us if we complain to his daughter. He'll think we want him to give us some of his money, and that wouldn't please him, he's so fond of it. It will be by far the best to let Ph?be tell him of her own accord, and work upon his feelings in an accidental way, and then perhaps he'll send us a pound or two.' Oh, I know these clever people – I know them well, and can read them through and through! I should like to back them for cunning against some very sharp persons."

"You do them a great injustice, father. They are the dearest people in all the wide world – "

"Of course they are – of course they are," said Miser Farebrother, with a dry laugh. "They have been successful in making you believe it, at all events. That proves their cunning; it's part of their plan."

"It is not," said Ph?be, warmly; "they have no plan of the kind, and as to saying that they have led me on to speak to you about their troubles, and work upon your feelings, you couldn't imagine anything farther from the truth."

"Their troubles, eh! – they let you know they have troubles?"

"If you mean that they wish to get me to talk about them to you, no, father; they haven't let me know in that way. I can see them myself, without being told; and no one can help loving Aunt Leth for her patience and cleverness. Upon my word, it's perfectly wonderful how she manages upon the salary Uncle Leth gets from the bank. Now, father, you know that you yourself have led me on to speak of this." (When Ph?be was excited she emphasized a great many words, so that there should be no possibility of her meaning being mistaken.) "I didn't commence it; you did."

"No, Ph?be; it was you that commenced it."

"How could I, when I never said a word?"

"I saw what was in your mind, Ph?be. You were going to ask me for something for them; it's no use your denying it. I knew it when you shifted about the room, moving things that didn't require moving, and then moving them back again, and keeping on looking at me every now and then when you thought I wasn't looking at you. Oh, I was watching you when you least expected it. I am not easily deceived, and not often mistaken, Ph?be – eh?"

This was embarrassing, and Ph?be could not help a little laugh escaping her; for it was a fact that she was watching for a favourable opportunity to ask her father a favour in connection with her relatives. He, observing her furtively from under his brows, perceived that his shot had taken effect, and he waited for Ph?be to continue the conversation, enjoying her discomfiture, and secretly resolving that the Lethbridges should not get a penny from him, not a penny. Ph?be was in hopes that he would assist her out of her dilemma, and throw out a hint upon which she could improve; but her father did not utter a word, and she was herself compelled to break the silence.

"Well, father, I was going to say something about Aunt and Uncle Leth and my cousins."

"I knew you were."

"I have been there a great deal, and they have been very kind to me. If I ever forget their kindness I shall be the most ungrateful girl in the world. Think of the years I have been going to their house, and stopping there, and always being made welcome – "

"Stop a minute, Ph?be," interrupted her father. "'Think of the years!' – yes, yes – you are getting" – and now he regarded her more attentively than he had done for a long time past, and seemed to be surprised at a discovery which forced itself upon him – "You are getting quite a woman – quite a woman!"

"Yes, father," said Ph?be, quietly and modestly; "I shall be eighteen next Saturday. Aunt Leth was saying only last week how like I was to my dear mamma."

Miser Farebrother rose and hobbled across the room and back. It was with difficulty he did this, his bones were so stiff; but when Ph?be stepped forward to assist him, he motioned her angrily away. He accepted, however, the crutch stick which she handed to him; he could not get along without it, but he snatched it from her pettishly. Her mention of her mother disturbed and irritated him. He recalled the few days of her unhappy life at Parksides, and the picture of her death-bed recurred to his mind with vivid force. There was a reproach in it which he could not banish or avoid. At length he sank into his arm-chair, coughing and groaning, and averting his eyes from Ph?be. She was accustomed to his humours, and she stood at the table patiently, biding his time.

"You have made me forget what I was about to say," he began.

"I am sorry, father."

"You are not sorry; you are glad. You are always thwarting and going against me. What makes you speak to me of your mother in a voice of reproach? Tell me that. You have been egged on to it!" And he thumped his crutch stick viciously on the floor.

"I have not been egged on to it," said Ph?be, with spirit; "and it is entirely a fancy of yours that I spoke in a tone of reproach."

"It is no fancy I am never wrong – never. Your mother died when you were almost a baby in arms. You have no remembrance of her; it isn't possible that you can remember her."

"I do not remember her, father," said Ph?be, with a touch of sadness in her tone; "but Aunt Leth has a portrait of her, which I often and often look at, and I am glad to know that I am like her. You surely can't be displeased at that?"

"Aunt Leth! Aunt Leth! Aunt Leth!" he exclaimed, fretfully; and then, with unreasonable vehemence, "Why do you try to irritate me?"

"I do not try," said Ph?be, "and I do not thwart and go against you."

"You do – in everything. You don't care to please me; you don't take the least trouble to carry out my wishes. Being confined, on and off, to this house for years by my cursed rheumatism, unable, as you know, to go to my London office, and forced to trust to a man who may be robbing me secretly all the time he is in my service, I have endeavoured to train you to be of some assistance to me, and to make up my accounts here when I am too weak and in too much pain to make them up for myself. What has been the result? Upon looking over the papers you have written I have seldom found one of them correct. Nothing but errors in the casting-up and in the calculations of interest – errors which would have been the ruin of me had I taken your work for granted. It wouldn't matter so much if your mistakes were in my favour, but they are not; they are always against me. The sum total is always too little instead of too much. Is this what I have a right to expect from a child I have nourished and fed?"

"I can't help it, father. I have told you over and over again that I have no head for figures."

"'No head for figures!'" he muttered. "Where should I be, I'd like to know, if I had no head for figures? In the workhouse, where you'll drive me to in the end. You will be satisfied then – eh?"

"I cannot help it, father," Ph?be repeated. "I never could add up so as to be depended upon; I never could calculate interest; I never could subtract or multiply. If it hadn't been for Aunt Leth, I don't believe I should ever have been able to read or write at all."

"Oh, you throw that in my teeth, because I was too poor to afford a governess for you?"

"Not at all, father. You do what you think is best, I dare say. I only mention it out of justice to Aunt Leth, of whom you have not a good opinion."

"How do you know that? Have I ever troubled myself about her at all? Did I commence this, or you? Am I in the habit of dragging her name into our conversations for the purpose of speaking ill of her?"

"Neither of speaking ill or well, father. That is what I complain of. After what she has done for me you might have acted differently toward her."

"Ah, it's coming now. She has egged you on!"

"She has not," said Ph?be, stamping her foot; her loyal nature was deeply wounded by those shafts aimed at one she loved so well. "She hasn't the slightest idea that I had it in my mind to speak to you at all about her, and I have had it in my mind for a long time past."

"I remember now what I was going to say a minute ago. We will go upon sure ground, you, I, and your precious aunt and uncle. We will have no delusions. They think I am rich – eh?"

"They have never said a word about your money; they are too high-minded."

"But they do think I am rich. Now I will let you into a secret, and you can let them into it if you like. I am not rich; I am a pauper; and when I die you will find yourself a beggar."

"Aunt Leth will give me a home, father, when it comes to that."

"That's your affection! – taking the idea of my death so coolly. But I am not going to die yet, my girl – not yet, not yet. Why, there was a man who grew to be old, much older than I am, and who was suddenly made young and handsome and well-formed, with any amount of money at his command – "

"Oh, hush, father! These are wicked thoughts. You make me tremble."

"Why do you provoke me, then?" he cried, raising his crutch stick as though he would like to strike her. "You see how I am suffering, and you haven't a spark of feeling in you. Haven't I enough to put up with already, without being irritated by my own flesh and blood? There was such a man, and there's no harm in speaking of him. What was his name? This infernal rheumatism drives everything out of my head. What was his name?"

"Faust."

"You have read about him?"

"Yes; and I went to the theatre and saw the most lovely opera about it. I can play nearly all the music in it."

"You can play, eh? How did you manage that? Who gave you lessons?"

"Aunt Leth. She has a beautiful piano."

"You never told me you had been to the theatre."

"I have told you often that I have been with Aunt and Uncle Leth to different theatres."

"But to this particular one, where the opera was played?"

"Yes, I told you, father. You must have forgotten it."

"The opera! An expensive amusement which only rich people can afford. Your aunt took you, of course?"

"Yes."

"And she is poor, eh? – so very, very poor that it is quite wonderful how she manages!"

"She had a ticket given to her for a box that almost touched the ceiling. She could not afford to pay for it. Every time she has taken me to a theatre it was with a ticket given to her by Uncle Leth's relations. She is poor."

"And I am poorer. If you have read about Faust – if you go to the theatre and see him, why do you call me wicked for simply speaking of him? Is there really any truth in it, I wonder? There are strange things in the world. Could life and youth be bought? If it could – if it could – " He paused, and looked around with trembling eagerness.

Ph?be was too much frightened to speak for a little while; her father's eager looks and words terrified her. In a few minutes he recovered himself, and said, coldly,

"Finish about your aunt and uncle."

"Yes, father, I will. It isn't much I want. Next Saturday is my birthday, and Uncle Leth comes home early from his bank. He has never been to Parksides; and Aunt Leth hasn't been here for years. May I ask them to come in the evening?"

"Is that all – you are sure that is all?"

"Yes, that is all."

Miser Farebrother felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his heart. He had been apprehensive that Ph?be intended to ask him to lend them a sum of money.

"They wished me," said Ph?be, "to spend my birthday at their house; but I thought I should like them to come here instead. They made a party for me last year, and the year before last too; and it is so mean to be always taking and never giving."

"I don't agree with you. If people like to give, it shows they get a pleasure out of it, and it is folly to prevent them. But if you've set your heart upon it, Ph?be – "

"Yes, I have, father."

"Well, you can ask them; unless," he added, with a sudden suspicion, "you have already arranged everything."



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